Report of X12 Sir Henry Hamilton KBE, 7th Marquess Bamburgh.
The onset of this case came about at a nadir of black despair for me. My cherished daughters of the earth, some of the most magnificent Flora Danica ever to put down roots, had been horribly disfigured by a severe contamination of Degritis Blight - a defilement that is unknown to occur naturally as it requires the impetus of mystical intervention. I have no doubt that upon my deathbed I shall, with the last breath of my body, cast maledictions upon the worthless soul of the miscreant mage who so basely assaulted me through such a contemptible means. I was as yet in the grips of horrified realisation of consequence upon the discovery of the signature silvery mold befouling the delicate petals of my horticultural darlings when I was informed of a communiqué from Star Chamber.
I recall little of the content of the missive, having destroyed it in strict compliance with Star Chamber Operating Procedure Enactments which require such action when one is not in a secure area. Though I do recollect that I was to appear in Star Chamber in three days time, I fear the dire predicament of my precious beauties drove all other nuance of the message from my brain.
I had arrangements made for rooms in London and allowed a day for the motor down the highways and byways of England to Star Chamber. I had only portions of two days, therefore, in which to deal with the Blight. With so little time to hand for the task, I was forced to be exceedingly severe in the necessary pruning to remove the infected portions from my ravaged belles after having dispelled the caustic aura of the acid incantation which incited and nourished the dreadful plague. I was not so distraught nor so hasty as to have erased the despicable conjuring without first noting its composition and intention, the signature marks of the casting mage - in their own ways as identifiable as fingerprints.
Having warded my greenhouses, and alerted my staff to require their utmost vigilance against suspicious interlopers, I set off for London in a brighter, if still dismal, state of mind. The journey passed pleasantly enough, without remarkable incident. I arrived in London Tuesday night and appeared in Star Chamber the following morning. I was quite cheered by the familiar presence of X21 Sir Rudolph Singh KCMG in X's outer office and his ever so kind offer of prayers for my ailing Danicas. I'm all too afraid those prayers shall be necessary.
Miss Honeypot ushered the pair of us in to X's sanctum where we found our sagacious leader in conversation with a gentleman hitherto unknown to me. He was (and is, I suppose) Sir William Smythe of the Office of the Exchequer. He had come to X at the behest of another cog in England's vast government owing to an official case of nerves concerning certain financial activities of Mr. Argent Silverpalm. Mr. Silverpalm had over the course of many years become an internationally recognized financier and gained an enviable reputation as a philanthropist through the charitable distribution of his enormous wealth. His stature was such that twelve European nations, amongst a larger international clientele, consulted him on financial matters to some degree.
Quite recently, Mr. Silverpalm had undertaken divesting himself and his financial empire of gold, platinum, copper, and all other metallic commodities save silver, which he begun to acquire in vast amounts. This trading caught the notice of the Exchequer, though there was no certainty to its meaning. Whether Mr. Silverpalm was merely reacting to the global market or he was manipulating the market himself, he was likely acting on information that could have disastrous consequences for the global economy. Unable to discover this underlying reason through its own means, the Exchequer had turned to the intelligence community for aid.
The gold cigarette box atop X's desk stood open, a signal that a mundane façade was to be maintained for the nonce. Sir William, it was to be deduced, was not aware that he was dealing with an organisation of a mystical nature. The question of why this matter was to be taken in hand by our office rather than by our mundane sister office could not, therefore, be raised. I held my curiosity in check until after X had escorted Sir William from the office with assurances that we should treat this case with all the wit and delicacy it so obviously required. When X returned to his desk, we got down to the root of the matter.
X produced a Star Chamber profile of Lily McMasters, the personal secretary to Argent Silverpalm. I am afraid that I do not have her X profile number to hand for this report. X said that Star Chamber had been keeping an eye on her for some time, and I could see why. She was quite a comely girl, aged 23 with blond hair and blue eyes. I recall that she was British and not known to have any mystical ability. X informed us, however, that she had recently traveled to the United States where she had been detected with magic about her. The detecting agent was from ORACLE, the Office for Research and Analysis of Clairvoyant Entities (the American office for mystical affairs; a minor office with little influence and apparently associated with both the FBI and CIA while being controlled by neither).
The Star Chamber profile for Argent Silverpalm (which number I am also, alas, unable to supply in this report) showed him to be 53 years old and Swiss. As with several gentlemen of his age and nationality after the late war, he had been accused of collaborating with the Nazis. These fallacious claims had been shown to be so much fluff by a war tribunal in 1948. Of more interest to Star Chamber, Mr. Silverpalm had become involved in financing an archaeological expedition to Peru in 1955. Star Chamber had opportunity to scan Mr. Silverpalm for mystical ability shortly thereafter and found him to be entirely mundane.
Professor Tolkein arrived to discuss with us, very briefly, the mystical and mythological applications of gold, silver, and other precious metals. Silver, of course, is outstanding for its magical aptitude just as bronze (an alloy of copper and tin) is incomparable for its negation of magic (some modern bronzes are made without tin, but, as these lack the appropriate mystical cancellation, we shall not consider them here). While it was theoretically possible that Silverpalm's acquisition of silver and divestment of the materials to manufacture bronze had magical motivations, it seemed far more likely that he had financial considerations in mind. The sheer power required to cast a spell of such magnitude as to need that mass of material was almost inconceivable, and should such a spell be cast there would be a very low probability that any material component would be used at all.
X turned the briefing to the practical matter of getting Sir Rudolph and me close to Mr. Silverpalm. Through the good work of our lads in the Foreign Office, an arrangement had been made for Mr. Silverpalm to advise the newly re-elected government of Pakistan on stabilising the financial basis of the country vis-à-vis the West. President Muhammad Ayub Khan, after renouncing martial law and bringing about a new constitution in 1962, had won election as president in January this year. With the divided country's relations becoming quite tense with their neighbour to the south, Pakistan desperately needed to get themselves on a solid monetary foundation.
Sir Rudolph was to present himself as Muhammad Sayed Singh, associate Finance Minister for Pakistan. I would be Mr. Edward Townshend, a representative of an interested British financial institution. The discussions would take place in America where Mr. Silverpalm was currently conducting business out of his New York office as he had an interest in the upcoming Kentucky Derby. Our assignment was necessarily vague, but we approached it without reservations.
Sir Rudolph and I descended to Q Branch to secure such personal papers as had been prepared for us in addition to the field equipment we were allowed to requisition. Sir Rudolph requested binoculars with photo capability which would be perfectly passable at a racecourse. We took, once again, communication wristwatches though these had been upgraded to show the phases of the moon since I last I had received one from stores. Q also supplied us with a clumsy pair of shoes which concealed the pieces of a small acetylene torch, which he thought might be useful in certain circumstances. C Branch was equally helpful, providing a cigarette case and lighter that cleverly disguised several of my more useful material components.
Sir Rudolph and I had been given passports and plane tickets amongst our other identification. We took flight across the Atlantic on British Airways, arriving in New York Thursday afternoon. We were met on arrival by ORACLE agent Barbara Jane Lipstrong. "B. J.", as she insisted we call her, had arranged for our meeting at Argent Enterprises the following day. I gratefully fell into the comforts of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel for the evening and felt fully refreshed the next day when we undertook our meeting with Mr. Silverpalm.
The offices for Argent Enterprises in New York City are housed on the 47th floor of the Empire State Building. The office is expensively decorated in mahogany with accents in gold and silver. Artwork from South America was tastefully displayed amongst the sumptuous furnishings provided for our relaxation as we awaited Mr. Silverpalm. Miss Lipstrong accompanied us in the guise of Billie Jean Liplock, my secretary. Mr. Silverpalm greeted us quite cordially and offered us refreshments, which I politely took in the form of a gin and tonic.
The meeting went quite well I thought, Sir Rudolph handling the necessary navigating of international financial discussion with great aplomb. As the monetary minutiae are scarcely relevant to the larger investigation, I shall not weigh down this report with the particulars of the discussion over Pakistani finance. I will mention, however, the discourse which arose when Lily McMasters came into the office. Mr. Silverpalm shifted his glance from Sir Rudolph to Miss McMasters when she entered the office. She informed him that Debonair was feeling off-peak. This news did not seem to ruffle his feathers, though I can't imagine that he was at all pleased to hear it. It did allow me the opening I desired to bring up his participation in the derby. Mr. Silverpalm was not shy on this subject, becoming quite animated and suggesting that Sir Rudolph and I should avail ourselves of the opportunity to see American horse racing at its finest. We assured him that we would make arrangements immediately following our meeting. As the hour was growing late and Mr. Silverpalm had an interest in departing New York for Kentucky, we agreed to recommence our discussion on Monday.
