The Warlock’s Curse: Sample Chapters
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PrologueMassachusetts Colony Full Moon
Special Magistrate Anson Kendall sat on the ladderback chair his son had fetched him and watched blood drip from the tips of Aebedel Cowdray’s fingers. Three days ago, the warlock’s hands had been fine and white as a woman’s, framed by pristine silk cuffs edged with Flemish lace. Now, the cuffs were soiled and torn, the lace stiff and brown, and the slim fingers swollen and purple.
Peine forte et dure. Punishment, strong and hard. The practice of pressing a warlock beneath heavy stones was commonly reserved for cases in which the accused refused to make a plea—but in Cowdray’s case, no plea was necessary. He was an unabashed practitioner of Satan’s arts; two score and five had he lived as a warlock, traded as one in South Carolina and Pennsylvania and New York, colonies that reckoned the weight of a man’s purse over that of his sins.
The colony of Massachusetts, however, was not so indulgent.
Governor Bradstreet, who had commanded Cowdray’s capture, had also ordered the swiftest of trials and the speediest of convictions. These would have been followed by the hastiest of executions—had the Special Magistrate not persuaded the governor to countenance a delay. A slight delay. Just three days, which Anson Kendall might use to discover how to save his wife’s soul. For Cowdray had laid a bewitchment upon her, a spell that only the warlock knew how to unmake. And no matter how many stones it took, Anson had sworn to learn the secret.
Three days ago, Cowdray had been defiant. He had laughed as the first stone was placed on his chest and had declared the second “a goose’s feather.” But three days without water, under the ever-increasing weight of the stones, had left his eyeballs bulging, red as grapes, and his tongue as thick as an ox’s. Three days of unrelenting torture had curbed his pride. Anson had permitted himself the luxury of hope.
But as night had become day, and day had passed to night and back to morning again, and stone upon stone had been added, a terrible certainty slumped Anson’s shoulders, as unbearable as the weight crushing the unholy vault of the warlock’s chest.
“You will never tell,” he whispered, allowing himself to finally realize it. He watched the man struggle for each breath, cracked lips moistened only by trickles of fresh blood. There was nothing Anson could offer him now. He could not promise to spare Cowdray’s life, he could not promise him ease or even respite from his suffering. The worst had been done—more than the worst—and Cowdray had not broken.
Anson sank back, releasing a long breath. It was nearly midnight. Over the gallows field the rising moon hung like a ghostly pearl set in battered pewter. A bitter wind whistled off Massachusetts Bay, rattling the winter-bare branches of the hemlocks. The air smelled of smoke and snow-sodden soil and mud-damp stone and blood.
He could hear a woman sobbing. The shudders and heaves were tinged with a note of frenzy. It was Cowdray’s whore—a dark poxy slut with red hair who had accompanied him from South Carolina, heedless of the dangers of entering Massachusetts. One of his witches, no doubt. Young and foolish. The others of his coven—it was rumored that there were hundreds—had wisely stayed away.
Anson gestured to his son, who stood with several of Governor Bradstreet’s men, warming themselves around a bright leaping bonfire. James Kendall was thirteen, tall as a man but not yet so broad in the shoulders; the sleeves of his black coat hung down over his hands. He was at his father’s side in two steps. He was a diligent boy.
Anson spoke so softly that his son had to bend down to hear him.
“Another stone. The largest that remains,” he said. “And quiet that damned harlot.”
James swallowed, but did not speak. Then he nodded, once. He went back to where the men were standing, and Anson could hear them murmuring quietly among themselves. No warlock had ever stood seven stones. No magistrate had ever commanded it.
Anson passed a hand over his eyes, pressed the aching orbs with his fingers. He heard rough words being spoken to the crying woman, and her answering screams of misery as she saw the seventh stone being lifted. There was the sound of a blow, a muffled thud as the woman was cast to the ground. His head was throbbing. He felt small and empty, keenly aware of his own cruelty. He knew in that moment, that there was something important in him that he could not find anymore, something that he would not be able to find again, but he did not care. He was watching a house burning, and the screams of the whore were his wife’s screams. Sarah could not be saved. All he could do was throw on more wood so that he might not have to suffer her suffering much longer.
It took three of Governor Bradstreet’s men to hoist the largest of the flat stones they had retrieved from the banks of the Forest River. As they settled it carefully atop the others, Cowdray released a long, wheezing groan, a bitter note on a cracked pipe. His eyes closed, lids barely stretching over the grossly protuberant orbs, and then he was still.
Anson waited a few moments then leaned forward to confirm that the warlock was finally dead. But as he brought his face close, Cowdray’s blood-red eyes flew open. He spat. Blood and spittle thick as porridge flecked Anson’s cheek.
“More … will come …” Cowdray rasped, pushing out each word on a wave of pain and fury, like a woman birthing a child. “Cannot … kill us … all.”
With the back of his hand, Anson wiped away the bloody spittle. Whatever part of his humanity had fled had taken his sanity with it, and now all was burning in the house of his imagination with his wife’s living, breathing, dead body.
“Yes I can,” he said. “I will.”
His own father, the great Determination Kendall, used to have visions—divine visions, gifts from Almighty God. Now, looking into the bloody depths of Cowdray’s eyes, Anson was struck with a divine vision of his own, as sharp and staggering as a hammer—blow to his forehead. He saw bodies. Hundreds of bodies, thousands of them, slack and lifeless, witches and warlocks, swinging from gallows against skies aglow with flames and smoke.
Anson Kendall had never been a cruel man, and his father had despised him for it.
Determination Kendall had been an inquisitor of highest renown, in great demand throughout the colonies as a Special Magistrate for the Courts of Assistants who had witches to be tested and tried. Anson could not remember a time when he did not travel with his father (his mother having died in childbed), but the beginning of his service as his father’s assistant—and his father’s harsh assessment of him—he could trace with painful clarity to his eighth year. Lacking other assistants, his father had deemed him a big enough boy to turn the thumbscrews on a young witch. Oh, how the girl had screamed. Anson could not bear it. He fled the room in tears. Determination found him vomiting behind a hayrick.
“God hates a coward,” Determination had sneered. It was the first time Anson had heard those words, but it would not be the last.
Determination’s belief in the unredeemable evil of witches was brilliant in its purity. His ears listened for accusations of milk-souring and cattle-foundering and babe-smothering as if they were a melody that pleased him. He was deaf to sweeter notes; tales of nurse-women who used magical arts to succor the ailing, or cunning-men who read the weather to augur auspicious times for sowing.
Anson, though, had wondered. Perhaps such creatures could not be said to be in God’s favor, but were they truly in Satan’s service?
He never shared such doubts with his father, of course. Determination would have accounted them blasphemous; proof of a weak, unguarded mind tainted by close proximity to the evil they faced every day. He might begin to look for marks or blots on his son’s body, for any special fondness for cats or rats or black dogs. And looking for them he would find them, and Anson might find himself in thumbscrews, facing the flames.
His father served a fierce and implacable God, the kind that sacrificed sons.
But Anson was a clever enough boy, and remaining beneath the threshold of his father’s scrutiny was as simple as keeping his lips pressed tightly together. And Determination’s righteous mind was far too occupied with higher pursuits to even notice his son’s persistent silence, far less attempt to winkle out what seditious thoughts might lay behind it. What small free time he had was dedicated to penning his magnum opus, a treatise he called the Malignia Veneficas Americae. He wrote at night, by the weak flickering light of a tallow candle, after the subjects of that day’s inquiries had been locked away to suffer ‘til cockcrow.
His great addition to the scholarship of witchcraft was to delineate its schools. He detailed the unique practices of blood witches and earth witches and showed the ways in which they differed. He wrote of less common kinds of witches, those who could turn the Bible itself inside—out to summon power—speaking the Lord’s Prayer in reverse, or confounding sensible individuals with stories and follies that left them dazed and vulnerable. These last, Determination wrote, were the hardest to detect, for their sorcery was exceeding subtle and sometimes barely distinguishable from mere politics or persuasion. Much simpler to uncover were the blood witches, barbarous fiends who drew their power from the living, agonized blood of humans.
Witches like Aebedel Cowdray.
When they first heard of Aebedel Cowdray, Determination was at the zenith of his power and prestige. His treatise had been published to great acclaim. England’s Witchfinder General himself, Matthew Hopkins, had proclaimed it a novum malleum—a new hammer in the never-ending battle against sorcerous criminality. Determination found himself in greater demand than ever, each day bringing a fresh batch of summons from villages and towns desperate for aid in their prosecution of local malefactors.
Travelling to answer one such, they had stopped for the night at an inn, where Determination had happened upon an old colleague, a German witch-hunter by the name of Eisenbach. As old men will, the two had fallen into commiseration about the wicked ways of the world. Eisenbach had lamented particularly the New World’s lax attitude toward der hexenmeisters, so different from the admirable strictness of his own native land.
“One need only look at Aebedel Cowdray to see how servants of evil are coddled in America!” Eisenbach had seethed, slamming down his tankard so hard that foam flecked his grimy sleeve.
Cowdray’s name not being familiar to father or son, Eisenbach proceeded to delineate the specifics of the man’s notoriety, how he lived and traded openly as a warlock in the lower colonies, keeping homes and offices in both South Carolina and New York.
“He’s a slave trader. His great success comes from the fact that he performs some sort of unholy rite upon his blackamoors. It makes them wonderful placid, far more than such beasts are by nature.” Eisenbach leaned forward, relishing the telling as much as Determination did the hearing. “He does a thriving trade with the plantation owners in the Carolinas and the West Indies. They have thrown their fortunes in with his, and as they have no wish to see their investments ruined, he will never be prosecuted, howsoever rank his sins!”
Determination snorted with outrage. Baring his rot-pitted teeth in a grimace, Eisenbach had further inflamed him with tales of Cowdray’s riches, of his fine velvet coats and his cuffs of silk edged with lace, of how the warlock had ruined scores of virgins and lured good married women from their hearths to dance with the devil in the full moon’s light.
“And naught can be done about it,” Eisenbach had concluded, eyes sparkling as he looked over his tankard at Determination. Determination had said nothing in answer, but Anson had always remembered that moment. His father, like God, would not be mocked.
Later, as they were preparing for sleep, Determination had been strangely pensive.
“The abomination’s very name chilled me,” he mused, as he removed his heavy boots. “As if I had heard it before. But I am sure I have not. And yet”—he dropped a boot to the floor with a thump—“I feel as if someone has walked over my grave.”
But the morning brought them renewed vigor and work, for they were to interrogate a whole family of witches, sin-shackled from the centenarian grandfather all the way down to the newborn infant son. And with such pleasures facing him, and many similar subsequent pleasures, Determination put Cowdray out of his thoughts.
It was, Anson often reflected, surely the happiest time of his father’s life.
It had been the happiest time in Anson’s life as well, even though he was plagued by night-horrors so extreme that the brightest light of day did not completely dispel them. Even though he could never stop his hands from shaking. Even though the screaming of tormented witches had taken up residence in his brain, and sometimes the only way he could find peace was to cut his own flesh with a sharp knife, releasing the screams on a warm trickle of blood. Because it was at that time, in Anson’s eighteenth year, that his father decided he must take a wife.
The Inquisitors Kendall, as they were coming to be known throughout the colonies, were amassing a respectable fortune. Anson must produce sons to carry on their good work. No one—least of all Anson—expected that it would be a love-match.
It was certainly not love at first sight. Sarah Roarke—the youngest daughter of the modest, observant Roarkes of Salem—was not at all beautiful. But she was lively and spry, with a tendency to laugh more often than was theologically approved. When they were together, they never spoke of witches or sin or what methods of torture were best for small children. His hands shook less when she held them, and once, when they were allowed to sit up together after the rest of the household had retired, he fell asleep with his head on her shoulder and did not dream at all.
Money was settled on them from both sides of the family, and the newlyweds took a fine house on Port Street. Years passed and children followed; James, and then Abigail. Anson began to think of how he might use his growing stature as a householder to petition for a release from his father’s service. He began to imagine himself pursuing a new career, one more suitable to his nature—binding books or keeping a coffee-house.
But the demand for the services of the Inquisitors Kendall did not diminish; rather, they increased with each passing year. And each year, Aebedel Cowdray’s name came to them more often, from the gossiping lips of the men who were his father’s closest associates. The wickedest man in the New World, he was called. A blood-sorcerer whose hand no earthly authority can stay.
It was an outrage. Unlike their usual targets, Cowdray was no crook-backed old woman who dabbled in herbs and spoke to her cats; he was a true demon, worldly and sly, infamous as a brute fornicator and worse. And yet, the law could not—or rather, would not—touch him. Cowdray’s protected existence made a mockery of all their efforts. What good their prosecutions, if the worst of the sinners was forever beyond their reach?
Determination’s outrage did not become obsession, however, until Old Mother Grax told them of Aebedel Cowdray’s snuff box.
Old Mother Grax was a hunchbacked hedgewitch accused of causing her neighbor’s chickens to lay black eggs with serpents in them. The Kendalls hung her strappado to extract the names of her confederates; it was one of Determination’s favorite methods of interrogation. By this time, Anson had well-practiced techniques for distancing himself from the horror of it. He would pretend that he was simply watching someone else’s hands. He would imagine Sarah singing to him, as she did sometimes at night. She sang terribly, tunelessly and without rhythm, but it was the most beautiful thing in the whole world. He could lose himself in that remembered song, and it felt as if he was no longer even in his human body, and something else managed his brutal activities. His father had accounted this a great blessing, believing that it was evidence of the Divine Spirit working within his son, but Anson had his doubts that the Divine Spirit could be so cold; distant and passionless as a frozen moon in a winter sky.
(Now, as he sat in the ladderback chair, watching Aebedel Cowdray die beneath seven stones, his father’s words made more sense, and Anson did not doubt the presence of the Divine Spirit, nor that it was cold, distant, and passionless.)
Under torture, the old witch-women usually babbled about Beelzebub, tales Determination deemed deceitful and useless. But when Old Mother Grax, mad with agony, had promised she would tell them of Aebedel Cowdray’s dark masterwork—a magical artifact he had been refining for decades—Determination had been intrigued. So intrigued that he did something his son had never seen him do. He eased the woman’s torment so that she might speak more freely. The old witch’s tale gushed forth.
According to Mother Grax, Cowdray had taken a small box of silver—a box such as might hold snuff—and he had sorcelled it to contain all of Hell within its confines. Into this torment Cowdray could consign living souls stolen from human victims. Misery and agony being the true fuel of blood-sorcerers like Cowdray, the snuff box thus represented a constant, ready supply of power. Power that would continue to grow as the pain and suffering of the imprisoned souls compounded.
Cowdray had been filling the box with souls taken from the African slaves in which he traded. Taking the soul killed some—those who were old or weak from strain or injury. But the young and strong could survive without souls, for a time. The ritual left them mindless, forgetful, directionless creatures—but they could work the fields, and they were placid and tractable, and as such they brought even higher prices than slaves with their souls intact.
“Monstrous!” Determination had whispered, at the conclusion of this terrible recitation. He pressed her with questions in quick succession: where was the snuff box? How could it be found? How could it be destroyed? But before she could answer any of these, Old Mother Grax’s pain-ruddied face had drained of color. Her rheumy eyes focused on the wall behind them.
“Alas, he is here!” She moaned in sudden terror. “Do you not see his shadow? There, there! Ah, master! Forgive a foolish old woman! Forgive me, Lord!”
The Inquisitors Kendall had looked around themselves, Determination clutching at the great red cross he wore around his neck, but they saw nothing. No dark shadow, no hint of malice or magic. So perhaps it was only fear that caused Old Mother Grax to expire as she did, quite suddenly, great gouts of blood flowing from her nose down her wrinkled chin.
“Of one thing I am sure: Aebedel Cowdray will not long be satisfied with the souls of heathens,” was Determination’s first grim conclusion. “Ere long, he will seek souls of greater merit, those of white Christian men.”
But, having decided to take the cause for his own, Determination was at a loss for how to proceed. Cowdray had carefully confined his business dealings to the middle and southern colonies. His main trading offices were in New York, whose governor—the indulgent sinner William Penn—had once released an old dame accused of maleficum with the infamous pronouncement, “you are at perfect liberty to ride on broomsticks, as I know of no law against it.” Enticing Cowdray to leave such safe harbor seemed nearly impossible.
Thus, when the Inquisitors Kendall sought audience with Governor Penn—with the intention of exhorting him to do his Christian duty and send Cowdray to face God’s justice in Massachusetts—they expected little succor. But while the chance of success was slight, they knew it was greater than any they could expect further south.
They did not, however, expect their slim hopes to be dashed so thoroughly as they were when they were shown into Governor Penn’s office, and were received not only by the governor, but by his honored guest—Aebedel Cowdray himself.
Cowdray was tall and well-formed. He had brilliantly white teeth and curling black hair and eyes the color of frozen seawater. He was dressed even more richly than all the tales about him had suggested. Every inch of his coat was embroidered with silken floss and gold wire, his stockings were snow-white and fine, and his sleeves dripped with lace.
“These are the Inquisitors Kendall?” Cowdray’s gaze had encompassed them both, but Anson had felt the warlock’s eyes hang upon him, particularly. “It is said you gentlemen have some quarrel with me. But I have none with either of you. I simply wish to conduct my business.”
“Business in partnership with the Author of Misery himself,” Determination growled. He had clutched the cross around his throat tightly, as if wishing he could use it as a weapon. He cast a fiery gaze on Governor Penn. “You have read my letter, sir. You know the crimes this filth stands accused of.”
“I have read your letter as well,” Cowdray interjected, raising his clean-shaven chin haughtily. “Your claims are ludicrous, based upon the lunatic rantings of a poor old woman you tortured to death.” He paused. “But it matters not. My slaves are mine to do with as I will. What I do with them … magical or not … is of no concern to a couple of hired Massachusetts murderers.”
“You … dare!” Rage made Determination stumble over the words. “We do the Lord’s work, you abomination! And while your slaves are indeed yours, bought and paid for, well do I know that you will not be satisfied with them. Such souls must seem mealy bread to one as fine as you. You will soon seek stronger meat.”
“How he rants!” Cowdray drawled, in Penn’s direction. “Have you heard quite enough, my good William?”
“Quite enough,” Penn said. Throughout the whole interview, he had been paying little attention, focusing instead on the signing of several documents that seemed to require his urgent attention. “Have them shown out.”
“Your honor!” Determination cried. “This is unconscionable!”
“You gentlemen are a credit to New England,” Penn observed, as his secretary moved to bodily usher them from the room. “Indeed, you have confirmed, with admirable thoroughness, every suspicion about our observant brethren that ever I have conceived.”
