Thomas Gondolfi has started a new steampunk / alternative history series “The Monarchy of America” which he hopes to have in print by early 2020. With his permission we are dropping a small portion of the ROUGH DRAFT of the book here to tempt you along with a view of the tentative cover.
“Electric Light Fraud!” hawks a bundled-up youth with the late edition. The Boston Herald never has warmed up to Edison. I think the idea of lightning running through my house, no matter how chained, rather disturbing. No great loss.
The snow piles up in drifts grey with soot between the ruts of the cobblestone streets and against the red brick buildings. The chill of the light wind cuts through my long cloak, even with the rabbit fur around the high dog collar. The shiver stifles the yawn that had been poised on my lips. I pull the cape closer. With a long metal pole bearing a slow wick, another lad lights the gas streetlight in front of me. As he turns to race to the next lamp he nearly runs me over.
“’scuse me, Widow Ochoa.”
“Out of here, scamp,” I say swatting at him playfully. The little ones can’t know how much I hate the moniker ‘widow.’ I always associate it with someone old. At twenty-three I’m not even a spinster. Oh, I’m not young, and definitely not beautiful.
Ten hours of spelling coal byproducts from the gritty Boston skies has me wanting nothing more than to stoke the fire in my room, climb into my night dress, and bury myself under six layers of blankets for some well-deserved sleep. My pay and the widow’s pension from the Royal Treasury of King Fredrick II gives me barely enough to live at Chapman’s boarding house. With a two-hole privy and accommodations with just enough room to change my petticoats, it borders on livable. On good days, the North End stench of the fish offal and rancid whale oil from the docks doesn’t cover up the smell of Mrs. Chapman’s pickled-cabbage stew, a taste treat at which even pigs turn up their noses.
The tinny sound of bells pierce the evening air. I wince. Only the Mission Church bells carry that thin tone. Three quick strikes on the higher pitched bell indicates an alarm meant for me and my team of hell-fighters. This is the second time this month. The two-tone bells call out a Morse message. Low tone pause – T. High tone low tone high tone pause – R. High pause – E and more before the message repeats itself. Tremont Street about a mile out. Rich neighborhood.
Walking all that way in store bought shoes doesn’t appeal. Corns have already formed on the tops of my feet but I daren’t dip into my savings to get a cobbler to fix them. Hacks don’t come down here this time of the night. At this hour I might find one cruising the bars along Prince Street but I can’t stretch the coin.
As fate has it that night, a streetcar meanders down to the corner at the end of the street. I run over, being extra careful not to turn my ankle on the cobblestones or slip on the ice.
Raising my skirts and undergarments, I climb onto the running board. The vomit and muck on the trolley’s floor make me rethink my decision but the damage is already done. I envision the scrubbing time it’s going to take me to clean some previous drunk’s evening from the hems of my dress and undergarments and frown.
The driverless transport waits its prescribed thirty seconds before trundling off again. I don’t quite understand all of the reasons we don’t need a driver. Something about a pair of bumpy round cylinders, cams, they used to follow set paths. Missing the horses I understand. The earth witch in me can feel the energy stored in the massive metal springs in the thick ceiling above me.
The trams are free, if a bit finicky. Sometimes they stop and never restart. Once I saw one turn in a circle and kept turning. It took three engineers to get that one stopped and back on track.
The only other passenger, a bookkeeper from his looks, dressing in the bare minimum society requires of his station, sits across from me. His black breeches have seen too much lye soap. He wears a leather coat patched eight times more than a stumblebum might wear, and a dress shirt fraying at the cuffs and collar. Turning toward me, he says, “Them bells sound’n’ off ‘gain. Must be mean’n’ ‘nother demon on the loose.” He runs a finger inside the stiff collar neck of a shirt that may have at one time been fashionable in France, but nowhere else.
I try and stay out of conversations with men as a general rule but especially on a tram. Besides I have my work cut out for me as the person who left the glorious trail of after-excessive-drinking seems to have doused the entire floor. I lift my hem from the mess, knowing the cause is lost already.
“Oh, this here trolley is going right up where the hellfighters is gonna be.”
“How do you know about that?” I ask. “I mean, I know, but –”
“Don’t need no book learnin’ to understand them bells, Mum. Theys installing them right after the Demon Fire of ’72. I hears them so much I figures out right quick what they means. That there low bell is a T,” he said, making out the bells that continued to ring until all of my fellow hellfighters arrive. “And that there is an R. Puts ‘em all together an’ you got Tremont.”
His statement requires no response so I try to ignore the man so I might get a nap on the way out. I lean back and close my eyes.
“Maybes you lookin’ fer a man?”
“What?” I ask sitting up with a start. I don’t need a book keeper or any anyone else pawing at me.
“Thems hell-fighters makes a good livin’. Not like no hack driver or no bookkeeper neither. I hears some of the high born ladies say theys mighty fine lookin’, too.”
