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The Steam Eaters (Part 4)

 

Part 4: Gangs & Planks & The Pink Purse of Doom

Audrey, with her short and silky skirt and her extraordinarily long strand of pearls, was attracting strange looks from the Port Babbage shoppers. “Trust me,” she said, “this’ll be the height of chic in about 35 years. I’m just a trend setter.”

“You’re just grossly out of place,” I said. “Don’t time travelers do research before they venture out and pester people?” I continued rummaging through my messenger bag. When I couldn’t immediately lay hands on the perplexing pink purse Audrey had given me earlier, I wondered if I could have lost it somewhere. At the time of our second encounter, when she asked me about the pearlescent pink paraphernalia, my bullet-holed leather satchel was so stuffed with incriminating evidence of paranormal wrongdoing, it took me several moments to recover her futuristic curio — still unopened, just as she had given it to me.

“You still haven’t used it?” she asked.

“If I use this whatever-it-is, then I’m beholden to you and your mysterious benefactors,” I said. “I don’t like the idea of being beholden to you and your mysterious benefactors. Or maybe it’s just my aversion to being seen with a pink purse. Stereotypes, you know.”

“And yet you’re perfectly willing to go out in public in that dreadful waiter’s uniform… Which reminds me, that first guy who tried to kill you got away. Just thought you should know.”

“The guitar guy from the wedding? Steam Eater #1? How did he get away from Mr. Tyvus?”

“Not sure. He was tied to a chair and everything. Even the chair was gone!”

It suddenly occurred to me that none of the nasty characters I had faced up to that point had actually been secured. And now, all four members of the deceptively named Cogswell Trio were free to run around and cause no end of mischief. “Great! The most unhinged of all the unhinged people I’ve met today is now on the loose, and he’s either looking for me or he’s looking for the man I’m supposed to be looking for. And he’s being aided by three other para-powered homicidal maniacs!” I began walking east toward Clockhaven at a brisk pace, Audrey hurrying to keep up. “I’ve got to get to The Gangplank! How did this happen? Why is this my life?!?”

“Ha! Why? One paranormally gifted science student plus one city stuffed to the brim with mystics, mad scientists and bunnies with bombs… you got the ‘A’ in linear algebra, you do the math.”

I halted upon hearing this. “How did you know that? Have you read my school transcript? And doesn’t everyone get an ‘A’ in linear algebra?”

“Perhaps not everyone finds it as easy as you,” said Audrey with a huffy air. “Failed ‘clacking & scripting’ though, didn’t you?”

“That was an ‘incomplete’!” I said defensively. “You try playing catch-up in a class like that after being stuck in a parallel universe for almost two weeks!”

One of Audrey’s wrist bangles began emitting an odd tone. “Uh-oh,” she said, “that’ll be the big cheese. Listen, I’ve got to take this, and you’ve got to duck. If I need to, I’ll be in touch later.” She turned and headed back toward The Curious Seamstress where I had run into her after my quick trip through the sewer. What did she mean, “duck”?

“What do you mean, ‘duck’?” I yelled after her.

Apparently, what Audrey should have said was, “… you need to duck so you don’t get hit in the head by musician flying by at the end of a rope ladder!” 

“Sorry!” cried Jessie, still swinging a meter or two above me after knocking me to the ground. The ladder led up to an airship floating low over the port. “Just wanted to get your attention!”

“I guess you succeeded!” I shouted up to her. “I tend to notice people who give me a concussion!”

“We need to moor the ‘Cat-Bird’,” she said pointing up at her airship that had giant cat ears attached to the gas bag. “Back in a minute!”

She didn’t seem to realize I didn’t have a minute to waste. But I spent enough time grousing about the girl’s presumptuousness that, before I knew it, I was once again in the company of Jessie and the Alley Cats and, unlike our last encounter, this time they were fully dressed — attired in trendy sky-pirate gear.

“We weren’t formally introduced before. I’m Jessie, that’s Verity and that’s Harmony.”

I was feeling more puzzled than cordial. “Were you three actually looking for me?”

“Of course!” said Jessie. “Lady Mann explained what you were doing and we thought we might be of help.”

“Dealt with a lot of bad guys, have you?”

“Do drunks in pubs trying to feel you up count?” asked Harmony.