This parlor witticism drew a dry snicker from Cowdray and a bellow of fury from Determination. The secretary had to push Determination toward the door. Anson followed. And as he was at the threshold, watching his father rebuke the secretary with hot words containing promises of hell and damnation, he was suddenly aware of Cowdray’s presence at his shoulder, cold and dark and smelling of silk.
“Tell your father to have a care,” Cowdray spoke in a voice so low that Anson could not tell if the words were really spoken aloud at all. “If stronger meat I do seek, I could look farther and fare worse than the tender morsels of your regard. Your wife’s name is Sarah. Your children are James and Abigail.”
Anson spun, a wrathful exhalation on his lips, but there was no one behind him. Aebedel Cowdray and Governor Penn stood together at the far end of the room. The governor had poured out little glasses of port and they spoke with civilized anticipation of the delicacies that awaited them at the dinner table. Neither man looked up as the Inquisitors Kendall were thrown into the street, and the door slammed behind them.
Anson had wanted to flee New York at that moment, on the very next coach that would take them back to the safety of Massachusetts. He did not dare tell his father of Cowdray’s threat, for the old man was already inflamed to the point of apoplexy. Determination had insisted that they wait outside the governor’s home, lurking like a pair of brigands, until Cowdray finally emerged, well after midnight, sated with drink and food. Determination refrained from accosting the man physically, but as Cowdray began his walk home, Determination followed him, loudly censuring him with every step. There were few passers-by at that time of night, but those there were watched with amazement as Determination hurled imprecations at Cowdray’s back.
“Hear me, Satan-spawn!” Determination roared. “You God-forsaken atrocity, abortion of Babylon’s whore, misery of mankind! Your crimes are seen by the Lord God Almighty, and He will not long suffer you to walk upon the good earth that is His noblest creation! Today you are clothed in silk and finery, but you will be reduced to ash, consumed in the lake of fire that burneth eternal …”
Cowdray had not hastened his pace, simply continued to stroll with perfect equanimity, even pausing once to admire the velvety darkness of the night sky. When finally he came to his house on Pearl Street—an even finer house than the governor’s—he had turned his head and looked at Anson.
He will choke on the hatred he spews. Cowdray spoke without speaking, his words ringing inside of Anson’s head. Then the decision will be yours, Mooncalf. A son does not have to take up his father’s battles.
Then he closed the door behind himself.
Anson had pleaded with his father to come away. But Determination would not. He had planted himself in the street, screaming up at Cowdray’s dark windows, until officers of the watch came and arrested them for disturbing the peace.
Before the year was out, Determination Kendall was dead.
He died suddenly in his fifty-eighth year, in a month where the full moon fell on the thirteenth day. He began vomiting toads and slugs and other black sickening vermin from his lips, and soon they were gushing forth in such volume that he choked on them, his eyes wide with terror. He died clutching the red cross around his neck, and it did him no good.
Anson was not a vengeful man. But he had loved his father as best as he could, and it was brutally unfair that he should be murdered thus—so casually, so remotely, seemingly with as little effort as was required to snuff the life of a fly. If nothing else, Determination had been a faithful and diligent servant of God—far more perfect than his son ever had been or could be. He had devoted his life to enacting God’s will in every word he uttered and deed he performed. And it had earned him not even the meagerest scrap of regard. Instead, God had suffered Cowdray, the worst of sinners, to fill Determination’s last moments with terror, suffering, and misery.
It was unconscionable.
Anson remembered Cowdray’s last words to him.
A son does not have to take up his father’s battles.
They were not words of advice. They were words of challenge. Cowdray thought him weak-willed and hesitant, just as his father always had.
Anson saw that there was only one way he could truly honor his father’s memory. And that was to prove him wrong.
Anson went to work with a vengeance he never knew he possessed.
He saw that it was useless to attack Cowdray within the fortress of safety he had created for himself. Cowdray had powerful allies, so he must have powerful allies as well.
Governor Simon Bradstreet was newly-returned to Massachusetts after the collapse of the Dominion, and it was to him that Anson proposed an allegiance of interests. He knew that Bradstreet would care little about Cowdray’s sins—but the warlock’s vast fortune … well, that was another matter. The governor was in desperate need of funds to fight the French’s unceasing harassment of the colony’s frontier outposts to the north. Cowdray had no wife or kin. When he died, the disposition of his estate would be uncertain. If it could be so arranged that he be arrested in Massachusetts, and there tried and convicted and executed, his estate would escheat to the colonial government.
Bradstreet’s face had lit with interest when Anson described the scheme. But just as quickly, he had frowned. “Ah, but you will ne’er draw him to Massachusetts,” the governor muttered bad-temperedly, as if hope itself were an annoyance.
But Anson was powerfully resolved to prove him wrong. He went after Cowdray’s business agents, members of his coven—anyone with even a remote association with the warlock who had the misfortune to stray into areas controlled by those sympathetic to the growing fame of the (now solitary) Inquisitor Kendall.
He had a hundred in gaol within a month, and all of them under torture. Those who knew the most about Cowdray’s affairs died the most quickly, just as Old Mother Grax had, gushing blood from their noses and eyes. Anson gathered knowledge in drabs and snatches. He learned how Cowdray would steal souls by means of a black snake that would slither up to kiss the lips of a sleeping man. The sleeping man would rise in the morning, but he would never again wake.
Anson was heedful of the threat Cowdray posed. He sent his wife and daughter far away from Boston and told no one—not even Sarah’s family—where they had gone. He kept his son James with him. The boy was ten, a good age to be apprenticed. The work was endless, and Anson needed hands he could trust. James had a clever mind. He did not blanch at torture. It was what his father said must be done, and he did it—not with the kind of pleasure Anson suspected Determination had taken in it, but because he loved his father and wanted to please him. This made Anson proud. His son was stronger than he had ever been.
The most useful piece of information they collected was about a shipment Cowdray was expecting. The warlock had made arrangements to take a bride. Little was known of her, except that she came from a good family in England, and she was very wealthy, and Cowdray had sent his fastest ship to bring her—and the large dower sum that accompanied her—to New York.
When Anson learned of this, he rejoiced. For here, finally, was a way to get Cowdray to Massachusetts.
He knew of a woman who, by all reports, was the best weather-witch in the New World. He promised her that she would not be tried if she would stir him up a sorcerous wind that would compel Cowdray’s galleon off its course, and into one of the harbors in Massachusetts, Boston or Salem, or anywhere in between. She was reluctant, for no witch or warlock desired to cross Cowdray—but the Inquisitor Kendall’s reputation had become near as fearsome, and she was eventually persuaded. And Anson did keep his promise. He did not prosecute her. He did nothing until he felt the winds shift, heard the sailors of the harbor begin to talk of other ships, previously bound for New York, mysteriously diverted to the waters of Massachusetts Bay. He waited long enough to be certain that she had kept her end of the bargain, and then he killed her, cutting her throat silently in the night with his own hand.
He was his father’s son. He knew the ways of witches, knew their occult methods of communication, knew that he could not take the chance that the woman would betray his plans to Cowdray.
Anson Kendall had always had blood on his hands, so much blood that it dripped from his fingers. Once, he had longed to wash it away. Now though, he cared not. What was a little more blood? What was it, really?
How Cowdray had found Sarah, and had delivered to her a comb of ivory and gold (with a note that said it was a gift from her most loving husband) Anson never knew, even to his dying day.
Anson did not receive word of what happened to Sarah until more than a week after Cowdray’s fastest ship had been blown into Boston harbor, and Cowdray and his whore had travelled North under the cover of sorcerous guises to reclaim the treasured cargo. Cowdray’s affianced, a petulant and spoiled girl, repined in the governor’s home even as Anson and his son had lain in wait, with twice two-dozen of Governor Bradstreet’s best men.
It had taken all of those men to capture Cowdray, and the warlock—summoning ferocious spirits from within the snuff box—had left most of them dead. It was only young James’ bravery—for he had knocked the snuff box from Cowdray’s grasp—that allowed the remaining few to finally clap the warlock in irons.
It was a great victory, but short-lived. The next day, Anson received a letter from his daughter Abigail, who had sent it upon the fastest post.
Abigail wrote of how pleased her mother had been with the unexpected gift from her husband. But upon combing her hair with the jewel of ivory and silver, beautiful as the moon, Sarah Kendall had fallen into a trance. Abigail’s letters became shaky on the page as she recounted how the comb had become a black snake, slithering up Sarah Kendall’s nose.
His wife was not dead. But neither was she alive. She breathed, but there was nothing in her eyes.
All the arts of the local priest, the local doctor, even the local herb-woman had been employed to save her. But from each, the judgment had been the same; her soul was gone from her body.
His wife, pure and kind and laughing, who had never done a cruel thing in her life, had been consigned to an eternity of torture in a magically-created hell with only the spirits of black heathens for company. The thought of it nearly drove Anson mad.
Or perhaps it had driven him mad, he thought, as he looked at the blood dripping from Cowdray’s fingers, as he looked into the man’s agonized face. Only a madman could take such pleasure in pain, so much joy in revenge.
Anson Kendall sat in the ladderback chair, watching the warlock die. The moon had risen higher now, casting a pallid glow over the gallows field. He pulled Cowdray’s snuff box from within his coat. The masterwork of the warlock’s evil was horribly beautiful—worked in chased silver, the scene on the lid depicted a vision of the devil dancing in hell, ringed by souls writhing in torment. The face of the devil had been worked to resemble Cowdray’s own.
Anson opened the box. It was lined with uchawi wood, polished glove-smooth. He ran his fingertips along the inside, and they came away coated with a dark, powdery residue that tingled. He rubbed his fingers together. The box was open, but Sarah’s soul was locked within it, within a world of suffering, and there was nothing he could do to save her.
Anson clicked the box shut. He tucked it back inside his coat and stood. He turned away from Cowdray. James didn’t notice his father’s rise; he was warming himself before the fire. In the light of the now-risen full moon, and the flickering gleam of the flames, his young face looked very old and very sad.
In that moment, Anson felt very keenly the pain of failing everyone he had ever loved.
Then, there was a cry—high-pitched, desperate—and a dark blur, a flash of red and bright silver, and Anson felt something slam against him from behind.
It was a body, a young lithe body; Cowdray’s whore. He smelled her reeking carnal stench, the salt of her tears. Her body was warm against his. He felt something else then; sharp pain. He saw his son turn at the sound of the harlot’s cry, watched as astonishment and horror spread across James’ young face.
She had stabbed him, Anson realized suddenly, as his knees buckled.
And he saw her hand, covered with his own blood, coming up to do it again. With the strength of reflex, he seized her wrist, pain screaming through his side as he wrenched the silver knife from her grasp. She squeaked like a stepped-on kitten as he jerked her arm up behind her, laid the knife against her throat.
James was at his father’s side immediately, Bradstreet’s men at his heels. But Anson forestalled them all with a small shake of his head. Instead, he jerked the whore around to where Cowdray was taking his last breaths on God’s earth.
“You’ve taken everything from me.” His side throbbed with pain. Hot blood trickled down his leg. “Here is one thing … one miserable, wretched thing that I can take from you.”
“I care not …” Cowdray’s voice was barely audible. But even through his agony, through the pallor of swiftly approaching death, Anson saw tenderness in the warlock’s eyes. He pressed the knife harder against her throat, drawing blood. The girl’s hand came up to clutch his; their blood mingled, sticky as raw honey.
Anson was certain that he would slit her throat. He wanted very much to slit her throat. He wanted to cause this demon pain, do the work that even God had scrupled to do.
But then, in the soft moonlight, he saw his son’s face.
It was held, as it always was, carefully and blankly. But something—something divine or demonic—allowed Anson to see the horror there, for the first time. His son had always wished to please him, and so he had hid his disgust well. But it was there, just as strong as he himself had ever felt it. Killing the witch would do no good. It would not rectify the unfairness God had ordained for the world. It would not please Him. Nothing would.
He shoved the girl away. She stumbled forward, falling to her knees at Cowdray’s side. She seized the warlock’s bloody hand, held it tight.
And then Anson realized what a horrible mistake he had made.
Cowdray could lift his hand just barely, just enough to touch the blood at the girl’s throat. His swollen purple fingers encircled her neck. He did not have the strength to hold her, but she did not resist—instead, she leaned into his grasp. There was magic dancing around Cowdray’s fingers, magic drawn from the blood of the girl, and from Anson’s own blood, mixed with hers. As the warlock began to speak, Anson felt magic beginning to burn within him—blood calling to blood. His body felt hot, as if he had coals in the pit of his stomach …
There was an unearthly scream from the warlock. But the sound was coming from between the girl’s lips, and then it became words. Chanting, high-pitched and wild, in a bitter old language. Power, brighter than the full moon, brighter than the sun at summer’s zenith, wreathed the pair of them.
Anson fell to his knees, agony burning through his veins.
“More stones!” he screamed, to Bradstreet’s men. “All of them! Now! For the love of Christ!”
But Cowdray’s voice continued to stream from the whore’s lips, even as one, two, three more stones were heaped upon him.
“I curse you, Anson Kendall,” the girl mouthed, her eyes black and pupilless. “I curse your children, and your children’s children, and your children’s children’s children. Every full moon, from this time, until the end of days on earth, I will take the body of one of your descendents and I will use it to do all the evil—all and more—that you think you have thwarted. I will be the everlasting curse of your lineage. I curse you. I curse you!”
Cowdray voiced the final word in high church Latin—maledictus—and Anson felt the force of it like a bolt from a crossbow. It slammed into him. He shrieked.
And then he realized that James was screaming too, clawing at his own flesh.
James. His child. His son.
Anson staggered to his feet, ignoring the agony that was melting his bones, ignoring the force of magic that was lashing him with molten fury. Bradstreet’s men were cowering in terror; from one of them, Anson seized a short sword.
“I curse you,” Cowdray rasped, in his own voice, as Anson seized him by his blood-soaked hair.
It took several strokes to hack off the warlock’s head. But as the last ragged sinew was severed, the maelstrom of magic calmed. Blood gouted from the warlock’s ruined neck; the girl who had been his voice, who had channeled his magic through her own body, collapsed—dead.
The sudden stillness seemed even louder than the deafening thunder that had preceded it. Anson looked to where James lay on the ground—the boy was unconscious, but he was breathing. His son was alive.
Anson Kendall lifted the severed head in his trembling hand, intending to cast it away into the darkest well of shadow he could find. Only then did he see that the warlock’s eyes were still open, glittering with moonlight and malice. And his lips were curved into a satisfied, mocking smile.
Maledictus, the dead warlock whispered.
Chapter One: A Battle of WillsSacramento Valley, California 29 days until the full moon
Will Edwards lay on his belly in a stand of dry grass, peering through field glasses at the old farmhouse nestled in the bowl-shaped valley. His bicycle lay on the ground, the click of a still-spinning rear wheel drowned by the susurration of cicadas. The day had been Indian-summer hot, but the sky was deepening purple and soon the shadows of late November would pool like chilled ink in the valley’s hollows. Soon it would be time to fire up the electric generator, to power the lights that would make the farmhouse seem the only warm place for miles beneath a cold, waning moon.
Tonight, though, the lights would stay dark. Because Will was the only one in the family who knew how to coax the stinking old kerosene power-plant into operation. And he’d be damned if he ever lifted a finger to help any of them ever again.
In fact, there was only one reason Will had staked out this observation spot at the top of the hill. It was Thanksgiving, and it was rumored that Ben might be coming home.
Will had never really seen his brother Ben …. not that he could remember, anyway. Ben had left home before Will could even walk on two legs, and he’d never come home since, not even once. All Will knew of his brother was based on incomplete snippets of information overheard from his parents or bartered for from his older brothers. Ben had had a fight with Father. It had been a fight so bitter that he’d been sent away, far away, across the country to New York City. There, he’d built a whole separate life for himself. He had studied at the famous Stanton Institute as a student. After graduation, the Institute had retained him as an employee.
These unornamented facts did not suggest much common ground between Will and his older brother—save for one still-smoldering patch. They both thought that their father was an insufferable bastard.
For Will had had a fight of his own with Father, on his eighteenth birthday, and it too was bitter enough to make him leave home (well, for three days at least—and not to New York, but rather to his buddy Pask de la Guerra’s neighboring spread a few miles over.)
On the surface, it was a fight about birthday presents. Which, when considered in such a way, sounded awful petty even to Will’s mind. But of course it was about so much more.
He’d had no cause to complain about quantity, for Father had given him no fewer than three presents. It was the quality of these gifts that he objected to, for each one had turned out to be worse than the last. The first was mingy, the second superfluous, and the third … well, the third one was downright intolerable.
The mingy present was a silver dollar, almost fifty years old, a sentimental piece Father had kept on his watch chain for years. It was a nice piece of money—if one wanted to buy a steak dinner. But it was not enough for anything else. Certainly not enough for a train ticket to Detroit. Not enough to get free of this place. And Father knew it. It was nothing more than a pointed—and cruel—reminder of Will’s powerlessness. It was as if Father had presented him with a ball and chain and expected him to be pleased that the shackle was lined with velvet.
Next came the superfluous present. Advice. What eighteen year old boy needed more of that? And not only advice, but advice that came wrapped in a Latin test to boot. Laying a hand on Will’s shoulder, the old man had asked, “Will, can you tell me the meaning of the phrase Veritas vos Liberabit?”
“The truth shall make one free,” Will offered the translation with slight hesitancy, trying to remember if vos was singular or plural, certain Father was trying to trip him up with the pronoun.
But Father didn’t seem to care about the pronoun, he had just nodded gravely, then released a heavy sigh. “It’s a very simple motto, and it sounds very good. But I’m afraid it does not accurately capture the cost of truth or freedom.”
What the hell did that mean? It sounded like Father was rehearsing another political speech for Argus—probably trying to figure out how he could work in something about the blood of martyrs. Will must have made a noise of exasperation, because Father had dropped his hand, and Will was left hoping beyond hope that he was saving the best for last. Maybe he’d changed his mind about the letter Will had received from Tesla Industries. Maybe …
But as it turned out, the last present had been the worst—the absolute worst—and Will still got so mad when he thought about it that he didn’t think about it. And so he had run away to the de la Guerras’ and lost himself in work on Pask’s auto.
Mechanical tinkering always set Will’s spirits at ease, and Pask’s 1906 Baker Electric was always in need of some kind of repair. Pask—the grandson of Don Diego de la Guerra, an eminent Californio—had been wildly enthusiastic about the machine when he’d gotten it three years ago, but had since grown as tired of it as any toy. The more Pask neglected the Baker, the more it acted up—and the more it acted up, the worse Pask treated it, driving it with the unconscious negligence he might use toward one of his father’s field hands.
