Newington Garrison, London, July 21, 1882
We patrolled the waterfront for two weeks straight, and with no sign of the aqua wolves, Captain Galloway gave our company liberty for the weekend. Kurniawan’s crew would stay on duty and take their leave a week later.
Hailey and I hadn’t had an opportunity to spend much time alone since we’d left Major Saxby’s outpost ten months before, nor had we spent much of the money we’d made. We put on civilian clothes and departed Newington Hill on a Friday afternoon. After hiring a hansom cab, we headed across the Blackfriars Bridge into the City of London proper and rented a suite at the Fletchly Inn.
“I’m pleased to have military staying at our inn, and personally I don’t mind that you two aren’t married, but I shall write it down as Mr. and Mrs. Highgarden in the ledger if you don’t mind.”
“That’ll be fine, Mrs. Fletchly,” said Hailey. “I don’t mind a bit.”
“Just in case the Reverend Tembo and his morality crusaders come snooping around. If anyone asks, tell them you’re a married couple from Ickford on holiday or something along those lines. A little white lie that could prevent trouble.”
“When you want to draw a bath, let the water run for a few minutes. It will run cold at first, but after a couple of minutes it’ll turn hot.” She produced a cookie tin and set it on the desk. “A complimentary tin of Tutweiller Date Cookies, and you’ll find everything you need to make tea in the cupboard above the stove. Enjoy your stay, and if there’s anything else you need, please let me know.”
It was an adequate suite with a separate bedroom and a sitting room with a coal burning stove much like the one in the gatekeeper’s cabin. The furniture was threadbare but comfortable, and the bathroom was clean with a large free-standing tub. We settled in and warmed a kettle on the stove. Hailey found black tea in the cupboard and poured us both cups after the pot began to whistle.
I popped open the cookie tin. Tutweiller was Major Saxby’s favorite brand, and the cookies were much fresher than the ones he’d shared with us on the frontier. It was a relief to be alone in each other’s company, away from the lack of privacy in our military lives, and we were able to talk openly as our true selves.
“Do you think we’ll ever make it back to Beckworth Falls?” said Hailey as we sipped our hot tea.
“It doesn’t seem likely, and after seeing what’s become of Virginia, our strange passage through time could be an advantage.”
“I suppose you’re right, but somehow, we lost thirty years of our lives. That’s what troubles me the most—that I have no recollection of how we ended up here. I’m still a bit startled when I look in the mirror and see the lines on my face.”
“It is quite a shock, I agree.” I moved closer and put my arm around Hailey’s shoulders. “And perhaps we shall both live to be a hundred, to make up for the years that we lost.”
“Do you think there’s a way back?”
“I guess it’s possible but think about it—the Hydrogen War destroyed everything we knew, and if we’d stayed in Virginia, it’s unlikely we would have survived.”
“Do you think it’s really true, Kit, that we robbed a bank and killed two people?”
“I don’t know, Hailey. It seems like something we’d remember… And if we really did shoot anyone, it was probably me and not you.”
We continued to talk for an hour or so, and as twilight approached, we prepared for a night out on the town. Hailey put on the full-length dress she had bought earlier in the day, and though she looked beautiful in her new outfit, I thought she looked more dishy in her smartly tailored lieutenant’s uniform.
I asked Mrs. Fletchly to call for a hansom cab, and when it arrived, I told the driver to head for the waterfront. We met Jonas and Delone in the common area where the circus had been set up a week before. I’d asked Jane Deven to join us for dinner too, but Jonas informed us she’d made other plans. We were about to walk over to the Ship and Turtle restaurant when we saw Lieutenant Kurniawan riding along the river on horseback.
“Ismaya!” exclaimed Jonas cupping his hands around his mouth.
He saw us, waved, and rode over to have a chat. “Looks like you’re out for some fun tonight,” said Kurniawan. “Next weekend my company will have liberty. Let me know if you find any good places to eat.”
“We’re going over to try the snapper stew at the Ship and Turtle,” said Hailey. “Jane Deven said it’s delicious.”
“Snapper stew?” he replied with a puzzled expression.
“It’s a stew they make from snapping turtles.”
“Ah, sounds good.”
