Mordecai Weathers pulled his scarf close to his face, but even the thick wool did little to keep the stench from his nose. Over the years, the seaside city’s thick, viscous smell had crept so deep into every fiber of his clothing and every pore of his skin that even if he someday managed to leave Little Hope, its distinct, disgusting odor would linger on for years. A sharp wind made him pick up his pace as he pressed on through the cold night. The rain had nearly stopped but the wind was still gusting strong, ballooning his overcoat and knocking him off-kilter as he made his way down the cobblestone walk. A rat boldly skittered between his boots but even it hardly merited more than a possing notice. To Mordecai Weathers, all of this unpleasantness was far, far more preferable than the alternative: a night at home with his wife, Edna.
The evening started out pleasantly enough. Weathers came home to a pot of overseasoned beef stew and a stale crust of bread that he and Edna shared while making idle chatter about neighborhood gossip. Yet somehow between the time he finished the last of the rubbery meat and the moment he slipped into his threadbare pajamas he did something to set Edna off. She started out slowly with theatrical sighs and folded impatient arms, but she soon worked herself into a lather, expertly badgering him with the deftness and skill of a woman well-practiced in the art of the nag. Her first complaint was of discarded sock out of place in their bedroom. Her next was a stack of papers he had brought home from work which sat untouched too long. When those trails grew cold, a tea stain on the table became his fault, never mind that hadn’t a sip of tea in the twenty-three years of their marriage. Nonsense, all of it, and he told her as much, but she had wound herself into such a furious storm of complaint that Weathers vowed to take no more. With hat in hand and scarf drawn around his neck he retreated through the dangerous streets of Little Hope back to the peace and quiet of his office. At this hour, no one would notice that he was still in his pajamas, or so he had convinced himself during the hour it took him to make his way to the H.R. Fowler Company.
Weathers stomped his feet on the ragged mat outside the H.R. Fowler Company’s heavy oak door. An uncomfortable chill settled into his bones and his soaking wet boots left his feet aching and cold. He replayed the evening’s events in his mind as he cursed himself for thinking of the best comebacks far too late, although he did allow himself a moment to relish the delicious silence that followed when he slammed the door on Edna mid-diatribe. Only their cat Frederic remained with her now, a captive audience with no ability to tell the woman to shut up. Poor Frederic.
Weathers wrinkled his nose and felt a crust of ice forming on his pushbroom of a mustache. He fumbled for his keys in his overcoat pocket as a gust of wind sent an angry blast of sleet that seared his face. With a grunt he tore his leather glove from his hand. His bare hand had an easier time finding his key ring in his overcoat, but the cold left his arthritic fingers stiff and angry. “Still warmer than Edna,” he muttered, pleased with himself for the fine jab. The ambient light from the street was just bright enough to allow him to find the keyhole without much of a struggle. When the key finally found its way, the tumbler turned with a heavy clunk, and Weathers stepped inside. Despite the relative safety of the huge H.R. Fowler Company proper, Weathers was still on edge. There was something quite unsettling about absolute quiet and stillness in a place usually abuzz with life. He pushed the door wide open to let the light from the street provide the illumination he needed to locate the gas lantern he kept by the front door. His late night ventures to the office were becoming increasingly frequent, and the dented old lantern made the lonely midnight journey with him from the front door to his office more often than he would have liked. But to his surprise, instead of the near-complete darkness he usually encountered at this hour he saw the familiar amber glow of gaslight emanating from the back corner of the building. It was coming from the washroom, which could only mean one thing.
“Lenore,” he sighed as his visions of sulking in quiet solitude slipped away. He cheeks flushed as he became quite aware of his rainsoaked pajamas. He had been warmed by the thought of a nip from the flask resting quietly in his desk drawer before he turned in for a fitful sleep on the dirty floor of his office. But with Lenore here he’d be obligated to engage her, an endeavor he lacked energy to undertake. She was a strange woman, nice enough he supposed, but she knew nothing of married life. She couldn’t possibly understand what could compel a man to trek through foul weather and terrible danger just to be anywhere but the same room as his spouse. Weathers looked up at the big copper clock stationed above the machining floor and clucked his tongue. It was well after midnight. If Lenore had a family to go home to, she wouldn’t spend late nights like this at work. He always said there was something not quite right about a woman her age who showed no inclination toward marriage. And she had an infuriating habit of leaving the washroom lit like a house aflame.
