THE MAGISTER CURIOSITY
A memoir of Professor Artemus More FRS
In The Dungeon, the void beneath The Metropolitan Theatre of Steam Smoke & Mirrors, Phoebe, who had been listening to me very patiently, suddenly pulled a face of great displeasure and held up a hand.
“If I may I interrupt your narrative just there, Professor?”
I could easily understand any interjection at any time. Given that everything I had said so far could be considered nothing shy of stone cold bonkers.
“To review, am I being expected to believe that yourself and Wicko came originally from what has all the likelihood at the moment of being an alternative version of the United States? A description of which seems to me to almost mirror the world in which we are living now, albeit measuredly more advanced, scientifically? And which exists on the other side of a permeable veil you called the Nexus?”
I took a breath and assured her thus far she was correct in every particular.
Phoebe frowned. Then pulled that face again. One I took to be less than friendly.
“If you would please remain seated, Professor.”
From her tone and manner, I was in little doubt Phoebe was plotting to send for policemen armed with truncheons and canvas straitjackets to march me down to Bedlam. She eased herself off my desk, and walked with calm but firm resolution across The Dungeon. She looked at the illusions we stored down here. The Graveyard of Death. The Guillotine of Deadly Decapitation. The Vitruvian Chamber of Agonised Dismemberment. None of it particularly appealing, especially, as I became convinced she was assessing which gruesome device she might use to restrain me till the police came.
Naturally, I was fully aware there was nothing I could do. I would never out-fox Phoebe by sprinting away, nor, as you know, out-box her. Even the pugilist James J. Jeffries would struggle against those flying elbows and knees.
Phoebe decided upon the Throne of Disintegration. A staple illusion in her and Michael’s magic act, the Throne was an elaborate leather armchair adorned with stout leather strappage designed for wrapping around wrists and ankles. With some effort, she dragged and scraped the thing across the stone floor the short distance to my desk.
But instead of then wrestling me into the Throne, she plonked herself down on the chair, with a sigh.
“That’s very much better. I am sorry, Professor, but your desk was becoming rather too uncomfortable. Now please. Do continue.”
So I did.
I heaved in another gulp of air, then hacked some more, failing to spit the bone-dry ash from my tongue. And then looking about saw Wicko. But of the Regal Lord T. Alva-Edison Complex Scientifica, there was no sign.
I patted my trouser pocket. Oh, the delight upon feeling it. The hard lump. No, not a hernia or anything else, thank you. My lump of coal. A smooth egg-shaped piece of black shiny gold. Coal, the power source bequeathed to us by millennia-old forests, so vital until the development of Sir Nicholas Tesler’s A.C.
I told Wicko I still had my lucky charm.
“Didn’t bring us much luck just then, did it!” he sniffed.
After a bout of head scratching and a few moments thought, Wicko concluded, “That blast threw us further than we thought. Must have.”
Yes, the explosion. I recalled Mr Chiaroscuro, that strange, bald porter, with those familiar narrow eyes, and his smashing down that hammer on Sir Nicholas Tesler’s Aethylium Amplifier! Shouting “Die, fiends!” like a spiritual fanatic.
“He threw it,” said Wicko.
“The porter. Chiaroscuro. He threw the hammer. He didn’t smash it down.”
Gah. Well, whatever he did with the damned hammer, he caused that excessive energy surge which extinguished the life of Sir Nicholas Tesler. That unique and brilliant mind silenced forever. Being the closest to the Amplifier, Tesler had taken the full shock, while Wicko and I, and the Phunns, Dok Tor and Wu Hu shared the fortune of sufficient distance to survive. And what of the treacherous porter? I had no mind to consider his wretched fate. My concern now was young Miss Phunn. As resilient as she undoubtedly was, she ought not to see Tesler’s grisly remains.
“You mean his severed head,” said Wicko.
Yes. His severed head. I suggested that Wicko should quietly cover it over or something, to protect the young lady.
Well, I would have attended to the morbid situation myself, were I not still so unsteady. And Sir Nicholas Tesler deserved some degree of dignity.
Wicko huffed and said he would take care of it. By which I mean he ambled painfully towards the great man’s head. Then nonchalantly back-heeled it deeper into the undergrowth.
“Job done,” he shrugged. “What? Prof, Tesler’s not going to complain. And we’ve got more pressing stuff to worry about.”
