The Temple of the Night

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“Magnificent!”

The young Englishwoman gazed out over the deep, mist-filled gorge. The mountains crowded in on all sides, their grey flanks dyed red in the rising sun, while the valley below was so deep and so narrow that what little could be seen through the breaks in the blanket of mists was lost in shadow. It was as though she were looking down upon a second sky.

She stood a moment upon the edge of the cliff, as still as if the light had turned her into a carved figure of ivory. Then with the quick, precise movements of a bird gathering its treasure, she swung the heavy pack off of her shoulders and pulled out a sketchbook and some pencils. Seating herself crosslegged upon a rock at the very edge of the precipice, she began to draw the scene, seemingly heedless of the thousand-foot drop immediately before her.

This – though perhaps few of her acquaintances in London would have believed it – was Lady Emma Worthing, and she looked as out of place sitting on a rock on a mountain deep in the Peruvian jungle as it was possible for a person to look. Every line, curve, and tone of her spoke of fashion, society, and elegance, from her perfectly fitted, custom-made clothing to her upright, well-trained posture.

She was tall and graceful with a fine figure. Her face was aristocratic, with a Roman nose (one she thought a trifle too big) and large eyes that glittered like opals whenever she was eager or excited. Down her back ran a long, tapering line of braided hair that was so deeply black as to appear blue in places.

Her clothing was entirely done in varying shades of white, save for the black of her hiking boots (now sadly scuffed from many days of walking), and she wore a white pleated skirt in lieu of trousers. This had raised many eyebrows and several people, including her hired guide, had tried strenuously to talk her out of it. But she would hear none of it.

“A lady must always look her best, whether in society or the jungle,” she’d insisted.

When Lady Emma sat down to commence her sketch, the two men accompanying her took off their own packs and stood waiting for her to finish. By now this had become quite a routine. During the course of their three day trek through the jungle, Lady Emma had already stopped at least a dozen times to make sketches and notes for paintings she might like to make once she had the chance. That she should do so even now, just as they had reached their destination, was only to be expected.

One of the two was an elderly, upright figure with heavy jowls and a fringe of perfectly white hair under the rim of his hat. The other was young, handsome, and with the lean, lithe air of a wolf about him. He smiled rather fixedly on the young woman as she sat sketching.

“Do I take it you came all the way to the Sombra Gorge merely to draw it, Senorita?” he asked

“One might do worse,” she answered carelessly. “Though as it happens, I have something else in mind. But do be quiet; I want to catch this light. One must be quick about such things.”

The Peruvian cast an expressive look at the old man, who did not return it.

“As you wish,” said Malveda, with a shrug. He leaned back against a tree and began to roll a cigarette, watching the young woman as she drew. Truth be told, he didn’t much mind the interludes. He still had no idea what had possessed this English lady to insist on being brought all the way here to this little known and less visited formation in the mountains, but she had money, and as long he was being paid, he wasn’t about to complain. Besides, a man might have to go a long way to see a woman better worth looking at.

The other man was George Nicholson, butler to the Worthing estate. He had watched over Lady Emma from the time when she had been young enough to believe his name was “Nibbles’em,” and he accompanied his charge wherever she went, always as straight-backed and dependable as he had been as a young batman to her father in Burma some forty years before.

Emma’s pencils flew over the paper. She wished, as she always did in such cases, that she had more time. There were always details she was missing, always some element of the scene that didn’t quite come out. But then, that was the nature of beauty: one never could quite catch it all.

At last she decided the sketch would have to do. She put the last stroke to it, packed up her pencils, and stowed the whole apparatus back into her pack.

“There we are,” she said, producing a small compact mirror and examining her face. “Oh, bother this humidity….”

“Now that we are here, senorita….” Malveda began.

“Yes, yes; I did promise to explain once we reached the gorge, did I not?” she replied, brushing some dirt from her forehead and shaking her head at her own reflection. She snapped the mirror shut and tucked it into her pocket. “It isn’t anything especially exciting, I’m afraid. You see, I am something of an amateur antiquarian. It is a hobby of mine to recover rare and lost pieces of art.”

“Is that so?” he answered. “And you think you will find such a thing in the Sombra Gorge?”

“More or less,” she said as she unfolded a compact, single-strap bag from the large backpack she had been carrying. “Nibs, be a dear and get this ready for me, will you?”

“As you wish, your ladyship,” Nicholson answered. He wore a look of faint disapproval, but his charge seemed not to notice it as she checked the knife and the revolver buckled around her waist.

“It is said that no one has ever entered the Sombra Gorge alive,” Malveda said.

“I should think leaving it alive would be the tricky part,” Emma answered, peering into the depths. “But I do not intend to go all the way in. If my information is correct, there is a small cave in the cliff wall a short ways from here, around the other side of this hill.”

She nodded at the looming side of the mountain that overshadowed their little shelf to the north, forming one wall of the narrow, doubtful pass they had traversed to find the gorge.

“I don’t suppose you’ve heard of the Javias people? They occupied these mountains many centuries ago and were conquered by the Incas. It’s said they had a certain temple that they kept an absolute secret, and then when the Spanish came….”

Malvedas’s whole attitude changed abruptly. He stiffened, like a dog that had caught a scent and look sharply at his employer.

“The Temple of the Night? The cursed idol of Yectclo? That is what you seek?”

“Oh, you have heard of it,” Emma said, drawing a long coil of rope from one of the packs and slinging it over her shoulder. “Yes, that’s the one.”

“Who in these mountains has not heard that legend? But…but what makes you think it is here?”

“That’s rather a long story, but the short version is I came across some notes by a Professor Luis Rondon, who pieced together the information back in the 1890s. He, unfortunately, never returned from the jungle, but I think his reasoning was sound. I’m merely following his footsteps.”

A hungry, wolfish look slowly spread upon Malvedas’s handsome features, like the dawning of some evil sun.

“And the idol,” he said. “Is it true what they say, that it is as a valuable as a mountain of gold?”

“It is supposedly an absolutely unique piece of ancient artistry,” she answered. “One can’t really put a monetary value on that, though certainly I would pay a good deal for it. In fact, I would say I am doing so,” she added ruefully, wiping the sweat from her face. “Sacrificing my poor, poor complexion in the name of preserving art. Are we ready, Nibs?”

Nicholson handed her the bag.

“May have a word with you, your Ladyship?”

“Of course. Malvedas, will you see to the tents? Back a ways from the cliff, if you don’t mind.”

Malvedas nodded, his eyes still gleaming wolfishly as he carried the packs a little ways down the trail.

“Are you quite certain of your plan, Lady Emma?” Nicholson asked once they were alone.

“I hardly would have gone through the discomfort of the past few days if I hadn’t been sure enough,” she answered, slinging the bag over her shoulders. “Do you have something to say, Nibs? If so, please do so. I’m in rather a hurry to get started.”

Nicholson hesitated, his jowls growing perhaps a trifle more pronounced as he frowned at her.

“Only this,” he said. “Do please, please be careful, your ladyship.”

“I am always careful.”

“With respect, you certainly are not,” he answered. “You are, if you will permit me, far too reckless. I have said it before and I shall repeat myself now: there was no reason whatever for you to undertake this expedition on your own.”

“If you mean I should have invited Lord Peter to come and hog all the credit….”

“I mean that you take far too many unnecessary risks, and late though it is, I must beg you to promise me that you will not take any such during this endeavor of yours.”

Emma gave a slight, musical laugh.

“How can I promise such a thing, Nibs? I don’t even know fully what the risks will be!”

“And how shall I ever face your father when my time comes if any harm comes to you?”

Emma’s smile vanished and she blinked in some surprise. Just for a moment a breath of guilt swept through her heart. Nicholson had promised her father on his deathbed that he would keep her safe. Now she was about to go and risk her life where he couldn’t be there to make good on that promise.

The feeling passed almost as quick as it came, leaving nothing but a slight chill. Her smile returned, warmer than before, and she hugged him.

“Nibs, dear, you’re doing all you need to. And for your sake I will promise to at least not run any unnecessary risks. But really, if you didn’t let me enjoy a little danger now and then I should die of boredom. I really should. Now don’t you worry any more of those lovely white hairs away: you’ve not got many left to spare.”

He did not look mollified, but his face softened a little.

“Just be sure you come back safe,” he ordered.

“Naturally,” she said. And with that she set off along the edge of the cliff, following the curve of the mountain.

Professor Rondon, following God alone knew what ancient sources, had pieced together a detailed supposition of the temple’s position and layout. In the Javias mythology, the night god was the master of magic, divination, and other mysterious arts which only the initiate were permitted to know. Therefore, his temple, where the mystery rites were performed, was hidden where none could find it and only the bravest could approach.

The summit of the mountain was only a few hundred feet above the pass where they were making their camp, and Emma was able to circumvent it fairly easily, keeping as far from the sheer drop as she could. On the far side there were several stout young trees growing near the cliff’s edge. Emma took hold of one of these and against leaned out over the cliff to peer down into the gloom.

Just as she had hoped. About forty feet down from where she stood there was a very narrow ledge, no more than two or three feet wide if that. Harsh grasses and small plants eked out a grim existence in its soil. It ran along the line of the cliff to where the side of the mountain curved around in a kind of oxbow, forming a narrow bay between its steep grey walls. There, barely to be seen beneath an overhang of the cliff, was a cave.

That cave was her destination, and the only way to reach it was the ledge. For here the mountains became so steep as to be impassible, and no one but a mountain goat could have found his way up and around to a spot directly above the secret cave.

Emma took the rope from her shoulder and made it fast about the tree, tested it, and swung out over the thousand-foot drop. She climbed down, hand-over-hand, her feet braced against the cliff-face. She was an excellent climber and soon set her feet upon the narrow, downward-sloping ledge.

Even as she stood with one hand on the rope, trying once more to squint down into the gloom to catch a glimpse of the ravine floor that it was said no living man had ever set foot upon, she was uncomfortably conscious of the tug of gravity pulling her feet towards the edge and seemingly endless empty space below. With its covering of mist and unseen bottom, Emma had the suddenly idea that if she fell, she would be falling upwards, into the endless depth of the sky.

The thought thrilled more than terrified her. Emma was not and never could be afraid of heights. From above, everything took on a new aspect and a new loveliness, lending beauty even to things that looked quite commonplace and squalid from the ground. Nothing that did that could ever frighten her.

And besides, as she had told Nicholson more than once, she rather liked danger. All things, life included, had their own proper beauty, and to her mind a dash of peril now and then added just the right texture to life.

She released the rope and keeping one hand on the cliff wall began to walk along the slopping narrow ledge, putting one nimble booted foot ahead of the other. The wind was high here, compressed by the canyon walls and it whipped her skirt about her legs and at times felt as thought it threatened to tear her from the wall. Here and there the ledge narrowed so much that she was obliged to creep along sideways, her back pressed to the wall, her feet half hanging over empty space.

Then came her first real check. About halfway along the cliff she came to a gap of perhaps four or five feet where there was no ledge at all.

Emma paused a moment, considering. The ledge both here and on the other side of the gap was about as wide as it ever was, though it looked to be steeper on the far side. To her left was a solid, sheer wall of rock. To her right was empty air and racing wind.

What was behind her didn’t matter, since she didn’t consider going back for even a moment.

Emma squared her shoulders, lifted her skirt, took three quick steps forward, and jumped. She soared deer-like over the empty shadow and landed lightly and nimbly on the other side. She stumbled for one breathless moment as her feet slid on the inclined surface, then she caught herself on the extreme edge of the precipice, sending several small stones tumbling into the mists below.

She let out a long slow breath, looked back, and gave a satisfied nod. The ballet training she had received as a girl served her well yet again.

The cave drew nearer without appearing to grow much larger. Emma found she had to duck to enter it. As soon as she did so she was conscious of a foul, musty odor. Switching on her electric torch, she played it around the walls of the cavern and soon found the source. At first glance, it looked like a moss-covered rock. But there was something off about the shape. She edged closer and nudged it with her boot.

It was a bag. A very old bag, almost completely rotted in the jungle humidity. Nevertheless, Emma felt obligated to open it, though she shuddered at the touch.

