The fog swelled profusely in dense patches and people on the street must stop in their tracks or risk wandering into the middle of the causeway, where they risked collision or flattening beneath mechanical conveyances. The vehicles required no line of sight as they followed magnetic tracks set into the cobblestones, and thus blundered blithely forward in the opaque atmosphere. But in the middle of the night the people ventured out—the drunks, the villains, and the children, careening through these soup-thick patches, and every night the bodies accumulated in the streets, and it was a race to see who would reach these unfortunates first, the bobbies, the night ghouls, the feeders, or the puppets. If the bobbies reached you first, there was hope that the unfortunate victim might see medical aid, a return to family for a funeral, or at the very least a decent burial in a pauper’s grave. If the night ghouls reached you, you might end up beneath a physician’s scalpel—if a Resurrectionist carried your body, you might contribute to furthering science, by enriching the minds and experiments of such leading thinkers as Robert Knox and Victor Frankenstein; however, if you were lifted from the cobbles by the other kind of ghoul, your body might hang upside-down for a while in the underground slaughterhouses, and your flesh might appear in several upscale restaurants. If the feeders found you, pieces of you could be consumed there, on the spot, while other portions would be taken and hidden, as a dog buries its bones for later gnawing. But if puppets got hold of your corpse—or your wounded and crushed body, still with a little life—oh, but then, things could get interesting for you. Because then you might venture into a new life, of varied entertainments.
Some believed that a mysterious and fell genius was manipulating the fog, in the facilitation of providing more roadkill for all those that required the stuff. And the bodies of children brought the highest bounty. But worth more than the crushed remains of children, was their living, breathing bodies.
Good parents kept their children indoors and in bed during the night fogs, and many held their children close when the fog grew thick during the days. The sad fact, however, was that in Olde London, on the Steampunk streets, there just did not seem to be enough good parents to go around, for thousands of small shapes moved through the foggy nights.
Fagin’s Bunch was the largest, a gang consisting of hundreds of children, and Fagin’s chief rival was Gavroche’s Gang, but there were many kidsmen working the streets, training and employing pickpockets, thieves, messengers, mules to transport opium and loot, and much worse, darker employment.
“Can’t someone do something about this?” Jack muttered, as Anne propelled him through the streets. Whenever they hit an opaque patch of fog, Anne moved them safely against a building or lamppost, until the atmosphere thinned.
“You mean the children?” Anne whispered. “There are many here that do fight to save the children, but unfortunately there are many more diabolicals working to do just the opposite.”
Several children boisterously dashed past them, laughing and catcalling, as Anne and Jack waited against a stalled carriage. A group of men appeared from the billows of the fog and set to work on the man lying in the street. Metal tools clinked, and there was the sound of slicing. Jack tried not to watch, or listen, because the men were certainly not bobbies, and there was something decidedly wrong about their gait and bearing. They looked more like apes than men. But at least the traffic victim was dead, that much was obvious. A steam velocipede had nearly severed the poor man’s head.
“Just tell yourself that it’s not real,” Anne breathed against his ear.
At one time, yes, a lot of this would be NPC action, just programmed non-entities strolling about in their programmed ruts, following the pre-laid tracks, just puppets on strings. But now, when you thought about it, there was no such thing as an NPC. One life was as important as another life—data was data, after all. Data is data.
“But here, it is real, isn’t it?” Jack whispered in return. After a moment, he whispered, hating the shriveling and sinking pit of his stomach: “Can’t we go back to High Vale?”
“Maulgraul can reach us too easily there, and in the Looking Glass they would separate us, Jack,” Anne breathed. “I am sorry, Jack, I shouldn’t be so selfish. But I always am, we always end up here. And Jack, there is going to be some bad stuff...”
“Just keep in mind, this is my first time here, so I don’t know what’s going on, as usual,” Jack muttered, furious and frustrated. He had barely established his bearings in High Vale, and now here he was in a new, darker world.
“Don’t worry, we have friends here, but it is going to be tricky to get us to a part of the city where everyone isn’t trying to kill us. We can go to Berry, or Doyle, even Haggard. Once we’re in a safe place, it won’t be so bad. We came down in the wrong place, those damned Men from Mars. I think they brought us down in East London.”
Jack was thankful they still had their goggles, which allowed them to see—somewhat— through the fog and darkness. He had to keep wiping the moisture off the eyepieces. The really bad thing was that it was cold here, wet cold, and the leather wingmen jackets just didn’t do much to keep out that cold, and its cloying dampness. He huddled in close to Anne, enjoying the halo of warmth about her slim body. He smoothed his hand along her waist, amazed at how silky and supple she felt.
“Keep your mind on the darkness, Jack,” Anne cautioned.
Right, he told himself. Bad place. Bad people. Very bad things. Still, it was difficult not to allow his attention to wander into focusing on Anne, and her sleek body, as they pressed together.
Another group of children dashed past. In his amber vision Jack thought the kids looked no older than eight or nine years of age, with the youngest around five. He heard them laughing about the Midnight Puppetshow. How in the world were they running like this, as he could barely trust his feet, even with the aid of enhanced vision. And the children were literally skipping. They sounded like children anywhere.
