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Fiction: The Bohemian Astrobleme by Kage Baker

“Oh!” cried Enderley’s wife. “The pin has come off my brooch!”

Enderley, lathering his face with soap, grunted and laid down the shaving brush. “Let’s see,” he said, turning from the washbasin. His wife held out her hand to display the brooch she had inherited from her mother. It was a heavy, old-fashioned thing of silver, set with a large oval stone. The stone looked to be dark red agate, swirled through with fernlike markings. Enderley didn’t much care for it, but he was mindful of his wife’s stricken expression as he said:

“Easily fixed. We don’t need to take it to a jeweler; I can repair it at the laboratory.”

“Can you?”

“Of course. Dot of solder will do the job. Set it on the hall table and I’ll remember to take it with me.”

#

Enderley’s wife was under the impression he worked for the Patent Office, or some sort of branch of it, doing tests on things. She never asked what, exactly, because she was not of an inquiring disposition. She was content to know that Enderley’s weekly wage comfortably furnished their little terrace house in a nicer London suburb and kept all tradesmen’s bills current.

When Enderley set forth each morning, beaver hat securely on head and umbrella tightly furled, he did not, in fact, go to the Patent Office nor to any branches it might have. He walked briskly in the general direction of Whitehall, turning in at Craig’s Court. He entered an unremarkable mansion of red brick housing one of the less-celebrated clubs in London, Redking’s.

Once within its obscure halls, Enderley walked straight past the dining room and bar; passed without a glance the study, where Members dozed in deep chairs or scowled as they perused the Times. Enderley walked down a narrow flight of stairs and along a dimly-lit corridor to a pair of doors which, when opened, revealed merely a tiny windowless room within. Enderley stepped inside and closed the doors. Were anyone to open the doors again, assuming at least one minute and fifteen seconds precisely had passed, they would find Enderley nowhere in sight.

This was because Enderley had ridden the Ascending Room down to one of the several storeys that lay concealed beneath Redking’s. On one of these subterranean floors, well lit and ventilated by arts currently unknown to the rest of the world, Enderley hung up his beaver hat, set his umbrella in a stand provided for that purpose, donned a white coat, and went to work.

In one respect only were Mrs. Enderley’s assumptions correct: Enderley did conduct tests on things. Not, however, on new formulae for aniline dyes or lucifer matches, or improved mechanisms for cotton mills. Rather, Enderley’s work on any given day might involve devising new weatherproofing methods for airships, or adapting designs for submarine vessels. In this year of 1845 Jules Verne had as yet written nothing more significant than school compositions, and yet his muse was already alive beneath the pavement of London.

This was because the hidden complex under Redking’s housed an ancient fraternity currently known, to those privileged few who knew of its existence, as the Gentlemen’s Speculative Society. The Society had gone by other names over the course of its lengthy career. Sir Isaac Newton, Dr. John Dee, and Leonardo da Vinci had all been members. So, it was rumored, had Archimedes and Heron of Alexandria. The Society’s goal was the improvement of the human condition through the secret use oftechnologia, until such time as humanity became advanced enough to be made aware of its benefits.

It was generally agreed that some sort of world domination would be necessary before that day arrived, but at the present time the Society was content merely to gather power and pull strings attached to certain government officials. Enderley had been recruited at an early age, after demonstrating his brilliance by winning several prizes. The Society paid him a handsome wage and rewarded especially useful discoveries with generous bonuses, so Enderley was a contented member of the rank and file.

On this particular day Enderley drew the broken brooch from his pocket and set it on his worktable, intending to mend it when he had a moment to spare. As his present project did not involve the use of a soldering iron (he was experimenting with synthetic compounds that showed promise in inducing profound sleep in dogs) the brooch sat forgotten for some hours, until a careless gesture on Enderley’s part knocked over a beaker of acetic acid. The acid flooded across several of Enderley’s notes and briefly submerged the brooch as well, before finding the edge of the worktable and spattering to the floor.

Muttering to himself, Enderley grabbed a rag and stopped the flood. He pulled his notes free and, whilst waving them in the air, noticed the brooch. He grabbed for it, observing as he did so a peculiar fizzing reaction localized to the ferny inclusions in the red stone. A second later Enderley was lying unconscious and flat on his back where he had been thrown to the floor.

His fellow chemists gathered around him in concern. Judson, who was presently working on a formula to prolong life, stooped to pick up the brooch Enderley had dropped and immediately fell as though poleaxed. Berwick, who was compounding a fuel that might enable steam engines to run without benefit of coal, picked up the brooch and was likewise knocked off his feet, stunned. So was Ponsonby, who had that very morning invented a substance that would enable photographs to be taken and developed in a fraction of the time required by Mssrs. Daguerre or Talbot.

It was left to young Jones, the tea boy, to realize that the best way to pick up the brooch was to gingerly scoop it up between two pieces of pasteboard.

#

“It’s not an agate,” said Greene, pushing the stone across his blotter with the end of a pen. Ludbridge leaned forward and peered at it. Greene customarily prided himself on showing as little emotion as possible during a briefing, and Ludbridge had long since learned that any briefing sessions invariably became contests of sangfroid.

“My dear old chap, gemstones aren’t my field of study. I wouldn’t know an agate from a bit of red glass.”

“As it happens, it is a bit of red glass,” Greene informed him. “To be precise, it’s a tektite.”

“And that would be?”

“Meteoric glass. Millennia ago, some monstrous fragment of star-stuff hurtled down and struck the Earth. Sand was melted and re-formed into glassy material, and spewed out across the landscape, to be subsequently buried in other antediluvian upheavals. There’s a strewnfield in the Near East with a considerable deposit. There’s another in Bavaria. The stuff from the German crater all ended up in Bohemia, and it’s called moldavite. This would appear to be a piece of moldavite, but for one thing.”

“Mm. What’s that?”

“Moldavite’s green.”

“Well, then it’s something else, isn’t it?”

Greene shook his head. “Ah, but what? Enderley’s asked his wife. The stone was set in a brooch she inherited from her mother. Her mother came from Bohemia. Apparently there’s a very rare red variety. Bohemia has its own astrobleme—“

“Beg your pardon?”

“Where’s your Latin? Astrobleme, ‘star wound’. The impact site of a meteor. The Bohemian one seems to be near Budweis. We think that’s the source of the red tektites. We’ve had Research culling through their references; the red stone is difficult to find, hardly ever comes on the market, and the only written reference we can locate is by a 16th-century alchemist, who gave it the name blitzstein.”

