Marvin was out.
Marvin didn’t like being out.
Marvin didn’t like being out because it invariably involved…people.
They were everywhere.
Generally, Marvin tended to spend his time where people weren’t. This suited Marvin just fine. He didn’t have a problem with people per se, in fact he’d probably go as far as to say he quite liked people.
Actually, that wasn’t quite true.
Marvin liked the idea of people. It was the reality of people that often left him disappointed.
People had the potential to achieve so much.
Imagine, Marvin thought, if the people of Calver pooled their collective resources, their collective brains and their collective energies towards something actually useful.
The possibilities were mind-blowing.
Well, mind-blowing unless you had a mind like Marvin’s. In which case the possibilities would slot into their designated space within his cavernous mind and wait patiently until called upon, thank you very much.
And yet, here he was. Out. Amongst people.
He muttered to himself, kept his head down and worked on a problem he’d been trying to solve since either last night or this morning, he couldn’t remember which.
Marvin had very little use for time in its strictest sense. Or loosest.
Head down, working through a series of equations, he walked smack-bang into someone.
“Watch what you’re doing!”
“Not possible,” Marvin said, still looking down at something in his palm.
“You what?” the man said. He brushed his hands down the front of his long, black overcoat. Large silver buttons glistened on the front.
“No, I am not a what. I’m a Marvin. And you can’t watch what you’re doing. That would require a level of dissociative observation I sadly do not possess. Yet.”
“Erm,” said the man, adjusting his top hat.
“Erm indeed. Erm in the highest sense of the word. Now tell me, where am I?”
The man took a moment. He looked Marvin up and then down.
“You’re right in front of me,” the man said.
“Well, in a purely, trying to be as accurate as possible way, I can’t help but agree with you. I shall rephrase the question. Whereabouts in Lower Calver am I?”
“You are outside the front door of the Watchclock’s Hands Inn. I am the doorman at said Inn. And you have just walked into me.”
“Very good summation. Top marks. Also, well done to me as I appear to have arrived at my destination. Oh, and apologies for bashing into you. I was a tad preoccupied with this formula.”
Marvin lifted his hand, palm up, and moved it closer to the doorman.
“There’s nothing there,” the doorman said, leaning in for a closer look.
“Well, not in the strictest sense, no. It’s simply a case of imagining what you want to be there and then putting it in the space where nothing appears to be.”
The doorman raised one eyebrow.
“Are you all right?” he said to Marvin.
“No. I’m half left. We all are. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have an appointment.”
Marvin was in.
Being in was most definitely better than being out.
Although, this Inn was somewhat confusing. Because it wasn’t an Inn.
The man he’d arranged to meet had specifically asked to meet him at the Watchclock’s Hands.
What lay before Marvin wasn’t the interior of an Inn. It was a wide, open room with nothing more than a table and four chairs in the centre. The floor was dusty, the windows were boarded over and the rest of the room was bare.
Shafts of light penetrated the murky dark. Specks of dust danced within the golden beams of light.
Marvin walked towards the table. He cut through the beams of light, his boots leaving footprints in the accumulated dust on the floor. As he reached for a chair, someone spoke.
“Hello Marvin, it’s nice to see you again.”
Marvin jumped. His hand jerked upwards and something no bigger than a matchbox shot out from up his sleeve. It hit the chair across the table and embedded itself in the wood of the backrest.
“Oh dear,” Marvin said.
“Oh dear?” the voice said.
“Yes. Very much oh dear. I’m going to launch myself onto the floor and I very much suggest you do the same.” Marvin said.
Marvin landed with a thud, sending a cloud of dust mushrooming through the shafts of light. There was a second thud as the owner of the voice also landed on the floor.
“How long before…” the voice started to say.
The chair with the matchbox-sized object embedded in it exploded. There was a loud pop and where there was once a chair, now there wasn’t. Shards of wood rained down around Marvin. They clattered to the floor like splintering rain.
