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45. Unlikely friends

Caught and pulled in by both the Moriarty gang and Drood Clan, Algernon and Tobias have both made deals with the devils.  Now, rejoining after exploring the Drood mansion, the group decide their next move.

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“I was hopeless in there.  Maybe they should have shot me and put me out of my misery…” Grumbled Tobias as Algernon and Bruce found Peggy and himself in the market,” Algernon, you were marvellous against Moriarty’s men,  That attempt at pick-pocketing showed your legitimacy.  What did I do?  I have Lightfeather’s knives on my person. Did I give him one?  Use it to show my legitimacy?  No…”

“So…what happened?” Bruce asked, and between Peggy’s matter of fact report and Tobias’ self-recriminations, Algernon and Bruce learnt about Terilis Lightfeather, and the deal struck.

“Sounds like you were picked up to be interrogated, and you found a way of walking out having made a deal,” Bruce said as Tobias shivered his feathers uncomfortably, “I think you did great.”
“Yeah, well, it didn’t feel great,” Tobias slouched, and Bruce realised it wasn’t so much the deal-making as the situation he’d been in that upset the little man so much.  

Tobias shivered again and looked to the others for the first time, “So, what next? Algernon, are you going to go back to Rodney Dodd and his crew?”

“Ah yeah, I found some things in the house, so I might as well keep up the act.”

“You can mention that Terilis is keen to get Elvin back if that helps. Oh, and Caw Ek Carve, or at least the top twelve percent of him.”

“Won’t that mess up your plan with the Drood clan?”

Tobias shook his head emphatically, “I don’t intend to help them get back Elvin Lightfeather, I don’t intend to do anything for them,” He said with real loathing, a look of disgust somehow expressing itself on a beaked face, ”No, if it feels right, you use it.”

‘Okay…”

“Oh, and your dynamite.  I may have panicked and made the guy throw it out of the tree,” He now confessed, “We could go and look for that too.”

“No, we don’t need to,” Bruce commented, but Tobias and Algernon had already leapt out of the tree and were already gliding down.

It was a long way to the roots of the tree.  Even then, the ground was thick with massive dead leaves the size of bed quilts, making the ground spongy and soft.  If the dynamite had fallen this far, it had a good chance of surviving the impact intact.  Algernon Hovered above the roots keeping a lookout.  Peggy and Bruce finally joined Tobias walking amongst the leaves in the dappled shadows of the tree.  From above, Algernon was first to spot the leaves moving towards the group.  Tobias heard the sound of dead leaves crunching and rustling in Bruce’s direction.

“Heads up!” He called, as a giant raccoon the size of a horse leapt out of the leaf litter.  It caught Bruce by surprise, plunging four canines into his shoulder.

Reflexly, Tobias sent Avel out screaming at the creature.  Petrified, the raccoon went to run, but now it was Bruce’s turn.  Breaking free, he rolled away, withdrawing his crowbar in one smooth movement.  Standing now, he stepped forward, the forward movement only adding to the power of his swing.  The crowbar crashed down on the raccoon’s head.  The soft ground around muffled the cracking of bone and the thud as the creature returned to the leaf litter dead.  

Tobias turned his head away from the final blow and spotted the dynamite sitting on a large leaf not far away.

“That reminds me, I guess it was you two with the gun in the Drood mansion.  What happened there?” He asked, passing the dynamite to a landing Algernon.

“If you don’t want to see what happened to the raccoon, you don’t want to know about the thug,” Bruce said coolly, checking his shoulder.  Tobias didn’t ask again.

It was a long climb back up the tree to the pub specified by Rodney “Firetop” Dodd.  One by one, the group walked into the bar, taking up positions at random tables.  Tobias sat nursing a glass as he watched Algernon through the phylactery, Peggy sat at the bar and Bruce around the corner from the red-feathered Dodd and his group.  Algernon walked up to the barman, “Excuse me. I was told to ask for a Clovis Miller. Is he in?” 

“I don’t know anyone called Clovis Miller.  Hold on.”

