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CHAPTER ONE

Swirling fog ruled the London night.

Stepping from a horse-drawn carriage into the thick mist, Professor Felix Einstein paused on the sidewalk to briefly consult the small glass globe in his hand. Trapped in the middle of the crystalline sphere was a mummified Egyptian tarantula that remained motionless under his hard scrutiny, and the professor relaxed at the sign that there was no evil magic in the immediate vicinity. At least, for the moment.

Satisfied for the nonce, Prof. Einstein tucked the talisman away once more into his great coat. Dressed like a Bow Street banker, Einstein was sporting an Inverness cape over his gray-striped suit and Oxford school tie, with the mandatory small porridge stain. His craggy face was deeply tanned, and the silver highlights in his wavy hair almost perfectly matched the silver lionhead of his ebony walking cane. The inner pocket of his coat bulged with an Adams .32 revolver, and looped across his waistcoat was a gold watch chain with a petrified shark tooth dangling at the end as a fob. Jutting from a pocket of his vest was an embossed case containing numerous calling cards that merely listed his name, address, and a few dozen of his titles. His real profession was not among them.

Starting to address the waiting cabby, Prof. Einstein frowned as he caught a gale of laughter coming from the nearby building. Eh? In the expert opinion of the professor, a tribe of Zulu warriors performing the Mexican hat dance could not have been more incongruous than the gales of laughter which came from the ground floor windows of the five-story brownstone building dominating the block.

In the past few weeks, Einstein had noticed that the weather patterns of the entire world were steadily becoming worse; snow in Egypt, tornadoes in the Amazon jungle, bright sunshine in Liverpool, and such. Yet those were merely side-effects of the coming apocalypse.

So who could possibly be laughing at such a dire time as this? the professor demanded irritably. Surely not my fellow club members! Maybe the fog was distorting the noise of some distant party so that it seemed nearby? Yes, of course, that must be the answer. How obvious.

"Best stay sharp, Davis," Prof. Einstein said, reaching upward to shake hands with the burly driver. The complicated procedure took a few moments as thumbs, fists, knuckles, tickling and slapping where involved. It seemed more of friendly fight between the two men than a salutation.

"I'd recommend a routine number nine," Einstein added as they eventually let go.

"My very thought," Davis whispered, checking the iron cudgel tucked into his wide leather belt. The 'Liverpool Lawgiver' was worn from constant use, and appeared as formidable as a consort Navy battleship. "Just you look for me, and I'll be there, governor."

"Good man."

Giving a wink, Davis shook the reins, and started the two draft horses away from the curb at a gentle cantor. The cab vanished into the billowing clouds, and soon there was only the rattling echo of its wooden wheels on the cobblestones to ghostly fade away.

Shaking off his uneasy feeling, Prof. Einstein checked the loaded pistol in his pocket before starting along the sidewalk towards the giant brownstone. Then the odd laughter sounded again, louder this time, and most definitely from the club. Outrageous! With an annoyed snort, Einstein began to stride impatiently towards the towering downtown mansion.

Reaching the front of the huge building, Prof. Einstein ambled up the worn marble stairs with his mind still on the strange laughter. Einstein was quite aware that at any given time one could be almost sure of the leader of some newly returned expedition regaling the assembled members with their latest tales of daring-do, heavily embellished with sound effects, visual aids and the unwilling cooperation of the nearest staff member. In point of fact, the London Explorers Club was the only establishment in England that was forced to offer its servants combat pay. But raucous laughter when the world was on the brink of destruction? Professor Einstein frowned in consternation. Most unseemly. He had sincerely hoped that at least some of the other members would have been able to read the portents of the coming apocalypse. Perhaps he was wrong.

Pushing open the brass-bound mahogany door, Einstein entered the mansion and handed his Inverness cape, hat and cane to a doorman, who in turn passed them to a liveried page. Taking a deep breath, the professor stood for a precious moment to let the warm air seep into his bones. The pungent atmosphere was thick with the homey smell of wood polish, pipe smoke and cordite. Ah, home, sweet home!

