Transatlantic Crossing

Summary

A modern-day American man is forcibly acclimated to Victorian London.

Commissioned by my Tumblr pal, Aardvarkia. Find more of my own stories and artwork at my own Tumblr blog.

It was a sweltering July afternoon in 1883 as Sir Charles Magnus-Drake strolled regally through London’s Whitechapel slums. He knew his tall, muscular frame would deter any ruffians tempted by his fine clothing and sapphire-studded cane. A handful of other society folk were about that hot July morning, observing the poverty for their own amusement from the safety of their carriages. These men and women led empty, frivolous lives, and were eager for any sort of thrill. Sir Charles mixed with them regularly, in the balls and salons and fashionable restaurants, but they had no idea he was no longer of their world.

He had traveled, extensively. Not just to the Continent, like many of his so-called peers, but to whole other worlds. The doors to these furtive places were hidden in plain sight. They lurked behind mirrors, beneath animal skin rugs, within clouds of smoke. Sir Charles had learned to unlock these doors, and he had bargained with strange beings to learn the methods of molding reality the way a sculptor worked in clay.

Once, he’d harbored a high-born man’s earnest sympathy for the lower classes. Noblesse oblige, it was called. But now he viewed the great mass of humanity, all of it, rich and poor, for what it was: mere pawns and playthings.

At the moment, he was contemplating the destruction of one Lord Edmund Newbolt, the Marquess of Flintshire, a valuable acreage on the border of Wales. The toffee-nosed fool had dared to snub him at the theatre. In retaliation, Sir Charles had sent one of his invisible familiars to spy on him. To his annoyance, he learned that Newbolt had somehow gleaned that Sir Charles was involved with the occult. Newbolt had compounded his offense by hinting to the other gentlemen in their circle that he was not to be trusted. Few listened to these wild rumors, of course. Still, the situation had to be rectified. Sir Charles decided to remove Newbolt from existence entirely, along with all of his ancestors… and descendants. Such a sizable expenditure of negative energy demanded an equally large measure of kindness, to maintain the universal balance. Despite his distaste for it, Sir Charles would be forced to perform a charitable act – and one of enormous magnitude.

The immediate task, then, was to select the person upon whom he would bestow his begrudging kindness. There was no end of suitable candidates. London, the greatest city in the world, was teeming with unfortunates. And yet, none of them stood out to him as especially more needy than the others. He pondered visiting Newgate Prison or even a hospital. Perhaps he could cause an unjustly persecuted convict to switch minds with the warden. Or even resurrect a freshly deceased body. He had done it before.

Just then, his attention was drawn to a ginger-haired young man accosting passersby outside of a pie shop. After much internal deliberation, Sir Charles finally determined that the man was a jockey. The small, close-fitting cap with the short bill was a clue, naturally. So was his abbreviated height and spindly limbs, which combined with his sharply defined features and weary expression to show he was an uncommonly small adult rather than an adolescent boy. The rest of his attire, however, was unlike any Sir Charles had seen before. Rather than a jockey’s typical riding breeches, he wore a pair of rather baggy short pants bearing a large number of pockets. Instead of the traditional tall leather boots, he wore shoes. These items were made of an exotic, garishly-colored material that defied explanation, and they were constructed so strangely that they could have come from the Orient, for all Sir Charles could tell. His socks barely rose above the shoes, looking more like an infant’s booties than anything suitable for a grown man. His shirt had the number “12” writ large on the front. (Were they numbering the jockeys now? The sport was so new, most anything was possible.) Like the short pants, the garment was much too large for the young man. The sleeves had been unceremoniously hacked off just above the elbow. Slung over one arm was what Sir Charles supposed to be a smallish duffle bag, although the straps were on the wrong side. This was made of a shiny fabric the color of an overripe lemon.

From his position across the street, Sir Charles strained to hear the jockey’s babbling. The bizarre little man seemed to be lost. That was no surprise, given his accent, which betrayed his status as a native of America rather than Britain. Supposedly, he had no recollection of how he had arrived in London. Certainly, the strangeness of his clothing showed he had been in the hands of foreigners. Gypsies, perhaps. Sir Charles noticed that he carried with him a large wooden club, upon which he leaned for support. His fingers nervously caressed the knobby handle. Obviously, he was not only in trouble himself, but in danger of harming others.

