Short Story – “Edmonton Spunkmeier and the Mechanical Frog Prognosticator”

Ladies and Gentlemen, we present you a Sunday Steampunk Short Story. If you wish to submit your own prose for the reading pleasure of The Pandora Society please following the instructions at the end of this tale . . . 

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“Edmonton Spunkmeier and the Mechanical Frog Prognosticator”

By Pam Fulton

Edmonton tossed the ivory cubes against the wall of the alleyway without a twinge of guilt despite losing most of his friend Oscar’s borrowed bankroll. Edmonton had implied that he would use the funds for a joint business venture, but it was merely a ruse, a way to get his hands on some easy cash. A recent string of bad luck had damaged his reputation in the gaming parlors of the city and his credit line was fully tapped.

He had always considered a game on the waterfront to be beneath him, but desperate times had made it a necessary option. In order to restore his financial standing, he would have to make adjustments, which included crouching on an unsavory corner and engaging a group of merchant seaman in a dice game. A match he was purposefully losing.

It was an old trick he relied upon to open his rivals’ wallets even wider. Edmonton was confident that this last throw would win him the entire contents of the betting pool, allowing him to pay back Oscar and collect a hefty sum for himself. While his foes were counting out their currency and laying down their final bets, he deftly switched out the die to a weighted pair that would guarantee a positive outcome. The tallest seaman held up his cap to close down the betting. Edmonton shook his fist and released. The game pieces ricocheted off a brick and skipped into the street where they collided with the wheel of a junkman’s passing steam-cart. The dice stopped to land in an impossible, and unfortunate, position. Edmonton unleashed a curse into the salty air.

The sailors hurried over to verify the outcome of the toss and cheered at the exact moment the overburdened cart struck the second die and stopped with a sharp jolt. An avalanche of society’s detritus cascaded onto the boardwalk.

“Interference!” Edmonton cried, relieved at getting a chance for a second throw.

The tallest seaman ignored the junkman who had fallen and stepped past him to lift up a set of stained bloomers that had tumbled from the man’s cart. He discarded the pantaloons, pointed to the die that lay underneath and turned to his men. “Did you verify the count, before the accident?”

The seamen nodded. “Doubles, the win is ours.”

Edmonton shook his head. “But it goes against gentlemen’s rules. In the event of an interference, the die is thrown again.” He grabbed up the dice before the men could take them.

“Down here on the docks we play by ships rules. The count stands. Unless there’s a problem?” The tall man flicked his cigarette toward two barrel-chested sailors who closed ranks on Edmonton. The men’s abundant scars and gap-tooth grins suggested that they were not unfamiliar with physical confrontations or unhappy about inflicting pain.

The tall sailor scooped up the winnings. “Sorry for your luck, friend, but the hour requires us back on deck. Perhaps another time.” He chuckled and ushered his ragtag group down the boardwalk toward a row of large steamers docked at the adjoining pier.

Edmonton watched their departure with hope draining away like the receding tide. He would have to secure additional funds in order to stake a new game, which was still his best chance at recovering what he had just lost. Sailors with full pockets were very popular in the local taverns on the waterfront and in the dirigible brothels floating overhead. Oscar’s bankroll was destined to disappear well before any ships left port. He would need to work fast to recoup the funds.

The junkman interrupted this reverie by banging Edmonton’s shin with the brass head of his walking stick. Edmonton squawked at the pain and rubbed the injury.

“Here, here, there’s no cause for violence.” Edmonton grasped the junkman by his tattered coat-sleeve and helped him upright. “Neptune’s fork, old timer, you really must look where you are going. This is all your fault, you know.”

The grizzled man slapped away the assistance, straightened his sagging top hat, and lifted his goggles to his forehead.

Edmonton squirmed under the cold glare of the stranger’s slate-grey eyes.

“It’s you that must watch out, young man. I insist you restore my belongings at once.” The man waved to the disorder that lay across the road. Steam carriages and velocipedes puffed, honked and weaved around the mess. A group of passing ladies lifted their hems to avoid tripping on the scattered field of junk. “You have exactly one minute before I flag down the next Bobby to toss you behind bars. And not before you have a knot on your head to match the one on your leg.” The old timer’s stick hovered about Edmonton’s shoulders.

Edmonton didn’t have much experience when it came to performing physical work, so he haphazardly tossed the belongings into the cart despite the junkman’s cries to have a care. When the cart was full to a teetering pile, the man fired up the boiler and chugged away, spewing a stream of colorful language in his wake.

