My first novel: the prelude and few two chapters of an 1880's steampunk, superhero city!
The Bleak Reveal
Suppose you were inspired to write down your past accomplishments, only to find them rife with regret and remonstration. This is the task set before me in this memoir. From where I sit now, with the terrible events of the past behind, I finally understand the wisdom of hindsight. Within these pages, I, Aretha Tyne Astin, will make clear the foul workings of the Chamber Case, which still baffles those in the Missouri metropolis of Railroad City to this day. Sadly, I must also unveil my own youthful behaviors, the likes of which I no longer fondly recall. If you should see me some day, and wish to elicit your personal opinions, I ask only that you be kind.
Many have forgiven me, though I shall never forgive myself.
It has been said to begin at the beginning, though in this case, the event before the beginning is more appropriate. It will without fail play a key role into the unraveling of the mystery as the tale unfolds. The newspapers, such as the Rail City Chronicle and that slanderous Mouthpiece, could never interpret the clues that would lead to the solution. Fortunately, we reside in a city of miracles, where the pallid blue glow of the alien element negatrite has given the human race paranormal qualities suitable for our troublesome times.
Yes, the prelude. What falls next is the bleak reveal, snipped together from periodicals and word of mouth, for I had not arrived into the tale as yet.
The rain fell as liquid ice that morning of April the fifth, 1886. The whole of the city had since been quieted two years before by a legal injunction, a Federal mandate combining Army and Navy Aerial Corps into a single branch, to quell supposed paranormal uprisings. In truth, there never had been such a radical movement, save for one lone maniac with the power of detonation in his hands who leveled an armory in New England. This set up, including the military’s tragic loss of men and land to the natives in the Red Nations War, made them especially vile toward our race.
So on that morning, they were naturally on the hunt for paranormal agents. Anarchist became their word of obsession, and such supposed fiends they found beneath every stone. Under a sky choked out by an iron grey thunderhead, forty-five men with the new United States Regular Army stormed a palatial ruin; the abandoned estate of the runaway hero Alexander Amberson (hence called the Spaceman for the remainder of the story). Long ago invaded by creeping thirst vines and other critters, it was a daunting Queen Anne mansion longing for a buyer, yet finding none. Its hilly Ozark surroundings held a myriad of beauty and danger, of newly grown green leaves tinted blue and maroon.
The house possessed too many horror stories before the occupation.
The soldiers moved like ants to the command of an unseen queen, destroying the remains of the front yard as they marched. Away went the rotted stage where the Spaceman displayed a thespian flare in his youth. Down went several Grecian porticoes which lined the soaked gravel walkway towards the manor. Crashing and falling and destruction were the order of the day. After all, paranormals were deemed to be something akin to a demonic cult, and the Army, under Jacob Hurd Smith, took the Spaceman’s sanctuary to be a modern Baal temple to be thrown down.
It is a wonder, then, that the falsely accused ‘Pins’ continued to hideaway (paranormals caught often had their paperwork stamped ‘P/N’, hence the moniker). Surely they heard the rancor outside. With a chaotic swiftness common to invasions, the soldiers opened the black double doors, and immediately entered every room. They found nothing but cracked windows and mildewed curtains.
“Out to the rear,” their leader commanded.
Sergeant Leopold Powell watched from the door in fevered impatience. He was a bulldog for certain, short in stature, though atmospheric in his singular pursuits. He scratched his bulbous nose, and motioned his dogs out the rear of the domicile, where the thirst vines awaited. Truly the military had to be men obsessed in those days, to tackle uncountable beings that we (with our own enhanced talents) were terrified of ourselves!
However, men of cunning and greed should never be underestimated, for in their minds, scheming is a constant. Powell had brought along the finest in explosive ordnance, courtesy of the conniving Mister Carver. The vines slithered their way in the backyard turned lagoon, starving for living energy. They instead feasted on thirty rounds of high explosive. For a time, it seemed as if the lightning of the day’s storm had ruptured from the ground, and towards the sky, instead of the usual fashion.
Army soldiers arose from their cover behind dusty furniture, to find the back of the estate had now become a deep hole of blackened mud, already filling with torrential rainfall. The first of the Frontier’s obstacles had been laid to waste.
Powell ran at full gallop outside, carefully sidestepping the crater. The men made their way to the southwest of the land, where sat the highly understated gazebo. The Amberson family, long on wealth and eccentricities, constructed a gazebo like no other. Built to hold orchestras for private parties, it was fully enclosed with redwood panels, adorned in images of infantine cherubs and iron roses. It retained for years the title of being simultaneously astounding and morose.
Sixteen men in navy blue uniforms entered, while the remainder circled. Still, they found nothing. Out the back, they again found a series of personal chambers, supposedly changing rooms for outdoor excursions, each aligning yet another row of porticoes and columns.
