Previous: Philip Tennant: The end of the beginning
Settling in – The Rifle Club – The maiden flight of Lady I – Superior knowledge – An African girl in Paris – The enigmatic Mr. Slate
It is with the greatest regret that I have to announce that
I will no longer be able to conduct the weekly lessons at the
Algernon Rifle Club. I will be leaving Algernon University on
board our airship Lady I, for an undetermined amount of
time. I am afraid I cannot be more specific about the reasons.
Please rest assured that this will not mean the end of the Rifle
Club if I can by any means prevent it. I will find a suitable
person to take my place, so all members can continue to improve
their skills in the impressive manner it has been my privilege
to witness these last months. I am certain the result will be
All that is left is to thank you, the members of the Algernon
Rifle club, for your enthusiasm, friendship and dedication. I
do not say farewell.
Until we meet again, I remain most truly,
— Alexandra Tennant, The Algernon Clarion
After our first run aboard Lady I, we tethered her to the ground in one of the University’s fields and set about adapting her to our needs. The first thing we started on was to replace the outdated engines with a pair of turbines of Andrew Parsons’ invention. To mount the new engines, he had to remove the sides of the gondola, and then lift them in and out with a crane. Why he didn’t just carry the engines out on his back, I can’t possibly say. Poor Lady I looked like she would never be right again, but our faith in Andrew had never been betrayed yet. Because of the greater forces exerted by the new engines, the rest of the propulsion system also had to be strengthened. The engines were connected to the transmission, the transmission was connected to the drive shafts, the drive shafts were connected to the propeller shafts, the propeller shafts were connected to the propeller pods, oh hear the words of the Lord. I watched Andrew at work for a while, and he seemed to be in his own personal Heaven, so I let him be.
There were four cabins in the aft section, surrounding the mess hall. In the middle was a very sturdy hardwood table that only needed a sanding-down and a few layers of lacquer to erase the memory of countless Frenchies who’d cut their baguettes on it. The port and starboard aft cabins, on either side of the galley, were larger than the others. The aft starboard cabin was turned into our study and library. Carl, Fatin and Raage claimed the large port aft cabin, and I got the cabin in front of it. Father took the cabin opposite mine, away from us noisy children. My cabin had four bunk beds, two of which I immediately had removed to make room for a table and a cupboard, constructed by a rather handsome pair of carpenters who crawled all over Lady I like a constructive plague of termites, leaving only sawdust in their wake. Fatin and Carl’s cabin was frankly the prettiest ever seen on board of a warship. Raage slept in a cradle that would swing gently with the movements of the ship. They had brought the leather sheets that had been their tent in Sudan, and used that as a curtain in front of their bed, and as a cover for Raage’s cradle. Father’s cabin was simple to the point of being dull: Desk, bed, cupboard. The only concession to practicality was a portrait of Mother, hanging above his desk. The other two cabins were more or less left in their original state, so that if we needed to, we could sleep eight passengers in the midships cabins, keeping the aft section to ourselves. For now, our Russian navigator took up one of them. About a week later, Carl and I were hanging on the sides of the ship, painting the name Lady I in large white letters. We moved our things from the cargo bay to our rooms, and from that moment on, we lived among the clouds. I recommend it. Lying in a warm bed, watching the moon-lit earth pass by far below, must be one of the finest ways to spend the night on your own.
It was a beautiful bright Saturday at the Rifle Club, and we now had the targets at two hundred yards. Since I was about to set off to possibly hostile places, I had my own rifle out as well, though I was shooting across the now-empty corn fields. I had put a good number of paper targets up against the stone fence so I wouldn’t have to run the half-mile every five shots or so. For a bit of variety, I had also put down some empty tin cans. I was lying on my stomach with the sun beating down on me. With new focus, my skills were quickly returning to me. I was using the opportunity to use up some of the tracer rounds that some idiot had put in my order. Just in case you don’t know, a tracer round is like a normal cartridge, but the bullet is hollow. The cavity contains a material like phosphorus or magnesium that will ignite when the bullet is fired, and leave a trace of light in the air. They are used mainly by infantry soldiers to mark targets for their squad mates. For a sniper, they helpfully tell the target where the person is who just shot their leader, which is not a recommended tactic. But for target practice, they are fun to watch and make pretty sparks on impact.
Someone picked up my binoculars to see how I was doing.
“I really wouldn’t want to get on your bad side.”
I looked up, and saw Carrie sitting cross-legged next to me.
“Would you like a go?”
“Are you serious? Of course I would!”
I moved over and Carrie took my place. I could see her take a deep breath, then another. She became still, then fired a shot. She cycled through, fired again. I picked up the binoculars. Both of her shots had hit the target. A two and one outside the one, but still impressive with an unfamiliar weapon.