Edmonton turned toward the alley for the shortest route back to his flat and tripped over a large brown stone that lay in his path. When he bent down to fling the offending object aside, he saw that it wasn’t a stone at all but a rusted mechanical toy that resembled a large toad. He considered flagging down the man to return it but reflected at the treatment he’d received and reconsidered. It would fill his pockets at least. As he wrapped the filthy trinket in his kerchief to guard against soiling his coat, a faint light glowed behind the thing’s eyes then died. He held the toy up and turned it to and fro, concluding that the spark was a mere reflection of sunlight off the water. Edmonton pocketed the toy and set off.

The shutters were closed in the lower left window of his building, so Edmonton detoured to the back stairs to avoid a confrontation with Rumson. His landlord preferred to sleep off Saturday’s pints rather than attend church Sunday mornings with his missus and would be in a foul mood if roused. Edmonton had been dodging Rumson for weeks, knowing the man was ready to make good on his promise of physical harm if he ever caught sight of Edmonton with excuses instead of currency.

At the threshold of his flat, he paused. Deep snores rumbled through the floorboards at his feet. Edmonton quietly opened the door and stepped into the small, low-ceilinged room. He stopped short when he saw a cloaked figure standing in the shadows. Edmonton leapt at the stranger with blade drawn and put the cold steel against the man’s throat.

“Wait, it’s me, Oscar!” the man cried.

Edmonton’s chest tightened at the sound of his friend’s voice. “What are you doing here, Oscar?” He pocketed the knife and threw back the curtains to allow light into the room.

Oscar retrieved his friend’s hat that had fallen in the scuffle and handed it to him. “I’ve been on tenterhooks all morning and decided to wait here until you returned.” He sat on a sagging velvet settee and picked up an envelope from the large stack of creditors’ letters scattered across a steamer trunk at his knees. “You’ve resorted to carrying a blade. Are things really that bad?”

“I was worried about being robbed with pockets full of cash, you can’t be too careful.” Edmonton snatched the letter from Oscar’s hand, scooped up the rest of the pile and dropped it into a receptacle. “Just some offers of business, but all that’s in the past now that we have an arrangement. For God’s sake, keep your voice down.” Rumson was a deep sleeper but Edmonton didn’t want to push his luck, so he propped a chair under the doorknob and flipped the lock for good measure.

Oscar said, “To be honest, ever since you approached me with the idea for a shared enterprise I’ve been able to think of nothing else. Just wait until my Rose finds out she’s to be engaged to a modern man of commerce! She can’t say no. A cigar shoppe is a brilliant plan.”

Edmonton had counted on bringing back a large stack of money to soften the blow that there never was a cigar shoppe, knowing his friend would take the news hard.

Oscar pointed to the bulge in Edmonton’s coat pocket. “Those must be the papers for me to sign?”

Edmonton fished the lump out of his coat and held out the rusted mechanical frog. The toy was a welcome distraction.

“What the devil is that?” Oscar sat up.

There was a dried strip of something black stuck to the thing’s feet. Edmonton lifted it to his nose—seaweed? He used his fingernail to scrape it off and found a tiny key embedded in the tin frog’s underbelly. He popped it free and stared into the frog’s hazy globes for inspiration. An idea struck.

“This is the key to our future.” Edmonton held up the small brass key and inserted it into a slot in the toy’s lower back. The key made one revolution then stopped. Edmonton spit into his kerchief and buffed at the dirt around the keyhole and discovered some letters stamped into the thing’s lower back. A phrase appeared.

A good winding is needed.

Oscar said, “Alright, but where are the papers for the shoppe?”

Edmonton shook his head. “Ready yourself, I have exciting news. We’re not opening a cigar shoppe. We are instead going to deal in curiosities.”

Oscar sat waiting for further explanation. When one didn’t come, he said, “What do you mean, ‘curiosities’? What are you talking about? I’ve never heard of such nonsense.”

“It’s quite the rage overseas.” Edmonton’s mind was spinning a yarn as fast as a jib line unspooling in a stiff wind. “I have it on good authority that oddities and curiosities are coming into vogue. And just think of it—we’ll have the first shoppe of its kind in the city.” The words rolled out with such ease that Edmonton almost started believing the lie himself.

Oscar frowned. “Wait, that ugly thing, that’s our business? You can’t be serious.” He snapped his fingers. “Give it here,” and gestured for Edmonton to toss him the toy.

The throw missed, much like Edmonton’s dice toss earlier, and the metal toad bounced off the trunk and fell to the floor with a hard clatter. Gears and springs deep inside its belly whirred and squealed with the grinding of long-rusted metal jarred into motion. Edmonton retrieved the toy, wound the key that moved easily now, and set it down on the trunk’s lid. Tiny lamps glowed behind its crystal eyes and the thing’s neck began to expand like a small metal umbrella. The globes burned brighter with each billowing fold. When its throat reached maximum capacity it suddenly collapsed with a low, creaking belch. Once fully retracted, the lights winked out with the abruptness of a snuffed candle.

