The Crimson Eagle, Part V

Later That Night, At the Caves Outside of Castle Markwright

C.E thought he was dreaming. He stared into the deep blue eyes of an angel in white, her halo of golden hair barely visible in the dim light. His shoulder throbbed dully. The angel placidly wrapped gauzy bandages around his arm. “Harriett,” she called over the mountain of frills, “he’s coming to!”

Harriett emerged from one of the networks of caves that crisscrossed the southern end of Mypos, wearing a plain white apron over her silver and black ball gown. “It sure took him long enough. He must have lost more blood than we thought.” She sat on C.E’s other side. “How do you feel now, baby?”

He grinned wolfishly. “I’m being nursed by two of the most beautiful women in Mypos. I feel terrific!”

Harriett raised her eyebrows. “He’s fine.” She gathered a pile of black and red shirts. “I’m going to take these upstairs and see if Donald’s found more bandages yet.” She sashayed through an opening in the rock, leaving the outlaw and the young woman alone in the dim cavern.

“Jennifer, where are we?”

She tied the last of the gauze in place. “We’re in what I believe is your hide-out. It’s dark, strange, and filled with maps, weird gadgets, and a chemistry set to rival Sherlock Holmes’.” Her speculation was confirmed by the sound of large machines humming and odd, colorful potions bubbling through long glass and metal tubes and burners. The soft light reflected off the tubes and Black Beauty’s metal wheels.

“The Cave?” C.E struggled into a sitting position. He lay on a thick wool blanket spread over an outcropping of stone, his head pillowed on Jennifer’s silken lap, his mask still in place. His curvy chest was quite bare, except for wisps of dark hair. “How did we get here? What happened to my shirt?”

“Your shirt is in the nearest trash can. It’s stained beyond repair.” She gently pushed him back on her lap and put her finger on his narrow lips. “Shhhh. Get some rest. That wound still looks ugly, though it did stop bleeding. I was worried.” She stroked his thick brown curls. “Harriett took the reins after you fainted and drove us here. Donald didn’t like it, but Harriett said she wasn’t going to risk Black Beauty being seen at Castle Markwright.”

She sighed. “Maybe it’s time you told me what’s really going on. There’s more to this than making King Samuel look bad. I asked Harriett, but she said it would be easier if I got it from you.”

“Harriett’s right,” C.E groaned, his hazel eyes nearly in tears. “The whole thing was my idea, and it’s gotten totally out of hand. I only wanted Balki to help his country and me to get my job back. Now, I’ve put you, Harriett, Lydia, and Donald in danger, and Balki could be laying dead in a ditch somewhere!”

A flash of gold against Jennifer’s breast caught his eyes. “My eagle pendant!” he exclaimed. “Where did you get it? I lost it the night of the ball at Castle Markwright. Only my men have them.”

She smiled, took it from around her neck, and fastened the gold chain on his. “I found it under the gingko tree. It must have broke after we heard the sheriff and you left so fast.” She held him close to her strong body. He sighed contentedly. “Now,” she whispered, her lips brushing his curls, “what’s this all about?”

He was about to spill his guts and his secrets when they heard horses’ hooves echoing through the granite walls of the Cave. Lord Charles Estevez, still in his baseball uniform, galloped in on Balki’s black stallion Nightwing. “Oh, sorry,” he smirked when he saw the duo entwined in each other’s arms on the stone couch. “Did I interrupt something?”

“Yes, you did,” C.E complained, “but we’ll continue later.” He grinned at Jennifer. “When we’re alone.” She grinned back, her smile lighting up her whole face.

“Balki’s in trouble,” Charles said quickly. “King Samuel captured him, the short blonde chick, and most of our men. He’s holding them in the dungeon at Pignika Palace.” The young man climbed off Nightwing. “I’m assuming he didn’t dump them in the slammer to show them a good time.”

C.E rolled his eyes. “No, no, he didn’t.” He slowly swung his legs off the ledge. “We’re going to make a plan to rescue Balki, Marianne, and the others from Pignika Palace.”

