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The Steam Eaters (Part 1)

Part 1: Odd Jobs

I can fly. I can acquire information about my surroundings through extrasensory means. I can adapt myself to function in the frigid, airless emptiness beyond Earth’s atmosphere or in the crushing depths of the deepest ocean. I can travel through subspace, traversing vast distances in the wink of an eye. I can survive injuries that would prove fatal to any common man. I can recover from even the most ghastly wounds with astonishing, preternatural speed.

“And would you like a baked potato with that, sir?”

I can carry a 40-pound tray of dinner plates with one hand. I can clear a table in less than three minutes. I can remind myself that there is dignity in all work.

Don’t get me wrong, I know perfectly well that there are waiters and waitresses who absolutely love the job. They love the busy-ness and meeting new people and being around the cooks and the food… and they love getting a paycheck for the opportunity. I only love the paycheck part.

A confluence of factors led to my being employed by the Garland & Taylor Catering Company. First, owing perhaps to a lapse of imagination, I’ve yet to find a way to successfully monetize my more extraordinary gifts. And even if I could, since I typically require external technology to safely exploit my more flamboyant abilities — technology that, since arriving in New Babbage, has proven painfully unreliable — I’m left with no choice but to accept employment where I can find it.

A second, more significant factor in my work situation has been the uncertainty surrounding my regular source of income. While I am not at liberty to fully divulge the details of the source of my sizable monthly stipend, suffice it to say I had become quite accustomed to receiving regular payments and the sudden interruption of that cash flow has been unwelcome and unsettling for a variety of reasons.

While I could ask my parents, with their considerable financial resources, for a sustaining loan, the mere thought of doing so causes each and every one of my internal organs to clench and cower in a shadowy, cramped corner inside my right butt cheek. And so, I don my hideously unfashionable G&T uniform, and I wait. As in waiter.

Our latest catering engagement was a gala afternoon wedding reception at Piermont Landing. Considering the names of the families involved, the wedding party seemed rather small, or perhaps “intimate” was the planners’ goal. Music for the event was supplied by a lone guitarist on a small stage. With his impeccably neat (but out of style) suit, goatee and ponytail, he had the classic look of a musical artiste working his day job.

A long row of curtains at the south end of the space separated the wedding guests from the catering company’s mobile kitchenette where the food was being prepared. Having already been loudly chastised for going “in” through the “out” opening in the curtains, I took special care to take my orders to the cooks through the correct gap.

“Only half of them want potatoes… why is everyone avoiding starches all of a sudden? It’s not as if they’re *that* fat.”

No one was listening to my priceless bon mots. Cooks were ladling out servings of soup while waiters were bustling through the “out” opening with bowls of gazpacho on their trays.

“Why’d it have to be gazpacho,” said one of the waiters. “Just what we need: A bunch of idiots complaining about getting cold soup.”

“Adams!” shouted Mr. Garland, “Why are you here?! Take the soup out! SERVE THE SOUP! NOW!!”

Mr. Taylor was the nicer of the two partners, the one we employees liked. But he was the “marketing and money” man who rarely left the office. In the field, Mr. Garland was in charge… the mean one… the one we all hated and wanted to hang, poison and strangle.

“Arkright!” Garland shouted (he almost always shouted, heedless of the guests he might be annoying with his screechy voice). “Fill glasses! NOW!!” He shoved a pitcher of water into my hands and left to yell at the head chef.

Before I could move, I heard an unfamiliar female voice behind me. “So, you’re Arkright.” I turned to face her.

It’s hard to describe her appearance: On her head was a close-fitting, nearly brimless pink hat that almost completely covered her close-cropped hair… only a single auburn curl that clung to her rouged cheek poked out from beneath it. Her dress was more like a low-waisted pink slip with pouffy sleeves and it came all the way up to her knees. Her ensemble was completed by a pair of low heeled pink slip-ons, a pearlescent pink clutch purse, some odd looking wrist bangles, and a comically long strand of pearls. She looked like something from another era.

“I’m Audrey. I’ve been sent here from the future.”