Then he complained his groin ached. I later concluded Wicko could not have had his legs crossed when the blast struck. For me however, of far more concern than the state of Wicko’s nethers, was the absence of any buildings in the distance. The Laboratoire Suites, and our own Robert Hooke Memorial tower, topped with that great clock, all were substantial landmarks in the area. There were no shards of glass, no piles of smoking brick rubble.
“The Potatoes will be here in minute,” said Wicko confidently, before adding a not so certain, “Surely.”
I should quickly explain, ‘The Potatoes’ is an affectionate name for our Ceremonial Order of Police, The New Jersey Royals. Along with ceremonial regiments: The Coalseam Guards and The Gaslight Infantry. But I am digressing. Oh, really?
I shielded the milky sun from my eyes to try and take our bearings. Ah! That is when I recognised the familiar Watchung Mountain, that volcanic ridge four hundred feet high, over there, to the north west, standing precisely where it should be. This I knew because it is a view I admire it every morning when I arrive at the Robert Hooke building.
And my reaction to the Mountain was more of alarm than reassurance. I was in precisely the correct spot. So, where were the damned buildings?
Then, it dawned on me. Might this solve the riddle of ‘The Robert Hooke Variance’. Let me come back to that in a moment.
I raised my gaze to the sky. Where were the airships? Where were the orderly lines of silver cigar-shaped dirigibles flying toward the Royal Central Park Queen Victoria Aerodrome?
Before I could share my dreadful theory with Wicko, I saw Dok Tor Phunn had recovered enough to stand and, supported by his equally shaken sister, shuffle towards us.
I asked Miss Phunn how she felt. If she remembered who she was?
“Of course,” she snapped, in a tone asking why I could pose such a ridiculous question. “My mental capacity is unimpaired.”
Fair. Her brain was youthful. She also wore a Complex Scientific guest photographic identity tag with her name on it.
And what of her broken finger?
“I survived,” she said firmly. “As for my finger…” She then took it and snapped it back into place with barely a flinch, leaving that reaction to Wicko and me!
“Professor Artemus More.” His deep and confident voice now tempered to a whisper. “Tell him, sister.”
“That crazed porter Chiaroscuro survived. I saw him in the undergrowth, hiding. Of this I am certain. His is a charlatan who wears black and uses the name Chiaroscuro, which means black. We must chase down this saboteur. And kill him.”
“Oh, steady on there, Miss,” said Wicko, alarmed more I suspect at the effort of the chasing down! “Forget him, we have to stay focussed.”
Dok Tor Phunn agreed. “For something is most wildly amiss.”
“Glad to note the explosion’s not affected your eyes then, Dok,” sniffed Wicko.
“Nor our ears, small man,” snapped Wu Hu, her eyes darting hither and yon, searching for anything that made sense. “Witness the silence.” Then she raised her eyebrows. “Broken only – by that.”
The growing sound was coming from behind us in what I calculated to be the direction of Main Street. Except the broad black-top ribbon of highway we knew so well now appeared as … a narrow stony lane. And the source of the rhythmic clacking proved to be no less puzzling. For along the track came a fine piebald horse hauling a rickety wooden flatbed waggon! Not since who can remember when, did anyone travel on a horse-drawn cart!
And the driver, sitting there at the front, gently holding what they used to call reins, appeared every inch a vintage son of the soil from the pages of Royal New Jersey history. Wearing a weather-worn collarless shirt, threadbare waistcoat along with stained and none too salubrious moleskins trousers.
He had no need of a hat, the old boy, because the unkempt bush of grey hair meshed into his thick monobrow, which tumbled down and about his cheeks to tangle with his coarse wild beard, all of which conspired to make his entire head resemble a rusty wire-wool ball. Save for holes for two eyes, a mouth, and a nose. The waggon driver saw us appear at the roadside and drew his steed to a halt.
“Lor’, have mercy,” he rasped like a soprano with quinsy. The voice came from a mouth in which not a single tooth could be seen. “What the damnation?”
We must have appeared a strange sight. The four us. Two dishevelled Orientals and two men, one small, one fat, dressed in grubby Lab scrubs, looking totally baffled by what we were seeing.
“You fine folk a-feared or affected by tha’ commotion, not a just a moment ago? Tha’ great thunder clap, an’ that flash of St. Elmo’s Fire? Occurred itself right hereabouts, I’ll reckon. Judging on these ashes an’ all.”
That was something. This fellow had heard the explosion. So I admitted we too encountered the blast and were very close by.
