The Adventures of Drake and McTrowell
Presented Chronologically - Page 1: August 23 - October 4, 2010
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Jonathan Lord Ashleigh
Meeting Farnsworth Again
Mrs. McCreary’s Boarding House
An Encounter with Ruffians
“Kulachniy boy. Russian fist fighting.” She turned her attention back to Jean-Michel. “Are you all right? What was that about?” The look on his face was pure horror, although McTrowell couldn’t divine whether it was from being assaulted himself or from seeing her beat his abuser into unconsciousness. “Mon dieu! It is a scandal!” “I’m terribly sorry Jean-Michel, but I feared that he would do you real harm.” “My apologies, Dr. McTrowell. I did not intend to insult your actions, although I am unaccustomed to being protected by a woman. I meant it is a scandal that this oaf is allowed to remain a member of this respectable Society.” “Who is he?” “He is the Duke of Milton. Many years ago he invented a small and insignificant device for the kitchen. It was not an effort worthy of this Society, but he is wealthy and his family has served the royal family for hundreds of years. And so he was admitted. He is a dullard and a bully.” Jean-Michel removed a handkerchief from his jacket and wiped his brow. “Jean-Michel, I would dearly love to hear your proof of Monsieur le Fermat’s little theorem, but I had hoped to attend this event discreetly. Clearly that can’t happen now. And I probably shouldn’t be here when the Duke awakes. I apologize. We must share a glass of wine before we leave London and you must present your proof to me. My deepest apologies.” “Of course I understand. I look forward to our next meeting.” He took her hand and kissed it. “Bon jour.”
As she turned to leave, she came face to face with the young man with the interesting cane. “Jonathan Lord Ashleigh, at your service madam.” “Charmed Lord Ashleigh, but I really must be leaving.” “Then I shall aid in your expeditious departure.” He rotated smoothly 90 degrees as if he were turning a partner on the dance floor and gestured with an open hand for her to pass him to the doors. His perfectly tailored, but surprisingly deep green colored, frock coat lifted open slightly as he did so, revealing a knife at his hip. Although it was ornately decorated like his cane, in fact like much of his accoutrements, it looked entirely functional. She paused for a beat to wonder if it were wise to accept his offer. Milton stirred on the floor and moaned. “Thank you, Lord Ashleigh.” As she strode out, he pivoted gracefully again and followed closely behind. When they reached the street where several hansoms and private coaches awaited, he said simply, “To the left, if you please.” They had taken only a couple of steps when another Indian appeared by the door of one of the private coaches. Like Ashleigh’s coat, it was of exceptionally fine quality, but a little more colorful than was fashionable. The silent servant opened the door and held out his hand to assist McTrowell into the coach, taking her flight surgeon’s bag with the other. She was perfectly capable of boarding unaided, but had long since given up arguing against the unnecessary courtesy. This time, however, was unusual. Unlike every other coachman or gentleman who had offered his hand in this manner, the Indian’s face gave absolutely no indication that her attire or manner were distasteful or inappropriate. Lord Ashleigh slid into the seat opposite her, simultaneously doffing his richly indigo top hat and sliding his cane into a bracket immediately by his left hand. Did this man glide through his entire life as if the whole world were a fancy dress ball arranged for his entertainment? “Please put your mind at ease, Dr. McTrowell. My offer of assistance was genuine and no harm will come to you while in my company.” Perhaps this was a fancy dress ball arranged for the pleasure of Lord Ashleigh. “You have told me your name, but how do you know mine?” “The only woman in that company of men and dressed thusly? How could you be anyone but Dr. Sparky McTrowell, aviatrix, adventuress, inventor, and flight surgeon for Western & Transatlantic Airship Lines? May I say, if somewhat belatedly, that it is my august pleasure to make your acquaintance?” This young man was one surprise after another. She managed to say “thank you,” but was otherwise speechless. And that was a rare thing indeed.
