Posts filed under “Novels”
NOT DEAD YET.
“His name is Billy,” I told her. The look on her face was saying she needed more information than that. “He sort of…followed me.”
“Wow!” Billy said. “This is your secretary? She’s a knockout!”
“Hey, I like him already,” Betty said. “Can we keep him?”
“I don’t know if we have a choice,” I replied.
“So when do I start doing sidekicky things?” Billy asked.
“Well,” I said, trying to think what a sidekick could do, “I suppose you could take out the trash.”
“Don’t tell him that,” Betty said. “You’ll end up on the curb. Anyway, I’ve got some interesting news for you.”
“What’s that?” Billy and I both asked at once.
“The Archbishop of Canterbury is in town.”
“I thought you told me he was on the other side of the Atlantic,” I said.
“Well, he usually is, but he came over for some sort of convention or something. It was in the Dispatch.”
“Can you get me an appointment?”
“Not likely, but I’m trying.”
“Say,” said Billy, “who’s this Canterbury guy? Some bigshot gangster?”
“Oh, you’re adorable!” Betty exclaimed. “You’ll fit right in around here.”
“The Archbishop of Canterbury,” I explained patiently, “is the head of the whole Tanglican Church.”
“Anglican,” Betty said.
“That’s what I said. More or less. Anyway, he visits sick people and reads them magazine articles. But he’s also a big collector of picks.”
“Oh, you mean like what paleontologists use?” Billy asked.
“You don’t have to make words up. It’s okay if you don’t know what I’m talking about. I mean like what you play a guitar or banjo or mandolin with.”
“Oh,” said Billy. “Like stamp collecting, but not with stamps.”
“People collect stamps?” Maybe he was making that up, too. “Well, never mind that. Our big job today is to look for old man Pifler.”
“Right you are, boss. You look in the closet; I’ll look under the desk.”
I smiled a condescending smile. “I don’t think it’s going to be that simple.”
“Found him,” said Billy, raising his head from under the desk.
“What?” I stooped and looked under the desk. Old man Pifler was huddled under there, looking at me with a sheepish half-smile.
“What are you doing under there?” I asked.
“Hiding,” he answered, and I had to admit it was a reasonable response.
Betty stooped down beside me. “How did you get in here?” she asked.
“I followed you in this morning.”
“I didn’t see anyone come in.”
“People generally don’t notice when I come into a room,” Pifler said. “I’ve grown accustomed to it.”
“Why are you hiding here?” I asked.
“Some men came to visit me last night, and they exhibited a demeanor that I would frankly call threatening. One of them even had a water pistol.”
“Lot of that going around,” I remarked. “So how did you get away?”
“They seemed to be looking for something, so while they looked I walked out. Fortunately, people don’t generally notice when I leave a room.”
“Did they tell you what they were looking for?”
“No. They seemed to think I knew what they wanted.”
“Say,” said Billy, “you think it was that Croydon thing?”
Suddenly Pifler stood up, banging his head on the desk. He tried again and succeeded by moving out from under the desk first. “Croydon!” he said. “What do you know about that?”
“Not much,” I answered, “but I know a lot of people are looking for one.”
“I’m not surprised. It would be a very valuable acquisition. Anything not listed in Paxton is ipso facto valuable.”
“Facto,” Billy repeated. “Isn’t he that mob boss from Sharpsburg?”
“I think so,” I said. “So he’s the one who wants a Croydon?”
“I meant ‘by the fact itself,’ ” Pifler explained. “It’s Latin.”
“Oh, wow!” said Billy. “Latin! So you can talk to pigs?”
“Well, yes, but I don’t see what that has to do with Latin,” said Pifler.
“Getting back to that Croydon thing,” Betty interrupted, “what is it and who wants it?”
“Mr. Marlow may remember,” Pifler said. “I had just run across it when he paid me a visit. It was in a shipment of assorted picks from Alberta—a blue marble labeled Jeremiah Croydon, a dealer whose name does not appear in the index to Paxton’s, the standard reference in the field. I recognized it at once as a valuable piece, but I must say it never occurred to me to suspect that anyone would attempt to obtain an article of value by dishonest means. I don’t know whether the English language even has a word for such a crime.”
“How about ‘stealing’?” Betty suggested.
“Steeling? You mean metaphorically hardening oneself like armored plate so as to be impervious to the assaults of the moral sense? Yes, I suppose that would describe it.”
“Well,” I said, “I guess I can see why you were hiding. You can’t go home right now. You need a place to stay. Betty—”
“Forget it,” said Betty.
“Under your desk is fine,” Pifler said. “I was quite comfortable there.”
“Yeah, but sometimes my feet go there. Is there anywhere else you could stay? Like a club or something?”
“I thought it might be wiser to stay somewhere else,” Pifler said. “I was reluctant to stay at my own club on the grounds that the sort of unscrupulous villains who entered my library unannounced might easily find me at the club. It would be frankly embarrassing if they appeared and found their way to me. It would suggest to the other members that I was indiscriminate in my acquaintances.”
“Well, then maybe you should go to a hotel. You think that would work?”
“I’m not sure. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a hotel. What exactly is a hotel?”
Betty handled this one: “It’s like a club for people who aren’t members of clubs.”
“Oh, I see. But do they let one in if one is a member of a club?”
“The hotels I know don’t ask many questions,” I told him. “There’s the Hotel Deckenbach. They’re used to getting all kinds of guests there.”
“All of them named Smith,” Betty added.
“Then I shall repair to the hotel you mention,” Pifler said. “But, having left home in more than the usual hurry, I find myself without much ready cash—only about three hundred in odd bills and coins. Will that be sufficient to rent a desk to hide under?”
“You could buy the hotel for fifty bucks,” said Betty.
We got Pifler checked into a room at the Hotel Deckenbach under the name Smith. He was pleased to find that his room had a small writing desk, and he stationed himself under it and said the accommodations were quite satisfactory. I said he might try the bed instead, but Pifler pointed out that the bed was too low to sit up under, and I couldn’t argue with him there.
It was turning into a blustery day, with rain coming at us almost sideways as Billy and I walked down the street from the hotel.
“When do I get my trench coat?” Billy asked as we hurried from one awning to the next.
“When you find one for a buck in a pawn shop like me,” I answered, pulling the lapels of my trench coat closer together.
“Hey, fellas!” came a voice from the street beside us. It took me a moment to realize that it was coming from a big La Salle limousine. The right-hand window was down, and a man in the passenger seat was calling to us. “You look wet. Want a ride?”
I hesitated a moment, so Billy answered first. “My ma told me never to accept rides from strangers.”
The door opened and the man jumped out. At the same time, the back door opened and two more men appeared.
“Luckily,” said the man who had spoken before, “your ma ain’t here.”
My arms were grabbed from behind, and I lost my balance as I was shoved into the car. I ended up in an awkward position on one of the back seats. Just as I managed to sit up straight, I was toppled again, this time by the car suddenly accelerating.
