CHAPTER I — THE INCAN SPHERE AND THE BLACK GLASS BISHOP
ONE | Bad Breeding
Ridley Woodward had hidden five deadly weapons around the cabin. Astrid was looking straight at one of them.
“I think I love you,” Astrid said, turning on her heel to face him. Her back was to the mantle now. The elephant gun was snuggled down into its rest above the fireplace. Hardly hidden at all.
Nevertheless, as determined to follow in her father’s footsteps as Astrid was—the old man had cursed the Kaiser with his dying breath—Ridley had never seen the woman take the gun down from above the fireplace. It had begun gathering spiderwebs. Hadn’t it? Ridley had taken caution to mimic the spiders’ architecture after silently loading the gun the night before.
Caught off guard by Astrid’s words though, he could not find himself. There was a tickle in his throat and lump in his chest. He perspired under the afternoon sun. It rolled in the window in a fiery hymn.
His disobedient eyes moved off her after she spoke, the words hardly finished.
He snuck a secret glance over her shoulder, down the corridor, to precisely where he should not be stealing looks in that instant. There was a small revolver in the kitchen. Ridley had fit it into the coffee package purchased during their drive up. Such a waste of good Peruvian beans. They somehow managed to get the best stuff up there in the hills.
The third weapon was already in Ridley’s hand—a knife. It was already the topic of conversation with the board of French cheese carved up with ease. The blade was so sharp that they had almost been brought to tears laughing, trying to imagine where Astrid’s mother had come across such a lethal thing in her days as an English housewife, albeit a well-to-do one with a small staff helping her. Astrid insisted it was indeed her mother’s. She had used it in that cabin since Astrid was a little girl.
Astrid had never considered how strange it was until she saw a man like Ridley holding the knife. Its handle was carved from an unknown bone, likely some Saharan predator.
It had probably put up a good fight.
“Not ivory, I hope,” Ridley had joked minutes earlier as he examined the thing.
“It’d be made from a Glaswegian femur before my mother would allow anything poached into this house,” Astrid assured. “Or a hyena.”
“So it’s agreed: it’s Glaswegian?”
Ridley had intended to take a whetstone against the blade. There was no need. It would carve beef like butter.
The fourth weapon was silver, pointed, elegant, and already shoved into Astrid’s head. Her stunning yellow hair held the six-inch needles in place. The Chinese woman in San Francisco had taught her how to put it up without much effort. Astrid liked it so much that it took Ridley a great deal of coaxing to get her to take it down at all the night before. The next morning, the polished, deep-red chopsticks had gone missing off the dresser and Ridley offered the silver needles as a replacement.
“You needn’t say answer,” Astrid had to interject to fill the silence after she had spoken. Those three little words boggarted about the room. Her voice was raspy with emotion for only a moment. There was feeling Ridley hadn’t heard out of her before. She shook it off, nearly too quick to notice. “It was simply a thought I had ought to say something. And that was the only thing I could think to say.”
Ridley tried not to hold the knife too tightly.
“Well. Did you mean it?” he asked.
“That’s an interesting thought,” Astrid said. Her posh, upper-crust accent returned, unbridled by any hint of emotion. “Suppose I did it simply for a laugh? I know it’s not proper to joke about these things, women least of all.”
“Darling, it’s 1930. You and I haven’t taken a proper breath since we met. Why start now and kill the good times we’re having?”
“I hope I haven’t hurt your feelings by acting rashly? Emotionally? Sanguinarily? Womanly?”
She crossed the room to pour two glasses at the bar. The sun was nearly set. A sharp wind blew up from the lake far below. It chilled Ridley so hard that he looked back to the fireplace on instinct.
Astrid was beside him. He jumped. She put both glasses behind his head to kiss him. The condensation beaded in cold water onto his neck, almost making him shake. She handed him one after.
“I don’t think ‘sanguinarily’ is a word,” he told her, taking a sip.
“I went to school. You did not.”
“We both learned English from somebody, and I’m telling you no newspaper editor would let the adverb form of ‘sanguine’ be published. Adverbs are weak-kneed ponies dressed up like studs. Bad breeding.”
Astrid smiled. She played with the round tumbler in her hand. “It depends on what story you’re publishing.” Her head flung back to accommodate the drink in one swallow. “It’s going to be chilly tonight. Let’s light a fire. I’ll get some wood.”
“No-no, allow me.”
“I’m quite capable of carrying wood. I’ve done it before, you know?” She was already down the hall toward the kitchen. Ridley was left with a decision and no time to spare.
Armed with the kitchen knife in one hand, tumbler of whiskey in the other, he followed, walking quickly after her toward the cabin’s rear. The woodpile was out back.
“I know this may be improper, and I don’t mean to act, uh, sanguinarily,” Ridley said, his pace quickening. “But in the spirit of abundant emotional honesty, I’d like to tell you something, if you’d give me just a sec.”
He burst through rear door with a swift kick. All subtlety was forgotten now. He gripped the knife. The mystery animal bone made for a solid handshake, like he was about to make a square deal.
The sight stopped him short. Astrid was surrounded by a phalanx of men with serious eyes and gray hats. Among them, Ridley saw Astrid holding a polished silver hatchet, a small smile on her face.
Weapon number five.
“Drop the knife,” she said.
