“Ambition!” Trevor emphasized, rapping knuckles hard on the wood table. “That is what makes the great men!” He took a satisfied swallow from his mug.
Across from him, Barnaby put down the daily he’d been reading and sipped from his own beer. Pulling out a handkerchief to dab froth from his lips, he scratched thoughtfully at a set of ginger muttonchops.
“If it is ambition alone that lifts up men, then why friend Trevor are you here?” He motioned to the noisy pub—not one of the dives frequented by the soot-stained shabby types of London, yet certainly not a place for gentlemen.
Trevor traced the edges of a waxed brown moustache, as he always did before saying something he thought profound. “Because ambition takes proper planning. Take me—a young clerk at a prestigious firm, and recently married.”
“To a beautiful wife from a family of some means,” Barnaby added cheeringly.
“Yet not great means. I can bide my time certainly, work my way to even chief clerk. But that could take up the entirety of my life in this drab attire.” He motioned to his black suit, favored by the business class. “And I am a man of ambition.”
Barnaby laughed, patting the belly beneath his tweed jacket. “If only my aspirations were greater than finishing this mug of ale! And how dear Trevor, do you intend to set about fulfilling your lofty goals? Have you fabricated some confounding new contraption of spinning gears and cogs? A wondrous mechanical contrivance that will catch our attention, like this fellow?” He tapped the daily on the table. In a bold headline and fantastic detail, it recounted news of a submersible craft sighted by Her Majesty’s Navies in the far seas.
But Trevor waved it off. There were always new machines, one churned out after another in these times. They had become expected, commonplace. People yearned for more than that. And he would give it to them.
Barnaby thought he glimpsed a twinkle in his friend’s blue eyes, as the corners of his mouth lifted into a smile. “Ambition abhors convention, dear Barnaby—and repetition. I intend to be quite unconventional.” Taking another gulp of beer, Trevor let the cold liquid slide down his throat and dreamed—ambitiously.
The package came on a Tuesday. Trevor rushed home at message of its arrival. Margaret greeted him at the entry, her eyebrows raised in surprise.
“Goodness! Did you run all the way here?”
“Only the last bit,” he puffed, as she took his coat and hat. His eyes searched about.
“Well, it seems you haven’t come to see me,” she pouted.
Trevor looked down, smiling as he stopped to stroke her red-gold curls. “Forgive my rudeness, dear Margaret. It’s just I’ve been expecting this for weeks. I hardly want to waste another minute.”
“I know. Your great and secret project. It’s in the back parlor.”
Giving her a thankful squeeze, Trevor made his way hurriedly to the double-parlor. Clutching the sides of her blue bustle skirt, Margaret followed fast behind. When he reached the back room, Trevor stopped, staring down at a long wooden crate. Burned onto its planks was pyrographic lettering scorched in black:
Fantastic and Bizarre Sea Pearls, Baubles and Collectibles
“It was delivered by two Mermen,” Margaret commented, coming to stand beside him. “They gave me this.” She handed him a thick brown envelope.
Trevor turned quizzically. “Mermen?”
She nodded with a grimace. “With those green scales and horrid tattoos. I almost fainted when I saw them! But they spoke your name plain enough—Trevor Hemley. What could you possibly have bought from Mermen?” When he didn’t answer she went on, as she often did to fill his silences. “Arthur says their kind should be run out and put back to sea. We didn’t conquer them just to have them infest our cities.”
Trevor walked around to inspect the crate. “Your brother’s fought in Her Majesty’s Navies against the Mermen, so perhaps he knows the right of it. Can you fetch me my crowbar?”
Margaret gestured to the tool already waiting on a nearby table. He smiled at her forethought. “I suppose you’re still not going to tell me what this is all about?”
“It wouldn’t be much of a secret if I did. I have a plan here, Margaret, one that I must see to myself.”
Her amber eyes took on a piteous look, and he clenched his jaw against it. He detested that look. “I’ve told you before, Trevor, there’s no need to prove yourself to me. We do well as it is. We have a home, money—”
“A home gifted to us by your family,” he cut in. “Money provided by your father. Don’t mistake me, I’m thankful. But I want to do more than well, Margaret. I want to be great. Now if you wouldn’t mind?”
Margaret sighed but said no more. Gathering up her skirts, she turned and strode from the parlor, closing the doors behind her.
Throwing down the envelope, Trevor rolled up his sleeves and grabbed the crowbar. With little effort, he wrenched open the crate lid one nail at a time. It slid off, revealing a bed of slick, green seaweed. He hesitated a moment before plunging his hands inside, pushing apart wet kelp to get at what lay beneath and lifting it out.
