Part I – A Slip-up In Time

©2020 William A. Lasher

“If a man dwells on the past, then he robs the present. But if a man ignores the past, he may rob the future. The seeds of our destiny are nurtured by the roots of our past” – Master Po

September 28, 1881 – Dunkwell Heights, Western Territory 

Winterborne introduced me to Axel J. Knightingale from outside the offensive smelling jail cell where I had been incarcerated for over a week. I had lost track of time, and could only estimate how long it had been since Molly and I were arrested by the automated police. Mr. Knightingale had arrived by steam train from Hainford, the apparent capital of this strange inland territory that had sprung up from the ashes of the America Molly and I had once known. Somewhere west of the Rocky Mountains, in a region both higher in altitude and more arid than our home in western Virginia.

The cost of Knightingale’s representation had been paid by Winterborne, and I felt unable to adequately express my appreciation. Henry said, “Don’t fret about it, we’ll find a way you can pay me back.”

I had so many questions to ask as I stood there in my filthy red union suit, my unwashed hands wrapped around the thick iron bars that separated me from my visitors. How was Molly holding up? The sounds of sawing and hammering had stopped, apparently the gallows had been completed – was our execution scheduled to take place soon? And where in the world did those infernal robots come from? The automated police were far beyond anything we had ever contemplated in Leacock Corners.

“Your execution is scheduled for Thursday at high noon. That gives me 48 hours to come up with a stay.”

“What are the chances of our being exonerated?”

“I should be able to get at least one delay, and then I’ll argue for dismissal. After that, we can’t presume anything.”

We can’t presume anything. Was this the end? Would I ever see Molly again?

“Don’t worry about a thing,” Winterborne added with a wink and a grin. “One way or another we’ll get you both out of here.”

Knightingale wore an expensive tweed suit with an ascot tie, and he spoke in crisply enunciated English: “The police robots are the property of the Pendlebury Gas Company. Pendlebury fled Philadelphia at the beginning of the Hydrogen War, before the Confederacy destroyed the city with an accelerated hydrogen gas detonation. The post thermal firestorm obliterated half of New Jersey too – it was a lulu.

“When Pendlebury arrived, Dunkwell was a nameless frontier outpost. A stagecoach stop on the riverbank. Nothing but a general store, a saloon with a bawdy house, and a handful of hog farmers and sheep herders. The economic boom that created the present day city was brought on by the gas extraction in the two decades since the Hydrogen War.”

The Hydrogen War. It was hard to fathom how western Virginia could be gone. What about my parents and my sister? And how did Molly and I end up in the arid mountain west as middle-aged criminals? None of it seemed to make any sense.

“Pendlebury brought the robots in to keep the workers in line, to keep Dunkwell proper the quintessential company town you might say. The recorded phrases that come out of their mechanical voice-boxes are limited in scope, but the strength with which they’re delivered seem effective in keeping the working class focused on their jobs. Dangerous bastards they are – disagree with one and you’re likely to get your head torn off.”

“We haven’t figured out precisely how they work yet,” added Winterborne. “If there’s some form of intelligence within their metal heads, or if they’re somehow remotely controlled.”

“We do know that Pendlebury brought in the robots on the pretense of maintaining law and order,” said Knightingale. “They’re manufactured in Hong Kong, constructed of intricate clockwork, and powered by hydrogen gas. The original Dunkwell sheriff and his deputies were run out of town when the new robots arrived. Down along the river, the workers are under constant scrutiny from the metal beasts. Mechanical bully boys is what they are. The working class live in fear of the robot police.”

The mechanical contraptions were seven feet tall, and had a humanoid form – a head, two arms, and two legs. Constructed of brass and copper, they wore blue military uniforms. Each one looked the same, from their red suspenders, to their tall Central European style military hats. Regular puffs of exhaust smoke issued forth from a curious looking stub of copper pipe that protruded from each one’s rear end – an apparent by-product of the H gas combustion that powered them.

The ghostly robots brought me a plate of buckwheat biscuits and a can of sour tasting water twice a day. Simple emotionless phrases, “keep your hands where we can see them,” and “stand back from the door,” were the only words from their metallic sounding voice boxes. How the metal giants could see me was something I couldn’t fathom. The glass eyes on their metal faces looked vacant, like something a taxidermist would implant on a stuffed animal’s dead face.

