Posts filed under “Novels”
Continuing the adventure that began here.
CHAPTER XII: Aeronauts of the Amazon.
“Although, under ordinary circumstances, you are our whitewater expert,” said Weyland, “would you be willing to accept a suggestion from me?”
“I should certainly make no objection to it,” I replied as we gained vertical velocity with every passing second.
“Then I suggest we make use of the resources at our disposal. We have a hammer, a pocket knife, and some nails. First, take the hammer and use the claw end to pry up the seats.”
I set to work immediately on the seat on which I had been sitting. In short order, I had it detached from the boat.
“Excellent, Peevish,” said Weyland. “Now, if you will hand it to me, I can get to work on it while you pry up the other one. It behooves us to work efficiently, as we are operating under a certain time constraint.”
We changed places in the falling boat, and while I worked on prying up the other seat, Weyland began to whittle the first one with the pocket knife, forming a gracefully arched shape front to back.
“I have the other one now,” I reported. We had now plummeted about a third of the way down toward the rock-strewn gulf below.
“Good job. Hand me that one, and take this one and nail this end here, so that it projects from the boat perpendicularly. I’ll prepare the other one.”
I made sure to use a good number of nails, so that the altered seat was attached firmly to the edge of the boat. Meanwhile, Weyland was busy on the other seat, and by the time I had finished hammering, he had it ready.
“First-rate work, Peevish,” he said. “Now do the same with this one on the opposite side, and I’ll make some alterations to the oars.”
I soon had the other seat nailed in place, and at the same time Weyland handed me his curious construction. He had used his necktie to attach the oars end to end with the blades pointing outward and twisted slightly, and in the middle he had put a sort of handle made of nails.
“Now get in the front of the boat,” he said, “and spin that clockwise with all your might.”
Once again we changed places, and I began spinning Weyland’s construction as fast as I could turn it.
Seconds before we would have been smashed on the rocks, our reconstructed boat swept forward in a graceful parabola and began to rise into the sky again.
“Splendid, Peevish!” said Weyland. “Luckily I spent some time with Mr. Curtiss suggesting some improvements to his production models. I had no time to construct proper ailerons, but we should be able to steer simply by leaning left and right. Just keep that propeller turning.”
I was spinning the propeller as fast as I could, which took quite a lot of effort; but the alternative was plunging into foaming rapids in the gorge below.
Soon, however, the aspect of the landscape below us changed. We came to an escarpment where the land came down to the level of the river, and the water below once again took on a placid and inviting character.
“My wrists are beginning to get a little sore,” I mentioned to Weyland.
“Look at that down there!” said Weyland. “I’d say we’ve reached civilization!”
Indeed, we could see not too far ahead of us what looked for all the world like an English village transplanted to the Amazon jungle. We could see the roofs of houses and public buildings constructed very much in the English style, and a well-laid-out street plan with a central square open on one side to the river.
“This is a spot of luck,” said Weyland. “Let’s set down in the river right by the village square, and we’ll see how well connected these people are. Perhaps they have a wireless set we can use to warn the authorities that Kun is in control of the archdiocese.”
I slowed the propeller a little, and we began to descend. Rather than a steep descent that might have ended in an uncomfortable landing, we came down in a spiral path, which gave the inhabitants of the little town ample opportunity to spot us. As we came closer, we saw a few of them in the village square looking up at us. They had every appearance of being European; they were dressed in decent European style, and when they began to wave at is even their gestures had a European flair. Each time we passed over the square in our spiral path, more of the inhabitants had appeared, gazing up at what I admit must have appeared to be a very odd aircraft. By the time we landed—I must say we did it very neatly in the water right next to the town square—there were dozens of people to greet us with a hearty cheer.
“Welcome to Pleasant River,” said a distinguished-looking gentleman as we moored our aquatic aeroplane at the little dock. “My name is Thompson; I have the honor to be the mayor of this town, and on behalf of all of us I should like to say how happy we are to have you here.”
“Thank you, Mr. Thompson,” said Weyland as we disembarked. “I can hardly tell you how delighted we are to find an outpost of civilization in the heart of the jungle.”
“We’re quite proud of it in our little way, yes,” said Mr. Thompson. “We think we’ve managed to build ourselves a little oasis, as it were, where we loyal subjects of Her Majesty can enjoy all the comforts of home.”
“It will certainly be pleasant, after what we’ve been through,” I said. “Going over a tremendous waterfall, for a start.”
“Oh, you went over Thunder Falls, did you?” asked Mr. Thompson.
“That would have been the end of us,” said Weyland, “if Peevish hadn’t been so deft with our improvised propeller. And of course there were the crocodiles before that.”
“Oh, yes, dashed nuisances, the crocodiles,” said Mr. Thompson. “Did you try Romeo and Juliet?”
“King Lear, actually,” said Weyland.
“Ah! Good choice. I shall have to remember that the next time.”
“And then, of course,” I added, “there were the jaguar, the puma or mountain lion or Nittany lion or cougar or panther or catamount, the leopard, the African lion, the Siberian tiger, and the Canada lynx of unusual size.”
“Indefatigable trackers, Siberian tigers,” said Mr. Thompson.
“You forgot our fall from the cliff,” said Weyland.
“Oh, yes, and we fell off a precipice as well,” I added.
“Goodness!” said Mr. Thompson. You have had some adventures, haven’t you?”
“And we narrowly avoided an encounter with a party of savage natives,” said Weyland. “Cannibals, most likely.”
“What, the natives?” Mr. Thompson laughed. “Oh, no, sir, there you have made a bloomer, so to speak.”
“They’re not cannibals?” Weyland asked. “I had heard there were cannibals in this jungle.”
“No, the natives are of the most pacific disposition imaginable,” said Mr. Thompson. “They are mostly vegetarian, in fact, and may be regarded as completely harmless. We are the cannibals. Guards—”
Suddenly I felt myself seized from behind by both arms. Weyland also had been taken in hand by two large and well-dressed gentlemen.
“Take them to the cage and get them ready for dinner,” said Mr. Thompson. “And, Reginald, if you could mix up a batch of that barbecue sauce we liked so well the last time, I’m sure we’d all be very grateful.”
Don’t miss tomorrow’s thrilling episode:
Continuing the adventure that began here.
CHAPTER XI: Tears of the Crocodile.
“As I see it,” said Weyland as he conked a rising beast, “we have two options. One is to be eaten, which I suppose has its advantages, but they seem to me to be outweighed by the disadvantages. The second—how well do you remember your Shakespeare, old man?”
“Tolerably well,” I said, pushing one of the smaller crocodiles away with my oar.
“King Lear, then,” he said, poking a rising reptile in the chest. “I’ll do Lear; you do Cordelia; we’ll split the other parts between us. Follow my lead and we just might have a chance.”
So we began to perform King Lear for the most reptilian audience ever to be invited to an amateur production of Shakespeare. At first the crocodiles continued to attack our boat; but they were soon raptly attentive to our performance. Fortunately Weyland and I remembered the play well from Mrs. Ricketts’ fifth-grade English class. We drifted along in the current, and the beasts drifted along beside us, hundreds of them by now, mesmerized by the flow of iambic pentameter, and twitching their tails expressively with every emotion as the story played out in front of them. When we reached the devastating final act, the crocodiles were so overcome that they began sobbing uncontrollably. I do not think I have ever seen a sadder sight than hundreds of crocodiles, blinded by their own tears, weeping on one another’s shoulders. They ceased to pursue us, however, and with some quick rowing I was able to put a considerable distance between us and our audience before they were able to recover.
“Well done, Peevish,” said Weyland. “Your Cordelia was extraordinarily moving. I don’t believe I have ever seen a finer performance of that role.”
“How did you know it would work?” I asked.
“I trusted you to remember the part from Mrs. Ricketts’ class.”
“I meant how did you know the crocodiles would respond to King Lear the way they did? I was not aware that crocodiles were so susceptible to the dramatic arts.”
“The lachrymosity of the Amazon headwaters crocodile is legendary,” Weyland explained. “It was merely a matter of finding a suitable means of inducing a lachrymose state in the beasts, which King Lear did admirably.”