On our return to the Waldorf-Astoria, I secured a Racing Form, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Louisville (Kentucky) Courier-Journal. I hoped through reading these various publications that I should acquaint myself with the participants for the 91st Kentucky Derby. Lucky Debonair, the name of the horse which Miss McMasters had referred to with the short form Debonair, was not the favorite. That fell to Bold Lad at two-to-one, ridden by Bill Hartack who had won the Derby four times previously, his latest victory occurring just the year before. Lucky Debonair, ridden by Willie Shoemaker and listed at five-to-one behind three other horses, had been bred at Danada Farms and (interestingly) was owned by Mrs. Ada L. Rice according to the newspapers.
In reading through the various reports and descriptions of the horses, owners, breeders, and jockeys, I was overcome with a distinct hunch for Flag Raiser at post position 7 and listed at seven-to-one odds. Though his jockey had never previously won the Derby, he had ridden there before and must therefore be familiar with the track and the pressure of the situation. It simply occurred to me as the horse to back in the race.
Miss Lipstrong, Sir Rudolph, and I agreed that we should travel to Louisville by an early morning flight. Accordingly, I dined and retired early in the evening. The three of us gathered in the lobby shortly after six a.m. whereupon we had a light breakfast. We hired a taxi cab for the motor to the airport and soon found ourselves on the way to Louisville. The flight was monotonous and mercifully short. On our arrival at Louisville's Standiford Field, we deplaned, claimed our luggage, and hired a taxi cab to the Brown Hotel. Miss Lipstrong arranged for an automobile through her agency. Refreshed, we motored the short distance from our hotel to Churchill Downs.
On arriving at the track, I placed $50 wagers on Flag Raiser to win, and each way in a boxed exacta of Flag Raiser and Lucky Debonair, simply accepting the risk of not betting the favorite in favour of the potential return. Sir Rudolph and I decided to split up in order to cover more ground. He ventured towards the paddock to view the horses while I made my way towards the Winner's Circle Club and Mr. Silverpalm. In the egalitarian-for-a-price way of America, I was able to join Mr. Silverpalm merely by paying the entrance fee.
I found Mr. Silverpalm holding forth for a circle of wealthy acquaintances whom Miss Lipstrong identified variously as an archbishop, a bank president, a labour union president, and other such figures. We greeted each other warmly. At his inquiry, I showed him my wagers. He was pleased to see that I favored his horse, though I felt I should have wagered on Lucky Debonair to win rather than Flag Raiser had I wished to gain by flattery.
Owing to the numbers of persons wishing to shake Mr. Silverpalm's hand, I detached myself and went to view the track from the club windows. While the horses were being led from the paddock, Miss Lipstrong advised me that a busload of soldiers had been killed in an incident on the grounds of Fort Knox, though quite some distance from the famous gold depository. We agreed to meet after the race to discuss our course of action, then she went to inform Sir Rudolph of the occurrence. There was a delay of several minutes owing to billows of smoke arising in the clubhouse first turn area. There was apparently more smoke than fire, and there later seemed to be no affect on the race outcome from this minor distraction. Indeed, it seemed that many of the nearby patrons refused to give up their seats in any move to safety so near to post time, leading me to believe that the fire was of no consequence.
When the horses moved to the starting gate, the crowd in the club moved to the windows. I stepped back from the windows a bit as my height enabled me to view the action over the heads of the crowd. Mr. Silverpalm had managed to get near the windows off to my right, perhaps fifteen feet from me. Lucky Debonair broke cleanly from the gate, going to the fore through the opening furlong but dropping back a bit when his jockey took a snug hold nearing the sixteenth marker. Flag Raiser had, unfortunately, bumped with Carpenter's Rule early on but was quickly straightened away to overtake Lucky Debonair for a clear lead in the initial run through the stretch. Lucky Debonair did not drop far but moved up again to engage Flag Raiser midway of the first turn. Mr. Silverpalm beamed. Bold Lad and Tom Rolfe, outrun early, moved up on the outside in the backstretch to reach contention at the half mile pole. Mr. Silverpalm frowned. Flag Raiser came to the inside with Lucky Debonair continuing to duel along the outside to the final quarter while Dapper Dan moved up along the inside on leaving the backstretch. Mr. Silverpalm glowered.
As the leaders pounded through the final turn, I was aware that a large bowler-wearing gentleman, certainly Polynesian and perhaps Samoan, approached Mr. Silverpalm to whisper in his ear. Mr. Silverpalm reacted with a sneer and began to cast a spell. If purely mundane in 1955, he was no longer. Fearing an incident should magic be used to interfere in an event of this magnitude, I ensorcelled Mr. Silverpalm with a quick forget charm. If it did not entirely remove the memory that the race was proceeding badly for him, he most certainly could not recall what the Samoan had muttered just a moment before. In any case, he ceased his casting while realising that he'd just been charmed. I therefore chose to focus the whole of my attention on the race.
Flag Raiser had moved well in the final turn and led into the upper stretch. Bold Lad angled out sharply to launch his closing rally while Tom Rolfe dropped back a bit and Dapper Dan faded in the final stretch. Lucky Debonair, responding to strong handling, was gaining on Bold Lad, but Bold Lad then fully extended to turn back the belated bid. Flag Raiser won by a length, with Bold Lad placing over Lucky Debonair by a neck, dash it all. My disappointment over the missed the exacta, however, was assuaged by my joy at the wager I had placed on Flag Raiser to win.
Mr. Silverpalm had no such consolation to his loss which he seemed to be taking very badly. No doubt this was amplified by the stymied casting he had experienced in the final turn. His disappointment, however, was not allowed to cascade over his features for long as he adopted a guise of mere chagrin to greet the various acquaintances about him as they offered sympathy on his narrow loss. He was gracious to me when I took his hand, accepting my condolences and agreeing that I had suffered a misfortune as well in the loss of my exacta. In way of a certain fellowship, I felt, he invited me to attend a charity event he was sponsoring that very evening. I accepted on the spot, of course.
I found Miss Lipstrong and Sir Rudolph near the paddock, discussing the accident which had occurred at Fort Knox. The three of us concurred that the incident bore investigation as the scene was of national importance to America and the site was only thirty or forty miles distant. Whilst Miss Lipstrong drove to the site, Sir Rudolph informed me of his experiences at Churchill Downs. He had proceeded to the paddock after we had parted. He was unable to reach the rail in the press of the crowd, but had approached closely enough to enable him to conjure a spell to detect poisons within the horses. The dweomer revealed that both Flag Raiser and Bold Lad had been affected by an adverse substance. Sir Rudolph had then taken action to neutralise the poisons in each horse. His action, he felt, may have been observed by a rather large, bowler-wearing Polynesian man. Attired as he was in his role as Sayed Singh, he had thought the spell would be interpreted as a simple blessing did anyone notice him. It was not so, evidently, and thus the events in the club that had taken place during the final turn where Mr. Silverpalm had become so agitated.
Though the bus accident which claimed the lives of forty-two soldiers had occurred on the grounds of Fort Knox, when we arrived at the scene we were not within five miles of the depository. The bus had plunged approximately thirty feet from the deck of a bridge into mid-stream of the river below. What was distinctly odd about the occurrence was that the rails of the bridge were completely undamaged. The embankment clearly showed where the bus had been hauled from the river through the services of a tow-truck, but there was no evidence to show that the bus had descended along that track.
Sir Rudolph and I performed a detailed search along the span of the bridge. The disturbing gleanings of our search were some chips of mica and a few sesame seeds, materials that could be used in magical rituals to shatter glass and to create a temporary passage through solid matter respectively. I do not know if the windscreen of the bus been shattered before it made that fatal plunge, but I am certain that the bridge itself must have been altered to allow the bus to pass without damaging the structure. If this were the work of a mage, and it seemed to be so, then the desired result of the conjuring seemed to be forty-two dead bodies, for none aboard were unaccounted for. I felt as though the shadow of SPECTRE had fallen across the bridge.
Sir Rudolph and I felt that it was imperative to attend the charity event being hosted by Mr. Silverpalm. Were he involved in the occurrence at the Fort Knox bridge, and it would be too coincidental for my taste were he not, then we had to pursue the case as best we could through him. Miss Lipstrong argued that the bodies of the soldiers, now at rest in the base morgue, had to be inspected. Feeling that both lines of investigation needed to be pursued, we agreed that Miss Lipstrong would inspect the bodies in the morgue while Sir Rudolph and I proceeded to the charity event. Accordingly, we left Miss Lipstrong at the morgue and returned to the Brown Hotel to prepare for the soirée.