The thing resembled an overly large egg, big enough so that he had to hold it in both hands. But where eggshell was smooth and fragile, this was segmented and hard, not exactly like stone but more so the shell of a crab. Here and there bony barbs and tangerine streaks dotted its dark ochre surface. It was weighty as well, with a solid feel.
Flush with excitement, Trevor nestled his prize gently back into the bed of seaweed and kelp. Wiping hands on his pants he picked up the envelope and tore it open, extracting a page of tan parchment. At each corner was the imprint of a creature, like an octopus or squid, but with a head of sharp ridges and tentacles displaying curved hooks. The words were addressed to him:
Dear Mr. Trevor Hemley
Welcome industrious and intrepid adventurer! Those of us who dream, place ourselves above the more ordinary of men. And you have chosen to do that which most men only dream and do not dare—to give life to one of the most magnificent creatures ever to roam this glorious earth! Enclosed you will find a manual to aid in your task, providing you with all you need to know.
Doctor P.D. Bundelkund
Fantastic and Bizarre Sea Pearls, Baubles and Collectibles
Trevor repeated the name. Bundelkund. German perhaps? But he was too thrilled to give it much mind. Already he was reaching into the envelope and withdrawing what remained: a book, bound in heavy aquamarine cloth patterned as fish scales. Emblazoned on its front in gold leaf like a billhead were the words:
HOW TO RAISE A KRAKEN IN YOUR BATHTUB
A GUIDE FOR USERS
Sitting on the edge of the crate he opened the manual and glanced through the table of contents, turning pages before stopping at an image. It was a monster. Its fleshy skin was a pale pink, only showing beneath bone-ridged armor like a thick gray barnacle. Lengthy tentacles festooned with suckers and hooks stretched out from a bulbous head with two eyes round as dinner plates. The appendages wrapped about an antiquated wooden galleon, reaching around broad sails and tall masts to drag the ship into the sea. He read the words beneath:
The kraken is an ancient creature that inhabited the deep waters of the world. Once thought to be the stuff of sailors’ stories and legends, the first reputable kraken sighting was reported almost three hundred years ago.
During that time, the creatures harassed and attacked sea bound vessels. Little solution was found for this continuing problem until their numbers began to dwindle dramatically in the past century. The last sighted kraken was found dead, washed up on a beach thirty years ago. None have been reported or seen since.
Doctor. P.D. Bundelkund, however, has discovered the only cache of kraken eggs known to be in existence, found in a dark part of the sea and unspoiled by time. He is willing to make these available to a select few. Through careful study and research Doctor Bundelkund has perfected the means by which to hatch these eggs, and thus resurrect the species. He has made it possible so that even you can raise a kraken in your very home, in your very bathtub, with the simplest of tools and instructions…
Trevor read on in fascination. He’d stumbled upon the advert in the back of a penny dreadful, which he snuck between his dailies. He was intrigued at once. The notion of such fantastic creatures, and the means to bring them back to life had taken up his every waking moment. But he had even greater plans.
He’d been to fairs and circuses in London since he was a boy. He’d seen their many curios: barbaric peoples of the colonies in their native dress; strange beasts from far off lands; small primitive men who lived in forests among the apes. Millions flocked to these exhibits. They wanted to see more than the cold machines that had grown so ubiquitous in their lives. They wanted a glimpse at the unfamiliar, the alien, the grotesque.
And he would give it to them!
He could see it now: Trevor Hemley Presents the Great and Monstrous Kraken! They would come from far away and pay much for such a sight. His name would grace all the papers and every tongue. And they would all say: By God, that Trevor Hemley! There goes a man of ambition!
He smiled a satisfied smile and read on.
“Where the devil have you been?” Barnaby lowered his newspaper as his friend took a seat across from him. “It’s been two weeks man!”
Trevor called out an order and smiled. “That I can’t tell you yet. But I’ll be able to show you soon enough.”
Barnaby put on a wounded look. “Keeping secrets from old friends?”
“Men of ambition can’t always share their dreams.”
Barnaby scoffed, handing over the daily. “Men of ambition seem to be in abundance these days.”
Trevor read the headline: Mysterious Submergible Dreadnought Chased Across the Seas By Her Majesty’s Navies and Airships.