“Where the devil did you say you got this?”

Oscar reached out to touch the mechanical beast when the toy shuddered to life again. It tilted back on its haunches and hopped forward with another gravelly croak. A small slip of paper shot from its lips before the toy rocked back to settle again in a squat.

The two sat waiting for signs of additional movement. When it was clear that the display was over, Edmonton plucked the white slip that was hanging from the frog’s wide mouth.

I am Malcolm, the Great Prognosticator.

Edmonton read the message and handed it to Oscar who glanced at it before giving it back.

“I suppose this is the type of thing that belongs in a curiosities shoppe. I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “But what does it mean?”

Edmonton picked up the frog and used his kerchief to clean more of the dirt and rust that covered its back and chest. “You see? It’s just the sort of thing that will bring customers. ” He was glad the frog had distracted Oscar from any discussion of the loaned funds.

“It is unusual, but don’t you think the ladies will find it a bit too ugly? Does it do anything else?”

As if in answer, the tin beast belched a raspy croak and a second slip of paper shot from the thing’s mouth.

Edmonton read, Malcolm says: trouble comes.

He was passing this second note to Oscar when some heavy squeaks sounded on the stairs followed by a series of loud knocks. “Spunkmeier, I know you’re in there. Open this bloody damn door.” They heard jangling of the landlord’s key ring and the man’s hand working the knob.

Edmonton quickly wrapped up the frog and stuffed it into his coat. He put a finger to his lips, grabbed his hat and tiptoed to the window. He motioned for Oscar to follow him and the two men slipped out the opening while Rumson continued to shout and pound his meaty knuckles against the door when it stuck fast.

Oscar joined Edmonton on the flat-topped roof and they walked to the building’s edge. Edmonton waved to a flying landaulet passing by, the propeller-driven coach suspended from a large balloon. The green lamp on the coach’s top indicated it was unoccupied.

“And where are we going?” Oscar asked.

“I thought we could attend your aunt’s garden party. It’s the perfect opportunity to announce our new venture and seek investors for our enterprise.” He could also use this ruse to unlace the Countess’s purse strings. It was another pool of funds to tap for a return to the docks.

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea. She’s not going to be happy to see you, especially after what happened the last time when you brought those ladies to her dinner party.”

Edmonton waved a gloved hand. “Pfft. My powers to charm are as sharp as ever. Besides, this time we have Malcolm to grease her gears.”

Oscar considered this. “Granted, she does enjoy unique amusements, but I’m still not convinced she won’t skewer me for bringing you.”

The flying carriage swung over the lip of the building and hovered a few feet off the rooftop. A valet hopped down and helped them into the airborne coach. Once they were seated and the valet had relayed the address to the driver, the landaulet’s propellers fired faster and the coach rose up to join the other traffic motoring across the skyline. Twenty minutes later they were descending over an impressive estate swathed in festive décor.

They entered the foyer of the great house and elbowed their way through a queue of servants attending the arriving guests. Edmonton pulled Oscar along, making a beeline for a large doorway in a bank of floor to ceiling windows. The Countess was sitting outside on a raised dais, pale as a fish against layers of deep blue chiffon.

“Countess Von Wilhelm, lovelier than ever.” Edmonton removed his hat, dipped low at the waist.

“You have sizeable marbles to come to my party, Scoundrel. This time with your hat in hand, no less.” She lifted her pince-nez to examine him then gave a curt acknowledgement to Oscar. “Hello, nephew. I don’t recall your invitation to include bringing your beggar friends along.”

Before Oscar could respond, Edmonton said, “I come to share some entertainment with you and your guests.”

She looked past Edmonton’s shoulder and back again. “I certainly hope it isn’t any more of your lady friends, dear boy.” Her lips twisted in a bemused smile. “Though I suppose some of the men at the party wouldn’t object too strongly.”

Edmonton retrieved the kerchief from his pocket and pulled back the folds to reveal the toad.

“And what have we here?” The Countess arched her painted brows.

“Countess Von Wilhelm, meet Malcolm, the Mechanical Frog Prognosticator.” Edmonton held the toy out in his open palm.

The announcement drew a small crowd of curious onlookers who had already exhausted the latest topics of who had fallen ill with aether sickness and the recent unfortunate business with a kraken, still at large. The guests were hungry for a distraction.

“The frog would like to make a prognostication for you. Would you like a demonstration?”

