Tripping up the Foodchain
Or, There and Back Again, a Warehouse Tale by anamatics
It was strange now, with Pete gone most of the time. Claudia Donovan kicked a pebble down the alleyway she was cutting through and scowled as it bounced off an overflowing rubbish bin. The little stone veered off to the left and clattered down into the gutter, full of unmentionables that Claudia did not allow herself a moment's thought.
It was just swell.
Lattimer had taken that young reporter he was so hung up on and had left for France; nearly gotten Claudia killed, and then become so busy that she almost never saw him. She hated it, hated feeling alone. Her brother had been the same way, before he'd vanished off to Boston to go to college and hadn't returned.
Joshua still wrote to her sometimes, Pete was just gone.
She had caught him, late into the night, burning the midnight oil as the expression went. He would sit at her aunt's kitchen table, pouring over old and dusty books, documents, schematics. Anything that he could get his hands on that was strange and unusual.
She'd caught him talking about Edison and Tesla on several occasions in hushed tones to himself or to that reporter. Sometimes H.G. would come around too; but Claudia found herself on the outside looking in at a relationship that was just starting to fully develop.
The three of them knew things that Claudia could barely dream of. She could hardly think ahead of the fact that she was working with Steven to finalize their airplane design. He had already contacted a patent lawyer, but she wasn't entirely sure that she wanted to take credit for what it was that they had created.
She understood that Steven's … preferences … kept him out of respected scientific circles, the same circles that had welcomed her brother with open arms. She hated it, and she wanted this airplane to mean something to the world.
It had the potential to. She knew it.
She swiped moodily at her nose and glanced up at the sky. Autumn was coming and while the city still baked in the early September heat, she knew it was only a matter of time before the cold and the inevitable snow out on Long Island would keep her from the skies.
Claudia was nothing without the sky. She was like an old shanty, the ones the sailors used to sing about their love of the never ending stretch of blue that was the ocean. She supposed that the sky wasn't all that different, but she can't sing about it. The words never came in a way that made any sense to her, jumbled and messed up and half in a dialect that she hasn't heard spoken since Joshua ran away.
And now Pete was gone too. Gone and never coming back. She scowled and kicked at a garbage bin in the street moodily. "Ass," she muttered.
Her aunt's home was little more than a resting place for her head these days. She hated it, hated how the walls felt like they were closing in around her while Pete and got to take his dames and go off and have adventures. He was farther along in his Alger novel than she was, that much was for certain.
"'lo," Claudia said quietly as she unlocked the kitchen door. A single lamp was still lit at the middle of the rough oak of her aunt's kitchen table, burning oil despite the fact that her aunt's home (and the entire neighborhood) now boasted electric lighting.
Pete Lattimer smiled at her in the half light, and held up what looked like a schematic, "Do you want to take a look at the future, Claud?" The way he said it, the manic gleam in his eyes, Claudia felt her own grin erupt across her face and she hurried over to sit next to him. Her chair scraped against the floor of the kitchen and for once Claudia didn't care that she was covered in grease and dirty from fixing the motor on the airplane. Her aunt was asleep and would never know of this.
"What are these?" She asked, exhaling quietly into a low whistle as Pete pushed the plans into her hands.
"Bee's knees, that's what." Pete muttered, moving the lamp closer to her so that she could read more clearly. "Some kid out in Utah drew 'em up. We've never seen anything like 'em before."
"Utah?" Claudia's eyes narrowed at the thought of a state so far away from New York and the center of the known universe. "How on earth did you get 'em then?"
Pete pursed his lips and reached for his pack of Lucky Stripes. He lit one and offered the package to Claudia, who shook her head. She was covered in oil and petrol, it probably was not a good idea to be smoking around her. She'd light up like the huns during the war and that was the last thing she wanted – a fire in her aunt's kitchen.
After taking a long drag, Pete exhaled smoke up towards the ceiling and closed his eyes. "I know a fella who works at the patent office."
Claudia pulled the plans closer, noting the location and raising her eyebrows, "In Utah?"
Pete gave her a weak smile before nodding.
She stared at him, skeptical.
Ever since that woman – Myka Bering – had waltzed into Pete's life, he'd had friends like that. People who were so well-connected that Claudia began to wonder if there really was a single entity running interference in all aspects of government, pulling out all the stops and controlling everything and anything of relevance. She saw it working in the city even as President Harding was dragged down into scandal after speech upon impassioned speech about the death of the New York political machine. Claudia Donovan was no fool. She knew that Pete had become connected, somehow, to something far bigger than anything that she'd ever imagined before.
"Claud-" Pete began, closing his eyes and taking another pull on his cigarette.
Claudia stopped him before he could even dare continue, "That's bull Pete and you know it." She narrowed her eyes, glaring at him and folding her arms across her chest. The Bronx Cheer escaped her lips and Pete scowled at her. "You stole it from the patent office for your nig-"
"Do not," Pete began, cutting her off now. His face was contorted into something that could be considered anger, had he not looked so incredibly sad. "Do not let me hear that word come out of your mouth again, Claudia."
She raised an eyebrow, daring him to strike her. "Or what?"
He stubbed out of his cigarette, "She is my employer and a far more important person than you'll ever meet." She blinked and jerked her chin forward, perhaps politely asking him to continue. "Also she could kill you with her brain."
Now this, this Claudia would actually pay to see.
"Why is she giving you these plans then?" Claudia pulled the schematic towards herself and read the name, carefully penned in drafter's handwriting in the corner. "I doubt that this Farnsworth fella'd appreciate you stealing his ideas."
Pete sighed, running a hand over his 12-hour old beard, "We're not going to steal them. You are going to go to Utah and offer him endless wonder."
She stared at him, openly and unapologetically. Her parents, before their death, and now her aunt, all of them had told her that it was rude to stare, but Claudia could not help it. "Come again?"
