Belying its weight and enormous size, the Atlantis floated like a mere feather toward a towering mooring mast.
Pieter and Dr. Pikkard watched the ground rise gently and soundlessly up to meet them. Giving off hisses and groans reminiscent of dinosaurs, its colossal girth gleamed with fresh silver paint as it slowly descended.
Many passengers lined the windows and took pictures with hand-cranked movie cameras and sturdy little Brownies, while others waved to people on the ground. Over two hundred husky-limbed farmers needing paying work were called in. They formed gangs, grunting and sweating hard as they helped secure lines of the incoming dirigible to the mooring mast at the modern aerodrome just outside the old Twin Cities Geo-Dome.
Nearby hangars, built two centuries previously for prelaunch servicing of quark-powered spacecraft in the 22nd Century, could easily accommodate her great bulk--a thirteen story building set on its side. They were shut tight, however. Computers that ran their cyclopean doors fell to the English disease, and the doors themselves began to shed disintegrating metal and became too dangerous to move. For a time wind gusted to thirty knots, threatening to tear the airship loose from its iron and concrete moorings and send it smashing against the edge of the dome a mile away. Freight was quickly unloaded down a gangplank from a hatch in the nose. Sometimes a shifting of the hull or perhaps carelessness of the stevedores sent bags of Clarke-Tootle's mill products--mainly surplus blue corn meal greatly reduced in price to undercut local mills and farmers--spilling to the ground.
The wind flicked bitter cold flakes of dirty ice and blue corn in the faces of Pieter and the professor as they disembarked down a stepped gangplank. Taking the opportunity, the captain and most of the officers and crew went with the passengers into town. Later, the airship floated with no one aboard but a mechanic servicing her six 12-cylinder 400 h.p. engines with oil and gas.
It was as chilly as it normally was in early January, though there was little snow as yet this year. The well-wrapped mechanic, thus, had nothing but cold-nipped fingers to swear about as he climbed exterior ladders to the engine gondolas--but swear he did.
Dr. Pikkard came back out to the aerodrome on Tuesday, drawn by an ad in the paper about a small plane for sale. After checking it out with the owner, he indicated his interest in seeing it again and went back into town. Wherever he found himself, he never varied his scientific routine if he could help it. In the field he took notes. Later, he would annotate them and make a final copy for eventual publishing.
So the rest of Tuesday, taking out notes he had made on various research junkets with Pieter, he read and annotated them heavily with his old but still excellent Parker fountain pen, working far into the night before putting the results into a briefcase he always carried for his latest research papers. His own findings and the first instances of English disease had to be confirmed as much as possible with other lines of research, but he would need his own library back at the hotel to do that. Only then, after checking the work of others relating to the subjects, would he send the papers to his printer.
The discovery of the New Amsterdam Cray had provided a very big boost--if only temporary. Would his calculations prove correct? he wondered. Would he be able to explore the landing site of one of the 'shooting stars'? If he could personally examine the “star,” it would provide undeniable confirmation of his general thesis of economic and social break-down. Surely, he had to think, surely the academic community would not reject the plain truth forever, despite how much they fought him at present.
Left alone after dinner with Dr. Pikkard, Pieter was free to find his own amusement in the strange town that was the successor of two large twin cities on the River Rhine.
Minnpaul, as many now called it, was actually was a town, much smaller than New Amsterdam. With very few factories running, it was dependent on shipping by river barge and rail for its existence, mainly flour to more populated and moneyed New Antwerp and the capital, and thence to Britain which could afford to buy whatever Holland America could still produce.
"I'll be going out, Meinheer, to take the air, if you don't need me.
The professor looked up from his papers with a keen look. "Conditions are not any better here than in New Am, I'm afraid. Actually, they seem worse. Beware of certain ill-bred elements of the local citizenry, my boy! They do not like us East Coasters and Dutchmen in these parts any more than they like stray wolves and Indians sneaking about. Locals will just as readily slit your throat as try to sell you something expensive from them you don't need."
“I can take care of myself, Meinheer!”
Pieter was soon in the snowy street.
Normally, city streets, wherever there were gaps in the Dome, were lined with shoulder-high drifts of snow and it was hard going for pedestrians and the few motor cars still running in the city. But the year had continued unusually mild so far. It was the blizzards in spring that people feared most. Pieter had little difficulty in reaching the Minnetonka Hotel, about six or seven blocks, down a string of "drugstore" saloons, from his own. Anne was not in the lobby, so he went up to her room. Stubborn Dutch that she was, she had come anyway, despite his objections. Had she danced in the street as she had threatened to do? he wondered, shaking his head.
He also had to wonder why he continued to befriend her. He knew she would never fit into New Alkmaar society. Anne’s beauty was always a mild shock whenever they met again. This time too he found her beautiful enough to distract him completely from a rebuke he had already practiced in his mind. The wild colors retired to the trunk, a simple gray silk gown just touched the floor and pearl-seeded lace trimmed her neckline. Looking more grown-up and dignified, she was sitting beside a roaring fire in the grate. A full dinner had just been laid out, with candles, flowers, and the establishment's finest napkins set in tall crystal water glasses.
Pieter got his breath back after the first shock wore off. It was all so like Anne, but he never got used to her ways. How like the penny-unwise Kilpaisons! Obviously, she had "gone all out" to make it nice for them with every last bit of her savings and whatever she had been able to borrow or earn. Pieter frowned.
"What an terrible expense!" he thought. "Is that the 'Kilpaison female temperament' her grandmother mentioned? Spending when you don't have it to spend? I can’t afford a wife if she’s going to act like this all the time!"
"Why didn't you let me know you were going to do this? I've already eaten," he told her quite truthfully, for he had wolfed down a huge meal at the hotel.
Anne's face fell, but she quickly recovered. "I wanted it to be a nice surprise. Knowing your appetite, you can eat a dessert, can't you? We can at least have dessert and coffee together. I just lost my appetite anyway." Despite the Jack Dutch situation, things had relaxed after a while. Anne proved more than equal to his reluctance, taking his arms and placing them around her. They sat on the bed for some time, and after a time Pieter began kissing her. "But not until we're--" objected, his desperate words stopped by her return kisses. "But what about your uncle?" he murmured. “What would he think if he found out?”
Anne sniffed at the notion. "Never mind Oom. If we decide to marry, he may complain a bit, but he’ll come round to it." Her hands inside his clothes made it very clear she wanted him. After slipping out of her dress, she pulled off his shirt. Suddenly, Pieter turned cold as the ice outside on the window sills. The fire was dying in the grate, and Pieter rose up and sat on the edge of the bed.
He thought he loved Anne, but he realized he would never take her hand in marriage. Somehow, he just felt their relationship should end--but when? how?
"What's the matter?" she called over her shoulder, going to stir up the fire.
“Don’t bother with the fire,” he muttered.
"You'll catch cold, idiot!"
He did not answer. Then he felt her warm arms around his shoulders, which were beginning to shiver. He stiffened and pulled away.
She let him fall asleep beside her and sat up thinking, though the fire had died again and the room's growing chill was causing her to shake.
Then she took a cold, hard look at her reluctant swain--one “rosebud” with “possibilities” that refused to be gathered. However long she had to wait for him, it would never be long enough, she realized. But she had known that before coming to Minneapolis. Now he had proved it beyond question.
She called a maid from the room service, endured the smirking stare and took the scissors she had requested. She cut off a bit of the sleeping Pieter’s hair and put it in a gold locket her grandmother had given her from her own neck. Pieter was still asleep when she had her bags packed.
He awoke just as she shut the door and found a note, telling him not to worry. With color rising in his face, he read that she understood how he felt, so she was going to a cheap ladies boarding house to stay for the time being. Also, he was to give her love to her Oom. A General Delivery address followed, in case her uncle wanted to get in touch. In a postscript she told Pieter to say she had a nasty cold developing and it was just as well, for the work that he had to do, that he didn't catch it.
Lost on Pieter, she had signed in a tender Kilpaisonian style a distant King of Ellis would have approved--"Love always, always! I won’t forget even if you should! Your little fool, Anne."
It seemed to have a problem with the oil. The owner said his grease monkey was too busy to take care of it that day, so it might have to wait.
“Okay, do it on Fool’s Day,” joked Dr. Pikkard, referring to the convenient excuse of putting off to tomorrow--in this case a non-existent Wednesday II--any left-over business. That, in turn, meant somebody would have to get up early to beat Thursday’s dawn and get the work done. Farmers, of course, anxious to get late-maturing crops in before the first snowfall, put an even harder squeeze on Thursday than was necessary in town.
The following day, Thursday the 8th, continued the previous day’s weather, unusually bright and clear, with all the signs of being fortuitous. It was the day farmers had made expressly for bringing in harvests, though why it was identified with fools was never quite made clear by anyone.
It worked so well in late summer and fall, the custom had been extended to the rest of the calendar year, whether or not it was needed.
With no particular terminus, it could be stretched as long as needed to get in the corn or wheat or whatever else was being harvested.
Though probably Swedish in origin, the New World Dutch had taken to it so completely that they claimed it was their own invention--which honor the British, for one, were very pleased to concede to them. No one in the cities liked it, but the countryside--which had grown very powerful over against the declining urban population--had carried the day.
Squinting into the brightness, Dr. Pikkard and his assistant arrived back at the Minneapolis-St. Paul aerodrome. Dr. Pikkard was urging on Pieter to put on more speed, as he was anxious to make up for the lateness of the season and the delayed departure of the Atlantis from New Amsterdam.
The hired Hupmobile skidded on ice and nearly rammed a pyramid of rusting air control computers from the Crystal Age a junkman had piled up for sorting through first before loading.--the buildings where he got them being too dark for seeing what was of possible value and what was not.
The old man throwing computers on his truck shook his head. "Don't mind me, gennilmen! Dinke van Klooft at your service! And how 'bout sellin' me that old jalopy? Don't matter what condition it's in. It'd make jelly gut sale on parts! Ye be surprised what Ole Dinke gets for old machinery from those fancy-pants Englishmun in New Antwerp. Ole Dinke goes there once a month, he does!"!"
The junk dealer laughed through a tattered, yellowish scarf wrapped around his neck and jaw, adding, "But I don't need da business. I got all that oder there to cart off!" He paused and jerked a naked black thumb through his tattered glove toward immense Crystal Age spaceport buildings that towered along the horizon beyond the airfield.
"Whom did you say is buying from you?" inquired the professor.
"Clarke, some fatcat Londoner! He sends men oder to New Amst. A real blood-sucker, but pays with gold from de king's mint--ye seen it--de coin comes with the oliphant on one side and that moon-eyed fellow on the udder, ye can't miss it. Hear'd of Clarke, Meinheer?"
"Where haven't I heard that name?" laughed Dr. Pikkard, turning back to the business at hand. "But exactly what, if I may ask, do you do with these old cars if you can get them?"
It was the junkman's turn to guffaw. "Ev'ry dang thing you can think 'tis made of them from joolery to silverware. Dere mo' valooble in pieces den in runnin' order! If da metal holds good, a piece no big as half my hand alone brings me a dollar, cuz of blacksmiths make chopper knives from it. Turn dis heap a yers oder to me, I’ll tear out da leap spring, and in 'bout a week some butcher will be choppin' horse steaks and burger with it in some high class New Ant eat'ry!"
A little skid on ice could not spoil a fine day, but a chance encounter with someone who looked disturbingly like Old Goatley brought Pieter up short for a moment.
Until that moment the last thing from his mind, the amazed Peter was wondering if Old Goatley had a twin in the Twin Cities. He opened his mouth to call out, but the name died back in his throat.
Recalling the explosion in the balloon shed, he held his peace for the moment, though he continued to examine the junk dealer. He wondered if his eyes were tricking him, since he had gotten little if any sleep after the incident with Anne. But they had no time to determine whether it was truly Old Goatley or a lookalike cousin.
Dr. Pikkard was all Dutch business and evidently saw nothing peculiar about the junkman. Quickly, the pair pulled on specially padded flight jackets, the professor keeping his unseasonable straw boater while Pieter changed Dutch homespun for a flight cap that came with a chin strap.
Icarus the sparrow was carefully put in Pieter's coat pocket with the zipper pulled for safe-keeping.
More and more, the professor was entrusting Pieter with his most treasured possession.
It was odd of the bird, Pieter felt. It was fluttering so much he took his eye off the old man to see what was wrong. When he looked again, Old Goatley, or his equally mysterious twin, was gone.
But for a light dusting of new snow, both could see by the nearly limp wind sock. Taking newly purchased rifles and one fold-up shovel, they hurried across the gravel. Snug in winter clothing, they passed under part of the immense shadow of the Atlantis, which was glowing at the ends of long cables like a captive, sheer-sided mountain. Dr. Pikkard paused to examine one of the lines let down by the dirigible on landing and used to tow it to the mooring mast. Instead of being drawn up into the ship, it had been attached to the tower's base.
He began to draw himself up as nimbly as a boy, bracing his feet against the mooring mast. A slight shift in the Zeppelin soon drew the hawser tightly vertical, snapping Dr. Pikkard five or six feet back to the ground.
"Watch out, Meinheer!" said Pieter, amazed.
Dr. Pikkard slid down and turned around to his assistant. Pinching his mustache, he spoke more slowly than usual.
I can't help it, my boy. I know it isn't very dignified for a man of my age, but whenever I see cables like that in the air, I almost think I could climb to Heaven and see for myself! You see, I get tired sometimes of hanging around in my old balloons!" He clapped Pieter on the same shoulder that old Horst had almost crushed a century previously, or so it now seemed. "My boy, there must be plenty of things up there for a scientist to study!"
Just beyond the Atlantis and a big pile of gas hoses thrown down by the mechanic, huddled what looked like sheep sheds. The men then moved toward Hangar 7, toward a dim light glowing like the single eye of a Cyclops busy counting sheep in a cave.
Hit singer Rose Marie van Kloon on the radio show, Hit Parade, gave him a sour stomach with her surgary lyrics.
His most noteworthy feature, perhaps, were coal-black, inscrutable eyes with no sheen, the sort that held no secret anyone would want to know.
Pikkard, however, proudly pulled forward his assistant and companion. "I'd like you to meet my valued colleague," Dr. Pikkard began. His eyes shone in the gloom as he put his arm around Pieter's sturdy shoulder.
"Do you wonder why I call him my colleague?” said the professor. “Well, let me enlighten you a bit. We have just completed some rather risky experiments and researches out East, and he's been of great service to me as my hired assistant. I am renewing his contract with increased wages, from forty cents an hour to one dollar if he wishes to continue with me. Otherwise, I'll pay his way through college. He's expressed a desire to go to school and improve himself. I must respect that, for I believe he has the makings of a true man of science. And though I am a bachelor by temperament, he has become like a son to me--no longer a mere assistant."