The mansion Mr. Silverpalm occupied, for I don't know if he owned it, lay ten or fifteen miles south of Louisville. The circular drive was ablaze with light, a large banner was strung across the portico bearing the words "Monte Carlo Night Sponsored by Argent Charities Ltd." We left the vehicle to the valet. We were greeted at the entrance by two charmingly beautiful women who induced us to purchase gaming chips in the name of charity. The low denomination was $1,000 U.S. dollars. I acquired $20,000 and hoped fervently that my earlier luck at the track would not abandon me. Sir Rudolph took a moment to detect for the presence of magic, finding that a woman dealing baccarat was aglow with the tell-tale traces.
I crossed to the baccarat table, arriving just as a gentleman vacated a seat across from the dealer. I lost and won at $1,000 whilst chatting up the dealer, Miss Mina Getois, a stunning brunette with an apparent love and affinity for Christian Dior. Sensing a strong undercurrent of tension, she suggested we raise the stakes. I responded coolly but encouragingly, enticing her to mention $5,000 as the new stake. I agreed, whereupon I quickly lost $10,000 in two hands which felt more like ambushes despite the narrow margin of my defeat. I was not, however, unstrung at the losses for Sir Rudolph had gained a position behind Miss Getois and I, if none other did, caught the faint trace of a casting from him.
I suggested that perhaps it would be better were we to raise the stake again, this time to $10,000. She arched her eyebrows in some surprise, yet agreed to the new stake. She must now have been aware of the results of Sir Rudolph's spell, for she gained a small frown and seemed a bit hesitant in her dealing. In the end, I had the better cards and I made good my wager. Miss Getois was unhappy at the loss, nearly distraught if I am any judge. She left the deal to another and departed the salon for the balcony. I followed.
We were alone for some minutes in conversation, but naught came of it. Though I was sympathetic and encouraging, she chose not to express her concerns but kept to neutral topics, ignoring my attempts to be supportive. Pity. The extent to which I learned anything was limited to her name, that she was born in the west of France, and that she favored Gauloise cigarettes. When she had finished her cigarette, we returned to the salon, parting at the door.
In my circling of the salon, set up with roulette and blackjack in addition to baccarat, I came across Mr. Silverpalm. His usual somewhat jovial manner was in place once more, as though the event of the day had all gone his way rather than against him. He invited me to have a drink, which I accepted. I asked him whether he thought Pakistan's investments in precious metals should be weighted toward a single commodity or that it should be spread across a spectrum of metals. He said with confidence and no hesitation that the investment should be strongly constituted of gold purchases. He then mentioned that we would discuss this and more on Monday before taking his leave.
I cannot say when Miss Lipstrong arrived, but I caught sight of her in conversation near one of the blackjack tables. Sir Rudolph and I mingled, sounding out various people on their connections to Mr. Silverpalm. Not one was in any way remarkable or memorable. The event seemed to be just what it was advertised to be, a chance to fleece the rich sheep of their wool in the interest of charity, the sole anomaly being Miss Getois. It was not odd, therefore, that Miss Lipstrong, Sir Rudolph, and I all noticed when a note was carried to Miss Getois.
The effect of the note was immediate. Miss Getois took her leave and departed the party in a red Jaguar. Sir Rudolph and I cashed out whilst Miss Lipstrong brought round the car. I requested that I be permitted to take the wheel and Miss Lipstrong did not demure. I did this for the purpose of casting a mild dweomer of vision upon myself such as I had once used in the desert south of Cairo last year. The results were satisfactory as I was able to trace the passage of Miss Getois' vehicle by the trail of her exhaust without having her automobile in view. The disadvantage of this tailing method caught up to us a bit when I missed a turn and had to backtrack through my own exhaust trail, but we were put to rights shortly and came across Miss Getois' Jaguar parked alongside a farm house.
Sir Rudolph and I split up, requesting Miss Lipstrong to remain with the car for she had revealed that she had no experience as a field agent. It is the stated position of ORACLE, it seems, that its agents are far too valuable to risk in the field. They function solely out of positions remote from the field, communicating their findings to agents of other organisations for action. That these other agents are unprepared to deal with mystical activity is wholly unaccounted for in the practice is a limitation they are willing to accept. I cannot fathom how awful the results would be were Star Chamber to adopt a similar attitude towards its agents.
I had taken the left whilst Sir Rudolph circled to the right as we attempted to locate Miss Getois in the darkness before us. The sound of hooves departing in the night revealed her location and new form of transportation. I hurried to the barn knowing that Sir Rudolph would pursue on foot. By the light of a quarter moon, unless she were extremely familiar with the area, Miss Getois could not possibly out-distance Sir Rudolph over rough terrain. Still, I did not dally in my application of saddle and halter to a good-looking bay. Miss Lipstrong made an appearance in the barn as I was preparing to mount. I indicated that I would be attempting to locate Miss Getois and Sir Rudolph in the dark, and that she was to remain at the farm house. I cannot overstate my gratitude that she did not.
The vision spell I had cast in the automobile still served to heighten my vision as I took up the chase once again. Knowing that I was getting desperately behind times in the pursuit, I threw caution to the wind and goaded my steed to a rapid pace in an attempt to make up ground on the quarry. The traces of earlier passage grew stronger as I progressed, though not nearly quickly enough to satisfy me. I had known that we traveled for fifteen or twenty minutes in the automobile from Mr. Silverpalm's estate, and that we had been traveling a southerly route. Still, I must admit I was surprised to come across a sign warning of the dangers one should encounter were one to trespass upon the grounds of Fort Knox. I could not urge my beast to a greater speed, and so had to endure the knot in my stomach a while longer than I should have liked.
The rather circuitous route I followed wound through trees and kept from the roads. When I began to detect the lights of several buildings ahead, Sir Rudolph stepped from behind a tree to halt the progress of my mount. We had, he found, approached very nearly to the base hospital. I dismounted and left the horse amongst the trees. We crossed to a secondary entrance of the hospital which Sir Rudolph was certain Miss Getois had used. I used a simple conjuration to open the door, bypassing the alarm system. We followed signs leading to the basement morgue. We opened the door and found Mina Getois wearing a black body suit, seated in the lotus position on a gurney, and chanting. Sir Rudolph asked her what she hoped to accomplish. She opened her eyes, smiled, and replied simply "This," at which she disappeared.
Sir Rudolph immediately cast to dispel magic in the area, which should have revealed Mina Getois had she become invisible and remained in the area. Unfortunately, she did not then reappear. Many of the stainless steel drawers along the wall had begun to open, however, as the newly undead soldiers from the bus crash began to crawl forth. Sir Rudolph's anti-magic conjuration had fortuitously disabled several of them despite not affecting Mina Getois. The others were quickly swarming from their drawers. I conjured forth a large, sticky mass of webs into that section of the morgue, an blanket restraint which ensnared a large number of the roused dead. I had placed the spell in such a way that I hoped would leave Sir Rudolph and me free to move whilst the ghouls, for this is indeed what Mina Getois had raised, would be entangled in the clinging mass of the web. Unfortunately for me, some ghouls had roamed free of the area of effect, leaving me facing five fanged fiends while effectively unarmed.
Sir Rudolph raised the holy symbol of his faith before him and boldly faced the ravening dead. At his blazing command to "Begone!", several of the unnatural creatures collapsed into death once more. Unhappily, this included only one of the monsters that had not become ensnared in the web. The other four pounced upon me, rending my flesh with their pestilential claws. The foul talons of ghouls, as is commonly known, carries a nasty taint of poisonous material which can leave one paralysed in an instant. I succumbed to the virulent venom, sagging to the floor no longer able to control my limbs.
At the same time the ghouls leapt upon my body, Mina Getois cold-cocked Sir Rudolph from behind. She had, despite our effort to detect it, remained in the area under a cloaking aura of invisibility. We were then in greatest jeopardy of our lives, for Sir Rudolph lay insensate whilst I had not even the power to blink my own eyes leaving us at the mercy of Mina Getois and her frenzied pack of devils. Our fate was not then sealed, however as she chose to sweep from the room calling her charges with her. Some few of the ghouls trapped just in the fringes of the web I had created managed to break free and join the marauders already in train to their mistress.
I cannot say for certain how long I lay on that white linoleum floor listening to the unearthly howls of the ghouls still trapped in the webs. Certainly it seemed longer than the five or ten minutes we later estimated it to be. It was with a great feeling of relief that I heard the door opening followed by a gasp of surprise given out by Miss Lipstrong. She roused Sir Rudolph from his unconscious state, then attempted to rouse me as well, though I could not respond. Sir Rudolph strode to the conjured web and brought forth the power of his religion in commanding the remaining ghouls there to begone. With the howling horde silenced, Sir Rudolph was able to turn his attention to me and relieve me of my constraining paralysation.
