by  Kristin C. Sabo

The Night of the Jade Death copyright © K. Sabo
Absolutely no reprint or use of this material, partial or otherwise, without
the prior written consent of K. Sabo & -



APPROX. 90 pps (monotype 12-point)

go to Part Two


Table of Contents

PROLOGUE Pillar Talk CHAPTER ONE "Weather" Canada
CHAPTER FOUR The Festival of the Field Mouse CHAPTER FIVE V is for Vortex
CHAPTER EIGHT Winter in Toronto CHAPTER NINE Rendevous
CHAPTER TEN Breakdown CHAPTER ELEVEN Incoming Outgoing
EPILOGUE A Night at the Opera


PART ONE (of 4)

   In the dark time, before the implementation of the Julian calendar, there was no doubt she'd have been accused of seeing assassins behind every pillar. And well to do so, then. Many a dead ruler of Rome reinforced the value of heeding this sage and ancient advice. As a member of Rome's 19th century equivalent, Senator Vandegrin chose a course of caution against reliving the mistakes of civilizations past, for those who ignore such errors are doomed to relive them.

   Reliving those mistakes all too often proved fatal.

   The senator thoughtfully dipped her quill in the ornate crystal ink well and scanned the document before her. The decision was obvious. She scribed her 'John Hancock' with a flourish and smiled. As usual, her logic was flawless: no pillars, no assassins. Practical? That wasn't her problem. With any luck, Washington DC would be pillar-less within a fortnight. Only then could she rest easy.

   In Ottawa, another mousetrap slammed down upon the back of an unsuspecting rodent.

* * * * * * * * *



CHAPTER ONE   "Weather" Canada

back to top


      "Hmmm.... What did you say your name was again?"

   Debbie pulled away from the dashing young gentleman and caught her breath in the cold night air. "James, you -- you cad! You know full well what my name is."

   The stunning young woman snatched her face away from her consort in mock disgust and stepped to the ship's rail. The breeze caused by the vessel's movement was below freezing, neither she nor her companion seemed to notice. It animated her dark red hair, the moonlight shimmering from it served to strengthen the impression. Her consort remained behind, enjoying the view while waiting out the show of temper with long-practiced patience.

   He didn't have long to wait. Debbie looked back over her shoulder. A gleam in her eye, a lilt in her voice. "Say it for me," she teased, "I just love to hear you say it."

   James drew her back to him. "Don't we have something better to do than talk?"

   There was no argument from the Admiral's daughter. There never was in this situation, and whatever "it" was, it would remain unsaid.

   Thirty minutes later found the same gentleman alone and all business, carefully examining both person and thing on the lower deck of the clipper.

   Another diplomatic mission. Much more of this playing bodyguard to state officials nonsense and James West would seriously consider another line of work. To be a Secret Service agent had always meant action, and plenty of it.

   Yet recently the Service seemed to be drifting towards a monotony of baby-sitting foreign officials, all of who needed a guard every moment they were in contact with even a single grain of United States soil. A slight variation this time. One of West's own was returning the favour, but the top-secret trip to Hudson Bay to delve into the disappearance of three US Naval cutters had been deadly dull to this point. The United States had already sent a civilian party to investigate, but for reasons unknown to the agent that party had failed miserably. Now it was the military's turn.

   Admiral Spollen had requested Jim as his private bodyguard personally. Jim appreciated the Admiral's confidence in his abilities and the chance to see the Admiral's daughter again, but the inactivity was getting to him. Slowing down those lightning reflexes, dulling that keen sense of surrounding. Adding to the inactivity was the fact that the Admiral appeared to have changed his mind about having a bodyguard after the fact, leaving the agent with the mundane task of patrol.

   The only part of the ship West hadn't examined in detail was the lower cargo hold so it was here he wandered as the Admiral finished his evening meal. Today the bowels of the ship held little of interest, stacks upon stacks of wine barrels being shipped north on private contract which were also playing the role of ballast for the clipper. Fort Ticogah would be doubly inundated upon their arrival: the Royal Canadian Naval Base with United States brass, and the local merchants with the fruit of the vine.

   One last look around and James West vacated the foul-smelling hold, glad of the frosty night air. It would help keep him awake on this assignment.

*   *   *



   President Grant was absolutely furious. Senator Vandegrin was always a touch eccentric, but this took the cake. "What in tarnation's possessed her, Richmond?" The President threw the document in the rubbish bin and glared at his head of security. "What's next? Sanitation workers declaring war on windmills?"

   The only other occupant of the sparsely-furnished office faced the Civil War hero. "Agent Seagal's been on the senator's tail from the moment she returned, Mr. President," replied Colonel Richmond. "Vandegrin's behavior has been completely normal -- well, normal for the senator, sir."