The professor did not seem to notice Pieter's red face and went on. Lord willing, I will buy your plane for starting glacier research, Mr. Rabiscu. My assistant will take his first lesson in flying from me, just as he learned the bathysphere and ballooning! Since my young friend will be temporarily parting company with me after today, I am treating him to a hunt via the biplane. We've brought along rifles. We might even bag a coyote or two for the bounty money, so he can earn a little spending money!"
Rabiscu glanced uncomfortably at Pieter, whose clear, blue, "damn Dutch eyes," for some reason, seemed to be piercing him to the bone. He decided it was best to ignore it and get to the business at hand. he unusually jolly Dr. Pikkard was smiling enough to make up for his young friend, and in response Rabiscu could not help but relax, baring badly foxed eyeteeth. "You go right ahead, Meinheer. This is a free country despite goin' so Dutch, ain't it? Now don't get me wrong. I ain't got nothin' 'gainst your people. My people were somethin' else cuz'n they shipped here from some country over the water called Ally Po--would you know where that is by any chance? I looked on a map once but I couldn't 'dentify it. As it was, this country was hard enough to find, what with the pieces being scattered all over the dang world. Well, some of my best friends are Dutchies. Do as you want. Sign now or later. I'd ride along with you again today, but I'm a poor shot and couldn't hit a barn if it were aimed at me! As for the aeroplane, you'll not find one better, and I've got lots of prospective buyers anxious to take 'er up. So if you wanna sign now, that's fine with me. That's fine with me."
Rabiscu's flood of tactless remarks seemed to break the ice. Dr. Pikkard and Pieter glanced at each other and the professor shrugged and smiled. For a brief moment the murky air of the shop lightened and cleared. It was a beautiful day after all. News had yet to reach the area from New Amsterdam about fires destroying the Royal Wilhelmina and Professor Pikkard's bathysphere.
Dr. Pikkard laughed. "I'm sorry I can't offer anything bigger than a barn for you to shoot, unless you want to take on a grain elevator or one of those antediluvian hangars over there!" He added with a wink, "Are you sure you won't reconsider and go along? I had told Pieter you and I would go up first, then sign if everything went all right, then go hunting. Afterwards, I'll be dropping him off at the college and tendering my fond farewell to him and, hopefully, my niece, who is staying with friends in town. She'd be here today with us, in fact, if she hadn't caught a nasty cold."
Wrinkling bushy salt-and-pepper brows, Rabiscu and his leaden eyes seemed to take on expression for the first time, though it would be hard to say what it was in human terms. He reached up under his hat and scratched his red-splotched bald spot. "But this here weather won't last much longer. You might as well sign for her now, Meinheer, and you have a couple hours in the contract to change your mind. Sure, it was taking too much oil yesterday when you took her up, but I've had that little matter taken care of. I put my best mechanic on it. Look at her, she's immaculate! Well, how about it, Meinheer?"
Just then the three-prop Kosmocraft, a New Antwerp flight museum product, appeared. Her dust cover removed, resplendent in a new paint job of shining colors, she rolled out into the hangar's entrance. The gold on its boots and the blue on its wings, body, cab and tail would have been too gaudy and improper, too much like a butterfly's for any scientist except the daring Dr. Pikkard.
Surprisingly, he seemed a bit shocked by the sight of the plane. It was as if he had seen a ghost, and Rabiscu caught the professor’s expression. Hurriedly, Rabiscu gestured toward the shop manager's desk, indicating papers dated Wednesday II, January 8, 2393--the "8" smudged a bit as if it had been changed from a "6" or even "7".
Dr. Pikkard, however, had turned from looking at the plane to looking at Rabiscu's face, not the rather dirty hand of the seller.
For Rabiscu, Dr. Pikkard's expression was one this experienced but not so successful salesmen most dreaded. Evidently, the Dutch sucker had something on his mind. A sinking feeling in his belly, Rabiscu fully expected his plane to be turned down, or for Dr. Pikkard to do something to complicate things. He also feared his young assistant, who, by the straight Dutch looks of him, seemed to have smelled something fishy.
Instead, Dr. Pikkard asked if Rabiscu would mind if they prayed about the deal.
"Oh, sure, Meinheer, be my guest," Rabiscu blurted out in a higher pitch than usual. His eyes, characteristically, showed not a trace of astonishment though Pieter was surprised, this being the professor's first public prayer before a journey. Breathing easier though praying was the last thing he could have predicted, Rabiscu inclined his head a little and looked floorward. He did his best to look respectful, he thought, while the praying was done. It was then he first noticed the Lloyds of London-insured legs of Betti Bangles sticking out from under the desk. Wincing, Rabiscu glanced instantly at Dr. Pikkard and his helper, but they were standing eyes closed, with bent heads. "Fool Dutchies, and both cripples at that!" the salesman thought, as he took his foot and scooted the Hollywood queen further under the desk.
"Lord God, our lives are in your hands. I feel buying this plane now as Mr. Rabiscu offered is your will. May all we do be to your glory. Amen."
Much relieved the prayer was so short, Rabiscu took the liberty of patting the scientist's shoulder as soon as the uncomfortable praying rigmarole was over. "There's the nice little papers all done up ready for you, my friend. I'm sure you'll find everything clean as a whistle!" He handed the professor a fountain pen with his name and business on it and said to keep it. He also took extra pains in handing not another pen but a business card to Pieter his fingers had smudged.
Dr. Pikkard gave a hike to his groin and sat down at the desk, pen in hand. "Are you sure you're doing right by yourself, Mr. Rabiscu?" the professor asked after a glance at the written figure. "You're maybe shorting yourself, I think, but I appreciate a man of business who isn’t after every schuyler, and, when he sails, goes straight through the sea."
Swert the shop manager chose that moment to ram open the sliding glass window. The shack filled with the reek and tang of high octane. "My boy's over in Number 4 at the moment scrapping the Clipper for parts, but I'll crank Old Gertie up for you, Vince babe. I just hope she'll not disappoint these fine gents you got here today! That piston--you checked it lately? And I think someone at the museum was dinking around with the instrument panel too. Musta taken it apart and didn't get all the screws back in jist so."
Rabiscu face flushed beet-red. Swert the Swede was always pulling things like that on poor Rabiscu, just when he had a super deal clinched. The plane dealer nodded with a grimace, as if a slab of concrete had hit square on his corns, and slammed the window.
"Meinheer Professor, I just want to treat you Dutchies fair and square, that's all," Rabiscu said quickly to dispel the construction Joe had cast on things. “Far as that plane goes, it’s grist for your windmill, as you people say. You can’t lose on her!”
The signing was done. Dr. Pikkard and Rabiscu shook hands on the deal and then parted. There followed an awkward moment for Rabiscu only. He felt most uncomfortable under Pieter's scrutinizing gaze until the moment the youth, still looking him square in the eye, handed over a cheque drawn on the Royal Bank of New Amsterdam. Soon Rabiscu was alone with the professor's fancy, gilt-engraved cheque. He finally tore his eyes off it and began watching Dr. Pikkard. He also saw the professor's sidekick scuttle up a ladder and into the plane with amazing speed for someone with wooden legs and braces.
Still on the ground, the professor was looking the plane over as he carefully inspected wings, struts, and flaps. Rabiscu could have left with the check right then, but he didn't want to make a wrong impression. The Dutch boy's look had so spooked him, he decided he had better stick around a bit more until the fliers were in the air. So he forced himself to settle down and watched the proceedings, relieved more than words could say that it was all over. After all, he had owned it too long, and it was understandable a man like this had grown impatient to get rid of it.
But he had gotten rid of it, he crowed to himself. Thanks to the university professor and museum curator, a most gentlemanly, distinguished Dr. Hugh van de Goatt, he had been alerted to Dr. Pikkard and his need for an aircraft to conduct research on glaciers. Goatt had even shipped the plane out to him at no expense to Rabiscu.
Now his bank account was that much richer, and he hadn't had to overhaul the old junker for sale. He had made substantial profit too. Dr. Goatt's museum had let him have it for $75, since so many airports were on the list for closure or had already closed down.
He had had Swert slap on some paint, adding any special touches he could think of, and it had sold for one cool grand! "Not bad!" he thought. "A couple more sales like this, and I can make a few wise investments in the new line of steam cars and maybe retire down south a rich man, maybe even buy into some West Indies banana plantation with plenty of servants to cool his drinks, draw his bath, and haul bananas to the boats."
Swert started the three engines while Rabiscu dreamed of the West Indies, Rabiscu-style. Just then smoke poured out of the exhaust of Engine #3 on the left wing and the prop even faltered.
With scowl screwing up both face and forehead, the salesman cursed his luck. To calm himself, he grabbed a fat, black, five-center from a tin of Red Indians and began chewing it unlighted. But then, with more running of Engine #3, the smoke disappeared. Dr. Pikkard made a sign to Joe and climbed up into the cabin with his assistant. He then saluted the beaming Rabiscu.
Rabiscu nearly hooted aloud for joy at this reversal of a lifetime of deals that turned sour on him time after time. The plane began to move swiftly off, a butterfly of blue and gold trim racing against the backdrop of ice and snow. To Rabiscu's eyes it seemed to smoke less the more it got into the open air. Only then did he draw a breath--one thousand smackers worth. It really looked like he had pulled it off this time! The moment the plane was off he darted out of the shack, his shapeless bag of a body, normally sluggish, extremely quick and light on small feet. Already he could feel the warm, soft sands of the West Indies squeezing between his wriggling toes.
"Oooooeeeee! Doo wop, doo wop a doo!"
Rabiscu was clutching a paper bag when he burst out of the shack. Due to strong temperance societies and Dutch laws, New Zeeland and the neighboring provinces had been forcibly rendered dry for years. But Rabiscu was one native who had found ways around that. He always said the Dutch were too straight-laced for their own good. They'd never catch HIM!
Rabiscu made for the structure known locally as the terminal. He could have turned and escaped to the parking lot, but something made him want to see the thing to the end, bottle in hand. Since Dr. Pikkard had a considerable way to go to turn around for take-off, Rabiscu took his time climbing the tower, pausing a couple times to take a fortifying sip.
Old Lady Fortune was at last smiling on him! And it was high time! He wasn't getting any younger. And old proverb from somewhere came to mind: “Who comes first, mills first!”
Leaving a cup of coffee with cigarette butts soaking in it, the air controller had gone home for the day, so that meant no official spectators just in case something went wrong. There was less and less business these days, especially since most continental flights had been run out of business by the remaining airline, Clarke-Handley Imperial Airways of London, that flew in and out of New Zeeland. Rabiscu was very pleased to find he had the lookout to himself, since this particular sale was, in some respects, special. More sips, even more special. Like a burgermeister with a plumed hat, he took his hat and waved with broad, sweeping motions as the Kosmocraft finally came bouncing down the snow-plowed, dirt runway and rose into the bright air with spread wings. As soon as it could, it dipped its wings once, then twice, in returning his salute.
Gaining some altitude, the plane swung first toward the towers and domes of the ruined spaceport. Just barely clearing the terminal's concourses and walls of tinted, reflective glass, much of it broken out, the plane veered off into open country.
Sticking his fingers in his belt beneath his paunch, a cigar in his mouth, Rabiscu could see for miles from his vantage. At that moment, a grin breaking on his face, he could have passed for a happy man with a one-way ticket to Kingston, Jamaica, in his pocket. The distant, blue wings of the receding plane glinted and flashed in flight as Rabiscu thought of leaving for a quick run to the bank. He took out his timepiece from his vest pocket. It was exactly eleven minutes after takeoff. He could no longer see the plane. Just about to turn to the door, he was still congratulating himself on winning against all the odds when he saw the Kosmocraft, which had flown out of sight for a time, reappear in a steep climb, then drop like a stone.
He screwed up his eyes and looked again, but the plane had disappeared. In case he was mistaken, he stayed on, waiting some minutes more to make sure. After what seemed an eternity of waiting, he saw flames, then a plume of dark smoke puff up into the pale, lemony sky. Rabiscu's Red Indian dropped from his mouth. He watched the climbing cloud, which could have been some crazy, old farmer out gunning down his livestock and burning his silo and corn crop after the latest downturn in prices.
But the cloud was black and oily, smearing the sky. That meant a lot of gas and oil going up, not dirt -cheap corn or hay. There was no mistake, the plane had gone down and probably crashed--a total loss for the new owner. Rabiscu knew for a fact no one could have survived such an ugly dive into the corn rows. He anxiously panned the aerodrome grounds and runway. There was not a soul about at that moment, fortunately. Then he collapsed in a chair to gather his racing thoughts.
The professor, he considered, was no ordinary man. He might even be known to the whole country, by the look and manner of him. That meant big trouble. A lot of eyes would be turned on the incident. A lot of explaining would have to be done. But what would he say?
Klooft, next to Swert the biggest mouth in New Zeeland. What about him? But Rabiscu had seen the junkman leave for town, too soon to see anything he shouldn't see. So he was perfectly safe, in the clear, wasn't he? Or was he? Taking a wadded, yellowish handkerchief he had carried around for over a year, Rabiscu dabbed at his streaming forehead and wiped his slack mouth. He looked around some more, then decided the best course of action was to act as if nothing had happened. It was all how you looked at it, he assured himself. He glanced toward the crash. The smoke cloud had broken up and there was only a little haze, like leaves burning in someone's backyard. It could still turn out a beautiful, once the smoke cleared off.
He had sold a plane, hadn't he? It had been bought by someone else and acquired, all legalwise, so what had happened wasn't his responsibility. Who would argue with that? After taking this tack, he soon felt a little better. Truth of the matter was--but what was truth anyhow? he laughed somewhat mechanically. Truth didn't pay the bills and keep the bank from foreclosing on your grandmother's rocking chair!
“Truth was some Dutch sucker bought a plane and trashed it.” he thought. That was the professor's little problem, not his. “What was that thing runny-nosed little guttersnipes in town screamed at play? It was something about finders being keepers and losers weepers? So let the losers do the weeping!” Despite his continuing, remarkable recovery of confidence, Rabiscu nearly fell down the icy stairs that wound down in a circular fashion from the tower. Retrieving his hat and cigar on the ground, he made as fast as he could for the parking lot. But he failed to make a clean getaway. He saw he was being intercepted by Swert's apprentice. It was the worst that could happen. For a second of pure terror the salesman panicked. How he hated the idea of being weighed in the balance with red hair and freckles! And the sober look that went with this particular grease monkey made him feel sick to his stomach. Then something else make him even more ill at that moment. "The crips!" he groaned, backing up.