Imprisoned by the robot police, I anxiously awaited either my execution or my exoneration, and I hadn’t seen Molly in over a week.

Two more nights passed, and on the morning of the following day, I was placed in shackles and led out of the jailhouse by a squad of the towering robots. It was the first time I had been outdoors in a number of days. I was unable to shield my eyes from the sun as both of my hands were bound and strapped to my torso. I was only able to take small steps forward because the chain between my ankles was quite short. As I struggled to keep up with my mechanical captors, one of the robots pushed me forward – I stumbled, and came close to falling on the ground.

They brought me into an open area, and the lead robot swept its arm in front of me forcing me to stop cold. There in front of me were the freshly built gallows, constructed of hand-hewn timbers. A set of stairs rose up before me. A crowd of rowdy townspeople were gathered round, and standing on top of the platform, with the hangman’s noose already around her neck was Molly, her face concealed by a hood. Under my breath, I swore to Jesus Christ our savior – it looked as if Molly would hang first, and I would be forced to watch.

The hangman was a Welshman named Trombley, a silver prospector. The executioner job was a sideline. Something to throw a bit of pepper into his life, he said. In truth the man was stark raving mad, a thrill killer. He derived an ill satisfaction from dropping the condemned through the trap door. You could see it his demeanor.

Trombley checked his pocket watch. The execution was scheduled for high noon. I could see the face of a street clock at the edge of the red brick square, and the minute hand was closing in on twelve. As beads of perspiration welled up and rolled down my strained mug, I became aware of a shouting man’s voice growing closer.

“Stop! Stop! Don’t pull that handle!” It was Winterborne, trotting across the pavers with Axel J. Knightingale on his heels.

Trombley made for the lever with his hand, as if he was going to pull the handle anyway.

“Don’t do it my good man,” bristled Knightingale, sidestepping Winterborne, running up the stairs, and waving the writ in his hand. “The execution has been canceled. Now be a good chap and remove the noose from the lady’s neck at once please.”

A stay of execution had been acquired from a district judge. A week’s reprieve that would allow Knightingale time to prepare for a hearing where he would argue for our vindication. Molly and I would remain incarcerated, but we had dodged the executioner’s noose, for the time being anyway.

 

 

I was unsurprised to learn the judge was a Scotsman, Duncan S. Brumfield. It seemed most of the residents of Dunkwell Heights were British Islanders. I asked Winterborne about it, and he said it was true, though the ethnic make-up of the working class in Dunkwell proper was more varied.

The courtroom had no windows, and was illuminated by the eerie orange glow of hydrogen lamps. Molly and I sat with Mr. Knightingale at the defendant’s table. Seated in the front row of the gallery, Winterborne was surrounded by a boisterous crowd of townspeople. The same crew that was in attendance at the aborted hangings. They seemed  anxious to get back to the gallows after having their morbid entertainment so rudely interrupted by Knightingale’s stay of execution.

The court’s recorder was seated at an undersized desk to one side of the bench. Attractive in her thick framed eyeglasses, Miss Moorehouse had an ample bosom, and a freshly cut black rose pinned to her starchy white blouse.

Two of the Pendlebury robots stood behind Molly and I, and when I tried to whisper a few words to her, one of the robots ordered me to, “shut your trap.”

It was apparent that the prosecutor felt it was his duty to object to every statement that our attorney made, and Brumfield spent an inordinate amount of time addressing the content of Mr. Greenblatt’s objections. He over ruled him on almost every one.

Knightingale rose to his feet. “At this time, I would like to present my argument for the dismissal of all criminal charges against my clients.”

Greenblatt sprung up out of his chair. “I object!”

“On what grounds, Mr. Greenblatt?” Brumfield with a sour expression.

“On the grounds that the defendants have already been convicted of their crimes and sentenced to death.” The prosecutor adjusted his tie, glanced at the papers on the table before him, and continued, “Backus and Keagan wantonly murdered two innocent citizens in the commission of their crime, the armed robbery of the First Bank of Shellingford, and the money they stole has never been recovered.”