“Follow them,” Anne snapped, and steered Jack along the curb, and he felt like a blind man wading through milk. “Whatever happens, Jack, just pretend that it is all a game, that you are enjoying everything. That’s how the great adventurers handle it—it’s a lark, a game. Enjoy it. Go with it. Don’t show fear. Irregardless.”
“Regardless,” Jack supplied.
“That too,” Anne said, and it was obvious she was smiling. Jack sighed, as it seemed that at least Anne was not put off by his sense of humor. He knew he sometimes grated on Stacey.
Jack thought about it, wasn’t that the message they received at the beginning in the Coffee Dump? Don’t be afraid. Enjoy yourself. Go with the flow. It was tough, though, when everything loomed up large and nasty in front of you, and the things coming up from behind were even worse.
Jack kept his left elbow up and out before his face—he thought he must look like Dracula—as Anne hurried him along. He pictured slamming face-first into a telephone pole (of course, he remembered, they don’t have telephones). He had not tripped or stumbled on any irregularities on the pavement and he wished he could actually take a look around this place, as it was fascinating, in a different way it was every bit as complicated, concentrated, and intricate as High Vale.
“The sidewalks are nice,” Jack observed.
“All the modern conveniences,” Anne said.
As the fog shifted, Jack discerned traffic moving in the street, carriages, some without horses, but he had seen nothing that resembled anything like the early automobiles, only a lot of bizarre mechanical conveyances, including a long, metal caterpillar, which must function as a city bus, perhaps free public transportation. The streets were wide, allowing for traffic going both ways, and since this was a facsimile of London, of course everyone drove on the wrong side of the street, or just headed down whichever direction they wanted to go, possibly flipping a coin to choose, on horses, steam vehicles, as well as many velocipedes right out in the middle of the street, which is where the topsy-turvy vehicles seemed to prefer.
They passed through groups of long-coated gentlemen in tall, expensive hats, and gangs of lounging roughs that milled about descending staircases into what must be taverns and opium dens. But Anne hurried him in and out and around so quickly that Jack barely had a chance to pick out real details in the fog.
“Wait a sec, get ready,” Anne said, crouching at a street corner. Before Jack could ask what she intended, she jerked him by the arm into traffic, dodging them about a sleek carriage that looked like a large coffin on many wheels, and hurried him ducking under some kind of too-tall cart pulled by what looked like a team of llamas, to the other side of the street. Jack could no longer see any of the children, but he could hear them somewhere farther up the street, giggling and calling to each other.
“It’s so busy, in the middle of the night, with hardly any lights,” Jack wondered.
“The day life is very different from the night life, although it is sometimes as almost as dark during the day, but at least it is not quite as dangerous,” Anne told him. “But there will be a hundred times the traffic in the day. The good people of Olde London are locked behind their doors.”
“So there are good people in Olde London?” Jack said, huddling next to her as they now dashed down a dark sidewalk. All the lights were out, except for far up ahead.
“Certainly, I think,” she said, but he thought she didn’t sound at all certain. It sounded like wishful thinking.
Up ahead the fog was thinning enough to discern a tall iron fence with lots of lights beyond and lots of people. It looked like some kind of festival was going on, and people were laughing loudly, drunkenly, and there were just too many children out and boisterously about.
“Hopefully, this is Hyde Park,” Anne said.
“Is it a...good place?” Jack asked, hopefully.
“Not necessarily, though there will certainly be bobbies out in force, so safe...enough, but we should be able to get you some food and something warm to drink.”
“Wait a second,” Jack said, pulling her to a halt, “Hyde Park? It doesn’t have anything to do with Mr. Hyde, does it?”
“I don’t think so,” Anne said, “but I don’t really know. But he might be here. If you see him, a very tall, oddly looking man with arms too long, a jutting caveman forehead and the most terrifying leer, just don’t make eye contact, got that, Jack?”
“I won’t,” Jack said, swallowing hard. She did say that there would be some bad stuff, and he had already witnessed plenty of the bad stuff, but hopefully Anne didn’t mean that the bad stuff she was steering him into made this other bad stuff look not so bad. Given just how bad High Vale could get, Jack feared the worst.
They approached the park and the milling people just outside the open gates, walking slowly, arm in arm.
“Remember, we are a young couple out for entertainment, we are not afraid, and we are certainly not helpless,” Anne whispered into his ear, cuddling close.
Jack swallowed hard. He didn’t like the way she stressed not helpless.
“Keep a stiff upper lip, and all that,” Anne said.
Jack reached reflexively to touch his slight moustache. Hey, it was seeming a little more—hopeful. Not too bad. He suddenly felt very good about himself.
“We are definitely going to shave that thing the first chance we get,” Anne said, smiling up into his eyes.
“Hey, I like this moustache, and don’t all the men here have them?” Jack almost wailed, rolling his eyes at her.
