"...And I will execute vengeance in anger and fury upon the heathen, such as they have not heard," Reverend Noah Whateley intoned, finally finishing his interminable sermon as he looked down on the ruin that had been his cousin Basil. With his burned-away hair, inhumanly mismatched eyes, and skin that had been patched back on, Basil was more a horror out of Mary Shelley's novel than a human being. But members of the Whateley family were used to grotesquery, if they spent any time with their kin.
"Fat lot of good that will do," Basil retorted caustically, his voice raspy and grating. "Got His ass handed to Him last time He showed up. And I haven't seen Him rain much fury on those who burned the old mansion down."
The Reverends mouth set in a hard line. "The Lord Knicknevin does not execute His vengeance to suit your whim or mine. His vengeance shall come with the Last Kingdom, and then His reprisals shall be sure and comprehensive. Do not doubt that those who burned you shall receive back that torment sevenfold."
Basil forestalled a further tirade by holding up his right hand. Noticeably larger than his left one and roughly calloused, it had once belonged to a cowpoke with the Morgan Cattle Company who had met with an unfortunate accident. Basil could have wished for something with a little more in the way of artistic sensitivity, but he was growing used to his new body parts. He was lucky to have his 'ranch' hand at all, or so his family kept telling him.
"Your point is made, Reverend," Basil rasped, then shifted to a more conciliatory tone. "Im sorry, I spoke out of pain. Im not in the mood for doctrine this afternoon. Thank you for coming up to keep me company, I do appreciate your effort, but I want to be alone for a little while. I have some preparations to make." It was a lie. Basil didn't believe Knicknevin's Last Kingdom was coming any more than he believed that vermin-ridden clotpole Elijah knew what his penis was for, but he was tired of the Reverend's twisted mix of hellfire evangelism and Family history. Still, Katie Karl getting seven times Basil's own torture was a thought he could warm to.
The reverend stood and held up a hand in solemn benediction, "Child of the Scourge, in the Last Kingdom shall your hurts be healed, and swift vengeance be dealt to those who have raised their hands against you."
Basil bowed his head in ostensible respect, and watched his black-clad cousin walk out the door.
Once the Reverend Noah was gone, Basil snatched at his cane and used it to lever himself out of the brass-framed bed. He might have a new hand, but neither Dr. Jenkins nor precious cousin Jack had been able to do anything about Basil's mangled foot. Even healing magic needed something to work from.
Gritting his teeth at the stabbing pains every time he set his stump down, Basil lurched over to his work area and collapsed, panting, into a chair. On his painting desk was his goal and treasure--a small, intricately carved red laquer box. Releasing a small catch, Basil opened it, revealing the ornate silver hypodermic lying next to a pair of ampules, all nestled snugly in black velvet. One of the little vials was completely empty, but the second had a small amount of clear fluid in it. That little bit of morphine was going to have to last Basil at least another week.
Quickly, he plunged the needle into the vials rubber stopper, and drew a little of the precious fluid into the needle. He hesitated for a moment--the more he used now, the less he would have to keep him until his next irregular shipment came. He wavered for a moment, then syphoned off three quarters of the remaining fluid. Tomorrow would have to take care of itself.
If Basil's hands shook a little as set his hypodermic down and wrapped the leather strap around his bicep, he told himself that it was from the pain. He got the cincture tight around his arm, found a good vein, and plunged the needle in. Pressing the plunger slowly, Basil completely emptied the contents into his arm. After carefully returning the hypodermic to its place in the box, he feverishly unbuckled the cincture.
In less than a minute, Basil was enveloped by a warm, familiar rush of comfort, and his head began to clear. Now he would be able to paint again, without the constant torture of his leg. His natural calm and self-assurance reasserted themselves. He shouldn't have been so short with Noah, but Basil didn't really care enough to pursue it further. With a languid gesture, he reached over and removed the cover from his current painting.
He took a moment to look at the figure of the small child. It was coming along nicely--he'd managed to capture the candle-light falling on her nightgown fairly well, and the long shadows behind her were black and impenetrable, yet still pregnant with menace. Still, he wasn't satisfied with her face, and he was going to have to work on it today. He hadn't yet been able to get her look of surprise quite right. And her empty eye sockets weren't dark enough.
