A puff of cigar smoke brought Vonken awake, coughing. The grey, drooping moustache and sharp grey eyes of James Lappeus drew back a bit, his expression impassive. “Have a swell nap there?” Lappeus drawled. He took another drag on the cigar, and again, needlessly, expelled a foul cloud in Vonken’s face. Vonken turned his head, instinctively moving to wave away the smoke, but discovered his hands were still bound in the aetheric damping gloves. He’d been lashed to the chair he sat in for good measure, thick hemp cords numbing all sensation below his elbows and ankles. “Mornin’, sunshine,” Lappeus said.
Vonken didn’t bother to reply. His eyes focused finally, though pain throbbed behind them. He took a slow, attentive survey of his surroundings. Not City Jail. Not the Courthouse, either. He’d made a few trips to both, to heal, or to register a patent. Well-mortared bricks made featureless walls in a wide but low-ceilinged space; blocky columns interrupted the gloomy view in regular rows. Underground. A cellar somewhere. Too big to be a private home. He noticed a couple of barrel kegs in one far corner, but there didn’t seem to be enough of them to indicate he might be below one of the saloons he knew Lappeus owned. Then he realized none of the men sitting around on storage crates or rickety old chairs were uniformed as police officers. Oh, joy. So this is all off the books. I could be anywhere.
One of the men, stoutly middle-aged but still sporting a wild head of curly hair, suddenly grinned at him, and Vonken saw the family resemblance to infamous old Jim Turk. Lappeus, one of Turk’s sons, and oh damn and blast...is that John Mitchell’s son Sam? It’s a damned rogues’ gallery of the Old City! Lappeus put a foot on the chair arm, leaning it back a few inches, no doubt emphasizing how helpless Vonken currently was. Vonken didn’t flinch. “Such esteemed company all assembled for my benefit? How flattering,” he said.
Lappeus smiled. “I believe you already know Sam Mitchell here, finest lawyer in Concordia. He’s your counsel, to make sure this here’s all fine and square.”
The Senator’s son made a mock-bow, and took a swig from a silver flask. Vonken sneered. “How reassuring. So I’m to commit suicide in my cell before trial, am I?”
“Trial? What makes you think you deserve a trial?” Lappeus asked, dropping Vonken’s chair so roughly that his teeth jarred. “Don’t you know sabotaging the Northern Pacific Airways Company is a treasonable offence, subject to summary execution?”
It would be useless to protest. Vonken glared at Villard’s curs, and tried to wriggle one hand free of the heavy gauntlets which prevented him from building a charge of greenfire. A rumbling sound grew, more steady than thunder, and plaster shook down from the crude ceiling. The station. Damn and hell, I’m under the station. With trains coming and going...so I could scream my loudest and no one would ever know. Wonderful. Whatever extra energy Holly had shot through him had dissipated, and he felt a broad-range expulsion of power would do little to—Holly! Have they harmed her? He didn’t dare ask about her; if they didn’t already suspect her, any mention surely would only drag her into further danger. As long as she stays at home, the wards will protect her for at least another week before they begin to degrade...surely she’s busy tending to the child. Safe for now.
He wasn’t sure how he was going to survive the night to assist her.
The crack of a gloved fist caught him off-guard; his head rocked back, he bit his tongue and tasted copper. Lappeus straightened once more, shaking the sting out of his hand. “Now then,” the former chief of police said amicably, “why don’t you start by telling me how you killed two of our illustrious Founder’s servants during the conduction of their civic duty.” Vonken worked his jaw painfully; not broken, but only thanks to the ‘spark-welded steel he’d carefully constructed. Hopefully Lappeus hurt as much from the blow. Cigar smoke puffed through the room, much as the coalsmoke from the steam engines did through the rail station above them. “Tell me everything, and I can promise you I’ll just shoot you.” He lifted the edge of his coat to reveal the six-shooter in its hip holster. “Anytime you answer wrong, though, Frank Turk over there ain’t gonna like it. And Frank hits harder than his ol’ prizefighter pop, if you can believe it!” The men all chuckled. Turk cracked his knuckles and grinned.
“I’m the only lawful citizen in this room,” Vonken countered. He knew there was little point to protesting; they were going to beat upon him no matter what. He might as well earn it. “You’re holding me illegally and I demand a fair hearing, not this dead-man’s court!”
Lappeus looked regretful. “Wrong answer.” He puffed away as a massive shadow blocked the lamplight.
Holy demons of the Deep, that bastard is twice the size of a dune shark, Vonken thought.
As it turned out, Turk also knew that soft organs hurt a lot more than bones.
The velocipede seemed almost a thinking creature, the way it slipped around the corners of warehouses and mostly avoided the carts of marketmen setting out from the wharves. Holly clenched the handles, her legs straining to clamp tight to the saddle, yet she felt air whisk through her skirts every time the ‘pede clattered over a curb. The smoothness of its gait had vanished when they hit the cobbles of the southside streets. She felt relief for a moment as the construct veered into the dirt of Wharfside streets, then yelped and yanked the steering handles hard left to narrowly miss a washerwoman tottering along with a high-piled basket upon her head. Startled curses briefly chased after Holly. It certainly wasn’t the worst language she’d heard so far this morning.
