A frenzy of fretwork adorned the house’s facade, but it was splintery, paint peeling in long shaggy spirals that fuzzed the puzzled outlines. The left side drooped like the face of a stroke victim, windows staring blindly out, cataracted with the dusty remnants of curtains.
Marshall Artemus Smith thought that it would have given a human man the chills. He glanced back at Elspeth to see how she was taking, but her face was chiseled and resolute as a fireman’s axe.
“You all right?”
She swabbed at her forehead with a bare forearm, leaving streaks of dark wet dirt. “Thank your lucky stars you don’t feel the heat,” she rasped.
Hot indeed if enough to irritate her into mentioning that. He chose to ignore it.
The house sagged amid slumping cottonwoods, clusters of low-lying groves, their leaves indifferent ovals of green and pale brown. Three stories, and above that, two cupolas thrust upward into the sky, imploring, the left one tilted at an angle.
His spurs jingled as he clanked up the front steps. His eyes ratcheted over the scene for clues, but it was clear that their fugitive had entered by the front door, which hung a few inches ajar.
Wood creaked under Elspeth’s slower treads. “This was his mother’s house,” she said.
She’d gone over the files meticulously as always, then summed up the details for him as they’d ridden along. He ticked through them in his head.
“Angeline Pinkney, yes. She helped discover how to harness phlogiston. They had her working on the war effort till she was dying of rotlung. Then she retired out here and lasted another two years.”
Phlogiston, the most precious material in the world, capable of fueling marvelous machines like himself. He carried a scraping of it, small as a fingernail clipping, deep in his midsection. Once a year, it was replaced, but it was valuable enough that he’d had people try to kill him for it before.
So far none had succeeded.
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