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Champagne Charlie and the Amazing Gladys

Champagne Charlie and the Amazing Gladys

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Champagne Charlie and the Amazing Gladys

397 pages
5 hours
Mar 3, 2020


Hungover aristocrat Edward "Charlie" Decharles awakens in the back of a steam-cab, only to discover that the driver has been murdered. Unused to feeling responsible for anything, he feels compelled to find the killer. As he investigates, he meets "The Amazing" Gladys Dunchurch, a stage magician's assistant whose employer has disappeared – and not in a good way. They form an alliance – Charlie will help Gladys with his considerable resources and Gladys will help Charlie with her even more considerable brains.

Soon they discover that their respective mysteries are not only connected to each other, but related to other seemingly unrelated strangeness transpiring in London – the murder of an astronomer, an attack on a patent medicine factory, a mysterious cult in an idyllic town, and reports of deadly creatures in the London sewers.

Charlie and Gladys find themselves pitted against dead-eyed assassins, murderous pirates, wingless flying machines, and perhaps even creatures from beyond this Earth. And lurking behind it all lies a sinister cabal that knows the secret origin of the steam-powered society that powers their world. Can our heroes save the day, or will the fallout from that secret destroy two worlds?

Champagne Charlie and the Amazing Gladys is a fun, witty Steampunk adventure yarn, featuring a cast of eccentric characters.

Mar 3, 2020

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Champagne Charlie and the Amazing Gladys - B.G. Hilton


Chapter One

Fretting – a delivery – a stern lecture – a great artiste prepares for work – magic

Gladys Dunchurch paced up and down her little dressing room, though pacing did precious little to relieve her irritation. There was barely enough room in the tiny space for dressing, let alone satisfactory pacing. Small to begin with, the room was crammed to bursting with dressing tables, costumes, props, and cages full of small animals. Had it been fuller, Gladys would have been reduced to spinning on the spot, but as it stood, she had about two steps in which to pace without bumping into something.

Where was Gruffydd, that great idiot? Their act didn’t go on until just before intermission, but that still didn’t give him much time to get ready. If he got them fired again, she would not forgive him. Not this time.

Gladys wished she was back in Sydney. She’d been respected there! Recognised by one and all as the best singer in town—perhaps the whole colony. London had seemed the obvious next step. But, she thought, an obvious step is not necessarily the same as a good step.

You never know when you’re well off, her Aunt Madge had always said. The old girl had a knack for unhelpful sayings that happened to be true.

A knock at the door roused her from her thoughts.

I’ve a delivery for ye, a muffled Scottish voice said.

Gladys opened the door on the limp figure of her employer, Gruffydd Pritchard. He was supported by a slender young man with sandy hair and full lips, who struggled under Gruffydd’s weight.

Do you no have a chair? the young man asked.

Gladys was already sliding a wicker stool beneath Gruffydd’s rump. The young man set down his portly, bearded burden with obvious relief. Gladys slapped Gruffydd’s bleary face, producing nothing but a faint groan.

He said if I brought him home safe, there’d be a shilling in it, the youth said.

You ain’t been at this long, Gladys said.

The youth blushed. At what?

At… helping old gentlemen on their way.

His blush deepened.

What’s your name? Gladys asked.


Well, Michael, here are two shillings. Go across the street and get a cup of coffee from the vendor. You can keep the change.

Michael ran off, clutching the offered coin.

He won’t be back, then, Gruffydd murmured.

You’re a fine one to be casting judgement, Gruffydd Pritchard. Besides, the lad’s new at this. Ain’t got that hard look most of your boys have.

Well, now, he’s hard enough where it matters. Gruffydd smirked.

Gladys was only twenty-four, but this last year of working for Gruffydd had made her feel far older. Gruffydd had never admitted to his age, but Gladys thought him at least twice as old as her.

Remember what Mr Sminkins said? If you go on drunk again—

My dear girl, aren’t you from Australia? I thought your whole continent ran on beer.

You’re supposed to be a Turk! Gladys said. Remember? ‘The Great Abu ben Abdulla and the Amazing Gladys.’ You get away with your Welsh accent because no one knows nothing about Mahometans, except one thing: they… do… not… drink.

