Author: Bingo32 PM
Ned finds himself watching, helpless to interact, as the adventurers unravel a mystery that began years before... while George was just a freshman at Oxford.Rated: Fiction K+ - English - Mystery/Friendship - Malone - Words: 6,133 - Reviews: 6 - Follows: 1 - Updated: 02-01-09 - Published: 01-20-09 - Status: Complete - id: 4807379
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
This adventure takes place after Malone's disappearance, with Captain Askwith's mysterious airship (Out of the Blue) and before Veronica's dream, revealing that Malone is trapped in the Spirit World (True Spirit).
THE LOST WORLD
– Ghost Writer
Previously, on The Lost World: Ned chased down a mysterious airship in an attempt to save the marooned Challenger Expedition. He woke to find himself tethered to the Spirit World, neither seen nor heard, his memories fragmented – now, only his heart can guide him back to his fellow adventurers.
Part I – The Voyeur
I drift above the canopy. Treetops wrestle with one another, intertwined so thick I might walk upon them. Below, I catch scattered glimpses of the jungle floor – a tangle of fallen vegetation. Vines constrict the base of every tree and reach in all directions, like veins holding this jungle paradise to a secret pulse.
There is an omnipresent buzz of insects and tree frogs that my practiced ear no longer hears. It is replaced with the sounds of the moment – cannibal drums, a raptor's hiss, or the unexpected snapping of a twig…
"Just once, I'd like one of your little expeditions to end on time, George."
"Mind your feet, Miss Krux; that could be my dimerocostus strobilaceus you're trampling now."
"It's a weed, George. We passed ten just like it back near the tree house."
I know these people – the brunette woman, the auburn bearded man. On dream feet I descend through the canopy. I see them through semi-focused ripples, like looking up from the bottom of a clear pool. I feel a connection that wants to scream, 'Reach for me! Pull me back to you!'
"Did you feel that?" Marguerite recoiled and reached for Challenger's arm.
"Yes I did," he declared, in a guttural tone that allowed no dispute.
Marguerite leaned forward, gently touching the breeze. "Ned… is that you?" she questioned the emptiness in front of her.
Challenger sensed her doubt. "No, Marguerite, I felt it too. Even I must admit – in matters of the eternal soul, the Plateau may have more to teach us than my meager cogitations."
"Perfect. I'm clinging to you in fear and you're having a spiritual awakening. What's next, Roxton will charge in unarmed?"
Challenger stifled a small laugh, "Yes. I'm a bit unnerved as well; perhaps we should make our way back toward the tree house."
"What, without your precious dimerocostus strobilaceus?" Marguerite twinkled back.
"Only you could repeat that," Challenger admitted with a pompous chuckle, and then half to himself, "Only Marguerite."
They turned west and headed back into the setting sun.
Ned! That's me. I'm Ned Malone. I drift here, a helpless voyeur, watching them walk away. The female – Marguerite looks back over her shoulder, sensing me, and then she hurries after the bearded man. The man called George.
At the dawn of the last century, a band of explorers searched for a prehistoric world, driven by ambition, secret desires, a thirst for adventure, and seeking the ultimate story, they are befriended by an untamed beauty. Stranded in a strange and savage land, each day is a desperate search, for a way out of: The Lost World.
Part II – The Jewelry Box
John Roxton leaned back carefree into one of the kitchen chairs, his attention on a leather bound notebook. Similar notebooks were stacked on the table in front of him. "Veronica, when was the last time you read through your father's journals?"
"I've read them too many times to count," She said, gazing absently from the tree house balcony, perched high in the jungle canopy. "After my parents disappeared – before all of you arrived – those words were my closest friends." She turned to face him and tilted her pretty smile into a question, "Why, what have you found?"
"Nothing, really – I've just always been impressed with your father's way with a pen." He held the journal out for her to see.
Veronica shined with pride as she recognized the pages. "Zanga prayer beads – my father used to spend hours drawing those. Each one has its own meaning."
Roxton pointed at a simple crest nested within a detailed string of beads drawn on the page. "What does this one here mean?" The crude crest was clearly out of place among the other fine renderings.
Her pride faded into puzzlement, "That not my father's drawing – that's not even a prayer bead."
"That's what I thought." Roxton held up a loose parchment. "Look at this."
Concern tightened Veronica's voice, "That's Marguerite's gem inventory." She snapped the paper from his hand.