With no time to dally, we departed the morgue and rushed in Mina Getois' wake to the depository. Our ears were assaulted along the way with a new howling, the anxious klaxon of the alarm horns sounding as security breaches occurred. We asked Miss Lipstrong if there were anti-magic wards on the depository. She replied that there were indeed wards in place, but only around the artefacts. Neither I nor Sir Rudolph had been aware that the Americans kept a store of artefacts in Fort Knox, though we later found that every other soul involved in the case had taken the knowledge for granted. I don't know that this lapse of information unduly affected our reasoning throughout the earlier portion of the case, but it seems that it might have been significant.
I asked Miss Lipstrong if she were at all familiar with the layout of the depository and she acknowledged that she was, through her service with ORACLE. I then asked if she could point to an exterior wall which would not have anti-magic wards placed on them, yet would be near the artefact section of the structure. I explained that I wished to bespell a portion of the wall so as to allow our passing through it in order to bypass the raging gun battle which was so evident to our ears.
I must say at this point that Miss Lipstrong seemed a bit amazed at my ability to conjure with such power, leaving me to wonder at the capabilities of ORACLE's mages. The very name of the organization makes it clear that they are specialists in Telepathy and sensing spells, and Miss Lipstrong's castings in this domain were always strong and confidently performed. Her knowledge of all other spells, conversely, was bookish and not experiential at all.
Resuming the narrative, the effort to bypass the physical mass of the structure cost me far more dearly than I liked for though familiar with the spell, I had not prepared for the casting and I had not the necessary components to hand. These limitations forced me to compensate by greatly taxing my reserves. The cost was entirely justified in the circumstances, and so I set about the endeavour.
Having bypassed the exterior wall of the depository, we found ourselves in a corridor with many doors and several intersecting corridors. The sounds of gunfire were plainly audible in one direction, Miss Lipstrong indicated that the store of artefacts was in another. We proceeded toward the artefacts. Along the way we found two sliding doors made of iron bars which had been ripped from their moorings and tossed aside, signs that the intruders had indeed preceded us along the route. In the artefact storage room itself we found that several crates had been broken open, the packing material within strewn about.
The unnatural movement of objects before us alerted us to the presence of someone or something moving about invisibly. I reacted by casting a quick charm of anti-magic at the seemingly missing source of the disturbance. As this had no effect, Sir Rudolph once more called upon the power of Vishnu to thwart the undead. This was followed (not through the direct action of cause and effect way, but rather through a sequence of events culminating at the same time) by Sir Rudolph levitating off the floor and Odd Yob becoming visible whilst holding Sir Rudolph by his shirt front. It occurred to me immediately that were Odd Yob responsible for the displaced doors in the corridor, and I supposed that he was, that Sir Rudolph was about to experience a severe amount of pain. My reaction to this thought was to magically reduce the hulking brute who so resembled the "after" illustration in the muscle-building advertisements one sees to the smaller dimensions of the "before" illustration. As Sir Rudolph's weight then exceeded the limits of Odd Yob's strength and leverage, Odd Yob fell to the floor, flattened beneath the weight he had lifted so easily a moment before. Sir Rudolph struck the pinned man a single blow to render him unconscious.
Miss Lipstrong, as I stated earlier, had a familiarity with the artefact storage area through her service with ORACLE. She verified the contents of the vault in short order and found that although several crates had been opened, none of the cataloged artefacts was missing. Puzzled, she noted that unlike the other artefacts which had been left in their crates, the Philosopher's Stone had been set aside on a table. A spell to detect magic would have failed had we utilised it for it is in the nature of the ancient artefacts that such charms will fail to show the power of the items. As Miss Lipstrong had access to the spell with which to turn lead into gold through the power of the Philosopher's Stone, a quick test revealed that the stone in our possession had no power whatsoever. Why the villains had not replaced the true artefact with the sham is beyond my ken and ability to report. I can only state that indeed, they failed so to do.
All the while that we were engaged in our testing of the stone, the soldiers up the corridor had shown an amazing tenacity in firing off ammunition over a sustained period. A squad of the beleaguered devils entered the vault to request aid as it seemed that while bullets merely pushed the ghouls about a bit, the ricochets were beginning to demoralise the troops. Sir Rudolph went off down the corridor to lend his able assistance. Miss Lipstrong asked the troops to take Odd Yob off to the stockade. I warned Miss Lipstrong that she had best prevent anyone from casting near Odd Yob the sort of anti-magic spell which causes pre-existing spells to fail, for should that happen he would most likely return to his "after" picture form. She assured me that he would be incarcerated wearing a ring which would cause spells to reverse upon their caster. Sir Rudolph returned from his sojourn down the corridor. He was followed closely by the entirely unsurprising report that the intruder in the black body suit had made good its escape into the night.
I inquired of Miss Lipstrong the nature and history of the missing artefact. She told me that the Philosopher's Stone had been recovered from the Nazis after the late war. The Americans had taken it into safekeeping as Britain had apparently taken other such objects. This particular artefact is said to have two powers: that it may be used to change base metals into gold, and that it may be used to create an elixir which will grant an extended life span - perhaps even immortality. Miss Lipstrong informed us that extensive research and experimentation had been performed with the Philosopher's Stone and that all of this had failed to produce an elixir with this property. It did, nevertheless, possess the other power attributed to it.
Sir Rudolph and I felt that, though it was extraordinarily early in the day in London, we needed to check in with our superiors. We were not surprised, therefore, that X was not available, but we were quite pleased to be able to speak with Professor Tolkein. He said that he was aware that the Americans had the Philosopher's Stone, they had taken it from the Nazis. When we suggested that Mr. Silverpalm might make use of the stone in order to devalue the price of gold, Professor Tolkein chuckled and said that the stone was prohibitively inefficient in transmuting base metals to gold. It did not seem possible that Mr. Silverpalm would be able to produce the sheer quantity of gold that would be necessary to affect the global economy. He suggested that there might be some other reason for taking the stone.
At this point, while we were aware that Silverpalm was up to something and that the purloining of the stone was a portion of the plot, we still had no notion what final goal Silverpalm had in mind. We suspected that he might fly the country with the stolen artefact, and we did not wish to be left behind were he to do so. Another consideration was that Sir Rudolph and I had need to recover ourselves that we should have the capacity for further spell-casting if that were to prove necessary. We decided, however audacious it might seem, that it would be most prudent for us to sleep in Silverpalm's estate. We should then be at the centre of his activities and yet gain the respite we so sorely needed.
We arrived back at the house somewhere about two in the morning. I scaled one of the walls and disabled the alarms at a window. A bit of an unlock charm took care of the window fastening, and so I gained entrance. A patrolling guard gave Sir Rudolph and Miss Lipstrong a tense moment, but his inattentiveness made evasion superfluous. I was soon joined by the pair of them. Sir Rudolph and I took the opportunity to rest and recover our strength while Miss Lipstrong applied to the house her strong talents for scrying out information.
Miss Lipstrong roused us at seven in the morning. The Philosopher's Stone was not on the premises. The household was calm and there was no bustle for a hasty departure. The only airplane tickets Miss Lipstrong located were for Mr. Silverpalm to return to New York, though she found an intinerary for Miss McMasters flight to New York at six o'clock that morning. Neither Miss McMasters nor Mina Getois were in the house. We decided that Sir Rudolph and I should return to New York for our meeting on Monday with Mr. Silverpalm. Miss Lipstrong would utilise the resources of ORACLE to attempt to locate Mina Getois. Miss Lipstrong drove Sir Rudolph and me to the Brown hotel. We hired a taxi cab for the ride to the airport.
The flight was uneventful and we arrived at the Waldorf-Astoria. The desk clerk handed two messages to Sir Rudolph. The first was a telegram from X instructing us to concentrate on Silverpalm himself, not on the Philosopher's Stone. The second informed us that Miss McMasters had emplaned for Paris at noon, an hour before we had landed in New York, and that surveillance would be taken up by Star Chamber. I had thought to spend my day quietly at the hotel, but the concierge intimated that he had a theatre ticket available should I care to hurry to a matinée. I hired a taxi to attend the afternoon performance at the Billy Rose Theatre, a production entitled "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" The performance of Uta Hagen, I assure you, should not be witnessed by any man who has matrimonial intentions. I had dinner in the hotel and was grateful to pass a quiet and restful evening.
Our meeting with Mr. Silverpalm being scheduled at ten o'clock the next morning, Sir Rudolph and I met in the lobby after breakfast. We traveled to Mr. Silverpalm's offices in a taxi cab. Though the hour was early, Mr. Silverpalm offered us refreshments. I accepted a gin and tonic so as not to seem rude or priggish. We thanked Mr. Silverpalm for his inducement to view the Derby, and again expressed our condolences. He accepted our solicitude with a graciousness which had been absent only two days before. The particulars of Pakistani pecuniary policy are no more interesting or relevant to this report than had been the case in our prior session. Let me only say that once again Sir Rudolph met the challenge of discussing international finance with a façade of fascination which can only have convinced Mr. Silverpalm of our sincerity. So much so, in fact, that Mr. Silverpalm extended to us an invitation to join a rather exclusive meeting of finance ministers aboard his luxury yacht the "Argentnaut", anchored in the harbor at Nice, three days hence on Thursday, the sixth of May. Sir Rudolph accepted, of course.
