THE MAGISTER CURIOSITY
A memoir of Professor Artemus More FRS
Phoebe finished her tea, swung her legs down off my desk and delicately replaced them with her cup and saucer.
“So, Professor, this dreadful skipper, Captain Knutcase…”
Knutsack, I corrected
“Although it does rather sound as if I am not far off the mark.” Her voice purred with endearing concern, “This Captain Knutsack really was bearing down on you with murder on his mind?”
“I would point out that in terms of cliff-hangers, your being here relating the story might suggest you fared rather better than you expected to.”
Er, well, yes. I supposed it did take the edge off the drama.
“But I am intrigued as to your escape… Please continue.”
Captain Knutsack strode towards me. His knuckles whitened by the firm grip on the knife, held dagger fashion. His brows knitted. Eyes determined. Mouth grinning. The man was no novice to the art of evisceration.
So naturally I froze. Of course I did. Staring at the blade I felt the sharp icicle of fear down my spine, the stabbing ache of terror in my belly … and the lucky talisman in my pocket! My much-mocked lucky charm!
Knutsack was all but on me. A knife-swing away. Somehow I managed to yank the polished lump of coal from my pocket. And hurl it with what little strength I had.
Straight into his sneering face. Right on the end of that beaky nose!
Both hands reached for his now flattened snoot. Then…
…he was still holding the knife at the time. And so promptly sliced into his chin with the blade.
I did not wait to see the gushing result of my assault. I immediately shoved past the brute, clambered awkwardly up and off the bobbing boat, onto the quayside, hustled away and did not stop for breath until I was halfway across the area of greenery, and the sounds of screaming were way behind me.
Now here was my dilemma. Other than heaving and trying not to vomit. The facts before me were: Wicko and the Phunns had been dragged away by hefty men in uniforms, for what reason who only knew? And now the only fellow who at first seemed as if he could help, I’d left permanently disfigured in the departments of both chin and nose.
So now, here I stood, alarmed and alone, observing the vibrancy of this strange and out of kilter world. Logic dictated this was Battery Park. The one I almost knew. But instead of elevated streamlined SteaMonoRail tracks, the locomotives were hefty and noisy. Drawn by steam-driven locos coughing up sooty clouds as they chuffed along the railway tracks, thirty feet in the air. Tracks supported by a cross-braced spider’s web of metal girders, a superstructure which shook as the engines and carriages trundled along.
I put this deafening vision of hell to one side and focussed. I knew my only realistic option was to pursue Edison. Lord T. Alva or Thomas, or by whatever name he was known here. Which meant finding The Edison Machine Works. Assuming the factory existed at all and was not another cruel deception perpetrated by the inbred Knutsack family of double-crossing murderers.
I engaged with at least a dozen passing citizens, enquiring about the location of the Edison premises. All of them told me where to go, but none were the directions I required. With the exception of the last. An unfortunate vagrant with a stoop and a face like a dried prune, who was dressed in rags of filth. How can that be, even in this day and age? He happily gave me the address as 104 Goerck Street, along with the assurance that the distance was walkable. I thanked him profusely.
“People like us got to stick together,” he rasped.
It was then I realised how dreadful I must look.
An hour later, the building outside which I stood, two blocks inland from the cold, black East River, on Goerck Street, was a dull, four-storey nondescript concrete block of no artistic merit whatsoever. Just regimented rows of character-free sash windows and a first floor which exposed a broad entrance to the left, wide enough to accommodate the delivery of goods. Set in the centre stood a door above which the dingy sign said OFFICE. Better days had been seen here. My description of the building was unusually detailed. Having said it was nondescript. But I digress.
You know, it occurred to me that the shabby façade with the dingy letters spread above the second-floor windows, spelling out the once bold words EDISON MACHINE WORKS, could be a deliberate deception to disguise the highly confidential ingenuity and inventive wonders being created within.
But, the more I stared I started to realise the property wasn’t disguised to look like a rundown relic, it really was a rundown relic. Which was a worry.
Until I saw a horse and cart emerging from the goods entrance. Driven by a slender fellow in a sooty grey shirt and pair of overalls, not being disrespectful, but which were clearly tailored for a man twice his size. So much so, his head and neck emerging from the saggy top gave him the look of a startled tortoise.