“Do you miss your home in the South Pacific islands?”
“Oh yes. I send most of the money I’m paid to my wife. My family lives well and someday I’ll return.” He looked towards the river, inky black except for reflections from a few gas lamps here and there.
“You have kids?”
“Aye, a boy and two girls.” He turned to give Hailey a quick smile, and then glanced back towards the river. “The captain said there’s been another report of the wolves emerging from the harbor in Amsterdam.”
“More stories from the continent,” said Delone. “How can we be sure they’re even real?”
“The professor is convinced,” said Hailey.
“Well, I’d better get back to my watch.” Kurniawan took up his reins and turned his mount back towards the river. “Enjoy yourselves this evening, my friends.”
Jonas touched his forehead in a faux salute. “Stay on the lookout and take care, Ismaya.”
Kurniawan tipped his lieutenant’s cap and rode back towards the waterfront.
The female servers at the Ship and Turtle were dressed in a revealing pirate’s garb that featured short, pleated skirts and knee-high boots, slightly scandalous for the day. We had to wait a few minutes for a table as the restaurant was packed with diners on a busy Friday evening. The restaurant had antique ship decor and was housed in a cavernous building on Burgon Street.
After twenty minutes or so, a mannish buccaneer named Sadie showed us to a table and filled our mugs with a home brew ale that was aged in oak barrels in the basement. We had bowls of the house specialty, a thick turtle stew with buttered black bread served on the side, and we drank more of the strong ale.
After dinner, we left the restaurant and strolled down the boardwalk along Cannon Street. Jonas led the way as a tanked Delone recited obscene limericks, and Hailey and I walked hand in hand. We were accustomed to sleeping in the daylight hours, the night was young.
Beggars were common throughout the streets of London. Some had imaginative cons and others were aggressive. We found it best to ignore the vagabonds completely, because if you handed one a few pence, others would follow and hound you relentlessly for another handout.
Looking for excitement, Jonas led us into a more dangerous part of town. On a narrow side street, a Chinese hawker with a skinny braided ponytail did his best to lure us into an opium den, and looking past his shoulder, I was startled to see Bonelli and Wildenstein already sitting inside. At least I thought it was Bonelli and Wildenstein sitting inside the smoke shrouded confines of the dingy shop. I could have been wrong. I wasn’t sure, so I didn’t mention it to the others, and we kept walking.
Further along, we happened upon Castleberry’s Pub. It looked to be a popular nightspot, and we decided to go inside. A burly doorman looked us over and then let us pass. We walked down a half set of steps to a garden level swarming with stylishly dressed Londoners. The dimly lit interior was smoky and smelled of tobacco and stale beer. Drinkers crowded a long bar against a mirrored wall, and there were billiards tables in an adjoining room.
There were two performers on a slightly elevated stage in the expansive main room. In bowlers and bow ties, one of the men sat at a piano, and another stood playing a mandolin and singing a broadside ballad. Most of the drinkers seemed uninterested, and the music was sufficiently drowned out by the laughter and loud voices.
Delone squeezed his way into a narrow opening at the bar. He ordered a pitcher of ale and four glasses. We found an empty table in the back room where the billiards tables were located, and Jonas struck up a conversation with two young women who were halfway through a game.
“I’ve never played billiards before,” said Jonas. “Is it a hard game to learn?”
“No, not really,” said a pretty brunette, a bit standoffish at first. She spoke English with a thick German accent.
“Would you teach me how to play?”
“It’s possible, but perhaps a proper introduction would be in order first.”
“I’m Jonas Whitehorse, and these are my friends, Alton, Mattie, and Oliver.”
She smiled and offered Jonas her hand. “Rebekah, and this is my friend Kristin. We’re visitors from Germany.”
“What brings you to London?”
“We’re graduate students at the University of Rostock. We’re here doing research on a scientific phenomenon.”
“The University of Rostock? We know a Professor Ostermeier from the University of Rostock.”
“No kidding, we’re on the Professor’s research team.”
“You mean, you’re waiting for der Wasserwolfe too?”
“Ja, and how do you know Professor Ostermeier?”
