Plight of the Transformer is a story told in eight episodes, posted serially by me, your action-adventure host, Cheeseburger Brown. Chapters: 1|2|3|4|5|6|7|8
"My good man, in the field one learns never to count on anything that can't be supplied at the local chemist's."
Our story continues:
Duty is duty. Despite complications, one must not lose sight of the goal.
This is the mantra I repeated to myself on the eve of action as I made my transformative preparations and likewise readied my collaborator for his role. Franco Fiorio, bless his heart, slept through the whole thing. This was appropriate: he had been goosed with enough tranquilizer to keep him horizontal until sunrise.
"This is risky," observed Lallo as he studied his make-up in the mirror. "We should just kill the library guy."
"Certainly not," I replied crisply as I timed Franco's pulse against my watch. "I am a Christian, sir. I am not a killer."
"You wear blinders, Englishman. You aid and abet. You're guilty."
"I do no such thing."
Lallo snorted. "You're aiding and abetting me, aren't you? There's killing on my agenda. Who else have you worked for? All saints with nothing to accomplish, huh?"
I closed my eyes and sighed as I straightened. "That is your aim here, then, is it? To kill?" I opened my eyes and stared at his reflection. "Who dies next?"
"Zeus," said Lallo darkly.
I furrowed my brow. "...Zeus?"
"Ziusudra, whatever. Yeah, I'm going to kill him good."
I pursed my lips. "What is his crime, in your eyes?"
Lallo spread his arms. "The same as mine, Englishman. He's long."
"That's a crime?"
Lallo shifted in the chair. "It's unnatural. It's perverse. How can I explain it to you, a shortman? Live a couple of millennia and then we'll agree, you and me. What I've seen...what I've done..."
"Why don't you kill yourself, then?"
"In due time, Englishman. I have a job to do first."
"So you can die?"
"Why? Are you thinking about killing me?" he laughed. "Oh sure, we die alright. It just takes some extra killing. You should've seen me off Og. What a fight! That bastard just didn't want to give it up. In the end I had to grind his brains to pulp with a pestle and -- you know what? -- his body kept on jiggling for another hour after that. I mean, talk about stubborn."
"Og?" I repeated drily. "...As in Og from the Bible?"
"Yeah, that's him -- Og, Jababirat Commander of the Nephilim Armies. He always had such stinky breath."
"Wasn't he slain by Joshua at Edrei?"
Lallo snorted again. "Nope. I slew him in Boston, like last spring. He had a nice apartment. Still had stinky breath, though. Some things never change."
As Lallo would say, we had no more time for girly talk -- the hour was upon us. I came up behind the scarred goliath and tucked his wig into place around the edges, pushing his coarse black hair beneath a worm of glue, then combing over the transition to the beard. He frowned. "I look like Father Christmas. That could be a problem."
"Whyever for? Does Ziusudra have a grievance with Santa Claus?"
Lallo shrugged. "Don't know. Haven't seen him for a while." He paused, then smiled coldly. "...But I'll tend to him soon enough."
Duty is duty.
And guards are guards are guards.
The men in the gatehouse watched as our taxi drew up beside the tall estate fence which was festooned with iron rosettes, silhouetted against the twilight sky. The driver and I manhandled Lallo's wheelchair out of the trunk and unfolded it, locking its joints smartly. Then between us we hauled Lallo out of the car and settled him into the chair. I arranged a blanket over his legs, paid the driver, and then started pushing my charge up the hill to the gatehouse.
One of the guards wandered out to meet us. His name was Hector. He knew Franco well. "Hey," he called lazily. "Who's this?"
"Hector, this is my father, Alfonso," I said, wheeling up to him and kicking on the brake. "He's going to be staying with me this evening, as my mother has taken ill and is obliged to spend the night in hospital."
Hector looked uncomfortable. "It's some bad timing, Franco. You know that, eh?"
I nodded. "I know, I know. But what can I do? He's not capable of caring for himself. He's deaf, he's crippled, he's senile -- you must understand it's a matter of familial duty."
Hector leaned down and waved. "Good eve-ning, Sig-nore Fiorio!" He over-enunciated loudly, as if speaking to a child over a poor telephone connection.
Lallo looked up vaguely and mumbled, "Hah?"
"All things being equal I would have stayed in town with a friend," I explained, "but Uncle may require my services once the guests arrive."