Gruffydd’s response was interrupted by the return of Michael, carrying a huge tin mug of coffee.

The coster with the coffee-cart said that this would serve, he said. He did no want to let me take the cup away, but I told him it was for ye, and he said you’d bring it back.

Ta, pet, Gladys said. Do you see, Gruffydd? Some people understand responsibility.

Responding with a grunt, Gruffydd sniffed at his coffee.

What’s a nice young man like you doing with the likes of him? Gladys asked Michael.

Well, miss… I suppose I am the likes of him, miss, Michael said, avoiding her eyes. I’d best be leaving, he added, backing out.

Gruffydd winced at the coffee. Too strong!

Not strong enough, I reckon, Gladys said. How much did you have to drink today?

The usual.

On a full stomach?

Silence answered as clearly as words.

Then that coffee ain’t going to serve, Gladys said, fetching a little green bottle from her handbag. The stained label proclaimed it ‘Dr Whittaker’s Patent Electro-Vitalised Elixir and Tonic’ and listed, in tiny print, the ailments it was supposed to cure.

Oh, not that!

Gladys poured a teaspoonful into Gruffydd’s coffee. She glowered at him while she swirled it around.

I ain’t having you sawing me in half while drunk, she said.

We don’t do a sawing-in-half bit, Gruffydd whined.

Gladys ended the argument with a glare. Sighing, Gruffydd held his nose and gulped down the remainder of the coffee.

In spite of her unfortunate choice of employer, Gladys loved the Imperial Music Hall, with its maze of passages at the back. She had heard that the theatre had originally been two shops. When Mr Sminkins had combined them into a theatre, they said he’d skimped on rebuilding the parts the audience could not see. It certainly explained why she had to traverse so many stairs, both up and down, on her way to the stage.

Gruffydd—in his role as the Great Abu ben Abdullah—wore a turban and a brightly coloured robe that would probably have made him the object of mockery anywhere from Kashmir to Cairo. Gladys dressed in a similar sort of style—the London stage’s idea of a harem girl, with a tight silk top and billowy pants that gathered at the ankles. Her blonde hair, which she usually wore up, fell down over her shoulders when in costume.

Gladys was quite beautiful. She knew it, but chose to think of it in a professional way. She was proud almost to vanity of her singing voice, but viewed her looks as little more than a convenient advertisement for her singing. It was her beauty that had won her a role as Gruffydd’s assistant. Conjuring requires misdirection, and few things distract the eye more easily than beauty.

At last they reached the stage. The audience was fairly respectable by music hall standards, consisting of shopkeepers and small tradesmen. They burst into polite applause at Gruffydd’s appearance, and clapped rather more enthusiastically when Gladys took the stage.

The Great Abu spoke in an accent of his own devising. His patter was peppered with archaic thees and thous and flowery poetry, and included a number of words he’d picked up during his service in India. Gladys did not know what the words meant, but a couple of Laksar sailors in the pit clearly did, and couldn’t keep themselves from sniggering.

With a smile, Gladys passed Abu the seemingly empty boxes from which doves appeared, the cards that baffled and delighted, the scarves that changed their colour, and the knives that passed harmlessly through ripe melons. She also fed him lines, reminded him through gestures of the correct order of his illusions and physically propped him up when he seemed likely to stumble.

She was not concerned that an observant member of the audience might have noticed. Audiences at magic shows try not to be too observant, lest they be disappointed. Other than a chimney sweep who stared hard through grimy lids, there were no keen eyes in the hall.

The act was perfectly competent, though Gladys had to admit it fell well short of greatness. It did, however, have a great finale, a trick for which the Great Abu ben Abdullah and the Amazing Gladys were rightly famed across the London stage. It was an apport—a transference across space.

Most magicians performed this sort of trick with the assistant moving between closed boxes by means of trapdoors in the stage, while the magician pattered to fill the time. Abu and Gladys were different. Their apport took place in plain view. Gladys stood at one side of the stage in her spangly pants, smiling at the audience. The Great Abu produced a wand, which looked like the broken handle of a spanner that had been polished to a shine.

