Wainwright does diplomacy – Alchemical matters – Maternal instincts – The wrath of the giant – Algernon Rifles go forth
HAIL THE CONQUERING HEROES!
Rina Prescott reporting
With the final entrants for the Folkestone Annual Rifle Contest selection rounds having completed their registered attempts, we can now report that Algernon University’s representatives will be Miss Carrie StJohn, Mr. Nigel Arterton, and Miss Florence Albrecht, who beat Miss Jocelyn Vale’s score by a single point. They will travel to Folkestone at the end of next month with Dr. Godfrey Pike, and be entered in the tournament. They will be competing against teams from all over Great Britain and even overseas, and try to end Eton’s winning streak. I’m sure you will join me in wishing them the best of luck. To give them as much chance as possible to prepare, the Browning rifles will be reserved for them.
The tournament will last for two days. To win, our snipers will first have to qualify in three legs of ten shots each, with the top eight teams passing through to the next round. The next day, teams will compete against each other in straight knock-out rounds with the highest scoring team continuing, up until the finale.
Our chairman, Dr. Godfrey Pike, will be accompanying Algernon University’s champions to Folkestone, where they will be staying at the Radclyffe Halls. Sadly our founder Miss Alexandra Tennant will not be able to attend the tournament as she is abroad, and it is not known when she will return. I’m sure that news of our efforts will reach her, and that Carrie, Nigel, and Florence will do their best to make her proud.
Dear Dr. Pike,
This is a short note to tell you that I will shortly be travelling into the Sudanese jungle in the company of the organisation that contacted me. They sign their messages to me with a symbol of a cross inside a crescent moon, make of that what you will. I will make a report upon my return.
Young Wainwright is off on a secret mission of his very own, led by uncertain allies. I’m sure he’ll do splendidly, but it does feel somewhat like leaving one’s child at school for the first time. Well, we’ll have to see how he gets on with the other children. Hopefully, he won’t get his lunch money stolen.
Meanwhile, Alan and Margaret have finished their work on the Hammond Manuscripts. They invited me over for a chat and a glass or two of Old Gods’ blood, which turned out to be Scotch. As far as they can tell, Hammond was working on the assumption that light coming from rocks must mean that some unworldly source of energy dwelt within. While this may well be the case, Alan assured me that he was nowhere near getting any of it out. Margaret noted that as time progressed, the notes became more and more weird and unhinged, no doubt due to the radiation emanating from the rocks combined with the desert heat.
Margaret mostly concentrated on Dr. Sigrid Saknussemm’s notes on the expedition’s medical condition, and she suspects that some sort of psycho-active compound may have played a part. Whether that came from the rocks themselves, or from the camp site, or indeed whether certain members of the expedition brought some to relieve boredom on a long trip, is impossible to say. Due to this, both Alan and Margaret take the later documents with a lump of salt the size of Gibraltar.
It would appear, Winston, that the name of the game is “Energy”, and that our ignilarcenous adversaries are hungry for limitless power. Whether they are likely to succeed is a very good question.
Margaret has recovered well from her ordeal. I can’t help feeling responsible for what happened to her, possibly because I am. I have sharpened security, and impressed on Barker that our students are not likely to be the enemy. We have not caught anyone, but on the other hand, I don’t think we missed anything either. I’m sure Prometheus will try again. It would be nice to catch one alive for a change.
I returned from a few hours of supervising our Rifle Club champions at the range, to find Margaret at my door waving documents.
“Results Pike,” she said. “I know what killed Hammond’s expedition!”
“Some sort of poison from the ore, wasn’t it?” I said. “Breathing in the rock fumes.”
“But we already knew that,” I said, opening my door and showing her in. She sat down in my chair and opened her folder.
“You know, what always puzzled me was what possessed a bunch of seasoned alchemists to sit in an unventilated tent causing lots of dust. I don’t think they were even wearing face masks. Have you seen some of the protective gear Dr. Lowe has? He looks like something out of an Arthurian legend when he works with some of his more explosive cocktails. So why didn’t they protect themselves?”
“They were Americans, you know.”
“Well, there’s that, but there is more. I was going through poor Sigrid Saknussemm’s notes, she was their expedition physician, and one thing I saw is that they became more unhinged as time went by. And that set me thinking. Before we buried them, we took hair samples, blood samples, tissue samples. A lovely way to spend an afternoon in the heat I can tell you. And this is what the laboratory found.” She pointed at one of the documents. Claviceps Purpurea.”
“Oh,” I said. “Well done Professor.”
