Tuesday, November 07, 2006

1932, 8. The Man Who Lived 200 Lives

The passenger liner RMS Vespertine, two days out from Liverpool, slid beneath the waves of the North Atlantic just past midnight in the winter of 1915. The first torpedo from the German U-boat had pierced its starboard hull below the waterline; the second slammed into the boiler room, igniting the reserves of coal, and tearing open the aft half of the vessel in a plume of fire that glowed for miles distant. There was no time to drop the lifeboats, no time to even begin evacuations. The Vespertine sank in minutes.

The sea churned and sucked at the debris all through the long, dark hours of the freezing night, and into the hazy, fog-swathed dawn, before the rescue boats arrived. They cut slowly through the icy waters, powerful lights sweeping what little wreckage remained, crew members’ voices shouting across the surface of the deep.

They pulled men and women from the water, a dozen at most, found clinging to spars of wood -- one on a table from the ship’s dining room, still clutching a butter knife in one hand. But they were all stiff and sightless, faces kissed with frost, and the rescuers draped them in sheets and said quiet prayers for their immortal souls.

The last boat was about to turn back when the port-side spotter shouted a warning. With hooks on poles, sweating beneath thick wool sweaters and scratchy peacoats, the crew hauled the young boy dripping and shivering onto the deck. He stared at them with eerie green eyes, a shock of newly earned silver jutting through the auburn of his hair, and clutched the life preserver that had kept him afloat so tightly that not even three strong men could pry it from his grip.

The boy said nothing; not on the rescue boat’s return journey to the hospital ship, not to the doctor who checked his pulse and scanned his fingers and toes for frostbite, not to the nurses who swaddled him in blankets and fed him soup in spoonfuls, not in the hours he sat curled up on a cot in the empty infirmary, still clinging to the life preserver.

At last, the ship’s chaplain was sent in, a sweet-natured and patient man, and through gentle tones and persuasion, he was able to retrieve the white ring from the boy’s grip, and set it beside the cot.

“What’s your name, son?” he asked, sitting on the cot opposite from the boy. The child said nothing, green eyes calm and staring. “Have you a mother and father? Were they on the ship with you, or do they await you at home?”

“How many?” the boy said in a small voice. The chaplain paused, and begged his pardon. “How many were aboard?” the boy continued.

“I don’t know,” said the chaplain, kindly. And though he asked more questions, the boy said nothing further.

The chaplain went to the chief surgeon, who checked with the first mate, who sent a dispatch by wireless to shore, and hours later received a reply.

The chaplain returned to the infirmary to find the boy still there, still silent, still staring, and sat down once again on the opposite cot. He unfolded a piece of paper given to him by the first mate, and read the number scratched out in someone else’s handwriting.

“Two hundred and one,” the chaplain said, “counting the crew and all the passengers. I suppose that makes you the one, eh?”

“Two hundred and one,” the boy repeated, and his face grew so resolute, so impossibly old in its conviction, that the chaplain was privately startled, and would carry the image with him to his grave.

“I guess I’ll have to live for all of them,” young Thomas Roosevelt Morrow said.

He was nine years old, a native of Boston, Massachusetts. His father ran a bookshop; his mother kept the accounts. After saving since before Tom was born, they had sailed to England, in defiance of the ongoing war, to visit distant relatives. They died beneath the waves, with one hundred and ninety-eight other souls. Tom had crept out of bed when he should have been asleep, and snuck up on deck to see the stars bright and clear in the blue velvet sky. And so he had lived.

A distant aunt in Hutchison, Kansas took Tom in. He traveled westward, trailed by a shipment of books from his parents’ shop. Once they arrived, he had them unloaded entirely in his new room, dusty tomes in wobbling stacks stretching nearly to the ceiling.

“What are you going to do with them all?” his aunt pleaded. She was a good-hearted, sensible woman, and her taste in literature ran toward the farm report, the almanac, and the Good Book.

Tom fixed her with those strange green eyes of his, brushed the hair back from his face, and said, “I’m going to read them.”

Within a year, he had, and half the Hutchinson library besides. Even at that young age, he seemed to possess a remarkable recall, able to quote verbatim nearly everything he’d read. Once, when asked by a doubting Sunday school teacher to name the first full verse on page 273 of the Bible, Tom asked, “Which edition?”

