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Monday, February 4, 2013

Annie's Doomsday Engine, Chapter One

            “You’re leaving?” Annie stared at Silas as pain struck her heart. The high neck of her brown and yellow gingham day dress felt as if it would choke her, and suddenly her corsets seemed laced much too tight. “Right away?” She looked around the laboratory as though it would vanish along with him.
            The heavy teak tables, scarred from many an experiment, stood solid as ever. Beakers glittered in the electric light. Sheets of brass and steel, spools of wire, half-finished devices lay on shelves or tables, larger pieces stacked against a wall. An aroma composed of ozone, carbolic, machine oil, and a mélange of chemicals gave the laboratory its distinctive atmosphere. All carried memories of Silas. Her eyes went back to him.
            He smiled ruefully, turning his porkpie hat in his hands. “This situation has come out of the blue, hasn’t it? That I have a son! I never wanted to have a child. Babies always bored me, and you know my feelings on marriage.”
            Annie knew, all right. A proponent of Free Love, Silas believed marriage to be unnatural. She put down her beaker and wiped her hands on her heavy cotton duck apron. Reaching over, she turned off the Bunsen burner she had been using.
            Silas continued. “But this boy is thirteen. He’s nearly grown. His mother is dead, and she was a lover of mine fourteen years ago. The letter she sent with him says he’s mine. I can’t help but believe it. Just look at him.” Silas waved a hand.
            Annie looked through the laboratory window again at the boy seated on the bench outside. He did indeed look like a younger version of Silas, dark eyes and sandy hair, his features a child version of her co-worker’s. She swallowed, her throat tight. She had secretly loved Silas for seven years, since she earned her final degree at age twenty in 1873 and they began to work together at the Benjamin Franklin Institute for Scientific Investigation, the scientific branch of the Secret Service. Annie had left her feelings unspoken, keeping her silence as he romanced one woman after another. Simply working together with him in this laboratory, where they invented many new devices in the service of their country, had been half a loaf, but she convinced herself to accept that. He became one of the few men who didn’t discount her abilities and brainpower even though she was female. To not even have the daily platonic camaraderie of working together felt like more than she could bear.
            Annie swallowed, and gathered her courage. “I would be glad to come with you and help you raise him. I have feelings for you, though I have never spoken them.”
            Silas smiled at her, but the smile stung her with the pity in it. “I know. But you would never consent to live without marriage, and I will never marry.”
            “But now you have a son to raise,” she countered. “A child needs a stable home, and both parents.”
            “You weren’t. He’s been raised well enough so far by his mother alone.” Silas moved toward the door. “At his age, he should be separating from female influences anyway. No, he and I are going
traveling together. We’ll get to know each other. When we come back and perhaps I’ll buy a small house and we’ll settle down, just two old bachelors.”
            Or perhaps, Annie thought bitterly, you’ll continue cutting a swath through the ladies and living in rented spaces over stores. And he thinks I’ll be here when he gets back, and we’ll just continue on as we have been. No! Her pride rose in a great wave. I will not permit this situation to go on any longer. I cannot.
            Reaching for her poise, Annie smiled and held out her hand. “I wish you all the best, of course, and the Institute will surely miss your talents.”
            Silas seized her hand, and brought it to his lips. Annie’s heart jumped, for he had never done that before. “I’ll miss you too,” he said. Then he put his hat back on and strode through the door.
            Annie sat down at her battered roll-top desk, refusing to watch him through the window. She also refused to cry. It’s time I faced facts, she told herself. I have cried enough over this man. He will never love me as I have loved him. I don’t believe he is capable of it. It is time for me to make a change as well. She realized her fingers stroked the place he’d kissed her hand, and stopped, her lips thinning in anger at herself. I must put him out of my mind, forever.
            She took a sheet of Institute letterhead from the stack in a drawer, uncapped the fountain pen she designed and patented, and began to write. After signing her name, she waved the letter in the air for a moment to dry it, folded it, and stood. Removing her heavy cotton duck apron and donning her hat and jacket, Professor Annabelle Briggs prepared to turn in her resignation to the
United States Secret Service. It’s too bad Ruby has been sent to the field. She wished she could say goodbye in person to her friend, the other female scientist at the Institute. She pulled out another piece of letterhead and wrote a letter to be left at Ruby’s desk. Professor Darnell was a chemist, so they rarely collaborated, but they freqently ate lunch together, and went together to shows.