"Claudia," Pete sighed again and reached for another cigarette. The glow from the match illuminated his face in stark contrast for a moment, the harsh lines of his face casting sharp shadows in the dim light of the kitchen. "You are an inventor, you built that airplane."
"Steve built the 'plane," Claudia retorted.
"Now that's baloney and we both know it." Pete rolled up the schematic, cigarette dangling from his lips, and slipped a rubber band around the plan. He held it out to Claudia, "I know that I… I haven't been around as much recently, and that I can't tell you what you need to know. I think, if you follow up on this, that you'll have your answers."
Claudia swallowed and reached out her hand to take the plans. Lattimer paused for a moment, and then handed her another canvas-wrapped package as well. "For you and Steven," was all he said by means of explanation.
"We have to go to Utah," Claudia announced, walking into the airplane hangar the following morning. Farnsworth's schematic was tucked under her arm, along with a clean pair of bloomers and a dress. She had not had time, that morning, to acquire a suitcase from her aunt. She did not want to borrow trouble in asking, and she figured that they'd be able to go faster if they traveled light. She wasn't like H.G. or Ms. Bering with their trunks full of supplies for a simple journey.
Steve had a streak of oil across his face when he stepped into the late summer sunlight. He wiped his hands on a cloth before blinking tiredly at Claudia, his smile easy in the Long Island sun. "Utah?"
Claudia shrugged, shoving moodily at her hair, pushing it out of her eyes and pulling Steve over towards the workbench. She set her dress and bloomers down on a relatively grease and oil-free section of the space, before pulling the band off of the schematic and unrolling it. "Pete gave me these."
He leaned forward, his nose almost touching the paper as he stared at the plans. His eyes were hard and confused when he finally looked up at Claudia's excited face. "This… this doesn't exist."
"It's a patent application draft, Fly Boy," Claudia grinned. "I want to go and meet the kid who drew 'em."
This was out of character for her, Claudia knew this. She knew better than to expect anything from Steve but raised eyebrows and refusals. She thought she was going to have to take him down to the speakeasy in Alphabet City and get him good and drunk before he'd agree to take their 'plane longer and further than it had ever been before.
Steve smiled then, easy as his fingers trailed over the plans, pausing in certain areas, looking to Claudia for understanding. Claudia, the woman, the girl, who couldn't possibly know anything about these things. Claudia who understood everything. "Are we doing Lattimer's dirty work now?" He asked mildly.
She wanted to say yes, to leave that scary negro woman that she'd met in the sewers out of it, but Claudia wasn't a fool. This had her fingerprints all over it, she was far too connected to not be somehow involved. Claudia nervously chewed her lip and shook her head. "Frederic."
"Ah," Steve said. "Look, we don't have to if you don't want to. I know that it'd be the bee's knees and all to meet this fella, but it's not worth getting pulled into whatever Lattimer's been pulled into." He stepped away from the workbench and folded his arms across his chest.
She couldn't do it. Claudia wasn't prepared to say no to this opportunity, to see what exactly Pete had meant by 'endless wonder'. It seemed so out of character for him, shell shocked as he was, to suggest such a thing existing. For him to believe it implied a good bit about his new employer, why he had access to pre-approved patent schematics, and how on earth he'd known that there was a kid this smart in Utah of all places.
"I want to go," Claudia whispered. She couldn't look at Steve. "I want to go because I want to be a part of whatever it is that they're a part of now." She exhaled and stared at her hands, at the blueprints under them. "I know that they're doing good, solving puzzles, saving the day, that sort of thing. I want to be a part of that."
"Don't you like me?" Steve joked, leaning in and pushing her shoulder gently.
She looked up at him, tears in her eyes. "I do! How could you even-" she swiped angrily at her eyes and then scowled at him. "I think this is a test."
"Obviously," Steve muttered and she stuck her tongue out at him. "If you want to go to see what sort of test is in store for you, then we should go, Claud."
"They want you too, Steven Jinks."
"That I very much doubt."
There was a moment of silence before Claudia leaned forward, her hand clasping around Steve's upper arm. Her eyes were sharp and she stared upwards into the eyes of the man who had become like her brother. "Steve, you're brilliant, everyone can see that." Claudia worried at her lip for a moment. "This place that Lattimer 'n them are working for now – it doesn't care. Pete, Ms. Bering, H.G…. they don't care; they work for a Jew and a Negro. What's a three letter man to them?"
Steve was silent for a moment before he raised a grease-streaked hand to his forehead and touched it briefly. Claudia had seen him do that on numerous occasions. He was gathering himself, preparing for the inevitable. Claudia hated how awful it was for him, to be how he was in this day and age when it just wasn't seen as acceptable. He could be committed if he wasn't careful, and Claudia could never let that happen. Her brother was gone, only Steve remained – as Pete had left her holding the bag and had run off to do whatever it was he did with HG Wells and Ms. Bering.
"I suppose nothing," Steve shrugged. Claudia had never truly found out how he and Pete Lattimer had met, but she supposed that it had to have been under very interesting and potentially dire circumstances. Lattimer didn't seem to do them any other way, he had a taste for adventure like that. "I find that sometimes Lattimer and his friends leave us in the dark about what they're doing."
Claudia brightened. She leaned into Steve and rested her cheek against his shoulder. He was her elder brother now, her own gone and left her in the care of a disinterested aunt. "I think this is their trying to bring us into the light."
"No need to make it sound biblical, nothing but heretics here," Steve joked, pushing Claudia away and heading towards the back of the hangar where he kept his personal effects. He had trouble finding a place to live, people knew about him – the raid on the gin joint he had met Pete Lattimer at was enough to give Steve a reputation that was undeserved, but still, unfortunately, a reality at this point in time. Claudia knew that he could have a place at her aunt's boarding house up until the very moment that someone made a crude joke. She would throw him out and probably report him to the authorities faster than Claudia could run to warn Steve.
