THE MAGISTER CURIOSITY

A memoir of Professor Artemus More FRS

CHAPTER FOUR

“This is the opportunity most significant,” Nikola Tesla assured me as we sprinted towards the source of that ferocious, almost blinding flash we had witnessed above and around the steeple of St Paul’s Chapel. “It was precisely the energy burst I observed splitting the clouds last evening, in the direction of the south west…”

***

 “If you will forgive me, Professor,” frowned Phoebe who, until that moment, had been listening to my narrative with rapt attention while we sat here in the dimly lit Dungeon below the stage of the Metropolitan Theatre of Steam, Smoke and Mirrors. “But there is one aspect of this scenario that I struggle to believe.”  

 What was so difficult to believe? That I actually found Tesla? That he had also witnessed the anomaly which heralded my arrival last evening? That we now found ourselves standing so conveniently close to the second energy burst? I advised her, admittedly somewhat firmly, that while these appeared convenient coincidences, that having survived an explosion, been hauled viciously through the Nexus into a strange new Realm, endured a rickety waggon ride, a chilly boat trip, a knife attack by a crazed sailor and spent a sleepless night sweeping the floor of The Edison Machine Works … it was about time I enjoyed a little good luck!  

“Oh, no, Professor, please do not misunderstand me. Your change in good fortune was fully deserved and I in no way question the veracity of your explanation. No. The picture I am trying hard to imagine is you in any way …  sprinting?”

  Oh. I sniffed a little, then admitted that, well, yes, I supposed my sprinting was more in the way of urgent shuffling. Breathless, red faced but urgent shuffling.

  That cleared up, I somewhat huffily asked if I might now be allowed to continue.

“Oh, please do, this is terribly fascinating…”

***

  As I may have said, St Paul’s Chapel stood almost next door to the Astor House Hotel. Just across Vesey Street. The closer we drew to the Chapel, the more the scent of burnt oil and sulphur became a welcome change to the nostrils, overpowering the fetid stagnation which lurked in the air of this version of New York.

  At first look, the impressive Georgian-style structure of St Paul’s Chapel remained undamaged by the surge. A testament to its solid base construction back in 1766. The steeple was added fifty years later, thus making it, at the time, the tallest building in New York.

“Come, Professor Octopus. It is that steeple,” pointed Tesla, “which necessitates our investigation.”

  I panted some unintelligible reply as we made a right turn off Broadway and down the narrow Vesey Street.

“The entrance to the tower is at the rear. Through this burial graveyard of the dead.”

  Burial graveyard? Of the dead? Oh, wonderful. That such an arcane plot of land still existed for such a purpose was yet another stark difference between this Realm and mine, where post-cremation ashes were fashioned into carbon-diamond memento jewellery. Personal memorials which not only brought solace, but space.    

  But, yes, there it was. Over there. A substantial area of weary headstones and monuments, bounded by a shoulder-high set of iron railings. We dashed across the street, weaving between the horses and carts. Well, Tesla did. I followed as best I could.

  It was then that we saw him!

  The man. Disorientated. Staggering out from beneath the columned portico which surrounded the Chapel’s rear entrance. Unmissable he was, too. Utterly naked and flaunting before him, his gentleman’s credentials. Which he quickly realised and covered with the bundle he was carrying.

“That is the man we must question,” Tesla told me. “Come, Octopus, with expediency! We must scale this railing fence.”

  Now he was being silly. Because as you might imagine, the word ‘scaling’ and myself have always been mutually exclusive. But before I could protest such a fact, Tesla was crouching behind me, pushing my bottom upwards.

“Swinging over of the legs is required, Octopus,” he ordered.

  That was when momentum overpowered protest and I heard my filthy trousers snag and tear. On reflection, I was fortunate it was only coarse material and no delicates. Further ungainly shovings hefted me up, over and to the earth in a heap on the other side of the railings which the tall and wiry Tesla then vaulted with infuriating ease.

 “Where is he?” he snapped. His dark, hawkish eyes scanned the immediate area. “He must be found.”

 And it was me who found him, actually. Oh, yes. The sound of the frantic panting which drew my attention to one particular headstone. Behind which we found the man, sitting, leaning back. His face pale, his eyes wild and his chest heaving.

