The ninth story in the Beyond the Rails series
| This story is dedicated to Eric, my physical therapist during 2014's major hospitalization. I had to be taught to walk, dress, use the bathroom, and all of those things we take for granted. I have no doubt I would have learned it all from another, but the one they assigned was Eric, and he quickly became much more than just a faceless health care worker; he became a valued friend. As this man gave me a new life, I thought the least I could do would be to return the favor. How did I do, my brother?
July 26th, 1883, Mombasa, Kenya: The weather here remains abysmal. One would think that being on the shore of the Indian Ocean as we are, it would be at least bearable, but this town is where the devil himself spends the summer. Technically it’s winter, but at four degrees off of the equator, only the devil could tell. Miss Hobbs has been fully recovered and functioning in her normal capacity as pilot for some three weeks now. I must say the ship has a feeling of home that has been sorely lacking since her heated departure. She and the Captain have tacitly agreed to forget about the issue that stood between them, and it has not been mentioned again. I had been privately questioning whether the formidable young woman was back to 100% of her abilities, but all doubt was dispelled this morning as I was assisting her in the adjustment of the starboard propeller frame. She would align it to the exact position necessary, but every time I turned the spanner, the leverage would pull it from her grasp, whereupon she would turn the air around us blue with language scarcely fit for the docks of Bristol. Fortunately, before she could rupture any indispensable arteries, assistance was rendered by the most extraordinary gentleman I have yet to meet here in the wilds of Africa.
~ From the journal of Dr. Nicholas Ellsworth
* * *
“Oh, for the love of God almighty!” Hobbs shouted, leaping to her feet and throwing her engineer’s cap to the ground. Eyeing it critically, she kicked it away for good measure.
“Are you all right, Patience?” Ellsworth asked with a note of concern.
“Do I sound all right? Come on, again.”
The airship Kestrel bobbed on her tethers as her pilot and interim engineer (for thus did he consider himself) turned back to the propeller frame. It had vibrated itself out of position, as articulated frames were wont to do, and Hobbs, who felt every shudder and groan of “her” ship, had buttonholed Dr. Ellsworth to assist with its realignment. Unfortunately, the heat in Mombasa was already crowding ninety degrees, and it was damp and muggy into the bargain.
And then the frame itself had taken a contrary notion to play games with them.
Hobbs drew a deep breath, looking to Heaven, and turned back to the frame. She inserted the battered piece of pipe that was used for a lever wherever one was needed, and carefully pried the moveable frame back into the perfect position against the stationary support. Bracing her compact body against it, she growled, “Okay” to Ellsworth, and dug in to hold it.
Ellsworth set the spanner, and gently, carefully eased back on it to tighten the large bolt. But no matter how slowly he pulled on the wrench, the leverage forced her back until the frames were once again misaligned.
“Son of a— We have to think of something else.”
“We could wait for David and the Captain to get back,” Ellsworth offered. “You’re just too light. We need some more beef around this thing.”
“You heard the Captain. He wants us ready to fly when he gets back.”
“Well, you flew us in here like this. If you can get us to Nairobi, maybe we can all take a run at it there.”
“Nicholas, the poor girl is in pain. You wouldn’t ride a lame horse, would you?”
“No, I suppose not.”
“Pardon me, fraulein. I believe this is yours.”
They turned to see a large man in khakis, a broad brimmed hat on his head and a rifle in a case slung over his shoulder. A duffel bag hung from his opposite shoulder, and he held Hobbs’ crumpled cap out toward her.
“Thanks,” she said, taking it and settling it none too carefully atop her soggy hair.
“You two look like you could use some help,” he said, setting down his bag and leaning the rifle across it. “Vat is the problem?”
Prussian? Belgian? Austrian? His accent was faint but unmistakable.
“The frames have gotten out of alignment,” Hobbs replied. “They’re easy enough to push back, but when you tighten the tensioner, the wrench pushes them back out again.”
“Ah. You need more leverage on the frame. Vait here, I find something.”
He looked around, then headed off toward one of the warehouses.
“He’s a big brute,” Ellsworth observed.
“Friendly enough, though. If he can help us get this frame secured, I’ll buy him lunch.”
“Yes, that would be good, I suppose. Here he comes.”
The man walked around the corner of the dock with a stout piece of timber some twelve feet long. He maneuvered it effortlessly around the corner.
“I believe this vill help,” he said. “If you vant to line it up, I’ll find a place to set it.”
He took Hobbs’ hand to help her to her feet, and watched while she levered the obstinate frame into place once again.
“Vich vay does it try to move?” he asked when she had it set.
“It twists to the port side no matter what I try to do.”
“Ah. I believe this vill show it who is boss.”
He inserted the timber through the framing, and set his broad shoulders against it.
“Go ahead,” he told Ellsworth. “Yank it quickly. That should set it before it has a chance to move.”
“All right, here we go. One . . . two . . . three!”
Ellsworth jerked hard on the spanner, clamping the nut down on the sliding arm of the frame with a squeak of stressed metal.
“It worked,” Patience said in amazement. “We’re finished here. Can I buy you lunch, Mr. Uh . . .”
“Hafner, Eric Hafner.” The big man was much more attractive at close range, and Hobbs took in his hazel eyes, light brown eyebrows, and the gold ring in his left ear with an admiring eye.
“Patience Hobbs,” she almost whispered, then looked down and took a step back away from him, whereupon he removed his hat and drew his forearm across his sweaty brow. His head had been shaved bald, and his scalp held no imperfections that she could see.
“No payment is necessary. You vould have helped me, yes? Tell me, is your vessel for hire?”
“Yes,” she said, a little too eagerly. Catching herself at once, she added, “Two pounds, two.”
“And are you available at the moment?”
There was a long pause before she stammered, “We – we’re taking some deck cargo up to Nairobi. I’m sure the captain would be glad of the extra fare.”
“All right, then. Just let me fetch my other gear, and I’ll come meet this captain of yours. You are the hostess, then?”
“Impressive. Vell, I shall return shortly. Please don’t leave vithout me.”
He picked up his gear and strode confidently off toward town.
“Quite the character,” Hobbs said.
“Made quite the impression on you, at least.”
“Yeah. You didn’t even think to introduce your engineer.”
“He didn’t ask me to.”
“He didn’t ask for your name, either, but you gave him that quick enough.”
“Well, but, he— That is to say . . . Come on, let’s get this gear stowed.”
* * *
His duffle bag, a battered valise, and his rifle case were stacked at the top of the loading dock. He would never assume it was acceptable to move his belongings into the home of another without being invited. He had watched as Hobbs in the pilot house and Ellsworth on the ground had tested the range of motion allowed by their adjustment of the motor frame, and found it satisfactory.
“You have unusual skills for a voman,” he remarked, “especially vun so attractive.”
