S... Is for a Lot of Things
"Man," breathed Ziegler, plopping into Max's booth. "The three-beer-sleepies came pretty early for you."
Max lifted his head off of the tabletop and blinked at Ziegler. He looked down at the table and took a deep breath. It was rather fortuitous that his order had not arrived. Passing out in a pile of Fettuccini Alfredo would have been an experience far from pleasant.
"Where's 99?" asked Max, rubbing his eyes.
"That slinky brunette?" asked Ziegler. "I haven't seen her. I've got some evidence I thought your boss would be interested in, but I guess he's not here..."
"What evidence?" asked Max.
Ziegler pulled out a piece of crumpled notebook paper from his coat pocket and slapped it down in front of Max. "This was in Fairfax's things. It's some sort of sketch."
Max carefully looked the paper over. It was a drawing of a strangely familiar twisted iron snake. As he studied it closer, insight and recognition exploded in his brain like fireworks. He recalled seeing the symbol long before Rocksburg, San Jirman, and even 99.
"I know this!" he exclaimed.
"Surprise, surprise," muttered Ziegler. "What is it? Some sort of hippie logo?"
"It's a snake standing for an S or an S standing for a snake. It stands for a Kaos fraternity... The Silent Brotherhood," explained Max.
"An S sure does stand for a lot of things," shrugged Ziegler. "Why the Silent Brotherhood? Who are they?"
"They were a small time gang that got involved with Kaos. The silent part got tacked on because one of the founders was a librarian," explained Max.
"How do I know you're not putting me on?"
Max rolled his eyes. "You don't -you'll just have to take my word for it that somebody working in that school is aligned with Kaos. This picture is proof!"
"A kid could have drawn that!" scoffed Ziegler.
Max ignored him and jumped out of his seat. "I'm not going to sit here and wait while you have it appraised -there's not enough time." He looked back at Ziegler as he started for the door. "Just show that picture to the Chief."
* * * * *
Marcy blinked at the light from the bare bulb hanging just above her head. She wanted to rub the dull ache in the back of her neck, but, considering her arms and every other body part were taped to a plank bottom chair, her ache would have to wait.
She wished that when she had broken into Mrs. Recktor's office, she had been a bit more stealthy. In trying to get the scope of the room, she had managed to fall into a floor plant which tipped over into a trophy case. There was no doubt that the noise and mess had been her death sentence. In retrospect, she decided that much more would have been accomplished if Recktor and Sexton had not been sitting in the office when she walked in.
"Well, Mrs. Adair," smiled Mrs. Recktor, walking into the basement and interrupting her musings, "it looks like you have a houseguest."
Marcy looked up just in time to watch Sexton give 99 a shove down the stairs. Having been through the same aching experience, she knew that her brother's lady friend was not going to be in the best humor -especially when she discovered that her nylons had ripped in the process. She could not help but wince as Sexton walked down the stairs and pulled 99 up off of the floor like she was a doll. Seeing that Sexton was busy taping 99 to the chair next to hers, Marcy started to squirm in her own chair.
"Sit still," growled Sexton, glaring at Marcy. "You're setting a bad example."
"I think you'll find you have a lot in common," Recktor continued. "She shares your habit of snooping around in my office."
"The least you could do is not break her in the delivery process," retorted Marcy. "I don't like to find my houseguests in pieces."
"Shut up!" snapped Sexton, wrapping the final piece of tape around 99.
"Mrs. Adair," said Mrs. Recktor, "haven't you been looking at the clock as you were told?"
Marcy looked at the grandfather clock against the wall in front of them and wrinkled her nose. The eight-foot mahogany monster standing before her did nothing for her sense of aesthetics. What she found amusing was that, if the clock were stripped of its porcelain dial, gilded hands, and snake-shaped pendulum, it would resemble a casket.
"Yes," nodded Marcy. "It's ugly. What else is there to say?"
"Try saying nothing," suggested Mrs. Recktor in a snotty tone. She then turned and started up the stairs.
"What if they aren't susceptible to hypnosis?" asked Sexton, following after her.
