It has come to my attention that I made the egregious error of leaving Antoinette out of this story! That has now been rectified.
The Night of One of Those Days
Jim hauled himself into the varnish car and collapsed onto one of the sofas, exhausted, bedraggled, and still both damp and odoriferous. He leaned his head against the back of the sofa and closed his eyes. "It's good to be home," he muttered.
The swinging door to the corridor slapped open and Jim turned to see Artie striding in with a sheaf of papers in his hand and a big smile on his face. Catching sight of his partner in the parlor, Artie said, "Oh hey, Jim! I finally isolated that compound that was on the doorknob. Would you believe it was… Phew! What's that smell?"
"Probably me," sighed Jim.
Artie took a closer look at his best friend and said, "You know, you look like you've been through the wringer."
"I feel like it too," Jim responded, then asked, "Hey, Artie, have you ever had one of those days?"
"One of what days, Jim?"
"One of those days when just nothing goes right?"
"What, and lived to tell about it?" Artie dropped his papers off on the table and turned to their store of spirits. "James my boy, you look like you could use a stiff one. And being the companionable fellow that I am, I'll join you." He poured them each a drink, came and handed one to Jim, then perched on the edge of the desk and sipped at the other. "All right, I'm listening. What happened today?"
"What didn't happen!" muttered Jim. He sampled his drink, then said, "Well. You know my plan for the day was to sneak into Loveless' headquarters and recover the maguffin - and by the way, here it is," he added, pulling it out of his inside jacket pocket and laying it on the sofa beside him.
"Oh, good job, Jim! That went well, at least."
Jim snorted. "In a manner of speaking, yeah. First I ran into Voltaire, who tried as usual to reshape my head to fit a smaller hat size. I drove my elbow into his ribs, and while he staggered back from me, I took a deep breath and threw one of the smoke bombs I took from your lab at him. At least… I thought it was a smoke bomb."
Artie paused with his glass nearly to his mouth. "It wasn't?"
"Nope. It hit the ground and, instead of breaking open and spewing out smoke, it bounced off the floor, zinged up and caromed off the wall, then off the ceiling…"
Artie gave a hoot of laughter. "Oh that! That's a little something I've been experimenting with: a super-springy type of rubber ball. Wow, I'm sorry, Jim! I needed a rack to store them in while they dried, so I used one that I normally keep the smoke bombs in. It didn't occur to me that you might take one thinking it was one of my bombs!"
"I didn't take one," said Jim. He looked Artie in the eye and informed him, "I took all six."
"All, uh… Um. So, uh… were they any help?"
"As smoke bombs, no. Although that first one I threw at Voltaire bounced around till it ran out of energy and went rolling across the floor." Jim took a sip of his drink and, with his eyes locked on the glass, added, "And as it happened, it rolled right up under his foot as he was coming after me again. His foot flew out from under him, and he measured his length on the floor, out cold."
"And that's quite a length to measure," quipped Artie. "So that didn't turn out too bad."
"Not yet it didn't."
"What else then?"
"You know how Loveless is, always has to have his secret lair underground. I made my way down some stairs and found a group of his minions at a landing just below me. So I leapt out at them…" Here Jim stopped and rubbed at his neck.
"Leapt out at them?" Artie prompted.
"Well, I was expecting to land on top of them and knock them down. Instead, they all scattered and I landed flat on the floor."
Artie winced. "Ouch," he said.
"No kidding, ouch. I was knocked unconscious. When I came to, I was inside a giant bird cage suspended from the ceiling, and Loveless was strolling back and forth on an elevated walkway in front of me, gloating."
Artie nodded. "Oh, I can just hear him monologuing…"
"Telling me all his grandiloquent plans, yes.
"What did you do?"
Jim shrugged. "Eventually even Loveless' inexhaustible supply of hot air ran out and he left me to my fate."
"Lowering the cage into a vat of boiling oil."
Artie stared at him. "Oh, you're kidding me!"
