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“Chasing Your Tail” by Peter J. Wacks


The Franklin Home
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Colony
December 22, 1758

Prrrrrrrrrrr . . .

Even asleep, Mouser’s rumble of a purr disrupted Sally. The infernal cat seemed to always get in the way. She smiled at the thought, then her eye drifted to the ledger and her smile vanished. She sighed—she knew what she ought to be doing . . .

She should be working on the books for her mother. Her father had gone to some trouble to make sure she was given lessons in accounting, which her mother had never had, and it was obligatoire that she apply those lessons to the family businesses during his lengthy absence.

She’d really rather be reading. Unconsciously, her hand drifted to the side, hovering near her new copy of Smollett’s The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle. . . . It would take her forever to get through the accounts and tote them properly.

Still staring at the ledgers, she let her hand wander aimlessly. She reached through the pocket slits in her gown into the pocket tied around her waist underneath to grab a feather she kept there. Flicking Mouser’s nose gently, she was rewarded with one eye opening. A few more swooshes, and she had Mouser chasing the feather all over the desk.

She giggled and pushed the chair back. Mouser paused, hunched down while sticking his butt in the air and twitching his tail. His eyes darted back and forth, tracking the feather in Sally’s hand. In a flash, the ink had been spilled and the little work she had accomplished was ruined, as well as much of the previous month.

Her mother chose just that moment to enter. Deborah Read Franklin was a plain-spoken, serious businesswoman who constantly embarrassed Sally—who worried others would figure out how uneducated her mother was. Good businesswoman or not, Debby was not one for books, reading, or writing, which happened to be the things Sally loved most in the world.

“Sally! Whatever are you doing?” Debby rushed forward to assist in reining in disaster. “This is unacceptable!”

Sally scowled and tucked away the feather, much to Mouser’s disappointment. “This drudgery can wait for another time, Mother. I want to read my new book!”

Debby gave Sally a sideways glance as she continued dabbing the ink. Better to sacrifice the apron and preserve the work. “At least help clean up the mess you’ve made.”

“I didn’t make it. Mouser made it.” Sally made an ineffectual attempt at helping, mostly just moving things out of the way that she cared about.

“Would you stop talking to that cat and ignoring your responsibilities? Attend to the task at hand.” Debby pursed her lips tightly to try to leave it at that.

“You wouldn’t understand, Mother. You can barely read and write. You have no life of the mind, no depth of feeling, as I do.” Sally dramatically spun away, clutching her arms to her chest. “I am carried away not by the books but by the stories the authors have set forth on the page. They are heroic, full of the ways of the world! You know nothing about these things.”

Debby rolled her eyes, “Having never been fifteen myself, I see why you would think these thoughts, Sally.”

“But you aren’t clever! You don’t know what it means to be clever. I’m not going to live a life of drudgery as you have, Mother.” Sally’s eyes were bright with passion, but blind to the casual cruelty of her words. “Because I can read and write, I’ll be able to choose to live more in the world than you could ever imagine.”

Debby’s shook her head, “Foolish girl. Letters don't make you clever. Thinking makes you clever. I’d like to see letters put food on the table.”

“You don’t even know how wrong you are!” As was usual between the two, Sally stormed off, angry at how little her mother understood her.

* * *

Debby swapped her ink-stained work apron for a finer one in the visiting room just as Jemima ushered in Isaac Norris, the Speaker of the Pennsylvania Provincial Assembly.

“You must tell me, Mrs. Franklin, how you are faring with Ben so far from home?” Isaac settled into the seat he was offered with a satisfied sound.

“I am sure, Mr. Norris, you would know better than me,” Debby returned, well aware that Ben corresponded more with his political and scientific friends than his family at home. Whatever others may think, he trusted her with his businesses and only sent letters as needed, or with small missives and gifts. “You know I am not one much for letter writing, and his dispatches for you are sent on only the swiftest packets.”

Isaac shrugged, “Other than how many impediments he meets in his efforts to best the Penns, I am not privy to his comings and goings. I had heard from other sources that his health had suffered upon his arrival in England and through his first winter, and I was hoping you would be able to reassure me that he had seen no return of that affliction when the weather again turned cold.”

Debby nodded, “I can say that his reports from his lodgings are that he is well, that and that William is well. He sends me pretty fabrics and he sends Sally books, and I am well satisfied that he reports truly.”

“I appreciate the distinction you make. Have you heard? Reverend William Smith has seen fit to accuse Ben of claiming for himself all the credit for the experiments with electricity and omitting the contributions of Ebenezer Kinnersley and others. Ebenezer publicly refuted the characterization immediately, but you see the image of Ben that Reverend Smith is trying to paint. There are far too many who would welcome the chance to take Ben down a peg or two.”

Debby scowled, “Reverend Smith seems very busy with his pen recently. I have just heard that he wrote a pamphlet questioning the loyalty of the Catholics here in Philadelphia and suggesting that they were finding ways to support the French in the war.”

Isaac nodded, “I have seen that pamphlet. I also heard the Jesuit Robert Harding respond quite eloquently in defense of our English Catholics. It seems every few years someone must agitate the populace against our Catholic neighbors. Happily, they are yet willing to bear these accusations, and everything else in their power, in hopes of preserving their privileges as Englishmen. Lord knows, the younger Penns try hard enough to strip us of those privileges, which their father, William, worked so diligently to bestow upon us.”

Debby looked quizzically at Isaac, “I haven’t heard of Robert Harding.”

