The sun was just starting to set as the Osprey cruised along above the Florida Everglades.
"Son, you've gotten us lost," groused Monk. "Are you sure this's where we oughta be?"
"Aw, stop whinin', Dad," he replied wearily. "I'm just following Drake's instructions to Doc: head on this course and send out a beacon signal on this frequency. Now sit down and -" He was interrupted by a flash of light ahead. Instantly getting his second wind, he pointed at the source. "Hey, look at that!"
Monk was flabbergasted at the sight. "Blazes! It's a helipad -- a lighted helipad!"
"The signal was so they'd know when we were close enough to turn on the lights. Sure," realized Gumball.
Clark had heard the exchange, and had moved into the cockpit. "Good flying. Take us down." Then he put a hand on Monk's shoulder. "You riding here or in the back?" With a grin, the simian chemist slid his frame into the co-pilot's seat.
Clark smiled and walked back into the passenger compartment. "Buckle in," he announced.
Adjusting his recently-acquired genuine New York City taxi driver's cap, Gumball circled the mysterious swampland helipad and started whistling a John Philip Sousa march. Subconsciously picking up the tempo, he shifted the tilt of the rotors and executed a neat landing. "All ashore that's going ashore," he called out.
Shortly, the six of us stood on the lighted helipad, looking up at the skies and the swampland that surrounded us. Apart from the sounds of the animals beyond the helipad, all was silence.
Then a disembodied voice broke the silence. "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Mitchell Drake, Director of this facility. I know you have all had a long flight, so, if you would please move to any of the numbered triangles, we'll clear you through Security."
As we surrounded Triangle #6, a three-sided column rose up before us. Each facet contained a camera lens, microphone, and speaker. "One at a time, please approach any of the cameras and state your full name -- surname first, Christian name, and initial. Also include any nicknames or preferences on how you wish to be addressed."
We looked at each another, hesitating. Then Clark walked over to the pillar and clearly spoke, "Dent, Clark R. No nickname."
The first step having been taken, the rest of us easily followed suit.
"Mayfair, Andrew B. No nickname."
"Mayfair, Clark L. My friends call me Gumball."
"Liston, Perry E."
"Liston, Dorothy M. I prefer Dot."
"Roberts, Amy P."
There was a pause, then Drake said, "Thank you. Now, if you'll please hang on, we'll be on our way."
Monk looked around for an aircraft or boat. "How?" he asked suspiciously. "I don't see nobody comin' for us."
"They're not, Mr. Mayfair," answered the disembodied voice calmly. "You're coming to us."
On cue, pie-shaped wedges suddenly slid above us like the fingers of a monstrous hand. For a moment we all had doubts to the sanity of our decision.
Drake addressed our concerns. "There's really nothing to fear. Just relax and enjoy the ride."
"Ride, he says," I commented sarcastically under my breath.
The illumination from the helipad's floodlights came up to compensate for the increasing darkness, and compressors started circulating our air. The sudden shudder under our feet in the next moment was not surprising. "We're submerging," stated Clark.
Monk sided over to Clark and quipped, "Just like old times, huh? Sure glad John Sunlight became Polar Bear Chow, or I'd be sweatin' bullets right about now."
Seconds passed in silence. We looked at one another with concern. I could sense that many of us were engaged in silent prayer. Finally our movement halted with another shudder. We were far underground. Mechanisms ominously clunked and slid into place, and we heard the splashing of water around our little bubble.
"It's an airlock," commented Dot.
"A really big airlock," I emphasized.
"You useta do this kinda stuff on a regular basis, right, Dad?" asked Gumball, warily looking about.
Monk grinned back and nodded. But before he could say anything, the sections of our bubble split open and retracted into the floor. The helipad lights were replaced by illumination generated from the walls.
The room we were in reminded me of a hangar bay aboard an aircraft carrier, with curved walls and a high ceiling. I could hardly believe we were underground. There were doors evenly spaced around the wall, large enough to accommodate huge vehicles.
Above one of the doors a light pulsed a steady, very visible orange.
Drake's voice said from overhead speakers, "Head for the orange light. I'll meet you there."
We walked across the floor of the hangar. But before we reached our objective, the garage door-sized opening quietly disappeared into the wall above it, and a vehicle rolled through. It resembled a jeep with its open top and sides, and contained several bench seats, like the trolleys used at studio tours.
There were two people in the front seat of the vehicle. One, the driver, was a young man in his 20's, dressed in a white one-piece coverall uniform. He remained at the wheel while the other man stepped out and addressed us.
"Good evening. I'm Mitchell Drake." He was a ruggedly-handsome black man in his 50's, made obvious by the amount of grey accentuating his military crewcut. The black coverall uniform had a built-in shoulder holster complete with automatic pistol, and a triangular badge over his left breast identified him only as '1'. "I apologize for the extraordinary precautions in your arrival, but I'm sure you see how necessary they are. Now, if you would all climb aboard, we'll go to my office."
