©2021 William A. Lasher
July 31, 1882 – Newington Garrison, London
Molly and I had come a long way in the MEF. Our friendships with Moonblade and Delone had grown stronger in the days following the tragedy over the ruins of Philadelphia, and it was a relief to be out of uniform and out on the town having fun for a change.
Before we left Newington Hill, Captain Galloway had warned us: “Don’t become overly fond of the night life in London.” We would be starting a new training regime soon, because the Fiery Crimson Messenger and the Amelia Snavely were scheduled for completion within just a few weeks. Our maiden voyage would be to North Borneo to pick up more Morpurgos. We had lost half of our expert sailors in the lightning storm over Philadelphia. From there we would continue on to the Western Territory, and in doing so, successfully circumvent the globe, a feat Galloway himself had accomplished twice before.
It was over 7,000 miles from London to North Borneo, and the airship sailing crews would be short-handed. Only the Morpurgos on the Constantina had survived the storm, so Moonblade, Delone, and I would help man the sailing crew on the Fiery Crimson Messenger. A Morpurgo from the Constantina, Najwa Sunarko, would lead our squad. Once we reached the South China Sea, a fresh crew of Morpurgos would take over.
Thus, our first liberty in months was likely to be our last in the foreseeable future, that was the news Captain Galloway had informed us of as we prepared to depart Newington Hill the day before. We would need extensive physical training to prepare for the weeks rigging sails above the clouds, and there was still the impending threat posed by the aqua wolves to think about. If and when der Wasserwolfe would emerge from the Thames was completely unknown.
The female servers at the Ship and Turtle were dressed in a revealing pirate’s garb that featured short pleated skirts and knee high boots, slightly scandalous for the day. We had to wait a few minutes for a table as the restaurant was packed with diners on a busy Friday evening. The restaurant had antique ship decor and was housed in a cavernous building on Burgon Street.
After twenty minutes or so, a mannish buccaneer named Sadie showed us to a table and filled our mugs with a home brew ale that was aged in oak barrels in the basement. We had bowls of the house specialty, a thick turtle stew with buttered black bread served on the side, and we drank more of the strong ale.
After dinner, we departed the restaurant and headed down the boardwalk along Cannon Street. Moonblade led the way as a slightly drunk Delone recited obscene limericks, and Molly and I walked hand in hand. We were accustomed to sleeping in the daylight hours and the night was young. Beggars were common throughout the streets of London. Some had imaginative cons and others were brusquely aggressive. We found it best to ignore the vagabonds completely, because if you handed one a few pence, others would follow and hound you relentlessly for another handout.
Looking for excitement, Moonblade led us into a more dangerous part of town. On a narrow side street, a Chinese hawker with a skinny braided ponytail did his best to lure us into an opium den, and looking past his shoulder, I was startled to see Zanetti and Wildenstein already sitting inside. At least I think it was Zanetti and Wildenstein sitting inside the smoke shrouded confines of the dingy shop. I could have been wrong. I wasn’t really sure, so I didn’t mention it to the others, and we kept walking.
Further along, we happened upon Castleberry’s Pub. It looked to be a popular nightspot, and we decided to go inside. A burly doorman looked us over and then let us pass. We walked down a half set of steps to a garden level swarming with stylishly dressed Londoners. The dimly lit interior was smoky, and smelled of tobacco and stale beer. Drinkers crowded a long bar against a mirrored wall, and there were billiards tables in an adjoining room.
In the expansive main room, there were two performers on a slightly elevated stage. In bowlers and bow ties, one of the men sat at a piano, another stood playing a mandolin and singing a broadside ballad. Most of the drinkers seemed uninterested, and the music was sufficiently drowned out by the laughter and loud voices.
Delone squeezed his way into a narrow opening at the bar, and acquired a pitcher of ale and four glasses. We found an empty table in the back room where the billiards tables were located, and Moonblade struck up a conversation with two young women who were halfway through a game.
“I’ve never played billiards before,” said Johnny. “Is it a hard game to learn?”
“No, not really,” said a pretty brunette, a bit standoffish at first. She spoke English with a thick German accent.
“Would you teach me how to play?”
“It’s possible, but perhaps a proper introduction would be in order first,” with a small smile.
