1879: Actual Play: Session 1: New Year, New Game
Evening settles over the City of Brooklyn. In the offices of the Daily Eagle, the morning edition stories get a final pass before going down to the compositing room. Work at the piers along the East River winds down; at sunset, the whistles blow and the dock workers pour out of the gates in a great river of their own, heading home after another hard day’s labor moving the commerce of the Union’s largest sea port. Electric lights illumine the streets for eight blocks around City Hall, gaslights flickering to life beyond as the lamplighters ply their trade. The pong from the Fulton Fish Market begins to fade, as the apprentices hose down the pavement and send the day’s guts and other spillage into the sewers, but everyone knows it will rise again on the morrow.
Buses crowd the roadways of the newly opened suspension bridge connecting Brooklyn with Manhattan, the wonder of New York and its tallest structure. Above, on the pedestrian walkways suspended over the vehicular traffic, thousands make their way one direction or the other, returning from their jobs in one city to homes in the other. The police and fire departments have merged into single Metropolitan districts, but the possibility of merging Brooklyn into Manhattan to form a Greater New York is still just talk in the smoke filled back rooms at Tammany Hall and other political outposts, not yet even a ballot initiative. The occasional cab may be found on the bridge as well, but those are pricey, going that far and across the East River. More often, private conveyances are the steam-coaches and broughams of the wealthy, and those avoid the rush hours, traveling during the day or late in the evening to avoid being caught up in the great crowds of the great unwashed.
A bus that has come off of the Bridge onto Fulton at Main, then turned onto Court at the muddle of streets by the Library and Brooklyn City Hall, stops at Atlantic to let off a few passengers. Two notice each other when they both set off the same direction. Neither quite belong in the neighborhood, and have other visible signs that they have business here and not a residence. Shall we have character descriptions, please, Rivka and Abraham?
Rachel: Okay, Rivka Khavkin is tall for a woman, but then she’s elven, and that’s obvious since her ears aren’t covered by her tichel. Yes, she’s unmarried, but if people think she has a husband they’re more likely to leave her alone, so she covers her hair. Her features are Slavic, although her face is more narrow, her cheekbones higher and her eyes a bit almond-shaped from the changes becoming an Elf wrought.
Parker: Cheekbones you could slice bread with.
Rachel: Um, yeah. She’s wearing a dark greyish-blue business suit, the kind a professional woman like an apothecary would wear, coat and ankle length skirt, and has a large and obviously heavy leather tool bag slung over her shoulder instead of a purse. There’s a pair of magnifying spectacles on a decorative chain around her neck. Her shoes are sensible, flat heel ankle boots buttoned up the side.
Thomas: Abraham pauses a moment, noting the tool bag. That’s odd. Brassman, Byron, something like that maybe? Oh, Abraham is about average height, well dressed – how white is this neighborhood?
GM: More than half. The rest seems to be Middle Eastern.
Thomas: Oh, yeah, a black man in a fine suit is going to stick out seriously in this neighborhood. More so because it’s dark green with bright yellow piping on the jacket, three large brooches on the left lapel, and fancy embroidery on the cuffs. His hat started out as a standard-issue bowler, but it’s got a fancy embroidered hatband with a cluster of feathers on the right and two small jeweled clasps above his left eye. He’s got a brown leather Gladstone in his left hand, tooled and dyed up fancy, and big chunky silver rings on the middle and ring fingers of his right hand. There’s obviously some gadgets in his coat pockets, stuff that spoils the lines of the coat. Oh, and Abraham is human.
Rachel: Hmmm. All that embroidery makes me think Mage. This can’t be a coincidence. Things don’t work that way. I nod politely to him.
Thomas: I’ll take that as an invitation and fall into step with her. *clears throat* We seem to be going the same direction, ma’am. Do you mind if we walk together for a moment?
Rachel: As long as you behave like the gentleman you appear to be. (to the GM) I’m going to keep just a little distance between us, close enough we can talk but not close enough to be improper.