Mrs. Recktor walked up to the top step and turned around and looked from Sexton to 99 and then to Marcy. "I suppose they'll have the pleasure of being conscious while they die of nerve gas."
"Gas?" squeaked Marcy.
"Yes," nodded Recktor. "When the big hand hits the seven -which is about 45 minutes from now- the two of you get to die!"
Marcy winced as Recktor and Sexton exited the room and slammed the door shut behind them. She stared at the clock in front of her for a second and then diverted her attention to the window on the other side of the room. Her thought was that if she ignored the clock, it would go away -at least in a philosophical sense.
A flash of movement outside the window caught her eye. She shook her head and looked back at the clock. Seconds later she heard a crash and then glass shattering. Raising an eyebrow, she turned to the window just in time to see a foot, followed by another foot and then a body, squeeze through the opening.
"It's about time Maxwell," sighed Marcy, impatiently. "Although I'm not sure that Mrs. Recktor will like the idea of you breaking her window."
"Always the goody-goody. How'd you wind up like this?" asked Max as he ran over to Marcy and started pulling off the tape.
Marcy gritted her teeth as the tape ripped at her skin. "Try and be soft and gentle -that feels like a thousand Band-Aids being yanked off at once. That... that... ignoramus Sexton shoved me down the stairs and taped me to this chair. He gave your girlfriend the same treatment. He really needs a charm school."
Max finished freeing his sister from the tape and then walked over to 99. He noticed that she had something of a glazed look in her eye. It was a bit surprising to him that she had absolutely nothing to say about the situation they were in.
"99?" asked Max, as he started to peel the tape off of her.
"She's been giving me the silent treatment the whole time," said Marcy. "You know, Maxwell, that kind of behavior won't sit well with the rest of the family."
"The rest of the family?" asked Max, looking at Marcy with a confused look.
"Yes," said Marcy, walking over to the clock and studying it. "When holidays come around, it's not going to be much fun if your girlfriend won't talk to anybody."
Max took off the last piece of tape, but 99 still remained seated in the chair. He snapped his fingers in front of her eyes. 99, however, gave no reaction. He walked over to his sister and noticed that she was fiddling with the clock hands.
"I think she's in a trance, Marcy," said Max, looking over at 99. He then turned back to Marcy and pulled her hand away from the clock. "What are you doing and... why do you keep calling her my girlfriend."
Marcy rolled her eyes. "Don't play stupid with me, Maxwell! If you think that you're not in love with sleeping beauty over there, then you're lying to yourself."
"That's not true, Marcy," sniffed Max. "I'm in denial. You wouldn't understand."
Marcy pulled the hands from the face of the clock. "If you don't straighten this out and stop being afraid of yourself, then you're going to explode -unless perhaps we die from nerve gas first..."
"Nerve gas!" cried Max, his eyes nearly popping from their sockets. "Marcy, why didn't you... how much time do we have?"
Marcy shrugged and pulled the clock away from the wall. "Mrs. Recktor said we had 45 minutes according to this clock... that was ten minutes ago. The gas is supposed to come out of this thing somehow"
"Well you stopped the clock," said Max, hopefully. He looked behind the clock and found that it was connected to a pipe of some sort. "That's interesting..."
"Isn't it though," snarled a deep voice.
Max and Marcy spun around to face Sexton, who was holding a now conscious 99 at gun point. This was, naturally, one of the times when the all-pomp Agent 86 of Control wanted to bawl like a baby. He felt a wave of nausea hit him as he watched 99 try and squirm from Sexton's greasy hands. Emotions and pity parties, however, would never get them out of the mess they were in. Max could only do what any agent could do in such a position: goad the enemy.
"Sexton, this is really getting tiresome," sighed Max. "I mean, for someone in the Silent Brotherhood, you're not quiet at all! You lumbered down here, woke up 99, and now you're giving us idle chatter."
"That, Smart, is what you're doing!" retorted Sexton. "You're wasting your last breaths!"
"Tell him he's clichéd and trite," whispered Marcy in Max's ear.
"Good one," nodded Max. "Sexton, you're clichéd and trite. The whole notion of a bad guy holding a girl against her will like that is worn out. If you want to get with the times, you'd let her go."