“Yes, and Mr. Knightingale filed a proper appeal of their convictions, and I subsequently ruled that I would hear his appeal.”

With an expression of alarm, Brumfield paused to observe a sudden flurry of white smoke puffs rising up from the automated bailiff’s posterior exhaust pipe. “You’re out of order, Mr. Greenblatt – have a seat.” As suddenly as it had started, the flurry of exhaust smoke abated. Raising his eyebrows and frowning, Brumfield continued, “You may proceed, Mr. Knightingale.”

“Thank you, your honor. The fact is, my clients had the misfortune of stumbling into a distortion in time. They have no recollection of any of the events that resulted in their convictions. Therefore they are innocent of the charges.”

Greenblatt leapt to his feet. “I vigorously object! Counsel’s statement makes no sense. A distortion in time? This is unheard of! And what precedent will Mr. Knightingale cite to support his malarkey?”

Brumfield looked towards Knightingale. “A distortion in time? Have you taken leave of your senses, my good man? What in the name of god are you talking about?”

“Mr. Backus and Miss Keagan have no recollection of any of the events before the day they were arrested by the Pendlebury robots. Just three weeks ago, they were teenagers in western Virginia in the year 1851.”

“Teenagers in western Virginia?!” exclaimed the prosecutor with an evil grin now. “Is Mr. Knightingale under the influence of some type of medication?”

“It’s all here in Mr. Backus’s journal,” said Knightingale holding up my diary for the judge to see. “All of the details of their extraordinary journey through time. I would like to enter Mr. Backus’s hand written account into evidence.”

“I object! There was no notification of discovery prior to the hearing taking place!”

“The lives of the defendants are at stake. I hereby ask the court to consider the evidence thoroughly before any ruling is made.”

“A delay tactic, your honor. And a pigeon-hearted one at that! Mr. Knightingale’s postulations are absurd and have no basis in fact. Nonsensical rubbish, and a waste of the court’s valuable time.”

“I will call an hour’s recess and consider the presented evidence.”

“I object! The people haven’t had a chance to consider the alleged evidence. This is a blatant violation of the rules of discovery.”

“Then you may read the alleged diary after I’m through. Would counsel care to join me in my chambers?”

“Yes,” said Greenblatt, “I will gladly join you to have a look at this dreck Mr. Knightingale has dredged up.”

“Not I,” said Knightingale, turning in his seat to observe the unruly crowd of townspeople in the gallery. “I think I shall stay here with my clients.”

“As you wish.” Brumfield exited the courtroom through a door behind the bench. Greenblatt tidied up his paperwork, stuffed it into his weathered attache, and then silently followed the judge into his chambers. As Knightingale had feared, the townspeople in the gallery grew more disorderly once the door had closed behind the prosecutor.

“To hell with all this legal mumbo jumbo,” called out the hangman Trombley with his black bowler cocked rakishly askew. “I say we hang the bloody murderers now!”

“Shut your trap!” exclaimed the bailiff from its automated voice-box.

A wave of agreement rose up from the crowd, “Oi! Let’s hang them now!”

The two robot police standing behind us turned and faced the crowd. “Shut your trap!” said both in unison.

The crowd’s raucous shouts changed to muttering and mumbling, and then, “I’m with Trombley!” called out a defiant Rathburn, one of the carpenters who had constructed the gallows. “I say we haul them back to the square and string them up with no delay!”

One of the robot police took a step towards Rathburn. “Shut your trap!” With more vigor than before. That served to silence Rathburn, who quickly regained his seat.

More of the Pendlebury robots marched in, taking up various positions around the courtroom. With four more of the mechanical bully boys in the room, the townspeople grew as quiet as lambs at the slaughter, clamming up completely.

Knightingale sat patiently with his hands folded on the table while Miss Moorehouse read through her work. After a half hour or so, she closed her bulky ledger, removed her eyeglasses, and set down her fountain pen. She looked towards Molly and I with a small smile of sympathy. Quite a beautiful young lady, more so I thought when she was not wearing her thick black spectacles.