Sir Charles made his decision. He would use his considerable power to lift this young man out of his desperate circumstances and into a much better life. After conversing silently with one of the wraith-like familiars that always attended him, he sent the invisible creature on its way, to attach his enchantment to the jockey.

Twenty-year-old Calvin Bolles was trapped in a nightmare. Only a few hours before, he had been in Philadelphia, in the year 2016. He was staying with his college roommate’s family for the month of July. That morning, he and his roommate had been practicing their batting at Starr Garden Park, taking advantage of an unused Little League diamond. But then his roommate was suddenly called home to deal with some kind of family drama, and he insisted Calvin wait a little bit before joining him there. So Calvin decided to wander about the city for a while. He wound up in Washington Square, a small historical district.

The noonday sun was oppressive. It reflected off the sidewalks, sending waves of heat through the air, warping the light and making everything look unreal. Rounding a corner, he could see the neat, close-set homes abruptly give way further down the narrow street to older, taller edifices. These homes weren’t nearly as clean. In fact, everything down the street was grubby, including the people, who were in period dress. The heat roiled the air, making this scene look even more dreamlike. At first, Calvin assumed it was a reenactment for the tourists, like Colonial Williamsburg. But there was something a little too gritty about it. Maybe it was a film set, Calvin thought. He didn’t know what they were filming, but he was willing to bet it would be worth something to sneak some images of it with his phone. No cameras or crew were in evidence on that street, which made things simpler. They were probably nearby, though. Maybe just down a side street, preparing a tracking shot that would wend its way over to where he was looking. Then he would be caught. He decided he had to act quickly.

As he neared the fascinating vista, the heat seemed to jump another ten degrees, and a terrible stench assaulted his nose. He considered turning back, but then a strong wind sprang up, buffeting him from all sides. But chiefly it pushed him forward.

When the wind died down, Calvin just stood there, taking in the remarkable amount of detail in the film set. But the longer he stared, the less easy he felt. There seemed to be too much detail. The streets were strewn with piles of garbage and what appeared to be actual shit. The extras were uncommonly gaunt. One sour-faced young man kicked at a great lumpen object that, upon closer inspection, turned out to be a dead horse. Desperate to look at anything else, Calvin turned his gaze to the skyline. He squinted through the haze at the much taller, grander buildings in the distance. None of them looked familiar. And none of them looked modern.

Trembling, he took a step back and collided with an old lady dressed as some kind of Cockney flower seller. After cursing at him in an English accent, the woman pushed him aside and continued on her doddering way. Calvin decided it was time for him to go back to where he’d started. And that’s when he saw that it wasn’t there anymore.

He wandered the winding streets for a long time, clutching his baseball bat and his gym bag for dear life, looking for anything that resembled Washington Square, or, hell, America or the twenty-first century in general. He managed to convince himself, briefly, that he had blacked out and had blundered onto an unusually large film set or reenactment. But finally, he had to admit the truth. He had somehow fallen through time and space, and landed in Victorian London. It was a setting he only knew about from watching a few episodes of “Penny Dreadful” and the Guy Ritchie “Sherlock Holmes” movies. He had no idea of how to get home. His clothes singled him out as a stranger, and his money was useless. Surreptitiously, he sneaked some glances at his phone. There was no signal. Of course. And no way to recharge it. He wondered if he should try to sell it before the battery ran down. But the technology would probably raise more questions than he could answer. Hell, it might even get him burned as a witch or something. He wasn’t sure what the Victorian attitude towards witchcraft was. So he settled on quizzing random people on whether they had seen anything like Washington Square. If he had stupidly walked through a portal in time, then maybe he could smartly walk right back again. It was worth a shot. But no, everyone treated him like an idiot or a madman. He had never felt so lost in his entire life.

