Nanny Prewitt woke with a start, and looked around for Victoriana. Not only was her charge nowhere in sight, but there was an ominous silence. ‘Really!’ she muttered to herself, ‘I rest my eyes for half a moment and that girl disappears. If she’s quiet, she’s probably making trouble.’
Long experience led Nanny to the library: Victoriana was fascinated by her father’s desk, despite – or maybe because of – being forbidden to use it. However, she was usually a tidy child, careful to leave no traces of her curiosity, so Nanny gasped to see the mess. ‘Really!’ she exclaimed again. ‘That child gets worse every day. These New Yorkers are clearly setting her a bad example. But where is she?’
A quick look in the nursery showed that it was both child-free and mouse-free, although Nanny shuddered at the memory of that rodent invasion. To reassure herself, she looked under the furniture and behind the curtains. Not a trace of a mouse remained – how strangely effective the exterminators had been! – but a movement outside the window caught Nanny’s experienced eye. Victoriana was in the unfenced front yard playing with a hoop and stick, a toy she usually scorned, and tracing a curious path along the edge of the street. It seemed to involve a lot of ducking behind bushes.
At the sound of the front door opening, Victoriana started and let her hoop fall to the ground. Trying not to look too guilty, she turned and waved at Nanny Prewitt. As she did so, there was a rattling of wheels and she saw the cart begin to move down the street, both ‘exterminaters’ striding in their haste to get away. She gave another, more vigorous wave and tore off in pursuit. Nanny’s parting words, ‘Young ladies don’t run in the street’, went unheeded as she swerved among the passers-by.
Victoriana nearly tripped over her own hoop as she followed the men, who went round the next corner. No sooner had they stepped into the side street than they stopped. Slinking back out of view, she strained to hear their muttered conversation.
‘Zere’s a back alley chust along ’ere. Ve can settle down zere and listen in across ze garden.’
‘Wonderful – if we didn’t have this handcart full of performing field mice to look after.’
‘Vell, you take it ’ome vile I vait ’ere. Bring back some coffee und sandviches ven you are returnink.’
‘I’m not your servant! You take it! You make the sandwiches!’
‘I vould, but ze mice only obey you. Ve may be needink zeir tricks again!’
‘You always do this to me. Always. It’s not fair. We’re supposed to be equal partners in this scheme. You may have the money, but how would you manage without a New Yorker to sort you out?’
‘I don’ know how I am managink at all viz you hasslink me all ze time!’
Victoriana’s head whirled. So there was a plot! But how were the men going to listen to them from the garden? The house had thick masonry walls and all the windows were closed. It was very puzzling. And there was a more urgent question: should she follow Serp and his cartful of mice, or keep an eye on Molotok to see what he was doing in the alley?
If she followed the New Yorker, she might get vital information about his trick mice. However, he could be going anywhere, and Nanny was sure to notice soon that she hadn’t come in. After all, it was nearly time for supper In fact, now she considered it, she was quite hungry and really didn’t want to miss her meal.
She decided that she would stay near the alley. After all, surely she should find out what was happening at her own house? Wasn’t the important mystery here the question of how the men were going to listen to her parents? Maybe – what if – it would be a coincidence, surely, but … could this be connected to the mysterious Telectroscope?
Victoriana watched with interest as the men took a brass tripod out of their carpet bag, followed by what seemed to be a small umbrella made of silvery material. This they erected and attached to the tripod, its convex side facing sideways towards the house. The point of the umbrella ended in a narrow flexible tube, the far end of which Molotok applied to his ear. However it worked, she thought, it was certainly a listening device.
Then, to her intense annoyance, a police steamer hissed slowly past the mouth of the alleyway. It was only a routine patrol, she was sure, but the men panicked. Seizing their equipment, they scuttled into a doorway. Victoriana crept up quietly behind the cart, from where she could steal a glance around the corner. Molotok was unlocking a small van, one of the electric vehicles used for door-to-door deliveries. It was facing away from her.