“Where are you taking us?” Billy demanded.
“Someplace you want to go,” the man in the front seat replied.
“A pawn shop?” Billy asked.
“What? No, not a pawn shop. Just sit back like Mr. Marlow there and enjoy the ride.”
I managed to sit up again so I could look out the window. The driver was weaving through traffic at a manic pace, sending fountains of spray flying as he plowed through puddles. A couple of times I thought he had lost control on the wet bricks, but he managed to miss the other cars, or at least most of them, and kept at it till he came to a screeching stop in front of the Worcester Arms Hotel.
“Here we are,” the man in the front seat said cheerfully. “Everybody out.”
The men in the back seats with us opened the door, jumped out, and held the door open for us.
“Now, we’re going into the lobby,” the man who had been in the front seat told us. “Nice and casual-like, just like old friends. When we get there, we’re heading for the elevators.”
Billy and I followed his instructions. I thought of making a break for it, but I didn’t know what he had in the coat pocket where his hand was, and there was a good chance I didn’t want to find out. So we walked through the lobby as if we were all old friends, just like he had said. When we got to the elevator, the doors opened and the elevator band started playing “Penthouse Serenade.”
Suddenly Billy lit up, like he recognized somebody. “Mitch! You got fired from Consolidated too?”
The music stopped as the first fiddle explained, “No, this is my day job.”
“Oh, I get it,” Billy said. “Sorry to interrupt. You can go on.”
The music resumed until we had reached the eighteenth floor. Then the doors opened, the band stopped playing, and the men from the car motioned us to get out.
We walked wordlessly down the hall until we reached a door marked 1818; then one of the men opened the door, and we all stepped inside.
An older man in a clerical collar was standing there waiting for us.
“Good morning, gentlemen,” he said. “My name is Harold William Stamford-Hastings, but you probably know me as the Archbishop of Canterbury.”
NOT DEAD YET.
“I am quite calm, Mr. Marlow,” said Mrs. Pifler. “My head is firmly attached to my neck.”
“Good. Keep it that way. Now, what makes you say he’s missing?”
“The fact that he is not here.”
“Well, that’s a start. And you don’t think he just stepped out for a while?”
“That is a possibility,” she admitted. “However, the condition of his library suggests something more than just stepping, unless it was a herd of enraged elephants that was doing the stepping.”
“Okay, you hang tight. I’ll be over as soon as I can.”
“Oh, there’s no need to rush,” she said. “I just wanted you to be apprised of the latest development. I mean, he’ll probably be just as missing tomorrow. Or the day after.”
“Well, I don’t want to alarm you, but your husband’s life may depend on how fast we act.”
“I suppose. But then he may already be dead, and then wouldn’t you feel silly if you’d hurried up and it was all for nothing?”
“I’ll take the chance.”
I hung up and headed back down the stairs.
This time I took a cab, so I wouldn’t get lost on the streetcar again. The cabbie wanted a tip, so I told him to put everything on Shaggy Dog at the Meadowlands. He was still shouting something when the Piflers’ butler opened the door.
“Sir was expected,” the butler said as I walked in.
“Sir? What sir is that?”
“You mean me?”
“Yes, sir. Sir is ‘sir,’ sir.”
“Oh. Sorry. I don’t speak butler.”
We might have gone on like that for an hour or two, but we were interrupted by the lady of the house.
“Thank you for coming out so quickly,” said Mrs. Pifler. She was coming down the stairs, and in the gown she was wearing coming down the stairs was a whole Busby Berkeley production number. “It really wasn’t necessary, but I do appreciate the gesture.”
“Well, that’s what you pay me for. So you say someone broke into the library?”
“Not broke in. There’s no evidence of breaking and entering. However, once he had entered, he did quite a bit of breaking.”
“Well, let’s see it,” I said, and I started walking.
“Not that way!” Mrs. Pifler said, grabbing my coat sleeve. “Never that way! The south wing isn’t safe. I mean, it’s booked by a private party. What I mean is, it’s very dusty. Actually, there is no south wing. None at all. Forget I said anything. This is the way you want to go.”
She led me in the other direction, and now I remembered that this was the way the butler had led me before. We walked down the same long hallway and stopped in front of the same door, or at least I assumed it was the same door, although I don’t know if there was any way to tell except by counting the doors.
“You can see what I meant about the elephants,” said Mrs. Pifler.
It certainly wasn’t the way I remembered the library. It was mostly colors everywhere I looked. As my eye gradually adjusted, I started to sort out what I was seeing. The floor was covered from wall to wall with picks of every color, with only an occasional overturned cardboard box to interrupt the carpet of Bakelite.
“I guess he doesn’t normally leave the library in this state.”
“Mr. Pifler is always careful to pack up one box before pulling down another,” Mrs. Pifler responded. “Or he was very careful. I suppose until we’re quite sure what happened I’ll be having trouble with verb tenses.”
“If your husband thought he was in some kind of trouble,” I asked, “where do you think he’d go?”
“Here,” she answered without hesitating. “He always came to the library when he wanted to avoid me.”
“But he didn’t have a club or something?”
“Not as such. Not per se. The only social life he had was at work, and of course his occasional visits to the Free Polo Grounds to see how the poor were doing with their polo ponies.”
“You think he might have gone to one of those places?”
“He might have, Mr. Marlow, but I am quite certain he didn’t.”
“What makes you so sure?” I asked.
“I can’t tell you that.”
“Well, then, I don’t really know what you expect me to do.”
“I expect you to find out who killed my husband.”
“We don’t even know he’s dead.”
“True. You will have to remove that uncertainty as well.”
As I left the Pifler place, I had a strange feeling that there were some things Mrs. Pifler wasn’t telling me. I couldn’t put my finger on it exactly. It was just something about the way she kept saying “I can’t tell you that” that made me think she might not be telling me something.
But she was the client, so I might as well play the game her way.
So I figured if the only social life Pifler had was at work, there might be people he worked with who knew things about him his wife didn’t know. Betty knows more about me than anybody, and I know she doesn’t mind telling perfect strangers what she thinks of me. If I was lucky, maybe Pifler would have that kind of secretary.
When I got to the Consolidated Ice-Cream Carton Manufacturing Co., I asked the guy at the front desk, “Is Mr. Pifler’s secretary in?” He looked at me like I was crazy. “Well,” I said, “how about a vice-president or something?”
“Not many people here,” said front-desk guy. “Mostly just me and the elevator crew.”
“Why isn’t anybody else here?”
“Cause it’s nine-thirty at night.”
“Yeah, I s’pose that makes a difference,” I grudgingly admitted.
“So you one of those guys looking for a Croydon?”
“What do you mean?”
“So far I’ve had six guys here looking for a Croydon. One of ’em even pulled a water pistol on me.”
“You don’t say… You got any idea what this Croydon thing is?”