“He calls himself Captain Nobody,” Barnaby related. “How fantastic is that? He’s sunken several of our ships. Built this infernal metal machine himself. It moves leagues beneath the waters, surfacing like a whale only to attack! Would you believe they say he’s a Hindoo? His crew are Mermen! Travels the seas, he says, to free the oppressed.”
“Free them? Free them from who?”
“Why from us it would seem—we imperialists and would-be civilizers of the world. The enemies of freedom, he names us.”
Trevor scowled, throwing the paper down. “And what do the darker races of this world know of freedom? Where would they be without our guiding hand?”
Barnaby accepted the mugs of beer placed on the table and shrugged his round shoulders. “Some question our deeds. They say it’s not progress we bring the world, but the chains of industry—by way of the Maxim gun.”
“And is there any language better understood by the unattained Huns than that bap-bap-bap of the Maxim?” Trevor took a strong swallow and traced his moustache with a finger. “Much as a woman is endowed the weaker sex, so are the darker races weaker forms of men. We overestimate their capacities and burden ourselves unduly with these civilizing efforts. Make them a servile class I say. Teach them to be hewers of coal, drawers of gas, and harvesters of rubber. But they will never know thrift and industry.”
Barnaby didn’t reply, knowing better than to engage his friend when his dander was up. He returned to their original subject. “Well at least have me over. For a peek at this plan of yours. Perhaps I can be of help?”
Trevor grinned toothily. “Not to worry, dear Barnaby. I’ll have you over soon enough. When my plans…hatch…and grow to fruition, I’ll likely need your prodigious assistance.” He leaned forward. “Tell me, does your uncle still collect and import specimens of men and beasts for display at the zoologiques?”
Barnaby’s eyebrows arched. “Indeed. The old codger remains exceedingly well-honed in his peculiar trade.”
As his friend sat back and drank with a rakish smile, Barnaby sipped from his own mug and wracked his brain to ponder on this most curious question.
Trevor knelt beside the long copper tub that sat in the room behind the kitchen. It was an odd place for a bathroom. But the design had been Margaret’s father’s wishes, and who knew his reasoning—perhaps to assure servants saw to their cleanliness. The stoic man had been reluctantly eased into the young clerk’s courtship of his daughter and offered the house to them as a wedding gift. Now this odd space was perfect for him to conduct his business.
Margaret rarely came back here, except to give brief instruction to the domestic she insisted on hiring. It was an expense to which Trevor readily acquiesced. It was unseemly that his wife would cook, any more than he would expect her to be out working. Let those insufferable suffrage societies that were popping up tell it, and women were ready to proclaim themselves the equal of men. Thankfully, Margaret had shown no inclination toward such strange desires.
None of that of course dampened her curiosity, and he’d taken to locking the door to the bathroom and keeping a key. The cook only needed firm instruction, which she followed to the letter. So, as it was, only he entered this room to look upon his wondrous plans.
His fingers disturbed the waters of the tub where the kraken egg sat submerged like a hoary seed, yet unmoving. Glancing over to the manual sprawled open on the floor, he read the same page for perhaps the hundredth time:
Contrary to popular notion, kraken did not birth their young in the seas. Doctor Bundelkund came by this revelation in his research. The infant kraken must be weaned on freshwater before it can imbibe and breathe seawater. He believes that after mating, kraken delivered their egg sac along estuaries. The eggs would then float into freshwater streams where they could hatch and develop before the infant kraken returned to the sea.
This, Doctor Bundelkund believes, accounts chiefly for the destruction of the species. As the industries of our age grew, estuaries became filled with pollutants hazardous to the infant krakens. Robbed of these viable offspring, the species was decimated. To revive them Doctor Bundelkund has devised a method by which kraken eggs can be nurtured in safe, protective environs.
Trevor had followed that method. The water was clean of pollutants and kept at 55 Fahrenheit. Fresh soil had been spread along the tub’s bottom and a complex mix of organic compounds kept the water a tinge of green. Yet after three weeks the kraken egg lay as dormant as it had upon arrival. And he found his impatience growing.
He’d invested a hefty sum in this undertaking, taken from money set aside for them by Margaret’s parents. As he exercised control of their finances, she was none the wiser. That was best, for her contented mind would never understand his plans. He intended to recoup it all anyway when his venture proved profitable.
But what if he’d been had? A seed of doubt had taken root in these past days, and it now grew up deep inside him like a troublesome weed. There was no shortage of flimflam men out there. What if he’d been taken in by a swindle—like strength tonics and healing elixirs? The thought made his stomach knot.
