Monday, June 11, 2012

Chapter 9

     The coffee was hot and bitter on Rose's tongue. The blanket she was wrapped in was warm and heavy, but she couldn't stop shivering. The fireman who had heard her drop into the elevator, who had put his axe to use to get her free when the doors wouldn't open, who had carried her out of the smoke-filled box, stood close by, obviously hoping that she might reward him somehow for his bravery. 
     The police and the fire department tried to keep everyone back, to make way for the victims of the incredible blaze. But it seemed there were no survivors from the ten floors above the fifteenth.
     The fire had climbed, raging upward, the smoke filling the higher floors, choking the lives out of the occupants trapped there. Many were killed on the fourteenth floor as the blazing roof had fallen in on them. The building was still on fire, still being evacuated.
     Rose watched it light the night sky. She listened to the shouting, and the sirens. She shivered in the back seat of a police cruiser, waiting to give her statement, unsure of what to say. If she told the truth, there was little chance she would be believed, but the truth needed to be told.
     But what was the truth? A gang, led by an unknown mastermind, was threatening the city. She had to tell them. She had no proof, though. And what of the Black Mask? Had he escaped the building?
     Just before the fire department had cut her free of the elevator, she had heard a whispered “Go” and the trap door above her had shut with a quiet clang. It was all she could do not to scream at him not to leave her as they pulled her from the building.
     She took a deep breath, coughed out the last of the smoke from her lungs, and waited to be interrogated.

     The water sprayed the dirt and smoke from her hair. She had made her way to the shower as soon as they had brought her home.
She was lucky. Others were still waiting at the building to be spoken to, but the Fire Chief had recognized her as soon as he had arrived. He asked a few quick questions, mostly concerning where the fire had broken out, and then had told the police officer to take her home. The officer had wanted to argue, but the Fire Chief had shouted him down, assuring him that she would be in for a statement in the morning.
     The morning. God, was it really only two? Had the horrors of the night really only taken a scant few hours? She wiped the steam from the mirror, staring into her pale reflection.
     How many times had she nearly died tonight? How many times had she felt Death's clutching embrace reaching for her, only to be pulled, at the last minute to safety?
     Drying her hair with a towel, she made her way towards the bedroom, her nightgown, and the bed.
     Physically exhausted, she doubted her ability to sleep. Her mind was racing, every aspect of the night replaying over and over like a movie.
     She dropped the towel from around her body, wriggling into the silken smooth fabric of her gown, the cool whisper of it as it brushed down her shower-flushed skin. Turning around, she nearly screamed, so startled was she.
     He was standing in her bedroom, his back to her, modestly waiting until she was dressed, his back straight, his great coat reaching nearly to the floor, his hands coolly at his sides.
     “Are you dressed now?”, he asked, his voice calm.
     She nodded, realizing too late that he couldn't see it, and croaked out a low “Yes” while trying to contain her surprise.
     He turned to her, only after she had spoken, and she looked at him in the dim light of her bedside lamp. The armor, the coat, the two dark weapons at his hips; he wasn't, after all, a dream.
     “I wanted to make sure you were safe before...” His voice trailed off into silence.
     “I am safe. Thanks to you”, she murmured, gratitude flooding through her. She felt weak in the knees, but managed a step toward him.
     He nodded, turning from her, moving away.
     He stopped, his back still to her.
     “Where are you going?” It was a stupid thing to say, but she didn't want him to leave.
     He sighed, and again she felt the burden he must feel, his quest heavier than one man could ever bear.
     “The Professor is out there, somewhere. The young man said he had the means to a weapon that would bring the city to it's knees. I'm going to stop him.” He straightened to his full height.
     Rose couldn't help herself. She reached for the hem of her nightgown and began to swiftly pull it up.
     “Keep your back turned”, she said,”I'm coming with you.”

     It had only taken a moment for her to change into a well-fitting blouse, and a pair of riding breeches and boots. When she told him to turn around, he looked at her for a thin moment, nodded slightly as she tied her hair back, and then turned away.
     “Not yet”, she said.
     He turned back to her as she reached into her bedside table and pulled out the small package she kept there. The sound he made wasn't quite a laugh, but it was close as she checked the cylinder on the .38, and placed it back in it's holster.
     “This time,” she whispered, “I'll be armed, too.”