The culmination of Pask’s mistreatment of the Baker was slapping red and green paint on it for Homecoming, then—after he and Will had one too many nips of whiskey at the game—driving it into an irrigation ditch. Pask had sworn he would leave the half-submerged heap there to rot, but Will had convinced him to have a team haul it back to the de la Guerra’s barn, where Will had spent the better part of a month disassembling and cleaning the electrical motor.
Will lowered the field glasses, catching a glimpse of his own hands as he did. He’d scrubbed them with pumice soap, but they were still seamed with grease from his most recent work on the Baker. At least the time he’d spent hiding out at the de la Guerra’s had been well spent. It had given him the opportunity to execute the coupe de grace of his rebuild—retrofitting the jalopy with a nifty little power system of his own design.
He called it an Otherwhere Flume. He’d come up with the concept during his last year at the California Polytechnic. While it was, in the main, a standard Otherwhere Conductor (its design taken straight from his teacher Mr. Waters’ third year “Otherwhere Engineering” textbook) Will had introduced several significant improvements. Mr. Waters had been astonished by Will’s ingenuity, but Will had never quite understood his teacher’s astonishment. The inefficiencies of the standard design were all so obvious. They stood out as prominently as wrinkles in a tablecloth. All Will had done was smooth out the cloth.
With the Flume installed, Will could conceivably drive the beat-up old Baker all the way to Detroit. It wouldn’t be comfortable or fast … but he could do it. And Will was in such a desperate state of mind that he was actually considering it. It had been almost a month since he’d gotten the fat letter from Tesla Industries, informing him that he’d been accepted into their apprenticeship program. A whole month, and the acceptance letter had said that they wanted him to get there as quickly as possible.
Tesla Industries was the foremost center for scientific research in the United States, and their apprenticeship program was world-renowned. They only accepted one or two candidates a year—usually college men—but Mr. Waters had been so impressed with Will’s work that he had recommended Will for consideration.
And Will had been accepted.
The fat letter had arrived on Hallowe’en. The acceptance letter itself wasn’t fat; but the boilerplate apprenticeship contract enclosed with it was a hundred and thirty-two pages. Will had been giddy with excitement. His father, however, had hemmed and hawed. He told Will that he would have to review the contract before he could give Will his permission.
And of course, I let him, Will thought bitterly. Trusted him, like an idiot. And wasn’t that just like Father! To pretend he was doing you a favor … looking out for your best interests … when really he was just stalling for time, looking for ammunition to fortify his position, so he could ultimately deliver the devastating answer from a position of unimpeachable strength:
No, Will. I’m afraid I don’t think it is a good idea for you to enter this program. There are many more suitable opportunities closer to home. I’m afraid I cannot give you my permission.
“Bastard,” Will muttered. Just remembering the old man sitting behind his heavy desk, delivering that shattering pronouncement so smoothly and casually, made him want to punch something.
A cooling evening breeze blew up the hillside, and along with the smell of dry grass and aging lupines, Will caught the buttery, sugary odor of baked squash. His stomach rumbled traitorously, and his mind joined in the rebellion, suggesting that there would also be roast turkey and mashed potatoes and pies. Ma’am made such good pies. Gosh, he was hungry. He sure wished Ben would hurry up.
Will caught sight of a flashing glimmer, like a trout leaping from a still pond. He quickly lifted his field glasses back to his eyes.
An automobile emerged from the dark cluster of oaks that hid the road leading to the Edwards’ homestead. But not just any automobile. Will recognized it instantly as a Pierce Arrow—a 66-QQ. It was the biggest one they made, the six-passenger touring style. The gleaming chrome trim against the elegant french gray enamel, the bright-polished dark wood of the spoke wheels, the smooth blackness of the Panasote top … what a honey of a machine! And if all that weren’t enough, it was next year’s model, a 1911. It would have to have been special ordered—and it must have cost a mint.
The car came to a luxuriant surcease before the house’s front porch. The driver was first out of the car on the right hand side. A tall, heavily-built man, he wore green-tinted brass goggles and a long motoring overcoat that brushed the tops of his mirror-polished black boots.
Well, well. If it isn’t the Congressman, Will watched as his brother Argus peeled off his dogskin driving gloves. Celebrating his victory with a big new car, and so proud of it that he won’t even stand for a driver.
The really hilarious thing was that Argus had run his recent campaign as “California’s Man of the People,” with the press always running pictures of him shaking hands earnestly with laboring types in grimy overalls. The voters of California had swallowed that bunch of guff hook, line, and sinker, electing him to the U.S. House of Representatives just the past September. Will found himself wishing he had a camera right now. He’d send those papers some pictures! California’s Big Goddamn Show-Off would be the headline.
And I just bet he’s going to insist on being called “the honorable,” Will thought. Pft! As if!
He watched as Argus came around to open the door for the well-dressed woman in the front passenger seat; Lillie, his wife. Lillie’s hat emerged from the car first, her face swathed in taupe gauze to protect her from the environmental hazards of motoring. She was also positively smothered in furs. Though the day had grown hot, they would have had to have left San Francisco in the chill of dawn to motor the entire eighty miles to the middle of the Sacramento Valley.
Argus left the passengers in the back seats to shift for themselves while he saw his wife to the porch. Argus had married into an obscene amount of money, and while he suffered no lack of success in his own professional and political ventures, he was always mindful to keep that particular slice of toast butter-side up.
How lovely it must be to be the honorable Argus Edwards! Everything in life handed to him on a silver plate. Well, there was one thing he wasn’t going to get … his baby brother, the gearhead squirt, sure as hell wasn’t going to show up fawning over his new car, no matter how amazing it clearly was. No sir!
Fuming, Will watched the passengers emerging from the back seats. First out was another of Will’s brothers, Laddie. Unlike Argus and Lillie, he was not kitted out in motoring togs, but wore his customary well-tailored suit. Upon getting out of the car, he was quick to open his gold cigarette case and light a smoke. He did this with the air of elegant desperation that he did most things.
Next, a very large older man unfolded himself from what must have been a very cramped middle seat. He quickly vanished beneath the shady overhang of the broad porch, where Will’s mother had come out to greet the new arrivals, wiping her hands on her apron before extending them in welcome.
Will’s heart sank as he watched the final passenger emerge from the automobile, for it was clearly not Ben. But disappointment gave way to curiosity as Will noted the many extremely fascinating ways in which the passenger differed. This “not-Ben” was a girl, about his age, with long wavy brown hair held back in a red satin schoolgirl’s bow. When she removed her light canvas motoring duster, he saw that she wore a neat embroidered shirtwaist and a navy skirt trimmed in white cord.
Everyone else had gone into the house, leaving her alone in the quiet, lowering twilight. Breathing deeply, she stretched. It was a languorous, cat-like movement that made Will’s heart thump. Gosh. She was even prettier than the car. Was she one of Lillie’s society friends, maybe? Or what if she was here with Laddie, one of his empty-headed conquests? Oh, that would be just terrible, if Laddie had taken to preying on innocent schoolgirls now. Will was simply dying to find out.
But … no! Will dropped his field binoculars and sat back in the grass. Ben hadn’t come, and that was that. He’d promised himself he wouldn’t give any of them the time of day, and he wouldn’t. Wasn’t like he was missing anything except a tedious evening with brothers he already knew … his witchly Ma’am chanting her fussy little kitchen spells to make sure all the food stayed hot … his Uncle Royce, who had the most disquieting way of appearing suddenly at one’s elbow when one least expected it … and Father …
He stood up and righted his bicycle. He slung his heavy leather tool satchel (he never went anywhere without it) across his back. Pask’s doors were always open to him, and the de la Guerras would surely be fixing up a good dinner too. In honor of the holiday they’d probably even crack open a bottle of old Spanish wine. They’d get up a game of pinochle and listen to their brand new Teslaphone—they were the first in the whole county to have bought one.
But then again …
Will stood astride his bicycle, looking back down the hill. The girl had gone inside. He wondered what her name was.
It wouldn’t hurt to find out.
Yes, that was it. He wanted to meet the girl. That was a fair reason for a red-blooded American boy. He wasn’t going home to fawn over Argus’ car, that much he promised himself. It wasn’t because he could smell the pies all the way up here. And it certainly wasn’t because there was still a small piece of his mind that he hadn’t yet given his father.
No. It was to meet the girl.
Kicking off, he coasted down the grassy hill toward home.
Will left his tool satchel on the screened back porch and crept in through the mud room just off the kitchen. He was hoping to avoid notice, and with the kitchen in such a state, that wasn’t hard. Pots bubbled and steamed, china and silverware clanked. Potatoes were being mashed, vegetables creamed, gravy stirred. It was like the engine room of a battleship about to engage a hostile fleet. A dozen itinerant girls—charity cases from all up and down the West Coast that his soft-hearted Ma’am took in and employed—worked under her watchful eye. There were so many of them, and in such constant rotation, that it was flat-impossible to keep their names straight. Will had adopted the tactic of calling them all “Maisy” and accepting whatever good-natured or sharp-tongued correction might ensue.
The final turkey had just come out of the oven (there were three birds in all, each twenty pounds if it was an ounce, each shot by Nate in the thick oak groves along the Sacramento River) and preparations were being made for the food’s distribution to various destinations. One turkey would go to the German family who ran the farm, one would go to the charity girls, and the last—the largest—would be served to the family. The birds that had been roasted earlier were covered with large chargers laid over with folded wool blankets that shimmered slightly; his Ma’am’s sorcerous handiwork would keep the birds at the perfect temperature indefinitely.
Surreptitiously lifting one of the covers, Will picked off a piece of turkey meat. Then, licking his fingers, he snuck up behind his mother—who had not yet noticed his arrival—and laid an indifferent peck on her cheek.
“Hi,” he grunted.
“Will!” Ma’am whirled and seized him. She showered him with kisses as if she hadn’t seen him in months. “I’m so glad you came back. Were you over at Pask’s? I was worried about you!”
“Aw, what are you worrying about me for?” He didn’t like to worry his Ma’am. And even though he was still a little mad at her for her implicit support of Father’s birthday presents, her rosy round cheeks and the good-humored glint in her violet eyes made it hard to stay so. Even though her skin was wrinkled and her hair was losing the battle to remain chestnut-colored, she always seemed younger than the girls who surrounded her.
“You and your father had an awful bust-up,” Ma’am said. She laid a soft, warm hand on his cheek—the one she called her “reading” hand. It possessed some kind of special magical sensitivity that Will had never really understood the extent of. She held it there for a moment until he felt compelled to shy away like an impatient colt. “But I figured you’d both do with some cooling off. If I’d really wanted you I would have Sent for you.”
Will shuddered inwardly but said nothing. All the Edwards boys hated being Sent for by their witchly mother. It wasn’t that it was painful (unless she was really mad)—it was just … well, what fellow wanted his mother poking her nose into his head? Especially when you were eighteen?
And on the subject of thoughts he probably would have preferred his mother not intrude on, Will tried not to look at one girl in particular—the brunette girl who had arrived in Argus’ car and was now helping out in the kitchen. She had been given a large white apron to put over her stylish costume and had been set to rolling biscuits.
“Some motorcar the Congressman has got,” Will offered with casual malice. Ma’am smirked at the jibe, and then, just as abruptly, frowned.
“And do you know that they’ve left Kendall at home with the nurse, just so Argus could drive that silly motorcar?” She tossed her silver-threaded curls with outrage. “They didn’t think he’d stand the trip. I’ve only got one grandchild, and I never even get to see him!”
Will said nothing. Ma’am loved babies, and being deprived of one was an everlasting misery—but the absence of his infant nephew (who Will remembered as red-faced and screaming at the indignity of being swaddled in an extravagant confection of linen and lace) was, to him, a matter of supreme indifference. He was more interested in another absence.
“So Ben isn’t going to make it?”
Ma’am shook her head. “I guess something came up.” She quickly seized a nearby bowl as if its contents were in urgent need of stirring. Ma’am was never any good at hiding anything—especially hurt. When she was happy, her face looked young; but when she was sad, she looked very old. Desperate to cheer her, Will wrapped his arms around her and hugged her off balance, roaring like a bear. Ma’am whooped and tried not to spill the contents of the bowl.
“But I have a letter from him!” she added brightly, as if that made up for everything. Which it didn’t, but Ben was great at writing letters; breezy, fascinating and suggestive. Ben wrote very interestingly about things that weren’t very interesting. His letters were like cotton-candy; thrilling and sweet, and you could eat a whole lot, but when you got right down to it there really wasn’t much there. And if you ate too much, you’d probably get sick.
Of course, Will had been able to form his opinions only from the bits and pieces of Ben’s letters that other family members shared with him, because Ben had never written him. Not a single solitary word. Ever.
Will, on the other hand, wrote to Ben quite often, in care of the famous Stanton Institute in New York City, where Ben had been employed for many years. He wrote him about his life, his disappointments, his hopes. He came to think of his letters to Ben almost like a kind of diary. You wrote in it, you shared secrets with it, but you never expected it to give anything in return. But still, Will had asked Ma’am about it once, asked why she reckoned Ben never wrote him back.
“He’s probably just thinking of what to say,” she’d said. “Someday you’ll hear from him.”
Will doubted it. And Ben’s failure to show up at Thanksgiving seemed only to confirm that suspicion. Even so, writing to Ben had become an ingrained habit, and Will was already thinking of what he would write about the girl who was rolling biscuits. Ma’am smiled slyly when she saw how scrupulously Will was avoiding looking at their guest.
“Don’t you two remember each other?” she asked, adopting a very proper tone. “I guess it has been a long time. William Edwards, this is Miss Jenny Hansen. Miss Jenny Hansen, this is my youngest son, William.”
Jenny Hansen smirked, dusting flour off her hands so she could extend one in his direction. Suddenly, Will felt even more suckered than he had by Argus’ car. At least Argus’ car wouldn’t laugh at him.
“Jenny Hansen?” he squeaked. Holy Moses. He should have lit out for Pask’s! He wondered if there was still time to escape.
“Of course he doesn’t remember me, Mrs. Edwards,” Jenny said, withdrawing her hand when Will failed to take it. “It’s all those rocks I shied at his head when we were kids.”
“I remember you, Scuff.” He used the nickname he’d given her years ago, a testament to her perpetually scraped knees. “It’s just I remember you all scrawny and homely and knock-kneed, and now, well …” Will trailed off irritably. Damn it, he’d meant it as a dig and it hadn’t come out right at all.
“Hasn’t she gotten pretty?” Ma’am put an arm around Jenny and pressed a little kiss to the side of her forehead. “She and her dad came down from San Francisco with Argus and Laddie.”
Will’s mouth went dry. So that was who’d been crammed in the middle seat of Argus’ car—of course! Mr. Dagmar Hansen, one of Ma’am’s oldest friends. How could he have failed to recognize him? He was, after all, probably the largest man Will had ever seen in his life.
It was one thing to see a cute girl and want to get her number; it was quite another to discover that the cute girl was Jenny Hansen, and that her enormous father was on the scene to keep a sharp eye on her interests. Or a sharp eye on anyone else who had his eye on her interests.
“Will, take these out to the table,” Ma’am said, shoving a bowl of mixed nuts into his hands. “Then go say hello to Mr. Hansen. Jenny, finish up those biscuits and then you can run along too, we’ve got plenty of help …”
Ma’am’s last words were lost as Will made his escape from the kitchen. He sullenly deposited the bowl of nuts onto the groaning table, then braced himself to be sacrificed upon the altar of the Edwards’ family gaiety. His entrance into the family room would be heralded with baying cries of welcome; the joyous cries of predators having sighted a small animal they can harry. Will’s brothers took harrying Will very seriously. They had elevated it to an art form. A late baby, Will was much younger than all of them—Laddie was the closest to him in age, but even he was a whole decade older than Will—so they all felt justified in taking a very stern fatherly tone toward him at the drop of a hat. Having all suffered under their Father’s stern paternal tone, they found it great fun to use on their baby brother. It was like being trapped in a house with multiple Fathers, each of whom could whip him.
The large family room was a ground floor suite just off the garden, originally designed for a resident mother-in-law. There were no mothers-in-law in the Edwards family, but it was said the suite of rooms had been inhabited once, by a superannuated Grandpap—the one Nate had been named for. But that old man died long before Will was born, and of him Will knew only that he’d come from up the mountains, and had brought a lot of cats with him, the descendents of which still hunted mice under the grain-bins in the barn. After his death, the suite’s sitting room had been set up with sofas and tables, lamps and a piano (usually plied by one of Ma’am’s charity cases, as none of the Edwards’ were at all musical)—all the comforts required for a cozy family evening. Books were conspicuous in their absence, but that was because all the books were kept in the next room, Father’s study. The high walls of that sumptuous cave were lined with them, floor to ceiling.
But the door to the study was closed, which meant that Father was presiding within. In the family room, Laddie and Lillian were making themselves comfortable. The only liquor in the Edwards’ house was Father’s old scotch kept under lock and key, so Laddie had withdrawn his own capacious silver flask and was mixing up impromptu cocktails for himself and Lillie. It was whispered among Ma’am’s girls that Lillie was “fast”—she drank and smoked and wore cosmetics (“and not just powder either!” Will remembered one girl’s shocked assertion.) And while Argus was her husband, rumor had it that Laddie was the only one who could keep her in line. Will wondered how a fast, unmanageable wife was supposed to fit into Argus’ expansive political plans; but on the other hand she was rich, and her family well-connected, so maybe that outweighed everything else.
“Good afternoon, William!” Laddie drawled, tapping a cigarette against the gold case. “Turned yourself in, have you?”
Laddie was unquestionably the handsomest of the Edward boys, dark and slim and elegant. As usual, he was dressed exquisitely—not in honor of the holiday, but because looking good seemed to be the sole moral imperative he upheld.
“Hullo,” Will mumbled. “Where’s Argus?”
“He’s in with the men,” Laddie said archly, nodding toward the library door. By “men,” of course, Laddie meant Father and Mr. Hansen and Uncle Royce. It was clear Laddie did not include himself in that description, nor Nate (whom Will had completely failed to notice brooding in the corner.) And certainly not Will.
Will wondered where Ben would stand in that equation. Ben would likely stand outside the equation entirely. Not a man, not a boy … Ben was like a different species.
“We waited for Ben at Union Station,” Laddie said. He had the most disquieting talent for knowing the drift of his brothers’ thoughts, and voicing them when they otherwise would not have. “But he wasn’t on the train. I suppose he decided against it at the last minute. I must say, I was really hoping for a reconciliation, at least a temporary one. Watching them fight it all out again would have been such fun.”
