The Spanish Cross by Tom Howard

Apr 27 2014 Published by under The WiFiles

Clinton James was crawling across a Persian rug when he bumped into a chimpanzee with a gun.

“Keep your head down, you git!” the animal growled as a bullet smashed through a diamond-paned window above their heads.

An old man resembling Santa Claus scurried around the corner of the couch, waving a strange pistol with an oversized cylinder and external wires.

“What’s happening?” Clinton asked Santa. “Who is shooting at us?”

“Bastards!” said the bearded man with a faint German accent. “They don’t want me to find the Spanish Cross. I’ll show them!”

The old man sighted over the back of the couch and fired through a broken window. The gun, instead of firing black-powder bullets, emitted a hum and a bright red string of light. Someone screamed in the street outside.

“Please keep your head down, Professor,” said the chimpanzee, swapping the bearded gentleman an identical gun, this one crackling. The simian was dressed in a pinstripe suit and was much larger – and more verbal – than monkeys Clinton had seen in menageries.

Another bullet whizzed by Clinton’s head, and he acted before anyone was hurt. “Excuse me,” he said, grabbing the spent gun from the chimp and slipping into the hallway and out the back door where he’d entered the house earlier. He moved along the hedgerow and discovered two men – one of them nursing his left arm – firing at the house from across the street. Hoping the blinking lights on the gun indicated it had recharged enough to fire, Clinton pointed it at the two men.

“I’ll take those guns, gentlemen,” he said, trying to sound braver than he felt. “Lower your weapons.”

The men, dressed in dusters with hats pulled down over their faces, laughed. Clinton, though young and slender, had boxed in college, and his roommate had showed him a few moves of a Far Eastern fighting technique called karate. He fired at the uninjured man, grateful when the professor’s strange gun emitted another ruby beam. He leaped on the second man without waiting to see the first man hit the ground. When the professor and his chimpanzee arrived, both attackers were swaddled in their own coats and moaning on the ground.

“Well done, young man,” said the older gentleman, taking Clinton’s hand and shaking it enthusiastically. “I’m Professor Walker and this is my assistant, Bartholomew. I assume you’re the new assistant the university sent. You must tell me how you were able to subdue these two ruffians.”

Still shaking the professor’s hand, Clinton looked around at the neighborhood. The spacious houses sported gas lamps and carriage houses. In the warm afternoon breeze, he smelled dung from passing horse carriages and the open sewage of outhouses. Ah, he’d missed the smell of the city while he’d been away at university.

“Pleased to meet you, sir,” said Clinton, finally retrieving his hand and noticing the professor wore a three-piece suit, complete with golden watch chain and an emerald-colored ascot.

Clinton followed the colorful professor and his monkey into the house. “What about the men who attacked you? Should we summon the police?”

“Bartholomew will run along and tell the constable, won’t you?”

The monkey muttered something about being the senior assistant but waddled toward the town center. None of the neighbors had appeared at the sound of gunfire; perhaps they were accustomed to unusual noises coming from the professor’s house.

Back in the parlor, Professor Walker acted as if a shootout on his front lawn was nothing unusual, brushing broken glass from the seat of an upholstered chair before he sat down.

“Why were they trying to kill you?” asked Clinton.

The old man took off his spectacles and sighed. “I’m searching for a stolen artifact of great value. The Countess Von Hurstenburg, an old friend of mine, asked me to locate her Spanish Cross. I’ve several inventions that might enable us to find it. I assume you’ve read my papers.”

Clinton had not, and he spent a lengthy moment searching his memory for what he had heard about the professor. “I’m sorry, sir, this is my first job as an assistant. Dispatched on short notice.” His advisors, after he’d blown up the second laboratory, had given him the option of leaving university for good or helping Professor Walker through the end of the semester.

“I’m impressed you can make a monkey talk,” continued Clinton, “and I’d like to examine the light gun.” Clinton thought most older inventors were fossils, unable to grasp modern 1900 technology, but Professor Walker seemed to be inventing wondrous things.

“A chimpanzee,” corrected the professor, replacing his spectacles. “He’s sensitive about being referred to as a monkey. I got him from a dodgy surgeon who altered Bartholomew’s cranium to increase his brain power. I created the mechanical voice box he uses to speak.”

