The Forever Engine – Snippet 06


September 23, 1888, London, England

Like a ghostly demon, London enveloped me in sulfurous tendrils of mist and smoke that smelled of hot metal, burning coal, and rotting garbage. The open air train platform stood at least twenty feet above street level, held up by iron girders. It reminded me of the Chicago Loop’s “El,” — the elevated train — or what it might have looked like a century ago. My gaze swept across the faint powdering of dirt and coal dust blowing across the platform’s walkway, the rust-streaked metal uprights and railings with their damp, grimy look, and then the city.

Brick and stone buildings rose into the sky, taller than seemed right for the period. Many larger ones sported an iron girder tower on top, with dirigibles docked to several of those. Two large flying machines droned slowly through the smoke and haze, but I couldn’t tell if they were also dirigibles or more of those flying ironclads.

The people on the platform around me wore ankle-length coats in dark colors — browns and grays and dusty blacks. They conversed with muffled voices, hair hidden under hats, faces behind goggles and dark fabric masks. Many women wore elaborate dark veils tucked into the collars of their coats. They reminded me of Afghan women in burkas, at least in their impersonal anonymity. But instead of hiding their shape, their coats exaggerated the female figure, accenting ample bosoms, flaring from narrow waists out over bustled skirts. The women glided across the platform with a deliberate grace I found seductive and creepy at the same time.

This wasn’t the London I had expected, but I had already abandoned my attachment to expectations.

“This way, Fargo,” Gordon grunted from under a rubberized mask that included both goggles and air filter. Two different Bobbies now accompanied us, having taken over from the rural constabulary at Paddington Station, our port of entry to Greater London. The Wessex men had, in retrospect, been easy-going compared to these two. Like Gordon they both wore goggles and masks. Their uniforms seemed darker and were augmented by thick gauntlets and taller helmets. They had a lean, tough look compared to their more portly country cousins, and black varnished wooden truncheons dangled from wrist thongs. One of them poked me in the back for encouragement. I’d put on the long coat they gave me, but no face protection was offered. My eyes burned already.

Ten minutes on a metro train brought us to a smaller station deeper in the city — St. John’s Square, the sign told me. Two flights of wrought-iron steps took us down to ground level, where horse-drawn cabs clip-clopped along crowded, litter-strewn streets, side by side with worn-looking freight wagons and one smoking steam-powered autocarriage. Most of the people here didn’t have elaborate masks and goggles. Instead, men in threadbare coats with collars turned up wore handkerchiefs tied over nose and mouth, and watched the Bobbies warily through red-rimmed eyes. They knew more about this world than I did, and they were afraid of the uniforms. Point taken.

We walked briskly for two blocks, then up the stone steps of a brownstone house, a knock, a few exchanged words between Gordon and a doorman, and we moved from the gloom of the streets into the gaslit twilight of the interior.

Heavy furniture, that was my first impression: big wardrobes, massive dark wood tables with legs carved to look like lion paws, overstuffed chairs, leather couches, and heavy brocade curtains hanging from near the high ceiling, puddling on the floor. Thick oriental carpets, bunches of them, carpets on top of carpets. Big oil paintings in heavy gilt frames covering whatever wall space was left — landscapes, seascapes, pictures of the moors or heaths or whatever, and one portrait of an angry old man whose eyes seemed to follow me as we marched through the front room.

“Who’s your decorator?” I asked. “Count Dracula?”

But it was just bravado, just whistling past the graveyard. The place had me spooked.

Up a broad flight of polished wood stairs, down a hall, and finally to a pair of sliding doors. Gordon knocked, the doors slid open a crack for a moment, he exchanged a few hushed words with whoever was inside, and then the doors slid open to let us in.

“You two wait out here,” he ordered the Bobbies. “And you mind yourself in here, Fargo. I have a revolver.”

He patted his right coat pocket to let me know he meant business.

We entered what I guess they called a sitting room. Four men conversed in the center of the room, and they turned to look me over without warmth. All wore dark suits except for one in an army uniform — same red tunic and dark blue trousers as Gordon but heavier with gold braid. Gordon joined them after gesturing for me to wait by the door.

One of the older men smiled and shook Gordon’s hand, and Gordon returned the smile. First time I’d seen him show any warmth at all.

This was supposed to be my interrogation, and I was here, but nothing was happening, so I figured we were waiting for someone else to show up. I glanced around the room. There were a couple love seats and wingback chairs set away from the walls but leaving a large open area in the center of the room covered by a single oriental rug. By the standards of the rest of the place, or what I’d seen of it, this room was sparsely furnished.

The double-paneled door we came through was behind me, and drapes on the opposite wall covered two windows, so that must be an exterior wall. As I faced the exterior wall, I had a fireplace to my left and then another double-paneled door on the wall to my right, so two ways in and out if you didn’t count the windows. Good to know if I had to make a break for it. I wasn’t sure where I’d run to, but I had a very bad feeling about this place.

Under the odor of cigar smoke, the room was filled with that same unfamiliar chemical scent I’d noticed at the hospital, and it seemed to be coming from the windows. Was that a room deodorizer of some kind? Maybe. It reminded me a little of Listerine.

“What’s that smell?” I asked, and the gang of five turned to me with startled expressions, as if a statue or caged animal had suddenly spoken.

“I beg your pardon?” one of them asked after a moment.

“That chemical odor. I smelled it at the hospital and now here, but I don’t recognize it. I think it’s coming from the drapes.”

They exchanged looks — confused, unbelieving, impatient.

“Carbolic acid,” the tall officer snapped, and the five went back to their conversation, but the three men in suits stole glances back at me.

Carbolic acid was an early disinfectant. I’d probably have recognized its odor from high school chemistry class, except I took biology and physics instead.

The paneled doors to my right slid open and another man strode purposely toward us, his eyes taking in the conversational group and then locking on me. He wore his big shock of reddish-brown hair, graying at the temples, like a well-groomed lion’s mane. His dark suit looked expensive, carefully tailored.

“Colonel Rossbank, gentlemen. So this is the fellow. What do we know of him?”

His voice filled the room without straining — a voice accustomed to filling rooms.

“Good day, Sir Edward,” the tall officer, presumably Colonel Rossbank, answered. “Aside from his preposterous story, I’m afraid we know nothing. The Americans profess ignorance, of course.”

“Of course,” Sir Edward answered. He stopped a couple feet away facing me, hands clasped behind his back under the tails of his coat, and he leaned forward and squinted at me as if I were some sort of museum display.

Quo usque tandem abutere, Catalina, patientia nostra?” I asked him.

The five others shifted with surprise and muttered to each other, but Sir Edward barked a short laugh.

“Damn me if I wasn’t about to ask you almost the same thing. ‘How long, Cataline, will you abuse our patience?'” he translated. “Cicero’s ringing denunciation of Cataline’s base treason — very apropos, although I rather think of you in the role of Cataline. Now, what is a spy doing quoting Cicero? Oh, that’s right! You’re pretending to be an ancient historian, aren’t you?”

“Marduk belu rabu uihdiema, ana ia’ati.” I answered. This time he didn’t laugh. His face clouded over with uncertainty.