“Thunder stone? No, no… Lightning stone, wouldn’t that be?”

“Yes. Which indicates that some one before Enderley discovered its useful properties.” Greene peered down at the stone. “Fortunately for us, no one else seems to have noticed that the red stone, when in contact with acetic acid, generates a powerful electrical charge.”

“Useful, I assume?”

“It could be. The chaps in Fabrication are beside themselves at the test results so far. Reliable battery power without jars and jars of stuff in heavy cases. Imagine your field gear powered by a tiny disc of this, in a sealed vial of acid. The electric candles, say. Or the thermal goggles.”

“Damned useful, then.” Ludbridge leaned back, tugging his beard thoughtfully. “Well, what’s the job, Greene?”

“We want more of it. All of it, if we can get it.” Greene looked directly into Ludbridge’s eyes. “You’re to go there and see that we do.”

There being?”

“Bohemia, where else?” Greene reached out to the globe that sat on the corner of his desk. He spun it briefly and stopped it with a tap of his finger. “Here. You’ll be issued maps, of course. You’ll have an interpreter and a legman with you.”

“Mm. Funds?”

“Parker will make the usual arrangements.”

“I mean, are they to be rather more generous than customary? If I’m to buy large quantities of gemstones?”

Greene looked opaque. He stroked his mustache. “Given what’s at stake, your allowance is likely to be generous, yes. You are aware, however, that the finance committee lauds every saved halfpenny. Should the opportunity present itself to practice a certain economy, we would, of course, prefer that you take it.”

Ludbridge gave a short laugh, aware that such a display of emotion would cost him the match. It was some consolation to see Greene very nearly smirk.

“To be sure! Which one of ‘em’s a screwsman, the legman or the translator?”

“The legman, naturally. Not our most stable operative, but we’ve taken steps.”

“‘Not one of our most stable’…? Who is it?”

“Chap named Hirsch. Talented, but on sufferance just at present.”

“I see.”

#

Hirsch the legman was nearly late for the boat train to Dover. Ludbridge and the translator—a small and self-effacing émigré named Ressel—watched as he came running through the crowds at the station. He hurried along the platform, spotted their carriage and pounded on the window, grinning. Ludbridge opened the door. Hirsch swung himself in, threw his solitary bag into the overhead rack and slammed the carriage door as the train began to move.

“So!” He collapsed into his seat and grinned at them once more. “I have arrived.”

“Just,” said Ludbridge.

“Yes, well, I was having my teeth seen to.”

“Were you?” Ludbridge drew out his watch and appeared to consult it.

“Mr. Greene’s orders. Lest I should be distracted by the toothache when on the job.” Hirsch hooked a finger over his lip and displayed the new silver crown gleaming far back in his mouth.

“Charming,” murmured Ressel.

“I am a valuable employee after all, it seems,” said Hirsch, with a certain gloating tone.

“Are you?” said Ludbridge. “That matter of the policeman in Whitechapel all a misunderstanding, then?”

Hirsch reddened. He leaned back in his seat and folded his arms. “Naturally you’ve read some sort of dossier on me, I suppose, since you’re the mission leader. Very well! Men make mistakes. And yet, here I am, aren’t I? And why is that, do you think?”

“Because you were the best man for the job,” said Ludbridge.

Hirsch smiled and laid a finger beside his nose. “Right you are! I track like a hound. And this dog knows a few other tricks, believe me. So all is forgiven and forgotten.”

“I expect so,” said Ludbridge. “Well, gentlemen. Care for a game of cards?”

#

Railway service was dismal, where it existed at all, in France; rather better in Belgium; varied wildly across the Germanies, necessitating several connections made by horse-drawn coach. They had a long jolting ride from Bavaria to Bohemia before gliding into Budweis via horse-drawn rail car.

“Now for some good beer!” cried Hirsch, as he jumped down and collected his bag. “My father used to cry when he remembered it. Wait until you taste it, Ludbridge! It will open your eyes to that flat warm stuff the English drink. Or perhaps your father was a lord, and didn’t drink beer?”

“No; he was a laborer, as it happens. Liked his pint of ale.” Ludbridge hoisted out his bag as Ressel jumped down.

They found a hotel for commercial travelers. With rooms secured, they had an excellent meal of pork and dumplings at a biergarten, washed down by beer that Ludbridge admitted, when pressed by Hirsch, was quite good.

“And shall we see the sights first, and set off on our quest tomorrow?” cried Hirsch, whose mood had become more and more ebullient the farther east they had traveled. Insofar as he had borne cheerfully with all the inconvenience of the journey, Ludbridge and Ressel had been grateful, but they had begun to find his high spirits somewhat wearing.

“Don’t think it bears discussion at table, do you?” Stolidly Ludbridge helped himself to another slice of dumpling. Ressel glanced nervously over his shoulder.

“In the hotel room, Hirsch,” he said in a low voice. “More, er, discreet, yes?”

Hirsch’s eyes flashed with anger. He subsided, and consumed the rest of his meal in sullen silence.

#

Ludbridge and Ressel played cards until just before midnight, when Hirsch returned and flung his hat across the room at the hatrack. Missing it, he muttered under his breath as he retrieved it and hung it up.

“And your progress?” Ludbridge folded his hand of cards.

“The red is rare,” said Hirsch. “Very rare. Two of the jewelers laughed at me. So did a pawnbroker. This is not employment calculated to increase a man’s self-respect.”

“Quite,” said Ludbridge. “Has anyone got it?”

“One place had a signet ring, another place a woman’s pendant with a cameo.” Hirsch drew a chair from the group at the table and sat, straddling it front to back. “Priced higher than you wish to pay, perhaps? But you’ll see. What I did learn was that both pieces were made by the same man, and the red tektite river flows through him and him alone. Old family business of jewelers, and he is the current inheritor of the firm.”

“What’s his name?”

“Konrad Bayer.” Hirsch felt about in his coat pocket and pulled out a slip of paper, which he handed to Ludbridge. “That is the address of the premises.”

“Very good.” Ludbridge glanced at it and tucked it away in his waistcoat pocket. “Ressel, you and I will trot round there tomorrow and make a few innocent inquiries.”

“Didn’t I do a good enough job?” cried Hirsch.

“Of course you did! I’m giving you a day to rest, you damned fool. Chances are you’ll have surveillance watch tomorrow night. You’ll want all the sleep you can get,” said Ludbridge.

