THE CASE OF THE HOLE IN THE WALL Part 5
Updated: Mar 24
She was intrigued that he had physical evidence while she simply had Lipscomb’s word. The packing cases had been deemed good only as firewood once the fossils were gone and had long since been destroyed. While it made sense to repurpose the pieces in a landscape that offered very little choice of burnable materials, Mena couldn’t help wondering whether the members of the expedition hadn’t been overly expedient in the destruction considering the circumstances.
“Follow closely and mind your step,” Heath cautioned as they set off through the bare ribbon of woodland. As it sat back on the flat area bordering the river, Mena supposed it was part of the flood plain, though it was difficult to picture sufficient water ever rushing through the gap in the hills. Or perhaps she should term them cliffs, for shear rock rose up in graduated heights before them.
Heath’s step was sure as he scrambled up and over obstructions, occasionally offering her a welcome hand up. She didn’t mind that dismounts from various geologic features were accomplished much as assistance in alighting from a carriage. He settled his hands about her waist and swung her to her feet, releasing her immediately upon touch down. Soon they were some distance from the camp and shadows were beginning to complicate the route. She didn’t fancy a return trip once the sun dipped behind the latter rises to the west and hoped that whatever Ishmael had shown Heath would instill her with confidence that her partner would be found. Bother whether the prehistoric remains of long forgotten beasts were recovered, though she was curious about the manner of their disappearance. While the Allegory Society prided itself on successfully solving the various mysteries brought to their door, she doubted a host of missing fossils would cause anyone to lose sleep back in Chicago. The Director would not be happy, but she was sure he could learn to live with the disappointment.
As they walked, she related the strange situation Lipscomb had described to Heath. His only comment had been a murmured, “more magic tricks.” But why use an illusionist’s ruse when it was clearly unnecessary? No one had been watching the crates when they apparently hatched a conglomeration of bone shards.
When Heath halted, Mena dragged her mind back to the task at hand. “How long was Ridley missing before you set out for the rails?” he asked.
“Three days. Dr. Macus didn’t instigate a search for him until it was apparent he hadn’t simply lost track of time and been unable to find his way back from the dig site.”
“Which is that way,” Heath said, jerking a thumb over his shoulder.
She couldn’t verify the direction. She’s only visited as part of the expedition. Though Heath had only met Macus and Lipscomb, there were three other scientists engaged in identifying and chipping the fossils free of the rock. They would return once the light faded, following a path she had never been able to discern through the dust.
“This area is fairly protected,” he continued. “The formations block the wind and there has been no rain to erase traces of Ridley’s passing. Now, look here.”
Mena looked. All she saw was rock in various stages of decomposition ranging from boulders taller than she to sharp edged gravel. Rounded pebbles were found only on the flood plain where they camped.
“What am I supposed to be seeing?” she asked.
Heath had hunkered down, the skirt of his frock coat tucked up to avoid brushing the ground. “Scuffle marks,” he said. “There might have been heel marks recognizable when Ishmael and Lipscomb were out this way, but Ishmael admits he’s never tracked a man before and Lipscomb apparently considered this a natural feature of the landscape.”
“But you don’t,” Mena murmured.
“Ishmael didn’t,” he corrected, “but I’m inclined to second his opinion. No animal caused this disturbance. No force of nature. But there is no trail leading from this spot to indicate a man was dragged away or walked away.”
“Which means we are back where we started,” she said with a sigh.
He grinned over at her. “Not so, sweetums,” he said as he stood upright once more and offered his hand. “Come with me.”
Heath led her around the disturbance that didn’t look like a disturbance to her and down a narrow gap between a sheer cliff and a fallen fracture Mother Nature had driven into the dry soil. When he halted there was barely enough room to turn, the divide was so narrow.
“Right here. It looks like something was dropped. Something that left a trace of blood as it slid down into the gap or as it was yanked from the gap.”
The trace was faint, but Allegory training allowed her to recognize blood when she saw it. Even a smear that was over a week old. “Ridley?”
Heath shrugged. “No telling but something alive and large enough to be gathered up once more.”
He leaned back against the cliff face. “Remember, darling, I’m in a profession where we make the impossible appear possible. That means we have quite active imaginations. How else could a company convince an audience that Shakespeare’s fairies are real or that Bottom is a man with the head of an ass, not a man wearing what passes for the head of an ass?”
“You’re saying I won’t believe the scenario you propose,” she said.
He brushed the tip of her nose with his forefinger. “Thunderbird,” he said.
“A large eagle?”
“Thunder. Bird. Let’s say this blood belongs to a hare or some other easily preyed upon creature. If an eagle dropped it, an eagle could get into this space and retrieve it. A cougar might as well but we don’t have tracks to suggest an earth-bound predator ergo an airborne one is the answer. An eagle – even a large one – could steal a small child but not a full-grown man. How large a fellow is your Ridley?”