“Her ladyship was busy negotiating with the hotel owner over the damages, trying to talk him out of suing all of us,” said Verity.

“Doesn’t he have insurance?”

“Are you kidding!” she said, chuckling. “What agent in their right mind would sell a policy to a property owner in *this* town?”

“Understood,” I said. “You know, there is, perhaps, one thing you could help me with…”

“Well, lead on!” said Jessie. “Where were you off to?”

“The Gangplank. It’s a pub over this way,” I said, and resumed walking east. “Not exactly sure where it is. I always get lost in Clockhaven… too many twisty alleys and side streets. I usually just follow the smell of booze and sour milk.”

The four of us poked around Clockhaven until we located The Gangplank. “I’m going to go in and see if I can find the man waiting for this material,” I told my merry band. “You three check out the area, see if any of the Cogswells are hanging around. They all look pretty much like the one from the hotel. Come warn me if you see any of them heading toward the bar.”

“What if the four of them are already in there waiting for you?” asked Harmony.

“Then you and the patrons of this establishment shall witness a brown blur with glasses making an extremely rapid exit. “

Caledonian secret agents, it seems, have a thing or two to learn about stealth. According to the description I was given by Mrs. Trefusis, the person I was seeking — the one to whom I would entrust my satchelful of invaluable, irreplaceable evidence — would be wearing an orange bowler and alligator shoes, articles of clothing that struck me as more than a little conspicuous. But that was what had been arranged, and it was far too late to argue the matter. I spotted the hat in question, but there was no head or body beneath it. It simply sat on the bar, unattended and unclaimed. The crowd at the pub was small, but none of them noticed the hat’s owner entering or leaving. It was as if the hat had come in on its own to rest its feet and have a gin and tonic. Being where I was, I could not immediately discount that possibility, but a quick inspection of the hat revealed nothing unusual about it. Failing to find the hat’s owner, I took it with me when I left The Gangplank and began searching for my three assistants.

Heading down what must surely be one of the most narrow alleys in Clockhaven, I heard a crunching noise beneath my feet. I looked down to see what looked like several yards worth of rubies scattered on the ground. I stooped to pick one up, but I immediately felt the cold radiating from the crystalline debris… and saw a single alligator shoe in the middle of the alley. I suddenly had the uncomfortable feeling that I had been walking on the quick-frozen and shattered remains of a Caledon security agent.

“That’s not gonna be you,” said a voice from behind me that made me stand right up and spin around to face it’s owner. “We’ve got something else in mind for you,” said the bald man in the dark suit who I assumed to be Steam Eater #4. I heard a group of three someones moving near the entrance to the alley behind me. 

I turned to see that, fortunately, it was the Alley Cats. And, even more fortunately, they had knock-out gas guns and electric arc pistols! Quite unfortunately, they were all pointed at me.

“Uh, ladies,” I said, “the villain is over there behind me… I thought you said you’d done this before!” If it had only been one dose of knock-out gas or only one blast from an arc pistol, I’m sure I could have readily recovered without difficulty. A trio of each, however, and my only option was a brief nap.

When I woke up, I was in a sort of chain mail straight jacket with my legs free, but my arms completely bound in heavy metal. Through the fog shrouding my recovering senses, I could see, to my right, Verity and Harmony at the controls of what I assumed was the Alley Cats’ airship…. to my left was a pile of crates and musical instruments… above me were winches and pulleys… and in the middle of it all were four bald men in dark suits, two of them looking as if they had been standing too close to an exploding harmonium (or had, perhaps, barely survived the convulsive collapse of a six-legged mechanoid). All four of them were looking at me as if I were a well-cooked Thanksgiving turkey and they had just been given carving knives, plates and forks.

“First of all, thank you for getting all that evidence together for us. I’m sure we’ll find it very instructive,” said #4. My head had been resting on the bag. I considered its extraordinary contents for a moment. A pink purse full of futuristic technology falling into the hands of a group of murderous musicians, it seemed to me, could have unfortunate results. “I wouldn’t get too comfortable,” #4 said to me. “We’re hovering over the deepest part of the Vernian. You’ll be walking the plank pretty soon.