And how I wished I could talk to Molly without the robots telling me to shut up. I was quick to notice my feelings towards her had changed in many ways. I certainly did feel more sensual in the body of  a mature adult, and in my late night fantasies, my bricky girlfriend did things I had never dreamed of her doing before.

An hour and a half passed, and finally, the door beneath the clock creaked open once again. Greenblatt returned to the oaken table to our right, and Brumfield regained his seat on the bench. “I’ve considered the presented evidence thoroughly, and I must say the defendant’s plea is rather original. The claim of disassociation with the charges by accidental time travel is unique, but there is no corroboration with any tangible evidence whatsoever. All I have to consider are the words in his diary, and there’s no reason for me to believe this is anything more than a work of fiction. A product of the author’s imagination. Therefore I deny Mr. Knightingale’s appeal, and hereby reinstate the defendants’ death sentences.”

 

 

I asked Molly to walk up the Blackwater River because I wanted to show her the otters I’d been watching. It was a fair distance upstream, and we found the same spot I had seen them from before, on a high bluff above a series of deep pools and waterfalls.

We sat on the bluff for awhile, and after an hour or so we saw the otters coming. Two swam underwater, and then surfaced in the pool beneath us. Playful creatures, one stayed in the water doing barrel rolls, while the other exited the river and climbed up on the bank. He looked right at us, to let Molly and I know we’d been seen, and then gleefully dove back in, joined his companion, and swam back into the snappy current, making time downstream, and finally, the pair joined a third in a lower pool.

Molly was delighted, and we watched with fascination as the three otters continued downstream, to a grassy flat where the entrance to a cave was visible on the steep hillside. One by one, all three of them climbed out of the river, and did what I had seen them do before – they scrutinized their surroundings cautiously, and then darted into the limestone cave and disappeared.

“Where did they go?” said Molly.

“I’m not sure, but if we sit here and watch, they won’t come back any time soon. I’ve sat here and watched for a couple of hours. Once they go in the cave, they’re gone.”

 

We climbed down the steep bluff to have a closer look at the cave, taking pains to find solid footing and not slide off into the river.  Occasional loose rocks tumbled down the hillside and splashed in the water as we picked our way through the scree.

Up close, the mouth of the cave was bigger than it appeared from a distance, about five feet tall. I’d brought along a copper candle lantern, and I struck a wooden match on a rock to light it. I ducked inside the cave, and when I held the lantern up to illuminate the interior, I saw the otters a short distance away, further up an inclined passageway. Then they turned and darted off, as quickly as the candlelight illuminated their eyes.

I went back outside, “I just saw the otters again. It was almost like they were waiting for us. You want to see where the cave goes?”

“You mean climb inside?” Molly with a look of alarm.

“Yeah.”

“You think it’s safe?”

“Sure, why not. We have the lantern and I brought extra candles and matches.”

“I don’t know. It looks sort of spooky.” Molly anxiously twisted a lock of her long red hair.

“Then why don’t you wait here, and I’ll go take a look.”

She paused, looked around, and then, “No way, I’m going with you.”

We had to keep our heads down to walk up the inclined passageway that became steeper as we went. Molly stayed close, grasping a handful of my shirttail.  The shaft of daylight behind us grew smaller and smaller, and finally disappeared.

The underground passageway became narrower and took a hard turn, and we were almost ready to go back. Things might have turned out differently if we had gone back at that point, but when I held the lantern up high, we saw the entrance to a much larger cavern with a ceiling that was probably twenty feet tall. We had to jump down to a lower floor to keep going.

As I scanned the interior of the cavern with the lantern, we discovered crystalline stalactites hanging from the ceilings, and bats, who fluttered off into the depths when disturbed by the light. Looking to the floor, we saw our three otter friends – were they waiting for us to catch up? The way they moved their heads, they seemed to be beckoning us to follow.

“You want to keep going?” I said.

“It’s not as scary now that it’s so much bigger. I think I was getting claustrophobia before.”

“It looks positively benjo in here with all the different colors.” (I learned the slang word from Uncle Clay, and I said it with a British accent that made Molly laugh.)

“Your voice has an echo, Bertram.”

“Yours does too.”

“You still have dry matches?”

