Chapter 24 — Monday, June 9 –- Hung Over in the Lab.
True to character, Grace was the first one to emerge for breakfast Monday morning. She looked around at the front room of the inn, expecting more signs of the previous night’s revelry, from which she had retired early. She turned to Goldilocks. “I’m impressed. You really managed to clean up after last night.”
“It’s what I do.”
“No really, Mr. A. must have gotten every dish in the place dirty last night. I’ve never seen anybody enjoy Spamwich’s cooking like that before. He wanted to try every horrible combination of things Spamwich could dream up.”
“It was pretty surprising. And funny too, when he threw it all up, all over that lady who came in on Captain Flang’s arm…”
Grace smiled. “That was Jugs, off the ship. I wonder if she ever got back.”
Goldilocks smiled too. “Yeah, after she stripped down like a jaybird to get rid of the muck and Cortez stood up and called her a harlot, she ran out the back. Duncan saw her run past the stables in her birthday suit and jump in the river.”
Grace forced a mock pout. “I hope that didn’t scar poor Duncan for life.”
Goldilocks shook her head. “I doubt it, that’s one tough kid. Anyway, Eastwood saw her streaking down the yellow brick road towards the Marsh Family huts a little later, so I imagine she got back with her hide intact, if not her pride.”
“I wonder what she was doing with Captain Flang…”
Goldilocks laughed. “He’s not as swish as he sometimes seems, Ducky. I have to fight him off from time to time.”
Beryl cleared his throat. “I was surprised at how much your dear Mr. A. was able to put away from the bar, too. I mean, he used to be a lush, but it hit him hard, back in the day. Last night, though, he could drink all I could serve him, and it didn’t seem to affect him a bit.”
Grace shrugged. “I guess being dead will do that to you.”
Goldilocks frowned. “How did he pay for all that, anyway? I mean, he used to spend every last penny he had on booze. In fact, he had done that the night he and his wife disappeared.”
Sapphire closed the door very quietly behind her as she entered. “I’m afraid that was my fault. I agreed to pay his bills for one night on the town if he promised to come to the lab and let them look him over. I had to promise I wouldn’t let them keep him, though.”
Grace nodded. “Where is he now?”
“Sleeping it off upstairs, I think. Could be he really is dead now, but somehow I doubt it.”
Grace frowned. “Won’t he…”
Sapphire smiled. “I left a guardian spell to watch over him.”
Cleo came in and let the door slam. She and Sapphire winced and held their heads. “Sorry about that. But golly, that guy sure needed a guardian angel to watch over him last night. He almost got into a fight with those adventurers off the beach.”
Sapphire laughed. “And despite all the booze, he had the wit to turn it into a drinking contest. I never saw that crew get so smashed.”
Cleo started to yell over to Beryl, then dropped her voice lower. “Hey Beryl! Ooh. I’ll bet you were glad they didn’t get into a fight.”
Beryl studied the glass he was polishing. “I wasn’t worried. Last time I told ‘em no drinking here until they paid for the damages, then showed ‘em I was serious. But you’re right – bar fights pay for cost, but drinking contests – well, I made out pretty good last night.”
Sapphire looked over at him. “What’s with you, Grumpy Puss? I didn’t see you here drinking last night.”
Animus glared at them. “The damn flying monkeys stole my nets.” They all burst out laughing. “Hey, it’s no joke! I thought I had ‘em trapped in that cave, and they went and took down my nets and packed ‘em off inside. Now that witch is on to me, and she’s going to be double trouble to get rid of next go ‘round. You do know that was Eeek’s cave I was trying to get back for him and his mama, don’t you? Where is he, by the way?”
Grace went over and patted his shoulder. “Never you mind. He’s with Dorothy.”
Sapphire came over as well. “Animus, we will put that witch on our to-do list. But, we’ve some pretty urgent things that need all our attention for awhile. Stay with us.”
Animus looked at her gravely, then nodded.
Cleo barked a quick laugh, and everybody winced. “After the amount you drank last night, I’m not surprised. You were so funny trying to do stage magic tricks while drunk. When that coin went down the female monk’s brassier, and you tried to dive after it…” Cleo chuckled, but they heard a low growl from the doorway.
D-Stract walked up and punched Flummox in the shoulder. Then her frown dropped and she smiled. “What about those interns, though? Do they know how to party or what?” The door slammed behind her. She winced and put her hands on her ears. She staggered forward blindly until she ran into Cleo.