The barman called for help at the bar and then went around the tables.  An unknown Cro, followed by the one with bright red plumage on the top of his head, left a table and ushered Algernon forward.

“Didn’t think you were supposed to come back without something,” Rodney Dodd said, looking down on the smaller Algernon.

“That’s right, I haven’t,” Algernon replied and pulled out the piece of Spiral Dust rock and a bunch of Bywindine leaves, “These looked like they were being protected. I thought they could be something interesting.  Was that the sort of thing you were after?  I didn’t have much guidance on what to find,” Algernon commented, but the derogatory remark was lost on Dodd as soon as he saw the Spiral Dust.

“It is, it is.  You are indeed full of surprises,”

“Is it worth the agreed ten crow coins?” Algernon held out his hand.  Grudgingly Dodd pulled out six crow coins then nudged his companion, Clovis, for the other four.  Clovis Miller sighed and held his hand above Algernon’s. Out of seeming nowhere four crow coins fell between them.  

“Come and have a drink and tell us your tale,” Dodd ushered Algernon across to their table where Clovis, Toby “Mutton Chops” Waltham and another Cro that reminded Algernon of the sniper from Dreamland all sat.  

“I found a back door, waited when they weren’t looking and walked in,” Algernon shared his vague tale as a cranberry juice was brought for him, “I walked around a while, found a room with the herbs and rocks and left.”

“You just walked in….” Dodd asked, sceptically.

“I have an honest face,” Algernon replied, and from somewhere behind the group, Bruce stifled a laugh.  Dodd didn’t question further.

Algernon gave them a layout of the house on a napkin and talked knowingly of the staff and security.

“What of the people?  Whose in charge up there?” Dodd asked, now fascinated by this young boy.

“There’s a very angry Cro, Terilis.  He’s missing his brother.”

“Oh? Who’s that then?”

“Elvin, Elvin Lightfeather,” Algernon replied as if it were common knowledge.  He saw a light of understanding move between the Cro at the table, “I didn’t go near him. He’s very aggressive.”

“Quite right, anyone else?”

“Salvin is Terilis’ second and deals with security down the markets.”

Algernon stood up to leave.

“Hey, kid.  If we want more work done, where can we reach you?” Rodney Dodd also stood. 

“You can leave a message for Cheezels here,” Algernon gestured to the barman back behind the bar.  He then gave them a second glance, “You guys do work for the Dona, don’t you?”

Dodd and Clovis looked at each other, “Yeah, of course, we work for Dona Ilsa.”

He went to go again when Dodd showed his hand, “This blue stuff,” He picked up the lump of blue-grey rock, “Do you know where they get it from?”

Algernon shrugged nonchalantly, glancing over his shoulder, “I could find out that.”

“There’s fifteen crow coin in it for you,” 

“I think more now,” Having proved his abilities, Algernon waited for Dodd to agree.

Rodney Dodd raked his fingers through the red feathers on his head, making them stand up on end, “Okay, we could go to twenty,”

“Half up front?” Algernon now returned to the table to the grumbling Dodd.

“Half up front, Clovis,” The boss gestured to his underling, who was already looking woozy.  Though his eyes may have pleaded for a break, Clovis Miller silently stretched out his hand.  Ten coins appeared and fell onto Algernon’s receiving palm. Across the bar, Tobias smirked into this glass, proud of how well the kids had hooked these crooks.

“I need to lie down now, boss,” Said Clovis once the transaction was completed.  Dodd gave him his leave, and he headed up a set of wooden stairs, leaning heavily on furniture and walls as he went.

“Maybe you should buy a drink,” Algernon quipped at the fleeing back of Clovis. “Pleasure doing business.”

Stashing his twenty crow coins away in a pocket of his backpack, Algernon left.   Tobias and Peggy left soon after, but Bruce stayed, overhearing the gang’s conversations.  Dodd and the remainder of his gang continued drinking. As he listened, he matched each Cro at the table to one of the Moriarty gang.  Toby Walsham was there, as was Ignatius Jessen, the sniper they’d caught in the Celephais docks.  They said nothing of consequence, but it was clear the group had no idea who Algernon was and thought him some enterprising street kid.  His group safe for now, Bruce left the thugs to their drinking.