Hector straightened, looking sympathetic. "Of course, Franco, I understand. But it puts me in a bit of a position, you see. We're on Security Two tonight -- everybody is supposed to have clearance. Even the gardeners can't come to trim the hedges until we grade down to Security Three."
I rubbed my chin pensively in Franco's manner. "I have an idea, Hector. Why don't you and Carlos keep an eye on him for me? He wouldn't be much trouble. Just tuck him in somewhere in the gatehouse -- maybe pointed at the TV -- and then call me when he soils himself."
"When he soils himself?"
I spread my arms helplessly. "Those prunes should be coming through him in about an hour. You'll be able to tell from the smell, but if there's any question just take a peek at his colostomy bag. Here, let me show you..."
"No, no, no," interrupted Hector hastily; "that won't be necessary, Franco. I think you should just take him inside yourself."
"Really? Be straight with me, Hector: I don't want you to get into any trouble on my account."
"No, no, it's fine," insisted Hector. "It's not like he poses much of a threat, does he?"
"Well, it's true that he can't get around without assistance -- he lost a foot to diabetes. And, of course, he can't hear a thing. He'll spend the evening watching game shows in my quarters."
Hector nodded and then called over his shoulder to Carlos, "Do we have any visitor badges?"
Carlos looked up from his sandwich and shook his head. "It's Security Two tonight," he shouted back, releasing a spray of shaved lettuce. "No passes."
"If it will make you feel better," I suggested, "why not escort us inside, Hector? You could stop in at my office and we'll have a little drink. What do you say?"
Hector sighed. "I can't, Franco. I'd love to, but Security Two means two men in the box at all times. You go ahead."
"You're a true gentleman, Hector," I told him.
Hector smiled and sauntered alongside us as we reached the gatehouse. Carlos pushed a biometric pad across the sill to me, and I pressed my index finger upon its face. The pad chirped and displayed a green light. Carlos turned his key and the gate moved aside, a little rubber wheel at its corner skittering over the gravel.
I gave a nod to Hector and Carlos and then heaved Lallo's chair into motion. "That was close," he said quietly. "We almost had a babysitter there."
"You fool," I hissed back. "I wanted Hector to accompany us."
"Because I haven't any idea where the library is! I've never been inside the estate. Now we'll be left to wander around like idiots."
Lallo sniffed. "I don't care about the library."
An icy tone crept into my voice. "You'll care about whatever I care about for the time being, Mr. Lallo, as we are now within the bounds of the estate and I am a trusted member of the staff. If you threaten my mission I swear I'll have the entire security team on you in an instant. You may be hard to kill but I'll wager those automatic weapons look almost as daunting to you as they do to me."
He twisted in the chair to look at me. "You wouldn't, Englishman."
"I assure you, I would," I said flatly. "The shoe is now on the other foot, and you are at my mercy. One false step and I sound the alarm. My mission is delayed, yours ends."
He rubbed his chin ruefully. "You're a sneaky guy."
I tightened my mouth in a small, unkind smile. "I prefer to call it focus."
We stared at each other. The moment was broken when a yell sounded from behind us at the gatehouse. I froze. Hector yelled again, "Wait! Franco, stop!"
"This is it," whispered Lallo. "When he gets close, you distract him and then I'll snap his spine."
"You shall do no such thing," I whispered back. "Let me handle this, you oaf. Just keep quiet."
Lallo closed his mouth. Hector jogged up to us. "I'm sorry, Franco, but I just had the captain on the line and he says you do need an escort so they're sending someone down. You'll have to wait, I'm afraid."
"Very well," I conceded.
"Is your father warm enough?" asked Hector.
"How are you feeling, Papa?"
Five minutes later a tall, gawky adolescent in an ill-fitting uniform drew up to us in a humming golf cart. "Telly, will you escort these two gentlemen inside? That's Franco's father. Show him the proper respect."
"Yessir," replied Telly. He jumped out of the golf cart too fast and bumped his head on the roof, wincing as he rubbed the sore spot. "How do you do, Signori Fiorio?"
Hector and Telly loaded Lallo into the golf cart and then I showed the youth how to collapse the wheelchair. In another moment we were bumping along through the crisp night air, winding up the wooded face of the hill upon which perched the main house of Ziusudra's estate...
I have said it before, but it bears repeating: castles are castles.