No, it was better that they stayed closed, stayed safe. Steve didn't mind the hangar, there was an enclosed room with a stove that worked well in the winter, but now. As the summer waned, it was time for them to go, once again.
"So, Utah?" Steve asked, pulling a rucksack out from under his bed. "Do you have any idea what the weather is like there in September?"
Claudia shook her head, shrugging on her flight jacket. Her things were just outside the hangar. She wasn't sure if Steve would agree, but she wanted to be sure. They needed to leave as soon as possible, because Pete implied that their window to do this was closing, rapidly. "Not a clue."
"Best back for the fall then, doubt it'll be like the city in the summer," Steve shrugged on his own flight jacket. The airplane had enough fuel to get them to Chicago, maybe even St. Louis before they'd have to refuel. "Hey Claud?"
Claudia glanced up from where she'd bent to tie her shoe. "Mmmn?"
"How old is this kid?"
Claudia smirked. "Probably my age."
"Just checking that I'll still be the resident stupid person."
Steve just laughed, and tossed his bag into the back of the airplane.
They made it to St. Louis. Claudia was trying to force the memories of their harrowing descent onto an abandoned road outside of the city out of her head as she and Steve gathered their empty fuel tanks and prepared to thumb a ride across the Missouri country side into town where they could find an aviation club that would afford them fuel for their 'plane. The unfortunate thing was that neither of them had any idea where one of those might be. St. Louis was not a town that either of them were particularly familiar with, and there was no time to send a telegram back to New York to ask Pete if they would be funded for this trip.
A lone automobile meandered its way down the road and Claudia found herself hanging back as Steve began to walk backwards, fuel can over his shoulder and his thumb stuck out. The driver slowed, leaning out over the steering wheel of his older GM automobile. "You folks belong to that monstrosity down the road there?" He jerked his thumb back over his shoulder towards the airplane that Claudia and Steve had done their best to push off the road and into the overgrown brush that flanked both sides of the road.
Steve smiled guiltily and nodded.
"Strangest airplane I've ever seen," The driver shook his head. "You kids going into town?"
Claudia nodded, stepping forward, "We are, sir. We um… ran out of gas."
The man's hat fell back off of the top of his head, he's throwing his head backwards and laughing. His cheeks rounded into a wide smile and he slapped his knee. "That's what y'all get, riding around in that fool contraption." He reached behind him and pulled his cap back on, fitting it comfortably back onto his head. "Get on in the back, I can take you into town."
St. Louis loomed heavy in the distance, the walk too far for Steve or Claudia to make on their own with two full cans of fuel each. They would have to go along with this stranger, despite the misgivings that Claudia's brother's voice in her head said about meeting with strange men.
The man's name was Bo Riley, he was a sharecropper north of the city who went into down on Sunday afternoons to pick up a newspaper and supplies from the hardware store on the outskirts of town. His wife and son, he explained, were still at church. "The afternoon session is too much religion for me," He explained, as he maneuvered the automobile around potholes in the dusty road. "This way, I can go to the city for a mo' and they can have their church dinner with all the ladies there." He shrugged, "Works perfect."
Claudia knew that it was probably not smart to be in the back seat of an auto belonging to a Negro man in a place like Missouri. She'd heard tell from the Negro folk who kipped near her aunt's boarding house that the south and the west were unpleasant places to live for their kind. They came north to the cities where there were jobs and damn near more prejudice and intolerance than where they'd left. Claudia didn't know the solution. Pete and his progressives swore that it was all in education. Teach the women and the poor and the Negro and they would rise above their station.
Intelligence, Claudia reasoned, was not everything. She wondered how dangerous it was that Mr. Riley could read at all. This wasn't twenty years ago, or even thirty, and many men learned to do such things in the service. Mr. Riley didn't seem shell-shocked, and Claudia did not want to make any assumptions of military service that were unearned for Pete's sake.
"Sounds like a good arrangement," Steve agreed. They'd strapped their fuel cans to the back of Mr. Riley's truck, and they were now progressing into the city proper. It was different from New York. Buildings still scraped the sky, but not nearly as high. Everywhere there were signs of industry.
They agreed that Mr. Riley would drop them off at the fueling station, do his errands, and then pick them up to take them back down the road to where they'd left the airplane. Steve dug in his pocket for some coins, Claudia knew that it was only polite to offer to help their savior out with the fuel it would cost to transport them back to the airplane, but Mr. Riley shrugged it off. "There's a bumper crop this year, kids, I needn't worry 'bout it."
The fueling station thankfully had the grade of petrol that they needed to propel the airplane, made possible only by mixing two separate types of fuel together into a concoction that was probably more than lethal if inhaled or set alight. Claudia perched comfortably down on the top of their largest can and pulled out the patent application that they were supposed to be looking into. She had next-to-no knowledge on this Farnsworth character, only that he was a student at Brigham Young University and there was a good chance that he would refuse whatever offer Lattimer had passed them in the sealed envelope now resting at the bottom of her rucksack.
"What do you think Lattimer wants us to get from this kid?" she asked, staring listlessly across the city street into the front of a department store advertising prices three times that in the Sears Catalogue. She supposed that she was removed from society here. The people here were friendly, perhaps overly willing to help out a stranger in need, but they were not New York's people.
Steve took a long pull on his cigarette before tossing the butt to the ground and stubbing it out with the toe of his work boot. His eyes were squinting in the bright Midwestern sun. His tinted flight goggles were around his neck and his sleeves were rolled up. He looked like any other flyboy Claudia had ever known, only she knew he was the best there was.
"Dunno, Claud," He said, spitting moodily at the ground. "All we can do is hope that he comes without a fuss, if that is indeed what Lattimer wants."