No one likes a know-it-all, but that didn’t stop Tom from trying. He became known as a loyal, good-hearted lad -- a bit lost in his own head, perhaps, but always willing to stop and help a neighbor. And like the president from whom he’d gotten his middle name, Tom Morrow did not so much live his life as attack it with fervor.

He pored over books of anatomy, studying the intricacies of human musculature, and devised a series of dynamic exercises designed to rapidly and effectively promote strength, stamina, and vigor. When applied to his own skinny frame, they quickly transformed him into the all-around champion footracer, tree-climber, big-heavy-rock-lifter, and just-about-anything-elser of Hutchison and several surrounding towns.

By age 12, he was reading all of his textbooks by the end of the first week of school, and spending the rest of the year at the back of the class, sketching designs for a more efficient engine for his aunt’s old truck, or a human-powered flying machine, or simply rendering from memory the entire skeleton of the antelope, and offhandedly lobbing invariably correct answers back to the head of the class whenever prompted.

He got his first patent -- and his second, third, and fourth -- by the age of 14. (He would have gotten seven before he turned 15, but patent clerks are slow and methodical types.)

When the church caught fire from a lightning strike in the midst of a hot, dry, dusty summer, it was 16-year-old Tom who ran into the blaze to drag out Parson Weaver, and return the breath to his smoke-filled lungs using a series of techniques he’d been thinking on in his spare time.

By the time he was 18, he had fourteen patents -- for everything from a newer, more sensitive lens for telescopes to a novel means of transforming wheat hulls into long-lasting paper -- a report card full of straight As, a commendation for the governor, and a desperate need to get out of Hutchison, Kansas before he began to suffocate. Any university in the nation would have fought for him tooth and nail, had he bothered to apply. But Tom had tired of book learning, and wished to see the world. So he joined the U.S. Army.

This proved a mistake, as much for the Army as for Tom. He made a fine recruit -- strong, fast, a quick thinker and a crack shot -- but a terrible soldier. For one thing, there was his objection to killing.

“What did you say, cadet?” his drill instructor at Fort Long shouted, crimson-faced, individual veins pulsing soothingly beneath the skin of his forehead.

“Sir, I said I don’t see the point of it, sir!” Tom replied, as his entire platoon ran through their bayonet thrusts all around him. Each man watched Tom the corner of his eye, so as not to miss the inevitable, spectacular explosion of profanity, and possibly viscera, that Drill Sergeant McClary would no doubt unleash.

“Don’t?” Each of the Sergeant’s words would have spiked a distant seismometer. “See? The point?” The men of the platoon grunted, shoving their bayonets into imaginary enemies and twisting, and wondered if any of the blood from poor Cadet Morrow would get on their uniforms. The sergeant abruptly relaxed, his wide face breaking into a smile, much in the manner of a spider sitting casually in the center of his web. “Well, Cadet, just why is that? Speak freely, son.”

“Well, sir,” Tom began earnestly, betraying no awareness of his imminent mortal danger, “I don’t see why we need to, you know, stab the enemy to take him down. In the vitals, I mean. Multiple times.”

“I suppose you’d care to show me a better way to do it, wouldn’t you, Cadet?” the drill sergeant asked, his voice pure honey. Honey with cyanide in it.

“Sir, are you sure that’s all right, sir?” Tom asked, genuine concern on his face.

“I insist, Cadet.” The Sergeant smiled, imagining the wayward Cadet Morrow in the back room of the canteen, buried under a pile of self-generated potato peelings.

“Well, for one thing, sir, there’s this,” Tom said, and chopped the Sergeant on the side of the neck, right where he’d once seen a particularly important-looking nerve cluster in a Chinese book of medicine. Sergeant McClary turned briefly purple, and dropped in a heap. At the sight of this, the entire platoon paused in mid-lunge, sparing a troop of nonexistent foes from their forty-seventh consecutive impalement.

“And that’s just the beginning,” Tom said cheerily. “I mean, for one thing, you could simply use the butt of the rifle on the solar plexus, or perhaps -- sir? Sir?”

Sergeant McClary, once released from the hospital with nothing wounded save his pride, kept a wide berth around Cadet Morrow for the remainder of basic training.

The final straw in Tom’s brief, ill-starred military career came the following summer, in the sweltering humidity of the South Carolina pine woods, where he was serving as quartermaster for the 112th Infantry during their annual exercises. Tom had developed something of a reputation, understandably, and the top kick left him at B Company’s makeshift base camp to guard the supplies during the long day’s pretend fighting. Tom was only too happy to be at the front, but has he stood in the dripping heat of the supply tent, surrounded by crates of flares and radiophones and spools of wire, he resolved to make the best of it.

