Faces surrounded him like odd floating balloons. Winifred was licking her lips and leering lasciviously. Neville was fretting and shifting his look between Winifred and Findley. Findley was shouting at him but no noise was coming out. Smith stared at him impassively. The disembodied heads swirled around him moving in and out. Then the pain started. Winifred laughed, Findley grinned and Neville grimaced. Smith looked impassive. Then a jolt of pleasure and the faces blurred again. Then more pain. The faces shouted at him without sound. He tried running but the bobbing heads just followed. He punched at Findley whose face was close and the face moved away. He swung at others who dodged up and down. Edward shouted “leave me alone…leave me alone…” He ran but they followed. When he fell, they swarmed on him and he screamed out shaking. And then he woke up suddenly. His butler Rigel was next to the bed rubbing his jaw while trying to shake him.
At the door his father stood staring, frowning and he asked the obvious question, “Another episode?”
He looked at Rigel apologetically and said, “Blast it. I am sorry.”
Rigel rubbed his jaw and said, “You warned us sir this would happen. Now if you are roused, I should like to get a compress for my jaw.”
His father said sternly, “Go Rigel we have it from here. Edward, for God’s sake, take the damn laudanum. Dammit I have to be at work in two hours.”
Edward held his aching head and said, “No… No.. I’ve had enough of the like…I’ll …I’ll read in the study until breakfast.” His father harrumphed but left the door.
His mother wrung her hands and said, “Oh Edward, what did they do to you?”
Edward sighed and stretched and said, “It’s late or its early. Go sleep. I’ll be fine. I’ll help Rigel with his compress and fix myself a cup of tea. I will be heading to Chapman, Bressey and Dent after breakfast to ask about my job.”
His mother said in a certain voice, “Then you should rest. Just take the potion…you’ll get some rest and look better.”
He looked at the despised bottle and said, “I was …warned that I should be cautious about such potions. At least until my nightmares stop.”
His mother left muttering, “but that’s the whole blooming point …” The doctor’s sleeping potion might have worked, but Millicent and Charles had warned sternly against laudanum and any of the like drugs. They also said he should avoid opium and opium dens and strong drink as if he was some bowery bum. They said the drugs would become a poor substitute for the pleasure cycles of the collar and he would soon be using them like Neville’s fawning for charges. That warning had been an anchor so far. He had spent three weeks shivering and screaming as his body begged for the missing pleasure cycle. He would not enter that hall of mirrors again.
Millicent Morgaine had set him free of the collar John Smith had put on him. She had offed a job to him, but he was done with strange people who offered a trip to see the galaxy. The offer she made was very reasonable. But he had been told that before and now he needed to decline on principle. Millicent looked annoyed but agreed that he might be a bit wary of new contracts. She gave him an amount that was equal to a year’s salary and apologized it was not more. She also gave him two contacts. The first was a café near the university. He had visited it frequently in his University days. The second was a pub in Dunstable. Jason and John had spent some time there and the owner would understand the choices he had faced.
He spent the morning reading the “Daily Punch” in the study, but he wasn’t really following it. When the rest of the house seemed to be stirring he called for a light breakfast and then headed up to his room to get ready. Rigel assisted him in preparation for the meeting at C,B and D. The butler straightened his collar and said, “You never should have trusted that man.”
Edward smiled a bit sadly and said, “I spent my early years ignoring your good advice and came to regret it, Rigel. I hope to spend the rest my life following your advice precisely.”
Rigel blushed and then said, “Don’t believe anything you hear other than you are a brilliant young man. Young men make mistakes but are capable of learning.” And then as an afterthought said, “And never sign a contract without a barrister reviewing it.”
Edward laughed, looked in the mirror and said, “armored and girded, wish me luck Rigel.”
Rigel said, “Luck sir. You deserve a bit.”
