Time flight CHRONICLES
BOOK ONE: AMSTER DAMNED
Part the First: The Gypsy’s Rose
A Sussex Steampunk novella
by Mr Nils Nisse Visser
Sussex – 1887
One doesn’t simply stroll into a shop and purchase a temporal displacement machine, nor send off a catalogue order for one. On the contrary, the year 1887 witnessed far more effort in suppressing any thoughts of temporal science rather than encouragement to explore it.
Miss Alice Kittyhawk sighs into her cup. It’s empty. She pours more tea from the chipped Delft Blue teapot, pleased to have a simple distraction from complex thoughts. Despite the sigh she is in her element, relishing the fact that she has been unleashed by her employer to conduct independent fieldwork. There is a magnificent sense of freedom to it.
The teaware possesses a quaint charm, mishmashed as it is; each piece a relic from better and unblemished days. Flotsam and jetsam from the past, much as De Theeboot itself seems to be.
Alice looks up. Her table by the stern allows her to see all the way along the cabin to the bow of the long narrow saloon boat. A few other tables are occupied but all conversations are quiet and subdued. The proprietor, a short rotund silver-haired matron, is fussing behind the bar which stretches out amidships, curling around the small stairwell which leads up to the tiny bridge and down to the engine room.
The design of De Theeboot’s cabin speaks of serene elegance but the vessel’s glory days are long past, to judge by the peeling paint, frayed curtains, and threadbare carpet on the deck. Mevrouw Tromp, the proprietor, seems to care more for the plants which are everywhere; standing tall in copper pots or hanging in baskets suspended from the ceiling. Bright sunlight falls through the broad latticed windows which encompass the entire upper half of the cabin, bathing it, and the glorious green vegetation within, in golden warmth. At times Alice feels that she is in the secluded greenhouse of a Sussex country manor, rather than right in the midst of the hustle and bustle of Amsterdam.
De Theeboot is moored at the Geldersekade quay with a view of the busy Nieuwmarkt. The market square is dominated by the Waag, a robust medieval bulwark with round steeple-roofed towers and ample arrow slits which still exude a menace. Yellow steam trams – their livery dulled by soot – huff and puff their way to the Nieuwmarkt from the many streets which converge on the square. All manner of vessels ply the canals, transporting people and goods. The nearby Lastage Aeroport provides for the regular passage of aerocraft, large and small. The quays are lined with houses, cafés, shops and warehouses, all marked by the traditional bell-shaped or stepped gables.
Alice clicks open the mechanism of her brown leather bag and from that she draws out a small set of binoculars, the barrels inlaid with mother-of-pearl and the metal of the eyepieces and rims coloured white gold. In appearance they look like regular opera glasses but a few clever adjustments have made them far more powerful. She prefers the binoculars over long tubular spyglasses as they are far less conspicuous in use.
She trains her binoculars on the Nieuwmarkt. Scores of stalls and makeshift shacks are huddled around the ominous Waag. The crowd on the market square continually contracts and expands as passengers alight or board horse-drawn carriages and coaches, steam trams and water taxis. The latter make a stop at the floating jetties accessed by narrow stone steps which connect canal and quay. Shoppers mill around the stalls where the vendors praise their wares loudly whilst simultaneously insulting other vendors and even their customers, a local Amsterdam trademark.
Alice has learned from Mevrouw Tromp that most of the goods volubly advertised in the loud and bellicose native manner have miraculously fallen out of the holds of sleek schooners, bulky cargo steamships or merchant aerocraft.
She reflects how ironic it is that the Waag is now a police station. An imposing fortress of law and order, though the cryptofficers and cyboforcers stationed there seem oblivious to the flourishing black market right on their doorstep, just as they turn a blind eye to all of the other illicit activities in the immediate neighbourhood unless, of course, temporal trespass is suspected.
The illegal activities condoned by the Waag are conducted twenty-four hours a day. The Zeedijk quarter of the city has always been a haven for seamen on shore-leave, added to which are now the aeronauts on land-leave. Seamen and aeronauts compete in land-based misbehaviour and the Zeedijk caters to their every need, including those that visitors have yet to anticipate. The Zeedijk never rests, never sleeps. The narrow streets are bustling with off-duty crew, beggars, stray cats, peddlers, pickpockets, prostitutes, innocuously strolling gentlemen, muggers, gaunt street urchins, overseas visitors either curious or in the thrall of moral outrage, and, as far as Alice knows, at least one assistant of a Brighton based private investigator.
