“Mummies!” cried Edgar Allen Poe, flinging his hands up in a conjuror’s wave before him. “Mummies, of both man and mysterious beast!”
He stalked the deck of the Liahona, cool breeze snapping around his ears under the brim of his tall hat and blowing behind his smoked spectacles, threatening to dry out his eyeballs. At least, between the Liahona’s speed and the height of its deck off the ground, the air was free of the reddish dust that the steam-truck’s huge tracks churned up and spewed in its wake. He could barely keep from coughing as it was, and a lungful of dust would surely drag him down into paroxysms. A little boy, dressed in a miniature sailor’s jacket and slouch hat and carrying a length of wire towards the wheelhouse, stopped to listen. Passengers’ heads turned, including the heads of the two Englishmen… good. “Mummies!” he cried again. “Mummies and other curious, fascinating and even… repellent… evidences of the wisdom and high craft of ancient Egypt!”
From within his coat he produced one of the four canopic jars, the one with the baboon head, and spun on one heel in a slow pirouette with the little object held forward in his hands, showing it to the benches full of passengers. He deliberately clicked to a stop facing the Englishmen, and assessed them carefully through his tinted lenses.
One man was younger, in his middle twenties, perhaps, and had the pale, flustered and determined look of a privileged young man trying to make his way in the world. Something had carved a bite-shaped chunk out of the brim of his top hat, giving him a comical look, but he seemed delighted with Poe’s theater, clapping vigorously as Poe tucked away the canopic jar and produced instead the cylinder of scarabs. Absalom Fearnley-Standish, Poe thought to himself, who are you, really, and what are you doing here?
His companion was older, nearing forty, and was hard, dark, scarred and masculine. Richard Burton, famous explorer, etcetera. Well, Mr. Burton, Poe mused, let’s try you a little bit.
Let’s test you both.
“And magic!” he cried and, reaching into his canister, he pulled out a handful of the brass scarabs and scattered them across the laps of Burton, Fearnley-Standish and their female companion.
“Aagh!” shrieked Fearnley-Standish, and would have jumped from his seat if Burton hadn’t restrained him with a strong hand on his arm.
“Arjuna’s bow, man, they won’t eat you!” the explorer snorted.
Then Poe saw their female companion’s face and froze. She was short and dark, all straight lines and grace, and though he would have recognized her through any disguise, she wore none.
It was Roxie.
Robert, you didn’t mention… but then, of course…
She smiled at him, the polite and slightly flirtatious smile of a woman who is casually attached to another man. She didn’t recognize him, obviously, but then it had been years, and Poe was proud of the verisimilitude of his false nose. Within his breast a desire to seize her in his arms, sweep her to his chest and devour her mouth with his warred against an equally strong urge to pull his pistol from inside his jacket and blow out her vicious, wicked, conniving brains.
“Well, man!” Burton snapped. “Get on with it!”
He felt stunned, his vision out of focus. He floated, lost. Then, in the sea of passengers’ faces under flapping parasols, he saw the face of his accomplice, the dwarf Jedediah Coltrane. Coltrane was mouthing something to Poe, a nervous look on his face; Poe’s professionalism reasserted itself and he tore his eyes away from Roxie’s. Stepping back, he raised both hands about his head, one of them holding the cylinder by its lid, and cried out in a loud voice, to be sure that the entire deck could hear him. “Behold the incantations of Thoth! Behold the power of Hermes Thrice-Greatest! Behold the might of the Egyptian priests, able to reach through the curtain of death itself and command the obedience of the inanimate and the damned!” When he was sure they were all watching him, he waved his empty hand in a great circular flourish over the scarabs, carefully thumbing the recall button inside the canister’s lid. “Nebenkaure, panjandrum, Isis kai Osiris!” he shouted.
The clockwork beetles sprang instantly to life. With a great chittering and clacking, each metal bug rolled upright, oriented itself, and then began its trek. From the laps and boots of Roxie and the Englishmen, from the bench they sat on and the floor beneath them, the brass beetles swarmed in a great mass towards Poe. He raised his hands, stood still and laughed as diabolically and mysteriously as he could as the bugs climbed his clothing, laughed when he felt the first brass legs touch the bare skin of his neck, laughed with his whole chest and belly as the scarabs detoured around his head and crawled up his left arm, kept laughing as they swarmed ticklishly about his fist and dropped one by one into their native canister, and then, for effect, stopped laughing at the exact moment in which he slammed the canister shut.
“That wasn’t Egyptian,” Burton said sourly, but the passengers all about him applauded, and a few whistled or whooped in excitement. Coltrane clapped along with the crowd, shooting shrewd appraising looks at the people around him. Sizing up the marks, Poe thought. The mad had the ingrained instincts of an inveterate carny. The little boy with the loop of wire stood stiff as a statue, his eyes so wide they threatened to swallow his face.
“They’re scarab beetles, Dick,” Fearnley-Standish pointed out.
“I meant the words,” the darker man growled. “Pure higgledy-piggledy. Nonsense. Arrant balderdash.”
“My name is Doctor Jamison Archibald!” Poe announced. “Tonight, at seven o’clock by the Captain’s watch, in the stateroom, for the very reasonable sum of three copper pennies, any passenger may see exhibited and explained these and other marvels. See the uncanny hypnotic hypocephalus! Hear the ghostly barking of the dire Seth-Beast!”
“Will children be admitted free of charge?” inquired a plain-faced, reedy-voiced, gray-wrapped matron in a blue prairie bonnet, clutching under her bony wings a trio of similarly undernourished-looking brats.
“My dear madam,” Poe stage-whispered, meeting her eyes over the rims of his spectacles, “the things I have to display are dark and terrifying apparitions, the stuff of nightmares. Children will not be admitted at all.”