“Boys!” Nora hollered over her shoulder. “Ellen’s here!”
“Coming!” They thundered down from the top floor of the boarding house. Ma emerged from the kitchen, drying her reddened hands on a fraying rag.
“Ma, I wish you’d consider getting one of those auto-dryers.”
She snorted. “You know I don’t trust those steam contraptions. Besides, we could never afford one.”
“You trust Ellen to drive me to the fights in a steam contraption…”
Ma sighed and crossed herself. She’d long ago given up on keeping her children from watching the fights, settling instead for praying a contingency of saints over them. “And who’s the metal devil fighting this time?”
“He’s no devil, Ma.”
Ma shook her finger. “It’s the devil in a steel suit, mark my words.”
Colin and David arrived in the front hall. Nora noticed David’s cardigan was missing another button. “Tonight he’s fighting King Conrad!” David announced. “Conrad’s got the best odds yet!”
“Not that we’re gambling,” Nora said hastily, as Ma’s expression began to contort. Outside, Ellen tapped the horn.
“Goodnight, Ma!” Nora shoved the boys, still half out of their coats, through the front door.
“Promise me you’re not gambling!” Ma shouted after them. Nora waved vaguely as Colin and David clambered into the backseat of Ellen’s coupe. Ellen flashed Nora a wink and they tore down the street with a screech of steam and a blast of heat. In the back, the boys cackled.
“Who do you think will win?” Ellen called.
“Sloane Keaveney’s Fightin’ Automaton!” shouted David. “He always wins!”
“Not always!” Colin shoved him. “King Conrad’s gonna lick him!”
The shoving increased. No wonder they were missing buttons. “Boys! Don’t make me regret bringing you.”
Her brothers resorted to surreptitious pokes that Nora decided to ignore.
“You sure you want to do this?” Ellen asked in a low voice.
“I have to. We won’t get through the winter otherwise.”
They parked a few blocks from the arena. Already they could see the glow of floating lanterns. The arena sold them to spectators, who bought the color of their favorite: yellow for the Automaton, red for Conrad. Only about a third of the floating lights were red.
“You boys want to buy a lantern?”
Ellen dropped a penny each into their gloved palms – Nora noticed Colin’s had holes in each fingertip – and they raced towards the lantern booth, still arguing.
“Go straight to your seats after!” Nora shouted.
“Let’s go.” Ellen led the way into the crowded lobby. Nora’s stomach growled at the smell of hot dogs and crackerjack. Ellen stopped near the restrooms.
“That way.” She tilted her head towards an unmarked door. “I’ll place your bet.”
“Thank you, Ellen. ”
Ellen squeezed her hand. “You’ll only have a few minutes. If Sloane finds out –”
“I’ll be careful.”
Nora tied a white kerchief around her head as she walked. By the time she slipped through the door, she looked like an employee – she hoped.
In the steam-clouded kitchens, Nora picked up a tray of glasses. No one gave her a second glance. She walked the tray down the hallway, her heart pounding.
The fighters’ doors weren’t guarded; Sloane’s people were confident in their external security. Outside the Automaton’s door, Nora hesitated. Awful thoughts circled: suspicions that Ellen would betray her to the Keaveneys, fear over what she’d see inside. The devil in a steel suit.
She opened the door.
The Automaton lay silent, a man-shaped collection of cold pistons and plates. Nora uncorked the vial she’d brought: undiluted cleaning solvent. She poured the whole thing into one of the machine’s elbow joints and watched it corrode. She threw the vial in the trash, picked up her tray – and the door opened.
Sloane Keaveney frowned at her. “What are you doing in here?”
She held out the tray. “Refreshment?”
Sloane accepted a glass of water with a scowl. “Thanks. Now clear out.”
Nora left her kerchief and tray by the kitchen and ran.
“Unbelievable. Forty to one and he pulls it off.”
“Sloane’s mechanics must’ve missed something. Did you see how slow the left hooks were?”
Nora counted out her payment while the clerks wrapped her purchases: buttons, yarn, and two boys’ sweaters, plus a fancy French lotion for Ma. The rest of her winnings were safe under her mattress. It would give her away to spend it all at once, but she took a catalogue of steam gadgets for the home – just in case.