Sunday, June 15, 2014

Frankenstein's World, Chapter One

The Frankenstein Industrial Complex
By John M. Burt
Chapter One

Richard Adams Locke was awakened, as he was six days a week, by a knock at the door at two minutes before seven in the morning.  A single hard rap followed by a pause, and then three lighter ones in quick succession.  As Locke rolled over, he heard Nereus, the hoover hall porter, knocking on the next apartment down the corridor, and then faintly on the next one.  There were four apartments on the south wing of the fourth floor of the Stephen Decatur Men’s Hotel, but Locke never quite heard the small grey-skinned hoover’s knock on that fourth door.
He opened the door of his room – a “stateroom”, it was called at the Decatur – and brought in the pitcher of steaming water and paper-wrapped bundle of clean linen Nereus had left for him.  Hot water to wash in and fresh underwear every day.  Not everyone in the city of New York lived that well, he reminded himself, especially with the economy in its current state.
The water was much too hot to wash in just yet, having come off the stove in the kitchen on the first floor less than a minute ago.  Locke actually preferred it this way, because then he could do his calisthenics first.  Locke dreaded the idea of becoming fat in his middle years, so he did a rigorous Turnverein routine every morning.
When he was done, he poured water from the pitcher into his basin, scrubbed himself with a rag, persuaded himself that the stubble on his chin was not so heavy as to require a shave that day and then opened his laundry package.  He pulled the yankton on over his head – it was the right size, might even have been one of his own.  The striped jaegers were much too big, but that was better than too small.  He buttoned them as tightly as he could, then put on his shirt (on its third day, not too bad), attached its celluloid collar and cuffs, tied his pale-yellow bow tie and put on his yellow polka-dot waistcoat.  He took his socks down from where they had hung drying overnight, pulled them onto his feet and then attached the garters to hold them up.
He gave his mustard-colored trousers and jacket a purely symbolic stroke or two with a clothesbrush and put them on.  He descended the stairs in his stocking feet, found his shoes in their usual cubby in the cloakroom -- noting that they had been shined adequately -- put on his shoes and his overcoat, settled his smart wideawake on his head and stepped out onto Cortlandt Street.
Some days, the first thing Locke noticed when he stepped onto the street was heat, or cold.  Other days it was the brightness or dimness of the sunlight.  Today, what struck him first and hardest was the smell.
When Locke was a child, a New York street smelled of dust, and of the oil that was supposed to keep the dust down.  Nowadays, they smelled of street flowers: tough little dollar-sized white growths --  really more lichen than plant -- that could survive being walked on or ridden over unharmed.  A street flower gave off a faint, pleasant smell when stepped upon, something like a very shy and modest daisy.  On a street ten yards wide, though, busy with pedestrians and horses and destriers and stalwarts, the faint perfume raised by each footfall added up to a cloying fug.
The Decatur was just ten blocks from the offices of the Sun -- three down Cortlandt, seven up Broadway -- and a quick glance at a clock in the window of a jeweler confirmed he had time for a relaxed walk, rather than a frantic rush.  He could take his time, provided he didn’t actually dawdle.  He wouldn’t dare to be late, though, not in the summer of 1837.
Two years before, the Sun (and Locke) had gained nationwide notoriety from a series of startling reports about observations of the Moon, including its gigantic crystals, its vast grasslands (and the herds grazing upon them) and ultimately the flying manlike race he had named Vespertilio-homo.
The public had devoured Locke’s Moon reports eagerly, driving the Sun’s circulation to increase ten times over, and then ten times that. 
A missionary society in Springfield, Massachusetts, had contacted the Sun to ask if science offered some means by which the Gospel could be conveyed to the Bat-Men.
There had been some hard feelings when Locke’s report was revealed to be a hoax, but most people merely had a good-natured laugh at their being fooled, and when Locke had turned his reports into a book, complete with details of how he had fooled the city, it sold well.
