Author's Notes:

This is my second story involving characters from the fictitious Eastern European nation of Pterovnia, the first being The Night of the Kiss of Death.

I've tried to translate all foreign words within the context of the story, but just in case anything is unclear, a vocabulary of the Pterovnian words used in this story is posted on my profile page.

The Night of the Diabolical Dowager

Teaser ~~~~

"What do you think, Jim?" said Artie. "Is this a real assignment, or just a babysitting job?"

James West gave a philosophical shrug. He and his partner Artemus Gordon were dressed to the nines as they walked up to the gates of the Pterovnian Embassy in Washington DC. "Oh, I wouldn't mind an occasional babysitting job. But you know what usually happens."

"Yeah. It all starts out nice and simple, and then something happens and suddenly lives are at stake."

Again Jim shrugged. "Well, that's life as we know it, working for the Secret Service."

"You got that right!" Artie agreed.

The two agents presented themselves at the gate. A pair of guards checked their credentials, then admitted them, one of the guards intoning in a heavy Eastern European accent, "Gentlemen, welcome to Pterovnia."

As the two Americans walked on up to the Embassy, Artie looked back at that guard and gave a theatrical shudder, muttering to Jim sotto voce, "Oughta put that guy on the stage and have him play the ghost of Hamlet's father. He sure would give the audience the chills!"

They mounted the steps to the ornate front door, which was opened at their approach. "Mr West! Mr Gordon!" said a familiar voice. "Welcome, welcome! Do come in!"

"It's good to see you again, Count Mechtenko," said Jim, while Artie expressed much the same sentiment, save in the Pterovnian tongue.

"The Ambassador will see you immediately," said the count, graciously gesturing them inside. "I trust you gentlemen are keeping well?" he added as he escorted the Americans through the embassy.

"Very well, thank you."

"And you?"

"Ah, well, as you can imagine, we are living with quite a bit of excitement at the moment. Here we are, my friends." The count, who was the Pterovnian ambassador's personal secretary, opened the door to the ambassador's private office and announced them, then bowed and withdrew.

"Gentlemen!" exclaimed the ambassador. He was a distinguished gray-haired man, middle-aged, and beginning to be inclined toward portliness. He greeted West and Gordon graciously, then led them from his office and on deeper into the embassy. "How good it is to see you again!" he said.

"It's good to see you again as well, Ambassador Zelnurmofko," said Jim.

"And how is the family?" asked Artie.

"Ah, my daughter Anje is growing up so!" said the ambassador proudly. "I receive letters from her every week telling me of this young man or that young man, a different one in each letter, so it seems. She is happy back home living in the capital city Ljuko, and in her most recent letter, knowing you would be visiting me here, she asked to be remembered to you both. Her memories of you, she assures me, are very fond."

"As are ours," said Jim.

Artie smiled. "Sweet kid," he said.

"Not so much a 'kid' anymore, Mr Gordon. She is old enough to marry, you know, and I believe she keeps her tutor Dr Rodin very busy, ah… how is it you Americans put it? Beating off the suitors with a stick?"

Both agents laughed politely, then Artie inquired after the ambassador's wife.

Zelnurmofko's face fell a bit. "She is not so happy back home, I am afraid. And yet, as you know, where would she be happy anymore? She took the… loss… of our elder daughter Irenje very badly, very badly."

"We're so sorry, Mr Ambassador," said Jim, but the Pterovnian waved that away.

"No, no. There is nothing to apologize for. You did all you could, Mr West, Mr Gordon. Neither of you are responsible for Irenje's evil choices. Only she was responsible for that, and of course she paid the consequences as well."

And on that somber note they reached the reception room of the embassy. "Ah," said the ambassador, "but now you shall meet the one for whom you were invited here." He threw open the doors, proclaiming, "His Royal Majesty, Crown Prince Stepanko of Pterovnia!"

"Now how do I say 'Your Majesty' again, Artie?" Jim asked softly.

" 'Zartechko dujo,' " Artie replied.

Jim whispered the phrase back, and when Artie nodded, West stepped into the room and said it aloud with a bow, Gordon following suit.

There were in fact two men in the reception room, the elder dressed in a military uniform, the younger in fine silks with many jewels. The younger smiled radiantly at the Americans and came forward to grasp their hands, a gesture of cheerful informality that evoked instant and obvious disapproval from the elder. "My friends!" said the young man warmly. "How good it is to meet you at last! My dear cousin Anje speaks highly of you, highly! I do hope that our trip to New Orleans will go much better than hers did."

"Yes, considering she never reached New Orleans," Artie muttered to Jim under his breath.

Turning to the man in uniform, the prince introduced him as, "My personal secretary, tutor, and all around factotum, Captain Koloshko."

"Read: bodyguard," Artie whispered to Jim, and then shook the captain's hand.

The ambassador himself poured the brandy, which, West and Gordon noted, the captain did not accept. He remained standing as well, strictly vigilant even here, deep in the heart of the embassy.

