In the budding age of steam technology, Freddy Fitzgerald risks everything to write the story of a lifetime.
After stealing an ancient map from under the nose of a notorious gangster, Freddy Fitzgerald and Thaddeus Lumpen embark on a quest to find a lost civilization.As news of the map leaks, Freddy and Lumpen find themselves racing against a violent army of archaeologists, gangsters, mercenaries, scuttlers, and scarlettes.
But their destination has its own secrets, secrets which can make even the strongest go mad.
Discovering Aberration is a cerebral adventure set in an alternate Victorian era. From a country on the verge of revolution to a sensational confrontation on a remote island, its final, chilling secret just might push you to the brink of insanity.
Chapter 3. The Back Ally Deal
Lumpen and I found our seats in my study. It was a room where in I invited very few guests, Lumpen being one, and Old Chap being the sole other. I always found it a bit odd when a stranger peered into this room and began quizzically looking about. Perhaps it was because the room so reflected my mind, packed with information, art, tools and years worth of useless but ornate brick-a-brack. Shelves upon mahogany shelves of leather bound books, frayed paper pamphlets, discarded leaflets, and not a few writerly manifestos which I had never found time to read but collected compulsively. And in their midst rested an odd assortment of things I had collected through out my wanderings, which now served as sentimental ornamentation and paper weights.
As Lumpen began to speak, he seemed to have difficulty deciding whether he wanted to stand and wander, fingers running over the spines of antique books, or sit rubbing his hands together.
“You’ve heard of the Hammerlock Expedition, haven’t you?” he scanned the room in a noncommittal manner, eyes refusing to meet mine.
“Hm,” I mused. “I seem to remember it. Was that the voyage which turned to cannibalism all those years back? Lost at sea, or some other nonsense?”
“Not quite, that was the Hamilton Expedition, and they were stranded. I’m speaking of the Hammerlock Expedition. It was an exploratory voyage on behest of the Queen, God save her.” He raised his flask in a sort of toast, tipped it back and frowned when he discovered it empty. “Bollocks. What good is she if one cannot drink to her? In any event, they were sent south, to the tropics with the mission of exploring off the shore of our southern colonies. There are many islands speckled throughout that region, and I suppose the queen wanted to know the lands she had invaded and claimed as her own.”
“Ah,” I shrugged as I pulled from my desk a glass bottle of brandy and poured Lumpen and myself a glass. “I don’t believe I’ve heard of it.”
“Well,” Lumpen continued as he took his brandy, dunking a finger and swirling it round. I would have cringed at the indignity had I not expected it. “They were gone a full year longer than they had anticipated. The whole voyage was presumed a loss after it was discovered that they never made it to port at the colonies to begin with. But then, they returned. Only three members of the crew remained alive and in fragile mental states, one of them had gone mad as a bat and couldn’t speak his own name much less hold a conversation. They never told a soul where they went or what had happened to them. The survivors were brushed under the rug like a bad secret and faded into obscurity.”
“A national embarrassment,” I nodded.
“Quite so, old boy. Quite so. Now, that was decades ago. The mad one, by the name of Murray Longbowmen, he was locked away in a Chump house upon homecoming and, eh, died soon after. I don’t know how, but I presume he was starved or beat to death, the way those places go.
“Ten years later,” he continued, “another sailor, one Phillip Smith, laid down his knife and fork in a ditch, stiff as a bored outside a pub in Pristine. He was believed to have died of substance due to the foam about his mouth, poison or drugs, who knows. In any case, poor old Phillip had developed a nasty hole in his pocket, pawned everything he owned.
“Did they both die by accident, I wonder,” Lumpen ruminated with a sudden droll tone. “Perhaps they were cursed, or perhaps they were murdered. Coincidence? I wonder…” He drew silent for a moment, pulled into his thoughts, then in an instant perked up once again.
“And now we have a third coincidence! Or had I should say. And it goes by the name of a Mr. Cornelius Jones.”
“Dead too, I expect,” I presumed.
“Not quite, though he’s poor as Job’s turkey, in body, and more recently in mind. He has become dim witted and is now dying of a blood poison. Nasty way to go really.”
“Indeed?” I nodded, but furrowed my brow as I began to grow impatient. “But what has this got to do with this map, or Mr. John-Joseph Heller?”
“I’m getting to that, old boy,” he tapped the side of his nose. “Mr. Jones, the last remaining survivor of the Hammerlock Expedition, lived in utter obscurity until just weeks ago. You see, a local journalist came across a sale at Mr. Jones’s estate, and when, after some questioning and poking about, he discovered who this man was, he wrote a story on him and submitted it to the local paper. The story was syndicated. And that is how I came about learning of the unfortunate case of Cornelius Jones.