It was during these misgivings that Trevor heard the gurgling. He looked down to see bubbles breaking the water’s surface. Along a tangerine streak on that ochre shell there was a crack, through which a thin, almost translucent arm peeked out, tentatively searching.
Trevor gripped the edge of the tub, watching, willing, and coaxing his prize to enter the world. As if hearing him it did—slow at first, and then in a frenzy. More arms appeared tearing the crack wider. Bits of shell broke away in jagged chunks. With a sudden heave, a fleshy mass pushed itself free in a burst of milky albumen.
The infant kraken stared up with round black eyes ringed in silver. For a long while it simply floated unmoving in the water. Then in a blur, ten tentacles twirled like a ballet dancer doing a pirouette. They reached for a piece of shell that was brought to the base of its soft bulbous head. What looked like a beaked mouth with teeth opened and quickly devoured it.
Trevor stared, mesmerized, as the infant kraken consumed the rest of its former home. It was beautiful, in its own monstrous way. And it was his very own. As he stared, it occurred to him that he should name it. He’d had a parakeet once named Rupert. No. He needed something greater, to speak to the magnificent beast this would one day become.
Khan he thought suddenly. An exotic and grand name. He could envision it, emblazoned on a banner: Come! Witness! See the Wondrous and Terrible Khan!
He smiled as he dreamed of greatness to come. That would do perfectly.
The kraken is ravenous by nature. Medium specimens were known to devour sharks and their larger kin were sighted engaged in battle with whales. The most monstrous that attacked sailing vessels would not only tear apart the ships but tumble the unfortunate sailors into the waters. There it plucked and devoured them at leisure. Over the years, kraken showed an amazing aptitude to luring and baiting ships, sometimes disguising themselves as islands by covering their heads with bits of sand. Doctor Bundelkund has surmised that krakens are not mindless beasts but thinking beings with an alarming awareness that approaches that of men. This intelligence is focused singularly on hunting. It is not unlikely then to conclude that a kraken’s size is directly related to its cleverness in increasing its diet.
“Trevor?” The knock came again. “Trevor dear?”
Trevor jumped up, draping a sheet over the tub. Hastily arranging himself he unlocked the door and peeked his head out. Margaret stood in a long violet dress with a trail of gold buttons down the center. She looked up at him from beneath a hat covered in lavender lilacs.
“There’s another order from the butcher.” She pointed to a dresser strewn with brown paper bundles wrapped in twine.
Trevor eased himself out the door, closing it behind. Checking over the bundles he inspected their stamps. Last time they’d neglected to bring the hog jowl, which Khan enjoyed especially.
“I had to show the butcher in as the cook’s left for the day,” Margaret said. He nodded absently. The cook had already gone? Was it so late?
“Will you be much longer?” Margaret asked. “We don’t want to keep the Harrisons waiting.” Trevor turned to her, puzzled. Harrisons? She put on a distressed face. “Oh Trevor! Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten our afternoon stroll with the Harrisons?”
Only now did he notice her yellow gloves and matching parasol. He didn’t remember being told—though it was entirely possible that she had. Of late he’d been preoccupied.
He barely made it to work now, lessening his hours at the firm daily—something that wouldn’t long be tolerated he knew. But Khan demanded so much of his attention. The hatchling had grown exponentially in the past four weeks. More than he thought possible! Its fleshy body covered with a bony barbed armor took up almost the whole length of the tub now. And it was always hungry! The creature devoured everything—meat and bone alike, then thrashed about for more. At this rate, he’d have to talk to Barnaby about his uncle soon, to find some new space. Thinking on that work left little time for afternoon strolls.
Margaret made an exasperated face when he informed her he couldn’t go. “What will that look like?” she lamented. “Me alone with a married couple, like some old maid! That Patsy Harrison is a church-bell as it is, and her husband’s not so much better. Why they’ll talk my ear—”
Trevor silenced her with a finger to the lips. “It will look as if you are married to a very busied man.” He planted a kiss on her forehead before grabbing up the butcher’s bundles and sliding back into the door.
Outside Margaret watched it close, hearing the lock tumble. And her eyes narrowed.
Trevor burst through the front door, running to the parlor. Margaret lay on a brocaded rose-hued couch face down in tears. She looked up with eyes red with misery and he knelt to place his arms around her.
“I came as soon as I got your message!” he breathed, still laboring from his run. “It said something about an attack?”
She shook her head. “Oh Trevor, I’m so sorry.”
He frowned. “Sorry? What about?”
