Conspiracy in Theory and Practice
Two visitors alighted from separate carriages on the Lincolnsville station platform.
The taller, a woman in a plain grey dress, combined the face of a statue of Athena with the neat bun of a librarian, and bore herself with the dignity proper to both. She ran a superior eye along the platform, her finely formed nose wrinkling fractionally at the odor of coal-smoke and steam.
The second traveller wore a loud yellow-and-green tweed suit and a crooked bowtie. His hat, though also tweed, did not match his suit; it incorporated an unfortunate orange color just two or three shades away from his bushy mustache. Carrying a worn carpetbag, he strode with determination out of the station, where his tenor voice could be heard renting a fly.
“Miss Claridge?” said a small boy in a large cap, approaching the woman.
“I’ve been sent to help you with yer bags. From the hotel.”
She examined him in a manner that gave the impression of looking over pince-nez, though her clear, cool grey eyes were unassisted by spectacles. “Do you have any proof of that?”
“Ma’am?” His forehead bunched in puzzlement under the cap.
“Never mind. I will accompany you to ensure my bags are delivered correctly. Then I will require directions to the Hemsley farm.”
“Oh, you’ll be here about the goblins, then? You a newspaper lady?”
“Only in the most technical sense,” said Miss Claridge, in the same tone she might have used if offered a centipede for lunch. “Come, don’t dawdle, child. It looks like rain.”
By the time Miss Claridge arrived at the Hemsley farm, a stooped man in his mid-fifties was speaking excitedly to the tweed-clad gentleman, whom he addressed as ‘Mr. Pellgirdle.’ She approached just as the visitor broke in on the older man’s tale.
“That’s a fascinating story. Fascinating. Never have I heard anything that so clearly proved my theories. Why, I’ll bet you any money we’re right on a ley line.”
“On a what?”
“A ley line. The Atlanteans used them. To levitate, travel between Atlantis, Lemuria and Mu, and…”
“Poppycock,” said Miss Claridge, pronouncing the consonants distinctly.
“I beg your pardon?” said Pellgirdle.
“Stuff,” she said. “Nonsense. Fiddle-faddle, if I may use such a term.”
Pellgirdle drew himself up to his full height, an operation that did not take long, and looked Miss Claridge in the eye. “And who are you?” he said, in a cold tone.
“Phoebe Claridge, publisher of the Skeptical Quest.”
The man’s mouth worked under his mustache, searching for an expression. It settled on annoyance, after a struggle with what might have been amusement.
“And I am here,” she said, “to discredit this foolishness. You are Mr. Hemsley?” She turned to the older man, who stammered out confirmation. “Did you see this supposed phenomenon?”
“N-no, ma’am. I… my farmhand, William, he…”
“And where is William?”
“Right here, ma’am.” A polite baritone voice sounded behind Miss Claridge, and she turned to see a blue-flannel-shirted young man of impressive muscular size. His sandy slicked-back hair and honest freckled countenance suggested his ancestors had called Scotland their home. He confirmed it with his introduction: “William McTavish, ma’am.”
Miss Claridge looked him up and down as if he were a horse offered for sale. She gave the impression she was not in the market for a horse, or, at least, not this horse.
“Well, Mr. McTavish,” she said. “Perhaps you’d better tell us your story.”
Mr. Hemsley’s cramped parlor afforded two chairs. The lady got one, naturally, the best one, and Hemsley himself, as the householder and oldest person present, took the other. William and Pellgirdle stood, the latter leaning against the mantelpiece and smoking a cigar, which brought him a glare from Miss Claridge that could easily have lit another one. The tiny room soon filled with its fug, along with the unfortunate smell of Pellgirdle’s damp tweed suit drying in the heat of the fire. It had, indeed, rained during his journey in the open fly.
William stood on a small rug and clasped his hands, like a child giving a recitation. “Two–no, three nights ago,” he began, “I heard a commotion amongst the cows.”
“William sleeps in a lean-to by the barn,” put in Mr. Hemsley.
“Yes. Well, the moon was up, so I went to take a look, expecting a fox or suchlike. But it weren’t no fox. It was a creetur.”
“A creature,” said Miss Claridge.
“Yes, ma’am. My old gran, she told me of such. Had the Sight, she did. One of the Little People, it was. The… Good Folk.”