GM: So noted.
Thomas: Pardon me being so forward, but you appear to be a technician of some sort?
Rachel: Rivka blinks, and looks down, then back up. I am, yes. Is there something you need?
GM: You’ve arrived at the address. It’s a Syrian bakery.
Thomas: Is this guy putting us on? Sending us to a bakery?
Rachel: Is there another door, the kind that leads to the stairs and the apartments above the shop?
GM: Yes, there is.
Rachel: (to Abraham) Excuse me, sir, but this is my destination. (to GM) She opens the door and goes up the stairs.
Thomas: Abraham waits a moment, then follows. Oddly enough, it is mine also. We seem to be in the same line of business, although in different trades.
Rachel: May I see your card please? She pulls out her own.
GM: You compare invitation cards. Yes, they’re identical. Same copperplate hand, same address, same date and time.
Thomas: Well then. More than one apartment up here?
GM: Just one, but the stairs go on up one more floor. It’s a dimly lit hallway, a single gaslamp burning although there’s more sconces, a narrow window that looks out onto the street and one door at the end of the hall.
Thomas: I knock.
GM: The door opens. There’s an old woman in dark colored Syrian dress. She doesn’t say anything, just holds out a hand, palm up.
Thomas: I give her the card.
GM: She looks at it, looks at the two of you, and nods, then ushers you in. You’re taken round to the front room, through a combination bedroom and kitchen that’s got at least three people living in it by the stuff hanging on the pegs on the wall and the bedrolls tucked away against the wall. The front room is pretty much empty, except for a table, some mismatched chairs, and a young man standing by the window, out of direct line, keeping a watch on the street where he can’t be readily seen. The old woman sees you in and leaves, closing the door as she goes.
Thomas: I say to him, excuse me? We were expected?
GM: The young man – you get a better look at him as he steps a pace away from the window, he’s white, a little on the short side, dark hair, dark eyes, tweed waistcoat and cheap suit, trying to grow a big bushy mustache and only succeeding at a pathetic little caterpillar. I’m expecting two more, he says. His accent’s Irish. Can you take a seat and give it a mo please? He goes back to watching the street.
Thomas: Brusque little snot, isn’t he. I’m going to have better manners than he does, and hold the chair for the lady.
Rachel: I’ll take the offered seat.
GM: The old woman comes back in with an old and somewhat battered tea service, and serves you strong tea flavored heavily with mint in glass cups with metal holders. There’s no sugar, but there is a honey pot.
Rachel: Tea is good. I like tea.
GM: Yang, you’ve ridden over on a tugboat, right?
Parker: Yeah, I caught a ride over on one of the Tong’s tugboats, since I can get a free lift that way. I’m assuming there’s some business along the way that I either take part in and don’t talk about, or ignore and don’t talk about?
GM: There’s parcels involved, yes.
Parker: (shrugs) That’s how things get into and out of the city. I’ll pitch in if they ask me to.
GM: They’re glad enough for another pair of hands, makes the loading go faster. You get dropped off at the pier on the Brooklyn side and told there’s no return run tonight, you’re on your own for getting back over the river.
Parker: (shrugs again) I can ride the bus. Just don’t see a need to pay for it when I don’t have to. Okay, where’s this place?
GM: You find the Syrian bakery after several blocks walking. Same deal with the stairs and the old woman.
Parker: I address her as grandmother and show respect.
GM: You get a piece of baklava with your tea. It’s a little stale, yesterday’s baking.
Parker: But dude, baklava.
Parker: Young Chinese guy, mid twenties maybe, clean shaven, wearing a decent enough suit, dark colors, and a black neck scarf with red embroidery. As he sits down, his coat flaps open a bit, and you can see the butts of two pistols, one each side, in shoulder holsters set up for cross-draw.
Thomas: We have a gunslinger.