It came apart almost at once and a large number of insects spilled out, agitated by the sudden disruption of their damp home. Emma grave a cry of disgust and stepped back, brushing a few off that had gotten onto her clothing. The bag, it seemed, had once been full of tools and rations, but everything was mildewed, rusted, and molded to the point of being utterly useless.

This, she thought, must be Professor Rondon’s bag. So he had gotten that far at least. But that meant it had been lying there for about ninety years.

And what had happened to its owner?

That Emma felt queasily certain she would soon find out.

At the back of the cavern was a pit, more like a well than anything else. Emma leaned over it, squinting into the deep darkness. She got out a small flare and dropped it. It fell about twenty feet, disturbing a number of bats that came fluttering up and once again caused her to back away in disgust as they flittered about, seeking to escape the light.

Once the bats had departed, Emma secured a rope to a stalagmite that stood not far from the well’s edge and climbed down into the Temple of the Night, the flare casting its red light up at her.

At the bottom, her feet landed not on bare stone, but on a carved floor, unweathered by the many centuries that had come and gone. Emma drew out her torch and looked around her.

Demon eyes glared out from every direction. The light of the flare and torch sent a riot of jagged shadows upon the carved walls, while the jeweled eyes of figures long lost to knowledge gleamed as if alive.

“Gentlemen,” she said in a voice with only a sleight tremor in it. “You will please excuse me: I’m only passing through.”

Emma dusted a few cobwebs off of her shirt (trying not to think of the state that her hair and clothing would be in after this, nor about the possibility of a spider or two having hitched a ride) then examined the chamber she had dropped into. It was fairly small, perhaps ten feet square. The stone was primarily black, or perhaps a dark blue in color, edged here and there in white. A similar coloring prevailed upon the floor.

On three sides the walls were covered in carved geometric imagery, similar in style to that used by the Incas, though in a heavier, more angular style. Between these figures were lines of strange, eerie designs: not exactly writing, but not quite pictures either. They were spiky, almost spidery marks that made the hair on Emma’s neck prickle. She almost thought she could detect human figures among the designs, though what they were meant to be doing she couldn’t begin to conjecture. They were mixed with other, stranger characters that she thought must represent writing, being too odd and too spindly to depict anything that could exist in real life. She resolved, if there was time, to come back after she found the idol and copy some of these images for further study.

The remaining side of the room consisted of an incline leading up to a doorway flanked by stone figures. Both figures were holding their hands up as though in warning.

Emma made straight for the doorway, her sharp eyes alive for any sign of a trap. The legend said that it was death for any but the priests to enter the Temple of the Night, and she had long since learned to pay special heed to such legends.

The doorway seemed to have been carved through about two feet of living rock. On the other side was a rectangular chamber some twelve yards long. Here too the walls were carved in flat, intricate designs, with the same dark colored stone, and here too jeweled eyes gleamed in the torchlight at the invader. The floor was checkered in an intricate pattern of green, blue, and white tile in alternating patterns, so that one row would show red, blue, then white, and the one next to it white, red, and blue. This made a rather kaleidoscopic impression in the narrow light of the torch.

As she entered the chamber, Emma’s foot landed on something hard and round. She stepped back at once, looked down, and clutched her hand to her mouth to stifle a scream of horror. What she had stepped on was the skeletal remains of a human hand!

A skeleton, dry and covered in dust lay before her, its hands outstretched as though reaching for the door. Its skull was crushed and most of its bones broken, its dried up clothes half rotted away. The dead man seemed to have been cut down in the very act of fleeing the room.

Professor Rondon, I presume, she thought. My God, what happened to you?

Slowly, she played her light around the chamber, but saw nothing that looked as if it could have killed him. All was silent and empty, unless you counted the glittering eyes of the carved figures on the walls.

Emma felt a stream of ice run up and down her spine. For a fleeting moment, she wondered whether those stone images had come to life and struck down the man who had dared to trespass in their domain, guarding the secrets of the dark priests even centuries after their disappearance.

She chided herself for thinking such nonsense, but drew her revolver nonetheless. There was some kind of trap here, some protection against thieves. She could feel it. As she crossed the room, Emma kept her keen eyes wide and alert to any sign of danger.

She was not quite careful enough.

She was about halfway across the chamber when she felt a tile sink slightly under her foot. There was a heavy click, and a moment later a low rumbling sound, like a huge mill wheel grinding flower. Emma looked behind her and cried aloud as she beheld a stone door lowering over the entrance from whence she had just come. She turned and darted back, seeking to escape before she sealed in, but she was far too late. The door settled into place even as she reached it and beat the butt of her gun futilely upon it. There was neither handle nor keyhole; it was nothing but a solid block of cold gray stone. Turning around, Emma saw that the exit had similarly been sealed. She was trapped!

Her heart hammered and her breathing came fast. Buried alive, left to suffocate in an airless tomb! That had been the fate of Professor Rondon…or had it?

For she suddenly became aware that the low rumbling that had accompanied the closing of the doors had not ceased. As she puzzled over what it might mean, she felt something drop onto her head. Reaching up, she found it was a little bit of stone or gravel. Then she turned her torch upward.

The ceiling – the vast, solid, stone ceiling, as black as the night sky – was descending slowly, but inexorably over her head. It had been about twelve feet heigh when she’d entered. Now it was closer to ten.

“Oh, my God…”

A flash of panic blazed through Emma’s mind, but only a flash. She caught herself before it could take hold of her. Now, if ever, she needed every ounce of wit she possessed.

Furiously, she tried to think. She examined the edge of the door, but there was not the slightest possibility of her lifting it or breaking through it. Rondon had tried that. He had died clawing at it.

Emma glanced at the crushed remains of her predecessor. Soon, she thought, that would be her fate: smashed to jelly under that massive weight with nothing but the pitiless eyes of those stone devils for company. Left to rot where no one would ever find whatever remained of her body.

And what will this do to poor Nibs….

Suddenly, she caught hold of something in her mind. Rondon had sprung the trap and died beneath it. Yet she had been able to enter the chamber. That meant the trap had somehow reset in the meantime.

Had someone, some hidden guardian of the temple come and restored the chamber? No. Even if that were at all probable, they would have removed the body. That meant – it could only mean – that there was some mechanism for automatically resetting the chamber.

Emma struggled to think while the destroying stone mass continued to descend from overhead. The skeleton was crushed, but not crushed all the way. The narrower bones – the arms and legs – were intact. That meant the trigger, whatever it was, had to be such as to be sprung when the ceiling was perhaps an inch or so off the ground. It have to be some kind of lever or spring that would be pressed when the trap reached a certain point. If she could find it….

Emma began searching along the wall, shining her light upon the floor, looking for anything that seemed to rise above the level of the stone tiles. The thought occurred to her that the trigger may well be somewhere in the upper reaches of the destroying machine, built with God-only-knew-what ancient engineering techniques. She pushed the idea aside and focused all of her considerable powers of concentration upon the search.

Meanwhile the descending stone was now low enough that she could have reached up and touched it.

With a cry of relief, Emma found what she sought: a stone foot belonging to one of the square demons that stuck out perhaps six inches from the wall and three high. A closer examination revealed that it did not rest upon the floor, but sank into it.

Emma dropped to her knees and pressed her full weight upon it. But it didn’t so much as wobble.

For a second, she doubted: might this not be the trigger? Then she came to her senses. Of course, the designers of the trap would have considered the possibility of their victims doing exactly what she was attempting to do. The trigger was built to be moved by the immeasurable weight of the descending stone. But by the time the stone reached it, Emma would certainly be dead.

Unless she could trigger it early. Even just a little early.

She rose to her feet, ducking as her head brushed the descending stone. Throwing off her bag to make herself as thin as possible, she darted back across the chamber to where the skeleton lay. With no time for niceties, she grabbed a handful of his dried up arm and leg bones and scrambled back to the lever. She was now bent almost double: less than five feet to go…

Breathing quickly to try to steady her hands, Emma wrapped the strap of her bag around the bones and braced them upon the lever – if lever it was.

Then there was nothing to do but wait as the descending death closed the final few feet to the topmost bones. From having seemed terrifyingly quick while she was racing about trying to find a means of salvation, it now appeared to her agonizingly slow as waited for it to render a final verdict upon her plan.

The bones were, of course, all different lengths. The longest two, the leg bones, were reached first.

Crack!

They splintered and fell from the mass. Emma lay flat on her front, holding the grisly bundle with all her might. In desperation, she drew her hunting knife with its thick, steel blade and ivory handle and jammed it in alongside the bundle to lend it every bit of strength she could give it.

Crack! Crack! More bones broke away before the destroying roof. There was barely more than a foot of clearance. Emma pressed herself against the floor and whispered a prayer. She felt the cold, heavy stone settle onto her back….

But even as she did, the lever shifted at last. A moment later and there was another heavy click. The ceiling ground to a halt, pressing Emma to the floor. She gritted her teeth, eyes shut tight, unable to move even if she had wanted to, scarcely able to breathe.

Then the rumbling resumed, and her heart skipped a beat. But now the ceiling was ascending, rising as slowly as it had sunk. The terrible weight lifted from her back, and Emma let out a long, slow breath. Only then did she realize that she had been holding it.

She rose to her knees, trembling and trying to catch her breath. That had been much too close, even for her taste!

Once again at liberty to be conscious of what she was holding, she laid the remaining bundle of bones upon the floor with a slight shudder and wiped her hands gingerly against her skirt.

“My apologies, professor,” she said with a deprecatory gesture towards the crushed remains at the front of the chamber. “Under any other circumstances, I would not have dreamt of taking such liberties. I’m sure you understand.”

Then she sheathed her knife (now considerably blunted), holstered her gun, and gathering her pack and torch made her way to the far side of the room. She carefully felt each step as she went to avoid triggering any further traps.

Passing through the far door, Emma found herself in what could only be the holy of holies, the central chamber of the temple. The roof was high overhead, and there was a long, narrow shaft through which a faint ray of sunlight, brought from who knew how far through the side of the mountain cast a dim, twilit glow upon the room.

And there, on a pedestal in the middle of the chamber, was the idol of Yectclo.

It was completely different from any Mezoamerican idol that she had ever seen. In place of the heavy, squared-off shape that so many of those had, this one was more slender, more curved, the form more naturalistic. It was overall in the shape of a human being, though the head was shaped like a crescent moon, curving back over its shoulders like a cresting wave. The features were carved with remarkable skill, the god seeming to gaze upwards in contemplation of the heavens, its slender, almost-stick-lick arms crossed across its chest, its palms held up and outward to either side. From either shoulder the figure bore great, curved wings, like those of a moth, and its legs, which were drawn up to its elbows as though it were squatting, were very long and very thin.

The whole figure was perhaps nine inches high. Even in the dim half-light, it shone silver and bright, as though it were illumined from within, save on the inside of the wings, which appeared to be lined with obsidian and had the same spindly semi-pictorial writing she had seen in the entry chamber carved upon them and inlaid with silver.

Emma approached the figure, awed by its beauty and craftsmanship. Though even this work of art couldn’t quite eclipse the fright she had just had, and she went cautiously nonetheless. But no traps sprung in this chamber, even as she walked straight up to the pedestal and gazed at the statue.

Seen up close, the strangeness and uniqueness of the image increased. She had thought at first that it was made of silver, or more likely of stone or wood lined in silver. But she didn’t think so anymore. The material was not quite the color of silver: its white had more of a pinkish tone to it, and it seemed far too lustrous in the half-light.

Whatever else it was, it was an exquisite work of art.

Carefully, she took hold of it and lifted it gingerly from the pedestal. It was much lighter than she had expected. With a leap of her heart, she stowed it safely in her bag. She had done it!

But even as she slung the bag back over her shoulder, Emma realized that something was wrong.

There was a heavy thud, as though of a great stone gear sliding into place. Then, at the far end of the chamber, the wall buckled suddenly. The stone cracked, and from every fissure rivulets of dirty brown water clawed forth, advanced tendrils of the monster to come.

Emma understood what was happening in an instant and she wasted no more time. Turning like a deer that has scented a predator, she raced from the chamber and back into the trap room. She was halfway across before another terrible roar behind her warned that the wall was giving way.

But she didn’t dare look back, for in the wildly waving light of her torch she saw the stone door was descending once again. In her haste, she must had triggered the trap once more without realizing it. But this time was different. This time she had a head start. She could make it….