Cleo steadied her. “Hang in there girl, this too shall pass.”
D-Stract slumped into a chair. “Hey, you were pretty cool last night, chasing the Visitor out after he spotted Mr. A.”
Cleo smiled grimly and drew her dagger. “I think I’m beginning to look forward to meeting him in a dark alley. Anybody want to give me odds?”
Everyone sat around just staring at each other miserably, and watching Cleo play with her dagger, until Rufus appeared, coming in from the street. “Ah, so you are all up. Beautiful morning, isn’t it?” Everyone (except Cleo) threw whatever was handy at him: peanuts, spoons, wadded up napkins, old biscuits, even a shoe someone had lost last night. “Hey, I’ve been working all night long while you guys partied. I thought you’d like to know what I’ve learned.”
Everyone groaned except Grace. She beckoned with her hand. “All right then, out with it.”
“Well, I’ve been keeping an eye on our buccaneer friends. None of them left the ship at all. In fact, the captain has had them marching patrols around the rails of the ship all night long. They seem to have swallowed Sapphire’s ‘Giant Crab-Man’ illusion hook, line, and sinker.”
Flummox raised a hand. “Never mind about that. Did you get a good look at Jugs streaking in her birthday suit onto the ship? What a lady!” D-Stract punched him in the shoulder again and he collapsed theatrically onto the table.
Rufus walked over to Sapphire, and held out a glass vial. “Here, a little pick-me up for our zombie friend. Olivia says it’s worth about a day’s magical energies, so perhaps it will recharge Mr. Autumn after yesterday’s exertions.”
Sapphire nodded, then groaned, holding her head. “Right.”
Grace frowned. “Don’t the interns usually stay sober Sunday nights? Didn’t they say something about having to go to work early on Mondays?”
Cleo nodded. “Yeah, they said something about that, but they felt cheated out of their Friday night fling, so they made up for it last night.”
Grace cocked her head. “So… as much drinking as you said they did, aren’t they going to be in even worse shape than you lot?”
D-Stract nodded. “Yeah, but they said they’re going to tough it out anyway. They are still expecting us for that tour this morning.”
Flummox sat up suddenly. “What’s it to be folks? Shall we stay here for Spamwich’s breakfast, or go check out the laboratory of the mad scientists?”
They exchanged glances, then stood up as one. Cleo glanced sadly back at the kitchen. “I guess you better go wake up Mr. A.”
Sapphire beckoned. “Come with me; I think I’ll need your help to carry him.”
Sapphire stepped forward, holding one corner of the sheet. “We’re here to visit the lab – by invitation.”
“Nobody told me. Then again, nobody tells me anything. Go away.”
Sapphire pulled the sheet apart to reveal the body of Mr. Autumn. “It’s just that we have another plague victim who needs medical examination.”
Sir Richard stepped back. “Plague? More plague? Get that corpse away from me!”
Sapphire pushed through the gate, and the rest of the group followed.
Sir Richard just stood back and sputtered. When the last of them was through the gate, he slammed it shut. “And let that be a lesson to you!”
The lab building ran along the outer wall to the left of the gate, with an inward sloping roof. There was a door on the near end, and a row of a dozen windows facing into the courtyard, some venting what could have been steam. Past the tower on the left were a collection of individual buildings along the adjoining wall and continuing on the segment after that, flanking the far gate. Across to the right was the Great Hall, while further to the right, in a sharp corner, were unused barracks and stables, in disrepair. A lone zombie drew water from a well without glancing at them, and carried a bucket through a healthy-looking garden into what must have been the kitchens, between the Great Hall and barracks.
Cleo tugged at her end of the sheet. “Come on, let’s go.”
Flummox stepped ahead as the group trudged along, and knocked on the lab door. It was actually held ajar by a brick doorstop, so he pulled it fully open. “Hello?”
The main lab filled the middle of the long, thin building. Little trap door skylights were propped open in the roof, giving a fair amount of light. The walls left and right were lined with small rooms, while the far end held darker, barred cages. The center of the room was filled with various tables and workbenches.
Nearest them was a large conference table, around which the four interns sat, holding their heads, and breathing in the vapors coming from steaming mugs. They barely noticed the group entering the lab; one raised a hand briefly.
