SAMPLE CHAPTERS FROM THE NEW FANTASY/HUMOR NOVEL
That Darn Squid God
by Nick Pollotta & James Clay
Coming August 2003 from Wildside Press.
Swirling fog ruled the London night.
Stepping from a horse-drawn carriage into the thick mist, Professor Felix Einstein paused on the sidewalk to briefly consult the small glass globe in his hand. Trapped in the middle of the crystalline sphere was a mummified Egyptian tarantula that remained motionless under his hard scrutiny, and the professor relaxed at the sign that there was no evil magic in the immediate vicinity. At least, for the moment.
Satisfied for the nonce, Prof. Einstein tucked the talisman away once more into his great coat. Dressed like a Bow Street banker, Einstein was sporting an Inverness cape over his gray-striped suit and Oxford school tie, with the mandatory small porridge stain. His craggy face was deeply tanned, and the silver highlights in his wavy hair almost perfectly matched the silver lionhead of his ebony walking cane. The inner pocket of his coat bulged with an Adams .32 revolver, and looped across his waistcoat was a gold watch chain with a petrified shark tooth dangling at the end as a fob. Jutting from a pocket of his vest was an embossed case containing numerous calling cards that merely listed his name, address, and a few dozen of his titles. His real profession was not among them.
Starting to address the waiting cabby, Prof. Einstein frowned as he caught a gale of laughter coming from the nearby building. Eh? In the expert opinion of the professor, a tribe of Zulu warriors performing the Mexican hat dance could not have been more incongruous than the gales of laughter which came from the ground floor windows of the five-story brownstone building dominating the block.
In the past few weeks, Einstein had noticed that the weather patterns of the entire world were steadily becoming worse; snow in Egypt, tornadoes in the Amazon jungle, bright sunshine in Liverpool, and such. Yet those were merely side-effects of the coming apocalypse.
So who could possibly be laughing at such a dire time as this? the professor demanded irritably. Surely not my fellow club members! Maybe the fog was distorting the noise of some distant party so that it seemed nearby? Yes, of course, that must be the answer. How obvious.
"Best stay sharp, Davis," Prof. Einstein said, reaching upward to shake hands with the burly driver. The complicated procedure took a few moments as thumbs, fists, knuckles, tickling and slapping where involved. It seemed more of friendly fight between the two men than a salutation.
"I'd recommend a routine number nine," Einstein added as they eventually let go.
"My very thought," Davis whispered, checking the iron cudgel tucked into his wide leather belt. The 'Liverpool Lawgiver' was worn from constant use, and appeared as formidable as a consort Navy battleship. "Just you look for me, and I'll be there, governor."
Giving a wink, Davis shook the reins, and started the two draft horses away from the curb at a gentle cantor. The cab vanished into the billowing clouds, and soon there was only the rattling echo of its wooden wheels on the cobblestones to ghostly fade away.
Shaking off his uneasy feeling, Prof. Einstein checked the loaded pistol in his pocket before starting along the sidewalk towards the giant brownstone. Then the odd laughter sounded again, louder this time, and most definitely from the club. Outrageous! With an annoyed snort, Einstein began to stride impatiently towards the towering downtown mansion.
Reaching the front of the huge building, Prof. Einstein ambled up the worn marble stairs with his mind still on the strange laughter. Einstein was quite aware that at any given time one could be almost sure of the leader of some newly returned expedition regaling the assembled members with their latest tales of daring-do, heavily embellished with sound effects, visual aids and the unwilling cooperation of the nearest staff member. In point of fact, the London Explorers Club was the only establishment in England that was forced to offer its servants combat pay. But raucous laughter when the world was on the brink of destruction? Professor Einstein frowned in consternation. Most unseemly. He had sincerely hoped that at least some of the other members would have been able to read the portents of the coming apocalypse. Perhaps he was wrong.
Pushing open the brass-bound mahogany door, Einstein entered the mansion and handed his Inverness cape, hat and cane to a doorman, who in turn passed them to a liveried page. Taking a deep breath, the professor stood for a precious moment to let the warm air seep into his bones. The pungent atmosphere was thick with the homey smell of wood polish, pipe smoke and cordite. Ah, home, sweet home!
Just then, another burst of laughter arose only to be abruptly cut off by a man's stern voice. Einstein tried to catch what was being said, but it was rapidly drowned out by a new upswelling of mirth. The noise seemed to be coming from the Great Hall. In spite of the urgency of his mission, the professor was forced to admit that this was becoming interesting. There was an unwritten law in the club that one had best know when to stick to the truth and when one could embellish a story a bit. A law that many bent, but few actually broke. Sadly, there was always a significant number of expeditions that encountered nothing more exciting than fetid jungles, smarmy natives and dull animals who were so patently stupid that they would wander directly in front of you and politely wait while you dug the old 30.06 Winchester out of your haversack and did them the favor of blowing out their brains. But those were tales hardly worth repeating.
Proceeding quickly down the center passageway, Professor Einstein turned left at a suit of Spanish armor and entered the Great Hall. No exaggeration had been used to name the room as it was a good three hundred paces long, its oak beam ceiling an arrow flight away. The four'n square wood floor was dotted with a hundred islands of India rugs and velvet smoking chairs, while in the center of the room, a tiered Italian fountain quietly burbled and splashed. Lining the walls were mammoth bookcases containing over a million leather bound tomes, most of them first editions, or handwritten journals. High above this grandeur, a beautifully sculptured bronze bust of Marco Polo was on the second story balcony. The patron saint of explorers dutifully keeping watch over his modern-day students.