Our travel arrangements necessitated a flight to Paris where we would change planes for Nice. The plane to Paris departed Tuesday morning from La Guardia Airport at six a.m. Having the afternoon free, we decided to act the part of an official governmental representative and his advisor to the extent that we visited the United Nations and took a bit of a tour. That evening we dined on French cuisine in Manhattan at La Croustillante. Il était magnifique, et je vous recommande ce restaurant. On our return to the Waldorf-Astoria, the desk clerk handed me a message from Miss Lipstrong. Oddly, ORACLE had been unable to locate Mina Getois. Fortuitously, Miss Lipstrong had included a telephone number at which we could contact her. I telephoned immediately to inform her that Sir Rudolph and I were proceeding to Nice. She agreed to join us there, carrying on in her role as my secretary and, of course, as our liaison to ORACLE.
The transatlantic flight passed as well as could be expected; the less said the better, I suppose. We had not time between planes in Paris to inquire after Miss McMasters, though both Sir Rudolph and I were curious what she was up to away from Mr. Silverpalm. We arrived in Nice in the evening on Wednesday the fifth of May. We secured rooms with a view of the harbor at the Massena Hotel in the heart of Nice. Mr. Silverpalm's yacht, the "Argentnaut", was clearly visible riding at anchor no more than one thousand yards off-shore. Miss Lipstrong arrived not ten minutes after own arrival. The three of us met in Sir Rudolph's room to discuss the situation after we had refreshed ourselves following the day of travel.
Miss Lipstrong declared with confidence that Mina Getois was no longer in America for ORACLE had been unable to locate her. She might, therefore, be in Europe or South America. Sir Rudolph theorised that it was possible that Miss McMasters and Mina Getois were one and the same person. We had never seen the two of them together, but this was unremarkable for we had seen very little of either of them. Yet the possibility existed, so Sir Rudolph alerted Star Chamber of our suspicion that they might notify the field team watching Miss McMasters.
Miss Lipstrong also mentioned that ORACLE was scanning worldwide for any use of the Philosopher's Stone. As we spoke, she suddenly looked away as though looking at something that was not in the room. In a moment she had refocused her gaze and told us that Odd Yob had escaped his cell in Fort Knox. He had overpowered a guard, and there was no magic used to liberate him. How had he overpowered a guard in his condition? Miss Lipstrong was unable to supply us with details.
Our thoughts turned to our meeting of the morrow and our eyes turned again to the Argentnaut in the harbor. I extended my powers and cast a spell of mystical detection on the yacht. Miss Lipstrong laid a hand on my shoulder to observe the results with me. There was no magic aboard the yacht, yet there was null spot aboard which is the characteristic sign of a bronze box. My scan could not reach anything within that box. That Mr. Silverpalm had such a box worried at me for I surmised that it might have something to do with his plot.
Once the scan was complete and I had released the spell, Sir Rudolph alerted Miss Lipstrong and I that a shadowy figure in a doorway below was certainly watching the area. Miss Lipstrong and I informed Sir Rudolph of the results of the scan. Sir Rudolph opined that it would not contain the Philosopher's Stone for that would have been impervious to my scan without the box. I decided that I should get aboard the boat to investigate the box. Miss Lipstrong desired to infiltrate with me but I demurred and she acquiesced. We agreed that she would stand by in a motorboat in case I should need backup or assistance in departing the scene.
I believed that the best approach would be for me to teleport myself some one hundred yards to the far side of the boat where I would not be back-lighted by the city itself. Sir Rudolph and I waited thirty minutes after Miss Lipstrong's departure in order to give her time to secure a boat. I requested that Sir Rudolph place a spell of silence upon me in order to eliminate the sound of the splash when I entered the water. We coordinated the timing of our spell-casting so that I could complete my spell at the same time the silence took hold with the result that neither of us would expend any extra effort while achieving the desired outcome.
I appeared just at the water level and slipped noiselessly into the sea. Sir Rudolph released the silence spell mere moments after my entry to prevent an odd silence affecting the yacht as I approached. My trusty elven necklace allowed me to breathe underwater as I swam towards the yacht. Disdaining both the aft ladder and the anchor chains, I scaled the side of the boat where I could most take advantage of shadows on the deck. I quickly conjured myself invisible before any of the guards aboard noticed my presence. My elven boots allowed me to noiselessly slip over the decks to the companionway; I proceeded quietly below. A very large guard carrying a firearm with a truly amazing rate of fire stood inconveniently before a cabin door I considered most likely to give access to the bronze box. I retreated topside to avoid someone bumping into me in the narrow corridors below while I considered my alternatives.
I opted to traverse along the larboard rail of the yacht, on the lee side (as it were) from Nice and its lights. I located a porthole roughly where I thought the cabin to be. A quick conjuration of the opening incantation I had used to enter the window on Mr. Silverpalm's estate gained me access to this cabin aboard his yacht as well. The porthole was a very tight squeeze indeed, making me extremely grateful for my slender build. A hasty examination of the files about the desk revealed portfolios compiled on the ministers of several nations including Spain, Italy, Sweden, and Pakistan. A photograph of Sir Rudolph evidently taken in Mr. Silverpalm's New York office graced the last folder.
While looking behind the artwork hung on the cabin walls I found a Brawn's Security safe. I had not expected to come across such a rare and devious device aboard the Argentnaut or I should have better prepared myself for such an apparatus. I felt, however, that I would not likely have time alone in this cabin again. As a consequence, I spent the next hour attempting unsuccessfully to open the safe. Fortunately, Miss Lipstrong was able to reach me to inform me that a small boat was nearing the yacht, for such was my concentration on the matter at hand that I had not noticed the approaching engine. I set the combination dial to the orientation it had had when first I found the safe. I slipped through the porthole and reset its lock only moments before Mr. Silverpalm entered the cabin. He checked the Brawn's box and did not notice that I had been in the cabin.
I slipped into the water and began to swim towards Nice. I met Miss Lipstrong some distance from the Argentnaut. She again expressed her desire to be a field agent, but noted sadly that ORACLE was only grudgingly allowing her to accompany Sir Rudolph and me owing to the urgency of the situation. I must say that Miss Lipstrong certainly showed the nerve and ability required of a field agent, I cannot fault the ORACLE policies entirely simply for being ignorant of the actual dicta. I cannot, however, comprehend the lack of application of competent agents to the field where they would be most useful to the security needs of their nation.
Miss Lipstrong awoke in the wee hours of the morning with the knowledge that the Philosopher's Stone had been utilised almost under our very noses; in fact, in the penthouse suite of the Hotel Royale in Nice. I alerted Sir Rudolph that we would be departing the hotel in five minutes time. The three of us met in the lobby. We engaged an idle taxi cab at the hotel door for the short ride over to the Royale, a much gaudier and brightly lit establishment than the Massena. Sir Rudolph informed Miss Lipstrong and me that he had earlier been to the Royale and he had seen Miss McMasters there on the arm of a well-to-do, though brash, young man in the hotel casino. They had used the elevator that gives access to the penthouse suite.
We proceeded to use that same elevator, though we exited one level below the penthouse on the eleventh floor. We entered the stairwell and climbed to the next door. I conjured up a small viewing spell and caused it to sweep under the door into the corridor beyond. A burly gentleman stood before the doors of the suite with a rather bland and bored expression on his face. My view swept under the doors of the suite and into the spacious rooms beyond. I soon had vision into the large bedroom of the suite. A man, whom I assume was Miss McMasters escort in the casino below, was prostrate just beyond the doorway. Miss McMasters was reclining peacefully on the bed, though she seemed to my gaze to be rather a golden effigy of that young lady. As Miss Lipstrong had her hand upon my shoulder once again, I had only to inform Sir Rudolph of the scene I had viewed, including the pertinent information that an exterior window stood open.
Sir Rudolph led the way to the roof, where we propped open the door for easy re-entry. Sir Rudolph and I descended the exterior wall of the hotel and entered the suite through the window. The gentleman in the doorway was alive, but had gained a large knot on the back of his head. Miss McMasters, on the other hand, was quite dead. Her skin had seemingly been changed to solid gold, though not her clothing nor apparently her internal flesh as there was definite give when I applied pressure on her arm. An all-too-real gilding of the Lily. Her purse stood open on a dressing table. A small coin-purse within left open and empty would have been a good fit for the Philosopher's Stone. The only other item of interest was a bit of powdered lime found beside the bed, a possible component for the sort of charm which will render flesh into stone.
