The accident had only just happened. The steamer was nose down in the hole and one rear wheel was still turning lazily. There was a descending whine as its turbine ran down. A cloud of dust hung over the scene.
Victoriana knew exactly what to do. There was a public alarm box on the corner and she ran to it, pausing only to pick up an empty bottle from the gutter. The box had three glass panels marked ‘Police’, ‘Ambulance’ and ‘Fire’. After a moment’s thought she used the neck of the bottle to break the ‘Police’ glass. It was their steamer, let them deal with it. A magnesium flash dazzled her as the machine took her picture, a necessary precaution against false alarms, and a bell started ringing.
Dropping the bottle, she approached the hole. There was a sound of scraping and falling pebbles as a policeman’s head appeared over the edge. He had lost his brass helmet and had a cut on his forehead.
‘You hit the screamer, little lady?’ he asked as he climbed out on to the road.
Victoriana nodded. ‘Police,’ she said. ‘Was that all right?’
‘Fine, fine, nobody’s hurt.’
His partner appeared over the edge, covered in dust and coughing. ‘Best get back,’ he said. ‘Might be more coming down.’
As he spoke, there was a crack and a rumble, and the road fell in across its full width. They retreated hastily, but not before Victoriana had seen that there was a large cavity under the road shored up with heavy timbers. Inside, she glimpsed part of a huge horizontal cylinder at least eight feet tall, apparently made of bronze and divided into segments, with bolts and knobs and strange protrusions.
Another police steamer clanged into view and the two officers ran to flag it down before it got too close to the edge. After a short conversation they began unreeling incident tape between lamp posts to cordon off the area.
Victoriana thought she had done her part, and crept away unnoticed. She was sure that the cave-in had happened directly outside Molotok and Serp’s office. They seemed to be crazy about tunnelling, she thought as she made her way back to the Hall of Science.
The clock showed that she was an hour early for the rendezvous with Rusty, but she passed the time happily enough wandering along the shore of the lake. She sat on a bench and ate a couple of sandwiches, throwing the crumbs to the ducks.
Rusty was punctual to the minute. ‘I’ve seen some great things,’ he said. ‘They had a super demonstration of the new turbine they use in the latest police steamers.’
‘I know,’ said Victoriana. ‘I’ve just seen one from the underneath.’
‘What –– ?’
She told him about the afternoon’s events. He listened eagerly. When she got to the part about the bronze cylinder, he whistled with astonishment. ‘The Blenkinsop Intensifier!’
‘What’s that?’ she asked.
‘It was stolen from the museum last year,’ said Rusty. ‘No one knew how they got it out. It’s thirty feet long and weighs six tons.’
He told her how Cyrus Blenkinsop, captain of an ironclad of the U.S. Navy, had tried to make an instrument that would amplify very faint light to allow naval lookouts to see clearly in the dark. He had meant to make something that could be attached to a telescope. However, the prototype was enormous and far too delicate to use on the deck of a moving ship. It was also wildly expensive, as it required six lenses ground from gem quality diamonds of which the largest was 40 carats in weight. The device had never been used in earnest, and had been moved to the museum, where its imposing size and complexity made it a popular exhibit.
Then the whole thing had disappeared over the course of the Labor Day weekend. None of the museum’s doors or windows had shown any sign of forced entry.
‘Do you think that Molotok and Serp wanted it for the diamonds?’ asked Victoriana.
‘No, it would have been easier to dismantle it on the spot, wouldn’t it? They must have tunnelled in and got it out through the floor somehow. I must have walked over the hole just now. Glad it didn’t fall in too.’
‘What did they want it for, then?’
‘They must have wanted to use it, I dunno, for spying or something.’
Victoriana was silent. A pattern was beginning to form in her head: tunnels, telescopes, the Telectrosope – whatever that was. And of course it was secret, and she couldn’t betray her Papa …
… Or could she? Rusty was family, it would be all right to let him in. And besides, he might be very useful.
‘There’s something I haven’t told you,’ she said. ‘But it’s a deadly secret, and you mustn’t tell anyone. Not ever. Swear? Cross your heart and hope to die.’ She remembered that she had used the same words in her letter to Emmeline. Not much of a secret keeper, was she? Never mind, this was important.
‘Yes, I swear,’ said Rusty, and drew his thumb across his chest in the approved gesture.
Going home on the At, they sat at the back of the last car. It was almost empty and no one was near enough to overhear them over the noise of the train. It was a long and circuitous journey and they had to change lines three times.
Victoriana recounted the last few days’ events and told him what little she knew about the Telectroscope. It was a military thing, she explained, and it had one terminal in New York on the shore of the East River, and another in London on the bank of the Thames. She thought there must be some way of sending something between them, but not words like the telegraph – that wouldn’t be secret. It sounded like a telescope, as if you could see a picture in it.
‘Wow!’ said Rusty. ‘But you couldn’t see across the Atlantic with a telescope – not even with the Blenkinsop Intensifier. The curve of the earth would block your view after a few miles.’
‘I know. And there’s all this tunnelling. Molotok &co. seem to want to get to it underground. And who ever heard of an underground telescope?’
They both thought for a while as the train hissed and rattled towards Far Rockaway.
‘We have to see what they’re doing,’ said Rusty as the train pulled out of Euclid Avenue. ‘I’m sure they’ll be making an Intensifier of their own. They can’t move the prototype – especially now.’
‘And it’s no good looking at the place in Queens. When they discover the Intensifier, it’ll be crawling with police for weeks.’
‘We need to get into the cellar in the Lower East Side,’ Rusty said. ‘But just how do we do that?’
‘I think I know,’ said Victoriana. ‘If we tell Irving and Fingers about the diamonds, they’ll be dead keen to look. And we can probably find them. The stationmaster at East Broadway seemed to know Irving.’
‘They won’t want to take us along.’
‘Oh yes they will. You know how the diamonds fit into the machine. Only you can find them.’
* * *
When they got home, Mrs Dawe Hinge asked Victoriana if she had had a nice time with her cousin.
‘We looked at turbines,’ said Victoriana with calculated weariness, but it was true enough. ‘It’s a big place, isn’t it?’
Mrs Dawe Hinge gave her son a sharp look. ‘You haven’t been boring her to death with all your machines, have you, Rusty?’
‘Oh no, we had a really interesting time,’ Victoriana interposed hastily.
At supper she said almost nothing while Rusty treated his father to a long discourse on superheaters and condensers. But her mind was racing. How could they get to the Lower East Side? Could they find Irving, and would he take the bait? But above all, what was the mysterious Telectroscope, and how could they find out?
This chapter by Tachybaptus. © Tachybaptus et al. 2017.