            Glancing around the laboratory for the last time, her eyes went to the spiral staircase that led to the small room on the roof where her crowning achievement, the Aetheric Communicator, sat in state. The Analytical Engine hummed and clicked, and her experimental Aetheric Power Generator fizzed quietly in one corner, forming a backdrop of sound that she had long grown used to. She would miss this laboratory for its own sake. It had been a haven, the one place where she could permit her scientific mind to run free without social constraints.
            One door of her laboratory let out into the plaza that connected the assorted buildings that comprised the Benjamin Franklin Institute for Scientific Investigation. The public would never be informed that the investigation also covered numerous covert operations. The Civil War and its concurrent industrial revolution had solved many problems but created many more. The creation of a Free Negro State and the designation of the Great Plains as permanent Indian territory had not been without dissent. Aid to the defeated South had blunted some of it, but even some who agreed with freeing the slaves felt that forty acres and a mule were sufficient. Proponents of Manifest Destiny believed the Indians didn’t deserve their own land either, but President Grant had been adamant, and President Hayes had continued his policy, saying, “We just fought a war to ensure that all men, whom the Declaration of Independence states are created equal, are in fact treated equally. I feel the best way to begin is to provide education,  give them their own territories, and let them make of both what they will.”
            Walkways paved the plaza between grassy areas containing trees and flowers. In the center stood a bronze statue of Benjamin Franklin. Annie glanced at it, and couldn’t help smiling as usual. His expression seemed to have a hint of mischief in it. From what she had read of him, it probably did.
            Dark green marble veined in glittery white floored the entrance to the offices. That and the dark wood dado, beige-on-white Federalist wallpaper above, made Annie think of a bank. Past the echoing entrance carpeting created a hush. Locked doors barred the wing that held Willie’s. Only those who knew the door code could enter. Annie punched the code, turned the heavy brass lever, and the door swung open.
            Willie’s office held oversized furniture, chosen because of his freakish height, six feet four inches. Dark well-polished mahogany filled the room, the chairs upholstered in rich maroon and pine green. The walls had been painted a warm cream, the window shades made of heavy fabric the same color. Currently they were raised to let in sunlight. As the windows were mirrored on the outside, no one could see inside during the day. At night, when the light inside reversed the mirror effect, the shades were pulled.
            Willie Barnes was an old and dear friend of hers. Her brother Daniel had been the first director of this division, and Willie one of his finest agents. Now her brother lay in the churchyard and Willie ran the Institute.
            Wordlessly she handed him her resignation. He looked it over. “I’m not surprised, after Silas’s news. In his case, I accepted his resignation. In your case, I won’t.”
            Annie, shocked, started to protest. “Willie, I must….”
            Willie held up a hand. “Hear me out. Frankly, I don’t want to lose you. You’ve been the backbone of this laboratory since before you left high school. ‘Genius’ doesn’t begin to touch the gifts you have. What I’m going to do is give you a leave of absence, with an indefinite amount of time. Get away, take a vacation somewhere lovely, and get over Silas Laird.”
            “He’ll very likely come back,” she said. I don’t want to work with him anymore.
            “And if he does, I won’t rehire him, that’s a promise.” Willie met her eyes, and his were serious. “He’s brilliant, but erratic. He can’t be counted on. And in these troubled times, we need reliable scientists doing the work here. He’ll have to find a position elsewhere.” Willie frowned. “If he wasn’t such a womanizer, he’d still make a good field agent.”
            “Thank you, Willie,” she said, her voice choking. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this.” Or how badly I need it, she thought.
            Willie stood and came around his desk. To Annie’s surprise, he hugged her. “I watched you grow up. Sometimes I feel as though you’re my sister as well as Daniel’s.”
            Once that statement would have devastated her. As a teen, she had quite a crush on Willie. Handsome, with dark curly hair, dark eyes, and a cleft in his chin, he turned heads wherever he went, and had a perfectly endearing streak of shyness. Physically the strongest man she’d ever met or even heard of, his incredible strength had come in handy many times when he’d been a field agent. He could carry a grown man in a suitcase and make it look as though the case held only clothing. Now, she felt only sisterly towards him. “My worst regret at resigning would have been missing you, Willie,” she murmured. “I feel you have become my brother in spirit.”
            He released her, and returned to his chair. “Now go, book one of those new pleasure cruises somewhere delightful, and have some fun.”
            “I will,” she told him, smiling though her eyes burned.