Two shadowy forms, looking as if risen freshly from the grave, drifted over the crusted ground toward him. Rabiscu shook all the way to his shoes. He tried to tell himself he had one too many nips on the old bottle. But there was no mistaking them. Even the boy's flight cap was plain as day. Feeling a fluttering deep down into his gut, ready to clap a hand over his mouth if he upchucked, he waited. He fully expected the mechanic to say he had seen everything and was calling the cops. Never had Rabiscu been caught in such a tight spot in his whole, mean life. It was for him a total crisis. And the first time his eyes showed real expression.
"You need to do something about the Kosmo, Mr. Rabiscu. Heard somebody's just taken it out again. Painted up like that, it looks immaculate, but you know and I know it's a piece of rotten museum junk. I tell ya, the piston in Number 3's gonna blow sky-high any day now! You gotta give it a complete overhaul, Sir."
Moving his limbs about as if he were cold, Rabiscu disguised their shaking. He also saw with the greatest relief that the two dead men had suddenly disappeared in thin air, leaving only the mechanic. Normal choleric color flooded back into his face and his eyes regained their normal mud-slide hue. Rabiscu could tell he was not going to have any big problem. As for the big-nosed kid, he was totally ignorant--he had obviously seen nothing. It was a no-count grease monkey's opinion against his.
As casually as he could, he pulled open the big, heavy door of his Packard, which had been sprung for years and gave a sharp, ear-splitting creak and bang that spoiled the impression a bit. He turned on the mechanic with snapping eyelids after the considerable fright he had just sustained. "That's what you say. I ain't gonna sink five grand into a brand-new motor and prop which can't be had anyway for the queen's crown jewels." He paused for effect and spit at a broken computer console tumbled off Klooft's truck.
"Furthermore, Swert and I both watched old Gerty take off just fine. We wouldn't have let her go today if she hadn't. So don't bother me, buster. I've got real important business in town." Rabiscu climbed in the torn upholstery and drove off full speed.
Shaking his carrot top, the mechanic stood watching him go, balled tires spinning and broken tailpipe backfiring and dragging a black, greasy plume across the dirty snow.
Rabiscu had a blowout crossing the new, already crumbling railroad tracks in the gate to the old Geo-Dome. In a hurry to make his deposit of a good deal, he left the car off to one side and scurried on foot to the Royal Dutch Agrarian Bank, feet scarcely touching the ground. Yet he might have saved himself the effort.
Unfortunately, he could not enjoy the flight. Too many things bothered him--the greasy fingered, slick-dealing plane salesman, the junk dealer who looked too much like Old Goatley and yet claimed his name was "Dink," or was it “Klink"? If he had not been so bothered, he might have looked out at shining country of snow and corn stubble and thought how he had so far escaped the unemployment lines to a glorious new life with Dr. Pikkard. He might even have seen the "break" Anne had told him was coming.
So far he may not have enjoyed every minute of his job, but yet he had experienced close contact with a great scientist, and he had some unusual training experiences already to his credit. And now he had college to attend, with a chance to put the mill forever behind him. Those weren't "breaks,' they were his own accomplishments.
And Anne--the biggest trouble spot on the horizon of his life? How did she fit in to his plans? After all, she was probably at that moment looking for a place for them to stay in Minneapolis, determined as she was to share his life. He considered it for a long, hard moment. His heart turned over in the ordeal, but he knew the answer--no, never! she didn’t fit.
That had to be it, even though he had a ring for her ready made. He hadn’t thought to buy her a ring. He was dusting his ceramic GMC tire on the bureau one day when he knocked it over. He tried to catch it, but it crashed on the tile floor and shattered. Gathering the pieces, he was startled by a sudden, sharp gleam that hurt his eyes. A stone had fallen out of the tire, evidently. It was this same red stone he brought to the jeweler and had set in a gold ring.
He had been so fortunate as to unearth the perfect setting, for the red stone he had been carrying around so long in his pocket that it had nearly burnt a hole. He found it going to an antique shop to pick up an old hygrometer the professor fancied for upcoming glacier research. It was a prefect fit when they tried the stone and setting. How the stone glowed at that moment--blazing like a miniature fire in the gloom of the shop.
Hastily checking the pocket of his jacket inside his flight uniform, he felt the small case containing the ring which he now intended to sell to the jeweler who set the stone. His movement must have disturbed the sleeping Icarus, for he began madly chirping and struggling in his pocket. He reached again in his pocket with some special seedcake he always carried and the bird, surprising him, attacked him with his beak. What was wrong? Pieter wondered. Every time he reached in with some seed, the bird went wild attacking him. Deciding to ignore the mad bird, Pieter looked out again. For a moment thoughts of Anne and any disappointment she might have when he told her cleared away and he could see the countryside.
Suddenly, he had an irresistible urge to take the ring out and stroke it. The moment he had it out of the box and looked into it a picture formed in his mind that repeated what he had dreamed a number of times already. He saw himself standing on the breath-taking heights of a gigantic pillar around which a jeweled, winged serpent, also gold, was coiled.
He reflected how just a few moments before, while still thinking of Anne, he had been of a mind to chuck it out of his life forever, then suddenly he couldn't part with it. Pieter shook his head, wondering about his sanity as the golden vision faded to a snowy landscape bristling with broken corn stubble. To the north glowed something other than a golden column. More blue-gray than white, glaciers, like long, out-stretched claws of mist and ice, again were on the move southward--engulfing forest and farmland alike and whatever towns and villages were in their path. As for the other, stranger line of research Dr. Pikkard had become obsessed with, would the question be settled once and for all even if they searched in every crack and cranny of the globe? Pieter wondered.
The plain Dutch youth wished with all his heart he could stop his employer from pursuing the other, more strange line of research. The “computer” thing was bad enough. “Visitors from space,” now that was worse.
"Besides," the all-knowing professor added, as if he had been thinking along the same mental track as Pieter, "in that note I gave you to deliver yesterday, I told my favorite about the prospective sale and that Mr. Rabiscu is an honest and an upright man, not many come that way in these parts. By the way, I can't tell you how disappointed I am she had to catch a cold. It is most inconvenient, just when we might have spent these days, the three of us together like one little... family."
The reluctant lover sat bolt up and stared at the professor for a moment. How much did the professor know, or think he knew? It wasn't that he had delivered the note himself that struck him, nor the fact Anne seemed to be perfectly well when he last saw her. It was the very idea of the three of them “together like one little family”. Had the professor reversed his policy about assistants courting his niece and heir? If so, what if Pieter now revealed to the doting uncle that he was no longer interested. But maybe his attitude hadn’t changed and he would be enraged to find out there had been a relationship--though now it was broken. What then? What exactly does he suspect is going on? Pieter wondered, his heart sinking and the old mill rising...rising...
A few awkward moments passed, and, gratefully, Pieter saw the professor was probably not going to elaborate on the subject of any intimacy possibly binding them together. But when should he inform his employer where things really stood with him and his niece? He thought about it, then decided. He really didn’t think that now was the time--the matter was too fresh. Relieved of that worry, another took its place. He still could not believe Dr. Pikkard, normally an expert judge of machinery, did not feel as he did--that something wasn't quite right about the plane. He had seen the smoke from Engine #3 and heard the sputter. He had seen enough machinery in the Ways of Alkmaar to know a thing or two.
"You really don't think he'd send us out if anything was really wrong?" Dr. Pikkard looked back at Pieter strangely. "You need not trouble yourself any further. I discerned his true character right off, and, despite his unappealing exterior, it is as good as you would want it to be--as good as you, as a matter of fact. If I had had a different impression, I would not have bought the plane. And if I went around suspecting everybody was trying to swindle me, I'd be nothing but a worry for my niece. I've learned not to worry. You might as well try, like Atlas the Titan who was, some say, tricked into it, to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. But now is your last chance to say whether you wish us to turn back to the pursuits of more conventional science. Your contract expires at midnight. I cannot, with conscience, hold you to such precarious work to the very last minute. Just say so and I'll set this thing down immediately and drop you off. I owe it to both you and my niece and little Icarus, my three dearest companions in life."
Pieter glanced with relief at a man who had become fatherly to him in the last few weeks. His earlier doubts and questionings had been laid aside for the moment, and Dr. Pikkard seemed the professional. No longer did Pieter feel forced to admire the professor for his obviously great intellectual gifts, while observing his looseness with money and his acting a bit too emotional at times for a Dutchman. Except for that, he'd make a great ship captain or the leader of some expedition, he thought. Despite his decision not to pursue a relationship with Anne, it wasn’t Dr. Pikkard’s fault. In fact, despite the initial warning about assistants taking advantage of his niece, his employer had kept out of the whole thing from start to finish. For that Pieter was grateful. He smiled and turned Dutch thumbs up.
Dr. Pikkard nodded, but his expression turned very sober, as if was thinking about something else.“You know there is another life beyond this one, don't you?”
Pieter was surprised and showed it. It seemed a strange question at that moment for a scientist to ask, but he nodded solemnly. "Yes, Meinheer, a long time ago I went to church summer school and they showed us pictures of heaven with colored pieces of cloth on a big board. I got to help make them first. They let me measure the pieces for cutting, since I was good at that. If there is such a place, I'll handle it when it comes. I at least know the measuring for the harps and the pearly gates and--"
Rolling his eyes heavenward, Dr. Pikkard shook his head. “A whole year with me and you haven’t changed, Pieter! Not one whit, bless you!”
He then turned back to the business at hand. "Get set. Act as if you are going to do some hunting while you try to spot anything that looks the least bit out of the ordinary. I'm going to make a low pass at a big culvert down there. Don't shoot, however. I don't want you to hit anything ."
Mystified by the instructions but obedient, Pieter raised the stock of his rifle. Here and there were little clumps of trees and farm buildings huddling like sheep in folds. Everywhere else stretched fields of snow and stubble. They descended and came to an unpainted house and barn and some swampy ground--the tail end of the big, county-wide Rings Slough.
There they passed an enormous rusting ruin, a 20th Century rocket fuel stage. A local brigade of the revived Civilian Conservation Corps had once planned to cut up its huge plumbing system for use in draining the slough into nearby Happy Skunk Creek. But they gave up when they found the metal was not only rusted but turned to an absolutely worthless cheeselike substance. It was a perfect landmark, visible from very far away.
The plane swooped down just above the leafless box elders of the creek and turned. Beyond lay the derelict stage, with two adult coyotes out sunning themselves by the stage's main thrusters. Evidently, they had surprised them. Pieter put his rifle out the window and waited to do as he was told.
"That's enough shooting for today," said the professor, giving Pieter a wink. "This is the place, where we should find precisely what we are looking for. A plane was needed so I would have an excuse and the means to view this area from off the ground. Prepare to land! That field beyond the culvert is exactly where I think we will find our visitors from space if we do a little digging instead of shooting."
The landing was without incident. The engines fell silent as Pikkard turned off the ignition, with only Engine #3 giving an odd banging sound as it died. There was suddenly only wind whistling through the open window to Pieter's right. The two men started to relax. At that instant the first dark blue shadow of the uncomfortably close northern icecap fell over that portion of the Plains.
"How did you find the place you were looking for, Meinheer?"
"It's on the map I made up in the balloon, remember? There was no need to take it along when I have every detail unforgettably memorized." Pikkard then scanned a certain spot with Kilpaison mother of pearl opera glasses.
"They've not had time to move. I'll explain everything once we--" He never had time to unbuckle his seatbelt and get the small shovel. Inside the cab, something hissed and a cloud filled the air. Seated nearest the eruption, the professor was overcome first. He stiffened up, struggled a bit, then slumped in his seat, blocking the only door out.
Pieter unlocked his seatbelt as he fought to escape the cloud, but that was as far as he got. Forgotten Icarus, a trusty bellwether when things went wrong, began to chirp belatedly in Pieter's pocket, protected from the fumes which soon began to dissipate through the open window.
Then the plane's Engine #3 began to smoke and spit. Fuel and oil leaked out on the ground.
Understandably, the farmer could do nothing but stand stock still, his mental gears jammed. When the little wheels and cogs of his thought processes were turn turning once again, he remembered he had just heard an aeroplane land back of his barn. So he craned his neck to see what he could see across the rapidly dimming landscape. By this time, his thoughts were turning so fast they were racing, faster and faster, stirring him at last to sputtering, rapid-fire action. There was no stopping the farmer now. He dashed toward an International pickup with a missing bumper and cracked windshield. He hollered to his wife in the house.
After a lot of hollers, she dragged herself out at last, a movie star magazine in her hand, a frown on her puffy, sullen face because her best hose had developed a run and her world was ruined.
They sped off in the direction the plane had disappeared. Reaching the site, the frantic farmer skidded to a stop. Too short to step over the barbed-wire, climbing through, he ripped his patched britches, then galloped across the field. He skidded to a stop on the ground, slick and mushy where it had ground water from the slough seeping to the surface. The plane was standing still in the field, but it was starting to burn and he knew enough machinery and was no fool about fires in fuel lines.
Very respectful, poised to run the moment the fire took hold for the worse, he went in for a quick look. The cab was rather high up, but he could see a man's face clear enough at the side window. The pilot's eyes were open and staring through his teardrop spectacles, but frozen in position like a death-stare, but also indicating absolute surprise that mirrored the farmer's own.
The farmer gaped and stared back at the uninvited visitor to his world and finally concluded the aviator would burn to death if he didn't get out immediately. "Oh, gee," he moaned. "Now what in tarnation? Hey, bub, what's wrong with you ? Wake up!" Except for the crackling of the flames, it was so quiet the farmer could hear a bird chirping. Then the sharp, piercing chirps ceased abruptly.
Overcome by the drama, the farmer had forgotten he was too close to a burning plane that could explode any minute. He could smell both smoke and fuel--and the smell reminded him. Something--perhaps instinct--told him to let others deal with it and run back to the truck as fast as he could.
Suddenly, smelling something that might be burning flesh, he clapped a hand over his mouth, backing off. He reeled away to the truck. When he got to his vehicle, he seemed a different man. He got in and as if the bank and all his creditors were pursuing him raced back to his house with his terrified wife.
The moment the truck lunged to a stop at the house, the farmer's over-extended brain stalled once again. What was he to do now?
"Maybe you should call the fire department?" his wife nudged him. This was after he got out of the truck like he was walking in his sleep and just stood in the door of the kitchen, doing nothing.
"Sure, I'll call them" responded the farmer with clear purpose, coming with a tremendous jolt out of his fog. He started cranking the telephone. What followed had nothing to do with the plane. A long altercation took place with the operator, Miss Lila Belle Sneed, who had been at that job too long to let a non-paying, call-caging Dutchman like Fritz Enthoven made one more call for nothing.