Crowding around a blazing fireplace, a group of club members were surrounding a small display table. Placed prominently on that scarred expanse of dark oak was a small wooden ship, barely a foot in length. A single low cabin was in the middle of the deck of the tiny vessel. No sails or masts were visible, and the rudder was broken.
"By god, Carstairs," Lord Danvers laughed from underneath a bushy Royal British Marine moustache. "You'll have to do better than that!"
"Rather," Dr. Thompkins snorted, dipping his red nose once more into a half-empty whiskey glass. "Balderdash, I say. Violates the unwritten law. Noah's Ark, indeed."
In righteous indignation, Lord Benjamin Carstairs rose to his full height and no hat was necessary for him to tower over the other members.
In cold scrutiny, Prof. Einstein could see the fellow must be over six feet tall, and maybe two hundred pounds in weight, with not an ounce on fat on the heavily muscled, almost Herculean, frame. The giant was in dapper a three-piece suit of a brown worsted material that perfectly complemented his stiff white shirt and striped Harvard tie. His lantern jaw was painfully clean shaven, while the pale brown hair and blue eyes clearly announced a Saxon heritage.
Oh well, nobody's perfect, the Norman-descended Einstein observed wryly.
"I stand on my earlier statement, sirs," Lord Carstairs said calmly, resting a tanned hand on the little craft. "You have seen my journals and read my analysis. This ship was found on the peak of Mt. Ararat, hidden in a stratified gully just below the snow line. It is made of 4,000-year-old gopher wood and sealed with crude pitch. To scale, it is of the proper dimensions, and perfectly matches the description of the craft in the Book of Genesis, chapters six through ten. I believe that it was constructed by Noah Ben Lamech, as a working model, before he built the actual sea-going ark itself."
Once more guffaws filled the air and some rude soul added a juicy American raspberry.
"Good evening, gentlemen," Professor Einstein said loudly, interrupting the brouhaha.
In prompt response, the boisterous crowd stopped making noise and turned smartly about.
"Felix, old boy!" Baron Edgewaters shouted, his bushy beard appearing to weigh more than his prominent belly. "Excellent timing as always. We've got a real wowser for you this time."
"Lad claims to have found a relic off of Noah's Ark, by gad!" Lord Danvers chortled, taking another healthy gulp. "Thinks he can fool us like Thomson did in '74 with his 'continent under Antarctica' theory. Haw!"
"How wonderful," Einstein snorted, dismissing the matter with a gesture. "He found Noah's Ark. My heartiest congratulations. But I have even more pressing news to convey."
"I said a model, not the ark itself, sir," Carstairs corrected primly.
The professor shrugged. "Whatever you wish. It is of no consequence."
"Indeed? And what could be more important than this?" Lord Danvers demanded, stroking his moustache. "The end of the world?"
Eagerly opening his mouth to speak, Prof. Einstein was cut off by Lord Carstairs.
"And exactly who are you, sir?" the lord asked.
"Haven't you two fellows ever met before?" Dr. Thompkins gasped in wonderment, rising from a chair.
"No," they replied in unison.
"But this calamity must be corrected with all due haste!" Colonel Pierpont declared, adjusting his pince-nez glasses and assuming an authoritarian pose. "Carstairs, might I introduce Professor Felix Einstein of the International British Museum, a private concern. Einstein, may I introduce Lord Benjamin Carstairs of Heather Downs, Preston."
With both hands clasped behind his back, Lord Carstairs nodded in greeting. "A pleasure, sir. I have read your books on archeology with the greatest of interest. Particularly your monograph on the feasibility that Stonehenge is a form of solar calendar."
Impatiently, Einstein accepted the compliment with what grace he could muster under the circumstances. "A minor work. And I have more than a passing acquaintance with your own journals, sir. Your theories on the possible Aztec origin of the Easter Island statues are most impressive."
"And if it will speed things along, as a senior member of the club, I officially acknowledge and congratulate you on your find," Einstein continued. "For this is not a model as you suppose, but the actual ark itself."
The roomful of explorers went stock-still at that as if a live woman had entered the club.
"A-are you crazed, Felix?" Sir Lovejoy erupted in shock, going even more pale than usual. "The craft is barely a foot long! How in the name of Queen Victoria could that toy carry seven and two of every animal on the face of the earth?"
"Explain yourself, sir!" Dr. Thompkins demanded.
Quite exasperated, Prof. Einstein closed his eyes so that nobody would see him roll them about. Ye gods, plainly no other topic of conversation would be considered until this trifling matter was resolved. So be it.
"Jeeves!" the professor shouted over a shoulder.
Instantly, the liveried butler appeared in the doorway as if he had been waiting for the explosive summons. "Yes, sir?" he drawled in proper English servitude.
"Fresh gasogenes, please," Einstein commanded, thoughtfully rubbing his lucky shark's tooth. "Every bloody one we have."
This gave Jeeves pause. There was a barely used soda water dispenser on the liquor cart right beside the man. Why would he wish additional reservoirs? And every one? For a club like the Explorers, that meant several dozen, at the very least. Then the butler went cold. Oh no, he prayed fervently, not another re-enactment of the Amazon rain forest. Anything but that.
"Wasn't aware that you've recently been to the Amazon, Felix," Lord Danvers said, refilling his glass as the somber butler shuffled away.
Ignoring that comment, Prof. Einstein stolidly waited until Jeeves returned moments later. Experience being a bitter teacher, the butler was wearing a MacIntosh overcoat and rubber boots as he pushed along a trolley loaded with several small wooden crates full of gasogene-style soda water dispensers. Plus, an umbrella and a bucket.
