ETA: I’ve changed the spelling to UK English; I felt that it was more appropriate for the POV.
William shook his head. “No,” he said, continuing to shake his head as he spoke, “this cannot be. It is madness. You are playing some trick upon me. I was rendered senseless and you have carried me some distance away as I slept.”
“I’m sorry, William,” Mr Angel said. “Look, I know this is a shock for you, but I swear I’m not playing any trick. It really is two thousand and four. Tuesday May the eleventh. Well, Wednesday the twelfth, strictly speaking, seeing as how it’s after midnight. I could go to a newsstand, get a paper, and show you.”
“You are either insane or a scoundrel. What can you hope to gain by such preposterous falsehoods?”
Mr Angel heaved a sigh. “I’ve nothing to gain. I don’t need this. I really, really, don’t need this.” He raised his hand and put three outspread fingers against his forehead. His little finger wiggled as if it was lost and looking for its siblings. “What I want to do is go to bed and sleep for a week. Not try to give a recap of the past hundred and twenty years to – God, I don’t even know what to call you.”
“William Pratt,” William reminded the extremely strange man. Was he a lunatic or had he partaken of opium? The tale that he had related could only have come from a disturbed mind or from one under the influence of narcotics.
“All those years and I never knew your surname,” Mr Angel said, almost in a whisper.
William stood up, uneasily because in so doing he drew slightly closer to the madman, and moved quickly to put himself further away. “I really must be going,” he said. “My mother will be worried. Thank you for your kindness, in allowing me to come in out of the rain, but I must go.”
“Go where? You think you’re in London? You’re in Los Angeles, California. Five and a half thousand miles from London. And your mother has been dead for a hundred and twenty years.” The tall man swallowed. “I’m sorry to put it so bluntly, William. Look, you have to understand, the world that you knew is gone. You need to learn about the modern world to survive.”
“I think that you need the services of a medical practitioner,” William said. “I shall see if Doctor Gull would be willing to call upon you.” To reach the way by which he had come in William would have had to pass close to Mr Angel and the strange woman with the blue hair. That could be dangerous if the lunatics turned violent. In the other direction, however, lay a double door set with large panes of frosted glass. It appeared to lead to the exterior of the building. William walked hurriedly in that direction. “Goodbye,” he called.
“William, wait!” Mr Angel called. Suddenly he was beside William. “Don’t go out there. You’re not ready.” He put a hand upon William’s shoulder.
“Unhand me, sir!” William commanded. The command was obeyed, rather to his surprise, and the tall man withdrew his hand.
“I lost my memory a while back,” Mr Angel said. “I thought I was back in Galway in seventeen fifty-three. I walked out through that door. Ten seconds later I fled back into the hotel screaming. Now, you came from London in eighteen eighty, and you’re used to gas lights, you’ll have seen railroad trains, ridden on them. Hey, you might even have seen a horseless carriage. I guess the culture shock won’t be quite as huge. But what waits for you out there is still going to be like nothing you’ve ever imagined.”
William hesitated. Mr Angel was insane, there could be no doubt, but his tone and manner were not threatening in the least. He seemed rather to be exhibiting concern for William’s welfare. Perhaps there was no immediate cause for alarm, but humouring the lunatic seemed to be the wisest course for the moment. “I shall take care,” William promised. He stepped towards the door again. Mr Angel made no attempt to intervene. The woman did not move, but merely watched, her head tipped to one side in a fashion that made her appear oddly like a bird.
William opened the door and stepped out into a small garden in which neglected flower beds were surrounded by low stone walls. He walked through the garden towards a street. A road, rather, and one of astounding width. He had never seen a street so wide. There were none such in London, of that he was sure. Perhaps some part of Mr Angel’s fanciful tale was indeed true. It was said that the streets in the Cape Colony were laid out to enable a team of oxen to turn around with ease. Was that were William had found himself? Or was Mr Angel’s claim that they were in California the very truth? Surely not.
The street was brightly illuminated. The lampposts were of almost impossible height. The lamplighter’s pole required would be too long for any human to wield. No, they must be electric arc lights, like those at the Embankment and Holborn Viaduct, rather than gas; although their light was softer and more constant than the arc lights at the Embankment. William shook his head and frowned. He continued to walk towards the street, albeit with a growing feeling of nervousness. He was definitely not in any district with which he was at all familiar. He would have to summon a cab in order to return home. Did he still have his purse?
William began to fumble in his pockets. Some keys that he did not recognise. A small rectangular metallic object. Some coins. Ah, good. He withdrew a few coins and was about to examine them when something on the road caught his eye.
Bright lights, approaching fast. As fast as a train. It was a vehicle of some kind – good Lord! It was a horseless carriage! And what a carriage. Fast and quiet, with a passenger compartment entirely enclosed in glass and no driver outside, sleeker even than the newest railway locomotive designs by the celebrated Mr William Dean of the Great Western Railway, it was a mechanical contrivance the like of which he had never imagined.
