Part 2: Ladies Gone Wilde
Philippa eagerly surrendered to the rising exhilaration she felt as she made her way back to her hotel room in one of Babbage’s more unsavory neighborhoods. “Let Mrs. Barker-Finch have her tawdry little affairs with her household staff,” she thought to herself, “*this* is *real* excitement! And without all that annoying sex!”
She walked quickly, keeping a firm grip on her numerous parcels and trying her best to be aware of who might be nearby without meeting anyone’s gaze. It was a rough enough neighborhood already, even without the added complication of being hotly pursued by desperate characters.
“Pursued by *desperate* characters!” the lady said to herself, trying and failing to suppress a grin. “On the run… danger around every corner!” She was writing the journal entry in her head. She was unaware that one of the “desperate characters” had been apprehended at Piermont Landing barely an hour earlier, not that it mattered. Her immediate surroundings were her immediate concern.
She was in a part of town largely ignored by mainstream Babbage, a part of town that was the haunt of itinerants, starving artists and low-wage workers (and shirkers). Philippa wanted to avoid standing out, but even her shabbiest frock looked nicer than the clothes most folks wore in the low-rent district. Upon entering her hotel and climbing the stairs to the second floor, she made her way to room 205 and gently knocked. “Eugenia, it’s me!”
A voice on the other side of the door hissed at her, “What’s the code?”
“Oh, sorry… nearly forgot! I’ve come with water for the fire.”
Eugenia Mann, indominatble wife of the Earl of Mann, opened the door for her sister-in-law. “It’s supposed to be ‘water *on* the fire’! You’re lucky I saw you coming through the window.” Her ladyship was wearing full riding gear. This made sense because there was a horse in the room.
Philippa set her burdens down on the nearer of the two beds. “I think I have everything we might need.”
Eugenia looked over the items and seemed concerned. “You didn’t go to your restaurant, did you?”
“I left all the cash I had with the staff back at the house… they have to keep up appearances with Horace away on business and now us gone as well. Besides, why should I *buy* provisions when everything we need is right there at the restaurant?”
“But I’m sure I saw one of those deadly Cogswell chaps watching your house! They must know where you work, surely! What makes you think they wouldn’t follow you to find me? My God, not great at this hiding business, are you?” Lady Mann picked up her already lit cigar from an ashtray and began puffing impatiently.
Philippa was shocked by the lack of recognition for her foraging efforts and the disparagement of her attempts at stealth. “Well I’m sooooo sorry! If only I could be as inconspicuous as a horse in a hotel room!” Somewhat angrily, she untied a bundle of fruits and vegetables and was about to give a carrot to the aforementioned equine.
“Philippa! Cut up that carrot before you give it to Nike! Do you want her to choke?”
Summoning all of her patrician reserve, Philippa managed to stop herself from answering the question honestly. “I need to make a journal entry. I brought a nice sharp knife and a small cutting board from the restaurant. *You* may cut the carrots.” She maneuvered around the horse to sit at the hotel room’s small desk. “Bringing your horse all the way from Caledon… I mean, really!”
“Well I needed something to ride! I know there are horses around here somewhere, but it’s as if they’re all in hiding! I’ve been to this damn town twice and I’ve yet to see a muzzle ‘n’ fetlock that wouldn’t summon an attorney the moment I tried to put a saddle on it. Not to mention one that wasn’t dressed better than me!”
“‘… better than I’, dear.”
Eugenia scowled. “Build your own railroad fortune from the ground up, then you get to correct my grammar, ‘dear’.” Her ladyship didn’t mean to be quite so short with her sister-in-law and sought to make amends. “Don’t mind the cigar, do you?”
“Don’t be silly. It reminds me of my Horace. And it conveniently masks so many… odors.” Philippa opened her journal and prepared to update it with the details of the day’s adventures. She felt the whole story might be sensational enough to be worthy of publication. “What do you think, Gina: Should one hyphenate the phrase ‘steam eater’ or not?”