“We’re soldiers in Her Majesty’s Mutant Elimination Forces. We’ve been patrolling the waterfront for a few weeks now.” Jonas paused to take a sip of ale and then continued. “Do you think der Wasserwolfe is real? We’ve been wondering if the whole thing might be some type of elaborate hoax.”
“Der Wasserwolfe is no hoax.”
“How can you be sure?” said Delone.
“Kristin and I saw a pack emerge from the harbor in Rostock. We watched as they shook the seawater off their thick coats, and then disappeared into the city.”
Kristin nodded in affirmation. “We were on a rooftop, twenty meters or so from the water’s edge. It was during Oktoberfest, and the city was crowded with visitors. There were a number of casualties.”
“Are you staying here in the city?”
“We have an observation station set up on the top floor of a building next to the Billingsgate Fish Market. We thought it would be as good a place as any to watch from, so close to the waterfront.”
“We’re based at the MEF garrison on Newington Hill, but we have an observation platform at the crest of the Blackfriars Bridge,” said Jonas.
“That sounds like a good spot to see the river from.”
“Aye, there’s an abandoned gatekeeper’s cabin that we commandeered. Up above the cabin there’s a crow’s nest lookout, you can see three hundred and sixty degrees with a quadoptical.”
“You have a better observation point than our loft.”
“We could take you up there if you want to have a look. I’m sure it would be alright with the brass if you’re associated with Professor Ostermeier.” Jonas looked to Hailey.
“I don’t see why not,” said Hailey. “Deven is on leave, but Kurniawan has a Pelautian manning the telegraph station. Corporal Ngayoh I believe.”
“That’s not far from here at all.” Rebekah brightened up. “What do you think, Kristin?”
“Ja, let’s go have a look. Shall we walk?”
“We’ll flag down hansom cabs,” said Delone.
“Why don’t the four of you go,” said Hailey. “I think Oliver and I will head back to our suite.” She looked to me with a questioning expression, and I silently nodded in agreement.
The foursome departed Castleberry’s with Jonas pairing off with Rebekah, and the attractive Kristin a bit reluctantly matching up with Delone.
Hailey and I lingered for a few minutes to finish off the pitcher of ale. The crowd inside the pub was becoming larger and more boisterous, and it was slow going when we finally decided to move towards the door. As we passed by the drinkers seated at the bar, I looked towards the mirrored wall, and was startled to make eye contact with a man I immediately recognized. He turned to face us with his trademark Cheshire cat grin.
“Henry!” I exclaimed. “You’re here in London.” It was Winterbourne.
“Hello Kit,” he said extending his hand. “And Hailey, my dear, you’re looking more beautiful than ever.”
Hailey was stunned. “It’s so good to see you again, but what in the world are you doing here in London?”
“Well, to answer your question, I think the two of you are well acquainted with my magical powers.” Winterbourne picked up his tall top hat from the bar, placed it on his head, and then lightly tapped the brim with the handle of his fancy walking stick. “I have important news to share, and it’s good news indeed. Let’s find a table where we can talk.”
“We can go back to the billiards room where it’s not so crowded and noisy.”
We retook our seats at the table we had just left a couple of minutes before. Hailey and I pulled up chairs and sat next to each other. Showing his age, Winterbourne gripped the tabletop to steady himself as he took a seat across from us. He was sharply dressed, in a tuxedo coat and paisley vest, and he had an expensive Swiss pocket watch on a gold chain.
“If I can get the attention of a waitress, I’ll order another round of drinks,” I said.
“That won’t be necessary, Kit.” Winterbourne removed his tall top hat and gently placed it at the center of the table. He withdrew his hand momentarily, and then with a magician’s flourish, he thrust an open palm towards the tabletop, and a tray holding a quart of caramel flavored crab apple whiskey and three crystal tumblers appeared at his fingertips.
“You said you have good news for us?”
“Yes, I do. A pair of outlaws were arrested for a bank robbery in Hainford, and before they were executed, they confessed to several other crimes, including the robbery of the First Bank of Shellingford. The outlaws were almost identical in appearance to the two of you. Both were men, but one of them was slightly feminine. He looked strikingly similar to you, Hailey, when you were dressed in disguise as the fictitious Elmo Gould.”