“I’m a vain and meddlesome woman. You’ve been so absorbed in your secret project these past weeks. All your spare time is spent there. You don’t even come to bed until late. I had to know.” She paused. “I made a key—”
Trevor jumped up abruptly. Turning, he ran to the back parlor, through the kitchen and stopped. The door to the bathroom lay open and hanging on one hinge. Green tinged water was splashed all along the floor, creating a trail. He followed it to a broken sash window through which a steady rain now fell. Khan was gone.
He turned to find Margaret behind him, wringing her hands. “I made the key days ago but hadn’t used it. Only today there was this terrible squealing and thumping against the bathroom door. It frightened the cook off. I should have called you, but I picked up a broom handle and opened the door instead—”
“Did you hurt it?” Trevor asked tightly. “With the broom handle?”
Margaret blinked, taken aback by the question. “No. I opened the door and… It happened so fast. I just remember falling and something running past me, through the kitchen and out the windows.” She paused. “Why were you keeping a dog in there?”
Trevor blinked. A dog? Whatever she’d seen, it seemed her mind now grasped onto the most convenient answer.
He sighed. “It was part of my project. Are you alright? Were you hurt?”
She shook her head, and he drew her close. His eyes however remained locked on the broken window, through which his ambition and chance at greatness had fled.
Once he’d fixed Margaret a hot brandy and put her to bed, Trevor went immediately to the manual. He searched the Table of Contents, finding a chapter titled “Possible Troubles.” He passed by the headings Asphyxiation, Biting, Dehydration and found what he was looking for—Escape. Flipping to the appropriate page he read in earnest:
It is more than likely that your kraken will eventually escape.
Krakens are after all crafty creatures. Even the most careful enclosures cannot always prevent flight. It is not advised you report your loss to the authorities however, as krakens are not state-sanctioned animals to which discretion will be granted. Your kraken will probably sustain fatal injuries upon apprehension, and you will lose your valuable investment. The best means of retrieving a lost kraken is through the use of Mermen. Mermen have long experience with the creatures in their underwater environs and are especially suited for this task. You should be able to secure their services for a moderate sum.
Trevor read over the brief passage several times with incredulity. Escape was more than likely? Damn fine place to mention that! And Mermen? Then again, it made a perverse type of sense. Who better understood the ways of sea creatures? He set out to look for them that very evening.
It wasn’t hard to find Mermen. They inhabited London’s docks and harbors, performing menial tasks such as hauling goods of ships and diving for wreckage. Mostly they sat around idle, imbibing opium and causing a public nuisance. He found several at Canary Wharf as expected. Four in total. Their moss green bodies were almost bare, save for the outlandish wide bottomed pants favored by Jack Tars.
He called out to them firmly—as he’d heard this was the only way to deal with such near-men, lest they think him weak. They turned as one from where they knelt playing some barbaric game that included the tossing of fish heads. One of them walked forward on bare feet, a muscular brute with black tattoos inked across his chest. No Merman stood shorter than seven feet, and this one was a few inches more. Their chieftain likely. His large oval eyes stared down, with black pupils set in dull yellow.
Trevor cleared his throat. “I wish to hire you and your men.”
“Yes!” The Merman grinned, showing block white teeth.
Well, that was easy enough. “You should know the nature of this—”
“I should explain—”
Trevor frowned, looking into those yellow unblinking eyes. Was this Merman a simpleton? There was laughter, and another of their number sauntered up—smaller than the first, but still broad shouldered with a spidery tattoo veiling half his face. There was a smile on his dark lips.
“Mwal is no great speaker,” he slurred, setting the gill flaps on his neck to flutter. “We make joke on you.”
Trevor’s face heated. But he stifled his anger away, keeping to his task. “I wish to hire you and your men.”
Trevor held up the manual. The Merman took it in a webbed hand, running bony talons across the cover before looking up blankly. Of course. He’d forgotten these wretches couldn’t read. He took the book back and turned to a page of an old naturalist sketch inked in red.
“I’ve lost one of these. This very day. In the city. I wish to get it back.”
The Merman narrowed his yellow eyes. “You want us find a Lok-Lok? In city that belches smoke?”
Trevor frowned. Lok-Lok? “Yes. I need you to find a kra—a Lok-Lok—that’s escaped. Can you?”
The Merman turned and began talking to his companions in their slurring tongue, making ornate hand gestures that flowed like water. Trevor watched, all too aware of Mwal, who had not moved but glared his way. When it was done the Merman turned back and smiled.
“We find Lok-Lok for you. Come. I am called Shan. We talk price now.”
