Sunday, June 15, 2014

Frankenstein’s World, Chapter Three

Frankenstein’s World
By John M. Burt
Monday, Chapter Three

Stepping out of the Sun building and relishing the brightness and the moving air, the first source of food Locke saw was a bubbling cauldron on wheels, a fire flickering in a pan beneath it.  The vendor wore a stained apron printed CHICKEN HEARTS in red.  Beneath this, a red 3 CENTS had been altered with black paint to list a price of two cents.
Locke fished two pennies out of his pocket and handed them over.  The old woman jabbed a wooden skewer into the bubbling red sauce and pulled out a lump that was probably larger than Locke’s own heart.  He took the skewer, nodded to the woman and headed down the street, steam rising from his chicken heart.  He held it away from his body to avoid being spattered by the sauce, his handkerchief wrapped around the skewer to protect his hand from drips.  Biting and chewing, he headed up Broadway.
Locke had finished the heart by the time he was passing the Whig Party Comfort Station at Franklin. He showed his party card to the hoover attendant and went in.  His hands were sufficiently soiled by the red sauce that he washed them before he relieved himself into a growler.  He washed them again and then checked himself in the mirror to make sure he was spruce.  He continued to Carradine’s clinic or shop or whatever it was called -- oh, wait, it was laboratorium -- at Broadway and Canal.
Carradine’s place of business had the look of a lawyer’s office.  Specifically, of the kind of lawyer who goes out of his way to make sure his clients know he is a gentleman, one of their peers, not a mere tradesman.  He walked into a large room with velvet-covered walls, couches, small tables with magazines neatly arrayed on them.  At the far end sat a desk that was easily large enough that a hoover could be built right there.  Behind it was a woman who was at least in her fifties but who might well be being courted by men half her age.  And if she lacked for male attention, it would only be because her air of authority intimidated them.  A name plate on the desk declared her to be Alecea Krempe, appointment secretary to Drs. Bullivant and Carradine.
She welcomed him in tones which seemed to transform “Good morning, Sir” into “If you are here on legitimate business, I will exert myself to the limits of my considerable powers to help you, but if you waste my time, beware.”
Locke bowed to Miss Krempe and tried to explain his mission in tones to match hers, suggesting he was a man who was as devoted to Getting The Story as she was to Serving The Doctor.  He doubted he did as good a job as she did, but she seemed to respond well to being answered on her own level.  In less than a minute, they had negotiated an interview with Dr. Carradine for the following day.
Locke departed, noting that his step seemed to have acquired a new briskness, as though his exchange with Miss Krempe had imbued him with some of her crisp, businesslike attitude.
Locke saw the police station looming ahead of him as he walked down the Bowery.  Taking up the block between Delancy and Rivington, its gray façade with its two corner turrets seemed built of granite blocks, like a Medieval castle.  Locke walked in through the wide front door, past a pair of patrolmen with truncheons on their belts and leather helmets on their heads, into the lobby.
There was a man sitting at an elevated desk, almost like a judge’s bench.  He had three chevrons on his sleeve, like an Army sergeant.
Police were still something of a novelty in American cities.  It was only earlier that year that Locke had, for the first time, seen police breaking up a perfectly ordinary street brawl that normally would have ended on its own.  Still, a man with Sergeant’s stripes and sitting at an elevated desk was surely someone in authority.  Locke walked up to the desk and waited until the man noticed him.
“Can I help you, Sir?” he asked in a not-terribly-friendly fashion.
“Richard Locke, of the Sun.  I’m here looking into the death of Gideon Bullivant.”
The man nodded, with a sour expression.
“Freddy!” he yelled to a patrolman.  “Get Sergeant Roosevelt!”
The patrolman went through a door to the left of the elevated desk, and after a few moments a different man emerged, also wearing Sergeant’s stripes.  This new Sergeant, however, was quite different from the sour man at the desk: short and solidly built, he grinned broadly and extended a hand, his moustache bristling as his lips parted.
“Richard Locke, of the Sun.”
“James Roosevelt, of the Metropolitans.  So, you’re looking into the death of Dr. Bullivant?  Come into my office, please.”
Roosevelt invited Locke through the door he had come from, which proved to open onto a corridor lined with doors such as he might have seen in any sort of business which required a lot of paperwork.  They entered the third door down the hall and Locke found that Sergeant Roosevelt had a small but tidy office.
“I had heard that Inspector Smith was assigned to this case.”
Roosevelt’s voice tightened just slightly.
“Yes, I am working on the Bullivant case under Inspector Smith.”
Locke winced at his carelessness while Roosevelt turned and unlocked a file cabinet.  Locke noted that all of Roosevelt’s file cabinets had locks, and there was even a small strongbox in the corner.  The Sergeant turned back, holding a portmanteau which he opened on the desktop.
“This is what was in Bullivant’s pockets when he was found.”