“A mechanical frog that divines the future? It does sound diverting. I’ll play along, but a good hostess never goes first.” The Countess called out to her guests. “Who among you would like their fortune told?”

Several names were shouted. The Countess put up a hand. “One at a time, please.”

A sweet voice cut through the din. “May I request one on behalf of someone else? A submariner, my brother.”

“Come forward. Who asks this?”

A pretty, dark-haired woman stepped from the crowd. Edmonton recognized her as Oscar’s intended, Rose. “I’m wondering if my brother Willie will be coming home to us. It’s all I pray for. He’s been at sea with the Queen’s navy hunting the kraken. We’ve heard nothing.”

The Countess smiled at the girl. “That’s a noble question. Mr. Spunkmeier, would your frog have some opinion on poor William’s fate?”

Edmonton wound the mechanism several times with the small brass key and set the toy on the ground at the women’s feet. He whispered a plea to Malcolm to come up with something for Rose that would impress the Countess. The mechanical beast shook and buzzed, its eyes glowing brighter and brighter as its throat grew into a creaking balloon of metal folds. As the thing’s neck expanded, the toy rumbled a low, gravelly croak.

The Countess’s lips parted in surprise. The toy blinked twice and rocked back and forth on its haunches. Its throat collapsed and its tiny lamp-lit eyes snuffed out.

“My goodness, what…” the Countess began, then yelped when the metal toad leaned onto its back legs and sprung a giant leap forward to land at her feet. The thing settled back on its hindend, spit out a curling slip of paper and fell silent.

The Countess reached down and plucked the message from the toy’s lips. “Malcolm says: the sea claims only unworthy souls.” She passed the note to Rose. “So there’s your answer, young lady. I’m sure your brother is a fine young man so he should be quite safe.” She looked at Edmonton and smiled. “That was quite amusing. Bravo.”

“Now let’s see what wisdom he has for you, Countess.” Edmonton wound the beast. “Malcolm, what about a prognostication for the Countess Von Wilhelm?” He set it back on the ground. A good performance would solidify his appeal for funds. The Countess stared down at the toy with a quizzical brow, but Malcolm sat in stubborn silence, its eyes cold and dead as a shark’s.

Finally, she stood. “It seems the thing has breathed its last. Perhaps you can repair it and we can try again another time.” She clapped twice, announcing that supper was ready and left with her guests streaming after her.

Oscar said, “I can’t say I understand how you managed to get the toy to produce that message for Rose, but well done.”

Edmonton said, “I did nothing, but none of that matters. I was counting on getting your aunt and her guests interested in our venture, but I don’t see how they will now. Not if our ‘curiosity’ is no more entertaining than a lump of coal.” He nudged it with the toe of his boot. “It may have worked a few times, but it’s useless if it refuses to perform when it counts.” He kicked it, sending the rusty toy skipping across the flagstones to rest against the toe of his friend’s boot.

Oscar plucked it from the pavers. He held the metal toad up to his face and gave it a gentle shake. “Come on, little chap, have you got nothing else for us?”

The frog began to hum and vibrate with motion. Oscar set it down as the toy launched into its series of gyrations. When it finished, a strip of paper unspooled from the toad’s tin lips.

Malcolm says: Elysian Fields is the best bet.

Oscar handed the prognostication to Edmonton. “There, you see? It’s just a little finicky, probably only needs some oil. And be of good cheer, because according to Malcolm, the afterlife is secure.”

Edmonton pulled his kerchief out and began wrapping the toy when it spit out a second paper.

Malcolm says: rejoice in the wealth of friends.

The thought of sticking around the party to coax wisdom from a temperamental toy sounded both tedious and unproductive. There was also no time to waste knowing there were eager sailors spending bills in alehouses or in floating boudoirs all over the city.

Edmonton said, “That didn’t go as I’d hoped. I do have another idea, but there’s a chap I need to see first. Let’s go.”

“But I was hoping to at least tell Rose about our new venture.”

“There will be plenty of time for that later, and after that demonstration she certainly won’t be impressed. Go make our excuses and I’ll meet you out front.”

After a few minutes, Oscar was back outside. “So where are we going?”

Edmonton flagged down the driver of a polished black motorized carriage sporting an impressive fan of brass pipes at the rear. The boiler-coach was fast by reputation and Edmonton knew that this particular driver was always on the lookout for something extra to line his pockets. He instructed Oscar to toss a couple of coins to the man in exchange for a ride to the racetrack at Wellesley Downs. The men were invited to climb aboard. Once seated, they buttoned their coats, adjusted their goggles and pushed down their hats to guard against the breeze of the open cockpit. The coach leapt forward with a loud bang and sped down the gravel driveway. The whipping force of the wind made conversation difficult, so the men remained seated in their own thoughts.

