The Case of the Clockwork Dragon in the Crescent City by Rachel A. Brune
The Case of the Clockwork Dragon in the Crescent City by Rachel A. Brune
Something muttered under the city, a great sleeping beast, aching to stretch its claws yet again. It tainted the seasonal insanity with a dour, heavy note of despair. It wasn’t simply the low-slung clouds that brought a chill to the streets, dampening the spirits of the revelers, but a whispering shroud that slithered around the steeples of the cathedral on the square.
Detective Mignon Boudreaux grumbled a deeply profane and heartfelt curse as the skies opened above them, yet again. She stepped back to allow a woman and her chaperone to pass, her hand dropping to the weapon at her hip. Force of long-time habit.
The two women bustled quickly, hands busy with parasols, collars, purse and gloves in a vain attempt to preserve modesty while keeping the hems of their expensive dresses from the damp of the streets. A vain attempt, and a curious one. Like two black crows in a city so fond of its revels.
“You see any sign of this Yank we supposed to meet?” Detective Boudreaux scratched at her forehead. Her felt hat slouched on her brow, sagging under the weight of her old Naviator’s goggles strapped around the brim.
“Should be here before long,” Sergeant Woodson said, and subsided back into stoic silence.
Boudreaux straightened and stretched, rolling her neck until the bones in her neck cracked deliciously. She rubbed her shoulder, fingers gently brushing against the last coarse stitches of the fading scar that marked her collarbone.
The rain fell harder, pooling on the heavy wool of Woodson’s old Army greatcoat. He folded his arms, hunching in on himself, still standing almost a full head above the crowd.
“You think he gon’ recognize us, frère?” Boudreaux added a little extra flavor into her normally light accent.
He didn’t quite smile, but nodded, acknowledging the jest. They were not exactly inconspicuous, the two officers, one tall and dark-skinned, the other an equally tall woman dressed in uniform pants and leather jacket, prominent scar high on her cheekbone. They were rarely unremarked upon in a crowd.
“What exactly is this great and secret machine to what we’ve been sent to proffer safe escort?” Woodson asked.
Her shrug was more eloquent than her profanity. “Je ne sais pas, brother.” She tugged the sleeves of her jacket down. “Something that everybody trusts nobody else to look after, and so they’ve sent it to our damp city.”
The Turing Machine. The North had invented it, the South had stolen it, the Russians had tried to prevail upon their alliance to intrigue it away, and the North had finally won it back at the great cost of lives and airships. Even now, Detective Boudreaux did not know the great workings of the machine, she only knew the orders she had been willing to follow to fight to get it back.
Sergeant Woodson opened his mouth to reply, but stopped. The long wail of clarinets, almost in unison, signaled the approach of the first parade—and with it, Carnivale. It was Mardi Gras again in the uneasy streets of the Free City of New Orleans.
The pouring rain didn’t keep all the revelers away, but a good number of them had melted into the pubs that lined the street. The late afternoon gloom faded into a twilight gray, lit only sporadically as the gas guttered on in the streetlights.
Even the parade seemed half-hearted, the instruments squeaking and growling in the rain that drifted into a fine mist. The musicians stepped in ragged synchronization, wincing in tight leather boots that splashed through water ankle deep.
The crowd clapped politely, more out of obligation than any sense of appreciation. Those without a glass of warming whiskey in their hands looked like they might be considering finding one.
If not for her duty, Detective Boudreaux would be joining them in raising a toast to the season.
A knot of foreigners gathered on the opposite corner, men and women in gray wool pants, red shirtsleeves and curious fur hats topped with a red star. Their faces flushed even in the cold and damp, they passed a bottle of clear liquid fire, not bothering with a glass. Russians from the small garrison at the Port.
Boudreaux was discomfited to see that one of the shorter Russians, with a pugnacious physique like the trains his countrymen were known for, had an immense, multi-barreled weapon slung on his back. New Orleans was a Neutral city, but the garrison and the police had their special dispensations. It made life interesting at times.
The conversation from the little group grew louder, more boisterous, threatening to drown the sorry squawking from the passing instrumentalists. The folk standing nearest them on the street edged away, sensing something under the raucous tones.
Some long-dormant feeling prickled along the crest of Boudreaux’s spine, and she rested her thumb against the peace-strap that secured the weapon on her hip.
“You think what they might be here for something more than the evening’s festivities?” Woodson muttered quietly.
“Might be something.” Boudreaux shrugged. “Might not.”
“O bozhe moi!” The drunken oath echoed across the street, and Boudreaux made up her mind that maybe she should step over there to break things up. Even before she turned, the street descended into abrupt silence as the crowd stared at the marvel making its pendulous way down the parade route.
The faceted eyes, glowing jewels that pierced multi-layered beams of color through twilight mist, blinked and rolled as the head swung heavily. Steam erupted from the yawning jaws. The heavy mist droplets collected in moist streaks, pooling along its clockwork flanks. The copper gaslight glow caught in the shallow prisms, reflecting back a hundred ever-changing sparks of light as the great beast stamped and raised, twitching its sinuous shape down the rough street.
With every other step, the serpent’s head reared up from its body, then darted down toward the crowd. Now over its initial shock, the desultory mass began a low murmur, still just enough in awe to refrain from outright revelry. Masterfully-fitted plating armored the sides of the neck, where the mechanical beast joined shoulders to powerful forelegs before tapering into a long, twisting but graceful sheathe of copper scales that protected the torso while still allowing full range of movement.
Tucked into the hollow where the neck met the shoulder joints, a red jewel pulsed sullenly, now filled by some strange hydraulics, now glowing with some burst of weird energy.
