MacKnight Culdesac had never been in the Excelsior Hotel–a bit too close to the train station for his tastes, too public–but the venue for this encounter was not within his control. He paused at the top of the stairs, closed his eyes, took a slow deep breath and exhaled rapidly. After a quick scan for possible witnesses, he knocked at the door marked 303.
The face at the door was both strange and familiar. The shape of the face was more or less what he remembered, but the coloring was off, probably from burns, and the scar over the left eye was unsettling.
“If it isn’t my old … friend!” said Josiah Pembry when he answered to door. “Come in, Guilford, and have a seat by the fire.”
MacKnight once again nervously surveyed the hallway and the dark stairway behind him before entering the hotel room. “It’s MacKnight now, if you please,” he replied, nearly whispering. “MacKnight Culdesac. Guilford Halliday no longer exists, and I don’t appreciate your attempts to resurrect him, Josiah.”
“And you’ve changed your hair,” Pembry observed as he closed the door and bolted it securely. “A pity. I did love your beautiful long curls.” He tilted his head to the right and raised his eyebrow and scar in a plaintive manner, as if imitating a puppy begging for affection. “You were such a dashing young man. It’s no wonder I fell for you.”
“Keep your voice down!” MacKnight hissed, crossing quickly to the window and peeking out cautiously. “I have a life here, and I won’t have you ruining it again!”
“Oh, please!” Pembry sighed. “I do not intend to ruin your little life here. And I didn’t ruin it before. You are the one who wouldn’t follow instructions.”
“I didn’t know you had placed an explosive in that watch! What did you think would happen? Everyone knew that I was the one who built it. Of course they would blame me! Old Stillman was a powerful man! You can’t go around trying to blow up powerful men and not expect some consequences!”
Pembry looked up at the ceiling. “Guilford!” MacKnight glared. “MacKnight, then! ‘Mister Culdesac, sir’? Please just be quiet and sit down!”
Pembry’s firm tone had an effect on MacKnight. He dropped his hat at his feet and collapsed into a chair by the fireplace. Pembry walked behind him and tentatively placed a hand on MacKnight’s shoulder, evoking a flinch. Pembry picked up the hat from the floor, brushed it with his sleeve, and carefully placed it on the mantelpiece before sitting in the opposite chair.
“You have nothing to fear from Stillman, or anyone at Stillman and Company. I took care of all of that long ago.” MacKnight stared into the fire as Pembry continued. “Jeffries in the Weapons Division got the blame for the ‘equipment malfunction’ that exploded in our faces. No one understood why you disappeared that day. Old Stillman was heartbroken. He was quite fond of you, you know, of us both. He knew we were a couple, back then. He wasn’t the idiot you took him for. He thought you left because you and I had had a falling out. Not far from the truth, I suppose, but not the entire story.
“But, as I said, you have nothing to fear from old Stillman now. Indeed, old Stillman is now a very still man,” he continued with a chuckle. “But before he died, he became quite fatherly to me, if you can imagine it. He felt badly about my … disfigurement … in the ‘accident’, and your sudden departure leaving me so alone in this world.” The right corner of Pembry’s mouth slowly turned up as his eyes narrowed. “His son didn’t much like the attention old Stillman was giving me back then.”
“Oh yes! You would remember Johnny Stillman, with that strong jaw and those pretty blue eyes!” Pembry’s distaste for the younger Stillman was obvious from his tone. “If only little Johnny Stillman had received that exploding watch as I had planned. Did you know that before the old man died, ‘Stillman and Company’ was about to become ‘Stillman and Pembry’? Young Stillman put an end to that.”
Pembry kicked one of the andirons, throwing a cloud of sparks into the air. “My services are no longer required.”
He looked up at MacKnight. “It took me some time to find you. You chose the perfect place to hide. A man with your unique abilities would be easy to find in another city, but here the streets are filled with diabolical geniuses! It’s quite astounding.”
“They’re very nice people,” MacKnight began, “for the most part.”
“But your new little boyfriend has me puzzled. He’s not that bad to look at, but he’s certainly not the sharpest knife in the drawer!”
“Martin is my nephew.”
“Halliday’s nephew? Or did this fictitious ‘Culdesac’ somehow develop a sibling with offspring?”
“That doesn’t matter. He’s my nephew now, and I will take care of him.”
“Fine, fine,” laughed Pembry. “You’re entitled to your little familial fantasy. I won’t interfere with you there. That’s not why I’m here.”
“Why are you here, Josiah? What do you want from me?”
Pembry rested his head on one hand and closed his eyes. “I … ,” he stammered, “I’ve no one else to turn to. Guilford — I’m sorry, Mister Culdesac! MacKnight! Except for old man Stillman, you were the closest thing to family I ever had. And now I have nowhere else to turn. I need a place to live, and a job. You know me! Other people look at me and see an old man with red burned skin and a hideous scar instead of an eyebrow. Hair dye won’t cover those things. But you can look at me and remember the creative genius behind the Weapons Division at Stillman and Company. Please! I could even help you with your little musical thingies.”
The two sat in silence. By degrees, MacKnight’s gaze shifted from the fire to Pembry’s crumpled form in the opposite chair.
“Alright, you can stay with us. My name here is MacKnight Culdesac. Don’t forget that. I do not need rumors and stories of intrigue attached to this name as well.”
“You will never regret this, my dear Mister Culdesac.” A hint of a smile tugged at the right corner of Josiah Pembry’s mouth.