He whispered as he worked, both to himself and to the girl in the painting, chanting at the proper intervals to keep the magical binding tight. It was just when he'd managed to get her eyes exactly right when there was a there was a knock on the door, and Basil was brought crashing back into his afflicted body.
"What is it?" he snapped, irritated at the interruption. He had no idea how long he'd been painting. Some time, judging from the pain beginning to lick up his leg.
Nicodemus slowly opened the door and stood in the frame, whole and perfect and pretty. He reminded Basil of everything he had taken for granted before the fire--walking easily on two good legs, for example. Normally, Nicodemus seemed to avoid Basil, but Basil suspected his dandified cousin had other reasons for remaining out of his sight than sparing Basils feelings.
"Good afternoon, Cousin." Even Nicodemuss smooth voice mocked Basil, who'd once had a mellow baritone. "I was wondering how you are today."
"I was enjoying the time alone with my painting," Basil said sulkily. "More work to go up in the gallery, and I need both models and materials. Do you suppose Cousin Ruth might be convinced to pose for me?"
"I think it depends on what you offer her," Nic said with a sly smile that Basil didnt appreciate. Nicodemus could be so... base at times.
"Why are you here?" Basil asked suddenly, hoping he to get the interruption over with. "I can't say it delights me to see you, and I don't expect you came here to see about my health. What do you want?"
Nicodemus stepped into the room and quietly closed the door behind him.
"I need to talk to you about Knicknevin's return and the Last Kingdom." It was no secret that Nicodemus was less than pleased about the Family's dealings with the Lost Angels. And if the high and mighty huckster hadnt yet openly defied Jebediah, everyone in the Family knew it was only a matter of time.
"That's Family business, and we are expected to do what our elders tell us to," Basil said blandly, mouthing exactly what Nicodemus didn't want to hear.
"And if you were forced to choose, say between Jebediah and myself," Nicodemus supplied with deceptive mildness.
"I would have to side with Jebediah, since he's the elder and more experienced member of the Family," Basil said with flat dogmatism. "Assuming I were forced to decide. Unless I was convinced otherwise." The dandys ever-present smile faltered only for a moment, but the lapse was a savage joy to Basil.
"What do you want," Nicodemus asked, any anger undetectable under his cool facade.
"I want a servant again. I'm sick of having to do everything for myself, like I'm some damn poor vermin in the street. We're a wealthy and powerful family, and it behooves us to have more than one house servant."
"What, you mean like the Figure, or another Nebuchadnezzar?" Nicodemus asked with disarming pleasantness.
"And I suppose you know where Grandmother got Nebuchadnezzar from," Basil snarled. The dandy wouldnt be so damn smug if he knew how much Basil had been reading in the Badb Nemain. "And somehow, I can't see our own harbinger of Death being pleased to bring my soup or picking up supplies at the art store. You want me to stay off Jebediah's side, you're going to get Armitage back." Armitage could fly. Unlike the poky stages and occasional trains out of Shan Fan, Armitage could make it to Shan Fran and back with a shipment of morphine in a single night.
"You have an awful high opinion of your usefulness," Nic growled, the friendly veneer utterly gone.
"I hate listening to you whine, Nicodemus," Basil said, narrowing his eyes. "Maybe you shouldn't have lost Armitage the first place."
"While your fat, crippled carcass was wallowing in bed," Nicodemus snarled. "I was risking my life for the Family, which includes you, whether I like it or not."
"Harsh words for someone whos looking for a favor," Basil said with languid malice. He'd always played second fiddle to the more flashy Nicodemus, and now he had a rare opportunity to lord over his self-aggrandizing cousin. The huckster dandy gave Basil a look that would have made a rattlesnake swallow its own poison, but Basil would not be intimidated. He'd come to know a thing or two about pain, as well as a few dark secrets even the powerful Nicodemus wasnt aware of.
"Next time I darken your door, I'll have your winged sweetheart with me," Nicodemus said with dark acid. "And I expect you to stay out of anything between Jebediah and me. If you get involved, what you got when the mansion burned is going to seem like a walk in the park."
"Whatever you say, cousin," Basil said dismissively, and turned back to his painting.
Nicodemus fumed silently for a moment, then stalked out the door.
With his intrusive cousin gone, Basil gleefully dipped his brush into a small cup of aqueous humor, and continued with his painting.