Just then, another burst of laughter arose only to be abruptly cut off by a man's stern voice. Einstein tried to catch what was being said, but it was rapidly drowned out by a new upswelling of mirth. The noise seemed to be coming from the Great Hall. In spite of the urgency of his mission, the professor was forced to admit that this was becoming interesting. There was an unwritten law in the club that one had best know when to stick to the truth and when one could embellish a story a bit. A law that many bent, but few actually broke. Sadly, there was always a significant number of expeditions that encountered nothing more exciting than fetid jungles, smarmy natives and dull animals who were so patently stupid that they would wander directly in front of you and politely wait while you dug the old 30.06 Winchester out of your haversack and did them the favor of blowing out their brains. But those were tales hardly worth repeating.

Proceeding quickly down the center passageway, Professor Einstein turned left at a suit of Spanish armor and entered the Great Hall. No exaggeration had been used to name the room as it was a good three hundred paces long, its oak beam ceiling an arrow flight away. The four'n square wood floor was dotted with a hundred islands of India rugs and velvet smoking chairs, while in the center of the room, a tiered Italian fountain quietly burbled and splashed. Lining the walls were mammoth bookcases containing over a million leather bound tomes, most of them first editions, or handwritten journals. High above this grandeur, a beautifully sculptured bronze bust of Marco Polo was on the second story balcony. The patron saint of explorers dutifully keeping watch over his modern-day students.

Crowding around a blazing fireplace, a group of club members were surrounding a small display table. Placed prominently on that scarred expanse of dark oak was a small wooden ship, barely a foot in length. A single low cabin was in the middle of the deck of the tiny vessel. No sails or masts were visible, and the rudder was broken.

"By god, Carstairs," Lord Danvers laughed from underneath a bushy Royal British Marine moustache. "You'll have to do better than that!"

"Rather," Dr. Thompkins snorted, dipping his red nose once more into a half-empty whiskey glass. "Balderdash, I say. Violates the unwritten law. Noah's Ark, indeed."

In righteous indignation, Lord Benjamin Carstairs rose to his full height and no hat was necessary for him to tower over the other members.

In cold scrutiny, Prof. Einstein could see the fellow must be over six feet tall, and maybe two hundred pounds in weight, with not an ounce on fat on the heavily muscled, almost Herculean, frame. The giant was in dapper a three-piece suit of a brown worsted material that perfectly complemented his stiff white shirt and striped Harvard tie. His lantern jaw was painfully clean shaven, while the pale brown hair and blue eyes clearly announced a Saxon heritage.

Oh well, nobody's perfect, the Norman-descended Einstein observed wryly.

"I stand on my earlier statement, sirs," Lord Carstairs said calmly, resting a tanned hand on the little craft. "You have seen my journals and read my analysis. This ship was found on the peak of Mt. Ararat, hidden in a stratified gully just below the snow line. It is made of 4,000-year-old gopher wood and sealed with crude pitch. To scale, it is of the proper dimensions, and perfectly matches the description of the craft in the Book of Genesis, chapters six through ten. I believe that it was constructed by Noah Ben Lamech, as a working model, before he built the actual sea-going ark itself."

Once more guffaws filled the air and some rude soul added a juicy American raspberry.

"Good evening, gentlemen," Professor Einstein said loudly, interrupting the brouhaha.

In prompt response, the boisterous crowd stopped making noise and turned smartly about.

"Felix, old boy!" Baron Edgewaters shouted, his bushy beard appearing to weigh more than his prominent belly. "Excellent timing as always. We've got a real wowser for you this time."

"Lad claims to have found a relic off of Noah's Ark, by gad!" Lord Danvers chortled, taking another healthy gulp. "Thinks he can fool us like Thomson did in '74 with his 'continent under Antarctica' theory. Haw!"

"How wonderful," Einstein snorted, dismissing the matter with a gesture. "He found Noah's Ark. My heartiest congratulations. But I have even more pressing news to convey."

"I said a model, not the ark itself, sir," Carstairs corrected primly.

The professor shrugged. "Whatever you wish. It is of no consequence."

"Indeed? And what could be more important than this?" Lord Danvers demanded, stroking his moustache. "The end of the world?"

Eagerly opening his mouth to speak, Prof. Einstein was cut off by Lord Carstairs.

"And exactly who are you, sir?" the lord asked.

"Haven't you two fellows ever met before?" Dr. Thompkins gasped in wonderment, rising from a chair.

