Part 19: Caterpillar Tracks
Sigrid, Mack and I, all bearing arms, stood poised to leap into action as we opened the door. Outside, leaning against the wall, an unfastened bow-tie hanging from his neck, was Major Thurlow.
“Somebody tried to kill me,” he said. “I shot back, but I don't think I got them.”
Sigrid jabbed a thumb at me. “Same with the doc.”
Thurlow looked at me, standing in the hallway wrapped in a blanket and still decidedly damp. “Looks like you have a story or two to tell.”
“Okay,” Sigrid said, “that clinches it. Mack, get Irene and go stay with the Wheelers for the rest of the night. Major, Doc, we need to get to Kirkham and find EON-4.”
Thurlow smiled and shook his head. “Whoever was behind this, they're familiar with the city, and they know more than a little about us. I think we need to get moving. Get out to sea and onto that boat.”
“Ship,” I corrected reflexively.
“Whatever. But EON-4 can take care of himself. He's made of metal and I'm made of flesh. We can head straight out, and swing by Circhester. Once we're behind the gates there, we'll send a telegram to Kirkham and wait for the tin can to show up.”
Sigrid slung her rifle over her shoulder and turned to me. “I'll get you a towel. We're leaving.”
The gates of the viscount's estate opened slowly, leaden with armoured weight. Beyond them, Lady Una stood beside a weathered old soldier with an eye-patch. As always, machinegun posts oversaw the courtyard from secure vantage points, shining spotlights into the midnight darkness. It was a place that exuded security. But Major Thurlow was still far from happy.
“If you have any staff you've hired over the past few weeks,” he told Lady Una, “send them into town for the night. The same if there's anyone who's been giving you trouble - threatening to quit, anything of that sort.”
“Everybody here,” the man with the eye-patch said, “can be trusted.”
Thurlow raised an eyebrow. “I see. That's a very untrustworthy thing to say.”
The man stomped off in a huff, while Thurlow grinned wryly.
Lady Una seemed to have dressed hastily, her hair was pinned up in a rough bun that spilled out another curl every few seconds. Beneath her dressing gown she wore a long nightdress, pinching the sides of the skirt to keep it away from the caterpillar tracks hidden beneath. “You can stay in the same rooms as when you first arrived,” she said. “Please be quiet. My uncle has taken a turn for the worse and I don't wish him to be disturbed.”
Thurlow regarded her uneasily and then, with a short bow, headed into the mansion. Sigrid followed suit, avoiding the Lady's eye completely.
When we were alone, Lady Una stepped closer. “Yes,” she admitted. “Okay. I am drunk. And you can tell.”
I said nothing. I could smell the brandy on her breath.
“I don't normally drink at all,” she continued, addressing the tips of my shoes, her words running together. “But what with my uncle, and the prospect of a journey out to sea, I just needed something to take the edge off. I'll confess, I'm embarrassed to have you see me like this.”
“It'll help you sleep,” I said. “Go to bed.”
“Is that your recommendation as a doctor?”
She smiled lopsidedly. “But you're not a medical doctor.”
She looked around uncertainly for a moment and then glided inside. I followed behind her until we reached the stairs. She looked back at me.
“I still really want to know how you manage this,” I confessed.
She bit her lip coyly. “Curious as ever.”
She lifted her nightdress so I could see her tracks. “Triangular, you see?”
She rolled forward, and the entire assembly of the tracks spun round, catching on the lip of the stair and lifting her up. “It's slow going,” she explained, “but I get there. I'm sure most people think I'm just wearing ridiculous heels.”
I shook my head. “You don't seem the type.”
She smiled to herself. “You don't know how I was before.”
“Nobody ever does.”
She continued mounting the stairs, one at a time. “I'd have something witty to say to that, if I was in my right mind.”
“I've no doubt.”
“Come drink with me, doctor. Peregrine. It's pathological to do it by yourself, I understand.”
“You've had enough.”
“Well then come stop me from having any more.”
“What am I supposed to do? Swallow the keys to your liquor cabinet?”
She laughed explosively and then covered her mouth, embarrassed. She cleared her throat. “Keep me company, that's enough.” Then she touched a hand to her forehead and sighed. “What am I saying? Please ignore me, doctor. I'm babbling.”
I said, “I-” And then stopped.
She continued up the stairs, with me following by her side. “Are you my friend, doctor?”
“Yes,” I answered, without hesitation.
“Really? Do you really want to be friends with a half-human freak?”
She mounted the final stair and, from the landing, looked down at me.
“That's a loaded question,” I said. “I'm your friend.”
She turned away from me. “Come talk with me, please. I won't get to sleep. I'm wide awake now.”
I followed her in silence, into her room. A single oil lamp was turned down low on a reading table piled high with books, casting soft shadows onto the walls. A small clockwork bird sat still in its cage, feigning sleep.
Lady Una sat down in a high-backed chair. “Sit on the bed,” she instructed me. “I can't use it properly any more anyway.”
I sat down on the mattress, facing her.
“There's brandy,” she said, gesturing to the bottle on her bed stand, “if you want to try and catch up with me.”
I poured out a glass and downed it, immediately breaking into a coughing fit. “It's strong.”
Lady Una shrugged. “I'm no connoisseur. I just grabbed the first thing on the shelf. Tell me about the Select Committee.”
“What do they look like?” she asked. “Do they really look like spiders?”
I let her needle this one answer from me. “Vaguely.”
“And the other members, are they really all dead?”
I pressed my lips together. “Why do you want to know?”
She yawned, and I yawned too. We both laughed quietly, and then she said, “I'm curious.”
“Good answer. Okay: no. None of them are dead.”
“What-” she yawned again. “Do excuse me. What happened to them?”
“I can't tell you that without telling you the whole story. And we've already established that I'm not going to do that.”
She smiled, looking strangely satisfied. “I rather admire you,” she said softly, “Perry.”
“Uh, yes, don't call me Perry. I really don't like it.”
She said nothing, and I realised she was asleep.
With that, I found myself moved to curl up on the bed and close my eyes. I was too tired to leave, but unable to sleep either. I simply lay there, on Lady Una's bed, listening to her breathe.
I lay there until the first gunshots sounded from outside.
TO BE CONTINUED...
Next week: Who is it that so wants our adventurers dead? Have they bitten off more than they can chew by tackling the viscount's estate, or will this be a risky battle for all concerned? Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!