“Are you saying that all women are stupid, Mr. Hafner, or only the pretty ones?”
Ellsworth, who was coming back aboard, barely suppressed a belly laugh at that. He turned quickly toward the engineering hatch aft as Hafner tried to recover himself.
“No, no, I only meant that modern society allows vomen so little expression.”
“Ah, I see. That is my main reason for being out here. A woman in England would be better off in prison. At least she wouldn’t have to cook her own food.”
“I take it you aren’t this vessel’s cook then. Who is?”
“We try to eat ashore whenever we can manage it, but when we can’t, Dr. Ellsworth does his best with it.”
“I’m sorry, you have a doctor aboard?”
“Nicholas, the boy who was helping me with the frame. He’s a plant doctor, a botanist. He’s on some grand quest to make medicines out of all the plants in Africa, or something. He doesn’t get much of a chance flying with us, though.”
“Then vhy does he continue?”
“Has no choice, really. We’re the only people he knows down here, and I don’t think he’d do too well on his own. How about you, Mr. Hafner? What brings you to the colony?”
“Please, call me Eric.”
“It vas time to come here.”
“Ja, it vas time. I am a citizen of the vorld. I was raised by Belgian parents, and so I have a bit of an accent, but I grew up everywhere, and so it isn’t that much of an accent. My father vas a, um, a seeker of fortune who moved vith the vind and took vat it brought him. My mother vas devoted to him, and never left his side. I myself vas born on a train travelling from Paris to Vienna, so I have no settled birthplace, as you might say that you are from London, for example.”
“What was all this travel about, Mr . . . Eric.”
“Father vould hear of something that could be parlayed into profit somewhere in the vorld, and go there to get his share of it. I never learned any other trade, so I followed in his footsteps.”
“Which brings me back to my original question. What are you doing here?”
“You may be avare of a decorative style among European nobles called Chinoiserie. I vas recently in Portuguese Macao attempting to establish a trading house to provide authentic Chinese wares to those who could afford to pay for the genuine item. Unfortunately, I ran afoul of a tong who felt that I vas poaching on their enterprise.”
She strolled down the deck and took a seat on the mess room roof, waving her hand to indicate that he should join her. He did so, sitting as close as possible without actually allowing their hips to touch.
“A tong is a Chinese secret society. Most of them have means of controlling anything that makes money.”
“Such as selling Chinese treasures to rich Europeans?”
“Vell, not to put that fine a point on it, but yes. It became a matter of personal importance for me to leave Macao in my vake. But before I left, I encountered a dying English army officer by the name of Stopes living out his last days in an opium den. He told me of a lost ruin somevere in east Africa, below a cliff overlooking the Big Lake. Whoever had been the ruler of this fortress had used his power to amass a fortune in gold and gems, more, he said, than a train of twenty vagons could haul avay. The hallucinations of a drugged mind, I’m sure, but as I have nothing else to occupy me at the moment, I must look for myself.”
“I see. Eric, let me tell you something. I’ve been flying with this crew for several years, and I’ve seen fortune hunters in droves come here for one thing and another, and the lucky ones, the very lucky ones, get to leave on their feet. Most times all that’s found is a body part, or their ruined camp, or nothing at all. It never ends well. Never. I like you, Mr. Hafner, so I’m going to tell you something that will save your life. Run. Get out of Kenya, and don’t look back. There are more ways to die here than there are people to test them.”
“Ah, but Miss Patience, if I took that advice, I never vould have gone anyvere. It is the timid man’s fate to die never having seen the end of his street. I should think a voman like yourself vould understand that better than any man I could talk to.”
“And I do, but you have proven yourself a gentleman, and you should be told the truth. I owe you that for your help, at least.”
“And I appreciate it, but I have found a road to follow, and if there is nothing at the end of it but adventure, then that vill serve as its own revard. Ah, is one of these gentlemen your captain?”
Hobbs raised her head to see Smith and Monroe coming up the ramp, and slowing to eye Hafner’s gear as they stepped across onto the deck. She rose and led Hafner to meet them.
“Captain, David,” she greeted them. “I’ve found us a passenger for Nairobi. Eric Hafner, this is Captain Monroe, and David Smith, one of our crew.”
Smith, carrying a large coil of rope over his shoulder, just nodded and turned toward the forward gear locker. Monroe gave Hafner a once-over appraisal, and extended his hand.
“Business in Nairobi, eh? Well, if Patty and her assistant got that frame aligned, we should be there by nightfall, at least.”
“Actually, Captain, my business is a good deal farther north than Nairobi, but your pilot informs me that that’s vere you’re going, so I’ll try to make a connection from there.”
“I see. Well, stay with us for a bit when we arrive. They often have cargo for us to haul on to Kisumu, up on Lake Victoria, and if that’s the case, we can get you a good deal further along.”
“That’s very kind of you, Captain. I’ll do that.”
“Did Patience tell you the fare?”
“Two pounds, two?”
Hafner took out a wallet and extracted three one-pound notes which he extended to Monroe.
“If ve go on to this Kisumu, I assume I’ll owe you more. Othervise, you can make change ven ve get there.”
“That’s fine. Collect your gear, then, and Patience can show you to a cabin.” He turned to Hobbs as Hafner stepped to the dock. “Where’s Nicholas?”
“Motor room. Don’t know what he’s doing.”
“The question is, does he? Are we ready to fly, then?”
“All right, show Mr. Hafner to his room, and we’ll shove off.”
* * *
“There really isn’t much to this place, is there?” Hafner asked as the crew climbed the three steps to Shanee’s little Nairobi kitchen.
“Not really,” Monroe answered. “It’s just a base camp for the railroad. It gets another hundred miles on, they’ll build another one.”
“It’s gonna be,” Smith added as they entered the restaurant, pushed two of the square tables together and pulled chairs around them. “I’ve seen this happen in America. A place starts out as a stand where some grifter’s sellin’ pork chops to miners, an’ the next thing you know, there’s a whole town grown up there. Dodge is a great example. Ain’t a damned thing there, but it’s where the trains stopped to pick up cattle for the markets. Sacramento out in California’s another one. Gold built that.”
“Gold tends to do that,” Monroe agreed. “What makes this place special?”
“Crossroads. You got rubies comin’ down from the lake, and coffee comin’ in from the plantations. Britain and Prussia ever sort out their differences, I’m sure they got goods to trade, too. What we got here is the big seaport at Mombasa, the gateway to east Africa, really. This’ll be the biggest city on the continent some day.”
“Hello, boys,” A tall, colorfully dressed woman of obvious Maasai lineage greeted them, approaching their table. “You got new crew?”
“This is a passenger, Shanee,” Monroe replied. “Eric Hafner, meet Shanee. Eric is going up to the lake. Shanee makes the best antelope cutlets in Africa.”
