Chapter 1: The Bookseller's Daughter
It smells like death. It always smells like death, of rot and of mildew. It always rains in this god-awful country; the sun hasn’t come out in weeks. Pete grips his gun tightly to his chest and concentrates on his cigarette, the only thing keeping him tethered to the now. In and out the smoke comes from his lungs. Like gas, but a good kind of burn, not the kind that kills.
Not that anyone would care if he died. He has no one to write home to, no one to talk to as his French is only just passing and the Brits don’t like him because they think he’s a cowboy just there for the glory.
This is his homeland. His family’s from France, just two generations back. He still has cousins that are fighting in this war, for their families that are in hiding. He supposes that he’s lucky that he didn’t have to be here, but it was the right thing to do. His dad would have done it, had trying to save all of those girls not taken his life some six years ago.
He shivers and steps over the rotting corpse of a fella he barely got a chance to know before he got sent up and over, shot, dead, dragged back to safety. They won’t send his maimed body home. He’d been green too, just barely out of training. They’d taught him how to stab with a bayonet and how to quickly load his rifle. They didn’t teach him that he’d die because of how the war was fought.
They didn’t teach anyone that.
Pete’s gas mask rests around his neck and he tugs it down, trying to breathe. The air is stale; it smells like death, like mildew and mold. Like the root cellar in his grandmother’s house, in Winooski, Vermont. Pete doesn’t like the smell.
The one person who does talk to him shouldn’t be there either. They’re stuck like this, until the war is over or they die. Pete doesn’t think that the war will ever end, so he’s prepared to die fighting it.
It is all he has to live for now.
Up and over, the command goes, and Pete struggles up over the barbed wire and mud and slime. His comrades fall around him, great men, dedicated men. He doesn’t die though; he’s too good at pretending to be dead and shouting in German and the enemy to confuse them. He can’t hear anything over the Maschinengewehr 08, its rapid fire rounds tat-tat-tat-tating until they are all that Pete can hear.
A hand pulls him to his knees and the mud stained face of his closest friend come into view, brown eyes harsh and angry. “Stay down,” comes the harsh command in the King’s English, “Play dead.”
Peter Lattimer woke up in a cold sweat, his hands fisted around his damp sheets and the fifty cent pillow that he’d bought with his first paycheck out of the Sears catalog. He knew he should not have bought the thing; he’d tear it up before this night was over.
The clock on the wall read five fifteen in the morning and Pete kicked at the sheets, groaning loudly. The wrought iron of his bedframe creaked ominously as Pete sat up, and stared moodily out of the window, rubbing at the back of his head. A word came to mind, one his father used on such nights, when sleep eluded even the heaviest of sleepers. He didn’t say it, because he wasn’t his father and French sounded odd enough on his lips already.
The gun he’d taken off a German soldier during his final battle rested on the bedside table, and Pete eyed it for a long moment. It was a sin, he knew that, but he thought about it every time he woke up at the crack of dawn. The morning was when it hurt the most, by the time the day wore on Pete was able to put his mind on other things, and not remember the war, the trenches, and the death.
His sleep shirt was bunched around his waist and he scratched idly at his hip. He wanted to go back to sleep, the heat of the day had barely set in yet and he could get another two hours before the alarm went off.
He closed his eyes, and the trench swam back into his field of vision. He could hear the gun tat-tat-tatting and Pete’s eyes shot back open. Sleep was not an option this morning, it seemed.
His rented room was small, filled with things that he’d managed to keep with him after the war. There was a map of Europe tacked up on the wall, pins stuck into places where he’d been. A precious photograph of his mother and father was nestled carefully to the right of the small pile of clean handkerchiefs on top of the bureau that his landlady, Miriam Donovan, had left there that morning with the rest of the wash. His battered wristwatch that had survived the war with him (and was in desperate need of a new strap) lay beside it, along with his cufflinks and tie pin.
He felt so out of place, in this small room in Brooklyn. This was not where he belonged; he didn’t know how to be a civilian.
The newspaper was sitting on the breakfast table and Pete was grateful that he could read the latest from The Star’s ace reporter, M. Bering. No one really knew who the fellow was, but he could get a story out of nothing and always managed to keep Pete, who never much cared for books without pictures, interested. Mrs. Donovan bustled about in the kitchen, and Pete smiled at her. He was more than willing to pay a little extra on his rent every month in order to ensure that he could have a hot meal in the morning.
“You shouldn’t read that shite,” She intoned, spooning oatmeal into a bowl and dipping her fingers deep into the jar of raisins that Pete had bought her at Christmas time last year. She sprinkled a few onto them and set the bowl in front of Pete, who took it with a muttered thank you. His landlady had a foul mouth, but she was a fantastic cook, even something as boring as oatmeal tasted fantastic when she cooked it. “All those rags ever talk about is death and dying. Why not celebrate the living, I ask you?”
Mrs. Donovan did have a point, but given how often she prayed for entrance to heaven when she died and how often Pete thought about suicide, he did not think that either of them were in the market to truly be discussing the living. “I think the stories that this reporter, Bering, gets are pretty nifty, to be honest.” He skimmed the article. It was a report on how Babe Ruth (Pete’s personal hero) was nothing more than a mean drunk. Perhaps a bit of slander, but Pete couldn’t stand alcohol after the war and wanted no part in the culture of crime that had cropped up since the temperance movement had succeeded in getting it banned.
He kept trying for the Bureau of Prohibition, but they’d never let him in with the nightmares. They asked questions about his experience during the war, if he ever relived it.
Every day, he’d say.
And then they’d tell him that they were sorry, but he did not meet the requirements.
“Have you seen my niece?” Mrs. Donovan asked, another bowl of oatmeal in her hands, steam curling around it and frizzing the older woman’s lined face.
Pete shrugged and turned the page in the paper, spoon halfway into his mouth. He’d missed the baseball game on the radio last night; the Yankees had beat the Dodgers, excellent. His free hand moved around the newspaper easily, finding the book of matches he’d left on the table the night before and plucking one out easily. He struck it on the table, and lit the cigarette he’d tucked behind his ear earlier.
They were the only things that helped now. They kept the thoughts and the shakes at bay, made him seem human again. He took a long drag, tilting his head and blowing the smoke up and over the top of the newspaper as Mrs. Donovan bustled about in the kitchen, getting breakfast ready for her niece and herself.
Pete didn’t know what the story was with Mrs. Donovan’s young charge, but Pete loved the girl all the same. She was smart as a whip and probably deserved better than the lot of life that unfortunate genetics had thrown her. Being Catholic, Irish and poor was really not how one best utilize a mind like Claudia Donovan’s. Pete was trying to put her in touch with a fly boy he knew, so that she could work on planes and not end up in a factory somewhere worked to the bone while her mind went to seed.
No, Claudia Donovan deserved more. Pete stubbed out his cigarette, drew another one from the pack in his jacket pocket and lit it with the same precision. He’d have to buy more on his way into the office.
“Claudia!” Mrs. Donovan bellowed. She was standing in the doorway, her hands on her hips, apron all askew. She still dressed more conservatively, her dress ending at her ankles, her sleeves long despite the heat of the day already. She’d suffer in silence, instead of following the more relaxed trend of the day, like her niece and wearing trousers.
Granted, trousers were not exactly kosher for a young girl of Claudia’s age to be wearing, but they were far more practical than a dress for the work that Claudia did on a day to day basis. Pete wasn’t one to judge, one of the few people he still spoke to on a regular basis liked to blur the lines between the masculine and the feminine on a regular basis.
(Granted, the bird was also batty, but Pete wasn’t keeping score.)
The red haired head of Claudia Donovan was the only part of her that did not come scurrying into the room as she hung around it, shouting after someone outside. “Don’t you leave me holding the bag, Todd, I’ll kill you!”
“Come off it, Claudia, you were the one who broke the carbonator,” came the retort and Pete could just make out through the haze of his cigarette his young housemate making a rude gesture at her friend just outside.
The boy made a rude noise and Claudia stuck her tongue out at his retreating form, her hair had grease in it, a black streak just at the front. Her haircut was the only thing, Pete realized, that was even remotely feminine about her, cropped short as was the trend of the day.
“Howdy,” Claudia said, accepting the oatmeal that her aunt shoved into her hands with the accented command of ‘eat’. “You’re up early.”
Pete shrugged, cigarette between two fingers as he folded up the newspaper and tucked it under his arm. “I’m going to probably see Steven today, if all goes as plan.”
“Gravy,” Claudia muttered around a mouthful of oatmeal, pulling a napkin across the table towards herself as her aunt glared at her. She swallowed, eyes narrowing. “What’s the case you’re on now about?”
“Between ‘em at the moment,” Pete stubbed out his cigarette and crossed the room to the hat rack, selecting the hat that was his from the rack and pulling it down low over his eyes. It was straw, as it was the summer and the heat would be unbearable with his normal woolen fedora, but he still hated how lightweight the damned thing was. It felt like it was going to blow off his head at any moment. “Here’s hoping some doll comes in and need some help with her sugar daddy stepping out on her.”
Claudia flashed him a thumbs up and went back to her breakfast. Pete tipped his hat to Mrs. Donovan and walked out into the hot New York summer.
Pete was on his third cigarette and the radio was playing Duke Ellington quietly in the background as he works his way through his notes on several cases that he had to put on hold dude to various reasons. Money dried up, there wasn’t anything left for Pete to investigate, whatever the case may be, he kept his notes filed away, in case they’d every came back. Most of his clients were crazy old birds who were worried that their devoted husbands are stepping out on them for reasons other than gin joints, and Pete couldn’t really blame them, making alcohol illegal had changed this town, he liked to think for the better.
Jazz, however, Pete adored jazz, and swore up and down that he’d listen to the Negro music for as long as he could get away with it and it still be proper, and even then some. They played instruments in ways that Pete had never imagined before, his foot is tapping along and he’s still be humming the melodies under his breath for hours after the broadcast was over.
There was a sharp rap at the door and Pete’s pen jerked across the file that he was labeling. He frowned, closed it and set last Thursday’s newspaper on top of it, declaring Jack Dempsey again a winner – this time in a decision over Jimmy Darcy. “Coming,” he called, straightening his tie and adjusting his suspenders. It was too hot in his office to wear his jacket, and Pete was torn between wanting to appear professional and still retain his ability to breathe in his already stuffy office.
He elected to be seen in his shirtsleeves, and stepped forward to answer the door just as it was pushed open and a dark-haired woman stuck her head around the door. “Is anyone-Oh!” she started upon seeing Pete’s hand outstretched for the door handle and stepped back, allowing him to pull the door open completely.
“Are you Mister Lattimer, the detective?” The woman asked, her eyes narrowed and cautious. Pete could see her eyes taking in his shirtsleeves and suspenders, just as evenly as he took in her dress and sensibly low shoes. She was dressed well, modestly for a woman her age, skirt ending just below the knee and wearing stockings despite the heat. Her hair was long, curly like a Jew’s but she didn’t look particularly Jewish. Pete didn’t rule it out, but he resolved to not ask any particularly leading questions until he knew more about this woman.
Pete nodded, offering her his hand and stepping away from the door. She took it and Pete inclined his head, “Peter Lattimer, what can I do for you Miss…”
The woman’s painted red lips quirked up into a smile and she shook her head ruefully. “They said you were a charmer, but tell me something, Mister Lattimer, are you an honest man?”
He supposed he was and said as much, settling her into a chair and offering her a lit match for her cigarette, produced from somewhere in her clothing and placed neatly into a holder from her pocketbook. She took a long drag and exhaled. “I am in need of your assistance then.”
“Could I get your name first, doll?” Pete leaned back in his chair, arms behind his head. “I mean, if you want to play that game, we can, but I’m not much for guessing games.”
She laughed then, light and airy, and reached forward, taking the newspaper off of Pete’s ruined file folder and pulling out the business section. She turned to an article that Pete had only mildly glanced at, because it was by that writer Bering, and tapped her finger on the byline. “That’s me.” She looked up then, daring him to say anything at all. “Myka Bering, I write for The Star.”
“Pretty exotic name there,” Pete says, not really believing her. He’d always assumed that anyone who could write that well would be a man, would be educated and well-read and decidedly not the attractive dame sitting across the desk from him.
She smiled then, producing a small reporter’s notebook from her purse and the stub of a pencil. Pete’s eyes widened when he saw that it was covered in shorthand that he couldn’t read. “My father owns a bookstore,” Myka Bering said, licking her finger and flipping back several pages, eyes concentrating on her notes. “He’s a bit eccentric.”
“Bet you’ve got a total bore for a middle name then,” Pete replied, not bothering to mention that he did not have a middle name, only his baptismal name – John – which he hated as it reminded him too much of so many faced he’d seen go during the war.
“Actually it’s Ophelia.”
Oh, the jokes, Pete thought, leaning forward, his face serious. “Do you really write for The Star?”
She gave him a hard look, painted lips pulling downwards and into a hard frown. “Did you want to see my credentials and a record of my pay, Mister Lattimer? If I am to hire you, I will not be paying you to investigate me.”
He held up his hands in surrender, “No offense meant Ms. Bering – it is Miss right?”
“Yes, I am unattached as of this moment,” Her tone was distracted, but she’d found the page and was mouthing words to herself as she read. “I thought that a husband and children would only be to my detriment, as my career is going so well, even if it’s not technically under my name.” She gave a quiet sigh, “They do let me write, though – an improvement to what it was like before.”
Oh yes, Pete had to agree with her there, they’d just finished making women’s suffrage legal and everywhere that Pete went, men were up in arms about it. Pete understood their reasoning, but he thought it silly at the same time. Women were subject to the laws of the land, why should they not have a say in how they played out?
That stance had not won him many friends among his peers, but the ladies loved him for it.
“I’d imagine,” Pete agreed. He pulled his own note pad across the desk and eyed the inky blotch that was still on his file folder for a long moment before picking up his pen. “So, Miss Bering, what’s this about then?”
He did not think that this was going to be your average case.
And so Myka Bering spun her tale and Pete began to realize just why she was The Star’s ace reporter. She could paint vivid pictures with her words as she recounted a night where she was out at a very illegal speakeasy meeting a contact for some follow-up questions about a story (also about something very illegal – apparently sensationalism and illegal things sold newspapers, who knew?). She had overheard a conversation between two men at the bar, talking about a plot to kill President Harding. She hadn’t thought much of it, but she had seen the same man at the same speakeasy a few days later, again discussing this plot – logistically this time.
“Why didn’t you go to the police?” Pete asked when she finished telling her story. It was all so fantastic, using some sort of mystical device to kill the president from afar. From what Ms. Bering was saying, they thought they could be clear on the other side of Washington and still get away with it.
It was really too hot for this sort of thing.
But the idea of that device rang true to an incident that Pete had almost blocked from his memory of the war. Three dreadful hours where he sat in a trench hoping and praying that the gas would go away and that his friend would still be alive, that the intel would be intact, that they’d all be okay.
“I was at an illegal establishment, Mister Lattimer, I do have a reputation to uphold,” Myka Bering pointed out.
“Coulda just said you were there to have a good time, bull likes that in a girl.” Truth be told, Myka Bering could probably bat her eyelashes at any cop this side of Boston and she’d have them eating out of the palm of her hand. It had only been half an hour and Pete was already ready to eat out of the palm of her hand, should she be willing.
She gave him a scandalized look, hand raising up to hold her hat in place as she turned, bending and producing another cigarette from her pocketbook. Pete offered her the matches; she lit one expertly off the side of the desk and took a long pull. “I refuse to use my wiles on anything other than those who interest me, Mister Lattimer. Most of the bull in this town are not nearly attractive enough for that.”
“I’ll say,” Pete agreed. He tugged at his tie. “Should I agree to take this case, we have to go see a friend of mine first.”
“Oh?” Myka Bering asked, shoving her notepad and pencil back into her handbook, cigarette dangling between her lips. She’d already tucked the holder away and was smoking it like a man, sucking in smoke sans filter, the air cloudy between them. “Why is that?”
“Because I think I’ve heard of the device you heard of before, and you wanted a good man? This is the most dishonest person I know – keeps me honest just being around the fellow.”
Saying the most dishonest person that Pete knew was rather a stretch, he thought as he offered Ms. Bering his arm and together they walked through the busy streets of Manhattan to the subway. He helped her onto the Broadway Line out towards Staten Island as was gentlemanly, but he got the sense that she did not enjoy the societal dictum that said that she would need to accept it; being an emancipated, new woman and all. They were headed deep into the heart of the Italian district. It was short enough to walk, but long enough that people might talk, seeing Pete and Ms. Bering out together.
He wasn’t used to having a shadow, constantly watching him. He liked to work alone for a reason – and most of his clients respected his rather unorthodox way of doing things. He knew it was rare for a private dick to work without a partner, and rarer still for someone such as himself to not already be in some form of law enforcement.
He couldn’t pass the test, they wouldn’t let him in.
So Pete would read and wisecrack and do his job and always wonder if he wasn’t destined to do something more fun, more interesting than look into cheating husbands and illegal gambling.
They got off at Canal Street, Pete ducking around several Chinamen who were carrying what looked to be fifteen chickens down and onto the train. Ms. Bering watched them with interest for a few moments, bending and offering one of the men his hat when it fell off. She muttered something to him in what sounded like his own language and he intoned a quick ‘thank you’ in accented English.
Pete was even more impressed with this woman as the minutes he spent in her presence ticked on. She was clearly smart, and had mentioned as they were leaving that she’d gone to school in Massachusetts, Holyoke to be precise. Pete would have pegged her for a Smith girl, honestly, but she’d wrinkled her nose and said her first choice had been Vassar but her father could not afford it.
The woman had had more schooling than him; she’d hopefully get on well with his friend.
They walked up several fights of stairs to a nondescript door, Ms. Bering trailing a bit behind, eyes cautious. Smart girl.
Pete knocked on the door, pulling off his hat hurriedly as he did so, not wanting to offend delicate English sensibilities.
Ha – as if the woman had any to begin with.
When no one answered, he knocked again, this time adding a call of, “I know you’re in there, open up.” That usually worked when she didn’t want to talk, she always opened the door for Pete. Also she owed Pete five dollars so she’d better be in there.
He turned and flashed Ms. Bering a weak smile over his shoulder, watching as she lit another cigarette and took a long drag. The woman smoked almost as much as he did, he wondered if she too was being chanced by demons that couldn’t be described.
“What?” The door was flung open and Pete grinned sheepishly down at the smaller form of one of his closest friends. Old army buddy, both of them shouldn’t have even been there. There was a long story, a long history in general between them, and Pete liked to keep the past buried. “Oh, hello Peter,” The dark haired form of the once well-renowned author HG Wells inclined itself at Pete before swiveling to give Myka Bering a most improper once-over. “And Peter’s friend.”
Ms. Bering gave her a small smile and wave, coyly hiding behind her cigarette and the haze of smoke around her head. That’s interesting. Have to follow up on that later.
“May we?” Pete asked, gesturing to the door. This wasn’t a conversation to be had in the hallway of an office building.
The office of HG Wells was littered with papers, a battered sofa in the corner had a blanket folded neatly at one end, which indicated to Pete that HG was currently in between jobs. Good, he didn’t like the competition and HG Wells was very good at doing Pete’s job.
There was a tangled mess of wires and gears sitting at a work bench and a cup of tea steaming on the author’s formal desk, despite the heat of the day.
HG shifted some papers around and freed up some space on the desk. “What can I do for you Lattimer?” she asked, eyes as hard and full of concentration. Pete knew HG too well, though, they’d been through the war together, they’d come back to New York together. The grouchiness was probably a lack of sex or drink, not directly related to their presence in her life. “It’s not every day you bring dames with you.”
“She’s a reporter, actually,” Pete clarified. Dame somehow seemed a little derogatory when it came to referring to Ms. Bering. The woman was obviously far too smart and far too educated to be treated with anything less than the respect deserving of a lady. “Has a story that I think you need to hear.”