Once more upon the roof, Sir Rudolph and I shared our findings with Miss Lipstrong. She commented that the Philosopher's Stone will not function on flesh, though it will affect stone; ergo our surmise about the transmogrification of Miss McMasters' epidermis is likely to have been correct. We descended the stair to the eleventh floor and then proceeded to the lobby. I felt that the nature of the crime scene was such that it should not be left to the attention of the mundane police, so in the interest of international cooperation we alerted La Séance to the murder before departing the hotel. We returned to the Massena to slumber for the remaining hours of the night.
Sir Rudolph, Miss Lipstrong, and I met the following morning for breakfast in the hotel dining room. The crêpes aux fraises were perfection, light and yet filling, and the café was magnifique. We arrived at the dock a bit before time. There were one or two other parties already awaiting transport out to the Argentnaut via the water taxis which plied the harbor. We chatted with some Spaniards on the dock, then followed them out to the yacht in the next available craft. We were greeted on our arrival by Mina Getois, which put something of the kibosh on Sir Rudolph's little theory. It was still possible, however unlikely, that the corpse in the hotel room was not in fact Miss McMasters but that of some other person metamorphosed into her shape. As there was no discernible affect on our investigation, we did not pursue the matter.
It took some time to ferry the various delegations over to the Argentnaut. The waiting was made most enjoyable with a glass or two of Philipponnat Clos Des Goisses 1954. When all guests had arrived and taken time to enjoy the champagne, Mr. Silverpalm made his appearance. He only lacked a peaked cap to complete a picture of the gentleman mariner. He called for our attention, which was completely unnecessary, and professed his gratitude that we had been able to meet with him. He apologised for the very short notice, but stated that he had valuable information which would be worthless in the next day or two when it became common knowledge.
The most productive of the Western Australia gold mines, he said, had suffered catastrophic damage Thursday last. The net loss of production would be sufficient to cause a significant increase in the price of gold not only for the next year, but for the next several years. For those buyers with liquid capital and nerve, a brief window existed within which an enormous profit could be secured without risk. Understandably, there would be those who regretted the good fortune of those who took advantage of circumstance, but Mr. Silverpalm felt that these would be the same parties who kept a stranglehold on the world economy today. In keeping with his recognized philanthropic spirit, Mr. Silverpalm was informing the gathered ministers to allow them an opportunity to seize fortune and improve the influence of their nations. He then stated that he personally had the ability to broker twenty billion U. S. dollars, which is something over eight and one-half billion pounds! Those interested and ready to commit to a purchase were invited to Mr. Silverpalm's personal office aboard.
The Italian representative flatly said no to the offer, but his stance turned volte-face when Mina Getois fiddled with a ring at his elbow. Sir Rudolph adopted a jolly expression in simulation of a minister about to secure an international coup whilst I adopted a sour mien and expressed reservations in order to allow us to escape with no worse than a non-committal response in the end. I allowed Sir Rudolph to draw me into the more exclusive meeting in Mr. Silverpalm's office.
In attendance below decks, beside Italy and ourselves as Pakistan, stood administrators for Spain, Sweden, and Mexico. When Mr. Silverpalm asked how seriously we took his proposition, Italy at once committed to the staggering figure of ten billion U. S. dollars. The other ministers in the cabin glanced about in surprised reaction. Spain then spoke for one billion U. S. dollars, as did Sweden and Mexico. Sir Rudolph and I put our heads together for some heated discussion, ultimately refusing to participate on the grounds that Pakistan was on no footing to commit a significant portion of its assets on such a venture. Mr. Silverpalm seemed unfazed at our withdrawal, merely asking us to remove ourselves topside and to treat the discussion as privileged information. We agreed and went out for more champagne.
On seeing Mina Getois amid the international delegates on deck, I realised the chance to search her cabin undisturbed. I inquired of a crew member the location of a loo. I went below and found the indicated water closet. I conjured myself invisible once again, this time to invade Mina Getois' cabin. It took me some time to locate the correct cabin owing to the traffic through the narrow passageways which caused me no end of gymnastics to avoid the ship's personnel and prevented the easy opening of various doors. Having located her boudoir at last, I then searched it thoroughly while attempting to leave everything as I had found it. This prolonged the search, but I felt it needed to be done.
A hasty scan for magic in the area showed positive on a few rings and several bottles of perfume. This convinced me that Mina Getois had arrived that morning for there had been no magic aboard the previous evening. The only other item of interest in the room was a map showing the Americas, Europe, and Africa. A pencil line had been drawn from Louisville to Nice, another from Nice to Peru. Along these two lines I found several sets of numerals suffixed severally with the Greek characters gamma, theta, lambda, sigma, and chi. The figures were meaningless to me, yet the locations used as end points were not. I copied the figures to a slip of paper and placed this within my sock.
I returned to the loo where I dispelled the invisibility from my frame. I splashed water on my face and loosened my collar before tottering to the deck. Mina Getois accosted me before I was able to locate Sir Rudolph. She asked if I were feeling well with a becoming amount of polite concern. I replied that I felt rather queasy and that I needed to find my associate. She suggested that I depart by the next water taxi in order to keep my time afloat to a minimum and that she would inform Sir Rudolph of my departure. I thanked her and went to the water taxi access. There were no other passengers desiring passage at the time, leaving me alone with the pilot of the craft as we pulled away from the yacht. He asked me if I were feeling well. I replied that I felt more than a bit queasy. He shot me with a dart from a small black pistol.
I woke to find myself held in a rusty hold, Miss Lipstrong cradling my head in her lap. Sir Rudolph was pacing the limits of our cell taking stock of the situation. One half of the chamber was plated in solid sheets of metal, the other had barred grilles top and bottom. As though he had been awaiting my return to consciousness, Silverpalm's voice rang out in the cell. He told us that our cage had been very specially prepared for us being made of bronze under a plating of iron. Of additional interest to us was that we were then aboard a self-ballasting ship which would be taking on water into our compartment. We should not, however, fear drowning for the ghouls stored below us would no doubt consume us first.
Sir Rudolph wondered whether Silverpalm had come to gloat or had he something else in mind? Silverpalm then inquired of us who it was we work for. We were evasive, of course, though we attempted to draw out Silverpalm as best we could. When it seemed he really would leave, Sir Rudolph brought up the Philosopher's Stone. Silverpalm hesitated, and Sir Rudolph elaborated that we knew Miss McMasters had been turned to gold, the Stone itself had gone missing, and that we suspected that Mina Getois was involved. Silverpalm laughed and congratulated us on our accuracy. Mina Getois, he said, had punished Miss McMasters at his order. Miss McMasters had apparently fallen afoul of Silverpalm by not delivering the Stone to Nice in a timely manner, and at that having in tow a certain Mr. Ian Bratton, a man of some means and an unfortunate interest in Miss McMasters. Her death was a demonstration that all who cross the interests of Argent Silverpalm shall die. Our deaths would also serve this purpose. His mocking laughter was the last we heard of him.
Immediately following the departure of Silverpalm we heard several loud clanking noises followed by a great raspy grinding sound. A shift in the flooring alerted us to a sinking feeling, and the sound of rushing waters became evident. The source of the grinding noise was the mechanism raising the grille section of our cell floor. Completing the cacophony of sudden noise came the eerie howling of a pack of ghouls. I raised myself hurriedly to the upper grille of our cell to attempt to bypass the lock. As it had an electronic component, I attempted to short it out with a slight electrical hex which only succeeded in giving a shock to my companions through the conductivity of the cell. Miss Lipstrong handed up a hair pin to use as a tool on the lock, but it availed me naught.
The rapidly rising waters were carrying the wailing undead toward us at a terrible rate. Sir Rudolph stood forth to banish their undead spirits, but the sheer number of them defeated his attempt. I created another web spell, hanging it off the grilles of our prison, to restrain the awful beasts. This sufficed to give Sir Rudolph sufficient time to deal with the hapless horde. I dispersed the ensnaring strands as the water height reached over my waist. My captors had not stripped my elven necklace from me, leaving me the ability to survive underwater. I cast spells of water breathing upon my companions to enable them to do the same. We swam down the shaft below the grille toward the ballast inlet. We found another sturdy grille across the bottom of the shaft.
Sir Rudolph removed his shoes and assembled the emergency acetylene torch with which Quartermaster had supplied us. Though necessarily equipped with a minute fuel supply, it was enough to remove one bar from the grille over the exit. We were able to slip through this gap to freedom. We swam up to get our bearings, breaking the surface quietly. We were far from shore, though the lights of Nice were visible in the distance. We elected to take one of the motorboats we could see at the base of the boarding ladder of the anchored freighter despite possible presence of guards on deck. We submerged once more to approach the hindmost boat on the far side from the ladder.
