June 3rd, 1850. A Monday.
There was always something wrong in the Lost District. The sour roar of police whistles whined every morning before dawn. It had become an unwelcome alarm clock and she spent her mornings grumbling through the unevenly spitting shower and the lukewarm tea. The building superintendent hadn’t been keeping up with the aging steam engines in the basement and it was starting to rankle even the calmest of the residents of Skyview Towers where was no sky and there was no view. Just worn mechanical parts supporting a tired building that had lived beyond its factory expiration date. Emma Tulip wasn’t just tired, she was famished for hope. And she wasn’t alone. The city wasn’t running well and people were starting to notice. Well, the people that mattered. Everyone else had figured out the failure of the great experiment. It was only a matter of time before something had to be done. And Emma worried it was going to be filled with violence and fire. It usually was. The hiss of the lift’s pressure sprockets equalizing brought her back to the present. The rusted doors stuttered open as she shifted the hip holster that held her Tesla pistol. Her day on the streets of the failing city had begun. This place had been her home since she’d been born into it twenty-five years ago. She’d never had a chance to escape. Her enrollment in the Petatech School for Girls and the ensuing testing that revealed her future had kept her eyes focused on the cobblestone streets and her mind on the various rungs of the ladder that awaited her. She had reveled in the assignment to the “Special Investigations” track and even cobbled together an outfit one year for Hallows Eve as a child. Those warm and glowing memories of old seemed to shrink and cower in the harsh soupy fog that filled the streets now.
"Good morning, Investigator Tulip.” The bearded deputy sergeant at the desk greeted her with a half-interested glance before returning to his greasy rag with loud headlines, half of them invented. Emma pushed forward in the bowels of the station house, the leaking steam irritating her further. Nothing worked in this godforsaken place. The tea machine near her desk coughed, wheezed, and then sputtered out a cup of a confusing substance. She stared at the steamy cup longer than she should have and a growling “harrumph” startled her. She answered with a boiling glare before slamming down into her chair, searching the files on the desk for something to distract her from the morning. She frowned as she reviewed each file in detail. She’d worked each case to the dry bone. She realized her day would be filled with endless walking from old clues to old witnesses trying to scrape together leads that might drag her closer to closing a case. “Tulip, got a case for you.” The deputy sergeant flopped the folder on her desk and was back at his desk before she glanced up. It wasn’t the ratty old paper she was used to handling and looked fresh. She opened to reveal a case that had been called in this morning and she was pounding her feet back to the desk, disbelief filling her face.
“This is a case from today, Garrison. I only work on the old and weird.” He shrugged, “Came to my desk with your name on it, Tulip. Your name, your case.” His gaze rested back on the tabloid. She held her tongue. Hard. The glamorous advertisements in full color flashed through her memories. The job had once been something to hold in an esteem. Now it was a dead end. She shoved the folder into her shoulder bag and marched out the door and into the gloomy street. Morning had passed and the sun was bleating through the fog, making it hard to breath. She slipped on her nebulizer mask and plunged into the maze. She had a case. And it was better than sitting at her desk muttering over failures.
“Thank goodness someone’s come. I rang last week and they wouldn’t believe me. There’s something wrong in the cellar.” The woman’s hair was steaming as her shiny new powered curlers worked overtime to perm the rather nice-looking hair on her head. Emma wrote down notes as the woman, identified as Lady Kestra, continued to speak. They were standing in the lobby of the Abundance Towers. Emma had walked in and felt her eyes explode at the luxury that rested within her reach in the lobby. Shiny, golden, and clean! The air was fresh, filtered three ways. “It’s mostly the sounds. Clanking and hammering at odd hours. And a voice every so often. Deep and ragged. It’s like in that story in ‘Unbelievable Adventures’ from last month. Well, there was a friendly man in that story. I don’t think whatever is down there is friendly.” Emma felt her eyes start to roll and fought the urge. Kestra was wearing a tableau that cost more than the rent for her flat. The notes in the case made it clear that whoever took the call had felt the same. The people who lived in the gleaming towers didn’t understand the mechanics of all that they had. These calls had been regular in the early days of the nicer parts of the city. That Kestra hadn’t figured out that the equipment that pulled, pushed, boiled, and toiled the water into steam would make some noise was frustrating for Emma. The woman looked old enough to know better.
“I’ll take a look, Lady Kestra. Thank you for calling.” Emma listlessly handed the woman her card and made her way through the cellar door. The lights were spaced unevenly which made it necessary to power on her torch. Her patrol boots squished over wet mud as she walked, her ears tuning to the sounds that played off the walls. There was the sound of the whirrs, the groans, and the whish of the steam machines. She took a few more steps, listened, and turned to walk the path back up to the lobby. She would have made it, but something caught her ears. It wasn’t the sounds of the machines that had traveled from the depths of the cellar. It wasn’t anything to do with the trembling pipes or the whistling release valves. Emma listened once more and closed her eyes. And waited. And waited.