Clinton was surprised. He thought the monkey – chimpanzee – was similar to a parrot, imitating what the professor had said.

“He’s quite bright for a simian,” said the professor. “He even helped me construct those light beam guns we were using.” He leaned closer and lowered his voice. “Better not to mention the scars on his skull and the two small bolts in his neck.”

“Bolts?” repeated Clinton. He hadn’t noticed them.

“Yes. One adjusts the sounds of his speech and the other winds his tick-tock vocal cords.”

Intrigued in spite of himself, Clinton asked, “How are you going to locate this Spanish Cross?”

The professor peered at the young man. “I suppose I can tell you since you’re going to be helping me. I intend to use a hot air balloon and a metal detection device of my own creation to search the city. Since the cross is expensive and distinctive, the police don’t believe it has left the area.”

Clinton nodded. “I see.” He’d never been up in hot air balloon before, but everyone at university was mad about them.

“The men shooting at us,” continued the professor, “were either competitors trying to find the cross before I do or the miscreants who took it in the first place.” The professor sighed again and looked out the broken window. “You may find being here dangerous.”

“I’m willing to take the chance.” It had to be more stimulating than the dry lectures at university. .

Just then the housekeeper, a large woman, appeared and clucked over the mess. The professor asked her to show Clinton to his room. Bartholomew reappeared with a constable, and the professor started outside to make a statement.

“Young man,” he said at the door, “I don’t even know your name.”

“Clinton James, sir,” he said. Someday everyone would know who he was.

#

Handymen had repaired the damaged windows by dinnertime. Ah, the advantages of living in the city. Clinton had toured the laboratory, read the professor’s papers, and considered how he’d go about finding a priceless relic. The professor had told him rubies encrusted the cross. Could Clinton come up with a device able to detect the oscillation of rubies? Surely they were dense enough to have their own vibration signature. Now he just needed a giant tuning fork and something to detect ruby vibrations.

He glanced up from the professor’s scientific journal to find Bartholomew studying him with an unfriendly scowl. The chimpanzee didn’t like him and made it clear the professor should send the idiot boy back to university at the earliest opportunity. Clinton had considered asking Bartholomew for a ruby or two to test its vibrations but decided against it.

“What do you think of alchemy, Mr. James?” Professor Walker asked at dinner over an obscenely large portion of lamb.

Its twin was on Clinton’s plate, swimming in a bath of hot melted grease. He looked enviously at Bartholomew’s plate of fruits and vegetables. “It’s a fairy tale from the dark ages.”

The professor laughed. “That’s just what I told Bartholomew! Magic and nonsense. Changing one element to another. What about one metal being attracted to another?”

“Such as magnetism?” asked Clinton, sawing away at the overcooked lamb while keeping one eye out to intercept the housekeeper’s next pass with the gravy boat. “I’ve experimented with magnets. I assisted the late Professor Hinkleberry. Briefly.”

“Yes,” said the professor. “Too bad about his passing. Perhaps the top of a cliff was not the right venue for his experiment.”

“I don’t understand why anyone would copy Leonardo Da Vinci’s antiquated designs,” said Clinton, “in this day and age.”

Clinton turned to the silent simian. “Bartholomew, the professor said you helped design the light gun. Could I see your designs?”

The chimpanzee, who had been pointedly ignoring their conversation, dropped a half-peeled banana in surprise. “Certainly not,” he said. “I’m sure the science is far beyond your comprehension.”

Clinton shrugged. “Perhaps you’re afraid I’ll improve on the design.”

“Gentlemen,” warned the professor. “Let’s remember our dinner manners, please.”

The simian had grasped an orange so tightly it was dripping juice.

The old man laughed. “Remember, Bartholomew, when the original designs for the light gun were so large we had to buy rolls of wallpaper to illustrate it?”

“Made a terrible mess, Mr. James,” interjected Mrs. Sulisman, the housekeeper, as she carried in an ornate white chiffon cake. “I know they don’t feed you right at university, Mr. James. Too many brandies and cold chicken dinners, I imagine.” Her accent was even thicker than the professor’s.

Clinton smiled. If he ate Mrs. Sulisman’s food for an entire semester, he’d be as round as the professor. He ignored Bartholomew’s cold stare. He thought he smelled something strange, but it wasn’t cake.