This was one was disguised as a mansion. Through an ingenious mixture of trompe d'oeil and forced perspective the keenest aspects of the strategic architecture were minimized or given the appearance of frailty. A gossamer of apparent design indulgence masqued the robust defensive skeleton, the marriage itself a work of art. It was an exquisite transformation.
Ionic columns and ivy, pools and fountains populated by statues, trees planted in an organic diffusion of loose clumps and lines -- in truth, ready-made barricades, a moat, cover for maintaining the lines of communication for repelling an invasion fighting its way up the hill.
I had never seen the like, and I worried that I was up against such minds. Especially weighted down as I was by such meat.
As we drew nearer to the main house I caught sight of the front doors, nearly lost behind a cluster of guards and footmen -- and a couple of guards disguised as footman. Badly. I wondered how we'd get through it. I doubted we could.
The golf cart veered away. "We're going to go around the back, since your father has no pass," explained Telly.
"If we must," I agreed with an impatient sigh.
We rode on a narrow path through a grove of laurel trees which wound around to the opposite side of the compound, a site of much frenzied activity. A large black-walled sixteen wheeler had backed up to a loading dock, formation lights blinking, and members of the estate staff were directing the unloading of a large piece of cargo from within it. Voices echoed off the concrete. "Careful now -- easy, easy..."
I thought to myself: the shadow shippers!
The cargo was a large metal crate with a series of small, barred apertures in a row around the middle. Two red forklifts with spinning bubble lights atop them grumbled and buzzed as they worked the crate onto a pair of guide rails another set of workers were bolting to the loading dock floor. Their tools clattered and whined. They worked fast.
The crate shifted heavily against the rails. Something inside the crate shuffled and moved in response, animal grunts sounding from the dark apertures. Something wailed.
"Careful, you moron! Keep it level!"
Telly stopped the golf cart beside the next loading dock, then unfolded the wheelchair and helped me push Lallo up the ramp all the while helplessly stealing glances at the goings on. He absently swiped his key card in the reader mounted on the wall and the dock door rolled up into the ceiling. Inside the loading bay a squadron of physicians awaited the crate, instruments at the ready. They all gave us a collective dirty look if we had yelled in a library or passed wind in church.
"Just what do you figure that is, Signore Fiorio?" Telly asked, eyes wide.
"It is Uncle's business," I said sharply. "We mind our own here, boy."
"Yessir," he said quickly, flushing. "This way, please."
We passed on into a series of concrete service corridors. I had no idea whether the youth was leading us to the library or to my quarters, but my fears were allayed when we arrived to find one connected to the other. The library itself was grand -- a high, vaulted ceiling with rows of shelves covering the walls, the books themselves housed in metal cases with clear plexiglass faces; stained-glass windows depicting scenes the night did not illuminate loomed between each bank of cabinets; a central island of sofas in an oasis of ferns arrayed around a gurgling fountain occupied a majority of the intricately tiled floor. It was at once a temple and a salon, a place to both worship books and to consume them in comfort and tranquility. A fire crackled in the hearth.
Telly stopped the wheelchair outside a wood-paneled door beside the fireplace. I stepped forward and opened it as if it were my business and found myself inside Franco's apartments -- the hearth was double-sided and the flames cast a mellow, ruddy light over a motley crew of dusty volumes on bowing shelves lining every wall.
"So, are you going to be alright? Can I get you anything?" asked Telly.
"Thank you, no. You are dismissed."
Telly smiled awkwardly, bobbed his head in acknowledgement, then turned and left, closing the door softly behind him. I looked to Lallo. He was already climbing out of the chair and rubbing his hip with a grimace. "Men were not meant to sit," he grumbled.
I gave him another tight smile, then consulted my watch. "Good luck," I said, then turned on heal and went back to the library.
I took my double of Franco's satchel off my shoulder and put it on one of the sofas, then shook off my coat. Franco's desk was at the far end, piled with more books. Behind the desk was a wall of tiny wooden drawers with a tall, rolling ladder in the centre: the card catalogue.
As I frowned at the markings on each drawer I heard Lallo shuffle up behind me. "So, what're you looking for anyway, Englishman?"
"Yeah okay, I'm not that slow. What's it called?"
"The Jamijama," I mumbled as I found the marker from my memorized intelligence and began pushing the ladder over so I could climb to the right drawer.
"That's the title?"
"Yes. Do you know it?"
"I don't really read that much. Like, signs maybe. I'm not a book guy."
I grunted as I hefted myself up. "Shouldn't you be on your way? What about your agenda?"