"No," they replied in unison.

"But this calamity must be corrected with all due haste!" Colonel Pierpont declared, adjusting his pince-nez glasses and assuming an authoritarian pose. "Carstairs, might I introduce Professor Felix Einstein of the International British Museum, a private concern. Einstein, may I introduce Lord Benjamin Carstairs of Heather Downs, Preston."

With both hands clasped behind his back, Lord Carstairs nodded in greeting. "A pleasure, sir. I have read your books on archeology with the greatest of interest. Particularly your monograph on the feasibility that Stonehenge is a form of solar calendar."

Impatiently, Einstein accepted the compliment with what grace he could muster under the circumstances. "A minor work. And I have more than a passing acquaintance with your own journals, sir. Your theories on the possible Aztec origin of the Easter Island statues are most impressive."

"Thank you."

"And if it will speed things along, as a senior member of the club, I officially acknowledge and congratulate you on your find," Einstein continued. "For this is not a model as you suppose, but the actual ark itself."

The roomful of explorers went stock-still at that as if a live woman had entered the club.

"A-are you crazed, Felix?" Sir Lovejoy erupted in shock, going even more pale than usual. "The craft is barely a foot long! How in the name of Queen Victoria could that toy carry seven and two of every animal on the face of the earth?"

"Explain yourself, sir!" Dr. Thompkins demanded.

Quite exasperated, Prof. Einstein closed his eyes so that nobody would see him roll them about. Ye gods, plainly no other topic of conversation would be considered until this trifling matter was resolved. So be it.

"Jeeves!" the professor shouted over a shoulder.

Instantly, the liveried butler appeared in the doorway as if he had been waiting for the explosive summons. "Yes, sir?" he drawled in proper English servitude.

"Fresh gasogenes, please," Einstein commanded, thoughtfully rubbing his lucky shark's tooth. "Every bloody one we have."

This gave Jeeves pause. There was a barely used soda water dispenser on the liquor cart right beside the man. Why would he wish additional reservoirs? And every one? For a club like the Explorers, that meant several dozen, at the very least. Then the butler went cold. Oh no, he prayed fervently, not another re-enactment of the Amazon rain forest. Anything but that.

"Wasn't aware that you've recently been to the Amazon, Felix," Lord Danvers said, refilling his glass as the somber butler shuffled away.

Ignoring that comment, Prof. Einstein stolidly waited until Jeeves returned moments later. Experience being a bitter teacher, the butler was wearing a MacIntosh overcoat and rubber boots as he pushed along a trolley loaded with several small wooden crates full of gasogene-style soda water dispensers. Plus, an umbrella and a bucket.

"Thank you, Jeeves," Professor Einstein said politely, taking a gasogene from the trolley. The umbrella and bucket were a wise precaution, but unnecessary in this particular instance. "Now please give one of these to everybody in the room."

As the butler distributed the dispensers, Einstein moved the display table to the center of the hall. Now armed with gasogenes, everybody waited to see what would happen next. Felix Einstein had a well-deserved reputation of pulling rabbits out of his hat. That bizarre museum of his being a prime example.

Exercising extraordinary care, Prof. Einstein aligned the tiny ship so that its keel was directed length wise down the room. The wood felt dry as dust to his touch and his fingers stuck slightly to the craft, which certainly seemed to substantiated his theory about its origins. With extreme care, the professor made one last minute correction in the ship's placement. Yes. Good enough.

"On my mark, gentlemen, hose the ark with water," Einstein said, assuming a firing stance. "Ready, aim..."

The encircling crowd was plainly delighted beyond words, while the stunned Lord Carstairs lowered his gasogene. "Are you sure this is prudent?" he asked in real concern.

"Fire!" Prof. Einstein cried, triggering his dispenser. A sparkling gush of effervescence splashed onto the minuscule craft. The stream of water hit it squarely, yet not a single drop of liquid rolled off the vessel to land on the table. Then an ominous creaking sound came from the wooden boat.

"All of you! Act now!" Einstein barked, over the hissing spray of carbonated water. "Spray quickly, or the ship will tear itself apart!"

It was more the whipcrack tone of the professor's voice than anything else that made the other members comply. In an orchestrated attack, several streams of carbonated water went gushing onto the relic, washing over it from stern to bow and back again.

