When Victoriana descended the stairs next morning for breakfast, she was anticipating – indeed she had prepared herself for – the renewed reproaches from her parents concerning her deviant behaviour the afternoon before: but she was not at all ready for what happened next.
‘Victoriana,’ said her Papa in his stern voice, ‘your Mama and I have been discussing matters and we have come to the conclusion that you are becoming a little wild and rebellious of late. I suppose it is the air in this country that causes this sort of behaviour, indeed I believe it is endemic here for every man to bow to no –’
‘And woman!’ interposed Mama.
‘– authority but what he chooses to acknowledge himself, ‘ Papa continued as if there had been no interruption, ‘in other words to display an independence that has in the past led to the fracturing of relations between this young land and the Mother Country. But a man –’
‘And woman!’ Mama put in somewhat peevishly.
‘–must learn to toe the line and obey certain rules, otherwise there will be anarchy.’
Victoriana knew all about monarchy – it was one of Nanny Prewitt’s favourite subjects, discoursed on at length – but she wasn’t sure about anarchy. Perhaps it meant several kings or queens reigning at the same time? She made a mental note to look it up, then realised she had missed what her Papa had been saying.
‘… and the long and the short of it is, your Mama and I have decided that you shall go and stay with your cousin Rory for a period as you will benefit from the strict regime that his parents have instilled in the household.’
Mama swelled visibly with pride; the Dawe Hinges were cousins of the Ffoliot-Verges and claimed to amongst the earliest settlers to arrive in the New World. The matter of their departing from England a day or so before the bailiffs came battering at their door had had a veil of myths and rumours woven over it so the truth had disappeared in the mists of time.
‘You got on so well with Rory when they visited us in London, didn’t you, dear!’ beamed Mama.
Victoriana hid a shudder: Rory – or Rusty as he was known because of his red hair – had not been interested in playing with her, or indeed in doing anything other than visit museums or bury his head in some abstruse book.
‘But Mama …’ she started.
‘Enough, Victoriana. It is decided,’ said her Papa.
As Victoriana slunk dejectedly back to the nursery to pack under the supervision of Nanny Prewitt, who would be taking what she regarded as a much deserved holiday, she realised that her plan to track the mysterious Molotok and his villainous partner had received a severe blow.
* * *
Victoriana almost expected a fanfare of trumpets to erupt on her arrival at the Dawe Hinges’ splendid residence, which sat smugly on the top of a small rise, regarding the houses below it with a superior smile like a fat comfortable cat. The Dawe Hinges waited in the withdrawing room to greet her in their usual reserved manner, as if getting excited over visitors was something other people did.
Victoriana was shown briefly to her room by Rusty who disappeared immediately into what he grandly termed his ‘laboratory’: though the same age as Victoriana, he had the air of a rather elderly professor, and she was struck by the thought that this could be the most boring holiday of her life so far, even more boring that the lessons Nanny Prewitt gave about the Royal Family and the Dominions. She took her time over unpacking as she could, little knowing that she was in for a couple of surprises before long.
Eventually she finished and found her way to Rusty’s laboratory to see what he was up to.
Her first surprise was that it was a real laboratory, equipped not only with an enormous amount of chemical apparatus but also odd pieces of machinery whose purpose she could not guess. Rusty in his domain had lost his dullness and his eyes had lit with a gleam that no amount of childhood games had been able to spark.
‘Hi, Victoriana, please excuse the smell!’ he chuckled, mixing the bright yellow contents of a test tube with the red liquid that was bubbling away in a retort, and producing a cloud of purple smoke which smelt foul and caused Victoriana to choke. ‘I’ll open a window.’
When she had stopped coughing and found a seat on a bench that was only partly covered with books, she sat and watched Rusty happily mixing this and that together and making copious notes in a large notebook, and the time ticked by quite rapidly until she remembered her quest, and let out a loud sigh, which distracted Rusty.
‘Why, whatever’s the matter, Victoriana? Do you want to have a go at this?’ He waved a test tube at her, accidentally spraying the worktop near her with a viscous liquid which started hissing as soon as it touched the wood, burning a deep hole in the surface.
‘Ooops,’ he said belatedly.
‘No, it’s not that, Rusty,’ she said. ‘I just need to find somebody and I’m not sure how to do it.’
‘Who do you want to find?’
‘I want to find two men who were pretending to be “exterminaters”,’ said Victoriana with another sigh, ‘but where do I start if I’m stuck out here in the country? Not that it isn’t very nice being here with you,’ she added hastily.
‘Have you tried Orange Pages?’ asked Rusty. ‘It’s the most versatile address journal in the state,’ he added knowingly.
Victoriana’s jaw dropped.
‘Do people let someone list their addresses for all to see?’ she asked in astonishment.
‘Of course!’ said Rusty. ‘How else would one locate tradesmen and merchants for provisions and services? Here, let me show you.’
He removed a large orange volume with well thumbed pages from the crowded bookcase and placed it on the workbench.
‘Now, what is the name of the person you are seeking?’
‘I don’t really think they would list their names here,’ Victoriana said doubtfully, lifting the book onto her lap and flicking through the pages to the Ms.
She nearly dropped the book in surprise when in the middle of the MOs she found the following in bold print: ‘MOLOTOK AND SERP: AGENTS FOR ACTION. YOU WANT IT DONE, WE DO IT.’
‘Well, well,’ exclaimed Rusty, ‘they appear to be living just around the corner from the Hall of Science, one of the most prestigious museums in New York.’
‘Is it …’ faltered Victoriana, ‘… is it … er … easy to get to?’
Rusty glanced over his shoulder, then lowered his voice to a whisper.
‘As a matter of fact, I was planning a visit tomorrow – there are some exhibits on show I just MUST see, and my parents have confined me to the house this week. Well, there was an incident just before you came involving the cook and an exploding pie,’ he muttered, seeing the astonishment on her face.
‘And this is how we’ll get there,’ he said, swiftly removing a small key from his pocket and unlocking a concealed door low down in the workbench. As the door opened, a flood of little metal coins poured out.
‘Tokens!’ said Rusty in triumph, completing Victoriana’s evening of surprises. ‘I’ve manufactured enough so I can travel for free all over the state on the At railroad for weeks!’
* * *
Stepping from the station, the pair were confronted with the stately fac̦ade of the Science Museum.
‘Now, are sure you’re going to be all right?’ asked Rusty. ‘That contraption I left running in the laboratory will make my parents think we’re occupied for hours, and these snacks I pinched from the kitchen should last us till teatime. So I’ll see you back here at five o’clock?’ He was edging away as he spoke, obviously eager to enter the museum.
Victoriana smiled and waved goodbye.
‘Well, I never did! What a day of surprises,’ she thought. ‘Now I can get on with some proper sleuthing.’
She crossed the road and marched along the side of the museum, crossing again and turning to the left before pausing and slowing her pace till she reached the corner.
‘Now, this is where I must show some caution,’ she said to herself. ‘Their house should be just around the corner, and I don’t want to get caught again!’
She poked her head around the wall and peered down the lane – and blinked, and peered again. There in the middle of the road was an enormous hole, sticking out of which could just be seen the tail fins of a police steamer.
This chapter by HB. © Tachybaptus et al. 2017.