A note of explanation about the Steampunk Quartet.
(with apologies to K.W. Jeter)
After my tumultuous adventures resulting from Lord Bendray’s attempt to destroy the world, I sought, naturally, to restore my equanimity, and I had thought that moving my modest clockwork-repair shop to a little-noted part of London would guarantee me obscurity, a modest living, and surcease of adventure, not to mention the calming of the unwonted physical excitement that has disturbed me since Miss McThane assisted in the culmination of my efforts. But the events of a cold, foggy day in early November reminded me that no man’s adventure can be declared done until he himself is Done.
I opened my shop a few minutes late that morning and was startled to see, waiting in the chill outside my front door, a man in a light jacket with a similarly attired child and a large rucksack. I was surprised that my faithful Able had not detected them and apprised me of their presence with a warning bark. Still asleep on his pillow, I thought: Able was getting old, and his hearing wasn’t what it once was.
Naturally, I admitted the visitors to my shop and offered them a bit of tea to warm themselves. I apologized for the interior chill. “It is my custom not to burn coal so early in the winter season,” I said, “so there is none in the scuttle, else I would surely have my man set a fire. You must be so terribly cold in those thin jackets.”
“Nah, they’re technical,” said the visitor. “Mine and my kid’s. The fabric creates a thermal barrier that absorbs heat from your body and releases it when you need it. Pretty spiffy, eh?”
I had no idea what he was talking about. “Are you a visitor from afar, sir?” I asked. Perhaps this was how they spoke in India.
“I’m from the Colonies,” he replied in a jovial manner, as if this were a great joke. I looked at him. “Really,” he continued. “Descended from William Bradford of the Plymouth Colony, and that’s the truth.”
I was about to ask for an explanation, when Creff, my aforementioned factotum, arrived from my workroom at the back of the shop, where he had been attending to the matter of an extremely large package that had arrived earlier, occasioning my delay in opening the shop.
“Good lord, Mr. Dower,” he began, not noticing the newcomers, “that scoundrel Scape must think you’re running some kind of a garrage [stet] here for him to store his belongings in. Not that I don’t wonder whether he came by these things honest—” He broke off as he saw we had visitors.
“Ah—excuse me, sir,” he said to me, and stepped back.
“In a moment, Creff,” I said, and turned to the man who had come into my shop. “What can I do for you, sir?” I asked.
“I have an appointment here with a Mr. Scape,” he said.
I could scarcely mask my astonishment. “Mr. Scape? Why, sir, he—”
“—is right here, sucker,” said a too-familiar voice, and that very rascal appeared in the doorway of the workroom. He leaped forward to clasp the hand of my visitor.
“Bet you’re Gardner,” he said, taking the man’s hand in his cold and flaccid grip. “Graeme Scape. Whew! Glad you made it.” He looked around as though, well, as though he owned my place of business.
“Likewise,” said the other man. “First time, and all. Quite an adventure. Even brought my boy along.”
Scape gestured in my direction. “This here’s, uh, the fellow I told you about. We call him George, George Dower, just like anyone else.” He smiled wolfishly. “Go ahead, shake his hand. Give it a try.”
I was about to deny that Scape and I were associated in any way, but the fellow grabbed my hand and shook it, a bit gingerly.
“David Gardner.” he said. “And this here’s my son, Ridley.” He seemed a little hesitant to greet me, as if he were unsure what I might do.
But then the little fellow, who couldn’t have been more than five or six, reached out to shake my hand and spoke up. “How do you do?” he said, quite charmingly. How could I not smile at him and shake his little hand?
“Very pleased to make your acquaintance, Master Ridley,” I said. The child, at least, knew how to manage an introduction.
Gardner, barely acknowledging me, turned to Scape. “Very nice!” he said. “Smooth. Can’t wait to see the internals. Can you open it up?” Scape had apparently promised him some device.
“Well, Mr. Gardner,” I said, “before we go any further, I must tell you that—”
“Hey, George,” Scape interrupted me smoothly, “there is something in the back I need to get a handle on. Right back, Gardner.” He nodded at his visitor and hustled me into my workshop.
“What’s going on here?” I asked, but he continued to shepherd me toward the back of the room.
“Keep yer shirt on. You got the Paganinicon here?”
