On the Purpose of Fiction

Actions are largely driven by emotional responses, which in turn are created by thoughts.

Now, a man may, of course, act a given way through cool reflection: because he sees it is the thing to do. But he will not do so reliably. The head rules the hands through the heart. A man becomes moral or immoral when he reliably acts a certain way, which he does because he has an instinctive visceral reaction to the event. That is to say, a habit of thought; he runs through the pattern “I see X. X means Y. The proper response to Y is Z” without even having to be aware of it. “I could look at that man’s cards. That is cheating. A gentleman does not cheat. If I were to do that, I would not be a gentleman.” The man for whom this has become a clear conviction would be only vaguely aware of this thought process, but would feel the emotional revulsion to the idea of cheating at cards.

The thing is, it is the ‘a gentleman does not cheat’ that gives the thought its power. A philosophical dissertation on why cheating is wrong may be useful, but it creates little in the way of emotional power. For most people, the argument for why cheating is wrong simply will not fit into a pattern of thought; it’s too complex and requires too many other ideas. Besides which, ideas and actions do not quite overlap. It is one thing to define cheating, it is another to know it when you see it. The will and the intellect are separate faculties.

Therefore, the best way to translate a moral idea into the will is often to frame it in a concrete image.

This is why children tend to follow what their parents do rather than what they say. Words are just words; they are a step removed from the will. But actions are an expression of the will, and so are easier and more natural to imitate.

Most of our moral instruction, therefore, is based on imitation, whether of people we meet in real life or people we have presented before us as examples (much of the rest depends on platitudes or proverbs; easily repeatable thought patterns). We see the example and, based on how it is presented and how it seems to fit into our understanding, we have a certain emotional response; the figure is presented to us as admirable and attractive and so we form the thought “such-and-such an action is like what so-and-so does, therefore it is positive.”

This principle, of course, reaches its highest form in Our Lord Himself, who presents the ultimate image of what we ought to imitate. The next step from there are the Saints, who present concrete examples of what that imitation looks like (indeed, in a sense all moral behavior is imitation of Christ one way or another). Then we have historic, legendary, and cultural heroes, while the most basic example is imitation of the people around us.

At the same time, and built into all of this, is the idea of narrative; the pattern we detect in events and the meaning we discern from that pattern. The actions of exemplary figures, such as Christ or national heroes, is exemplary primarily due to the narrative surrounding them. We regard Winston Churchill as a hero because we understand the narrative as being the forces of liberty and civilization triumphing over barbarism. If we read it as a stubborn Capitalistic-Reactionary standing against and thwarting the destiny of the German people, we would have a very different view of the man, though we may still admire his courage and wit. In any case, the narrative creates the impression of what is admirable and what is not.

As indicated by the example, a narrative may be nearer or farther from the truth, which must be determined on quite different grounds (obviously the mere fact of being a narrative says nothing of its truth or falsehood). But the narrative provides a framework within which we find the concrete illustrations of moral principles. That whole topic will probably require an essay in itself.

Which brings us to fiction, which is the deliberate creation of a concrete moral image within a narrative. Almost like a diagram or drawing of values.   

Something that is often overlooked in discussions of people is the simple fact that human beings exist in time. Their nature is expressed over the course of a sequence of events, and in the context of other events that have taken place. A man logically implies a family, a community, a nation, a culture, and a history (thus the Incarnation of God as man logically includes a nation and culture for Him to be incarnate into, which is one reason the Old Testament cannot be simply ignored). The image of a man properly speaking is an image in time and in the context of events. Thus the proper image of a moral idea must likewise be the image of a series of events.  

Hence the human art of storytelling to provide that image, context, and the accompanying emotional response.

The latter is important, because we don’t only have to see the idea acted out, we have experience a proper emotional reaction to it. A positive emotion to a good image and a negative to bad one.

Again, a gentleman does not cheat. We are presented with an attractive figure of a gentleman, who does things that we naturally like. Say, he is shown to be courageous or kind to children. Then we see that when offered the opportunity to cheat, he turns away in disgust because that is not what a gentleman does. It is part of the moral idea we are presented with that cheating is no part of it. The image would be made more effective if his refusal to cheat led to hardship or sacrifice of some kind.

There was a Lois and Clark episode that actually did this very scenario; where Clark was playing cards with Perry, Lois, and Jimmy and losing badly. He’s sorely tempted to use his x-ray vision to cheat, but he refrains because that’s not what Superman does.

The idea is that the course of events, the narrative, will create the emotional response “this kind of behavior is good; it is what I would like to be” and “this kind of behavior is bad; I don’t want to be like that.” Then in the real world, you mentally associate similar situations with the events you saw or read or heard in the story, prompting a similar emotional response. “This is like when Clark had the opportunity to cheat, but he chose to be honest instead. I want to be like Clark, so I don’t want to cheat.”

The actual thought passes in an instant, but it gives you the visceral response that prompts you to want to act this way or not to act that way.

Now, just as complex ideas are composed of simpler ones and complex arguments are links of axioms, so the language of stories is composed of basic visceral responses. Kindness and Courage, for instance. Beauty is another one; we naturally want to sympathize with someone beautiful. So is humor; an amusing character can remain likable beyond any reason (e.g. Loki in the MCU, or Kasper Gutman in The Maltese Falcon). So, all things being equal, we make the figures whom we want people to like beautiful, kind, courageous, and amusing. We make the ones we want people not to like ugly, cruel, cowardly, and dour. Likely not all in one, since they need to be effective enough to create a story, but we send clear signals that you do not want to be like this person.

Hence, Christians in modern fiction are almost always humorless scolds at best, because we naturally do not like that kind of person or want to be like them. Therefore, we experience a visceral reaction against that figure.

(I rather think the general inertia of modern Christians is due, at least in part, to this effect, reacting against the figures portrayed both in fiction and supposed non-fiction: sheer repetition of negative images of Christians creates it as a pattern of thought in our mind. When faced with standing up for ourselves and the truth, we automatically think in terms of “that kind of Christian” and instinctively react against it. Basically, we’ve had a form of depression imposed upon us).

This pattern is clearest in the old fairy tales. Cinderella is an impoverished noblewoman forced to act as a servant to her wicked stepsisters and stepmother. But because she remains humble and kind, she is rewarded with a supernatural grace which marks her out and which eventually elevates her far above them. We viscerally sympathize with Cinderella because 1. She is beautiful, 2. She is kind, and 3. She is being treated unjustly. Even simply laying those out: “Cinderella is a beautiful and kind girl who was treated unjustly” is enough to evoke a simple moral response and to make us think “I am on her side.” Taken as a whole, the story creates the moral response “it is good to be patient and humble in the face of adversity and injustice” (incidentally, this is why I think the live action Cinderella is one of the few Disney remakes that actually works; because it’s simply a straight-forward telling of the story).

Lily James in Cinderella (2015)

Obviously, not many stories are quite as simple as that. There are usually quite a few and complex responses being conveyed by a given story or set of characters, even in a relatively straightforward story. If you take something like a Honeymooners episode, for instance, you have the specific plot of the episode; say, the Christmas one where Ralph ends up selling his new bowling ball to get Alice the present she wants, conveying the idea of generosity. But you also have the whole dynamic of Ralph and Alice’s abrasive, but loving relationship, Ralph and Ed’s friendship, and the give-and-take of their working-class existence. The show makes us sympathize with the Kramdens, even as we laugh at their antics, and makes us want to imitate them to an extent (e.g. being good-hearted like Ralph or patient-but-sharp like Alice).

The Honeymooners (1955)

Things grow more sophisticated and more complicated with meatier stories. Emma could be summed up as a story about overcoming vanity and the assumption that one knows what is best for others (which is itself a pretty sophisticated idea to impart), but there’s a great deal more going on at the same time, such as snobbery, presumption, patience with the irritating and ridiculous, affairs of the heart, matters of honesty, and so on. The ideas conveyed are subtler and more sophisticated, but once again they are conveyed, even if the reader doesn’t recognize them. We come away hoping to avoid being as vain and snobbish as Emma is in her worst moments and hoping to be as compassionate, sensible, and loyal as she is in her best.

Romola Garai in Emma (2009)
2009 BBC version is the best adaptation, btw

So, I would argue, the primary purpose of fiction is to inculcate moral responses through vicarious emotions.

When I say primary purpose, I don’t, of course, mean that this is what necessarily what anyone who sets out to write a story has in mind. They may not have thought of the matter at all. Nor do I mean that any given story might not be primarily intended by its creator to do something else.

My point is that this is what stories in fact do whether they do anything else. They create an emotional response through the actions of the characters, with the response being either positive or negative, forming patterns of thought that incline us this way or that. It may be a very small effect, it may be a great one, but unless the story has utterly failed as a story – not just as a bad story, like Captain Marvel but to the point where you can’t really take it as a ‘story’ at all, like Octaman – it will not be nothing.

(Not to digress too far, but this is a point to be clarified; there is a difference between a bad story and a work that doesn’t really even function as a story, just as there is a difference between bad acting and non-acting. It is the difference between a book where the characters are carboard, the plot makes no attempt at consistency, and the dialogue is all cliché and a book where the grammar and spelling are so bad that it doesn’t actually convey any coherent narrative to your mind at all. Such books or films can be very entertaining, but not as stories).

This is why stories are so important; they inculcate values, and our values determine how we behave. They are not the only things that do this, as noted above, but they are very powerful tools in that regard. Just as a thousand word description of Audrey Hepburn would not have the same impact as a single photograph, so a five-page dissertation on the nature of courage will not have the same impact as a well-written ‘Conan’ story.

Audrey Hepburn in Green Mansions (1959)

And I would argue that popular, ‘light’ fiction, the pulps and ‘penny dreadfuls’ and children’s tales are perhaps the most important of all in this regard. Because there the emotional response has to be on point. The author can’t rely on reputation, or clever ideas, or stylistic elegance to make people want to read his work; he has to hit close to the basic, fundamental language of value. As Chesterton put it in his seminal work on the subject, “The vast mass of humanity, with their vast mass of idle books and idle words, have never doubted and never will doubt that courage is splendid, that fidelity is noble, that distressed ladies should be rescued, and vanquished enemies spared.”

Thus popular fiction, it seems to me, tends to be naturally reactionary in its values, regardless of the author’s intentions. It is here that kings and princesses thrive, great individual leaders take center stage, men are heavily masculine and women very feminine, and things like honor and courage and loyalty make up the major themes. Even when it preaches revolutionary doctrine, a work of popular fiction most often needs to have traditional values at its core in order to make people pay attention. Harry Potter, for instance, has some trendy talk of tolerance and racism and so forth, but these lie on the surface of a story about dueling ancient families, the legacy of fathers, friendship, honor, loyalty, and love, with damsels to be rescued and monsters to be slain. Even something as crude as the Friday the 13th series ultimately rests on the idea of punishment for transgressions and the past rising up to strike those who do not respect it. The author may intentionally create a progressive or radical scenario or character, but only intentionally, and the traditionalist values remains the default perspective, because that is how such stories work. Sure, Joss Whedon can have a whole episode of Firefly painting prostitution as triumphantly feminist, but he’s still going to have Kaylee being kidnapped and menaced by the villain of the week every other episode and showing off Mal’s patriarchal authority because that is what makes for an interesting story of this type.

Photo Courtesy 20th Century Fox
What? No, this essay isn’t just an excuse to post pictures of beautiful women.

In short, popular fiction, I would argue, is one of the strongest bulwarks of traditional values. Simply put, they can’t afford to be otherwise. Not unless those values have been thoroughly extricated from the audience.

For herein also lies the danger; popular fiction, like Minas Tirith, is a mighty fortress, but it is not invincible. And if it is taken, then the situation really is desperate. Why do you think the Soviets spent millions of dollars a year funding Communist agents in Hollywood? They understood that even a little evil slipped into popular fiction would, if done consistently, be more effective in transforming the west than reams and reams of direct propaganda. Because the fiction creates the values, and the values determine which side someone will and will not listen to in the first place. We come to naturally associate one person with the evil racists or heartless fat cats we see all the time in films and books, and the other person with the poor innocent whom they insult and oppress, and the argument is over before it begins. We don’t even look long enough to notice that the former does real good for real people while the latter is narcissistic to the point of insanity. We see the pattern and react automatically according to the value judgments inculcated, in part, by the fiction we consume.

This is why popular fiction must be taken very seriously, and all efforts to remove or alter classic works must be strenuously resisted. This is also why it is so important that new and vibrant authors of good will to produce good work and we the audience should be seeking out and supporting such works. If our culture is sick because it’s been drinking polluted water, then the thing to do is to provide clean water. Or at least good beer.  

Chapter Four of ‘Perseus Corbett and the Forbidden Valley’

See Chapter One here, Chapter Two here, and Chapter Three here

Chapter Four
The Unexpected Outcome of a Museum Gala

“Well, we’ve gone and done it, young fellah my lad.”
-Lord John Roxton, The Lost World

On the following evening, Perseus found himself at the Natural History Museum, dressed in a rented suit and tails, with a ticket in hand that had cost almost as much, scanning the crowed of richly dressed guests the way a lion scans a herd of zebras, looking for that one who stands out as a viable target.

Martin had outdone himself. The gala was being held in honor of an expedition to Borneo that had returned in triumph with several new species of insects, reptiles, and birds, one of which – dubbed the silver eagle for its sticking feathers and nocturnal habits – had made rather a sensation. The reception was held in the central hall of the museum, with specimens from the expedition on triumphal display at temporary stands between the pillars of the gothic space (the live specimen of the silver eagle was perched in a large cage in the center of the hall, shooting warning looks at anyone who ventured too close). Virtually all the most important and influential zoological men of the Royal Academy and the major universities were there, along with their patrons, and all, no doubt, were eager for a ‘silver eagle’ of their own. Here if anywhere, he would find what he sought.

He got some champagne and, putting on his best winning manner, the one that he had used to flirt with tourists when he had worked on a riverboat, he selected the elderly Lord Fitzgibbons and his wife (Martin had provided him a list of notable people who would be present) and began making small talk. They were charmed, particularly Lady Fitzgibbon, and a few anecdotes and compliments were enough to establish a rapport.

But just as he was laying the foundations for his attack, there was a momentary lull in the chatter around him and a voice reached his ears from across the hall.

“Tell me, Lady Elizabeth, will you be making another donation to the museum this year?”

That name. Surely not…

In a flash, Perseus forgot everything and whipped around. His eyes found her at once, standing beside the diplodocus skeleton, not twenty feet away from him.

The same, and yet not the same. The skinny, rambunctious girl, all arms and legs, covered in freckles and insect bites, had become a tall, elegant woman; grace and refinement in every limb. The tangled red hair was now smooth and done up in a kind of crown, like a halo of flame. The dirty, torn frocks had been replaced by a green dress trimmed in gold which emphasized her fiery hair, as well as her firm and blooming figure. Her face was much as it had been, yet somehow more. Beautiful, certainly; it was a face made for the open air, for the adoring, obedient eyes of dogs and horses. An open, kind face that looked as though it would be quick to laughter.

But the eyes—the bright, hazel-green eyes, sparkling with life—those hadn’t changed.

Martin hadn’t said a word…perhaps she was a late addition to the guest list? Or had he deliberately kept quiet to ensure Perseus ran into her. He might have to have words with him later.

“I suspect I shall,” Elizabeth was saying without interest. “I always find human knowledge a good investment.”

“I just wondered,” said the other woman, whom Perseus had barely noticed. “As I’d heard you’d purchased yourself a new horse.”

“Apparently to my shame, I have money for both,” said Elizabeth, coloring slightly. “Horses needs homes just like anyone else.”

Perseus disengaged himself from his new acquaintances without noticing what he said and crossed the room.

“Of course,” said the other, making a note. She was evidently a reporter of some kind.

“Oh, bother, you’re going to make that sound horrible, aren’t you? ‘Lady Elizabeth says that she sees people on a level with horses.’”

“That is one possible interpretation of what you said,” the reporter replied with a smile like vinegar. “After all, I can’t help notice that your donations tend to be, how shall I put it? Abstract. Why not give to something more practical, if you really want to put your money to good use?”

“What would you suggest?” asked Elizabeth.

“Say, the League of Women voters? Or the Peace Pledge Union? Something for the immediate benefit of mankind.” 

“Personally,” said Perseus, sliding into the conversation. “I don’t think people are on a level with horses. I think, taking all in all, that horses are far preferable. Particularly compared with the League of Women Voters.”

Elizabeth laughed, looking at him with grateful surprise.

“And, who are you, sir?” asked the reporter.

“Only a barbarian from beyond the sea,” he said with a bow. “Now if you don’t mind, I should like to borrow Lady Elizabeth for a moment.”

Elizabeth nodded at the woman with elaborate politeness and allowed Perseus to draw her aside.

“Thank you for coming to my rescue,” she said. “I’d a hundred times prefer to be abducted by barbarians than preyed upon by reporters.”

“Does she do it so often?”

“Always,” said Elizabeth. “That’s Sarah Manning, society writer for the Guardian. Rather hot on the subject of the aristocracy and how it is ‘a parasitical tumor upon British society,’ I believe is how she put it. I suppose tomorrow I’ll receive a double-dose of venom for your gallantry, but at least I can enjoy the look on her face tonight, and so for that I thank you, Sir Barbarian.”

“My pleasure, your ladyship,” he answered with a bow.

“I didn’t catch your name,” she said. She tilted her head, scrutinizing him closely. “And…pardon me, but have we met before?”

“We have,” he said. “And I am glad to see that at least the sea monster hasn’t gotten you yet.”

Her hazel eyes widened and her jaw dropped. For a moment, all her good breeding and elegant habits were lost in astonishment.

“Perseus?” she said. “Perseus Corbett? I…my goodness, I wouldn’t have recognized you! You have…well, you’ve grown!”

“So have you,” he said. “I suppose it happens over fourteen years, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, yes it does,” she stammered, hardly thinking what she was saying. “But where on Earth have you been? The last I heard you’d gone off to sea.”

“You heard of that?” he said, surprised.

“Of course. I wrote to ask you to come for Christmas, but your mother said you’d gone.”

“Oh,” he said. He felt thrown by the news; it had never occurred to him that she would do such a thing. “I thought your mother didn’t like me.”

“She didn’t frightfully, but I talked her into it. I was so disappointed to find out you weren’t coming.”    

“I…I’m afraid I had to start earning my fortune,” he said.

“Oh, yes,” she said. She seemed suddenly embarrassed and dropped her eyes, fingering her dress. “I mean, of course I realize that now.”

As they spoke, he thought something else about her had changed. The quickness, the colt-like energy that had marked her every move and expression in the past was gone. She seemed…slower. Tireder. The spirited colt had been reined. 

There was a somewhat uncomfortable pause. The things he really wanted to say to her, the things he wanted to ask her, couldn’t be said. He was trying to get a surreptitious look at her left hand, but she was holding them so that he couldn’t see. They were rescued by Lord and Lady Fitzgibbon.

“Lady Elizabeth! Do you know Mr. Corbett?” his Lordship asked.

“Oh, yes, we go way back,” said Elizabeth.

“Old friends,” said Perseus, watching to see what effect that might have on her. She gave no sign of either approval or disapproval.

“I am surprised you never mentioned him!” said her Ladyship. “Such a charming man.”

Was it his imagination, or was there a twinkle in Lady Fitzgibbon’s eyes?

“It’s been some time since we’ve seen each other,” Elizabeth answered.

“That certainly explains your hasty departure, Mr. Corbett,” said his Lordship with a smile. “Say no more! We shall leave you to your bewitching companion.”

They bowed and drifted off.

“When did you become acquainted with them?” she asked

“About five minutes ago.”

“Quick work. You seem to have made your fortune after all, haven’t you?”

“Looks can be deceiving,” he said, glancing down at his suit. “As a matter of fact I’m here on business.”

“How tiresome,” she said. “But tell me, what sort of business is it that you do? Nothing in London, surely.”

“Not usually, no,” he said with a grin. “I have done…well, quite a lot. I was a sailor during the Great War, and a soldier in one or two little ones. I ran a tour boat on the Nile, I tried my hand at ranching for a bit, I’ve hunted and trekked through most of the odd places of the world, and now I’m dabbling in a bit of field science.”

“My goodness! Then you’ve actually done it, haven’t you?” she exclaimed. Her lovely hazel eyes were wide with wonder, and she looked at him the way a child looks at a particularly good magician. “I mean, all those things we talked about as children that we wanted to do.”