"Thank you, Jeeves," Professor Einstein said politely, taking a gasogene from the trolley. The umbrella and bucket were a wise precaution, but unnecessary in this particular instance. "Now please give one of these to everybody in the room."
As the butler distributed the dispensers, Einstein moved the display table to the center of the hall. Now armed with gasogenes, everybody waited to see what would happen next. Felix Einstein had a well-deserved reputation of pulling rabbits out of his hat. That bizarre museum of his being a prime example.
Exercising extraordinary care, Prof. Einstein aligned the tiny ship so that its keel was directed length wise down the room. The wood felt dry as dust to his touch and his fingers stuck slightly to the craft, which certainly seemed to substantiated his theory about its origins. With extreme care, the professor made one last minute correction in the ship's placement. Yes. Good enough.
"On my mark, gentlemen, hose the ark with water," Einstein said, assuming a firing stance. "Ready, aim..."
The encircling crowd was plainly delighted beyond words, while the stunned Lord Carstairs lowered his gasogene. "Are you sure this is prudent?" he asked in real concern.
"Fire!" Prof. Einstein cried, triggering his dispenser. A sparkling gush of effervescence splashed onto the minuscule craft. The stream of water hit it squarely, yet not a single drop of liquid rolled off the vessel to land on the table. Then an ominous creaking sound came from the wooden boat.
"All of you! Act now!" Einstein barked, over the hissing spray of carbonated water. "Spray quickly, or the ship will tear itself apart!"
It was more the whipcrack tone of the professor's voice than anything else that made the other members comply. In an orchestrated attack, several streams of carbonated water went gushing onto the relic, washing over it from stern to bow and back again.
As the pressure in the gasogenes eventually become exhausted, the rush of soda water slowed to a trickle, the last dribbles falling from the spouts to spot the India rug.
"Astonishing," Duke Farthington whispered, staring at the little boat. It was barely damp. Definitely something strange was going on here.
With a bizarre sucking noise, the pools of moisture around the craft disappeared into the hull, and before the startled eyes of the club members, the desiccated craft began to swell like some impossible sponge. With incredible speed, the expanding ship outgrew the display table, pushing aside a vacant chair and smashing a lamp.
"Get back!" Colonel Pierpont cried out, throwing both hands skyward and accidentally knocking off his pince-nez glasses.
No further prompting was needed for the startled club members to dive for safety. With a loud crack, the display table broke apart and crashed to the floor. Rapidly, the ark continued to increase in size in every direction, all the while creaking and groaning as if was being tortured on the high seas. Five meters, ten, twenty meters in length it reached, before the rate of growth noticeably slowed.
"By Jove!" Baron Edgewaters roared, crouching behind an ottoman. "Look at that! The bloody thing actually is Noah's Ark!"
"Indubitably," somebody said from the other side of the craft.
"This is dehydration on a scale unheard of in the entire civilized world!" added another unseen member from the general vicinity of the prow.
"Or England," a patriotic chap added, from behind the window curtains.
"Congratulations, Benjamin!" Lord Danvers boomed from under the liquor cart.
Wriggling from their hiding places, the entire assemblage gathered around Lord Carstairs and gave him a thunderous round of applause. Beaming in unabashed pleasure, Carstairs suddenly took on a pained expression and pointed in horror. Everybody turned just in time to see the still slowly expanding prow of the vessel nose into the trough of the bubbling fountain.
"Bloody hell," Prof. Einstein whispered, taking a step backwards.
There came a loud slurping noise, closely followed by a mighty groan of tormented wood, and the ark exploded into double its size. More than fifty meters in length, the vessel loomed over the scrambling men as it continued to grow, rapidly filling the Great Hall. With the sound of shattering stone, the fountain noisily collapsed and the ship settled over the stony remains, precipitating a great column of water that washed over the ship and yielded yet another massive spurt of growth.
"The mains!" Lord Carstairs shouted to the staff that stared in wonder through from the doorway. "Turn off the water mains!"
Obediently, one of the servants spun about and dashed down the hall.
His mind swirling with dire mathematics, Prof. Einstein could only scowl at the monstrosity forming before them. Two and seven of every animal on the earth. How big would the Ark get? The obvious answer was too damn big. This was definitely not good!
Like a wooden express train, the traveling prow violently rammed into the fireplace, smashing the hearth, and tilting the oil painting of Her Royal Majesty. As it fell, the stern of the ship slammed into the far wall, shattering the plaster and causing the bust of Marco Polo to rip free from its pedestal on the second floor balcony. As the massive bronze statue plummeted straight towards a horrified Jeeves, Lord Carstairs surged forward to shove the man aside. The heavy bust crashed onto Carstairs instead, the savage blow driving the lord to his knees as he barely managed to deflect the three hundred pounds of metal onto a 7th century pirate's chest. Even over the creaking of the Ark, the splintery explosion of the chest from the meteoric impact was clearly discernable.
White-faced and trembling, Jeeves had trouble speaking for a moment. "Y-you saved my life," the butler finally stammered, his nerveless fingers dropping the umbrella to the floor.
"Think nothing of it," Carstairs panted, flexing his hands to stop the stinging. "I'm sure you would have done the same for me."
Tilting his head, Jeeves glanced at the quarter-ton of metal explorer laying in the splintered midst of what had once been a sturdy steamer trunk. "Quite so," the manservant remarked in dry sincerity.
Now from beneath the Ark there came a series of squeaks and a banging metallic rattle. Its growth immediately slowed and with a final groaning lurch that shattered the eastern skylight, the titanic craft went thankfully still.