“How do you do?” Hafner said, rising briefly. “If that’s the case, then I simply must sample them.”
“How about you boys? Same, same?”
Everyone voiced their assent, including Hobbs, who was very much not a boy, and Shanee moved off to her kitchen to start the process.
“Best in Africa, eh?” Hafner asked with a raised eyebrow.
“It’s the sauce,” Hobbs said. “Nobody knows what she uses, but it’s smooth, buttery, spicy, somehow all of those things at once.”
The door opened, admitting a trio of customers, men in travel clothes, dust from the trail adhering to them. Monroe nodded to them as they came in, they nodded back, and moved to sit at a table just inside the door.
Monroe thought it odd that they didn’t take their coats off before they sat down, but it was none of his concern, really. Hafner began describing a sauce he had had over cuts of buffalo meat in Capetown, and as he was attempting to describe the flavors to Hobbs, the three stood up again and produced guns, pointing them at the group from the Kestrel.
“You’re a hard man to track down, Hafner,” one of them said.
“The rest of you just sit easy,” another added. “Our business is with this thief. Nobody gets heroic, nobody gets hurt.”
“I’ve stolen nothing,” Hafner said.
“Kam Loo says different,” the first man said. “He wants his map back, and your left ear for interest.”
“The map vas given to me,” Hafner said. “Kam Loo has never laid eyes on it.”
“You still don’t get it, do you? Kam Loo owns everything in Macao. If a foreign devil leaves with anything, it’s because he didn’t want it.”
“What is the meaning of dis?”
Shanee had returned from the kitchen to find a group of men holding guns on her friends and customers. One of those guns swiveled to point at her face as she stood behind the bar at the side of the room.
“Shut up, nigger,” its owner snarled.
Shanee’s eyes became very large as she raised her hands and slowly sank down behind the bar. The gunman turned his attention back to the group with Hafner, so no one noticed when she stood back up with a double-barreled 20 gauge shotgun aimed at her antagonist until the thunder of its blast in the confined space shook the small building, tearing into the man’s left side and shoulder, and knocking him against the man to his right. They all noticed her then.
“Place your guns on the floor and get out,” she said in a menacing tone.
“Here, that’s murder!” one of the other men said, though the birdshot load was hardly fatal.
“This is my home, and these are my guests. I will kill you all, and walk free. Now, kindly place your guns on the floor.” She raised the shotgun to her shoulder.
“She means it,” Monroe said, and they turned back to see Smith and Hafner both holding pistols aimed at them.
“This isn’t over,” one of them said, lowering his pistol. “He sent the three of us to get his map. We don’t come back with it, he’ll send thirty more.”
He slipped his weapon into his coat pocket and bent to help his wounded comrade to his feet.
“I said leave your guns,” Shanee said. “I won’t ask again.”
The two on their feet exchanged a foul look, then the first one took his pistol from his pocket and laid it on the floor, followed by the other. As they lifted the wounded man to his feet, Monroe offered them some helpful advice.
“The military post here has a pretty good doctor attached. Of course, you go to him, they’ll want to know how he got shot. There are some more, um, discreet physicians down in Mombasa, and the train only takes about eleven hours to get there.”
“That’s funny, old man. I hope you’re still with him when we catch up again.”
The two of them helped their partner out the door and disappeared into the night.
“Well, Mr. Hafner,” Monroe said, “it seems we’ll have something interesting to talk about on the ride up to Kisumu.”
* * *
Kestrel slid down the northern slope of the highlands of Nairobi, riding the air currents as smoothly as a skier rode the snow. This could be a tricky maneuver even for a pilot of Hobbs’ unmatched skill, but this time of year, with the prevailing wind from the south, slipping into the lee of the great ridge kept that wind from trying to push her stern around to the north. Once down the slope, she could pick up the rail cut coming down the grade and follow it to the east side of Nawasha, the little mountain tarn with the hunters’ temporary base camp on its northern shore. Once there, keeping the ridgeline in sight would lead them straight over Kisumu.
As she leveled off at the bottom of the ridge, most of the attendant creaking and rattling dissipated, and shortly thereafter, Monroe and Hafner came up the forward hatch and stopped at the pilot house door.
“David,” Monroe called back to Smith, “call Mr. Ellsworth to the pilot house, would you? You, as well.”
“Having a cotillion, are we, Captain?” Hobbs asked.
“Something of the sort. Mr. Hafner is about to explain to us what he has in his possession that makes him famous in the world of thugs and henchmen.”
“My business is my own, Captain. I don’t vant to make light of your role, but you are a hired contractor, an employee, no more.”
“That was true right up until those men walked into Shanee’s. Once we lifted guns in your defense, we became partners. Now, I don’t mean to be too aggressive until I know more, but you are going to tell us exactly what we’ve gotten ourselves into on your behalf. Not just us, either. They may come back to take revenge on Shanee as well. You’ve been a very poor guest, Mr. Hafner. Now, speak up, or your life may suddenly become a lot more interesting.”
Hafner took in the faces surrounding him, evaluated their unsympathetic expressions, and made his decision.
“Very vell. First I vill assure you that you are in no danger. Those men are employees of a crime boss in Macao who believes that I have a map that will lead its owner to a lost treasure. They are only after my own person, and will not harm you unless you try to keep them from me.”
“Macao, in China?” Monroe asked. “That seems a long reach for a Chinese street criminal.”
“You’d be surprised how far people will travel if they think there’s a big payday at the end o’ the road,” Smith said.
“I suppose,” Monroe said, unconvinced. “Of course, my first observation is that those men were white, but I suppose the sixty-four dollar question, as my American friend says, is whether you actually have a map.”
“No, Captain, I do not.”
“And yet here you are, you and them together. Why would they invest in a trip across an ocean if you don’t have what they’re looking for?”
“They must have gotten to Stopes.”
“Just who is this Stopes, anyway?”
“Major Reginald Stopes, Royal Corps of Engineers, retired. He vas dying of consumption when I met him. Making his final days a bit more bearable in an opium den. I did him a couple of small favors, meaningless, really, but he chose to revard me vith his greatest secret, a ruin that vas supposedly the stronghold of a tyrant king, a man who demanded great tribute from his conquered subjects, and filled whole rooms in his fortress vith that tribute.”
“And you were given this secret by a dying man in an opium den?”
“That is correct.”
“And you don’t see anything, um, questionable about that?”
“You had to know the man, Captain. I am told you vere a military leader. You must be very vell avare of how you can talk vith somevun, and in a very few moments, know vether they can be believed or not.”
“I used to think so. So you crossed the Indian Ocean on the word of an opium smoker who left you no map, only some vague notion that there was vast wealth waiting to be collected?”