Meeting at Chapman, Bressey and Dent
Edward took a taxi to C,B and D. The three story building was Georgian style and covered half a block. Columns supported a triangle entry way that seemed to go up to the second floor. He entered through a set of large wood doors. The hall echoed with his footsteps. A receptionist stationed at the entry way asked, “Can I help you, sir?”
Edward removed his hat and said, “I am here to speak with Mrs. Irene Carmichael. She was the one who recruited me. “
The receptionist looked down at a register. She looked perturbed and said, “I don’t see you on the list. One moment.” She pulled a speaking tube over and said loudly, “Relay to Mrs. Carmichael , Mr. Edward Wayland is her to speak to her about his job.” She then pointed to a spare bench on the other side of the empty hall. He sat down and looked around. There were large pictures of things being built whether it was mining or trains or airships. Projects, he gathered, Chapman, Bressey and Dent had been a part of.
Mrs. Carmichael arrived dressed in a practical narrow cut dress. Her arms were covered in canvas elbow guards and she wore an apron. She greeted him warmly saying, “Edward, how good to see you. I do apologize, but we’re in the middle of a project. I was able to sneak away for a moment. I do hope your new job is working out.”
Edward flushed a bit and said, “My new job?… ah yea… well see there is the rub…my new job wasn’t really supposed to…” he stopped himself. He wondered how she knew about any new job. He restarted, “I do apologize… I was caught up in an excursion and was…was…” Dear lord, what to say that won’t sound crazy or shamelessly dramatic? He finished with, “I was unavoidably detained.”
Mrs. Carmichael ‘s voice got an edge, “I paid a call to your family after you missed the first day. They said you had gone off on some lark. They hadn’t heard from you in weeks and you had left no forwarding address.”
Edward stammered, “It really was only supposed to be a month… and then things…I was detained.”
Mrs. Carmichael said grimly, “I was very disappointed. You had such promise.”
Edward’s throat tightened, but he forced words to come out, “Please…I am back now. I do really want to work for you.”
Mrs. Carmichael spoke almost apologetically and slowly as if he might have difficulty might understanding, “Edward, we found a replacement for you. And recruiting season is over. There are no current positions. Regardless of that, I would think twice about hiring someone whose previous record was…,” she pinched the bridge of her nose as if searching for the word, “so…erratic.” She straightened up and said, “I wish you luck Edward. You were truly talented, but we do not have openings for you right now. Perhaps when you have some years of experience and reliability, we can talk again.”
The receptionist looked at him over her glasses. The look was sympathetic but final. He pulled the hem of his coat down. He looked at her and said in as steady a voice as he could muster, “Thank you for your assistance. It seems I was wrong.” He bowed slightly and hurried for the door pulling his kerchief out as he pushed into the light which seemed to hurt his eyes.
The Best Coffee in the Galaxy
He stumbled to the street and tried to compose himself. He thought of number sequences which had always helped before. Be he had used those on the Isle of Skilly while Smith was working on him. The comfort of the numbers was lost. He headed to an alleyway and ducked in. The emotion rolled over him like a wave. Even in his freedom, Smith continued to take things from him. He sat against the sooted brick wall heaving sobs. He had nowhere to go anymore – his unreliable nature was now surely the talk of every reputable firm on London and in society circles. He closed his eyes and drew shuddering breaths trying to calm himself. He now understood the draw of opium dens. It would be nice at the moment to feel good or at least feel nothing. He pulled out a slip of paper with a shaking hand and found the address of “Du univers meilleur café, thé et pâtisseries”. As with all the best engineering firms, Chapman, Bressey and Dent was situated close to the University and so he walked in the direction of University Street.
The café door opened with the tinkling of bells he remembered from his University days only a year ago. At the counter the proprietress stared at him for a moment and then said, “Mr. Wayland! What a pleasant surprise. A cup of tea? If I remember correctly.”
Edward stood for a moment and then said, “I have been told by a reliable source that you may have the best espresso in the galaxy. It seems bold, but she was quite certain.”