“Thankee Lor’ you appearin’ sound in wind and limb,” said the old timer.
He eyed the four of us up and down again, then continued. “’Cos I tell ya, folks, I bin at one wi’ the natural world in these parts my entire live-long days. And I love Mother Nature like I Iove my own mother. Even though both o’ them can bitch you up like a suck egg mule any time they takes a fancy. But I gotta tell you folks, I ain’t never seen St Elmo’s Fire the likes of that, not any time before this day, an’ that’s a fack!”
He stroked his beard and weighed us up some more while I introduced myself confidently as Professor Artemus More, and my companions as Doctor Smawl, and Mr Dok Tor and Miss Wu Hu Phunn.
“Pleasure’s mine, sir, and congratulations be due, because by my reckon’ that makes you the first professor and doctors we ever had in this locale. Never had no need of ’em here, an’ they never had no need of us.”
Which to all of us sounded preposterous! Especially Wicko, who told the man this area was usually running alive with scientists. Adding that he and I were two of the most famed and acclaimed in the entire Royal World.
I dreaded to test my Hooke Variance suspicion, but knew I must, by telling the man we were ‘Inventioneers’ from the Regal Lord T. Alva-Edison Complex Scientifica and that I was the Vanguard Professor of Stratagem Transportation Esoteric Advanced Mechanisation.
“That sure does sound mighty ‘ppresive. Not tha’ I know what none of it means.”
“Look, sir, please just tell us. Where’s the Complex?” I could see Wicko’s patience thinning and his desperation growing. “The T. Alva-Edison Complex Scientifica. It’s round here somewhere.”
The old boy shook his head. “Ne’er heard of no such ’stablishment in these hereabouts. An’ I knows these hereabouts better than most. I know what’s valuable round here and what ain’t and I heard of no Scien-tifica.”
While Wicko and the Phunns exchanged alarmed looks, I asked if this road was known as Main Street, West Orange.
“Straight and true, an’ that’s a fack.”
I then craved the good fellow’s continued forbearance. For just for a moment.
“Prof,” said Wicko in that dubious tone of voice of his. “What do you know? What is this?”
I told him my thinking. That we may not only have solved, but also becomes victims of ‘The Robert Hooke Variance’.
Wicko stared straight ahead. Taking it in. Before finally turning to me and managing a deadly serious, “This is turning in to a bit of a bugger.”
“Now, can I be helpin’ you science folks to be gettin’ anything and anywhere?”
“You can tell us what day is it,” demanded Wicko. He was testing my theory for himself.
The old boy chuckled. “You certain you folks truly is of ascientific persuasion? ‘Cos for gennamen of learnin’, you don’t seem to know a great deal about nothin’ at all. Today is a Wennersdi.”
That squared with what we knew. Wicko then asked about the date.
“As in the cal-en-dar? It’s the eighteenth day of the month of March. In the year of our good Lord eighteen hundra an’ eighty-nine.”
“No,” challenged Wu Hu. “1889? You are surely mistaken.”
“No Miss, an’ that’s straight an’ true. I know on accounts of being hauled hollerin’ and yellin’ from my mother’s womb in the year of our Lord eighteen-ten. An’ me being now of the age of seventy nine, well, even you folks of learnin’ can figure the arithmeticals of that fack.”
I have no doubt the Phunns were stunned by the old fellow’s insistence, I know Wicko and I were.
Because it made no sense! Even if my ‘Robert Hooke Variance’ theory held true and the explosion had cast us back in time thirty years to 1889, the Complex Scientifica should still be here. It was constructed in 1887.
“Like I said,” said Wicko. “This is turning into a bit of a bugger.”
Phoebe politely raised her hand again, exactly as she had been taught while she was attending that expensive girls’ school in Edinburgh. “Professor, might I please interject again here? ‘The Robert Hooke Variance’?”
It was a fair question. Which I felt deserved a pause for tea. Perhaps you might wish to take one too? So, while I boiled the copper kettle on a Tesla-built Aethylium Ring and prised open the caddy of Assam, I related the thinking behind my ‘Robert Hooke Variance’. It will not take long.
Sir Nicholas Tesler’s predecessor at the Alva-Edison Complex was the esteemed Sir Robert Hooke, Emeritus Polymath and Professor of Genius. Yes, I know it sounds a little on the nose, but trust me, the title was entirely worthy. This I know because at the time I was fortunate to be a member of the Scientifica Hooke Inspiration Trust. The acronym was never used. It was a specialty set up for abstruse thought.