We got into the cart, and Drake ordered the driver to proceed. With a mild lurch, we circled around and eased back through the door. As we moved along wide corridors, I had to remind myself that we were far below the Florida Everglades. People, dressed in all manner of attire, walked near the walls while we joined the flow of electric carts. I thought it unusual that, even at this late hour, there was so much activity. But I accepted it, as I accepted the fact that most of the people we passed carried sidearms.
Our route took us down a lesser-traveled 'street' ending in a cul-de-sac and a set of doors. The nameplate to the left of the center door identified Drake by name and position.
Drake climbed out of our transport, holding a device looking somewhat like a cell phone. Aiming it casually at the doors, it signaled for them to open, and us to enter.
My first impression of Drake's office was that it was a schizophrenia design, half living room and half high-tech command center.
On our left, the wall curved outward, encompassing video displays and unfamiliar electronic components. An impressive horseshoe-shaped desk of oak and metal faced away from the wall, and I could see individual display screens integrated into its surface.
On the right was the living room portion: couches, chairs, miscellaneous tables, and the like. Floor lamps created a very homey atmosphere, perfect for a casual discussion.
Drake went behind the desk for a moment, grabbed a steno-sized portfolio, then joined us in the living room area. I sat to his left, and noticed that the portfolio was not what it appeared to be. I commented, "Digital input tablet, Mr. Drake?"
"Yes, Mr. Liston," he replied.
I WAS impressed. The compact device he balanced on his lap was very likely an interface with whatever they used for computers here.
He held a pen with a rubber tip which served as a stylus, and addressed Clark first. "Over the phone, you spoke of an endeavor you're taking into the jungles of Central America. Is that correct?"
Clark nodded. "Yes. We'll be facing an unconfirmed but probable force of unknown size and strength. We have the ideas for neutralizing whatever we encounter, but lack the production facilities."
Drake nodded and looked around at us. "How many of you know this area, and how well?"
Clark answered, "Mr. Mayfair and I have been there before, but that was quite a few years ago."
"So you'll also need reconnaissance capability, as a way of gauging your opposition's nature, strength and capability."
"I'll show you what we have," he said, making a note on the tablet. "Now what do you need my production facilities for?"
Monk spoke up. "I've got a knockout gas that I want to make some modifications to, then produce in sufficient quantities to cover any contingency."
"We also have a weapon of our own design which we would like to replicate," added Clark. "That includes specialized ammunition."
Drake's face broke into a grin. "You must be referring to the famous Doc Savage Superfirer," he said to Clark, then added to Monk, "And I presume the 'sleeping gas' is your anaesthetic gas?" He paused while the shock passed. "Gentlemen, please don't be surprised. Mr. Mayfair -- your reputation as a chemist and adventurer under the great Doc Savage is the stuff of legends. In fact, you might be interested to know that we have one of the Superfirers in our own armory." He paused, and smiled. "In any case, it would be my great pleasure to help you in any way I can."
Monk continued boldly. "Okay, Drake. Then I take it you've got the facilities to handle the gas?"
"And the talent." That was a dare.
Monk countered with a cocky tilt of the head, "They better be good. I'm a tough act to follow."
Drake met his gaze and smiled confidently. "What would you say if I told you that we have Dr. Katherine Egan on our staff?"
Monk froze and his jaw dropped. "Katie? You've got Katie Egan here?" Drake nodded slowly. "Katie's one of the top chemists in the world!" He conceding to the black man with a grin. "Okay, Drake -- I'm impressed. And you might as well call me Monk."
Drake cracked the air with a hearty laugh. "Thank you, Monk. And I'm sure Kate will be equally impressed with you."
"Mr. Drake," said Clark. "What would you say to the possibility of improving upon the Superfirer?"
His words took Drake by surprise. "What you're asking is like trying to improve upon the Mona Lisa. But I'll give it some thought." He made a note on the tablet and looked at the rest of us. "Is there anything else you require?"
Gumball spoke up. "Yeah. Our overall strategy is to have me fly everybody in the Osprey, then split an SOG off somewhere before we stop. We're not sure how we're going to do that, but it's going to mean modifications to my plane. What'cha say?"
Drake replied, "I'm sure you'll be pleased at what our fabrication group is capable of."
Amy raised her hand. "My father was working on several ideas in regards to non-lethal weaponry. I brought notes and plans, and would like to see if I can work on them here."
"Indeed. I'll make sure our top electronics lab is at your disposal."
I motioned to Drake to get his attention. "Dot and I are going to be part of the SOG. While Dot's competent with firearms, I'm not. Y'got anywhere I can practice?"
Drake nodded. "Certainly. We have several shooting ranges, including target and combat. We'll show you what we have, and you can take your pick."
For the next fifteen minutes, we threw out ideas, made requests, and exchanged information. Drake kept silent, save to offer feedback or suggestions, or probe for details, and note the information.
Then when we had exhausted ourselves, he nodded with satisfaction and said, "Since the hour is late, I assume you'll probably wish to begin things in the morning. I've prepared a place for you; it has a central gathering hall with adjacent sleeping quarters. I'm sure you'll find them to your liking. And I'll have everything ready for you in the morning. Is that acceptable?"
We all voiced our approval.
"I've taken the liberty of summoning transportation to take you to your quarters," he announced. "It should be here momentarily."