The proprietress said, “Very few in this town know coffee. Fewer still know the galaxy well enough to back that claim. But I like to believe it is that good. Certainly the croissants are.”
Edward smiled weakly and said, “Oh I think Millicent might have the necessary experience to back your claim. Anyway, I …I just need to think a bit. I’ll take whatever is good at that table by the window.”
The proprietress brightened and said, “If Millicent sent you, the first one is free. And my name is Abigail.” She held out her hand to shake. He looked at it, shook and said,” Edward…Edward Wayland…but then you knew that…sorry…just a bit scattered this morning.”
Abigail said, “I’ll make a double shot of cappuccino and that will wake you up. “ She moved to the barista and started preparations.
He moved to the table by the window. He watched the mixture of professors, students and others scurry by. He tried to blank his mind but Mrs. Carmichael’s comments kept echoing in his head – “There are no current posts” and “I would think twice about someone …so erratic.” He took off his hat and closed his eyes and pressed his hands to his face. In a short amount of time a small voice said, “Sir?” He pulled his hands away and rubbed them on his vest and saw a young girl holding a bowl of steamed milk. On the top was the image of a spiral. It reminded him of etchings he had seen of Messier 1 and Andromeda. He shook his head and took the bowl with both hands and said, “Thank you, young lady.” He set the bowl down and stared at the image a moment more. It seemed a shame to disrupt it. He added two lumps of sugar and began to stir the image apart. He stared out the window more. After a bit, he noticed that the girl was still there. She was staring at him very solemnly. He asked, “I’m sorry. Do I need to tip your or something?”
She responded, “How come your eyes are so sad?”
He found she suddenly got very blurry and he reached for his well-used kerchief again. He heard Abigail, say loudly, “Athena leave the man alone. You have lessons to attend to.”
She said in a loud whisper, “Don’t you go away. I’ve got just the fix.”
He nodded absently as he heard Abigail say more sternly, “Athena!”. He felt embarrassed to have been undone by the young girl. He dabbed his eyes, blew his nose and took a deep breath. The cappuccino seemed to steam a bit in his direction. He took the bowl like mug in his hands and had a sip. The smooth cream mixed with the dark bitter espresso felt warm and soothing on his throat. He set the drink down and looked at the foam that had been a galaxy. He took another sip from the bowl and was enjoying this when the girl appeared with her mother trailing behind. The girl held out a plate of chocolate chip cookies. Abigail said, “I do apologize, Edward. Athena was most insistent.” She said to the girl, “Now give the remarkably tolerant young man the cookies and attend to your lessons… or you will be spending the afternoon on them instead of at the park.”
He could see the girl flash a bit of annoyance but presented the plate saying, “When I have a bad day Tante Alice sets me on the bench and gives me two cookies. She says the first one is so I don’t feel so bad. And the second one is to remember something good…like cookies.” Edward took the plate at stared at them and felt tired and alone.
Abigail apologized again saying, “She won’t bother you further. Please…stay a bit.” She pushed the girl towards the counter.
Edward looked up and smiled wanly, “Free coffee and free cookies are the best thing that has happened to me today.” He coughed a bit and said hoarsely, “The bar’s a bit low.” He looked out the window and said, “and I’ve nowhere else to be.”
Abigail touched his shoulder lightly and left and he nodded in assent.
He took another sip of the warm cappuccino and it seemed to settle his nerves. He looked at the offering of cookies and smiled. When he tried one, it was still warm. The baker clearly liked a lot of butter and the chocolate was strong in taste but not too sweet. The girl meant well and he could remember when all he needed was a cookie to make him feel better. The cook in his house would bake cookies like this. He could smell them being baked and he would sneak in to the kitchen and grab one. For years he thought he had fooled the cook until she told him with a laugh, “Oh nay lad. I knew you nicked one or two in a batch. It’s what lads do. But ya’ never took more and ya’ ate your supper just the same. And after a few lessons, a cookie is what is needed. Doncha’ think?” Perhaps the girl’s cookies were a needed palliative. He dipped one in the foam experimentally and tried another bite.