Trevor sniffed. He supposed that was one bit of industry the savages had picked up. Joining Shan and his men in their circle, he began his barter.
“I don’t understand why I have to go,” Margaret said, tying the bonnet under her chin.
“You’ve said you wanted to visit your parents,” Trevor reminded, handing off a set of bags to a Merman by their entry.
“Yes, but this is sudden. It seems everything is so sudden of late. You barely go to work. You seem to be here most of the day. You get no sleep.” She gazed about, her voice lowering. “And there are four Mermen almost constantly in our home!”
“I hired them to fix the broken window and bathroom. I told you, they come cheap.”
Margaret frowned, biting her lip. “I suppose. They’ve been remarkably kind, not at all as I expected. Especially Shan. He’s noble in his barbarous way.” She smiled to the Merman chieftain who was hoisting a lacquered traveling chest onto his broad shoulders. He grinned back and Trevor couldn’t help but notice how Margaret’s eyes tracked his bare, muscular torso.
“Did you know that among the Mermen women hold high places?” she went on. “Shan says they are ruled by a queen, and Merwomen hold all the titles of generals. The women there even take multiple husbands! Can you imagine?”
“Probably why they lost the war,” Trevor murmured. Such fool nonsense these Mermen were putting into the woman’s head. All the more reason for her to go. “It will only be a month. Then everything will return to normal.”
Margaret never took the worry from her eyes, but she nodded. She reached a gloved hand to his cheek, stroking the unkempt beard that was growing in odd patches on his face. “Take care of yourself, Trevor.” He saw her off and then returned to the waiting Mermen.
“Well? Any news? It’s been weeks!”
“We still look,” Shan slurred. “Find signs of Lok-Lok. Follow those.”
Trevor ground his teeth. Signs they had in plenty. Butcheries broken into at night. Missing pets. Sightings of some odd bear or wild pig. Thank heavens for the limited imaginations of the masses. But time was slipping away. Sooner or later, someone was going to catch a good glimpse, then the secret would be out. If Khan wasn’t killed someone else would capture it—and claim the credit! He’d lose his prize! He’d lose everything. Just paying these Mermen was exhausting what funds he still had.
He sighed, lowering himself into a chair. Not for the first time he wondered if he was in over his head. He could stop now, stem the bleeding, and accept his losses. But what then? Admit his failure? Tell Margaret he’d gambled away their finances? The very thought of her piteous look disgusted him. No, it was too late to turn back. Men of ambition pushed on.
A Merman walked up, hovering over where Trevor sat. Tilting his head down, he said, “Yes!”
“What? Oh, it’s you.”
Trevor called Shan over. The Merman chieftain made a few hand gestures to which his companion answered back in kind. Then he turned to Trevor and grinned.
“Mwal find your Lok-Lok.”
The Mermen took Trevor to a building in the middle of the city. He recognized it—one that held an indoor pool created by the Swimming Association, for public use. Mwal had tracked Khan to the sewers. The wily kraken was using the drainage tunnels to travel, careful to come out only at night to feed. Clever. Now it had ended up here.
The pool was closed this time of year, and the Mermen had to cut the chains that secured the doors. Following them inside Trevor was greeted by stifling darkness and the strong scent of mold, from a pool that hadn’t been drained during disuse. He followed the Mermen along a walkway before stopping. There, one of them held up an old kerosene lamp, illuminating the space below.
It was Khan. Only Khan had become a true monster.
The kraken had grown tenfold or more. Trevor estimated the pool to be well over twenty yards long, and that was still not enough to contain the creature’s immense bulk. Tentacles, some wide around as small trees, spilled out in a fleshy mass of curved hooks and round suckers. The bulbous head was like the hull of an armored airship ending in a sharp honed point and covered in jutting barbs like tusks. Submerged in the murky water, under a ridge of protected bone, a black eye ringed in silver stared up at the glowing lantern. There was an ear-piercing shriek that echoed through the dark and Trevor staggered back into a wall.
How had this creature grown so massive? Could dogs, cats and whatever was found in the sewers do this? A sinking feeling crept into the pit of his stomach. Had there been any missing persons of late?
“Your Lok-Lok,” Shan commented, yellow eyes flickering devilishly in the lantern light. “It is hungry.”
Trevor blanched. What was he going to do? He willed himself calm. Men of ambition didn’t panic when faced with such things. There was still a way to make this work. He just needed to find a place to house this monster. Barnaby! Of course! There was already a plan for this! He needed to find Barnaby!