“So you went to the estate sale and bought the map?”
“Freddy,” Lumpen shot me a stern look. “You know what they say about assumptions. In any case, no. Indeed, I was quite curious and so I traveled to the small estate to see what I could find. Of course I was as curious as every other archeologist who also made the trip, and I tell you there were a lot of them. But when I arrived, the sale had ended. Someone had purchased the entire estate, all of it’s assets, everything.
“Well, I couldn’t simply leave it at that and turn round like the rest of the sods. Instead, I waited til the night came and sneaked within the house with an eye out for any artifact that might relate to the expedition. I crept through the halls, searched about every room until I reached the room where slept Mr. Jones, his breath wheezing, and smelling to high heaven of elixirs. I nearly left when the thought struck me. If Mr. Jones had gone into hiding all these years, he likely wouldn’t sell artifacts from the expedition of which he was actively hiding from. He would keep them close, if there were any at all.
“On my hands and knees, I crawled to the side of his bed, my head going dizzy with the smell, ammonia, iodine, laxatives. An ancient, wrinkled arm hung off the side of the bed like the hand of death, veins blue, skin like paper. A finger hung, as if pointing to my destiny, and I drew closer. Perhaps it was only a feeling, or perhaps it was fate, but when I peered beneath the bed, there I found an old, wooden box, locked shut, but it bore the seal of the Queen branded upon the wood. ‘This is it,’ I said to myself, ‘a relic from that long ago journey, and it’s secrets are mine.’ So I pulled it out and ran for my life. Of course within was the map, and a few small, pearl white crystals, and a dead, dried up frog in a jar, and the rest is history.”
“I see,” I responded as Lumpen grew excited. “A coded map, a crystal, and a frog in a box. May I see the crystal?”
“Of course,” he smiled as he pulled a purse from his pocket, loosed its strings and turning it over, dropped a pristine white stone in the palm of my hands. “Intriguing,” I looked it over, turning its smooth body round in my fingers. “What is it, do you think?”
“I don’t know,” Lumpen smiled. “But this is interesting. Grab a plate and place it next to a lamp.”
I followed his instruction, and with rapt attention, I watched the crystal as its edges turned glassy, beaded up, and slowly melted into a shimmering liquid pool. “That is interesting,” I whispered. “What is it?”
“I haven’t the foggiest,” Lumpen smiled a toothy grin. “But it is something now, isn’t it.”
“Hm,” as I watched the liquid, it seemed almost to glow with a pure white aura, but I dismissed this as a trick of the eyes. I brought myself back around to the matter at hand. “I have one last question, Lumpen, before I delve into this adventure with you.”
“Well,” Lumpen responded as he took the plate from me, watched the liquid solidify into a putty, and rolled it up into a ball as it crystallized. “Ask your question, sir.”
“Was it John-Joseph Heller who purchased the estate?”
“Don’t say that name so loud,” Lumpen winced as he peaked out the windows anxiously. “Yes, he purchased the estate. But he doesn’t know about me, or that anything is missing. So as long as we keep our mouths latched shut, we shant have any trouble from him.”
I cleared my throat as I thought about the incident in my class room earlier this morning. “Indeed, you might benefit to work on your subtlety too, Lumpen. But, I must say, I am intrigued. And I feel as though I’ve spent enough time holed up in the city to last me a lifetime.”
“Partners?” Lumpen asked, as he stuck out a hand to shake. “Sixty forty, fame, fortune, publicity, the works.”
“Fine,” I replied with a grin, “Sixty forty.” I shook his hand as my mind began to race. “So what comes next Lumpen? How do we proceed from here? We’ll need funding, lots of funding. And if we approach anybody, we must do so with the utmost care…”
“It’s all taken care of,” Lumpen’s grin returned in full magnitude.
“And how is that?” I raised an eyebrow.
“Do you remember my rich uncle?”
“Herbert or Albert or something?”
“Frank,” he corrected me.
“Frank, yes I remember dear uncle Frank. He’s a stodgy old bastard. Has he begun to loose those purse strings, feeling rather charitable?”
“In a manner of speaking,” Lumpen gave me a coy, sideways look and added, “may he rest in peace.”
“No,” I was taken aback. “He didn’t. Cashed in his chips already?”
“And the bulk of his fortune was left to…”
“…left to his nephew,” I concluded, far to excited over uncle Franks unfortunate turn of events.
