Read an Excerpt
Swirling fog ruled the London night.
Stepping from a horse-drawn carriage into the thick mist, Professor Felix Einstein paused on the sidewalk, and briefly consulted the small glass globe in his hand. Trapped in the middle of the crystalline sphere was a mummified Egyptian tarantula that remained motionless under his hard scrutiny. The professor relaxed at the sign that there was no evil magic in the immediate vicinity. At least, for the moment.
Satisfied for the nonce, Professor Einstein tucked the talisman away once more into his greatcoat. Dressed like a Bow Street banker, Einstein sported an Inverness cape over his gray-striped suit and Oxford school tie, with the mandatory small porridge stain. His craggy face was deeply tanned, and the silver highlights in his wavy hair almost perfectly matched the silver lion head of his ebony walking cane. The inner pocket of his coat bulged with an Adams .32 revolver. Looped across his waistcoat was a gold watch chain with a petrified shark's tooth dangling at the end as a fob. Jutting from a pocket of his vest was an embossed case containing numerous calling cards that merely listed his name, address, and a few dozen of his titles. His real profession was not among them.
Starting to address the waiting cabby, Professor Einstein frowned as he caught a gale of merriment coming from the nearby building. Eh? In the expert opinion of the professor, a tribe of Zulu warriors performing the Mexican hat dance could not have been more incongruous than the loud laughter, which came from the ground floor windows of the five-story brownstone building dominating the block.
Over the past fewweeks, Einstein had noticed that the weather patterns of the entire world were steadily becoming worse: snow in Egypt, tornadoes in the Amazon jungle, bright sunshine in Liverpool, and such. Yet those were merely side effects of the coming apocalypse.
So who could possibly be laughing at such a dire time as this ? the professor demanded irritably. Surely not my fellow club members! Maybe the fog distorted the noise of some distant party so that it seemed nearby? Yes, of course, that must be the answer. How obvious.
"Best stay sharp, Davis," Professor Einstein said, reaching upward to shake hands with the burly driver. The complicated procedure took a few moments as thumbs, fists, knuckles, tickling and slapping were involved. It seemed more like a friendly fight between the two men than a salutation.
"I'd recommend a routine number nine," Einstein added as they eventually let go.
"My very thought," Davis whispered, checking the iron cudgel tucked into his wide leather belt. The 'Liverpool Lawgiver' was worn from constant use, and appeared as formidable as a consort Navy battleship. "Just you look for me, and I'll be there, governor."
Giving a wink, Davis shook the reins, and started the two draft horses away from the curb at a gentle canter. The cab vanished into the billowing clouds, and soon there was only the rattling echo of its wooden wheels on the cobblestones: a sound that faded away in ghostly fashion.
Shaking off his uneasy feeling, Professor Einstein checked the loaded pistol in his pocket before starting along the sidewalk towards the giant brownstone. Then the odd laughter sounded again, louder this time, and most definitely from the club. Outrageous! With an annoyed snort, Einstein began to stride impatiently towards the towering downtown mansion.
Reaching the front of the huge building, Professor Einstein ambled up the worn marble stairs with his mind still on the strange laughter. Einstein was quite aware that at any given time one could be almost sure that the leader of some newly returned expedition would be regaling the assembled members with his latest tales of derring-do, heavily embellished with sound effects, visual aids and the unwilling cooperation of the nearest staff member. In point of fact, the London Explorers Club was the only establishment in England that was forced to offer its servants combat pay. But raucous laughter when the world was on the brink of destruction? Professor Einstein frowned in consternation. Most unseemly . He had sincerely hoped that at least some of the other members would have been able to read the portents of the coming apocalypse. Perhaps he was wrong.
Pushing open the brassbound mahogany door, Einstein entered the mansion and handed his Inverness cape, hat, and cane to a doorman, who in turn passed them to a liveried page. Taking a deep breath, the professor stood for a precious moment to let the warm air seep into his bones. The pungent atmosphere was thick with the homey smell of wood polish, pipe smoke, and cordite. Ah, home, sweet home!
Just then, another burst of laughter arose, only to be abruptly cut off by a man's stern voice. Einstein tried to catch what was being said, but it was rapidly drowned out by a new upwelling of mirth. The noise seemed to be coming from the Great Hall. In spite of the urgency of his mission, the professor was forced to admit that this was becoming interesting. There was an unwritten law in the club that one had best know when to stick to the truth and when one could embellish a story a bit. A law that many bent, but few actually broke. Sadly, there were always a significant number of expeditions that encountered nothing more exciting than fetid jungles, smarmy natives, and dull animals that were so patently stupid that they would wander directly in front of you and politely wait while you dug the old .577 Martini-Henry bolt-action out of your haversack and did them the favor of blowing out their brains. But those were tales hardly worth repeating.
Proceeding quickly down the center passageway, Professor Einstein turned left at a suit of Spanish armor and entered the Great Hall. No exaggeration had been used to name the room, as it was a good three hundred paces long, its oak beam ceiling an arrow-flight away. The parquet floor, formed of four-inch-square wooden blocks, was dotted with a hundred islands of India rugs and velvet smoking chairs, while in the center of the room, a tiered Italian fountain quietly burbled and splashed. Lining the walls were mammoth bookcases containing over a million leather bound tomes, most of them first editions, or handwritten journals. High above this grandeur, on the second story balcony, was a beautifully sculptured bronze bust of Marco Polo, the patron saint of explorers, dutifully keeping watch over his modern-day students.
Crowding around a blazing fireplace, a group of club members surrounded a display table. Placed prominently on that scarred expanse of dark oak was a small wooden ship, barely a foot in length. A single low cabin was in the middle of the deck of the tiny vessel. No sails or masts were visible, and the rudder was broken.
"By God, Carstairs," Lord Danvers laughed from underneath a bushy Royal British Marine moustache. "You'll have to do better than that!"
"Rather," Dr. Thompkins snorted, dipping his red nose once more into a half-empty whiskey glass. "Balderdash, I say. Violates the unwritten law. Noah's Ark, indeed."
In righteous indignation, Lord Benjamin Carstairs rose to his full height. No hat was necessary for him to tower over the other members.
In cold scrutiny, Professor Einstein could see the fellow must be over six feet tall, and nineteen, maybe twenty stone in weight, with not an ounce of fat on the heavily muscled, almost Herculean frame. The giant was dapper. A three-piece suit of a brown worsted material perfectly complemented his stiff white shirt and striped Oxford tie. His lantern jaw was painfully clean-shaven, while the pale brown hair and blue eyes clearly announced a Saxon heritage.
Oh well, nobody's perfect, the Norman-descended Einstein observed wryly.
"I stand on my earlier statement, sirs," Lord Carstairs said calmly, resting a tanned hand on the little craft. "You have seen my journals and read my analysis. This ship was found on the peak of Mt. Ararat, hidden in a stratified gully just below the snow line. It is made of 4,000-year-old gopher wood and sealed with crude pitch. To scale, it is of the proper dimensions, and perfectly matches the description of the craft in the Book of Genesis , Chapters Six Through Ten. I Believe That It Was Constructed By Noah Ben Lamech, as a working model, before he built the actual sea-going Ark itself."
Once more, guffaws filled the air and some rude soul added a juicy American raspberry.
"Good evening, gentlemen," Professor Einstein said loudly, interrupting the brouhaha.
Copyright © 2007 Nick Pollotta and James Clay.