Three sentences into our relationship, and already I was fed up. I held up an index finger as a signal for the future lady to stop talking and start listening.

“Oh, no,” I said. “Let me tell you what’s *not* going to happen: I will not drop everything and run off on some deadly, unprofitable errand for your bosses (whoever they are); I will not get mixed up in some improbable cosmic melodrama that’s three parts crazy and four parts stupid; I will not be a witless dupe in service to some convoluted master plan that involves regular encounters with homocidal maniacs possessing exotic weapons of mass destruction; and I, for damn sure, will not be the hyperspatial messenger boy for some so-called “higher power” that’s more willing to play ducks and drakes with my future than get off it’s own backside and do an honest day’s work!”

Heavily mascara’d doe eyes and pouty red lips met my irritated gaze. “Huh,” said Audrey, “I imagined you’d be better looking for some reason. Oh, well… I was sent to give you this.” She held out the hand with the pink clutch.

“I can’t take that. It clashes with my waiter’s uniform.”

She looked me up and down. “All things under the sun clash with that uniform. Look, I’m just the ‘hyperspatial messenger…’ girl. And I’m assured that you’re going to need this some time today.”

“What’s in it?”

“No idea. But I don’t think you have to carry it around with you. Just keep it handy. Let’s put it somewhere safe for now. How about in here.”

Audrey put the clutch purse in a leather satchel I hadn’t noticed before that had been placed on a chair I hadn’t noticed before.

“Who’s bag is that?” I asked.

“Hmmmm…” said Audrey, picking up the satchel and turning it this way and that. “It’s empty… I don’t see a name on it… why don’t we just call it yours!” She closed the messenger bag and set it back on the chair.

“Arkright, what are you doing?!” yelled Mr. Garland. “The wind’s picking up. Go make sure the centerpieces on the tables are anchored. NOW! MOVE!!!”

Audrey picked up a large ladle from a box of spare utensils.

“I can give your boss a whack in the man-berries if you like. It’d be no trouble.”

The whole situation was far too strange to be a joke. At that point, all I could hope was that I had just been given a pearlescent pink time bomb and I’d be put out of my misery very soon.

“Excuse me, madam. I have to go fill water glasses and anchor centerpieces now. It’s been lovely meeting you.”

“Oh, I won’t be leaving right away. I’ll be around for a little while, just so you know.” Audrey said this to my back as I walked through the curtain and returned to the reception which was suddenly abuzz. The musician had stopped playing and the wedding guests seemed to be on the verge of full blown panic.

“What the…”

“Oh my God! How…”

“It’s… how did it get…”

“Cold! It’s so cold!!”

“You know, it is gazpacho,” I said, actually trying to be helpful. “It is usually served cold.”

“Oh, really?” said a large, matronly lady to my left as she rose from her chair. “Tell me, young man, is it supposed to be served *this* cold?” She raised her spoon. At the end of it was a bowl-shaped mass of frozen soup… a gazpacho-sicle on a silver-plated stick. I was momentarily flummoxed.

“I’ll ask the chef,” I said.

At that moment, the musician leapt from the stage in an agitated manner. Before I knew it, I was in a hammerlock with his arm around my neck… close enough to tell that he’d had more than his fair share of the crostini with caramelized onions and garlic. He seemed to be addressing one of the older male guests while threatening to break my arm.

“Couldn’t wait, could you? So arrogant! Thought you could bring it out in the open, didn’t you?!? Not sure what you’re playing at, old man, but we do not… like… GAMES!!”

I began to feel a strange, cold tingle, as if my lungs were full of ants made of ice. It spread through every muscle from head to toe and became increasingly unpleasant. Then, it stopped, and I was simply standing in the middle of a dance floor being held by a strange man for no obvious reason. My co-workers and the entire wedding party, caught in the grip of hysteria mere moments earlier, were now just watching me and the mad musician. It quickly became awkward.

My bearded assailant released me and spun me around to face him. The angry performer shouted into my face, “You should be dying! WHY AREN’T YOU DYING?!?!”