As the pressure in the gasogenes eventually become exhausted, the rush of soda water slowed to a trickle, the last dribbles falling from the spouts to spot the India rug.

"Astonishing," Duke Farthington whispered, staring at the little boat. It was barely damp. Definitely something strange was going on here.

With a bizarre sucking noise, the pools of moisture around the craft disappeared into the hull, and before the startled eyes of the club members, the desiccated craft began to swell like some impossible sponge. With incredible speed, the expanding ship outgrew the display table, pushing aside a vacant chair and smashing a lamp.

"Get back!" Colonel Pierpont cried out, throwing both hands skyward and accidentally knocking off his pince-nez glasses.

No further prompting was needed for the startled club members to dive for safety. With a loud crack, the display table broke apart and crashed to the floor. Rapidly, the ark continued to increase in size in every direction, all the while creaking and groaning as if was being tortured on the high seas. Five meters, ten, twenty meters in length it reached, before the rate of growth noticeably slowed.

"By Jove!" Baron Edgewaters roared, crouching behind an ottoman. "Look at that! The bloody thing actually is Noah's Ark!"

"Indubitably," somebody said from the other side of the craft.

"This is dehydration on a scale unheard of in the entire civilized world!" added another unseen member from the general vicinity of the prow.

"Or England," a patriotic chap added, from behind the window curtains.

"Congratulations, Benjamin!" Lord Danvers boomed from under the liquor cart.

Wriggling from their hiding places, the entire assemblage gathered around Lord Carstairs and gave him a thunderous round of applause. Beaming in unabashed pleasure, Carstairs suddenly took on a pained expression and pointed in horror. Everybody turned just in time to see the still slowly expanding prow of the vessel nose into the trough of the bubbling fountain.

"Bloody hell," Prof. Einstein whispered, taking a step backwards.

There came a loud slurping noise, closely followed by a mighty groan of tormented wood, and the ark exploded into double its size. More than fifty meters in length, the vessel loomed over the scrambling men as it continued to grow, rapidly filling the Great Hall. With the sound of shattering stone, the fountain noisily collapsed and the ship settled over the stony remains, precipitating a great column of water that washed over the ship and yielded yet another massive spurt of growth.

"The mains!" Lord Carstairs shouted to the staff that stared in wonder through from the doorway. "Turn off the water mains!"

Obediently, one of the servants spun about and dashed down the hall.

His mind swirling with dire mathematics, Prof. Einstein could only scowl at the monstrosity forming before them. Two and seven of every animal on the earth. How big would the Ark get? The obvious answer was too damn big. This was definitely not good!

Like a wooden express train, the traveling prow violently rammed into the fireplace, smashing the hearth, and tilting the oil painting of Her Royal Majesty. As it fell, the stern of the ship slammed into the far wall, shattering the plaster and causing the bust of Marco Polo to rip free from its pedestal on the second floor balcony. As the massive bronze statue plummeted straight towards a horrified Jeeves, Lord Carstairs surged forward to shove the man aside. The heavy bust crashed onto Carstairs instead, the savage blow driving the lord to his knees as he barely managed to deflect the three hundred pounds of metal onto a 7th century pirate's chest. Even over the creaking of the Ark, the splintery explosion of the chest from the meteoric impact was clearly discernable.

White-faced and trembling, Jeeves had trouble speaking for a moment. "Y-you saved my life," the butler finally stammered, his nerveless fingers dropping the umbrella to the floor.

"Think nothing of it," Carstairs panted, flexing his hands to stop the stinging. "I'm sure you would have done the same for me."

Tilting his head, Jeeves glanced at the quarter-ton of metal explorer laying in the splintered midst of what had once been a sturdy steamer trunk. "Quite so," the manservant remarked in dry sincerity.

Now from beneath the Ark there came a series of squeaks and a banging metallic rattle. Its growth immediately slowed and with a final groaning lurch that shattered the eastern skylight, the titanic craft went thankfully still.

"By Gadfrey!" a member whispered askance, wiggling free from between the broken rudder and a bookcase. "And I thought Williamson's recounting of his trip to Lake Geneva exciting."