“Why yes,” I replied, startled. How did he know I still had the Paganinicon? My late father’s finest creation, it was a remarkably lifelike clockwork automaton, devised by my father and fabricated in my own image, except for it having impressive virtuosity on the violin and on a certain other instrument that I blush to mention. Alas, it was necessarily rendered nonfunctional at the dénouement of our recent Excitement. I had kept it, out of sentiment, when selling off my father’s other wondrous devices.
“Well, that’s jake,” he said with a grin. Scape was gleeful, and I did not trust his glee, for all that he had been a friend of my father’s—such a good friend, in fact, that my father had gifted Scape with a remarkable device that could watch the future pass before it. It was, in fact, through lip-reading the future that Scape had acquired his eccentric manner of speech.
“Come over here, buddy, and scope this out.” He pointed beyond the big box, which was open now—empty, with bits of packing material strewn around.
I walked over to the box. “Were you in this, Scape?” I asked. “What on ear—” And before I could finish the sentence, the floor dropped out from under me, and I fell down, down, down, landing in a sort of net. I was very quickly wrapped in the net by hands unseen, and a gag was tied over my mouth before I could even catch my breath to cry out. Someone had unfastened the locks on the basement hatch!
“Careful! Don’t damage the goods,” a familiar feminine voice said to my invisible handlers. “Just lay him down over there.” It was her.
“Miss McThane!” I tried to speak, but the gag impeded me, and it sounded like the grunts of one of Mr. Darwin’s monkeys.
Soon she was upon me, her breath hot on my cheek. “Okay, loverboy. This won’t take long, and then we’ll be on our way.” She ran a finger slowly down my cheek. “Unless, of course, you’d want us to tarry a little while.” I pulled away from her unwelcome and ill-timed advances.
The hatch above me had been refastened. I heard a bit of dragging on the floor above, and then people walking around. Scape had evidently brought that Gardner fellow into my workshop. This, of course, infuriated me, but as I was thoroughly trussed up, there was no recourse but patience. I could hear everything he said, which of course, only increased my frustration.
“Yup. Most of my goods is snapped up by highrollers. The piece I just showed you is the only one I got right now.” He was opening the cabinet that contained the Paganinicon. “Here it is. You’ve seen how good it runs. I’ve shut it down and packed it for shipping. You brought the dough?”
That reprobate was selling the foreigner the Paganinicon! The nerve. Where was Creff? Almost the moment that thought crossed my mind, two stalwart fellows emerged from the cellar gloom, carrying Creff, trussed up and gagged just as I was. He was thrashing about.
“Just put him there, next to the others,” said Miss McThane. She addressed Creff. “Quit yer bellyaching.”
Others? I wondered. There are others? And then I realized that there was a cage by my side, and in it was faithful Abel, also trussed and muffled. No wonder he hadn’t barked.
”You fiends!” I said to Miss McThane.
Somehow my meaning transcended the gag. “Watch yer mouth,” she said. “Don’t get yer dander up. This won’t take long, and there’ll be a bit of something in it for you.”
Upstairs, the conversation continued. It seemed likely the visitor was skeptical of Scape’s promises. “Let me see the internal gears,” said Mr. Gardner.
“No problem,” said Scape eagerly. I heard the creak of the Panaginicon’s access panel being opened.
“Exquisite,” said the visitor. “What a remarkably complex mechanism. Cross-oriented helical gears, hypoids, harmonic drives, an especially ingenious epicyclic system.” He seemed to have an appreciation for the sort of thing my father did best. “This will be the greatest steampunk movie of all time,” he declared, “starring a working clockwork android. Billy Wilder, eat your heart out! Christopher Nolan, step aside! David Bowie, maybe now you’ll return my calls!”
“Yeah, what you said, buddy,” said Scape. “Now, about the moolah….”
“I’ve got it right here.”
“I’ll just close him up….” There was a scuffling sound, and Scape cried out. “Son of a bitch! You slammed that right down on me finger! Bleeding, I am.”
“Sorry,” said Mr. Gardner. “Here you are. A thousand pounds. I’ll just set the bag down here for you.” There was a light thump.
“Frickin’ finger,” said Scape.
“Don’t get blood on the money, Mr. Scape. That’s bad luck! Now, can we turn it back on and walk it out of here? My time is almost up.”