“Then we’ve been exonerated?” said Hailey.
“Yes. Judge Brumfield dropped the charges. Your names have been cleared.”
“Then we must owe Mr. Underhill something for his time.”
“I took care of Axel in your behalf.”
“But we have money now. We’ve been saving our paychecks. How much do we owe you?”
“It’s my treat. I’m a wealthy man and I shall insist on helping you two with this.”
“You’re too kind, Henry.”
“We can go back to using our real names then,” I said to Hailey. We’d come up with our aliases on the spur of the moment, without much thought. Hailey had dreamed up a good one, but after some time had passed, I found I didn’t like mine that much at all.
“We should probably wait until after we return to the Western Territory. We’ll talk about it with Major Saxby first. General Emsworth might be upset.”
“That’s a good point and you’re probably right.”
The crowd in Castleberry’s was becoming larger and more rambunctious as the evening wore on. We were beginning to have trouble hearing one another over the noise, and the flood of rowdy drinkers was overflowing into the billiards room.
A red-faced drunk wandered up to our table smelling of alcohol. He wore a bowler that appeared too large for his head, and he eyed Henry’s whiskey bottle avariciously. “I didn’t know you could order the whole bottle, I thought it was just one drink at a time.” His speech was slurred, and he looked unsteady on his feet.
“If you give the bartender the secret password, he’ll give you a whole bottle too,” said Winterbourne with a condescending grin.
“The secret password? What is it?”
“Chuckaboo. Whisper it in the bartender’s ear.”
“Chuckaboo? Why thank you, mate. I believe I’ll go try it right now.”
Winterbourne winked at Hailey as the drunk stumbled off towards the bar. “An esteemed associate of mine is staying at the Savoy Hotel on the Strand. Would you care to accompany me on a visit?”
“Who’s your friend?”
“Marcel Rémi Archambeau, the Duke of Courbevoie. He’s visiting London from Paris.”
Hailey brightened up when she heard the fancy title. “That sounds like fun. What do you think, Kit?”
“The night’s still young, let’s go.”
There was a queue of carriages and hansoms lined up on the street outside the pub. Winterbourne hired a coach drawn by two high stepping Friesians, easily the most sophisticated of the carriages in the row. We climbed in the elaborate cabin and Winterbourne told us more about his friend as the driver set out for the Strand.
“Before I introduce you, I need to explain a few things. When you meet Marcel Rémi, he will appear to you as an animate being. Everything about him will look as real as you or me, but what you see will be an illusion. Archambeau’s existence on Earth is created by an alien intelligence from a distant galaxy. An intelligent form of life that exists in a physical configuration so different from our own, we can only perceive it when it’s presented to us as a sensory illusion. Presented to us in a form that we as a more primitive life form can understand.”
I was fairly startled by Henry’s matter-of-fact tone as he related the details of his friend’s unusual existence, but considering the rest of the odd occurrences we’d encountered in the last few months, I was not that surprised by what he’d just told us.
We were met by a valet at the entrance to the hotel, and he showed us to the front desk. The Savoy had a luxurious interior that was lit by electric lights, something Hailey and I were not accustomed to seeing. A bellhop accompanied us as we rode a lift to the top floor where Archambeau had a roomy penthouse suite. A butler named Giles answered the door, and he took us to a swanky drawing room where Archambeau was seated by a fireplace. He rose out of his seat to greet us.
“Good evening, Henry, wonderful to see you again my friend.”
“Likewise, Marcel, and permit me to introduce my good friends Hailey McIntyre and Kit Keagan.”
He took Hailey’s hand, lightly kissed it, and then shook mine. “A pleasure to meet you. It seems our fates are intertwined.”
I wasn’t sure what to make of his last statement and said nothing in response. After what Winterbourne had told us in the coach, Hailey and I were both observing the Frenchman closely. If the Duke of Courbevoie was a sensory illusion, then he was indeed a convincing one. Tall and rangy, he spoke fluent English with a strong French accent. He was extremely well dressed and wore a ruffled Marcus jabot shirt beneath a purple cutaway jacket.