Battered, but undamaged, the explorers slowly crawled out from under the furniture, and dusted themselves off while staring at the impossible vessel. Going to the remains of the liquor cabinet, Lord Danvers poured himself a stiff drink, and Prof. Einstein straightened the Queen's portrait back on the wall. Better.

"Damnation, sir," Duke Farthington cried out, clapping Lord Carstairs on the shoulder. "But you're a hard act to follow!"

Breaking into nervous laughter, the younger members began clearing aside the assorted debris, while the senior members contemplated the Biblical behemoth filling the hall.

"Of course, how we will get it out of here is another matter entirely," Lord Danvers observed, finishing his whiskey.

"Damned inconvenient holding meetings with this hanging above our heads," Judge Foxthington-Smythe stated, thoughtfully stroking one of his many chins. "We could always just tear down a wall or two and ease it out into the back courtyard. Make a fine gazebo, it would. Impress the neighbors no end."

All work paused as everybody turned to stare at the judge.

"Outside?" a man asked.

"Where it rains?" another questioned.

The entire group of explorers paled at those words and looked at the Ark with growing expressions of horror. Exactly what were they to do with this thing?

Clapping his hands, Prof. Einstein got the members moving again and eventually a path was cleared to the doorway, allowing the staff to rush in with brooms and dustpans to begin the homeric job of straightening the hall. Leaving them to the task, the disheveled club members now gathered round Carstairs and Einstein.

"Members of the Explorers Club," Duke Farthington shouted in his best Parliamentary voice. "I give you, Lord Benjamin Carstairs!"

A formal round of applause came from the members, and the British lord made a sweeping bow. "Thank you, gentlemen. I am most gratified." Then Carstairs turned to address Prof. Einstein in a quieter voice. "And thank you, sir, for saving my reputation. If ever I can return the favor, pray inform me."

"Now would be a good time," Einstein said bluntly. "I came here to find two or three men to assist me on an extremely dangerous expedition." The professor smiled at the dapper young goliath. "But then, it appears that you are two or three men."

As the observation was hardly original, Lord Carstairs accepted the statement complacently. "Pray tell, what is the nature of this expedition?"

"To save the world from total destruction."

Taken aback in surprise, Carstairs blinked a few times at the outlandish statement. "Are you quite serious, professor?"

Einstein nodded. "Absolutely, Lord Carstairs."

Since honor was on the line, the decision came instantaneously. "Then I am at your command, sir," Lord Carstairs said, extending a massive hand.

As gingerly as if grasping a spring-loaded beartrap, Prof. Einstein accepted the offer and they shook.

"Excellent, lad!" Einstein said, glancing about at the scene of turmoil about them. "But this is no place to talk. Come, I'll tell you the details on the way to my home."

"Indeed. Why the hurry? Is the matter pressing?"

"Yes, time is of the essence."

"Accepted, then."

As the two men walked from the room, Lord Carstairs took the opportunity to add, "Is there any chance that we may be back from wherever we're going by early next month? Several friends and I had planned on taking another crack at locating the elephants' graveyard in Africa."

Starting a caustic reply, Professor Einstein paused and then spoke tactfully. "Lad, if our expedition is not successful, then you won't have to worry about such matters."

Frowning darkly, Lord Carstairs uneasily chewed upon that cryptic statement. "Indeed, sir," he murmured.

In the foyer, the liveried page gave their coats the doorman, who in turn primly passed them to the owners. In the background, there could be heard a great deal of cursing and hammering from the ruin of the Great Hall.

Donning their outer garments, the two men departed from the club, and walked down to the curb. Placing two fingers in his mouth, Prof. Einstein gave a sharp whistle, and from within the billowing fog there came the crack of a whip, a horse whinnied and a brougham carriage into view with Davis at the reins.

Climbing inside, the two explorers got comfortably seated as Davis set the carriage into motion. As the cab moved into the deeper recesses of the river mist, a group of hooded figures stepped from the shadowy alleyway alongside the Explorers Club. Shaking the broken window glass from their robes, the men adjusted the scarves masking their features, pulled knives and proceeded to swiftly follow the departing vehicle. Oddly, their hard-sole boots did not make a sound on the granite cobblestones of the city street.

 CHAPTER 2  >> 


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