It was the Romans of old who gave us the phrase originally, in the form of tempus fugit.
Much later, it was Groucho Marx who made famous the expansion of the phrase into: Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.
And still more recently, it was my son who used the phrase in the course of a conversation. And my mind seized on it. Time flies. Noun verb. But what if it were adjective noun instead? What if there were flies which would, upon biting someone, alter that person's experience of the passage of time?
And what if there were a villain in the Wild Wild West who might perfect such a creature and seek to use it against a certain set of Secret Service agents…
The Night of the Unexpected Visit
Artemus Gordon was sitting at the table in the varnish car catching up on some correspondence when a knock came at the door. He wasn't expecting any visitors and was of a mind to ignore the interruption entirely, until he glanced up and realized that the silhouette on the frosted glass of the door was of a definitely feminine nature.
He dipped the pen into the inkwell anyway, set nib to paper, engaged in a few moments' internal wrestling, then dropped the pen and went to answer the door.
He smiled down at the young woman standing on the Wanderer's rear platform. "May I help you, miss... ma'am?" he corrected himself, realizing that, despite the fact that the young woman was certainly only in her twenties, her attire was that of a widow.
She smiled back up at him - warm, brown, pixyish eyes - wide, generous mouth - thick, dark, curly hair - he knew that face! Somewhere, some when, he had seen her before!
"Artemus Gordon, I presume?" she said. Such a rich contralto voice she had! And yet he couldn't place her voice at all.
"Yes," he replied. "Do I know you? Forgive me if that's a bit blunt, but... you seem so familiar."
She chuckled, and it was not a fashionable, cultured, ladylike laugh, but a real chuckle bubbling up out of the depths. And he knew the laugh!
"Well... it was quite a few years ago," she said, "but I've seen you act upon the stage."
"You did? What, were you a babe in arms? I haven't trodden the boards in ages."
"I was five," said she.
Curious that the number itself gave a jog to his memory...
"It was in Chicago," she continued, "and you were King Lear. I had no idea what you were talking about. All I knew was that there was this massive voice rolling over me..."
He fixed her with his eye, having finally realized just who this was. "I had the audience in the palm of my hand, hanging on my every word. I paused; a velvet hush fell over the house as every ear - every adult ear - waited for me to bring forth my next line. And into that listening silence piped up this bratty little voice, carrying clearly to every corner of the house, saying..." He tossed it to her, and she picked up her cue:
"Mama, why is that big old man yelling so much?"
Artie laughed royally. "Oh, your poor mother! I thought she would die of embarrassment on the spot! Niecie, it's wonderful to see you! Oh, but I suppose I must call you 'Denise' now, hmm? At any rate, come in, come in!" He closed the door behind her, then turned to her and said, "But let me look at you. I hardly knew it was you! The last time I saw you was the summer you turned thirteen. Right?"
She nodded. "Yes, nearly a dozen years ago."
"That long? No wonder I didn't know you, Niecie! Oh, you were quite the little tomboy back then," he added, reminiscing, "running about, not caring if you got dirty, dragging me off to show me, oh, a lark's nest, or a spider's web. Or lying flat on the ground stirring up an ant lion's trap, and not believing a word of it when I told you they grow up to be lacewings…"
"We still have the family reunions, Uncle Artie. Every year."
"I know, Sunshine. Your mother always writes to tell me… By the way, how is Camilla?"
"Mother… is as Mother always is," Denise sighed.
He nodded. "That's Camilla! And Vince?"
That evoked a smile. "Oh, Papa's a brick."
Artie smiled and nodded. "And that's Vince! Wait…" A puzzled look passed over his face. "Isn't there someone missing?"
Denise laid a hand on Uncle Artie's arm, leaned in close, and whispered, "She's been behind me this whole time, hiding in my skirts."
"Oh," said Artemus softly. He took a step to the young woman's side, leaned past her shoulder, and glanced down. He was rewarded with a glimpse of enormous brown eyes under a cap of golden curls. "Well, hello, Peanut," he said.
The child stared up at him, then vanished into her mother's skirts again.
"Hmm," said Artemus. He folded his arms, tapping a finger against his nose, glancing round the room in hopes of some inspiration. "Aha!" Taking a sheet from the blank papers on the table, he began folding it first into a square, then all the corners into the center. Next he flipped it over and did the same to the back. Taking up the pen, he deftly decorated the folded square with a comical face, then slipped his fingers into the pockets and began making the puppet's mouth open and close as he threw his voice. "Where's the peanut?" the puppet cried.