“Of course – I’m Johnny Moonblade, and these are my friends Alton, Margaret, and Donovan Highgarden.”
“I’m Rebekah, and this is my friend Kristin. We’re visitors from Germany.”
“What brings you to London?”
“We’re graduate students at the University of Rostock. We’re here doing research on a scientific phenomenon.”
“The University of Rostock? We know a Professor Hermann Krause from the University of Rostock.”
“No kidding, we’re on the Professor’s research team.”
“You mean, you’re waiting for der Wasserwolfe too?”
“Ja, and how do you know Professor Krause?”
“We’re soldiers in her majesty’s Mutant Eradication Forces. We’ve been patrolling the waterfront for a few weeks now.” Moonblade took a sip of ale. “Do you think der Wasserwolfe is real? We’ve been wondering if the whole thing might be some type of elaborate hoax.”
“Nein, der Wasserwolfe is no hoax.”
“Definitely not a hoax,” agreed Kristin, a nattily dressed blonde.
“How can you be sure?” said Delone. “Beyond the stuffed model at the Museum of Abnormal Science, no one in London has seen one.”
“You’ve seen der Wasserwolfe?”
“Ja, Kristen and I watched a pack emerge from the harbor in Rostock. We watched as they shook the seawater off their thick coats, and then disappeared into the city.”
“How close to them were you?”
“We were on a rooftop, 30 meters or so from the water’s edge. It was during Oktoberfest, and the city was crowded with visitors. There were a number of casualties.”
“Did the wolves feed on their human victims?” said Moonblade.
“Only partially. Our research has indicated they prefer to eat stock animals, mostly sheep and hogs.”
“Are you staying here in the city?”
“We have an observation station set up on the top floor of a building next to the Billingsgate Fish Market. We thought it would be as good a place as any to watch from, with the activity and fresh fish smell so close to the waterfront.”
“Do you think the aqua wolves eat fish too?” said Delone.
Rebekah paused for a moment and then, “it would seem likely, don’t you think? An amphibious carnivore would more than likely have a taste for seafood.”
“We’re based at the MEF garrison on Newington Hill, but we have an outstanding observation platform at the crest of the Blackfriars Bridge,” said Moonblade.
“That sounds like a good spot to see the river from.”
“Yeah, there’s an abandoned gate keeper’s cabin that we commandeered. Up above the cabin there’s a crow’s nest lookout, you can see 360° with a quadoptical.”
“That could be a better observation point than our loft in Billingsgate.”
“We could take you up there if you want to have a look. I’m sure it would be alright with the brass if you’re associated with Professor Krause.” Moonblade looked to Molly.
“Of course,” said Molly. “Deven is on leave, but Kurniawan has a Morpurgo manning the telegraph station. Corporal Ngayoh I believe.”
“Wunderbar! That’s not far from here at all,” Rebekah brightening up. “What do you think, Kristen?”
“Ja, let’s go have a look. Shall we walk?”
“We’ll flag down hansom cabs,” said Delone.
“Why don’t the four of you go. I think Donovan and I will head back over to our suite.” Molly looked to me with a questioning expression and I silently nodded in agreement.
With the huge influx of bachelor immigrants looking for work, the male to female ratio was horribly skewed in the Big Smoke, so Moonblade and Delone were lucky to come up with Friday night dates. There were at least ten men for every woman in 1882 London. Moonblade had a crush on Deven, but she wasn’t having any of it, and beyond Jane and Molly, there were few other women on Newington Hill.
The foursome departed Castleberry’s with Moonblade pairing off with Rebekah, and the attractive Kristin a bit reluctantly matching up with Delone.
Molly and I lingered for a few minutes to finish off the pitcher of ale. The crowd inside the pub was becoming larger and more boisterous, and it was slow going when we finally decided to move towards the door. As we passed by the drinkers seated at the bar, I looked towards the mirrored wall, and was startled to make eye contact with a man I immediately recognized. He turned to face us with his trademark Cheshire cat grin.
“Henry!” I exclaimed. “You’re here in London!” It was Winterborne.
“Hello Bertram,” he said extending his hand. “And Molly, my dear – you’re looking more beautiful than ever.”
Molly was stunned. “It’s so good to see you again, Henry, but what in the world are you doing here in London?”