Sir Robert Hooke was working in Laboratoire Suite 13, in what was then known as the Tower of Science, before it was renamed in his honour. Hooke was concluding a fanciful trilli-second experiment up in the rafters of the tower, within the giant clock mechanism. Adding the smallest of cogs to the timing mechanism to improve chronological accuracy.
Thirty feet below him there occurred a violent explosion. Yes, I know it seems Suite 13 is prone to them. The Laboratoire was blown to pieces and Sir Robert Hooke vanished, never to be seen again.
I was involved in the investigation of the accident and discovered that Hooke’s associate Dr John D’Ee was conducting, for his own lunchtime amusement, research into The Further Stimulation of Phosphorus. Why he would want to further stimulate a volatile compound, rather than just relaxing with a brie and pickle baguette we never fathomed, but he was a strange cove, old Dr John D’Ee. Esoteric, cosmic and whatever else ending in ‘ic’.
Anyway, as you know from my previous volume, phosphorus reacts none too well when exposed to warm, humid air. Vigorous, and vicious might describe the result. Well, as Dr D’Ee discovered, stimulating phosphorus by trying to run a Tesler A.C. charge straight through it, drives phosphorus molecularly bonkers – and, to use a quaint Wicko expression, it ‘blows up like a beast’.
The resulting explosion not only reduced Dr D’Ee to many dozen chunks of red-fleshed gore, the shock wave also ripped upwards, reducing Lab Suite 13 and the clock tower above to rubble.
It was only a while later, when no one could locate Sir Robert Hooke, and a good while after I had been appointed chief scientist investigating the disappearance of the great Professor of Genius, that I came to the precise and official scientific conclusion – “I have no idea what happened to him. Not the faintest.”
I proclaimed this with a baffled shrug, as well. But I always suspected it had something to do with the effect of Dr D’Ee’s detonation. The fact that Hooke was way up among the rafters tinkering with the giant clock in the nearby tower must have had some time-related bearing upon his disappearance.
It was only now, having experienced a discharge of A. C. energy while in close proximity to a giant clock mechanism, that I felt my Variance theory gained weight. Hooke, like us, or us like Hooke, were thrown into another time. Same place. Another time.
Phoebe took the bone china cup of steaming tea I handed her. Knowing she would want to debate my Hooke Variance theory in greater detail.
But instead she asked: “And when does Michael begin to appear in all this?”
Ah, yes. Michael.
The dimly lit corridor was just long enough to squeeze a line of half a dozen uncomfortable seats against one wall. It had the atmosphere of the waiting room of an alcoholic, struck-off, though still practicing osteopath. I imagine.
An eighteen-year-old man, dressed entirely in brown – trousers, paisley pattern waistcoat with a gold pocket watch on a chain across the front, button-down shirt, narrow trousers, brown cravat against a peak-white shirt, and with a top hat resting on his lap – quietly shuffled some fancy moves with his deck of cards. Clean shaven, he wore his dark hair long which framed his handsome features perfectly.
His name was Michael Magister. And his was quite a look.
“Remember, whenever you close the front door behind you to go out – it’s show time!”
That is what Michael’s recently deceased guide, mentor and agent Prichard Anderson had drilled into him. “It’s what sets you apart. It’s why the people are in the audience and you are on stage, not the other way round.” And “You do the funny, I do the money!”
Prichard was a wise owl, an old show business campaigner, having managed a great many speciality acts on the vaudeville circuit. Endlessly spouting those epithets of wisdom based on his years of experience. But by the late 1990s he was noticing his grip on the pulse of entertainment was becoming less firm.
Michael smiled to himself remembering the first time he visited Prichard’s office, in the hope of representation.
The agent had told him, “If you want to be a better stage magician, darlin’, get yourself across to Vegas. Go and see that Sigmund and Freud.”
“You mean Siegfried and Roy,” said Michael.
“Probably,” said Prichard.
“I’ll go tomorrow.”
“Then I’ll take you on my books today. There’s no contract to sign. All you get is my handshake.” Which was firm and dry and immediately reassuring. That was eighteen months ago.
Now Prichard was dead. In the Will, he bequeathed Michael his gold Hunter pocket watch (engraved on the reverse were the words: May Time Be Good To You). Along with that legacy of wisdom and experience. But Michael now found himself as a magic act alone in New York, unrepresented and scratching around for performance dates, big, small, indifferent, usually indifferent, wherever he could blag them.
