Author's Notes: The photograph referred to in the teaser (first chapter) is also the book cover. A larger version is available at my Photobucket account; I've placed a link to the picture on my profile page.
Also, where I used foreign languages, I tried to also provide the translation within the context of the story. However, since one of the language in this story is one I completely made up, I've posted the vocabulary for that language on my profile page as well.
The Night of the Kiss of Death
The big man with the impressive beard chewed on his cigar as his final two visitors were ushered in. "Ah, West, Gordon," he said. "Come in, gentlemen, come in."
"Good afternoon, Mr President."
"Now, gentlemen," said President Grant, turning to his other visitor, "I'd like you to meet Count Ljudko Mechtenko, personal secretary to the Ambassador from the Kingdom of Pterovnia. Count Mechtenko, Mr James West…"
"How do you do?"
"…and Mr Artemus Gordon."
Gordon too shook the Count's hand, but his words caught Mechtenko by surprise. Eyebrows arching, the Count exclaimed, "Why, Mr Gordon! You speak Pterovnian?"
Gordon smiled modestly. "Oh, just enough to get by."
"Now, gentlemen," said the President. "Oh, do be seated. Gentlemen, I'm afraid that our meeting here today concerns a most distressing matter. Count?"
"Mr West, Mr Gordon, I am here because Ambassador Zelnurmofko received telegraphic communication today stating that his two daughters have been kidnapped."
West and Gordon exchanged glances. "Kidnapped," West repeated. "There's been a ransom demand then?"
"Strangely, no," replied the Count.
"And the circumstances?" asked Gordon.
The Count opened a file and began to spread out papers across the table in front of the two agents. A map, the telegram, a photograph…
West picked up the photograph, studied it briefly, then passed it on to Gordon. "These are the daughters, I take it?"
"Ah, yes," said the Count. "Irenje, seated, and Anushche, standing."
"Peace and Grace," said Gordon. "Lovely names for lovely ladies."
"Mr Gordon, you continue to astound me! You are a linguist, yes?"
"Merely an amateur," Gordon replied. "When was this taken?"
"Last month. For their birthday."
"And they are how old? If I am permitted to ask?"
"But Irenje is the elder," said West. "They are identical twins?"
"And now you astound me, Mr West. How do you know Zernkje Irenje - that is to say, Lady Irenje - is the elder?"
West tapped the photograph. "Her eyes. Her face. Her whole bearing. Irenje is used to commanding, and being instantly obeyed. Anushche, on the other hand…" He glanced at the photo again. "…is the wide-eyed ingénue. And she worships the ground her sister walks on."
The Count shook his head, amazed. "One would think you know the family personally," he said. "But as for your question - yes, they are identical twins. With the exception that Zernkje Irenje has a small birthmark there." He pointed. "Just below the right ear." He gazed at the photo for a moment, adding, "They are the Ambassador's only children. Zernkje Zelnurmofje - their mother - is most disconsolate."
The men nodded. Turning to the map, West added, "And they were in Georgia?"
"Yes. Having been educated in some of the finest ladies' colleges in Europe, the young ladies had recently embarked on a tour of the United States…"
"By visiting the Deep South?" asked Gordon. "The South is still not exactly, ah, at its best…"
The Count shrugged. "They were on their way to New Orleans. They had stopped for a few days at Atlanta, traveled on only as far as the next stop at this small town here - and there, for some reason, they disembarked."
"And vanished?" said West.
As the Count nodded in reply, Gordon glanced over the telegram before tossing it back onto the table. "That's less than informational," he complained. "Who sent it?"
"Their tutor, M le docteur Étienne Rodin."
"He is also their interpreter?"
"Oh, no. The young ladies are fluent, or at least conversant, in all the major languages of Europe - in addition, of course, to their mother tongue of Pterovnian. Though perhaps," he added, "not completely familiar with certain American variations on English…"
West nodded. "Independence will do that," he said dryly.
"Well, gentlemen," said the Count, "there is not much more that I can add - except that it is imperative that the Ambassador's daughters be returned to the arms of their parents at once."
"Of course, sir."
"Thank you, Count Mechtenko," the President said. And with a bow to all present, the Count withdrew.
"Gentlemen," said the President, "I want you down there right away. Find those young women! Bring them back home to their Embassy. And find the kidnappers and bring them to justice! The Ambassador, I am sorry to have to tell you, has already dispatched transatlantic telegrams informing His Majesty King Zerildko of the incident, and His Majesty is ready to dispatch troops - troops! - to come over here to the United States and take over this investigation to find his god-daughters." He paused to control his ire. "Now, I have personally assured His Majesty that my best men are on the job, and he has accordingly agreed to wait one week before the troop ships sail. I'm sorry that's not much time, but…" He spread his hands.
"Yes," put in Gordon, "it's rather difficult to slap royalty on the wrist and say, 'Ah-ah-ah! Hands off!' "
"Precisely," said Grant. "Now, your contact will be the tutor, who has remained on site. I don't know how much help he will be; you both saw the telegram. But he is apparently the only witness we have to the young ladies' disappearance."
"We'll do our best, sir," said West as Gordon gathered up the file of information the Count had left for them.
"I'm counting on that, Jim," said the President. "I'm counting on it. Because we certainly don't need this to escalate into some sort of international incident."