A Steampunk Tale, part 1
This is my first time trying to write urban fantasy -- I'd really appreciate any comments or criticism or pointing out silly mistakes I've made. :) The idea for this came from the Coldplay music video for "God Put A Smile On Your Face." I think you'd have to watch it to understand why, but I hated the video so much that I decided to rewrite it as a more humorous story instead. It's broken through my writer's block like a ninja. :D
The inventor checked his pocket watch. The flow of people parted around him, and someone's shoulder caught his arm as he checked his other watch, too. 13:43! This was cutting it fine, if you liked!
He pushed through the crowd outside the opera house, mumbling apologies. A fine lady in a plumy hat scowled at him, but he barely noticed.
Grendel's associates had only come to this second-rate town for one day and one meeting: Adrimond's. They'd come to offer him a job; these men were his best chance of making it to New York at last.
The waves of gaily dressed rich folk dwindled as the inventor trotted out of the entertainment district. Here the streets were uncrowded and he could walk as fast as he liked. He might have run, but this part of the city was notorious for harboring the more unsavory sort, and attracting too much attention here was a mistake, he knew from harsh experience. Anyway, the tram lines weren't far now.
He breezed past a small boy in a moth-eaten cap, and beside him a woman whose face was comely even under a film of grime. She was old enough that she might have been the boy's or even his own mother, but her face reminded him of his sweet sister. The inventor switched his briefcase to his other hand and urged his feet to go faster.
Adrimond could feel the urchins' and beggars' eyes on him as he reached the corner and crossed the street. "Mister! Hey, mister!" someone yelled.
The inventor gave to the poor sometimes, but today he didn't have time to spare. He tipped his hat to them. "Good day t'you!" he hollered.
"Mister, don't go --"
The street was deserted, more luck. Adrimond left the beggars behind. Ahead the heavy wooden sign swung over the cracked stone walkway, marking the entrance to the usually-crowded Trams. Today no one was here. Adrimond had lost track of time these past few weeks; perhaps it was a holiday.
He clattered down the steps into the dank tunnel. Gears whirred and clicked, and the dim electrolights flickered. Thinking the ticket booths would stand empty, he rushed on through the dark, trusting to his memory of the layout of the place as his eyes adjusted -- but then -- WHAM.
Adrimond staggered back, winded. "I'm so sorry sir!" he gasped, collecting his fallen briefcase and wincing at his sore hand.
He looked up at the person he'd crashed into. An old man, his pinstriped suit rumpled and torn where Adrimond's haste had forced him up against the whirring gears on the aft of the clockwork ticket booth, hair pulled back into a braided tail. He scowled at Adrimond.
Adrimond checked his watch again. 13:52. Even the tram could scarcely get him to the meeting in time. But the old man stood between him and the ticket booth. "I'm sorry," he repeated.
The man only stared at him. "That's quite all right." His expression remained unforgiving, and Adrimond began to feel uncomfortable.
Suddenly the man turned and strode away into the darkness, towards the platforms. Adrimond let out his caged breath. He fumbled with his coins and fed them into the slot. The wheels ground together and the machine spat out one ticket. Now to find the tram.
In the greyish electrolight, he saw the old man lean close to the ticketmaster and whisper something. The ticketmaster chuckled and waved him aboard.
Wonderful. He would have to share a train with the man.
Adrimond showed his ticket. The ticketmaster didn't smile, just nodded him on. Adrimond reminded himself that he didn't care -- he was on his way to the most important meeting of his life. He would receive fair pay at last, and he would find dear Cecilia. Nothing else mattered.
The scarlet velour seats were mostly empty. A pair of carnival dancers in red and white costume whispered together on the seat closest to the captain's chair. The old man must have gone on to the next car. Relieved, Adrimond sat down a few rows away from the girls and situated his briefcase beside him. The tram jerked into motion.
13:55. Five minutes. The tram would get him there, no doubt, but by the skin of his nose.
Cecilia would be so glad to see him again. How many years had it been now, since they'd been separated? He couldn't remember anymore.
The tram slid to a stop in the next station. Adrimond caught up his case and rose from his chair just as the old man strode past. He smiled slyly at Adrimond. And where the inventor wore carefully shined loafers, the old man's gnarled feet were bare and white.
Adrimond stammered out an apology and left the tram in a rush. 13:59! There was no time!
