Clouds, rich with the promise of snow, were spread out overhead like ghostly fingers wrapping around the sky. On the station’s dock, the gun fight only proved to be a momentary distraction. Passersby who had reasonably taken cover to watch the fight between the three shipmates from the Brass Griffin and the dockside gang slowly returned to work as the excitement died off.
Fifteen yards away aboard the Brass Griffin, Thorias tugged at the canvas medical bag slung over his shoulder, then adjusted his gray woolen frock coat in a futile attempt to stave off the cold. He rushed out the door of his tiny doctor’s office and over to the ladder that spilled out to the deck above. Tonks Wilkerson, dressed in a ragged brown long coat over his vest, white shirt and trousers, was already there, waiting for him.
“I heard gunshots,” The doctor said with a determined look.
“That ya did,” Tonks said casually. “Nothing to worry with. Just the Cap’n and the rest gettin’ acquainted with the locals.”
Dr. Llwellyn glanced up the ladder, then back to Tonks, who kept his arm resting on the ladder, barring the doctor’s way. Tonks shook his head.
“Don’t even consider it,” The pilot said, “besides, I already checked. They were tossed about, but only the dock rats that came after them are leavin’ battered and bloody. If you go rushing out there to bandage someone, most likely someone will see ya, and it’ll be harder to lose anyone who tries to follow us.”
The doctor let out an exasperated sigh, “I know. It’s instinct at this point. Hippocratic Oath and all that. I’ll try to keep it in check.”
Tonks nodded, “good ta hear. Save it up for when we find them missin’ people. Odds are, they’ll need the attention the most. Lets get up there and take a look about.”
At the top of the ladder on the main deck of the ship, a sharp, cold wind picked up, racing along the deck to jerk at everyone in its path. Rigging shivered, and even the ship’s gas bag looked a little deflated from the icy temperature.
Thorias blew on his hands to keep them warm. “Confound it, I forgot my gloves. It wasn’t quite this cold at the last station we stopped at.”
“I didn’t notice. The sight of all them zombies runnin’ about kept me blood up enough to keep any chill away,” Tonks quipped dryly. The pilot walked from the hatch to the railing, and looked around at the activity along the dock and the boardwalk beyond. Dr. Llwellyn followed a moment later.
“Anything?” Thorias asked, while trying to appear casual while leaning against the railing, rubbing his cold hands together.
Tonks frowned while he casually seemed to take in the scenery, “not so much a twitch.” Suddenly, the corners of the pilot’s mouth turned up in a sly smile. “Ah, then again. Oh, he’s a clever bugger, that one.”
“What?” The doctor asked, starting to turn around to look.
Tonks subtly tapped the doctor on the elbow to stop him. “No, don’t look. Last we want is for him to realize we’ve found his hiding place.”
“How do we know he’s watching us?” Thorias asked. “He could just be watching the ship, or any of the ships along here.”
Tonks stuffed his gloved hands into his coat pockets. “Just a feelin’. He’s got himself tucked back between some crates and the shadow of a warehouse. He’s a thin bloke, almost gangly. Nothing too remarkable, looks like he’s just standing about, waiting for his mates or just passin’ the day by. The way I figure it, he’d be warmer over in that patch of sunlight and out of that cold shadow, not to mention I caught him glancing our way.”
The doctor nodded ever so slightly, then resumed lounging against the railing. “Surely he sees us, how will we get off the ship?”
“Its for sure he’s seen us by now,” the pilot admitted, his thoughts turning rapidly like a well-oiled clockwork drill. Tonks’ eyes scanned over the boardwalk where small, scattered groups of pedestrians walked briskly on their way in the chilly air.
Suddenly, the crash and clank of metal caught his attention. To his left, on the dock where they were moored, a team of five men were unloading a stack of lumber and crates from a neighboring cargo ship. Amid the men lumbered a C.A.S.S., or Clockwork Augmentations Suit, a dangerous device resembling the nightmarish brass and steel skeleton of giant.
Sitting inside the ribcage of the vehicle, bundled up in a warm coat, a dock worker was strapped by his arms and legs to the corresponding limbs of the device. Casually, the worker flexed his own arms and in turn the device responded, pulling the crate to him. Then with expert control he flexed his legs, causing the ungainly vehicle to turn neatly around without toppling over. Once he faced the boardwalk, he began his noisy trek to deliver the crate where others like it had already been placed.
As the clockwork-powered skeleton lumbered away, a steam-powered loading crane trundled up in its place on spidery metal legs and squatted down. Officially sold under the name ‘Multi-Articulated Ambulatory Crane’ – or MAAC for short – it was a common fixture where cargo ship’s moored. Once the MAAC had settled into place, a gaunt dock worker with a handlebar mustache reached down to manipulate a pair of levers on the back of the device.
No sooner had he done so, a metal hatch popped open allowing a long metal arm that ended in a metal, vulture-like claw to rise up and extend. Using this, the man was able to pick up a bound stack of lumber from the cargo ship and deposit it onto the pier.
Tonks turned and grinned at the doctor.
Thorias raised an eyebrow, “you’ve an idea?”
“Close enough to one. We’ll just blend in,” the pilot replied, pushing away from the railing, “follow me.”
“‘Blend in’?” Thorias echoed, staring at Tonk’s retreating form in amazement. “We’re on an ice cold dock, three miles above the North Sea. Blend in with what? Icelandic gulls?”
When the pilot’s only answer was another grin, obviously meant to be reassuring, the doctor rolled his eyes and quickly fell in step.
The pair made their way down the gangplank, then onto the dock proper. Thorias stopped once he reached the bottom, but Tonks kept walking. He kept his brisk pace until he reached the knot of workers.
The five men only briefly glanced at Tonks, preferring to remain engrossed in their work of unloading the lumber. Without a word, Tonks hefted one end of a stack of boards, and a charybdian man, bundled up in a heavy woolen coat, grabbed the other.
Dr. Llwellyn quickly joined the group as Tonks and the dock worker shifted the boards to their shoulders for ease of carrying.
“Grab some boards Thorias, lets give these lads a hand,” Tonks said cheerfully. “Better to get ‘em out of the cold.”
Thorias glanced at the growing stack of wood, then back to Tonks as the full implication of the idea around ‘blend in’ dawned upon him.
“Certainly. It’s not fit for man or beast out here,” the doctor admitted, squatting down to grab the end of another stack of wood.
One of the dock hands, a burly man topped with a bright orange-yellow woolen cap and wrapped in a woolen great coat grinned broadly, “Aw, its quite all right ‘guv. Ya get used to it. We appreciate the help, though. Me name’s Henry.”
The doctor smiled, “well, it’s pleasant to meet you, Henry. I’m Thorias.”
“Ready?” Henry asked.
Thorias nodded, and the two men lifted the ten-foot long boards, carrying them in tandem to the end of the dock. As Henry and Thorias dropped the lumber onto the growing stack of wood, Tonks, who was standing nearby, glanced over his shoulder towards the shadowy corner where he had first spotted their observer.
Unfortunately, a stack of crates blocked the pilot’s view of the man that had been watching them. Henry walked past Tonks to the end of the dock, just out of earshot, leaving the two alone for a moment.
“One trip, maybe two, ought to take care of it,” Tonks admitted to the doctor, “then he’ll be bored enough to stop watching.”
“Just what are ya two blokes playin’ at?” Henry asked suspiciously, catching them both unawares when he walked over to them. “Like I told ya, we appreciate the help, but it be as plain as the sun above that yer both dealin’ in a bit of mischief.” Henry folded his arms over his chest. “So, out with it, or I get the dockmaster.”