  I held Tesla back, advising we give the fellow a while to recover his wits. Speaking from recent experience. Tesla appreciated my words. This man was in no condition to flee.

  The marble monument against which he rested was dedicated to a long forgotten British actor named George Frederick Cooke.     

  Not forgotten however by a more celebrated tragedian, another Britisher, Edmund Keen; who some years later paid for this monument to be erected over what had been a pauper’s grave. It was Keen’s appreciation, not of Cooke’s beer-fuelled downfall, but his considerable skills upon the stage. And such was the extent of his esteem, he apparently had Cooke’s coffin exhumed, whereupon he jemmied open the lid, snapped a toe from the corpse for good measure and took it back to England. I know! Later another theatrical admirer severed Cooke’s skull from his skeleton and used it on stage to portray Yorick in Hamlet.

  Little wonder the headless, partially dismembered and distinctly peeved ghost of George Frederick Cooke is said to haunt the graveyard.

    But I digress.

  As the man’s breathing settled, I bent down and touched his shoulder. With a gasp he jolted and stared up at me.

“Whoa! That was weird!”

  Then his eyes darted back and forth between Tesla and me. These two peculiar figures looming over him.

“Hi. Hello.” He sat up straight, and then fell back. “Ow, that was a mistake.” Then, once he had restored himself said, “Is this going to sound like a strange question to you? But what the hell just happened?” Then, he looked around. “And where the hell am I?” The man firmly clutched Nik’s trousers to emphasise the desperation.  

“You posed, in fact, two questions,” replied Tesla, trying to extricate his trouser leg from the grip. “The first to which we also do not know what just happened. The second? You are upon Manhattan Island in the city of New York. Now, young sir. If you would be so kind? As to oblige? This crease in the trouser I have newly pressed.”

  The man let go of Tesla’s leg. “Oh. Yes. I’m sorry. Now they’re…” he rubbed his hand on Tesla’s shin trying to smooth out the runckles, which made matters even slightly stranger.  “I’m sorry. Manhattan, right. Manhattan. Really? That’s good. I think. Yes. I remember trees. And buildings. Maybe taller. Right around here. The Woolworth building. Where’s the Woolworth building? I don’t see that anywhere....”

“It is a property unknown to me, my young friend,” said Tesla.

“How weird is that?” Contrary to my urgings, the bemused young man used the support of the Cooke monument to haul himself to his feet.

“Young sir! Please! You should be covering of yourself,” hissed Tesla, looking about with guilt. “For the modesty.”

“Oh. Yes. I forgot. That would be good.”

  It would. Very much. So much so I helped the still-shocked fellow into his jacket, guiding his arms. Thankfully the blue patched coat, the style of which neither Tesla nor I had ever before encountered, proved just long enough to cover a young man’s magnificence.  

  Nikola Tesla introduced himself as Dr Tesla and myself as Professor Octopus. I knew right there and then that name would stick with me.

“And your name, my young friend? How, if you please, may we address you?”

  The man’s reflex was to answer with certainty. Until he realised he had no idea what to say. The look of alarm returned. “I … wait. No. It’ll come. I’m … I’m … is that strange? Is this strange to you? That I don’t …? Who the hell am I?”

  I wondered if he possessed any identifying cards or papers.

“Yes. Good. Good idea.”

  The man patted the pockets of his jacket. Empty. Save for … a boxed deck of playing cards. He removed the cards, re-pocketed the box, and with practised precision flared a fan, halved the deck, flourished a riffle shuffle with which he surprised himself!

“That’s interesting. Did you see that? How did I…”

  Interesting it most certainly was. His dextrous fluency was a revelation.

“My friend, perhaps you are by profession the gambling man?” Tesla suggested.

“No, sir. I …. I don’t remember so…” he sifted through the cards like old friends. “Do you know why dogs never play poker, sir? You can always tell when they’re holding a good hand.”

  That was a quip that tripped from his lips with the speed and style of his card shuffling.

“Wait. Maybe … my name is … Michael Magister.”

“This you remember?” asked Tesla.

“Not especially. But this could be a clue,” said the man, who then flipped the card to show us the face of the card. The King of Hearts. Upon which the handwritten signature read: “Michael Magister”.