#

The shop bore a sign reading BAYER & SOHN. Behind the display window panes were trays lined in faded velvet, bearing various examples of jewelry design in silverplate and paste. Ludbridge nodded at Ressel and they went in, causing a bell mounted over the door to ring as they did so. Ludbridge, smiling, drew off his hat and bowed to the ancient who rose from behind the counter.

“Tell him I’m pleased to make his acquaintance, and ask him whether he’s Herr Bayer.”

Ressel translated obediently. The old man shook his head mournfully and replied at length.

“He says he is merely Herr Muller, but he has worked here for forty years and can undoubtedly serve us, as Herr Bayer has not yet come down this morning, and what would the Englishman wish to purchase?”

“Very well; tell him…my wife had a certain brooch, of which she was quite fond, inherited from her Bohemian grandmother, and sadly the stone has gone missing from its setting. It was a particular red glass, not made but naturally occurring, and I have been informed that only here can I purchase a replacement.”

Ludbridge watched as Ressel translated again. Even while Ressel was speaking, Herr Muller began to shake his head. He interrupted; Ressel pressed on; they exchanged several brief remarks. At last Ressel turned to Ludbridge.

“He says it is true that Bayer & Son is the only dealer in the red, but they have not had any for a long time now and in fact may not get it in stock again. He suggests you look for it in shops that carry older jewelry, as it sometimes comes up for sale there. Or perhaps you would like to replace it with garnet or ruby.”

“Damn. Ask him why they can’t get it.”

Ressel translated the question. Herr Muller glanced upward once and replied.

“He says he doesn’t know, it’s none of his business.”

“Ask him where the red glass comes from.”

The sound of someone descending a staircase came from the rear of the shop. Herr Muller glanced over his shoulder. He said something brief and emphatic.

“He says he doesn’t know that either, he is only a clerk, and if you aren’t interested in buying rubies or garnets, you had better look elsewhere—“

A man entered the shoproom from a rear door, pulling on a coat as he came. He was tall, reasonably youthful and good-looking, with stylishly curled hair and whiskers, but a certain wolfish and disheveled air. There were circles under his eyes. He looked sharply at Ludbridge and Ressel, and said something in an interrogatory tone to Herr Muller.

Herr Muller replied, sounding stubborn and somewhat affronted. The other addressed himself to Ludbridge and Ressel and spoke forcefully. He turned, said something else to Herr Muller, opened the counter and walked out, letting the counter bang down after him. Taking a hat and walking stick from a stand by the door, he left the shop and walked quickly away. Herr Muller sighed.

“He said some, er, disrespectful things to Herr Muller and he told you that the source of the red is a secret closely held by his firm and when it is to be had he makes announcements in all the papers, and not before. He also told Herr Muller he was going out to get something for his, er, katzenjammer, what you get when you are drinking too much?” Ressel spoke in an undertone.

“Just so.” Ludbridge bowed to Herr Muller, replaced his hat and left the shop. Ressel followed like a shadow.

When they were out on the pavement, Ressel said, “I don’t think Hirsch is a very nice man.”

“Don’t you?”

“He’s been stealing my socks.”

“Mm. Something queer about him, or d’you think he’s simply lazy?”

Ressel shrugged unhappily. “He uses my comb too. There was a boy at school like him. Always bullying other boys. Always showing off and defying the schoolmaster.”

“Well, don’t trouble yourself about it. I’ll give you a couple of pounds and you can buy yourself some new socks at a haberdasher’s.”

“But those were knitted by my mother.”

“Steal ‘em back then.” Ludbridge took out his cigar case and lit a cigar. After a long pause he added: “We can get to Bayer, I think.”

#

“Wine, women and song,” said Hirsch, and hiccuped. “Especially women. Herr Bayer spends his money like water! Eats at the best places, so I was obliged to as well—I’ll need a little more money, Ludbridge. Has his favorite route that takes him to all the best drinking-places, and I’m not talking about beer. Brandy and champagne for our friend Bayer! And naturally I was obliged to have a drink or two myself, to remain inconspicuous, wasn’t I? You see why this is getting a bit expensive.

“And every evening ends the same: the women! But no streetwalkers with muddy skirts for him, no. He goes for the higher-priced establishments. When he’s had his schnapps he’ll go after any beauty, respectable ones even, if his eye lights on them. He’s fought four duels in his time. Two marriages broken up and a well-born daughter disgraced. It’s cost him a lot of money in lawsuits, I can tell you. An uncontrollable Don Juan!”

“I take it you weren’t obliged to spend on similar quality entertainment?” Ludbridge said. Hirsch waved his hand.

“No, but information isn’t cheaply bought, either. And here’s a tidbit that cost me two crowns, since you’re asking: his late father was several times approached to engage him in marriage with assorted daughters of well-to-do merchants. Having the only knowledge of where the red can be found makes him desirable, you see? And though he boasts when he’s in his cups,that he never brags of. No hints, no oblique remarks about knowing a big secret, nothing.”

“Good to know.” Ludbridge tugged at his beard. “An idiot, in everything but that.”

“Precisely.” Hirsch grinned wide.

“Very good.” Ludbridge rose to his feet. “Well done, Hirsch.”

“Shall I go out again?”

“Not tonight. Get to bed. I’ll have work for you tomorrow.”

“Ah! Obtaining certain valuables at bargain rates, by any chance?” Hirsch mimed hitting someone with a cosh. Ludbridge shook his head.

“Not yet. Fairly soon, I think, but not just yet.”

Hirsch bowed mockingly. “I am at your service whenever required,” he said, and left the room.

Ludbridge lit a cigar and waited patiently, listening to the sounds that indicated Hirsch was retiring: boots pulled off and dropped, rustle of undress, sounds at the washstand. A dance tune hummed loudly, Ressel’s sleepy protest, the tune continuing at a slightly lower volume. Creaking as Hirsch crawled into his bed; snores following fairly soon.

When Ludbridge had finished his cigar, he rose and quietly drew his traveling-bag from under his bed. Opening it, he took out what appeared to be a cigar box, followed by an apparent pair of ear muffs, and at last something that closely resembled one of the brass ear-trumpets used by persons hard of hearing. The brass trumpet fitted into a circular port in the cigar box; Ludbridge unwound a cord from around the ear muffs, slid them on his head, and pushed a sort of aglet on the end of the cord into a second port in the cigar box. Lastly he slid one side of the box upward, after the manner of a Chinese puzzle, revealing beneath a row of small dials and switches.

Turning a switch, Ludbridge saw a tiny red light flash on the panel. He turned one of the dials carefully, hearing as he did so shrill whistles and inorganic screams within what were clearly not earmuffs. After a long moment he spoke into the brass trumpet, in a low and penetrating voice.