* * *
Gabriel Whateley was easy to find if you knew where to look. Nicodemus just followed a crow until it took him to his dead cousin. Today, the process took him a good three hours, which wasn't any sort of picnic lugging his heavy carryall, but Nicodemus knew he'd be better off with it than without. His cousin was sprawled on a rock in the middle of the Gomorra desert with half a dozen crows circling him. As Nicodemus approached, the dead man roused himself, sat up, and grinned. Nic broke into a smile himself; Gabriel was a Whateley that Jebediah didnt know was in Gomorra. Nic might have lost his faith in Knicknevin, but he wasn't about to turn his back on his Family.
"I thought you were looking for me, Cousin," the dead man said with a surprisingly pleasant voice. One hand groped around until it found his wide-brimmed hat, and put it on.
"No one else can find things the way you can, Gabriel," Nic said pleasantly, as he brushed the grit off a moderately flat rock, then sat down.
"Got that right," Gabriel said, flashing his cousin a grin of unassailable confidence. "What do you need?"
"I need to locate someone the Collegium kidnaped. Unfortunately, I don't know much more than that."
Gabriels grin faltered. "That's going to be some tricky. Who is it?"
A large crow settled onto Gabriels shoulder, neatly avoiding the hat's wide brim. It shifted agitatedly from one foot to the other, head cocked inquisitively at Nicodemus.
"I think Armitage got himself caught and hauled off by those Collegium puddin' heads while everyone else was off at Gulgoleth." Nicodemus said with some disgust. "Now I have to find him."
Gabriel nodded, the crow on his shoulder mimicking his gesture. "Do you figure it's at their compound?"
"Dunno," Nicodemus said laconically, bringing a cold bottle out of his carryall. "I hope not, but that's the place I would start. I heard that someone saw something that looked like him flying around not too long ago. You want a beer?"
Wordlessly, Gabriel held up his hand and caught the bottle Nicodemus tossed at him. Together, they cracked open the brews, and drank.
"Good stuff," Gabriel said, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. "Nice and cold going down. You sit there a spell, Nicodemus, and I'll see what I can spy out." Gabriel's eyes rolled up into his head as he turned his attention to his murder of crows. His empty body flopped back on the rock, exactly as it had been when Nicodemus first arrived. A crow stood at each cardinal point around the body, occasionally looking left or right in an strikingly intelligent fashion. Nic hauled another beer from his carryall and uncorked the bottle. He was in for a wait.
Somewhat less then two hours later, Nicodemus was trying to trying to figure out if his black lightnin' was actually faster than a bullet. A line of alternately shattered and melted bottles had not yet conclusively proven either attacks superior quickness. The ice in his leather carryall had melted and gone so far as to evaporate in Gomorras dry heat.
Gabriel's body suddenly jumped as if electrified, sending his four uncanny sentinels cawing into the sky.
"You got something?" Nicodemus asked, not breaking his concentration.
"You were right, it's at the Collegium compound," Gabriel said, sitting up unsteadily. He cocked his head, birdlike, at Nicodemus. "I think they're torturing it, somehow."
Nicodemus wondered how good a job they were doing. Likely the Collegium were a bunch of amateurs.
"Are you certain it's him? I don't want to break into Hardingers Emporium of Death Rays unless you're really sure it's Armitage." Nicodemus drew five cards from his coat pocket with his left hand as he drew and fired a pistol with his right. The double explosions rolled across the desert floor, and bottle was reduced to smoking slag.
"Not unless you can think of anyone else in that madhouse that would be cursing someone named Ambrose's ancestry in Aramaic," the Harrowed man clucked his tongue at something Nicodemus couldn't hear. "Yep, it's Armitage. Nobody else has got a mouth quite that foul."
Frowning, Nicodemus walked up to the remains of the bottle, and considered his evidence. His bullet had ricocheted off the rock at the correct angle, meaning that the bottle had melted before the bullet had reached it. Five to four in favor of the hex. Nic nodded to himself, and turned away.
"Thank you, Gabriel. If you need anything, you know where to send a bird." Nicodemus waved offhandedly to his cousin, and started his long walk home, deep in thought.
Given the monotony of the Gomorra deserts skyline, it wasn't long before Nic had an idea.