***

  “Of course! What Michael calls, ‘The Baffling Signed Card in the Wallet Trick’,” said Phoebe. “To this day, he still carries a deck with a pre-signed card. Which explains why he is always so wedded to that gimmick! It informed his identity!”

  I agreed. Suggesting that otherwise he might have thought his name was ‘Bicycle’. Or ‘Tally-ho’. Or… Yes, I could see from her reaction, my tortuous attempt at humour was not impressing. So I chose not to continue listing playing card manufacturers for which Michael may have mistaken … his name.  Ahem.

  Following a moment of embarrassed silence, Phoebe said brightly: “What of poor Wicko’s dreadful plight? If I correctly recall we left him being dragged away to a dreadful New York detention centre. What was it called? ‘The Rectum of Satan’?”

  The Rectum of… Where on earth did she pick up such a phrase which dripped so easily from her lips? From the wrong sort of people, I told her. In no uncertain terms.  

  Phoebe conceded with a contrite apology for her mistake and her language. Then remembered ‘The Rectum of Satan’ was the nickname Michael, Wicko and I used to describe a certain Music Hall in the Balls Pond Road.   

  We had much to answer for…

***

     The building to which Phoebe so inelegantly referred was known locally as ‘The Tombs’. And the grimy colonnaded exterior, built in the Egyptian Revival style, quickly lost whatever banks-of-the-Nile charm it might have once had, the moment you were shoved inside.

  Cold and damp, if you squinted upward through the dinge you could just make out the four cast iron landings stretching out on either side, serving rows of black metal doors. Milky grey murk occasionally tried to seep its way down through a central skylight in the roof, but was always beaten back by the meagre, smoky warmth which reluctantly rose from an array of four black, pot-bellied stoves. The aroma of anything insanitary was free to waft wherever it chose.

 More pervading than the heady stench was the eerie lack of noise. Which hung like an expectant pause. Punctuated now and then by the ringing clank of heavy iron. Or a plaintive wail or manic cackle emanating from the cells. Followed by a sharp “Silence!”, which bounced and echoed off the hard, unyielding surfaces. In fact, the only thing resembling anything like a cushion was on the occasional warder’s stomach. Stretching the resilience of their thick leather belts, and straining the stitching of their blue serge tunics.

  Burly and bearded to a man were the warders of ‘The Tombs’. Swaggering with all the authority their keys and batons could afford them.

  Wicko was marched up so many iron steps his thighs burned and cramped, so his escort decided it was quicker to again hoik him up under the arms and carry him. He was so grateful for the lift this was one time he did not complain.

 Wicko’s cell was little more than a claustrophobic cupboard, with barely enough room for a single-plank wooden bed, and a filthy, black-blistered enamel slops bucket, let alone our dwarfish friend.

SLAMMM!

  And when the door swung shut behind him, the grey concrete walls seemed to push further inwards.  

  Now, as you know, Wicko’s natural demeanour is usually given to ‘furious’. Unless, of course, it’s one of those rare occasions he is feeling cheery, when his mood lightens to simply ‘aggrieved’. But in ‘The Tombs’ he was panicked.   

  His accommodation did boast cold running water. Unfortunately, it was running down the walls, thanks to the fine rain swirling outside. At least he was fortunate to be incarcerated up on the topmost landing. Wicko figured that during a deluge the ground floor cells would be swamped hip-deep in cess water.  

  His appearance before the District Judge had been scheduled for two day’s-time, the processing Warder had shouted. Which meant another forty-eight hours suffering such a horrific nightmare. And should he be convicted of whatever fanciful allegation was being fabricated against him, the prospects became too terrifying to contemplate. How had his life possibly come to…?

SHLLLR! CLANG!

  The observation window in the cell door slid open. What little of the face Wicko could see framed in the space appeared pudgy, blotchy-red and scabbed with erysipelas. Warder Sigmoid Bowles, the owner of these unfortunate features, barked:

“English! Be up-standin’ on your a-feet!”

“I am upstanding,” scowled Wicko. “And I’m not English. Or British! How many more times?”

“Here y’is, Mr Warner,” said Sigmoid Bowles to some other unseen man. “If you’d care to taking a-look a-see. A-one of yours, we reckons he might be.”

  A new face appeared in the frame. “Wah! It is a trite difficult for me to judge, Mr Bowles,” said this Mr Warner. “Pray, unlock and let me regard this little man in his fullness.”