“Are you nuts, C.E?” Charlie groaned. “I’m in charge of security at the palace, remember? They’ll order me to put every available guard on duty! That place will be so thick with the king’s soldiers, it’ll look like ants going to town on a cherry pie!”

“C.E’s shoulder isn’t quite well yet,” Jennifer admitted. “However,” she went on quickly, “we can’t just leave Marianne, Balki, and everyone else to rot in King Samuel’s dungeons. God only knows what he’s already done to them.”

C.E didn’t have time to make a plan. He barely had the time to get to his feet before an arrow whizzed by his head. It barely missed Jennifer’s elbow and thwacked harmlessly against the sheer rock wall behind them. Charles gripped his baseball bat and C.E jumped into Jennifer’s arms. “We’re being invaded!” he whined. “They found us! I don’t know how, but they found us!”

The trio was suddenly surrounded by men dressed in purple and gold, the buttons on their uniforms shining dimly in the wan light. C.E whimpered in Jennifer’s arms. Jennifer let him down as Sheriff Burnsetti stormed into the Cave, followed by more men carrying arrows. Charles handed him a clean scarlet shirt.

“Burnsetti!” the Crimson Eagle exclaimed as he buttoned his blouse. “How did you find this place?”

“My men have followed you since your arrival at the ball,” he said with a triumphant grin. “They saw you, Lord Estevez, and Balki Robinadous scaling the balcony near the gardens not long after your arrival. They know what you’ve been up to, and they found out who you are.”

C.E’s eyes nearly tripled in size. “They know who I am?”

“And they told me. I should have known it was you all along.”

C.E’s eyes narrowed. “I’m surprised you didn’t. You tried to kill Balki and me three years ago in Chicago!”

“I wish those hired guns had killed you,” the officer growled. “You’ve interfered with me for the last time.”

“Charles!” C.E shouted, “Do it!” Charles smashed his bat against a panel in the rock wall. The lights, never bright to begin with, flickered and died. Jennifer tripped over several boot-shod feet, trying to find her way through the troops and odd equipment and strong-smelling chemicals.

She punched one man who appeared to be ogling her as hard as she could in the jaw. The Crimson Eagle staggered back and toppled several men into a messy pile. “Sorry about that, C.E,” Jennifer apologized. “Hard to tell who’s who in the dark.”

Jennifer’s tactical error left C.E too stunned to defend his or anyone else’s person. The Sheriff’s strongest men easily overcame the diminutive bandit. It took three equally strong men to get a hold of Jennifer. Sheriff Burnsetti strode over to the tall young heiress. A group of men produced torches and flashlights, which cast eerie shadows in the network of caverns.

The sheriff laughed, a harsh, croaking sound. “You love the Crimson Eagle, don’t you, Miss Lyons?”

Jennifer stood firm. “It’s none of your business who I love.”

“Let’s see how fond you are of your beloved bandit when I tell you who he really is!” The sheriff ripped C.E’s black velvet mask off his face with a flourish, revealing a pair of familiar hazel eyes, plump cheeks, and a narrow, thin nose. “Why, your romanticized Robin Hood is merely Laurence Wayne, timid human interest reporter for The Daily Mypiot!” He laughed. “Formerly an up-and-coming investigative reporter for The Chicago Express Times during my days as a law officer in the US.”

“A corrupt law officer,” Laurence snapped hoarsely, struggling in the tight grasp of the Sheriff’s troops. “You were in on the deal to trade arms with King Samuel and Sceptos. Balki and I would have exposed you and the Sceptosians, if you hadn’t run our carriage off the road and convinced the Express Times to fire us.”

The dark-haired writer gazed into Jennifer’s sad eyes. “I was going to tell you tonight, but these baboons interrupted me before I could.”

The sheriff pressed an arrow against Laurence’s wide throat. “You’ll be happy to know I lost my job in Chicago thanks to your articles on my business practices.”