At my command, Gruffydd said, the djinn will transport my charming assistant right across the stage faster than the mortal eye can see! Yea, faster even than the mortal mind can comprehend! Are you ready, O rose of England? Sim salabim!

There were no squibs or smoke, or anything that might have hidden an exit. Gruffydd waved his wand and Gladys was simply no longer in the theatre.

She floated gently in the formless void beyond space. She had been here many times before, and her initial terror had faded into boredom. It felt to her as if she remained there for a minute or more, though she knew from experience that less than a second would pass before she returned. As her time drew near, she yawned and stretched and adopted a triumphant pose, a huge grin plastered across her face.

In less than an eye-blink, there she was again in the commonplace world, standing on the other side of the stage, exactly eight yards, three and one quarter inches from where she had stood before. The little band played a triumphant chord, while she smiled and curtseyed. Regular audience members clapped, while the rest merely goggled with amazement.

Abu held the moment for all that it was worth, then with a wave of his wand cried Sim salabim! again. Gladys went back through the void.

This time when she returned, the whole audience exploded. Wild cheering filled the little hall and drowned out the band altogether. The Great Abu ben Abdulla bowed and the Amazing Gladys curtsied.

The apport was the highlight of their act, the one thing that had kept them both employed in spite of Gruffydd’s many failings. Gladys accepted that fact, though she did not enjoy it. She had no idea where Gruffydd had found the wand, or how it worked, or why it might only move a person eight yards and three and one quarter inches in the direction of its broken end.

All she knew was that being outside of the world tended to give her a headache.

Chapter Two

An evening walk – lost in the fog – a strange dark Hansom – caloric – homeward bound

The moon and stars danced above the upturned face of the Honourable Edward Decharles as he gazed up at them from halfway up a lamp post. A rising fog had made the sky difficult to see, so he had shinned up the cold cast iron for a better view.

There was something very comforting about looking at the night sky while drunk. Sober, the stars seemed cold and alien. With a few glasses of champagne under your belt, they seemed almost like old friends. Decharles felt an impossible urge to shake the Man in the Moon by the hand and congratulate him on a job well done. He longed to dance a waltz with Venus, to arm-wrestle with Mars, and to challenge Mercury in a foot race.

He dropped back to the cobbled street and staggered on through the foggy London night. His head was cold—probably the result of having lost his top hat. Nevertheless he was happy and he bestowed warm, benevolent smiles upon the few passers-by.

Decharles—Charlie, to his friends—was a tall, brown-haired young man in his early twenties. He wore long side whiskers, which he thought were quite dashing, no matter what everybody else said. He wore formal evening dress, though he’d no idea what had become of his hat and cane.

That evening, he had dined at the Aeronauts’ Club with his old school friend Roldo Landry, who did something in the Air Ministry. Something damn tiresome, whatever it was. He had run on so about the patent turbines or the refuelling stations in Ireland.

You must let me find you something in the Ministry, Charlie, Roldo had said. Something in the Air Passenger Department, I should think. Ought to be getting busy. There will soon be a regular ‘plane service between Dover and Calais. Five passengers at a time! Five! And of course, that’s just the beginning. We could be running aerial lines as far as Suez by 1870.

Charlie had changed the subject, just as he always did when the subject was work. Work changed people. Roldo had once been the sort of fellow to stay up until three, playing cards or arguing about the finer points of cricket. Now here he was, terribly earnest about a glorified taxi service. Work changes a man, and never for the better.

Roldo had scurried home to bed soon after dinner. Work does that to a man, too. Charlie enjoyed a bottle or two of champagne in the club’s bar with a navigator from the Royal Flying Corps. The fellow talked nonstop, freeing Charlie to do the drinking. The Aeronauts Club remained open until late, but it had to close eventually, leaving Charlie wandering the streets as the fog set in.

After many minutes of walking, Charlie gradually realised that he was lost. Leaning against a shopfront to consider his situation, his hand almost froze against cold iron shutters. Where on earth had his glove gone? Oh yes, he had run into a chimney sweep, just as drunk as he. He had shaken the man by the hand, then discarded his soot-stained kid glove.