Many of the objects could have been in anyone’s pockets: coins, two handkerchiefs, a billfold which held only banknotes, another which held half a hundred of Bullivant’s calling cards and a dozen or so of other persons’ cards, a pocketknife.  Other items showed that the owner had definitely been a vitalogist: a small pair of scissors with blades that were bent in the middle, a tiny kit containing heavy thread and odd sickle-shaped needles, a small bottle of Fabry’s Perfect Antisepsant and another of Domin’s Incorruptant.
While Locke examined the objects, Locke asked Sergeant Roosevelt for his own impressions about Dr. Bullivant, and was told much the same as he had heard from others: a capable builder and trader of hoovers who had led a busy social life but showed no sign of living beyond his means.  Locke confirmed that Bullivant had been out of the country for two months, leaving aboard the Ultimus on January 20th and returning aboard the Amelia on March 15th.
Locke pointed at a small notebook with a peculiar foreign landscape printed on its cover.
“A pyramid, a smallish one, I suppose, with an eye painted at its apex.  I suppose it’s a noted Egyptian landmark, but I’ve never seen it.  Bullivant had recently returned from abroad.  Could it be a place Bullivant visited?”
Roosevelt shook his head.
“Bullivant didn’t cross the Atlantic: he was on Cuba, Hispaniola and La Boriquen.”
Locke listed the contents in his notebook, and sketched the pyramid design as best he could. 
Cards and notes from the envelope indicated Bullivant had been a member in good standing of the Presbyterian Church, the Bellona Club, the Osiris Club, the Democratic party and the Freemasons.  A small note next to that last item mentioned a group within the Masons, with a name Locke couldn’t make out.  Aluminists?  Illusionati?
Locke carefully listed the information in his notebook, refilled the envelope and returned it to the officer.
[Locke reads autopsy report, which describes marks of strangulation, as well as older signs such as his having been trepanned, with trephine plugged with a St. John Licci medal.]
“Now Sergeant, is there any chance I could speak with Inspector Smith?”
“Oh, Inspector Smith doesn’t spend a lot of time at the station.  He does most of his work from his home.”
The officer pointed across the street, to a handsome townhouse.
“He lives on the second floor.”
Inside the townhouse, Locke’s knock was answered by a small, slight hoover with dark face and hands.  He had a head of curly white hair which might have come from some elderly Negro, but which might as easily have come from a young Irishwoman.  The conversion to hoover was often accompanied by unpredictable changes in hair, skin and eyes.
“G’aftanoon, Sah,” the hoover slurred.  “Ah am Pompey, valet to the Gen’ral.”
Locke feared his lip might have twitched in the perceptible beginnings of a sneer.  It was just like Smith, from all Locke had heard of him, to instruct his hoover to refer to him as “the General”. The man had only held the brevet rank of Brigadier General for a few weeks during the conspicuously ill-organized Second Seminole War before returning to his commissioned rank of Lieutenant.  His rank in the police force was Inspector.
His chief claim to fame had been surviving some remarkably thorough torture while a prisoner of some Seminoles.   Locke supposed that showed he had considerable fortitude, but he wondered if that was really a quality in highest demand in a policeman.
Pompey led Locke into a drawing room where Brevet Brigadier General John A. B. C. Smith rose on manly legs (made for him by Thomas) and walked up to clap an arm (bespoke, by Bishop) on Locke’s shoulder.  Smith’s hearty “Good afternoon, Mister Locke!” seemed to conceal “Hail fellow, well met!”, and the phrase itself would for once not have seemed at all mocking.  He did certainly have a strong, manly voice.  If he hadn’t known, Locke would never have guessed that it came from a vocal apparatus by Bonfanti.
 Unsure how to respond, Locke half-heartedly patted Smith’s shoulder (by Pettit) and said politely, “Good afternoon, General.”
Smith smiled, showing even white teeth (by Parmly), brushed a hand with practiced casualness over the polished brass badge on his breast (by Ducrow) and said, “Well, Locke, let’s sit down and have a little something and I’ll try to answer all of your questions – provided I don’t have to mention a lady’s name, heh?”
Smith emphasized his smutty implication with a wink of his eye (by Williams) which left Locke wondering who had provided him with a replacement for his manhood (one item which had gone unmentioned in Smith’s public biography).
They sat down in Smith’s parlor, and Locke explained that his editor wanted to know whether Bullivant had died by foul play.  He concluded that frankness was the best approach to take, though he wasn’t so frank as to mention the possibility of a conspiracy.
Pompey came out with a coffee service, ostentatiously setting a tiny coaster in front of each man before making a cup for his master (a great deal of both sugar and cream for a rugged he-man, Locke noted with an inward smirk) and then asking Locke’s preferences (Locke took half as much cream, a third as much sugar).
When Locke lifted his cup, he looked at the coaster.  It was hairy, made of some sort of leather he couldn’t recognize.  Hoping to show his sophistication in vitalogical matters, he picked it up and examined it, expecting Smith to tell him something colorful about its features and derivation.  Perhaps it was made from the hide of a titanic mouse and would neutralize anything spilled on it.  Perhaps it was a tiny living animal which would feed on any spill.  Perhaps it was --
“An Indian’s scalp.  A souvenir of the Florida campaign.”
