The sound was unsettling, and when you are with a Kennewickett, anything unsettling could spell disaster.
My name is Noodles. It is my duty to keep Walter Kennewickett, boy genius and scientist in training, as far from disasters as possible. It is my privilege as his best friend to accompany him everywhere he goes.
Which is why I found myself on a dark street corner in London, trying to track the source of the mysterious sound.
London was aglow with the process of electrification and hummed with activity even at night. Cable cars mixed with horse-drawn cabs and carts, and many of the thousand lamps that lit the streets had been converted from gas to electricity.
But Wally wasn’t interested in well-lit streets. The dim gaslight above was perfect for his purposes.
I could sense approaching danger, but I could not tell from which direction it would arrive. The sound was bouncing off bricks, glass, and cobblestones.
“What was that, Noodles?” Wally asked, lowering the handheld camera he had been adjusting.
Walter Kennewickett is a very observant boy.
“Probably a rat,” his aunt Rhodope said. “London crawls with them after dark.”
Miss Rhodope Pickering is the youngest of Calypso Kennewickett’s sisters. The fact that Rhodope is an eccentric allows her to fly kites in the park while other people her age attend university.
The fact that she is a sought-after photographic artist allows her to keep comfortable rooms in Charing Cross. The Pickerings are an artistic family. My current conundrum was the result of Wally’s mother, Calypso, mentioning that he might have inherited an aptitude for art.
An “aptitude” is the natural ability to master a skill.
There were certainly many aptitudes Wally had inherited from his prodigious parents. His attempts at art, however, were dismal—until his father, Oliver, pointed out that the correct term for fireworks is “pyrotechnics,” which means “art made from fire.”
Generations of Kennewicketts have excelled at blowing things up. Wally is currently creating a line of pyrotechnics you might carry in your pocket and enjoy on any street corner.
Before we traveled to London to participate in the Electromobile Road Rally, Miss Rhodope had written to him, requesting that he use his experience with explosives to create a faster flash powder for use in photography. She’d promised to arrange a breakfast with her friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle if he did. Walter Kennewickett is a fan of Sir Arthur’s books and enjoys matching wits with his fictional detective Sherlock Holmes.
Wally had not only produced the powder for his aunt, he had devised a hat to hold the flash device, and a trigger cable to attach his handheld camera to it. We were preparing to photograph the participants in the Electromobile Rally, which would be coming down the road at any minute, followed by a small parade of Calypso Kennewickett’s fans. Calypso was the only woman among the twelve participants in the three-country rally, which was a contest of speed, design, and dependability. Since Oliver and Calypso had worked together on every aspect of their elegant electrical carriage, the Zephyr, they were taking turns driving.
The Kennewicketts had won the first leg of the rally handily, arriving at Trafalgar Square two days ago to be greeted by cheering crowds. The electromobile in last place had not arrived until just after sunset today.
The crowds had cheerfully gathered again. Drivers had signed autographs and posed for pictures for the press. Now they were proceeding to the docks at the Embankment, where ships had been chartered to carry them across the channel. The second leg of the rally was to be in France.
The Kennewicketts had requested that this small street be kept free of crowds to allow Rhodope to test her new technique for photographing in the dark. When Kennewicketts ask a small favor, people tend to cooperate. They are world-famous scientists, after all.
“Attachment test,” Wally said. “In three, two, one—”
The camera clicked and fire flashed, and someone uttered a terrible cry. I whirled as a tatterdemalion tumbled out of a dark doorway. A “tatterdemalion” is a person dressed in rags and tatters.
This old man’s frock coat was so faded, it appeared gray in the lamplight, in contrast with his shock of wild white hair. His angular form and antique attire gave the impression that he had just fallen out of the pages of a novel by Mr. Charles Dickens. The poor creature held his hands before his face, as if he were afraid of more flashes. He must have been looking directly at Wally when the powerful powder ignited.
He stumbled, and Wally leaped to his assistance. As Rhodope and I followed Wally across the street, I realized that we had discovered the source of the unsettling sound. The man himself was ticking.
“I’m so sorry, sir,” Wally said, helping him toward a low windowsill where he could sit. “If I had known you were near, I would have called out a warning!”
“You’ve blinded me!” the stranger said in a strangled voice.
“It will pass presently,” Rhodope reassured him. “And I’ll summon a cab to carry you home.”
“No, no, just let me sit,” he said, still rubbing his eyes. “I’ll fumble my way. It ain’t far.”
“I’ll lead you there myself, sir,” Wally offered. “If you’d only wait until the rally has passed!”
I shook my ears, thinking my instincts must have gone awry, but no—the ticking was definitely coming from the feeble old man. At any rate, it was soon drowned out by the approaching parade.
“They’re coming!” Rhodope cried. “We’ll have to photograph them from this side of the street. Get ready, Walter!” Wally quickly reloaded the flash powder.
The first vehicle to appear was a topedo-shaped affair driven by Camille Jenatzy, nicknamed Le Diable Rouge, “the Red Devil,” because of his unruly red beard. I felt a comparison to an annoyed Airedale might be more befitting.
Jenatzy did not look pleased to have his photograph taken. He had set a speed record of sixty-two miles per hour in a similarly shaped electric automobile just four years ago. Last year, his record had fallen to a carriage with an internal combustion engine. Word was Jenatzy had inten...