Claudia's expression was grim, thinking of the other object in her rucksack, the one that she had not told Steve about. The pistol-like handgun that Pete had explained shot something other than bullets. "It's called a Tesla," he had explained. "Named for the maker." Her eyes had widened at that, and she'd thought she'd fallen into a science fiction serial. Extraterrestrials and all that hoopla. "It'll knock anyone out who gets in your way."
She hoped she wouldn't have to use it.
Mr. Riley came back an hour and a half later. Claudia and Steve were just finishing off sandwiches purchased at a diner a block down the road. They'd had a long day, and probably would not travel any more until the morning.
Still, they accepted his offer of a lift back to the airplane. Neither Claudia or Steve had the fortitude or strength to carry that much petrol that far without some means of transporting it. Mr. Riley's automobile sagged low to the ground under the load as it was, and the engine whined unhappily as the car crawled through the late-afternoon sunlight.
In the growing twilight, Claudia caught sight of a small pin at Mr. Riley's lapel. It looked like an eye with a swirl on the underside. She'd seen something similar to it in some of Ms. Bering's writings – and in H.G.'s schematics that she still bothered to share with Claudia on occasion. The mark was a re-occurring sign in her life. It had to have meaning beyond just being a pretty symbol.
As discretely as she could, jammed in the back of a two-seat automobile, Claudia pulled a stub of a pencil and her reporter's notebook from her jacket pocket and sketched the design quickly. She knew that it would probably be her last chance to see one up close. She had to know what it meant.
Maybe when they got to Utah she could find a library and a sympathetic symbolist.
They thanked Mr. Riley profusely when he dropped them off by the side of the road near where they'd done their best to obscure the 'plane in the tall reedy grass that grew high on both sides of the road. "You kids be safe up in that thing."
"Yes sir," Steve said with a mock salute, which Mr. Riley returned smartly.
"Good luck on whatever it is you're up to. I'm sure it will go smoothly." He tipped his cap to Claudia and started the engine of his automobile, heading off into the sunset.
Steve was silent for a moment before he bent and picked up his two fuel containers. Claudia followed suit and they walked the final one hundred yards to the airplane in silence. When the roar of Mr. Riley's automobile had died off into the sounds of the growing night, Claudia could no longer contain herself.
"He was with whoever Pete and H.G. work for!" She set down her containers gingerly on the ground and pulled her notebook from her pocket. "Look!"
Steve's eyes narrowed, for he had been present often enough around H.G.'s plans and Ms. Bering's notes to know that there was a good chance that there was a connection there. "You could be right," he said quietly. His expression betrayed little of what he was thinking and as Claudia unrolled the blanket she'd brought with her in the cargo bay of the airplane, she noticed how Steve was pacing, smoking and staring moodily up at the sky.
She hoped he didn't have second thoughts about doing this. Lattimer was offering them an in to a world they could barely comprehend. A world that did not judge and was free and kind. It was what they both desperately needed, but Steve's drawn and worried face made Claudia wonder if there could possibly, somehow, be more to the story.
Her eyes fell shut, listening as Steve hummed a song she'd heard on the radio just days before.
It would be alright.
They landed in Salt Lake only to be greeted with a telegram from Pete Lattimer at the Western Union office that they would have to continue on to Provo, a small town some fifty miles to the south. Lattimer's telegram did not say much else other than that they should continue moving, and that help would be there when they needed it.
Speaking to the man behind the counter of the Western Union office seemed to indicate that Lattimer's idea was that they head to Provo because there was a university there, and this Farnsworth kid that they were looking for was probably a student there, as he'd listed Provo on his application paper. It had, according to the telegram, only just been found.
Claudia tried to not feel too annoyed by Lattimer's flippant disregard to the cost of fuel, not to mention the scarcity of it.
Finding fuel was much more challenging in Salt Lake City, but after some bartering and more money than Claudia cared to think about it, they kicked the airplane back into action and took to the sky once more. Lattimer had set up a line of credit through his employer in Steve's name, which helped considerably with the steep prices that the hayseed-chewing man at the fueling station was demanding for the combination of fuels that they had had to mix to make something volatile enough to propel their airplane into the air once more.
"Mighty odd for a girl your age to not have a husband," he'd said, after spitting on the ground around his hayseed and leering at Claudia. She was wearing a dress upon Steve's suggestion. He had family who had settled in this part of the country, flapper culture had not made it this far west yet, he'd explained. And the idea of Claudia wearing knickerbockers was probably enough to set them rioting.
"Very conservative people here," he'd explained as they lugged their fuel cans back towards the airstrip that there'd left the 'plane at. "Not worth the hassle."
Claudia had stuck her tongue out at him, and headed back to the Western Union office to send Pete a telegram with a few choice words about 'country bumpkins' and demanding to know what exactly they were supposed to find in Provo.
The man behind the counter smiled kindly at her as Claudia sucked on the end of her pencil as she composed her message to Pete. It was short and to the point. She would have rather used a telephone to convey such messages, but the airplane that they were flying wasn't exactly kosher and they certainly weren't trying to attract attention.
"All the way to New York, doll?" the clerk asked as he took her request and the fifty cent piece it would cost to send it that far. "Got family there?"
Claudia shook her head. "No, I'm from there," she explained as he passed her the collection of pennies and a dime that was her change, "Just checking in with a friend. We're running an errand for him."
"I see," The man's smile was wise, and his eyes crinkled up at the corners in a way that set Claudia at peace. This man, unlike the leering man at the fueling station, was kind. His wizened fingers tapped out her message dutifully. "Would you like to wait for a response?"
Doing the math in her head, Claudia realized that it was still quite early in New York. She shook her head in the negative. "If I reply comes through, which I doubt it will, please forward it on to Provo?"
"That I'll do, doll," he said with another of his easy smiles.