"Yes. And, look what's drawn there, in the margin – the lines are almost identical." John held the notebook next to the paper in Veronica's hand. Except for size, the two crests where surprisingly similar.
"Even Marguerite wouldn't dare to mark in one of my father's journals," she said, with a finality she had no confidence in.
"I'm not suggesting she did," Roxton quickly defended. "Look how neatly the crest fits within the string of beads." It was clear to him that the entire drawing must have been made at the same time.
"Those prayer beads are my father's work alright, but if that chicken-scratch in the center is Marguerite's…" she left the threat open.
"Hold on," Roxton soothed as he carefully retrieved Marguerite's parchment and tucked it between the leather bound pages. His idle curiosity had turned on him; he hadn't intended on pitting Veronica against Marguerite – he needed time to think.
No such luck. The elevator rumbled as its counter weight dropped. Veronica wheeled about and headed toward the tree house entrance.
"Easy now, Veronica." Roxton followed her quickly, regretting now the confrontation he'd set into motion. "I admit these drawings are a curiosity, but no reason to hang Marguerite just yet."
"If she's damaged even one of my father's journals, hanging will be the nice part of what I do to her," Veronica threatened, stance wide, fists on hips, she met the elevator.
"What's all this?" Marguerite settled a practiced expression of betrayal directly onto Roxton's sheepish shrug.
I know this place – this tree house. I ascend to the balcony as easily as their makeshift elevator lifts them high above the corporeal dangers of their jungle life; a life I was once a part of. Am I dead? No! I am here – on this balcony, at least my consciousness is. I long to join these people, but something separates us. I see them more clearly now; the two I followed here, from the jungle – George and Marguerite. And now these two here in this tree house, a younger rugged man – and her! Oh, yes, I know her.
Veronica held her ground, caging Marguerite within the entryway. "Show her Roxton!"
"Oh, Please do, show her Roxton," Marguerite mocked as she stepped forward to push her way past them.
Veronica tensed, ready to stop her advance. Roxton gave Veronica a sympathetic look, pleading, "Ladies, can we take this to the table?"
Marguerite used the narrow room allowed her and pressed between them. "You two can take it anywhere you like – I'm taking a bath."
"Marguerite, please," John used just the right tone, "we only need a minute to clear this up."
With that, the three of them made their way to the kitchen table.
"Will I be needing a lawyer?" Marguerite made an attempt at breaking the tension.
"We'll see..." Veronica slipped Marguerite's gem inventory from the journal and slapped it on the table. "What is this?"
"What are you two doing in my accounts?" It was Marguerite's turn to accuse.
"You left it out, Marguerite – but it's not your precious gems that we're interested in." Roxton tried to play the mediator.
"Explain that." Veronica stabbed a finger at the crest drawn in the margin.
Marguerite blinked and leaned closer. "What is it?"
Roxton was unimpressed with her show of innocence. "Come now, Marguerite, who else would draw on your inventory – other than you?"
"Wait…" A dawning crossed Marguerite's face. "I do recall sketching that."
"Okay," John eased. "Tell us about it."
"Yes!" her memory came flooding back. "That's your pin." She looked straight at Roxton.
"My pin?" Roxton was fearful of being dragged into this.
"On your shirt," Marguerite continued, "– a few months after we arrived on the Plateau."
"You're not making any sense," Veronica accused, wanting to get the bottom of it all.
Marguerite put her hands up in surrender. "I was doing the mending – if I wasn't so keen with a needle and thread, we'd all be wearing raptor skins by now." She jerked a thumb at Veronica. "Like our little jungle princess here."
"Please, Marguerite, the pin…" John urged.
"Yes. I found it on your shirt and I did a rather nice rendering of it, I must say." Marguerite leaned back in her chair as if everything were settled.
"Right," Veronica was unmoved, "where is this pin?"
"I think it's still in my jewelry box." Marguerite stood and headed toward her room.
I feel out-of-place and yet completely at home as I glide along behind them. I am inexplicably bound to this moment – to this very confrontation. I drift up next to the one called Roxton, powerfully curious as to what the jewelry box will reveal.
"Why would you put my pin in your jewelry box?" Roxton mused, enjoying the implication.
"I don't think you were being particularly nice that day," Marguerite alleged flippantly, as she rummaged through her extensive jewelry collection. "Pin… pin… pin, here it is!" She held up her evidence.