I flagged him down.
“Lookin’ for who? Lord Alva-Edison?” he frowned, considering my question. “Ha. That man might be a damned god. But he sure ain’t no Lord. Second off, he ain’t never been seen here a good deal since he shifted the works north to the new ’stablishment. Up at Schenectady.”
At which point, with his answer given, he spat on the ground, eased himself up from his bench to
break wind with appalling gusto and order the horse to “Get up, walk on”. And the grateful steed duly obliged. This was a strange world.
Then I heard someone hollering, “Hey, you! Morry!!
Naturally I took no notice until a weighty hand grabbed my shoulder and spun me around. I was face to face with a squat, rugged tough who sported a ginger handlebar moustache. He wore a shabby array of collarless shirt, tweedy waistcoat and trousers, and battered bowler, all in a colour hitherto unseen on the spectrum.
Morry? Was this fellow mistaking me for a person called Morry?
“Where you been, you skiving skunk? You late. An’ you look like a hog sow on heat! An’ what in hell is that you wearing? Get in there now, and get doin’ at that donkey work we pays you to do.”
The fellow was not only oaf-like, he clearly favoured animal references in his speech. But that was as maybe. I had to ask. Needed to. So I did.
I worked here? Really?
“Do you work here?!” The man cuffed me about the ear. “Don’t you be going playing no giddy goat games with me, Morry! Now get inside, pick up your broom and get yourself sweeping!”
Sweeping? Sweeping? Me? With a broom? No-no-no. There was some dreadful misunderstanding here. I was a Vanguard Scientist! A Professor!
The man was so impressed with my protest, he shoved me inside through the office doorway. And booted my butt as I went. “I said – get yourself sweeping!”
At the time, I did not realise the indignity served upon my good self was luxury compared to that being meted out to Wicko and the Phunns. The firm and forceful squad of six who frogmarched and flung my associates into the back of the black horse-drawn carriage may have struggled with the ferocity of Wu Hu and the weight of her rotund brother, but the two escorting Wicko had a far easier time. They took the dwarf under the arms, lifted, and carried him. His legs dangling uselessly below.
“This is not respect! This is not respect!” Wicko shouted.
In fairness, his indignation was not without foundation.
And while The Edison Machine Works factory into which I was pitched was architecturally dull, the establishment into which Wicko and the Phunns were driven was anything but. With its granite-grey colonnaded portico, the building would have looked more at home standing on the banks of the Nile than here in Lower Manhattan. Egyptian Revival was the style. But beyond the heavy metal front door, any comparison with the glory of the Pharaohs finished immediately. Within was not to be found the splendour of Nefertiti at rest in her golden sarcophagus surrounded, by treasures abundant. Oh, no. This mausoleum housed three hundred people shivering in misery upon hard, plank-wood beds. Men, women and children. For this was the grandly named ‘New York City Halls of Justice and House of Detention’.
Yes. Wicko, Wu Hu and Dok Tor Phunn had just been registered and processed as inmates of the most dreaded jail on the east coast. Nicknamed ‘The Tombs’, the prison was set in an area known as Five Points, a notorious, reeking, overcrowded slum of hovels and slurry. But the Tombs was so appalling that the people of Five Points complained the presence of the shocking place was really dragging the neighbourhood down.
And don’t take just their word for it. Charles Dickens, yes, that one, when he was passing through town in 1842, took one look at the building and described it in his ‘American Notes’ as “a dismal-fronted pile of bastard Egyptian”. And he was not often given to the foul talk, was Chas.
The three new prisoners, “two Chinas and their dwarf”, were immediately manhandled into segregation where Wicko, again with no regard for his dignity, was lifted and heaved into what looked to be a damp, squalid, tile-walled cupboard.
That was the sound of the cell door slamming.
Yesterday, his hope of becoming the big screen crime fighting conjuror, ‘Harry Whodunnit – detective magician’, vanished when it became clear the movie was slated to be more a kind of “Harry Who-does-everyone” kind of flick. So Michael Magister was resigned to working his familiar turf. Wall Street.
Not for him the cash generating wizardry of investments and high finance. Michael’s deceptions were more of a close-up nature. Street Magic. Staging card sleight of hand, not to win money, but to earn it through tips. And in the year 2001, the men and women of New York’s Financial District always carried wallets bulging with easy-come green backs.