Suddenly, out of the first room on the right, popped a lady dressed in green head to toe, with a white mask hanging below her chin, and a clipboard in her hands. “Hello there, I’m Dr. Green. The interns mentioned you would be dropping by for a tour. This is very excite…” She stopped suddenly as she noticed Mr. A. slung in the sheet. “Oh, you already have a specimen for me, fantastic. How about you put him in there.” She pointed to the first room on the left, which was outfitted with a two small cots, and bordered the castle wall.
Sapphire passed her corner of the sheet to Flummox, nodded her head towards the small room, and rounded on Dr. Green. “Hold on a minute, Doctor. This is Mr. Autumn, a friend of ours. He came in voluntarily for testing, and we promised him he’d be able to leave.” She jerked her head towards the barred cells in the back. “Not like the others.”
Dr. Green drew back. “Oh. Well, I understand. We’ll have to talk about that – perhaps he’s contagious.” She glanced at Cleo, who was swelling up, hand on dagger. “Though, probably not. But once you’ve had the tour, you’ll understand why the others can’t leave.”
There were introductions all around, and Dr. Green called over the boy intern in blue. “This is Bug, our microbiologist, if you know what that is. No one here seems to understand our work. At any rate, I think he’s best qualified to give you the tour. I have to work on my papers. So much cutting-edge knowledge to record, if you’ll forgive the pun. Of course my work will not be complete until you bring us a full set of specimens to examine.” She turned and yelled down the long lab. “Oh Dr. Zhivaga, we have a patient for you to examine.” She turned back. “Please, make yourselves at home. If you need anything, don’t hesitate to ask.” She turned and retreated into her little office.
Cleo smiled. “Sure, some biscuits would be great. And who… or what, are you?”
The weird blocky table answered in a depressed sort of drone. “You can call me Marvin. Everyone here does. Biggest brain in the universe and I’m reduced to carrying tea and crumpets for a crew that thinks the common cold is a catastrophe of pandemic proportions. Why, none of them care about the quantum flux from a black hole that is going to irradiate every living thing on this planet a million years from now and obliterate all life as we know it except for cockroaches, turnips, and green slime. None of them care about…”
Bug cut him off. “The biscuits, Marvin.”
The box turned and shuffled off. “Get the biscuits, Marvin. Take this across the room, Marvin. Hold still while I rest my glass on your head, Marvin. Never anything really important. My place here could be taken by one of those idiot zombies. Never a question about anything that really matters.”
Bug shrugged his shoulders. “Sorry about that. He goes on and on, but never really says anything. Ask him a question and all you get is sarcasm. He’s a real head case.”
Grace nodded. “We see what you have to deal with. Never mind. I’m excited about this tour.”
“Okay then, what you see is what you get. Each of us has a desk and bench space in the side rooms. All the group instrumentation is out here in the middle, but – no power, so we’re limited. They keep promising us better equipment, but – you met Bones, right? Just throws up his hands, says he can’t do anything in this ‘medieval’ place, and leaves us to buckle down and do all the work. Conditions are primitive, but we’ve still done some amazing things.”
A woman dressed in blue with a short white coat with bulging pockets hurried by. She carried a clipboard and a rubbery rope-like apparatus draped around her neck. “Mind your feet, I don’t want any dirt tracked through the lab. And don’t touch anything you don’t understand.” She scowled at them. “No, just don’t touch anything. Where did Dr. Zhivaga go?” She hustled off towards where they had left Mr. A.
Bug pointed after her. “That was Nurse Scrubs. She’s not really in charge, but she thinks she is, so watch out. I see you looking towards the back, so let’s go visit our patients first.”
At the far end of the lab, three cells were walled with iron bars. In the center was a gibbering maniac in a straight jacket. When he saw them, he moaned, he shrieked, he jumped about, spilling his water jug. He seemed to be trying to talk to them, but only managed to slobber and spit.
Everyone stepped back and looked at Bug. “Meet Dr. Gnoll. He was the first member of the lab, and led our team in the beginning. We believe he actually infected himself in order to test his proposed cure, but as you can see, it did not go well. Usually he is calm, but he always gets agitated like this when someone new comes in.”
Bug stepped to the cell on the left, and swung open the door without having to unlock it. “In here is Mrs. Iggy Yeah. The Visitor brought her in after an attack. She was slowly turning into a werewolf. After Dr. Gnoll was, well… unable to help any more, … Dr. Green tried to treat her, and Mrs. Exchequers. She was in the process of turning into a zombie. He was able to rid them both of their afflictions, but… well look for yourself, but don’t touch her. She won’t move but we don’t want to pass any infections back or forth. That’s what the bars are for, to remind us.”