“If we’re leaving, I better get my phylactery back,” Bruce heard Tobias say to Algernon, “ I don’t want to translate back without my soul.”  Algernon reached into his pocket to retrieve the puzzlebox when Tobias was bumped into from behind by a large round Cro.

“I do beg your pardon,” Tobias said, quietly checking his pockets for any lost items.  He had very few to lose and found them all present and accounted for as he turned to face the clumsy Cro.

“Do mind where you’re….Rain?  My dear chap, is that you?” The Cro’s consternation quickly turned to surprise and even relief as he looked down on the small, neatly dressed Cro he’d stepped into.  

Tobias was bemused to be looking up at the round face of a plain-looking Cro with a huge neatly combed walrus moustache going over the beak.

“Maximilian?”

“Rain!  My dear chap!  What a splendid coincidence! What brings you here?”

Tobias wasn’t so sure it was a coincidence but was willing to play along with the old rogue from the Implausible Geographic Society.  

“The same old business, and yourself?”

Behind Maximillian and out of his line of sight, Peggy was lifting her hands to zap the one she blamed for stealing away Noel and ruining her life.  Bruce quickly interceded and stayed the plasma blast for the moment.

“It’s wonderful to see you again, Mr Von Candlestick, “Algernon interjected, putting out a hand to shake Maximilian’s, “How are things with the Society?”  Enamoured with the old world charm of the Implausible Society, Algernon continued to try getting on the good side of Maximillian in the hope of being accepted into their ranks.

“My boy!  The Society does well, thank you for asking,” Maximilian shook Algernon’s hand jovially, seeming pleased to find allies in Crow Hollow.  Tobias’ suspicions grew.

“Why are you here, Maximilian?” He asked again, drawing the Society Agent’s attention.

“Ah well, I’m working.  I tracked several of Moriarty’s gang to Crow’s Hollow, but I’ve lost them in this crowd.” Maximilian looked around him and the thick crowds of all black bird people, “See, I’ve come alone. I wish I’d brought some bruts with me.” 

Regardless of his initial intentions, to Tobias, it looks as though Maximillian was in over his head. Though sociable, he was not the brains of his team and looked a little lost.

“Alone?  Where’s Noel,” Tobias looked around, expecting to find a tall, lanky Cro not far away, Noel Hargen.

The stout Cro sighed, “He took a leave of absence.  It seems someone got into his head, made him think about his life choices.”  Tobias smiled to himself.  He didn’t need to be linked to Peggy to hear her mumbled,
“About bloody time!”

“I say, you couldn’t help a chap out for old time sake,” Said Maximilian confirming suspicions.

“I certainly can. We’ve just left Rodney Dodd and his group of bully boys at the pub…spending their own resources, if you know what I mean.” Said Tobias, pulling Maximillian out of the flow of the crowd to a quiet spot by market stalls.  Maximilian said nothing, but it was clear from his blank expression that he had no idea what Tobias meant, “It would be a good opportunity to nab the four of them while their guards are down.”

“Oh, splendid!” Exclaimed Maximilian, “Are you free?”

“Ah…” Tobias looked to Bruce at that question.  The violence required to tackle Moriarty’s gang was not his strong suit.

“Tempting…” Bruce stepped in, still holding the irascible Peggy to his side, “Moriarty’s gang are distracting our guy, Don Wyclif and his people.  They’re a useful blunt instrument for us.”
At this, Maximilian looked crestfallen.  It seemed the capture of the gang was important.

“But Maximilian, I can share what we know about their business here in Crow Hollow.  That may be useful to Sir Raymond and the Society.” The mention of Maximilian’s superior drew the moustached Cro’s attention.

“Oh, do tell,”

Tobias gave a brief overview to Maximillian of Moriarty’s desire to break into the Spiral Dust market.  Dodd and his men were trying to find a way in with the Drood family and their connections. He also told him about the Drood’s desire to find Lightfeather.