Each door was kicked in, every chamber flipped over of its tattered furnishings to find their quarry. Again, the violence uncovered no one. The sergeant panted with anticipation and irritation. He stepped for a time into a space between the middle chambers, a square absence about thirty feet by thirty. Rain fell across his wide-brimmed hat as he took to thought. Men weary from constant hunts took a knee and waited.
Powell gazed into puddles of brown, before turning sharply out of the open air. He looked at the end of the porticoes, a dead end with a circle of bricks dressed in blue-green weeds.
“Gentlemen, does that look like an old well to you?” the sergeant’s staccato voice barked.
They at once ran to it, and disassembled it like eager children, which the ranks of young soldiers are oft comprised. Bricks were knocked out of place by soaking wet rifle butts, until at last a circular door was found. Powell and his men smiled, for the door was new, a recent construct of hastily nailed planks.
One lift of the door, and the prize stood revealed! The terrible anarchists who threatened the Rail and all of southwestern Missouri, if not the nation!
At the well’s bottom, shivering, were two paranormal boys and their tiny sister.
Attired more in ice water than in their muddy rags, they looked up at the men, but rain stole their clarity of sight. They shivered madly.
“H-Hello?” the oldest boy, later identified as Timothy Wark, whispered out. “Are you friendly?”
“Are you paranormals?” the sergeant’s voice boomed. The tiny girl, Sarah Lee, trembled and soon cried. The question by then had gained infamy for preceding one’s end.
It was as if they had aged in an instant at the sound of their pursuer’s voice. Three little heads hung down. Sarah Lee clutched her eldest brother’s shirt.
One of the men whispered to his superior, “Sergeant, they got fiery yellow eyes! They’re the right ones, alright!”
Sergeant Powell raised a hand, and took five steps back from the well’s precipice. He declared the children guilty of anarchy, sedition and murder. Every charge was as false as the steel in the sergeant’s artificial left arm.
The soldiers raised rifles, some the dreaded rocket revolvers, and aimed them into the pit. Black smoke rose as hard rain fell.
Tragic fire ushered those children away from the world.
On that same day, a paranormal anarchist known to the public only as Mortar stormed the Federal arsenal in Indianapolis, Indiana. Hurting no one severely, and killing not one soul, he stole arms and ammunition for his unseen militia.
The bounty on his head doubled. Signs were posted all across the remainder of the American West for this man, with an artist’s rendering of a completely shadowed face bearing menacing eyes under the broad hat of an Asian rice picker. The sign bore only five words:
DEAD OR ALIVE
On that day, the chase began.
The Huntress in Hazel
The cold dreariness of April gave way to a windy May. Everywhere the military made its presence known around Railroad City, Missouri. Paranormals of every age were given a strict curfew of sunset. People without powers, or talents as they say, went about generally unmolested. The deaths of the three Wark children made the paper only in a pittance column on page five, a random notice about the removal of ‘further anarch sects’ from the metropolis.
It was at this point that I entered the tale, and I declare again with regret that I no longer am that person. I recall the scene too vividly.
Twenty-two years old was I then, well dressed in a fine white pointed bodice and trimmed skirt of cashmere, its second drapery embroidered in butterfly patterns. I adored corsages at the time, and a pointed one colored carnation rested along my left wrist. I accented my exceptionally curly black hair with a straw bonnet, its front sporting a carnation flower and eggshell ribbon. I was a proud woman of Welsh and Mexican breed, haughty to no end, and feeling very much atop the world. I was proud then to declare that white women often asked me how my skin possessed such a smooth bronze coloration.
Of course they were jealous.
Unlike most women, I found myself, due to the perils of occupation, in a garbage infested alley in the district of Jefferson, the city’s business epicenter. Two large males, Navy aerial sailors, flanked my sides. They were in effect my lackeys, as I saw it. Before us a middle-aged man, cowering from previous blows.
I titled myself the Huntress in Hazel, for my blue eyes encircled in that radiant shade of green. I willingly sold my services to the military at first opportunity, for I saw no advancement for myself in any other field. They gladly accepted due to my peculiar talent for seeing paranormal traits in others, a handy ability to have for a hunter.
This man in particular was Willard Harris, a highly mediocre shopkeeper. This venture went as others prior.
After standing up, Mister Harris looked down the alley, agonizing mentally as passersby watched his suffering, yet offered no aide. My talent allowed me to see his brain, its electrical flow, even the hazy thin blue line of negatrite, that alien element that granted powers to ten percent of the resident fauna.
“I hate you people!” he spat, thick blood coagulating along his lower lip.
“Should we care?” I asked with flair, and held back my boys from pummeling the man again. A single hand wave controlled them. I wiped a single speck of blood from my aquiline nose, and grew angry. My face and lace glove had been tainted.
He possessed very little talent, my own eyes saw but an immature ability to sense at an extended distance (my assumption at the time was a superior olfactory sense). But no matter, for he spoke against the takeover and that was treason.