Everyone there was in a hurry. Aside from the incessantly pleading beggars, nobody paid much attention to him. But then he saw a wealthy-looking man staring at him from across the street. He tried not to stare back. The man was tall, easily six-foot-six, and beneath the layers of fine clothing, it was evident he was more jacked than the Rock. He had a stern face, ornamented by bushy white eyebrows and a handlebar mustache so large it hid his mouth entirely. There was something about his posture and the look in his eyes that told Calvin this man was not to be fucked with. He wondered if the imposing stranger could help him. But just as the thought occurred to him, the gentleman turned and walked away.

Calvin felt even more lost than before. Then, a warm, sweet-smelling breeze brushed his cheek, almost like a kiss. Suddenly, his body was invigorated. Without really meaning to, he gave up his post on the street corner and started to walk.

He wasn’t sure where he was headed, but a vague idea had formed in his mind that he could find his way home after all. He had tried not to think about his home, his actual family home in Tulsa, Oklahoma. But now a vision of it sprang to his mind, fully formed. He wasn’t sure he was remembering it right. He could have sworn it was a small ranch-styled affair, but as he envisioned it, the blue siding twitched and became blocks of cream-colored stone, while the roof gave a hop, allowing a second story to emerge from the one and only level he could recall. It was alarming. He hoped he wasn’t getting delirious. Although it would be a relief to discover that his present circumstances were only in his imagination.

If he was coming down with something, he didn’t feel it. On the contrary, he was energized. He stretched his limbs and took several deep breaths. He watched his chest puff out. Oddly, it didn’t go down. He took another deep breath. Again, his narrow chest permanently expanded, looking definitely more muscular than it had before. The muscles of his arms tingled. They, too, seemed less scrawny now. He knew he should be alarmed by this, but something about it was comforting. As he walked, he could feel his legs lose their quick, nervous gait and slip into a more relaxed stride. They seemed more muscular as well. Somehow, a sprinkling of short black hairs had sprouted on his calves. He’d never had any hair there before. And what little hair he did have on his body was red. He forced himself to ignore this, and got on with the business of walking home.

He knew if he just kept going, no matter how long it might take, he would reach it. He tried to picture his mom and dad, waiting for him. But neither of them looked right. Their clothing was odd. His dad’s suit jacket hung down to his thighs. And his face was a blur, save for an enormous mustache and crazy large side-whiskers that he was pretty sure his dad had never grown. His mom, meanwhile, was wearing a skirt instead of her usual jeans. And the skirt kept getting longer and longer, the more he thought about it. Even her face seemed off, looking less like the woman who had raised him and more like one of his girlfriends from Oxford.

No. That wasn’t right. Oxford was in England. A fancy college in England. He knew that much. But then, he reasoned, there was no reason why he couldn’t have gone to college in England. Hell, he was in England right now.

No, something was off. He didn’t know what. He didn’t feel frightened, though. Only confused.

An itching on his forearms alerted him to a new growth of black hairs on the formerly bare skin. Had his arms been hairless? He wondered. Certainly as a boy. That was some little time ago. He paused to study his reflection in a shop window. He looked strong, and was certainly the average height and build for someone his age, which was… what? Twenty-something. Perhaps twenty-five. That seemed a fine age to be. So many possibilities.

It was only his clothing that looked strange. He seemed to be an athlete, or a child’s vaguely scribbled idea of an athlete. The crown of his cap was ill-defined, like a puff pastry, while the bill had apparent aspirations of being a brim, given that it reached halfway around the crown. His shirt was strangely loose, although it seemed to shrink as he watched it, until finally it clung tightly to his muscular chest and arms. He wondered what the numerals on the front were meant to indicate. At first glance, they had been rendered in a blocky script, but now they were clearly in an ornate style, growing more ornate all the time, like initials in an illuminated manuscript. They sprouted leaves and curly vines, their bodies growing thinner until they were mere botanical decoration, lost within a mass of embroidered greenery. The stitching was a navy blue. The color bled onto the fabric, staining the entire center of the shirt.

Best to look away, he decided. He felt embarrassed at his peculiar outfit. He had no explanation for it, and he hoped nobody would say anything. Social standing was everything in this world, and a rumor could reduce one to rubble, like the trumpets at Jericho.