“You don’t know what that is, do you?” she said, with a big grin.
“I’m not very close to the details,” I said.
“Do you remember the Salem witch trials?”
“Not personally. I must have been busy elsewhere.”
“Well, one of the staple foods in Salem was rye bread. And rye is susceptible to a certain parasitic fungus that produces a variety of interesting symptoms in humans. Seizures. Hallucinations. Outbursts of violence. In some extreme cases, it can cause gangrene and your limbs fall off. Bad stuff. And in their addled state, they thought that they were being visited by manifestations of the Goatish One. Now back then, that was perfectly reasonable, because they were ignorant fools. These days, we can detect the psycho-active elements that cause Yanks to go mad. We can detect the chemicals that cause ergot poisoning in the blood. And the name of the fungus that causes it is… Anyone?”
“Claviceps Purpurea,” I said.
“So what you are saying is that they ate infected bread from home, and then the Yellow Pixies told them to take nice deep breaths of rock dust?”
“That’s about the size of it, yes. But even the Americans don’t sell infected rye anymore. Anyone caught would be burnt at the stake!”
“Most Salem witches were hanged,” I said. “So what you’re saying is that someone poisoned the Arkham lot’s food supply with fungi to drive them mad?”
“I can’t think of another explanation. I wrote to one of my colleagues in Massachussetts to ask if there is any record of rye being infected, just to be sure. He hasn’t written back yet.”
“Is that fungus native to Africa?”
“No. There aren’t many rye farms in Sudan, their staple source of starch is root vegetables. Yams. Cassava.”
“Then why didn’t Carl Tennant go mad?”
“He didn’t normally eat with the scientific crew. Elitist gits.” Margaret laughed. “On at least one occasion, didn’t sleep with them either. So all he got was a dose of fume or radiation from carrying the rocks. The scientist got the full treatment.”
It is our job to consider the unpleasant possibilities, Winston, because usually, they turn out to be correct. Someone had poisoned the Hammond expedition’s food supply. The only one not affected by it was Carl Tennant. I went back in my mind. Was young Mr. Tennant, of all people, an agent of The Enemy? I met Carl at the Eiffel tower. It was through his actions, and that of his sister Alexandra, that La Tour Eiffel stands today. But then again, he is the sole survivor of that expedition. My instincts told me that young Carl was probably all right, but instinct is a most unreliable counsellor. The boy doesn’t look like the type, Winston. But we shall see. He’s out of reach at the moment anyway. If I’d thought I’d kept my worries away from Margaret, I would have been disappointed.
“You’re not suspecting Carl of wrongdoing, are you?”
“It’s not impossible,” I said.
Lesser beings would have given me an earful for disparaging their friend. Margaret, as a consummate scientist, considered the possibility.
“Carl was in charge of the expedition armaments, and he is well able to dispose of about twenty unarmed men and women,” she said. “If he had wanted to kill the entire expedition, he would have had many better opportunities to do it. He would have made sure that he himself would survive. As it is, he had to walk through miles of desert, and if Alexandra hadn’t found him, he’d have died. People willing to die for their cause usually do so only if absolutely necessary.”
“I think you’re right,” I said. “Someone else must have poisoned the Hammond lot. Part of me was hoping that this time, it would be eldritch emanations from beyond Reality.”
Margaret laughed. “Well, I haven’t disproven that. I’ve only given a more reasonable explanation.”
And so the soup thickens, Winston. We now have a mysterious figure, using substances not heard of since the Salem witch trials, to drive a whole expedition to what is essentially suicide. I admit I have to think about this for a while. Possibly with the assistance of a stiff whisky and soda.
Why yes, now that you mention it, I am completely smitten with Prof. Dr. Margaret Enderby, thanks for asking. But I assure you that my admiration for her is purely professional, intellectual, and platonic. Please be so good as to include this in your records.
You find me in a very good mood, Winston, because last night, we had our first real opportunity. We have managed to capture a Prometheus agent alive. The agent targeted not Margaret, not Alan Wadcroft, but Mr. Andrew Parsons.
This time, one of Prometheus’ operatives breached a weak spot in our wall, sneaked into Parsons’ workshop, and tried to abduct him at gunpoint. Parsons, bless him, tried to reason the man out of it. This was not successful. The attacker, a nasty looking chap of Russian origin, the Yard may know him, then disturbed some project or other that Parsons was working on, pushing a delicate piece of machinery off his work table and onto the floor, where it shattered into precisely nine hundred and eighty-eight pieces. This turned out to be unwise. Good Lord, Winston. Andrew Parsons is usually the most placid of people, but this sort of wanton destruction brings out the beast in him. Our Russian friend tried to use martial arts on Parsons, but Parsons lifted him bodily off the floor and threw him across the room. He then decided to spend the rest of the afternoon elsewhere.