The coach rolled along past the corner of Regents’ Park and stopped a few minutes later in front of a brownstone in Berkley Square. The silent servant appeared again to open the door. Ashleigh exited with the same grace and composure with which he had embarked and performed another of his smooth dance steps to offer his own arm this time. Unlike his servant, he had an expression on his face; his slightly almond eyes were smiling at the corners and perhaps one corner of his mouth under his finely trimmed moustache. The front door of the brownstone opened as soon as they began to surmount the stairs. She had a quick glance around as he handed his hat and cane to the young woman in a bright blue, cotton sari who opened the door. The furnishings were beautiful, obviously expensive, but many were unusually colorful and exotic. Well, no surprises there. “If you would care to refresh yourself from the day’s unexpected exertions, you will find suitable facilities at the end of this hall where Virat will have placed your bag. Anu will show you to the sitting room when you are ready. Virat will prepare some chai that I hope you will find to your taste.” As promised, there was a small powder room at the end of the hall. The cabinet beside the sink supported a crystal dish with a bar of French lavender soap and a boar bristle brush with not a single stray hair in it. No sense in letting all this fine hospitality go to waste. She hung her duster on the hook and cleaned up. When she exited, Anu was standing exactly where she had been when Sparky entered. She turned silently and led Sparky to the sitting room.
Lord Ashleigh was ensconced in a large leather wing chair. He had exchanged his frock coat for an even more brightly colored smoking jacket of silk brocade. Although he wasn’t smoking when she entered, the lingering aroma in the room indicated that he was in the habit of smoking cigars and expensive ones at that. How polite of him to have spared her. He stood when she entered, gesturing to a chair to his left, “Please.” She had barely settled into the matching wing chair when the servant she had taken for a coachman appeared dressed in a tunic, loose fitting pants and slippers, and carrying a silver tray with a silver tea set. He set the tray on the table and poured her a cup without asking. It already had milk in it and there was no sugar on the tray. He handed her the cup, poured another just like it for Ashleigh, and left without a word. “Virat makes the finest chai I have ever drunk, and I have drunk quite a large number of cups of chai in my life.” “Чай?” “Yes, chai.” “I’ve had chai before, but it doesn’t have milk in it.” “It is traditional for masala chai to have milk and sugar in it.” “Masala chai? I thought you meant чай, Russian tea.” “Ah, I see. We have the same word for tea.” “Ah.” She took a sip; the spices were unexpected, but delightful. Virat reappeared carrying a fanned stack of freshly ironed newspapers. The top paper was The Californian. All the pleasantness of the last half hour drained out of Dr. McTrowell’s body. The headline read “49er Collapses and Dies on Sansome Street.”
Entry for August 30, 2010:
Erasmus made his way through the crowd arriving at the nexus of the activity. There he found a man sprawled on the carpeted floor, clearly recovering from being knocked out cold. A red lump on his left cheek was starting to rise. The man’s eyes were just starting to adjust to focusing again. He raised his head. Erasmus extended a hand and bent over slightly in a formal gesture to help the man to his feet.
“I don’t need help from some commoner!” he sputtered as he worked one of his legs under his overweight torso. He added a complex punctuation to his utterance with a combination burp and hiccup. The smell of scotch whiskey was in the air due to this, and a few of the scientists took an involuntary step back. A fellow inventor who was aghast at this interchange, stepped forward to offer sympathetic assistance, exclaiming “My dear Duke! Do you not recognize this gentleman?!” The Duke of Milton waved off his support with a quick hand gesture.
The Duke then gave Erasmus a quick once over as he stood unsteadily on his own, and sneered “I don’t recognize this man as a member of the Inventor’s Society, and he is thereby a commoner. He shouldn’t be here.” The sympathetic inventor gasped. He knew where this exchange may be headed, and given that he recognized the Chief Inspector from the illustration in the Times a week ago, thought it a bad way to start the Inventor’s Symposium by insulting a decorated and newly promoted member of Scotland Yard.
Erasmus easily transitioned from concerned to noncommittal regarding this duke’s state of welfare. His hand withdrawn, he was now concerned about the person that took this oaf down and the fact that she, as he had heard from the whispers that it had been a woman, may still be in the area and terrorizing academics.
Erasmus tilted his head and opened with “My dear Duke, I’m Chief Inspector Drake of Scotland Yard. What do you remember of the person who struck you?” “She was a vixen! Tiny fists that came at me for no reason! She was wearing a long leather duster and only stood this tall.” The Duke extended a corpulent hand about shoulder height, and continued with a grumbled rant that included few intelligible words, but “quarrelsome” and “witch” were two that could clearly be understood.