"By Gadfrey!" a member whispered askance, wiggling free from between the broken rudder and a bookcase. "And I thought Williamson's recounting of his trip to Lake Geneva exciting."
Battered, but undamaged, the explorers slowly crawled out from under the furniture, and dusted themselves off while staring at the impossible vessel. Going to the remains of the liquor cabinet, Lord Danvers poured himself a stiff drink, and Prof. Einstein straightened the Queen's portrait back on the wall. Better.
"Damnation, sir," Duke Farthington cried out, clapping Lord Carstairs on the shoulder. "But you're a hard act to follow!"
Breaking into nervous laughter, the younger members began clearing aside the assorted debris, while the senior members contemplated the Biblical behemoth filling the hall.
"Of course, how we will get it out of here is another matter entirely," Lord Danvers observed, finishing his whiskey.
"Damned inconvenient holding meetings with this hanging above our heads," Judge Foxthington-Smythe stated, thoughtfully stroking one of his many chins. "We could always just tear down a wall or two and ease it out into the back courtyard. Make a fine gazebo, it would. Impress the neighbors no end."
All work paused as everybody turned to stare at the judge.
"Outside?" a man asked.
"Where it rains?" another questioned.
The entire group of explorers paled at those words and looked at the Ark with growing expressions of horror. Exactly what were they to do with this thing?
Clapping his hands, Prof. Einstein got the members moving again and eventually a path was cleared to the doorway, allowing the staff to rush in with brooms and dustpans to begin the homeric job of straightening the hall. Leaving them to the task, the disheveled club members now gathered round Carstairs and Einstein.
"Members of the Explorers Club," Duke Farthington shouted in his best Parliamentary voice. "I give you, Lord Benjamin Carstairs!"
A formal round of applause came from the members, and the British lord made a sweeping bow. "Thank you, gentlemen. I am most gratified." Then Carstairs turned to address Prof. Einstein in a quieter voice. "And thank you, sir, for saving my reputation. If ever I can return the favor, pray inform me."
"Now would be a good time," Einstein said bluntly. "I came here to find two or three men to assist me on an extremely dangerous expedition." The professor smiled at the dapper young goliath. "But then, it appears that you are two or three men."
As the observation was hardly original, Lord Carstairs accepted the statement complacently. "Pray tell, what is the nature of this expedition?"
"To save the world from total destruction."
Taken aback in surprise, Carstairs blinked a few times at the outlandish statement. "Are you quite serious, professor?"
Einstein nodded. "Absolutely, Lord Carstairs."
Since honor was on the line, the decision came instantaneously. "Then I am at your command, sir," Lord Carstairs said, extending a massive hand.
As gingerly as if grasping a spring-loaded beartrap, Prof. Einstein accepted the offer and they shook.
"Excellent, lad!" Einstein said, glancing about at the scene of turmoil about them. "But this is no place to talk. Come, I'll tell you the details on the way to my home."
"Indeed. Why the hurry? Is the matter pressing?"
"Yes, time is of the essence."
As the two men walked from the room, Lord Carstairs took the opportunity to add, "Is there any chance that we may be back from wherever we're going by early next month? Several friends and I had planned on taking another crack at locating the elephants' graveyard in Africa."
Starting a caustic reply, Professor Einstein paused and then spoke tactfully. "Lad, if our expedition is not successful, then you won't have to worry about such matters."
Frowning darkly, Lord Carstairs uneasily chewed upon that cryptic statement. "Indeed, sir," he murmured.
In the foyer, the liveried page gave their coats the doorman, who in turn primly passed them to the owners. In the background, there could be heard a great deal of cursing and hammering from the ruin of the Great Hall.
Donning their outer garments, the two men departed from the club, and walked down to the curb. Placing two fingers in his mouth, Prof. Einstein gave a sharp whistle, and from within the billowing fog there came the crack of a whip, a horse whinnied and a brougham carriage into view with Davis at the reins.
Climbing inside, the two explorers got comfortably seated as Davis set the carriage into motion. As the cab moved into the deeper recesses of the river mist, a group of hooded figures stepped from the shadowy alleyway alongside the Explorers Club. Shaking the broken window glass from their robes, the men adjusted the scarves masking their features, pulled knives and proceeded to swiftly follow the departing vehicle. Oddly, their hard-sole boots did not make a sound on the granite cobblestones of the city street.
Clear and strong, the mighty Big Ben began to chime the midnight hour as somewhere in the gray mist, a muffled foghorn moaned in warning to ships on the Thames River.
Inside the jostling carriage, Lord Carstairs reclined in the sumptuous leather seating. "That was a spot of good luck to locate a cab so quickly on such a poor night," he commented. "Perhaps it is a good omen for our journey?"
"Nothing of the sort, lad. I had it waiting for me," Einstein remarked, checking the time on a gold Beugueret pocketwatch.
"How unusual," Carstairs noted, stretching out his legs. "You must pay the driver exorbitantly for such a service. Or is he part of your staff?"
"Merely professional courtesy," the professor corrected, showing an ornate signet ring on his left pinky.
Arching an eyebrow, Lord Carstairs studied the unusual bit of jewelry. "You're a member of the Cab Drivers Guild?" he asked incredulously.
"The Coalition of the Street we prefer to be called, but yes, I am an honorary member," Einstein said, breathing on the ring before polishing it on a trouser leg. "Quite often in my work I have found it highly useful to belong to as many private associations and restricted clubs as possible. One can never tell when the assistance of a fellow member will be highly desirous."
"That certainly seems to make sense," Carstairs replied politely.
