Yellow Teeth and Heads of State
by Daniel J. Durand
Writer's Bloc: The Beginning
Chapter 1: Yellow Teeth and Heads of State
Afternoon light peeked through the coal smog, dimly lighting the dank and dismal streets. A collectively poor level of culturally-accepted hygienic practices created a foul stink, which clung to the people traversing the maze of cobblestone and brick. Those with sensitive nostrils were met with blank stares as they protested in vain, unable to be understood due to a common language of mutually unintelligible accents. All in all, a good day in Victorian England.
Twas on this day in Ye Olde London Towne that the greatest gift to both mankind's knowledge and curiosity was born. Located three blocks down from the stereotypical fish-and-chip hangout, two right turns, and three blocks up from a large brick building with no windows and a nagging old crone who lived alone with too many cats, was the local watchmaker's shop. Owned and operated by two young gentleman who both went by the name of Reginald (as all good gentleman of the time were called), the shop tended to the watchmaking needs of the general London area. Unfortunately, they were left with a great deal of free time on their hands due to the low demand for digital wristwatches during this period in history. They spent this free time earning a modest living through the occasional odd job or political assassination, and toiling for long hours in their workshop on various personal projects. It was on this rather bleak and shabby day they were putting the finishing touches on their latest, and arguably greatest, work.
“Tell me dear Reginald, do you smoke?” asked Reginald, pulling out his pipe from a shirt pocket.
Reginald glanced up from the smaller table across the workshop. He had been working with some rather complicated equipment that only a watchmaker would be able to understand, and as he removed his protective goggles (which, coincidentally, were all the rage amongst the common folk as a functional, yet attractive fashion statement), they left a ring around each eye where the grime and dust had built up near the lenses.
“Occasionally, Reginald.” replied Reginald, polishing the goggles with a thumb. “But I am afraid I do a rather poor job of it.”
“Oh?” inquired Reginald. “And why ever would you say that?”
Reginald looked at Reginald, a look on his face betraying years of pent-up regret. A solitary tear cut a path down his cheek, his moistened eyes locked onto his closest friend. He cleared his throat, and in a choked voice, he revealed his dark secret.
“I'm afraid I'm asthmatic, Reginald.”
Reginald's hand stopped mid-motion, the open flame of his lighter not an inch away from the yet unspent tobacco.
“Perhaps I shouldn't partake in front of you, Reginald, in order to preserve your faint constitution.” said Reginald as he put his pipe away. Reginald shook his head, waving a hand in protest at Reginald.
“Oh no, by all means continue.” he said. “I do quite right by second-hand, what? Anyway, now is certainly a time for a smoke, what with how busy we've been lately.”
As Reginald lit up his pipe, Reginald went back to his equipment, goggles once more applied and quickly becoming encrusted anew with mechanical funk.
On a solid oak table in the back of their humble shop, splayed out amongst the tools of their trade, was a book. It was large, but still smaller than a breadbox, with gilded edges and bound in fine, hard leather with a red felt covering. A faint ticking noise could be heard from within, and this caused Reginald to wonder.
“Reginald,” he said, “why is the book making a ticking sound?”
Reginald strode over to the table, placing his pipe in his mouth as he did. Taking a long puff, he picked up the book and placed it against his ear. He shook it, but the ticking persisted.
“Sounds like a loose sprocket.” he said, “I was installing some of the inner workings of this mechanical monstrosity late into the evening last. Perhaps, in my weariness, I made a mistake.”
Reginald set down the book, then went back across the room to a large cabinet. He withdrew a small chisel, and several hammers of various size. Inspecting the hammers and muttering to himself, he returned to the table and set to work on the book, prying at a near-invisible seem near the back of the binding. With a slight pop, the side panel of the book detached, revealing a small compartment behind the pages, in which were the innards of what looked like several wind-up watches and a modern toaster oven.
“Reginald,” interrupted Reginald, a look of confusion on his face, “what's a sprocket?”
Reginald stopped. He turned to face his colleague, resting the back of his arms against the table as he did. He let out a breath as he removed his pipe.
“I have no idea.” he said, and returned to his work.
After another moment of tinkering, Reginald finished his task and replaced the panel, once more concealing the whirring mechanical mish-mash inside. The ticking had been silenced, and as Reginald flipped through the pages it appeared to be no more than a regular book. If a curious eye were to inspect it, it was unlikely they were to ever find the secret held in the binding.
“Well now,” said Reginald, closing the book and laying it gently onto an empty shelf, “that's finished.”