“Willard Harris, you have a very loose tongue, sir. I see fists are not enough to tighten it.”
“Leave me alone woman! You’ve got the Blue like me. What do you think they’ll do after they kill me an’ everyone else, huh? You think they’ll let you live on?”
“Of course,” I answered him, even stepping boldly into his face. “I have value, superior value to the cause. You are … inferior and unusable.” It was then that I smiled and slowly backed away.
He lunged, fists flying and tongue lashing out every word against my race and gender his mind could conceive. It was then I allowed my brutes to finish their work. Easily I could have rendered Harris immobile with another talent I possess, but that one pains me. It was more prudent to utilize the hands at my disposal.
Willard Harris expired at 10:45 that morning; cause of death listed as suicide. The process was terrifyingly simple when one considers the coroner was not allowed to examine bodies under military control. There were nineteen kicks and seventy-seven blows sent to his person, and I witnessed every one with a sensation of power and excitement.
“Bravo, Miss Astin! The Huntress in Hazel succeeds once more!” said a voice from the alley’s entrance, accompanied by slow hand clapping. The man was Sergeant Powell, crisp and erect in uniform. He approached us with a rapid pace, the speed of which told me he was again on his own hunt.
For all intents and purposes, he was my manager. Our arrangement had been simple. I hunt alone and subdue. He hunts groups of anarchists with soldiers. On odd occasions, he would summon me for more subtle cases.
“Lovely weather isn’t it?” he asked. When not in command, Powell spoke with a high nasal voice, an annoying din to be sure. Like a caring father, he wiped a smudge of blood from beneath my curvaceous lower lip.
“Perfect for pursuit,” I added.
He folded his hands behind his back and looked down on the corpse of Harris. “Who is this, some rabblerousing tyrant?”
“He was,” one sailor spoke. A mother’s eye from me lowered his eyes back to sub ordinance.
The sergeant paid my man no heed. “Awful mess of things these anarchists are making of the nation. Have you heard about the Chicago bombing?”
I told him yes.
“No one wants to admit the severity, the magnitude, of the conspiracy,” he added coldly. “No, none realize that we operate in the heart of the crisis, which is what brings me to you this fine day.”
The thought of another chase thrilled me to no end. “Is that so?” I asked. “Are we after men, or children?”
Powell glanced at me as if he perceived weakness. I saw through him with my talent, electrical impulses and steady blood flow, a series of small black growths along the left lung I kept to myself.
“Do you find catching children disagreeable, Huntress?” he inquired with squinting eyes and a wrinkling of his hearty brown moustache.
“Criminals are criminals; I simply loathe the crying and begging sort.” We then engaged in a staring match. But the sergeant’s nature was understandable, for mine was identical. We were aggressive, self-motivated and highly suspicious individuals.
Sergeant Powell removed himself from the game, and made a gesture for us to depart from the alley. After instructing my sailors to haul Harris’ body to the nearest camp, I strode onto the corner of Republic and Labor, arm-to-arm with my superior. At the time, I felt we made the supreme couple of man and woman anywhere in the world.
Here I took time to admire the buildings of the Jefferson District’s southern end, where Americana meets modernity. That particular corner hosted the outdoor comfort of the Fragrant Cup Coffeehouse, with its purple overhanging drapery. It sat on the ground floor of a brick Federal building, five stories high, filled with law offices and aspiring artists. It was a beautiful neighborhood.
We had needed to remove two of those artists a month earlier, for possessing the power to bend metal at a whim.
Across the street rose a nine-story mammoth of dark stone and odd form. The Vesuvius Building, so named by the public because its architect made a style whereby each floor became smaller as the building went up. The effect created a building that appeared swollen at its base, and conical in its entirety. At first, the builder could find no one to occupy its bizarre interior, until the curious Amberson family bought it. It is now the Vesuvius Hotel.
We began to bump into the lunchtime crowd, so my sightseeing came to an end.
“Interesting building,” Powell stated, “and that we cross an Amberson site here, as they are indirectly the subject of your next assignment.”
“Hmm, now I may contend with the city’s wealthiest and most powerful family?” I asked with anticipation.
“Watch thy step,” he chastised. “We have the might, but the Amberson’s possess the mind of the Railroad City. I need your talented vision first on this matter, and your claws last.”
“Yes Father,” I joked. He managed a false smile while securing his broad hat against an oncoming wind. “Now in what way could my perception be of use?”
He looked out at the city as if every face and structure were his personal foe. “Last month we invaded the abandoned estate of the Runaway.”
“You mean the Spaceman, Alexander Amberson?” I asked as if completely ignorant. It works well for a woman to allow a man’s ego to inflate. “He left during the invasion with his Lunite bride, to lead her people to some other world far away.”