As they pulled up to the front gates and hopped down, Oscar asked, “Why are we at the racetrack? Is the gentleman here?”

“Prepare yourself, friend, I’m afraid I have some unfortunate news.” Edmonton had weighed the pros and cons of defending the ruse of becoming dealers in curiosities and had finally decided to abandon it. “I was on the waterfront earlier to meet my business contact when I was accosted by some ruffians. They stole the entire contents of my pockets, including the money you had given me for our enterprise. I have an associate that does business here, and I thought he might loan me the funds to recover what we had lost in the encounter.”

Oscar grabbed Edmonton’s arm. “My God! Are you all right? Why didn’t you say so? I knew something was fishy with all that ‘curiosities’ business. And I haven’t known you to carry a knife, you nearly slit my throat.”

“I’m sorry about that, I thought they might have followed me back to the flat. I’m fine, but they managed to abscond with all of it, every last bill and coin.”

“We need to alert the authorities, at once!” Oscar ran through the arched entrance of the track toward some men in uniform.

Edmonton chased him and grabbed his friend by the coat, spinning him around. “Those Bobbies will detain us with a lengthy interrogation and to what end? The robbers will have ample time to escape. I do have a method of locating them, but it requires money.”

“How much?” Oscar asked, digging into his coat. He pulled out a couple of rumpled bills and held them out.

Edmonton pushed Oscar’s fist back and shook his head. “Not nearly enough, but I’m confident my contact will have the cash to get the job done. Why don’t you go try your luck.” He nodded at the betting windows where several queues of gentlemen were standing with their racing forms out. A tin voice squawked from a speaker somewhere overhead announcing the next race. “I’ll meet you back here once I’ve completed my business.”

Edmonton turned on his heel and headed toward a painted door at the end of a long, dim hallway. He tapped with a specific pattern of knocks, and after a lengthy pause the door swung open. He strode into a large room choked with cigar and pipe smoke and made his way through a knot of groomed men with scantily clad ladies gliding around them like a colorful school of fish.

“Hello, Eddie,” said a buxom redhead that passed by. Edmonton tipped his hat in greeting and regretted that he didn’t have the proper funds to engage her. He elbowed his way to the back of the room and found his contact perched on a tall library ladder. The man’s sleeves were rolled to his elbows and he was erasing chalk numbers and scribbling replacements on a large green board. A young boy darted into the room from a side door with a sheaf of papers that he thrust upwards at the man before running out again.

The man glanced down and noticed Edmonton. “About time you showed up. Another day and I was ready to send some chaps out to find you. Glad you’ve saved me the trouble. You’ve got my money?”

Another young boy bumped into Edmonton’s back. “Apologies, Guv’nor.” He reached around Edmonton and passed the man on the ladder a slip of paper before running back out again.

Edmonton said, “I’ve got it. There’s just one problem, it’s tied up in a business deal and I need to dip into my credit line a bit more to free it up. I was thinking maybe a hundred? I’ll have it back by tomorrow at the latest. With the usual percentage, of course.”

The bookie looked down at him. “A hundred? When you still owe me double that? You’ve got bollocks, Spunkmeier.”

Edmonton readied a retort when a name stood out in bold scrawl on the board. ‘Elysian Fields’ had been a late addition, a mechanically enhanced horse running in the fifth. The ancient nag’s odds were a hundred to one. Some racetracks allowed the older mounts to use steam-assisted appendages but the enhanced nags were considered mostly for show, a circus amusement for the onlookers.

“Alright, I’ll go, but what about a fiver on Elysian Fields in the fifth? To win,” Edmonton said.

The man turned on the ladder. “Laying bets without money? Get out.” He nodded at two men with more muscles than shirts. “Boys, help Mr. Spunkmeier find the door.” As the men dragged him out, the bookie called, “And you’d better not show your face here again without my cash, not ever, you got that?”

Edmonton was tossed to his knees in the hallway. He scrambled upright and set out to find Oscar, wondering if the damn frog could’ve been right. His friend was nowhere to be found. The clock ticked down the minutes to the fifth race while Edmonton searched in vain. When the betting window closed, he gave up the hunt and made his way to the packed grandstands. The blast of a horn signaled the start of the race and a half dozen mounts leapt from the gates. Elysian Fields was easy to spot; she was in last place with the sun glinting off her bulky steam-assisted armor. As he watched, Edmonton convinced himself that a tin frog couldn’t know the future and finally turned away from the ridiculous scene. He made his way out the front gates where he puffed on a borrowed cigar and waited for Oscar.