“Where’d you learn to shoot?”
“Member of the junior rifle team in my last school. Hadn’t held a rifle for years until I got here, which is why I was shooting like a drunk monkey. Getting back into it now, though.”
I looked. She had now compensated and was hitting sevens and eights out of ten, spread evenly around the bullseye. I compared it to my consistent tens, with the occasional nine, and realised I was competing with a school girl. She looked up at me.
“You’re leaving, aren’t you?”
I sighed. “Yes. I need to find whoever is trying to get at me, and politely ask them to stop it. They missed twice now, and if any of you got caught in the crossfire, I’d never forgive myself.”
Carrie sat up and handed my rifle back to me.
“What’ll become of the rifle club?”
“Elect a chair. No reason why you shouldn’t keep going. You’ve all been marshalls at some point, even Jocelyn. Nobody died.”
“Oi!” Jocelyn was standing behind me, as was the rest of the club. “That’s only because we’re all scared of you!”
I laughed. “Well, I’m at my most deadly when I’m far away.”
Rina sneered. “Anyway, they’d never let us girls handle firearms on our own.”
“Nor us boys, neither,” said Bert. “We need a responsible adult.”
“Mr. Parsons!” said Christa. “Can’t get more responsible than that.”
“Not Prof. Wadcroft,” said Florence. “We’d have to teach him what the dangerous end of a rifle is.”
“Perhaps Margaret… Professor Enderby, I mean.” I said. “I’ll ask her if she’d be willing to keep an eye on you.”
“She’s not the worst of them,” said Nigel, which was the highest praise anyone could hope for. “But she’s not a sniper like you.”
“Well then, get better,” I said. “I was never going to stay forever. I’d just love it if this club didn’t fade away as soon as I’ve left.”
“Never! Shooting things is too much fun!” Jocelyn realised what she’d said, and her bright grin flickered, only for a moment.
I looked round the circle of young snipers in training, and wanted to hold them all.
“I’ll be back,” I said. “And when I am, I expect you all to be able to hit the bullseye at four hundred yards.”
“Yes, I will admit it, I give up.” Wadcroft took off his half-moon glasses and breathed on them, pulling out a handkerchief. When the lenses were once more fit to see through, he held up one of the rocks. “I haven’t the faintest notion what anyone would want these things for. I have gone through every book and journal in the Library. Not a word on the subject, except for one woman at Paris University, who is an authority on glowing rocks. Unfortunately, she hasn’t replied yet to any of my letters.”
“Perhaps she doesn’t like Sassenach,” said Chancellor Monroe. The Chancellor was a man in his early sixties, with an unruly mop of grey hair and a beard, impeccably dressed in a green suit and waistcoat. He was lighting his pipe with a gas lighter that looked like a small-scale flamethrower.
We were in the Chancellor’s office, cups of tea in hand. Father, Carl, Wadcroft, Margaret, and myself. Raage was asleep in his new pram, a gift from the Algernon University faculty. Margaret had gone round with the hat, and none could refuse her. Fatin was attending an English class for non-native speakers. Her teacher was quite impressed with her. James Riley had left. He seemed to enjoy some kind of diplomatic immunity which kept him from being arrested. The Chancellor had cordially invited him to get lost, and Riley had booked the first dirigible for Cairo. We were all heartbroken to see him go, with only gin and tonic for comfort.
“Well, she is French,” said Wadcroft. “It comes naturally to them.”
“Why not pay this fine lady a visit,” said Father. “I find it’s always harder to blow someone off in person than it is to lose a letter.”
Wadcroft’s eyes wrinkled. “But that would require travelling across the English Channel. How can we hope to accomplish this? If only we knew someone with a means of transportation equal to such an expedition.”
“You know? I might know someone like that. Perhaps the captain of the good airship Lady I might be persuaded. Joking aside, Professor, it would be the ideal opportunity to test her new engines. I would be happy to take you to Paris. A much better test run than running rings around Akenham.”
Chancellor Monroe stirred. “If I may make a suggestion? I have asked one of my old Army friends for help with our current situation.” He pulled out a pocket knife and poked in the head of his pipe, which was not burning to his satisfaction. “That is to say, I was in the Army. He was in the Secret Service. His name is Pike. Godfrey Pike. He owes me a favour and he is in Paris. His last letter said that there was going to be some sort of knees-up in the Eiffel Tower, and he was there to meet some old friends. If he’s willing, you can bring him back here.”
“Haven’t been in Paris for ages,” said Margaret. “What are the prices like on Lady I?”
“Extortionate, Professor Enderby,” said Father. “But for you I’ll make an exception.”
“You can sleep in my cabin,” I said. “Wadcroft can have the starboard midships one. Unless you fancy our navigator, of course.”