“I suppose I have,” he said. “But I’m sure you’ve done some as well, haven’t you?”

“No,” she said. “No, I’m afraid I’ve turned into quite the boring, stay at home sort; the most adventure I have is the occasional hunting trip or riding party. And never farther abroad than Ireland.”

“Really?” he said in genuine surprise. “Has something happened to Sangral?”

“Oh, no; it’s taking in quite as much money as ever, and I’ve made a bit of an investment or two that have paid off handsomely. It isn’t want of resources; more want of opportunity.”

“I see,” he said, though he didn’t. “And how is the old place?”

“Quite the same as ever,” she said. “Tredwell is still treading about, your uncle is still keeping the grounds lovely. Mother sits home in her conservatory most of the time. And…and I’m afraid Father died some years ago; just after the war, in fact.”

“Did he? I am very sorry to hear that,” said Perseus. “I always liked him.”

“Yes, it was rather horrible,” she said in a dull kind of voice that sounded jarring coming from her. “Especially coming just then when we were all thinking we’d gotten through it.”

“Was he ill?”

“No, it was a motorcar. Some drunken fool ran him down.”

She cleared her throat and rallied herself.

“But never mind that. No help for it. Anyway, I don’t suppose you want to waste time hearing all my dreary news. And most of it is dreary; as I say, I’ve turned out frightfully boring.”

“It can’t all be dreary,” he said. “Come now; no good news?”

He braced himself as she considered the question.

“Well, as you heard, I have some charming horses,” she said. “And I have had a bit of a lark funding expeditions to interesting places. I don’t go myself, but at least I hear amusing stories from the people do. As a matter of fact, I put a bit of money toward this trip, though don’t let Ms. Manning hear that; she did a piece last year on how I only do it to keep my name in the papers. As if I want people to write horrible things about me! But there I go being dreary again, and it’s really too dull for me to recite that sort of thing when I want to hear more about you. Oh! do you still have that medal I gave you?”

“Of course!” he said smiling to cover the stab of guilt in his stomach. “I keep it very safe.”

“That’s a relief! I was just thinking that, with your running all over the world, getting into adventures, and being in the war and all it was…not that I’m suggesting you would be reckless with it, just that it is very precious and all.”

“Quite, quite,” he said, hoping she would change the subject. At the same time he noted the nervous, embarrassed edge to the question, with her perceived need to apologize for asking. That again wasn’t like her. Yes, she was definitely less sure of herself than she had been. He wondered what had brought the change.

“So, what is this business you’re here about?” she asked after another somewhat embarrassed pause. 

“Oh, that,” he said. “That is…a little complicated.”

He really didn’t want to have to lie to Elizabeth of all people. Yet here was an opportunity that he could not possibly pass by. He made up his mind in an instant. 

“The long and short of it is,” he said, lowering his voice, “that I’m hoping to get a little expedition together to go take a look at a backwater of the Amazon. I’ve happened to hear rumors of there being unique species in that region. I was rather hopping to convince one of these scientists to take an interest in it.”  

“Oh, is that all!” she said. “Why the whispering, then? I might be able to help you there. I know most of these scientist fellows. And if you need money…”

“I couldn’t ask you to do that!” he said.

“Whyever not?” she said. “I told you, it’s practically a hobby of mine, and I’d just as soon fund something for you as for a stranger.”

“Well…” he said, hesitantly. “I certainly could use the help, I won’t deny; I haven’t been in England since the war.”

“Come along then; we’ll hash it all out,” she said. “But not here; don’t suppose you want to talk with all these people about.”

He shrugged, nodded, and allowed her to lead him away.

“Damn, there’s another reporter; we’ll go this way…”

After a few more turns and detours to avoid certain guests, she had led him out of the central hall and down the corridors. After checking one or two chambers and finding them occupied by other guests who had sought to escape the main party, she at last deposited him in the hall of reptiles beside a case of various snakes.

“Perfect,” she said. “Now wait here a moment; I think I know just the man you want to see…”

She disappeared, leaving Perseus to try to gather his scattered thoughts. A few minutes later, she returned trailing a thin, elderly man behind her.

“Professor Julius Illingworth, may I present my old friend, Mr. Perseus Corbett.

During one of his many adventures, Perseus Corbett had spent some time in a very old house in the southern United States. One room had held numerous taxidermized specimens of deer, bear, and other creatures, but the house had been abandoned for so long that they had dried out and begun to fall in upon themselves.

Professor Illingworth reminded him forcibly of one of those creatures.

He was tall and very thin, with sunken cheeks and grey hair that was rapidly losing its war with the inevitable. He had a drooping kind of mustache and deep-set grey eyes with heavy eyelids that made him look a bit like an old dog. His grey suit appeared a trifle too large for him, as though it had been tailored for him when he had been more filled out and healthy. But the gaze that met his was sharp and cunning, and Perseus guessed that, however desiccated the man may be, he had lost none of his wits. 

“How do you do, sir?” he said, offering a cadaverous hand as he surveyed Perseus with his cold blue eyes. Perseus could almost feel the old man’s gaze as it swept over his tan, his scars, and took the measure of his frame. “I understand that you have some sort of proposition.”

“I do, sir,” he answered. “I’m by way of being an amateur naturalist myself; knocked around the world quite a bit…”

“Have you?” Illingworth interrupted. “Then of course you would have no trouble recognizing that specimen?” He indicated one of the taxidermied snakes under the glass, putting his hand over the label.

“Naturally,” said Perseus smoothly. “Kanburi pit viper. Lovely creature, isn’t it?”

“Magnificent,” said Illingworth in a mechanical tone. “And are you familiar with its cousin, the Stejneger viper?”

“I have made its acquaintance, yes,” said Perseus. “Not quite so attractive as this fellow.”

“Not at all. And you must then have encountered the Carneddau viper in your travels?”

Perseus sensed the trap.

“I have not, I am afraid, nor have I read of that species,” he said. “Some new discovery of your own, perhaps? The name suggests a Welsh variant.”

Illingworth smiled, a thin smile that did not reach his eyes.

“It has been some years since I have been actively involved in field work,” he said. “There is no such creature, to the best of my knowledge. 

“Ah, I see,” said Perseus. “You were attempting to trip me up? To show me as a fraud and imposter?”

“It has been known to happen,” said Illingworth. “Particularly where…” he glanced at Elizabeth. “Money is concerned.”

“So it has. I could tell you a fair few stories from my travels.”

“I am sure you could,” said Illingworth in a dry tone. “Now, what is this proposal of yours?”

“As I was saying, I have been around the world quite a lot. I was in Portugal a short time back where I chanced to meet a retired fellow from the Brazilian army. Left when the empire was overthrown. Anyway, he had done a deal of work in the Amazon; helped get the telegraph started. Living out in the wilds, he got to know the locals quite well, and they told him tales of a certain tributary, way back in the beyond of beyond, supposedly the haunt of monsters. One day he got curious and paid some of the fellows to show him the way. Well, he told me, after a long journey, they started seeing queer things; things he hadn’t seen anywhere else in the jungle.”

“Such as what?” asked Illingworth.

“He had a bit of trouble describing them to me,” said Perseus. “He was a bit far gone, I’ll admit; stumbled a little in his words, but I gather there were great snakes and huge birds, like the moa, you know. And a variety of large mammalian life; like bears, he said.”

“In the jungle?”

“Quite, that is what I thought.”

“What was your friends’ name, may I ask?”

“He said that it was Colonel Torres,” said Perseus. “Though I confess, from things he let drop, I suspect that was an alias. He kept talking of enemies.”  

“This is all very entertaining,” said Illingworth, in a tone that suggested he had never been entertained in his life. “But I still do not grasp what you want from us?”

“I propose an expedition, sir, to travel up this river and document its wildlife.”

“In fact, you wish us to pay you to travel to the Amazon based on the word of a man you yourself describe as a paranoid drunkard, and who, for all I can see, may not even exist?”

“Not at all!” said Perseus. “I want you to send some of your own people to the Amazon, and I offer my services as a guide.”

“It comes to much the same thing, does it not?” asked Illingworth.

“Indeed,” said Perseus with a bow. “You are, professor, a very clever man, I can see. You’ve got me in a nice little corner here. How can I prove my good faith on such a matter? I have no references in this country, save Lady Elizabeth here, and while I’m sure no man could doubt her good will or good sense, what can she really tell you on this matter when this is the first she is hearing of it as well? If I were to summon my partner to vouch for my story, you would only say that he is as much a crook as myself. What, then, do you suggest I do?”

“What indeed?” asked Illingworth.   

“What are you going to do?” asked Elizabeth. She was watching him with keen interest; like a child watching for the magician to pull his trick.

“Nothing simpler,” he answered. “I will venture to forego all payment until the successful completion of the expedition. ‘Satisfaction guaranteed or services free’. How will that do?”  

Elizabeth’s face broke into a radiant grin that nearly upset Perseus’s air of nonchalance.

“That, I should say, will be most satisfactory,” she said. “You might have had a career in advertising.”

Illingworth, however, though he looked surprised, did not look satisfied.

“May I ask, sir, why this is so important to you?”

Perseus tore his eyes off of Elizabeth to look at Illingworth.

“An adventure,” he said. “I am not particularly concerned with money, you see, but I do like a good adventure. This seems a cracking good one: the chance to explore one of the remaining really unknown places on Earth, to see things that few if any men have ever seen before. That is worth more to me than any gold.”

Illingworth surveyed him with dry skepticism.

“That may be so, sir, but I must say that I see no practical benefit to the museum in this proposal.”        

“No benefit?” Elizabeth exclaimed. “A truly unexplored and undocumented ecosystem?”

“In the first place, I have heard nothing to convince me that such a place exists,” said Illingworth. “In the second, I am sure there are many such places in the world today, but an institution such as ours has better things to do with its time and money than go hauling around the world looking for them on bare and uncertain evidence. It would be a great expense with a very small likelihood of a reasonable return. Much as I care for the advancement of knowledge, the discovery of a few new species of butterfly or lizard or even bird would not significantly impact our reputation or income one way or another, despite what the papers may say.”

Elizabeth looked at him with something of expression she might have given if she had caught him burning the Union Jack. Then a mischievous glint came into her eyes, and she shrugged her slender shoulders.

“Oh, well,” she said. “I can certainly respect your feelings on the matter. We shall simply have to ask elsewhere.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Personally, I am convinced of Mr. Corbett’s sincerity and good intentions, and I, for one, mean to see to it that this river is found and documented. And so, if the Natural History Museum is not interested, I will have to go elsewhere.”

Illingworth’s cold, dry manner slipped a little.

“Lady Elizabeth, you surely are not going to waste your money on such a…” he glanced at Perseus. “Uncertain venture?”

“Why not?” she said. “It is my money, after all, despite what some people seem to think. And I don’t know that it is so uncertain. At any rate, I intend to fund this expedition as soon as I find a scientific organization that is more concerned with advancing human knowledge than advancing its reputation.”

Perseus had to bite his lip to hide his grin. He tried not to look at either of them for fear he would lose composure entirely.

“I…as to that…” Illingworth spluttered.

Perseus could almost hear the thought process going on in the old man’s head; Elizabeth was an important patron of the museum. Whatever the costs of the expedition, losing her backing would be worse.

“Not only do I intend to fund it,” she went on. “I intend to accompany it.”

Perseus’s amusement vanished.

“You what?” he said.

She beamed at him.

“Yes, I think, since I am making an investment, I ought to see what my investment will buy for once.”

“Well, yes,” he said. “But, you know, it’s going to be quite dangerous.”

“Of course I realize that.”

She didn’t, he could tell. No one ever really did until they were there. He hadn’t expected this. It was one thing risking himself in a quest for gold; risking Elizabeth was something else entirely. Especially when he had lied about what exactly they were looking for a and why he was going. He felt hot, prickling shame in his stomach and a sensation like coming fever at the back of his throat.

But it was too late now; if he admitted the truth, there would be the end of it.  

“Much as I would love to have you along,” he said. “I strongly, strongly advise against it. We are going to be travelling in very rough country, and there will be jaguars and venomous snakes and insects and disease and many of the tribes are very unfriendly to outsiders, and that isn’t even considering the hardships and lack of privacy and…”

He stopped. The more he spoke, the brighter her eyes became, and he realized he was only making her more determined. He sighed. There was nothing for it.

“But if you really are determined,” he said. “Then I suppose I can’t stop you.”

“No, you can’t,” she answered. “Now all we have to do is to find another museum to provide the necessary scientific…”

“Oh, very well,” said Illingworth. “If you really mean to insist upon this venture, then I shall at least see to it that some good comes of it.”

“You will back the expedition, then?”

“Yes, yes, I shall,” he sighed. “I don’t know what it will do to my reputation, but so be it. When do you propose we start?”

“The sooner the better, I should think,” said Elizabeth.

“Very well. I shall have my assistant begin work on an itinerary. Now, where is that boy? Bill!”

***

While all this was going on, Martin had waited in the eastern wing of the museum, watching the party from the shadow of the portico with keen eyes for any sign of trouble. Underneath his stoic exterior, he was really rather anxious; he didn’t like Perseus’s scheme very much, and had only agreed to it because he hadn’t been able to think of a better plan. But if he could not prevent it, the only thing to do was to be on hand to try to ensure it came off.

At the same time, he had had an impish curiosity to see what happened when Perseus met Lady Elizabeth at last, as well as to see her for himself (it was partly for that reason that he had neglected to inform Perseus that she would be there). For though Perseus had never spoken much about her, Martin knew enough to guess at what he hadn’t said. He observed their conversation closely, unable to hear, but exercising his keen eye to judge their manners. Once they had disappeared into the west wing, Martin withdrew into the quiet corridors to think and to consider what he had observed.

He rather liked what he saw of Lady Elizabeth. She was certainly a beautiful young woman, and what was rarer, she knew how to dress well. She appeared to have perfectly good manners, but without affectation. A thoroughly charming young lady, he concluded, though he detected an air of anxiety about her that he didn’t quite like. He would have to keep an eye on that. 

For all his sophistication, Martin Halritter really had a very simple soul. He was the quintessential servant; no talk of salary or communal service interested him, nor was he any company man, but personal loyalty to one man or one family was the prime mover of his soul. Many there are for whom it is so, and at that time they were already beginning to suffer from the want of such opportunity in a rapidly changing world.

Perseus Corbett was no gentleman, at least not yet, but Martin had seen in him qualities that he thought would make for true nobility. And so, he had attached himself to him. They spoke as equals, and Martin never used the word ‘Sir,’ yet in his mind he was a valet and Perseus was his gentleman. There was between them that deep, abiding love that is sometimes called friendship, other times simply loyalty, but stands in a class of its own; the peculiar love of servant and master that in some ways is akin to that of father and son, save that neither could say which was which.

As he strolled softly up the hall, he became aware of voices coming from the hall of fossils. Curious, he drifted nearer to try to catch what was heard. A combination of the training of a good servant and many years spent in dark and dangerous places had given him the power of moving quite silently when he wished, and he did so now, gliding down the hall to see what was afoot.

Peering around the corner of the entry way, he beheld two young people standing amid the looming skeletons of ancient monsters. One was a big, amiable-looking young man with a thin mustache, the other a slender girl with long dark hair and an attractive, clever kind of face.

“Bill, this is ridiculous,” the girl was saying.  

“No, but really Frances, I do love you…”

“Yes, yes, you have told me many times, but why you dragged me in here to tell me it over again…”

“Why? You think it’s odd that I should want to talk to you alone?”

“No, of course not,” she said. “But why here?”

“So your father shouldn’t catch us.”

“Do you think I would mind terribly if he did?”

“Perhaps not, but I would, seeing as he’s my employer. And how could I marry you without a job?”

“Honestly, Bill, I don’t know that having you constantly worrying about what my father will think is much improvement over a life in the poorhouse.”

“I don’t worry about what he thinks, but I do respect him and…”

“And you are terrified of the idea that he may sack you,” she said.

“I am not terrified!”

“Is that why you haven’t told him yet? Is that why we’re meeting here, in secret, away from everyone else?”

“No, I…well…”

He stumbled, fumbling for a way to deny the obvious. She sighed and shook her head.

“Bill, I do love you, but I don’t know that I can go on like this. You simply have to tell him and take what comes. It’ll do you good.”

“It’s likely to do me in,” he said.

The girl lost patience.

“Perhaps it will, but I don’t know that I care to marry a man who cannot even risk a harsh word from his employer.”

“But Frances, darling…”

“No, listen to me Bill,” she said, recovering her temper. “A comfortable home and a sure income are not all. I need to know that I can rely on you.”

“Surely my judicious caution proves that.”

“No, Bill; what you call ‘judicious caution’ only shows that you can’t stand unpleasantness. You always try to take the easy, safe way, and that makes me wonder whether you will be there for me if it ever becomes difficult. Do you see?” 

He swallowed.

“I…no, you’re perfectly right. I shall prove my courage.”

At this point, Martin heard the quick, soft steps an approaching servant and silently ducked into an alcove as a waiter strode past him into the hall.

“Mr. Little?” he said. “Professor Illingworth is calling for you.”

“Oh, yes; of course,” said Bill, hastily stepping away from Frances. “I-I shall be there directly.”

The waiter bowed and withdrew.

“Will you tell him now?” she asked.

“I…perhaps,” he said. “We’ll see what he wants first.”

He hesitated, then kissed her in a sudden burst of passion before dashing off. Frances stood stunned for a moment, then sighed, shook her head, and followed. Martin remained where he was, stroking his long chin thoughtfully.

Young people were really very silly.

***

“There you are!” Illingworth snapped as a big, round-shouldered boy with sandy brown hair appeared. “I would remind you that you are not here for your personal amusement; this is work.”

“Yes, sir,” said Bill. Perseus thought he gave the distinct impression of a dog. A big, friendly, likable kind of dog; say a Labrador or a retriever, but definitely a subservient character.

“I want you to begin work on an itinerary,” Illingworth ordered. “It seems that I shall going on expedition soon. You will prepare my schedule and be ready with my apologies once the dates are set.”

“Expedition, sir?” asked Bill.  

“Do you mean you’re coming yourself, Professor?” said Elizabeth in surprise.

“I do. Since I shall be taking full responsibility for this…endeavor, I shall at least go along to ensure the work is done properly.”

“Is that…wise, sir?” asked Bill. “At your time of life?”

“Thank you, Bill, but I assure I am quite fit,” said Illingworth sharply. “This will not be my first trip to the Amazon; I know perfectly well what to expect.”

He drew himself up and seemed to flicker momentarily to life, like a dying fire under the bellows.

“It will probably do me good,” he added. “I’ve been cooped up in that drafty office for too long.”

“Yes, sir,” said Bill.

“What is going on?”

A girl joined them. She was short and slender, with long dark hair and wonderfully formed hands. Her pale skin was appealingly contrasted by her black dress.

“Your father is going on expedition to the Amazon, Frances,” said Bill.

“You are?” she said in evident surprise.

“Yes, and don’t you start about my age,” Illingworth said, though in a different and much gentler tone than he had used with Bill.

“I wasn’t about to,” she said. “I think it’s wonderful! It’s been ages since you’ve gotten out and done any real work.”

She glanced at Bill, who colored a little.

“Ah, before we go any further, sir,” he said, clearing his throat. “There is something I…that is to say…”

“Well, what is it?” Illingworth snapped. “Out with it man! There’s work to be done.”

“Only…”

Bill glanced at Frances, then squared his shoulders.

“Only that I should very much like to join you, sir.”

Perseus saw Frances’ face fall from controlled excitement to open disgust. Illingworth, however, merely frowned.

“Would you?” he said. “Have you any experience with field work?”

“No, sir,” he admitted. “But that is just why I would like to come. It would be a boon to my career to be able to say I accompanied you on one of your trips, and I’m sure I would learn more in a few weeks in the field than I would in years in the classroom.”

“That’s true enough,” said Illingworth. “Well, then, you shall come. But I expect no complaints and no shirking of your duties.”

“No, sir. Also, I would like to marry your daughter.”

“You WHAT?!” Illingworth exploded.

“Quick; come away and let’s start planning,” said Elizabeth, seizing Perseus’s hand and dragging him out of the hall. Her face suggested she was holding in her laughter with difficulty and wanted to escape before it broke free Illingworth’s shouts followed them, echoing through the stone halls. Indeed, as soon as they regained the main hall, she burst into quiet, but heartfelt peals of merriment.