“And thanks to our favorite opening act for helping us find the one responsible for all the [CENSORED] we’ve been through today, *and* for giving us a ride home in their magnificent airship!” Jessie was over to my right, on the far side of the ship, wearing an inscrutable smile.

And then, completely unaware of what the consequences would be, I facetiously asked “So, fellas, before I go, how ’bout a song?”

#3 looked around. His eyes fell on the Alley Cats’ equipment. “Not vith zese instruments. Za ladies do not tune zem properly.”

“Ullrich!” said #2, “We are guests on this vessel! How can you say such a thing about our lovely hostesses.”

“None of zem are goink to sleep vith you, Fabio. Vhen vill you realize zat?”

“Into the gutter already! Not 10 minutes into the trip, and already you’re embarrassing me!”

#4 spoke up. “We could do that a cappella thing we were working on. Ullrich, your phrasing is still off. You could use the practice.”

“I’ve never even rehearsed zat von vith you. You’ve only sung it vith Geoffrey and Fabio. Von of zem has za ‘off’ phrasing.”

#2 turned toward #1. “Geoffrey, would you like to weigh in here?” #1 gave him a nasty look before walking over to the crates and instruments. “And he says nothing… what a surprise!”

“It is all about za killing for him, anyvay,” said #3. 

“That’s not true! He’s a classically trained musician!” said #4.

“Ve are all quite avare of your formalist prejudices, Anthony.”

“Having formal training does not make me a formalist! You’re so narrow-minded!”

“Und you are so elitist! You completely discount ze emotional component of za music!”

There was a loud “CLACK”, like something being unlocked, that only someone engaged in a loud, pointless argument would miss.

“No! No no no no no! We will not be having this argument all the way back to Caledon! Not again!” said #2 sounding angry, desperate and matronly all at once.

“Just because you think audiences won’t accept the half-diminished seventh chord and that non-contiguous trichords are the work of the Devil doesn’t mean the rest of us have to stay stuck in the 18th century!!” said #4.

“Traditional chord structures are more familiar to za audience and closer to za folk music people are accostomed to. Those are za songs ve do zat people like.”

“What people? The people you blow up and extort money from?” queried #4.

“Listen to yourself! Zis is vhat you alvays do vhen you are loosing an argument!”

“Calm down, Ullrich,” said #2. “Expressing himself isn’t Anthony’s forte. And some of us prefer technical achievements to evocative, melodramatic compositions.”

“You’re one to talk!” said #4. “When was the last time you wrote something that resolved to tonic? Audiences don’t even know when they should clap when we play your stuff!”

A bald man in a dark suit dragged another, unconscious bald man with a guitar around his neck (who was wearing a most unfashionable suit) to the middle of the floor, unnoticed by those participating in the mass bickering.

“You, of all people, should appreciate a little thoughtful experimentation with form and idiom,” said #2.

“Count your blessings, Fabio,” said #3. “At least he’s not vhining about your lyrics!” 

“FOR THE LAST TIME: ‘LOVE’ AND ‘MOVE’ DO NOT RHYME!!! THEY DON’T!!! I know they’re kinda spelled the same, and English isn’t your first language, but… 

“MEIN GOTT!!! More of your formalist claptrap! I can’t stand it!!!”

“I am NOT a formalist! Stop calling me that! I CAN EMOTE, DAMMIT!!!”

Mercifully, Jessie pulled the lever that opened the cargo doors in the floor of the airship, dropping the four musician/extortionists into the Vernian.

All of us looked through the opening, down into the water where the quartet should have fallen. “I don’t see them,” said Jessie, “but they should come bobbing to the surface any…”

A massive water spout shot up into the airship, hitting the winches and pulleys on the ceiling, making all of us quickly step back and away from the cargo door. 

“Now *that’s* making a splash!” said Harmony. 

“Look!” said Verity, pointing down to the water. “It’s incredible!”

No criminals had come bobbing to the surface. There was, instead, the tip of a giant iceberg.

Jessie was flabbergasted. “Did the Cogswells do that? Could they have made that thing?!?”

“It must have been the sea water,” said Steam Eater #5. He opened the jacket of his dark suit and revealed that, where there should have been a lining, there was an intricate lattice of copper wires. “The electromagnetic field set up by these jackets helps us control our energy-draining abilities… keeps them from flaring uncontrollably when we use them. The sea water must have damaged their control systems. They accidentally captured the heat from the surrounding water and sealed themselves in ice!”