As the reporter told her story, Pete paced around the room, trying not to flash back to that time. To sitting there with his gas mask on, hoping and praying that his best friend would come back. He knew that she was dead, that she shouldn’t have been there to begin with – but they needed bodies and she was good at pretending to be a boy. Her hair had grown long again these days, and Pete was grateful for the distinction – HG Wells had confused him mightily before he’d discovered her secret.
That had been an awkward few days, and Pete was forever grateful to learn that no, he wasn’t a fag – just attracted to a woman who had no interest in him at all.
Well, they had necked a few times, but that was long ago when they both thought they would die at any moment.
War… Pete shook his head. Made you do things.
HG had been asked to carry some sensitive information about a new energy source that the French had discovered across the line to where some Brits had moved into a section of the German trench just across the fifteen yard stretch of No-Man’s Land. There’d been a shelling, and someone had thrown a canister of gas, leaving HG trapped in the middle hunkered in a hole with the only other soul foolhardy enough to venture out across the space between the trenches.
He had been a German commander, caught without a gas mask. HG had saved his life, he’d shot her in the shoulder and stolen her intel; and in doing so, gotten HG accused of treason and nearly court martialed.
That was why she was here, not in London where she belonged. An expatriate like in Hemingway’s’ book, hiding in plain sight because going home was not an option.
The power source that Ms. Bering had described sounded exactly like the one that the French had found, that the Germans had took from HG. If this was the case, then Pete could get HG’s help on this, and Ms. Bering could rest easy knowing no one was going to kill President Harding.
“I do see your point,” HG said, leaning against her desk, vest buttoned but her shirtsleeves rolled up to reveal pale arms and a wrist watch that always looked out of place on her. They were both over thirty, Pete decided, they should probably start acting like adults. “Should I agree to help you, Ms. Bering, Peter, what’s in it for me?”
“Well, I do intend to write about it,” Ms. Bering pointed out, hand never ceasing motion as she took notes in her strange little short hand. “There might be some glory involved.”
Pete clapped HG on the shoulder, grinning at her. “And you can clear your name, get outta this dump, go home if you want.”
“Alright then,” HG turned and picked up her tea, smirking at Pete as he looked horrified. It was too hot for tea, Pete was sweating profusely and HG looked completely unfazed – as did Ms. Bering (must be a woman thing). “Count me in."
Chapter 2: The Tip Off
everal places were referenced in this story, the most important being The Eldridge Street Synagogue which is signifigant because ~1922 is when that particular Synagogue was in it's heyday. It was the first synagogue built by Eastern European Jews - and seemed a good place for Artie.
- "Shmok" is the Eastern Yiddish spelling of 'Schmuck' which means the same thing - only was rather crass at the time, perfect for our grumpy Mr. Weisfelt.
- The New York Public Library (and Bryant Park) are long-standing landmarks in New York City, being one of the largest library systems in the world and all. All were alive and popular locations during the 1920s, it was also, as a progressive brain child, completely integrated - so Mrs. F wandering around would not raise eyebrows as some libraries even had Black and Hispanic librarians.
- Smoking was banned inside the NY Public Library system but there was a push in the mid-20s to have that ban lifted. Nothing came of it, because duh, that's a bad idea.
- 'Hun' was the derogatory word for Germans by the British during WWI. Check out this cool propaganda poster that uses it too.
Story talks about PTSD, the effects of it, Trench Warfare, chain smoking, alcoholism, and well, it was the 20s, errybody had issues and it was all glamor and glory and hidden lives. Also lesbian sexual tension abounds.
Beta'ed (and egged on) by spockette, this is all her fault.
Peter Lattimer was looking for a man in the middle of a crowded street. It was just before sundown on a Friday night, the Sabbath was beginning for the patrons of this particular synagogue in a matter of moments, but this was where the runner had told him to meet his informant. Eldridge Street ran through the Lower East side of the island of Manhattan, and Pete felt uncomfortable surrounded by the numerous languages that all seemed to remind him, just a bit, of German.
He checked his weapon, stuck into a shoulder holster and out of sight and tried to lean more casually against the lamp post he’d picked as their meeting place. He couldn’t blend in in this neighborhood. Not in his brown suit and unshaven face – not to mention his straw hat. He stuck out like a sore thumb and the dirty looks he got were a constant reminder of just how little he belonged there.
“You’re late.” He was not, but the man that he was waiting for was the sort of insufferable grouch that made a point of being as contrary and disagreeable as possible. Pete looked up from where he had been contemplating the sign on the storefront across the street: ‘wine for sacramental purposes’ it read and he hated how easily people could bend the law.
There was a man in front of him, dressed in black with a wide-brimmed hat pulled down low over his eyes and a coat wrapped about him that contradicted the hot and dry heat of the day. Pete was sweating in his jacket and wingtips, but the man didn’t look to be at all bothered by the heat.
He dressed like he was orthodox, but Pete knew he wasn’t – that the hat and the clothes were just for show. There were no prayer curls or a beard on this man, and Pete was grateful for it – had he truly been orthodox, he would have had to wait to have this meeting until Monday, if it happened at all.
“I like to think of myself as early in all things.” Pete said, drawing a cigarette out of the pack in his pocket and lighting it.
He had met the man upon returning home after the war (after they had fled because HG got herself accused of treason, of criminal impersonation and got her books banned in Britain) when he needed his watch repaired. He was a scholar fleeing the reds, Jewish and a believer in the free market. Not the sort of person that the Bolsheviks wanted running around their country now that they’d made it utopian and all; but also very good at fixing watches.
Pete had read Marx’s book, and didn’t really agree with it. Things needed to be left alone to improve, that much oversight and the idea that a government would step down when it was no longer needed was ridiculous.
Still, he was forever grateful to the Russians, for arranging a ceasefire and forcing the Germans to lose the war outright. In doing so their forces had been concentrated on one front, which made the fighting a lot more manageable, and the war finish a lot more quickly than Pete had ever imagined it would.
“Da, but you are late.” Arthur Weisfelt inclined his head, slipping back into his native tongue.
Pete flicked ash off the end of his cigarette and glanced over to the synagogue. “Don’t you need to you know… go in there?” He checked his watch, almost six. Services started at six thirty. He knew because that’s when the store across the street, selling sacramental wine, would close and its proprietors would hurry off to worship.
(Pete only knew this because he liked to know where people did go to buy alcohol, not because he’d gone cold turkey and missed it every moment of every day. Or at least that’s what he told himself.)
His watch ticked by another minute, Arthur Weisfelt was staring at him curiously as Pete pulled his shirtsleeve back down, covering his watch. “It’s nearly time.”
The man waved off his comment, gesturing dismissively towards the synagogue. “Pah! Religion is for the weak!” He explained, shoving his hands in his coat pockets and turning to stare at the building, taking it its high and ornately carved arches – the beautiful stained glass window that marked it as a place of worship. Pete couldn’t deny its beauty. “It has been getting my people killed for centuries, and faith should be a private thing.” He glanced around, hand closing around Pete’s shoulder as he pulled him in close to stage whisper, “I don’t like how they look at me.”
Pete shrugged, he didn’t go to church very much these days. Confession even less than that. His sins were many, of the flesh of the mind. He didn’t think that his uncle – the priest of his family’s parish, would particularly enjoy his confession, when Pete finally worked up the courage to lay himself bare before the Lord.
That wasn’t the case now, and Pete threw his cigarette on the ground, staring thoughtfully at the bespectacled man before him. “What do you know about alternative power sources, Mister Weisfelt?”
It seemed a strange question, but Pete was always asking Mister Weisfelt questions like this – impossible ones that he could never quite explain. Weisfelt had the answers, he always did – muttering in Yiddish and in Russian as he puttered about in the back of his workshop, fixing clocks and explaining mysteries that Pete could not begin to comprehend.
He’d left Russia – ‘transferred’ is how Mister Weisfelt had put it – to help with projects in the United States, but he was never clear on the details of what exactly that entailed.
Arthur Weisfelt gave Pete a hard look, staring at him for several moments before turning, walking away without a word. “Enough to know that the likes of you cannot handle them,” He said as Pete lurched forward, struggling to keep up with him. Together they turned down a side-alley, covered in garbage and smelling of rot. “Come, I will show you.”
The watchmaker’s shop was located off an alleyway near Eldridge Street. They slipped in and the watchmaker turned the sign on the door to read ‘closed’ in three different languages. He stepped through the carefully organized chaos of the store front and through into the back room, muttering to himself in what sounded to Pete like Russian, but it could have been Yiddish, he honestly wasn’t sure.
He’d never been good at languages.
Pete raised his hand, reaching to touch a particularly shiny and curvy clock and Mister Weisfelt shouted, “Do not touch anything!” Pete pulled his hand back awkwardly, wondering how the man had known.
Arthur Weisfelt reappeared with a stack of papers in his hands. He spread them out on the counter top. “You are going to have to do some research,” he commented, pushing his glasses up his nose with his thumb. He licked it as he lowered it back to the papers and began to flip through them quickly. “Where did you hear tell of this?” he asked, pausing for a moment on a coil of wire that looked nothing like a power source and more like a mess to Pete.
“Dame hired me to look into it. Overheard tell of it some place, shady characters talking about using it on the President.” Pete was an honest man. Myka Bering had been correct to assume that. His hands shifted to his pockets and he lit a cigarette carefully, trying not to notice that his fingers were trembling.
“Da, that would be problematic,” Mister Weisfelt paused, contemplating a particular page of notes for a moment before turning them towards Pete. They were written in English, which made Pete grin, cigarette hanging loosely between his lips. He gripped it more tightly and inhaled, counting to three before turning his head to the side to blow smoke.
The page described a turbine, small, powerful – that could harness the power of the wind into a small and centralized stream. Reports of it had surfaced all across Europe during Bismarck’s’ campaigns and even before that when it had been Napoleon using it. Apparently, that small stream of concentrated wind energy could be created by as simple a method as a person blowing on the turbine. It was light, compact, and easy to carry.
“This is a load of bull,” Pete muttered, flipping the page over and expecting to see a weapon that he understood.
Arthur Weisfelt gave Pete a mysterious look. “That is where you are wrong, Peter Lattimer.” Pete winced as he heard his name said with a thick Russian accent. It did not sound pretty. “A man I knew once by the name of James MacPherson felt as you do, but his mind was changed one day in London. We cannot ignore what is clearly in front of us.” The man’s eyes grew cold and the timbre of his voice changed, low and threatening. “Do not make the mistake that James did, Peter. He did not believe and now he believes too strongly. When this is done and over, I would not be surprised to find that it is he who is plotting the downfall of the president.”
Pete pulled a notebook out of his pocket and jotted down the name for memory. His letters were large and blocky, but they had a fluidity to them that Pete had always enjoyed. “What makes you say that?”
“Because the man said he’d do it for the glory of England, once upon a time – and I’d never put it past him to try anything.” Weisfelt shoved the piece of paper that Pete had been reading off of into his hands. “Now shoo, I have to get to temple.”
“I thought you said-“ Pete began, folding the paper and tucking it into his inside jacket pocket.
Weisfelt grinned at him making shooing motions with his hands. Pete took the hint and left, the door closing not quite fast enough for him to hear Weisfelt call after him, “The services start at seven, you dumb shmok!”
Pete loved the library, had since it had officially opened in 1911. It had been his refuge after his father’s death when he had been utterly unable to deal with the consequences of being, suddenly, the sole breadwinner for his family. His mother had taken on her job soon after, and Pete had run away to Europe to fight in the war. Everyone in his family, it seemed, embraced the idea of escape to some extent.
He met HG by the south entrance, at three on a Saturday afternoon. They had four hours to find something – anything – that would disprove Mister Weisfelt’s theory that this threat was caused by some sort of mystical wind turbine. Ms. Bering was not in attendance just yet – and HG said that they had arranged to meet an hour or so later in one of the research rooms downstairs.
“You don’t really believe him, do you?” HG wanted to know, pulling a pen knife out of her pocket and cutting off the end of a long and thin cigar. Pete pulled his book of matches out and offered them to her, she lit it expertly and leaned against one of the columns that decorated the outside of the building, contemplating the passersby, smoke trailing off the end of her cigar.
Pete shrugged, “Sounded like a load of bull to me – but he’s not steered me wrong yet.” That was what worried him, more than anything else. Pete did not put any stock on the weird or the supernatural. He’d seen enough death to last a lifetime and the last thing he wanted was to find out that people had invented new and bizarre ways to kill each other.
Weren’t guns enough?
HG was more likely to believe. Her mind worked that way, too fast for Pete to keep up and too entertained by the fantastic for anything else. She’d written wonders, Pete had read them, loved them and then realized that HG was a woman which made them even more awesome to behold.
Pete watched as HG shifted, pulling at her vest and chewing moodily on the end of her cigar. “I don’t like this,” she said at length. Pete tended to listen to her when she had something that took her a while to say. “Arthur has never steered you wrong before, yes, but he has also never told you about a lark so fantastic that we’re left with little to go on at all.”
“You don’t think the dame’s making it up do you?” Pete asked, watching as HG blew smoke rings with expert form. “She seemed pretty serious to me.”
Eyes flashing dangerously, HG shook her head. Her bangs fell into her eyes and she suddenly looked young and innocent. Pete knew from many a fist to his jaw that HG was neither of those things; but it was nice to think that he associated with ladies on occasion. Even if that was woefully far from the truth. “She is most certainly not. She would not have sought you out if she was.” HG leaned back, staring pensively at nothing in particular. “No, I am not entirely sure what she heard, but if it is the same thing that your Mister Weisfelt thinks it is, we must tread lightly. It would be a shame to upset the delicate balance we’ve achieved between ourselves.” HG stubbed out the rest of her cigar and inclined her head to Pete. “Come on then, we’ve got research to do, and Ms. Bering will be joining us presently. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to be able to tell that pretty face something.”
“You don’t bother to hide it, do you?” Pete muttered, pulling the door open for HG and following her into the library. It didn’t particularly bother him, he knew that HG was fairly indiscriminate in her lovers, but she never bothered to hide her pursuit, even if of the fairer sex.
She turned then, eyes glittering mischievously, “The times are such that I do not need to, quite as much.”
“Just makes a man uncomfortable,” Pete shook his head. “I mean, we necked…”
“We thought we were going to die,” HG pointed out as they headed through the main reading room. Patrons milled about the room. “The circumstances were quite a bit different than they are at present and I have no intention of kissing you ever again.”
“Well that’s just swell.” He rolled his eyes at her back and she made a rude gesture without turning around. She really did know him too well.
They had made an appointment for a research room, one of the small and cordoned-off rooms in the basement of the library. HG had gathered a stack of books from the librarian, who raised an eyebrow at Pete but was otherwise silent. She handed him a stack of newspapers, yellowed with age and Pete wrinkled his nose at the smell of mildew and old that seemed to emanate from them. “Be careful with them,” the woman said severely, “and don’t smoke down there!”
Pete gave a three fingered salute. “Scouts Honor.”
Too bad he’d never been one. He’d read about the formation of the organization and had supported it and many others in his youth. Being a young progressive had had its perks. He had been able to speak with a great many of the leaders of the organization before he’d run off to war and lost himself entirely.
His hands were shaking.
HG lead him down the stairs and they found their room with the electric light on and the table devoid of anything save a single notepad that HG mentioned bringing down earlier when she gathered the materials for this scholastic venture.
Pete unfolded Mister Weisfelt’s paper from where he’d tucked it into his breast pocket and offered it to HG, who read it carefully. “This is the same object,” she breathed, eyes wide. It was as though, up until that point, she had not truly believed that Pete was telling the truth.
“Told ya so,” Pete grinned. He settled down and pulled the first old looking book towards himself. On the Unexplained by Martin Hessin, Junior stared back at him and Pete felt his eyes glaze over. Where was Ms. Bering? She struck him as the sort with a mind for research. One that he clearly did not possess, as the idea of reading so many academic books was making his head literally hurt. “Guess we should just...”
“Hup to,” HG muttered, chewing on the back of a pencil. She was reading Mister Wesifelt’s document carefully, jotting down ideas as they came to her. “This is going to take a while.”
It was easy to slip out of the room for a smoke once Ms. Myka Bering arrived. They had settled in for about an hour before the need for another smoke was too great and Helena had to excuse herself. She inclined her head to Peter, who shrugged. He wasn’t breaking the rules, not in here, and had been out a few minutes before. He didn’t need another.
Ms. Bering watched Helena leave, eyes cast low over the book she was half hiding her pretty face behind.
“Be back in a minute,” Helena said quietly, pausing by the door, before exiting at Peter’s distracted nod and Ms. Bering never looking away from her. Helena liked that, how she could command the attention of ladies and yet blend in with men. She’d had many lovers in her life, it was easy, sometimes, to forget how much fun the game was.
The library was close to deserted with the dinner hour quickly approaching. Closing time was coming soon, but Helena knew a few of the librarians on a personal level and had been given permission to stay later, should the need arise.
It would, they had nothing to show for their hours of research (and carefully taken smoking breaks).
Dark clouds rolled over the buildings and Helena peered up at the sky through the trees in Bryant Park, wondering if it would storm before the night was out. The air outside was thick, pregnant with the scent of the city in summer – of garbage and barely veiled dirt and grime. It was a strange smell, but one that Helena had grown accustomed to since coming here after the war.
That had been Peter’s idea, really. He’d seen that she couldn’t go back to that place – back to where they all thought her a traitor, and he’d suggested that she hitch a ride with him on a boat to New York. His family was all in Chicago now, having left the city after Pete’s father’s death; he had no one. She had no one. They could be together in their loneliness.
It seemed like a brilliant idea at the time.
There was no one waiting for her in London, not any more. Charles had told her not to come home and her father’s disapproval radiated through a telegram with the simple condemnation of an entire country. Her books were banned; her life there was essentially over.
Three cigars left, she’d have to get some more soon. Helena selected the least battered-looking one out of the trio and cut the end off with an efficacy she’d learned through years in the army. Back then it’d been cigarettes – the cigars were an indulgence she allowed herself. In reality, Helena realized, she was the worst sort of smoke-eater.
A woman’s voice rang out clear behind her in the deserted park. Helena nearly dropped her cigar, turning with angry eyes to find herself face to face with the one woman who could still bring a scowl to Helena’s face.
The woman was black, taller than Helena, and incredibly imposing on her stance, despite her simple dress and spectacles. “I see that you are well,” she said, inclining her head and drawing Helena’s attention upwards, to where she’d braided her hair into a complicated coil on top of her head. For the life of her, Helena could not understand the hairstyles of African women – endlessly complicated (but their hair, in Helena’s experience, was far more interesting than those of Anglo-Saxon heritage).
Helena raised a shaky hand up to her face, touching her cheek, checking to make sure she was still whole – still there. She wasn’t nearly as shell-shocked as Peter was, but there were lingering effects of being down there, of fighting, of lying through her teeth on a daily basis. She had hated running away to play war games, but it had seemed the best option to her at the time. “You just about scared the life out of me!” She scowled, glaring at the woman in front of her. “What are you doing here?”
What was a very good question. The woman never showed up unless something positively foul was amiss, and Helena hated it when she did. She did not know why this woman, this negress, seemed to think that she was the solution to all of her problems but for some reason she did. Helena hated that she had somehow become the go-to person for anything strange and unusual that happened in this godless city. And that somehow this bloody woman was always spearheading Helena’s involvement.
The woman inclined her head, almost shrugging before pulling a notebook out of her jacket pocket and flipping through it with quick efficacy. She paused, an Eye or Horus upside down on the page facing Helena and looked over her spectacles as Helena moodily puffed on her cigar. “Your Ms. Bering has stumbled upon something very important; I trust that you are going to help her to recover it?”
Helena scowled, “Naturally. It would be rather rude of me not to, wouldn’t it?”
