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The Automaton Anarchy: Chapter 2, Scene 1


The carriage drove over a canal spanning bridge in the middle of Harrisburg. Rain continued to pelt the coach and city alike.

“Winifred, how do you know that this tip your young man provided us with is relevant?” asked Ignatius.

“I don’t know for certain if it is or not. Susie could simply have seen smugglers, honest laborers or any other kind of person. However, it is something to check out.”

“How far north is it?”

“The toy factory is practically at the edge of the city’s limits. Why?”

“No good reason, just curious,” said Ignatius.

Although he said that to Winifred, Ignatius had a good reason. The toy factory would be in the shadow of the Pennsylvania State Mental Hospital. The hospital squatted atop the hill looking west toward the Susquehanna River, casting a shadow of growing foreboding as the carriage drew nearer. Ignatius tried to close his eyes and push the thoughts of his incarceration aside. The exercise had the opposite effect, unbidden images of a dank, cold room with bars instead of glass in the window that allowed the weather in, pressed on his mind. He spent long hours laying on filthy floors, restrained by strap and a body that no longer worked, as it should. That thought brought him back to the present.

“Winifred, I am going to need your assistance. I cannot walk without my braces plugged into my spine. Recently, they have failed with a variety of negative feedback. In order to give myself a modicum of respite I unplugged from them earlier today.”

Winifred frowned, “If I understand you, there’s a chance that you’ll be in pain.”

“I would say it is more of a certainty. That is just the way it is. I cannot wheel around in this chair throughout the factory. I must be on my feet.”

“All right, what do you want me to do?” asked Winifred.

“Lift the back of my shirt, and insert the colored plug into the corresponding jack. Then cross your fingers.”

Ignatius swiveled around on the seat, removing his coat and vest and offering his back to Winifred. The policeman came across the coach and lifted the shirt. With as much care as he could muster, Winifred put each plug into its corresponding hole. As the last one slid in place, Ignatius’s right foot jerked spastically for a minute before settling down. Ignatius struggled back into his over clothes as the handsome cab continued on.

“How do you feel Ignatius?” asked Winifred.

“Better, now that my leg stopped twitching. I should have some mobility in a few minutes. After that we shall see, ” Ignatius said with a wry grin.

Winifred looked morosely at Ignatius for a minute before he rubbed his eyes, “From what I recall the factory is closed, the owner shut down because of the war effort. They produced some simple toys for children along with some more sophisticated items.”

Ignatius nodded, “I recall the name, Smith, I think. Timothy Smith. It looks like we are here.”

Outside the rain was like a veil falling across the intervening distance. A brick wall encircled the factory and came together in an iron gate, which led into the yard. Behind the factory, the canal was visible. No light or motion came from behind the broken windows. The yard was a weed choked place, broken bricks left gaps in the ground. A cart rotted in one corner near some empty crates, which once held parts. The rain hissed as it fell to the ground.

“Wait here, I’ll see about the gate,” Winifred said to Ignatius.

The officer climbed out of the coach and jogged the short distance to the entrance. He shook the main gates vigorously for a moment, dislodging flakes of rust and rattling the heavy chain. Humming to himself, Ignatius opened his case. He sorted through the contents until he found what he was looking for. Taking it out, he climbed down and followed Winifred. His steps were ungainly, but he managed the distance from coach to gate.

“Perhaps, this can help,” he said.

He unstopped the vial and poured the viscous contents onto the chains. In a few seconds, the metal bubbled and hissed. A minute later, the chain fell away, untouched by either man.

“Blimey, what was that?” asked Winifred.

“A little distillate of Phlogiston. I procured a sample last month, thought it might come in handy at some point.”

“Isn’t that evidence? That should be locked up.”

“My dear man, it is of no consequence. This sample was never in evidence.”

Winifred drew in a sharp breath, “You withheld evidence? That’s just as bad.”

“Now is not the most advantageous time to hold this discussion. First, we are getting wet. Second, it is only moderately germane to our current assignment. Do not fret. I did not do anything illegal, which might result in my being sent back to jail. Let us return to the coach, gather some more supplies and forge ahead.”

