This is a bit from my steampunk novel about Iosif Rusval, a young boy pulled into service of the Automated Postal Department’s Enforcement Division. His supervisor is in the midst of a nail-biting investigation into mail tampering, which leads Iosif and his fellow Enforcers into all sorts of dangerous situations.
It’s a fun story, but in the process of streamlining it, I’ve had to cut some things that were particularly fun to write, but don’t really fit in anywhere. Like this. For a while, investigating Iosif’s father was going to be important to the story, and Hougan, the APD director, was going to send three of them to investigate it. Suffice to say I went a different direction, but I liked what I’d written. So here it is.
“Well. This is awkward.”
“Glad I’m not the only person who thinks so.” Slately muttered, massaging her nose. “Joseph, dear, are you sure you want to do this? We can just visit the seaside… tell the Director we didn’t find anything…”
“He’ll know we’re lying.” Babyface, who was sprawled over the opposite seat of the waycar, raised his eyebrows significantly.
“He’ll know why.” Slately said. “Joseph?”
“Is fine.” Iosif waved, distractedly. He really couldn’t spare them much thought. He was trying to think how he was going to explain this whole thing to Mother. It was more awkward because, between the missions and the side project with the ship in the vault, he hadn’t actually written to her in nearly a month. Showing up out of the blue with two strangers, asking questions about his father… Iosif shivered.
Click. Tremor. Whirrr. Click. Jerk.
The vibrations shivered through the metal cover of the control box, soothing his mind. It would be all right. It would be good to see home again. Mother wouldn’t mind talking about Father—she probably loved talking about Father. Maybe he could ask Slately and Babyface to wait outside. Yes, he’d do that.
“Well, at least it’s not a bad place to be going to.” Babyface said. “I’ve been to Detroit a few times. Real happening place.”
“I think the word you’re looking for is crime-ridden.” Slately said.
Babyface grinned. “Call it what you want.”
“Corrupt?” Slately suggested. “Collapsing? Chaotic?”
“Hey, ‘collapsing’ isn’t fair.” Babyface said. “I happen to know they run a very profitable business, bringing moonshine down from Canada.”
“Seriously, Edith, go easy on the people.” Babyface said. “They haven’t had a break since Westinghouse and General Motors closed down. What’re they supposed to do?”
“Make something of themselves.” There was an oddly sweet tone to Slately’s voice. “That’s what I hear people always suggest in such circumstances.”
“You’re in one of your moods, aren’t you?” Babyface said. “Is it because of how awkward this whole thing is, or is there something more?”
Slately shook her head. “Joseph, seriously dear. Do you want to just maybe look around, catch up with your friends?”
Iosif looked at her. He considered this a moment.
“Friends?” He said.
“Iosif always was a shy boy.” Mrs. Rusval said, coming out of the kitchen with tea. She set down the tray and handed a cup to Slately and another to Babyface. “He never got out much. I’m so happy to hear he’s been getting on so well at his new job!”
“Quite!” Slately made an enthusiastic nod. “Quite! Yes… yes… yes. Quite.”
Babyface sipped his tea, bit back an exclamation, and set it back down.
Iosif was dying inside. He’d forgotten his mother went shopping on Thursdays. She’d been at the terminal when they rolled up to it, and after that there was no chance of Babyface or Slately staying outside while he spoke
“Do you know, he’s been so silly about his job!” Mrs. Rusval said, sitting down across from them. “He won’t even tell me what he does! Imagine that, his own mother!” She shook her head disapprovingly at Iosif. “You haven’t even written this week. Or last week. Or the week before!”
“Sorry, Mama.” Iosif said. He was doing his best to hide behind his teacup.
“Well.” She waved it away. “Never mind that. You’re here now, so you can tell me all about it in person. How is it, doing machinist work for the post office? Is that Mr. Hougan being nice to you?”
Iosif could not quite suppress the tiny whine of embarrassment. The shame was almost a physical pain.
“Ah, he’s a real slave driver.” Babyface cut in, with an easy smile. “Keeps the poor kid working day and night. Real stickler for the rules, too—won’t let anyone talk about the workplace. ‘Official Secrets Act’ and such.” Babyface made quote marks with his hands.
