By Shannan Albright
The world was enshrouded in stygian blackness, impenetrable. It seemed to the man the night swallowed the moon whole leaving only the feeble light of the stars above to lighten the deep stygian darkness. It was a futile battle as he stumbled on. He had lost any sense of direction as he pushed on through the woods heedless of the gnarled tree roots threatening to trip him, the nettles stung his skin with their sharp barbs and a hundred other calamities hidden beneath the heavy cloak of night. He clutched a scrap of parchment tight within his fist. Such an innocuous piece of paper which held the power to irrevocably change his life in an instant. The eloquent inked scrawl of words led him to this very moment running for his life. He thrust the note back into his jacket pocket knowing the address by heart read too many times to count and committed to memory.
Dear Mr. Thornton, I write this under duress. For your life depends on your immediate action. If this seems overly melodramatic to you I do apologize, yet I hasten to add time is of the essence for you, Sir, have been compromised. Make all due haste to one Miss. Emma Fitzgerald for she alone can keep you safe. Her card is enclosed within this missive and I pray you stay safe.
His mind was awash with fear and shock. He thought he covered his tracks well, no one should have known of his dealings with Lazarus. He’d thought he took every precaution and yet someone knew and now they were after him. He forged ahead arms out his palms already scraped and bleeding from low hanging branches and thorny bushes he pushed on. His lungs straining for breath, legs the consistency of rubber threatened to give under his ponderous weight. His gasping breath so loud in his ears he almost missed the faint metallic whirring in the distance. His heart stuttered as fear seized it and pushed his legs to pump faster. Perspiration stung his eyes blinding him as it poured off his flushed face. Gagging on the stale stench of his own fear until he heard the faint strains of music weaving like a bright ray of hope through the dismal landscape.
He picked up his pace following those blessed chords soon twining with the sound of voices. He released a strangled whimper, so near to salvation. He soon found his footing on a level path the sounds growing louder drowning out the angry whirr of the approaching danger until only the lighthearted strains of a reel interspersed with laughter remained. Oh, how he wanted to be amongst the joyful throng of people joining his voice to the merriment. To be oblivious of what he now knew. Knowledge so dangerous it put everything he worked so diligent for in jeopardy.
The angry whirring sound altered as it grew louder sounding like steel blades clashing against each other drowning out the sounds of the party. He had a good idea what was gaining on him and it filled him with sick dread and pushed his straining body to move faster. As he rounded a curve in the path he spotted a stone wall almost obscured by trailing vines of ivy spreading like fingers over the surface. A quick glance to the right of the wall showed him a large ornate iron gate, its grillwork of loops and spirals forming an elegant design around the letters FITZGERALD. He pushed on the gate relieved when it swung open on well oiled hinges and rushed inside the well tended garden. The air was heavy with the scent of roses and jasmine. Maple, oak and birch trees spread their leafy branches heavenward cocooning the gardens in a living embrace. Well tended lawns and hedges followed a winding cobblestone path up to a white marble fountain of a stag standing proud in the center of two stone pillars water ran from his impressive antlers. The trickling sound of water and the party sounded distant as the clashing sound of steel grew ever louder.
His hands covered his ears to muffle the jarring cacophony of screeching steel he moved ahead on the path only to be stopped dead in his tracks. Staring in horror upon what looked to be a huge black beetle on the walkway. The span of a grown mans hands the beetle shaped nanbot’s metal body glinted in the party lanterns dispersed throughout the garden. Relentless hunters programmed to hunt and destroy their targets they never stopped until their target was exterminated and only one man could have programmed and sent them on their hunt. The elusive Magician. A man who’s name and identity was cloaked in secrecy. Another nanbot came beside it, followed by another and yet, another still until nearly ten of them bared the path to safety. As one they lifted their “wings”, sharp razor sharp blades spanning three inches in length and rose in the air with a scraping whirr of deadly promise.
He closed his eyes as they launched themselves toward him and prayed for a quick death.
The brightly colored throng of ladies wove through Emma Fitzgerald’s sprawling mansion like a parade of vivid plumed birds preening for the eligible bachelors interspersed amongst the ball room. Part of her found their behavior amusing while another part of her found the whole thing more than a tad irritating. Emma’s New York society coming out ball was one of the highlights of the season, and was the only time Miss Fitzgerald opened her home and gardens to the privileged pampered few.
The ballroom’s candelabras blazed gaily throughout the large circular dance floor. Musicians played a lively reel as a sea of dancers pirouetted and spun in time to the music all the while the bevy of conniving mothers took note on which of the eligible bachelors would make the most advantageous match for their daughters. The large doors thrown wide allowed overheated dancers a chance to cool themselves among the gardens beyond the marble porch. A cooling breeze scented with the light aroma of roses and jasmine wafted though the room offering relief from the heat of so many bodies contained within.
Emma fought not to curl her nose up with distaste at her companion whose rank odor of heavy perfume, sweat and avarice overrode all other smells. “Vapid silly chits.” She murmured in a low voice so her unwanted companion would not overhear her disparaging comment.
