“Calm yourself, he won’t bite!” the someone said, and I uncovered my face to see a long furry nose and big brown eyes staring down at me.
Had the bear spoken? Do bears talk about themselves in the third person?
“His name’s PT,” the someone continued, “and he’s my bodyguard. He’s quite friendly, provided you stay on my good side. PT, sit!”
PT sat, then began licking his paw instead of my face. I flipped myself right side up, wiped the slobber from my cheek, and finally saw the owner of the voice. He was an older man—a gentleman—and he wore a subtle smirk that complemented his killer outfit: top hat, cane, gloves, and a high white collar that rose from the top of his dark jacket.
He bowed slightly and tipped his hat. “Myron Bentham, at your service.”
“Back away slowly,” Emma whispered in my ear, and we stood up together and side-stepped out of the bear’s reach. “We don’t want any trouble, mister. Just let us go and no one gets hurt.”
Bentham spread his arms and smiled. “You’re free to leave anytime you like. But that would be such a disappointment. You’ve only just arrived, and we have so much to talk about.”
“Yeah?” I said. “Maybe you can start by explaining that girl in the case over there!”
“And the Siberia Room!” said Emma.
“You’re upset, you’re cold, and you’re wet. Wouldn’t you rather discuss all this over a pot of hot tea?”
Yes, but I wasn’t going to say so.
“We’re not going anywhere with you until we know what’s happening here,” said Emma.
“Very well,” Bentham replied, not losing an ounce of his good humor. “That was my assistant you surprised in the Siberia Room—which, as you likely gathered, leads to a time loop in Siberia.”
“But that’s impossible,” said Emma. “Siberia is thousands of miles away.”
“Three thousand four hundred and eighty-nine,” he replied. “But making interloop travel possible has been my life’s work.” He turned to me. “As for the case you uncovered, that’s Sophronia Winstead. She was the first peculiar child born to the royal family of England. Fascinating life she led, if a bit tragic in the end. I have all sorts of notable peculiars here in my peculiarium—well known and unknown, famous and infamous—any or all of which I’m happy to show you. I have nothing to hide.”
“He’s a psycho,” I muttered to Emma. “He just wants to stuff us and add us to his collection!”
Bentham laughed. (His hearing, apparently, was very sharp.) “They’re only wax models, my boy. I am a collector and a preservationist, yes—but not of humans. Do you really think I waited so long to meet you, only to pull out your insides and lock you in a cabinet?”
“I’ve heard of stranger hobbies,” I said, thinking of Enoch and his army of homunculi. “What is it you want with us?”
“All in good time,” he said. “Let’s get you warm and dry first. Then, tea. Then—”
“I don’t mean to be rude,” Emma cut in, “but we’ve spent too much time here already. Our friends—”
“Are all right, for the moment,” Bentham said. “I’ve looked into the matter, and it isn’t as close to midnight for them as you might imagine.”
“How do you know?” Emma said quickly. “What do you mean, it isn’t close—”
“What do you mean, looked into it?” I said, talking over her.
“All in good time,” Bentham repeated. “I know it’s difficult, but you must be patient. There’s too much to tell all at once, and in such a sorry state.” He stretched out an arm toward us. “Look. You’re shivering.”
“Fine, then,” I said. “Let’s have tea.”
“Excellent!” said Bentham. He rapped his cane twice on the floor. “PT, come!”
The bear grunted in an agreeable sort of way, stood on its hind legs, and walked—waddling like a stubby-legged fat person—to where Bentham stood. Upon reaching him, the animal bent down and scooped him into the air, carrying him like a baby, one paw supporting his back and the other his legs.
“I know it’s an unconventional way to travel,” Bentham said over PT’s bushy shoulder, “but I tire easily.” He pointed ahead of them with his cane and said, “PT, library!”
Emma and I watched in amazement as PT began to walk away with Mr. Bentham.
You don’t see that every day, I thought. Which was true of nearly everything I’d seen that day.
“PT, stop!” Bentham commanded.
The bear stopped. Bentham waved to us.
“Are you coming?”
We’d been staring.
“Sorry,” Emma said, and we ran to catch up.
* * *
We wended our way through the maze after Bentham and his bear.
“Is your bear peculiar?” I asked.
“Yes, he’s a grimbear,” said Bentham, rubbing PT’s shoulder affectionately. “They are the preferred companion of ymbrynes in Russia and Finland, and grimbear-taming is an old and respected art among peculiars there. They’re strong enough to fight off a hollowgast yet gentle enough to care for a child, they’re warmer than electric blankets on winter nights, and they make fearsome protectors, as you’ll see here … PT, left!”