  Keys rattled, locks clicked and the door swung open with a shrill

SQUEEEEAA!

  Mr Warner was revealed to be a lofty soul, kindly faced with a bald head save for a half circle of silver curls which skirted round the top of his ears and across the nape of his neck. He was dressed in what I supposed, by comparison to anything else, was a well-to-do dark suit, white shirt and dark cravat. In fact, the man looked so clean and smelled so fresh he almost glowed. Mr Warner stepped into the cell and bent forward at Wicko for a closer inspection.

  “Hello?” complained Wicko. “A bit of space here?”

  It was the angry indignation which probably prevented Warner from examining the dwarf’s eyes and teeth like a buyer at a horse fair.

  “Yes, Mr Bowles. He is one of ours. I thank you and your colleagues for alerting me. I will take him now if I may.”

“As you be a-sayin’, Mr Warner!” said Warder Bowles, snapping to attention and sharply saluting. He was more than pleased.

“Here, no. Wait a minute, hold up,” demanded Wicko. “Take him now, where?”

“A-shuttin’ of that mouth, English, and be a-gittin’ out here on the landin’, you shall be,” snapped Sigmoid Bowles, as with one hand he pocketed Mr Warner’s generous fold of dollar bills, and with the other yanked Wicko out of the cell. 

  As they followed Bowles along the dim landing, Mr Warner addressed Wicko in a tone far kindlier, whispering: “Play out this pretence, my friend, and accompany me to freedom. Freedom and a fine new life. By way of introductions, Wah! I am Joseph L. Warner. And whom do I have the pleasure of addressing?”

  His voice was very much a back of the throat nasal whine.

“My name is…” Wicko thought quickly. Who knew what was about to follow? Caution suggested the use of a pseudonym.  “Dr Wicko.”

“Wah! A pleasure to acquaint myself with you, Dr Wicko. This outpost of Hades is no place for an English gentleman.”

  Wicko sought to correct his putative benefactor, then thought better of it.

  They clopped and clanged down three flights of metal stairs to the ground floor. Warder Bowles unlocked a side gate. The rain had happily eased as the unlikely trio stepped outside onto the wet, shiny cobbles of a yard.

  Wicko looked at Warner. Then Bowles. This was all very strange. And even more suspicious. “A new life, you said, Mr. Warner. What kind of new life?”

“Wah! A life of fame and fortune awaits you, Dr Wicko, where you will find cuisine of great plenty and lodgings of grand luxury.”

 Wicko nodded. “Sounds an improvement on here, I suppose.”

  Bowles opened another door, bade Mr Warner a cheery farewell and bent down to give Wicko a faceful of his postulant ugliness.

“Lucky boy, English. Lucky boy.”

  And Wicko got the distinct feeling the man may have meant it.

 Looking around, our friend and his new tall benefactor stepped on to Centre Avenue, busy with horse-drawn trams, screeching along the iron tracks scored into the street. Across the street stood – and stood out – a horse box and pair. Quite unlike the stark, functional vehicle which ferried Wicko to the prison, firstly this carriage boasted a distinct absence of bars at the windows. Secondly, instead of morbid black, this box wagon was brightly painted in fetchingly gaudy combination of yellow and red. The spokes on the wheels a vivid blue. On the side panels in flourishing calligraphy were painted certain words which at that moment the stunned Wicko was not quick enough to pick up on.

“Wah! The good news begins almost immediately, my friend,” said Joseph Warner, who swung open the rear doors and gestured for the dwarf to climb up and into the box waggon. “I have two of your friends, who also leave these gruesome portals of their own free will and accord to join our magnificent enterprise.”

   In the plump, leather palatial comfort of the waggon facing one another sat Dr. Phunn and Wu Hu, who offered Wicko less of a broad-grinning, open-armed committee of welcome, more a pouting, sour-faced coterie of gloom. But Wicko was nevertheless relieved to see faces familiar, no matter how cheerless.

  At the top of the waggon steps he looked back at Mr Warner who stood for once, now, at eye level.

“So where exactly are you taking us?”

“Wah! To introduce you fine persons, to my employer. To the gen’aman, I know, who shall be fair thrilled to meet you. The gen’aman who can offer you a life of glamour and stardom. The world famous, the renowned, the legendary – Mr Phineas T. Barnum.” 