She was getting sick of flying this 'plane, and it was starting to get cold up in the air, even during the day. The air was thinner here, the ground closer to the sky than it was in New York. Her ears were popping constantly and her breath came in quick gasps. She could never quite manage to catch her breath.
It took two hours of flying to get to Provo and find a place to land the airplane without ruining anyone's crops. Eventually Steve eased the 'plane down on a dirt road that was far more rutted and bumpy than it had looked from the air. Claudia hung on for dear life, and prayed that it wouldn't end with a cliff or something equally fitting, given how this mission was going thus far.
It was growing late, and their charts were still slightly off as their location set them about three miles south of the town. There was at least an hour's worth of walking before they'd even be near enough to town to make inquiries about a family named Farnsworth. No, it was wiser to spend the night with the airplane and go in the morning.
Steve lit a cigarette as Claudia gathered wood for a fire from the patch of scruffy trees across the road. There were no automobiles, no lights for miles. Steve had lit a lantern and secured it to a hook on the underside of one of the wings of the plane. They had a piece of oiled tarp that they used as a tent in such occasions – casting it up and over the wing of the airplane.
Claudia was careful, she'd read books about men in the frontier, about the snakes and spiders and insects that they encountered in such locales. She made a point of kicking each branch and jumping back before she picked it up. She did not want to die of a snake bite, that much was for certain.
"Do you ever wonder if we're on a fools' errand?" she asked Steve as she built up a fire in the small pit that he'd dug. She wasn't going to take a chance in a dry place like this. The fire could spread and burn down the entire town if a spark got away from them – not to mention themselves and the plane too.
Steve's face was half-hidden by shadow as he contemplated his answer. He pulled his jacket closer to his body – the collar and his scarf gathering by his ears and making him look like a turtle retreating into his shell. He looked as cold as Claudia felt. Utah was cold in early October. This wasn't like New York – where it would be warm during the day and cool at night.
Autumn was a true season here, and it was definitely past the equinox. "I think that this is very deliberate," he sat at length, pursing his lips and tossing his spent cigarette into the fire pit. It was just starting to light, and the few sparks that still escaped the butt adding to the match that Claudia was holding to the dry grass she'd laid down first as kindling. "They want us for something – but that it's a test."
"We could just go back and say we never found him," Claudia suggested, bending and blowing on the fire. It was starting to catch, they had a can of beans that they could cook for dinner. Tonight, at least, they'd be okay.
Shaking his head, Steve reached for her, and pulled her in close. "They want us for their organization and I'd like to pass the test." He looked down at his hands. "A lot of doors are closed for me because of where I happened to be the night I met Lattimer."
Claudia's lips were a solid line, thinking about what had happened that night. The police knew his face, knew him to be queer. He could get sent away for good if he wasn't careful, Claudia could not let that happen. Steve was her special person – her best friend. If he wasn't there, the world wasn't worth living in. She couldn't lose him to the gallows of poverty and starvation.
"We'll figure it out then," Claudia said, resting her chin on Steve's shoulder. He was warm and this was awkwardly close to a brotherly hug. They'd never quite had that conversation, even though it was obvious their feelings on the matter were markedly similar.
The fire cracked and popped, smoke curling around the wing of the airplane that shielded them from the elements. For the first time in what felt like months, Claudia felt content.
The following morning they rose early and walked into town. In the distance, they could see the spires of the university buildings reaching upwards towards the sky, and Claudia wondered what the school was like. Her brother had been seduced by such an institution, and while Claudia was not above shunning hire learning institutions – he had left without a word. This place looked clean and friendly, the route that they'd taken took them by the athletic fields, where there were students milling about on the green spaces.
"Do you ever think you'll go to a place like that?" Claudia asked, pointing as Steve rejoined her at the top of the hill after tipping his cap to the young man who'd just given him directions to the Western Union office.
Steve shook his head, "No point, I know everything I need to know about airplanes from my own experience. All that mathematics and book learning isn't going to get a plane into the air."
She grinned at them, because she felt the same way. She was like Pete's friend Miss Wells in that sense, learn by trial and error. Their airplane was larger and more adept at greater heights than any other plane in the world right now – as far as they knew. Any of the aeronautics clubs in the city would welcome them in with open arms if they ever wanted to try and sell their design.
Steve wanted to hold out, however. There was only so much money to be made in a plane that weighed more than air and took far more fuel in higher grades than the typical biplane did at the moment. Someday, Claudia figured, this plane would be the way of the future. There was no way it couldn't be. It was perfect for carrying passengers and luggage. Trains took far longer to cross the country, and the railway was still being built in places.
They headed up the high street, skirting around the lower university facilities and into town proper. It was an interesting place, Provo. Full of smiling people that set Claudia just a little bit on edge.
She was grateful that tucked under her jacket was the gun that shot electricity that Lattimer had pressed into her hands as she headed out to tell Steve about their errand. She felt safer with it in her hands. She wondered who had built it – or where Ms. Bering and Ms. Wells had found it. Lattimer was not the sort to use guns, not any more. He'd come back from the war different, more wounded than he'd ever been before.
She'd been too young then, too innocent to really understand what he had been running to do in France. Now she understood and she wished she did not want to. Not everyone was normal, not everyone was as the people here, perfect smiles cemented in place and not a hair out of place.
The Western Union office was quiet, a single clerk behind the counter glanced up at them, folding his copy of the The Desert Newsand setting it aside. "What can I do for you folks?" he asked.
Steve pulled the identification cards that Claudia had drawn up a few nights before. They'd resolved to have an alias while asking around in town for this Farnsworth person. They didn't want to be run out on a rail if their story fell through – and having identification papers, forged though they were, was a way to slow such a process.
They were Claudia Donovan and Steven Jinks of the U.S. Patent office. Their documents included an official letter that Lattimer had left for them with a second cover of an assignment from the U.S. Treasury department to speak to young Mr. Farnsworth about the patent application that he'd submitted.