"Forget it, Smart," said Sexton. "I'm not letting any of you go because I'm going to shoot all of you right now. Any last words?"
"Yes," said 99, staring curiously at Sexton. "Your epidermis is showing."
Sexton looked around, which gave 99 the chance to give him a sharp jab to the ribs. She broke free of his grasp just as Max pounded the Kaos Agent in the back with a judo chop. Sexton dropped the gun, but spun around and plowed Max in the jaw with a fairly meaty knuckle sandwich, sending him across the room. As Max scrambled to recover, the Kaos agent moved to pick up the gun. 99, however, kicked it across the room under a space heater.
"Sexton, I'd like to apologize about that 'clichéd and trite' crack I made," said Max, walking over to him and rubbing his chin.
"Oh really?" asked Sexton, turning back to Max.
"Yes... I'm sorry I didn't include the word stupid in the description," smirked Max. He then aimed a judo kick at the man's chest. Sexton, however, grabbed Max by the foot, pulled him down onto the floor and gave him a good jerk before he let go, causing Max to go sliding across the floor, crashing into the clock. Max cringed as his enemy's shadow fell over him. He could not believe this was how his final act in the game of espionage would end. Sexton was an idiot -probably more stupid than Shtarker- and it was just wrong to be bested by a person with the intelligence of a lima bean.
"Max, the clock!" cried 99.
"Yes, 99," said Max, rolling away as Sexton lunged at him. "It's ugly and we're about out of time."
"No, Max!" hissed 99. "Use it!"
Max jumped up just as Sexton was regaining his composure. "Sexton, how come you're not in jail at Camp Hill where we put you last? Is it too much to ask for you to stay in jail?"
"Smart," growled Sexton, "you are an ugly little pain in the neck!"
"Then meet Excedrin Headache 86," retorted Max, picking up the grandfather clock and cracking it down on Sexton's head. The clock splintered and split in two as Sexton collapsed. The face of the clock, along with its hands, and the gilded snake adorned pendulum, crashed to the floor. Max set the crunched clock cabinet down and sighed.
"Guess his time's up," quipped Marcy.
"Let's get out of here," said Max, starting for the stairs.
The door to the cellar creaked open just as Max was about to run up the staircase. He winced as a stony faced Mrs. Recktor started down the stairs towards him. He looked back over at 99 and Marcy as he stepped back from the stairs. "Perhaps we should try the window," suggested Max.
"You won't be trying anything," hissed the Headmistress, aiming a revolver at Max. She then inched over to the clock, still keeping her eyes on Max. "I suppose you thought you could break in here, spoil my plans, and destroy my heirloom... well you're wrong, Smart!"
"That clock was really an heirloom?" asked Max, incredulously. He hoped a little clock talk would distract the woman enough so that he could get the drop on her.
"Yes," nodded Recktor. "It's over one hundred years old. It was custom made for the founder of the Silent Brotherhood."
Max snorted. "Yeah right. Kaos hasn't been in business that long."
"I'm not talking about Kaos, Mr. Smart," snapped Mrs. Recktor. "You should know the Silent Brotherhood existed long before Kaos was even a thought. Look on the back of the clock case -it gives a date!"
Max picked up the case and studied the yellowed label on the back. "1861. Interesting."
"Uh-huh," nodded Max, lifting the clock case above his head, "now catch!"
Max threw the clock at Recktor, but the very instant he tossed it at her was the very same instant she choose to grab Marcy and push her into the line of fire. The wooden case crashed down on Marcy, cracking into even more pieces in the process. Max started for his sister, but Recktor jabbed her gun into his chest.
"Anymore bright moves?" she sneered.
"Would you believe painful moves?" offered Max.
Before the Headmistress could react to what he was saying, 99 cracked her on the back with a judo chop. Recktor's gun fell to the floor, but she was little phased by 99's intrusion. She then grabbed one of the chairs that 99 and Marcy had been taped too and swung it at both Control agents, just missing them.
"Max, if it were a brotherhood, then how did she get in?" asked 99, dodging the chair that Recktor swung at her again.
"She was a sister of a brother," explained Max, clubbing the headmistress over the head with the pendulum. The woman slumped over onto the floor, but that did not leave him with much of a chance to vacate the room.
