Chapter the first,
Too many freaks, too few circuses:
As Odys walked down the sidewalk he saw the man—the man standing at the crossroad. The man just stood there, even though he didn’t have to. The light was green and he was free to walk across. But he didn’t. He simply stared at the traffic flowing past him. He even waved on the car waiting for him. Come along, motorcar. I’m in no hurry. Have a good day.
Odys noticed the man carried the absolute longest black umbrella, the fascinating kind that adapts into a perfectly fine walking cane. But there wasn’t a chance of rain today. Not even sprinkles. Mildly overcast, perhaps, but nothing to deserve something that drastic.
And goshwow was that a top hat the old man was patting on?
As far as Odys could tell from the man’s backside, this giddily-suited gentleman had time travelled from the 1800s—give or take a hundred years (Odys was no good at history). Not that Odys judged people by their appearance. No, Odys didn’t judge—though he was mature enough (as a twentysomething) to know that elders shouldn’t go about playing dress up. Not on days other than Halloween.
Odys avoided eye contact when he eventually caught up to the stranger. Normally, he would have given an elated grin to someone so dressed up, but not today. Today was different. Today Odys was one. Not two.
His broken-down car had not only forced him to walk but his runaway sister had forced him to walk alone. Okay—fine—she hadn’t really run away but she had abandoned him this morning. Now he was forced to brood and not know what to do with himself.
The older fellow didn’t bother to glance at our aimless-Odys, who arrived just as the light turned red. The orange hand. That’s no high-five it’s asking for. Don’t walk. Don’t talk.
As he waited for the next green light, Odys stared straight ahead—watched his wakeful downtown settle into its afternoon place—refused to gawk at the probably-charming old chap. Gawking was rude anyway, right? Right.
Odys was much too depressed to spark a civil greeting. Or smile. Or even acknowledge the fellow’s existence, for that matter. I don’t see this, Odys thought to himself.
Yes, just stand still, Odys. You can’t see him, he can’t see you.
He’d just ignore the man until that light turned green. Green, green, green. Turn green, already, damn it.
“You look like you’ve lost something, Odys Odelyn.”
Odys made eye contact.
The old man adjusted his white-gloved hands on the umbrella’s handle. A swanky circus ringmaster, this man! No, scratch that. Odys had always pictured a ringmaster with elaborate facial hair—a curled handle-bar mustache and devilish beard. This man was too clean-shaven to be a ringmaster, though he reminded Odys of one nonetheless.
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, BOYS AND GIRLS, CHILDREN OF ALL AGES…
“Pardon?” Odys said with a frown (he refused to enjoy this unwelcome human interaction). And had he heard his name? What had the old man said? In his resentfulness, Odys had already forgotten. But we haven’t, have we, Reader?
The man smiled—a warm and sophisticated grin. His jauntily-angled top hat half-amused Odys, who tried to hate it (he would enjoy nothing today).
…Was he some sort of immaculate butler?
“I said,” (still not lending Odys his eyes), “you seem lost.”
…Was he on his way to a steampunk convention?
Odys realized he should respond. “Do I know you?” Hadn’t the man said his name? Hadn’t he? Hadn’t he?
“Afraid not.” The older fellow cracked a smile. The man’s confidence made Odys’s eyes shift.
Odys gave himself a shake. Maybe he’d just misunderstood.
The light turned green. Walk. Walk faster.
As they walked, the old man swung his umbrella. He tapped it on the ground in between paces like a cane. These two characters fell into step, neither one walking too fast or too slow. Odys kept his hands in his pockets (defensively) while he tried to out-walk the man. But the man kept up with Odys’s stride, his fancy coattails floating behind him. The tap, tap, tap of the umbrella’s metal tip echoed off the cement. It reverberated in Odys’s feet.
The sound annoyed Odys—so much he couldn’t help but count the times it hit the ground—eleven, twelve, thirteen…
The tapping stopped and Odys sighed with relief. They both stepped up onto the sidewalk. A few more steps, then: “So, where are you headed this morning?” The man turned to Odys at last.
Those blue eyes! Tiny little dots of sky. They peered at Odys as if looking at an old friend…an old friend he had dirt on.
“Just walking.” Odys shrugged off the man’s interest.