Laurence glared at him. “Business practices? You received payoff from the Chicago mob bosses for years! Does King Samuel pay you to ignore his treatment of the Myposian peasants, too?”

“I wouldn’t worry about my affairs, Wayne. You and Miss Lyons aren’t going to survive to report the answer in The Daily Mypiot.” He nodded at one his officers. “Bring me a coil of rope and those boxes of gunpowder. I know how to finish off these meddling sweethearts for good.”

The troops led Jennifer and Laurence through the rock caverns, their candlelight bouncing off the crystal and granite. It grew hotter the further into the caverns they went, and Jennifer soon discovered the reason for the intense warmth. The caves ringed a series of bubbling springs, far below the surface of Mypos. The springs smelled like sulfur and boiling flesh.

The troops roughly bound her and Laurence together with the rope and lowered them onto an outcropping of crumbling granite. The rock overlooked the largest of the hot springs. The fizzing liquid covered most of the ground below the cavern. The heat generated by the spring was unbearable, especially in Jennifer’s heavy lace petticoats. They were sweating rivers, and Jennifer was sure her mascara was running. The tiniest movement sent another bit of the ledge tumbling into the spring.

“You’ll never get away with this, Sheriff!” Jennifer shouted defiantly at the troops above the ledge.

“I already have, Miss Lyons,” the Sheriff insisted. “Just in case you and your daring desperado manage to free yourselves, my men are blowing up the entrance to the caves.” He took a cigar out of his pocket and lit it on one of the troop’s torches. “Don’t think of getting help from Castle Markwright, either. King Samuel annexed the property. The Markwrights and Harriett Winslow were placed under arrest for aiding and abetting a criminal.”

Another, larger piece of the ledge crumbled under Laurence’s leather booted feet and bounced into the springs, where it fizzled noisily before melting like an ice cream cone in July. The sheriff and his troops moved quickly along the corridor to the entrance. “So long, so-called Crimson Eagle! We’ll see each other again in that little place in the clouds.”

“No, we won’t!” Laurence shouted to the backs of the Sheriff’s men as the retreated across the cavern. “You’re going somewhere a lot less pleasant!”

The moment they vanished into the dark of the cave, Jennifer felt Laurence’s small body sag against hers. “He’s right,” Laurence whined. “I’ve lost, and he’s won. An innocent middle-aged couple was arrested, Balki and Marianne are probably dead, my men have all been captured, and it’s my fault.”

“There’s still a chance,” Jennifer reminded him. “I haven’t seen Lord Charles since the Cave went dark. He could have gone above for help.”

“Even if he did,” Laurence sobbed, “where is he going to find it? Castle Markwright was taken over by King Samuel. Tattari is probably surrounded, too, and most of my men are prisoners in Pignika Palace.”

“You’re giving up?” Jennifer exclaimed, shifting her weight. Her motion dislodged another granite shard, which collapsed into the springs with a fizzy plop. “The Crimson Eagle I know would never let some sheriff beat him. He’d come up with a plan to get us off this rock and rescue the others!”

“I’m no Crimson Eagle,” Laurence wailed. “I’m totally worthless. I can’t save myself, much less you, Balki, or the others. I should have known I’d never be able to pull this off!”

“Maybe you should start from the beginning,” Jennifer encouraged him. “You still haven’t told me what this is all about.”

“Balki came to live with me in Chicago,” he explained. “He wanted to see the world and meet the rest of his family. His mother was the only family he had left in Mypos. His father died when he was two years old. I got him a job as an artist at the Chicago Express Times, one of Robert Markwright’s papers.”

More rocks toppled into the bubbles. “Two years after Balki’s arrival, I wrote a series of articles on prominent Chicago law officers who were being bribed to ignore mob doings in the city. Around the same time, Lord Charles Estevez told Balki King Samuel was doing business with the American mobs, trading Myposian gold, amethysts, and rock crystal for weapons. His Royal Superveness wanted to expand his empire to include the rest of the Mediterranean islands. The story would have made our careers, if our carriage wasn’t run down the night Balki got the news.”

