The Philosopher's Stone is Missing from the Smithsonian
The news hit Washington, D.C. at the worst possible time. For Stefan and I, at least. Having risked our necks stealing Pa's salvation out of Smithsonian Castle, we could make our getaway only as fast as I could clunk along on my peg leg. Or rather, on the stolen item disguised as a very heavy and cumbersome peg leg.
And a damn sight difficult it was--I was accustomed to my windup model that came with a wrought-iron skeleton key I always wore around my neck, and whose springs flexed the aluminum knee and wooden toes at regular intervals. A tiny lever set three speeds, SLOW, STEADY and FAST. Pa himself invented it and worked out all the kinks, before presenting it to me for Christmas.
But this thing was like whalebone sheathed in plywood, fitted with a tin cuff that bit into my stump with every step. Difficult not to wince. And what was inside made a swishing sound as I moved, loud to me as cannons; I was certain the whole neighborhood could hear it.
Stefan and I made our way up Ninth Street where newsboys howled on every corner, flapping their copies of the Evening Star.
"President-elect Lincoln stabbed in Baltimore!"
Really, was anyone surprised? After his election--an event our own Richmond Dispatch castigated as the most deplorable event in the history of the country--good men urged Mr. Lincoln to do that country a great service, that is, graciously decline his office. Future generations would bless him for it. Honor him. Raise up statues, monuments...
Well, some people can just be so stubborn. And Baltimore was a seething secession mob. They weren't going to let him get away with it, and devil take me if they didn't follow through on their threat. Even folks north of the Mason-Dixon Line (which, by the way, Washington was not) couldn't say they were surprised.
I grinned, hearing the cries near and far. "H'aint heard nothin' 'bout us yet."
We're from Virginia, Pa, Stefan and myself, as I said. It was a border state and I'd never had much of the accent, but now I meant to twang like a Georgian every time I opened my mouth.
"Keep it down." Stefan had pulled his silk hat over his eyes, so I didn't know how the blamed fool could see. He carried my wind-up leg in a haversack. Three more blocks to the hotel, and then I could pull the contraband off my stump and collapse into a chair.
"Don't be a ninnypinny." Heavy as a railroad tie, the stolen item demanded all my attention. I finally gave up trying walk on it and just let it scrape along, leaving a long, erratic scar in the street. "Who in the hell's gonna look at us and say, 'Oh, the thieves!'" (This to reassure myself more than him.)
Right then I heard it, from the latest paper-flapping newsboy we passed.
"Philosopher's Stone stolen from the Smithsonian!"
I had to chuckle.
Picture the power of all the combined locomotives now rumbling back and forth on tracks all over our nation. Down South it's more complicated; the railroads all have different tracks, their own measurements and specifications, so a trip can get unbelievably convoluted. Consider the combined artillery of every United States warship. What I wore on my leg surpassed even that. Silently I prayed it wouldn't decide to blow all its energy at once. No reason to think that, really, but when you're walking on all that power you can't help but shiver. If it really did "detonate" instead of the slow, healing distillation we'd planned, there'd be very little of D.C. left.
Stefan, Pa and I had ridden in the day before and plunked down six gold pieces for two rooms at the Mayflower Hotel. Pa reposed in one, we brothers shared the other. The rooms were up on the third floor, so Stefan had to help me climb the zigzagging stairs.
I'd at last realized my dream of falling into a chair and tugging off the cylinder, when something occurred to me.
"Keep it down, Jon."
I sighed. "That's about the fiftyth time you've said that--"
"Well, you don't want to wake Pa." He manned the wooden chair he'd drawn up by the bed, and had occupied all night every night for the last two risings and settings of the sun, while I slept in fits with visions of stealing alchemic cylinders that cleared up cancers in minutes.
"Thunderation!" I clapped a hand to my brow.
He opened his mouth--
"Don't tell me to keep it down, I am keeping it down. Stefan, put two and two together! They must be out looking everywhere for this!"
He blinked at me. "Yes, I know. They'll want to use it for...him." He drew out this last word, as if wringing every possible drop of nastiness from it.
"Think, man. If we'd waited just a day longer--"
"We would all be right back where we started with that Black Republican coming in." He had a whole array of epithets for this man, and that last was the cleanest of the lot.
Sliding off the plywood sheath, I balanced the cylinder across my lap. Stefan rose from his chair and rolled up the sleeves of his white shirt, wearing his vest over that.
