Astrid shoved the wheeled sled out from beneath the engine. “Ound er prolm.” She called up to the man waiting on the catwalk that encircled her shop. Her hoarse voice was muffled beneath a grease stained bandana. Mr. Gregory’s bored face appeared at the edge of the catwalk. His velour top hat wobbled as he leaned over the metal railing. A chained monocle dangled in the air between them and gray whiskers shuffled around his mouth. “What was that?” He cupped his ear.
She rolled her eyes, confident he couldn’t see them beneath the mirrored lenses of her goggles, and pulled down the bandana, “I FOUND YOUR PROBLEM.”
“Ohhh,” his face wrinkled with a smile and he tucked the monocle into his breast pocket. “How much is this one going to cost me young Astrid?”
Gripping the edge of the vehicle’s metal frame, she heaved herself from beneath it. The bronzed metal exterior was rounded like a carriage, but the miniature steam engine beneath allowed it to travel without horses. She pushed the goggles up into her unruly oil black hair and turned her face up to Mr. Gregory.
“Come down to the office and I’ll walk you through it.” She gestured to the adjacent spiral staircase.
He waved a leather gloved hand dismissively, “Whatever the cost, you know I’ll pay. Just have it ready for the tournament. I’ll pick it up two days prior, as usual.” He disappeared in a swirl of thickly layered waistcoats. She listened to the clink of his bronze heeled boots on the catwalk, followed by the slam of the shop’s heavy door behind him. There was something about him that made her uneasy. The modifications he requested were unusual and he refused to refer any of the other tournament vehicle owners to her shop.
The tournament was less than a week out. She would have to sideline all of her other jobs to have Mr. Gregory’s vehicle ready in time. “Which means less time worrying about his motives and more time earning his coin.” Astrid chided herself in a whisper only the gears could hear.
She wrestled the goggles from her tangled week-old french braid, then lay down on the sled and slid under the engine to get to work. Her wrench had barely completed a turn before the shop door slammed again. “‘Ee ri’ ‘ere,” she yelled out.
“In your own time.” A heavily accented and unfamiliar voice sailed down from the catwalk. She finished replacing the gear she had started and then shoved the sled out once more. By the time she stood, removed the bandana and pushed her goggles up, he had descended the spiral stairs and was musing over the various projects littering the shop.
The stranger wore a faded black tophat, almost comical in height, that rested on dusty blonde hair curling gently around its brim. Astrid eyed him suspiciously as he strode from one mechanism to the next, hands folded behind his back. He was notably without an overcoat, sporting breeches tucked into tall dark boots and a leather vest strapped over a crisp white shirt.
Uncomfortable now, she cleared her throat, “Sir? What can I help you with?”
He turned to face her then and though her face remained unchanged, her chest tightened with surprise. A dull metallic plating covered half of his visage from brow to chin. It had been molded to frame vague features resembling lips, part of a nose, and closed eye. The effect was jarring and Astrid found herself amid warring urges to look away in fear and approach with curiosity.
He broke the silence first, his voice warm and educated, “I’m pleased to introduce myself to you…”
She grit her teeth and interrupted, “I know you. You’re not welcome here.”
“As I expected,” the flesh of his lips twitched beneath the metal plate into what she could only guess was a smile. “I am often unwelcome, but in this case I thought an exception could be made.” He offered a curt bow. “In either case, I feel a formal introduction is still needed. I am Mal Woollsing — pleased to meet you, Miss Astrid Hem.”
She flinched and did not return his pleasantries. “What do you want from me? If it’s for the tournament, you’re too late.” She snapped. “I have a full workload for Mr. Gregory and no capacity for anything more.”
“Well it seems we’re in luck, as I too am here on business related to Mr. Gregory.” The gruesome attempt at a smile had faded. “In fact, it was in this vehicle before us that I suffered these scars.” He gestured to the mask on his face and Astrid noticed his hand was covered in the same pale, veined scarring.
Heat rose in her cheeks and she crossed her arms, “I know. I had nothing to do with that. The modifications I made were exactly as Mr. Gregory requested. I was very clear. The flamethrower was dangerous and unstable on the dash, but he insisted the driver — you — were aware of the risks!” She was breathing heavily now and waving her arms as she ranted. Some small part of Astrid had always felt responsible for the driver’s death. Realization overwhelemed her, he was supposed to be dead.
Mal’s eerie twitch of smile reappeared as she looked at him. “You…you’re…” she sputtered.