No, that was… Why was he even thinking like that? It sounded like something those asshole frat boys at… Oxford… no, he had never gone to Oxford. He tried to picture his college campus. Suddenly, every building there looked like an old church. He tried to mentally force their shapes into something newer, something more familiar. But the longer he thought about those ancient structures, the more familiar they seemed.

He was in such a daze, he had almost forgotten he was carrying a sack. It was formerly a searing, unalloyed yellow, if memory served. Now, blessedly, the color had darkened to a grayish ochre and the fabric had lost its showy glossiness. He fumbled with it, found a flap lined with miniature metal teeth which seemed to retreat into the lining when he touched them, and searched the interior for anything which might cover his shame. It was empty. Worse, when his hand struck the bottom of it, his fingers passed through the material. There was a second hole on the bottom. “God fuh… fug… oh, bloody hell,” he swore.

Vaguely, he became aware that somebody was yelling at him. Calling him something. A “poof,” whatever that was. He spun around to find a trio of street toughs advancing on him. Instinctively he hefted his… bat? He did a double-take at the object, which was certainly as long as a cricket bat, but could never have been one. Save for the handle, cricket bats were flat. This was more like… actually, he wasn’t sure what it was. It was made of metal, and it was wider at the opposite end from the knobby handle, which had a roughly hooked shape and the merest impression of a face on the end of it.

By then, the apparent leader of the disheveled bunch of criminals was in his face, jabbing him in the chest and demanding money. He was a lanky, craggy-faced Goliath with his bowler hat tilted rakishly and a maroon rag tied about his neck in place of a proper ascot. Although how Calvin knew what sort of tie the man should be wearing, he couldn’t say.

The thug cuffed him again, this time on the shoulder. His voice was like sandpaper against Calvin’s ears. “Oi, are you deaf, guv’nor? I SAID, me and me mates don’t fancy a shirt-liftin’ tosser like you in our neighborhood. So you pay the proper toll and clear out before I lose me temper.”

Calvin’s mind was caught between fear and outrage. “Get… get the fuh.. uh, bloody hell away from me, you… you errant bits of street trash,” he said, trying to sound confident. He didn’t know where he got “errant bits of street trash” from. He had been trying to say “assholes.” He could feel his body expand further, with his chest especially straining against the weird embroidered shirt he was wearing. “Do you,” he continued, “know who I am?” He immediately regretted saying it. Who the hell talks like that anyway, he thought. And besides, even he wasn’t sure who he was.

The ruffian and his crew laughed uproariously. “Right then,” said the leader. “Suppose you tell us who you are, and then give up whatever is in your bag. Or there’s the alternative, where we do you up a treat.” With a flick of his wrist, a knife was in his hand.

Calvin wasn’t sure what the man meant by treat, but it clearly wasn’t good. He wanted to run, but a newer instinct was telling him to stand his ground. He squared his shoulders, planted his feet. “I am Cal… Alvin…. Alvin Bowl…er. Alvin Bowler,” he ventured. As he spoke his voice wavered humiliatingly between tenor and baritone. In the end, it settled on baritone, with a hint of a plummy, upper-class English accent.

"Right, right,” the main thug muttered, sagely. “Never heard of you.” Then he said to his mates, “Sort him out, boys.”

Alvin again raised the weapon he carried high in the air as the criminals grabbed him. He could feel it wriggle about, and he had to tighten his grip to keep from dropping it. It made a hollow, rattling sound.

His body was writhing, too, the muscles growing larger and firmer, confusing the thugs and causing them to loosen their grasp on him, if only for a moment. That’s when Alvin swung his walking stick downward, deftly releasing the sword end of it from the scabbard. The thugs took a few tentative steps backwards.

“Now see here,” Alvin growled. "I’m… I am a gentleman.” (Was he?) Another thought occurred, which seemed crazy to him, but he wound up vocalizing it anyway: “I am perfectly within my rights to slice you three into ribbons and the magistrate would not say ‘Boo’ about it. So see to it you don’t bother one of your betters ever again.” These last few words were a bit muddled, as there was something in his mouth. Hair, it felt like. But he swung the sword at them a few times, and that seemed to convey his message well enough. With yelping apologies, the three criminals slunk back into the crowd.

