At 2 am on 30 June, 1890, Nicola Tesla walked from the Waldorf-Astoria on Park Avenue to Central Park. A lone horse-cab clopped past.
To register his bid for the title Mr Ultimate Power, he needed four statues of the Virgin Mary, one of Abraham Lincoln and the cooperation of the entire pigeon population of New York, most of them his personal friends. In addition, he’d invited a witness, the celebrated writer and friend known to the world as Mark Twain. The timing would be tricky, but he remained confident.
Pigeons cooed as he entered the small clearing. The five statues stood to attention. Each looked mildly sceptical.
Tesla bowed, took a stick and in the dirt drew four crosses to mark out a large square. He checked his watch. Twain had better hurry, or he’d miss all the action. Timing was everything.
He straightened up. “Welcome. Could I have two Marys in that corner,” he pointed, “thank you. Yes, and two opposite. Mr President, sir, you’ll stand there, directly opposite me. We are of a height, which is excellent. Now, each one will take three steps towards the center.”
Each obeyed. On cue, thousands of pigeons whirred upward. The air sparked. Tesla clapped and a large ball of lightning quivered into being above his hands, phosphorescing furiously. The four Marys blinked. Abraham Lincoln cleared his throat. “In what way might this experiment serve the good of our great country, young man?”
“Mr President, all good experiments reveal hidden truths.” He clapped his hands and the lightning ball dissipated, leaving a faint whiff of sulphur. “Just minutes ago, you were all base-metal statues, symbols of spiritual and temporal power. Now look at you. These pigeons, on my instructions, circled each one of you three times and gave you temporary life, before ushering you here. Three’s the charm and with respect, sir, therein lies power.” He looked round. If only Twain would hurry. The moment was slipping fast. “We will now hold hands.”
A little awkwardly, they clasped hands.
“One moment!” Tesla released Abraham Lincoln’s hand, reached into his pocket and pulled out a packet of seeds. This he ripped open with his teeth, upturned and scattered on the ground. “A gift for my beloved pigeons.”
Cooing, they descended in droves, funnelling down into a warm, soft-bodied mass encircled by the former statues. He clapped, a ball of lightning phosphoresced above his hands and the pigeons flapped skyward, just as Twain ambled up, puffing on his cigar. He beamed.
“Nicola, I saw that. You’re on fire, my friend! The world, the universe, burns at your command.” He brushed ash off his white suit. “All this, and pigeons too. I declare, Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction.”
Tesla inhaled. In a moment of utter prescience, he foresaw that Twain’s throwaway statement would forever immortalise him. History wouldn’t forget Tesla, but Twain would have the last word.
Tesla clapped him on the shoulder. His fingers came away sticky.
His pigeon friends had voted, but not with their feet.
Tesla bowed to his destiny, and started wiping up.
Brenda Anderson’s fiction has appeared in various places, most recently in Flash Fiction Online and Every Day Fiction. She lives in Adelaide, South Australia, and tweets irregularly @CinnamonShops.