John carefully took the pin and examined it. It had a metal base fashioned into a small shield with a baked enamel finish and a sturdy clasp on the back. On the face, set into the enamel, were a few tiny words in Latin. John looked closer, squinting… diagonally crossing the crest were what he supposed were two swords.
Roxton looked up, holding Marguerite's expectant gaze. "Beautiful craftsmanship – never seen it before in my life."
But I have! Instinctively, I reach for the pin. A white light shatters the edges of my vision – haloing Roxton. The distance between us distorts – my hand still extending toward the pin, but never quite reaching it. I swim in a vortex of twisted images… then, I am gone.
Part III – The Oxford Gun Club
The African savannah stretched wide in all directions, meeting the horizon. Heat rose from the ground playing tricks with the distance. Shade was scant; where it was found, animals sprawled lazily – sheltered from the midday sun.
Ned Malone crossed the dry grassland, his attention on a grove of umbrella thorn trees in the distance. Secluded there, beneath the broad – almost horizontal branches, was a cluster of tents.
Ned took a long pull from his canteen and dried his mouth against his shoulder. He shielded his eyes and measured the distance to the camp – maybe ten more minutes he calculated. Righting his rifle and lengthening his stride, he set out.
A light breeze rustled the canvas tent flaps. Men rested on cots, protected by mosquito nets, waiting out the high-noon heat. A few native porters quietly played a game, tossing carved bones on a shady patch of grass; otherwise, all was peaceful.
An amorist whistle broke the serenity.
Ned's attention snapped high, looking up. Two young boys, perhaps nine and eleven, straddle the wide tree branches. The younger, still whistling, swung a leg over his branch and landed deftly beside him.
"I must hold that weapon, Sir," he insisted, making the source of his admiration clear.
"I don't think so, Son," Malone chuckled and tussled the young lads hair.
The older boy slid clumsily from the tree. "He gave you no leave to call him familiar, Sir."
"I just want to hold the rifle, William." The young lad looked to his brother.
"And you shall," the older boy assured. "Do you know who I am, Sir?" he addressed Malone, and then answered the question himself. "I am Lord William Roxton – and if my little brother wants to hold that weapon, then hold it he shall!"
Malone was dumb-struck. Lord Roxton? He looked at the younger boy – dark hair, deep brown eyes… "John?"
"Yes, Sir." The young boy looked him straight in the eyes with an unshakable confidence. "I've never seen the likes of that rifle, Sir. May I hold it?"
Disoriented, Ned extended the weapon. "It's an M1917 Enfield. Now that the war is over, you can buy one pretty cheap." Ned's reality threatened to shut down. But, he fought back; he knew he was there for a purpose.
John took the rifle with small but skillful hands. "It's heavy," he noted, sliding the bolt back. "Winchester has a slide action planned for '90. I guess Enfield beat them to the punch." His high voice and youthful enthusiasm brought a lump to Ned's throat.
John raised the sight up to his eye and aimed out across the savannah. "May I fire it, Sir?"
Ned quickly placed a hand on the gun and pressed the barrel low as he knelt. Now eye-level with John, he said, "Actually, I am here for a very special reason."
The young lad looked at him, his brown eyes filled with trust.
"I'm the captain of the Oxford Gun Club, John," Ned explained with a wink. "Only the finest marksmen in the world can become members."
John held his breath.
Ned fumbled through his pockets, at last finding what he knew would be there. "This pin makes you an honorary member of the Oxford Gun Club." He ceremoniously fastened the pin onto young Lord John Roxton's collar.
John swelled with pride, admiring the pin – when he looked back up, the stranger and the remarkable rifle were gone.
I am a bridge across time; the scent and melody of the African savannah anchor me here, but the Plateau's hold is strong – in a rush of light and sound, I am cast to the very moment from which I was stolen…
"Of course you've seen it," Marguerite challenged, "I took the bloody pin from that same shirt." She thumped her finger hard against Roxton's chest.
Roxton shook his head and stepped back. He brushed his hand along his shirt collar, looking hard at the pin in his hand. "This is my Oxford Gun Club pin!"
"When you're right, you're right." Marguerite dusted her hands and exited the room.
John stood there, dazed, staring at his pin. "These aren't crossed swords, they're rifles." He held his pin up for Veronica to see.
Uninterested, she followed Marguerite.
"Hey!" John pleaded, "Only the finest marksmen in the world can become members." He chased after Veronica.