“Hello, Lenore!” He called across the silent room, hiding his disdain for her company as best as he could. “Engrossed in your work, as always.” His voice echoed through the building, unanswered. He paused. “Or, perhaps you simply forgot to extinguish the lamp before you left.” A smile crept weakly onto Weathers’ lips as realized he just may be alone after all. He had enough of the fairer sex tonight and would be happy to not talk to another of their kind for quite some time. Weathers brushed away the wet snow that had accumulated on his shapeless, weather-worn hat and overcoat and hung both on his customary hook near the door. The errant washroom lamp went forgotten as his thoughts turned to the ledgers and logbooks that waited on his desk. Weathers pushed the thought from his mind. The cheap whiskey in his flask was calling him, compelling him to make the long climb up the old, bowing staircase to his office. By the time he planted a boot on the top step he was fighting hard for breath and his heart drummed a frightful rhythm in his chest. Any thoughts of balancing the books had disappeared, replaced by the need for his flask’s sweet elixir. He leaned heavily on the narrow iron handrail as he made his way to his office. He hung the tin lantern from an iron hook above his desk, its light illuminating the thick piles of documents and fat leather bound ledgers that blanketed his desk. His heart had returned to its usual cadence as though comforted by the chaos of his office. Weathers pulled out the ragged patchwork quilt that he stowed under his desk for his overnights at the office, but the long walk in the night air had stirred his mind. If he spent just a half an hour on the Carriage account tonight he could make some headway into his backlog of work. Weathers settled into his well-worn chair, opened his desk drawer and retrieved his pen, ink, pad, ledger book and most importantly, his flask. He absently turned the stopper on the flask and wetted his index finger to page through the ledger. He shook the flask gently – it was lighter than it should be. He considered for a moment the possibility that someone had stolen a nip. His mood soured at the thought. If a man’s secret stash of whiskey wasn’t sacred, then what was? His thoughts of whiskey thievery vanished when a loud click echoed through the empty building. He craned his neck to pinpoint the source of the noise. The grimy sidelight of his office door revealed little of the work floor, but the dim glow in the darkness reminded him that washroom lantern was still burning. He pushed himself away from his desk to address the offending lamp and investigate the source of the noise. His footfalls echoed through the silence as he descended the staircase. He weaved among the towering machines crowded together on the work floor, running a hand along a hulking brass cylinder as he passed.. His palm went black with soot from the metal surface, and Weathers stopped just short of wiping it on his pajama shirt, thinking of the wrath he would surely face if he asked Edna to launder it for a second time that month. He rounded the engineering pit and turned the corner to the washroom, where he clapped his hand to his mouth, choking back a scream.
The body was contorted, back arched, arms splayed, her mouth twisted into a silent plea to the heavens. Blood matted her straw-colored hair and a dark crimson trail ran from her nostrils. A dark pool gathered under her torso and had spread along the floor. Weathers gagged and stumbled to the floor, grabbing her wrist to search for the pulse he knew he would not find.
Jack Dagon tapped his meerschaum pipe on the bar. The pipe had yellowed with age and use, and nude figure of a woman carved into its shank and stem had enough nicks and gouges to make the once beautiful alabaster femme look like she had suffered a bout of the pox. Jack rubbed his face with a calloused hand, and at that moment was feeling every bit of his fifty-one years. The tavern was smokier than usual and his eyes burned. A phlegmy cough rose in throat and made a noisy escape. He thumped his chest with his fist, though it did little to quiet the deep rattle in his lungs.
He wasn’t ready to admit that he was tired. Dawn was just a few hours away but he didn’t want to go home yet.
The door of the Wicked Fish swung open, bringing with it a cold blast of the night’s air. A woman entered alone. She paused in the doorway to pull off her headscarf, revealing thick, red ringlets that cascaded to her shoulders. She had a pretty face with large, bright eyes and high cheekbones, smooth skin and the healthy glow of youth. She wore a green fitted overcoat that accentuated her tiny waist and broad hips. Her entrance turned every head in the house. Rather than shy away from the attention, she tossed a wink at the bartender before taking a seat unaccompanied at the far end of the bar.
Jack was positive he hadn’t seen her around the Fish before. He certainly would have remembered such a beauty, but even the most average woman would have been remarkable at the Fish. With the exception of an occasional lady of the evening, unescorted women were almost unheard of there. Men came to the Wicked Fish to escape the fair sex in favor of good banter and a cheap drink. The Fish had its share of prostitutes, sure, but they were all well-known to the establishment and carried with them a similar unhealthy pallor and dead-eyed gaze. And judging by her easy, open-mouthed laugh that lilted across the room, Jack reckoned that she appeared to be in possession of all her teeth. She had barely taken her seat at the bar before she was surrounded by a cluster of gape-mouthed drunks vying for the chance to buy her a drink.