* * *
Sunrise the next morning saw Nicodemus approaching the gates to the Collegium, an older figure in worn clothing following him. Standard procedure for guards at the Collegium gate was to report anything strange, and not let anyone they didn't know in. Slim was sure that Nicodemus Whateley and a saddle tramp approaching the gate was unusual, but he wasn't exactly sure how he was going to report it to the scientist on duty, and Eppy was about as much help as a boot seller was to a snake. Should he report them? After all, Slim had heard the worst sorts of stories about Nicodemus Whateley. While they debated the quandary, Nicodemus and his friend had managed to get fairly close to the gate.
"Hold it!" Slim said as Eppy pulled his Gatling revolver. "What's your business?" Slim closed the circuit on the security board, and heard the reluctant groan and slow, heavy squeak of massive gears as the eighty-ton Electrothermic Entropy Projector pointed its enormous muzzle at the gate. At the flick of a second switch, Slim could vaporize the Whateley huckster, along with the gate and a fair amount of the approach road.
Nicodemus flashed a winning smile that did nothing to allay the guards' fears. "I have come at Professor Jacynth Ambrose's request. She said she's been dealing with some--aaah, unusual critters, and let on that she was looking for an expert."
Slim glanced at Eppy, then turned quickly back to the huckster. "No offence intended, Mr. Whateley. Its just that, well, it seems rather out of character for you."
"Alright, you caught me," Nicodemus said cheerily. Slim wondered how much coffee the dandy had already had this morning. "I was planning on invading your precious compound under cover of daylight and running off with your impressive Entropy Projector." With an ironic gesture, Nicodemus indicated the building-sized gun that stood pointing at him.
Neither of the two guards were exactly sure how to respond to that.
"That was a joke, boys." Nicodemus said, suddenly in deadly earnest. The guards eyes grew wide as Nicodemuss neat shirt roiled unaccountably for a moment, then went still. Slim glanced at Eppy, wondering what to do, and was rather annoyed to see Eppys eyes had glazed over like he was sleepwalking. Alarmed, Slim looked at Nicodemus, who was suddenly holding a hand full of cards. After that, he didn't remember anything at all.
Eppy came to with a start, to see Slim, Nicodemus, and the saddle bum standing over him. Inside the gate.
"Your friend here seems to need a drink," the purple-clad huckster said to Slim, who nodded, and handed Eppy his canteen.
Eppy, confused, took a healthy drink of water.
"Got to watch these Gomorra nights," the drifter in Nicodemus's shadow said. "The dry sneaks right up on you, if'n you haven't et enough salt."
"Let's go, Gareth," Nicodemus said impatiently. "Mr. Slim, make sure that you let us go without any hassle when we come out, alright?"
"Yes Mr. Nicodemus," Slim said dully.
"Much obliged," Nicodemus said politely. "Now, would you tell us the way to find Professor Ambrose's laboratory?"
"In the basement. Take the first stairwell on your right, go down, and it'll be the third door on your left. I dunno if she'll be in there yet. Her lab's going to be locked, and you'll have to wait until she gets there."
"Thank you, my good man," Nicodemus said with exaggerated courtesy. "You may go back and guard the front gate like you always do until you are relieved."
Slim trudged back to his post. Eppy had the nagging feeling that not everything was as it should have been, but there was nothing he could put his finger on. Probably it was just his embarrassment at having passed out in front of the dangerous Nic Whateley.
The Collegium's new place was surprisingly elegant, for something that had been assembled in the last year. Nicodemus wondered if it was Klippstein, Zarkov or Hardinger who had shipped in the walnut wainscoting. It couldn't have been cheap.
Owing to the early hour, it seemed the majority of the local mad scientists were still asleep. The marble floors echoed loudly as Nicodemus and Gareth walked down the hallways.
They followed Slims directions, which led them to a broad, thick oak door with "Professor Jacynth Ambrose" burned into it. Nicodemus perfunctorily tested the knob, and was surprised to find it unlocked. Silently, he opened the door a crack, and put his eye to it. He could just barely make out two figures clustered around a third which was strapped to an examination table. Someone was an early riser, but neither the man or the woman looked like the wasp-wasted Ambrose.
As quietly as possible, Nicodemus opened the door and slipped in, followed by Gareth. When they were through, he silently closed and locked the door. The two white-clad figures were still engaged in a quietly furtive conversation, occasionally poking at the silver figure laid out on a tilted table, its wings spread fan-like behind it. The humans' faces were covered with some strange sort of breathing apparatus or bandage, and it was these that told Nicodemus what was going on.