The confrontation had left Alvin extremely agitated. Spitting, he tried to clear the hair from his mouth. To his surprise, it was attached to his upper lip. There was a great quantity of it, actually. A mustache, and a big one, getting bigger all the time. He parted it in the middle to clear it from his lips. The tips were coated in a waxy substance. Without thinking, he gave the tips a playful twist. It was an impressive handlebar mustache, he had to admit.

Still, his outfit was buffoonish. He was haunted by the notion that somebody might recognize him, even if he couldn’t think of anyone he knew who lived in London. Still, he decided to hide in an alleyway until he could figure things out.

It was cooler in the alley. But even there, he couldn’t be alone. A theatrically made-up woman in a frilly purple dress was getting drilled by a sailor, her back smashed against a brick wall. The seaman’s face was buried in her ample tits. Taking note of Alvin, she said, “You’ll have to wait your turn, sir. Or should I visit you at Sanger’s Circus?” Her quip caused her to laugh uproariously, while the sailor ceased smothering himself in her breasts long enough to shoot Alvin a hateful glare.

Alvin hurriedly backed away from the fornicating pair. Without even thinking about it, he doffed his cap. His hat, really. His top hat. He was so surprised to see it in his hands, he very nearly dropped it. But of course it was a top hat, he realized. He owned several.

Reluctantly, he squeezed his steadily expanding body back into the bustling crowd. The stench was worse than ever. His stomach made little wheezing groans. Cold sweat broke out upon his brow. He wiped his forehead, pausing to arrange a raven forelock that had dangled from his carefully groomed and oiled hair. There wasn’t as much hair on his scalp as there had been in his youth. His old widow’s peak was now more of a long, narrow peninsula. But what remained was ruggedly wavy and thick. Not bad for a man of… what? He was thinking he was thirty-five. No. Forty.

He stared at his trembling hands. They seemed to be growing broader and more powerful by the second, as tiny black hairs wriggled out of the flesh on their backs and knuckles, swiftly multiplying, getting longer and coarser until his hands were coated in a dense pelt. The same thing was happening to his arms. They bulged with muscle and the small hairs that had appeared earlier were practically fur. The navy hue in the center of his shirt stopped at the shoulders, making the garment look more like an embroidered vest with billowing, bell-shaped silk sleeves attached The sleeves brushed his furry arms just below the elbow.

He reflected on the whore’s joke. He almost wanted to laugh at it, himself. He had a solid conviction that he did, somehow, belong in a circus. A circus for gentlemen. He wasn’t sure what he even meant by it.

Forget it, he told himself. Concentrate on getting home. His stomach continued to make uncouth noises. He hoped he wasn’t going to retch. Not there, in the streets. Perhaps he was just hungry. He had seen some rather unappetizing wares sold by street vendors. Not only did he not want them, but he had a sincere belief that he always ate things of much better quality. He seemed to remember enjoying Italian food, although he would have needed to have visited Italy for that, and he wasn’t sure he had. There was a great, long table in his memory, filled with all manner of dishes. Roast goose, and pheasant, and truffles, and sole in tomato sauce. He always sat at the head of the table, dressed in all his finery, and opposite him sat… his mother? No, his mother was in Paris, and this particular dining room was at the house in the country. The two-story one made of cream-colored stone. But as he pictured it, another story emerged from the second, and angled wings shot out from the sides. He wondered why there were there so many rooms. Then he remembered. For the servants, of course. There was a backyard. Well, grounds, actually. There was a plain wooden fence which receded from his view, getting further and further away, dipping down behind the hills and at last sinking into a lake. There had never been a fence. Why would there be a fence so close to his home? All of the land was his. There was a boy playing in the grassy hills behind the estate. Was it him? Once, maybe. He had grown up there. But no, the boy was his own. Young Calvin. Named for some distinguished family ancestor. Not for himself. His name was Alvin… no, Alger. Alger… something. Alger-something Bowler-something. No. Not Bolwer. Coler. Something. It vexed him, that he couldn’t remember his own name. It was frightening. He feared he was going mad.