A basset hound named Doucet was in the room as well, and he took a keen interest in Hailey when we took seats. His tail lightly thumped the floor as he sat on his haunches beneath her, keeping a close eye on her every move. Giles brought us strong brandy in fancy crystal snifters, and we settled into plush armchairs with our drinks. After a bit of incidental small talk, Archambeau told us more about his unusual existence on Earth.
“My true state of being is impossible to explain in terms you would understand. I can only say that I’m not only more intellectually advanced, but also physically much larger, and in my true state of existence, I live on a multi-dimensional plane in time and space as opposed to a singular point. In earthly terms, you might say that I am an elephant, and you are an ant, with no insolence intended, and in truth, la différence is much greater.
“My time span on Earth began in the Middle Ages, in the same era that an opposing alien intelligence appeared here as well. The opposing life form is malicious, and hell bent on the destruction of your fair planet.”
“But why?” said Hailey. “Why has the malicious life form traveled so far, and why does it want to destroy the Earth?”
“So it can mine the elements that make up your planet. In particular, the precious metals, the gold, silver, and platinum. To reference my galactic enemy in terms that you can comprehend, I shall henceforth refer to him as the Baron Guillaume De Vreese, a titre de courtoisie he acquired when he assumed the shape of a Belgian Nobleman of the Sword in the eighth century. De Vreese arrived on your planet before me, and his malicious destruction of entire planets is the reason why I’ve pursued him across the Milky Way in a time frame that, in earthly terms, I might describe as the passage of thousands of years.”
“Excuse me for saying so, but what you’ve told us so far sounds a bit far-fetched,” I said. “I don’t mean to be rude, but how do we know you’re not making it up?”
“You want proof, that’s understandable, and it’s something I can easily arrange.” Archambeau rose out of his seat and walked towards a closed door that appeared to lead into another room. “When I show you what’s on the other side of this passageway, I’m sure you’ll be convinced. Won’t you join me as I take a step into the past?”
Winterbourne drained his glass and set it down on an end table. “I wouldn’t miss it in a million years.” He stood up and joined Archambeau by the doorway.
Hailey looked at me and shrugged her shoulders. “I’m in no hurry to get back to the inn.”
“Let’s have a look, then.”
Our surroundings changed completely as we stepped through the door. In the wink of an eye, we were outdoors, in a courtyard enclosed by low stone walls. The new location was in a patch of green trees and shrubbery, but beyond it, the landscape was barren desert with bare rock mountains rising up in the distance. It was midday and hot. The sky was cloudless, and the air bone-dry.
Our clothes had changed too. I was startled to find that all I had on was a loose-fitting head to toe tunic and sandals on my feet. Each of us wore a turban-like head dress and Hailey had a veil covering her face.
“Where are we?” I asked Archambeau.
“In Djanet, a Berber oasis in the Hoggar Mountains of southern Algeria. We’ve traveled a thousand years backwards in time and currently exist in the middle of the Sahara Desert late in the ninth century.”
“Can we still get back to London in the year 1882?” said Hailey.
“Of course. The Savoy Hotel is on the other side of the door, right where we left it.” He motioned towards the door we had just walked through as he spoke, but it was now on an ancient stone building. It looked nothing at all like the one in the drawing room we had just left.
A group of Berber men appeared outside the courtyard. They were leading several camels and Archambeau went over to have a few words with them. He conversed with the men in their native language, and after a brief chat, he walked back over to where we were standing. “I’ve made arrangements to borrow four camels. There’s something I want to show you in the mountains outside of town. It should dispel any doubts you have about what I told you earlier.”
The camels were trained to go down on their knees so we could board them. I climbed on to one and sat down on a square wooden saddle that flattened out the animal’s distinctive hump. When I took hold of the reins, my mount rose back to his feet.
We left the oasis and rode into the desert in a single file procession led by Archambeau. He seemed to know exactly where he was going. We followed a trail that gradually gained elevation, and the green oasis we had left behind became smaller and smaller in the distance as we traversed a landscape made up of sand dunes and rugged outcroppings of orange sandstone. It was a barren country with no sign of plant life or people. Goatskin canteens filled with cool water were strapped to the camels’ backs and I was thankful for that because the sun was blazing hot.