“Can’t send it through the machine in operating mode. Blow it all to hell. My men will take it out to your carriage. After that, it’s your lookout.” Scape shouted, ”Hey! Over here!” and I heard the sound of heavy feet, signaling the arrival of, no doubt, the same minions who had bound and gagged myself and Creff. And brave Able, I thought, glancing over at him.
To my surprise, I noticed that Able had chewed off the gag and was nibbling surreptitiously at the ropes that bound him. I looked away, concerned that I might draw attention to him.
But Miss McThane never gave Abel so much as a glance. She cared not for dogs, those loyal and intelligent friends of man, but she was very much attentive to what was going on upstairs, and she didn’t seem to like the way events were unfolding. When Scape didn’t open the hatch door, she became suspicious.
“Not gonna let that bastard fly the coop with my share of the dough,” she muttered. “You guys stay here,” she said, unnecessarily, and hurried off into the dark.
How dastardly, I thought, to leave us tied up. How unworthy of you, Miss McThane. Truly, life on the road has hardened you.
As soon as she was gone, however, Able leaped out of the ropes that had constrained him and came directly to my assistance. Once freed, I liberated Creff, and together the three of us dashed upstairs.
As we burst through the door into the workshop, we could hear Gardner’s wagon roll off down the street, clattering noisily on the cobblestones, my infelicitous doppelganger off to who knows where.
In my workroom, we came upon a remarkable tableau. Scape was poised with the rucksack of money over his shoulder, his bleeding hand wrapped in a rag from my worktable. Miss McThane was pointing a small but professional-looking gun at him. And, across the room, the two burly henchmen assessed the scene.
The taller one addressed Miss McThane. “’E were runnin’ off wizzout paying, were ’e?”
“Save me from that crazy dame, you dumb gorillas!” bellowed Scape.
Able ran over to Scape and tugged at the rucksack, pulling it off his shoulder. It fell to the floor, spilling packets of five-pound notes. The larger of the two ruffians reached down and picked up a packet.
“This ’ere will do for me an’ my mate,” he said. “We hain’t greedy. ’Onest day’s work.” The two of them quickly thundered out the door.
Miss McThane nodded to Scape. “Toss me the sack,” she said.
Scape threw it at her ill-humoredly. Still holding Scape at gunpoint, she reached down to pick it up. Suddenly, clever Able leaped again from the shadows and, with the advantage of surprise, knocked the gun from Miss McThane’s hand, dragged it off to a corner, and, giving a few sharp warning barks, stood guard over it.
“Okay, okay,” said Scape. “The jig is up—you got the cabbage. Toss me my share, and we’ll call it even.”
Miss McThane laughed as if she were genuinely amused.
“Will someone kindly tell me what has just transpired?” I asked.
“Well,” said Scape, “Gardner’s a Texian whose old man went yours one better—invented a time machine, for moving back and forth, y’know. He wanted a mechanical man, and, well, I knew you had that useless can of brass—”
Scape’s words were interrupted by a scream of agony from Miss McThane. We all of us—Scape, Creff, Able, and myself—turned to look at her. She was pulling the bundles of bills from the bag, fanning them open, and throwing them in the air. “Crap! What a load of shit! Your chump worked a grift on us.“ She pitched an unopened bundle at Scape and hit him on the side of the head.
“Calm yourself, my dear Miss McThane,” I said. “Whatever is the matter?”
But Scape was way ahead of me. “He’s pitched us the snide, has he? He’s left us the green-goods? He seemed like such an honest bloke.”
“No wonder we’re always strapped. You can’t even put the flimp on a frick from the other side of time!” Miss McThane seemed caught between anger and despair. “You can gimme the gat back,” she said to the dog. “It’s no use even shooting him.”
I picked up one of the flash notes that were blowing about the room. The same appearance as our honest British banknotes, they were adorned not with our beloved Queen, but with a mustachioed fellow sporting a bowl haircut. Who on earth was this, I wondered.
Then I noticed the banner underneath. “William Bradford,” it read, “Governor of the Plymouth Colony.”
Author’s note: David Gardner is a filmmaker from Austin, Texas. He told me this about himself: I am married with a 5-year-old son named Ridley. My forearm makes a cameo appearance in the movie “Office Space.” My father is a physicist. One of my eyes is two different colors (blue and brown). My wife says I should be on Jeopardy, thanks to my encyclopedic knowledge of useless information. One of my distant ancestors was William Bradford, first governor of the Plymouth colony.
Copyright 2010 by Eileen Gunn