A rush of water poured in, half stemmed by the descending door on the far end, but enough to nearly trip her up. She caught herself, saved once again by her excellent balance, and put on a burst of speed. The door was descending rapidly. It was halfway closed, but she was almost there. She dove forward, sliding on her front upon the wet floor beneath the descending stone and into the entrance chamber. She just had time to whip her legs out of the way before the stone settled into place, sealing the chamber once more.

Emma scrambled to her feet, breathing hard. Another much too close call, and now she was soaking wet with badly scrapped arms and, what was more, in absolute darkness, her torch having fallen from her grasp as she dove for safety. But at least the trap chamber would hold the destroying water back for a time. With luck.

She felt her way across the lightless chamber to where the rope still hung and began to climb. A short distance up, then back along the cliff, and it would all be over. Over and successfully done!

Emma pulled herself over the edge of the pit with deep sigh of relief, thankful especially for the faint light coming in through the entrance. She rose to her feet, trying in vain to knock some of the dirt off of her clothes.

As she lifted her head, she was suddenly dazzled in the light from a torch. Squinting and holding her hand up to try to shield her eyes, she realized that she was looking down the barrel of a pistol.

“Hola, Senorita.”

“Malveda!” Emma exclaimed. “What on earth do you….”

“Did you get it?” he demanded.

“What do you mean?”

As her eyes adjusted, Emma saw that the man’s face was flushed and his eyes were gleaming with that wolfish light. He was breathing hard, and the hand holding the gun shook slightly.

“The idol,” he said. “Do not play games with me! Do you have the idol?”

Rapidly, Emma’s mind began to work. She would certainly never be able to draw her own gun in time. Once Malveda had the idol, he might well shoot her anyway. In fact, that would be the only sensible thing for him to do. And she doubted he would believe her if she flat out denied it.

The best play was to stall for as long as possible.

“See for yourself,” she answered. Slowly, so as to give him no reason to fire, she unslung her bag and set it on the floor.

Malveda hesitated, looking from her to the bag as though making up his mind whether it was a trick. Then, before he could decide how to proceed, Emma made her desperate play. In the split second his eyes were off of her, she grabbed at the gun, trying to twist his away from her. There was an ear-shattering bang as the weapon went off. Malveda was far the stronger, but Emma was stronger than he had expected her to be, and that was enough to break the gun from his grasp. It bounced upon the stone floor and clattered away into the pit.

With a snarl of angry Spanish, Malveda drove his body against Emma’s shoving her backwards. She felt the ground disappear beneath her and clutched out for the rope, catching herself about halfway down, crying aloud as the rope burned her hands.

Emma had barely had time to steady herself when she saw the guide looming over the edge, his face appearing almost monstrous in the harsh electric light, his machete in his hand. She had only just enough time to realize what was about to happen before the blade fell and the rope went slack in her hands.

She fell straight down, curling her legs under her to absorb the impact. She landed, rolled, and tucked her head. The experience of landing was no joy, but nothing broke. Trying to catch her breath, she looked up to see Malveda blow her a kiss.

“Adios, senorita!”

Emma cursed him in the strongest language she knew, but he was already gone with the idol, leaving her in total darkness.

After all her work, that precious idol would be sold for mere money like any common trinket. More pressingly, any second now the door would open and a wave of rushing water would sweep through the door and slam her against the rocks. It was certainly possible that she would survive uninjured, perhaps even be able to ride the rising tide up the shaft. But she didn’t intend to risk it, or to spend the time. Not while she still had one more card of her own to play.

Quickly, Emma unbuckled her skirt and slipped out of it. True, her primary reason for insisting upon wearing it even in the jungle had been aesthetic (trousers were simply too drab for words), but it was not wholly impractical, despite what some thought. The skirts she wore on such occasions were all custom made and of her own special design. They were, in fact, not single sheathes of fabric, but rather constructed of row after row of a light, strong material held together by strips of velcro. With a quick tug, the coils of fabric came loose one after another, and with a twist the belt buckle was turned around to form a hook. What she now had, in place of her lovely white skirt, was a long, strong line of cloth with a grapple at one end.

She swung the buckled end around, and with a practiced hand hurled it up to where she knew the stalagmite lay. Her aim, even in the pitch dark, was true. The hook caught. She pulled it tight…

And just then, she heard the grinding of the stone door as it opened, unleashing the many tons of pent-up water upon her.

Emma just had time to get above the level of the initial onrush. The water surged about her, tearing at her boots and causing the rope to swing wildly. The spray drenched her still further, but she was able to keep climbing, hand over hand, as quickly as any acrobat in the circus, heedless of the pain in her hands. The water rose beneath her, but she rose faster.

A moment later she was in the cavern. Her own revolver was in her hand and she rushed to the mouth of the cave.

Malveda had not gotten far. He was still edging his way along the inside of the cliff, the bag slung over his shoulder. He had not yet reached the gap.

“Malveda!” she shouted as she started onto the ledge after him. Her right hand gripped the wall. Her left held her revolver.

He looked back, and his face showed blank shock as he saw her. She shook the damp black hair out of her face and walked toward him, her feet firm on the narrow surface.

“Put down that bag,” she commanded. “I’m willing to forgive a momentary lapse in judgment, but I will not trust you with that artifact.”

“How did you…”

“That is not your concern at present. Put the idol down on the path. Carefully.”

He stared at her. He had lost his own gun, and to rush her with his machete on this narrow pathway would be tantamount to suicide. Even so, he seemed to be calculating his odds.

“You will not shoot me,” he said. “You will not risk its loss.”

“Much as I would hate that, I will risk it if you force me, and be all the gladder to be rid of you,” she answered. “Or do you care to bet your life that I wouldn’t? Put it down.”

As she had done mere minutes before, Malveda seemed to have made his judgment. He crouched over the narrow ledge, unslung Emma’s bag from his shoulders, and placed it upon the path, leaning it safely against the cliff wall.

“Very good,” she said. “Now back away from the idol.”

Malveda took a few steps back, holding tight to the cliff and still watching her.

Lady Emma advanced, one sure, slim foot in front of the other, gripping the cliff with her right hand and covering Malveda with the revolver in her left. The warm jungle wind drove against her, catching at her hair, but she didn’t take her eyes off of him for a moment.

She reached the idol. Slowly, she crouched over it. Now came the difficult part. With great care, she took her right hand off the cliff wall and reached for the bag. Her eyes dropped to look at it.

Malveda struck with the speed of a springing wolf. He seemed to swarm up the path and kicked at the gun. Emma cried out in pain as his foot connected with her hand and the weapon flew free. Instinctively, she snatched the bag up in her right hand and darted back up the path, leaping away from him as advanced, trusting to her nimble feet and superb balance to avoid plunging into nothingness.

The man lunged after her, but as he went his foot landed on a loose stone. He stumbled, tried to grab at the wall, missed, and with a terrible scream he was gone.

***

“Dear Emma!” Nicholson cried as she arrived back at camp, pale, bruised, and bleeding. “What happened? I heard screaming. Where is Malveda? He said he was going to watch for your return.…”

Emma allowed him to pull her into a warm, fatherly hug before attempting to explain.

“He didn’t just wait. He came down after me and…and he fell, I’m afraid.”

Nicholson looked at her sharply and his keen eyes swept over her.

“You are injured.”

“Not badly.”

“Where’s your skirt? And your gun?”

“I…had to use them,” she said with a grimace.

“Did he…hurt you?”

“He tried quite hard to,” she admitted. “But don’t you worry about that: I’m all right and he’s gone to his reward, poor soul.”

Nicholson shook his head.

“I never liked the blighter,” he grunted. “Never trusted him either. Well, too late for that now.”

He seated her firmly upon a stone he had set beside the campfire, draped her in a blanket, and set about bandaging and tending to her many scrapes and cuts.

“Did you…get it after all?” he asked.

Emma smiled, set the plate aside, and lifted the idol out of her bag in triumph.

“Yectclo, god of the night, at your service,” she said. She set it upon the ground, the two of them gazed at it from all sides. The sun had gone behind the clouds, but even so it seem to blaze with cold, silvery fire, its strangely-shaped head fixated upon the sky.

“By George, I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Nicholson.

“Nor I,” she replied. “Nor, I wager, have any mortal eyes for over five hundred years, and very few before that.”

She gently caressed the figure, drinking in the strange, almost eerie effects of color and shape. The more she looked at it, the more unique and precious it seemed to become.

Emma got out some old cloth and wrapped the idol carefully in it. There would be plenty of time to formally examine the piece when they got back to civilization. She had had more than enough excitement for the time being. Now she was looking forward to warm beds, hot baths, and most of all, clean, beautiful clothes.

“My goodness, Nibs,” she said, eying her many bandaged wounds, her soaked, blood-stained shirt, and the bare, scrapped legs beneath her shorts. “Am I glad that you are the only one who can see me! I must look an absolute nightmare. Be a dear and fetch my vanity kit.”

Exceptionalism vs. Patriotism at the Everyman

Wherein I tackle American exceptionalism and try to explain why we need to give up on the idea:

I don’t say this just because our system of government and society barely resembles that which existed at the nation’s founding (even allowing for the passage of time and development of technology). Nor because we have recently witnessed the departure of what may well be the last legitimate president we will ever have, leaving the nation in the hands of criminals. Nor do I say this on account of slavery or racism or any of the other sins of our past (which are only to be expected).

It isn’t even because I think the philosophy we based our nation upon is incoherent and dangerously self-contradictory, or because I think the narrative underlying it to be thoroughly false.

No, the reason we need to give up the idea of our own exceptionalism is that it is fatal to patriotism.

As Americans (as I assume most of our readers to be) this may shock you. It may even sound like nonsense. But I beg you to try to understand what I’m saying.

Suppose a man were to say to his young son “I love you because you are the smartest, best behaved boy in school.” Suppose then that the boy gets a poor grade on his test, or gets into trouble with the teacher. What is he to think? The most natural thing would be for him to fear that his father would no longer love him, or not as much because he has shown himself to not be so smart or so well-behaved as his father believed him to be.

It is unlikely his father would really feel that way, but the boy would think so. He would think so because that would be the logical deduction from his father’s words. Therefore, even if the boy never does break the rules or get a bad grade, he will have that fear in the back of his mind of “what if…?” “What if I fail this test? What if I make a mistake and get detention? My father won’t love me a much anymore.” He will thus either work fearfully and fervently to ‘keep’ his father’s love or else despair and give up entirely. One thing is sure though: any love of the subjects themselves or any enjoyment in the ordinary life of a schoolboy will be crippled because none of them can be enjoyed for their own sake. They must go toward the satisfaction of that all-important condition.

It is the same for a husband and wife. A woman whose husband tells her “I love you because you are so beautiful” will fear the aging process and, just as much, fear the inevitable rival whose looks outshine her own.

If you ask why you love someone or something, you may give reasons (“She’s so sweet and so lovely!”  “He’s so strong, so honest”), but the real, proper response – which it is important to understand whether or not it is directly stated – is simply “because you are yourself.” As Professor Von Hildebrand says, to love something means to perceive the unique idea in the mind of God that it represents: to see it as something unique, irreplaceable, incomparable.

This is the great danger of American exceptionalism: it seeks to justify patriotism. Worse, it actually takes those justifications seriously. We are to love America because she is the freest, most just nation on earth, the nation that corrects the mistakes of the rest of the world, where equality and opportunity and liberty reign supreme.

Read the rest here.

There’s obviously a lot more to be said about all this than I was able to fit in or had time to adequately research. But if there is one idea, one section of this essay that I would wish to be ingrained in the readers’ mind and to hammer home as much as possible, it’s this:

No nation is meant to be a creed. It is not our duty to save mankind or to be the shining example for the world to follow. We are not the new Jerusalem, we are not the last best hope of earth, we are not God’s chosen people. America is not the Church. It isn’t even Rome.

The Key Question: A Malachi Burke Mystery

“Most crimes, Alfred lad,” said my friend and mentor Malachi Burke one evening after supper, “are absurdly obvious once ye take the time to think them through. The trouble is that most folk don’t bother.”

He reclined in his great wingback chair, pulling on his pipe. I sat opposite him, enjoying one of his excellent cigars. Burke’s sitting room was a model of comfort. Shelves of books alternated on the walls with fine paintings. Rich colored rugs of greens and golds and blacks welcomed one’s feet, and the cushions of the wingback chair seemed to embrace me like a mother’s arms.