Her eyes flew open and her right hand held her Tesla pistol forward as the whine of its charge escalated. The torch in her left hand trembled for a moment. The sound had been human. Or animal. She wasn’t sure. Emma grumbled. Lady Kestra’s story had an ounce of truth to it. She inched carefully down the hallway searching the walls for clues of what had made the sound. The unusual sounds grew louder. The path soon bowed and opened into a striking cavern where steam leaked in a scattered pattern as a wooden walkway circled further. The sounds became more distinct. Emma inched down the cavern, her senses on edge. She had seen plenty of the strange and unknown be explained within the scope of science, physics, or mechanics. As she walked deeper into the depths there was a growing unease in her heart as her mind struggled to quantify the unearthly sounds growing in volume. Her feet left the wood path and touched pavement. Emma examined the floor. It was perfectly laid. She followed it as the lanterns became less and less with her torch lighting her way until she turned another corner and discovered what was making the sounds.
It was a beastly creation. What had once been a man was now a whirring whistling mass of pipe, steel, and hissing steam. She stood, awestruck. Whatever he had been before was now a struggling creature manacled heavily to the wall. Tulip stepped forward until she stood in the light of the cavernous laboratory. The adorned beast spotted her and growled, deep blue eyes searching her. Tulip kept to the wall, her eyes meeting his. His arms were gone, replaced by steel pylons woven into his iron body. His legs were stumps, attached to a wild construction of wheels from a steam engine. Tulip had never seen such a thing. The guttural voice moaned again, “Graaaanhoolllm! Granhooooolm!” She searched her memory for the name and gasped. Chester Granholm, one of the founding members of the city. He had gone missing some years ago. Emma stepped as close as she was comfortable.
“Mr. Chester Granholm?” His eyes seemed to take her in a new way, and the scarred and garbled face grew softer in the light. “Heeeellppp. Mmmmmeee.” She moved towards him but was startled by another voice.
“No help for you, Chester.”
Emma spun, her Tesla pistol centering on a towering figure. It was a face she’d seen in the tawdry pages of the deputy sergeant’s papers. She didn’t care to recall his name.
“I don’t know who you are, but you’ve made a terrible mistake. I regret that I have to kill such a wondrous beauty but it can’t be helped, I’m afraid.” In his hands was an Edison rifle. It was pointed at her. And he fired. Twice.
Emma Tulip dodged the first electrical burst and it slammed into the hard rock harmlessly. The second blast ground into her left shoulder, sending her flying into the air and bouncing along the ground face first until she slid to halt, gasping for air. The manacled beast roared and Emma thought she saw the greasy celebrity flinch.
“You will learn that death deals a hard hand, monster.” He was reloading the electrical ammunition chamber as he stalked the writhing body of his target. “It won’t even hurt, dear girl. I daresay it’ll be the easiest death in the city.” He stood just over her and rested the humming barrel against her head, “Goodbye.”
Emma spun over, kicking the barrel to the side and aimed the Tesla pistol into the shocked socialites face, “You first.” She fired and the arching bolt of energy flew around him, exploding his rifle in a shower of sparks. He fell to the ground with a grunt and Emma slipped out her charge clip to reload. A roar from Granholm was her only warning and it came too late. She hit the floor, the pistol smashing to pieces. The man from the papers was on her, swinging rapidly. Two hit their mark. Tulip knew he was bigger. She had put some distance between them. Another punch barreled into her chest. She waited a moment, watching through blurred vision as the pompous prince raised his fists. Her hands snagged the blades from her hips and she slammed the small knives into the soft flesh of his waist. He doubled over in pain and she spun out from underneath him, running for the monster against the wall. There had been switches, she remembered. Her hands found them as she heard the rasping rage come to his feet behind her. Emma didn’t have the luxury of time to think but she had time to hope that what she was about to do wouldn’t end in her death. Her worn hands released the switches that held Granholm. She thrust to the side as Granholm burst forth from his prison. The roar from the released prisoner didn’t terrify her like it had before. This was the roar of freedom. He moved slow, stalking. Emma wouldn’t look away. The beast gave one last roar and pounced and began to dismember the man. The scream was short and dissolved into a quiet gurgle and then silence. The bloodied pile of limbs lay dripping as Granholm admired his handiwork before he glanced to Tulip. “Thhhhaank yoouu.” His blue eyes seemed to darken to midnight as sadness crossed his fractured features. He motioned to the badge that was pinned to her overcoat, “I…nnnneeedd…to shhhoooowww yyyyyou…” He thundered to a table and motioned at an intricate map. She looked to Granholm. He shook his head, “Ddddoo nnnnnottt knnnnoooowww.” He pointed to his neck and she looked closer. There was a crass device strapped to his neck. Kneeling, Granholm pointed at it again. Tulip gave it another look. She grabbed a spanner and went about the work of removing it. It took her thirty seconds. She traced the connectors to the power packs to the steam pipes that littered his body. With a cry, she released him from it. He fell back, blinking. Granholm swallowed and cleared his throat. His deep bass voice was the warmth of a crackling fireplace.