Detective Boudreaux shook herself, caught as rapt in the spell of the beast as the youngest child holding his guardian’s hand. “Mon dieu.”
“Never saw a sight like that what I wouldn’t have to pay six weeks’ flash fer,” Detective Woodson agreed.
“You savvy it—” The question dropped from her lips unfinished. The mechanical creature paused, reared and turned.
She felt the eye rest on her. Just for a moment, it seemed to smile. An invisible signal by its invisible handlers—and how did they manage to conceal themselves so craftily within? Fireworks erupted into the sky above the creation. The last sight was the tail of the beast disappearing around the corner of the wide street, engulfed in a cloud of multi-colored smoke and steam.
The crowd gasped, clapped, held hands and glasses in the air to show their appreciation, although a few small children showed their approval by bursting promptly into hot tears. Beneath the drunken glamour, some of them had been touched by the same uncanny reflections Boudreaux felt at the pit of her stomach.
A scream—this time no drunken utterance, but a howl of terror unmitigated by propriety. Boudreaux crouched, drawing her weapon. The crowd, still half-stunned by the sight of the great metal beast, unsure if the outcry was another uncanny part of the act, stared.
The shriek echoed again. Boudreaux was already running, all out sprinting, Woodson clipping her heels.
The sudden hush of shocked voices dampened the air around the alley, growing louder as the people surged around. Detective Boudreaux couldn’t see through the crowd, but waded straight into the sea of gentlemen in their frock coat finery, the women whose bustled skirts laid an obstacle course in her path. Some of the Russian soldiers had beat them there, and Detective Boudreau let them fight their way through, pulling people bodily back.
Boudreaux and Woodson emerged on the other side of the quickly-gathering crowd, whose edge stopped in tacit, mutual agreement in a semicircle around the entrance to the alleyway. Even the boisterous soldiers stopped short, their footsteps checked by the sudden savagery. A quiet word from Sergeant Woodson, and they formed a subdued line between the folk in the street and the murder that had come unwelcome to this carnival night.
“Chto sluchiilsya?” The Russian soldier was young, short but solidly built. Boudreaux recognized him—or rather, she recognized the weapon slung across his back. His voice held the slightest hint of slur, but his eyes were bright and alert. He stood in the line with his companions, but the forward thrust of his body showed an eagerness to step forward towards the detective.
“Ne pas s’avancer.” Boudreaux thrust her palm out to emphasize the command. The last thing she needed was some overeager half-drunk military expert stumbling his thick leather boots through the alley. She raised her voice to carry to the rest of the crowd. “Just stay where you are.”
Satisfied that he would remain where he belonged, Boudreaux drew her thoughts close and turned to face the scene.
As always, the smell was the first assault, a heady vapor of copper and muck. Underneath the first wave, a terrible hint of marsh and decay, a reminder that the western swamps were not so very far away.
The heavy mist gave way to a pouring rain, diluting the blood that spread in great, dark puddles across the cobblestones. The man lay sprawled on his face in the alley, his body torn in giant shreds and chunks, as if set upon by some ravenous beast.
Behind the officers, the crowd shifted, restless. Came whispers of the loup garou. But Boudreaux had seen bodies harried by animals, indigents at the shadow edges of town fallen prey to packs of dogs, most after death but some not so lucky. This body was too carefully disarranged.
Woodson had his notebook from his pocket, scribbling what Boudreaux knew to be precise, accurate minutiae regarding the placement of the body, the description of the wounds, and a sketch of the crowd for good measure in case the party responsible happened to be there for the show of his work.
From habit, she grasped for her bag, her empty hand evidence that she had come prepared for simple courier duty, not investigation of murder in a gloomy alley.
“Someone snuffed him, but good.” Woodson’s Yankee came out thick, an indication that he, too, was unprepared for the sight before them. “I can’t imagine but whosever cocked his gargler weren’t no ordinary sticker.”
“I’m inclined to d’accor’ wit’ whatever you just said.” Boudreaux pulled her goggles down over her eyes. Ignoring the crowd, she pressed a small button on the side of the eyepiece and waited as the device hummed the lenses awake.
“Commissioner’s going to piss himself, you showing off your mechanics in front of the rubes,” Woodson said.
Boudreaux ignored the remark. She could think of several things to say about the Commissioner, none of them would be particularly helpful. “See if anyone saw anything.”
She didn’t hold great hope. Nobody ever saw anything they didn’t want to see, especially during Carnivale. The street was almost completely dark now, the last of the nautical twilight gone from the sky. The light from the gas lamps barely reached past the crowd, but the detective’s device worked best in the gloom. The deep blue glow from the goggles gave her an unearthly insect-like demeanor as she walked the length of the alleyway. The violent splashes of copper blood shone through the monochrome night, glowing almost white as she focused the lenses.
She had spent hours refining the mix of chemicals and electricity that would pick up the spectrum of human remains and add day to the nightscapes where it seemed she spent most of her investigations. Usually she was rewarded by some sort of trail, or clue, but the only spatters were those in the immediate vicinity of the leaking victim.
Shaking her head, she powered down the spectacles, pushing them back up to rest on the brim of her hat. She wiped the rain from her face.
“Nothing,” she said. “Anybody see anything?”
Sergeant Woodson wasn’t listening. He knelt by the body, hunching over his notebook to protect it from the downpour. With the nub of his pen, he nudged back a scrap of cloth that had once been part of a very fine frock coat. “Here’s something what might stir the interest.”