“Well, except for the crocodiles, which we now know how to handle should the need arise, this is a very pleasant stretch of river.”
And indeed it was. We had left the gorge behind us, and now the river was lined with forest on both sides, alternating with patches of marshy meadow. As the river flowed quietly on its way, the ever-changing spectacle on the banks provided us with ceaseless entertainment.
Suddenly a colorful parrot landed in our boat between us.
“Consolidated Fixture up three and a quarter,” said the parrot.
“It talks!” I exclaimed with delight.
“National Cream Cracker down one-half,” said the parrot.
“Well!” said Weyland, “this is a rara avis indeed. The Amazonian stockbroker parrot has been seen only by a privileged few explorers.”
“Rapid City Electric Traction up one and three quarters,” said the parrot.
“Why does it quote stock figures like that?” I asked.
“Pork Derivatives Corp down one and a half,” said the parrot.
“This species is a perfect demonstration of Darwin’s principle of sexual selection,” Weyland explained. “The male with the best-performing stock portfolio is naturally preferred by the females.”
Suddenly the bird launched itself from the boat. Swooping low over the water, it plucked out a plump fish and flew off toward the bank.
“What a remarkable bird!” I said. “I’ve never seen a parrot that ate fish before.”
“Oh, the parrot doesn’t eat the fish. Do you see where it landed in that tree?”
I did see, and it was a curious sight. The bird had landed in the crook of a branch where a large nest seemed to be under construction. A long and fat snake was in the tree as well, and at first I thought the parrot might become a snake’s dinner. But then I saw that the parrot was actually feeding the fish to the snake.
“Well, that’s very odd,” I said. “I thought the snake would eat the bird, but the bird is feeding it fish! What kind of snake is that?”
“A boa constructor,” said Weyland. “It subsists on a diet of fish, but it is incapable of catching the fish for itself. It therefore is fed by certain species of parrot, in return for which it very skillfully builds their nests for them.”
“Nature is full of wonders,” I remarked.
I had been distracted by the parrot enough that I had not noticed a change in the aspect of the river. The flow was more rapid now, with irregular whirls and eddies here and there.
“We may be heading for a bumpy patch,” said Weyland.
I turned to look ahead of us. There were some rapids ahead: I could see the foaming water, and soon I could hear it as well. I turned to face the rapids and see how best to guide our little boat through them.
“Doesn’t look too bad,” I told Weyland. “I’ve done some whitewater rafting in my time. It’s just a matter of working with the currents.”
“Splendid,” said Weyland. “I’ll leave it to you, then.”
As we came to the first of the rapids, I used the oars to guide the boat neatly through the most suitable channels, avoiding rocks and dangerous spills. I was rather enjoying myself, in fact. The brisk movement, the bracing spray, and the roar of churning water brought back memories of the Youghiogheny back home.
The next set of rapids was a bit more of a challenge, but it was nothing beyond my skill. I had to concentrate on the task at hand, so I spent most of the time worrying about the rocks nearby.
“I say, Peevish,” Weyland shouted over the roaring water, “is it good for the river to be simply disappearing like that?”
I glanced ahead. Some distance downstream, the river vanished from sight.
“Not good at all,” I replied. I frantically paddled sideways, hoping to reach a rock or some other obstruction that would hold us back, but the water swiftly and inexorably carried us over the lip of the falls.
It was probably a fifteen-foot drop, but by good luck and coolheadedness we managed to come down over the roaring cascade and keep going without swamping our boat.
“Well done, Peevish,” Weyland shouted enthusiastically.
“Easy as pie,” I replied, quite proud of myself.
“I imagine this next one should be just as easy,” said Weyland.
Even as he spoke we were flung over the edge of another cascade; but this one, as we could now see, was a cataract hundreds of feet high.
Don’t miss tomorrow’s thrilling episode:
Continuing the adventure that began here.
CHAPTER X: The Gravity of the Situation.
The tiger growled, indicating that it was perhaps not a nice kitty.
“I meant that with the utmost respect, of course,” I added.
The tiger growled again.
A short distance in front of me was a likely-looking branch. The difficulty was that the tiger was also in front of me, and by a distance that was only slightly less short.
Slowly, with as little apparent motion as possible, I reached my right hand out toward the branch.
The tiger snarled and batted at my hand with its paw, narrowly missing me as I hastily withdrew.
Weyland’s voice came from below: “I say, Peevish, purely for my information, is a branch or some such thing likely to be forthcoming in the near future?”
“Working on it,” I replied.
This time I tried a sudden grab for the branch, but the tiger was just as quick, and once again I narrowly missed having my hand julienned by its claws. My only advantage seemed to be that the tiger, not an unintelligent beast, was reluctant to pounce while I was so close to the edge of the cliff.
“Please don’t think I’m complaining,” said Weyland, “but, in addition to everything else, you’ve been dislodging a fair amount of earth, and the clods keep hitting me in the face.”
“Sorry,” I called back. But he had given me a thought. I picked up a clod of dirt and threw it at the tiger, hoping I might distract it enough for me to grasp the branch. The tiger, however, was only enraged by the assault, and my attempt once again nearly ended with a shredded hand.
Finally, in desperation, I feinted with my right hand and grasped the branch with my left. This time I was successful. The tiger was very annoyed, but it was still unwilling to attack while I was so close to the edge of the precipice.
“I have the branch,” I called to Weyland.
“Good job, old man,” he replied. “If at any time in the very near future you should have an opportunity to extend it toward me, I should be most grateful.”
Though I was reluctant to turn my back on the tiger, I had no reasonable choice. Trusting to the tiger’s fear of the precipice, I turned and lay flat on my stomach. Slowly I lowered the branch until my arms were fully extended, which was just enough for Weyland to take hold of the branch. The tiger was growling behind me, but I preferred not to think about that.
“Well, done, Peevish,” said Weyland, and I braced myself for his weight.
Weyland took hold of the branch with one hand, and then let go of the root he had been holding.
Instantly the ground beneath me gave way, and I slipped over the edge with a considerable amount of dirt.
“Oh, well,” said Weyland as we both plummeted toward the river far below, “not your fault. It was a good try. Now I suppose it’s into the river for us.”
“I believe I mentioned before that I’m not much of a swimmer,” I reminded him.
“Hardly matters,” he said. “At this velocity, hitting the surface of the river will be like hitting concrete.”
Fortunately, however, we landed in the little rowboat I had spotted from above instead of in the river, so we were spared the potentially disastrous effects of a high-speed impact with the surface of the water. The pile of dirt that had slipped out from under me came down nearby with a mighty splash, and we saw the branch we had been holding floating gently downstream.
“Stroke of luck, this,” said Weyland as we took stock of our situation.
“It certainly is,” I agreed.
“I can only imagine how wet we should have been had we landed in the water instead. And now we are also spared the effort of constructing a boat.”
In addition to a pair of oars, the boat, which had two plank seats, also contained a hammer, some nails, and a serviceable pocket knife.
“I do hope we’re not depriving another party of explorers of their only transportation,” I remarked.
“A good point, Peevish.” Weyland took a scrap of paper and a mechanical pencil out of his pocket and quickly wrote out a note:
To whom it may concern:
Necessity has compelled us to make use of your boat, but when you are next in Pittsburgh, if you will take this note to the Merchants’ & Usurers’ National Bank, you will be amply compensated for your loss.
“That should take care of it,” said Weyland. He left the note on the sapling to which the boat was tied; then he untied the rope and got back in the boat, and we pushed off.
“Now the route before us is clear,” said Weyland. “We have only to follow the river to its mouth. It should be about three thousand miles, so you might wish to row a little faster, Peevish.”
It was quite pleasant on the serene river, which at this point was flowing through a wide gorge, next to the wall on the left bank, but on the right bordered by a broad flat strip of marsh and grass below the wall of the gorge. The current was not swift, but as I was rowing with it I was able to make good progress downstream. There was enough of a breeze that the tropical heat was not oppressive. Colorful flowers grew in the marsh and meadow, and butterflies were abundant. Birds in every hue of the rainbow, sometimes all on the same bird, flew overhead, making raucous music as they went. The water was so clear that I could see every fish that passed under the boat, and the large toothy reptile as well.
