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This whole situation was not ideal, and Wellington was guessing it would probably end in some kind of torture. It was part of the basic training for all agents of the Ministry, and he, of course, knew all too well from previous experience: capture eventually led to torture. Perhaps he should start praying for another explosive rescue by Miss Eliza Braun?
On second thought, maybe not.
“Are you just going to let him lead us away?” Felicity hissed.
What. Did. She. Say? “I—I beg your pardon?”
“There’s only one of them. Do something!”
From behind them, the Pinkerton barked, “Quiet.”
“I did do something,” Wellington insisted quietly.
“Well, you’re going to have to do better this time, now won’t you?” she returned.
“Three shots!” he blurted out, rounding on her. “You had three shots—point-blank—and you missed?”
“I told you I don’t like guns!” she said, her bottom lip starting to quiver.
“And how exactly was I to know that?”
“You could have asked!”
“I said, quiet!” warned the Pinkerton.
“Really? And exactly how do you bring up such a topic in polite conversation?” Wellington couldn’t stop the animated gesticulations as he launched into his hypothetical first meeting with her. “A pleasure to meet you, Miss Lovelace. I say, seeing as I am in America, I should ask, as custom dictates, what your disposition towards firearms is? Pip- pip cheerio!”
Felicity’s face twisted into a grimace, her voice wavering and high in pitch as she fought to not burst into tears. “I grew up on a farm. Where it’s quiet. I don’t like loud noises!” Felicity motioned to the lighthouse behind them. “You can imagine how I reacted to that monstrosity! I’m trying to do the best I can. I rarely get out of the library. You must know how that is?”
Wellington stared at her hard and repeated. “Point. Blank.”
“I said I was sorry!”
“And I said ‘Quiet,’ so you both hush,” the gunman growled as he stepped in between them. He looked at them both for a moment, his eyes darting from Wellington to Felicity. The man then eased the hammer of his Samson-Enfield Mark II back to a safety position and turned both barrels—still loaded and potentially dangerous, hammers back or in the safe position, regardless—on Wellington. “Being a bit hard on the little filly there, ain’t ya?”
“I am not—” Wellington began, then paused. “Come again?”
He shot a quick glance at Felicity as he heard her mumble loud enough for only Wellington to hear, “I hate it when people refer to me as a horse.”
“The lady said she don’t like guns. Nothin’ wrong with that. Ladies ain’t supposed to know how to shoot anyways. And as I see it, if you don’t talk to each other before doin’ what we do here all secret n’ stuff, then that’s not her fault, now is it?”
Wellington cleared his throat. “Am I to understand that I am being handed out a lesson in manners by you? Quite ironic considering that little affair in Homestead.”
The thug actually looked uncomfortable at the mention of the fatal strikebreaking carried out for Carnegie, or maybe he didn’t like being identified as a Pinkerton. “Those were Yankees. Not from around here.”
“Same agency, I believe,” Wellington said with a wide smile.
He shouldered his rifle. “That’s enough. Now apologise to the lady.”
“I’m sorry. Did you—”
“You heard me.” And the Pinkerton motioned with his rifle to Felicity. “You were ruder than a schoolboy after a pot of baked beans. Say you’re sorry.”
Wellington turned to look at Felicity who, still with her hands in the air, was facing him, an expression of patient expectation on her face.
He had been right in one respect. This capture had indeed led to torture.
His mouth opened to begin what he hoped would be a satisfactory, insincere as it may be, apology for his rash berating of Felicity when, over her shoulder, the airships exploded again. Judging from the impressive size and power of the distant explosion, one of the ships must have been carrying flammable cargo. His eyes narrowed, though, at something falling from the aerial carnage. Something small and bright that suddenly shot upwards back towards the night sky.
“Well?” insisted Felicity.
“You heard the lady,” the guard pressed.
“I know, but—” Wellington couldn’t resist craning his neck as he continued to follow the object as it reached higher and higher in altitude. It stilled for a moment—hovering like a bright mote in the sky. It was an impressive display for an object to fight gravity for so long. The archivist wondered what it could be.
In his peripheral vision he saw Felicity finally drop her hands as she turned to see what had caught Wellington’s attention. The object plummeted again, but he observed it was not an uncontrolled descent. Whatever it was began levelling out the closer it got to the water. It was rather pretty, and yet . . .
“Wellington,” Felicity spoke over her shoulder, “is that shooting star following a trajectory?”
The archivist frowned slightly as the shooting something began a wild corkscrew pattern now, but its course had not changed. He began running quick calculations in his head.
Now a sound could be discerned—a low rumble, like an angry swarm of bees. Wellington knew this sound. He knew this sound intimately. That could only mean—
“That’s not a shooting star,” said their captor, his rifle wavering slightly in his grip.
Wellington glanced at the Pinkerton, his rifle lowered away from them both, and then turned back to Felicity. He could only take care of one, and when he grabbed her wrist and pulled he hoped it was the right choice.
“Run!” he managed to shout before the shock wave smothered all other sounds.
The roar rattled the archivist down to his bones, but he continued to pull Felicity behind him, stopping only to grab the top rail of the fence. Fuelled by fear, both agents cleared it in a single bound. They landed hard on the causeway just before the missile struck both Carolina earth and the Pinkerton agent equally. The impact blew both he and Felicity in the air as if shoved by a giant’s hand. Sand and fire flew all around them, and Wellington’s senses were thrown into turmoil as the chaos consumed them.
Somehow, improbably, in all of this he managed to keep hold of Felicity’s hand.
Sand filled his mouth. He felt what he could only presume was solid ground, and rolled desperately towards the one thing he was certain was there—Miss Felicity Lovelace. He brought his free arm around her, in the hopes that his body could offer some protection while heat, earth, and a blast of super-heated air raged around them.