Slowly the enormous eyes peeped out from behind Denise's skirts.
"Where's the peanut?" Artie coaxed in puppet voice.
Fascinated, the little girl came more into view. She had the two middle-most fingers of her left hand jammed into her mouth, her pinky finger splayed across her right cheek, thumb and forefinger across the left.
"Ooooo," the puppet sang. "I think I see the peanut!"
There was a wet pop as the child pulled her fingers from her mouth. "I not a peanut," she said.
"You're not?" said Artemus, hunkering down to the child's level and opening his eyes wide. "Why, are you sure?"
She nodded and jammed the fingers back into her mouth.
Artemus brought the puppet up and looked it in the eye. "She says she's not the peanut," he told the puppet.
"Are you certain?" the puppet answered. "I thought sure I saw a peanut."
"Look for yourself," Artie told the puppet. He brought the puppet up to the little girl's face, tilting it this way and that, making it seem to be looking her up and down.
There was the wet pop again. "You funny," she said solemnly.
"Thank you very much," said Artemus.
She pointed at the paper puppet. "Can I have it?" she asked.
"May I have it," Denise corrected.
"May I have it?" the child parroted after her mother.
"Well, I don't know," said Artie. Looking the puppet in the face again, he asked it, "What do you think?"
"I suppose she may," said the puppet, "but only if she's the peanut. And if her hands are dry."
"Ah!" said Artemus. "Well then: are you the peanut?"
The child meditated on this briefly, then nodded.
"I thought you were!" beamed Artemus. "And are your hands dry?"
She looked at them and shook her head.
"Well, we can remedy that, can't we, Peanut? Let's ask your mother to hold this…" He passed the puppet to Denise, then produced his handkerchief with a flourish and dried off the little hand. Tucking the handkerchief away again and accepting the puppet from Denise, he said, "Here you are, Peanut," and placed it in her hands.
She turned the puppet over and over, making its mouth open and shut, saying, "Gop, gop, gop…"
"Now, Missie, what do you say?" Denise prompted.
She barely glanced up, absorbed in her new toy. "Tank you," she said.
"You're very welcome," said Artemus. "Now, Peanut, do you know who I am?"
She looked up and shook her head.
Picking the child up, Artemus stood to his feet, smiled, gave her a peck on the cheek, and said, "Why, I'm your dear ol' Uncle Artie!"
The child leaned back in his arms to stare at him. "I dinno I had an Unca Oddie," she said.
"Every little girl ought to have an Uncle Artie," he declared. "Right, Niecie?"
She smiled at him fondly. "I've always enjoyed it," she said. "Although," she added, "you do know you're incorrigible. First you turn me into a Niecie, and now you've turned my little girl into a Peanut!"
Artie indicated the sofa, waited for Denise to sit, then seated himself at the opposite end and placed the child between them.
"Niecie is natural for the name Denise, and everyone called you that already. I only discovered the proper way to spell it," he said.
He shrugged. "She looked like a Peanut." While she was playing with the puppet, the child had without thinking popped her fingers back into her mouth. Artie produced his handkerchief and showed it to her. She dragged her fingers back out of her mouth and allowed them be dried again, then went back to playing.
He watched her thoughtfully as he put away the handkerchief. "Missie…" he said pensively.
She looked up at the sound of her name, and he reached out and tapped the tip of her nose.
"It's a pretty name," he said to Denise.
"I thought you would like it," she said.
"I must tell you, Niecie, how honored, and humbled, and frankly astounded I was when I received your mother's letter telling me about your little girl. It took me completely by surprise."
"Well," said Denise, "for some reason, Craig and I just assumed that our firstborn would be a boy. We decided our son would bear his father's name, and then Craig agreed that for a middle name, I could use the name of my favorite uncle: Craig Artemus Sparrow."
"My spelling," he said.
"Yes, your spelling, with a u."
The child's fingers were nearly in her mouth again, and Uncle Artie reached down and took her hand for a moment, giving her fingers an affectionate squeeze.
"And then, of course… came the accident…" Denise's voice faltered.
Uncle Artie reached over and took young widow's hand now. "I'm sorry I wasn't there for you, Sunshine," he said.
"I didn't expect you to come," she replied. "I hadn't seen you since I was a child. And your job, I knew, kept you ranging all over the country. I'm sure by the time Mother's letter ever found you, it was days… weeks… a month perhaps… after the funeral." She squeezed Uncle Artie's hand affectionately. "And you did write a lovely letter back."