Erasmus took a quarter turn, and with a commanding voice, took over the room. “Has anyone seen this woman? Is she still in the vicinity?” Five or more scientists instantly pointed toward the door and stammered that she had left with a gentleman in an expensive private coach. A scientist with thick glasses indicated that the gentleman was Lord Ashleigh.
The Chief Inspector summed all of this up in his mind as a strong-willed woman knocked this buffoon on his rump for good reason, and justice has been served. His task as an administrator of fairness was unneeded. He filed away the details of the incident into the back of his mind to ponder later, and determined it was time to move on.
“I need to with speak with Professor Farnsworth on another matter. Who knows where he is?” Erasmus queried. This question seemed to shock the gathering. Some turned away as if to pretend they didn’t want to assist. Others swallowed hard and fumbled to discover ways not to answer. The thick-glassed scientist stammered out that Professor Farnsworth was in the physics laboratory down the main hall, the one which was, logically enough, named after Newton. He also mentioned that his graduate students were with him, and that he was quite busy.
Erasmus nodded in thanks, and turned to leave. The Duke of Milton boomed out, “What about my attacker?!? Is Scotland Yard no longer doing their job?” Erasmus looked back with a quirky grin, and retorted “Not when others do our job for us first!” combined with a we’re-done-here nod. The duke’s plump face showed his shock at the Chief Inspector’s indifference with wide-open eyes and gaping mouth. Erasmus was down the hall before the duke’s mouth was fully closed again.
The sign above the laboratory entrance simply declared “Newton” to be its nomenclature. The double doors had windows in them that were clearly used to make sure the other side was free of people when entering. It was through these windows that Erasmus saw the scene within.
The professor and his graduate students were gathered around a large lab table, working on the parts to apparatuses. All had on some form of laboratory aprons, some white cloth, some brown leather, depending on their task. Most had goggles over their eyes. Sparks were being generated from more than one location as they toiled. Whatever they were working on, it was rather small, and they were building more than one of them. The professor’s goggles were temporarily placed at the top of his forehead, and he was frenetic in his movements.
Although the Chief Inspector had talked with Professor Farnsworth just two months ago, he looked like he had aged five or ten years. From the information taken at the previous investigation, Erasmus knew the professor was 39 years of age, but he looked about 50 now. His skin had lost some color, his hair was grayer and unwieldy, and his posture was in decline. In conflict with this was that his eyes were wild, shifting rapidly and looking about randomly, unwilling to relax. When he did talk to one of his students, he leaned in and fixed a bore-drilling stare at them. He spoke with an air of desperation to get his point across, with an elevated critical-broadcast volume and tone. This was not the pensive, soft-spoken educator Erasmus met before. This change was clear and devastating. Anyone that had known the professor would have seen this.
Someone trying to make sense of this transformation would think that the professor had taken ill for the entire intervening two months. Or that he suffered a great personal loss, which he wore like a weighted overcoat for an extended period of time.
After a few minutes of surveying the scene, Erasmus walked in as if he walked into any investigation: chest high and with an air of command. A red-headed, be-goggled graduate student looked up and straightforwardly started a sentence “Inspector, we weren’t expecting ...”
Professor Farnsworth leaped back, brandishing the vaguely pistol-shaped contraption that he had been working on. Wild-eyed and wild-haired, he took trembling aim at the Chief Inspector, shouting “police!” The handgun, if that is what it was, had a number of brass and glass components affixed to it, and thick insulated wires that ran down to the table and off to other contraptions. In the split second that the professor steadied his aim, two graduate students jumped toward him to stop him, four jumped away in fear, and one ducked under the table. Erasmus saw a small bolt fall out of the side of the gun, just as the professor pulled the trigger.
A sound, not unlike an explosively building drumroll, emitted from the contraption followed by a blindingly white-blue lighting arc that discharged perpendicularly from where the professor was aiming. The room was lit to such an extent that only those with their googles in place were able to see immediately after. The arc had caused great damage to the wall to Erasmus’s left, knocking out a two-foot crater in the brick wall at eye level. The room was instantly filled with the pungent odor of ozone and rock dust.