As darkness fell, the company doubled-timed back into camp, sweaty, grimy, and deeply annoyed. A Company had outfoxed them at every turn, and as soon as the men had broken out their canteens, the top kick called them to the heart of the camp to plan the next day’s strategy.They were joined by Tom, who seemed curiously smudged and sweat-stained himself; the men who didn’t much like him, which was most of them, began to joke about how hard it must have been, sitting on all those supplies.

With the tip of his bayonet, the top kick was scratching out vectors of attack in the dirt, when a curious series of static bursts issued from somewhere in the vicinity of the supply tent.

“What the hell is all that racket?” the top kick growled. Private Tom Morrow stepped forward through the circle of weary soldiers.

“If I may, sir,” Tom said, “that’s the alert from the acoustic sensor array I set up while the company was engaged, sir.”

“The what of what?”

“I just borrowed a few parts from some of the radios, sir, and slung ‘em around the bases of the trees around the camp perimeter. And that sound, sir, means a squad from A Company is headed in from the south, I’m guessing for a covert attack.”

From the woods to the south, there erupted multiple roars and a sudden burst of brilliant, lingering light, and the shouting of confused men.

“That,” Tom continued, “would be the tripwire flares I set up to blind and disorient them, and remove their element of surprise.”

The cracking of branches, and more shouting -- these cries each ending in an abrupt sort of muffling -- echoed through the trees.

“And that, sir, would be them falling into the pit I dug, and covered over with pine needles. Don’t worry, it’s not too deep, and I made sure the walls sloped enough. They should be just about ready to surrender at this point, I think.”

The top kick, for once in his long and impressive history of public outbursts of paint-peeling profanity, had nothing to say.

The Army knew they had something in Private Morrow. They just didn’t know what, but in the classic fashion of military men the world over, they certainly didn’t want anyone else to have it, either. So Uncle Sam stuck Tom deep into the heart of its bureaucracy, reviewing budgets in a tiny basement office at the War Department in Washington, D.C., until such time as they figured out what, exactly to do with him.

The career rear-echelon man who processed Tom’s transfer order had no way of knowing it, but he was saving the entire city of Washington, and perhaps democracy itself, when he thumped down the APPROVED stamp on Tom’s paperwork.

In the spring of 1924, as the chill of winter gave way to the first green hints of spring, the White House burned to the ground, again. This time, it was not the work of spiteful British soldiers, but that of the Walking War-Engines of Professor Wolfgang Heinrich Gotterdammerung. The rogue German scientist had transformed his grudge against the Allied Powers for his nation’s humiliating defeat in the Great War into twenty-foot tall mechanized monstrosities, fully electrical, with battleship-thick hides, feet that could crush an automobile as if it were paper, and three automatic Gatling guns at the end of each protruding arm. They stomped ponderously down Pennsylvania Avenue from the smoking ruins of the White House, bullets from the marshalled forces of the city’s defenders pinging harmlessly off their armored skin, headed inexorably for the gleaming white dome of the Capitol. They left a trail of smashed-in police wagons and army trucks, and a series of wet, red, vaguely soldier-shaped smears, in their wake.

Tom Morrow first caught sight of them through binoculars from the roof of the War Department, where he had the habit of taking his lunch breaks. In the glinting, mechanized perfection of their march of doom, he saw all that enthralled him, and all that he despised to the depths of his soul, in one streamlined shape.

And while the nation’s capital plunged into chaos, it was Tom who “borrowed” a police radio and used it to triangulate the curious radio signal that animated the metal monsters. It was Tom who jerry-rigged an antenna with a generator and a flagpole to broadcast a signal that counteracted the control frequency of the War-Engines, grinding them to a halt mere feet from the Capitol steps. It was Tom who led a ragtag squad of battered policemen and soldiers in a raid on the small freighter at anchor on the waterfront, catching Professor Gotterdammerung before he could make his escape. And it was Tom captured forever in the light of a shutterbug’s flash-powder, punching the burly, tattooed, pistol-weilding fiend of Teutonic science in the jaw. Magnification of the photo would later reveal a single tooth flying from the Professor’s mouth at the force of the blow.

(In the years that followed, Tom would strike up an unlikely correspondence with the incarcerated Professor, trading opinions on the latest developments in physics, and won no friends in Washington by describing him in a newspaper interview as “a decent enough fellow, provided you get to know him.”)

