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"Prologue" from The Iron Horse

Paul McCue

The Dapper Pair

A young boy, perhaps no older than ten or twelve, shoveled coal into a nearby furnace as best he could with his small arms, taking brief, occasional moments to wipe the sweat from his brow before returning to his toil. The massive furnaces that lined the factory basement from one end to the other produced an unbearable heat that was only endured by the thought that the end of the day would bring a breath of fresh air once he was beyond those doors. At the end of the long, glowing corridor the main doors were unlatched and opened. From the other side the foreman stepped out first, a short broad man who stooped forward as he walked, his hard chin matching his demeanor. There was nothing unusual about this. What surprised the young boy were the two men who followed behind the foreman.

Unlike the foreman and every other soul working on the furnaces they were clean, very clean. They might have even been the cleanest men the young boy had ever laid eyes on in his short life. Not a bit of stubble sat on their chins, and their starched white shirts glimmered in the ash-filled air. They were nearly the same height - easily taller than the foreman by a head or more- both dapper in their smart looking dark suits and well-oiled hair. The first of the pair wore a satisfied smile as they walked along the corridor, glancing occasionally at the odd coal-shoveler. The second, whose shoulders were wider than the first's, had a face as calm as a midnight in deep winter and showed little if any emotion at all. The boy was so fixated on the clean-cut gentlemen that he failed to notice the foreman stop only a foot away from him. His stooped disposition placed his grim face at eye-level with the boy's, yet he leaned in even closer.

"Is there a reason I see dozens of idle hands, hmm?" The foreman's booming voice seemed titanic as it echoed off the metal furnaces and resonated between the walls.

The boy's gaping mouth snapped shut with a start and the many sweat stained, shirtless men and boys who had also been staring at the pair jerked back into motion, frantically trying to make up for the lost time and not be singled out as well.

"Apologies boss, won't happen again boss?" the young boy murmured as he heaved a shovel of coal into his furnace, grunting under its weight.

The foreman continued to watch him for a moment and finally nodded with boastful satisfaction, continuing to lead the dapper pair down the sweltering hallway.

The leaner of the pair, the man with the painted smile on his face, ruffled the young boy's hair as he passed while his partner stared emotionlessly. "You run an awfully tight ship here, Mr. Wexler," he said after they had passed further through the furnace-works.

"Thank you sir, and please call me Joseph. Me mother called me Joseph after all, and right you are sir, tight as the nuts and bolts in these furnaces. You can't give people like these an inch, or they'll stretch it from one end of the country to the other, they will."

"I'll take your word for it," the lean man said plainly.

The three walked in awkward silence, the foreman occasionally glancing over his shoulder and smiling nervously at the dapper pair, until they reached an iron door latched shut with a large metal lock. The foreman unhooked his key ring from around his belt and fumbled through the keys of various shapes and sizes, intermittently testing one that looked as though it were the proper fit.

"Trouble with the door?" the lean man asked inquisitively, having slanted his face alongside that of the foreman's.

The foreman was startled for a moment - nearly dropping his keys - but quickly collected himself and returned to his search for the right one. "Oh no sir, not at all. Just haven't opened this door in quite a while is all." He then took notice of the broader man's cold eyes staring at him and swallowed hard. "You know, if I'd have known men from the bank were coming today, things would've been ready for you the moment you'd arrived Mr. ??"

"Dasher," the lean man replied quite plainly, "you may call me Mr. Dasher, my associate is Mr. White, and we are not from the bank."

The foreman sighed with a bit of relief as he fit the proper key into the hole and gave it a good hard turn, snapping the padlock open. "But your letter was from the bank, Mr. Dasher?"

"Our permission to be here," Dasher interrupted, "comes formally from the bank, but that is merely a formality. We do not work for the bank. If my employer wished I could be here today without that letter, but we are gentlemen, Joseph, are we not? Gentlemen should do their best to keep things running properly."

"Right sir, course we are." The foreman pushed open the heavy iron door with both hands. It creaked and squeaked with every inch, revealing a long, pitch-black corridor. The foreman peered down the dark hall, which seemed to swallow up what little light shone through the open doorway, unwilling to step forward.

"I hope you don't expect us to stand here all day, Joseph." Dasher - unbeknownst to the foreman - had leaned in silently right next to his face. His eerily calm voice nearly made the foreman fall over in surprise.

The foreman reached out, still steadying his legs, and grabbed a hanging oil lantern from the wall he leaned against. Holding it aloft in one hand he patted various pockets on his pants and cloth vest with the other. The smell of sulfur filled the air as a lit match wavered in front of his face, his eyes narrowing in on them. "Need a light?" Dasher asked, his confident, clean face sinisterly illuminated by the match-light. Slowly and silently the foreman took the outstretched match from Dasher and lit the oil lantern, holding it through the open doorway into the darkness. He stood there a while, his feet frozen to the ground, too afraid to look over his shoulder at Dasher and White, until White's heavy hand against his back pushed him into the darkness. The three walked forward slowly at the foreman's heavy-footed pace, the oil lantern creating a small orb of light around them that faded to black not more than a few feet away.

"You seem apprehensive Joseph - is everything alright?" Dasher asked, his hands folded behind his back.

The foreman looked briefly over his shoulder towards Dasher before snapping it back forward to watch the darkness cautiously. "Course sir, just my first time being down this way, actually. Normally fine, important folk like yourselves just come and go as you need, and that suits me."

"So you've never been down here, you said?" Dasher asked curiously.

"Oh no sir, never. Heard noises sometimes late at night, though, when the whole place goes quiet," the foreman said softly, looking over his shoulder again only to see White's cold, emotionless eyes watching him. "The boys have heard noises late at night, I mean," he continued, laughing nervously as he looked forward, "strange noises, is all."

Dasher made no reply, and they returned to walking silently at the foreman's slow, heavy-footed pace. The foreman's eyes eventually drifted up to the ceiling, which he'd failed to notice was nearly twice his own height, easily taller than Dasher or White. "Awfully high ceiling," he murmured to himself.

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