Percival Gedge, who had only recently come to New Babbage to accept a position as undertaker, stood once more on Juniper Ginsburg’s porch, hat in hand. He hesitated to knock on the door; dealing with the woman was simply painful. She had the curiosity of a three-year-old, and as a man who preferred the company of those who spoke considerably less, he didn’t have the patience for her. Disclosing the discovery of the black box a couple of weeks prior had been one thing. This was going to be another matter entirely.
He knocked on the dark oak door before him. Moments later he heard footsteps on the stairs, followed by the door swinging open violently.
“Yay! You’re here!” Junie shouted, bouncing on the balls of her feet, a broad smile on her face. She looked at Mr. Gedge and stopped bouncing.
“Oh. It’s you.”
She leaned out the door and looked around as if she expected to see someone else nearby. The undertaker raised his eyebrows and coughed into his hand softly, glancing to see if there actually was anyone else. In quiet exasperation he blinked slowly, and then looked up at her.
“Madam, I have news.”
Junie stepped back and motioned for him to come inside. He kicked wet leaves off of his shoes and entered the parlour. As she closed the door behind him she asked, “Wasn’t excavation on the cemetery stopped as I asked? I don’t want anything else disturbed until I’m able to investigate that black box you dug up.”
Mr. Gedge nodded politely. “Exhumation of the remaining graves has been halted, Ms. Ginsburg. There is no work actively occuring in the cemetery. This is a slightly…different kind of matter.”
She folded her arms across her chest and rubbed her arms as if chilly.
“Wait here,” she said. “I’ll be back in a moment.”
She ran up the stairs and returned a minute later with a cloak. Wrapping it tightly around her shoulders, she motioned to the door.
“Show me, if you please, Mr. Gedge.”
The undertaker and Ms. Ginsburg stood quietly in the cemetery. It was late morning but dew and a low mist still clung to the fading grass. The Academy of Industry was tranquil save for the distant clacking of a trolley as it rattled along the track toward Palisade Station.
“I don’t understand,” Junie said finally. “If all work has stopped, then how did this come to be dug up in the middle of everything? There is still loose dirt all around it. And…it’s enormous.”
“That is the oddest part, Ms. Ginsburg,” replied the undertaker. “My men didn’t dig it up. They haven’t been here for a week.”
Junie looked up at him, her brow furrowed. “How do you propose that it got here then, Mr. Gedge?”
He cleared his throat nervously. “I….I am quite sure I don’t have an answer. It…it, uhm…it appears to have risen from the ground of its own accord.”
She looked at him as if he was mad. ” Are you trying to frighten me, Mr. Gedge? First the black box with its cryptic ‘Terra Fosca,’ and now this?”
“I assure you, Ms. Ginsburg,” he said quickly, “that I am not telling you this as some kind of cruel sport. I would prefer NOT to find these sorts of things, quite honestly. My work is simple. People die. I bury them. I’m rarely in the business of digging anything back up.”
Junie’s expression changed then to resignation, and she sighed deeply. She pulled two cigars from a pocket beneath her cloak and offered one to the undertaker. Surprised at the gesture, he took it tentatively while giving her a quizzical look.
She held up a cutter then and snipped off the cap for him, then her own. The silver matchbox appeared next and soon they were both puffing silently as they contemplated the odd-looking machine before them.
“You know, Mr. Gedge,” she said in a fraternal tone. “In the last few weeks, I’ve received a mysterious box from a grave, and was infected with a zombie virus from an undead feathered dinosaur. I was told by my friends, whom I trust very much, that an old man who is currently an urchin showed up at City Hall to deliver an automaton that is writing history in reverse. And that then he flew off in an air machine that exploded. Just last night, someone came to my home asking about cracks in the walls, implying that time itself was breaking apart.”
She stopped and puffed her cigar thoughtfully.
“That a bizarre, humming machine could suddenly sprout unbidden from the earth overnight, in the middle of my cemetery, I would not be in the least bit surprised.”
Mr. Gedge considered the events of the last few weeks. He had kept a distance from the cemeteries during the worst of the plague outbreak, just in case, and had managed to remain unaffected. Still, New Babbage was turning out to be more of an adventure than he had anticipated.
He drew on his cigar appreciatively and exhaled sharply.
“Quite so, Ms. Ginsburg. Quite so.”
Having settled his business with Ms. Ginsburg, the undertaker returned to his office and hooked his topper on a rickety hatrack behind the door. Sitting down at his desk, he noticed a smallish wooden crate on the floor next to him. He sighed slightly as he recognized that it was from the coroner. He had probably left it last night after leaving the morgue.
Mr. Gedge hated dealing with the pieces and parts left over from industrial accidents, and he wasn’t compensated well for burying them either. So he didn’t. There were far more lucrative markets for such things, and the potter’s field didn’t care whether another hand got planted. Or an entire corpse, for that matter, if it had gone unclaimed. It was an unsavory business that he had gotten mixed up in, but he wasn’t about to sever the valuable pre-existing contacts he’d inherited from his predecessor.
He put pen to paper and composed a brief note.
Your delivery has arrived.