“His favorite nephew, thank you very much,” replied Lumpen with a puffed chest. “And why not. I sat with him all through his arduous blood letting. It was horrific and disgusting. All of that blood draining, pooling, pulsing, oh my…” The color left his face and he clutched his stomach as he began to regain his composure. “But I remained strong,” he declared with conviction. “Strong as I could, held his hand and comforted him as I encouraged the doctor to drain every drop of blood lest some germ survive. Might have saved his life if he didn’t pass on during the ordeal. Makes you think of your own mortality, doesn’t it.”
“Indeed,” I replied as I began to calculate how our new found riches might best be spent. Uncle Frank was cursed with a large sum of wealth and a penny pinching attitude which caused him to live in squalor most his life, while his banker lived happily off his interest.
“Since his passing,” Lumpen spoke in a dreary tone, “I have found myself unable to say the word…”
“Funding?” I mused as I thought of a boat, a crew, supplies.
“No,” he replied, his face the pale color of an apparition. “I simply cannot say the ‘D’ word without being over come with images of my own… death. It’ll probably happen to us one day too you know. One moment you’re here and the next you’re six feet under waiting for the resurrection. Boredom would surely drive me mad. Years upon years of endless waiting. And there’s nowhere to go you know. Nothing to see but the inside of a slowly disintegrating wooden box, the faint smell of embalming fluid and worms burrowing into your flesh to keep you company.”
An awkward silence fell over the room. “Ah,” I said. “Quite right Lumpen, quite right. Which is why we should spend as little time as possible being bored while we are alive, so let’s talk about something brighter, like funding? How much money did your uncle leave you Lumpen?”
Lumpen turned to face me, his morbid expression transformed in mere seconds into a pleased grin. “Oh,” he said, “A bit.”
“A bit?” I pressed him, pulling the information out of him through sheer will.
“Quite a lot actually.”
“How much Lumpen,” my stomach was butterflies.
“More than you’ll believe I assure you.”
“Loose your tongue man!” I burst, “how much did he leave you!”
“He was an inventor after all,” Lumpen teased, “Not unlike myself. Had many a fine invention, many a world altering contraption, a few vesionic howling iron clad dawn treaders.”
“A boat!” I cried triumphantly, “He left us a boat!”
“Damn!” he cursed, “It was the iron clad that gave it away wasn’t it. Yes, he left me a boat. But you may use it. It’s a scientific vessel actually. Oh, and it is a thing of beauty. It’s all steam powered full of whirring and whistling gadgetry, a technological wonder if ever I saw one. And it is yal, that’s the word isn’t it? Yal?”
“Yar,” I corrected.
“What ever the word for it, that it is. Iron, sturdy, fits a crew of five, but can be run by two, and there’s room for passengers. And with it came crew, one years payment for each member, and a tidy sum left over for yours truly. Now all that’s left I suppose is thinking of a new name for the bloody thing. I’m no good at that kind of thing, so I thought we could think of one together. Something with class I should think, something with pomp and style.”
“Right,” I agreed. “This is an important matter. Very important indeed. Let’s ponder this while I pack my bags. Oh, and I will be bringing my man servant Old Chap, if it’s quite all right. He can be rather useful in a pinch, and I will need somebody to maintain my hats. Thirty or forty will do I should think, depending on the weather and what not, fedoras might be most appropriate, and not a few with feathers.”
“Not your wretched hats,” he moaned. “I suspect you’ll have them all specially packed as well. This could take ages. Fine. If you want to take your ridiculous collection with you I won’t argue. But can we really trust your fellow Old Chap? He seems rather eerie to me, always lurking in the shadows and peering ’round corners. He has a dark air about him, doesn’t he? And he’s foreign.”
“Oh, yes,” I replied with a nod, “Believe me Lumpen, he has our best interest at heart, not that I could leave him behind even if I wanted to. In any case, I suspect that Old Chap will be a necessity, and he has more skills and talents than you and I can speak of put together. Yes, he will indeed prove to be invaluable, I am sure of it.
“Fine,” Lumpen replied sounding resigned but a little comforted. We left the study and walked to the front porch where he began to adorn his messy boots. “We should finish out the quarter in order not to raise any eyebrows, wouldn’t you say? Then, off to Sundale to ready the ship and get to know the crew, and then we shall be off!”
I smiled and said, “Oh, and Lumpen, this better turn out to be an adventure and not just a wild goose hunt, I’m sure to lose my job over this.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Lumpen called to me as he began to jog away, “The administration won’t touch you if you can spin it correctly.” And then, off he went at a brisk pace.
I leaned against the wall as Lumpen disappeared in the distance, the crisp afternoon air felt frosty against my face and hands. There was something in my chest welling up, the thrill that comes before the adventure.