Given a chance, I’d have told him, “Because you weren’t killing me fast enough.” Whatever he was doing to me, one of my gifts manifested and I had a chance to adapt and protect myself. A bullet to the brain or a knife through the heart would have been much more effective. But no, he had to show off.

I didn’t have a chance to explain any of this, of course, since a heavy silver platter had come crashing down on top of his head courtesy of the bride who was beyond livid.

“Did you do this?? Was this YOUR fault?? DID YOU JUST RUIN MY [CENSORED] RECEPTION?!?!” The musician was on the ground, but the bride continued to make head-shaped dents in the platter. “HOW DARE YOU!!!! YOU [CENSORED] [CENSORED] SONOVA[CENSORED] [CENSORED] MOTHER[CENSORED]!!!!” Additional blows to the head revealed that the guitarist was actually bald and cleanshaven as his fake hair and beard came loose. “MY SPECIAL, BEAUTIFUL DAY AND YOU’RE GONNA COME ALONG AND TURN IT INTO [CENSORED] YOU [CENSORED] [CENSORED] [CENSORED] [CENSORED]!!!!!”

I felt someone take my arm and pull me away from the massacre. It was the gentleman the musician had been shouting at. “They can’t hurt you, can they? You’re one of those… strange ones, aren’t you?” He was the very archetype of an overstuffed, puffy-faced plutocrat with a high forehead and a handlebar mustache in the midst of a transition from blond to gray. “You have no idea how glad I am to meet you! I’ve been looking all over for someone like you for a very long time!”

I took a quick glance at his left hand. “Sorry, I don’t date married men. True, it’s more of a guideline than a rule, but…”

“He tried to kill you and he couldn’t! You’re one of those people with the… with the… powers, or whatever. Listen, we need your help! The fate of an entire nation might hang in the balance! You can save us from ruin!”

“Sir,” I said, quickly trying my best to think of a graceful way of telling the gentleman to seek assistance elsewhere, “I’d rather saw my pinky off with a butter knife.”

The bride had switched to kicking the musician at this point. “HERE I AM TRYING TO HAVE MY MAGICAL [CENSORED] WEDDING DAY, AND YOU’RE ALL UP IN MY [VERY CENSORED] AND [CENSORED] ME OFF WITH YOUR [CENSORED] [CENSORED] MAKING EVERYBODY [CENSORED] THEMSELVES…”

“Please,” said the puffy-faced man with the non-fake facial hair, “just come with me and I can explain… I promise I can make it worth your while.”

We stepped away from the dainty flower of blushing bridehood as she continued dispensing high-heeled justice. “GET UP YOU [CENSORED]!!! GET UP SO I CAN KICK THE [CENSORED] OUTTA YOU SOME MORE!!!!”

“I’m Gerard Tyvus,” said the wedding guest, in a hushed voice, as we stood in the mostly abandoned kitchenette. “I own one of the northwest rail lines in Caledon. My company, and nearly every other railway in the country, has been victimized by that cold-wielding lunatic and his compatriots for the last nine months! Nine months of watching our employees murdered, our families threatened… and threats of even worse to come if we even approached the authorities on the matter!”

“All because of that little freezing trick he does?” I asked. “Bowls of soup, beware!”

“That ‘little freezing trick’ has destroyed more trains than I can count! He focuses on the train’s boiler, then there’s an odd rush of wind, and before you know it, ice and bits of train engine are scattered all over… sometimes with bits of engineer mixed in. And he’s not alone. You’ve heard of The Cogswell Trio, of course?”

“Umm… no.”

“Really? I’d heard their music was very popular with young people.”

“They’re extortionists *and* musicians?”

“They’re famous and popular… at least in Caledon. And, any time an incident occurs involving steam engines exploding and large quantities of ice being found at the scene, they have an audience full of witnesses who can attest to the fact that none of the Cogswell brothers were within a hundred miles. And as far as anyone knows, all of them are just ordinary human beings with no special abilities.”

“They’re brothers?”