The fingers were back in Missie's mouth, and Uncle Artie needed both hands to extract them and wipe them dry again.
"The remaining months passed," Denise continued. "My Craig's firstborn son came into the world and proved, to my astonishment, to be his only daughter instead. Try as I might, I could think of no way to make of Craig a girl's name. But," she added, looking up into her uncle's face, "Artemus-with-a-u becomes very easily Artemis-with-an-i. And so Craig Artemus Sparrow became Artemis Craig Sparrow."
Artemus touched the child's golden curls. "My little namesake," he said.
The child looked up and said something. "Hmm. You're going to have to translate that one for me, Niecie," said Uncle Artie.
"Missie, did you say 'Artemis'?"
The little girl nodded and poked herself in the chest with a chubby thumb. "I Artemis," she said - although it sounded more like "Oddamess."
"Yes, you are," said Uncle Artie. "And so am I."
The child looked up at him, plainly puzzled.
"You are Artemis," he explained, "and I am Artemus."
She stared at him. "No…" she said.
"Yes," he repeated. "You are Artemis, and I am Artemus."
This time she shook her head firmly. "No!" she said.
Hmm. "You are Artemis," he said, "and I am Uncle Artie."
"Yes!" she said happily and went back to her puppet.
"What was that about?" asked Denise.
Uncle Artie's eyes twinkled. "First time in her life that she wasn't the only Artemis in the room, and one of the rare occasions in my life as well. She apparently didn't care for it." He grinned at her, ruffling her hair. "You little rascal - you went and stole my name outright!"
The door opened then and Jim West came in. He took off his hat and was about to remove his jacket as well when he spotted the tableau on the sofa. "Hey, Artie," he said. "I didn't realize you'd have company."
"An unexpected visit, James my boy! Come and meet my niece!"
"Mrs Denise Sparrow - Niecie, I call her. Niecie, this is my partner, James West."
"How do you do," said she.
"How do you do, ma'am," he replied. "Although I don't see how you can have a niece, Artie. Aren't you an only child?"
Artie leaned back against the sofa cushion. "Well, technically, no, she's not my niece. The exact relationship is…" he toted it up "…second cousins, twice removed. Which makes Peanut here thrice removed. But considering the difference in our ages, and the fact that she was already called Niecie - it just seemed natural to become her Uncle Artie." He looked at her fondly. "I've been her Uncle Artie since she was five years old."
"Five years old," West repeated. "Niecie." He looked at her. "You're the King Lear girl."
Artie burst out laughing. "That she is, Jim!"
And Denise inclined her head in a little bow, spreading her skirts with her hands in a sort of mock-curtsey while remaining seated.
"Oh, Niecie! You remember after the performance, you and your mother came backstage to my dressing room."
"Yes, the first time we ever met."
"Talk about a child hiding behind her mother's skirts!"
"Well, when you were on the stage, you were all the way over there; you didn't seem scary at a distance. But up close! You had on all that long white hair and the long white beard and the big white bushy eyebrows. You looked like some great white bear!"
"I remember your face when I started taking off the make-up. The wig and the beard…"
"What truly shocked me was when you pulled off your eyebrows! I wondered what would be next - your ears?"
Denise smiled. "But once the eyebrows were off, you didn't look scary anymore. I could see your eyes then, and I thought, Oh! his eyes look just like Mama's eyes."
"And like yours," said Uncle Artie. "And Peanut's." He winked. "It's those Gordon good looks, you know."
On hearing her new nickname, the little girl looked up and around, showing off those big brown Gordon eyes. Then she yawned hugely, popped her fingers into her mouth, and snuggled up against Uncle Artie's knee.
"Oh, is it that late already? I'd better get Missie home so she can have her nap." Denise rose; Uncle Artie rose as well, scooping up the nodding child and depositing her into her mother's arms.
"It was wonderful seeing you again, Sunshine," he said. "And meeting Peanut." He gave Denise an avuncular peck on the cheek and Peanut a kiss on the curls.
"It's wonderful seeing you again too, Uncle Artie," she responded. Shifting the drowsy little girl to one arm, she gave Artemus a hug with the other, stretching up to return a niecely peck on his cheek.
Turning to Jim, she said, "It was nice meeting you, Mr West. I'm so glad you've been there all this time to take such good care of my uncle."
"Your cousin," he responded.