“Gentlemen. Gentlemen, Night Operator. Gentlemen. What becomes of illusions?”

A sleepy voice answered in his ear, immediate and yet hollow and echoing with distance. “We dispel them.”

“And we are everywhere. Ludbridge communicating. I require a message delivered.”

“One moment.” Ludbridge fancied he could hear, miles away, the Night Operator scrambling for pen and ink. “Sender, Ludbridge. Recipient?”

“Corvey.”

“I see. Message?”

“I’ll thank you not to take that tone, boy. Message is, ‘We require your best. Can pay one-way Urgent Passage for one via Governess Cart. Location is—’” Ludbridge scowled a moment, and then gave the hotel’s address.

“Yes, sir. Will that be all, sir?”

“No…. ‘Advise, drastic measures possibly called for.’”

“Yes, sir. I’ll send that straight over by courier, shall I, sir?”

“Please do.”

“Response should be available within two hours, sir.”

“Thank you. I shall wait. Ludbridge concluding.”

“Gentlemen concluding.”

Ludbridge removed the ear apparatus. He got up, walked to the window, stared out at the night awhile; sat down and lit another cigar. When the cigar was out he settled comfortably in his chair, hands clasped across his waistcoat, and fixed his nearly-unblinking gaze upon the transmitting apparatus. Perhaps a quarter of an hour later he saw a green light flash on beside the red one.

Moving with surprising speed for a man of his bulk, Ludbridge crossed the room and pulled on the earpieces.

“Gentlemen? Communicating.”

“What becomes of illusions?”

“We dispel them.”

“And we are everywhere.”

“Ludbridge.”

“Response from Corvey, sir.”

“And it is?”

“‘Expect Lady Beatrice by Governess Cart no later than Wednesday.’”

#

It was called a Governess Cart because it was made to look like one, and in fact it was possible to hitch a pony to its traces and proceed at a modest trot by daylight. Any uninitiated person seeing it might wonder why such a large trunk was crammed under the seat, but few uninitiated persons ever laid eyes on the Governess Cart because it traveled primarily along the deserted highways of the night.

Those few who did glimpse it, generally as they staggered home in an advanced state of inebriation, were never believed if they unwisely spoke of seeing a nocturnal thing with glowing eyes that rocketed down empty lanes at speeds exceeding forty miles an hour, steam engine rattling. The Governess Cart was extremely useful, therefore, as a light priority transport for individuals or packages that simply had to cross distances with greater alacrity than was possible for anyone else in 1845.

Lady Beatrice, who had ridden painfully through the Khyber Pass over the frozen bodies of her father’s regiment some years earlier, much preferred speedier means of transportation, and so she quite enjoyed traveling by Governess Cart. It was true that one’s hair became wildly disarranged unless one wore a special canvas bonnet tied down and reinforced with hatpins, but Lady Beatrice was well accustomed to wearing specialized clothing. Neither did she mind the goggles nor the long canvas coat recommended for high-speed travelers, since the one kept dust out of one’s eyes admirably and the other insulated one against the damps of the night. Lady Beatrice had spent enough time exposed to the damps of the night and was disinclined to suffer them further.

Lady Beatrice was, to put it bluntly, a whore, albeit a well-bred and well-educated one. Being raped by Ghilzai tribesmen had ruined her chances for making a good marriage or, indeed, entering into polite society at all, but fortunately she had encountered the proprietress of a distinguished and exclusive establishment known as Nell Gwynne’s. Lady Beatrice now serviced statesmen and diplomats, in the process extracting state secrets and passing them on to Nell Gwynne’s fraternal organization, the Gentlemen’s Speculative Society. Occasionally blackmail or other, more extreme measures needed to be taken. Lady Beatrice, who had slit the throats of her three Ghilzai assailants and stolen their horses, was equal to specialized work of any kind.

It should be mentioned that she was a tall and slender woman with a chilly autocratic beauty and rather startlingly clear gray eyes. When not traveling abroad, as she was now, she preferred to dress in scarlet. Lady Beatrice was nothing if not honest.

The first faint pallor of dawn had appeared in the east as the Governess Cart crossed from Bavaria into Bohemia. When they were well past the village of Horitz, Mr. Reed, the operator, leaned over sideways to shout over the noise of the engine. “We shan’t be able to make much more distance tonight, I’m afraid, but we’re nearly there. It will be necessary to get out and walk soon, I’m afraid.”

“Shall we walk the rest of the way?”

“Oh, no indeed, madam. As a rule, I simply get between the traces and wait until some farmer passes in a wagon. Generally I spin him a tale about gypsies having stolen my pony, and generally he’ll let me tie up to his wagon and ride with him the rest of the way into town.”

Conveniently enough, this ruse worked with the first wagon-driving farmer they met, and they rode into Budweis in comfort if not style.

Ludbridge, waiting patiently outside the hotel, saw their approach. He rose, removing his hat. Mr. Reed spoke to the farmer, who paused long enough for Mr. Reed to hand down Lady Beatrice and set her bags on the pavement. Ludbridge took Lady Beatrice’s hand and bowed over it, as Mr. Reed and the bemused farmer drove on.

“I trust your journey was uneventful, Ma’am?”

“It was, Mr. Ludbridge. I hope I find you well?”

“You do indeed.” Ludbridge picked up her bags. “And very obliging of Mrs. Corvey to spare you on such short notice, I’m sure. Shall we go up to the room for a briefing? I’ve told the desk clerk my wife was coming for a visit.”

Lady Beatrice followed him through the lobby, drawing the startled attention of the clerk, who had imagined Frau Ludbridge would be stout and middle-aged. When Ludbridge paused at the desk to request coffee and breakfast for four sent up, the clerk found himself blushing and stammering like a schoolboy. For some hours afterward he was unable to clear his mind of the gaze of Lady Beatrice’s gray eyes.

#

That evening the staff at the Wienhof were similarly affected by the sight of Lady Beatrice, though in their case a certain amount of apprehension was also involved. That a beautiful woman should be dining alone in their establishment was, perhaps, scandalous, but not unusual; a number of the better class of prostitutes were accustomed to plying their trades in the Wienhof, in a low-key and discreet manner.

The staff was at a loss to know quite what to do about this foreign woman, however, who sat at a rear table nibbling biscuits and sipping tea. She did not smile, she did not wink or call out familiarly or in any way employ the signals of her trade. Her appearance, on the other hand, was anything but circumspect. She wore an evening gown of scarlet silk, cut swoopingly low. Her cheeks were rouged scarlet, her lips were scarlet, her gray eyes were rimmed in blackest kohl. She might as well have stood on the table brandishing a placard that advertised her specialties and rates.

