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(this was originally posted in three parts on the New Babbage Ning, as an RP lead-in for the Aether Salon in December of 2009. The topic was Shanghaied! and was held in the Steelhead Shanghai sim)

Part 1
It had been a busy week. I was working a fraud case for an out of town client and on my return to the Salon I began to get a sneaking feeling something was not right. It has been almost a year since I moved into the loft at the Salon, and set up the office for the agency in the back hallway of the second floor. The administrative office of the Salon proper was there also, and because of our schedules Viv and I end up playing a game of “who left what out where” quite a lot. She typically leaves her coffee cup on the bookcase, and I can tell how hard she has been working by the number of neatly folded truffle wrappers that end up on the sidetable in the lobby. She always knows when I have been working by the stack of books and papers left on the seat by the hearth, the number of coffee cups propped on the edge of the hearth, and the discarded take-out boxes that accumulate under the settee. We have been on rather different sleep rotations for quite some time, so this goes on as a weekly event.

I walked in, and the office was exactly how I had left it Thursday morning, down to the small bakery box of eclairs I picked up as a surprise for her. This was most unlike her, and I immediately looked for a note or anything that would indicate her absence. Nothing.

The lift rattled, and out walked Serafina, fresh from the library, arms loaded with books. She walked to worktable, and plopped the books down. She looked at me, and I could see the threads of worry that were already creasing her face.

“Sera, have you seen Viv today?"

"Why, no I haven’t. I stopped by yesterday and she wasn’t here then either.” She stopped and walked over to the aethergraph terminal, and began firing off a message. “ Maybe she is building. I can ring Jasper or Storm and ask them."

A few minutes later, the paper reel on the receiving printer began to chatter and scroll out a strip of paper. Sera picked up the ribbon and began to read the message. "Jasper and Storm haven't seen Viv either. Jed, I’m beginning to get worried. This isn’t like her."

I thought for a moment, and recalled that she was staying at the Mechanix Arms while some work was being done to her house. Perhaps she had overslept, or was still getting used to being in a strange place. I grabbed my coat, and checked the pistol still holstered in the small of my back. I opened my desk, and withdrew the pouch I keep loose rounds in and slipped it into my coat pocket. Sera looked at me and knew that I was worried if I was packing extra ammunition.

“Let’s walk over to the apartments and see if she’s home.”

A short walk later revealed the further disquieting news that no one had been home in a few days. The bed was still made, and the fire in the stove had long grown cold. I dropped a few fresh coals into the firebox, and relit the fire. We sat down on the sofa and began to muse on what was going on.

“Viv and I went out Wednesday night for drinks after work. We tried out that new place down on the docks. I thought it looked a bit seedy, but Viv insisted because someone had said they had good crab dip. She had several drinks but can usually hold her own. I knew I should have walked her home or insisted on ordering a cab for her, but you know how she gets. I walked with her a while, but I cut across to the Academy because I was in a hurry to get home and pack"

Sera looked at me, and I knew she was really worried now. "You think something has happened to Viv?"

"I don't know,” I replied "but I am going to find out."

Part 2
With no word from Viv, and likewise no word from any of my formal contacts around town, I decided it was time to do some old fashioned streetwork and see if I could find anything out down on the wharves.

I started at the Mechanix Arms, and walked the most likely path back to the little pub we visited the other night. Finding nothing on the direct route, I started checking the alleys and corners in Clockhaven, hoping that I could find some trace or someone who had observed her pass by.

Finally, in an alcove up one of the winding alleys, I found my first bits of evidence that told me something unpleasant had happened to my landlady.

There on the ground lay a pair of glasses. I picked them up and the stem was marked in small fine letters 'VT'. The next bit of evidence was nearby, a newly printed handbill advertising a limited sale on collectible and limited edition music boxes. The paper had a slight reddish brown stain on it, spattered as if slung. I stood for a moment, thinking of the likely scenario...someone approaches a lady who appears to have had a few too many drinks alone, and makes up some story about the sale. Oh please come, we're still open for business, we'll give you a discount...and when they are out of the public eye, a cosh to the head and away you go.

The only thing left that puzzled me was where would you take someone once you have them subdued? Babbage has it's share of nooks and dark places, to be certain, but if she was in town still, the motive becomes a question. Our normal crop of villains would have either broadcast to the world that they had taken her, or at the very least demanded a ransom.

I walked back to the street, and wandered, musing to myself, when the thought crossed my mind spurred by the blast of a whistle from the harbor. I walked directly to the harbormaster's office, and found that two ships had left port that night...the Caledon packet, and a tramp freighter that the harbor pilot had generously described as packed full of scoundrels. A further bit of questioning revealed that the tramp was in no mood to be delayed and was very eager to be off, so much so they cut lines rather than taking them in. The office staff didn't know their destination, but they said they were out of Steelhead, and the captain had commented he was eager to get home.

I walked briskly back to the Salon to pack. Time for a road trip.

Part 3
My suspicions led me to believe that my friend and landlady Viv Trafalgar had been kidnapped and spirited away to Steelhead, so I packed a bag and went to the docks to obtain a ship for passage. The advantage of being a flag officer is that I rarely get questioned if I take a ship out on short notice, so I headed to the Navy docks to see what was ready to sail. Again, my luck was holding…the NBS Tecumseh, an Apache class ironclad I had purchased from the Steelhead Naval Squadron for evaluation purposes sat idling at the provisioning pier. She was on rotation for the weekend sealane patrol, so I told the harbormaster I’d be taking her out. Again, no one really questioned me about that, and the choice would serve two purposes…a former Steelhead vessel would attract less attention, and she was faster than the Charger by a bit in case I needed to head out in a hurry. We pushed off, and we set sail for Steelhead harbor at flank speed.