“I just saw an alligator,” I remarked.
“A crocodile, I believe,” said Weyland.
“What’s the difference?”
“Alligators are relatively harmless beasts that hunt fish and small animals singly,” Weyland explained. “Crocodiles hunt in groups, and they have no qualms about attacking larger prey, such as boats.”
Suddenly a hideous reptilian maw festooned with innumerable teeth rose out of the water ahead of us. Instinctively I raised one of the oars and brought it down on the monster with a loud crack. The thing sank back down into the water again.
“Quick thinking, Peevish,” said Weyland.
“Do you think I discouraged it?”
“I think you probably made it very angry,” he said. “But then you noticed I didn’t say it was good thinking.”
There was a sharp jolt: the beast had thrown itself at our boat.
Weyland grasped the oar and held it aloft.
Suddenly the creature rose up on our right. Weyland struck it with his oar, and it sank back into the water again.
“I thought you said that only made it angry,” I said.
“If we had a better weapon, I’d use it.”
“We do have a pocket knife.”
“That might be effective against a pocket crocodile. On your left!”
The reptile rose again, and again I struck it with the oar. But just as it was sinking, another rose out of the water and chomped at the boat. Weyland struck it, and it fell back, but it took a small chunk of wood with it.
“Two of them!” I exclaimed. I pushed the other one away with the oar as it came toward the boat again.
“I believe you mean three,” Weyland said as two of the creatures rose at once behind us. He swatted one of them with his oar, but the second one bit a chunk out of the end before momentarily retiring to spit out the distasteful splinters.
“I don’t think we can handle three,” I said as I smacked at one of the creatures.
“And more on the way,” said Weyland, glancing at a number of reptilian forms headed toward us from the shore, their barely exposed snouts leaving shallow wakes in the placid water. “It appears that we have a serious crocodile infestation. And we’re miles from the nearest exterminator.”
Don’t miss tomorrow’s thrilling episode:
Continuing the adventure that began here.
CHAPTER IX: In the Tiger’s Eye.
“Now what do we do?” I asked Weyland.
“A bit of a curious turn,” he said. “I’ve always been very fond of cats, but not in such quantity or volume.”
“I worry that these cats may be rather too fond of us. They seem to be coming closer.”
“So they do. I can’t help noticing that all six of them seem to be advancing at once. They are closing the circle.”
“I had noticed that myself.”
“Once again, Peevish, I rely on you to take direction. When I say ‘drop,’ I want you to drop on the ground and roll to the right. I shall do the same. Are you ready?”
“I’m ready,” I assured him. “Is there any more to the strategy than that?”
“We’ll worry about that later. Wait for my signal.”
The cats were all very near now. I could feel their breath. I looked into the mesmerizing eyes of the tiger and saw its ravenous hunger. Its hips were beginning to sway back and forth; it was crouching for a pounce.
“Drop!” Weyland shouted.
Instantly I fell on the ground and rolled to my right, ending up on my back, where I had a view of the extraordinary events that occurred in the next two seconds. The lynx had leapt first, but the jaguar leapt almost simultaneously and swallowed the lynx whole; the puma or mountain lion or Nittany lion or cougar or panther or catamount leapt and devoured the jaguar; the leopard, flying through the air at exactly that moment, swallowed the puma (etc.); the lion then immediately devoured the leopard; and the tiger, completing the pounce it had already begun, consumed the lion in one gulp. It landed with a heavy thud, licking its chops.
Weyland quickly made a broad semicircle around the tiger and joined me. “That takes care of five-sixths of our cat problem,” he said.
“Do you have a plan for the remaining sixth?” I asked as the tiger turned to face us again.
“My current plan is to run,” he replied, and we both took off at a very fast clip.
Fortunately the tiger, weighted down by its recent meal, was considerably slower than it might have been otherwise, which gave us a bit more of a chance. In fact we outpaced the beast as long as we kept going, but as soon as we stopped, we would find, after a few minutes, the tiger inexorably gaining on us.
“Dashed nuisance having a Siberian tiger on one’s tail,” Weyland said during one of our stops. “They are indefatigable trackers. They can follow a trail for days. Our only hope is to find the nearest river, construct a serviceable boat, and paddle our way downstream to safety.”
“But wait,” I said, seized by a sudden inspiration. “I think I have an idea. What if we dug a pit? We could make it quite deep, cover it with branches, and make a mat of leaves over the branches, so that the pit became entirely invisible; then we could wait behind it for the beast to approach. We ourselves would be the bait, you see. Then when the tiger came to attack us, it would step on the mat, and its considerable weight would break through the branches. It would fall into the pit, and we should be rid of it.”
“Ah,” said Weyland, “the classic Burmese tiger trap. Well done, Peevish: good thinking. There is only one fatal flaw in your plan, which is that we are being pursued by a Siberian tiger, not a Burmese one.”
“True,” I acknowledged. “I had forgotten. Pity.” I was a little ashamed of myself: it had seemed like such a good plan, but how could I have neglected a point so obvious, and so fatal to any chance of success?
“Meanwhile,” said Weyland, “I believe it is time for us to continue.”
Indeed, we could see the tiger moving toward us through the trees in the distance, so we took off, following Weyland’s general principle of running downhill as much as possible.
I must admit I was beginning to tire. The tropical forest was humid, which made it seem hotter than it was; I was too polite to perspire in Weyland’s company, of course, but the heat induced feelings of fatigue detrimental to the efficiency of my running. When we next paused, I mentioned to Weyland that he might want to go on without me.
“Nonsense, Peevish,” he replied. “You’re essential to me.”
“I’m afraid I’ll only hold you back,” I said. “The world depends on you to defeat Kun and prevent our becoming slaves of the Andorrans. I cannot allow you to fail merely because your misguided loyalty to me caused you to hold back and be consumed by the tiger.”
“But, Peevish, old boy, supposing I did go and defeat the Devil King without you: who would chronicle my adventures?”
“I should think you capable of writing your own memoirs.”
“No one would ever believe me if I wrote about myself, Peevish. These incidents would appear to everyone to be a series of wildly improbable fictions. Only someone as pedestrian and unimaginative as you will be believed.”
“I suppose that is true,” I conceded
“So buck up, Peevish. I have a feeling our situation is about to change. Let’s get going again, as I believe that is our tiger approaching from the north.”
Once again we began to run downhill, and once again we were outpacing the beast as long as we kept going. But a few minutes later we suddenly halted. Weyland’s hand was up again.
I looked ahead and saw the reason for the halt. A party of natives stood not fifty yards away, and they had spotted us.
We turned and ran in the other direction, but there was the tiger behind us.
Making a ninety-degree turn, we ran in a perpendicular direction, glancing behind us frequently. In fact we may have spent more time looking backward than looking forward, which may account for the fact that we did not notice the cliff until we had nearly run right off into space. Weyland stopped just in time, with his feet on the edge of a precipice overlooking a broad river far below.
“That was close, Peevish,” said Weyland.
Suddenly the earth and rock under his feet gave way, and Weyland slipped over the edge.
Just as he was falling, he managed to grasp a root that stuck out from the cliff face. And there he dangled, several feet below the edge of the cliff.
“Do you suppose you could give me a hand?” he asked.
I lay on the ground and leaned out over the edge. The river was far below me: a rowboat moored at the edge of it looked like a child’s toy from our height. I stretched my arm as far down as it would go, but I could not reach Weyland’s hand.
“Perhaps you could fetch a branch,” he suggested.
I pulled myself back from the edge and turned around—and there was the tiger right behind me. I froze in place.
“Don’t want to rush you, old man,” said Weyland, “but I think this root may be giving way.”
“The tiger is right here,” I explained.
“Ah, I see,” came Weyland’s voice from over the cliff. And then, more brightly: “I say, Peevish! When you do come to write that chronicle, this will be an excellent place to end a chapter. A real ‘cliff-hanger,’ eh?”