Resting the ebony cane across his lap, the professor smiled ruefully. "So far, the only society that has totally refused me admittance is the Daughters of Lesbos."
Unsure if that was a joke or not, Lord Carstairs leaned back and reached inside his coat to produce a gold cigar case. Snapping it open, the lord politely offered an assortment of hand-rolled Cubans to the professor. Einstein stared at the leafy cylinders with dismay.
"An imported Havana mixture," Carstairs said encouragingly. "My own private blend."
Recognizing the futility of arguing health with a confirmed smoker, the professor relinquished his usual adamant position and joined his associate in lighting a slim panatela. Soon, the atmosphere inside the cab was as thick as the air outside, and in spite of his scientific abhorrence of the practice, Einstein was forced to admit that it really was a damn fine cigar.
From the front of the carriage there came the crack of a whip, a horse whiny, and the vehicle angled sharply about for a tight turn. Almost losing their seats, both men grabbed hold of the convenient leather straps set next to the door and fought to stay upright.
"Incompetent bounder," Lord Carstairs muttered angrily.
"Evasive tactics," Prof. Einstein corrected.
"Are we being pursued, sir?"
Inspecting the end of his cigar, Einstein said nothing.
Allowing the pungent smoke to trickle from his mouth, Lord Carstairs turned to glance out a window. Even through the dense river fog, he could see the vast halls of Parliament, the great stone building still encased in a maze of scaffolding.
"Appears they're almost done with the repairs," he remarked in pride, the smoky words momentarily visible in the air.
Puffing contentedly, Prof. Einstein nodded. "A nice job too, considering how much damage it received in the-"
"Troubles," Carstairs interjected, gesturing with his cigar.
Furrowing his brow, Einstein scowled in irritation. "It was war, damn it. War! Why can't anybody just admit that?"
"Tact," the lord replied simply.
As politeness was the backbone of civilization, the professor had no possible retort to that. Angrily, he flicked cigar ash out the window just as the fog briefly parted admitting a wealth of silvery moonlight into the cab.
Gesturing with the smoldering stub, Einstein indicated the misty sky overhead. "Well, is polite society willing to talk about the moon?" the professor demanded. "Or is that also something else people decline to discuss?"
"Not a bit of it," Lord Carstairs replied, shifting the cigar to a new location in his mouth. "I heard about the phenomenon before I left the continent. The Royal Astronomical Society is completely foxed about the whole thing."
"As so they should be, lad," Prof. Einstein said, blowing a smoke ring at the crescent. The fumes joined the fog and moon was gone again. "By celestial mechanics beyond our understanding, the moon is revolving to show us its long hidden face. What do you think of that, eh?"
Inhaling deeply, Carstairs gave the matter a few minutes of somber thought. "Be a nice change, I dare say."
"What? Is that all it means to you?" the professor asked staring agog.
The lord shrugged. "Honestly, sir, considering the state of the world, I don't see how this development can be of any real importance. Except perhaps to poets, and a few painters."
"Indeed," Einstein said sounding disappointed, his fingers drumming on the coach seat. "Lord Carstairs, how familiar are you with the mythology of the Dutarian Empire?"
Lord Carstairs thoughtfully puffed on his cigar before answering. "Only vaguely," Carstairs replied honestly. "It was small secluded city/state in the Sumatra region, founded around 3000 B.C., or so. They were a rather vigorous empire with a pronounced reputation for bloodthirstiness. They were on the rise for slightly over a hundred years until they suffered some sort of natural disaster and completely disappeared."
Tapping the excess ash from the glowing tip of the cigar, Carstairs replaced it to savor another deep puff. "As to religion and myths, they worshipped some sort of fish, I believe. Don't remember anything about the moon." He focused his attention onto the professor. "I assume there is a connection."
Although he tried not to show it, Prof. Einstein was extremely impressed. Most university scholars would have had to consult numerous volumes to unearth the information this man had so casually tossed off. Obviously, Einstein had made the correct choice in an associate.
"Absolutely, there is a connection. And the Dutarians did not worship a fish, per se," Einstein corrected. "But a giant squid. The Squid God, they called it, although demon might be a more accurate translation. It was supposed to be a horrific beast that had a thousand tentacles, a dozen mouths and was totally invulnerable to man-made weapons."
"And it fed on human blood."
His cigar drooped as Einstein eagerly leaned forward in the smoky cab. "Great Scott, you've heard of the creature?" he demanded.
"No, but it would have been a rather unusual deity for a warrior state to revere if it didn't," Carstairs said puffing away steadily. "Rather reminds me that Aztec god of war, Huitzilopchtli. He required massive amounts of the stuff to make the dawn come."
"Ah, but in the sun god aspect of Tonatiu, he was perceived as a bringer of life," Einstein noted, with a raised finger. "The Squid God was known only as a destroyer, just barely controlled by the Dutarian priests who summoned it, and in the end, not even they could do so."
"You're talking as if the thing really existed," Carstairs chided, flicking the cigar butt out the window. "And that is patently absurd, sir."
"As absurd as Noah's Ark?" Einstein asked quietly.
The British lord closed his mouth with an audible snap and for the next several seconds conflicting emotions battled for supremacy across his handsome face.
"Oh, at least as absurd," Carstairs conceded with a smile. "However, sir, you actually saw my proof."
"And soon," the professor said, leaning back into the seat to gaze out the window, "you shall see mine."
In a clatter of hooves on cobblestone, the brougham carriage came to a halt at the curb in front of a simple brick mansion bordered by a high wrought-iron gate. Exiting the cab, Prof. Einstein tried to pay Davis, who adamantly refused. Sensing a battle of wills was in progress, Lord Carstairs took the opportunity for a good stretch after his confinement. The lord was still in the same position when the professor joined him on the sidewalk.