“Yes, Captain, I did. And so did Kam Loo’s thugs.”
“Right. So what makes you think this Stopes knew anything about East Africa? I’ve been traveling here for a number of years, and hardly a day goes by that I don’t encounter something I’ve never dreamed of before.”
“Stopes vas on the engineering crew that built the Kisumu aerodrome. I also understand he had something to do vith the rail line up from Mombasa, but it vas vhen he vas at Kisumu that he traveled by boat around the lake, and it vas then that he discovered the ruins.”
“That would have to be relatively close to Kisumu if he was working on the aerodrome every day,” Hobbs said. “Nowadays, hardly a day goes by that an airship isn’t overhead. No one has ever reported seeing any ruins in the area.”
“Major Stopes informed me that the ruins are only visible from ground level, and only vun spot on the ground at that. I don’t quite understand it myself, but he gave me detailed directions on how to find that spot, vich is vat I intend to do.”
“Well, we’ll not interfere with you, Mr. Hafner, but if your friends come calling, we will tell them where we left you. I’m sorry if I don’t get completely taken in by your narrative, but I’m not going to get my people killed over the rantings of a dying opium addict.”
“And I do not blame you, Captain. It is not the most credible story I have ever told, truth to be known. And it vill not matter vhat you tell them, because by the time they seek you out again, if they do, I vill have collected my treasure and gone.”
“So we have an agreement, then. Very well, sir. We’re four-and-a-half, five hours from Kisumu. Enjoy the rest of your flight.”
* * *
It was late in the afternoon when Kestrel motored up to Loading Ramp Two at the aerodrome north of the Winam Gulf. The winds off the lake could shift suddenly and gust with considerable strength, but they were nothing that Hobbs couldn’t handle, and soon the ship was tied alongside with great hawsers and a loading ramp was made fast. As the stevedores were waved aboard, Monroe stepped onto the dock to give the manifest to Tambo, the evening dockmaster.
“It is good you have brought us medical supplies,” he said, flipping through the pages.
“Yes. There was an incident of bad water, and the dispensary ran low on certain medicines. We should be all right now, though.”
Right at that moment, Hafner emerged from the forward hatch, Smith helping him with his gear, and stepped off onto the dock.
“Excuse me,” Tambo said. “Are you Mr. Eric Hafner?”
“I have a message for you. Don’t waste your time.”
“Don’t waste your time. A man was here two days ago. He left no name, only that message, to be delivered to Eric Hafner, should I see him.”
“Vell, I’m Hafner all right. Vat did this man look like?”
“He was short, not much taller than Miss Patience. He had brown skin like an Arab, but he was not an Arab, I am certain of that. He wore a beard that followed the line of his jaw, but no mustache.”
“Pablo Cardenas.” Hafner drew an exasperated breath. “Two days ago, you say?”
“Was he alone?”
“He had two Africans with him, porters by the look of it.”
“How was he traveling?”
“He arrived on the Nyumbu, but he did not leave with them.”
“Big cargo hauler out of Mombasa,” Monroe informed him. “You’re a popular man, Mr. Hafner.”
“Captain, this changes everything. I must engage your services further. Suddenly everything I’ve told you before is rendered insignificant.”
* * *
The crew sat on the benches on both sides of the mess table, Monroe and Hobbs on one side, Ellsworth and Smith on the other. At its head stood Hafner. He was agitated, a condition out of character for the smooth-talking rogue the crew had known for the past two days. He started to pace in the limited space available, then gave it up. He stared out through a porthole for a moment, then smacked his fist into his palm and held it there.
“You’ll find that we listen well, Eric,” Hobbs told him. “I assume you asked us all to meet with you for a purpose. We listen well, but you need to get started.”
“Yes, you’re quite right, fraulein Hobbs.” He turned to the head of the table and leaned forward, resting his fists on the surface. “Captain, I have a proposition for you. I vish to charter this vessel to take me on to the ruins I told you of. The problem is that vile I am quite vealthy, I don’t carry vast sums of cash around vith me. I must ask you take my vord vithout any tangible proof, and to take me north to a destination I vill guide you to in exchange for a share of the treasure.”
“The treasure that may or may not be there,” Monroe said. “You’re asking us to share your dream, Mr. Hafner, and I don’t know whether we can muster the level of faith that you have.”
“That is essentially vat I am doing, yes.”
“Might be fun, Captain,” Hobbs said. “Gaining access to a treasure might give us a freedom in our operations that we can only dream of now.”
“I suppose it might. But unlike my romantic young pilot,” he continued, turning back to Hafner, “I’m naturally skeptical. You see, unless you are going to tell us that you had planned to walk around the lake through hordes of crocodile, hyena, hippos, and lions, not to mention Maasai, then it occurs to my nasty, suspicious mind that you might have planned this all along.”
“I vas going to rent a boat, Captain, and travel straight across in broad daylight. The message from Cardenas renders that plan obsolete. This entire operation, my vork for the past eight months, has acquired a new-found sense of urgency since I received that message.”
“Who is this Cardenas?” Monroe asked, “and what does he have to do with you and your Major Stopes, was it?”
“It vas.” Hafner stared out the porthole for another moment, then reached a decision. “Pablo Cardenas is a Portuguese confidence swindler. He fancies himself an adventurer like myself, but in reality he has no vision, no patience, no skills that vould enable him to follow the life that I lead. So he follows me.”
“Probably not me only, but I am not concerned vith his other marks, only myself.”
“So if he follows you, how did he get here first?” Smith asked pointedly. “Maybe it’s the other way around.”
“David!” Hobbs exclaimed.
“A fair question, dear lady,” Hafner replied calmly. “I just called myself an adventurer, and it is the truth, the life I lead is quite adventurous, but it vould be far more accurate to say that I am a treasure hunter. Human history goes back for many thousands of years. During that time, civilizations have risen and fallen, and more than you might imagine have been forgotten. A forgotten civilization is buried by time and geography, and if it can be found, all of its treasures lie vaiting for the finder to make them his own. In the course of seeking them out, it is necessary to visit libraries and universities, ask questions of professors, then visit the locations, observe the surroundings, collect local legends, vell, you can see that it is quite a visible process, and if anyone is intent on observing you, you can scarcely prevent it.”
“Do you mean that you can actually make a living like this, Mr. Hafner,” Ellsworth asked.
