Noel frowned at the ruined box of wires, burnt gears, clamps, and wood that lay beside Moira before he knelt down next to it. He was no stranger to explosives. Perhaps at making them, for that was beyond his abilities, save putting something to the torch. Instead, his was practical experience focused around setting them in place to be used.
During his much younger days, when he was not ferrying supplies for his father, Noel had worked in the diamond mines along the Ivory Coast as an apprentice demolition handler. Being only an apprentice, he was regularly tasked with carrying or packaging the dynamite for transport. On very rare occasions, he was allowed – under supervision – to set the deadly mix of gunpowder and nitroglycerin up for use in blasting out a new mine tunnel. Such work was not unheard of for children twenty-odd years before, in 1869. It had been hard work, but honest, and Noel had learned quite a bit.
Unfortunately, the device in front of him was far more complex than a stack of dynamite. He touched a burnt wire carefully. Noel could not see where some parts began and others ended; it was as though something much hotter than dynamite had started to slag the metal. Despite the half-melted gears, burnt wires, and the remains of a shattered pocket watch, he did find the broken shards of a glass vial tied down near two fused gears. The memory of a metal label still clung to the bottle.
“Glycerin?” he asked curiously. “This device seems overly complex to simply put nitroglycerine in it, non?”
Moira, who had been studying the small silver-trimmed brass gear Noel had found, glanced over at what had caught his attention.
“The glycerin’s not supposed to be there,” she explained. Moira turned around and squatted next to him. She pointed at the neck of the bottle. “That bottle was tied on there with a cotton-covered wire, some of the cotton’s still holdin’ on. None of them other wires are cotton-covered. They’re covered in some kinda fancy, expensive rubber.” Moira then carefully tilted the gears to expose a bit of flaky residue on the underside. “That scorin’ on those clock gears that are left? Quick, hot blast does that. A sharp flash with lots of heat. Them gears are still attached to an arm below the nitro bottle. My guess? The nitroglycerine was added a bit later and helped set off whatever was supposed to go off in here. That makes me think it went off sooner than most wanted.”
“That is why you think there were two bombers?” Noel asked, gazing at the ruined device.
“Makes me guess there was,” she replied. “Why one arsed about with the other’s bomb? That I can’t be sayin’. Maybe he didn’t like the way the first twisted his wires into place? Or maybe he didn’t think the first bugger set it up to make enough of a boom?”
Noel nodded, “Or someone wished to hurry things along, non? None of them seem a good conclusion.” he looked around with a low sigh. “What do we do from here?”
“Now, we pack this up and take it back,” Moira said, patting the ruined machine.
The pilot looked at her in amazement. “What? Why? Mon amie, it is what’s left of a bomb. Why do you want it?”
“I got a good look at that bomb in the hallway,” she explained with a faint grin, “but not once it be blown apart. This one? Sure it’s in pieces, but some of the pieces here are still mostly together.” She lightly touched a set of blackened gears. “Them parts look a lot like what I laid me eyes on in the hallway. Puttin’ it together might give me a bit of an idea around who’s doin’ this. Most inventors leave some mark in their work. Like a signature.” Moira then glanced up at the ruined pipes. “Of course that’s in between puttin’ this girl’s heart back in the right place.”
“Oui, that is fair,” Noel replied. “I will see to your keepsake here, while you keep working on what parts you will need for the repairs.”
“Much appreciated,” Moira replied, slipping the sliver-tipped gear Noel had handed her a moment ago into a pocket. Picking up her hammer and chisel, she returned to work with a vengeance. “This spot just needs a few lengths of pipe and a new collar, then we check the boiler. Good steel oughtta do the trick for most of this,” she said between clenched teeth while she yanked with effort. “I just gotta get the bloody thing loose!”
Noel had only just picked up the burnt remains when a set of footsteps echoed in the hallway outside the engine room. Moira paused in mid-swing as four men dressed as part of Britannia’s crew walked through the doorway. One wore a midshipman’s uniform, while the other three were in the basic seaman uniform of the regular crew.
The pale, thin, and wiry midshipman was a brown-haired young man with a hawk-like nose set beneath piercing amber-colored eyes. He fixed his gaze on Noel the moment he entered the room.
“You there! What are you doing?” he demanded.
“Clearing away the debris,” Noel replied warily. He did not remember being told anyone from the Britannia would be assisting them.
“Bloody hell, don’t stand about, clear the drain grates!” The midshipman snapped at the sailors. The three other men immediately dove into the mess and started clearing away debris. Putting his hands behind his back, the midshipman fixed Noel with another hard look along his thin nose.