It was hard to judge distances in a land so stark, but after an hour or so of riding, we came to what looked like a pass between two tall ridges of vertical rock. As we crested the hill, I saw that we had come to a dead end. The trail stopped cold at an abrupt drop-off, and when I looked over the other side, I saw a scene that I would not soon forget.
There was an immense excavation underway a few thousand feet below us, at the bottom of tall sandstone cliffs. It was a circular hole in the Earth that must have been at least a half mile in diameter. There was a large mass of workers in and around the excavation, and oxcarts hauling chunks of stone. Beyond the perimeter, an army of swordsmen on camelback stood guard, and standing on the lip of the pit, there was a creature that might have been the Devil himself, a terrifying figure that was at least three stories tall. It had arms and legs and walked upright, but in most other ways it looked nothing like a man at all. It had a stocky build and was heavily muscled with a dark scaly skin. A horrifying demon with glowing eyes and twisted horns on its big blocky head.
“What’s that thing standing on the edge of the pit?” I said.
“It’s the Xexulix,” replied Archambeau. “A supernatural creation of De Vreese. The swordsmen are Turks, the most fearsome of warriors in the medieval world, and the workers are the Turks’ slaves, central Asians they took as prisoners in battle.”
“What’ll happen if they see us up here?” said Winterbourne.
“Nothing to worry about. We’re dressed as Berbers and the ridge line we’re on is the edge of Berber territory.”
“Are they digging a stone quarry?”
“It’s a tunnel to the center of the Earth. De Vreese began digging it over the course of the last few decades and it will take centuries to reach the molten outer core. The methods of excavation will change as Earth’s civilizations becomes more advanced and later in time, the digging will become completely automated.”
“Why are they digging a tunnel to the center of the Earth?” said Hailey. “What’s the reason for it?”
“If De Vreese reaches the molten outer core before I can stop him, he’ll use the tunnel to connect the Earth’s molten iron to an area of high voltage electricity in the sky. The resulting explosion will blow your entire planet to bits, leaving nothing but a splattering of base elements spread out for millions of miles across the solar system.
“Thousands of light years away, in the Hydrus I galaxy, De Vreese has created The Three Moons of Metal. Perfectly round, solid metal spheres that orbit his home planet. One is made from gold, one from silver, and the third from platinum. Each one is slightly bigger than the Earth’s moon and he’s become obsessed with crafting more. De Vreese has traveled through time and space for thousands of years, maliciously destroying whole planets so that he can mine their precious metals for his eccentric lunar art.”
“Earlier, you said our fates are intertwined,” I said. “Does that have something to do with what you’ve just told us?”
“Oui, at a point in the distant future, you and Hailey will assist me in my bid to vanquish De Vreese. That’s all I can say for now but contact me again when you return to the Western Territory. Henry will know how to get in touch.”
The image of the excavation site was vivid in my mind as we followed the trail back down through the barren desert, especially the unearthly creature that Archambeau had called the Xexulix. The oasis of Djanet appeared in the distance as a green jewel in a sea of shifting sands, and the rugged bare rock peaks surrounding it as sentinels standing watch. I thought it was a miracle that the Berbers could survive in a land so harsh.
I grew anxious as we approached the stone courtyard where our strange journey had begun. The effects of the alcohol had worn off completely and my throat was parched. I looked towards Hailey, and I could tell she felt as tired and as puzzled as me. Our lighthearted night out on the town had certainly taken an unexpected turn.
A pair of Berbers took charge of our camels as we dismounted, and when we walked back through the doorway, I was relieved to find myself back at the Savoy Hotel, just as Archambeau had promised. It was an astonishing experience. Doucet was catnapping by the fireplace, and he rose to greet us, wagging his tail and gazing at Hailey with amour.
I had taken note of the time when we departed, it was just before midnight, and precisely the same time when we returned. Though we had spent at least three hours in the past, no time had elapsed in the present.
Giles offered us more brandy, but we politely declined and said farewell to our incredible new friend. We rode the lift back to the lobby with Winterbourne and walked outside to find a carriage. A hansom cab was parked close to the entry and the driver stood nearby talking with a valet.
