Terror at the Museum...A White Owl Adventure...
“...And the art gallery has a new exhibit of religious icons starting in January. As you can see from the handout, this looks to be a lucrative show.” Cassidy finished her presentation, then sat down.
Ajay Chatterjee, the director of the Queen City Museum of Natural History, harrumphed and glanced down at his watch and the agenda
.“This brings us to our final order of business,” he intoned. Several contented murmurs were heard, causing the director to look up with a raised eyebrow. “I am aware of the lateness of the meeting; but this is important.”Chagrined, I looked down at the long conference table, matching my face to Dr Chatterjee's. Somberly I looked up and saw most of my colleagues had done the same. Except for Professor Zemehd, who was still looking shocked and dismayed. Zemehd was the curator of the large animal exhibits at the museum, responsible for restorations of gorillas, elephants and more.
“And for sixty years of ongoing service to the Queen City Museum Center,” said Chatterjee, “ we want to extend our congratulations and best wishes to Professor Anton Zemehd on the occasion of his retirement...I'm certain we would all want to wish him well...”
“Dammit Chatterjee! You can't force me out to pasture like this! I've been working here since I was fifteen! No one preserves and represents their subjects better. I'm a legend!”
“But you're now a retired legend, Anton,” said Chatterjee, condescendingly. “Take some time to go fishing, visit relatives, relax! And quite frankly, the museum is moving away from taxidermy as a way to preserve exhibits. At 75, my friend, its time for you to...”
“It's time for me to show you! Show you ALL! You haven't heard the last of me, Chatterjee!” Professor Z stormed out of the conference room and we heard the clatter of a cart being turned over in the hall.
Chatterjee took a look then sighed. “I'm afraid the Professor's tantrum has cost us one large retirement cake, coffee and punch. I'll have maintenance come and clean it up. In the meantime, we are adjourned.”
Cassidy caught up to me as I made my way past the cake carnage. “I don't think I've ever seen Prof Z so uptight, Athena” she said.
“No, neither have I. But he has seemed a bit more on edge the last few weeks,” I said. I wonder how long this showdown has been brewing?”
“About 2 months, Dr Nikos,” I heard a heavily accented voice say.
“Good Afternoon, Director,” I said. “So what just happened back there?”
“Professor Zemehd HAS been working in the museum for nearly 60 years. He started as an apprentice with his predecessor, as you know.” I nodded and Chatterjee continued.“But his recent work has been less than exemplary. You know, he's one of the first naturalists to show his exhibits in their native environments?”
“Yes,” I said. “He started doing it ten years before it caught on anywhere else in the States. I consulted with him a few times as we set up a Mound Builders exhibit.”
Chatterjee nodded. “Well his latest work was far too frightening to display. It showed a hippopotamus killing a Zulu hunter in very vivid detail. Needless to say, this led to words, then to my asking for his resignation. He refused.“I could have fired him, and did—but we kept it hush hush, and I agreed to honor his work here, to retire him with some dignity. I THOUGHT we were agreed on that, but apparently I was mistaken."
Cassidy and I stood there dumbfounded at all the politicking that had occurred behind our backs. Foster from Security came up at that moment and nodded. “He's been politely escorted from the building, Director.”
“Will he be back?” asked Cassidy.“I don't think so,” said Chatterjee. “All of his access codes have been revoked and all of his keys accounted for.” He glared at the two of us. “Don't you have work to do?”
I winked at Cassidy and said, “Come on, we'd better get busy.” We made ourselves scarce for the rest of the day.
ELSEWHERE...A While Later
Sergeant Jim Harper had turned down several offers to move to plainclothes. He was a beat cop by nature, and no one knew his beat better than Jim. Costerman's Hill had a reputation for crime, but in Harper's neighborhood things were different. The people knew each other and trusted the beat office. Though he had a cruiser assigned to him, Harper preferred to walk the beat when he could. “It gives me a better picture of what's going on. And it promotes trust,” he'd informed his supervisors. Whatever it was, it worked, because Harper had been cited twice for gallantry and had earned the Top Cop award from his peers three times.He'd finished his shift, and was heading back to the cruiser to change into his civvies and head home for a night of television and reading. An older gentleman caught his eye, however, one who appeared to be having trouble getting into his car.“Can I help you sir?” asked Harper.“Oh yes officer, I think you can. I appear to have locked my keys in the car. Can you hep?”Harper looked into the passenger window. Sure enough, the keys dangled in the ignition lock. Smiling, Harper tried the handle on the back door. “You're in luck sir, the back door is unloc...UNHHHHH!!!”