It would not be in good form to help a lady like Myka Bering. Peter was the one who was going to get paid, but Helena had far more tangible goals in mind. She liked solving puzzles, saving the day, it was what she did. But to get back to England, to finally be able to look Charles in the face and tell him that she’d take credit for her own work now, thank you very much, that was her end goal.
“I would think so, yes.”
“Then why are you here, Frederic?” Her tone was curt, but still full of the thinly-veiled politeness that had been perfected through many years of playing the role of someone she was not. Of flirting indiscriminately just because she could get away with it, of putting on appearances while her brother took all the glory for her work.
Mrs. Frederic bridges her fingers together, staring thoughtfully out across Bryant Park. “Because you are aimless – and I have a word of advice.”
Helena shook her head. She would not play this game again. Not after the last time, where someone that Helena cared deeply for had ended on death’s doorstep. “I don’t trust you, not after that incident with that compact.” She scowled, stubbing out her cigar. “Bloody well nearly killed Henrietta and she never forgave me for it.”
Standing there, watching as the woman that she had pined after for years fall into a madness was not the way that Helena imagined spending last Christmas. The compact had found its way into her hands from some unknown source and Helena had watched as Henrietta had let it take her, pull her into a towering rage, and put an ax in her hands.
That was the first time she had met Mrs. Frederic.
It had also been the first time she’d ever seen anyone shot with anything other than bullets or gas. Henrietta had fallen unconscious and they’d gotten that compact away from her.
Helena had never seen her again.
Mrs. Frederic lit a cigarette and pulled it slowly, like a European. Helena glared at her, wishing that she’d just go away and stop ruining her life. “She wasn’t a good influence on you, you’ll thank me for it later.” Frederic flicked some ash off the end of her cigarette. “Besides, that compact had to be neutralized and it was the only way we had at the time.”
Helena scowled. “She was to be my lover, and you took her from me.”
“She had been corrupted.” Frederic retorted, meeting Helena’s glare evenly with a steely gaze of her own.
Who did this woman think she was?
“I do not believe you.”
Frederic’s smile was almost predatory. Helena swallowed as the woman leaned forward, eyes resolute. She wasn’t as tall as this woman, nor as large. She knew how to fight, how to break kneecaps and how to run away like a girl, but Helena wouldn’t do that. She wouldn’t let this woman who didn’t know her place intimidate her into doing anything. “You do not have to; just know that I am correct.” A self-satisfied smile played across Frederic’s lips and Helena wanted to scream in frustration. Mrs. Frederic was right, she always was. Helena was just not fool enough to admit it to her face. “You need to go back to the first place you saw the turbine, start there.”
“I never saw the bloody thing,” It had been dark, the package had been shoved into her hands by the lieutenant, and she’d been up and over the trench, crawling on her stomach through grime and wire and god only knew what else. The package had been in her pack, along with an extra gas mask. The gas mask had been her undoing, as she got stuck in a hole with a German and a whole lot of mustard gas.
Her pack had been gone in the morning; her service weapon had still been there, in one hand and a scrawled message telling her to not sleep on the job. In German. The bastard.
“Come now, you know that to not be true.” Frederic tutted.
Helena pursed her lips, trying to figure out how to best get away from this woman. “Regardless, that arse of a Hun stole the entire package that I was to deliver, got me banned from England – all for saving his worthless life. If I did have this device, I would have known, Frederic, you know that.” She gave Frederic a wry look. “I’m not that much of a patsy.”
“Go to France, Wells, perhaps there you will find the answers you seek.”
“It seems, Ms. Bering, that we must go to France.” Myka looked up, eyes narrowing as she brushed a lock of hair out of her eyes. They were hurting, just a bit, in the dim light that they had holed themselves up in. Souring through books was hungry work, and given that smoking was banned in the library, Myka spent more time outside with Pete, sucking down cigarettes to help her concentrate. Pete’s hands shook as he smoked. Myka wondered if he even realized that he was obviously shell shocked, that there was treatment available (she couldn’t attest to how good it was, though, having never been in a war before).
HG – Myka had surmised her name was actually Helena on a careful rifle through her wallet when she’d disappeared and left her coat hanging over the back of her chair – leaned in close. Too close. Not that Myka particularly minded, but there were certain things that one simply did not do, and it was endlessly distracting to have those dark eyes and the way HG’s hair fell into her eyes and made her look younger, innocent; staring at her. It made her look less dangerous.
Myka liked danger more than she cared to admit.
“I trust you speak the language?”
Myka turned, looking at HG full on, her lips quirking upwards into a small smile. She was aware of what was happening here, to some extent. This was her consent to let it run its course. She’d played this game before, it worked best in innuendo and clandestine shadows. “Perhaps it’ll be my little secret, Miss Wells.”
HG laughed and leaned back in her chair, crossing her arms like a petulant child and scowling. “I do wish you’d stop calling me that,” she said, lips almost pouting as Myka continued to grin at her.
“What?” It was Myka’s turn to incline her head, curiosity spreading across her face
“Miss,” HG Wells leaned over, her face swimming close into Myka’s vision. She smelled of oil and cigar smoke and the barest hint of tea – not at all like a woman. “I am hardly innocent.”
Chapter 3: The Journey
- During this time period airplanes were still in the early biplane stage of development. Charles Lindbergh did not complete his solo flight across the Atlantic until 1927 - so to travel anywhere in Europe from the United States would probably require traveling via boat.
- Passports during the 1920s were not technically necessary after 1921, when WWI officially ended and the treaties were sighed. Still, it was recommended that one still traveled with a passport.
- Flyboy is a glamorous term for a pilot.
- Sheik/Sheba as slang for boyfriend/girlfriend is in reference to the movie The Sheik, starring Rudolph Valentino that was released in 1921, it was wildly popular and created the popular slang during the 20s.
- Checkered Cabs are the most historically significant cabs of the era, dating back to ~1915 or so when they were first painted yellow to make them more visible.
- Boilersuit is British slang for coveralls.
- "Three Letter Man": is a polite way of saying someone is gay.
Chapter Three, The Journey
The plan had become thus: Pete would chain smoke himself to death, arrange for transport across the Atlantic, and they’d go root around on old battlefields in France. Helena had been right, that woman did not know her place, and was clearly sending them on a wild-goose chase. Tickets across the Atlantic were still expensive, and there was no way to get there quickly. Pete wished that they’d figure out a way to fly there, but it simply wasn’t possible. Claudia Donovan told him so, every night at dinner. Apparently she planned on changing that and Pete wished her all the luck in the world.
He just hoped that Ms. Bering’s pockets were deep enough to afford the trip.
HG had offered to pay for the tickets when Pete had voiced his concern to her over breakfast one morning at a diner on 42nd Street close to Times Square, and had procured Ms. Bering papers seemingly at a moment’s notice (HG had to be running something on the side for the mob, there was no way that you could do that legally).
He thought it was a bad idea, going back to the place that ruined him, but Arthur Weisfelt had given them a name and Mrs. Frederic had given them a location; both had obviously known more than they were letting on. The next logical step would be to simply go and see if there was anything substantial to the claim. All of Ms. Bering’s accusations had come with a timeline, and they assumed that the plot was still in the planning stages – otherwise they would return to find President Harding dead and themselves a colossal band of failures.
“Are you sure?” He asked Ms. Bering as they sat in his office, smoking and staring moodily at each other as they waited for HG to return from an errand. She did that sometimes, mysteriously vanished and came back an hour later with the solution to all of their problems. Pete had once accused her of using her ‘feminine wiles’ to get whatever it was that she wanted out of people, but HG had pointed out that her fists were just as skilled as her lips and she’d rather punch people than sleep with them.
Pete had said a Hail Mary for her and had hoped she’d go to heaven in the end. Knowing HG though, she’d find it boring and come back to haunt Pete’s office or something equally horrible.
“Quite,” They were talking about the conversation that Ms. Bering had overheard. They were not quite certain that this turbine was even in the United States. Ms. Bering had a close-to-perfect memory for such details and recalled the conversation. There had been talk about moving the weapon and choosing a speech scheduled for late September as their attack point.
Why they would be talking about such events out in the open, in front of a reporter was completely beyond Pete, but Ms. Bering didn’t look much like a newsman and she certainly did not act like one. Pete knew the type, they hit the juice hard; and Ms. Bering did not even seem compelled to go out to such establishments unless it was for a story.
Pete liked that, it made it easier for him to take her as seriously as she took her own job.
“It just bothers me that we have no way of knowing if this trip will be anything other than a shot in the dark,” Ms. Bering sucked on the back of her pen and frowned, staring down at her notes. “What would we find over there?”
Bad memories, ghosts of a past that Pete wanted to avoid at all costs, a devastated country. The list went on and on, but they knew where they had to go. To Lorraine, to a home in the countryside that had been so conveniently provided to HG by ‘that woman.’ Pete knew what had happened with Henrietta, he did not blame HG for her hatred of the woman in the slightest.
“Adventure, Ms. Bering,” The door behind them opened with a click that indicated that HG had picked the lock instead of knocking and Pete shook his head as she slipped into the room. Her hair was falling out of the loose braid she’d pulled it back into to keep it off her neck in the heat and her shirt was dirty with sweat and what looked like… tomato? Pete didn’t want to know. “And a chance to see the world.”
Ms. Bering smiled as HG collapsed into a chair next to her and tossed a packet of papers that she’d pulled out of her jacket pocket to Pete. He caught them and was ripping open the envelope as Ms. Bering commented, “Why, Miss Wells, have you been running in this heat?”
There was the faintest hint of a smile playing across Myka Bering’s lips that Pete noticed, a subtle gesture that indicated that she was teasing his closest friend. Pete wasn’t sure what to make of that, and decided to come back to it later.
“What is this?” He asked, flipping through a few of the papers that had been contained in the envelope and raising an eyebrow as the name James MacPherson came up over and over.
HG leaned over, plucked the papers from his hands and handed them to Ms. Bering. Pete pouted, having not had a chance to read them, yet. “I took the name that your Mister Weisfelt gave you and asked around about him-” Pete suddenly had images of HG marching right up and into the British consulate and demanding to see all the information they had on the man, despite the fact that she was technically wanted for treason in England. “and this is the information that I was able to come up with. He’s a former government agent – didn’t say spy per se – that was working out of London in some sort of very hush-hush organization. He defected during the war and no one’s seen him since.”
Pete lit a cigarette. He inhaled slowly. “Do you think he’s dangerous?”
“Undoubtedly,” HG replied, leaning back in her chair, her jacket shifting to show that she, too, was wearing a shoulder holster.
Ms. Bering reached forward and picked up the book of matches that Pete had tossed onto the table and lit a cigarette of her own. Pete watched her with narrowed eyes as she inhaled, a calm coming over her then as the cigarette (this time in a filter) began to glow at the end. “Well, should we find him in France; I trust that you two will find a way to stop him.” She blew smoke up at the ceiling, her lips quirking upward into a wide smile. “So how are we going to go?”
“I know a flyboy,” Pete began and HG rolled her eyes at him.
There was something, a lust or maybe a zeal for adventure that flashed in Ms. Bering’s eyes then, and her painted lips formed a nearly perfect look of surprise. Pete found that to be rather distracting, but he knew better than most when he was not wanted and pushed the thought from his mind. He’d offered to take Ms. Bering out to dinner a few times, and she’d turned him down saying that she did not have time for any sort of a sheik at this particular moment. Not that it stopped her from giving HG almost vamp-like glances on a regular basis. He wasn’t bitter, no. “You want us to fly – as in an airplane – across the Atlantic? Mister Lattimer, are you mad?”
Pete laughed, ignoring the fact that HG was giving him a curious look and Myka was looking at him as though he had grown another head. He raised his hands up in the air, cigarette between two fingers and a wide grin on his face. “No, that would be suicide, I want us to fly to Halifax, in Nova Scotia, where we can catch a ship from there to Paris – it’ll save us a good week in travel time.” He rummaged through some papers on his desk and found the steamer tickets. “Three tickets leaving on Tuesday. That gives us tomorrow to prepare and then Sunday to travel. We’ll get there with plenty of time.”
“Mister Lattimer, I am unsure as to why we must leave out of Canada. I haven’t got a passport.” The treaties just went into effect last year, Pete reasoned. It would still be smart to travel with one even now, given how slowly news traveled across the world. Telegraphs were still the best way to get news across the Atlantic, and the wires could be unreliable at times. Ms. Bering was smart to know that having one would be the better option, even now.
“They’re technically not needed-” Pete began, but HG cut him off, pulling a second document out of her jacket pocket and presenting it to Ms. Bering with a sly smile.
He tapped ash off the end of his cigarette and watched as Ms. Bering smiled back. Curiouser and curiouser, the book had said. He was inclined to agree.
How was it that HG had managed to find a woman who shared her predilection in such a large city? Surely there could not be that many of them? Pete hoped not, anyway, it was sort of an assault on his manhood.
“Taken care of,” HG said quietly as Ms. Bering unfolded the document.
“Miss Wells, thank you,” Ms. Bering turned and began to rummage through her handbag, pulling out the requisite amount of money (it was not small, Pete knew this from his own passport venture before enlisting) and counting it out carefully as she said quite earnestly, “I should pay you back.”
HG closed Ms. Bering’s fingers around her crumpled dollar bills and coins and let her hands linger there, eyes intense. “Money is no object; I wanted you to accompany us.” She grinned, and glanced over at Pete, who nodded his agreement. “After reading some of your work, I daresay you could use a spot of adventure.”
Myka Bering grinned at them both, smoothing her dress and putting her money away. She stared at the passport in her hands for a long minute, fingering the photograph that she probably was unaware that HG had taken, and staring at it. She nodded her consent and Pete gave a quiet whoop, this was an adventure, after all. “Well, alright then.”
Still, the information that she’d been able to gather on James MacPherson did indicate that if there was to be a threat to the American president, he would be behind it. He seemed the type of zealot that Helena had thought to have perished in the war, or gone off to India, or maybe one of the other colonies – anywhere but come to America and to have to deal with the national fervor at actually helping to win something important and to establish a presence on the world stage was not something that Helena would wish on anyone.
She frowned, biting at her lip as the cab lurched forward once again, dodging around pedestrians and other automobiles. Checkered Cabs were larger vehicles, they tended to need more space than the public was comfortable allowing them, but as they were traveling with luggage, it had seemed the best idea.
That and Peter was paying for it, so Helena did not mind at all.
They were headed to an airstrip on Long Island, and this was the final leg of the journey, as the city gave way to neighborhoods and the hint of farmland on the horizon. She didn’t think that the driver had ever been this far out of town, and at fifty cents a mile, he was earning his pay well.
It was hot in the cab, stuffy and the air wasn’t moving at all. Pete was smoking out the window and Ms. Bering was leaning out hers with a curious expression on her face – wonderment. Helena had never seen such an expression of childlike glee on a beautiful woman’s face before and she longed to reach out and touch Ms. Bering, to see if she was real. There was something about that woman, something that enticed her, drew her in.
Whatever it was, it certainly wasn’t proper and there was no indication that Myka Bering even suffered from the same predilection that Helena occasionally did. Helena’s eyes narrowed as she stared forward and out of the front window, arms folded tightly around her body. She had to stop doing this. She would only get hurt.
The airstrip itself was a long and unpaved swatch of dirt at the end of a dead end road that sported a hangar and a garage. A legend painted on the side of the building said that for five dollars, the pilot could fly anywhere this side of Chicago. Helena was not sure that she wanted to test that claim, given the run-down look of the place.
A man wearing a boilersuit, with the top half cinched around his waist and a white undershirt stained with oil grease and dirt, came out of the hangar then, wiping his brow and raising a hand in salute to them as Pete helped the cab driver unload the three suitcases they’d put into the back of the cab with them. Helena took a moment to be appropriately scandalized by the man’s lack of dress in public, passing him off as blue collar and therefore probably unused to seeing people of class, before she raised her hand back and waved.
She was the agreeable sort, after all.
As Pete stepped forward and the two men shook hands, Helena stuck out an arm to hold Ms. Bering back. She did not want to intrude on such a reunion, plus the man was rather dirty and Ms. Bering was wearing a lovely travel dress that Helena would have hated to see ruined. “Give them a minute,” she whispered, grinning over her shoulder at the reporter, who nodded.
She felt like an intruder, staring at this reunion before her. Obviously the two men were good friends, but Helena had never before met him, or even heard tell of him. Pete wasn’t exactly the most private person in the world – he’d become more inward looking since he’d stopped drinking – but certainly not that private.
Pete turned then, grinning unabashedly at them both. He clapped his hand on the slightly shorter man’s shoulder and steered him over to where they were waiting to be introduced. “HG,” Helena winced, wishing that he’d stop using that horrible nickname she’d adopted during the war. She’d asked him to stop, to no avail. “Ms. Bering, this is Jinks,” The man inclined his head, eyes narrowed, but not malevolently so. He instead looked merely curious. Helena wondered if he was an old soul, the depth in her glance gave her pause and made her feel as though a hand of judgment had just looked her over. An interesting talent, should he not be, “Jinksy here is the best flyboy this side of the Atlantic – he’ll get us halfway there.”
The man called Jinks raised his hand and gave a mock salute. Helena did not return it, as military service was nothing to look down one’s nose at. This boy was old enough to have been in the war, had he chosen to go. He lacked the wounds, the way that Pete’s hands shook around his cigarettes, how everything seemed so strange now that they were civilians again. No, this boy had never been, Helena was sure of that.
“Howdy folks,” Jinks said, before turning back to Pete and adding, “Pete, that girl you sent me’s aces. She can fix anything.”
Helena was quick to realize that this must be Pete’s landlady’s niece – the girl with no family to speak of and a brother who had run away to go to college of all places. It seemed that Pete had finally found her a place where she could be herself. Helena was happy for the girl, she was far too smart for her own good, and this would give Claudia Donovan a creative venue that would not result in Pete sleeping on her sofa for weeks at a time because his room was blown up.
“Told you,” Pete said, grinning. He clapped his hands together and headed towards the hangar, leaving the man to shove his hands into his pockets and contemplate the odd pair that Helena and Ms. Bering cut, standing almost uncomfortably close together despite the Long Island heat.
Helena swallowed her pride, putting on her best smile and offering her hand to the man, who shook it evenly. His hand was rough, calloused and accustomed to hard work. Helena respected that instantly, and schooled her features accordingly – a strong handshake lead to a great many things in life – confidence above all else. “So, Mister Jinks, is it,” she began, as Jinks offered Ms. Bering his hand as well.
Her handshake, Helena noted, was every bit as strong as a man. This intrigued her endlessly – they would have to spend more time together, so that Helena could pry those secrets from Ms. Bering’s beautifully painted lips.
“Steven, actually,” Mr. Jinks replied and Helena nodded at him. Steven was a perfectly acceptable name, and Jinks was rather a lark. She couldn’t think of the last person she’d met with a surname such as that – it simply was not that common.
“It’s lovely to meet you Steven,” Helena found herself grinning, acting her best Pete for all the world to see. This wasn’t her, her moments of lucidity and clarity did not come this often. They were better when she was on a case, when there was something that she could keenly focus her mind on and pay no thoughts to the demons of the past, when she had a game to play. Pete was the same way, only his signs were far more overt – anyone could look at him and realize that he’d never fully come home from the battlefield. No one even knew Helena had been there.
She wanted to keep it that way. Her reasons for going had been her own, and her charade had cost her everything she had. Now it was just the job, the puzzle, and then on to the next one. Her one distraction – Henrietta – was gone, Mrs. Frederic had seen to that.
Ms. Bering seemed to have noticed how Helena’s expression had momentarily darkened, as she raised a hand and tentatively rested it on Helena’s arm. She felt her expression soften then, her eyes crinkle at the corners and warm, almost effortlessly. It was astonishing what this woman did to her with simple gestures and smiles. “I’m Helena. How do you know Peter?”
Steven Jinks looked just a little sheepish. He rubbed a hand at the back of his neck, stained shirt in sight for all who cared to see, and stared off to where Pete was now excitedly talking to the short and red haired (Helena’s nose wrinkled – she was so dirty) form of Claudia Donovan.