“Yes, Spaceman and BH’kheya of Luna,” he added with a sour tone. “I would have loved wrapping my hands around her blue throat. Their negatrite started this entire catastrophe in ’77.”
“On that we agree,” I said with mixed feelings. After all, negatrite exploding by accident from the failed oil well of Edwin Seer made me who I am. What would I be without the Blue? I would be a common woman. The thought froze me to the core.
The sergeant hailed a carriage, a mean looking old man in a wet Inverness coat halted his horses immediately. We stepped inside its quilted cab, and the driver hurried off.
“Victoria Heights!” Powell yelled. “Anyway, we took down some young vandals out there, but afterward one of my men found a series of tunnels, highly suspect. But the matron of the clan, Margery Amberson, forbids any further intrusions on her lands.”
“You want me to persuade her,” I asked.
“No, I’d like very much for you to find out who has been going in the tunnels, without entering them.”
I blinked hard several times.
“Is this not possible with your talent for seeing through all things?” he asked, again with that suspicious tone and wrinkled moustache.
“My talent allows me to see into living beings, not places or the past,” I answered softly. Admitting to a lack of power filled me with insecurity, an emotion I desperately fought to avoid. I toyed with my corsage.
Powell wiggled in his seat, and produced a long-stem pipe which he lit and tried in vain to enjoy. “Then how do we go about it? Our orders are broad, with only one mandate to not upset the barons of the city.” He trailed off into mumbling. I could see electrical signals firing off rapidly in his mind, and his heart throbbing.
“Driver!” I screamed out of the window. “Turn about! Take us to Catton College first!”
The sergeant was extremely displeased. “What kind of game are you into now, Miss Astin?”
I had to smile, and laugh at his dull mind and my sharp thinking. It made his wrinkled face sag even further.
“You desire someone to see into darkness without entering it, yes? In my search to root out paranormal aversions, I have come across just such a one. He is recently out of jail, and returned to his duties as a history professor.”
Powell could have died of a heart attack right then, of that I’m certain. He almost fell off of the seat as the carriage bumped up and down Totten Street. I stifled a laugh.
“What in tarnation would I ever want with a college professor?” he asked with dread.
For those who have never walked down its broad corridors, or paced the sidewalks with its still functioning gaslights, Catton College is a central figure in the city’s struggle for legitimacy as a bastion of education. Built of marble, shaped rather like the nation’s Capitol and bearing a glass dome in a copper frame, a flourish soon copied by many a building across the Rail, it houses a varied assortment of highly enlightening courses, none of which interested me. I cannot even begin to detail every glass-domed greenhouse we have. The designers were the Catton family, who laid out most of the city’s streets and railroads, and every one of their ideas was grandiose.
Our black, two-wheeled carriage entered the college’s open wrought iron gates sixteen feet in height. This was truly my favorite locale, for their gardeners’ degrees of skill were extraordinary. The entire road to Fundamental Hall, the main structure, was adorned in golden forsythia, scarlet roses and baby’s breath. Here, the air took on a magnificent quality, quite different from the mechanical flavor of the Rail’s other neighborhoods.
The angry driver stopped suddenly before the Hall’s main doors. We exited, the sergeant’s uniform nearly inciting a riot of terror in passing students. I found it amusing. One student opened the door for us, while the secretary inside, Penelope Werth, immediately took leave from her typewriter to assist us. She had every reason to tremble, for I had visited the college many times to interrogate its paranormal population. She was one such suspect, a lower level talent to see in the dark. She sweat profusely for such a delicate and mildly gorgeous woman.
“Madame Astin!” she decried. “Is this another inspection? Oh! Sergeant Powell! I –I…”
“Where may we find Professor Epsom?’ I asked, ignoring her choking.
Miss Werth seemed positively transparent. “Epsom? Oh. Oh! Yes, he is in Mister Catton’s museum with his class today. It’s straight ahead and on the left.”
I nodded in approval and continued on my way, while Penelope fainted into her chair. I focused on the echo of my clicking shoes down the hallway. The college’s high ceiling made for lovely reverberations, and the sergeant and I even took time to admire the fresco over our heads. It is a very colorful image of working men, slaving away to build the four railways which turned the Rail from a feeble zinc mine into a transportation mecca. Our city is the pride of southwestern Missouri, an eclectic mire of industrial might and hillbilly resilience.
At the left, we found our man, the door to the museum propped open with an ivory figurine of an elephant. In the center of this spacious chamber, past its glass containers of Indian artifacts stood a tall man with platinum hair, black eyebrows and black eyes. Apparently his method of hair combing was to place a hat on his head. He had a prodigious head at that, pale complexion and strangely attractive features for such a strong face. He gesticulated wildly with one huge hand, the right one a steel prosthetic mingled with brass. As at every time in our previous meetings, the man wore the same brown waistcoat over a white suit and ugly plaid vest, accented with a white cravat. He would at times lean on a cane with a dog’s head of silver, each day a different dog, the only piece of attire to alter.
