THREE | Malicious Intent
The facts were these.
According to Ridley’s research in the San Francisco Chronicle’s archives, Astrid’s father, Lord Lloyd Cornwallis, had once been acquainted with the Remington family back in England. A very well to-do clan present throughout Britain's imperialistic history, the Remingtons maintained a generational legacy as hoarders of valuable antiquities. They rarely shared these treasures, with Lord Cornwallis being the notable exception. Arthur Remington II gifted the Lord a golden Incan sphere, gathered from an unknown Andes ruin.
It was written the thing somehow shone dimly, even in full darkness, and it smelled of mint.
Researching further, Ridley came across stories of Lord Cornwallis’ falling out with the Remingtons at some point in 1925. The Cornwallis family built a cabin in the hills North of San Francisco, near a city called Petaluma. They began summering there. The young Lady Astrid was always left behind in London, finishing her schooling.
Lord Cornwallis and his wife died the following year in a skiing accident in Kitzbuhel, Austria. The golden Incan sphere was not discovered among their effects by the executor of the estate. It must still be on the California property.
One night in the cabin was all it took for Ridley to decide it had to be somewhere in the kitchen. He simply had to follow his nose.
“You calculated seven men would be necessary to subdue one woman?” Astrid giggled. The men on each side fidgeted. Arms up. Pistols aimed. None were comfortable with the verbal pecking match Ridley and Astrid carried on when hammers were pulled and pulses were raised. “Americans are so bitter over their lacking arithmetic skills.”
“What luck. On this occasion, I’ll only need to count to six,” Ridley wagged his revolver at her. Bullets rattled softly in their chambers. “And given the years you’ve spent in this cabin, with all its grand trophies, I’d calculate you’re a great deal more than one man can handle. It’s in your blood.”
The comment was enough to raise Astrid’s suspicion. Ridley was not just the man possessing the black glass bishop. He was not just a mark. He was not just easy game to be lured up into the wilderness to be robbed. He was here to rob her, too.
The facts were these.
Before Astrid’s parents passed away, her mother had been writing her increasingly disturbed letters. In the end, there were sixteen total. The first were in blue ink. Later, they were black. The last were in heavy red. Astrid put her nose to the final letter and nearly screamed in her dormitory. Her mother was half a world away in California, and all Astrid had were the scratchings of a madwoman and a chess set. Each letter had come with a glass piece, all from the white side.
How Ridley had come into possession of the final piece, a glass black bishop, was not Astrid’s concern. She wanted the final piece. It was the only clue to her mother’s inexplicable madness. Weeks, days, and nights of travel, Astrid had laid awake on steamships and trains, wondering what this cabin had done to her dear mother. Had it befallen her father as well? Had he hurt her? The letters were written by her mother, but the envelopes were clearly in her father’s script, heavy and thoroughly-schooled English calligraphy.
The missing black chess pieces remained the only clue. Each letter, while cryptic, described its mate’s location, somewhere her mother and father had traveled in America before. Hotel rooms, restaurants, museums, even a post office in Kentucky, all hidden in plain sight. She gathered them all. Astrid dreaded to think how long the insanity might have been brimming beneath the surface if her parents’ elaborate game could be set so elegantly, so primed for her to unspool it.
Ridley spoke in a delicacy that surprised her. “Will you tell me where the Incan sphere is?” He sounded remorseful, wishing it hadn’t come to this. “Astrid, please. Would you?”
He wasn’t remorseful. He was afraid. Afraid of her. Not of the men around her. Not of the blades in her hands, the knife and the hatchet. No. Ridley was frightened of her above all else.
“You should have brought more men,” Astrid said.
“Believe me, if I had the money, I would have,” Ridley chuckled.
“Hey, speaking of, I ain’t even been paid yet,” one whispered into Ridley’s ear. “When’s that happening?”
“Yeah, I haven’t got mine either."
The others started to gibber in agreement, eventually turning their attention back to Ridley in frustration.
“Miss Cornwallis, I don’t want to speak out of turn,” a man beside Astrid said suddenly.
“Oh, no,” Astrid moaned.
“None of us been paid for the job, neither,” Astrid’s man explained, coming out like an apology.
Ridley faced his gang. “Okay, everyone will be paid accordingly,” he assured. “Just—later.”
“Wuh—w-we was a flick of tail from blasting each other apart without a red cent paid to our good names!” a shrill man with raised arms near Ridley cried.
Ridley raised his voice to answer.
“Look, Travis, you’ll be paid when the job is done, alright? You’ve taken a drive in the country today, and that’s it. You should be paying me, alright? For this view?”
“Hey, yeah, this place is kinda nice,” a tall one on Astrid’s side observed of the cabin. “A little rotten in the wood, but fulla nice fancy things. Miss Cornwallis, I think it might be fair for us to just take the payment from what’s hanging on these walls.”
“You'll do no such thing!” Astrid laughed.
“I ain’t got much of a care about your opinion on the matter, Hon,” a man said while pushing past Ridley and crossing the space between the standoff. “Waddaya say, boys? Everyone take a fair share and leave these young lovers to sort out their own violence.”
