Elizabeth Barnabus is a mutineer and a murderer. So they say. The noose awaits in Liverpool as punishment for her crimes. But they’ll have to catch her first.
Disguised as a labourer, Elizabeth flees west across America, following a rumour of her long-lost family. Crossing the border into the wilds of the Oregon Territory, she discovers a mustering army, a king who believes he is destined to conquer the world, and a weapon so powerful that it could bring the age of reason crashing down.
In a land where politics and prophecy are one and the same, the fate of the Gas-Lit Empire may come to rest on the perfect execution of a conjuring trick…
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Standing in the washhouse cubicle below a glassless window, Elizabeth could smell the air from the waterfall thundering outside.
"Hold me," she said, and he did. John Farthing. He enfolded her. She pressed her face into his coat, breathing him instead of the dank air, inhaling the memory of his body, of parting.
Somewhere outside the washhouse, her friends would be looking for her. They'd stepped off the boat together, gone through the ordeal of searches and questioning in that bare border post by the river. Her pistol had been their chief concern: a finely-made thing with the emblem of a leaping hare inlayed in turquoise on the stock. But for all its beauty, it was nothing more than a flintlock. It offended no rule of the Gas-Lit Empire, so at last the guards let them pass and they stepped from the wilds into the Free States of America.
Climbing the long flight of steps up the side of the gorge, she'd looked back and seen the full circle of a rainbow hanging in the air, bright against the darkness of the Niagara's far bank. It was a wonder of the world, the boat captain had said, and now she knew the truth of that. As great a miracle as the miracle of her having lived to see it.
She was half way up when she saw John Farthing looking down over the railings from the top. Just a glimpse: the silhouette of his head and shoulders. But she knew him. The spark of recognition set a fire in her heart.
Running up stone steps slick with mist from the falls, quickly out of breath, her thighs burned. And then at the top, seeing him looking back at her from the side of the washhouse. He slipped behind it. She went to him, took his hand, led him inside, into one of the cubicles, bolting the door behind them.
The dripping of water in a cistern. That dank waterfall smell.
Having sent word ahead, she'd expected to be met by agents of the Patent Office. But not by John. That was beyond her dreaming. He had crossed the Atlantic to see her. He had come to the border itself.
His fingers kneaded the lines of muscle in her back. He kissed her hair.
"You're thinner," he whispered.
She found herself laughing. "You feel just the same."
She went up on her toes to kiss him, but he angled his face for her lips to find his cheek instead of his mouth. She felt the rub of fine stubble.
"They're going to want to talk to you," he said.
"The way they're saying it, they didn't think you'd manage. To risk it all and come back, I mean. With Julia as well."
"And Tinker," she said. "I brought them both. You didn't believe me either."
"I never doubted that you could. But storms and tides – they're beyond controlling. Even for you." There was a shudder in his chest, a catch of breath. "You've seen things. Out there in the wilds. Things our spies have never seen." She felt the warmth of his breath through her hair as he spoke, but found herself shivering.
"Please just hold me."
"You've got to listen, Elizabeth. We don't have much time. They're going to tell you to go back. Across the border, I mean. But they don't have the power to force you. They'll say they do. They'll say anything to make it happen. You just need to keep saying no."
"I missed you," she said, hoping he'd say the same, listening for a change in his heartbeat.
There was a shout from outside, Julia calling, trying to find her.
Elizabeth pulled back, to look up at him. "Where do we go?" "To the hotel. I'll take you."
"Other agents will be there?"
He nodded. "This – your crossing – it had to be quiet. That's why it's only me here to meet you. Your handler. But they have their questions."
Handler. She wished he'd meant it as a joke.
"Elizabeth? Where are you?" Julia was close outside.
Farthing opened the cubicle door. "You'd better go."
So she did.
The sunshine dazzled after the dark of the washroom. Julia seemed relieved to have found her. But when Farthing stepped out, Julia's expression transformed into a coy smile and she averted her eyes.
They found Tinker, leaning over the railings. Elizabeth had never seen the boy awed by anything before. Or rather, he would usually hide any sign that he might be impressed. But the falls had him gripped. When he glanced back at her, she saw the wonder in his face, as if he was comfortable with the emotion. Strangely, it made him seem older.
"It's time to go," she said, feeling a wave of sadness that she couldn't have explained. She'd done everything she set out to achieve and come back with her loved ones alive. Unharmed. It was a moment to be celebrated. But as they followed John Farthing along the road to the hotel, her feet felt leaden.
"Was your reunion sweet?" Julia whispered.
"Yes," she said, the lie too easy.
"And so will be mine, with Robert."
"Yes," said Elizabeth with more conviction, finding it easier to believe in Julia's happiness than her own.
The hotel was a wide brick building of two storeys, with a balcony running all the way around. She stepped out towards the grand entrance, but Farthing called her back and she found herself following him with the others, down the side until they reached a small black door, unmarked and without a handle. Unlocking it, he ushered them through to a narrow passage and a narrow set of stairs, by which they came to something akin to a drawing room, comfortably furnished but impersonal. Windows ran the length of one wall. Long net curtains shifted in the breeze.