Mrs. Sulisman served dessert, and Clinton sniffed deeply. He smelled cake, lamb, the professor’s sweat, and Bartholomew’s musk. He even smelled his own wool suit. In the laboratory, one’s nose was frequently the first warning when something was wrong.

When he turned his head and found he couldn’t smell anything, he suspected the answer – an odorless gas was blocking his olfactory receptors. “Professor, I smell gas.” He looked up at the lamps embedded into the walls, already lit and revealing gas was flowing. “Where does your gas line come into the house?”

“Through the back porch,” the professor said, “but I don’t smell anything. Do you, Bartholomew?”

Clinton didn’t hear the chimpanzee’s reply. He was on his feet and headed to the screened-in porch. The others followed him as he traced the lead pipe to an opening near the floor. “Look,” he said. “The soft connector is scarred as if something has been chewing on it. Gas is escaping, but not enough to cause the inside lights to die.”

“Will the house blow up?” asked Mrs. Sulisman, the worry plain in her voice. “I never trusted that new-fangled gas.”

“No, it would take all night for enough to accumulate to ignite. Probably wouldn’t have reached dangerous concentrations at all on this open screen porch.”

The professor frowned. “We shutter the porch at night, Mr. James. Mrs. Sulisman comes down early to begin the baking…carrying a candle.”

Clinton stood. Someone who knew their daily schedule planned for the professor to die in a blaze of glory. “I’ll patch these holes in the lead pipe. You should be fine, but you might replace it with copper tubing.”

The professor and his housekeeper left Clinton to repair the damage, but Bartholomew stayed behind after bringing Clinton some strips of lead.

Bartholomew snorted. “First, mysterious men shooting at us, then a gas leak. Funny none of this happened before you arrived.”

“No,” said Clinton, finishing wrapping the pipe in a strip of lead. “What’s funny is those marks look like they were made by monkey teeth.” He walked by the simian. He deserved a slice of beautiful chiffon cake as a reward for saving the professor’s life twice in one day.

#

Clinton leaned back in the velvet-covered chair in the parlor and relaxed for the first time in days. Over the last forty-eight hours, he’d stopped a fire, pulled the professor from the path of a runaway horse, and detected arsenic in the well water. Someone obviously knew the professor could find the cross and wanted him stopped.

He and the professor had dragged the haphazardly made balloon from a barn in the back pasture and spread the envelope out to air and patch. Clinton’s fingers were still sore from repairing holes in the paraffin-coated fabric. Suddenly he wasn’t as excited about flying as he had been.

He heard the old man splashing away in the kitchen in a large tin tub Mrs. Sulisman had prepared for him, sending Clinton and Bartholomew to carry water from a neighbor’s well and heating it over the new-fangled gas stove. Clinton checked the water temperature himself and placed a rubber-backed rug on the floor. Who knew there were so many ways to kill someone in their own home?

In addition to being a tailor and a butler, Clinton worked several days on four small pieces of metal for the professor, creating the most expensive dowsing rods ever made. The professor theorized that since gold was heavy, coating iron rods with lead and other heavy metals would somehow attune them to gold.

“Mr. James,” said Bartholomew from so close he made the young man jump. “Will you be requiring a bath?”

“No, thank you.” Clinton had already had a bath this week. “You?”

The simian shuddered. “No. I do not require…submersion.”

“Here,” said Clinton, pulling up a chair. “Take a load off.” And stay where I can see you. “Are you excited about our balloon trip tomorrow?”

“The professor is excited, but I doubt his idea will work. If you could attune metals as he proposes, there would have to be a big deposit to attract the rods.” He took the seat, looking comical with his short little legs, but Clinton didn’t laugh. He suspected the simian was behind all the attempts on the professor’s life.

“If it does work, it will destroy our society,” continued Bartholomew. “Imagine finding gold as easily as finding pennies on the street. Every man would be rich. Chaos.”

“True,” admitted Clinton. “Are you sure you won’t loan me one of your rubies from your light guns?”

“No,” said Bartholomew. “They were too hard to obtain for you to shatter them with ignorance.” He stared at Clinton. “I’ve read the letters from your teachers at university. They feel you are far too young and too impulsive to be a good scientist.”