Locke almost dropped it as though it were hot, but managed to set it down carefully, his face impassive.
“Only fair to take theirs, since they took mine,” he said with a chuckle which sounded a bit forced, and ran a hand through his hair (by De L’Orme -- Locke scolded himself for mentally reciting Smith’s many prostheses -- it wasn’t as though Smith had chosen to become so used-up).
“Well, Mister Locke, the inquest hasn’t been held yet, but I might as well tell you there is no doubt that Doctor Bullivant was murdered.  Strangled with immense force, in fact.”
“With more than human strength?”
“The work of a hoover.”
“Acting on the order of its human master, I have little doubt.”
“Might it be a hoover on Bullivant’s own staff?”
“No, we’ve checked them out.  None of them have that much strength, nor hands that large.  It was done by an industrial model, probably a new one.”
“Do you know a great deal about hoover making, General?  I have to admit, I don’t, though I’m in the process of learning.”
“Only what I learned working with hoover soldiers and camp supporters.  The Army is buying more of them all the time for cooks, ammunition haulers, horse wranglers, and quite a few for infantry.  So many that buffalo are disappearing from the western plains.  Their muscles and organs are in demand for building hoovers.”
“You mean kimmers, don’t you?” Locke asked doubtfully.
“Yes, and also two-leggers.”
“You mean…humanoids with animal parts?  I thought that was strictly illegal.”
“Oh, very strictly.  Almost as illegal as burking a living human for parts.”
“You’re not going to tell me that is a common practice, surely?”
Smith gave Locke a contemptuous smirk.
“No, I’m sure that all of the Negro slaves who are vanishing from the plantations of the South are being bought by abolitionists and set free in Africa.”
Smith rolled his eyes (by Williams) at Locke’s aghast expression.
“There is a reason, young man, that the Indians call our hoover privates ‘buffalo soldiers’.”
Locke stepped onto the street to find that evening was gathering.  It was the twilit time after the Sun had set but before the night-blooming street lights awoke.  As he headed down @@@ Street toward home, Locke silently scolded himself for his internal running commentary on Smith’s deficiencies.  It was not the “General’s” fault that he had been tortured and maimed so thoroughly by his captors.  If Locke hadn’t known about Smith’s suffering, he would never have guessed how used-up the man really was.
A raven shot past Locke’s shoulder, startling him.  Normally, a messenger raven avoided any human other than the addressee.  His eyes locked on it, wondering if it were going to settle on his shoulder, wondering who would have sent it.  Then he saw the stiff, mechanical way its wings moved as it flew down the block, and realized it was merely a child’s toy.
As a boy down the street plucked the bird from the air, Locke remembered when the birds had first come on the market.  They had been too expensive for him or any of his peers to own one, but they had seen rich boys playing with them, and had admired and envied how the things could simulate life.
The source of the motive force really was alive, of course.  Locke had seen one, once: a little animal about the size of a crabapple, with just one limb that could turn a crank furiously on command.  He supposed it was another of those things you fed on honey, though he’d never looked into how it worked.  Another example of how he’d avoided opportunities to learn more about vitalogy.
Locke resumed his walk and almost ran into a hoover.  He was startled that the creature hadn’t done a better job of dodging his careless approach.  Slow as hoovers often seemed to be, they almost always avoided coming into physical contact with a human.
As he moved past the hoover, frowning, he heard it say, “Mister Locke” in a low, carrying voice.
Locke stopped and looked at the hoover carefully.  In the fading light he could see the creature was about six feet tall and slender, wearing a long overcoat and a broad-brimmed hat.  There was something odd about his face, some quality about this hoover which did not seem right.
Not right for a hoover, anyway.  He even wondered for a moment whether the dim light had led him to make a mistake, if the creature were really a human.
“Mister Locke,” the hoover repeated, doffing his wide-brimmed hat and bowing deeply, showing neatly-slicked hair in a widow’s peak, “you are investigating the death of Dr. Bullivant?”
“Yes I am.  Does your master have information about the matter?”
The hoover smiled, showing unusually long canine teeth.
“It is something like that.  I am here -– I have been sent –- to warn you to be cautious, and in particular to beware of Mellonta Tauta.”
Locke opened his notebook and asked the hoover to repeat the name, and he surprised Locke by spelling it out, first in Greek letters and then Roman.
“All right, beware of Mellonta Tauta.  Who is that, and why should I beware of her or him?”
“It is a group, Mr. Locke, not a person.  And you should beware of them because they have a plan for the future, one which did not include Dr. Bullivant.  One which may well not include you.”
The hoover said nothing more, merely turned on his heel and walked away unhurriedly.  As the creature departed, Locke heard whistling from down the block -- an odd modal tune, without scales.  Locke wasn’t sure if it was the hoover whistling, but the possibility troubled him.  There was no reason a hoover shouldn’t be able to whistle -- there were hoover singers and musicians, after all -- but Locke could not recall ever having heard any hoover simply whistling a tune as he walked.

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