“Moriarty took him at the fight in Celephais, “ Algernon said as he watched the crowd around them, “ Why don’t you organise trade and when they arrive, bump off Lightfeather.  It would create a lot of bad blood and keep both sides busy fighting each other.”

“Oh, could a trade be likely?” Maximilian leapt at the offered suggestion as Algernon spotted a figure not far away a little too still for his liking.

“It’s an option,” Tobias replied, lamenting the fact that Algernon’s solution to any problem person was to murder them. At long a range if possible.  

Algernon scanned the surface thoughts of the large Cro watching.  

A deal for Elvin? Maybe it could be arranged. Terilis is hard to control.

Siddling through the crowd, Algernon got up beside Bruce and quietly mentioned the big Cro listening in. Out loud so Tobias could hear, he said, “Oh look, is that Will over there?”

Picking up on the code phrase, Tobias took Maximilian’s arm and started moving him along as the larger Cro looked around for a friendly face “ Max we need to leave, move in the direction, Algernon indicates. 

“Is that Salvin, do you think?” Bruce asked as Tobias moved Maximillian past.

“It seems so. I’m not waiting around to find out,” Tobias replied, risking a glance at the Cro in question. He didn’t seem to be following, and the group soon left him behind.

As the group walked down the tree in a straggling line, Algernon continued to ingratiate himself with the Society member.

“I love your moustache, Mr Von Candlestick.”

“Why, thank you,”  Maximilian preened. It was his pride and joy.

“And the pith helmet.”
“Well, one must be fashionable,”

Behind them, Peggy seethed, “Are you sure I can’t plasma bolt him?  No one’s going to miss him, surely.”

“I’m sure,” Bruce replied patiently.

“Can you tell me what’s going on?” Maximilian asked, still baffled by the group’s actions.

“We were being listened to by one of Don Wyclif’s men,” Algernon was quick to explain, “We’ve left him behind, but he heard the discussion about Lightfeather.  He may try to make his own arrangements.”

“Is that a problem?”

“Hmm…” Tobias thought for a moment.  If they could destroy the Spiral Dust from its source, Moriarty and the Droods can do what they like.  It all hinged on stopping the Dustman. For the first time, they had a real lead, not that he was going to tell Maximillian that, “It all depends on how quickly we can move.  We need someplace safe to talk.  What do you think about Earth?”

“All right,” Maximilian agreed all too readily.  

As soon as they found a clear space to gather, Algernon led the translation back to Earth and Peggy’s lab. Once more, under the fluorescent lighting of Peggy’s bunker lab, the first voice to welcome them back was that of Hertzfeld, Peggy’s supervisor.

“Who the hell is this?” He asked as they translated in with a stranger into the most secure lab in a highly secure complex.

“Doctor Hertzfeld,” Tobias turned at the sound of the superior’s voice, “I’m so pleased we bumped into you.  This is Maximillian von Candlestick of the Implausible Geographic Society,” 

“Oh?” Hertzfeld said and tidied up a stack of papers he had been going through on Peggy’s desk.  Peggy gave him a look of disapproval and paranoia but said nothing. “Why did you bring him here?”

At that moment, Tobias was suddenly distracted as the heavy weight of the amulet was suddenly lifted from his neck.  Clutching his chest, he found the amulet had shrunk to a small flat oval about the size of a hens egg.  He quickly pulled away his tie and shirt and found a silver locket on a delicate chain.  Now oblivious to everything, including the demands of a superior, he opened the locket to see a picture of a smiling young woman, a red scarf wrapped casually around curls of light brown hair.  The similarity with himself was so striking it was clear who she must be.  As a film of tears obscured the image from his sight, Tobias drifted away from the others, nursing the locket like the long lost connection it was.

“Excellent question,” Peggy snapped, looking from Hertzfeld rummaging to Maximillian taking up space in her lab, “Rain?”

“So he wouldn’t die,” Bruce noticed his friends distracted air and interjected.