            After she left, Willie called in his secretary, a plump fortyish women in secretarial black. Her thick spectacles and severe hair disguised a sharp mind. “Please send a secure message to Maximilian Hamilton. I am in need of my best agent.”
            “Yes sir,” she replied, and left to secure a messenger from the pool.
            Willie steepled his fingers together and smiled, thinking, Sending Max just might solve two problems at once. We shall see. At the very least he’ll make sure Annie stays safe.

            Annie took the streetcar home this time. Her brother had given her the ingrained habit of varying her transportation daily. Her home stood in a row of modest three-story brownstones on a pleasant tree-lined street. The area wasn’t Society, but mostly held comfortable businessmen and their families. When their parents passed on, Daniel had selected this area to raise his baby sister, who had been a surprise of his parents’ middle age not long before their deaths. Annie didn’t remember her parents’ home, just this one. After Daniel had been killed on an assignment, she continued to live there alone but for her maid and cook. The neighbors had known her from childhood. She knew they all kept an eye on her. Her neighbors, all excellent friends for her lifetime, felt a spinster living along but for a cook and a maid needed a bit of looking after. The men frequently brought over servicemen of one type or another to check on her furnace, her chimney, and other things they didn’t believe a woman could handle. The women visited bringing handwork and conversation, making sure no one damaged Annie’s reputation.
            Daniel decorated their home in a more spare style than the current fashion, as he hadn’t seen the need for a lot of bric-a-brac. Neither did Annie. The house abounded in books. Where other families would have had a china figurine, the Briggs household had a pile of books. Instead of Godey’s Ladies’ Book and Theater Weekly, science journals lay on the coffee table.  Her maid had expressed gratitude for the ease in dusting. After six years alone, a few feminine touches had made their way in, many of them gifts from female neighbors such as crocheted doilies and embroidered antimacassars.
            “Professor!” Her maid, black-haired Pegeen O’Riley dropped her feather duster. “You’re nivver so early! Is it sick you are?”
            Annie smiled at her. “No, I’m fine. We’ve had an upset at work, and Willie thinks I should take a vacation.”
            “Why, isn’t that a splendid idea? Haven’t you had yer nose t’th’ grindstone since I’ve worked here?” Pegeen picked up her feather duster. “Where is it you’ll be going, then?”
            “I think I’ll take one of the new pleasure cruises. I’ll take the train to Florida, and leave from there. A cruise going south, perhaps. Those lovely South American islands, if I can get a cabin.”
            “Well, won’t I stop me dustin’ and pack for you? Yer trunk and portmanteau?” Pegeen tucked the duster into the waistband of her apron and patted her hair. A useless gesture, for a multitude of pins held the coronet braids firmly in place.
            “Yes, please. And lay out my traveling suit.” Annie considered for a moment. “Goodness, I don’t know exactly what I’ll need. Best pack all my clothes. The trunk’s certainly large enough.”
            Pegeen whirled away into the kitchen, no doubt to put the duster away in the scullery and alert the cook. A thin woman, she always moved as though the world depended on her being quick.
            Annie smiled when her elderly cook Lucy Simmons came out, wiping her hands on her apron.  She had been the cook as long as Annie could remember. Her taffy-colored hair had faded slowly to gray and her face had acquired more lines, but she was basically unchanged: stout, grandmotherly, and a superb cook. A lifetime in American had softened but not erased her Yorkshire accent. “Lucy, I’m not sure how long I’ll be gone. Your pay will of course continue in my absence, though you’ll only be cooking for yourself and Pegeen. I’ll compose a letter to my accountant at once.”
            “Tha’ needn’t worry, Miss Annie.” Lucy’s broad red face split into a smile. “We’ll watch over the place and keep everything in order. Have tha’self a wonderful time.” She looked wistful for a moment. “A cruise! How modern. Ships are so much more comfortable than when I came from England. Tha’lt send me some postcards for my collection?” Typical Yorkshire directness. She and Pegeen would have clashed if Lucy hadn’t become accustomed to indirect ways of the Irish from the succession of Irish maids they’d had.
            “Of course, Lucy!” Annie reassured her. “Anything you want.” She went over to hug the woman. “For goodness sakes, you’ve always been the closest thing I’ve known to a mother. I’d bring you anything you cared to have.”
            “Tha’rt a dear girl!” Lucy exclaimed, and hugging her in return. “Tha’ own mother would be so proud.” She chucked Annie under the chin as though she were still a child. “Tha’ be careful traveling, and have tha’self a grand time.” Releasing Annie, she turned and walked slowly back to the kitchen.