Don’t miss tomorrow’s thrilling episode:
Continuing the adventure that began here.
CHAPTER VIII. Tooth and Claw.
“I might waste some effort all the same,” I said, pulling at the vines. They were extraordinarily strong, however, and the struggle only served to confirm their hold and my immobility.
“Not to say I told you so, old man,” said Weyland, “but—”
“Yes, I know. What are we going to do?”
“Would you happen to have a pair of pruning shears with you?” he asked.
The vine was very near my neck now. “I’m afraid I left them in my other suit.”
“Then I shall have to try something else.”
For quite some time he was quiet. The vine was tickling under my chin.
“I don’t want to rush you,” I said, “but we may be operating under a certain time constraint.”
“Be very still and very quiet, Peevish,” said Weyland. “What I am about to attempt depends upon your being very still and quiet.”
I followed his instruction, though every instinct pressed me to struggle as the vine crawled past my throat to the side of my neck.
Weyland drew in his breath in a great gulp; then he began to emit a sound—a strange throaty animal howl, rising to a peak and then falling precipitously. I could detect no change in the pressure of the vines, but Weyland repeated the strange noise, and then again, and one more time.
I had despaired of its having any effect when I heard an answering sound from the forest, with the same rising pitch and sudden fall.
Weyland repeated his call; the same answer came from the forest.
The vine had reached the back of my neck by now.
There was a movement in the shadows between the trees.
“Don’t frighten it, Peevish,” said Weyland. “Whatever you do, don’t frighten it. Your life depends on this creature.”
I held still in spite of the tickling of the vine reaching around under my ear.
The movement came closer, and now I could see it: a large snuffling creature, about waist-high and brown like the forest floor. It was approaching slowly, its long and curiously mobile nose snorting along through the leaves.
Weyland made his throaty howl again, and the creature answered him. It accelerated its approach.
“Keep still, Peevish,” Weyland whispered.
The creature snuffled closer. The vine had completely encircled my neck, and I could feel its pressure increasing.
The animal snuffled to my feet. Its mobile nose snorted at the ground. Suddenly it began to dig furiously with its front claws. Leaves and earth flew between its hind legs as the thing rapidly excavated a hole about a foot deep. Then it clearly found what it was looking for. It pulled out a thick and fleshy root, which it bit through in one snap of its jaws.
Instantly the vines that held me slackened their grip and began to slip off my arms and legs. I nearly leaped away from them, but then I remembered Weyland’s admonition to keep still.
The creature continued to chew up the root it had exhumed until nothing was left of it; then it snuffled over to Weyland’s feet and began to dig there. In a short time it had found another root, and as soon as its teeth crunched through the tasty flesh, the vines that held Weyland withered as well.
Weyland sucked in a lungful of air; the vines had already tightened their grip on his neck rather severely. The creature, startled by the noise, skittered backward, then cautiously came forward again just long enough to grasp its unfinished root and run off into the forest with it.
“Well done, Peevish,” said Weyland, still gasping a little. “As I’ve said before, you take directions exceptionally well.”
“What was that thing?” I asked.
“A figroot-eating tapir. They subsist on roots of the genus Ficus, and they are somewhat social creatures, frequently alerting one another to the presence of food by means of a peculiar call, which I did my best to imitate.”
“Well, you certainly succeeded. How did you ever learn to imitate it?”
“My dear Peevish, I won second prize in an amateur figroot-eating-tapir-imitating contest three years ago.”
“Good heavens! You mean there was someone who did it better than you?”
“Oh, yes. Friend of mine. Poor old Murdoch. He was done in by a Japanese throttler honeysuckle, which unfortunately the figroot-eating tapir does not relish. Shall we continue our journey?”
“By all means,” I replied, and we began to walk again. Once again the forest was alive with birdcalls and monkey chatter. “By the way, have you any idea where we’re going?”
“Primarily away from the wreck of the airship, to avoid being captured again; secondarily, to the next stream or river, and then downstream till we meet the Amazon, which we shall follow to its mouth, where we ought to find civilization. By my estimate, we have about three thousand miles to go, but it should all be downhill.”
Since I had no better suggestion, I accepted Weyland’s plan as the best available.
We walked for a few more minutes without any incident, and I had just begun to imagine that the worst might be behind us when Weyland suddenly halted again.
“What is it?” I asked.
“It’s a jaguar,” he replied—“a large and frequently ferocious member of the cat family found throughout the tropical regions of the Western Hemisphere.”
There was a low rumbling growl directly ahead of us, and now I could see the great spotted cat that had previously been hidden in the dappled shade.
“What should we do?” I asked.
“We might consider the possibility of being elsewhere,” Weyland suggested.
We turned and walked briskly in the opposite direction, hoping the jaguar might decide not to pursue us. But we had not gone more than thirty seconds before Weyland stopped again.
“Bit of a complication,” he said.
“What is it?”
“This one is a puma,” he said, “also known as a mountain lion, Nittany lion, cougar, panther, or catamount.”
Another low rumbling growl revealed the location of the cat in question, which was lurking in the shadows just ahead.
“Perhaps,” Weyland continued, “we ought to go in this direction.
He turned ninety degrees to the left and walked off briskly, with me following close behind.
In a short time, he halted again.
“Oddly, this one,” he said, indicating the large spotted cat ahead of us, “appears to be a leopard.”
“How do you tell the difference between a leopard and a jaguar?”
“The leopard is the one that does not belong in the South American jungle,” Weyland explained. “This way, Peevish.”
But we had not gone far before we stopped again.
“African lion,” said Weyland, and the lion roared in confirmation. “Perhaps we ought to go this way.”
That way, however, also led to a dead stop.
“Siberian tiger,” Weyland announced. “Over here.”
He pulled me away yet again, and yet again we came to a quick stop.
“This one,” Weyland said, “appears to be a Canada lynx of unusual size.”
We turned yet again, but the jaguar was right behind us. Another turn brought us face to face with the Siberian tiger. No matter which way we turned, in fact, a ferocious cat blocked our way. We wee surrounded by a ring of claws and teeth.
Don’t miss tomorrow’s thrilling episode:
Continuing the adventure that began here.
CHAPTER VII. Jungle of Green Death.
The forces trying to pull me away from the cable I clung to were extraordinary. I was whipped this way and that for I know not how long as the airship shot across the sky with countless zigzags and loops.
At last, with an indescribably flatulent sound, the gas bag gave up the last of its goesuppium, and the long wild ride seemed to be over.
“Now,” said Weyland, “it may get a bit bumpy.”
Almost immediately the gondola began to plummet, trailing the spent gas bag like a streamer. The trajectory varied but settled into a steep descent toward what appeared to be lush green forest. Very soon we hit the top branches, and Weyland and I were flung from the gondola.
Luckily we were tossed into the branches of a cottonwood tree, whose luxuriously soft wood cushioned the impact like a down mattress.
“Well,” said Weyland when we had recovered our breath, “I’d say that turned out a good deal better than it might have done.”
“Where do you suppose we are?” I asked, carefully picking my way toward the massive trunk of the tree.
“Headwaters of the Amazon, I’d say.”
“Good heavens! That far?”
“The peculiar pattern of veins in this leaf,” said Weyland, picking a leaf off the branch, “marks this as an Amazon Headwaters Cottonwood, which grows only in this one area of the world.”
“Well, I won’t argue with a cottonwood.”
“And now, Peevish, I suggest we descend to the ground, but with the utmost care. Not only have we Miss Kun and her clerical goons to worry about, but it is said that this jungle is infested by particularly vicious and intractable cannibals.”
“So it is said by the few surviving explorers. I, for one, have no desire to end up in someone’s chowder, so I suggest we proceed with appropriate caution.”
We began by carefully descending the tree, which was rendered difficult by the soft and yielding nature of its branches. Fortunately the tree was festooned with vines of every description, which formed themselves into serviceable ladders; and in a few minutes we had reached the comparative dimness of the forest floor.