Jim shook his head. "Nope. The machinery was grinding slowly along, and I needed to get out. My first plan, of course, was to pick the lock on the cage. Only…"
Jim rolled his eyes. "When I pulled the lock pick out from under my lapel, I lost my grip on it and it tumbled out of the swaying cage and fell into the boiling oil."
Artie slammed a hand down on the desk top beside him. "Oh! Then what?"
"I decided to go to Plan B and use the explosive in my boot heel to blow the lock open. But do you know what was in my heel?"
"Not the explosive, I take it."
"Nope. There was a little vial in my heel, but I couldn't recall what was inside the vial. Still, on the off chance that it could do something useful to open the cage, I opened it to pour the contents into the padlock."
"And," said Jim, "that's when I found the knock-out powder I had wanted to use on Voltaire."
"Knock… knock-out powder! But… What happened?"
Jim shrugged. "I got knocked out by the powder."
"But… but the machinery was lowering you into the boiling oil! You should have been killed! You're not dead!"
Jim grinned at him. "Disappointed, Artie?"
"Dis… Disa…! Oh, ha ha ha, Jim. Of course I'm not disappointed that you're still alive. But how?"
"Well," said Jim, "it seems that Loveless has finally learned not to leave us to our fates without having someone keep an eye on us. Because when I came to, I was in a new room of the doctor's lair, my hands were now tied behind my back, and I was being serenaded by Loveless and Antoinette singing a medley of Stephen Foster tunes. Once he realized I was awake, Loveless concluded the concert and came over to give me a royal chewing-out for nearly dying in my sleep. It seems the little rogue has certain high standards, and one of those is to avoid killing someone who isn't awake to appreciate it."
Artie frowned as he digested that bit of information. "Well… all right then. What happened next?"
"While Loveless was jawing at me, I, with the thought that I had one of those brilliant little acid-bearing buttons on the cuff of my jacket here, surreptitiously pulled the button off and squeezed it…"
Artie couldn't let the dramatic pause go unfilled. "Nothing?" he asked.
"Right," said Jim. "Nothing but button."
Artie made a fist of the hand that wasn't holding the drink and smacked the fist on his thigh. "Then what?"
"Loveless promised to be back shortly with a new plan for my impending demise, then left me alone yet again, taking Antoinette with him - and do you know, for once she didn't even flirt at me!"
"Oh, now, that's just terrible, James!"
"At any rate, once the pair of them were gone, I managed to slip my hands under my legs and around to the front. And then I got the ropes off."
"Loveless had left me in one of his labs, so once I was loose, I hunted around and found the maguffin. I took it and put it in my pocket, and having accomplished what I'd set out to do, I was ready to get out of there."
"Which you did manage to do, obviously."
"It wasn't so obvious to me at the time that I'd succeed though. At any rate, I fled the lab and wandered the corridors of the lair, avoiding minions as I went. At last I found the way back upstairs, where I also found…" He paused to take a sip of his drink.
"Yes?" said Artie. "You also found…?"
"Voltaire of course. Fully awake and ready to smash me. I brought out the rest of the bouncing rubber balls and threw them at him, distracting him enough for me to bolt for the door. And do you know what I found outside it?"
Artie, mesmerized, shook his head No.
"It was the same door I'd come in by, but now there was a moat blocking me from leaving."
"A moat!" exclaimed Artie.
Jim nodded. "Don't ask me how Loveless contrived that one. But here I was on the wrong side of the water and in dire need of getting across. Voltaire was coming after me, so I timed it just right to smash the door into his face and knock him out again. And now I had a little time to myself before the others figured out where I was."
"At least that," said Artie.
"Right," said Jim. "Well, I checked and I had my length of zip line in my pocket; I just needed to shoot the arrowhead on it into something sturdy on the other side. So I brought up my arm and activated the sleeve device to use the derringer to shoot the zip line across the water, right?"
"From the look on your face, Jim, I'm assuming the answer is Not right."
"You got it," said Jim. "The sleeve device sprang out, but no derringer. I don't even remember why I chose to load the knife into the sleeve device this morning, but that's what was in it: the knife."
