An Excerpt from Rebel Mechanics

If I’d let myself think about what might lie ahead for me, I’d have been terrified. So, instead of thinking, I lost myself in the book I’d bought at the train station newsstand – the kind of pulp novel I’d have had to hide behind a copy of The Odyssey if I’d still been at home in New Haven. Now, though, I could read what I wanted without my father having any say in the matter. My life had improved in that way, at least.

Although the motion of the train made it difficult to keep the paperback book steady, I defiantly held it with the lurid cover clearly visible as I read about a daring gang of bandits terrorizing stagecoaches. I was so engrossed in the story that when I heard a sharp noise and raised voices, I initially mistook it for my imagination bringing the story to life. Then I looked up to see a group of masked, gun-wielding men rushing through the connecting doorway at the front of the car. A thrill shot through me. I had told myself my life would be more exciting beginning today, but I hadn’t really believed it. I picked up my bag and dropped the book into it so I wouldn’t miss a thing.

“Seal the door!” the tallest bandit ordered, and one of the masked men turned to throw the latch. He held his hands over it, and I thought for a moment that I saw a shimmer beneath them. A shiver went down my spine, making me gasp. Could that have been magic? No, I decided, only the magister class could use magic, and that class held most of the property in the British Empire and controlled the magical power that ran all industry, even here in the American colonies. Magisters shouldn’t need to rob trains. When I looked again, the shimmer was gone. I must have imagined it.

While the man who’d sealed the door stood lookout, the tall bandit who’d shouted the order strode up the aisle, heading toward the rear of the car where I sat. Abruptly, he stopped and raised his pistol at a man sitting three rows ahead of me. “I’ll take that,” he said in a soft but firm voice as he grabbed a slim black leather case the man held in his lap. The man clung to his case, and it looked for a moment as though he might put up a fight, but the bandit cocked his pistol with his thumb and held it closer to the man’s face. The man released his hold on the bag. The bandit gave him a disconcertingly polite nod as he lowered the gun and took the case. He then continued up the aisle, seemingly unaffected by the swaying motion of the train as it slowed to round a bend.

He stopped directly in front of my seat, and I gripped the handles of my bag as my heart beat wildly. The bandit stood so close to me I could see his eyes through the slits in his mask. They were an icy, pale blue, hard and cold, with little flecks of gray around the pupil and a band of darker blue around the outer edge of the iris. I had never met a killer, but based on every novel I’d read, that was how I imagined a killer’s eyes would look.

When the bandit stepped toward me, I reacted instinctively. I rose to my feet, swung my bag at him, and then felt the shock go up to my elbows when I connected with his head. He staggered backward, and I felt light-headed as my breath came in shallow gasps. I shrank away, fearing retribution.

Instead of being angered by my assault, he smiled wryly and holstered his gun. The smile made his eyes look much less icy and hard. With a slight bow, he said, “My apologies, miss. I did not intend to alarm you.”

“They’re coming!” the lookout called from the front of the car. “Hurry!”

My bandit glanced over his shoulder to see the railroad guards attempting to open the locked door, then returned his attention to me. “And now, if you will excuse me, I need to make use of your seat to reach that hatch.” I followed his eyes upward to see a hatch in the car’s ceiling, directly above me. The bandit put the case he’d taken on the seat near me, stepped onto the seat, placed his hands against the hatch, paused for a moment, and pushed. The hatch flew open, sending a gust of wind rushing into the car and jolting me back against the window. I worried that my hat would fly off, but I was too afraid of letting go of my bag to secure my hatpin. “It’s open, come on!” the bandit shouted to the others as he climbed down.

The rest of the gang ran toward us, and I clutched my bag against my chest as, one by one, they jumped onto the seat and hoisted themselves through the hatch onto the roof of the car. A couple passed heavy-looking sacks up to other gang members before climbing after them. When the others had all gone, the bandit I’d hit reached for my gloved hand and brushed my knuckles with his lips, whispering, “I hope the rest of your journey goes smoothly, miss,” before he climbed onto the seat, passed the stolen case up to a colleague, then pulled himself through. The hatch closed behind him with a clang and the car instantly grew quieter.

Breathless and quivering, I sank slowly onto my seat, resting my bag on my knees. I absently rubbed my left thumb across the knuckles of my right hand, where the bandit had kissed me. It was the first truly romantic thing I’d ever experienced.

The guards finally made it through the door, and they ran down the aisle. The man whose bag had been taken leaped out of his seat to accost them. “I am a courier on official business for the crown, and those bandits took my case of priority dispatches!” he shouted, his mustache bristling in fury. “I expect better protection than this when I travel!” The other passengers joined in, adding their complaints at high volume.

The guards did their best to calm everyone. They interviewed the courier and several of the other passengers. One of the guards climbed onto the seat beside mine – without so much as a word to me – and attempted unsuccessfully to open the hatch. All the while, I kept glancing out the window, wondering where the bandits had gone. The train hadn’t slowed down enough for them to jump, and I’d seen no one running away from the tracks.

The connecting door at the rear of the car opened and a well-dressed young man carrying a large brown leather valise entered. He pulled up short and gaped at the commotion. “I say, what’s all this?” he asked.

“Nothing for you to worry about, sir,” a guard said brusquely. “Please have a seat.”

The newcomer glanced around for a seat and took one across the aisle from me. With a sheepish grin, he told me, “There was a baby crying in the other car. I didn’t think I could bear it any longer. This looks a lot more interesting.” He watched the guards conducting their investigation with great fascination, as though this was the best entertainment he’d seen in a long time. I thought he seemed a little too interested in the proceedings, and his color was heightened, as though he was either excited about something or had just done a great deal of physical activity. Surely one wouldn’t get that red-faced merely while making his way through the train in search of a seat. Then I dismissed my suspicions as a flight of fancy. The bandits couldn’t possibly have come down off the top of the train, removed their masks and adjusted their appearance in the lavatories, and then dispersed throughout the train as ordinary travelers.

Or could they? This man’s height, build, and voice were all wrong for the lead bandit, and I’d paid too little notice to the rest of the gang to tell if this man could have been part of the group. I decided to leave the investigation to the guards. If there was something worth looking into, they’d question him.

The remainder of the journey passed without incident. When the train pulled into Grand Central Depot in New York City, I noticed upon disembarking that the third-class passengers were being searched, so apparently the first and second classes were above suspicion. I was fortunate that my father’s last gesture of goodwill to me had been a second-class ticket.

In the depot, I was immediately swallowed by the sea of porters, newsboys, and passengers. After several vain attempts to get a porter’s attention, I was finally able to arrange for my trunk to be held. Then I followed the flow of humanity onto the concourse toward the exit, where I paused on the threshold. Seven potential employers had requested interviews based on my letters of application, so I had high hopes of obtaining a position and a place to stay by this evening. Beyond those doors lay my future, and I was ready for it to begin.