The bat cracked against Sergeant Harper's skull with full fury, and the police officer saw stars. He reached for the mike on his uniform, trying to call in the assault, but a thick cloth with an ill smelling substance was pressed tightly against his face.
Woozy, Harper couldn't offer much resistance, and soon drooped against the concrete sidewalk, unconscious. The two men who had attacked him hefted the unconscious officer and carried him to an unmarked panel van behind the car.“Well that was easy, professor,” said one of the goons. “For a top cop he didn't even put up much of a fight.”
“Quiet you fool. I may have to reject him if you damaged his skull when you hit him! Why can't you be more careful Rigby? You aren't working for some cheap curio shop! These specimens have to be museum grade!”
The van pulled away from the curb and traveled slowly down Costerman's Hill toward a side street near the museum center. “Those fools frittered away my genius, thought they'd kept me out for good. As if mounting bears, gorillas and stupid birds was my life's work.”
The van turned into a dark abandoned subway tunnel entry underneath the museum. Zemehd and his associates lifted the sleeping policeman gently from the van and carried him to a working, but unknown freight elevator.“This subway was started in the 30's, the professor said. “And abandoned five years later with only a few stations being built. And since the Museum was moved to the old Union Station, this made a perfect extra workshop for me! No one knows about this elevator, or the sub basement I've been working in. That doddering idiot Chatterjee thought he'd seen the last of me. But he'll see. Anton Zemehd's greatest work goes on beneath his large nose!”
The elevator stopped with a gentle bump and Professor Zemehd opened the doors. “Quickly, bring him inside to my table. I must start work on this specimen immediately!”
“Chill professor! The chloroform we gave him should keep him out for at least another hour.”The henchmen set the police officer on the table and set his gunbelt and radio across the way on a counter. Boris went to get some straps, when Professor Zemehd heard a groan from the table. Whirling in shock, he saw Harper rolling, attempting to stand,
“Another HOUR?! Looks like you dosed it wrong. Hurry, give him a sedative before he gets away!”Harper put his hand to his head, feeling the goose egg left behind. He looked around at the unfamiliar setting and saw the two goons and the old man approaching him. He felt for his service pistol and found the belt gone. Rolling to his right, however, he saw a tray full of surgical knives.
Harper grabbed one and shouted in a raspy voice. “Back off! I don't know what game you're playing but I'm not going to play it with you.”He saw an open door behind him and ran into a dark gallery.
“Don't just stand there you imbeciles! Stop him! And don't damage him!”
“Yes, professor.”Harper ran, looking over his shoulder at the retreating light. His heart was racing and his mind still in a fog as he tried to figure out what was happening. He ran into a solid something. “What the devil?” He asked himself. “Feels like I ran into a wall of glass.”“Hey we don't know where he went Professor. Can you hit the lights?” Harper heard behind him.
Suddenly the room grew bright. Harper threw his hand over his eyes, then slowly lowered it as his pupils adjusted.What he saw sickened and shocked him. All around him were glass exhibition cases, filled with street scenes from Queen City. A mother and her daughter crossed at a light. Harper recognized them as two separate missing person cases from the previous year. Other tableau showed a mailman at a relay box, and a bank robbery in progress. The two robbers were on a BOLO that had crossed Harper's desk about a month ago. He stared in morbid fascination.
“Thanks Professor! We found him!” said the goon's voice behind him. “Take it easy Rigby, you know what the Prof said about damaging him.”
“I know Malloy.”
Harper clutched the knife he'd grabbed. “Get back, or I'll kill you both.”