“Most of the men here certainly do have moustaches, but this is decidedly not a moustache,” Anne said, squeezing his arm, and shaking her head at his peach fuzz.
Jack sighed. He thought for sure his facial hair was making some real progress.
A gout of flame erupted thirty feet into the air, and Jack jerked about, but was comforted to see it was just a fire eater, an entertainer, strolling about, juggling long, glittering razor blades, the old-fashioned kind of razor, that barbers stropped on long leather straps. And the deeper into the park they strolled the more of this kind of thing they saw, jugglers, nut sellers calling out their wares and prices, actors yelling at each other as groups of pleasure-seekers gathered. Strolling animals, a bear on a chain, and comically, a bear that seemed to be out walking his humans. There were ladies in long, fluffy gowns, and gentlemen in finery, and Jack did a double-take, because in nearly all the groups of gentlemen and ladies there were very simplistic puppets standing near them—or maybe not puppets, but robots, or nondescript automatons.
“What’s with all the puppets?” Jack whispered, keeping his face in a smile.
“Bodyguards, for the wealthy,” Anne replied, keeping her head down. “The very wealthy have automatons that are practically indistinguishable from humans.”
Jack glanced at her. She was acting funny.
“What’s wrong?” he whispered, drawing her away from several groups of milling people.
“Is that how you see me, Jack? As a puppet?” she said, not meeting his eyes.
“Not at all!” he said, amazed. “Of course not. You’re a person. A beautiful woman.”
“Really?” she said, still not looking up.
“Hey,” he breathed, lifting her chin. “You’re my dream girl. That’s all I’ve ever wanted: to find you!”
She finally met his eyes, and smiled, tears forming at the corner of her eyes. And she was about to say something, but he kissed her, warmly, and deeply. She returned the embrace, almost desperately.
“We found each other, Jack,” Anne breathed. “It’s been a long time.”
“Remember, for me, it’s been a lifetime,” he said, holding her tightly, not considering that a lifetime for him was just a little more than eighteen years of time, most of it squandered in childhood, but for her, it was thousands of years, sheltered from Reboots in Lady Maulgraul’s Looking Glass domain. But the sadness in her shimmering eyes did get through. He placed his arm about her and squeezed. They both understood, however, that all the other iterations of Jack didn’t count for him, but only for her, and if he thought about it, he felt a little jealous about those other guys, even if they were him.
Winding along the path they passed many couples, standing under trees, passionately embracing, and Jack didn’t try to notice, but many of the women were automatons, some of them quite outlandish with too-long necks, or bosoms swollen to monstrous proportions.
“They’re the ladies of the Puppet Brothels,” Anne whispered.
Jack chuckled. “Why in the world would puppets need to go to brothels?”
Anne sighed and though Jack didn’t check he knew she was rolling her eyes.
“Jack. Please. Think. The brothels are for the rich and...twisted,” Anne replied. “The poor stick to the regular brothels.”
He thought about it for a few moments.
“Oh, okay, I get it. Guys go to the brothels to—be...with the puppets,” he said, feeling dumb.
“Yes, Jack. Right. But women visit the brothels, as well, many of the great lords and ladies keep these particular puppets as...butlers, and maids, and for...other jobs.”
“Got it,” he concluded.
As they approached a large clearing crowded with people and a conspicuous amount of children, Jack figured they must have found the Midnight Puppetshow, and a moment later he caught sight of several wagons unfolded into quite an elaborate theater with stage, footlights, and red velvet curtains. Torches and lamps encircled the grounds, and folding benches were spread everywhere, mostly occupied by single ladies in gowns, their gentlemen standing protectively behind them, the men chatting and smoking cigars. Jack inhaled deeply, as the cigar smoke reminded him of Stacey.
Anne steered him to a small empty bench just wide enough for the two of them, and they sat on the outskirts of the crowd, off to the side so that they had a clear view of both the silent stage and the milling crowd, and Jack sat with his arm about Anne, watching the crowd. He spotted some recognizable figures out on the outskirts, and he figured they must be part of the show.
“Those guys, the ones with the stovepipe hats, and the long fake noses—child catchers, are they puppets?” Jack whispered. “Are they part of the show? Like attendants?”
“Those are real child catchers, and those are real noses, but I don’t know if they are puppets, and they are not part of the show,” Anne whispered directly into his ear.
“Come on, that can’t be right,” Jack said, feeling a chill, staring at one of the closer child catchers, with his handful of suckers and lollipops, The man’s skin looked pale and slack, but the eyes above the ridiculously long nose glittered with menace, as the creature stared feverishly at the hundreds of children seated in the grassy open space between the stage and the first ring of benches. He remembered well the children’s movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and the frightening Child Catcher—it had given him nightmares, and the creepy guy was probably his very worst boogie man, bar none, throughout his childhood.