Eugenia had started cutting carrots when the sounds of instruments being tuned came flooding through an adjacent wall. “Damn! Those girls are at it again!”
“We are adrift in bohemia, dear,” said Philippa as she perused her journal. “Bohemians and the poor… they both love their music, as I’m sure you know.”
“Tried to get someone in charge to limit their playing, but apparently they have the hotel’s day manager besotted! He’s a fan of theirs! They are, it seems, a troupe of some note.”
“A sour note, to be sure!” said Philippa, shamelessly laughing at her own weak witticism. “I know! It’s warm outside, perhaps I can persuade them to practice in the vacant lot down the street.” Before Eugenia could even begin to convince her sister-in-law of the hopelessness of such a stratagem, Philippa was out of the room and knocking on the door of room 207.
A young redhead wearing only a corset and a scandalously short chemise answered, a curiously modified and mechanised guitar hanging from her shoulder. “Oh… you’re from next door, right? It’s no good asking us to stop playing, the manager said…”
“I simply thought it would be in everyone’s best interest if you were to conduct your rehearsal outside. There is a very nice vacant lot nearby, very convenient!”
“Great!” said the redhead. “Why don’t you go there and let us get back to work.”
“Now look,” said Philippa, her store of “patrician reserve” nearly empty, “doubtless we are not the only ones in this place who are bothered by the noise of…”
“Hey, watch it! People pay good money to come hear our ‘noise’!”
“Then you should be opposed to inflicting it on hotel guests who aren’t paying for it!”
“If the manager says to stop, we’ll stop. Until then, we’re rehearsing.”
“I’m sure the manager wouldn’t allow it if he knew how much it was disturbing his other guests.”
“Oh, you’re one to talk about what’s allowed! We know all about that beast you’re keeping in your room. And the horse as well!”
Philippa spotted the redhead’s two similarly-clad roommates. “Seems like your room is crowded too. But, where are the bakers? There must be bakers, I see so many tarts! Tell me, is music your primary occupation? Judging by what you wear when you answer your door, one can only wonder.”
Jessie looked down and actually noticed what she was wearing. “It’s rather warm in here,” she said calmly. “I think the radiators are on downstairs for some reason. I’m surprised you don’t feel it. Or are you just naturally frigid?”
Philippa was not prepared to admit defeat, but she had had enough of the red menace. “I’m going to leave a letter for the owner. We *shall* revisit this issue!” She stormed off, returning to her room.
The redhead slammed the door closed. “Ugh!” she cried. “They really do allow simply anyone to stay here, don’t they?” She turned to her band mates. “And we are taking ‘Gear Girl Grind’ off the set list!”
“Come on, Jessie! People love that song!” said band mate Verity as she adjusted the pressure valves on a steam-powered, self-playing harmonium.
“I know. Which is why we always do it, which is why I’m so sick of it!”
“Maybe a new arrangement…” said band mate Harmony, spinning one of her drumsticks between her fingers.
“No! No more new arrangements!” said Jessie. “Isn’t there a new song we could…”
Jessie didn’t want to answer the door, certain it was one of the bossy ladies from the next room, or perhaps even the hotel owner. Assuming the knocker wouldn’t go away until she at least spoke to them, she braced herself and opened the door.
It wasn’t the owner. The man at the door was completely bald and clean-shaven. His suit was dark, well-tailored and looked expensive. He was grinning broadly. “I heard you up here practicing earlier. You sound fantastic!”
“Is there something we can do for you?” Jessie considered her state of semi-dress and the somewhat lecherous leer of the man at the door. “Never mind, consider the question withdrawn.”
“Really, ladies, I’m just here as a fan! Doubtless one of your biggest fans!”
“I suppose you are a fan. Fans make things cold.” Jessie shut the door in his face. “That does it! If anyone else interrupts us, we break out the sonic cannons!”
Verity looked at Jessie. “Set cannons to ‘liquefy’, Jess?”
Jessie threw open the door. The man was still there.
