Table of Contents
PART TWO (of 4)
CHAPTER FOUR The Festival of the Field Mouse
Topographically speaking, Australia boasts some of the oldest surface features on earth, remaining relatively unchanged for eons. Astronomers who specialize in meteorites and asteroids flock to this ancient surface seeking impact craters and fragments of the object which created the crater. Typical age for one of the many craters in the Outback ranges from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands of years. However there were, and are, rare occasions when landfall of one of these extraterrestrial objects coincided with the reign of man. Many a legend and perhaps even the earth's own moon owes it origin to one of these violent acts of nature.
Rarer still are collisions that took place during recorded history. Siberia, 1905 is one such event. A ten-kilometer object bounced off the earth's atmosphere causing a shock wave that flattened trees for hundreds of miles. Although no trace of the meteor remains nor were there any witnesses, photos of the site soon afterward do exist. Until the publication of the Preston paper in October of 1995 this remained the only earth fall of substantial size known to be documented by modern man.
* * *
"Commander, this man is my prisoner." The source of the lethal shot now rode forth from the shadow.
Sarff slowly turned his eyes from the snow-covered corpse of the American to the man who has killed him. "By whose order?"
Field boots, black jodhpurs, trooper hat, and red wool field coat now holstered his gun and dismounted. Extracting a folded document from his saddlebags, he passed it to the furious Royal Naval officer. "Direct order from Ottawa, Commander." he replied smoothly.
Sarff scanned the document. With consideration to the freakish weather, Ottawa was taking the Americans off his hands. The Beckingham's crew was to remain confined on the vessel, to be leaving Canadian waters ASAP. The three houseguests to be turned over to the RCMP. Sarff relaxed slightly -- the Americans were a problem for the diplomats and the civilians, now. He'd never forget them, though. They'd tried very hard to burn down his fort.
The commander looked up at the mountie. "All yours, Captain," he quipped. "Two corpses and a girl."
The captain grinned slightly. "One corpse, Commander. One corpse. I fully intend to take West in to stand trial for espionage."
"What on earth are you talking about, Captain --"
"Captain Cunningham, Commander. Royal Canadian Mounted Police -- Manitoba."
Commander Sarff reached out a foot and rolled the American over. "You're a good shot Cunningham. This one's as dead as the men he murdered."
Captain Cunningham grinned again. "Check his pulse."
Sarff didn't care for that grin, but curiosity found him checking West's pulse. Amazingly, the man was alive! "What did you to him?!"
The captain's grin grew slightly. "The RCMP equips all its officers with the best technology available, Commander." From the revolver Cunningham produced what appeared to be a bullet, only shorter so as to accommodate less powder. At its tip was a spring-loaded needle. The mountie held it up for Sarff to see. "A tranquilizer so strong it could floor a bull moose. I'd have thought the RCN would trust you with it by now." The mountie replaced the dart in its cylinder and re-holstered the gun. "We have a policy of bringing criminals in alive, Commander."
At first Commander Sarff had been simply angry at having his orders overridden by this man, but now it was personal. However, Ottawa had given him explicit orders. He would follow them, but only that. And any chance he got at that damn mountie...
The commander motioned at two of his men. "Take West to the brig."
Two soldiers stepped forward, grabbed the Secret Service agent under the arm and drug him off. Sarff turned to Cunningham, intent on reading him the riot act, but the irritant and his horse had moved off.
Cunningham pointed at one of Sarff's leftenants. "You."
The leftenant glanced at his commanding officer for guidance. Getting none, he stepped forward.
"You. Leftenant. See that Rex gets a good rubdown and an extra ration of corn." Cunningham let the reins drop in the general direction of the astonished leftenant and disappeared inside the compound. Commander Sarff stalked off after him while Sarff's men stared.
If looks could kill, Captain Cunningham'd be pushing up the daisies.
* * *
West lay on the cell's solitary cot, hands under his head, staring at the ceiling. Somehow he'd been completely disarmed and thrown in the brig, but he had no idea how he'd gotten there. Although it was snowing lightly, a quick glance out the window showed the sky to be quite bright, so he'd been there quite some time. And judging by the way his head felt, he'd been drugged. That would explain the short-term memory loss.
