I Do the Next Best Thing
Chapter 1: The arrival of Bob Johnson
The Robertsons, Herbert and Gloria settled into their cottage near the stables in the back yard. I'm sure that our horses will benefit from the increased attention they receive. Herbert Robertson lost his job as an ostler in town, when the livery stables lost their contract with the Pony Express. His wife Gloria is now also employed in the main house to give our housekeeper/den mother/resident guard, Becky, more time to educate our newly-acquired four-year old sorceress: Samantha.
I am Robert MacLeod, leading a mobile team of investigators of the New England Bureau of Investigation. By sheer chance I had been promoted earlier in the year to be an Assistant Director. This is nowhere near as grand as it sounds. The Director of NEBI is still another seven grades senior to me.
The team comprises me, my fiancee Sarah Bullock, and two other agents; Karen Stiles and John Buck. These two seemed be growing closer, if I was not mistaken.
Our young prodigy, Samantha Boon, had fallen into our laps almost literally. Sarah had helped her to float down from the top of a tree in Tom Thumb Park.
One day, late in September, I was in the office, reading a letter from the Head Office in DC. It was from the Deputy Director (Thaumaturgy), Goodman Sean Lochlainn III. He is the grandson of the forensic sorcerer to Lord Darcy. The letter read:
My dear Sir Robert,
You will shortly be receiving a horseless carriage, accompanied by a driver/mechanic. These devices are beginning to be seen in New England. The greatest restriction to their becoming widespread is their need for fuel. They use an oil, not unlike lamp oil, but needing more refinement. Until the supply of this oil becomes widespread, I'm afraid the horseless carriage will be a restricted novelty. It is somewhat of a chicken and egg situation.
However this horseless carriage will suit you and your team. Modifications of the spell that can keep a sorcerer's cauldron filled will suffice to maintain the supply of fuel. Suggested variations will come with the machines.
These carriages can almost keep up with the top speed of a horse, but are able to maintain that speed for far longer. They should prove themselves in the pursuit of perpetrators.
I fully expect that in the future, you will want to drive yourselves. The driver is qualified to teach you. I will be grateful when you permit him to return to Washington.
I remain your servant,
Sean Lochlainn III.
Before I could tell the other members of the team about our new equipment, Samantha rushed in shouting, "Uncle Robert? When can I go for a ride in the new carriage?"
"Hush little one! It's not here yet."
"Oh, but it is! They're getting it off the train now!"
"Well, as you know so much about it, why don't you go and tell the others all about it."
"Yes, Uncle Robert; but I don't know all about it."
She trotted off and I could hear her voice piping up as she tried to inform the others what was coming.
Shortly afterwards there was a clatter and a rattle coming up our drive. Obviously we wouldn't be able to approach any criminals in a stealthy manner. Looking out of the window, I saw the coachman descending from the carriage. I heard Samantha run to the front door.
She opened it and said, "Uncle Robert is 'specting you. Please come this way."
"Why, young lady, that's proper kind of yer."
"What is your name, please? So I can 'troduce you!"
"It's Bob Johnson, pretty lady."
"Thank you! Do you really think I'm pretty?"
"Of course I do!"
"Uncle Robert, this is Bob Johnson, who thinks I'm pretty!"
"Come in and sit down. What can I do for you?"
"'Tis the other way round, Sir. The boss sent me to deliver your horseless carriage. If'n you want, I'm to be your driver and mechanic."
"I see! How hard are they to drive?"
"Not hard at all. It's the learnin' that's hard. It's just like walking. Yer hands, eyes and feet all have to work as one. Ya see, the boss thought you and your people would want to drive it yerselves, so he sent me rather than just a driver."
"But we don't know how to drive."
"I can teach yer!"
"Right you are! Let's introduce you to the rest of the household and get you settled in. Then I'll come with you for a ride in the carriage. You've already met Samantha. I must warn you, however, she is a very powerful sorcereress." He looked at her with an air of disbelief on his face. "Watch your step around her." I said with a grin.
"Oh, Uncle Robert!"
After introducing Bob to the rest of the household and showing him the quarters above the stables, we walked around the front of the house where the horseless carriage sat. It had three couch sized seats, one behind the other. It stood on four wheels, one at each corner. It had smooth coach-work boxes front and back. Bob told me the front box housed what he called a diesel engine. The rear box was empty and intended for the riders' baggage. A crank handle stuck out in front of the engine box, while behind the engine box were various gauges and controls sticking out towards the front seat.
He took me through all the levers and indicating instruments, explaining their individual purposes. He then led me to the front of the carriage and pointed to a handle sticking out from the front of the machine.
"Now we'll start your first lesson, Sir. The boss told me that you would be able to top up the fuel tank, although there's enough for now. Look how I hold this handle. This is how you hold it normal like. When you wind up the motor, if it goes off backwards, it could tear your thumb off."
He changed his grip, showing me that his thumb was no longer around the handle, but was laid alongside his fingers which held the handle.
"Like this, the worst that could happen is a bruised hand."
Why do you have to wind it up?" I asked.
"Yer see, it's like this: there's a minimum speed yer gotta have to get the engine to work. So, yer have to wind it up to at least that speed. To make it easier, we can open up the inside of the engine to the outside air, so there's less resistance on the handle as you turn it. Then when it's up to speed; we close the outside off, quickly, so it will work."
"Let me try winding it, without starting the engine."
I grasped the handle as he had shown me. As I turned the handle, I tried to envision the inside of theengine, as it was turning.
When I thought I had it, I said, "Now let me try something You be ready to shut the engine, and start it"
"Right oh, Sir!"
I parked the handle as he had shown me and concentrated on the engine; willing it to turn. Suddenly there was a whirring from the front of the carriage, much to Johnson's surprise. He hurriedly leant forward and pushed a control. The engine burst into life.
"Hop up, Sir, and I'll show you how to drive!"
I went to the side of the carriage and climbed into the vacant front seat alongside Johnson. He then explained again the controls and how they operated. He explained how to change the gears using something he called double-declutching. He demonstrated the double stamping of his left foot on the left-most pedal as he drove us out onto the road and around the block.
We arrived home and everyone came out to examine the carriage. The next couple of hours were spent in giving everyone a ride. I used one of the suggested spells to top up the fuel tank because the gauge had indicated that the tank was becoming empty. I think that Samantha managed to be included on every ride.
That night as we sat down to dinner, there were nine of us. Seven kept questioning our latest recruit. Bob said he didn't think that it would take very long for us to get the hang of driving. He said that it had taken three solid weeks to teach the Director's coachman to drive and we were all much quicker on the uptake than that.
"Does this mean that you won't be wanting the horses?" asked Herbert. "I wouldn't like to find myself out of work again so soon!"
"No!" I replied. "It means that we can get to a given area quicker. As I see it, we'll need a cart that we can pull along behind the carriage to carry the horses. That way we can have the best of both worlds: quick transport to a crime scene and the ability to go anywhere once we get there."
I think that Herbert was relieved that he wouldn't be out of work so soon after starting his job. Once his fears had abated, he took to the task of learning to drive like a duck takes to water. After a couple of weeks we could all drive after a fashion, with some better than others.
To get more practice, we started going on day trips to Springfield and to St Louis. After a few such expeditions, Bob pronounced us all, except Sam, as being competent, packed his case, made his farewells and set out to return to Washington.