Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Soul Camera (Part 2)

“His Grace will see you now,” the liveried butler intoned. I had taken a hansom to the town house of Lord Edward Pearse, Duke of Argylle. He was one of the members of the aristocracy who did not take himself too seriously and, equally importantly, did not hold a grudge against me for previous newspaper accounts that might have been less-than-flattering. I had good luck in catching him at home. I hoped my luck would hold when I asked him for a very large favor.

“What can I do for you, Miss Jameson?” Lord Edward asked, after the usual pleasantries. He sat back in a leather wingback chair and crossed his legs, smoothing out the crease in his trouser leg. He looked as though he was dressed for a day outside, shooting grouse. I felt confident that the creatures would not stand a chance.

I explained that I was seeking four invitations to the Guvnah’s Halloween ball. He raised an eyebrow higher than I thought possible, but his breeding held, and he said nothing. I told him about the hijacked silencers, and a concern that whoever stole them planned to use the occasion of the ball to attempt an assassination of one or more prominent members of society. Rather than have a contingent of Caledonian police disrupt the ball, I would ask Captain Armstrong to have his men ready outside while my sister Kathy and I looked for the plotters. Of course, in order to make our cover look respectable, we would need to bring escorts; hence, four tickets.

Lord Edward appeared ready to erupt.

I added my sweetener: “I thought having Roland Luminos as my escort…”

“Luminos? Wasn’t he recently involved in some dueling episode in the Moors?”

The answer to that was yes, but I ignored the question and moved on. “…and Professor Diggory Foster as Kathy’s escort.”

The Duke’s eyes grew wide. “Foster, eh? I’ve heard of him. Didn’t he claim he had developed a special camera?”

So Foster had told the aristocrats about the soul camera! I had thought that might intrigue the Duke. “Yes, he is the inventor of the ‘soul’ camera. I’m certain he would arrange a demonstration for you, should Your Grace desire one.”

“Not that I believe a word of it, mind you, but it might be amusing.” Or it would be if we ever recovered the camera. He sat silently for a moment. “Very well, Miss Jameson. I will find four invitations for your group. Just promise to introduce me to Professor Foster during the ball.”

“Thank you, Your Grace.”

He stood, and I stood, and the audience was over.

Now I just had to break the news to the gentlemen – and to Kathy.

* * *
“You said I’d do what?” Kathy Jameson exploded. “Do I look like the sort of girl who prances about in ball gowns and dances with men? Are you out of your mind, little sister?”

This was not going well. I appealed to her civic duty. I appealed to her sense of adventure. I pointed out that I was not asking her to engage in any intimacies with Professor Foster, merely to blend in by appearing as his date. Finally, I observed that this was a masquerade ball, so that Kathy could use her ingenuity to appear suitably costumed.

“Hmm.” She looked thoughtful. “I suppose I could come as Pestilence…”


“…or perhaps just the Angel of Death…” I let her go on in this vein for some time. As long as she agreed to go, we could agree to negotiate the terms of her costume later.

* * *
The four of us arrived at the Guvnah’s mansion on the night of the ball, and disembarked from the hired carriage. Roland was dressed as a Mad Scientist, which I told him seemed like typecasting; Foster was a cave man, dressed in tattered skins and carrying a large foam club; Kathy, as promised, was the Angel of Death; and I came as a winged faerie. As I looked down at my skimpy costume, I hoped I would not have occasion to hide a gun.

“You had to have wings, too, didn’t you, Rhianon?” Kathy groused as our wings became entangled.

“My other choice was a cave woman, and (a) Professor Foster is your date, and (b) there was even less to that costume than this one.”

We made our way inside, where the party was getting started. The ballroom was filling with costumed guests. Pirates abounded – in Caledon, that seemed like more typecasting. Kathy waved to Mr. Vivito Volare, who was dressed in full pirate captain regalia, including a patch over one eye. The way he ogled my sister, I wondered if the patch was covering an actual black eye given to him by Miss Fogwoman Gray, his date. Winterfell’s Seneschelf, Miss Serra Anansi, was dressed as a librarian, while her date, Caledon Librarian JJ Drinkwater, was dressed as an elf. Lord Edward, dressed as the Headless Horseman (including a pumpkin in place of a head), was talking to a rough-looking man dressed as Napoleon. Other guests were less recognizable because of their elaborate costumes, and I despaired of trying to identify a gunman in the group.