Shivers racked the young man’s petite body, despite the extreme temperature of the cave. “What I said a couple of weeks ago during our chess game was true. I don’t remember what happened in the accident. All I recall is seeing another, larger carriage suddenly appear alongside ours and slam us into a ditch.”

He shuddered. “I woke up in the Chicago Free Hospital with a shattered leg, cracked ribs, and a pink slip from the Express Times. I never hurt so much in my life. Balki was luckier. He had a few bruises and cuts, but the worst he suffered was shock when the carriage went over. He thought he lost me.”

“How did you lose your jobs?”

“Burnsetti’s mob connections convinced the Express Times that we were in on the Myposian arms deal and blackballed us.”

Jennifer looked down at Laurence’s short but well-formed lower limbs. “You used a fake injury to cover your activities.”

“Not quite fake,” Laurence admitted. “My leg snapped like a twig during the accident and still gets really sore in damp weather, but I move just fine on it.”

A large chunk of the ledge broke off and fell into the springs. “We returned to Mypos a year after the accident, when Robert Markwright offered us jobs at his smallest, least important business, The Daily Mypiot. Balki was worried about his mother. The conditions of the native Mypiots, which hadn’t been wonderful since the Myposian-Sceptosian War, had gotten worse since his departure. The first thing we did when we arrived was visit her, but it was too late.”

Laurence’s gentle voice became tight and angry. “She was burned to death in her hut by the king’s soldiers. Her body was still there when we arrived. Balki was devastated. He swore when we buried her he’d get revenge on the man who killed his parents.”

“Balki is the true Prince of Mypos. He told Marianne tonight in their carriage, and she told me.”

Laurence drew his breath. “Yes, he is. He and his mother Queen Carlotta hid in the hills after King Ferdinand’s death. Balki wanted to challenge King Samuel right away, but I knew he’d be killed before he could even get to Pignkia Palace. I made a plan to get back at Burnsetti and the king where it would hurt most, in their wallets and reputations. Lord Estevez was a good friend of Balki’s and more than willing to arrange for us to get around security measures on the road and in Pignika and Tattari. Donald came with us from America. He had a few too many gambling debts he couldn’t pay the Chicago mob bosses.”


“I know what you’re going to say,” he groaned. “I should have trusted you. Harriett found out the day after you arrived. She said you could help us. I saw you fight at the ball. You know what you’re doing.”

A big piece of the ledge under Laurence cracked noisily. “Instead, I insulted you, ignored you, and made you loathe Laurence Wayne and love the Crimson Eagle.”

“Laurence,” Jennifer stated quietly, “I’ve known you’re the Crimson Eagle for over a week.”

“What!” Laurence gasped. “How did you find out?”

“It’s obvious to anyone who read as many adventure and mystery penny dreadfuls as I have,” she admitted. “All the evidence points to you and Balki. You always had some lame excuse for not being around whenever the Crimson Eagle and his men appeared. You take trips into Pignika and Tatarri for no particular reason. You did it the day we met.”

She smiled. “Your articles take little time or effort. I’ve read them. You’re the only ones with access to The Daily Mypiot offices who would be in the position to write that expose on King Samuel a few weeks ago.”

“Why didn’t you say something before?”

Jennifer shrugged, or tried to. “I never had the chance. You spent three weeks hiding in your office and avoiding me, and we kept getting interrupted before, during, and after the ball.”

“I wasn’t avoiding you! I was avoiding King Samuel. He was around too much. I didn’t want him to put two and two together.” The plop of another loose rock falling in the spring echoed off the cave walls. “Well, maybe I was avoiding you a little. I thought you hated me.”

“I didn’t hate you. I was more annoyed with you than anything else, especially after that chess game in the brick house.” She sighed. “Why did you say all those things about the Crimson Eagle when you obviously don’t believe a word? You did the same thing the night of Aunt Lydia’s ball.”