Perhaps, Charlie thought, he might simply keep walking and see what happened. That seemed convenient. But even though his mind was floating in a sea of Möet, it remained loosely anchored to common sense. He rejected the idea as impractical.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw salvation in the form of a patent cab. It was a sort of half-carriage on two drive wheels, with a front wheel for steering. Perched on top was a driver, heavily muffled in a coat and bowler hat. Behind him was a small boiler, crowned with a steam whistle on a crooked pipe. More to the point, it was parked not twelve yards away. Grinning at his luck, Charlie shambled over.

The cabman dozed slightly, leaning against his boiler. Some cabman’s sixth sense caused him to snap awake at Charlie’s approach. He touched the brim of his hat, but regarded Charlie with suspicion

Cayatak, Charlie said. "Ahem. That is, can you pim me to takeliko? Take me to Pimlico?"

The suspicious look of the cabman evaporated. ‘Course, sir, ‘op in, he replied with a sly smile.

Clearly, the fellow saw some advantage in carrying an extremely drunk passenger. Charlie decided to say something clever to prove his sobriety.

899, he said, reading the number from the cab licence pinned to the cabman’s heavy coat. Dreadful year. Death of Alfred the Great, you know.

The cabman’s smile widened, revealing a missing tooth. Sighing, Charlie rattled off his address, clambered into the passenger’s seat, and closed the apron. The cabman released the brake and turned up the steam. A brief clash of gears followed, and the engine hissed.

Blast it, I’ve only gone and let the pressure drop!

Oh, will it take a long time to fix? Charlie said, hopping out again.

No, sir, not at all. I’ve a Wilkinson and Sombey engine, which is good, but a Grimsdale and Co. caloric fluid container, which is better.

How very fortunate! Charlie said, hoping that the conversation would end there.

But the cabman was not to be cheated of his explanation. I just turns this handle here, and there we go! A drop of the old caloric straight into the boiler, and we’ll be up to pressure before you can say Jack Robinson.

Oh, first rate. Isn’t it wonderful what they can do these days? Charlie patted the chassis of the cab as if it were the flank of a horse. You’ll get me home safe, won’t you my dear? I say, does she have a name?

‘Rattling Sue’, the cabman replied. After me girl—well, the Sue part, at least. Me girl don’t rattle, ha ha.

Charlie laughed and hopped back in. The cab lurched off, puffing over the cobblestones. In spite of the roughness of the ride, he soon slept like a baby.

Chapter Three

A man of the cloth – the telescope – the man that is tired of corned beef – a question of souls – a message – planning

In the eastern part of London, the Rev Dr Lemuel Pannett examined the moon through a reflector telescope of his own design. The fog rose from the nearby Thames, but Pannett remained high above it, ensconced in his makeshift observatory in the Georgian bell tower of St Edwin’s. It was not an especially good place for stargazing, but the doctor was a past master at making do. Even the occasional movements of night-time aeroplanes seldom bothered him, though streaks of vapour from their turbines occasionally obscured his vision.

Footsteps from the staircase proclaimed the approach of his sister, Janet. Dr Pannett was a bachelor and Janet acted as his housekeeper, an arrangement that neither pleased nor displeased either party.

Janet was a short, hunched woman with a receding forehead, no chin, and prominent front teeth. Pannett sighed at her appearance, knowing that he resembled her closely. His parishioners tried hard not to comment on his looks, which led to frequent changes of subject when an anecdote was headed toward a rat or a mouse.

My new cat is a great… purrer, they would say, suddenly unable to meet his eye. Worse were the looks he got from the local rat-catcher, who would spend every Sunday sermon staring at him with keen professional interest.

All in all, Dr Pannett preferred looking at the stars. They didn’t look back.

Janet laid a plate of sandwiches and a cup of tea on the stone ledge of the tower. Do you see them? she asked.

No, not tonight, Pannett said, taking a sandwich. Corned beef again?

I have been looking over your sermon for this Sunday, Janet said. I have had to edit it quite severely.

I would not mind so, if there were some relish. Mustard pickles, perhaps. Plain corned beef is such dull fare.