“They are old and fossilized,” said Clinton. “If they had their way, the Earth would still be flat and orbited by the sun. Perhaps I’ll speak to the professor about my vibration theory if the divining rods don’t work.”

“Why should gems be any easier to find than gold?” asked Bartholomew. “You are a fool.”

“That’s a little extreme, Bartholomew,” said Clinton, trying to lighten the atmosphere.

“If you don’t help me convince the professor to cancel his balloon search, I will tell him you have been trying to sabotage his work.”

Clinton scowled but noticed Bartholomew did it better. “And I will tell him you have been trying to kill him.”

“Who will he believe?” asked Bartholomew. “His dedicated senior assistant or a boy who is known to leap before he looks?”

“I think I’d have to go with the young man in this case,” said the professor from the doorway. He was wearing a quilted bathrobe – over pajamas and long-handled underwear – in horrible maroon and green. “Although I’m more cross at you for endangering Mrs. Sulisman and Mr. James than I am at you for threatening me.”

Bartholomew jumped up from the chair and scampered to the desk, quickly grabbing the notes on the detection rods. “If you attempt to find the cross…” He held the paper over a nearby lamp and a corner caught on fire.

“I am very disappointed in you, Bartholomew,” said the professor. “I still have the rods,”

“No, Professor. I’ve melted them and thrown the lumps down the well. All your notes and all your calculations are gone.”

“No!” cried Clinton, but he was too late. Bartholomew dropped the smoldering pages onto the hearth and ran past the professor and out of the room.

Clinton snatched up the pages. He threw them to the floor and stomped them until the he’d extinguished the fire, but it was obvious little was left besides ashes.

The professor stood in shock. “It’s gone! All of it, gone!”

“It’ll be okay, Professor,” said Clinton, giving the pages up as a lost cause.

“No, you don’t understand,” the professor said, taking Bartholomew’s seat and looking as if he’d just lost his best friend. “I updated my notes as we went along. I can’t recreate the rods by tomorrow, much less recreate all my research from memory!”

“Professor,” said Clinton, blushing. “I’ve been keeping my own notes of your progress. Just in case I needed to refer to them…for some reason…in the future.” He pulled a small notebook from his pocket and held it out to the professor.

The professor looked hopeful. “You can recreate my process?”

“I think so, but I’ll need your help, and perhaps one of Mrs. Sulisman’s pecan pies if she hasn’t gone to bed already. She planned to rise early to go to the train station in the morning. President McKinley is coming through on the Freedom Train.”

#

It had been a long, hard night, but when the sun rose, two new sets of metal rods were drying on a stand in the laboratory. Clinton’s hands throbbed, his eyes hurt, and his back ached. This must be how it is to feel old, he told himself as he stretched. The professor had gone to inflate the balloon in the middle of the night and stayed with it to make sure the balloon didn’t catch fire. Clinton found him sound asleep in the backyard, leaning against the wicker basket. The balloon was almost full, so Clinton didn’t wake him.

He looked up at the orange moon in the night sky, slowly sinking toward the horizon, and wished he had higher hopes for the day. The professor’s plan seemed like alchemy, using related metals to find gold. Chances of it actually working were small, but he couldn’t blame the old man for trying. Bartholomew must have thought the professor was going to find the cross and tried to kill him before he could. Why? What had a ruby encrusted, golden artifact to do with Bartholomew?

Rubies. Bright red. Light. Oh god.

“Professor!” Clinton shouted. “Where did Bartholomew get the rubies for his light guns?”

“What?” mumbled the professor as he rubbed his eyes. “Did he come back?”

Clinton squatted down and looked the professor in the eye. “No. Where did you get the rubies for the guns?” he asked, but he was sure of the answer.

“I don’t know. Bartholomew said he got a good deal from a supplier back East.”

“Where are the guns now?” asked Clinton.

“In the safe in the parlor. Why?”

“Would you mind checking if they’re still there, Professor?” If Bartholomew was afraid they’d found out he was the jewel thief, why not just run away? Why try to kill the professor and leave the guns behind?

“Professor! Could you to draw a sketch of the cross showing all the rubies?” He helped the old man to his feet and watched him go into the house.