“Poor Frances!” she laughed. “What a way to have it come out! But at least now they can get on with it; the silly ass has been wanting to marry her for years.”

Perseus affected to laugh as well. The genuine amusement he felt at the boy’s clumsy proposal at least helped to cover his discomfort.

“Elizabeth,” he said. “About this expedition. Are you going to insist on coming? I’ve been on trips like these before, you know; it’s very different from reading about them. And I…the last thing I’d want is for anything to happen to you.”

“Thank you,” she said. “That is very sweet of you, and gratifying. And I know it will be terribly dangerous and hard and I’m sure I’ll probably to look back more than once and think what a perfect idiot I was to insist on coming. But then, I’m also certain that if I don’t go, I will always look back and wish that I had. It’s not fair that you should have all the adventures, you know; I’d like at least one.”

“As you like,” he sighed. “And I can’t deny that it will be pleasant to have you along for once.”

“Thank you,” she said. “Partners?”

She held out a hand. He swallowed and took it.

“Partners.”

Chapter Three of ‘Perseus Corbett and the Forbidden Valley’

See Chapter One here and Chapter Two here

Chapter Three
“A Once-In-A-Lifetime Kind of Chance”

These are the Four that are never content,
that have never been filled since the Dews began–
Jacala’s mouth, and the glut of the Kite,
and the hands of the Ape, and the Eyes of Man.
-Rudyard Kipling, The King’s Ankus

            A steerage passage to London was the most that their scanty resources could command. Perseus was reluctant to return to the capital and had argued against the idea, but Martin had quite rightly pointed out that it was the only likely place within their reach where they could put their new plans into motion. They could not afford to the passage to New York, and no one in the Parisian scientific community would dream of helping them after that expedition to the Congo.

And so it was that, two days after the death of Old Joe on the streets of Istanbul, Perseus Corbett was en route to his home country for the first time in nearly a decade.

            To avoid thinking of the fact, he spent most of the passage pouring over Cooper’s notebook, and especially the opening words:

            I have undertaken to write a faithful account of the events of the ill-fated journey that I undertook alongside the late Professor Applegate. The events described in these pages will differ considerably from the narrative which I and the others of our party presented to the world regarding the deaths of Professor Applegate, John Miller, and the comaradas, Simplicio and Gomez, but I hope the reason for our deception will become clear over the course of my narrative. It was agreed between ourselves (that is to say, between Professor Arnold Prosser and myself) that, in the light of the fantastic things we witnessed, that the truth simply would not be acceptable, all the more so in that we did not and do not understand just what it is we have discovered. I hope that my narrative shall make this clear. 

As for why I have determined, with the concurrence of my friend, to write the true account these four years later, that is far simpler. I shall be going to the Front soon. If I do not return, as seems all too likely, then the truth risks being lost forever. Prosser is in poor health; he never quite recovered from the experience. As I feel that some whom we have deceived, particularly Mrs. Applegate and her children, have a right to know the truth, I am now committing these memories to paper while I am still able to. If they ever read this, I can only beg their forgiveness for the deception we have played upon them.

            At the same time, I must beg them, if they ever do read these pages, to never allow them to become public. I hope, when they have read my account of what we found, they shall feel the same. The Treasure House of the Gods, the man called it. That was enough to tempt us to that damn valley, and it sure would be enough to tempt others.

            What followed was a strange and rather rambling narrative, written in an often difficult hand. Cooper had been a big game hunter and British Army Officer who was commissioned by Professor Applegate, an eminent zoologist, to take him and some companions up a tributary of a tributary of the Amazon, called “Rio Noite,” or the River of Night on account of its black coloring.

            The first part of the narrative was merely a summary of his own life and how he had become involved in the expedition on recommendation of a friend of his named John Miller, who would become one of the expedition’s casualties. Several more were taken up with an account of their journey to and up the Noite.

            Then came the interesting part.

            One evening, when it came time to make camp, they spotted a large black stone idol beside the river and, against Cooper’s advice, had decided to make camp there, as they had already been some time looking for a landing place. One of the comaradas, or native bearers, a man named Gomez, then said that he had seen this same idol before. His tale was that he had been part of a surveying expedition with a Brazilian army officer some years before, which had followed the Noite to a little beyond this point until fever and lack of supplies forced them to turn back. It was, he said, on their return journey that they found the idol, and what was far stranger, there was a man sitting beneath it. An ancient man, almost like a mummy. Thinking he might be lost and in need of help, they stopped and approached him. When they spoke to him, the man began to chant in fluent Portuguese:

            “Forbidden. Forbidden. Forbidden. Three days to the rising sun is the place forbidden.

            However they addressed him, he never said anything else. He died that very hour, and they buried him beside the Amazon. But he, Gomez, said that when he had asked his father about it after returning, he said that the ‘place forbidden’ was a place in many of their legends; the Treasure House of the Gods.

            Once the man had shared his story, Professors Applegate and Prosser had become immensely curious to know what this ‘place forbidden’ might be. Cooper himself was intrigued by the name ‘Treasure House of the Gods.’ After some more consultation, it was decided that part of the expedition should attempt the three-day journey into the jungle, just to see what, if anything, was out there. Cooper, Miller, Applegate, and Prosser, along with two comaradas (including Gomez) went off into the jungle, leaving the rest of the party behind.

            After three days’ journey, they indeed found the place; a great valley or pit in the middle of the jungle, with walls so steep that it would be impossible for anything to climb out of it.

            “What struck the eye the most, however, was that at the exact center…”

            But here the manuscript broke off in mid-sentence.

            It was intensely frustrating to have so tantalizing and yet so incomplete a narrative. If it were not for that introduction, there would be little to interest him.

            Yet, throughout there was something; a sense that it was not only fear of not being believed that compelled the two men to hold their tongues. Whatever they had found there, it had astonished them, frightened them even, though wonder as much as horror was likewise stamped on every page. 

            Perseus bitterly wished that he had the whole thing, particularly the account of what they actually found in the valley that had been so fantastic or so terrible as to make it impossible to render a true account to the world. But even these faint hints were enough to awaken the very feelings that Cooper had hoped to avoid. Perseus was now dead set on finding the valley for himself and discovering what it contained.

            Other than his burning curiosity and frustration over the incomplete narrative, and his anxiety at the thought of returning home, it was a perfectly comfortable voyage. When he wasn’t studying the book, Perseus and Martin walked about on deck, exchanging greetings with the other passengers and forming plans.

            They had already decided that it would require professional support to fund and equip an expedition to the valley. The two of them could not practically travel into the depths of the Amazon and carry out whatever was to be found there, even if they had money for passage and equipment. The account in Cooper’s book was unfortunately spare, but Perseus thought there was enough to convince someone of the location’s being of archeological or zoological significance, if they could be convinced of the book’s veracity.

            Martin was more skeptical. He thought the book as likely to put off any potential backers as otherwise, and in any case two vagabonds such as themselves showing up with a wild tale of lost worlds in the Amazon was not likely to get much of a hearing.

            “Of course,” he said as they walked about the deck one afternoon. “We may have better success if we had a contact; someone well-known in society and of good reputation.”

            “Naturally,” said Corbett. “But what good is that? We don’t. At least, not in English society. Perhaps if we work our way across to America…”

            “Pardon me, but I believe we do,” said Martin.

            “Do you? Then it must be one of your governor’s cronies; remember, I haven’t been in the country since the end of the war.”

            “Yes, but before that, as I recall…”

            Perseus saw what he was getting at and felt his stomach clench. He looked around, saw a thin, spectacled man reading a newspaper nearby and pulled Martin away.

            “If you mean Lady Elizabeth Darrow,” he said sharply, lowering his voice. “That is out of the question.”

            “And why if I may ask?”

            “In the first place, it is odds on against her remembering me at all. In the second, I do not intend to show up after all this time to beg her for money. And in the third…well, those two will do.”

            Martin’s well-trained eyebrows rose a little, but he only said, “As you wish,” and let the subject drop.

            They discussed other plans for a time, but they all shipwrecked on the same problem; that they needed money, and this journey was taking most of what they had.

            “If I may,” said Martin at last. “Perhaps the simplest solution would be best. This valley is not going anywhere. If we were to once more ply a trade for a time, save our wages, we may be able to arrange something within a few months.”

            Perseus hated this solution. It was, he knew, very sensible, but it meant delay, and the recent allusion to Elizabeth had made him all the more impatient. He could almost see her now, ensconced at Sangral with her husband, whom he pictured as a fat, old man rolling in money and who didn’t care tuppence for her. The thought of it was like burning venom in his veins, though it was not nearly so painful as another possibility, which Perseus never allowed himself to imagine; that of her married to a good man who loved her dearly, and whom she cared for more than she had ever cared for him…

            But though he didn’t like the plan, he accepted it, at least for the present. They went to dinner and Martin retired to their cabin, while Perseus, restless and irritable after their conversation of the afternoon, paced the deck for several hours more, fingering the silver medal about his throat.

            Though she was constantly in his thoughts, it had been some time since Elizabeth’s name had been mentioned between them, and Perseus was surprised by the vehemence of the emotions that had been aroused by it. It made him feel old; old and tired. The years behind him seemed to blend together into a haze of wasted time and opportunity. If only he had done this, or that, or not done the other, then he might have been rich long ago and things might have been different. If only…

            “Of all the words of tongue and pen,” he quoted aloud to himself. “The saddest are these; it might have been.”

            He leaned over the rail, watching the dark Atlantic pass by beneath him. Whatever happened, he promised himself, he would not miss this one. There would be no more delay. If he had to lie or cheat or steal, he would do whatever it took.

            “Nice night,” said a voice behind him.

            Perseus, shaken out of his reverie, turned around. The thin, spectacled man was standing behind him, leaning against the wall and gazing up at the clear sky.    

            “Yes, very,” said Perseus, glancing up. His instincts were telling him that there was something not quite right here. He looked closer at the man; thin, young, with a pronounced Adam’s apple and slicked, straw-colored hair. American, to judge by his voice.

“Had you been in Istanbul long?” the man asked.

            “Not very,” said Perseus.

            “You don’t mind my talking to you, do you?” the man asked. “It’s a bit of a habit of mine, talking to strangers on ship.”

            “No, not at all; glad for the company,” said Perseus.

            “You see, I couldn’t help overhearing a little of your conversation this afternoon. You are an archeologist, I think you said?”

            “Something of that sort.”

            “Fascinating subject. Is that what brought you to Istanbul?”

            “No, that was a matter of fetching a package for a friend.”

            “Ah. Well, you see, I represent the Museum of Natural History in New York, and what I heard you mention intrigued me. You say you have found the record of an expedition that discovered an unknown region of the Amazon?”

            “My goodness; you overheard quite a lot.”

            The man laughed a little.

            “I’m afraid so. I was so interested I couldn’t help it. But I heard you say you were looking for backers, now I can vouch for it that if the book is verified, my organization would be more than happy to arrange for an expedition.”

            Perseus’s eyes lit up. It was tempting; almost, it seemed, too tempting. Yet something was off…

            “That is extremely generous,” he said.

            “I can understand your surprise,” said the other. “But see, it isn’t a matter of charity. See, I’m looking for a opportunity to get ahead in my profession; get away from just running errands for the stuffed shirts who run the show. As soon as I heard what you had, I knew that this was my chance: a once-a-lifetime kind of chance!” 

            “I feel much the same way,” Perseus answered. 

            “You have the book, of course?”

            “Oh, yes,” he said, patting his jacket pocket.

            “If I might take a look at it tonight, I could verify it and I could wire from London tomorrow,” said the man.

             Yes, definitely too tempting.

            “What is your name, sir?”

            “Dang it if I didn’t forget to even mention it!” the man laughed. “It’s Byron.”

            “And what brought you to Istanbul?”

            “Work. As I say, I work with the Natural History Museum.”

            “Is there a great deal of natural history in Constantinople?”

            Byron’s Adam’s apple twitched a little.

            “Well, see, it was like this; we were arranging with the Istanbul University to have an exhibit on Turkish wildlife, and I was trying to convince them to lend us some excellent specimens they have. That fell through, I’m afraid.”

            “And so you are going to London?”

            “Yes, I have family there.”

            Perseus nodded.

            “And, excuse me, but if our conversation this afternoon was so fascinating to you, why did you wait until now to mention all of this? Seems an odd approach to a once-in-a-lifetime kind of chance.”

            There was a pause.

            “My offer is perfectly genuine,” said Byron. “But if you don’t like that, I can make another one. How much do you want for that book?”

            Perseus’s eyebrows rose.

            “That is a bit of a shift in tone,” he said. “But I suppose I could consider letting it go for…ten-thousand pounds?”

            “Done,” said Byron. “I’ll wire for the money as soon as we reach London.”

            “Pardon me, it is not done,” said Perseus. “I said I could consider the possibility. Now that it has been confirmed as a possibility, I might reconsider at fifty thousand.”

            “That could be arranged,” said Byron.

            Perseus smiled and shook his head. The American was not very good at this game.

            “Exactly how high are you willing to go, Mr. Byron?” he asked.

            The American scowled. One hand had been resting in his coat pocket the whole conversation, and now it emerged, holding a revolver.

            “Not a penny,” he said. “Hand it over.”

            The hand holding the gun was steady. Evidently, though Byron was not a very good negotiator, he knew his way around firearms and as Perseus knew that the man couldn’t bluff, he evidently was serious.

            Perseus, who had been leaning against the rail this whole time, now shifted his weight and sat atop it. He folded his arms and once more shook his head.

            “No, I don’t think so,” he said. “And I don’t think you’re going to shoot me either.”

            “What makes you so sure?”

            “In the first place, if you had intended to, you might have done so while we were talking and spared yourself a good deal of self-inflicted humiliation. In the second, you have already given away just how important this book is to you, which means you cannot afford to have it go tumbling into the bosom of the wine-dark sea along with my corpse. As that almost certainly will happen if you shoot me now, I’m reasonably sure you will not try it.”

            He reached into his coat pocket.

            “Don’t move!” Byron barked.

            Perseus ignored him and produced his cigarette case. He drew one out and offered one to Byron, who shook his head irritably. Perseus lit his cigarette with a perfectly steady hand and tossed the match over the side before returning the case to his pocket.

            “Are you willing to get shot just to keep that book out of my hands?” Byron demanded.

            “Not at all, but as I say, you are not going to shoot me as long as there is a chance you will lose the book in the process,” said Perseus. “Now, if you have any sense at all – which I am willing to assume for the sake of argument – you will see that we are at an impasse. If you shoot me, I take the book to the bottom of the Atlantic. If you attempt to approach and take the book from me, you risk being thrown into the briny deep along with me. Or even just by yourself.”

            Byron swallowed. Perseus could almost see him trying to figure out a way around the dilemma.

            “So, it seems to me,” Perseus went on. “That at present your only options are to clear off and try again some other time, or to simply wait there with that gun in your hands until someone comes along and sees what a bloody great fool you look.”

            Byron’s face twitched and his Adam’s apple jerked with anger. But Perseus’s sketch of the situation was far too clear to admit of any argument, and besides which he was, as Perseus guessed, an amateur at this game. He was clever and had the stomach to kill, but he lacked experience. He looked up and down the deck, then returned the gun to this pocket.

            “Wise move,” said Perseus.

            “This isn’t over,” Byron growled.

            “It never occurred to me that it was.”

            Byron slouched off into the night. Perseus let him get a fair distance away before setting off in the opposite direction.

            His first move was to report the matter to the crew. He suspected Byron would be clever enough to get off the ship before he was caught, but it would at least keep the fellow busy for a while.

He made his report, truthfully as far as it went, that the man calling himself Mr. Byron had approached him regarding certain private papers he had and first attempted to buy them, then demanded them at gunpoint. Just what made them so important, he could not say, but evidently the man was a crook and a gangster.

            “I must say, sir, you handle the matter very coolly,” said Third Officer Otterborn, a cherubic little man with an enormous black handlebar mustache. He looked like less like a naval officer than like an opera singer, but he acted decisively upon hearing Perseus’s storing, and ordered a thorough search of the ship at once. “Sitting there and bluffing him like that; that took some nerve.”

            “Yes, I got that from the Royal Navy during the war,” said Perseus. “Suspect I’m not the only one present.”

            Otterborn smiled and nodded; two veterans of the same war and the same service acknowledging each other.

            “What ship did you serve on?” he asked

            “The Dauntless. Destroyer”

            “I was on the Intrepid myself,” said Otterborn. “Cruiser. Now, Mr. Corbett, I hope you will not think any less of the Cunard Steamship Company due to this regrettable incident.”

            “Not at all! One can’t watch one’s passengers all the time; wouldn’t want you to. Hardly the worst thing that could happen at sea, what?”

            Otterborn laughed.

            “I am delighted by your attitude, Mr. Corbett. But is there anything at all we can do to, ah, compensate for the incident?”

            “I don’t think that will be necessary,” said Perseus. “Good night, sir.”

            He made his way back to the cabin, confident that Byron would be kept safe one way or another, at least for the rest of the voyage.

            But in the meantime, this changed things. In the first place, it dispelled any idea of the book being some kind of gigantic hoax or delusion on the part of the old man. It also removed any doubts he may have had whether its secrets included any kind of treasure. Someone evidently thought it both real and valuable enough to kill for.

And that same someone knew he had it.

That once-in-a-lifetime chance of his was looking chancier by the minute. That meant that, even apart from his own fears, time was no longer something they could count on.

The rest of the voyage passed quietly, as expected. Byron was not discovered, making them suspect he had somehow found a way off the ship. This at least, as Perseus said, would give them some breathing space once they arrived.

            London. Perseus had not been back to his home city for ten years, had not lived there for almost fourteen, and had carefully avoided any news from England all that time. The old city was much as it had been; there were more motorcars and buses these days, and the smog was perhaps a trifle thicker, but it was still the same vast sea of people churning over the remains of age piled upon age, like ants swarming on a cathedral floor. 

            Having now been all over the world and having lived in tropical places, where the colors were stark and the people alive, Perseus was struck by how drab and pale the English were. They went about in browns and greys and muted colors, muttering familiar platitudes to one another in reluctant voices, as though the great ambition of each Englishman was to pass unnoticed in the world.

            Men, he reflected, had their wild and tamed breeds. He had lived among wild men; men conscious of their own power and exulting in its use. Here were domesticated men; men who, to the extent they knew their own strength were terrified of it. They were like a Mastiff who starts at the advances of a small cat, not because he fears the cat, but because he fears his own enormous strength and what it may do to the cat.

            There was something to be said for either side. At least in London the odds of being murdered in your sleep was rather lower than in, say, Senegal. But then, it was always depressing to see a magnificent animal reduced to pulling carts.  

            The first move in London, as they had settled, would be to find a way into the kind of scientific circles that could arrange for an expedition to the Amazon. Perseus left this in Martin’s hands. There was another, equally important matter that he alone could see to. For their financial situation was nearly desperate. Money would be necessary to approach those with money; they could hardly show up in the stained, battered clothing they had worn in Istanbul. And if, as seemed likely, their efforts took time, they would have to be able to live. Martin’s idea of simply working a trade for a time was no longer practical; they needed to get under way as soon as possible if they were to stay ahead of Byron and his people.  

            This left Perseus with a painful choice to make, for he had only one possession of any value, and he had never parted with it before.

            But this is the one, he told himself. The one that will make me. It is not forever.

            So it was that, not without a great effort of will, he entered an upscale pawn shop, slipped the Charles I medal from his neck, and asked for a price.

            “Hm,” said the pawnbroker, squinting at it through his glass. “Difficult to say…”

            “Perhaps I should save us both some time,” said Perseus, whose patience was already a little strained. “I know for a fact that it is real silver and that the object is of considerable antiquity. If you suggest a price under three hundred pounds, I will take it elsewhere.”

            The pawnbroker took the glass from his eye and glared at him.

            “Is that a fact?”

            “It is. I could take it to the British Museum and they would give me ten times that amount. The only reason I’ve brought it here is that I should like to be able to redeem it at some point.”

            “But look here,” said the pawnbroker. “I run a business; the question is not how special this is to you, but how valuable it is to me…”

            “And you cannot tell me that rich collectors don’t stop by here like clockwork,” said Perseus. “You could name your own price for this with any such man who has the least amount of brains. Look here,” he pointed to the back of the medallion. “You see that? Do you know what it is? Seal of Charles the First of unhappy memory. This was given by him to a certain lord who provided service to him during the civil war. Any collector with even an iota of historical knowledge would recognize that. Why, it’s as if I’m handing you a thousand-pound check!”