     As they moved to the hallway, he in the lead, she wondered for just a moment what she was doing. The answer came to her easily as she fell in beside him. She was following the story. But, in the back of her mind, she knew that was only partially the truth.
     He moved with purpose and agility to the stairwell, which was fine with her as she had had quite enough of elevators for the night, but she paused as he began climbing the stairs.
     He didn't stop, and so she went with him, up, up four flights until they came to the door that led to the roof. He opened it, standing to one side, allowing her to pass. The gravel crunched as they walked to the edge, and Rose hesitated a couple of feet from the edge.
     Turning to her, there was humor in his voice when he asked, “You aren't afraid, are you?”
     He held an arm out to her, and she stepped into it as he wrapped her in the folds of the coat, and leapt off the side of the building with her.

     She clung to him tightly as they fell, reliving the terror of the elevator shaft. The moment passed, and they came to a halt along the roof of a building five down from her own. She staggered out of his arms, and turned to him, flustered and angry.
     “The next time you do something like that, could you warn me ahead of time?”
     He paused, and there was still humor in his voice when he said “Probably not, but I'll keep it in mind.”
     They walked together to a small shack on the roof, and Rose could hear the sound of pigeons and a radio playing softly. Pausing before the door, the Black Mask raised his gloved fist, but didn't knock.
     The door opened, and an old man, his hair thin and white, his face lined with the years, opened the door.
     He turned his head, staring directly at Rose. In the faint light from the shack, she could see his eyes were milky white, completely covered by cataract. The old man was obviously blind, but she couldn't help feel he was observing her.
     “You've never brought someone with you before,” the old man said, still facing Rose. “This must be important.”
     His voice did not show his age, but had a timber that spoke of years of giving orders that were immediately obeyed. He moved out of the doorway, inviting them inside.
     Reluctantly, though she wasn't sure why, Rose stepped into the dim glow of a lantern that was the only illumination to the room.    There was barely room for the three of them in the tiny shack.   They stood in silence as the old man moved ahead of them, between a cramped workbench and a small cot. He moved aside a few tools from the bench, and brought down an old cigar box that was wedged between a few books on a shelf above. The cigar box went onto the bench, and the old man turned to them.
     “She's nervous, son. Shall I make the introductions?”, he grinned.
     Holding out a weathered hand, he grasped hers with strength and friendliness.
     “I am Charles Wilson. Doctor Charles Wilson, formerly of...”
     “The University of Natural History and Sciences in Warmsley, England!”, she finished, shocked to be shaking the hand of the long lost scientist.
     “You disappeared five years ago while searching...”
     He waved her into silence, but his grin was warm.
     “Now, now. We'll have none of that. I'm well aware of where I have been, and I doubt it would have any bearing on why the two of you are here.”
     He turned to the Black Mask.
     “So, shall we step into the parlor, and find out what mischief you have found yourself in this time?”

     Rose looked around the spacious, white room, populated by dark, comfortable furnishings. It was, itself, at least twice the size of her whole apartment. Everything in the room was completely black, down to the glasses at the side-bar, while the room was completely, starkly white. It was like being in the negative of a photograph, and she felt as if she had fallen down a rabbit hole.
     The old man brought her a small glass of sherry he had poured from the black decanter. It was light and delicate in her hand.
     “I'm not entirely blind, yet, my dear. I can easily see shadows in the brightness of this room, thus, the dark décor.”
     They had made their way down a walkway, hidden beneath the cot in the shack. She had been surprised at the secret passageway, and it had made Dr. Wilson laugh.
     “Surely, you don't believe I live here?”, he had said as he motioned them down.
     Now, in the white room, the Doctor sat on a luxurious, black velvet couch, a sherry in his hand, and the cigar box on the onyx table before him. He motioned for Rose to sit across from him, completely ignoring the movements of the Black Mask.
     “Now then, dear, what has my good friend put you through tonight?”

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