The jungle was a vast cathedral, with trees for columns and their lofty branches for a roof. Most of it was open space between the trees, except where a tree had fallen and opened up a space in the canopy; then a riot of vines, bushes, saplings, and flowers rushed in and grasped madly at the rays of sunlight.
“It’s a beautiful place,” I remarked as we strolled along on the soft carpet of decaying leaves.
“Beautiful but deadly,” said Weyland. “You never know where sudden death may be lurking. That scarlet Peruvian death viper, for example—most venomous reptile on the planet. One bite will kill you, revive you, and kill you again. That’s now deadly it is.”
I stopped in my tracks and gaped at the bright red serpent in the leaves not six feet away from me.
“Oh, don’t worry, Peevish,” Weyland continued. “It won’t strike unless provoked.”
“What provokes it?” I asked nervously.
“Well, I wouldn’t insult its sister if I were you. And don’t mention the border dispute with Ecuador.”
Cautiously we resumed our stroll, making sure to express no opinions on border issues. The snake remained lazily sprawled on the ground behind us, its flicking tongue the only sign that it had taken any notice of us.
It was noisy all around us with the bird calls and monkey chatter one usually expects from a tropical forest. Our footsteps were quiet but audible among all the other sounds—a fact that hardly registered in my mind until Weyland suddenly held up his hand in front of me. We stopped, and he put his finger to his lips.
I stopped and listened. The birds had ceased to shriek, and the monkeys were no longer chattering. My own breathing had nearly ceased as well. I could sense something ominous in the jungle.
Weyland gestured for me to follow him. As silently as we could, we made our way to one of the thickets of bushes and vines where a mighty tree had fallen, and there we hid ourselves among the leaves so that we could see out through small gaps in the vegetation but were not ourselves visible, or at least so we hoped.
For some time I saw nothing, and more ominously I heard nothing. The forest, which had been raucous with all the calls of the creatures that inhabited it, was now eerily silent. Then I began to hear a sound. It was indistinct at first, but as it grew in volume I suddenly realized, with a sickening drop in my stomach, that it was the sound of many feet.
Soon we could see the feet, and the bodies attached to them as well. A mixed party of natives had come into view. They were copper-fleshed and black-haired, and they seemed to regard clothing as a nuisance to be applied as sparingly as possible. They marched forward with a silent purposefulness that chilled my blood. I held my breath as they came within only a few yards of my position. But they passed us without detecting us, and when I could no longer hear their footsteps, I resumed something like normal breathing. I kept still for a while longer, however, not daring to dove quite yet.
At last Weyland spoke in a low voice. “Well, Peevish, it looks as though we just narrowly avoided ending up in somebody’s pot.”
“Do you think it’s safe now?”
“We are never safe until the Devil King is stopped. But I believe we can move on without immediate risk.”
I willed myself to step out of the thicket, but nothing happened. I pulled harder, but my arms and legs were bound in place by vines.
“I seem to be stuck,” I announced. And more worryingly, the vines were visibly growing up my arms.
“Strangler figs!” exclaimed Weyland. “They’ve got me, too! Don’t struggle, Peevish. If you move, the vines will climb up to your neck and throttle you.”
“What happens if I don’t move?”
“The vines will climb up to your neck and throttle you.”
“How is that better?” I demanded as a tendril reached my shoulder.
“I didn’t say it was better. I just thought I’d spare you some wasted effort. Either way, you die.”
Don’t miss tomorrow’s thrilling episode:
Continuing the adventure that began here.
CHAPTER VI. Prisoners of the Air.
“Oh, my dear Mr. Weyland, I have a long list. But in broad outline, we are headed for Andorra, where I can turn you over to my father after I have enjoyed myself sufficiently.” Miss Kun came nearer and joined us at the window. “It’s my father’s own invention, this airship. Isn’t it pretty up here?“
“You said this one was yours,” I remarked, watching the sun rise over the increasingly distant earth. “Does that mean your father has one as well?”
“Oh, Mr. Peevish, he has a whole fleet of airships. When they are unleashed from their secret ports around the world, the Andorran Air Navy will rule the skies. Since my father’s discovery of large deposits of goesuppium gas in the Pyrenees, we have been silently building up our air power. We now have a larger fleet of airships than Monaco, San Marino, Liechtenstein, and the Maritime Republic of Eastport put together.”
“Impressive,” said Weyland. “But you will be stopped.”
“You speak very confidently for a man about to be locked up in a cell,” said Miss Kun. “Priests! Take these men and lock them up in a cell.”
Two priests with revolvers appeared beside us and indicated that we should precede them.
“Farewell for now, gentlemen,” said Miss Kun. “I am very much looking forward to the fun we shall have when we reach Andorra.”
We were conducted through a small dining room into a short hallway, and thence pushed into a small room with two chairs and a table bolted to the floor. The door was locked behind us, and there was nothing to see but white walls, floor, ceiling, and table and chairs,—and of course Weyland, who was not looking as unhappy as I felt.
“I say,” he said, “what an extraordinary woman!”
“A fiend incarnate, I replied.”
“Yes, but a dashed attractive one. As fiends incarnate go.”
“I hope you of all people haven’t fallen under her spell,” I said gloomily.
“Under her spell? Certainly not. But still, the”—he made a gesture at chest level—“and the”—another gesture at hip level—“and, well, you can’t tell me you didn’t notice, Peevish, old man, because I won’t believe you at all.”
“I’ve always preferred brunettes,” I mumbled.
“Oh, give me a redhead every time,” said Weyland. “Especially one with fire in her veins. I like that in a woman.”
“So is our plan just to see what she does to us when we get to Andorra?” I asked, probably in a rather surly tone.
“Certainly not. My plan is to escape long before that, and I have a fair notion of how to do it.”
This was more like the Norbert Weyland I knew. “What can I do to help?”
“They have to feed us sometime,” he said. “I propose we use the tried-and-true prisoner’s strategy: we wait till the guard comes in with the food, and then we conk him over the head.”
“What will we conk him with?”
“Have you got a tire iron or a baseball bat or a fireplace poker in one of your pockets?”
“I’m afraid not,” I admitted.
“Then I’ll have to use my bare hands,” said Weyland. “It will help, of course, that I am a black belt in Ju Jube.”
“And what shall we do after we disable the guard?”
“Then, of course, we simply take over the airship, land it at the nearest aerodrome, and turn over our prisoners to the properly constituted local authorities.”
“Sounds simple enough. Now all we need to do is wait.”
“How about states and former capitals?” Weyland suggested, referring to a game we used to play to while away the time in biology class.
“West Virginia,” I said.
“Wheeling,” he replied. “Pennsylvania.”
“Tricky: Philadelphia and Lancaster. Virginia.”
“No,” I said. “I always trip you up with that one. Jamestown was the capital of the colony, but never of the state. Williamsburg is the only other capital the state has ever had, unless you count Wheeling as the capital of Unionist Virginia during the early part of the Civil War, which I would also have accepted.”
“Are you absolutely sure about Jamestown? Oh, well, you were always better at this game than I was. I concede the point. Your serve.”
I fell silent at once. A key was entering the lock.
Weyland silently took his position against the wall by the door, and I sat at the table attempting to look as nonchalant as possible.
The door swung open, and a head appeared in the doorway.
Immediately Weyland leaped and brought the edge of his hand down on the back of the man’s head.
There was a loud singing clang.
“Here’s your breakfast,” said the priest in the doorway, and he set a covered tray down on the table. Then he turned to Weyland. “You know, I might have resented that if I hadn’t been wearing my conkproof helmet.” He left and locked the door.
“Well,” said Weyland, “we tried our best.”
“Did you hurt your hand?” I asked with some concern. It had been a very loud clang.
“It does smart a bit. What’s for breakfast?”
I lifted the lid from the tray, disclosing a very tempting selection of pastries.
“Ah!” said Weyland. “Perhaps all turned out for the best after all. Eat up, Peevish, old boy. We’ll need the calories for our next attempt.”
We shared the Andorran pastries between us while Weyland detailed his alternate escape plan.
“Have you noticed, Peevish, that this entire ship is very lightly constructed?”
“Well, that door seems sturdy enough,” I observed.