To pass the time, Edmonton pulled Malcolm out of his pocket and gave the frog a few twists of the key. The toy responded with movements that drew a few curious passing glances, so Edmonton withdrew into an alcove for privacy. The frog spit out another message.

Malcolm says: a betrayal is imminent.

“There you are!” Oscar rounded the corner with flushed cheeks. “I’ve looked everywhere. I have such good news. Excellent news, in fact.”

“That’s good, because my meeting didn’t go as planned.”

Oscar waved a dismissal. “Forget about all that. Listen. Remember what Malcolm said about Elysian Fields being a good bet? When I saw a nag with that name on the roster I put down my last bills on her. Hells bells, if the sorry old girl didn’t take the flag! Practically caused a riot in the stands, too, when she passed the others. I can understand why you have developed a taste for this sort of thing. The whole thing was quite exhilarating.”

“Wait, you placed that bet and Elysian Fields won?” Edmonton shook his head. “But I saw her start, and she was in last place.”

Oscar nodded. “She was, until the rest of the field collided with one another on the last turn and she chugged right on by. Turns out, the frog Malcolm was right.”

Edmonton couldn’t believe it. At those odds Oscar would have easily recovered the lost funds. A couple of hundred would make him flush, enough to stake another game, or two.

“Thank the gods. I can use the winnings to recover the loss from this morning.”

Oscar’s smile fell away. “No need. I got everything back that I loaned you, plus enough left over to even buy Rose a decent ring.”

“Come now, give it here. Don’t worry, when I’m done you’ll have enough to buy Rose ten rings.”

Oscar reached into his trouser pocket and pulled out a thick money clip. Edmonton’s eyes grew wide at the sight, realizing that he had miscalculated. Oscar peeled a couple of bills from the stack and handed them over. “Here, take these and Malcolm and go back inside. You might get lucky, too. I’m going back to the party, to see Rose.”

“You wouldn’t have that money without Malcolm and he’s mine. Now hand it over.” Edmonton reached for the bills.

Oscar refused and stepped back. As he stuck the money back into his pocket Edmonton dove for him and knocked his friend to the ground. The men tumbled over one another, rolling on the cobblestones and taking punches at each other until Edmonton pinned his friend by sitting on his chest.

“Oscar, I’ll take it from you if I have to.”

Oscar tried to shove him off his chest, but Edmonton was stronger. As the two tussled, Edmonton pulled back and threw a knockout punch to his friend’s temple. Oscar’s eyes rolled back and his head lolled to one side.

Edmonton retrieved the money clip and got to his feet. He dragged Oscar’s unconscious body out of sight. “Sorry, Oscar, but you wouldn’t listen. And this is for the best.” He stepped over his friend, scooped up his hat and returned Malcolm to his pocket.

A flying carriage motored overhead as he walked back to the entrance. Edmonton waved his hat and was pleased to see the craft dropping in altitude. When it was a few feet off the ground, a coachman hopped down and invited Edmonton to approach.

“To the harbor, Westside.” He thrust a bill at the valet.

The man accepted the overpayment and helped his fare into the back seat of the cab, pulling up the convertible cover to guard against the wind. Once Edmonton was settled, they flew toward the bay and into the fading light.

Dirigible traffic was heavy over the city’s main square, but the fleet was in port so people were flocking to the carnival atmosphere on the waterfront. Edmonton directed the driver to drop him near the dock where the largest ship was berthed, very close to where his run of bad luck had started earlier that day.

He stepped down from the cab and into the salt air, gagging at the stench of fish that clung to the boardwalk. Gulls screeched and whirled overhead as he looked for a place to work. The closest pier held a clapboard tavern doing a steady business, and next to it sat a stack of large, shallow crates that could be cobbled together into a makeshift table. Some coils of rope and supply kegs would make decent stools. Within a few minutes, he had dragged these items into an arrangement that would tempt any passerby into a game. He placed Malcolm in the center of the table as a conversation piece.

While he waited, he wound the frog’s mechanism and Malcolm launched into his full presentation with glowing eyes, billowing throat and low croak. A passing group of young boys cheered and clapped, enjoying the frog’s antics. Edmonton pulled the paper from the toad’s mouth and found nothing but a series of numbers set apart by commas.

“Taking candy from babes now?” The tall seaman from the morning’s game approached the table and chased the boys away. His mates pressed in to encircle Edmonton. “Hope you brought more coins to play with.”

Edmonton held up the fat money clip and set it on the table next to Malcolm and a pair of dice. “I brought paper. So don’t waste my time if its coins you want.”

