THE ADMIRAL'S LADY

by Rachel Howe

Chapter Fourteen

The traffic was still heavy, but at this time of day it was easier to drive downtown than out to the suburbs: it took Louise only about ten minutes to reach the Library. Rather than leave her car conspicuously in the empty parking-lot, she parked in a side-street and walked the last half-block. It was not one of the late-opening nights. The doors were already locked, and the lights were out: she used her pass-key to let herself in through the side door, and found herself facing the blinking lights of the alarm-system control panel. She punched in the code to disable the alarms, hoping that it had not been changed in the three months or so since she last entered the building after hours. She had occasion to do so from time to time, usually in connection with her private studies: it was irregular, but her employers trusted her enough not to forbid her nocturnal visits. The console beeped and went dark: the code was unchanged.

The building felt quite different, dark and empty as it was: sounds and smells that passed unnoticed in day-time bustle assumed a new significance. Louise moved cautiously down the corridor, wary of stray book-trolleys, running one hand along the wall to guide herself. There were dim lights at irregular intervals along the corridor, put in originally to comply with some safety requirement that had since been superseded: there was no money to replace the now-unnecessary lamps when they burnt out, but a few still survived. Water dripped in a restroom, an unpredictable percussion that always seemed on the point of slowing to a standstill and never quite did so; somewhere, a broken ventilator rattled. The air-conditioning, of course, had to be left on day and night for the sake of the precious books: its low hum pervaded everything. The corridor leading to the stack was completely dark. Louise groped along it as far as she dared, and then switched on the flashlight she had brought from her car. The hollow, uneven beam made strange patterns on the walls and floor, more confusing than illuminating, but it enabled her to find the door and unlock it. She locked it after herself, and walked into the labyrinth.

The entrance from the auditorium foyer was at the other end of the long room, and there was no direct passage: she had to grope her way among racks of shelves arranged in islands and alcoves, not daring to use the flashlight for more than a few seconds at a time. About halfway, she ran into a blind alley where, according to her mental map, there should have been an opening wide enough to slip through. For a moment she came close to panic. There were worse things in her nightmares, however, than blind alleys in the dark. She retraced her steps for a few yards, almost tripping over a pile of books waiting to be reshelved, and remembered what had happened: this section of the stack was being re-organized. It took her a minute or two to find the new route through, but she knew it had to be there somewhere. Once she found it, she was soon back on known ground.

The end of the room where the fight had taken place was laid out in a series of bays. Louise had no trouble finding the one where she had been sitting with the Admiral. The struggle had sometimes taken the combatants out of her line of sight, however, even though Crane had been in plain view when it was all over. No matter how hard she tried, she could not recall seeing Arroth drop the knife. That ruled out the two floor grilles that she could see from where she had been, leaving only three or four likely ones to choose from. She knelt down by the nearest, shining her flashlight into its depths: the cast-iron lace broke the light into an attractive but useless pattern. She worked her fingers through the holes and tugged experimentally. The grille was heavy, and gummed in its recess by a decade's accumulation of dust, but it shifted a little. Unable to lift it all the way out, she managed to slide it sideways along the floor to expose the opening, then lay on her stomach and peered down, screwing up her eyes against the cool, sterile air that streamed upwards. The shaft was five or six feet deep, and there was nothing at the bottom of it but a little litter and a few dropped coins. Careful not to make a noise, she replaced the grille.

At the bottom of the next shaft, something white gleamed among the tarnishing small change and crumpled tissues, not immediately recognizable but promising enough to warrant closer investigation. Setting the flashlight on the floor, Louise lowered herself cautiously into the opening. The duct into which it led was only just wide enough to let her crouch down, and she was in her own light. She groped warily among the debris until her fingers brushed something hard and smooth and cold -- a fragment of thick institutional china. She held it for a moment, remembering how Crane had thrown his tray of refreshments at Arroth's head. It had taken her half an hour to clear up the mess, and her dress -- the precious, carefully chosen green silk that the Admiral had hardly even noticed -- would never be quite the same again. She was just starting to wonder how to set about climbing back out of the shaft when she heard the voices, muffled by the door and the length of the room.

