Christopher Stasheff

Copyright 2010




The Westminster chimes rang the half-hour, muted by the fog that curled up from the Thames to shroud Ada Rector.  Vague shapes moved in the mist, some growing larger as they came toward her until, only ten feet away, hazy whitish oblongs turned into faces and the dark masses beneath them clarified into cloaks and trousers or dresses—black, almost all of them; Queen Victoria still wore mourning as the century neared its end, and far too many of her subjects seemed determined to imitate her.  The Londoners, each with a strained expression on a gray face, moved past her with scarcely a nod.  She returned the greeting just as minimally and absently, her mind still on her exchange with her guardian. 

"Whyever must you go out in such horrible weather?" Phineas Brooks demanded.

"To see what's left of that factory that burned in the night."  Ada pointed to the morning's newspaper.

Brooks sighed.  "I am quite sure you know the law as well as any solicitor, Ada—Heaven knows you've spent enough hours in your father's library—but you’re not a policeman.  Suspect arson if you must, but I do wish you would leave the investigation to the proper authorities."

"I'm not going to investigate," Ada said.  "Not really, anyway."

"No, only to have a look at the property—from beyond the line of ashes, I hope.  It's bad enough you insist on advising the poor at that charity clinic."

"What else can I do with my knowledge?" Ada said bitterly.  "Women are not allowed to take articles or sit for examination at the Bar." 

"Yes, and I will agree that it is a grave injustice," Mr. Brooks said, "but we must live in the world as it is while we try to make it what it should be."  He shook his head.  "Ada, Ada!  Why are you not content to stay at home as other young ladies do—and as the queen does," he added hastily. 

He had to, if he'd wanted to forestall the answer that he'd heard too often before—that other young ladies might marry.  But other young women had some vestige of prettiness about them, some semblance of grace; they weren't heavy-footed plain Janes.  Ada was already twenty-one and resigned to the knowledge that if a young man were ever going to fall in love with her, he would have by now.

"Surely Jack and Alma are some company to you," Mr. Brooks protested.

Ada bit back the stale retort—that she was supposedly a guest in Brooks's home, not a nanny or a governess.  Instead she said, "Alma will be quite well occupied with her lessons this morning.  Jack would be good company if he weren't away at school."

"Yes, and Melanie would have been excellent company if she weren't married and preoccupied with my grandson."  Mr. Brooks could not restrain a fond smile at the thought of his daughter and her son.

Ada felt a twinge of sadness, her loneliness suddenly deepening at the reminder that her best friend had become a matron—and left Ada behind in the world of single women.  "There is not much scope for me to have the company of my peers, Mr. Brooks," she said.  "I must find my harmless amusements where I may."

"Harmless!  That factory is scarcely in the best neighborhood! Your father would never..."  Mr. Brooks managed to cut off the phrase as he turned away to hide his face. 

As well he might, for he knew what Ada's reaction would be—that her father wasn't there to protest; that if he were, she would have been quite content to keep house for him all her days.  Irrational anger surged; Father!  How could you desert me?!

Instantly, Ada was ashamed; surely her father had not wanted to die, had not wished to leave her alone—and she certainly could not have expected her own presence to be enough to anchor him to this earth when the wife of his bosom had preceded him in death by some years.  He had certainly done his best for Ada—when he had known his days were numbered, he had made excellent arrangements for her protection and shelter in the home of his best friend and fellow member of his law firm.  Admittedly, the interest from her dowry reimbursed Mr. Brooks for her expenses, but it was still an act of generosity on his part.  Ada softened her tone.  "One must have something to do with one's time, after all."

"I suppose one must," Mr. Brooks sighed.  He took his hat and turned to the door.  "Do take a maid with you, Ada, or call a hackney."

"I shall do what I must to ensure my safety," Ada assured him, and came to the door to see him out.  "Thank you for your concern, Mr. Brooks.  Thank you for all your kindnesses."

But she did not take the maid—Josie had enough to do without losing two hours of her day to go jaunting about London with her mistress—and the only hackney cabs that dared move in this weather were already bespoken.  Besides, Ada needed the exercise.

The fog seemed to thicken, and a greater darkness loomed ahead—the bulk of the burned-out factory.  If it had not been so close to the Thames—Ada could hear the rush of its water and the calls of the boatmen—the firefighters would not have had water enough to preserve even this much; it would have all burned to ashes and might have taken the rest of the neighborhood with it—including the sweatshop where one of her charity clients worked.  As it was, the fire had injured several workers.  Considering that factory had been a promising and growing enterprise (though there were certainly enough lamps to satisfy all of Britain’s customers) it had boded well for the neighborhood, since it had been steadily hiring—but its success might also have angered manufacturers of other, more traditional lamps.  There had been nothing in the newspaper to show evidence of arson, but Ada could not help her suspicions.