Now Dutchman, for all their running of the country, were not highly thought of in this area, and Fritz had made sure he was no exception with the telephone operator. For every call she let go free, the company docked her wages for twice the customer's charge. Out of the goodness of her heart she had let him go a full year, but the company was beginning to dun her bad. And with her 50 cents an hr. wages, which practically made her a volunteer anyway, how on earth could she pay his bill?
"Okay, that does it!!" she shouted back at him when he began getting rude about her delicate weight problem. "I don't care if the whole country is burning up in your barnyard! You can just lump it!"
Though for reasons of insufficient funds and a peace treaty with Britain there was no longer any Dutch air force, the indignant Miss Sneed won, receivers down. Fritz, his lexicon of swear words depleted, let his hang while the operator made a few parting shots about certain no-good people who weren't responsible enough to pay their bills on time. Fritz decided to return to the plane and see if he could do anything, anything at all he might be able to think of on the spot. When he saw an intruder had broken through his fence and left tire marks in the field, the farmer was enraged. But he had no time to huff and puff about a trespasser that was nowhere in sight.
Taking all his attention, a fireball engulfed the plane, as the farmer and his wife looked on witlessly from the safety of the road. It was then the farmer began to realize how bad the situation was. "Lotti, what'll we do now? What'll we do, Baby Doll, there's somebody caught in there?"
He shouted and moaned in his wife's face as she threw up her magazine and started screaming at the sigh, just as overcome as he was. It was so near the fire lit the truck and the landscape like daylight so her screams were real. When the farmer his voice again, he was still shouting.
"No use getting Ned Bulstrode and the fire wagon He's nothin' now but burnt bacon."
Now Fritz Enthoven was one Zeeland farmer who could not afford to burn bacon. He had complained often enough about it at the Happy Skunk saloon in town, to George, Henry, Elmer, Silas, and others, that it was all the fault of the New Antwerp grain buyers. But what could a small farmer do against such a powerful octopus of a syndicate? Even if he were a Dutchman, he was treated just the same as everybody else!
Of course, not being Dutch, his drinking buddies couldn't seem to get his point and sympathize with him. Their farms all happened to be bigger than his, and they had a habit of sharing equipment and even marketed their crops together--something none of them offered to do with the lone Dutchman in their midst.
Fritz and Karlotta wasted not another moment at the scene. It was quiet in the field after the thoroughly rattled farmer and his wife rushed off to town. They nearly threw the rods out of the pickup getting to Shinar to make a call at Kruger's Tru-Bargain General Store to the authorities in Minneapolis.
Overriding Miss Sneed's strenuous objections because it was a company store telephone and "none of her business" anyway, the farmer made calls to every department of city government he could think of. The story missed nothing in the re-tellings, for naturally it grew until the farmer was playing the central role.
"Hop," as everyone called him, was always right about such things. For a fact, Fritz was feeling a terrible pain in his head from all the excitement. "Why, Fritzie boy, you've been though a powerful lot today and are lookin' none too perky. Do yourself and our poor ears a favor and rest a spell."
Fritz rubbed his sore head. He sank down on Hop's offered barrel, forgetting he had left his wife in the truck all this time. He had to listen to the same old stories of old geezers about falling corn prices, repossessed tractors, bank foreclosures, and disastrous almanac forecasts until officials arrived.
Meanwhile, back at the scene of the fire, cinders dropped from the plane and hissed on the ground. The sound was not enough to frighten off a three-legged coyote that crept out from brush and trees. Having taken the last catfish from the creek, he and his mate were famished. He approached the plane a few steps. An oily, rubbery smell worse than a polecat's, insulting his good taste, dried up his saliva. His tail shot in the air as he turned, trotting away as he headed toward some rabbit holes under a log by the creek.
The plane with Pikkard simmered in the field. Vehicles pulled up on the road. It was dark and somber in the sky. In fading light men hurried from the cars and trucks. A shadow like the long barrel of a shotgun ran from an abandoned, fire-blackened silo on an adjoining acreage. Darker than the earth around, it pooled the aircraft in chilly gloom, and the men were hesitant at first even to approach the plane.Standing as it was in the field, the plane was a specter of unexplained tragedy no one really wanted to be the first to touch.
“What’s those odd little mounds over there?” said one, pointing to one of Fritz Enthoven’s desperate gambles to raise a little income.
The man next to him guffawed. “Oh, I think that’s just another one of those ‘Whoopee Rides 10 Cents” some dumb farmers tried a couple years back when the crops failed. For ten cents you got to drive your car up over ten-foot mounds, for the fun of it, you understand. I didn’t think though anyone would be fool enough to try one this far out from town. What would be the fun of it?”
The fool in question now appeared. Fritz the farmer, with shouts and gestures, was back on the scene of glory and led the way. Men scrambled for footing on the ground around the plane, boots and shoes sliding in patches of slough gumbo. The men, shaking their heads, ignored the meddling ignoramus, pulled on gloves and set to work. It had already been determined that it was, or had been, Rabiscu's plane, and there had been an accident of some sort, if not a crash due to some malfunction.
"Poor old guy," a fire warden remarked. "Business couldn't be that good. His wife will hang his old tail on the nearest tree for this."
Another man laughed. "Oh, don't worry about Vince. I stopped by his office as soon as the report came in, and he was on the phone with his lawyer in New Antwerp. He'll come out of this all right. That fellow Pikkard from the big city out East who just bought, well, he signed a legal note besides paying for it, so his estate executors or widow or whatever family he has will have to settle with Vince's lawyers if they don't make good on the check."
"What awful muck!" observed a lady reporter from the city paper. “I think it’s just terrible what they put on the ground these days for ladies to step in! I should have worn old muddy boots, just like the natives!” She examined her imitation silk pumps, designed to approximate those Hollywood stars wore, and wrote them off with a sigh. After taking a few pictures from various angles, she staggered from the field. Instead of returning to her own car, she noticed the farmer's wife sitting by herself and thought a fellow woman’s company might be a nice change after the solid male company she had had to endure lately.
Booted just like the men, Karlotta in turn was eyeing the woman reporter above a dog-eared magazine and wondering how to get that kind of dress and shoes when she didn’t have any money--thanks to Fritz!
A moment later the two women sat in the farmer's pickup, glad to think about something else than the wreck. They discussed men and Betti Bangles' latest love affair, proven by her stepping out on her aging boyfriend, brewery magnate Anthony Van Planckwizc, and going to dinner with none other than her box office beau, Erroll Torentt, at the fabulously classy Coconut Grove restaurant, the place where all the stars went. Even with official notice in all the screen and theater magazines that Planckwizc would be dumped and Holland America’s two most popular filmstars would tie the knot, the women both gave the fling a couple weeks, two or three months at the most.
"My pleasure, I'm sure," Karlotta the farmer's wife faithfully quoted from some high society-romance story she had read until she had it memorized. She spoke that way too because she was accepting a smoke from the reporter's fashionable cigarette case and needed to act like she knew a thing or two, farmer's wife or not. Karlotta especially eyed the cigarette case’s rhinestone-encrusted spring lid. Except in movies featuring some big film star like Betti Bangles, when she sat in the front row to make it come more real, she had never seen anything so classy up close before. It almost brought tears to her eyes.
"Well, aren't you going to interview me?" began Karlotta when the moment seemed just right. "I seen absolutely every detail of the accident, start to finish!"
"Really, dear? I’m so sorry, but I got everything I think I need for my article already, but thanks for letting me warm up a bit in your company! My ride back is still busy at the wreck and the sucker won't give me the keys! He knows I’d leave him the first chance and high-tail it back to--"
Distracting Karlotta from her crushing disappointment, the lady reporter blew smoke rings against the cracked windshield. Not to be outshone, Karlotta held her cigarette in the fashionable, big city way and tried to blow as neat a ring as Betti's in her latest film. It made her start coughing furiously, so she soon stopped trying.
Night, with rising mists, had taken charge of the scene by this time. The men struggled to finish their business in the freezing dark. After huddling together, in consideration of Rabiscu's business and penchant for "scratching backs," they compared reports and decided to go with "pilot error" as the single official cause of the accident. Being Pikkard was a stranger, an East Dutchie from way out of town and all, they knew it would pass muster. Then too they also all figured Vince Rabiscu, well-known for coming home to the little lady with wet sails, would be grateful and would come through with a bottle or two of bootleg whiskey for each of them. He always seemed to have one on hand somewhere, at the office, in his car, at the aerodrome, up his sleeve.
The two ladies in the truck, meanwhile, ran out of conversation, but the cigarettes sufficed to cover the tremendous social gap--the kind that normally would separate two species. Thoroughly enjoying her smoke, Karlotta suddenly realized how miserable she had been since she had married beneath her. How could she not, seeing she had this contrast with her misery sitting right next to her?
Was she unhappy! How sick she was of uncouth and smelly country life! Every breeze brought her a whiff, not of lilacs and roses gardens, but the barnyard. Nothing but cows, sheep, goats, pigs and the putrid stuff they put out everywhere on the ground to make things grow! As if they didn't grow enough without it! No matter how much or how little, they didn't get paid anything worth the trouble--so why go to so much work? She had tried to pound this in to Fritz, but he just couldn't be made to see any sense at all.
Her desperation to escape the cage that was ruining her once shining prospects in life finally made her break the silence and try again. "Even if you don't wanna interview me, they call me Lotti. My maiden name was Quackenbush," she said to her new friend between long, carefully casual puffs. "You know, I was Shinar County Corn Princess. Now do you wanna put me in your article? My bet is you do!"
Though a little surprised at the news, the lady reporter still failed to see anything newsworthy in a corn princess gone to seed and was hard put not to giggle. Making it even more funny for the other woman, Karlotta, in hushed, reverent tones, started describing her crown made of silvered sheaves of wheat and cobs of blue corn.
"Golly, that crown was a sight for sore eyes! You should've seen me. I think I still got a dang good shot of me in it, though the crown is no good anymore as the mice got into it. Now where is that photo? It’d be just my luck to go and lose it when--" She began rummaging in her purse. Unfortunately, she couldn't turn it up. All she could find was a high school prom photo, and so she couldn't show her princess's crown and the wonderful gown she wore in the town parade.
She handed the photo back.
"Thanks, I'd not have recognized you, if you hadn't told me it was you," the reporter commented, hoping her brutal comment would end the whole thing of her doing an article right then and there. "It's just is too bad you didn't go to a good dentist back then, dearie--he could have fixed your teeth and given you a decent smile, and you might have landed a job as a New Antwerp hoofer--for I take it you used to want better things for yourself than--than this country life!"
Karlotta was mortified. But while her skin turned scarlet and threatened to turn inside out she realized that the years since high school had taken a dreadful toll for someone to tell her something like that to her very face. She really didn't look like the photo anymore. Yet it was unspeakably cruel to her ears to hear the fact, just the same, from an absolute stranger. She would have burst into tears on the spot, but she had her pride, and saved her tears for use on Fritz.
Yet the city reporter's lapse into rudeness won Karlotta a woman’s sympathies. Seeking to make amends, she had a flash of inspiration. She knew then just the angle she was going to take to interest her rather countrified and, therefore, impossibly dumb and naive readership.
Deciding to recruit the brainless Karlotta for personal interest, she would portray them--mother and babe in arms--struggling through deep snow to get to the burning aeronaut in the plane.
“Sorry, I didn't appreciate your picture, sweetheart,” she explained to Karlotta, who was now staring sulkily away into the field where the men labored. “I really can use your story after all.”
Karlotta forgot the snubs immediately. Her face beamed like a full harvest moon, as if she had just been handed a big movie contract.
Trying not to burst into laughter, the lady reporter then set to work with her pencil and pad as Karlotta regaled her with all the details of her reign as Corn Princess.
"Perfecto!" thought the lady reporter, pleased with her bit of brilliant reportage after Karlotta had finally run out of steam. She took deep drags and blew more Betti Bangles smoke rings, as Karlotta looked on, scorched with envy.
The article finished as far as she was concerned, she turned to more pressing matters--her pumps.
"Mercy, I gotta get out of this racket real soon," she muttered under her breath. "I had to let my car go--too expensive to keep up on the repairs and orders for parts that can't be had for any price! It’s hard to have to depend on men to get around, if you know what I mean. They always want favors if they do you any themselves."
On her pay, and especially since the last cut, she could not even afford new shoewear--much less a car payment. And if she wanted decent shoes with a little style, she had to get some man willing to give them! What a world! It was enough to make a woman cry!
Meanwhile, the men worked, grunting like feedlot hogs as they did their unpleasant job of covering for Vincente Rabiscu. Some filled out official reports in triplicate by flashlight and gas lantern. "Ignition of aeroplane improperly left on" was inspector Buchanan Evertson's entry. Filling in for the coroner, who was his uncle and was hardly ever at the office, Evertson had first written "aircraft," but he took a fresh form and used the more modern term, "aeroplane." "Cause of accident: pilot operating error." And so it went. As for the aeronaut, after identification was made, he was bagged in a canvas sack normally filled with road killed deer or cows with slit throats protesting dairy farmers were always throwing out to block roads against the tax assessors and bank foreclosers. Tagged, it was transported to the mortuary in the county gamewarden's van. Hank Snoozy the coroner would have to made his report later, based on his nephew's. Hank was off visiting a part interest in a new horse-drawn undertaking business that showed unusual promise. It could double as a taxi service when not hauling stiffs to the mortuary.
Personal effects had turned to fragments. Remnants of a wallet, watch, paper money, even blackened shreds of a straw boater went into a cigar box for any surviving family. A spanking new rifle had survived the fire by being thrown away from the plane by the explosion. It was the first item to disappear. Next, the remains of a flight jacket, also blown clear, held something valuable. Though the box containing it had melted to the pocket, a ring inside with a red stone was found. Icarus, who had survived many an expedition to extreme heights and depths of the planet, was tossed, of course. The ring went the way of anything valuable, slipped quickly out of sight in the pocket of the coroner's up-and-coming nephew. A bankbook went into the cigar box.
After the accident, Shinar, gathered round the cracker barrels at the general store, talked of nothing else. Appearing in Thursday's paper, the lady reporter's colorful story was taken by a grateful public as literal fact, with everyone giving due allowance to the reporter's amount of snowfall and the infant a platinum blonde Karlotta was supposed to have dragged from the house.
Everyone was getting a little tired of Fritz anyway by this time and began questioning his account, point by point, which had the effect of jamming his brainwaves time after time. Red-faced and flustered, he claimed he should have been written up for all the public assistance he gave, not to mention his heroic attempt to save the aeronaut. He said he would never forget Dr. Pikkard staring out at him yelling for help. "I'm confined in the cab of the aircraft, young man. Would you be so kind to help me out? I am badly injoured and cannot extirpate myself!" Fritz quoted the gentleman-flyer as saying.