These knockoffs could have been brothers of the actor that played the part in the movie, although some were tall, and some were short, but all of them were skeletal and pale, and looked angrily, and hungrily at the children. They sported what looked like grotesquely large butterfly nets, but Jack didn’t have to guess what those were for. The shortest nose Jack saw had to be eight inches in length, and the longest must be over a foot. The child catcher Jack was observing suddenly felt Jack’s scrutiny, and the beady eyes turned upon him, and a transformation washed over his face, and suddenly he was just a very thin man with a very long nose, and he tipped his hat and smiled at Jack, almost kindly. He held up a lollipop, eyebrows lifted in entreaty. Jack shook his head, and the man bowed, deeply, and melded into the crowd.
“Creepy,” Jack muttered.
“They are actually part of Scotland Yard, but the rumor is that they really work for Punchinello, providing him the material he needs for his puppets,” Anne whispered. She was keeping an eye on the men that kept walking around behind them, but thus far, no one had paid any particular or specific attention to the pair from the Looking Glass.
“Punchinello?” Jack queried, certain that he had heard that name before.
“He is the Puppet Master,” Anne said.
As if on cue, trumpets blared and lights blazed on behind the theater stage. Squinting, Jack pushed his goggles up onto his skullcap. The lights were so bright they hurt his eyes even without the goggles.
“Tesla Lighting,” Anne whispered.
“Nikola Tesla?” Jack said, enthused, as he was a big fan of the genius inventor.
“Yes, that’s him,” Anne replied, “he’s having a war with Victor Frankenstein, who has stolen all his best ideas. So officially, they are Frankenstein Lights, and Frankenstein Energy, but everybody knows.”
“Everybody knows the good guys lost,” Jack quoted, sadly thinking of Leonard Cohen, and how he hadn’t heard any real music from his world in ages.
“Never,” Anne said, squeezing his arm. “We are the good guys, Jack. And we are going to win.”
“Tell that to Tesla,” Jack said, shaking his head.
“Maybe you can tell him,” Anne said, eyes twinkling.
“That would be awesome,” Jack breathed, “to meet Tesla.”
“You’ve already met one of your favorite authors,” she crooned.
“Really?” Jack snapped, his head popping up out of his huddled shoulders, as he looked about at the crowd.
She pinched him.
“I was kidding!” he said, quickly. “Agnes Grey—The Tenant of Toad Hall!”
She slapped him on the knee, hard.
“It’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,” she snapped, and she gave him a hard look, and he figured he could distantly imagine what the Men from Mars felt when she kicked their asses.
“I know, I know!” he chortled, and was happy that she couldn’t see him blushing furiously in the night. “I was just kidding.”
“No you weren’t,” she said, and then sighed. “You’d be surprised how many people make that mistake. The Tenant of Toad Hall, I should have called it that. Nobody ever messes up the title of Jane Eyre, or Wuthering Heights.”
“I used to say: Jane Airhead,” Jack said, tentatively, half-expecting another slap.
But Anne giggled. “I like that. It would really piss off Charlotte, I can assure you of that!”
“You are my favorite author in all the history of the world—I promise I’ve never clenched with another author, and I promise I never shall!”
“Ah, you are so...romantic, my Jack,” she breathed, snuggling into his side.
He pushed back the thick mane of hair from her forehead and sighed.
“Your hair feels like silk,” he breathed.
“It’s fire and mildrew resistant,” she said, pertly.
The red velvet curtains parted on the main stage and a spotlight appeared from somewhere as a tall, thin man with an exaggerated paunch bounced onto the raised stage. He was dressed in what looked like flashy satin pajamas, fashioned somewhat like a pirate, or swashbuckler, with tall yellow boots, and an absurd hat with an even more absurd peacock feather jutting up like an antenna. His pajamas were yellow with black stripes, or maybe they were black with yellow stripes, but whatever, some kind of optical illusion seemed to be shining in the stripes. Even on this first appearance, the man was hypnotic—you had to stare at him. But Jack was distracted for a moment as he felt a twitch in the pocket of his leather jacket.
He slammed down his elbow on some kind of stick, and turning, he came face to face with a grinning ragamuffin. The kid was filthy, with a round, freckled face, and slitted jack-o’-lantern eyes, smiling, and the pudgiest mouth Jack had ever seen, looking like a human-terrier hybrid.
“Sorry gov, tot I saws a wasp crawlin’ on yer pocket, and din wanya to git stinged, no gov!”
“Scram!” Jack told the kid, elbowing him away. The good thing was that he didn’t have anything ripe for picking in his jacket. He’d left everything back in the Looking Glass. Still, they might try and unscrew the wings from his back, which had compacted down into a metal case about the size of a thermos. And his goggles, and skullcap—he suddenly felt paranoid that the thieves here might be that good, to snatch the very clothing off his body without his noticing.
“No worries gov!” the scrawny kid guffawed, backing away, grinning and bowing, his mop of standing-up red hair waving like a fan.
“I forgot to mention the pickpockets,” Anne said.
“Ladies and Gentlemen!” the man on the stage bellowed. “We all of us here are so glad to have you as our merry company!”
All of this Jack had to interpret in his head, because the man’s accent was so wacky it barely sounded like words erupting from his wide, smiling mouth.
