The year is 1893. Rosie Weston, fireman, is working on an overnight passenger train to the World’s Fair. Her routine shift has turned into a nightmare, beginning with a peculiar trunk in the baggage car. Worse, a passenger has gone missing. Can Rosie discover the truth behind the cargo before more passengers go missing?
Strange Happenings is a series of short stories set in an alternate timeline, where science and the unknown mix. Much like a penny dreadful, each story is meant to be enjoyed in a single sitting.
Something Happened on the Way to the World’s Fair is the first installment of Strange Happenings.
Targeted Age Group:: Adult
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I have a love of monster movies, Nikola Tesla, Gothic tropes, and female leads. I combined all of these elements into a fun, fast-paced short story that leads into a penny dreadful-style serial.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
This doesn't happen to me very often as a writer, because I'm a plotter, but my characters seemed to take on a life of their own as I was working on my outline. It was more like the characters told me who they were than me forming them.
The firebox flames danced on Rosie Weston's skin, highlighting white and bronze vitiligo as she shoveled in one last load of coal. The steam engine was hungry, demanding more fuel in the pelting rain. Rosie hung the shovel by the coal pile and stretched her burning muscles.
"That should do until the last stretch to Chicago."
Honora Quaman grunted in response, eyes fixed on the locomotive's gauges. She was the engineer Rosie was apprenticing under. To Rosie's dismay, the wiry crone kept to herself.
Undaunted, Rosie tried again. "Are you staying for the Fair?"
"No. Too much work to do."
Rosie settled in her rear-facing window seat and fished her leather logbook out from under the chair. A colorful flyer for the World's Fair served as a bookmark. It highlighted details for a spectacular opening ceremony and demonstrations from Nikola Tesla. Rosie turned to the marked page and sketched schematics for the coal-shoveling device she was building in her head.
"Are you writing in your diary again?"
"It's a logbook!"
Honora snorted. "Whatever you say."
Rosie was deep into her sketch when a yellow lantern signaled in her peripheral vision. It was then Rosie realized all the passenger cars were dark. Even during the night a few should have been lit for safety.
Rosie jumped up, knocking her logbook to the floor. Grateful her coal-stained cheeks hid her blush, she stashed it in the back pocket of her coveralls. "Patrick's signaling me. It's the lights again. Are you set here?"
"I've got this." Honora turned to Rosie, scowling. "Those damn lights are more trouble than they're worth. Passengers are too pampered these days. Electric lights for overnight trains. Ridiculous."
"Careful, or you'll be starting your stories with, 'back in my day.' Don't you like being able to see? It could be so much worse. Remember the belt system?" Rosie shuddered. "It was so unreliable."
Honora rolled her eyes. She went back to the front of the cab. "Don't forget your tools and come back quickly. There's a sharp turn in 45. I'll need extra eyes."
"I forgot once." Rosie muttered, but she double-checked her tool belt before jotting down the time in her logbook. 1:16 am.
Outside, Rosie scaled the tender with ease, mindful of her kerosene lantern. A few years as brakeman gave her all the practice she needed to fearlessly scramble over moving trains in any weather. Still, she envied Honora, who was warm and dry in the cab. By the time Rosie was in the darkened baggage car, she was soaked. A third of the car served as the mechanical room, while the rest stored luggage and the railway workers' personal effects. Rosie hesitated before grabbing a towel in her locker and drying off as best as she could. The coal dust combined with rain left the towel patterned light and dark like her skin.
Moving to the mechanical side, Rosie quickly spotted a loose terminal on the transformer. She turned off the huge circuit breaker and set about tightening the terminal by the lamplight. With another throw of the breaker switch, the Tesla coil crackled to life. White-blue electricity sparked around the machine, bathing everything in the car with an eerie glow. The light bulbs on the cargo side of the car lit up. Rosie smiled, satisfied with her work.
A thud sounded over the humming Tesla coil made Rosie jump. She hopped over the low barrier separating the cargo from the generator. It was normal for trunks to shift as the train barreled down the tracks. Because of the fair, though, the cargo this trip was markedly different than usual. Machines and gadgets were carefully wedged between stacks of steamer trunks. She wondered if some of them were for demonstrations.
A trunk caught Rosie's eye. It stuck out at an odd angle from the rows of cargo, and a chain coiled around its middle. The large padlock in the center piqued Rosie's curiosity. She crept towards the trunk. Was it always this crooked? Aside from the heavy chain, the trunk looked no different from any of the others stuffed in the baggage car.
Rosie kneeled next to the trunk. She was careful not to touch it with her coal-stained hands and pressed her ear to the top of it. She shrunk back immediately. The trunk was freezing. She leaned forward to examine it more closely when pounding on the car door closest to the passenger cars made Rosie jump a second time. She scurried away from the trunk.
Rosie slid the door open a fraction of an inch. Outside, the wind whipped around the train.
A woman wearing a burgundy cloak stood at the door, fist poised to knock again. Thin wire spectacles slid down her beaky nose. The howling wind tried but couldn’t drown her voice entirely. "I know passengers aren't permitted in the baggage car, but I'm worried about my equipment. It's delicate. Please let me in."
Rosie hesitated. There was another crack of thunder.
"Please, it'll only take a moment. I'll be ruined if it's damaged."
Rosie stepped back and slid the door open. "Be quick about it." Honora would be furious if she knew.
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