Endeavour’s Fall #7: Up Under the FloorboardsJan 1, 2017
At the first turning of the second stair
I turned and saw below
The same shape twisted on the banister
Under the vapour in the fetid air.
– Tom S. Eliot
Sam did not know what to expect at the stairs’ apogee. He certainly did not expect the sound of raucous music so close to the poverty and violence of the rift. But as he rose higher and higher the tinny-sounding piano music grew louder and louder. Finally, the stairway lurched to a stop, floating unsteadily and nearly level underneath filthy wooden floorboards.
Despite finding himself hanging high in the air, Sam felt relatively safe and hidden. He did not want to move. He considered remaining on the stairs until the troops left and the staircase descended again. Sam was sure he could disappear before the bouncer caught him.
Then again, this was as close as Sam might ever get to the streets of Albany and Doctor McCallister. He had not found any other way out of the rift. And the edges of the worn stairs were already digging into ribs. With a sigh, he crawled slowly across the swaying staircase.
Sam crept up three solid stairs that attached the suspended staircase to the rest of building. It felt good to be on solid ground again. Still kneeling, Sam peered through wooden handrails, his eyes at ground level.
The building was some kind of saloon, like the ones Sam had seen in Switch, but larger and more brightly decorated. The bouncer sat at a wooden table with his back to Sam, deep in conversation with a whiskered man and the fat man with the flowered waistcoat. Other men sat at other tables around the room. Most were smoking and drinking. Nobody noticed Sam.
Sam strained to listen.
“…bloody Redcoats are worse than the Huns. It is getting so a man can’t have a good time around here,” the fat man complained.
“No, no, the Germans are much worse!” The whiskered man disagreed loudly.
“Perhaps. But if you throw in an Iroquois or two, all bets are off.”
“Or one of those Star Chamber fellows, they suck the joy out of a room. I think they may be worse than the redskins.”
“Maybe. The Iroquois just skin you alive.”
“Did you hear the one about that Edson fellow down in New Jersey? He was the Star Chamber’s prisoner, you see? They took him, and tied him down in a machine that would write words directly onto his skin…”
“That’s a lie!” bellowed the fat man. “They have been telling that story for years. You can’t believe what anyone says about the Star, the Star…”
“Quiet down, mate, the ears have walls, you know!” The man with whiskers lazily scanned the room.
“Well, speaking of our friends from the Star Chamber,” said the bouncer quietly, leaning in to the table, “I think they are going to be mighty angry here shortly. We may get to see some fireworks.”
The two other men perked up.
“I hear this airship took some guns aboard. Special guns meant for the Star Chamber, with no patent for use on an airship.”
“That’s unlikely, Meyers. Who would risk angering the Star Chamber?”
“That’s what my mate said. The Star Chamber are out, and this Captain, he must have a real bee in his cap about something. They moored the airship and his men grabbed the guns. The Colonel didn’t want to pick a fight about it, and is just waiting for the Star Chamber types to return. My mate said his soldiers are glad, because now the Colonel refuses to order troops on the airship.”
“They are one big happy family in the Fort, aren’t they?” said the whiskered man. They all laughed roughly. The fat man coughed deep in his throat and spit something dark onto the floor.
Sam edged up the stairs. No one watched the back of the saloon. The bouncer was looking into his cup.
“When I was in the militia in New York, we was stationed down by the Wall Street. No, don’t laugh, it’s true. This was back when militia work was all we could do,” the bouncer said. “One day, one of them massive tankers pulled in. You know, the ones as big as a town, with rows and rows of paddles on them?”
The fat man waved for a waitress. “Bring this old drunk another one, dearie. I think he’s gone and dried out.”
Sam carefully peered around the counter. The whole table was watching the bouncer and waitress. Sam slid along the wall towards the front of the building as the story continued. Then, as boldly as he could, he walked calmly towards the door while the drunks continued their chatter.
“What?!” The bouncer yelled from his table. Sam froze.
“That’s not even a story! I’ve heard better in church!” someone yelled.
Sam crept towards the door again. The men at the table argued loudly about whether the story deserved a beer or not.
Sam slid quietly out the heavy wooden door and onto the street. The cobblestone street was nothing special, but after the absolute filth of the Rift, Sam felt dirty and out of place with his ragged, mud-covered pants and feet.
He looked up and down the road. Many tradespeople in Albany hang metal symbols above their front door to advertise their craft. Sam saw a metal loaf of bread, a shoe, and a hammer. He wondered what the symbol for a doctor might be.
Sam’s wandering took him near entrance to Fort Frederick. From the street, its walls looked much less imposing than from the Rift, but the tall mooring tower still reached skyward, high above Sam’s head. Sam turned down a side street so he would not wander too close to the guards posted at the open gates.
Sam noticed a boy standing comfortably leaning back against a wall, as if he did not have a care in the world. He had black skin and was a bit shorter than Sam, and looked a bit older too, but it was hard to tell. Maybe it was the way he returned Sam’s stare without flinching, but he looked comfortable and confident in his surroundings. He might know his way around Albany.
“Hi there.” Sam raised a hand in greeting.
“Hey yourself. Did ya just fall offa boat?”
The boy had a strong Cockney accent. Not a local then, thought Sam, but Albany was a big city, and immigrants were more common than in Switch.
“Oh, the mud. No, I went for a walk. Down by the river.”
“That’s interesting. The troops at Fort Frederick also just went for a walk down by the river. Must be something in the air.” The boy cracked a brilliant white smile. “No, don’t worry about it. I don’t owe any favors to those army louts.” He put his hand on Sam’s shoulder. “What’s your name, friend? I’m Jack.”
© J. O. Evans 2017. All Rights Reserved.