He climbed the stairs out into the business district and broke into a full-on run, dodging pedestrians and hansoms, coat tails flying and apologies falling in his wake. In his heedless careering, he didn't see the shoeless man until it was too late.
CRASH! The old man tumbled to the paving, along with Adrimond's briefcase.
Before the inventor could offer his hand, the old man had pulled himself up with surprising strength. He glared at Adrimond. "That's the last time you get in my way, young man."
The inventor stared back in horror. "I - sir, I must apologize, it's just that I must - I'm late to meet Grendel's managers and I --"
"Oh, don't think on it now, then," said the old man. "Mark this moment. You'll remember me."
The towering man pushed the passing pedestrians aside and disappeared into the crowd. Disconcerted, Adrimond slowed to a fast walk. The sparkling sign of the Dancing Elephant Restaurant met his eyes. One more block.
The inventor pushed back his sleeve to check the time again and found his wrist bare. What had happened to his watch?
Never mind. The one in his pocket was still there. 14:02. They could forgive him the extra minutes, he felt sure.
A bell tinkled as he entered. He tried to appear calm as he scanned the tables for the businessmen.
"How can I help you?" said a cheerfully plump woman, waving her checklist at someone across the room.
"I'm here to meet Mr. Chaine and Mr. Scorrel," said Adrimond. His briefcase rattled as though something inside had broken.
"Right there. Table 18." She offered a smile and bustled off.
Adrimond threaded his way between the tables. Two men in tweed suits looked up as he approached.
"Yes, that's me," said Adrimond.
"You're early," said the one with the mustache.
"What?" Adrimond tried to check his missing watch, then his pocketwatch. Then he looked up at the elaborate gold wall clock. His was ten minutes ahead.
"I'm sorry, sir, I -"
"Don't worry, don't worry! Punctuality is good, but the early cat catches the mouse!" said the mustached man with a slap to his thigh.
"Shall we begin?" said the other man. "I'm Mr. Scorrel, and this josher is Mr. Chaine."
"Show us what you've brought," said Mr. Chaine.
The briefcase nearly slipped through his fingers again as he lifted it onto the tabletop and took the third seat. The rattling sound made Adrimond's nerves jangle. He'd packed them so carefully! If something had gone wrong - if his invention was broken -
Holding his breath, he unlatched the copper clasps and peeled back the layers of green cotton he'd wrapped around his prize.
Mr. Chaine cleared his throat. "Perhaps we'd best take this into a private dining room. Bit noisy out here, eh?"
"No, never mind that for now," said Mr. Scorrel, giving his partner a sharp look. "Carry on, Mr. Caraway."
Adrimond lifted out the shining, egg-shaped device with shaking fingers. He could hear the rattling still. Something had come loose inside, maybe a gear, maybe a spring or nut. He'd have to open it up to know for sure.
Mr. Scorrel glanced over his shoulder. "May I see it?" he said in a hushed tone.
Adrimond placed it in the businessman's sausage-fingered hands.
"Is it fully functional?" queried Mr. Scorrel, looking over at Adrimond shrewdly.
"W-well it was when I last tested it," said Adrimond. "I th-think that something may have happened to it while I was on my way here though -- I had an, um, an accident."
Mr. Chaine glanced at Mr. Scorrel. "If we test it, we'll have to make for the back room," he murmured.
The interview wasn't going as Adrimond had expected. "Sir?"
"What?" said Mr. Scorrel testily.
Adrimond took a sip from the glass sitting by his place and almost choked. "I - about the matter of my pay -"
"If the device works, you'll receive a princely sum."
Mr. Chaine's eyes strayed to the plain leather case stashed near his feet. "Immediately upon successful test."
A fair-haired waitress strode by and stopped at their table. "May I take your order, sirs?"
"M'lady, may I ask to be directed to a private room? The noise out here interrupts our business."
"There'll be an extra charge," said the waitress, sweeping them with a practiced appraisal.
"We have the money." Mr. Scorrel delivered the device back into its inventor's hands and stood.
"Very well. Come with me."
Adrimond latched his case and followed the businessmen as the waitress led them across the dining hall's plush green carpet and through the double doors at the back. It was a hallway, carpeted in the same emerald shade. The waitress led them to the left and unlocked a door.