As we walked towards the cab, Winterbourne showed us another one of his magic tricks. He turned his hand over with a flourish, and a gold sovereign appeared in his palm.
“My dear friends Miss McIntyre and Mr. Keagan require transport to the Fletchly Inn,” he said to the driver as he handed him the gold coin.
“I’m not sure I can make change for a full sovereign, mate.”
“It’s yours, keep it.”
“Why thank you, sir, and what about you? Will you be needing transport as well?”
“I’ve made other arrangements.”
The driver turned his back to us as he climbed up on his seat, and Winterbourne looked towards Hailey and me and smiled. “Come see me when you return to the territory.” He tapped the brim of his top hat with the handle of his fancy walking stick, and he disappeared into thin air.
It was 1:00 a.m. by the time we made it back to the inn. Hailey was quiet on the ride back and looked extremely forlorn. I could tell she was thinking about our lives in Beckworth Falls, and the youth we had so mysteriously left behind.
“At least we’re not wanted outlaws in the Western Territory anymore,” I said trying to cheer her up. “It’ll make things easier when we return.”
“I suppose you’re right.” She gave me a small smile as we snuggled up close on the settee, with Hailey resting her head against my chest.
“We can visit Henry without fear of arrest, and maybe see Mr. Underhill again as well.”
“Yes, we should give him our personal thanks.”
“I can hardly wait to board the Fiery Crimson Messenger. Are you looking forward to it as well?”
“Oh yes. It’ll be a tremendous responsibility for me, being in command. I’m getting butterflies in my stomach just thinking about it.”
“You’ll do fine, Hailey. You’re smart as a whip and born to lead. And we’ll have Jonas and Delone along as well.”
“I’ll make Jonas our pilot and put Alton on one of the Longstones. Would you rather take the forward gun or the rear?”
“Delone may have a preference, but it doesn’t make much difference to me.”
“We should buy a case of Tutweiller Cookies for Major Saxby before we leave London.”
“That’s a splendid idea, Hailey. I’m sure he’ll appreciate it.”
“It’s so much fun taking tea with the major. He has such a wonderful personality.”
We fell asleep in each other’s arms on the settee but were abruptly awakened by a loud rapping on the door just after dawn. Feeling fatigued, I stumbled towards the door, not knowing what to expect. Had Reverend Tembo and his morality crusaders turned us into the police for our immoral cohabitation?
No, I opened the door to find Jane Deven. “All leave has been cancelled. Captain Galloway wants both of you to report back to Newington Hill at once.”
Well, well. Deven sounded awfully snippy considering both Hailey and I outranked her, though it was obvious she was still feeling resentment regarding Hailey’s sudden promotion to lieutenant. “What is it, Jane? What’s happened?”
“A pack of aqua wolves emerged from the Thames last night.”
“Alright, then let us take care of our affairs with Mrs. Fletchly, and we’ll hire a hansom cab and meet you over there in a half hour or so.”
“Captain Galloway called the meeting for 8:00 a.m. sharp.”
“Well, it’s just past six-thirty now, we shouldn’t have a problem making it back across the bridge by eight.”
Deven was already back astride her mount by the time I finished my last sentence, and she looked down upon me with an air of grandiosity as she snapped her reins and departed.
There was a mist of light rain falling by the time we crossed the Blackfriars Bridge, and a thick fog laid heavy on the Thames. The top of the fog was just under the deck. It created an eerie perspective, concealing the surface of the river from our view, though we could hear the blaring of a multitude of foghorns beneath us as our hansom cab’s Arabian clip-clopped across the busy bridge.
We made it to the garrison by 7:45. After changing into our uniforms in Hailey’s cottage, we walked over to the same conference room where we’d first met Professor Ostermeier. It was packed with soldiers, and we barely managed to squeeze in through the front door.
I saw Jonas waving at us. Luckily, he and Rebekah had saved a pair of seats close to the front. It appeared that Jonas and Rebekah had hit it off, but close by, Kristin was avoiding Delone like he had the plague.
“Jane said there was an aqua wolf emergence last night,” said Hailey as we took our seats.