She lowers her binoculars. The forlorn cries of seagulls sound over the canal. The gulls here are large and well-fed. Alice is of the opinion, however, that the easy pickings in the busy seaport have made them lazy. Brighton gulls, the best gulls in the world, are more audacious, more piratical in their devil-may-care escapades.
“Homesick now? Tis unaccountable,” Alice mutters to herself. “You’re twenty-five years old, not a middling chavvie.”
She hasn’t come to the most boisterous and disreputable Free City of the Low Countries for sightseeing, nor to wallow about in nostalgia. Alice has a missing botanist to find. Dr Braxton Beesworth is unlikely to stroll across the gangplank to enter De Theeboot’s cabin and announce himself. In fact, it’s unlikely that he is to be found in Amsterdam at all. There is, however, someone in the city who might know more about the rogue botanist’s whereabouts. Two people in fact, but both might as well be on the moon, as far as their accessibility is concerned.
Alice puts away her binoculars and turns to the papers in the thick leather file in front of her. She has to complete her reports. One for her employer; Mr Newt Mackellow-Featherlight Esquire, Private Investigator of Accidental Oddities & Peculiar Curiosities. The other for their client; Her Excellency, Mrs Godiva Nelson-Hart, the Minister of Lost & Found.
There is a specific request for ministerial assistance in the latter so Alice needs to get it to London as soon as possible. Although she’s been in Amsterdam for two weeks, Alice hasn’t sent any reports to England yet because she doesn’t trust the local post. The reports are of an extremely sensitive nature. Matters which are best kept secret from the local police force and more especially, the Amsterdam dependency of TimePol, located in the Waag.
She will use the aero mail to London. A Royal Mail flight was due to depart from the Lastage Aeroport that evening. Alice could post her reports at the booth on the edge of the RM landing platform.
It will be pleasant to visit the Aeroport and no great ordeal because both steam tram line 4 and line 11 offer a direct connection from the Nieuwmarkt. If there wasn’t a long queue at the RM landing platform she would order a cup of tea at the Aeroport’s Cupola Café and watch the aerocraft arrive and depart. Alice is an aeronaut’s daughter and has been fascinated by the sight since early childhood when each aerocraft that took to the sky was cause for her imagination to conjure up exotic images of destinations far, far away.
Alice’s musings are interrupted by another flight path, that of a red rose, casually tossed onto her table. Quick as a cat Alice snaps her leather file shut. The rose lands, blood red, beautiful in its perfection.
Alice looks up, cross at the intrusion.
Her frown is met by a bright smile. A man. It’s hard to tell his age. He could be in his mid-thirties but his face is lined by life, long brown hair showing the first streaks of grey, cat-green eyes – familiar somehow –, a contagious smile amidst sharp features unconcealed by moustache or beard.
Alice doesn’t return the smile. The intruder wears leather boots, dark trousers, a white silk shirt and an old faded green uniform coat with white piping and multiple rows of silver buttons. A red sash tied around his waist completes his gypsy look and the bunch of red roses he holds confirms her suspicion that he is a peddler.
Alice is irritated; she has been visiting De Theeboot for nine days without a single interruption, barring Mevrouw Tromp’s replenishment of her tea. Peddlers and beggars are firmly dealt with by the matron, who guards De Theeboot’s gangplank with a broom in her hands when necessary. The resultant privacy is one of the main reasons Alice favours the establishment. That and the concealment the boat offers as an inconspicuous place to train her binoculars on the Waag.
Her primary reaction at the unwanted intrusion by the gypsy is to revert back into her seaside slum manner. Alice grew up there, back in Brighton, and can voice her opinion on a par with the most voluble Amsterdam market vendors.
Professionalism, she reminds herself, requires a fraction of thought. Her cover is that of a newspaper reporter. Though wearing a black mourning outfit the quality of her high-low skirt, high collared, corset-backed and ruffled top, as well as the black laced veil that cascades down the back of her head, suggests that she isn’t wealthy but has sufficient income to be considered a somewhat respectable member of society. As such it would raise eyebrows if she were to revert to the coarse but highly effective language of her youth, much as she desires to.
“Thank you,” she tells the gypsy, as curtly as etiquette allows. “But I am not buying.”