Reginald nodded at Reginald, then glanced at his pocket watch. He made a face, then looked up at Reginald.
“It seems we've done it again, old friend. Looks as though we became tied up and worked straight through lunch. By my time it appears to be nearly 3 o'clock in the afternoon.”
Reginald was surprised. He glanced at his own watch in disbelief. Sure enough, the hour was very nearly three.
“By George, it seems you're right.”
“By Victoria, Reginald.”
Reginald was confused.
“By what, Reginald?”
“By Victoria. You said 'George' again. It hasn't been 'By George' since at least our grandfathers' days. You really mustn't make such an easily avoidable error in your speech.”
“Well excuse me, Reginald, but do you really expect me to change a commonly used expression every time we change monarchs?”
Reginald gave Reginald a tired look. They had had this discussion many times, and neither side ever changed their mind.
“We do it with the foot, Reginald.” he said.
“And that's equally silly,” replied Reginald. “Every time the king or queen is replaced, we have to go and measure everything in the empire all over again. It's time consuming, expensive, and silly. We may as well start measuring everything in cubits again instead, while we're at it.”
“That seems reasonable to me. It's easy enough; just from your elbow to the tips of your fingers. You never have to carry a ruler. What's wrong with that?”
“The cubit is easier, yes. But only if you use the same cubit. If my arms were longer than your arms, my cubit would be bigger than your cubit, and then we have the same problem as with the foot. It isn't a standard measurement.”
The two watchmakers continued to argue, turning towards the exit. The argument would continue for several hours, if previous instances were to be any indicator, and without saying it, both men knew they should probably settle it over their belated luncheon, lest they starve themselves to death. Still bickering, they walked into the hall that lead away from the shop.
“I'll bet the French don't have this problem.” muttered Reginald, closing the large double-doors behind him.
The workshop was now quiet, save for the fading sound of the watchmakers' footsteps as they departed. Dust settled on the tables and benches, instruments sat idle, and the handful of spiders that made residence in the rafters, despicable little bastards that they were, were busy draining the life out of the handful of flies that made residence in their webs. A mouse scurried across the floor, pondering mousy thoughts until being seduced by a nearby trap, and was swiftly dispatched. The book, still lying on it's side on the shelf, did nothing.
However, it wouldn't be accurate to imply that the book did nothing for very long. Soon after the mouse's friends and relatives had gathered the body for a proper funeral, the book decided that it was beginning to become just slightly, ever so faintly bored with doing nothing. It decided, rather bluntly, that it was now going to do something.
Wobbling back and forth, the book built up enough momentum to flop up onto one side, so that now it stood vertically on the shelf, as though on display. Getting a good view of its surroundings, it began to plan its escape. On the far wall of the workshop, directly across from the book, was a window. The window was small, but it was old, with thin glass and no dividers. Easy enough, thought the book, and flopped back onto its binding. It now lay open, about halfway through its pages.
The book, realizing that at this point it had already behaved in a manner that books typically don't behave, thought to hell with it and decided to go for broke. Lifting both sides of itself so that it now stood open at a thirty-five degree angle, balanced on its binding, it began to flap. Like a bird, it kept flapping, gaining speed as it did so while at the same time edging itself closer and closer to the end of the shelf. It wasn't long after that the book found itself about halfway over the edge, and it wasn't long after that it found itself falling.
The book dropped like a stone. Or, more precisely, it dropped like a book that had fallen off its shelf. It nearly hit the floor, too, had it not thought quickly and at the last second adjusted its trajectory. It spread its pages, pulling up into the air and straight for the window, which, unlike our extra-ordinary book, was very much just ordinary, and so shattered with ease. The book, now free of the workshop, took off into the sky, where it would amuse itself by circling the greater London area until it became bored again.
When the watchmakers returned nearly an hour later, they had no idea of what had transpired in their absence. Reginald suggested a robbery, citing the broken window as proof. Reginald agreed, but was quick to point out that the window, while indeed shattered, was also not wide enough to permit entry to even the slenderest burglar. Both men, now more puzzled than ever, agreed that from now on, one of them would stay at the shop during lunch, and that the other would have to fetch meals for both of them, so that such an occurrence could not happen again. They then ran to find a policeman.
Neither Reginald, nor even Reginald, both masters of their craft, had any idea exactly how significant the book was. To them, it was merely a late-night project to pass otherwise vacant time, sort of an artwork to keep busy. But it was far grander than mere art; though it would be many years before they realized it, Reginald and Reginald, professional watchmakers and occasional political assassins, had created a plot device.