The lunch-at-the-desk crowd kept the daytimes less busy. But in the early evening, once the close of business bell had been sounded, traders flush with profits and en route to their wine bar celebrations often proved a willing audience, happy to be entertained.
With his shrift store purchases of Victoriana consigned to the closet of his tiny apartment, Michael was back in his working clothes. Ripped denim jeans. Tee-shirt sporting a Rolling Stones lips and tongue logo. Patchwork denim jacket with the sleeves rolled up. His lucky Prichard fob watch resting in his breast pocket, secured by its chain hooked into the lapel button hole.
“Pardon me, ma’am, you obviously know you have a natural magic aura about you. What, you didn’t know? I promise you have and I’m going to prove you possess that very attractive quality of a magic aura. Take this deck of cards and give them a shuffle. Very skilled technique, ma’am. See, that’s your magic aura at work. Give the cards back to me face down. I’m going to riffle through the deck and you tell me where to stop. Right here. Okay. Turning over your card, it is the seven of diamonds. That is your card. I’m going to place your card on top of the deck. Now I’m going to open up the deck and place your card in the middle of the pile and give the deck a riffle shuffle to ensure your card, the seven of diamonds, gets lost in the middle of the deck. Okay. I’m now going to riffle through the corners of the cards and I want you to tell me when to stop. Whenever you want. Stop right here? Okay. That was your random choice, you’d agree? Now I want you to tease your magic aura fingers over the card where you told me to stop. That, ma’am, is very fine teasing. Because where you told me to stop was no random place. Thanks to your natural magic aura, you told me to stop on … lemme turn over the card … stop on your card … the seven of diamonds.”
And sure enough, it was.
A simple though baffling sleight of hand trick that never failed to impress. (Remind me to explain the method of how it is done at the end of the final chapter.)
It was only recently, when those decade-old memories flooded back, that Michael recalled the name of the woman involved: Lezley Concupiscence.
He admitted to me: “What was I thinking, Prof? A name like that is a dead give-away. I mean, anyone who spells Lezley with ‘Z’.”
But Lezley was a lissom, 48-year-old lovely. The epitome of a stylish, successful Wall Street fund manager. The natural hardness of her face was tempered by subtle application of very expensive cosmetics. She wore her soft bubbles of auburn hair just above the shoulders of a black Hugo Boss jacket which, along with matching pencil skirt, revealed not too much, but just enough. The black Manola Blahnik heels further lengthened her already unfeasibly long legs. She just happened to stop by, out of curiosity, and quickly showed intense interest in Michael’s card conjuring and nimble-fingered manipulations.
Inevitably, flirtatious conversation eventually ensued. Wine bars were visited. Tattinger was quaffed, judgement clouded, and the barriers against canoodling evaporated…
“Yes, thank you, Professor, I think the picture and the familiar pattern…” interjected Phoebe, sighing and shaking her head, “require no further embroidery.”
So, thus advised, I continued.
Michael’s suspicions should have been further aroused, above all else, when Lezley did not suggest repairing to her Greenwich Village penthouse, or a swanky nearby hotel like that 5-star beauty in Crosby Street.
No, instead, she dragged and giggled Michael northward, along the jammed and car honking, brightly-lit Broadway to, of all places, the classically porticoed St Paul’s Chapel. The oldest chapel in Manhattan. And a National Historic Landmark for goodness sake.
“It’s good to be so bad,” Ms Concupiscence had whispered provocatively.
At the back of the chapel lies a small, low walled graveyard. Bear in mind, back in 1766 when the place was built, the chapel stood on the marshy fringes of the city.
Lezley led Michael by the hand through the slanted, lichen-coated headstones. Above them, silhouetted black against the lights of Broadway, reared the Chapel’s tower with its four clockfaces and topped with its tapered octagonal spire. Lezley gently directed Michael towards the rear entrance. Of the Chapel that is.
Quite where and how the woman came into possession of a set of keys to unlock the door, who knows. Well, I suppose we can imagine how. But following a merry climb of steep wooden stairs Michael found himself up in the dark, gently ticking surroundings, of the Chapel’s octagonal clock room.
