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Chapter 7 Mulch

 TIME to introduce a new character to our otherworldly pageant. Well, not strictly speaking a new character. We have encountered him before, in the LEP booking line. On remand for numerous larcenies: Mulch Diggums, the kleptomaniac dwarf. A dubious individual, even by Artemis Fowl's standards. As if this account didn't already suffer from an overdose of amoral individuals.

 

Born to a typical dwarf cavern-dwelling family, Mulch had decided early that mining was not for him and resolved to put his talents to another use, namely digging and entering, generally entering Mud People's property. Of course this meant forfeiting his magic. Dwellings were sacred. If you broke that rule, you had to be prepared to accept the consequences. Mulch didn't mind. He didn't care much for magic anyway. There had never been much use for it down the mines.

 

Things had gone pretty well for a few centuries, and he'd built up quite a lucrative above-ground memorabilia business. That was until he'd tried to sell the Jules Rimet Cup to an undercover LEP operative. From then on his luck had turned, and he'd been arrested over twenty times to date. A total of 300 years in and out of prison.

 

Mulch had a prodigious appetite for tunnelling, and that, unfortunately, is a literal translation. For those unfamiliar with the mechanics of dwarf tunnelling, I shall endeavour to explain them as tastefully as possible. Like some members of the reptile family, dwarf males can unhinge their jaws, allowing them to ingest several kilos of earth a second. This material is processed by a super-efficient metabolism, stripped of any useful minerals and ... ejected at the other end, as it were. Charming.

 

At present, Mulch was languishing in a stone-walled cell in LEP Central. At least, he was trying to project an image of a languishing, unperturbed kind of dwarf. Actually, he was quaking in his steel-toe-capped boots.

 

The goblin/dwarf turf war was flaring up at the moment and some bright spark LEP elf had seen fit to put him in a cell with a gang of psyched-up goblins. An oversight perhaps. More likely a spot of revenge for trying to pick his arresting officer's pocket in the booking line.

 

'So, dwarf,' sneered the head-honcho goblin, a wart-faced fellow covered in tattoos. 'How come you don't chew your way outta here?'

 

Mulch rapped on the walls. 'Solid rock.'

 

The goblin laughed. 'So what? Can't be any harder than your dwarf skull.'

 

His cronies laughed. So did Mulch. He thought it might be wise. Wrong.

 

'You laughin' at me, dwarf?'

 

Mulch stopped laughing.

 

'With you,' he corrected. 'I'm laughing with you. That skull joke was pretty funny.'

 

The goblin advanced until his slimy nose was a centimetre from Mulch's own. 'You pay-tron-izin' me, dwarf?'

 

Mulch swallowed, calculating. If he unhinged now, he could probably swallow the leader before the others reacted. Still, goblins were murder on the digestion. Very bony.

 

The goblin conjured up a fireball around his fist. 'I asked you a question, stumpy.'

 

Mulch could feel every sweat gland on his body pop into instant overdrive. Dwarfs did not like fire. They didn't even like thinking about flames. Unlike the rest of the fairy races, dwarfs had no desire to live above ground. Too close to the sun. Ironic for someone in the Mud People Possession Liberation business.

 

'N-no need for that,' he stammered. 'I was just trying to be friendly.'

 

'Friendly,' scoffed wart-face. 'Your kind don't know the meanin' of the word. Cowardly back-stabbers, the lot of you.'

 

Mulch nodded diplomatically. 'We have been known to be a bit treacherous.'

 

'A bit treacherous! A bit treacherous! My brother Phlegm was ambushed by a crowd of dwarfs disguised as dung heaps! He's still in traction!'

 

Mulch nodded sympathetically. 'The old dung heap ruse. Disgraceful. One of the reasons I don't associate with the Brotherhood.'

 

Wart-face twirled the fireball between his fingers. 'There are two things under this world that I really despise.'

 

Mulch had a feeling that he was about to find out what they were.

 

'One is a stinkin' dwarf.'

 

No surprises there.

 

'And the other is a traitor to his own kind. And from what I hear, you fall neatly into both categories.'

 

Mulch smiled weakly. 'Just my luck.'

 

'Luck ain't got nothin' to do with it. Fortune delivered you into my hands.'