While we were underway, and out of the harbor, I sat in my cabin and wrote a few letters in case things got ugly. First an apology to Commodore Nadir for not telling her I was operating on her turf, second an apology to the Clockwinder for causing a diplomatic incident, and finally brushed up my resignation in case things got really bad. Having done that, I put the letters in my safe, and set to cleaning and loading my pistols. A girl can’t be too careful when calling on someone who isn’t expecting company.

A few hours later, we caught sight of the Steelhead light, and I instructed the helm to make for a small cove near the actual harbor. Once we were at anchor, my instructions to the crew were simple. Keep the steam up, and if anything happens, or if I don’t come back by nightfall, head home. The deck crew put my longboat in the water, and I headed over to the docks.

I prowled the port for some time, sitting in wharfside bars, listening to the idle chatter of the hangers-on, and got the impression that if there was something shady afoot, I should head over to Shanghai, the largely Chinese section of the port. It was everything I had heard it to be…rough, busy, and with a definite air of something going on.

I was getting impatient, so I decided to risk a more direct means of getting some information. As luck would have it, I overheard a snippet of conversation between two men who looked rather unkempt and disheveled, and one mentioned ‘chasing the dragon’. He walked off, around the corner of the building to relieve himself, so I decided to have a private chat with him. With a little encouragement from Colonel Colt, he told me where I could find the entrance of one of the local opium dens that had a new serving girl. Long odds, maybe, but it was all I had to go on. I gave him a little something to remember me by, and rolled him behind the trashcans in the alley.

The entrance was well hidden, but obvious if you knew it was there. I opened the door, and headed down the hallway. It was a long sloping passage going deep underground, and I moved as quietly as the rough wood floors would allow. I neared the room at the end of the hallway, and managed to step on a particularly creaky board. From within the room, I heard movement, and a quiet cough.

"Is someone there?" someone tentatively said. It was her.

I kept to the shadows as best I could in the hall, and peeped into the room. It was filled with smoke, and reeked of opium, liquor and cheap tobacco. Viv stood there, trying to smooth down the wrinkles in the brief silk dress she wore, looking winsome and trying to show a weak smile. She squinted at the door, and felt her way around the table since she was not wearing her glasses. Viv coughed again, and cocked her head a little.

"Viv?" I whispered.
"Yes? Jed? Is that you?? How did you find me?”
I smiled at her as she walked over to the doorway "Some folks at port will have headaches and might be walking funny later"
"Where am I?" she asked.

"You are in Steelhead."
She looked at me, and I could tell that the rap on the head, plus all of the smoke, had not done a great deal to clear her mind, even with the shock of seeing me here.
"All I remember was a ... there was a ... oh! There was a music box sale!" She put a finger to her chin, and I could tell she was working to concentrate. "And then there was a lady who said I had to work off my transportation"
Viv looked stern for a moment "Steelhead? I’m in Steelhead?"
I nodded, "They kidnapped you from Babbage Viv"
"who is 'they', and where are my glasses and what day is it?"

I took her by the hand, and said “It's Sunday, a week after I saw you last.”
Viv looked shocked, and I could tell the grogginess was wearing off “A whole week? Goodness. What in the world? It must be all the smoke down here, but it feels like just yesterday that I woke up here.”

I reached into my coat pocket and handed her glasses to her. She smiled and put them back on.

“Come on,” I said, “we are getting out of here...can you walk? She nodded, took a step, then stopped again as she remembered something.

“Wait - this is Sunday? There's a salon today!” she stammered. “We need to get out of here!” I slipped my arm around her waist to steady her, and we headed up the corridor.

She started to sob just a bit as we walked up the hallway.
“I've been ... I think I've been waiting tables! In this shack! and I bet there isn't a music box at all. The music box was a LIE. I bet there isn't any cake either."

We neared the top of the hall, and Viv looked at me with a little bit of confusion.
“How do we get out? I don't remember getting in.”
"Come on." We walked through the door, out into the cold sunlight of a Steelhead morning.

I could tell she was still weak from her ordeal, so I looked for somewhere we could rest a bit. There was a hotel at the top of the hill, so we went in to get a room. The desk clerk eyed Viv suspiciously because of her dress, but my demeanor (and the fact I assume he caught a glimpse of the bit of ivory and brass peeking from the folds of my skirt’s waistband) convinced him to give me a room.

Once we got up to the room, I could tell she was beginning to come around.
“What did they do with my clothes I wonder…I need my clothing back.” she said. Viv stood in front of the mirror, looking and fussing.
“Imagine me dressed like this! It’s ... shocking. I have holes in my stockings too. Oh dear, I do hope no one sees us.”
I sat back in the chair in the room, and relaxed a bit. She looked over at me, and I couldn’t help but to grin a little.
“Who knows Viv. I'm just glad to have gotten you back. I’ll send down to the ship, and you can wear something of mine until we get home.”
She stopped for a moment, and smiled back at me with that familiar old smile.
“I am very glad to see you too Jed.”
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Jedburgh Dagger

April 2014


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