Parker: Something like that. He’s also got a toolbelt and bandolier. (Indicates Rachel) Your character might recognize some of the tools. He’s not a Byron.
Thomas: I look at the embroidery. Do I recognize it?
GM: No, doesn’t look familiar.
Thomas: Okay, I cover an Astral Sight with a slow sip of tea.
GM: Roll it.
Thomas: Well, maybe not. I got a five.
GM: You get nothing. The background here is muddled, too many people, too many worries.
Thomas: I rub my eyes as if tired and put my tea down.
Parker: If I notice this guy scoping me I pretend like I didn’t.
GM: The Irish guy checks his pocket watch, and frowns. Five more minutes, he says. We can’t afford to be together for too long.
Jennifer: Where am I?
GM: Stuck in traffic. Taking a cab across the bridge at this hour turned out to be not the greatest of ideas.
Jennifer: When I get within three or four blocks, I’ll pay the cabbie and get out and walk. I need to see the area anyway, find out what I’m getting myself into.
GM: Okay. You bail on the cab at City Hall, pay the man a buck and nine cents plus tip?
Jennifer: I’ll toss in another eleven cents to make it an even dollar twenty.
GM: Okay, that’s about the equivalent of a three dollar tip on a twenty eight dollar fare, ten percent is a little cheap but he’s not going to grumble too loud about it. Not where you can hear anyway.
Jennifer: Cabbies are the same in New York as in Paris and London. All the same species. I walk down from City Hall to the address, staying alert.
GM: Three and four story buildings, brick for the most part, a few with stone facings, one or two of actual stone construction. Shops in the ground floor, what Americans call the first floor, and apartments, what you call a flat, in the upper stories. You see electric lights in a few, gaslights in more, and candles in only a couple of the top floor windows. The crowd is heavy, people going home from work, getting food along the way, doing some early shopping or drinking.
Jennifer: I watch out for pickpockets.
GM: Make a Streetwise Test.
Jennifer: I’ve got a 13.
GM: You avoid a couple of street kids that you’re pretty sure are working the crowd. You get to the bakery without incident.
Jennifer: I’m late, aren’t I. Hurry up the stairs and present myself.
GM: The rest of you are halfway through your tea, and the Irish guy is getting fidgety, when the old woman ushers Bethelie in. Description?
Jennifer: Short, slim woman, light skin, dark hair, pale hazel eyes, human. Cream-coloured blouse, just a little frill around the neck, no lace, no necklaces or other jewelry that could be grabbed. Pale rose coloured jacket, cut short, not quite a bolero, Continental styling, and doeskin trousers, tucked into cavalry boots. Pistol carried quite openly on the right hip. Flat-crowned hat with a wide brim that looks like I stole it off a Catholic priest. (in French accent) Excusez-moi, I am as you say fashionably late. I blame the traffic on the bridge.
GM: The Irish guy checks his watch once more, then draws the curtains and sits down. Close one, he says, might want to take that into account next time. Traffic here’s worse’n Dublin, worse’n anyplace in Europe from what I’m told. Okay, business. He holds up a hand, then reaches slowly into his jacket and pulls out a sheaf of money.
Parker: Good job he let us know he was about to reach for that.
GM: Not his first rodeo. He deals a five dollar bill onto the table in front of each of you. Inflation would make that a hundred and thirty in modern currency. That’s for your time tonight, he says.
Parker: So this dude just slapped a Benjamin down in front of each of us just for showing up. Dude is serious.
GM: Yeah. He gives you a second to react, then explains. (Irish accent) Cards on the table, ladies and gentlemen, I’m Michael Mulvihill, you can call me Michael if you like, and I’m an organiser with the Levellers. May have heard of us? Trade unionists, socialists, fourth or fifth time we’ve come together, Crown keeps trying to kill an idea by killing the people who hold it, doesn’t work so well. I represent the Manhattan and Brooklyn United chapter of our fine organisation.
Yang: You’ve got Pinkertons?