Consequently they were much relieved when Herr Bayer arrived for his customary meal and was immediately smitten by the scarlet beauty. He wasted no time in having a glass of champagne sent to her table, and in making eye contact when she had graciously acknowledged him with her thanks. He followed up with an invitation to dine at his table, which she accepted. He ordered the finest (and most expensive) meal the Wienhof provided, partridges in a sauce of brandy and cream, and during the meal trotted out his entire repertory of seductive phrases. The woman appeared receptive, smiling demurely and replying in schoolroom German. Herr Bayer seemed to find this quite charming.

So intent were the staff in watching the little comedy play itself out, and so intent was Herr Bayer on the thrill of the chase, that none of them wasted a thought on the pair of gentlemen seated across the room. One was an Englishman with somewhat blunt and leonine features, who seemed interested in nothing but his plate of Wiener schnitzel, rotkohl and spaetzle. The other was a timid-looking fellow who picked at his dish of rouladen. Neither of them looked up when Herr Bayer shouted for a waiter, nor when he demanded whether a room was available upstairs. Nor were they distracted from their meal when Herr Bayer and his inamorata rose from the table and retired to an upper floor of the Wienhof.

It was noticed, however, that the two gentlemen dawdled lengthily after finishing their entrees. They requested coffee. They requested two helpings each of hazelnut torte. They requested after-dinner liqueurs, and seemed content to sit for hours, nursing their glasses of kirsch and chatting quietly.

#

Herr Bayer, having ridden to bliss three times in succession, sagged sideways and collapsed into the feather bed. Lady Beatrice smiled and shifted sideways to face him.

“Such splendid endurance!” she murmured.

“God in heaven, I’m like a greedy child in a sweets shop,” said Herr Bayer. He pulled her close and crushed her against him, kissing her ravenously. Lady Beatrice endured his attentions with perfect ease, showing neither revulsion nor discomfort. She had long since grown accustomed to detaching herself from the things her body was obliged to do, and during Herr Bayer’s recent frenzied passion had been fondly recalling a recent holiday in the Lake District.

Now, however, she became aware that the present tussle had revived Herr Bayer’s tumescence. He released her and looked down at himself.

“Bah! The naughty thing wants attention again. And what am I to do, my beauty? I faint with exhaustion. I will have to wear a hot poultice on my back tomorrow, I’m certain I’ve sprained something. But perhaps you would like to eat some sausage? Eh?” Herr Bayer leered as he ground his hips against hers suggestively.

“I have a better idea,” said Lady Beatrice, smiling as she pushed him back. “But first, shall we have another glass of champagne?”

“Play Hebe, my fair one, and pour the flowing wine!”

Lady Beatrice turned and sat up on the edge of the bed. A single languorous gesture, like a cat stretching, enabled her to reach the tumbled mass of her clothes and pluck what appeared to be a small glass button from the waistband of her crinoline. Palming it, she rose and dropped the button in one of the pair of champagne glasses on the bedside table. She refilled the glasses, waiting only to assure herself that the button had dissolved without a trace before handing the glass to Herr Bayer.

“Prost, Herr Stallion.”

“Prost, my Queen of Sheba!”

They clinked glasses and drank. Lady Beatrice set her glass aside after a sip and, with slow deliberation, moved to straddle Herr Bayer.

“Now, my dear, you lie there at your ease and rest your back. I will deal with the naughty creature.”

Rising above him, she did something—again, slowly and consideringly—that made Herr Bayer’s toes curl. He gasped, whooped, gulped down the rest of his champagne and hurled the empty glass across the room, where it shattered against the wall and dropped to the floor in a shower of sticky crystal fragments.

“Yes!” he screamed. “Yes, my adored, my little cat, my sugar cake!”

Lady Beatrice continued to do what she had been doing, settling into a steady rhythm. Herr Bayer writhed underneath her, fumbling and squeezing at her breasts. She gazed steadily into his eyes and saw the gradual look of happy idiocy that came into them. His hands fell away from her breasts; rose again to bat at them as a feeble kitten bats at catnip mice, before finally falling back to lie on either side of his head. He had begun to drool slightly.

Lady Beatrice wiped the drool away with a corner of the sheet. Herr Bayer giggled.

“I understand you are a jeweler, my dear Herr Bayer.”

“That’s so.” He emphasized his reply with a nod.

“You used to sell that particular red gemstone, the meteor-glass, the sort that only Bayer and Son can procure.”

“Of course! We will again. All it’ll take is a crop failure…season without rain…hoof and mouth disease, you will see, sooner or later the Reithoffers will need money and then they’ll come with a big box of it, hat in hand. You’ll see. This is always the way it is.”

“And who are the Reithoffers, my dear?”

“Farmers. Nobodies. But they own the secret mine, you see?”

“They obtain the red glass from a mine on their property?”

“Yes.”

“And their mine is the only source?”

“Of course. We have tried for a hundred and seventy years to find any other. We might as well have been looking for fairy… pancakes.” Herr Bayer giggled again. “Not, nothing, none, never, nowhere. Only the damned Reithoffers know where it is. It’s quite unfair.”

“Why do they only mine the stone when they need money?”

“Because they are superstitious peasants,” Herr Bayer replied. “‘Ach, mein herr, the mine is cursed! Every third man who goes in to dig for the stone, the Witch gets him! The Witch got great-great-uncle Hans, and Grandfather Horst, and Uncle Wilhelm! Boo hoo hoo!’”

“And they will not sell the land?”

“No. It is their land. They are farmers, what else would they do? They are too stupid to learn even, even…shoemaking. You have no idea of their stubbornness. The pigs.” Herr Bayer tried to spit, and the blob so produced ended up in his own eye. He laughed uproariously at that. Lady Beatrice wiped his eye with more of the sheet.

“And where exactly is their land, my very dear Herr Bayer?”

“Behind Sinietsch,” he replied promptly. “Beyond the woods. They keep to themselves. Only the kobolds keep them company. Live like bears. Anyone in the village will agree with me. It’s because of the terrible, shameful curse…”

His voice gurgled away into silence. His stare was becoming steadily glassier.

“You have been an exceedingly good boy, Herr Bayer,” said Lady Beatrice. “You have earned a reward.”