Breathless caressings and undressings then occurred, during which Ms Concupiscence produced from her Louis Vuitton bag a silver, leather-clad Il Bisonte hip flask. As Michael stood there in all his glory, she whispered, “One more sip of Dalmore for the road to Pleasureville.”
The line was crass, but was obviously persuasive because Michael sipped. And very quickly felt the wooden floor of the clock room begin to undulate like the deck of a deep-sea trawler. Then the entire Chapel began to rollercoaster. Michael’s stomach churned with nauseous fear. Rockier and rockier. Out of control. Then his legs buckled. And the black spots spread like ink across his eyes…
“Looks like you got in them corners real good, Morry,” said the man with the brown wooden eye and the surprise in his voice. His good eye must have been perfect, because he spotted instantly the tight spots where I had not missed a mote of dust or a spiral of metal shaving with my broom.
Mr Whittler Briss, that was the gentleman’s name. Aged early by poverty rather than years. Slender, bald-headed with long threads of grey hair straggling down his neck and over his ears. It was clear to me that a lack of formal education had not dimmed the man’s enquiring mind. In Whittler Briss I saw one of those frequent and frustrating tragedies of life. Vast potential. Unfulfilled.
Whittler’s high praise came a full hour after I had been bundled into this large, well-lit factory workshop of The Edison Machine Works. Where the air was gratifyingly familiar: sweet and thick with machine oil.
Lathes and industrial drills screeched and burred, powered by long drive belts, and worked by men all dressed much like the oaf in the battered bowler, save for the battered bowler itself, which I assumed to be some symbol of authority. Quickly assessing the industry before me as best I could, I figured this must be the nightshift at work.
“Hey, Briss. Final warning for Morry,” the oaf in the battered bowler had told my new associate.
With a “Yes, boss,” Whittler Briss had then tossed me a broad whisk broom. Which I naturally fumbled and dropped.
“Morry, you’re on edges, tonight. Edges and working in.”
I started to splutter about this being a misunderstanding but Whittler’s warning stare and flash with his good eye toward the overseeing oaf, watching with his bulgy arms folded, had stifled my protest.
Without further conversation, I had then shuffled off to one side of the workshop and begun dabbing at my sweepings, which I must admit I found to be a somewhat satisfying art. It freed up the mind for much needed thought.
And here I was now. This hour later. With my broom-work being assessed.
“Good. Much improved standard, Morry,” Whittler nodded. “Oh, yes.”
I thanked the man very much for his praise and generosity of spirit.
Then he looked around suspiciously. Came in close. Close enough for me to smell his breath and sweat.
“So, tell me. Who are you, fella?” His was a whispered tone. Firm and accusatory. “B’cause you might got the look of Morry. Might got the shape of Morry. Kind of. But you sure don’t speak like Morry. Much less work as bad him. So, tell me. What you done with the real Artie Morry?”
I sighed and assured Whittler he would not believe what I told him.
“Fella, this place might be winding down now, but I been working here since old man Edison opened her back in ’81,” he whispered. “I see’d ’lectricals engineered here which I never dreamed likely. Like this here fine system of direct current lighting.” He gestured to the grid above. “So, there’s nothing you can tell me which’ll come as any great shock.”
I looked up at the disappointing glow being shed from the circular shaded lamps suspended above. Amazed that such a poor standard of illumination could be considered a success.
So, I told Whittler Briss. Everything that had happened up to and following the explosion at the Complex Scientifica. My real name, what I did, where it was. Well, what had I to lose – when everything appeared lost anyway?
Whittler then worked his broom alongside me, sharing my duties and listening in fascinated silence to the more intricate details of my whispered story. And when I finished, my expression of amazement was much the same as his. Only mine was predicated on the sainted Mr Whittler Briss believing me.
He said: “Who could fabr’cate such a convincin’ fancification save for the one and only Jules Verne. And meanin’ no disrespect, Morry, sorry, Artemus, but you don’t strike me as being a Jules Verne.”
I could not be offended.
“But your notion to seek out Edison, I have to tell you that be destined for disappointment. The old man, he’ll be trav’lin’ all across the U.S. and much less up at the new fac’ry in Schenectady. An’ the Thomas A. Edison I’ve worked for these years, he sure don’t have a great deal resemblin’ the benifolence of your man Lord Alva. You be wastin’ your energies in that direction, Artemus.”