A key clanked as it turned in the lock. There was nowhere to hide, so Jim continued to contemplate the ceiling as the door opened and in stepped one of Commander Sarff's guards.
The young man took a careful look at the prisoner.
"Yes sir, he's conscious this time, sir," the guard called over his shoulder.
"Excellent," came the muffled reply. "I shall interrogate him now."
That voice. Regardless of accent, Jim West would know it anywhere, so it certainly wasn't a surprise when Artemus entered the room and glared at his 'prisoner' for effect. Jim continued to study the barred motif of the structure above and ignore the two men.
Captain Cunningham, alias Artemus Gordon, excused the guard with the stipulation that he was not to return unless specifically called for. The guard acknowledged the order and left, closing the outer door behind him.
Artie waited a moment, and then checked behind the door. The coast was clear. While knocking the snow from his hat and boots, he took a long look at the man in the cell. "So, how are you feeling Jim?" he asked lightly.
Jim glanced at his partner. "Toss me that plastique and I'll feel just fine."
Artemus took note of the explosive, sitting on a table well out of Jim's reach. He ignored the request and instead studied his partner's expression. Jim appeared to be perfectly normal, give or take last night's little tussle. Still, he'd have to make sure.
"You're not even wondering why I'm here?"
Jim sat up on the cot. "There's been some development on the Hudson Bay case," he offered.
"Right. Colonel -- erm, what's his name? Uh -- "
"-- Colonel Richmond ordered me here."
Jim looked hard at his partner. Perhaps Artie'd already run into whatever had infected the Admiral. Perhaps not....
"Colonel Richmond didn't give that order. This is well out of his jurisdiction."
West stood and gingerly moved to the cell door, anticipating what was next. "Go on. Ask me about your Great Aunt Maude."
Relief flickered in Artie's eyes for a moment. "Maude? She's one for every occasion, Maude is. You know, just the other day she said to me. 'Artemus' -- " he started.
Jim cut him off, shaking his head. "No she didn't. Now toss me that plastique."
Rather than giving Jim the explosive, Artemus leaned lazily back against the wall. "Prison suits you, James" he observed.
"Artemus -- "
"I've never seen you look better."
"Artemus -- "
"Magnitudes better than everyone else who's been up here recently..."
There was no rushing Mrs. Gordon's son when he was in figuring mode. Jim sat back down on the cot and waited for Artie to get to the point.
"... in fact with few exceptions, a trip to Hudson Bay is eventually one-hundred percent fatal."
This was the first West had heard of it. "The Surveillance Committee's delegation?" he prompted.
"Dead, or completely insane for the most part. In the 'definitely deceased' category, we have: two hung -- possible suicides, one confirmed suicide, and two murders."
"You're certain the other two weren't murdered as well?"
"No... but one of the committee members is definitely knocking off the ones who don't kill themselves first. During a speech introducing a bill to ban the import of foreign cheese, Congressman Hamilton was publicly and permanently enshrined in molten wax."
"Banning the import of foreign cheese is almost as crazy as growing hay on the deck of a navy clipper."
Artemus shook his head in disbelief. "It gets better. Under our very noses, Congressman Freiberger was decapitated by a giant mousetrap."
"Someone went to a great deal of trouble regarding the vehicle of his demise, didn't they?"
Artie grinned. "The cheese theme's popular in Washington this fall."
Jim rose and glanced out the window. "That's why the interrogation," he said without turning from the bars. "Checking up on me."
Artemus moved to the cell door and tried to get a look at whatever had his partner's undivided attention. "You seem fine. Everyone affected, including Admiral Spollen, must have something more specific in common..." He shifted about but still couldn't see what had his partner's attention. "...we need some clue -- something that ties the 'jade death' and the victims together. What are you looking at?"
Without thinking, Artie extracted what looked like a music box from his pocket. He attached it to the cell lock and turned the key. Silently the cell door swung open and he joined Jim at the window.