As the cleanup crews patched up the four-foot-long footprints all down Pennsylvania Avenue, and Arlington Cemetary enfolded her newest honored occupants in the shade of its flowering trees, Tom Morrow was summoned before a special Senate committee, to decide once and for all just what the hell was to be done with him.

“I see here plans for aeroplanes, and life preservers,” said the honorable and fat Senator Finster of Ohio, tongue habitually pressed toadlike against one wet corner of his mouth, “and something... I don’t know what the hell this is. I suppose you can build all this, son?”

“Yes sir,” Tom affirmed, seated behind an oak table in the stuffy chamber, dressed in his full Army uniform.

“What about bombs, son?” said Senator Finster, who had never seen combat with anything more formidable than a rare steak. “Could you build bombs? Better cannons? More powerful rifles.”

“I could, sir,” Tom said, slowly. “But I will not.”

“I beg your pardon, son?” the Senator scowled, looking halfway indignant, and halfway indigestive.

“I said I wouldn’t build any of those things, sir. Not for my country, sir, with all respect, and not for myself, and not for anyone else.”

“Are you not a patriot, boy?” Senator Finster growled. Tom stared back with his clear green eyes and slowly rose to his feet.

“I love my country, Senator,” Tom said. “I love what she stands for. And I maintain that anyone who thinks that taking life is the answer to any problem, of whatever scale, is thinking too small. You ask me for weapons to wage war, Senator? No, sir. I deal in ways to end war.”

In 1926, the budget and the paperwork finally approved, the U.S. Army designated newly promoted Captain Tom Morrow as the head of its Special Science Division, tasked with exploring and cataloging scientific threats to national security, and devising means to foil them. It was a division of one, at least at first, but Tom didn’t care. At last, he could see the world.

He was already famous as the breathless newspapers’ Hero of Washington, a repute he neither liked nor disliked, but indeed barely seemed to notice or acknowledge. As he traveled the globe, his fame only grew. He dismantled opium-smuggling rings in the Far East, uncovered secret alchemical weapons of the Renaissance deep in the prehistoric caverns of France, and battled Malvolio Sinn, the Caesar of Crime, side by side with Lord Havoc in the girders of the under-construction Empire State Building. In 1928, dime novel publisher Street & Smith of New York City contracted with Tom to publish accounts of his adventures -- highly educational, he was assured, and only lightly fictionalized, to ensure their commercial appeal. Tom shrugged, and signed the paperwork; he used some of the ever-accumulating funds that resulted to buy whatever the government refused to approve, and diverted the rest into a charity for orphans of war.

Over time, Tom Morrow’s travels won him steadfast companions. Albie “Nosh” Mirman, the pudgy, perpetually hungry word-puzzle champion and amateur codebreaker from Brooklyn, who cracked an supposedly unbeatable cypher to help Tom smash the League of Disrepute. Danny Ishido, the brash Californian engineer, whose aid proved invaluable in Tom’s defeat of the Metal Ghost of San Francisco. Lassiter Odes, Lasso to his friends, a straight-shooting cowboy geologist who joined forces with Tom to face down the Thunder Lizards of the Badlands. And Rashida Al-Mahmoud, the feisty, fiery-eyed mathematician from the University of Cairo, who worked with Tom to solve the ancient equation at the heart of Pharoah Ramhatep’s tomb in the Valley of Kings, and spare her native land from the Horror of the Eleventh Plague.

And as he traveled here and there, Tom would stop at houses, apartments, family farms, all drawn from a list he’d made years before and kept folded in his breast pocket at all times. He’d quietly introduce himself, and sit for a while in the parlor, or on the porch, or out on the fire escape, talking with the occupants. And in every case, he’d leave with some small item, a hairbrush or a ring or a battered old book, freely given to him from the reaches of some forgotten drawer or locked-up steamer trunk. And he’d cross another name off the list.

In 1929, Tom and the team of remarkable talents who found themselves assembled around him moved into the top floor of the majestic Art Deco tower at 919 North Michigan Avenue in the heart of Chicago. Sealed by an unbreakable lock to which only Tom and his friends knew the solution, the Lookout, as Nosh wasted no time in dubbing it, was stocked with the latest instruments of science and detection. Though each member kept separate quarters on the floors below, the Lookout was their true home -- a buzzing hive of intellect and discovery, and a stronghold in the Special Science Divison’s ceaseless battle for freedom, justice, and the light of knowledge.