In the third cell, Chessy Exchequers was much the same. “You can see that even though they had quite different afflictions, Dr. Green’s cure wiped out both infections. Unfortunately, it wiped out their metabolic cells as well. The only real difference between them now is that Iggy was a much larger woman than poor old Chessy, and that difference in mass remains. Otherwise, we can’t find any difference between them any more, medically speaking.”
Cleo spun her unstrung bow around, with its tip on the floor. “Uh, I guess I’ll be the one to ask. What’s a cell? I mean besides these rooms you’re holding them in?”
“A cell is the smallest element of life you can see in a microscope. Cells are like the bricks in the wall that make up your body, each with its own job to do. The metabolic cells convert energy into action.”
“Okay, so what’s a microscope?”
Bug stared at her a few seconds. “Come here, I’ll show you.” He led back to one of the middle rooms along the castle wall. He knocked on the door, then opened it. The room was dark, with a beam of light from the ceiling being redirected with mirrors. “Ms. Brown, I’d like you to meet some friends of ours. They’d like to see some metabolic cells. Could you explain how your microscope works?”
Ms. Brown was wearing a tan jacket, and was seated behind a cluttered table with a large apparatus. “Well, this is an optical microscope. You put your sample on this stage here, adjust the light so it shines on it, then look through here. This collection of glass lenses…”
“Oh, it’s a telescope!” Cleo beamed happily.
“Almost, but it’s backwards from that. This lets you see tiny little things instead of far away things.”
“How cool is that!?”
“So you wanted to see metabolic cells. Bug, there is a representative sample set. Why don’t you walk them through it? I need a brief break anyways.”
Bug nodded and took her seat. “Okay, you see around you all kinds of cells we’ve grown in the laboratory, some of which we’ve tried to kill or make grow with poisons, potions, and the like. Let me show you what a normal set of cells looks like.” He fiddled with the samples on the stage.
“This is a normal set of metabolic cells from the blood of a younger person, Duncan in this case.” Everyone took a peek. “Notice that about half of what you see are the normal yellow cells. These are held in a protective cocoon by the blue cells. A few cells wandering around loose are of the red type.” He switched around the sample.
“This is what a normal set looks like for an older person, in this case the Mr. S. Note how the free floating red cells have turned into a black version.” Again, everyone took a peak, and again Bug changed the sample out on the stage.
“This is what Dr. Gnoll’s cells look like. He has both red and black cells, enclosed in double the normal amount of blue stuff. He was trying to create a stable metabolic structure. You see the result. No normal yellow cells, no free roaming cells.”
Sapphire looked up from the microscope. “Okay, so what do undead or werewolf cells look like?”
Bug shook his head. “We don’t really know. I think Nurse Scrubs is getting a sample from your friend. We really need a sample from a werewolf, too. That’s where Dr. Green is hoping you can help out.”
“What about Iggy and Chessy?”
“We can’t seem to find any of the early samples from them. Dr. Gnoll seems to have either used them up or smashed them all. Here is what their blood looks like now.” Again he switched the samples.
Sapphire looked up. “So that’s the disease?”
Bug didn’t look happy. “Can’t be. I mean, we’ve got the same thing now from both Iggy and Chessy, and one was going vampire, one was going werewolf. It has to be a secondary infection that comes along after the normal system is trashed.”
“Ahem!” Everyone turned. It was Nurse Scrubs. “Stop leaning on the walls, it will make marks. Here is the sample you wanted.” She handed Bug a small vial and hurried off.
Bug shook his head and put a drop of blood on a piece of glass. “Now we’ll see what undead metabolic cells look like.”
Bug looked through the microscope for a long time, and the group started getting restless. “Fascinating. There are still normal yellow metabolic cells, but even more of the black cells. There seems to be no blue network holding them together, and there are a few of the purple cells wandering around. I’ve never seen free floating yellow cells before.” Everyone took a look. “The purple cells are already present. I still think they are an opportunistic infection, but it is already setting in, and the blue is gone. This is crazy. Perhaps we haven’t seen all the actors yet. What we need are people showing intermediate stages of each disease. I wish we could get more people to come in for study.”