"You see those valves on the end?" He pointed. "You connect the two hoses. The elixir's supposed to be colorless and odorless, and you can only tell it from water because it's a little thicker. Like milk with a bit of cornstarch mixed in."
He had spent a good deal of time reading every single case history he could find, this amazing elixir employed on cancer, consumption and cholera patients, even an amputee like myself. We were born and raised in Richmond, mostly by Pa since Mother went to be with the Lord, and I worked at Tredegar Iron Works before my accident. Secretly I hoped, prayed, that once Pa was restored to health, enough might remain to grow me a new limb.
Our father slept on, breathing softly.
"First," Stefan was warming to the occasion--he'd been backing me into corners for speeches from as far back as I could remember--"you dab two drops on his eyes. Smear some over his hair, his chest and his extremities; these act like poles. The power blazes between them, through his body. Most of it'll go on his chest, since it's under there where most of the trouble is."
"Can't know for sure. But it's usually pretty fast, less than an hour in fact--"
A tap sounded on the door.
Gracefully as a cat Stefan lifted the cylinder from my lap, stowed it in our trunk and answered the door with the nonchalant look he'd mastered in poker games. The hotel detective stood there, pale and fat as a snowman in a frock coat.
"Yes?" Nothing ever ruffled Stefan.
"Apologies, sir. I'm sure you've heard the tragic news of Mr. Lincoln's assassination. I regret to say that not only has this happened, but the means to restore him has been stolen as well."
"I heard the newsboys say something to that effect."
I watched Stefan's face, trying to match his poker-look and knowing I was failing.
"It certainly appears," the detective went on, "that the parties in these atrocities were acting in concert. We are asking every guest if they've seen anything."
"Well..." Stefan scratched the back of his head. "We were just out and about, but I can't say we saw anything unusual."
"Very well." The visitor tipped his hat. "If you do see something, would you be so kind as to let the management know?"
Stefan assured him he would, and clicked the door closed.
"Stefan?" I said after a minute.
"He said he was asking everyone. I don't seem to have heard knocking on any door but ours. We're not the only guests on this floor."
"Best start now." He retrieved the cylinder from the trunk.
Stefan froze, cylinder cradled in his arms, like a man caught in the act of kidnapping a baby.
Pa had raised himself up on his elbows. The damned detective's knocking must have awakened him. His flesh might have shrunk and decayed into yellow wax, but his eyes glared stern as ever. I could see him registering the whole situation in a flash.
"Where--" he nodded toward the cylinder--"did you get that?"
"We sort of--commandeered it," I tried a euphemism.
"From the Yankees," Stefan added, by way of reminder.
Pa settled back down, head sinking into the pillow. For a moment a hint of his old self showed through. "Maybe I should have guessed. I knew the Philosopher's Stone was here," (the whole country did) "but never made the connection."
We had sold him on the trip by taking turns emphasizing "climate." The "climate change" would do him good. Ha! Washington is a marsh land, good only for mosquitoes.
"How did you ever steal that?--No. Wait." He raised a hand. "Don't tell me. I don't want to know the details, about that or the assassination. You did take it for my sake, right? Not just to keep it from..."
"Why, sure we did!" Stefan thrust out his chest. "Or would have, if we'd known. Isn't that right, Jonathan?" I nodded my sincere assent.
"So..." Pa breathed in, out. "Violent, lawless men committed murder...and you're aiding them."
"Everyone approved of Charles Sumner getting beat to death," I reminded him, "right on the Senate floor."
"Yes. And I think it was an act of Providence that we had the means to revive him, even as Christ did Lazarus."
"Pa." The cylinder made its swishing sound as Stefan stood it on the cushion of his chair, balancing it with one hand. "Why are you saying all this? You were as happy as we were, to see him get his just desserts."
"Well, I daresay I can relate to Mr. Sumner now more than then, being so close to the end. And Mr. Lincoln as well--"
"Pa, hold on." I waved him silent.
Voices drifted up from below, arguing about something. One of them was the detective's. Stefan glanced out the window, and his face warped into a look that told me we were in trouble.
"Police wagons," he said. "Two of them." Taking a tube in each hand, he moved toward our father. The sick man shook his head.
"Pa!" I cried. "Don't you want to live?"
"I could have called out to that detective a minute ago, but I'd rather reason with you first. Yes, I want to live, as Mr. Lincoln also did. I can identify somewhat with him, but in another way I can't. He lost his life by violent means, but with me it was just bad luck, and maybe too many cigars.