"Aw, shure, he musta said something like that!" some wag sneered. "An' you were always good at 'extirpating' people, I suppose, from plane wrecks, as if he didn't burn up in his for all your help!"
At that point everyone had a good laugh since poor Fritz had forgotten he had already told how he found the professor out cold in the cab, unconscious or dead.
"You're all wrong about me! I swear!" he shouted in their laughing faces. "Sure as more rain falls on the south side of the barn, he did say it, just as I said! And just because there wasn't any time to get him out, doesn't mean I couldn't have helped the gent." He said a lot more things as well, but no one seemed to be listening.
An ordinary coyote was maybe more of a hero than Fritz. He proved he still knew how to seize the day even if no man alive could do it. He leaped just right and bagged a rabbit--a tough, old buck, to be sure, but still edible. It happened not long after the accident, while the field was still filled with noise. Perhaps the rabbit had been diverted by the noise and was not expecting its old enemy. Whatever the reason, it had hesitated a moment too long before trying to dodge holeward. Despising the crowds and all the human scent about in the field, the coyote crept back to his den with his still twitching prey.
Snarling, the vixen seized her dinner and feasted to her heart's content, then let her runty mate chew the feet and ears. More hungry than ever, the coyote soon crept back to the field in the dark, curious about the plane now that the people had gone. In looking about, he easily detected a slight disturbance in the earth. Something had buried itself. He also smelled a man's body, tracing it back to where it had crawled from round the plane and following as it had been dragged for some distance across the field toward the road.
Edgy about so much human odor, the coyote turned back from the road after marking a corner of his territory. He was about to leave but decided to investigate the tiny bit of disturbed ground for some gopher or mouse. Leaning on his left paw, he dug with his right. Five or six inches down the coyote smelled the attractive odor all the more. It was so delectable, he had to have it. With a little effort, the coyote got out the source of the fragrance--a long thing that was emitting a high -pitched whine as its whirling, digging feet met thin air instead of dirt.
Suddenly, a tall thin flash of light shot out of the cylinder and hovered upright over the ground back of the digging coyote. A voice that could not have been anything but a machine's spoke from the column of light.
Pulling the prey out and across the field, the coyote worried it in the seclusion of some brush. Savagely gnawing to get at the contents, the coyote still could not break through. Having put up such a struggle, obviously the thing was alive. Hard shelled though it was, this coyote would not give up. In his time, he had given swamp turtles some worrisome moments even if it had cost him a few teeth. Dragging it back into the open, he lay, exhausted but eyeing the turtlelike cylinder with increased determination. Then he grasped it in his slavering jaws and was about to resume chewing when he suddenly stopped.
Nature had called, so he stood and--whoosh! went the coyote’s greetings in return.
A hatch slid open and the glowing interior was revealed as a delicate mechanism projected and probed toward the curious coyote as it buzzed ominously. Shaking his head from repeated blasts of rays of different frequencies set to stun the attacking alien, the coyote quickly recovered. He destroyed the capsule's defense system with a single snap of his jaws. Then he thrust its snout into the cylinder before another backup defense system could deal with him, tearing upwards at the computerized contents. Sweet in taste and wonderfully scented, the myriads of white-colored, closely-packed plasmic micro-chips inside were most delicious eating. It was even better than a coyote's version of foie gras from Maxim's--a dead rabbit aged to vintage, green ripeness under a log.
Whoever was behind it, the plane was taken away on a flat-bed truck to an abandoned farm and locked in a corn crib. Later, when Vince rushed out to view the remains, he found the field empty. There was no sign of it, except for dug up ground where it was dragged with tow ropes toward the road. Afterwards, there was no sign either of any accident except for a patch of broken up ground and some charred stubble. In the spring nothing but pigweed would grow there.
Realizing he had to get help as soon as possible was one thing. Getting out was another. His jacket kept catching on the frame of the porthole-type window. Pulling off the jacket and shirt and keeping only his flight cap, he squeezed through and fell to the ground, doing his wooden braces considerable damage. In his muddled escape, he had completely forgotten Icarus and his ring and left them behind. Collapsed on the ground, stripped to the waist, he lay exposed to the cold of the ice and snow. Something was wrong with his back, and his leg braces had both broken, though he hadn't fallen very far. He called for help. He could hear only the wind in the bare branches of nearby box elders and brush.
Feeling drowsy, he lay still, looking up at the dimming, wintry sky. Thinking of Dr. Pikkard still in the cab and needing help if he was to live spurred Pieter to try again. He turned his head and saw a fence and realized the road lay just beyond. If he could make it to the road someone might come by, he thought. If anyone had seen the crash, they would have come by now, he knew. There was no hope for either himself and professor if he continued lying in the field. Dr. Pikkard would die, and he would just freeze into good coyote bait.
Pieter knew he was in a bad way. Turning over on his belly was sheer agony. He began crawling. Using his elbows and forearms, he dug in, with both hands under his chest. Lifting himself up slightly, he slid forward a little. Each bit of progress toward the road was painful enough on the corn stubble, which cruelly poked him like icy daggers enough to make him scream. He continued until he collapsed, face down, in the cold snow. He had only gone about ten feet.
"It's impossible!" he thought. "I can't make it to the road." Then he remembered something important to a Dutchman--his Dutchness. Any man not a Dutchman could comfortably give in when confronted by impossible circumstances. But he knew he was born and bred to hanging on where lesser races threw in the flour sack. His own unbeaten, unbeatable Dutchness, thus, gave him strength and moral fiber to go on, and so he began moving again across the snow. One lift and slide. Then another. Then another. After all, his grandfather was right when he said, ‘Who perseveres, wins!’”
Proving he was a perseverer his grandfather would be proud of, he was within twenty or so feet from the road when a pickup truck rattled toward him and skidded to a stop. Its uncapped radiator chuffed steam clouds into the air, one above the other. He must have been sighted, for the truck revved up its engine and made for the fence, ramming it flat and continuing on across the field to where Pieter lay yelling for help and waving his arm. The truck came to a halt, steaming from the radiator, and a man got out and came forward.
Feeling great relief, Pieter looked up into the face of his rescuer and saw the man called Dinke van de Klooft, the man who looked Old Goatley's spitting image. He could not have been more dismayed and bewildered as the impostor stood, saying nothing. Then Klooft was swearing and looking about, first at the plane, then at him. The junkman peered over at the burning plane, a pleased expression on his face. At Pieter he could only laugh. Lose your clothes, boy, along with your legs? You'll freeze yurself if ya don't be mo' keerful--what’s left of you to freeze, that is!!"
Worse chill than snow pierced Pieter's heart. Looking at his tormentor closely, he realized with certainty that he was dealing with the original Old Goatley. But how could that be? he wondered. No one could be that evil, he thought. "What are you doing here? What are you going to do with me?" Pieter asked. "The professor's hurt bad! You've got to help me get him out of the plane before it blows!"
The junkman laughed, then spat a stream of tobacco that sprayed Pieter. When he spoke, his voice has changed, and recurring slips into more educated speech indicated yet another persona hidden behind the rags. "You always were pretty spunky for a crip. But it'll take more than grit to get the edge on Old Goatley. I'll see to it you'll never get the chance to rat on me. I've got other plans for you before I send you off to join your precious professor in Never-Never Land. But first my little friends will probably want to ask you some questions--now that you've unfortunately survived the accident."
The junkman grabbed Pieter's arms and began dragging him to the back of the truck. He threw him in like a sack of spuds, then heaved a plywood board over him, with the final carpet being a dirty old carpet smelling like downwind from a hogyard. Securing the chain and bolted tailgate, he called in to the groaning Pieter. "Don't even try to get away by crawling out. I'll be watching you through the window up front, and I'll truss you like a chicken for the stewpot if you make a move."
The truck moved off, rattling through the ruts and potholes of one unpaved country road after another. Pieter, in more even circumstances, could have proved Old Goatley's match with plain courage. Now the courage, despite the hard lessons learned at the mill, was beginning to drain away against even more brutal facts of life than Van Tootle’s. Thrown up and down by jolts, bruised by the crashing of heavy plywood on him, Pieter took the draining hard, fighting the loss of every liquid ounce. In the dark, banged from above and below, he lay, a mass of hurts that had once been his body.
He clenched his hands against the pain, which he could handle ordinarily, but the panic was worse. To get control of himself and draw strength from within, he forced himself to think of Dutch victories in the wars with English invaders--which helped take his mind away from his present agony. Every cell of his body twisted with wrenching pain. A sense of his hopeless state threatened to overwhelm his mind as pain had engulfed his body but he still refused to give in. As the truck bounced and slid endlessly into the night, he gradually slid toward the rear and found himself cramped against the tailgate.
Could he move the plywood up so he might slide over the tailgate to freedom? His back stabbed him with ferocious pain when he tried to turn. Somehow he turned his body until he was facing the tailgate. Moving in and out of alternating lightning strikes of pain and fogs of numbness, he was yet determined to try. Reaching up, he caught the edge of the carpet and pulled it partway down over the tailgate. It would cover his escape, he thought. Thanks to the carpet, Old Goatley would not see a thing if he happened to look back. With horrible effort, Pieter pulled himself up over the tailgate and was flung into space, bouncing across the snowy road before sliding off the edge into the ditch.
Pieter's torture wagon continued on, with the carpet flapping out the rear like a dirty flag.
His breath and senses knocked out of him, Pieter lay for a time like dead. Strangely, when he opened his eyes, he felt only a numb sensation in place of his body. It was snowing, and not only was he white with it, but he felt warmer, and there was an absolutely heavenly absence of pain. Hearing the truck's motor fading in the distance, he decided it was safe to climb out. He tried to rise, but again he was hit in the back with what felt like the dull thuds of an iron mallet in a wadded up blanket. Forced to try something else, he used the same method that had transported him across a corn field. It was fortunate for him the drifts were only about a foot high. Temperatures were now dropping to zero, he felt, but at least there was no wind. Usually at that time of year, it would be well below zero and very windy. He thought about that as he pushed his naked torso across the crunchy snow and climbed up out of the shallow ditch.
Looking around, all he could see was snow and corn stubble to either side of the road and he could hear nothing but his own hoarse breathing. He thought about yelling for help, but he was miles from any town, he knew. Coyotes or wolves would be gnawing at him by morning, he decided. He had to keep moving or freeze. A farmhouse, not too far off the road, was his only chance. He kept moving, lifting himself and then sliding, lifting and sliding, over and over. Over and over.
He had no sensation in his chest and stomach anymore. His fingers were freezing too, but at least he could warm them in his mouth when he stopped to rest. As he gradually made crawled fifty and then one hundred yards, he saw a bridge ahead, an old wooden structure whose cover would give him some protection. Could he reach it? He had to reach it. Ahead the bridge grew larger, inch by inch, its darkened entrance opening like a mouth to receive him.
He looked up and read the painted year, ANNO 2254, and CROSS AT A WALK and NO CAMPING OVERNIGHT AND COOKING FIRES. BREAKERS OF THE LAW PROSECUTED. As he touched the bridge headlights suddenly shone at him. A man laughed and spat some tobacco which hissed on the cold snow covering the planking. Old Goatley again.
"I saw you go over the edge. I thought I see just how far you'd get blowin’ on your own windmill."
Thrown back into the truck, Pieter lay still--his “windmill” badly crumpled, indeed.
"You won't be trying that again, I wager," the voice sneered. "Every man has his breaking point, and you ain’t near a man with two legs missin’."
"Just try to break me. You can't do it!" vowed Pieter silently. “I don’t need legs to put you in your place!”
Pieter's journey ended a mile from the bridge. Its lights shut off, the truck swung into a lane leading to an abandoned farm. Purposely, tree limbs had been left where they had fallen, but the truck's over-sized wheels took them in stride, though every bit of junk tied to it threatened to shake off. Continuing past an unlighted house, it pulled up to a barn, tall and beginning to sway in the back like an old horse. It had to be one of the last old barns left in the province. Almost all were flattened in the first few months after the English disease set in. The mortar of stone and cement in its foundations had decayed, crumbling away from the wooden walls, so not only were there gaps but the whole structure leaned precariously beneath the dangerously sagging, threadbare roof. Long ago someone had painted on it, "SMOKE RED INDIAN" and "FINE TOBACCOS". The paint was flaking off on most of the lettering, of course, but the message where the paint had been could still be plainly read.
At the bottom, in the first of a series of all cement rooms, he was allowed to collapse for a few moments as his captors discussed him in muffled tones, their heads together. Threatening to take a crowbar to their heads, Old Goatley threw his weight around as if he were somebody important.
Pieter was yanked up from the floor and then thrown into a cell with a concrete floor. He lay over a drain smelling of manure. The door must have been metal, for it clanged shut.
In a state of shock, helpless due to his back injury, despair threatened to break over Pieter like a huge, dark wave. From time to time an eye peered at him through the judas in the door. It was as if he were back in bed in New Alkmaar just after the accident, his body maimed and bleeding.
Lying on the filthy, clammy floor, he began to feel outrage. Why should he beg for help when he wasn't a helpless cripple anymore? He had proved himself since his accident.
He didn't need help or anyone's pity any longer. He could stand up to life--whatever it held. He believed in himself and others that much, and his belief had not failed him. No, he would handle his present situation like a man, just like he had handled everything else previously.
His mind began to clear of all his fear and terror. He realized that his coming to a decision had done it. Instead of shaking with fear, he grew calm, waiting for the men to return. In preparation, he began reminding himself that he had gone through severe hardships before and always grown by them. His ordeal at the Van Tootle's mill, arduous and dangerous trips with Dr. Pikkard to the top of the sky and the bottom of the ocean, his own successful struggle against all his handicaps, they were the wall he confronted and must surmount, the things that grew a man from a boy. Dr. Pikkard, he knew, was wrong about him. He had changed. All the softness was gone. He was plain, solid Dutchman, no more, no less!
His sense of inner power increased, he felt confidence returning. Perhaps, he could still escape, if he watched for his captors to make a mistake and took advantage. There was no prison or enemy force that Dutch persistence and pluck could not overcome, he recalled from Dutch warfare. "I can handle this too!" he told himself. "Whoever they are, whatever they want, they can't stop me. Nothing can."
Finally, there was no more opportunity for philosophizing. His captors burst open his cell. When they spoke to him, their Dutch loaded thick with accents of various kinds. How he hated hearing his mother tongue being abused and butchered to the point it could have been another language. His lacerated, bruised, half-frozen body refused to do anything, as they commanded him to follow them. Cursing, they dragged him into another cage, this one lighted and carpeted. He was put in a low backed metal chair, which caused him terrific discomfort, and they took his rope and tied him to it.