He allowed a knowing bark of a laugh to escape as he wiped the taste of her off his mouth and shook his head. “I think I love you,” Ridley replied.
He took down his glass and stabbed the knife into the wall beside the door. Drawn pistols escorted him back inside.
TWO | The Black Glass Bishop
Astrid wrapped her fingers around her mother’s rough knife handle. She wrenched the blade free. Ridley was strong, that was certain.
Pistols out, they ushered the reporter through the kitchen and its overstocked walls of stuffed, marble-eyed animal trophies, each a strong message from Astrid’s father to any beast that crossed the cabin’s threshold—you would be carved, stuffed, mounted, and thy flesh consumed.
The chamoix above the rotting cellar door was Astrid’s favorite. Proud-faced, massive horns, a noble, peaceful survivor, perhaps sniped off a cliff face in Austria after a lengthy pursuit for a clean shot, gunfire echoing for miles down the mountain valley. Who really knew?
There was a noise in the cabin now that Astrid had never known. Boots pounded. Men snickered. Soft threats humming about to make Ridley understand his predicament. Astrid was used to the soft threats, though.
She observed Ridley take in the situation, noting the men’s sizes, six in total. Then their weapons, some more comfortable, others with their fingers already on the triggers like they were playing radio cowboys. Then she noticed he saw the truck they had arrived in parked outside.
No denying it, the man was aware. He was not without his charms. Theirs had been a pleasant meeting because she had arranged it to be as such. She had kept her eye on him for weeks before. He came and went from the San Francisco Chronicle building. His face was usually rosy in the evenings when the fog rolled in after dark and the air drew chilly. He was a sharp dresser and a hard worker, but nothing was as obvious as his taste in women.
Astrid was thankful she needn’t dye her hair blond. The rest could be accommodated by the right heels, a sewing machine, and a modified skirt. She didn’t even lose sleep the night before.
“Give me the bishop,” she said to Ridley. The half-dozen men and miles of wilderness emphasized the command. “Do as I say and you need not be embarrassed any further.”
At last, one day when the weather in San Francisco had warmed with October’s coming, it was finally appropriate to make a move against him. Astrid removed her sunglasses and spoke Mandarin.
It was lunchtime in Chinatown. Ridley had failed, as usual, at ordering the proper dish from a noodle cart. The frustration had finally boiled over at the owner. He was annoyed at having to deal with months of this newspaper man’s bad pronunciations. Ridley was being shooed off.
Astrid stepped between them.
Her exact words were inconsequential to Ridley and she knew it. He grew pink with embarrassment and green with envy. When it was over, his head was swimming. His jaw laid slack. A smiling woman was handing him a bowl of noodles. “Have you anyone to eat with?” Ridley asked her.
“I do now,” she said.
Six brief weeks, two torrid Saturday nights, and some good penmanship to craft illusory trips out of the city, Astrid had him wrapped up in a neat little package.
This was Ridley Woodward, owner of the black glass bishop, a particular, valuable trinket. He was all hers now. He promised to share stories with her. He promised to show her the curios he had gathered from around the globe in his travels. That was all well and good, and Astrid would not deny he was a thrilling toy to carry around town on her arm. In truth, she desired his actual toys more than the man himself.
The one that would complete the collection.
Ridley motioned the men away. “I’ll move slowly,” he told her, sliding his hand into his vest pocket. “So that way nobody in your entourage decides they’re sick of being Tanto and wants to try a hand at being the Lone Ranger. Don’t plug me full of daylight, alright, boys?”
He had something in his hand. His fist gripped. Astrid restrained herself. She kept from lunging at him and wrenching it away. One by one, Ridley rolled his fingers back to show.
A black glass chess piece. A bishop.
His fingers flicked. There was a snap. It vanished into nothing like it had been dropped into a pocket in the air. “What?” he gasped, hand smacked to his mouth. “Where’d it go?”
There was a crunch that Ridley could hear all the way in the stalks of his eyeballs. That was what it felt like to be punched in the jaw. Through it, he heard Astrid curse at the one who struck him.
“Don’t hit him!”
Ridley looked up in time to see Astrid’s curled knuckles flying in.
“Because I’m gonna hit him.”
He reeled. Bleeding, he did his best to keep the chess piece firmly planted inside his cheek. No giving the game away yet. His hand was raised in protest. He stammered. He begged between uneasy breaths.
Astrid waited for his explanation, and waited, and waited further still, until she realized that car headlights were coming up the path through the twilight. He was stalling. Outside, the engine was cut. Bodies leaped from the vehicle. Hands clenched guns. Fingers tasted triggers in semi-professional anticipation.
A little blood came out of Ridley’s mouth when he stuck the bishop out like it was a mocking tongue.
Six other men took to his side. Their weapons flew to the ready. Hammers cocked. Astrid’s men replied in kind.
Ridley put a cigarette in his mouth alongside the bishop and lit it. After a drag, he took both between his fingers.
“I tell ya, it’s a hell of a thing,” Ridley chuckled while nursing his swelling lip. “You’ve traveled the world, Astrid. You learned to dress from the French. You learned to cook from the Italians. You learned machinery in Germany, and I’d wager you got vocal lessons from the angels themselves. But darling, the thing that scares me the most is that you probably learned to throw a punch from the Irish.”
-- Aleksander Ruegg
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