“I ah… encountered him while he was on a job.” Steven explained, gesturing that they should collectively make their way over to where Pete and Claudia were now waiting for them to come back. “He uhh… helped me out of a tight spot.”
Pete snorted, “More like I got him out of the club before everyone there got arrested for being three-letter men.”
Helena’s eyes narrowed and she could see Ms. Bering’s hand fly to her mouth before it slowly lowered again, clenched into a fist and then relaxed. A proper reaction out of her, finally. Helena was beginning to wonder if Ms. Bering was moved by anything save inappropriate flirting.
She smiled then, he was at least partially a kindred spirit. “Well how lovely for you, Mister Jinks.”
The hangar was caught in half-light and Helena squinted up at the large and hulking form of what was decidedly not a biplane. Or any sort of airplane that she had ever seen before.
“Like it?” Claudia Donovan asked, wiping her hands on a rag and tossing into onto an open tool box.
She couldn’t do anything but nod; this was the most brilliant thing she’d ever seen in her life. This was a plane, a plane that could carry people at distances like a dirigible, only without the potential hazard of gas igniting at any possible moment. From the looks of it, it was clearly heavier-than-air, instead of the usual lighter-than-air models that were popular with flyboys these days. A white-washed steel hull and two twin propellers on each wing instead of the single on the front end of the craft.
Across the call, a call sign that Helena had never read before had been painted over what had obviously, at one point, been an old Boeing tailpiece. ‘SJCD-1 Interceptor.’
“Built her myself,” Steven Jinks commented. “Claud here just helped me get her in the air.”
Claudia smiled at him and Helena found herself full of a strange sense of pride.
American ingenuity was truly fascinating.
It was strange, though, to be in a foreign country. Myka Bering had never left the US, or New York proper really, save for college and she did not think that Massachusetts really counted as a far step away from New York. There was more old money there than in Brooklyn, however.
Everything looked so different here, the countryside was different. Flat and covered in farmland and small outcroppings of trees that could be seen though the small portal windows of Mr. Jinks’ aircraft, it was so unlike the densely forested swaths of northern Maine that they’d flown over. She did not know if calling it a plane was truly appropriate, as it did things that no airplane Myka had ever heard of had done.
She sat on her suitcase, fingers curling around a cigarette and watching as the smoke rose up from it. She was in over her head. She had to be, she was a society reporter turned features writer who was very good at investigative reporting, there was very little that indicated that she should be traveling across the Atlantic with a private dick and… she supposed that Helena Wells was also an investigator of a sort.
The nicotine in the cigarette soothed her, calmed her nerves as she stared up at the large and hulking form of the steamer. She wasn’t sure that she wanted to get on, to get on was to risk sinking like the Titanic and Myka wasn’t exactly enamored with the idea of drowning thousands of miles from everyone and everything she’d ever loved.
The pursuit of this story was the only thing that drove her now. She had to get to the bottom of this. No one could be foolish enough to seriously attempt to kill an American president, and to talk about it so brazenly in public at that!
The very idea of it filled Myka with a rage that she could barely contain. A rage that made her long to be alone in the practice facility of the Holyoke fencing club, rapier in hand, taking out her aggression with perfect form. They didn’t know that she was skilled with a sword – it was a useless skill to have now, and Myka intended to keep it to herself. She’d seen Peter Lattimer’s gun, a German model; and she knew that HG Wells was not foolish enough to go unarmed.
Still, no one knew that they were looking into this matter.
No one knew, but Myka could not shake the feeling that she was being watched.
She inhaled deeply, not caring that this wasn’t considered proper in the eyes of many progressives, the cigarette was helping. Her nerves were calming.
They boarded the steamer two hours later, Pete had both insisted that she call him Pete and then said that he’d procured two cabins in middle class. They would not be surrounded by the rabble, he’d explained, and then had added that she would have to kip with ‘HG’.
Myka had decided that moniker came from their time together during the war. They were obviously very close, a friendship that could only be formed though the trails of life and death together. Pete seemed steadier when Helena was there, watching him with cautious eyes. She wondered what they had seen together, what they had done when they realized that they were an American and a woman fighting in an European man’s war.
“That’d be swell,” Myka said, wondering if it truly would be. She wasn’t sure that she could do it. If she could play the game that Helena Wells was so clearly engaging her in. She wasn’t sure she wanted it, if she had the stuff to keep up.
Helena had smiled at her then, kind and friendly – not at all predatory.
Maybe Myka could do this.
There was a set of bunks in the small cabin, one on either side of a wash basin – the toilet was down the hall. Helena claimed the bunk on the right without asking and Myka took the left with nothing more than a raised eyebrow.
They sat, staring at each other, heads ducked low in the small sleeping alcoves.
“I’ve never traveled this far by steamer before.” Myka admitted with a hesitant laugh after Helena pulled a cigar out of her jacket pocket and leaned across to the portal window to open it. She wanted as Helena cut off the end and lit it carefully. She blew the smoke out of the window politely, but Myka did not truly mind the smell. “Only up the Hudson to my grandparents in Albany.”
Helena gave a small shrug. “After reading about so many nautical disasters, I can imagine why one would avoid it.” She flicked some ash off the end of her cigar and stared out the window for a moment, before turning and asking with the most innocent and conversational tone that Myka had ever heard her use, “So tell me Ms. Bering, how did you become a reporter?”
She’d hoped to never have to tell the story. It was not her finest hour.
Going to a women’s college, Myka had always thought that her merits would be enough to get her by in the world. She was pretty, she knew that. She knew that her looks could open doors for her, and she had shamelessly abused them to get the job in the first place. Mr. Samuel – whom everyone just called Sam for short – the features editor of The Star had taken a liking to her and things had become rather complicated, if Myka said so herself.
It wasn’t that she didn’t like him, but rather she felt she had no choice but to go along with it. She knew that she would always have a choice and she supposed that she’d made the right one in the end. Her dignity was less-than-intact, yes, but Sam had at least been nice when she’d told him that she couldn’t sleep with him anymore.
He’d seen her merits as a writer, though, so her job was never in jeopardy. Her reputation, however, was in the can and would probably remain there until she or Sam moved on from that job.
Not wanting to appear a dumb Dora, Myka lied as easily as she could. It wasn’t that hard to stick mostly to the truth. “It’s something of a boring story actually. I applied for the job straight out of school, they accepted my proposition and upon reading more of my writing decided that I was far more suited to features writing than contributing to the society pages.”
Helena gave her a look then, one that clearly knew far more than she was letting on. Myka wondered how easy it would be to duck out of this conversation entirely. Still, Helena laughed quietly, her voice slow and full of that same intrigue that made Myka want to play this woman’s game. “Oh come now, there’s more to it than that.”
Myka plucked a cigarette from the case in her purse, and lit it carefully, blowing out the match and giving and flicking it out the window. “Potentially, but a lady must have some secrets.”
“I shall endeavor then, to pull some of them into the light.” There was something about the way that Helena said it, stubbing out her cigar and giving Myka that down-cast eyed look that made Myka feel uneasy. Like she was the prey and Helena Wells was the predator.
She took a long pull on her cigarette, “Why Miss Wells!” she knew it was a bit of a foolish exclamation, but she did it anyway, “I would like to see you try.”
Helena leaned in, her lips close to Myka’s, eyes cast low. Myka started, exhaling slowly as she tried to figure out the most dignified way of extracting herself from this situation. “I do not try Myka Bering,” Helena whispered, her breath hot on Myka’s cheek, “I succeed.”
Myka opened her mouth to reply, completely taken aback by how bold Helena was being, how borderline obscene. Helena was quicker, leaning in, crossing the final distance, and placing a single, innocent kiss on Myka’s parted lips.
Helena lingered just long enough to make her intentions perfectly clear, before Myka pushed her away. Myka’s cheeks burned and her hands flew to her mouth, covering it and looking scandalized.
“Think about it, darling,” Helena said with a wink, and left the cabin.
Chapter 4: The House in Lorraine
- The Lorraine Région of France is one that is historically noted as being strongly mixed German and French. The area in question was part of the territory that Germany ceded to France in the Treaty at Versailles. Despite the strong presence of German heritage and culture in the region, French was instituted as the administrative language and the language used in schools. A lot of those with connections in Germany left the region for Germany proper at this time.
- The way that I have written Myka in this particular story is that of a young woman who is aware of her options. This is a bit unique as a woman of Myka's upbringing would probably not realize the options that Helena was presenting to her. This is part of the reason that I wrote Myka as having been educated at a woman's college, because such activity was more ... prevalent in such institutions, still is.
- Again, sheik/sheba is slang for boyfriend/girlfriend.
- The Cathedral that Myka mentions is in Metz. It's quite lovely.
-Trains, at this point in time, were still the fastest way to travel from place to place within a country. The train lines were rebuilt soon after the war - cutting across the devastation of the countryside to bring infrastructure back to the country.
- Telegraph abbreviations were used for common expressions in order to save on the cost per letter of sending a telegraph. In telegraph style, the phrase 'Nalezing' means 'Do only what is absolutely necessary'; and 'Empanel' means 'This is a matter of great importance.' Telegraphs were the fastest and most efficient way of getting information across major oceans during the early 1920s.
Chapter Four - The House In Lorraine
France was not what Myka had expected or read about when she was a child. It was a bleak and desolate place. The countryside marred by the marks of being a battlefield for a war not over its territory, but for the free world.
The train rumbled through the countryside, past farmland just beginning to be reclaimed from battlefields, mud still marring the terrain everywhere and long trenches cut across fields of grain. She was sitting on the opposite of the compartment from Helena and Pete, pretending very hard to be lost in staring out the window.
She couldn't look at Helena. Not after what she had done.
And it was not that Myka did not like the idea of such advances, but to do so in such a public place, and without preamble was unacceptable. Such games were meant to be played out behind closed parlor doors and half-hidden behind shared books or even newspapers. It was not the place to do such a thing in a steamer compartment that you had to share with another individual for a week. Not when Myka was not entirely sure that she wanted to play the game in the first place.
No time for a sheik, she'd told Peter Lattimer, certainly no time for a sheba. She was far too busy to entertain a lover of any sort, and he'd respected that fact when she'd told him that while nice, she had no intention of taking him up on his very nice offer.
Now, if only she could find a way to tell Helena the same thing.
Myka chewed on her lip, gloved fingers resting against her chin as she leaned forward to get a better look as the train sped past a burnt-out building. There was a small crater in the ground next to it – it must have been from a shelling.
A man standing just by the building turned and watched the train fly past – much how Myka felt the past weeks had gone since she'd obtained Pete's – and he insisted she call him that – services. The world was passing her by and she seemed stuck in doing things how she'd always done them. She was trapped, full of fear and terrified of what she knew, of what faced them all.
She knew the fantastical. It was intimately familiar to her, much like the words that Helena Wells had once upon a time put to paper. She had read Helena's books, had lived them. She had been drawn into fantastic worlds by so many great authors that it was hard to imagine that such fantasy could exist in the real and physical world.
Myka Bering played the part of a skeptic well, she thought. The evidence was all there, wrapped up in a neat little package and delivered to her father's bookshop when Myka pretended to not be looking. She'd recognized the name Weisfelt and Frederic almost instantly, and she wondered what all this had to do with her. With Peter Lattimer or Helena Wells.
She felt as though they were all pawns in a much larger game of chess, being moved by unseen forces towards an endgame that Myka could not yet see.
She was content to play that game, at least.
The train was beginning to slow as they pulled closer to their destination. Somewhere in Lorraine there was a man who lived in a house by the countryside. A man who did not belong there, apparently. He was the soldier who had stolen the information about the turbine from Helena during the war, the man who had left her in the middle of no man's land to die.
It had been easy to talk about that, at least, when crammed in a compartment full of awkward tension and an underlying sexual current that Myka found to be incredibly distracting, not to mention wholly enticing. She shook her head ever so slightly and glanced across the cabin to where Helena was pretending to read and Pete was going over his notes. Things were about to get very, very interesting.
The train stopped at a small village just three stops past Reims proper – fully into the province of Lorraine. Myka had seen photographs of this countryside before, had seen depictions of the cathedral in the city there in books. They were not like this. Not a burnt-out hull of a countryside full of hatred and wounds that would only heal with time.
She swallowed, drumming her fingers on the doorway until they were cleared by the soldiers who greeted them to get off, watching as Helena spoke in terse French and German – accented and muddled together, almost impossible to tell where one ended and the other began. This place was deeply seeded in both, there was no middle ground, despite the fact that they'd expelled all the Germans back across the border.
"Ouais, take the north road out of the village," the soldier explained in heavily accented English, having understood who exactly it was that they were looking for. "After about half a league, there should be a house. Go there. There you will find the one you seek."
"Merci," Helena thanked him, and clapped him on the shoulder, saying something else, something low and unintelligible to Myka. He smiled at her sadly, and shook his head. "They have not been seen here in many years," he said in quiet and forlorn-sounding French. "It would be nice to have peace like that."
She did not ask, it wasn't her place, but took Pete Lattimer's hand as he helped her down from the train. They would not be here long. Myka hoped beyond all hope that they would find the man they were looking for, find the turbine, and be able to go home triumphant.
Such things never worked out all ducky like that though, but it was nice to hope.
They were on a case, on a job. He could do this. They were traveling light, having left their things at the village in, where he'd rented a room. He figured that he'd find a chair to sleep in and that HG and Ms. Bering could share the bed. They weren't going to be staying long; just long enough to ascertain if the turbine was even still here, and if it wasn't, where it had gotten to.
Pete lit a cigarette and stared off across the countryside. The war had been bad here, this entire area had been occupied by the Germans for a large part of the war and people were just starting to come back. He could see the signs everywhere, those with German heritage were being expelled, forced back across a heavily guarded border to their homeland. Good riddance, Pete thought. Germans were nothing but trouble, it seemed.
"Is that it, there?" Ms. Bering wanted to know, pulling on his arm and pointing to a house just over the next rise. It was strange to see her in trousers and well-worn walking boots, but she had insisted that she not wear a dress out across the muddy terrain that they were now traversing. It was a wise decision, and when she'd come down looking every bit as practical as all the other women in Pete's life, Pete could not help but shake his head.
He understood their need for liberation, because it was foolish to have a man make the woman's every decision, but at the same time, some things were pushing it a little bit too far. Ms. Bering had a man's job, and a man's way of doing things. She was brisk and businesslike and got things done correctly the first time. Pete liked that about her.
He squinted at the house, cigarette half hanging form his lips and turned to HG, who was watching their backs as they walked. He didn't know why he was so paranoid just to be back here, but he could hear the tat-tat-tat of the machine guns even now. He hated it, he kept flashing back to that moment in the war when HG was gone and stuck in between the trenches and he thought he'd never see her again.
She was his best and closest friend.
"That should be it, the shop boy's directions were good," HG nodded her agreement and pulled the brim of her hat down just a little bit further over her eyes. Pete didn't like it when she did that, it made it nearly impossible to know what HG was thinking and that was a terrifying thought in and of itself.
He clenched his fist and sucked hard on his cigarette. This was going to be unpleasant.
"You need to wait here," Pete said to Ms. Bering, watching the house closely as they drew level with it. They were still a good distance away, close enough to see it clearly and to see lights in the window and smoke coming from the chimney – but not close enough to be seen. "I don't want you getting hurt."
Ms. Bering gave Pete a look of utter disgust and reached into the long and thin pack that she'd slung across her back before they'd departed the inn. He'd wondered what had been in there, and when she pulled out a short-barreled shotgun, he was just a little bit impressed. Ms. Bering tilted the pack over and pulled out two shells, which she quickly loaded into the gun and snapped it back into the ready position. "I will be just fine, thank you, Mister Lattimer."
HG snorted. "So that's what that was," she said leaning in close over Ms. Bering's shoulder (Pete was suddenly very aware of Ms. Bering's body language, and how she seemed completely and utterly conflicted in that moment). It was strange to see HG get so close to another person, she usually kept her distance with the marked grace of a lioness stalking her prey – but now she was up close and personal and far too interested in how Myka Bering handled a shotgun.
"Well," Pete said, looking away and back towards the worn shingles and peeling paint of the house just over the hill. "Just be sure not to shoot me."
He knew that it was pejorative, that he should not imply that Ms. Bering would shoot him just because she was a woman with a gun, but he could not help himself. There was something off-putting about seeing such a weapon in such a pretty woman's hands. The words came tumbling out of his mouth and he regretted them instantly.
"Pincer?" He asked, pulling out his gun and turning to HG. In terms of strategy, that was probably their best move. If he were to take the front and they were to go around back.
HG was loading bullets into her revolver, her side-arm from the war. Pete had lost his after his first battle, and hand taken the gun that now rested in his hands off of a dead German soldier. It was a good weapon, well made, and reliable. It didn't jam like his previous side-arm had. Pete watched as she spun the chamber and flipped it closed, wondering how many times he'd seen her do that since they'd first met. Hundreds of times, the same precise and practiced movements. It took a fella back that was for sure.
"Really, Peter, I was just thinking of knocking on the door," HG cocked her gun and smiled wickedly at Pete, before winking at Ms. Bering, who flushed and looked away. "You two wait here."
His face fell, "Why do you get to go?" Pete demanded.
"Because," HG said, tucking her revolver back into her jacket and straightening her collar. "You do not speak German."
Oh yes, that would be a very good point.
Pete watched as HG picked her way down the road, kicking at a stone, taking a wide turn around the building so as to not draw too much attention to herself. She was smart, her approach was standard. Pete leaned back on his heels and turned to see Ms. Bering's face pulling up into a knot of worry.
"It'll be ducky," He said, placing a reassuring hand on her shoulder. She flinched a little when he touched her but soon relaxed. It was nice, to know that he could still calm people down, even if he could never stay calm himself in such a situation. Up and over, they said, and then they all died.
"I…" Ms. Bering began. She was fidgeting, shifting her weight from booted foot to booted foot, her face pulled downwards into a tight frown. Pete wondered what exactly had happened between them on the steamer. He'd never seen two women so uncomfortable around each other and yet so desperate to be near each other. It was such a strange combination.
He wanted a cigarette.
"Yeah, doll," Pete asked, trying to prompt her to speak. He reached into his pocket and found the last of his cigarettes. He'd have to buy more before they left. They were the only things keeping him steady right now.
The sights and smells of this particular region of France were just too much. His senses were completely overloaded with memories that he did not want to have. People had died here, just over that ridge. Hundreds of people, entire companies and regiments. Brutal battles over the barest scraps of territory. It was attrition, the scholars that were just barely beginning to study the patterns of the war said now. The weaponry had advanced beyond the field of military tactics and nothing had prepared them for the sheer loss of life that all sides would experience. There was a whole generation of people just… gone.
It sickened him.
He struck a match and turned himself so that the misty rain would not hit the end of his cigarette, sucking hard to get it lit. He'd mastered this art while trapped over here, fighting for something he wasn't entirely sure he believed in.
It was just the right thing to do.
"I don't want to see her get hurt," Ms. Bering whispered and Pete let out a barking laugh, exhaling smoke upwards into the sky.
"HG? HG is way too good to let a hun take her out," Pete couldn't help but grin at the end of that statement, thinking about how easy it would be to forget how easily people died in a place like this.
Helena could handle herself, Pete was sure of it.
He was younger than her, but he'd aged in the few years since that night they'd spent together. He looked different clean, a full mustache but he still kept the reedy look that he'd had even then. He couldn't have been more than seventeen then. Helena hated him even then.
It was easy to get in; the door was weak, on old hinges. Her gun was level when she held it at the ready; he was unarmed, sitting at his kitchen table, spoon half-raised to his lips. He set it down, and said in broken English, "Lieutenant Wells… I had not expected to ever see you again."