As he yelled to his very interested students, Professor Flag Banner Epsom turned our way. He curtsied, smiled in a cocky way, and began his typical retort.
“Ah my students, if we don’t have the exquisite pleasure of the cutthroats, aye mean, the crusaders of our fair city’s current impoverishment! Welcome Madame Astin, aye see yew have brought your dog with yew today.” He then winked at me.
The twenty or so students tried with all their collective might to stifle their laughter, for fear of reprisal. I saw without fail that one sixth of their number were paranormals. The thought of ordering a firing squad did cross my mind, but the mission took precedence.
“This is the man?” asked the again suspicious Powell. He looked Epsom up and down as if he were a private standing at attention with his uniform disheveled.
The professor apparently could not help himself. “Yes, this is the man, though for what I have no idea, nor do aye care.” He spoke with an almost acidic Scottish accent, with foul, hard letter ‘c’ and the letter ‘r’ rolled like in Mexican Spanish, but with a canine ferocity. If not for his talent, and the man’s professional capabilities, he would have been shot dead two years ago.
Powell leapt into action, causing the students to flee behind museum cases. “Now see here, you undisciplined Pinhead! I have a need for your talent, and only because this woman deems it necessary. You will comply, Professor, or so help me I will finish you with my own two hands!” He raised up his own steel prosthesis, as if to add a bite to his bark.
“My my my,” Flag said, looking down at the sergeant. The professor’s eyes became completely black, the sign his talent was being put to use. “Yew certainly cried a lot as a lad.”
I did not think Powell’s face could have turned a darker shade of red, but I was wrong.
“What are you talking about?” he ordered.
At this point I stepped between the two men, to add subtlety and pathos into their storm of ego. “Sergeant, I believe you should be informed first, before you make any rash moves. The professor is gifted with a rare insight, something the old Guild of Honor termed ‘chronoscopic vision’. He may view the time of a person or place in reverse. Do you understand?”
Powell considered my explanation. The trouble with the occupation was that so often soldiers were ordered to kill paranormals, and not comprehend their talents. It was a sad state of affairs, for many dead persons could have been of considerable use to our cause. One must fight fire with fire.
“I see,” the sergeant mumbled. “So what you said…”
“The past cannae lie,” said Epsom. “Maybe yew would have gotten the information, if yew and you’re boyos hadnae killed off the Guild, Sam Stockwell and even poor Edwin Seer the year before.” He winked again, this time at Powell, before tightening his face with anger.
“We had no direct connection with the death of the man who found negatrite!” Powell yelled. “However, his discovery has been the bane of the nation ever since…”
Flag turned to his students, again waving his real left and false right arm. “Ah-hah! An admission! If only this were a court of law! Imagine the scandal! Do yew see, students? First Manifest Destiny seeks to make a bloody mess of the native population. But when the Tribes rose up in their giant tinkertoys and reclaimed the West, where was the poor white overseer to go? First he uses cloudcraft to overrun the Caribbean and Pacific, making new states with whip cracker politicians from the mainland to keep the darker populace under foot. But was that enough? ‘Never may that be’ says the overseer! So, he came to the Rail, to hogtie the paranormal masses!” He took a brief second to exhale and grin.
“Now that aye have that off me chest, what is it yew want with me this time?”
Powell, redder than the ripest apple, fought to remain stable. “What does he mean ‘this time’?”
“In several times past, the previous police department- -” I failed to clarify.
“The department yew dolts did away with?” Epsom interrupted with the wag of his steel index finger my way. I growled at his gesture, but the insolent man continued on. “Sergeant, have yew never heard tell of the murder on the U.S.C Wasp in the Arctic Circle? The Unsafe Occupant?”
Leopold Powell held his breath as if a spoiled child, waiting to get his way.
“As I was saying,” I continued after giving the professor my mother’s eye, “The police made excellent use of Professor Epsom’s vision to solve many of the more unnatural occurrences the Rail is often afflicted with. To that end, he will prove useful in seeing who has entered and exited the tunnels at the old Amberson estate.”
“Oh, is that right lass?” Epsom asked. He walked over to a chair in a dark corner, placing a battered and patched top hat on his head. It was very old and very much out of style, with a slight crooked lean. “Well, ‘tis doubtful aye have an option to say no, so we may as well get on with it.”
Powell was not satisfied. “That’s it? Now you just as easily go with us?”
Flag dared enter into the man’s personal space. “My good sergeant, yew and you’re clan jailed me for nigh two years. Aye only got a release two months back. Did yew think aye’d let yew have it without a spot of trouble? But aye see aye was mistaken.”
The sergeant was reluctant to ask. “How so?”
“Yew cry a lot to this very day.”