Malloy tapped Rigby on the shoulder. “Look out! He's got one of the professor's knives.”
“I see that Malloy. I'm afraid I have no choice now!” Rigby pulled a pistol from his lab coat and pumped two bullets into Harper's chest. The Policeman folded like wet laundry and dropped onto the floor.
Professor Zemehd came running into the room. “What was that? What happened?” He spotted Harper on the floor and whirled on his associates. “Look at those HOLES! How COULD you? He was a nearly perfect specimen and you RUINED him.”“We know how important he was to you professor, and we're sorry. But it couldn't be helped,” said Rigby.
“Get him out of here! Now!”“Where should we take him?”“That's not my concern. Somewhere he won't be found for a while.”Malloy smiled. “I know just the place.”
The next morning I was yawning, wishing for a cup of dark roasted ambrosia. I was shivering on the pier next to Captain Donald Winslow of the Queen City Special Crimes Unit. Winslow seemed as impassive as ever, but I knew the grisly scene was ripping a hole in the staunch man.
“I trained Harper at the academy, White Owl. Best cadet I'd ever seen. I recommended him three times for SCU and he always turned it down. I'd say he was killed elsewhere and dumped here, since the body is so cold.”
Nearby a nervous man was talking with Detective Yemana. “I didn't touch anything detective! I watch enough cop shows on TV to know that much. Course I never dreamed I'd find a body.”
“You did a good thing Mr Matthews,” said Yemana. “Captain?”Winslow stepped over. “What do you have Nick?”“Something in his hand. Looks like some sort of knife. Ever seen one like that?”
I leaned over to have a look too.Winslow shook his head and lit a cigarette. “Nope, never seen one like that. Looks almost like a scalpel but it's too long. Still I figure Yorba in the lab can figure it out.”
He looked up and saw the hearse pulling in. “Looks like the coroner is here, we're done anyhow. Walk with me Owl?”
Though it was phrased as a question, I knew Winslow's command voice when I heard it. I stepped beside him as we walked to his Taurus.“This is personal,” he said. “Not only was Harper a cop, a top cop; he was also my friend. This is an SCU investigation and I want you up on it too. But it cuts both ways. I know you sometimes have information before I do, but if you get ANYTHING, I want you to share it, OK?”
I was taken aback by the sudden frank tone. “Of course, Captain. I always do.”
He grunted and nodded, then gave me a weak smile. “I'm sorry Owl, its just this is really getting to me.”
“Maybe you should go home, take a couple days off?” I suggested.
“I can't, I owe that much to Harper.” The engine started and Winslow drove off toward Police Headquarters. I flew off toward the roof of STAR labs, where I gathered my duffel bag, then flew on to the museum. I landed in an open bathroom window on the fourth floor, then quickly changed and made my way to my workshop. The lights in Professor Z's office were off, but I could see a gleam of surgical steel through the window.My recall clicked in. Taxidermist tools. The knife Sgt Harper had been carrying was a taxidermist's knife. I got to my workshop and left a message for Captain Winslow. He agreed to check out the shops in Harper's beat. I got to work piecing together an old pot from the Serpent Mound.
Ajay Chatterjee reflected on the changing daylight as he crossed the parking garage. Though it was only 7 pm, already the light was fading. The parking deck was nearly deserted and Chatterjee moved across it with something more than a trudge. Though he would never show it, He was content, as the petty, but benevolent ruler of this little domain. Still he dreamed of better days.He didn't notice the two men in lab coats until they stepped around the pillar. One held a thick cloth in his hand.
Chatterjee turned to run, but saw Professor Zemehd grinning. “I said you hadn't seen the last of me,” he cackled.Chatterjee felt two sets of strong arms around him, and the thick cloth covered his nose. He struggled briefly against the chloroform, then drooped unconscious in his attacker's arms.
“Now gently,” said Zemehd. “I don't want this one ruined like the last one! I have a very special place for him.”
I had been working late myself; losing track of time. I waved goodnight to Foster, then walked out onto the parking deck. I heard a cry for help begin, then stop. I looked around and saw three men carrying a fourth toward the back of the garage.