It was spring, very soon after I began my apprenticeship in the ways of detection, and it had been a damp, dreary kind of day. A cheerful fire roaring in the grate made me bless the wet weather. A large window gave a glorious view over Brooklyn, largely obscured by the rain, though the lamps and electric lights could be seen gleaming through the haze like stars.

The one jarring note in all of this elegance was my host. Malachi Burke, the master detective, looked rather like an ogre out of some fairy tale. He was tall, with a massive breadth of shoulder, a barrel of a chest, and huge, long arms ending in gnarled, calloused hands. His ebony cane leaned against one of the arms of his chair while his lame right leg stretched out before him onto the carpet. His scarred, weather-beaten face gave the impression of having been carved out of some hoary old wood and his dark hair was tinged with grey. It was as though a farmer from the roughest corner of Ireland had been dug out of the ground and planted in the middle of Brooklyn society. Which is, indeed, rather close to the truth.

“You mean,” I said, preparing myself for one of his usual post-supper lectures on crime. “That once you understand the facts, they usually point only one way.”

“I mean that often times the whole thing can be settled once you ask the right question,” he said. “Criminals usually aren’t as clever as all that, it’s just that crime is such an outlier to most folk’s experience that they don’t consider things properly and know what to ask.”

He drew out his pipe, blew a perfect smoke ring into the air, and related the following story. Though not, of course, in these words.

###

“A gentleman and lady to see you, sir.”

Malachi Burke regarded the young couple that entered his office. The young man was long-faced, pale, and moderately good-looking, his black hair neatly combed and his suit, while of cheap make, was clean and well-kept. His appearance suggested a clerk or perhaps a young lawyer.

The lady was a small, quietly pretty young woman. Burke put her age at perhaps nineteen. The cut of her dark-brown hair, unstyled and bound back from her face, suggested a working girl. Her plain, dark-green dress contributed to the impression.

He noted these details in a swift, almost unconscious manner while he observed their demeanor. They were both anxious, that much was sure. There was definite tension about the mouth and the eyes. The woman’s gloved hands were twisting unceasingly as she walked in, and the young man kept darting glances about the room as though seeking for some source of reassurance. He had blanched noticeably when he caught sight of the great detective, a reaction Burke was quite used to.

But there was something else in the woman’s face: the lift of her chin and the set of her jaw suggested a higher degree of determination than her soft features would have implied.

The huge detective pushed himself to his feet in the manner of a great standing stone being raised into place and bowed to his visitors. The girl visibly quailed before the giant.

“Good afternoon,” he said in his deep Irish brogue. “I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure of making your acquaintances yet.”

“My name is Stanley Cutter,” said the young man. “This is my fiancee, Miss Margaret Pierson.”

“Thank you for agreeing to see us,” said the lady.

“Not at all. Won’t you please have a seat?”

They sat down in the chairs opposite his great oak desk. Horatio, Burke’s impeccable butler, retired on silent feet and Burke lowered himself ponderously back into his chair.

“What can I do for you?” he asked.

The two glanced at each other.

“I am told,” said Stanley. “That you are a detective.”

“Did anyone beside the notice in the papers or the sign on my door tell you that?” he inquired.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I put that badly. Margaret…Miss Pierson here works for a Mrs. Henrietta Freeman, who recommended you to us. She said that she employed you once and that you were both very honest and very good at your job.”

“I did indeed help her out once,” said Burke, nodding. “So what brings you here today?”

Here Margaret swallowed and squared her small shoulders.

“We would like to hire you,” she said. “We don’t have much money, but we can get a loan if necessary.”

“Before you do that, you might tell me what you want to hire me to do,” he said.

“That is rather delicate,” said Stanley. “You see…”

Again he looked at his fiancee, as though expecting her to take the lead. Burke guessed that this visit had been her idea.

“We want you to prove that…that Stanley did not murder his employer.”

Burke regarded her a moment with a heavy, serious gaze, and then shook his head.

“I do not do that sort of work.”

“Oh, but Mrs. Freeman said….”

“Let me explain a moment,” he said, holding up one of his huge hands. “I do not engage to prove anyone’s guilt or innocence. That’s a lawyer’s job. I engage to find out the truth. That is my only business. Whether it is to your liking or not, or whether it will hold up in court is another matter, but it is the truth and nothing but that I will discover. D’ye understand?”

“We understand perfectly,” she said. “And that is what we want, isn’t it Stanley?”

“Of course we want the truth,” he said, though with rather less conviction than she. “If you think you can get it. The trouble is that…well, let’s put it frankly. Things look so black against me that I honestly think I’d be better off going straight to a lawyer.”

Burke leaned back in his chair, studying the young man.

“Is that a confession then?”

“Certainly not!” Stanley said hotly. “I didn’t kill anyone. But I’m a practical man, Mr. Burke, and I can see how things are setting. If I could just figure out what did happen, then maybe I’d have a chance, but the thing just doesn’t make sense.”

“You interest me,” said Burke. “I believe I will take this case after all. Now, supposing you tell me just what happened. From the beginning now.”

Stanley Cutter drew a deep breath. His fiancee patted him on the arm, and he grasped her hand in his.

“Very well then,” he said. “I work – or have worked – in the offices of Caribel Brothers. They are an insurance firm, covering shipping, trade goods, and the like. It is a very lucrative business, as you can imagine. Men like to feel that their livelihoods don’t rest on the whim of chance.”

“They do indeed. Superstitions are ever welcome in the human heart. Please continue.”

Stanley looked slightly bewildered by this, but he went on.

“Well, early this morning we came in and found Mr. Bartholomew Caribel dead in his office. He, ah,” he glanced at Margaret. “He had been stabbed behind the right ear with a letter opener.”

“You were one of them that found the body, then?”

“I was. Myself, Angus Caribel, and Nicholas Feldstein, one of our clerks. We came in as normal, sat down to work….”

“What manner of work do you do for them?”

“Oh, I am secretary to the two brothers,” he said. “As I say, Mr. Angus opened up the office and we sat down to work as usual. Mr. Angus commented that Bartholomew must have slept here again last night as he hadn’t been home – he often did that when he had work to do late at night – and knocked on his door. Getting no answer, he tried the knob, found it unlocked, and…and found him. Of course the police were summoned at once and they interviewed all of us.”

“Can you describe the morning routine more precisely? What time, for instance, did you arrive?”

“A little before seven,” said Stanley. “I was early that day, though it doesn’t really matter: the office wasn’t open yet, so I waited in the hallway for a bit with Mr. Feldstein. Then Mr. Angus showed up at seven precisely – they’re always very precise – and let us in. I went to my desk, Mr. Feldstein went into the clerks’ office, and Mr. Angus went to Mr. Bartholomew’s office door and knocked and called for him…then it all happened like I said.”

“And what makes you so sure you’ll be suspected?” asked Burke.

“Ah, well, here we come to some rather delicate matters,” said Stanley.

“More delicate than your neck, are they?”

Margaret gave a faint gasp. Stanley turned a little paler.

“You have a way of putting things,” he said. “All right. The truth is I had words with Mr. Bartholomew the night before.”

“Tell him the whole story, Stanley,” said Margaret. “About the man.”

“I told you, Margaret, that can’t have anything to do with it.”

“Why not?”

“Perhaps I did not make myself, clear,” said Burke. “If you want me to help you, you need to tell me everything. Understand?”

“Very well,” said Stanley. “What happened is…to be clear, Margaret here works in the same building as I do.”

“Doing what?”

“I am a typist,” she said. “I work in the floor above for Mrs. Freeman. That is how we met. You see, I get off of work at six and Stanley doesn’t get off until seven. So for some time it’s been our custom for me to go down and sit in the lobby with him.”

“And your employers didn’t mind this?”

“Not at all, provided she didn’t make a nuisance of herself,” said Stanley. “And since she would sometimes help me with a bit of work they were actually the gainers by the scheme.”

“I see. And you did this yesterday evening.”

“Yes,” said Margaret.

“What happened next? Tell me exactly.”

“The clerks get off at six thirty,” said Stanley. “Then Mr. Angus left about twenty to seven. Then not long after he left was when someone threw something against the window.”

“Before you go any further, can you describe the lay of the office to me?”

“Certainly,” said Stanley. “It’s on the second floor on the corner. There’s a door leading off the hall that opens into the lobby. That’s where I sit. My desk is to the left of the door under the window. To the right is the door into the office where the clerks sit. Directly across from the hallway door are the two doors leading into the brothers’ private offices.”

“They each have their own?”

“That’s correct.”

“Windows in them?”

“Yes, there are two windows in Mr. Angus’s office and one in Mr. Bartholomew’s, behind his desk.”

“And your window faces what direction?”

“South.”

“Southwest corner then, is it?”

“That’s right.”

“I see. Go on then.”

“All right. As I say, someone threw something against the window. I naturally went to look and there was a man in the alley below. He was shouting and cursing in the most disgraceful manner. I tried to shout down to him that there was a lady listening, but he wouldn’t hear me.”

“Did you see this man, Miss Pierson?”

“Yes. I went to the window as well,” she said.

“Why?”

“Just curious, I guess,” she said with a faint shrug.

“Can you describe him?”

“He was a dirty, disheveled kind of man,” she said. “All wild hair and torn clothes. I thought he looked like a drunkard.”

“I’m sure he was,” said Stanley.

“Was there any substance to what he was saying? I mean, was it more than just profanity?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact,” said Stanley in a hesitant kind of manner. “He was shouting about how we had cheated him. That he was ruined because of us. Specifically by Mr. Bartholomew.”

“Is that right?”

“Yes. He said he would kill him. ‘Tell that old,’” Stanley caught himself. “’That old person that I will kill him for what he did to me.’ That’s what he said.”

“That’s right,” said Margaret. “He said it at least twice. Then Stanley told him he would summon the police and the man took off.”

“Did you summon the police?”

“No,” Stanley admitted. “I guess I should have, but I thought the man was just drunk and that the brothers wouldn’t want the police hanging around if they could help it and I…I didn’t really take it seriously. You don’t really expect your employers to be murdered, Mr. Burke.”

Malachi Burke did not comment on that.

“Did the man have any peculiar way of speaking? Was he, perhaps, Italian? Or Irish?”

“No, just ordinary American, I think,” said Margaret. She then caught herself and flushed. “Not that…I don’t mean to imply…”

“You ain’t implying anything, lass,” he said gently. “I’m just trying to get a picture of what you saw. So you sent the man on his way. What happened next?”

“A few minutes later, Mr. Bartholomew called me into his office,” said Stanley.

“Yes?”

He swallowed hard.

“Now…this is where we get into the delicate matters, Mr. Burke,” he said. “I must beg you to believe me when I say that I never intended to break the law.”

“That is never a good thing to have to say, lad,” said Burke.

“Yes, I know. Well, here’s what happened. And it is the God’s honest truth, sir. I went into his office. He was sitting there, half-turned and looking at the wall. He had a way of doing that, you see: not looking at you when was speaking to you. He said he liked to concentrate on what he was saying and not on your expression. Well, anyway, he started to dictate to me as usual. It was a simple correspondence. Didn’t take more than five minutes. When I’d finished he said ‘I’d like a word with you before you go, Mr. Cutter.’

“’All right sir,’ I said.

“’I happened to be looking through our old accounts,’ he said. ‘What can you tell me about the Scalzi account?’

“That was when I knew I’d had it,” said Stanley. He looked at Margaret and gripped her hand rather tightly. “See, the Scalzis are an Italian wine importing firm. Very good kind of people. There was an incident last year where they filed a claim that wasn’t quite covered by our policy. I…took the liberty of editing their claim a little before passing it on to the clerks.”

“So you committed fraud.”

“Yes, I suppose I did,” said Stanley. “I never imagined they’d find out. I still don’t know how: Mr. Bartholomew doesn’t even attend to the client side of the business very often.”

“So what did you do when he brought this to your attention?”