"Door's locked, see. There can't be anyone in here."

"I tell you, officer, I saw lights, and I swear it must have been somewhere around here."

It was not Arroth, Louise realized, but only some zealously honest citizen and -- presumably -- a uniformed police officer. All the same, she had no desire to be caught like this, crawling around in the dark where she had no business to be. She had a few moments, she judged, before they came in and found her. She reached up and retrieved her flashlight from the edge of the opening, and then, working awkwardly with her hands above her head, pulled the grille back into place, timing the thud as it dropped home to coincide with the crash of the door being forced. Then she backed away along the narrow tunnel and crouched out of sight in the darkness, trying to imagine how she would explain herself if they did catch her. It took a long time for them to work their way down to her end of the room, blundering around in the maze of shelving, searching every alcove and corner. At last, however, she heard footsteps directly overhead, and a stray beam of light from a much more powerful flashlight than her own was reflected into the tunnel.

"No," the policeman said. "There's no-one around here, sir. You must have been imagining it."

"I tell you, I saw it. They must be hiding in here somewhere." It was a fussy, middle-aged voice.

"I doubt it, sir. We've been through the whole place, and there's no sign of an intruder."

"What about this, then? You see!" The fussy voice was alarmingly close. "Wouldn't you say this grille has been moved recently?"

Louise heard the policeman sigh: no doubt he was impatient to return to his squad-car. "That may not mean anything, sir," he said, giving the grille a perfunctory pull. "I expect they move them all the time for cleaning." From the sound of his voice and his breathing, he seemed to be a heavy man: Louise hoped he would not venture down the narrow shaft.

"Then why is that fresh dust on the floor? I really think you should investigate more closely, officer."

"It's a wild-goose chase, sir. If there was anyone here, they'll be well away by now."

Then Louise sneezed. She stifled it as well as she could, but the sound echoed along the duct.

"There!" the fussy man said triumphantly. "What was that?"

"All right, sir," the policeman responded. "I'll handle this, if you don't mind." He cleared his throat, then called aloud, "Come on out, whoever you are. We know you're around here someplace."

Louise backed a little farther down the tunnel, found a corner where she could turn around, and crawled into the branching duct. If they took her off for questioning, she might not be able to come back for the knife until it was too late to do any good. She was growing chilly in the eternal cool draught, and she could well sneeze again. It occurred to her that she might be able to use some of Arroth's tricks to elude pursuit, but the very idea was repugnant: she would not use her new-found abilities in that way until she had no other choice.

She lifted her left hand, and put it down on emptiness. The sensation of sudden, totally unexpected falling was rather like that which she sometimes experienced on the very edge of sleep. It jerked her to a new level of alertness. Heart pounding, she backed up a little, then carefully felt ahead to assess this new hazard. It seemed to be a vertical shaft, as wide as the tunnel: she could not find its far side even at full stretch.

"Not without some back-up," she heard the policeman say. "I wouldn't go down there on my own, not for any money."

Go on, she urged him silently. Go away and come back with the whole Police Department if you want, just so I get a chance to get that wretched knife and get out of here.

Unfortunately, he was not that stupid. She heard the hiss and crackle as he switched on his portable radio. The ensuing conversation was so full of police code-numbers that Louise, not being addicted to television cop-shows, could make little of it. She gathered, however, that he was to remain where he was and await reinforcements.

Well, they did warn me not to get mixed up with the Admiral, she told herself with grim humour. I wouldn't listen, and look where it's gotten me -- stuck down a freezing-cold hole in the dark with the cops after me. The last thing she needed now was fit of the giggles. There seemed to be no way to go on down this passage, and she dared not go back. Her flashlight was still in her hand: she decided to risk a little light for a moment. Half-dazzled even by that feeble beam after the total darkness, she saw what she needed: the shaft led upwards as well as downwards, and there were handholds set in its walls.