No one was injured, which was a true miracle. Students were slowly looking around to both readjust their eyes and to see if each of their personages were still intact. The professor stood in amazement at his own actions. He slowly lowered the pistol device, laying it on the table. A large knob at the end of it was still glowing red hot, and quietly hissing as it cooled.
He stammered out a bizarrely-timed apology. “I’m so sorry, Chief Inspector Drake. I don’t know what came over me. Goodness. I’ve blasted a cavity out of the Newton Laboratory. I hope this predicament doesn’t detour our development.” His voice trailed off.
The red-headed student approached Erasmus to calm the obviously shaken officer. He pushed his goggles up, which gave him a raccoon-like look due to the dust that was now fixed into what was the unprotected parts of his face. “My apologies for our reckless behavior. We were just putting some finishing touches on our electrical discharge pistols, and the time pressure to be ready for our demonstration tomorrow has made us jumpy. I pray you are not distressed by our mishap.”
Erasmus prided himself in not being shaken in many circumstances, but this went well beyond the normal unnerving situation. He moved his bowler and cane from his slightly shaking right hand to his left and extended his right to the lad for shaking, in an attempt to thank him for his warm reception. It was met with a firm and friendly grasp. Erasmus thought to himself, “I did seek this out, so I probably deserve this state of affairs.”
Entry for September 6, 2010:
“Pardon me, Dr. McTrowell, but is the chai not to your liking?”
“Oh, no, it’s delightful. The newspaper headline startled me. My mother’s place of business is on Sansome Street. It’s a small street and this is the second time this year that a miner has died suddenly on the street. Miners aren’t known for having the finest of health, but they don’t usually die suddenly in the middle of the street.”
“I was not aware that you originated in the California territory.”
“Yes, I was born there although I have spent much of my life elsewhere. Sadly, I missed the statehood celebrations because my vocation and avocations required me to be elsewhere. My mother still lives in San Francisco where she has a small, but respectable assayer’s office.”
“Your mother is a gold assayer?”
“Yes, among other things.”
“What a remarkable occupation for a woman.” And then it was Lord Ashleigh’s turn to be at a loss for words.
Dr. McTrowell turned the news of the 49er’s death over in her head a couple of times and examined it from several angles. The only conclusion she could draw immediately was that she needed to extricate herself from the company of her charming new friend as quickly as was politely possible and rejoin her luggage. The only way to finish the conversation was to restart it.
“So, what brought you to the Inventor’s Symposium?”
“Although I am yet a student of law at Oxford, I am keenly interested in the patentability of inventions and their potential impacts on the rights of individuals.”
“I see.” But really, she didn’t.
“Should a man be allowed to patent a device that deprives another of his livelihood?”
“I myself have invented a mechanical surgeon’s assistant. Would you challenge my right to patent my invention and benefit from its sale?”
“Well, I certainly hope that you and I should not find ourselves on opposite sides of the law on this point. I harbor the keen hope that you and I should become fast friends.” McTrowell raised her teacup to her lips so he wouldn’t see the faint blush that warmed her cheeks. “Please, tell me more of your invention.” McTrowell was thankful for the diversion to the more comfortable topic of her work.
“The infirmary in an airship is a very small space with really only enough room for a single individual to work. Airships travel slowly over mostly uninhabited areas. Airship passengers are wealthy and spoiled. Please pardon me if I make this sound like a mathematical equation. Should a passenger require emergency surgery while en route, there is only one person aboard who can perform the surgery and she must do so within the confines of the infirmary. Passengers dying are bad for business.” The corners of Ashleigh’s mustache curled up slightly above the rim of his teacup at the last comment. “The device is actually worn, so to speak, by the surgeon. It is powered through a mechanical connection to the airship’s engine. A pair of auxiliary arms that are strong, steady, and minutely manipulated is operated by the surgeon’s feet and knees.” Ashleigh’s eyes opened wider and wider as she described the device. His teacup froze halfway to his lips. “I suppose it does sound horrifying as I describe it. I assure you that it is actually a very capable and useful device, and intended only for the benefit of humanity. I used it to save the life of the ambassador from Hungary after a rather spirited altercation with his mistress who had the most impressive collection of hatpins one can imagine. I can’t say what happened to him after the incident was reported to his wife as I wasn’t there to repair any subsequent damage.” She attempted to hold her smile in check, but was not entirely successful.
“Lord Ashleigh, I am deeply indebted to you for both your assistance and your hospitality, but the hour getting late and I should get to my lodgings before I incur the wrath of the landlady. She’s a little testy and strict with her rules.”
“I shall have Virat bring the coach around.”
“You are far too kind Lord Ashleigh. Much as I would enjoy another comfortable ride in your fine coach, I think it would be best if I were to continue more discreetly from this point.”
“You make an excellent point, Dr. McTrowell. Virat, please call a cab for Dr. McTrowell.” She hadn’t even heard Virat enter the room, but there he was, nodding his head in obeisance and then he disappeared as quietly as he had appeared.
“I have truly enjoyed making your acquaintance and hope that we will see each other again soon.”
“The pleasure has been all mine. Please understand that I am absolutely sincere when I say that if there is any way in which I can be of service, any way at all, do not hesitate to call on me. My home is always open to you as a refuge no matter the hour nor whether I’m present myself.”
“Lord Ashleigh, you are a great soul. Good evening.” He kissed her hand and she turned to leave. The thought of staying here in the company of her new friend and his very comfortable home almost made her stop, but the next part of her journey needed to be solitary.
When she reached the front door, Anu was there to open it. Virat stood at the curb holding the door of a cab. As she approached, she could see that he had placed her flight surgeon’s bag inside already. She repeated the address she had given to the stevedore to the cab driver and climbed in without any further discussion. She tossed the leather duster on the seat beside herself. By the time the cab had lurched into motion, she had retrieved a brush from the surgeon’s bag and proceeded to turn her hair into a more acceptable coiffure, pinning it up with a tortoise shell comb. She returned the brush to the bag and extracted a canvas tote. The duster, cap, and goggles disappeared into the tote. By the time the cab delivered her in front of a plain row house a few minutes later, she looked the part of a respectable, albeit somewhat tweedy and plain, lady. A tidy little sign next to the bell read McCreary’s Boarding House for Respectable Single Ladies.
Entry for September 13, 2010:
At the completion of the handshake, the tone in the room seemed lighter, and students went back to their tasks. Erasmus re-engaged the conversation with the red-headed student. “I appreciate your concern for my safety and composure. Whose acquaintance do I have the pleasure of making?” “I am Alistair Bennington Rutherford, son of Baron Rutherford of Oxford. I am the principle graduate student of Professor Farnsworth’s cadre.” “I wish that ...” Erasmus was interrupted by half a dozen or so scientists barging through the double doors, obviously reacting to the thunder clap that occurred less than a minute ago and the dust ejected out into the hall.
As a group, they understood immediately what had happened, and Erasmus could tell that, to a man, they somewhat expected a catastrophe from Professor Farnsworth and his band of students. A syncopated murmur of “well, I never!” and “I knew he’d ruin the symposium!” filled the room, and it was clear that the Chief Inspector needed to take action, if for no other reason than to protect the professor. As Erasmus stepped forward to address the professor, he had another one of those “file this away” feelings that Mister Rutherford was far too calm in the middle of the this storm, and that didn’t sit well. He would think about this later.
“Professor Farnsworth, we meet again. I would like you to come with me to Scotland Yard, so we can sort out this business.” The professor was beside himself. “Chief Inspector! Rutherford explained it all! It was a mishap, nothing more. We have work to do, and I need to lead my team to a successful demonstration of a number of inventions. I don’t have time for this.” He then stepped forward to re-initiate tinkering with the pistol-like contraption. He looked rather comical to Erasmus as he ignored the situation: cough-inducing dust in the air, an officer of Scotland Yard planning to escort him out, multiple versions of dangerous weaponry on the laboratory table, grime on his face and hair as if it were shot there by a cannon, and an unruly mob of fellow scientists that were ready to throw him out on his backside. Erasmus took an insistent step toward Professor Farnsworth, took him by one of his thin arms, and said in a loud and clear voice “Professor, I’m taking you into Scotland Yard! An officer of the Yard was nearly injured just a minute ago, and I plan to report the incident. You are coming with me!” The professor looked beside himself as he was being marched toward the double doors, his loose arm flailing and his eyes wild. The students moaned in complaint. The two of them parted the group of scientists, passed through the doors, and pushed their way through the onlooking crowd in the hall. After a few hundred feet, they were free of people.
“Professor, I need to get you out of here and talk. I need to understand how you got into this state, and why you took that ‘shot’ at me.” The professor was still wiggling like a child threatened with spoonful of castor oil. “I can’t go with you! I can’t tell you why! Let me go! I have to be there tomorrow! Let me go, I say!”
“Well, I hate to use these, but restraints it is.” The Chief Inspector pulled a pair of handcuffs out of his hip pocket, and using a key from his front pocket, secured the professor’s hands in front of himself. This was mainly for show, to indicate to the other inventors that he was coping with this troublemaker. The professor kept up his twitching and squabbling.
The gathering in the entrance hall showed the reaction that Erasmus expected. They mainly spoke to Erasmus and at the professor, showing their displeasure regarding assembling hazardous gadgets on the premises. Erasmus recognized the renowned Charles Babbage and the Baroness Lovelace. Mister Babbage huffed with discontent. The Baroness, however, sniffed with disapproval at the professor, but also quietly thanked Erasmus, showing her appreciation for the completion of his last case, the retrieval of her stolen jewelry, and capturing of the perpetrator. The scientist next to them introduced himself as Michael Faraday, and stated that Professor Farnsworth should have been working within one of the insulated rooms that he invented, which would have eliminated the dangers. Baroness Lovelace quietly complained to her two companions of feeling ill again, and asked Charles to escort her to her carriage.
Restraints Used by Chief Inspector Erasmus Drake
Erasmus lead the Professor to Upper Gower Street, turned left, and headed south. The bright afternoon sunshine and the fresh air contrasted with the professor’s odd mannerisms. “Chief Inspector, I have a most urgent engagement tomorrow! We can discuss whatever you need to address right now, and then you can release me. I implore you!” Drake ignored his pleas and still steering the professor by his arm, led him on.
After a few blocks, a young face peered around the corner of a row house, sporting a unkempt beaver top hat. He spotted Erasmus and his charge, and smiled. The tall teen stepped gingerly into the walk, and waved on two mates, who were behind him. They walked toward Erasmus with the energy of evil intent. All were dressed in a slightly odd manner, too dressy for young men, but too gaudy for individuals trying to impress. They all were wearing brocade vests without jackets, long trousers, and black top hats. They all had hair that was much too long and poorly cut for the current fashion. Although each had their own flair, they clearly were an organized troop.
Drake gave an imperceptible nod and wink to the leader, as if to acknowledge his audaciousness. The lad didn’t appear to react to it, and instead walked directly to the Chief Inspector, grabbed him by the lapels and dragged him to an alley, with his two comrades doing the same to Professor Farnsworth. Erasmus appeared surprised but stoic, despite being pinned to a wall in a back lane.
“What have we got ‘ere? An officer and his captive?” The lad’s enunciation was uncouth but served him well for intimidation. “Let me state the obvious, Chief Inspector. We are just here for a simple business transaction. Spike, offer a deal to this unfortunate prisoner.” The lad nicknamed Spike, roughly spoke to Professor Farnsworth “Five florins and we help set you free. Say yes, and we’re outta here.”
The primary thing on Professor Farnsworth’s mind was to not be detained, so he struck an immediate deal with an exaggerated head nod and an enthusiastic “Yes! Yes!” reply. The deal was sealed.
Spike produced a key for the shackles from his pocket, unbound the professor, and dropped the handcuffs on the ground. The lead ruffian continued to pin Erasmus to the wall while Spike and the third silent accomplice spirited the professor off to freedom.
Once the other two were out of sight, Erasmus was unpinned and turned to his attacker, saying, “I think that went well,” and they both smiled.
Entry for October 4, 2010:
Dr. McTrowell rang the bell and the door was answered very promptly. So promptly that she had the sense that the matron of the establishment had been loitering near the peephole, spying on Dr. McTrowell’s arrival which was almost certainly the case. Mrs. McCreary precisely looked the part of a woman who would run such a self-righteous establishment: middle-aged, matronly, plain, and overwhelmingly stern. Her hair was drawn up in a severe bun, accentuating the pinched look of her face. Dr. McTrowell had only ever seen one range of expressions on Mrs. McCreary’s face, all in the category of sour, distasteful, umbrageous, and scornful. There were competing myths about Mrs. McCreary’s circumstances. The first was that her husband had died of nagging and left her a tidy sum of money, and she ran the boarding house out of need to have a steady stream of victims to nag in his absence. The other story was that her husband had died of drink, probably also fueled by nagging, and had left her nearly penniless, making it necessary for her to run the boarding house to sustain herself. In either case, she was a widow, allowing her to wear nothing but cheap, well-worn black dresses. Sparky was only certain that she had ever seen two different dresses. The other point on which there was no quibble was that Mrs. McCreary was cheap.
“Well, Miss Llewellyn, I see you have not cultivated the habit of punctuality since I saw you last.”
“I’m terribly sorry, Mrs. McCreary. I stopped to pay a visit to my ailing maiden aunt. She has so few callers that she begged me to stay longer and I couldn’t bear to disappoint her.” Sparky did her best to appear demure as she entered the dark foyer. Mrs. McCreary sniffed at her hair as she passed.
“A Dr. McTrowell sent along several large trunks for you. Is that his cigar smoke I smell on you? You know I have very strict prohibitions against gentlemen visitors. In fact, if you’re keeping the company of a gentleman, it may not be appropriate for you to be staying in this respectable establishment.” And then she shut up quickly because she realized that her self-righteousness was just about to lose her a paying boarder. Sparky turned her head toward the trunks stacked in the adjacent parlor to hide the smile spreading across her face. Mrs. McCreary’s was a suitably discreet place to stay in London when she didn’t want anyone meddling in her affairs, but it was sorely tempting to tell Mrs. McCreary what she thought of her.
“You needn’t worry Mrs. McCreary. Dr. McTrowell is an old friend of my parents’. And the cigar smoke is from a rather rude gentlemen, I hesitate to use the term, on the train from Holyhead. He declined my request to extinguish his cigar in the train car.”
“You’ll have to carry the trunks upstairs yourself. Mind that you don’t damage the walls along the way. You’ll be in the lavender room as usual.”
Of course Mrs. McCreary had been too cheap to pay the stevedore to carry the trunks upstairs. Sparky would gladly have repaid Mrs. McCreary, but she was trying to maintain the fiction that she was a schoolteacher of modest means from Wales. As for the “lavender room,” the only thing vaguely lavender about it was a very faded old cross stitch of a sprig of the flower on the wall, no hope that the room would actually be that color or smell of the lovely flower itself. At least the room was larger than the others and had a large window that opened, which McTrowell found convenient for concealing the fact that she occasionally performed experiments in the room. She slung the canvas tote over one shoulder, picked up the first of the trunks, and marched upstairs.
She was well and truly exhausted by the time she hauled all the trunks upstairs. It didn’t help that her hands and wrists were a little tender from her encounter with the Duke of Milton. Had that really only been a few hours earlier? It had been a long and eventful day. She poured some water from the jug into the washbasin, and washed her face and hands. No indoor plumbing and French lavender soap like those at Lord Ashleigh’s. She felt another tinge of regret at not accepting his invitation, but there was no helping it given her plans for the next few days. There was neither time nor energy to start her experiments tonight, so she retrieved her portfolio of research and notes from one of the trunks. She pulled her flight surgeon’s bag out of the canvas tote to retrieve the notes she had made during the flight. Carefully folded on the top of the rest of the contents of the bag was The Californian. Lord Ashleigh was just one surprise after another. She smiled in spite of herself. She retrieved a small pair of silver scissors from the bag and clipped the article out of the paper, placing it at the end of her other clippings along with her notes from the flight.
She returned the scissors to the bag and retrieved a bundle of letters tied in a satin ribbon of deep rose. Wherever her adventures took her, she always kept this bundle close. It contained all the letters her mother, Elizabeth Llewellyn, had written to her since she left home more than a decade before. She often wished that the bundle were bigger, but her frequent and unpredictable movements created a barrier to more regular communication. Her work on the mechanical surgeon’s assistant had kept her in New York for a longer than usual period of time, so there were a few recent letters. Unfortunately, the joy of this wealth of letters from her mother was dimmed somewhat by their contents. Her mother’s optimism was comforting, but McTrowell’s own realism was born of years of watching others take advantage of her mother’s good nature, including McTrowell’s own father (the less said about him the better). The recent batch of letters induced that sense of impending heartbreak that Sparky had come to know and dread.
Business is fairly booming. My competition on Beale Street, Mr. Abusir, insists that we must drive a hard bargain with the miners, but I think many of them prefer to do business with me because I am fair and honest with them. Perhaps Mr. Abusir earns more in his business transactions, but I could not live with myself if I treated these poor men unfairly. They all dream of striking it rich, but they are truly the most destitute of souls. One can hardly imagine how they keep body and soul together. Just last week one such poor soul collapsed just outside my door. I hurried to his aid as he was obviously suffering from some form of extreme digestive distress, but unfortunately, I am not you, my darling accomplished daughter. Sadly he expired before medical assistance arrived. A curious thing happened. Just before he expired, he looked at me and said, ‘Why are you so blue, Mrs. Llewellyn?’ Whatever could he have meant by that? I shall never know. I hope you are well and happy, my dear.
I was pleased to read in your latest letter of your success with your surgical contraption. I feel certain it will win you international acclaim and respect. A mother has such dreams for her only child. I have some good news of my own to share. I have paid off the loan on my small establishment. I was just leaving the bank after making the last payment when I encountered Mr. Abusir whom I have previously mentioned. When I shared my happy news, he insisted on buying me lunch as he was on his way to celebrate some good fortune of his own. He has recently come into some money unexpectedly and is building himself a fine house. He was quite gracious at lunch, insisting on pouring tea for me and ordering sweets for dessert. Perhaps I have misjudged him.
A knot formed in the pit of her stomach. She couldn’t bear to read the next several letters again. Although her mother’s optimistic tone was throughout them all, the narrative thread was ever darker. Mr. Abusir appearing apparently coincidentally with increasing frequency. His showering her mother with excessive courtesies and lamenting how empty his fine new house would be without a wife to give it the warmth of a woman’s touch. Her mother seeing Mr. Abusir entering or leaving the claims office several times, an odd place for a gold assayer who lived in the city to go. Two more of her mother’s regular clients mysteriously dropping dead. And then the last letter just before she left for London.
I hope this letter reaches you before your departure. I had hoped your travels would bring you back west rather than farther east. Although I have paid off the loan on my business, business itself has dropped off unexpectedly and I fear I will have to sell the building. Mr. Abusir has graciously offered me a position in his business. He has also formally requested my hand in marriage. I haven’t given him an answer, but I feel fortunate to have such a fine suitor, especially at my age. I wish you could meet him. I know that London is a much busier city than our cozy little San Francisco, but Mr. Abusir is also traveling to London. Perhaps you will chance to meet. He was very mysterious about his business there, but he mentioned a wedding gift fit for a pharaoh’s wife. He is leaving next week and has asked for my answer when he returns in a month. I feel almost certain I will accept his offer.
McTrowell had learned over the years that there were certain problems that could be solved with money, and information was one of them. A small portion of her bonus from Western & Transatlantic Airship Lines became a “charitable” donation to the medical support of an elderly woman in San Francisco whose only daughter fortuitously worked in the claims office. Among the clippings was a letter from the reliable and discreet Miss Constance Mackay of the claims office. Copied out in her tiny and neat hand was a list of claims recently filed by Mr. Abusir. She laid the list below the clippings of the three sudden deaths of miners before the one she had just clipped. There were more items on the list than just the three, but there was a claim on the list precisely two days after each death. No doubt such a list from today would contain another unfortunate entry, and there were probably other bodies in a potter’s field that had not been deemed newsworthy. Building himself a fine house indeed!
Based on the date on the letter, Abusir had probably already arrived in London. That meant whatever he was planning to do, he was going to do in the next two weeks. There was no time to equivocate or do more research. She would have to act now. She moved to the only trunk that was locked. She removed the key from the fine chain hanging around her neck, hidden by her high-necked blouse and unlocked the trunk. It swung open easily to reveal rows of tightly sealed apothecary jars carefully packed between bags of straw. She retrieved two jars, one labeled licorice root and one labeled foxglove.