She held her ground, swallowing whatever fear that lingered from the act of breaking in, of facing this man who had so singlehandedly ruined her life. He was there, the same as he had been – a comrade in arms, an enemy combatant who have no thought to the honorable act of her saving his sorry life. Her eyes narrowed and she whispered in German learned in school and perfected on the battlefield during the war, "The sentiment is entirely mutual."
"Then why are you here? You are a long way from home, little pretend soldier." She had never learned his name, she realized then. It was strange to think that she had spent years hating a man and she did not have so much as a name attached to him.
The war had made her a fool it seemed.
She didn't relax her finger on the trigger as leaned against the doorway. He was unarmed, she could tell that now. And unless the man could kill her with a spoon, she did not worry for her safety. A German living in France while they were active purges – she believed the polite term was deportation - of all those with German heritage back across the border into their homeland; he would not want to attract unwanted attention. "There are questions I have to ask," Helena took a step forward, and then another, her confidence growing with every step. "About what you stole from me."
This was no longer about Ms. Bering and the plot to kill the American president. Her flirtation with Myka Bering was just that, in this moment, a passing interest. Something that could not be afforded, a distraction. She would find her answer if it was the last thing she did.
He took a bite of soup and Helena pulled the hammer back on her gun. "Put down your spoon," she hissed, "Or I will shoot it out of your hand."
She had no doubt that her aim would be true. She was good – too good – at this for it to not be true. He would pay for trying to continue his meal, oh yes.
Her stomach growled and she winced in annoyance. They hadn't eaten much by way of lunch, being on a train and all.
He laughed at her then, easily switching back into his mother tongue. Helena was glad, his English was an abomination. "Oh that?" He flicked at a crumb on the table dismissively. "Sold it. To one of your countrymen. Horrible fellow, left about a week ago now." He laughed, "Said he had plans for it."
The Welby's hammer was easy to draw back, to cock and hold it ready. Helena held it level, her hand didn't shake. It had never shaken, not during the war, not during her training, not when duck hunting with her brother. She had good hands, steady hands. A writer's hands. "Give me one good reason to not shoot you where you stand," it came out in a low growl – German always sounded menacing and threatening. Helena liked it that way.
"Because, my lady, I know what he plans to do with it."
Helena's eyes narrowed and she released her thumb from the catch of the revolver, face pulling downwards into a frown. "You have two minutes before I reevaluate my will to let you live, Hun."
The German clucked his tongue and reached for his spoon again. Helena gave him a dirty look but let him. If it would make him talk, she was alright. It was still impossibly rude, but one could not expect civilized behavior out of a hun. "James MacPherson used to work for the English – an agent of sorts, and then he vanished, yes?"
"We know all this."
He held up a finger, giving Helena pause. "But do you know why he vanished?"
"Haven't the foggiest." Helena said airily.
"It is because he was recruited for something bigger than yourself, Lieutenant Wells." The German pushed his now finished bowl of soup away and frowned, as if he was reaching far back into his memory, prying information out of the dark recesses there. "That turbine I took from you, the Kaiser wanted it for the same reason MacPherson plans to use it."
"To kill the American President…" Helena said quickly, trying to keep him talking. She had never been much for interrogation. Beating answers out of people was more aligned with her skill set. Pete was better at talking and she was sure that Ms. Bering would be aces at getting this man to tell her whatever it was that she wanted to know.
Still, Helena was going to get her answers, one way or another.
"No, to send a message, something your pitiful female brain would not understand." Ah, one of those. Helena pulled the hammer back on her gun. Cocked and ready, her lips quirking upwards, daring him to push her just a little bit further.
"Do not make me pull this trigger."
He looked from the gun to her face and back again, spitting the words, "You haven't the courage, du dumme fotze."
She laughed then, it was so easy. To drop the gun quickly and shoot him through the kneecap as though it meant nothing. She didn't feel anything in that moment, just the thrill of inflicting pain, of being in control once again.
"You bitch," He hissed.
She shrugged. "Never dare a lady to do anything you wouldn't do yourself."
His hand was shaking on his kneecap, and Helena's lip curled upwards, watching as he struggled to bandage it. She'd missed the major tendons, he'd be able to recover if he found a doctor. She didn't much care to help him though, and when he began to speak in quick, frenzied German, she could barely follow his words. "It won't matter, he's gone and he's taken it with him. You are powerless to stop him, he has the force of the whole wa-"
As he trailed off, Helena lowered her gun again, this time pointing it at his other knee. She had no compunction with shooting him again, just for good measure. "The whole what?"
There was something about the way that he'd begun his statement that reminded Helena of something that she'd heard whispered about in London when she was younger. A shadowy organization that collected things for the good of mankind, and locked them away in a place where they would not be seen or heard from ever again; they were much discussed among the scientific community in London. Always tampering with things, and ruining perfectly good ideas. No one ever saw them though, no one knew where they came from or where they went.
She frowned, glaring at the German and willing him to spill as many of the details as she could make him without shooting him again.
He placed his hand on his heart and resolutely stuck his chin out. "I would sooner die than tell you."
"Then die you shall." She cocked her revolver, holding it level and stepping forward, leaning in close to rest it between his eyes.
She was not afraid.
"Wait! No, please!" He was crying, his breath reeked of garlic and of stale cigarettes. "He works for a group that wants to send a message that America is not the power that people thing it is, that the power is still in the Empire."
Now that organization, Helena knew quite well. "The Order…" she whispered, thinking of the woman who had found her before Henrietta had gone mad, the woman who had warned her then what was being told to her again now. "Frederic…" she whispered, stepping away. "I do so wish I could shoot you." She commented airily, she had to get back to Pete and to Ms. Bering. They had to get back to the states and fast, she knew what MacPherson was going to do.
The butt of her gun collided with the side of his face and she smiled wickedly at the German's unconscious form. "This isn't war any more. Murder is still a crime."
She did not think anyone would miss him, however.
Pete watched as she pulled her gun out the shoulder holster where she kept it and opened the revolver's chamber. She removed an empty casing and replaced it with a fresh bullet. Pete didn't blame her, she was usually prepared.
And yet he worried, if she'd actually killed him they would have to answer to the local authorities. Pete was sure that they'd respect HG's need to do what she had done, but as his best friend shook her head dismissively, Pete could not help but exhale quietly. "No, but we must send a telegram to someone in America straight away. The plan is to use the device during a speech in New York. I do not know when President Harding's next address is." She turned to their young client, her face softening, "Ms. Bering?"
She gave a small shrug, "As far as I know he isn't slated to come back until November." Her overcoat had come loose and the sleeve of her pale blue shirt was showing. Pete had been amazed to see her wearing practical trousers that morning, but now that he stared at her, he realized that she was every bit as practical as he was.
Only she looked better in a dress.
HG's brow furrowed and she bit her finger pensively. Pete started on his final cigarette as HG announced, "Then we must have someone there keeping their eyes and ears open for tell of any further attacks."
"Claudia?" He asked, exhaling smoke and staring up at the grey sky. He hated it here. Rainy miserable place that it was.
"I was thinking that Mister Jinks and Ms. Donovan would potentially be good choices."
Pete slung an arm over HG's shoulder, "We can catch the evening train and be on a boat back to New York by morning, come on!"
He had already composed the telegraph he would send from the Western Union office in village's train station. Claudia would know what it meant.
Chapter 5: The Speakeasy
- Juice is slang for alcohol, and gaspers are another word for cigarettes.
- Some common side effects of PTSD are nightmares. Pete's lack of sleep in this chapter has to do with his reliving past traumatic events. The shakes come from anxiety and nervous energy and are also a common side-effect.
- West Point is the US Military Academy.
- Alphabet City is a Neighborhood in Manhattan that bumps up against Little Italy and Chinatown. Because of this, most of the booze in Alphabet City was probably provided by the Italian mob.
- Tunnels were very common ways of smuggling alcohol. There are entire networks under many major cities in the US because of Prohibition.
- The Pulitzer Prize is a journalism award founded in 1917.
- Futzing is basically 'fucking' only not as crude. It is still used today in some expressions such as 'futzing around'.
- A Gin Joint is another word for a speakeasy - or underground establishment, usually mob run, that sells illegal alcohol.
Chapter Five - The Speakeasy
Their return trip to New York took surprisingly less time than their trip there, the winds and currents were with them, according to the ship’s captain, and when they pulled into the docks at Halifax, Pete could see Claudia Donovan jumping up and down and waving enthusiastically at them. There were immigrants on this ship, hundreds of them, and the crush of people was such that Pete had to pay a boy to haul their suitcases off and into the waiting car that Claudia had parked about a block away from the dock.
“How’s the weather been?” Pete asked as Claudia checked one more time that she had collected everyone before slamming the car into gear and taking off slowly into the press of people and traffic that surrounded them.
“Hot,” Claudia shrugged, “And there’ve been a few thunderstorms.”
“Sounds like we left at the right time,” Ms. Bering commented dryly as Pete lit a cigarette and turned to grin at her.
It was strange, how easy it was to get on with her. She was not the uptight stuffed shirt she appeared to be upon first inspection. No, Myka Bering was fun and smart and scary with that shotgun that she’d hidden among her things. Pete liked that about her, liked that he could talk to her without feeling as though he was somehow insulting her the way he felt sometimes when he talked to HG.
“Any word on MacPherson?” HG asked, leaning forward and touching Claudia’s shoulder.
Pete watched as Claudia flushed just a little bit before biting her lip and shaking her head. “Steve says that he found something, though – so I’d check with him on the ‘plane.”
HG smiled kindly at her and Claudia swerved to avoid a small child running after a ball. Pete just shook his head, wondering if the child had a death-wish or if life in Canada was really that awful. He figured the former, but you never could tell with kids these days.
It was strange to be back in territory that he knew so well and yet was so removed from. Pete’s brain was on high alert, his mind tight and controlled. He was trying, desperately, to maintain his focus. His hands were shaking, he’d gone back to France, back to the place that had ruined his life, and he’d lived to tell about it.
Perhaps it was easier with a goal. Pete did not know. He had not really slept at all on the return journey, and when HG had told him to go and find a woman to tire him out, Pete had simply shaken his head. He could not, it would not be possible. He wasn’t built for escapism in that way, anyway. It was more HG’s speed.
No, Pete preferred his juice to his gaspers and his gaspers to the company of women at times. He just hadn’t found the one, he wrote his mother, he would, in time.
Pete made his living looking for people, after all.
They had to find MacPherson. It was becoming something of a necessity. The way that HG’s German had talked about his plan was not so much a possibility but an inevitability and that scared Pete. He could not in good conscience, let the threat to the American president go unnoticed. He wanted to do something, anything really, to coax James MacPherson out of hiding and into the light once again.
An hour later they arrived at the airstrip where Steve had landed his miraculous plane and Pete was on his third cigarette. He would probably not be able to smoke for the rest of their journey, so he had to get the nicotine in him now, otherwise he’d get the shakes and the flashes and he really, really, did not want Claudia and Steve to see how bad-off he was.
“Alright Steve,” he said, untying their suitcases from the back of the car and hauling them bodily down from the back of the auto.
Steven Jinks raised a hand at them as they gathered their things. The propeller on his airplane was already spinning, getting ready to take off. They didn’t have much time to talk.
The airplane roared to life and Pete found himself gripping the armrest on his seat tightly as they rose up and into the air. Man was not meant to travel like this, he concluded as the steel frame of the machine shook and rattled as they climbed higher and higher into the sky.
He turned to see Ms. Bering leaning out and staring out the porthole window at the dotted patchwork of the scenery below, HG close beside her, and he closed his eyes.
This was going to be a long flight.
They landed at close to eleven in the evening and Steve offered to drive them back to the nearest train station in the back of his truck. There had not been much time to talk while on the airplane, as darkness fell the dangers of flying grew, Steve had explained, flipping on lights that flashed at the edge of the airplane’s wings and making a face at the growing darkness. They had to hurry, as he would not put it past the army cadets studying at West Point to practice their shooting as they circled around the city to cut back across the river to land at Steve’s airstrip on Long Island.
“So I hear that you’ve heard tell of our mystery man,” Pete said as he climbed into the cab next to Steve and settled down into the seat. The back window was open to the air and Pete knew that both HG and Ms. Bering were listening intently to what he had to say.
Steve did not cut the engine on, shoving his hands into the pockets of his coveralls and frowning. “There’s a place in Alphabet City,” he began, not looking at Pete. “Run by this colored girl.”
“A gin joint?” HG wanted to know, leaning forward through the window. Pete turned to look at her and shook his head ever so slightly.
Steve shrugged, “Something like that, yeah. Leena – she’s the owner - has got a tunnel down in the basement behind a fake wall that cuts into the subway lines – uses it to smuggle in new supplies.” Steve did not need to say anything else, only imply that there were probably less than favorable connections there – maybe even mob connections.
“Who does she run with,” Pete asked, he had to know – even if he was not going to go. He couldn’t go to another juice joint, not again. The last time he’d been he’d lost control, and the only good thing to have come out of that very bad night was a new found friendship with one Steven Jinks, three-letter-man and genius. “Do you know?”
At least Steve hadn’t come onto him when he was drunk.
“If it’s Alphabet City probably the Italians,” Ms. Bering put in. Her steno pad was out and she was writing quickly. Pete admired her dedication to her job, it was close to midnight now, and they had yet to return home. “Although I can’t see them employing a colored girl.”
They all paused then, thinking of the implications of that. “Perhaps she’s just a client of theirs? The Italians I know respect business people of all sorts,” HG shrugged and glanced over her shoulder. Claudia Donovan seemed to agree with her point, as she was leaning forward from her perch on top of Pete’s suitcase and nodding.
“I know a few of their low-level guys, decent sort, hardly judgmental at all,” she shrugged, and Pete realized that she was speaking of herself as well. “I can see them having some sort of arrangement with a colored girl if it earns them a few bucks.”
“Regardless,” Steve said shortly, turning the keys in the ignition and waiting for the truck to roar to life. “The proprietress of this place – it’s called the B&B by the by – is known to not judge people who need to use her passageway should the need arise. A friend of mine was caught there when the bull came looking to stir up trouble. He took the tunnel out and ended up in the basement of the library, where he came across the most extra-ordinary device and your man MacPherson.”
“Did he try anything?” Pete demanded, hands clenched into fists, desperate for action. This was a lead, a real, solid lead.
Steve put the truck in gear and they headed off into the night. “Nah, but the man introduced himself as a part-time librarian which is how I even heard tell of this story. You gotta go and talk to Leena and see if she’s seen anything.”
Pete did not say anything for a while, chewing at his lip and debating how was the best way to say that he had absolutely no intention of ever going to another gin joint again if he could possibly avoid it.
“I can go,” Ms. Bering said as they turned off of the gravel road and onto the paved street that drew them closer to town. Pete checked his watch, the final train would be coming through soon, they should have just enough time to get there and board – they could purchase tickets on the train. “Just… not tonight. I have to get home and speak to my editor in the morning. He’s taking a chance on this story.” She turned her head away, but Pete could see her cheeks flush a bit in the moonlight.
“I… I can’t let him down.” Ms. Bering concluded lamely.
“I can’t go,” Pete said quietly, his head hung in shame.
HG leaned through the back window of the truck’s cab and clapped him on the shoulder. “No one is expecting you to put yourself in that position, Pete. I will escort Ms. Bering. It sounds as though this establishment may well be the key to finding my mystery compatriot and stopping him for good.”
This in itself was not exactly something new. Sam oftentimes did not understand Myka’s writing process, but The Star’s readers ate what she had to say up and Myka had made a point of sending Julie –one of the copy writers – several human interest stories of a war-ravaged France while abroad via telegram. She’d included instructions for Julie to take the facts and embellish them as much as journalistic integrity would allow, but it was a far cry from her own writing.
“You have two weeks, Bering,” Sam growled as they glared at each other across Sam’s messy desk, proofs from this evening papers scattered across it and a steaming mug of coffee perched precariously on top of a copy the 1910 edition of Webster’s Dictionary. “Before I yank you off this story and stick you back on the society beat.”
“You wouldn’t,” Myka glared at him, she could not stand Sam since she told him that she would no longer sleep with him. She had kept her job on her own merits, thank you, but there was still the implication that she was not quite good enough for the job she knew she was stellar at. “I am too valuable to this paper.”
Sam blew smoke from his cigarette and flicked ash into the tray in front of him. “I respect your work, but not this damn time table. Stories should not take this long to develop. You find your man and write the damn thing, or you don’t. I don’t care either way, but it must be done soon. I can’t have your name out of the papers for this long, people will forget you and then I’ll be without an ace reporter.”
Myka rolled her eyes at him, but nodded her agreement. Going to France had been unnecessary, but not unheard of, for the story. She wished there was a faster way to get from here to there, but there wasn’t and she was stuck on a steamship with Pete Lattimer and Helena and that had been a disaster and a half.
(It was getting better though.)
It wasn’t as though she wasn’t trying, it was just that things were awkward when they should not have been and Myka did not know how to fix it.
“We’ve got solid leads here, Sam. The story’s about to be finished, are you prepared to handle it when I name names?” Myka asked, raising an eyebrow at her former lover and taking a long pull at the end of her filtered cigarette. “The Star isn’t The Times, you know. I could sell it to them.”
“You’re far too loyal for that, M-” he stopped just short of saying her name, like he always did. He could never bring himself to say it, to say who she really was. “Ms. Bering.”
“Well Sam,” Myka said, standing and smoothing down her dress. “I will report back when I have a story drafted.”
“It better sell me a million papers and win you a Pulitzer.” Sam muttered with a dismissive wave of his hand.
Myka have a self-depicting laugh. “The award is only five years old, why on earth would they give it to a woman?”
Wouldn’t someone please think of the men? Their delicate constitutions could not take a woman being a better reporter than them on a good day.
She was nearly out the door when Sam’s voice stopped her. “They give it to who deserves it, you write the best story, you win the award, Myka. You are fully capable of doing just that.” Sam was bathed in the light of his window, smoke slowly curling around his head as the overhead fan spun slowly above them. “Change the rules.” His silhouette said.
Myka intended to do just that. She walked out of Sam’s office with her head held high and her jaw set. She could beat them all at their own game. And thwart a threat to the president in the process. She could win it for herself, for Pete and Helena, for The Star.
Later that evening, Myka found herself standing in front of the mirror in her father’s W.C., squinting in the dim electric light as she tried to adjust her make up so it was just so. She did not know why she was doing this, why she was getting all dolled up to go out to a gin joint with H.G. Wells to investigate a lead. Yes, that was all that this was, a simple investigation.
It just felt like she had a steady and there were butterflies in her stomach and she could not think straight.
No time for a sheba, no time for a sheik. Myka kept telling herself that, but she found herself distracted by Helena’s dark eyes and kind smile. The way that there was always a reassuring hand at the small of her back and the way that Helena’s lips had felt pressed against her own.
Her father was puttering around in the kitchen, boiling water to shave, his razor in hand and a towel and brush tucked under his arm. “You going out?” he demanded, eyes narrowed and judgmental.
Myka swallowed, knowing her lips were painted a little too darkly and her cheeks were rouged and her lashes curled. Her father rarely saw this side of her. Her dress was cut above her knee and her heels were high, a string of pearls that had once belonged to her mother were around her neck. The dress was black, and it clung to her, Myka loved it.
“You’re dressed like a harlot,” Her father commented.
Myka sighed, pulling a wrap down off the coatrack by the door. “I have to go to a dance hall to gather some information for a story I’m writing. I have to look the part.”
“And the young gentleman waiting outside for you?” Her father jerked his thumb towards the kitchen window, and Myka crossed the tiny kitchen in three steps to see the recognizable form of H.G. Wells leaning against a lamp post, her cap pulled down low over her eyes, obscuring her female features. “A steady? Have him come up.”
“No,” Myka practically growled, arranging the wrap over her shoulders and pulling on her gloves. “Our relationship is complicated and work-oriented. I needed an escort.”
“Dressed like that?” Her father took the water off the stove and Myka frowned at him, heading towards the door. “I won’t wait up and when you end up pregnant you better marry him.”