Underneath the blood and grime, a faint gleam of a brass pin fastened to the inside of the lapel. It was the spyglass and pistol insignia of the Union Intelligence Corps. Boudreaux touched her own lapel, where once had resided her own rope and dagger crest of the Descent Troop Corps.
“Well, we finally met our courier,” Boudreaux said.
A disturbance from the line broke their concentration. The young Russian soldier stood in front of a large, red-faced man, whose booming voice projected to all and sundry. The soldier tried in vain to block the man’s way, but he was not to be stopped. Boudreaux grimaced and braced herself for the inevitable.
The Commissioner blew hard for the yellows, filling the trough for the gentlemen of the paper presses. Publicly he thanked Detective Boudreaux and Sergeant Woodson for coming upon the scene so quickly, hinting to the press that he would of course bring a swift conclusion to the investigation of such a horror inflicted on the festivities of Carnivale. Not a word was said about the insignia hidden inside the victim’s jacket, or the machine missing from his side.
“That blasted Machine was sent to this city for safekeeping.” The Commissioner’s booming voice, unmuted in the confines of his office, rattled Boudreaux’s eardrums. “Last thing we need’s rumblings of war trophies circulating the city.”
“Sir?” Detective Boudreaux stilled her face.
“I am singularly reluctant to believe this crime, heinous though it is, is anything more than a simple murder,” the Commissioner continued on. “The courier has obviously fallen prey to some thief who saw the package as a prize to bear off, unaware of its value.”
“Commissioner,” Boudreaux began. Woodson raised an eyebrow and took a step back, removing himself from the line of fire. “While that spins a sweet story for the citizens of our fair city, you can’t honestly believe that rag sop?”
Woodson flinched. Boudreaux plowed ahead. “We have a dead courier and a missing machine that good men and women have died to keep out of the wrong hands,” she said. “I see something more than a simple thief willing to kill for a strange device he don’t even know what it is.” She finished shouting, her temper once again running away with her common sense.
Woodson placed his hand on her shoulder, gently tugging her away. Her face flushed, she jerked away from his touch.
“Detective, you are once again treading on a very thin line that is about to break under you,” the Commissioner shouted back. “These claims are ridiculous. Who would want to steal such a thing at this time? Who would benefit?”
The Detective and her Sergeant indulged in a moment of mutual disbelief, simultaneously etched on their faces. Who would not benefit? They were Veterans, both, who saw and remembered those who grew fat on their lethal labors. They remained silent, leaving the Commissioner’s question unasked, the answer reflected in their faces like a faint mirror in the dark.
The Commissioner sighed, and for the briefest of moments Boudreaux saw the truth etched in his face. Fate had once again dropped the most uncomfortable case into his city, and he was going to assign the two most expendable officers he had to either solve it or take the blame.
“You shall be working with a liaison officer on this case,” the Commissioner said, his voice calmer now. “They were going to find out eventually, so we’ve invited one of the garrison to accompany you on your investigation.”
“So, what you’re saying, Commissioner,” Boudreaux said, “is that the Russians show up in purely the most suspicious coincidence possible, and we invite them to stumble all over the case?”
And with that the Commissioner lost the last thread of his patience. “Detective Boudreaux. You and Sergeant Woodson will solve this case quickly and without any mention of anything else except the thief you are going to find for me. And you’re going to do it with Lieutenant Masha Feryus…Ferisov…With the lieutenant from garrison.”
Detective Boudreaux opened her mouth again, but Sergeant Woodson, recognizing that once again his partner was forgoing discretion for valor, kicked her in the shin. She stumbled, cursed, and led the way out of the Commissioner’s office.
Lieutenant Masha Feryusovitch waited for them under the giant clockface built into the vast frontispiece of the city station. The double-faced tower was a masterpiece of the great horologist Jean le Duc. The officer, multi-barreled weapon slung across his back, checked his own pocket watch against the time, and as he saw them approach, shook the piece and slipped it back into the pocket of his uniform jacket.
“Ne rabotayet,” he said, shrugging. “Good to see you again.”
“You are Lieutenant Ferris?” Detective Boudreaux asked.
“Feryusovitch. But call me Masha,” he said. “You remember me? From the street?”
“We do remember you,” Sergeant Woodson said, amused to see the way the Russian officer looked up at Boudreaux in a gaze of both intimidation and infatuation. He extended his hand.
Masha grasped the Sergeant’s hand firmly in his and they shook hands. Boudreaux’s keen eye caught the curious folding of their fourth fingers, the strange way they twisted their wrists together.
“I travel from the East, seeking wisdom,” the Lieutenant said in a strangely formal tone.
“Follow the star of the West, for she will lead you to the fountain.” Sergeant Woodson smiled, as if the Russian officer had passed some arcane test.
“You two ready?” Boudreaux stared at them both. “I want to get there before our corpse rots any more.”
“Where are we going?” Masha asked.
“I hope that your stomach can stand a good roil,” Woodson said, not quite answering the question. Settling his hat firmly on his head, he led the way.
The street was quiet, the rain still reflecting up in blue-dark puddles from the cobbles. The sidewalk was not wide enough to allow three men to walk abreast, and Masha trotted until he fell into step next to Detective Boudreaux. Woodson walked behind them, grinning to see Boudreaux discomfited by the sudden attention.
Masha pulled a match and a white-papered cigarette from his pocket and bent his head over the small flame. Drawing deeply, he shook the flame out and tossed it on the ground. “You together—good friends, hm?”
She frowned at him, wondering what spurred the question. “We’re…we fought together in the war.”