“Oh be still my heart,” said Margaret. “Who wouldn’t lust after such a fine specimen of Siberian perfection? But you would want him to take the helm now and then.”
Father gave Margaret a stern look. “Professor! No lewd conduct towards Lady I‘s crewmembers! It is the first rule!”
“Followed only by ‘No smoking near the hydrogen supply’, said Wadcroft. Are we going? Then I will pack up some samples.”
It was night, and I was at Lady I‘s helm, keeping her steady on a southern course, to compensate for a slight west wind. The heavy engines were both spinning at half speed, providing a deep undertone to the noise of the propellers and the whispers of the wind. The door opened, and Fatin walked in to join me, bare feet on the corrugated metal floor of the bridge, dressed in a nightgown. She had her hand underneath, and was rubbing her breast.
“Hello. Raage fallen asleep?”
Fatin laughed. “Tomorrow, I will show him the galley, and he can find his own food.” She walked over to the railing and leaned on it, looking out. The red night-light of the bridge showed her dark form like a shadow underneath the thin white gown. She looked over her shoulder.
“How can you see where you are going?”
“The compass,” I said. “We’re going south-by-east.”
Fatin joined me at the helm and looked. I moved the helm a few spokes to starboard so she could see the compass move. Then I got Lady I back on course.
“It’s not actually moving,” I said. “It always points in the same direction. we are turning, not it.”
Fatin looked from the compass to the wheel and back. It moved a bit to the South, and I gently moved the wheel. With my nautical experience, I found it easy to pilot Lady I. She handled like a ship, albeit with the added dimension of altitude. Fatin raised herself to her full height, closed her eyes and listened for a while.
“She sounds happy,” she said. “She is running through the fields where she is home.”
That was a strange way of putting it, but sailors have a large tradition of imbuing their ships with minds of their own. And now that I listened myself, I could imagine a content, satisfied purr in the engines. Andrew’s work was, as usual, superb.
“Would you like to try steering?”
Fatin stepped over, and put her hand on the wheel. I took a step back as she looked at the compass. It started to drift to the west, and Fatin turned the wheel to starboard, making it worse.
“Remember, steer us to the compass, not…”
Fatin gave a little nod, compensated. The rose turned to south-by-east, and stayed there. I watched it for a whole minute, but the compass didn’t budge. I looked at Fatin’s hand on the wheel, and saw she was moving it, tiny amounts, in response to goodness only knows what. She was whispering softly in her own language, with a look on her face that combined complete concentration and a deep joy. A gust of wind pushed us off course, and with a few gentle words, she put Lady I back to where she needed to go.
I stepped over to the back, where there was a well-secured teapot on a petroleum burner. I poured two mugs of tea, and held one out to her. She blinked, then accepted it with a smile and went back to steering.
“Keep going like this,” I said, “And we can take you back home.”
Fatin shook her head. “I can never go back. There are things in my head now that would break me if I saw my tribe again.” She took a sip of tea and looked at me. “Three days ago, I took Raage to one of your witch-doctors, and he wasn’t even sick. He just looked at him, and wrote things down, and listened to his heart with a…” She stumbled on a word. “thing. He let me listen, too. I heard Raage’s heart, strong. I heard him breathe. I would want that for Kinsi’s child, and I cannot give it to her. I gave birth to Raage the same way everyone did it. It hurt, but the women were with me, and singing the pain and the fear away. I told your witch-doctor, and she was… troubled.”
“People tell me the first time is always worst,” I said.
Fatin stared ahead of her, still keeping the ship on course. “Raage is not my first child,” she said.
I looked at her face, still, sad. I said nothing.
“Before I met Carl, a man came to our tribe. He saw me, and wanted me. I felt so proud to be wanted. Nobody had before except Obsiye, but he is an idiot.” Fatin smiled sadly. “He was kind. The spear was blunt, but the child was only small, and only cried and didn’t want to drink. Then it fell asleep and did not wake up again. I took it out into the woods and gave it to the forest.”
I breathed in slowly. I put my hand on her shoulder.
“Oh Fatin, I am so sorry.”
She shrugged. “These things happen. You are sad, and then there is bread to make, meat to dry, clothes to repair. And you forget, except when there is nothing else to think about. But here, in England, it would have lived, and born its own children. How can I go back, knowing that?”
There was another gust of wind, and before the compass had time to move, Fatin pushed Lady I up against it. We both fell silent, looking into the distance, as Lady I, named after my mother, carried us safely where we needed to go.