“Nope. But whatever it is, they ain’t gettin’ it. Maybe there’s a Croydon here and maybe there ain’t, but I don’t get paid to let any old hobo come in here and take what he wants. Lucky I know Giu Gizzu, the ancient Italian art of self-defense. Just a friendly warning, in case you came here looking for Croydons.”
“I don’t even know what a Croydon is,” I said. “But somebody sure wants one. They tried to shake one out of me, too. No, I came here for something completely different and not related to Croydons at all. I’m looking for old man Pifler.”
“The President? He’s home with his wife, as far as I know. At least that’s where I’d be if I had a wife who looked like that.”
“But he’s not there. His wife is worried about him, and she hired me to figure out what happened to him.”
“Really?” Suddenly he was very animated. “You a private detective, like that Sam Spade character?”
“That’s my racket, yeah.”
“Wow! A real detective! This is the most exciting thing that’s happened on my shift since we had mice!”
“Well, just one mouse, but he was a lot of trouble, believe me. I hired this weird-looking blue cat to take care of him, but he was worse than useless. Anyway, I came to an agreement with the mouse, and as long as the cheese holds out we’re fine. But that was the last time anything exciting ever happened around here. A detective! That’s even more exciting than a mouse! Hey, can you detect something for me? I’ve always wanted to see somebody do that.”
“Maybe if I could get in to see old man Pifler’s office…”
“Say no more! Well, I mean, obviously you can say as much as you like, but I’ll get you into the President’s office. I mean, it’s not every day a detective comes to detect stuff around here.”
He stood up and started leading me back toward the elevators. I almost had to run to keep up with him. When we reached the bank of elevators, one of the doors slid open, revealing five men inside asleep on chairs.
“Wake up,” said desk guy. “We got a guest.”
One of the five immediately stood up by the elevator controls. The other four sat up and picked up two fiddles, a viola, and a cello, and after a nod from one of the fiddlers they began to play “Climbing Up the Ladder of Love.”
“Floor?” asked the one by the controls.
“All the way to the top,” said my guide as we stepped in. It was a little cramped with the six of us, but I guess it wouldn’t be much of an elevator ride without the music.
The door closed and we started to rise, passing the second floor, and then coming to a stop at the third.
“Third floor,” said the operator. “President’s office, potted palms, vending machines.”
My guide and I stepped out as soon as the door slid open. It closed again behind us, but I could still hear muffled music as we walked down the dim hallway.
At the end we reached a door with a sign that said A. C. PIFLER, PRESIDENT.
“This is the place,” said my guide. “Can’t wait to see you detect something.”
He opened the door.
Papers were everywhere, drawers and cabinets were open, and there was a guy sitting at the desk with his hand in the top drawer, looking kind of startled. I mean the guy was looking kind of startled, not the hand. Or the drawer. That would just be silly.
“Hey!” said my guide. “Who are you?”
“Uh,” said the man at the desk. Then, as if he’d decided his response could be improved on a little, he added, “What’s it to you?”
“I’m the night clerk,” my guide said, “and this is the President’s office.”
“Well,” the man at the desk said, and then he seemed to get himself together. “Well, I’m the night president.”
My guide looked a little dubious. “I’ve never seen you here before.”
“Oh yeah?” The guy at the desk thought for a moment. “Well, just for that you’re fired. Pack up your stuff and get out.”
The string quartet was playing a sad tune as we went back down in the elevator, and I felt kind of bad for the guy who had just lost his job. Something about the whole situation didn’t add up, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
“Guess you’ll be looking for another job,” I said as I watched the former night clerk put his few belongings into his coat pocket.
“Nope,” he said cheerfully. “Already know what I’m gonna do.”
“Oh really? What’s that?”
He put on an old blue fedora and pulled it down with an air of determination. “I’m gonna be your sidekick,” he said.
NOT DEAD YET.
“The guy with the world’s biggest pick collection.”
“You mean the Archbishop of Canterbury?”
“Yeah, that’s the guy.”
“I’m not sure I can just get you an appointment with him.”
“Why not? You got me in to see that guy Rockefeller.”
“First of all, the Archbishop of Canterbury is usually on the other side of the Atlantic. I don’t know how much you remember from your geography classes, but the Atlantic is big. It’s a long walk, and you’d get your feet wet, and there’s no streetcar. And second, even if he were right next door, I don’t know whether he’d have time. He’s busy.”
“What’s he so busy with?”
“He’s archbishop of the whole Anglican Church! He has to do archbishopy things! I don’t know—visit the sick and quiz them on the Thirty-Nine Articles or something.”
“Well, see what you can do.”
“Fine. I’ll try telling him you’re an Orthodox patriarch who wants to convert.”
“Excuse me,” said a voice from the doorway.
We both turned to look. The voice proceeded from a small impeccably dressed man, maybe five foot two at the outside, with a beard and mustache waxed and trimmed to points that looked like they would cut glass.
“Excuse me, Mr. Marlow,” he repeated, slowly turning his hat in his hands. “I hope I am not intruding.”
“Not at all. Come on in.” It was kind of superfluous to say, since he was already in, but if he was a paying client I wanted his money to feel welcome.
“Thank you,” he said. “I hope not to take too much of your time, which I am sure is valuable. In fact, I believe we can come to an accommodation almost at once, if you are willing to see reason. I am prepared to offer you a very substantial sum if you will let me have the thing right now.”
“What thing is that?” I asked.
“Oh, really, Mr. Marlow! I had hoped you would not be coy. Coyness is unbecoming in a gentleman. We both know the thing I mean.”
“Well, maybe we do, but one of us forgot.”
“Stop beating around the bush!” Suddenly he was very agitated, and his English was betraying more of a foreign accent of some sort. “I do not like beating around the bush! I do not like bushes! I do not like beating! I will be quite straightforward with you, Mr. Marlow, and I ask for the same courtesy from you. I am prepared to offer you thirty-five dollars, in cash, right now, for the Croydon.”
“The what?” I asked.
“Please do not play games with me, Mr. Marlow. I have never liked games. They are a waste of time that could be devoted to more important things. The Croydon, Mr. Marlow, is one such more important thing. I will make you an offer of thirty-eight dollars and not a penny more. No: I am not being generous—I apologize—I am prepared to be generous. I will add the penny more. Thirty-eight dollars and one cent, Mr. Marlow, for the Croydon.”
“Look, pal, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I wish I could help you, but—”
Suddenly he whipped out a pistol. “I told you I do not like games, Mr. Marlow. My employer is quite insistent. He will have the Croydon. I was prepared to purchase it from you, but I have no objection to using other means.”
“You really think that gun frightens him?” Betty asked.
“Betty,” I said quietly, “why don’t you let me decide for myself what frightens me?”
“Have you noticed that it’s purple?” Betty said.
“What?” I looked at the pistol again. “Say, is that—”
“Yes, Mr. Marlow,” said the little man. “This is a water pistol, and you will suffer the inconvenience of being moderately damp for half an hour or so unless you produce the Croydon immediately.”
