Asher's Dilemma

By: Coleen Kwan

Chapter One



England, 1870s



In the witching hour of the night Asher Quigley fell out of bed, sweating profusely, his head thrumming from a thousand drumbeats. The treacly August heat pressed down on his heaving chest. He’d fallen asleep fully clothed, and now his shirt and britches were soaked through and clinging to his skin. Groaning, he pulled himself to his feet and kneaded his forehead.

God’s teeth! It wasn’t just his head that ached. His entire body felt as if he’d gone thirty rounds with a bare-knuckled pugilist. Staggering to the wash stand, he emptied the pitcher over himself, but the tepid water did little to revive him. He shook his head, trying to clear the cobwebs of the dream he’d just started awake from. A week ago he’d collapsed in his workshop and woken up with the most debilitating migraine he’d ever experienced. Since then his every night had been dogged by the same fevered dreams of oppression and pain.

Lifting his head from the basin, he caught sight of his pallid reflection in the mirror above…and a glimpse of someone else, a young woman with fair hair and eyes of cerulean blue, drifting through the shadows behind him.

He whipped round, but she was gone. As always.

For the past week it seemed he’d seen her everywhere—walking down a crowded street, riding by in an omnibus, sailing down the Thames on a ferry, and now even in his own bedchamber. Everywhere out of nowhere he caught glimpses of her slender figure and oval face, causing him to start in surprise and pleasure. And every time he saw her, he opened his mouth to call out her name. He knew he knew her name. It was on the tip of his tongue but somehow he couldn’t form the sound. And every time she disappeared before he could get any closer, leaving him inexplicably bereft.

Now she had begun to invade his dreams too, like tonight, when she had beamed a smile at him which had flooded him with sunshine. In his dream he’d run towards her, lured by her mermaid hair and dimpled smile, but she had disappeared into a thick mist. And then she reappeared. Only it wasn’t her this time. This woman was fair-haired and blue-eyed too, but it wasn’t her. This was someone serpentine and sinister, someone who made him back away, his skin crawling with animosity.

That was when he’d jerked awake to find himself a tangled mess, punching at his pillows.

Who was this enticing young woman who tormented him day and night? In his bones he knew she was of vital importance to him, so why the devil couldn’t he remember her?

Zounds! If he didn’t take more care, he’d start sounding like an addle-pated mystic. That would never do. He was Asher Quigley, the renowned inventor who revered science and technology above religion, much to his clergyman father’s continued disapproval. He did not put stock in visions and dreams, even if these nightly visitations were more disturbing than any opium-fuelled delirium. He must be coming down with an ague. That would explain the headaches, the muscular pains, the nocturnal sweats. He was just working too hard, that was all.

Frustrated, he flung open his bedroom window and sucked the thick night air deep into his lungs. From his window he could see the bulky outline of his workshop at the bottom of his garden. On the horizon, sheet lightning flickered like distant explosions. Bruised, swollen clouds all but obscured the waning moon. All was sullenly quiet down below, the padlocks on the doors of the workshop undisturbed.

Behind him, a faint trilling sound caught his attention. Frowning, he walked across to his commode and picked up the source of the noise. It was his stalking compass. The round brass object fit neatly in his palm and resembled an ordinary compass but for the thin wire antenna extending from it. The instrument was designed to work with a separate stalking device. The antenna would pick up the radio waves emitted by the stalking device if it was within a hundred-foot radius and the compass needle would swing towards its location. For the past week the stalking compass had been turning itself on at random and emitting that humming noise. He’d searched high and low for the stalking device, but it had mysteriously disappeared.

Now, exasperated by his headache and his malfunctioning invention, he snatched up the stalking compass and marched towards the open window, ready to hurl the infernal thing out. As he raised his arm, the instrument began to beep louder, and a pulsing pain leaped through his arm.

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