The evening they moved in, Tom invited his team out onto the balcony overlooking the Magnificent Mile as dusk settled across the city. Electric lights had begun to illuminate the skyline; only the distant spire of the Wormwater Building remained black and still amid the glowing metropolis. Tom poured five glasses of sparkling cider -- he reminded anyone who’d listen of the deleterious effects of alcohol upon the cells of the human brain, and besides, champagne went straight to his head -- and proposed a toast.

“Let the light that shines above us,” Tom said, pointing to the glowing, omindirectional beacon at the top of the building’s crowning spire, “be our own inspiration.” His colleagues and friends good-naturedly rolled their eyes, only too accustomed to this sort of speechifying, and the sincerity behind every word. “Let us bring light to all the dark corners of the world, shine hope where there is despair, and for God’s sake, let’s not let Danny blow up the lab again.”

They laughed, and clinked glasses, and Rashida shouted, “What’s impossible?” To which they all replied, in one of Tom’s favorite maxims, “Impossible’s just an excuse!”

They didn’t know it then, but doom awaited them, a slow-motion bullet fired from the pistol of fate. And only Tom would escape.

It arrived one morning in the early summer of 1932, in a cannister that popped from a pneumatic tube whisked through the citywide subterranean communications network, up the towering stories of 919 North Michigan, and into the heart of the lookout. Big Tex, Lasso’s scruffly little mutt of a dog, retrieved it from the bin and trotted over to Tom, who was reading the latest issue of The American Journal of Physics upside-down during the winding-down of his morning exercises.

“You ought to try this sometime, Nosh,” Tom joked, red-faced, counting off one last handstand push-up before somersaulting to his feet. He bent down and scrached Big Tex behind the ears, retrieving the only slightly drool-soaked cylinder from the dog’s jaws.

“I’m good, thanks,” Nosh said through a mouthful of bialy, delivered hot that morning from his favorite Pilsen bakery. He had the Tribune in front of him, folded to the crossword puzzle on the work table, next to the coffee grinder and the Crystal Skull of Macchu Picchu. “Nine-letter word for ‘puzzle or problem?’” Nosh asked.

“Conundrum,” Rashida said, breezing past in spirited argument with Lasso regarding the merits of the controversial continental drift theory. “It’s absurd, Lasso. The continents are fixed to the crust of the earth.”

“There’s some very curious magnetic readin’s say otherwise, Miss ‘Shida,” Lasso drawled in his usual calm, easy manner.

There was a sudden whoomp and a crash from the workshop. Danny stuck his head out, face blackened with soot. “I’m okay!” he called. “Little more oxygen in the mix next time.”

“Business as usual,” Tom sighed, and unrolled the message inside the pneumatic cylinder.

The Lookout was always a busy, lively place, but whenever Tom stood stock-still, as he did now, his friends and colleagues knew to take notice.

“Professor Satel,” Tom said at last, balling the paper in one tightly clenched fist. “I think he’s in trouble. Where are we on the current projects?”

“The Looking-Glass is almost there,” Danny chimed in, wiping soot from his face with a stray dishtowel. “Just gotta make sure the gyro’s properly calibrated with the ley lines.”

“Still no luck with Sinn’s code,” Rashida added, snatching an apple from the fruit bowl in the work table.

“We think it might be some kind of circular algorithm,” Nosh said, and then said it again without his mouth full.

“Sinn,” Rashida snorted in her proper, rounded British-accented syllables. “Leave it to the greatest criminal mastermind of North America to leave his dying scrawl in ciphertext. Couldn’t make it easy for us, could he?”

“I got a theory ‘bout that dust we found in his Vault of Iniquity,” Lasso chimed in, draping his lanky frame wrong-way-round on a high-backed stool. “Still workin’ on it, but it’s got some mighty curious magnetic readin’s.”

“No luck tracking down Sinn’s missing loot, either,” Nosh said. “You’d think a bricked-up subway station full of gold and jewels would be easier to trace.”

“Great,” Tom said, letting the information run idly into his brain, his thoughts consumed with the message he clenched in his fist. “Sorry, this business with Satel’s got me worried.”

“Need some help?” Nosh asked, wiping his mouth. “I’m sure we can spare the morning.”

“It’s probably nothing,” Tom said, grabbing his jacket from a coathook as he headed for the door. “You know Satel -- he’s got a way of jumping at shadows.”