***

“Oh, my days,” said Phoebe, easing herself up and out of the Throne of Disintegration, to stretch her legs and consider the development. “This would be the P. T. Barnum, the American showman?”

  The very same.

“How fortunate for dear Wicko.”  Then came the considered thought. “Now, Professor, I mean no disrespect, and I can fully appreciate the great Barnum anticipating Wicko’s crowd-pleasing potential. But can you honestly envisage the Phunns? As an entertaining fairground attraction?”

  I did wonder if a little Wu Hu jealousy might have tinged Phoebe’s analysis? This Warner fellow appeared to think they would appeal. Remembering that Oriental novelty acts were and remain a huge draw.  

“Yes, but, Professor, as grateful as I am for their saving Michael’s life, back then in 1889 the Phunns were still some years shy of perfecting their medical miracles. One might suppose the doctor could vocalise his unfeasibly basso mumbles and Wu Hu demonstrate her vast repertoire of furious of glares? ‘His voice so deep as to trigger an earthquake. Her stare so cold as to turn a man to ice’.”

  ‘Nobody ever lost a dollar by underestimating the taste of the American public’, Barnum had once said. Maybe even more than once. But, yes, I could understand Phoebe’s point. The Phunns back then would be a difficult sell. But as matters transpired, any such speculation would prove to be purely academic. 

***

  The garish Phineas T. Barnum waggon had barely drawn to a stop before Joseph Warner was down from the cab and unlatching the rear door with great excitement.

  Now, I suspect it wasn’t so much the force or the speed of the thing bursting outward, more the sheer unexpected shock which flung Warner back and round, still clinging to the swinging door.  Phunn and Wu Hu then scrambled out of the waggon in a blur of arms and legs, him snorting like a porker and her screaming like a banshee.

  The sudden commotion rattled the horses who whinnied and reared, shoving the waggon a yard or so backwards and flinging the door back closed again, with Warner still grimly holding on. Mercifully the driver managed to subdue his rattled stallions and Mr Warner tame his lively door.

  He looked about, but the Dok Tor and his sister had fled. Escaped.  Blending into the busyness of Madison Avenue. As for Wicko? He sat calmly in the comfort of the waggon, hands on his lap, watching the mayhem play out.

“Wah! Dr Wicko,” panted Warner. “I am obliged you did not try and high-tail it out of here too.”

  Wicko shook his head. “You see? Ungrateful rogues and crooks. They were never to be trusted. The truth is, Mr Warner, I hope never to see the pair of them ever again.”

  But remember how well that would turn out in years to come.

 Naturally, Wicko had been made aware of the Phunns’ escape plan. En route, they too admitted their relief at being pulled from The Tombs, but were not so indebted as to want to become a part of whatever it was Mr Warner or Mr Barnum had in mind.

  As for Wicko’s motive for not joining the Phunns in their escape? It is highly possible he felt he should display an altruistic thankfulness for his salvation. At the same time, sensibly settling for a period of stability while he assessed his options in this crazed world into which he had found himself thrust. Also, that his enquiring, scientific mind was far too intrigued to learn whatever plans Warner, and Phineas T. Barnum had in store.

  But most likely, he was just too damned idle to try to run anyway.

  No. Instead our friend stepped down from the waggon, onto the sidewalk and looked up at the building beside which they had parked.  

“What is that place?”

  ‘That place’ was a shabby husk of a property covering a full block. From where he stood on the street corner, Wicko saw pale, single-storey flanks radiating at right angles, one along 26th Street, the other down Madison Avenue, from a sorry looking four-storey Romanesque flat-top tower. The expression ‘seen better days’ must have been coined for this very building. The other comparison which sprang to his mind was to compare it to ‘a lavatory’. In less than polite terms, that is.

  It was a shocker of a slum. They needed to spend a fortune on the place just to bring it up to spec for demolition!

“Wah! That magnificent building?” said Warner, proudly. “That, my friend, was once the legendary Barnum Monster Classical and Geological Hippodrome. But now it’s simply known as Madison Square Garden.” 