"We're with the U.S. Patent office, looking for a Philo Farnsworth," he explained, pulling out the schematic and spreading it across the table and gesturing to the name and contact information at the base of the blueprint. "I understand that he recently moved to this area."
The man examined Steve's papers for a moment before handing them back. Steve tucked them into his pocket as nonchalantly as possible and Claudia was mildly impressed by his forethought. Out of sight meant out of mind, which meant that he was less likely to give her hack forgery a closer look.
"We haven't got a Philo, but there's a Lewis Farnsworth that moved here 'bout two months ago from someparts up north – Idaho I think. He came with a family. How old is this Philo?"
Steve shrugged, "Haven't got a clue, that's why we're here." He turned to Claudia and asked, "Think it could be an alias?"
Claudia adjusted her reporter's pad (she'd pulled it out to look a little more official as Steve asked his questions and had been diligently taking notes. "Could be, can't see why he'd use one."
"I have no idea either."
"They live just up the road from here," The clerk turned his rolodex and found an address. He read it off and Claudia copied it down dutifully. He was treating her like a clerk – a secretary, and she was okay with continuing that façade. She didn't want him thinking she was more than she was. She didn't know how the people were here.
"Thank you," she said, closing her pad. "Jinksy? Shall we?"
Steve grinned at her, "We shall."
"Thank you for coming in!" the clerk added.
"Thanks for your help," Steve added, looping his arm with Claudia and turning towards the door.
They exited the Western Union office and Claudia made a note to send a telegram to Lattimer before they left this town, Farnsworth or no. It was beautiful here, mountains rising up in the distance, surrounding the town and the lake beside it. It did not smell like it did in Salt Lake, and Claudia supposed that that was because the lake was fresh water, rather than the salted stuff from the larger city.
She still marveled at what they had seen from the air. The slow hills and plains of the farmlands that were at the heart of the country – locked though they were in a seeming never-ending cycle of drought and heavy rains – gave away to the monstrous faces of mountains just as they passed over Denver, Colorado. Their great, hulking forms had made the airplane shake as Steve had given her everything that she'd had and then some, forcing her up through the thinner air and into the weaker air that existed above the peaks.
The air was thinner here, even walking.
Steve's hand felt warm in her own, and she leaned into him, her dress swishing about her knees. She had not bothered to pack a practical, more country dress. It was probably a foolish decision, come to think of it, as the women here scarcely showed their ankles – let alone their knees.
They were city folk, residence papers from New York City would corroborate any story that any Tom, Dick or Harry would have as to their presence here. It was strange, having never needed more than a birth certificate to prove she was an American, to suddenly have to worry that people would doubt her status as a citizen. Her English was accented – she'd been raised by a brother born in Ireland and an Aunt who refused to socialize with anyone other than other Irish Catholics. She could hide it well – not as well as H.G. Wells, but no one was that good an actor.
The Farnsworth home was a simple two-story affair. There were a few bicycles littering the front yard, and an abandoned wheel and stick that Claudia found herself itching to kick into action. Steve straightened his tie and turned to Claudia, who smiled and tipped her cloche hat to a more fashionable angle. They were trying to appear to be grown-up, after all.
A young boy, no more than twelve, answered the door and shouted for his mother before Steve has time to so much as introduce himself. Mrs. Farnsworth was a kind-looking woman with wispy hair pulled into a loose plait down her back. She took one look at Claudia and Steve's tired appearance and asked if they'd like some lemonade.
"The Wells Fargo Wagon came through a few weeks ago – well, the train did anyway, I bought more powder than I should 've." She explained as she carefully measured out the stuff and tipped it into a waiting pitcher that was filled from the pump by the sink.
Claudia smiled and accepted the glass as Mrs. Farnsworth pressed it into his hands. "Now, what can I help you with – you don't look like students, I'm afraid that we do not allow married couples in the boarding rooms upstairs." She gestured to the doorway upstairs and Claudia raised her eyebrows at Steve, who shook his head ever so slightly. It wasn't worth letting that particular cat out of the bag.
"Actually, ma'am," Steve explained, drawing Claudia's fake papers from his pocket and pulling the tube that contained Philo's schematic and patent application from his back, "We're here looking for a Philo Farnsworth. I understand that he is your… son?"
"What's he done now?" she asked, her eyes heavy and her expression weary. She glanced towards the walls and stood, reaching up and pulling down a family photograph. She tapped one boy, older than the others, standing off to the side. "That's him. 'fraid he's still up in Idaho, workin' on the railway there."
Claudia took the tube and tipped it over, and unfurled the document inside, across the table and pointed to his name and contact information. "We're from the U.S. Patent office. We wanted to know a little bit more about this schematic before we issued his patent."
"You'll have to go up there if you want that information. Takes about a day and a half by train," Mrs. Farnsworth explained. "He's a good boy, earning money so he can go to school. 'S why we moved here."
Steve smiled at her and began to roll up the schematic. "Your son is quite gifted Mrs. Farnsworth, you must be very proud."
The way that the mother's face swelled and her cheeks burned was more than enough indication as to how the mother truly felt about her son. She loved him with all her heart. It was plain as day for Claudia and Steve to see it.
They found Philo Farnsworth in what could best be described as a military-style tent encampment tucked against the edge of a forest. An axe and a satchel full of dynamite were sitting in the corner next to his bedroll as he pushed his glasses up his nose and explained his schematics to Claudia and Steve.
Claudia was fascinated by him, because he couldn't be a day over seventeen. He barely even had scruff, just a few wispy hairs about his chin that was smudged with dirt. How the hell were they supposed to convince a kid who hadn't even been to university yet that they were a better option than his obviously bright future? The letter from Lattimer (he'd let them read it when he was done) basically invited him to an apprenticeship at something called Warehouse 13 until he'd reached the age at which he'd be ready for university.