Together the pair went back to the carriage. Myron peered over the driver’s bench at them.

“Come down from there, Myron. You can wait inside of the coach and keep yourself at least somewhat drier,” said Ignatius.

“Thank you, sir. I’ll hobble the horses straightaway.”

Myron climbed down and around to the back of the coach where he kept some tools and a variety of supplies for the horses. Ignatius pulled his case from inside the cab and extracted the goggles, which went into one of his coat’s pockets. He followed with a set of lock picks, a couple of phials of his glowing light chemical and reached onto the seat for his cane. Winifred drew a service pistol from under his coat and checked the action and cylinder. Myron stepped up into the coach and took off his hat, placing it next to him on the seat.

“Stay dry Myron, we should be back before too long,” said Ignatius.

“If trouble does break out, go find some cops and bring the back here,” directed Winifred.

“Right, no problem at all,” Myron said.

The driver took an apple out of his pocket and started to slice it with a knife. Winifred and Ignatius went back to the gates and together pulled them open wide enough to pass through. They walked along the cobblestone expanse of the factory’s yard, towards a faded set of doors. Colorful broad stripes once blasted across the face of the building, now they were dim memories, scarcely recalled. A couple of broken bottles stood as silent sentries next to the entrance for workers and customers.

Ignatius handed a jar of the light solution to Winifred, along with whispered directions on its use. Winifred nodded and cocked his pistol. Ignatius examined the door handle. Carefully, Ignatius took the knob and tried to turn it. With a slight squeak, the knob turned and the latch disengaged from the doorjamb. The hinges cried out when Ignatius put his shoulder against the wood and pressed it inward. Both he and Winifred flinched at the sound.

They paused, still, listening for reaction to the noise. Nothing responded to the door. Exercising caution, the men entered the small reception area of the factory. A receptionist’s desk stood opposite the entrance. To the right an ornate set of double doors led out to the factory floor, to the left were some stairs up to the offices and between them another door marked with a sign for employees. Weak light from the outside filtered its way into the building through four grime-encrusted windows. Ignatius strapped his goggles on and adjusted the lenses. The room shone brighter with the goggles amplifying the existing light.

“Where should we start?” asked Ignatius.

“Let’s try the back. The tip said the canal side is where they entered. That’s as good a place as any other.”

“All right. If you need light, use the phial I gave you.”

Ignatius crossed the reception area with his shuffling gait and pushed his way past a few dust-encrusted spider webs to the main production floor. The goggles allowed Ignatius to view the room with relative clarity. Long tables stood laden with unassembled parts for various toys, boxes half filled with finished goods and sheets of faded labels. At the far end of the enormous room, chutes from the floor above once delivered the necessary components to the table. A worker would start with the base of whichever toy that was being built and pass it down to the next worker who had another chute delivering the next part.

The work would continue down the table to the end, where upon completion the toy went into a crate for shipping. Along the far wall were some lathes and other wood working machines. The stillness of the room was crypt-like, a notion further enhanced by the doll’s heads that stared out with unblinking painted glass eyes. Ignatius moved with purpose to the end of the workshop that looked out over the canal. To his left was the employee entrance, presumably from the lunchroom or changing area. Winifred leaped-frogged past Ignatius and reached the far wall. Windows stretched from one side of the factory to the other, broken up by a sliding door that had a smaller single door built into it.

“Ignatius, over here,” Winifred said in a whisper.

The urgency in his voice made Ignatius move as quickly as he was able. At the single door Winifred indicated the floor, stark white marks began half a foot from the doorframe. Ignatius also saw the layers of dust were no longer even. Winifred touched Ignatius’s shoulder and pointed at the door’s lock. The splintered wood and bent metal spoke of a forcible entry.

Ignatius pantomimed shoving at the door, and Winifred nodded his agreement. Someone or something entered the building recently. It appeared that the tip was a good one. Ignatius studied the drag marks and pointed to the north side of the factory. Together they stalked across the floor, tracking the marks. Near the north wall, a railing came away from it bending 90 degrees and ran seven feet parallel to it. A staircase leading down slowly became visible in the faint light.