The look in her eyes was the exact same as the one that Artie was shooting him over Denise's head. And then she smiled at Jim exceedingly sweetly and her lips framed silently the syllables, "My uncle."
She boosted the dozing child into a more comfortable position and moved toward the door. West, being closer, went to hold it for her. She had already reached the door, was standing on the threshold, when she abruptly turned back.
"Oh, Uncle Artie! I nearly forgot the whole purpose for my visit!"
"Yes, you see… Well, as I said, I'm taking Missie home for her nap. Home is in Georgetown."
Uncle Artie stared at her. "You live in Georgetown? Since when?"
"Since last week. You see, one of Craig's cousins, a Mr Aloysius Morgan, has three daughters but no longer a governess; she's leaving to marry. So the Morgans offered me the position. Today was my first half-day, so I brought Missie and set out to learn if perhaps you were here in Washington today. And you were!"
"You live in Georgetown."
"Yes. Let me give you the address."
Artie went to the table and wrote down what she recited to him. Then, with one more farewell, she carried the child away and was gone.
Artie stared down at the address Denise had given him. "They live in Georgetown, Jim."
"Yes, I believe I heard that somewhere," Jim deadpanned.
A big grin was spreading across Artie's face. "Oh-ho-ho, James my boy, this is marvelous! I barely got to see Niecie while she was growing up, but with them living right here, I'll have the opportunity to see them whenever we're in Washington." He rubbed his hands together. "And I plan to make the most of those opportunities."
"Wait, Artie. Am I remembering right? Is this the family where the father died shortly before the baby was born? And then she named the baby after you?"
"Artie, are you sure you want to do this? That's a lot of responsibility…"
"Responsibility?" echoed Artie. "Who said anything about responsibility?"
Jim paused. "Well then, what are you talking about?"
"Well, you see, Jim," said Artie, "when Niecie was little, I used to make Camilla - that's her mother - furious because she said I was spoiling her little girl."
"And?" Jim prompted.
"And now," said Artie, "I plan to see just how furious I can make Niecie. Jim, I'm gonna spoil my little Peanut absolutely rotten!" He was grinning fit to split his face in two, his eyes sparkling with mischief.
"And that's your plan," said Jim.
"Well, naturally, James. I mean, that's what an uncle is for!"
James just looked at him, shook his head, slipped off his jacket, and passed through the main room of the varnish car to disappear down the corridor.
Ten seconds later he was back again, looked Artie in the eye, and said just one word:
Artemus compared the address Niecie had given him with the number on the town house. Telling himself, "This must be the place!" he mounted the steps and rang the bell. A servant girl, her eyes curiously red, opened the door for him. "Yes, sir?"
With his typically affable smile, he said, "Good day. I'm looking for Mrs Denise Sparrow, please."
The girl glanced inside, then nodded and stepped aside, gesturing him in. He was no sooner standing in the entrance way with the door closed behind him when a cry of "Uncle Artie!" split the air. A second later a young woman in deep brown slammed into his arms and for a stunned moment he was flung back to the days of her childhood, when she would invariably greet him in exactly this same manner. Except...
Except she had never done so before crying.
"Niecie?" said Artemus. "Sunshine, what's wrong?"
"And you are...?" came an officious voice.
Tearing his attention from his distraught young cousin, Artie looked up to see, of all things, a police detective attended by two officers. Puzzled, he said, "My name is Artemus Gordon."
He saw the officers exchange glances among themselves. "Mrs Sparrow called you her uncle?"
"Well, yes. Older cousin, actually, but she's called me 'Uncle Artie' since she was a tiny girl..." The phrase "tiny girl" triggered something in his head, and Artemus looked around. There he saw the servant girl who had opened the door amidst a cluster of other servants, all of them simply standing around, some wringing their hands, some weeping. Here, closer, was a tall woman with her arms around three girls he'd never seen before, all of whom looked stricken. A little apart from them, between them and the group of officers, stood a well-dressed middle-aged man, looking very much like he'd been recently punched in the stomach.
And here in his own arms was Niecie. But where...
"Where's Peanut? I, I, I mean..." It took him a second to dredge up Niecie's own nickname for her daughter. "Where's Missie?"
There was a general exchange of glances within and between the various groups, but no one answered his question.
Putting a ring of command into his voice, Artemus demanded, "Where is Denise's daughter? Where is Artemis Sparrow?"
The well-dressed man - Artie assumed this was Mr Aloysius Morgan, Niecie's employer - turned to the police detective and said, "You might as well show him the ransom note; after all, it does speak of him by name."