Tag ~~~~

Denise Sparrow was sound asleep on the sofa in the varnish car. Jim and the colonel were conversing quietly over drinks while Artie was busy with some things at the table.

"You realize," Jim was saying, "that wherever you put Voltaire and Antoinette, Loveless will attempt to free them."

"Oh yes," the colonel replied. "And we'll be ready for him." He took a sip of his drink and frowned. "That is," he amended, "we'll do our best to be ready for him." He shook his head. "That little doctor is certainly uncanny, isn't he?"

"That's an understatement," said Jim.

Glancing over to be sure his niece was really asleep, Artie called to the others, "Come have a look at this."

"What is it?" The two men walked into the dining area.

"Herr Drossel's jacket." At their blank looks, Artie explained, "He was the one who broke Niecie's fall and saved her. The little old German fellow? You remember: after Loveless' miraculous return from the dead, Herr Drossel turned Niecie over to me and wandered off again."

"Yes," said Jim. "What about him?"

"I suppose he must have emptied out his pockets at some point, for I didn't find a thing in them," said Artie. He paused for a second before adding, "Except for this." And from one of the pockets he produced a slip of paper. "It's in German," he explained, then translated it. "'A second case is here at the hospital, just like the first one. The patient is slow in every aspect. Come at once.' And it's signed with the initial S."

There was silence for a moment, then Jim said, "I suppose the patient the note refers to was me. But what's the significance?"

"The significance is in the salutation, which I did not yet read to you. This note," and he turned it so they could both see, "is addressed to Herr Vogel."

"Vogel!" said Jim.

And Colonel Richmond smiled. "The elusive Rumor Meister! This is the first physical evidence we've ever had that the man really exists!"

"How do you suppose that little fellow - Drossel, was it? - came to be carrying this note. He was a messenger?"

"Could be, Jim. But more likely than that," said Artie, "I believe Herr Drossel was Vogel himself."

"What makes you think that?" asked the colonel.

"A few reasons. First, in the confusion and busyness of this morning, I wasn't really paying close attention to him, but it later occurred to me that Drossel was wearing a disguise. When he ran, he didn't run like an old man. And he had powder in his beard. The scar on his cheek looked real enough, but what I really should have noticed right away was that, when he sat up after breaking Niecie's fall…" Artie leaned forward, his voice dropping conspiratorially, "…his gray wig was slightly askew so that a black curl was peeking out at his temple. But in the pressure of dealing with Loveless' threat, those details didn't hit me until I found this note."

"Hmm," said Jim. "That was first; what's the rest?"

Artie grinned. "The names."

The colonel gave him an inquiring look. "Names. You mean Drossel?"

"Fritzi Drossel," Artie corrected. "There's a tale by Hoffmann in which two characters named Fritz and Drosselmeier occur, which started me wondering if it might be a made-up name. But beyond that - Vogel is the German word for 'bird.' "

"And Drossel?"

"Well, it has a few meanings: throttle, throat, even to choke. But the interesting part to me is that Drossel also means 'thrush.' And that's a type of bird."

The colonel nodded. "Hmm. So it seems we've met the king of rumors. Not that we can do much about it."

"No, not at the moment. He's always been careful to break no laws."

"But he is a spy. And all spies, at the very least, need to be watched."

"Yes, gentlemen," said the colonel. "And now we know what he looks like."

"Well, to a certain extent," said Artie. "We still haven't seen the man as he really looks. But now," and he laid aside the jacket, then turned to the chemistry apparatus he had set up on the table, "would you care to see the rest?"

"What is this?" asked the colonel.

"Are these the chemicals I brought back from Loveless' lab?"

"Yes, Jim, they certainly are. Now, Loveless did the same demonstration for me that he did for you, and then admitted that it was all bunkum. You see, I've identified each of the chemicals involved. And if you mix them all together - and, granted, I don't know the proportions he used, but it really doesn't matter - if you mix these particular chemicals, there is no possibility that the resulting concoction is going to be able to melt marble." He took up an eyedropper, used it to suction up some of the liquid he had mixed, then dribbled a bit of the fluid onto a sample of marble in a dish.

Fwhoosh! The liquid instantly sank into the marble, melting it. Within moments the entire block was crumbling, liquefying into a runny gray slurry. The three men jumped back, staring at the mess, then at each other.

"Ah…" said Artie. "That, uh… that shouldn't have happened..."

There was a knock on the door. Shaking his head at Artie's befuddlement, Jim went to answer it. As soon as he opened the door, something knee-high rocketed past him, squealing, "Mamma!"

Denise awoke as Missie pounced on her, happily covering her mother's face with kisses. "Oh, honey!" said Denise, overjoyed to have her little girl in her arms once more. "And Mrs Beecham! Thank you so much for bringing her to me!"

"Afternoon, Mrs Sparrow," said the gruff housekeeper, looking far less gruff than usual. "We were told at the house that we might find you here. And Missie insisted."

"I'll be ready to come home shortly. I was utterly exhausted, so Uncle Artie brought me here."

"Unca Oddie!" shrieked the toddler, and made to spring at him. He held his hands high and warded her off. "Not just yet, Peanut," he said. "Uncle Artie's hands are very dirty right now. Let me put these chemicals away and wash up first. All right?"

"Oh. Ok." Then the little girl turned around, hollered, "Unca Jim!" and threw her arms around Jim West's knees.

He picked her up and smiled at her. "So I'm still Uncle Jim?"

"Uh-huh!" she said happily and hugged his neck.

"Why, what's this?" said Artie in tones of mock anger when he returned from washing up a few minutes later. "James my boy, are you stealing my girl?"

"Of course!" said Jim as he relinquished Missie into his partner's arms. And as Artie sat down with the little girl, the pair cheerfully babbling nonsense back and forth between them, a soft voice said, "Mr West?"

He turned to Denise and said, "Please, it's Jim."

Shyly, she said, "I, uh, I want to thank you for rescuing Missie from that dreadful Dr Loveless. She's my life, you know."

He smiled. "It was my pleasure, Denise."

"And now she thinks of you as Uncle Jim. You've definitely made a big hit with her! But then, according to Uncle Artie, you certainly do have a way with the ladies." She glanced at Mrs Beecham, then said, "But we need to get home now. Missie! Come on, honey. It's time to go."

Missie protested, but her mother was firm. With kisses for her new uncles, the little girl said her good-byes. Niecie exchanged kisses on the cheek with Uncle Artie, hesitated, then gave James a kiss on his cheek as well. "I'll always be grateful," she said.

"Now, Niecie, you and Peanut are welcome to visit us any time, whenever we're in Washington," said Artie. "It's always a pleasure to see you."

"I love you too, Uncle Artie," she replied fondly. She then shook hands with Colonel Richmond, and taking her little girl, she left the train along with Mrs Beecham.

"Well," said the colonel once the ladies were gone, "I must say, Artemus, you certainly have a lovely daughter." And with a sidelong glance at Jim, he took a sip of his drink and waited for the explosion.

"Daughter!" cried Artie. "Daughter? Who's been spreading that rumor? Did Dr Loveless tell you that? For the last time, Niecie is not my daughter; she's my niece!"

And Jim, of course, waited a beat before inevitably saying:


~~~ FIN ~~~