Monday, June 2, 2014

Chapter 4: Arrival, More Introductions

Spooky video.

Chapter 4: Arrival, More Introductions

Eldritch’s left hand rose high in the air. Multicoloured light glittered around it, forming into shapes that just barely eluded meaning. 

Trippy, Charlotte thought. And, for a hippie, Eldritch sure has a nice watch. 

His hand fell. 

Just like that, Charlotte’s nose was in a place. It was a place of horses, and of hay. Of dark leather, all soaped up, and varnish and sawdust, mineral oil and kerosene lamps, all coming in at her in a sensation that was closer to hitting your nose against something than smelling. It actually took a moment for her eyes to get her attention, to let her know that she had gone from an autumn sunset to a dark room barely lit by the familiar, comforting colour of a kerosene lamp.

Off to the side, a horse nickered, and another answered.

“Is this a stable?” Rose asked. She sounded disappointed.

A square of warm light abruptly opened in the darkness ahead. In it, Charlotte could see Eldritch, silhouetted against the door that he had opened by the light of some kind of white fire. “Yes,” he said. “I thought that a private location for the Babylon-side gate might be better. Now do please come with me.”

“They have horses in Babylon?” Rose sounded even more disappointed.

“They have horses in Babylon,” Eldritch conceded. “And Ferraris. And chariots. And that, even.” He waved. Under streetlights that guttered like Bunsen burners, Charlotte could see that he was gesturing at an aging Volkswagen van, painted in psychedelic swirls and flowers. It took her back to last summer, and the Paradise Island Camp van. Of course, it was also completely stereotypical. 

“That’s my ride,” Eldritch sad. “’How stereotypical,’ you are probably thinking. But that’s the point. Babylon is every city that ever was or could be. You will find Oz here, and the real Babylon, and the Eiffel Tower. And flying cars, too, although you will probably have difficulty getting into the “Ancient Atlantis” or “distant future” sectors to find them. Well, Rose might be able to get to the future, since she is from the future herself.”

“Eat my dark, post-apocalyptic dust, Twenty-First Century plebes!”

“How about an ‘Other side of time and space’ sector?” Dora asked. “Do I get my own hangout?”

“Do you really want one?” Eldritch asked.

“No,” Dora said. In the gleaming light of the giant Bunsen burner, Charlotte could see her shudder.

“But such a place does exist, I fear,” Eldritch said, “Deep under the Rookeries.”

“Rookeries?” Bruce asked.

“The slums of Babylon.”

“Wait. Babylon has slums? I was getting that it was some weird, poetic metaphor or something, come to life,” Brian protested.

“That is the Land of Legends that you are thinking of, now, Brother Brian. Babylon is the essence of city, and it cannot be that without being concrete and real, without having politics and class, wealth and poverty, war and peace. The Emperor is a real man; its megacorporations make real money, and its aristocrats own real estates; the last civil war killed real people; the agents of Istvatha V’han who plot against the city and emperor are real enemies. Think about it: if the Library of Babylon existed in the Land of Legends, it would be no more real than the knowledge you dream at the edge of sleep. But the Library is real. If you can find it, the knowledge you seek is there.”

“Um, okay then,” Brian said.

“As long as the hot girls are real, I’m fine with that,” Bruce added. Charlotte felt a flicker of anger.

Charlotte looked around. They were standing strewn along a brick pathway that ran beside the cindered driveway that led from the from the entrance of the stable to the street. They could see Eldritch’s van, parked on the street, and also a tall house that crowded the narrow sidewalk across a narrow, cobbled street lit by the giant Bunsen burner. In front of them to their left was the back of another house, so big for its lot that the only sign of garden was a tiny sliver between the pathway and the driveway. And, behind them, a solid line of towering trees that probably marked the alleyway edge of the property. 

In some ways, it reminded Charlotte of the Yurt, as probably any street-front house with a back alley would. It was different in that the stable gave on to the street in front rather than the alley behind, but not that different in layout. On the other hand, the Yurt was not piled up into three stories and even four at the turrets, all in weirdly darkened stone with open, billowing windows streaming more of the gleaming light of open fire into the darkness of the city.

Which, Charlotte realised, was full of city sounds, just not the familiar ones of home: horseshoes clopping, wheels squeaking, people shouting rhythmic calls about –something. For a moment she imagined that she had fallen into some boring English TV series, until in the distance she heard the roar of a diesel engine doing something it didn’t want to do, a sound that called her attention to the sussuration of engine noises, just at the edge of hearing. Somewhere over her shoulder to her right, Charlotte decided, an Interstate climbed a hill through a deep cut that almost baffled the sound of traffic from where she stood.