"’Elp!  Oh, do ‘elp me, please!"

Ada looked up staring, all thoughts of Mr. Brooks and the factory forgotten, for the young woman who rushed toward her out of an alley was tattered and begrimed, as the poor were in this district.  Her face was contorted with sudden grief; her eyes brimmed with tears. 

"Of course I'll help," Ada said automatically.  "What's the matter?"

"My Alf, 'e's been took all queer!  Fell down, 'e 'as, roight there in the alley!"  The young woman caught Ada's sleeve and tugged.  "Oh, do come ‘elp us, miss, please!"

Ada followed, dazed at the thought that this child—several years younger than Ada, surely—was already married and, no doubt, a mother.  Into a reeking alley they went; Ada covered her nose and mouth with a handkerchief.  The bricks of the walls were old and flaking, the mortar eroding, all covered with the soot of the factory.  There were few enough windows, and those were dark with grime.

Then the alley opened out into a sordid courtyard, littered with refuse, the walls stacked with trash—but not a trace of a young man fallen and gasping for breath.  Ada turned to woman with a frown.  "Where is this husband of..."  Her voice died in her throat, for she saw the woman's revolver.

It was a great, heavy, ugly thing, but it looked quite efficient.  "Come down to make trouble here, have you?" the woman snapped.  "To tell us the queen's wrong when she tells us to mind our children and our homes, no doubt.  Let this take all of you toffs who'd make us doubt Her Majesty!"

Ada opened her lips to protest, to say that she had never doubted Victoria, but the muzzle flashed and the roar of the explosion filled the world.  Pain tore at her breast, pain that dimmed the shock of the cobbles striking her back, and as hands lifted her by her shoulders and ankles, she could only think that at least Mr. Brooks would no longer be burdened with an obstreperous child who angered and confused him—and at least she would no longer have to endure his silent censure.  

Then the world went dark, the world ended.


*               *               *


"That's the last anybody ever heard of her."  Yorick closed the cover of Famous Disappearances and looked up at Angus.  "There was a witness who saw her walking east along the Embankment, but no one else."

Angus nodded.  "She qualifies as a time travel agent."

They sat in a pool of light surrounded by gloom.  The floor lamp was plugged into the generator that grumbled quietly halfway around the edge of the huge cavern, its exhaust pipe plugged into the natural chimney that wormed its way through the granite of Mount Haven.  At the edge of the light-pool stood the booth of the time machine, and across from it, a refrigerator flanked by a stove.  Angus might have founded the Guardians of the Rights of Individuals, Patentholders Especially, and founded a headquarters for it deep within the Rocky Mountains, but he and Yorick hadn’t done much decorating yet. 

"Yeah, the qualifications for a time agent," Yorick said with a sardonic smile.  "She died without offspring, so she doesn’t affect the life of anyone coming after her—and none of the lives around her, since nobody was really grief-stricken by her death."

"Oh, I'm sure her guardian cared."

Yorick shook his head.  "Book says he seemed very saddened, but also kinda relieved—not an easy woman to like, I gather."

"Not in the 1890s," Angus said.  "How about her bosom buddy?"

"Grieved for a little while."  Yorick tapped the book.  "But she had one baby already and was planning on more.  She got over Ada's death."

"And, thanks to the Victorian prohibition on middle-class women working outside the home, she hadn't had any effect on the rest of society," Angus said.  "But she had read law."

Yorick nodded, opening the book at the marker again.  "Seems that was what she did with all her spare time.  Her guardian said she had read law in her father's library and knew as much as any beginning solicitor."  He looked up at Angus.  "I think this was by way of explaining why she hadn't been married off."

"Sure—no Victorian man wanted a smart woman."  Angus frowned.  "Well, not many, anyway."

"Yeah—Wollstonecraft, Pankhurst, and who else?"  Yorick shrugged.  "And Wollstonecroft wasn't properly a Victorian."

"Yeah, died too early," Angus said sourly.  "So Ada had no effect on anyone else's life.  No proof she died, though."

"No, just disappeared," Yorick confirmed.  "But how else would a young woman disappear in that day and age?"

"White slavers."

"She doesn't sound like the type to interest pimps."

"True enough," Angus conceded, "and if she'd tried to manage on her own, she had a choice between a brothel and death by starvation."