“I do believe it, or at least some of it. When we first started this, I didn’t care about the Mypiots. All I wanted was revenge on Burnsetti and King Samuel for humiliating Balki and me.” He shifted as another chunk of ledge cracked underfoot. “Then I saw how the Mypiots were suffering, and how the rich Sceptosian nobles and foreigners profited off of them, and I knew I had to do something more.”

“And that’s when you came up with the Crimson Eagle.”

“Yes. Balki wanted to be the leader, but it was my plan, so we shared the role. Besides, it confused people.”

There was less than an inch of rock left around the duo’s feet. Laurence gulped. “Jennifer, before we die, I want to tell you something.” He closed his eyes as the rest of the ledge started to give way. “I…I…”

“Laurence!” Jennifer heard something fall between them with a thump. It was a rough iron hook on a rope. “Jennifer! Attach the rope to the hook!”

“Uncle Robert?” Jennifer asked, incredulous. “What are you doing here? I thought the king arrested you!”

“We’ll tell you later,” added a higher, more panicky voice. “Just get on the hook!”

The outcropping crumbled into the spring just as Laurence and Jennifer nudged the twine onto the iron hook. Lydia and Robert Markwright, Harriett, and Donald hauled them onto the top layer of the cave. “Aunt Lydia! Harriett! How did you escape the king and the sheriff?”

“Charles found us and helped us fight off King Samuel’s troops,” Robert explained as Lydia and Harriett untied the pair. “Harriett warned us about the Sheriff following you here. She and Donald insisted we escape this way and rescue you two while we were at it. Charles took most of the servants to get help from rest of the Tri-Island Area and from Greece.”

“Aunt Lydia,” Jennifer asked as she took a good look at the small redhead, “where did you get that outfit?”

Lydia wore a red shirt trimmed with gold braid, tight brown trousers, very baggy high-heeled boots, and a wide-brimmed velvet hat with a red feather that stuck out three miles. “Do you like it?” She turned around to show off her new costume. “If we’re going to rescue Balki and Marianne, I figured should look the part.”

“The part of what,” Harriett asked, “an anemic Captain Hook?”

Lydia brandished the iron hook under Harriett’s nose. “I’ll give you a hook!”

Robert got between the women. “Lydia, Mrs. Winslow, enough! You can argue after we save Robinadous, Miss Spencer, and Laurence’s men.”

Laurence raised his eyebrows. “Mr. Markwright, how long have you been in this cave?”

“Long enough, Wayne.” Robert Markwright put a hand on the young man’s shoulder. Laurence winced at his touch. “I’ve suspected you and Robinadous of being involved with the Crimson Eagle for years. I did research and asked discreet questions in Mypos and Chicago. You two have potential, but you never fully devoted yourselves to your articles. Something else had your attention.”

Lydia nodded. “We heard you talking to Jennifer when we came in.” She crossed her arms. “I knew all along you and Balki were the Crimson Eagle.”

“Sure you did,” Harriett muttered, “and I’m Wonder Woman.”

“See, Robert?” Lydia wailed. “She’s always putting me down! She...”

An explosion in the cave halted Lydia’s fussing. The ground shook, the springs bubbled, and rocks and pebbles collapsed all around them. Jennifer grabbed Laurence and pushed him to the dirt floor. Robert did the same thing to Lydia alongside them.

“What the hell was that?” Donald’s voice was muffled under Harriett’s curves. He grinned up at her considerable cleavage. “Hey, lady, wanna aim those down here? I could get used to this!”

Harriett responded with an uppercut to Donald’s chin that knocked him clear across the room. “What a woman!” the little footman gasped before his eyes rolled back in his head and he passed out.

“That sounded like something from a Hollywood blockbuster!” Lydia added fearfully.

Jennifer gently pulled Laurence to his feet, making sure to be careful of his wounded shoulder. “Laurence, Sheriff Burnsetti said something about blowing up the entrance to the Cave when he and his soldiers left.”