“Well,” I said, stalling for time, “I’ll have to think that over.”
“Give me that,” said Betty, and she suddenly wrenched the pistol out of the man’s hand.
“Hey!” he said, but it was too late for his objections. Betty had him covered with his own water pistol.
“Now talk,” I told him with menace in my voice.
“I have been talking since I stepped into your office, Mr. Marlow. I have hardly paused, in fact. It is not necessary to have your minion point a weapon at me.”
“Minion!” Betty said. “I kind of like that. Sounds more formidable than secretary.”
I tried again. “I guess what I meant was, tell me what I want to know. Let’s start with the basics: who sent you?”
“He has many names,” said the little man.
“Let’s hear some of ’em.”
“His full name is Terence Arnold Carr-Handley-Forrest von Kügel Patterson de Vol McSweeney,” the little man said.
“That’s quite a name.”
“I told you he had many names. But he is known more commonly as the Professor.”
“What’s he a professor of?”
“He is a professor of many things. He has graduate degrees in—”
“Forget I asked. So what’s this Professor think he wants from me?”
“Really, Mr. Marlow, there is only one thing anyone could possibly want from you. No offense meant, of course, but—the Croydon, Mr. Marlow. I have offered to purchase it, and my offer stands. Others will be more—shall we say straightforward? You might do well to unburden yourself of the thing now, or you will certainly have visits from men who are less squeamish than I about violent measures. I make you a final offer, Mr. Marlow. Shall we say forty-three dollars? And seven cents? Forty-three dollars and seven cents would be quite enough to replace those somewhat less than respectable shoes of yours several times over. You would be happy in the possession of a new pair of shoes, and the Professor would be happy in the possession of a trinket that can be of no value to you, and I should be happy in the knowledge of a job well done, and when the news that the Croydon was in the Professor’s possession penetrated the world of connoisseurs, you would not be bothered with visits from what we might call unsavory characters. A simple transaction now will spare you much grief later: that is my advice to you, Mr. Marlow, and you would do well to take it.”
“Well, I haven’t got the trinket,” I told him, “so it looks like you’re wasting your time here. My advice to you is to look somewhere else.”
He was silent for a moment. It was practically the first time I’d seen his mouth closed. Then he scowled and said, “I see. This is the game you have decided to play. Well, sir, I shall inform my employer, and I must say he will be disappointed. I should not like to be in your shoes, Mr. Marlow.”
“Is that some kind of threat?”
“No. They are truly miserable shoes: that is all I am saying. How do you walk in them? I offered you the means of replacing them, but you chose to refuse my offer, and now you are stuck wearing truly miserable shoes for the indefinite future.”
Betty uncorked the water pistol and dumped the water into the philodendron on the windowsill. Then she handed the gun back to our visitor. “But before you go,” she said as he was taking it, “I have one question for you. What is this Croydon you want so much?”
The little man pocketed his water pistol and smiled an enigmatic smile. “Mr. Marlow will inform you,” he said, and he plopped his hat on his head and walked out.
“Okay,” Betty said to me when he was gone, “so what’s the Croydon?”
“I have no idea,” I told her.
“Then why didn’t you ask him?”
“And have him think I’m an idiot? No thanks.”
“He already thinks that.”
“Seems to me I’ve heard the name before, though. Croydon… Was it a brand of watch?”
I was having some second thoughts while I was walking home that night. Forty-three dollars would have bought me a couple of really good pairs of shoes, and seven cents would have got me a phone call and two licorice sticks. If I could just think of some way of coming up with a Croydon, whatever that was, I could sell it to that little guy and solve a lot of problems at once. Maybe I could have a look through the old issues of Popular Mechanics at the library and see if they told you how to build a Croydon.
I had just about got as far as the door of my apartment building when a figure stepped out of the shadows.
“Stick ’em up,” the figure said. He was holding something in his right hand, but the light was behind him, and I could only see shadows.
“Is that a water pistol?” I asked.
“Don’t be a wise guy,” said the silhouette. “Hands in the air.”
“If you’re here to tell me not to ask so many questions, I’ve already got that written down on a piece of paper somewhere.”
“You know what I want from you. Fork it over.”
“You want a fork?”
“The Croydon, you numbskull. Give it to me now, or I’ll—”
“Stick ’em up,” said a voice from the darkness, and another shadowy figure appeared.
“Which one of us are you talking to?” I asked. As I said before, it pays to be thorough and precise.
“Both o’ youse. Hands in the air. I’m takin’ that Croydon, and you better be quick about it, or I’ll—”
“Hands up, all three of you,” said another voice, and another silhouette appeared behind the first two. “Now make with the Croydon, and make it snappy. I don’t want to have to—”
“Hands in the air!” said another voice. “I’m the one who’s going to—”
“Schtop in tze name off tze law!” came a loud voice from up the street.
“The cops!” said someone, and all the silhouettes scrambled and vanished in different directions.
In their place was the familiar pear-shaped outline of our usual beat cop.
“Platnauer!” I said. “I sure am glad to see you!”
“Faitz und begorrah, Herr Marlow! Who vass tzose men mit tze pistols?”
“Don’t know ’em,” I said, “but they seem to think I’ve got something they want.”
“Sure und ’tiss a fine tzing venn ein mann can’t valk down hiss own schtreet, bechabbers!”
“Ain’t it, though? Lucky you came along when you did.”
“Ja, tzat it iss. But if you vill pardon ein vort off advice, you ought to lay off tze picks, bedatt!”
“How do you know about that?”
“Vort gets arount,” he said with a wink. “Top o’ tze evening to you, Herr Marlow.”
He turned and walked away, spinning his nightstick.
I walked up the three flights of stairs to my apartment thinking that this case was getting deeper by the minute.
The phone was ringing as I opened my door. I picked it up.
A woman’s voice came out of the earpiece.
“My husband is missing,” she said.
NOT DEAD YET.
But I wasn’t going to turn away a woman who looked like this. Especially when she was wearing a dress like that.
She came right to the point. “I want you to find whoever killed my husband.”
“I assume you’ve tried the police.” Over the years I’ve learned to ask that question. Sometimes it can save everyone a lot of time.
“Cops are fools,” she declared, and I didn’t contradict her. If cops weren’t fools, I’d lose half my business.
“Well, let’s start at the beginning,” I said, uncapping my pen and opening my notebook to the first blank sheet. “When was your husband killed?”
“Oh, he hasn’t been killed yet,” she replied, as I touched the tip of my trusty Esterbrook to the paper.
“I must have misheard you,” I said with my famously polite smile. “I thought you said you wanted me to find whoever killed your husband.”
“Yes,” she said. “When he is killed. Then I want you to leave no stone unturned.”
“And you say he hasn’t been killed yet.”
“He was alive when I left the house, at any rate.”
“But you think he’s going to be killed.”
“I am positive, Mr. Marlow.”
