Seawoman Tressa Wimple closed her eyes and listened to the boiler. It hissed and then sputtered, but between the two sounds—just for a fraction of a second—it also hiccupped. There was a valve slightly off. Tressa wiped a sleeve at the beads of sweat forming across her forehead. If she wasn’t mistaken, the welded joint on one side of the valve was starting to go.
If it wasn’t fixed soon, it could very well burst and flood the boiler room. If Westwood orphanage couldn’t even afford to pay a mechanic to come check on the boiler, they certainly couldn’t afford to fix a burst valve.
Tressa reached out with a dark-brown hand and twisted the valve she suspected as the one about to go and then inspected the pipes on either side. All the while, she listened carefully, fully aware of the various scalding tubes which ran around her head and torso. Amid such a big machine, forgetting how close the hot pipes were to her body was risky, maybe even deadly.
The ground shook, almost imperceptibly, but Tressa noticed it. Someone was walking down the hall toward the boiler room. Probably a heavy man in boots; women tended not to stomp quite so much.
Tressa twisted around, wary of the pipe nearest her ribcage, and checked the gage. It read green—all appeared normal. She twisted her lips to the side; she knew machines and this one did not sound normal. There was something more than just the loose valve.
Still, she’d be sure to let the head of the board, Mr. Clark, know about the valve. She’d offer to re-weld it herself, free of charge, just as she’d inspected the boiler for free. It was the right thing to do after all Westwood had done for her. Still, while it felt good to be helpful, she couldn’t shake the unsettling disgust that welled up inside her whenever she visited Westwood. Tressa loved the twisting, turning complexity of machines, particularly engines, but she hated the twisting, turning nonsense of emotions. She shoved her feelings—both good and bad—deep down inside where she could ignore them equally.
Closing her eyes once more, Tressa listened to the hums, hiccups, and harrumphs of the boiler. There was something else off.
The door creaked behind her as it opened, interrupting her focus.
Devil take it. “What?” Her tone was as sharp as her temper. Tressa didn’t bother glancing over to see who’d entered the room. She knew just from the voice it was Mr. Clark.
“Um . . .” He hesitated, his voice higher than usual, as if he recognized just how rude he was being by intruding on her while she worked. “Have you been able to pin-point the problem?”
“Nearly.” Tressa was very close—too bad someone had stomped into the room with the grace of a hippopotamus and broken her concentration. Not that telling him would do any good. Chances were, Mr. Clark knew next to nothing of African animals. He’d probably never so much as left England. Tressa, on the other hand, had seen nearly the entire globe. It was one of the many benefits of working as head engineer on a submarine for over two decades.
Thoughts of her old life, now over, only made Tressa crankier.
“Doesn’t anyone here know how to clean a boiler?” she said, not bothering to hide her frustration.
“These pipes have to be looked after.”
Mr. Clark shrugged, his large, double chin wobbling slightly. Why was it that some men, once their wife had passed on, insisted on growing as round as possible? Mr. Clark hadn’t been nearly so large when Tressa had lived at Westwood as a child.
“Are you in need of a break?” Mr. Clark asked. “You’ve been at this all day.”
Tressa harrumphed instead of giving the large man a verbal answer. A break? Even as a child Tressa had rarely needed breaks from hard work. She could work twice as long as her companions. Moreover, unlike everyone else Tressa knew, she never got sick.
From behind Mr. Clark, two stick-thin boys peeked into the room. The older appeared to be nearly fifteen, while the younger was probably closer to ten.
“You.” She pointed to the older boy. “Come here. I need your assistance.”
With his gaze jumping about him, the boy walked further into the room.
“What’s your name?” Tressa asked.
“Michael, ma’am,” he said, nose curling.
Tressa had stopped smelling the burning coal over an hour ago. She’d stopped finding the smell repulsive half her lifetime ago, but she could still remember that first time her own nose had curled at the odor. “Well, Michael, you ever worked on a boiler before?”
He shook his head no.
“I’ve helped Cook with the stove from time to time, when the flue’s stopped up.”