“It is a gift,” the gypsy says. “A flower of beauty to match your own, the colour of love to offset the mournful black roses which decorate your veil.”
Alice continues to look as stern as a school-mistress. The stranger is being far too familiar, something her cover character would no doubt disapprove of. The cheeky slum urchin within her, however, is amused and she cannot deny that she is pleased with the flattery.
“Very kind of you,” she says. “But I am still not buying.”
“A tragedy, a true tragedy! Your Shakespeare couldn’t dream up finer misfortune,” he shakes his head sadly. “I greatly regret that your life will be incomplete forever more.”
Alice can’t help but laugh. The man speaks with a dramatic grandiloquence which wouldn’t be mis-staged at the Theatre Royal back home. Self-savvied and charming, he is playing quite the irresistible rogue.
She looks at the closed file on the table; there is paperwork to be completed but she suspects the gypsy is in no rush to depart. Her cover demands she gets rid of him politely and engaging in brief wordplay with an eloquent partner would, at least, be a pleasant diversion.
“There’s not much that would make my life incomplete,” she says. “I doubt you sell anything I am looking for.”
“Name it, and I shall find it,” the gypsy pledges, full of sincerity. “Miss….?”
“I am sorry so much, Mejuffrouw Kittiehak,” Mevrouw Tromp makes her way to the table, smiling apologetically, broom in hand. “But this Meneer says that he is knowing you. Must I sweeping him from the boat for you Mejuffrouw Kittiehak?”
Alice does a double take, peering at the gypsy through narrowed eyes, trying to rack her memory. Has she met this man before? All of a sudden she fancies that she recognises familiar features, mannerisms, but that, she suspects, is pure projection.
“Indeed, Mejuffrouw Kittiehak,” the man says with a twinkle in his eye. “It is a pleasure to renew our acquaintance.”
Alice suspects that he exaggerates the Dutch pronunciation with which Mevrouw Tromp has just mangled her name, for his English is far better than most locals manage.
The man sits down, laying his roses on the table. He’s grinning now, possibly enjoying her discomfort at being left in the dark. That would mean he knew her well, for Alice didn’t like not knowing things. She never had.
“Five and twenty sky-skiffs,” the man says. “Skirring through the dark.”
Alice eyes grow wide. The line is from a poem: ‘The Rottingdean Rhyme’. It had been written for her by a friend of her father’s and never been published. As such very few people know the words the poet Yardrud Pilkin – Uncle Yard – had penned to alleviate her pain and grief after the Queen’s Men had stolen her father’s life with musket balls sixteen years ago.
“Brandy for the parson,” she murmurs. “Baccy for the clerk.”
Alice is momentarily transported to another place, another time. White cliffs, green Downs, a grey misty sea, a dark monolithic structure on a hill, the beat of propellers and hushed voices. Shouts and shots as the sunlight faded. Shouts, shots, screams and her father’s last defiant roar.
“I must excuse,” Mevrouw Tromp says nervously. “Meneer Schademakers has strange humour, ja? It is not normaal.”
Alice stares at the man. There’s only one Dutchman she knows who could recite those lines. Could this really be Joe?
“Not normal?” The man asks. “Me?”
The feigned surprise on his face is the last confirmation Alice needs that he is Joe. He had pulled that face often enough in her presence.
“There is no need for apologies, Mevrouw Tromp,” Alice says.
“It is goed then? Meneer Schademakers bothering you not?”
“It is perfectly alright, thank you Mevrouw Tromp,” Alice answers. “All is well.”
“Dank u wel, Mevrouw Tromp.” Joe presses a rose in the matron’s free hand.
Mevrouw Tromp tut-tuts, shakes her head, looks at her broom with a tinge of regret and then sets course for the bar again, admiring the rose on her way.
Alice turns to Joe. She continues The Rottingdean Rhyme. “Laces for a lady, letters for a spy.”
“Crystals for a clocker, roundshot to make rozzers cry,” he answers with that contagious smile of his.
She can place the voice now. He had been younger then, with a full beard and no grey streaks in his hair. A wounded fugitive, pursued by the Queen’s Men when she and her friends Lottie and Braxton had found him in a dilapidated shed half a mile out of Rottingdean.
Alice continues the poem. “Watch the floor, me darling, whilst proud aeronauts skirr by.”
“Atween the silver stars in a black and moonless sky,” Joe finishes.