"You trying to get rid of me?"
"Frankly, yes. There could be closed circuit cameras in here. There certainly are in the halls. For all we know the guards may already be rushing here to ask us why my father is walking and talking."
"I don't see any camera eyes. My gut says no."
"Yes? Well, if your gut were infallible you'd likely have two arms, wouldn't you? Go on, now -- get on your way, brute."
I slid open the drawer and flipped through the yellowed cards, some filled by precise, dense handwriting and some filled by faded typewriter text. The notations were in Italian, the titles in Greek, Latin, Akkadian, Hebrew...
And then I found it: IL GIAMIGIAMA : 54.309 N.
I pushed the drawer closed and slid down the ladder, startled as I almost ran into Lallo skulking at the base. "Good Lord -- are you still here?" I exclaimed. "You're certainly underfoot."
"Maybe I can help you," he said, looking down.
"You've helped me enough, thank you." I dodged around him and made for the north wall, striding along the columns until I came to number 54. I climbed the spiral, iron-risered staircase. When I arrived at the third level I could hear Lallo starting after me, like a lost dog. His footfalls caused the entire staircase to shudder.
I traced along the plastic faces of the cabinets until I found the ninth. The cabinet contained twelve books inside metal frames with heavy chains attached to their spines. The seventh volume had the colourless letters JAMIJAMA embossed in the age-cracked leather.
Though I betrayed nothing, inside I thrilled. To set eyes on the object of my mission made me feel, for the first time in days, that my assignment might be completed after all.
Franco's keys unlocked the cabinet. The plexiglass swung down. I picked up a few links of the chains that tethered the books and sighed forlornly.
I closed my eyes and pinched the bridge of my nose in a moment of silent meditation then called out over my shoulder, "Perhaps there is something you can do for me, Mr. Lallo."
Lallo stumped off the staircase and walked up beside me, favouring his healing right ankle. "What's that, Englishman? Chains, hah? Chains are nothing. I can probably break that."
"There must be some way of unlocking the book so it can be read."
Lallo shrugged. "Maybe, maybe not. A while ago libraries were always like this -- with the chains, so you could take the book to a lectern and that's it." He spun in place and then nodded. "See, there's the lectern -- between those two naked guy statues. I bet that's how long the chain is."
We drew the book from the shelf toward the inset lectern, and he was right: the length was perfect. There was no lock to pick, as the chain was intended to be a permanent fixture.
I permitted myself a rare indulgence. "Bloody Hell," I swore.
Lallo hovered. "Aren't you getting your finger-swirls all over everything?"
"My prints? No," I replied absently, staring at the chained book. "I haven't any."
"Then how'd we get through the gate?"
"Wax. I copied Franco's fingers with wax."
"Like candle wax?"
"Bee's wax, actually, but the principle is the same."
"I thought all you spy guys had magic plastic and smart elixirs and microchips and stuff. How come all you have is wax?"
I looked up. "My good man, in the field one learns never to count on anything that can't be supplied at the local chemist's."
Lallo looked back and forth between the book and I. "So I guess that's why you're screwed, huh? The chemist's doesn't carry bolt-cutters. Good thing you remembered to bring me along."
"Will you help or won't you?"
"Yeah okay sure, I don't care," he muttered grumpily as he took the book from my hands and gathered the loose chain around his artificial forearm. He made a face as if painfully constipated and then, with a loud crack, the chain came apart where it had been bolted to the cabinet. Twisted links dropped to the floor followed by a loud clatter as the freed chain fell after them. "Shit," he said, examining his arm. "I think I cracked the chassis."
"Oh dear. I'm terribly sorry that happened."
"I am grateful, Lallo."
"I like it when you're nice. We should be chums, Englishman. We're a good team. I smash, you think. If you and me work together we could get through my list really quick."
"Your list of the long to murder?"
"Yeah, and you could help me find the rest. I don't know them all. There are more than I thought. I learned that from Og. I made him tell me about the map, that tells where everybody is -- all of them."
I reached for the book but Lallo held it back. "What are you doing?"
"I just want to see it," he told me, squinting at the thick tome. "If it's important to you maybe it's important to me, too." He opened the cover with two of his thick, sausage-like fingers.
"Don't!" I cried. "Lallo, please."
"No advantages for the brute, huh?" he asked sardonically, rifling roughly through the age-yellowed pages. "Take it from me if you can, Englishman."