“Trevor!” Barnaby greeted, putting down his evening paper. “Good to see you…” He trailed off, taking in his friend’s appearance. His suit was soiled and torn, his hair and moustache grown wild. When he sat down he leaned forward, peering with haggard eyes that begged for sleep.
“Where have you been Barnaby? I’ve been searching for you for almost two weeks!”
“I’m sorry, Trevor,” he stammered. “Was off visiting a great aunt in Huntingdonshire. Dreadful place. Thought she was dying, but the old biddy will be around for a while. But why all this rush? I haven’t seen you in over a month! You haven’t answered any of my messages.” He tilted closer, lowering his voice. “I’ve heard Margaret left you, and you’ve lost your employment. Is it true?”
Trevor frowned. “What? No. I sent Margaret away. But yes, I was let go. None of that matters now, I have other business.”
“Ah! Your grand ambitious project?”
“You remember, Barnaby, I told you I might need your uncle’s help? Well, it’s much sooner than expected. Can you place me in touch with him?”
“My uncle? Well yes. But not now. He’s just left the country.”
Trevor’s face fell. He put his head in his hands, muttering beneath his breath as his eyes took on a hunted look. “What now? God knows, it can’t stay there! Gotten so big! Always hungry! And that Shan just keeps feeding it!”
Barnaby frowned. What was the man going on about? Had losing his work so injured his mind? “He’ll be back in several months I’m sure. Gone off to collect more natives is all—as far as Bundelkund it seems.”
Trevor snapped his head up, breaking from his trance. “What did you say?”
“My uncle. He’s gone off to find natives, for the zoologique—”
“Where?” Trevor broke in. His eyes had grown feverish. “Where did you say?”
Barnaby reared back. “Bundelkund. With that name in the news, the old codger set out immediately.”
Trevor looked poleaxed. “Bundelkund…it’s a place?”
“Why yes. Where that Captain Nobody is from. Haven’t you been reading the papers?” He held up the daily. “It’s all they can talk about, even in droll Huntingdonshire. They’ve found out his true name—Prince Dakkar, the son of a Hindoo ruler of the kingdom of Bundelkund. One of our provinces in the Indies. Why that’s what his war is all about—to bring down Her Majesty’s Empire. The madman’s even released a Manifesto:
I pledge to do throw off your iniquitous laws by all means available. To free those beneath the colonial yoke. To undo the damage the earthly horrors of industry have released into the air and seas. I will make you the tools of your destruction, so that the many-headed hydra that consumes you arises by your own hands, and from your very depths.
Barnaby shook his head in amazement as he finished reading. “Quite a dramatic flair! He certainly knows how to—Trevor? But where are you going Trevor? You’ve only just arrived! Trevor!”
Trevor barely heard his name called as he ran from the pub. His mind reeled. Doctor P.D. Bundelkund. Prince Dakkar of Bundelkund. A man who lived in the sea, who declared it his dominion, who conspired with Mermen—a man of great ambition, who now waged a war upon the Crown. What elaborate scheme could such a devious mind concoct?
Screams and shouts broke his thoughts, and Trevor fast found himself in a sea of humanity. People streamed by in a flood, heedless, terror marring their faces. He pushed past them, dread gnawing his insides to shreds. When he rounded a corner, he stopped and stared at a nightmare.
The kraken was pushing up from the building that housed it, sending mortar and brick crashing in a plume of blinding dust. From within that billowing cloud came a bestial roar—a mighty bellowing that shook the very air and struck Trevor to his core. Fleshy tentacles writhed about within the haze, lashing out like fierce whips. A policeman raised a truncheon in some pointless gesture and was crushed beneath an armored limb. A screaming socialite was plucked from a carriage, as her terrified horse bolted. The brown dun didn’t get far before a fleshy appendage wrapped about it, bony hooks gouging flesh as it kicked futilely. Another tentacle ripped a man right off his high-wheeled velocipede, sending the vehicle flying and lifting him twenty feet into the air. All three were dragged to where a ravenous beaked maw waited—soon rendering hair, bone, and flesh, to gory pulp in moments.
Trevor watched in stunned horror as the Great and Terrible Khan cut a swath of destruction through London’s streets. A round black eye ringed in silver stared out, surveying the people fleeing before it like so many ants—or a moveable feast. It turned his way, locking on him, and within that monstrous glare Trevor saw a mind beyond a beast. An intelligence resided there, one that hinted at knowing and recognition. The mere thought near sent him mad—and he fled.