But this audition today was a big one. Well, big-ish. For the headline role in a movie.
Hammer & Tongs Productions present: ‘Harry Whodunnit – the Detective Magician’.
That’s what the small ad in the trade press said. “A hip, new Victorian era Sherluck Holmes for the modern age” – that was the precise billing. Hammer and Tongs Productions looked and sounded legit. Like some kind of Japanese and horror specialist house. And because Michael was such a skilled, accomplished conjuror he landed the audition.
The fact that the other auditionees, all older devotees of the gym, casually dressed and mostly with moustaches, admitted to possessing no experience performing magic whatsoever also enthused Michael with a growing confidence. He was in no doubt he was going to headline a movie.
The door to the audition room opened and the heavily made up face of a petite blonde poked out. “Michael Magister? You’re up.”
Inside, the fair-sized office was free of all furniture save for the trestle table, neatly piled with paper work, behind which sat two people. The middle-aged man was sharply suited and kindly faced. Not the expected audition image. No chewed cigar, no comb-over, no braces straining on a broad stomach. Instead, the man stood, shook hands and introduced himself as Donal Clarence, the producer of ‘Harry Whodunnit – the Detective Magician’.
The accent was Upper West Side. The girl smiled white teeth and ruby lips but remained anonymous.
“You are a bona fide stage magician I understand,” said Clarence. “Playing where?”
“Some theatres. Clubs. At the moment I’m working open-air street magic. Mostly nabbing high rollers on Wall Street. Great experience, interacting…”
“I am very much loving the look, young sir. The hat, the goggles, that watch, the punky boots.”
“Well, you know, Mr Clarence, I figured a Victorian detective magician in the nineteenth century could maybe use a stand-out image. Stagey, smart, industrial. Inspiration came from my former agent Prichard Anderson…”
“Prichard! I loved that guy. Hey, that was too bad we lost him. Other agents hated him. Want to know why? Not because he started out as a cop. Okay, that didn’t help. But above all else, Prichard Anderson was honest. And agents hate that in other agents. Makes ’em look crooked.”
Michael and the blonde girl laughed. Probably out of politeness.
“So, anyway,” continued Michael, “Prichard had plenty of police contacts, one of them at Scotland Yard, archive guy, who told him about a deep-buried Red Dossier he once found. A true but heavily reducted file…”
“Redacted,” said the blonde. “The word is redacted.”
“Thank you, Ma’am, A heavily redacted file about two vaudeville magicians in Victorian London who helped the Scotland Yardies solve these weird baffling crimes…”
“That’s very fascinating, Michael,” interrupted Clarence. “And I am very much loving all this background research and method you’re bringing to the role. So, say hello to your co-star, Sybil.”
“Hi,” said the blonde lady sitting next to Donal Clarence.
“Oh, yes, hi. Pleased to meet you.”
“In the movie, she’s going to be playing your detective partner, Alexa Kimbo.”
“Okay,” said Michael, a little unclear. “So, wait. You just said my co-star, Mr Clarence. Does that mean I am right in thinking I might have the job? Because, sir, that sounded a lot to me like I might have the job.”
“Michael, you’re bringing exactly what we want for the role. The face, the look, the commitment…”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Just one thing for this movie we need to check. Drop your pants.”
“Drop your pants. We need to see the goods.”
Michael knew he’d failed the audition as soon as he stormed out of the office and into the street. It couldn’t have helped when he told Clarence that, ‘Magic Wand’, ‘Now you see it, now you don’t’, and ‘Producing the Rabbit’ had no place in those sort of films. And anyway, Sybil or Alexa Kimbo was certainly not his style, being too young and too blonde, but he wasn’t going to do any of that kind of stuff on camera. In fact, as resignations go, it was pretty robust.
“That’s too bad,” tutted Sybil after Michael had gone. “I liked him.”
“I liked his pocket watch better,” said Donal Clarence brightly. “Did you see? On the chain? That was a thirty-grand timepiece. A rare Hunter. Syb, I really want it. I want you to get me that pocket watch. Work ‘your thing’ on him, whatever you have to do. Get me that watch.”
“Donal, the guy told you himself, I’m not his style. I can’t work ‘my thing’ on him.”
“But I reckon my mom could.”
At about that same time, but a hundred and twelve years earlier, I asked the grizzled old wagon driver, the one with the untamed abundance of iron grey head and facial hair and the smile bereft of any teeth, what we should call him.