The morning was getting on when Paris came into view. I waved Fatin over to join me at the bridge telescope which I had pointed at the most famous piece of architecture of Paris: The Eiffel Tower. Designed by a man co-incidentally named Gustave Eiffel to serve as the symbol of the 1889 World Fair, and built over a period of three years, it dominated the skyline of Paris. It had been used for several grand galas, been fitted out with insane amounts of fireworks on new year’s celebrations, and finally relinquished to the hordes of tourists that arrived by the dirigible-load to be transported in hydraulic carts up the legs of the tower, or if they had something to prove about their physical prowess, using the stairs.
But that was not our goal yet. Taras Nerandzic took the helm himself in these busy Parisian skies, and steered us towards the École supérieure de physique et de chimie industrielles de la ville de Paris. We moored at one of the mooring poles, and Wadcroft asked me and Margaret to accompany him for, as he put it, an extra touch of charm. As we walked to the entrance of the University, Margaret and I spent a delightful fifteen minutes of insulting the French architecture, nature, people, science, gardens, and plumbing. Wadcroft walked a few steps ahead of us and pretended that we were nothing to do with him. We made our way to the reception desk and were greeted by a lady who made us sign our names in the visitors’ register and led us to a waiting room.
“This is what they call tea?” Margaret held her cup away from her. “Have they even heard of putting in milk?”
Wadcroft looked up. “Game faces, Ladies. Someone’s coming.”
We composed ourselves, and an elegant lady in a severe dark dress walked up to us.
“Messieurs-dames? My name is Elise Rossignol, personal assistant to Madame Curie. How may I help you?”
Wadcroft rose, and made a small bow. “Delighted, my lady. I am Professor Alan Wadcroft of Algernon University, Ipswich. These are my associates, Professor Margaret Enderby and Miss Alexandra Tennant. We are here on a matter on which Mme. Curie’s expertise might shine some light, concerning a mysterious variant of pitchblende which we found on an expedition in Africa.”
“Madame Curie is not well,” said Mme. Rossignol. “Surely, such a thing can be settled by consulting the many works in our library?”
“We have copies of all the relevant works, but books will not help us. We need Madame’s mind. We do not ask this frivolously. Her information and insight may well help us save lives.”
Madame Elise Rossignol raised a single eyebrow. “Mineralogy may well be a tumultuous subject on the geological timescale, but one can usually avoid being hit by approaching continents.”
I caught Madame Rossignol’s eye. “That may well be the case, Madame, but someone thinks the matter urgent enough to make attempts on our lives. Were this not the case, we would leave Madame Curie in peace. As it is, we fear that she may be the only one who can help us find out what we are facing.”
“Attempts…” Madame Rossignol frowned. She had bright green eyes, and she turned them on me. If I had told even a fraction of a lie, she doubtlessly would have seen it. She nodded slowly, once. “Very well. Please follow me. I will see if Madame is well enough to receive guests.”
We followed Madame Rossignol up the stairs to a remote part of the University. She stopped at one of the doors, and turned round to us.
Madame Rossignol knocked, entered the room. A few moments later, she re-emerged.
“You may enter, all three of you. Do not outstay your welcome.”
Her tone of voice made it quite clear that she would make the rest of our lives a living hell if we inconvenienced Madame Curie in any way. We quietly entered the room. It was a spacious office, tastefully furnished in green. A painting of a man with a short beard and moustache was on one of the walls. The window was open, letting in the smells and buzz of bees outside. Standing by her desk was Madame Maria Salomea Skłodowska-Curie. She looked at us with a severe, but not unfriendly look on a face framed by hair that had almost finished turning grey from black. As we watched, she closed her eyes, put a hand on her chest, swayed. Wadcroft stepped forward and put her chair behind her, while I held her arm and helped her sit down. Margaret moved in with a glass of water. Seemingly from out of nowhere, Madame Rossignol appeared. She opened her mouth to throw us out, but Madame Curie raised a hand.
“C’est bon, Elise, ca va.” She took a small sip of water, put the glass on her desk. Madame Rossignol hovered by the door.
“Ladies, sir, please sit down. What can I do for you?”
Wadcroft opened his briefcase and produced a square box, from which he took one of the rocks that had nearly cost Carl his life back in South Sudan. He gave it to Madame Curie. A sad smile flitted over her face as she ran a finger over the gleaming seam of light on the rock’s surface.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” she said. “But it is deadly as well. How large a store do you have, Professor Wadcroft?”
“We have one hundred eleven samples, similar in size to this one. Not counting this one, which I would be happy to offer to you as a gift.”
“Thank you, Professor. Tell me, how are you storing your samples?”
“We store them in air-tight glass bottles, in a wooden case.”
“That is not enough. Line the wooden box with lead when you return. The radiation from small samples like this will probably not hurt you, but I have found that more concentrated specimens will.”
“My brother carried large sacks of ore,” I said. “He received something like burns to his chest and back. The rest of his expedition died, but he survives.”