Mrs. Sulisman, still in her nightgown, opened the door for the professor and looked out. “Is everything all right?”

“Yes. Please make a pot of really strong tea, Mrs. Sulisman,” shouted Clinton, moving to help the balloon rise above the wicker basket. “I’ve a feeling it’s going to be a long day.”

#

“We’re still missing something,” Clinton told Professor Walker as they gently rose into the early morning air. He had to speak loudly because the heater over their heads roared as it produced enough hot air to make them rise above the chimney tops.

“Do you have the rods?” asked the professor, looking silly in his goggles and tight cap.

Clinton nodded, sure he looked as bizarre in his similar attire. He and the professor had been surprised when they found the light guns in the safe with the rubies still intact. Clinton was confused, and the professor seemed saddened by Bartholomew’s treason.

“As soon as we level off,” said the professor, “I want to try the rods. Maybe if we locate the cross, we’ll find Bartholomew and discover why he’s acting so peculiarly.”

Clinton nodded, wishing they’d brought the guns with them, although they only had a range of about fifty feet and would have been worthless in the balloon. Why had Bartholomew needed rolls of wallpaper to design such small devices?

The professor removed the foot-long needles from the oilskin and passed two of them to Clinton. They’d notched one end of each rod. Although the balloon was swaying slightly, they had little trouble connecting Clinton’s two needles to the professor’s using the notches at the end. As they had practiced over Mrs. Sulisman’s gold ring, they let the rods rest lightly in their upturned palms, point to point and facing each other.

Clinton gasped when the rods dipped down dramatically, forcing both men to grab them before they were pulled from their hands.

“Did you see that?” asked the professor.

“Down and to the southwest,” reported Clinton, still not believing the rods had found something.

They tried again, and the rods immediately dipped.

“Definitely something southwest of us,” said the professor, a smile as wide as a dinner plate on his face. He pulled the cord that closed the valve of the heater over their heads, allowing the air in the envelope to cool slightly.

Clinton was perplexed. “How did we go south when the winds are from the west?”

“We’ll need to find a thermal going south. Don’t worry, young man, I’ll explain it all to you.”

After an hour-long lecture on air streams and inversion layers, they hung stationary over the train station in the center of town. The needles jerked down to the floor of the basket each time they used them.

“It must be here,” said the professor. “We’ll return home and tell the constable to look in the warehouse beneath us for the Spanish Cross.”

“Something is attracting the needles,” Clinton agreed, “but shouldn’t we go down and verify it’s the jewel-encrusted artifact?”

“Could be dangerous,” said the professor, looking over the side. “What is going on at the station?”

Small groups of people were filling the platform and the loading dock. “Oh,” realized Clinton, “it must be nearly time for President McKinley’s train to arrive.”

“Well, we’ve certainly got the best seat in the house,” said the professor. “Too bad Bartholomew is missing it. He loves trains. He spent a lot of time down here, writing down engine numbers and memorizing timetables.”

Clinton looked at the warehouse. “Jewel-encrusted,” he repeated. “Professor, did you bring the sketch of the cross?”

The old man dug a square of folded paper out of his vest pocket. Clinton opened it on the floor of the basket. “I see four fair-sized stones and two large ones. These four are the size of the ones in the light guns.”

“Yes, it takes two in each weapon, one at each end of the electrification tube.”

“What happened to the two large rubies?” Clinton had a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach, and the gently rocking balloon wasn’t causing it.

“I’ve never seen them, outside the cross, of course.”

Clinton realized why Bartholomew needed a large illustration of the weapon. “Could Bartholomew build a really big light gun? A cannon?”

“I suppose so. Why?”

“The guns are made of the same heavy metals you incorporated in the divining rods! Your alchemy didn’t find gold, it found Bartholomew’s cannon!”

“Like calling to like,” the professor said with a nod. “The rods were attracted to the heavy metals. What can we do?”

The sound of a train whistle in the distance made both men look east.

“Why?” asked the professor. “Why would he kill the President of the United States?”

“Perhaps to be famous like John Wilkes Booth,” said Clinton, “or maybe he blames the government for the experiments done on him.”

“Maybe he’s just a sick and twisted little monkey. We’ve got to get down in time to verify your hypothesis and stop him.” The professor yanked the cord above their heads and the balloon sank with alarming speed.