“Journeyman Alfred Marris, acting Engineer,” the man replied curtly. “This room is my charge. I’ll not have people mucking about. Now, who sent you? Are you from that lot aboard the merchant marine vessel alongside?”
Noel and Moira exchanged a glance. The pilot – normally a jovial man – had already formed a kernal of dislike against the young journeyman. He cleared his throat; Noel felt that it was worth the effort to find a better foot to start off on.
“Yes, Journeyman, we are. I am Noel St. Claire,” the West African sailor gave a polished smile and gracious bow. “Current pilot of the Brass Griffin. With me is the enchanting and ever-inventive Mademoiselle Moira Wycliffe, engineer and blacksmith of our vessel,” he continued with a lavish wave of one hand. “At the gracious request of your Capitaine and his officers, we are here to help solve your little dilemma.”
“An African and a woman? Hm,” the man grunted. “Well, apparently you’re not paying attention … pilot,” the Journeyman said sternly. “My mentor is dead, as is the blacksmith, and we’ve lost all primary power due to these anarchists. This room is a wreck. The ‘dilemma’ is not so ‘little’.”
Moira hammered the metal pipe collar with a bit more fervor, her jaw clamped angrily shut.
Insulting little worm, Noel thought to himself. So much for starting on a better foot. Fine, he wishes to duel? So be it.
“Well, Monsieur, whether it is little or not,” the pilot replied with a broad grin, “depends on the level of skill facing the problem, along with the amount of spine to tackle it, non?”
The Journeyman turned red-faced like an overheated boiler about to explode. “What!” he sputtered.
Kneeling in the shallow water, Moira grinned and almost snickered. Instead, she dropped her hammer, which splashed loudly.
“Sorry, musta’ slipped,” she said, covering her amusement. Fishing the tool out of the water, she resumed her work pulling the damaged collar off of the boiler.
Journeyman Marris turned his angry gaze on Moira. “Watch yourself there. We’ve enough to repair.” He took a long, slow breath, then let it drain out of him. “Fine, look. We’ve a lot of work and my guild master is dead,” he said sternly. “Bickering will not bring the boilers and turbines back online. If the Captain wishes you here, then obviously you must be of some help. Before you rearrange anything, please check with me so we can work in concert on this?”
Noel, not content to let the man off easy, smiled again, spreading his arms wide as if to embrace the journeyman. “Of course Monsieur! We certainly would not dream of acting alone. When around machines, it is always best to speak with those well trained in the language of tools, Oui?”
“Glad you see it that way,” Marris replied. He half turned to walk over to where one sailor was having some trouble clearing a submerged grate of some small, twisted chunks of metal, then stopped to give Noel a sharp, angry look over the veiled insult.
The pilot smiled broadly back. He raised his eyebrows and inclined his head with a twinkle in his eye. All of which merely offset his facial tattoos, giving his face a dangerous cast in the glow of the blue-white electric arc lanterns.
The midshipman sniffed irritably, then stalked over to torment the sailor struggling with the debris.
“At least he went an’ made some kind of effort to apologize,” Moira said quietly, finally pulling the ruined collar away from the boiler. “He’s still a horse’s arse, but he could’ve been (a) right bloody wanker and given us real trouble instead of struttin’ about like a popinjay.”
“I will sooner take a pig to bed with a wet kiss before I accept that man’s apology, Mon amie,” Noel replied tartly, struggling to put the bomb’s remains into Moira’s duffel. “The man is a donkey.”
One of the sailors, a very young man with a friendly smile and freckled face, stopped to kneel down and open the duffel wider. “Oh, Journeyman Marris is a right proper sod, but his heart’s in a good place most o’ the time. Don’t let his manner fool ya.”
Noel nodded his thanks, then slipped the mess of wires, gears and frame into the bag. “Ah, then you are more perceptive than I,” he replied, “Thank you for the help. You know who we are and that your Journeyman is short on manners. You are?”
The young sailor quickly combed his tawny hair into some state of order, which only lasted a brief moment, before he thrust out his hand. “Garin Farrow. Seaman second class. Got drafted when the Journeyman caught me fannyin’ about, chattin’ with my mates.”
Noel shook his hand and Moira flashed the young man a brief grin before shoving the large metal pipe collar, easily larger around than a man’s head, at the sailor. “Good to meet ya! Here, hold this up. I need better light on the inside.”
Garin grunted, then held the heavy part up for Moira to see better. “Like that?”
“Perfect,” she said, peering on the inside. “Noel, go pull down a bit of the busted pipe above. Just need a small sheet so I know what gauge to hammer the metal to.”