       "Colonel, people don't just become full-fledged lunatics overnight. Something had to have happened to the woman. Are you one-hundred percent positive your agent didn't miss anything?"

   Richmond nodded slightly. "Agent Seagal hasn't let Senator Vandegrin out of his sight since she returned from the first Hudson Bay meeting. If something's caused this behavior, it occurred out of country and out of our complete control."

      "Ah....yes. The great white North."

   The thought of the current volatile situation with Canada caused the President to begin to pace about the room like a caged tiger. "Canada's a place we have very little control over at the moment, Colonel. Of course neither do the people who are supposed to be in control it so I guess we're not alone." Grant stopped, and absentmindedly fiddled with a small replica of a guillotine that always occupied one dusty corner of his desk, his face growing dark. "You'd better put agents on the rest of that Bay contingent without delay." The mini-guillotine slammed down, decapitating an unsuspecting cigar.

   The Head of the Secret Service had of course anticipated Grant's order. That was his job. "Everyone who was in that committee's been under surveillance since midnight." Richmond was counting on Grant's next response. "We have no idea what went on up there, sir. Not the slightest clue. Debriefing told us nothing. It would help if I had permission to send some operatives to Fort Ticogah direc-"

   Grant interrupted on cue. "Not possible, Colonel. You know how the rules. I certainly can't give you permission to send United States operatives north."

   Richmond mustered the requisite look of chagrin.

   It was an old game, but a very effective one. The President smiled wryly. "Of course, what agents do on furlough is their own business," he added.

   Richmond extracted a folded document from his vest pocket. "I just happen to have a complete list of field agents currently up for furlough in the next month right here, sir."

   Of course, Grant thought as he glanced down the furlough list. Curiously enough, the same names always seem to be on that list.

*   *   *

9:00 am House Bill #14a       Introduction by Representative Hamilton
        House Bill #33f       final vote
        Senate Bill #S749     open debate


      It was very dark for a September morning in Washington DC, but an opportune lightning flash had provided enough light to read the marquee. Bill 14a had indeed been moved up a week on the docket. Best hurry.

   Showing a phony pass to the door guard, the intruder followed the crowd of rain-soaked legislators and their lackeys into the Capitol. Once in the main gallery, they found the darkest corner possible, made themselves as inconspicuous as possible and calmly awaited the imminent storm.


   The congressman cleared his throat, then continued.

       "...and in the interest of national sec- or should that be INTERnational security? Yes, in the interest of international security, I hereby propose the following."

   The moment having passed, the congressman shoved aside the mousy fellow who was brushing lint from his velvet collar and destroying the atmosphere.

       "A curse upon thee, Freeman! Can't you see I'm orating?"

       "Ssssertainly, Sssir," serenaded the secretary, voice soothing and slow. "Ssssounds sssstupendous." Another swipe of the brush and the lapel was spotless.

       "Of COURSE it's stupendous! My speech, isn't it??"

   There was a tap upon the door and one of the lackeys peeked around the jamb. "You're up, sir."

   Once last look in the mirror, a tug of the collar, and Hurricane Hamilton blew out into the main gallery. And the gallery was of course bettered by his entrance. In the wake of that entrance stood Freeman, grinning at the immaculate appearance of the storm.

   In the gallery, the landfall of Hamilton had quite the opposite effect upon the character in the corner. While the applause creshendoed, the intruder actually managed to become even smaller, fear a powerful motivator.

   Reporters however were a fearless lot, they strained against the ropes of their cordoned off area with relish. Congressman Hamilton was a favourite; he always put on a good show. Some held candles that afforded better illumination than the grand old saucer-shaped gallery chandelier which this room had outgrown years ago. Congress insisted upon being steeped in tradition, to the point of antiquation and ineptitude. This included inadequate lighting.

   The rest of the press rabble lit candles and lanterns to avoid eyestrain as they began scribbling madly, and all cursed that wretched light fixture in spite of tradition.

   Congressman Jonathan Hamilton drank in the applause as he finally reached the podium. Depositing his silk topper where the text of his speech should have sat, he took up position directly in front of the oak pedestal, face full with the moment. Entrances were certainly one of his strong points. When the timing was perfect, Hamilton directed the assembly to silence with mock humility until all that was audible was the scratching of press quill on press paper.

         "Fellow members of this austere governing body, there is
          a grrreat ~evil~ upon the land. An evil so insidious, so
          cunning in its turpitude that to most it remains nameless,
          faceless while its malignancy deteriorates and defiles
          every aspect of this great nation!"

   The congressman from South Carolina paused, hanging his head for effect. The gallery ensemble was at the edge of their seats -- with one exception -- and the press continued to scribe with glee. Hamilton was really putting on one this morning.

