Sailing in a holding pattern above Ascension, the recorded deposition of Hans Octavius Wilhem began.
“For the record, please state your name,” Deputy-Director Warren Buckley said, staring down at a list of questions.
“Hans Octavius Wilhem, sir,” the German Marshal replied and it was echoed by a furious clacking of typewriter keys.
“How long have you been in the employ of the United States Marshal’s office?”
“Since zhe first year of zhe office’s inception, sir,” Wilhem replied
“A warhorse, then,” Buckley commented. “And what moved you to join our ranks?”
“I have always placed a premium regarding justice and zhe safety of zhe people.”
“Commendable,” Buckley commented. The cabin was quiet save for the scratching of pen on paper as Buckley appeared to be making some notes himself. Then…
“Three days ago there was an attempt on the lives of three Congressmen. Could you explain how you and your partners, Marshal Caine and Marshal Lightning, became involved?”
“It vas a matter of circumstance, sir. Ve had been be made avare of a murder zhat had been committed at an iron mine. Zhe victim vas a Chinese man und his means of dispatch had proved a quandry.”
Wilhem paused his delivery at this point as he felt, at this point, he needed to sound calm and rational and not the least bit insane as the events he was about to describe.
“Following zhe investigation, ve discovered zhe murder of a travelling group ov performers.”
“The name of this group, Marshal Wilhem?”
“Lugwrench’s Mechanical Marvels, If I’m not mistaken, sir,” Wilhem answered.
“To continue; zhere vas vone survivor ov see massacre who vas able to lead us to zhe conclusion that zhe rest vere murdered by the Chinese victim I mentioned earlier, und his disciples.”
There was a brief pause in the typing as the stenographer wrestled with the herculean task of adapting Wilhem’s accent to typed font.
“Disciples? I was unaware that the instigator of this attack was a holy man?”
“Not holy in our comprehension ov zhe word, sir.” Wilhem explained. “Zhe best explanation iz zhat of ‘Master’ und ‘Apprentice’, zhough even zhen it does not capture zhe bond of respect.”
“I see,” Buckley mumbled as he made note of this on paper. “And the survivor of this massacre; does he or she have a name?”
“Not specifically zhough Marshal Caine has rectified zhis, sir,” Wilhem answered and watched with no surprise as one eyebrow rose up. “Vhat zhe survivor had vas more of a title.”
Buckley placed the paper down on the desk, the pen near the inkpot and clasped his hands.
“That title is?” he asked.
“Zhe Six-Gun Gorillia, sir,” Wilhem replied.
James Lovelace sat in one of the deeper excavated caves, set aside for storage of valuable equipment. In this case, it was a makeshift prison cell occupied by the crazed gunman that the Pinkerton Detective had luckily rendered unconcious. Bound hand a foot, he was showing signs of waking.
“How’s the head?” Lovelace asked, more to ascertain whether he was rational enough to speak.
“Hurts like hell,” the man groaned and shifted. “What’s going on? Where am I? Why am I tied up? What are you about?” his voice increasing in pitch and volume at each question.
Lovelace did not answer immediately, adding to his discomfort by peering at the bound man, and noticed that the strange red discolouration to his eyes had all but vanished, leaving a pink stain that made them look bloodshot rather than devillish.
“I’m afraid you’ve had something of a busy day, old chap. Put the camp in quite a stir.”
“What are you on about? Who are you?”
“James Lovelace, my good chap. In the employ of William Henry Baker to whose protection I’ve been charged and whose life you placed in jeapordy,”
“I don’t know you. I don’t know what any of this is!” The man yelled. Lovelace steepled his fingers and raised an eyebrow in concern.
“You don’t recall your actions, then?”
“No! Tell me what’s going on and why I’m like this! Now!”
“How odd. I had introduced myself earlier, you know,” Lovelace said.
“I don’t remember it!” The man shouted back.
“Surely you must. It was just after you were recounting about how you climbed the gun.”
“I didn’t say anything of the sort!” The man shouted as red indignation exploded off his cheeks.
“How would you remember that then?”
The Ithaca worker gaped and shut his mouth over and over, trapped between letting something out and holding it back. Lovelace was content to watch and wait; the measure of each man had been found in the opening exchange and both knew who had come up short.
“Alright, look,” the former worker started. “It’s not like I meant to do that. I’d been a bit angry about a bad poker game is all and took something to calm down.”
“Which was?” Lovelace asked.
“Just a little snuff,” the man replied. Lovelace’s expression didn’t change.
“Your quarters are being searched right now, you’re aware?” And I’ll wager a shilling to whatever’s left in your pockets that snuff won’t be that which is found.”
Lovelace paused, gathered his breath and continued.
“The line outside is far longer than the rope they’ll use to hang you and unless you decide to cooperate by telling me what you took and where you got it, I’ll have no choice but to let them go about it.”
The man’s eyes from Lovelace to the door, flickering between the two in a fearfully frenzied gaze. To his credit, it was not a long one.
“Alright, alright!” He shouted for the benefit of anyone beyond the door who might be waiting for the signal to string him up. “It was just a little Sunset.”
Lovelace frowned. “Which is?”
“Something new to help pass the time. How was I supposed to know it would make me shoot up the place! When I get my hands on Smith…” The man dug his nails into his palms like they were this ‘Smith’s’ neck.
“Your supplier, then?”
“Yeah. Comes and goes to the camp. Brings some essentials with him. He’s the one who sold me Sunset.”
Lovelace leaned in, his eyes locked with the prisoner across the table, refusing to release him from his gaze. The man gulped at the intense stare, moreso at the right eye that pitted him with eerie, unmoving look.