“Why do you think so?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
“Well, when do you think he’s going to be killed?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
I set the Esterbrook down with just enough of a clack to express moderate displeasure. Betty could wipe up the ink spot later. “I don’t normally take crazy cases.”
She reached into her purse.
“I brought a retainer,” she said.
She dropped a wad of bills that left a dent in my desk.
“Will that be enough to start with?” she asked.
I opened my top drawer and swept the wad into it.
“Consider me retained,” I said.
When she walked out, Betty walked in.
“Looks like trouble,” she said.
“That trouble just paid your salary for the next three months,” I told her.
“I’d ask you why you keep getting mixed up with women like that, but that would presuppose an inadequate understanding of male psychology.”
“Yeah, whatever.” I usually tune her out when she starts using big words like that. “We’re on the case. Get out my memo book and my flask.”
“Fill it with lemonade?”
“Double strength. It’s a murder case.”
“Oh yeah? Who got killed?”
“But you said—”
“I didn’t tell you it was going to be an easy case, did I? Start squeezing those lemons. I need to pay a visit to…” I looked down at my desk, where I’d left the card my new client gave me. “Archibald Chester Pifler. And it probably won’t be a pleasant one.”
“Lemonade coming up, boss,” Betty said as she turned to walk out.
“Say,” I said, “did I ever tell you how much I appreciate you?”
“No,” she said as she reached the door. “If you’re telling me now, it’s the first time in the four years I’ve worked here.”
She slammed the door behind her.
Well, I was glad I got that off my chest, then.
Meanwhile, I pulled out Who’s What and What’s Where, figuring that the Piflers would probably be in there. I was right. Archibald Chester Pifler had an article as long as my arm. I measured it. It took several tries, because there were six columns on three pages, and I had to measure each column and then add the figures together and then measure my arm, which was harder than it sounds, and I nearly called Betty in to help, but I figured she had her hands full of lemons, so I got it done eventually, and the article was as long as my arm to within a quarter of an inch. It pays to be thorough and precise in my profession.
So I knew a lot about Pifler by the time I walked out the door and down the two flights of stairs. Big man around here, this Pifler. He was on the board of every bank. He was—I’m quoting from the book here—“president of the Consolidated Ice-Cream Carton Manufacturing Company, Inc., which under his direction revolutionized the ice-cream industry by rounding the corners of the cartons, thus trimming a pint off every half-gallon. As a philanthropist, he endowed the Pifler Free Polo Grounds so that the working poor would have a place to exercise their polo ponies.” Now, why would somebody want to murder a nice guy like that?
It took me longer than I expected to get to the Pifler house, because I got lost on the streetcar. But finally one of the passengers showed me the way out so I could get off about a mile from my stop. They should put bigger exit signs on those things or something. I could have taken another 713 car back to the stop, but I wasn’t going to risk it, so I had to walk for twenty minutes back to where I was supposed to be.
There was a big Pierce-Arrow in front of the Pifler house when I got there. It turned out to belong to the upstairs maid. The Piflers kept all their cars in the carriage house with all their chauffeurs.
The deputy assistant underbutler answered the door. I informed him that I was Mush Marlow, here to see Mr. Pifler. The deputy assistant underbutler informed the acting assistant butler, who informed the lieutenant butler, and so on up the chain of command until at last the butler himself came out and said, “Walk this way.” Fortunately his gait was a lot like mine, so I didn’t have much trouble.
It was a long walk, but after we had passed a few hundred doors we finally stopped in front of one of them.
“The library, sir,” the butler said.
“Mr. Pifler’s in there?” I asked.
“He’s reading, I guess.”
“Highly unlikely, sir,” the butler said. Then he opened the door and stepped inside to announce me to the old man. “Mr. Marlow, sir.” Once he’d done that, he stepped aside and formed his whole body into a kind of arrow pointing me toward old man Pifler.
He wasn’t that old, I suppose. He was maybe thirty years older than his wife, but he looked healthy enough. He was sitting at a desk in the middle of a large room poring over a pile of small brightly colored Bakelite doodads. And now that I looked it over, the thing I noticed about this library was that there weren’t any books in it. Not many, anyway. Lots of shelves, but most of them were covered with identical boxes, each with a yellow label with something neatly typed on it.
I got about halfway to the desk when Pifler looked up at me. “Are you a pick man, Mr. Marlow?” he asked.
“No, but I’m Welsh on my mother’s side.”
“I’ve just got in a very interesting shipment from Alberta. A number of names I have not come across before.”
“That’s swell,” I said, coming closer. I still couldn’t see what he was fussing over.
“Jeremiah Croydon, for example. I do not find him in any of the standard references.”
“Are these guitar picks?” I asked, finally close enough to make out the individual Bakelite triangles in the pile of colors on the desk.
“Guitar, mandolin, banjo, and some ukulele, though of course ukulele purists would insist on using the thumb. It would be false modesty to deny that my collection is one of the three most comprehensive in the world. Only the Archbishop of Canterbury’s is undeniably superior. My friend Mr. Rockefeller and I have an amicable rivalry for the second place.”
“Well, that’s, um…” I ran out of things to say.
“Now this,” he said, holding up a marbled blue Bakelite triangle—“this is very interesting. You see, it’s marked ‘Pirelli & Sons, Calgary.’ Now, the only Pirelli & Sons listed in Alberta in Paxton’s Picks is in Edmonton. Either the Pirellis have moved, or there is another establishment under the same name; and either way, it means I shall have to write to Mr. Paxton so he can incorporate the information in his seventeenth edition.”
“Well, that’ll be…” I searched my brain for exactly the right word and came up with “swell.”
“But I suppose,” he said with a change of tone, “you have come here to talk about something other than picks. Most people eventually talk to me about something other than picks.”
“Yeah, surprising as it is, I’m one of those people. Look, this isn’t a pleasant topic, so I’ll just come right out with it. You got any reason to think somebody wants you dead?”
“Not that I’m aware of. As I said, the rivalry between Mr. Rockefeller and myself has always been amicable. Why do you ask?”
“Your wife seems to think you’re going to be murdered.”
“Does she indeed? Curious. I should have thought it much more likely that she would be the one to be murdered, if anyone at all had to be murdered.”
“Oh yeah?” I asked. “What makes you say that?”
“Well, I should certainly murder her myself, it I had the opportunity. Yes, that would remove a number of undesirable complications from my life. If it were possible to accomplish the deed without suffering the manifold legal complications that generally arise from what is vulgarly called murder, I should give it serious consideration.”
This was not the way I had imagined this conversation going. “You think she feels the same way about you?”
“It is improbable. Quite improbable. She is well aware that I have arranged things in such a way that I am more valuable to her alive than dead. From a financial and a social point of view, she has every reason to want me alive.”
“And you can’t think of anybody else who’d want to kill you?”