That wasn’t even close to working on a boiler. Oh, well. If she was going to torture herself by staying yet longer inside Westwood and solder the pipes leading into the valve, then she would at least make the most of it and teach Michael a skill. It was more than she ever got from the blasted orphanage.
“All right, Michael,” she started, pushing a pair of heavy gloves his way. “First thing you need to know is that everything in here is hot. You must be aware at all times which pipes are close to you so that you don’t crash into them.”
Another set of footfalls echoed out in the hallway. More visitors? Oh, the joy.
“What are you doing?” Mr. Clark sputtered.
“What does it look like? I’m getting ready to solder your pipes. There’s something else wrong as well, but one thing at a time.”
Tressa pulled on some heavy gloves herself and then, reaching around the hot pipes again, pulled out a copper metal round. It was a good thing she’d thought to bring so many of her tools. A good mechanic never went anywhere without at least a few of her favorites tucked into her breeches’ pockets. However, when Mr. Clark had asked her to inspect the boiler, she’d chosen to bring an even wider variety than was typical. It didn’t hurt that she loved any opportunity to drag out some of her less-used beauties.
Turning her back to Clark, she began instructing Michael on what to do even as she worked, cleaning the pipes and applying flux.
“Mr. Broxholme,” Clark protested to whomever had just walked through the door. “Surely you don’t want your students so close to—”
Tressa lit her torch, which blessedly drowned out the sound of Clark’s voice. The flux bubbled almost instantly, since the pipe they were working on was hot already.
Michael listened closely as Tressa explained when to touch the solder to the pipe. The glistening copper melted when placed against the pipe, then slid over the joined edge, sealing it.
Tressa pulled the blue flame away and shut it off. Pulling out a rag from her back pocket, she wiped away the excess.
“And that,” she said to Michael, motioning toward their work, “is a perfect seal.”
“It wer’n’t even hard.” The boy gave her a half-smile, his eyes alight.
“No, it wer’nt,” she said, mimicking his street accent. Gads, just hearing it brought back so many childhood memories, not all of which were bad. “Now, it’ll only take a couple hours to set fully. Once it does, I’m leaving you in charge of coming back in here and switching this valve back on.”
Perhaps if she ever did choose to join another submarine crew, she’d see if Michael wanted to join her. She’d only been sixteen when she first left Westwood and dove under the ocean waves. This boy looked like he was ready for something more.
“We can’t have children in here unattended.” Clark was sputtering again.
Tressa set her jaw tight and focused on not rolling her eyes.
“Surely you agree.” Clark was speaking to the newcomer. Mr. Broxholme, was it? Would he side with Clark, who usually had the final say in all things regarding the orphanage? Or would he trust her, the one-time head engineer of a lucrative and widely known submarine? Tressa turned toward him for the first time.
Mr. Broxholme was not what she expected.
Tressa had always assumed the other members of the board of trustees were quite like Clark—round, set in their ways, and a bit pious and two-faced.
However, Mr. Broxholme was tall and lean. Well dressed, too, in a bespoke suit. The bit of gray around his ears told her he wasn’t some young, naive pup; he was probably close to her own age. His eyes were a dark shade of blue, deep enough to almost be a stormy gray. His gaze drew her in and held her close.
Tressa blinked and forced herself to look away. He was handsome, she’d give him that much. But was he pious? Or worse, two-faced? That was yet to be seen.
“I’m sure Michael is plenty capable,” he said.
There was a confidence about him. Good. Tressa didn’t have time for anyone who didn’t believe in themselves.
And he’d sided with her. Another point in his favor.
Nonetheless, he worked here in Westwood—so that was akin to one-thousand, four-hundred, and sixty points against him. One for each day she’d lived in this horrid place.
“Everyone shut your traps,” she said. It was far courser language than most ladies used, but soldering wasn’t the only thing one picked up aboard a submarine. “I need to listen.”