A few of the hooligans let out a whistle and took seats on the makeshift chairs. The tall man eyed the roll and then pointed to Malcolm. “And what’s this? Some kind of good luck charm?”

Edmonton shrugged. “Are you willing to find out?” He wondered if Malcolm could be right about the numbers like he had been about Elysian Fields.

The sailor laughed. Soon they all had their hands in their pockets and money was piling up in Edmonton’s upturned hat. The men jeered and yelled bets on each roll of the dice. Edmonton tried Malcolm’s first two numbers and the dice rolled in his favor. Again and again he rolled the winning combination.

“What kind of fools do you think we are?” growled the tall man after he and his men lost six straight. He scooped up the ivory cubes and pitched them to one of his men who examined them one by one with his brass monocle. The sailor shrugged and tossed them back to the tall man who snatched them mid-air.

“Perhaps you’re right, maybe the frog is my lucky charm after all,” Edmonton said.

The set of weighted dice still sat in his pocket and would stay there until the moment they were needed. Malcolm had predicted each throw with unfailing accuracy, and Edmonton was becoming more and more convinced that he was on his way to playing the best match of his life.

The tall sailor snapped his fingers and his men dropped another set of die onto the crate. “So there’s no funny business,” he said. “Agreed?”

Edmonton picked them up, examined them, and nodded. “Next roll, eight,” he said. After the men laid their bets, Edmonton shook his fist and released the game pieces out on the table. Another perfect toss.

The seamen roared their disapproval and jumped to their feet. As Edmonton collected up the cash and dropped it into his hat, the tall sailor grabbed his arm and gave it a hard twist. Edmonton cried out in pain, attracting the attention of a couple of Bobbies. When the seaman saw the officers coming toward them, the group scattered. Punishment was severe for sailors caught disturbing the peace.

“Malcolm, you have redeemed yourself, my friend.” He patted the toy affectionately and smiled at the pile of currency now occupying his hat. Oscar would forgive him once he saw the return on his investment.

“Still open for business?” asked a threesome of gents in tailored clothes and reeking of whiskey and pipe tobacco. All three pulled out fat leather billfolds.

Edmonton couldn’t believe his good fortune. There were still a few predictions remaining on Malcolm’s latest missive and it seemed a shame to waste them. This would be easier than shooting fish in a barrel with a Teslagun.

“Have a seat, gentlemen, and please forgive the primitive furnishings.”

The men sat on the wooden kegs and they each took a turns calling out numbers and tossing the dice. To test his theory, Edmonton made a few small bets of his own and lost. However, whenever he returned to the frog’s advice, it never failed. After several rounds of relying on Malcolm’s prognostications, there was one winning number left. Edmonton pushed his upturned hat into the center of the crate.

“The contents of my chapeau for the next throw. Seven,” he said. The men ducked their heads together and spoke in whispers. There was some argument, but they had sipped enough from a shared silver flask that the reward seemed worth the risk.

“We will match you with this,” said one and dropped a fat stack next to the hat. “But the throw is ours.”

Edmonton nodded. He scooped up the dice and deftly switched them out with the weighted pair that he held for just this occasion. He wasn’t going to rely on Malcolm for something this important.

The die tumbled and bounced, skipping over one another. The first one settled—a five—while the other continued around the perimeter of the crate. It rolled to a stop against Malcolm’s chest. The die clanged as it struck the mechanical beast, tipped and fell into its final resting position. A three.

The dice were weighted in a way that it wasn’t possible to roll anything but a seven. Once again, it seemed that the frog had turned the tables and stood at the center of his misfortune. When Edmonton cried interference, the gents stopped backslapping and congratulating each other long enough to point out that the frog had remained in the playing area for the entire game, including several rounds that the Edmonton had won. They stuffed the cash into their pockets, tossed Edmonton his empty hat and headed toward the tavern.

Everything had been his a moment ago. He picked up the toy and looked deep into its glass eyes, shaking the device so violently that he could hear springs and gears in its belly rattling together.

“What did I ever to do to deserve this?” he demanded.

An ember glowed deep inside its crystal globes, the thing gave a low gasping croak then spit out another slip of paper.

Malcolm says: the end is near.

“Finally, a prognostication I can guarantee.”

Edmonton walked to the waters edge and threw the device as far as he could over the rocks and into the shallows of the bay where it entered the water with a small splash.           A commotion further down the boardwalk drew his attention. Several rough looking men were jogging toward him and pointing with their Billy clubs out. Edmonton turned and ran when he recognized his landlord Rumson among them. He ducked behind the tavern and bolted up the gangplank of the largest ship. The vessel had abundant nooks and crannies where he could get lost, at least until it was safe to disembark.