“Yeah, they’re dipped in paraffin, they won’t get wet.”

“Alright, let’s keep going, but pa said I have to be home for supper later on.”

The otters’ trail wound its way through a low jumble of stalagmites as the cavern became taller and wider. They were completely unafraid, and letting us stay closer now, so we could keep them in sight.

“I was talking to your dad while you were getting ready to go. He said the whole country is ready to bust apart at the seams.”

“Because the people down south don’t want to give up their slaves. The tobacco and cotton growers are afraid they won’t be able to compete.”

“Yeah, but owning a slave is wrong, Molly. They’ve been doing it for a long time, and they don’t want to change, but no one should be treated so poorly.”

“I know, Bert,” said Molly lightly touching my hand. “It’s wrong to treat people like they’re stock animals or something, and pa said we might end up fighting a war because of the disagreement over it.”

Owning a slave was a sin – that’s what we were taught in Sunday School. The big farms down south had scores of them, but no one kept any slaves in Leacock Corners. It was a long ways to Richmond, two days by horse and carriage, and we were actually much closer to Pennsylvania – north of the Mason-Dixon Line, owning a slave was against the law.

We walked underground for a considerable distance, it could have easily been two miles, and ultimately arrived at a junction. We found the three otters waiting for us once again, sniffing at the entrances to two separate passageways, inspecting each as if they were trying to decide which to choose, and finally, they darted into one of them, though both looked almost exactly the same.

“Should we keep going?” said Molly uneasily.

“We’ve come too far to turn around. They seem to know where they’re headed. Let’s keep following.”

We entered the passage, and it narrowed as we proceeded. The ceiling was low, and we had to duck down as we picked our way along the rockbound walls. After another hundred yards or so, we became aware of daylight at the end, and as we approached it, a goodly flow of water. We were back to ground level, and had come out of the dark behind a pocket-sized waterfall.

We stepped through the waterfall quickly, to avoid getting soaked, and found ourselves on a steep mountainside. Below us, the joyful otters were sliding down a section of naturally polished marble in the stream. As the otters darted off into the trees and disappeared, we discovered something much bigger to contemplate – as we walked through the waterfall, Molly and I had changed in ways that were completely unexpected.

Our appearances and clothes had changed completely. I was now wearing clothes that were much different than what I had set out in. My hiking shorts had become sturdy wool trousers featuring thin vertical stripes, and my simple pullover shirt, a long sleeved button up under a long-tailed frock coat. My previously clean shaved face now sported long bushy sideburns and a handlebar mustache, and I wore a top hat with an unusually tall crown.

I laughed nervously when I looked towards Molly, because my bricky girlfriend was now dressed like a man! Her long hair was tied up and hidden under a squat black bowler. The rest of her wardrobe was similar to mine, and Molly had a mustache – was it real?!

Even more troubling was how much we had aged. We were much older, full grown adults, Molly looked like she was in her 40s.

“What in the world is going on around here?” said mustachioed Molly as she checked out her new outfit.

I was carrying an extraordinary firearm, an immense .50 caliber pistol concealed in a leather holster under my bulky coat. Heavy with mechanical apparatus, the gun had a compartment built into the handle that held an unusual looking gas cylinder. After a hasty examination, I quickly returned the gun to it’s holster, thinking it would be better to learn more about it before I fooled around with it. I certainly didn’t want to risk shooting myself!

“An astonishing turn of events,” remarked Molly as she looked over her own pistol, her green eyes wide.

“I’ll say, and there’s definitely something suspicious about those otters.”

“You look so much older, Bertram.”

“I know, you do too.”

“Where are we? Where did they lead us too?”

“I’m not sure, but there’s nothing about this place that looks that familiar at all.”

“It’s almost like we’re in a dream or something.”

“I don’t think so. Everything looks and feels quite real.”

A leather sling over my shoulder carried a strange type of optical equipment I had never seen before. Like binoculars with an extra set of lenses, on arms that folded out, and then pivoted into position in front of the primary lenses. A tiny brass nameplate bore the words, Burnwell Quadopticals, the apparent name of the odd device.