Once Marvin was happy they’d stopped, he stood up and dusted himself down.
“Sorry about that,” Marvin said.
“Nothing to apologise about,” the voice said.
A man walked from the far corner of the room, also brushing himself down. Marvin was convinced the last time he’d seen the man he’d been taller. And had dark brown hair. And a different face.
“Perenholm?” Marvin asked.
“How do, Mavin. Everything on the up and up?” Perenholm asked. He raised his hand then hesitated. “If I go to shake your hand, I’m not going to lose any fingers, am I?”
“Good grief, no!” Marvin laughed. “Everything’s perfectly safe.”
Perenholm glanced at where the chair used to be.
“Well, more safe than not,” Marvin said.
Perenholm shrugged and shook Marvin’s hand.
“Would you like to take a seat?” Perenholm said.
“No thank you, I’ve got plenty,” Marvin replied.
Perenholm didn’t miss a beat. “Okay, fair enough but shall we sit down?”
Marvin pulled a chair out. It scraped on the floor, the noise echoing around the vast, empty room. Perenholm pulled out the chair opposite and joined Marvin at the table.
“How’s everything been since we last saw each other?” Perenholm asked.
“Actually, things have been very good,” Marvin said, leaning forwards. “I managed to test out everything you asked me to engineer.”
“Well that’s good,” Perenholm said. There was an element of hesitancy in his voice. “Testing is good. What was the success rate?”
Marvin held up a finger in a ‘wait a minute’ gesture. He patted around his large overcoat until he found what he was looking for. From deep within one of the inside pockets he pulled out a large, crumpled and, by the looks of it, very tea-stained, piece of parchment. Next he pulled out a pair of half-moon spectacles which he perched on the end of his nose.
He flapped the paper open.
Half a biscuit fell out.
Marvin picked up the biscuit and absent-mindedly popped it in his mouth.
“The first device wasn’t as successful as I’d hoped.”
“Did anyone die?”
“Happy to report they did not. Although they did get a bit stranded.”
“Well, yes. You see, velocity is such a fickle mistress. I do think the volunteer I bribed to test out the building-climber, I’m working on the name, set the propellant to full power possibly because he was a bit drunk or a bit thick. Or both. Either way, the grappling hook deployed perfectly, attached itself to the roof of the building we were looking to scale but unfortunately it wheeled him in a tad faster than required.”
“Long story short?” Perenholm said.
“He was launched up and over the roof and landed on a building in the next street.”
“But didn’t die?”
“No. Happy accident really. When he landed he put his leg through the thatched roof, dislocated his hip and sort of skewered himself in place. Spun round rather like a corkscrew.”
“And you’d consider that to be a happy accident?”
“Of course! It was the only building with a thatched roof for miles around!”
“So the building-climber, name notwithstanding, still needs a few tweaks. What’s next?”
Marvin consulted his parchment.
“Ah! Now this one was a success,” he said, smiling.
“Good,” Perenholm said, leaning back in his chair. “Success is good.”
“Although it wasn’t a success if you define success as working in the way it was supposed to.”
“Whoever would work within such narrow confines of a definition?” Perenholm said.
“My sentiments exactly,” Marvin agreed. “The fling-cutter, a name I am sticking with as will become apparent later, cuts a perfectly circular hole in a panel of glass as required. It’s just the part after that which has led to a name change from glass-cutter to as previously stated, fling-cutter.”
“Where did the circular piece of newly-removed glass end up?” Perenholm said and then added as a standard repetition, “And did anyone die?”
“First of all, happy to report that, once again, no one died.”
“Well, that’s a start,” Perenholm said.
“Quite. I attempted to minimise death by trialling the then named glass-cutter in an empty building deep within the Backstreets.”
“Good thinking,” Perneholm said.
“I know. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your outlook and general philosophies, the soon to be named fling-cutter didn’t pop the glass out, it more catapulted it.”