Climbing a narrow ladder in the dark, with an unknown drop below and only one hand free, should have been an unnerving experience. Oddly enough, however, she found it almost exhilarating. Groping across brickwork for the rust-flaking handholds, shifting her weight from one precarious balance to another while the air streamed upwards around her, she had no time to spare for the old, empty fears that had plagued her for so many weeks. Even the hollow coldness that the Admiral's anger had left in her guts ceased to seem important.

Searching for the twentieth handhold, she found an unbalancing nothingness under her questing fingers, and realized that she had reached another tunnel. After a twenty-foot crawl, through slowly thinning darkness, she came to a wall grille, and recognized the exit-lights of the auditorium beyond it. The grille was about six feet from the floor at the back of the banked room, and it hinged easily: she dropped down and made for the stage. There was a trap-door there, half-hidden under the table, giving access to the space underneath. It was dark and dirty, but only someone as familiar with the building as she was would think of looking there. She crouched among the cobwebs and the crates of costumes from forgotten amateur theatricals while the police combed the building. They were not very thorough about it: one muffled sneeze and a little displaced dust evidently did not warrant more than a perfunctory search. They never even noticed the trap-door.

After half an hour, the building was deserted again, as far as she could judge. Emerging from her hiding place, she realized that she would have to take to the duct system again: she had no key to the auditorium doors. She was half-way to the grille at the back of the room when the alarm bell began to ring.

Of course, she thought tiredly. The police must have reset the security system when they left. With little alternative, she covered the last few yards and scrambled up into the opening. The shrilling of the alarm pursued her down the tunnel, making it hard to think. She found the shaft and lowered herself into it, moving as quickly as she dared. There were two more shafts in the stack area that she needed to check: if the knife was not there, all this would have been for nothing.

Her fingers were clammy on the iron rungs, and the flashlight was even more of a hindrance than it had been on the way up. The bells went on ringing, echoing down ducts and shafts, and suddenly, without warning, she was overwhelmed by memory. Luisha had done something like this: it had been sirens, not bells, and there had been a little light, but the chill, the cramping limbs, the terror of discovery, were the same. The flashlight dropped from Louise's hand and fell into the depths below: it seemed a long time before she heard the tinkling smash as it hit the bottom. At least that left her with both hands free to cling to the ladder, and for a minute or so, until her head stopped spinning, that was all she did. Presently, however, reminding herself that Luisha, facing a far worse foe than the City Police, had survived to pass on her memories, she began to climb downwards again. Luisha, of course, had been a good twenty years younger then than Louise was now: Louise tried not to think about what that might mean. She came to the duct under the stack, swung herself clumsily off the ladder, and started crawling again. Before long there was a dim light: she was approaching the grille where she had entered the duct. There were no sounds of activity above. She scurried under the opening and crawled on in the direction of the next shaft.

There was enough light, now that her eyes had adapted to nearly total darkness, to show her the long, narrow shape of the knife lying among the debris under the grille. Reluctant to touch the deadly thing, she wrapped her handkerchief around her hand before she picked it up by the hilt. The sound of police sirens was far off, but approaching rapidly. Very carefully, she slipped the knife into the scabbard at her belt. As she had hoped, it fitted snugly. She had perhaps two minutes before the police would be all over the building again, and they would almost certainly use the door by which she had come in. She turned around and crawled back down the duct until she came to the junction. She was fairly sure that the descending shaft led to the air-conditioning plant in the basement, and there was a service door there that could be opened from the inside -- a useful fact that she had discovered one night when, checking stock in a storeroom, she had been inadvertently locked in. She was quite accustomed by now to climbing in the dark: the cold wind grew stronger and noisier as she went down, teasing wisps of hair out of the pins and drowning out the wail of the sirens. Her eyes soon began to water so much from the stinging rush of air that she would not have been able to see much if there had been any light.