While I appreciated the science lesson, I had grown quite tired of my less-than-stylish encumbrance. “Reverend, I don’t suppose you could get me out of this?”

The remaining Steam Eater reached for a handy pair of bolt cutters and released me. “You know who I am?” he asked.

“I assume you came here to stop your doppelgangers? Something about the incident with the wedding soup struck me as odd. #1 seemed almost as surprised about it as everyone else. Then #3 mentioned that they’d found a fifth person with the talent and it all made sense: You froze the soup at the wedding to alert Mr. Tyvus that he was about to get ambushed. And I’m guessing I also have you to thank for destroying that six-legged monstrosity that was shooting at me outside the Excelsior.”

The reverend humbly shrugged his shoulders. “It seemed to be getting in your way.” 

“As for you ladies,” I said turning to the Alley Cats, “I’m completely at a loss. First you help me, then you shoot me… “

“We needed bait to make sure they all got together in our ship, ” said Verity. “Hello, bait!”

“But we couldn’t have done it without Reverend Wexler,” said Harmony. “We ran into him in Clockhaven when he was spreading red ice in an alley.”

“‘Red ice’? That wasn’t bits of frozen security agent?”

“Of course not!” said the reverend. “Convincing enough if you only take a quick glance, but did you see any skin, or eyes, or toes, or fecal matter from the shattered intestines, or…”

“I get it!” I said. “But why? How?”

“I got the first Steam Eater away from the wedding party and took his place when the Cogswells gathered to ‘deal with’ the security agent. I volunteered to kill him, but instead I lured him to the back of The Gangplank and knocked him out. I took his ugly hat and shoes and froze a few bottles of red wine to spread around and show I’d done the job.”

“We opened for the Cogswell Trio once,” said Jessie, taking up the story. “When we ran into the reverend and he didn’t know us, we knew there was something weird going on here… even weirder than what we already knew about. After a little conversation, we came up with a solid plan to deal with the Cogswells once and for all. Of course, it was supposed to end with those creeps getting picked up by the Navy, but hey, I love surprises!”

I was overdosing on exposition, but I still had a question. “‘Deal with them’? I thought everyone in Caledon (who wasn’t one of their victims) loved these guys.”

“It’s the whole reason we even came here,” said Jessie. “Music-wise, they’re a juggernaut in Caledon, we just didn’t want them getting a foothold in Babbage too. We knew about their bizarre four-person-trio thing, but we weren’t sure what was behind it, and we definitely didn’t know about their freezing tricks. All we knew was that Cogswell #2 wanted to get to Babbage to join his band mates, so we offered him a ride as an excuse to come here and see what kinds of gigs the Trio was getting… and to see what kinds of inroads our band could make here.”

“So, you didn’t know anything about the murders, the extortion or the blown-up trains before you came here… you just wanted them ‘dealt with’ so you could be a bigger headline act?”

“Hey, it’s like I told you before,” said Jessie, “Don’t [CENSORED] with the Alley Cats.”

…….

At Piermont Landing, Mr. Trefusis, having sent his wife home to the safety of Victoria City, was forced to dance with an attractive blonde named Emma something-or-other. Philippa Mann was discussing the plot outline of a sensational work of fiction she was writing to a disinterested, serious-looking man with no shoes who was holding an ice pack to his head and looking, in an ill-tempered manner, at Reverend Wexler — who was putting his fabulous tenor voice to work accompanying the Alley Cats on stage. Before I could return to the wedding, I was beckoned by Audrey who was waiting for me next to the canal, spinning a long soup ladle from the caterer’s kitchenette like a baton.

“All done, sheik?”

“I suppose we’re just going to have to learn to live with you time travelers, aren’t we?” I said. “Why do you people keep coming here?”

“Would it surprise you to learn that there are people looking into that?” she replied. “There’s some sort of inherent ‘warp-y-ness’ to this place. It attracts all sorts of things in fluctuating states of quantum hypocoporeality. No one’s sure why, but it’s about as close to an actual ‘trouble magnet’ as you’re liable to find. Speaking of trouble, I spoke to my bosses. I hope you’re not too broken up about it, but it turns out it was someone else who was supposed to get that little package I handed you.”