Jack noticed that there seemed to be a rectangle drawn about the man’s face, some kind of inset mask, or something pasted on, but it was uncanny, because the rectangle of flesh, tracing from the forehead down to the man’s upper lip, and from ear to ear, looked somehow more alive than the rest of his face. Jack blinked. How weird.
“Is he a puppet?” Jack said, his voice raised, not taking his eyes off the man who gamboled and danced upon the stage, doing some kind of soft-shoe tap dance.
“That is the puppet,” Anne replied, keeping her voice low, despite the din the children were making, laughing and clapping and whistling. “That is Punchinello, the Puppet Master.”
The Puppet Master leaped into the air—it was breathtaking—he jumped what must be at least ten feet in the air, flipping end over end. Seriously, he could dunk a basketball with his feet—who said white guys couldn’t jump? And those flips—it was insane—a professional gymnast could never do that many flips, especially not from a standing position, just to leap up like that, and go into a tumble, and then come down upon his hands, to walk about, clapping his boots together, encouraging the blast of applause.
“But you are not here to see my cavortings,” Punchinello bellowed. “So wiffout fuvvah ado, I give you the—puppets!”
And the Puppet Master flew up into the sky to vanish. At least that’s what it looked like happened. He seemed to be snatched away by wires or something. And it really looked like he had flashed up tiny into the clouds. The crowd reacted with awe, and then applause, as the curtains drew back to another fanfare of trumpets.
There on all three stages were what must be thirty wooden puppets, plain wooden blocks—they looked like the common poseable artist mannequins, and each one had its right hand upraised, grasping a little cross of wood that manipulated the bright and obvious strings that extended down to their feet and hands, and they began to dance, in perfect unison, doing high kicks in a can-can chorus line. It looked pretty amazing. Like magic puppets that pulled their own strings. Jack gawked.
But Jack felt another twitch at his pocket and with exaggerated frustration turned to confront the roly-poly redhead again, but came face to face with some other street urchin, this one with froglike bulging eyes, who scampered away immediately, and Jack noticed that one of the child catchers moved off immediately after the tyke, who could only be four or five years of age. Jack pulled the lining out on each of his pockets to show them what’s what, and not to bother. He hoped the poor kid got away.
The wooden mannequins on stage were still high kicking, and can-can music was blasting away from somewhere, and the gathered mass of children in the central clearing were clapping their hands in time with the music, smiling, and laughing.
Then the wooden mannequins came together in a cacophonous piling on of woodblocks, tangling their strings, jumbling and scrambling, little wooden feet kicking, and the audience erupted in applause. Jack glanced about and noticed many children working at many pockets, and many child catchers moving in like sharks.
“Hoy! Lad! Show’s up dere!” a husky voice said near Jack, and he glanced up to see a burly cutthroat with more than seven days of stubble suffocating his pugnacious, angry face. The goon was pointing a filthy finger at the stage. “Doan be watchin’ de fes-ti-val-ities!”
He actually drew out his made-up word like that, luxuriating in his supposed parroting of the high-class gentlemen. Festivalities, the idiot.
Jack looked away from the dangerous looking goon and returned his attention to the stage, but kept a peripheral view hovering on the thug. He wished Stacey were here to crack the guy with the business end of his shillelagh. That reminded him, he needed to acquire some kind of defense, perhaps a sword cane, or at the very least a good, sturdy umbrella. He and Anne really were quite defenseless, save for Anne’s significant karate moves.
All of this seemed like a tumbled nightmare, fever images, threatening forms looming close—ever since they first collided with the Men from Mars over the streets of Olde London. It had been a non-stop nightmare clash of deadly rushing images, and Jack just didn’t want to be here, regardless of how amazingly interesting everything seemed to be.
The tumble of wooden puppets were drawing upward into some sculpture of sticks and string, and Jack was immediately captivated again to see three or four puppets forming a left leg while a similar group formed into a right leg, and there was the body forming, and arms, and a head, and suddenly there was this shambling monstrosity of tangled puppets, perhaps eight or nine feet of constantly moving shapes, staggering right and left, and then coming to the very edge of the stage where the giant conglomeration of puppets teetered, threatening to fall like a tower upon the gathered children, who scrambled back, howling in terror, and the audience laughed and clapped, and the shambling puppet went blundering back, struggling through the curtains to vanish.
Then a three-foot-high puppet came lowering down—Jack couldn’t see where the strings originated, they seemed to extend up into the cloudy sky. This new puppet seemed an exact replica of Punchinello, only in miniature. It was like there was a giant up about thirty feet in the sky, manipulating the puppet. Perhaps that was more accurate than Jack liked to think.
“Ladies and Gentlemen!” the puppet roared, in Punchinello’s loud voice. “We are so glad—“
But at that moment another puppet lowered, a behemoth female puppet, a huge monstrosity with an oversized head, and this puppet began to loudly harangue the first puppet.
“Oy! Oy! Hey Stupid!”
The children roared with laughter.
“Ah, my lovely wife, Judy!” Punchinello roared, bowing to the bloated puppet, which must stand about four feet in height compared to his three.