“Ah, yes,” Isaac rejoined wistfully. “He is the recent replacement for the old vicar of St. Joseph’s Church, Father Greaton, after his passing.”

There was a slight clank of dishes at the door as Jemima, one of the house slaves, brought in tea and refreshments. After serving her guest, Debby returned to the conversation.

“Ben was an advisor to Father Greaton in the building of St. Joseph’s. I don’t know that they were close, but there was mutual respect.”

Isaac was not surprised that nearly everything they spoke of returned to Benjamin Franklin. He knew Debby missed him, as he felt, all of Philadelphia must, with all Ben’s vigor and civic commitment. He decided to turn the conversation in a different direction. “You do seem a little out of sorts, if I may venture such an observation.”

“I must admit, I am having some difficulties with Sally these days.”

“Oh,” Isaac leaned forward with some concern, “in what ways?”

“Well, you know she has always been energetic in her pursuit of knowledge and attentive to all her lessons, always so amiable and eager. Yet she seems given over to discontent and boredom. She insisted on French lessons, because some book she read said every accomplished woman should have it mastered, and her father went to some trouble for her to have lessons from Father Greaton, who studied in France, so that her accent would be suitable. But some few months into the arrangement, she abandoned the work. More tea?”

Isaac shook his head, “Thank you, no.”

Debby poured herself some more tea, “All I hear is about how great the world is and how small a life I’ve built. I worry that she will head off into some foolishness.”

Isaac was silent a moment, then said, “As you know, my Polly is just a few years Sally’s elder and just now eighteen. Don’t worry, Mrs. Franklin. They grow into their strengths. She will eventually return to the girl that looks up to you. Though, these years are difficult, and I very much sympathize with your quandary. Perhaps, as both of the girls share a love of books, we can arrange a tea? Other influences could be good for her, as it can’t be helpful for Ben to be away for so long.”

“Yes,” nodded Debby a little miserably. “And we have yet no idea of when he might return.”

* * *

Debby had confiscated Sally’s new Smollett, and though Sally had spent the afternoon and early evening trying to repair the havoc she and Mouser wrought, her mother was steadfast in denying her the return of the book—until she could show she was responsible enough.

Sally picked up Mouser, who was following her as usual, and looked him in the eye. “It’s so unfair. I can’t just do something to prove it to Mom. Why does she have to make such impossible goals? This is no way to spend such a beautiful Friday.”

Mouser climbed up her arm and settled across her shoulders, purring against the back of her neck.

“You’re right, Mouser! Take charge of our own destiny we shall!” She had devoured all her books in the house multiple times, but there were surely other books in the house she hadn’t read. If so, they would be in her father’s laboratory—which was one of the few places in the house where Sally could get some privacy. Deborah Franklin could hardly bring herself to enter the space without Ben around, and the servants were equally intimidated. Only Sally felt no hesitation. It was where her father had practiced his magic, and it was the one place in the house she felt free to do the same.

“He has to have a good book stashed around here somewhere,” Sally started rummaging through desk drawers while Mouser watched intently from her shoulders. She found glass lenses, metal pieces, keys, screws, gears, silk string, and other items related to her father’s research into electricity.

In a cabinet near the back of the room, she was finally rewarded with an intriguing sight—a loose back panel. She hurried over to her father’s workbench, sifting through his things till she found a chisel that looked like it would do the job. Annoyed at all the movement, Mouser hopped off her shoulder, butting his head against her calf once down.

Sally crawled into the cabinet until she had a good angle and prized the loose panel off with the chisel. She was rewarded with a hidden cubby containing two journals the size of quire books, each with a strange symbol in the lower corner. Opening one, she was surprised to see a hodgepodge of languages on the pages. She took it over to a betty, skimming in the flickering light until she recognized Latin and Greek passages. Finally, there was a passage in French that she could read.

Comme la comète apparaît, la puissance aussi. L'utilisateur de magie doit se préparer pour que des événements extraordinaires se produisent.

“L'utilisateur de magie?” Sally asked Mouser. “‘The user of magic?’ Is this a book about magic?’ She kept reading the snippets she was able to decipher.

Pour que l'utilisateur soit vraiment libre de tout obstacle, la croissance de la puissance ne sera obtenue que par exposition au métal de l'étoile. L'identification d'un objet en métal . . . facteurs: Unum, in quantum est stella metallum. Duo propinquitatem ad imbuendas . . .

Sally sighed. It was so frustrating that there were only bits and pieces she could understand. If only old Greaton was still around, he’d have been able to help her, though he might have balked at the content. Even Jesuits have their intellectual limits.

. . . And yet.

“Mouser, there might really be something in these. And if people really can make a living selling translations, as Roderick Ransom tried to do, maybe there is a way I could sell these as works of fiction. Or maybe my magic will become strong enough to allow me to be free of Mother’s constraints. Father found a way, after all.”

She snapped her fingers, and Mouser twitched, perking up at the sound, “I know, I heard Billy Myerscough is back from his Jesuit training college in France! Shall we go to St. Joseph’s tomorrow? He was always easy to convince to get into mischief with me.”

* * *

The Franklin Home and Saint Joseph’s Church
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Colony
December 23, 1758

It was a clear, bright Saturday morning as she headed down Fourth Street towards the church. She carried a basket laden with her older half-brother’s copy of An Introduction to Latin Syntax, her copy of La Jeune Américaine et les Contes Marins, and some harpsichord music. At Fourth and Walnut, she paused to greet Juliana Van Rensselear on the northeast corner of the intersection as she swept the front step of her family’s dry goods establishment. Mouser eagerly leapt to attack Juliana’s broom, a game that diverted all three of them for a moment.