"But this whole business about him being president? I've pondered that a great deal while lying in bed day after day, waiting for my time. We all seem to think it's the end of the world if he takes office. But he can't just do whatever he gets it in his head to do, and he knows it. He disagrees with our peculiar institution--and what's that got to do with our family anyway, since none of us has ever owned a single slave? Neither do most. But Mr. Lincoln takes the Constitution seriously. He's even come out and proclaimed before the whole world, he has no inclination to interfere. But we seethe and rage as if he's flat-out declared war."
I had to head this off, quick. "Pa, you know what'll happen--what would have happened," I corrected myself, "if he'd gotten in."
"Yes. Secession and war. That's all we've been hearing about, secession and war. I hear it in my sleep. But the fact of the matter, boys, is that a man is unjustly dead. And if our fellow Virginians and Southerners think this a cause for celebration, more's the tragedy. What does that say about a people? Do you think the Federal government will take that lying down, whoever becomes president in Lincoln's place?
"This means of healing here--" he attempted a wave toward the cylinder, before letting his hand drop to his chest--"how did mere mortal man ever come by it? No one rightly knows. Alchemy, that's the most common thinking. Folks haven't ruled out Christ himself, something to remind us he's still in the miracle business. And if you took it away, deprived a murder victim in favor of a man who's lived out his life with no regrets, and can now die peacefully in bed...what would that tell Almighty God about those people, and the whole nation for which they stand? By that I don't mean all of America. The Union is dissolved, boys. How could we invoke the help of our God? And even outside of that, how could we build a country on the foundations of murder and thievery?"
"Pa." Stefan, unruffled as always. "This'll put out that whole secession fire. No more Lincoln, no more call to break away. South Carolina and the rest, they'll come back. You mentioned Christ, one man dying so a whole nation might live."
"Yes, Caiaphas made that prediction about him," said Pa, "one of the villains in that story, everyone's always agreed." If you didn't see him there on the bed, you'd picture him as robust as Stephen Douglas shouting Lincoln down during all those Illinois debates. "But you'll notice, Christ didn't stay dead."
Oh, great. I knew what Pa was doing; he'd done it before. Trying to get us to settle down, to talk us into a calm so our brains could work. Work his way at least.
"Pa..." I leaned forward in my chair, wishing I could get up and go up to him. "We don't want you to die."
"I know, Jonathan, I know. But I am an older man than Lincoln. Even if you did this, the elixir does not restore youth along with health. I only have a few more years remaining to me, and then what? And this man's blood will still be on your hands, make no mistake."
I looked at Stefan. He looked at me.
Again came the tap on the door.
Softly I cursed. "Pa...we'll go to jail."
"I'm sorry, boys. I'd rather you didn't. I would not doubt, though, that once the new president takes office, his first act will be to issue you a pardon. Instead of sharing the responsibility for his death, you'll have given him back his life."
We brothers exchanged another look. Then, a synchronized nod.
Stefan attended to Pa, then glided to the door as I retrieved the plywood sheath on its end and slid the sloshing cylinder back inside. When I began fitting in onto my stump and buckling the straps, he opened the door. The detective of course, with the police of course.
"Sir?" Stefan made a great show of puzzlement. "Is there...? We were about to go out to dinner..."
"Apologies, sir." The man tipped his hat. "These men have a few questions--"
"Will it take very long?" I finished the buckling and remained seated. "How about out in the hall? You'll wake Pa." He snored peacefully, bless him.
More apologies. The police wanted to come in and poke around. Stefan stood aside and they entered, they searched here and there, they asked about Stefan's gear and he laid out his whole cover story about medical equipment for our father--that was why the room had such a sharp chemical odor. No one took a second look at my peg leg. In two minutes they were gone, satisfied, clicking the door shut after one final bleat of regret.
Stefan let out a breath, holding up a wet rag. "Chloroform. This, Jonathan, is why you always anticipate, don't react. Can you help?"
"Is Dixie about to become the world's newest and best nation? Hell yes." I scrambled to unbuckle the contraband.
Forgive us, Pa.
Douglas Kolacki began writing while stationed with the Navy in Naples, Italy. Since then he has placed stories in publications including Weird Tales and Dreams & Visions. He now haunts Providence, Rhode Island.
Published by permission of the author.