She accelerated her movements, which sent Herr Bayer into a flailing ecstasy so extreme it quite extinguished the last spark of his consciousness. As he was sinking gratefully into a black velvet-lined void, Lady Beatrice climbed briskly from the bed and washed her face clean of its smeared paint at the washbasin. She put on her undergarments and spent a moment patiently turning her gown inside out, the gown being made in such a way that it was reversible: scarlet silk with watered gray silk lining or watered gray silk with scarlet silk lining. After dressing herself, she exited the room quietly, closed the door behind her, and descended the stairs, a shadowy and respectable ghost of her former self.

Herr Bayer slept like the dead until the chamber-attendant brought hot water next morning. He sat bolt upright in bed, looking around for Lady Beatrice; was briefly relieved not to find her, since he preferred whores to decamp before sunrise; was next panicked, and sought frantically through his clothing until he located his purse; next was astonished to discover, as he hurriedly counted his money, that this particular whore had apparently neglected to collect her fee on departing; next was elated, on re-counting his funds, to confirm this suspicion. Herr Bayer whistled as he dressed himself and went downstairs to order breakfast.

He had no memory whatsoever of anything he had told Lady Beatrice, after that last glass of champagne.

#

Ludbridge unrolled a map and regarded it. “To be sure. Sinietsch. I expect the Reithoffers’ farm must be somewhere here…”

“I believe the phrase used was ‘beyond the woods’,” said Lady Beatrice. She was the only person other than Ludbridge himself who was actually looking at the map. Ressel kept his gaze fixed on his shoes, and Hirsch stared hungrily at Lady Beatrice.

“Indeed. Right, Hirsch—this is your meat. You’re to go to Sinietsch today and find out what you can. Pay a call on the Reithoffers, under some pretext. Report back this evening.”

“On one condition,” said Hirsch coyly. Ludbridge looked up at him, affronted.

“What the deuce do you mean?”

“I want a kiss to send me on my way.”

“Come here and I’ll give you a good one,” replied Ludbridge, with only a hint of thunder in his tone. Hirsch turned red.

“I meant from our beauty here. Surely she won’t mind a little merchandise given away free?” 

Ludbridge stared at him, flint-eyed. Lady Beatrice cleared her throat.

“Mr. Hirsch, I think you misunderstand. I am not a commodity. I am a specialist, just as you are. My particular skills serve the same ends, but by different means.”

“Then you should kiss me,” said Hirsch. “Since that’s my price for the day’s work.”

Ressel groaned and put his head in his hands. Ludbridge rose slowly to his feet, but Lady Beatrice put up her hand.

“It’s a trivial enough request. Very well, Mr. Hirsch.” She rose to her feet. He jumped up at once and came to her, licking his lips. She kissed him. He grabbed her in his arms and attempted to wrestle with her, groping her bosom, laughing muffledly, but abruptly broke off and backed away from her. Lady Beatrice, who had produced a small pistol apparently from thin air and pressed it under his ear, returned to her seat.

“I don’t believe you should attempt to do that again, Mr. Hirsch,” she said composedly. “Please understand that the only pleasure I derive from my duty is the satisfaction of knowing what it will accomplish. We are all working toward the same great day, are we not?”

“Bitch,” said Hirsch. He strode to the door, grabbed his coat, and turned back briefly to address Ludbridge. “You may not like me, but you will see what work I can do.”

He slammed the door behind him, and they heard him charging down the stairs.

“How juvenile,” said Lady Beatrice, at the same moment Ressel cried, “Fraulein, a thousand apologies—you mustn’t think we’re all beasts—” and Ludbridge gave a wordless growl.

“That is quite all right, Mr. Ressel,” said Lady Beatrice, smiling at him. “It’s of little consequence. I have dealt with far worse than Mr. Hirsch.”

“Well, what are you waiting for?” Ludbridge demanded of Ressel. “Go in there and steal your socks back.”

#

Ressel had plenty of time to retrieve his socks and his comb too, for that matter, because Hirsch failed to return that evening. Ludbridge stalked the floor for hours before giving up and sleeping on the divan, having relinquished his bed to Lady Beatrice. Hirsch still had not put in an appearance by the time Ludbridge went down to order breakfast for three. As he was about to return to the rooms, the clerk turned to the back counter with a little cry.

“I nearly forgot! Herr Ludbridge, a letter has come for you. A courier delivered it this morning.” He drew it from its pigeonhole and held it out. Ludbridge took it.

“Thank you.” Ludbridge studied it as he climbed the stairs. He did not recognize the hand in which it was addressed, but as he opened it and read its contents he certainly recognized the tone.

My old Ludbridge, I write to you from Sinietsch, which has, as it turns out, a splendid tavern and marvelously accommodating women. But you must not think I put pleasure before business. Here is what I have accomplished for you: Having arrived here, I was able to locate directions to the Reithoffer farm immediately. As I was passing the tavern I chanced upon a peddler with a tray of the sorts of things such people sell, and luckily for me he set the tray down in an inattentive moment while washing his face at a fountain. So prepared, I set off for the farm. You never saw such a countrified place in your life—a little cart-track off a mountain road, winding through the trees to a gate, and huge savage barking hounds who wanted to tear me limb from limb. I prudently remained on my side of the gate and before long a surly peasant came down to see why his hounds were making such a fuss. I tipped my hat and displayed my riches, at which he tied up the dogs and bid me enter. I followed him through the cabbage fields to the house, and such a scene from the dark ages when we got inside! Absolutely old Bohemia, with a couple of ancients by the fire and a brat or two staggering about and a bevy of peasant women busy putting up sauerkraut in stone crocks. The shelves were positively lined with crocks of pickles and more sauerkraut. You may imagine that the maidens were frantic for something other than pickles with which to divert themselves, and so I and my wares were eagerly received. Of course, I sold at bargain prices! Spools of thread, bits of lace, ribbons, pins, a pair of scissors, a songbook of tunes that were out of fashion thirty years since and a cheap chromolithograph of Our Lord Jesus Christ, all found favor in the sauerkraut girls’ eyes. So much so that I was invited to dine. The men of the house were less pleased to see me. Imagine hulking cousin-marrying peasants in boots fresh-caked with mud of the fields and less pleasant substances, all lined up at a long trestle, eyeing me suspiciously. The fare was minuscule pork cutlets, massive flour dumplings, even bigger helpings of the eternal sauerkraut, and not even a good beer to wash any of this down, but thin sour cider! Pity poor me, Ludbridge, where you sit at your ease in civilized Budweis. Anyway I could see there was no use trying to get any secrets out of these mountain trolls, so I waited until after they had gone to the fields and managed to get one of the younger girls alone for a little romance. She was eager enough until I asked her about a story I’d heard concerning witches in the forest. That closed up her lips so tight I could see there was no use pursuing it (or her) further, so I tipped my hat and took my leave. But the good people of Sinietsch were willing to talk, I can tell you, when I got back into town (without my peddler’s tray, of course; that I disposed of in a convenient ditch). With a liberal largesse to the tavern patrons, this I learned: The Reithoffer land is indeed cursed, or so I was solemnly assured. There is a Witch who haunts the place and every generation or so she takes one of the Reithoffer men for a lover, though this act has immediate consequences for the unfortunate male as he is always found dead and singed with hellfire following her embrace. Why the Witch is up there no one knows for certain, but the clearest story I heard was that there is cursed buried treasure somewhere on the Reithoffer farm, and there the Witch haunts. Some are of the opinion that her lovers came seeking the treasure and paid the price. The last time this happened was within living memory, in 1839. I did not go back to search for the mine because, what was I to do about the dogs? And, really, I have worked hard enough for one day. I am going to take a little holiday now for a few days, until the expense money runs out. I close now because the post rider waits, but perhaps I will tell you where I am later. Cheerfully, Hirsch.