“No. I assure you I am not looking for a husband. As a widow I’ve had quite enough men for this lifetime and probably the next.”
“Youse don’t look old enough to be no widow woman. But then the Irish Rebellion did chew up lots o’ men. Is that where you lost yourn?”
I try not to think about my husband Aaron, dead only five years. It seems like he just stepped out for a pint yet five long years separated us. “Yes. He died at Termonbarry.”
“Lots of good men went to St. Peter at that place. Did they ever find out who summoned that demon? Survivors tell stories that don’t match. English, Irish, American. Me, I think us Americans and the Irish gave them bloody Brits just a bit too much steel to—”
“Will you please be quiet?” I say giving just a little too much snap to my voice.
Aaron, my massive Moor. Had I loved him for even a hundred years it wouldn’t have been enough. My husband’s loss in that cauldron of death, Ireland, left a charred spot in my soul bigger than their entire accursed country.
Oddly, as a girl growing up, I’d never held any fascination for boys or men. Girls around me, especially Karie, giggled and wondered what matching their parents might make for them. With one exception, I found the male sex beastly at best and demonic at worst. I would go a long way around the carriage house to avoid talking to one. My mother, the reigning goddess of all knowledge about the stronger sex, despairs at my lack of interest. While not part of royalty, my mother always adopts an air eight stages better than her station in life. Back in my youth she insisted I have a coming out party and engage with the Boston socialites. Never had so much money been spent on so little outcome. By the end of my fifteenth year I’d danced with ten young gentlemen, received one young man (who got his instep spiked by my heel when he attempted to put his arm around me in the buggy) and shockingly no proposals.
I see the red of fires glowing to the northwest but still no definitive location as the tram rolls up the empty street of Tremont past Dartmouth.
A green delivery trailer with gold stencil proclaiming “Dunne’s Butchers” flies across the street. I mean flies, not just moving swiftly. It smashes against a brownstone like a china cup dropped on the floor. Splinters and gobs of meat rain down. This is the sign I’ve been waiting for. I pull the trolley exit cord. The tram rattles to a stop.
“Youse sure you be wantin’ to get out here, widow woman?” the bookkeeper says from his hunched over place beneath the edge of the tram’s window.
“Yes. Thank you for your concern. This is definitely my stop,” I say as a horse, minus its head, follows the delivery trailer against the wall with a gory sound of a wet slip slammed against a washboard.
“Go with God then, Miss Widow.”
Ignoring the simpering fool, I manage to exit the tram without further damage to my skirts. A steam-wheezing, brass-and-steel, self-propelled monstrosity misses running me over by a whisker. Its huge broom sweeps up the snow and horse apples in front of it. The simpleminded machine puffs and scrubs down the lane toward the source of the chaos and likely its own demise.
Over the top of the machine I see the flaming visage of a demon’s face, twisted and contorted in rage. With skin the texture and color of a pig roasted overlong on a spit and beady crimson eyes set deep in its skull, it masses the same as thirty stout men. Its great ram-like horns reach the middle of the nearby building’s second floor. I can feel the waves of anger and fury boiling off the hell spawn as bursts of heat.
At least it is a large beast. That means a short night. The larger the demon the weaker and stupider that it is. Those brutes have to put a show on about how impressive they are in size rather than what they can do. The ones you fear are those the size of a child – tricky and powerful enough to melt your flesh from your bones.
The horned beast holds a pram like a child might hold a marble. I whisper a prayer to Saint Nicholas that no babe is inside as the evil creature crushes the stroller between its forefinger and thumb. As all demons, it rejoices in the death and destruction torn from our world. It laughs in a deep, tone that sends shivers down the spine.
But I am its antithesis.
I bend over and pick up a small bit of cobblestone that has withstood the street sweeper. Popping it into my mouth I march toward the maelstrom. The earth witch in me feels the orderly structure of the stonework. I taste gritty, acrid clay interspersed with the minute flavors of pig offal, spilled flour, slivers of rust, fragments of store candy, and remnants of manure.
Every time I attempt to describe the symbiosis of witchcraft I fail. I don’t steal another’s power. I don’t get filled with its essence. Instead I feel the living entity of the street below me. Its energy and mine merge together in a swirl like that of a baker creating a cinnamon roll. It doesn’t fill me, but we share a portion of our spirit. And like that sweet treat, we become more than our components. No longer am I just sugar, cinnamon, or dough. I am more.
A whistle of agony broke my communion. Two great fists crush down the top of the mindless cleaning machine. Its tarnished pressure vessel spews its power into sound and a jet of steam. The evil beast throws his head back from the superheated water with a bellow even though it can’t possibly hurt him. After the flinch it tears the street sweeper into two uneven pieces, stopping the device’s death throws. It picks up the smaller piece, only the size of an oxen team, and looks around for a target. Its fiery eyes lock onto mine.