"Of course, she might have had a lover," Yorick said, "and had it all set up to meet and elope to Australia or Canada."

"Yes, but there's nothing about her taking a suitcase," Angus argued, "or anything about a dowry."

Yorick shrugged.  "Maybe he was so crazy in love with her that he didn’t care about money—and had enough to buy her new clothes."

"If he had that much money, why wouldn't he have courted her openly?" Angus countered.  "It's not exactly a matter of her striking up a romance with a man who's too poor to bring home."  He shook his head.  "More likely she was murdered and her body dumped in the Thames.  What was it, a block away?  Less?"

"Yeah, but why?"

"For the money in her purse," Angus said.  "A Victorian mugger would kill for a few shillings."

"Seems kinda thin," Yorick said.  "You've just been listening to 'Mack the Knife' too much."

"Okay, maybe not robbery," Angus offered, "maybe out and out murder.  She was showing a lot of interest in that factory fire.  If a rival business started it to get rid of the competition, they wouldn't be too happy about a nosy young woman poking around."

"But she had only started to get interested," Yorick objected, "and they'd be fools to take a chance on being accused of murder instead of arson."

"A good lawyer could get anyone off an arson charge back then," Angus said, "unless they were really stupid about leaving evidence."

"Yeah, lawyers."  Yorick gave a bleak smile.  "We started looking through this book because we need a lawyer, remember?  At least, if we're serious about setting up a front company as a cover for our, ah, fund-raising efforts."

"You don’t need to tiptoe around it," Angus said sharply.  "There's no law against digging up treasure—just laws on the taxes."

"Yeah, but governments usually have in mind digging up the treasure after it’s been buried."

"So we'll bury it after we find it," Angus said.

"I see why you need a lawyer."

"Well, Ada Rector qualifies." Angus pointed at the book. "At least, she does if she really did know enough to be a solicitor.  Mind you, she'd have to go to law school all over again—it's been sixty years."

"You mean go to law school for the first time," Yorick said, "instead of just reading in her father's library.  Somehow I don't think she'll mind."

"She will if you're right about her running off with a lover."

"If she does, she'll have had children and won't qualify for a time agent.  Of course, I could be wrong."

"Occam's Razor," Angus said.  "The simplest solution is usually the right one.  I vote for a switchblade in the ribs and a long, deep swim in the Thames."

Yorick rose with a grin.  "How about I go find out?"

"How about I go along?" 

"Uh, now, hold on, Ang."  Yorick raised a cautioning palm.  "You're not exactly a trained agent, y' know."

"And what training would I need to go for a walk in London?" Angus countered.

"The bad part of London," Yorick pointed out.  "Perfect for disguising bloodthirsty time travel assassins.  You do have enemies, you know.”

“How could I forget to rival time-travel organizations with loads of agents?” Angus asked drily. “Especially when they set up their organizations by stealing my research.”

“Then remember that the East End of London had a high mortality rate in the 1890s.  Ang, if y' wanna learn karate, I’ll teach ya—but you don't know it yet."

"All right, I'll pack a revolver!  Yorick, if you had your way, I'd spend the rest of my life indoors."

"Well, not quite that bad—just in very public places, and always with a bodyguard or two at hand."

"I couldn't ask for a better bodyguard than you," Angus answered.  "Besides, what's the point in having a time machine if I never get to visit even the safe places of the past—say, a foggy morning in 1890s London?"  He turned away to a wardrobe.  "We did get some Victorian suits on that trip to the costume company, didn't we?"


*               *               *


Ada would have enjoyed walking along the Embankment if there had been anything to see, but the fog obscured it all—the river, and Westminster beyond it.  She could hear the calls of the boatmen who were brave enough to venture into the murk, could hear the footsteps of the people approaching her or going away behind, but except for glimpses of them as they passed, she was alone in her own cold gray world, trying desperately to puzzle out a way to turn her life of misery into some moderate happiness. 

She heard talking as they appeared out of the fog coming toward her, a deep basso and a sharp tenor.  One was a hulking brute, almost a foot taller than his companion and twice as wide, but with a surprisingly cheerful and cultivated manner, his accent pure Eton as he said, "Two bits of fried bread do not a breakfast make, McArran.  What the devil possessed our landlady to offer no more than that to two hungry travelers?"

"Fog," the tenor said.

Ada noticed that he limped, and one shoulder was higher than the other.  She felt instant pity but knew well enough to mask it, and her face turned wooden.