Just outside a caravan of dog sleds was moving away from the fort, heading north by northeast, the drivers heavily obscured by their winter clothing. From the window it appeared their cargo consisted of animal skins.
Jim turned to his partner. "What do you want to bet those aren't pelts?"
"If those are traders, they're headed the wrong way with their goods. All the winter trading posts are well south of here."
West was about to concur when he noticed the mechanical lock pick in Artie's hand. "How long have you had that?" he asked, somewhat annoyed, and without waiting for an answer went over to the table and picked up his weapons.
Artemus extracted some plastique from a pocket, lined two of the iron bars with it. "All along." he replied, "One thing nice about these heavy wool uniforms -- easy to conceal all sorts of stuff in them." Producing a match, Artie lit the explosive. With a shower of sparks and a hiss the severed bars fell into his hands, leaving a nice, man-sized escape route.
"What do you want to do about the admiral's daughter?"
West joined him by the window. "Nothing. Ottawa believes it's in a pretty good position against the United States politically. They wouldn't dare risk that by threatening Deborah Spollen." He prepared to climb out the window, then turned back to his partner. "Coming?"
"There's this little rumor from a French Canadian settlement due north of here. Someone's seen our 'jade death' in action and lived to tell the tale."
"Convince him to tell you about it." Jim once again started for the window when Artie stopped him.
"If you run into any giant mice, don't mention my name."
The hint of a grin crossed West's face... Artemus was always worrying. "I'll just give them your home address," he promised.
With that, Jim was out the window. Waiting for a gap in the caravan, he dropped to the snow lightly and disappeared in the direction of the caravan's origin.
Artemus replaced the bars in the window and applied an adhesive to keep them there. Rearranging blankets to give the appearance of someone on the cot, he whistled for the guard and mentally began devising his own impending escape.
* * *
~~I, Udu Abutaanua, swear this did happen in the time before Atulu and I were joined, when I still bore my younger name, Yede Agnori- "Little Field Mouse", some two score and ten summers ago.~
~At that time I was still in the house of Aritu and my father ruled the tribe. It was during the vernal festival. The ritual requires chatzu seeds, even as it does today, and they must have seen the full moon before they are picked. That night the moon was just beginning to empty. It was my night as young woman of the tribe to go alone to gather the seed. Yede came from every place they hide and followed my wandering search. Hoturu howled, but dared not bother the yede or I on our quest.~
~The moon was falling into the great void as I finally found chatzu. I was far from my home, near the place now known as Posumu, the "wishing well". Posumu did not exist then, only a prayer stone marked the spot. As I was gathering the seeds, the great void hurled forth green rain which fell upon me. When I opened my eyes, the prayer stone was gone. All around was water.~
~Father found me in the well. My eyes turned green as the water and I became the well giver that night. Now each twelfth night of the vernal festival we celebrate the gift of Posumu and the sky god.~~
[translated excerpt from "Aboriginal Archive", published in the UK around the turn of the century and rediscovered by Preston in 1995.]
* * * * * * * * *
CHAPTER FIVE V is for Vortex
Successful escapes were something both West and Gordon had loads of experience pulling off. Typically they did it right from under the very nose of their captors -- Fort Ticogah and the Royal Canadian Navy proved no different. Artie slipped away from the chatty day sergeant and donned a new identity. Rubbing shoe black over the identifying white markings on his horse, he rode straight out of ice-locked fort for the next settlement, looking for all the world like any other grizzled fur trader who might be passing through the area.
Slipping into a warehouse, Jim jumped one of the sled mushers and found he'd tackled -- a mannequin! They were all mannequins. The sled dogs appeared unguided. Just as he was beginning to examine the cargo, workers came into the room with more to load. Jim found himself in one of the guide-less sleds, under a pile of pelts, and packed in with... the wine barrels from the Beckingham! Someone had plans for the Beckingham's commercial cargo, and Jim would follow them to their destination to discover that plan.
Without visible guidance the sled lurched forward, carrying agent and cargo to its unknown destination.