   When the optimum moment arrived, the congressman raised his head and made eye contact with his audience.

         "Each and every one of you have been violated by this felon.
          Our wives, our children have all felt the grip of his hand
          about their throats."

   Congress Hamilton raised his vision skyward for inspiration, the dim light of the chandelier detailed the passion etched in his face.

         "I am of course speaking of no other than -- "

   Across the face of the orator, lines of passion suddenly became lines of fear, then terror. Without warning, a century of tradition came crashing down upon Congressman Jonathan Hamilton in an instant. Chandelier and one-hundred years of melted wax finished his enunciation. Then stunned silence... a fitting punctuation.

   Yes, the congressman really did know how to stage a show, shocking everyone in his audience. With one exception. And the exception slipped quietly from their corner and out the door, exit stage left -- their production a smashing success.

* * * * * * * * *




back to top



   Artemus Gordon looked up from titrating a sample of something that smoked unpleasantly. The manservant was nowhere to be seen in the main car. He always managed to disappear at a crucial moment, something about chemistry had that effect on him.

      "Tennyson, where's that bottle of diethyl-trioxyl-propylhydrophan?"

      "Right where you last left it, sir," came the muffled British accent from the living quarters, "next to the watercress."

   In the galley? Artie glanced suspiciously at the remains of the watercress sandwich littering a plate at the other end of the table, then grinned slightly. "You didn't use the entire bottle, I trust."

   The door to the front car opened and butler entered, balancing a battle-scared brown bottle upon a silver tray. "Of course not, Mr. Gordon sir. Today is Tuesday." The tray landed upon the tabletop with a disapproving <clank>.

   Artemus inspected the vile-looking concoction in his hands. It bubbled malevolently. "Would you mind?" Artie indicated the convecting mess.

   Tennyson gingerly lifted the brown bottle between two gloved fingertips and tossed a dash of its contents into the mixture. The bubbling grew more vigorous, but West's partner wasn't paying any attention. He stared suspiciously at Tennyson."Now -- what's Tuesday got to do with anything?"

   Tennyson didn't answer but the bubbling seemed to respond by growing louder still. Even Artie began to look alarmed and quickly set the beakers down as his project began hissing and spitting flames.

   Both men dived for cover as the contents of the experiment exploded with thud.

   While the Secret Service agent contemplated the disaster, Tennyson rose stoically and straightened his vest. "Tuesday is the day you blow up the main car, sir," he stated as stiffly as his European upbringing would allow.

   Before Artie could come backl with a retort there was a knock at the door. Tennyson carefully replaced the towel upon his arm and went to answer it.

      "Any more starch and he'll crack..." Artie muttered to himself as he began to pick through the pieces of an hour's work gone. The butler had a subtle way of reminding him how much he disliked Artie working on potentially messy projects in the main car.

      "Colonel Richmond to see you sir." Tennyson announced.

   The Colonel stepped into the room and shook the rain from his coat, declining to let the butler take it. With a glance at Artemus, Tennyson discretely disappeared.

   Richmond glanced at the mess. "I hope that's supposed to be an explosive, Artemus."

      "Erm, no sir -- not exactly."

   Artie turned over one of the larger fragments. "I've got this idea for a new type of photographic emulsion, colonel. Works with chemically treated paper. It should have excellent sensitivity..." He scratched his head, bewildered. "...only the reaction seems to be somewhat exothermic, doesn't it?"

   The Colonel appeared irritated. "You were supposed to be working on the Hudson Bay case, Artemus," he snapped.

   Artemus quickly set aside the fragments of the experiment and fished some chemical-stained folders out from under the wreckage. "I have been... we don't quite have the case we thought we had, sir." He withdrew one document from the files and scanned it. "Three US Naval cruisers on their way to war games with the Royal Canadian Navy go missing without a single clue or witness -- save one. A navy leftenant fished from the Bay by the HMV Lugin who survives long enough to utter two words: jade death."

      "Jade death." Colonel Richmond repeated under his breath. "That sounds like the ravings of a madman."

   Artemus continued his summary of the file. "So, logically that's what the Senate Surveillance Committee assumes and in its infinite wisdom sends ten civilians to investigate. They find nothing."

      "Except a bunch of hostile Canadians," Richmond added. "Seems Ottawa's taking the accusations personally."

   Artie grinned. "Senator Vandegrin used her subtle negotiating technique on them then."

   Richmond smiled slightly. "In spades."

   Artemus continued. "The committee's next big decision is to send in military personnel playing the role of diplomats. Jim and Admiral Spollen should be arriving at Fort Ticogah any day now."

   The Colonel pointed to Artie's folders. "Right, so where in that spotted mess you generously call 'files' does the case change face?"