“Tsk, tsk, tsk. It’s such a classic story: A little bit of fame and suddenly you have no time for your true fans!”
“We’re busy now,” said Jessie. “See us in concert.”
“I’ve seen you and the Alley Cats in concert many times! What’s that one song you do… ‘Gear Girl Grind’? I love that song!”
The man turned when he heard someone knocking next door. He noticed a tall black man wearing glasses, ill-fitting pants and an appalling waistcoat, a messenger bag slung over his shoulder. “Do forgive me, ladies. I hate to interrupt this delightful conversation, but I just have to pop next door and kill this gentleman. Won’t be a moment!”
When Philippa heard the knock, she was certain that it was the redheaded tramp from next door coming to apologize. She eagerly put down her journaling pen and prepared to confront the insolent musician.
Lady Mann was strapping on Nike’s feed bag. “What are you doing?!?” she hissed as Philippa reached for the doorknob. “Find out who it is first!”
Philippa put a finger to her lips to sush her roommate. “Who is it?”
“I was sent by Mr. Tyvus,” the messenger said in a clear voice. Then he said, in a sort of loud whisper, “I’m here to put water on the fire!”
Philippa opened the door, pulled the visitor into the room and shut the door in one swift movement.
Lady Mann had produced a small gun and was aiming it at the messenger’s head.
“What have you done with Tyvus? Answer me!”
“Gina, he knew the code. Is this necessary?”
“Our foes are diabolically clever,” said Eugenia, “and masters of disguise with boundless guile!”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake!” Philippa licked her thumb and began vigorously rubbing it against the messenger’s cheek. He protested with equal vigor. “GYAHHH!! What the hell are you doing?!? Stop that!!!”
Philippa then showed her clean thumb to her sister-in-law. “You see? It’s not makeup. He appears to be an authentic negro.”
“Splendid!” said Eugenia who lowered her pistol. “But what are you doing here? Did something happen to old Tyvus?”
“He’s fine,” said the messenger. “We trapped one of the extortionists at his niece’s wedding. Mr. Tyvus is watching him and sent me to collect and deliver everybody’s evidence. Should I ask about the horse?”
“What about the horse?” her ladyship queried.
“He’s in a hotel room.”
“Nike’s a mare, old son, and I’m certainly not leaving her outside in this neighborhood! Dodgy characters hanging about is bad enough, but you can practically chew the air outside!”
“And why is she wearing, what seems to be, a very large diaper?”
“Do you see any manure on the floor? No stable hands here, you know.”
“Point taken. You have something for me?”
Lady Mann moved around the room retrieving oversized envelopes that had been adhered to the undersides of various pieces of furniture. “This is Philippa, my sister-in-law. Her husband and my husband are brothers. She lives here in Babbage.”
“I’m a chef at a local restaurant. Eugenia was staying with me at our townhouse.”
“Until I noticed some strange fellows in the area, that is. They seemed to be watching the place, so we got word to Tyvus and left as soon as we could. Figured a run-down hotel like this would be the last place they’d look for a titled railroad executive.”
“You’re a chef?” the messenger asked Philippa as he took the small stack of big envelopes from her ladyship.
“And your name is ‘Philippa Mann’?”
“Yes. What of it?”
The messenger was putting the envelopes into his bag when he suddenly felt a stiff breeze inside the room, a room in which all of the windows were closed. “Step back from the walls,” he said to the ladies with considerable urgency. Pipes inside the walls were rattling loudly and the radiator by the window seemed to have a life of its own. “Center of the room… between the beds! NOW!!!” The rattling grew even louder. Tears appeared in the dingy wallpaper revealing rapidly expanding cracks beneath. The room became intensely cold just moments before it noisily shattered. Philippa didn’t even realize she was screaming until the messenger turned to her and shouted, “STOP SCREAMING IN MY EAR!!”
