Of all days, it had to happen today. The wind lashed at the empty balloon of the Heron IV – not the most reliable of machines, but it had never gone down on such a short journey before.
Wiping a dirty wrist across her forehead, Elsie Arabella Claxton stared down at her collapsed dirigible. She had crashed down in a flurry of steam and smoke in the middle of a pasture. The engine was beyond repair, and she couldn’t for the life of her figure out what could have caused such extensive damage to such a small engine.
Squinting at the horizon, she flipped open the pocket watch hanging around her neck. Judging the time by the sun was impossible at this point. Inky storm clouds covered the entire sky. Elsie could practically smell the lightning.
“Damn,” she muttered. “You couldn’t have waited another ten miles?” She exhaled loudly, gazing longingly at the hazy silhouette of New York City.
Time was running out. She didn’t really have a choice.
Tossing her large wrench into the wicker basket of the Heron, Elsie shoved her cap back on, and slid into her leather bomber, zipping it closed. With any luck, her father’s old jacket would hide her figure.
Taking the time to only grab her satchel, she took off at a slow lope across the field. She’d come back for the dirigible if she could. While it was useless for flight now, maybe she could scavenge a couple of parts.
It was only minutes before her boots hit the compact gravel she’d been hunting for. Putting her hands on her knees, Elsie breathed deep, looking up and down the railroad track. Nothing better than a direct line right into the heart of the city.
She’d been jogging along only a few minutes when she heard the high-pitched squeal. Caught off guard, she whipped around. The brewing storm had made her paranoid, fearing the worst. She could have cried in relief at what she saw instead.
The sleek black steam engine was moving down the track at a moderate pace. Once close to the city, and among the livestock fields, all trains slowed down in case a curious cow should happen to want to cross the tracks. Convenient for those who also wanted to hitch a ride.
Elsie scrambled off the tracks, crouching low in the tall grass of the field. She inhaled sharply as the gilded pilot came into view. It couldn’t be! But with the way her luck was going today, Elsie wasn’t surprised.
The elegant letters on the head car confirmed her fears. In burnished gold, the large stamp gleamed, despite the cloudy weather: “Rurikov Engines”. And further down, she could just make out another name: “Black Gold Express”.
She rolled her eyes. Perfect. Of all the trains that could possibly pass by, it had to be the most luxurious passenger train on the entire east coast.
Well, beggars can’t be choosers, she said to herself. There was a storm coming, the clock was ticking, and she needed a ride.
Elsie waited until the caboose was within a few feet, then reached out, grabbing the iron railing and hoisting herself up onto the small platform. Slipping through the door, she sped as quickly and unobtrusively as she could through the various cars. Bustling dining cars, crowded lounge cars – she scurried through them all as quietly as a mouse. Her hat brim pulled low, Elsie kept her eyes on the ground, concentrating on not walking like a girl. She could feel suspicious eyes creeping up and down her spine. She could only hope her engine boy disguise would last long enough to get her to a hiding spot.
Shutting the car door behind her, she leaned back against it, breathing a sigh of relief. She’d entered a passenger car, silent and seemingly empty. Peeking in the closest compartment window, all she saw was shadow. She could cram herself into the corner and hope that this close to the city, they wouldn’t check ticket stubs one last time.
She shut the door softly behind her, and pressed her freckled nose against the glass, looking up and down the hall one more time. She grasped the edge of the privacy shade and began to pull it down.
Squeaking loudly, she spun around, losing her grip on the shade. It snapped up, thunk, thunking against the glass like a giant paper tongue.
Her chest rising and falling rapidly, Elsie tried to steel her voice. “Who’s there?”
A chuckle. She squinted into the darkness. She could just make out the shape of long, crossed legs.
“Who I am precisely is inconsequential. Do sit down, Miss Claxton. I‘ve been waiting for you.”
The voice was smooth, faintly tinged with an accent she couldn’t quite place. Nervous, she sat down on the edge of the seat opposite the mysterious man. Her back straight as a board, she twisted her hands in her lap. She hated the quiver in her voice as she spoke. “How do you know my name? How did you know I would be here?”
That same self-confident chuckle. “Lucky guess.”
She pursed her lips. The small explosion just before her dirigible went down. Typical. It was just like the guild to throw an impossible wrench into a seamless plan on purpose. Getting into the Vadim wasn’t supposed to be easy, after all.
The legs unfolded gracefully. It was eerie watching him – dressed entirely in black, he melted into the dark upholstery. The only glimmer of color was the reflection of the light in the small half-moon glasses perched on his nose, though with him so perfectly camouflaged, she couldn’t tell you the shape of the nose they were resting on, or if they even were on his nose.
“There has been a change in plans, Miss Claxton,” the dark man said. There was a shift of movement. Suddenly a black gloved hand appeared from the shadows, holding a maroon parchment envelope. “Inside you will find a piece of paper and a key. Memorize what is written on the paper, and destroy it. It is the number of a lockbox at Grand Central. The key will open it. Inside the lockbox, you will find everything you need to complete your assignment.”
Elsie gingerly took the envelope from his hand. As she did, he stood. For a brief moment, the cloudy light illuminated half of his face. Young. Strong, yet elegant bone structure. Stylish black facial hair. An aristocrat perhaps?
“You will also find a train ticket, in case anything…untoward should happen on the last part of your journey. Good day, Miss Claxton.” A slight bow of his head, and he was gone, vanishing from the compartment.
The young woman slumped back into the plush seat, staring at the envelope in her hands. She chewed her bottom lip – a bad habit since childhood. Her palms were slick with sweat, and her heart was still pounding like a scared rabbit’s. There were times that Elsie wondered if she was really cut out for this kind of thing. Could she be the kind of person the guild wanted her to be?
Exhaling loudly, she ripped open the envelope. Glancing at the number, she folded it and placed it on her tongue, grimacing as the paper dissolved. She slid the key into her jacket pocket.
Tilting her head back, Elsie closed her eyes. She might as well try and relax while she had the chance.
Elsie was still in a daze when the stepped off the train and onto the platform. It was steamy and noisy and crowded. She pushed through the crowd much more roughly than she normally would have. Something about the shadow man had set her mind totally astray – she felt jittery and exhausted all at once. She could have growled in frustration.
Stomping into the luggage room, she crossed to the wall of steel lockers and jammed the key into the lockbox. She removed a large carpetbag and another envelope. She looked in the bag first: a gown carefully folded, forest green, and Russian in style, a black fur stole, and slippers to match. She made a face, but it instantly vanished as she saw the pistol at the bottom. The bullet chamber glowed a beautiful turquoise. Her eyes widened in astonishment mixed with giddiness.
Feeling a growing excitement in her chest, Elsie turned to the envelope. A letter, a photograph, another train ticket, and an engraved invitation were inside. The train ticket was marked October 27th, 1893 – Artemis Arrow Limited – Departing Grand Central Station at 6 p.m., Arriving Essex Station at 9 p.m.
Scanning the room peripherally, she shoved the envelope and her satchel into the carpetbag, patting the large bronze pistol fondly. She’d have to find a powder room, and quick. Her train was to leave in under an hour.
“Maybe today isn’t so rotten after all,“ she whispered to herself, grinning widely.