“Why, Miss Fitzgerald you have once again brought forth a stunning success, why everyone and I do mean everyone, has made an appearance.” Mrs. Greer droned on, smoothing one gloved hand over ample lavender draped hip the other fanning her overly endowed chest. She reminded Emma of a stuffed sausage, the taffeta dress at least two sizes too small to fit her formidable frame.
“It is so kind of you to say so Mrs. Greer I do hope you and your niece are enjoying the evening.”
“Oh, yes indeed. Beatrice gushed, beside herself with excitement to receive your initiation.” She cooed at Emma.
“How lovely.” Emma smiled pretending to be happy at the empty headed woman’s praise. “If you will excuse Mrs. Greer.” Emma left Mrs. Greer to her own devices with purposeful strides before she could detain her further.
Emma studied the crowded room not surprised in the least to find the brown haired lanky man who stood by the open patio doors. His gaze caught and held hers. With a slight nod he moved out onto the balcony disappearing from her view. With a feeling of unease she followed him out onto the balcony. A waist high balustrade of ornate iron work encircled the area where one could view the immaculate landscape below. Relieved to find a moment of respite she allowed herself to enjoy the heady fragrance of roses and jasmine that filled the cool late spring air. Chinese lanterns lit up the gardens casting pools of yellow light over the cobblestone pathway she knew wound around the gardens and fountain sitting in the center. The rustling sound of brush being disturbed brought her attention to her left where the patio ended in a set of steps that led to the ground sitting area one of her favorite places where she spent her time reading or in the company of her thoughts.
As she moved through the lower patio a man stepped from the shadows directly in front of her working from instinct she grabbed the man’s upper arm and spun behind him wedging his arm at a painful angle behind his back.
“Dammit Emma, don’t take my arm off.” The man gasped clearly in pain by the sound of his breath hitching.
“You know better than to sneak out in front of me Ivan.” Emma laughed. Though he stood several inches taller than her she still had the strength to best any “normal” man in physical combat thanks to the nanites which thrived in her body.
Ivan Richter a scientist who worked with Nicolai Tesla for years in Russia developed the nanites. They were tiny organisms which lived off the nervous system’s electrical discharge. They multiplied at an astonishing speed and keeping the donors body in top form. Emma had the dubious distinction to be one of a handful of people given the serum and with it an oath to protect mankind for those seeking to destroy and enslave them. Known only as the agents of Lazarus, a secret organization even the President of the United States was unaware existed. With the nanites in their system they were almost immortal, healing faster, intelligent, stronger and each developed a special ability unique to their personal physiology. In Emma’s case she sensed when someone spoke the truth or lied and by a simple touch of her finger could entice her subject to tell the truth, which came in handy during an interrogation and made her quite valuable as a socialite of the cream of New York’s upper echelon where the powerful and influential could to be found.
“I do not sneak. I was merely being cautious.” The man named Ivan replied irritation seeping out of his tone.
She released him, stepping back in front of him with her hands on her hips. “Pray tell why the need for caution now and here of all places.” She demanded.
“Come I’ll show you there is little time to spare if we are to remove the body.”
“The body?” She repeated back surprise and shock making her voice rise.
“I’ll explain on the way now hurry before you’re missed and they send someone out to find you.” He said over his shoulder already making his way into the heart of the gardens going toward the water fountain in its very center.
Emma fell in step with Ivan keeping her questions locked away until time permitted. They moved through the curving path Ivan never slowing his pace until he stopped in front of the fountain and the body lying face up by it. Emma bent down and studied the pale face of the older man. His eyes stared sightless up toward the canopied branches blocking out the moon and sky, a look of terror frozen on his heavy jowled face. Recognition tugging at the back of her brain she had seen him before but couldn’t remember when. She noted with clinical ease of one who had seen more than one murdered body his throat was cut cleanly through tendons and muscle almost clear through bone. A thick pool of blood spread out beneath the body.
The attack happened very recent she noted, placing a hand over his eyes to close them, his flesh still warm.” Not much hear for me to go on. It appears death occurred within the hour.” Emma observed her mind working on any clues to be found.
“I found this beneath his right foot.” Ivan said holding out a black shinny oblong object in his hands. And this in his coat pocket.” He added holding a piece of crumpled parchment in his other.
Emma took the objects she hissed in a breath at the black metallic beetle. “A nanbot here?” Dread seeped into her bones as she stared at the robotic menace in her palm. They were vicious things with wings so sharp they could cut through metal. She turned her attention to the parchment her feelings of unease deepening, coiling tight in her stomach as she read the missive.
“It appears you may be compromised dear Emma. I believe it’s time to bring you in.” Ivan’s voice mirrored her own dread as she tore her gaze from the damning parchment. She could tell by the dark shadow of fear in his eyes they both came to the same conclusion.
The Magician was back.
Stay tuned for more Midnight Steam coming in August 2011
~*~Shannan Albright ~*~
Copyright © 2011 Shannan Albright
All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, locations, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination, or have been used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, locales, or events is entirely coincidental. No portion of this work may be transmitted or reproduced in any form, or by any means, without permission in writing from the author.