* * *
Hearing isn't usually affected by the cold, but something was certainly wrong; he couldn't have heard what this huge Quebecois was asking him properly.
"Pardon?" Artemus repeated, not really expecting any change in the gentleman's question.
"You hear. I say :Why for you hit my brudder wit a gawddamn freeze-cat?"
Artemus forced his eyes from the mammoth and took a careful look at the other occupant of the sleigh. This fellow was nearly as big as his conscious counterpart, but not an immediate threat as he was out cold. Lying in his lap was a cat -- long deceased yet amazingly well preserved. The thermostat rarely got as high as thirty degrees Fahrenheit this far north; that carcass could be decades old. And for some silly reason, Rip Van Winkle's larger brother seemed to have the mistaken notion that Artemus had cold-cocked Rip with the cat's mortal remains.
Changing this fellow's mind about the guilty party wasn't going to be easy.
He slowly ground-tied his horse and turned to face the angry French-Canadian giant. "Freeze-cat. Ah yes, well monsieur..."
Pierre Almont swung at the man he mistakenly thought to be a fellow trapper, but the smaller man was too quick, darting just out of harm's reach. A large snow-covered fir branch just happened to swing up and hit the Quebecois in the face. The behemoth momentarily halted his pursuit, snorting and pawing at the cold shower.
Artemus scrambled for a gimmick... and pulled one out of thin air.
"Eh....that's no cat, oui? That's one hundred dollars, that is. Cent dollars Americain. All for you -- and your brudder."
Money earned him the huge Quebecois's undivided attention. "What for, eh?" Pierre growled with suspicion.
"What for?? Why, that there animal you so cleverly described as a 'gawddamn freeze-cat' just happens to be a -- a 'Greater Felus Auntmaudus' mon bon homme. A rarer animal there's never been! Priceless too."
Artemus stepped up and carefully patted the lug on the back as a show of good faith. "Now you just turn that Felus Auntmaudus over to the natural science people at University and I guarantee they'll reward you handsomely for allowing them to place it on display."
Rip's brother still wasn't entirely convinced. "Den why you no keep de freeze-cat vous-même, eh?" he accused the trapper.
"For myself? Well -- actually I was. Until it just happened to slip off my saddle here and, erm, well -- and land on your frère, there. Allowing you to collect the money's the very least I could do."
For an uncomfortable moment Pierre stared at Artemus; Artie imagined he could hear the unoiled gears grinding as a decision was made. Finally with one last grunt the Quebecois climbed back into the sleigh and off went the lot : Rip, Greater Felus Auntmaudus and all.
Artemus watched them leave with relief. When the trio was a comfortable distance away he directed his attention to the real perpetrator. "Hein, ils sont partis, les grands. Montrez-vous! Immediatement!" he demanded of a nearby shrub.
At this command the bushes began to stir and from behind them cautiously stepped an absolutely filthy young boy- clothes soiled, hair disheveled, and wearing the guiltiest look possible on his face. Apparently he'd never been caught playing this little game before in his short life.
Artemus stared the boy down, turning slowly toward him for effect. "Pourquoi jêtes-tu un chat glacé aux Quebecois?"
The youngster shifted nervously under Artie's scrutiny. "I speak English, monsieur le coureur-de-bois," he finally offered.
"Fine. Then explain why you lobbed a freez -- a frozen feline at a couple of the largest gentlemen I've seen for a very long while. Death wish, or just your everyday, garden-variety psychosis?"
The child shuffled nervously once again then indicated the departing trio. "Les chausseurs là -- they come here from Abbisans to trade, monsieur. They are truly cursed. Everyone knows this."
"Exactly why does everyone think these Abbisans Quebecois are such bad news?"
The waif was astounded. "You have not heard?"
"I've been out on my trap line," the agent ad libbed. Different traps, different bait, but it was close to the truth... if you looked at it just right.
"Les Abbisans, they are haunted by la rosse-verte, it follows them from the water. To have them in town brings us all bad luck."
"So you demonstrate your disapproval by lobbing a cat-scicle at the cursed ones. That makes sense."
