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The vessel pulled up slowly to their target and they quickly made berth. They had to set two sets of planks out to support the combined weight of Theodore and the explosive. The men looked darkly amongst themselves, hearing the timer ticking away. The new man, Laurence O’Dale, looked as if he wanted nothing more than to run away. One of the engineers leaned close to reassure him that their job was actually saving lives, which made him nod slightly.
“Yes. Get everyone out this time,” the man in blue ordered as the clock continued its slow count down. “We wouldn’t want another ‘mishap’ would we, Lenny? Roy?”
The two engineers looked back at him sullenly, and then at the bomb. Every second counted once the three minute timer began. They reminded Laurence, and themselves, of this, and gestured for him to follow quickly. They ran towards the door; Lenny swung his club and broke the glass, then reached in and opened the door and moved quickly as he began shouting for everyone to get out.
The man in blue followed the men he was manipulating inside. They didn’t know he’d never sent the letters, though they were starting to get suspicious.
Bookworm and Mariah were deep in the first-floor library, choosing books to be sent away in the next shipment. Bookworm didn’t trust that any place in New Babbage was safe at this point, so Mariah had made arrangements with a dairy farmer, who came to the city daily, to take them north to the hunting lodge they’d used before. This morning, the man had taken two crates, filled with her rarest books—except for Uncle Tingley’s, which she wanted to keep near her. Now Bookworm was kneeling in a corner, running her hands over the books in the bottom shelf, choosing one after another and handing them to Mariah.
A sudden sound of crashing, tinkling glass made them both start. Mariah cursed fervently, as Bookworm stood up, mentally kicking herself for not having a weapon nearby. A sudden clamor from the kitchen reached their ears—men’s voices yelling, crockery being smashed. The two women looked at each other silently, then made a dash for the library door.
They hadn’t quite reached the door when they skidded to a stop on the polished wood floor, as a man dressed in a blue suit stepped inside and stood silhouetted against the turret windows. “Miss Hienrichs,” he said dispassionately. “There are only two minutes left on the bomb. I would use that time wisely.”
“Oh, like hell!” Bookworm exclaimed in sudden fury. She leaped forward, lunging for the stranger. Mariah was close behind, ready to assist, but saw, through the open doorway, another, very large, stranger standing in the foyer next to a massive-looking, metallic round object. Changing direction, Mariah dove through the doorway, heading for the other man. She had a feeling she knew what Bookworm wanted—to capture the men so they could defuse or remove the bomb, and later answer questions. Fine in theory, but in practice…
The practice, Bookworm discovered, was going to be much more difficult. The man in blue simply stood there waiting, as she leaped forward to tackle him. Her hands encountered a hard body, hard as metal, and he wasn’t shifted an inch by her impact. She looked up, and her gaze encountered lifeless eyes. She tried to hook her leg around his, to bring him down, but his legs remained firm.
“Sorry,” said the man. “But it’s been several years since my brain was cut out of my body.” His hands reached out for her throat.
The other stranger, meanwhile, stepped forward slowly, apparently trying to meet Mariah’s attack. She went in low, though, rolling underneath his grab, hooking her legs around his, and upending him. He fell backward with a grunt of surprise; when he tried to get up, Mariah, on hands and knees, brought one knee in to get his groin, and he fell back again. She punched him hard in the face, trying to render him unconscious so she could go help Bookworm. The large man only blinked slowly at her blow. Mariah heard more clangs from the kitchen, which told her that Mrs. Pritchard and Mrs. Sawyer had gotten hold of frying pans, and were, for the moment, giving as good as they got.
Bookworm had let go of the stranger’s body and grabbed his wrists desperately straining to keep them away from her throat as they slowly inched towards her. “Why are you doing this?” she grunted.
“This?” He continued matter-of-factly, “to kill you.”
“Why?! And who is PJ?” She continued to push against his wrists, trying to keep her balance.
For the first time, the man in blue showed some true emotion—surprise. He moved back, tearing his wrists from her grasp. “How do you know those initials?”
Bookworm eyed the metal stranger, trying to find some weakness, something she could exploit. “From the warning to Beryl,” she said breathlessly.
“That’s very interesting,” he replied, looking even more surprised. He removed a couple of unopened letters from his pocket, glanced at them, and showed one of them to her. “Considering I never sent it. But I’m afraid we’re out of time. This place has less than a minute left. If you value anything, I suggest you get it out.”
Bookworm glanced to the side, saw her friend had the upper hand out there, and yelled, “Mariah! Get the bomb out of here!”
“No use,” the man in blue said with dispassionate aplomb, apparently recovered from his surprise. “It weighs about 300 pounds.” With a deliberate slowness he walked for the door.
Bookworm ran for the bomb, calling for Mrs. Pritchard and Mrs. Sawyer. Surely the four of them could shift it…but that was when she heard a gunshot from her kitchen.
The man Mariah had bested rubbed his head as he sat up deliberately. He looked at Mariah and Bookworm, and shook his head. “Get out of here, or we’ll all die,” he said in a voice as ponderous as his movements.
Mariah swiftly drew her knife and held it to his throat. “You’re helping us get this out of here,” she growled.
“No time,” he replied. “If I did, we would still blow up.” He lifted his shirt, revealing wires and explosives strapped to his body. A small, ticking watch face displayed only a little more time than the clock that was strapped to the bomb.
“Oh, Theodore,” said the man in blue from the front doorway. “You shouldn’t have shown them that…”
He was interrupted by a cough from the hallway that led to the kitchen. Mariah looked up to see another man standing there, an engineer from his clothing; he was holding a gun on Mrs. Sawyer. Eyes locked with the man, she immediately realized that the situation was untenable now, and lowered her knife from Theodore’s throat. The man holding Mrs. Sawyer nodded, and backed away with her. Sudden noises from the kitchen told her there was a mass exodus out the back door.
Theodore stood up slowly, and said, “We go now…” The man in blue had already left the doorway. Theodore had made it just past the threshold when Mariah’s hand suddenly shot out, and the knife she’d been holding buried itself in Theodore’s left leg. Strangely, he didn’t seem to notice; he continued walking away, leaving Mariah’s line of vision.
Running footsteps sounded from the back door, and Mrs. Sawyer and Mrs. Pritchard came running into the foyer. “They’re gone now,” said Mrs. Sawyer, panting.
“Go! Get out of here,” barked Bookworm. She looked soberly at Mariah. “You, too.” Her friend nodded; she delayed her departure only long enough to get a rifle from their arsenal, and then she and the two servants ran out the door.
Bookworm stared down at the bomb, the ticking of its clock now the only sound in the house. Some time ago, as part of her training, Mariah had found someone to teach Bookworm a little about time bombs and how to defuse them. If only she had more time… But even two minutes would probably not have been enough, unless she’d known exactly what needed to be done. With a heavy heart, she moved toward the library.
For a few agonized seconds, she stood in the doorway, staring at the many shelves still filled with books, seeing, in her mind’s eye, the many books and photographs that were upstairs in her bedroom. It seemed too much to bear… but bear it she must. She shook herself once, and dashed into the room. She didn’t bother to take time to undo the locks; she simply picked up the entire podium that held her copy of ‘Uncle Tingley’s Christmas Tales for New Babbage Young ‘Uns’ and dragged it to the front door. She was wrestling with the unwieldy thing, trying to drag it across the cobblestones on the street out front, barely aware of hearing a rifle shot, when suddenly her world exploded into sound, a roaring sound that filled her ears and mind, and a wave of pressure that bowled her over.
And then, she was aware of nothing.
((To be continued…))