She and Laurence exchanged horrified looks. “The Cave!” they wailed in unison as they hurried back to the entrance.

The main cavern was a wreck. Black Beauty was covered with dust and pebbles. Some of her floorboards were nothing but splinters. The horses’ stables were in pieces. Chewbacca and Nightwing were gone. The odd tubes and machines showed signs of having been destroyed even before the blast. Huge granite boulders blocked the entrance. The scent of gunpowder and spilled chemicals hung heavily in the air.

“Oh no!” sobbed Lydia. “We’ll never get out of here! I’m never going to see sunlight again! I’m never going to wear a dress again! I’ll never go to parties, or to my aerobics class twice a week, or…”

“Lydia, you’re hysterical,” Robert observed. He took his wife in his arms. “We’ll go out the other way, through the brick house.”

Harriett shook her head. “Not a good idea, honey. I don’t want to think of what would happen if King Samuel and his boys caught us sneaking out after we were already arrested.”

Laurence put his head in his hands. “Why me? Why does everything happen to me, even in fanfiction? We’ll be smothered to death if we stay down here and tortured if we go to the castle!”

“Laurence,” Lydia asked, gesturing toward the heaps of glass and metal, “what is, or was, this place?”

“The Crimson Eagle’s hide-out,” he explained. “It’s directly below the brick house on the Castle Markwright property. That’s how we came and went without being seen. There’s a passage that leads from here to the cellar under the brick house. We’d make our plans there, then come down here to build all the gadgets and machinery we needed to carry them out.”

“Like the apparatus that made Pignika City Hall appear to be on fire a few weeks ago,” Jennifer suggested.

“Exactly.” A ghost of a smile played on Laurence’s thin lips. “I built most of the things we used to cover our rears and convince the Myposian peasants that we’re magical creatures.” He kicked one of the broken metal pieces. “They thought it was magic, when it was just simple math and science.”

“Wayne,” Markwright said quietly, “math and science are forms of magic greater than any wand or spell could produce, especially to these uneducated and superstitious people.”

“We need a lot more than magic to get out of here,” Lydia sobbed. “We need a miracle!”

Harriett poked around in a pile of splinters and glass where a table full of chemistry tubes had given way. “There has to be something useful that wasn’t destroyed by Burnsetti’s boys or the explosion.” She looked up at Laurence, who dejectedly sat on the same outcropping where he’d rested earlier that night. “Baby, weren’t you working on some kind of experimental doo-dad that could blow up solid rock a few days ago?”

“Harriett, I told you, it’s not ready yet. It kept exploding in my face. It took me forever to wash off the cream.” Laurence ran his fingers through his curls. “I think I still have some in my hair.”

Jennifer raised her eyebrows. “The cream?”

“Bibi bobkas,” Laurence explained. “The Myposian national dessert. They’re a kind of sweet cream puff. When made quickly and without effort, they explode.”

“I know that,” Lydia added. “Cook spent three days cleaning up the kitchen after baking a batch of bibi bobkas too fast. How are Myposian cream puffs going to help us out of the Cave?”

“Balki and I were working on a way of mixing nitroglycerin with bibi bobka cream to create a powerful and yet innocent-looking explosive we could use as a distraction at dinner parties.” Laurence started pushing aside rubble. “The bibi bobkas were in another one of my inventions, something that keeps food colder than an ice box with no need for the ice. I called it a frigeration unit.” He slowly moved a metal table that was knocked on its side. “Help me find it! It’s a big white box with a metal door.”

The others picked through the mess on the cavern floor. Jennifer and Harriett gingerly moved a heap of twisted metal parts. Robert Markwright cleared away heaps of scrap metal and wood. Lydia riffled through overturned boxes of papers and copies of Mypolitan and Mypos Bazaar.

“Hey,” Donald called from near the exit, “I think this is it!” He tried to lift a solid white rectangle trimmed with silvery metal. “Quit staring and give me a hand,” he puffed to the group gaping at him. “This ain’t as easy as it looks!”