The hurrah in reply was loud and unanimous. Voices started filling the air. Hands snatched at whatever they could grab. Gold baubles and silver vessels were stuffed into coats in a startling clamor. They were thoroughly enjoying themselves, indifferent to Astrid’s shouts of protest.
She landed the first blow of true malicious intent. A strike to the face with the butt of the knife-handle. The man answered with the back of his hand.
From there, Astrid took the knife to empty the man’s throat of its oxygen, blood, and voice, and the violence began. Guns went off. Men dropped to the floor—weapons, too. They fired blind without reason or clear targets. Bullets ripped the smokey air. Rotten wood was slapped and sliced in reckless destruction. Ridley overturned a bookshelf to create a barricade.
In four seconds, he was in the kitchen. In two more, he had the revolver out of the coffee can. Arm and gun still stuffed inside, he fired the first bullet into a pursuing man’s chest. Beans and blood bursting everywhere. There was still shooting in the other room. Glass was breaking. Men were shouting to each other, trying to make sense of the gunfight’s purpose.
Among burning gunpowder scents, the air felt fresh, minty. Ridley whispered curses at himself for coming to life in that instant until he realized from where the aroma was wafting.
Packed into the very coffee can where he had hidden the pistol was a faint, aromatic sphere of solid gold. Ridley raised it between his thumb and forefinger, dusting grounds from its engraved crevices that ran in a spiraled Incan weavings about its surface.
“Print it,” he said.
Astrid’s sharp shriek returned him to the parlor in a sprint.
He slid back behind his barricade and fired a shot. The man was killed before he could level his sights to him fire back. Astrid was holed up behind the bar. Whiskey bottles and decanters flung over. Liquor and glass sloshed across the room. At last, a man reached behind the bar. After some beastly cuts from Astrid’s knifework, he dragged her out from behind, tossing her out into the center of it all.
She slid on the rough floor, gathering splinters in her back.
“Astrid!” She heard Ridley shout. Upside-down from where she lay, Astrid saw him reach up above the mantle.
Exerting a good deal of force to lift it, Ridley heaved her father’s elephant gun to her. It landed on her chest like a ton of bricks, but she knew how to hold it, prime it, cock it, and aim it. With the rifle butt against her shoulder, she thanked heaven that Ridley had loaded the thing in supposed secret the night before.
“This is my opinion,” she hissed at the men, frozen at the sight.
When she fired, the sound was so barbaric that the room’s supposed-commotion felt like a gentle kiss. This was the world cracking in half. The bullet spray killed two. They were catapulted into the wall. One made a red splotch and collapsed in a mush. The other crashed clean out the window.
Astrid, meanwhile, was sent skidding across the floor from the kick over to Ridley’s waiting hand.
“Astrid, lookit me! Are you alright?”
He was a blur.
She pushed his head down to dodge more bullets and he followed her lead over the toppled bar-shelf. They lunged into the fireplace for shelter.
“Give me the bishop!” she shouted to him in half-deafness from the elephant gun. “And I’ll give you the Incan sphere!”
FOUR | The Incan Sphere
There was little time. Ridley and Astrid retreated down the cellar steps into a store-room built into the side of the hill. The whole cabin rested on struts halfway off the hillside’s edge. Shouts and sand shook down through the floorboards. It sounded like the remaining men were coming together and planning. There would be payback in gold and in blood.
The floor was soil. It felt like fungus under Astrid’s feet. She kept her hand against the loose rock wall that became the cabin’s spongy cedar foundation. Every surface was baked from the afternoon sun. It was a dragon’s den.
Astrid ignored the enraged barks from above. She pawed at the dark with a blind woman’s groping hands. Errant bullets started intruding at bone-snapping speed from up above. Light vented in through the holes. A voice barked an order to get the can from the truck.
“Do you smell what I smell?” Ridley whispered.
“Indeed. Desperation,” she said, working faster. “Theirs.”
Liquid sluiced down through. Both of them were splattered in gasoline. “No. That wasn’t exactly my thinking. But both odors bear notable merits.”
Fire began licking at the ceiling. Smoke slithered down through the bullet holes as a ghost arrives in a dream. “This place is gonna go up like a matchbook,” Ridley said.
Astrid shook her head.
“The structure is thick with moisture and the wood is remarkably rotten. It may take a good deal of time for it to truly catch, even with the petrol accelerant. Only the main beams have been replaced recently. You should be more worried the support beams may suddenly weaken and the whole thing tips forward and plunges downhill.”
In a perfunctory, judicial thud, a patch of floor above gave way. Flames and a corpse followed. Astrid and Ridley dodged aside. The rotting monster of a building groaned. It squiggled like a worm on loosened soil after a rainstorm. It gasped for air. Then it lurched with the dying breath it’d saved in its jaws. The hillside gave way all at once. The whole cabin slid forward off the edge. Astrid took Ridley by the collar and he wrapped his arms around her to move toward the hole in the floor above.
It slapped like a pancake on the dirt and scooped them up. The cabin tipped forward. The basement collapsed away. They were back under the fireplace mantle. Wood and stone rattled, and rumbled, and burned while the structure skidded downhill with them and the remaining men within.
-- Aleksander Ruegg
Follow on Twitter