“Gummy Whiskers,” he chuckled. “That’s me.”
“Yessir. Full name of Gummy Whiskers Knutsack.”
“It gets worse,” whispered Wicko, unamused.
“Folk round here call me Gummy Whiskers. See, on the account of the fack that…”
“Yes, we can work out what it’s on account of,” interrupted Wicko with irritation. “What we can’t work out is where’s the T. Alva-Edison Complex?”
“This T. Alva Edison, I am assumin’ it be a fellow to whom you is referrin’. So what might that letter T stand for?”
“Thomas Alva-Edison, eh? Well, in’t that a coincidental somethin’.”
“You’ve heard of him?” said Wicko, suddenly less irritated.
“Nossir. Never heard of no livin’ soul in the name of Mr Thomas Alva-Edison.”
“Regal Lord Thomas Alva-Edison?”
“No. That don’t help none.”
I could see Wicko and Wu Hu quickly again losing patience. They were both given to a lack of tolerance at the best of times. And this was certainly not the best of times. In fact, Wu Hu was on the brink of instructing Mr Gummy Whiskers Knutsack to kindly take his wagon and horse and…
Until Mr Knutsack said, “But I have heard of Mr Thomas Edison.”
We all took a beat to take that in. Thomas Edison? Was it too close a quirk to T. Alva-Edison? I asked for confirmation that Mr Knutsack had really heard of this Thomas Edison.
“Indeed I have, my friend. Not a living soul, and many a dead ’un, in ’merica ’ant not heard of Mr Thomas Edison. On account of his bein’ the finest gennaman of science in the entire live long world. Runs a fac’ory known as The Edison Machine Works over on the Manhattan Lower East Side.”
This all sounded like a sudden upswing in our fortunes. By Manhattan I was convinced Gummy Whiskers Knutsack was referring to Manhattan Regis. Now. Yes. I felt a plan forming. We could seek out this Thomas Edison with his all-celebrated scientific knowhow. And there might be no one finer to confirm my Hooke theory.
“We should take the Royal New Jersey SteaMonoRail directly to Manhattan Regis,” said Wu Hu, as brightly as she could with a still throbbing finger.
“Nice hope, Miss Wu Hu, but a fat chance,” said Wicko. “Have a look around. Do you see the track?” He was quite right. Of the elevated SteaMonoRail track and support stanchions we were used to seeing running parallel to Main Street there was no sign.
I took a breath and asked Mr Knutsack if he could take us there. To Manhattan. I knew it was much to ask, but desperation begets audacity.
“You folk really is scientists and not from working in some kin’ of travellin’ novelty type show?”
I was standing by the roadside with two silken-dressed Orientals and a surly dwarf, so I could understand the man’s thinking. The three of them firmly informed him they were not.
After some lengthy beard scratching consideration, Gummy Whiskers Knutsack agreed. Indeed, he could take us part of the way, at least to the coast, where one of his cousins had an Uncle who owned a boat which could sail us across the river to Manhattan. But on one condition.
“What’s your condition?” asked Wicko suspiciously.
“Y’all quit addressin’ me as Mr Knutsack and begin callin’ me Gummy.”
I assured him we would be very grateful so to do.
And that is how Wicko, Phunn, Wu Hu and I found ourselves clambering up onto Gummy’s hay waggon to begin the short journey east to the ferry slipway.
It was distracting and exciting enough for none of us to notice the mysterious figure watching us from the undergrowth. The figure with the narrow eyes. And the bald head. The supposed porter who called himself Mr Chiaroscuro. Or Mr Black.
En route, Gummy turned out to be a most generous and gracious driver. As we rocked and rolled past a ramshackle wayside saloon called “Miss Belly’s”, displaying a large painted sign which boasted ‘A Meat Pie, a Whisky and a word of advice – 5 cents’, Gummy called back to us: “Young lady, is you and these gennamen of science feelin’ hungry?”
Wu Hu thanked Gummy, but told him were all still far too shaken by recent events to worry about food.
However, the sign did throw up another troubling anomaly. The concept of a cash society. Utterly alien to us. A thing of the past. But paying for goods and services with money still existed here?
“Five cents. That means five cents in old time money?” asked Wicko.
Gummy nodded. “And that’s mighty fine value at Miss Belly’s saloon. Belly Warts Knutsack be her name. Miss Belly, she’s a niece of one of m’ dead brothers. An’ the pies she bakes an’ the whisky she moonshines. Al’as the same. Guaranteed.”