“I can imagine,” Harriett drawled as she, Jennifer, and Robert Markwright aided Donald in getting the heavy object upright.

Laurence pulled on his now-dirty white gloves and threw open the door. “Darn,” he grumbled. “The cold air is gone, but the bibi bobkas are ok.” He tossed three huge wood bowls of white frosting on the floor and emerged with a handful of greenish bread and cheese. “I told Balki to dump that goat cheese and sheep pancreas sandwich three weeks ago. If he tells me he was using it for an experiment...”

Harriett grabbed the sandwich and threw it over her shoulder. “Baby, worry about Balki’s shaky grasp of science later. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to spend the rest of my life stuck in a cave full of unstable compounds and even less stable rock walls.”

Laurence nodded, took the bowls, and went to the sidewall near the remains of the chemistry set. He pressed a small lump of crystal embedded in the rock. A length of granite slid into the wall to reveal a series of shelves filled with metal boxes, thick wire, steel barrels, and glass tubes. “This is my secret chemical stash. I kept it in this compartment in case King Samuel ever found the Cave.”

Jennifer and Donald pulled out one of the barrels labeled TNT. Lydia, Harriett, and Robert Markwright gingerly handed Laurence tubes of ash and strong-smelling, colorless liquid.

“Careful with that,” Laurence cautioned. “It’s nitroglycerin. It’ll blow up if it’s not handled properly.”

Lydia glared at him. “My delicate hands are touching lethal substances?” She cringed and held the tube as far away from her as possible, barely touching the tube with the tips of her fingers.

Harriett snatched the tube. “Your delicate hands are going to be in a million pieces if you don’t quit fooling around!”

“I’m not fooling around!” Lydia protested. “I’d just like to be in once piece when we escape!”

Jennifer brought a box of tubes that escaped destruction in the blast to Laurence, who leaned over the boulders that blocked the entrance. “Hey,” Donald elbowed Harriett, “five dig-das says the only thing Larry gets is a face full of bibi bobka cream.”

“Ten dig-das says it works,” Harriett countered. “Laurence may be a bore and a kiss-up, but he’s a regular MacGyver when it comes to making stuff that can blow you to hell and gone.”

“I heard that,” Laurence muttered as he poured ash and liquid into the bowls of cream. “Someone bring me a twenty-inch fuse and the box of sodium chloride.”

Donald and Lydia looked perplexed. “He wants table salt and that waxy white rope,” Harriett clarified.

Jennifer brought Laurence the salt and the fuse. He sat on one of the boulders that blocked the entrance, his forehead furrowed in intense concentration as he lightly shook compounds into the wood basins. He tried to lift the barrel of gunpowder, screamed, and reached for his shoulder. Jennifer caught the barrel before it hit the ground.

“Laurence,” she scolded, “don’t hurt yourself or kill us! This stuff is dangerous!”

“Tell me something I don’t know!” Laurence returned to the cream. No one in the cavern dared to move, or even breathe. The short reporter poured a few spoonfuls of salt over the cream/chemical/gunpowder mixture, inserted the ends of three ropes into to the three bowls, and jumped off the rocks.

“We need something to light the fuse.” Laurence looked around. “Does anyone have matches?”

“I do, Laurence.” Robert handed him a pack of matches. He tried one, than another, but none would light.

“Who are we kidding?” Donald muttered. “He’ll probably set half the cave on fire.”

“Rocks don’t burn,” Harriett reminded him.

“This can’t be happening!” Laurence was on his last match. “One more,” he whispered. He struck the match on the box. It sputtered and went up in a soft orange-purple flame. He quickly lit the fuses and ran for cover under the steel table, shouting to the others to do the same.

The flame shot across the fuses but flickered and appeared to die when it reached the bowls. Donald wiggled his fat fingers at an annoyed Harriett. “Someone owes me dig-das.”

