First in Jo and Alistair’s adventures, The Marvelous Mechanical Man was originally published in 2013 by Zumaya Publications Otherworlds Imprint.
Josephine Mann is down to her last five dollars when she meets Professor Alistair Conn who needs a laboratory assistant. Jo gets a new job, and more excitement than she bargained for when she meets The Marvelous Mechanical Man.
The cover, by talented artist Brad Fraunfelter captures the feel of an old style Dime Novel, which was the intention.
Here’s a taste:
Kate Winslow pulled her hat brim low to shade her eyes. It was always difficult making a shot into the sun, but this time she had no choice. The varmint who was trying to take her ranch was holed up on the other side of the ridge, and she had one chance to rescue Pa and save their range land. If she could shoot a hole in the water tank rising above the stock pen, perhaps she could start a stampede and draw the varmints away from the house long enough to get inside and free Pa.
She had never expected to find herself in this position as a child. Ma and Pa had made sure she learned to read and write and cipher—Ma wanted her to be a schoolmarm when she was old enough; and until she was twelve, she’d expected that was how it would be.
That year Ma caught scarlet fever, and Kate and Pa were left alone to run the homestead. Instead of planning lessons, she’d learned to shoot and ride like a Comanche, and swear like a wrangler. Smart as a whip and strong as a horse, Kate earned a reputation for hard living and equally hard loving. She wore men’s trousers and had been known to tip a few in the local saloon.
But what she really longed for was a man that could stand at her side, run the ranch, and make her feel like a woman….
— Garrett Goldthwaite — Calico Kate and the River of Gold
“I did not lie to you, sir! I am Jo Mann. I am here…”
I heard my voice creeping up toward a shout, and forced myself to take a deep breath. What would the heroine of one of Garrett Goldthwaite’s dime novels do in a case like this? I had found that question served me well in similar cases where I was at a loss for what to do.
It didn’t take but a moment to decide. She would stand her ground. Of that, I had no doubt.
Straightening my back, I looked down my nose at the odious little toad in the wrinkled shirt who was staring back at me with bulbous eyes.
“I am here to apply for the copy reader position that was advertised in last evening’s paper.”
The toad blinked myopically.
“But you aren’t qualified.”
“The advertisement said the only qualification is an ability to read and write. I assure you, sir, I am most qualified in that area. I have been doing both since I was five.”
“But you are a girl.”
“That has nothing to do with…!” I was beginning to screech again. Deep breaths…deep breaths…
I tried once more.
“I am fully aware of my sex, Mr. Greenstreet. However, it has no bearing on whether or not I am able to read and write. These are the only listed qualifications for the position.”
“But you’re a girl. And a little slip of a thing at that. A newspaper is no place for a lady.”
I realized he was trying to be kind as he tapped together my papers and handed them back to me, but it did nothing except irritate me further. I knew what he saw when he looked at me—a short female with too many unruly curls and too few pounds on her slight frame. And not much chance to get any fatter if I didn’t find a job soon.
The five one-dollar bills tucked into the sole of my boot were all I had left in the world. To make matters worse, two of those were due the landlady on Monday.
I swallowed any pride I had left and tried a final time.
“Mr. Greenstreet. Sir. I understand I would be an unconventional choice for the position…”
Whatever kindness the gentleman had felt was rapidly deteriorating—I could see it in his eyes. I’ve always been good at reading people.
“Look, Miss, I wish you the best of luck, but there is no work for you here. Why don’t you see if Father Murphy over to the church across the street can suggest something? Maybe one of his parishioners is looking for a governess or some such. Good day.” He handed back my forged letters of recommendation—a girl has to eat—with an air of great finality.
Stifling a sigh that I feared might lead to tears, I stuffed the carefully fabricated papers into my reticule with no further concern for their well-being. Fat lot of good they’d done.
I spun on my heel, nose in air, and swept out of the room. Unfortunately, my exit was marred when on the way out of the door I slammed into a hard surface and bounced backward; it was sheer luck that I didn’t fall flat on an unmentionable body part. I opened my mouth to protest—and, for once, found myself at a total loss for words.
The “surface” in question turned out to be a young gentleman dressed in most peculiar clothing—natty tweed trousers and neat brown boots, but a collarless shirt with undone vest in a vile green plaid that clashed horribly with the trousers. Over the entire ensemble, he wore a long white coat with many pockets bulging in interesting ways and bearing several noxious stains in lurid colors. Not bad looking in an academic way, he wore his dark hair a bit longer than was fashionable and had the most brilliant blue eyes I’d ever seen behind round wire spectacles.
I am enough of a typical female that I felt a frisson of pleasure run through me at the sight.
“Oh, excuse me!” the gentleman murmured, reaching out a steadying hand stained with splotches of some chemical. “I didn’t see you.”
“Obviously not,” I said with a sniff of distain. It would never do to show the man I thought he was rather handsome. It would just encourage him. Men didn’t need any encouragement to be obnoxious.
“Are you all right, Miss…?”
“Yes. I’m fine. No thanks to you, I must say.”
“I’m terribly sorry. If there’s anything I can do…”
Mr. Greenstreet stepped from behind his desk.
“The young lady was just leaving, Professor Conn. Have you brought your advertisement?”
The young man glanced down at a grimy piece of paper clutched in one hand as if he had never seen it before.