“Well, my mother, of course. She never forgave me for the fallen soufflé. But my mother, Lord rest her soul, died eighteen years ago. If she was plotting my demise, we must regard her plot as a failure.”
When I left the Pifler house, I felt like I’d wasted my time. In fact, I was beginning to think the whole case was a waste of my time. But she wasn’t getting that retainer back, so I might as well play detective by the rules for a while.
The only real clues I’d walked away with were two names—Rockefeller and Canterbury. They both had collections that supposedly rivaled Pifler’s.
“Get me an appointment with that Rockefeller guy,” I told Betty when I got back to the office.
“You mean John D. Rockefeller?” she asked, sounding a little incredulous.
“Whoever it is that has the big pick collection.”
“Look it up in Who’s What and What’s Where,” I told her. I shoved the book across my desk. “It’s probably under R.”
The first chapter of a new novel now in print from Dr. Boli’s Celebrated Publishing Empire.
Important visitors—and it is a principle of the Sultan’s hospitality that every visitor is important—are invariably asked whether they would like to see this collection; and since they have been warned beforehand that an affirmative answer would be wise (for the Sultan’s ministers like it best when the Sultan is happy with his guests and there is no mess to clean up afterwards), they invariably accept his invitation.
So it happened when the Maharajah of Istanistan and his retinue paid a visit to the Sultan some time ago: the party adjourned from the immense dining hall after a particularly lavish feast and made its way through passages that were half corridor and half garden toward the collection rooms, as dozens of other parties of guests had done on dozens of other occasions. On this occasion, however, the Sultan’s ministers observed a few signs of uncertainty in their master. The signs were invisible to all but those who had known the Sultan for most of his life, but they were there: a smile (or at least a width of mustache) just a little too broad, a voice just half a step too high, a slight syncopation in his normally regular rolling gait. And the ministers knew the reason for these signs: the Maharajah was also a collector, and his collection was said to rival the Sultan’s. Since the Maharajah was an equal and a carefully cultivated ally, there could be no question of adding his head to the Sultan’s collection. But someone would suffer if the Maharajah proved insufficiently impressed. The Sultan’s ministers were worried.
Their worries did not diminish as the Maharajah was introduced to some of the glories of the collection. The Maharajah was scrupulously polite: he greeted every object with a bland smile and a few appropriate words of appreciation, always adding the disturbing information that he possessed something very similar.
“The head of Prometheus by Archippus,” the Sultan announced, looking up at his guest to judge his reaction. The Sultan was a naturally small man, though the constant attention of the best cooks in his domain had rounded him into a sphere. “It is all that remains of his colossal Prometheus Bound, mentioned with such admiration by Pliny.”
“Yes, very fine indeed,” the Maharajah replied after a cursory examination of the huge head, which was a good bit taller than he was—and the Maharajah was a tall man, whose natural taste for asceticism had given him the appearance of one of those spindly pillars that formed thick forests in many parts of the Sultan’s palace. He looked down at the Sultan, but he might have seemed to be looking not so much at his host as at his own reflection in the Sultan’s perfectly oiled helmet of black hair. “I have his Ariadne. A remarkable composition—perfectly intact, of course.”
There was a slight twitch in the Sultan’s upper lip: it might have passed entirely unnoticed had not his immense and luxuriant black mustache amplified the movement, so that by the time it reached the ends the mustache seemed to be trying to fly away like a raven. Nevertheless, the Sultan proceeded with what was probably a smile to the next item, a water organ that played, by an ingenious arrangement of cams on a wheel, a simple but very loud melody without the intervention of a human musician. The Sultan’s ministers discreetly stopped their ears, and the Maharajah’s party listened with petrified smiles; but the Maharajah himself maintained his cheerful blandness throughout the brief performance.
When the tootling ended and the mechanism hissed and clattered to a stop, the Maharajah rendered his appreciation: “Very elegantly constructed. Mine plays “The Lament of the Amazons.’ ”
In their minds some of the Sultan’s lesser ministers began to consider how they might formulate their wills.
So it was with most of the exhibits. The Maharajah pronounced the brazen oak with singing silver birds quite lovely: his own had birds made of gold, but the same mechanical principles were employed. The crystal tank with live sea-elephant was quite fascinating in its way: the Maharajah could offer some helpful advice on feeding the creature, based on his own success in keeping a breeding colony of the things.
With each successive exhibit the Sultan seemed less confident to his experienced ministers, who in turn were losing confidence in the attachment of their own heads to their bodies.
But the Sultan had not finished yet. “My dear Maharajah,” he said at last, “surely your collection must be one of the wonders of the world, and in almost every way the equal of my own. There remains, however, one thing in my collection that is unique, a precious treasure so rare and exquisite that I must keep it separately. Would you like to have a glimpse of it?”
“My dear Sultan,” the Maharajah replied, “nothing would please me more.”
WORK IN PROGRESS.
“Unicorns are rather naughty and require a firm hand to prevent mischief. They are forever poking their horns into things with no other motive (to all appearances, at least) than to see what will happen. A single unicorn may be discouraged by loud noises or quick movements, but unicorns gathered in groups (for they do not exhibit any principle of organization, and therefore forfeit the name of herds) may be destructive and require the prompt attention of a determined virgin. It is best not to allow the beasts to gather in the first place; and if a collection of unicorns must be maintained, each animal is to have his own individual stall with room for at least limited frolicking.”
So we find in De Unicornu, lib. IX, cap. VII; but only in the posthumous edition, which was in press when Schenckelius departed this world. I have found a proof sheet among Schenckelius' papers, in which the word virginis is struck out, and the word feminae written (in the hand of the author) in the margin; but the sheets were never returned to the printer, and the error remains uncorrected in that edition.
SPEAKING OF MAKING UP NAMES…
Suppose your name is Anna Cora Ogden Mowatt Ritchie. Think of all the possibilities for authorial pseudonyms you have ready to hand:
Anna Ritchie Ogden
Cora Ogden Ritchie
Cora Ritchie Mowatt
A. C. Ogden
C. Ogden Ritchie
Ritchie Ogden Mowatt
Instead, she publishes an epic, and the title page says “By Isabel.”
DEVIL KING KUN IN PAPERBACK.
The most astonishing adventure in the history of the Internet is now the most astonishing adventure in the history of paper and glue. Devil King Kun, the tale of globe-spanning intrigue, danger, and repeated plunges from precipices that gripped the world by the throat and shook it for all of September, is now a paperback book of 230 pages, small enough to carry on the streetcar but big enough to throw at the dog. Order the book from Amazon now, or request it from your favorite bookseller. Order a crate of the things and give them out instead of candy this Halloween, and watch the angelic smiles light up the faces of the little demons at your door. As always, Dr. Boli has painstakingly hand-crafted every single letter in the book, a service no other author of rip-roaring adventure stories can offer you.
DEVIL KING KUN.
Concluding the adventure that began here.
CHAPTER XXX: Castle in the Air.