“Yer repeatin’ yerself, Oaf!” Judy roared, and there was something of the pig’s squeal in her voice. And for some reason, it rippled Jack’s spine with gooseflesh. The Judy puppet stepped forward and did a neat football kick—very reminiscent of Lucy and Charlie Brown, only she connected, fully, with the Punchinello puppet’s head, which soared offstage.
Judy turned to the crowd.
“That man’o mine! He’s always losing his head over me!” Judy roared, and the crowd roared in return, and Jack felt there was some disturbing violence building in the voices of the watchers. There wasn’t much funny about what was happening, but all the elegant ladies and gentlemen roared, as if they were at a bullfight, and the bull had just received its first decorative spear.
Punchinello—the full-size Puppet Master—came dancing back onstage, holding his diminutive mini-me’s head, which he fastened back in place, and then, bending low, he loudly stage-whispered into the puppet’s ear.
“Are you going to take that from her, my good man?” Punchinello bellowed.
The little Punch glanced between his larger self and his monstrous mate, comically sizing her up and down.
“Er, um, I say my good fellow, but what do you suggest?” the little Punch queried, leering at the audience. The smaller puppet had that same rectangle of face, and Jack grimaced, because the little puppet’s face-rectangle looked just as real as the larger version. Jack kept wanting to blame it all on computer-generated graphics, but he knew CGI was not the villain here. There was something much, much worse going on.
The large Punch held up his fist, displaying it for the crowd, who cheered enthusiastically.
“I say, Little Me, but why not give her one, right in the kisser?”
The crowd roared, and some of the ladies and gentlemen actually began a chant of: “Hit her! Hit her! Hit her!” The children raucously picked up the chant.
The big Punch displayed the proper form, taking a boxer’s stance, right fist up at his chin, left hand extended, although Jack noticed it was all in the Marquis of Queensbury fashion, with fists inverted, elbows down, dukes up, thumbs aimed backward. Punch threw a punch or two, and the crowd roared with anticipation.
“Yer all think it’s a good idea, do ye?” Little Punch called to the audience.
“Hit her! Hit her! Hit her!”
“What a bunch of misogynists,” Jack muttered.
“Wait till you meet the real Judy,” Anne said, and she was as solemn-faced as Jack.
The little Punch comically put up his dukes like his larger self, and began dancing around, shadowboxing, taking awful swings at the air, and the crowd roared its approval. The weirdest thing was that the little man actually looked like a little man—perfectly proportioned, and completely normal, other than the rectangle set in the face. Finally, the little Punch looked back up to his larger self for final approval.
“Right in the kisser!” Punchinello commanded, standing straight and tall, at military attention, encouraging his smaller self with a comically over-wrought military salute, palm turned outward, fingertips at eyebrow.
Little Punch drew back close to his taller self, so as to take a good running charge at his mate, who stood with hands on hips, daring him to try. Little Punch wound up for a titanic blow, with exaggeration, winding his arm in large circles, finally ending with his fist held low to the ground, one leg up like a pitcher about to deliver a fastball, and then he rocketed the arm forward, but unfortunately his fist came up and planted itself with a crash of cymbals, right in the middle of the larger Punch’s legs, where it caught fast, planted solidly in Punch’s groin.
Punchinello turned with slow sincerity to the audience, and quietly suffered, his face going bright green, actually glowing with light, and then changing hue to go bright red, and finally it went deepest blue as his eyes pinwheeled like fireworks in his head. The audience roared with laughter and stamped its collective feet. Little Punch staggered about, his fist firmly planted in the groin of his master.
“Nuts!” bellowed Punch, in what sounded like a high, helium-induced squeak. Jack thought he sounded just like the Chipmunks.
The audience roared with the laughter of approval, the men and women and children rocking forward and backward, overcome with mirth, fully satisfied with the shenanigans.
“I said the KISSER!” Punch whined in that same mosquito-high voice, “not the KISSEE!”
And Jack was surprised that the whole audience seemed to recite the lines along with the Puppet Master, almost like a religious chant: “I said the kisser! Not the kissee!” It must be the highlight of the show. It was like the shouted CHARGE at a professional baseball game.
Punch bent double, apparently not fully acknowledging the pain until just now, right about...now experiencing the full delayed reaction (little Punch staggered back, finally released, and stood with his hands comically clapped to the sides of his face, fearing punishment), and Punchinello groaned, steam tooting out of his ears, and it was at this moment that little Judy (if you could ever call her little, even at four feet of height) came charging forward, trampling poor little Punch, and then did a flying martial arts kick, savagely snapping up her leg as she reached large Punch. She connected, fully, with big Punch’s head, which disengaged and flew up a full fifteen feet in the air, to come down hard, slapping wetly upon the stage, where it glowered and looked about, its eyes comically large, peering at the children and at the audience, and for a brief instant Jack was certain that Punchinello looked directly at them, but more precisely, he looked at Anne.
The Judy lifted her skirts and sat down upon Punchinello’s head, using it as a stool, and the crowd roared with delight as the severed head looked up with horror as the horror above him descended.