“Is what I am thinking,” he said, repeating the gesture he had shared with Woodson. “To show you such things.”
“Sergeant Woodson says a great many incomprehensible things,” she said, bending her head against a gust of wind.
She truly did not know what to do with the young lieutenant. He seemed harmless, simply the liaison the Commissioner had claimed for him. And yet, there was more here than the surface had revealed.
On deck among the powerful ships of the air, she knew where she was, and even buffeted by the great turbulence, could keep a steady footing. Here on the unmoving ground, she too often found herself adrift.
Sometimes she felt as if she was living a life that wasn’t hers—or that she had laid claim to in absence of alternatives. As if she had stepped too many times off the battlefield into a time that was uncanny for its peace, in which she had caught and mistimed her presence, like a clockwork cog too roughly finished.
The anonymous courier had met an ignoble end in a dirty alleyway, but in his afterlife, his star would be lifted by the nobility of his contribution to science. According to the custom of the city, the remains would be held for twenty-four hours in the section of the charnel house set aside for the victims of the most grisly murders. During this time, the body would be available for study by the greatest minds of science and anatomy, those who sought to understand the nature and method of grievous wounds inflicted by men on their fellows.
The odd trio made their way down into the depths of the hospital, their way lit by the flickering amber of gas lighting. They did not rate high enough to have the body transported to one of the vast, well-lit operating theaters, and so were forced to pick their way through the collection of remains in the wavering gloom until they found their victim.
“Are we to put him back together?” Sergeant Woodson inquired.
The body was indeed in pieces, having been piled onto the rough wood table with little care as to its reassemblage. Upon sighting it, Masha blanched white and clenched his jaw very tightly.
“Somewhere in this giant puzzle is a sign for us.” Boudreaux pulled her Naviator goggles back down over her eyes and powered up the device. The familiar hum and blue glow grew louder in the room, contrasting with the dim amber light from the gas lamps. “Let us start putting somet’ing together.”
Drawing a pair of thin gloves from her pocket, she pulled them on and bent to the body.
“What are you seeing?” Masha asked, his voice choked.
Detective Boudreaux just grunted and nodded to Detective Woodson, who helped her manipulate the heavier pieces around and around, searching for something that would give some sort of sign as to what could have pulled him apart so thoroughly.
“Look there.” Boudreaux paused, the back of the victim’s head and shoulders clasped in her hands. The night-lightening properties of the goggles drew secrets from the victim’s pale skin.
“I can’t quite see,” Woodson told her, squinting in the dark. Boudreaux turned the torso toward the light, and he probed where the corpse’s shoulder blades once met.
The courier’s skin had been shredded, but there was a hint of something in the folds of his neck. Woodson hummed to himself and pushed the flaps of skin until they aligned under his fingers.
“There,” he said. “There is our signpost.”
Boudreaux frowned. “You know what that is?”
The blue tattoo on the back of the courier’s neck was a multi-pointed star with a roseate center, delicately ornate, positioned as to be unnoticed under the fall of the man’s collar.
“Yes.” The tone of her Sergeant’s voice was curiously flat.
“The star of the West is our way,” Masha offered. He was still pale, but held himself admirably upright.
Detective Boudreaux was impressed. It was one thing to face the heated slaughter of the battlefield, it was quite another to face the cold silence of violent ends far from the killing fields. Despite herself, she found herself—if not trusting—at least forwarding the Russian lieutenant a grudging respect.
Masha reminded her of an old friend she had met as a recruit in the Union Descent SteamTroop Corps. He, too, had been a short man, and had seen in her—a Southerner and a woman—a candidate for replacement as the Troop scapegoat.
Two bloody scrapes later, everyone had learned the price of touching gloves with the tall, quiet soldier with the thick swamp accent.
She had found his name on a list of the dead after the Great Battle at Vicksburg. His static line had gotten cut and he had plummeted to his death. She wracked her brain now, but couldn’t actually remember what his name was. She sometimes thought of him at odd moments like these.
“So this star is going to lead our way?” Boudreaux asked.
“Aye,” Woodson said.
She pulled her gloves off, turning them inside out, tucking them back in her pocket before powering down the goggles and pushing them back on her old hat. The gloves were soaked through, but the stains were already joining a plethora of others already deeply set in.
“Then, let us go to follow it,” she said.
The Most Worshipful Company of SteamMasons sheltered behind an amiable storefront that advertised clockwork and steamer, repairs and secondhand goods. In fact, nothing in the front of the building advertised anything for an ancient and faithful brotherhood such as the Masons were rumored to be, except for the small Western rose-on-clockface symbol etched in the lower right-hand corner of the glass window.
“Symbols and symbols,” Detective Boudreaux muttered to herself.
“Chto?” Masha asked.
Boudreaux shook off the question. “What are we going to find here?”
“Someone what can give us an answer or two,” Sergeant Woodson said. “Or at least set us on the path to the questions what we should be asking.”
“Shall we knock?” Boudreaux peered through the glass.
The inside of the shop was dark, with only a few shadows of benches and great wooden worktables to intimate at the occupation of the inhabitants. No welcoming light gleamed through the murky interior.
Sergeant Woodson and Lieutenant Feryusovitch exchanged glances, the like of which Detective Boudreaux was not enthralled to see. Masha hooked a finger under his collar and drew out a dark green ribbon from around his neck on which was suspended a copper key about the length of a man’s finger. Sergeant Woodson produced his own key, and with a nod, the two men stepped to the hinge side of the door.
