The Adventure Starts Here
Nikola was acutely aware of the foetid breath coming from the mouth directly above him. Nauseous, he tried to disentangle his lanky frame from the ghostly figure that threatened his welfare.
“Take this,” Nikola heard.
A gloved fist impacted against the ghost’s temple, sending it flying off. For a second, blue energy trailed from the spectre’s head to the crackling gauntlet, then it dissipated.
“Are you alright, Nikola?” Harry said, offering his hand to the prone man.
“Fine,” Nikola said, taking it and standing. He wore insulating gloves. “I tripped and fell.” He took the state of his uniform in, then moved as if to dust himself, then stopped, shaking his head. “I almost had him.”
“Yes, I saw.”
“No, I was just about to activate… Watch out!”
With a scream, the ghost was back upon Harry, his arms extended. His fingernails were so sharp that his hands looked like claws as they closed upon Harry’s throat.
“You… will… die…” the ghost rasped.
Harry didn’t answer. Instead, he raised his hands. His gauntlets again glowing blue, he grabbed the ghosts forearms and pulled.
“I will…” Harry said. Inch by inch, he pried the ghost’s arms apart. “But… not… by… your hand!”
There was a screech and a flash, and the ghost was gone. Harry stood, his arms open, holding nothing. All that was left of the apparition was a rancid mist. Nikola nodded as he examined a smoking metallic box.
“Your new design seems to be working perfectly, Harry,” he said. “He’s contained and, more importantly, inert.”
Harry stared at the tall man. They looked funny, with Harry looking even smaller beside Nikola.
“I just had the idea. You designed and built it, Nikola.”
“Shall we go back? I’m hungry.”
Harry smiled. That was his companion, all right.
“An aetherogram for Mr Tesla!” the boy said to Nikola as they entered their headquarters. “Mrs Houdini is waiting for you, sir,” he told Harry.
“Thank you, Charlie,” Tesla said, taking the aetherogram from him.
“Who’s it from?” Harry said. “A woman?” He couldn’t help teasing his friend.
“Yes,” Nikola said seriously. But then, Nikola was almost always calm and serious.
“Really?” Harry was surprised. Truth be told, Nikola did have female acquaintances; sometimes Harry thought his friend didn’t realize what a dashing image he made, so tall and classy. Yes, he could be fastidious, but everyone had their defects, didn’t they.
“Yes. I need to check this.” Without a word, Nikola handed Harry the containment box and left towards the elevator. Houdini shook his head. Here was a difficult man, no doubt about it.
“Don’t you ‘darling’ me. How did it go?”
Harry smiled and showed her the box. A wisp still leaked from it.
“The creature’s contained. Central Park’s no longer haunted. Well, not by him.”
“Will you dispose of it, please?” Bess said.
“Of course, darling,” Harry said.
“Where’s Nikola?” Bess asked. “In his laboratory already?”
“He’s received an aetherogram. Young Mr Chaplin has given it to him. He said he needed to check it out. Come to think of it, it must have been urgent: he forgot to go wash his hands.”
Bess shook her head.
“I don’t like it,” she said.
“Will you please go get rid of that?”
Tesla had eleven discarded napkins before him, plus an used one. The food in his plate was arranged in three neat small piles. A small army of cutlery pieces had been used and discarded as well. Charlie waited patiently for him to finish, sitting on a chair while reading a paper.
“The aetherogram was from Sarah Bernhardt,” he said. Bess raised an eyebrow. Harry smiled. Nikola didn’t notice. “I met her some time ago. She requested to be a sort of contact for us in Europe. I decided to humour her, but it turns out she has been quite useful so far. This time it seems she is really worried.”
“What is it?”
“Many of the old European cities are prone to ghost infestation, but Paris has been practically rebuilt in the last century. I can only imagine what it meant for the city’s thaumotelluric energies.”
Harry whistled softly. Nikola nodded.
“There’s a great many ghosts roaming Paris as of late, apparently. Mlle Bernhardt suspects foul play. A necromancer.”
“I don’t think I like the sound of that,” Bessy said.
“A summoner perhaps?” Harry suggested. Nikola nodded and stood. Charlie started to clean the table as Tesla paced the dining room.
“Mlle Bernhardt seems to be really worried…” he said. “I think there’s only one option: we must travel to Paris.”
Harry clapped his hands.
“Well, if that’s the case… We’ll have to use the Albatross!”
“Crank up those engines!”
Grinning madly, his eyes covered by goggles, Charlie pushed the propeller once, twice, then it picked up speed. The other propellers came online one by one after the first. He ran up the boarding plank and snapped a salute.
“Permission to come aboard, sir!” he said.
“Oh, do come in, lad!” Bess said. Nikola actually surprised her by helping the kid aboard. Then he went to the cockpit.
“We’re ready for take-off, Nikola!” Houdini shouted as Tesla entered. “Sit down and grab something!”