"There were no fewer than five misattributed biblical passages, including a verse from Judges that was misrepresented as a Psalm, and a short paragraph that was not a biblical quotation at all. It comes from the Pilgrim’s Progress, yet you claimed it as a quotation from the Third Epistle to Timothy—a book that does not in fact exist."

Even a little cheese would suffice, Pannett said. Just something to lend some variety to the taste of corned beef. Don’t you agree?

Those are trifling details, Janet said. The main problem was the theme, which could hardly be called Anglican in character. Indeed, I should say it scarcely qualifies as Christian at all. You really must not innovate so.

Or we could just leave out the sandwiches altogether and eat eggs. Yes. Boiled eggs, next time, if you please.

Wiping his hands on his handkerchief, Pannett returned to his telescope. Still no movement, he said. I wonder if we have things wrong. Perhaps they are not all leaving, after all.

You think us safe, Lemuel?

No, I suppose not, he said. A weariness came over him, and his hunched shoulders bowed further yet. We had so much time. It did not ever seem we might run short.

He watched the waxing moon a little longer. It was like staring into the face of a hungry lion.

I’d best pack up, he said. Viewing conditions worsen.

He began packing away his lenses and threw a tarpaulin cover over the telescope’s tripod. The fog was gathering and Janet clutched her heavy coat tight about her.

You really must try harder with your sermons, she said. Someone is bound to notice that you’re doing them so badly.

I do my best. But matters of the spirit don’t come easily to me. Remember, I have no soul.

Nor do I, Lemuel, Janet said. Nevertheless, we must try.

Down below in their snug little vicarage, a neatly folded piece of paper lay on the doormat. Dr Pannett stepped over it, but Janet picked it up, tutting at the black stains it left on her fingers. Once it was open, she let out a squeal.

Pannett read the paper over her shoulder. It was an advertising handbill—for a magic act, of all things. A cheap engraving showed a rotund gentleman made up like a Turk, standing before an assortment of cabinets. He waved a magic wand at a Junoesque young lady, who seemed ready to swoon at the sorcerer’s power. The image of the lady was quite well drawn. Perhaps she was the only element of the scene that had held the engraver’s interest. The magician’s wand was circled in blue ink, as were a handful of words in the text of the advertisement: disappearing in plain sight!

Do you think, Lemuel? Janet said. Her usually stern expression had given way to a look of hope so powerful it seemed almost like hunger. Could it be?

You know what this wand is as well as I, Pannett said. It can only be that which we seek!

Who do you think sent this message? Janet said, suddenly suspicious.

Does it matter? Pannett said. It is too late to do anything tonight. We must plan for tomorrow. The Great Abu ben Abdullah, performing nightly at the Imperial Music Hall. Now, how shall it be done?

Janet stopped him with a gesture. Wait, Pannett. Do nothing yet. From the bookshelf, she took a London guidebook, located the Imperial, and marked its location with a neat little circle of pencil. There! Now you will not forget where to go.

Chapter Four

The sun – breakfast conversation – iron ships – a policeman calls – an unpleasant revelation

The moon and planets had been kind to Charlie, but the cruel sun chose to stab him in the eyes. Shading his face with his hand he looked about, surprised to find himself still in the seat of the cab.

Clambering out, he found that the cab was parked outside of his own house. The street was just beginning to come alive. Few of the owners of those large Regency houses were yet awake, but their servants were commencing work—fetching and preparing, bringing in wood and coal for fires, disposing of yesterday’s rubbish.

The cabman’s seat was empty. Deep inside Charlie’s aching head a bell chimed, a warning that all was not well. He stared at the vehicle, uncertain. At length, he took a handful of coins from his pocket and laid them on the driver’s seat. The bells did not cease their ringing, but the gesture allowed him to ignore them.

Charlie crept into the tiled front hall of his family’s London home. It was decorated with an assortment of seascapes and nautical decorations that clashed horribly with Wedgewood vases and still-lives of flowers. The décor was wasted on Charlie. Any house is a palace to the hungover, so long as it is quiet and dim. He dozed in a plush chair until he was awoken by breakfast smells. Feeling a little better, he slouched into the huge oak-panelled dining room where his parents were sitting down to eat.

Ah, Edward, his mother said, as she opened an egg. You are up early. No, I am mistaken. You are up late.