Jack saw no reason not to join the fray.
He coughed deeply into his hand and spit into his mug. He rose to his feet, picked a piece of lint from his the lapel of his burgundy overcoat and ran a hand through his shoulder length black hair. The drink was starting to go to his head, but he steadied himself on the bar and strode toward the redhead with the confidence that only a belly full of ale can bring.
“Cold night, isn’t it? I bet you could use a little something to warm you up.” Jack elbowed his way in between the woman and one of her admirers who wisely choked back his protest when Jack shot him a stony glare. He was a skinny fellow, all pointy bones wrapped in a bad suit, and nearly a half a head shorter than Jack.
The redhead smiled her acceptance and Jack waved the barman over to fill her glass.
“I’d like to learn your name, Red. My name’s Jack.”
A playful sprinkle of freckles danced across her nose. Jack couldn’t guess her age, though she was clearly much younger than he. “Adeline. Thank you for the drink, Jack.” She spoke in quiet tones and Jack had to lean in close to hear her over the din of the tavern. He could smell a hint of rosewater on her skin.
“With pleasure. I don’t believe I’ve seen you here before. We aren’t used to visits from the fairer sex here at the Fish.”
A giggle spilled from her lips. She was, indeed, the only woman in the room. She covered her laugh with a delicate hand that hid her smile. The dark cloud that had dampened Jack’s mood all evening began to lift. He waited for her to offer an explanation for her solitary presence, but she gave none and Jack found himself all the more intrigued by her. She tipped back her glass expertly and downed the drink in two swallows.
Jack fished a coin out of his overcoat and flipped it onto the bar. The barkeep swept it up as he slid a clean mug in front of Adeline and a grimy one in front of Jack. Jack picked up the glass to take a long swig when a hard shove from his left sent the brackish drink over the edge of the glass, soaking his coat sleeve. Jack was on his feet quickly, fist ready.
“Mr. Dagon,” a stout, dark-skinned man with deep-set eyes said as he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the spilled drink from the bar. “I do beg your pardon, I seem to have slipped on something. Barkeep! Kindly bring Mr. Dagon a fresh glass. A clean one this time. I am so sorry, Mr. Dagon.” Jack’s fist withered but remained on call at his side.
“Do I know you?” Jack’s words were slurred by the drink, but his mind remained sharp. He brought his hands together and gave his knuckles a loud crack.
“I do apologize, Mr. Dagon. The name is Bigsby,” he removed his burgundy porkpie hat and tucked it under his arm. “I’ve been sent to locate you and engage your services.” Bigsby held Jack’s gaze for a long moment.
“My services?” Jack spat. “It’s the middle of the night, and as I’m sure you can see, I’m having a conversation with this lovely young lady. This is not a time for business.” He spoke with confidence but as he did he made a quick mental inventory of his finances. He had just closed a case the week before, so his rent was paid and he had enough money left in his pocket to eat and drink for a good two weeks. “Besides,” he continued, picking up the fresh mug that the barkeep slipped in front of him. “I have enough work.”
The truth was that he had no new cases lined up, he had no savings to speak of, and he had more than a handful of bill collectors visiting his flat on the regular. But a clean smelling redhead was a far bigger priority than some late-night call for what would undoubtedly be a terribly dull job. And after an incident led him to Africa in search of a missing one-eyed pet elephant last year, Jack decided that he would never again accept new work while he was drinking.
Jack turned back to Adeline and caught her face frozen in a mask of horror. His heart sank when he realized it was his disfigured left ear that was the object of her disgust. Jack had lived with the deformity for the better part of twenty years and while he never quite forgot about it, he sometimes neglected to hide it properly behind his long hair. She tried to recover from the obvious insult but their friendly banter stalled and her words came out forced and awkward. She began making small talk with a young gentleman who had sidled up to the bar next to her. Jack’s foul mood returned just as easily as she had whisked it away.
“I’m sorry,” she mouthed to him as he retreated back to his stool at the other side of the bar. Her face was sincere but the damage was done. The barkeep poured Jack another glass of ale with a chaser of sympathy.