"I have a bit of fun, yes?" The boy shuffled his feet. "You will not turn me in, eh?"
There was a pause while Artemus contemplated the lad's punishment. The kid nearly got him killed. "Turn you in? I ought to turn you over my kn --"
He stopped short at the boy's change of expression. It was frozen in amazement at something behind Artie's back. With a gasp, the boy fled. Artemus turned to behold the most brilliant green aurora he'd ever seen, colouring the purple clouds an eerie mauve in the twilight. It flickered and played across the clouds as a firestorm races through dry brush. Seemingly at random, green beams sprayed across the sky, followed by thunder of varying intensity.
"The jade death, I presume."
Extracting a compass from his pocket, Artemus watched as the needle deflected over and over again in time with the flickering intensity of the aurora. Enough of a deflection to cause havoc with any ship's navigation and suddenly the mystery of the missing ships didn't seem such a mystery any longer.
With that, Artemus got on his horse and turned away from the fleeing boy, toward the spectacular display.
The artificial aurora dictated a route due east and Artemus dutifully followed the beacon, to the bay's farthest shore and out onto the frozen water. Once upon Hudson Bay itself the footing became fantastically smooth; it was no great leap to realize the freeze must have been spectacularly swift. Supernatural, really, and deep. A horse places considerable pressure on each hoof. One thousand pounds weight multiplied by the surface area of a hoof would break through pure water ice less than one foot thick.
The last place Artie wanted to find himself was in that water. Checking the thickness of the ice regularly would see that it never happened.
* * *
A, E, I, O, U and only on occasion Y was really rotten. Names like Twynndd, Gyrlynn were her favourites. Nary a vowel a'tall except an occasional 'Y'. Welsh was best, really, if vowels weren't your cup of tea. How about T-Y-Y? Yes, that was better. A cup of tyy would do nicely.
Yawning, she put on the oven mitt -- the one with the little embroidered kittens all over it -- and hefted the cast iron kettle from the stove. Her servant would normally do this for her, but Page wasn't feeling himself at the moment and she wasn't going to wait for her tyy in this damp weather. She needed her tyy. Sort you out, tyy would. Maybe a cup would put old Page right, too.
"Halloo.... Page!" She yelled loudly, but there wasn't any answer. Page was out cold.
She'd shout right in his ear next. "Oh Page! I've got a lovely cup of tyy for youooo!"
With a sigh, she closed the icehouse, making sure to secure both latches on the Dutch doors. Page did like his privacy, after all.
* * *
Through the night Artemus rode after the jade death. Morning found him and his trusty steed Rex thirty kilometers into the bay. The aurora had vanished as suddenly as it had begun about an hour before daybreak and with the compass useless, he'd been following the end of his very cold nose.
Right about now Artie was reminding himself of why he'd never ever considered working for the Canadian government. Long hours, low pay, and you get all the glamour of winter near the Arctic Circle thrown in for good measure. Two out of three was enough, thank you.
The tedium of the landscape was starting to get on his nerves when out of the corner of his eye, Artemus caught sight of a shadow and reined in. With the grey sky and solid-white background it was pretty hard to tell for certain, but it appeared some ways ahead the ice suddenly became rough. He put the horse into a lope and twenty minutes later found him at the edge of the site. Huge blocks jutted out of the frozen bay at sharp angles, jumbled as if tossed there by some unknown force. Many were as large as a horse, testifying to the violence of the event.
Artie dismounted and automatically checked the ice thickness, mind going over the possible explanations for the formation. The ice just outside the jumble was still at least a foot thick. Remounting, he began tracing the perimeter of the blocks. Clearly it was an anomaly on the smooth unbroken surface of the bay ice, and it appeared to be circular. The most obvious and easiest answer would be an impact event, but from this position he couldn't be certain. You'd have to somehow get well above the feature to make the distinction in a reasonable amount of time.
Ninety degrees and a half-kilometer northeast of where he first came upon the ice formation found Artemus off his horse and examining a large number of tracks. At least fifty dog sleds, origin theoretically unknown, had passed through both coming and going from the rough very recently. A quick calculation confirmed which sleds in particular. Jim had definitely trailed that caravan from Fort Ticogah out here... but to where?