Will said nothing. Ben’s fight with Father was legendary within the family for its rancorous protraction, and in comparison, Will’s own fight with Father was merely a candle held up to the sun. Ma’am had traveled to New York a few times, hoping to effect a reconciliation, but even she had ultimately given up. Ben now existed within the family only on paper, in the extended letters he wrote to everyone but Father and Will.
“Of course, I hear you’re doing your best to step into Ben’s shoes and give us all a wonderful show,” Laddie looked at Will over the rim of his highball glass. “I hope you thought up some really good cutting remarks while you were hiding out at Pask de la Guerra’s house. I’m expecting nothing but the best.”
Will didn’t say anything. He knew that the best defense against his brothers was surly silence.
“Speaking of Ben, I had a letter from him just the other day,” Laddie said. “Full of the most scandalous gossip about people I’ve never heard of. He managed to make it more fascinating than scandalous gossip about people I know intimately. I call that quite a skill.”
“Hi, Nate.” Will turned his attention to his brooding brother in the corner. Nate’s arms were crossed and he was staring at the floor, frowning deeply. Nate loved only one thing—horses. Everything else he hated. He hated being inside, he hated wearing clothes that weren’t soiled with manure, and he especially hated being taken away from his chores for something as ridiculous as a family gathering.
Nate did not answer, didn’t even look up. After a pause, Will said, “Sorrel mare again?”
Nate nodded, keeping his dark steady gaze fixed on the carpet at his feet. “One of the hands left the bar off the stable again. I swear to God, if I find the man who did it, I’ll have his hide for a new pair of mucking boots. She got down into the south pasture and ate a bellyful of clover and now she’s got the slobbers.”
“I thought clover was good for them,” Lillie said, but her tone indicated that she couldn’t be less interested if she tried.
“Most horses tolerate it fine,” Nate allowed. “But one bite and that poor sorrel goes crazy. We have to put up hay for her special with no clover in it.”
“My goodness, I wish Cook would take that kind of care with our dinners!” Lillie smirked sidelong at Laddie. “I believe she goes out of her way to miss the bones in the fish she serves us.”
If he was Argus and Lillie’s cook, Will mused, he’d probably put extra bones in their fish in the hopes that they’d choke on one. But he refrained from giving voice to this sentiment.
“And no matter how much care Nate takes with that sorrel mare, she still gets into the clover every time,” Laddie said, as he handed the cocktail to Lillie. “One might come to the conclusion that she hasn’t the slightest idea what’s good for her.”
“Stupid beast,” Lillie said, giving the words strange emphasis. Will had no idea what to make of it. Laddie, on the other hand, knew exactly, and he and Lillie punctuated whatever opaque joke they’d made by clinking their glasses together. Will had never really understood what kind of relationship existed between his two brothers and this woman. Honestly, he was kind of glad he didn’t.
“She’s not stupid,” Nate flared, but not at anyone in particular. Once he’d said it, he turned his eyes back to the carpet and sank deeper into his own thoughts, from which, Will knew, it would be nearly impossible to pull him. Of all his brothers—the brothers he knew, the brothers who were more to him than mere abstraction—Will felt most akin to Nate. They both understood what it was to live with an overwhelming, obsessive interest—Nate for horses, Will for mechanical devices. How those obsessions were received, however, could not have been more different. Because while Nate’s passion was in neat alignment with the family’s interests (or, more to the point, Father’s interests, as his renown as a breeder of the finest Morgans on the West Coast was largely due to Nate’s zealous efforts) Father had been able to find no similar value in Will.
“Have you seen Jenny?” Lillie pinned Will with her suggestive green eyes. They were indeed, Will noticed, faintly rimmed with kohl. She rattled the ice in her glass, which was Laddie’s cue to quickly take it from her hand and begin mixing her another.
“Yes, I saw her,” Will said carefully. There was a trap in that question, and he wanted to be ready to jump out of the way.
“She was so excited to see you,” Lillie purred. “The little chatterbox was positively bursting with questions about you on the way out.”
“Questions about me?” Will frowned, determined not to reveal his interest. If they suspected he cared, the information was sure to be withheld.
“Oh yes,” Lillie said. “But honestly, Will, you mustn’t get your hopes up. She really has to hold out for a partner in a brokerage, at least.” She lowered her voice a conspiratorial shade. “Her father has done all right by her, given that he’s just one corked boot out of the mountains. He’s put her into Miss Murison’s, you know, and everyone there seems to just love her. They find her so sprightly and queer and interesting. And so full of opinions.” She dangled this last word in front of Laddie with a tantalizing smirk; he rolled his eyes and released an extravagant sigh.
At that moment the door to Father’s library opened, and the men came rumbling out. First through the door were Argus and Uncle Royce, engaged in brisk, close conversation about a political rally scheduled to be held in San Francisco that Sunday—a rally Argus was going to give a speech at, or sell peanuts at, or something. Mr. Hansen and Father followed behind. Mr. Hansen moved with the slow dignity of the rich, amiable, and well-fed, still smoking one of the cigars that the “men” had clearly been enjoying in the library. Father limped alongside him with his customary stiffness, his game leg (injured in a long-ago riding accident and never properly healed) making a faint scuffing sound on the carpet. Mr. Hansen and Father were of a height, but where Father was stick-slim, Mr. Hansen loomed like one of the enormous hundred-year trees his fortune had been built on, the old giants that took fifteen men to saw down.
Father and Mr. Hansen saw Will at the same time. When Father saw Will, his face changed. The look that passed over it, Will decided, was disapproval. It was a subtle shift, but Will was always aware of it. Mr. Hansen’s face, on the other hand, brightened in a broad smile.
“Why, look who’s here! Will!” Mr. Hansen clapped a heavy hand on Will’s back, and Will had to struggle to keep his feet. Mr. Hansen was a very old and dear friend of Ma’am’s—and just as Ma’am had always wished for a daughter, Mr. Hansen had always wished for a son. It was the one thing Will could say for himself, that of all the Edwards litter, Mr. Hansen probably would have picked him for his own.
“How you been keeping?”
“Fine, Mr. Hansen,” Will said.
“You seen my girl Jenny? She came out with me special. That girl has the biggest crush on you—”
“Dad!” Jenny screeched from across the room, having entered just in time to hear these intolerable words proceed from her father’s lips. Her face was beet red. “I said had a crush. Had. When I was ten years old! For pity’s sake!”
Mr. Hansen stuck his tongue out at her, a bizarre expression for a titan of commerce. With a smile, he gestured for Will to follow him out to the verandah, where he could finish his cigar. The evening had cooled, and mellow golden light hung over the back garden, Ma’am’s pride. Late-season chrysanthemums nodded over the neat river-gravel pathways, their scent mingling with the smell of cigar smoke. Mr. Hansen breathed appreciatively. “Your mother,” he sighed.
Then, turning his attention back to Will: “So, congratulations are in order. I hear you graduated at the top of your class!”
Will shrugged indifferently. He’d graduated from the California Polytechnic High School in June, but his pride in the accomplishment had been overshadowed by the disappointment he’d suffered since. When he’d come home at the beginning of the summer, after three years living almost three hundred miles away from home in the school’s dormitory in San Luis Obispo, he’d felt like an independent man. Now he just felt like a bitter, thwarted boy.
“Still going on to study engineering?” Mr. Hansen rubbed a flake of tobacco from his lip then spat into a flowerbed. Even though he was now one of the richer men in San Francisco—a town that did not want for rich men—he still retained the manners of his early years in a rough-and-tumble logging-camp in the Sierras. “Lots of opportunity in that line for a wide-awake young man.”
“I think there is,” Will said. He did not add the rest, even if some others around here don’t. His father might not think so, but Will was capable of tact when he chose to exercise it. Mr. Hansen was a good, honest man and Will wanted his respect. He wished he could talk to Mr. Hansen about the apprenticeship he’d been offered. If Mr. Hansen was his father, Will betted he’d let him go to Detroit.
“Yes, it is a fine little machine … it will be just the thing for weekend outings when my duties allow me to return home from Washington.” Argus’ voice boomed from inside the house. “Of course, I wouldn’t dream of taking it out to Washington with me. Taft, you know, ordered a pair of last year’s models for state cars—official automobile of the White House—and it wouldn’t do for a freshman Congressman to show up the president.” A pause, during which Will imagined Argus taking a deep, ego-inflating breath. “It’s got a six stroke engine, so my mechanic tells me. He also told me something quite astonishing about its disbursement, but I can’t quite remember what it was he said. It’s quite low, or quite high, whatever it’s supposed to be.”
“Dual valve six, sixty-six horsepower, 714 cubic-inches of displacement,” Will muttered to himself. He did not mutter low enough for his words to escape Mr. Hansen’s notice; the man chuckled and ground the stub of his cigar under his heel. He bent his head toward Will’s and spoke in a conspiratorial tone:
“Just between you and me, he had to have that same mechanic start the car for him before we left San Francisco. I don’t know what he thinks we’ll do when it’s time to go back. Ask for your help, I reckon.”
Will didn’t smile. “Well, why shouldn’t he? I am the Edwards’ family mechanic, after all.”
Mr. Hansen clapped him on the shoulder sympathetically. Apparently he’d heard about the fight between Will and his father, because he did not ask for details.
“Cheer up. Things may turn out differently than you expect. You’re eighteen. You’ve got a lot of life ahead of you. You’ve got plenty of time.”
“It doesn’t feel that way,” Will said.
“It never does,” Mr. Hansen grinned. “But you know what they say. Haste makes waste.” He paused, sniffing the air. “And hunger makes the best sauce. You’d think that mother of yours would have dinner on the table by now! Let’s see what’s keeping the old girl.”
Indeed, dinner was about ready to be served, and everyone was milling just outside the formal dining room, waiting to take their seats. There were to be ten at the main table; the charity-case girls (under the efficient organization of Ma’am’s current right-hand girl … what was her name, Maisy?) had taken their turkey and side dishes out to the bunkhouse. The German family who oversaw most of the farm’s operation had likewise retired to their own quarters, where they would feed not only their own large clan of sons and daughters, but also those ranch hands who hadn’t gone into Sacramento or Stockton for a long weekend carouse. They would have a merry evening, and there would be dancing later. Will half wished he was eating with them.
But he was eating in the big house, in the high-ceilinged formal dining room, surrounded by fussy antiques. Father and Ma’am had bought the house forty years ago, fully furnished in the overblown fashion of those days, and they had never quite gotten around to redoing it. The formal dining room (used only for occasions like this) was painted in a sepulchral shade of blood red, with garish gold trim and swagged velvet curtains. The black walnut dining table, which had been brought around the cape on a clipper ship, could easily seat thirty (with all the leaves in) and weighed at least ten thousand pounds (so Ma’am swore, whenever she tried to move the damn thing.)
Tonight it was laid with crisp ironed linens and the best crystal and china. As a finishing touch, Ma’am had lit the room with magic, fashioning softly glowing spirit orbs that hovered over the table like soap-bubbles, trembling gently with each breath of air. Will remembered how she’d used to make these on summer nights when he was much younger. How she would gather magic between her hands, shaping it like bread dough, murmuring rhymes to intensify the glow.
Of course, the delight of seeing the room lit with spirit orbs was diminished by Will’s realization that she’d probably made them because he hadn’t started up the generator—and no one had dared ask him to. He rather wished someone had, just so he could have had the pleasure of telling them no. But then again, the dining room did look pretty in the soft golden light; it was much less harsh than the bare electric bulbs.
Ma’am had outdone herself. The smell of food made Will’s mouth water, and the beauty of the table took his breath away. He felt a twinge of sadness, followed by a little flicker of anger. Why had Ben let Ma’am get her hopes up, anyway? She wouldn’t have gone to such lengths if she hadn’t thought he was coming home.
Will’s thoughts were interrupted by a soft plucking at his elbow. He tensed; he knew that pluck. It was Uncle Royce. Damn him, couldn’t he at least have the decency to wear heavier shoes?
Will turned in time to see his uncle’s back retreating in the direction of the grand entry alcove—an unspoken indication that Will was to follow. Will always had wondered what would happen if he simply did not follow Uncle Royce when the man summoned him in such a perfunctory fashion. But he’d never actually attempted the experiment. Like Father, Uncle Royce maintained an air of command. Both brothers expected to be obeyed unquestioningly, and as such, no one ever questioned that they should follow. It was the only trait they had in common; otherwise one would never guess they’d shared the same parents.
Uncle Royce was a mantic consultant in San Francisco. He lived in an old butter-yellow house on Nob Hill—a house, in fact, that was more famous than he was. After the cataclysm of 1906, every home on Nob Hill had burnt to the ground. All except one—Uncle Royce’s butter-yellow house. It was the talk of the town in the months after; a popular song had even been written about it. Will had always suspected Laddie’s hand in that. Laddie moved in circles that included musical people, and Uncle Royce had been so amusingly vexed by hearing the jaunty air spilling out of every Victrola from the Mission to the Bay, that if Laddie had had a hand in it, it was a matchless coup. All the brothers enjoyed vexing Uncle Royce. All of them, apparently, except one.
“I’ve had a letter from your brother Ben,” Uncle Royce said, in a low voice, once they were in the entryway. “He says you’re still upset about Detroit.”
Will recalled the bitter, passionate letter he’d written to Ben after his fight with Father. Of course he was still upset. But at the moment, he was more astonished by the fact that his brother had mentioned him—that he was a topic of discussion. Did Ben mention him to other members of the family, too? Did he tell them what he wrote in his letters? The very idea sent a chill of embarrassment through him.
“He is worried about you,” Uncle Royce continued, when Will did not speak. “He thinks you might do something foolish.”
“Foolish?” Will snorted. Like try and drive Pask’s jalopy two-thousand miles cross-country, as he’d imagined he might? But of course he didn’t say this, because that did sound foolish. Instead, he drew himself up and attempted to speak with manly dignity. “Uncle Royce, all I want is to go to Detroit and take the apprenticeship that Tesla Industries has offered me—and honestly, if I can figure out a way to accomplish that, foolish or not, then Ben is right to be worried.”
Uncle Royce closed his eyes wearily. When he opened them, though, his gaze was keener than before.
“William. Like it or not, your father is completely correct. Tesla Industries is the wrong place for you right now.”
“Why?” Will pounced on the words before they were out of his uncle’s mouth, for they were the very same words he’d heard from Father.
Uncle Royce paused, clearly formulating a careful response. When he finally spoke, however, all he said was, “Do you recall a book I once gave you for your birthday? The Adventures of Pinocchio?”
As if he could forget! Uncle Royce’s birthday presents were a grim joke among the brothers. He always bought the most unwelcome gifts, as though he studied the boy and purchased the things he was least likely to enjoy. For Laddie it was always sporting equipment. For stay-at-home Nate, theater tickets. For Will, who never could stand reading … books. And what books! Uncle Royce had a knack for finding the most queer and disturbing children’s books in existence, of which, in Will’s opinion, The Adventures of Pinocchio ranked near the top.
“Which part are you suggesting I recall?” Will lifted a cool eyebrow. “The Fairy with the Turquoise Hair, or the Terrible Dogfish?”
“The Land of Toys,” Uncle Royce replied pointedly. “Where boys are lured in by their own base impulses and transformed into asses.”
“Base impulses!” Will barked. “I’m not chasing a showgirl or going to work for a whiskey manufacturer. I want to work. To learn.”
“Whether it’s a desire for whiskey or a desire for learning, when you use it as an excuse to hurt everyone around you, then it’s a base impulse,” Uncle Royce hissed.
“Will! Royce!” Ma’am’s voice shrilled from the dining room. “What are you waiting for? Come in and sit down, we’re all ready to eat!”
“I haven’t hurt anyone,” Will returned furiously, hardly registering his mother’s call. “I’m the one that’s been hurt. I’m the one whose future is being ruined—”
“Oh, for God’s sake, there really is no talking to you,” Uncle Royce interrupted, exasperated. He thrust a hand inside his coat pocket and pulled out an envelope. Will’s eyes narrowed suspiciously as he looked at it.
“I’ve been asked to give this to you,” Uncle Royce said. “It’s a letter. From Ben.”
Will blinked astonishment. A letter from Ben? For him? He reached out to snatch it, but before he could, Uncle Royce lifted it away.
“You’re on a dangerous course, young man,” he said. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Seizing the letter, Will tucked it safely away.
“Will, you come sit by Jenny,” Ma’am said when he came in, as if putting him next to Jenny would make up for the fact that he’d be sitting next to Father as well. Neither Will nor his father so much as looked at each other as they passed their plates around. When Will’s was passed back to him, mounded with good food, he could only pick at it. While everyone else ate cheerfully, their end of the table was suffocated in grim silence.
Between bites he could barely taste, Will snuck sullen looks at his father, just waiting for the old man to broach a subject, any subject. Having just spoken with Uncle Royce, he was once again struck by how different the brothers were. Uncle Royce was compact, with dark hair and dark eyes and a fair complexion that didn’t turn at sun or wind. Perhaps father had once been pale like that; but even though he had always left the hard labor of the horse farm to his hired men—and later to Nate—he was as bronzed as if he spent every day in the saddle. His hair might once have been dark, but now there was as much silver in it as a Reno mine.
“Well, Jenny,” Father cleared his throat, which Will always understood to mean that he was preparing to say something tedious. “How are you liking Miss Murison’s? I am told it is quite a good school, as girls’ schools go.”
“I enjoy it very much, Mr. Edwards,” Jenny said, the picture of politeness. Elbows off the table, back straight, eyes on Father like he had asked her the most fascinating question in the world. Whatever else could be said of Miss Murison’s, it had certainly had a civilizing influence on the scuff-kneed girl Will had once been friends with.
“Are there any subjects of particular interest to you?”
“I am most interested in applied mathematics,” Jenny said. “Quantitative analysis, statistics, that kind of thing. Lately I have been studying the works of Louis Bachelier. Have you ever heard of him, Mr. Edwards?”
Father’s brow knit thoughtfully. “I can’t say that I have.”
Jenny’s face fell ever so slightly. “Oh well, very few people have.” Then, as if remembering some particular of training from Miss Murison’s, she gave a pretty giggle and picked up her fork with an elegant movement. “Quantitative analysis isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, I suppose.”
Father did not comment, but cut a slice of turkey into a precise shape and dabbed it into the gravy. After a long silence, Jenny attempted another conversational sally, this time towards Will.
“I was wondering, William,” she began, rather formally, “When I was helping your mother in the kitchen, I happened to see a very large wooden crate behind the house. What’s in it?”