Kun retired behind his Pyrosaurus, leaving us facing the horrible monster, with a small army of lightning-bolt minions blocking the exit behind us.
The Pyrosaurus rumbled. It snorted, causing twin balls of fire to billow up from its nostrils. It began to lumber toward us, and my nose filled with the stench of brimstone.
“Stop!” Miss Kun barked with percussive force. She began walking toward the monster, which rumbled ominously.
“Miss Kun!” Weyland exclaimed. “For heaven’s sake—don’t sacrifice yourself!”
“I haven’t had much to do with heaven,” she replied, “but this is a reptile. I can do reptiles.” In the same commanding voice as before, she called out, “Bad dragon!”
The rumbling growl turned into a low interrogative whine, and the beast’s glowing eyes widened.
“Elsie!” Kun shouted from behind the beast. “Stop that! Pyrosaurus, incinerate them all!”
The Pyrosaurus grunted and took one step forward.
“Stay!” Miss Kun commanded it.
The Pyrosaurus snorted and stopped.
“Good boy!” called Miss Kun, continuing to approach. “Sit!”
The Pyrosaurus lowered its hindquarters and watched expectantly.
“Oh, for the love of Mike!” cried Kun. “This is the last time I muck about with biology! From now on it’s strictly rays!”
“Good dragon,” Miss Kun said in an encouraging tone. “Down!”
The beast obediently lay on the floor with its head between its enormous front feet.
“Good boy! Who’s a pwecious widdle fwaming monster-wonster? Stay! Good boy!”
And then, to the astonishment of everyone else, Miss Kun simply climbed up the creature’s right front leg, hoisted herself up on its shoulders, and sat behind its head.
“Up!” she commanded.
The monster rose obediently, with Miss Kun riding on its neck.
“Turn,” she said, leaning a little to the right, and the beast turned itself around in the tunnel.
I heard Kun’s angry voice from behind the thing: “Is this how you respect your father, young lady? I should never have given you riding lessons!”
“You see that man in the purple robe?” Miss Kun said to the beast. “He’s a big meany! Go get him!”
The Pyrosaurus began to stomp forward into the tunnel.
“We’re going to have a serious talk, young lady,” the voice of Kun declared, “just as soon as I’m through running for my life.”
“Hyaaah!” cried Miss Kun, and her enormous mount took off into the tunnel at a canter.
“Follow her lead,” Weyland told us. “Apparently she knows what she’s doing.”
He ran after the Pyrosaurus, Kitty bounding along at his side, and Tluxapeketl and I followed close behind.
The Pyrosaurus came to an intersection in the tunnel, and Miss Kun expertly turned it into the left-hand passage. Again we followed, until we came to the same great open space where we had first encountered the Pyrosaurus. By the time I got there, Kun was already hurriedly unscrewing a hose from a large valve.
“Whatever you’re doing, stop it now, Daddy,” Miss Kun demanded.
“I’ve finished,” said Kun, standing in an open doorway. “And now I must bid you farewell. I’ll send you my forwarding address.”
“Daddy!” Miss Kun shouted. “Daddy, you wouldn’t!”
There was a loud crack, and a din of stone scraping stone, and the whole section of wall that included Kun’s doorway began slowly rising. I looked up: the ceiling was rising, too, and cracks of daylight were appearing around the edges.
“What’s happening?” Weyland called up to Miss Kun.
“He’s filled the castle walls with goesuppium gas!” she said, coming down from her mount, which obediently lay on the floor for her convenience. “It’s our last-ditch emergency protocol!”
She had not finished speaking when Weyland suddenly ran toward the rising wall. With a vigorous leap, he managed to cling to the large valve from which Kun had detached the hose.
“What are you doing?” Miss Kun shouted as the wall rose more and more rapidly. “Come back here! If you kill yourself, I’ll make you wish you were dead!”
Weyland was rising quickly now. The whole castle above us was gaining velocity as it went up and up. Soon the whole structure was in the air above us, with Weyland as a tiny ant-like figure clinging to the bottom of it.
“What’s he doing?” I asked.
“I don’t know. But I don’t want him to die. Why do I care whether he dies? What has he done to me? He’s going to pay for this!”
Then suddenly the castle, which had been rising like a balloon, took off like a rocket and shot across the sky until it disappeared over the horizon.
“Look!” cried Tluxapeketl, pointing into the sky.
A tiny figure was up above us, falling toward the earth. No—not falling: as he came closer, we could see that Weyland was gently floating down, as if he were attached to an invisible parachute.
As we watched the puzzling descent, Kun’s army of minions came out of the tunnel and filled the broad space that was now under the open sky.
Instantly Miss Kun took control. “My loyal friends!” she said in her most commanding tone. “Since my father has been unexpectedly called away, you are my minions now. Await your orders.”
There was some murmuring of assent, but most of the minions wee occupied, like us, in watching Weyland’s inexplicably gentle descent.
At last he touched down, bending his knees just a little to cushion the landing, only a few yards from where we were standing. Miss Kun immediately ran and embraced him, and Kitty rubbed against him with a loud rumbling purr.
“What did you do?” Miss Kun asked.
“Remembering our experience with your air yacht,” Weyland explained, “I simply opened the valve all the way and allowed all the goesuppium to escape at once. I calculate that the castle’s trajectory should bring it down in the Atlantic about sixty nautical miles east-northeast of Madeira.”
“But how did you keep from falling?”
“Oh, that was very simple. Before I opened the valve all the way, I was able to introduce enough goesuppium gas into my underwear to assure a gentle descent.”
“What is ‘underwear’?” asked Tluxapeketl.
“I have no idea,” replied Miss Kun.
“So,” I asked, “does this mean Kun is dead?”
“Almost certainly not,” Weyland answered. “It is not in the nature of archfiends to die. They suffer temporary defeats, but then regroup in a few years when there is demand for a sequel.”
“And we’ll be ready for him,” Miss Kun declared. “We have a fire-breathing dragon, a tiger, and an army of lightning-bolt minions, all at the service of the forces of good.”
“So you think you can manage to stay on the side of good?” Weyland asked her.
“I’ve thought about that,” Miss Kun replied, holding him tighter, “and I’ve decided that I can just about manage to be good in public, as long as I can be very, very wicked in private.”
Weyland smiled. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“Are you sure, Mr. Weyland? You may think you knew suffering and terror as my enemy, but that is nothing compared to being my boyfriend.”
“I think you know me well enough to call me ‘Norbert,’” he said.
“I think you know me well enough to call me ‘Mistress,’” she said.
“Oh, look!” Tluxapeketl said as the minions began to cheer and whistle. “Pink men know how to kiss!”
“Well, of course we do,” I responded.
“But how would I know? You never did it to me.”
She was looking at me expectantly, and I could hardly help giving her what she expected, taking her in my arms and kissing her for a very long time. Her response was very enthusiastic.
When at last she was finished responding, she said, “That was a very good first try.”