Old Goatley and the dark, strange eyes of hooded figures peered at him. Not a word was spoken. Pieter felt alone, more horribly alone than he felt in the dirty, dark cell, but he forced himself to remember the strength he had gathered there. As before, he felt his fear again depart, and he knew he was ready for anything. Without fear, they could do nothing to him.
But who really were they? Why had they kidnapped him? He still had no idea. To his surprise, a hooded figure threw off a cape, revealing a woman. She was blond-haired, but like the others not Dutch by her accent. Her face seamed with wrinkles, the lines cut especially hard and deep around her mouth, which did not look any kinder for the red gash of lipstick. But something about her eyes bothered him the most. They were hard, like metal. She was evidently in charge of the torture shed, as Old Goatley stood back with the others. Holding the lamp close to his face, she yanked his hair with a pull that almost made him scream. "All right. You tell us everything? You never get away from us if you don't. We bury you here under the floor, cover boards with straw, and nobody know." The woman began to laugh in a thin cackle that nearly sent the dark wave crashing down on Pieter's resistance, but he fought it off once again and she stopped abruptly.
"Let me go. Why did you bring me here?" he demanded.
The woman released his hair, as if surprised and impressed by his defiance. Her smile faded with her laugh. She turned to Old Goatley, gave him a look, and the two went out, leaving two hooded figures to stand guard. It was minutes before they returned. The woman looked upset, running hands through her straight, mannish, close-cropped hair. "We have the most modern scientifical drugs, Pentathal we have, so we get what we vant, nicht wahr?. But we prefer you tell us now. Tell us Dr. Pikkard's business, why he come to Minne--to New Zeeland."
Pieter's eyes blinked. So that was it! Quickly recovering, he shrugged. He had no desire to tell them anything. After all, he knew it was in the papers why they had come. Anyone could read the professor had come to study glaciers. That was all they were supposed to know, he recalled. "He come here to study glaciers!" he said.
“Oh, jah, he come hier to study glaciers!” she mocked, prancing up and down in a rage. She struck his cheek with her fist and Pieter tasted blood. She pronounced "glaciers" so strangely, with a long “a” and three syllables, that at first hearing he did not know what she had said. "Liar! Dey have dem out east too, so why come all da vay here? Now tell us! You hold something very important back from us!”
She seemed to him to be getting more excited, the more he resisted. Her language got worse as she went on. Again, Pieter maintained the professor’s line of research was strictly glacial. Yet another fist struck his face for his trouble. He began to spit blood. It went on this way for a while--a contest between a stubborn Dutchman who would never give up and a woman who was just as determined to make him spill the beans.
Finally, a sign from the woman, he was dragged out and thrown back into his cell. The overhead bulb went out, whether from a break-down in a generator or on purpose, he could not tell. Then a light beamed in through the judas as the changing of every hour and an eye observed how he was doing.
The night passed. How he survived to the dawn he could not tell, but he proved he still had what it took to get his heels over the dyke. Finally, the light switched on his cell. He was very groggy and weak when they came for him in the morning, so a cot was brought in and a doctor attended, for how long his confused mind could not tell. When he could sit again in the chair, it was Old Goatley, smiling at him as if they were pals back in the days of scrounging for a living in New Amsterdam. Someone brought in fresh oranges and bananas and a piece of sausage, and Goatley set them on the bed. "Well, chum, you gave us quite a scare, passin' out like that. Now that you're feelin' chipper, do you suppose you could tell us a few things? It won't take more than a minute or two, and then we'll take you back to town, and you can do as you like with your sweet little girlfriend, Miss Anne. She will probably be in need of some consolation. Well, how about it?"
Pieter, his mind made up to endure rather than divulge anything to strangers, would not say any more. He was tired of the beatings he got.
Old Goatley tried several times more to get him to talk. Then his face flushed, and he stood clenching and reclenching his hands over Pieter. The junkman turned away with a stevedore oath. When he spoke again, he was no longer Old Goatley. Like skin, the snake that had shed Dinke Van Klooft shed once again, only completely this time.
The person at the core of the layers of clever camouflage, a sophisticated gentleman of culture and education, stood glaring at the astonished Pieter. As if to emphasize the metamorphosis, he took a long-stemmed holder and cigarette out of a leather case and began to smoke as he eyed the quarry.
It was a full minute while they took each other's measure until Dr. Hugh van de Goatt addressed Pieter for the last time. "You little simpleton! Why fight us? If you must know the reason for all this, we're all patriots here, trying to save our beloved country from the rebels, like this Dr. Pikkard you've been following like a dog all around the world. I know what you think. But we had nothing to do with his plane catching fire and burning up. Maybe you should know that's what happened. Yes, your precious professor is dead! How was I to know he was in that much trouble? I thought he'd be all right once the gas fumes cleared. Otherwise I'd have pulled him out when I saw he had passed out. It was you, not him, we wanted. But I'm not surprised the plane exploded. The whole town knew it was a piece of junk he bought. I tried telling him when he came out a couple times to look it over, but he wouldn't listen. And the fellow who sold it to you knew he was taking the professor for a ride. Now as for my part in all this, certain people I represent only wanted Pikkard to stop his crazy, cockaninny researches, not see him killed. They stand to gain nothing by his death, which will make him a sort of martyr in the eyes of people like him. And don't you realize that this province is changing hands and martial law and a civil war is coming? You're young. Your only chance is to cooperate. The professor refused a long time ago to help us stop this rebellion. We thought, mistakenly it seems, we might have more chance with you. You can still be of help to the country if you quit being so stubborn and cut a deal with us. We'll see you're well paid. In fact, we'll see you never have to go back to the mill, remember? Even the professor, you have to admit, couldn't guarantee that."
Pieter heard everything, but he simply could not absorb the chameleon like changes the man interrogating him had gone through. What he said made far less impression than his becoming such different personalities. Patriots? he thought. He was beginning to be confused. They're patriots trying to save the country? Could they be telling the truth and we are the ones at fault?
For the first time the line between hostage and captor began to blur and the wall between him and his employer suddenly filled in, if not completely filled in before.
The interrogator paused to let his remarks sink in, then continued after he noted Pieter wincing when the mill was mentioned. "Sure, this probably seems terribly strange to you, all this cloak and dagger stuff. And as for me, I have to dress like different people in my line of work or I wouldn't survive very long. Now don't let our past acquaintanceship bother you either. I could see you needed help. So I meant to keep you alive until I could explain our operation. But you got away from me and joined the wrong people before I could stop you. You know the rest. I can explain everything. There are plenty people who are trying to make this province break away and I'm working for those who are trying to stop them. After all, this country is Dutch, and we loyal, Godfearing Dutch must keep it that way, right? The only reason we've been so rough with you is that you don't know you've been working against us. That's not your fault. You did it out of ignorance. So if we roughed you up, it was because we don't take kindly to traitors in these parts. Normally, they just kill traitors here when they catch them, but I wouldn't let them, so you owe your life to me. Now that lady you were so rude to is one of my employers. She loves her country with all her heart and she hates anybody out to destroy our nation. You gave her a certain bad impression, which you can change any time you choose. Well, she came out of her way to see if she could talk sense to you. Now after all I've just told you, I stand to lose my job if you won't cooperate and be reasonable. Your loyalty to your former employer is admirable, I'm sure, but you won't get out of this until you tell us what we want to know. Don't be so stubborn, and you will walk out of here a free man. After all this time, have I made myself clear? Now tell me at once, what was Pikkard's specific business in coming to New Zeeland. All we ask is the truth. Is that so hard for you to do--tell the plain truth?"
"Glaciers" Pieter said with two syllables, more from habit than conviction. Whether or not he was a traitor as he had been accused, he still balked at letting Old Goatley know the real reason. Even if Old Goatley was a patriot as he claimed, the whole situation described to him was so absolutely amazing he had to think it over first before he said anything more. It also made him wonder, when he first saw how some of them were dressed, if they had anything to do with the University of Amsterdam. If they did, it would be even more confusing. But, evidently, there was no time to sort things out fair and square and make Dutch sense of his situation. Goatt threw down his cigarette holder with disgust. He turned away to the hooded figures looking on. "Well, boys, I see he's determined to play the wrong side to the end and betray our beloved country. If he won't listen to reason, I can do nothing more. Take him away. I don't care what you do. I will explain to the boss. Now I've got to hurry and track a certain little lady and make sure she doesn't cause any trouble about the professor's little mishap. She might go to the authorities and start blaming us for his own foolishness in buying a deathtrap of a plane."
The fury of a tigress knows no description, and the claws of the woman after she had received Goatt's departing message went to work on the hostage. When she was through with him, hooded figures helping, the young Dutchman was crammed into a wood and wire cage big enough for a clutch of carrier pigeons--for which it was originally designed. Afterwards, his tormentors stood about jeering and calling him a traitor. It was not long before they had got a coffin made to order, and he was released from his cage and kicked up the stairs. Because no one could be buried in a cement bunker very easily, boards on ground level had been torn up to accommodate him, and a hole was just then being dug. He was obliged to watch the grisly show as shadowy figures shoveled out a hole for him in the gloom while he still tried to make Dutch sense out of what he had heard.
It was agonizing to have to think through things so quickly. He made a supreme effort to understand and at last broke though the wall dividing him from his first and final revelation--a summation in which all his accumulated doubts played a part. Not a few of Dr. Pikkard's mistakes and contradictions added up to the clear black and white picture he was so desperately seeking in life. Able to erase his own from the docket, Pieter always had a good recollection of other people’s foibles and mistakes.
"Schneller! Schneller!" cried the shrill-voiced tiger-woman. "It need not be so deep, you fools, we're moving on from here in a few hours anyway. And when we go we'll drop the barn on top dis little scum with a stick of dynamite." The hooded figures shoveled a little quicker, then scrambled out.
Pieter was pushed forward to the edge of the dark hole. The snout of a German luger was pressed to the back of his head. Finally, they were ready to put him in the hole for good. The woman was ready to squeeze the trigger. "So you force me to do dis to you? I shoot many vermin like you here--all stupid like you. Won't cooperate. Vel, I will do it one more time den!"
"Wait," said Pieter. Vait for vat?" cried the woman in a rage, her accent thickening with each passing moment.
"I will tell you anything you want to know." Standing there on the edge of the grave, he had finally seen something that he could not see while in the thick of life as an assistant to a scientist. He was no coward. He would have gone gladly to his death like any good Dutchman fighting the Spanish or the Red-coats, if it were a good Dutch cause he was dying for. But now he could no longer do it. He had seen something through a chink in the wall. And though his kidnappers had been brutal as they could be, he now thought they were justified--even as far as executing him. It made him feel sick, to think he had been so wrong, but he had to set the record straight if it was the last thing he ever did.
"We haben no zeit zu vaste! Tell me vy you vant us to vait. Schneller!"
So Pieter told them Dr. Pikkard's strategy and all he knew about the Crays and the professor's various researches. They all stood listening to every word, without interrupting. The plain Dutch boy had discovered what he had more and more suspected all along but couldn't put together in one piece until now. He realized he was working on the wrong side of the wall in the war over Dutchdom .
Other than the times he went back to the mill after his accident and later when he applied to Dr. Pikkard for a job, it was the most difficult thing he had ever had to do in life--change his Dutch mind. But he knew now beyond doubt now that he had aided the devil in Dutch society. Mistakenly, he had joined Dr. Pikkard in fighting the very people who were trying to preserve the nation.
Dr. Pikkard, on the other hand, was determined to revolutionize the world, turn it upside down, not leave it as it was. Who could deny that? The professor was mad, a raging bull of a Jack Dutch heretic. There was nothing wrong with the world that people of good heart like himself could not fix, Pieter reasoned. The professor, traitor that he was, had tried to make people think there was a national conspiracy, so that the government could be overturned in the confusion he had deliberately created everywhere by his researches. He had to be stopped--and was stopped, just in time. Pieter could see it no other way and felt only pity for the deceased.
His own eyes, on the grave's cutting edge, had at last been opened. As he now saw things, PLAIN TRUTH, his true and holy Dutch bride, had been pursuing him all along like a foxhound and finally caught him at the very edge of the precipice.
But there was more to his painful self-revelation.
Beside this goddess of Truth with the noble Latin letters of her name cut into the marble flesh of her pedestal, Anne was a Jack Dutch floozie. She couldn't count out a dollar correctly if her life depended on it! And, back to the professor, Pieter was only grieved that he had not seen through him much earlier, when he had first gone to him for a job. He might have spared himself the tortures in the balloon, and crashing on Mt. Pollux in the Alps, and doing all kinds of meaningless dirty work the professor constantly dreamed up. As for his college plans, he had money saved. Nobody had given him a cent of it. He had earned every dollar with hard work. He didn't need Dr. Pikkard's patronage. He could handle his own life from now on, just as he had in times past.
That should have been enough to assure him a plentiful supply of wheat for his windmill. But there was even more to the revelation--something that gave him an actual thrill. Having achieved this Dutch-plain conclusion of what had been an impossible quagmire, Jan Pieterzoon van de Wordt proved he had come a long way from New Alkmaar--or perhaps he had not left it at all. Of course, there were a few loose bricks not contained in his revelation--Anne’s role in her uncle's conspiracy, for one thing. And what exactly would he have been doing if he had not been 'conspiring' with Dr. Pikkard to overturn the Dutch in America? But such questions, if they had not been forgotten in the meantime, could wait.
What mattered was that now he had turned a corner and put the old mill forever behind him. He had proved he could not only survive in the big city, showing he could handle a job with the most demanding employer, learning impossible new things, mastering all types of skills, in all ways becoming what Dr. Pikkard was so proud to be. Only he, Pieter, had mastered Dr. Pikkard his teacher. His employer's brilliance, skill, and drive were now his by virtue of working for them and by inheritance. He, not Anne, had taken all that Dr. Pikkard had and was into himself--excluding his traitorous ways, of course! He would go on and be more learned than Dr. Pikkard.
He would attend the university, the one in New Amsterdam that had been so friendly to him, and win a professorship.
As for his old patron, he was the mere husk of a former life Pieter would cast behind him in the dust, now that he had sucked out all that was proper and good for a plain Dutch boy’s digestive system. Whatever the case, there was not enough time left for Pieter of New Alkmaar to finish and tell them exactly where he thought the Cray computers were located. As soon as possible, they should be found and destroyed! Destroyed before somebody like Dr. Pikkard got wind of them and tried to turn the whole world upside down! No, he would go no further with Dr. Pikkard and his ideas! Not one more step!
"The doctor professor's papers--de briefcase--where are dey" the woman excitedly demanded, her voice pitched to a shrill scream. "We don't care about old machines dat sind gut only for scrap. We vant die papieren. Dey sind viele dangerous!"