“I have found three lost troves in my twenty years of doing this vork, Herr Doktor. I have an estate in Belgium vith grounds and a staff. It is quite lucrative, and has the added benefits of being enjoyable, and having no boss, you see. But the subject is this fellow, Cardenas. I am not a unique character. There are other men who do the vork that I do, and some of them are better than I. We are the lions in this field, yes? Vell, Cardenas, along vith his underlings and cohorts, are the jackals. They vait for the lions to scout the prey, conduct the hunt, make the kill, as it were, then they swoop in to snatch the spoils. Their dream is to get ahead of us and find the treasure first, and if he got to Stopes . . . Vell, a dying man in the grip of narcotics could have been incredibly easy to fool, and the fact that he vas here, and vent so far as to leave a message for me can only be the vorst of news. Hence my sudden urgency. I know nothing of his arrangements, but if he is on foot, a two day head start may not be insurmountable if I have use of an airship. Vat do you say, Captain? I can give you twenty pounds right now. Surely that vill buy me a couple of days?”
“It will,” Monroe said, “but going up north again . . . I don’t know. We have sort of a history up there, and it mostly isn’t pleasant.”
“I can offer you a share of the treasure, as vell,” Hafner added. “I am one man. I vill bring out vat I can carry. You are four, vith this airship. You can help yourselves to vatever is left.”
“Might be a big share of nothin’,” Smith said. “Lot o’ risk for nothin’.”
“It does sound exciting, though,” Hobbs added, eyes alight. “For a chance to become independent of the vagaries of the market, to live on our own terms, all we have to do is spend a couple of days off the tracks? And at the very least, we collect our charter fee. What is the problem exactly?”
“None,” Monroe said, “if you leave out the fact that we might get lost, be captured, killed, cast away in the wilderness, not a thing. You see, Mr. Hafner, the area you describe as ‘north of the lake’ is a region known as Buganda. It is claimed by Britain, Prussia, Italy, and Belgium, but the natives who are already there take a dim view of interlopers, and what with rubies being found in the hills above Kisumu, there could be other players we aren’t even aware of yet. Everyone asserts their claims aggressively, what with the rubies, so we can’t assume that our presence will go unnoticed up there. But if everyone’s in agreement, we can try our luck. I assume you’re in, Patty. What about you lot?”
“Ah, you know I’m always with ye, Cap’n.” Smith said.
“I didn’t come all the way down here to jump ship,” Ellsworth seconded.
“All right, then, Mr. Hafner, it’s settled. We’ll leave at first light. David, get over to the office, would you, and tell Tambo that we have a charter, and won’t be loading tomorrow.”
“Captain, about that. I’d as soon no one knew vat ve vere or vere not doing ven ve leave here. And along that line, it vould be to our advantage if all anyone saw at first light vas an empty berth, so I must most strongly request that we clear the port sometime after midnight, early enough to be out of sight of the town by dawn.”
* * *
Dawn found Kestrel on the north bank of Lake Victoria tethered to a tree above a pod of hippos. Hippos were vicious and territorial, and wonderful insurance that an anchored airship would not be disturbed during the night. They were stirring with the early light, as were the crew of the airship. The day was clear, the view unobstructed, and when Hobbs came topside with her large mug of sweetened Earl Grey, she was at first surprised to find Hafner standing at the starboard rail studying the shoreline to the west with binoculars.
Not so surprising, she thought. This close to his prize, he was probably too keyed up to sleep at all.
“Good morning, Eric,” she said, joining him at the rail.
“Ah, Miss Hobbs. A lovely morning, is it not?”
“It is, indeed. Are you finding anything useful with those glasses?”
“Indeed. Observe those pillars down the shoreline.”
He passed her the binoculars, and with a hand on her shoulder, directed her to the exact location. His touch focused her mind far more sharply than she would have expected.
“That is just the sort of formation I’m looking for. The major instructed me to bear northwest from Kisumu, which we have done, and locate The Needle’s Eye. I vould assume he vas describing a pillar vith an arch through it, and that looks the very place to find such a thing.”
“Indeed. There look to be cliffs behind it, and they have been eroded by wind and water. Some porous material, no doubt, that the wind can get into and carve. Of course, if there was an arch here during the major’s visit, it may have collapsed by now.”
“Ve shall have to hope not, or at least that it remains recognizable. The Needle’s Eye is the key to everything.”
“And what might The Needle’s Eye be, Mr. Hafner?” Monroe asked, joining them at the rail.
“Ah, good morning, Captain. The Needle’s Eye is a rock formation that your young pilot and I agree is most likely to be found among those pillars down the shoreline.”
“Excellent. I was afraid you might not know where you were going. Well, Nicholas is fixing breakfast down below. As soon as we’ve eaten, we’ll move down there and see what there is to see.”
* * *
Kestrel had slipped her tether with ease under Hobbs’ practiced hand, and motored along the shoreline, slowly approaching the sandstone pillars at an angle to change the perspective and make the object of their search more visible. Unsurprisingly, Hafner rode at the bow with the binoculars sweeping the pillars, and it was also no surprise that he was the one who saw them first.
“There,” he shouted, “off the starboard bow!”
Patience eased back on the throttles and tipped the nose down to approach as closely as possible.
“So, Mr. Hafner,” Monroe asked, “assuming that is the arch you seek, what do you do with it?”
“The major’s instructions vere, ‘stand in the Eye of the Needle and look into the setting sun.’ That seems very straightforward.”
“Indeed. Simpler instructions have rarely been given. The sun won’t be setting for a good ten hours, though.”
“Ve’ll hope he vas merely being poetic. Or more likely, putting the directions in a form most likely to be remembered. I’ll go down and take a look now, in any case. Could I perhaps have your pilot accompany me?”
“For what reason?”
“Really, Captain, you think I have the ulterior motive? Should I see anything, I can show it to her directly. Then she vill have it in her own mind rather than having to picture it from somevun else’s description.”
“Well, that does make sense.”
Monroe stepped to the pilot house door.
“Patty, bring us up over the arch, then get ready to go down with Mr. Hafner. I’ll hold us here while you’re on the ground.”
“Very well, sir.”
They were over the formation in a matter of moments. Hobbs took Monroe’s LeMat revolver from its holster and slipped it into her pocket.
“Won’t be a moment, Captain. Anyway, I lost mine in that silly crater.”
“Yes, and you haven’t acquired another.”
“On what you pay? I’d be armed with a slingshot. Anyway, once we find this treasure, I’ll be able to buy whatever pleases me. Excuse me, now, have to go adventuring.”
And with that, she was out on deck and onto the cargo hoist with Hafner.”
“Don’t dally around down there,” Smith admonished as he checked the connectors one last time. “You don’t know what’s down there. Just do what you came to do, and get back up here.”
“Relax, David,” Hobbs retorted. “You’ll grow up to be an old woman.”
“A live one, may I add? Hang on, here we go.”
He raised the platform a few inches, swung it outside the rail, and lowered it to the ground. The footing was difficult, with blocks broken from the pillars over millennia having accumulated to litter the ground. Hafner made his way as quickly as he could toward the arch as Hobbs followed him more carefully, the big pistol resting lightly in her hand. By the time she reached him, he was already standing in the raised base of the arch looking toward the west with the binoculars.