Taking her leave with a wave, Sally and Mouser walked further down the block, turning in at Willings Alley to the obscured entrance to the church. Ben Franklin had advised Father Greaton during the planning for the church, the first Catholic church to be built in Philadelphia and a source of some controversy among its Protestant residents, to tuck away the entrance as an “out of sight, out of mind” approach. It had been completed just this last year, and Sally had only visited once before. Before the construction of St. Joseph’s began, she and Billy had taken French lessons from Father Greaton, but that was some time ago.

Faced with a door she must open, Sally was suddenly nervous. She knelt and petted Mouser, “I’m not sure how well the Jesuits like cats, no matter how well behaved, in their churches.” Mouser mustered all his dignity to adopt a nonchalant pose in the courtyard outside the entrance, turning his head away from Sally to sniff the air, then popped up rear paw and began grooming himself. Sally drew a deep breath and entered the church.

“Sally Franklin,” Father Myerscough, only a couple years her senior, had grown much since she had played with him as young Billy. He met her in the nave and shook her hand vigorously. “I haven’t seen you in so long. How are you? How is your family?”

Sally demurely tucked her chin down and felt her cheeks flush, “Father Myerscough, I am well, my family is well. Father and William are in England, and Mother is working hard to keep everything going here.” What are you doing Sally? Why are you acting like this?

“Delightful, delightful! Call me Billy, please. No need for us to be so formal.” Father Myerscough paused, then when it was clear that was as much as Sally was going to offer, smiled and asked, “So, what brings you here on this fine winter day? Surely you don’t plan to get me to sit on the riverbanks and eat apples to practice our French?”

“The way I remember it we would always get chased out of our larder by Jemima before we could steal the apples.” Sally took a deep breath and looked up, meeting Billy’s eye and slipping him a wicked grin. There. Ha. No need to be nervous. “I have an old journal I am trying to translate that has both French and Latin phrases, and I was hoping you might have a willingness to step into Father Greaton’s shoes and provide some tutoring to help me with my task.”

Billy considered her a moment, “Intriguing. Let’s walk to the clergy house where we can make ourselves more comfortable.”

Sally hesitated. “Would it be all right if I bring my favorite cat along? He’s waiting in the alleyway. Mouser is very well behaved. I wouldn’t exactly call him obedient, but he is fairly open to suggestions and never leaves my side.”

Billy laughed, “Of course you have a cat who follows you around like a dog. Only you, Sally Franklin. I think we can sneak him in.”

* * *

Day had turned to night while she and Billy were working the translations. He believed the journal to be the work of an old alchemist and was fascinated with the mix of languages, and between them they even made sense of some of the Greek, Latin, and French, though most of it was very old-fashioned. Billy suspected some of the passages were in Old English and Anglo-Saxon runes, and perhaps with some work they would be able to puzzle out bits. They set a time for the next day to continue the work.

Sally and Mouser walked through the night, and she wondered what time it was, having forgotten to check before she left. But she was full of vim and vigor and thought it might be possible to make some use of the knowledge she had already gleaned. The passages had specifically mentioned that l'utilisateur de magie would find their efforts improved if they were in contact with what Billy and she puzzled out to mean “metal of the stars.” She resolved to not head home quite yet, though the hour was late enough that she shared the streets with only her cat.

An inkling of an idea was beginning to form . . . Sally was in the habit of eavesdropping, viewing all conversations in the Franklin household as parts of her personal narrative, therefore of utmost importance to her—whether or not other people thought of them as private. In particular, after the first night of spying on her father as he mastered a tiny incantation, she had developed a keen ear for all the little secrets of the household. People had mixed feelings about his newfound skill being something so obviously unchristian—though her father presented the case well that what seemed magic was merely an extension of natural philosophy.

One such overheard snippet had been after her father and William had observed the unveiling of the bell for the Assembly. Ben had shown strange symptoms, including a bloody nose, and he had argued with her older brother that he could sense the bell. Perhaps . . .

“I think we should go check out that bell,” Sally whispered to Mouser.

Instead of heading home up Fourth Street, they turned up Walnut Street, heading for Sixth Street. At the corner of Walnut and Sixth, in the public square located to the southwest corner, Mouser darted in front of her and went on alert, back arched, hair standing on end. Sally paused and crouched down. There was a commotion coming from the square.

Cautiously, she approached the action, hiding herself behind a tree. Mouser went ahead and climbed the tree, selecting a good branch to observe from.

Momentary flashes of light illuminated unnatural darkness. Sally’s eyes went wide. She saw a woman in a cloak and a man who might have been wearing regimentals standing several yards apart on the edge of the green.

She heard a woman’s voice, “Begone, agent of evil. I have no dealings with you.”

“Agent of evil? Cor, ain’t you a dramatic one, then.”

“The comet is just coming into the Earth’s influence. Be careful who you attack.” The woman blew into her hand, then made a dramatic motion, flinging a whirlwind of leaves.

Macht nichts.” The man made a slicing motion and the leaves floated to the ground. “You think a minor glamour can harm me? Ha! Now, I think you do has dealings with me, see. I heard you was looking for the Manydoor. I want to know what you know, seeing as how I have the same mission.” The woman sprinted away as he went on, but only made it a couple steps before the man jerked his hand into a claw, “Macht kleb!

The woman fell to her knees in a cry of pain, clutching at her throat. She writhed in place as the man slowly advanced, hand outstretched like a claw.