I positioned the gadget in front of my face, lowered the extra set of lenses into position, and found a pair of adjusters to bring distant objects into focus. There was a town below us, at least a thousand feet lower in elevation, and with my newly discovered observation device, I examined the nameless place thoroughly.

“The mountains seem bigger, and the forest is much drier. It’s all evergreens, there’s no maple or beech.”

“Maybe we should go back.”

I still had the lantern, but the candle was burned down to a stub. When I reached in my back pocket, I realized the extra candles and dry matches were gone. “The candle is burned down, and the spares are gone. We may not be able to find our way.”

“What are we going to do now?”

“Let’s walk into town and try to find out where we are. Maybe we can find some new candles or someone who’ll help us find our way home.”

As we picked our way down off the steep mountainside, the strange new garb and unusual devices slowed us down considerably. I was almost ready to ditch the bulky candle lantern, but on second thought I kept it, thinking we might need it to find our way back later on.

About halfway down, we stopped at a rocky outcropping to rest. The pine forest had thinned out considerably, and the ground was covered with bunch grass and sagebrush. We had a fair view of the valley below, and I used both hands to support the quadoptical device, looking things over from our new vantage point.

The architecture looked as eccentric as our clothes, steep roofed buildings with garish colors and ornate cornice work around the eaves. Across the river, there was a busy industrial area, with tall smokestacks belching out clouds of smoke.

“The air is remarkably dry,” said Molly, using her hand to shield her eyes from the bright afternoon sun.

“I should have brought a canteen.”

“Do you think it would be alright to drink from the creek?”

“Better than dying of thirst.”

It was late afternoon when we reached the outskirts of town, and a breeze began to blow down from the mountains, a cool wind that carried the durable scent of coal smoke mixed with the smell of the evergreen forest. We found dirt streets and ramshackle houses with chickens in the front yards and hogs visible in backyard pens. The acrid smell of manure laid heavy on the coal smoke breeze. We continued walking towards the center of town, keeping to ourselves, still headed downhill.

The housing grew taller and denser with boardwalks and hitching posts along the side of the street. As we entered the commercial district, the sidewalks turned to brick, and there were street lamps that looked like they were fueled by some type of gas.

Downtown was more populated, and we passed a number of pedestrians on the brick paver sidewalks. Some well dressed, in fashion styles similar to what Molly and I wore, others in gritty work clothes, many covered with coal dust.

We passed by three dirty-faced children, wearing checkered wool ivy caps, playing in a mud puddle. They looked at us like we’d been recognized, pointing dirty little fingers, whispering among themselves, and then they began following us. We picked up the pace, but they stayed on our tail.

“We need to get off the street and find someone to talk to,” I said. “Try to find out what’s happened and who we’ve become.”

“And just who should we approach?”

I paused in front of a storefront with etched lettering on the window that said, Winterborne’s Clock Shop. “Let’s go in here.”

I opened the door, and let Molly go in first. The three little street urchins continued to follow and stare, and I paused to give them a look of disdain before I followed her in.

A cuckoo clock went off with a bang when we were just a few steps inside – a faux gunshot that sounded like real gunpowder and then: “cuckoo! cuckoo! cuckoo!” As we ventured further in, I noticed a stale odor, like a poorly ventilated attic that hadn’t been opened in some time. The floorboards creaked loudly when I shifted my weight.

Scores of clocks in a variety of styles were lined up on uneven shelves with narrow alleyways in between. Each one had a handwritten price tag attached with a bit of string. Skeleton clocks and Vienna wall clocks; Carriage clocks, dial clocks, and more. Glass cases towards the back of the store displayed wrist watches and pocket watches, and behind the cash register, mounted on the wall, there was a great horned owl clock that was at least three feet tall.

I was quick to notice that none of the clocks seemed to be set to any hint of the correct time. Every clock in the store was wound and running, but each one displayed a different time.

A fidgety, bald-headed clerk stood behind the counter. He wore a striped shirt and bow-tie.

“What time is it?” I said to the clerk .

“Subtract seven hours from the chronometer – we’re on London time here in the store.” His reply came in a distinctive British accent.

Outside, our juvenile tails were trying to get a look inside, their dirty little noses pressed against the front window. The clerk came around the counter, and hurried over to the window to shoo them away.

