His first day in Cambridge was not going as well as he had hoped it would have gone, Simon kept thinking to himself, and the night was going to be a long one if he did not find anywhere to spend it. Feeling very dejected after being turned away from one of the universities, the guard at the gate of Pembroke College telling him that they were not hiring any more stable workers this term before telling him to "bugger off." Before he tried explaining to him that he had money for tuition, the guard slammed the door in his face. He then tried King's, Queen's, and Clare's Colleges before calling it a day. With no idea what to do next, he decided to wander about the town, seeing if anyone had need of a worker. His luck was just as potent at a steelworks plant, a livery stable, and a courier service-making him mentally kick himself for not thinking things out as thoroughly as he should have while still on board the Arrow. Treating himself to a reasonably nice dinner at a local tavern, he did not want to blow all of his funds since he had no idea when new ones would become available, before heading out to find a place to spend the night.
A light fog hung in the evening air as Simon walked the lamp-lit streets, the sounds of carts and steam carriages on the streets mixed with the merry sounds from the rows of taverns. Taking Captain Paige's advice to heart, he altered his posture and attitude after leaving the tavern. Hunching over a bit more, keeping his bag strap and the interior pocket of his jacket as close to him as possible, Simon scanned both sides of the street as he walked. For blocks he searched, finding nothing more reputable than a couple of flophouse...which given his financial situation would be all he could afford for a while. But while his search had taken him deep into the city, he did not notice that he had crossed Blackthorn Street...which true to the trolley lady's words was indeed a bit dodgy.
The fog seemed to lift the further he went down that particular street, showing the buildings a lot clearer now. Once Simon caught notice of this, he stood for a moment and tried to get his bearings. "Oh good work, Simon," he thought after seeing his location, "the one place you were advised not to go near is where you end up." For he had stopped himself right in front of a two-story town-house separated from the street by a tall wrought-iron fence and immaculately trimmed hedges. An ambarically-lit sign on the front of the gate read in golden calligraphy on white wood, "The Portrait Gallery: Private Gentleman's Club. Entry permitted by invitation only." It did not seem to be all that dishonest from what Simon could see, and it certainly did not look the part. He figured with a title of "gentlemen's club" it must have been like the officer's tent back on the base, where the older officers and enlisted would retire for brandy and cigars and talk about how the badly the world is going nowadays. That was definitely not the place he needed or wanted to be, so he shrugged and started back down the road.
What he failed to notice was that he was not alone on that particular stretch of road, at least when it came to being interested in the Portrait Gallery. From an alley up the street a pair of eyes were watching the front door of the club, and taking heavy interest in the bewildered young man across the street from it. This was what the eyes, belonging to a man about ten years older than his intended target, always were on the lookout for when it was his turn to scout for new "exhibitions." He would wait until the lad was about to pass by his point, then he would casually come up behind him. With few sentences, maybe asking the lad where the nearest tavern was or if he was new to town, he would strike. The plan was simple and always seemed to work on the runaways, drunks, and pampered University students. That is how he made his employers at the gallery happy, and keeping them happy kept him out of the gallery.
Simon stopped a little ways up the street from the Portrait Gallery, scanning both sides for any sign of an inn. "Ok, it looks like I'm not going to be finding anyplace in this part of town. Maybe I should just call a cab and have them take me to one," Simon thought, shifting this bag nervously on his shoulder. The street was deserted and he did not know how late or far the taximeter cabs worked in the city.
As he stood there pondering this, someone came up from behind him, saying in an accent Simon could not exactly place, "Excuse me, young man, but could you please help me?" The cool yet hard voice made Simon jump a little. "I'm sorry to have startled you," said the stranger, throwing up his hands in front of him in a gesture of placation. Simon took a deep breath to steady him, appraising the stranger at the same time: about ten years older than him, dressed like a dock worker, short blonde hair, and a pair of pale green eyes that seemed to draw Simon to them. "I was wondering if you could tell me where the Locomotive station is at." For some reason the stranger's voice, the accent maybe Bavarian or Prussian from Simon's estimation, immediately put him at ease.
Shyly Simon grimaced, not wanting to look away from the stranger's eyes. "I'm sorry, I've just arrived here today and I'm not all that familiar with the city just yet," he apologized, not wanting to disappoint his new friend anymore than he already had. In the back of his mind a red flag was waving madly, as if to say, "Get away! You don't know this man and there's something wrong about him!" But the longer he stood there talking with the stranger, exchanging niceties about his journey from South Africa and his inability to find work, the flag was slowly being obscured by a dense fog. If Simon could have seen himself at that moment, he would have seen the sheepish smile crawling across his face, the blue of his eyes starting to dull, and the steady slackening of his grip on his sea bag. Then all of a sudden, he was engulfed in a relaxing, light feeling. That was the last he would remember feeling that night.