Prince Stepanko, on the other hand, relaxed with his snifter on one of the sofas, gesturing to the other men to "Sit! Sit!" Sampling the brandy, he nodded approvingly to the ambassador, then addressed himself to the Americans. "I understand that my trip here to your country comes at the wrong time of year for me to experience the joys of Mardi Gras at New Orleans, correct?"

"I'm afraid so, Your Majesty," Jim replied.

"Ah, what a pity, what a pity. Still, I hear many wonderful things about the city, and am looking forward to the opportunity to, ah, how do you Americans put it? To plant the wild seed?"

Artie gave a muffled snort and said, "Perhaps Your Majesty means 'sowing some wild oats'?"

Prince Stepanko grinned and pointed a richly bejeweled hand at Gordon. "Exactly! That is what I have had in mind. Not that Vachko - my father, you understand - not that he needs to know of this, of course. The king would not approve of such activities, you know. Vachko has forgotten what is it to be young. Something you gentlemen, I am sure, still remember."

"Oh, yes," Jim said, deadpan, "we certainly do remember what it is to be young."

"Yes," murmured Artie, striving to keep his eyes from rolling, "somewhere in the dim and misty memories of our long-ago youth…"

The door opened and the count entered discreetly, bowing to the prince before going to the ambassador and whispering in his ear. "Coded?" the ambassador responded to his secretary, and at the count's nod of affirmation, Zelnurmofko came to his feet. "You must excuse me, Your Majesty, gentlemen, but the embassy has received a transatlantic telegram which requires my attention. I will be only a few minutes, I trust." He bowed and followed the count from the room.

The prince grinned. "Oh dear. I suppose Vachko has thought of some more admonitions that he neglected to lecture me about before I left Pterovnia. Well, dear old Mijelko - did you know that is our ambassador's name? I believe in English it becomes Michael, yes? - dear old Mijelko will simply have to act as a surrogate father to me to lecture me on Vachko's behalf, hmm?" He took another sip of his brandy. "Oh, but I am longing to see the celebrated Wanderer, the private train upon which you gentlemen live! Cousin Anje described it to me, and how I am looking forward to seeing it for myself! In my country we are still building our railroads, hoping soon to link up with Carpania and Ruritania on either side of us, and so join the greater European community in being able to move goods and people about as swiftly as you Americans do."

"That is not necessarily a good idea, my prince," said Captain Koloshko. "Perhaps along with the rapid transportation of goods and people will come as well the rapid spread of unrest."

Prince Stepanko wrinkled his nose and shook his head. "Oh, Koloshko! You see plots everywhere and assassins under every rock! The railroad will be good for Pterovnia! It will bring our country fully into the nineteenth century along with the rest of Europe and with America! Our country will become great; our people will be happy. Why must you always think that evil will befall our nation?"

"You are still young, my prince, and know little of the evil that men can and will do." Koloshko hesitated, then added, "And if I may speak freely, my prince, I am glad I was sent along with you on this trip to America. You are not safe. I was against this voyage from the very start, and would prefer that you return at once to our homeland!"

The prince chuckled. "Good old Koloshko! Trust you to rain sunshine and roses upon my every step!" He took some more brandy, then waved a hand at West and Gordon. "With such excellent American Secret Service agents supplementing your care over me, dear captain, I cannot help but be as safe as a baby in its cradle. I am as safe with the three of you watching over me here as I ever was back home in Ljuko with Vachko." Prince Stepanko laughed again and raised his glass once more.

The door crashed open. All four men in the room whirled to look at it, the two Americans leaping to their feet as the captain reached for his sidearm. And there in the doorway stood the ambassador. He looked dreadful, as if he had aged ten years in the few minutes since he had last been in this room. He wavered on legs that had lost their strength, his hand clutching for the door frame and only managing to grasp it on his third attempt. He now leaned against it heavily, his whole body shaking.

"Why, Mijelko!" cried the prince, aghast. "What is wrong?"

Now the count came hurrying up the corridor and caught the ambassador before he could collapse on the threshold. "Brandy!" he called, and Artie fetched the ambassador's snifter to him. The count held it to Zelnurmofko's mouth and helped him to take a sip.

The ambassador waved the brandy away and struggled to regain his feet. West and the count helped him up and to a chair, where the prince knelt by the man's side. "Mijelko, what is wrong?" the young prince asked again.

A few broken words in Pterovnian escaped Zelnurmofko's lips, and Prince Stepanko leapt to his feet. "No!" he cried. "No! Njede! Njede! Vachko! Vachko mujo!" And the young man collapsed on the sofa, burying his head in his hands.

Jim turned to Artie, who looked as pale as if he'd seen a ghost. "What did he say?" Jim asked.

"He said, 'No! No! Father! My father!' "

"Artie, not the prince. What did the ambassador say?"

Artie passed a hand over his face. "Huh? Oh, I… I'm sorry, Jim. I'm afraid I'm in a bit of shock." He swallowed hard. "What the ambassador said was that the telegram he went to decode has come from the capital in Pterovnia. There's been an explosion aboard the royal yacht." He paused and met Jim's eyes before finishing with, "King Zerildko is dead."