“Well, to answer your question, I think you two are well acquainted with my magical powers.” Winterborne picked up his tall top hat from the bar, placed it on his head, and then lightly tapped the brim with the handle of his fancy walking stick. “I have important news to share, and it’s good news indeed. Let’s find a table where we can talk.”
“We can go back to the billiards room where it’s not so crowded and noisy.”
We retook our seats at the table we had just vacated a couple of minutes before. Molly and I pulled chairs up and sat next to each other. Showing his age, Winterborne gripped the table top to steady himself as he took a seat across from us. He was, as usual, sharply dressed, in a tuxedo coat and paisley vest, and had an expensive Swiss pocket watch on a gold chain.
“If I can get the attention of a waitress, I’ll order another round of drinks,” I said, sitting upright and looking about.
“That won’t be necessary, Bertram.” Winterborne removed his tall top hat and gently placed it at the center of the table. He withdrew his hand momentarily, and then with a magician’s flourish, he thrust an open palm towards the table top, and a tray holding a quart of caramel flavored crab apple whiskey and three crystal tumblers appeared at his finger tips.
He opened the bottle, half filled each glass, and then reached inside his coat. “A spoonful of Dr. Helgenberger’s Miracle Perception Powder?”
“Certainly,” I said, looking towards Molly and raising one eyebrow higher than the other.
“Why not,” said Molly with a devilish grin.
“Ah yes,” said Winterborne as he unscrewed the cap on the petite jar, and then sank a tiny silver measuring spoon into the peculiar looking powder. “Dr. Helgenberger’s unique formula enables us to see, to see the more than one way we can be, or in some cases, the more than one way we already are. It allows us to perceive intra-dimensional consciousness.” He carefully measured a level spoonful for each glass, and as he sprinkled the powder into the whiskey, a tiny plume of purplish-green smoke rose up from each tumbler.
“You said you had good news for us?” I said as I took a sip of the dangerous looking concoction.
“Yes I do. A pair of outlaws were arrested for a bank robbery in Hainford, and before they were tried and hung, they confessed to a number of other crimes, including the robbery of the First Bank of Shellingford. The outlaws were almost identical in appearance to the two of you. Both were men, but one of them was slightly effeminate. He looked strikingly similar to you, Molly, when you were dressed in disguise as the fictitious Elmo Gould.”
“Then we’ve been exonerated?” said Molly.
“Yes. Judge Brumfield dropped the charges. Your names have been cleared.”
“Then we must owe Mr. Knightingale something for his time.”
“Don’t worry about it,” with a dismissive wave of his hand. “I took care of Axel in your behalf.”
“But we have money now. We’ve been saving our paychecks in the MEF. How much do we owe you?”
“My treat,” said Winterborne. “I’m a wealthy man and I shall insist on helping you two with this.”
“You’re too kind, Henry.”
It took a moment for the news to sink in, but then I quickly realized we could go back to using our true identities. “We can go back to using our real names then,” I said to Molly. We had come up with our aliases without much thought, and after some time had passed, it turned out neither one of us really liked the names Donovan and Margaret at all.
“We should probably wait until after we return to the Western Territory. We’ll talk about it with Major Saxby first. General Evernight might be upset.”
“That’s a good point and you’re probably right. As much as I’d like to begin addressing you as Lieutenant Keagan straight away.”
The crowd in Castleberry’s was becoming larger and more rambunctious as the evening wore on. We were beginning to experience difficulty hearing one another over the noise, and the flood of rowdy drinkers was overflowing into the billiards room.
A red-faced drunk wandered up to our table smelling of alcohol. He wore a bowler that appeared too large for his head, and he eyed Henry’s whiskey bottle avariciously. “I didn’t know you could order the whole bottle, I thought it was just one drink at a time.” His speech was slurred, and he looked unsteady on his feet.
“If you give the bartender the secret password, he’ll give you a whole bottle too,” prevaricated Winterborne with a condescending grin.
“The secret password? What is it?”
“The secret password is chuckaboo. Whisper it in the bartender’s ear.”
“Chuckaboo? Why thank you, mate. I believe I’ll go try it right now.”