As he was sampling that, Abigail sat down with her own drink – a small cup with a dark liquid topped with a bit of foam. She dropped a lump in and stirred with a tiny spoon. She saw him stare at the small cup and she said, “Espresso…it’s what’s in yours but without the cream. Stay with cappuccino until you’re feeling daring.” She stirred her drink and asked, “How is Millicent?” and took a sip.
Edward said, “Off to Prague I believe. Needed some materials for some fancy device and everyone needed a holiday.”
Abigail nodded knowingly, “Ah yes…she planned to show Rachael the Astronomical clock and the Jewish Quarter. You didn’t go?”
Edward said quietly, “I was asked, but I wanted to return to my life.”
Abigail set down her drink and knitted her brows and then said, “You weren’t in the group I met last October.” Edward grimaced and took a drink and said, “I was with someone else…Millicent…” he paused, “…I suppose the best word is Millicent ransomed me.” He waved his hands and said, “I am sure it sounds all ridiculously dramatic.”
Abigail was quiet for a moment then set her cup down and put a hand to her mouth and said, “Oh dear God. I am SO sorry about Athena. She…we didn’t know…” her voice trailed off.
Edward shrugged and smiled and said, “One hardly wears a sign proclaiming one’s weaknesses.” Then he squinted his eyes and looked at her sideways and said, “Although I wonder if signs are needed with that daughter of yours…” Abigail stuttered, but Edward waved it away saying, “It has been a long day and it isn’t noon. I know she meant well.”
Abigail took a sip of her espresso and said, “I’ve talked with Simone and Eleanor.”
Edward sighed and eyed the second cookie, but finished his drink. “Then you have an idea. There are few people who do.”
Abigail leaned forward, her eyes burning, “I worked with people who had collars. It is a barbaric practice. And some damn council, a thousand light years away , allows it to happen then has the temerity to say we are primitive.” Edward was speechless at the outburst. Abigail pointed to his empty cappuccino bowl and said, “You need a refill and you haven’t finished your sweet.”
He sputtered, “You know about all this business of Guilds and star travel.”
Abigail laughed richly and said, “Millicent didn’t tell you. Of course she didn’t, that is two that she owes me now. Edward, I am one of Millicent’s former contractors.” She looked him over and asked, “If you must know I was a part time student and bar maid in Mad King George’s reign.”
Edward laughed saying, “That’s absurd.”
Abigail smiled and sipped her espresso saying, “Any less absurd than being held captive and tortured by a creature from another planet on an airship that can travel between stars? And for nearly a year no less.” Edward stayed silent. Abigail continued, “You must have spent some time around Jason, Rachael and Simone while they were studying those lab books.”
Edward scratched his head, “I knew enough physics to get me by in my courses. But the conversations among those three never made any sense to me. They talk of light having a fixed speed. Then they talked of nothing going faster,” then he held his finger up as if proving something, “But wait! We are going to hide where it doesn’t matter and go much faster.” He shook his head held his hands up in resignation, “Those three were superior in theory than the rest of us.“ He rub his chin and said, “If they hadn’t ended up with Millicent, they would never have had a chance to show how much they truly know, I suppose.”
Abigail looked heavenward and said, “ Then you don’t understand and I get to explain relativistic theory to you.” She looked back at him and said, “I think I shall cable Millicent and explain her debts carefully and how she will be repaying…Edward, I was a contractor for Millicent. Everything you say will make sense to me. There may be things that are confusing and I will explain them as best I can. But, what I tell you needs to remain mum. It is a rule I lived by for twenty years. Only in the last few months have my daughter and lover known anything about my previous life. “ She leaned back and said, “So why don’t you start at the beginning.”