She did not like the way this conversation was headed, Mena decided. “He’s not quite as tall or broad shouldered as you are, but he isn’t a small man either.”
“Thunderbird,” Heath said as though stating a fact.
“You aren’t implying a pterodactyl hunts this desolate land,” she said.
“Putting aside the fact that it is supposedly extinct, is that likely?”
Mena sighed. “Not in this area. So far they’ve only been unearthed in Europe.” It was one of the few things she remembered from the accelerated learning curve she’d undergone with only days to prepare for this assignment.
“Thunderbird,” Heath repeated. “Large flying carnivore rumored to be seen in these parts. At least according to the boyos I drank with my last night in town.”
Mena’s hands stole to her chest as though to protect her heart. “Then he is dead.”
“I’d say he was making quite an effort to not be dinner for anything in a nest,” Heath countered. “You did say he was well armed, and either he did not lose any of his weapons or they were discovered by someone who then tucked them out of your sight. Or Ridley himself has cached them somewhere.”
All things that were quite possible, Mena admitted. Perhaps her partner had been wounded in a scuffle with whomever had taken the fossils and found somewhere to hide while he convalesced? He hadn’t indicated that he was suspicious of anyone the last time she’d seen him, but as a Cog, if he had discovered something Ridley would not have waited to confer with her. He would have gone in pursuit alone. It was, after all, what she would have done in the same circumstances.
Heath glanced west, toward the sun as it slid lower in the sky. “The light will be gone soon,” he said. “I propose that we return to the scientists’ encampment and get a good night’s sleep. Come daylight, we gather supplies, including medical ones, my rifle, a knife and whatever weapons you’ve been carrying. I know you have more than one, just haven’t figured out what the strange contraption carried in your helmet does.”
She was surprised he knew about the blaster, but supposed he’d gotten a glimpse of it when she removed the pith helmet the two evenings they’d camped en route to the expedition’s headquarters. “It shoots an arc of electricity,” she confessed.
“While that might be handy, if indeed this is a thunderbird it might use lightning to fluff its feathers. What else are you concealing?” he asked.
Personally, she was probably the least weaponized Covert Cog within the Allegory Society. But Ridley was not. “I do have a few items but unless someone has confiscated Dr. Broxton-Alverdeen’s luggage, he should have a wide assortment of what we require. He carried far more than most scientists would consider necessary.”
Heath shook his head slightly, though she realized it wasn’t over the peccadillos of gentlemen adventurers, but over something she’d said.
“Darling,” he drawled. “I believe you can drop the pantomime of being a scientist. At least with me. Your acting ability may pass muster with Macus because he doesn’t believe any woman capable of putting two and two together, but not me, ducks. What are you and your Ridley? Pinkertons sent to uncover the bone stealing villain?”
Mena paused only a moment before answering. “Yes,” she said. “That is exactly why we’re here.”
He smiled. She was sure it was the expression he flashed audiences before demanding Sweet Nell – or another obviously feather headed female – succumb to his lust in some horrible melodrama. It was self-satisfied, amused, and did indeed make her short of breath despite her abiding affection for Ridley. “One lie and one truth,” Heath murmured, his voice silky. “Confess the sin, sweetums. Let these rocks be your sacred confessional and I your vow chased confessor.”
“Really, Mr. Heath,” Mena blustered, but as her response merely heightened the quotient of amusement in his grin, she sighed. “Alright. We work for an organization few know exists. We don’t take on cases like those Pinkertons handles but rather those they don’t wish to handle.”
Heath pushed off the rockface. “There, was that so hard? Your secret is safe with me. I am, after all, working at your behest not Macus’s, and I don’t believe he’s telling the truth entirely either. But we’ll find your Ridley not because you wish to, but because it will irritate the spit out of the not-so-good professor when we find him. We’ll also discover what became of those bones, so your reputation won’t be blackened. Does that suit your requirements, darling?”
It flabbergasted her, Mena admitted to herself. “It does, Mr. Heath,”
He laughed softly. “Not Mr. Heath, crumpet. What the theatre posters call me is as little my name as Ethelmena von Katchemstross is yours. Please don’t ruin my opinion of your intelligence by telling me you dreamed up that impossible name.”
“I didn’t,” she admitted. “What is your real name?”
“The one I gave Macus, of course,” he said though she wasn’t sure whether she believed that or not. He was a consummate liar to the core. She supposed that was part of what made him such a respected villain on the stage though.
Heath seemed a much better fit for him than Edmund ever had though.
“Which way will we be headed at dawn?” she asked.
Heath grinned. “Just one direction makes sense. Up,” he said and pointed to the heights.
To be Continued
Look for Episode #6 on February 22nd
And if you'd like to catch up with what previous Cogs have dealt with
THE CASE OF THE SHOOTIST'S FINGER
THE CASE OF THE REPURPOSED MAN
are both available on Amazon