Two men in grey stood as they entered, one dark-skinned, the other light. Their smiles seemed false. Elizabeth had no doubt they were agents. She and Julia shook hands with each. Tinker went to the window.
"Welcome," said the fair-skinned one.
"Do you need to rest?" asked the other.
She hadn't been able to sleep the night before. But her mind was racing and she knew it would be impossible. "Do you suppose they could bring a pot of tea?"
There were six doors off the drawing room. One led to a bathroom with flushing toilet and hot water on tap. After life in the wilds, such luxuries seemed like a miracle. Four doors led to bedrooms and one gave access to the balcony, blocked off to left and right. When Tinker tried to use it, they called him back.
"It's best no one sees you."
Afterwards Elizabeth couldn't have said which agent had spoken.
The tea things arrived via what seemed to be a small cupboard built into the wall, but which proved to be a dumb waiter. However, the pot held only hot water. Dry tea leaves rested in a small metal caddy. She sent it all back with instructions:
Please warm the pot. Add two measures of tea leaves. THEN pour in boiling water. Thank you.
In all the months of her travelling beyond the border, she'd thought of this moment – her first cup of tea. She wouldn't allow it to be less than her imagination.
There was no exit but for the flight of steps by which they'd entered, and down which she now saw John Farthing slip away.
"Are you well?" Julia whispered.
"You seem ... distressed."
"It's not the tea, is it?"
"I am fine!"
Elizabeth had dreamed of many things in the wilderness. But John Farthing had gone and she wanted a cup of tea and if it wasn't made right, she thought she might pick up one of the chairs and hurl it through the window.
With a squeak of pulley wheels and the tinkle of a bell, the dumb waiter returned. This time it had been done right. She poured through the strainer into a rose-patterned cup. They had sent a small jug, but it contained cream instead of milk, so she sipped it black. It was too hot to taste, but some deep part of her felt the rightness of it.
Tinker must have sensed something because he came to comfort her, put his arms around her shoulders and pressed his forehead into her cheek. That broke the dam of her tears. She ran to the bedroom, slamming the door behind her.
She pretended to sleep, which kept them away for a time. They talked in hushed voices in the other room. Soon she was smelling roasted meat and listening to the clink of crockery. When she did sleep and wake again, it felt as if only a few minutes had passed. Someone was knocking on the door and calling her name. A man's voice. It wasn't John Farthing.
"What is it?"
"Miss Barnabus, we need to talk."
"You've been in there six hours."
She looked through the window and saw a streak of red in the darkening sky.
A fresh pot of tea was waiting, cool enough to drink. They'd brought chairs and a writing table to the unused bedroom. She sat facing them. Steam twisted from her cup. The men's faces were hard to read with the window behind them, and the last of the daylight fading.
"What are your names?" she asked.
"Agent McLeod," said the dark-skinned man.
"Agent Winslow," said the other. "We need you to tell us everything." He opened a writing book, unscrewed his fountain pen and dated the top corner in a generous, looping hand. Elizabeth read it upside down.
"Everything? It's too much. There is too much to tell."
"Start from the beginning."
"But where is that?"
"Newfoundland," said Winslow.
McLeod shook his head. "Start before that. The North Atlantic whaling fleet."
Elizabeth's story had started further back even than that, with the loss of Julia as she crossed the Atlantic. The trauma of it had ended her secret affair with John Farthing. It had set her off into the wilds on an impossible mission, to find her friend. She stared at the sunset sky behind the agents, at a streak of dirt on the glass.
"You dressed as a man to disguise yourself," McLeod prompted. "Do you think the sailors of the fleet were duped?"
"Duped?" There was a wrongness to the word. A discordance.
"Taken in," said McLeod.
"They thought me a man, if that's what you mean."
Winslow's pen nib whispered as he wrote.
"Could you tell us how you came to disappear?" "Our ship was captured."
"And what was your part in the mutiny?"
"There was no mutiny. We were attacked by a submarine boat. It would have drowned us ... but ..."
The two agents were looking at each other as if embarrassed by her account. Then Winslow said: "The crew survived. They saw what you did, Miss Barnabus. We have testimonies. They all say the same thing. You put a pistol to your captain's head."
"I saved his life."
"Did you not threaten to kill him?"
"They would have shot him dead if I hadn't done that. I stopped them. I saved them all."
Agent McLeod wrote.
"We understand that the pirates were all women. Having captured the ship, they lined you up and assaulted the captain. Whereon you identified yourself as a woman for the first time and asked to join their nation. Is that not correct?"
"You make it sound ... bad."
"I'm reporting the facts."
"I played along. But only so I could help the crew."
"Ours! The men!"
"You helped the men over the women – is that your claim?"
"It's the truth," she said, the real truth being too complicated to explain.
"But later you led an attack on the mother ship of the fleet."
"The attack was coming. I risked my life to stop it. If I ever mutinied, it was against the women."
"So you had joined them?"