Will glanced daggers at his father. It couldn’t have been a more perfect—and dangerous—question if she’d been coached to it. Because the big wooden crate contained Will’s third birthday present.
“It is a new electric power plant,” Father answered. “The one we currently have is underpowered and antiquated. This new one is large enough to power the house and the barns and all of the outbuildings. It is, by all accounts, an exceptionally fine piece of equipment. We expected that Will would find it fascinating.”
Will pushed potatoes around on his plate. The fact that Father was right—that the power plant was top of the line, and under other circumstances he would have been thrilled at the prospect of setting it up, rewiring all the old farm buildings, making the genie of electricity dance beneath his fingertips—cut no ice.
“Oh sure.” Will muttered. “Just what every boy wants for a birthday present.”
“But you’ve always been interested in machines,” Jenny ventured.
“I tell you what I’m not interested in,” Will said, feeling heat rise up under his collar. “I’m not interested in getting stuck here in California as the Edwards’ family mechanic.”
“That wasn’t the intention of the gift,” Father said mildly. The conversation was drifting onto treacherous shoals. Will didn’t care. In fact, he was glad of it.
“I know exactly what the intention of the gift was,” Will said. “It was supposed to make me feel better about not going to Detroit. And like I said before, there’s nothing that’s going to do that.”
“Detroit?” Jenny asked. “What’s in Detroit?”
“You know Tesla Industries, right?” Will said.
“Of course!” Jenny said. “Who doesn’t? All the kids in San Francisco are just mad for their wireless musical cabinets. Teslaphones beat Victrolas all cold, not having to buy discs.”
“Teslaphones are just toys compared to what Tesla Industries is really doing,” Will snapped his fingers for emphasis. “Tesla Industries is the leading center of Otherwhere research in the country—in the whole world. They’ve got an apprenticeship program that only accepts a tiny number of applicants every year. One of my teachers at the Polytechnic put me up for it … and they offered me a slot.”
“That’s wonderful!” Jenny gasped and clapped her hands together.
“Yeah, isn’t it?” Will shot an acid glare at his father. “At least, it would be, if I could go. But it’s been decided that it’s not in my best interests, you see. I’ve got a power plant to rig up, after all—”
“Really, Will, do we have to go over this again?” his father said wearily. “Now? At the dinner table?”
“We can talk about it anywhere you like. All I want is one reason for not letting me take the apprenticeship.”
“I have already given you several—”
“One good reason,” Will spoke over him.
Father lifted his hand wearily, raising a single finger. He looked at Will long and hard. “Traveling two thousand miles away from home and putting yourself under the complete control of a man like Nikola Tesla is idiotic.”
“He won the Nobel Prize last year!”
“I didn’t say he wasn’t a genius,” Father said. “But even geniuses—especially geniuses—can surround themselves with the wrong kinds of people. His company’s policies regarding secrecy and privacy and the abdication of rights on the part of his contracted employees are completely outrageous. Did you even read the apprenticeship contract, Will?”
Will was hot with indignation. “Of course I did!” he said, even though he actually hadn’t, as that document had been a hundred and thirty-two pages long and printed in very small type. But he had very diligently skimmed it.
“Then perhaps you simply failed to notice that they do not allow you to have any contact with your family? Indeed, with anyone outside the program at all?”
“Surely they’re doing research that could make them millions of dollars, Mr. Edwards,” Jenny said, wide-eyed. “Of course they must be secretive. They have to protect their intellectual property, don’t they?”
“I suppose they do, Jenny,” Father said, apparently surprised at suddenly finding himself in a two-to-one battle. Will was surprised too, but grateful. “But I would be shocked if their apprentices were made privy to work of such extraordinary value. Rather, I suspect some form of indoctrination—”
“Indoctrination!” Will blazed. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, William,” Father said, in a warning voice, “That corporations … all organizations, as a matter of fact … must compel the loyalty of their workers. In the army, they call it basic training. Tesla Industries probably draws future employees from their pool of apprentices. And so they swear them to this ridiculous secrecy in order to make them feel like part of the group.”
“Well, what’s wrong with that?” Will said. “It sounds wonderful to me! I would be happy to stay as an employee of Tesla Industries.”
“Of course you would!” Father said. “That’s the whole point, Will. Organizations of this type do not give you a choice. You will be happy to be an employee because they will make you happy. They will make you part of a machine. Your ability to think for yourself will be reduced to what is good for the company.”
“Yes, unlike here, where my ability to think for myself is reduced to what’s good for the family,” Will shot back.
Father sighed. “Will, I know how intelligent you are, and how talented. But as I have said, I do not believe Tesla Industries is a good place for you. Not right now.”
“Mr. Waters can vouch for the program personally!” Once again, Will attempted to invoke the name of Herman Bierce Waters, M.E., Vice-Director of the California Polytechnic, whose strong recommendation had gotten him the apprenticeship. “He would hardly do that if it wasn’t completely trustworthy!”
“Mr. Waters’ assessment is immaterial,” Father said, icily. Then, clearly searching for a way to pour oil on troubled waters, he said: “How about a compromise. If you will wait until the spring, we will discuss it again then.”
“They probably won’t even want me anymore by then! Besides, what’s going to be different in the spring than now?”
“Lots of things. The foaling will be done, and—”
“The foaling?” Will was furious now, and everyone at the table was riveted to the awkward scene. “If you’re going to make up excuses, can’t you at least make one up that doesn’t insult the intelligence you claim to believe I possess? Nate’s always taken care of the foaling, and besides that, he’s got two dozen rancheros to help him—and even the greenest one of them is more use than me! There are only two reasons to wait for spring … so that the offer will expire while you keep me under your thumb wiring up your goddamn electrical plant!”
“There is only one reason I need to give you, young man!” Father roared in return, all patience lost. He slammed the table with his fist. “Because I’m your father and I say so!”
“Oh Wordsworth, please don’t yell,” Ma’am said. She always called Father by his despised middle name when she was annoyed with him.
Frowning, Father returned his attention to his dinner plate, responding as he always did when he was annoyed, in a tone mild yet palpably acerbic: “As you wish, my goddess.”
“And you, Will”—Ma’am glared down the table at him, a look sufficient in intensity to make him curl back in his seat—“Your father has made his decision. You’re needed here. We’ll discuss it again in the spring. If they want you now, they’ll want you then. Honestly, a few months isn’t going to make a bit of difference—”
“It makes a lot of difference to me!” Will said, standing abruptly and throwing his napkin down with a melodramatic flourish. “But as usual, what’s important to me is the last thing anyone in this family concerns themselves with!”
“William, sit down.” This, from Uncle Royce. That was the last straw.
“Ben has the right idea,” Will snarled. “About all of you. No wonder he didn’t come home.”
Will stormed off to the barn. He climbed the ladder to the hayloft, then threw himself down on a pile of old feed sacks in a narrow, awkward corner—no good for storing hay—that a much younger Will had appropriated as his own secret fortress.
Everything was just the same as he’d left it when he’d gone away to school three years ago. There were still dozens of dogeared dime novels (now thick with dust) shelved on a pair of milk crates stacked atop each other. There were a lot of Vanguard Girl adventures. Also the Rover Boys, Pluck & Luck, Diamond Dick, several numbers of the Tip Top Weekly, a few Brushfork Banditos—and dozens of editions of the most popular of the pulp series, the True Life Tales of Dreadnought Stanton.
Oddly enough, of all the books on the shelves, only one was actually his. The Adventures of Pinocchio, the gift Uncle Royce had given him on his eighth birthday. He’d hated it from the minute the woodcarver Master Cherry hit the wood with the axe and the wood shrieked in pain. But apparently Father had thought there was something important in Uncle Royce’s gift; enough that he felt compelled to read it to Will. It was a trial for them both, and perhaps one of the only things they’d ever agreed on—they both hated that book as much as Uncle Royce seemed to find it admirable and instructive.
All the other books were Jenny’s, brought out to the farm with her on the summers she’d come to stay. Like every other American kid below the age of dull maturity, she had adored dime novels, detective magazines, adventure serials … anything with a generous helping of adventure and danger. She had been particularly partial to the Dreadnought Stantons, and there were at least four or five new ones of those every year, each more lurid and hair-raising than the last. Jenny found them especially interesting because they were about a real-life person—the warlock Sophos of the Stanton Institute in New York City.
When he and Jenny were kids, the first thing she always did when she came to visit was show him the new books she’d brought. She’d always hoped Will would share her excitement over them.
But Will never could. Reading had always been difficult for him—so difficult that a specialist doctor in Sacramento had been consulted. The doctor had said that Will suffered from a condition called “word blindness.” Will had (and still did) thought the diagnosis silly, for he could see the words just fine. It was just that they tended to slip and slide around, as if he were trying to pick a ball bearing out of a bowl of peeled grapes.
As he’d grown older, Will had learned how to muscle his way through a text—he could hardly have kept up with his classes at the Polytechnic otherwise. But even now, he found reading a tedious, headachy chore.
Not wanting to forestall her own enjoyment, but still wanting to include Will in it, Jenny had come up with the idea of reading the books to him aloud. And this Will had enjoyed very much, because Jenny had a flair for the dramatic. In this way he and “Scuff” had passed many a fine hour.
But he wasn’t a kid anymore, and there was really only one thing up here that now interested him. Reaching past the books, he felt around behind them for the half-empty bottle of rye whiskey he’d hidden up here long ago. Like everything else, it was covered in a layer of dust, but he ignored this as he pulled out the cork with his teeth. He took a pull, finding it no mellower than it had been when he was fifteen, but the harsh burn of the alcohol nicely reinforced his feeling of being unfairly treated and all-around hard used.
“Did you even read the terms of the apprenticeship contract, Will?” he mimicked Father’s voice to himself. He took another swig. “Bastard!”
He threw back a few more angry mouthfuls, but getting plowed was not really what he wanted to do. He suddenly remembered the letter in his pocket—a letter from Ben! He drew it out quickly. It was thin and light in his hand, but at least it was something. First, he examined the seal. Will wouldn’t put it past Uncle Royce to have read the letter before handing it over. But the seal seemed intact, and if it had been steamed the ink would have smudged.
He tore it open quickly. To his surprise—and dismay—it contained only a single sheet of paper. It was a very fine piece of stationery, bordered and engraved with a rampant eagle which had clasped, in its claw, a two-sided scroll. One side of the scroll read “Ex Fide Fortis” on the other side read, “From Faith, Strength.” Beneath the eagle were the words:
The Stanton Institute
New York City
A beautiful piece of paper, clearly swiped from Ben’s employer. But it hardly seemed worth the swiping, for Ben had only written eight words on it:
Dreadnought Stanton 32: “The Warlock’s Curse.” Page 153.
Will puzzled over this for a moment. He knew what the writing referred to, of course; Volume 32 of The True Life Tales of Dreadnought Stanton. Ben didn’t even have to give the volume number. While The Warlock’s Curse had always been one of the lesser-known installments, the fact that Edison Studios had recently selected it as the basis for the first-ever Dreadnought Stanton photoplay had caused it to skyrocket in prominence. The motion picture was to debut with great fanfare on New Year’s Day, and all the movie magazines were filled with news of the production, which was rumored to be the most lavish and expensive Edison had ever undertaken. Even Walnut Grove, the small town nearest the Edwards’ ranch (which didn’t even have a moving picture theater) was plastered with handbills from rival theaters in Sacramento and Stockton advertising the film’s premiere.
The Warlock’s Curse was among the many volumes that Jenny had left behind, and Will located it easily. He pulled it from the shelf and blew dust off it. On the cover was a picture of a young man’s face drawn in two halves—one half that of a nice all-American boy, the other half twisted and sneering, demonic. The picture gave away just about all there was to the plot—the kid on the cover had inherited a family curse or something, and Dreadnought Stanton had to defeat the evil spirit who possessed him.
Will quickly turned to page 153. It was a page of illustration, showing a magical sigil, but with no other explanation. Will flipped back a couple pages and was laboriously scanning the text to try to figure out what part of the story the illustration was in support of, when a voice called from below:
“Hey, you up there?”
It was Jenny. Goddamn it! But of course she knew where to find him, this was where they’d played together as kids. Still, it annoyed him that she assumed she’d find him here—as if nothing about him had changed or ever would change. Why did everyone treat him like that?
“What do you want?” he growled forbiddingly. But Jenny had already climbed the ladder to the hayloft and was settling herself in next to him, taking care with her tidy costume. A shining curl had escaped from the thick mass of hair piled atop her head. Her very presence here seemed outrageous. It was one thing for her to come up here when she was a girl, with scuffed knees and freckles. But now she dressed like a woman and smelled like a woman, and it was a clear violation of every secret hideout code ever written.
Will quickly tucked Ben’s letter into the pulp novel, and shoved them both inside his coat. Jenny didn’t notice, too busy eyeing the dusty bottle of whiskey in his hand.
“Thank God!” She seized it and wrenched out the cork before Will could protest. “I was hoping you’d have a drink. And I wasn’t about to squeeze in between Laddie and Lillie looking for one. Those two are like the stones of the pyramids, you can’t get a piece of paper in between them!”
Will did not comment, but watched Jenny take a long swallow of the rye. She only gagged on it a little, then wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.
“And of course, after you stormed off, your father felt it was his duty to make small talk with me. You ever try to make small talk with your father? Especially when he’s mad?” Jenny shivered at the memory. “Your family tires me out.”
“You too?” Will said. Jenny took another snort, then capped the bottle and settled back comfortably, looking around. “Hasn’t changed much,” was her conclusion. “You’ve still got my books!”
“Yep, it’s like I’m still twelve years old,” Will said bitterly.
“Boy, I sure liked the Dreadnought Stantons.” Jenny looked over the titles, smiling. If she noticed the absence of Volume 32, she didn’t mention it. “You remember the fight we had over those? I wanted to be Admiral Dewey and you gave me a bloody nose.”
Will rolled his eyes. It had been a ridiculous fight. Jenny had been reading him an especially patriotic Stantonade in which the great Sophos was called upon by Congress to investigate the magical theft of a jeweled sword presented to Admiral Dewey by President McKinley. They’d both been so excited by the action in the book that they’d quickly dispensed with Jenny just reading it and went on to playing it out. It had been great fun … until Jenny demanded to play the role of Admiral Dewey. She said it was only fair, because Will had gotten most of the other good parts—but he found the idea so ridiculous he’d been forced to object to it just on principle. She called him a nincompoop. He told her to both “go soak her head” and “dry up.”
Perhaps it was the contradictory nature of these two statements that had made Jenny shove him. Will had shoved her back. And then there had been hair-pulling and fists started to fly, and finally Jenny ran to his mother, crying, her nose bleeding. Ma’am, who tended to be quite democratic about such things, did not scold Will for hitting a girl, or even for hitting someone younger than him. Instead, she had given Jenny a clean rag to staunch the bleeding and then told her if she wanted to be Admiral Dewey she had to keep her guard up. Additionally, she confided that, like the Spanish Pacific fleet, Will had a tendency to leave himself open on the right. Jenny was an apt pupil; the next time she and Will got into a scuffle, she walloped him handily.
“Yeah, I remember.” Will said, watching as Jenny smoothed her serge skirt over her thighs. Her button-top shoes peeked out under the ruffled hem, and his eyes wanted to linger on her slim ankle. He looked away, clearing his throat. “Now, I’ve bought you a drink. So why don’t you go ahead and get lost? I’m sure Ma’am will wonder where you’ve gotten to. Sorry I can’t offer you any Sen-Sen, but there’s peppermint grows just outside the barn door if you want to chew some …”
She frowned at him. “What do you have against me, anyway? We used to have lots of fun together. You got a girl or something, afraid she’ll get mad at you for sitting with me up in the hayloft?”
“No, I don’t have a girl,” Will said. “I’m twelve years old, remember?”
“Oh, cut it out. You’re being mulish, and it doesn’t pay,” Jenny snapped. “You and I have more in common than you think. Probably more now than we ever had when we were kids.”
Will smirked indulgently. “What do you figure we have in common?”
“Everyone expects too little of us,” she said quickly. “You always hear people complaining about how horrible it is when others expect too much of them. But it’s worse the other way around. Isn’t it?”
Will pondered this, then nodded in slow agreement. “But you’re an heiress. Why should anyone expect anything of you? You don’t have anything to prove. You don’t have to make a living. You just have to sit back and let everyone treat you like a queen.”
“Treat me like a set of silver being polished up for a shop window, you mean,” Jenny grumbled. She reached for the bottle of whiskey again, but Will quickly tucked it away, mindful of her father sitting at the dinner table just a few hundred yards away.
“Miss Murison’s is pretty good … as girls’ schools go …” Jenny parroted derisively. “I’ve only learned one thing in that ‘girls’ school’ that’s worth more than two pins—and that’s excellent French. Without it I could never have read Monsieur Bachelier’s thesis. You would love it, William, it’s on the use of Brownian motion to evaluate stock options.” She paused, sighing dreamily, as if she were discussing the latest moving picture star. Then she frowned again. “Of course, when I try to discuss Bachelier’s work with my mathematics tutor, all he wants to do is stare into my eyes.”
“Gee, you got it rough,” Will deadpanned. “Math tutors staring into your blue eyes. How can you stand it?”
“I can’t stand it!” she countered sharply. “And don’t you dare poke fun, William Edwards. You don’t understand what it’s like to have no one—not one single person—take you seriously. Your teachers, Mr. Tesla … they all think you’re a genius. Everybody takes you seriously.”
“Not everybody,” Will muttered. Not the one person who mattered.
Jenny heaved a sigh. “Well, that’s how parents are,” she said. “How fathers are, at least. I couldn’t say about mothers.”
Jenny had lost her mother when she was three years old, and despite the fact that Ma’am was a loving witchly godmother, it wasn’t the same. Will hastened to change the uncomfortable subject.
“That’s how people are,” he said. “They’re unpredictable, they don’t make decisions rationally or logically, and they usually don’t make much sense. It drives me up a tree.”
“I suppose that’s why you like machines so much, right?” Jenny mused. “Because they do what you expect?”
Will nodded, surprised. She leaned forward.
“But you see, I like things that do what you don’t expect,” she said. “For instance, when most people think about mathematics, they think of boring equations—you know, like two plus two equals four. But there are other equations, William. Equations that seem just as simple, except when you put in different numbers, the strangest things come out. They seem so boring on the surface, but then when you realize how incredibly, beautifully complex they are it’s just … wonderful.”
Will was transfixed by how radiant her face had suddenly become. He recognized that kind of rapture. He smiled at her, and she smiled back, and through some unspoken agreement, they decided to be friends again.