“Your brother is a lucky man,” said Madame Curie.
“All the expedition members who died were trying to extract the luminescent material from the ore,” said Wadcroft. “They may have breathed in dust particles. Carl never did.”
“That may be the case,” said Madame Curie. “Beautiful but deadly, as I said.”
Margaret moved in her chair. “There is a creature in the sea, a crustacean with a brilliantly coloured carapace, that can perceive five times more different colours than we can even imagine. And yet, its claws can move so quickly that it boils the water around it when it strikes to dismember its prey. It’s called a mantis shrimp. We had two in one of our aquaria, but they slaughered all the other creatures in the tank, and then smashed their way through inch-thick glass.”
Madame Curie smiled. “Then this may well be the mantis shrimp of geology.”
“Do you know what this is?” said Wadcroft.
“I should,” said Madame Curie. “The luminescent part of this sample is radium. It has many uses. Its radiation will shine through solid objects, revealing what is inside them to the photographic plate. It will allow a physician to examine the inside of a patient’s body without cutting him open.”
“Radiation…” Wadcroft nodded quietly. “That’s what spoiled the photographic plates. There were strange wisps almost of smoke on photographs stored with this sample.”
“But why… why would anyone want to keep this knowledge from getting out? It could benefit Mankind in any number of ways.”
Madame Curie took a deep breath, closed her eyes a moment. “This mineral may have properties thet even my husband and I have not unearthed. We were approached by an organisation seeking our knowledge. They did not seem trustworthy. I have heard from learned colleagues that they too have been approached. Some of them… disappeared.”
“Have you heard the name Prometheus?” said Wadcroft.
Madame Curie nodded. “I have heard of them. They approached me again last year. They were very insistent, but I declined their offer.”
“They will stop at nothing,” I said. “Aren’t you afraid for your safety?”
A grim defiant look was on Madame Curie’s face. “What would they do? Murder me? I am already dead, Miss Tennant. I brought the world the knowledge of Polonium and Radium, and in return, it spoiled my bone marrow. My blood runs thinner and thinner each day.” She pointed her hand at a notebook. “I will keep writing until I can write no more. Elise will keep the apparatus moving as long as she can. When even her skills cannot sustain me any longer…” Madame Curie looked at Wadcroft. “There is a reception on the third floor restaurant of La Tour Eiffel tonight. I have found it impossible to accept their invitation, but it is open to all scientists. There, you may find your adversaries.”
I noticed the word scientist. Madame Curie had known the time when the term was ‘men of science’, and had laughed in its face. Elise Rossignol stood behind us, moving silently as a ghost.
“Messieurs-dames? Madame Curie must rest now. Please excuse her.”
We walked down the hallways of the University of Paris, quiet, with plenty to think about. The Prometheus organisation seemed to be larger than we had thought. Madame Curie had felt their influence and defied them.
“Do not go gentle into that good night,” said Margaret, out of nowhere. “Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.”
It is not often that I get to see my brother wearing full black tie. He does scrub up well. Fatin was standing next to him in one of the homespun dresses they had bought all the way over in Kodok. I looked at her, then at Margaret.
“Fatin?” said Margaret. “Follow us.”
We took Fatin into their cabin and assessed the situation. Fatin was a slender young woman. Her skin was a deep brown and her jet-black hair stood out in a mass of small curls, unless she tamed it with a scarf or a ribbon.
“We’re about the same size,” I said. “Let me get something. Margaret, you get her out of that dress.”
I ran to my own cabin and from the new wardrobe pulled my only light blue dress and corset. Margaret and I helped Fatin into the skirts and tightened the corset.
“Just say if it’s too tight,” I said, pulling on the laces.
“I am too large for this,” said Fatin.
“This dress is meant to change your figure,” Margaret replied. “Makes you look slimmer. Men are naturally attracted to small waists, wide hips, and large breasts. It’s really interesting. The appeal of the hourglass figure is almost the same over all cultures since ancient history.”
“And bulging eyes? I can hardly breathe!”
“Sad to say, breathing is not what this dress is best for,” I said.
We smoothed down the dress, fussed a bit, then stood back and admired our handiwork. I handed Fatin the matching parasol.
“What is this?”
I took it back and opened it. “It’s meant to keep the sun off your head.”
“The sun?” Fatin chuckled. “Do I need to be afraid of the sun? Here?”
“You can also stab people with it if they don’t get out of your way, and hook your man if his eyes wander.”
“Not a chance,” said Margaret. “You look lovely, dear.”
“Just make it clear to my dear brother that you’re not making a habit of dressing up like this.”
Margaret pointed at me. “What are you wearing?”
I thought a moment. “I’ll put on a frilly shirt over my all-environment suit. I’ll just say that is what everyone wears these days. Ready?”