“Yes, but the ceiling seems quite flimsy. If there’s not another layer above it, we might be able to punch through it with something hard and sharpish. Are your car keys still in your pocket?”
“They went down with the Nash, I’m afraid. But I did keep my apartment key on a separate chain.” I produced the key from my pocket.
“Bravo, Peevish! Finish that tart, and let’s see what use we can make of your key.”
I soon found myself standing on the small table with my key in my hand. It surprised me to find that Weyland was entirely correct: the ceiling was made of a very thin and light material, almost like cardboard, and the key poked right through it when I applied some pressure. By sawing up and down with the jagged edge, I was able to make a cut in the ceiling through which I could see daylight.
“Make sure you cut a neat rectangular hole,” said Weyland.
“Why?” I asked as I continued cutting in a straight line.
“Because a thing ought to be done well or not at all,” he replied. “Keep going—you’re making excellent progress.”
It took the better part of an hour, but at last a neat rectangular section of the ceiling came down. A fresh breeze filled the room, and above me I could see the bottom of the great gas bag from which the habitable portion of Miss Kun’s airship was suspended.
“Well done, Peevish,” said Weyland. “Now we’re going up, and we shall have to be very careful to walk only on the structural members rather than on the ceiling itself. Then we shall find Miss Kun’s control room and, so to speak, drop in unannounced. You first, Peevish.”
I carefully hoisted myself up to the roof, trying to put most of my weight only on the cross members rather than the insubstantial ceiling. It was rather terrifying up there, I must say, with the great gas bag above me and a view of miles of very hard-looking ground thousands of feet below me.
Weyland soon appeared beside me, and we carefully made our way along one row of the thick cables that suspended the gondola from the gas bag.
“It ought to be here,” Weyland said after we had walked about thirty feet, steadying ourselves by holding the cables.
But then there was a quick gust of wind, just enough to jolt the gondola a little and throw Weyland off balance. He tried to steady himself, but his foot slipped and punched straight through the roof below him. He withdrew it quickly, but through the hole I could see Miss Kun and two very surprised priests.
“Don’t shoot, you moron!” I heard her say. But even as she was speaking, a shot rang out. Weyland was rolling out of the way, but the bullet, missing him, punctured the gas bag above us.
Instantly there was an infernal noise of rushing gas, and the airship suddenly jolted backward. While Weyland and I clung to the cables, the ship described a madly irregular path across the sky, quickly accelerating to hundreds of miles per hour as the gas jetted out of the puncture at incredible pressure.
“Hang on, Peevish!” Weyland shouted to me. “Your only hope of salvation is to hang on!”
“Believe me,” I shouted back, “no other course of action had even occurred to me!”
Don’t miss tomorrow’s thrilling episode:
Continuing the adventure that began here.
CHAPTER V. In the Hands of the Devil Princess.
“The Archbishop,” Miss Kun replied, “has gone to a better place.”
“You’ve killed him?” I asked incredulously.
“He’s on retreat in Wilkes-Barre,” she replied, “which is a much better place for him than here at the moment.” She dropped the robe in a puddle of fabric on the floor, and we could see that she was a very fit young woman, thanks to the iridescent red fabric that outlined every line and curve of her flesh. “I have taken charge of the archdiocese in his absence. Every suffragan bishop, every parish priest, every deacon and sexton and church secretary is now under my command, which means that they are all now in my father’s employ.”
“You fiend in human form!” Weyland hissed.
Miss Kun began to approach him. “I take that as a very high compliment, Mr. Weyland. And my father has told me a great deal about you.”
“Indeed?” said Weyland. He was maintaining a defiant stance, but I knew him well enough to discern that he was not immune to the beauty of the Devil Princess.
“He has always told me that the members of the non-Andorran race are merely stupid,” she said as she stopped right in front of him, her face rather nearer his than etiquette would usually suggest on such short acquaintance. “But he always made one important exception.”
“He flatters me,” said Weyland.
“Indeed he does. ‘Most of the non-Andorran race are merely stupid,’ he always told me, ‘but Norbert Weyland is stupid and lucky.’ ”
“l do my best,” Weyland said.
Her lips were very near his. “My father is eager to speak with you in person.”
“I’ve been hoping to catch up with him as well.”
“However,” she continued, “he has kindly consented to allow me to play with you for a while, as long as I don’t damage you too badly.”
Her lips touched his very briefly, but before he could react she drew back and laughed.
“I suppose he’ll be satisfied if you can answer simple yes-or-no questions,” she said, walking back toward the middle of the room. She turned to face Weyland again. “That still leaves me plenty of room to amuse myself. You’ll be surprised. I have a very creative mind.”
“Suppose he doesn’t want to be your plaything,” I said. Weyland looked almost surprised by the idea, but I continued. “Suppose he decides to leave. I see two of us and only one of you.”
“Oh, Mr. Peevish,” said the Devil Princess, “you are amusing. I think I shall play with you a little, too, and I shall not be obliged to leave you in speaking condition. I hate having limits put on my fun. To answer your question, I have but to summon my loyal priests, which can be done with a mere snap of my fingers, thus activating the wireless relay in my ring. Before you could go two feet, they would be here, and they are very well armed.” She turned again and walked back to the window. “You see, then, why I expect no trouble from you. I rely on your sense of self-preservation, a quality usually possessed even by non-Andorrans.”
While her back was turned, Weyland whispered to me, “I am about to try something rather diabolically clever, though desperate. Be ready to follow my lead.”
“So, gentlemen,” Miss Kun continued, “I suppose I could entertain you by telling you all the details of my father’s plan, but I doubt whether your puny non-Andorran minds could follow me. But I think you will be impressed by the broad outline. We now control the entire archdiocese.” She waved a hand at the window as if to indicate the entire darkened landscape beyond. “With the archdiocese comes the entire Mid-Atlantic region. With the Mid-Atlantic comes the capital. With the capital comes domination of the North American continent. With North America as his base, my father will be able to control St.-Pierre and Miquelon, and from there he will be able to infiltrate the French Republic.”
“But wouldn’t it be easier to get to France directly from Andorra?” I asked.
She sighed. “I didn’t expect your small minds to understand.”
“I think I see it,” said Weyland. “By approaching France through her North American possessions,—” Suddenly he pointed to the far corner of the room. “WHAT’S THAT OVER THERE?”
Miss Kun looked away from us, and Weyland ran for a side door, with me close behind him. We were almost through the door before we heard the Devil Princess speak again.
“What do you mean? I see nothing but— Priests!”
Just as we slammed the door behind us, we heard the sound of her snapping her fingers.
Weyland and I found ourselves in a library, and we managed to move a heavy bookcase in front of the door just before pounding began from the other side. We also heard Miss Kun’s voice berating her guards in language I should not have considered suitable for a young lady.
“It’s only a matter of time before they remember they have guns,” I said. “What now?”
“Perhaps in there,” said Weyland. He indicated a panel in the wall where the bookcase had been—a panel that was slightly ajar.
“A secret passage!” I whispered.
“It would hardly be a proper palace without a secret passage,” Wevland said. “I suggest you grab that remarkably convenient flashlight on the shelf, and let’s find out where it leads.”
I picked up the flashlight he indicated, and we opened the panel and stepped into the darkness. I turned on the flashlight, and Weyland closed the door behind us.
Stone steps curved down between cold but dry stone walls. We stepped down about two storeys’ worth, and then the steps ended and we found a level passage before us. We heard nothing behind us, so we kept going until the passage suddenly expanded into a broad chamber. The narrow beam of light from the flashlight was reflected in something metallic and gold.
“This may help,” said Weyland. There was a click, and the room was flooded with light. Weyland had found a wall switch.
Unimaginable treasures lay before us. It was a vast chamber filled with gold and silver objects in untidy stacks, along with a few boxes of glittering gems.
“The legendary Lost Treasure of the Archbishops!” Weyland exclaimed.
“No wonder there was a secret passage,” I remarked. “What should we do?”
“Keep going, Peevish. In my time I’ve seen quite a few lost treasures, and I’ve learned it’s best not to let them distract you. Just be careful not to trip over a priceless artifact.”