“Er… yes.” Slately picked up. “It’s part of standard regulations for government workplaces.”
“Oh, of course.” Mrs. Rusval nodded understandingly. “Red tape. Always such a bother. I’m sorry, dear, I should have realized.” She patted his leg.
Iosif closed his eyes.
“You’re not missing much.” Babyface assured her, taking a sip of his tea. “It’s pretty boring stuff—I mean, it’s the post office. Absolutely mind-numbing some days.”
“Ah? And what do you do, Mr. Capone?”
“…interior decorating.” Babyface said. “I… make sure that the offices are well-maintained and look… properly outfitted for a government office. Call me Al, by the way.”
“Al.” Mrs. Rusval beamed at him. “And you, dear, must be a typist, is that right?”
“Typist,” said Ms. Slately. “Yes.”
Iosif looked down and again tried to hide behind his tea cup.
“I think it’s so wonderful, the way women are getting out into the world.” Mrs. Rusval said, leaning forward. “I mean, they have things they’re good at, just as men do.”
“Yes,” said Ms. Slately.
“Does your husband work at the post office too, Mrs. Slately?” Mrs. Rusval asked. “I’m so embarrassed; Iosif hasn’t told me anything about any of you.”
“Kid’s not much different at the workplace, to be honest.” Babyface cut in again, smiling over his tea cup. “Does his work well enough, but he’s barely told us anything about you. Or his father.”
It was impossible not to stare at Babyface at this. Even Slately seemed taken off guard by the smooth bit of maneuvering.
Mrs. Rusval simpered a little. “Oh… there really isn’t much to tell about me. His father, now…” She leaned forward to fill Babyface’s mug again. “…his father was a remarkable man. Do you know he was actually the one who founded Whisterhorn’s Watches? Did I ever tell you that, dear?” She looked over at Iosif.
She had not. Iosif shook his head.
“It was his idea, really. He was the genius. Alec, bless him, he was a good man, and smart enough, but he wasn’t as clever as my Toombs was.” She nodded over at the clock on the table. “That right there, he made that, all by himself, before he even had a shop.” Moved by a sudden impulse, she picked it up and handed it to Babyface. “Isn’t that clever? But he knew no one’d go to a shop held by a little man, so he got together with Alec and they started making watches together.”
“A small man, you say?” Slately said. Babyface was turning the clock over in his hands.
“Well… in some ways.” Mrs. Rusval smiled. “But yes. Iosif’s actually taller than he was. I remember with Father Pyotr married us, he had to find a stepladder so that Toombs could actually kiss me.” She clasped her hands and smiled.
“Fascinating.” Slately said. She glanced around as Babyface nudged her with the clock, and took it as if unsure what to do. Iosif barely noticed this, he was too busy trying to massage away his headache.
“Oh yes! It tickled so tremendously, with that great beard he had.” Mrs. Rusval actually giggled. “Oh, I do wish I had a daguerreotype to show you.”
“You must have been a wonderful couple.” Babyface smiled. “How did you meet?”
Mrs. Rusval hesitated at this. “Well… I suppose I may as well tell you.” She said. “It was so long ago, after all. It was… let me see, now. It must have been around 1910 or so… yes, because we met in Chicago. I was a nurse, then, and I was just coming home when this waycar came up, and a man absolutely collapsed out of it.” She leant forward again. “Absolutely collapsed! And he was bleeding and… Well, of course, I took him up to my room—Hippocratic Oath and everything. Fortunately my landlady at that time was a rather deaf woman; she’d have never permitted a man in the place.”
“Naturally.” Babyface said, sipping his tea. Iosif wasn’t quite sure that his eyes were dancing, but it certainly looked like it.
“Well I meant to bring him straight to the hospital in the morning,” Mrs. Rusval said, “but as it turned out, he woke up halfway up the stairs, and begged me not to. Said it was important, a life or death matter.” She shrugged. “And then he passed out again.”
Slately and Babyface did not exchange glances, but they did both sit up a little straighter. “How mysterious.” Slately said. She seemed to notice the clock in her hands, and gave it to Iosif.