The roar of the motorboat's overloud engine alerted the guards aboard to our presence. We fled the area amidst an inaccurate hail of bullets. To our dismay, several guards descended to the other boats to give chase. The really disappointing facet of the situation was that we had not selected either of the fastest boats in which to flee. We were forced, under the circumstances, to wend our way betwixt anchored ships in the harbor, using their armored sides to deflect the projectiles being directed our way. If fortune had failed me in my choice of aquatic vehicle, it favored me in the lack of skill with which my pursuers piloted their own craft. When they divided to conquer, we were able to foil their attempt by inducing them to collide at a rather dangerous velocity.
We were shortly able to dock with a minimum of fuss, disclaiming involvement in the chaotic affair which had taken place in the murky darkness. We stated that we had no desire to cross paths with drunken boaters and that we had therefore avoided their haphazard courses. We had our greatest stroke of fortune in finding our luggage intact on our return to the Massena Hotel. Having no desire to fend off visitors in the night, we decided to check out forthwith. We did not hire a taxi cab, choosing to liberate a local sedan from its owner for the evening. We removed ourselves from the city at a sedate and seemly pace.
We found a late night supper, available by the expedient use of a large denomination note, at a roadside inn off the main motorway where we were also able to secure lodgings. I retrived the record I had made of the markings on the map I found in Mina Getois' cabin to find that they had been rendered illegible after our excursion in the harbor. Happily, my memory is quite good and I was pleasingly able to recall the figures adequately, as was proved shortly afterwards. Miss Lipstrong recognised the figures straight away as belonging to an extra-sensory coordinate system, useful for attuning a mage to a location never previously viewed.
After supper, Sir Rudolph telephoned Star Chamber from his room to advise them of our progress in the case. X took the call personally, cautioning us that Star Chamber feared Silverpalm to be a good deal more powerful than had ever been suspected previously. Sir Rudolph and I were instructed to proceed with all good haste to Peru, and to use the greatest caution in confronting Silverpalm. Foreign Office would be alerted directly to intervene in the Italian imbroglio with the hope of preventing the distribution of their funds to Silverpalm.
When Sir Rudolph returned with the directives, we asked Miss Lipstrong to continue on with us to Peru. She was quite hesitant to accede until we pointed out that she was the only available American field agent for the nonce. She then readily agreed. I said that I could be prepared to conjure a major spell of clairvoyance on the morrow to view the Peruvian locale. Miss Lipstrong declared that she would be able to perform the conjuration just then and also that she was familiar with performing such a feat with only the symbols for guidance.
Miss Lipstrong cast the spell with Sir Rupert and me in attendance to lend support and to venture with her on the mystical voyage. The projection method employed gave us the visual cues of soaring across the Atlantic Ocean at an astoundingly rapid pace. We seemingly rocketed across the vast dark bulk of Brazil. Thankfully, the incredible pace slowed in the lofty peaks of the Andes. There amidst the misty crags, we had an eagle's view of an ancient city, the rocky, ruined remainder of some pre-Colombian people. To the west and above the ruins, high on a tor, our mystical gaze fell upon the dark maw of a cave. Within, nine mummified figures squatted, still as statues, about a blackened and dead fire pit. This circle was not whole, for it lacked one to complete the circumscription of the pit. We had but glimpsed the scene when it faded from our minds for Miss Lipstrong had reached the limits of her endurance.
We passed the night quietly in the inn, restoring ourselves with a good night's rest. We drove to the airport in Nice the next morning. Star Chamber had arranged our travel itinerary with flights changing in Lisbon, Brasilia, and Lima on the journey to Cuzco, Peru. Miss Lipstrong was able to view the ruins and cave whilst in between flights at Brasilia. Though we had seen the target area, we had decided not to risk a costly teleportation unless we detected Silverpalm or Mina Getois at the site. We might otherwise have to spend some time waiting on their arrival and would need supplies with us in that eventuality. Despite the appearance of the small plane used to carry us to Cuzco, we arrived safely. This had perhaps more to do with Sir Rudolph's prayers than the all too questionable skills of the pilot and his inebriated compatriot.
In Cuzco we learned that experienced guides were available in a small town along the Urubamba River. We secured a vehicle for the fifty-mile motor to the village. We then filled the vehicle with supplies and equipment for several days in the jungle. The Peruvian roadway created within me a longing for the levelness of the African roads which I had traveled with such disdain for their ruts just about this time last year. The African desert itself, though traversed blindly at night at high speed, seemed the tamest country lane after an arduous day of jouncing through the South American jungle. We arrived in Huayllabamba none too soon for my taste.
We had not time to determine which of the local eateries to patronize when we were set upon by a host of local guides. Through a quick process of elimination with preference given for those willing to leave at first light, who could speak English, and had possession of a decent shotgun, we selected Pedro from the crowd. He led us to the best lodgings in the village, for which I shall have to take his word. We did indeed hike out of the village in the morning, following the ancient Inca Trail. We were led ever upward, leaving my companions at a loss for breath. Pedro, recognising that we had not had taken time to acclimitise ourselves to the altitude, advised us to proceed at a slower pace than we should have preferred. We replied that though we knew his advice to be sound, we would not brook the delay. I, of course, encountered no difficulty whatsoever with the presence of my elven necklace; Sir Rudolph's prayers aided both himself and Miss Lipstrong.
We arrived at Machupicchu early in the evening of the third day, passing through a portal named Intipunku (Gate of the Sun). The site was entrancing in a extraordinarily eerie way, seeming to be peopled with ghosts as the evening mists drifted through the ruins. Indeed, our guide related to us that many of the locals thought the area haunted. Perhaps this is why we were alone in Machupicchu. Miss Lipstrong had surveyed the scene prior to our entrance through the gate, so we confidently began the descent into the ruins. Not fifteen minutes after we had passed the crest, Sir Rudolph froze, his attention locked on the peak beyond the ruins (which we later learned to be called Waynapicchu). Argent Silverpalm had arrived atop the peak attired in a long white robe. Oblivious to our presence, he began the steep descent to the cave we had seen in a vision whilst in the inn outside Nice.
Miss Lipstrong, Sir Rudolph, and I dropped our packs upon the trail, checked our weapons, and proceeded rapidly toward Waynapicchu. Pedro, showing our choice of guides to have been spot on the mark, trotted after us with his shotgun at port arms. We crossed through the heart of the ruins, climbing and descending a multitude of stairs. We paused near the Sacred Plaza under the shadow of a pyramid which Pedro indicated was the base for Intiwatana (the Hitching Post of the Sun). Sir Rudolph led Pedro ahead towards Waynapicchu to allow Miss Lipstrong and I to mystically scan the peak and its cave. Miss Lipstrong cast the spell and surveyed the scene, finding no signs of life outside the cave on that tor. Within the cave, Silverpalm had taken a stance to complete the circle of figures about the blackened fire pit. We caught up Sir Rudolph and Pedro and told them that we could not see anyone other than Silverpalm on the peak. Pedro led us to a steep and perilous trail up the nearly vertical monolith. Sir Rudolph requested that Pedro await our return in the ruins, to which he agreed.
We scaled up the narrow pathway with the wall of Waynapicchu to our left and a precipitous fall to our right. Sir Rudolph and I quickly outdistanced Miss Lipstrong in our haste to reach Silverpalm. When we arrived at the cave-mouth, we were able to discern a steady luminescence within indicating that Silverpalm had with him either an electric torch or a lantern. Sir Rudolph risked a bit of light from his own torch to light our way into the cave. When we reached the point at which we had to reveal ourselves at the end of the passage, we stepped forward boldly into the chamber. Silverpalm glanced at us from his place in the circle of figures. He seemed to be quite expecting us, saying "Welcome to Machupicchu. Odd Yob, please take care of them."
Odd Yob stepped out of the wall to our right, interposing his once-again enormous bulk between us and Silverpalm. I noticed then something odd about our two adversaries: the third finger on the left hand of each was distinctive. Odd Yob's finger appeared to be painfully constricted by the ring of spell turning he still wore; Silverpalm's finger was not his own but had been replaced with an overlong, desiccated, corpse finger. We had not time to ponder this as Odd Yob removed his bowler, then advanced upon us while popping his knuckles.