Whittler’s assessment was hugely disheartening. But the subtext nevertheless enlightening. This place, in which I now found myself, was so very like the Realm in which I had existed. But it did not reflect a precise mirror image. Witness the acrid bustle of this version of New York. The more ruthless character of Thomas Edison. Take even myself! In my Realm I was Vanguard Professor Artemus More with all my famed scientific status, while my equivalent in this version appeared to be a wastrel, workshy factory floor sweeper called Artie Morry!
“Strikes me, Artemus, the best advisin’ you can glean concernin’ your predic’ment can come from the brains of a Serbian clever fella. Fella by the name of Mr Nikola Tesla.”
The excitement which jolted my heart was so fierce as to be painful. Whittler knew someone called Nikola Tesla. His equivalent of my Sir Nicholas Tesler, surely?
“Fair, decent man, too, Mr Tesla. Worked right here, this very fac’ry. Always took the pains of speaking with the lowly likes of me.”
I held Whittler earnestly by the shoulders. Did Nikola Tesla still work here?
He shook his head. “Not in a few years. He was done bad by old man Edison. Like so many, ’fore and since. Mr Tesla upped and quit, right there and then. Recently spent some time back across in Europe-way.”
“But I know the man’s lately returned and where he’s holed up,” said Whittler. “Up on the corner of Vesey and Broadway. The Astor House Hotel.”
“Briss!” shouted the oaf in the battered bowler, loud above the sounds of the machinery.
“Right here, boss?”
“How be Morry faring over there?”
“Much improved, boss,” called Whittler.
Then came the shock. The oaf revealed he was holding a thick-set fellow by the collar, like a prize. The prize looked shamefaced, florid … and just like me.
“So how’s it be you got that Artie Morry sweepin’ that floor when this Artie Morry has just reported in for work?”
Mr Whittler Briss will forever hold an important place in my memories. Were it not for him, nothing from this day forward would have occurred. His protestations and prevarications with the oaf in the battered bowler, then his feigned amazement at my vanishment from The Edison Machine Works, afforded me the required leeway to escape through the side door, out into the noise and chill of the night. I took with me from the bunker – another knob of coal.
A long plod through the hours before dawn took me west along streets I almost knew, towards Broadway and the Astor House Hotel.
Built in 1836, I later discovered this was once the best-known hotel in America. Even though a regular oblong shape, covering four blocks, with its grey granite elevations now darkened by smoke and grime, this was no Machine Works. The property exuded elegance from within. The colonnaded portico over the front entrance heralded the way.
“You shift your Goddamned self out of this establishment, hobo!” ordered the porter in the ornate foyer, shoving my chest and pointing to the exit. It appeared, contrary to my naive thinking, I could not simply march into the hotel and ask for Nikola Tesla’s room without encountering vile abuse. Not in my bedraggled state.
All I could think to do was stand outside, watch the comings and goings – and hope. Hope the Tesla who resided in this Realm possessed anything resembling the same daily work routine as the genius I knew from my side of the Nexus.
Which he did! The sun had been up for barely an hour, before there in the midst of that stream of hotel guests filing from the building emerged Nikola Tesla! It had to be him! Head and shoulders above the crowd. Confident in stride and assured of demeanour. It was most certainly him. Without the full beard, just a black moustache, which made him look younger, but that dark hair and those small pointy features. Impeccable in a black suit, wing collar and black tie. No wonder he stood out.
I hurried alongside the man and from habit addressed him as Sir Nicholas Tesler.
“Good sir, I fear you are making the mistake of me for another of the similar name,” said Tesla.
I assured him he was not. So he bade me a polite but dismissive good morning and strode away. Undeterred, I scuttled after him. Struggling to keep up. I told him he was thirty years of age and born in Royal Serbia, in the village of Smiljan, not far from his contemporary in Science, the Vanguard Professor of Communication Ferdinand Kovacevic.
Tesla stopped dead and looked down at me, puzzled. People on the sidewalk cursed and complained and had to scurry around us. He pulled my shoulder and drew me to one side to relieve the impatient congestion. A version of Kovacevic he recognised must appear in this Realm too. Thank goodness!
“Who are you, sir? Why are we meeting? What is the business you want from me?”