Crumpling the letter in his fists, Ludbridge swore quietly.

#

Sinietsch was easily reached in a rented gig. Ressel drove. Ludbridge sat beside him, mulling over what he felt he could trust of Hirsch’s report. Lady Beatrice, dressed in respectable gray once more, sat quietly in the back and enjoyed viewing the passing countryside. At last Ludbridge turned to her.

“Do you reckon you could portray an hysteric?”

“How hysterical do you require me to be, Mr. Ludbridge?”

Ludbridge thought about it. “Not excessively. Not weeping-and-wringing-your-hands hysterical.”

“More of a fainting-fit-for-unspecified-female-disorders hysterical? I believe I can manage that, yes, Mr. Ludbridge.”

When they drove at last up the main street of Sinietsch, Ludbridge looked for village taverns. There was only one, as it happened, and he bid Ressel pull up before it.

“Go in and ask whether Hirsch is staying here. You might find out if there’s a doctor about, as well.”

Ressel went in, and returned a few minutes later, looking rather harried.

“Hirsch is no longer there. He left suddenly and owing money. The proprietors were very angry, so I told them I was a debt collector trying to trace him. They were much more helpful after that. Dr. Schildkraut’s house is at the end of that lane.” Ressel pointed.

Ludbridge chewed his cigar. “What the devil does Hirsch think he’s playing at? Still in school and scoring off the headmaster? Well, on to the Doctor’s.”

They pulled up in front of a modest half-timbered house. “Any objection to feigning illness for a good twenty minutes or so?” Ludbridge asked Lady Beatrice.

“None whatsoever, Mr. Ludbridge.” Lady Beatrice put the back of her hand to her head and sprawled back on her seat, fluttering her eyelids.

“I’m obliged to you, Ma’am.”

Dr. Schildkraut was an elderly man who opened his own door. He gaped rather at the sight on his doorstep: an Englishman supporting a swooning Englishwoman, and a smaller man, very agitated, asking whether the doctor was available to examine the fraulein, who had suffered an attack of the vapors. He ushered them into his parlor, and after a series of hastily translated questions determined that he ought to see the fraulein in his examining room. Thither she was led, drooping on the arm of the Englishman—Dr. Schildkraut assumed he was her father—who, upon seeing her safely disposed in a chair, tipped his hat and departed to wait in the parlor.

Once the door had closed, Ludbridge strode to a bookcase on the wall, wherein sat a number of bound leather volumes. Years were painted on their spines, in a small precise hand.

“Here’s the one,” said Ludbridge, pulling out the journal for the year 1839. Ressel came and peered over his shoulder as he leafed through it. “We’re looking for the name Reithoffer.”

They flipped the pages, passing births, illnesses, recoveries and death in Sinietsch. Near the end of the book Ressel grabbed Ludbridge’s arm and pointed. “Here!”

“What’s it say?” Ludbridge peered at the page.

“Says, er… ‘Last night Frau Kohl came to me in fear. She was attending one of the Reithoffer girls who has gone into early labor and the baby will not turn. We went together to the Reithoffer farm and arrived at daybreak. Just as we were driving up we saw that one of the men was out by the house digging what looked like a grave. I asked if the girl had already died but Frau Kohl told me the grave was for another member of the family who had been found dead the day before, which she thought had sent the young mother into her pangs.’

“Then he says…er…a lot about bringing the baby into the world. They saved the mother and child. And then, he goes into the kitchen and he sees…well, there is a body the old people are washing for burial. He asks to examine it because he has heard of this curse, you see. Dead man is the girl’s uncle, ‘Peter Reithoffer, forty years of age, well-nourished, appearance of a corpse struck by lightning. Fernlike burn patterns on the skin.’ Doctor asks if he was struck by lightning, family is looking, er, shamefaced. They say he is marked with the Witch’s mark and was taken in accordance with his sin. Doctor asks, what sin? Family elder replies, he died in the embrace of the Witch. So that is why he can’t be buried in consecrated ground. They won’t tell him more. He leaves…he gives Frau Kohl a ride back to her house and she tells him, when they brought in the dead man his trousers were down around his thighs, like all the others killed by the curse.”

“Bloody hell,” murmured Ludbridge. “Fern patterns. Anything more?”

“He just says he is sorry people can believe in such nonsense in this age and he thinks it was lightning all the same.”

“Didn’t ask what the man was doing when he died?”

“No, apparently.” Ressel, a little red-faced, closed the book and put it back in its place. They sat down on a bench clearly provided for anxious relatives. Ressel twiddled his thumbs while Ludbridge smoked and thought.

“Fernlike patterns,” he muttered at last. “Yes, I’ve seen that. Seaman on theTiger struck by lightning whilst aloft. Extraordinary coincidence…” He was silent another moment and then slapped his knee.

“I’ll tell you what it is, Ressel. Why’s a man take his prick out of his trousers, eh? What’s the most common reason?”

Ressel blushed once more. “To, er, make water, I suppose.”

“Precisely. And let’s say a man feels the call of nature when he’s down in a mine. Is he going to walk all the way out and water the nearest tree, or is he just going to make water right there in the mine?”

“I… suppose he would make water in the mine.”

“So.” Ludbridge took his cigar out of his mouth. “Just exactly how much acetic acid’s in the urine of a man who lives on sauerkraut, pickles and cider?”