We went to the bridge in single file, me, Fatin, Margaret. Carl was talking to Wadcroft, his back to us. Wadcroft, clad in gala University colours, raised a finger, then pointed Carl at us. The expression on his face was priceless. Margaret and I looked at each other, and grinned. Mission accomplished. Fatin said something to Carl in her own language. Carl laughed sheepishly. Fatin turned round to the pram, to pick up Raage and his carrying sling.
Margaret stepped up. “You aren’t taking the little nipper to a gala dinner, are you? Lots of people smoking cigars, very bad for little lungs.”
Fatin looked a bit worried. “But what if he gets hungry? You are not…” she made a vague gesture in the direction of Margaret’s rather generous personality.
“We have milk in the cold-box,” said Margaret. “And you’ve just fed him, haven’t you? Go on, enjoy yourself.”
I bit my lip to keep from laughing. Margaret was almost ready to hiss, “Give me the child!”
Fatin looked into Margaret’s eyes with an expression that combined gratitude, worry, and a dash of menace. She handed Raage to Margaret, and Margaret settled into one of the comfortable observation chairs that we had added to the bridge. She waved us away.
“Shoo! Get away the lot of you. I have this in hand.”
We watched Raage rub his cheek against Margaret and look up at her.
“Right young man. The first law of Thermodynamics. Heat is work, and work is heat.” Margaret looked up. “Are you still here?”
Professor Wadcroft offered me his arm. I took it. The four of us walked down the gangplank, hailed a cab, and set off for the Eiffel Tower.
We arrived at the South leg of the tower, and were herded into one of the lifts that took us up to the first level. Then, we had to change into the only technical part of the lift that wasn’t manufactured in France: the Otis lifts that were special in that they needed to follow the inward curve of the Tower’s leg using a complicated set of chains. We walked into the restaurant. It was a large room, with tables arranged along the walls. People were standing around in small cliques, talking. I noticed several people looking at us, either because I had the audacity to show off my legs, or because Fatin’s was the only brown face in the room. A string quartet was in the corner, playing one of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. A waitress in a dark dress and a white apron walked past with a tray full of glasses of champagne. Carl, Wadcroft, and I took a glass. Fatin gave the waitress a brilliant smile. The waitress allowed herself a little glimmer.
“What is this drink?”
“Bollinger Special Cuvée, Madame. Please help yourself.”
Fatin picked up a long thin glass, and looked at it, fascinated. “Where do these bubbles come from?”
“It is Champagne, Madame.” The waitress nodded and glided off to the next group.
“Thank y…” Fatin looked at the waitress’ disappearing back.
“This is a kind of wine,” said Carl. Have a taste, see if you like it.
Fatin did, and gave Carl a Look. “Do all the white people drink horrible things?”
“It’s a thing you learn to like,” said Carl breezily.
“Canapé Messieurs-dames?” Another waitress came by bringing offerings of salmon mousse on toast, and eggs with a dash of caviar. I grabbed one of the eggs, as caviar is not a daily treat for me. Fatin followed me.
“This is…” I began.
“Oh I know what this is,” said Fatin. “It comes from the inside of a fish. The River People bring it to the feast. They bring more than this, though.” She put the egg in her mouth. “A bit too salty, but still nice.” She sipped more champagne. “Ah. This…”
“Champagne. It tastes better with something salty.”
Wadcroft narrowed his eyes, looking at a man on the other side of the room, with long hair and a little unkempt beard, in an obviously rented suit that didn’t fit him well.
“Good Heavens, Is that Dr. Mason? What is he doing here? I thought he was at Cornell throwing bits of sodium into bottles of water. Excuse me, I have to go and have a word with him.”
Wadcroft wandered off. We wandered round, keeping Fatin between us, watching the people. We ended up at one of the high tables, for standing by rather than sitting at. Carl kindly offered to fetch us some pieces of food from the buffet, leaving me and Fatin to observe the mad scientists’ hairstyles. On the other end of the table were two women, likewise abandoned by their men. Their dresses were slightly too small for them, and they were wearing a bit more make-up than strictly necessary. They were casting surreptitious glances at Fatin, until she noticed.
Fatin smiled at them. “Good evening. I am Fatin. Are you enjoying the evening?”
One of the ladies gave a little affected laugh. “Tiens. Qui a apporté sa p’tite Négresse? La robe bleu ne va pas du tout avec sa teint.”
Her companion tutted at her. “Well, does anything? I hear they normally walk around naked, comme les animaux. Though it may not be entirely polite to mention it here.”
The rude lady looked into Fatin’s eyes. “Elle ne comprend pas un mot.”
“Mais moi, je comprends,” I said sweetly. “Would you like me to translate?”
