I stepped down from the hansom cab into an ankle-deep slush of snow, soot, and horse leavings, exactly what my boots needed this morning. “Sorry about that, miss,” said the cabby.
“It’s all right.” With the snow piled in the gutter, he couldn’t have pulled close enough for me to step directly to the sidewalk. I handed him my fare before pulling free of the slush, hopping up onto the clean pavement, and scraping my feet clean against each other. The cabby tipped his hat to me but didn’t give me his usual smile. His face looked more careworn than normal, with dark circles under his eyes. I wondered if something was wrong, but I didn’t ask. I didn’t even know his name, and I doubted he’d appreciate me prying into his private life. I turned away as he clicked his tongue at his horse and drove on down the street.
“Excuse me, miss,” said someone behind me, and I sidestepped to let a shopkeeper drag a bright-colored display rack onto the sidewalk outside his door. It was about half past seven, and the city was just waking up. I liked starting my day early. In summer, I usually walked to work and watched the shops open on my way, but the chilly winds and lack of sunlight this time of year made taking a cab far more appealing.
“Morning paper, fresh off the press,” called a voice from overhead. Fairy wings buzzed above the streetlamp, glittering as they caught the light, and I flicked a penny in that direction. I heard the paper-boy’s fingers snap it out of the air. He was getting better at catching.
“Morning, Pip,” I said as the fairy boy dropped into the circle of light cast by the streetlight.
“Morning, Miss Beka.” He landed with a thump and tucked the penny into the pouch around his neck. He’d been growing this winter: he’d match my admittedly unimpressive height if he stopped slouching. I noticed that he’d added mustard-colored fingerless gloves to his usual getup. They clashed with his faded puce jacket and made him look grubbier than usual.
“Let’s have it, then,” I said. “I don’t want to be late for work.”
“You’re an hour early, Miss Beka,” he said with a smile, but he dug a rolled copy of the Eastern Informer from his satchel and handed it over. “It’s all full of that Lord Donovan’s fancy talk,” he said. “Not worth a penny, if you ask me.”
“Maybe not,” I agreed. I tucked the paper under my arm and added, “But be careful who you say that to.” Most people liked Lord Donovan’s “fancy talk,” and most people wouldn’t want to hear a fairy’s opinion about it. Pip would get in trouble one of these days if he kept saying whatever popped into his head.
The antennae above Pip’s pointed ears twitched. He opened his mouth, then thought better of whatever he meant to say. “You might meet my sister today, Miss Beka,” he said instead. “She’s in there right now.” He nodded toward my office.
“I hope nothing’s wrong?” Most people avoided police offices unless they had something to report, but Pip didn’t look upset or worried.
“Oh, no, ma’am, nothing’s wrong!” Pip grinned from ear to ear. “She heard they were hiring a driver for their new motor-car, that’s all. She’s interviewing.”
“Your sister’s a driver?”
His grin somehow managed to stretch wider. “Ma doesn’t think they’ll look twice at a girl, but I bet they’ll hire her. She’s the best driver from her class, you know, and if they let girls — I mean, women — be investigators like you, they shouldn’t have any problem with a girl driver.”
“They shouldn’t,” I agreed. That didn’t mean they wouldn’t, of course. As far as I knew, I was the only woman in the Royal Investigative Service who’d made the step from glorified desk clerk to proper field agent, and it had taken me several years to convince the chief I could manage the job.
“Well, I look forward to meeting her,” I told Pip. Maybe I’d put in a good word for her, just on principle; an agent’s recommendation might give her a real chance of being taken seriously.
Pip tugged the brim of his shapeless cap. “Have a good day, Miss Beka,” he said, then sprang back into the air. His wings spread in a humming silvery blur behind him, and he darted away up the street.
I didn’t linger any longer: the air was biting cold and the wind was picking up. I hoped it wouldn’t snow. We never got more than three or four inches of snow at once, but that was three or four inches too much for my liking. I crossed the dark street, dodging two handcarts and a huge steam-powered motor-car, and emerged into another pool of light outside the offices of the Dreth Branch of the Royal Investigative Service. That title was displayed on an impressive gilded sign over the door, but the building itself was small and unassuming, built of stained red brick.