Both misters Clark and Broxholme stood silent, as did the younger boy beside them. Michael didn’t say a thing, but he leaned in toward the boiler slightly as his gaze roved over first one pipe and then the next. Yes, this boy had the makings of a good engineer.
“Do you hear the soft whistling?”
His brow furrowed slightly and he tilted his head to the side. “I think so,” he whispered.
“There’s a pipe out of line. A big pipe, from the sound of it. Move around and see if you can figure out which one.”
Careful of the pipes around him, Michael ducked under one and then stepped over another. Finally, he stopped beside the large intake pipe which ran at shoulder-height.
He gave it a tentative point. “I think this is it.”
Tressa made her way over to him, the hissing getting steadily louder the closer she drew. “Sure sounds like it. Hand me that large wrench out of my bag.”
The boy was quickly growing sure of himself and moved between the copper pipes with ease. Tressa took advantage of the brief break and glanced over at her unwanted audience. Mr. Clark managed to look both relieved that she was fixing the boiler and worried that she, or Michael might break something in the endeavor. The younger boy still watched silently from behind Mr. Clark’s leg. Mr. Broxholme watched her closely as well, though his expression was much closer to intrigued than worried. His gaze caught hers and one side of his lips tipped upward.
“This the one you want?” Michael said, returning with her favorite wrench. It was as long as her forearm and filled her hand completely when she grabbed it.
“Step back a bit,” she warned the boy, turning her back to the onlookers. “This can be a bit delicate, so one must be careful. But if you hit it ever so carefully—” Tressa pulled the wrench back, and then smacked it against the large pipe with everything she had. The noise rang through the small room, like the echoing gong in a Chinese palace. Another thing Mr. Clark was certain not to understand.
The ring finally eased. “There,” Tressa said with a nod. “That should do the trick.”
“Tressa!” Her name bounced around the hallway outside. “Tressa!” Her younger brother, Jasper, flew into the room. “You’ll never believe it.” He huffed, and bent over, resting his hands against his knees. His long, black dreadlocks were escaping the strap of fabric he tied them back with whenever he was working. He lifted a small letter and waved it her direction. “You’ll simply never believe it,” he repeated.
What the blazes could such a small letter hold that would make Jasper so enthused? Then again, even as a boy, Jasper had always tended to become excited over the most random things; it was something he hadn’t outgrown, even as a man well into his thirties.
Tressa pulled out the rag from her back pocket and wiped her hands. Black trails of soot stained the already dirty rag.
Stepping over a cluster of pipes, she reached for the letter. Though she’d wiped her hands well, she still left black fingerprints on the paper.
“I told you it would be here soon,” Jasper continued.
She tore open the letter. The elaborate letterhead across the top caught her attention first. The letter was from the Committee for Scientific Advancement. Why, by the gears above, would they be writing her?
Unless . . .
“It’s come.” Jasper had finally caught his breath, his voice sounding almost normal. He slapped Mr. Broxholme on the back. “Just wait until you see the amount, Brox. It’s enough to make even a man like you jealous.” He turned back to Tressa. “It’s the payment for your last expedition. And it’s—”
“Jasper, hush.” One didn’t talk finances around near-strangers.
She skimmed over the letter. It was short, but Jasper was right. The last expedition she’d taken aboard the Gearhound had not ended the way anyone expected and, as a result, Tressa was currently out of work. Also, as a result, she hadn’t been certain when her paycheck would come.
It seemed it finally had.
And what a paycheck.
With that much money, she could retire.
Not that she cared to; she had many years of work still inside her and wasn’t about to waste them.
“What’s wrong?” Jasper said with a chuckle. “Not sure how to spend it all?”
Tressa listed her head. Since she hadn’t been certain she ever would receive the large paycheck in the first place, she hadn’t wasted time considering how she would spend it should it actually come.
“Hey, ma’am?” Michael called to her. “I can hear the difference. It sounds much better now.”
Tressa looked over at Michael, nearly a man, and then at the little boy hiding just behind Mr. Clark, and an idea struck her.
Tressa tapped the letter against her other hand. She didn’t need this money, but she knew who did.