“Tluxapeketl,” I asked, and I was dreading the answer, “now that this is all over, will you be going back to your Amazonian forest?”
“Oh, no!” she replied. “I will stay with you and be your wife and save the world from evil archfiends.”
“You will? My darling, how marvelous! And you won’t miss the forest?”
“Not at all. Jaguars, waterfalls, strangler figs, crocodiles—it’s always the same thing in the jungle. But civilization is a new adventure every day!”
DEVIL KING KUN.
Continuing the adventure that began here.
CHAPTER XXIX: The Flying Mountain.
We all leaped to the side, and a moment later there was a great clanging crash as a huge pile of wood and strings detonated on the ground.
“He dropped a piano!” I gasped, looking back at the wreckage.
“In fact,” said Weyland, “I believe you’ll find that was a harpsichord. The harpsichord plucks the strings rather than striking them with hammers, and—more relevant in this situation—has no cast-iron plate, which means that its—”
“Look out!” shouted Tluxapeketl, and we all leaped out of the way of the next falling object, which crashed to earth with a great clong.
“That was a piano,” said Weyland.
“I think we should start running,” Miss Kun remarked, and she did not wait for us to agree.
“But in a serpentine path,” Weyland said as he followed her, “so as to make it—”
A big cast-iron stove fell, narrowly missing him; it would have hit him had he been running in a straight line.
“Point taken,” Miss Kun called back over her shoulder.
By now we had reached the highest point of the pass, and as we began to descend around a curve to the right, I was suddenly confronted with perhaps the strangest sight I had ever seen in my life. Just ahead and to the right was a rocky peak, with a substantial growth of forest; but it was hovering in the air, with a space of perhaps seven feet between the bottom of it and the ground.
“He is dropping a mountain on us!” cried Tluxapeketl.
“No!” Miss Kun shouted back. “It’s—”
An old automobile crashed to earth right beside us.
“That was a Maxwell,” said Weyland. “They’re no longer manufactured.”
“Everyone under the floating mountain!” Miss Kun shouted, running in that direction.
“Under it?” I repeated in disbelief.
“It’s our only—”
There was an almighty crunch, and a trolley landed on its side just a few feet from me as I ran.
“A tram,” said Weyland, “of the type formerly used in Barcelona.”
Miss Kun was now standing under the impossible floating peak frantically motioning for us to join her. Weyland and Kitty got there first; Tluxapeketl and I reached them just as the most horrendous crash yet met my ears. I looked back to see a switching locomotive smashed upside-down on the trail.
“Isn’t the rock going to fall on us?” I breathlessly asked.
“It should be stable for months,” Miss Kun said. “It’s a natural—”
There was a tremendous series of bangs and smashes as something huge bounced off the floating peak (which only bobbed a little) and crashed to the ground nearby.
“Battleship,” said Weyland, “of a type used by the French navy about thirty years ago.”
“These hills,” said Miss Kun, “are riddled with natural goesuppium deposits. Every once in a while a whole section of mountain becomes detached and floats, hovering about here and there. The peaks can float indefinitely as long as the goesuppium gas doesn’t escape.”
“It must have tremendous lifting power,” said Weyland. “I had thought that hydrogen was the lightest gas in the universe.”
“Hydrogen is the lightest,” Miss Kun explained, “but goesuppium is the only gas that’s actually counterheavy. It’s the secret of my father’s airships, and of course of his ability to hoist a battleship and drop it at will.”
“So we’re sheltered from falling objects,” I said. “But now what? We can’t leave our shelter, or Kun will start dropping things again, unless he’s lost interest already.”
“Which he hasn’t,” said Miss Kun. “Daddy can be very patient.”
“In that case,” said Weyland, “what we need to do is to stay under the shelter and move forward at the same time, which should be easily accomplished. Look on the ground under the rock for stout branches. Long ones, like this one. This is the sort of thing we need. Everyone look for branches like this. Why, thank you, Kitty—that’s exactly what I meant. Now, everyone find a spot on the underside of the rock where your branch can catch, like this. Good. Now all we have to do is push forward as we go, like this. See? We’re perfectly safe.”
We were walking along the trail pushing the mountain along like a canopy above us. A hail of objects crashed all around us—washing machine, double bed, tuba, Linotype, drill press, samovar, thresher, steamroller, drafting table—but we were quite safe under the impenetrable rock.
“Daddy is throwing a tantrum,” said Miss Kun.
“And everything else,” Tluxapeketl added as a kitchen sink clanked to the ground not far away.
But we made it through the rest of the pass, and it was clear from the increasing distance between us and the rest of the falling objects that we were out of range of Kun’s barrage. Just as well: the slope was turning downward again, and we had reached the point where our branches were not long enough anymore to touch the underside of the floating peak. It continued to drift off in the direction we had last been pushing it.
“Now, which way to your father’s castle?” asked Weyland.
“Up there, where the trail starts to rise again, there’s a secret back entrance to the underground complex,” said Miss Kun, pointing. “The good news is we can sneak in there. The bad news is that Daddy knows we’re coming, and he probably expects us to sneak in there.”
“And how should we get from here to there?”
“I was planning to walk,” Miss Kun replied.
So we left our branches on the ground and walked on, relying on Miss Kun’s apparent confidence. We walked swiftly, but nothing happened: apparently we were well out of range, and the Devil King’s tantrum was over. It only made me wonder what fiendish outrage he was plotting next.
The secret back entrance to Kun’s underground complex was cleverly disguised, but Miss Kun slid the perfectly balanced rock aside with one hand and revealed a gate big enough to bring a locomotive through.
“Now,” she said as we walked into the darkness of the huge tunnel beyond, “all we have to do is get through the underground complex, make it upstairs to the castle, capture my father, and get a message through to the Archbishop telling him to get out of Wilkes-Barre and take back control of the Archdiocese, and we’ve saved the world for the forces of good.”
“And how easy will that be to do?”
“If I know my father,” Miss Kun replied, “practically impossible.”
“Completely impossible,” said the voice of Kun from the darkness in front of us. But it was not dark for long. Twin torches silhouetted the Devil King from behind; and as their light intensified, we could see that the torches were in fact columns of fire from the nostrils of the Pyrosaurus.
“Under the circumstances,” Weyland remarked to us, “it might be best to run.”
All of us, Kitty included, agreed with his assessment, and as one we turned and dashed back toward the entrance.
But as we neared the gateway, it was suddenly blocked by a horde of lightning-bolt minions.
I glanced back into the tunnel. Kun was walking toward us, with the Pyrosaurus following behind him.
“You won’t escape, of course,” Kun said. “My entire staff of minions has been deployed at the only exit you can reach from here. And my Pyrosaurus has been broken of his unfortunate habit of fetching sticks, Mr. Weyland, so that trick will do you no good. And now, if you’ll just wait right here, I think my Pyrosaurus has some unfinished business with all of you.”
Don’t miss tomorrow’s thrilling episode: