“Damn.” Slack-jawed and thoroughly furious, Inspector Giles Newberry stood in the hallway feeling somehow like he’d been had. A small part of his brain, the unreasonable portion that frankly did contribute heavily to his skills as a detective, immediately wondered if perhaps the enigmatic Ms. Temble here wasn’t also more involved in the sordid tale than she was letting on, that perhaps this whole setup today had been staged for the benefit of the Yard.
This impression soon passed as Jane rushed past him, a sizeable blunderbuss clasped in hand, her eyes intent on their fleeing quarry. Reginald followed on her heels, idiotically unarmed and displaying the unabashed lovelorn look of the recently enamoured.
Outside on the street the threesome was met with confusion. A number of Good Citizens stood aimlessly by, gesticulating and gawping at an overturned milk lorry, the irate driver tearing at his hair and blowing air through his teeth as he frantically looked for a way to shut the still clattering contraption off, having only just gotten away himself.
With the normally quiet, orderly street thrown into shambles, Giles deemed pursuit to be nigh impossible. Giving the barest shake of his head to his companions, he stowed his own pistol in his waistband and leapt over spelled milk crates, waving an authoritative restraining hand to the lorry’s driver as he moved to intercept the Inspector. Deftly avoiding the churning gears and whining pistons, he made a quick grab for the undercarriage, giving a violent twist to some obscure item in the inner workings. Drawing back, he allowed himself a fleeting smile as the machine shuddered then fell still.
“Tha’s a good piece of work, there,” the milk carrier now approached, grinning around an impossibly large chaw of tobacco he’d stored in his cheek. Heartily shaking the Inspector’s hand, oblivious it would seem to the grease and oil that Giles’ quick actions had accumulated thereon, the quaking fellow gave voice to his indignation over the accident now that immediate danger had passed.
Newberry smiled indulgently and allowed the odious man to talk. After all, the man might stink of sour milk and—goodness, could it really be?—alcohol, his eyes were closest to the get-away vehicle.
Sir Crothall and Ms. Temble approached to lend an ear (and nose, if Reginald’s stricken expression could be used as indication of his inner musings.) Not that Newberry could blame the gentleman his indiscretion—that this dirty specimen of gutter refuse could be trusted with the daily delivery of clean, white, wholesome milk was a disgusting idea, indeed. Still, no matter, he was their best eyewitness, something the disreputable man was demonstrating rather clearly through his broad gestures and complaints.
“How many men?” Jane Temble cut through the tempest of admittedly colourful language, deftly reminding the delivery man that he should stick to the useful facts and that there was a lady present.
Begging her pardon, the driver tipped his dingy hat and addressed the lady, “Were five ‘o them piled in and on the carriage, miss. Three perched without, counting the driver, and two huddled within. Only one who looked like he had any wits ‘bout ‘im was the driver, though the rest looked hard enough. Was an odd sight, I’ll say. Gimlet eyes—all ‘o them. Empty faces and a singular lack of caring—ne’er even slowed when they upset ol’ Belle here.” Gesturing forlornly to his silent lorry, he sighed in a manner almost comical.
Nodding sympathetically, Jane commiserated, “Thank you for your help—these men have upset more than . . . Belle . . . here today so you have the Yard’s promise we’ll do all that we can to bring them to justice.”
Hearing the woman’s words at the conclusion of their witness’ statement, Giles felt his eyebrows arch involuntarily: We? Exasperated, he turned to Crothall, for support in laying down the law. He’d be damned before he let this soft-handed shrink to tag along on this, their first case, no matter how helpful she’d been thus far. But Crothall, moon-eyed useless Crothall, was gazing dreamingly at the impertinent woman and Newberry realized he’d get no support from there.
It was in the midst of this frustrating conclusion that one of the Yard’s regular force hove into view, head swiveling to take in the chaos despite clearly being on a different mission. Initial gawking done, the uniformed lackey now made straight for Giles and company, businesslike recognition dawning on his otherwise dull features, “When Superintendent Blushton said that trouble follows you everywhere I thought him prone to exaggeration.” Clicking his heels smartly, saluting the Inspector with the respect due his rank, the fellow delivered the following startling news, “Sir, I’ve an urgent message from a Professor James Perrigordon? He asks that you come at once to High and Brunswick. Seems he’s gotten into trouble with… well, in his words some sort of ‘Leapin’ ‘Lectric Lizards.’ He said, ‘Tell Giles there are dozens of them.’ I’m assuming you’d know what he means by this?”
Newberry exchanged a quick glance with his companions, then addressed the messenger, “Get a couple men here to restore order and get that lorry out of the way, Constable. And thanks.”
“I’m coming with,” Jane moved to insert herself more fully Giles had even finished dismissing the officer.
Damn, Giles blanched then, not caring much at present to have the argument, sighed and said, “’Course you are. Come on then.” Why not?
* * *
The scene at High and Brunswick would have been humorous were it not also clearly very dangerous. Giles and Reginald arrived on scene—a seemingly abandoned warehouse—with Ms. Temble in tow to find that Doctor Perrigordon and Colonel Spreenkerton only barely had the situation in hand. Their timing couldn't have been better.