The crowd, grown larger as the train’s scheduled arrival neared, looked up and applauded when the professor’s balloon bounced down. They thought his arrival was part of the show. Clinton helped the professor scramble over the side, shaking his head as the old man waved at the crowd.

“Professor,” he said, tugging the old man through the gathered people to a dirty warehouse window, “how are we going to stop him? We didn’t bring any weapons.”

The old man stopped and checked his pockets. Finding nothing, he said, “We have our brains, Mr. James.”

Clinton peeked into the gloomy warehouse and saw a large tube pointing in their direction. “It’s him. He’s pointed his cannon this way. What can we do?”

The professor pointed at a water tower beside the warehouse. It had a discharge tube to fill the water cars for the train’s boiler.

“Bartholomew said he didn’t like to be wet,” recalled Clinton with a grin.

“More importantly, the electrification tube will be compromised,” said the professor. “I hope you’re a good climber.”

Clinton heard the train pulling into the station and scampered up the wooden ladder. Gasping for breath at the top, he dragged the metal tube toward the roof of the warehouse. Unfortunately, without an opening through the sloping roof, the deluge would simply run off.

Clinton took a look at the shingled roof and made a painful decision. The crowd had turned to watch the train pull in, but the President hadn’t yet made an appearance. Professor Walker stood by the warehouse door, looking up at Clinton with a worried look. Time was running out.

Clinton twisted the water valve several turns before the water splashed down onto the building.

Steeling himself, Clinton jumped off the water tower platform and onto the roof. He followed the arc of the water and broke through with a violent jolt. He’d expected to die when he fell the two stories to the ground, but instead, he smacked into a rafter beneath the roofline. It broke his fall, temporarily, and he fell a few feet farther onto a stack of crates. If he hadn’t already been unable to breathe from the rafter impact, what felt like broken ribs would have prevented him from crying out as he plummeted.

A waterfall swept over him and onto the floor below. Grasping the edge of a crate and sucking in air by sips, Clinton witnessed the professor run into the room to confront Bartholomew. The monkey sat on a giant-sized version of his light pistol. Water poured down on Bartholomew and his nefarious machine.

The simian screamed, jumped from the gun, and climbed the crates Clinton was on. Clinton, too injured to escape, simply watched him approach.

“You!” screeched Bartholomew, hanging onto Clinton’s crate by his fingertips. “This is your fault. I’m going to rip out your throat with my teeth.”

Clinton reached for a piece of wet rafter lying next to him and slid the timber forward into Bartholomew’s forehead. “Who’s the senior assistant now, monkey?” he whispered. Bartholomew fell, bouncing on the crates below on his way down.

Behind the professor, a group of men in dark suits rushed into the room with their pistols drawn. Clinton couldn’t hear what the professor said to them but managed to stay conscious long enough to see them lay their hands on Bartholomew.

#

When he awoke in his little room, he was dry and stationary, and the room smelled of lavender and warm pecans. It felt good to be alive, so long as he didn’t inhale too deeply.

The professor stuck his head in and smiled when he saw Clinton was awake. “How do you feel?” he asked.

“I had the strangest dream,” said Clinton, placing his hands gently on the bandages wrapping his chest. “I dreamt you and I saved the President of the United States from a wet monkey with a giant ray gun.”

“In a balloon no less,” said the professor with a big smile. “The Spanish Cross has been restored and returned. The Pinkerton Men carried off Bartholomew and the cannon. I suspect we’ll never see either again.”

“Never sounds good to me,” Clinton said. “I don’t think I’ll be much help in the laboratory for a while, Professor. You might want to get yourself another assistant.”

“Nonsense,” said the professor. “You get your rest and we’ll discuss your duties later. Being in the balloon gave me new ideas.”

Clinton smiled. “I don’t suppose you want to find out if the moon is really made of cheese or something?” He tried to laugh at his own ridiculous idea and a moan escaped him.

“Exactly,” the professor said as he left, leaving Clinton with his mouth open. “I’ll start work on the plans right away.”

THE END

Tom Howard is a fantasy and science fiction writer in Little Rock, Arkansas. He thanks his four children and the Central Arkansas Speculative Fiction Writers’ Group for their inspiration and support.

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