Episode 12: Promises
“Where is he? I can’t believe he’d just go off like that.” I burst through the front door, letting it slam behind me. “Of all the inconsiderate, irresponsible—”
“Who ya mad at, Pike?” Maddie combed a doll’s hair at end of the porch.
I immediately softened my tone. “Al, but I’m not really mad at him. Just concerned, that’s all.” I stepped closer to where her toys were propped in miniature chairs around a child-sized wicker table. I crouched next to her and placed the back of my hand to her forehead. “Seems you’ve licked that fever.”
“I’m feeling better since my big brothers are home.” She poured pretend tea from her pot and passed out imaginary pastries to her friends. “But I’m actually a little mad at you.”
“Mad at me? What for?” I was astonished by how grown up she sounded and it reminded me of all the days I had missed while at war.
She put her hands on her hips and tossed her head to the side, bouncing curls. “You promised to help me find Priscilla. She’s missin’ a tea party.”
“And you know, we’re gonna find her,” I said. “I need to take care of business in town first, then we’ll look for your doll together. Better save her some cookies.”
She looked at me and smiled, and for a moment our mother shown through the sparkle in her eyes. “I will, and some tea too. It’s her favorite.”
At that moment, Al flew around the corner of the house, glancing over his shoulder like he was being followed. He stomped up the stairs, holstering his hatchet as he reached the top.
“And where exactly have you been?” I asked, but didn’t wait for him to answer. “You would think that with disappearing bodies and exploding airships, you might tell someone where you’re going before wandering off.” I hated how much I sounded like his parent, but it was my role now.
“Look, I needed to stretch my legs and clear my head.” He took of his hat and ran his arm across his forehead, his eyes still darting back to the side of the house. “But you’re right, no one should be wandering around alone out there.”
I hadn’t expected him to agree with me—it wasn’t like him—but I could tell something had spooked him. “We should all be more careful. With so many strange happenings, I was expecting the worst.”
“Listen, I have something to tell you.” Al glanced at Maddie and pulled me to the other end of the porch. “I saw someone creeping around the property this morning, some drifter I met at the Admiral’s Keg.”
“What?!” I blurted, then lowered my voice, remembering that Maddie was within earshot. “Do you think he’s dangerous?”
“Not sure, seemed harmless enough at first, but I think he was at the crash site, too.” Al’s eyes met mine in a look that said he’d pieced together something important.
If this guy had attacked us in the forest and was stalking us at home, he’d crossed the line. We had to take care of this. “Why didn’t you say so, let’s go after him.” I started for the front door, my target: my shotgun.
Al grabbed my sleeve. “Wouldn’t bother now, I’m sure he’s long gone.”
Before I could argue, Lloyd and his men rode up to the porch with our horses in tow. “Let’s get a move on, Mr. Pike…Mr. Al. We have a lot to do in town and best be back by nightfall.”
“Agreed.” I looked at Al and he nodded, a motion that promised this wasn’t over yet.
When we rode into town, the sun was at its highest point in the sky. We tethered the horses in front of the general store and followed the planked walkway through town. I couldn’t believe how much had changed since we left. The barber shop had moved across the street and a new dress shop was in its place. I paused in front of the window and admired a soft blue frilly get up hanging in the front display. “Maddie would go crazy for that dress.”
“We should stop by before we leave and pick it up for her,” Al said. “She’ll need something to wear to the ball.”
“We’ll do just that.”
Before the war, gals had to go to Richmond for such fine things. I had to admit, the colorful display of fancy frocks, lacy petticoats, and beaded necklines brought a much needed splash of color to an otherwise dull and dirty Main Street. My eyes drifted to a blush pink silk gown trimmed with lace, and I imagined how nice the color would look against Ellie’s skin. Maybe if she had a proper dress, she’d reconsider attending the party.
We moved on to the print shop and picked up party invites, then continued through town. Al paused in front of our destination, adjusting the bundle of paper cards and envelopes in his arms, and waited for me to catch up. I waved off a spider web that hung from the BERNARD T. CORNWELL, ESQUIRE sign, and I opened the door, triggering a bell mounted on the inside.
Near the back of the room, a portly figure with white hair hunched over a desk stacked with papers and books, so high in some places it was a wonder they didn’t tip over and bury him alive. A tea kettle whistled atop the wood-burning stove located to the left of the desk.
The man lifted his gaze, his round cheeks swelling with a warm smile. “Well, if it isn’t Pike and Al Albright. It’s been a long time.” He stood and walked around the desk to extend a solid handshake.
“Too long, sir,” I said.
“None of that sir nonsense. Bern will do just fine,” he said, peering over rounded spectacles. “I only wish it was under better circumstances.” He held on to my hand a little tighter and longer than usual. “Your Pa was a good friend. He and your brother will be missed.”
I nodded my thanks, never quite knowing how to respond to condolences. “So, Mae told us you stopped by yesterday.”
“About Pa’s will,” Al added.
“Right.” Bernard turned back to his desk, picked up a folder, and handed it to me. “But I really don’t have much to tell you.”