Five minutes later, a small convoy of electric carts hummed away, leaving Drake standing alone in the doorway of his office.
The countenance of the tall black man was peaceful as he stood there. Then a tear appeared in the corner of his eye, which he wiped away with the edge of his index finger.
"All right," he softly sighed with a smile.
The sudden chirping coming from his desk tore his attention away from his thoughts, and he returned once more to his work.
The quarters Drake had provided were as elaborate as everything else we had seen. The main room was rectangular, with a kitchen area at one end and a living room area at the other. In between, a circular table with a bench seat could serve equally for dining or discussion. The main door was on the end by the kitchen, and three doors split off from each of the longer walls, leading into individual sleeping quarters. Our bags were waiting for us, transported from the Osprey.
After making a cursory check for listening devices and other bugs, we settled into our new surroundings. We talked about our feelings towards this place, expressing our amazement and confirming our hopes that this place would serve our needs well.
Stifling a yawn, Monk suggested a word of prayer before turning in. Gumball politely bowed out, heading straight to one of the sleeping quarters, while the rest of us gathered about the center table.
Early the next morning, we were surprised to find some things on our table, along with a note from Drake explaining what each item was. We were each given a visitor badge, which was to be worn at all times outside of our quarters.
The electronic devices lined up next to the badges were identical to the one Drake had used to open his office doors; the note identified them as commlocks, and I was fascinated by them. They could function as communicators as well as access 'keys' to limited areas of the installation. The screen on the commlocks could also project a map of the installation, as well as show where we were in proximity to it.
After scarfing down a quick breakfast, we eagerly scattered to begin our work.
"Monk Mayfair?" exclaimed the stout middle-aged woman in the lab coat. "My God, man, that is you! When Mitch told me you were here, I thought he was playing one of his practical jokes." She stood there and stared at him, grimacing. "I thought you'd died off years ago."
Monk grinned. "To tell you the truth, Katie, I was dead. Or as close as I could get without assuming room temperature. Remind me and I'll tell you all about it."
She hesitated, unsure of what to say. "Okay, Monk. Whatever you say. Mitch told me that this job has top priority -- what's the emergency?"
"I wanna make some adjustments to my anaesthetic gas, for a mission a few of us are goin' on in a few days. And I've come up with a new compound I wanna work on. It's called Paradox."
"Mission?" she looked concerned. "I thought you got out of the business."
"This one's personal, Katie," he said soberly with a sideways look, ending the discussion.
And with that the two chemists got down to business.
"I'll tell ya, Katie," said Monk, looking over their supplies. "Drake impressed the socks offa me when he told me you wuz workin' here. I'm glad you're here, Katie. Nobody can hold a candle to ya."
"Ditto, Monk." She smiled at him. "I'm going to enjoy working with you, too."
Gumball walked into the hangar and saw two men and a woman going over his Osprey with fascination. When he got close enough, he said, "Ahem!" They quickly turned in his direction.
One man, an older fellow with a sandy crewcut, said, "Mayfair?"
He jerked a thumb at the Osprey. "This your bird?"
"Where do you get off with a prize like this?"
"Birthday present, sir," he replied with a grin. "Problem, sir?"
The man shook his head. "Nope. Name's Rich Danielson. Call me Lefty."
"You the head of this crew?"
He nodded, then introduced the others. The one on his left was a woman in her 30's. The coveralls she wore hid her figure, but not by much. There was enough ruggedness about her to tell him that she was not one to be teased. Lefty identified her as Judy Parks. She extended a hand. As they shook, Lefty identified the other one. He was built like a mountain, with collar-length red hair and a short red beard. His name was Dean Penrod. His grip was enough to remove lug nuts without a wrench, and Gumball grimaced at the crunch. He apologized and withdrew his hand.
"We're the Pros from Dover," commented Parks. She had a slight English accent.
"Glad to hear that," replied Gumball. "Did Drake give you any information on what I need?"
"Not much," answered Lefty. "Said you were heading into a covert op, and needed some 'improvements' to the bird. What's the area going to be like?"
"And what can you tell us about the mission?" added Penrod.
"Location: Central America -- DEEP Central America." He let that sink in a moment. "The overall plan is to have me fly us all in, then a three-man SOG team will split off unseen somewhere along the way. I've got some drawings of the area; they're kinda crude, but they'll give you an idea of what we're facing."
They moved over to a huge table and laid out the pictures. Gumball stood back as the rest poured over them and tossed out suggestions.
Without looking up from the pictures, Lefty asked, "Can you give us an idea of who or what you're going to be up against?"
"Would if I could," Gumball replied. "But most of this is either a mystery, or classified. I suspect we'll be the center of attention as soon as we hit their airspace, and they'll probably be expecting us to do something funny."
"So ... a little smoke and mirrors?" commented Parks.
"Exactly," answered Lefty. "An air drop is impossible. With that much scrutiny, they'd have to be invisible to keep from being spotted as soon as they hit the silk."
There was silence for several minutes. Gumball walked over to a table and was pouring himself a cup of coffee when Parks suddenly exclaimed, "The river!"
Gumball's attention turned in their direction and he watched as the two men followed Parks' logic.