And now that they were friends again, Jenny leaned toward him and dropped her voice low.
“William,” she said, “I’ve got a proposition for you.”
“Miss Hansen!” He feigned outrage. “I’ll have you know, I’m not that kind of fellow!”
Snorting, Jenny punched him in the arm.
“You want to get out of here, right? I mean, get to Detroit, get to your apprenticeship, everything?”
“Yes,” Will said. “More than anything.”
“All right, then hear me out. Don’t say anything until I’m done.” She took a deep breath, then seemed to lose her courage. “It’s just that I’ve been thinking about it for a while, but until I heard your situation it never quite gelled, you know?”
“No, I don’t know,” Will said. “Spit it out. What are you talking about?”
Jenny drew another deep breath. “All right. You know my mother died when I was very young. And you know that she came from money, and she left a bundle. That bundle was put into trust for me and my sister.” She paused. “Now, in Claire’s case the money goes to … her support.”
Will said nothing, but nodded. He had heard about Jenny’s older sister Claire. She was a victim of the Black Flu epidemics, and was, according to his brothers’ whispered gossip, horribly disfigured and deformed. She lived in an asylum somewhere, they said.
“In my case, however,” Jenny continued, “I come into my money free and clear when I’m twenty-one. Or”—she paused meaningfully—“when I get married. Whichever comes first.”
She let the silence hang for a long time. Will didn’t say anything, and Jenny evidently interpreted his silence as a failure of comprehension.
“We get married, dummy!” she said.
“Yes, Jenny,” Will said. “I got it. You couldn’t be any clearer if you whitewashed it on the side of a barn and then set the barn on fire. However, I was waiting for you to explain exactly how you think we can do that, when neither one of us is old enough.”
“We are most certainly old enough!” she said. “By law, the groom has to be over eighteen and the bride over fifteen. Well, you just turned eighteen and I’m almost eighteen myself—”
“You still have to have your parents’ permission if you’re under twenty-one,” Will pointed out. “How do you reckon we get that?” Will imagined asking Father for permission to marry Jenny. The image was terrifying—but not as terrifying as asking Mr. Hansen the same question.
“Oh, ‘pshaw. Who doesn’t lie about their age? You look twenty one, especially if we clean you up and put you in a suit.”
Will was skeptical. “What makes you think a hot marriage license will cut any ice with your mother’s estate attorneys?”
“You leave that to me,” Jenny said. “I have … connections. As long as I’ve got a marriage certificate I can get the estate released. And I’ve got money to start us off. Dad’s always giving me cash for dresses and chocolates and junk like that, and I’ve saved it up.”
Will was beginning to feel slightly horrified. It was clear that, far beyond just “thinking” about this scheme, Jenny had put a lot of actual planning into it.
“Jenny, come on. Even if you got the money it would just be a matter of time before the ruse was discovered. What then?”
Jenny waved a hand. “Who cares? Possession is nine-tenths of the law. Once I have the money, they’ll have to chase me down to get it back. What better place for me to lay low for a while than Detroit? And even if they find me, and try to sue me for the return of the funds, it’ll take years to wind through the courts. By the time anyone makes any kind of judgment I’ll probably be twenty-one anyway, and it won’t matter!”
Will stared at her. “You’re really serious, aren’t you?”
“And you don’t feel like it’s kind of a dirty trick? On your dead mother and your living father?”
“What do either one of our fathers have to do with anything?” Jenny countered acidly. “I thought from your performance at the dinner table that you’d be all to happy to be shut of yours.”
“Easy for you to say!” Will lifted his eyebrows. “My father isn’t likely to hunt you down and beat you to a pulp.”
“Oh, Dad’s a big pussycat,” she sniffed. “You know he likes you. He’ll be thrilled having you for a son-in-law.”
“But it won’t be real.” Will’s head was spinning. “And what if you fall in love with someone for real and want to marry him? You’ll have to divorce me—”
“Or kill you,” Jenny grinned. “Then I could be a widow. No shame in that.”
“I don’t much care for the way you think, Jenny Hansen.”
“All I’m saying, William, is that it’s high time we both showed everyone that they shouldn’t underestimate us. Everything else is just … logistics.”
Will grinned slightly. “And after all, you do have a crush on me—”
“I do not!” Jenny screeched, eyes wide with indignation. “When I was ten, I was impressed that you could whistle through the gap in your teeth. Can you still do that?”
Will puckered and whistled. But the gap in his teeth was long gone, and the sound was puny and unimpressive. Jenny waved dismissively. “You’re clearly not half the man you once were. So we’ve got to keep it just business. But look, it can work. We can do this.”
“And what do you get out of it?”
“I get to be a married woman who makes my own choices about things.” She spoke with strange fierceness. “That’s all you need to know. You have to promise me not to ask any more questions than that.”
Will thought about everything she had said. He couldn’t really be considering it. It was crazy!
“We sure couldn’t go into Walnut Grove to get a license,” he mused. “The clerk there has known me since I was in short pants, and he’d have to send the paperwork to Stockton anyway, since it’s the county seat.”
“Stockton’s where we need to go.” Jenny’s quick certainty gave Will the impression that she’d written away for the information weeks ago. “Most local offices are closed the Friday after Thanksgiving, but since Stockton is the county seat the offices there have to stay open. But I bet you the clerk will try to go home early. And if we don’t get there tomorrow we’ll have to wait the whole weekend and that would ruin everything.”
Will nodded, stroking his chin thoughtfully.
“Maybe I could get the Baker off my friend Pask. It’s only a few hours drive to Stockton from here.”
Will knew the road like the back of his hand. He and Pask often drove down to Stockton to take in moving pictures and moon over unapproachable girls at dance halls. And the weather had been dry for the past few weeks, so no worries about getting stuck in the mud …
“Will he loan it to you?”
Will made a face. “Just how do you figure we’d return it? No, I’d have to buy it from him outright. I guess he’d sell it to me. You said you had money?”
Jenny nodded. “Cover your eyes.”
“Just do it!”
Will covered his eyes, peeking through his fingers. Jenny hiked up the hem of her skirt. In her stocking garter was tucked a wad of banknotes so fat he wondered how they stayed put. He was so shocked he forgot he was supposed to be keeping his eyes closed.
“Jiminy Christmas!” he gasped. “Just how many dresses and chocolate bars does your Dad think you need, anyway?”
“I’ve been saving for a long time,” she said. “And supplementing it … creatively.” She did not elaborate as she let her skirt drop. She pressed the wad of cash into his hand.
Will looked at it with astonishment. It had to be almost a thousand bucks! He didn’t say anything.
“Well?” she spoke with some impatience. “Are you in?”
“Yeah,” he said finally, tucking the money into his pocket. “I’m in.”
The resolve in his voice was apparently insufficient, for Jenny narrowed her eyes and stared hard at him for a moment. Then, with great deliberation, she spit in her palm and extended her hand.
“Shake on it,” she demanded.
Without hesitation, Will spit in his palm, and they pressed their hands together, damp and sticky. Jenny grinned broadly.
“That’s that, then. I’m going back in to help your Ma’am with the cleaning up. Meet you back here tomorrow morning?”
“Before dawn,” said Will.
“Wear your best suit,” Jenny said, as she slid down the hayloft ladder. “I won’t marry you if you look like a hobo.”
After she was gone, Will withdrew the wad of banknotes from his pocket. He stared at them, sudden delight rising within him. The more he thought about the plan, the more he liked it. He could be in Detroit, working at Tesla Industries, before the end of the month! Tucking the money back inside his coat, he hurried down the ladder, glancing at his wristwatch, wondering if he could make it over to Pask’s place before too late …
“Hey, Will.” The voice came from over near one of the stables. Nate’s voice. Will froze, wondering how long his brother had been there. Knowing Nate, he’d lit out for the stable almost as quickly as Will had—he didn’t like to be too long away from the horses.
“Hey, Nate.” Will didn’t think his brother had overheard any of the discussion between him and Jenny; they’d been speaking quietly, and Nate was not the type to listen in on conversations. He just wasn’t interested in them. Nate was standing by the sorrel mare’s stable, visibly fretting. The mare had a crazy look in her eye and her velvety muzzle was flecked with foam.
“Given her a purgative,” said Nate, eyes fixed on the glossy Morgan. “I may have to have Ma’am look at her.”
“Nothing Ma’am likes more than taking care of sick things,” Will observed. “Nice, helpless little things.”
Nate didn’t turn from the ailing Morgan. “You talking about horses, or you talking about yourself?”
“Take a wild guess,” Will said. “I have to go, Nate. See you around.”
“I guess I know horses pretty well.” Will had turned to go, but Nate’s words stopped him. “Sometimes they can be pretty stubborn. Like this mare, we’ve tried and tried to keep her out of the clover, and she just keeps going after it. It’s not good for her, but I guess she likes the taste.”
Will released a long breath, clenched his fists. Even though Nate’s lectures were milder than most, he still recognized one when he heard it, and he still resented it. He said nothing.
“Well, we’ll keep trying to keep her out of that pasture.” Nate’s voice was slow and resigned. “But she’ll probably keep going back to it, and one day it may kill her. That’d be a darn shame, because she’s a really nice horse.”
“Yep, it would be a darn shame,” Will said. “I got it, Nate. Horses are stupid and stubborn and smart people like you and Father have to figure out what’s best for them.”
Nate looked pained.
“I never said you were stupid,” he said. “This mare isn’t stupid. She just doesn’t understand. That doesn’t make her stupid.”
“But I’m not a horse, Nate.” Will clipped the words. “I am a human being. I can think things through, predict the consequences, make informed choices. I can do that for myself. I don’t need anyone to do it for me.”
Nate drew in a deep breath, let it out. Then he nodded.
“I guess,” he said. “If you say so.”
He pushed back from the stable, and turned his gaze onto Will, and for the first time it was like he was really seeing his younger brother. It made Will uncomfortable. There was something about Nate’s direct, unshifting gaze that made one feel as if he knew too much.
“I had a letter from Ben the other day,” Nate said, scrutinizing Will. “And I think I figured something out. I think I figured out the difference between Ben and the rest of us—well, me, Argus and Laddie anyway. We all believe everyone is doing the best he can. Even Father.” He paused, thoughtfully. “Especially Father. Even when we don’t understand the things he does, we believe that he does them for reasons that are good. I believe it, I know Argus does, and Laddie too—as much as Laddie believes anything. But Ben … doesn’t. Ben doesn’t believe it at all.”
Nate blinked once, then asked, with real curiosity, “What do you believe, Will?”
“Sure, I believe Father does what he does for reasons that are good,” Will said, quickly and bitterly. “Good for him, that is. He just doesn’t concern himself about whether they’re good for anyone else.”
Nate absorbed this gravely. Then he sighed. “I don’t think that’s true. Can’t prove it one way or the other, of course. But I guess I’m willing to take him on faith. You and Ben aren’t.”
Will was silent for a long time. First, the words made him numb—but almost instantly, that numbness kindled into hot fury. Take him on faith? Really? He should just … surrender? Cowtow to someone else’s high-handed notion of what was right for his life?
“Thanks for the advice, Nate.” He was so angry he almost choked on the words. “But you can keep it. Good luck with the mare. Honestly, I hope she gets in the clover again. I hope she kills herself on it. At least that way she’ll die doing what she wants. She may be just a dumb animal, but even a dumb animal deserves a choice.”
Then he got on his bicycle and pedaled furiously to Pask de la Guerra’s house.
Chapter Two: A Will in Sheep’s Clothing
Early the next morning, Will met Jenny behind the barn. They walked in silence through the misty half-light to a grove of oaks along the wide slow Sacramento River. It was a cold morning; frost made the fallen leaves a sparkling carpet of orange and red and yellow that crunched under their feet as they walked. The air smelled of distant smoke, from farmers burning off the last of their fields.
The clearing where Will had parked the Baker was another place they’d used to play. Jenny smiled in recognition, raising her gloved fingers to push aside a tattered strand of sisal dangling from a thick branch—remnant of a long-gone rope swing.
But when she laid eyes on the Baker—on the sloppy red and green paint, and the streaks of mud that still lingered from its dunk in the irrigation ditch—pleasant nostalgia gave way to outrage.
“Just how much of my money did you spend on this heap?” she circled the Baker with a frown, eyeing the cracked leather of the folding top.
“Pask took five hundred.”
“Are you kidding? That’s more than half the price of a brand new Model T!”
“As it happens, Pask does not operate a Ford franchise,” said Will, archly. “And this automobile cost almost four thousand when it was new.”
“This automobile has not been new in a long time.” Jenny’s frown deepened as she examined the auto’s stubby bonnet, the unique hallmark of its type. “And honestly, William … an electric? Who buys an electric out here in the sticks?”
Will felt secretly smug. She was right, of course; an electric had been an unwise choice for Pask’s family, living as they did in the middle of California’s Central Valley where electricity wasn’t always available. But that inconvenience had been one of the motivating factors behind the improvements Will had made. He couldn’t wait to show her what the “electric” could do.
Jenny seemed to be waiting for him to argue back at her. When he did not, she concluded: “Well, I think your friend Pask is a swindler. But if this flivver will get us to Stockton in time, I guess it’s worth it.”
Remembering that there were bills remaining from the money Jenny had given him, Will began pulling them out of his pocket. Jenny stopped him with a hand.
“No, keep it. If you’re going to pretend to be my husband you’re going to have to do all the paying. It won’t look right if I do it.”
Jenny stowed the two bags she’d brought with her—a little calfskin handgrip and a canvas laundry bag—under the front seat. Noticing Will’s puzzled glance at the laundry bag, she said: “There wasn’t time to make sandwiches. But I figured we’d get hungry, so I got a couple of the pies and some of the leftover turkey meat from the icebox.”
Will had already stowed his own bag the night before. He was bringing nothing but his satchel of tools. Everything else he could pick up in Detroit, but his tools—instruments of all sizes, from wrenches and come-alongs to delicate watchmaker and jeweler’s sets—were like extensions of his hands, and he could not imagine being without them.
Jenny began doing up the buttons on her light canvas duster. “I talked with Dad last night. I told him one of my friends from back East was stuck at Miss Murison’s over the holiday, and I was going to go back to keep her company. I told him you’d offered to hitch up the buggy and take me over to the station to catch the early train. He won’t miss me until he’s back in San Francisco on Monday. With any luck, we’ll be in Detroit before anyone thinks to look for us.” She climbed into the car, tucking her skirts tight around her legs and fussing with her hat. It was an enormous hat, swathed all around with heavy gauze, just as Lillie’s had been. It must have made the trip from San Francisco in the Pierce Arrow’s trunk, for there certainly hadn’t been room for it in the back seat. “How about you? After that show last night, won’t your folks suspect the worst when you go missing?”
“Oh, I always run off to Pask’s house when I’m mad,” Will swung the steering tiller up and climbed into the driver’s seat. “He promised to cover for me. If my parents call over, he’s going to tell them that I’ve barricaded myself in their barn and nothing short of an act of Congress will get me out.”
Jenny lifted an amused eyebrow. “Well, I certainly hope you didn’t tell him to say exactly that,” she said. “After all, I’m sure your brother Argus is just itching to draft some maiden legislation.”
Will smirked as he lowered the tiller over his lap and reached down to press the ignition switch. The car made no sound as it started, but the needles on the two half-moon dash-gauges—one for volts, one for amperes—jittered and rose. He moved the controller—a knife switch by his left leg—into the car’s first forward speed, and the Baker slid noiselessly into motion.
The service road was rough and badly rutted, and Will had chosen it only because it would take them to the main road without passing the house. Will expected that Jenny would pull her heavy motoring veil down over her face, but instead she just took a deep breath of the cool morning air that made her cheeks flush pink.
“I always love starting a trip,” she sighed. “It’s like … oh, I don’t know, sharpening a pencil for the first time. It’s very satisfying. I’m so glad you’re coming with me. I knew you would.”
“What made you so sure?” said Will. “You couldn’t have known how much I wanted to get away.”
“Actually, I did,” Jenny admitted. “Your mother wrote my dad about the fight you had with your father, and I happened to catch a glimpse of the letter. So I figured you might be amenable.” She paused. “And if you hadn’t the guts, well, at most I would have wasted a little time. Maybe I would have asked one of your brothers instead.”
The very idea made Will bark a laugh. “Like who? Laddie? San Francisco’s most eligible bachelor? As you’ve pointed out, he and Lillie are like the stones of the pyramids.”
“Why didn’t she marry him?” Jenny wondered. “I can’t even imagine marrying a man like your brother Argus. He takes up every particle of air in any room he’s in.”
“Laddie has no ambition,” said Will. “Argus has enough for both of them. You’re a girl, you tell me. I guess girls marry ambition.”
“Girls like Lillie do,” Jenny said. “Girls who have none of their own, that is.”
“You don’t think she has ambition?” Will said. “Seems to me she’s got plenty and then some.”
“Yes, but she only cares about being the social queen of San Francisco,” Jenny sniffed. “That’s not the kind of ambition I’m talking about.”
“What other kind of ambition can a girl have?”
“Oh, forget it,” Jenny snapped. “Let’s stop talking about them. I had quite enough of those three on the way down from San Francisco. Now, as far as which other Edwards brother I would marry, if you were unavailable … I was thinking more of your brother Ben.”
“You’ve never even met him!”
“I’ve seen your Ma’am’s pictures of him. He’s not bad looking.”
“A fine thing for my future wife to say,” Will grumbled. “Besides, when it comes to being unavailable, Ben’s got all of us beat.” Thinking of Ben reminded Will of the letter in his coat pocket, and its simple, mysterious reference to The Warlock’s Curse. “Honestly, sometimes I wonder if he really exists at all.”
“What does he do out there in New York? He has a job at the Stanton Institute, doesn’t he?” Jenny asked. “Does he actually work for the Dreadnought Stanton, help him retrieve artifacts and quiet restless mummies and all that, just like it says in the books?”
“I don’t know,” said Will. “From what I’ve heard, his position is more … administrative. I heard Laddie once call him a functionary. Argus says he’s wasting his life in service to an outdated ideal.”
“And your mother and father? What do they say?”
“They don’t say anything.”
Jenny knit her brow. “Dad says your family’s strange,” she said, but did not elaborate. She reached up and braced herself as they rounded a sharp curve, where the service road angled to skirt the farm’s southernmost pasture. In the east, the rising sun was casting its first bright rays over the tops of the Sierra Nevada mountains, and in the chilly pinkish light Will could see the sorrel mare—Nate’s despair—standing by the split—rail fence, happily munching on clover.
Will smiled with secret satisfaction. The last thing he’d done before he’d met Jenny that morning had been to throw open the mare’s stall and shoo her out of it. She’d found her way to where she wanted to be. Good for her.