“Come up here and look at this,” he said excitedly, extending his hand to Hobbs. “No instructions in history could have ever been more simple.”
Hafner practically lifted her the three feet up to the arch in his excitement and handed her the binoculars, directing her attention to a point at the base of a low cliff some few miles off in the distance. There, tucked back into the shadows under an overhang, she could just make out a section of a crafted stone wall, partially collapsed, and what appeared to be the corner of a small building behind it.
“There it is,” he said, “practically vithin our grasp. Come, milady, let’s get over there.”
“Take it easy, Eric,” she said, passing the binoculars back to him. “That is in Bugandan territory, and I promise you, the Captain isn’t going to like that.”
“Nonsense, there is no vun around for miles. Anyvay, England claims Buganda, do they not? Ve have as much right to be here as anyvun.”
“Yes, well, you see, there are no courts out here. When you’re this far from civilization, people just tend to shoot you, and let the scavengers clean up the evidence.”
“Let us go see vat he says. I cannot get this close, then just sail avay. That vould be unthinkable!”
* * *
Once the decision was taken, the move was the work of a quarter-hour. Kestrel’s anchor was snugged into the crevasses of the many boulders fallen from the cliff, and the men busied themselves kitting up for entry into the mysterious ruins.
“Keep your eyes open, Patty,” Monroe admonished his pilot. “If you see any craft approaching, by air or water, slip your tether and run for Kisumu. Come back for us when you can, but don’t risk the ship or yourself on any foolish heroics.”
“I can scarcely believe you aren’t taking me with you.”
“The ship is all-important, you know that.”
“Of course, but you could leave the doctor here. He’s worse than useless if it comes to a fight.”
“I think you might be surprised. Anyway, we aren’t expecting a fight. We’re going in to collect a treasure, and he can carry a good deal more than you can. Now, be a good lass, and keep out of trouble.”
The glare that Hobbs gave his back as he moved aft to the cargo hoist would have frightened paint off a wall.
She had regained her composure by the time she lowered the men on the cargo hoist, and the four of them picked their way through the rocks to the undercut at the base of the cliff. It was deep, and far more imposing than it had looked from a distance.
“Sometime in the distant past, the lake must have been much higher, and probably much more turbulent, to undercut this cliff to such an extent,” Monroe said.
“It vould have had to have been in prehistoric times for these ruins to be built, used, and then forgotten,” Hafner replied.
“No matter,” Monroe replied. “The world has all the time it needs.”
“You don’t believe in the Ussher Chronology, Captain?”
“I believe what my eyes tell me. My brain suggests that six thousand years isn’t long enough to have created what we see around us.”
“It all could have been created as we see it the day before ve vere born.”
“With all the fossils in place, Mr. Hafner? That would suggest that God is a trickster who created fossils with the deliberate intention of causing us to doubt our faith. I simply believe that God did what He did for His own purposes, and it isn’t for Bishop Ussher or any other mere mortal to disclose His secrets through intellect.”
They came now to the edge of the cliff, and moved under the overhang. The piled boulders and rocks gave way to sand very quickly, and Smith knelt, studying the signs.
“Hyenas been in here,” he said. “Lots of ‘em. Tracks are everywhere. Could still be around.”
“Our guns will take care of them easily enough,” Monroe said. “I wonder why they aren’t here now?”
“Out hunting, found a better den, or maybe they took a rear exit when they heard us comin’.”
“I suppose. Everyone keep alert. It wouldn’t do to get surprised in these close quarters.”
Smith already held his sawed-off shotgun. The others drew their pistols and walked carefully on, staying away from places of concealment from whence a 150-pound predator with jaws that could bite through bone might erupt.
Despite the profusion of tracks, no ambush came. Soon, having passed by several foundations, some with partial walls still standing, they came to a crudely constructed pyramid, barely more than an artificial hill, really, with a waist-high wall ringing it. It was situated all the way at the back of the cut, and set apart from the other buildings.
“This vould have been the king’s sanctuary,” Hafner said. “Stopes vas right. There vas a civilization here that may have been contemporary vith Aristotle or even Ramses. Vatever treasure the old king collected vould have been kept in a secure storage area, and that vould mean atop or inside the pyramid.”
“Not in any of these buildings?” Ellsworth asked.
“Nein. These vould be quarters and offices for the city officials, tax collectors, priests, vatever they had to make their society run. The pyramid vas off limits. You see the low vall? Guards would have been stationed behind it, ready to keep any member of the general populace from climbing to the top. Come, let us see vat it has to offer.”
Hafner climbed up, slipping a few times in the crumbling stone, and gained the flat top. It was quite dark near the ceiling, and he took a moment to light his lantern, his attempts hindered by his fingers, which were trembling in anticipation.
“Ah, just so. You can see the outline of a small gazebo at the top,” Hafner went on, as if lecturing a class, “and thanks to the hyenas, it is clear that a tunnel into the pyramid is present. All ve need to do is remove a few of these stones, and ve should be able to slip through and see the ancient king’s inner sanctum, maybe for the first time in thousands of years. Care to give me a hand, gentlemen?”
* * *
The dirt and boulders that had fallen over the centuries to block the opening to the pyramid’s inner passage only extended a few feet down the slope, and didn’t fully block the route in any case. Removing enough of it to clamber over was the work of a few moments, and they were ready to press on.
“Look how far down this goes,” Monroe said. “It’s hard to tell in this light, but it seems to descend well below the level of the ground.”
“That is often the case vhere these understructures are concerned. They vere often constructed to hide things, and the best hiding places are underground. Only the Great Pyramid of Giza is large enough to have its secret vault above ground.”
“I suppose you’ve explored that already,” Smith ventured, waiting for his eyes to adjust.
“No, Mr. Smith. As I have told you, part of finding these places is in the reading. Sir Petrie’s very thorough vork on the subject vas most enlightening, but that isn’t the sort of place vhere you go to find an accessible treasure. Nein, not at all, but this! This is just the ticket. Shall ve?”
He inclined his head toward the tunnel and turned his lantern to illuminate the path. Smith nodded, leveled his shotgun, and started down.
“This close to the lake,” Ellsworth said, “aren’t you afraid the lower chambers will be full of water?”
“Possible, but this is rock, and as you see, the slope of this passage isn’t uniform. This is a natural tunnel that has been vorked to take advantage of its run. If it kept out vater for thousands of years before humans made use of it, it should have continued for a few hundred years after.”
“That makes sense. Still, you have to recognize—”
“Shhh!” Smith hissed, holding up his gun hand. He had heard scuttling or scuffling in the darkness ahead, not far ahead if the clarity was any indicator.
Monroe’s LeMat appeared, and Ellsworth’s Webly.
“What do you think, David?” Monroe whispered.