As soon as Serp had climbed into the other side of the cab, Victoriana, pausing only to undo the clasp on the carpet bag – ‘Good luck, little creatures’, she whispered – ran down the alley and jumped on to the step at the back of the van. She hung grimly on to the door handle as the vehicle whined and jolted over the uneven paving. She had often seen street urchins cadging rides on vans and steam wagons, and no one took much notice of them. But she feared she looked nothing like one in her neat blue pinafore, with her long golden hair escaping its ribbon and flying in the wind.
From her precarious vantage point she could see that the van was going south from her home in West 20th Street. They turned on to a busy diagonal road that she knew was the Bowery and gathered speed; she could hardly cling on. Then the van halted at an intersection. Praying that there was no way the men could see into the body from their cab, she wrenched open the door and climbed in. The van was half full of wooden crates.
As far as she could see through the small oval rear windows, they were continuing in the same direction. After some minutes the van slowed down, turned sharply and squeaked to a halt. She heard the men getting out, and footsteps approaching the back of the van. In desperate haste she crawled behind a crate as both doors were flung open.
But then she heard Molotok’s voice: ‘Not now, Klaus. Ve’ll brink zem out ven it’s dark.’ The doors slammed shut and the steps receded, and she could hear a jingling of keys as a house door was opened, followed by another slam.
Victoriana emerged from her hiding place, found the inside door handle and climbed quietly out of the van. It was in another narrow alley and she had no idea where she was, but she heard the cry of gulls and smelt wet mud, and she thought they must be near the East River.
The van was parked next to the door of a run-down two-storey building, and beside the door was a lighted window, too far above the ground to see over the sill. She climbed up on the running board of the van and very carefully raised her head until she could see inside.
In the grubby room, Molotok and Serp were seated at a table examining a large sheet of paper. A spindly gas jet on the wall gave enough light for her to see that it looked like the ground plan of something long – a road, a tunnel? – with a square at one end – a yard, a room? – full of odd shapes that she could make nothing of. At one side of the straight part, much more crudely drawn, another road or shaft protruded into it. Molotok’s finger was on this. ‘Anozzer fifteen, twenny feet,’ he said. ‘Klaus, ve need more diggers. Zose Gott-dammt hobos you hire, zey useless, all zey do is drink. Und I don’t vant zem arount ven ve get in.’
‘What you want I should hire, miners?’ said Serp, turning out his hands in a resigned gesture and raising his eyes – which met those of Victoriana outside. With a cry of ‘Spies!’ he hurled himself towards the door as she leaped down and fled up the alley. Behind her she heard a slam and two sets of running feet.
She had almost reached the street when a strong hand seized her arm and she was lifted helplessly off the ground. As she struggled, she found herself staring into the twisted features of Molotok. His breath stank of stale schnapps and rank tobacco. ‘Vot haf ve here?’ he said. ‘Vy, I belief it’s ze leetel dotter of ze Maior.’
‘If you touch me you’ll pay for it,’ cried Victoriana with an assurance she did not feel. ‘The police will find you and they’ll –’ Molotok clapped a grimy hand over her mouth and laughed coarsely, and Serp, who had panted up on his short legs, guffawed.
‘Shall I deal with ’er?’ asked Serp with palpable relish.
‘No, Moe, she chust might be useful later. I’m sure ze good Maior vould do anysink to get her back.’ Molotok bundled the struggling girl under his arm and bore her back to the door. ‘Ve’ll put her in ze tzellar for now.’
Victoriana struggled unavailingly as she was dragged into the building. Serp hauled up a trapdoor in the hallway, and she was bumped down a flight of stone stairs and flung on to a slimy floor. As she tried to regain her footing, the last thing she saw was Molotok’s feet at the top of the staircase and the trapdoor slamming shut, leaving her in darkness. Ridiculously, her first thought was ‘I wonder what they’re having for supper at home.’
Then strong hands gripped her arms from behind! A voice next to her ear whispered, ‘Hey, li’l lady, waddya doin’ bustin’ in here?’
This chapter by CLD and Tachybaptus. © Tachybaptus et al. 2017.