“Triplets, or so the world believes. The other railway owners and I secured the services of several private investigators who have uncovered many disturbing facts about our foes. While they possess identical paranormal abilities and are strikingly similar in appearance, we strongly suspect that they are not, in fact, related.”

“I must say, this is fascinating,” I said, genuinely intrigued. “I’d still rather nail a plank to my head than become involved in your little stew of vice and villainy, but please, do continue.”

“The worst of the violence and destruction ended when I and the other rail owners began paying the ‘brothers’ their blood money, but our investigators continued to gather what information they could… before they were discovered.”

“I’m guessing things became…”

“Messy… quite. But we were determined to bring those four miscreants to justice!”

“Four?”

“It was the great secret of The Cogswell Trio… a fourth member! And since they all look alike, any one of them could be out causing mischief while the other three were on stage. Between their powers, their celebrity and their ability to create rock-solid alibis, we haven’t had a hope of stopping them… until now!

“Little by little, we’ve collected evidence, records, witness testimony, and dozens of incriminating photographs! Once we present our materials, the full force of Caledon’s central security agency can be brought to bear! They have the manpower and weaponry to deal with the Cogswells’ powers and the authority to negate the protection their fame affords.

“Three of us possess the bulk of the evidence, but not a single corner of Caledon seemed safe enough for us to gather all of it together and present it to central security. Then, I received an invitation to my niece’s wedding here in Babbage. It seemed an ideal pretext for taking an innocent excursion outside of Caledon. But the Cogswells must have gotten suspicious when representatives from two other rail companies came here at the same time.”

“Who are these ‘central security’ people you keep mentioning?” I asked. “How come I’ve never heard about them before?”

“Trust me,” said Mr. Tyvus, “that is by design.”

Tyvus took off his coat and unbuttoned the lining. Inside was what looked like a small pile of documents inside a tied leather folder.

“The agent is here, the evidence is here, all we need is someone who can gather it and get it past the steam eaters without getting frozen. Someone who would be rewarded handsomely if he managed to succeed.”

It was a shameless, and effective, appeal to my mercenary nature. “Reward?”

Tyvus held the folder under my chin. “Do this for us and you will not have to worry about money for a very long time.”

I took the folder. “Where am I going with this?”

“Your last stop will be some bar called the Gangplank on the far side of town, that’s where the security agent will be waiting. Mr. and Mrs. Trefusis will tell you how to spot him, they’ll be your second stop. But first, you must get the documents from Lady Mann. Let me give you the address.” Tyvus found a pencil and an order pad and began scribbling. “You’ll want to put those documents in something. Like…”

“Like an incredibly convenient messenger bag that no one’s using?”

Tyvus handed me the address. “You have one? That is convenient! With luck like yours, you should have this done and be back in time to serve dessert!”

“Won’t that be nice,” I snarkily replied as I put the documents into the messenger bag.

“Just one more thing,” said Tyvus as I headed out into the sooty streets of Babbage. “Remember this code phrase so they’ll know you’re working for me: Water on the fire.”

“‘Water on the fire.’ Got it.” And off I went.

Mr. Tyvus called after me: “All of Caledon is in your debt, Mr… whatever-your-name-is! Good luck! Don’t get killed!”

Next, Part 2: Social Exogeny as Related to Class Identity Paradigms of Pre-Gentrified Urban Environments

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5 Comments

  1. Bookworm Hienrichs Bookworm Hienrichs September 21, 2010

    Heh. Weddings at Piermont Landing apparently do not end well. *grin*

    ((Can’t wait for part 2!))

  2. Gabriell Anatra Gabriell Anatra September 21, 2010

    >”Oh, no,” I said. “Let me tell you what’s *not* going to happen: . . .

    Words to the wise and the wary, this.

     

  3. Grace Toussaint Grace Toussaint September 21, 2010

    Wow.  Can’t wait to read more.  Fabulous writing!

  4. Kristos Sonnerstein Kristos Sonnerstein September 21, 2010

    Wonderful developements! Can’t wait to see more!

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