“Oh, so he’s that Maximillian,” Hertzfeld nodded, “Do you think it appropriate he’s in here?” It was time to leave.

Algernon, always at Maximillian’s side, now turned to him, “Mr Maximillian, do you like bacon?”
“One of the basic food groups I understand,” Max replied, now on firmer ground when it came to bacon.

“Follow me,” Algernon led the way out past Peggy’s traps and to the mess.  

Bruce made to follow and realised that Peggy, looking daggers at Hertzfeld and Tobias, were not following.

“How long are we staying?” He asked the two of them but directed the question to Tobias, lost in his own world.

“Huh?  Oh…” Tobias straightened, wiped his face with a colourful handkerchief and tucked the locket back under his shirt, “Um… Rest up, find out what we can about Whole Body Grafts and then off again, I should think.” 

“And you wanted Peggy to ask something of The Strange?” Bruce prompted, and Tobias leapt at the memory.

“Oh yes, Peggy, I was hoping you would ask if The Dustman and Nakarand are the same?”

Peggy dragged her eyes away from Hertzfeld, who by this time was feeling more than a little intimidated by his protege.

“The Dustman and Nakarand…?  Who was he again?”

“The one in control of the Spiral Eyes, back in Nederland,”

“Right, so you want to know if they are the same being?”

“Yes, it would narrow down our leads if we knew they were related somehow.”

Peggy, her hands laid on her stack of notes, closed her eyes and asked the question of The Strange. Instantly the reply returned like an echo, her voice speaking the answer, “The Dustman is a mere part of Nakarand.”

With the ominous and mysterious pronouncement made, the three friends split up to their own tasks.  Bruce left to find Katherine Manners to check in and give her a rundown on their activities.  Tobias followed the bacon clue to the mess and found Algernon asking questions of Maximilian, filling him with bacon sandwiches and coffee laced with maple syrup.  Peggy stayed in her lab.

“So, how was your trip?” Hertzfeld asked innocently, starting the conversation that was sure to escalate.

“Oh, exhausting.  Unprecedented, do you know there are recursions where you can just think a thing, wave your hand, and that thing happens?”  She brought her gaze around like a searchlight and fixed it on Hertzfeld,

“Why were you in my lab?”

“I am your supervisor. I have that right,”

“The right to die a grizzly death to one of my many traps, you mean,” She said, with all of her significant force of will bearing down on her boss, “You do know the meaning of the term, paranoid, don’t you?”

He sighed.  Brilliance often came at a price, and he’d known Peggy’s price from the very beginning.  She was paranoid, highly suspicious and uncommunicative, but he also knew he would get nowhere without her intuitive spark of genius.

“I was looking for your notes on energy sources. I’ve got an idea of expanding the phasing glove’s properties to encase a vehicle, but I need more power.  I need your help.”

“Hmmm, “ She stared at Hertzfeld, who, not for the first time, was wondering if the help was worth the trouble, “You could have at least said please.”  She opened the drawer of her desk and pulled out a set of long rubber gloves.  She slipped them on up to her elbows and turned to the fish tank, empty of fish.

“Again, your supervisor.”

“Is that an excuse for bad manners?”  From the fish tank, she took out a small Tupperware container.  From the container, she took a key and walked across the lab to a set of metal lockers.  Opening one of the top lockers, she displayed a collection of keys, all different sorts from different locations.  She selected one and once more crossed the lab to a filing cabinet.  

“You’ll want to stand back,” She gestured for Hertzfeld to move as she stood to one side of the cabinet and unlocked the drawer.  A dart shot out a predrilled hole followed by a flash-bang explosion that would have rendered anyone standing in front deaf and blind.  The dart embedded itself into a pockmarked wall showing where it had impacted previously.  

From a repurposed takeaway container, she sorted through a selection of near-identical USB drives and chose one.  She now plugged it into a modified standalone DOS computer and entered a long, complicated password that Hertzfeld had no hope in following.  Text started filling the screen, but it was jibberish, a mess of ASCII coding that meant nothing to everyone except Peggy.  She scrolled through the text as if she could read it, found the specific notes he wanted and typed in another password to decrypt the section.  The text resorted itself. Finally, the jumble became the legible, concise, and precise notes he’d come to rely on with Peggy.