Leading his horse, Artie began to follow the tracks as they wound their way through the huge blocks of ice. In the back of his mind an alarm was going off, but he chose to ignore it; knowing his partner, Jim had taken that sled trip only one-way and had to be out there somewhere. Along with the jade death, of course.
Suddenly the horse spooked, reared, and ripped the reins from his rider's hands. Wild-eyed, Rex spun and barely missed Artemus as he took flight from the unknown terror at a dead run, snow and ice flying from his flailing hooves.
That alarm in Artie's head began blaring. Animals had a sixth sense about these things. Not waiting for the reason behind the flight he started immediately after Rex. All at once the ice began to vibrate. Rapidly the vibration became violent. Artemus scrambled for firm ground as it became clear this was no impact formation.
If he could just get to his gun...
With a crack like thunder, the ocean ice cap split into a myriad of horse-sized fragments. With the roar of a vacuum, the fragments were sucked into the swirling ice water vortex of a whirlpool a full ten kilometers in diameter with a radial velocity approaching fifty kilometers per hour. Even a horse couldn't outrun the whirlpool's appetite, and with a transport time from edge to center of only fifteen minutes, the whirlpool's center wouldn't have long to wait for its meal.
* * * * * * * * *
CHAPTER SIX Deep Six
~~ Rocks, semi-precious gems, crystals... tools for rendering stone and metal. He was either in a lapidary or jeweler's shop. Someone was working at the bench, manipulating an opal into a setting. The white-haired old man turned from his work and came toward him. He looked into the gentleman's face. Those eyes. Limitless and featureless, without reflection, yet bottomless. And white as snow.
The old man looked down, then began placing roughhewn fragments into the tumbler, adding a generous measure of bleached white sand as polishing grit. The grit got into his eyes, his hair, drowning everything in the tumbler.
Good lord... the old man wasn't going to close the door on them, was he?
Panic set in as everything went dark. Then the world turned inside out... ~~
* * *
Wait -- just another step closer --
At the exact instant he leaned over to pick up another barrel, West leaped at the worker from his hiding place behind the casks. The man's gas mask went flying and with a grunt the unsuspecting fellow hit the wall, leaving a smudge on the cold steel panel.
Before the next worker came for his load, Jim had acquired the his target's gas mask, lab coat, and cask of wine, and had vacated the premises. Behind the last few barrels, the unconscious worker had no plans of waking up for, oh -- at least an hour...
The trail of workers led to another room that was designed in much the same matter as the one West had just left. Only in addition to the stainless steel walls and impressive ventilation system, a forest of pipes grew from the floor. A large steam-powered compressor inhabited its center. Each of the workers carried their casks to the pipe forest and tapped their casks with a valve designed for gaseous materials. Then they attached one end to the compressor, and drained it into the pipe system.
West hoisted his cask and got in line. As the man in line ahead of him began to evaccuate his barrel, Jim quickly examined one of the discarded empties. It had been lined with lead to give the proper weight for a wine barrel, fooling both the US Navy and Commander Sarff and his merry men.
Between the noise from the compressor and a large ventilation fan, West couldn't even hear himself think. But then thinking wasn't what he was about. The fellow ahead of him finished emptying his barrel and departed, leaving the agent momentarily alone. The coat was immediately shed, but he hesitated when it came to the mask. Considering the care with which they were handled, Spollen's insanity had to be related to those barrels. Losing the mask should be the last thing he'd want to do. But then he'd been very close to the barrels on the Beckingham and for some reason he hadn't been affected.
Mask tossed aside, West glued himself against the wall.
<< shwoosh >> The sliding door opened.
<< CRASH >> It was lights out for the next worker.
All evidence of the struggle well hidden, West next chose to follow the pipes, moving in the direction they disappeared into the wall.