Nice neighbourhood. Eldritch had classy friends. Which Charlotte figured: “Doctor Smythe was a nice old bachelor, his housekeeper, Mrs. Marigold, was very prim and proper, and Doctor Smythe had a ward, Jane, who was very proper.” Or something like that. It was weird. Charlotte couldn’t imagine Eldritch using “proper” as a compliment. More like explaining that he was arranging boarding for the kids with complimentary murder mystery. And there wasn’t even a butler, so it would probably turn out to be a hard mystery, too. Charlotte just hoped that it didn’t turn out that all the inhabitants of the Smythe Mansion were murderers, including the one who seemed to die first. Because that would be cheating.

The kids moved hesitantly up the walk. There was just so much strangeness to take in. Bruce slowed up in his step, and, in a moment, Charlotte found herself walking beside him, Tail-End Charlie. 

“Hey?” Bruce said.

“What?” For some reason, Bruce’s goofiness was upsetting Charlotte. Just then, Charlotte heard a new sound from the street –a strange, just unrhythmic clanking. 

“I, uhm. What’d I do?”

You know what you did, Charlotte thought. But she didn’t say anything.

“So,” Bruce said, after the silence stretched on just too long. “You hear that.” He gestured over his shoulder to the street.

“Oh! I thought it was my imagination or something.” Charlotte looked back. On the street, through the light of the weird, Bunsen-burnery streetlight, a thin man in a top hat, what looked like the top half of a business suit, just too long for him top hat, and grey, calf-high capri pants that exposed pale, white calves going down into black loafers. Which were peddling vigorously. Because evidently he thought he wouldn’t be weird enough if he weren’t on a unicycle. His eyes were fixed on the kids, and when he saw that Charlotte was looking at her, he gave her a cold smile.

“You have a very weird imagination, Char-Char.”

“I dunno. If you saw it too, it’s probably not my imagination, Boy Wonder.” As much as she knew how mmuch the nickname annoyed Bruce, Charlotte couldn’t help smirking when she said it. Then she raised her voice. “Can we go in? I’m starting to get cold.” 

Eldritch, standing on the back porch, looked over his shoulder at her. Then his eyes lifted over hers, to the sliver of the avenue visible from where he stood. “Ah. Someone is playing an amusing little game. Here. Play with something more serious.” He gestured, and a half-glimpsed image scurried from his hands. 

Brian looked at him, and Eldritch shrugged, defensively. “I know some pixies who owe me favours. Not to worry, nothing lethal, and hopefully they will come back bearing tales.”

Brian didn’t look convinced. After all, he probably had some second cousins once removed who were pixies, and just the nicest people. 

The door opened. An ancient man in a butler suit straight out of the comics stood there. “Ah. Doctor Eldritch and company. Do please come in.”

“Thank you, Hartwell. It is always a bummer to see you when I visit.”

“I am sorry that I cannot follow your advice, or my bliss, sir, but a man needs a place.” He swept an arm down a dark hallway filled with nicknacks on pedestals and lit by a tiny, weeny little Bunsen burner in a lamp bulb hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the room that cast the nicknack’s shadows on incredibly ornate wallpaper. “If you would be so kind as to follow me into the drawing room?”

Bruce bent his head close to Charlotte’s. “The butler did it.”

Charlotte tried not to laugh, and ended up snorting. 

Hartwell, somehow, must have caught the whisper, because he looked over his shoulder, fixing his eyes on Bruce. “Quite. Two murders in a locked room every day before teatime. It is expected, you know.”

The other kids stared back at Hartwell, who raised an eyebrow and then led them through a door so low that Bruce had to duck to get through it, and Charlotte felt the brush of the lintel on a stray hair. 

Her hands, apparently under local control, were patting down her ‘do when she walked into the drawing room, which turned out to be a room about twice as large as the living room in the Yurt, which was not small, with a roaring fire at one end and an open window at the other with billowing drapes and a draft that seemed to suck all the heat of the fire right out of the place. Two girls, perhaps about nineteen, were sitting on a sofa right next to the fire. They were wearing long, Victorian frocks in dark brown and rust colours with black velvet trim that actually did quite a nice job of bringing out auburn hair piled up in an old-fashioned up-do. Charlotte felt self-conscious of her own frock, a black and white striped number over grey leggings and pumps, even though she’d borrowed everything except the black belt and gold necklace from her Cousin May, who was a very sharp dresser, who shared Charlotte’s shape, although not her colours. 