While the woman was pressing him for the location of the research, dust and cobweb began to pour down in sheets. Perhaps the men's digging had disturbed the foundation beyond recall. In the first place, it would be difficult to say just what had held the old barn’s walls up for over two hundred years after the first terrible strike of the English disease. Suddenly, all they knew was that the sky was showing above. The next second beams and rafters, along with pieces of broken antique furniture and even a blue-painted rocking horse from the loft, cascaded down upon them, taking the walls along.
Its rockers ribbed with iron, the rocking horse sealed Pieter’s destiny. It hit him squarely on the head with such force it actually fractured his skull--which, considering the durable construction of that skull, was remarkable.
At first, it seemed that no one could have survived the barn's total collapse. But after all the dust, straw, and boards settled, several people crawled slowly from the rubble. Among them was no plain Dutch boy.
That was just as well. They had decided, despite his confession, to kill him anyway.
They got to a truck, with no intention of ever returning to the site of their local chapter of Department 13.
Cursing and groaning with various hurts, a woman and two men roared off toward town. Their destination was a funeral home, the Chapel of Rest in the old IDS tower, in order to report Pieter's remarks about his employer's papers.
They knew that what had happened to them was of no consequence. Though they were well-trained for their line of work, no one over them cared if they lived or died, unless in the process they compromised the covert nature of the organization. For them the only important thing was getting the briefcase before Anne Kilpaison spirited it off.
His own breakfast concluded, things continued routinely enough until 10:00 sharp, when an unannounced caller rang at the domine's door. When he opened the modest door of his little white stucco house with overgrown pines choking the entrance, he was surprised--but then he was already mightily surprised by the simple fact he was being visited.
He peered out and found a young, slim, attractively dressed woman in a dark-veiled hat--clearly a stranger from of town--far out of town. How had she got there? He saw no sign of a horse or car in the street.
She peered in turn at him through gaps in the greenery. Anne van de Kilpaison, Dr. Pikkard's niece, introduced herself.
It gave the domine a slight jolt in the left temple when he realized that this was the niece of the man he had just been reading about in the paper. The jolt was followed immediately by a flash of pain through his chest and extending to his elbow on his right side. Since an old man was always experiencing odd aches and pains, he thought nothing of his sensations. Not meaning to be rude, the old pastor paused to gaze at her for a moment as he recalled the scientist fellow that had just died so tragically on a visit. In the countryside where they were, he had plenty time to recall things while in the midst of receiving a visitor.
Thursday the 9th he had heard people at the general store excitedly discussing Dr. Pikkard's death and thought no more of it than he should about an out-of-town public affair. He had only stopped off for a can of sardine treats for his cats while out making the usual pastoral house calls to the comfortable shut-ins of Shinar's "widows' row"--every one of them quite wealthy for the era and able to get out in their own cars but all the more demanding of his attentions for that. After that he hurried home to begin preparing for his Monday Sabbath message. The paperboy came by with more news about Dr. Pikkard's plane crash. The headline went: FAMED SCIENTIST FOUND IN FATAL PLANE CRASH. Beneath it was a picture of the scene and Dr. Pikkard was identified as DISCOVERER OF LOST ATLANTIS, the supposed sunken continent off the eastern New Netherlands coast--the one thing that had won him the nonpartisan admiration of all the people, Dutch and non-Dutch. Then somehow a pretty, young farmer’s wife was mixed in. Her experience at the crash scene was quite incredible. A look of mild bewilderment passed over the domine's face.
Now where was he? Pastor de Waals found himself staring at a young woman on his doorstep, who in turn was staring at him as if she were waiting for something. Dr. Pikkard's niece! Of course! She must be waiting for him to ask her in. Since his was a small and declining village church of less than fifty members on the rolls, he was amazed why the niece of an important man would have taken the trouble to go to him. What could she want with him? How had she found him in such an out of the way parish as Shinar? Few outlying communities had Dutch Reformed churches anymore, or churches of any type, for that matter. He invited her in and led her directly to his study since the front parlor was customarily unheated and not fit for human beings.
Nothing so stylish and cultured as Miss Kilpaison that he could recall in a lifetime of pastoring had ever crossed his pine-cone littered threshold or trod his worn carpets. In the adjoining, church periodical-strewn passage he felt suddenly uncomfortable as they carefully ran the gauntlet of a dozen or more mewing, plump cats and wicker bird cages and pieces of broken-down furniture given to him when parishioners died and their houses were cleared out by relatives. "I'm afraid you find my bachelor's furnishings a trifle unfashionable and dowdy," he said.
He opened the door to an even mustier study than he remembered leaving just a few minutes before, but at least it was warm enough for a conference. He continued talking in a chatty way he could manage with closed eyes, saying the usual things said to put the caller more at her ease. Also, he needed time to get to know them better before getting down to any business of the heart and spirit that needed attending to.
"Yet I feel this is the best of situations for an old man like me, and since my dear sister Heloise moved in with an ailing widow friend down the block I can let the housekeeping go and live here quite as I like with my little friends. Of course, the friend has never had a sick day in the thirty years I've known her, but she wouldn't stop making a fuss until Heloise moved in to look after her so-called illness--which is supposed to be an inflammation of some kind." He must have paused, for she got a word in before he could go on in detail on the caring for and feeding of pets.
"I love animals, for it reminds me of my uncle's compassion for strays," his visitor said quickly. “At least, to be more honest, I appreciate them more now.” She scooped up a twenty-year-old Persian that was the pastor's favorite and the parson was amazed when the Persian, who normally loathed petting, fell passive and began to purr like the parson’s own Dussendorf. She stood stroking his favorite monster while she looked for a place to sit.
The pastor removed a moldy stack of books and old sermons from a chair. Then he had to dust it with a clean but badly rumpled handkerchief. The young lady, polite enough not to smile at his activities, seated herself, the cat settling down at once in her lap. To his eyes she looked a bit younger than she had at the door. The pastor shook his head slowly, then scratched the back of it.
"Would you believe I had to dust that chair? I'm glad I found it out. Apparently, no one's been in it for weeks or possibly months," he said, his eyes unabashedly showing slight shock and misgiving. He went on as she looked at him, her eyes now slightly amused. The domine shrugged and then smiled in turn. "Well, it's to be expected. Grown old like me, my parishioners find it harder and harder to get out, especially now that the weather's been getting colder every winter, hasn't it?"
The young lady still did not reply but seemed to be waiting for him to begin something. But what?He didn't want to give it away that he had no idea what to do with evidently a high-society, city-bred stranger like herself. He was also perplexed why the scientist's niece would look him up, of all persons. He was a mere village parson and gentleman farmer (he had some acreage he farmed to subsidize his salary, which was sufficient but not overly generous).
As if reading his mind, Anne Kilpaison surprised him further by seeming to read his perplexed mind. "Pastor, I came here because I can't trust anyone in town, for they're far too much in contact with the universities. The newspaper account you may have read is sheer rubbish. I want you to know the truth about the two flyers--for, contrary to the official reports, there were two, my uncle and his assistant. They tried to serve the truth of science whatever the cost. Can I do less and honor their memory? This 'accident,' as it is called, is no such thing. One man has been killed, the other has disappeared seemingly off the earth."
Terrible words, these! Rev. van de Waals's Snowy Owl eyebrows must have peaked to exclamations points at the last statement. But along with the words, he had a stranger impression. Her manner was a bit too stiff and professional. She was like a young girl grown up too fast, or one acting and talking purposely older than she really felt.
As if she noticed his unease and wished to overcome the impression, the niece continued to press on. "I appreciate the fact this is surprising news to you, Reverend. Nevertheless, the truth must be spoken, unpleasant as it may be to our ears."
Two longs and a short at the wall crank telephone interrupted them before he could reply.
Pastor de Waals listened for a bit, then grew very solemn and held out the receiver. Anne van de Kilpaison looked up at him with amazement, but she was too surprised to pick it up. "How on earth did anybody--"
Pastor de Waals put his hand over the mouthpiece. "This is not the grand metropolis of New Amsterdam, young lady. Here in these parts we all know each other's whereabouts at any given time."
He spoke the truth about Shinar--a general store, several tolerated, illegal saloons operating behind the facade of "drugstores," a state-supported Dutch Reformed church, a dissenting storefront chapel, a bank, a grain elevator with round-the-clock guards, a livery stable-garage, and an abandoned fire station and firebombed library. That was all there was and ever would be, since there had been more to begin with and now there was less and less as the years went by. All the Minneapolis city police needed to do was call the general store and they would know everything--even to the particulars of people' business in town.
The reverend left the room for a few moments and poured fresh cream in his late mother's best Delft bowls for his cats. He was careful to distribute the amounts Dutch equally. Suddenly, there was such an unladylike howl of protest from the other room he almost dropped the cream jug on the head of a cat. When he came back, his visitor had put back the receiver and was sitting quietly looking up at his picture of the Prophet Van Balaam and the Ass. She was not particularly composed, as she was biting on her lower lip, her veil drawn up and back over her hat. Her face was, even to his now dim eyes, was a trifle too dark to be standard Dutch. Even her eyes were dark--"exotic" was his impression.
Was she from some island in the Dutch Antilles? he wondered. He had heard of “Black Dutch,” though the idea was outlandish. On her part, Miss Kilpaison seemed not to notice his slight shock at her unveiled appearance and began to explain immediately on his return.
"That was someone who calls himself Metropolitan Police Commissioner O'Brien. It seems he has heard about a statement or two I have made concerning the possibility of there being two men going out with the plane. He--he advised me not to say anything more about the matter. It is most annoying, but he says he must have my signature on a statement to that effect. Of course, I refused to give the petty highlander any such thing."
Domine de Waals nodded, sighing inwardly. Harking from the fancy-dress cotillions of the capital, she couldn't grasp local realities. Disregarding authority, she faced a possible lock-up. Worse had happened to strangers in the area, particularly when they were Dutch from other parts of the country. Just because the country was Dutch and Dutch parishes like his could be found throughout the provinces did not mean all parts were under firm control. New Zeeland happened to be one that might revolt and secede at any minute--but exactly when that would be was anybody's question--the issue had been talked to death for at least twenty years. Stock-piling of arms and ammunition too. Militia training in out of the way places. That sort of thing.
The deceased man's niece intercepted his glance of pity and mild alarm. She returned him the sharp, businesslike look with which she had launched the now extraordinary interview. Not for nothing had she parachuted down from her uncle's balloon with a terrified feline and trekked out of the Congo to a port on the coast. Even if she hadn't quite handled a certain Pieter van de Wordt quite as she should, she still had a hand on her own destiny. Unfortunately, the domine could not suspect any of this and was quite perplexed how to go on with her from this point. It must have shown as she detailed the opposition the universities had stirred up against her uncle and h is work--which facts he couldn't be sure of and which, if they truly were fact, would probably get her in trouble.
"Now, you have heard about the kind of man that was my dear uncle and also a bit about those who have been opposing him from the start of his career. He said to me that if something should happen to him I was to make the arrangements. He heard you speak once--but that was long ago and you may not recall seeing him. With his memory, he could never forget a name, even the ones he read in the newspapers. Do you remember the person in this picture?" She got out a crumpled, old photograph. A handsome, smiling youth in Ivy League clothes was standing in a gondola of a huge balloon, while other youths held to the cables, evidently about to land or launch him.
Pastor de Waals slowly considered the picture. "I'm sorry, I cannot recall him."
"All right, that is of small account. At any rate, he knew of you and chose you to head the service he foresaw was a possibility. He wrote in a last note to me [she took out a badly creased sheet of paper from her pocket and read]: ‘Just in case something should happen to us out here, I want you to contact the domine in Shinar outside town. If he’s still living and able to speak, I’m certain he’ll have some significant things to say about life--unlike the vast majority of his peers today! I’ll never forget the time I stumbled on his parish back when I was a troubled youth and heard him speaking truly profound things. For instance: ‘ ‘A man who knows his own weaknesses can’t be made a pawn--not even of his own strengths. ‘ So you will do it as an honor to my Oom, will you not? It does not matter if you know nothing of deep sea exploration or ballooning, if only you speak on matters and questions of faith common to us all. Because of his reputation in connection with his discovery of the Atlantic Vent System and the connection people made with Atlantis, I expect a large response from the public. In case the press and the world of science are interested, the day of his death he had delivered to me his private papers on certain recent world-wide disturbances and--"
"Papers?" inquired the domine, his eyebrows peaking. Next there were strange papers to deal with! He was already amazed that he couldn’t remember ever saying what Dr. Pikkard claimed in the note to his niece. Perhaps, it had been a guest speaker, whom the professor confused with him. In fact, he had dismissed one such speaker from his pulpit. Though it was many years since the incident, he recalled that the fellow was speaking the most heretical nonsense--from a preposterous, non-theological sermon he concocted called “Utter Reliance on God, Grace and Denial of Legalistic Crutches.”
"Yes, research papers," she said, glancing toward a very battered-looking briefcase at her side. "The name he gave them is De Casibus Perplexis--'On Perplexing Cases.' They concern problems with the sun, glaciers, the planet's core, rotation, and other items which support his theory about the English disease. And there was a discovery of an important machine he was working with just before coming here. I fully intend to make them public as soon as possible under their individual titles. As for his assistant's disappearance, I will continue to make every effort to find--"
"These problems you say the professor was investigating, just what were they?"
"He was greatly alarmed that human society seemed to be going backwards. And he also found evidence that the planet and sun are breaking up. The world we know is coming to an end, in other words. Yet the universities--those in our country, that is--have tried a number of times to stop his research, but he keeps--kept--on despite all the opposition."
Though he had often preached on events in St. Van John's Revelation, truly the “Book of End Times,” the domine had nothing to add from a scientific standpoint regarding the end of the world. Evenso, he could think of some immediate objections. Northern and Great Plains grasslands, once so luxuriant, were withering and blowing away in dust storms, it was true, but still the forests were spreading at terrific rates to the south. And New Zeeland? Though all round they might give way, this was one province that was still holding fast to its land and blue corn. That, surely, did not speak of Earth’s decline. Yet, even if he hesitated to voice his observations, there was something any layman would want to know without having to going into controversial specifics.
"Did Dr. Pikkard identify a cause, Miss?"
The rather too dazzling dark beauty before him frowned and shook her head. "I'm afraid not! It was most frustrating to Oom. He spent years and years tracking it. The effects were clear but the cause always eluded him."
The domine let the discussion lapse for a few moments of silence, impressed with Miss Kilpaison's big city thoroughness as well as her evident feeling for her double loss, while growing truly alarmed for her sake now that he divined her true fiery temperament beneath the sophisticated manners. "I should be happy to do the service for the deceased, if that will relieve your burden." But he was still not satisfied he had heard everything he should know concerning Dr. Pikkard's assistant, a person she seemed somewhat reluctant to discuss. The fact a young man was involved certainly added a shade of meaning to the whole affair, as he well knew.