   Artemus set the papers down. "Not in the files, colonel. Vandegrin's insane pillar bill can hardly be treated as coincidence."

   Richmond ran his hand over his forehead. "I agree, but try and convince the Surveillance Committee otherwise. I had no luck..."

   The agent's face became grim. "Put this to them then: our three missing ships just blossomed into twenty-one."

      "Twenty-one?? Military, private, or both?"

      "The word I picked up on the docks this morning is that a large part of the Canadian merchant fishing fleet disappeared forty-eight hours ago, with one lone survivor."

      "Let me guess Artemus -- he had the same story to tell before he died."

      "Effectively, yes. Colonel, there's little doubt this 'jade death', or whatever it really is, is responsible. Diplomacy isn't what's needed, sir."

   Richmond knew what was coming. "West can take care of himself," he snapped. He thought he'd sounded convincing, but by Artemus's reaction he began to doubt it.

      "Something new's developed, hasn't it Colonel?"

   Colonel Richmond dug into his overcoat pocket and removed at ragged lump of opaque amber material about the size of a paperweight and tossed it to his agent. "What do you make of that?"

   Artie examined it for a moment. "Wax for certain, with some sort of hardening agent. Maybe a resin. Whatever it is, I imagine it hardens nearly instantaneously when heat is removed." Artemus handed the sample back to Richmond. "Looks like the bees have hired an outside contractor," he added.

   Richmond wasn't amused. "Congressman Hamilton was preserved for all eternity in a large volume of this material earlier today."

       "Hamilton was on the first mission to Hudson Bay with Vandegrin..." Artie thought out loud... Well, now was as good a time as any. "Colonel..." he began.

   Here it comes...

      "...sir, I would like per- "

    Richmond cut him off abruptly. "I didn't just hear you ask that. You know full well we can have operatives on foreign soil without the Canadian government's permission."

      "Considering the tact of the diplomacy already levied, sir, the Canadian government will never consent." The reply was calm, logical.

   But Richmond seemed anything but logical as he raised his voice even louder. "Absolutely no way, is that understood??"

   The Colonel was signing Jim's and lord knows how many other's death warrants. This wasn't like the Douglas Richmond Artemus knew so well. "Understood sir..." he acknowledged quietly.

      "Speak up -- IS THAT UNDERSTOOD??"

      "Yes, sir!" came the shocked reply.

   Apparently satisfied, the colonel reached inside his coat and extracted an official envelope from his vest, passing it to the surprised agent. "Check into the Hamilton murder, Gordon, and report when you have something."

   With that ultimatum, the Colonel was gone. Suspicious, Artemus took a quick glance out the nearest window. There, in the falling rain, a shadow. The Colonel's display was for an audience then.

   Closing all the blinds, Artemus snatched up the envelope and quickly scanned its contents.


*   *   *


   Admiral Spollen was furious, putting it mildly. His cabin, the 'guest room', obviously hadn't been aired out properly since the last occupant vacated. Smelled like the cargo hold in there. Adding to the irritation was the glaring absence of his shadow. Didn't West realize that even sequestered in his armor-plated room, the Admiral was a target?

   The United States' military negotiator finished sorting out his dress uniform and left for the main dining area. As he climbed the stairs to the topmost level, his shadow returned.

      "About time you put in an appearance," Spollen commented without the slightest glance behind him.

      "Per your orders, sir."

   West fell into line just off the Admiral's left shoulder.

   The Admiral halted and turned on his bodyguard. "My orders? My orders specifically assigned you the job of personal guard, West! Being a bodyguard doesn't usually include breaks and sightseeing tours."

      "Begging the Admiral's pardon, but twenty-five minutes ago you specifically requested that you be left completely unattended until supper."

   Spollen stared for a moment at the Secret Service agent.

      "Douglas Richmond may let you get away with concocting fables to explain dereliction of duty, but I won't tolerate it! Is THAT understood?"

   Now it was West's turn to stare. He knew full well what the Admiral's original orders were but obviously the Admiral didn't. Best to play along until he could find out why.

      "Understood, sir."

   Spollen and his shadow resumed the climb to the upper deck, the shadow determined to keep an even closer eye on his curiously contradictory charge.

*   *   *


   These assignments were usually rather cushy. Hover about the VIP and make sure no one who didn't belong there got access to them. Easy as pie. A major snore, to be certain.

   Secret Service operative Catherine Perze seriously considered catching up on her reading as she settled down in a chair for the long night of watch dogging Congressman Freiberger. This must be the absolute last person anyone would want to harm, she thought. The quintessential politician, Freiberger. Kisses babies, shakes hands and brown-noses the right people. Everybody likes this guy. So why the bodyguard?