“Not dead.” he finished, his smooth tone chilling the air between them.
“How?” Years in the tournament circle had taught her to be distrustful of everyone. Each owner and driver were out for themselves and there was no end to the backstabbing or blackmail.
“Rather a medical miracle they say.” He replied, his voice flat. “I was the best driver the world had seen. When I went up in flames, Mr. Gregory spared no expense and no regard for experimentation to fix me up. Just like one of these.” Mal gestured to the many half-finished machines parked in the shop. “Unlike these, however, I’m too much of a liability to drive again.”
Astrid couldn’t imagine a life without her shop or the machines that filled them. Or worse, to sit amongst them, unable to tinker with their gears or discover the secrets that made them come to life.
“I’m sorry.” She said, her tone softer, and she meant it. “But I don’t see what you could want from me now.”
He leaned casually against one of the worktables. “It’s really quite simple. I want you to help me kill Mr. Gregory.”
Astrid stepped back as if the words themselves were an act of violence. “What?”
“Help me kill Mr. Gregory.” He said again, as if discussing the weather. “You have the skills to make that vehicle,” Mal gestured to the carriage on her jacks, “malfunction however you choose as he drives it back to garages. I’m asking that you do.”
“But why?” Her mind rattled in hundreds of different directions. Mr. Gregory was known for his shrewd business sense, sharp tongue, and disdain for just about everyone. Though Astrid wasn’t surprised someone wanted him dead, she was surprised they thought of her as the means to achieve it.
“Beside the obvious reasons,” Mal began as if he could read her thoughts, “and my own personal vendetta.” He gestured to his scarred face. “He’s a murderer.”
Astrid scoffed, but Mal continued. “I was hardly his first driver to suffer behind the wheel of that metal monstrosity. Two before me perished during tournament practice runs. Tell me Miss Hem, has it ever occurred to you that something was amiss?”
She paused as the gears within her mind began to roll and clank into place, then nodded slowly. Tournament drivers knew the risks associated with their profession, but few died before the actual event. Mr. Gregory’s track record was unusual.
Astrid was shaking now. She had single handedly built every upgrade to Mr. Gregory’s machines, and repaired them when he brought them back. It was obvious to her they had been tampered with, but she had assumed the drivers were making their own modifications. It wasn’t uncommon. She met Mal’s eyes, one blue and desperate, the other concealed beneath the mask. “But you’re still alive.”
“And he thinks me grateful for it,” Mal shrugged, “even hired me to train the next driver. But I worry he will do it again and the next guy won’t be so lucky.” His face fell, “Please, you have to help me stop him.”
Astrid furrowed her brow as Mr. Gregory’s requests for increasingly risky modifications played out in her mind. She began to feel itchy and uncomfortable. The band of the goggles was suddenly too tight around her head and the stench of grease in her bandana became overwhelming. She ripped both off and tossed them aside then rubbed her pulsing temples. “What’s in it for Mr. Gregory? Why would he go to all trouble?”
Mal pushed off the table and squared his shoulders, “You really don’t know?”
The last gear locked into place and her mind roared with understanding like an engine freshly ignited. She slapped a hand to her forehead. “The sponsor insurance.”
He nodded gravely. “Sponsors pay handsomely to any owner who must forfeit a race due to accident and guarantee front runner spots for the following year.” He spread his arms and splayed his hands, blue swollen scars travelling up into his shirt sleeves. “Please, I can’t do this without you.”
She slunk to the floor. The weight of the truth and the role she had played bore down on her like a chassis without a lift. She felt as though she could be crushed any moment. Like a well oiled cog, the despair turned to disgust as she thought of how she had been used as an instrument in Mr. Gregory’s plot. To him, she was not a skilled mechanic, but a tool to take lives.
Balling her hands into fists, she planted them into the rough floor and pushed herself up. “I’ll do it.”
Mal leapt to his feet and clasped his hands in gratitude. “Thank you Miss Hem, oh thank you! You have no idea what this means to…”
“Leave.” She cut him off, her tone nearly a growl. “Do not come back. I am doing this to right the wrongs I unwittingly committed. Not for you.”
Any joy that had registered beneath the mask was gone. With a nod and silence, Mal retreated to the spiral staircase. Astrid followed his steps through the grated catwalk until they disappeared behind the heavy metal clang of her door. Tension fell from her shoulders as she reclaimed her space. It was time to get to work.