“Ah, me too.” The man nodded. He tucked the umbrella under his arm.
Odys didn’t know how to respond, so he didn’t.
The traffic light turned red. Don’t walk.
“Have you a reason, boy? For walking, that is?”
Odys wanted to yell, YES, MY STUPID CAR WOULDN’T START. But it’s a story full of curse words and violence (we’ll save it for another chapter).
“Well, it’s not really any of your business is it?” He forced a social smile.
“I suppose you’re right, yes!” The man tapped his umbrella point on the ground—too jovially. “Forgive me for prying. I get carried away.”
Odys cut his eyes at the man. Had this man escaped from some loony bin, and did Odys need to alert someone? He seemed harmless enough, yet there was a mischievous purposefulness behind his every action.
“…I see you’re admiring my outfit?”
No, actually. Odys had just blotted it from memory, looked ahead, prepared to forget everything so he could concentrate on the important matter: his traitorous sister.
“Yes, you are dressed up,” Odys forced a smile. All the man needed was a monkey on his shoulder or a few pins to juggle.
“I’d like to tell you I don’t normally dress like this, but I do. I look nice, don’t I?”
That statement deserved a chuckle. “Yes, you do,” Odys consented. He frowned at his own laughter.
…Was this some candid camera prank?
“I met my wife, you see, wearing a suit like this. She’s dead now. I made a promise that when I met her again, I’d be wearing a fancy suit.” No chuckle from Odys this time. Had the man met his wife at some historical reenactment? Had he expected to die for a while now if he dressed like this all the time?
“As they say,” the man continued, rocking to and fro until the light turned green, “you never know when you’re going to go. You can’t plan for it. Unless, of course, you commit suicide. Then youknow to dress for the worst.”
Odys was about to be confused when (ohthankgod): Green. Walk.
WALK QUICKLY, ODYS.
The man turned left as they stepped onto the curb; Odys went straight. One, two, three four, five uneven steps before: “Oh, Odys Odelyn!” he heard the man call. He made a half-trumpet with one hand, “You dropped this.”
Odys paused and turned in the loading-dock/alleyway’s threshold, right beside a giant green waste bin. Another chill ran down his spine. That was definitely his name, right? He wasn’t mistaken, was he? He had heard his name, hadn’t he?
Oh, hadn’t he!
Like a magician performing slight-of-hand, the old man concealed something in the palm of his glove. His fingers opened like a magical bloom. He presented a shiny, round…quarter?
Well, it was the about the same size as a quarter, anyway. It reflected a spectacular amount of light—amber light. The showy presentation enchanted Odys. He had to force himself say, “No, it’s not mine.”
(Once again, he’d already forgotten the man said his name).
“Oh, but I’m sure it is, Odys Odelyn,” the man insisted with slim bantering flair, a twinkle in his blue-blue eyes.
Third time’s a charm. Odys Odelyn. No mistake.
“How’d you know my name?” Odys demanded, jaw clenching. Who’d want to prank him like this?
“Are you so sure it’s your name?” the old man said, walking forward and seizing Odys’s hand from his pocket. He inserted the warm coin in Odys’s hand. “There’s bound to be more than oneOdys around. The name’s not that original. After all, every time someone says Odysseus, they’re saying part of your name—”
“My name’s not Odysseus—”
“No one said it was.” The man gestured with a nod to the coin.
Odys couldn’t help but look at it. He realized its tarnished spots didn’t stop it from shining.
“It’s a penny,” the old man said. “Penny for your thoughts.” He tapped the ground with the umbrella again. He tucked in his chin and stared at the cement as if regretting what he’d just given up.
Odys examined the coin to appease him (Odys was in no real hurry this morning).
“The date, there, says 1793,” the man pointed, although Odys had already read it. “They only minted them that year. A collectable, for sure. Only seven known in existence, and that isn’t one of them. You’ll not want to giveher away or sell her—no matter the price!” His polished voice was unexpectedly grave, more warning than advice.
Odys rotated the side that read “One Cent”—the side with the intricate wreath. He turned it over to the head: the profile of a beautiful woman with flowing hair.
Odys looked up. The man removed his hat. Odys felt like Frodo taking on the burden of Bilbo’s ring, though he had no idea why. (But don’t get ahead of yourself, Odys. Who said you’re the hero of this story?).