Black and white, on the other hand, look good on everyone, was what Charlotte had been thinking. Now she was having second thoughts about putting her bright yellow blouse in her overnight bag. Oh, sure, it wouldn’t blend in, but she wasn’t going to do that, anyway.

Besides the two girls, four men were sitting in individual, upholstered chairs sprinkled in a horseshoe around the room, each with a pipe in his hand. Even with the roaring draft, Charlotte could pick out the smell of assorted pipe tobaccos. Memories of particularly pretentious substitute teachers flooded back to her.

“Eww,” Dora whispered. Oh, right. Smoking indoors. No-one did that in 2012.

“Doctor Siddhartha Eldritch and companions: Miss Rose Eley, Miss Dora Gonzalez, Miss Charlotte Wong, Master Brian Ferguson, Master Bruce McNeely, and, ahem, Master Richard Roe.”

The oldest man in the room sat in the burnished, dark leather chair nearest the fire. His voice was thin and reedy. “Thank you, Hartwell. You may go.”

Hartwell inclined his head slightly. “As you wish, sir.” 

“Sidney,” the old man continued, ignoring Eldritch’s incredibly stupid given name in favour of the one he used in the real world, “Please, sit. Your young friends are welcome in my house for as long as they need to use the Library. May the dear Mother of Babylon bless your endeavours.” His right hand traced a circle in front of his chest as he spoke the title ‘Mother of Babylon.’ The other seated people did the same. Instinctively, Charlotte made bandha and bowed her head slightly. 

Twelve snorted audibly, but their host ignored him. “I am your host, and master of this humble domicile, Doctor Fortunatus Smythe,” –now it was Bruce’s turn to snort, quietly, while Rose tittered—“And this is my ward and niece, Miss Jane Smythe, and her companion, Miss Psyche Pompa. The gentlemen are also researchers in the Library, of which I have the honour to be Curator of Future Art.”

Doctor Smythe paused and then indicated each of the three men beside him in turn. “Mr. Aloysius Taurling is a journalist from the Washington Post-Dispatch of the City of Washington in the United Continental States of Earth 4981, a world of the V’hanian Empire.”

Mr. Taurling was a thin man with a prominent cowlick of colourlessly pale hair on a pale forehead, a long face, with lips closed over his teeth. He was wearing what the well-dressed men wear in Western movies, a vest-jacket-pants combination, all in various shades of brown to beige, with tooled brown leather boots and a black string bolero. Tiny, circular, wire-rim spectacles covered little eyes that were a little too fixed and wide. Combined with a mouth that seemed from its lines to be too used to gaping open, and Charlotte got the distinct impression of a man who was missing a little too much of what was going on around him for his own good. “Ahm pleased to meet y’all. You know that tomorrow belongs to you. There’s something a might bit curious as went on in the Western Territories of my home country in my grandfather’s day, and Ah aim to find out what it was.” 

“Mr. Peter Delver is, as I understand it, a barrister from your home dimension. He is a patent lawyer.”

Mr. Delver did not look like a lawyer. He looked like a stereotypical professor, complete with a well-trimmed beard and the bulky body of a well-fed man, covered with a corduroy brown jacket and what looked like a corduroy tie. Incongruously for a grown-up or anyone in a tie, he was wearing blue jeans and tan leather loafers, and, to top it off, a pink shirt and green suspenders. You have got to be kidding, Charlotte threw a thought in the direction of any god of fashion who might be listening.

Mr. Delver wiggled a bit in his chair, as though the leather was trying to save the world by ripping his outfit off him. “My clients, the family of an inventor who unfortunately died before his patent could be commercialised, believe that they are being denied their rightful share of the royalties. Some odd things have been done to the Patent Directory, and it seems that the Library of Babylon is their last hope.”

“Lastly, Werther Goethe here” –Rose snickered again—“Is a graduate student of our own beloved City. ‘He is researching the lost battle songs of our late unfortunate rebellion in the Library’s collections of ephemera of that time. He visits in the evenings to discuss matters scholastic with me.”

Charlotte noticed Jane and Werther’s eyes meet as Doctor Smythe spoke. The painfully obvious held gaze. Prize for Least Subtle Tell goes too…

Werther Goethe was not Charlotte’s idea of the perfect man, but he was hot. Beautiful, lustrous, curly black hair crowned a face that was as long and as pale as Taurling’s, but far more attractive, with full, red lips, razor sharp cheekbones and jaw line, and grey eyes that almost seemed to be lit from within. He was wearing a black turtleneck rolled up right under his chin, black slacks with a razor crease, and polished black shoes. His face cracked a little bit, and he sang a half lyric. “The day will come/Tomorrow belongs to me…I so look forward to getting to know you all. Youth really is the hope of the future. Now do please run along, as the nursery has been prepared for you.”