Magic! Without thinking, Sally sprinted forward, then between them. Her imagination conjured up a moment where she had observed—unseen—her father light a fire. She remembered what he had said. She shouted, “Lux!” throwing her arms wide as she slid to a halt in front of the attacker. A font of sparks flew out in all directions, erupting from both of her palms. Not quite what her father had accomplished with the word, but effective, nonetheless. For a moment, all combatants were blinded, and the man instinctively shielded his face with his arms.

With every ounce of strength that she could muster, Sally drew back her foot and kicked the attacker between the legs as hard as she could. He collapsed with a scream, and Sally spun, grabbing the cloak-clad woman by the arm and hauling her up.

“Run!” she gasped.

They made it blocks deeper into Society Hill before the two slowed down, sure their pursuer was lost to the night. Sally turned as they finally paused, glancing briefly down to make sure Mouser was with them.

The grey and black cat rubbed against the ankle of the cloaked woman, and Sally could finally see the face within the hood. "Jane Loxley?”

Jane stood a little shakily, catching her breath, then shook the dried leaves from her skirts, brushing away the detritus of the attack. “So, another Franklin has access to the skill of magic. I appreciate your assistance, but I’m afraid that isn’t the last we’ll see of him. We should get you home, young Sally.”

Jane swiftly recovered herself and, taking Sally by the arm, began to escort her back down Walnut Street.

“Now wait a minute!” Sally pulled her arm away. Mouser watched the two of them, fascinated by a kitten standing up to an adult. “I can’t believe you can do magic, too! Why was he chasing you? How did you do that wind thingy? Who is he? Who are you that you know magic? What did you mean ‘the comet’?”

Jane stopped cold for a moment under the onslaught, blinking. Sally was legendary for being precocious and fearless, but Jane had not experienced this side of her on previous visits to the Franklin home.

When Sally hesitated a moment, Jane seized the opportunity, still walking the girl toward her house, and interjected, “You must not speak of this to anyone. Anyone. Promise?”

Sally admired Jane Loxley, who dressed in more elegant and stylish clothing than her mother and who was a lettered and accomplished woman, able to speak and read multiple languages and play harpsichord even better than Sally. She was even known to hold salons to discuss the latest ideas from England. And now, to learn that Jane could work magic, Sally was beside herself with joy. Finally, a woman who would understand her, who knew how to live the sort of life Sally wished to live. “I promise. But who was that man after you?”

Jane smiled, “I can see your curiosity will not be so easily sated, young Franklin. It is too late by half this evening, and the walk to your house too short, for me to acquaint you with the business at hand. I’ll call Monday morning and ask your mother if I can have the pleasure of your company to assist me with some letters of invitation I must write. Now here you are. In you go.”

Sally smiled happily, nodding her agreement. “I’ll see you Monday. Thank you so much!”

Sally had been practicing different things to say to her mother about being out all day and into the night, but she was surprised when she got home to find her mother was already in bed, and she did not have to explain her absence to anyone.

* * *

St. Joseph’s Church
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Colony
December 24, 1758

The next day, Sally was more eager than ever to return to the clergy house. Again, she slipped out before her mother was awake, hoping to spend time with Billy before Sunday Mass. She and Mouser made good time, arriving at St. Joseph’s an hour before the first Tridentine Mass began. Billy greeted her enthusiastically, and they got straight to work. Sally pulled out the journal and the translations they had worked out up to that point, both of which she handed to Billy.

Billy opened the journal carefully, finding the spot he had left off, and squinted at the page, “I don’t have much time before I have to help with Mass. I’ll come back in as I can over the course of the day.”

Though Sally’s only break was for a quick lunch, they only made it part way through the journal and had to skip whole sections that were too obscure. Billy, bound as he was by his duties, had only minutes at a time to spare throughout the day. Nonetheless, Sally came away confident about two conclusions. One, she had to use words in a language that was important to her, not just Latin like her father used. And, two, she had to try her magic near the bell. She was positive it was “imbued, as Billy had translated, and contained the “metal fallen from the heavens” that was so key. Since tomorrow was the day Jane had promised to retrieve her and tell her what was going on, she told Billy she would not be by, but that if it was acceptable, he could expect her the day after that.

Again, reluctant to go home, for although it was already dark, it was only six o’clock, Sally determined she and Mouser would go visit the Assembly bell. She chose this time to go up Third Street rather than Fourth and avoid the public square entirely. It was a quick walk to the Assembly Hall grounds, and into the empty hall. She climbed the stairs until finally she was at the top, able to touch the bell.

A little nervously, Sally reached out her hand to the bell and touched it. She felt the magical resonance immediately. She had brought a piece of kindling and she pointed at it, as she had seen her father do with the fireplace. She thought carefully and repeated the intention of the spell, but instead of the Latin her father used, she tried the French, “Lumière.” A large flame burst from her hand and completely incinerated the piece of kindling. Mouser jumped away from the unexpected burst of light, and Sally flinched back, falling on her butt. Pulling off her cloak, she rolled forward and beat out the flames, scared that she was about to burn down the Assembly Hall.

Sally scooched back against the wall and got her breathing under control. She couldn’t tell if she was excited or panicked, but either way, her hands were shaking. “Wasn’t that an adventure, Mouser?”

The cat, for his part, stared at her calmly, then flopped onto his back, exposing his belly for petting. Sally giggled as she stroked Mouser, who in turn batted at her hands playfully.

Finally, staring at the bell, Sally stood again. It was time to see what she could do, and from how far away she could draw on this extra magic.