“I love this place,” said Fatin, eyes aglow. “People here are much nicer than the M’bari tribe.” She turned to me. “You have to be very careful only to visit them after a hunt, when their bellies are full. If they are hungry…”
“Oh, do they put you in their cooking pot?”
“Oh no,” said Fatin. “We don’t have those. They put leather straps round your arms and legs, and wind them very tight with sticks, and then they cut below, so you don’t bleed to death and go bad. In the forest, meat spoils in only one or two days unless you dry it. Then they eat the arms and legs first, and save the body for later.”
“So they can’t run away. That’s clever.”
“Yes. And it is easier like that to push the spit from one end to the other for roasting.” Fatin’s eyes turned to our new friends, who were looking a bit green about the gills. “But that is not my tribe of course.”
Carl returned with a plate full of fried chicken parts. With a delighted ‘Ah!’, Fatin picked one up, and bit into it. Carl, gentleman that he was, offered me the plate first, offered it to the ladies who refused, and only then took a piece himself. One of the waitresses walked by with a tray of glasses.
“Mm,” said Carl, wiping his fingers with a paper napkin. “With white meat, you have white wine.”
“You do?” said Fatin, picking up a glass. Her eyes strayed to the French ladies, who started fanning themselves, turned tail and fled.
I nearly rolled under the table laughing. Fatin looked a picture of sweetness and innocence. Carl looked from me to Fatin and back.
“What are you two up to?”
Fatin looked at me. I looked back at her.
“Nothing,” we both said, at the same time.
Wadcroft returned from his chat with Dr. Mason, and we found our table. Already seated at the table was a small frail old man, smiling distractedly into a half-pint of shandy. We all nodded politely at him, and sat down. Wadcroft held out his hand.
“Good evening, Sir. Alan Wadcroft, of Algernon University. How do you do?”
The man shook Wadcroft’s hand. “Pleased to meet you, Sir. My name is Pike. Godfrey Pike.”
Carl, having courteously assisted Fatin into her seat, pulled up next to me, raised his eyebrows and whispered. “Is this the man Chancellor Munroe has asked to keep the wolves from Algernon’s doors?”
“I wonder how long ago he retired,” I whispered back.
“Oh, only last year my dear,” said Mr. Pike. “Her Majesty’s Secret Service finally got sick of the sight of me. How is Malcolm these days? Leg still giving him trouble?”
“Oh, pardon me,” I said. “Not that I could tell, thank you for asking.”
Godfrey Pike gave me an amused look. “It’s just that he keeps going on about how he carried me to safety on his shoulders on a leg and a half, under heavy fire. Do ask him. He loves telling that story.”
“Why don’t you ask him yourself?” said Wadcroft. “I understand he made you an offer.”
“Indeed he did,” said Mr. Pike. “I am sorely tempted. It would be retirement of sorts, without the cessation of movement. People our age need something to keep our minds occupied, or we reduce ourselves to simply waiting for the next cup of cocoa in the retirement home.”
The first course arrived, a thin vegetable broth with a basket of the long thin crusty white bread that is as much a symbol of France that the very Eiffel Tower is. Fatin, having had her fill of wine, poured herself a glass of water. We finished our soup, and while waiters removed the bowls and plates, a dark-haired woman took the stage, to sing an aria by Puccini. Fatin, who had been talking to Carl in her own language, stopped in mid-sentence. I could see her holding her breath. Carl looked at her.
“You like that?”
The piece wasn’t very long, and the singer took a well-deserved applause from the diners. The next course arrived, a well-cooked leg of duck, lettuce with a walnuts and cheese, with potatoes fried in duck fat, a traditional dish of the South of France. As we ate, Mr. Pike coughed politely.
“I would like you all to keep concentrating on your plates please, and not look up or around you. Our host, a Magister Nicholas Slate, is at the main table and he has looked in our direction more times than can be explained by chance. Also, a man, I would guess Prussian by the cut of his suit, is studiously avoiding looking in our direction. Furthermore, I notice several men of rather exaggerated physical build sitting at strategic positions that allow them to reach the doors before anyone else does. I saw one of them is armed with a large caliber handgun, so we must assume that so are the others. Finally, the gentleman sitting two tables behind you still wearing his rather unfashionable Panama hat, Miss Tennant, seems to know you.” Mr. Pike heaved a deep sigh. “And to think that I was considering retirement precisely to avoid these situations.”
After a few moments of silence, Carl stirred. “Is there anything else you’ve observed?”
Pike’s eyes gleamed at Carl. “The gentleman four tables away from us has his hand under the skirt of his companion’s lady friend. But that need not disturb us. The French are a passionate people.”
“Mr. Pike, could you please point at my face and make some comment or other? Maybe I can tell you more about these mysterious guests.”