"What is it?" asked Gumball, feeling a little out of place.
Lefty called him over and, gesturing at the pictures, explained. "Drop the SOG through a trap door in the bottom of the Osprey, straight into the water, right under their noses. Their attention will be on the plane ON the water, not the activity UNDER the water. And your wake will cover any splashes."
"Yeah, but this bird's not a seagull. It's not equipped for water landings."
Penrod smiled. "It will be once we finish with it. We'll assemble a pod that'll attach to the belly of the plane, and the trap door will be in the underside. Believe me, Mr. Mayfair, we'll make it look like it rolled out of Boeing Field that way."
Gumball was reluctant as to their claims, but was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. "Can you rig up a model so I can show the rest of the group?"
The three exchanged looks, then Lefty spoke for them all: "How soon?"
He shrugged. "We're planning a meeting around lunchtime ... is noon okay?"
Lefty nodded. "Easy."
Gumball smiled. "They also tell me the last leg of the flight path has some severe wind shearing. What can you give me in the way of an edge?"
Penrod answered. "Got just the thing," he said, walking over to a work bench. "Check this out ..."
The man in the blue jumpsuit and matching beret snapped us a quick salute. "Mr. and Mrs. Liston?" he greeted. "Lieutenant Robert Groce, at your service."
"It's Perry and Dot, okay?" I replied. "Drake sent you?"
"Yes, sir!" Then he began listing off his qualifications. There was no brag in his voice, only reciting a summary of his expertise. I had to admit, he was good. Ex-Special Services, participating in several hundred combat actions around the world, he was a marksman proficient in everything from a .22 to an elephant rifle. At one point he commented without humor, "If it's got a trigger, sir, ma'am, I've fired it." I wondered how many lives he had taken, seeing the grimness in his eyes, but I held that question for a more appropriate time and place. For right now, he was the master, and I was the student.
He started off by asking me some questions about my exposure to firearms. I told him about shooting a .22 rifle as a kid, and test-firing a friend's M-11 Ingram submachine gun while on vacation in Colorado, several years ago.
Once we'd outlined the basic situation and environment we'd be encountering, he suggested a tactical combat simulator they affectionately called 'Napoleon's Alley'. The warehouse-sized room looked like the back lot of a movie studio, and we walked from one end to the other while Lieutenant Groce pointed out its many features.
"Your path is your own, as long as you start at the beginning and end at the ending," he said with a grin. "In between are the targets." We walked over to a wooden storefront, and he showed us examples of each type of target: 'innocents' and 'hostiles'. "This will develop your discernment, and hopefully keep you from shooting anything that moves." He paused to drive the point home.
As we approached a different-looking 'hostile,' he pointed out what made it different. "Many combat simulators are passive, meaning that the targets don't shoot back at you like they do on the streets. That may be good for general target shooting, but, over time, it develops in the shooter a mindset of 'it's only a game' -- which can get you killed. Our solution was this -- " He indicated an apparatus attached to the target. "These hostiles will fire back at you. They may only be harmless paintballs, but they add just enough of a personal threat to hedge against the 'it's only a game' mindset."
He directed our attention to the upper level. We could see a glass-walled booth running the length of the room, and many closed-circuit cameras. "This whole place is wired to record your every move and allow you to produce a three-dimensional holographic record. You can see where you goofed, and where you succeeded. And, hopefully, learn from your mistakes."
I was impressed, and I told Lieutenant Groce so. He shrugged it off. "It's an expensive tool. Here -- " He tapped my forehead. " -- is where it'll make the difference. Now, do you know where do you want to start?"
I did. "I'd like to walk through a couple of times, alone and off the cameras, just to give me a personal feel for it."
He smiled and nodded. "Let me take you to our armory, and you can pick your weapon."
Fifteen minutes later I was alone in Napoleon's Alley. My palms were sweating, and the Russian-made machine pistol in my hands felt much heavier than it had first looked. Glancing upward at the control booth, I could barely make out the silhouettes of Dot and Lieutenant Groce behind the tinted glass.
My attention returned to my environment, to a movement caught in my peripheral vision. I swung left and squeezed the trigger just as the target of a gun-wielding thug popped up in a doorway. I fired first, but the target was missed by several feet. Not surprised, I still frowned. "Next time," I mumbled to the target, and moved on.
My next opportunity was only a few steps away, as another 'hostile' appeared thirty feet in front of me. I took a different firing stance and fired a small burst which stitched a line across the chest of the target.
Pleased and surprised, I thanked God, and continued.
When I reached the end of the Alley, Dot and Lieutenant Groce were already there.
With a hug, Dot encouraged, "You did okay."
I smiled at her attempt. "No I didn't, and we all know it."
Lieutenant Groce was more optimistic. "For a beginner, sir, it wasn't as bad as you think. Believe me, I've seen far worse."
I took a sip of water from a cup Dot offered. I was starting to feel the soreness in unused muscles, and knew it wouldn't get any better. "Okay," I said, determined. "Let's do it again."
The automatic doors parted on cue for Drake's cart, and closed behind them. The black man announced to Clark, "This is what we call the Toy Room."