“Mr. Goethe,” Doctor Smythe began, warningly.”

“I do believe that our young guests would prefer the nursery, Uncle,” Jane Smythe said, with a soothing but urgent tone in her voice. “They must have travelled a good long distance to be here.”

Miss Smythe’s tone helped Charlotte get a hold of her anger at being dismissed to “the Nursery” by Werther Goethe. But she was amazed that it worked well enough to keep her friends quiet as they edged out of the room. Hartwell materialised to lead them down a less-cluttered corridor and up two flights of stairs. Finally, he threw open an oak door and let them into a large room that gave off into seven smaller rooms. It was filled with low couch-like things that reminded Charlotte of Victorian beanie chairs, and had a lit fireplace on one wall and a wide open window that kept the room cold and draughty in spite of it.

Dora crossed the room with decisive speed and had her hands on the sash before Rose spoke up. “Don’t close it, Dora. The house is lit with gas. They say that carbon monoxide poisoning is way less fun than it sounds.”

Dora turned her head over her shoulder and stuck out her tongue. “Nerd.” But she didn’t close the door.

Bruce threw himself flat out on one of the not-quite beanie sofas and laughed. “We’re staying in Doctor Lucky’s mansion!”

“Spill, nerdling,” Charlotte demanded.

“It’s a Cheapass Game.”

“None of those games you play is cheapass,” Charlotte pointed out. “Fifty bucks for some cards and army men or whatever little figs come included.”

“It’s a company, not a description. Kill Doctor Lucky. The game. It’s like some insane version of Clue. A bunch of guests at an Edwardian mansion follow Doctor Lucky around trying to kill him.”

Rose sat down on her own beanie bag, and cupped her hands behind her head. “Plus also, Werther Goethe. Emo to the millionth power! And Psyche Pompa? Oh, please!”

“Uhm, Psychopomp? Guide of the spirits of the dead?” Bruce guessed.

“Pretty much,” Rose conceded.

Twelve scowled. “This is all so, so…set up. It stinks.”

There was a knock on the door. Charlotte went to open it. It was Eldritch.

“Ah, children,” he said, slipping through the door and shutting it deftly behind him. “Do, please, make yourselves comfortable. Sit. Take your shoes and jackets off. Choose a guestroom. And do not let your guard down for a moment.”

Charlotte opened her mouth, felt a laugh make its way out. “Yeah, we kinda figured. What kind of mess have you landed us in?”

Eldritch shrugged. “The last time I was here, Doctor Smythe was living a quiet life with his niece. The cast out of a cheap Victorian murder mystery is new to your visit. I doubt it is a coincidence.”

“What about the guy on the unicycle?” Charlotte asked.

“Oh, that’s just Paradigm’s flunky, Avant Guarde, pretending to be one of the leaders of the Rebellion. If you’ve read Ostrander’s classic Grimjack run, you’ll recognise him as the character that Tim and John modelled Mac Cabre on.”

Bruce snorted. “Well, Paradigm’s a tool. I can see him being manipulated by Dancer. I mean, the real Dancer. I mean, the real guy that the fake character Dancer is modelled on. I mean… You know what I mean. Scary psychopath-gladiator-turned-leader-of-the-rebellion dude.”

“Don’t underestimate Professor Paradigm,” Eldritch answered. “Yes, there was a ‘real’ Dancer, and, yes, he is presumed to be dead. And, yes, he raised a terrible rebellion against the Emperor and his government. But being presumed dead does not always mean that you’re really alive, except in the comics. Paradigm knows the themes as well as anyone, and the Rebellion is a raw wound on this city. Paradigm could easily fake appearances by ‘Dancer’ for his own reasons. Which are scarcely sane, anyway.”

“Trust no-one?” Dora asked.

Eldritch paused for a long moment. “Yes. I foresee some uncomfortable conversations with your parents and guardians in the near future. At least you’re going into the trap with your eyes open, and I may be able to pull some strings for you in the long run.”

“Yeah, but they’ve advertised this trap,” Bruce pointed out.

“In dark, post-apocalyptic future, all sleepovers are at haunted mansions,” Rose intoned.

“Ah, it’s the we know that they know that we know that they know trick. What?” Charlotte looked around. “Get Smart. Suddenly I’m not allowed to be silly?” Her friends looked at her blankly. I am going to have to stream that show for these guys, Charlotte thought. Kids today.

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