"Max!" cried 99. "Behind you!"
Max spun around to face Sexton. "Don't tell me you came back for more!"
"No," sneered Sexton, pulling a knife out of his boot. "I came back for you!"
Before Max could react, Sexton charged at him with the knife. Seeing that her partner was in some sort of mental paralysis, 99 dashed over to Max and tackled him just as Sexton swung his blade. The jolt from being shoved to the ground was enough to help 86 shake the cobwebs from his brain. He looked up at the knife-wielding Kaos agent and scooted 99 behind him. They inched their way across the floor only to back into a wall.
"Your clock is up Smart!" hissed Sexton, raising the knife above his head and positioning himself so that his aim would be in line with Max's jugular.
"They've got plenty of time," said Marcy, crawling out from under the case of the grandfather clock, "which is more than I can say for you."
Sexton spun around to face Marcy just in time to watch her toss the big hand of the grandfather clock at him as if it were a dart. The blunt end of the clock hand lodged itself directly into the left side of his chest. The knife clattered to the floor, but Sexton only laughed as he extracted the dagger-like object. Just as he started to hold the improvised weapon up in front of everyone as if it were a medal, he collapsed onto the floor.
"How awful!" gasped 99.
"She said she didn't like him, 99," said Max as he got up and walked over to Sexton. He ripped apart the man's shirt and studied the wound. The Kaos agent was still alive, but was quite unconscious. "As far as stab wounds go, this one isn't that serious. He'll be around long enough to spend his golden years in jail."
Their musings over the situation were then interrupted by the squeak of door hinges and the clomping of feet bounding down both sets of cellar stairs. Men that Max recognized as Control agents seemed to be pouring into the room from all directions. He then noticed the Chief and Ziegler among the crowd. He took a deep breath and glanced around the disheveled room. As his eyes rested on the remains of the grandfather clock and the pipe jutting out from the wall, the threat of the nerve gas flashed in his mind.
"Chief!" shouted Max, "You've got to get out of here! I don't know when, but this place is going to be gassed!"
"It's taken care of," said the Chief, giving Max a reassuring pat on the shoulder. "We reset the control panel in Recktor's office and shut the gas main down. From the looks of all this, you and 99 are in for some vacation time."
The Chief's chat was cut short when several expletives in German broke through the air. He and Max turned to watch Ziegler usher a squirming Mrs. Recktor to the cellar steps that led outside. She managed to break free from his grasp and lunge at him. A Control agent armed with a machine gun reached out and pulled her back before she could claw at Ziegler's eyes.
"Vat is all this?" demanded Mrs. Recktor, suddenly mixing up her Vs and Ws.
"Mrs. Recktor," gasped Marcy, "you're talking in a foreign accent!"
"She's talking perfectly now, Marcy," said Max, glaring at the woman. "As a spy murdering Control Agents she was talking in a foreign accent. Incase you're not up on things, Recktor, you're under arrest."
Mrs. Recktor only laughed. "How amusing, Mr. Smart! Do you have a varrant?"
Ziegler smiled and flipped out a piece of paper. "In black and white, lady."
Rector glared at the Chief and the Control agent that had the gun trained on her. "This is an infringement of my rights! You can't just come in here and raid this building --it's private property. Your varrant has to be for something specific."
"It is -you," said Ziegler, motioning for one of the men to go ahead and cuff Sexton. "INS informed me that your visas expired so this warrant is for you."
Recktor turned to run only to find herself face to face with 99. Without saying a word, 99 shot her clenched fist directly into the woman's nose. It was a full throttle punch that left its recipient unconscious on the floor and Max gaping at his partner.
"That was a bit harsh, 99," commented Max. "Couldn't you have just restrained her?"
99 shook her head. "No one hypnotizes me and gets away with it."
Marcy smiled. "I suppose you'll be adding terrorism, treason, and kidnapping to her long list of charges."
"That's only the beginning," said the Chief, looking over at Marcy. He nodded at the Control agent with the gun and the rest of the mop up crew. The unconscious Kaos agents were then carried out of the room.