She slammed the door like a petulant child and her hands shook as she tucked her clutch under her arm and hurried down the apartment stairs.
“Helena!” she called happily, knowing that her father was watching from the kitchen window. Impulse struck her, and Myka stepped in close and brushed her lips against Helena’s cheek, ignoring the Englishwoman’s shocked countenance as she glared up at her father in the kitchen window.
“What was that about?” Helena demanded as she took Myka on her arm and they moved down the street and away from her father’s apartment.
Myka gave her a small smile, “My father thinks you’ll get me pregnant.”
Helena laughed, “The hair’s a bit much, I take it?” She pulled at her cap and the hair that was carefully done up into an updo that Myka had never seen her wear before. Pinned back and tucked away, it did make her look very much like a boy. “It’s just so bloody hot.”
“It does make you look rather boyish – I don’t mind – futzing with my father is something of a habit of mine.” The words come out of her mouth easily and it’s back to the effortless dynamic between them. Myka liked them this way, when they did not have to put so much thought into the image that they were supposed to be maintaining. They were just two souls, out for a night on the town.
The threat to the president seemed almost negligible now. Myka was too wrapped up in the moment.
The subway ride to Alphabet City was fairly uneventful, and they cut through side streets until they found themselves in front of a small red door against the black of the building before them, a single lantern burning in brightly outside.
Helena raised her hand and rapped three times in quick succession on the door before stepping back, her arm again resting protectively at the small of Myka’s back.
On the very low cut back of her dress.
Myka swallowed hard, feeling the heat of Helena’s hand and the gentle pressure of her fingertips lingering just so.
The red door opened and a young man stepped out, hand tucked into the breast of his jacket, most assuredly on a gun. “Password,” he asked, his voice slightly accented. Myka guessed he was from the south and was trying to disguise his upbringing and origins.
Helena shook her head, “Of all the gin joints in all the world – the password is honeysuckle.”
The doorman flashed brilliant white teeth at them, jarring against his dark skin and stepped aside. “After you,” he said with a slight nod of his head. “Welcome to the B&B, Loreli Peters will be preforming in about half an hour.”
Myka pulled her press pass out of her purse and passed it over to the doorman, who took it and contemplated it for a moment before handing it back to her. “Ms. Bering, I hate to say it but this is not the best place for a reporter.”
“I received a tip-off that your proprietress has a tunnel out of here that leads to the central branch library among other places.” Myka tucked the press pass back into her purse and pulled off her shawl. “I need to speak to her regarding a man who might be misusing said passage for a nefarious act.”
The doorman let out a low whistle, taking Myka’s shrug from her as well as Helena’s jacket and a hastily added quarter as a tip. “That’s a high accusation there ma’am. Leena might be busy for a while tonight – what with Ms. Loreli performing and all. I’ll try and get her to speak to you tonight, but you might have to come back in that morning.”
“We will wait then,” Helena said, wrapping her arm around Myka’s shoulder and smiling at the doorman. “You have been exceedingly helpful, thank you.”
“This is a safe place,” the doorman grinned, flashing brilliantly white teeth once again. “We’re not here to judge and the music is good.”
He pushed open a second door, half hidden behind a hat stand, and Myka let Helena lead her into the smoke filled bar room of the B&B.
The quiet buzz of conversation and the gentle tinkering of band played in the background. Couples swayed together on the dance floor, men, women, together and separate. Myka felt Helena’s fingers close around her own and she allowed herself to be lead over to the bar.
“Scotch and uh…” Helena told the barkeep, a wizened older gentleman who was in the process of drying a glass when they approached him.
“Whiskey neat if you’ve got it,” Myka said quietly. She’d been to enough of these establishments to know that not everyone still had the good stuff and she’d had enough experiences with bathtub gin to know that she never wanted to get into that again.
Helena raised an eyebrow at her, “That’s a man’s drink.”
“My father is a terrible influence on my tastes,” Myka said, accepting the glass of amber liquid from the barkeep and smiling at him as Helena passed over a dollar for the pair of them.
“We’ll be back,” she said with a wave of her hand as they found a quiet spot away from the dance floor.
The liquor was good, a welcome reprieve from the weak beer that they’d had in France and the wine that Helena had snuck aboard the ship for them to share that one night. She’d apologized to Myka that evening for her actions at the start of their journey together and Myka had found the words to tell Helena that it was alright, that she really did not mind, but that there were certain ways that things were done and Helena was going about it completely wrong.
She’d let Helena kiss her cheek that night, and then her lips.
No time for a sheba.
The music stopped and another young man that rather closely resembled the doorman (Myka hazarded a guess that they were brothers) stepped onto the stage and announced the arrival of one Loreli Peters to the stage.
Loreli Peters was a tall woman, her hair natural and her skin black as night. Myka was struck by her beauty, by the way that she wore the silvery dress that draped across her body, and she flushed, thinking of how she really should not be allowing herself the indulgence of such observations.
But her voice, God above, her voice was amazing. Myka sipped her drink and watched as people began to move on the dance floor once again. Ms. Peter’s voice was a siren’s song, drawing them in, moving their fee to dance.
Helena’s hand was on her shoulder, and Myka turned, hair obscuring her vision for a moment before it settled once again and Myka was staring into Helena’s dark eyes in the hazy light of the room. Helena held out her hand, and Myka took it, gloved fingers resting tentatively on Helena’s outstretched palm. “Ms. Bering, might I?”
She set down her drink, “Yes?”
“It is safe here – indulge me?” Helena turned their fingers and stepped closer, her mouth impossibly close to Myka’s ear as Myka swallowed hotly and nodded her consent.
Myka supposed that she had nothing else to lose. The steps were well known, and she did not need to lead.
It was like them – everything about them came like this. Like an epic foray across a dance floor – trepidation following each careful step.
The hand on her hip was warm, heat shooting through the thin material of her dress – pooling in between her legs.
She swallowed as Helena leaned in close, “Let me in.”
Myka could not.
So much about this was taboo. She was a sinner, or was it a saint? To even entertain the possibility mean the latter and she hated herself for it. It came so easily. Helena leading, pushing, Myka pulling back, pushing forward again. The ebb and flow of the tides, an eternal dance.
Helena was pressed flush against her as Ms. Peters crooned into the smoke filled room, “Oh baby, oh baby be mine.”
It was strange, how little Myka cared when the doorman came and found them some two hours later, her head resting on Helena’s shoulder as they swayed together through the band’s last set. It was close to three, the bar would be closing in an hour or so. “Ms. Leena sends her regrets and wants you to come back in the morning – around lunch time?”
“Thank you,” Helena said, taking their coats from the doorman and draping her jacket over Myka’s shoulders. The doorman vanished from view and they stopped dancing. “We should go,” Helena whispered, her fingers ghosting over the lapel of her jacket, draped as it was over Myka’s shoulders.
Myka nodded, not trusting her voice. She did not know how to ask for what she wanted. Helena led her out of the B&B and into the night, not towards the subway, but down the streets towards China Town, and Myka realized that Helena knew what she wanted. The fluttering sensation in her stomach did not stop until Helena pushed open the door of the building where she lived and pushed Myka up against the wall just inside, her lips hot and demanding, her hands pulling at the base of Myka’s entirely too short dress. Warm fingers on her thighs and Myka felt herself lose the very battle she’d been struggle with for close to a month now.
She probably did have enough time for a sheba, if she really thought about it.
They climbed the stairs to Helena’s rented room and Helena’s lips were on her own, her hands snaking into Myka’s hair as they paused for Helena to fumble with her keys to unlock the door and grant them the privacy they needed for such an act.
Her dress fell to the floor and Helena’s hands were touching her everywhere, lingering, kissing – a never ending flurry of motion that left Myka panting and pulling them both towards the bed in the far corner of the room.
They landed in a tangle of limbs and Myka found herself pulling at the pins that held Helena’s hair up in its boyish fashion. She wanted to touch Helena’s hair, to feel it against her skin.
“Darling,” Helena said between hot open mouthed kisses after Myka worked out what had to be the tenth pin. “Let me do it.”
Myka relented, leaning back, letting Helena pull the pins quickly and efficiently from her hair. She shook it out, her skin glowing in the half-light from the partially covered window, as Myka unbuttoned her shirt and pushed if off her shoulders.
She hoped her father would understand when she did not come home. When Myka Bering, always denying herself the things she wanted most in life allowed herself this one indulgence. The feel of Helena’s skin against her own, of Helena’s lips and hands and tongue lingering in places that made Myka groan out her newfound lover’s name was enough to drive all fear of the repercussions of these actions from her mind.
Chapter 6: The Tunnel to the Library
- Chinatown in the 1920s was a bustling place, densely populated largely by men. It wasn't until later on when the women would start to come over. The housing there was, and sill is, much in the style described here, cramped tenement buildings.
- Myka mentions that lesbian sexytimes are illegal, and they were banned under NY law at the time. She would know that the target of such laws was almost predominately gay men, but women were still at risk of repercussions should they be caught. Homosexuality, at the time, was considered a mental defect.
- Pitman Shorthand was commonly used by stenographers and other reporters throughout the 1800s, before Gregg Shorthand - a more streamlined adaptation of Pitman came into vogue. Gregg Shorthand is still in use today and was fully in use by the time this story takes place in 1922.
- The mafia would use tunnels and secret passageways to bring illegal alcohol into speakeasies without it being seen from the street. These passages usually opened up to the sewers or the subway tunnels, giving hidden access for the suppliers.
- A bull session is a term for a male gossip session. Where men talk shop and the like.
- "cash or check" is an expression usually referring to whether or not you kissed now, or will wait to later. Myka's response of 'check' means that the necking took place where Pete could not watch it.
Chapter Six - The Tunnel to the Library
The morning was met with weak sunlight streaming through Helena’s partially covered window. The curtain was blowing slightly in a weak city breeze and there was just a hint of rain on the air. One had to be good to discern the smell of rain over the stench of garbage and too many Chinamen cooking their strange foods for breakfast, but the hint was there, nonetheless.
From the single bed shoved into the corner of the room, only the sounds of peaceful slumber could be heard, lost in the early-morning bustle of the city below. A crash, some shouts in Chinese, and Helena stirred. Her arm was numb, tingling as she moved around the warm body cocooned next to her. The day was already warm – too warm to be this close, but she did not want to move. It had been a long time since she’d been content to have a lie-in. A very long time indeed. She settled her forehead back against its resting spot and resolved to doze until her companion awoke.
Still, the wakefulness was catching and the slight tickle of thick brown curls just above her nose made her so uncomfortable that she had to pull the hand that she had so carefully wrapped around the sleeping form of Myka Bering up to rub at it.
Myka gave a sleepy protest and turned, face pressing down into the pillow for a long moment before she turned, eyes still half-full of sleep, and blinked at Helena.
“Good morning,” Helena whispered. Her voice was full of hesitation that she could not bring herself to outwardly show. She did not want to ruin the moment. She had had many just like this, closely followed by a crisis of conscience and a hasty retreat.
She hoped, she prayed, that today would be different.
“What time is it?” Myka asked, a sleepy smile crinkling at the corner of her eyes and around her mouth as she reached up and touched Helena’s cheek.
Helena pulled slowly out of Myka’s reach, turning to blink sleepily at the alarm clock on her bedside table. “Just past nine,” she said, turning in one motion and wrapping her arm back around Myka. They stayed like that for a long moment before Myka’s silence seemed almost too pointed and Helena propped herself up on one elbow and asked, “Myka, is something the matter?”
The smile that blossomed across her lover’s lips stole all thoughts of the consequences of her actions away from Helena like a thief in the night. Her breath caught and she grinned at Myka – still feeling half asleep and groggy in the early morning heat.
Myka shifted, rolling more properly onto her side, and then deciding to fall all the way over onto her back. She kicked the sheets off her lower legs, and turned to stare at Helena. Her eyes were still crinkled with a smile as she said, almost wistfully, “That’s the first time you’ve called me by my name.”
Helena chucked, waving her hand at Myka’s nude body and raising an eyebrow suggestively, “Well after what we did last night, it hardly seems proper…” She trailed off as Myka flushed brightly. She took note of the fact that Myka made no move to cover herself, merely turned her body in such a way that all the good bits were a little bit more obscured by the placement of her arm.
Spoilsport,, Helena thought, playfully reaching out and trying to roll Myka back over and onto her back.
“I-” Myka began, biting at her lip. She paused, seemed to think better of whatever it was that she was about to say and began anew, “It’s nice. Thank you.” Helena inclined her head and Myka moved to sit up, “We should get going. We have to go see that girl about her passageway.”
The sheets and limbs that had obscured Myka’s body from Helena’s eyes had moved as her lover made to sit up, and Helena found herself truly seeing Myka in the light for the first time. The woman was beautiful, her hair frizzing in the humid morning, her eyes still blearily with how little sleeping they’d actually done the night before.
“Yes.” Helena began, openly staring, completely and utterly unashamed in doing so. Some things were meant to be enjoyed, savored. The sight of Myka Bering naked was one such sight. Like a fine wine or a good bit of art, she had to be consumed with caution, with reverence, but above all else, with unrelenting scrutiny. “We should.”
“I…” Myka began again, folding her arms across her chest, but not looking away as Helena stretched, a small smile on her face.
“Yes?” Helena asked.
“Helena, we can’t do this again.” Myka dropped her hands to the sheets, staring at them, her cheeks bright red as she spoke. “It’s not proper.”
Helena had anticipated this, she really had. But she had enough respect for Myka Bering to know that if that was how it had to be, it would have to be that way. She had not set herself up for failure, however, H.G. Wells did not fail. There were, rather, setbacks and temporary blockades that had to be maneuvered around. She was skilled in strategy and knew how to best alter her attack in order to maintain the upper hand.
Still, the protest was weak and Helena did not think that Ms. Bering truly wanted to be rid of her so easily. She smiled, leaning forward, her nose almost touching Myka’s as she spoke. She delighted in the way that Myka’s pupils dilated and her breath caught. “Darling, I am hardly proper.” She breathed, pressing her lips against Myka’s, lingering there just long enough to promise something more. Should Ms. Bering want it, naturally, “And what is wrong with indulging something that two adults find mutually enjoyable?”
Myka, for her part, looked completely and utterly torn. She leaned back, just a little, and whispered, “It’s illegal.”
She considered this for a moment. Had they been in England, Helena supposed that Myka would have had a point. Here in America, however, the definition was far more stringent. Not to mention that the times were such that social mores were broken all the time. Her landlady had a negro lover, anything was possible. “For men,” she agreed, thinking of the laws and the raids that the papers reported upon. Ms. Bering had done one such story quite recently, Helena remembered how impassioned the defense of the men who had been using that particular location as a meeting juncture of many fractured lives had been. Myka Bering, if not for anything else, knew how to write a damn good story, if Helena did say so herself. “The area surrounding women is far more grey.”
“Bull’d probably ask to watch,” Myka gave a snort and shook out her hair, running a hand through her riotous curls, extracting several bobby pins that still clung to her hair, despite their collective efforts to remove them last night, “Men are pigs.”
This fact was most assuredly true. “And yet you will still sleep with them. It is an affliction we both suffer from.” Helena did not mind men. Men were easy, you could play them for what you wanted and then leave them and they’d probably be happier for it. Jazz and dance and booze, Helena loved all of these things, and the singers and the dancers that came with them? She could take one of them home if she so desired whenever she pleased.
America was a freer place than many Helena had lived in.
Myka sighed, “You too?”
Helena nodded, “Many of my lovers have been men. The ones that I have enjoyed the most have been women.”
Myka pointed at herself, a slow smile blossoming across her face as Helena leaned in and pressed her lips at the point where her cheek rounded at the edge of her lips. And then on her mouth. Their bodies shifted, Myka’s hands tangling in Helena’s hair.
They were, as it is oftentimes put, fashionably late to their lunch meeting with the proprietress of the B&B.
“I assumed he was with the Don,” the woman was explaining. She had given no last name, only her professional name of Leena with a shy smile and a wink at Helena that made Myka’s insides burn. She would not abide by anyone else flirting with what she had marked as her own with still-fading marks on Helena’s neck that the starched collar of her shirt did not quite cover. “He came in and asked for access to the tunnel in one of those rich sounding accents. I just assumed he was with them.”
Not a bad assumption, also one that would probably keep this young woman alive. The Italians were notoriously unfriendly when it came to people telling them what to do; Myka had been on the wrong end of that particular tidbit of information more times than she could count.
“So you gave it to him?” Helena asked, glancing over to see Myka’s notes. Myka didn’t know why she even bothered to look, considering that Myka’s particular brand of shorthand was not commonly taught in any of the trade schools. It was an adaptation of Pitman shorthand with some elements of Gregg. Myka’s father had thought that she should learn the classics before she moved on to the more modern, and therefore in vogue, Gregg.
“I saw no reason not to, he’s not bull and I have no reason to draw any more attention to myself and this establishment then I already have just by talking to a reporter,” Leena folded her arms across her dress and scowled, “You will, of course, not be printing anything of the B&B in your story.”
Myka shook her head. She would not name names unless it was absolutely necessary, it wasn’t particularly ethical and Sam didn’t like to do it. He preferred that she write absolutely ridiculous sensationalist prose because it sold him newspapers. Still, she was investigating this lead to the best of her ability, he couldn’t ask for anything more. “No ma’am, The Star won’t print a name unless it has direct relation to the story. I can just as easily say a juice joint in Alphabet City, there’s about a dozen of them that I personally know about, so there’s no way that the bull can come down on everyone.”
Leena scowled, “It’d be just my luck they come down on me.” She stood then, smoothing her dress down across her front. “I suppose you’d like to see it too?”
“The passage?” Helena asked, “Yes.”
Running a hand through her hair, the joint’s proprietress tapped a knowing finger against her chin and eyed Myka cautiously. “Technically that’s not quite right… it’s more of a cupboard that becomes a hallway that goes down past to sewer….” She trailed off, glancing at the dress Myka was wearing – the same one from the night before, before raising her dark-eyed gaze back up to meet Myka’s directly. “Not really a place for a lady such as yourself, Ms. Bering.”
Truth be told, Myka did not think that it would be that much of an issue. Her father was quite good at getting stains out of clothing and she did not think that they’d honestly follow the passageway through until she’d had a chance to go home and change. She’d been counting on that, honestly. She did not want to have to answer her father’s questions and Helena was smaller than her so borrowing a dress had been simply out of the question that morning. “Don’t worry about me, it’ll be gravy,” she waved her hand dismissively.
Leena gave her a long look but nodded her consent. She turned and headed towards the back of the B&B, through a door that opened into an organized office and then down some steps concealed behind a curtain and then a large Absinthe poster tacked to the wall in the form of decoration and clever concealment.
She hadn’t lied, Myka thought as Helena’s hand closed around her wrist and pulled her back as the pungent smell of sewer on a hot day hit their noses. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, Myka glanced at Helena, who had produced a handkerchief from her pocket and had it clutched to her nose as she peered into the gloom.
“When he comes, he heads north, towards Times Square and the library,” Leena said helpfully, bending and producing a lantern for the pair of them. Myka took it gratefully and lit it with the lighter that Helena passed over to her. “I’d head that way if you want to see where he goes.”
The secret door back into the B&B closed and they were plunged into relative darkness.
“Well this is a fine kettle of fish,” Helena commented, offering Myka her arm. “It’s only a few blocks to Times Square from where … I think we are; if we hurry we probably could get there and then out of this abysmal place before long.”
The tunnels cut into the subway lines soon enough and the smell of garbage and sewage grew stronger the further into the city they ventured. Myka’s shoes were probably ruined, but Helena’s hand was tight against her own and they made short work of the distance that they had to go.
A strange mark dotted the walls in places, carved recently, as the markings still bore the signs of being carved and the stone walls were still white with dust. Helena flicked her fingers disdainfully at the final, hook like symbol, and pulled Myka carefully around a corner. A metal door swam into view in the gloom before them and Helena drew a pistol out of her jacket.