Jack knew he was too old to take an insult so personally, but he couldn’t help it. It stung. The ear wasn’t such an awful sight back in his day. When bare-knuckle boxing was in fashion all of its associated injuries were badges of honor. They were symbols of merit, emblems of the street brawler’s rough-and-tumble world. Jack’s torn, disfigured ear came with a great story about a solid fight, a victory, and a heavy purse that bought round after round of drinks for his friends. For weeks men talked about how “Black Jack” Dagon, beaten and bloodied, ear torn from his head and dangling by a thread of gore, came back to win the fight with a knockout punch. It was the comeback story of the year, and the papers ate it up. Jack was a hero, very nearly a legend. In those days, everyone recognized Black Jack Dagon. He had women in every city, and after his fights they elbowed each other just to get a chance to mop the sweat from his brow. But that was a lifetime ago. Jack had long retired, and now the wounds that were once a source of pride tended to repulse modern women. Other than his deformed ear, he had aged rather well – his hair resisted the changes of time and remained dark and shiny. A few age lines crossed his face, mostly at the corners of his mouth. He kept his face clean and his clothes simple but neat. His years of brawling gave him an impressive physique that belied his five decades. But those years of fighting took their toll on Jack Dagon in other ways. The disfigured ear and a large trench on his right cheek, left by a poorly healed gash, were obvious imperfections. Less obvious was the rheumatism in both his hands and the near-constant ache in his spine. But nothing in the world made him feel his age like a woman’s rejection.
Defeated and moody, he sipped his drink slowly. Even the ale had a sour note now. It was that Bigsby’s fault. If he hadn’t interrupted them, he’d still be talking to Adeline. She’d be looking up at him coquettishly from below her thick eyelashes, laughing at his jokes and letting her hand linger near his, close enough for him to feel her heat. He pulled his tobacco pouch from his pocket, pushed a pinch into his pipe and tapped it absently with his silver tamper. “Just you and me now,” he said quietly to the nude figure carved into his pipe. He relit the pipe and took a long drag. The tobacco was a cheap blend, almost a little too tart. It fit his mood fine. Across the bar, fair Adeline had found a new fellow – a young chap with quite normal looking ears, naturally. The boy probably never threw a punch in his life. His hands looked as smooth as a fresh calf. Jack knew he was too many drinks into the night already but emptied his mug anyway and caught the barkeep’s eye. With a nod, he poured another glass and before Jack knew it, the glass was empty again. He was vaguely aware of the redhead slipping past him toward the door. She paused at his back, long enough for Jack to catch the scent of her perfume and close enough for Jack to feel the heat of her body, but by the time he turned around he caught just a glimpse of her silhouette in the doorway as the door of the Wicked Fish swung closed. He considered following her, but he was struggling to negotiate the thought through the fog of the drink.
“Mr. Dagon,” Jack felt a hand on his shoulder. He tensed up, but his eyes didn’t leave his pipe.
“I think you’ve done enough damage tonight, Mr. Bigsby,” Jack said. “I’m not interested.”
Bigsby slid a fat envelope onto the bar. Jack’s name was printed in block letters on it. “The offer is generous. Quite generous.”
Jack set his mug down on the bar top and took another long drag from his pipe. He turned the pipe over in his hand and pretended to look disinterested as he evaluated the envelope’s girth. “How much are we talking about here?”
One could safely bet that in the whole of history no one had ever referred to the port city of Little Hope, Maine “pleasant,” “warm” or even “passably comfortable.” Bleak, rainy days were the hallmark of the region’s short-lived summer, the most palatable of its four seasons. From early fall through spring cold northern winds swept in from the ocean, and unless relentlessly abated the streets and walkways became slick with ice and a danger to all who dared venture outside during those long months. But no one came to Little Hope to enjoy the climate. Everything that was amazing about the Steam Revolution was taking place in the little port city that beat all odds.
Jack Dagon had always called Little Hope home, although in his youth the city went by the far less colorful name of New Gastonbury. The young city went through a boom when rumors of a new railway blazed through the region. New Gastonbury was the popular choice for the line, and the population swelled as businesses braced themselves for the influx of new wealth that everyone was so sure would be hauled into the fledgling city by the boxcar. Then, just before ground broke for the new track, the plans changed and the railroad was rerouted seventy-five miles to the east. New Gastonbury became a ghost town overnight as people followed the jobs promised by the new railroad. Showing its own sense of black humor, those who remained voted to rename the municipality “Little Hope” because without the railroad, there was little hope that the city would survive.
But against all odds, Little Hope went on to thrive. Years later, its port became a trade hub of the new world and an economic powerhouse. The population surged and gave no sign of slowing. The number of factories and machine shops had doubled in the first half of the decade and then quadrupled in the following three years. Progress choked out the natural landscape and industrial buildings rose where endless forest once stood. With the new industry came jobs, hard jobs, but jobs that paid real money and that brought the people. Housing became crowded and services were spread thin, but Little Hope showed no sign of slowing.
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