Winterborne winked at Molly as the drunk stumbled off towards the bar. “It’s much too crowded and stuffy in here. I think a change of scenes is in order. Would you two care to join me on a magical journey?”
“A magical journey?” I said. “A magical journey to where?”
“If I tell you in advance, it’ll ruin the fun. The element of surprise is part of the excitement. You’ll find out soon enough if you elect to accompany me.”
I looked to Molly. She paused, then shrugged her shoulders and said, “Sure Henry, why not.”
Winterborne placed his tall top hat back on his head and placed his hand flat on his fancy walking stick. “Alright now, both of you, close your eyes and count along with me … one … two … three … now open your eyes.”
The first thing I noticed when I reopened my eyes was the excessive noise in the bar was suddenly gone. We were still sitting at a table, but the room was completely different. The loud voices and folk music had vanished, replaced by nothing but the rhythmic tick, tock of a pendulum clock on the wall. The table was different too, it was crafted from expensive polished hardwood, and our chairs were much more elaborate than the cheap seats we had left behind at Castleberry’s, though Winterborne’s bottle of crab apple whiskey and our three glasses still sat before us.
“Where are we?” said Molly.
“At the Archambeau Estate on the outskirts of Paris.”
“We’re in France?” Molly, slightly alarmed.
“Yes, but don’t worry my dear, I’ll have you back in London before the rooster crows tomorrow morning.”
The interior finish of the room looked as extravagant as the fine hardwood table, and there was a painting on the wall behind Winterborne. He turned slightly in his chair to look too when he saw me admiring the artwork. “It’s an original by Friedrich Kaulbach, The Coronation Of Charlemagne. My friend, Frédéric Rémi Archambeau, also known as the Duke Of Courbevoie, was present for the coronation by Pope Leo III in Rome. The crowning of Charlemagne as emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in the year 800.”
“The year 800?” I said. “You mean we’ve traveled backwards in time?”
“Oh no,” said Winterborne with a small laugh. “As I told you before, time travel is beyond my magical abilities. Though Duke Archambeau is able to move effortlessly through both time and space, my magic is limited to the here and now.”
“So it’s still 1882?”
“Yes, of course. It’s still the same day and time in 1882.” Winterborne took a sip of whiskey and then continued, “I brought the two of you here so I could introduce you to Duke Archambeau, but before I do, I need to explain a few things. When Frédéric Rémi enters the room, he will appear to you as an animate being. Everything about him will appear as real as you or I, but what you see will be an illusion. Archambeau’s existence on Earth is created by an alien intelligence from a distant galaxy. An intelligent form of life that exists in a physical configuration so different from our own, that we can only perceive it when it’s presented to us as a sensory illusion. Presented to us in a form that we as a more primitive life form can understand.
“Archambeau’s illusionary existence on Earth began in the Middle Ages, at the same time that an opposing alien intelligence appeared here as well. The opposing life form is a malicious force in the distant galaxy where they both come from, and is hell bent on the destruction of our fair planet. As Frédéric Rémi explains it, the ultimate goal of his enemy is a physical implosion of sorts, where the Earth will be reduced to it’s elemental form. Our planet will become nothing more than a splattering of base elements in space.”
“But why?” said Molly. “Why has the malicious life form traveled so far, and why does it want to destroy the Earth?”
“So it can mine the elements that make up our planet, and according to Archambeau, it’s not the precious metals you might think. The Duke’s enemy is after the ones that are very rare or don’t exist at all in other parts of the universe. Elements such as strontium, beryllium, and carbon. According to Frédéric Rémi, carbon based life is rare at the far end of the Milky Way.”
We heard the sound of approaching footsteps. The door gently swung open, and a well dressed man entered the room. He wore a ruffled marcus jabot shirt beneath a purple cutaway jacket, and was tailed by an overly friendly basset hound.
“Good evening, Henry, wonderful to see you again my friend.”
Winterborne rose out of his chair and grasped his hand. “As always, a pleasure, Frédéric Rémi. Permit me to introduce my good friends Molly Keagan and Bertram Backus.”
Molly and I rose out of our seats to exchange greetings as well. Archambeau took Molly’s hand and lightly kissed it. He introduced his droopy eared dog as Doucet.
