Penny Dreadful Entertainment as related to his scrivener, Sean Hoade.
A TRAGEDY IS REPORTED.
It was Boxing Day, 1904. I had just enjoyed the holiday previous with my friends the poet Robert Underwood Johnson and his wife, who had come up to Long Island from Washington, D.C. for the holiday. (I secured my own room next to theirs at the Hotel Astor to spend the night, on trustworthy bedding I had brought from home.) I felt refreshed and eager to return to work that crisp Monday morning.
During this period in my life, I lived where I worked: in rooms at my laboratory at Wardenclyffe. By this time, my plan for wireless transmission of power from the site had been halted due to … consequences is all I shall say for now … of its electromagnetic waves carrying into space.
From the hotel, it was but a short walk to the Queensboro Bridge Local streetcar, which then conveyed its human cargo at a dignified speed toward Long Island. I still very much enjoyed long perambulations, but, having once been singled out as a Daylight Vampire’s prey before I was able to wipe out its entire nest [Chronicled in the first number of this series—Ed.], I now made certain to tread carefully, watching for any men of low wattage but high temperature, if you understand me, but also for strange others. I refer by this metaphor to Thomas Edison’s unforgivably inefficient (ninety percent of its energy is wasted!) filament-based electric light bulb, as contrasted with my own, more advanced “fluorescent” light.
Mere brutes did not frighten me, as they were no match for my Bartitsu training, but those with possibly supernatural malfeasance on their minds presented an entirely different problem. In any case, I kept watch for anything unusual, and in the morning bustle of New York City, that was no small task.
Fortunately, that morning presented no attackers but instead the sight of clutches of people huddling in front of newsstands, some three or four reading over one another’s shoulders—at some lurid or insipid item, I was sure. It was odd, however, even during the week of Christmas, to see so little activity upon the streets. Men and women alike moved slowly, many with eyes fixed only on the few feet in front of them, as if they were sleepwalking. More than a few women pushed prams holding well-swaddled babies or toddlers on the slippery sidewalk, looking about themselves with furtive glances.
I did not read newspapers except when some scientific subject had received mention, and even for those articles I trusted my right-hand man, Thomerson, to bring them to my attention. However, this morning proved an exception, so captivated and apparently horrified did these newspaper readers appear. I used my walking stick to gently encourage my fellow pedestrians to make way and placed a dime upon the paper peddler’s counter. I waited patiently for the vendor’s attention, and finally I got it.
“What?” the burly, hatless, and unshaven fellow barked at me as his fingers deftly swept my coin from the counter.
“I would like a New York Herald, if you please.”
“Then take one, ya dim bulb,” he growled, then turned to abuse some other honest citizen. (The irony of his epithet was not overlooked—fluorescence provides a more consistent and bright illumination than incandescence—and his ignorance of my identity provided me with amusement.)
I shook off the misguided insult and, as instructed, slid a copy of the sensationalist newspaper from the untouched lower reaches of the stack. The headline at the top of the front page read:
NO SIGN OF YOUNG GIRL
Was this the item over which the crowd was making such a hullabaloo? It was unfortunate, certainly, not to say insensitively timed during the holidays, but a six-year-old gone missing was hardly news in a city like New York. I scanned the accompanying article quickly, looking for anything unusual. The last contact the girl’s parents, a Mister and Mis’ess Walker residing near 34th Street and Broadway, reported was their daughter excusing herself to her room for bedtime. Mother Walker reported that this daughter, Susan, was quite excited about the next day being Christmas. Susan seemed especially enchanted by the idea of Santa Claus and his flying reindeer, as portrayed by Mister Nast’s popular illustrations in Harper’s Weekly Magazine, visiting her home that very night. No forced entry or other physical insult to the door or window of her room was identified, and small footprints were found leading toward the trees. The Walkers reportedly told the newspaperman that “Suzie stayed up almost all night” on both the antepenultimate day and last day before Christmas. Despite young Susan’s retirement to her room at 9 o’clock both nights, her parents reported that she could be heard stirring on and off for hours, no doubt awake and on watch for the mythical Father Christmas and his retinue of airborne Greenland caribou.
“He’s back,” I heard more than one of the citizenry declaim to the somber nodding of their compatriots.
“Right on time,” some others answered in resignation to that statement, puzzling me. As I don’t care for speaking with unknown persons—or known persons, for that matter—at close proximity, I didn’t ask for further information or clarification regarding this sentiment. To whom were they referring? Who was “back”? And why “right on time”?