It was an armory. A massive one, full of weapons -- on the walls, behind display cases on the floor, hung from the ceiling for show, and even propped up in the corners. Clark acknowledged to himself that this place was as impressive as anything he had seen so far.
While he took it all in, Drake walked about the floor, examining items here and there, checking mechanisms, then returning them to their place. Like a tour guide or a museum curator, he would occasionally pick up a piece of armament, recite its model number, caliber, and history.
"You talk about these weapons like a wine connoisseur discussing a Bordeaux.," commented Clark.
Drake defended himself. "In a way I AM a connoisseur, Mr. Dent. I respect a fine weapon and the history behind it. Take this, for example ..." He walked over to a glass case, opened it, and extracted the Superfirer he had spoken of the previous evening. "When Doc Savage created this, he wasn't interested in just another instrument of personal destruction. He wanted something that would be effective, compact, fast, and -- most of all -- non-lethal. The mercy bullets were intended to penetrate the skin layer just enough to allow the drug to be administered into the bloodstream. It was not intended to maim, but stop. And it was extremely efficient."
Clark was amazed at the black man's zeal, as well as his factual accuracy. For a moment, he saw himself, eager to fight crime, but with no desire to cause a single life to be lost in the pursuit of justice.
"Mr. Dent, I'm not sure if you were aware of this, but many of us in the firearms field tried to lobby Congress to replace the standard police round with a variation on the mercy bullet."
That took Clark by surprise. "No, I didn't know that! What was the outcome?"
Drake shook his head and answered sarcastically, "We had good arguments, but to them it wasn't cost-efficient. It didn't even get out of committee."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Clark said sincerely.
He shrugged. "Anyhow, like I said, the Superfirer is a magnificent design, and can't easily be replaced."
"The intent is not to replace Mr Drake, but to improve."
"I suppose there is ... room for improvement," he conceded. "To that end, this room contains the ideas and concepts of thousands of weapons-designers, all at your disposal. Feel free to look about. If you find something that interests you, set it aside. All of the items here have been defined in CAD. Are you familiar with CAD?"
"I'm afraid not," admitted Clark.
"CAD stands for Computer Assisted Drawing," explained Drake. "Let's say we want to capture the image of an apple. A painting of an apple could appear to be three-dimensional, but its physical properties would only be two-dimensional. However, if I define the same apple in CAD, it becomes an exact three-dimensional representation of that apple, able to be rotated and viewed from any possible angle. All it would lack is mass.
"Now let's say that I take this Superfirer apart and define each part in CAD -- which has been done, by the way. I send the information for each part via computer to our Fabrication Division. They replicate each piece, then assemble the parts into a carbon copy of the original. I'd say you'd be hard pressed to spot the original from the duplicate."
His eyes took on a mischievous squint, and he held up an index finger. "But let's take this a step further. Assume that I want to use the basic design of the Superfirer, but the barrel of this machine pistol -- " He held up a nearby weapon. " -- is more applicable to my purpose. Both guns have been defined in CAD, so with a few adjustments, I can take the barrel of this one and make it fit here. It's simple."
Clark nodded. "Fascinating."
Drake offered a slight bow, and indicated a side door. "Now if you wish to shoot any of these weapons, there's a firing range just through that door. Nigel's on duty at this hour; he'll take care of you."
"I may. Thank you for offering."
Drake smiled and took a step towards the door. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I must leave you."
Drake climbed into the cart and, offering Clark a brief wave, he backed through the doors, leaving the bronze man contemplating the Toy Room's possibilities.
It was closing in on lunchtime, and Dot and I were the first ones back to the quarters.
I collapsed at the table and used my arms for a pillow. "I'm going to feel new levels of soreness in the morning," I mumbled tiredly.
"But you gotta admit," replied Dot from the kitchenette, "you made progress."
"Not by much," I sighed. "That's why I didn't want you with me until I knew what I was doing. I don't treasure the thought of accidentally shooting you."
She set the tray of sandwiches down between us and kissed me on the top of my head. "I appreciate that, hon."
We prayed over the food and dug in. As we ate, I stared at the wall and mused aloud. "Let's face it, hon. If we're going to get through this thing alive, I'm going to need some kind of an edge."
Just then the door opened, and the others came in a cloud of excited chatter. The only exception was Amy, who went straight to her room. Monk and Clark worked on a platter of sandwiches and veggies, and Gumball placed the model of the modified Osprey in the middle of the table.
Dot and I looked in the direction of the closed door to Amy's room, then I asked Gumball, "Amy's kinda quiet, isn't she?"
"Really? Sorry, didn't really notice," he replied distractedly.
I turned to Dot and leaned in. "I think she needs a friend."
"I'm on my way," she agreed, getting up from the table. "Cover me."
"Count on it," I replied, and began praying silently.
Dot knocked on the door. "Amy? It's Dot."
She knocked again. More silence.
"Amy, are you okay? Open up."
"I'm fine, Dot. I'm just ... tired."
"There's more to it than just that. Lemme in."
"No," came the stubborn reply. "Please go away."