And like that, Edward began to tell his story: the seemingly innocuous contract, the visit by the strange woman who showed him the hidden clauses. Abigail snickered at that and explained that it was probably Millicent in disguise. He doubted but Abigail simply wagged her finger at him. She called over her daughter and passed an order and another cappuccino appeared. He spoke of Smith’s collaring. He left out details but he was certain she knew how it was done. He described the assault on Smith’s flat and how they fled. She asked some interesting questions and filled in details he hadn’t known. And he described the weeks on the Isle of Skilly: his desolation, loss and loneliness. She commented that he had held up remarkably well. Prisoners of war usually have comrades for support. He had no one and managed to retain a scrap of sanity. Finally he described Millicent’s bargain and his eventual release and recovery. Time had passed quickly and the room was getting crowded. The woman at the counter was looking worried and annoyed in their direction.
The Magic Kitchen
Abigail got up and said, “The lunch rush is starting and I need to tend to business. Follow me.” She pulled him up and led him behind the counter and into the kitchen. The second woman followed and he could see she had been preparing sandwiches, meat pies and other savories. Abigail said, “Alice, this is Edward Wayland. Millicent sent him here and he needs a bit of a break from his current situation. Take care of him while I get the customers under control. Maybe he can help you.”
Alice waved a rolling pin at a chair and said, “Sit monsieur. I would offer another cookie, but you need lunch no?” She turned to Abigail and said, “Go…I will feed him and make sure he waits for you love. But the crowd grows restless.” Alice explained what she was doing with each dish to fill the empty time. He watched her work and remembered the bustle of his family’s kitchen. The staff had always seemed happy and content as they prepared food, ironed, folded or cleaned silver. By comparison, his father and mother always seemed on edge.
Athena walked in with some orders which Alice filled quickly. Athena looked at Edward and said, “Your eyes aren’t as sad. I knew Tante’s Cookies would work.” She went over and gave him a hug that made him stiffen a bit. She then went and grabbed the orders and headed out into the main room. Alice said, “The child steals hearts…no?”
Edward said, “I am afraid I am a bit of damaged goods.”
Alice said, “Bah…we all are.” Edward simply nodded and let the smell of the kitchen wash over him.
He had a potato leek soup with the most exquisite rye bread and a rocket and cucumber salad and a glass of wine. Alice continued her work and spoke of meeting Abigail. “She was sad too…and angry. But that has changed, “ and smiled. She spoke of Athena and her lessons. She spoke of the move to England and the challenges of setting up the shop. He supposed the relationship was a poorly kept secret in the neighborhood as most people were still shocked by such things. Edward had many days in Millicent’s ship and he had grown accustomed to Eleanor’s and Simone’s relationship. He was hearing of the same thing now but with the added spice of 15 years of companionship. He could find no fault. They harmed no one. He could not say the same for Winfred Stanhope, Findley Brown or even himself.
A New Option
Abigail came back into the kitchen at 2:30 and poured her own glass of wine. She said, “We were interrupted, Edward. So…why did you come here?”
Edward’s eyes grew misty again but he pushed on, “Before I met Smith, I had a job lined up at Chapman, Bressey, and Dent.”
Abigail whistled and said, “Fine firm. They do good work.”
Edward said, “Yes. Well I missed the first day of work and then another…My recruiter stopped by my home to find out what was happening, but my parents didn’t know where I was. It appeared I was lost on some frivolous jaunt…the job is gone and they are no longer interested in me.”
Abigail said simply, “And other firms will have their positions filled and questions about your gap.”
Edward smiled sadly and said, “I haven’t tried, but word gets around in these matters.” He shrugged and said, “I supposed I could take a drafting job for a couple of years and work my way up.” Abigail made a non-committal grunt. He said, “Jason and John will have a good time joshing me about that.”
Abigail said, “And Millicent will thump them soundly when they do. I might know somebody who knows somebody. But it’s not London.”
Edward was quiet for a moment and said, “I’ve been a bit of recluse for the past few days. I am sure the society gossips have their tongues wagging. A break might be good.”
Abigail said, “Stephan is like me so you can talk to him as well. But he knows how to keep secrets too.”