The coins fell unheeded from William’s hand. He stood and stared, his mouth wide open in amazement, as this marvellous machine sped past without pausing and disappeared into the distance. Suddenly William felt a sensation of alarm, almost panic, and he began to breathe rapidly and deeply without knowing why. He turned about and made haste back towards the building – a hotel, Mr Angel had called it – and re-entered through the double doors. His head began to swim and he sat down with the utmost alacrity on the nearest chair.
“I have seen a remarkable sight,” he announced. He gave a little nervous laugh, then another, and found that he was unable to stop. His laughter grew louder and more shrill, his sensations of alarm grew more acute, and suddenly he was not laughing but crying and gasping for breath all at the same time.
Mr Angel hovered at his side, his forehead furrowed, his lips turned down. He raised and lowered his hand in indecisive fashion.
The blue-haired woman’s head tipped to the side, first one way, and then the other. “He hyperventilates,” she said. “The shell’s memories contain information on the condition. It is customary to regulate the breathing of a sufferer by placing a brown paper bag over his mouth and nasal orifices. I do not know why the colour of the bag is of relevance.”
“Don’t call her ‘the shell’,” Mr Angel rebuked the woman. “She was Fred.”
“Winifred Burkle. I am aware of her identity. Shall we utilise a brown paper bag in the manner that I suggest?”
“I don’t have a paper bag, brown or otherwise.” Mr Angel’s frown grew more pronounced. “Unless there’s something in the medical kit that I stashed here, or maybe in with the food packages. I just asked Harmony to make them up for me.”
“Your Qwa’ha Xahn is efficient in such matters,” the woman said, nodding her head. “Summon her here. She can attend to the care of this unsatisfactory specimen who has taken the place of my pet.”
Mr Angel cupped his hand over William’s mouth and held it there for a moment. William managed to gain some control over his breathing and it returned to a normal rhythm. Mr Angel took his hand away and turned his attention back to the woman. “Harmony is not my Qwa’ha Xahn, Illyria,” he told her. “She betrayed me.”
“A serious flaw in a Qwa’ha Xahn,” the woman – Illyria? – acknowledged. “A greater flaw than was the unfortunate fragility of mine.” Her eyebrows descended. “Yet your plan was formulated on the prediction that she would betray you. Is that not correct? Therefore she was carrying out your wishes, even if not consciously doing so, and thus her status as Qwa’ha Xahn is unchanged.” Her eyebrows resumed their normal station and she nodded her head in apparent satisfaction. William was again struck by the resemblance of her motions to those of a bird.
“You can’t seriously be suggesting that I bring Harmony here to look after William?” The crease between Mr Angel’s brows deepened to Cheddar Gorge proportions.
“I don’t need anyone to ‘look after’ me,” William protested. “I received something of a shock, that is all. I saw a horseless carriage of quite remarkable appearance. No doubt it was a product of those Yankee inventors who are so renowned for their ingenuity, such as the famed Mr Otis, the celebrated Doctor Gatling, and the remarkable Mr Thomas Edison. It was silly of me to be alarmed.”
“It was,” Illyria agreed. “You are a weak and foolish human. A sorry specimen to have taken the place of the pet who amused and entertained me. The exchange is not in our favour. To be so distressed by a transition of a mere one hundred and twenty years is pathetic. I slept for millennia. The ice sheets retreated and the sea rose to swallow much of what had been my kingdom. My legions died and became dust. What do you have to face? Only some minor advances in technology. Your reaction disgusts me.”
“Illyria…” Mr Angel said. His tone seemed to carry a reproof.
“For the sake of my pet Spike, who shared your form, I will put aside my disgust,” Illyria continued. “He was entertaining.” Her head swayed in a fashion more akin to a serpent than to a bird and then was still once more. “He showed me how to play Crash Bandicoot and this served to occupy my mind when I brooded upon my own diminished status. Perhaps you should also play Crash Bandicoot.”
William could not even begin to comprehend her speech and decided to ignore it. He fixed his gaze upon Mr Angel, who seemed more rational than the woman Illyria, and spoke. “I believe that I heard you mention food? I am loath to further presume upon you, but I am feeling rather hungry.”
Mr Angel slapped himself on the forehead. “Stupid. I stashed the stuff here just in case by some million to one chance we survived and needed it. We did, we do, and I haven’t done anything about it. I’ll get you some food, William.”
“I require nourishment also,” Illyria said. “My expenditure of energy was great. I must replenish.” She cocked her head to one side. “Are there… tacos?”
The sandwiches were contained within a packaging unlike anything that William had ever seen before. As transparent as glass and yet flexible withal. He marvelled at the sight, but only briefly, as a gnawing hunger took precedence. The sandwiches within the extraordinary containers were sliced with an uncanny precision. He did not stop to wonder at that detail but tucked in with a will. The fillings were unusual; neither ham, nor tongue, nor beef, nor even cucumber, but prawns, lettuce leaves, and an unrecognizable dressing. In other circumstances the oddity might have given him pause, but not now; hunger took precedence over all else and he devoured the sandwiches with alacrity.
