A scene from “The Destiny Engine” – available now at Amazon
Mister James insisted that Miss Smith be brought to dinner the next day, rather than for a more relaxed meeting over tea. It mattered not to him, but it greatly complicated my day. I was able to scrape together a suitable meal of braised elk, potatoes, and freshly picked greens. Miss Smith seemed pleased with the mixture of rustic and exotic and was too kind in her praise.
Over dinner Miss Smith explained how her family came west from the Carolinas during the War Between the States, settling in Denver near her great aunt. Mister James, in turn, regaled her with tales of his exploits in New York and San Francisco, carefully avoiding those that might touch on the reason he fled from both cities to the wilds of Wyoming.
As I began to gather the dishes, Mister James turned the conversation.
“Tell me, Miss Smith, what, exactly have you heard of my machine?” He leaned back in his chair, fussing with a fresh cigar.
“They say that it can tell the future,” she said, pausing, “or, rather, the future that might have been. Is that true?”
“They do?” Mister James chuckled. “And who are they?”
“Who are they?” She furrowed her brow. “I don’t see the relevance of that.”
Mister James leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table. “The relevance is that you have come seeking my help, Miss Smith, so it behooves you to answer my questions.”
She threw up her hands in halfhearted protest. “Very well. I believe I first heard about the mad inventor of Douglas during a salon in Denver. Very respectable. Before you ask, I do not remember the man’s name who spoke of you.”
Mister James grinned and puffed on his cigar. “They talk of me in Denver? How interesting.” He looked at me as if for me to share in his pride. I continued clearing the table without comment.
“Based on what I heard, I hired a professional to try and find out more,” Miss Smith continued. “He arranged a meeting with a man from Douglas, a man named Finn, who was quite specific about you and your machines.”
“And what did this Mister Finn say?”
“That you like to talk in the taverns,” she said. “Brag, really. About your machines. The ones that never work. He said it was not worth my time to try and meet you.”
“Did he?” Mister James said, laughing. “Finn was always the jealous one, wasn’t he, Whorle?”
“Regardless of that,” Miss Smith said, “was he telling the truth? Have I wasted my time coming here?”
Mister James thought for a moment, slowly drawing in and puffing out smoke. “That depends, madam, on why you came here. I mean, why did you need to come talk to me, about anything?”
She sighed and started down at her hands, folded in her lap, for a long moment. “I am here because of my great aunt, Mister James. Because she is in need of a miracle, and my intelligence suggests you just might be able to provide one.”
This provoked a grin. “A miracle, dear lady? I can promise no such thing. I am a man of science, not magic.”
“Miracles look different to different people, sir,” she said. “Whatever it may be called, are you capable of providing such?”
“Tell me about your great aunt,” Mister James said.
Miss Smith took a deep breath. “Great Aunt Odetta has led a long and hard life. In particular, she has lost everyone in her life who was dear to her. Her husband, you see, died, under,” she paused, then said, “let us say that he passed on prematurely.”
Mister James nodded.
“But also her children, sir, her dear boys,” she said. She removed a handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes.
“They are gone, too?” Mister James asked.
She nodded. “Drowned. Fell through the ice when they were nine and eleven, respectively. Solomon and Alistair, bless their souls.”
“A pity,” Mister James said, “but for them I can do nothing. I am not a necromancer. What do you think I might do for Odetta?”
“Since the boys died, all those years ago, she has shut out the rest of the world,” she explained. “She came to live with us, as she could not keep up the house. She sits in her room all the time, staring out the window. All she talks about is how she will never see the boys grow up, never see them become men. It is as if she is stuck in that terrible moment.”
“I am a scientist, Miss Smith, but my expertise is not of the mind,” Mister James said. “How do you think I can help you?”
She sat still for a moment, as if trying to figure out what to say, while looking back and forth between Mister James and myself.
“Have no worries about Whorle, Miss Smith,” Mister James said. “He and I are a team, aren’t we, Whorle? Anything you wish to say to me can be said in front of him.”
“Thank you, sir,” I said. Compliments were rare, so I thought it best to acknowledge one when it came.
“You can help me by using your device to allow my great aunt to see her family once again,” she said, finally, shaking her head as if she knew it was madness.
Mister James raised an eyebrow. “It is not that simple, madam. At best I can show what would have happened to them in another reality, had things turned out differently. Is that what your great aunt would want?”
She nodded. “Without doubt, sir. If she could see their lives, even if they are lives that never actually happened, it would ease her soul. I am certain of it.”
“Even if those other lives might not be particularly pleasant?”
“Have you children, Mister James?” she asked.
“No,” he said. “Never married.”
“Then you cannot know the pain that comes from a mother seeing her children die. Parents should precede their children in death, yes?”
When Mister James did not answer, Miss Smith added, “There will be, of course, a substantial fee. To help further your work.”
Mister James smiled. “I should hope so,” he said, standing and striding to the other end of the table. “For what I am willing to do for you and your great aunt, madam, is one of the glories of modern science.”
“You will do this?” Miss Smith beamed with satisfaction.
“I will. How long will it take to bring dear Odetta here?” he asked.
“Five days, perhaps six?”
“Then let us meet again, here, at dusk in a week’s time,” Mister James said. “It will be my honor to serve you.” He bowed, a gesture that did not appear to be so full of mockery as I would have imagined. “Whorle will see you out.”
Mister James retired to his library, while I assisted Miss Smith with her cloak and signaled her driver. While we waited, I noticed the broad smile on her face and the gleam of joy in her eyes.
“Miss Smith, may I speak?”
“Of course, Whorle.”
“Do not come back next week,” I said, lowering my voice to avoid any chance of detection. “If you do so, I am concerned you will not be pleased with the results.”
She frowned. “Mister James would not be trying to sell some snake oil, would he, Whorle?”
“No, madam,” I said, shaking my head. Perhaps her investigation turned up more of Mister James’s past than I imagined. “Just the opposite. I believe the device will work as promised. Which is why I beg you to stay away.”
She looked puzzled.
“There are things we are simply not meant to know, madam. The past cannot be changed, nor can the present.”
“I am surprised, Whorle,” she said, looking out the window as her carriage pulled into the driveway. “I would not think that a man who worked for someone like Mister James would be so prone to superstition. Is not everything we do tampering, in some way, with God’s creation?”
“This has nothing to do with God, madam,” I said, opening the door. “I fear for the wellbeing of your great aunt should you return next week.”
She stepped out the door, turned, and looked back at me. “Your request is duly noted, Whorle.” She turned and began to walk toward the carriage. “And rejected.”
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