I walked carefully up the icy steps. The bent old doorman tipped his hat, gave me a sunny smile, and opened the door for me. “A very good morning to you, Agent Finley.”
“Morning, Mr. Turpin.” I returned his smile. Some of my fellow agents still called me Miss Finley, but the doorman never forgot to use my proper title. He never neglected to give me a bright smile, either. It amazed me that someone with such painful, swollen joints and such a dull, thankless job could remain cheerful all the time.
Inside, the first floor of the building was dim and silent. One gas-lamp burned beside a desk near the door, and a vaguely familiar file-sorter glanced up at me as I passed. We nodded to each other — he looked as if he hadn’t gotten much sleep — and he went back to digging through his file cabinet while I wove my way through the maze of empty desks.
I shook out the newspaper as I walked. The single lamp behind me didn’t cast enough light for me to read, but I could make out the large photograph of Lord Lester Donovan the Third beaming at me from the front page. He wore a shiny top hat and a magnificent pair of sideburns that framed a clean, square jaw. I couldn’t deny he was a fine-looking gentleman, even if he was at least fifty, but he always smiled too much. Nobody could smile that often and really mean it.
The lamps were already burning in the staircase at the back of the building. I glanced at the front-page headline as I went up: “Lord Donovan Promises Better Pay for Dreth Workers.” He was always promising things like that for our city, but never delivering. He’d have a hard time delivering if the rumors about his financial troubles were true. There was probably no point in reading his speech. It would be the usual stirring words that made people feel good but didn’t fix anything.
Upstairs, an open office space filled the back half of the building, with several doors leading into smaller rooms toward the street. The lamps on one side of the office were lit, but the space still felt dim and almost cozy. The noises of the street were muffled: the only sounds were the groan of a shifting pipe, the creak of the shutters as the wind pressed against them, and the bubbling of the coffee-pot and the tea-kettle sitting on their two little gas burners in the corner. I paused to take a deep breath of the rich coffee smell, then crossed to my desk, which stood at the border between light and shadow. I took off my cap, and a dozen red curls seized the chance to escape their pins and fall down around my face.
The door to the water closet opened. Donovan stepped out, drying his hands on a blue kerchief, and raised an eyebrow at me.
“I’m not that early,” I said. I was usually the first agent to arrive. It felt strange to come in and find someone else upstairs. “And you have no room to talk; you’re even earlier.”
“My neighbor decided to start repairing his roof at six o’clock in the morning,” said Donovan. I would have been irritated by such a rude awakening, but he seemed vaguely amused. He poured two mugs of coffee and brought me one. “Do you always get here this early?”
I nodded. “The apartment next-door to mine belongs to a pair of sisters who find something new to squabble about over breakfast every morning. It’s quieter here.”
“I’ll leave you in quiet, then,” said Donovan. He returned to his desk; it was only a few feet away, but he was in the area of bright light cast by the gas-lamps, while my desk lay in twilight. It almost felt as if we were in separate rooms. I settled back in my chair and sipped my coffee. As usual, Donovan had brewed it strong and bitter enough to strip paint off a wall.
The hot drink woke up my stomach, which started growling. I pulled a little kerchief-wrapped package from my pocket and unfolded it. When I walked to work, I usually bought breakfast from a bakery I passed on the way, but taking a cab meant making do with whatever Mrs. Warbler served her boarders. My landlady wasn’t a very imaginative cook, and breakfast was the same most mornings. Still, there was nothing wrong with toast and fried ham to start the day.
As I ate, I eyed the stack of paperwork waiting on my desk. It seemed to have multiplied over the weekend. I shifted a few of the papers around, considered doing something about them, then spread the newspaper to hide the whole pile. Lord Donovan’s smarmy grin didn’t improve the view. I glanced up at Investigative Agent Donovan, who had the same strong features and aquiline nose as his father, but without the smile. The thoughtful frown he was currently aiming at his desk looked both more lordly and more trustworthy than his father’s toothy grin.
He must have felt me watching him; he glanced up and gave me a questioning look.
“Just thinking.” I flipped past the front page in search of something more interesting than Lord Donovan’s most recent blather. The top article on the second page was titled “Haverport Hive Sale.” That caught my attention: none of the dragon hives had changed hands in my lifetime. I smoothed the paper and read eagerly:
The fate of Haverport Dragon Hive has been in question since Lord Ethan Haverport declared bankruptcy last month, but his lordship has finally revealed that he intends to sell the hive and has already selected a buyer.