We carefully picked our way through mounds of statues and platters and tapestries and chests full of jewelry, until on the other side of the chamber we reached another stairway going up.
“If my calculations are correct,” said Weyland, “we should be directly under the fourth hole of the Archbishop’s private golf course.”
At the top of the stairs was a trap door that pulled downward, and above that, oddly, another trap door that pushed upward.
We ascended through the two trap doors and found ourselves in a chamber with windows along two sides and, even more oddly, a ship’s wheel in front of the far windows, through which dawn was just beginning to break.
“Well, that’s very odd,” said Weyland. “I’m absolutely sure this is where the fourth hole was, and I’m quite positive there was no structure on the fourth hole when I last played golf with the Archbishop.”
“Quite correct,” said the voice of the Devil Princess. She had appeared behind us with four of her gun-toting priests, apparently from a connecting chamber.
“You mean you built this thing on the Archbishop’s golf course?” asked Weyland, apparently horrified by the idea of such desecration.
“No,” she said. “I mean that I landed my own private air yacht on the fourth hole, and you have very conveniently found your way into it, as I expected you would. Have a look out the window, if you like.” When we hesitated, she added, “I insist,” and the priests made gestures with their guns to indicate that we ought to oblige her.
Weyland and I walked a few steps over to the windows and looked out. We were already several hundred feet in the air, and the ground was rapidly dropping away.
Don’t miss tomorrow’s thrilling episode:
Continuing the adventure that began here.
CHAPTER IV. Pit of Despair.
“Perhaps it won’t come to that,” said Weyland. “Have you a flat-blade screwdriver, by any chance?”
“Never travel without one,” I replied. “It’s in the glove box.”
Weyland opened the glove box and tossed out mounds of gloves. Meanwhile I steered around a dump truck that was cautiously making its way down the hill, narrowly missing a De Soto in the left lane. Horns blared, but I was not in a position to slow down and apologize.
“Found it,” Weyland announced. “Lift your feet, Peevish. And mind that Hudson up ahead.”
I swerved and avoided the slow-moving Hudson while Weyland awkwardly positioned himself on the floor. I lifted my feet as high as I could for him while he made ripping and clanking noises underneath me. I had no opportunity to see what he was up to: I had to keep my eye on the obstacles in front of me, and I could only see bits of carpet flying up into the passenger seat with my peripheral vision.
“Almost there,” said Weyland as a piece of flooring clanged on the passenger seat.
I could see the cloud of steam ahead, illuminated by the orange glow of the lava pit. We would be there in seconds.
“Brace yourself, Peevish,” said Weyland.
Suddenly the brakes made a mighty screeching noise, and I was jolted forward with such force that I might have flown through the windshield had I not been bracing myself against the steering wheel. The car jumped the curb at the curve and screeched to a halt just a foot or two from the edge of the lava pit.
I looked over at Weyland. He had some sort of tube in his mouth, and he was emphatically gesturing at me to get out of the car. I quickly opened the door and jumped out, and then stepped back a respectful distance from the lava pit.
A moment later the car lurched forward again. I nearly tried to stop it, but just before it rolled into the lava, Weyland appeared from the other side, breathing a bit heavily but otherwise in good shape. The Nash continued into the lava pit and sank with a good bit of hissing and burbling, until the only sign of it was a few glowing orange bubbles.
“Sorry about the Nash,” Weyland said between breaths. “Still, it could have been worse. You could have had a Pierce-Arrow.”
“How did you stop us?” I asked, still a bit shaken.
“Oh, simplest thing in the world, old boy,” said Weyland, breathing more normally. “I merely ripped the carpet up and used the screwdriver to pry up the floor panel; then I found the severed ends of the brake lines and was able to blow into them with enough pressure to activate the brakes very effectively. Fortunately my mother insisted that I take tuba lessons when I was young. I could not see the use of them in those days, but I am very grateful for the breath power they developed.”
“As am I,” I agreed. “But now it appears we’ll have to find some other means of transportation.”
Weyland looked down toward the nearby intersection with Palace Street and pointed. “That should do nicely, don’t you think?”
I followed his finger. He was pointing to a well-lighted streetcar safety island in the middle of Palace Street.
“I’d forgotten about the Palace Street line,” I said. “In fact, I’m not sure whether I ever knew about it at all.”
We walked quickly over to the Lava Pit stop, as it was marked on the sign, and in less than a minute a clanging bell announced the arrival of a trolley car marked 165 ARCHBISHOP’S PALACE.
“Well, that’s convenient,” I remarked.
“Just what we need at the moment,” said Weyland.
The car rolled to a stop right beside us, and the doors opened. We walked up the steps and found the car otherwise empty.
“No trouble finding a seat, at least,” said Weyland, installing himself on the front seat right behind the motorman’s compartment.
“There doesn’t seem to be a farebox,” I remarked, sitting next to him.
The doors closed, and with three crisp clangs of its bell the car started to move down the track.
“No motorman, either,” said Weyland, pointing to the empty motorman’s chair. “Must be a new automated model. It’s remarkable what they can do with vacuum tubes these days.”
The car was running quite rapidly now, and still accelerating. The ride was smooth; the tracks were set in a street of what appeared to be freshly laid concrete.
“I can’t help noticing,” Weyland continued, “that there appear to be no other vehicles on the road.”
“Well, it is very late,” I pointed out.
“True. Or early, depending on one’s point of view.”
The car was still accelerating, now rocketing through the night like an express train rather than an ordinary trolley car.
“I suppose we’ll get there expeditiously at least,” I remarked as the bell clanged again.
“Peevish,” Weyland said cautiously, “does it strike you as at all odd?”
“What do you think is odd?” I asked, though I admit I was beginning to have some similar thoughts.
“I mean that we found a trolley stop when you had no memory of a line’s existing at that location, and that it is controlled by some automated mechanism unfamiliar to us, and that there have so far been no intermediate stops, and that, from what I can see in the headlight, there appears to be no track on the other side of the street, as if no provision had been made for a return journey?”
I had been worried about the same things, and it was no comfort to me at all to know that Weyland had noticed them as well. “What do you conclude from these observations?” I asked him.
“I conclude that the United Street Railway Company must be a very queer organization,” Weyland replied.
The car made the left turn on Palace Avenue, hardly slowing at all; Weyland and I had to grip the seat to stay upright.
“Won’t be long now,” Weyland remarked. Then he fell silent again, and the car raced along the avenue for about a minute and a half, until it made a quick right turn on Palace Drive. Here it began to slow down, and soon it rolled to a stop right in front of the gate to the Archbishop’s palace.
The doors opened, and the interior lights were extinguished.
“End of the line, it seems,” said Weyland.
We stood up and walked down the steps, and then headed toward the gate.
Suddenly a bank of floodlights lit up, and we could see that we were surrounded by half a dozen men with machine guns. The machine guns were the first thing I noticed. After that, I noticed that the men were all wearing black cassocks and clerical collars.
“State cher business,” said one of the men in a gravelly voice.
Weyland and I glanced at each other, and then Weyland said, “We’ve come with important information for the Archbishop.”
“Norbert Weyland and John Peevish,” Weyland replied.
The man lifted a radio to his face. “Two guys what wants to see the Archbishop,” he said into the radio. “Names Weyland and Peevish.”
Some crackling came out of the speaker, and then a distorted female voice said, “Send them in.”
The men all lowered their machine guns, and the one who had spoken to us said, “Yinz guys can come with me.”
He led us through the gate, and we began the long walk up the well-lighted drive toward the Tudor-style mansion ahead of us.
“We haven’t been properly introduced,” Weyland said conversationally as we walked. “You know our names, but may I ask yours?”
“Yinz guys can just call me Father O’Malley,” our clerical guide responded.
“I don’t believe I’ve met you before,” said Weyland. “Have you worked for the Archbishop long?’
“I just discerned a vocation for security a week ago.”
“Oh, I see. A lot of demand for security in the Archdiocese?”
“Can’t be too careful these days,” said Father O’Malley.
“Oh, I certainly agree with you there,” said Weyland.