Hello, Mother, Charlie said, helping himself to a plateful of sausages and toast. Father.

Whassat? his father roared. Oh, it’s you, boy.

There was a considerable difference in age between Charlie’s parents. Lady Decharles was a well preserved fifty, while Lord Decharles was a mass of white hairs and wrinkles in an admiral’s uniform.

Out late, eh? the Admiral said.

I had dinner with Roldo Landry.

Ah, yes, Lady Decharles said. He has a position with the Air Ministry, does he not?

Yes, Mother, Charlie said, knowing at once which way his mother’s questioning was leading.

And his father is Commissioner of Works, Lady Decharles said. There are careers to be made in the Civil Service, Edward. That is, if you still do not care to enter the navy, like your brother.

Pah! Navy, the Admiral grumbled, spearing a saveloy. "What navy? When I was a boy, there was a navy! Now it’s all machines. There are no sailors anymore, only God-damned mechanics."

Language, dear.

Well, it’s true. At any rate, Edward, your mother is correct. It has been two years since you graduated. What have you done since then? Eh? What?

There was no good answer to this. Fortunately, Charlie was not to be allowed to offer one.

You have done nothing, Edward, Lady Decharles said. Nothing. Now, you know your brother-in-law is a bishop. Have you considered a career in the clergy?

Charlie’s gasp of horror was drowned out by a bark of a laugh from his father. Ha! Like they’d give this sot the keys to the altar-wine store!

Now see here, Father, Charlie began, but just what he wanted his father to see there would have to wait, because he was interrupted by the arrival of Haaven, the butler.

Your lordship, Haaven said, there is a policeman in the kitchen. He would like to talk to whomsoever may have taken a taxi-cab home yesterday.

As a child, the huge kitchen had been Charlie’s favourite room. It was warm and full of pleasant smells and noise. It was a hive of activity, presided over by the kindly Mrs O’Higgins, a flour-drenched little whirlwind of an Irishwoman. It had been years since he had been down there, but Charlie’s nostalgia was overcome by his sense of ill-defined guilt as he saw the burly detective by the kitchen door.

Good morning, sir, the detective said. Just why did plainclothes officers all dress so similarly? The cut of the man’s coat, the set of his bowler hat, his very stance all marked him as a copper just as certainly as any uniform. He was sipping tea, but at Charlie’s appearance he put the mug down, nodding his thanks to Mrs O’Higgins.

Good morning, Charlie said, though he’d a feeling it would not be. What seems to be the problem?

I am Sergeant Arkwright, the policeman said. Might I henquire as to whether you hengaged a cab ‘ome last night?

The warning bells rang again. Yes, sergeant, that is correct.

Arkwright licked the tip of his pencil and wrote in his notebook with an ostentatious flourish. ‘That… is… correct’, he repeated. And may I henquire as to sir’s happellation?

Happy… Oh, I see. Edward Decharles.

‘Ed-ward De-charles’. And where did you hengage the cab, Mr Decharles? the sergeant asked.

I’m afraid I couldn’t say. I’d lost my way in the fog, you see.

‘Fogbound’, Arkwright said. ‘Mystified’, as it were.

One of the scullery maids sniggered at this, but Mrs O’Higgins silenced her with a glance.

At what time was this, sir? Arkwright asked.

Early in the morning, I suppose. Two or three o’clock.

"Two or three?"

Split the difference and say half two, Charlie said. With that, he plumbed the foggy depths of memory to reconstruct as best he could his movements from his dinner with Roldo to breakfast with his parents.

Arkwright listened patiently until the end. I am afraid I simply don’t hunderstand, sir, he said, scratching his head. The Hair Ministry sounds like an hexcellent career for a young man of your standing. If this Landry fellow knows of an hopening, well…

Be that as it may, Sergeant, when I awoke the sun was up, the cab was parked outside, and the cabman nowhere to be seen.

Perhaps, sir, you might do me the courtesy of haccompanying me to the cab. There’s something I should like you to see.

In the street, Charlie’s neighbours strode by on their way to work. Mrs Framley from across the street limped off on her charity rounds. A footman argued with a gardener. A delivery

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