"Something wrong?" Einstein asked taking the fellow by the arm.
"The International British Museum for Stolen Antiquities?" Lord Carstairs said reading the huge sign above the front door. "Good lord, professor, isn't that laying it on a bit thick?"
With a cavalier gesture, Prof. Einstein completely dismissed the matter. "Purely advertising, lad. It gives the patrons a vicarious thrill. You should have seen the newspaper headlines on the day we opened shop."
"But still," Carstairs hedged uncomfortably.
"And it's not entirely true," Einstein continued, unlocking the front gate and holding it open. Carstairs walked through and the professor securely locked it again. "Well over 20% of our exhibits have been legally purchased."
Quite impressed, Lord Carstairs gave a whistle. "As many as that? My apologies."
"Think nothing of it," Einstein said, unlocking the front door and swinging aside the heavy oak portal.
Entering a vestibule, the two men dodged round a group of velvet ropes set to direct patrons to a ticket booth, and continued past a sturdy brass turnstile. The foyer was lined with various old world maps; some on parchment, others on papyrus or sheep skin. Each was highly illustrated with imaginative renderings of the creatures that supposedly lurked in the deep waters, hoping to devour anybody rash enough to venture beyond the safety of land.
Proceeding through a curtained alcove, brilliant light washed over them and Carstairs gasped in astonishment, while Einstein snorted in disgust.
"Owen must have forgotten to turn off the bloody lights again," Prof. Einstein complained. "Damned gas bills are going to bankrupt me. William Owen is a bright student and a good lad, but he has no sense of propriety."
"Well, he's Welsh, you know," the professor added, as if that explained the matter.
Looking over the museum, Carstairs dumbly nodded in agreement. The building was a single colossal room that stretched the length and breath of the property. The entire Explorers Club could have easily fit inside the cavernous structure!
Everywhere there rows of exhibit cases and display racks of a thousand different types. Rainbow colored tapestries lined the walls and precious Ming vases stood secure inside a row of gleaming glass pyramids. Dominating the entire west wing was the elaborately carved skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, poised as if ready to attack. Next to it stood a squad of brightly lacquered Oriental armor in proud formation, guarding a gilt edged sarcophagus, its glass top displaying a perfectly preserved Egyptian mummy inside.
In the east wing was a completely restored Viking long boat, Roman galley and an Imperial Chinese barge, each resting in stout mahogany dry docks which sported delicately engraved brass plates detailing their histories and attributes.
Adorning the ceiling was a painted panorama of the Milky Way, with round glass skylights depicting the eight known planets, plus two theoretical worlds. Directly below the panorama, hung a huge pair of feathered wings joined together by an ancient leather body harness. Even the floor seemed to be an exhibit, the black fleck marble underlain with strange runes and geometric patterns. In somber deference, Lord Carstairs removed his hat.
"I am speechless, sir," he finally managed to croak, throat tight with professional admiration. "It is totally unlike any museum I have ever seen before!"
Busy tying the curtains closed, Einstein glanced up at that statement. "What, this rubbish? Bah. Mere baubles to amuse the idle tourist. The real museum starts of the other side of that brass door."
Lord Carstairs turned. The door in question was located alongside the mammoth Tyrannosaurus, set into a hinged section of the wall that obviously served as an access portal for the larger exhibits.
"Might we take a moment?" Carstairs asked eagerly.
The professor gave a bow. "Certainly. It's on the way to my office."
Walking side by side, the two men briskly strode across the museum. Prof. Einstein noted that the cases were properly cleaned, while Lord Carstairs observing the bewildering assortment of material. Stacks of ancient coins, jeweled hairpins, golden whips, plus an array of highly ornamental crowns from as many countries as centuries. The riches of a hundred kingdoms were on display with no apparent guards or protection of any sort.
"Professor, don't you have much trouble with thieves?" the lord finally asked.
"Not at all," Einstein remarked. "The glass in every exhibit case is specially tempered and veined with hair-thin steel wires, quite invulnerable to anything short of a sledgehammer. Plus, at night the grounds are patrolled by Hans, Dolf and Inga."
Carstairs nodded sagely. "Ah, pit bulls no doubt, or perhaps you utilize mastiffs. Nasty dogs. My ghillie makes use of them for my country estate."
"Dogs?" Professor Einstein said as if he had never heard the word before. "Nonsense, lad. Even the most vicious Canis Familaris are far too gentle to serve as protectors of my establishment. I use the much more brutal and bloodthirsty Felis Tigris."
"B-bengal tigers?" Lord Carstairs gasped, coming to a halt.
"The biggest you have ever seen," the professor added with a touch of pride.
Suddenly staring into the darkness, for a split second Lord Carstairs was back in wild bush of Africa, with the thunderous purring of the huge killer cats coming from every side at once.
"Is this prudent, professor?" the lord asked nervously, fingering the area on his chest where a bandoleer of shells would be on a safari. "Bengal tigers are notorious mankillers!"
"Oh, they quite happily eat ladies, too," Einstein grinned. "Although, that is pure conjecture on my part. Occasionally, I find the gnawed bones of some burglar strewn across the floor when I open shop in the morning. No way in Heaven of ever telling the gender of the would-be thief by then."
"Egad. Whatever do you do?"
"Notify the cleaning staff and don't feed the cats any lunch that day. By Gadfrey, there's nothing lazier than a fat tiger."