“Why’re you giving this to me?” His cold lips could barely form the words.
“Giving it? My boy, you dropped it!” Silly young man! “Did you know, Odys Odelyn, that many would like to do away with the penny altogether? They say they cost the government more to make them than what they’re worth. Many would rather have us round to the nearest nickel and be done with it. A disappointing thought, for sure. I always did like picking homeless ones up from the ground. In fact, that’s how I discovered that one, there. People drop them like trash and simply let them be—as if it costs more to bend down than to leave it. But for me, I liked to save money. I valued little nothings, you see,” he nodded, trying to make himself believe his memory. He smoothed back his hair one more time, tapped his hat down. “As they say, ‘Find a penny, pick it up, and all your days you’ll have great luck.’ Don’t forget that, Odys Odelyn. Today’s your lucky day.”
Before Odys could question that statement—
“Many would say that the girl on that coin is Lady Liberty. To a point, they’re right. But that specific girl, there, is not the lovely lady Libertas! Not really. You may call her that, but ironically…that penny is anything but free. Not only is she trapped in that metal, but bound to be spent. That woman, there, is just the right sum for the ferryman.”
What the hell was this, his catechism?
The old man lifted his umbrella and swished it toward Odys, tip inches from his face. Odys jumped back, almost bumping into a tiny woman with her dog. The dog didn’t mind, but the woman glared.
“Let’s just say, Mr. Odelyn, that the penny is my debt—my obligation—paid in full. I’ll owe nothing else to you since you now have the funds. The rest is up to you.”
Odys put up his hands. “Er—all right, then.” Anything to shut this man up. People were staring as they tried to make their way into one of the building’s entrances. Is this man putting on a street show? Why’s he dressed up? Is this a film production? Are we on camera?
The man lowered his umbrella, fixed the hat on his head, smoothed down his breast. “Will you hold this, Odelyn?” The man presented the umbrella’s curved handle.
“How do you know my name?”
“Take the umbrella and maybe I’ll tell you.” The man raised a brow.
To move this thing along, “Fine.”
Hands free, the old man reached into his suit pocket. Odys froze in place when he heard the click and saw the barrel—the barrel pointed directly at his face.
“Sorry to do this, here and now, but I’m crunched for time. You walk very slowly, Odys.” The mad man’s voice was so rushed it whispered—Odys could barely hear it. The onlookers (debating whether or not to record this on their phones) were too preoccupied to hear.
“I’m being followed, you see. I’ll need you to put that coin in your pocket. Quickly, now, boy! Don’t spend my time—I’ve paid enough, dealing with you. That’s it. Put it away. Don’t you drop her either, boy. She’s small enough to fall through that drain, there. Or even an unsuspecting pocket hole. She’s very important. Now, open the umbrella.”
“I said open the umbrella!”
Obediently, Odys fumbled with the binding strap’s button, hands shaking.
The black webbing popped out like a monstrous bat wing.
“Hold it up. That’s it, yes.” The man’s eyes darted about. The few in the area were clearing out, ducking and rushing from this antiquated man with his antiquated gun.
Odys rested the umbrella on his shoulder, noticing the man was going to speak once more. Odys swallowed hard, bracing himself.
“Now, Odys Odelyn, that’s my last cent, there. I’ve spent the rest. It’s up to you to buy more time. Spend wisely.”
The man drew back the gun and held the nose upward, as if finished with his prestigious show. But no. That wasn’t the end of his haywire session:
The man shoved the gun in his mouth and gave an encouraging wink—a wink!—right before Odys heard the echoing BANG.
The pigeons flapped up.
As the blood, hat, and brains showered from the sky, Odys half-noticed the shiny name carved on the umbrella’s handle: Pepin J. Pound.
PEPIN: Willing to share his umbrella.
WALKING: Because he knew Odys would be walking.
HOW DID HE KNOW?: Because he’s the reason Odys’s car didn’t start.
[BLA and GB Gabbler” (really just a pen name – singular) are the Editor and Narrator behind THE AUTOMATION, vol. 1 of the Circo del Herrero series. They are on facebook, twitter, tumblr, goodreads, and Vulcan’s shit list.]