If The Duke Of Courbevoie was a sensory illusion, then he was indeed a convincing one. He appeared to be close to Winterborne in age. Tall and rangy, he spoke fluent English with a strong French accent. “I overheard your conversation as I was approaching, and let me emphasize that yes, the malicious life form Henry spoke of is indeed very real and is also quite dangerous. My celestial enemy is a shape-shifter and often projects a humanoid illusionary form as do I. Our state of existence in my home galaxy is impossible to explain in terms you would understand. I can only say that we are not only more intellectually advanced, but also physically much larger, and possess more power over the physical plane of existence we inhabit. In earthly terms, you might say that we are elephants and you are ants, with no insolence intended, and in truth, la différence is much greater.”
The Dr. Helgenberger’s Miracle Perception Powder was indeed stimulating my cerebrum, and had the side effect of creating subtle visual hallucinations. When Archambeau gestured for emphasis, his hand left multi-colored visual trails. The movement of the wall clock’s pendulum created layered hallucinatory images as well – multiple visual shadows that lingered behind the pendulum’s travel. Oddly, the passage of time seemed to be slowing as the duke’s narrative picked up steam. The tick, tock of the wall clock was gradually slowing as he continued on.
“To reference my galactic enemy in terms that you can comprehend, I shall henceforth refer to him as the Baron Guillaume De Vreese, a titre de courtoisie he acquired when he assumed the shape of a Belgian Nobleman of the Sword in the Middle Ages. De Vreese arrived on your planet before I, and his malicious destruction of entire galaxies is the reason why I have pursued him across the Milky Way in a time frame that, in earthly terms, I might describe as the passage of thousands of years.”
Doucet sat on his hind quarters at Molly’s feet, and when she patted him on his head, his tail lightly thumped the floorboards as we did our best to follow – and comprehend – the astonishing information that Archambeau related.
“De Vreese altered the timeline of the Earth. It was his chicanery that turned the American Civil War into the Great Hydrogen War, because it was De Vreese who supplied the opposing sides with the technology to create the accelerated hydrogen gas bombs. The Forsaken Zone and the mutations caused by its toxicity may likely mark the beginning of the end for the entire planet, and it was my galactic enemy who instigated the environmental chaos. De Vreese is currently based in deep caverns beneath the Forsaken Zone where he shape shifts into a supernatural beast known as the Xexulix, a fearsome creature that rules the human zombies who wander the wasteland.”
“Is that the reason why the zombies are all migrating towards the Western Territory?” I said. “Because the Xexulix is telling them to?”
“Exactly, Bertram. The relentless march of the zombies towards the Pacific is by provocation of the Xexulix. And once North and South America have been completely overwhelmed and consumed by environmental chaos, De Vreese and his supernatural beast will move on to Europe, Africa, and Asia.”
Molly spoke up. “You can travel through time?”
“Bear in mind, Molly, that the humanoid form whom you are conversing with is merely an illusion. In my true state of being, I exist on a multi-dimensional line in time and space as opposed to a singular point.”
“Can you give us an explanation of how Bertram and I traveled thirty years into the future? And why?“
“Your curious journey was part of your fate. That’s the best explanation I can give you.”
“Is there a way we can go back? Can we return to our lives as teenagers in 1851?”
“I could take you there from our present point in time, but when we arrive, you’ll still be 47 years old and your being in 1851 will still be 16. In other words, there would be two yous. Two yous until the day you walked into the cave with Bertram.”
“Then we can never go back to our lives when we were young.”
“Unhappily, no. I can travel back through time, but I can’t actually reverse time if that makes any sense to you.”
I looked to Molly, and when I saw the sorrow returning to her face, I decided to change the subject quickly, “Will you be able to defeat De Vreese before he succeeds in destroying the Earth?”
“With the help of the MEF, it’s possible. That’s why I asked Henry to arrange this meeting.”
“How can we help?”
“I’ll get back in touch once you’ve returned to the Western Territory.” Doucet sprang up from his resting place on the floor and followed as Archambeau rose from his seat and began to move towards the door. Before departing, he paused for a moment. “Adieu for now, and good luck to you on the rest of your travels around the globe.”
It was 3:00 a.m. by the time we made it back to the Fletchly Inn. Molly was quiet on the ride back and looked extremely forlorn.