"I shall take your word on it, sir," Lord Carstairs demurred, surveying the labyrinthine museum. Loosening his collar, the man started to walk forward once more, this time with renewed vigor. Bengal tigers as house cats? Interesting idea, actually. He wondered if they might like the English countryside?
Reaching the brass door, Prof. Einstein strolled on through, while Lord Carstairs was forced to duck to achieve passage. Fumbling on the wall to his left, Einstein threw a large switch and there was an audible clunk as electric lights in the ceiling crashed into life. Lord Carstairs was braced for anything, but despite the grandeur of the artificial illumination, in contrast to the glitter and polish of the show place they had just left, this room seemed drab and almost utilitarian. It was a plain square brick room with a concrete floor. Several large marble tables were covered with a mishmash of old junk, and dusty objects lined the wall shelves.
However, catching the lord's attention was a massive stone slab, slightly cracked and covered with several lines of deeply carved figures in some kind of a flowery script.
"Fascinating," Lord Carstairs mused, studying the stone with great interest.
"Ah, we're particularly fond of this exhibit. Can you read any of it?" Prof. Einstein asked, with a hint of teasing in his voice.
Sensing a friendly test, Carstairs applied himself with fervor, struggling to dredge up the most obscure languages at his command, until at last the cryptic symbols began to make sense and sentences slowly unraveled. Why, it was a modified form of Hellenic! "Contribute? No, deposit, your money...in the Bank of... Atlantis! We are...as firm...as the...ground ...you stand on. Good Lord!" the explorer cried, rocking back on his heels.
"It was probably true once," Prof. Einstein sighed, sadly running a finger across the proud facade of the bank lentil. "Behold, how the mighty have fallen."
"Pity about the crack," Lord Carstairs added after an appropriate moment of silence.
Einstein shrugged. "Yes. Well, nothing's perfect."
Turning about and hoping for more artifacts from the lost continent of Atlantis, the British lord slowly arched an expressive eyebrow as he drank in what else was on display. Over in the corner was a shimmering steel sword thrust into an anvil atop a moss-covered boulder. No, impossible. Suspended from the ceiling was the skeleton of a winged human infant still clutching a tiny bow and quiver of pink arrows. In a small alcove was a crimson book positioned under a weighty glass bell jar, its fluttering pages held closed with an iron C-clamp. Beyond that was a five meter tall, copper coin embossed with the face of a recently assassinated American president and an impossible date. Then came another glass jar holding two fig leaves marked 'His' and 'Hers' in ancient Hebrew. Followed by a pillar of salt in the shape of a woman sticking her tongue out at somebody. A battered sailor's sea chest with the name D. Jones on its lid barely visible beneath a coating of barnacles. An iron pot of gold coins that shone with a rainbow effect. Plus, more and more items, ad infinitum.
Soon, Lord Carstairs felt his head began to swim and he was forced to call a halt. Taking the big man by the arm, the professor courteously escorted him towards a second door partially hidden behind a coat of many faded colors.
"Forgive me, Carstairs, but I've had a lifetime to ponder the revelations this room represents," Prof. Einstein said. "To ask anyone to try and comprehend it all in a single viewing was sheer foolishness on my part."
Pushing aside an Oriental screen, Einstein ushered Carstairs into a narrow room pungent with the tangy smell of carbolic acid.
"My work shop," the professor announced, guiding the British lord to sit on what appeared to be some sort of weird porcelain throne.
Strangely, the place felt like home to Carstairs. It was nearly identical to the workroom at his estate. The floor was strewn with excelsior packing with stacks of wooden crates shipped from around the world standing about waiting to be opened. In the center was a battered table covered with bits of an alabaster urn laying on a white linen cloth, along with a dozen brushes, two notebooks, a magnifying glass mounted on a brass stand and a glue pot that looked infinitely older than the urn itself. The walls were lined with shelves crammed to bursting with ancient bric-a-brac, rusty lumps of metal, books and loose papers. Across the workshop was a chemical laboratory occupying a granite-topped bench. To Carstairs' surprise, there was no mysterious bubbling experiment in progress.
Going to a locked cabinet, the professor returned with a pair of laboratory beakers containing an inch of swirling, caramel colored, liquid.
"Napoleon Brandy," Einstein said, handing the lord a glass. Then the professor took a seat in an overstuffed chair. "My own private stock."
"How interesting," Lord Carstairs said, looking at the liquor dubiously. "I was of the opinion that every drop had been lost in The Troubles."
"Not every bottle. I managed to save a few."
After a first hesitant sip, Carstairs nodded in full approval. "Exemplary, sir! Well, sir, after seeing this museum, if you were to tell me that the mythical Realms of Fairy were about to invade Scotland, my only question would be...when?"
"Tomorrow at noon," the professor snapped.
Caught in the middle of a swallow, Lord Carstairs gagged at the news and sprayed brandy into the air.
Feeling a bit sheepish, Einstein handed the dripping lord a handkerchief. "Sorry, lad, I couldn't resist. Besides, I need your mind at its sharpest, not befogged with awe. Feeling better?"
"Ah, yes, thank you," the lord murmured demurely.
Securing the bottle of brandy once more, Einstein refilled the lord's beaker to the very brim this time in apology.
Lord Carstairs took a fresh sip and carefully swallowed before speaking. "Now tell me more about this Dutarian god."
"I'll be brief," the professor said in a somber voice, placing aside the bottle. "Sometime around 3000 B.C., the priests of the city of Dutar summoned forth a magical protector to aid them in their battles against the local hill people who were constantly stealing their goats. The monster responded as requested, eating the hill folk, and the goats, but then it refused to depart. Indeed, it threatened to consume the people of Dutar unless other food, human food, was provided. Obtaining these, ahem, 'provisions' was the reason behind Dutar's 200 years of conquest and expansion. The forging of the Empire was a mere side effect."
