The Forever Engine – Snippet 19
October 3, 1888, Munich, Bavaria
“Do you understand, lass, how awkward this is?” Thomson asked.
“Of course,” she replied. “The times they are awkward for us all. But we carry on, non?”
“Give me one good reason why we shouldn’t arrest you right now,” Gordon said.
“I have broken no laws, and you have no authority in Bavaria.”
That was actually two good reasons, but pointing that out would have seemed rude. Besides, she left out the best reason — she was a special friend of the Prince of Wales.
“Just tell us what we need to know and we’ll take care of the rest of this business,” Gordon snapped.
“Non. I must accompany you, for to be certain the interests of France they are served.” She shrugged again, as if to say there was nothing more to discuss.
“Look, you guys may not like the idea,” I said to Thomson and Gordon, “but this trip is likely to be long, stupid, and end up with us dead, facedown in the mud, unless we get some real intelligence, and quickly. Let’s add up what we know: he’s called the Old Man of the Mountain and he’s a really bad guy. That’s not a lot to go on, and according to . . . Baron Renfrew, the Bavarians can’t help much. Where are we even going to start looking?”
Gordon answered. “If he is not somewhere near the site in southern Bavaria –”
“He is not,” Gabrielle put in.
“If he is not,” Gordon continued, “then obviously Syria. I would imagine either the Lebanon or Ante-Lebanon mountain ranges, where his original predecessor lurked.”
“Non,” Gabrielle said. “He is not in the Syrian mountains.”
“He’s the Old Man of the Mountain,” Gordon shouted back. “What do you mean he’s not in the bloody mountains?”
“Oui, the mountains, but not those mountains.”
Gordon sank down in a chair against the wall, and Thomson shook his head.
“He’s in Serbia, isn’t he?” I asked.
“Don’t be an ass, Fargo,” Gordon said, but Gabrielle looked at me, and her eyes widened slightly in surprise.
“How did you know this?”
“I didn’t for sure, not until your reaction. It was just a hunch — a speculation.”
Thomson laughed for the first time since we got the Aldis lamp message. He sat in an overstuffed armchair and pulled his pipe out of the pocket of his jacket.
I expected Gabrielle to react with irritation, but instead she nodded thoughtfully. “Upon what was this speculation based?”
“I didn’t see it until we were in the chart room of the Intrepid and I looked at their large globe. Because of the projections used, large-scale flat maps distort straight-line distances, but on a globe you can see them more clearly. We know there was an energy source at one end of this effect — the Wessex collider in my time. What if there was one at the other end as well?”
“But the other incident was here in Bavaria,” Thomson said.
“The other reported incident was in Bavaria, but what if the real effects were at two power sources with an echo effect in the center? The AllgÃ¤u Alps are on a straight line and exactly centered between Wessex and Serbia.”
Gordon snorted in derision. “You expect us to believe you reasoned all that through based only on two explosions?”
“No, but it was enough to make a guess. My first pick was southern Bavaria and my second was Syria, like yours. But if Syria and the Alps were out, Serbia was worth a shot.”
“That was very logical,” Gabrielle said.
“Do you mind, my dear?” Thomson held his pipe up for Gabrielle to see. She shook her head and drew on her cheroot. Thomson began packing tobacco into his pipe, and behind me Gordon lit one of his own cheroots. I supposed this sharing of smoke was a step toward a sharing of information, and perhaps even international peace and harmony, which were all good things, but it was getting hard on my lungs.
So we were back to the question of whether Gabrielle Courbiere would accompany us. The problem, in the end, was one of trust. How could we trust Gabrielle’s information to be sufficient to warrant her inclusion unless she shared it with us? But once she did, how could she trust us to take her along? It was the sort of problem best solved by repeated and generous infusions of distilled alcohol, but all we had was one bottle of dry sherry, and Gordon put about half of that down just to take the edge off his hangover. At least after that he stopped shouting so much, which made the negotiations go easier.
“Okay, here’s what I suggest,” I said. “Mademoiselle Courbiere, tell us what you know about the Old Man except how to find him. If the information’s good enough to convince Dr. Thomson to bring you along, you’re in. If you don’t trust us to deliver on that promise, tell us what we need, as we need it, to find him. What do you say?”
“Oui,” she said without hesitation. “If this is acceptable with the doctor, for me it is good.”
Thomson drew on his pipe and looked intently at her.
“Forgive me asking, Mademoiselle, but . . . are you really a spy?”
“Oui, Doctor. For three years now I have been the agent of Le Direction Centrale des Renseignements GÃ©nÃ©raux, the DCRG.”
“But . . . how?”
“Oh, it is simple. I am quite intelligent, and men find me attractive. They will often tell me almost anything for the possibility to mate with me, even if later that possibility it is not realized.”
Thomson and I must both have stared at her for a moment, he in shock and me in puzzled admiration.
“Lass,” Thomson finally said, “for a spy you’re disarmingly honest. The truth is, the more I think on this mission, the less prepared I feel to accomplish anything. We do need help. If what you tell us now is useful, I’ll take you with us and accept any additional assistance you can provide.”
She nodded firmly.
“Bon. We have a considerable dossier on this man who calls himself le Vieil Homme de Montagne. He takes this name to cause fear, oui? He has assassinated over thirty men that we know of. His agents use the hashish, like the Hashassiene in the Holy Lands during the Crusades, but he is an ethnic Serb born in Austrian Croatia.”
“Born when?” I asked.
She pursed her lips and looked up. “On 10 July, 1856.”
She had a pretty good memory for numbers.
“So he is what? In his early thirties? Younger than I would have thought,” I said.
“Young, oui. Perhaps le Jeune Homme de Montagne, n’est-cepas?” She looked at us and smiled, then added, “I made the joke.”
We smiled back at her, but it wasn’t exactly a knee-slapper.
“We know little about his early life,” she continued, “but he studied the electrical engineering at the Polytechnique Autrichien in Graz. We first began collecting information on him six years ago when he moved to France.”
“He lived in France?” Gordon shouted from his chair by the window. “Why in God’s name didn’t you arrest him when you had the chance?”
“We did not know his identity as le Vieil Homme de Montagne until recently. He had broken no laws when he lived in France, mon Capitaine. We do not arrest people simply for being disagreeable. You, for example, would be quite safe there.”
I chuckled at that, and Thomson suppressed a smile of his own.
“While in Paris he worked for La Compagnie d’Edison, then in 1884 he traveled to your country, Professor Fargo, but a year later there was a dispute with Monsieur Edison and he returned to Europe. It was not long after his return that the first attacks by le Vieil Homme de Montagne took place.”
I shot Thomson a look and saw him bite through his pipe stem in surprise, then spit out the end.
“Good God, you can’t mean Nikola Tesla!” he exclaimed.
“Ah, you have heard of him.”