Yet his thoughts were not of the American that was so close to him. Would Eliza know what had happened to him? Would she care at all that he had died in a strange missile attack? Who would finish the mission and assure her safe return to England?
Then the roaring subsided to a ringing in his ears. He blinked sand out of his eyes, and discovered that he was covered in a thin film of earth with Miss Lovelace tight in his arms. He gave the agent a gentle shake to see if she was alive. Her body was trembling much in the same manner as at the Delilah, earlier this morning.
“This is precisely why I don’t like loud noises,” she huffed, choking back a sob.
Wellington climbed to his feet, feeling himself over for injuries. He would hurt tomorrow morning—of that, he did not doubt—but nothing had been broken or torn. A blessing, to be sure. The only thing damaged was his suit, which was a tragedy since his chances of getting back to Savile Row anytime soon were small indeed. Still fashion was the least of their worries at this juncture.
The archivist examined the crash site and saw amidst the burning embers of the fence a large trench that the missile had carved into the ground.
A quick tap on his shoulder tore his gaze away from the disturbed earth. Felicity was watching the keeper’s house in the distance where a cart rumbled swiftly back in the direction of Swan’s Retreat. Edison had made it clear he was booked on the next train out of the area, so by the time they got back to the lodge, Edison and his associates would be well on their way.
Felicity stepped closer to him, wrapping her arm around his. “Thank you, Wellington,” she said right before she kissed him sweetly on the cheek.
He looked into her dark gaze and wanted to assure her that everything was well, but he was not that good of a liar. His first assignment in the field would expose Thomas Edison, one of the world’s most renowned scientists, in league with the House of Usher, and name him in the deaths of how many in the sea and the air? This mission was far from how he had imagined it would unfold.
“Wellington, you’re bleeding,” Felicity said, pulling from her back pocket a clean kerchief. She began to wipe at his neck, but her brow creased. “Just a moment. This—this isn’t your blood!”
“No, it isn’t,” he said, looking at the spot on her. “I believe our captor”—and he swallowed uncomfortably as he continued—“vaporised on impact. I think this is—”
“—some of his vapour that got on you?” Felicity nodded and swallowed hard. “Well . . . you did warn me things would get rather intense once in the field.”
“Yes, I had the luxury of undergoing an orientation of sorts with Miss Braun.” Wellington observed her slightly glassy gaze. “If you are thinking of a bath once we get to the resort—”
“Perhaps for a week, you think?”
“I’m afraid that would be too much of a luxury at present—we’re already losing ground on Edison.” Wellington turned back to the smouldering ditch created by the missile. “Perhaps we should ascertain what created this? Take our mind off things.”
She shrugged. “I’ll still hope for that prolonged bath, thank you very much.”
They followed the length of the trench in silence, reaching the battered metal beast that had expelled itself from the mysterious airship. His inventor’s interest stirred as he bent to examine it more closely. The starboard wing was curling upwards while the port one had been lost completely. The stabilisers at its exhaust were intact, although with the amount of damage sustained they would need to be replaced.
“Simplistic design,” he said, looking down its length. “The hull is still intact, which is quite the accomplishment considering its velocity on impact.”
Felicity’s grip tightened on Wellington’s arm. “I see we found what’s left of that Pinkerton fellow,” she grimaced as she motioned to the textured crimson streaks beginning at the nose of the missile and running to the rocket’s mid-section, just spilling over the edges of the missile’s solitary hatch.
They both jumped backwards at the sound of a hard, dull ka-thunk from inside the missile. The hatch’s wheel started spinning, slowly at first but picking up speed with each second. Reason dictated that a pilot would be required for the changes in trajectory Wellington had observed. Someone was inside this thing.
He looked wildly around the immediate area for anything that would work as a weapon. He went to grab a piece of driftwood, but Felicity batted his hands away from it.
“Sand spurs. Sand spurs. Sand spurs!” she said quickly, bringing her nose close to the wood. “Right, it’s clean,” Felicity said, thrusting the piece of wood towards him.
Wellington grabbed it firmly and held it over his head. With a quick nod to Felicity, he crept towards the hatch, just as it burst open with a rush of air. Rather foul smelling air. It proceeded to swing idly on its hinges for a moment, the stillness settling in thick and heavy around them.
Fortunately, not for long.
The first body that spilled out of the rocket was a strange-looking man. Wild hair. Tattered clothes. A leather aviator’s cap haphazardly jammed on his head, while a pair of filthy aviator goggles covered his eyes. He took no notice of Wellington or Felicity, even with Wellington standing there armed with a large piece of driftwood. The stranger crawled away from the wreck, flopped on his back, coughed a few times, and then started to laugh.
“Ya can talk all ya like, Father,” the man shouted up to the stars, “but I’m alive and yer not!”
“He appears to be praying,” muttered Felicity.
Wellington agreed. It didn’t seem polite to interrupt the conversation but there were questions that needed answers.
However before Wellington could query this new arrival, as politely as one could when brandishing a weapon, he heard Felicity yelp from behind him as another body—no, two bodies—fell out of the rocket’s open hatch. Their coughs were rough as well as dry as they landed on top of each other, and if he were not mistaken there was more than a fair amount of cussing going on between them.
Wellington raised his club a touch higher, but it eased down slightly when he finally recognised the woman holding onto the cowboy. She had her head nuzzled into the crook of his neck, her eyes screwed shut as she coughed, then took in a few deep breaths. Her face was covered in soot, her skin paler than usual but colour was returning. Slowly.
Wellington felt like an idiot. Who else would ride a titanic bullet out of a burning airship but his colleague, Eliza Braun?