But no, he decided, that couldn’t be the matter. A madman wouldn’t know where he was. And some of the landmarks were starting to look familiar to him. He could see Newgate Prison in the distance. Soon, he’d be out of the dreadful Whitechapel district and closer to the better parts of town.

Indeed, the more he walked, the more he could spy well-dressed folk mixed in with the working class mobs he was navigating through. Most of these society persons refused to look at him, or else they allowed themselves a single derisive glance. One stranger, though, locked eyes on him right away and practically fell over himself, rushing to meet him.

This man was short and plump, with a small blonde Van Dyke beard. In a clear rebuke to the traditional dark colored attire of a gentleman, he was decked out in a lavender suit with matching top hat. He held an enormous lily in his hands. “Algie,” he shrieked, “how delightful to see you in town again! But my dear boy, what in heaven’s name are you wearing?”

Alger tried to ignore the outrageously garbed man and just keep walking, but the man merely circled around and kept pace with him, talking the whole time. The crowd was thick with people, and Alger found it impossible to escape him.

“Is this for a masquerade ball?” The blonde man slapped Alger’s thigh with the back of his hand. “Are you meant to be a vagabond?”

Alger looked down at his short trousers, which now hung to mid-calf. The various pockets that some fool had stitched onto them were peeling off and dropping onto the street, revealing a darker, more expensive fabric in their place. His lightly hairy legs grew still more muscular. Then, suddenly, they stretched upward, adding another few inches to Alger’s height. Alger reeled, almost toppling over. The blonde man grabbed him by the waist and steadied him.

“One must watch one’s step on these blasted uneven streets, Algie,” the stranger counseled. “Especially a man of your size!” He then took one of Alger’s tremendous arms, taking a moment to fondle his bicep. “Like cannonballs,” he breathed. “Lord knows what your secret is. However you accomplished it, you look a marvel.”

Annoyed, Alger shook his arm out of the man’s grip, adding, “I do have a cane, don’t you know.”

“Oh yes, that horrid thing with the bear on the handle.”

Alger examined his cane once more. Indeed, the silver handle was shaped like a bear in mid-leap, with an open, ravenous maw. Horrid indeed, he thought. As far as he was concerned, it suited him perfectly.

But his prissy companion was still running his mouth. “If I may add, the costume is simply divine. But I do miss your weepers. You shouldn’t have trimmed them down, dear boy. Not just for a party.”

Weepers. Alger seemed to actually know what the man was referring to. He raised a hand to his cheek, feeling a dense growth of sideburn that ran down to his jawline, terminating just before it met the side of his mouth. The hairs seemed to get thicker and longer then, squeezing between his fingers. Baffled, Alger ran his fingers through the lush growth and found that it now reached down to the level of his collar bone. It hovered on the edge of his peripheral vision, a wavy thicket of black and silver. The silver alarmed him at first but he had to admit it was perfectly natural for a man of his age. Which was fifty. Something.

The blonde man was gaping at him. “I seem to have been mistaken,” he squeaked. “It was marvelous to run into you but I really must depart.” With that, the chubby pest took advantage of a sudden opening in the crowd and fled.

Alger was relieved. He knew it wouldn’t be wise for him to be seen with… whomever that was. They shared certain tastes, true, but only Alger had the good sense to conduct his business privately. That was why he had more than one home. The one in the country was for his wife and child. He had done his duty for the Queen and for his family. Gotten married and produced an heir. And he meant to take care of them, on the grandest estate he owned.

The mansion in town was for something else entirely.

Soon enough, Newgate Prison was behind him. He pushed onward through the flower market at Covent Garden. His clothes were still uncomfortably tight. His shoulders and chest continued to strain against the odd tunic-like shirt he wore. The sleeves had finally shown the good sense to grow cuffs and secure themselves around his wrists. The rest of it, thought…! The embroidered vest that made up the center of it had yet to produce anything in the way of a collar, leaving his simian mass of silvered chest hair on full display. Buttons had materialized on the vest, but these were pulled tight, looking ready to pop at any second. The uncomfortable cramps in his gut had developed into a harsh churning. His belly, formerly flat as a board, bulged slightly outward, causing the vest even more distress. It was odd, he thought, how the fabric had an elastic quality, growing with him, but never quite fast enough.