Even a dumb animal deserves a choice.
Will and Jenny did not speak much after they turned onto the main route south to Stockton. The morning was clear and fine, and the sky was painted with colors bright as the label on a produce box.
The silence went beyond their lack of conversation. Except for the creak of the Baker’s leaf-springs and chassis, and the crunch of its rubber tires on the small gravel of the dirt road, the machine was perfectly silent. The Otherwhere Flume Will had installed emitted only a faint hiss, like the sound of a mighty waterfall heard from very, very far away.
“We’re not going to have to stop and charge up the battery, are we?” Jenny asked. “Can we make it all the way to Stockton?”
“We sure can,” said Will. “It’s not an electric. Or rather, it is an electric motor, but it doesn’t use a conventional electric battery. This car is powered by an Otherwhere Flume.” When she gave him a blank look, Will added, “It’s my own design. I based it on a classical Otherwhere Conductor, but I made several improvements.”
“I’m afraid I don’t know the first thing about Otherwhere power,” Jenny said. “I did read an article once about how it’s going to revolutionize civilization, or end tyranny, or increase global grain yields—something like that.” She paused, knitting her brow thoughtfully. “Or maybe that was an article about steam tractors. I can’t quite remember.”
“I don’t know about ending tyranny or increasing grain yields,” Will said. “But I do believe Otherwhere power will revolutionize civilization. And I know Mr. Tesla thinks so too.”
Jenny nodded. “So how does it work?” She lowered her voice and leaned slightly toward him. “An Otherwhere isn’t … magic?” The last word was spoken with a distinctly apprehensive edge. But then, remembering who she was speaking to, she hastily added, “That’s not to say anything against your Ma’am, of course … you know I haven’t a thing against Old Users … it’s just some do, and … oh, I’m sorry.”
After stammering all this out, she sank back into the seat, red-faced and embarrassed, and pressed her lips tightly together.
Will said nothing. He’d had this exact same awkward interaction dozens of times, always with others close to his own age. They would seem to take the fact that his mother was a witch in stride—until, in some unguarded moment, their true feelings would slip out. Their distaste, their resentment—their fear. This was always followed by a clumsy apology. It was like clockwork.
But he hadn’t expected it of Jenny.
Of course, he couldn’t really blame her. They were both members of what the newspapers had dubbed the “Malmantic Generation”—the first generation to live under the shadow of the Black Flu.
The first case of the gruesome malady—typified by greasy tar-colored eruptions and blazing fever—was reported in 1878. By 1880, the epidemic had engulfed the globe. The wildfire quickness with which the disease emerged and spread was horrifying. But stranger, and even more terrible, was the fact that it only affected children. Infant children. Not every child caught it, but few families were spared the heartbreak of at least one case. Will’s own sister, Catherine—born a few years before him—had lived only a few days before succumbing. And while Jenny’s older sister, Claire, had survived the illness, it had left her a lifelong invalid.
Over the next ten years, hundreds of thousands died and the lives of millions more were ruined. The turning point came when scientists at a company called Sanitas Pharmaceutics made a key discovery—the Black Flu was not a strain of influenza. It was not any kind of virus or bacterium at all. Rather, it was an allergic reaction, triggered by the passage of magical energy through the channels of the body. And while some degree of allergic sensitivity was found in all children born after 1878—the scientists could not find a single individual born earlier who showed signs of it.
The scientists could not explain this strange sharp demarcation. They could only give it a name and a date: The Great Change of 1878.
Learning the true nature of the malady had made it possible to develop a medication to combat it. Stopping the allergic reaction merely required blocking the channels through which magical energy flowed in the body. Creating a chemical compound that produced this effect was not difficult. It was called the Panchrest, and it successfully brought the Black Flu to heel. In less than two years, the worst was over.
But the Black Flu had shredded the civic fabric, and that was not so easily mended. Before the Great Change, magic had been woven into society at every level. It was called upon for small daily conveniences and grand splendid achievements alike. Magic, it was often said, had built America. And in the decades preceding the Great Change, the uses of magic had become ever more industrial and expansive—so vast that no one could have imagined any limit to them.
But then, the Malmantic Generation had come along. They could not use magic as their parents and grandparents had. Those who even attempted it would suffer bouts of violent illness, the result of their inborn allergic sensitivity. And the more magic they used, the sicker they would become.
People born before 1878—like Ma’am—came to be called “Old Users.” They suffered no ill-effects from channeling magic. There was nothing stopping them from using it as they always had—and so they did. Why shouldn’t they? They had grown up in a world steeped in it. They were used to its conveniences, and they were unable to comprehend the fear and resentment they engendered in the distinctly different species of human that was destined to replace them.
But now the century had turned. The Malmantic Generation—the first generation of the twentieth century—was coming into its own. The youngest members were already well into their thirties. What form would those fears and resentments take, Will wondered. Would the day come when his Ma’am would be truly hated for what she was, even by her beloved Goddaughter?
Jenny broke what had become a long silence. “You sore at me?”
Will had slowed the Baker to a crawl. They had come to a place where irrigation runoff from the hill above had made the road soggy.
“You asked if Otherwheres are magic,” Will finally said, as he looked down along the running board to gauge the softness of the mud as he brought the Baker across it. “Otherwheres are just different dimensions of our own reality. Back in the day when witches and warlocks were more common than they are now, Otherwheres were mostly accessed using magic. But now we access them using science. So … nothing to worry about. All right?”
“All right,” said Jenny, relaxing visibly. “But I still don’t quite get what an Otherwhere is, exactly.”
“It’s a different plane of reality, a different … shade.” Will struggled for the right words. “Scientists believe there must be an infinite number of them. Some Otherwheres are very much like the world we know. The laws of physics are the same and everything. Some are very hostile places, with laws of physics that are so different human beings can’t even exist in them. Exploring Otherwheres has always been dangerous for just that reason. You don’t know where you’re going to end up, or if you’ll be able to get back.”
Jenny tapped a fingernail against her chin. “I wonder if anyone’s ever tried using Monsieur Poincaire’s hyperbolic geometry to mathematically map this infinity of universes,” she mused. “It seems perfectly suited to the job. And it might be kind of fun.”
Will emitted a low whistle, looking at her sidelong. “Fun?” He pulled down the bill of his tweed touring cap against the glare of her blinding intellect. “I’m beginning to think that math professor of yours was staring into your eyes out of pure confusion.”
Jenny snorted derisively. “It’s all just numbers, William.”
“Well, let’s get back to my Otherwhere Flume, which is what you asked me about. It all starts with finding an Otherwhere compatible with our own universe’s physical laws. Maybe Poincairian hyperbolic geometry could be applied to finding one, but that’s neither here nor there. Because over two hundred have already been found, as the result of decades of risky exploration. They’re called the Golden Dimensions. They’re uninhabited and mostly physically identical to our own universe.”
“Wait, there are some that are inhabited?” Jenny’s eyes became big as plates. “By who?”
“I’m an engineer, not an anthropologist,” Will shrugged. “Anyway, over the years, bright industrialists have built power plants in these Otherwheres. Coal plants, steam—whatever unique generating resource is available. There’s one Otherwhere that’s filled with enormous waterfalls; they’ve put in hydroelectric turbines just like they have at Niagara Falls.”
Jenny was rapt.
“Anyway, all that power is transmitted from the Otherwhere into our world. That’s what an Otherwhere Conductor is. It’s the power of a whole coal plant, or hydroelectric plant, or steam plant, whooshing through an infinitesimal transdimensional portal into our own reality, where we can put it to whatever use we like.” He paused. “Hey, could you dig out some of that food? I’m starving.”
Jenny reached under the seat for the bag she’d packed, and from it, withdrew a whole apple pie. It was clearly a condemnation of the quality of pie to be found in San Francisco that Jenny expected to be able to break his Ma’am’s pie into neat wedges. But the flaky pastry crumbled in her hand, and she frowned at the pie filling on her dainty brown leather gloves.
“Great,” she muttered. “Now my gloves will smell like pie. Here.”
Resting one hand on the tiller, Will took the ragged hunk of pie in his other and quickly devoured it, licking the sweet sourness of apple and cinnamon from his fingers then wiping his hand clean on his trousers. Jenny eyed him with mild disdain as she used a corner of the laundry bag for a similar purpose.
“No wonder you want to go to Tesla Industries!” Jenny said, as she tucked the bag back. “But what I don’t understand is why everything isn’t powered by Otherwhere Flumes, or Conductors, or whatever? This car runs beautifully! It’s quiet, and not at all dirty or smelly. And as long as there’s power coming from the Otherwhere, there’s nothing to stop us, isn’t that right?”
“Not a thing,” said Will, knowing that it wasn’t entirely the truth. But he liked the glow of Jenny’s admiration, and thus he had no immediate interest in explaining Old Randall Rudge.
Of course, Old Randall Rudge had to be explained eventually, but Will preferred to wait for that discussion until it became necessary.
They were passing through acres of almond orchards, the trees stretching out in neat rows as far as the eye could see, when the Baker began to slow. Glancing at the dash, Will watched the ampere gauge plummet to below five, and knew that it was futile to continue; he steered the auto off to the side of the road and brought it to a stop beneath a brilliantly-colored billboard advertising the premiere of Edison Studios’ moving-picture version of The Warlock’s Curse. The enormous advertisement was dominated by the sharply handsome features of the idealized Sophos of the Stanton Institute. The famous warlock’s eyes were rendered particularly prominently; large and green-glowing, rimmed with blackest movie-idol kohl.
Given that they were driving along the well-traveled main road between Sacramento and Stockton, they had already seen several such billboards—and each time, Will had wondered about the letter from Ben.
“What’s wrong?” said Jenny. “Why have we stopped?”
Will took his hands off the tiller and leaned back in his seat. Pushing his motoring cap back on his head, he looked at his wristwatch.
“It’s noon,” he confirmed. “Old Randall Rudge in New Jersey runs his experiments every day at this time, and he draws down just about all the power the system has.” He turned to Jenny apologetically. “I have a charging system for a secondary battery all worked out in my head. If I’d had time to set it up, we could have just switched over to battery when the Flume was low.”
“What are you talking about?” Jenny tucked back a thick tendril of hair that dangled before her eyes; that particular curl had already escaped its pins several times, Will had noticed.
“The biggest problem with my Flume actually lies with the Otherwhere it draws power from. If I were a high-and-mighty industrialist, I could own my own power plant. But I’m not, and I don’t. So I have to buy a license from someone who is, and does. That license entitles me to a slice of the output of a single power plant.”
“So, what happened? You didn’t pay your Otherwhere bill?”
“No, I’m all paid up through the end of the year,” Will said. “But the particular high-and-mighty industrialist from whom I bought my license has demonstrated that he doesn’t particularly care how many licenses he sells.”
Jenny made a sound of understanding. “Oh! So when your Mr. Rudge, for instance, runs his experiments, it drains the pool for everyone. Why, I just call that bad business!”
“Profiteering is what we licensees call it,” said Will. “We’ve all complained about it, but there’s not much we can do.”
“You know the other licensees?” Jenny said.
Will nodded. “We circulate a newsletter by post.”
He got out of the car to stretch his legs. The morning had warmed up and the air smelled of smoke and sunshine. Judging from the white mile-markers they’d been passing—and the increasing numbers of driveways stretching off from the roadside—he figured they were only about ten miles out of Stockton. They had plenty of time. He reached back into the car and retrieved another chunk of pie, leaning on the hood of the car to eat it.
“We all banded together and made Old Rudge promise to limit his experiments to an hour a day.” Will brushed crumbs from his sleeve. “Boy, what an hour that must be in New Jersey!”
“Sounds like you’ve had this license for a while,” Jenny said.
“Almost a year,” Will said. “I got it for a project at school, and I’ve been tinkering with it ever since, hooking it up to various electrical devices, perfecting my Flume. I finally decided to drop the whole thing into Pask’s car because—” he stopped, suddenly feeling kind of sheepish. But Jenny was two steps ahead of him.
“Because I bet the license isn’t cheap and your folks don’t give you as much pocket money as the grandson of a de la Guerra gets,” she concluded. “If he liked the car with the Flume in it, he’d have to renew the license, which meant you’d get to keep tinkering with it. Right?”
Will blinked at her. “You sure you don’t have some witch in you?” he said, thinking of the uncanny perceptivity his mother’s magical skills gave her.
Jenny shuddered. “No, I don’t have any witch in me,” she said. “So we have to just sit around here waiting for Old Rudge to finish his experiments in New Jersey?” She crossed her arms. “We do have a wedding to get to.”
“Can’t be helped.” Will bent down to peer under the chassis, idly examining the axles and leaf springs. “It’s the curse of a shared resource.”
“So, what if we had our own Otherwhere?” Jenny asked. “All the power from one coal plant whooshing straight through your Flume, without anyone else tapping into it? Could we drive fifty miles an hour? A hundred?” Her eyes gleamed.
Will paused to consider. “The chassis probably wouldn’t stand that kind of speed for long,” he concluded. “Especially over these roads. But you could build one that would. And with the right kind of roads, you could really fly. A hundred miles an hour would be nothing if you had thousands of horsepower. Someday, I bet you’ll see machines that can do it.”
Jenny was silent for a long time, lost in thought. When she lifted her head to look at him, there was awe in her eyes.
“Why, William, you’re a bona-fide genius.”
“Lay off,” he muttered, blushing. “People have been fooling around with Otherwhere Conductors for years. I just figured a way to get around a few things. My shabby Otherwhere license was the least of my worries. Getting around the Connection Drop Problem, that was the hard part.”
“Like I said, people have been fooling with Otherwhere Conductors for years. The reason you don’t see them in automobiles like this one is that there’s always been one big problem … it’s called the Connection Drop Problem. It’s easy enough to open a connection to an Otherwhere, but it’s always been impossible to maintain that connection reliably. The connections drop seemingly at random—and usually at the most inconvenient moment possible. But everyone knew that it couldn’t just be random—something had to be causing it. People have been trying to figure out what that something is for years. They’ve looked at fluctuations in barometric pressure, at global temperatures, all sorts of things, but no one could figure it out. But I figured it out. And once I figured it out, I built the Flume and—” he trailed off, spreading his hands as if further explanation was unnecessary.
Jenny leaned forward, elbows on the dash. “So, how did you do it?”
“You ever hear of Röntgen rays?”
“Röntgen? He won that big prize from the dynamite mogul, didn’t he?”
“The Nobel, yes. Ten years ago. When I was at the Polytechnic I started getting interested in Röntgen rays. I learned that they were all around us, just as a general background state. It was supposed that they’d be at a higher level when sunspots flared up. I wondered if there was a correlation between these sunspots and the Connection Drop Problem.”
“And was there?” Jenny asked.
“Several observatories around the world have been watching sunspots since 1849,” Will said. “They have almost a hundred years of data on them. So I wrote away and requested copies.”
“So that was data about sunspots,” she said. “But how did you get the data about dropped Otherwhere connections?”
“Tesla Industries,” said Will. “They’ve been working on this problem for years. They maintain a steady-state Otherwhere connection, and they’ve been keeping records on it. Every time it’s randomly knocked off line, they make a note of the date and time. My teacher at the Polytechnic, Mr. Waters, knows one of the lead researchers there. He got me a copy of those records—but it sure took some doing! Tesla Industries is pretty secretive.”
“And once you had both sets of data, you simply had to apply a Bayesean Linear Regression and poof!”
“Well, no.” Will admitted. He had no idea what a Bayesean Linear Regression even was.
“So how did you compare the data?”
“I didn’t.” Will shrugged. “Before I had a chance to, another one of my teachers—a planetary scientist, he’d heard what I was working on—pulled me aside in the hall and shared an early draft of an article he’d been asked to review for a journal. It showed how Röntgen rays from the sun are stopped by the atmosphere surrounding the earth. Some believe that a kind of magnetic field is involved.”
Jenny threw herself back in her seat, exasperated.
“Oh, now you’re just being horrible,” she growled. “I’ve heard of shaggy dog stories, but never shaggy engineer stories! So what are you telling me about Röntgen rays for, then?”
“I’m just trying to demonstrate to you that nothing in life is ever as easy as you think it’s going to be,” Will said loftily.
Jenny snorted. “Believe me, William Edwards, I don’t need you to tell me that. Now, are you going to tell me what you discovered, or just keep playing around?”
Will grinned. “I discovered that I was on the right track, but with the wrong ray. It was cosmic rays that I should have been looking at. We get about eight to ten solar flares every day that shower the earth with cosmic rays. They’re strong enough to disrupt a connection.”
“So … what do you do about it?”
“I’ve managed to create a pretty effective shield using the principles of magnetism. What makes my Otherwhere Flume different from a regular old Otherwhere Conductor is that I’ve added an electro-magnetic field generator to deflect stray cosmic rays. It’s powered out of the Otherwhere itself, so the system is entirely self-sustaining. Which reminds me …” Will wanted to check and see if Rudge’s experiments would have any impact on the strength of his electro-magnetic field generator. Circling around to the back of the car he opened the trunk and took a reading on a small dial. He was so absorbed in thought he didn’t notice that Jenny was standing next to him.
“That’s it?” she asked, in astonishment. “It’s … a cigar box!”
“That just houses the workings,” Will said. It was a good sturdy wooden box, and Will had liked the colors of the label. He had especially liked the picture on the inside of the box’s cover, and he realized suddenly that Jenny would probably like it too. Lifting the lid, he grinned as he showed it to her. She put a hand over her mouth and giggled.
“The Hero of Manila!” she read, examining the old picture of Admiral Dewey.
But the intricate workings of the device within quickly drew her attention away from the brightly colored image. She bent down to get a closer look.
“I would have guessed it to be much bigger!” Jenny said. “Your Mr. Waters sure must have been impressed.”
“He never actually saw the prototype,” said Will. “I just built it this past summer.” Will checked the thick silk-wrapped cord that connected the box to the Baker’s motor. He then made sure the Flume was securely seated in the cradle he’d built for it, then closed the trunk. Jenny was scrutinizing him.
“But before you graduated, you showed him your schematics and all that, right?”
“No, I never drew anything up,” Will dusted off his hands. “Mr. Waters wanted me to, but I didn’t see the need. I knew how I was going to build it. He got the concept, just like you do. And his friend at Tesla Industries, the lead researcher who got me their data on cosmic rays—a man named Grigory Grigoriyev, one of their leading Otherwhere Engineers—he gets it too. He’s has asked to have me on his team special. I can’t wait to show him what I’ve done!”
Jenny’s eyes widened in horror.