“Grab something heavy! Like that table,” Perrigordon sweated through his directions, his eyes on the metal doorway from which emanated all manner of rattling and hissing sparks. “Latch is busted so we’ve had to hold ‘em in with what we could lay hands on.” Already in place: an iron bucket filled with scrap metal and part of a filing cabinet. Grunting and shoving, the four men wrestled the table into place. “Just don’t touch the door,” Dr. P cautioned, gesturing that they simply shove the furniture into place and back away.
Task accomplished with a horrible screech of metal on tiled floor, Giles gave the rattling, banging cacophony behind the door one more baleful glance before turning his attention more fully to Doctor P and Col. Spreenkerton. It was now that he noticed the various scrapes, cuts, bruises, and small burns marking the man’s battle with the, as Dr. P put it, “leapin’ ‘lectric lizards.” Clearly Giles hadn’t caught the worst of it on his own adventure tracking one of the creatures through the sewer.
Perrigordon noted Giles’ assessment and offered his arms for better inspection, “Now you see why I said stay back from the door. Getting ‘em in there was one of my more inspired ideas but it was hell rounding them up—damn things are electric.”
“And they’ve since been ‘lectrifying the door, I assume,” Giles frowned back at the metal door, shuddering at the scrabbling noises emanating from within.”
“Yeah, well, seemed to be the only room that’d hold ‘em,” James shrugged apologetically. “’S an old meat locker. Solid metal, thick as anything and so far it seems they can’t cut through it.”
“’Course we didn’t realize the latch was broken until after we rounded the little buggers up,” Col. Spreenkerton chimed in, giving his own injuries a closer look.
During the exchange, Ms. Temble had approached the haphazard pile of furniture—and behind it, the menacing door—a look of cold fear on her face. Mesmerized by the skittering noises, the sparkling energy in the air that made the hair on her arms stand straight despite the several feet between her and the little metal monsters, Jane raised a hand to the door.
The command arrested her movement, as four fearful men shouted at once.
“I . . . I wasn’t going to touch it,” she scowled, “I just wanted to see.” Lowering her hand, she turned on her heel and rejoined the little group, putting space between herself and the meat locker that had so entranced her. “I’ve only seen the one. You said there are a number of them?”
“Y-es,” Perrigordon drew the word out, throwing a questioning glance at Giles.
Oh, of course. Theory, meet Practice, Giles recalled that James had still not met Ms. Temble, lucky man. “Ms. Jane Temble, psychoanalyst to Harvey Whitlock—number one suspect and now probable victim—meet Dr. James Perrigordon, eminent expert in the fields of autotronics, bionics, . . . ”
“I’ve read your work, Doctor,” Jane’s face lit up as she shook the good doctor’s hand.
“Oh?” Doctor P’s look proclaimed he thought it unlikely but he was too polite to say so, instead returning the handshake with a vigour that belied his disheveled state.
“Oh, yes,” Jane’s eyes sparkled and Giles groaned inwardly watching as Dr. James Perrigordon joined Sir Reginald Crothall in the ranks of the besotted. He ruminated, And Howard over there will soon join them once he espies the firepower Jane’s so casually slung over her back. Eying the blunderbuss still in the lady’s possession in its perilous positioning on a strap crosswise between her slender shoulder blades, he wondered how well-maintained the weapon was and if they should be concerned for the safety of Ms. Temble’s shapely bustle. Not you too, Giles, he chided himself, averting his eyes to the problem at hand. “So, next step? We can’t leave ‘em in there, can we?” He looked to their resident expert for an opinion.
“Well, now,” James cleared his throat, “We tracked ‘em through a series of power fluctuations. Seems the lot o’ ‘em were cutting power as they rampaged through the sewers on their way here. So they clearly can take power surges—in fact, I think that’s how they keep running.” At the fallen faces around him, James quickly added, “I’m just thinking aloud here. No, these little bots have been notably careful about energy input and output. Based on their size, I think a large dose of power would fry their circuits, overload them and kill ‘em off.”
Three manly nods of assent were cut through by one feminine, “No!”
Unabashed by her outburst, Jane repeated herself, albeit more quietly, “No. We’re not frying them. And risk damaging the brains inside? Absolutely not.” She put her foot down, metaphorically as well as physically.
Bemused, Perrigordon spoke, “Now see here, my dear. These little machines, while appearing to have life, intelligence are often run by a series of—” He trailed off at Giles’ raised eyebrows and shake of the head. “What?”
“Harvey Whitlock’s has a brain. A portion of his own, if I’m not mistaken—which I rarely am,” the psychoanalyst breathed, getting the words out quickly. “I’d even venture a further guess they are all run by a similar intelligence and so ought not be killed.”
Sputtering, his eyes bulging in his head, Dr. P managed, “Brains? Human brains? But that’s . . . criminal!”
“Welcome to working for Scotland Yard, James,” Giles brushed past the doctor’s astonished indignation with a hearty clap on the back. Addressing Ms. Temble, he let his smile fade, “And I agree with your theory. Abhorrent as they are, they are not to be killed or damaged in the process of their subjugation. Any other ideas?”
“Just the one,” Reginald Crothall spoke up, a funny smile playing about his lips as he stared unblinkingly at the metal door that so frustrated and saved their efforts, “But it’s kind of silly.”
“Go on.” He had their attention.
Sensing correctly that he had his audience now, Reginald adopted his flippant confidence once more, “Right. Any one of you chaps—and chapses—have a match on you?”