“Thank you,” He said, sitting down at the green-black CRT screen, “You know we need to work on your teamwork.”

“I don’t understand,” Peggy replied with a flick that sent the rubber gloves flying, “My teamwork is great.”

“So, how did you first join the society, Mr Maximillian?” Algernon was making what looked like a second bacon sandwich as Tobias entered the mess.  Algernon spotted him enter and ushered him over to a table where Maximilian was just polishing off the first.

“I was just telling Maximillian that we should take him to go see Keaton and fill him in on all that’s happening,” Algernon was acting as the proactive team member.  He was doing an excellent job at impressing the wrong person.

“Yes, who is this Keaton and is it really necessary?” Maximilian asked Tobias, who was enjoying this little piece of theatre.  He took a moment to think seriously about the subject and then nodded gravely.

“I’m afraid so. Lawrence Keaton, he’s our direct supervisor.  We’ve broken more than a few protocols bringing you here, and he does deserve a debrief on our activities,”  Tobias glanced at Algernon and gave him a wink.  

Keaton was going to hate this.

Keaton hated it.  Surrounded by leaning towers of paperwork that never seemed to impact either Katherine Manners of Hertzfeld, Keaton sat with his head in his hands and asked for the second time.

“Why is he here?” He pointed at Maximillian, his elbows never leaving his worn leather tabletop.

“We helped Max get out of a sticky situation, and now he’s helping us with the London side of our investigation,” Tobias explained simply as she scanned the room for clues to their supervisor’s mental state.  It seemed he wasn’t doing too well.  The drinks cabinet, usually closed and locked on previous visits, was open. A half bottle of bourbon with initialled golf balls sat inside.  

A glance at Algernon confirmed he’d also noted the same thing as him. They shared a look as Maximilian blustered in his chair.

“I’m helping you?  I thought you were helping me?”

“Of course, but we need access to London.”
“Which one?” Maximilian asked, worried they’d want to go to his London.  It was one thing collaborating in an unknown recursion, but London was his patch.  It would be highly irregular for him to let the dreaded Estate have access to his world.

“Moriarity’s London,” Tobias smiled.

“I can help you with that,” Maximilian finally said, seeing sense in letting the Estate make things difficult for Professor Moriarty.

“Thought you could.” Tobias patted his arm and started the debrief with Keaton.

In the end, they gave Maximillian a lot of good information about Don Wyclif, Moriarity and the connection with Elvin Lightfeather through the unstable brother, Terilis.  After they’d said all they could in front of Max, Algernon took him back to the dorm to freshen up and relax before he headed to the library.  That was when Tobias informed Keaton about Dona Ilsa, her stolen eggs and the Dustman connection in Ruk.

Algernon was back at the library once more, but this time he had new information, a company, a name and a face.  The searching did not go well at first.  There was no reference to the name ‘The Dustman’ or Whole Body Grafts.  The first seemed too obscure, the second too small.  He looked at the sketch he made of The Dustman and remembered the facial recognition software they’d used to find Sharon Cooper-Smith.  Using the descriptions of the Dustman’s features and what they knew of Spiral Dust, he started an Image recognition search.  Excluding images of monks, superheroes and other unrelated results, he finally found two likely images amongst surveillance. The first was a few months old, the image of a robed figure talking with Eldin Lightfeather and Don Wyclif in Crow Hollow.  Another was along the same stretch of road they had just travelled in the Ardeyn.  A robed figure on horseback heading towards the Mouth of Swords.  

These two images he fed back into the search making special note of the cloak with the blue dust staining.  This brought up a third image, one where The Dustman was not the image’s subject, just a bystander watching from a distance as Caw Ek Carve received crates in a Steampunk London.  This image was only two weeks old.  Carefully, Algernon timelined the three images fitting them into the facts as the group knew them. With everything the archive had to offer at that time, he headed back to the dorms to share his discovery with the others.