She felt lost among the tall warehouses, taking corners at random, breathless, until a flicker of red paint flashed past. Holly gritted her teeth and leaned hard instinctively, forcing the velocipede into a screeching about-face, metal segments scraping each other as it did its best to comply. She nearly bowled over the handles, her bottom flying up and landing painfully again, but stayed on the construct. She kicked its sides again. “Hi, hiii!” The hundred legs skittered for purchase, found it, and launched them back the way they’d come. She was ready this time, and turned with far more aplomb – and less pain.
There! That horrible crab factory! The velocipede galloped to the corner; Holly glanced up nervously, and saw the boards nailed over what had been a window. The ‘pede swung around the building, and immediately Holly saw the clinic...and realized how fast she was going.
“Stop! Stop! Whoooaa!” It hadn’t occurred to her she’d have to get off this foolhardy thing at some point. She’d never even ridden a horse at a gallop, and the ‘pede undulated swiftly enough to give any thoroughbred a good race. Struggling to stay on, she yanked back the steering, but nothing happened. “Whooooaaaa!” she cried. It’s Vonken’s creature, how would he stop it, Dutch he uses Dutch— “Ho!”
Segments of scrap iron sheared into one another, the seat of the ‘pede buckling upward, flinging Holly off. She held to the left handlebar another instant, painfully whipping her whole body around before she let go, ending up sprawled on her back in the dirt a few feet past the clinic door. Metal clanked and groaned but didn’t, thankfully, collapse atop her; the ‘pede shuddered and settled, stretching its segments out, quivering finally like a giant worm in its final throes. She could only hope it wasn’t damaged, not with a child’s life in the balance. Holly forced herself up, though she glimpsed lines of blood on her legs and across her right palm. She stumbled to the door and pounded upon it, desperation renewing her strength. “Vonken!”
The door opened, but only the nurse-construct stared back at Holly. Its green-glowing eyesockets unnerved her, but it backed away, humbly gesturing for her to enter. Holly took in the small room at a glance: neat, shining metal shelves, the examination table, the tidy cabinets. No green-coated doctor. “Where is he? Is he out on rounds?” Holly demanded. The nurse paused, then shook its head. “He must come at once! Can’t you summon him somehow?”
The construct rolled to a stop by a shelf. Holly followed, though for a second she thought she heard whispers. She looked around, seeing no one else, feeling dizzy and sick. What a fine kettle, if you so badly injured yourself that you can’t bear the return journey, Mikael’s voice scolded in her head. She blinked at the mud trickling down her brow. She had to wipe it away in irritation when the trickle wouldn’t stop, and saw red smeared on her hand. The nurse was gesturing at her. What did it want? It pointed to a blinking bulb of greenfire. “I don’t understand,” Holly said, and fumbled for a handkerchief. There didn’t seem to be any in her pockets. The nurse creaked closer, reaching for her head; Holly batted its arm away. “I’m fine, it was only a tumble. I demand you summon Dr Vonken at once! Betsy...she’s...she needs...”
“Betsy? What’s happened?”
The voice was too high-pitched for the doctor. Holly turned, confused, to find a raggedy boy with dirty brown hair staring at her. She vaguely recognized him; his name clicked into her memory when she saw the round-cheeked blond girl hiding behind him. “Jeremy?”
“Told you it was that lady,” the boy said to his little sister. He swung back to Holly. “What’s happened to Betsy?”
“She’s...not well,” Holly said. “Why isn’t Vonken here? Where is he?”
“Dunno, Miss,” Jeremy replied, looking at the blinking bulb on the wall. “Nurse Ratchet done sent for him hours ago when we came in, but he ain’t come yet. We had to scatter last night when Big Leo found our new digs.”
“That summons him?” Holly looked at the odd little light again; the construct nodded, and again reached for her head. Holly stepped back, feeling none too steady. “Then why hasn’t he come?”
“Dunno, Miss. Hey, you oughta let Nurse here take a look at that cut on your head...and all them other ones too,” Jeremy advised, his eyes widening as he studied her. “What’d you do, fight through the Watch to get here?”
“Fell off a velocipede. I’m fine; please stop that!” She slapped away the questing metal fingers of the nurse again. “That girl is going to die if Vonken doesn’t come immediately!”
Jeremy’s sister burst into tears. Holly paused, feeling guilty, then mustered her thoughts. “If he’s not here, where else would he be? The hospital? Where does he live?”
“Further down by the river, in an old bank, but you can’t go out there!” Jeremy protested as Holly turned to go.
“I most certainly can.”
“But Big Leo’s out there!” Holly scowled at the boy, but he darted ahead of her to the door and peeked around it. “Look, that’s him, foolin’ with your bug right now.”