"I thought we were going to be friends."
"So did I, but then you said you'd call security on me. That's not nice."
"You kidnapped me and murdered my colleague!"
"Okay, so now we're even. Just let me take a look. Maybe my map's in here. I have a good feeling." He pawed through more pages, frowning at the type, then slowed his search and rubbed his head. "Okay, now I got a bad feeling."
Lallo closed his eyes, his mouth tense. The tips of his fingers had turned black. "Poison," he murmured, lowering himself to sit on the floor. "There's poison on the pages, Englishman. Bad poison."
Once again the Sovereign's admonitions were recalled to me: "You must not touch its pages, nor smell its binding. It must be wrapped in black cloth and conducted to me without delay. It can never be photographed or weighed. Its presence must never be suspected, its existence never inferred by any authority, great or small, secular or holy."
Where I had heretofore taken the advice as serving to protect the interests of the mission, I know saw how they were also serving to protect me. Sweet Bess, sweet Bess...
"What's happening? How are you feeling? What are the symptoms?" I badgered helplessly.
He released the book limply and it slid to the floor beside him. His eyes were still pinched shut, his breathing laboured. I was beginning to wonder whether I had lost him altogether when he suddenly leaned over and vomited a copious stream of dark bile. He wiped a string of mucus from his lips and then looked over at me. "I'll be fine," he declared huskily.
"Lallo, are you quite alright?"
He shook his head. "Bad poison. I better not touch that book again. I didn't see any maps, anyway." He gingerly worked his way to his feet, leaning on the railing which creaked under his weight. His examined his blackened fingertips seriously. "Don't open it -- you'll be dead in two heartbeats."
"I'm long, Englishman," he declared gruffly. "I take a licking but I keep on ticking."
My mouth went dry. "My God," I croaked, "it's true. This book can only be handled by someone who can tolerate the poison -- someone unkillable. You -- you are actually a cave man, aren't you? It's really so."
He smiled weakly. "Ta-dah."
He sniffed. So did I. We both looked down at the book simultaneously. It lay open, its exposed pages darkening visibly, browning at the corners, smoke rising from the binding. "The book must remain covered!" I exclaimed. "The pages are reacting to the light, somehow -- cover it!"
I tore apart the buttons on my vest and threw the garment, missing the book. Lallo leaned down to wrap it safely but hesitated, again squinting at the open pages. "There are lines, here. Squiggles. Arrows."
"What?" I dropped to one knee and get a closer look. Indeed, amid the browning paper were darker lines inscribed in poison black, raised and coloured where Lallo's fingers had touched.
He used his artificial hand to flip the pages, then carefully drew his flesh and blood finger down over the dense paragraphs. A second later a new swath of markings rose. "It's...it's a map," he concluded. "It runs from page to page."
The hair on the back of my neck stood up. Lallo turned aside and vomited again, his torso wracked with muscle spasms. "Good Lord," I said. "It isn't about the text at all, is it? This book has other stories to tell."
"Maybe it's...my map," said Lallo, eyes glazed and distant as he leaned over his vomit, throat catching. He seemed to draw strength from the statement, straightening his posture and beginning to grin. "Og, you have betrayed them all -- and victory is mine!"
A klaxon rang, its shrill call echoing off every wall.
Lallo covered his ears and winced. I yelled, "We're found out!"
A team of a dozen security guards swarmed into the library through every opening and took up cover positions as they leveled their guns. I rushed to the railing and waved my arms over my head as I cried, "Help! Help!"
Lallo looked up sharply, his face burning with emotion. "I thought we were friends," he said, his brown eyes sorrowful.
"The mission comes first," I said. "I'm so sorry, Lallo."
"Yeah?" he said, glowering. "Fuck your sorry, shortman. It's death for all, now. It's fire and pain between us, English. I hope you're prepared to meet your Christ."
The guns barked. The first shot took him in the right bicep, causing a spray of viscous fluid to pour out of his ruptured artificial arm. He howled in rage and I dove to the floor. Lallo turned and ripped a cabinet of books right out of its housing and tossed it over the railing. It shattered on the floor causing the advanced line of marksmen to flee to cover. A second bullet caught Lallo in the hip. The brute loosed an animal bellow as he stumbled, spit flying from his lips.