* * *

The Franklin Home
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Colony
December 25, 1758

Sally woke early, excited beyond reason, and dressed in her neatest cap and gown. Mouser opened one eye, yawned, stretched, then went promptly back to sleep, leaving the crazy kitten to do whatever it was crazy kittens did at this time of day. Mouser didn’t do mornings without the bribe of treats.

Sally sifted aimlessly through her clothing one last time, still not seeing anything that could truly be called elegant, but she would do her best to at least look respectable. She went to the kitchen where Jemima had the breakfast waiting. She was so nervous she could hardly eat anything. Instead, she set to work on some embroidery in the visiting room, though she made little progress.

The knock at the door finally came and Jemima answered it. She heard her ask Jane to wait in the foyer while he looked for Debby. Sally peeked her head out of the visiting room and gave Jane a quick wave and a smile, which was graciously returned. Sally returned to her seat, on pins and needles.

At last, Debby met Jane at the door. She invited Jane to join her in the visiting room, but Jane declined.

Jane and Debby had never managed to find a shared ease as friends the way their husbands had. Jane saw Debby as plain, simple, and while she respected the elder woman’s ability to stitch up the modern patterns, she knew that Debby Franklin would never be a trend setter. For her part, Debby found Jane to be full of airs, and was endlessly distracted by the younger woman’s ability to prattle on about things that should only interest the men. They didn’t hate each other; they just fundamentally didn’t connect.

Knowing her audience, Jane got right to the point. “I can’t stay long. I just stopped by as I had some need of assistance, and I was hoping you might be able to spare Sally for the day.”

Debby hesitated, “Exactly what sort of assistance do you require of Sally?”

“I’m preparing to have another salon, and I need someone’s help to write out all the invitations. She has such an even hand. I don’t know anyone else I would trust.” Seeing Debby continuing to hesitate, Jane countered, “Or even if it is just for a couple of hours. Any amount of time she could spare would be ever so helpful, Mrs. Franklin.”

Debby’s back stiffened. “She could spare? She could spare, indeed. I regret to say she will not be able to assist you, as she has responsibilities here that she has yet to fulfill. I appreciate the kind things you say about her handwriting, many have praised it. Unfortunately, she is not available today.”

Sally flew out of the visiting room, tears flowing down her cheeks. “You must let me go, Mama, you must!”

Debby shook her head. “You need to complete your work on the ledgers before you turn your hand to other things. Now back to the kitchen with you, this is unseemly in front of a guest.” Debby tried to scoot her daughter out of the room.

Sally pivoted away from her mother. “You never want any good thing for me. You just want to hold me back,” Sally raised her voice, turning red with anger.

“I must apologize, Deborah.” Jane nodded her head at Debby. “I had no idea of the situation. I beg your leave.” Jane then turned to Sally, “I’m sorry, Sally, but perhaps sometime soon you will be free to assist me. In the meantime, you must make yourself useful to your mother.”

Sally ran to her room and slammed the door.

* * *

Sally heard Debby and Jemima depart to go to the market. Debby didn’t even come up to ask if she wished to join them. “Of course she wouldn’t!” Mouser stared at her, unblinking. “I don’t agree Mouser. I’m not the one being unreasonable, she is!”

“Mrowr?” Mouser began grooming himself.

“Fine. Be that way.” Sally flung herself to the side on her bed and picked up Gulliver’s Travels for the hundredth time, wishing she could just disappear into the book and never come back. After an hour of reading, she decided she was hungry and headed to the kitchen for a snack. As she demolished some cheese, feeding nibbles to Mouser too, she was surprised to hear a noise coming from her father’s laboratory.

Her eyes went wide, and Mouser’s ears twitched. She shoved the hunk of cheese into her mouth, wiping her hands on her skirt. She and Mouser crept stealthily down the hallway, sliding through the shadows until she was snugged up against the edge of the entry. Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. The outer door to the laboratory was open, the door handle broken, and a well-dressed man in clergyman’s attire stood casually sifting through her father’s things.

What the . . .?

“Hold up there,” she commanded, stepping out of the hallway and pointing an accusatory finger at the man. “This is not your place to be.” Mouser charged into the room, arching his back and hissing.

The man turned around, and Sally was startled to recognize the Reverend William Smith, the pastor of her family’s church. He was also the man who had recently begun writing very disparaging things about her father, even going so far as to accuse Franklin of not properly attributing his contributors in the study of electricity. He may be a man of the cloth, but Sally didn’t feel he was a man to be trusted.

“Ah, Sally,” Reverend Smith smiled confidently “Just who I was hoping to see.” He spread his hands wide, as if he was speaking to a congregation. “I know your father has taken up sorcery as a hobby, which I am happy to keep quiet about, but he has some things. Some magical things. And I need you to give them to me.”

“I don’t know anything about that,” Sally said nervously. “I wouldn’t know what you could be talking about. And, it seems to me, you are breaking into our house.”

“No one will believe that a man of the cloth broke in. You are a trouble causer and just a girl, one who doesn’t know her place. All I have to say is I saw the door broken and came to help.” William Smith shook his head, “Now. I think you do know exactly what I’m talking about.”

He made a quick move and grabbed hold of Mouser by the scruff of the neck, undeterred by the hissing, the spitting, or the cat claws digging in at every possible opening. His hand was bloodied, and the man grimaced, but he cuffed the beast along the side of the head hard and Mouser hung limply from his grasp, out cold.

Enraged, Sally flung herself at the reverend. He stepped back and hit her across the head the same way he just had to Mouser. Sally collapsed, crying and dizzy.