“Stay behind me,” she said, stepping protectively in front of Myka. Her shoes squelched unpleasantly at something on the ground of the tunnel and Myka wrinkled her nose.
She was offended, just a little, that Helena was making a move to protect her as if she could not protect herself. While this was inherently untrue, there was an element of truth to it that she could not shake. In this dress, in these shoes, and with no weapon, she was better than dead should they encounter anything bad on the other side of the door.
She held the lantern high as Helena reached up and carefully pulled at the door handle. It resisted, just for a moment, before swinging open silently. Helena lowered her gun, squinting in the sudden electric light, as they both leaned forward and peered through the doorway.
A large machine dominated the room, steam billowing from beneath it as a single object spun at the apex of an arch that looked almost like that on an astrolabe. Myka’s eyes narrowed as she stared at the machine. There was no way of knowing what would meet them in the room, should they dare to go inside. She didn’t want to risk it, and she could see the hesitation in Helena’s eyes as she took stared at the device.
“That’s it,” Helena whispered, staring at the small wind turbine that was spinning as if trapped in a hurricane. The air in the room was stale and stagnant. The only light other than the electric lights came from a crack in the ceiling, arched as an astronomical observatory would be. “That’s what the German took from me.”
“We should go get Pete,” Myka whispered. Her hand was out reached and she pulled Helena way from the door. Hands resting on her lover’s shoulders, Myka added, “And perhaps your friend, young Miss Donovan?”
Helena looked up, eyes curious, “Why her?”
“Because two mechanical minds are better than one and I think we should try and disable that device before MacPherson uses it to kill the president.”
“You smell,” Pete commented, wrinkling his nose.
She gave him a withering look and pulled the box of matches that Pete had tossed onto his desk (he’d been looking through another case file, trying to tie up any loose ends before he presented it to his client in the morning) towards herself. She lit one of her thin cigars and leaned back against the wall adjacent to his desk, smoking.
Something was off, Pete could see it in the line of HG’s shoulders, in how she was sucking down that cigar far less than her usual gusto. No, she was smoking to forget something, or someone. “It go alright with that colored girl? You look like you’ve seen the mob…”
HG shook her head in the negative and tilted her head back. “We found the turbine. It’s hidden under the city, beneath Bryant Park is my best guess but I honestly have no idea if that was exactly where we were.” She shook her head, “Myka-Ms. Bering” – Pete’s eyes narrowed at her self-correction – “went home for a new pair of shoes and to telephone young Ms. Donovan. We’re going to need a second pair of hands to disable the device.”
The plans that Arthur Weisfelt had given them for the turbine had found a home buried in a corner of Pete’s office. When they had returned from France, he’d put the documents detailing the device that MacPherson intended on building that HG had taken from the man in France there as well. He had wanted to keep them safe, and hiding them had seemed the best option at the time.
Pete closed his current case file and stubbed out his cigarette before crossing the room to retrieve them. He’d hidden them because he wasn’t sure if anyone else would find out about them, if MacPherson had cronies, or if the bull themselves might want to know about this intriguing device that a Russian immigrant Jew apparently knew so much about. Pete supposed that some of Hoover’s boys might be interested as well, given the tenuous connections that this case had to the mob and to a plot against the president. If they were hidden, they were less likely to be noticed, and therefore their movements would be safe.
His suspenders cut into his shirt and undershirt, and Pete found his movements languid in the midday heat. He wanted another cigarette.
The plans were buried under his other jacket – the linen one that was cooler. He’d been looking for it. Mrs. Donovan had asked if he’d lost it when they’d gone to France, as it hadn’t turned up in the wash for that week. He set it on the back of the chair in front of his desk so he wouldn’t forget it and slowly unrolled the plans.
“Was this what you saw?” He asked, knowing all too well that it had to be more complicated than that. HG was a good shot, and could probably take out the turbine just on its own if it was merely positioned on top of a device.
HG pursed her lips and frowned. “Not exactly,” she gestured to parts of the plans that had been altered, picking up the stub of a pencil from the desk and sketching on what she had observed. “This section here,” she trailed her pencil along the left flank of the machine, “is about twice as big is represented here, and seems to be running off of some sort of power source. I’m not sure if its steam powered or a combustion engine, but it was emitting a good bit of smoke and was honestly a bit alarming to look at.”
Pete’s eyes narrowed and he reached out and took the pencil from HG, trailing a single thick line from the top of the machine where the turbine had been affixed to the power source and then along the arc of the axis that the turbine was affixed to. “If this were to be attached somewhere where it could be moved, or even shot into the sky…”
“It wouldn’t matter, the president would be a goner,” HG took a long pull on her cigar. “it’s somewhere under the street that would connect Grand Central to Penn Station – the president is due to make some speeches in Boston and Providence later on this month. It’d be gravy for this MacPherson fellow to wait until the president is taking the connector shuttle from Penn Station to Grand Central to catch the train to Boston from there.”
It sometimes astounded Pete how much HG knew about how the American political system and secret service worked, having been raised in England. It was logical that they would transfer trains in order to dissuade anyone from attempting to attack the president should they continue northwards across the less densely populated areas of Connecticut and Massachusetts. The secret service would probably have him take the train to Hartford or even Springfield and then transfer to a car there, just to be safe.
That was what Pete would have done, anyway.
“So MacPherson can kill the president through the wall on the subway line…” Pete ran a hand through his hair. “What purpose does that serve?”
That was just the rub. Ms. Bering had heard talk of this plot, but there was no motivation behind it. When Arthur Weisfelt had mentioned the name of James MacPherson and then Mrs. Frederic had again drawn attention to the man, he had seemed like the logical target – but why? There was no rhyme or reason to why they had been steered in his direction, but the more that they examined the man, the more logical the reasoning became.
Arthur Weisfelt had said he had been ‘transferred’ to America, after all. He hadn’t immigrated here to escape the Bolsheviks and their revolution; or the war, and his English was good enough to point to at least some time being spent in England proper – probably London.
What were they all involved in that they could not tell Pete and HG about?
He rubbed his eyes, it was baloney, all of it.
There was a quiet knock on the door and the tired-looking face of Ms. Bering swam appeared around it. Dark circles pitted under her eyes and she looked as though she’d run a full set of city blocks. It was hot out, after all. She had a shawl draped around her mostly bare shoulders and was carrying a satchel that appeared to be full of tools as she stepped into the room, “If I might interrupt this bull session…”
Pete inclined his head, “Sure, doll.” He watched as Ms. Bering and HG exchanged a long look before Ms. Bering brushed passed HG and set the satchel full of tools down on the chair in front of Pete’s desk. “I’ve telephoned Ms. Donovan. She was reluctant to leave Mr. Jinks before the end of business, but I would rather not interrupt Ms. Leena’s normal business hours tonight with another foray into her basement.”
HG glanced at her watch, “Is she taking the train in?”
Ms. Bering nodded, pulling a cigarette from trouser pocket – a strange sight, that, Ms. Bering had always been quite feminine in Pete’s eyes. And while there was nothing wrong with a woman in trousers, as skirts were quite impractical, it was still a bit jarring to see something so out of place. “I took the time to go home and change. My shoes were positively ruined.”
He blinked, the pieces beginning to fall into place. Ms. Bering and HG had gone out last night to the gin joint but had only gotten around to examining where the passageway went. They’d either gotten the bum’s rush out of the joint the previous evening, or something else had happened.
“I thought you two were going last night?” He tried to keep his tone innocent, but Ms. Bering’s cheeks were already tinged pink and HG was wearing a knowing smirk.
The sly dog! Pete gave HG and approving wink but didn’t push it until Ms. Bering volunteered, “The proprietress – Ms. Leena – had a live singer last night, not just the band. I know what that can be like for a bar runner.” She gave a little shrug, “The doorman asked us to come back in the morning, so we did.”
Glancing at his wrist watch, Pete rolled up the plans that they’d written all over and tucked them under his arm. He pulled on his jacket and grabbed his hat from the coatrack. “Claudia would have gotten on the three fifteen, it’s a fifteen minute walk to Penn Station from here. Let’s collect her and then head back there.”
Ms. Bering was silent as they walked down from the walk-up to Pete’s office. Her brow was furrowed in concentration as she flipped through her note pad, not really paying that much attention to where she was walking. HG was next to her, steering her gently with touches on her shoulder and long glances. Pete wondered what she was thinking about, what she could possibly be reading about in her notes that was so intriguing. “Whatcha looking at, doll?” he eventually asked as they headed up 7th Avenue. Businessmen and their wives dotted the sidewalks as they stuck closer to the buildings than the street. It was easier to travel under awnings and in the shadows. They drew a lot less attention to themselves, which Pete liked, because he still was note entirely sure that he knew where exactly they were going.
“Something about this whole thing is bothering me,” Ms. Bering said at length, flipping back in her notes. Her finger ran along a spindly line of short hand, “Helena you said that you’d met that negro woman, Frederic, before right?”
Pete winced, thinking of the business with Henrietta and how that compact had somehow driven the poor girl mad. The whole situation had been doomed from the start and Pete had not known how to prevent it from happening. Arthur Weisfelt had told him then that it was better to not get involved in such affairs, if he could avoid it. Pete had resolved to do just that, until Ms. Bering, her crazy wind turbine, and a plot to kill President Harding hand landed in his lap.
“Yes,” HG’s eyes narrowed as she nudged Ms. Bering around a vendor’s half-full crate of apples. “We met when she was looking for what had caused a friend of mine to go mad…”
Ms. Bering nodded excitedly, “A strange object that has powers we can’t explain. The same is true with the turbine, right?”
Pete met HG’s eyes behind Ms. Bering’s back and gave a small shrug. He had no idea what she was on about, but she seemed quite excited about something. “Yes… I suppose.”
“I think that this Frederic woman and Mr. Lattimer’s friend Mr. Weisfelt know more than they’re letting on.” She seemed rather pleased with this announcement and Pete frowned, staring out at the growing structure of Penn Station. There were so many pieces of this puzzle that he had yet to put into place, and they were running out of time.
He didn’t know what to think as they found Claudia waiting for them. She looked scared, as though she was not sure that she could handle whatever it was that they were facing. Pete honestly had no idea either, but handed her the tools that Ms. Bering had apparently had in her bedroom at home. She had explained that her father was not the handiest person in the world and it was usually up to her to fix the leaky pipes in their apartment and to do various fix-its on the bookstore. In her surplus of free time, that was, she had added with a roll of her eyes.
“You never stop surprising me, Ms. Bering,” Pete had smiled at her then as they boarded the subway that would take them back towards their end destination and the one place that Pete knew he should not dare step foot in. Going into a speakeasy was one thing, but to go in and not drink was something else entirely. An exercise in self-control that Pete didn’t think he possessed.
The door to the joint was set back down an alleyway and Pete could feel himself slowing with every step he took that drew him closer to that forbidden fruit. He tugged at his collar as Ms. Bering rapped smartly on the door.
“Are you going to be alright?” HG asked, glancing up at him and frowning at the nervous look on his face. “You look ghastly.”
She knew. He’d explained it to her several times, why he could never drink again, why he was afraid of what he might do if he went into a place like this. Where the booze was flowing freely and there was nothing that would stop him from partaking, from forgetting. He wanted it so badly. He knew he couldn’t have it. Couldn’t forget, had to remember their faces and their screams as they died. It was the only way to honor the dead.
“I’ll be fine,” He said, slinging the lantern he’d brought with him over his shoulder and smirking at HG. “So… Ms. Bering, huh?”
She gave him a look and Pete grinned wolfishly back at her. He couldn’t say he blamed HG in the slightest. Ms. Bering was a stunning woman.
“Come on, HG, cash or check?” Pete was nothing if not persistent, and it was distracting him from the fact that there was booze here and it probably was top-shelf stuff and hard to find. Here he could lose himself.
“She checked,” Ms. Bering commented dryly as the doorman lead them across the dance floor and back into the office.
“Y’all’d best find another way out, once we open the door’ll be locked,” the doorman said, tipping his hat at them.
Pete inclined his head and returned the gesture as he lit the lantern. They were plunged into relative darkness as HG fiddled with her matches, trying to get their second lantern lit.
“Gotta say, this is the last reason I thought that I’d ever end up in the sewers,” Claudia quipped, foisting the bag of tools further up her shoulder. Pete gave her a long look before turning his lantern to face off in the direction that HG had pointed them. The way was dark and he tried not to think about what might be on the floor. Rats, in general, made him scream like a little girl.
The trip was short, the city was so different on the underside. One did not have to worry about cars and carts and the mind-numbing crush of people that made Pete feel nervous and claustrophobic on the best day and out of his mind with fear on the worst.
It wasn’t that he didn’t know he was shell shocked, or that he woke each and every morning wondering I it would be easier to just go on and end all. Ending it would come easier, would come with a nice and neat little bow wrapped on top of it and he would finally, finally be able to sleep through the night again. He was a coward though; he could never go through with it.
Pete sighed and ran a hand through his hair, wincing a bit as the ceiling dripped water down on top of him and it hit the back of his hand. It was positively foul down in the underbelly of the city. He raised the lantern higher and peered into the gloom before them.
The symbols carved on the walls were fresh, HG pointed to one as they moved through the tunnels. They were in the shape of something that Pete knew he had seen before, but he couldn’t remember where. It had to be important, it had to be.
Pete cursed his memory, but held his tongue, he wouldn’t say anything until he was sure.
“We’re here,” HG said quietly, drawing her service weapon from deep within her jacket and cocking the revolver. Pete responded in kind, biting his tongue as he tried to not flash back to some of the more tense moments of the war. He couldn’t be there now, as they stood before a large metal door with well-oiled hinges and a sinister hissing coming from behind it.
When HG pulled the door open and he stepped into the room and beheld the machine for the first time, he realized why HG and Ms. Bering had wanted another mechanically minded individual present. The machine was huge, dominating the large open space that the door opened up into. The room was full of hissing components and moving parts and the cacophony of it all was enough to send Pete right back into the trenches.
His hands around the handle of his gun shook and he held it as steady as he could with one hand, lantern held aloft in the other. He peered through the gloom, HG at his back, watching both Claudia (who had pulled out a socket wrench and was holding it up like a weapon) and Ms. Bering who seemed to be without a weapon. He wouldn’t put it past her to have one concealed, however.
In the middle of the room, amid the smoke and the steam was a work bench. Pete gestured and they moved closer to it, staring down at plans identical to the ones that they’d taken from HG’s German in France. He set his lantern down next to the plans and stared up at the machine.
“How are we gunna disable this?” he wondered out loud, rubbing at the back of his head as HG and Claudia both leaned over the plans and whispered amongst themselves. HG was good with machines, but Claudia was something else entirely. She had a bond with machinery that Pete had never seen in another human. It was wonderful, a truly amazing skill. He had seen her reluctance to come into this case, to get involved any further than she already was. He didn’t blame her – the case was growing messier by the moment and if this was the machine that MacPherson intended to use… they were in serious trouble.
Ms. Bering shrugged and tilted her head backwards, staring up at the machine, at the turbine at its apex. She opened her mouth to speak but no words came out – her eyes wide and suddenly fearful. Her gloved hand clenched into a fist and Pete could see her slowly slip a small gun, a .22 by the looks of it, a lady’s weapon, out of her purse.
Pete followed her gaze upwards to see a man leaning against a railing next to a rapidly gyrating piston. He was watching them with interest. He was older, probably over fifty, if not older than that. His clothes hung about his form in such a way that suggested that he had spent a long time in prison recently. They pulled in odd places and his collar hung off his neck in such a way that Pete could see how raw the skin on his neck was underneath it.
“I see that you are the ones who are so desperate to foil my plans,” he said, ducking under the railing and jumping from the machine. He landed on the ground and rose to his feet in a fluid motion that spoke of many years of practice. “Tell me, did Arthur send you?”
Chapter 7: The Confrontation
- Pete mentions the Christmas Truce more information here, which was an armistice that took place on Christmas Eve in 1914.
-Huns are a slang term for Germans.
-Cheaters are slang for glasses.
-A bum's rush is a violent ejection from an establishment (usually a bar).
-Jack Dempsy was a famous heavyweight from the 1920s who rarely lost and had a reputation of being a fantastic boxer.
Chapter Seven - The Confrontation
Pete’s hand shook as he raised his gun level with the man before him. Steam was billowing out from the machine beside them, cloaking them both in a fog that would make getting this shot off very challenging. He wasn’t that great a shot with a pistol anyway.
What the man had said, or rather implied stuck with Pete, like a persistent wound that refused to heal. The implication was strange, foreign to him. How could this have been all a set up? It was bull, there was no way that Arthur Weisfelt would steer them directly into the lion’s den. He trusted the man more than that, he had to. Arthur Weisfelt had never steered him wrong before now.
“You’re MacPherson,” He said, eyes never leaving the man’s unshaven face and deep sunken eyes. Their lanterns were not enough to illuminate the man further, and the shadows that they cast played across his face and gave him the skull-like look of a man far older and more emaciated than he obviously was.
The man – MacPherson - nodded his agreement. He kept his hands steady, shirt sleeves clasped and rolled back in the manner of a newspaper man, and the protective sleeves coming up to his elbows that were stained with grease and coal and oil. Pete had seen men like this before. Builders and creators, they moved through life quickly, from one project to the next, erecting skyscrapers and monuments that were a testament to their ingenuity.
This machine, however, was not a testament but a horror that demonstrated everything that was bad and wrong with the technology that the war had wrested upon society. Pete could see the steam rising, curling around MacPherson’s head. It looked so much like gas that his hand dropped to his belt as he sucked in a long breath of air. He had twenty seconds. Where was his mask? He looked up, terrified, to see MacPherson gazing at him impassively, “And you are the ones who are going to attempt to ruin me.” He glanced up at his machine, and then leveled his gaze back on Pete. There was a hard edge to his nonchalant tone, as he reached into his waistcoat for a pocket watch and checked the time before resolutely stating, “The plan must be realized, it cannot stay here.”
“What can’t?” Pete didn’t know where Ms. Bering or HG were, where Claudia had run off to carrying her socket wrench with a determined look on her face. All he could see was the steam and think of the gas and how he had to find a mask because maybe then his hands would stop shaking and he might be able to relax into his role as the man with the gun. He was in control; he was the one who could dictate how this encounter was going to go. MacPherson had made no move for a weapon, Pete wasn’t even sure if he had one. “Why kill the president at all?”
That was the crux of the issue. Pete’s hands were shaking and he couldn’t help himself thinking how this was no better than all those times during the war when the boys across the way didn’t know why they were all killing each other mindlessly. He had been there when they’d stopped firing at each other on Christmas that first year, it had been wonderful, meeting the faces of those huns and seeing just how the war had affected each and every one of them.
HG pretended it didn’t bother her, pretended that the death and the horrible way her military career had ended didn’t bother her, but Pete could see the wound festering. Burning into a deep resentment of her homeland and her father and the major who had dismissed her claims of an ambush in No Man’s Land as bull. Pete had been there, gun held ready at HG’s head, as a good soldier should do when his best friend is accused of treason. Son, the major had said, I don’t care what sort of horse shit excuse you have for losing that package. Hell, you could have even given it to the enemy for all we know. That won’t stand here, you’ve got to go. I’ve called the MP, they’ll collect you in the morning.
They’d left under cover of darkness that night and had never looked back. Pete knew a colored boy who worked in the radio office who had managed to nick some discharge papers that Pete had borrowed his neighbor’s typewriter to fill out when they’d settled in New York. It was safer then, to just assume that both of them had died during the war. Easier too.
MacPherson’s voice jerked him out of the cloud that settled over his mind and Pete shook his head violently to dispel the image of the pair of them sitting in HG’s tiny rented room. This wasn’t the time; he couldn’t experience it again now. The war was three years gone, he had to get over it. He bit his tongue, the pain bringing him back into reality enough to focus on MacPherson and his gaunt cheekbones and his rambling voice.