Seemingly the situation was solved, but as far as 99 was concerned, the confusion surrounding the case was anything but resolved. "I still have a number of questions about how these two Kaos agents could orchestrate such a complex scheme," she said. "How did you find us?"
"When Ziegler showed me the Silent Brotherhood insignia and informed me that Max was on his way to the school, I assembled the special team of Control agents I had told you about."
"Oh," said Max, "so while we were down here, you were upstairs raiding the place."
"Yes. Now let me finish!" barked the Chief. "As I was saying, we then raided the place and I had our chief electronics specialist, Agent McKracken, work on finding what makes this place tick. First of all, the clocks are.."
"Chief, I thought you dismissed the idea of the clocks being relevant," interrupted Max. "Sure they're five minutes off and Recktor liked to play with them, but so what? Kaos agents can have hobbies too!"
"Max, stop interrupting!" cried the Chief. "McKracken claimed that the clocks are geared differently so that the tick pattern produced is a slow, but calming rhythm. Recktor was using it to hypnotize everyone in here but her and Sexton."
"So that's why they were always in her office resetting her clocks," concluded Marcy. "They've been doing that ever since I started here."
"Resetting the clocks helped break up the rhythm," added McKracken. "Of course not everyone is susceptible to hypnosis, so we can't assume that the Kaos agents would have eventually hypnotized themselves."
"Then that explains why Marcy didn't go into a trance," said Max. "What I don't understand is how a clock could be re-geared to change the tick."
"Max!" cried the Chief.
"86, what you're requesting is privileged 'need-to-know' information," said McKracken.
"Exactly!" said Max. "Now tell me what I need to know!"
McKracken smirked. "You don't need to know how these clocks work -that's what you need to know!"
"There are a few things I'd like explained Chief," said 99. "How were the other Control agents really killed? Max thought that Fairfax died from poison gas, but Marcy was only given knockout gas."
"Don't forget about that agent that drowned in the bathtub," added Marcy.
"99," sighed Max, shaking his head, "it's all really quite simple."
"Is it?" asked 99, doubtfully.
"Yes," nodded Max. "That's why the Chief is going to explain it to you."
"Actually, Max, it's not simple at all, which is why McKracken is going to explain it," said the Chief.
McKracken puffed out his chest. "Kaos' plans were ingenious --I'll give them that. They had a system of ductwork in this building rigged so that it could do two things: poison people and be used as a sort of PA system. Recktor had an electronic brain in her office that controlled the whole thing. She could press a button for what ever room she wanted and pour in any kind of gas she wanted to come out. If she wanted someone to hear something, she could press another button and use the speaker instead."
99 nodded. "So that's where the moaning was coming from in my bedroom! It was the vent and not Marcy!"
"Right, 99," nodded the Chief. "Your room had a vent right under the bed."
"In a sense the whole system almost worked like a normal heating system where you could pick up conversation through the heat vent," reflected McKracken. "However, Kaos made a number of changes so they could exploit that idea. They disconnected the old heating unit and converted everything over to their system."
99 rubbed her chin. "But why didn't they freeze in the winter and why didn't the gas escape to the other rooms?"
"They switched to sideboard heaters. Also some, though not all, of the rooms have seals around the door jamb," explained McKracken. "Namely, those were the freezer, the bathroom, and a few hall closets. That about sums it all up."
"Golly-gee," murmured Marcy.
"So that's how that worked," said 99, snapping her fingers. I should have thought of that!"
"Okay, McKracken," interrupted Max, "it's really great how you took the bull by the horns and cracked this case, but there's just one thing you neglected to mention! How could a ventilation system be used to poison people and make them hear things? How is that possible?"
McKracken crossed his arms across his chest and exchanged a tired look with the Chief who was squeezing the bridge of his nose. "Smart, that information is available only on a need-to-know basis."
"Just what are you getting at, McKracken," demanded Max, narrowing his eyes.
"You don't need to know it!" cried McKracken, the Chief, 99, and Marcy all in unison.
COPYRIGHT ©1999-2016 BY AMANDA HAVERSTICK.
Wait a sec -we're not done! Read the grand finale in the upcoming Epilogue.
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