Jonas went around the table and sat with Rebekah across from us. “We were getting ready to leave the gatekeeper’s cabin when we heard the sirens going off downstream. The pack emerged east of the Southwark Bridge.”
“The pubs were just closing, and the streets were filled with people,” said Rebekah. “Three of Kurniawan’s men were nearby, and when they heard the commotion, they rode up to find the wolves ravaging a crowd of pedestrians. They began shooting at them, and the wolves took off and dove back into the river and disappeared. But the Pelautians killed one of them.”
“They killed one of the aqua wolves?”
“Ja, and when they rode up to the dying wolf, the strangest thing happened. As the mutant died, the shark’s tail and the dorsal fin vanished. It returned to its non-mutated form. Before the Pelautians’ eyes, the animal returned to normal, and the corpse is nothing more than a common Middle Russian forest wolf. Professor Ostermeier called in Dr. Ferndale, and they’re examining the corpse, trying to make sense of it.”
Captain Galloway entered the crowded conference room through a door behind the lectern. He motioned with his hands for everyone to stay seated. “We’re all familiar with each other by now and can dispense with the formality.” He looked around the room and made eye contact with Rebekah and Kristin. “Except we do have two visitors in attendance whom most of you may have not met before. Rebekah Krämer and Kristin Schumacher are graduate students from the University of Rostock. They’re on Professor Ostermeier’s research team.”
The pair rose out of their seats briefly and then quickly retook them. Scattered applause broke out in the predominately male assemblage, and then someone towards the back whistled vociferously.
“Alright, that’ll be enough of that,” said Galloway. “Showing our visitors a bit of respect isn’t all that difficult, is it? No, I didn’t think so.” He paused to look down at his notes on the lectern and continued. “I’m sure by now all of you have heard the news about the aqua wolf emergence last night. A pack of approximately fifteen appeared just east of the Southwark Bridge. Witnesses said the wolves moved extremely fast, and their speed seemed almost supernatural. The pubs were just closing, and there was a crowd of people in the street. Five were killed by the wolves, it was a grisly scene.
“Three of our Pelautians were nearby, Sergeant Tantama, and Corporals Pangestu and Handoko.” The Pelautians rose out of their seats at the behest of Galloway. Cheers and applause broke out, and the diminutive soldiers smiled and bowed in affirmation before retaking their seats. “A witness running from the carnage told them what was happening, and Sergeant Tantama showed great courage in leading his squad to the scene of the mayhem. They came out atop a berm on the bridge approach, and when they saw what was taking place in the street beneath them, all three opened fire with their rifles. The wolf pack fled the scene and returned to the waterfront. Upon reaching the river, the wolves dove into the water and disappeared, but one of the wolves was hit by the gunfire, and when Tantama and his men rode down to inspect their kill, they could scarcely believe their eyes. As the creature passed, it changed into a common forest wolf. The fish tail and the rest of the aqua wolf’s amphibious appendages vanished.”
The door behind the lectern gently opened. Ostermeier and Ferndale appeared. They silently took places standing behind Galloway.
“I will now yield the floor to Professor Ostermeier, who I hope will be able to provide an explanation.” Galloway took a nearby chair, and the room became so quiet you could hear the morning breeze lightly rattling the windowpanes.
Ostermeier moved behind the lectern, and at first looked inquisitively about the room without saying a word. He had a questioning expression on his face, as if he was waiting for someone who knew more about the subject matter to speak up, but no one did. Finally, he cleared his throat and began. “Dr. Ferndale and I performed an autopsy on the fallen wolf, and we are unable to find anything out of the ordinary. From his bushy tail to his canine nose, everything about the animal appears normal. The only explanation either one of us can come up with is der Wasserwolfe is an illusion.” He went back to gazing about the room silently. Delone raised his hand.
“You have a question or comment, sergeant?” Ostermeier raised his eyebrows.
“What do you mean by that? You just said der Wasserwolfe is an illusion. How can an illusion be responsible for five homicides?”
“Ah yes, a good question. How can an illusion be responsible for the killing of five innocent people, and the answer is, we don’t know. We’re stumped, Sergeant Delone. Dr. Ferndale and I are unable to come up with any type of plausible scientific explanation whatsoever.”