Professor Marcus Bennington opened his pocket watch with a weary sense of relief, taking comfort in knowing that his latest "scholarly outing" had ended well and in enough time for him to have a few days to himself before returning for another term at Sovereign's College. The gold and crystal watch face glinted warmly in the ambaric lantern light inside his steam carriage, the compass inside the hatch flicking regularly between north and east. Closing the watch, Marcus ran a gloved hand through his short black hair, ruffling its usually neat styling in a show of relief. His research mission to the American Confederation's outer territories to study how the aboriginal people's ancestor and spirit worship coincided with his own research of ætherology went exceptionally. The Board of Governors would be pleased with the evidence he found of how their summoning of spirits actually had an effect on this plane; plus, the artifacts that Apache shaman graciously gave him after stopping that group of bandits would make a good bargaining tool if they were even more hard-pressed for reasons to keep his department open.
The rhythmic pace of the carriage's wheels upon the street accompanied by the regular hissing the engine seemed to ease the tension racking his body. Soon he would be back in his townhouse and the next few days would be his to spend as he pleased, the thought brought a smile to his face as he said, "And Tristan is not expecting me back so soon, which will certainly make him happy." He opened the window of his carriage and took a look outside, letting the crisp night air fill his lungs and press his gold-framed glasses to his face. Upon opening his eyes, Marcus noticed something unusual happening about a block away, near an open alley. He strained his eyes, and was certain in what he saw: a blond man standing before a lad with a sea bag almost falling off his shoulder and an entranced look on his face. "Spoke too soon," he cursed to himself, sticking his head back into the carriage. Pulling over the coach's intercom horn, Marcus called to his driver, "Mr. Bunburry, stop the vehicle as inconspicuously as possible. It appears our evening has just grown more complicated."
"Very good, Professor," came the metallic-like response from his driver, the carriage immediately growing slower.
Marcus reached across the cab for the black frockcoat lying on the bench, throwing it on in one fluid motion before opening up his valise. Amid the leather envelopes, wrapped artifacts, and various other effects he searched until he withdrew from the case a very well-kept automatic revolver. With a, sadly common as of late, familiarity with the weapon he checked to see where he stood on ammunition, finding twelve rounds left over from last time. "Just like Marrakesh," he grumbled, holstering the pistol inside his frockcoat. The carriage came to a stop, giving Marcus his cue that he had to ready himself. While he did not think the hustler was capable enough of taking him down, the professor had the experience to warn him that those kinds sometimes bring stronger reinforcements. Taking in a deep breath and closing his eyes, Marcus allowed his mind to become focused on a single task-bringing forth an alert and sharpened state. After a brief moment the Mentalism ritual, learned a long time ago when he was just beginning his career, came to full affect as Marcus's eyes flew open with a steely focused that could almost piece the side of the carriage with its pointed intensity. If one could see Marcus's mind at that moment, they would be hard-pressed to differentiate it from an angry hedgehog...and that was how he wanted it. He threw open the carriage hatch and stepped out into the foggy street.
"This one went under easily," the stranger smirked to himself, taking in his handy work with self-satisfied delight. Simon was now swaying gently as he stood rooted to the pavement, sea bag unceremoniously dumped from shoulders and arms too slack and relaxed to support it. He had been unprepared for the stranger's mental attack, slowly relaxing the thinking part of the mind to the point where he could exert the force of his willpower over the underlying, feeling layer. While not enough to put his victim into circulation just yet, the stranger knew that he would have to condition him rigorously to strip away the original persona and memories, leaving him the perfect addition to his employer's gallery. "What a pity I can't keep you for myself," sighed the stranger, drawing a hand down Simon's cheek.
"I would highly suggest that you refrain from doing that again," a strong voice called from behind the stranger as he felt a small circle of cold appear at the base of his skull, accentuated by a dull metallic click. "Kind of late to be doing a street show, wouldn't you agree, Hans?" Marcus's voice, while trying to come off as witty and ironic instead sounded stern and menacing-an unfortunate side effect of the battle trance.