Miss Claridge leaned her head back on her long neck and angled it to one side, managing to convey, without changing her expression, that she didn’t believe a word of it.
“What did it look like?” Pellgirdle asked eagerly.
“About so high,” said William, bending slightly to hold his palm three feet or so above the floor. “Ugly, all gnarled up like old tree roots. Pointed ears.” He mimed these. “Couldn’t tell what color, on account of it was just moonlight, but it might o’ been green.”
Pellgirdle attempted to throw Miss Claridge a significant glance, but she wasn’t catching.
“He… he stepped right out of the air,” continued William. “Looked me in the eye, and stepped back again. Gone.”
“I see. And how much had you drunk, exactly?”
“Miss,” protested Hemsley. “I keep a temperance establishment. William don’t never touch a drop of demon liquor!”
William’s broad face showed only outrage, no guilt such as a secret drinker might exhibit.
“I see. So you were fast asleep?”
“I were as awake as what I am now,” said William. “I’d barely got in bed.”
“Is there a marsh in the vicinity?”
“Down by the four-acre,” said the farmer.
“‘Bout a hundred and fifty yards from the barn,” added William.
“Marsh gas,” said Miss Claridge.
“Marsh gas!” said Pellgirdle. “Why, this was a manifestation of an Atlantean sage. They often appear as small, ancient beings. Any old outcrops of stone nearby?”
“There’s one forms a corner of the near pasture,” said Hemsley, in an impressed tone.
“Right where anyone coming in would notice it,” said Miss Claridge.
Miss Claridge smiled. “Limestone, if I’m not mistaken. Any caves?”
“Up to Mixton’s Hill,” said William.
“There you are,” she said. “Marsh gas, cracks in the rock to carry it, moonlight, you were half asleep…”
“I were awake!” protested William.
Miss Claridge only lifted a carefully pencilled eyebrow.
“This is surely not the only sighting?” asked Pellgirdle.
“Young Jim Clancy reckoned he saw something two nights back,” said Hemsley.
“What kind of something?”
“Not marsh gas,” said Hemsley, shooting a look at Miss Claridge. “In the middle of his father’s big pasture, and there’s no marsh for miles. Nor caves.”
“That you know of,” said the lady. “Have you spoken to this youth yourself?”
“Well, no,” said Hemsley, “but I spoke to his pa, and he said it was a little wrinkled man.”
“Did you describe William’s sighting beforehand?”
“Well, yes, but…”
Miss Claridge rocked her head in a dignified motion that conveyed, “Ah, well, then.”
“Look, Miss,” said William, who had been twisting his hands together all the while. “We may be just country people, without your fancy learnin’, but I know what I saw. I saw it! I swear I did!”
“Have you any proof?”
“Proof!” put in Pellgirdle, thrusting himself away from the mantelpiece with one shoulder and standing upright. “There’s the proof of the heart. It leads us to the way of the Ancients. Atlantis…”
“Miss, I don’t like to be rude to a lady, but you’re being just plain disrespectful to these good folks. Anyone with any ability to open the Third Eye can see young William is a sensitive. It often takes folks at about his age. Tell me, William, you ever have fits?”
“Fits?” said William, his eyes going wide.
“Yes, or headaches? When things get a glow around them, and then the pain comes, and you fall down and foam at the mouth for a spell? It’s very common among people with the Sight.”
“It is?” said William, looking to his employer with frightened eyes.
“William’s never been sick a day in his life,” declared Hemsley. “Healthy as a mule.”
“It’ll come,” said Pellgirdle. “It’ll come if you seek it. Well, we’ve taken up enough of your time. I’m sure you’ve shoats to, to water, or some such. But I have my crystals with me, and if you don’t mind, I’d like to take a few readings, perhaps dowse for your ley line?”
“I’d like to watch that,” said Miss Claridge.
He locked gazes with her, but she stared him down. “Very well. You may observe. But please remain completely silent.”
She gathered William and the farmer with her eye, and they meekly trooped along to watch the divinatory operation. The rain had stopped, and they found a grassy spot by the split-rail fence free of mud and cattle manure.