“Your wish is my command, Mon amie,” Noel said with a smile. Pulling out an iron prybar with a hooked end, he moved a few steps away to wrench at the ruined water pipe.
“So,” Moira asked after a moment, “quite a mess here.”
“Right proper one,” Garin replied. “It sent a lot of people spinnin’ about.”
She withdrew a cloth from her bag, then rubbed frantically at something on the inside of the metal collar. “Passengers up in arms?”
Garin shook his head, “Oh no. First mate’s been good about keepin’ them calm about it all. Called it an ‘unfortunate accident of circumstance’.”
Moira paused and glanced up at the sailor, “Ya engineer and blacksmith were knifed in the back from what I heard. Then someone lit your engine room up afterwards. A bit much for ‘accident’.”
Garin shrugged. “Ah, I supposed he means ‘unfortunate’, cause it happened here?” he replied with a weak smile. “I’m not an officer, so’s I don’t know. I just do what I’m told.”
Moira made a wry face, then peered again on the underside of the curved metal. “Well, it’s a way to look at it. That’ll do. Put it down next to me bag; I’ll have to take that back to the Griffin so I can start makin’ a replacement. Go grab a lantern an’ help me check the boiler for cracks.”
“Aye,” the young man replied, then raced off. In moments, he returned carrying one of the clockwork-powered arc-lanterns.
Moira positioned Garin just beside the opening in the boiler, lantern held high. With both sailor and lantern put just where she wanted, she picked up her hammer then crawled partway inside the machine. Methodically she tapped the inner walls gently, moving steadily around the interior of the boiler.
“What are you on about?” Garin asked curiously.
“Lookin’ for cracks. Big ones I’ll be seein’ with that lantern shinin’ there. Smaller ones I might see once I give a tap or two on the boiler like this.” She illustrated with two firm taps that echoed dully.
“Oh,” Garin replied. “I heard the water pressure pipes were blown, so why bother with the boiler?”
“You build up pressure, not lettin’ the water run where it should. It’s bound to go everywhere and break everything. So, you gotta check it all,” she explained. A few more taps later, Moira asked, “Anyone natterin’ on about why they got knifed?”
“A word or two,” Garin said with a shrug, “Most don’t go on about it.” The young sailor glanced around, then leaned forward conspiratorially. “I’d heard the blacksmith and the engineer had themselves caught up in some skullduggery. I’d heard it was a treasure. Like gold or something.”
“Oh?” Moira paused with her next round of taps. “They were lookin’ for it?”
“No, no,” Garin replied. “Word is they already had it, but I’d heard they had a partner. And he’d be the one who killed them. Killed them and took it. I’m figurin’ it’s one of the passengers.”
“So,” Journeyman Marris said, interrupting the conversation. The young man stalked over through the shallow water with his hands clasped behind his back, his usual frown plastered on his face. He hesitated when Moira climbed out of the boiler, hammer in hand. Marris cleared his throat. “Obviously you’ve found something?”
Moira smiled politely, “Oh, you bet yer boots I have. Got a few cracks in yer boiler, so I’ll have some patches for that square away. Then there’s that collar,” she gestured at it with her hammer and shook her head. “It took a beatin’. That I’ll be makin’ all new. Though I might melt it down and make some stout patch panels for ya from it, so not to let anything go to waste. Noel’s pullin’ down some pipe for me, too. I’m thinkin’ I’ll have this one here back workin’ in a few hard hours, once the bilge has sucked the water out for us first.”
Marris nodded in thought while she spoke. When Moira finished, he gave her a curt nod. “Good enough, then. Do your best. I understand, given the limitations you’re working under, perfection’s obviously a bit out of your grasp, eh?” he smiled politely.
Seaman Farrow looked uneasy at the back-handed comment, then fidgeted from one foot to another.
Moira narrowed her eyes slightly. “Missed that, sailor. Care to check your course and come at that one again?”
The journeyman raised an eyebrow, then cleared his throat, speaking a touch more slowly. “Certainly, Miss. I understand, what with your limited experience aboard a merchant vessel such as that little one you arrived in, this might tax your … resources … shall we say? Rest assured, we’re not expecting perfection as befitting a ship of the line. I’m sure you’ve squirreled away aboard your antiquated vessel the supplies enough to patch us adequately so we can make haste to Boston for proper repairs.”
“Antiquated? Proper?” she echoed softly, before her mouth set in a thin line. “That’s what I thought ya said.”
Journeyman Marris had never seen anyone move as fast as Moria did when she swung her wooden mallet. In another moment, Alfred Marris did not see anything at all.
That is, until he awoke in the Britannia’s infirmary a few minutes later with a wide bandage around his head.