“And if I were to look for him, where would I start and whom would I approach?”
Lovelace closed the door behind him, nodding to the guards as he walked along the tunnel set into the quarry wall. He had a description of Smith and a date and time for his next visit. Information was valuable to someone.
He wondered if the Marshals would be willing to negotiate a reward.
As it happens Marshals Jac Lightning and Wendell Caine had saved James Lovelace the trouble and themselves some money by locating Smith and Jones in their cave hideout. A running gunfight had claimed both bandits and their cronies their lives.
But all of this had come with a cost of its own.
A bombardment, no doubt courtesy of Spokey Samson, had collapsed the marshals escape. An unintended but even more concerning consequence was that falling rock had dashed a kerosense lamp, spilling fire across the red root that grew within. A sharp bitter smell began to fill the cave where Lightning and Caine sheltered and it would be moments before a beserk rage would claim both their sanity, and each other’s lives at their partner’s hands.
Jac Lightning’s hands flew both to her water flask at her hip and the kerchief around her neck. Soaking the garment, she wrapped it around her nose and mouth, buying her a few moments of lucidity while Wendell Caine charged back the way they came toward the lab and storage section of the cavern.
Both marshals passed the lab littered with bodies and continued down a passage, the air around them clean, but with no means of escape, this was a temporary reprieve. Footprints in the dusty tunnel floor told Caine that there were still areas of this tunnel that were in use though and given how far they stretched under the surrounding desert of Ascension, perhaps there was another cave through which they could exit.
As it turns out, an exit was closer than either of them thought as the footprints lead them into an empty room whose ceiling was lost to blue sky. The height of the exit led Caine to believe that they stood inside the plateau itself and that it opened at the summit.
It led Jac to believe that a small airship might make berth here to take on and drop off supplies.
Regardless, its purpose was now a means of escape for while the odour of the red root hadn’t reached this far, it was only a matter of time before the rest of the crop caught alight and filled the cave and while it was easily thirty metres away, the marshals began a rapid ascent.
“It’s fun being Marshal,” Jac said in a voice as dry as the desert.
Higher than either of them, Marshal Wilhem continued to field the questions of Deputy Director Warren Buckley. The Iron Marshal had, with his fastidious memory, recounted the events and actions that lead the lawmen and the Pinkerton Detective to the aid of the airship besieged by Chinese agents. He explained the advances in technology that China had made as well extomporized on the cultural significance of the characters chosen. But Wilhem paused at one question.
“Do you think the Space Gun Project is viable, Marshal?” Buckley asked.
Wilhem studied Buckley, noting that the stenographer had stopped her typing, hands resting in her lap. Not a question nor answer for public record. But if not that, then who would want to know?
“I believe,” Wilhem started, considering each word like a jeweller searching for flaws in a diamond. “I believe zhat zhe pursuit ov knowledge is the noblest of causes. I envision zhat zhe results of each project vill produce marvels of science regardless ov zhere success or failure. A condition underpinned by zhe dewelopment ov zhe means to ensure zhe pilot’s survial and return to Earth.”
Buckley made a small and illegible note across a blank piece of paper and, careful to ensure the ink had dried, folded it up and placed it in his jacket pocket.
As the interview took on a deeper meaning – and Lovelace convinced William Henry Baker that the crazed gunman had not been part of a larger conspiracy to destroy the Ithaca chairman’s life after all – Jac and Wendell continued scaling up to the summit of the plateau. Caine grunted and heaved himself up the sheer face, having learnt to climb around the time he learnt to walk. Powerful arms hauled himself up the inside of the plateau like pistons. Jac Lightning, while no stranger to hard work, found the journey rougher with nothing but finger and toe holds to keep her moving. The distance between the noxious cloud and the climbing lawmen had grown, as the network of tunnels and caverns were accomodating raging gas, but with only one way to travel, it wouldn’t be long before it caught up.
Reaching down and hauling Jac up past an ‘insurmountable’ part of the rock wall, both lawmen inched closer to the summit. The Lightning Marshal’s arms burning from the climb, scrabbled across the edge of the final push and, with the slighest grunt that screamed of Jac’s suffering, she managed to throw up a leg and rolled over the lip to the top.
Both lawmen stared out across the desert high atop the plateau, the clouds of dust from Spokey’s bombardment of the cave entrance still reached up in a billowing tower. The mysterious bandit’s airship was nowhere to be seen. Fortunately the marshals’ own transport hadn’t disappeared as Thunder stamped and snorted at the temerity of a grizzly bear holding his reins between powerful jaws preventing the horse’s escape.
“At least it’s all downhill,” Lightning said as she eyed the climb down.
After several further questions, some cursory and procedural, others rich in hidden meaning, Hans Octavius Wilhem was returned to Ascension as the small airship descended to the tabletop plateau that served as a docking port. Making his way down the hewn staircase he could spy the approaching dust cloud trailing the velocipede containing James Lovelace and Baker, racing the sun threw purple and black across the sky in its wake.
The Iron Marshal reached Ascension as Baker hurried to his rooms at Etheric Delights, leaving Lovelace standing in the street. Both of them could see their companions, Lightning and Caine, astride their mounts and galloping across the desert toward them.
“There was something odd at the Ithaca camp…” Lovelace started.
“Found some folk out by that there sacred ground with the red root…” Lightning added.
“They dead now,” Caine finished as Wilhem looked to each in turn.
“Vhat are you all talking about?” The Iron Marshal asked.
But answers would have to wait as an explosion drowned out all noise and a pillar of fire shot into the sky in the middle of Ascension.
From the Marshal’s office.
TO BE CONCLUDED IN PART 4.
Posted by Wordmobi