Sapphire nodded. “Sounds like you need samples from Grief and Maude. And, by the way, since you seem to only need some blood – how about we fetch that in, rather than entire people? Have you got some extra vials I could have? And some needles too, of course.”
Bug nodded and rounded up some supplies.
D-Stract waved and called out. “Yoo-hoo Captain! Fine morning isn’t it? Hello there, Scarecrow.”
Flang raised a finger off his stick and looked back to the work in progress. The scarecrow, up in the rigging, waved mightily, lost his balance, and plummeted to the deck. A bundle of straw fell out, but he bounced right up and stuffed it back. “Good morning Miss D-Stract. Morning everybody.”
“We were actually looking for Hound. Is he working here with you today?”
The scarecrow turned. “Hey, has anybody seen Hound today?”
Roddie leaned over the side. “Hound. Have you seen him?”
Plunkett nodded. “Went off with that blonde in the grass skirt, ‘Dawn’ was it? They were talking about volcanoes and rocks and such. Try the south bridge, maybe?”
As they passed town hall, Sapphire held up a hand. “Wait here a minute.” She popped inside, and shortly emerged with a small vial, full of something very red. “That was easy. Poor man is desperate for help.”
Sapphire turned to Grace. “You know, much more of this and we’re going to have a whole lot more families here in the valley.”
Grace scowled. “Yeah, but it’s the wrong ones. We need to get some of these ladies out on the farms. That’s what the angels said.”
Sapphire nodded. “Okay, so we’ll work on it. Now there is a promising couple.” She pointed across the market place. There on the bank sat Dorothy and Eastwood, while Eeek played around them.”
Grace nodded. “That’s more like it, provided they take up farming.”
“Lord knows there are some openings.
As they came to the church, Sapphire again stopped them. “I’m going to go get a sample of Maude’s blood, and take both of these back to the lab. You guys go on without me.” With that she ducked into the church.
Cleo stepped forward. “Hey, Hound, got a minute?”
Hound looked around, glanced at Dawn, glanced back. “Sure. What’s up?”
“The gang and I were wondering when we could take you up on that offer to go up into the mountains. We thought we could give you a good escort, you know, with all the wolves that were around? Then you could meet the goblins, and we could…”
Flummox kicked her foot. “And we could meet them too. I’d really love to see those caves.” Cleo looked daggers at Flummox, and he gave her back the same in kind.
Hound glanced again at Dawn. “Okay, tomorrow morning, bright and early. Do you want to come too, Dawn?”
She batted her eyelashes. “Sure. Sounds like fun.”
Back at the lab, Sapphire gave the samples to Miss Brown who prepped them while Bug hovered over her shoulder. Soon they were looking at more metabolic cells.
Sapphire bit her lip. “He looks awfully sick, but he’s still fighting. He’s been fighting it a long time. So let’s look at Maude’s.”
“She’s slipping, not eating. And definitely trending towards undead.”
Bug sat back. “Okay, so we have two very clear patterns. As the normal yellow cell count falls off, the patients get sicker. Undead have half the normal amount, really sick people have very few yellows at all. This also confirms the trend that we see with age. The older you get, the higher the ratio of black to red cells, and in undead, black wins and red is gone. These two fighting things have a mix. I wish we knew what was causing it though. Still don’t understand the blue and purple cells. They are never found together, but is that cause or effect? Are they different entities, or is the purple a modified version of the blue? We really need to see what a mature werewolf looks like – the older the better.”
Sapphire nodded. “Okay, I think that’s in the works. Dead or alive, we’ll get you a sample from a mature werewolf. See you tomorrow — late.”
The rest of the day was taken up in preparations. They revived Mr. Autumn with Olivia’s potion, and saw him safely back to the Withers estate with no complications, where the tin man took custody. Cleo gathered more silver for arrowheads. Animus made sure they had plenty of climbing rope, while Grace packed their rations and then some. Sapphire was well stocked with blood sample vials. D-Stract made sure they had plenty of first aid supplies, and lots of Dahlia’s salve. Rufus watched from a distance as the buccaneers argued with one another, clinging to the safety of the ship as the crab-men lurked below. Flummox watched the mountains with some worry – flashes of light still occurred at intervals behind Monolith Mountain, and at times it looked like small bolts of lightning crawled around the mountain top. Darkness came too soon, though sleep was slow in coming as they considered the dangers that tomorrow held for them.