Jack could read a crowd like fine print. These folks were the usual rabble one expects at the fringes of cotton country. Perdition, Georgia the road marker had spelled out in verdigris-stained brass lettering. Name just about summed up this place. He tallied up the meager profits he’d walk away with in a few hours just by the looks on these unsuspecting faces. He figured them for fifteen, twenty dollars tops. Still, that was worth the show, and he was hungry. Skin hardened and wrinkled from the sun, with clothes faded by the same, the townsfolk gathered around his wagon one by one. A few more leaned out of second story shop windows to peer his way. The Chief had been wrong, Perdition was as good a stop as any. No sign of trouble.
He set up in town square not far from the courthouse’s central clock tower and the folks selling cowpeas and okra. He folded down the side of his steam-powered wagon to expose his shelves of wares, creating a stage. This was his arena, and he was both ringmaster and gladiator, and sometimes the lion. He cranked up the Victrola to play a tired Sousa march. He was well and truly sick of the tune, but it never failed to draw them in like flies. He rolled out a painted canvas banner that read “Astonishing Medical Cures & Clockwork Worlds of Wonderment” among other pretty nonsense. He was proud of that banner—had paid a sweet little thing back in Atlanta to paint it for him, and she’d done a fine job. Paid her in laudanum, strawberries, and a toss in his bed. The Chief had a few choice words to say about that too, but Jack kept him locked up and quiet while he and the girl settled up figures that night.
“Right here, ladies and gentlemen,” he said in a voice like honey. He hopped up onto the stage and his wagon creaked on steel axles. “That’s right. Yes, that’s right. You’ve never seen the likes of a trader like me. I’ll guarantee.” He winked at a woman that was probably ten years his senior. She flushed, impossible on that tanned skin, even under her dusty straw hat, but he noticed it all the same. Maybe he’d walk away with twenty-five if he was lucky. Maybe he’d stay in town and find a hot-water bath.
“We’ve seen ‘em all!” shouted a tall man from the back of the crowd. “You ain’t no different.”
“Ah, good Sir,” he said, raising a pointed finger in one of his elegant flourishes. “That’s where I beg to differ. Come closer, and be ye prepared to be amazed.”
Lancelot was created in Photoshop. The moon background was shot in my own backyard.
He snapped his fingers and an impressive puff of bluish smoke along with a shower of sparks shot from a few well-placed holes in the stage. This drew the expected laughter and gasps from the crowd, and now he had their attention. With a smile, he moved his empty hands through the air, as if pulling something from the Aether. He balled his fists together and when he opened them again, a fine piece of black silk flowed from his fingers. He waved the smooth fabric for all to see.
He spotted a young boy of about nine or ten that was just a few feet from the edge of the stage, clutching the hand of his pretty red-head mama. With eye contact and a smile to the child, he added, “Young man, have you ever seen a clockwork bird fly?”
The boy shook his head. His mother smiled.
“I should think not, for they are a rare species,” said Jack, loud enough for all to hear.
With a practiced flick of his wrist, he snapped the silk cloth in the air and draped it over his opposite open palm. When he pulled the fabric away, a creation of brass and enameled steel resembling a large hummingbird had appeared in his empty hand. The crowd gasped. The creature’s wings were white silk stretched over a wire frame and its eyes were cobalt glass. Jack knelt at the edge of his stage near the boy.
“Take a good look, son.” The boy leaned forward and gaped. Jack let him lay one dirty finger on the automaton, before he stepped back. “Now watch.” He wound a key at the bird’s back. Cupping it in both hands, he kissed it for good luck. As he did, the boy’s young mother flashed pretty green eyes at him. With a wink to her, he held the bird aloft and tossed it into the air.
It whirred to life, buzzing around the crowd. To shrieks of delight and murmurs of alarm, the bird bobbed and darted from one person to another, hovering just above their heads, as if it had a mind of its own, which of course it did. Its silk wings hummed in a fair approximation of the real thing, but louder and with a metallic resonance that sounded like money in the bank.
Enjoyed the excerpt? You can read the full story on my DeviantArt page here.