            Perseus didn’t like the words coming out of his own mouth. How often had he looked over that medal, tracing the ancient markings and thinking of all they meant; of cavaliers and knights, of horses and guns and swords raised in loyal and religious fervor. Thinking also of the hand that had given it to him. Now he was speaking of it as a mere bit of coin; a thing to be sold and made a profit off of. He hated it, but it was necessary for the moment. 

            The pawnbroker hemmed and hawed a while longer, evidently trying to find a way to dispute the indisputable, but in the end he gave in and paid out three-hundred and fifty pounds.

            “Look here, though,” said Perseus after pocketing the money. “I want to make a deal with you. I am soon to leave England, but I mean to redeem that object. How much, honestly, do you intend to sell it for?”

            “As you say,” said the pawnbroker. “It is a unique and very valuable object. I wouldn’t part from it for under nine hundred pounds.”

            “Well,” said Perseus. “If you will be so good as to promise to hold it for one year, then I will pledge to pay two thousand for it within that time.”

            The pawnbroker’s heavy brows lifted.

            “You’re rather sure of yourself,” he said.

            “I am,” said Perseus. “But think of that; it’s like money in the bank. Either you’re assured of two-thousand pounds within the next year or you’re assured of at least nine hundred afterwards. Rather a good deal that.”

            The pawnbroker ran a long finger down his chin. Perseus could tell that he was searching for a catch.

            “Very well,” he said. “I shall put this in the safe until this day next year. Until then, I shall eagerly await your return.”

            He bowed and Perseus, his conscience somewhat mollified by the arrangement, left the shop.

            This is the only way; the last chance, he told himself. It will be worth it.

Chapter Two of ‘Perseus Corbett and the Forbidden Valley’

See Chapter One here

Chapter Two
Dead Man’s Gift

“I was first mate, I was, old Flint’s first mate, and I’m the on’y one as knows the place.”
-Billy Bones, Treasure Island

            Fourteen years later, Perseus Corbett was still a thousand miles from his heart’s desire.

            He was standing on a pier in Istanbul, before the gangplank of the steamer Aeneas, bound for New York, on a warm, clear night, and was just wondering whether he had forgotten anything. The visas were alright; perfectly genuine. He’d gotten them blank, but pre-approved from a friend in the American State Department a few years before, following a job in that country which hadn’t quite worked out. He was sure they had shaken off all pursuit, and in any case he doubted the Soviets would follow them all the way to Istanbul for the sake of retrieving their property.

            Said property took the very pleasing form of a young lady with shiny, jet-black hair and deep grey eyes, accompanied by her young son. Dressed in the rude garb of a peasant woman and clutching her shawl tight about her head with one white hand, the Countess Nadezhda Vladimirovich looked very little like the great lady she had once been, save for the distinction in her face and carriage, which all her fear and suffering had not yet erased. And though Perseus had assured her again and again that the danger was passed, her eyes nevertheless darted fearfully about and she clutched her son’s hand tight in her own.

            “I believe that is all, your highness,” Perseus said at last. “If you have any trouble in New York, asked for Daniel Kirby of the State Department and tell him that I sent you. Can you think of anything else, Martin?”

            He turned to his partner. Martin Halritter was a tall, straight-backed man with faded gold hair and a severely lined face that almost never betrayed his emotions.

            “I think not,” he said in a voice flavored with the air of Vienna. “I have spoken with one of the crew: Pierre Gustav. He is sympathetic to her highness’s plight and has promised to attend to her during the voyage.”

            “Then I think there is nothing more to say,” said Perseus. “Have a wonderful trip, your highness, and best of luck to you.”

            “Good monsieurs!” she said in her rich, husky voice. “I can never, never thank you enough! You have saved our lives! Still I cannot believe that you should run such risks, show such gallantry on our behalf, and to ask nothing in return!”

            “Oh, think nothing of it,” said Perseus, though inwardly he flinched a little. “No more than what a gentleman ought to do. Particularly these days.”

            “And to send us on to America,” she continued. “I almost fear to accept such kindness!”

            “Please,” said Perseus. “It is clear enough that Istanbul is no place for you. You had much better go to America, where you can be far away from all of this. You will have a new life ahead of you; a chance to start over.”

            He smiled down at little Foma as he said this. The boy had still not spoken a word since they met. But now that the moment of parting had arrived, he stole a furtive look at Perseus before turning away once more. Perhaps once in America, far from the horrors he had been forced to witness, he would begin to heal. 

            “I shall pray for you every day,” the countess promised.

            “That shall be most appreciated,” said Perseus with a bow.

            It felt odd to be saying goodbye. The had spent the better part of the past two weeks in company with the Countess and her son and had been through some very stiff times together. Smuggling them out of Soviet Russia had been no easy task, and it had cost most of what Perseus and Martin had been able to save. In such circumstances, twelve days are the equivalent of a lifetime, and the two men had almost come to feel that the countess were family. But they would not be going to America. There was, at present, nothing there for them.

            The whistle of the steamer blew to signal it was time for all to be aboard. The countess kissed Martin and then went to do the same to Perseus. But when she approached him, he held up a gently declining hand and settled for a simple embrace. Then they bid farewell to little Foma, and with a final, grateful smile the countess picked up her small bundle of baggage and ascended the gangplank.

            “So ends our attempt to retrieve the jewels of Russia,” Perseus sighed.

            “I should say we succeeded quite admirably,” said Martin.

            “Oh, I agree,” Perseus replied. “Don’t regret it for a moment. Rather have that lovely creature and that sweet little boy in the world than all the jewels the Tsars ever had in my pocket. I’m only noting that it seems a bit of a pattern with us, what?”

            He fingered the Charles I medal that lay concealed under his clothing. In the years since he left England, Perseus had grown considerably. He was tall and broad of shoulder, tanned from long days under tropical suns, and muscular from constant exertion. He carried himself much differently than he had as well. Long, careful study and practice had given decision and grace to his movements and eloquence to his manners, belying his shabby clothes. His brown hair had faded a little from his time in the sun, and there was a new thoughtfulness and cunning in his dark eyes.

            The two men sat down upon a set of crates. Perseus produced a battered cigarette case and they smoked in silence while they watched the Aeneas get underway. The countess, a small, dark figure on the stern, waved to them, and they waved back. Little Foma, they were pleased to see, waved alongside his mother.

            “It occurs to me,” said Perseus after the ship had begun its trip down the Bosporus. “That the problem with becoming a gentleman is that gentlemanlike behavior is not at all conducive to making sufficient wealth for a gentleman’s lifestyle.”

            “Indeed,” said Martin. “That is why most try to be born into wealth.”

            “Bit late in the day for that,” Perseus said morosely, fingering his cigarette and glaring at it in some disgust. “How much money have we got left?”

            Martine drew out their purse and counted.

            “About thirty pounds,” he said.

            “I suppose that’s just enough to start over, if we have an idea of where to start,” said Perseus.”

“I am quite certain you will think of something,” said Martin.

            Perseus glanced at him. He wasn’t quite sure how to take that, but the Austrian was too well-trained to give anything away by his face.

Martin had been valet to a count in the Austro-Hungarian Empire before the war. After having his leg shot off by the Italians and his Empire dissolved by the Americans, the count had retired in disgust to the West Indies, where he soon died and Martin had been left to ply his trade for tourists at a hotel. Perseus had taken him on to help dig up some pirate treasure, but yet another inconvenient revolution had left them with little to show for it beyond a fast friendship.  

            Ever since leaving England, Perseus had hunted treasure around the world. He’d gone to sea just before the Great War, did his part in the conflict from the deck of the destroyer Dauntless, and then scoured the globe for the chance to strike it rich, rich enough to make himself a gentleman. A mere business enterprise wouldn’t satisfy him; not only would that take longer than he wished, but the idea of working day after day in trade, trying to grow money like a farmer grew crops repelled him. He recalled the tales of the Darrow ancestors he had heard, of the knights and kings and cavaliers he’d read about in books, and the spirit of commerce seemed as far removed from them as could be imagined.

            No, a real gentleman, he thought, earned his place by deeds, adventure, and daring. It was not something that could simply be bought by accumulating enough in a bank account. At least, not as he saw it. Wealth, of course, he needed, but wealth with a history, wealth earned by action and daring, not by plodding.

            It had seemed straightforward enough when he began, and so it seemed with each new endeavor. He had dug for pirate treasure in the Caribbean, chased lost gold mines in the Rocky Mountains, sought hidden kingdoms in the jungles of Africa and India, dredged for shipwrecks in the East Indies, and dug for tombs in the Egyptian desert. Yet, somehow, each had left him as poor as ever, if not poorer. Many was the time he had stood at the brink of success, had handled ancient gold and hidden treasures, yet each time they had slipped through his fingers like sand.

            And something else had slipped away as well; time. Years ago, the thought had formed in his mind that Elizabeth was not likely to remain unmarried for long. In fact, it was likely as not that she had already moved on and forgotten about him. There was no particular reason she should remember him, let alone wait for him. This thought had grown like a cancer with every delay and failure he had experienced and was now like a permanent cramp in his brain. Since the end of the war, he had carefully avoided returning to England, or even reading English newspapers, lest he find his worst fears confirmed. As long as he didn’t know, he could still hope.

            Perseus threw his cigarette away in frustration and stood up. The Aeneas was almost out of sight down the Bosporus.

            “Come on,” he grunted. “I need a drink.”

            They left the docks and made for one of the numerous taverns that clustered like barnacles around the port. As they approached it, however, a large man in a black felt hat, with a closely trimmed beard stepped forward out of the shadows.

            “Excuse,” he said in a husky Slavic accent. “But I am waiting for some friends of mine. Have you seen them, perhaps? Two men, a dark-haired and very pretty woman, and her little child? They were supposed to arrive in Istanbul today, but I have not seen them.”

            Perseus carefully concealed the alarm that this question had raised. They had arrived at the port of Istanbul that afternoon and had immediately booked the Countess passage on the Aeneas, not leaving the docks the entire time. He was now immensely thankful they hadn’t.

            “I can’t say I have,” he answered. “Didn’t notice any particularly pretty women on our ship coming in, and I generally do notice that sort of thing.”

            The man smiled.

            “Most unfortunate; perhaps they have been delayed.”

            “Perhaps.”

            “Where have you come from, might I ask?”

            “Naples,” said Martin. “And you?”

            The man looked hard at him, which nearly made Perseus smile. He doubted there was a man alive who could read Martin’s face, if he didn’t want it read.

            “Oh, I have been here many years,” the man answered. “I have much business in this city. I am most apologetic to have troubled you. Might I buy you a drink?”

            “No thank you,” said Perseus. “We have business of our own to deal with. Good evening.”

            The man bowed and they walked on down the winding streets of Constantinople.

            “Well,” Perseus sighed once he was sure they were out of sight and that the man had not followed them. “It is damn good thing we sent her off when we did. I never would have thought the Russians would be so keen on getting her back.”

            “Nor I,” said Martin. “It is puzzling, that.”

            “What made you say Naples, by the way?”

            “I happened to recall that the Karnak was the most recent arrival, so it seemed to me the most plausible.”

            “Good lord, what a head for detail you have,” said Perseus. “Well, let’s find ourselves another tavern; preferably one without any Bolsheviks, if there is such a place.”

            They turned down a narrow street and saw what they were looking for up ahead; a hole-in-the-wall tavern, the sort no doubt frequented by sailors and local working-class. As they approached it, a thin old man came stumbling out and nearly walked right into them.

            “’Scuse me, gentlemen,” he muttered, though not in Turkish, but, English. “Much pardon,” he added in broken Turkish.

            “After you, father,” said Perseus in the former language.

            The drunk’s eyes lit up.

            “By God, is that a man of my own country I hear?” he said. “What are you doing in this forsaken place, my fine fellow?”

            “Seeking my fortune, as are we all,” Perseus answered.

            “Not I!” said the man with some dignity, drawing himself up straight and swaying as he did so. “Not I! I have found mine! Found it long ago. But I will say no more…no. Not another word. It is mine. Mine only.”

            “As you say, father,” said Perseus kindly.

            “Don’t you tell a soul,” he said, pressing a finger to his withered lip. “Not a soul. Mine alone. I shall go collect it one of these days. But tonight, I think I must go rest.”

            “Quite,” said Perseus. “Do you need any help, father?”

            “I need no one!” said the old man, pushing he way past them. “Mine alone. I need only time…yes. Time alone…”

            He stumbled on to the end of the street. Perseus and Martin watched him go, Perseus giving his friend a bemused look.

            “Poor old fellow,” he said. “Wonder what his story is.”

            “A sad one, I should say,” said Martin. “But common enough…”

            But then, just as the old man reached the end of the street, three figures jumped out and set upon him. The old man cried out, and struck one of them a solid blow, but was knocked down in an instant.

            “Here!” Perseus shouted, running to his aid. “You leave him alone!”

            The three attackers turned in evident surprise as the two men charged them. The nearest brandished a blood-stained knife at Perseus, who checked himself and raised his hands in defense. The assassin thrust at him, and Perseus dodged the stab and caught him by the wrist, pulling the man between himself and the second attacker while driving his fist into the man’s stomach. He grunted and dropped the knife, and Perseus pushed him into the second man.

            Martin, meanwhile, engaged the third attacker. This man was just bending over the fallen drunk, and Martin kicked him hard in the ribs, knocking him over. The assassin grunted, and tried to roll to his feet, but Martin caught him on the way up and struck him back to the ground.

            The toughs had evidently not been expecting anything like this kind of resistance. They had jumped a defenseless, drunken old man, but now they suddenly found themselves facing two young, fit, and experienced fighters. They stumbled to their feet and scattered as soon as they were able.

            “Bastards,” Perseus grumbled as he knelt over the fallen drunk. “Here, father; are you all right?”

            The old man was clutching his side, right under his heart. A dark stain was spreading over his ragged clothing and onto his withered old hand.

            “Thank you, friends,” he breathed. “Thank you very much. No one has done so much for me these many, many long years. Oh, but I have deserved no more! May God have mercy on my soul…”

            “Here now, it isn’t so bad,” said Perseus, looking significantly at Martin. “We’ll get you a doctor and you’ll be right as rain.”

            Martin nodded and set off at a run.

            “No, no,” said the old man. “It is over; I feel it. I have wasted my life; lost my chance.”

            His face suddenly became anxious and he felt inside his shirt. Then relief spilled over it.

            “It is there,” he gasped. “It is safe.”

            He drew out a small, square bundle wrapped in dirty leather rags and pressed it on Perseus.

            “I give it to you,” he said. “My treasure! My fortune! All I have in the world.”

            At these words, Perseus’s eyes lit up and his heart leapt in spite of himself.

            “What do you mean?” he asked.

            “Read it,” the man said. He was fading fast. “Follow it. And when you are rich beyond mortals, remember old Joe.”

             Perseus took the bundle, the old man’s warm blood staining his hands, and mechanically put it into his pocket.

            “Treasure house of the gods,” the man breathed. “Forbidden…valley…”

            His hand dropped and he breathed no more.

            A moment later, Martin appeared, a constable in tow. He paused upon seeing the huddled, shrunken old body and silently made the Sign of the Cross.

            Perseus and Martin explained what had happened to the policeman, and the body of Old Joe was given up to the state. The Turkish authorities, who had many such bodies, disposed of it in their own fashion, and probably no one in that city thought of or remembered the old man ever again. He slipped below the surface of history as a tiny pebble, even as the ripples he had set in motion began to spread.

            Perseus did not mention the bundle to the police, and it remained tucked away in his pocket. They went on their way in search of a place to spend the night and soon found themselves at a small camp of Tsarist refugees near a part of the city still scarred by the war. With a few quick words of Russian to explain that they were just fled from there, they were welcomed and permitted to take a small corner of the camp, under the walls of a half-ruined house. There, under the glow of a borrowed lantern, Perseus told Martin what had happened after he left and showed him the bundle.

            “Why did you not mention it to the police?” the Austrian asked.

            “I was worried they might take it in evidence,” Perseus answered. “Anyway, I don’t suppose they care, and the old boy gave it to me expressly.”

            “Hm,” said Martin, a faint crease appearing between his well-trained eyebrows. “What is it, then?”

            “No idea, but he said it was the way to treasure beyond the lot of mortals. Let’s have a look, shall we?”

            He carefully unwrapped the dirty bundle and found that it was a small notebook. Or rather, part of a notebook; the second half or more of the book had been torn away, leaving only the cover and the first few pages. Perseus opened it and read the following on the front leaf:

            “True Narrative of Certain Events in the Brazilian Jungle, by Robert Cooper

Chapter One of ‘Perseus Corbett and the Forbidden Valley’

[ I’m working on a new book at the moment – well, the idea for it is very old, but all books are new when written – and I thought I’d drop a draft of the first chapter for feedback and to start generating interest. Enjoy! ]

Chapter One
The Kiss

“Pause you who read this, and think for the moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.”
-Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

            It all began with a kiss.

The place was the top of the hill overlooking Sangral House, a magnificent old manor in Kent. The time was a fine spring morning in April 1914. And the principles were a fourteen-year-old boy and a girl of the same age.

The girl belonged to the house, being none other than Lady Elizabeth Darrow. The boy’s name, rather absurdly, was Perseus Corbett, and his being there at all requires a little explanation.

His mother, Antigone Brown, was the daughter of a classics instructor at an obscure college in Wales. She had married below her station to a would-be inventor named Kenneth Corbett whose subsequent failures to revolutionize the world eventually left him working in a London garage. Their only child was sickly from infancy, suffering a chronic cough and shortness of breath, the care of which served as a continual drain on the little family’s scanty resources. By the time he turned twelve, his condition was indisputably growing worse and it was plain that new measures were needed if he were to survive.

Kenneth Corbett had originally come from Kent, where his brother Roger was head gardener at Sangral, the country seat of the illustrious Darrow family. Hoping that the country air would work the boy’s cure, Kenneth wrote to his brother to beg him to take the him on for a time to see if his health improved. Having obtained permission from the family, Roger agreed, and so little Perseus was packed off out of London for the first time in his life.

The journey was a wonder to him. The green, rolling hills, the open places, and trees! More trees than he had ever thought possible! And flowers, horses, cattle, all whirling by the train windows like flashing picture cards.

More wondrous still was the noble brick and stone edifice of Sangral itself. It stood back all by itself, nestled among the hills, with great old trees standing about it like attendants upon some venerable king. It was a very ancient house and had been added to and pulled about many, many times over the centuries. The east wing drove out before the front entrance like a defensive arm, ending in a conical tower, while the west wing retreated back, as though seeking the quiet shelter of the trees. It was a house with character, a house that one remembered, and which might have been (and indeed had been) the inspiration for many a romance, many a history, many a ghost story. Its somber brown bricks rested upon one another as sturdily today as when the first of them had been laid back in the fifteenth century, and its many windows flared like bonfires in the evening sun.

The plan was that Perseus should earn his keep by working as an apprentice undergardener, and so the next morning he was set to weed the flowerbeds along the mansion’s western front (this being a job it was judged he would have a great deal of trouble messing up). It was hard work, and his back ached, but the sight of the great house, not to mention the beautiful, fragrant flowers made it impossible to care much. His greatest difficulty was the temptation to stop work and simply gaze at the great house, lost in a daydream. He felt almost like he were back in the middle ages, or the time of the cavaliers; some dutiful servant laboring on behalf of a noble knight, or some great lady. Sangral House was just shy of a castle, after all, he thought. All it needed was a princess.

Then, while hard at work in between these reveries, something fell out of the sky and landed with a soft thud in the dirt beside him, making him jump. The thing had come within a foot or so of landing on his head. It was, he saw upon examination, a round silver medal, with the image of a man’s head on one side and an oak tree on the other.

“You there! Boy!”

Perseus looked up to see a girl’s head with a lot of tangled red hair sticking out of an upstairs window.

“I’ve dropped my medal. Will you bring it back up to me please?”

“What’d you want to drop it for?”

“I didn’t do it on purpose!” she answered. “Could you just bring up, please?”

He felt the sudden thrill of exultation, as boys do feel when they’re asked to do something important. His imagination, already travelling along such lines, conjured images of himself as a knight errant, retrieving the princess’s lost treasure.