Several doors were locked, but he eventually found a storage closet on the lower deck that would give him perfect cover. It was cramped and small, but an overturned bucket and a few laundry sacks offered a place to sit down and rest his head. He heard pounding feet in the corridor outside and shouts, but he remained in hiding unmolested. As the minutes passed, the events of the day began to appear in aching muscles and heavy eyelids. He relaxed and gave in to sleep.

The cry of a siren shook him awake. He felt a gentle rolling under his feet and was confused for a moment before he regained full consciousness. The rocking motion, seeing the steel chamber full of cleaning supplies, and he suddenly remembered where he was. Edmonton panicked when he looked out the small porthole and realized the ship was underway and they appeared to be far out at sea. He was trapped without a way back to shore.

Then another thought struck him.

There was no Rumson on board, no Oscar, no creditors, and no Malcolm. He was free, free to live the life of a merchant seaman, at least temporarily. And why not? It could be worse. The Captain would have to accept him since he was unlikely to turn his ship around for one stowaway. Bolstered by this plan, Edmonton made his way out of the closet and headed toward the upper deck where he guessed the Bridge, and therefore the Captain, was located.

“Where the devil do you think you’re going?” came a voice from behind.

Edmonton turned around and groaned when he came face-to-face with the tall sailor from the dice game. The seaman grabbed him by the collar. “You have stepped onto the wrong boat, friend.” He punched Edmonton in the jaw. “That’s for the money you stole from me.” He hit him a second time. “And that’s for taking my mates’. Guess your luck’s finally run out.”

The sailor half-dragged, half-pulled Edmonton through a maze a corridors and up two flights of metal stairs, until they stood outside a steel room with a wall of glass windows. A view of the ocean and the empty horizon under grey skies stretched out beyond. The seaman shoved him forward and Edmonton stumbled to land on the floor, staring at a hazy outline of his battered face in the man’s polished boots.

“I found a rat on board, sir,” the sailor said.

Edmonton got to his feet and put one hand on the wall to prevent himself from falling over in the rolling motion of the ship. As he gained his legs, he squared off with the stocky man in the uniform cap. The leather-faced Captain, his face cleaved with deep scars, was frightening to behold, but the sight of the thing sitting over his shoulder was even more shocking.

“How? Where?” he asked, unable to articulate a proper thought while staring at the mechanical amphibian sitting on the navigator’s chart table. Impossible. When the tiny lamps began to glow, something in Edmonton snapped.

Before the Captain or the sailor could interfere, he raced to the table, grabbed Malcolm and ran out onto the upper deck. He held the tin frog with one hand and the rail with the other as a massive wave rocked the ship. The toy shuddered, croaked and spit out a tongue of paper. When the ship settled in the dip of the wave, Edmonton let go of the rail briefly to tug it free. He was reading the message when cries of “The Kraken!” sounded from the forward deck. A large tentacle broke the surface and caused the ship to toss abruptly sideways.

The two went over the rail together. Dozens of sailors followed, splashing down around him into the pitching waves. A loudspeaker screeched, “All hands on deck!” followed by shouts of “Men overboard!” Several life rings flew into the water as sirens blared across the ship and shots rang out.

Edmonton ignored the chaos caused by the thrashing beast and frantic ship. He focused instead on the metal amphibian in his hands. Malcolm’s eyes grew brighter, taunting him. He gripped the toy by the throat with determination to end the frog once and for all and kicked down, pushing it deeper and deeper into the blackness.

The battle ended as quickly as it had begun. The ship celebrated as all souls were recovered, a rare feat in a kraken encounter. Edmonton Spunkmeier was all but forgotten. A sailor pulled in some life rings bobbing among the waves and found a curling strip of paper with writing clinging to one. The seaman gently peeled the tiny note away so as not to tear it. He read the curious message and prayed it was true.

Malcolm says: the sea will be your salvation

 

Sometime during the summer months, on a warm evening when the tide was low and the harbor was quiet, a junkman picked his way among the rocks, looking for treasures left behind when lovers rented the small paddle steamers or threw coins into the water for luck. He slipped on the moss-covered stones and came down next to a rusty rock. When he lifted his goggles to inspect it more closely, he was pleased to recognize the tin frog that he had lost so long ago. He climbed back up to the road and placed it in his steam-cart with a promise to make sure it was restored to good working order. It would be the first order of business when he got it home.

As he tottered down the avenue with the thing balanced on a stack of society’s flotsam, he could have sworn he saw the flicker of an amber light deep within its eyes.

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