Ressel considered that a moment. His eyes widened in horror.

That’s how the damned fools have been killing themselves,” said Ludbridge, chuckling. He broke his laughter off abruptly when the examining room door opened and Lady Beatrice emerged, leaning on the doctor’s arm. Ludbridge escorted Lady Beatrice out to the gig, while Ressel paid the doctor.

“A mild case of hysteria,” Dr. Schildkraut told him in a low voice. “Give her fresh air and a few novels and she will be perfectly well. You know what these women are.”

#

It was a simple enough matter, thereafter, to field-test Enderley’s Improved Canine Stupefaction Compound on the Reithoffers’ immense snarling hounds. The Compound proved to work a treat, enabling Ludbridge and Ressel to don night-vision goggles and explore the Reithoffers’ considerable acreage without fear of detection. The mine was easily located at the distant edge of the farm, though the track leading to it was overgrown and its entrance masked with tall weeds. Once entered and inspected, it proved to bear rich veins of the red tektite.

Somewhat more complicated was stage-managing the business of the thunder-machine and lightning flashes. Lady Beatrice’s appearance as the Witch necessitated recourse to her scarlet gown and moreover to her cosmetics case, in order to provide the fernlike facial markings. It was particularly felicitous that she happened to own, among a number of colored glass lenses designed to give her eyes a striking appearance, a scarlet pair; for, as she pointed out, one never knew what sort of peculiar fantasies (being seduced by a vampyre, for example) members of Parliament might request.

The Reithoffers, suitably frightened by the spectacle of their family’s ancient persecutor appearing in the front garden, readily obeyed her demand that they venture into town and sell that corner of their property containing the tektite mine to a certain Englishman they would find in the tavern. Ludbridge gave them a good price. They congratulated themselves on making a tidy profit on the deal and incidentally unloading their family curse on somebody else.

#

“That mine was one of the most disturbing places I have ever had the occasion to have seen,” said Ressel, as they climbed down from the gig. “Didn’t you think? Like, er, the throat of a whale, with all that redness.”

“Well, you won’t be obliged to go back in, I shouldn’t think,” said Ludbridge, handing Lady Beatrice and her cosmetics case down. “All that’s left for us to do is get the title deed back to London and file a report.”

“I do hope Mr. Hirsch has come to his senses and is waiting for us at the hotel,” said Lady Beatrice, as they crossed the street. Ludbridge scowled.

“I’ll have a few things to say about him, by God. He’d better be there.”

“Er…there are rather a lot of police about this morning,” said Ressel, looking around uneasily.

As they stepped within, the desk clerk saw Ludbridge and waved.

“Herr Ludbridge? A parcel and a letter for you.”

Collecting them, Ludbridge noted Hirsch’s handwriting. He sighed and shook the small box experimentally; only a faint rattle gave any idea of its contents. In a casual tone he remarked: “Rather a lot of police in the street, aren’t there?”

“There have been two robberies!” said the clerk. “Both in one night! Herr Kimmel the jeweler and Herr Lantz the pawnbroker, both robbed of hundreds of marks in goods. Herr Lantz is in bed with a fractured skull.”

“What a dreadful thing,” said Ludbridge. He went upstairs, followed by Lady Beatrice and Ressel.

Ressel went into his room to pack his bag; Lady Beatrice seated herself in a chair by the window, gazing out, as Ludbridge opened the box. He shook its contents into his hand and swore. Lady Beatrice looked at him inquiringly. He held out a signet ring and a cameo pendant, both set with red tektite stones.

“That’s all we had found here in Budweis,” said Ludbridge. “But I hadn’t given him the word to do the burglary yet.”

“Hirsch’s bag is gone,” said Ressel, appearing in the doorway.

“Oh, dear,” said Lady Beatrice. Ludbridge ground his teeth and opened the letter.

My very dear Ludbridge, This letter serves as notice that I have, after much reflection, decided to take my talents to more appreciative (and better-paying) masters than the Gentlemen. However, do not despair! Here as a token of good faith are the bits of red tektite I found for you. I got them at a bargain price…however, you may wish to find a way to conceal them from the customs agents. You may find things a trifle hot in Budweis now, also, until the police find someone to arrest for my little indiscretion, but do not fear; I am sure the Gentlemen can easily arrange for your release, if worst comes to worst. I myself intend a swift departure. Please convey to the Gentlemen that I will soon communicate a postal location where my wages may be sent, as well as the monthly stipend I expect for my silence on the matter of the red tektite’s astonishing properties. A hundred pounds a month is not too much, I think, considering the value of the information and the delight with which it would be received by certain interested governments. Farewell, old man, and a big wet ravishing kiss with my tongue for the lady in red. Or perhaps something more. I leave it to her imagination. Your much undervalued friend, Hirsch

 

“That’s done it.” Ludbridge folded the letter and tucked it inside his coat. He drew out his watch, thumbed a button on its side, and studied it a moment. “That stupid son of a bitch. Your pardon, ma’am, but he’s run off, or so it would appear. Ressel, finish packing. Ma’am, can you be ready to depart within the next ten minutes?”

“Certainly.” Lady Beatrice rose to her feet.

“Good.” Ludbridge bounded upright and began packing with breathtaking speed.

#

They departed the hotel a few bare minutes before the police descended on it to question all foreign visitors, or so Ludbridge learned later. At the time he was not disposed to be communicative about his reasons for flight; as they hurried toward the horse-rail station he kept checking his watch. Only when they were seated in the car was Ressel able to lean forward and look at the watch face.

“But that is not a clock,” he remarked in surprise. “That is a little map of Budweis!”

“So it is,” said Ludbridge, chuckling. “D’you see the tiny red light flashing there? That’s our friend Hirsch. One doesn’t cross the Gentlemen, you see.”

“I just saw him,” said Lady Beatrice in a low voice. “He’s here. He hid behind the kiosk when he saw us. I can still see his boots and the corner of his bag.”

“I should look away if I were you, ma’am,” said Ludbridge.

He gave his watch stem a quarter-turn and depressed it. There was a bangfollowed by screams and shouting. Glancing over at the kiosk, he saw the fan-splatter of blood. Bits of Hirsch’s head began to fall hither and yon. The silver molar crown, that had concealed the tracking mechanism and explosive, landed with a particularly musical tinkle on the cobbles not four feet away.

“That’ll teach him,” said Ludbridge, and lit a cigar. Ressel stared at him in horror. Lady Beatrice shrugged regretfully and took out her knitting.

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