Lord Haverport’s finances have reached a desperate enough state that he is being forced to sell several of his most valuable assets, including his historic manor, his silver-mining interests, and the dragon hive which his family has owned for six generations. “Well, it’s not ideal,” said Lord Haverport when asked about the decision to sell. “Believe me, I wouldn’t give up the hive if I had any other choice.”
When asked about the potential buyers for the hive, Lord Haverport admitted that the other eastern hive owners all made lucrative offers. “Lord Donovan was particularly keen to have it,” he explained, “but Brenton Elsmoore offered a better deal. Honestly, I was a bit surprised he came out ahead, but I won’t complain!” The sale will be finalized at the end of the week, making the Elsmoore Corporation the first company ever to own two dragon hives.
There would be repercussions from the sale — and messes for us to clean up, as likely as not. Anything that turned political tended to fall into the Royal Investigators’ laps. But I’d worry about that when it happened.
I flicked through the rest of the paper. “Promising New Coal Mine” was probably just wishful thinking. They’d been digging holes in the hills for centuries but never finding much. Keldane must have been last in line when natural resources were handed out: we had the dragon hives, of course, but most of the coal, iron, and silver that fueled modern industry had to be imported from Dothan and Arborna.
I skipped past “Celia Donovan Hosting Bell City Charity Ball,” then paused at “Fairy Children Killed in New Elsmoore Factory.” Ever since its grand opening last month, that factory had been plagued with accidents, so many that I’d started wondering if they were really accidents. I glanced through the story: three children had been killed and two injured when the machinery malfunctioned and entrapped them.
I frowned at a quote from Lord Donovan: “Mr. Elsmoore’s disregard for his workers’ safety should not be allowed to continue. It’s deeply concerning that last week’s incident didn’t prompt any new precautions that could have prevented these deaths.” For once, I actually agreed with his lordship, though I had a feeling he only offered his sympathy to make his rival look bad.
“Though the dead may be ‘only fairies,’” the article concluded, “let us not forget that they are also innocent children, young lives needlessly snuffed out by the negligence of the corporate structure, leaving behind parents and siblings who will feel their loss as keenly as any human family.” I glanced at the byline: sure enough, the article was written by Connie Searden. A lot of people disliked her for taking the side of fairies in so many of her articles, but just as many people called her a hero. I figured she was simply trying to cause a sensation; reporters thrived on controversy, after all.
Footsteps hurried up the stairs, and a moment later the chief burst into view, red-faced and disheveled. “Oh, thank Ardevan you’re already here,” he puffed as he crossed the room toward us. “It’s unnatural, you know, showing up early for work on a Oneday morning. Not that I’m complaining.” He pulled off his hat and ran a hand through his thinning hair, then stepped over to the corner table and poured himself a cup of tea. “There’s been an incident out on Barrigan, about halfway between here and Bell City.”
From the way he said “incident,” I knew he meant “crash.” A shiver ran down my back, and I felt myself beginning to tense up. Barrigan Line was the main railroad track that connected Dreth to Bell City. It ran almost perfectly straight across level farmland, with no dangerous curves, no trees to fall across the tracks, nothing to cause a crash. A scheduling error might have caused two trains to collide, but it seemed unlikely.
“It wasn’t an accident,” I concluded.
The chief gave me a sharp look over the rim of his cup. “We don’t know that.”
“What do we know?” asked Donovan.
“Not much.” The chief turned his cup nervously between his hands. He was the sort of man who seemed permanently flustered, but this was different. He looked truly worried this time. “There was an explosion. We don’t know if it was the engine, or if they were carrying some sort of dangerous cargo.”
Donovan gave me a concerned glance. He knew my feelings about train crashes. I’d seen the aftermath of the infamous Station Crash six years ago, when a passenger train plowed into a crowded platform up in Bell City.
But a cargo train was different. There wouldn’t be any passengers. We wouldn’t have to spend the morning digging survivors out of the wreckage or counting corpses. I gave the ghost of a reassuring smile; I’d be fine.
Donovan looked at me for a second longer, then nodded. That was something I appreciated about working with him: when I told him I could do something, he accepted it without question.