“I’m taking your cat with me. You can have the beast back when you bring me what I seek. Come to the church. If I am not there, my curate will know where to find me.” William kept careful hold of Mouser, with his fingers wrapped around Mouser’s neck, and departed.

Sally sat unmoving, hands in fists, crying in anger and frustration, until the room stopped spinning. She must find Jane. Jane would know what to do.

* * *

Sally found the journals where she had hidden them and hurriedly stuffed them in a soft bag. Wrapping herself in her great cloak, she bolted out of the house, jamming the broken door shut behind herself, and ran all the way to the Loxley’s.

She arrived breathless and distraught, hammering on the door.

Jane answered her knock. “Sally, sweetie, what is this then? Has your mother released you so soon?”

“Can I come in? Please? It’s urgent.” Sally wiped at the tears she hadn’t even realized were streaming down her cheeks once more.

Stepping aside, Jane beckoned the young Franklin into her home. “Of course. The visiting room is this way.” Jane shut the door behind them. The room was cozy and warm, a roaring fire illuminating the windowless room with dancing shadows.

Jane prepared to offer the young Franklin vittles, but the girl interrupted her, desperate and frenetic.

“He’s got Mouser, and he says I can’t have him back until I give him ‘something,’ he wouldn’t say what, but I think he meant these.” Sally pulled the journals out of the bag and held them out imploringly to Jane.

Jane’s eyes went wide, and she held out her hand and took hold of them. “Wherever did you get these? And who is this ‘he’ who has Mouser?”

“I found them in Father’s study. I’ve started translating them. They . . . they . . .” Sally shook her head. “Reverend Smith has him. He wants these or he’ll hurt Mouser.” She stifled a sob. “What do I do?”

“You are right about that, I think. He would want these. Anyone who even suspects that magic is real wants these.” Jane nodded as she stepped toward the fire. “Unfortunately, neither you nor your father, nor anyone else should actually have them.” Swiftly, in one smooth motion, Jane pitched them into the roaring fire.

“What have you done?” Sally shrieked, lunging toward the fire.

Jane grabbed the younger girl, holding her back. “I have done what my master commanded and destroyed the journals. There are forces at play here that are well beyond you. I am sorry you got mixed up in this, but the less you know now, the better. Reverend Smith has the ear of the provincial proprietors. He is very powerful. We cannot hope to match him. You are young and naïve, mademoiselle, and this is for the best.”

Sally stared numbly at the fire, silently crying. She’d never seen a book burnt before, such a precious object, whatever it meant to anyone else. She had begun to feel a kinship with them, as if they were teaching her directly, personally. And now they were gone, and so was Mouser.

And so was Jane. Sally stared numbly at the woman. “Why? I thought . . .I thought you were special.”

“I was someone who you had created in your young girl’s wishes. I’m sorry, but the world is cruel. I will stand and defend you, always, Sally, but I cannot let those books continue to exist. Too much harm can come from them.”

“So, me and Mouser have to pay the price, because you say so?”

Jane sighed. “Sally. This is so much larger than you. Handing those books over would have cost so many people, and so much. It is best this way. It is just a cat. You will heal.”

Sally felt her hands ball into fists. “Just. A. Cat?” Her nails dug into her palms. “I thought you were different, but you’re just as stupid as everyone else. Just as cruel. He’s my best friend. Everyone else can go hang.”

Jane stiffened and her jaw clenched. “I’ll thank you to leave now. Someday you’ll understand.”

Sally departed without a word, lost in a confusing swirl of anger, hatred, desperation, and fear.

* * *

Sally walked back home in a daze. She threw the front door open, yelling for her mother.

Jemima met her outside the door to the kitchen, “Sally, what is going on?”

Sally paused, trying to catch her breath, still dazed, “I need Mother.” She clutched Jemima in a tight hug.

Nodding, Jemima replied, “She’s gone over to Josiah’s place to see about that rental property in Boston that burnt to the ground. You go along, I’ll tend to the house.”

Nodding and sniffling, Sally turned and ran for her cousin Josiah Franklin Jr.’s home.

She made it to Cousin Josiah’s in under five minutes and hammered on the door.

“Sally! What a pleasure,” Josiah himself met her at the door. “You seem in a state. Have you come to help your mother?”

“Yes, please, can you show me to her?”

Josiah nodded and led her directly to her Debby, who was in a back room of the house. She was helping Josiah sort the rental properties in preparation to sell off at least one of them in the coming months. Ben had left the deeds in her care, though Josiah managed the properties.

Debby was hard at work, one desk covered with papers, another holding burnt metal objects and half-full boxes scattered between them. Her mother hadn’t looked up yet, and said, “I saw that you somehow broke the doorknob to your father’s lab. Cousin Josiah has a few nice ones salvaged from the rental property we had in Boston that was lost to a fire. She reached her hand out toward Sally, still carefully scrutinizing the ledger she wrote slowly in, handing a doorknob to her with her free hand. “This one seems nice. It’s by far the fanciest, and my favorite amongst them.”

Blankly, Sally took it, and with a shock, knew it was star metal. How?? She instinctively slid it through the pocket slits in her skirts and into one of her pockets. It was amazing to find something else made from the same material as the bell, but that wasn’t what was important right now. “Mom?”

Debby looked up, and blanched, “Sally,” she exclaimed as she rushed to her daughter to give her a hug. “Whatever is wrong?”

With that, Sally broke down in sobs, her mother beginning to make out the gist of the story between Sally gasping for air.