There was an access door at the end of the ladder, locked from the outside. Hooking one arm through the nearest rung, she explored the edges of the opening with the fingertips of her other hand. The door did not fit very well. After a moment, reflecting that if she was dismissed from the Library for this night's activities she could make a career as a burglar, she took the sheathed dagger from her belt and slipped it into the crack, probing gently until the lock clicked back. The door swung open, and she emerged on an iron cat-walk that skirted the cavernous space of the basement. Dazzled by the soft, tawny sodium glow that filtered in from the street, deafened by the roar of machinery, she followed the cat-walk until she came to a staircase that took her to floor level. Nothing hindered her as she reached the door and slipped out into the night. She crouched for a few moments among the trash-cans and discarded packing-cases, making sure that her way was clear. Twelve minutes later, she was at the hospital.

"Suite Twenty-nine," the clerk at the enquiry desk said in answer to Louise's breathless question. She could not disguise her curiosity. "Is everything all right, Miss Delamere?"

"It will be -- I hope." Louise had caught a glimpse of her reflection in the plate glass window of the enquiry booth, and she could hardly blame the girl for wondering. She was a familiar enough figure here, but surely no-one had ever seen her like this: grimy, windswept, and shivering, with cobwebs in her hair and a ripped sweater not quite concealing what looked like a sheath-knife shoved through the belt of her jeans. "I know my way, thanks," she added hastily, and fled up the corridor.

 

The Admiral was pacing around the anteroom, toying with a heavy-duty laser-gun. There were lines in his face that Louise had never seen before -- lines that had nothing to do with physical pain.

"I'm not t-too late?" she asked, hesitating in the doorway.

"Not quite." His frown hardly lessened, but he stopped his pacing. "Apparently the doctors in Washington gave him a couple of days, but Dr. Belling doesn't seem to think he'll last the night. That journey just about finished him, and I still don't understand why he had to do it."

Wordlessly, Louise held out the knife, offering it to him hilt first.

"Right," he said. "Let's get this over with." He turned away from her and shouldered through the inner door.

 

There were no flowers in the room now, only a terrifying array of medical apparatus and what seemed like an unreasonably large crowd of doctors and other staff. In the centre of all this, webbed about with wires and tubes, Crane lay very still.

"How close do we have to get?" Nelson asked Louise.

"Anywhere in the room should b-be near enough," she replied.

"Admiral, are you sure you know what you're doing?" Dr. Belling detached himself from the group around the bed and came to meet them. "The last thing we need in here right now is a fire."

"We'll be careful," Nelson assured him. "Can you give us a metal tray or something?"

Dr. Belling beckoned to the nearest nurse, who passed him a stainless-steel kidney-bowl. With fingers that were still curled into rust-stained claws, Louise fumbled the knife out of the sheath and laid it in the vessel. Nelson cleared a six-foot clear space around himself with one comprehensive glare, and fired his laser. The knife burned, filling the room with acidic yellow-green light for a minute or so before it crumbled to powdery ash.

"Well?" Nelson asked after a moment.

"Something happened." Dr. Belling was studying his array of monitoring equipment with some puzzlement. "I'm not sure, but . . . yes! There's definitely some improvement. Now, Admiral, if you wouldn't mind getting out of the way for a while . . . You can wait in my office if you like: I'll let you know what's happening as soon as we've figured it out."

 

"What took you so long?" the Admiral demanded, as soon as they were in the corridor.

"I ran into a little tr-trouble." Louise could not keep her teeth from chattering. She was chilled to the bone and terrified, and there was no comfort in his hard eyes. "I had to hide out from the c-cops for a while."

"I see." He shoved the laser in its holster, still studying her as if he had never seen her before and did not much like what he saw. Slowly, a little gentleness crept back into his face. "You're cold," he said.

