The Guildsmen

Emily is a young woman struggling to earn respect as a mechanic in London after she inherits her Father’s business.  When her childhood friend and lover, Victor, returns to England, things finally seem to be improving for her, until he fixes her Father’s watch and they discover the mysterious blueprints inside along with a cryptic note warning her to hide the blueprints and to avoid “The Guildsmen.”  Emily becomes entangled in warring secret societies, corporate espionage, and old rivalries in an attempt to save Victor’s life and uncover the truth about her Father’s death.

Emily heard the hiss of steam, like the hiss of a great dragon releasing a breath of hot air in front of her.  She watched through the crack in the door as steam billowed through the air like a cumulous cloud, rushing under the door and through the crack, enveloping her even though she wasn’t in the room.  She nearly panicked and ran for the house, as though the steam itself would reveal her presence, but she wanted to see what her Father was working on.  This was the first time that he told her that she wasn’t allowed to come into the workshop, and something about that made the temptation to peek impossible to resist. 

She didn’t know what the machine was, and wondered why he had hidden it from her in the first place.  All she could see was a very big boiler.  It wasn’t attached to any pulleys yet, so there really wasn’t a machine to see.  Her Father’s friends were shouting urgently that the pressure was too high and were rushing for the wheels to release the steam, but the wheel her Father was trying to turn seemed to be stuck.

            They called, “Let it go, Reginald!  Run!  It’s going to blow!”

            Her father strained against the wheel, “I almost have it.”

            Emily’s Father, Reginald, put his boot against the side of the crate next to him, pushing against it while pulling and twisting the wheel, trying to get the leverage to make it turn, but it wasn’t moving.  She heard the groan of metal as the boiler began to strain and warp.  She wanted to scream a warning to him, or at least to rush forward to stop him.  If he saw her, her safety would come first and he would grab her and rush out the door and the unthinkable wouldn’t happen, not again.  But, as always, she was rooted to the spot, watching helplessly, wishing she could speak but unable to make a sound, and wishing that she was older so she would know what to do.

            Reginald’s wheel squeaked loudly as he finally managed to turn it, but it wasn’t enough and it wasn’t fast enough, either.  The bolts of the boiler broke free, pelting the group with shrapnel, sounding like bullets plinking from the gun of a soldier.  One of them went through Reginald’s arm, and he released the wheel instinctively to stop the gushing blood, and that’s when the boiler exploded.  The sound was deafening, a pop like a zeppelin bursting but the sound of the steam and water rushing out muffled it with more terrifying noise.  Her Father screamed in agony, but she could barely hear it for the hissing.  Then, in an instant, it was over. 

Emily rushed inside, “Dad?”

The steam was starting to clear the moment she opened the door.  His prone figure was on the ground, his skin pink and raw like that of a newborn pig, but it was already blistering before her eyes.

 He muttered, “The watch, Emily,” and then he died. 

That was all that she got to see, but it was an image that would haunt her forever.  Her Father’s best friend, Ambrose, was picking her up and carrying her away as she screamed for her Father over and over again, but she was getting farther away by the second.

Emily woke up and shrieked, “DAD!” 

The empty flat just echoed the word back to her.

Emily sighed and muttered, “It’s been fifteen years.  Does it ever end?”

Even as she said it, she knew it never would.  Emily groaned and wiped the tears she unconsciously shed from her eyes.  Sun was streaming in through the window.  At least that meant she wasn’t awoken by the nightmares in the middle of the night.  She ran her hands through her shoulder-length auburn hair and pulled on a fresh set of knickers, then changed into a button up shirt and vest.  Then she added the finishing touches, her goggles, her trusty, but broken, pocket-watch in the lower vest pocket, and a fresh set of cigars in her top vest pocket.  The earthy, sweet smell of tobacco tempted her, but it was too early for a smoke.

Emily walked outside towards her shop.  She was glad that she was able to get a machine shop so close to her flat.  Since it was within walking distance, she didn’t have to own a horse, though she wished she had the money to afford her own steam carriage.  White flecks were falling around her, but she knew it wasn’t quite cold enough for snow.  Ash was falling from the industrial smokestacks, swirling delicately like playful snowflakes.  The air was hazy with smoke and steam, and as usual the grime in the air coated her like a second layer of skin.       