Pellgirdle took out a hexagonal quartz crystal on a brass chain, draping it over his left hand so that it could swing freely. He put the other hand over his eyes in a theatrical manner, and began a low indecipherable chant.
William looked impressed, but Miss Claridge leaned over and whispered, “Pure gobbledegook. Not a word of sense. Not that he made much sense when speaking a language he wasn’t inventing on the spot.”
William’s eyes swivelled to her, and when they swivelled back to Pellgirdle they held a hint of doubt.
Pellgirdle, still with one hand over his eyes, began a lurching progress about the field, pausing occasionally to swing his crystal. Miss Claridge folded her arms, and looked profoundly unimpressed.
The peregrinations of the self-proclaimed disciple of the Ages took him to a stile, which he began to mount. Hemsley and William exchanged alarmed glances. Hemsley cleared his throat and called to Pellgirdle, who only made a sharp gesture calling for silence. Hemsley subsided.
William muttered, “But… the bull…”
Miss Claridge remained impassive, even when the animal in question emerged from behind a large bush and discovered Mr. Pellgirdle in his territory. Had William or Hemsley been able to tear their eyes away from the spectacle, however, they might have noticed a slight corrugation to her lips when Pellgirdle, in turn, discovered the bull, and sprinted for the fence, hurdling it a scant few inches ahead of the animal’s charge.
Crystal jigging and tweedy hat askew, he panted up to the three observers and leaned his hands on his knees, gasping for air.
“Well, William,” Miss Claridge murmured. “I hope you’ve observed what foolishness you’re bidding to associate with. If you persist with your claims, before long you’ll not be able to see the things that really are right in front of you.” She gestured to Pellgirdle, now checking the seat of his baggy green-and-yellow trousers for damage. “Or immediately behind you.”
William looked from Pellgirdle to her, and then nodded, casting down his eyes. “It were difficult seeing, there in the moonlight,” he muttered. “Could have been a lot of things.”
“Marsh gas, perhaps?”
William considered a moment, then nodded again, head hanging. “Could have been marsh gas,” he conceded.
When Pellgirdle had recovered his wind, if not his dignity, Miss Claridge said, “Are you ready for us to depart, then?”
He blinked at her in mute inquiry.
“I dismissed the man who drove me out here, since I saw you had a rented fly. I hoped to prevail upon your courtesy to take me back to town.”
“You had, had you? Why, I oughta…” Pellgirdle took a deep breath. “Very well,” he said, with theatrical politeness. “I would not put a lady to any inconvenience.”
Once out of sight of the farm, Pellgirdle let out a hearty laugh, and Miss Claridge unbent to the point of a small smile.
“That was well played,” said the little man.
“I could say the same to you, Phineas. I thought going into the field with the bull was a particularly fine touch.”
“Ah. I actually wasn’t aware of the bull.”
“Then I commend your quickness of action. When you vaulted the fence, I was hard put to it not to cheer. What did you find out?”
“Grade 3 incursion. You all right for a containment tonight?”
“Of course,” she said.
“What about the young man? Do you think we’ve sown enough doubt?”
“Yes, and by the time we spread some rumors in town… a local legend may form, but few will take it seriously.”
Pellgirdle nodded. “I don’t suppose you’d write the report, Phoebe?”
“It’s your turn. We all play our small part, Phineas, in defending against the invasion and keeping the public from panic.”
He sighed, and looked so miserable she conceded, “Write it out then, and I’ll type it up for you.”
“You think Mr. Tesla even reads…?”
“I’m sure all agents’ reports are carefully collated and summarized for him and the other Masters,” Miss Claridge said with devotion.
“And next we’re on to… where was it?”
“You want to be the Nutter then, Phoebe, and I’ll be the Skeptic?”
Miss Claridge considered. “No, thank you, Phineas. You do make a lovely Nutter.”
Conspiracy in Theory and Practice © Mike Reeves-McMillan
Mike Reeves-McMillan lives in Auckland, New Zealand (the setting of his contemporary urban fantasy series), and also in his head, where the weather is more reliable and there are a lot more wizards. His stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Compelling Science Fiction, and the Futuristica 2 anthology, along with other magazines, websites, anthologies, and podcasts. He writes the Gryphon Clerks series, published by Digital Fiction, and the “Leverage meets Lankhmar” Hand of the Trickster series.