The two men inserted their keys into two barely discernible impressions within the metal of the hinge, impressions which at first glance were mere decoration etched upon the brass. Turning simultaneously, they pushed the door, which opened ponderously before them.
Masha stepped into the yawning darkness. Woodson paused on the threshold, his dark skin making him almost invisible in the shadow of the interior.
“Please don’t ask to come inside,” he said.
Detective Boudreaux sensed she had already seen more than he was allowed to expose, even if all the Sergeant had yet done was dust around the edges of some close-kept secret.
“Tu savvy your garde with that Imperialist,” Boudreaux growled. “I still don’t trust that coincidence.”
“I know.” Woodson touched the brim of his hat in a brief salute, and then was inside, closing the door firmly behind him.
Boudreaux thrust her hands in her pockets, the silence on the night street punctuated occasionally by the faint merriment that echoed, every once in a while, down from the Quarter.
The heavy shop door closed behind them with a much softer thud than expected.
“She is angry?” Masha led the way, squinting into the darkness.
Sergeant Woodson paused inside the entrance to press a small button set in a recess next to a stand advertising fine repairs and craftsmanship to Naviation specifications.
“Yes,” he said, following the Lieutenant into the room as a few small gas lamps flickered to life. The light did not completely dispel the gloom, but cast a comfortable soft edge to the long room with its regularly spaced worktables. Each table held a smaller lamp that, when burning, would provide a bright light for the watchmaker in his detailed labors. The walls were lined with bookshelves that held an extensive collection of tomes and delicately worked chronometers, with the tools of the trade scattered throughout.
“We are on the force because we do things others cannot, go places others cannot,” Woodson said, pausing at the right limit of one of the bookshelves.
Finding the book he was looking for, Woodson grasped the spine of On the Mysteries of Time, translated from the French, and pulled back hard. The motion stirred some inner workings and a lock clicked open. Grasping the edge of the case, the Sergeant wrestled the fixture back, revealing a yawning stone staircase. “And sometimes, one of us must go where the other cannot.”
The steps were slippery with puddles of condensation, and the air felt frigid with the sudden loss of heat from above. Blue lights flickered at regular intervals along the walls of the room revealed at the end of the stairs. It was larger than the workspace upstairs, but emptier. A long wooden table, the sole fixture in the room, ran the length of the room. At each end, massive braziers burned fiercely.
On the surface of the table, engraved in copper and silver, appeared a massive cartographic marvel—the world as seen from the eyes of the great SteamWorkers. Airship routes glistened alongside and intersected the paths of the great rails, connected again by the routes of the freighters that plied the lonely ocean waters. It was an old map—the scars of the Great War had not yet healed and been set into its confines.
Three hooded men stood at the map table, one of them checking his pocket watch. He tucked it into the pocket of his vest under his robes as Sergeant Woodson and Lieutenant Feryusovitch approached.
“Greetings, brothers, under the lights of the East and the West,” he intoned in a thin voice.
“A brother from the West seeks wisdom,” Sergeant Woodson said.
“And a brother from the East follows his path,” Masha added.
“I am Brother Eshemuel.” The man with the watch spoke. “Welcome.”
The other two men nodded, but remained unintroduced. Woodson did not expect to learn their names.
“What is this wisdom you seek?” Eshemuel asked.
“One of our northern brethren was fallen tonight,” Woodson said. “He carried a package of great import.”
The warm light from the brazier flickered, flashing copper highlights across his face. The flames, dying down, caught a glint of movement from the table. The metal inlays were no simple decoration; the entire map was itself a masterpiece of cartography and chronometry that ticked the motions of time and tides inexorably away.
The men exchanged glances. One of them subtly nodded.
“We have already heard of this incident,” Eshemuel admitted.
“We seek enlightenment,” Woodson said. “For we did not know his mission was so very well-known outside these walls.”
Another pause. On the map, a chronometer set into the center of the compass rose ticked away the minutes to midnight. It had already been a long evening and showed no signs of ending before daybreak.
Finally, Eshemuel broke the silence. “Your companion awaits you above.”
“She is my superior officer,” Sergeant Woodson said. “But she never questions answers what she knows come from secret places.”
Eshemuel nodded as one of the braziers guttered. One of his hooded fellows moved to replenish the supply of coal.
“Know that this incident is orchestrated by persons unknown to even some of our hierarchy in this City,” Eshemuel began. “Such information is not for divulging, not even to two of our brethren seeking to make things right.”
“Chto skazal?” Masha asked. Woodson frowned fiercely, the light from the newly re-awakened brazier casting a forbidding glamour across his countenance. The Russian subsided.
“Then give us what information we can, and we will make things right nonetheless,” Woodson said.
The three men regarded each other across the wide expanse of the mechanical map. First one, then the other, anonymous gentleman nodded slowly.
Brother Eshemuel drew the hood back from his face, revealing dark skin, a shock of white hair and the faintest hint of gray stubble at his chin. He pulled thin lips back in a knowing grin. The flames leapt higher.
“Follow the dragon.”
“Follow the dragon?” Boudreaux frowned, her face betraying what she thought of that unhelpful advice.
“I don’t think he was referring to the dreams what some find in the dens uptown,” Sergeant Woodson replied. The three were back on the street. Somewhere in the time downstairs the weather had decided to break, and while the rain still hung heavy in the air, the mist had begun to warm until instead of a chill, Detective Boudreaux felt sweat rolling down her back.
“Maybe the drakon by the parade?” the Lieutenant asked.
“The parade dragon…peut-être,” Boudreaux said.