Tesla said something, but the whup-whup sound from the propellers drowned his answer. The ship lurched forward. There was a moment of panic as the Albatross fell, then she picked up speed and really started flying.
Harry flew over New York, exhilarated. He deftly pointed the nose of the craft towards the ocean, describing a gracile curve. He realized Nikola was saying something. He pointed at him, then to his ears. Tesla nodded.
“This is an intelligent use of my long-distance transmitter,” Tesla said in his ears moments later. “I didn’t think of it.”
“Well, I imagined that if it works long-distance, it can also work aboard. As long as we all use your voice transmitter and ear receivers, we can talk to each other, regardless of the engine noise.”
“Ah, that. I don’t really like combustion engines, Harry. I’ll have to update the ship’s power plant as soon as possible. One of my three-phase electromagnetic engines… actually, I think I can fit two.”
“That will be great, Nikola.”
They stayed silent for a while, the escapist aviator concentrated on flying his craft. He was sure the inventor was already working out the details of the engine change in his head. The ocean ahead looked infinite.
After a while, Harry checked his compass and altimeter and nodded.
“Let’s check your beacon.” Harry let the craft slid slightly to port. A light changed from green to yellow. He corrected his heading, then veered went starboard, with the same result. “Perfect.”
“As it should be. I rarely make mistakes.”
The Albatross landed gracefully for a ship her size. Harry cut off the engine and the propellers died one after the other. Charlie placed the boarding plank to allow them to disembark.
Two women were waiting for them.
“Nikola!” the older one said. She carried herself with an air of elegance. She wore a black cloak.
“Mademoiselle,” Tesla said. He brought the lady’s hand to his lips, but didn’t kiss it. “Mlle Bernhardt, please let me introduce you to my partner, Mr Harry Houdini, and his wife, Bess. And this young lad is Charlie Chaplin.”
“Pleased to meet you, Mr and Mrs Houdini. And young Chaplin, eh?”
Charlie just stood agape.
“What’s wrong with you, Mr Chaplin?” the diva asked.
“You… you’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen!”
Bernhardt’s laughter was crystalline. She bent down.
“And how many women have you seen, Mr Chaplin?” she said. Charlie blushed furiously. “Many thanks, however, my dear sir! Yours are kind words!”
The actress stood.
“Nikola, as I promised, let me introduce you to my friend. Madame Marie Curie, these are Mr Nikola Tesla, Mr and Mrs Houdini, and Mr Chaplin.”
Marie greeted them. She was much younger than the actress, and had a rebel mane that was constantly trying to escape from under her hat.
“Madame Curie! It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Tesla said. “Did Mlle Bernhardt tell you about my favour?”
“Certainly, Mr Tesla,” suddenly, the small woman was all business. “I think I have managed to obtain what you need. Have you brought your equipment?”
“Yes, we can unload as soon as you’re ready.”
“Oh, we are,” Bernhardt interjected. She made a sign and a large motorized vehicle approached. “Shall we go?”
“There has been a succession of ghost attacks,” Bernhardt said over a map of Paris and surroundings. “But look at this. I’ve plotted the locations and the times.”
Houdini detected the pattern immediately.
“These are not random.”
“No,” Nikola said. He pointed at the map. “One, two, three. One, two, three. Getting closer, spiralling in on Paris.”
“That’s not all,” Bernhardt said. “Those ghosts always attacked old castles, museums, manors. Every time, they took… pieces away. I’ve procured myself with a list.”
She passed it along. Tesla and Houdini saw the paper had the seal of the French Police. Neither commented on it.
“All of them are really old. Heirlooms?” Harry asked. Bernhardt nodded.
“Almost all of them.”
“Possible vessels for thaumic energy,” Tesla said. “If only we could take some samples we could confirm such an extreme.”
“We’ll have to work with what we have,” Harry said. “Let’s say they are. What do you see?”
Tesla murmured as he made calculations, then his eyes went wide. He started looking this side and that, as if he could see something the others couldn’t. He picked up a red pencil, and started a diagram on the map.
His long gloved fingers traced a line that passed through all the attack locations in order. Then it went beyond until he stopped and dropped the pencil. He then blinked, as if he had fallen asleep and had awoken.
They looked at the map. There was a location, and Tesla had scribbled a date next to it. Curie gasped. Harry cursed, and Bess grabbed his arm.
“What’s it?” Charlie’s tiny voice asked, as he tried to peek at the map.
“The next objective,” Tesla said, “is the Eiffel Tower. Tonight.”
This is my entry for this week’s Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge: X vs Z, Redux. This time we had to pick the antagonists in our story, the nominal X vs Z, from two lists of twenty names each. I rolled on each list several times until I got something I liked: Ghosts vs Scientists.
And then I bent the rules. I wrote 1700 words instead of 2000. And I didn’t finish the story but left it in a cliffhanger. But oh, did I have fun writing this…