***

  Standing too quickly caused Michael’s legs to buckle and pull him back down to the ground. The fine rain was now becoming a nuisance. You know, those pervasive misty droplets which drizzle their way through the gaps in the fibres of whatever it is you happen to be wearing. Which in my case was my formerly white, now highly grubby Laboratorium Suite 13 two-piece overall, and in Michael’s a thin blue jacket. Tesla had slipped quickly into the chapel to investigate the tower from which the surge of energy had been emitted. He returned now to find us both wet, bedraggled and shivering. Not that that was on his mind.

“Professor Octopus, there is presented an absence of dramatic evidence of an event most significant occurring within the clock room. However, the cogs of the clock driving mechanism prove still warm to the touch and the caustic essence of the burning still assaults the nostrils. It is most fascinating. I am minded of a Magnetic Storm.”

  A Magnetic Storm in this Realm was fascinating indeed. But by now I did not much care. Both the young man ‘Michael Magister’ and I were cold, tired and wet. And not a little fed up.

“Ah. Where are my manners,” said Tesla. “To my hotel. In the utmost haste. Take the Michael Magister under one arm, Octopus. We must carry him.”

  If the effort for me to get to St Paul’s Chapel, all but one hundred yards away, was a pulse rate raiser, then this shorter stagger back to the Astor House hotel, on a damp, slippery sidewalk while supporting Michael was likely to cause my heart to explode like a Bram Stoker vampire snorting powdered garlic!

  Until my mind was distracted by what I would later learn to be a typical Tesla conversation distracter.

“Professor Octopus, tell unto me this, for I am greatly intrigued. The dog.”

  The dog…? What dog?

“The dog in the game of the cards of which Michael Magister spoke. How would one know if the dog is holding a hand of the very good cards?”

  I suggested that, well, you know, because a dog wags its tail when it is happy, a natural canine reflex, it would logically follow that if the dog is holding a pleasing hand of cards its tail would wag. Thereby revealing its secret to the other players. It was basically a joke. In the style of what Michael would later call ‘letting the audience do the work’.

“Ah, a joke,” said Tesla straight-faced. “I see.” I was not convinced he did. “Then tell unto me this. Why would Michael Magister, without apparent thought, so quickly crack the joke. Almost as a reflex? Is that not most fascinating?”  

  Yes. I had to agree. It most certainly was…

  But by the time we dragged Michael into the hotel via the side entrance on Vesey, the three of us must have presented a most alarming trio: a delirious, dripping half-naked young man, supported on one side by a familiar hotel guest in his distinctive ‘dressed for opera’ attire, and on the other by a soiled and dishevelled scruff. Which was me.

“Is all in order, Dr Tesla?” saluted the naturally concerned, smartly uniformed young bellhop in the entrance hall. What he meant was, “What the bloody hell is this all about?”

“Young Dredger,” That was the boy’s name. Young Dredger. A moon-faced innocent. “Young Dredger, I thank you most kindly for your concern,” said Tesla. “My colleagues have been involved in the street accident most unfortunate. I deem it beneficial they take rest in my room.”

“Should I summon a physician, sir?”

“Thank you, no, Young Dredger. My colleague Professor Octopus is a man possessed of the knowledge medical.”  

  Tesla felt in his jacket pocket and jingled coins into Young Dredger’s hand which seemed to alleviate the bellhop’s apprehension.

  The adjectives ‘plush’ and ‘grand’ barely do justice to the interior of the Astor House Hotel. The carpet was patterned, the walls expensively papered and populated by gilt-framed portraits of elegant aristocratic women looking fashionably bored.

  Not that I had time to dwell. The hotel boasted two steam-driven elevators and thankfully Tesla commandeered the closest.

“Is all in order, Dr Tesla?” said the elevator operator, who possessed a grey beard usually associated with a man of the sea. An older fellow, green liveried, by which I mean his uniform not his medical condition, he gazed at this vision of bedragglement with natural concern.

“Phlemmer,” said Tesla, for that was the man’s name. Nothing else, apparently. Just Phlemmer. “I thank you for your concern …” And then repeated the lie about the street accident, and the ritual of the handing over of a pile of coinage.

  Thus satisfied, Phlemmer slid shut the cage door and swung the operating handle to Floor 4. 

  Tesla’s accommodation was one of three hundred and nine grandly appointed rooms, bright and spacious, with a large bed; plump and ample armchair; chaise longue; a washstand dressing table with oval mirror and supporting a flower-patterned china jug and bowl, beside which, in fastidious order lay Tesla’s shaving kit, brushes and scissors; a dark wood wardrobe, all lit by a large south-facing window.