Dot looked back at her husband, then her face twisted into an odd grin. Leaning close to the door, she said, "Amy, if you don't let me in, I'll just have to tell everybody that you've become sick."
Three seconds later the door opened, and Dot slipped inside. Amy moved ahead and sat on the bed. Dot followed her and sat in a nearby chair.
"I don't really want to talk about it," she said.
"So I gathered. But holding it in won't do you any better." The tone of Dot's voice softened. "I'm your friend. Talk to me. Let me help."
Amy's eyes met Dot's, and she took a deep breath. "I brought several of my father's projects with me, hoping they could be of some use. However, as vast as the resources are here, it would take far longer than we have to produce working models. I'm sorry."
"It's okay," comforted Dot. "Maybe that's not what God has in mind for you here."
She blinked. "Excuse me?"
"Amy, we're both new at being Christians. We're both learning." She paused. "Perry tells me that there's always a reason for everything that happens, good or bad, happy or tragic. We can't understand it at times because we can only see the moment before us. But God can understand it because He sees beyond just the moment. All we have to do is trust Him to work things out the way He wants it."
"Interesting," she said thoughtfully.
"The best we can do right now is get back in the game and keep our eyes open." She rose smoothly to her feet, then reached out a hand to Amy.
"C'mon. Let's go."
Amy took the hand and stood. She paused for just a moment, then asked, "Dot? Will you pray with me?"
"Happy to," she answered with a smile, and the two women bowed their heads and came before the Throne of Grace. Then, with a mutual, "Amen," they hugged, and returned to the central table.
"Y'know, guys, this plan could work!" bellowed Monk from the sink, a monster sandwich in his big fist. "If everybody's gonna be watchin' us, we might as well make it count. I know Dottie's momma taught her how to dive, but how 'bout you, Perry?"
I nodded. "Yeah, I'm okay."
"What about Amy?" asked Gumball.
"Yes, I'm qualified for SCUBA diving," came the response behind me. I turned around to see Amy and Dot, both smiling, walking in our direction.
"What have you and Dr. Egan come up with, Monk?" asked Clark.
"Well, Katie and I've been able to compress the gas into canisters, and we're workin' on makin' it last longer when released." He paused, and his expression turned intense. "Wait a minnit ... what if we dropped some of these canisters into the river as we cruised through? That way, if we got into trouble, we could blow 'em open and hold our breaths ... more or less."
"Yes, you're right," agreed Clark. "The river is central to the Valley. The right amount of gas could blanket both sides."
As the discussion continued, I backed up from the table and moved over to Dot. I slipped an arm around her waist and she gave me a kiss.
"How'd it go?" I inquired privately.
"Stubborn. Obstinate. Prideful," she replied, her voice soft.
"Just like us," I said, straight-faced. meeting her eyes.
"Exactly," she agreed with a trace of a grin.
"Piece o'cake," she smiled. She gave me a quick summary of Amy's dilemma, then we moved closer to the discussion.
Clark was talking. "... and I found a type of ammunition that will gain us distance. But I'm afraid I couldn't find anything that could sufficiently increase our accuracy."
"I know what ya mean," added Monk, disappointedly. "We need somethin' with a good rate of fire, but also as accurate as a sniper rifle." He sighed. "Well, hopefully this should be enough. And if we survive this round, we can always come back later and try to improve things."
"Excuse me, gentlemen," interjected Amy. "I believe I can help."
"Go on," replied Clark.
"It appears that my immediate research will be fruitless. However, my father had been experimenting with a laser-guided tracking system for a standard weapon such as you have described. When operational, it would cause the weapon to fire automatically upon acquisition of its target. Additionally, in conditions where visibility was hindered, it could be used to fire upon a human heat signature without the need for shooter intervention." She paused momentarily. "If you would like to examine them, I have the diagrams in my quarters."
There was silence. All eyes were upon the slender Vietnamese woman.
Monk released a low whistle. "Very slick. I like it."
"What about the possibility of accidentally shooting one of us?" inquired Clark.
"I have some ideas," she replied confidently.
Clark nodded, his eyes glowing with interest. "I'd like to see them."
With a renewed bounce in her step and a glowing smile directed straight at Dot, Amy left the table and walked to her quarters.
7:35 pm. Dinnertime. And I was ready for the hot tub and bed.
Lieutenant Groce proved to be an most excellent teacher. He pushed me in areas where I needed pushing, but was also generous with encouragement.
We walked the course together a few times, with him assuming the role of shadow-instructor. He would make comments spontaneously as we traversed the course, instantly offering feedback without getting in my way. It was incredible, and seemed to be my most productive times.
By late afternoon, Dot and I were performing as a team through the Alley. Drake had provided us with tiny transceivers by which to keep in touch during the mission; the devices were almost invisible in our ears. We used them to alert one another of possible threats, keeping an eye on each other's backs. Although Dot was the unmistakable pro between us, I was slowly starting to improve.
We carried machine pistols similar to the design Clark had chosen for the new superfirer, in order to get accustomed to the weight and feel of the weapon.
Each walk began the same way, with a word of prayer for God's guidance. We noticed looks of disbelief from some of those around us, but Lieutenant Groce approved. "Take every advantage you can," he commented. "A man who has peace with God can go confidently into battle."