“This evening’s been coincidence stacked on coincidence.” Woodson tugged at his collar against the humidity. “Wouldn’t surprise me what we been following is some creature what comes out of a storybook.”
“Merde,” Boudreaux said.
“Unimaginative,” Woodson offered.
“Well, imagine how we’re going to get to the Works, frère,” Boudreaux retorted.
“Chto?” Masha looked from one to the other, confusion twisting his youthful face.
“The Works,” Woodson said. “That’s whereabouts we’ll find this dragon. It’s a good ways outside the City.”
The three emptied their pockets. The Sergeant had several Union dollars and a twenty in City currency. The Lieutenant had a hundred in City currency, and when his companions raised their eyebrows, he explained that he and his soldiers had merely begun the night’s festivities before they were so violently interrupted.
Detective Boudreaux had ten Confederate pounds and her police badge. “And that should be enough for any hack.”
It was still another hour before they ventured close enough to the downtown to find a hack willing to take them all the way to the Works. It was a lucrative time of year for the City, and the drivers could make scores simply ferrying merrymakers on several short hops.
Their driver was a young veteran, scarred in face but spry of limb, who was willing to ditch more affluent fares for the chance to partake in whatever adventure these three were embarked upon.
There was a moment of jockeying for seats in which Woodson was amused to note Masha’s determined squirming to sit next to Boudreaux. For her part, she either did not notice or hoped not to encourage him. The hack was open to the air and the Sergeant hoped the rain was truly over. The seats were still damp from the previous deluge.
“Where to, mademoiselle et messieurs?” the driver asked.
“The SteamWorks,” Detective Boudreaux said, momentarily nonplussed. It had been a while since anyone had referred to her as “mademoiselle.”
The driver frowned. “Anywhere in particular?”
Boudreaux knew why he was asking. The SteamWorks covered ten acres at the least and sprawled out even further with the gas shops, mechanics’ lodges, rail terminal, and various other affiliated properties.
“We’ll let you know when we get there,” Boudreaux answered without answering the question.
The driver shrugged and snapped to his horse. With a creak, the hack started moving down the street, ferrying them away from the purple, green, and gold lights of the Mardi Gras into the uncertain night.
“Tu d’accord what the Commissioner parle’?” Boudreaux murmured to Woodson after they had been riding a while.
Sergeant Woodson shrugged. “He says a great lot what I don’t understand or da-kor with.”
Boudreaux winced at his pronunciation but was otherwise undeterred. “About the war. About the people who want to see it come again.”
Woodson hawked and spit outside the hack. “Might be. But this ain’t the City to grant their wish.”
The Great War. Some had once named it a civil war, one of those terrible internecine strifes that seem all but inevitable in hindsight. For how could so large a territory be governed under one philosophy? Such a great machine must one day falter and slip under its own weight, and the consequences had been predictably dire.
Looking back, the War seemed all but predestined as the Great Experiment fragmented under its citizens’ desire to preserve those liberties held dear. Such an inexorable fate caught larger fish in its net than one Captain Mignon Boudreaux. The War still held many in the thrall of its memory.
“Do you not miss it?” she asked.
“Of course and every day,” Sergeant Woodson said. “But soldiers longing for wars does not mean civilians should give them such.”
She was silent after the rebuke. Woodson waited patiently until she broke the silence by cursing deeply and with commitment, by which he recognized she was deep in thought.
“We must tread careful,” she said. The silence fell again, broken only by the steady clip of the horse’s hooves on the cobbles.
Masha took the opportunity to move closer to her on the seat.
When the three finally found the Works, the sky was already glowing with the first hints of false dawn. The hack stopped at the edge of vast yards where the Works faded into the flat scrub that surrounded the area in desolation. A strong smell of the sea permeated the air, and the first calls of sea birds periodically punctuated the early morning.
“Wait for us here,” Boudreaux told the driver. “Don’t follow us.”
The hack threw her a mock salute.
“You think this is the place?” Sergeant Woodson stretched his lanky body, swallowing back a yawn.
“You see that?” Boudreaux pointed. A wide banner hung across the first level of the long, high building, advertising the participation of those within in the Carnivale parades. The gilt lettering in ornate script was illustrated with a picture of a serpentine dragon, twining throughout the words, a satisfied grin on its enigmatic face.
The door was locked, but such was no obstacle to the Detective’s deft touch that coaxed simple mechanics into revealing their secrets. In a few moments, they were inside.
The workshop was a machinist’s paradise, a vast open space that put the watch shop to shame. The sky outside lightened, revealing gleaming expanses through dusty windows—shelves of tools, projects in various stages of completion, some small enough to share one of the many long tables along the edges of the space and some standing so tall as to almost disappear into the rafters.
In the center of the Works, standing tall and long like some weird sentry, the object of their search waited as if expecting them. The steam dragon was dark, the lights and jewels faded into lifelessness in the monochrome dawn.
Detective Boudreaux drew the weapon at her hip, pointed it ahead of her. Sergeant Woodson and Lieutenant Feryusovitch fell into position at her left and right rear flanks, the motion as natural as if none of them had ever left the battlefield. As they stepped closer, Boudreaux marked a dull red glow in the glass window on its chest, and the detective’s fingers almost twitched at the thought of such a marvelous machine.
Boudreaux became aware of the approaching figures at the moment the red glow in the dragon’s chest sparked and brightened.
“Holster your weapons or my men will open fire.”
The voice was feminine, low and sultry, although Detective Boudreaux could not quite make out where it came from. What she could make out were the dozen or so men dressed in black and gray whose faces were as cold as the iron in the weapons they pointed at the trio.