“What’s the date?” said Molly to the agitated clerk as he returned to his usual spot behind the counter.

“September 21st.”

“What year?” I said.

“The year? Why 1881 of course.”

1881?!  Stunned, I kept my shock to myself, and instead, looked towards Molly. Her wide eyes told me she was equally astonished.

“Is there something I can help you with? Do you need a new clock, or perhaps a new watch?”

“What we really need are a few new candles,” I said nodding towards the copper candle lantern I held in my hand.

“There’s a candle maker down the street, inside Skullington’s General Store. Turn left on your way out, you can’t miss it.”

As we were turning to leave, a man appeared in an open doorway behind the counter. “Wait, before you go, I’d like to have a few words with you.”

“A few words?” I said.

“Yes, a few words in private.” He gestured with his hand for us to follow. “I’m Henry Winterborne, the owner of the store, please step into my office so we can talk.” He was a heavy set gentleman, middle aged, wearing a paisley vest over a billowy white dress shirt. His speech had that same British accent.

We followed him down a short hallway and then into his office. He closed the door behind us, “Please, make yourselves comfortable.” He motioned towards a pair of armchairs casually arranged in front of his desk. I noticed a number of different style clocks at various locations around the office, all were wound and ticking, and every one displayed a different time.

“What’s on your mind?” I said as I noticed what looked like a two way mirror on the wall. We could see an image of the impatient clerk waiting on a new customer in the mirror.

“You’ve noticed my surveillance mirror, I see.” Winterborne eased himself into the armchair behind his desk. “It’s actually a series of mirrors that begin in the owl’s eyes. Did you notice the great horned owl clock behind the counter? The image grows larger and larger as it’s transferred through a series of optics, and then displayed in life sized detail here in my office on the wall. It allows me to keep my eye on things in the store.”

“An ingenious invention, Mr. Winterborne.” Molly used her thumb and index finger to smooth out the long ends of her faux mustache.

She made no attempt to disguise her voice, and when Winterborne heard her normal feminine parlance, he smiled and raised his eyebrows. “I recognized you as quickly as you entered the store.”

“Recognized us?” I said.

“Yes, you’re the infamous Molly Keagan and Bertram Backus. The infamous Molly Keagan disguised as the fictitious Elmo Gould that is.”

“Where do you know us from?”

“From the wanted posters, there’s a number of them around town.”

“Wanted posters? What are we wanted for?”

“Why, bank robbery and murder of course. You can speak freely with me, I’m not going to call the police.” He picked up a newspaper from a stack piled behind his desk, thumbed through it, and then laid the open paper out on his desk so we could see it. The poster displayed charcoal images of both of our faces, with Molly as Elmo Gould.

“Bank robbery?!” exclaimed Molly. “Up until a few hours ago, I was 16 years old, living in western Virginia in 1851!”

Winterborne grinned, “According to what I’ve heard, you were framed for the robbery.”

I shook my head. “No, listen for a minute, Mr. Winterborne. We followed a trio of otters into a cave and something happened. We stepped through some type of time portal, and we don’t know anything about this town, or who we’ve become. We’re teenagers from Leacock Corners, Virginia.”

“A trio of otters,” repeated a skeptical Winterborne, nodding his head still grinning.

“Yes, and if we can find some candles, we may be able to find our way back.” I was still carrying the copper candle lantern, and I set it on his desk. “The entrance to the cave is behind a waterfall, up in the mountains outside of town.”

“Well, that’s quite an imaginative story, I must say, and if what you say is true, it would be better to wait until after dark before you go back through town. I think the dirty little children at the window may have already recognized you.”

“Could we wait it out here for awhile?”

“Of course, would you like to play a game of checkers? I have a bottle of caramel flavored crab apple whiskey, care for a snort?”

“Yes,” said Molly, “at this point I could definitely go for a drink.”

I looked at Molly with astonishment, then thought about it, and realized in my brand new clothes and persona, I could use a drink too.

Winterborne reached down behind his desk, and produced a silver tray that bore a quart sized brown bottle and three crystal whiskey tumblers. He seemed pleased to be spending a bit of clandestine drinking time with the local outlaws. He poured drinks, and then pulled a small jar from one of his desk drawers.