“Please to rest here,” said Tesla, as we lowered Michael into the bed, while trying and failing to maintain his modest coverage.  “Once your strength is restored, the bathroom is along the corridor to the side of the left. I have the freshly laundered towelling folded at the foot of the wardrobe.”

“Thank you,” said Michael, looking up weakly. “Professor. And you, doc. Whatever it is I owe you; I’ll do whatever it takes to pay you all back."

“Of this I have no doubt,” said Tesla. Who then folded his arms and proceeded to eye us both up and down in a slow, deliberate ... disconcerting manner.

“Erm, doc,” said Michael. “Why are looking at me like that..?”

  I endorsed Michael’s sentiment.

“I am assessing your sizes,” Tesla said with surprise. “For the new suits of clothing you shall require which, on your behalf, I am about to go to out to purchase. I shall leave you the door key on the wash stand. Now I suggest you both rest and bathe. By which time I will have returned. On no account should you allow any person in.”

  And with that, Tesla bowed formally to us both, said to himself something like, “Most fascinating,” and left.

***

“How big was Michael back then?” asked Phoebe.

  Excuse me?

  Phoebe sighed and pulled a face. “Professor, if you please, I am thinking in terms of his stature in those days, and the weight you had to carry to Dr. Tesla’s hotel.”

  Ah. I reflected that Michael was much leaner now. Working physical illusions, of the type they now perform twice nightly on a stage, demands a much higher level of stamina and fitness than perfunctory street card trickery.

“It also appears Dr Tesla was very much enjoying the finer things,” said Phoebe. “He was living a rather grand lifestyle ten years ago.”

  Very true, but I reminded her that Nik had just secured funding from the millionaire investor George Westinghouse. Westinghouse, who knew his way around innovation having made his fortune inventing the railway air brake, purchased several Tesla patents including a design for an industry-changing electric motor. He had also set him up in a new, experimental laboratory in the expectation of further world-class developments.

  Phoebe nodded. “It also was fortuitous that Dr Tesla’s popularity with the hotel staff bought him such leniency in what appeared a dubious situation. Dragging two disoriented male strangers up to his room. I am minded to recall what happened to dear Oscar.”

  I then grimly explained that not all recipients of his generosity were entirely trustworthy. The malevolent spies of Thomas Edison were only ever a dark corner away.

***

  I bathed first. In a very primitive, but presumably advanced for this realm shared bathroom. A white, large roll-topped cast iron bath, somewhat scratched, standing on lions’ feet supporters. But the water was hot, the soap plentiful and all of utter bliss.

  It was not long after Michael had returned from his refreshing visit to bathroom that it happened.

BAM! BAM! BAM!

The pounding on the door!

“Police! Open up ya pair of two vagrants! We knows ya’re in there! Open up!”

  The voice from outside was a man’s. Authoritative, gruff and far from friendly. Michael and I looked at one another in alarm.

“Open up I say! Be the worst for ya should ya not!”

  Tesla had ordered us not to open the door. And I was happy to comply.

 “We’ll get arrested,” agreed Michael. “And try explaining this situation to a hairy-arsed cop. Okay. They can’t open the door from their side with our key in the lock. Maybe we just sit it out.”

  That was clever thinking. But my stomach still turned a spectacular somersault powered by fear and adrenalin.

“I’ll be counting to twenty, ya vagrant filth!” shouted the frustrated voice. “Open her up by zero or I’ll smash the door down!”

 Michael and I again exchanged fearful looks.

 Outside, another, milder voice piped up in protest at that idea and an argument ensued, eventually culminating in the clincher: “The harbouring a’criminal filth within ya fine and fancy establishment, Mr Keith? That’d never do now, would it?”

  Whoever Mr Keith was saw fit to agree, and the countdown from twenty to zero began.

“Last chance, ya filth! Ya got no place to go!”

  Silence.

“Then brace ya-selves, filth!    For the pain of ma baton!”

BLAMM! BLAMM! BLAMM! SMASH!

  The door jamb splintered on the first shoulder charge. Then gave way on the third. 

END OF CHAPTER FOUR!

© Colin Edmonds 2020