“I think if we’re going to make words up, I’d like to offer ‘frisbeed’. That describes the plane of motion rather sufficiently.”
“Yes. Very much so. Said circle of glass frisbeed out of the freshly cut hole – which, if you think about it is a remarkable achievement within the field of physics – and proceeded to make its way across the street.”
“And the damage?”
Marvin consulted his piece of parchment.
“It hit a busker, a fruit stall and a lady practising oldest profession in the Kingdom, if you catch my meaning.”
“Consequences?” Perenholm asked, grimacing.
“The busker lost the bottom half of his Cittern, the fruit stall ended up selling sliced fruit for the rest of the day and the fling-cutter slashed the lady’s top open to which she shouted, and I quote, “way-hey, looks like you fellers can do some window shopping.”
“As far as damage goes, I’ll take it. So, on to our final item.”
This time, Marvin did not consult his parchment.
“Ah, now! This one worked exactly as it should. First time without a single hitch. Very pleasing result, I think you’ll agree.”
“Nobody died. They sneezed quite a lot. A few of them vomited. Actually, I think one person encountered explosive diarrhoea. But absolutely, positively no deaths.”
“Good, good. Just one quick question, if I may?”
“Absolutely,” Marvin nodded.
“Yes, where. As in, where did you test it? It seems there were a number of innocent bystanders based on the sneezing, vomiting and filling of britches.”
“Oh well, if you’re going to test invisibility powder, clearly you need to choose a test area with the maximum number of people present. That way you can get a really good idea if anyone can spot you.”
“So what location did you choose?”
“F. Chesterton and Daughters Bakery. It was, as expected, very busy.”
“Ah, I see. I hear they do very nice pastries. And the powder worked?”
“Oh, yes. I mean, if we’re being precise, it didn’t render me invisible but it created enough of a cloud and caused enough confusion that, once I’d donned my breathing mask, I was able to get away with two buns, a pastry and a rather tasty loaf.”
“The spoils of war,” Perenholm said, leaning back.
He brushed some dust from the cuff of his sleeve and studied Marvin.
“I think that just about wraps things up,” Marvin said, rolling up the piece of parchment and stuffing it back into his coat. “You know how to reach me if you need anything else.”
“I do,” Perenholm said.
Neither man stood.
“Something on your mind?” asked Perenholm.
Perenholm opened his palms in a ‘go on’ gesture.
“Something’s been bothering me ever since I arrived. Namely, why were there four chairs around the table when I arrived? And, far more interestingly, how did this perfectly clean and non-dusty table get into the centre of a very dusty room without any footprints to show it was moved?”
“I do like you Marvin,” he said. Then he looked past Marvin and into the far recesses of the room.
“I think this is where I come in,” said 739 walking from the shadows.
739 walked across the room and took the remaining chair.
Marvin looked at the path 739 had taken.
“Hello Marvin,” said 739. “How are you?”
“Well, at some point in life we all are, aren’t we,” replied 739. “I find the best way to deal with it is to pretend you’re not and hope it passes. Bit like an unfortunate fog.”
Marvin stood up and started kicking and stamping on the floor. Great plumes of dust billowed upwards.
“An unfortunate fog?” Perenholm said. “In what ways can a fog become unfortunate?”
“I’d say the fog itself might not be unfortunate but if you bashed into a lamppost whilst in such a fog, that might be considered unfortunate.”
“Especially with a nose your size,” Perenholm added.
739 touched his bulbous nose.
“I just don’t get it,” Marvin said, still scuffing the floor. “How did you do it? There’s not a single footprint.”
“Just one of the many tricks of the trade,” he said. “When you’re a spy, you get to do all the cool stuff.”
Marvin sat back down.
“I’m pretty sure I’d remember you if we’d met. Which I’m not sure we have. Were you one of the ones in the abandoned butcher’s? The one at the end of our little escapade with the red stone?”