Reverend Smith.

Mouser.

Jane.

Journals.

Finally, Sally looked up at her mother. “What do I do?”

Debby looked at intently at her, then gave her a good squeeze, “What do we do.”

* * *

Debby and Sally left Cousin Josiah’s and headed down Fourth Street to their home. Before they could open the front door, Jemima opened it for them, a worried expression on her slender face.

“Jemima,” Debby instructed, “Let’s go into the visiting room to sit and discuss what’s going on.”

Sally felt herself start. She couldn’t remember a time when her mother had invited Jemima into the visiting room to sit.

Once they were all settled, Debby said to Jemima, “Sally tells me that she discovered Reverend Smith breaking into the laboratory this afternoon while we were at the market. Remember when we found the door handle to the laboratory broken?”

Jemima nodded, “I do, ma’am. It was very peculiar.”

“It was Reverend Smith that broke it, not her as I feared.”

“I wouldn’t have thought so, not from young Sally,” returned Jemima with the satisfaction of vindication in her voice. “But still, a man of the cloth?”

“For evil reasons of his own, he has taken Mouser, and he struck my daughter. I intend for Sally and me to go get Mouser back and make the good reverend answer for hitting my daughter. He has Mouser at the church, of all places.”

Jemima’s eyes opened wide, “Do you think that particularly safe? To go confront this man over our housecat, even if it is a favorite?”

“Mouser may be a cat, but he is a Franklin. And no, it is not safe,” agreed Debby, “which is why I am going to send you to find Mr. Norris. Tell him about Reverend Smith breaking into Ben’s laboratory and taking Mouser. Tell him he struck Sally. Tell him we will be at Christ Church trying to persuade the rogue Reverend Smith to return Mouser to us. Ask him if he could join us and if he could bring a constable. We might end up needing to make use of him.”

Sally started to speak, but Debby put up a hand to hold her off, assessing the grim look on Jemima’s face. “Jemima, do you feel comfortable with that plan?”

“Yes, missus, I do. I think that is a good plan. I know his home address too well, having delivered many a meal to Mr. Franklin there when they were working on their politicking mischief.”

Debby laughed, “Mischief indeed. Then, Jemima, please go find Mr. Norris and request his aid on our behalf.”

After Jemima left the room, Debby rose and shut it behind her.

Sally, who was bursting to speak, waited for the signal from her mother, and began the moment she received it. “I can do magic, Mother. Just like Father! I can . . .”

Again, Debby held up her hand, and again Sally obediently silenced herself. She had never seen her mother so forceful and determined, “I know, Sally. How could I not know? But I am keenly hopeful that you will not need to expose that skill to Reverend Smith. Be as reticent as you are capable of being. Nay, more than that even. These people are dangerous. Come now, let’s away.”

Christ Church, Reverend Smith’s parish church, was just around the corner up 3rd Street and over on Church Street. The closer they got, the larger the enormous steeple loomed above them. Sally thought it never felt more imposing. The towering steeple had only gone up in 1754, four short years ago, but already she couldn’t imagine the city without it.

They passed through the main entrance but came up short when they found Reverend Smith in an argument with another man wearing a regimental coat, cut off at the skirts. The man’s skin was pitted with scars from smallpox.

Debby pulled Sally close, and Sally whispered, “I recognize that man. He battled using magic with Jane Loxley. I think he’s English.”

This revelation caused Debby to stare at her daughter for a moment, but she returned to the matter at hand, “That gentleman,” she said, “is a deserter. I recognize his description from the Gazette announcement. Here,” Debby rifled through her carryall and pulled out a sheet from the Gazette. “I carry these with me anytime I go to the market.”

Sally’s eyes went wide. There was a sketch that matched the man in front of her, and she quickly read the listing:

Uriah Brooks; private Soldier in Captain John Vaughan’s Company, aged about 26 Years, 5 Feet 8 Inches high, fair Complexion, pitted with the Smallpox, dark brown Hair, short necked, born at Reading, in England, a labouring Man, went off with his Firelock, Steel mounted, and his Regimental Coat cut short in the Skirts, and the Brim of his Hat cut very narrow.

At that moment, Reverend Smith and the deserter noticed them. The two men broke off their quarrel, and both turned to Debby and Sally. The deserter seemed to have the reverend at a distinct disadvantage.

“Why are they here?” the deserter asked.

“We have an appointment,” Debby calmly replied. “With Reverend Smith.”

“Do you now? Well I reckon your appointment is with me now.” He looked closely at Sally, “Wait a minute. You? I recognize you. You’re that brat what threw sparks at me in the square. We’ll have none of that here.”

With that, the deserter reached out his hand and twisted it into a claw. “Macht kleb!” he shouted.

Sally felt something grab her throat and yank her backwards. She struggled to breathe, unable to talk, kicking as she went down backwards. Reverend Smith went pale and threw his hands up, backing away. “Please don’t hurt me.”

Debby didn’t scream, didn’t yell, didn’t panic. Her daughter went down, and she strode forward, pulling a cinder-encrusted flat iron out of her carryall. She swung hard, without a word spoken. The blow caught the man under the chin, and he spun to the side and fell to a knee, blood pouring from his split jaw.

Macht kleb!” he shouted, focusing on Debby, and violently jerked his arm to the side.

Debby was picked up bodily by the invisible force and tossed to the side. Her ankles caught a pew near the cowering Reverend Smith, and she crashed down between the rows.

“Mamma!” Sally gasped as her airflow returned.