“Let’s go,” Jack snapped at Anne, easily drawing her up from the bench, and she hurried at his side, but the thug stepped in close, one hand suggestively in his pocket.
“Oy! Boy! Shows not over,” he growled, slapping a hand on Jack’s chest.
Jack growled, and before he knew what he was doing, he rocketed up a punch—a BOOM, forget the bam, for the moment—right into the guy’s swinging gut. The air whooshed out of the goon’s face as he doubled over and before he had time to think Jack slammed down a chopping left hand, quick and to the point, an honest bam, which caught the gasping thug right across the jaw, and wonder of wonder, the burly thug collapsed, and immediately the crowd backed away from them. Wow, you really did learn by observation, as Jack had seen Stacey deliver that very punch several times.
“Come on, Jack!” Anne snapped, jerking him by the arm, and they kept it to a quick walk as they threaded through the crowd, which continuously backed away from them, as if they were the dangerous blokes on the premises.
“Sorry about that,” Jack said, feeling more shocked and a little embarrassed at his sudden burst of violence. “I’m just so sick of all the leering faces. This is like a nightmare.”
Other fights were breaking out behind them, and soon bobby whistles were tooting.
“Boy oh boy, did I just start all that?” Jack said, glancing back to the sounds of mayhem and brutality.
“Don’t worry about it, that’s the way the puppet shows always go, except the children usually start the fights,” Anne replied.
Several bobbies came trotting toward them, their truncheons out, whistles protruding from their mouths, tooting as they trotted. Jack and Anne stepped neatly out of their path and watched as they passed.
“We look just like a boy and a girl,” Anne said, grinning, “not at all like a couple of roughs that turned a perfectly nice puppet show into a drunken brawl.”
“I haven’t even had a drink,” Jack said, proudly.
“Oh, I’m sorry Jack, I should have gotten you something to eat, maybe some fish and chips, but that slips my mind as I don’t eat.”
“That’s okay, I’ll be fine for a while—do we even have any money? Can we buy stuff?”
“Oh yeah, don’t worry, Jacky my love, I’m loaded,” she said, patting her pocket
“You sure you weren’t pickpocketed in there? Two different kids tried to pickpocket me,” Jack said.
“Oh there were about five that made the attempt, you just noticed two of them,” Anne replied, nicely, “they can’t sneak up on me that easily, plus I have a few special pockets built into my jacket. I’ll show you, you have them too, emergency money. Plus there is a set of brass knuckles, in case you wanted to beef up that punch a little.”
“Hey, I thought that was a perfectly good couple of punches,” Jack said. “I only had a couple of lessons from Stacey. But the guy went down, didn’t he?”
“Oh, but he’ll be up again, and you don’t want to run into Bill Sikes again. If you do, either run, or get him down again and kick him a few times, leave him with something permanent to remember you by, either break a few of his ribs, or his fingers—as it is, you’ve just insulted what passes for his honor.”
“You’re not kidding, are you?” Jack said, not liking this world, not at all.
“No Jack, I’m very serious, you are going to have to stop being so nice all the time.”
They made it to the gates and slipped through just before two bobbies rumbled the gates shut from either side.
“They’ll round up the usual suspects,” Anne said, “and then the Midnight Puppetshow will continue, for at least another couple of hours.”
Outside the gates a few bobbies were sipping mugs of tea, leaning against two stout paddy wagons.
“Come on,” Anne said, drawing Jack along the fence. “I think if we follow the outskirts of the park for a while I can figure out where we are in the city.”
Jack paused her near the iron fence. “We better get out those brass knuckles, just in case.”
Anne sighed and turned to face him. She felt inside his jacket.
“Right here, it’s built into some of the padding to protect you from falls. On this side, your knuckles, on the other side is your pocket knife, which doesn’t make a very good weapon, so just leave that be for now.”
She produced the knuckles and held them under his nose.
“How do you use these?” Jack said, slipping on his goggles to examine the oddly heavy ringwork. It snapped apart, providing knuckles for both hands.
“Just slip them on, like rings, and then just throw your punch, like usual, you just want to be sure to catch your guy right here with this ledge, wicked mean,” she said. “It’s not actually brass, shhhh, don’t tell anyone that, they love brass here. This is a flex metal, so it won’t hurt your hand, and they’re actually quite comfortable. They move easily from the inside, so you can be comfortable and keep them on, but any impact from the outside and they go very rigid.”
“Shouldn’t you put yours on as well?” he said, flexing his fists, admiring his new set of weapons.
“Nah, they just don’t seem fair, I mean, it’s not exactly fair when I fight anyone, as it is, but then again I never start the fight,” she said, sounding quite competent, and a little touch...proud?
“How come you didn’t tell me about these earlier?” he queried, feeling so much better now that they had this slim protection.
“In all the excitement, who in the world has time to think about emergency weapons?” Anne said, grinning, and then taking him by the arm, led him on what now felt like a leisurely stroll.
Jack was just about to tell her, and show her, just how much he enjoyed being with her, just being together, when he noticed the figure that seemed to be waiting for them, just ahead.