I listen to John repeat my words, from moments – or thirty some years ago. What have I done? These people are changed, changes I am making, but to what end? Am I trying to save them, or trying to save myself?
Veronica settled both fists onto the table. "I'm happy you found your pin, John, but what about my father's journal?"
"Oh, please don't tell me there is more to this little inquisition." Marguerite rolled her eyes.
"We're just now getting to the crime." Veronica pointed across the table at her father's journal, lying in front of Roxton.
John sat, paying no attention to the two women. He rolled his pin between his thumb and forefinger, lost in thought. "How could I have forgotten this? This pin is one of my prize possessions… I've never gone on a hunt without it," he whispered, more to himself than to the people around him.
Marguerite sensed his confusion, and placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry I kept it from you for so long," she said with sincerity.
"You don't understand," Roxton's voice was strong now. "When you first pulled this pin from your jewelry box, I would have sworn I had never seen it before in my life."
Marguerite gave him a crooked smile. "You said as much."
"Well, how could that be? I've been wearing the blasted thing for more than thirty years!" Roxton opened the journal in front of him and began roughly flipping through the pages.
Veronica slipped into the chair beside him. "Easy, John," she placed her hands on his and then gently slid the journal between them. She found the drawing John was seeking.
He set his pin on the page and the three of them stared down in disbelief.
There, among the precisely illustrated prayer beads, was the crude, but unmistakable crest of the Oxford Gun Club.
Veronica took a deep breath, fighting the urge to tear Marguerite's hair out. But doubt was gnawing at the edges of her memory. Somehow now, as she traced her fingers over the fine lines of her father's artwork, the crest didn't seem all that out of place… as if, maybe, she had seen it there before?
I hover behind these three, watching, waiting…This time I know what will happen. Like a symphony the Plateau is playing out of time, I must take my cue. I reach out to stroke Veronica's flaxen hair, knowing my hand will never reach its destination. The halo bends the space between us, pulling me away. I struggle to cheat this game, to run my fingers through her hair, but I am lost to time.
Part IV – The Layton's
Ned bent on one knee, splashing the refreshing tropic water up to his face. With his wet hand, he rubbed cool water across the back of his neck. A few shafts of light pierced the canopy and danced along the brook. Birds bantered noisily from tree to tree, setting the experienced explorer at ease.
There was still a brisk walk between here and the tree house, but in Ned's mind – he was already home. "When you live in a jungle, you have a big back yard," he called up to the birds as he moved on.
Ned felt his anticipation rising as he neared the tree house. He stopped short as the clearing came into view.
Everything was wrong. Challenger's irrigation pumps were missing from the garden. What little laundry was drying in the breeze – he did not recognize. And the perimeter fence was gone. Even the branches of the trees seemed out-of-place.
Ned swallowed and took a step back. He hadn't known what to expect, but he had expected something. He took a moment to gather himself, and then took up a position below the balcony.
"Hello, up there – anyone home?" Ned called out tentatively.
He waited. Then he tried again, "Hello?"
He watched the balcony for any sign of motion, but all appeared still. Then he caught it – a small pair of eyes looking down on him from under the balcony railing. The eyes seemed to appraise him for a moment, and then they were gone.
Malone could hear a scraping coming from beyond the balcony. After two years of living in the close proximity that the tree house afforded, he recognized the sound. Someone was dragging a chair across the wooden floor.
Two little hands appeared over the railing, gripping it firmly, and then a small face popped up between them. "Who are you?" her tiny voice carried down to the jungle floor.
Ned tried to speak, but his voice failed him. The cheeks were a bit fuller, the hair cut short, but the face was unmistakable.
Veronica rested her chin on her delicate fingers, still holding Ned's gaze. "Qui êtes vous?" she tried again in French.
"Ned…" he stammered, "…just, Ned" He hadn't known what to expect… but this was more than he could take.
"WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME!" Malone screamed, kicking the dirt hard – kicking the Plateau!
Little Veronica recoiled in fright, dropping her eyes down below the railing.
"No, sweetheart, no… I'm not yelling at you." Ned swallowed his frustration. "Veronica," he called.
She popped her head back up, her eyebrows drawn tight and her mouth twisted to one side. "How do you know my name?" she demanded.
Ned steadied himself, forcing his mind around the situation. "I'm a friend of your father's, Sweetheart... Professor Layton, is he home?"
Veronica pointed a tiny, but stern finger at him. "You wait right there!"
"Yes, ma'am," Ned put his palm to his chest.
