Welcome, dear reader, to the lateral macrocosm through which our hero, Phineas Stiffs, sometimes stumbles and sometimes strides, seeking truth, honesty, and the comely young woman whom he fervently hopes will be his true love ... if she doesn't kill him first.
Before I begin this tale of love, murder, javelins, and mortuary science, please allow me a moment for a note about the world in which Phineas's hometown, Gravesend, exists. I imagine it is rather like the world where you live, or some world nearby to you, only with one significant difference in historical narrative. Phineas's world is one in which, on a stormy afternoon in Philadelphia some time ago, lightning failed to strike Benjamin Franklin's kite. It is where, in Menlo Park, New Jersey, Thomas Edison's light bulb declined to glow. And in Boston, when Alexander Graham Bell said into his newly invented telephone, "Mr. Watson, come here," his young assistant did not emerge from the adjoining room.
In other words, dear reader, in Phineas's world, the phenomenon which the English scientist William Gilbert first dubbed "electricus" has not yet been discovered.
THE BEAUTIFUL AND MYSTERIOUS STRANGER
"May I volunteer?"
Upon hearing those words, Phineas Stiffs, age 19, felt his heart grab like tires on rough asphalt. On that warm hazy spring day in the Gravesend Cemetery, with the yellow disc of the sun ashimmer through a film of brownish-yellow smog stretching to the horizon, Phineas gazed spellbound at the beautiful and mysterious dark-haired stranger who had just spoken to him. She was, without doubt, the loveliest living female he had ever laid eyes on, an enchantress with large green eyes and a French curled bob, wearing flowing low-cut dark ruffled indigo dress.
Phineas, who, despite his substantial, athletic build, and own good looks, had always been painfully shy around the opposite sex, was so startled by her sudden appearance beside the polished bronze casket that for a moment he forgot what he'd asked volunteers for. "Uh, uh ... ahem, uh, sorry ....?" He stammered.
"Didn't you just ask if anyone could help carry this?" The young woman placed her hand on the polished casket, which protruded halfway out of the back of the funeral lorry.
Phineas now recalled that yes, he had indeed asked for assistance in removing from the back of the lorry the Stiff's Everlasting Security Bronze "Forever Locked" Air-tight casket containing the late Ms. Hortense Peabody. Ms. Peabody, he recalled, had pre-purchased the casket on lay-away, thus guaranteeing that upon demise her body would remain safe and inviolate for all of eternity, or at least until earthworms had evolved to the point where they could operate acetylene torches capable of cutting through the casket's bronze casing.
"But you're so pretty ... uh, I mean, it's so pretty ... heavy... the casket, that is," Phineas spluttered. By itself, the Everlasting Security Bronze weighed more than 200 pounds. With the addition of Ms. Peabody, who had anything but a pea-size body, it probably tipped the scales at 420.
On that warm spring day the beautiful young woman in indigo crooked her milky white bare arm, displaying a firm bicep with a slight, though well-defined bulge. "I train regularly."
At the sight of her pale, trim flesh, Phineas felt the color rise in his cheeks as he found himself momentarily speechless. However, another of the pallbearers who'd gathered behind the funeral lorry was not nearly so dazzled.