I’ve completed Parts I and II of my NSGAN (not-so-great-American-novel), and today (Nov. 19) I “broke ground” on the final part. It wasn’t much of a start, just a thousand words or so, but that’s okay because I’m still thinking through the steps I want the story to take before getting to the Big Finish.
Without further ado (I’ve always wondered: How does one measure ado? Was that enough, too much, too little? My mind spins) here is the prologue and first three chapters of my novel-in-progress, which I’ve given the working title “
Race to Darkness.” (Please, I beg of you, if you’ve got a better title let me know). “Carpathia.”
Enjoy, and your feedback, comments, suggestions are welcome.
Race to Darkness
The dream is crystal clear and always the same: a completely accurate reflection of the events as they occurred.
At first he would wake up screaming and wet with sweat, but after several years and hundreds of nights reliving what happened while sleeping, he stopped thinking of it as a nightmare.
Amanda is in the middle of a stone bridge, standing in the pool of light provided by a gas lantern hanging from a pole and gently rocking in the breeze off the river below. Overhead are the lights of an airship, one of the very first upon these shores.
Two carriages arrive at either end of the bridge at almost the same moment, screeching to a halt. For a brief moment the only sounds are the breeze, the panting of two sets of foam flecked horses and the wheeze and putter of the airship.
A solitary figure jumps down from one carriage; three men from the other, two from the coachman’s seat and the third through the door to the compartment. Both groups begin to stride toward the center of the bridge — toward the solitary figure in the pool of light that is Amanda.
The bridge is arched, and as he climbs the gentle slope to the woman in the center, the solitary man can see just the upper half of the three other men. Two of the figures drop from sight and then just as suddenly two black shapes, close to the stones of the bridge, crest the rise and approach him at a dead run on four legs. They pass Amanda without pausing and in the feeble light he can see they are wolves.
He has anticipated this, and prepared accordingly. As the wolves approach the man reaches into coat pocket with his left hand while his right finds the hilt of the short sword hanging by a belt around his waist. The wolves are almost on him then, and in one motion the man waves his left hand upwards, spreading a fine mist of powder into their path, and steps to left.
The front legs of both animals collapse when they run through the cloud of powder, sending them snout-first into the cobblestones but propelled forward by the momentum of their hind quarters. The man knows the wolfsbane powder won’t kill the creatures, but it provides a tactical advantage. He runs several paces to where the wolves lie sprawled on the stones, panting and snarling; the sword flashes twice, three, four times in the dim light and the man looks down at the now headless wolves at his feet.
The man turns to resume the climb to the apex of the bridge, but he can see the third figure, a man with glowing red eyes, has reached Amanda. He has one arm around her waist and the other on her wrist, turning and guiding her away from the light to the opposite end of the bridge.
“There are many more where they came from, you know,” a voice whispers in the man’s ear as he begins to run toward the two figures disappearing into the darkness. “You are a clever boy, but I have lived far to long to let a boy stand in my way.”
The man reaches the top of the bridge and begins to cross the circle of light when something slaps his shoulder from behind, sending him tumbling. From his hands and knees the man sees a rope ladder slowly traveling toward the two figures below.
He looks up, sees the lights of the airship hovering over the bridge and through the pounding of blood in his ears the man suddenly hears the wheezing of the pumps and motors. From his knees the man watches as the red-eyed figure below him pulls Amanda close and climbs the first few rungs of the ladder. The airship quickly climbs and they are gone — she is gone — into the night.
Amanda is gone.
* * * *
The tarnished brass bell over the door leading into the store gave a hollow tinkle when Jameson pushed it open. Jameson stepped across the threshold into the dimly lit emporium, his boots softly pushing sawdust over and into the edges of the worn but uneven floor boards.
The two people in the store — the shopkeeper wearing a flowing floor length shirt, small vest, baggy pants and brimless cap, a similar attire worn by many of a certain faith in the Black Sea town, and a customer dressed much as Jameson was in dark suit, coat and hat — both turned toward the door from their spot at the counter.
The shopkeeper’s eyes caught and held Jameson’s for a few seconds, and then he turned back to his customer, repeating the various prices for whatever gadget or gizmo they were bargaining over. Jameson walked among the aisles of shelves as he waited for their business to be done.
The shelves were piled with all manner of goods, from cooking utensils to tools to clothing. Combined with the low ceiling and dim lighting, the clutter gave the store’s interior a cramped, cluttered feel. Near the front of the store by the tall and dusty windows Jameson found a section of medical supplies and equipment, with modern and ancient remedies sitting side-by-side. Here was a leather pouch of herbs good for headaches, and here was a glass jar filled with a butter-colored cream to be used on steam burns.
Jameson looked through the dirty windows down to the harbor and thought the store was an accurate reflection of recent events in the town, which had started hundreds of years ago as a trading stop serving tribes of seacoast and mountainous interior as well as nomads of the nearby steppe. The natural harbor had been dredged and enlarged and four long wharves lined with steam-powered gantry cranes had been built to service the steam- and sail-powered ships that continuously lined the piers.