   Richmond always has good reason, she reminded herself. Play it serious, Catherine- you can always work on that psychology text when the relief guy shows up in the morning.

   Perze settled down in the oak chair, having to be content with engaging in her favourite form of mental calisthenics to pass the time.

      "I spy with my little eye something that starts with -- "

   Her game was violently interrupted by a man's scream, followed by... a clap of thunder??

   Catherine was through the congressman's bedroom door in an instant; her jaw dropped open at the sight. Freiberger certainly didn't need her protection any longer.

      "I spy with my little eye -- something that starts with 'M'." she heard herself finish, transfixed by the amazing sight before her.

*   *   *


   The door to the VIP cabin creaked slowly open from inside. A beam of light from within streamed outward, then was suddenly blocked by the shadow peering cautiously out. On duty, James West stepped from the outside darkness into what remained of the escaping beam.

   At the sight of his bodyguard, Admiral Spollen began to breathe once more.

      "West! Thank all that's holy!"

   Spollen opened the door completely.

   The Admiral was sweating profusely. West noticed the older man's hand, bloodless, gripping the jamb of the doorway as a drowning man grasps at straw.

      "You were expecting someone else, Admiral?" he offered, cautiously.

   The admiral wiped his brow as Jim waited patiently for 'The Bengal' to collect his few remaining nerves, frayed as they were. Spollen certainly wasn't showing any sign of how he earned his nickname. For a moment, West had the urge to offer him a bowl of milk...

      "Who *should* I be expecting, agent -- "

   The Admiral had regained his normal, rational, predatory demeanor....

      " -- Father Christmas?"

   ...for a moment, at any rate.

      "Perhaps you should try to get some sleep, Admiral. Seventy-two hours is a long time to go withou- "

      "You're out of line, West! Father Christmas doesn't care if I'm asleep or not! One more crack like that and you'll be the one spinning the straw! Comprendez?"

   The straw again. Yesterday it was oat hay, the day before, barley. For the past three days Admiral Spollen's behavior had grown more and more bizarre. These last twenty-four hours had seen the man muttering about straw and needles in haystacks.

   Some forms of dementia can take control of the mind this quickly, but the timing was just too opportune. For a party wanting to derail US--Canadian cooperation on this Hudson Bay matter, far too opportune.

   The instant they docked at Fort Ticogah, Jim West would personally see that Spollen underwent a major psychiatric exam. He would just have to concentrate on keeping the Admiral from hurting himself while harvesting rye grass on the upper deck before for the rest of the voyage.

      "Understood, Admiral."

   The door slammed shut in his face for the n-th time. Through the smoked glass in the door, West watched as the two fancy oil lamps used to illuminate Spollen's cabin actually became brighter. Clearly sleep wasn't on the man's agenda.

   There was nothing West could do about the Admiral's condition this far out to sea. Back on patrol, then. West turned on his heel and took one stride forward when the deck lurched violently out from under him. In a flash he back was on his feet and heading for the top deck.

   Cresting the stairs, Jim could see what had caused the lurch. Even at night the brilliant white of the ice fairly glowed. Where had that huge chunk come from? Their course should have taken them far enough south and around the slowly advancing winter freeze.

   The ship's chief navigator, Lieutenant Onoma, came up beside him.

      "We were lucky. No damage Mr. West." Onoma reported. "I can't begin to guess how that ice got this far south."

      West glanced up at the moon. "What's our current direction vector, Lieutenant?"

   The lieutenant checked his pocket compass.

      "West by northwest at 15 knots, sir. Current readings put us at 57.5 degrees latitude, 83.5 degrees longitude."

   The young fellow rubbed his hands together for warmth. "Winter's starting amazingly early this year."

   The last of the lieutenant's sentence went unnoticed as West scanned the horizon, first by plain eyesight, then through an intricate monocular extracted from some unseen pocket.

   West adjusted the eyepiece, then quickly gauged the location of the standard guide stars.

      "Hand me that compass," he directed the navigator.

   The compass read exactly what the lieutenant said it had read. Jim checked it for signs of tampering, then turned back to address the navigator. He pointed to a specific star in the sky.

      "Which star is that, Lieutenant?"

   The navigator followed the direction indicated by West's gesture.

      "Polaris, sir... wait a minute. That's over 60 degrees high in the sky! It can't be!"

      "We're at about 62 degrees latitude, navigator. We've been heading due north for some time now. The wall of ice on the horizon probably confirms it."

   The navigator shook his head, shocked. "This compass! It was checked for accuracy before we left port. But it must be wrong! Stars don't lie."

      "Neither does a compass, unless it's been altered. Lieutenant, I suggest you get us back on course immediately."

      "With the rate at which that freeze line's traveling.... We'll be locked in by morning!"