Uriah Brooks, the deserter, turned his attention toward her once more. This time, Sally was ready.

Lumière!” Sally pointed both hands at the soldier. Fire erupted in a gout, streaming with the force of her anger at him.

Macht nichts!” he crossed his arms in front of himself, then flung them out to the sides right as he incanted the magic. The fire vanished. “Macht kleb!” he pointed at Sally and a fist of pure force caught her in the stomach. She grunted as she fell to her knees, but smiled. She got it now. He only knew how to do two things. She might not be as strong as he was, but she was clever.

Clever because of thinking.

She slipped her hand through the pocket slit in her skirts, grabbed the star metal door handle tucked away in one of her pockets, feeling the raw power coursing through it, and borrowed some of that power. She slapped one hand down on the ground, shouting, “Faire taire!” Then she focused all her will on holding it.

All noise in the church vanished in a cacophony of perfect silence. She could see it all. The soldier, confused, kept mouthing words that produced no sound. Reverend Smith cowered. Next to him, behind the soldier, Debby rose from the broken pews, bruised and bloody, but unstoppably swinging the flat iron, gripped tightly in both hands.

Sally was almost instantly dizzy. Even seconds of this was more than she could handle, but there wasn’t a choice. She had to . . .

The flat iron connected with the back of Uriah’s head just as comprehension dawned in his eyes. The soldier crumpled to the ground, unconscious.

Sally gasped, releasing the spell. The world spun and noise rushed back in.

“Sally, are you okay?” Debby was facing the cowering Reverend Smith, brandishing the flat iron.

“Mmmm. Tired. Mouser?”

“Reverend Smith. You have made off with a Franklin. You can return him to my daughter and be hailed a hero for catching an army deserter, for surely us womenfolk could not do such a thing . . . or . . .”

Smith looked up, “Or?”

“Or you helped him. Decide quickly, for Speaker Norris is bringing a constable.”

Smith’s shoulders slumped. “The cat is in a cage in the pew beyond that far column. Over there.” He pointed.

“Fetch him now.” Debby menaced the reverend with the flat iron once more.

Reverend Smith walked the length of the worship hall to the designated pew, Debby escorting him the whole way. He knelt, released the latch, and was met with a full Mouser launched into his face. Debby escorted the now bleeding-from-cat-scratches Smith back up the aisle, chuckling under her breath as he dabbed at the slices on his face with a handkerchief. As they reached the back of the worship hall, Speaker Norris and a constable walked in.

Debby quietly returned the flat iron to her carryall and attended to her daughter, who was now sitting in a pew and whose joyful reunion with Mouser was dampened only by her extreme fatigue.

Now that he had an audience, Reverend Smith—ever aware of Debby’s baleful eye on the back of his neck—proceeded to create a story that preserved his respectability, his reputation, and most of his pride. He referred little to the Franklins, only suggesting that they were aware he would be meeting with a rough character and out of great concern for his safety had arranged for Speaker Norris to bring the constable. For which, he confessed, he was truly grateful.

The deserter was taken into custody, the reverend was a hero, and the ladies were safe.

Speaker Norris gave Debby a few long, hard stares during the reverend’s discourse, which she ignored, but in the end did not say anything to any of them. Silently, he escorted all three of them home.

* * *

The Franklin Home
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Colony
December 28, 1758

Sally was on her knees in front of her father’s laboratory door, installing an ornate new door handle. The power coursed gently through her, pulsating from the star metal. Mouser was keeping an officious eye on her, occasionally pausing to lick a paw. Since the incident with Reverend Smith, he hadn’t let Sally out of his sight.

Debby came down the hall. “I see you finished the ledgers for this month and started on the work for the next. Very nicely done. And now you are installing door handles. Your skills multiply—and are multiple. You truly are a Franklin.”

Sally smiled in return as pride swelled in her chest, “I learned from the most efficient woman in Philadelphia. I like to think I’m also a Read.”

Blushing a little, Debby shook her head, “Too much flattery.” She held out The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, “But you have more than earned this book back. You’ll have to tell me about it.”

Sally stood up, shaking the dust of her skirts, careful to turn away so as not to entice Mouser to attack them. Sally gave a dainty curtsey, “Thanks, Mother. I am forever in your debt.”

Debby smiled back, “Indeed, you and Mouser both are.”

They turned and looked at Mouser who, though engaged in a full body bath, froze mid-maneuver, his hind leg in the air and looked up at them, as though asking why they weren’t following his example and doing the same.

Sally and Debby both laughed. The moment of laughter ended as Sally stared around the Franklin Laboratory. “I miss Father.”

Debby walked to her daughter. “I do too sweetie. I do too.”

Little did either of them know, as Halley’s comet raced ever closer overhead, how much his mysterious reappearance would change everything.



Copyright © 2020 Peter J. Wacks


This story is set within the world of Caller of Lightning by Peter J. Wacks and Eytann Kollin. The novel is an entry in the Arcane America series, which includes Dragon Award winner Uncharted by Kevin J. Anderson and Sarah A. Hoyt, and Council of Fire, by Eric Flint and Walter H. Hunt. Caller of Lightning features American wizard Benjamin Franklin facing down the forces of evil both at home and abroad after the 1759 passage of Halley’s Comet brings magic to Earth and sunders the Old World from the New World for most people. Peter J. Wacks is a cross-genre writer who has worked in various capacities across the creative fields in fiction, gaming, television, film, and comics. When he isn't working on the next book, he can be found practicing martial arts, playing chess, drinking Scotch or IPA, or fighting with swords.