"Daddy," The young girl hollered back into the tree house, "Justin Ned is here to see you."
Malone stood in the main room of the tree house he knew so well, yet, now so different. He tried several ways to introduce himself, but Justin Ned seemed as good an introduction as any.
"Damn nice to meet you, Justin." Professor Layton shook Ned's hand firmly, using both of his hands. "I'm Tom, Tom Layton."
"You said you knew him!" Veronica slugged Ned in the thigh.
"I know of him…" Ned winced. "…of your work, Professor."
Tom smiled, laying a hand on Ned's back. "It's not work, really, it's a life." He reached out and cupped Veronica's chin. "Vee, dear, make our guest a cup of tea, will you." He gave his daughter a slight wink that she knew was hers alone.
Veronica wrinkled her nose, trying to match her father's wink and then scampered toward the kitchen.
Professor Layton looked more serious now. "We don't have many visitors, Justin. What brings you to the Plateau?"
"It's your research, Professor – specifically your work on Zanga prayer beads." Ned cut straight to the point.
"I've been on the Plateau far too long to question coincidence." Tom looked at the stranger before him, knowing there was more there than met his eye. He gestured down to his study, saying, "I'm analyzing a string of beads right now… but you already knew that?"
"Professor, I can't explain what's happening right now; honestly, I don't know myself. I do know I need to see the drawings you're working on at this very moment."
Ned looked at the skillfully rendered prayer beads; the string was incomplete. He picked up the pen – he was a journalist, not an artist, but he did his best. Carefully he drew the Oxford crest in place of the next bead on the string.
Malone grimaced – the crest had looked better in his imagination.
Professor Layton came around the desk and examined the page. "What is it?" he asked.
A moment passed, but there was no answer to his question. Tom looked up from his journal, then quickly around his study; he was alone.
"Tea for three," Veronica sang as she balanced a tea tray down the stairs. "Hey! Where's Justin?" she asked bewildered.
Her father smiled warmly. "I'm sorry Princess... Justin had to leave," he apologized.
Professor Layton rubbed his chin and gave another bemused glance around the small room. Satisfied that the visitor was really gone, he reached out and took the tea tray from Veronica. "Let's take this third cup up to Mommy, shall we?" he said. With his free arm he lifted his small daughter up, onto his hip – leaving his journal for another time.
I hold my eyes shut tight, begging the Plateau to release me – hoping my ride on this macabre Farris wheel is at an end. Her tiny voice chases me through time, "Tea for three..."
"It's happening to me!" Veronica sprang up and backed away from the table. Marguerite quickly came to her side.
Roxton faced Veronica and narrowed his gaze. "Your memories are changing," he accused; it was not a question.
Veronica held her hands to her temples. "Something is in my head!"
"Let's calm down," Marguerite cautioned. "No one is bleeding… yet."
The elevator clamored.
"How long does it take to re-plant a few weeds, George?" Marguerite threw a glare at the elevator. "Challenger will sort this out," she assured the other two.
Roxton and Veronica closed in on Challenger; Marguerite was right on their heels.
George recoiled from the onslaught. "One at a time!" he threw up two muddy hands.
John took the lead. "Something is changing our memories, Challenger."
"Curious." He wiped his hands on his already filthy jacket. "Let's have the details then..."
In a burst of words, the three of them related the last fifteen minutes – Marguerite's inventory, John's pin, the Layton's journal… George listened and pieced the story together.
"Very intriguing," Challenger muttered, his mind racing with possibilities. "Let's start with that pin, John."
Roxton held it up, unable to mask his pride.
"Well, I'll be…" An immense smile broke across George's face. "That's an Oxford Oarsman button!"
I watch this confrontation, knowing my part is near – A weary puppet descending on this final scene.
"I'm afraid not, Ol'Boy," Roxton corrected. "It's from Oxford alright, but this is a Gun Club pin." John pointed down at the pin in his hand. "Look here…"
It's all so clear now. I reach for Challenger's soiled hands… My strings are cut. I fall through time – to where it all began.
Part V – The Oarsman
The towering majesty of Oxford University sent Ned's mind reeling. The meticulous lawns and immaculate hedgerows seemed an absurd parody of nature. He leaned forward, shielding his eyes with his hand. It had been more than two years since he had witnessed man's surreal impact on nature; he was unprepared for his reaction.