“So, I need to give it to someone else?”

“Oh, I shouldn’t bother at this point. You can even keep the leather satchel.”

“How thoughtful.” I said, reaching into said satchel and retrieving the pearlescent pink clutch. “Guess I should see what this is.” I undid the clasp and pulled out a palm-sized, very gadgety looking gadget.

“Is that all?” Audrey asked looking very surprised. “Is that all that was in there?”

“Apparently,” I said, glancing at the empty purse. “What is this thing?”

“It’s just a Q-device. They’re dead common where I come from.” 

“What does it do?”

“Basic energy-field research tool. Kind of like your multitool (when it’s working). Mostly, it’s just used for calibrating other instruments. If you really know what you’re doing, you can load in a few useful ApPS and expand its functionality. In fact, I’m sure this has been preset to perform some specific task.”

“ApPS?”

“Appliance Parameter Settings.” Audrey took the device and began fiddling with it. “They’re used to generate different kinds of force-fields… creating static interference on psychic wavelengths, disrupting gravity neutralizing or electrical energy emissions… standard stuff. If you’re clever, you can make these gizmos do some more interesting things. I’ve seen people use them to trap non-corporeal life forms, affect chemical changes like breaking down the alcoholic compounds in a beverage… all kinds of things.”

“Does it work on people?”

“You have to disable some of the parameter locks, but if you do that, it’ll vaporize flesh, no problem. It’ll even dissociate loosely bonded pigment molecules from a substrate.”

“You mean, it will…”

“Strip paint… you know, like graffiti and stuff. Not the most efficient tool for the job, though. Know anyone who can use it?”

“Well, now that you ask…”

“Oh, you’re right, who needs silly toys cluttering up their closets.” Audrey casually tossed the device into the canal. 

“Well,” she said, “I think that’s me done!”

“Wait a minute,” I said, “let’s tally things up here: After about 90 minutes of cater-waitering, Cogswell #1 attacks me, and the bride knocks him out with a tray. #2 is sent flying over the city by some Alley Cats. #3 gets rumbled by #5 and, for their encore, the Alley Cats dump all four of the bad guys into the Vernian — all so I could risk my life to gather evidence that no one even needs anymore now that the evil Steam Eaters are drifting out to sea, frozen inside of an iceberg. And all of this happened while I was carrying around a pink purse full of future technology that was for someone else entirely. Am I forgetting anything that might make my getting out of bed this morning even more pointless?”

“Isn’t Mr. Tyvus about to write you an unspeakably huge check?”

I considered this for a moment. “And the scales are balanced!”

“Oh, one more thing before I go…” she handed me the soup ladle. “Destiny is calling, Mr. Arkright. Toodles!” She vanished between eye blinks.

I went to join the wedding party and left the messenger bag — with its dust, dirt, sewer stink and bullet holes — with the security agent (who, for some reason, seemed less than grateful). 

“ARKRIGHT!!!!” Boss Garland seemed mildly miffed by my absence. “What’s this about you doing ‘special jobs’ for guests?!? Do you think I allow moonlighting on MY time? Do you think you’re getting PAID for today? Do you know how FIRED you are?!?”

The ladle slipped out of my hand and accidentally struck Mr. Garland in the crotch. With significant force. It’s the truth. I swear.

“SON! You did it!” Mr. Tyvus slapped my back with excessive enthusiasm. “Back to business as usual!”

Lady Mann shook my hand with a grip like a blacksmith. “Well done, old boy! Well done! Why is that man on the ground holding his testicles?”

“Owe you a fair penny, we do,” said Mr. Tyvus. “Not the time or place to discuss it, I think, but you can come see me when I’m back in the office and we’ll iron everything out then, how does that sound?”

“You want me to come see you in Caledon?”

“Oh, you know,” said Tyvus in a fidgety sort of way. “Take a step back, add up the debits and credits, see what shakes out, determine what’s fair… that’s not a problem, is it?”

“I’m still getting an unspeakably huge check, right?”

“Certainly!” said Tyvus. “Sure! Of course! Happy endings all ’round…”

A groan arose from the floor. “Oooooooowwwwww, my privates!”

“….well, near enough, anyway. Who wants pudding?”

 

 

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