   The navigator turned to an old storage trunk and extracted an equally-old sextant.

      "One new course right away, sir."

   Off he went, leaving Mr. West to ponder a misbehaved compass that appeared completely normal. Almost the polar opposite of the Admiral, in fact.

* * * * * * * * *



CHAPTER THREE   What's My Name?

back to top


   The USS Beckingham made port only hours ahead of the savagely advancing ice wall, a full seven days late from their scheduled arrival time. The reason given by the American ship's captain was completely believable: it had taken them that long to dodge the freeze. As fate would have it, the Beckingham's late arrival would have no bearing on the negotiations; the ship carrying both his country's participants in the investigation and the annual winter supplies for the fort would already be trapped somewhere in the bay by that ice. Well, at least they had some proper equipment for surviving winter under arctic conditions... assuming they hadn't become the latest to meet a watery grave.

   That was more than he could say for Fort Ticogah. Near panic had broken out when it became clear they were shortly to be landlocked eight weeks early without the proper supplies. He'd quashed the panic quick enough, but the dire circumstances behind it remained a fact. It'd be a tough go, but they'd survive.

   Commander Sarff surveyed the unloading of the Beckingham with ease in the darkness, the blinding white of the landscape brilliantly reflecting the first-quarter moon to near daylight intensity. Why the Americans insisted upon using civilian freight for ballast was beyond him. It couldn't bring in that much revenue. Besides, it was his experience that civvies didn't need to be around military vessels -- ever. Every single one of the civvies at Fort Ticogah appeared to be barking mad. Stark, raving lunatics.

   Unfortunately the United States weren't the only ones relying on civilian industry. The RCN allowed a certain number of enterprising individuals to set up trade posts in almost all their land-based installations. Fort Ticogah was no exception.

   Sarff's own unit was conducting said civvies as they unloaded the American vessel in perfect military style. He was proud of the efficiency of his men down to the very last private. A fine show for the Americans by the Royal Canadian Navy. But a good showing wasn't enough to obliterate the cloud of failure which hung over Sarff's head. He'd failed to solve the Hudson Bay mystery. Of course between "diplomacy", loony locals, and the earliest freeze in memory, who could expect him to have done?

   Ottawa... But then Ottawa'd gone oddly quiet in the past week. Their last orders: 'All United States citizens to be confined to the Beckingham. No exceptions.'

   After the near hysteria from recent events, the silence was a welcome relief. Commander Sarff lit his pipe, flipped up the collar on his coat, and thankfully settled in for a long, cold night of routine observation.

*   *   *


   Sidetracked by a quick reconnaissance to check the surroundings, Jim West headed back for the inevitable confrontation in the admiral's quarters. The Admiral, Debbie, and West had been the only ones allowed off the Beckingham. That in itself was enough to have Spollen fuming. Now thanks to some brilliant diplomacy on someone's part, he wasn't being allowed to wire Washington either. Spollen's insane warning to Grant about the "vital importance of rice straw" in the negotiations would go unsent. Worse yet, the Admiral's state of mind would remain a dangerous secret.

   West would wait until things settled down, then break into the communications building and send his own wire without permission.

   Jim reached the wing assigned to visiting dignitaries. Two corporals were guarding the passage to the guest quarters, but none were in the wing itself. West presented his credentials and quickly found his way to the room assigned to Debbie. With just a light tap the door swung silently inward, revealing an empty room.

   Odd. The Admiral's daughter had forsaken supper, insisting upon turning in early.

   Instinctively, West triggered the silent release and felt the cool metal of the sleeve derringer slide easily into his palm. He found the Admiral's door open as well, the room lit with just a hint of blue from moonlight reflected through the picture window.

   As he waited for his eyes to adjust to the gloom, a voice, barely audible, broke the dead calm from within.

   "I know you're out there" it stated, sadly. "I won't let you take her...."

   The Admiral. Yet not the Admiral.

      "James West, sir."

   There was no response.

   Carefully, West moved full into the doorway, hands lowered, derringer invisible in the limited light. The Admiral was standing with his back to West, his outline barely visible in the darkness. Deliberately, Jim entered the room and carefully adjusted the sconces, one eye on Spollen the entire time.

   Light slowly filled the room with a warm glow, gradually growing bright... brighter... yet brighter still, reflecting gold wherever it fell. Soon the brilliance was overwhelming. Pain forced Jim West to close his eyes.

   When he could once again see, the cause of the abnormal glare revealed itself. Straw... everywhere. It littered the floor, the bed. It hung from the curtains and stuck up raggedly from bureau drawers like golden stalagmites. A few errand stalks balanced upon the glass, covering the flames that illuminated the room.