“That much high voltage would make anyone jumpy,” Rashida smirked. “See you for lunch, then?”

“If I don’t get distracted,” Tom said, unlatching the Lookout’s unbreakable door and stepping through into the anteroom.

“So, dinner, then!” Danny called as the door sealed shut behind Tom.

In the elevator down, Tom uncrumpled the message in his fist and smoothed out the paper, reading once again the hasty scrawl of the Doctor’s message, and the schematics enclosed with it. He strode through the lobby still engrossed in the contents, instinctively weaving around passersby, and emerged from the revolving doors to the bustling sidewalk and the bright morning sun. He stepped to the curb, placed two fingers to his lips, and let out an ear-splitting whistle, then held up the silver-and-amber signet ring on his finger to the nearest passing cab.

One swift taxi ride, one very exciting cab ride, and one hasty autograph of Tom Morrow and the Circus of Calamity later, Tom arrived at the Carbon and Carbide Building, whose glossy black exterior rivaled the Wormwater’s in striking distinctiveness among the city skyline, and found police cars circling the sidewalk around its entrance. A pang of alarm shot down Tom’s spine, and he dashed across the street, dodging traffic, and flashed his Special Science Division badge to the policeman standing guard. The cops parted like the Red Sea -- Tom didn’t need the badge, really, not in his adopted city or half a dozen others -- and Tom anxiously waited while the elevator whisked him up to the top floor.

Dr. Arlos Satel was one of the most brilliant and misunderstood scientific minds in the country, and a longtime correspondent of Tom’s. His eclectic, radical ideas about the applications of electrical power had repeatedly run up against the hard-headed interests of commerce, and only Tom’s discreet financial assistance allowed the Hungarian genius to further the work he hoped would transform the world into an endless glimmering web of invisible electricity and free, clean power.

Tom had gotten the vague outlines of Satel’s latest work from the Doctor, a more theoretical pursuit than his usual endeavors, but only today had he seen the full plans. The potential in them, and the urgency with which Satel’s note had conveyed his fears that some unknown force seemed hungry to obtain his work by any means, only redoubled Tom’s growing dread.

The elevator disgorged Tom into a sea of plainclothes detectives, and a wrecked, charred, and empty lab. There was no sign of Satel, or indeed of any of the bizarre and crackling machinery that usually cluttered the space; the light shone clear and stark through the windows, and the room’s white silence was disorienting and uneasy. A strange smell of ozone still hung in the air, and the walls and floors were blistered in curious circular scorch marks. In the center of the emptied room, surrounded by tattered bits of blueprints and tiny fragments of broken machinery, Tom saw a discolored place on the floor, where something heavy had sat for many months. It was shaped like a ring, roughly nine feet in diameter, and the inner edges were fringed with black wisps and eddies, where powerful currents had scorched the floor.

The police kept their distance from Tom, and he spoke to none of them, his eyes roving the room with the intensity of searchlights. He touched one of the scorch marks on the wall, carefully tracing the radial blast pattern with one finger, and frowned, troubled. Then he crouched almost level with the floor, fished a small glass file out of his jacket, and carefully swept up a small pile of the black dust littering the floor in spots.

He was about to rise from the floor when he heard it -- the steady whistling of an open pnuematic tube. He followed the sound to the far side of the lab, where the master pneumatic chute sank down into the walls of the building. The rubber flap that covered the mouth of the tube hung open, fluttering gently in the force of the constant suction. Tom checked the dial next to the tube that determined the destination of any cylinder sent. It was set to MORROW. Tom’s blood froze in his veins.

“Was this open?” Tom barked to no one in particular, his voice piercing the stillness of the room, commanding attention from the wandering cops. “Was this tube open when you arrived?”

A rookie detective, not much younger than Tom and clearly only a few months into plainclothes work, hesitantly stepped forward. “Uh... I believe so, Mr. Morrow. What’s wrong.”

Tom was already sprinting back toward the elevator. “I’m going to need one of your cars!” he shouted.

The police wagon was waiting, engine running, driver’s door open, when Tom burst from the front doors onto the sidewalk. He leapt inside, barely pausing to shut the door, and gunned the motor, racing back up Michigan Avenue. As the police wagon weaved through traffic, Tom pulled his Morrow Personal Radiophone from inside his jacket, flipped out the retractable antenna with a flick of his wrist, and switched the ‘phone on to the private frequency of the Special Science Division.