Returning to our quarters that evening, we found Mr. Drake speaking to the others.
"The new superfirers will be completed and mass produced by tomorrow morning," he announced. "I've gone over your plans, and you've definitely hit upon a winning combination."
"Excellent!" commented Clark. "And what is that you've brought?"
A large padded aluminum case had been placed on the round table, and seven smaller boxes were lined up in front of it.
"Due to the remoteness of the location, conventional methods of mapping are impossible to achieve. However, in order to give you a sense of the topography of the area, Clark and Monk have worked with our GIS branch to produce a representation of the location you are going to enter. This information has been transferred to these devices."
"This is what we call ARTIE," he identified the item; it looked somewhat similar to a handheld GPS locator. "Once at your destination, you'll need to synchronize it with the terrain." He paused. "Say, for example, you're standing next to the river. You have no idea of compass points, but you are able to make out points of reference. Hold ARTIE with the screen up and rotate it so that it lines up with the points of reference. Then just press ALIGN. Your position is now locked in, and the map will move about you. If you get separated, each unit will be able to locate the others -- as long as you don't lose them, of course." He grinned.
As he handed out the smaller boxes, he said, "The instruction booklet that comes with it is pretty much self-explanatory, but I'll stick around for awhile in case you have questions."
I took my ARTIE box over to the living room area, and sat on one of the couches. At the same time Dot vanished into our room, joining me a few minutes later dressed in sweatshirt, shorts and slippers. Setting her Bible on the seat, she asked, "You hungry?"
I suddenly realized that my interests had become engrossed by the new hardware, and we hadn't eaten dinner. "Yes," I replied.
"No, as long as it's hot," I answered, shaking my head.
Ten minutes later she returned with a tray. "Hope you don't mind microwave chili and bologna and cheese sandwiches."
I shook my head. The smell of the chili was wonderful. I put the ARTIE unit aside and practically inhaled the food. As I did, I observed that Drake was still here. He seemed to be engrossed in talking to Monk about 'old times with Doc Savage.'
Gumball and Amy listened in at the table, but gave up after awhile. Gumball went straight to his quarters. Amy joined us in the 'living room.'
Which left Monk, Clark, and Drake nostalgically recalling those thrilling days of adventuring. I could see that Monk, that old show-off, was only too happy to oblige. And Clark participated also, though in a limited capacity to keep his identity secret.
Amy and Dot, from their conversation, were involved in Bible study. I returned to the ARTIE unit until Amy thanked Dot for the study, wished us a good night, and went to her room. As she did, I realized that -- much to my surprise -- I'd stayed awake as long as I had. Collecting my things, I announced to Dot that I was going to bed. "Good idea," she agreed, and joined me.
As I looked at the three men sitting around the table in the center of the room, chattering like old soldiers at a reunion, I couldn't help but smile.
"Gentlemen," said Drake, standing and looking over at the last closed door. "Now that the kids are asleep, I got somethin' special I wanna show ya."
Without another word, he headed for the exit.
Clark and Monk glanced at one another briefly, then shrugged and followed.
A few minutes later, in a desolate corridor several levels deeper underground, their cart stopped before a storeroom door among many storerooms on that level.
The door innocently carried the identification D-31. The area was eerily quiet, punctuated only by the click of Drake's commlock and the hiss of the door sliding open.
Beyond them was a room the size of a large closet which glowed with muted illumination.
There was no hesitation as Drake walked into the room and waited. Clark and Monk walked to join him, as he stood in front of a second door with an odd metal-and-glass panel next to it. The room reminded them of an airlock, and there the mystery intensified -- an airlock into where?
Drake placed his palm against the plate. Several moments later, a female voice announced, "Identification confirmed. Please stand by."
The door behind them closed, and they waited. There was a subtle change to Drake's demeanor, a grin like that of a child on Christmas morning, or a person eager to share a secret with his fellows.
Clark's senses also detected a change in the air in the antechamber, a slightly higher oxygen content. His curiosity was becoming aroused by this mystery. But before he could ask, the door before them opened.
"Blazes!" exclaimed Monk. "It's the eighty-sixth floor!"
As well it was.
Beaming a bulletproof grin, Drake led them into the set of rooms and stepped aside. Painted windows gave them a panoramic view of New York City, and for a moment Clark and Monk took a fifty-year backstep in time. Monk rushed forward, unable to restrain his excitement, running his hands across the same furnishings that graced their skyscraper headquarters, and tears started to form in his aged eyes.
Clark was just as amazed as Monk, but he couldn't afford the emotional response that would give away his real identity. So he kept an even countenance -- a 'face of flint', as the Bible phrases it -- on the outside while he rejoiced on the inside.
"Gentlemen, let me tell you a little bit about myself," said Drake, casually moving about the exhibits. "In 1947, Clark Savage Jr. visited my school in Bayonne, New Jersey. He was there to address several honor students, of which I was one -- a high achievement for a Negro in those days. Afterward, I reluctantly approached him, scared but compelled to make a request of him. As imposing as he was, I begged him to say a few words into the wire recorder I had received for my birthday. When he smiled at me, all my fear went away. Then he took the recorder and spoke ... it was only eight words long, but it meant the world to me." His voice choked with the memories.