“My bug? My bug!” Holly pushed the door fully open and strode out. The enormous ogre poking at the downed velocipede glanced at her, then slowly straightened with a dumbfounded expression at the bloodstreaked woman in torn skirts and wild dark hair, bearing down on him like a mother hawk. “You! Get away from that machine!”
The man must have built Celtic stone rings in a previous life; he flexed arms thick as battering rams as he planted his fists on his sides, and grinned at her. The sight of jagged, yellowed teeth wasn’t nearly as hideous as the stench wafting from his unwashed body. “Looka you, wench! Some Johnny smack you around on your knees? How’s about you let me protect you?”
Holly didn’t pause to consider what he might be implying; she marched right around the brute and swung one leg over the saddle, then realized she was sitting backward. She ignored a hefty chortle while she turned herself around, and woozily kicked her heels against the velocipede’s sides. “Be off with you before I summon the Watch,” she told the ogre, then called to the wide-eyed children peeping from the cracked-open clinic door. “Which way to Vonken’s home?”
The ogre leaned in, placing a hand upon the head of the velocipede. Metal keened under the pressure. “I heard that pansy had a doxy ‘round here. You best find a new daddy, pumpkin,” the brute said, a chortle rumbling through him and shaking the ‘pede. The portable quarantine chose that moment to flash its warning X above her head, drawing Big Leo’s piggish eyes away from her bosom.
Furious, Holly slapped at the hamhock of a hand. It was like hitting the firm hide of a boar. “Take your hand off my vehicle, and stand aside, cretin!”
Instead, Big Leo ran his other hand down Holly’s arm. The quarantine X kept flashing, but the brute either didn’t understand or didn’t care what it signified. “Your doc ain’t gonna look after you no more, sweetling. Not since they dragged him off for a li’l chat! You wanna find him now, best go check the sewer ‘neath the station.”
Holly barely heard his words through a miasma of nausea and growing rage. Past him, she could see two small, horrified faces in the clinic doorway. Big Leo grinned, still fondling her arm, making the quarantine warning glow strongly. Holly hoped he’d contract the disease, and quickly. “Now how’s about we go have a li’l chat ourselves? I won’t smack you around none, I promise...though you gonna be walkin’ like a trail rider for a week!” His grip suddenly clamped around her wrist.
Crimson blurred her vision. Holly released the welling fire in one hard shove. “Go to hell, you mongrel!” Big Leo’s fingers wrenched at her wrist another second, and then he flew backward as though battered by a hurricane gust. The clinic walls trembled when he smashed into one, then building and man were still. Holly kept screaming at him. “You disgusting, hideous, unwashed ape! How dare you lay a hand on me! That girl will die if you don’t get out of my way right now!”
“Oh Deep Ones,” Jeremy gulped. He raised his voice enough to catch Holly’s attention as she drew a breath, pain ringing in her ears, redfire coursing through her hands. “Uh, Miss? Miss, I think he’s about out of your way for sure...”
Holly blinked. Her eyelids felt sticky. Dazed, she sat still until the nurse-construct rolled from the clinic, and a metal pincer-hand offered her a clean cloth smelling of pure alcohol. Holly stared at it, realized wiping away the blood might help her see, and accepted the cloth. It stung across her forehead, and she cursed, but her purpose flared forth again now that obstacles had been cleared. Jeremy ventured out far enough to peer on tiptoes at the crumpled, unmoving bulk in the dirt. “Holy Damn, Miss...”
She found her voice, though her throat felt raw. Had she been yelling? She had a vague memory of yelling. Why does everything hurt so? “Vonken. I have to find –“
“If they’ve got him under the station, Miss, that ain’t...” Jeremy paused, swallowed hard, and started over. “I mean, if you’re one’a them ‘spark people like the doc, maybe you can...”
“Station? What does that mean, under the station?” Holly asked, and tapped the velocipede with her heels. It wriggled weakly, segments clicking and clanking into their approximate places along the spine. Clearly the rough ride had done it harm; she hoped it could still speed her along. How much time has passed? I could already be too late. “How could he be under the station?”
“That’s where they take folks what kick up too much of a fuss,” Jeremy said, anxiously watching her hands for some reason. “Old Sheriff’s got a special room down there. They...they toss the bodies out a chute at high tide. Everybody knows about it.”
“I’m not everybody,” Holly snapped. She kicked the sides of the velocipede hard. “Hi! Hiii!” It turned with an ear-stabbing shriek of metal on metal, but at least it turned, and began its awkward undulation, slowly mounting speed. Holly turned it toward the heart of the city. She’d never heard of a secret room beneath the Northern Pacific & Greater Concordia Railway and Steam Station, but at least she knew where the damned place was, having seen off Mikael on journeys from there.
The ‘pede was still faster than carriage travel. She held on grimly, indifferent to the red glow around her fingers, hoping she’d be in time to prevent not one but two deaths.