“You’re not going to show it to him, are you?”
“Well of course I am!” Will’s eyebrows shot up. “What’s the good of building something this swell if you can’t share it?”
“What’s to keep them from stealing it from you?”
“Naw, that’s Edison you’re thinking of, and he’s in the moving-picture business now.” Will gestured at the billboard looming over their heads. He came back around to the front of the car and peered at the dials to see if the ampere gauge had come up at all. “Mr. Tesla is a straight shooter. Mr. Waters says so.”
“William Edwards!” Will turned at the sound of command in Jenny’s voice and found her planted right behind him. She was not physically imposing—he’d always been taller than her—but the ferocious intensity in her blue eyes was enough to make him want to draw back. Reaching up to seize his shoulders, she held him fast.
“Now listen,” said Jenny, in a firm, bell-clear tone. “I want you to make me a promise, right this very second, or our deal is off.”
“P—promise?” he stammered. “What do you want me to promise?”
“I want you to promise me that you will not share your invention with anyone at Tesla Industries until it’s protected by a United States Patent. I will take care of it all— the filing, everything. I’ll get it patented for you.”
“Get it patented for me?” Will was incredulous. “Jenny, what do you know about patenting anything? You’re seventeen!”
“And you’re eighteen, and you’ve invented the most incredible thing I ever heard of in my entire life!” She countered. “I know that if you don’t protect your rights, you’ll lose them.” Jenny paused. “You’ve made a great discovery. Don’t you know how great?”
“Look, haven’t I done OK so far?” Jenny lowered her hands, and her voice became pleading. “Haven’t I got everything all planned? Haven’t I got us a crooked lawyer?”
Will didn’t say anything.
“You’re a genius, William,” she said softly. “And geniuses need people to protect them. Just promise me. Please?”
“All right, Jenny,” he said. “I promise.”
Jenny squealed with satisfaction. Raising herself up on her tiptoes, she pecked him on the cheek. “You’re going to make a perfectly wonderful husband.”
“But I’m not going to Detroit just to sit around!” he added plaintively. “I want to show everyone at Tesla Industries what I can do!”
Jenny shrugged indifferently as she climbed back into her seat and rearranged her duster. “I’m sure you can find plenty to show them that doesn’t involve giving away your best invention right out of the gate. You just have to play them along a little bit.”
Will looked at his watch. Old Rudge’s hour was over. He started the car and put the controller into reverse. Power whooshed through the Flume, like a distant breeze.
Both of them lost in thought, they drove on in silence, Dreadnought Stanton’s brilliant green eyes following them blankly.
Chapter Three: The Wedding
Stockton, located at the mouth of the San Joaquin Valley, was often called “The Chicago of the West.” Will’s father had often sniffed at this appellation and observed that one could quite accurately gauge the intellectual smallness of any given city by the bigness of the city it compared itself to. Will, however, loved Stockton—and not because of its hotels or restaurants or shops or any of its other urban attractions. He loved it because it was the most industrialized city in California, a city of mills, factories, foundries and shipyards, all surrounding the mighty man-made channel that led to the Pacific Ocean. Things were made here.
Sometimes, Will would make Pask park out front of a factory just so he could watch the activity going on around it—the bustling hive of workers, the raw materials going in and finished materials coming out.
Pask, however, never had much patience for these protracted observations. He and Will came to Stockton to whoop it up, not to watch the forward march of American industrial progress. He preferred cheap whiskey, moving picture theaters, dances and vaudeville.
Will and Pask had come down at the beginning of the summer, on Pask’s dime, to attend a big to-do—organized by the town’s business elite—celebrating the opening of the brand new Hotel Stockton. With his parents away in Europe, Pask had been invited to attend as the de la Guerra family representative. He and Will had had an excellent time swanking it up on the glassed-in rooftop garden, eating the boosters’ canapés and downing their liquor.
As Jenny and Will drove along Pacific Avenue, the town seemed to swell around them. They turned down El Dorado Street to Weber Avenue, navigating around horse-drawn carts laden with goods headed for the wharf. Will slowed the Baker as they passed the Hotel Stockton, thinking its newness might impress her, but Jenny didn’t give it a second look. She had her eyes peeled for the San Joaquin County Courthouse a couple of blocks down—a massive building of white stone with fat frondy palm trees planted out front and a heavy clock tower cupola that seemed much too large for it, like a very big hat on a very small man.
Will parked the Baker aslant the concrete curb. They climbed out and hastily shed their motoring overcoats. As he stuffed his under the seat, he was aware that Jenny was eyeing him critically.
“I told you to wear your best suit!”
“This is my best suit!” Will returned. That just seemed to alarm her further, so he added, “and it’s just about new!” This was also true; the suit had been obtained just a few months prior for his graduation exercises. However, it had been ordered from a catalog, so it didn’t really fit him properly. The trouser hems brushed his anklebones, revealing bright red home-knit socks, and the grease marked cuffs of his blue twill workshirt jutted out beyond the jacket’s sleeves.
“Oh, it’ll just have to do.” Jenny fussed with his tie, then took his arm. “Come on!”
Inside, the building smelled of varnish and marble and bureaucracy. The shield of the State of California was inlaid on the floor of the main foyer, lit by light from the cupola above. The ringing officialness of it all made Will suddenly nervous.
“Hey Jenny, I don’t suppose you’ve researched what happens if we’re caught?” He bent so he could speak low in her ear. “Getting a marriage license under false pretenses, I mean. It’s probably just a misdemeanor, right?”
“For me, anyway!” said Jenny, brightly. “For you, it could be a lot worse. Especially since you’re intending to take me across state lines. I’m sure you’ve heard of the Mann Act? I’d advise you to keep any immoral purposes to yourself.”
For not the first time, Will found that he wasn’t entirely comfortable with Jenny’s sense of humor. But he pressed his lips shut and watched as she corralled a cleaning lady for directions. He thought of Detroit. He needed to get to Detroit and this was going to get him there. That was all that mattered.
The county clerk’s office, they were informed, was on the second floor. Jenny’s heels clicked and echoed as they climbed the wide marble stairs. The building was mostly deserted this day after the Thanksgiving holiday, but as Jenny had predicted, most of the offices were open—not enthusiastically open, perhaps—but open.
The second floor, far less grandiose than the first, smelled of legal-sized paper and red ink and wooden filing cabinets. The walls above the half-paneling were painted the dull shade of green that municipal governments seemed to order by the hogshead. They walked down a hall lined with closed doors, pebbled glass windows gold-stenciled with the names of the departments within, finally entering the door marked “Licenses.”
The room was not large, and the dozens of tall wooden filing cabinets that lined the walls made it seem even smaller. Behind a counter that spanned the length of the room, a desk was centered, its in-box stacked high. And behind that desk, a clerk—his feet propped up, a cigarette in his mouth—deeply absorbed in the newest of the Dreadnought Stanton serials. Will was beginning to feel like the Sophos of the Stanton Institute was following him around.
“We’ve come for a marriage license,” said Will, his voice sounding too loud in the silence. “We’d like to get married, please.”
The clerk took them both in at a glance, but said nothing.
“I’m twenty-one,” Will volunteered, probably too quickly.
“And I’m eighteen,” Jenny added, with similar haste. The clerk ground out his cigarette and smiled at them both wearily. Reaching behind his desk, he pulled out a handful of forms.
“All right. These have to be filled out in triplicate. There’s a desk with a pen and ink over there. Bring ‘em back to me when you’re done. You have the twenty-eight bucks?”
Will nodded, glad that Jenny had thought to leave him the cash. Having Jenny fish the money for their marriage license out from her stocking garter might have made the clerk just the tiniest bit suspicious.
Together, they went over to a stand-up desk and filled out the papers using the dip pen that rested in an inkwell built into the table. It was not a good pen, and Will’s hand was shaking slightly. He cursed as he kept blotting the forms.
“Should we give them our real names?” Will whispered to Jenny. He was getting flustered; embarking upon a course of misdemeanory wasn’t his natural sphere of expertise.
“Of course we have to have our real names on there,” Jenny whispered back. “My lawyer may be crooked, but he’s not crooked enough to get my mother’s estate released to ‘Susie Smith’!”
“All right, all right … what’s your middle name?”
Will wrote their names side by side. It looked so formal: William Wordsworth Edwards and Jennifer Elaine Hansen.
“William Wordsworth?” Jenny smirked. “Really?”
“Named after my father, same middle name and all,” said Will. “It’s a family joke. Ma’am hates Wordsworth.”
Jenny shook her head. “Your family sure is strange.”
When they were done, they brought the papers back to the clerk, Will trying to control the tremor in his hands. Perusing them, a slight frown passed over the clerk’s face. He looked from Will to Jenny.
“You live up near Walnut Grove, and you live in San Francisco?” His brow wrinkled. “But you two came all the way out here looking for a license?”
Will and Jenny looked at each other. Jenny was the quickest.
“I have family in Stockton,” she said. “We’re visiting them.”
“You want to give me their name and address?” The clerk countered. Jenny gulped; the clerk narrowed his eyes. “I didn’t think so.” He paused, then looked hard at Will. “And I don’t suppose you brought anyone to vouch for you? For your ages, particularly?”
Will’s whole body went hot, then cold.
“Well, no,” he said. “I mean, we’re both old enough. What would we need someone to vouch for our ages for? The very idea!”
“I’ve got my Vanguard Girls Card!” Jenny offered, quickly fishing a pasteboard card out of her wallet. The Vanguard Girls was the nation’s leading organization for the advancement of young women. She showed it to the clerk. While it bore the stamped signature of the organization’s founder—Mrs. Amanda Haynes Reader—it had nothing about Jenny’s age on it. Perhaps Jenny had hoped the card would affirm the unquestionable moral rectitude of its possessor.
The clerk looked over the card—out of politeness merely. Then he handed it back to her. “I’m afraid that doesn’t cut any ice with the county, miss.”
“Sir, the truth of it is …” Will leaned forward, tried to draw the man into his confidence, “Well, we’ve got some explaining to do.”
The clerk looked at Will curiously but said nothing. Jenny also looked at him, but he put his foot on top of hers and pressed down, indicating that she should keep her mouth shut. Will leaned forward further and lowered his voice to the barest whisper.
“My girl here is … well, she’s in an embarrassing way, if you know what I mean. And we’ve got to break it to her dad. If I can’t show him a marriage license, he’s going to take after me with a shotgun.”
“And rightfully so,” the clerk said. But it was clear his interest had been piqued. Will had often noticed that men who read dime novels liked a little scandal.
“I want to do what’s right, sir,” Will said. “And I’d be much obliged if you’d help us out in this matter.” Without quite knowing what he was doing, or what the ramifications might be, Will reached into his pocket for one of the bills Jenny had given him. He didn’t realize that it was a hundred until he was sliding it across the counter, but by then it was too late to take it back for something smaller. The clerk barely glanced at the note before putting his hand over it.
“All right, circumstances being what they are … and it’s the holiday … I’m going to grant you the certificate today.” He pulled out a stamp and a pad and stamped all the documents, signing his name at the bottom of each one. “You need to take these over to Judge Lawson to get them officiated. He’ll be none too pleased to see you given he’s probably nursing a hangover. He lives just off Fremont Square, a few blocks up from here.” The clerk wrote out an address. “He’ll do the service, and his housekeeper and her husband can be your witnesses. Then you bring the signed papers back to me, and it’ll all be square. But you’d better make it quick, I’m going home at four.”
Will glanced up at the large clock above the door; it was already well past three. He touched the brim of his cap to the clerk and took Jenny’s arm.
“C’mon!” he murmured to her. “If we want to be married today, we’ll have to run!”
They dashed to the Judge’s house, a fine expensive home that looked out onto a neatly groomed park. He was not, as the Clerk had imagined, nursing a hangover; he had solved that painful inconvenience by getting drunk again. This meant that it took several tries for Will and Jenny to explain the nature of their visit, and then additional time to convince him that yes, it was indeed necessary to complete the transaction even though, technically, the day might be considered a holiday. Once the judge had been convinced of this, there was an additional amount of convolution when he learned that Will and Jenny did not intend to solemnify their vows with a visit to a priest; as a result, he insisted on reading some lines from the Bible to lend an air of sanctity to the proceedings. Throughout all this, Will shifted nervously; Jenny, to her credit, stood calm and cool and collected, with the air of one who believes that her plans will succeed. Will kept looking at the clock on the mantel; it was ten minutes to four by the time the judge pronounced them “man and wife.”
The housekeeper and her husband, who had served as witnesses, invited Will to stay for cake and sherry, but there was no time to waste. Offering quick thanks, they ran back to the county recorder’s office, making it to the door just as the clerk was taking out his keys to lock it.
“Well, I guess you just made it!” The clerk took the papers from them and looked them over. “I halfway didn’t think you’d get old Judge Lawson to stay awake long enough to sign these.” He stepped inside the office and stamped all three copies. Two of these he threw into the teetering in-box to be dealt on Monday; the third copy he handed to Will.
“There now, it’s official.” He took Will’s hand and shook it heartily. “Congratulations, son.” He tipped his hat to Jenny. “I hope you’ll both be very happy.”
Will and Jenny staggered out of the courthouse, both of them feeling a bit dazed. It was another warm afternoon, and the brightness of the sunlight and the gentle hush of the palm trees that fronted the courthouse made everything seem very strange. By mutual silent agreement, they sat down on the courthouse’s marble steps, gazing together at the license in Will’s hand. They both stared at the paper for a long time, at its official red stamp and firm black-ink signatures. Finally, Jenny took it from him, folded it neatly, and tucked it inside her purse.
“Congratulations,” Will said to her.
“You too,” she returned.
“So now what?” he asked. “Straight to San Francisco? That’s over eighty miles; it’s a pretty long drive to be starting this late in the day.”
“I’m tired,” said Jenny. “And I’m hungry.”
“We’re going to have to find someplace to sleep, then.” Will stretched out on the stairs, putting his hands behind his head. “We could just bum it.”
She stared at him in angry horror. “William Edwards, I am not going to spend my wedding night sleeping in a public park!”
“Well then?” Will propped his head on his elbow and looked up at her. “What’s it going to be?”
Jenny didn’t say anything, but chewed her lip anxiously. Every detail of Miss Murison’s training was clearly militating against the very thought of checking into a hotel with a boy—even if they were just friends. So, she was beginning to understand the temperature of the soup she’d gotten herself into, was she? Her mostly-misplaced virginal hesitancy gave Will a moment of unkind satisfaction. Sitting there with her, in the failing light of a November evening, the scope of their mutual impulsiveness was beginning to dawn on him too, and he didn’t want to be the only one suffering from it. But then again, fair was fair. He’d agreed to this as well, and they’d sworn a partnership on a spit-shake. It was too late for second thoughts or recriminations.
“All right, how about this,” he spoke with careful casualness. “The Hotel Stockton is just up the way, and it’s awful nice.”
Jenny nodded, but did not speak.
“We’ll get a couple of rooms, then we’ll go find dinner, and see a show or something. There’s lots of places I know from coming here with Pask. OK?” When Jenny didn’t answer, he gave her ankle a little kick with the toe of his shoe. “C’mon, Scuff. You’re not going to go all soft on me now, are you?”
She looked up at him, but still did not speak.
“There’s always something good at the Yosemite Theater,” he said. “Last time I was here with Pask, we saw an old warlock who could sorcel up fireworks that would make your eyes pop.”
Jenny remained silent.
“And look, I even got money. My own money, I mean. I’ll treat you.” He dug the silver dollar out of his pocket, the one his father had given him. He flipped it at her and she caught it, looked it over.
“Another birthday present from my father,” said Will. “So as you can see, he’s not only a bastard, he’s a cheapskate too.”
Jenny turned the silver dollar over and over in her hand, examining it for a long time before she finally spoke.
“But don’t you understand, William? This is a wonderful present.” She looked up at him. “Don’t you know what this is?”
Will shrugged. “It’s just an old silver dollar.”
“No, it’s more than that. It’s more than just what a dollar can buy, or the silver in it, or the beautiful engraving of Liberty enthroned beneath thirteen stars. It’s a trade dollar.”
She tilted her head and looked at him. “Haven’t you ever heard of Gresham’s law, William?” It was a purely rhetorical question, for she continued on immediately: “It refers to the tendency for bad money to drive good money out of circulation. Gold and silver fluctuate in value depending on how much of them are on the market at any given time. In the 1870s, we had all those big silver strikes in Nevada, and silver flooded the market. That made silver into bad money … because there was more supply than there was demand. Because there was less gold and more silver, people spent silver and kept gold. Do you follow me?”
“Sure,” said Will, though he wasn’t entirely sure why they were taking the journey in the first place.
“Now this coin,” Jenny continued, holding it up to the light, “was created by a man named John Jay Knox—a San Francisco banker. He knew that there was a great demand for silver coins in Asia, especially China. So Mr. Knox created these—purely for export, mind you. Trade dollars.”
“But they started to show up in circulation here in the States, because silver producers—who still had far too much silver on their hands—could have their silver minted into trade dollars. And they didn’t bother sending them overseas, they just dumped them into the market. Over time, as more and more silver was found, and the price of silver decreased, their value just kept going down. At one point, the value had fallen so far you couldn’t get even eighty-six cents for this dollar! And employers, wise to this opportunity for arbitrage, began buying them at a discount and using them to pay their workers—Gresham’s law at work!”
After this, she fell into a silent contemplation of the coin, so entranced that Will finally had to snap his fingers in front of her face to get her attention. When her blue eyes rose to meet his, they were sharp and bright.
“So the point of your story,” he summarized, with a wry smile, “is that I should like this coin because it was created out of greed and became less and less valuable over time?”
“No,” she said. “I’m saying that you should respect it because it is fascinating. Because it makes you think about everything money really is. Money is the ability to do things—but only if you believe in it. And more importantly, if other people believe in it. What makes a silver dollar with eighty-six cents of silver in it worth eighty-six cents … when a pennyworth of paper printed by the United States Treasury is worth an actual dollar? Why will one give you more power to do things than the other?”
“I have no idea,” Will said. “Hey, weren’t we going to go find a hotel or something? Or are we going to spend our wedding night talking about John Jay Knox and the price of silver in China?”
Jenny grinned as she flipped the dollar back to Will.
“Don’t you dare spend that,” she said. “It’s a very special thing, and someday you’ll be glad you have it.”
Will shrugged as he tucked the silver away. He didn’t believe her, but it was nice to see Jenny smile again.
“Now, the Stockton sounds good to me,” she said. “But no magic. It gives me the creeps. I want to go dancing.”
Will grinned. “Now that’s more like it, Mrs. Edwards.”