Peggy had not returned to the dorms.  She had not forgotten her thwarted attempts to injure Maximilian. She didn’t feel he understood the gravity of the crimes he had committed, stealing Noel away. That in taking Noel when he did, Maximilian saved Noel’s life didn’t enter into her reckoning.  Maximilian and his Implausible Geographic society were to blame for her untimely fall from grace and ridicule.  With what materials she had to hand, she made a mechanical spider complete with shaving razors for fangs.  When she retired to the dorms after lights out, she set her little pet under the door of the men’s dorm.  

As Peggy did not pay attention to much that went on with the others, she didn’t know that Algernon hardly slept anymore.  An hour or two was all he needed to recharge his mind for the new day, and he often spent hours sitting up in bed watching the others unconscious around him.  He had been going over his notes from the library when a dark shape started making its way across the floor towards Maximilian’s bed. Reaching out telepathically, he caught the mechanical spider and lifted it into the air in front of him. Twirling it around, its legs kicking out trying to gain purchase on something, Algernon examined the spider and discovered the razor-sharp fangs equipt below its head.  

“Someone in the Estate wants to kill Max!” He said to himself, now very worried for his meal ticket into the Society. Then again, if he could be seen to be the hero of the moment…

“Look out, Max!” He yelled loud enough to wake the whole dorm.  Grabbing his crossbow, which was always beside his bed, he shot the spider at point-blank range.  The bolt rocketed the spider to the far wall above Maximillian’s head and pinned it there.  It looked to everyone watching that he’d shot the arachnid from his bed.  Bruce bleary looked at what the commotion was about, noted that everyone was safe and out of harm’s way, and rolled over, going back to sleep.  Maximilian, startled from sleep, turned to face the giant black spider dripping mechanical parts down the wall. Round eyed and ghostly pale in the dark he turned to Algernon.

“Good shot!  But, what is that thing?” 

“Never fear, Mr Maximillian, I will protect you with my life.  I will not rest so you can,” Algernon stated, standing on guard, his crossbow held across his body.

“Thank you, my dear boy. ”

Tobias, who had watched silently from his bed, now padded barefoot across the room to examine the spider more closely.  He pulled the bolt from the wall and saw the bolt had gone through the spider a long way before hitting the wall, possibly longer than would have been possible if the spider had been crawling down the wall to its victim.  He noticed the detailed mechanical and computer work required to create the spider. It seemed a work of genius.  Considering that they had only been back for a few hours and very few people would know that Maximillian was even there, it had to be an inside job.  Algernon could have made something like the spider, but he’d been busy at the library and had his images to prove it.  The spider was well beyond both Bruce and his own capabilities to conceive of, little lone make. And then he remembered Peggy’s expression at Crow Hollow.

“Will you excuse me,” He said quietly, handing the bolt back to Algernon he left the men’s dorm. Walking down the hall, he rapped quietly on the women’s dorm door or Peggy’s room as she never let anyone else in there.

“Peggy, can I have a word with you?” He said quietly so the others still talking in rasping whispers couldn’t hear.

“Go away, I’m meant to be asleep,” Came Peggy’s voice, muffled by bedclothes.  He could imagine her huddled in bed, sheet and blankets over her head.

“And yet you’re not.  Peggy, was it meant to kill?”

“What?!” Came the clearer exclamation.

“Don’t bullshit me, Peggy,” He said seriously, “It had razor blades. I need to know if it was meant to kill him.”

A moment’s silence from behind the door, ”I have no idea what you’re talking about.  What spider meant to shave off moustaches are you talking about?”

He smiled now, understanding her nasty little prank for what it was.  

“Goodnight, Peggy,” He said and returned to the men’s dorm. Maximillian, by now, was mollified by Algernon’s diligence and shooting skill. Tobias said nothing, just handed the remains of the spider to Algernon and went back to bed.

Several hours later… click click click click click click click click click click click click TWACK!

This time Algernon shot the spider as it crawled along the ground.