“I didn’t do anything!” he said. “I tried to explain my side of it, of course, and he let me have it pretty good. Something you should know about the late Mr. Bartholomew, Mr. Burke, is that he never raised his voice, but he knew how to twist the knife in you. Oh!” he said as the implications of the phrase struck him. “I didn’t mean…”

“Yes, yes, quite all right,” said Malachi Burke, waving away the mistake. “Never mind that now. What happened next?”

“He said we would discuss my future in the morning,” said Stanley with a grimace. “The way he put it, I could tell I wasn’t going to have much of one. Once he put it about to his connections that I’d been fired for fraud, that’d be all up for me. I’d be lucky if he didn’t call the police on me. I don’t think I’ve ever felt worse than when I left that office.”

Burke turned to Margaret Pierson.

“Would you say his appearance bore that out?” he asked.

“Oh yes!” she said. “He looked terrible, all pale and shaken. I asked him what was wrong, and he said he’d tell me later. He just wanted to get out of there.”

“I sort of snapped at her,” Stanley admitted. “I feel terrible about it, but that’s how agitated I was.”

“He apologized later,” Margaret hastened to reassure him.

“I’m glad to hear it,” said Burke. “Did you leave the office straight away?”

“Yes, like I said, I couldn’t wait to get out of there,” said Stanley. “We went walking for a bit while I tried to get my head straight, then we went to a show and I walked her home.”

“What time was that?”

“About half-past-ten I would think,” said Stanley.”

“And where do you live, Miss Pierson, if I may ask?”

“I live in a boarding house on Galt street,” she answered.

“And you Mr. Cutter?”

“Apartment on 7th.”

Burke nodded.

“What happened the next morning?”

“I told you. I went to the office like usual and we found Mr. Bartholomew.”

“Ah, yes. Of course.”

Burke leaned back in his chair, thinking a moment.

“As you say, things look very black against you from a certain point of view. When did you tell Miss Pierson about the argument?”

Stanley swallowed.

“Not…not until this afternoon. Just before we came here.”

“After you were interviewed by the police.”

“Yes.”

“Did they question you, Miss Pierson?”

“They did, yes.”

“And you told them that your fiancee came out of the office very agitated and upset following an argument with his employer.”

“I…yes, I did.”

“And you were the last people to leave the office. Are you sure about that?”

“Quite sure, yes,” said Stanley.

“Hm.”

“There is something more as well,” said Margaret in a hurried kind of voice. “I…the police asked me and I didn’t know how to avoid telling them.” She swallowed and looked pleadingly at her fiancee. “Stanley asked if I would run away with him last night.”

“And you told the police that?” he said in a horrified tone.

“I didn’t mean to, darling!” she wailed. “But they asked and they badgered and it was half way out before I knew what I was saying!”

“I’m surprised they didn’t arrest me already,” he moaned.

“I’m so sorry!”

“Oh, well,” he muttered, patting her hand. “I guess they would have found out sooner or later.”

They turned to Malachi Burke with expressions of desperation.

“Well, Mr. Burke?” said Stanley. “Do you think you can help us?”

Burke didn’t answer right away. He knocked his pipe out into an ashtray with a series of slow, heavy thumps.

“I’ve just a few more questions,” he said. “These Caribel brothers. I never saw them myself: what are they like?”

“Hard-nosed businessmen,” said Stanley. “There’s not a spec of imagination or human feeling between them I should say.”

“What do they look like?”

“Mr. Bartholomew I always thought looked like a wire-haired terrier,” said Stanley. “I’m sorry, I know I probably shouldn’t speak that way of the dead, but there it is. He had a tangled gray mane of hair and a long, drooping kind of face. And he wore glasses: round glasses that always seemed to catch the light, like a cat’s eyes in the dark. Mr. Angus is completely bald and a good deal taller than his brother. He wears half-rim spectacles. He’s a bit more agreeable, I’d say. He at least looks at you when he’s speaking.”

“Did you ever see that tramp again?”

“No. I certainly didn’t,” said Stanley, looking at Margaret.

“Me neither.”

“Was anything taken from the dead man? Anything missing from his desk or his pockets?”

“The police had Mr. Angus do a thorough inventory,” said Stanley. “But no, as far as he knew nothing was missing. All his money, his watch, his keys, his correspondence, his checkbook, all it was there.”

“Now this is very important. When you left the office, have you described your movement exactly? You simply walked out and down the stairs and out the door, not stopping or going back for anything?”

“Oh!” said Margaret, her small hand going to her mouth. “Actually I…I ran back for my coat.”

“You what?” Burke said sharply, making her jump.

“Stanley was so eager to leave that I almost forgot it,” she said. “We had almost reached the first floor when I remembered and ran back. I wasn’t more than a minute.”

“You ran back,” Burke repeated.

“If you’re thinking she…” Stanley began hotly. But Malachi Burke silenced him with a look of his flashing green eyes.

“Did you notice anything while you were there?”

“No,” said Margaret. “Nothing. I was only in the office for a second to grab my coat. I…” she hesitated. “I think maybe I heard Mr. Bartholomew walking about in his office, but I didn’t pay any attention to it, except to hurry back out since I definitely didn’t want him to come out and find me.”

“How long was she gone?” Burke asked Stanley.

“Not more than…half a minute,” said Stanley in a firm tone. “Just long enough to go up and get her coat.”

“And you didn’t notice anything strange,” said Burke.

“Nothing,” she said firmly.

Again, he nodded his great head.

“Now Mr. Cutter, once again think very hard. The next morning, did you notice anything usual when you came in? Anything at all?”

“No,” said Stanley. “I came in a little early. I…I was anxious of course. I figured it was liable to be my last day. Only then I had to wait about in the hallway with the clerks, and that didn’t do my nerves any favors. I remember Mr. Feldstein was in an infuriatingly cheerful mood. Kept talking about some bet he’d won the night before. Then Mr. Angus came and let us in and we went to check on Mr. Bartholomew.”

“It was that quick, was it?”

“Yes. Right away. Mr. Angus said, ‘Bartholomew must have slept here last night again, I am going to wake him.’ Then he went in and kind of screamed, and Feldstein and I rushed in after him.”

“Did you go near the body?”

“No, I hung back. I was in shock, I didn’t know what to think.”

Malachi Burke nodded once more, bobbing his great head up and down like a wooden doll.

“I think,” he said. “That is all I’ll need from the two of you.”

“Do you…is there any hope?” asked Margaret in a tentative voice.

Burke looked at her, and to her evident surprise bestowed one of his kindly smiles on her.

“Hope is a gift of God, lass,” he said.

His next move after shooing the young people out was to put on his hat and coat – it was a chill April morning – and go to see the detective in charge of the case. Detective Levinson, like many in the department, had been a colleague of protege of his and greeted Burke warmly. Burke was pleased to find that Mr. Angus Caribel was also present settling some arrangements with the police about his brother’s property.

“You’re in luck, Mr. Caribel,” said Levinson. “If Malachi Burke is on the case, your brother’s killer won’t get far.”

“Do you have any suspicions, Mr. Burke?” asked Angus Caribel after shaking hands.

“One or two,” said Burke, easing himself into a chair and stretching his lame leg. “Ach, this damn thing gets worse every year,” he groaned, rubbing it. Even the taxi ride from his apartment had been taxing on the old wound.

“What can we do for you, Burke?” asked Levinson.

“First I want to hear what you know of the case so far,” said Burke. “See how well it tallies with what I’ve heard this afternoon.”

Levinson nodded and gave a summary of events. Burke listened and nodded along, satisfied that it fit the story that the young couple had given him.

“Was there any sign of a struggle?”

“No, none,” said Levinson. “He was a very neat man and things on his desk were perfectly arranged.”

Burke nodded.

“Is that about right Mr. Caribel?”

“Exactly, yes, to the best of my knowledge,” said Angus Caribel. “I don’t want to tell the police their business, but…it seems to me that there is a fairly strong case against young Cutter. Though I’d be very glad to told I’m wrong in that. He’s quite an efficient young man, though this story of fraud is…unfortunate. Makes me question everything I thought I knew about him.”

“Well, there is that tramp,” said Burke. “Have you been able to trace him at all? Or find any further evidence of his existence?”

“As a matter of fact, we did,” said Levinson. “The fella’s name is Harold Climpson, used to be a bit of a big name in shipping…”

“Climpson!” said Caribel in surprise. “Why, I know the man! We used to do business together, until his stock was unfortunately wiped out in a fire.”

“Yes, and he blames your brother for not paying on his claim,” said Levinson. “Very hot on the subject it seems.”

“Our policy was very clear that such events were not covered,” said Angus Caribel. “But you don’t think…”

“I would if not for the fact that he has an alibi,” said Levinson. “It seems that after he got done shouting at the building, he went straight to the nearest bar and drank himself into a stupor, still ranting about your brother to anyone who would listen. He ended up so drunk he tried to knock another patron’s head in and spent the night in jail. He’s there now if you want to see him, Burke, nursing a nasty headache and a nastier temper.”

“Oh, that won’t be necessary just yet,” said Burke. “I was only curious, but I am glad we have it. It makes it all that much simpler.”

“Simpler? What do you mean?”

“I mean I know what happened, and he’ll make it easier to prove….”

###

At this point, as he usually did in his recitals, Malachi Burke paused and looked expectantly at me.

“Well?” he said. “Do you see it, lad?”

I thought about it hard, then waved a hand in surrender.

“No, I don’t. I guessed that the young man didn’t do it. Apart from everything else, I don’t think he would have calmly gone out with his girl and come back to work the next day if he had. He would have booked the first ticket out west at the very least. But I don’t see how it could have been done otherwise. Unless…were the people at the bar certain about the time that Climpson came in?”

“Sure enough,” said Burke. “They were busy and couldn’t quite swear to it exactly, but they’re fairly sure it was well before seven-thirty.”

“With quick work he might have managed it,” I said.

“He might have, but do you think Mr. Bartholomew would have sat there calmly while an irate tramp burst into his office and let himself be stabbed without a struggle?”

“No, I see what you mean,” I said. “Then there’s one other possibility I can see.”

“Which is?”

“I hate to say it, but you always say suspect everyone. The girl.”

“Ah! I’m glad to hear you bein’ broadminded on the subject!” he said. “Sometimes I think you’re reluctant to believe a pretty face can hide a murderess’s heart. Though it might just be because you haven’t seen her.”

“Maybe,” I admitted with a sheepish grin. “But from the way you describe her she sounds like one of these apparently-soft women who are like steel when those they love are in danger. I can see her listening in on the argument, thinking that her man was going to be ruined, and, in a burst of anger running back and stabbing the old man before he knew what was happening. Was he deaf at all?”

“I don’t believe so, no. Very nearsighted, but his hearing was excellent.”

“Yes, but he wouldn’t expect a gentle-looking creature like that to be dangerous, so he might not have realized what was happening until it was too late.”

“That’s well considered,” he said, nodding. “It might have happened like that, I’ll grant ye. Only, you’re missing the important question. Only ask that and the whole thing becomes clear.”

“What question is that?”

Malachi Burke re-lit his pipe and blew a large smoke-ring.

“The question I asked Angus Caribel a moment later, after I’d confirmed that his version of the morning’s events tallied exactly with young Cutter’s. The question is, who locked the door?”

“What door?” I asked.

“Faith, lad, weren’t you listening at all? The hallway door. The door that the Caribels had to open for their employees every morning. Remember, it was locked when they got there. Mr. Angus had to open it for them. So who locked it?”

I thought a moment. Then I saw.

“Cutter didn’t have the key.”

“No, nor did Miss Pierson. Nor did Mr. Climpson. Mr. Bartholomew’s key was still found on him. So only one man could have locked the door, and thus only one man could have killed him. Mr. Angus.”

“’Don’t show how it might have been: show it couldn’t have been done any other way’,” I said, quoting one of his commandments.

“Exactly.”

“But then I don’t see,” I said. “Cutter swore that Angus left before any of it happened, and the girl said the same thing. How did he get back in? I suppose he just waited around outside for his brother to be alone.”

“Not such a fool,” said Burke. “In the first place, he’d be likely to be seen loitering about. In the second, he knew that an open police investigation is an incalculable thing, and if there wasn’t an obvious suspect, then anything might happen. He was cautious devil. So he arranged to pin it on young Cutter. I suppose it was discovering Cutter’s messing about with the letters that put the idea into his head. Nothing like finding a motive for someone else to make murder seem practical.”