I folded my newspaper twice to ensure neat edges and silently took my leave of the newsstand mob. Surely the girl had gone out of the house under her own volition Christmas Eve, perhaps to check for any sign of Santa’s conveyance. Of course, I had no idea what theories or assumptions the police were working with on the “case,” but I felt confident that they would ultimately come to concur with the results of my spontaneous logical conclusion: she had wandered off. Perhaps her body would be found in the Manhattan slush; perhaps she would be discovered alive and wiser (if shaken) for the experience. And, of course, perhaps she would never be found, whether dead or alive.
I beg of you not to think me cruel in my speculations. I have no opposition to the concept of children, for those who desire them; but the entire process—which relies entirely on unskilled labor, I might add—of conceiving and producing children, some of whom will, no doubt, survive to adulthood and, presumably, produce more children, is anathema to me, a perpetual motion machine of dubious value at best.
Of course, I certainly hoped that the entire situation would be resolved happily. However, despite my ability to rapidly analyze and identify a solution to most any conundrum that passed my way, I did not care to play Sherlock Holmes, although I admire the man greatly. (I follow with great enthusiasm his able assistant’s periodic reports of his master’s exploits in the Strand Magazine. However, a consulting detective’s life is not for me—both Mister Holmes and myself help mankind via careful ratiocination, but each of us takes his own path to the same benevolent end.)
I resumed my walk to the Machine Works at the base of the tower and found myself glancing down every snow-laden alley I passed. I saw nothing unusual in them, surprising myself with a feeling of disappointment that, when it came to detecting mundane criminal activity, I truly was no Sherlock Holmes.
I continued to the streetcar station, consoling myself with the fact that Mister Holmes, while leagues above myself in crime-solving prowess, was probably not wrestling with how to bring unlimited free energy to the world.
A PATTERN IS DISCOVERED.
My own able assistant, Thomerson, would often visit me as soon as he noticed I had entered my office off the Wardenclyffe floor, the facility being used to prepare my latest innovation, the bladeless turbine, for demonstration at the Waterside Power Station. I shooed out Tippy the office boy, who had lingered after stacking some cordwood to heat the large open space of the workshop proper, and Thomerson entered to greet me and present any developments arising since I had left the previous evening.
In most cases, I find “chit-chat” an appalling waste of time. However, in Thomerson I found a bright and interesting interlocutor who would often lean against the doorjamb of my office and help me organize my plans for the day. “Mister Thomerson! I trust you had an enjoyable holiday?”
“Indeed, I did, sir. Thank you for asking.” I noticed that he was standing in my doorway rather than leaning on it, and there was a newspaper folded under his arm.
“What have you there?” I said, indicating the paper.
Thomerson pulled out the newspaper and gazed solemnly upon the front page of the early edition, which I already had seen and bought my own copy, screaming out that tawdry headline about the missing girl. “It’s a sad day, Mister Tesla. A child—children, I should say—gone missing at Christmas. Probably dead, I’m sad to say.”
“Children? And dead, not simply missing? Have new editions of the newspapers reported more disappearances?”
“Not yet, sir,” Thomerson said and shook his head ruefully. “But hecomes once every hundred years or so, always starting right around the holiday. This is just the one the newsmen know about so far, I’d bet. Mark my words, sir, there’s gonna be more before he’s done.”
“He? Before he is done? To whom are you referring?” I asked and sipped from my teacup.
“The Slender Man, of course.”
I very nearly lost control of my morning allotment of Dewar’s Scotch Whisky at this comment, but managed to swallow it down, albeit more quickly than I usually do, missing its subtleties, but one mouthful was a small sacrifice to find out how my assistant could possibly have guessed at my long-ago encounter.
“Goodness! Are you all right?”
“Never you mind that. How do you know about my Slender Man?”
“Yours, sir?” Thomerson paused in awkward silence, then said, “Are you all right?”
“That is to be seen—tell me, who is this Slender Man?” I felt the words streaming from my mouth under its impeccable moustaches. “Is he the one who watched me work through my thought experiments? Or is this some moniker given an unidentified villain by the newspapers, like ‘Jack the Ripper’ or ‘the Pearl Street Strangler’?”
“Sir? I’ve never seen you like this, Mister Tes—”
“Blast it, man, answer my questions!” I don’t know if I had ever raised my voice at Thomerson in all our time at the Electrical Machine Works, but my shout seemed to stop every noise, every bit of movement in the shop. It definitely drew some of the color from Thomerson’s face.