Before he could answer, two sharp yet mournful calls echoed up the tunnel, beginning as a high-pitched moan, then rising suddenly to be clipped off sharply: aaaaaaaaOO! aaaaaaaaOO!
“Hyena,” Smith said, rising from his crouch. “Filthy scavengers. Live meat has nothing to fear from them. Good they’re here, really. If your partner Cardenas had been here, he’d o’ scared ‘em half way to Capetown.”
Smith had turned to address them, and had scarcely finished his statement when Ellsworth shouted, “Look out!” and fired past him down the tunnel.
Smith and the others turned to see a pack of ten, maybe a dozen, low-slung doglike animals stampeding up the passage. Everyone got off a couple of rounds, and the hyenas were on them. Boots became the weapons of choice, and Smith’s Bowie knife made lasting impressions on any creature that tried to close. Pistols were still fired, and slugs that missed the fast-moving animals ricocheted dangerously in the close confines.
The attack was over in less than a minute, though it seemed to last for an hour, and when the pack retreated, snarling and threatening, they left half a dozen bodies on the stones. They also left Hafner a souvenir in the form of a vicious tear in the back of his calf. The danger past for the moment, he sat down with his back against the tunnel side. Smith and Monroe reloaded their weapons as Ellsworth brought his lantern to inspect the wound.
“This is ugly,” he pronounced, “though not life threatening. I’m sorry I don’t have any opiates. I’m not that kind of doctor. Still, we can bind it up.”
He set deed to word by taking a small cloth case from his backpack and producing gauze, linen strips, and iodine.
“This is going to burn like fire, I’m afraid,” he said.
“It must be done, so please proceed.”
Rather than try to paint the jagged-edged wound with the glass applicator, Ellsworth simply soaked a piece of gauze and pressed it to the wound. Holding it in place until Hafner’s arched back and grimacing face returned to their normal appearance, he began to wrap it with the linen.
“What on earth would make them act like that?” he wondered aloud as he worked.
“Rabies,” Smith said flatly.
“Oh, surely not!” Ellsworth exclaimed.
“What else? Filthy scavengers, the lot of ‘em.”
Monroe moved to look at one of the bodies.
“This doesn’t look like an animal with rabies,” he said. “I’ve seen rabid animals. Their fur is mangy, their eyes are red and clouded, and of course there is always froth around the mouth. This animal looks healthy. As does this one.
“That is encouraging news,” Hafner said. “Perhaps they vere defending their home. In any case, Captain, if I begin to show symptoms, I’ll tell you now, I intend to use my veapon on myself.”
“I quite understand. It isn’t a pretty way to go.”
“Quite. Now, dear boy, if you vould help me to stand, the sooner ve can finish here and I can get off my feet. That is a very velcome prospect at the moment.”
* * *
With Hafner leaning heavily on Ellsworth’s left shoulder, the party continued on to the point where the passage formed a “T.” At this point, Hafner reached into a pocket and produced a diagram, one drawn with a faint pencil by a shaky hand.
“I thought you didn’t have a map, Mr. Hafner,” Monroe said in an accusing tone.
“I have no map to the site,” their client replied, “but I have this diagram to the internal tunnels of the ruin.”
“So your major was actually in here?”
“Ja, Captain, he vas, and he took enough treasure with him to keep him in grand fashion to the end of his life. Despite that, he assured me that vat he took did not even diminish the pile. Basically, ve take three left turns, then a right. The treasure vault is actually in front of the pyramid, though underground of course.”
“The good major also spoke of a trap, though he said it is easy to recognize, and von’t give us much difficulty. Of course, he probably assumed ve vould not be injured ven ve got to it.”
“We’ll just have to see what it is when we come to it. David, take the lead, please, and be very alert. A trap you should be able to see.”
“Don’t sound like much of a trap,” the American said. “Let me have your lantern.”
Monroe passed it forward, and Smith held it up in his left hand and examined the ground ahead.
“Stopes tell you anything else about this trap?” Smith asked. “Like, where it might be?”
“No, I am sorry. Only that it is easy to spot. Just go slow, and look at everything before you valk into it.”
“Sounds like you think I had other plans,” Smith replied. “Okay, here we go. Three lefts and a right, right?”
“Correct,” Hafner said.
Smith started out, the lantern’s focused beam playing on every surface. Not that there were that many to examine in the narrow, roughly finished tunnel. Most of Smith’s attention went into staying out of the spider webs. Given the virulence of the venom carried by these African monsters, that seemed a logical top priority. Smith followed the left leg of the “T,” which made a right angle turn to the left with no other passages available.
“Does this count as the first left?” he asked Hafner?
“It must. It is in the right place on Stopes’ map.”
“Hmm. We’ll see, I guess.”
Smith led on down the passage until he could see that it expanded into a chamber just ahead. Stopping at the portal, he played the light around a square room some twenty feet square, taking his time and looking for any sort of anomaly. Seeing none, he stepped cautiously into the room. The walls and floor were much more smoothly finished than the passageway itself, the room obviously having been carved for a purpose, probably taking advantage of an existing chamber. Strange glyphs and pictograms ran in a chest-high band around the room, and Smith examined them briefly, hoping they might provide a clue to the anticipated trap, but he saw nothing he could make any sense of, and turned toward the leftmost of the two doors that exited the chamber. He almost stepped through, but at the last second, stopped and looked up. There above his head were countless tons of rocks and boulders held back from crushing him by a few slim stone beams.
“Ah, so,” he said quietly.
“Did you find the trap?” Monroe asked.
“That’s a possibility.”
Hafner hobbled over and looked up.
“Good eye, Mr. Smith,” he said. “Something has to be a trigger for this. I’d examine the floor. It’s most likely something you step on, because othervise it vould have to rely on somevun leaning against a certain point on the vall.”
“Right,” Smith replied, “and there it is.”
The item he referred to was a flagstone that sat a half-inch higher than those around it, and with a clear border where falling dust simply continued to fall into an open space below.
“Looks like the good major was right,” Smith said. “Everybody see it?”
Everyone expressed their confirmation that they did.
“Well, don’t step on it!”
Smith walked carefully around the right side where there was more room to step, then continued on down the tunnel. Within a short distance, another passage opened to the right, and after consulting with Hafner, Smith took that route. Fifty feet along, it opened into another twenty foot square chamber with a ledge around the outside edge, and two waist-high pillars equally spaced in the center of the room. There were barely recognizable boxes made of ancient wood and reeds, all smashed and empty, and on one of the pillars was a piece of paper weighed down by a gold disc some three inches in diameter. Smith took this, glanced at the paper, then passed the two items to Hafner.
“It’s for you,” he said by way of explanation.
