The Engineer Wore Venetian Red—Excerpt
©2020 by Shelley Adina
The Royal Kingdom of Spain and the Californias
September 20, 1895
“There she lies.” Captain Boyle’s basso voice boomed through the speaking horn. “The royal city of San Francisco de Asis. And may I say, we are one of the first crews to see her like this, from the air. The Royal Kingdom’s skies have only opened to airships within the last year.”
The gondola of the touring-class airship Iris was of a progressive and unique design, having not one level, but two. Above, on the navigation level, the captain, the navigator in the person of his son Timothy, and the engineer in the person of his niece Dinah, held principal sway. On the observation level below, generous viewing ports allowed Peony Churchill, the ship’s owner, and her guests to see where they were going, and to communicate freely with the crew without inconveniencing them by getting underfoot.
Captain Boyle permitted his employer access to the upper level. Everyone else was obliged to keep to the airy iron stair that spiraled up from the observation deck to the living quarters in the fuselage.
Daisy Linden stood at the viewing port with her sister Frederica, next to their hostess, and tried to take in the vista below. An enormous bay of salt water, so large that the foot of it faded into the haze on the southern horizon, lay directly beneath. Ahead, a jumble of adobe houses and shops and palm trees and other greenery tumbled pell-mell down the hills on which the city was built. Crowning the highest hill, and seeming to grow out of its very rocks, was the mighty cathedral of San Francisco de Asis, golden in the long rays of late afternoon.
“There is the Viceroy’s palace.” Barnaby Hayes pointed with his good arm. “Just below the cathedral, with all the arched windows and cantilevered terraces.”
“It is not so much a palace as a city within a city.” Peony Churchill’s gaze was as transfixed as Daisy’s own. “It covers practically the whole hill. How is one to find one’s acquaintance?”
Barnaby chuckled. “It is quite likely that they will find us. We seem to be the only occupants of the skies at present.”
But Daisy was not so much interested in cathedrals and palaces, nor even the acquaintance that Peony and Barnaby claimed in this strange place. She leaned into the speaking horn. “Captain, may we see the Barbary Coast from this vantage point?”
“No, miss,” came his basso tones. “We have just passed over the waterfront at Buena Vista Cove. With Miss Churchill’s permission, we will come about so you may have a better view, and I may find enough space to moor beyond it, for I have no hope that a proper mooring mast may be found.”
“Permission granted,” Peony said, then squeezed Daisy’s hand. “We shall get the lie of the land, and know what we are up against in the place where your papa was last seen.”
Daisy gave her a grateful smile. For they had been given information in Bodie—which lay behind them now, on the other side of the mountains—that indicated Papa intended to work his passage north from here on a steamship. The only place to secure such employment was on one of the most dangerous waterfronts on the entire continent. To muster up the courage to go down there and make inquiries would take every bit of fortitude she possessed.
To say nothing of the Thaxton pistol in her reticule.
Daisy had no illusions about the difficulty of finding a clue as to which ship Papa had taken and his eventual destination. They were operating on the assumption that their father, Professor Rudolf Linden, R.S.E., had regained enough of his memory to make his way north to Victoria, in the Canadas, where many months ago they had all been bound as a family in order for him to take up a position at the university there.
But a band of Californio soldiers had intervened—had shanghaied him, beaten him, and imprisoned him, to the point where he had forgotten his own name and great swaths of his own life. He did not even know that Mama was dead. Or that Daisy suspected grief had hastened her passing. Or that his two daughters had been pursuing him across the whole of the Wild West, existing on hope, the kindness of strangers, and the slenderest of clues.
Barnaby Hayes had told them all he could of their father, for he had shared a gaol cell with him in the south of the kingdom, before the Rose Rebellion. And more recently, on the way here, he had told them of Evan Douglas, who had been another prisoner in the cell. Mr. Douglas was now one of the most powerful men in the land and engaged to be married to the daughter of a wealthy landowner.
Of all the things Daisy might have hoped or expected during the course of their search for Papa, their being received at a royal palace had not been one of them.
Iris made a graceful turn and soon the harbor came into view below—a forest of masts and steam funnels and ships jostling together, moored cheek by jowl and fighting for custom. The Barbary Coast was famous for fighting—and thievery. For opium dens and the smuggling of black powder. It, Bodie, and Port Townsend in the Canadas held the dubious distinction of having achieved fifty different ways to die before dawn.
“Gracious,” Freddie said faintly. “How is one to make sense of it, never mind find news of one man?”
“I do not know,” Daisy said on a sigh. “But we have managed so far. Dinah is confident he will be heading north, so perhaps that narrows the field a little. And here, at least, we may find friends who may be able to help.”
“I hope you are right,” Freddie said, allowing herself to be encouraged.
Or at least, allowing Daisy to believe she was.
An exclamation of surprise issued from the speaking horn, and Iris once again leaned into a turn.
“Captain?” Peony said into its brass circumference, clutching at the rail with the unexpected change in course. “Is something wrong?”
“No indeed, miss,” came the rejoinder. “But the sharp eyes of our navigator, here, have told me that progress has indeed reached these shores.”
“In what form?” she asked, her attention once again on the view below.
“Observe that island in the water, miss—not the flat rock with the large house upon it to the north, but the island with the floating bridge. On the charts it is called Isla Yerba Buena, and by all accounts is uninhabited except by birds. It appears to have been turned into an airfield recently.”
“Evan,” Barnaby said with a nod of conviction.
“Bring us in, Captain,” Peony said. “For if my eyes do not deceive me, the armed and mounted party even now setting foot upon the bridge is our welcoming committee.”