“All right, then!” he called back, which was not a very knightly thing to say, but it was his first attempt. Forgetting all about his work, he got up, dusted himself off a bit, and ran for the kitchen door, which was nearest. It seemed very dim after the bright sunlight outside, and he had a fleeting impression of a large, smoky kind of room full of delightful smells and a lot of activity. He darted through before anyone had time to realize he wasn’t supposed to be there and hurtled up the servants’ stairs.

“Here now!” said a commanding voice that caused him to stop. A tall, stern-looking butler stood before him, glaring down on him like an imperious judge.

“What do you think you’re doing in here?” he said.

“The girl upstairs dropped this out the window,” said Perseus, holding up the medal. “She asked me to bring it up to her.”

The butler grunted, as though to say that he was not surprised.

“Very well,” he said. “I shall take it from here.”

He held out a hand for it. He was such a commanding presence that Perseus, who had always been used to obeying his elders anyway, nearly handed it over without thinking. But the fantasy that had taken root in his mind was strong, and he hesitated.

“No,” he said. “She asked me to do it.”

“That is no part of your duties,” he said. “Now hand it over.”

Perseus hesitated a moment later, then borne by a sudden reckless courage that came from he knew not where, he darted past the butler, ducking under his arm, and raced up the stairs two at a time while the old man shouted after him.

He reached the third floor landing and burst out into the corridor. The girl was standing by a bannister overlooking the main staircase, but she turned a smiling face on him as he ran down the hall toward her. Now that he saw her up close, he found that she was about his own age (though being a girl she of course conveyed the impression of being older). She was tall and lanky, with a good-natured, freckled face that had clearly seen a lot of sun, and bright hazel-green eyes. There was something of the air of a young colt about her, in her long, bony limbs and the restless, rather awkward energy of her movements.

“Here…it is…” he gasped, holding the medal out to her. His bad lungs were rebelling against the sudden burst of energy he had demanded of them.

“Thank you so much,” she said, taking it. “But are you all right?”

He nodded, still breathing hard. Meanwhile the butler appeared behind him in an icy rage.

“My apologies, Lady Elizabeth,” he said. “He has no business here…”

“It’s alright, Tredwell,” she said. “I asked him to bring my medal back up. I dropped it, you see.”

Tredwell’s stern face grew a trifle sterner.

“He has no business forcing his way up here,” he said.

“Oh, never mind that now,” she said. “Look, boy, are you sure you’re all right? Here, you must sit down.”

There was a large bay window with a velvet covered seat nearby and she urged Perseus to sit down and catch his breath. Tredwell frowned upon them.

“Could you get him a glass of water, Tredwell?” she asked.

“Very well, your ladyship,” he said with a stiff bow that spoke volumes of what he thought of the arrangement. He retreated, and Peseus slowly got his breath back.

“You’re not very strong for a gardener,” she said after he had his drink and Tredwell ahd been sent about his duties.

“I’m strong enough,” he said defensively. “It’s only that my lungs aren’t quite right. That’s why I’m here with Uncle Roger; they say the country air will make me better.”

“Oh, I see; that explains it. What’s your name, boy?”

“Perseus Corbett.”

“I say, what a funny name!” she said, laughing.

“It is not! It’s the name of a great hero who chopped a gorgon’s head off and used it to kill a sea monster and save a princess.”

“I know all that, but I’ve never met a ‘Perseus’ before,” she said. “Have you killed any sea monsters lately?”

“No,” he admitted grudgingly. “Has anyone chained you to a rock lately?”

“I’d like to see them try!” she answered, throwing her head back and laughing with the careless ease of one who was used to being able to have her own way.

“What’s important about that medal, anyway?” he asked, feeling he ought to take the offensive.

“What’s important about it?” she exclaimed. “It’s only from King Charles the First is all. He made a collection of these during the Civil War and handed them out as gifts to people who’d done him particular service, like my great-great-great…oh, I forget how many greats grandfather, Lord John Darrow.”

“You’re joking!” said Perseus, suddenly interested. He knew a bit of history, and the idea that he had been carrying something that once belonged to the unhappy king filled him with awe. “Shouldn’t that be in a museum, then?”

“No, because it’s mine,” she said. “My grandfather gave it to me personally.”

“So why did you drop it out the window?”

“I told you, that was an accident! I was just leaning out the window, looking at it and thinking about those days and it just slipped.”

“I’ve never met anyone related to a real-life cavalier,” he said.

“Oh, yes; we’re a very old family, didn’t you know? Lords and ladies all the way down. If you like that, we’ve got plenty more like it. I’ll show you them, if you like.”

That, however, had to wait, for at that point Uncle Roger, no doubt alerted by Tredwell, came to demand that he return to work.

“Later, then,” she said. “And don’t you dare be hard on him, Roger,” she added. “It’s my fault.”

Her orders commuted his sentence for a whipping to a stern talking to before he returned to his duties. But punishment or no, it hardly mattered compared with the fact that he had become friends with the young lady of the manor.

From then on, whenever Perseus wasn’t working (and sometimes when he ought to have been), he and Elizabeth would be off exploring the grounds in fine weather and the house in bad. She showed him all the treasures of her ancestral home, telling him what she knew of their history. He saw the portraits of her ancestors and heard what each one had done. He saw the landscapes and miniatures painted by famous artists, the furniture that had been in use for longer than the oldest servant had been alive. He saw the secret passages and the marks on the wall showing where some long-dead relative had thrown something in a fit of temper. He saw the woods and ponds that had been cultivated by generations of gardeners. He saw the stables with their fine horses, the kennels with their barking dogs, the pseudo-Greek folly down by the pond that Elizabeth’s grandfather had built.

Most importantly, the very day after their chance meeting, he saw the library, with its hundreds upon hundreds of books gathered across many generations; books of the kind the creaked when you opened them and breathed forth a wonderfully musty smell, so that even if you didn’t read them, you like to pull them down and page through them anyway. He had loved to read at home; being a sickly child with a mother both anxious and well-educated, it had been the chief source of amusement open to him, and the sight of this infinitude of words filled him with the same feeling as if he had found Aladdin’s cave.

Elizabeth, he found, was not a great reader. Or rather, she was not at all fond of being made to read. She had shown him the library mostly on account of some suits of armor that stood by the library fireplace and the portrait of an ancestor who had been a famous poet in his day. Perseus’s accounts of The Jungle Book, Treasure Island, and The Count of Monte Cristo, however, could not fail to pique her interest, and after they had explored the house from top to bottom and back again, their favorite pastime became finding a book to share. They would then race about the park, imagining themselves as part of the stories, or making plans for going on their own adventures; of voyaging in the West Indes like Robinson Crusoe, or trekking in darkest Africa like Allan Quatermain, or travelling in India like Mr. Kipling.

And so two years passed away at Sangral House. Perseus’s lungs recovered and his body grew strong under the stern direction of his uncle. He learned to ride, to fish, to shoot, and to climb trees. He learned more about history, about art, about music. Two years of almost unmitigated happiness and wonder, broken only by occasional visits home, where the dust and grime and squalor of the London neighborhood – so different from the romantic images of the city that he found in his books – seemed almost like a bad dream. Or, what is worse, like the coming from a good dream into a sad awakening.

The only other check to his happiness was Lady Darrow, Elizabeth’s mother. At first she paid little heed to the friendship between her daughter and the gardener’s nephew. They were children, and children would have their escapades. She didn’t much care for her daughter’s climbing trees or catching snakes, but Elizabeth had been doing those sorts of things long before Perseus showed up, and at least now she was reading more. But as time went on, Lady Darrow began to disrupt their escapades more and more. They would be having a great game in the conservatory and she would look in to say, “It is time for your music lessons, Elizabeth,” or they would be sitting reading together on the hillside and she would send to say he was wanted in the garden. More and more it seemed their time together was being curtailed, and there was nothing they could do but make the best of it.

Then came the end of it, the final awakening. A letter arrived from home to inform him that, as his health had so clearly improved, his mother wanted him to come home to stay. It was, she said, unthinkable that a son should remain so far from his family without due cause. Moreover, his father had found him a job, and a good one too, at a shop in London, which would bring in twice what he was making as an apprentice undergardener, money the family sorely needed.

Perseus was prepared to argue the matter out, that though the money was not very good, he was on his way to having a perfectly suitable job right here. He would be a full undergardener before long, and had a chance of being head gardener in the end. But then Uncle Roger put the final stop to his wishes.

“Fact is,” he said. “I think Lady Darrow had a hand in asking your mother to have you home. She’s not too keen on the way you and Lady Elizabeth are so familiar, as I’ve warned you time and time again.”

So it was settled. He would be going home to London for good. Home, where there would be no armor, no paintings, no old books, no secret passages, no ponies, no lake, and no woods.

Worst of all, there would be no Elizabeth.

Shortly after the summons home had arrived, Elizabeth learned that her parents were making plans to go on holiday to America, an extended stay of some months’ duration at least. That meant that on top of everything else, they would now be separated by a whole ocean.

The decision was made, the bags were packed, and the tickets purchased. All that now remained were the last few precious hours at Sangral Manor. Lady Darrow, though she did not approve of their friendship, was at least softhearted enough to allow them to spend those last hours in uninterrupted company.

Perseus and Elizabeth sat side by side on the hill, overlooking the house and grounds. They had spent many a happy hour there over the years, reading or dreaming or playing. But now there didn’t seem anything to be done except to be together while they could.

Elizabeth sat with her knees drawn up, resting her chin upon them, idly watching a rabbit grazing by its burrow.

“It’s not fair,” she grumbled. “Why couldn’t you have come with us to America?”

“Just be sure to watch out for sea monsters,” he said, making an effort to be cheerful. “I’d hate for you to be gobbled up while I’m not around.”

“That’s sweet of you,” she answered, smiling at what had become a long-running joke between them. “But I keep telling you I’m not going to need it; no one’s chaining me to a rock!”

They laughed, but not as wholeheartedly as they were used to. It was a faint flicker of something that was dying.

“You’re not going to forget about me, are you?” she asked after a pause.

“Of course not!” he said. “I’m going to be working in a bloody shop; thinking about you and Sangral is probably going to be the only thing that’ll make it tolerable. You’re the one who’s going to be having parties and meeting interesting people and having adventures and all that.”

“Well, just to make sure you don’t, I got you a present,” she said, reaching into the pocket of her frock and handing him a small box.

He opened it, and to his astonishment found the Charles the First medal that he had retrieved for her when they first met.

“You can’t give me this!” he said. “It was your grandfather’s! It’s a historical treasure.”

“Yes, and now it’s mine and I can do what I like with it,” she said. “Since I know you like it so much, I thought I should give it to you. Besides, you earned it; heroically risking the wrath of Tredwell to bring it to me, when any sensible boy would have just given it to him. I thought if I gave it to you, then you’d stay gallant and delightfully silly even working in some dreary old shop.”

Hesitantly, he put the medal about his neck.

“Thanks so much,” he said, fingering the ancient silver with affection and awe. “I’ll never, never take it off.”

“Don’t never take it off; you’ll spoil the silver. Just take good care of it; I don’t want to have to explain to either grandfather or Lord John that I gave their medal to someone who went and lost it.”

Perseus laughed, but again it soon faded, like a small fire in a cold stove. Their time was almost up.

“I didn’t even think to get you anything,” he said. “And you’re by far the more likely to forget about me.”

He didn’t add that he wouldn’t have known what to get her, even if he had.

“Oh, I don’t think that’s likely,” she said.

“Still, I should give you something. Something important. But I don’t have anything like that.”

Elizabeth thought a moment.

“Well,” she said slowly, looking away as though embarrassed. “There is something you could give me.”

“What?” he asked eagerly.

“It’s not really much, of course,” she said. “Though I think it is important. And I don’t know if I really ought to ask, but since you’re so eager…”

“Well? What is it?”

She swallowed and fixed her eyes on a bit of grass by his feet. Her face was as red as her hair.

“A kiss.”

Perseus felt as though the bottom had dropped out of his stomach.

“A what?”

“My first kiss,” she said, playing with the grass. “It’s a special thing. Ought to be, at least, I think. Something I can always take with me. That way I’d be sure never to forget you.”

Perseus felt himself going red as well. He had never yet seriously thought of kissing anyone; it was the sort of thing one read about in books and imagined doing, but which existed totally apart from the real world. It was as if she had told him that there was a dragon that needed slaying or pirate treasure to be dug up.

Yet, he certainly didn’t dislike the idea.

“I suppose so,” he said.

Judging by the way they focused on it, one would have thought that there was something infinitely fascinating about the grass about their feet.

“So…will you?” she asked after a moment.

He forced himself to look at her, and she forced herself to look at him, and he nodded. He had no real idea what he was doing, and it seemed far more complicated in real life that it had sounded in books. But there wasn’t anything for it but to simply try their best. Elizabeth shut her eyes tight and learned forward a little. Perseus thrust his face forward and their lips met.

It was wetter than he had expected. But really, quite nice.

They broke apart, both breathing rather fast. Then they both began to giggle uncontrollably.

A moment later, Uncle Roger came stumping up the hill to tell them it was time, and they walked back down together. At the gate, the moment of parting came. They shook hands and said their goodbyes.

“Have a good time in America,” he said.

“Have a good time in London,” she answered. “Or at least, not too frightful of one.”

He smiled, and just like that, they parted, him walking away beside his uncle to the train station for the last time.

“I’ll send for you if that sea monster shows up!” she called after him as a parting shot.

“See that you do!” he called back.

As the train rode away back to London, Perseus found his mind kept going back to that kiss. That first and only kiss. He felt different for it; stronger, bolder, more sure of himself. And all at once, he seemed to see his path clear before him.

In that moment, Perseus Corbett made a vow. He had no idea how he would do it, but he swore he would or die trying. He swore to himself that, some day, he would become a gentleman. He would have a house like that, beautiful grounds, horses, servants, fine old objects, all of it.

Most of all, he would marry Elizabeth Darrow.

The Ordinary King

In a far-off land, there lived young prince. He was very forward thinking in his views, having read much and mixed much among the common people, whom he loved dearly. He swore that, when he became king, he would make their welfare and their happiness his first priority.

In the meantime, he thought less and less of the nobles and courtiers he had to spend his days with, thinking them haughty, arrogant, and vain. He came to despise the pomp and show of court, and even to think less of his own father, the king. Again, he swore that when he became king he would put a stop to all that nonsense, or at least reign it in a good deal. As is the way of things, the more time went on and the more he thought on these things, the more radical he became in his views.

In due course, the old king died, and the prince ascended the throne. The very first thing he did was to reduce his coronation from a fine, expensive spectacle at the cathedral to a quiet ceremony in the palace chapel. In his first address to the people, he assured them that the days of autocratic, exploitative rule was over: “For I am but a man; a common, ordinary man like any other, and I shall act like it.”

He was as good as his word, riding a common horse, wearing common clothes, and eschewing his retinue. The money that would have been spent on all this went to doing good among the poor and destitute. And though the nobles grumbled, the king was happy and well-loved by the people.

One day, while the king was on his daily ride, he came across two men quarreling. Stopping his horse, he inquired as to the issue. He learned that they were brothers, and the elder had denied their father’s dying wishes and disinherited his brother, who had a young wife and child.

“This is intolerable!” said the king. “I order you sir, to render your brother his due inheritance.”

The hard-bitten farmer leaned back and fixed his eyes on the king.

“You order me, do ye?” he said. “Ye go about ridin’ an ordinary horse, with not but a common man’s clothes on yer back. You even announced at yer coronation that ye were naught but an ordinary man. Well, I don’t give a straw for what an ordinary man tells me to do.”

The Abolition of Harley Quinn

Like everyone else, I haven’t seen Birds of Prey, and I have no intention to. However, I have seen a few reviews of it, read about it, and have a fair idea of what the story is. And as someone who loves the DC universe, I have a thought or two.

See, as I gather it the premise of the film is that Harley Quinn has broken up with the Joker, and the film is about her proving that she can stand on her own without him, to the point where she blows up the Ace Chemical plant as a sign that their relationship is well and truly over. The film apparently is a ‘strongly feminist’ tale casting Harley in the role of the strong, emancipated woman who doesn’t need a man to define her.

Here’s the problem; Harley doesn’t fit that role at all.

I don’t know what genius thought that Harley Quinn of all characters would be suitable for a feminist parable. Probably they just saw ‘popular female comic-book character’ and didn’t even consider the idea that she might not work as a female empowerment figure. But of all the women in the DC universe, Harley is preeminently the one who absolutely does need a man to define her. It’s frankly what makes her interesting in the first place.

One of the few things I thought Suicide Squad got right was its image of Harley’s deepest desire, which turned out to be for a normal married life with the Joker. I think that’s spot-on. Fundamentally, Harley is the woman who has fallen in love with the wrong man: a man incapable of truly caring for her or anyone else. Ultimately, she wants nothing than to be with him, and to that end she’s sacrificed her whole life, her sanity, and her soul.

That’s, quite frankly, what makes her a compelling character and the reason why people remain invested in her: that she became a villain through love. The kind of abusive, obsessive, self-destructive love that is inexplicable to anyone on the outside. When Harley’s done right, you always feel sorry for her, even as you despise her for what she does, because the thing she is doing it all for – the love of the Joker – is so patently impossible. Horrible as she is, you can’t help hoping that one day she’ll wake up and leave the Joker for good.

The thing is, though, once that happens, her story is over. There’s nothing more to tell about her after the Joker is out of her life, any more than there would be anything to say about Romeo if he lived on past Juliet (when the Joker died for good in the DCAU, the writers wisely wrote her to have quietly disappeared). You could write a story of her in mourning or obsessed with revenge, as that would still be her in relation to the Joker. You might even, conceivably, write of her falling for another man (she is, to paraphrase Mr. Knightly’s appraisal on Harriet Smith, “the kind of woman who must be in love with someone”). But the idea of an independent Harley; a Harley Quinn who doesn’t want to be defined by the Joker or any other man, is simply nonsensical.

Which brings up another problem. As noted, the only reason people sympathize with Harley at all is because of her hopeless, tragic love for the Joker: because she is so passionately devoted to an illusion. It adds a degree of pathos to her villainy. Take that away, and she’s just another villain.

In short, to emancipate Harley from the Joker is to abolish her as a character. There’s simply nothing left of her to care about.

On another note regarding Birds of Prey, who on Earth decided to cast a Black actress as Black Canary, one of the quintessential blondes of the DC universe? Were they really so thick as to think that ‘Black’ had to refer to race? (Kind of extra bitter on that, since I liked Black Canary quite a bit in the DCAU; she was cool, a delightful study in contrasts, and her romance with Green Arrow was a lot of fun. Then Arrow thoroughly botched her, and now this. Seriously, why is it so hard to get her right? ‘Short, leggy blonde with a minor superpower is also one of the best martial artists alive’).

The point here is that in writing characters like this, it’s important to keep in mind who and what they are, and, equally important what their story is. Some characters can exist comfortably in multiple roles across multiple stories, but even then there are certain things that they must maintain. Godzilla can be either hero or villain, but he cannot be timid (even more than the awful design, this factor alone showed the creature in the 1998 film to not be Godzilla). James Bond can survive the loss of any supporting cast members, shifts in personality and tone, but he can never be anything but a British man.

It isn’t just that trying to do otherwise would show poor craftsmanship; it would raise the question of why? Why are you even writing this character if you don’t care enough to even try to get them right? It is, if I may put it so, offensive to muse: it shows that you think of the character as nothing more than a tool that you may do with as you like.

 

 

Thrilling Adventure Stories Presents: The Four Sleuths in The Common Thread

 

 

            “Phone call for Mister Fireson.”

Andre looked up. He had been reading the latest reports over Detective Crane’s shoulder. The police were busy trying to sort out all the information coming in regarding the conspiracy and working to track down Cummings, Deaney, and the others. It was interesting to follow, and though he had no official part to play in these proceedings, he was determined to see it through to the end.

But he had other responsibilities, and he’d been away from them for the past few days dealing with this adventure. Now that it was finally being wrapped up, he expected the phone calls to start coming in. So there was no surprise or suspicion in his mind when he took the phone from the junior police lieutenant and said, “Fireson speaking.”

“Mister Fireson,” said the voice on the other end. “I know you are a practical man, as am I, so I will not waste your time. I am currently holding Miss Rockford and Detective Stillwater in your house. Informing the police or failing to do exactly as I say will result in their immediate deaths. Do you understand?”

Andre’s hand tightened on the phone and his keen mind immediately focused on the problem.

“I understand,” he said, trying to affect a casual, businesslike tone.

“Good,” Cummings answered. “Now listen carefully. You will proceed to your office on a plea of urgent business. From there, you will order a helicopter – a Bell 214, and fully fueled, – to arrive at your estate at four o’clock today. The helicopter will be carrying five hundred thousand dollars in unmarked bills, and will transport my associates and I to a location that I will provide to the pilot. Once we have arrived, I will send the two women back with the helicopter.”

“That might be tricky to arrange,” Andre answered. “Short notice, isn’t it?”

“Very, but that is your fault, Mr. Fireson. You could have stayed out of this and instead chose to destroy my work. If you find it is too much trouble, then I suppose that is your right and your friends can take the consequences.”

“Can I get assurance of that?”

There was a pause.

“Sorry, Andre,” said Sarah’s voice. “He’s telling the truth. At least about us. Sorry; we probably shouldn’t have let our guard down like that.”

Andre’s mind raced, trying to judge how best to take the initiative.

“Both of you?”

“Both of us.”

“Is that all he has to offer?”

“I…what?”

“Let me talk to him again.”

“Andre, what are you…”

Her voice faded as Cummings took the phone back.

“Are you satisfied, Mister Fireson?”

“Not quite,” he answered. “The price seems a little steep. Perhaps we can negotiate.”

There was a pause.

“Could you repeat that?” said Cummings.

“I said the price is a bit more than I’d care to pay for the merchandise,” said Andre in a slightly raised voice. “Maybe we could negotiate a little. Especially on the timeframe.”

“Are you kidding me?!” Sarah’s voice shouted, sounding as though Cummings was holding the phone out so they could hear.

“Would you care to reconsider?” Cummings asked.

“Maybe, but remember, you stand to lose as much as I do if this deal goes south,” Andre answered. “I’ll give you a call back when I get to the office.”

A pause.

“I am surprised to find you taking this attitude. But as you will; I will await your call. No tricks, Mister Fireson.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t do that,” Andre answered.

There was a click as Cummings hung up. Andre carefully replaced the phone then immediately strode over to Crane.

“Get Windworth and come to my office, now,” he said in a low voice.

Crane looked at him in surprise.

“Something come up?”

He nodded.

“Can’t talk about it here. We need to move fast.”

###

            Cummings drummed his fingers on the telephone, frowning. Sarah Rockfrod wondered what was going through his mind. Evidently, the conversation hadn’t gone as he’d expected.

That’s because he doesn’t know Andre like I do now, she thought.

They were in what could only be the master bedroom. Sarah felt indignant on Andre’s behalf that his privacy was being so violated, and oddly shy of being forced into such an inner sanctum, though under other circumstances she would have been glad to see it. It was a wide, airy room with a high ceiling, paneled, as most rooms in that house were, with reddish-brown wood and with a magnificent bay window looking westward over the city. There was a rich red and gold rug covering most of the center of the room, a four-poster bed, a great, carved desk that looked at least a century old under the window beside a shelf full of books and a fireplace complete with mantelpiece. On the other side of the room there a small exercise area with a heavy punching bag, a set of parallel bars, and some weights. The walls were hung with several paintings in ornate frames. It was a beautiful room, stamped through and through with its master’s personality, which made the present situation seem all the more intolerable.

Sarah and Karen sat side-by-side on the floor at the foot of the bed, their wrists tapped behind their backs, knees and ankles bound tight together in front of them. Deaney was taking out his aggression on the punching bag, while McLaglen stood beside the two women, gun in hand. Tyzack, Aldrige, and Booker Sarah knew, were posted somewhere in the house, watching the doors.

For a brief moment when Andre had claimed the price was too steep, Sarah had felt shocked, betrayed, scared…then she remembered how he had behaved when they first met; the mask of unscrupulousness and cruelty that he had put on while dealing with Deaney. It was, she guessed, his strategy for keeping Cummings off-balanced, uncertain. Buying time.

“You don’t really think he means it, do you?” said Deaney, delivering a swift kick that sent the bag swinging.

“Perhaps not,” said Cummings thoughtfully. “But he was correct about one thing; if we kill them, we lose our bargaining position.”

Sarah’s eyes kept being drawn to the portrait of a dignified, middle-aged man that stood in pride of place over the mantelpiece. From a strong resemblance of face and expression, she guessed this must be Andre’s father, or at least one of his relatives.

“I’m telling you, he’s bluffing,” Deaney insisted.

“He’s not,” Sarah put in.

They looked at her. So did Karen.

“If Fireson helps you, it’ll tarnish his family name,” she said. “He cares more about that than he does about anyone.”

“Even you?” said Cummings.

Sarah swallowed.

“Oh, he doesn’t really care about me,” she said. “I mean, really, we’ve known each other for, what three days? And I’m just a nobody; he’s a tycoon and aristocrat and all the rest of it. Trust me, if it’s between me and his legacy or whatever, I’m not even going to rate a consideration.”

“Is that what you think?” McLaglen asked Karen.

Sarah looked at Karen, who seemed to be scrutinizing her.

“No,” she said. “I think he genuinely cares for her, and that he’s bluffing.”

“I’m telling you he’s not,” said Sarah. “Trust me, I know when a man is into me; he isn’t.”

“Well, this is enlightening,” said Deaney with a groan. “I say we test it; kill one of them to prove we’re serious.”

“No, no!” said Sarah hastily. “You don’t have to test anything! I’m telling you…”

“Yeah, if you do that, that’s the end of negotiating; they’ll figure they have nothing to lose and come at us with all they’ve got,” said McLaglen. “I’ve done this game from the other side, trust me.”

“Okay, so we don’t kill them;” Deaney said. “There’s other things we might do to get the point across.”

He cracked his knuckles, and Sarah swallowed as he turned a nasty, almost hungry face in her direction.

“That will have to be considered,” said Cummings. “For the moment, however, he won’t be stupid enough to involve the police, which buys us some time…”

He glanced at the two women thoughtfully, then beckoned to his companions.

“Deaney, McLaglen, will you come with me for a moment…”

“What about them?” McLaglen asked, nodding at the girls.

“They aren’t going anywhere, and this won’t take long,” Cummings answered.

The three men left the room, not without some suspicious and uncertain looks.

“Why didn’t you back me up?” Sarah muttered under her breath as soon as the door was closed.

“It would look too neat if we agreed,” Karen answered. “This way they don’t know what to think.” She hesitated. “You didn’t…really believe that, did you?”

Sarah bit her lip. Her own arguments for what she thought was a bluff suddenly sounded uncomfortably convincing in her frightened, uncertain state of mind.

“Well,” she muttered. “If it is true, at least it won’t hurt for long.”

###

            “This is intolerable,” Andre growled, pacing the floor of his office like an enraged leopard in a small cage. “Who the hell does Cummings think he is, going into my house, trying to extort money from me?”

“I suspect that was the point,” Nick put in, sitting casually on Andre’s desk. “Classic humiliation scheme; Cummings gets what he wants, but he also gets his revenge on you in particular.”

“Do you think he’ll do what he says?” Crane asked. “I mean, let the girls go when he’s got what he wants?”

Nick’s face seemed to sag as though with weariness.

“Well,” he said. “Perhaps, but we wouldn’t like their condition if he did.”

“Doesn’t matter,” said Andre. “Since we’re not giving him what he wants. He is not getting away with this, damn it.”

“None of us want him to,” said Crane. “But we also don’t want to lose Sarah and Karen, do we?”

“We’re not,” Andre said. “We’re going to save them and bring down Cummings and Deaney and the rest of ’em.”

“Excellent!” said Nick. “I fully agree. Now how are we gonna do this?”

“That’s what we need to figure out,” he said. “You’re the con man; can’t you come up with anything?”

“I’m working on it, but these angry tirades aren’t really helping things. Do we have anything more practical, like a plan of the estate?”

“Sure thing,” said Marco Benton. He went to file cabinet, drew out a roll of paper, and spread it on Andre’s desk. “’Course, the safe room ain’t on this one, but it’d be about here.”

They all bent over the plans, studying them carefully.

“Hm,” said Nick. “Not a lot of good options.”

“No, I purposefully made the house difficult to assault,” said Andre.

“I’m sure that seemed like a good idea at the time,” Nick answered.

“Obviously, I didn’t count on being forced to attack it myself,” Andre snapped. “But we do have one in; don’t forget the escape hatch.”

“That is something,” said Nick. “And we have another as well.”

“What’s that?”

“He wants a helicopter. Helicopters come with pilots, and if it can carry all of them out it can carry other people in.”

Andre nodded, seeing his point.

“I think,” said Nick after a moment’s thought. “That I have an idea…”

###

            “There it is,” said Cummings as he hung up the phone. “Fireson has capitulated. The helicopter, with the money, shall be arriving in twenty minutes. Or so he says.”

He tapped his fingers on the desk, thoughtfully looking out the window at the city.

“There lies my domain; stripped and left for others. ‘Of comfort no man speak; Let’s talk of graves, of worms, of epitaphs. Let’s choose executors and talk of wills, and yet, not so; for what can we bequeath save our deposed bodies to the ground?’”

He sighed and turned back to the room.

“This is it, gentlemen. Remember what we discussed. Anything goes wrong, you know what to do.”

Karen saw Deaney looking in their direction and grinning.

“McLaglen, send your boys up to the helipad to greet the chopper. Tell Booker to be on the alert.”

The ex-police captain nodded and left to attend to the orders.

“Mr. Deaney, if you would get our guests ready to move,” Cummings said.

“I would be glad to,” he answered. He drew a pocket knife, knelt beside the two girls, and set to work cutting the bonds on Sarah’s legs. He let his other hand rest appreciatively on her thigh as he did so.

Meanwhile, Karen Stillwater’s cool, methodical brain was working through the possibilities. It was unlikely in the extreme that Nick and Andre wouldn’t make some attempt to rescue them. That was rather embarrassing, since they had already done so more than once, but there was no helping that now. It was equally unlikely that Cummings wouldn’t anticipate that and so have some kind of plan in place. Therefore, it would be a question of who was the better strategist: Nick or Cummings. And they had already had an answer to that, hadn’t they?

Deaney turned to her now, running his hand along her thigh as he cut the strands of tape binding her. It made her stomach fairly boil with anger and humiliation, though it also allowed her to feel just how powerful this man’s hands were. It felt as though he could break her legs just with his hands alone. The desire to kick him in the face – or somewhere else – as soon as she was free would regrettably have to be set aside.

“There you are,” said Deaney as he finished. “Just don’t go anywhere.”

He waved the knife in her face. She didn’t flinch.

“Why would I?” she answered, her strange half-English, half-Mexican accent becoming slightly more pronounced with the force of her suppressed anger. “I still have scum like you to arrest.”

Deaney’s face briefly registered surprise and anger, then he smoothly turned it to a grin.

“We’ll have to see about that,” he said. He put out a hand and gripped her injured shoulder hard as he stood up, causing Karen to gasp and wince with pain.

Deaney strolled over to speak with Cummings. Sarah turned a furious face to Karen.

“Bastard,” she mouthed. Karen didn’t reply. She was thinking rapidly. Cummings had a plan, and likely it was better than what their friends would come up with. But it would also necessarily be based on what he knew. If they could somehow change the script without him realizing it…

She gave Sarah a serious look to let her know that she had an idea. Sarah glanced at Cummings and raised one quizzical eyebrow. Karen nodded slightly, then tilted her head to indicate that Sarah should do what she did. Sarah looked a little confused, evidently not quite getting the meaning of the signs, but she nodded, hopefully to say that she’d follow Karen’s lead.

Karen gathered her feet under her and stood up, a little unsteady on her cramped legs. Sarah tried and failed to do the same.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Deaney demanded.

“If you want us to be able to walk later, you’d best let us exercise now,” said Karen.

Cummings allowed it. So far so good, but they’d be watched. Sarah got up on her second attempt and together the two women paced the spacious bedroom, keeping as far away from the two men as possible.

“Now what?” Sarah mouthed when their backs were to their captors.

“Do what I do,” Karen mouthed in answer.

She drifted over to the ornate desk and leaned against one corner, flexing and stretching her legs. Meanwhile, she carefully and deliberately drove the tape binding her wrists against the corner of the desk, where the woodworking rose into a blunted point. It wasn’t much of a tool, and she had to work slowly to avoid making too much noise, but with a couple tries it was enough to tear a good-sized cut into the duct tape. Enough to start on. Duct tape, she knew, is very strong, but only as long as it retains its integrity. Once start a cut, and you usually can finish it.

Karen didn’t dare stay long by the desk, but resumed her aimless ramblings. Sarah, having seen what she did, opted to try the same thing by leaning against one of the bedposts. The four-poster was as richly carved as everything else in the room, mostly in soft curves, but near the base of each post was a trio of fleur-de-lis with gently pointed tops. It was lucky that she was so short that she could reach them without drawing attention.

The two women drifted over to the window and sank down onto the seat. Sarah’s eyes were bright with excitement, while Karen, her face outwardly calm, felt as though she were full of static electricity.

There was nothing to do now but wait.

###

            At the top of the escape shaft, Andre had one hand on the latch of the heavy door leading into the safe room, the other held his Glock at the ready. He didn’t think that Cummings could have discovered the safe room, but he meant to be prepared just in case.

He glanced at Benton, who nodded, holding a shotgun at the ready. Andre turned the latch and they burst into the room to find themselves covered by compact assault rifle. But it was in the hands of the loyal Liu Sho.

“Mister Fireson!” the gardener exclaimed, lowering the gun at once and bowing. “My humblest apologies, sir, that your house has been defamed in this manner, and that your guests has been mistreated under your own roof. I saw them coming, and as you have always instructed, I retreated, and only then did I see that they had the young ladies with them.”

“That’s quite alright,” said Andre, holding up a hand to stem his apology. “You did the right thing. Now, what can you tell me about what’s been happening?”

“Two men were waiting in the hall. They have gone up to the helipad. A third man – big like Marco – he was here,” he pointed to one of the screens of the closed-circuit tv system. “But I have not seen him in some minutes. Three men are in your master bedroom, with the two women.” He pointed to the screen showing the closed door to his master’s inner sanctum. Andre’s blood boiled and he had to exercise great control not to immediately rush out there.

“Don’t worry boss; I don’t think they’d be doing any bedroom activities,” Benton put in. “It’s only amateurs do stuff like that, leastways, unless they’re feelin’ pretty safe. Situation like this, what with it bein’ your house and all, they’ll want to keep on the alert if they got any sense.”

“I actually had not been thinking along those lines, but thank you for putting it in my head,” Andre growled.

“Sorry, boss,” Benton shrugged.

Andre drew a deep breath. His fears for his friends were not helping. They could be dealt with later. He pushed them aside, into the room in his mind where he kept matters that he couldn’t attend to straight away, and then returned his attention to the matter at hand. It was just another puzzle; another mental challenge for him to overcome.

“Watch the helipad and the door to my room,” he ordered. “When they come out, that’s when we come out.”

“And keep an eye out for that goomba, Booker,” Benton put in. “I don’t like not knowin’ where a beef cut like that is hidin’.”

###

            “You know what I like about flying helicopters?” Nick Windworth said as he maneuvered the chopper in its approach to Fireson’s mansion.

Detective Crane, who was trying to stay focused on the mission and to recall all the tactical training he had learned in his younger days, was not in the mood for riddles.

“What?” he demanded shortly.

“Not a blessed thing,” Nick answered.

“Thank you, Windworth; that was very helpful,” Crane growled.

“Just making conversation,” the con man answered. “Oh, will you look at that? There’s a welcoming party.”

“Terrific.”

They flew in low over the mansion. Below them, former Detectives Tyzack and Aldrige stood waiting, pistols in hand. Nick turned the helicopter and lowered it gently to the deck.

Now came the tricky part.

Without powering down or turning off the blades, Nick suddenly threw off his seatbelt and rushed to the back of the chopper, threw open the side doors and started shouted and gesticulating wildly, waving for the detectives to come over. He looked as though he were close to panic. Tyzack and Aldridge exchanged a confused glance, then as Nick’s gestures became more frantic and he started pointing at the cockpit and then up at the blades, and then back into the chopper, as though trying to tell them something, though what they couldn’t imagine, they started for the chopper. Nick waved them on, as though urging them to hurry, and they picked up the pace.

“’Bout time, what’re you waiting for?” he shouted as soon as they came within earshot under the heavy throbbing of the propellers. “Come on, we got a big problem here.”

“What?” Tyzack shouted.

“I said, we’ve got a big problem here!” Nick screamed in his face.

“No, idiot, what’s the problem?”

At that moment, Crane turned around in his seek and aimed a gun at Aldrige, while Nick suddenly stuck his pistol under Tyzack’s chin.

“Two dirty cops, that’s the problem,” Crane snarled.

###

            “Here they come,” said Andre, pointing to the screen. The door to his master bedroom opened and McLaglen came out, leading Karen by the arm and covering her with his pistol. Next came Cummings, and last of all Deaney, and Andre felt his heart turn over as he saw that he was leading Sarah.

“Let’s go,” he said, hoisting his weapon. “Hit ‘em fast and hard.”

Marco Benton and Liu Sho nodded, guns at the ready. Andre pulled back the safe room door and stepped out into Marco’s gleaming kitchen, making for the servants’ staircase. Liu Sho was right behind him.

There was a crash and Andre whipped around to see his gardener fall, bleeding from the head. Edmond Booker was standing over him, a heavy iron skillet in hand, and before Andre could bring his rifle to bear, he swung it again, knocking the gun out of his hands and advancing like a tidal wave of muscle.

But he had acted too soon. From behind him, Benton (unwilling to shoot for fear of hitting his master) slung his rifle around Booker’s neck and pulled. Booker roared and grabbed at the gun, driving Booker back into the stainless steel refrigerator so hard it dented with the impact.

“Go on, boss! I’ll take care of him!” Benton called. Booker twisted around in his grip and the two hulking figures set to like a couple of enraged bears.

There was no time; probably the sounds of the fight had already alerted Cummings to their presence. Andre didn’t even pause to pick up his rifle, but drew his pistol as he ran up the stairs, taking them three at a time until he burst out into the upper hall.

The upstairs of his house was shaped like a cross with a curved bar; a long, crescent-shaped corridor servicing the two wings, while the main upstairs hall reached back to the rear of the house. Andre came out midway along the north wing, near the entrance to the patio over the gardens. He turned left and raced down the corridor.

“Hold it right there!” he shouted as he came in view of Cummings’ gang.

They had been caught right at the top of the grand staircase. From the other direction came Nick and Crane, both with pistols drawn. Deaney and McLaglen were turning about, gripping their hostages, looking from one side to the other. Andre felt a surge of triumph; they had done it after all.

Then Cummings held out his hands as though in surrender, and two small, dark objects dropped from them.

Andre realized what was going to happen a split second too late.

There was an explosion like a high-caliber gunshot, and at the same time a burst of blinding white light. Andre had been through tactical training and knew what to do here. Temporarily blind and deaf, he ducked and rolled out of the way. Beyond the sharp ringing in his ears he heard the dull throb of gunshots, and he prayed that they had been directed at him and not the hostages.

Then, as he came up, squinting and trying to blink the light out of his eyes, he smelled burning, and became aware that there was smoke all about him. For a second he thought his house was on fire, but then he realized that this was the other device that Cummings had dropped; a smoke bomb. He backed away, coughing, trying to get out of the cloud so that he could see.

It didn’t reach far, and he was soon able to breathe more freely. But as he stood in the corridor, gasping and trying to focus through the light in his eyes and the ringing in his ears, he realized he now had no idea where the others were. Cummings had played them after all.

###

            When the flash had gone off, Karen had found herself instantly blinded, deafened, and soon choking on smoke, followed by the impression of being half dragged, half carried down a long flight of steps. Coughing and trying to blink the light and the tears out of her eyes, she analyzed her position; she must be going down the main staircase. Clean air allowed her to breathe again, at least. McLaglen hit the front hall and turned right. She didn’t know what was in this direction. It felt like a long way, then, as her sight returned, the blurred impression of passing through a doorway into a large, airy room. Another blink and she had the impression of a library.

McLaglen was heading straight for one of the high windows. So that was how he meant to get out.

“Cummings, you’d better be right about this,” she dimly heard him muttered as they crossed the room. Karen, however, had no intention of letting him off that easily.

She twisted her wrists hard, snapping the last frayed remnant of the tape binding her hands, pulled one hand free of the sticky substance, heedless of the pain, and before McLaglen knew what was happening, she had seized his gun hand and was twisting it back.

