Loyal fans of Airship Daedalus, here is the first of two parts of a sample chapter from Assassins of the Lost Kingdom by E.J. Blaine, coming in November 2016…
– Chapter 3 –
The Ponderby estate wasn’t so different from the Cobb estate, Jack thought. It was just a little farther out on Long Island and a little farther back from the road. At first glance the grounds looked like forest, but Jack soon realized the place had been carefully designed by a landscape architect to give the illusion of wilderness. It was art whose whole purpose was to conceal itself.
The house looked like a castle set in a clearing. It was gray stone with peaked roofs and intricate leaded windows. The lawn around it was perfectly manicured, rolling gently past scattered topiaries until it blended into the landscaped wilderness.
“Quite a place,” said Doc, looking up at the gargoyles on the roof. “Maybe one day we’ll have a place like this,” she added with a grin.
“Oh don’t talk like that,” said Jack. “We’ve got plenty of good years left.”
Doc laughed and slapped his arm affectionately. “It’s not a tomb, Jack.”
“If you say so,” said Jack.
Ponderby’s butler answered the door and led them through cavernous halls to a pair of closed doors. He rapped, and a thin, reedy voice came from inside.
“Who is it?”
“Captain McGraw and Doctor Starr, sir,” the butler called out. “Mr. Edison sent them, as you requested.”
“Did he? Did he just? So you know Edison then? Know him well?”
“I think so,” Jack shouted back.
“Well, then. If you know Tom Edison, tell me about his tattoo!”
Jack looked to Doc and mouthed, “tattoo?” Doc sighed and nodded.
“Five dots,” she called back. “Four in a square with the fifth in the center, like a die. On his right forearm.”
Jack looked at her in amazement. Doc just shook her head in exasperation. “Long story.”
“Where’d he get it done, then?” came the voice.
“Did it himself,” Doc shouted back. “Experimenting with his electric pen.”
Jack heard the door latch click. “You can let them in, Phipps.”
The doors opened into a library lined with floor to ceiling bookshelves. At the far end French doors looked out onto the back yard. A large desk sat near the doors, and various chairs and smaller writing desks were scattered around. Jack liked the room. It looked comfortable, lived in.
J. Elling Ponderby stood near the bookshelves, pretending to read from a book he’d taken down. He turned as if just noticing them. As if none of that strange exchange through the library doors had taken place.
“Ah, you must be Captain McGraw and Doctor Starr,” Ponderby said, returning the book to the shelf. “So good of you to come. Welcome.”
Ponderby was in his 60s, Jack thought. A reed thin man with sparse, gray hair. He moved with a delicate grace, and though Jack was hardly one to keep up with fashion, he recognized that Ponderby’s suit was well out of date.
“Most charmed, Doctor, most charmed,” Ponderby said, taking Doc’s hand in his and performing a slight bow before releasing it.
“Mr. Edison said you’re in danger, sir,” Jack said. “What can we do to help?”
“I didn’t realize there were others at first,” Ponderby answered. “When Carter died, I wondered. And when they got Wolcott in Pittsburgh, then I knew. But what could I do? The police are useless. Couldn’t find a lost hat. But when I heard Edison had his people on the case. Well…”
“Maybe if you started at the beginning, Mr. Ponderby,” Doc said gently.
“Yes, yes, of course.” Ponderby paced around the room as he spoke.
“I received a letter nearly a month ago. Unsigned. But full of dire warnings of a horrible, agonizing death if I didn’t do as it said. They claimed they had created a terrible poison. Colorless, flavorless, undetectable by any chemical test. More deadly than anything heretofore known. Terrible agony and certain death if I didn’t meet their demands.”
“What did they want you to do?” Jack asked.
“They wanted to dictate the management of my company!” said Ponderby. “They knew all about certain research projects that I’d thought were secret. Still need to work out how they’re getting their information from inside my company. But they said if I didn’t abandon those projects and destroy all the associated research, I’d be murdered.”
“And did you do what they said?”
Ponderby looked shocked. “Heavens, no! Let those scoundrels tell me how to run my company? Where would I be? Where would it stop?”
“Then they didn’t follow through on their threat?” said Doc.
Ponderby snickered. “Oh, I don’t doubt their intentions, my dear, but I’m too clever for them! All sorts of things can go wrong in this world. Fires, earthquakes, civil disturbance. All sorts of trouble. A wise man’s always prepared.”
He grinned at them, then dashed to the bookshelves and pulled out a particular volume. There was a grinding noise, and a whole section of books slid backwards and out of the way.
“Look,” said Ponderby. “Look how I fooled them!”
The hidden door revealed a bare-walled chamber stacked high with crates. “My emergency cache,” said Ponderby. “Preserved food and clean water from a spring in the Catskills. Enough to sustain me for months. I’ve been living off these supplies since the letter came. Nothing else has passed my lips. There’s no other food in the house now. The staff eat elsewhere. They’re under orders to let nobody in. Ha! Let them try and poison me.”
Jack decided Ponderby was about half crazy. But he had to admit he was clever too.
“But that won’t last forever,” said Doc. “We have to stop them.”
“Indeed,” said Ponderby. “I was relieved to hear Edison had someone on this. Tell me what you know about this business.”
“Not much, I’m afraid, sir,” Jack said. “Mr. Edison brought us in last night. We went to the Cobb estate.”
“Poor Eamon,” said Ponderby. “You’ve seen the body then?”
“We have,” said Doc. “They’re not bluffing. Whatever killed Mr. Cobb…it wasn’t pleasant.”
“We didn’t have a chance to learn much more,” Jack added. “The government has agents on the case. They seem to think it was socialist agitators.”
“Bah,” Ponderby sniffed. “Bureau of Investigation. I have a letter from them somewhere. No better than the police.”
Suddenly Jack heard the thundering report of a shotgun. The French doors exploded inward and showered the room with glass. Jack ducked and drew his .45 automatic. He glanced over and saw Doc diving for the floor, unhurt.
Ponderby stood in the middle of the room with a surprised look on his face.
“Are you hit?” Jack shouted.
“No, I don’t think so,” said Ponderby softly. “Just a nick from the glass perhaps? Oh…oh my.”
He turned to face them, and Jack saw a hypodermic dart sticking out of his chest. Doc saw it at the same moment. She gasped and looked to Jack with a horrified expression.
Jack ran to the wreckage of the French doors, shattered glass crunching beneath his feet. Peering around the ruined door frame, he saw two figures vanishing into the woods.
“Stay with him!” he called to Doc. Then Jack sprinted across the lawn in pursuit.
He crossed the lawn until it gave way to forest, then he dodged between trees and ran down a grassy path marked out by carefully placed shrubs. For all its apparent wildness, this place was a park, designed to be easily navigated. After a few hundred yards, he broke into a clearing around a pond. The two men were there on the far side of the water. Jack snapped off a shot but missed. One of the assassins spun and leveled a Thompson gun at him. Jack’s reflexes took over, and he dove to the side. He hit the ground and rolled as bullets shredded the foliage where he’d been. Then the gunner turned and vanished into the trees again. Jack sprang up and followed.