“Thank you, special investigator. I am in your debt.” His metal limbs gestured to the map, “My captor was working with several others. I do not know what they were creating within their cathedrals, but they planned to use me as a destructor. They plan to destroy what we had built and the world beyond. I do not mean to impose upon you as I do not even know my savior’s name but I must ask you to help me save my creation.” Emma examined the map and frowned, "These markings are across the country. Their plan didn't just involve this city." She was still trying to understand what she had seen and done, never mind understanding how Granholm was still alive. “My name’s Emma Tulip.”
“Curious. You did not blanch at my asking you to save this place.” “I cannot escape this place, Mr. Granholm. It has taken my mother. My father didn’t survive to see me born. I am alone.”
“I am sorry my dream has taken so much from you. I can only promise that together we will work to undo the twisting of my creation. In that, you will no longer be alone.” Tulip gave him a quiet nod. No one had spoken to her in this way for quite some time. She wasn’t sure how to respond. Biting sarcasm had carried her far in life.
Granholm smiled, or at least what passed for a smile from his cratered face, “Then we are agreed. Let us go about making my appearance more presentable.” He gestured to the pile of tools and mechanical pieces that littered the laboratory. Emma felt a smile cross her lips. There was hope yet in the Lost District.
June 4th, 1850. A Tuesday.
The day had not started well. The coffee maker they'd shipped from New England had nearly exploded from another steam overload. She hadn't had time to make the normal pot before the phone had rang rudely, her boss squawking orders. Deputy Marshal Eleanor Jenimae Jay grumbled as she walked down the path to the Astor Homestead. She had been called to help serve a warrant by Marshal Horatio Lamb. She despised Lamb for his grifting nature and his inability to serve as an effective lawman in the sprawling county. She knew the warrant for Festus Astor had been issued by the territory marshals office after he'd brutally attacked a woman in Bozeman for refusing to sit with him. Jay had seen the original report from the state when it arrived six months ago and had read it before Lamb could file it away. She'd nearly thrown up after reading page after page. The word 'assault' didn't give the woman's suffering adequate explanation. They had remained silent as they'd traveled on horseback through the outlying hills around Roundup and now Lamb was grumbling under his breath each step he took. It had taken a call from the Governor's office to get Horatio up and out of his comfortable chair and he was missing the soft elegance of his armchair that rested in the corner of his office.
"Deputy, you will remain silent and you will merely observe the proceedings." He turned and spoke as they reached the fence that led to the door. "You and Festus have history."
"From primary school, Horatio. I haven't spoken to the man in fifteen years."
"Like I said, you have history. I don't need to play referee today. Let me do my job and you just stand there, looking pretty, Ellie."
She bit her tongue. There was no getting around, through, or above Horatio Lamb. He was, without question, the law the the county. And for some reason, the people that called the land home didn't mind the ineffective and damn near insolvency of the man who wore the badge. She spoke through gritted teeth, "Very well, Marshal Lamb."
He gave a nausea inducing smile and pushed open the gate, his girth forcing him sideways through the entrance. The door opened before Lamb made two steps. The pockmarked face of Festus Astor stepped onto the porch, his eyes searching the yard. They rested on Lamb for a moment before settling on Eleanor, an ugly smile sliding across the lips of the man. "I see you brought the pretty one along, Hort." The chuckle from Lamb only served to push Ellie's stewing from simmering to near boil. "I heard she growed up well, but damn!" Her hands rested on the hilts of her twin Colt Peacemakers, and they twitched every so slightly on the last sentence. Festus pretended not to notice but she saw his eyes widen slightly. Lamb cleared his throat in an attempt to direct the attention back to the matter at hand.
"You know why I'm here, Fest. I got a call from the territory office and then a call from the bloody governor's office. They're not taking my half truths anymore. They sent a Pinkerton to check up on you." It was Ellie's turn to pretend this wasn't news. But it was. Someone had looked into the reports that Festus Astor had fled the county - reports that Lamb had been feeding the territory office with regularity. She knew he'd made a map in his office pretending to track Astor's movements out of the county and heading South but she hadn't expected someone to suspect the veracity of the information coming from Lamb. Her eyebrows furrowed as she wondered how far Lamb had fallen out of favor with the Commonwealth.
"They didn't come to you first?"
"No, they did not. They don't seem interested in trustin' my word anymore. You gotta come in, Fest. They're goin' to get more aggressive longer this goes on."