Outside the sealed door West followed the pipes as they ran down one wall and around the corner where abruptly the low ceiling gave way to towering columns upholding architectural vaults. The pillars were only three meters high where he stood but grew to close to fifty at the center of the structure. The series of quadripartite vaults and forest of pillars created a romanesque gallery three quarters of a kilometer in diameter. Along the gallery floor, the pipes ran radially toward the distant center of the structure, disappearing in the field of columns.
The overall visual effect of the arcitecture alone was nothing but shocking. Yet the overpowering sensory imput was of vibrant colour -- green. Everywhere: green. The columns, the vaulting, the floor. A verdant, colossal Gothic cathedral. The sealed rooms he'd just left were at the very edge where the structure had its lowest point. Other similar corridors entered the gallery at regular intervals from the perimeter. Light apparently came from the structure itself. Neither lantern nor wall sconce were present anywhere to provide illumination.
They were underwater, without a doubt. West had tried to keep track of the descent; the ride down with the wine casks had been rather luxurious time-wise. From what little he could see beneath the pelts up top, transportation had been provided by a water-filled tube. Using ballast and water pressure, the lift had sunk to its destination. Travel time had been twenty-two minutes, give or take a minute. There hadn't been any way to judge the speed at which the lift descended, so he couldn't determine just how deep they'd gone. Even his head was fooling him. The lift had been pressurized with depth all the way. Although there was no way to know how deep he was for certain, West was sure it had to be more than fifty meters.
In spite of the extreme pressure under the bay, the impossible structure above Jim West's head towered defiantly beneath the load. Architecturally speaking, this place shouldn't exist.
After absorbing shock of his surroundings, West now searched the landscape. With the exception of its very center and the support columns, the gallery was wide open and currently unoccupied. Jim carefully ran his hand over the surface of the nearest column. It was perfectly smooth and cold as ice, but it didn't melt with the heat from his hand as any ice would do. A material with these properties could be of multiple uses to the United States government. He was about to try to chip free a sample when he heard voices approaching...
* * *
Back in Washington, things had gone from beyond bizarre to unimaginable. In his hand Colonel Richmond held a letter from the mad... madman? madwoman? A letter from the person possibly responsible for what was now a total of seven strange deaths.
"Hickory dickory dock. The mouse ran up the clock.
In the next room, agents held the three surviving members of the first diplomatic mission to Hudson Bay. One, a congressman from Georgia, sat ripping and eating pages from a set of encyclopedias and was currently in the process of consuming volume FA-GHO. The senator from Pennsylvania was deathly afraid of the dark and hadn't slept in a week. His eyes nearly disappeared into the cellars that his eye sockets had become. Senator Vandegrin hadn't spoken to anyone or anything since her pillar proposal was thrown out. She sat quietly at the end of the table, secure in the knowledge that this building had no columns. A dramatic jet-black dress and matching veil mirrored her mental state.
One of these three was bent on doing in the rest, while all displayed the effects of something which had taken its toll on anyone who'd gone on that diplomatic mission. Of minimal consolation was the fact that it didn't seem to be directly contagious.
Richmond went to the door of his office and motioned to one of his agents. Catherine stepped full into the room as the colonel checked his watch.
"It's three of two now, Perze. Any signs?"
The agent shut the door and faced her superior. "All three of them are showing signs of anticipation, sir. Expecting the killer to give himself away in this situation is 'armchair psychology' and I really hate it when unqualified people prac-- " she halted as she realized what she was saying. "Sorry, Colonel."
Richmond grimaced. He didn't care about the outburst but he had hoped Perze's sideline studies might be of some use in their investigation.
"'The mouse got you,'" he repeated from the note. "Who do you suppose the 'you' is?"
"Seagal found the note in Vandegrin's mail today."
"That rules her out -- unless..."
The clock in the square began to chime. Two PM. Colonel Richmond and his agent exchanged looks. Catherine drew her derringer from a vest pocket and opened the door to the outer room. Everyone was still in his or her seats, Kiroc Seagal at his post by the exit.
For the briefest of moments it appeared that the mouse was bluffing.