A thudding sound alerted him to the fact that his bag had detached itself from its straps. These, too, slid from his hands and were absorbed into the pile of black wool fabric the sack had changed into. He picked it up and was pleasantly surprised to see two sleeves dangling from it. A waistcoat. Finally.

He pulled it on. To his irritation, his burgeoning musculature barely fit within it. He could actually hear the seams squeak as he swung his arms. His trousers, now a dignified black, discreetly tucked themselves inside his boots, which had grown to a level just below his knees.

Nearing Trafalgar Square, a laborer stopped him to ask the time of day. He was a young, brawny fellow, standing in a trench, with his head barely above street level. Normally, Alger would be affronted that someone of that station would dare to address him so casually. But then, Alger himself could sympathize with any man with the fortitude to buck convention. He ran his eyes over the young brute. He was shirtless and absolutely filthy, with a great curling auburn beard, a closely-shorn head, and a plain cap which did little to shield him from the blistering sun. Beneath Alger’s bulging gut, he could feel something else begin to protrude.

Alger smiled condescendingly at the man. “I believe I have a pocket watch on my person,” he said, his bass-baritone voice a silky purr. “And whom do I have the honor of addressing?”

The young man hastily removed his cap and held it to his beefy, hairy chest. “Reggie Clanton, sir. At your service.”

We shall see about that, Alger thought to himself. He dug into a vest pocket. The watch wasn’t there. He found it instead in a trouser pocket. The device was missing its chain, and was quite strange in appearance. It was roughly square, and made of a cheap synthetic material rather than metal. It resembled the gutta percha resin that his golf balls were constructed from. Set in its face was a smoked glass window through which could be seen a series of numbers but no hands. The numbers read “3:11”. Then, the numbers sank into the metal face and disappeared. A set of clock hands pushed upward and began to turn, but the glass was still too dark to make out anything else.

“Well!” Alger announced, struggling to maintain his composure, “I’d say we’re coming up on a quarter after three.” He slipped the strange watch into his vest pocket. With that, his belly exploded into a huge, bulbous gut, popping every button off of his vest.

Alger was mortified. But he couldn’t help noticing that young Clanton was looking at his gut. And not with disgust, but admiration. And perhaps something more. Without even thinking, Alger took a small metal case from an interior pocket in his waistcoat. Within it were several calling cards. He squinted at the small lettering. Reading the name, he felt as though he was emerging from one of London’s notorious fogs into a beautiful garden under a clear blue sky.

He took one of the cards in a hairy paw, bent down, and presented it to Clanton. “Algernon Coleridge,” he smiled, beneath his gigantic mustache. “Marquess of Flintshire. Do not lose this. I may have use of a man like you someday.”

Clanton babbled something about not being able to thank him enough. Algernon rose to his full height of six-foot-eight and set about buttoning the shirt that had at last appeared beneath the vest. The tails were already tucked into his trousers, thank heavens. After making certain his braces were firmly attached to his waistband, he secured the vest, which now fit him perfectly, like all of his clothes. Why he had imagined the buttons had popped off, he couldn’t say. He checked his watch, now a fine round gold-plated timepiece. Then he hooked the end of its chain through a button hole in his vest and deposited it in a vest pocket, where it belonged. From another pocket in his waistcoat, he withdrew a sapphire-blue ascot and expertly tied it about his throat.

Clanton watched this display with admiration. Taking his leave, Algernon tipped his top hat and murmured a few words from Shakespeare about parting.

He knew exactly where he was going. To his mansion, in Piccadilly Circus. He made a note to have his butler send a carriage for the young man. He could imagine having quite a bit of fun with him. He tapped a ruby-ringed finger on his forehead and told himself to remember the name. Reggie Clanton. He wouldn’t have to tell himself again, he knew. He had a fine memory, for a man of sixty-three.

Especially for names.

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