“Isn’t it?” Mrs. Rusval nodded. “Well, I decided to keep him in my apartment. Scandalous, I know. But this was Chicago, and—I’m not sure if you know this—but it can be a rather nasty city at times.”
“No!” Babyface said. Slately jabbed him with her foot.
“It wasn’t so bad then as it was later.” Mrs. Rusval assured him. “But I thought it better to play it safe. He’d been shot over five times. Most of the wounds I could dress, but there was one in his chest that’d carried a patch of cloth in. I needed to cut into him and get that out. It was quite an ordeal.”
Iosif was examining the clock, almost as a distraction at this point. His mother had told him about it many times before, but it was an ingenious bit of work, made out of a very ornate coffee tin and decorated with little bits of wire and metal.
“Sorry.” Ms. Slately leaned forward. “You performed surgery and removed a bullet from an injured man in an apartment room?”
Mrs. Rusval gave a little smile. “I was rather good at my job. I’d helped out Dr. Finch a number of times in surgery, and it didn’t look too hard.” She looked somewhat sad. “Though Toombs did always have a little… stiffness in that side.”
It seemed like the clock needed to be wound up. Iosif turned the key—his mother always left the key in the clock—a few times around.
“And you fell in love.” Babyface smiled and seemed to blink back tears. “What a beautiful story.”
“Yes.” Mrs. Rusval smiled. Her face suddenly cleared. “Mind you, he never laid a hand on me until after the wedding.”
“Of course.” Babyface sounded shocked. “That would have been improper.”
Iosif bent over the clock, studying every detail he could. It wasn’t running, actually, he noticed, even now that he’d wound the springs. Something must be wrong with the springs. He turned it over to find the access panel.
“Did he ever tell you what happened—who had shot him?” Slately asked.
Babyface gave her a sort of glare, but Mrs. Rusval did not seem to notice the boldness of the question. “I never asked.” She shook her head. “I did tell him, when we married, that I expected him to stay around and have a nice stable job. I couldn’t have him running off to the mob all the time.”
There didn’t seem to be an access panel. Iosif frowned. That was odd.
“He used to work for the mob, then.” Slately pressed.
“Well I don’t know. But who else would have been shooting people back then? This was before the war, you know.” Mrs. Rusval shrugged. “And of course, him being so shy about the hospital.”
Hang on. The decorative wire seemed to… yes. Iosif unhooked part of the assembly from a rod, then pushed the rod into the base. Then he frowned. There didn’t seem to be anything more he could do.
“And he never went back to the mob?”
Mrs. Rusval hesitated again. “Iosif dear.” She said, looking at him. “I never told you about… how your father left.”
Perhaps if he turned the base… yes. Turn the base, unhook the wire, push down the rod… ah-ha. That freed up this section, so it could be swung away… THERE was the access panel.
“He would go for little trips, sometimes.” Mrs. Rusval confided in the others. “To visit family, he said. But the last one, he said he was going to do a favor for an old friend. He’d be gone for… for three days. No more.” Mrs. Rusval gave a quick, brittle smile. “That’s what he said…” She looked down and choked back whatever else she’d been about to say. Her old form trembled.
Iosif had the access panel open. There was a yellowed piece of paper inside, which he placed aside. He saw what the problem was; the spring had long since slipped its casing. He began to fix it.
“There, there.” Slately patted her on the back. “There, there. There.”
“Here.” Babyface proffered her a handkerchief. “You say Chicago was so dangerous… maybe some… hooligans just…” he seemed to realize that was not the right thing to say and ended lamely: “…punched him.”
“Oh, this was in Detroit.” Mrs. Rusval blew her nose. “We moved here to get married. He knew some people—Alec, he knew Alec, from before… just before. But maybe he went back to Chicago. I don’t know. I don’t know.” She dabbed at her eyes. “I would have told you, Iosif, but… it was all too painful. I mean, he never even knew you. He never even knew you were coming.”
The spring was too fine to wedge properly in the casing. Iosif picked up a fountain pen from the table next to him and carefully tapped it in place. He quickly looked over the rest of the workings—could use some grease, maybe, but the wheels themselves seemed to be in fine order—and closed the access panel before winding the clock.
He turned the hands to the correct time and looked up at the others. “Good?” He asked.