   In its midst was Admiral Spollen. His left hand held a service revolver, his right hung limp at his side. That gun was pointed in the general direction of Debbie, who slumped unconscious in a chair. Clearly she had been drugged. Next to Spollen, an old spinning wheel.

   Of course... Jim retracted the derringer and took a careful step toward father and daughter.

   The Admiral suddenly noticed his entrance and panicked. Up came the gun, centering on the woman in the chair.

   Instantly Jim was across the room, struggling with the admiral and against the slippery straw for the weapon. Terror gave the older man strength. But terror of what?

   West had little time to think about it as the gun wavered toward, then away from the unconscious woman. Then away once more as he got the upper hand.

   The realization he'd lost the battle hit Spollen. "No! I'll kill her before I'll let you take her!" Clearly the insane man had no idea who he was fighting.

   With a crack, the gun flew from Spollen's fingers and fell to the floor. The struggle was over, and with it went all of the Admiral's strength. He slowly sank to his knees in the straw, head bowed, making no move for the discarded firearm.

      West watched the man with morbid fascination. It was shocking to see what had become of one of the navy's finest soldiers.

      "Who do you think I am, Admiral?" he finally asked.

   When there was no answer, West left the shattered man alone. He gathered up Debbie and carried her out of the room. Spollen loved his daughter. With his wife long dead, his private life had revolved around her. Yet he'd just tried to shoot her, to keep her from something out of a fable. Spollen was well past temporary insanity. Without a doubt, Spollen was completely mad.

    With Debbie safe in the corridor, Jim started back after the Admiral, fully expecting to find the man where he'd left him. But Spollen had moved to pick up the gun, intent on suicide. Again West leaped, the two men hit the wall hard, knocking some errant straw full into a wall lamp. The struggle was renewed as the straw ignited, sending sheets of flame up the velvet curtains.

   Once more West had Spollen, the gun under his control as the wall caught fire. The flames were starting to roar now. Any moment the guards in the hall would hear them or smell the smoke. Jim threw the gun across the room, grabbed the defeated man roughly by the arm, and made for the door.

   Spollen went quietly -- until they passed the spinning wheel. The sight of the wheel did something to the Admiral. He panicked, arms flailing wildly. One of those clenched fists actually hit their target.

   West slipped on the straw as the punch connected with his jaw. Spollen pulled away. He turned to make a run for it when he too slipped. Jim grabbed for the falling man -- and just missed.

   Admiral Spollen fell full upon the wheel's spindle. It impaled him through the chest. Death was instantaneous.

   By this time the room was fully involved as flames raced through the straw. There wasn't much time. Jim reached down to gather the Admiral's mortal remains when a shot whizzed by his ear. The guards. One had ahold of Debbie, the other was trying to kill him.

   With one fluid motion, Jim West whirled and leaped straight through the plate glass window, another bullet grazing his shoulder, the fire singeing his skin.

   Without thinking, the guard went right after him. Flames swallowed them both without a trace.

*   *   *


   Things were too damn quiet. Cargo unloaded, the civvies gone home to their beds, a light snow beginning to fall. A few more minutes and Commander Sarff was turning in himself. Or so he thought.

   Shouts, then the sound of feet crunching ice caused him to whirl about. The duty sergeant came running up, a cloud of steam caused by his exertion marking his path behind him.

      "Report details, Sergeant-Major."

   The young man slid to a halt and saluted. "Aye sir!" he snapped, between breaths. "Beg to report that Admiral Spollen's dead-"


      "Admiral Spo -- "

   Those damn Americans. He knew it had been too quiet... "I heard you the first time, Culbertson. How?"

      "The American Secret Service agent, West. Corporals Dief and Mulrooney caught him in the act."

   Sarff couldn't believe what he was hearing. West had one hell of a reputation. It didn't include murder.

      "Where is he now, sergeant?"

   The sergeant shuffled his feet a bit. "Erm... West is on the loose, sir. He set the guest wing on fire before making good his escape. Mulrooney lost him in the troops' quarters."

   At least he couldn't leave the compound. The next sign of real civilization was forty-one kilometers across frozen tundra from Fort Ticogah. Impossible in the dark in unfamiliar territory, even for West.

   Sarff's eyes were drawn to a flash of light behind the sergeant. Flames appeared from the roof of the guest wing, threatening the civilian area of the outpost. Those damn Americans were burning down his fort. Sarff's expression turned grim -- James West was far too dangerous a fugitive to have his regular navy men trying to apprehend in one piece.

*   *   *


<dit  dash  dash  dash  dit  dit  dit  dash  dit  dash  dit  dash  dash>

    West quietly tapped out the end-of-message signal in the dark and switched the telegraph key back to the 'receive' configuration. He should have encrypted the message, but there hadn't been time. At least Washington now had some idea of the insanity taking place at Fort Ticogah. The last part of his message was vital: send no one.