"Dr. Hardstrom," Nicodemus said. "Do you think Ms. Ambrose would approve of you tampering with her experiment?"
Hardstrom and his assistant jumped like naughty children caught stealing candy, then grew still when Hardstrom saw Gareths gun aimed at his head.
"Move over to the corner like a pair of intelligent people, and no one will get hurt," Nicodemus lied. The scientists complied, moving into a corner of the room, and Gareth closed in to keep them covered.
Nicodemus approached the table on which Armitage was strapped. The abomination's skin had been layered with minutely jointed metal plates. Nic was particularly impressed by delicately careful work that covered the Armitage's neck and jaws. One of th abomination's eyes was gone, and Nicodemus could see where someone had done some cutting into the horror's thick skull. They must have taken out whatever had let Armitage whisper in Nicodemus's mind, since he hadnt heard Armitage's damned urging in more than a month. It also appeared that they hadn't been particularly gentle with the green abomination, either. Nic approved.
Armitage seemed to focus on Nic for the very first time. "Took you long enough, you dung-eating chucklehead," it said in a gravelly, bass voice that Nicodemus had learned to hate. "Get me of this damn table so I can find that harridan Ambrose. I want to feel her intestines falling over my wrists when gut her. I'm going to shove her liver so far up her--"
"Shut up," Nicodemus snapped. "We're getting you out of here, but you cant go after Jacynth now."
The abomination snarled and swelled, his remaining green eye flashing red in his fury.
"I'll leave you to here to her tender mercies in a heartbeat," Nic said with deadly seriousness.
Hissing in frustration, Armitage subsided, and lay limp in the table's restraints.
Nic turned to the two prisoners, and signaled Dr. Hardstrom to approach. Hardstrom stepped up warily.
"What are we going to do with you, Dr. Hardstrom?" Nicodemus mused aloud. "We can't leave you here to raise an alarm when we leave. I could leave you strapped to that table, but then Dr. Ambrose would know you'd been sniffing around her project. Maybe we should take you with us, just in case Armitage there goes berserk or starts to rust."
"There's no way youll be able to elude the Collegium's security if you kidnap me," Hardstrom said with a patient, reasonable, and insufferably condescending tone. "Would you let us go if I swore on my honor as a doctor I wouldn't raise the alarm when you left?"
"Please," Nicodemus said sourly, thinking of his ineffectual cousin Jack. "I've known too many doctors."
"Then you're in a mite of trouble," Hardstrom stated, crossing his arms in front of his chest. "Since Ambrose is going to be here in less than half an hour, and you can't afford to shoot me for fear of waking the building. Your best bet is going to be taking your creature and letting us go."
"Let me make you an offer." Nicodemus's voice grew honeyed. "The Whateley family needs a doctor that knows something about... divergent biologies. How would you like unparalleled access to unusual specimens, along with the impressive financial resources that the Whateley family can offer you. I'd be willing to bet you and Dr. Jenkins of Ghost Creek would have a lot to talk about, certainly more than Professor Ambrose, seeing as you had to sneak in here to get a look at her handiwork."
Hardstrom seemed to think about that for a minute.
"Don't think Im not tempted," he said, his voice rich with an oily sincerity Nic didnt believe for a minute. "But I've already made a commitment to the Collegium. I hope you understand."
Nic nodded. He took his eyes off Hardstrom just long enough to glance over at Gareth, who was still holding his gun on Hardstrom's lab assistant.
Gareth shrugged and holstered his gun. Even as the woman drew breath to scream, Gareth placed his gloved left hand over her mouth, and reached for the knife in his belt. More determined than Nic would have given her credit for, Hardstrom's lab assistant kneed Gareth in the groin, doubling him over. She grasped a decanter half-full of some yellowish liquid, and broke it over his narrow skull. Gareth went down in a heap, and the she was already sprinting for the door.
She was three strides from the exit when green witchfire lashed out from Nicodemus's outstretched hand. The woman went utterly limp midstride and collapsed, dead before she hit the floor.
Nicodemus turned back to Hardstrom as casually as if he had just purchased a pair of shoes.
"I understand your loyalty, Doctor, but you're coming to work for the Family whether you like it or not." Nicodemuss eyes bored into the Doctor's, until Hardstrom felt that gaze searing his soul. "Believe me when I say that your cooperation is entirely unnecessary. If you try anything clever, I promise you an agonizingly and slow death, and that only the first of many. Do I make myself clear?"