Miss Belly Warts? A fascinating family these Knutsacks…
“There is something you should know, Gummy,” said Wicko. “Which might prove ever so problematic.”
Now was as a good a time as any.
“What be tha’ problematic, m’ friend?”
“If cash is still in use – you see, we have no money,” admitted Wicko.
“You tellin’ me you don’t even got a silver dime ’tween you?”
I had to admit we were in no position to reward his generosity.
Gummy shrugged. “Ain’t gonna matter none to me, friends. I am simply happy to help you fin’ what you seek.”
After a few minutes of listening to the hypnotic clop of the horse’s hooves and the creak of the rocking waggon, Dok Tor Phunn called aloud: “Gummy Whiskers. The legend advertising the available fare at the saloon of your Miss Belly…”
“You meaning ‘a meat pie, a whisky and a word of advice’?”
“What, if you will, is the word of advice?”
“Don’t eat the pie!” shouted Gummy, who then chuckled merrily for the rest of journey.
We reached the quayside mid-afternoon. Already the air was dense and claggy and the river grey and thick, reflecting little sunlight. But way in the distance, across the water we could see Manhattan Regis, under a pall of smoky cloud.
Gummy roused the nautical member of his extended Knutsack family by bashing hard on the rickety door of a one-roomed wood-shingled clapboard shack, battered and blistered by the extremes of the climate and the salt of the Hudson. After another firm rapping, the door was shuddered open by a bleary-eyed endomorphic fellow, just as weather beaten as his shack. Tall and slender with a face far too small for his nose, he stooped in the doorway.
“Friends,” Gummy Whiskers said, “Lemme presen’ m’ cousin’s uncle, Cap’n Scrawny Beak Knutsack.”
The good captain, in his threadbare blue turtle neck, baggy brown corduroys, with a sailing skipper’s peaked cap set back on his head, eyed us with suspicion.
“Scrawny Beak, I am desirous of conducting a conversation with you of a private nature concerning these good friends of mine. Inside, if you will.” Gummy harried his cousin’s uncle back into his shack and then turned to face us.
“’Scuse me, friends. Jus’ needin’ to apprise m’ cousin’s uncle of your plight.”
Less than half a minute later, Gummy and Scrawny were back out in the afternoon sun.
And thanks, no doubt, to Gummy’s persuasive family influence, Captain Knutsack had agreed to ferry us across to Manhattan, for which no payment of any fee whatsoever would be necessary. No sir.
Gummy waved away our effusive thanks. “Jus’ an example of fine ol’ Jersey hosp‘ality, friends. It was a’ honour to assist such fasinatin’ folks! I bid you a bon voyage. And in whatever it is you seek, I wish you fine good fortune.”
Well, whenever and wherever we had currently found ourselves, we could now take some solace knowing of the existence of such decent individuals as Gummy Whiskers Knutsack.
And Scrawny Beak, the Captain of the rickety vessel was equally agreeable, although not so talkative. Which was frankly very welcome.
The small, nameless vessel, which echoed the décor of the Captain’s shack, belched black, gritty cloud from its single smokestack, as it chugged as across the dead calm river towards Victoria-Battery Park in the south of Manhattan Regis.
The voyage was really quite pleasant. The skyscrapers on the island of Manhattan Regis grew taller the closer we came. We passed the Statue of Liberty, green with verdigris! The giant figure we were more used to seeing was polished copper, topped by the coronated head of Queen Victoria. This was all so very strange.
As we docked at what we knew as Victoria-Battery Park and tied up, Captain Knutsack leapt up onto the wooden jetty to square our arrival with the authorities. While we bobbed gently up and down on the water, our attention was totally absorbed by the noise and smell of the city.
That was until six burly men in blue uniforms jumped onto the deck, quickly overpowered Dok Tor Phunn, Wu Hu and Wicko and dragged them off the boat and onto the quayside. Wicko yelled, Phunn protested and Wu Hu lashed out with her feet, but to little effect. And before even I could react they were gone!
Shocked and panicking I appealed to Captain Knutsack, who dropped back down onto the deck. What was happening? Where were my friends being taken?
“You knows there in’t never nothin’ for nothin’ in this world, boy,” he glowered. Before plunging his hand into his trouser pocket and withdrawing a sharp, curved blade. And he began to stride towards me.
END OF CHAPTER TWO!