This day is my own, said Mr. Underby to himself, over and over again in his mind.
This day is my own, he said again, repeating his mantra as he walked past the steps leading to City Hall, feeling no impulse to turn walk towards them.
This day is my own, said the Mayor’s Assistant to himself, firmly, as the street opened up onto Port Babbage.
This day I will get a shave. I will repose under the barber’s heavenly scented hot towels. I will listen to the barber’s pleasant politics, Underby thought as he walked past the port, eyes straight ahead.
And then, then I will do whatever I please, he promised himself as the red and white striped pole of the barbershop came into view. There was nothing a man could not do after a proper shave from a skilled barber.
This day I will not see the Mayor.
Underby entered the shoppe and absorbed the quiet manliness of the dark hardwoods, leather upholstery, and brass fittings. A barbershop was sacrosanct. There were Rules. This was a place where a Man Could Go. He noted the tousled black head of hair sticking out from under a steaming towels piled onto the face of the man in the chair, inwardly smiling in anticipation. Nothing reminded a Man that he was alive quite like allowing another Man to hold a razor to his neck. Mr. Underby settled onto a brown leather Chesterton to await his turn, when the barber would say his name.
“Mr. Underby. I need some more light, see what you can do with that mirror.”
That familiar soft reedy voice. No, it could not be! Something withered within Mr. Underby as he saw Mr. Tenk step onto the wooden crate he had failed to notice next to the barber’s greatchair that held the man with the towels on his face. There was the Mayor, wearing silver rimmed glasses with loupes attached, and delicately holding up a freshly polished bit of machined brass in a pair of tweezers. Underby looked again. The man in the chair had what looked like a disassembled clock laid out on his chest… no, it was some kind of brasswork imbedded in his chest. Mr. Tenk was working on Mr. Baroque’s mechanical heart.
Curiosity, yes, it was only curiosity, Underby told himself, curiosity made him take the mirror from the barber’s bench and hold it just so, catching a beam of light from the window and sending it into the cavity of the brass heart.
“Too bad I could not build him a new one, this is not my best work,” muttered Tenk as he worked. “It’s an easy enough thing to keep these things going once they are installed, but getting them to take is the real trick. That is why most of this kind of work is done out in the Armada.”
The man in the chair said said something unintelligible from under the towels.
“Shut up, Baroque. I’m trying to keep you alive,” Tenk said through his teeth concentrating on the work in his hands as he delicately pushed the newly machined part into place. Tenk visibly relaxed as the linkage snapped home, then he took the towels from Mr. Baroque’s face so that he could be social and returned to reassembling the rest of the mechanical heart.
“Good morning, Mr. Underby,” said Mr. Baroque as his vision cleared.
“Good morning, Mr. Baroque,” Mr. Underby returned flatly.
“I saw your wife last week.”
“Ex-wife. I ran into her at the steam baths.”
“Oh? How is Phaedra.”
“Needy. She practically threw herself at me.”
Mr. Underby digested that information and Mr. Tenk stopped what he was doing, a sudden apologetic look on his face.
“Mate, I am so sorry,” Tenk started.
“No, don’t be,” said Baroque. “I don’t find her attractive. At least, not anymore. Not to say she is not a fine looking woman, Mr. Underby. She does take very good care of herself and she can still turn a head. However, I now find her personality overpowers her comeliness.”
Underby nodded, smirking through a memory of his wife.
“She has been chasing me for months, every time I am in port.”
Underby put the mirror aside and leaned in. “Do tell…”
“I should have known she was up to something. What woman would be at the baths on Tuesday? Tuesday is for men.”
Underby nodded solemnly, controlling the emotions that were rising from some dark primal basement of his soul.
“I must say, the heat does something to her skin, it shone like a pearl.”
Mr. Underby gritted his teeth together, but Mr. Tenk, somehow, looked sadder.
“And what I could see of her legs, absolutely exquisite.”
“Go on” Underby encouraged, his voice edged with malice.
“Actually, I was shocked at her boldness at being there, but not as shocked as I should have been. This is Phaedra we are talking about.”
Underby kept his face guarded, but found himself enjoying the tale in spite of his memories.
“She sat next to me. Her hands were very soft.” Baroque paused here, longer than he should have.
“And then I lead her on, so I could see what her game was. And when it was as I suspected, I suggested she find herself a rent boy got up to leave.”
“You’re kidding,” said Mr. Underby. He knew full the extent of his ex-wife’s appetites.
Mr. Baroque would have shrugged, but it would have disturbed Mr. Tenk’s work.
“You are saying you felt nothing? Not even…” Underby put all pretense aside, demanding to know how he had resisted Phaedra’s affection.
“Not a twitch,” smiled Mr. Baroque.
Underby looked at the two men, Baroque smug, and Tenk rolling up his tools into a wallet with a sad knowing air about him.
“You resisted Phaedra?”
Mr. Baroque nodded.
“I am afraid that is Mr. Tenk’s doing, sir.”
Tenk tapped a delicate small screwdriver on the edge of the brass casing that was imbedded in Baroque’s chest, making the metal sound lightly. “Mono-gearing,” said Tenk sadly. “It was quick work. I did not have more time to have made something better. I am truly sorry, Mr. Baroque.”
“Not at all, Mr. Tenk,” said Mr. Baroque. “This time, it could not have worked out better.”
Now it was Mr. Tenk’s turn to be curious. He settled back as Mr. Baroque continued. “You should have seen her bridle. It was glorious. She was positively seething hatred, and as the sun hangs in the sky, I swear it made her more beautiful. If ever I have seen a woman beside herself, it was at that moment. She lunged at me, took a gash out of my arm with her nails, and swore a curse a gentleman should not repeat.”
Tenk felt a laugh jump out of him like a hiccup, then another, and another until he gave into it and fell across Mr. Baroque’s chest in a spasm of uncontrollable laughter. Underby found himself grinning in spite of himself.
“All that effort,” gasped Tenk, “And you… Oh, that is rich!”
“I pity who she goes after next,” finished Mr. Baroque as he fell into a rare chuckle himself. Just then the bells of the shop door tinkled as the barber returned.
“Tell you what, boys,” gasped Tenk, wiping a tear from his eye. “You get your shaves and I’ll go down to the ‘Plank and have some Bloody Marys sent over. And then you can take the rest of the day off, Mr. Underby.”
Baroque leaned back into the chair, stretching his neck as the barber whisked his the razor against the strop to ready it. Mr. Underby picked up the morning paper and settled back into the worn leather Chesterton, smiling as the bar-boy appeared from down the street, carrying in a tray of Bloody Marys. Mr. Underby lifted his drink and savored the knowledge that he was not the only one who had come under Mr. Tenk’s thumb. He felt he had gained an ally. That there was hope of regaining the upper hand again.
This had not been a bad day’s work after all.