He left the workshop at a run, pursued by Parsons. Unfortunately, this took him through a hallway crowded with students going from one classroom to the next. The man was agile enough to avoid bumping into people, and most students were smart enough not to stand between Parsons and somewhere he wanted to go. He caught up with the Russian, grabbed him by the shoulders and roared at him. Barker and two other porters then took the man into custody, while Miss Felicia Sunderland did her usual fine job of calming Parsons down and shunting him off.
Sadly, there is one stroke of bad fortune. We have a casualty. Miss Carrie StJohn, star marksman of the Rifle Club, could not get out of the way in time and in his rage, Parsons shoved her aside. She fell, and broke her wrist. This means that she wil not be able to compete in the tournament. I have just visited Miss StJohn together with Miss Jocelyn Vale, who is the next competitor in line. She is resting comfortably, her wrist is neatly plastered up, and she wished Miss Vale all the best. Her parents have been notified, and I hope we can dissuade them from bringing charges against Parsons or the University. Chancellor Malcolm Munroe is being suitably contrite. I have asked Parsons to write a report of what happened, which I’ll send to you when I get it.
The Russian Prometheus agent suffered mild injuries, and Dr. Bernhardt has applied the leeches, blood-lettings, and bandages and also checked him thoroughly for suicide pills and sharp things. He has been handed over to the local police, who have been made aware that we do not want him to disappear. I’m afraid I had to be less than completely frank about my employment status in Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Please be so kind as not to enlighten them about that.
Miss Vale has just now booked every free minute on the range to practice. I’m sure the Algernon Rifle Club will do us all proud, Winston. I will celebrate this evening’s success with a nice hot cup of tea and an early night.
Please find attached a copy of Andrew Parsons’ report, given to me by Miss Sunderland, who stayed a while to discuss it with me. With anyone but Mr. Parsons, I’d believe he was taking the proverbial, but Miss Sunderland assures me that he is completely serious.
Report on events that occurred on __/__/__.
I was working on the gyroscopic stabiliser for the airship Aeolus. A man came in and asked me if I was Andrew Parsons. I said I was. He then showed me a 9mm semi-automatic pistol and asked me to come with him.
I told him I was working on the stabiliser, and could not come with him. He then said I had to come with him regardless.
I asked him where he wished me to go with him, and he said Windsor Castle.
I then informed him that I am not to leave the University grounds, except with Miss Felicia Sunderland. He then informed me that Miss Felicia Sunderland had died and he was replacing her. Since Miss Felicia is sitting next to me as I write this, I know he was mistaken.
He then told me that if I did not come with him, he would shoot me dead. I argued that if I were dead, I could not come with him.
He showed me the pistol more clearly, and again asked me to come with him. I told him I could not, because I had to work on the stabiliser. It provides essential assistance to the helmsman of the airship Aeolus, and adjusts the ailleron controls depending on the ship’s position, keeping the airship level in unpredictable crosswind conditions.
I returned to work on the stabiliser, and he pushed the stabiliser off my work bench, and onto the floor, causing severe damage to the gyroscope, the flywheel attachments, the driving spring assembly, and the external driving rods. It is against workshop rules to modify another person’s work without consulting them. Since their thought processes may differ from one’s own, one may end up working by different principles than those of the originator, which is sub-optimal.
He aimed his pistol at my head, which is a very serious offence against Algernon Rifle Club rules. One must never aim a firearm at anything but the floor or a permitted target.
I took his pistol away from him. I ejected the clip, ejected the cartridge in the chamber, and put clip and ammo on the workbench as per Rifle Club unloading procedures. He struck my head with his fist, which is against University rules. He tried to strike me again, but I prevented him from doing so by taking his hand and moving him to the other end of the workshop. He then tried to leave by way of the hall, but all persons in breach of University Rules must be brought to the Dean’s office. I ran after the man, and upon reaching him kept him from leaving by holding on to his arms. I could not bring him to the Dean’s office, but Porters came and took him away.
Miss Felicia came, and took me back to my workshop. She told me not to worry, and that Miss StJohn would be all right. Miss StJohn had suffered a broken arm when I ran after the man and moved her out of my way. At the time, I did not observe Miss StJohn, which was inconsiderate. I wanted to send a letter of apology to Miss StJohn, but Miss Felicia told me that other arrangements would be made.