While Lord Carstairs chewed that over, the professor took a sip from his own beaker. He would need a drink for the next part. "Eventually, the population grew tired of endless battles and tried to destroy the demon. But even with the entire military might of a warrior empire to draw upon, the fight went badly for them. Their doom seemed certain until the descents of the very magicians who had summoned the monster in the first place, cast a spell that they had been working on for the last two hundred years."
"And," Carstairs prompted, swirling the brandy in his glass beaker to savor the lush bouquet.
Leaning forward, Einstein spoke rapidly. "And it damn well worked, after a fashion. A volcano erupted directly under the Squid God's temple, shattering it to pieces and destroying the city of Dutar. This marked the end of the Dutarian people as a force to be reckoned with, and the end of the Squid God. Or so it was thought. At the height of the eruption, the Squid God and its temple vanished. The priests were trapped inside and everybody assumed that they had also been killed. But some ten years later, one of them reappeared. He was quite mad, but coherent enough to reveal that the Squid God was still alive, though horribly burned. Even more terrifying was the information that the monster was undergoing a bizarre regeneration, leaving its damaged old body for a fresh new one, supposedly even more powerful than the first. The priest was a bit vague on when this miracle would occur, but he swore that the unmistakable warning sign would be given by a new face on the moon."
Only the ticking of the clock on the mantle could be heard as the professor took a long pull of the brandy and emptied the beaker. "It seems to have taken a bit longer than anybody had expected," he said placing it aside. "But to a demon, what's a few thousand years, more or less, eh?"
In wry rumination, Lord Carstairs mulled over the story. "And this is the foundation for your belief that the world is about to be destroyed?"
"In a nutshell, yes."
Still holding his beaker, Lord Carstairs rose and began pacing about the room. "A truly fascinating story, sir. But if apocryphal stories are what you want then the procreation myths of the Uldon lizard tribes would keep a man happy for years. Surely, there is some material proof to back this theory."
Hesitantly, Einstein stood. Here we go. "Only circumstantial evidence, at best, I must admit," he said, going to a shelf containing numerous papyrus scrolls. Choosing a specific scroll, the professor unrolled it with a crackle.
"Read this," Einstein instructed. "Third section down."
Placing aside his beaker, the lord peered at the scroll. "A thousand armies of a thousand men each were naught but toys to the dire squid," he read slowly. "Interesting. Hyperbole by a fanatic priest?"
Moving closer, Prof. Einstein pointed to a purple seal at the bottom of the page. "Military report from a enemy general."
Lord Carstairs gave a slow nod. "A good start. Anything else?"
"Yes, but brace yourself, lad." Reaching under a worktable, the professor brought forth a large object wrapped in linen cloth.
Carefully, Prof. Einstein placed it on top of the table and folded back the covering. As the stone tablet was unwrapped, Lord Carstairs went pale and dropped his beaker, the laboratory glass shattering on the floor.
Covering the upper part of the tablet, Prof. Einstein said, "There is an inscription under the, ahem, picture."
Summoning his pluck, the lord forced himself to look once more. "The mighty Squid God at its noon feeding of...blind orphans. Souvenir of Dutar City." Carstairs swallowed with difficulty. "Don't miss the b-baby d-d-decapitating festival in the spring."
Slowly, Einstein started to folded back the next cloth to reveal the next section.
"Enough!" Lord Carstairs cried, averting his eyes. "This is an abomination against man and nature!"
"Absolutely," Prof. Einstein agreed, quickly wrapping the tablet again and tucking the artifact away. "And we must do everything within our power to see that such a hideous occurrence is never repeated."
"Yes, yes, we must," Carstairs said with growing resolution and straightening his shoulders. "Sir, I must confess that I am not wholly convinced of this danger. As you said, only circumstantial evidence at best. But to protect the world from that!" He gestured at the empty table where the tablet had just been. "I will gladly join you on any expedition, even if it be a fool's quest."
"Thank you," the professor gushed in relief, his voice shaking with emotion. "I can ask for nothing more."
"So what is our first step?" Carstairs asked, reclaiming his throne. "If this creature is as powerful as believed, than even a modern battleship might mean nothing to it."
"Well spoken, lad," Einstein grinned. "But the monster has an Achilles' Heel. It has yet to be born!"
"I beg your pardon?" Carstairs asked with a profound frown. "What was that again, please?
"Not born yet," Prof. Einstein repeated slowly. "The Squid God will not be re-born until the new face of the moon looks upon the earth. I estimate that we have slightly more than two weeks in which to find and destroy the temple in which the creature rests."
"Which will spoil the magical spell and prevent the creature from regenerating," Lord Carstairs finished in a rush of excitement. "But that is simplicity itself!" Defiling sacred relics was something British explorers were especially good at doing. "I'm surprised that you asked for assistance on such a trivial matter. So where is the temple anyway? Ceylon? Tibet? The South Pole?"
Under the lord's honest gaze, Prof. Einstein squirmed uncomfortably. "Ah, well, that is the hitch, lad. Because, you see, I have absolutely no idea."
But then, the professor leaned forward eagerly. "However..."
-END OF SAMPLE CHAPTERS-
James Clay is the name of a mysterious figure appearing on this page. The nature of this “man of letters” remains one of the great unanswered scientific questions. Applications for research grants for work in the field of Clayology are now being accepted through all accredited universities and Musicland stores.