Edward straightened up and pulled out his piece of paper and said, “Millicent mentioned a ‘Stephan’”
Abigail said, “Bear of a man. Heart to match. Absolutely brilliant on large mechanics. And he runs an exceptional pub.”
Edward laughed at the description and said, “And how will he help me?”
Abigail smiled, “Dunstable has a substantial factory. I would be astonished if Stephan didn’t have at least a nodding acquaintance with the owner. He’ll understand your situation and be able to vouch for you. Oh he’ll run you through your paces before he does that, but he’ll vouch if you are good enough for Millicent to want you. What are your specialties?”
Edward said, “Aeronautics and chemistry.”
Abigail said, “Emphasize aeronautics, but keep up on the chemistry. The Dunstable factory handles goods mostly and probably doesn’t have much use for chemistry. But it will. Besides, you’ll be valuable elsewhere in time.”
Edward said, “So I go on a lark again?”
She shrugged and said without malice, “Everybody already thinks you’re fly-by-night…I’d say it’s this or start where Jason, John and Rachael were destined. You and I both know how easy it is to move up the ranks from there.” Edward grimaced. She continued, “Besides you can talk to Stephan about the nightmares and he’ll make sure no one else asks.”
Edward said, “Just like that?”
Abigail put a hand on his arm and he flinched, but it stayed and she said, “You’re wounded, lad. Simone and Eleanor had two weeks in that shop of horrors and they are only beginning to recover. They have friends and each other to support them. You had months with Smith and his sadistic minions and you have no one. If you aren’t drinking or doping now, you will be soon just to sleep through the night. Then you will have a new hell. Stephan will keep your head on straight. “
He laughed, “A pub owner?”
She said seriously, “Who knows better? Besides, he has seen far more than you can imagine – good and bad.”
He sighed and said, “It’s not like I’ve got much to do here now…And I did get a tidy sum from Millicent. There is enough to get by for a few months if things don’t work out.”
Abigail slapped his knee and leaned back and said, “That’s the spirit.”
The evening crept on and finally he bade the three farewell. When he got home, he sat in the study again. Rigel came in and asked, “Refreshment, sir?”
Edward said, “I will wait and…have some wine with dinner.”
Rigel said, “Of course, sir,” and made to leave.
Edward, “Rigel, wait a moment…when this all started, you tried to warn me…you were right, of course, the man was not to be trusted.”
Rigel closed the door, faced Edward, and said, “One has the benefit of experience, Sir. Sadly, you have a very large batch of experience now.” He paused and said, “There was no job, was there sir?”
Edward said, “No…I can’t say I blame them. I would do the same in her shoes. After my meeting, I went for a coffee at a recommended place. I had a chance to talk to someone about the last few months.”
Rigel said, “You can’t do that here?” It came as a question, not an accusation.
Edward said, “What happened was bad, but I saw and experienced things that would sound crazy if I told you. This woman has seen the same things and she knew what happened to me.”
Rigel bowed a little and said, “Then I am pleased you found them.”
Edward said, “There is another person in Dunstable who also has some experience and could help me.”
Rigel said sternly, “Did you sign anything?”
Edward laughed harshly and said, “No…and he is a pub owner who is probably advising a factory owner.”
Rigel said quietly, “How very curious.” He said, “Your return has been difficult for you and the rest of the household. A holiday in the country might suit you well. However, I would recommend an assistant. Someone to make sure you are seeing what you need to see.” He looked at his fingernails and said, “I have some time built up and could use a break.”
Edward said, “Rigel, this is Dunstable and you would be looking after me. That is hardly the holiday you deserve.”
Rigel said, “The victuals will be hardy and I can take country walks while you settle into any job that might come up.”
Edward came over put a hand on Rigel’s shoulder put another out to shake and said, “Thanks… Thanks old man. I could use a bit of a tether until I get my feet again. I won’t say no. I won’t say no at all.”
 The Best Coffee, Tea, and Pastries, in the Universe