Malone took a few cool breaths to collect himself. He stood up straight and rolled his shoulders back, letting his mind focus on the pleasant splashing of a nearby fountain. Beyond, the timeless corridors of Oxford loomed before him.
Something is different here. I remember it all… Gladys, my Editor, the Challenger Expedition – I am no longer a voyeur, a puppet; the Plateau is not conducting this interlude. There is finality about this, as if the key to escaping my phantom-existence hinges on the choices I make here and now – before the Plateau summons me back.
For the first time since Malone had been spirited away on Askwith's airship, he felt whole – mind and body intact, and keenly aware that he must find George Challenger.
"Pick a side!" a voice broke Malone's reverie.
"Pardon," Ned apologized, stepping to one side to let the young man pass. The walkways were beginning to crowd with students.
"Excuse me, Sir," Ned flagged down the next passerby. "Could you direct me toward the science department? I'm looking for Professor George Challenger."
The lad spun and appraised Ned curiously, and then he jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "That way, mate; just passed the cricket grounds."
Malone thanked him and headed in the direction he had indicated. Soon, he was crossing a well groomed park. A lone bowler was practicing his pitch; Ned skirted wide and nodded as he passed.
On the far side of the field, four large brick buildings framed a common area. Near the center, a group of students sat on benches, embroiled in an animated discussion.
"Pardon," Ned interrupted the young men. "I'm looking for Professor George Challenger."
A few of the students laughed heartily, one serious fellow just shook his head at Malone. "So, George has you believing he is a member of the faculty?"
The man laughing the loudest wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. "When George Challenger is a professor, I'll be Dean," he said, and started chuckling again.
"So, you know George?" Malone asked eagerly.
"Everyone knows George," he said, still amused. "Come with me; I'll be passing right by him."
Ned followed the young man across the quad and into a nearby building. After a few flights of stairs they entered a large classroom lined with black counters. A lone student worked on an intricate experiment that covered two tables.
"George, this Yankee thinks you're a professor," Ned's guide called out.
The young chemist followed the flow of liquid through a glass tube, from one container to another, seemingly unaware he had visitors.
"Well, I told you I knew where he was. I never said he'd be good company." With that, the helpful student took his leave.
"Are you going to hover back there, or step up and tell me why your here?"
Malone smiled. That was undeniably George Challenger. He stepped closer to get a better look – clean shaven, barley twenty, with his thick auburn hair cut high-and-tight.
George looked up and gave Ned a polite nod. Then he quickly turned his attention to a boiling beaker. "Oh, no you don't!" George growled, as he lowered the flame on the bubbling liquid.
"George Challenger," George introduced himself. He wiped a hand on his lab coat and then extended it to Ned.
Malone gripped Challenger's hand in a firm handshake. He squeezed bit harder than he should have and held on a beat longer than was comfortable. Ned faced the young Oxford student that was a decade his junior.
"I need you to trust me, George," Malone said, addressing the man he knew would become a world renowned scientist and explorer.
Challenger sensed the gravity in Ned's words. In that moment, a spark of recognition passed between them. "Do I know you?" Challenger asked in a half-whisper.
"You will. In 1919 you will mount an…" The room was flooded in a sea of voices.
"Stroke… stroke… stroke," the men chanted as they streamed into the lab.
"GEORGE!" the lead man yelled. "If you're not done, we'll have you transferred to Cambridge!" The young men all hissed and booed.
George stood and faced his audience. "Gentlemen, you show remarkable timing," he began, "as all great Oarsmen do!"
"Stroke… stroke… stroke," the men cheered in unison.
George reached down to pick up a cool beaker and held it up. The men bust into applause as Challenger took the tiniest sip. He tilted his head and exhaled smoothly as the liquor bit into his tongue.
The lead man stepped up, taking the beaker from George. "Tomorrow, gentlemen, Cambridge will fall!"
The young men banged on the tables and whistled loudly.
Their Captain continued, "We would have of beaten them last year if Maclean's blade hadn't snapped at Barnes – and this year, we're even better." He held up the beaker. "Here's to the finest crew of oarsman that has ever pulled for the Oxford Boat Club!"
The crew erupted in cheer, passing around Challenger's brew and toasting one another.
Ned pushed through the crowd and gripped George's arm. He looked Challenger straight in eyes, but the recognition was gone. George was just another fraternity brother on the eve of the big race.
Malone felt time closing in around him. He struggled to put the pieces of the puzzle together. "The crest!" Ned shouted over the racket. "George, where is your Oxford Oarsman button?"