In a stream of information, I told him my name, and that where I came from he was revered as a scientific genius, knighted by Her Majesty Queen Victoria. That his theory of A.C. wireless power transmission was used universally around the Royal planet and, in between other breath-taking achievements, he had saved the world from destruction.
“Aethylium Current, and not Alternating Current?” he asked. “This is most interesting.”
I assured him I would share the theory of A.C. that his counterpart had put into practice.
“You are the gypsy soothsayer? The fortune teller who claims it is my future he sees?” His voice was slow and suspicious. “Tell me please, which is the clairvoyance you are practicing? The runes? The Tarot? Frogs?”
Frogs? Who tells the future with…? But, anyway, I hoped that if anyone could grasp the concept of the two Realms divided by the Nexus it was the olive-skinned genius now towering over me. I met his gaze and held it firm. Tesla looked me up and down, well, more down than up.
“From Royal New Jersey. And it is being from this district that you arrived here in the p.m. of yesterday?”
I confirmed it was.
“And in that Realm you are the Vanguard Professor Arcto … Optimo … Octimil…”
I told him Artemus. Ar-tee-mus. Artemus More.
“The pronunciation of this name I cannot waste further time to master. I shall call you Professor Octopus.”
I unbundled his statement. Did this mean he believed me? Believed my story?
“Let us to say I am not dismissive of what you speak, in the entirety,” said Tesla. “I myself yesterday did hear the noise of the thunder crack. From across the River Hudson. I witnessed in the sky the power burst of the energy. The phenomena of which I have never before seen. And consider most intriguing.”
He offered me a handshake. “How do you do, Professor Octopus.”
When his eyes flickered open, Michael Magister was looking up at the void above. The void which tapered to a point. His head ached. And he felt cold. The milky rays of sunshine cast striped shadows on the wooden floor, but brought little warmth. In a woollen fog he heard the familiar honking of New York traffic and the occasional police siren. And that rhythmic tick-tocking of the clock mechanism and then…
Michael was shoved back to the floor, bashing his head, and the blackness again shuttered down.
In the nightmare he felt the searing heat, the biting freeze and then the whipcrack which yanked him away like a tablecloth ripped from a table. Then came the falling. The terrifying, unending, limb-flailing falling…
Tesla and I heard it. Behind us. Turned instinctively towards the violent sound. Not a hundred yards from where we stood. Then in total wonder we saw the power burst. Up there. In the sky. A purple surge of energy emerging from the nearby chapel’s spire. Expending in a wide circle. Like a ring of Saturn. Then violently sucking back in upon on itself.
Then nothing. Gone.
Everyone on the street jumped at the cloud-splitting whipcrack. Those who saw the flash screamed and fled.
“Come with me. Most quickly, Octopus. Most quickly!”
Nikola Tesla grabbed my arm and most quickly we hurried. Towards the Chapel.
Michael Magister sat bolt upright. His ears screaming. His body chilled. He looked around in terror. A cloud of dust motes floated in the air, picked out by the rays of the sun. Other than that, everything looked the same. The wooden floor. The clock mechanism from which, now, oily blue wisps of smoke rose. Then suddenly the idle cogs jolted themselves back into nudging life. The restored, rhythmic
was the only sound.
Michael looked down at himself. Dear God almighty, no wonder he was so cold. He was entirely naked. Where were his clothes? All he had was his jacket. Which had been bundled and used as a pillow.
Where was his fob watch? He scrabbled about on the floor, but like his clothes it was gone. Then a slide of lathe and plaster and more black dust dislodged and peppered painfully down from above to sharpen his senses. What was he doing in this place? How did he come to get here? What was going on?
Michael’s distress, turning into panic, grew quickly towards hysteria. He couldn’t breathe. The claustrophobic clock room seemed to be closing in. He needed to get out! Grabbed the jacket. Now frantic, he crawled out to the stairs. Scraped and staggered to the bottom of the flight. There was a door.
Michael pushed it open and stumbled into the cool Autumn light of day.
He was in… a graveyard? But nothing seemed familiar. No sights, no smells. Just the strangest of sounds. Horses and carts. He saw them clopping by. And people. Dressed as if… for a bygone age.
Michael slumped to the grass and laid back against a headstone. It felt hard and rough.
Looked this way. Then that. Where the hell was he?
END OF CHAPTER THREE!