As the last chime faded away, the congressman from Georgia set down the volume he was consuming and opened what was left of it to the last page. The senator from Pennsylvania stood up and took off his stovepipe hat. From out of nowhere both men were suddenly armed and taking aim --
-- at Colonel Richmond.
Catherine beat the southerner to the trigger; his .44 went flying. At the same instant Seagal tackled the senator, barely deflecting the shot. Richmond dove back through the door and out of the line of fire, just missing a collision with the full-length mirror that resided by the exit.
During the attack, Vandegrin was still as death. But as her two fellow politicians were being subdued, fear and loathing began to creep over her face. As they were disarmed, forced back in their chairs, and restrained by the agents, she rose and faced the man just beyond the doorway.
"A cat may have nine lives, Colonel," she hissed, "but you've only got one left!"
Emily raised her left hand and the single-shot derringer it contained, and fired at Richmond. The silhouette in the doorway shattered into a million pieces as the slug slammed into the full-length mirror projecting Richmond's image. With it shattering what little remained of the mouse's sanity.
* * *
The head gunsel indicated a corridor near the lift tube. "The doctor says to put 'im in the icehouse for now 'till he has time to deal with it."
West flattened behind the nearest pillar and held his breath. In this cold, the steam would give him away. The men the head gunsel was ordering shuffled by, passing uncomfortably close. Jim inched around the column to get a look at who or what was going to the icehouse at their hands.
Three men in green were carrying his partner.
Amazingly, the air entering the icehouse was tens of degrees colder than the rest of the place. West followed the procession until they reached the icehouse, unceremoniously deposited their cargo and then departed, sealing the icehouse door behind them. Slipping around the corner, West crawled through a nearby air duct and followed the frigid icehouse ventilation breeze to what had to be the source. A grill riveted to the shaft blocked his way. Taking two buttons from his vest, he placed them where the grill was secured to the wall. The acid in the buttons reacted with the metal grill almost instantly. With a puff of coloured smoke the grill fell free and West was in the room.
The only illumination in the icehouse came from two small frosted windows in each of the two access doors directly across from one another, but it wasn't enough light to see anything clearly. From a hollow boot heel West produced a miniature reservoir of kerosene. A concealed jacket pocket offered up a crystal-and-metal lantern cover. His hat brim concealed a match. With minimal effort he now had a lantern. Its narrow beam moved about the room, falling upon frost-covered foodstuffs, perishable supplies, and the occasional block of water ice as it passed around the items in cold storage. Then finally, something familiar.
The men in green hadn't been into formality, just dropping their cargo in the middle of the floor and leaving. West was on his knees beside the face-down Artemus. The man he rolled over had obviously been in very cold water for some time and instantly he knew what must have happened. The only water around here was the bay. Somehow Artie had ended up in Hudson Bay and Jim's gut reaction was telling him he was holding a corpse.
People can survive being submerged in frigid water for prolonged periods of time. He'd read something about that somewhere but the details had escaped him. Pursuing the situation logically, West began searching for some sign of life in his partner. No pulse, nor detectable heartbeat. Artie's eyes didn't respond to light. There was no breath on the mirror. That gut reaction was being confirmed and reconfirmed...
While West searched for any sign of life, the light went out in the door window behind him to his left. A moment later, the door itself swung silently open.
Death was something James T. West would never accept in spite of his gut reaction, in spite of all the signs. Artemus would be fine, always had been; he always had some trick up his sleeve. Something to fool the opposition. And staying here wasn't going to do either of them any good. It was time to get out of this cold. Now.
West started to gather up his partner, unfortunately oblivious to what was happening behind him. Just as he reached his feet with his load, from out of the black something came crashing down on the back of his neck.
James West toppled as if poll-axed; his lantern clattered to the floor, illuminating the face of his assailant.
"That's two more for tyy, then," the assailant said with a grin. "I'd best put more water on."
* * *
Thousands of miles away, a fifteen-ship fleet departed Great Britain. In rare accord with her advisors, Queen Victoria was sending her finest to Britain's unusually silent North American colony and a possible confrontation with an old nemesis.
* * * * * * * * *
Go to PART THREE