“Care for a miniature game hen? They’re Prince of Liechtenstein.” He held the jar up high so we could see the finely detailed label.

“Miniature game hens?” said Molly with surprise. And then, “I think I’ll pass, but I’ll take another splash of your whiskey – that’s tasty stuff.”

I was famished. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and it had certainly been a busy day. “Sure, I’ll try one.” Winterborne handed me a special pair of silver tweezers so I could choose one myself, right from the jar.

He smiled as he held out the jar. “A hint of Worcestershire sauce, they’re very good.”

I was unfamiliar with the delicacy, and soon realized one miniature game hen would do little to satisfy my hunger. The birds were rather small indeed, and one was all I was going to get. After choosing one too, Winterborne quickly closed the jar and returned it to its hiding place in his desk. He was much more generous with his whiskey.

“Prince of Liechtenstein game hens are extremely rare ever since the Hydrogen War.”

“The Hydrogen War?”

“Oh, I forgot, you’re time travelers,” with a hint of sarcasm. “Yes, the war began when the Union Army leveled Richmond with an accelerated hydrogen gas detonation. From there the conflict escalated, and most of the United States was destroyed.”

“Western Virginia too?”

“Completely flattened.”

Without warning, the whole building began to tremble and shake. Winterborne grabbed the bottle of crab apple whiskey as it was about to fall off his desk. The long clock in the corner tumbled over and crashed to the floor, and then as quickly as it began, the shaking stopped.

“What was that?” exclaimed Molly. “An earthquake?”

“Yes, it was a quake.” Winterborne refilled our glasses, and then used a small towel to mop up the spilled whiskey, and polish up the bottle. “Common since the Pendlebury Gas Company moved into town. They inject compressed river water into underground geothermal hot spots – that’s what causes the earthquakes.”

“What’s the point of that?”

“They use a coal powered turbine to compress the river water. When they shoot it into the hot spot, it creates a severe underground explosion. I’m not sure exactly how it works, but somehow the process separates the hydrogen from the oxygen in the water. Pendlebury bottles the hydrogen gas as it comes to the surface, and they sell it for fuel. Here in Dunkwell, most everything is powered by hydrogen gas. It’s a wonderful fuel.”

“That’s where we are?” said Molly, “In Dunkwell?”

“Actually, here on the hill you’re in Dunkwell Heights. Dunkwell proper is along the river at the bottom of the hill.”

“Are we still in the United States?”

“The Union is gone. California and Oregon were the only states that survived the war, and in the aftermath they joined to form a new sovereign nation, the California Republic. The remaining territory west of the Rockies was absorbed by the British Empire.”

“What about the land east of the Rockies?”

“A toxic wasteland, the Forsaken Zone. From the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, the effects of the Great Hydrogen War made the country uninhabitable.”

Winterborne opened another desk drawer and produced a new jar, different than the last. “Care for a Prince of Liechtenstein miniature pork chop?”

Molly waved her hand and said no, and I declined as well. The previous miniature treat had a peculiar aftertaste, and at that point I was in the mood for something more substantial.

Winterborne returned the jar to his desk and produced another. “What about a spoonful of Dr. Helgenberger’s Miracle Perception Powder then? Guaranteed to increase your intelligence quotient by at least 10 points.” He smiled and held the jar up in his hand so we could see the label. “It’s an amazing product that might just help you to see things as they really are. A glimpse of intra-dimensional consciousness as Dr. Helgenberger might say.”

He opened the jar and sank a tiny silver measuring spoon into the peculiar looking powder – it had an iridescent glow. When he sprinkled the powder into his whiskey, a tiny plume of purplish-green smoke rose up from the tumbler. He stirred the concoction and took a sip; “Ah yes. I feel smarter already. The powder enables your mind to see, to see the more than one way you can be, or in some cases, the more than one way you already are – it allows you to perceive intra-dimensional consciousness. Could be useful in finding your way out of the little predicament you’ve found yourselves in. Care for a spoonful?”

To Be Continued …

 

©2020 Surreal Science Fiction

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