Gareth roused himself and noisily climbed to his feet, sparing Hardstrom necessity of replying.
"Whats our escape plan, Nic?" Gareth grunted, shaking his head to clear it. "I can't make the whole damn building forget we were here."
"Shut up and let me think" the huckster said harshly. He glanced about the room, at the bank of unidentified yellowish and green fluids in jars, and then at the platter of surgical instruments that lay next to Armitages prone form. Finally, his gaze came to rest on a trio of litters carelessly piled in a corner.
"Here's the plan," he finally said. "Armitage and Gareth are going to carry me on a litter, with a sheet over me. Dr. Hardstrom, you'll be in the lead. You'll lead us to the stables and get a stage and team, and then we're home free. Armitage, the first sign of trouble, rip out the good doctor's spine, and get out. Gareth and I will fend for ourselves. We'll come back for Hardstrom after they bury him if necessary." The last was entirely for the doctor's benefit--Dolores could animate the dead, the Family hadn't been able to reliably raise Harrowed since Wilhelmina's death.
Armitage winked at the doctor, and licked its lips with a disturbingly prehensile tongue. Dr. Hardstrom was visibly shaken.
"You can't eat him," Nicodemus said harshly as he released Armitage's restraints. Once free, the abomination stretched its wings and flexed its cruel claws, reveling in its freedom. Neither Nicodemus nor Dr. Hardstrom took their eyes off it for some minutes, while Gareth grabbed a stretcher and found a sheet mottled with old bloodstains.
"You would come up with a plan that has you being carried out," Gareth complained as he adjusted the sheet over Nic's still form. Armitage simply continued to eye the doctor with an unmisrakable gleam of hunger in it's eye, and Hardstrom stayed very, very still.
"I'm a bit more well known in this town than you are," Nicodemus's voice drifted up through the sheet. "Now clam the Hell up and this just might work."
As they were carrying Nicodemuss litter out the laboratory door, Hardstrom made a dash for it. Armitage quickly let Nicodemus's feet drop and caught the fleeing doctor in two long strides. Steel-sheathed claws clamped onto each side of Hardstrom's head, and lifted his struggling form off the floor.
"You do that again," it whispered, it's repulsively long tongue licking up the beads of sweat that had suddenly appeared on the doctors forehead. "And I'll tear you into pieces so small, the worms won't even have to chew."
After that, the three of them moved with cautious rapidity, Dr. Hardstrom frequently glancing behind him to make sure that the litter wasn't too far behind him. The walk seemed to take an eternity to Nicodemus, who only had a brown bloodstain to look at. And brown was definitely not a color that suited Nicodemus.
They passed a few early risers, and Nicodemus thought he heard Hardstrom murmur greetings to greet Cynthia Kingston and Maurice Foster.
Half the Collegium's stable was given over to steam wagons, crowding the horses, and few true carriages were stored there any longer. As a result, it wasn't staffed as heavily as Nicodemus had worried it might be. The only person they encountered was a stable girl, who helped Gareth and Hardstrom get four good horses into their traces. Armitage stood by Nicodemus, so as not to spook the horses, but every time Hardstrom glanced at he abomination, he could see the thing watching him hungrily.
A few tense moments later, they were ready. Armitage gathered up the still form of Nicodemus and thrust him none-to-gently into the coach. After making sure Dr. Hardstrom was securely inside, Gareth climbed into the driver's seat, and clicked the horses into motion. Armitage stood on the sideboard like the gargoyle footman in a nightmare fairy tale, making the rig list severely.
Once they were outside the stable, Nicodemus removed the sheet and sat facing the doctor he was abducting.
"They arent going to let us out," the doctor said reasonably. "Not with you sitting back there."
Nicodemus snickered. "If you're so smart, why are you being kidnaped?"
Gareth slowed the horses to a walk as they approached the gate, but he needn't have bothered. As soon as they were within earshot of the two guards, Nicodemus leaned out the window and bellowed "Open the gate!"
One of the guards pulled a Gatling pistol, but the other hastened to the controls. Slowly, the gate opened. In a rush, the coach was through it, and a minute later the wind brought back the sound of laughter as the carriage galloped off into hot California morning.