As things settled, Lady Mann was the first to get up and survey the damage. The wall separating rooms 205 and 207 was nearly gone and a large chunk of the exterior wall was missing. Nike, standing near an undamaged part of the outer wall, seemed thoroughly unfazed by a hotel room exploding around her and continued happily masticating her premium grain, pausing only to give Eugenia her classic “Silly humans!” look. Her ladyship looked for her gun, having dropped it during the chaos. “Always some damn thing or another blowing up in this city,” she mumbled. “Don’t know how you stand living here, Phil.”
The bald man with the expensive suit knocked down the door to room 205. “Good afternoon, everyone!” He reached over and grabbed the messenger by the collar, lifting him several inches above the floor. “Hello! Goodbye!” He tossed the messenger through the opening in the exterior wall.
The grinning bald man turned to the sisters-in-law. “Now, I’ll be needing to see what you naughty ladies have been hiding from me and my friends.”
Sailing through the air, the messenger considered what he had just witnessed and turned over in his mind the concept of conservation of energy. He realized that the term “Steam Eater” was an odd description given the nature of the being that had just thrown him out of the building. Objects freezing was merely a by-product of his ability to transfer kinetic energy, a transfer that had catastrophic consequences for the source of said energy. Anything could be used as a source, but it was only natural that such an entity would gravitate toward engines, boilers and pipes full of steam. The energy, once liberated, did not simply dissipate, but rather it seemed to have been absorbed by the attacker and used to enhance his strength. Upon reaching that conclusion, the messenger hit the ground and lost all focus.
He recovered his wits. While he questioned the wisdom of employing his own unique talents without his customary technological assist, he was clearly facing an extraordinary foe, demanding that an extraordinary effort be made. With a thought, magnetic and gravitational fields were warped and reshaped, exotic ambient energies were concentrated and directed until, with a mighty leap, the messenger launched himself, with breathtaking speed, toward the hotel room. He crashed into the ceiling and became stuck between the second and third floor.
Steam Eater #2 looked at the pair of legs dangling above trying to kick free. “Good lord!” he said. “Not great at this fighting business, are you?”
“Hey, baldy!” Jessie was standing in the space formerly occupied by a room-separating wall. “A word, if I may?”
“Let me start,” said the well-dressed mutant as he stood before the tense redhead, “by saying I had no intention of involving you and your charming friends in this matter, however…”
Jessie interrupted him “I just wanted to say one thing: If you’re going to wreck someone’s steam-powered, self-playing harmonium, make sure the owner hasn’t had a chance to pressurize it first.” She took several steps to her left.
Still digesting the singer’s words, the dapper extortionist barely registered the smoldering wood and metal box in front of him. He had only just noticed the two large pipes protruding from the device, pointing at him, when the thing went off like a double-barreled cannon, sending him through two walls, out of the hotel and out of sight.
The messenger finally freed himself and dropped from the ceiling. Having heard the blast, and noting his attacker’s absence, he quickly sussed what had happened. “Gosh,” he thought to himself, recalling the earlier incident at Piermont Landing, “I can see why those guys murder, extort and terrorize from the shadows… when they come out into the open, they just get clobbered!”
He turned to Jessie, spotting the wry smile on her face. “A word of advice,” she said to the man with the tacky wardrobe, “don’t [CENSORED] with the Alley Cats.”
Lady Mann thrust the messenger’s messenger bag into his chest. “I say, fellow, isn’t there somewhere you need to be getting to? I’ll take care of things this end.”
“Oh… yes… right… Thanks, ladies!”
The messenger jumped through the hole in the outer wall — landing in a much more controlled fashion than before — and ran off in the direction of the train station.
“He seemed nice,” said Harmony.
“Yes,” said Verity. “But those clothes..!”
“I know!” said Jessie. “Somebody should buy him a sense of style for Christmas!”
“Really, girls!” said Philippa. “Most uncharitable! Perhaps he likes running around looking like a waiter.”
The Alley Cats giggled girlishly. Lady Mann removed Nike’s feed bag and gave her another piece of carrot.
Next, Part 3: The Indifference Engine