“Joe?” Alice asks.
“J.J. Schademaker,” her childhood friend nods. “Jodokus Joseph. Joe in England. It’s a pleasure to see you again, Alice.”
Alice shakes her head in delighted disbelief. They had corresponded, of course, but ever more irregularly and it had been a long time since she had seen him last, more than a decade. Nonetheless, his presence seems as familiar as it had ever been in the past, as if they have only said their farewells a week ago, rather than a dozen years.
“What is with the mourning clothes?” Joe asks, suddenly concerned. “Is your mum alright?”
“She’s fine, I would have sent word otherwise,” Alice answers quickly. She plucks at the fine lace of one of her sleeves. “This is just to keep pesky men at bay. I find it easier to make do without their distraction. The odd one that does try I confound by pretending to weep inconsolably.”
Joe laughs. “It seems you haven’t changed much, Meissie, always ready to rebel against convention.”
“Mayhap.” Alice shrugs. “What’s with the gypsy clothes?”
“Gypsy? I’m a pirate!”
Alice laughs. “Very well, a pirate. But what on earth are you doing here? How did you find me?”
“I live and work in Amsterdam, I must have mentioned it in my last letter? Maybe I didn’t, I moved here two years ago. I got Brax’s message.”
“The very same.”
“Do you know where he is?” Alice is amazed. For a moment she hopes that all her cunning complex plans will not be required, just a confirmation from Joe, possibly with a precise location…..and time.
“No,” Joe shakes his head. “Just a letter, hand-delivered.”
He reaches into his coat, retrieves a letter and hands it over to Alice. A square white envelope with…
…penned on it. She recognizes the handwriting.
“May I?” She asks. Joe nods and she takes a folded note out of the envelope.
Alice needs your help.
De Theeboot, near the Nieuwmarkt.
“That was all?” Alice asks.
“Ja, that was all. I was mighty surprised.”
Alice retrieves her magnifying glass from her bag and uses it to study the paper. It is thick and rough to the touch. She can see traces of plant fibre but the paper is far more flexible than the more widely available cheap mass-produced Egyptian papyrus paper. She smells it, picking up a faint odour of temple incense. “I think this is Nepalese Lokta paper.”
“Nepal? A long stride from Sussex, Alice. Further away than Amsterdam is, but do tell me, what brings you here? Brax was brief, as you read.”
Alice takes a deep breath. Breaking cover is not a habit on an assignment, but this is Joe, who had once been like an elder brother to her. She had trusted him implicitly back then; her intuition tells her she can trust him still. Moreover, Brax contacted Joe. Doctor Braxton Beesworth himself. What a very odd lead to have.
On the one hand, she is sure, Brax is quite capable of trying to waylay her pursuit if he discovered Alice on his trail – as he clearly has – and doesn’t want to be found. On the other hand, he would never contrive to involve someone he held in high esteem on a dishonest mission.
She wonders where and when, especially when, Brax penned his note but then forces her thoughts to turn to matters at hand. Delving into any temporal related conundrums …..is–was–will be….. a time-consuming business, riddled with complexities. That mental maze is best left for later tonight, when she retires to the dingy lodgings she found in a hostel on a narrow street not far from the Nieuwmarkt.
Alice tells Joe about her assignment and the difficulties involved.
When she is finished, he says: “Sodeju, the Waag? You must be joking.”
She looks towards the Nieuwmarkt, at the Waag, Amsterdam’s own menacing miniature Bastille. It is unfortunate that the one place she should really avoid at all cost is the very location she needs to gain access to. Alice turns back to Joe, regret in her voice as she says: “I am not.”
“Nothing is impossible,” Alice says with determination in her voice.
Joe shakes his head, “You really haven’t changed much, Meissie. Stubborn as Sussex, wasn’t it?”
“That’s right Joe. Sussex wunt be druv, stubborn as pigs we are,” Alice confirms with pride in her voice.
“Very well, I’ll do my best to help you, Alice. But first you’ll have to offer me a cup of Mevrouw Tromp’s delicious rooibos tea.”
“Consider it a deal,” Alice says.
She has told him of the risks involved. A cuppa is a reasonable price, she reckons, for involvement in a derring-do scheme that might well get him, and Alice herself, imprisoned or killed. Besides that, Mevrouw Tromp’s rooibos tea really is something to write home about.
To be continued IN AMSTER DAMNED PART Two
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