Victor’s words echoed in her mind, “Haven’t you noticed, Emily?  London has a rhythm.  It has music of its own, and it’s where I find my inspiration.  Listen to the steam, the voices, the gentle clopping of horseshoes, the sound of human footsteps.  Close your eyes and listen.

How long had it been since she thought about Victor?  The nightmare had brought everyone she loved back into her mind and his countenance came back into her thoughts as well, like an apparition, there one moment and then fading away like steam.  There were so many memories for her in London, that the streets seemed populated with ghosts of her past.

Emily mouthed, “And what is the city trying to say to me today?”

She closed her eyes and listened.  

The same sounds greeted her every day, but they always differed slightly.  The large clock in the middle of the city clicked and tumbled another few seconds by, setting the tempo.  She could hear the hiss of steam, the belch of smoke from the refineries, the rustling of petticoats, the laughter of children, and the creak of horseless carriages ghosting into town.  Still, there was something off about the sound today.  One of the steam powered carriages nearby was making a distressed keening sound, a rupture somewhere in the boiler!  She could hear the metal groaning.  It couldn’t take much more strain…

Emily’s eyes shot open and she searched around her.  There, a few feet away was the cause of the sound.  A fat man in a three piece suit was whistling over the sound of his boiler as he drove his steam carriage through town, oblivious that at any moment the vehicle would betray him, exploding and possibly killing many people around him as well.  Emily rushed forward.  There was a horse-drawn cart parked in front of her.  She quickly unhitched one of the horses.

A man with black gums and a few missing teeth yelled, “OY!  Them’s my ‘orses!”

Emily snapped, “I’ll bring it back,” And then, she thrust herself onto the animal’s back and into the traffic in front of her. 

The horse’s skin twitched nervously beneath her.  It was on the verge of panic as it weaved in between steam powered carriages, cars, and other horse drawn carts, but she maneuvered it with single-minded determination towards the sound.  Sweat beaded on her forehead.  The noise from her dream reverberated through her mind. 

She heard her subconscious telling her, “Run!  It’s going to blow.

She answered the thought in her Father’s voice, “I almost have it…

Emily jumped from the back of the horse and onto the carriage.  The animal quickly stopped running, ambling away from the traffic.  Emily’s fate was tied to that of the rich man in front of her.  He turned around, his face red with confusion and anger.

He stammered, “What are you doing?  This is absurd!”

Emily ignored him and felt around for the emergency release bar.  The boiler would explode if she couldn’t find it in time.  The man was demanding that she explain herself at once or he would report her to the authorities, but she quickly looked away.  His appearance distracted her, with his large mustache and undulating jowls, he reminded her of a walrus she once saw in a travelling circus. 

Emily saw the metal beginning to bulge slightly, and the man’s beady eyes became large as he noticed the same thing.  She cringed, readying herself for the pain of the explosion, but still running her fingers along the side of the boiler, resigned to not give up, even in the face of death—when her hand wrapped around a small valve on the side.  She pulled as hard as she could.  The steam whistled for a moment like a kettle on a stove, and then billowed out behind them.  She heard the pained cry of a team of horses, and a heard few surprised gasps from the crowd, but thankfully no one was screaming.

The man stammered, “You, you knew, somehow.” 

Emily nodded, “I was close by.  I heard the metal straining…”

The man behind them shouted, “HEY!  MY HORSES!  WHO’S GOING TO PAY FOR THIS?”

Emily looked behind her and then quickly looked away.  Both horses had collapsed in a heap on the ground, barely alive.  Wet patches of black fur covered their badly burned skin, but their mouths hung open in pained expressions, silent screams that moved Emily almost to tears.  It happened too many times when a horse would get in the way of a steam carriage, and the results were always ugly, almost always killing the animal. 

The man with the walrus mustache shouted, “I’ll pay you for the horses, but we should thank this young lady for saving us.  The boiler was going to blow up.  It was an emergency…”

He extended his hand to Emily, “Clarence Barker, at your service, Miss.”

Emily said, “Emily Blackstone, Mr. Barker.”