A woman stepped out of the shadows of the dragon. She wore a bright red blouse shot with gold, and the brown bloused pants of a zouave, although there were no markings to identify the North or South as her former allegiance. Her accent was not of any territory of North America, but the weapon in her hand was from the factories of Mr. Colt.
“I am Madame Cuivre,” she said. “This is my workshop.”
“My name is Detective Mignon Boudreaux.” Boudreaux lowered her weapon, although she did not return it to its holster. “This is Sergeant Thomas Woodson and Lieutenant Masha Feryusovitch. We have some questions for the Master of these Works.”
Madame Cuivre tucked her weapon into a low holster slung around her hips. “My very great apologies, we have had more than one intruder this Carnivale. With such a quiet entry, we could only assume it was some unknown persons coming to steal our works.”
“Have your men put their weapons away,” Boudreaux said. “They are distracting in polite conversation.”
“And those of your men?” Madame Cuivre raised an elegant eyebrow.
“We are not polite,” Boudreaux said.
Madame Cuivre regarded her for one bemused moment, then with a motion of her hand the men surrounding the trio lowered their weapons and stood in silence. She smiled at them, then let loose a long spurt of Russian to Masha who, startled, replied in the same language before stammering to an uneasy halt under Boudreaux’s glare.
“Let’s keep this conversation in a language we can all understand, vous comprenez?” Boudreaux said.
“But of course, Detective.” Madame Cuivre smiled. “Please, ask your questions.”
“We are investigating a murder.” Something about the woman made Boudreaux feel like an awkward teenager.
“A murder?” Madame Cuivre shrugged. “And what has this to do with my Works? Was he murdered here?”
“We are searching for a device he was carrying on him,” Boudreaux plowed ahead, ignoring the warnings that screamed within her to be aware. “Perhaps you have heard of the Turing Machine?”
Madame Cuivre shrugged and folded her arms across her chest. “A Turing Machine? Non, I have not heard of such a device.”
Woodson snorted in blunt disbelief. “A workshop like this and you claim to not have ever heard of Mr. Turing’s machine?”
The Master Worker smiled and shrugged. “My good officers, in these Works we have so very many marvelous machines.”
Quickly, so quickly it did not seem that such a large beast could move thus, the dragon lurched forward out of the shadows. Madame Cuivre leapt nimbly out of the way as her Master Work swung its head, knocking Boudreaux off her feet.
The detective went flying, weapon clattering away out of reach. Ribs cracked, she struggled to her feet in time to dive out of the way of a descending mechanical claw.
Rolling to her back, Boudreaux grasped for her weapon. The dragon’s torso passed over her, the immense size of the beast working against it in the confined space.
The red light in the cylinder on its chest blinded her. She kept rolling, knowing that her only hope was to keep moving.
Boudreaux blinked through the sheet of involuntary tears. She squinted, but the shadows and light refused to resolve into forms and images. Throwing up one arm she moved, blind, hoping to end up somewhere alive.
Woodson dove for the floor, Masha by his side. Hopelessly exposed, he fired without aiming, hoping to keep the Madame’s men at bay. The Russian unlimbered his own massive, multi-barreled piece of lethal machinery. Rolling on his back, he added his own covering fire to Woodson’s pathetic barrage. The gunshots ricocheted, the noise deafening in the metal warehouse.
Woodson bounded to his feet, grabbed Masha by the collar and ran for cover behind a tall set of pilings as the men in the shadows fired a withering curtain of steel-jacketed lead.
Masha vaulted over the top. Sergeant Woodson slid around the side. The two took out Madame Cuivre’s man who had chosen to shelter there.
“You see Boudreaux?” Woodson shouted.
“Ona idyot za drakoneh,” Masha shouted back, forgetting his linguistic skills in the heat of firing over the barricade.
Woodson waited until Masha finished firing, shaking his head to clear it of the ringing. Half-deaf, he raised his head above the pilings, firing as he went.
Madame Cuivre stood straight and tall in the middle of the warehouse, ignoring the weapons fire exchange between her men and the police.
She trained her weapon in the Sergeant’s direction, but her eyes danced with glee as she watched Boudreaux and the dragon.
The great beast darted and sniped. Boudreaux twisted, scrambled, vision slowly clearing, trying to stay one step ahead of the mechanical wonder. She did not know how it knew where she was. Perhaps there was more to it than simply the receptors in the eyes.
The genius of its creation outstripped her avocational dedication to the art of machined forensics. She could have admired the dragon all day but for its intention to cut her in two.
A heavy claw whipped around, slamming into her back. Lucky to have received the blunt side of the talon, Boudreaux tried to roll with cracked ribs and aching spine. She slipped. The sharp teeth came seeking her.
“Shoot the damn thing!” It came out ragged, hoarse. She was gasping for breath, running out of wind.
Woodson and Masha took aim and fired. The bullets thudded into the armor.
The dragon reared up on its hind legs. In the vast open space of the warehouse, it hissed steam and unfurled clockwork wings. Beating against the air, it screamed a noise like the hurricane port whistle before a breaking storm.
The few bullets that penetrated started leaks in the copper plating. They dripped, then slowed and stopped, the metal almost healing around itself.
Masha started firing again.
The dragon screamed again and hovered, circling to keep Boudreaux to its front, Masha’s bullets to its back.
Madame Cuivre raised her weapon, pulled the trigger. Masha grunted and fell back.
Boudreaux cursed. The dragon hovered, blocking her path. She didn’t hear anything from behind the pilings.