Epsom ran fast on long legs, aided by the fact that the left one was also a steam-heart powered prosthetic as well. Powell missed in his attempt to strike the professor on the jaw. I could but shake my head, and glance at students who still possessed erratic heartbeats and imperious amounts of excitement. I hung my head in a rare bit of shame, and exited as Epsom yelled down the hallway.
“Class is dismissed!”
The carriage and its sour driver were forced to make three stops along the way to Victoria Heights, the expanse of mansions across Lake Canterra. The first was to my flat on Longo Street, to acquire my emerald shawl to address a sudden chill in the air, along with slipping a tiny spur trigger pistol into my purse. My apartment is a lovely place crowned in comfort, but I am rarely there, as duty calls often.
Our second stop was to Professor Epsom’s home in the comfortable district of Lakeside, where the finest homes of every form of architecture abound. Epsom had occupied Sundial House since the demise of his dearest friend, Edwin Bedford Seer and his wife. It was a charming cottage enveloped in ivy and modeled after the German style. Never have I seen such lush grass and healthy shrubbery. Of course, I went inside with the professor, to ensure he did not obtain any weaponry. He never did, only snatching a pocket watch here, a telescope there, and hastily grabbing a leather shoulder bag full of knickknacks and dried beef in a jar.
Before finally going around the lake to our destination, Sergeant Powell bid us to go to the imposing towers and thirty-foot walls of New Fort Wexler, at the city’s north end and quite out of our direction. He did this to acquire Mister Epsom’s file, a bulky, leather bound book stuffed with random papers and years-old clippings from periodicals. Continuing on, I observed that with every page Powell read his expression went from abject disdain, to one of quiet admiration. Having never read it, I decided then that I must acquire it in the near future.
With the turn of every page, my eyes could see the rising tide of dislike inside of Powell for our abducted investigator.
Flag never looked our way, only staring out the window at the passing city. The high architecture and large yards of Lakeside, the covered bridges over Settler’s Stream leading into the choked alleys and walled-off ethnic neighborhoods of Lower Lakeside. He sighed as we rode past the lake and its placid waters dotted with the white boats and hovering steamships of the rich. Those long yachts of polished copper and steel imparted many a deep shadow over the waters, while poor men below slaved hard to catch fish both typical and unreal.
“Are you enticed by a new case?” I asked the professor, breaking the silence. “I understand that, over the years, you became very capable at solving mysteries, if not even intrigued by them, and why people perform such insipid acts.”
He smiled, but still would not look my way. I found it oddly unsettling.
“Why is a troublesome and seductive word.” This was his only comment.
The answer gave me pause, for why never really troubled me. Only what someone did or would not do gave my person fits of restlessness, when I allowed it. Here seemed a man intent on not only observing what occurred before, but the motivation itself for every action kept him in a state of fixation. Having spent a lifetime like all women observing the male species, I found him outwardly to be crass, bestial and unkempt. In other words, he was fairly average, even with the soft pumping of a steamdrive on his back beneath the clothing and two artificial limbs.
I had a feeling that his mind, however, was a sensational puzzle, one which he was wise not to share, lest someone take a piece.
A single road of clamshell runs along the lake’s southern edge to allow one access to the Heights. Here the wealthy set themselves atop various stunted hills to live away from the city they have been obsessed with making their own. It has been the bone of contention, though the lower strata of society have yet to usurp their master’s many thrones.
Another twenty minutes of unending bumping brought us to the portico-enriched quagmire of the Spaceman’s manor. The rain and cold of April seemed to further decay the yard, for it had sunken into a series of pools, no doubt aided by the sergeant’s bombing campaign. Porticoes lay all about in various degrees of ruination. Frogs, I believe they were of the paranormal rainbow variety, floated in these ponds, singing songs that remarkably imitated those of birds.
Out here in the country, the wind gathered more force and more frigidity. Powell in his wool coat was well equipped, and now stood confident having read Epsom’s file. My shawl proved to be unfit for the day, and I shivered. Flag Epsom took off his own waistcoat and gave it to me without looking at me, a debonair move, though somewhat done with dislike across his face. He cracked his neck, and with that powerful steam leg walked fully ahead.
“Let’s get this affair ended, as aye’ve another class in the morning,” he added coldly.
“Yes,” snipped Powell, “by all means, lead the way. The tunnels I need you to investigate are to the rear of the property.”
Flag marched much as those young soldiers had a month before, with a determined pace I enjoyed. It was indeed an effort to keep up with this man whose body was half machine, though it again gave my talent some work in trying to discern where the signals of his biology ended, and those of Simon Stockwell’s engineering began. The youngest of dead Samuel’s sons continued improving on their father’s technological brilliance.
We avoided entering the mansion altogether, favoring rounding it toward the rear. Powell made some brief remark about walking through the secondary porticoes of dressing chambers to reach the tunnels, a statement that made Flag walk all the faster.