The chief was still talking, oblivious to our exchange. “I’ve sent half a dozen telegraphs in the past half hour, trying to find out whose train it was and what it was carrying, but I don’t have any answers yet. You’ll have to work it out when you get there.” He ran a hand over his bald patch again, then looked at me almost pleadingly. “You know about trains, don’t you, Agent Finley? Haven’t you studied old crash investigations?”
I had only studied the Station Crash, but I nodded. “I know a little.”
“Good. That’s good. Now you’d best hurry out and see what’s going on. Take the motor-car.”
“It’s arrived?” said Donovan.
“Came over the weekend,” said the chief. “Ugly great thing, but it’s fast, and that’s what counts.” He looked at his pocket-watch. “They were supposed to hire a driver first thing this morning; they should have someone picked by now. Downstairs, interview room.” He waved us away, then hurried past us and opened the door to his office. The door slammed behind him, and I thought I heard the beep and click of his telegraph machine.
I put my cap back on and shoved my wayward curls up under the brim, then buckled my gun and baton to my belt. I doubted I’d need to use either, but they were symbols of authority. People might ignore the badges pinned to my jacket and hat, but nobody ignored a revolver.
I watched a bit enviously as Donovan clipped his own weapons to his jacket belt. His revolver was a sleek silver-chased work of art, far superior to mine. He also carried a pair of wands, narrow rods of dragon bone about a foot long, each with a wooden handle inset with a rotating silver ring. Donovan’s noble blood gave him some control of magic, nothing like what fairies could do, but more than an ordinary human like me could ever manage.
I consoled myself with the fact that I was a better shot than Donovan, especially when he used magic. Wand-blasts might be impressive, but I had a better chance of hitting what I aimed at.
Donovan put on his cap as well, then tilted his head toward the stairs.
I nodded: I was ready. We went down to the main office space. There were more lights now, and several people had arrived at their desks. We crossed the room to a side door that stood half open to reveal a severe-looking man sitting at a wooden table. I didn’t know him, but his pursed lips and critical eyes didn’t give me a good first impression. I pushed the door fully open; on the other side of the table sat half a dozen young fairies, all looking nervous and hopeful.
“We need the motor-car,” said Donovan.
The interviewer shook his head. “I haven’t had time to test any of them yet, sir. We started later than I intended.”
“Pick one,” said Donovan.
I held up a pacifying hand. “This can be the test. If it doesn’t work out, we’ll try someone else.”
“Miss, that’s not how this works. There’s a process in these sorts of—”
“Agent,” I said.
I tapped the badge pinned to my jacket. “We need the car immediately.”
The interviewer frowned and glanced toward Donovan, who nodded. The man’s frown deepened. “Well, if I must pick without conducting proper interviews. . .” His eyes moved toward the oldest boy, who had a humorless face and a stiff collar pushing his chin up.
“You.” I pointed to the single girl, sitting straight and attentive at the end of the row.
She jumped slightly. “Me?”
“You’re a licensed driver, right?”
“Yes, ma’am.” She thrust a hand into her pocket and held up a metal tag stamped with a sketchy shape that might have been a motor-car.
“Let’s go, then.” I watched the interviewer’s irritated expression from the corner of my eye and tried not to feel too satisfied about stepping on his proverbial toes.
“Yes, ma’am!” The girl sprang to her feet and saluted like a boy, tugging the brim of her hat. It was a battered messenger’s cap, slightly too large for her and clearly meant for a boy; I wondered if it belonged to someone else. A sweetheart, maybe?
The interviewer stood as well. “Miss, I’m not sure this girl—”
“I am.” His condescending tone made me even more sure. I beckoned the girl to follow us, then turned back to the main room.
Donovan eyed the girl critically, but not with the instinctive disapproval the interviewer had showed. I certainly saw nothing to disapprove of: she was clean and respectable-looking, with an air of determination and intelligence about her. She looked a lot like Pip, with the same round face, snub nose, and ridges of purplish scales along her cheekbones.
“What’s your name?” I asked as we crossed the room.
Donovan raised an amused eyebrow. It was an odd name, but it fit her well enough: she was pretty, in a girlish way, and she might even be beautiful in a few years.
“What about you, ma’am?” Pretty asked. “And sir? Should I just call you Agents, or what’s the proper way to talk to you?”
“He’s Agent Donovan; I’m Agent Finley. Beka Finley.”
“Wait, I think my brother knows you!” said Pretty. “He’s so proud a proper investigative agent always buys his paper. He calls you Miss Beka. I should remind him to say Agent Beka instead.”
I smiled slightly. Pairing my title with my first name sounded strange, but I appreciated the sentiment. We turned through the door at the back of the building, into the old stable that had stood empty since we retired the horse and its battered old coach a few weeks ago. Now the narrow space held the new motor-car looming in the darkness, lit only by the stripe of lamplight falling through the open door behind us.
The machine was nowhere near as large as the steam-coach cars I was used to seeing. I’d heard all about dragon-bone engines, of course, and I’d seen a handful of the new motor-cars on the streets over the past few months, but I’d never been this close to one.
“Oh, it’s the improved design,” said Pretty. “With the carbide lamps.” She bent down and opened one of the car’s headlamps, then glanced around and spotted the box of matches on a nearby shelf. She lit the lamps quickly, using only one match, then turned to beam at us. “I’m ready when you are, Agents! You won’t regret picking me!”
“Let’s go, then.” Donovan didn’t unbend enough to smile at her, but I spotted the slight crinkle at the corner of his eyes. He liked her enthusiasm, even if he wouldn’t say so outright.
“Yes, sir!” Pretty pulled on a pair of mustard-yellow fingerless gloves that matched Pip’s. Whoever had knitted them wasn’t much good at it. She adjusted her oversized cap, then sprang up into the driver’s box. “Where to, sir?”
“North along Barrigan Line,” I said as Donovan opened the back door for me. The inside of the motor-car was arranged like a carriage, with two benches facing each other and a window separating the passengers from the driver. The whole space smelled like new leather. I chose the seat in the back, so I could see through the front window past Pretty’s head. Donovan sat across from me and shut the door.
In front, Pretty turned around just far enough to give us a bright, almost cheeky grin through the dividing window. “I’m a good driver,” she said. “You can count on me.” The tips of her antennae twitched up and down, nodding in time with her words.
Pretty set her hand on the long lever that stuck up beside her. Most of it was coated with leather, but I glimpsed bare dragon bone at the end, almost hidden by her fingers. “It’ll take a few seconds to build the charge,” she said. She frowned in concentration, and the temperature dropped sharply. My breath misted in the air, and I shivered and fastened the top button of my jacket.
I’d never seen a dragon-bone engine at work, but I knew enough about magic to understand what was happening. Dragons had so much magic in them that their bones continued absorbing energy after death. Pretty was controlling that process, guiding the engine bones to collect a great deal of energy to convert into motion. And the easiest way to collect that much energy was to steal heat from the air around the engine. My fingers started going numb, and I put on my gloves. They were wonderfully warm fleece-lined leather, but they were stained and wearing thin from years of use. I knew I should probably replace them, but they’d been a gift from my father before he died.
“There we go!” said Pretty. The engine coughed to life, and the whole car started humming around me. It was a gentle, polite sort of vibration, nothing like the rattling roar of steam-powered motor-cars and trains.
The car squeezed down the alley between our office and the next building, then pulled out into the street, slowly at first, then faster as a path opened through the pedestrians and horse-drawn cabs. The sky was changing from deep blue to dusky violet, but the streets were still dark. We’d have about five hours of bright twilight today, but this far north, proper sunrise wouldn’t come for another two weeks.
“I’m so glad these motor-cars were invented,” said Pretty. I couldn’t see her face now, but I saw the tips of her antennae dancing above her head, and I knew she was still smiling. “It’s a really good job. It’s not dangerous like the factories, and you don’t even need to be very good at magic. Just keep changing all the collected energy into motion; it’s not so hard. My Pa works one of those new dragon-bone trains, and he says it’s hard to keep the magic in balance with so many bones in the engines, but — but I’m chattering too much, aren’t I? Ma always tells me I should be more careful what comes out of my mouth, especially when I’m talking to my betters. Begging your pardon. I hope I haven’t talked out of turn.”
She turned her head and gave us such an anxious look that I couldn’t help smiling. “It’s all right. But your Ma’s right; you should be careful. Plenty of people would prefer their driver to sit quiet.” I didn’t mind her chatter, but some of the other agents might complain, and that would give the interviewer an excuse to hire one of the boys instead.
Our motor-car’s tires squealed as we turned the corner onto Barrigan Lane, the road that ran parallel to the train line. We passed North Station. The morning passenger train to Bell City should have left by now, but it was still parked alongside the platform, with the locomotive hissing and steaming impatiently. People rushed back and forth across the platform, and I heard at least two men shouting angrily in the time it took us to leave the station behind.
We drove through the last rows of town-houses and past the city limits. Pretty shifted the lever, and the motor-car picked up speed. The temperature dropped further, and my nose and cheeks started going numb. We roared up the straight, empty lane with the light of the headlamps rushing ahead of us. I fought the urge to brace myself against the bench. I’d travelled faster in trains, but the speed was more noticeable in such a small vehicle. The chief had said the crash was halfway between Bell City and Dreth: that meant we had nearly fifteen miles to go, but at this rate, we’d cover the distance in less than half an hour.
Donovan took his hat off despite the cold and ran a hand over his short blond hair to smooth it. His brows drew together, shadowing his eyes so they looked more black than grey, and he ran his thumb slowly back and forth along the brim of his hat where it sat on his lap. He was probably trying to guess what had happened to the cargo train. A train wouldn’t simply fall off a straight track, even if it was moving too fast. That left two options: malfunction or sabotage.
I found myself tapping my fingers rapidly against my knees. Back in the office, my mind had leapt to the possibility of sabotage, but I tried not to let that option settle too firmly into my head. “If we leap to conclusions, we’ll only find what we’re expecting,” I said quietly, and Donovan looked up at me and nodded agreement. It was a warning we’d both heard at least a hundred times during training.
The Royal Investigators who were called to the scene of the Station Crash six years ago had ignored that warning. I’d read their reports so many times I had sections memorized. They’d blamed the crash on engine malfunction, even though they never found anything wrong with the locomotive. They’d simply decided it must be an accident and never looked for another cause. I didn’t intend to repeat their mistake.
We sat quietly for a few minutes. My mind started producing grisly images of what we might find at our destination. There were no passengers, but a cargo train still had a crew. If the engine had exploded, anyone aboard the locomotive—
I stopped that line of thought before it could unnerve me too much. At least nothing had exploded at the Station Crash. The locomotive had skipped the rails and plowed into the platform, dragging the coal tender and the first two passenger cars with it. The coupling between the second and third cars had snapped, so all the fatalities had been in the first two cars and on the platform.
My mother and I had arrived at the platform after the worst was over. We hadn’t seen any of the crushed bodies or the people impaled by splinters of the platform. We’d only seen wreckage, panicking crowds, and shouting constables. And later, the row of shrouded forms laid out behind the station house, and one pale dead face uncovered for us to identify.
Mother hadn’t said anything. She’d gone as pale as Father’s corpse and turned away. I was the one who told the constables his name and signed their report so we could take him home.
I jumped and looked up at Donovan, feeling guilty for letting my thoughts run away with me. Of course it was natural for this assignment to remind me of the other train crash I’d seen, but I needed a clear head. When we arrived at the scene, I needed my mind to be focused on this crash. “What did you say?” I asked.
Donovan pointed. His thoughtful mood had turned suddenly tense. I looked through the window and spotted a smudge of smoke, black against the lavender sky. “That doesn’t look so bad,” I said.
“It’s still a couple miles away.”
The cloud of smoke grew larger as we approached. I kept my eyes on it as it moved with the breeze. The wind shifted toward us, and I caught the smell of ash for a moment. It mostly smelled like a wood fire, but with an acrid edge to it that I didn’t recognize.
Lights appeared ahead. There was a low reddish glow and several bright spots of lantern light. The twilight had grown bright enough that I could make out a variety of dim, jagged shapes between the lanterns, but I couldn’t quite identify what I was seeing.
The motor-car slowed, then stopped, and I caught a sharp breath as the jagged shadows resolved into solid shapes. It was the train. Or at least, what was left of the train. Twisted metal and broken wood thrust toward the sky. Beyond the cluster of lanterns, I glimpsed the blocky shapes of undamaged train cars, but everything nearby had been reduced to a charred and shattered mess.