            Stepping into the drawing room, Annie went to the desk. Composing a letter to her accountant informing him of her plans and instructions took only moments. A cab would be necessary, because she’d have to stop at the bank for travelers’ checques as well. She smiled for a moment at her fountain pen. Such a simple device, yet it had changed the process of writing forever. People were already calling them Briggs pens, to her deep embarrassment. She sealed the letter and took it with her upstairs to her bedroom.
            There, Pegeen whirled so quickly from the chest of drawers to the trunk that her skirts were still turning toward one while she turned toward the other. Looking around, Annie realized that she had become truly a creature of habit. The same four-poster bed, chest of drawers, and washstand had furnished her room since she outgrew her baby bed. The wallpaper had been replaced only once, changing the old-fashioned flowers on white for a modern fern pattern in two shades of green. When she began to wear her hair up, Daniel had given her a pier glass in an oak frame to hang between her windows and a dressing table with stool and tabletop mirror. The only other changes had been taking her old doll house to the attic to make room for these accouterments of young ladyhood, and the changes of books.
            Her simple work dresses hung on pegs behind curtains of cotton rep fabric. Her best clothes were folded with sprigs of lavender in the dresser. Pegeen had already laid out her traveling suit on the bed and smoothed the wrinkles.
            Looking over the items on her dressing table, Annie made sure her handkerchief case and brush and comb set in its case were going into the portmanteau along with nightclothes and changes of body linen. She considered her jewelry case for a moment, then put it in as well. Most of her jewelry was quite useful in sticky situations. None of it was simply jewelry.
            “Will ye be havin’ yer ball gown, Professor?” Pegeen asked, reverently stroking the turquoise silk.
            “Yes, and the matching headdress. Now which hats?” She studied the shelf with her hatboxes then selected her favorite to pack and the one that went with her traveling suit to wear.  “These should be sufficient. Oh, pack the day dresses as well, and put one into the portmanteau. And an apron. One never knows.”
            “Is it south you’re headin’? Then you won’t be needin’ yer winter things,” Pegeen mused, hovering over the drawer where her woolens lay.
            “South it is. Leave those, then.” Annie picked up the latest science journals from the floor by her bed and tucked them into the portmanteau. She had purchased a just-published novel, Ben Hur: A Story of the Christ by author Lew Wallace, the current governor of New Mexico Territory,  and hadn’t started it. She added that. Surely there would be time to read, on the train and a cruise vacation. Unbuttoning her day dress, she began to change clothes. Her traveling suit, a golden brown serge with silk piping in turquoise, was very plain in style, with a small bustle and only one ruffle on the overskirt. To go with it she had a straw boater trimmed in turquoise with ostrich feathers. Considering her hat pins, she selected the pair that had a hidden tranquilizer dart. One never knew.
            Pegeen had finished packing. “Won’t I go and summon a cab, Professor?To Annie’s relief, she had grown used to her mistress’s independent ways and no longer offered to help her dress. The maid ran from the room, and Annie assembled her garments. The body linen she had put on that morning would do fine with her traveling suit. She put on her underskirt, overskirt, and basque, settled her hat onto her head and anchored it with the hatpins. Deciding she needn’t change shoes, she picked up her gloves and small leather bag.
            Willie had only mentioned a cruise off the top of his head, but it sounded so wonderful she couldn’t think of another plan. Fresh ocean air, the company of strangers out only for a good time, and the wonderful food ships provided sounded like a lovely break from all the intrigues of her work and life.
            Before long the horse-drawn cab arrived. The driver clumped up the stairs to get her trunk. Pegeen startled him with Annie’s elevation device. “Hasn’t the Professor invented a grand thing, then? Don’t ye only have to put her trunk in this?” Pegeen slid back the section of wall to reveal a box. “Then won’t it slide so smooth down to the back hall? And won’t you save all them steps luggin’ the heavy thing?” She twinkled her bright blue eyes at his surprise. “Isn’t my mistress an inventor? Doesn’t she come up with the cleverest things to save work? Ah, the contraption she came up with to wash an’ dry the clothing! Nearly does itself, it does.”
            The cab carried Annie to her bank, her accountant’s office, and then to the train station where she booked a sleeper car to Florida. Once she arrived, she would see about open cabins on cruise ships. Pictures of the Caribbean Islands, the Lesser and Greater Antilles, had been in the news as one of the new cruise destinations. She had even purchased stereopticon cards of some of the sights. Hopefully, she thought, there would be an opening on one of those ships.