Such sandwiches cried out for the accompaniment of a cup of tea. There was none available. Only coffee, but that served well enough in a pinch, and William ate and drank until he was replete.
Illyria did the same. Mr Angel, however, ate no food. He drank some red coloured liquid, a beef broth no doubt, which he claimed was blood. He was still stubbornly maintaining the preposterous fiction about vampires and the passage of a century.
“This is the last of the otter,” he said to Illyria. “When it’s gone I’m back on the plain pig’s blood. I’m not looking forward to that. I’m kind of spoiled. Maybe your idea that I should ask Harmony to join up with us again isn’t totally dumb. She was useful for things like that.”
“Such is the purpose of minions,” Illyria agreed. “Summon her. There are menial tasks that I would have her perform.”
Mr Angel’s eyes rolled. “What, now?”
“I care not. This form is in need of rest. Further discussion must wait. Is this place secure against further attack?”
“There are a few wards. Nothing that would keep Wolfram and Hart out,” Mr Angel admitted. “But then I never expected to survive the night anyway. We’re ahead of the game even if they kill us in our sleep.”
Now that the pangs of hunger were stilled William was hit by a wave of exhaustion. He yawned. Sleep was becoming a pressing necessity and even the disturbing circumstances and the presence of the two eccentrics would not stave it off for much longer. “I wonder, sir, if there might be somewhere that I might stay for the night?” he asked. “I am overcome by weariness.”
“Hey, of course,” Mr Angel said. “I should have thought of it myself. Sorry. I’ll show you to a room. You too, Illyria. And then I’ll do something about Gunn.” His eyes went to the body of the dead man who still lay upon a couch. “Not that I know what to do. Do we involve the police? This is all one hell of a mess. If we’d all died it would have been…” His eyes suddenly widened. He strode quickly to the corpse and examined its neck. “Oh, God. Oh, no. That is just… the final touch of total and utter shit.” His shoulders sagged and his eyes screwed up tightly.
“He did not succumb to his injuries as I thought?” Illyria enquired.
“Nope. Worst case scenario. He would – I’ll deal with it. Stay here while I get William settled, okay?”
“I understand. I shall watch over Charles. My need for rest can be postponed.”
“What has happened?” William asked. He sensed that something about the corpse had caused distress to the insane, but kindly, Mr Angel.
“Nothing that you need to worry about, William,” Mr Angel told him. “Come on. I’ll find you a bedroom.”
William was led up a flight of stairs to a bedroom. Mr Angel showed him the room, and a small adjoining room that contained a water closet and washing facilities, and then departed. William spent some moments simply operating the switch that lit the electric incandescent light, flicking it back and forth and marvelling at the device, but then cold and weariness took control once more and he began to undress.
On taking off his coat he discovered that he was wearing a pair of workman’s denim trousers and a collarless shirt of woven cotton with short sleeves. He removed his boots and then the trousers. The undergarment that was revealed beneath was of diminutive size and strange pattern. The material was unknown to him, soft and stretchable, and he had never seen the like. He examined the garment for a moment before removing it. It was so small that it seemed barely worth the wearing. It could hardly have been more different from the underwear with which he was familiar.
Once naked he removed himself to the small room and used the toilet facilities. The water closet was plain, devoid of the customary decoration, but flushed with remarkable efficiency. Hot water gushed forth from one of the taps. There were large and soft towels to hand and he made use of them to dry his hair, drenched from the rain, and his body, for his garments had become soaked through and the dampness had penetrated to his skin. And then he saw himself in the mirror.
His jaw dropped open. His hair had changed colour. It was blond. So fair that it was almost white. And his body…
His torso rippled with wiry muscle. William had not indulged in physical exercise for a long time, not since he had played a little cricket at University, and his waistline had begun to soften and acquire a modicum of, well, fat. All had gone. He flexed his muscles and posed in front of the mirror for a moment. Why, he was quite the handsome fellow! His eyes widened and he put his fingers to his eyebrow. Where had that scar come from? And, for that matter, how could he see it so plainly? His sight was as keen as if he wore his spectacles. Keener, even. What had happened?
William retreated from the small room in some confusion. His head was in a whirl. Yet fatigue was becoming ever more the dominant force. He crawled into the bed both to seek refuge from the increasingly bewildering things that he saw and to seek oblivion in sleep. The bedding was unaired but he cared not. The ‘light switch’ was accessible from the bed; he operated it, plunged the room into darkness, and settled down to sleep. Surely, when he awoke in the morning, all this strangeness would be gone and he would be back in his own familiar bed. This had to be but a dream. There could be no other explanation. It would all be put right in the morning.
Angel wept as he wielded the axe to remove Charles Gunn’s head.