Winifred gave the vial he carried a violent shake forcing the two chemical compounds inside to co-mingle. After a minute passed, a soft light radiated out from the container, illuminating the stairwell. Ignatius waved Winifred onward with his walking stick. Winifred descended the stairs, finding the sides to be thick timbers that bore a heavy coating of plaster. The steps ended leaving Winifred standing in a small space before the heaviest single door he had ever come across. In the middle, at eye level, there was a dense glass window.

Drops of water fell from the ceiling above, making their way to earth. They splashed into a puddle on the floor next to the iron doorway, tiny ripples spread outwards with each drip. Holding the light up to the hatchway, a haze confounded his attempt to look through the glass porthole.

With care, he attempted to turn the handle, but it would not budge. Laying his ear against the door Winifred felt a chill from the surface. The frigid metal vibrated ever so slightly underneath Winifred’s ear and the cold did not seem to be a simple case of being in a shadowy part of the factory. To him it felt like the temperature behind the door was artificially cooler than where he stood.

“Winifred, what is the situation?” Ignatius called as loudly as he dared.

“I’m coming back up,” replied Winifred.

At the top of the stairs, he briefed Ignatius.

“A locked door, which is cold and vibrates,” said Ignatius.

“Yes, like it should be at the butcher’s shop, that kind of cold.”

“Might it be as though there is some kind of refrigeration being employed below?”

“Exactly.”

“And the door is locked?”

“Yes.”

“We will need to find another way in. This section of Cameron Street was where meat arrived before going to the various restaurants and markets in the city before the war, is that not correct?”

“Yes. If memory serves, there were a number of storage facilities along the river to take delivery from the canal.”

“I think it is safe to say that before being a toy factory, this site was a cold storage facility. It would not be suitable to try to get an entire cow carcass down those stairs and through the door. A lift of some kind I should think,” said Ignatius.

Winifred held the light aloft and played it across the nearest wall. Just past the railing, a horizontal split door gaped open like a giant’s maw.

“There,” said the policeman, “I don’t know how I missed it earlier.”

“In this gloom,” replied Ignatius, “Easily. I did not see it either. Come. let us see what is there.”

Winifred went first, with the light held up over his head. Ignatius pushed the goggles back on his head since the light Winifred carried overpowered the lenses. Inside the opening was a shaft. Thick ropes ran up through a pulley and back down to an open-air box. Metal beams arched over it, connecting to the ropes. Ignatius pointed down and then at the rope and finally to himself then Winifred.

Winifred nodded his agreement. Ignatius slid his cane through a belt loop before springing straight into the open shaft and grabbed a hold of the ropes. The sudden weight of his body plus the braces shocked his shoulders and dragged his hands roughly across the fibrous rope. Biting his lip, Ignatius descended into the shaft, touched down one the elevator car’s frame and gingerly lowered himself into it. Seconds later Winifred stood next to him.

There was only silence at first. However, as Ignatius settled his breathing and heartbeat another sound registered. It was a steady rhythmic beat of a turning flywheel. With Winifred’s light held high, they could not see any machinery. All that was there in the silent semidarkness was a short hall. The gate was obligingly open, so Ignatius led Winifred through it into the hall. The walls were plaster and their breath came in ghostly clouds. With great care, they turned a corner entering a large open room.

Standing squarely in the middle of the room was a large slab made from wood and ice. Something rested atop of it under a tarpaulin. Several hoses ran down from the ceiling, vanishing under the covering. Over to one side a pump gurgled as it sent a thick fluid from a canister through another tube, which again ran under the tarp. The air smelled of a mortuary, a cesspool and the sickly floral notes of honeysuckle.

“Oh my sainted Aunt Tilly, what in God’s name is that?” gasped Winifred.

3 Comments
  1. Another great chapter..lovely read

    • Thank you so much for being one of the most consistent readers! I cannot tell you how much I appreciate it.

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