“At least we’re not wanted outlaws in the Western Territory anymore,” I said trying to cheer Molly up. “It’ll make our lives much easier when we return.”
“I suppose you’re right.” She gave me a small smile as we snuggled up close on the settee, with Molly resting her head against my chest.
“We can visit Henry in Dunkwell without fear of arrest, and maybe see Mr. Knightingale again as well.”
“Yes, we should give him our personal thanks.”
“I can hardly wait to board the Fiery Crimson Messenger. Are you looking forward to it as well?”
“Oh yes. It’ll be a tremendous responsibility for me, being in command. I’m getting butterflies in my stomach just thinking about it.”
“You’ll do fine, Molly. You’re smart as a whip and born to lead. And we’ll have Moonblade and Delone along as well.”
“I’ll make Johnny our pilot and put Alton on one of the Longstones. Would you rather take the forward gun or the rear?”
“Delone may have a preference, but it doesn’t make much difference to me.”
“We should buy a case of Tutweiller Date Cookies for Major Saxby before we leave London.”
“That’s a splendid idea, Molly. I’m sure he’ll appreciate it.”
“It’s so much fun taking tea with the major. He has such a wonderful personality.”
We fell asleep in each other’s arms on the settee, but were abruptly awakened by a loud rapping on the door just after dawn. Feeling fatigued, I stumbled towards the door not knowing what to expect. Had Reverend Tembo and his morality crusaders turned us into the police for our immoral cohabitation?
No, I opened the door to find Jane Deven. “All leave has been cancelled. Captain Galloway wants both of you to report back to Newington Hill at once.”
Well, well. Deven sounded awfully snippy considering both Molly and I outranked her, though it was obvious she was still feeling resentment in regard to Molly’s sudden promotion to lieutenant. “What is it, Jane? What’s happened?”
“A pack of aqua wolves emerged from the Thames last night.”
“Alright, then let us take care of our affairs with Mrs. Fletchly, and we’ll hire a hansom cab and meet you over there in a half hour or so.”
“Captain Galloway called the meeting for 8:00 a.m. sharp.”
“Well, it’s just past six-thirty now, we shouldn’t have a problem making it back across the bridge by eight.”
Deven was already back astride her mount by the time I finished my last sentence, and she looked down upon me with an air of grandiosity as she snapped her reins and departed.
There was a mist of light rain falling by the time we crossed the old Blackfriars Bridge, and a thick fog laid heavy on the Thames. The top of the fog was just under the deck. It created an eerie perspective, concealing the surface of the river from our view, though we could hear the blaring of a multitude of foghorns beneath us as our hansom cab’s Arabian clip-clopped across the busy bridge.
We made it to the garrison by 7:45, changed into our uniforms in Molly’s cottage, and then walked over to the same conference room where we had first met Professor Krause. It was packed with soldiers, and we barely managed to squeeze in through the front door. I saw Moonblade waving at us – luckily, he and Rebekah had saved a pair of seats close to the front. It appeared that Johnny and Rebekah had hit it off, but close by, Kristin was now avoiding Delone like he had the plague.
“Jane said there was an aqua wolf emergence here in London last night,” said Molly as we took our seats and Johnny went around to sit with Rebekah across the table from us.
“Ja, we were just getting ready to leave the gatekeeper’s cabin when we heard the sirens going off downstream,” said Rebekah. “The pack emerged just east of the Southwark Bridge.”
“And there were casualties?” I said.
“It was a gruesome scene,” said Moonblade. “The pubs were just closing, and there were a number of people on the streets. Three of Kurniawan’s men were nearby, and when they heard the commotion, they rode up to find the wolves ravaging a crowd of pedestrians. When they began shooting, the wolves took off and dove back into the river and disappeared. But the Morpurgos killed one of them.”
“They killed one of the aqua wolves?”
“Ja,” said Rebekah, “and when they rode up to the dying wolf, the strangest thing happened. As the mutant died, the shark’s tail and the dorsal fin vanished. It returned to its non-mutated form. Before the Morpurgos’ eyes, the animal returned to normal. The corpse is nothing more than a common Middle Russian forest wolf. Professor Krause called in Dr. Ferndale, and they’re examining the corpse trying to make sense of it right now.”
To Be Continued …