“Then what did he do? Hide in the hallway, or the stairwell?”

“Ah, lad,” Burke shook his head. “You don’t see it at all. Consider the tramp.”

I did, but I didn’t see what the tramp had to do with it.

“What about him?”

“Don’t you think Mr. Climpson’s behavior was a might odd? It struck me at once, right off I heard the two young people describe it.”

“Well, he was drunk.”

“Drunk or no, if he’d done business with them he knew where Mr. Bartholomew’s office was. If his purpose were to spew his threats and his hatred at the man, why would he throw stones at the secretary? Did he expect him to take it as a memo? Why wouldn’t he stand below Mr. Bartholomew’s window and scream and swear at him?”

“Oh,” I said. “I hadn’t thought of that. Then…why?”

“Well,” said Burke, blowing another smoke ring. “A good way to find out why someone did something is to look at what that something actually did. And what did it do?”

“It…well, nothing, except to bring Mr. Cutter and the girl to the window and to provide…oh!”

“You see it then,” he said. “It brought them to the window, giving Mr. Angus a chance to slip back across the lobby and into his brother’s office.”

“Into his…”

“Yes. That is when he killed him. He shut the door, said something like ‘Oh, I forgot to mention so-and-so to you, brother. Have a look at this…’ He puts a bit of paper under his brother’s nose, his brother bends over….”

I could see it. See it as clearly as if it had happened right before my eyes.

“That’s clear enough,” I said. “But then Cutter spoke with him afterwards. Had his meeting with…you mean that was Angus?”

“You’re picking up lad. Yes, that was Angus, not Bartholomew. They were brothers, after all. They may have been superficially very different to look at, but the structure of their faces was much of a piece. All he needed was a wire-haired wig and his brother’s glasses to play the part. It helped that Mr. Bartholomew didn’t look people in eye when he spoke to them, and that the window faced west so that at seven o’clock the sun would be shining right behind him.”

“I see. So he berated Cutter to emphasize his motive and so that it would seem that Bartholomew was still alive well after he had left.”

“Quite so. The plan was that Cutter would be the last one to see Bartholomew alive, and had been threatened with ruin while alone in the office with him. All things considered, it was a fine little plan. Then Angus went and ruined it all when, by sheer force of habit, he thoughtlessly locked the door behind him as he left the office.”

I shook my head, admiring how neatly everything fell into place as he described it.

“Like you said, absurdly obvious. But do you mean to say,” I added, frowning slightly. “That if he hadn’t gone and locked up that he would have gotten away with it and poor Cutter would have been hanged?”

“Oh, no, there was another weak point in his scheme,” said Burke. “Climpson.”

“Climpson?”

“Well, obviously Angus hired him. You don’t suppose he left something like that up to chance? No, he paid him well to be part of the scheme, and Climpson was only too happy to help murder the man he regarded as his enemy. Only, Angus didn’t count on the consequences of Climpson’s character. A man like that with money in his pocket and hatred in his soul is sure to do only one thing: go to the nearest tavern, rant and rave, get roaring drunk, and so end up in jail. The very last place in the world that Angus would have wanted him. He might have passed a common police interview without incident, but I would have soon had him spilling the whole story.”

I shook my head.

“What did Angus think would happen?”

“I suspect he meant to meet the fella’ somewhere to celebrate and perhaps pay the rest of the money. Then he would have maybe knocked him on the head. No one would look twice at a drunk tramp with a bashed in skull, would they?”

“So, Angus Caribel was done in by his own responsibility and his failure to understand another man’s debauchery,” I said. “That doesn’t seem a proper lesson at all.”

“It shows you must learn to think things through, or you’ll be done in by something absurdly obvious. As I say, most criminals are.”

“What about Mr. Cutter and Miss Pierson?”

“Oh, Mr. Cutter’s doin’ quite well last I heard. In Chicago I believe. They sent me a photo of them and their children a few years back. Quite a happy little family they seem.”

He puffed on his pipe a moment, then began to hum an Irish folk song, and I knew we were finished with crime for the evening.

Learn how Alfred More’s apprenticeship with Malachi Burke began in The Ten Commandments of Murder, available for kindle or print on demand

Escape to Some Fantastic Schools

Want to take your mind off things? Pick up a volume or two of Fantastic Schools (now both available in paperback: a nice, thick volume to decorate your shelf and that can’t be digitally taken away from you).

Official Blurb:
Have you ever wanted to go to magic school? To cast spells and brew potions and fly on broomsticks and—perhaps—battle threats both common and supernatural? Come with us into worlds of magic, where students become magicians and teachers do everything in their power to ensure the kids survive long enough to graduate. Welcome to … Fantastic Schools.

Vol. 1
Follow a girl trying desperately to find her place in a school of dark magic, a band of witches desperate to prove they can be as good as the wizards, a school of magical monsters standing between the evil one and ultimate power, a businesswoman discovering the secrets of darkest evil … and what happens when a magical education goes badly wrong.

Vol. 2
Follow a mundane teacher striding into a world of magic, a spy on a mission, a guided tour of a magical school, a school dance for monsters, a dangerous reunion … and many more.

Follow us into worlds different, magical …

… And very human.

My own story, Halloween Dance is the final entry in the second volume. It’s all about the trials and complications of young love, particularly when the boy has a troubled past and is covered in scales, the girl is outgoing, friendly, and gorgeous, but can’t show her face without killing someone, and both are attending a school for monsters where unspeakable evil can strike at any time.

Pick up a copy today and escape into some fantastic schools.

Neptune Rises

Planetary Anthology: Neptune is now available to order in paperback (E-book coming Tuesday)

A collection of stories thematically centered around the planet Neptune, named for the god of the sea. Stories of the sea, of magic, of disillusionment, of wonder. Including one by your humble servant that tells of a pirate captain driven before a mysterious wind into strange waters, where his quest for gold leads him to discover a different kind of treasure…one that is not for the plundering.

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Pick up your copy today and enjoy this and fourteen other stories by a diverse cast of talented authors.

Amazin’ Amazon Holiday Book Sale

Over eighty kindle books are available for $0.99 or less over Thanksgiving weekend. Several are free, including such modern independent fiction classics as Monster Hunter International (Larry Correia’s first book: badasses shoot monsters in the face for fun and profit) and The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin (cute girl with a perfect memory has adventures in a school for magic while blowing the world-building and magic system of Harry Potter out of the water). Also works by the likes of Richard Paolinelli, John C. Wright, Bokerah Brumley, Kit Sun Cheah, Caroline Furlong, J.D. Cowan, Declan Finn, Alexander Hellene, and more!

Also included in the sale is Fantastic Schools vol. 2, featuring a story by your humble servant called Halloween Dance. It’s all about the trials and complications of young love, particularly when the boy has a troubled past and is covered in scales, the girl is outgoing and friendly but can’t show her face without killing someone, and both are attending a school for monsters where unspeakable evil can strike at any time.

In any case, a good chance to pick up any of those great works of independent fiction you’ve had your eye on, but which your Scrooge-like ways couldn’t permit you to try.

Find them here

Rising of the Sun: Sol Anthology Live!

Tuscany Bay Books’ Planetary Anthology: Sol is now live!

Featuring thirteen stories centered on the theme of nobility and righteousness, including my own Under the Midnight Sun.

Far in the future, the dying sun has swollen and scorched most of the earth. The last known remnants of humanity dwell about the South Pole, where the sun rises and sets only once a year. There the beautiful, imaginative Gienna cherishes dreams of marrying for love, like the heroines of her favorite stories. By an unexpected chance, she at last meets a man who touches her heart, but who is he really and what secrets does he hide?

The Sun may die, but love, hope, and nobility need not.

(This is what happens when you read The Curse of Capistrano and The Night Land at roughly the same time)

“Oh thou bright orb, ruler of the sky…”

Pick it up today! Enjoy tales of nobility and goodness, and drop a review letting us know what you think! Feedback is always appreciated.

Fantastic Schools Vol. 2 is Live!

Fantastic Schools Volume 2 is now live!

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Well, mostly. We’re still waiting on the paperback. So, think of it as ‘live’ in the sense of Frankenstein’s Monster when he first awoke, but was too disoriented and confused to form any kind of conscious thought or intention. It’ll be a few hours before he can stumble out of the laboratory to look at the Sun for the first time, if you follow me.

But it is available for Kindle purchase as of now, so you can pick it up and enjoy a dozen different stories by massively talented authors, plus my own Halloween Dance, all dealing with the trials and tribulations of life at fantastic schools.

(As you might guess, my own story is pretty seasonally appropriate. Just throwing that out there).

Chapter Five of ‘Perseus Corbett and the Forbidden Valley’

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

Chapter Five
The End of the Known

“You know I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me. There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies—which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world—what I want to forget.”
-Marlowe, Heart of Darkness

“It took some convincing,” said Bill. “Quite an unpleasant scene, really. But we won him over in the end. He said, ‘all right, Bill, we shall see how you acquit yourself on this trip. If you give satisfaction and show yourself a man, then you’ll have my consent. If you don’t, then I don’t suppose she’ll care to have you anyway.’”

“A glowing endorsement,” said Martin.

“Well, it’s better than I expected,” Bill replied. “Can’t think why I went and blurted it out like I did. Of course I’ve always had a reckless streak in me; act first, ask questions later, what? Did I tell you how, when I was a boy, I went and jumped off the pier at Brighton? Twelve feet straight down, and April, so the water was damned cold. We were gone to seashore for Easter holiday, see.”

“A curious thing to do. Had you a reason for it?”

“This other boy dared me to do it,” Bill answered. “Just shows, doesn’t it, what an impulsive chap I am. That’s why I have to keep it all bottled up, you see?”

“It is certainly an illustrative incident,” said Martin with a hint a dryness in his tone that Bill, unfamiliar with the Austrian’s moods, missed entirely.

“But I am most impressed,” Martin went on, “that you should show such concern to secure your prospective father-in-law’s approval. Most do not in this day.”

“Frances tells me I’m old fashioned,” Bill agreed with a faint laugh. “But you see, she’s very close to her father; they’ve been a bit of a team ever since her mother died, and I certainly wouldn’t want to create a rift between them, what?”

“Admirable.”

They spoke while sitting in wicker chairs upon the deck of a riverboat making its way up the Amazon. A comfortable passage across the Atlantic had been followed by an almost equally comfortable journey up the Amazon to Manaus, where they had remained a few days while purchasing the rest of their supplies before taking another steamer up the Purus. It was the ‘dry season,’ so to speak, though the air was heavy with moisture and the rains still came almost every day. Great, heavy downpours, with raindrops the size of hailstones lashed down upon the mighty river and its green banks, but they didn’t last long and they certainly didn’t cool anything off. Even simply sitting in the shade upon the deck of their riverboat was enough to make Bill sweat as much as he ever had in his life.

“I say,” he said, fanning himself with his book. “You’ve been all around the world, haven’t you?”

“I have travelled extensively with Mr. Corbett, yes.”

“Is it always this hot?”

Martin looked at him with a faint expression of pity.

“When one is only ten degrees south of the Equator, yes,” he answered. “Though, of course, the humidity contributes.”

“Is it going to be like this the whole way?”

“Unlikely,” said Martin. “In the thick jungle, it will be far worse. There will be no breeze, you see.” 

Elizabeth, meanwhile, stood at the rail and watched the ranches and villages of the Amazon basin pass by. She was soaked with sweat, felt feverish from the heat, and the heavy, damp air seemed to resist being breathed. She was smarting all over from insect bites. All in all, she was extremely uncomfortable, and could not remember ever being happier. She was in the Amazon; that great, untamable ocean of life spread across a third of a continent, where man was not and never could be master. She stood only upon the surface now, but soon she would plunge into those dark depths and then the adventure—oh, what a word that was!—would truly begin.

Overhead, the clouds gathered once again and growled with thunder, making the air feel even heavier.

“I thought this was supposed to be the dry season,” she said to Perseus as he joined her at the rail. “If this is dry, I wonder what the wet one is like.”

“Oh, there’s no such thing as ‘dry’ in the Amazon.,” he said. “The rains don’t alter much; you get a few more downpours per day in the summer than you do in the winter, that’s all. The ‘wet’ season is so because that’s when it rains in the Andes, and all that water washes down here and makes the rivers higher and faster. ‘Flooded’ would be the more proper way to speak of it.”