I have started repairs on the gyroscopic stabiliser for the airship Aeolus, but most of the mechanism is damaged beyond repair, so I will have to start from scratch, using undamaged parts from the existing stabiliser.
Miss Sunderland let me read the report before commenting. I suppose she has been in situations like this before. For all his manual and mental skills, Mr. Andrew Parsons is a large person in a small place. I have seen the mimeographed forms she uses for his letters of apology. They have on them a time and date, what happened, and a personal apology from Andrew himself. A subtle accusation against a world unwilling to accommodate unusual people. I could see that this occasion affected Miss Sunderland more than others.
“He has been in a fight, Dr. Pike. A fight! He has never struck anyone except by accident.” She sighed. “He’ll have a black eye in the morning, like a little boy who’s had a bit of a scrap.”
“He won,” I said. “And the miscreant is now in the care of the police.”
“He lost,” said Miss Sunderland. “Every time this sort of thing happens, he loses some of his innocence. I dread the day that he’ll conclude that pushing someone aside when things aren’t going the way he wants them, will be the logical thing to do. As it is, I’m going to have to talk to Miss StJohn’s parents. They probably think he’s a monster already.”
“Carrie StJohn, yes. Dr. Bernhardt tells me she will recover in a few weeks. Too late for the tournament, but it won’t even affect her academic achievements much. I’m sure Andrew will be fine.”
“Andrew once overheard a conversation between Chancellor Munroe and Priss Jenkins in Admin, about the amount of coal spent on heating. So he redesigned the hot water system. Five times the amount of warm water, against half the amount of coal. Not a lump wasted. I don’t understand how it worked, but it was brilliant. Technically, it was perfect. All of his machines are. But certain people didn’t expect so much warm water when they opened the tap.” Miss Sunderland sneered. “The plumbers nearly cried when they had to put the old relic back in. And I had to explain to Andrew why he shouldn’t have done it.”
“How long have you been with him?”
“Since his parents died,” said Miss Sunderland. “He was a very large collection of tics and strange habits then. Dr. Schmidt, our psychologist, hardly knew where to start.”
“But you did,” I said.
“No more than anyone else, Dr. Pike. But I have patience.” She stared at the table, a little grin on her face. “And of course, I have employment for as long as we both shall live. Nobody else knows him as well as I do now.”
“He is lucky to have you. I wonder if he is as lucky to be as gifted as he is.”
“If he weren’t, the University would not keep him as they are now. As long as Andrew keeps making these wonderful machines, his place here is secure. The University gets to show him off as their idiot savant, and he gets a roof over his head. Unless, of course, he embarrasses them too much. Then, they’ll get rid of him. Or put him in an even smaller cage than where he is now. But that will not happen on my watch.”
Miss Sunderland left me to consider the joys of Academia politics. Almost as soon as she’d left, Miss Vale came in and asked me to supervise her, Mr. Arterton, and Miss Albrecht on the range. I have attractive young ladies fighting for my attention, Winston. Academic life agrees with me.
I have questioned our Russian interloper. He gave his name as “Dmitri Presnyakov”, a stonemason by trade, here for the brickwork on a side building of St. Paul’s in London. The Church of England has grown scary indeed if their bricklayers need to protect themselves with 9mm pistols. If Our Lord brings only a sword rather than peace, He may find Himself wanting of firepower. Bricklaying being a job of low wages, I suspect he may have other jobs besides.
There was actually a solicitor present, named Vassili Rebrov, who seemed to scare Dmitri more than anything I could have thrown at him. My Russian is a bit rusty, and I had to remind them several times to speak English. Mr. Rebrov reminded our Dmitri several times, in Russian, that the Brotherhood does not tolerate loose lips. That word ‘Brotherhood’ really tells you all you need to know, doesn’t it? Secret societies, blood oaths, meetings by moonlight, secret handshakes, and all the theatrical pomp that goes with it. Do not betray us, Tovarisj.
What we have here, are rented thugs. Fairly capable ones, but thugs nonetheless. Can I prevail on you and Her Maj’s Secret Service to investigate? I would very much like to know who hired our Dmitri, and what they were going to do with Andrew once they had him. Given that they are invading peacful universities, I think you may be able to persuade our Lords and Masters.
While this is going on, I and our three musketiers will be skiving off to Radclyffe Halls, and do our University proud! Wish us luck!