McLaglen swore and tried to throw her off, but she held on grimly. She’d made a mistake; the grip was wrong. She couldn’t get the right leverage to bend his wrist, which meant they were just fighting on pure muscle. She seized his hand with both of hers and tried to force it back, but he was a lot stronger than she was. He grabbed her by the hair, down by the roots, and pulled hard, forcing her head back and causing her to gasp with pain, but she didn’t let go. He drove her back against a desk, pressing against her, preventing her from kicking him, and Karen was suddenly aware of how badly she had bungled her attack. He had her pinned in a vulnerable position and now slowly, inexorably, he was forcing the barrel of the gun back around to point at her.

Karen fought with every ounce of strength she had left, but it was no good; McLaglen simply had more to give, even with one arm. Her dark eyes widened in fear as the gun turned. The barrel seemed to be growing as it drew nearer; the black hole through which the killing bullet would emerge loomed larger and larger, until it had consumed the whole room, the whole world. There was nothing but that black pit aiming up under her chin, seemingly prepared to swallow her whole.

Then, all at once, a hand shot out and grabbed the slide, and the spell was broken. The gun dwindled to its normal size, and she was aware of Nick Windworth, one hand on McLaglen’s gun, the other pressing his own to the dirty cop’s temple.

“I’m trying to think of a reason not to pull this trigger,” he said. “And I’m coming up dry. Can you suggest anything?”

###

            Sarah felt herself being dragged along the corridor. She had heard his gun going off even over the piercing hum in her ears, and she thought she’d cried out, but she couldn’t hear herself.

Please let him have missed, she thought.

The first thing she could see was that he was taking her out onto the patio. There was, she knew, a metal staircase leading down to the garden; he must be heading for that. But…they seemed to be alone. Where was Karen? And where was Cummings?

As soon as she was aware of her position, Sarah stuck her heels into the concrete floor and tried to stop, or at least to slow Deaney down.

“Come on, you little snot,” he said, giving her arm a savage yank that pulled her off her feet, though she was light enough and he was strong enough that she didn’t fall. The power she could feel in his hand was terrifying: she though he’d likely be able to snap her arm just with a twist of his wrist.

Speaking of which

They were approaching the gleaming, top-of-the-line grill set. Almost without realizing what she was doing, Sarah snapped the remaining tape that bound her wrists, pulled her left arm free, seized the prongs and, turning, drove it head-on into the underside of Deaney’s right forearm. His hand opened involuntarily and the gun dropped at once as he screamed. She tried to pull it back out, to stab again, but before she could Deaney released her arm and backhanded her hard across the face, knocking her back against the grill. Her head swam with the impact and she tasted blood. Then his hand closed about her throat, he lifted her – one armed off the ground, then threw her straight down onto the floor. The awkward angle at which he threw her, so that she landed on her side, was the only thing that saved her from cracking her skull open like an egg on the flagstones.

He ripped the prongs out of his arm and brandished it over her, his face alive with rage. He looked ready to stab her to death and was only hesitating as to where to start.

Then the door to the corridor burst open and Andre flew out, gun raised. He fired, but missed. Deaney was already turning to meet him, and he was still disoriented from the flash bang. Deaney threw the prongs at him, and Andre had to duck to avoid it as Deaney came charging right behind the missile. A roundhouse kick and Andre’s gun flew off the edge of the patio, then Andre ducked the next attack and drove at Deaney in a football tackle. As Deaney rained blows down on him, the two slammed into the railing and, still locked together, tipped over the side.

Sarah screamed, staggering to her feet, aching all over. There was a great splash and she realized they’d landed in the pond. Stumbling, she headed for the stairs.

She needed to help Andre…somehow. And what about Karen? They must have taken her somewhere else, and Cummings…

Midway down the stairs, Sarah suddenly understood. She didn’t work it out step-by-step, but saw the whole thing, the whole plan. So simple. So obvious. So…so petty.

She also saw at once what she needed to do. There was a split second of hesitation, of doubt as she looked at the churning waters where the two still fought; should she let it go? Stay and help?

No, Andre could handle himself. All her friends could. She could count on them for that much at least, now that she had the chance to end this once and for all…if it wasn’t already too late.

While Sarah had her revelation, Andre hit the surface of the pond with a painful smack, and all at once the warm, murky water consumed him, disoriented him. Something, a foot, struck out and hit him hard. Andre struck back, his knuckles hitting flesh. He surged upward and broke the surface. Deaney was right beside him and he hit out as hard as he could.

“Son of a bitch!” he coughed as he rained blows on him. “Come into my house! Attack my people! Who do you think you are?!”

His punches were weaker than he would have liked. In the water he couldn’t use body mechanics or brace himself; he only had the strength of his arms alone, and not even all of that. Deaney blocked his latest attack and kicked him hard in the stomach.

“Self-righteous little prick!” he gasped. He kicked him again, knocking the little remaining wind out of him. Fighting in the water was a losing proposition.

Andre pulled back, kicking out for the side of the pond, flailing as best he could with no breath. Deaney had had the same idea.

Aching all over, Andre pulled himself up out of the water and onto the gravely path of his garden; the path he had helped to build with his own hands. A few yards away, he saw Deaney, gasping and panting, rising to his feet. He glared at Andre with murder in his eyes. Andre forced himself to rise to meet him, but Deaney gave a sudden explosive leaping kick, knocking him back to the ground.

“This won’t change anything, Fireson,” he snarled, kicking him savagely in the ribs. “You’ve only bought her a little time. Whatever else I do, I’m going to snap that little blonde tart’s neck, but not before I…”

He never finished. Probably in his rage he hadn’t noticed the green lump laying in the shadows by the pool, watching the battle, but it had seen him. It had seen him kicking and hitting its master. And with a sudden roar, Richelieu the alligator lunged forward and caught Deaney’s waist between his jaws. Deaney had time to utter a single shriek of pain and surprise before toppling into the pond with the enraged alligator on top of him.

Andre staggered to his feet, wincing at every step, and watched as the churning green water turned to red and became still again. The alligator poked its long, blunted snout of the water, bits of something hanging between its teeth.

“Good boy,” Andre gasped.

###

            Cummings took the spare jumpsuit down from the wall of Andre’s garage and stepped into it, then pulled a dirty cap down over his eyes. His movements were swift, but precise. The old battered gray van they had brought the two girls here in was waiting for him. It would take time for Fireson and his people to figure out what had gone wrong, then more time for the police to arrive, and by then, he would just be another work truck driving on his way; practically invisible. In a few hours, he would be over the border in Mexico, and from there he could make his way anywhere in the world.

He pulled open the van door, settled in the driver’s seat, stuck his gun down in between the seats, and started up the engine.

“Where’re we going this time?”

Cummings whipped around, reaching for his gun…but it wasn’t there. Instead, he found himself looking at Sarah Rockford’s lovely, smiling face, framed by its halo of golden hair, his gun in her small hand pointing right at him.

For perhaps the first time in his life, Cummings had nothing to say.

“I just saw it,” she said. “All at once; the common thread, the tell of all your little schemes. You’re a very clever man, Mister Cummings, but you always, always look out for yourself. Your whole master plan was basically just turning the city into a glorified mirror to admire yourself in. Now that things are falling apart for you, well, I just realized that you absolutely would send your friends off to lead us on a merry little chase while you slip off in the confusion and save your own precious skin. Because that’s what you do. It’s all you do.”

He gave a weak smile.

“It’s all anyone does, Miss Rockford.”

“My friends and I have been doing nothing but putting ourselves on the line to try to stop you for the past few days. You’ve given us plenty of chances to get away, but we haven’t, because you needed to be stopped. That’s the real flaw in your master plan, Mister Cummings; it isn’t about motive and opportunity, it’s about right and wrong. Sooner or later, there was going to be someone who wouldn’t tolerate what you were doing. From the moment you started this conspiracy of yours, it was only ever a matter of time.”

He looked at her, and she saw cold hatred in every line of his face.

“You wouldn’t really shoot me,” he said. “You aren’t the type.”

Before Sarah could answer, someone pulled open the driver side door, leveling a service revolver at Cummings’s head.

“She’s not,” said Crane. “But I am.”

 ###

            Andre Fireson loved his great house in the hills. But it wasn’t his only home. Every so often, he felt the need to get away from the city altogether, and for that purpose he had purchased about a hundred acres of secluded beach-front property some distance north of Los Angeles, on which he had built a modest cabin of sorts, surrounded by trees and facing out onto the Pacific.

It was the perfect place to escape to after their adventure.

The warm ocean breeze blew in on the patio overlooking the dock. They had just gotten back from a little light swimming (light due to the fact that most of them were still injured one way or another), had a mouth-watering lunch prepared by Benton (who was still mourning the granite countertop he’d broken while subduing Booker), and now they sat together, the four of them, watching the waves rolling over the beach, while Liu Sho (a bandage about his head) tended to the sea-side flowerbeds.

Or rather, Andre was sometimes watching the waves. More often his eyes rested on Sarah. She was wearing an open white shirt over her sky-blue swimsuit (Andre had provided both, as they were nicer than anything she had at her old apartment), and looked, to his mind, like the sun-drenched sea personified. A clever girl too; clever and brave and principled. He intended to spend more time with her, now that they had the chance. A lot more time.

Karen’s suit, meanwhile, was black, the exact same shade as her hair, and she had a dark grey shirt on over it. The sea at night, under a cloud-dressed moon, Andre thought with smile.

“All things considered,” said Nick, sipping his drink as he turned his face to the Pacific and his eyes to Karen. “I think I’m glad we didn’t die after all.”

“I think I have to agree,” said Karen with a faint smile. “And that reminds me; how did you know McLaglen would take me to the library?”

“I saw the plans to the house while we were strategizing and, well, that’s what I would have done,” he said. “A side exit, not too obvious, allows him to slip away into the bushes and avoids any potential ambushes at the front door while still giving access to the main drive.”

She stared at him, then shook her head in amazement.

“Not bad for a small-time crook,” she said. She contemplated him for a moment, eying his broken and bandaged thumb, and then broke. “That does it!” she exclaimed. “I’ve been dying to know; where did you learn all this? Who are you really? And please tell the truth this time; no more jokes.”

He looked at her, all black and grey and tan, yet almost luminous in his eyes, and it was as though the youth he’d lost long ago had momentarily flickered to life. For the first time in he couldn’t remember how long, he found he felt no reluctance to tell the truth.

“The truth, if you really want it, is nothing too special. I just a guy who did a few tours in Vietnam is all, and you pick up these things.” He sipped his drink, then added. “As a matter of fact, I was one the first American troops to enter Hanoi, back in ’68, if you can believe it.”

Karen frowned at him.

“Hanoi fell in 1970,” she said.

He looked steadily at her, smiling slightly.

“I know. What’s your point?”

There was a brief pause while they digested this. Sarah got it first.

“You were special forces!” she exclaimed.

“If you want to call it that,” he shrugged. “Put it that I did the things no one was allowed to talk about and that I didn’t want to think about, and when I got home I just…kept doing them. There didn’t seem to be anything else worth doing.”

Karen nodded. Though she had no personal experience even close to what he described, she thought she understood.

“And now?” she asked.

He thought a moment, then shrugged.

“Now I’m going to drink and enjoy the view,” he said, leaning back in his chair and fixing his eyes on her. “Everything else can wait.”

Andre laughed.

“Amen to that,” he said.

A few minutes later, Detective Crane appeared.

“Detective!” said Andre. “We were hoping you could make it. Sit down; have a drink. You missed lunch, but I’m sure Benton could whip something up for you if you like.”

Crane smiled and took his advice. They chatted a bit as the late lunch was prepared, but Crane seemed oddly distracted. It didn’t take long for him to share why.

“I was just doing some follow up,” he said. “Now that Deaney’s dead and Cummings is in jail, Roper Shipping is getting bought up by Centron Farms.”

“Is it?” said Sarah. “Looks like Cummings’s effort to keep them out of L.A. backfired on him.”

“That’s not all,” said Crane. “You know how he said they were running a third of the city? Well, that’s an obvious exaggeration, but not as much as you’d think. This case is already making waves in the business community; most of those who did business with Deaney are selling out as fast as they can. And guess who’s doing most of the buying?”

Andre sat up, suddenly alert.

“Centron Farms,” he said.

“But that’s not all,” Deaney went on. “That warehouse they were going to bomb? Well, we found out that it had hidden cameras watching all the rows. So, the thing is, even if the bomb had gone off, their plan would have backfired on them, because the company would have been able to show sabotage, and might have even been able to identify the perpetrators.”

“It’s good to know they wouldn’t have gotten away with it, even if we had all died,” said Karen.

“Right, but think about it,” said Crane. “Centron Farms moves in, starting a shipping and receiving branch and challenging Deaney directly. Cummings tries to deal with it, and in so doing he alerts us to his activities, all the while they have it set up so that, even if he succeeds, they have the last laugh. And now Centron Farms are taking over most of his old territory. Meanwhile, at the exact same time, the Mexicans under El Jefe start a war with Gallano, at great cost and seemingly to little benefit. Now between the two of them, the whole system’s gone and they’re both moving in.”

“I see what you’re getting at,” said Nick. “What’re the odds that two powerful, outside forces would just happen to challenge Cummings’s organization from two ends at the same time?”

“You mean you think this was all planned?” said Sarah

“That’s a bit much, isn’t it?” said Karen. “I mean, no one could possibly account for everything we ended up doing, right?”

“He didn’t need to plan for that,” said Nick thoughtfully. “All he had to do was stir the pond and something would come to the surface. Move in, put pressure on them to either sell out honestly or fight back dishonestly, at which point either someone notices something wrong, or they themselves secretly get the evidence they need to take Cummings down. Diabolically simple, actually; nothing illegal about it, unless, of course, he was also working with the cartels, which, if no money exchanged hands, would be all-but impossible to prove.”

“But who…” Sarah asked.

“Xander Calvan,” said Andre. “He’s the head of Centron Farms. Has a reputation for ruthless brilliance in more ways than one. I’ve met him; if anyone could pull off a strategy like this, it’s him, and I don’t think he’d scruple to deal with the cartels either.”

“If all this is true,” said Karen slowly. “What does it mean that this man is now taking over all that Cummings and Deaney had?”

A chill seemed to sweep over them. Then, suddenly, Sarah laughed.

“Never ends, does it?” she said. “You know what, though? I’m not going to worry about it. Maybe there’s nothing to it, maybe there is, but whatever happens, we’ll deal with it. Right?”

Andre grinned.

“You’re something, you know that?”

She flashed him a radiant smile.

“You have no idea.”

Crane chuckled good humoredly.

“I suppose that’s the best attitude we can take,” he said. He lifted his glass. “In any case, he’s to you all; case closed.”

The four of them raised their glasses. The future would come when it came. For now, though, life was good.

 

Thrilling Adventure Stories Presents: The Four Sleuths in The Trap Closes

 

Sarah Rockford returned to consciousness by slow degrees, resisting the process at every step, for the more aware she became, the more her head pounded and her muscles ached. She dimly hoped that she was dreaming, and that when she did finally become fully awake it would be to discover that she was in her own bed in her own little apartment, with these cramps nothing more than the result of a weird sleeping position. Or even better, maybe she’d wake up to find she wasn’t alone in her bed, and…

Sarah didn’t usually have dreams like that, and the realization of what she was thinking about jerked her fully awake. She wasn’t alone, but neither was she in bed. The pounding in her skull re-doubled, and her cramped muscles seemed to scream at her. She was sitting on a cold floor with her back against what felt like a slender steel girder. Her legs were stretched out in front of her and her arms held high over her head. An exploratory tug told her that here wrists were shackled in place. A strip of tape covered her mouth, while more of the same stuff affixed her waist to what felt like a steel girder.

She shook her golden head to clear it and looked around. The place where she had found herself was very dim, but not quite dark. She was able to see that she was bound to one of the support beams of a huge shelf that stretched from one end of the space to another and almost up to the ceiling overhead. It was clearly one of many in the building, and her legs stretched out into an aisleway between the shelves. She couldn’t quite make out what was on them; thick cylinders and crates by the looks of things.

Sarah turned her gaze along her own shelf and saw that there were other figures bound in the same way all down it; her friends. The one to her left was looking back, his eyes glittering slightly in the gloom. It was Andre. On her right, she saw Karen, who was either still unconscious or else slumped over in despair, while on Karen’s other side she could see the dim outline of Nick, who seemed to be sitting quite still.

Between her and Karen was the only clear spot of color in view: a red, luminous digital counter. Sarah squinted to try to make it out. It read four-minutes, forty-one seconds. Forty seconds. Thirty-nine…

With a sudden, sick jolt, Sarah remembered everything; their disastrous mission to Deaney’s house, Mr. Cummings’s ambush and revelation of his plans. This must be the chemical supply warehouse owned by Centron Farms, and that was the bomb that would unleash the cloud of poison gas over the city.

Say rather the bombs. As her sight adjusted to the gloom, Sarah perceived that the one with the digital read out was only the trigger; there were wires running from it all along the shelves, glinting a little in the dim light. She could feel one with her fingers as she flexed and pulled on the handcuffs. The whole shelf was lined to blow, and to take them with it!

Sarah screamed aloud for help, momentarily forgetting her gag. It did no good, of course. Karen turned to her, and Sarah saw blank despair in the other woman’s glittering dark eyes. Of course, Karen knew how hard it was to get out of these handcuffs better than any of them, and the cuffs were cruelly tight. Meanwhile, the counter continued its unwavering march towards zero: three-minutes fifty-five seconds. Fifty-four. Fifty-three…

Sarah was quite right in her assessment of Karen’s thoughts. She had woken up a little before Sarah and identified their position. A quick assessment told her that there was no chance at all for them to escape in time; the handcuffs were too tight. They were separated one from the other by about five feet, so there was no chance of collaborating. They couldn’t even try to work out a plan together, since their mouths were taped shut. A quick exploration with her fingertips revealed nothing within reach that might be able to pick the lock, and the odds of their being rescued were about zero. And the bomb was counting down rapidly.

Karen wasn’t the kind of girl who gave up easily, but she also had a very logical mindset, and pure, cold logic told her that they had no chance of escaping.

She struggled hard to think of something, anything to avoid that conclusion, but it was no good. Death, which she had cheated one way or another so many times over the past few days, had at last caught up with her, and with her friends as well. The terrible thoughts of ‘what would have happened,’ which had broken her formidable self-control when she was out of sight of the others, were now being realized. There was no hope; they were really going to die. And she was more afraid than she ever would have admitted as she watched the clock counting down; three-minutes eight seconds. Seven. Six…

Meanwhile, Andre Fireson’s fear was almost completely swallowed in anger. It wasn’t right that they should go out like this after all they’d been through. He looked down the row at Sarah, her bright gold hair shining even in the darkness. Had he saved her life more than once just to have her die here? And Karen and Nick too. That wasn’t right. He wouldn’t allow that.

And it wasn’t right that Cummings should get away with it after all. Dammit, they had a responsibility to the people of the city! All the innocents who would die in this ‘accident,’ and he didn’t meant to shirk that duty; not as long as he could still breathe. He thrust back the creeping despair that threatened to envelope his heart and twisted his cuffs, thinking that maybe he could break them off against the metal of the shelf.

Two-minutes, thirty-two seconds. Thirty-one. Thirty.

Nick Windworth sat very still, weighing their options. It wasn’t looking good; not good at all. Of course, there were things one could do to get out of handcuffs…or try to at least. Why had he gotten involved in this whole mess in the first place? He could have been well out of town by now, if he’d been smart. Safe and gone, leaving the problem to others. He’d done his bit and more long ago, hadn’t he? And hadn’t he decided to wash his hands of this sort of thing once he realized he wasn’t the same stupid, idealistic kid anymore? So what madness had possessed him to get involved this time?

He looked to his left and saw Karen Stillwater slumped against her bonds, her black hair hanging limp over her face like a shroud, but the richness of her figure outlined in the gloom.

Ah, who’re you kidding? He thought. You’re still a dumb kid, especially if you’re feeling that. And at your age!

The thought took him back to the things he’d learned when was still young; the things he’d had to do, and which he’d hoped he’d never have to do again. But the sight of Karen, slumped in fear and despair, gave him the resolve to at least try.

A sudden clang echoed through the warehouse as Nick slammed his hand as hard as he could against the support beam he was shackled against. A groan of pain escaped his gagged lips as the metacarpal of his left thumb snapped and dislocated.