As Jameson watched a massive airship lazily circled above, disappearing from view behind him over the town to the north and reappearing to the south. A smallish temporary landing field had been laid out north of the harbor, with docking pylons and rudimentary passenger and cargo facilities. Indeed, that was how Jameson had arrived a week previously. A larger, permanent aviation servicing facility was under construction on ground to the south that had until recently been marshland.
Warehouses of various sizes, built to accommodate the harbor and aviation field, stood between both and a north-south railroad line running parallel to the sea coast. The harbor, airfield and storage sites were connected by lanes paved with brick and thick steam pipes strung along on head-high braces.
Other than a brick lane from the harbor that became a cobblestone road through the town and a rutted track at the opposite limit, there was nothing running westward. And that, Jameson reflected, was the reason for it all — the stated reason, he corrected himself with the hint of a smile.
In the corner of the window was the shadow of a poster pasted to the outside, and even though he couldn’t see through the dark square Jameson knew exactly what it said as he had seen the same poster many times over the past year.
The Crown Prince Stefan of Romania Announces
The Greatest Scientific Endeavor of the Century!
A Race of Endurance and Power Without Rival!
From Constanta to Bucharest via Bacau, Targu-Mures and Pitesti!
For Self-Propelled Ground Machines!
Grand Prize: 20,000 English Pounds Sterling (or equivalent)!
And a Royal Commission To
Manufacture The Winning Vehicle!
15 August 1882
Over the water, the airship turned and began another circuit. A tri-colored flag could be seen snapping in the wind behind the passenger gondola. Jameson heard steps shuffling through the sawdust and then the bell over the door. He turned to the shopkeeper, who motioned him to the counter.
“I have some news of interest for you,” the shopkeeper said with a lopsided grin that displayed uneven and dirty teeth. “Two more groups have arrived for the expedition. That makes four in all.”
“Four? Hmmm,” Jameson nodded. “Good, Imare, good. Where are these latest two from, do you know? Did you get any names?”
“France and America. No names; my source did not have direct access to passengers. A count and a cowboy — well, the American group includes a cowboy but the leader appears to be just a commoner.”
“That’s all they have there, Imare,” Jameson said with a tight smile. He reached into his waistcoat and laid some golden coins on the counter. “Thank you. I imagine this concludes our arrangement. I doubt additional groups will arrive before the start.”
Jameson stood outside the store for a moment, looking up. The airship was still circling. The day was bright, sunny and hot, and the skies were clear. A blast of steam erupted from an overflow valve on one of the gantry cranes in the harbor, temporarily drowning out the screeching of gulls common to most seaports.
His hotel was just minutes from the shop, but Jameson took a half hour to cover the distance. He was deep in thought over the newly obtained information, which presented an opportunity he hadn’t considered before.
Four groups, the three from Europe that he expected, and the Americans who he hadn’t.
* * * *
As a commercial hub on the Black Sea, Constantia had several taverns with lodging, a few boarding hostels and too many flophouses, but there were just two hotels: the Grand and the Palace. Of the two, the former was by far more luxurious, but luxury was a relative thing in the eyes of Major Stump O’Brien, U.S. Army.
Stump’s given name was William but from the age of fifteen he couldn’t remember anyone addressing him as anything but his military rank or Stump. In his thirty-plus years he had slept comfortably and well on the hard ground during a cattle drive and while being shelled in the muddy trenches during the siege of Petersburg. After the war Stump also had the chance to enjoy the feather mattresses of the finest hotels in New York, Boston and Washington D.C.
To Stump, the Grand was just another place to bed down, but one that smelled funny and was too far from the warehouse where the vehicle designed and built by John Penobscot was being assembled. The steamship tied up before first light and they had spent most of the day getting the various crates and cartons out of the cargo hold and into the warehouse set aside for the Americans.
Aided by his five assistants, Penobscot began tearing open crates almost immediately, leaving it to Stump to oversee transfer operations on the ship. By time Stump followed the final crate to the warehouse the American team had a good start on putting their self-propelled land vehicle together.
He sent the party’s luggage ahead to the hotel upon mooring, and with the Penobscot and his engineers engrossed in putting the final touches on the vehicle Stump decided to follow it to secure their rooms. The walk from the warehouse to the hotel was nearly a mile, but after weeks spent on the steamship Stump welcomed the opportunity to stretch his legs on dry land.
The front desk clerk, who looked like any of the other locals Stump saw moving cargo on the dock, spoke English with a clipped British accent. The mechanics of checking in were handled efficiently; the delay was in finding a bellman to escort him to his room. In preparation for the grand race, hotel management had specially hired multi-lingual staff and despite Stump’s protest that he could find his own way, an English-speaker was rousted for just that task.
While waiting for the man to appear, Stump stood with his back to the front desk, surveying the hotel lobby — and more specifically the twenty or so people in the lobby. A few were engaged in conversations or other matters and were oblivious to his presence, but most were trying very hard to watch him without appearing to do so.
The exception was a man sitting alone in one corner. This man, with short dark hair, piercing eyes, a square jaw and dark suit, made no attempt to hide his interest in the American at the front desk. Their eyes locked for an instant and Stump was considering taking a walk over to say something when the English-speaking bellman finally appeared at his elbow.
The rooms set aside for the Americans were on the fourth and top floor of the hotel, with the windows facing the main street that he had walked up from the warehouse. Stump found his luggage in one of the rooms and after slipping the bellman a few coins — never giving a thought to where or how the man would find use of the American money — he found a pitcher of water on the dresser and poured some into a glass. It tasted flat and metallic, but still better than that on the ship. He poured some into a matching basin and splashed his face several times.
Grabbing a towel off the dresser, he walked over to the nearest window and opened it. He patted his face dry and hung the towel around his neck, holding on to the ends with his hands while looking out at Constantia. Streetlights were few and far between in the town, but his eyes rapidly adjusted to the gloom.
Stump was just about to close the window when he noticed a red light near the chimney on the roof of a two-story building directly across from the hotel. Staring intently, he realized there were actually two red lights, very small and close together, and that they occasionally disappeared.
He was just about to dismiss the lights as flaws in the chimney brickwork when the shape of a man stepped sideways out of the shadow of the chimney, the red lights blazing where the eyes would be. After the long day getting the crates of vehicle parts ashore, which followed several days of short rest on the steamship, Stump considered his usually excellent vision may not be accurate. He tightly closed his eyes, took a deep breath and then slowly opened them again.
There was nothing to be seen on the opposite roof. No man-shadow and no red lights.
“I’ll be damned.” he said quietly, running a hand through his Van Dyke beard.
* * * *
Ten minutes later Stump was back in the lobby. While arranging with the front desk clerk to have food delivered to the warehouse for Penobscot and his team, he noticed the corner chair in the lobby was now vacant.
As he stepped back out into the night, Stump paused in front of the hotel to look up at the opposite roof. Seeing nothing, he patted the outside of his right coat pocket, feeling the outline of the pistol he had slipped in there before leaving the room. Stump pulled the pistol and some extra bullets, which he placed in his left coat pocket, from a worn leather holster in his carryall bag after closing the window and drawing all the shades.
Constantia’s few street lights were clustered in the central part of the town, and it wasn’t long before Stump was walking in total darkness. The darkened buildings on either side of the road became progressively smaller the farther he traveled away from the hotel, with storefronts giving way to houses and tenements separated by narrow alleyways.
He first heard the sound about fifteen minutes after setting out from the hotel. A soft scraping followed by a fluttering of air, it was almost like the sound made when a gentle wind blows through the branches and leaves of a tree. The noise came from above and to his right, from a rooftop on the same side of the street as the red lights and man-shadow. The sound was mostly covered by his own footfalls on the cobblestone street, but after hearing it for a second and then third time, Stump knew it wasn’t his imagination. A shiver ran up his spine.
He knew exactly what that shiver represented, although he would be hard-pressed to explain it to another person: a mixture of fear and anticipation, a signal that his body and senses were fully alert. The first time of many times he could remember feeling it was crouching behind a boulder in western Virginia, surrounded by Confederates. The most recent was when he realized his cavalry troop had ridden pell-mell into a box canyon in Wyoming to be ambushed by a large party of Comanche.
One of the lessons Stump learned from fighting Plains tribes was doing what the enemy expected was dangerous. The ambush in Wyoming was a case in point as his troop did exactly what the Comanche war chief wanted them to do: blindly chase a small band of riders into a canyon where they could be picked off from above.
Stump glanced up and to his right and without breaking stride he turned left into a dark alleyway between two houses. There was an open space surrounded by a low wall behind the house, but beyond that he found a rutted path that led toward the port. Stump turned onto the path, which ran between the buildings and a solid mass of dark trees, and briskly walked toward the soft glow of lights that represented the harbor.
After walking for a few minutes he stopped to listen, but Stump did not hear the noise from the rooftop. A few minutes more and he came to an open area with no buildings between the path and the cobblestone street. He paused in the shadow of the last house, listening and watching for any sign of movement on the street or above it.
Thinking about his next move, Stump saw a small group of people come into view, walking on the cobblestone street away from the harbor and toward the center of town; sailors perhaps, out for a night of fun. He waited until the oncoming group was in the middle of the gap between buildings and then quickly moved across the vacant lot and into the shadow behind a three-story tenement on the other side.
He was nearly to the next alleyway when he heard the sound from before, directly behind him. Turning around Stump saw a tall man standing on the path, his figure outlined against the slightly brighter light from the vacant lot. Although surprised, Stump wouldn’t normally consider just one man to be much of a concern, even when said man was a foot taller and made such a sudden and nearly soundless appearance. But now Stump put his hand into his coat pocket and slipped his fingers into place in the trigger guard and around the grips.
The tall man’s eyes burned red in the darkness of the building’s shadow.