Hans, shaking nervously and not daring to move, fully recognized the voice, squeaked "Professor Bennington! Back from abroad so soon?"
"Don't try to change the subject, Hans," growled Marcus as he pressed the gun's barrel deeper into Hans's neck, "Let the boy go. You know I'm not shy about using this." Which was not the entire truth, but Marcus would never admit it to himself. In the back of his mind his analytical side knew that he could try bringing the boy out of the trance himself. But, it cautioned, the deprogramming would be a more intense process since he had no idea the damage Hans may have done to him, so Marcus hoped intimidation may have to do the job instead. They both stood in tense silence until Hans did the only thing in his seedy mind he could do: he ducked down and ran to the alley. Not wanting to accidently hit the boy, Marcus instinctively shot up into the air before turning his sights back on Hans. As he turned the corner of the alley he called out, "Mr. Bunburry! Get the boy into the carriage, quickly now!"
The alley ended in a story-high brick wall, which as Marcus saw, Hans was desperately trying to scale. As the hustler jumped at the top of the wall, Marcus drew his revolver's sight on the back of his left knee. Then with a precision of a seasoned marksman brought on by the battle trance, he pulled the trigger and let two rounds fly into Hans's leg. With a dull thud he hit the ground, clutching his leg and screaming in pain. Rushing up to him, Marcus knelt down beside him and asked, "Was that really necessary? Now what did you do to the boy?" But Hans refused to answer, glaring at the professor. Then with a smile he dislodged a small capsule from underneath his tongue and swallowed. Instantaneously he began to foam at the mouth and convulse as if entering a seizure, drawing no discernable reaction from Marcus other than contempt.
When the theatrics were over, Marcus felt Hans's neck and did locate a pulse. Looking skeptically at this, he lifted up the man's pant leg and sighed with the feeling of unwelcomed confirmation. For tattooed on that leg was a stylized, wilting black rose, a sight that took the bottom out of his stomach. "Fool wiped his own mind clean instead of facing the wrath of his masters," theorized Marcus, standing up and holstering the pistol back inside his frockcoat. He gave one more look at Hans before turning back to the sidewalk and returning to his steam carriage.
"The young man is on board, Professor, and appears unharmed, albeit still entranced," said a middle-aged, rather rotund man in a black suit, waistcoat, and bowler standing crisply at the carriage's open hatch. He had a ruddy, round face that was partially obscured by a thick black Hungarian moustache and brown eyes hidden behind a pair of goggles. Seeing Marcus suddenly grow weak in the knees, he rushed forward and caught him up. "The battle trance wearing off quickly again, Professor?"
Marcus responded with a weak laugh, "You know me too well, Mr. Bunburry. I never could figure out how Isaac could keep it up for so long without it draining him like this." Letting out a weary breath, Marcus climbed into the carriage opposite the still entranced Simon, "Take us home, Mr. Bunburry. We're going to have a long night ahead of us." With that he peeled himself out of the frockcoat and leaned back against the velvet bench, looking at Simon with a mixture of concern and shame as the steam carriage's engines hissed and drove off into the night.
From across the street, a shadowy figure had observed the scene behind a curtained window from inside the Portrait Gallery. He saw his underling attempt to snare the young lad and bellowed with rage when the gun-wielding bespectacled academic arrived to ruin things. A lesser man would have attempted to strike the interloper the moment he walked out of the alley after his fat butler drug the boy into his carriage, but this individual was by far anything but lesser. When the carriage puffed along its way, a call was put out to recover Hans. A group of muscular young men in coveralls were then seen hurriedly exiting the townhouse and crossing the street into the alley. The figure knew that Hans had been a decent Mentalist; he would, however, be a better asset to him as an attraction.
The muscular men soon appeared before the figure, laying Hans down on a table to be examined-the back of his knee still bleeding. Walking up to face Hans, or whatever he would decide to call this blank slate laying before him, "Oh my boy," cooed the figure in a mockingly tender tone, "you shouldn't have done that. You robbed me of the pleasure of erasing your mind myself." He then addressed the group, "See that his wound is healed. I think ‘nubile shepherd' would be a fitting personality to place in him." The young men grunted in acknowledgement as they took the gurgling body away. Turning back to the window, he said to himself, "So you have returned, Marcus. I'm certainly looking forward to finishing what we started."
Sovereign's College-founded in 1500 CE-a sister school to King's College & Queen's College. Scarf: alternating gold and black bars on red
The newly founded science of the spirit or what members of the Church would call "the soul"