I crawled along the floor. I used my discarded vest to wrap the book and then tucked it under my arm and began worming my way toward the spiral staircase, bullets making muffled thuds as they sank into the walls, ricocheting away as they bounced off the apparently bullet-proof plastic of the cabinets. The chain dragged behind me like a tail.
Lallo leapt over the railing, sailing through the library and falling two storeys. He landed on two men, their bodies cushioning his impact with a series of loud cracks and pathetic whimpers. He took up their guns and aimed into the fray, squeezing the triggers in short, expert bursts. The leaves of the reading oasis shredded, and men fell.
I tried to slink down the staircase but ended up falling end over end. I hit the floor at the bottom with the wrapped book still clutched to my chest. The stained-glass behind me shattered, debris raining all around me.
Lallo threw himself at the offensive line. I saw three scarlet bursts of blood splash out through his back a moment before he crashed down among his enemies. I was sure he was killed until I saw a few guards come flying free, crashing down over the sofas and knocking over Franco's desk. Lallo rose up from the centre of the disturbance like the pistil of a flower, bodies splayed around him like petals. He roared.
And then silence descended. One of the dying coughed feebly. Every man but us had fallen.
Lallo turned to me as I wormed along the floor. "Now," he pronounced carefully, his breath shallow and quick, "bring me the book, shortman."
I was roundly caught. There would be no winning out against him. I got to my knees and offered the cloth-wrapped volume up to him. He leaned down to take it, blood dripping along the length of his forearm.
The main doors of the library banged open. We both turned to look. Framed in the doorway was a tall man with a head of long, white hair and a flowing white beard, its ends braided in the Ancient Greek style. He wore a billowing white robe and a pair of golden sandals. In his eyes burned a fury I had never seen the equal of, and looking upon him caused me to quail. I felt like a child.
No introduction was necessary: I could not deny that I was cowering in the shadow of Zeus himself, king of the Greek pantheon, ancient god and longman.
"Ziusudra," said Lallo heavily.
"Enkidu, old friend," said Zeus in a deep voice, resonant with authority. The sound of it made me want to weep.
"That was never my name, and we are not friends. You've heard of my quest."
Zeus nodded. "It ends here."
Lallo grinned in a terrible, malevolent way. "We shall see."
Zeus cracked his knuckles. Lallo widened his stance and hunkered, ready. A beat went by and then they came together and fell upon each other like famished wolves. Flesh and clothing tore, furniture splintered and was knocked aside. Lallo's artificial arm spun over my head and smashed against the spiral staircase, a length of Zeus' beard still locked in its black-fingered grip.
I tried to scamper clear but as the fight ranged they threw each other into the wall, shaking the library to its foundations. A tall bookshelf groaned as it toppled forward. I rolled out of the way of its edges as it crashed into the floor but found myself buried in a slurry of ancient books. I splashed my way out from under them desperately, then saw that I no longer held my prize but only my empty vest.
I started sifting through the pile, risking quick glances up to keep track of the devastation unfolding around me.
Lallo keened like a raptor as he jumped upon Zeus' shoulders, the fingernails of his left hand groping for his enemies' eyeballs. Zeus spun rapidly and then ran himself backward into a pillar, compressing Lallo against it. Bits of masonry loosed from the ceiling fluttered down over them as they wrestled.
"You've become weak!" cried Zeus in triumph as he ground Lallo's face into the base of the pillar.
Lallo bucked, knocking Zeus off balance, and then turned and punched him savagely in the abdomen. "And you've become fat, old man," he spat. "I don't need more than one arm to take care of this carcass."
Blood and sweat ran down their faces in equal measure as they gripped each other, straining and shaking their heads, crying out for want of more strength or more hate or both.
I fled from the warring titans with an armful of books. This fight was far too big for the likes of me.
The library continued to rattle and thump as I skidded down the corridor away, dashing from niche to niche to slip in beside statues, their expressions indifferent. The alarm bells continued to ring. I raced blindly down one turn and then through a massive kitchen peopled with busy staff in starched whites who barely paused to do a double-take as they laboured over the evening's fare. I smelled roast duck and venison.
I threw open another set of swinging doors and crossed a dining hall. A steward cried, "Franco, what's going on?" but I ignored him, squeezing by to run down a connecting corridor and, as I plunged headlong in search of an exit, managed to bowl down a quartet of musicians in tuxedos. I stepped on a viola, feeling awful about it. The strings snapped in a discordant, four-part fanfare. I hurried on.