“Danger, Will Robinson,” Jack muttered.
“No,” Anne said, “that would be...Punchinello.”
“Ah yes, the young lovers,” the man crooned, only ten feet away as Jack and Anne halted in their tracks. He was now dressed in a long, black coat, and a wide-brimmed hat, and the overall effect, Jack had to admit, was pretty cool. Jack reminded himself, distantly, that this guy could leap ten feet in the air, and had a removable head. Those were some tough obstacles to get beyond.
“We are on our way, Punchinello,” Anne said, sounding perfectly calm. “Nice turnout tonight. Lovely show.”
Jack felt trembles moving throughout his body, like the aftershocks of an earthquake—or moonquake, whatever. He was thankful he wore both sets of brass knuckles.
“No trouble, Beautiful Lady,” Punchinello said, in a calm, purring voice. He had the voice of a radio announcer, all deep bass and perfect inflection, deep resonance. There was none of the comical accent from earlier, in the puppet show. “I just wanted to have a look at you, if the young gentleman does not mind?”
Jack didn’t answer, but he tensed, ready for action. But this guy, laughable earlier, now seemed dangerous and powerful. Jack doubted he could handle this man as he had the thug just minutes before, even in a suit of armor, with a bazooka.
Punchinello held up a lantern. It was some kind of odd, steaming light, hissing vapors—it sounded like there was a little throbbing steam engine inside the hand-held device, but Jack, squinting, could see what looked like a Tesla coil inside, pulsing with energy, providing a steady beam of blue-tinted light. Jack supposed here in Olde London they called it a Frankenstein Coil.
“Hmmm, lovely, lovely work,” he purred. At the moment, he sounded utterly friendly. “Decidedly not one of mine. But beautiful. Magnificent. Might I have a closer look?”
“You may look, but please do not touch,” Anne said, and she was grinning. Jack sensed no fear in her. Perhaps this was not as dire a situation as he was assuming.
Jack watched as Punchinello pried loose and easily removed the rectangle of flesh from his face. He held this toward Anne, holding it alongside the steam light. Jack grimaced distastefully as he watched the eyes examining Anne. The rectangle of face was fully animated, fully alive, and the bulging eyes greedily examined Anne, roaming right and left, up and down. Then the horrible eyes glanced over at Jack, and one of them winked. It was a truly nasty effect.
Jack glanced away from the eyes and with a start, he caught a momentary glimpse of the empty rectangle on Punchinello’s face, and into that opening—oh, but goodness, it was some kind of glass or crystal skull inside, with fat slugs or caterpillars slithering through goo. He wished he hadn’t seen that. But the eyes in the rectangle had noticed where Jack was looking, and the hand quickly returned the rectangle of face into the hole, and the eyes stared at Jack.
“The way you are looking at me, young man,” Punchinello purred, smoothly, “why, it is almost as if you do not like me. Is that true?”
“I don’t know you,” Jack said, being as honest as he could be, under these circumstances.
“No, I do not believe that you do,” Punchinello said, smiling, but the eyes in the rectangle were not touched by the upturned lips.
Jack remembered what Anne had impressed upon him earlier, and he relaxed his body, and smiled easily at Punchinello.
“I loved your show, it was amazing,” Jack said.
Punchinello started, and he lifted a hand toward his face, patting at the rectangle, smoothing the corners into place.
“Why thank you, young man, thank you very much, I am pleased to hear that,” Punchinello purred.
Jack felt that there was a chance this could turn out well, as Punchinello seemed inordinately fascinated by Anne, and he bet if they could get the right angle, they could outrun the Puppet Master, as they both were very fast.
But then there was the sound of clodding feet approaching and when Jack glanced back, his stomach fell, and he almost laughed, because the goon from earlier came stomping forward, flanked by several more goons cut from the same cloth.
“Oi! Here he be! Here he be! My young friend, we never got to finish our words, did we?” Bill Sikes chuckled, bending at the waist, bracing his hands on his knees to cough and wheeze. Well, he was obviously a heavy smoker, so that would count in Jack’s favor, wouldn’t it?
“It appears that the good Mr. Sikes has some matter he wishes to discuss with you. You do not mind, do you, if your lady friend and I were to have a private discussion?”
Jack felt Anne at his back, crouching in her karate stance, and he geared himself up, girded his loins, so to speak, and lifted his hands like Stacey showed him. He had not reckoned on getting the chance to try out these brass knuckles, not this soon.
“Remember Jack,” Anne said from behind him, utterly calm, “do not be so nice.”
Boy oh boy, but this was going to hurt.
© Copyright 2016 Douglas Christian Larsen. Vestigial Surreality. All Rights Reserved by the Author, Douglas Christian Larsen. No part of this serial fiction may be reproduced (except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews) or transmitted by any means without the written permission of the publisher, Wolftales UNlimited, but please feel free to share the story with anyone, only not for sale or resale. This work is a work of fiction. People, places, events, and situations are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or historical events, is purely coincidental (wink, wink).
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