It, shockingly, had acknowledged that while there were a great many schools that he could apply to, that he would most likely be attending the university in Provo. Claudia wondered how they'd known that, and Philo had explained that most Mormons went to school there, it was just easier. She could understand that, he'd be an outsider most places. His faith wasn't exactly understood outside of this part of the country.
"What this is – at its most basic level - something which will relay images akin to how a film projector works – only they will be transmitted like radio waves," Philo tilted the shade on the lantern up and indicated the positioning of a series of fine wires interlaced against a copper conductor ring. "This is red, blue and green output – someday I'll figure out a way to move it from grey to color. I know I can do it."
Steve pulled out his pack of Lucky Stripes and offered one to Philo, who shook his head. "No, thank you," he said as Steve shrugged and struck a match on his boot. He lit the cigarette and inhaled deeply. "That will kill you," Philo added.
"I'd rather die happy," Steve retorted with a grin. He glanced at Claudia, who merely shrugged. She wasn't keen on smoking. She'd done her fair share of it with her friends from her aunt's neighborhood – but usually she left it to the men. She did enjoy the cigars that H.G. smoked on occasion, but the money to afford those was few and far between. H.G. was usually more than willing to share, but as this new position – probably at the same Warehouse 13 that Philo was being offered a position at – occupied so much of her time that Claudia rarely saw her these days.
She missed what it was like before. She knew that she could not blame Ms. Bering for coming to them with the plot to kill President Harding. James MacPherson had been set up to test them, but his mind was also going – spent by whatever harrowing missions he'd undertaken during the war. Pete had said that they'd taken him to a place where he could recover and she'd not questioned it further.
"Look, kid," Claudia leaned forward. "We've been all over this damn country looking for you, and it seems as though this warehouse will offer you more money than whatever you're making here on the railroad. Why not come back to New York with us, meet the beehive and see if that is indeed what you want to do?"
Philo rolled up his schematic on the camp table and frowned. His face was unlined and the expression betrayed his age far more than it should have. He was far too young to be making decisions like this on his own, but their time was running out. Soon it would be evening, and the skies were not particularly friendly at night.
"Would I be able to come back, to school, in a year?" his tone was even, but Claudia could hear the nervousness in it. She didn't have an answer for him. Frederic and Lattimer's people were not that heartless, she did not think. He was a good student, and a university education would do him well.
Claudia reached forward and grabbed his hand. "Tell ya what, kid, if they say no – I'll fly you back here myself."
Philo grinned at her and she wondered if she'd looked like that when her brother had smiled at her when she was younger. She'd never wanted to be someone's older sister; she had Steve to be her big brother, and Lattimer to some extent as well. It was strange, to feel the need to want to be there for someone. She wasn't sure that she was particularly keen on it.
"Come on then," Claudia slung her arm around Philo's shoulder and gestured to the tent. "We came by air, so pack light. I'm sure that these Warehouse types will be willing to ship the rest either back to your parents or to their headquarters."
Philo bit his lip and surveyed his small tent. Claudia wondered just how long he'd been living like this, a savage boy-man in the woods working on a railroad with Chinamen twice his age and a crew chief with skin blacker than night. He was too smart, and the wounds on his hands, the singed look of his clothing; they all gave him away. He was the kid who climbed down the rock faces and laid the dynamite charges. He could lose a finger, or worse.
The man at the Western Union office had implied that the Farnsworths had only recently moved to Provo. Had Philo's father also worked on the railway and had left him to this work without any thought to his safety? The Chinamen seemed to like him, Claudia spoke their language well-enough, Philo appeared to speak it better than she. He was explaining to a man with a long braid down his back where he was going.
"You - go to study?" the man asked suddenly in broken English, gesturing to Claudia and then Philo. Steve stood awkwardly off to one side, he'd never spent the amount of time in Chinatown that Claudia had. She was always there, looking for interesting odds and ends. They were always collecting the most interesting chemicals and bits of strange rocks and metals. She'd always been fascinated with electricity.
Edison may have won the war, but Tesla was first in her mind. She wanted to examine his work more, but history forgets the man who comes in second place. He'd largely faded into obscurity as this point, his works largely out of print. She had discovered him quite by chance in a text book of her brother's, and now she had another genius on her hands.
Wonders untold, Claudia grinned to herself.
Philo Farnsworth clasped the man's hand at his forearm and smiled at him. His eyes were dark and pensive as he tipped his cap to the Chinaman. "We should get going," He said to Claudia, his eyes dark and impassive as she fidgeted in the mud and wet of this autumn camp.
Claudia nodded her agreement. "Let's," she murmured.
Flying with an electronically-inclined and incredibly curious young man proved to be far more than Claudia had initially bargained for. While Philo had not gone so far as to actually attempt to disassemble the airplane, there was a gleam in his eye that Claudia recognized well from spending time with one H.G. Wells. Curiosity and engineers did not oftentimes mix well, and it was a damn miracle that H.G. had not gotten her hands on the airplane's inner workings yet and an even bigger one that they'd been able to distract Philo with a schematic of one of their engines long enough to get home.
The journey had taken three days of flying and two fuel stops. They again stopped in Saint Louis, returning to the same fuel station that they'd visited before. With a third person, there was no need for good fortune in the form of automobile-driving negros like Bo Riley to help them out getting in and out of town.
She'd learned a good deal about Philo Farnsworth in the time that they'd been traveling together. She supposed that working with Chinamen would put a damper on one's English-language communication. He was clumsy with language, his mind on other things – math and science seemed to come easily to him. He drew constantly, sitting in the back of the airplane with their bags. Plan upon plan for the same device that Claudia could barely fathom.
It sounded like something out of the stories that H.G. sometimes wrote, not a reality that could be completed within the next few years.