I had never been to this particular place, and walked about scanning it for any signs of paranormal animals, or critters, that may leap out at us. My missions had confined my travels to the city proper. The countryside was awash with beasts, as the Heights trailed off into the Frontier, the heavily mutated forest to the south and west. The wealthy once hired paranormal guardians to safeguard their property, but this place offered no such protection in its decline.
I attempted to imagine what it must have been like then. The Spaceman, with his handsome dark features painted in scars turning all black to battle whatever wicked force rose that day. His bride from the Moon, called Ore in the press, wearing spiked armor of which every atom she could control with her mind, rising to fight by his side. She still ranks as the main reason a host of women took to more liberated lifestyles and self defense. The Seer-Kelso Act of 1879 granted suffrage, but BH’kheya of Luna gave us the inspiration to live free.
The current climate did not allow me to admit my admiration for her, or the other women of the posthumous Guild. But had she remained on Earth, I would have cut her down all the same.
The sergeant and I at last rounded the gazebo and entered the chambers, when we found Professor Epsom standing in the center of the blank space, where no chamber resided. My visual talent shifted upon seeing him then, as I perceived wide white bands emanating from his eyes in spiraled cones. It was evident that the man had already put his chronoscopic vision to use, but we were yards from the tunnels.
“Professor,” said Powell, “why are you in this mud hole? I stood here last month while contemplating my next move. It’s naught but mud and worms. There is absolutely nothing of value here anymore. The tunnel is farther along…”
“Shh!” was all he received from Epsom. It became apparent to the sergeant that the man could hear into the past as well. I wondered how one could discern conversation in reverse, if conversation was what he was hearing.
“Why have his eyes become completely black?” Powell whispered my way. He seemed genuinely uncomfortable around this new paranormal.
“His talent is in use. With some of us there is a minor or major physical alteration, often a dead giveaway,” I answered proudly. But I could not help but use my own power to see what else was in Flag’s form. An elevated heart rate, outrageous flows of body chemicals and electrical impulses. His brain activity blanked out his head in my sight, so that he appeared to be a walking candle, with white fire above the neckline. It was an unbelievable sight.
“We made use of his abilities three times during his incarceration, to flush out some particularly wicked vandals. He protested many a time, but had no choice.”
Thirty-three minutes of unnerving silence ended as Epsom walked backward out of the muddy space. He gasped and moaned as if a loved one had died before him.
“Epsom! This is not the place I have you here for! What about the tunnels and the anarchists?” Powell yelled.
We only received one phrase from the professor’s stunned lips.
“A triple murder.”
“What did you say?” I asked him, startled out of my observations. “Did you say a triple murder occurred here, in that space? When? Was it recent?” Now my hunting persona had taken over.
“Are you two deaf?” asked the sergeant. “You are assigned here only to uncover the tunnels and find the enemy! This situation is irrelevant!”
“My goodness!” Epsom snapped, finally coming out of his delirium. “Tunnels this and anarchy that! Aye already looked back on those while walking here. Only children and storms have passed this way or any other. Go ahead! Get your boyos and go shoot down the next generation, while we solve a tried and true crime!”
I attempted to address the sergeant where Epsom had faltered. “Sergeant, maybe we should look into this. His insight is never wrong.”
Powell fumed like a train at high speed. “Madame Astin, I believe this is the first time that you have …failed me.”
My heart sank deep down to my toes. Failure was my greatest fear. But while I cringed, Flag Epsom guffawed like a petulant boy.
“Oh that’s rich, sergeant. Hit the lass with guilt to get your way. Yew conniving cuss. Now, can we think for a wee bit about where the chamber went off to?”
The question made us both forget the sergeant’s accusation. “Chamber?” we asked almost in unison.
“There is no missing chamber,” I stated, “only an empty space, perhaps to let light in.”
“Sometimes these talents do not function to their fullest always, as when even the best pistol jams, or faults occur in even the most skilled people,” Powell said, looking my way. His stare inspired me to internal rage.
Epsom leaned on his dog cane, and laughed again before regaining his morose posture.
“Aye am telling yew both, as clearly as aye stand here, a chamber with velvet curtains and black Hepplewhite grandfather clock stood in this spot. Its brown sofa stained red with the blood of three young persons, Ambersons for certain. The murderer wore a mask, a green sack with black eyeholes. In each hand, he held a dagger. Such a sight! Check with the family, see if anyone is missing.”
We were nonetheless stupefied by his account. My own talents revealed the professor told no lie. He truly believed in what he saw. For the first time since childhood, I felt actual terror.
Powell paced the walkway with heavy breath. “So then, only children came by?” He made no remark of the murders.
“Aye,” Epsom sighed.
The sergeant and I engaged in a conversation without words. His eyes clearly showed doubt, mine fear and awe.
The professor returned to the space, and reached out with his hands as if caressing the past, attempting to garner a tangible sensation of the crime.