“Don’t you see?” MacPherson said, gesturing up towards the turbine atop the machine. It was spinning as if caught in an invisible wind, sparks of energy flickering around it. Pete had never seen anything like it in his life, and his breath caught just looking at it. It was something out of HG’s imagination, that was for sure. “It cannot be here! It belongs in England, this country is still too new to house such a treasure!” MacPherson’s hand clenched into a fist and he slammed it against the side of the machine, the hollow sound of bone hitting metal ringing through the room, “I intend to prove it so.”
Pete blinked, cupping his right hand with his left to hold his gun steadier than it was. He did not want to betray the fact that his hands were shaking, badly. He couldn’t get that to stop, but at least chewing on his tongue like a cow chewed on cud was keeping him grounded in reality.
He had no idea what MacPherson was talking about, and judging from the quick glance that he’d been able to spare towards the work bench, HG looked as confused as he felt. “What?” He demanded, “What sort of baloney are you talking about?”
“The Warehouse!” MacPherson glanced between the pair of them, his face falling from slightly mad to confused, “Did Arthur really tell you nothing?”
“What Warehouse?” This was turning stupid. MacPherson still intended to kill the president, that much was evidenced by his refusal to surrender and the fact that he kept glancing around (as Pete did) probably wondering where Ms. Bering had gotten to. Pete was grateful that she had taken Claudia and that the two of them had hidden somewhere. Confrontations at gunpoint were far more of Pete’s thing, anyway.
The worst part of all this was that Pete was pretty sure that he knew what MacPherson was talking about. They’d heard whisperings about it – it was what Ms. Bering had pointed out before they had come down here. That there was something fishy about the whole case thus far. All the pieces had fallen into place so easily that Pete wondered if they weren’t being lead to an inevitable conclusion.
At least the man was guilty and that at least was obvious.
He glanced over to HG. In the half-light Pete could see that her eyes were narrowed and her lips were pursed in the way that she did when thinking very hard and very quickly about something. Henrietta…, Pete thought, thinking of their first encounter with Mrs. Frederic, the colored woman who knew far more about things that did more than their intended purpose than she was letting on. She had taken the compact that had driven the poor girl mad and had vanished off into the night with it, saying that it would be stored somewhere.
A warehouse or something like it would fit the bill for something like that.
HG shook her head slightly and Pete could tell that she was lying in the way that she said, rather quickly, “Haven’t the faintest…”
MacPherson opened and closed his mouth several times in quick succession. His neck swiveled around violently at every small sound alien to this large chamber. The machine rattled ominously and the sparks that crackled around the turbine seemed to be growing more and more violent with every passing minute. Pete knew they had to disable it, and fast too. He really, really did not want to pump MacPherson full of lead to accomplish that task, however.
There was a quiet gust of wind and the door that they had originally come through rattled on its hinges before MacPherson finally spluttered, “Do you mean to tell me that you are not agents of the new Warehouse?” He threw up his hands, as if in surrender and Pete slowly started to lower his gun. He had cuffs in his pocket, thankfully he’d remembered them (he usually didn’t as private dicks like him generally didn’t need to be doing the bull’s work for them. He’d get a bum’s rush if he ever showed up with a criminal down at the local precinct anyway, it wasn’t worth the effort.)
MacPherson’s hands moved so quickly that in the dim light, Pete could barely track their movement. He pulled a gun out of his jacket pocket, and leveled it at Pete. His eyes were hard and angry when he demanded, “What was Arthur thinking sending civilians after me?”
Pete had never seen a gun like the one MacPherson was holding them at now. It was topped with a coil of wire not unlike the coils of wire that still dotted parts of the city as part of the fall out of the intellectual war between Tesla and Edison. Pete wondered if it was modeled after Tesla’s design principles and where the bullets were kept as he stepped slowly backwards, never lowering his gun. HG, he could see out of the corner of his eye, had drawn her weapon as well and was standing cat-corner to Pete, covering him in case MacPherson chose to shoot at him… with whatever that gun shot.
He hoped it wasn’t a ray gun. HG had made those up and the sounded like they hurt.
A woman’s voice that did not belong to Claudia or Ms. Bering (and certainly not HG) rang out in the sudden hush that came as the machine quieted to a dull roar. “James.” Out of the steam and the shadows stepped the tall and elegantly dressed form of the woman who had so ruined HG’s life. Frederic, with her cheaters and her beehive of hair coiled tightly around her skull. She stood in the half light, watching as the standoff continued like something out of a western, and folded her arms across her chest. “This is their trial run,” she said, her voice like crack of a very scary whip.
HG spun then, taking her gun away from MacPherson – Pete opened his mouth in protest – and leveled it on the newcomer, “You,” she growled, her lip curling upwards. Her face looked almost maniacal in the dim light.
What was more interesting to Pete was the fact that HG’s reaction was almost exactly the same as MacPherson’s. He glanced from HG to Frederic and back again, the hand on his strange gun with the Tesla coil topping it shaking. “What …” he began, but Frederic cut him off.
He swallowed, trying not to look afraid, trying not to flash back again. He couldn’t do it again. It wasn’t worth it, he couldn’t slip up, not now.
Frederic folded her arms across her chest, “You would do well to stop this, MacPherson. I would hate to have any more innocent blood end up on your hands.”
Pete glanced from MacPherson to Frederic and back again, before turning his attention back the machine. The rumbling noises it had been making before had quelled to almost dead silence, and when he squinted in the half light, he could see the red-headed form of Claudia Donovan hanging off of the scaffolding that was still attached to the upper parts of the machine, pulling nuts and bolts out of it as quickly as she could unscrew them.
He smirked, seeing the curly haired form of Ms. Bering couching beside Claudia, taking what she unscrewed and tucking it into the tool bag as quietly as possible.
Pete lunged forward and tackled the man. He couldn’t stop it any more, they had to disable the turbine, and HG was obviously distracted. He couldn’t leave Ms. Bering and Claudia unguarded when MacPherson was in the possession of a weapon – no matter how futuristic it looked.
They fell to the ground, Pete spinning his body and tossing his gun away as he moved to pin MacPherson to the ground in a move he’d learned wrestling the Irish boys who lived near Mrs. Donovan’s home in Brooklyn. He struggled, twisting his body around the flailing MacPherson, shouting for HG to back him up.
HG didn’t move, her eyes watching MacPherson as his hand reaching forward, grabbing at Pete’s gun, spinning Pete onto his back. The breath was knocked from his chest, and Pete found himself seizing for air, gasping for it as he tried to right himself.
MacPherson leveled the gun at the turbine itself, and Pete could barely make out the body of Ms. Bering perched over it, holding a socket wrench, trying to remove it. He fired, and Ms. Bering fell.
He couldn’t breathe, his chest was seizing. He had to get the gun away from MacPherson.
What Pete saw and heard next could only be described as the stuff of nightmares. Claudia lunged forward and grabbed Ms. Bering’s arm and pulled her back onto the scaffolding before she could fall to what would surely be a terrible end on the hard packed dirt of this room. MacPherson was struggling back to his feet, shirt torn and stained with the dirt that Pete could feel seeping into his own clothing.
“I won’t let you,” He hissed over Pete’s gasping breaths. He couldn’t air into his lungs, he couldn’t breathe. He brought the gun level with Frederic, but he never finished his thought. HG was suddenly behind him, her fist connecting with his jaw.
MacPherson fell to the floor and HG was on him as Pete finally managed to roll off of his back, coughing and spluttering, the wind finally back in his lungs. He crawled forward, wrestling the gun out of MacPherson’s hand as HG’s fist connected with his face once more. She raised her fist to swing once more and Pete was content to let her beat the man to a pulp. He’d shot Ms. Bering after all. Pete could understand HG’s anger at an affront like that.
HG’s fist rose up and suddenly stopped, seemingly frozen in place. Pete turned, seeing Frederic holding what looked like a riding crop tightly between both of her fists. She was twisting it and Pete could see sparks of energy similar to the ones shooting off of the turbine crackling around her fists.
“Ms. Wells!” she exclaimed, her tone that of someone scolding a child. “Control your temper.”
Pete pocketed his gun and moved to the ladder leaning against the side of the machine. His breath was still coming in shallow pants, but it was easier now. Claudia was already moving towards him, helping Ms. Bering navigate down the ladder towards Pete.
“You alright?” he asked, putting his hand on the small of her back and having it come away wet with blood.
She nodded at him weakly and Pete pulled off his jacket pressing it to the place where the bullet had grazed Ms. Bering’s shoulder. He led her over to where HG was still sitting, restrained by whatever magic Frederic had been able to pull from nowhere, and settled Ms. Bering down on the floor there.
His cuffs were out and on MacPherson in a flash and suddenly HG could move once again. Pete watched as she moved to Ms. Bering’s side, their foreheads pressing together and their lips moving in quiet assurances that they were, indeed both alright.
“What was that?” Pete demanded pushing MacPherson’s bleeding body onto its side so that if he vomited upon recovering from the knock-out punch (it rivaled Jack Dempsey’s) HG had leveled on his face, he wouldn’t choke.
Frederic just shrugged, the riding crop had already vanished back into the folds of her clothing as she turned her gaze back up to the top of the machine.
Claudia was like an ape, shimmying across the scaffolding, the turbine now successfully removed and the machine itself rattling ominously as Claudia hurried from it. She jumped down from the lowest platform, coveralls hanging loosely around her as she raised the turbine over her head and Pete nodded his agreement that destroying it was probably the best option.
There was a moment then, when all of their eyes were trained on the wind turbine in Claudia’s hands as she held it there, preparing to hurl it down to the ground with as much force as she could muster. Pete felt his breath catch as she began to move once again, her body twisting almost inhumanly slowly before a curt comment cut her short, “Do not destroy it.”
They turned as one, Claudia pulling the turbine close to her chest then, as Pete blinked at Mrs. Frederic. He wanted to demand to know what she was doing here, what the blazes the Warehouse was, what she had done to HG to make her stop moving like that, but Claudia asked the question first, “What?” She demanded, her eyes hard and questioning. “Why shouldn’t we destroy it, it kills people.”
From deep within her jacket, Frederic produced a cloth bag. Stepping over MacPherson’s prone body, she held it out to Claudia, who hesitantly dropped the turbine into the bag. “We do not destroy objects such as these.” Frederic explained, knotting the bag closed, “We lock them away for all time, until the world is ready to handle their existence.” She glanced down at MacPherson, her lip curling upwards in contempt. “That is what the Warehouse does.”
“But…” Claudia began.
Frederic held up her hand, “No buts, Ms. Donovan.” She turned to Pete, “Come now, we must get your friend to a hospital.”
Her arm ached upon waking, and Myka blinked several times before she finally managed to fully expel the sleep from her eyes. Her entire left side ached, and Myka could feel the bandage wrapped tightly around her upper body, holding her left arm immobile. She had been shot, yes. When she had climbed to the top of James MacPherson’s machine and had attempted to unscrew the wind turbine from it. She’d had it mostly done when she’d fallen, white hot pain like a knife slicing through her arm.
Claudia Donovan, Pete’s landlady’s niece, had caught her and had pulled her back into the scaffolding that was still erected around parts of the machine. It had hurt so much. Myka didn’t remember much of what had happened after that.
“Hey Bunny,” Myka turned then, eyes fluttering in the bright light of the large window next to her bed. Sam was sitting on a folding chair that had obviously been dragged in from somewhere else in the hospital. Stark white curtains were drawn behind him and Myka smiled up at him sleepily. Her mind was still a bit hazy with the pain, but the dully throb of the wound was bringing her back to reality quickly. “Glad to see you’re up and about.”
She smiled weakly at him, “I wasn’t planning on getting shot in the name of The Star.” Her voice sounded hoarse and disused and Myka wondered how long she’d been asleep.
Sam reached across the distance between them, cigarette hanging from his lips, and squeezed her hand. It was a strange feeling, to take comfort from someone who had, until very recently, been something of a sore subject for Myka. Their split had been amicable, he was her managing editor, after all. She had missed him though, all easy smiles and the ability to make her feel a lot better about the fact that she’d gotten shot in the name of a story that probably would get squashed by Harding’s people before it ever saw the light of day, let alone a follow-up piece or two.
“You gave me quite a scare,” Sam said, sitting back in the folding chair and taking a long pull from his cigarette. “I need you to dictate that story to a girl or type it yourself as soon as you’re outta here. The owner wants to run it for the Friday morning presser.”
She was tired, her body hurt, but she understood the opportunity that she was being presented with. Men wrote the Friday pressers, especially the Friday morning ones. To be offered such an opportunity as a woman just five years removed from reporting for her college’s newspaper, Myka understood that the story had to be perfect. “We’ll dominate the news cycle all weekend.”
“The Times won’t know what hit ‘er,” Sam grinned. He stubbed out his cigarette on the ash tray beside Myka’s bed and stood. “I can’t stay much longer, bunny, but I hope you knock it outta the park.”
“Thursday afternoon,” Myka promised him as he pulled on his jacket and plucked his hat from the rack by the door. “No later than the five o’clock preps.”
He waved his hand at her and vanished from the room.
Myka settled back on the pillows of her bed, turning as best as her bandaged form could muster to adjust them to prop her up as she picked up the copy of The Star that Sam had left on his folding chair. She flipped it open and checked the byline on the masthead. She had been out for a day, it was now Tuesday and she had two days to recover enough to get down to the newsroom and dictate her story. She could do it.
She unfolded the paper and winced, reading the headlines with interest.
“You will not be writing that story.” The voice cut through the silence of the room like a knife and Myka gasped as her body flinched involuntary, injured arm jerking back into her body. She could feel her stitches pull and she lowered the paper onto her lap with a fresh surge of pain and found herself face to face with the bespectacled form of what had to be the same woman from the sewers.
“I’m sorry, what?” She did not want to appear rude, but she did not know who this woman was from Adam. She had appeared in the sewers and Helena seemed to know her. She’d done something to Helena, Myka had seen that even as her mind was delirious with pain. It hadn’t been hard to miss, and the fact that she’d done it in the first place made Myka angrier than she had felt in a long time.
Frederic moved to stand at the foot of Myka’s bed, her hair done up in it’s strange style and her face contorted into a knowing smirk that made her look like the devil her people had once been. She bridged her fingers and looked pensive as Myka blinked up at her, trying to glen information from the woman’s impassive expression. “You found out about this plot quite on purpose, Ms. Bering. This was a trial run. The Warehouse that Mr. MacPherson mentioned is in need of a few good agents, and you fit the bill nicely.”
She… was going to have to process this. Myka folded up the newspaper, taking the time to slowly digest the information that the woman had presented her with. She had thought the whole thing suspicious, the information had come too easily and they’d been able to move from point to point within the investigation with far more ease than Myka was used to in her professional work. She hadn’t thought anything of it until MacPherson’s machine had just so happened to be conveniently located in a hidden underground room somewhere near Bryant Park.
All the pieces had fallen into place too easily, and given how close a relationship that Pete had with Mr. Weisfelt – who had to be in on this as well, Myka reasoned – it only made sense that they were being checked for a greater purpose.
Disbelief seemed the best face to put on, however, so she screwed up her face in confusion. “What?” she demanded, already deciding that she would write the story regardless of what this woman told her. “Who are you, anyway?”
The woman started, as though she was not aware that she had not been introduced to Myka, before her lip curled upwards into a twisted interpretation of a smile, “My name is Frederic. I am offering you a ticket to endless wonder, Ms. Bering.” She pulled an envelope from her suit jacket pocket and handed it to Myka. “Will you take it?” she asked, her tone suddenly light.
Myka felt the thickness of the envelope, traced the Eye of Horus pattern that had been stamped into the paper itself. She bit her lip, wondering what was holding her back from moving on. Writing for the paper would get her nowhere in the long run, but she did want to do more with it. Frederic seemed expectant, and Myka knew she did not have much time to debate this now. “I-” she began, swallowing and wincing as her arm burned in pain. Sam would understand if she bowed out now, let getting shot ‘defeat’ her. Berings never gave up, her father told her, but this was different. This was moving on to something better. Something exciting and probably for more reasonable than the pennies she made on the dollar at the paper. “I think I will.” She said, a finality in her tone that she was not expecting. “I want equal pay.”
Frederic nodded, “I would expect no less.” She stood to leave and paused, her hand resting on the door handle. “We will collect you in due time. Write your story if you must, but keep the details hazy. The public does not need to know what exactly was causing the disturbance. I will send Ms. Wells in now.”
Helena. Myka sighed and set the envelope on the edge of her bed and tried to look a little bit less like she’d gotten shot by a madman.
“I heard that you’d woken up,” from the doorway, Myka could see Helena standing stock still, sporting a black eye and wearing a loose sundress that did not match the normal, more masculine and tailored attire that Myka was accustomed to see her. “And I see that she’s gotten to you too.”
“Did she ask you?” Myka asked, her brow furrowing in confusion as Helena crossed the room and perched on the edge of her hospital bed. “I… I said yes.”
“I heard,” Helena whispered. She was staring off into space, not looking at Myka, her never wavering from the blank face of the curtains that were to divide the room. “This is the second time she’s asked me.”
“How do you figure?” Myka asked, reaching out with her good arm and pulling on the sleeve of Helena’s dress, trying to get her to turn and look at her.
“When Henrietta -” Helena began, her eyes squeezing shut. “When she went mad. There was a moment when Mrs. Frederic offered me a chance to let this never happen to any other couple ever again. I – I was too upset; I couldn’t stomach the idea of helping others to find their happiness when I myself had lost my own. I told her to get lost.”
Myka chucked, it hurt to move so much, “I’m sure she really appreciated that.”
“She thought it was brilliant,” Helena rolled her eyes and starred up at the ceiling. “I should have known I wasn’t done with her then.”
“Do you want to be?” Myka asked quietly. “Because I… I want to see what it is she’s offering me.”
Helena turned and smiled at Myka. Her fingers trailed along Myka’s cheek and she leaned forward, pressing her lips against Myka’s temple. “With you, darling, I could do anything.”
They stayed like that, their foreheads pressed together, Helena cradling Myka’s injured arm for as long as the hospital staff would allow Helena to stay. She wasn’t family, they explained, and Myka’s father was going to be getting a car to come around and pick Myka up later that evening. Helena had to leave.
“Endless wonder,” Myka promised as Helena helped her into a clean shirt and skirt.
Pete Lattimer met them at the door and had grinned at the pair of them, hands plunged deep into his pockets as he held his cigarette between his teeth. “I heard you got a ticket to endless wonder.”
“What of it, Lattimer?” HG asked, a wry smile crossing her face. “Did you want to come too?”
Pete shrugged. “I’d just love some adventure in my life.” He looked down, running a hand through his hair. “It helped, with things.”
Myka had known that he was shell shocked, as many of the GIs who had returned from the war were. She had seen it in how he moved through the world like he was still on the battlefield, how returning to France had made him suck down cigarettes like the worst sort of smoke eater. She had seen him freeze, lost in his own memories in the sewers. If being busy and investigating strange occurrences and evil wind turbines helped him to feel less like he was going mad from all of his past trauma. Myka wanted him by her side.
Maybe he’d someday stop calling her Ms. Bering.
“Partners?” Pete had said, sticking out his hand. Myka took it with her good one and shook it. HG laid her hand on top of theirs and smiled at the pair of them.
From now on, their lives were going to be a lot more interesting. Endless wonder, Mrs. Frederic had promised them, Myka just hoped she delivered on that promise.
Myka bends, pulling the jacket that her host has loaned her, closer to her body. It’s black and white, stained with blood and sick and she doesn’t care to know what else. It is warm though, and that’s what she wants out of it. Nothing more. She doesn’t know why her host kept it, the memories of it are clearly not worthy of reliving. There’s a pink triangle emblazoned on the lapel, and that is the only reason he experienced what he did.
He is carrying on, and she is grateful for his assistance in this endeavor. They’re all healing, slowly, surely. The world would surely return to normal.