When the Sun’s circulation dropped back down after the hoax, it was still more than five times what it had been before.  Mr. Day, the editor, had moved the Sun to a new location, a majestic five-storey building on Broadway, built for a failed department store scheme.  He had also raised Locke’s salary, and the world had looked good for Richard Adams Locke.
In May, however, the Second Bank of the United States had collapsed, and commercial banks had refused to accept any money but gold or silver.   Commerce had ground to a halt, millions were out of work.  They were calling it the Panic of 1837, and it was only getting worse -- blame Jackson, blame van Buren, blame the Hoovers, blame the anti-hoovers.  You’d think in hard times people would enjoy a bit of whimsy, but --
A wretched-looking boy darted toward Locke, just as he finished crossing Vesey Street.  The child was dirty and emaciated, looking as though he had been sleeping in the least desirable alley.
As the boy held out a grubby hand, Locke was horrified to recognize him.  Five pounds healthier and scrubbed clean every morning, the curly-haired boy had sold him the World every morning for months.
“Dickie!  What’s happened to you?  Have you been sick?”
The boy swallowed hard, fighting back tears, but kept his hand out.
“Just sick of not havin’ no work, Mistuh Locke.”
Belatedly, Locke fished a coin from his pocket and dropped it in Dickie’s palm.  It had felt like a dime, but he saw it was only a three-cent piece, but Dickie made it disappear.  Then he pointed down the block.
“The Wuhld done turned all us newsies out.  Now all their papers is bein’ sold by dem.”
At the corner, Locke saw a feeble-looking hoover, obviously old and poorly maintained.  It had a huge armload of newspapers, lifting one over its head with lifeless glassy eyes.
 “We’d put them hoobers back in da groun’, if I was boss,” Dickie snarled.
Locke reached into his pocket for a nickel to add to the three cents he’d already given, but Dickie had disappeared into the crowd.
He continued on his way.  As he passed the news-vending hoover, the creature called out in a very loud but listless voice, “Negro poet Pushkin dead.  Read all about it.”
The Sun Building was a large square building, almost cube-shaped, taking up the entire block of Broadway from Chambers and Reade.  Locke looked up at the broad marble steps that led up to double doors, above which was a milky glass transom painted with the Sun’s masthead: a rising Sun, flanked by Justice watching an inbound train on the left, Liberty watching an outbound ship on the right.  Beneath all, a scroll bore the paper’s motto, “It Shines For All”.
Past the doors, another set of broad steps took him into the newspaper’s “bullpen”, a room that took up almost all of the second and third floors of the building.  Iron columns rose from the floor to hold up ornate trusses that supported the ceiling.  On the far wall, a huge mural showed a smiling gilt Sun surrounded by script in different fonts and different languages, but all with the same meaning: VOS AMENT OMNES, JE VOUS AIME TOUS, ICH LIEBE EUCH ALLE, VI AMO TUTTI. There was one in a language Locke had never been able to identify, but he presumed that IWEDIHILLALU also meant I LOVE YOU ALL. 
Mr. Day walked briskly up, catching Locke pondering the gilt mural.
“Locke!  You’ll do to look into the death of Gideon Brandreth.”
“Swell.  So, first things first: who’s Gideon Brandreth?”
Sun looked slightly surprised.
“He’s one of the city’s leading vitalogists.  Maybe the country’s.”
“Sorry, I don’t follow hoover work much.”
Day suddenly had a dubious look, so Locke added, “But I’m sure I can get up to speed in a hurry, if it’s important to the story.”
“Then do it.  Get yourself up to speed, go to the morgue if you need to, but start interviewing people right away.  If Brandreth really was murdered, it’s the story of the week.  If he really was the victim of a conspiracy, it’s the story of the year.”
Locke wondered what sort of conspiracy would want or need to kill a sawbones, but didn’t say so to Mr. Day, just turned and hurried to the Sun building’s basement to read up on vitalogists in general and this Brandreth fellow in particular.
As the door to the newspaper morgue groaned open, it occurred to Locke that this assignment might well take him to the other sort of morgue as well.  Although Mr. Day clearly wanted a story in a hurry, Locke decided to start at the beginning, and the beginning of any story about vitalogy began with the founder of the field, Victor Frankenstein.

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