So far so good, he thought grimly. The others were all looking at him now. He could see Karen’s glittering dark brown eyes, and there was puzzlement as well as fear in there now. Nick forced himself to look at her while he tried to work his hand – now misshapen from the blow – out of the tight cuffs.

One minute, twenty seconds. Nineteen. Eighteen.

The broken bone ground against the steel edge of the cuff, and Nick’s nerves screamed at him. He groaned back, biting down hard on the wad of cloth in his mouth. But it was coming through. One more thought of Karen, and with a final burst of pain he yanked his hand free.

Forty-seven seconds. Forty-six. Forty-five.

Nick didn’t waste time on the gag, but set to work at once on the tape holding him to the base of the beam. He flipped the now-empty cuff through the lock so that the pointed tip swung free and, holding it in his one functional hand, used the point to tear through the tape.

Thirty seconds. Twenty-nine. Twenty-eight.

Nick pulled free, stumbled as the torn line of tape snagged at him, ripped it off and threw it aside as he hurried to the digital counter.

Sixteen. Fifteen. Fourteen.

Nick drew a deep, calming breath, trying to think through the pain in his hand. He couldn’t see the controls well, so he picked up the bomb, carefully, and pulled it back a little into the comparative light.

Ten. Nine. Eight.

There were three buttons on the side, and no time to work out which of them did which. No time to play ‘eeny-meeny-miney-moe’ either. He pressed the first one.

Five. Four. Three.

Nothing at all happened, so he pressed the second. The timer stopped a two seconds left.

Nick let loose a sigh of relief, gingerly set the bomb back, and ripped the gag from his mouth, spitting out the blood-soaked bits of cloth.

“Piece of cake,” he said.

It took a few minutes for Nick to find a crowbar with which to break the handcuffs and free the others, and when he had they gathered around in a huddle, where of course the first thing they wanted to know was how Nick had escaped.

“You broke your own thumb?” Andre exclaimed.

“Well, yeah,” said Nick with a shrug. “If it’s a choice between a thumb and life, it’s not really that hard of a call to make.”

Karen stared at him, but he couldn’t make out her expression in the gloom. His hand was swelling up badly.

“That was good thinking,” said Sarah. “Thanks!”

Everyone echoed her sentiments, and Nick felt rather pleased with himself.

“So…now what?” she asked. “Go to the police?”

“No,” said Karen. “Things the way they are, they probably wouldn’t believe us and we’d just end up in jail.”

“I’m sure Cummings will have anticipated we might break out,” said Andre. “He’s probably got a back up plan. As a matter of fact, he’s probably putting it in place as we speak; they obviously know something’s gone wrong by now.”

“If I were Cummings,” said Nick thoughtfully. “And the bomb didn’t go off when planned, I would assume that we had gotten free and stopped it somehow, as in fact we have. What’s the next step?”

“The obvious thing to do would be either to go to the police or to try to get out of town,” said Karen.

“And his next move would be to simply start the bomb again,” said Nick. “He does that fast enough, the gas might kill us before we can get out, and even if he doesn’t, his plan’s gone off, so to speak.”

“That means he’s probably sending men over to do so right…” Andre began, but then froze. They had all heard it; the door to the warehouse opening.

Nick gestured to the others, and they all hurried down the row in search of a place to hide, but not before Andre grabbed the wires leading from the trigger and yanked them out. They could see several flashlights shining from the far end of the row, casting irregular shadows as they streamed in and out among the shelves. The four of them reached the far end of the aisle and pressed themselves against the end of the shelves on either side: Nick and Karen on one, Andre and Sarah on the other.

The men came without caution, talking aloud. Andre glanced down the rows and counted three; all with flashlights and it looked as though they all carried pistols as well.

“Any sign of them?”

“Nope; here’s where they were.”

“How the hell’d they get out?”

“Beats me.”

“Gallano’s gonna be furious about this.”

“Doesn’t matter; they can’t have gotten far and once the bomb goes off they’ll be dead anyway. Now hurry up and get it going again.”

Suddenly, Andre had an idea. It came to him all at once: complete and perfect.

“Sarah,” he whispered. “Listen very carefully…”

###

The three men examined the bombs and one of them (who looked more like a banker than a thug) sighed.

“Took out the triggering wires,” he said. “Probably figured the whole thing couldn’t be detonated that way. Too bad for them I always come prepared!”

“Yeah, yeah; just get on with it. We don’t need to caught here when the cops show up.”

“Who says they’re going to?” said the bomb expert. “Way I understand it, Gallano and Deaney’ve got them well in hand. If those four losers go to the cops, they’ll just stall ‘em until it goes off.”

As he spoke he drew out a line of wire from his pocket and started to attach them to the trigger.

“Hold it!”

The three men whipped around. Detective Karen Stillwater was striding up the aisle, cool as could be, aiming what looked to be a pistol at them.

“Drop your weapons and put your hands on your heads,” she ordered.

Her voice had such confidence that two of the men began to do as she said.

“Hold it,” said the bomb expert, frowning at her.

The other two froze.

“I said drop them, now!” she snapped.

“Where’s you light, detective?” asked the expert.

“You’ve got until three to drop your weapons and put your hands on your head,” she ordered, ignoring him. “One…”

“Shoot her!” shouted the expert, as he ducked.

Karen swore as the other two rose and aimed their guns at her. With no better options, she ducked and threw the pair of pliers that she’d been trying to pass off as a gun straight at the nearest thug’s head. She had a good arm, and the man was forced to dodge, throwing off his aim. Even so, it would have been bad for her had she been alone.

As the second thug took aim at her, he was suddenly tackled from behind. The whole time Karen had been bluffing the three men, Andre Fireson had slipped as quietly as he could down another aisle and come up behind them while they were focused on her. He drove his man to the ground, and the gun went spinning out of his hand and under one of the shelves. Andre didn’t wait to finish him off, but sprang up and went for the other one, who was turning to fire on him. Andre knocked the gun to one side, and the warehouse echoed as it went off. In the confusion of the flash and the sound, Andre’s fist caught the thug on the side of his jaw, then a blow to the stomach, then another to the face, backing the man against the shelves, the contents of which rattled with the impact.

The expert, meanwhile, was backing away from the fight, reaching for his own pistol. But even as he drew it, Karen came flying like a gazelle and caught the weapon as it came out of his holster, then drove her knee up into his crotch before twisting his elbow hard, forcing the weapon from his limp fingers. She took the gun, elbowed him on the back of the neck to drop him. She gasped in pain as the blow caused the knife wound in her chest to open again, but for the moment adrenaline kept her going as she turned back to the fight.

But the thug Andre had tackled to the floor had risen and was on her even as she turned. He caught her wrist, which was slender in his beefy hand, and twisted hard. She yelled and the gun dropped to the floor. The man dove for it, and Karen kicked it away, sending it spinning under the shelves.

Enraged, he hit her hard across the face. Her head swam and she tasted blood, but long training and practice kept her aware as he seized her dark hair with one big hand and pulled her head back thinking, no doubt, that he would hold her up while he beat her. Instead, as he yanked her head back, her hand came up and raked her nails across his eye. This wasn’t enough to make him let go, but he did pause in his assault to yell and clutch at the injury, and while he was so distracted Karen lifted her foot and stomped hard onto the side of his knee. She weighed probably half of what he did, if that, but caught unawares and from a weak angle the man went down hard onto the concrete floor. Unfortunately, he didn’t let go of her hair until she’d been pulled off balance as well. She caught herself and as he looked up she kicked him hard in the face.

While all this was going on, Andre was trading blows with his man, seeking to put him down. His opponent was tough; he had about a foot on Andre, and the muscle and weight to back it up. Even so, Andre’s hard, well-trained body was up to the challenge, and he dodged and weaved, pounding the man’s core while the other tried to land a knockout blow.

The thug threw a big swing, Andre leaned back out of the way, then countered with a jab to the nose, then an uppercut to the gut and a cross to the jaw. The thug reeled, and Andre pressed his advantage with another, harder blow to the jaw, then finally a powerful blow to the temple. The thug dropped.

Andre whipped around in time to see Karen kicking her man hard in the face. He growled and blood flew, but he still rose, aiming an uppercut at her as he did so. She stepped back out of the way just in time. Andre charged in from behind and drove his fist up into the man’s kidney. The man howled in pain and tried to turn to face him. That gave Karen the chance to run up behind him, leap up, and bring her right elbow down on the back of his neck, knocking him out.

“Not bad,” said Andre, breathing hard as he surveyed the three unconscious or feebly stirring men. “You okay?”

Karen could feel her face swelling up, and she was gripping her searing chest wound but nodded. “You?”

He rubbed his jaw and grinned. “Never better.”

“You might want to reconsider that, Mr. Fireson.”

They turned and saw a tall, slender figure coming down the aisle, flanked by two more men, but with pistols drawn.

“Mr. Gallano,” said Andre as he and Karen slowly raised their hands in surrender. “Didn’t expect to see you here. Deaney and Cummings have you running errands now, huh?”

“I am not afraid of getting my hands dirty, Mr. Fireson,” the drug lord answered. “It was I who tied you all in place. I frankly enjoyed the experience and hoped it would be the end of our relationship.”

“Still, it’s a little risky, all things considered,” said Andre. “A man of your stature doing wet work like this? Especially when your enemies are on the watch.”

Gallano hesitated, and Andre could tell he’d touched a sore spot.

“Your concerns are precisely why I was chosen for this…duty,” he said. “Mr. Cummings considered that I was the least likely person to put myself into such a position and hence would make discrediting any potential witnesses that much easier.”

“And of course you do whatever Cummings tells you,” said Andre.

“Enough!” said Gallano. “You’ve wasted too much of my time as it is. You two,” he gestured to his men. “Bind them again and re-set the bomb.”

Then he paused, shining his light on the floor, the up and down the aisle.

“Where are the others?” he demanded

“Running an errand,” said Andre. “In fact…”

The overhead lights suddenly blossomed to life. Gallano whipped around and found himself covered by six uniformed police officers, plus two men in ragged old suits, one of whom snapped a picture just as he turned. Behind the line of cops, was a round-shouldered, nondescript man, and beside him, hardly to be seen, just the top of a head of shiny gold hair.

Gallano and his men froze in utter astonishment, so stunned by their sudden change in fortunes that they couldn’t take it in. Then a hand, slender but strong, took hold of Gallano’s wrist and twisted his arm behind his back.

“Eugenio Gallano, you are under arrest for conspiracy to commit murder,” said Detective Karen Stillwater.

###

“I still don’t get it,” said Earnest Marlin of United World News to Sarah while Karen and Andre directed the officers in handling the bomb and the disposal of the suspects. Sarah had already given him a summary of the conspiracy and the bomb plot. “How’d you bring us here just in time like this?”

“Once Nick and I slipped out the back, we just went to the nearest payphone,” she said. “I called you, and you very sweetly decided to trust me,” she beamed a radiant smile on him. “Nick called the police and told them there was a robbery in progress next door, just in case one of the bad guys were listening and would have gotten suspicious if he’d mentioned Centron Farms. Then when they showed up, he just directed them over here. But we didn’t really expect to catch Gallano himself, did we?”

“You’re not supposed to say that,” Nick admonished her. “When a con goes off better than you expected, you say you planned it that way from the beginning.”

“Well, as a matter of fact, the way we figured it, Gallano’d send those three to re-set the bomb. Andre and Karen stayed here to ambush them, then we’d hand them over to the cops and they would roll on the conspiracy, see? It was kind of a gamble, since who knew whether they would talk, but at least it would draw attention to the plot and they couldn’t cover that up. Plus it would certainly stop the bombing.”

“And you say Walter Deaney’s involved in this?”

“He’s one of the ringleaders,” said Sarah, nodding. “But not the leader: that’s James Arthur Cummings.”

“Never heard of him.”

“You will,” said Nick. “From the looks of it, Gallano can’t wait to tell all he knows. After all, if he keeps quiet, odds are one of his former employees down at the precinct will see to it he has an ‘accident’ in his cell. Oh, that reminds me; I called someone else too.”

DA Chen had just arrived, looking breathless and staring as he saw Gallano sitting handcuffed in a police car. Nick went up and offered his uninjured hand.

“District Attorney,” he said. “We’ve never formally met, but I had the pleasure of meeting your daughter while she was in the hospital. A lovely girl. Did you know Mr. Gallano here tried to have her murdered to get you off his back? Detective Crane can give you all the details.”

By the time the four of them left the warehouse in the company of the police and district attorney, the conspiracy that Mr. Cummings had been so proud of the night before was in the process of unraveling. Captain McLaglen and detectives Tyzack and Aldrige disappeared from the precinct, but Detective Crane and Marco Benton – who had been run down at last about a mile after dropping the two women off – were released from jail on the recognizance of the District Attorney. No one knew where Cummings was yet, but as Gallano disappeared into an interrogation room with Crane and Chen, it seemed only a matter of time.

As she sat in the precinct lobby with Andre, Karen, Nick, and Benton, Sarah Rockford felt safe for the first time since she’d learned of Deaney’s existence a few days before.

Nick was looking over Karen’s bruised and discolored cheek.

“You sure it doesn’t hurt too much?”

“I’ve been hit in the face many times before,” she said. “It’s a small price to pay.”

“I still say it should’ve been me,” he grumbled.

“You were in no position to fight with that hand,” she pointed out.

“I’ve fought with a broken thumb before,” he said.

“Oh? Where was that?”

“Country club.”

She cast him a suspicious look, then sighed.

“Well,” she said. “At least we’ve all come through it safe.”

“My thoughts exactly,” said Sarah. “And that reminds me; I’ve gotta go write this down! I promised the Spinner a piece for the evening edition.”

“Do you have to go right now?” asked Andre.

“Won’t be long,” she said. “Just a quick write up.”

“Very well, but after that, I am inviting you all to dinner at my house to celebrate,” said Andre. “That is, if you are feeling up to cooking, Marco.”

“Boss, this ain’t the first time I’ve been in stir,” said the hulking valet. “Of course I’m gonna cook! I’ll cook you all a meal that’ll make you sing!”

“None for me, thanks, I don’t sing,” said Nick.

“Oh, so we’ve found something you can’t do,” said Karen.

“There are lots of things I can’t do,” he said. “Hold down an honest comes to mind.”

Sarah laughed, but Karen didn’t.

“I’ll be just across the street,” Sarah said. “Be back in a little bit.”

“Hold on,” said Karen. “You shouldn’t go anywhere alone just yet.”

“Come on, it’s over,” said Sarah. “Besides, who’s gonna do anything right in front of a police station now that they don’t have any cops on the inside?”

“Just to be safe,” Karen answered, standing up. “Anyway, I can help you fill in the details.”

Sarah looked at her and saw there was more to it than that. So she shrugged and the two women waved to the men and left together.

Across the street in the little café they ordered coffee and Sarah took out the pen and notepad she’d borrowed from the precinct, but didn’t start writing. Karen obviously had something on her mind, and Sarah composed herself to be the perfect listener, as she often did when taking interviews.

“So? What’s on your mind?”

Karen thoughtfully ran one finger around the rim of her mug for a minute.

“Have you begun to think of what will happen next?” she asked.

Sarah shrugged.

“Not really. I mean, apart from writing it out and so on.”

“I mean where we all go from here.”

“Well, I hope we stay friends,” she said. “I mean, we’ve been hostages together! Twice! You can’t buy that kind of bond.”

Karen laughed.

“I’m sure we will; if only because I’d hate to miss sentiments like that. What I meant was…I suppose it’s early to think about it.”

“About what?”

“I am a detective, Sarah; I notice things. I’ve seen the way you and Andre look at each other.”

Sarah, who had been taking a sip of her coffee, choked.

“I…” she coughed. “You…I don’t…”

“We don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to,” Karen added hastily.

Sarah used a coughing fit to gain time to collect herself.

“Well, I…wait, did you say he looks at me, like…”

Karen smiled.

“Sarah, of course he does; you’re beautiful!”

Sarah knew that of course, but for the first time felt rather shy of the fact.

“So are you,” she said.

Karen gave a shrug and a rueful smile and said, “No, I’m not.”

“Of course you are! Look, if I took a shot of you right now, even with your face all busted up and your chest bandaged, and I sent it to a dozen magazines, I guarantee you’d have twice that many photographers knocking on your door by lunch time tomorrow.”

That made Karen laugh.

“I don’t believe you, but you make me feel better,” she said. “What I really wanted to talk to you about was whether…whether you think one of us would stay around if…if I asked him.”

Sarah knew what she meant at once. Quite apart from the obvious clues, such as the exchange she’d witnessed only a few minutes before, there was only one of their number who might be expected to disappear.

“I’m sure he would,” she said. “I don’t really know what goes on with him, but I get the idea he’s just…just waiting for a reason to stick around somewhere and go straight. And you’re a pretty good reason!”

“Let’s not go too fast,” said Karen. “I only want to…to have a little time.”

“Well,” said a male voice. “In that case, I suggest you keep very still, detective.”

The two women froze. The voice had come from the patron sitting behind Karen, whom Sarah had barely noticed. His head turned slightly, and she saw the profile of Captain McLaglen behind sunglasses and a baseball cap. Then another voice came from behind Sarah.

“Believe me, ladies, there is almost nothing I would like better than to kill you both, so don’t tempt me.”

It was the voice of Walter Deaney.

“We’re going to walk out of here,” he said. “Together. Easy and friendly. There’s a car waiting just around the corner. We’re going to get into it.”

“And then?” Karen asked in a low, tense voice.

Deaney smiled.

“That’ll depend on your boyfriends, won’t it?”           

Happy St. Valentine’s Day: Some Favorite Couples

And Saint Valentine said [unto the Emperor Claudius]: Certainly Jesu Christ is only very God, and if thou believe in him, verily thy soul shall be saved, thy realm shall multiply, and he shall give to thee alway victory of thine enemies.
The Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine

For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day 
Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.
Chaucer, The Parliament of Foules

Happy St. Valentine’s Day, “when every bird chooses himself a mate.” In celebration, I present a sampling of a few of my personal favorite animated couples:

-Robin and Starfire, Teen Titans
Image result for robin and starfire
These two make for a great ‘opposites attract’ couple: super-sweet, innocent, naive Starfire, who is emotionally vulnerable and embraces every new thing she encounters with delight, and brooding, ultra-serious, single-minded Robin, who was raised by Batman and who obsessively focuses on the mission. The two balance each other wonderfully: Starfire brings joy and sunlight into Robin’s dark life, while Robin acts as an emotional anchor whom she can always rely on to guard her and keep her focused. Plus I love the fantasy aspect that he’s an orphan from the circus and she’s a princess from another world.

-Kim and Ron, Kim Possible
Image result for kim and ron hug

Amid all the gadgets and spy antics, the heart of Kim Possible is the relationship between Kim and Ron as it grows from lifelong friendship to romantic love. Again, they are very much an ‘opposites attract’ kind of couple: Kim is an overachiever, straight-A student, and boasts that she “can do anything.” Ron is an underachiever, slacker student, and can’t seem to do anything. But all the while underneath they’re actually much closer than they appear: Ron is shown to be very capable when he needs to be, suggesting that his problem is more a lack of confidence, while Kim is actually very self-conscious about her image and puts up something of a false front to try to maintain her status (there’s a significant episode where they’re both hit by a ray that forces them to tell the truth: Ron’s success soars while Kim’s takes a hit). Again, the two complement and support each other very well, with Kim encouraging Ron to improve himself and Ron preventing Kim from taking herself too seriously.

-Phineas and Isabella, Phineas and Ferb
Image result for phineas and isabella hug
One of the many running gags of Phineas and Ferb is that Isabella, the super-cute leader of the Fireside Girls, is head-over-heels in love with Phineas and not at all subtle about it, but Phineas somehow never notices. He likes Isabella a lot, regarding her as his best friend outside the family, but he really doesn’t get the whole ‘girls’ thing very well (e.g. his idea of a romantic dinner for two involves dumping a huge pile of rose petals onto the table). So, it isn’t that he doesn’t return her feelings, it simply that he doesn’t think about it. Unlike the previous two couples, these two are more of a ‘birds of a feather’ matchup: both are overachievers, eager to make the most of life, with a great love of learning and creating, and they share a wonderfully natural, easy relationship. Isabella isn’t as brilliant, but more attune to normal life and emotions than Phineas, which means that in the rare times when he gets into a funk, she’s usually the one the pull him out of it.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

AMDG