Hafner took the paper and began to read. With an expression of dismay, he walked slowly to the pillar and sat down on the floor, his back against it. Letting the paper fall, he began to laugh, quietly at first, then building up to a maniacal hysteria that had the others watching the door for the hyenas’ return, then finally falling back to an exhausted, bitter chuckle.
“I promised you a grand share of the treasure, Captain,” he said finally. “I should like to amend that offer to allow you to take all of it.”
He held up the golden disc.
Monroe leaned down and picked up the paper instead.
My Dear Eric, it read,
You are such a charming gentleman, so upright and honorable, I am almost ashamed to take advantage of you. Almost. You are so predictable, always doing the right thing. I keep hoping that someday you will learn, but at this late date, I am inclined to doubt it. You spend years doing research, then I spend minutes coming along behind you and offering bribes. Judge for yourself as you read these words whose method is superior.
But I am not a man without gratitude! Please accept, with my thanks, this finder’s fee for tracking down a treasure that most men can only dream of. Use it to begin your search for the next one. I will be right there rooting for you every step of the way.
Your humble servant,
Pablo Cardenas, esq.
“Mr. Hafner,” Monroe said, “I don’t know what to say.”
“It is I who does not know vat to say to you. I have dragged you miles away from your business, insisted on placing your ship and crew in danger, and all for this. Vat do you think, Captain, thirty, forty pounds. Small enough payment.” He held it out to Monroe again.
“That is yours, Mr. Hafner. I named you a price, and you paid it. Come on, let’s get the hell out of here.”
* * *
Back aboard the Kestrel, Patience had occupied herself pacing around the deck, keeping an eye on the empty sky and water, occasionally going below to add a scoop of coal to the Cheadle and Gatley boiler. She disliked being left alone on board in situations like this. Not only was it pure boredom, but she could never shake off a feeling of dread that any negative activity would come to her while the men were away. She never would have expressed that apprehension to Monroe; he needed her here, and that was that.
So it was with a great feeling of relief that she saw them coming back out of the ruins. Relief followed by apprehension, as she observed Ellsworth supporting Hafner as their client limped and hobbled over the uneven stones of the beach. Using the power windlass, she winched Kestrel down to ground level, went aft to lower the cargo hoist, then waited at the bow, Smith’s Winchester rifle at the ready. Nothing followed them, and she walked down the starboard side above them as they made their way to the cargo hoist.
“What happened?” she demanded.
“Hyenas,” Monroe said.
“Well, is he all right? Did they look diseased? Is it very painful, Eric?”
“Have a bit of patience, Patience,” Monroe replied. “Just get us aboard. All will be revealed.”
Coming to focus, she watched the four of them step onto the corrugated platform, each grasping one of the stays, moved the handle to the up position, and waited for the powerful but slow-moving winch to raise the men to deck level. They didn’t wait to be swung inboard, but half-carried, half-dragged Hafner, who was plainly suffering, onto the deck.
“Where do you want him, Nicholas?” Monroe asked.
“Let’s just sit him on the mess room roof. I’ll get a fresh dressing on this, and then he’ll be better able to tackle the stairs. Patience, there is a khaki bag with a faded red cross on it in my cabin. If you’d be good enough to collect it for me?”
“Of course!” She was clearly agitated, and didn’t move at first.
“Belay that, Patty,” Monroe said. “David, you get the bag. Patty, I need you to get us underway. Did you keep steam up?”
“Yes, but more coal will be needed. What about Eric?”
“Nicholas is going to take care of Eric. I need you to get us into the air. Do what you do best, and get us to Kisumu without delay. There is a doctor there, a medical doctor, who Mr. Hafner needs to see forthwith.”
“Yes, of course.” She picked up Smith’s rifle and turned to depart.
“Patience,” Eric said, stopping her like she’d hit a wall.
“This was the treasure.” He held up the golden disc. “I’d like you to have it. A souvenir of a fruitless endeavor.”
She took it from him, gave it a cursory glance, and slipped it into a breast pocket of her shirt.
“Thank you, Eric. I’ll treasure it. Now I have to get you to a doctor, schnell.”
“Why, Patience, I had no idea you spoke Prussian.”
He winced with a sharp intake of breath as Ellsworth removed the makeshift bandage, pulling loose the clotted blood beneath.
“Kisumu, Patty,” Monroe said. “Today would be good.”
“Of course!” She turned and almost trotted to the pilot house, passing Smith on the way.
Smith stopped beside Hafner and set the bag within easy reach for Ellsworth.
“Thank you David,” Monroe said. “Now go below and make sure the boiler is fully stoked, then help Patty with whatever she needs.”
“This is ugly,” Ellsworth said, “a nasty bite. At least the wretched creature didn’t tear a piece of flesh out.”
“Likely that .455 slug you put into its head had something to do with that.”
“Lucky shot,” Ellsworth said absently as he examined two bottles, both containing powders. “Eric, could you kneel here, and lean on the roof? I need to sprinkle some of this into the wound.”
“Ja, I can do that. Vith the good captain’s help, perhaps.”
Monroe lent his arm as Hafner levered himself up, turned around, and knelt on the deck.
“This shouldn’t do more than tingle a bit,” Ellsworth said hopefully as he unstopped one of the bottles. “It’s a powdered extract of the wishing tree. The natives use it on irritated insect stings. It should keep the sharper pain at bay until we get to Kisumu, at least.”
As he began to dust the wound with the grayish powder, he saw Patty’s small boot step into his field of vision and stop. All three men looked up at her.
“Did any of you look at this coin?” she asked.
“I don’t think that’s a coin in the conventional sense,” Monroe began.
“I don’t care what you call it, did you look at it?”
“What about it?” Monroe asked, becoming irritated with his pilot. “We need to get moving.”
“Yes, Captain. Steam’s building now. Look at this.” She held the gold disc up in front of his face.
He snatched it away from her, flipped it between his fingers, and held it back out to her.
“A few scratches and dents. So what? This thing is very old.”
“Captain, those scratches and dents are a map.”
“What?” He took it back, holding it this time to catch the sun just so.
“Yes. That curved line is a shore, somewhere. Those two dimples could be villages or some obvious landmarks, and that X didn’t just accidentally get scratched on there. If I could match this to some known features, well, Eric could have his fortune yet.”
“Patty, I don’t know what . . . Eric, do you think Cardenas knew about this?”
“Who can say? It vould not be like him to leave something like this behind. Still, if that room had contained hundreds of these discs, vat are the chances that he vould leave the one that had these markings? Unless they all did, and that is certainly not likely. Perhaps he did it on purpose to torment me.”
“Maybe. But if he did, he failed to reckon with the skills of my pilot. Kisumu first, Patty, then while we get Eric to a doctor, you can play with your maps.” He handed the disc back to her.
“We’re as good as there, Captain,” she said, and turned back toward the pilot house.