The gentleman led the lady across the tram tracks, both stopping long enough to ensure no rogue trolleys were lurking about. The gentleman helped her across the tracks and they journeyed toward west toward Gutter’s Row. The evening grew darker, if that were possible, under the smoggy night sky as they neared the monument in the middle of the street. The couple tensed visibly as the air seemed to close in on them. Even crossing those murderous tram tracks hadn’t set them on edge as much as nearing the Gut.
They were well-dressed, the man in a rather expensive-looking charcoal gray suit with a gold pocket watch clipped in place covered by a coal black duster and the lady donning a light blue billowy formal dress and a light fall jacket. She carried a purse on her shoulder, upon which also leaned a closed matching parasol she held tightly. Her other arm linked with the gentleman’s, who was wearing a top hat pulled down tightly against his head and aiding a slight limp with a hardwood cane in his free hand.
They heard the squeaking of the pennyfarthings from an alley behind them before they saw actually saw them. The wheels clacked unevenly against the cobblestones, becoming a low rumble as three men perched upon the large-wheeled contraptions turned the corner. They stopped well behind the couple, cutting off the route back to the rest of the city and intending, if need be, to herd them deeper into the Gut, into the trap.
The couple unlinked from each other and spun around, facing the trio as the one in the middle brought his index fingers to his lips. He let out a shrill whistle and maintained perfect balance while the other two wobbled only slightly. The lady craned her neck back at the sound of more rumbling and squeaking as four more pennyfarthings appeared, the riders taking up a ‘Figure 8’ formation that allowed them to block the street with two bicycles while the other two turned. The gentleman kept his eyes on the trio, darting from one on the right with a bowler hat, to the one on the left with a much shabbier version of his own top hat, before finally resting on the balanced rider who had let out the whistle. This one mockingly tipped his tall stove-pipe hat to the couple.
“Lovely night for a stroll, ain’t it, folks? Winter’s a-comin’. Best to get yer strollin’ in while ya can.” The man replaced his hat upon his head while the other men chuckled quietly. The gentleman gripped his cane and limped forward a step while the lady remained in place, keeping a wary eye on the riders behind them.
“Yes, I suppose it is,” said the gentleman quietly but clearly, “and we’d like to continue our stroll, if that’s alright by you.”
“Oh! Well, let’s see. Is it alright by me? Hey boys!” Stove-pipe called out for all the riders to hear, “Is it alright if we let these fine folks pass?”
The riders all cried out a hearty “No!” and bowler chimed in with a laugh, “They gotta pay the toll like ev’ryone else.”
Stove-pipe grinned and nodded slowly, rubbing his chin as if he were considering some great dilemma, “He’s right, ya know. If I let ya through, I gotta start lettin’ others through. I’m afraid ya gotta pay the toll.”
The gentleman narrowed his eyes on Stove-pipe, his voice rising with an angry edge, “There’s no toll roads in Babbage.” The edge did not go unnoticed. Stove-pipe leaned down and rested his forearms on the handlebars of his pennyfarthing, his own tone turning decidedly icy, “Well, there is now. And you’ll be payin’ it, one way or ‘nother.” Stove-pipe’s eyes slid to the lady, “Now, be a good sport and cough up that watch, your pocketbook, and her purse. Then ya can be on your way.”
The gentleman thought about the offer for a moment, and apparently it was a moment too long. Stove-pipe flicked his eyes to the other end of the street and two of the pennyfarthings broke ranks and rumbled toward the couple.
The lady nudged the gentleman and he turned, giving her the slightest of nods. Her lips curled into a small smile that didn’t go unnoticed by Stove-pipe, who furrowed his brow at the whole exchange.
The pennyfarthings closed the distance quickly, each riding outside of the couple to keep them from splitting up and to keep the riders from getting in each other’s way. The riders stayed close enough to their marks and let their feet lash out with a kick.
The lady’s had gotten to her first. She gracefully ducked the kick and thrust her parasol through the spokes of the wheel. The speed of the bike brought the parasol around to the back of the forks. The parasol and the spoke bent, but they held. The sudden stop and forward momentum caused the rider, and indeed the rest of the bike, to skid a couple feet before neatly rotating over the incredibly large wheel.
The gentleman did the same, leaning back so that the boot narrowly grazed his cheek. He shoved his cane through the spokes. Before either rider hit the ground, he reached into his duster and withdrew a pistol, leveling it at Stove-pipe.
The riders stared in shock at the turn of events, but it faded quickly enough. While the trio in front of the couple saw the pistol and only tensed, the two riders behind could only see downed pennyfarthings. One of them let out their own whistle and immediately advanced on the couple.