“I keep forgetting it’s technically winter here,” she said. “The word sounds rather funny doesn’t it?”

They had spent a good deal of time together over the past few days. Sometimes he would tell her tales of his adventures, or they would discuss what they might expect in the coming days when they left all civilization behind, but lately they had mostly spent their time simply standing side by side and watching the banks of the river pass by.

At first, on the Amazon, there had been far more settlements and signs of human activity than Elizabeth had expected; towns, villages, cities even, and innumerable boats passing by. As they drew deeper into the basin, the signs of humanity became fewer and small, though they still floated past pretty often. There were small villages full of people of every hue and color, who paid little attention to the familiar sight of a passing riverboat. Here and there they passed great farms and ranches cut from the living jungle, with big, fine houses, some so grand that they made Elizabeth think of her own family estate. These sometimes sparked architectural discussions as they admired or critiqued the taste of the buildings: “What a hideous monstrosity!” “That one is charming; look at the latticework.” “Now there’s a house; classic Spanish style. Wonder how old it is?” “Good Lord! They brought all that paint this far into the jungle to give it that color scheme?” 

But these became fewer and fewer as they journeyed, and the jungle closed in as a solid wall of green about them. Birds of every color imaginable filled the trees, calling to one another with the sharp cries of the jungle. Monkeys gambled about in the branches, watching the passing boat with disinterested eyes, as though they thought the travelers beneath their notice. The banks of the river were high, with vast expanses of mud crisscrossed with fallen trees, and in many places they saw fat caiman basking in the sun, reminding Elizabeth forcibly of sunbathing tourists, the thought of which made her laugh. At one point they saw a big, long-nosed tapir drinking in the shallows, though it took off into the jungle as they drew close. More often they saw small red deer coming down to the water to drink and watching the passersby with big, innocent eyes.

Professor Illingworth spent most of his time in his cabin, going over books and making notes in his journal. On the occasions he joined them on the deck, he would give dry lectures on the wildlife they saw (“Caiman crocodilus, commonly known as the spectacled caiman or white caiman. There are currently four recognized subspecies…”) Or else he would expound a little on a few pet theories of his own (“The evolutionary history of this region very clearly demonstrates the principle of…”). And, when he had nothing better to do, he would entertain himself by yelling at Bill.  

In this way they proceeded up the Purus for several days until they reached their destination. Here, at the very end of the civilized world, the Brazilian government had long ago established a telegraph station, guarded by a small contingent of soldiers. A trading post naturally grew up around it, along with a church, and farms and so, eventually, the small village of Pordesol was born. Here goods were brought in from down river and sold among the villagers and soldiers, or shipped to the ranchers and rubber men up river. The turn off for the Rio Tardas, from which they would find the outlet of the mysterious Noite, was about three or four miles below the village, and as far as anyone knew, the only men who lived along the Tardas were the Catauxi tribesmen, who were generally friendly enough, but not keen for making contacts.

Perseus had known about Pordesol and its telegraph from an earlier trip he had taken into the interior, though he had never been there. This was how he had come to concoct his story of Colonel Torres. Early on in their plans, however, he was surprised to discover that Elizabeth knew of it as well. An old friend of her father’s, Colonel Newgate, had retired from service and left England shortly after the war and had, through a series of events that she didn’t quite understand, had ended up running the trading post in this little village on the extreme edge of the unknown.

Elizabeth having sent word of their coming ahead up the river, he was ready to greet them when the steamer pulled up to dock and embraced his friend’s daughter with warm affection. Newgate was a muscular man of medium height, with a square, expressive kind of face with a slightly elfish quality about the eyes that suggested an Irish ancestor. His greying hair was beginning to recede a little, and his clothes were simple, but clean. Elizabeth introduced him to her companions, and he greeted them with a well-bred politeness tempered by the ease of a man used to living far from society.

The trading post and general store that he ran fronted upon the docks, and his long, comfortable home extended out the back, running parallel to the riverbank. He gave a few quick orders to the comaradas who were handling the receipt of goods from the steamer, then led the expedition onto a shaded veranda overlooking the Purus. Drinks were provided, and they sat in perfect comfort while the breeze blew in off of the waters.

“I can’t tell you how surprised I was to get your telegram,” he said, leaning back in his chair and looking at Elizabeth with a warm smile. “I really thought my days of receiving old friends were over.”

“I had thought of simply surprising you,” said Elizabeth. “But then I wanted to be sure you were still here.”

“Where else should I be?” he answered. “I fully intend to die out here. It’s a good life; the people are pleasant company, there’s enough work to keep me occupied, and the scenery can’t be beat.”

“What made you decide to come out here in the first place?” asked Illingworth. “Seems a strange place for a British officer to retire to.”

“Not at all,” said Newgate. “After the war, I’d had quite enough of civilization. I looked about for the most isolated place I could go. I considered Tibet for a while, but eventually settled on the Amazon. Here, at least, no one tries to blow each other up, and I’m two weeks behind the times, so by the time I get news of trouble, it’s already been cleared up.”

“Sounds most appealing,” said Perseus. “You don’t find the weather a trial?”

“Yes I do, but it is quite worth it. Now tell me; what are you all doing here? Your telegram didn’t quite say. Some scientific survey, was it?”

“Yes,” she said. “Survey up the Noite. Perseus here says that he met an old colonel from the Empire days who I suppose must have been in this very spot, right?”

“I believe so, yes,” said Perseus. He spoke lightly, but inside he was tense. They had reached the point where the truth would soon have to come out, and he only dreaded its being discovered too soon. It suddenly occurred to him that people who lived at this station likely knew that there had never been a man named ‘Colonel Torres’ here.

Newgate added to his unease by shooting a quick glance at him, but he allowed Elizabeth to continue.

“Supposedly there are some very interesting species to be found along the Noite. We’re going to document them.”

“I see,” he said. “But, forgive me, what are you doing here, Elizabeth?”

“I’m funding the expedition,” she said. “Thought I ought to know what my money was being used for.”

“Really?” he said. “Is that all?”

She smiled a little embarrassedly.

“I confess, no. I’ve always wanted to go on a trip like this, and I didn’t know when I would have another opportunity.”

“I see,” he said, frowning a little. Perseus guessed that, like him, Newgate saw that Elizabeth had no idea what she was in for. But he said no more and instead began inquiring after their mutual friends in England.

After they had sat and chatted for a time, Newgate showed them over his house and store, which was remarkably comfortable and well-furnished for being so remote. He gave them a regular tour; showed them his wares, showed them his comfortable, book-lined rooms, his shining rifles upon the wall, and his photographs of old friends from England, whom Elizabeth wasted no time in examining.

“There’s father, of course,” she said. “That was during the war, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, just outside of Toutencourt. Right before the Somme, I think it was.

“That’s what’s his name, Lieutenant…

“Lieutenant Herbert. Surprised you remember him. He got blown up a few days later.

“I remember father telling me about him…and that’s Colonel Blunt, right? He used to come for shooting parties before the war. You met him, Perseus.”

“Oh, yes; he complimented my flower border. Whatever happened to him?”

“Survived the Somme; died at Passchendaele,” said Newgate.

“Hard luck, that,” said Perseus.

“What about this one?” asked Eliazbeth, pointing to another photo that showed Newgate and a much younger man.

“Don’t suppose you ever heard of him; Sergeant Allenby. Good chap from Birmingham. Invalidated out with shell shock and cut his wrists in hospital.”

“Have all these people died, then?” asked Bill.

“Most of them,” said Newgate sadly. “They’re useful reminders in case I ever get the urge to go back to what is called civilization. I think your father and I, Elizabeth, were the only ones here who survived the war, and then of course that damned motorcar…except this group shot, of course; some of those boys made it, I think. Oh, and you of course.”

Perseus, who had been examining the group shot, turned eagerly to this last photo. He recognized the setting at once: the back porch at Sangral House. There were Newgate and Lord Darrow sitting in wicker chairs, and there, standing beside her father, was Elizabeth, just as he remembered her; all arms and legs and tangled hair, wearing a look of unrestrained happiness with her arm around her father, as though she wanted to show him off.

“I remember when that was taken,” she said. “Just before you all left for the war.”

Then it was only a few months after he had left. He looked at the girl in the photo and smiled to himself. That was how he remembered her; that radiantly expressive, hold-nothing-back kind of smile.

He had yet to see that look on her present face. His eyes shifted from her to the man beside her in the photograph and he thought he might understand why. 

They were treated to a delightful supper on the veranda, while the usual afternoon downpour rattled outside. As they ate, Illingworth turned the conversation back to the purpose of their journey.

“Have you heard any rumor of these supposed strange beasts on the Noite, Colonel?”

Newgate leaned back in his chair and looked out on the misty river and the jungle beyond.

“One hears many strange stories out here,” he said. “The Noite holds a certain reputation among the natives. The Catauxi will not travel upon it, and the other tribes regard it as unlucky.”

“What for?” asked Elizabeth.

“It is said that the river marks the path to an evil place; a forbidden place. Some say it is only a part of the jungle, others say it is a great pit or cave in the earth. The legend goes that it is both the abode of monsters and the treasure house of the gods.”

Perseus flinched a little. They were getting very close to the mark. He wondered suddenly whether word of Professor Applegate’s expedition had reached Newgate’s ears, for surely they must have passed this way.

“Do they say what manner of ‘monsters’?” asked Illingworth.

Newgate smiled.

“Cuangi is said to dwell there.”

The rain seemed momentarily to grow more intense and the sky grumbled with thunder.

“What is ‘Cuangi’?” Elizabeth asked.

“A native superstition,” he said. “Most of the tribes of the southern Amazon have one version of him or other. Some say he’s a spirit, others a great beast, and others something in between. The only common thread is that he’s monstrous and all-powerful.”

The rain rattled upon the roof, and a fork of lightning lit up the sky. The expedition members had fallen silent.

“And he’s said to dwell along the Noite?” asked Perseus.

“Yes, or in that forbidden place I mentioned. One version of the legend has him the guardian of the gods’ treasures. Sort of a demonic watchdog. There’s a story that goes along with it.”

“Oh, tell us,” said Elizabeth.

“Ah, well, I only know the one version,” he said. “But it goes something like this. There once was a great warrior of a certain tribe. He was chief and the mightiest hunter the world had ever seen. He was betrothed to the most beautiful maiden in the tribe and, as is said of many a promising young buck, had everything in his favor.

“One night, while performing the sacred rites, for he was also well-versed in the world of spirits, he received a vision. A great spirit spoke to him from the smoke of the ritual fire. The spirit said ‘thou art great, but shall yet be greater. Take thy betrothed and walk into the forest for seven days and seven nights. Then thou shalt come to a great wall. There thou shalt possess the treasures of the gods.’

“So the chief took his betrothed and walked through the jungle. They didn’t need to fear anything, as he was the greatest hunter in the world, and the jaguars and snakes all knew to fear him. He came to the great wall of stone, and in the wall was a gate, and at that gate stood mighty Cuangi. They bowed and made obeisance before him, and the chief said, ‘Oh, mighty Cuangi, it has been given to me to possess the treasures of the gods.’

“But Cuangi answered and said, ‘None may pass my way without an offering.’ So the chief asked what he would have, and Cuangi said, ‘If thou wouldst possess the treasure of the gods, then thy betrothed is the price. Give her to me, or go back the way ye came.’

“And so the chief took hold of his betrothed and gave her to Cuangi, who ate her in one bite…”

“Wait, he did what?” Elizabeth exclaimed. 

“Not very nice, was it?” said Newgate, laughing. “Our friend is not a hero by English standards. But that is not the end of the story. After he had offered his betrothed to Cuangi, he was permitted to pass and to enter the great treasure house. There he outfitted himself the raiment of the gods, took their treasure for his own, and set off to claim his place among them.

“Only, when he tried to pass through the gate again, Cuangi again prevented him, saying that if he would pass, he must offer a second gift, equal to the first. But of course, he only had one betrothed and had already offered her. He protested and said that he had been promised possession of the gods’ treasures. ‘Yes,’ said Cuangi, ‘Thou wert promised to possess them. But thou dost possess them. Thou wert never promised to be permitted to bear them away.’