"I lied to them! I cheated them. I ran from them. They'd kill me now if they were here. And yes, I got myself into the attack. But only so I could rescue my friends."
While Winslow wrote, McLeod nodded, as if her words made sense.
"You were present at the murder of the Fleet Commodore?" Elizabeth nodded, knowing where they were leading, feeling short of breath.
"Did you kill him?" McLeod asked.
"I tried to stop it."
"But not successfully."
Winslow put down the pen and folded his arms.
"Is that what you want?" she asked. "To try me for mutiny?"
"Murder would be more likely. And since you led the attack on the fleet, it would be treason also."
Would be. There it was: the possibility of an escape from the gallows. John Farthing had said they'd try to get her to go back to Newfoundland. Keep saying no, he'd told her. He hadn't said anything about this sword, dangling above her head.
"The crew of the ship Pembroke survived?" she asked. They'd been locked in a ship's hold the last time she'd seen them. And that ship had been snared in the middle of the battle. Cannons had been firing.
"They survived," said McLeod.
"So the women ... the pirates ... did they lose their battle?" The two agents glanced at each other again.
Winslow said: "I'm sorry. I thought you'd know. But you've been away, of course. There was an exchange of prisoners. That's how the crew came back to us. In the battle they lost many ships. But they gained one."
"They captured the Mother Ship?" Neither man denied it.
If the pirates had captured the floating city of the Mother Ship, it would mean the Gas-Lit Empire was losing control of the North Atlantic.
"How did you escape from the battle, Miss Barnabus?" "I took a steam launch."
"You stole it," Winslow corrected.
"We escaped from the fight."
"Then why did you flee to Newfoundland? If you were innocent, why not return to the Gas-Lit Empire?"
Winslow had drawn a line in his ledger and was writing a new heading.
"Newfoundland was a mistake," she said. "We thought we'd landed in Nova Scotia but the wind had taken us too far to the north."
"And what did you find there?"
Elizabeth opened her mouth to answer, but then closed it again. What she'd seen was a shift in the balance of power that might change the whole world. New nations were growing in the wilderness beyond the borders of civilisation. It would be wilderness no more. From the chaos of endless war, pockets of order were emerging. And in those far-flung places, weapons were being created that could overthrow even the might of the civilised world.
"Well?" asked McLeod. "What did you see in the wilds?" She folded her arms and sat back.
"I'm not going to tell you," she said.CHAPTER 2
From a distance, the castle at Crown Point seemed to be an extension of the basalt cliffs on which it rested. But closer to, and with an eye for detail, the entire history of the fortress might be read from the strata of those stones.
The rough boulders at the base of the wall had once been free-standing: a crude barricade with spaces for cannons to fire down on boats in the Colombia River hundreds of feet below. That had been the start of it, a pirate camp on the plateau, preying on such trade as the wilds could sustain. Then smaller stones had been placed to fill the gaps between the boulders. They'd not been cut to shape. Rather, through careful placing, their natural angles interlocked, creating the first true wall.
By then the camp had grown into something more permanent. They no longer thought of themselves as pirates. Protectors of that section of the river, perhaps. Custodians of a nascent order in the midst of the wild Oregon Territory. For this great service, they levied only a modest tax. And since they now risked just the kind of attack they'd once launched on others, walls were needed all the way around. A castle had begun to emerge.
It was a good business. Wealth accumulated and the walls thickened to contain it. Further out, new wards were needed to protect the store rooms and stables, workshops and marshalling yard. By then the Lords of Crown Point had started to call themselves kings. They could afford the luxury of masons, who cut flat faces on the stones as the walls grew taller. And then, when the only reason for further height was a statement of power, the masons carved gargoyles and grotesque faces to frighten or amaze those who passed below.
At the pinnacle of the castle, with the finest stonework, stood three towers from which flags streamed. The East Tower was the tallest. There, a slim figure stood, dressed in white with a blue scarf rippling behind. Flashes of green and turquoise at her neck were long enamel earrings. Shaped like fish, they danced in the gusting wind.
She had been staring towards the furthest point up river, sometimes shielding her eyes against the brightness of the sky, sometimes blinking and looking away as if to clear her vision.
Two enforcer guards climbed the final steps to join her. Each carried a rifle with sighting lenses along its barrel.
"He wants you," one of them said. "The king."
She turned to face them. "Where?"
"The Great Hall."
"I thought he was out hunting."
"Great Hall," he said, again.
"Will he want to see me ... like this?"
The guard stepped to the balustrade and leaned his gun against the stonework. The other one did a practice aim towards the shingle strands far below, swinging the rifle left and right before resting the gun next to his comrade's.
Reluctant messengers at best, they wouldn't stoop to answer the question. She set off down the stairs, lifting her skirts, revealing glimpses of bare feet, narrow but long.
The stones felt cold in the shade. But she was moving now, almost silent, descending thirty feet to the lower battlements, and then into the castle itself, along a corridor set within the thickness of the wall. Lamps lit the way, though she could have run it with her eyes closed.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man"
Copyright © 2019 Rod Duncan.
Excerpted by permission of Watkins Media Ltd.
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