When I opened the file, a single scrap of paper with a scribbled note was the only thing inside. “What’s this? And where’s Pa’s will?”
Al grabbed the paper with his free hand and looked it over, front and back. “An address? What are we supposed to do with this?”
Bern cheeks bloated with a nervous grin. “Now listen, it isn’t my fault. Before you left for war, James Sr. had me change the will, then he put it in a deposit box at a bank in Richmond, for safekeeping.”
“In Richmond?” Al exclaimed. “Why on earth would he do that?”
I put my hand on Al’s arm as a peculiar tingle itched my spine. “You don’t mean The Bank of Richmond?”
Al’s eyes grew wide, and he looked from me to Bern and back at me. “Wait, you don’t think…the list?”
“Y-y-yes, The Bank of Richmond,” Bern said, his third chin bouncing as he shook his head.
I shoved the note into my pocket and handed the folder back to the lawyer, leaning into him in a motion of intimidation. “Bern, I need you to tell us what you know about the Blacksmith organization.”
He swallowed hard and adjusted his rims. “Now that’s a name I haven’t heard in a while.” His gaze shifted to the front door and out the side window before coming back to meet mine. “Back when we used to meet at your pa’s workshop, we were good and honest folk. Trying to better society…but everything’s changed.”
“Changed how?” I asked.
Bern lowered his voice. “Well, things started heating up before the war. Rumors of your Pa’s work circulated through other chapters. Outsiders wanted to capitalize on our inventions, use them to destroy. But we never wanted that. The Blacksmith organization split into two groups. One seeks technology to gain power and control. The other, your Pa’s side, wants to use innovation and science to better the lives of all men.”
Al smacked my forearm. “That explains why someone would want to shoot down that airship.”
I glared at him. “But it doesn’t tell us why it was on our property in the first place.”
Bern’s eyes grew wide as if he’d seen a ghost. “They’re looking for your Pa’s shop. Soon as we knew folks were after his ideas, we stopped meeting, hid everything. War probably slowed down the search, but now that it’s over…they won’t stop until they find what they’re looking for.”
I mulled over the list on the letter we found on the mechanical man. Bank of Richmond was second priority. “Well we have an idea of where they’ll be looking. Guess we’re going to Richmond. Thanks for your help, Bern.”
His smile wavered like he didn’t know if he’d helped or harmed the situation. “Sure thing. I promised your pa I’d look after you if…” He pursed his lips and swallowed his unsaid words. “I’m here if you need anything else.”
We left the lawyer’s office and stepped back out onto the plank walkway, savoring the last few moments of shade before the journey home. Across the street, the mayor exited the hotel with a couple I hadn’t seen before. They were dressed like city folk and swaggered with an air of importance. The man, both taller and thinner than the mayor, wore a gray suit. He was clean shaven; his hair, jet black and slicked back behind his ears. The woman wore an emerald bustled dress and carried a parasol, though the way she held it revealed it was more for show than anything else. Her ginger ringlet curls carefully decorated her temples from under a dainty wool top hat adorned with a jet black bird and a couple of copper cogs. They crossed the street, heading directly toward us.
“Who’s the couple with the mayor?” I asked as I stepped into the street.
“They’re new in town. Word is they’re wealthy and looking for opportunity.” Bern lowered his voice and looked to the ground, not wanting the approaching trio to hear what he was saying.
“Good afternoon, Mayor Grady,” I said.
“Pike, Al…Bern.” The mayor nodded in return, but he didn’t look all too happy to see us. He never took a liking to anything that didn’t further his political agenda or line his pockets with gold. “This is Bernard Cornwell, and these are the Albright boys.” He gestured with his hand to the couple. “Boys, I’d like you to meet Rowland and Penelope Montgomery. They’re interested in bringing some future business to our little town.”
I tipped my hat. “Rowland, Penelope, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Please, call me Penny,” Mrs. Montgomery said with a playful nod. She was not much older than us, and Rowland was obviously her senior. She ran her fingers over the bundle in Al’s arm. “Looks like someone is having a party. I do love a formal party…”
“You’re more than welcome to come.” Al had already pulled an invitation from his parcel and handed it to her. “It’s not addressed, but I’ve always felt a personal invitation is better than formality. The time and place are at the bottom. I do hope you can make it…”
Her sultry smile turned Al’s face red. “Wouldn’t miss it.”
A commotion stirred behind me as a horseless coach sped around the corner. It’s bronze metal sides were covered with rivets and steam puffed through a pipe on top. Paddle wheel tires hauled the contraption directly toward us, wobbling as if it might spin out of control. I pulled the mayor backwards, and Al forced the Montgomerys to the side. The air filled with dust, steam, and party invitations as the strange machine whizzed by.
“Is everyone okay?” I asked, making sure Bern, the mayor, and the Montgomerys were all in one piece.
Everyone stirred, seemingly unscathed. But Al jumped up and took a couple clumsy steps as if he might chase the carriage down. Instead, he kicked the remains of the invitations, sending the last few handfuls of paper into the air, and cursed the carriage as it sped out of town.
Stay tuned! Episode 13 posts Friday, March 20, 2015.