   Jim crouched low and worked his way to the window. The flames from the blaze lit the compound a bright orange. He ducked as a civilian passed by, but got a quick glimpse of the man. The poor devil was wearing only a homemade toga in the frigid night air. This was why it was imperative that Washington sends no one up there. Whatever was driving everyone mad was possibly contagious... and apparently often fatal.

   Nearby a door was broken in as the commander's men tore the place apart searching for the fugitive. More civilians moved past the window, ferrying their earthly possessions to safely from the fire. Jim backed away from the window and took up a position behind the door.

   That door snapped open and in rushed four of Commander Sarff's finest, armed and hot on West's trail. The soldiers took a cursory look about the room: a glance under the table, in a closet, and behind the curtains and the search was over. The man in charge went to the door and motioned the others to follow. His three comrades started back the way they came in, disgusted their quarry had disappeared. They were about to close the door when without warning, the telegraph key went wild, freezing the soldiers in their tracks.

M - E - S - S - A - G - E     R - E - C - E - I - V - E - D      <stop>

   By their expressions, at least one of the men could read it on the fly.

W - A - S - H - I - N - G - T - O -

   Now they knew without a doubt that West was behind it, and he couldn't wait any longer.

   With all his strength Jim kicked the door shut, cold-cocking the man in its path. The other three raised their guns and tried to take aim, but he was too fast for them. West rolled, knocking the feet from under all three, then dispatched another with a well-placed punch. A third grabbed him from behind. West hurled the surprised man over his shoulder and polished off the fourth with a kick to the face. Before they could make a move, he was gone out the door.

   A quick glance around the corner proved West had guessed correctly. This part of the fort was crawling with soldiers. The high road appeared to be the safest option at the moment. Jim extracted a piton from his vest, a hand-held winch, and some wire. Loading his derringer with the piton, he was on the roof in short order and leaping from building to building as opportunities presented themselves.

   He headed for the stables. A fast horse might get him to the nearest town before they both froze. He couldn't stay in the fort, that much was certain. Sarff wasn't interested in what had really transpired, that would take too much work to sort out. Capturing a saboteur would get the commander bonus points in Ottawa, something he'd been lacking of late.

   Jim had absolutely no intention of giving Sarff's career a jump-start...

   Finally he ran out of roofs; the stables were out in the open near the main gate. Jim quietly climbed from the roof of the mess hall to a walkway high along the inside of the fort walls. He ducked just as a search light passed overhead. Unfortunately there was no way to escape being revealed by the second pass.

   A cry went up. West found himself running for the stable, that light following his every move. He was well ahead of the men who now climbed onto the walk after him. It was the men on the ground he'd have to worry about. They'd probably reach the stable first. There he'd have to fight his way out.

   Suddenly Jim was at the fort's main gates, right above the stables. He found himself facing an oncoming herd of Sarff's men -- they'd come around the opposite direction along the walk, all armed to the tooth. Below a crowd was gathering. The soldiers behind him were beginning to fire and would be in range soon. West had no choice but to stop and take stock of the situation, unaware of the commander's deadly order.

   A quick look about revealed the only unmanned side of Fort Ticogah: the outside. Ducking some well-placed shots, West was forced to take the escape route presented to him: over the outside wall by winch and piton. Planting the piton, he started down the outside of the forty foot wall feet first, the winch playing out wire as he descended. The first dozen feet were covered almost instantaneously.

   Scanning the areajust beyond the dark and silent Beckingham, Jim suddenly knew the next twenty feet would take an eternity. Fifteen men were coming at him from the night...

   Rounding the corner, Commander Sarff spotted the American about thirty feet above ground and still descending. A duck shoot for his men. The most difficult part about it would be deciding which of the fifteen should get the honor. Who was his best sharpshooter? Du Champs, yes. He'd take the American with the first round.

   Sarff issued the order to halt and called up Du Champs. The marksman picked his spot -- when West was about twenty feet from the ground, he'd fire.

   Du Champs drew a bead, and began to slowly squeeze the trigger...


   The surprise threw Du Champs. He pulled his aim from the fugitive and the high-powered rifle just missed its mark. West halted his descent. Everyone living in that moment simply froze for just an instant.

   The order had come from outside the fort, from somewhere inside the black shadow cast by the now-open fort gates.

   Sarff was furious. "Dispose of the American immediately, sergeant! That is an order!"

   The fleeing agent had stopped about twenty feet from the ground. Du Champs again took aim, and again had his finger on the trigger when a precise shot rang out from the shadows.

    Someone had beaten DuChamps to the trigger. The American fell and landed face first in the snow and didn't move.

* * * * * * * * *




Fiction Main W2-L Main questions? top