“Madame Cuivre, is this the purpose of such a MasterWork?” Boudreaux shouted. “To be a weapon, some crude piece of machinery?”
“She is not just a weapon,” Madame Cuivre raised her voice, not shouting, simply reverberating through the space. “She is the weapon.”
Boudreaux tried to circle around. The beast flapped, hovered, darted, blocking her path. Its articulated appendages sought her out.
The dragon grumbled its dissatisfaction with each near miss, a freight train sound of discontent. The red light pulsed in the glass window on its chest.
One questing clockwork claw swiped downward and Boudreaux stumbled on weary legs. She scrambled back on all fours, desperately seeking cover, blood streaming across her back and shoulder.
The dragon drew its limb toward itself, screaming again at the few shreds of leather jacket dangling from its talon. It lowered its head and sought again to grasp its prey in its jaws.
Behind the pilings, Woodson fired once more and cursed as his weapon sounded the dull click of an empty chamber. He ducked back down, back against the pilings. “You still in this fight, brother?”
The Russian smiled cheerfully and said something untranslatable and likely profoundly obscene. Woodson recognized the look in Masha’s eyes, at once too bright and unfocused.
“Mon Capitan!” Woodson threw his voice into the great space. “It’s time we jumped this line!”
“D’accord, mon frère!”
And then no more words—French, English, Russian—were necessary.
Face contorted with pain, Masha used both hands to heave the barrels of his weapon up to rest on the barricade. He depressed the trigger and sprayed rounds toward the Madame’s men, sending them diving for cover, as Sergeant Woodson vaulted over the pilings.
Woodson ran, closing the distance. Ten feet. Five.
Madame Cuivre raised her weapon, fired. Impossible to miss, but the shot went wild.
The Sergeant bowled her over, sweeping her to the ground. He reached for her weapon. She held on tight, squirming to twist it toward him. He rammed his fist into the Madame’s face. Her head snapped back.
The dragon reared up, limbs flailing.
Seeing her window of opportunity crack, Detective Boudreaux pushed off the floor, ran straight at the dragon. Without hesitation she lunged upwards. One foot found purchase on the copper plating of its knee. She launched herself at the exposed chest.
Scrabbling, Boudreaux grasped the only protrusion she could find. Fingers slipping on sweat and metal, she twisted the copper frame around the glass window.
The beast, finding its prey within its grasp, embraced the Detective, its claws sinking into the flesh of her arms and back.
Boudreaux flinched, crying out in pain thought she did not relinquish her grasp on the metal. The frame was held in place by a simple lock and catch mechanism. Her fingers slipped again, slick with sweat and blood. She wiped her hand on her chest and gripped the frame again, this time wrenching it, with a twisting motion that freed it from its trap. The glass window was the frontispiece of a long, open tube, delicately worked in glass and thin copper tubing. The entire mechanism pulled free from the dragon’s heart as Boudreaux fell back from the mechanical beast.
The dragon slowly collapsed.
The dull click of Masha’s hammer falling on an empty chamber reverberated louder than any blast. Boudreaux clasped the device to her chest, blood trickling down her side, waiting for the Madame’s shadowy men to take their careful aim.
But the shadows were empty.
“How did you know?” Woodson broke the silence.
The sun had not yet passed the noon threshold, and the two still wore their bloody, dirty clothes from the night before, but Detective Boudreaux and Sergeant Woodson had found the darkest corner of the loudest bar in the City to drown the sting.
They had found the Turing Machine. Detective Boudreaux held it in her hands. She had pulled it herself from the chest of the dragon.
And yet, the Machine had still disappeared. The sense of unease that had gripped the Free City had sheathed its claws and returned to its deep slumber, to await the next whispers of war.
At the bar, a roar of laughter reached them in the shadows. Lieutenant Feryusovitch, arm tightly wrapped in an improvised sling, was getting massively, impressively drunk; matched drink for drink by the hack, who had accompanied them back to town.
Boudreaux tossed back a shot, grasped for the bottle and refilled her glass. The dragon didn’t murder the courier. They still didn’t know which of Madame Cuivre’s shadowy disciples had committed that act. There were altogether too many unresolved questions for her conscience, and so she intended to continue drinking until such time as she forgot the entire mess.
“Know what?” she asked.
“That the machine was in the dragon,” Woodson replied, slurring his words ever so slightly with drink and lack of sleep. “That drawing it out of that great, massive beastie would put it to bed.”
“Didn’t.” The detective’s words came crisp and clear, untouched by the shots she tossed back. “I was trying to reach its neck and I slipped.”
A moment of silence.
“Well then.” Woodson raised his glass. “Here’s to the blind, dumb luck of the Descent Troop Corps.”
She touched his glass with hers. “I’ll drink to that.”
And they did.
In basement of the Workshop, the light from the braziers cast a steady copper blaze across the table. Flanked by his companions, Brother Eshemuel bent over the cartographic marvel and lovingly slid the Machine into a cylindrical opening in the lower gears.
A red light sprang to life within the tube, at first merely a pinprick of illumination, then growing in depth and intensity.
The light spread, blooding the grooves and ticking clockwork of the map. The glow reflected in the faces of the men around the table, darkening their skin to a rich amber glow.
The Machine’s illumination finally reached the compass rose. The grooves and petals in turn brightened and faded to a steady, humming luminescence. The chronometer continued its ticking way around the cardinal directions.
Eshemuel nodded. His companions doused the braziers, dampening the flames. As one, they turned to leave the darkness, their path shadowed by the ticking, pulsing beat of the Machine that was once the heart of a dragon.
Copyright Rachel A. Brune 2019