“No rest for the weary ,” I said. I stripped off my jacket and skirt, revealing the leotard I'd worn all day. My duffel bag yielded my boots, belt, gloves and mask and in less than a minute, White Owl stood in Athena's former place. I tossed my duffel into my jeep and flew across the parking garage. But the kidnappers (and their victim) had gone. I couldn't spot them in the stairwell, then I remembered the old freight elevator. It hadn't been used in years, or so I thought. I found the elevator shaft, unboarded. The lights were working, indicating the car was descending, but it dropped to three levels lower than I knew as the lowest. I waited five minutes, then pulled the doors apart with aloud metal shriek. The shaft was empty, and I glided down, ever lower. Gently I landed on the roof of the car, then slowly opened the access port.I swung into the car, and peered through the open door. I could hear voices in the distance, one of which sounded familiar. “Rigby, I can't find my tools! See if I left them in the elevator!”“Right away professor,” came a voice I assumed was Rigby's. I hovered just above the open door and watched as a stringy blonde haired man bent in for the satchel. With a practiced grace, I landed on top of him, knocking him to the floor, then putting him to sleep with a gas ball. I zip tied him then slipped into the hallway.
I made my way to the lighted room, hearing Professor Zemehd getting more and more angry.“Malloy, go find out what's keeping that pinhead! I'm more than capable of watching our guest here, now that we have him strapped to the table.”
The metal doors swung open and another gangly looking man walked out, a cigarette hanging from his lips. He made it halfway down the hall when my bop ball caught him square in the back of the cranium, dropping him like a Cobras receiver drops a pass.I had just finished zip tying Malloy when I became aware of a shadow looming over me.
Turning I felt a nick in my left shoulder and saw the hypodermic in Professor Z's hand. I struggled to get to my feet, but whatever the drug was, it was faster. I crumpled to the floor.
“You were always meant to be the capstone of my exhibit,” was the last thing I heard.
A bright light glared into my closed eyes, and I played possum a bit longer to get the lay of the land. Professor Zemehd was talking with someone, and from the dialog I could tell it wasn’t me.“You thought you'd seen the last of me didn't you! Get rid of the troublesome old fool., he's bad for the bottom line! But I showed you, Ajay. And soon your arrogance will be on display for the entire world!”
I opened my eyes, stirring a bit. “Hey boss, the Owl girl is waking up!”“What? Impossible! I gave her a triple dose. She should be sleeping for hours!”
“Never the less, Professor,” I replied with more bravado than I felt. “I'm awake, and I'm angry.”
“Bah, so what? You're also bound and helpless! You'll wait your turn to become the final touches of my exhibit of a slice of Queen City's life.” He pointed down into the gallery, and I could dimly see the bank robbery exhibit. “You'll be immortalized, stopping those criminals,” he said.
“N...No Thank You!” I said. With a tremendous tug, I pulled the leather straps holding my arms to the operating table apart. The metal squawked, falling to pieces.
“Stop her you idiots!” shouted Zemehd. But by the time he shouted, I had regained my toolbelt. I waited just a moment, then with a twirl of my wrist, the Bola Balls wrapped Malloy and Rigby together at the ankle. They sprawled forward, knocking the tray of knives across the floor.
Professor Zemehd dropped to his knees. “You wouldn't hurt a harmless old man, would you White Owl?”
“Just look at all this death you've caused! And you dare to call yourself harmless?” I raised my fist to punch the man, feeling it gently restrained .
“Don't lower yourself to his level kiddo,” I heard. Sparing a glance, I saw Captain Winslow and the rest of the SCU coming through the doors. With great reluctance, I agreed and lowered my fist.
“Here's the killer of your friend, Captain,” I said with no satisfaction.“I thought you were going to wait for us,” he said.
“I sent the signal, but a man's life was at stake,” I answered.
“Looks like yours was too.”I nodded. “If its all the same to you, I think I'll take the rest of the night off.”
“Don't worry, White Owl. You've earned it.”