A new tone sounded, mechanical and insistent. A voice boomed through unseen speakers: "This is a general alarm! All non-security staff vacate the main house -- I repeat: all non-security staff vacate the main house immediately! Security Level One! This is a general alarm!"
A flood of people suddenly filled the corridors, their faces drawn with panic. I was squeezed against the wall. I was pressed into a door so I pushed through it, finding myself in a concrete stairwell. I ran down a flight and came into another corridor just in time to crash bodily into two security guards yelling into their walkie-talkies.
One of them caught me by the arm. "Franco, you're going the wrong way!"
The entire house shook with a violent impact. Plaster rained down on our heads from the ceiling and the light guttered. The guards shouldered past me and rushed up the stairs.
I slipped around the corner they'd come from and started hurriedly pawing through my armful of books to see whether I'd come away with the treasure or only its chain. I breathed a real sigh of relief: I did indeed have the Jamijama among them.
That's when a sussurussing, serpentine voice whispered, "Look, lover, this one has our book."
I looked up slowly, thoroughly chilled.
The chamber I was standing in was divided by a row of thick, metal bars. On the far side of the bars were two figures whose appearance made my bowels creak. They were wizened and naked, a man and a woman, entwined in each other's arms as they lounged upon a wide sofa in the middle of their mosaic-walled cell. They were thin but not starved, their skin burnished as if by the sun but so very pale, their physical attitudes simpering and almost drunken, their heads wandering and their gazes insane. The woman licked the side of the man's face and then crooned, "Yes, lover, it does. Ask it why it comes to us, my beautiful."
"No," lilted the man sleepily, cradling her sagging breasts with perverse intensity. "You ask it, lover. We hate them, and it makes us sick to put things in their fragile ears."
"Ears, yes," agreed the woman, closing her line-etched eyelids with relish. "Let's bite its ears, lover. Let's eat it. Woo it closer, my brother, so we can have a taste."
Their eyes were the worst part: watery blue, childishly wide, inscribed with ancience, lolling madly between brief instants of pinning me with predatory focus. The woman reached down and began stroking the man's wrinkled member, causing its tip to glisten.
"What -- what are you?" I heard myself gasp.
"It speaks to us, sister!"
"It shouldn't dare, lover. Let us bite it."
"Yes, short creature, do come closer so that we can hear you. Our ears are so old, yes -- so very, very old. Come and whisper to us so that we might kiss you, my sister and I. Come feel the breath of your makers."
They were identical apart from sex, in every aspect from hair to cheek to thigh. They were twins. They were the twins Franco was so anxious to learn more about, mining lore and allegory for the truth behind his master's very special visitors. I had never seen anything so awful, so alien.
I began backing out of the room.
"Stop it, lover. It's trying to escape."
"Our appetites are crawling. Let us bite you, sister."
"Stay, brother. Remember the short thing has our book. Why, why, why?"
The Jamijama was heavy in my hands. My mind was racing, and it stumbled upon the connections by dipping unbidden into my schoolboy past: the twins Yami and Yama, heroes of Vedic myth, shapers of humanity's youth and judges of its folly. But instead of fleeting they were eternal and -- if Franco's hunches were to be believed -- had marched down the centuries cloaked as Castor and Pollux, Romulus and Remus, Amphion and Zethus, Adam and Eve...
Another violent rumble. The walls shook. The lights went out. Something whirred and clicked.
In the blackness, a whisper: "Brother, the locks are limp."
"Sister," came the hissing reply, "we are free!"
Desperate as a child in a nightmare I banged against walls and stumbled randomly, my hand outstretched to search the black. Something scuffled and tittered in the shadows behind me, impelling my heart to beat ever faster as sweat beaded on my every inch of skin. Bare footfalls slapped the concrete at my heels. I might have screamed.
And then I was in the cool night air, a fire door swinging closed behind me. I did not stop to catch my breath.
I lost my footing in the grass and went rolling down a hill, coming to a halt on the narrow path our golf cart had driven on the way in. I looked up to see members of the staff milling around by the doors. They collectively jumped as a great blue light flashed from within the house followed by a peal like thunder. Glass exploded out of some of the high windows, tinkling to the lawn. The staff dove for cover.
Another blue flash, another peal. The strong smell of ozone coloured the air.
All I could imagine was that Zeus had found his lightning bolts and was bringing them to bear against his thick-browed, one-armed foe.
I no longer cared. I just kept running.
Fear is fear is fear.