But the odd twosome seemed not to notice her as they turned across her path into a street too wide to be an alley, the larger man saying, "Early though it may be for luncheon, McAran, there is an establishment only two blocks farther on that broils the most delicious chops."

"I could do with a bit of meat myself," the smaller man admitted in an accent that was purely American—an oddly-assorted pair indeed.

They lost themselves in the fog, but Ada could still hear them debating the merits of grilled chops and roast fowl.  She was surprised to realize the sharpness of her own hunger, then told herself she should not have been—breakfast had been three hours ago, after all, and she had been too angry at the thought of the president of a large corporation taking bread from the mouths of working people by burning down their place of work, too angry by far too have much of an appetite this morning.  Telling herself that she could scarcely pursue an investigation on an empty stomach, she turned her steps to follow the voices of the ill-assorted pair.


"Playing it to the hilt, aren't you?" Angus muttered, too softly for the woman behind them to hear.

"If one is to do something," Yorick answered with lofty assurance, "one must do it to the best of one's ability, don’cha know?  Here's a likely-looking place!"  He opened the door of a restaurant.  "I trust the food will equal our testimony."

"I wouldn’t trust too hard."  Angus went through and held the inner door for him.  "After all, we've never been here before...  Don't look now, but we're being followed."

"Don't concern yourself, old chap," Yorick said, "I doubt she has designs on you.  Let's be seated, shall we?"

Ada came in a few minutes after them, and stood, enjoying the warmth and clear air.  The restaurant was nothing elaborate—they were near the East End, after all—but it was almost full and clamoring with the talk and laughter of busy men enjoying a late breakfast or an early luncheon.  She managed to find the last vacant table in the room, one near the window, and slipped a small book out of her purse as a sign that she didn't want company.  The server looked strangely at her—a woman alone, and not a poor one—but took her order and whisked off to the kitchen.  Ada took up her book and opened it to a verse she hadn't read.

"Mind if I sit in?  Blasted place is full."

She looked up, startled.  It was the wiry American, and apparently he knew the custom of strangers sharing tables when seating was limited.  "Do, by all means," she said, then pointedly went back to her book.

The American didn't seem at all put out; indeed; he drew a newspaper out of his cloak, unfolded it, and set to reading, looking up only to order when their server came by.

Ada wondered what had become of his friend, rather hoping that she wasn't to suffer both of them as dinner companions.  Then she saw the hulking chap at another table, enthusiastically engaged in conversation with two other gentlemen, and marveled at the fellow's apparent knack for making acquaintances.

The American clucked his tongue angrily and rattled his newspaper as he turned a leaf to follow a story.  Ada glanced at him in curiosity, then remembered that she didn't want company and turned back to her book—until the American spat a word that sounded suspiciously blasphemous, at which she frowned up in disapproval.

"Sorry," he said, "but reading about arrant stupidity always bothers me."

Ada suppressed the urge to tell him not to read, then, but didn't, since it would have entailed conversation.  However, she couldn't resist asking, "Who is being so lack-witted today?"

"Judge, this time," the man said, and proceeded to read her a story about the ruinous lawsuit leveled against the Carding Company, a promising new manufacturer of lamps—ones that would burn twice as long on a smaller reservoir of oil than those currently popular.  The plaintiff in the case was Wick & Chimney, Ltd., a huge manufacturer of lighting equipment, who claimed Carding had deliberately modeled their lamps to resemble Wick & Chimney's with the intent of luring away customers who would buy the newer lamps, thinking they were purchasing the old.

"As though it didn’t say 'Carding Lamp' right on the box!" the American snapped.

"Quite."  Ada raised her head in indignation.  "It was Carding's factory that burned last night!"

"Yes, the article mentions that as an afterthought," the American said.

"Hardly an afterthought!  That factory was built in an impoverished neighborhood!  The employment it provided gave a new lease on life to starving families!"

"Did it really?"  The American gave her a bleak smile.  "But to wealthy businessmen, the workers are an afterthought."

"Their care should be the employer's primary concern!" Ada exclaimed, then frowned.  "Do you not think this fire to be oddly convenient for Wick & Chimney?"

"Suspiciously convenient, I would say," the American answered.  "I've half a mind to find that factory and poke through the ashes to see how the fire started."

"I shall join you!"  Ada rose.

The server placed a plate of chops and gravy in front of the American.  The aroma wakened Ada's hunger amazingly.

"I don't believe in wasting," the American said, "and if I'm going to pay for this lunch, I might as well eat it.  Let's allow the ashes to cool a few minutes longer."

Ada sat back down as the server placed another platter in front of Ada.  She inhaled the aroma with relief.


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