At that moment a shadowy figure flickered across the study's single narrow window.
Pastor de Waals was well prepared for such types on his doorstep--times being what they were. He excused himself, got some food from the pantry, and gave it to the tramp. How many times had he fed unfortunate people so? He had given up inviting them in out of the cold They would take the food but always wanted to be off, as if deathly afraid a sermon would be part of the bargain (a good guess on their part).
The fellow gobbled the cold pheasant, boiled duck egg, and Utrecht pound cake with pink butter-icing standing up. But this one was a bit different evenso. He seemed to have a sharper eye than most, for he commented, between gulps, "Dasn't keep ye from the young lady caller, Your Divinity, so's be on my way. God blessit! Ye's most kind to a po'r, honest Dutchman, and shurely the blessit angels in heaven ain't ne'er seen your likes. Good day, Domino!"
After this flourish of flattery and a couple more gulps of the provisions, he did a queer jig on the doorstep as if to pay for his meal before disappearing round the corner.
If it had been a tradition in his church, the domine would have made the sign of the cross. Somehow, the tramp was different. Pastor de Waals had met many men in his time and taken stock of them as men too. He definitely felt this time he had been visited by a devil or imp. Returning to his study somewhat shaken, he could not help noticing Dr. Pikkard's niece was, for all her grown-up spit and polish, able to register human being. He found this out by catching her quietly dampening a stiffly starched cobweb lace handkerchief with tears. Yet the next moment, when she saw him observing her, she was completely recovered, the handkerchief out of sight, and her dark eyes more brilliant than before. She was stroking the only visible bit of jewelry she wore, a gold locket at her neck. That led to his noticing the absence of any ring on her hand, engagement or otherwise.
"Would you like some tea or coffee?" he offered. "I was just about to fix myself something hot, and I still have some Utrecht poundcake to go with it."
"No, thank you," she said.
To draw her out some more, the pastor asked about the young man who had flown with her uncle.He was thinking the little crying spell had broken through her former reserve on the subject. And he had judged right. For she added very straightforwardly, yet with telltale moistness of eye, some details about Dr. Pikkard's assistant, as if some very thick ice had been broken. He noticed one more thing. She seemed a bit younger too, if his old eyes did not deceive him.
"Pieter and I planned to be married after he started college, and I was to look for work at the college. Those were our plans, though I confess I did not respect his own wishes exactly as I should and--" She broke off for a moment, looked down, then recovered her adultish dignity. "Now he's disappeared into thin air, and the authorities won't even put out a bulletin or look for him! I wish you had met him before this. Despite our great differences in family and social station and the fact I am a little older and more experienced in the ways of society than he, Pieter was in his way the most remarkable and bravest person, besides my uncle, I ever met. He just needed someone to--time to--" She broke off and her gloved hands clenched.
The pastor looked down at his square, red, stumpy hands spread before him on the desk. He did not seem to be bothered by the way they trembled of late, if he noticed it at all. "I'm very sorry I pried into your personal life," he said, hesitant to touch upon the delicate subject his caller had evidently wanted to confess since his religious practice did not entail or delve into personal lives.
Her manner suddenly relaxed. She didn’t seem to mind being personal, despite his disclaimer. The Dutch starch seemed to dissolve, leaving her a bit girlish. "I've lost my uncle and my fiancee, two loved ones in this 'accident,'" she said, suddenly throwing back her dark veil so that she could speak all the more openly.
For the first time the domine saw what he had suspected all along. She was not only “Black Dutch” but quite young. Was she eighteen? nineteen? And if so young, where was her chaperone and guardian of the same sex?
His caller continued. "Whatever the papers say, you might as well know the truth. In my uncle's case, it was plain murder. But I don't believe for a moment that the plane salesman is the only culprit. If that was so, both would have died in the plane. I don't know how they did it. Instead, only my uncle was slain and my fiancee, dead or alive, disappeared."
Now the domine had heard, in his day, a number of shocking things. Humans did shocking things on occasion, as he well knew. The area was getting rougher all the time, with train robberies, firebombing of essential services, and bank holdups. That was to be expected, perhaps, after so many people had chosen to flee their unprofitable farms and live outside the law of organized society. But in Shinar itself it had been a very long time since anything truly shocking had occurred. But now he was genuinely shocked--the world’s ills had come to his very doorstep in a way he could not deny. The word "slain" caused the pastor's mouth to drop open.
Pastor de Waals, recoiling from the shock he had just sustained, happened to look toward the study window for no particular reason. Was it a trick of his tired old eyes? he wondered. At the moment he turned a dark figure with a flowing scarf at the neck dropped from sight. But it happened so quickly he was left half doubting he had really seen anything.
His caller did not seem to notice anything out of the ordinary, and went blithely on. Despite a rather strong possibility of it, Miss Kilpaison did not again allude to any problem she might have had in her relationship with the professor's assistant--her "fiancee" as she now officially termed him without being able to suppress a telltale blush. The conference wore on, the niece dominating as usual but revealing more and more things about herself and her young man what she had not meant to convey. After listening with half his attention to the niece's accounts of many a narrow escape by Dr. Pikkard and Pieter in the deep of the Atlantic and the height of the stratosphere, he was all the time thinking and wondering about the ways of Providence. He was relieved when she put down his purring favorite and rise to go. He felt need of lying down.
"I'm afraid I am taking up too much of your time, Domine," she said. "Despite your local authorities who seem to want to cover up crime rather than apprehend the criminal, I am going to keep searching for my fiancee until I find him." After throwing his Persian a treat to distract his favorite cat who was becoming a bit peeved with the visitor, he hastened to assure the young lady that he was put to no inconvenience whatsoever by her difficulties. While he was mouthing the polite phrases, he was thinking how, personally, he did not like mystery when it was mixed with mayhem. One could mix too much in the world, after all. If the men were indeed the victims of foul play, the accident would be investigated, after a fashion, by the authorities. It wasn't really his business, he assured himself, to be probing for some light on the mystery disappearance and other particulars. His domain, despite her remarks, was spiritual, was it not?
It was not his affair how the professor died. He had died, that was the matter at hand. Hopefully, he was not trying to avoid anything important by taking that tack, he was just being Dutch-sensible. As for the young man and his disappearance? Young men disappeared every day in the region. It was a commonplace.
While he was still thinking in this vein, that he was a clergyman, a dull and plodding man of the Dutch Cloth and not a detective, she startled him once again by abruptly reaching up and handing over Pikkard's final research papers in a briefcase. It would have been rude to do otherwise, so he took the briefcase and set it on his desk. He sat looking at it, his misgivings showing in his doubtful expression. For what could he say? Such a thing had never transpired before in his study in all this long, long career as a man of the Cloth.
Fortunately, the visitor spoke up in the dead silence.
"Pastor de Waals, my dear Oom lived quite alone, his mother a recluse and his father a drunken beast on his yacht all while Oom was growing up, so later he treated me like I was his only family--which I supposed I was. Whatever he had he promised would fall to me if he should suffer a fatal accident of some kind. But I believe you should have the fruits of his labors for the time being. At least feel free to study them as long as you like and then return them whenever convenient. Although I plan to publish them in the near future, I'm letting you have them because they may help you in preparing the eulogy. And, if something should happen to me--"
"That is very kind of you to want to help with my message" he lamely offered, missing the reference to her life expectancy.
"I am told an establishment calling itself the Chapel of Rest was entrusted with his body by the local authorities," she replied, naming the only such establishment on the Minneapolis side. "You can be sure I had to do some real hunting to find that out. The people connected with that chapel--they all seem very unfriendly, as if they think I have no business in this miserable area!"
They heard a long horn blast from Miss Kilpaison's cab. The driver must have been leaning on the horn, having had just returned from filling a "prescription" at the Happy Skunk "drug store." After she had written down her New Amsterdam address for forwarding the papers, he went out with her to his cottage's ramshackle gate. Feeling very tired and much relieved, he watched the driver help her up into the hired Checker cab-sleigh, the only public conveyance left. After the usual condolences and pastoral blessing, she departed, but not before a sudden outbreak of howling from the ridge drew both their glances.
"Just wolves," he thought. "I see they haven't moved off the hill during the day as they usually do." He watched her motorized sleigh bounce off down the rutted, snow-whitened, unpaved lane toward town and the only main road out.
After the old man went back into the house, drawing the curtains of the study to take a look at Dr. Pikkard's "perplexing cases," the tramp hid in the thick Norway pines and lilacs behind the house for while. He stamped his freezing, footsore feet from time to time and blew on his fingers, for though it was only noon, the day was already turning chilly in preparation for the long night of howling wolves.
"I’ll never get used to this cold!" he swore in a whisper, looking toward the curtained window of the pastor's study. What was he to do next? he wondered. Since Dr. Pikkard’s meddling little niece hadn't brought it out with her, she had clearly given the old man the briefcase belonging to her uncle. It was just too bad the professor had arranged to have it sent over from his hotel the last minute--the hotel purser must have been given the assignment. Then when they realized what had happened and followed the delivery route to Miss Kilpaison's boarding house, they got there just in time to see her hop in a cab-sleigh with it in hand and head out of town.
Where he had been dropped off, he had to walk in--a tramp had to go around like a tramp, which meant hoofing it most of the time and going without square meals and decent lodgings. Now thanks to Miss Kilpaison's generosity, he might have to terminate the old guy to get the papers. His employers were taking far too long to issue instructions, he thought, stamping his feet again. He had to make far too many decisions on the jobsite, which wasn't a good idea, considering they could hold him responsible for any mistake in strategy. It did not help matters either that his superiors held themselves scrupulously aloof from scrutiny. Who exactly his employers were, he did not know. He only knew they paid well, when they paid, in gold. That's all they allowed him to know about themselves.
He felt angrier than ever. He was thinking hard how he would have to do something fairly soon, or he would freeze to death right where he was! Knowing small towns, he couldn't take a car or horse into town without everyone inquiring and jawing about it, so he had hitched a ride to Shinar. Then, to make things more difficult, the parson's house was stuck right in the midst of a bunch of snoopy old ladies.
He finally decided to get the business over with, the best way he knew how.
He went to the back door again. It would be easy, a sure thing, he thought. A quick, silent slitting of the old duffer’s throat. He'd have the briefcase of papers and be off and running in five minutes flat.
The parson came at his knock, though it took him some minutes. He was holding a cat that was licking the cream from its chops. The tramp was ready with the right words.
"Sorry to bother you again, Your Worship, but can you find it in your heart to take in po' lone man out of the cold? Jist a rug on the floor is good enough for--" That was as far as he got. The cat spat, then sprang at the tramp, a clawing fury, and the tramp had to make an undignified dash for safety.
Dabbing at his scratches with his scarf, the tramp paused to rest a few blocks from the church. A car approached. Since there were so few cars in those parts, this had to be one of the few remaining "rich farmers" who could still afford motorized transportation--a nut-brown Metropolitan. The tramp saw his opportunity and flagged it down.
"Say, bub, you wouldn't happen to know of a place where a gent down on his luck could spend the night? I'm willing to put in some wood chopping or spud peeling for my board and eats, within reason, of course."
The farmer looked him over with a fishy eye as if he had never seen a stranger before in his part of the world--which might well have been the case. It took him a long while to answer, and he looked as if he might not. "Nope, sorry, we don’t take much to strangers in these parts. But you can ask that Dutchie parson we got here, who lives in the little house to the left of the church. He might know of some barn or hog pen you could put up in for the night. We don’t take much to--"
The tramp’s eye gleamed as he saw the lay of the land. "But, sir, I've already been to that crazy old Dutchman! Why, he done and sicked his tom cat on me after I was polite as you please. A regular tiger, I swear! I'd been clawed to ribbons if I hadn't outrun the awful, savage beast."
The farmer laughed. "Well, why didn't you say so! Hop in! Those Dutchies are pretty mean and tight as people go, sour vinegar in their veins, I wager! No gettin' any hoomanity out of them! All they keer about is stampin’ out blue corn hooch and keeping decent folks down under their wooden Dutch heel! So get in, son, I'll see you have a bed for the night if I have to turn the old lady out to the barn! We can't have strangers going away and tellin' folks we don't know to treat people right in these parts! Why, the Dutchies have a saying that hits the nail on the head, I say. And she goes, ‘He who wants to fish at night has to dry his nets during the day.’ And that about says it! Yessir! Yessir!"
So the tramp got not only a ride but spent most of the night playing cards with the farmer who took care to mend his nets during the day, while at night, instead of fishing, he proved only too glad for company even if it were a mere tramp's. And, on the tramp's part, it was pleasant to hatch his plans in comfort and warmth, though he yearned to quit the farmer’s boring, garrulous company and hit the sack.
"Ain't nobody made a red cent in these parts for years!" said the farmer with undiminished vigor, pouring the tramp another mug of homebrew hard cider. "And we're not takin' it any longer. The dang Dutch lib’rals done ruin’t everything--whatever, that is, their conservatories dint swallow first in taxes and penalties for not doin’ our farmin’ exactly their way and keepin’ the trees down where we ain’t plowin’ We've been hog-tied and squeezed to the last drop by the blood-suckin’ old buzzards on the East Coast long enough! Blue corn aint’ save us like we all thought it might! Why, it’s gettin’ colder and even blue corn won’t take much more! Yaas--sirreeeee, this country is due for a rev--rev--"
"Revolution, I suppose you mean," yawned the tramp, his eyes rolling up.
"Yes, that too, young fella! Since goin' broke on my last corn crop, the third in a row, I ain't been overly keen in my wits I been so upset! My old lady can tell ya that. Should I wake her? She can tell you a tale to curdle a mother duck’s milk. Did you get it? Mother duck’s milk? Hahahaha!
“No, I wouldn’t want to waken her from a deserved rest,” the tramp said quickly. He himself was startled wide-awake. “But you’re absolutely right! Absolutely right! The Dutchies have gone too far this time! Way too far, yessir baby, and don’t mean maybe!” He was still wondering how a farmer could stay up all night and still expect to do his chores in them morning when his host gave out a strange sound and slumped down, snoring, in his chair.
In the morning, after a surprisingly ample breakfast in such a poor, Dutch-oppressed household, the tramp had a ride back to town in a truck with the farmer, who had a dozen fatted-up turkeys to dispose of. The turkeys had already been crated by a hired man--a tubercular French-speaking migrant who coughed a lot--and then the tramp knew how the farmer got so much work done without doing any himself. They stopped at the Happy Skunk drugstore to fill some prescriptions. Then, sufficiently fortified, the tramp went back to watching the parson's house for another opportunity.