"As the years passed, I never lost sight of the influence my boyhood idol had been to me. I followed a career in law enforcement, then with the intelligence community."
He paused, and walked over to a shelf. Picking up a rectangular box with a glass front, he ran his hand over it as a prized treasure. "One of my fields of study was the science of voiceprint identification. During the course of that study, my curiosity inspired me to find my old wire recordings, to see if I could establish a voiceprint from them." He walked slowly towards Clark. "Voiceprints are as distinctive as fingerprints in identifying a person, don't'cha know."
There was silence as Drake's eyes met Clark's.
"I believe this is yours ... Doc," he said, his voice filled with emotion, the box held out for him to see.
Under the glass front of the box, mounted next to a bronze plaque, was a single length of metal recording wire. On the plaque was the date of the recording and those eight influential words. Clark's mouth turned up in a smile, and his eyes met Drake's.
"'Do right to all, and wrong no man,'" quoted Clark.
Drake's eyes blinked, and covered over with water as those spoken words once more touched his heart. "This place ... is my monument ... to a great man I feared was lost forever. Words cannot tell you ... how happy I am at this moment." He paused to collect himself. "I swear to you, your secret will be as safe as this room has been."
Clark held out a hand. "Of that I have no doubt." Drake's hand met Clark's, and the bond was sealed.
"Okay, Drake, I got a question for ya!" suddenly exclaimed Monk. "We had the auction for this stuff in the late 50's. You would'a only been in your twenties. What gives?"
"My dad," answered the Director with a smile. "He, too, was an admirer of yours. And he had amassed his fortune through oil reserves in Texas. He was the one who purchased the first few pieces from the auction. I was there, too, but I doubt you'd remember me. The rest I accumulated piece-by-piece over the years." He waved his arm around the room. "Since the original setting was your headquarters, I felt it only proper to display the items in the same fashion. The only variations are the glass display cases."
While Monk continued to browse, Drake stood next to Clark. Then he softly commented, "I'm impressed."
Clark looked at him. "At what?" he asked, curiously.
"At your self-control," he replied. "If it were me in your place, I couldn't hold in the emotions."
Just then, Monk's voice squeaked from across the room. "Doc! Look!"
Clark's eyes tracked where Monk was pointing. His mouth opened at the sight. Then his tear ducts.
It was an old painting.
"Father," he said softly, tears now freely streaming down his face.
"I followed the trail for three years before finding it," explained Drake. "A businessman in South Africa had purchased it from the auction. It took a lot to get it back, but this room wouldn't be complete without it."
Clark walked across the room to the painting, and lightly touched the frame with a loving reverence for his father. Monk and Drake stood silently and allowed Clark to have his time.
After a few minutes, Drake got their attention. "Clark? Monk? I have one more item that I'd like to show you."
As he headed for a door in the back of the room, Monk, overwhelmed, commented, "What now?"
"Not a clue," responded Clark, following.
They passed through another airlock-like chamber into a darkened underground cavern. They could hear the sound of water a short distance away. "Lemme get the lights," said Drake, his voice moving off to one side.
For a moment, Clark felt a rush of anxiety, his mind flashing back to the cave which served as his 'tomb' for fifty years. Gratefully, it passed as quickly as it had come upon him.
With a solid mechanical clunk the ceiling floodlights came to life, temporarily blinding them. As their vision cleared, Monk once more could not contain his emotion at the sight, but it was Clark who spoke first. "It's the Helldiver," he said in a soft whisper.
Drake explained. "When I found it, it was a piece of junk, nearly destroyed. But I made it a personal project of mine, like a teenager restoring a hot rod. Several years and a lot of money later -- here it is. And just to see the look on your face, it was worth it all."
"So does the old rust bucket still run?" asked Monk, familiarly.
Drake nodded. "Yes, Monk, it does. But I'll admit, I don't take it out very much."
"So how's about a joy ride now?" asked the simian chemist, rubbing his hands together excitedly.
He looked at his watch and frowned. "Not tonight, I'm afraid. But I'm hoping we can do so before you leave," he said. "In the meantime, I'll set it up so you can come down here anytime."
Clark had walked over to the water's edge and reached out a hand. He rested it on the metal hull with a low sigh. A few moments later, he pulled his hand in and walked casually back to Drake.
"Mitch, I am in your debt. You have given to me a remarkable gift, to know that the things of my past have not vanished from the face of the earth as I had feared. Thank you." He shook the black man's hand.
"Hey, Doc," said Monk. "Why don't we let him in on the rest of the story, including You-Know-Who?"
Clark's eyes narrowed, and a thin smile appeared on his lips. "Yes, definitely." He turned to Drake. "I apologize for holding things back from you, but there has been a certain ... sensitivity ... about our mission."
He dismissed it with a wave of a hand. "In my business, sensitivity is a must. I suspected there was more, but I didn't want to push," he said, cocking his head slightly and returning the smile. "So what's going on?"
"Let's go into the other room and have a seat. This may take a while."