“Nosh!” he shouted into the receiver, swerving briefly up onto the sidewalk as he traded paint with a meandering produce truck. “Lasso! Shida! Danny! Can anyone hear me?”

Silence. Static. Tom’s foot shot the gas pedal all the way to the floor.

He left the car running, doors wide open, halfway up on the curb in front of 919 North Michigan, and nearly knocked two bankers and a chairman of the board flat in his dead sprint for the elevators.

All the long and lonely way up the tower, Tom’s lips moved silently, praying, hoping against hope that his terrible theory was wrong. He reached the anteroom to the Lookout, fumbling with the keys whose top-secret workings opened the unbreakable door, and paused only to grab a gas mask from the hidden compartment set into the wall by the door.

The door swung open to the scrabbling of Big Tex’s nails on the floor, and the dog’s soft, agitated whining. Tom’s breath hissed harshly in his ears inside the mask. The dog ran in panicked circles in the center of the room, surrounded by the still, prone bodies of Tom’s friends.

Tom, moving as if underwater, his legs as thick and unresponsive as in his nightmares, knelt and checked each body. Nosh had collapsed face-first onto the work table, the still-unsolved crossword puzzle next to him. Its edges fluttered in the breeze blowing in through the balcony doors, where Rashida lay, fingers splayed up on the edge of door she had barely managed to open before death took her. Danny and Lasso, the later still clutching a bandanna over his nose and mouth, sprawled grotesquely on the floor near the open pneumatic tube; shards of glass and part of a shattered vial, roughly the size and shape of a message cylinder, lay glittering near the open mouth of the pneumatic tube.

His friends’ eyes were all wide and staring, bloodshot. No pulses beat in their necks. There was no contortion, no evidence of final agonies. Death had swept across them gently, like a mother’s kiss on a sleeping child’s brow.

Tom half-consciously stripped the gas mask from his face and sat down in a sudden heap in the middle of the floor. Some part of his brain was still working; poison gas, it told him, sent in glass vials through the tube network from Satel’s lab, probably just after he’d left the Lookout. Possibly with some charge set to detonate upon detecting the normalized air pressure. The gas had risen, and eventually dissipated out into the air through the crack Rashida had opened onto the balcony. Big Tex, low to the floor, had survived while his masters died around him. The dog curled against Tom and licked his hand, whimpering.

Some part of Tom’s brain was working, yes. But in the rest, he was nine years old again, cold and wet and shivering, watching the flaming ruins of the Vespertine drag all that he loved into the pitiless deep.

Big Tex licked tears from Tom’s cheeks.

He allowed himself the luxury of grief for a minute, two, three. Then he stood up slowly, stepped over the bodies of his friends, and headed to the lab.

The Looking Glass sat nearly finished in one corner, its thick rectangular frame strung with coils of wire. Tom ignored it, sitting down roughly at the workbench. He grabbed a microscope and picked up one of Lasso’s slides of the black dust found next to Malvolio Sinn’s charred, mangled body the week before, in the plundered emptiness of his Vault of Iniquity. Then he prepared a slide of the dust from the vial in his jacket, from Satel’s lab, and compared the two beneath the scope. The particles were identical.

He checked them with the spectrograph, confirming the same mineral composition. From the sliding drawers of archived materials on the far wall of the lab, he produced one final slide, and checked it, too, against the two other samples. It was another match.

Tom sat in silence in the lab for a long while, trying to wrap his mighty brain around the almost unimaginable theory it was forming.

He moved to the telephone on the wall and asked the operator to call a number in Parkersville, Iowa; then, when no connection could be made, he placed another call to the Parkersville County sherriff’s office, asked a few simple questions, and listened grimly to the answers.

Tom clicked the receiver to get back to the building switchboard, and placed four more calls that afternoon. One to an airfield down in the heart of Bronzeville. One to a Miss Violet Sullivan on Lakeshore Drive, with regard to a mutual acquaintance. One long distance to New York City, where Chalmsworth the butler informed him in rolling tones that the master was taking his exercise on the grounds, and would return his call.

And lastly, one to the police.

Tom hung up the receiver and moved wordlessly into the main room. He went to each of his friends, closing the lids of their sightless eyes. He filled Big Tex’s water dish in the sink and set it down for the dog. Then he sat at the work table as the distant sounds of sirens approached up Michigan Avenue, surrounded by his dead friends, and began to plan the means by which he would avenge them.

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