"Just a b-bit. The air c-conditioning . . ."

"Come on. There's a vending machine around here somewhere."

The muddy liquid that they obtained from the machine might have been tea, coffee, cocoa or a mixture of all three, but it was at least hot and sweet. They took the polystyrene cups to Dr. Belling's office. Nelson settled Louise in one of the armchairs and found himself a few feet of floor to pace around while his own drink cooled forgotten on the desk.

"Better?" he asked presently, when Louise had drained her cup to the gritty dregs.

"Yes, thanks." Louise brushed at a dusty smear on her jeans. "It's a good thing Mother can't see me now," she remarked.

"I hope she'd be proud of you." There was an unexpected gruffness in Nelson's voice.

"She'd be scandalized." Louise was still trembling, inside, as if she had come upon a sheer drop in the dark. She stood up and went over to block his path, so that he had to stop pacing. "Harry, I'm sorry. This whole mess is my fault."

"What?" He stopped, genuinely shocked, and really looked at her for the first time that evening. "What are you talking about?"

"I should have remembered . . . about the knife. I should have known . . . there's been something nagging at me, ever since that night, and I never realized what. You've got every right to be angry."

"No, I haven't." He ducked his head, half turning away, and then swung back to face her. "After all you've done, all you've put up with . . . none of this is your fault at all, and I had no right to take it out on you." He stopped, struggling with himself, for a moment, but what he said next was not what was nearest to his heart. "You can't be held responsible for Arroth's goings-on, and he'd obviously done a very thorough job on all of us. I couldn't remember what that knife looked like until I actually saw it."

"I understand," Louise said gently, answering what he could never have put into words. "Come and sit down, Love. There's nothing more we can do, now."

"That . . ." he burst out, and then stopped himself. "That's the whole trouble," he said more quietly.

"I know, Love. I know." She took his arm and guided him over to the chairs. He subsided into the nearest one with a long sigh, and she sank down beside him. After a while, he reached out to pull her close. His heart-beat was almost as fast and ragged as her own.

After a long time, the door-handle rattled and began to turn. Nelson jerked to his feet at once, but he kept his arm around Louise. The door opened. They stood there, watching it, clinging together, waiting, forgetting to breathe.

Then it was open, and Crane, pale and shaky but very much alive, was standing in the doorway. Dr. Belling hovered behind him, bemused but pleased.

"Lee! You're all right?" Nelson surged forward to meet him.

"It seems that way." Crane grinned. "I'm not sure I believe it, but . . . I feel great."

"I don't believe it either," Dr. Belling said, "but it seems to be true. I've never seen anything like it: that cut healed in about ten seconds, and all the other symptoms have disappeared."

"I thought you said you couldn't work miracles, Love," Nelson said, turning to Louise.

"I can't claim much credit for this one," she responded.

"Well, if you can't, Miss Delamere, I don't know who can," Dr. Belling said frankly.

Louise blushed and stammered, unable to find anything coherent to say. "I'm glad it worked," she managed at last. There had been so much tension for so long, and suddenly they were all laughing and slapping one another on the back. She wanted to find herself a quiet corner somewhere and cry her heart out. It seemed like years since she had seen the Admiral so happy.

 

Crane stayed in hospital overnight, "For observation," as the doctor put it, but in the morning he reported to the Admiral at the Institute. Nelson promptly sent him off to stay with his mother.

"If I know Jenny at all, she'll come here after you if you don't go to her -- and you don't want her to have to make another long trip, do you? So go -- don't let me see you again until you've got a little more flesh on your bones."

Crane laughed and gave in, though he would have been quite happy to resume his duties right away. There was still a great deal that needed to be done before the Seaview returned, but, as the Admiral very sensibly pointed out, they had never been expecting him to be in Santa Barbara at this stage in the proceedings, and they could manage quite well without him.


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