“Certainly. I think the lip colour you are wearing is a bit too flamboyantly red. A brown colour would suit you much better, to match that rather nice all-environment suit you are wearing.”
I pulled out my compact mirror and pretended to apply powder to my nose. “I tend to go without,” I said, and turned my mirror so I could see.
“The very optimum,” said Pike.
“Riley,” I said. “Agent of an Arkham University. I wonder what the bastard is doing here.” I turned my mirror, and held my breath. “And the gentleman not looking at us is Oberst Gustav Klemm.”
Wadcroft sneered. “This is starting to look like some kind of reunion. At my last primary school one, there were also little cliques that didn’t talk to each other.”
At the end of the room, Mr. Nicholas Slate rose, and tapped his knife against his glass for attention. The first thing that I noticed, was how tall he was, easily towering above his companions. Mr. Slate was quite handsome, with a trim black moustache, and meticulously dressed. He wore no jewellery, except for a silvery lapel pin that I was too far away to make out precisely. When he spoke, his voice was clear and high.
“Friends and colleagues! Welcome to my little soiree. It is very gratifying to see that so many men and women of Science have chosen to join us here. Those who have not, will envy you this experience in years to come, for you have the unique opportunity to stand at the cradle of a new world! One that will no longer be powered by the black coal and its belching smoke, but by the clean and radiant energy of the stars themselves! Some of you have been invited specially for your knowledge, others are here more or less by chance.”
Mr. Slate walked round the table. “Ladies, Gentlemen all! I, Nicholas Slate, Magister of the New Order, extend to all of you my invitation. Those of you who accept my invitation will gain renown beyond their wildest dreams.”
It was more or less at this point in Mr. Slate’s speech that the heavy men stood up, drew their pistols, and stood by every door. I recognised them as Klemm’s Jäger, though none of these had been present on our expedition to Sudan. Magister Slate raised himself to his full impressive height and crossed his arms.
“Those of you who do not accept my invitation, will regrettably never leave this tower alive. Be assured that I bear you no ill will. I simply cannot allow any news of this to be revealed to the public.”
Mr. Slate pointed his hand at the East entrance, where a monstrous shape now slid into view, a dirigible, until then hidden at great altitude, that almost dwarfed the very Eiffel Tower itself. A gangplank was extended, to come to rest on the walkway.
“After you, my future colleagues! Join me now, on the path to glory!”
For a moment, nothing happened. Then, one of the men stood up and marched towards the dirigible.
“Mason, you idiot,” hissed Wadcroft.
But more of the scientists now got up and walked towards an uncertain future. Mr. Slate looked at each of us, assessing our willingness to either join or resist. He came over to our table, with two armed Jäger behind him.
“Professor Wadcroft,” he said. “Will you not join me? I can use a man with your alchemical knowledge. I assure you, what I have to offer you is far better than vegetating in that dusty university in Ipswich. I’ll even allow you to bring your companions with you.”
Wadcroft snorted. “My seat at Algernon may be a bit worn at the edges, but it is my chair. I’ll keep it.”
“And how about you, Miss Tennant? You may not be a scientist, but I can always use a woman of your capabilities.”
I glanced at Mr. Slate’s lapel pin, the only identifying piece he wore. It portrayed an eagle struck by a lightning bolt, plummeting to the ground. I looked up into Slate’s eyes.
“Your organisation tried to kill us, Mr. Slate, and not only that, you threatened the life of my young friends. The next day that you come within a mile of me, will be your last.”
Slate laughed unpleasantly. “I’m afraid that day will not come. You can either follow me now, or die.”
“What will you do? Have your soldiers kill us?”
“Oh good heavens, no,” said Slate. “That would be a grotesque act, lacking in all sophistication. No, I’m afraid something dreadful is about to happen to the work of Mr. Gustav Eiffel.”
“Explosives can be detected, Slate,” said Carl.
“Pah! Explosives! Do you expect me simply to throw a stick of dynamite at this tower?” He pointed up. “My inventions will allow me to make this look like an unforgivable miscalculation on Mr. Eiffel’s part.” Slate looked round, and saw that no more people were marching into his dirigible. He nodded at us. “A pleasure to meet you, ladies and gentlemen, a singular pleasure.”
And with that, Mr. Slate turned round and boarded his dirigible. The gangplank was retracted, and with a mocking bow to us, the doors closed. The dirigible moved up and away. I looked at the elevators, but the Jäger had taken them down and smashed the mechanism. The doors to the stairwell had been chained shut.
“No explosives?” Carl shook his head. “Is he expecting this tower to rust away before they come to rescue us?”
“Um…” Fatin had closed her eyes, and had her head tilted slightly backwards to hear and feel better. “Does any of you think the floor is shaking?”