            Of course ships could be had much closer to Washington D.C., but her years in the Secret Service left her with a natural inclination to cover her tracks even though she’d never been a field agent. She purchased her tickets using the name Mrs. D.L. Smith. For the rest of the day she sat in the train’s observation car, looking out the window and chatting casually with other passengers. A red-haired middle-aged woman in a very fashionable traveling suit of gendarme blue damassée sat near her in the observation car. The underskirt had two plaited ruffles, headed by two puffs of plain silk. Fringe edged the skirt, and she wore her shirred bodice with a belt. Isabelle-yellow and gendarme-blue ribbon and feathers trimmed her Tuscan straw hat. Despite making Annie feel positively dowdy by comparison, she proved a delightful companion. They commiserated about their unfashionable hair color. Both had grown up wearing blue or brown and were tired of both colors.
            “I love turquoise,” Annie offered. “And I think it suits my coloring well. Autumn colors make nice accents, but of course one can’t wear an entire garment of rust or gold, at least not in the daytime.”
            “Rust!” exclaimed the other woman, a Mrs. Travis. “Heavens, doesn’t that clash with your hair?”
            “No, it seems to blend. I find blues make me look pasty, except for turquoise and teal.” She smiled. “Your hair is nearly auburn. Mine’s carrots.”
            Mrs. Travis smiled gently, and reached out a hand. “I thought new copper, actually. And goodness! Such an adorable dimple. I never saw anyone with only one. It’s quite fetching.
            Annie took her hand. “Thank you! But you have such lovely pale skin, and gray eyes. I’m stuck with freckles and brown eyes.”
            “But your hair curls naturally. I have to manufacture my curls with a hot iron.” She patted her lovely hair. “And then I must worry all the time about keeping my hair in curl. Moist air does take all the curl out.”
            Annie smiled. “It makes mine curl even tighter. As if anyone ever needed ringlets the size of dimes!”
            A man walked by, a rolled newspaper revealing an enormous headline: Manifest Destiny Party Stages Protest in Washington. Both women stared at it for a moment.
            “They won’t let it go,” sighed Annie. She colored and put a hand to her mouth. “Forgive me. Politics isn’t polite conversation.”
            Mrs. Travis waved a hand. “Never mind. The reassignment of land after the War Between the States will be controversial for years. I doubt we’ll see agreement in our lifetimes.” She shuddered. “But when I think of the horrible atrocities committed against the Negroes by their former owners, I grow faint. No, separating the former Confederacy into Caucasian states and Negro states seems the best solution. I’m glad President Grant sent educators and agricultural specialists to all, to assist in reconstructing all the damage done by war and relocating.”
            “All relocated landowners received equal amounts of land, often better than the land they left.” Annie shook her head. “I can understand the hard feelings, but they were never going to accept free Negroes as neighbors. Those horrible terrorist groups! Perhaps later, when the wounds of slavery and war have healed. It could take generations, I suppose.” She frowned. “Permitting slavery in America was the worst thing the Founding Fathers ever did.”
            “However, I disagree with the president’s decision to designate permanent Indian lands.” Mrs. Travis made a face. “Their way of life is so primitive. I can’t help but think it would be doing them a favor to Americanize them.”
            “But against their will? That is not freedom. No, I agree that they deserve to have their own land to live as they will. It’s better, I think, to show them what our way is like and let them decide for themselves.” Annie smiled to blunt the force of her words. “I’m feeling a bit hungry. Would you care to join me in the dining car?”
            “No, thank you,” replied Mrs. Travis. “I have enjoyed our conversation, but I brought a box meal with me as I my destination is only an hour more away. I think I shall return to my seat to eat.”
            They parted amicably, with mutual wishes for a safe and pleasant trip. Annie made her way through the jolting train to the dining car. The porter seated her and took her order. She watched the darkening landscape roll by, dined on roast beef, potatoes cooked with herbs and butter, a carrot salad, and dessert of chocolate cake with ice cream. Then she made her way through the swaying cars back to her sleeper. The sun had nearly gone down, so she pulled the blinds and took off her traveling suit. In the tiny water closet, she washed and prepared for bed. Now alone she had time to think, and the day’s strain all came back. It took her a long time to fall asleep. So many memories paraded through her mind, and so many of them made her eyes burn.

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