“I was. Although, running through the standard courteous introductions proved somewhat difficult given you tried to blow up the king.”
“In my defence, I didn’t know he was the king,” Marvin said.
“Water under the bridge,” Perenholm said.
“Indeed,” said 739.
“So,” Marvin said, tapping his fingers on the table. “Why is the head of the Spies here?”
“Why do you think?” Perenholm asked.
“Normally, you only see a spy when they’re about to kill you.”
“Indeed,” 739 repeated.
“But that wouldn’t make any sense. Not here and not now. So…” Marvin let the end of his sentence trial off.
“So…” Perenholm said.
“Much against my better judgement,” 739 began “and after a great deal of proverbial arm-twisting from his shifty-ness over there, the Spies would like to offer you a job, Marvin.”
“No thank you, I’m quite busy,” Marvin said and stood up.
“Oh, well, I tried,” 739 said and also stood up.
“Would you both sit down, please?” he said.
After a moment, both Marvin and 739 sat back down.
“739, you need Marvin. You need him because whilst walking on dust without leaving footprints is all good and well, your organisation is in danger of becoming outdated. Times are changing and you need to change with them. You heard us discussing Marvin’s…creations. Devices like those could revolutionise what you do.”
“If they work,” 739 muttered.
Marvin started to say something but Perenholm quietened him with a wave of his hand.
“And Marvin. You need 739. Well, not necessarily him but his organisation. They have coin, they have the need for your devices and, most importantly, they have something you really want.”
“What could they have that I could possibly want?”
This was Perenholm’s trump card.
“The Spies own a huge building. Its location is secret, obviously, so you’ll have to trust me when I say it’s huge.”
“I don’t see why that’s so special. How is that supposed to sway me?” Marvin said.
“Because,” said Perenholm, patting Marvin on the arm, “The space they have above ground is nothing compared to that below ground. You could spend the rest of your days creating, testing and generally doing what you do best and you’d never need to leave or go outside again.”
Marvin was in.
He had moved out of his workshop beneath the Backstreets and moved in to his new workshop beneath the building housing the Spies.
Perenholm was right, it was huge.
He had free reign of almost the entire underground area aside from a section of rooms at the far end. Those were the rooms the screams came from so Marvin was happy to leave that area alone.
Most of his new workshop was already almost full from the contents from his old workshop, not an easy task given the sheer amount of ‘stuff’ Marvin owned. He’d managed to transport it in many journeys along the winding underground passages linking his workshop with the Spies Headquarters.
739 had been shocked to find Marvin appear in the underground area one day. After a brief explanation, Marvin proceeded to lead 739 back through underground passages he didn’t know existed.
It was all rather embarrassing.
If Marvin thought so, he kept it to himself. 739 found he liked Marvin more and more. He kept himself to himself, wasn’t interested in anything going on above ground and the devices he made had certainly livened things up a little.
All in all, Perenholm had been right. Of course he’d never tell the shifty bugger that.
739 smiled to himself as he made his way down the winding spiral staircase to the underground level.
He stepped off the last stone step.
“Fire in the hole!” Marvin shouted.
Seconds later 231 ran past 739 at full pelt. His eyes were wide and there was a look of sheer terror plastered across his face.
739 knew better than to move.
Instead he counted to ten.
He’d gotten to four when a large object, not dissimilar in size to a cannonball, whizzed past his nose. The object was clear and inside 739 caught a glimpse of a green, thick liquid sloshing to and fro.
When 739 got to ten, there was a loud splat.
“Don’t worry, 231,” Marvin shouted, “the effects will wear off in a day or two.”
739 chuckled as 231 staggered past him completely naked, hairless and admitting to every lie he’d ever told.
739 turned to Marvin who was walking towards him carrying what looked to be a large bucket strapped to a mechanical funnel.
“Ah, Marvin,” 739 said. “Glad to see you’re in.”
Marvin smiled. “Where else would I be?”