“Oh. Yes. Yes, here it is. I would like to run the piece for one week in both the early and late editions—unless we have a favorable response, of course.” He handed the scrap of paper to Mr. Greenstreet. “I believe you said that would be fifty cents?”
He fumbled in his vest pocket and pulled out a coin. The newspaperman took the coin and read aloud what was scribbled on the paper.
“‘Wanted, lab assistant. Hours expected: ten a.m. to four p.m. Occasional night work may be required. Pay twenty dollars a week’—oh my, Professor Conn. That is a mistake, surely. You mean twenty dollars a month, don’t you?”
“No…no, I mean twenty a week, Mr. Greenstreet. You feel that’s excessive?”
Mr. Greenstreet shrugged. “It’s your money. I’ll just send this down to the typesetters.”
That was an outrageous salary…it was as much as a governess would earn in a month! How hard could the position be?
Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Heart pounding in my chest, I snatched the paper from his hand.
“No need to trouble yourself, Mr. Greenstreet.” I turned to Professor Conn. “Do you have a problem with a female assistant, sir?”
The gentleman in question blinked at me.
“Well, no, I don’t suppose so. As long as she’s willing to work.”
“Then there is no need to place the advertisement.” I plucked the coin from Mr. Greenstreet’s hand as well and handed it back to the professor. “I’ll take the job.”
“Oh. Well, I…”
Poor dear, he seemed totally out of his depth. Lacing my arm through his, I turned him back toward the doorway.
“Now, why don’t we go next door to that lovely little café, and you can tell me all about the position over a nice glass of lemonade and a cucumber sandwich?” This was pushing things a bit, but I was ravenous.
The professor looked a bit dazed, but he didn’t protest or hang back, which was a good sign. Mr. Greenstreet glowered at me as he moved back around his desk, but I didn’t care. I gave him a little wave as we stepped out the doorway.
I couldn’t help feeling a bit sorry for Professor Conn as I guided him down the stairs and shepherded him to the café. Marching him to the counter, I ordered two lemonades and a plate of sandwiches. The young man behind the counter looked up at us expectantly, and I nudged the professor in the ribs. He jumped a little, but reached into his wallet and paid for the food without protest.
Steering him to one of the little tables, I finally let go of his arm and plopped down on a bentwood chair. As he sank down across from me, a bemused expression on his face, I stuck out my hand.
“My name is Josephine Mann. I go by Jo. I believe I’m your new assistant.”
He took my hand in his, calluses scraping the bottoms of my fingers, and shook it.
“Alistair Conn. I teach three days a week at the University. The rest of the time I spend in my workshop. I’m a bit of an inventor.”
I waved away the explanation, cramming half a cucumber sandwich in my mouth. I was too hungry to be ladylike. I hadn’t eaten since the previous morning, and it was well after two in the afternoon. Washing down the sandwich with a gulp of lemonade, I made an effort to be nice.
“Just tell me where to be in the morning, and I’ll be there.”
Professor Conn scratched his ear.
“You aren’t precisely what I was expecting in an assistant, Miss Mann—”
“Jo, then. I require someone to take dictation of my lab notes, to do some minor lifting, perhaps monitor some of my experiments while I am in class…”
“I can do all that. Maybe do your laundry too,” I mumbled around sandwich crumbs, with an eye to his mussed and rumpled clothing.
“I am not looking for a maid, Miss Mann,” he replied stiffly. “I need a lab technician.”
I bit my lip. I was irritating him already. Not a good start to a working relationship.
“Yes, I know,” I said, in my most soothing tone. “I promise I can do all that. I write a good hand, I read everything I get my hands on, I’m a good listener and a quick learner. I’m strong as a horse. And I really need the money.”
“Well. You are direct, I’ll give you that.”
“What’s the point in beating around the bush? You need an assistant, I have rent to pay—oh, and about that. Today is Wednesday. If you could see your way to pay me for the rest of this week in advance…” I held out my hand hopefully. Never hurts to try.
He took out his wallet once more and pulled out ten dollars. He started to hand it to me then pulled it back.
“This just feels a little sudden to me, Miss Mann. I’m not sure—”
“Please, Professor Conn, I really need this position.”
I’m not very good at feminine wiles, but I batted my lashes anyway, hoping he wasn’t used to being on the receiving end of them either and wouldn’t notice my lack of finesse.
“I’m down to my last dollar. There aren’t many openings for women in these enlightened times of eighteen-seventy-four. England may be ruled by a queen, but here in good old New York City, it’s a man’s world. I’ve tried all the acceptable positions—shop girl, factory worker…but I never seem to land in one place for very long.”
“I wonder why that is,” my new employer commented wryly.
I felt the heat rise to my face. Obviously, I was already making an impression.
“To be frank with you, sir, unless I want to be a governess or a housemaid, all that’s left for me is settling down as some man’s wife, and I assure you, that’s not the life for me.”
“I see,” Conn said, looking a bit taken aback. “Well, you do raise some very valid considerations. I know something about societal expectations myself. We will give it a week’s trial. Or, shall we say, half a week? If we are both satisfied with the arrangement by Friday evening, we will consider a more permanent arrangement.” He handed me the ten dollars.
Ten dollars for two days? It was a fortune! I could live with that—and, with careful budgeting—start to improve my situation. Mrs. Milligan would be happy to have the rent on time for a change, that was certain.
I stuck out my hand again.
“You’ve got yourself an assistant, Professor.”