We came to the front door, and there was a brief radio conversation before the door opened to admit us. Behind it was another man in a cassock, this one with a prominent shoulder holster. He had nothing to say as he and Father O’Malley conducted us through the grand foyer, past two similarly becassocked men who looked vigilant and threatening, into the Archbishop’s receiving room, a large and elegant chamber with exposed beams, walnut paneling, and books along all four walls.
At the other end of the chamber the Archbishop was standing with his back to us, looking out the window, splendid in his archiepiscopal robe and miter.
“These is the guys what wanted to see you,” Father O’Malley announced.
The Archbishop made a dismissive gesture, and the security priests turned and walked out, closing the door behind them.
“Glad to find you in, Archbishop,”said Weyland. “I’ve come to warn you that Kun is on the move, and we have reason to believe he plans to take over the Archdiocese.”
A feminine voice replied, “It’s a bit late for that.”
The figure in the window slowly turned to face us; the hands rose and lifted off the miter, and a cascade of beautiful red hair spilled down her shoulders. The archbishop’s robe was open in the front, and under it was a very feminine form outlined in tight-fitting red.
“Who are you?” Weyland demanded.
“I represent my father’s interests here,” the woman replied. “You may call me Miss Kun if you like. Or you may follow the Andorran custom and call me the Devil Princess. But of course, like all men under my control, you will eventually call me Mistress.”
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Continuing the adventure that began here.
CHAPTER III. Up in Flames.
The flames had run up the baseboard on both sides of the hall, and one doorframe and a patch of wall were already on fire. Worse still, irregular lines of fire crossed the floor in both directions, blocking any hope of an exit. The heat was intense, and the smoke was becoming a serious inconvenience. It was hard to see anything more than two feet ahead of us.
“Is there a fire extinguisher?” Weyland asked.
I pointed to the fire extinguisher on the wall. It was on fire.
“Nuisance,” Weyland said. “Their usual technique, though. Weeks before they torch a place, they replace all the fire extinguishers with wooden replicas.”
“How did they know they would start a fire here?”
“The Devil King is very forward-thinking,” said Weyland. “Well, Peevish, it looks as though we’re trapped. I’m not one to give up easily, but perhaps it’s time to admit defeat. I’ve got a couple of very good cigars I’ve been saving for an occasion like this. You wouldn’t happen to have a lighter, would you?”
“Sorry,” I told him. “I’ve never smoked.”
“Ah, well, not meant to be, I suppose. As the French say, that’s life. If only— But wait a moment! What’s that?”
He was pointing at a rectangular box on the wall a few feet away, just barely visible through the thickening smoke. As we approached, we saw that it was a box with a glass front, through which we could see an axe suspended from a bracket. On the glass in large red letters were the words IN CASE OF FIRE.
“A fireman’s axe!” Weyland exclaimed. “Oh, if we only had some way of getting it out of that box!”
I pointed out a smaller glass-fronted box to the right. Behind its glass we could see a hammer on a hook. On the glass were red letters spelling out the words IN CASE OF NEED FOR AXE TO LEFT.
“Splendid!” cried Weyland. “Peevish, give me your shoe.”
I removed my left shoe, and with one smart rap with the heel Weyland shattered the glass in front of the hammer. He removed the hammer from its hook and swung it at the glass in front of the axe. Meanwhile, I slipped my foot back into my shoe.
“Now we’ve got something to work with!” said Weyland, hoisting the axe. “Follow me, Peevish!”
He swung the axe at the base of the flames blocking our way in the hall. The sharp blade sliced through them neatly, and the amputated flames clattered to the floor, stone cold now that they were cut off from their fuel.
“Nothing like a fireman’s axe for dealing with a fire,” said Weyland as he chopped his way down the hall. The cold severed flames crunched under our feet as Weyland cut a broad path through them, and in short order we made it to the door at the end of the hall.
“I suppose I ought to have asked this earlier,” said Weyland, “but should we be trying to rescue some of the other tenants?”
“No worry there,” I told him. “I’m the only tenant. For some reason the rest all moved away after the last time you visited.”
“Oh dear,” said Weyland as he used the axe to scrape the flames off the door. “I hope they didn’t blame you for the flood and the musk oxen and the skunk cabbage. That was all my doing, I’m afraid.” He opened the door to the garage.
Fortunately the flames had not yet reached my car, a dark grey Nash sedan that tended to blend into the shadows.
“There’s the old girl,” said Weyland—“the most unremarkable car in the city. If any car can get us to the Archbishop’s palace undetected, this is the one. Peevish, get the garage door open, and——”
The garage door suddenly caught fire and rapidly burned to ash.
“Oh—well, that’s convenient. Into the car, then, and let’s get going.”
I unlocked the passenger side door first and held it open for Weyland; then I walked around to the driver’s side and sat down behind the wheel. We started forward and drove out of the garage just as the roof was falling in.
“Well,” said Weyland, “it looks as though Kun’s dastardly little plot is foiled. To the Archbishop’s palace, Peevish, and don’t spare your straight six—we need all the velocity we can get.”
“Which way are we going?” I asked.
“Up Palace Road to the top, then down Palace Boulevard, right on Palace Street and left on Palace Avenue, then turn in at Palace Drive.”
“Sounds easy enough,” I said as we started up the long grade at the beginning of Palace Road. “So how does the Archbishop fit into all this?”
“Kun needs a power base in our country. How better to gain one than by taking over the one organization that permeates every layer of society in the consolidated metropolitan statistical area? The Archdiocese, Peevish—control that and you control every parish, not only here but in the suffragan sees as well. Control every parish, and you control every parish festival. You see now why the Archdiocese is the key to the whole Mid-Atlantic region.”
“Good heavens! I hadn’t thought of it that way.”
“That’s because you’re not an Andorran, Peevish. Andorra is ruled by two princes, and one of them is a bishop. It is natural for an Andorran to think of an episcopal see as the seat of all power. And I shudder to think what Kun might attempt if he has the Archdiocese under his thumb.”
“But surely the Archbishop would never cooperate with him,” I said.
“Ah, Peevish, you have led a sheltered life, except of course for the musk oxen and the skunk cabbage. So you have no idea how easy it is to make unwilling men cooperate. A simple appeal to his baser instincts would never work, since of course archbishops have no baser instincts. But what cannot be accomplished by cajoling can be accomplished by threats, and what cannot be accomplished by threats can be accomplished by—for want of a better word—potions.”
“Some of them controlled substances with trademarked names. Kun is both a licensed pharmacist and a doctor of osteopathy with prescribing privileges.”
“Good lord,” I mumbled, once again astonished by the sheer breadth of our adversary’s evil.
“He is also a world-class badminton player, an accordion player of international repute, an amateur cobbler of some skill, and a professor of macrame at the Community College of Andorra la Vella. It is difficult to find a discipline in which he does not excel, and in every endeavor he seeks only the advancement of the Andorran race, and its entire domination of every other nation.”
By this time we had reached the top of the long hill, and I turned right on Palace Boulevard and began the equally long descent.
“That includes the accordion?” I asked.
“Especially the accordion. He is without doubt the most devious tactical accordionist in the world. It is a branch of the martial sciences not much studied by the current generation of military planners, but now that Kun and his Andorran hordes have erupted, they ignore it at their peril. —I say, Peevish, aren’t you going a bit fast?”
“You did tell me not to spare the straight six.”
“Yes, but don’t forget there’s a sharp curve at the bottom of this hill, and directly behind it is the Palace Boulevard Lava Pit, that famous local curiosity.”
“True,” I said. “I’ll slow down a bit.”
I stepped on the brake.
The pedal went all the way to the floor, my foot meeting no resistance. The car continued to accelerate down the hill. I tried again and again, but with no more effect.
“Not that I want to criticize your driving, Peevish,” said Weyland, “but that lava pit is rather hot, from what I’ve seen of it.”
“The brakes won’t work!” I told him, stomping on the pedal.
“The fiends! They must have cut the lines! There’s no hope of missing the lava pit at this speed! Well, Peevish, I hope you can swim.”
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