Michael: (shakes head) No, that’d be easy enough to deal with. We’re used t’bein’ at the end of their cudgels, and they know better’n’to use guns against strikers these days. No, we’re up against something much nastier here, something that requires the specialised skills you bring to the table.
Abraham: Do tell.
Michael: There’s somethin’ goin’ on we can’t quite put a finger on, but it’s upsettin’ folks somethin’ terrible. The sandhogs have quit showin’ up to the union meetin’s, started throwin’ people outta their bars, quit talkin’ to people after church on Sundays. They even quit showin’ up for the baseball games, and when a sandhog foregoes braggin’ rights, there’s somethin’ terrible wrong.
Bethelie: (puzzled) Sand hog?
Abraham: Tunnel and dig worker. Mostly Polish, but some black men among’em and some Russians and such. Don’t take no shit from anybody.
Michael: Except now some of’em are walkin’ around lookin’ like they seen their great aunt Mary down in the tunnels, and none of’em’ll tell anybody what’s goin’ on, just shakes their heads, walks away. Gets violent if you push it.
Abraham: So you need to know what’s got the sandhogs all shook up, and get their support for the union firmed back up?
Michael: Aye, but there’s more.
Yang: Of course there is.
Michael: Steelworkers on the lower west side are actin’ funny too. We had them on board to join the union, so we thought, they were goin’ t’have an organising meetin’ and vote to unionise, and then the night before three of their leadership packed up wife, kids, and what they could carry and left town, just up and hopped the train and headed out.
Abraham: Something put the fear of God into them. Park Avenue sent some bully boys to threaten their families maybe?
Michael: There’d have been blood if that happened. Steelworkers don’t take threats, they’d kill a couple of the bully boys to send a message back. No, it takes a lot more than a threat against a child to send a steelworker runnin’ off into th’night like that. And we’ve got reports that things aren’t linin’ up right at some of the work sites. Numbers just not addin’ up, materials and labor accountin’ not linin’ up with the work orders. Men bein’ paid under the table for extra labour’s standard practice, but no, this’s something more. An’ people who go askin’ questions about it gets warned off, and roughed up if they don’t heed th’warnin’. It’s a rough business, y’expect an occasional rough housin’, but this one lad, all they found of him was his hat an’ his left arm, chewed up somethin’ ‘orrible it was.
Rivka: Wait. Something ate one of your men?
GM: Michael stares at you for a long moment to let that sink in.
Michael: So you see why we’re lookin’ to hire the likes of you, real professionals, people what can see to whatever’s doin’ all this. Figure it out. Maybe it goes to th’papers, maybe it goes t’the Church, maybe God help us it goes to the Federals, but this’s way more than union bustin’ and scab labour.
Bethelie: I assume you would prefer we be diplomatic, up to a point?”
Michael: Aye, no more noise than y’have to make, if you would please.
Rivka: And where do we start?
Yang: And how much do we get paid for this?
Michael: The Levellers ain’t wealthy, but we’ve got a war chest for goin’ t’court if we have to, or payin’ wages durin’ a strike, and we can dip into that as we need to. You’ll get your expenses taken care of, an’ six a day, which is a better wage than anybody less than a foreman makes, I’ll tell you that up front and straight away.
Yang: (nods) Six and expenses. We’ll bring you the receipts.
Michael: We’ll provide you with some contacts, some people you can rely on if you need resources or backup, and some people y’can talk with t’get started. And hurry it along if y’can. The steelworkers failin’ to unionise is costin’ us dearly.
Abraham: You need a show of strength, to prove your capability to defend the workers as a collective.
GM: (touches his nose with his index finger, and points it at Thomas)
Parker: I scoop up the five and stand up. I’m in, I say, now where do we start?
(Nods go around the table. The GM hands Parker a list of names. Discussion follows of how to organise and prioritise the effort.)
Tune in next time when Our Heroes attempt to follow up their first lead!