George took another swig from a passing beaker and then he pulled his lab coat aside. "Right next to my heart," he said, with a wide grin.
The party threatened to push them apart.
"I promise that I'll return it, George." Ned reached for the pin.
A flicker of recognition returned to Challenger's eyes. "I know you will," he yelled above the commotion, and then he unfastened his pin and pressed it into Ned's open hand.
"Find me, George," Ned pleaded, but he couldn't be sure if Challenger had heard him, as the Oarsmen carried his friend away.
I feel the comforting bonds of the tree house pulling me home. I drift there, among my friends – still on opposite sides of the looking glass. I have done all that the Plateau demanded of me. It is up to them now…
Part VI – The Ghost Writer
"I never thought I'd live to see the day when I was right and the great George Challenger was wrong," John taunted, holding his Gun Club pin up for George to see. He pointed to the crossed rifles. "Look at these guns, George."
Challenger grinned. "Sorry Roxton, those are oars; and that my friend is an Oxford Oarsman button."
John looked closer, he had to admit – the crossed rifles could just as easily be crossed oars.
Roxton rolled the pin over and handed it to Challenger. "Look, George, the Gun Club's monogram is engraved on the back – G.C."
"Good Heavens…" George took in a sudden breath.
Roxton crossed his arms in a stance of victory.
"This is fascinating." Challenger's mind was racing. "My memories are changing as well."
Veronica and Roxton understood what George was going through. Together, they helped him to the table.
"Marguerite," Challenger called.
"I'm right here, George." She came to his side.
"Outside, on the trail today, that was definitely Ned we felt..." Challenger seemed to be talking mostly to himself, working through his memory. "…Just as I handed him my Oarsman button, the Yankee said: Find me, George."
"Find who, George?" Marguerite asked. "The Yankee, was it Malone?"
"Think, you two," Challenger pressed Veronica and Roxton. "I believe it's Ned who is altering our memories."
Roxton cast his mind back to his African Safari, more than thirty years past. "It could have been Ned… a man, about thirty, fair skinned… and that rifle." Recognition lit John's face. "That rifle was an M1917 Enfield!"
"A genuine anachronism," Challenger marveled. "But, was it Malone?"
"It was Ned," Veronica whispered, as the light collected in her eyes. "Justin Ned."
"Can you be sure?" George asked.
"Yes." Veronica wiped the corners of her eyes. "We didn't have many visitors when I was growing up. I'm sure it was Ned."
The four of them held the silence for a moment.
"Well! Dazzle us, George. How do we bring our little-lost-ghost-writer home?" Marguerite asked what everyone was thinking.
"I'm not sure that we can – not today." Challenger admitted. "I believe the first step in Malone's journey was to find us and let us know he's out there."
"There must be something we can do," Veronica said hopefully.
"The lad's gone to an awful lot of trouble to get our attention," Roxton added.
"Just be patient," Challenger said in a reassuring tone. "Keep your eyes open for Malone's next sign."
"I know it's not science – and I'm not one to get sentimental," Marguerite hedged, "but the spiritual tether is two sided – Ned is holding on to us tight, he needs to know that we still need him too."
"Ned knows we need him," Veronica almost yelled.
"Of course he does." Roxton placed a calming hand on Veronica's shoulder. "I think what George and Marguerite are saying is, it's going to take some time."
It's odd that Marguerite should be the one, but I know her words are true. It's not enough that I want to come home; I must wait for an invitation.
The four adventurers shared an emotional silence.
After a long moment, Marguerite turned toward her room to go. "Don't worry about my feelings, Ned. I didn't want you meddling with my memories anyway," she said to the open room with a wave of her hand.
Veronica and Roxton shared a covert smile.
Challenger stood. "Well then, for my part, I'll be doing some research. I have an idea for a photo technique that may prove quite revealing." With that, he headed for his lab.
"Hold up, Challenger," Roxton called him back. "You still have my Gun Club pin."
George examined his initials etched into the back of his old Oarsman button. His team had finished in disgrace, losing to Cambridge by more than twenty lengths.
"Now that I look closer, John, I'd say these are indeed rifles, not oars." George flipped the pin to Roxton. "It's an Oxford Gun Club pin after all."
John fastened the pin to his pocket with a prideful grin.
"Wear it with pride, John," George said ruefully. "Just never get so confident that you begin the celebration before the race is won."