“Peggy, stop it!” Moaned Tobias, half-heartedly knocking a balled fist against the adjoining wall, “I need my sleep!”

“NO!” Came the sulky reply from the other side of the wall that no one but Tobias heard.  Maximilian was terrified and curled up on his bed, glancing around to see where the next attack would come from.

“Someone really wants you dead, Mr Maximillian,” Algernon said, pulling his bolt from the ground and pocketing the spider’s remains.

“But how am I supposed to sleep like this?”

“I’ll guard you, sir.  Never fear.” Algernon assured him, and with no better solution, the Society member curled up in his blankets and sheet.  

It is unclear how well Maximillian slept, but the following day he was quiet and jittery at breakfast. As Peggy walked into the mess, Algernon came up alongside her, handing her the two spiders, now thoroughly examined and pulled apart. 

“Can I suggest for Mark three, a mottled grey colouring? Black is too stark against the shadows and possibly rollers instead of the legs. They’d make less noise.”

“Thank you, I’ll take those suggestions on board,” She said equally as quietly before reaching up and grabbing ahold of Algernon’s ear.

“I know I’m breaking a promise, but this is a special occasion.  Don’t get between me and my quarry.”

“Doctor Peggy!…Yes, Doctor Peggy…”

After breakfast, the group took a short walk out of the Estate campus, across the road to Gasworks Park. In the shadow of industrial piping, the group prepared to translate to Steampunk London.

“Does Moriarty have the translation place watched?” Bruce asked before Maximillian started the translation process.

“One would assume,” He replied dully.  

The translation was familiar and uneventful, and they soon found themselves in a furnished apartment that smelt heavily of stale pipe smoke. Outside the irregular glass windows of the time, a neat and busy London street scene was revealed under a thickening blanket of fog.  

“Nice,” Bruce commented, looking around.

“Yes,” Maximilian preened. Obviously, this was his find, ”It once belonged to a detective who went missing.  I took up the lease.”

“Are we on Baker Street?!” Tobias rushed to a window and took on the view with the excitement of an avid fan.

“Yes,” Maximilian replied, surprised, “How did you know?”

“Max, do you ever read?” Tobias replied derisively without looking back to see Maximillian’s face fall in disappointment.

Now in Steampunk London, the group had access for future adventures. Right now, the clean, crisp skylines and futuristic world of Ruk and The Dustman called.

“Max, you need to go home, report all that we’ve told you about Moriarty, and if your superiors still want to pick up the gang, please take friends, okay?”

“As you say,” He said with little energy.  It was clear he’d thought he’d found some friends.  They let him translate out alone before setting up their circle to Ruk.

Soon the fog and coal smoke was replaced by clean air and the smell of ozone.  Algernon and Tobias were reconnected with the Allsong, and Peggy was once more the box with a hologram.  As Algernon remembered, Whole Body Grafts advertisements were all over the Allsong. It was quickly established that the company was associated with the Zal and unfriendly to Earth and its allies.

 Looking for information on the company, they quickly had the location of the Semiramis Tower and brought up a basic plan.  The first two levels were dedicated to Showrooms and the sales side of the body grafts business.  The third and fourth levels were the surgical suites and theatres, the fifth and sixth were Research and Development.  What was on the top four floors was a mystery.  No amount of snooping could find out what was going on there and the roof.  As with all Zal operations, a set of coloured rings allowed access to whatever floors the ring was set.

Moving on to the individuals that ran the operations, Tobias gave a rye smile,

“The owner of Whole Body Grafts is one Ur-Dust,” He shared with the group.  A search of the Allsong brought up nothing on Ur-Dust, unusual in such a connected world.  They quickly collected the names of the six heads of departments and likely red ring wearers.

Security Chief – Mu-Duggan

R&D Chiefs – Pra-Qatum

Ipqu-Adad

Iphur-Kishi

Dram-Shara

Bel-Tamar

“So, what first?”  

To be continued……

Published by Miztres

I'd just like to say a few words... nee phtang! fribble

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