Lord Edward made his way to our group. “I’m so glad you could make it, Miss Jameson. And this must be your lovely sister?”

Kathy made a passable attempt at a curtsy. “At your service, Your Grace.”

“And Professor Foster and Dr. Luminos.” The men shook hands. “Any progress on our…problem?”

“Not so far,” I replied.

The Duke turned to our cave man. “Professor, I understand you are the creator of a unique machine. Able to see into Man’s soul – amazing!” He turned in my direction. “And, Miss Jameson, you are a woman of your word, I see – having arranged for a demonstration of that very machine tonight!”

The four of us looked at one another as though one of us had held out on the group. Finally, Roland spoke up. “Dear chap, I mean, Your Grace, whatever are you talking about? The camera is here?”

Lord Edward looked confused, and replied, “Why, yes, that fellow, Napoleon, was telling me that he had arranged a special ‘VIP’ demonstration of the camera. We are to be upstairs, in the Guv’s private quarters, in one hour.” He seemed a little embarrassed. “Normally, I don’t go for that ‘VIP’ treatment, but I very much wanted to see the camera in action.”

Kathy slapped a hand to her forehead and seemed on the verge of saying something rash. I interjected, “Your Grace, I fear that this may be the occasion we discussed: a roomful of dignitaries, separated from any security, unable to escape, would be at the mercy of assassins. The stolen silencers would ensure that no one downstairs could raise the alarm.”

He granted the possibility. “What do you suggest?”

“You are about the same height as Dr. Luminos, though of somewhat greater build. The two of you could change costumes, and let Dr. Luminos go in your place.”

Roland looked alarmed. “Me? Old bean, I hardly think…”

“You are the only one of us who can do so, Uncle Roland. We cannot call Captain Armstrong’s force to come inside, or we will surely alert the conspirators.”

Kathy looked impatient. “Get moving, you two. We’re losing time.” Lord Edward looked startled at being addressed so peremptorily, and Roland still looked unsure, but the two made plans to quietly withdraw to a side room where each donned the other’s costume. Lord Edward’s Headless Horseman looked a little large on Roland, but we agreed it was a fairly good fit and would pass a quick inspection. Certainly no one could identify the wearer of the costume by sight, not with the large pumpkin head obliterating any distinguishing features.

“What if they use the soul camera, and the picture of mine differs from Lord Edward’s, eh what?” worried Roland.

“It’s a fraud, you old fraud!” exclaimed Kathy.

“Not a fraud, young lady, not at all,” replied Foster. “However, as no one has ever taken a picture of His Grace’s soul, that problem seems unlikely to arise.”

I agreed. “No, the bigger problem is what happens if the conspirators insist that Roland take off the costume’s head so they can visually identify him.” Roland gulped at that.

Lord Edward said, “I understand how you plan on getting your man into the arena, so to speak. But how are you to prevent the crime?”

“We are going to hope that those responsible have retained some good sense,” I replied. “If their foul intent is discovered and a cry is raised, they will have no incentive to carry through their plans, particularly if they are made aware of the police presence outside and understand they will not get away. Kathy and I will follow Roland at a discreet distance and sound the alarm when – if – we are certain of their plans. In the meanwhile, Your Grace, do nothing to indicate that anything is amiss.”

Having developed this plan, I was not at all confident in its success, but it was all we had. Roland set out for the private chambers upstairs. Kathy and I followed at some distance.

* * *
When Roland reached the closed door, he knocked politely. Kathy and I were crouched in a doorway nearby, and could hear the tumblers of the lock turn as the door was opened. “Come in, Your Grace,” a voice behind the door said. Roland entered, and the door was locked again.

We looked at one another. “This throws a spanner into the works,” Kathy said.

“We’ll never get in that way,” I agreed. Several other costumed party-goers arrived and were similarly granted access.

When they passed, Kathy said, “The orchestra is scheduled to start up at half-past the hour. Along with the silencers, the music will help muffle the shots. We have about fifteen minutes to get into that room. I have an idea.” With that, she crept back down the stairs before I could object.