"Thank you," said Mr. Chaine, pressing a tip into her waiting hand. "You may go."
The waitress nodded and left, closing the door.
"Now," said Mr. Scorrel, taking a seat at the small room's single table. "Show us what you can do."
Adrimond set the egg carefully on the tablecloth. The bronze top was pierced with several holes, and the sides covered with an array of buttons and wheel adjustments. He brushed one of the wheels and pressed a button, feeling confidence leaking back into him. "This is the voice recording part. Say something now."
"Edwin Scorrel is a buffoon," joked Mr. Chaine.
Adrimond pressed another button and the egg repeated the words in the same deep voice.
Mr. Scorrel raised his eyebrows. "Impressive!"
Adrimond grinned, his face flushed. "Then you should see what else it can do."
He lifted it from the table and adjusted a complicated array of buttons, doing it so fast that he knew the businessmen wouldn't be able to replicate the sequence without him. Then he lifted the egg to his ear.
Jackdaws love my sphinx of quartz, he thought. He quickly pressed another button to make it stop.
"Jackdaws love my sphinx of quartz," repeated the machine in Adrimond's own voice.
Now the businessmen were speechless. They stared at the egg.
"What is your price?" whispered Mr. Scorrel.
"Make me an offer first," said Adrimond, who was used to haggling over parts in the market.
"40,000 dollars," said Mr. Chaine.
"45,000," retorted Adrimond, trying to conceal his excitement.
"We'll pay him the 100,000 we brought, Chaine," said Mr. Scorrel. "Get out the case."
Chaine lifted the battered briefcase onto the tabletop and unlocked the clasps with a tiny key handed to him by his boss.
Adrimond gasped. Layers and layers of blue and white paper filled the entire case -- more money than the young inventor had ever seen in his life. He'd never even touched a $100 bill before. This was success. He could go anywhere on this, anywhere in the world, and he would find Cecilia no matter where the thugs had taken her. Heck, he could hire his own personal army!
"Do you have schematics?" asked Mr. Scorrel.
Adrimond opened his briefcase. He had painstakingly drawn several copies of the final plans for his invention. He handed a sheaf of them across the table to the businessman.
"If you're going to make more of them -- and sell them," he hesitated, "would I receive any wages from the sales?"
"Absolutely. You are - well, you're the most promising young inventor I've ever met. We'd like to hire your services for Mr. Grendel's company. Anything new you build, we want to hear about. Do you have the papers, Chaine?"
"Right here." Mr. Chaine passed them over.
"Sign these, here, here, and. . . here, and put your address here, so our secretary will know where to contact you." Mr. Scorrel gestured with his silver pen. "You can start next month. Just report to our offices in New York City."
"You'll be able to take pretty much any apartment or house that strikes your fancy," said Mr. Chaine with a wide grin.
"Don't accept a job with anyone else during that time," warned Mr. Scorrel.
"Why would I?"
"These copies are for you. We'll take these." Mr. Scorrel gave Adrimond's contract and schematics to his partner, who folded them into the second briefcase.
"Hand me the -- what have you called it?"
"The voice-combobulator." Adrimond wrapped it again in the green cotton and gave it over, glad the slight rattle hadn't affected the machine's performance. In return, Mr. Chaine gave him the key to the briefcase full of cash.
They all stood. Adrimond pushed in his chair.
"We'll be seeing you, Mr. Caraway," said Mr. Scorrel with a formal nod. He reached out to shake the inventor's hand, but missed.
Adrimond's hand tingled as though the businessman had slapped it. Confused, he held it out, offering to try again.
Edwin Scorrel laughed. "You know, I always shake on a business deal, but I've never missed before," he said, and tried again. This time, Adrimond saw the businessman's hand reach, touch, and slide right through his own. His stomach lurched. What on earth?
Edwin's smile faltered. "I - I'm sorry. I must have had one drink too many."
Mr. Chaine chuckled, nearsighted enough that the cause of his companion's discomfort and Adrimond's astonishment had completely escaped him. "Quite all right. We'd better just go, then, eh?"
"I suppose," muttered Edwin.
"Good luck, my boy!" called Mr. Chaine as they exited.
The walnut-brown door swung shut with a click. Adrimond stayed quite still. He could feel the golden key, its metal hot in the palm of his other hand. He shivered. Maybe he was imagining things, but that had felt awfully real.