"And if I don't? What are you gonna do then, Hort? We've had an agreement. I don't wanna to see that end anytime soon."
Ellie wondered if they'd forgotten she was there, listening.
"Fest, you know I can't let you do that. We gotta resolve this within the lines. It's out of my control. It's a damned shame and I'm no happier about it than you are."
Festus Astor casually pulled his arm from inside the house and rested a Winchester Rifle on a chair, "I'm not going, Hort. I'm happy living here and far away from these lines you talk so much about. You can take your pretty deputy and tell the governor he take a flying leap for all I care. Let them come. I ain't afraid."
Ellie's hands had quietly moved to softly grasp the hilts of the twin Colts. The air was ever so close now and the warmth of the conversation was nearly sparking to a flame. A routine warrant service had damned near turned in a standoff. She licked her lips. She coulda' used a drink.
"Festus Astor. You are under arrest and will come with me..." Horatio Lamb was pulling out his revolver as he spoke.
Festus cursed him. "That'll be the day. Fill your hands you son of a..." It happened as if lightening had struck in the midst of them. Lamb fired awkwardly and the bullet slapped Astor in the shoulder who roared as if he were a grazed grizzly. His rifle crackled with a thunderous boom that found purchase deep in the stomach of the Marshal. Ellie Jay knew the nature of Festus Astor. He wasn't going to stop at the murder of one Marshal. He was going to cut her down. They'd fought on the schoolyard ages ago and she'd had to take enough of his beatings until she finally had meted out such a passionate and blood soaked beating that they'd moved Festus to a school across county lines. All this flashed through her head as she stalked forward, raising her twin pistols and watching in her peripheral vision as Horatio Lamb doubled over with a high cry of pain, blood spilling on to the frosted grass.
"You..." Festus sputtered indistinct curses. He had forgotten she was there. His rifle swung towards her, his fingers reaching for the trigger. Four bright staccato shots broke loose across Astor's body as he fired. He went down, gurgling unintelligibly before blood spilled his life into blackness and he lay still. Jay fell to her knees, grasping the blood that was reddening her long sleeve shirt. She kicked open the door to the house and found a basket of bandanas. Through gasps of pain she fitted a makeshift tourniquet. The blood slowed to a drip and she stalked back out into the yard. Lamb was dead. There had been no saving him. Ellie contemplated spitting on his body, but decided that tempting Karma's fickle finger of fate wasn't something she would like to repeat, at least in this lifetime. She dragged Festus to lay beside Lamb and realized she wasn't going to get her former boss up on a horse. He simply weighed too damn much. Letting out a deep sigh, she went inside the house to call the office. There was a storm coming and she'd brought it down on her own head.
“I hear you killed Festus, today.” The old man in the rocking chair quietly smoked his pipe, newspaper in hand. Ellie stood just inside the door as it swung in the dusty air. The sunset was crawling to the horizon and she had just about reached her limit of the world outside. She was thirsty.
"Yes, I did.”
“I’m sure he gave you a good reason.”
She remained silent. “We'll all miss Marshal Lamb. And by all of us, I mean those that benefited from his stupidity." He dropped the paper and began to pack his pipe. "You want to talk about it?”
It was her bearded grandfather’s turn to be silent.
She spoke, a weary sigh on her lips, “I know. I kicked a hornet’s nest.”
“Not a hornet’s nest, darlin’. You poked the damned bear with a hot poker from the depths of hell. His friends are rarely the forgivin’ type.”
She glared for a moment but softened her eyes. "I didn't have much of a choice."
"I don't suppose you did. I suppose your come askin’ for help.”
The deputy marshal shook her head. “I just came to talk. I wanted to ask…”
The retired marshal grumbled, “You wanted to ask about her.”
Ellie swallowed. Hard.
Another round of grumbles from her grandfather, “Your grandmother was many things, but she was not one to be talked about after death. She wasn’t a good woman, Ellie. That’s all I’ve ever said. It’s all I’ll ever say.”
“So what should I do?”
Jeremiah Jay leaned back in his chair, “Now you’re askin’ for my advice? Granddaughter, you test my everlovin’ patience.” She gave a slight nod.
He took a puff or two of the old pipe, “You did come to visit me. I suppose I owe you a returned kindness. Two options. One, turn in the badge and run. I’m guessin’ his friends will be content to leave you to the wind. You’re not worth the trouble it’d invite.”
She shifted her boots nervously, “And the second?”
Her grandfather lifted the paper, his face hidden as smoke from his pipe rose to the ceiling. “Fight like hell and prove that deputy badge wasn’t the town fathers losing their everlovin’ minds. I’ve had enough talkin’. Make sure you close the door on your way out, girl.” Her heart sank a little as she did as he had asked.