Trevor ran now with the escaping crowds, tripping and stumbling in his haste, turning down an alleyway. In his head, that infernal manifesto whispered: I will make you the tools of your destruction. Dear God! What had he done? He needed to tell the authorities! He couldn’t have been the only one to read that advert. There were other eggs. This could be happening all over London. People had to be warned!
But what would he say? That he had been a dupe of this Prince Dakkar? That he’d been made an unwitting tool? And now he’d helped release untold terror upon them all? They’ll lock you up for a traitor, a voice warned in his head. Or a fool. What would Margaret’s family say? No, he could tell no one. He had to get home, destroy everything so that there would be no trace. His name wouldn’t be known as the pawn in some madman’s scheme.
So frantic and fast was his running, that when he struck the figure in front of him he fell back, sprawling onto the alley floor. Scrambling to sit, he looked up as a face hovered over him. A familiar face, with dull and yellow eyes.
Trevor gasped. “You!”
“Yes!” the Merman said.
“I know your schemes! You and that Shan! You fed that monster! Then let it go!”
“It will destroy half the city!”
The Merman stepped closer, and suddenly to Trevor those unblinking eyes no longer seemed simple at all. He paled. “You don’t have to do this,” he whispered. “I won’t tell. I won’t tell anyone! I promise I won’t tell.”
The Merman cocked his head, and then he smiled, and his mouth folding back to reveal an inner jaw with jagged triangular teeth like a shark. “No,” he said in a guttural growl.
Trevor trembled. Then he began to cry. This was not supposed to happen. Not to him. Not to Trevor Hemley. He was a man of ambition! He was still crying as the Merman’s terrible mouth came closer.
Barnaby sat in the parlor, where Margaret poured black tea into a porcelain cup. She wore a blue striped dress—though for all the sadness in her face, it might have well been a black mourning gown.
“Thank you for coming,” she told him wearily.
“Of course.” He sipped the tea and grimaced. Trevor had said his wife was not a cook. It seemed she was not good with tea either.
“I’m just at my wits end over Trevor. The police won’t investigate his disappearance. My family believes he’s abandoned me. I just can’t believe. I fear something dire has befallen him. Have you heard anything?”
Barnaby shook his head. “I would tell you if I did, believe me. I’ve tried to find out what I can, but Trevor was often…” He chose delicate words. “A man of secrets.”
She sighed heavily. “I didn’t even know he was let go from the firm. He’d become so obsessed with this secret project. Father says he emptied the bank of all our money! And believes he’s now absconded like a common thief. I don’t want to even think on such a thing. Yet…” Her teeth worried at her bottom lip. “I wonder how much I knew Trevor at all.”
Barnaby sat awkwardly, holding the small porcelain cup. What was one supposed to say? In the silence, his eyes roamed to the morning paper that sat open on a table, and he found himself reading its contents.
“It’s awful isn’t it?” Margaret said catching his gaze. “All these kraken attacks. The fifth ship this week! It’s created havoc with trade. Why the stores are practically empty. People are hoarding and boarding themselves indoors! That kraken that rampaged through the streets and tore through Parliament—it ate almost half the House of Lords before disappearing into the Thames!”
“And a good number of MPs,” Barnaby added. “Though, only Unionists.”
Margaret didn’t appear to share his joke and he buried his face back into the awful tea. She shook her head in exasperation. “Where are these monsters coming from like some plague? Now the Mermen are in open rebellion, fighting alongside this Captain Nobody. My brother Arthur has been called back up for service. I fear it will be war!”
Barnaby nodded gravely. “We are entering dire times,” he agreed.
She sighed again, then hesitated, playing with a bit of paper in her hands. “In those last weeks, before Trevor sent me off, he’d hired several Mermen. He claimed it was for odd jobs about the house, but I know it had to do with his project.”
Barnaby frowned. Mermen? This was new.
“I can’t find any trace of it now. Someone seems to have burned most of his things. But this was in the fireplace.” She gingerly handed him the bit of paper, a scrap of singed tan parchment. On it was the imprint of a creature with long tentacles. He inhaled at the sight.
“I know!” Margaret said reading his look. She leaned in, her face anxious and her voice a whisper. “Trevor’s secret project, I saw it once… I told myself it was a dog. I knew it couldn’t be, but I convinced myself it was all the same. Now I’ve been fretting these days and nights, on what it might have been. Oh Barnaby, do you think our Trevor is…” She swallowed. “A traitor?”
Barnaby fumbled for words, but none came. Instead, he stared at the monstrous imprint and pondered the desperate acts of a man of ambition.
© 2023 P. Djèlí Clark