I cast an enchantment of strength upon Sir Rudolph and then upon myself. I later regretted that I had misspent the mana to increase my own strength as hand-to-hand combat is not my forte. I did not, however, have cause to regret the use of a small enchantment of increased speed upon my part. As Sir Rudolph advanced to engage Odd Yob, I conjured a blazing ball of flame in the main chamber of the cave - to no tangible effect, unfortunately, as Silverpalm had erected wards against me. The flames burst harmlessly outside the circle of figures. It was then that I heard Miss Lipstrong scream, from a position near the cave-mouth. I rushed to her aid as there was little I could do to assist Sir Rudolph.
When I arrived on the ledge outside the cave, I followed Miss Lipstrong's upward gaze to behold the terrifying sight of a roc preparing to alight upon us. I drew my pistol, but before I could fire on the roc, Sir Rudolph was thrown from the cave and only just managed to avoid plunging over the cliff. Instinctively, I turned and fired the entire ammunition supply of the pistol into the cave. Realising that the roc had not ceased its approach, I then dropped the pistol to free my hands for casting. I let loose a powerful stroke of lightning into the descending bird, striking it as it approached within one hundred feet of our position. The beast veered aside, falling heavily into the cliff to our left, then tumbling away below us, all the while seeming to be losing its shape and shrinking. It had also lost a small stone on the ledge as it fell.
Sir Rudolph had taken advantage of the small respite I had gained him to pray for healing from his deity. As Odd Yob unhurriedly strolled up the passage from the cave, Sir Rudolph took up a stance to attack him. I retrieved my pistol, replacing the clip with one of the two additional I carry. I then attempted to empty this second clip into the advancing menace, but the mechanism jammed on me. I threw the useless lump of metal at Odd Yob in a fit of pique, then returned my attention to the pseudo-roc lying at rest some one hundred feet below us. I decided to use a burst of flame such as I had unleashed to no affect against Silverpalm. In this instance there were no wards present to protect the target of my wrath and the flames engulfed the body as it metamorphosed into the shape of a human female. Miss Lipstrong began to descend the trail toward that fallen figure. As I was looking over that ledge to see the affects of my attack, the large figure of Odd Yob sailed off the ledge to my right, having been thrown by Sir Rudolph. He arced away from the sheer cliff, striking the ground below with a thump audible at our remove. The body lay quite still.
My curiosity was roused by the stone that had fallen on the ledge when the roc had impacted the cliff. I went to inspect it and found that it exactly resembled the sham Philosopher's Stone we had seen in Fort Knox. I conferred with Sir Rudolph and agreed with him that the roc had carried the stone because, like Cthulhu's Talisman, the artefact could not be teleported; the Philosopher's Stone was highly important to Silverpalm's plan and so must be kept from his grasp; and that while we might very well not survive this encounter, the Stone must needs be kept safe in any eventuality. Knowing that Silverpalm would not be able to locate the Stone using any spell to reveal magic, I determined that it was merely necessary to put the Stone somewhere even I couldn't find it, which would preclude my being forced to reveal its location. I therefore threw the Stone into the Urubamba River gorge. Backed by the magical strength I had gained by my earlier conjuration, the stone flew far into the dimming twilight.
I retrieved my pistol once again, cleared the mechanism, and checked that the piece was ready to fire anew. Sir Rudolph and I strode down the cave entrance toward Silverpalm. With Sir Rudolph lending me mystical strength, I cast a spell of dissipation upon Silverpalm's wards. He seemed surprised as I shot him several times, once again using all of the ammunition in the clip. Sir Rudolph then launched himself upon Silverpalm, dealing our adversary several telling blows. Silverpalm vanished. I immediately invoked an incantation to reveal invisible subjects to no avail; Silverpalm had teleported away. With the ceremonial circle put asunder by our activities, we felt no need to remain in guard over it. We departed the cave.
Miss Lipstrong was making all haste up the path as best she could. We hailed her, at which she stopped and shouted up to us that Silverpalm was in the ruins below, near Intiwatana. She feared that she ought to have mentioned to us earlier that the scan she had performed from the Sacred Plaza had been unusually powerful, and that Silverpalm was now in the focus of that power. Sir Rudolph pelted down the hillside at an astonishing rate of speed, hoping to interrupt Silverpalm at whatever machination he had underway.
Miss Lipstrong stopped me as I sought to follow Sir Rudolph. She gave me the spell turning ring Odd Yob had been wearing, his blood still dripping from it. I thanked her for her consideration and set out after Sir Rudolph at the best pace I could manage. I heard from the ruins ahead of me the report from Pedro's shotgun, lending greater urgency, though not speed, to my course. On my approach to the plaza, I beheld an odd constellation of sparkles in the air before me. An empty shell-casing on the ground revealed to me that the constellation consisted of the frozen pellets of a shotgun blast. I elected to circle about the area in an attempt to come in from a new angle.
I had kept my pistol in hand as I circled the plaza despite my knowledge that its projectiles were likely to be held in place as had been those of the shotgun. With this in mind, however, I was drawing my knife as I crept up on the far side of the plaza when I saw the shotgun pellets fall to the ground. I ran forward, pistol in hand, blazing away like some American bandit, toward Silverpalm. He fell to the ground about two yards from Sir Rudolph, who had cast a dispel magic at a heroic cost to himself: Sir Rudolph hung limply in a confinement spell which had been placed on him. Silverpalm rolled to his back and returned fire on me with a simple missile evocation. My life was spared by the ring Miss Lipstrong had given me, several of the missiles bending their flight to return upon their caster. Despite the damage done me by the missiles which had struck, I was able then to draw my knife and hurl it at Silverpalm. Despite striking the target true, he still lived, sneering at me that I was now out of cards. The punctuation to this statement, though, was the shotgun blast that took Silverpalm's life. Miss Lipstrong, the wielder of the weapon, said "Now I'm a field agent." I couldn't agree more.
When we had revived Sir Rudolph through an infusion of mana, he revealed some of the details of his conversation with Silverpalm. The extraordinary thing is that he wished to do exactly what we thought could not be possible: he sought to convery the local silver mines of Peru into gold mines, thus debasing this underpinning of the world economy. The mystic site in Machupicchu was to have provided the requisite amount of mana, an amount of such proportion that we had discounted Silverpalm's ability to tap it. With the Philosopher's Stone as the material component, the light of a full moon, and the incredible capacities of the necrotic digit adorning his left hand, Silverpalm may well have succeeded in his diabolical scheme.
We spent the remainder of the night sheltering behind the standing temple walls and underneath the tents we had bought in Cuzco. Miss Lipstrong conveyed a message to ORACLE that night concerning the death of Silverpalm and the loss of the Philosopher's Stone. The following morning, we found that the lifeless finger upon Silverpalm's hand had become detached in the night. Miss Lipstrong claimed it, in lieu of the Philosopher's Stone, for the United States. We acquiesced, given our involvement in the loss of the Stone. We buried Silverpalm and Mina Getois some distance from the ruins, though in shallow graves for later recovery. We would have laid Odd Yob next to them, but we were not able to locate his body. Miss Lipstrong, Sir Rudolph, and I returned to Cuzco, passing along the path a party from ORACLE on their way to search for the Stone. I gave them what information I could on where they might find it. Our journey home was not uneventful, but this is unrelated to the case at hand.
We were, naturally, debriefed on our return to Britain. Professor Tolkein told us of an ancient mage named Vecna. Apparently, some time long past, his body was chopped to pieces. These pieces have the capacity to imbue even the mundane with extraordinary powers. To gain these powers, one must first remove the matching portion of one's own anatomy, replacing it with the similar bit of Vecna. Silverpalm had obviously performed this operation, giving him (in Professor Tolkein's words) "more power in one finger than the two of you together possess." It was our greatest fortune that Silverpalm was not himself a mage or he would surely have destroyed us.
Mina Getois, we learned, was not an employee of Silverpalm, but rather an ally from the European Liberation Front. Her involvement in the scheme came from that organization's desire to overthrow Italy's economy in the hope that a new Communist state could be created in the aftermath. Muddying the waters are the possible connections not only to SMERK, but also to SPECTRE, that had been uncovered by the team tailing Miss McMasters in Paris. These will no doubt haunt Star Chamber in the future.
There are a few loose ends I should like to comment on. ORACLE is looking still for the Philosopher's Stone in the depths of the Urubamba River gorge. Odd Yob, we suspect, was a troll. Given overnight to recover, it would not be fantastic to have the body missing in the morning. Professor Tolkein feels that it would also explain why the polymorph spell failed to keep him down. Miss Lipstrong returned to her service in America. Sir Rudolph and I were moved to ask X to put in good word for her at ORACLE. Her exemplary conduct and pluck in the field were indeed commendable.
Finally, I should like to add that this account is complete and true within the limits of my ability to make it so. I aver that all events have taken place as I have recounted them and that the people named acted as I have indicated.
Submitted the 18th day of May, 1965.
X12 Sir Henry Hamilton KBE, 7th Marquess Bamburgh