Harriett was about to protest when a large boom rattled the Cave. Rocks crashed onto the metal table, glass shattered, pebbles plunked off the once-polished finish of the frigeration unit, and white stuff blew everywhere. Jennifer could see a shaft of pink-lavender early morning light over Laurence’s shoulder.

When the dust and cream cleared, Jennifer could see a gap the size of a baseball stadium next to the cave’s still-blocked entrance. Harriett raised her eyebrows. “Baby, what did I say about your aim?”

“Who cares?” Laurence skittered out from under the metal table. “I got us out, didn’t I?”

“Yes, but the King probably heard it,” Lydia complained. “Half the Tri-Island Area probably heard it!”

“All the more reason to make haste.” Robert took his wife by the hand and led her to the smoke-filled hole.

“Wait!” Laurence gestured to his dust-and-cream-strewn vehicle. “I’m not leaving Black Beauty. I worked too hard on that carriage to abandon her to the Sceptosian troops.”

“Baby, we’re going to have to,” Harriett insisted. “We don’t have the horses to pull her.”

Laurence climbed into the driver’s seat. “I told you I made some special modifications to Black Beauty.” Jennifer jumped in besides him. “I built an engine that will allow the carriage to move without horses. It’s for a situation where we had to transport men, but the horses were too skittish to be used.”

The others were hesitant. “I don’t know, Laurence,” Lydia began, running her fingers through her short, red tresses to remove the gluey white stuff. “My rear end is still sore from the last time I rode in this cart.”

“The engine will allow for a smoother ride.” The Cave shook ominously. Some bits of burnt cream plopped on the ground. Laurence pulled a light metal and wood circle out from under the cart’s headboard.

“We don’t seem to have much of a choice,” Robert noted wryly, brushing frosting off his shoulder. “It seems we either ride with Laurence or are buried alive by the remains of two successive explosions.”

“I’m riding with Laurence.” Harriett hauled her silver-covered self in the back of the rickety vehicle as another rumble vibrated throughout the caverns. “The rest of you can stay here and make love with the granite, but I want to see the end of this fanfic, if it has one.”

Lydia and Robert were nearly rear-ended by a boulder the size of Canada. Lydia looked as pale as the morning sunlight. “Um, I think I’ll try the carriage.”

Her husband nodded and helped her into the back end. “Good idea, dearest.” He and Donald were the last ones in as the caverns shuddered more violently.

Jennifer looked over the panel, with its many buttons and levers. “Which one starts the engine?”

Laurence frowned. “It needs a key.” He checked his pants desperately. “Jennifer, try the side compartment, the one next to the special levers.”

Jennifer opened the indicated area. Papers and melted candy bars spilled out. She found a pack of glittering iron keys amid the refuse. “Is this what you’re looking for?”

“Thank you.” Laurence fingered the jagged sticks. “This one’s for the brick house, and this one’s for our rooms in Castle Markwright, and this one’s for the locker rooms, and this one’s for the pool area, and this one’s for The Daily Mypiot offices, and this one’s for…”

Another ominous rumble interrupted Laurence. Jennifer lifted a small, sharp key out of the pile with the tip of her fingernail. “Is this the right one?”

He glared at her. “Yes, yes it is.” He slid the key into a space in the front board and turned it. The engine sputtered for a few moments before it roared to life. He jammed his foot against a pedal on the floor. The car lurched to life, almost flying out the gap in the wall as the roof caved in on the cave.

Lydia gasped. “That was at least the third or fourth rescue in the nick of time!” She leaned against the side of the cart, trying to avoid the missing segments in the bottom.

“That was quick thinking on your part, Wayne,” Robert added proudly. “Good work.”

Laurence blushed as Jennifer leaned over and gave him a kiss on his round, sticky cheek. “Let’s go save our friends.”

He smiled. “And I have the perfect plan to do it!”

Harriett’s gaze traveled from the happy younger couple and the happy older couple to Donald, who was huddling in the corner of the musty black cart. She put out her hand. “Pay up, Shorty.”

Grumbling and muttering curses, the squat footman slapped ten dig-das in the woman’s hand.