I had my own idea, however. I walked to the door and rapped lightly. The door opened a crack, and Napoleon looked at me. “Sorry, this is a private meeting.”

I made myself look as adorable as I could in the faerie costume and said, slurring my words some, “I know. Big party here. I’m the party shurprishe.” I tried to enter the room, but Napoleon shoved hard with one straightened arm and, as I attempted to maintain my balance, he said, “Take it somewhere else, you tart,” as he slammed the door shut and locked it again.

The grandfather clock in the hall showed twenty past the hour. I had no choice but to run downstairs, out the main hall of the mansion, and locate Captain Armstrong, where I breathlessly explained the situation. He barked out a command to his men, and a half-dozen uniformed officers followed their Captain into the mansion at a run, guns drawn.

The clock in the town square sounded the half hour.

* * *
Meanwhile, Kathy had taken a more direct route to the locked room. After she left me, she opened a window in the ballroom as astonished guests watched her climb out. The orchestra finished tuning up, and the conductor readied the first waltz. Using her lithe body and gymnastic ability, silently she climbed the outside of the building, using various projections in the brickwork as toeholds. Now at the second floor, she grabbed hold of a smiling gargoyle and, using the stone figure as an anchor, she pivoted around the figure and hit the window feet first.

Glass flew in all directions, and the assembled dignitaries and their captors saw the Angel of Death glide into the chamber. “Hello, boys,” she said with false bravado, as four guns turned in her direction.

By that time, Captain Armstrong and his men had reached the second floor landing with me, and I pointed out the door to the chamber. Two solid hits on the door by a burly uniformed officer cracked the jamb and the door flew open. One of the thugs fired a shot in the direction of the door which, fortunately, went wide. Napoleon shouted, “Stop it, you fool! It’s over!” He placed his weapon carefully on the floor, and his men reluctantly did the same.

Captain Armstrong took the pistols while his officers made the arrests. “Is anyone hurt?” he asked. The various dignitaries shook their heads. My Angel of Death sister had suffered numerous small cuts from the flying glass, but was not seriously injured.

Roland pulled off the pumpkin head and said, “My stars! That costume needs better ventilation!” He looked at the ungainly camera set up in a corner of the room. “Diggory will be delighted to have that back.”

A little broken glass and a murderous plot was not enough to stop a Caledonian party, so the dignitaries returned to the ballroom to continue the revelry, feeling a little foolish but otherwise intact. Roland exchanged costumes once again with Lord Edward, but decided he had had enough excitement for the evening and headed home. Professor Foster excitedly reclaimed his camera and similarly set out for his laboratory.

I helped Kathy wash her cuts and apply some sticking plaster, and then the two of us agreed that, between drinking and dancing, having a serious drink was a much higher priority. Besides, our “dates” had both departed. Captain Armstrong accompanied us to the Flying Anvil. The bartender looked at the barrel-shaped policeman, the Angel of Death, and the faerie. “Nice costumes.” Armstrong glared. “Oh, sorry, Captain, I didn’t recognize you. What’ll you have?”

After several restorative whiskies, we compared notes on the evening’s activities. “What do you suppose they were after?” I asked the captain.

He put down his drink. “I don’t know. We’ll sweat them, and eventually they’ll tell us why they did it and who else was in on the plot. My guess? They’re anarchists, and figured killing the leaders of the Realm of the Roses would create chaos.”

“Or they had designs on running the entire Realm themselves,” I suggested. “After all, their leader was dressed as Napoleon.”

Kathy tossed back her whisky. “Land barons. They wanted to devalue the Realm’s land, then buy it cheaply.” Well, it was as good an explanation as any.

* * *
And what of the soul camera? The next day, Diggory Foster received a telegram from his chemist. In apologetic terms, the telegram noted that the last batch of silver nitrite had been compromised, and, as they were certain he had already discovered, would produce no usable images on the photographic negative. They were most sorry about the inconvenience this must have caused, and they would replace the batch immediately.

Foster was a broken man after that, his dreams of untold riches dashed in an instant. But he was a proud man, and to this day when asked about the camera manages to mumble that he is working on it and expects to be finished any day now.

[Both parts are available as a single file at Calameo: Click Here]

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