“ ‘For your sins’, he said,” Flag mumbled. “He killed them while they were out of sorts, something about their sins.”
“In what way were they out of sorts?” I asked. Now I began to lean towards excitement. It was a strange admixture of feeling. My mind feared a killer about, and killers often strike women. I loathe a sneak, and prefer direct attack. However, I also fear a sneak, for one could lunge out from any corner. But I also became fascinated with Professor Epsom, his talent, and his tenacity, though I would never tell him so.
“Sergeant, take me to the nearest opium den!” Epsom ordered, and again bounded off on his superior mechanical leg back to the carriage. Powell’s foul-mouthed protests went unheeded.
What I relate here is the account Flag Epsom gave on the carriage ride back into town. He explained chronoscopic vision as a reversal of sight, beholding what occurred instead of what is unfolding in the here and now. As such, events move backward, and he has had several years of reading this peculiar language. Concentration can speed up, or slow down, the events in view while instilling him with migraines.
The professor proclaims whiskey to be the best antidote for said migraines. The remedy is an odd one in the age of a strict prohibition against liquor, at least in public spaces.
So I write them beginning with the gruesome scene, and work backward. Since the room possessed a clock, it provided an ample temporal reference for when each action took place. Needless to say, Sergeant Powell found the tale revolting, and still totally unbelievable. He murmured that Epsom was simply grandstanding to avoid military duty, even sighting the outrageous imaginations of the Scots and Irish as some form of evidence.
10:45 PM. Blinding red and white light pulverizes his sight at first. But then, Epsom could view the chamber outside to a degree, and so was aware of the night sky. Inside this particular chamber is more than a dressing suite. Velvet curtains hang all about, overlapping one another and dragging across a plush crimson carpet. There is the brown sofa, on which lay the slumped bodies of a petite female with blonde hair, and a man in an expensive tan suit. To their right are two mattresses, with the third body, a powerful man dressed down to his skivvies lay with his face completely ruined by stabbings. Pipes are all about, as well as a short table holding absinthe, whiskey and any assortment of unlabeled medications.
Standing behind the sofa is the ‘Green Bag Man’ as Epsom called him. He is short but muscular, wearing a buttoned gray frocked waistcoat and rubber gloves. Both of his daggers are wet with blood. He stands heaving, tired from his dark labors. Here he says, ‘For your sins’. Suddenly, in a cloud of black smoke, the chamber and all involved are gone!
10:41-10:31 PM. Green Bag Man is stabbing the couple on the sofa in reverse, daggers going in and out. Neither resists, nor protests. The man on the bed is lying alive and peaceful (Flag having spared us the details of his demise between 10:41 and 10:43). It is an extremely unnerving narrative. It is the couple who receive the most blows, however, forty-six for the man, and ninety-one for the small lady. Epsom recounted in macabre fashion how the blood matched the décor. My stomach turned.
10:30 PM. The man on the bed is still in slumber, the lady is laid back on the sofa, gazing with half-open eyes at the ceiling and its queer mirror-within-a-mirror overlay. The well-dressed man is youthful and very handsome, a model of male beauty, and taking long, wistful puffs on what appears to be an antique Indian peace pipe adorned with eagle feathers. It is here that Green Bag Man enters through the black door, with a key to the chamber, slowly like a prowling tiger. He hunches behind the sofa, and watches the man smoke himself into a stupor.
10:14 PM. The man on the bed is conscious here, just now smoking the pipe Flag said must be opium. The couple sits and kisses one another passionately while he watches. Just before this moment, in the middle of the fourteenth minute, the man on the sofa had mixed some medicinal into the opium, though of what types are uncertain.
10:06 PM: the man who will lie on the bed arrives, fully dressed as a man about town. He smiles at the couple, passionately kisses the other man’s wife, with her man’s smiling approval, and begins to undress. The well-dressed man mixes a concoction of powders into a crystal glass, and downs it with a bit of whiskey. His woman does the same, but uses more powders.
10:00 PM. The couple arrives, but they enter with a key as a couple in disarray. Both are fuming mad and yelling. Epsom declared it was all about some agreement to ‘share all, experience all’. The man has two different shades of lipstick on his collar. He quickly takes a hard shot of absinthe, and encourages her to do the same. They suck on cubes of sugar like playful children.
Epsom claimed he watched back over the course of months in those thirty minutes, viewing those three and three others in that chamber on the second day of each month. So he placed the murder on April the second, three days before the Army stormed the manor. However, every passing half hour made the window into yesterday more indistinct. Epsom claimed he had never encountered this form of disruption before. It severely hampered his ability to see the origin of this secret gathering. He described streaks of red and white from 10:45 PM, growing worse the farther back he went. Before the second of April, faces of other people who came and went were blotted. Neither one of us could account for the disturbance. Powell did not care one bit.