He was a quiet kid, but he felt the constant-allure of the city, same as the rest of them. They were all victims of the same want, in that respect. He didn't know if he'd want to stay in the city, however, but Claudia was not even remotely sure where that Frederic woman had her secret, hidden lair. She was sure that it was a lair, because the woman was, frankly, terrifying.
They landed at the airstrip on Long Island just after three o'clock in the afternoon on a Thursday, some two weeks after they'd left. Journeying was half the fun, Claudia reasoned, but there was something to be said for the strong smell of city air mixed with ocean that hit them as they stepped out onto the runway and prepared to push the airplane back into the hangar.
Autumn had finally started to set in in the city. The day was warm but the sumac trees that dotted the edges of the filed that doubled as their airstrip were bursting forth in a fiery red array of colors that indicated that summer was truly gone from New York.
"What's that smell?" Philo asked, wrinkling his nose as he added his shoulder to the push the airplane back towards its home.
Steve glanced over his shoulder at Philo and frowned briefly before realization dawned on his face. "'s the ocean," he explained. He let go of the airplane and gestured towards the tree-line that obscured the shore. "We're about five miles outside of the city here, the ocean's right past those trees."
He'd never seen it, and Claudia bit her lip, smiling hopefully at Steve over the wing of the 'plane. "We should take him down there," she suggested with an expectant quirk of her eyebrow. "Knock his socks off."
"I'd like to see it if it isn't too much trouble," Philo said. He had his hand over his eyes and was peering towards the tree line. Even if they were to strain their ears, at this distance the surf would be silent.
"That will have to wait," came the clipped tones of the one woman that Claudia had been secretly hoping to avoid for at least a day or two. She'd wanted to take Philo around the city and show him how truly primitively he'd been living in Idaho before she'd had to turn him over to Lattimer and by extension, Mrs. Frederic.
The woman was standing in the shadow of their hangar, her hair done up impeccably and tucked under a cloche hat that did little to make her appear more youthful. If anything, Claudia thought, it made her look like a dreadfully scary individual. Shady too, but she would never voice that opinion.
Steve pulled off his hat hurriedly, "Ma'am."
"It is lovely to see you again, Steven," Mrs. Frederic said quietly. Her expression was far gentler than Claudia had ever seen it before. She stepped forward and raised her hand to touch the metal hull of the airplane, fingers spreading wide against the steely-grey metal there.
"Someday, Mr. Jinks, Ms. Donovan, I will have to confiscate your airplane."
She did not say it sternly, but rather as a person who lamented taking such a magnificent machine from the skies. Her spectacles were perched low on her nose as Claudia glanced over at Steve.
"Why is that?" Steve asked after Claudia nodded pointedly at him a few times. Philo, for his part, just looked utterly confused by the whole exchange.
"It is much too soon for such devices to be in the sky," She inclined her head to Steve and Claudia, as if recognizing their skill as inventors and engineers. "We need it now, while we operate out of the city rather than our actual storage facility."
Mrs. Frederic turned to Philo then, raising her hand in greeting. "My name is Frederic, I wrote you the letter that Ms. Donovan and Mr. Jinks so kindly delivered to you."
Philo stepped forward and took her hand respectfully. He shook it twice, and Claudia noticed his grip was far from firm. He was going to stay, she realized. The airplane must have convinced him. "Philo," he said by means of introduction. "Philo Farnsworth."
They stood in a loose circle as Mrs. Frederic eyed them all with something akin to an evil glint in her eye. This went right in to Claudia's theory about her having an evil lair where she perfected the art of being scarier than huns on a daily basis. The sewers and the tunnels under New York had been one thing, but in the daylight, the woman somehow managed to look even more sinister. "You three are the best minds that we know of," Frederic began. She gestured to the airplane's looming hull over their heads. "You build devices years ahead of their time, you patent devices at ages far too young to possess such knowledge. You are forward-thinking. I work for an organization that needs minds like yours."
"Is this your offer?" Philo asked. His glasses were reflecting the harsh sun of the cloudless sky and his jacket was askew. It gave him the look of a wild child, and Claudia bit her tongue, trying not to tell him that he looked like something out of a penny comic. In his hand he held the letter that Claudia and Steve had traveled so far to deliver. "The one in the letter?"
Mrs. Frederic inclined her head to the affirmative. "You are correct. The offer extents to Ms. Donovan and Mr. Jinks as well."
Claudia's eyes narrowed, "It does?"
She did not know if she could truly trust Frederic. She'd seen how Pete Lattimer had dragged Ms. Bering and H.G. down that road and the toll that it had taken on them all. The work was hard and it seemed to be pretty thankless. She wasn't sure she had earned the right to carry such responsibility.
"Think it over," Mrs. Frederic said. "And you, Mr. Farnsworth. Stay if you'd like, or go. But at least see the workspace before you make your decision. We pay and foster our creative minds well here."
Philo ran a pensive hand through his hair. "I could give it a whirl."
Mrs. Frederic's smile was slow and almost predatory. Claudia shuddered, thinking about how her lip curled wickedly. "And Mr. Farnsworth," Her eyes behind her spectacles were narrowed, "Unlike other employers, we would not attempt to claim ownership over your ideas as our own. Merely to have your expertise when we encounter others such as yourself."
Now, that, Claudia reasoned, didn't sound like a half-bad deal. She looked to Steve and he shrugged right back at her. There was no fighting it really. They'd all be in too deep from the start.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how Philo Farnsworth came to be a contractor for Warehouse 13. Claudia and Steve's plane now hangs in the rafters of the South Dakota storage facility, known only as K39zzz. They have all moved on to bigger and better things than their humble beginnings.
After I finished The Twisted Turbine, Race left me a comment and asked what had happened to Steve and Claudia - she had wanted a story about how they'd gotten involved in the Warehouse given the canon. I was investigating dates and discovered that a Young Philo Farnsworth would have been sixteen (nearly 17) and a great addition to their team.