“Yes, sir, of course,” he said with a new seriousness. “Everybody knows—the, erm, common man knows, I mean—that every one hundred winters the Slender Man steals children who stray too near the woods. He takes them one by one, until he is driven off to return a century later.”
“Exactly one century?” It was 1904; my experience with the phantom had occurred only seventeen years previous, in the winter of 1887.
Thomerson shrugged a shoulder. “Maybe not, sir. I suppose it could be that he’s only noticed after a few years, or maybe saying it’s a hundred years just makes the story stick better to keep the kids from wandering off.”
“Yes, and I would conjecture that folktales and contemporary Eighteenth-Century warnings transmitted by handbill might not make for the most accurate measure of the villain’s interval. That is, unless there are supercentenarians to support this contention of cyclical disappearance and return.”
“Sounds reasonable, Mister Tesla.”
“But you specified that the Slender Man takes them. Takes them where, I wonder?”
“No one knows. Some say he eats them. Others say he enlists them to serve in Hell.”
“I see,” I said with a sigh. Metaphysical mumbo-jumbo was terribly tiresome, not to mention almost entirely unhelpful. However, I must admit that, although I did speak somewhat dismissively of such shoddy documentation, I felt a chill at the possible fate of Miss Walker, something I no longer fully believed was due to a misadventure while seeking sign of Saint Nicholas.
Thomerson gazed at the well-swept floor of my office and muttered, perhaps in abashment, perhaps in fear, perhaps both: “I heard about him when I was a boy running messages from the telegraph office, sir. I myself repeated the story of the Slender Man to other office boys when practicing Mister Morse’s code back and forth. I know my friends did the same, multiplying it to still more boys at more offices. Nobody knows exactly where the legend started, Mister Tesla, only that the story was sent and received telegraphically—electrically, I guess you’d say. It always says that he comes every hundred years, steals children, and so on.”
I thus concluded that there was no independent verification of this Slender Man phenomenon, reports of the phantom being spread like one of Doctor Ivanovsky’s infectious viruses. “Thomerson, surely you recognize that this Slender Man hypothesis is weak tea, indeed.”
“As you say, sir, but that don’t mean it’s not true.”
“Doesn’t, but yes, you are correct. Before my victory over the Daylight Vampires, I believe I would have dismissed this spectre out of hand. And, as in that adventure, it is clear that our errand boy may once again be our secret weapon.”
“Shall I call Tippy back in, then, sir?”
“If you please. That is, if he hasn’t somehow already been taken by this Slender Man or—more likely—some miscreant using the story to obscure his own nefarious ends.”
There was a rap on the window of my office door, and we could see it wouldn’t be necessary for Thomerson to call for Tippy: our slightly sooty workshop helper had returned. Thomerson opened the door for him, and Tippy entered to present another newspaper. “A morning extra, sirs,” he said, and handed it to my assistant, whose widened eyes betrayed his dismay.
“What is it, man?” I said in a voice without strength.
He turned the paper around. A large rendering dominated the front page: in a tree-lined city park, next to one winter-bare trunk, stood a man at least eight feet tall, dressed in black, his face a white blank, with arms—four of them—undulating like tentacles all the way to the ground.
‘SLENDER MAN’ RETURNED?
NO CHILD SAFE!
“Tippy, evil is afoot,” I said as dramatically as I could muster. “Might you once again answer the hero’s call?”
“Always up for an adventure, Mister Tesla.”
“Good man,” I said.
NEXT WEEK: PART 3 — A HYPOTHESIS IS RUSHED!
 Dedicated readers of my biography may know that I am not a native speaker of English. As a linguistic outsider, however, I am entirely devoted to knowing more about my adopted tongue than do many born to the language. Thus warming to my role as educator, I must point out a slight factual error in Mister Watson’s reports: the mental technique Sherlock Holmes performs is not deduction, the forming of conclusions based on incontrovertible statements and facts, but instead abduction, the use of evidence to form a conclusion that is not logically inevitable but is nevertheless undeniable. You are most welcome.
 Judge not.
 The reader should not be surprised at my currency regarding the latest medical discoveries.
 This was, to my shame, not entirely truthful, given that I had almost certainly encountered the thing itself as reported earlier in this volume. However, do not think me committed to even this small obfuscation; I rectify this sin of omission against Thomerson as the tale unfolds.