"Well, you could still use that, couldn't you?"
"Oh, sure. I tied the end of the zip line around the hilt and threw the knife. I heard it make a solid thunk into a tree trunk on the other side. I ran the zip line through the pulley and tied the line good and tight to the light fixture above the door on my side." He sighed. "And then I set out to slide along the zip line."
Jim paused, and Artie winced. "Don't tell me. This is how you wound up drenched and fetid?"
"Oh yeah. Halfway along the zip line, the knot around the knife handle failed, and down I went splat into some of the foulest water it's ever been my misfortune to make the acquaintance of."
"Well, look at the bright side, Jim," said Artie. "Could have been worse. Could have been acid."
Jim shot him a look. "Oh, that's a lovely thought!"
"Hey, just tryin' to cheer you up, buddy!"
Artie shrugged and took another sip of his drink. "Now, you swam out of the water, of course."
"Yes, and got away at last. Loveless' minions had arrived at the door only to be stopped by the moat themselves, but they were able to shoot at me. At least on that point my luck held up and I was able to get away unscathed."
"I'm glad of that, Jim."
"Me too. However…"
"Hmm?" said Artie, taking a bit more of his drink.
"Well… after all of that, to top everything off and make it just perfect, after my unexpected swim in the moat, I was so damp and smelly that when I mounted Blackjack to ride home, he didn't recognize me and bucked me off!"
Artie just barely managed to avoid doing a spit take. Swallowing his drink with difficulty, he coughed heavily, then found his voice again at last and said, "Well… well, you're home now, James. The day is done, and tomorrow will be different."
"I certainly hope so!"
Artie stood up, gave Jim a comforting pat on the shoulder, and said, "I'll go make supper," before heading off for the galley.
Jim gave a heavy sigh, then stood up and shrugged his way out of his jacket and vest. He was taking off his gun belt as well when he heard the galley door behind him open again, followed almost immediately by a quickly suppressed guffaw.
He stiffened. "What's wrong now?"
"Oh, nothing that a needle and a little teal-blue thread won't fix. Ah, make that a lot of teal-blue thread."
Jim craned to have a look at his rear view. "How bad is it?"
"Well," said Artie with that confoundedly amused tone in his voice, "not nearly as bad as the damage from the fight at Susquehannah…"
"I had to throw those pants out entirely."
"Well, you'll be able to get a little more mileage out of these after you sew them up." And Jim noted the slight emphasis Artie put on the word "you."
Jim headed down the corridor into his stateroom, stripped off the pants, winced at the size of the split in the seam, then donned a dressing gown and returned to the parlor to get the mending over with.
After a while, he called to his partner, "Hey, you know what, Artie?"
Artie poked his head out the galley door. "What's that, Jim?"
"I've made up my mind. Tomorrow, you get to take the sleeve device and the hollow boot heels and Blackjack and all that, and you go out and do my job. And I'll stay here and do your work in the lab."
"And risk you blowing up the baggage car?" cried Artie in horror. "Not on your life, Jim! And anyhow, today was just a fluke. It's not like it'll ever happen again. Now, come on and eat. Supper's ready."
"All right. Just let me finish sewing this seam."
Artie bustled about setting the table and shortly bore the night's repast out from the galley. Ah, it smelled delightful. He poured a couple of glasses of wine, then seated himself and spread his napkin on his lap. "Ah… James? It's ready."
"I know," said Jim crossly, still sitting at the desk with his mending before him, head down, busy with, with… well, that wasn't a needle. What was it?
Puzzled, Artie said, "Well, come on and eat! Whatever you're doing can wait for later."
"No, Artie. It can't."
"Can't? What do you mean, it can't? Just leave it there and come on!"
"Artemus, believe me, I would if I could, but I can't!"
"Huh? What are you talking about? Why can't you?"
"Because," Jim retorted as he brandished the seam ripper, "I've managed to sew the cuff of my shirt onto these pants, that's why not!"
Oh yes. One of those days…
~ FIN ~