He said, “You must be the daughter of Reginald Blackstone.  Terrible business, that accident, but who runs the machine shop now?”

Emily said, “I do, Sir.”

Mr. Barker said, “Well, Miss Blackstone, you’ll see me there before the end of the day, and in the meantime, please allow me to reward you for saving my life…”

He reached for his money pouch. 

Emily stammered, “Please, there’s no need for that.  I was just doing what anyone would’ve done in my place.”

Mr. Barker pretended he didn’t hear her, giving her a handful of silver.  She stared at the money, stunned. 

The man behind them shouted, “My horses!  You’d better have enough to cover my horses as well!”

Barker kissed her hand and then walked towards the furious man, pulling more silver from his wallet.  People were patting Emily on the back and whispering words of gratitude and encouragement.  She only heard some of it, but apparently Mr. Barker was a very important man.  He made his living in textiles, meaning he would need her expertise as a mechanic for more than just his carriage. 

Emily muttered, “It’s a miracle.”

Someone shouted from the other side of the street, “Emmy, there are easier ways to get more business than to pull a stunt like that!”

When Emily realized who that voice belonged to, the voices of the group of people around her seemed to become silent, because her heartbeat was thrumming in her ears and drowning out all other sound.  She slowly turned around.  Across the street, a thin, lanky man about thirty years old looked at her with mischievous gray blue eyes, just as she remembered them.  His wavy chestnut brown hair was just a little too long on his neck and was falling slightly into his eyes.  Still, his clothes were much nicer than his usual attire.  He was wearing a top hat and a white button up shirt and black vest.  The steam of a car in front of her blotted him out for an instant, and she almost thought when the steam overlay his image he would be a ghost, vanishing in a puff of ectoplasm, but when the steam cleared he was still there, grinning at her. 

Emily mouthed, “Victor?”

He nodded and held out his arms.  She ran across the road and rushed into them, gladly leaving her crowd of admirers behind.  She was surprised that for being so lean, he was fit enough to lift her and spin her around as though he was picking up a child. 

Victor whispered in her ear, “Emmy, it’s been far too long.”

Emily said, “I thought you weren’t coming back.  You said there were too many bad memories…”

Victor said, “At the time I thought so, but no matter where I went, I missed London.  I missed the good memories that were mixed in with the painful ones, but mostly I missed you.”

Emily blushed and turned away slightly, muttering, “I missed you too.”
            Victor said, “I see you’re as reckless as ever.  You’ve nearly given me a heart attack on the first day I’ve seen you.”

Emily grinned and glanced behind her.  Mr. Barker was still talking to the man with the injured horses.  The crowds were starting to disperse.  Still, as soon as Mr. Barker saw her, he started walking in her direction.

Victor said, “It seems your expertise is still needed.  Meet me at the Carousel Pub in an hour, and we’ll catch up on things.”

Emily said, “I’ll be there.”

With that, Victor left her staring after him, bewildered. 

Mr. Barker jogged up to her and said with a wheeze, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but how long do you think the repairs on my carriage will take?  And, about how much do you think it will be?”

Emily glanced at the carriage.  The boiler was in better condition than she expected, but the metal was still a hazard if the strain had caused any of it to become uneven, not to mention aesthetically the boiler looked like a safety hazard.  She knew that she probably could charge more for the repairs than was necessary and Mr. Barker wouldn’t know any better, but then, it was never a good business practice, and she needed all the repeat customers that she could get.

She said, “I’d say that it’s probably not as bad as it looks, but I’ll need to take a look at it in the shop before I give you an estimate for the cost or the time.  See if we can hitch some horses to it and pull it out of the road, around the back of the shop.  I’ll try to have an estimate for you by five o’clock tomorrow.”

Mr. Barker nodded and called out to a well-dressed man in an enclosed four horse carriage, holding his money purse in front of him like a flag. 

Emily thought, “Having money must be nice…

After a few words with the man and his driver, and the exchange of a few coins, Mr. Barker came back with two of the horses and hitched them to the front of his carriage while the driver of the coach followed closely behind.  Within a few minutes, the steam carriage was settled in the back of the warehouse attached to the shop, and Mr. Barker was gone, leaving Emily alone to her work and her thoughts.



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