“And so, the great chief simply had to sit there in the god’s treasure house, bedecked in marks of power that he could never use to command and holding weapons he could never hunt with, until he grew old and rotted where he sat.”

“Overall,” said Perseus after a brief silence. “That is not an edifying story.”

“I’m glad the chief got his comeuppance at least,” said Elizabeth. “Serves him right!”

“Hear hear!” said Bill.

“Let us not be too harsh in judgment,” said Martin. “He merely did what most of us do.”

“What do you mean?” asked Bill. “You’re not saying most men would feed their fiancée to a monster to get his hands on a lot of treasure.”

“After a fashion, yes,” he answered. “Most of us are all-too quick to sacrifice the real good at hand for the mere promise of a better one.”

“I don’t know,” said Newgate. “I’m more inclined to think men too ready to cling to goods that they know, even it means they and others must suffer for it. We are altogether far too conservative a species.”

“I quite agree with you, Colonel,” said Illingworth. “Surely obscurantism is the greater danger. A certain continuation of the evils of the past must be outweighed by the possibility of a better future.”

“But the evils of the past are known and we can, in a sense, manage them,” Perseus argued. “The potential evils of future novelties must be unknown and, for that reason, must be worse.”

“I think there’s something to be said for both sides,” said Elizabeth. “We can’t stop all progress, even at the cost of losing something we love, but then, we can’t simply throw everything onto the chopping block, or else what would be the point? The trouble is knowing where to draw the line.”

“I certainly hope we all agree that it is somewhere on this side of ‘feeding beautiful young ladies to monsters’,” said Perseus.

“Only beautiful ones?” asked Elizabeth. “What about the plain young ladies?”

He shrugged.

“As you say; we can’t stop all progress.”

She laughed, and so did Bill. Newgate, however, did not laugh. He was watching Perseus with a thoughtful expression.

After dinner he showed them their rooms. The trading post also functioned as an inn for the rare few visitors who came that way, and he had two small, but comfortable spare bedrooms made up. He insisted on giving up his own room for Elizabeth’s use and promised that he would be quite comfortable in his study, as he often slept there when he was obliged to work late.

Before they retired, however, he beckoned Elizabeth to join him on the now-empty veranda. She went willingly, not feeling the least bit sleepy. It was just after sunset, and the forest across the river was like a sharp black shadow against the pink sky, both doubled in the river. The rain had cleared and left the air cooler, and the insects sang from the shadows. Elizabeth once again felt a shiver of delight at the thought of where she was.

Then Newgate began without any preamble.

“Elizabeth, how much do you know of this man, Corbett?”

She looked at him in surprise.

“I’ve told you; he stayed with us for two years before the war.”

“Yes, I know that. Have you had any contact with him since?”

She flinched involuntarily at the reminder.

“No,” she said. “Not until a few weeks ago when we got this all together.”

“I was afraid of that,” he sighed. “Now listen; I am going say something that I know you are not going to like, but I owe it to you, and to the memory of your father. I know men like that; that sort of devil-may-care, vagabond type who travels the world doing this and that and never settling to any honest trade. You see them all the time around here, and there were more than a few the in the army. They’re devilishly charming and handy in a tight spot, but you cannot trust them. They always are after one thing and one thing only; money.”

Elizabeth looked at him in shock.

“Thank you for your concern,” she said slowly. “But you’re quite wrong about him. Perseus isn’t like that at all. He has knocked about the world a good deal, but he isn’t in it for money. Why, just to give you an idea what he’s like, he’s the boy I gave that Charles the First medal to, you remember? He still has it. You can’t tell me a mercenary personality wouldn’t have sold that thing long ago.”

“You’re sure he still has it, are you?” he said.

“I…yes, I’m quite sure. But besides that, he isn’t even charging us! Says he’ll take his salary upon delivery.”

“He is taking you into the jungle and not even asking to be paid?”

“Yes. So that shows, doesn’t it, that he’s acting in good faith. It isn’t the money he cares about; it’s the adventure.”

His face did not relax.

“Why would he need to make such a gesture of good faith?”

“Because we did, after all, only have his word for it. Like I told you, he happened to meet an old colonel from the empire days; Colonel Torres, I think it was, and learned about the Noite from him. So, to prove that he was telling the truth, he volunteered to defer payment until his story was verified.”

Newgate looked at her with something approaching pity.

“Elizabeth,” he said. “This station wasn’t started until after the empire.”

“Oh,” she said, taken a little off guard. “Then it must have been another site. What does it matter?”

“Didn’t you hear what I told you about the Noite, and the legends around it? The treasure house of the gods?”

She felt suddenly uncomfortable as she realized what he was getting at.

“You think that is what is after? But that’s just a legend, isn’t it?”

“All legends have a basis in truth,” he said. “In any case, I can much more readily believe him willing to go after a legendary treasure than I can believe a man like that would have such a disinterested love of science that he would propose and undertake a trip like this simply to discover a few new species of butterfly.”

“No, no,” said Elizabeth. She was beginning to feel faintly desperate as she realized the plausibility of his words and, what was worse, that she had no answer to them. “He…he said that he was only interested in an adventure; the chance to see one of the few unexplored places left on Earth.”

“Of course he would say that,” Newgate sighed. “Just the thing to get you hooked. Elizabeth, he is using you! Can’t you see that? He knows what kind of person you are, so he shows up with just the right story to peak your interest.”

“No, you don’t know him!” she said furiously. “He wouldn’t do that sort of thing. He…he can’t have changed that much.”

“How long has it been since you’ve seen him? Ten years? Fifteen?”

“Fourteen.”

“Fourteen years is a lifetime, especially for the kind of life you say he’s been leading,” he said. “Please, Elizabeth, you know I’m not trying to make you unhappy; I’m only trying to keep you safe. I know something of men like that, and I do not think you ought to go off into the jungle with him.”

Elizabeth was too sensible not to see the reasonableness of his request. It was all horribly plausible, and against it she only had her own knowledge of and affection for a man whom she had not seen in many years. But though her head told her that Newgate was perfectly right, her heart recoiled from the idea that she couldn’t trust Perseus.

“No,” she said. “I don’t care what you say, I know him. And Perseus would never lie to me. I’d swear to that.”  

“All right, all right,” sighed Newgate. “I won’t badger you. But please, Elizabeth, think hard about what you’re doing. This will be your last chance to turn back.”

“I most certainly will not turn back!” she said. She drew a deep breath, summoning all her self-control. “I know, Colonel, that you mean well, and thank you for you concern, but I…I know what I am doing.”

He shook his head.

“I hope so,” he said. “I really do.”

Elizabeth turned away from him. She felt something like hatred for Colonel Newgate; hatred of the fact that he had planted such seeds of doubt in her mind, which she could neither accept nor get rid of. She wanted badly to speak to Perseus, and she was just resolving to go seek him out when he stepped into the hall from the study.

“Elizabeth?” he said. “Can I speak with you a moment? In private?”

“Certainly,” she said, endeavoring to appear as herself. “I was just coming to see you myself.”

“I thought you might be,” he said.

They went into the store, which was closed up and deserted. Elizabeth waited for him to begin.

“I…I have something of a confession to make,” he said. “Which I probably ought to have made earlier, but I beg you to hear me out before you judge me.”

“What do you mean?” she asked. The suspicions so recently and unwilling sown in her mind sharpened. 

“It isn’t easy to have a private conversation in a country where the windows are always open,” he said with a grimace. “I heard what Colonel Newgate and you were saying.”

“Oh!” she said, coloring. “I’m sorry; I hope you didn’t take offense or…”

“No, no, nothing like that,” he said hastily. “Newgate’s an astute man, and he clearly cares for you. My confession is that he is…he is not entirely wrong.”

There was a heavy silence.

“What are you talking about?”

He reached into his shirt and drew out a leather bundle. He unwrapped it and handed her the torn notebook.

True Narrative of Certain Events in the Brazilian Jungle, by Robert Cooper,” she read aloud. “What is this?”

“An account of the Applegate expedition from 1910,” he answered. “Professor Applegate was a naturalist, much like Illingworth, and led a party to this region to study the Noite. They followed a native legend to a place they call the Forbidden Valley. The narrative breaks off before they describe what happened there, but Applegate and several others died, and the survivors considered what they found there to be so startling, so out of the ordinary that they kept it a secret from everyone, except for what is recorded in this book.”

She stared at him.

“Then…that is where you mean to go?”

He nodded.

“Where did you get this?”

“Off of a drunk old man I bumped into in Istanbul. Where he got it, I have no idea. He was being assaulted by a gang of toughs and Martin and I stepped in to try and help. The poor fellow was already done for – stabbed – but he lived long enough to give this to me in gratitude for the effort. I don’t suppose many people ever tried to help him. No longer after, on the way to England, a gentleman tried first to buy it off me, then to have it at gun point. I got the better of him, but from what he let slip I realized that there was some sort of gang after the book. I don’t know how they knew about it, or how they knew I had it, but they were clearly willing to do anything to get their hands on it. So I thought it best to keep its existence a secret and to not let our real destination be known, just in case they were on the lookout. I don’t mind being shot myself, but I hate having my friends shot at.”

She did not smile.

“Then, that story you told us, of the Brazilian colonel…”

“Was just a story,” he admitted. “I needed a plausible alternative that would take us in the same direction. But I tried to make it as true as possible; we are going to an undiscovered ecosystem off of the Noite. I only left out a few details about its nature and location. Probably would have been easier to convince Illingworth if I’d told him everything.”   

“In short,” she said slowly. “You lied to me.”

The words landed like blows.

“I am sorry,” he said. “When I decided on that story, I had no idea you were the one I would telling it to. And only did it to try to keep you safe.”

“You might have told me afterwards,” she said. “You could have trusted me to keep quiet about it, couldn’t you?”

“Oh!” he said. “I…yes, I could have. I…I am afraid I didn’t think of that.”

She looked from him to the book in her hands, then back to him. Her face was very red and her eyes were hard and angry.

“Tell me honestly,” she said. “Do you still have that medal?”

He opened his mouth to say ‘yes,’ but the word seemed to stick in his throat.

“It’s safe,” he said.

“What does that mean?”

“I…we spent the last money we had coming to London. I needed some to start putting this together, and I needed it quickly, owing to those people being after me…”

“You sold it.”

She said it in a quiet, almost a childlike voice. The realization of what he had done seemed to take everything from her.

“Pawned,” he said. “And I’m making him hold it for a year. It’s only temporary, and it’s as safe as can be. I swear to you, I will get it back…”

“What are you really after?” she snapped, cutting him off.

He blinked. “What are you talking about?”

“You didn’t drag us all out here for a mere lark,” she said. “You expect to find something in that valley, don’t you? That’s why you’re so set on it, isn’t it?”

There was a commanding tone in her voice. It was the voice of one who was used to giving orders and having them obeyed. The cheerful, exuberant girl had faded, and the feudal lady of the manor had risen to the surface.

“Yes,” he admitted. He pointed to the wall. “But whatever he says, I am not using you, and I never would!”

“No, you’re just using my money, aren’t you?” she spat. “Like you used my medal.”

“It isn’t like that!”

“Isn’t it?”

He looked at her.

“Do you really think it is?”

A kind of painful cramp was growing in her heart as she met his gaze.

“A few minutes ago, I swore that you would never lie to me,” she said. “Yet here we are. So I don’t know what to think.”  

They looked at each other for several minutes, both breathing rather hard.

“If you don’t think you can trust me,” he said. “Then it probably would be best if you were to return home. We are going to be going into very dangerous territory, and I would much prefer if you were not exposed to it.”

“First you lie to me, now you try to humiliate me,” she said. “Send me home to be jeered at for spending all this money and then running off when it gets difficult?”

Her vehemence took him off guard.

“I would rather have you embarrassed and safe than otherwise,” he said.

“I thank you for your concern,” she said. “Now are there any other lies you’d care to confess?”

He flinched.

“No,” he said. “But Elizabeth, you really ought to take Newgate’s advice and go home.”

“I appreciate that advice, Mr. Corbett,” she said. “And I thank you for at least telling me this now. I only wish that you had done so while there was still time for me to fire you!”

So saying, she turned and marched back into the house, slamming the door behind her. She fairly ran to her own room, threw herself down on the bed, and began to cry.