 

On another day, Mulch might have pointed out that luck and fortune were basically the same thing. Not today.

 

'You like fire, dwarf?'

 

Mulch shook his head.

 

Wart-face grinned.

 

'Now ain't that a shame, 'cause any second now I'm going to ram this here fireball down your throat.'

 

The dwarf swallowed drily. Wasn't it just typical of the Dwarf Brotherhood? What do dwarfs hate? Fire. Who are the only creatures with the ability to conjure fireballs? Goblins. So who did the dwarfs pick a fight with? What a real no-brainer.

 

Mulch backed up to the wall.

 

'Careful there. We could all go up.'

 

'Not us,' grinned wart-face, snorting the fireball up two elongated nostrils. 'Completely fireproof.'

 

Mulch was perfectly aware what would happen next. He'd seen it too many times in the back alleys. A group of goblins would corner a stray brother dwarf, pin him down, and then the leader would give him the double barrels straight in the face.

 

Wart-face's nostrils quivered as he prepared to vent the inhaled fireball. Mulch quailed. There was only one chance. The goblins had made a basic mistake. They'd forgotten to pin his arms.

 

The goblin drew a breath through his mouth, then closed it. More exhalation pressure for the fire stream. He tilted his head back, pointing his nose at the dwarf, and let fly. Quick as a flash, Mulch jammed his thumbs up wart-face's nostrils. Disgusting, yes, but definitely better than being dwarf kebab.

 

The fireball had nowhere to go. It rebounded on the balls of Mulch's thumbs and ricocheted back into the goblin's head. The tear ducts provided the path of least resistance, so the flames compressed into pressurized streams, erupting just below the goblin's eyes. A sea of flame spread across the cell roof.

 

Mulch withdrew his thumbs and, after a quick wipe, thrust them in his mouth, allowing the natural balm in his saliva to begin the healing process. Of course if he'd still had his magic, he could have just wished the scorched digits better. But that was the price you paid for a life of crime.

 

Wart-face didn't look so good. Smoke was leaking from every orifice in his head. Flameproof goblins may be, but the errant fireball had given his tubes a good scouring. He swayed like a strand of seaweed, then collapsed face down on the concrete floor. Something crunched. Probably a big goblin nose.

 

The other gang members did not react favourably.

 

'Look what he did to the boss!'

 

'That stinkin' stump.'

 

'Let's fry 'im.'

 

Mulch backed up even further. He'd been hoping the remaining goblins would lose their nerve once their leader was out of commission. Apparently not. Even though it was most definitely not in his nature, Mulch had no option but to attack.

 

He unhinged his jaw and leaped forward, clamping his teeth around the foremost goblin's head.

 

'Ow, bagg off!' he shouted around the obstruction in his mouth. 'Bagg off or ur briend gedds it!'

 

The others froze, uncertain of their next move. Of course they'd all seen what dwarf molars could do to a goblin head. Not a pretty sight.

 

Each one popped a fireball in his fist.

 

'I'm warnih ooh!'

 

'You can't get us all, stumpy.'

 

Mulch resisted the impulse to bite down. It is the strongest of dwarf urges, a genetic memory born from millennia spent tunnelling. The fact that the goblin was wriggling slimily didn't help. His options were running out. The gang was advancing and he was powerless as long as his mouth was full. It was crunch time. Pardon the pun.

 

Suddenly the cell door clanked open and what seemed like an entire squadron of LEP officers flooded the confined space. Mulch felt the cold steel of a gun barrel against his temple.

 

'Spit out the prisoner,' ordered a voice.

 

Mulch was delighted to comply. A thoroughly slimed goblin collapsed retching on the floor.

 

'You goblins, put 'em out.'

 

One by one the fireballs were extinguished.

 

'That's not my fault,' whined Mulch, pointing to the spasming wart-face. 'He blew himself up.'

 

The officer holstered his weapon, drawing out a set of cuffs.

 

'I couldn't care less what you do to each other,' he said, spinning Mulch and snapping the cuffs on. 'If it was up to me, I'd put the whole lot of you in a big room, and come back a week later to sluice it out. But Commander Root wants to see you above ground ASAP.'

 

'ASAP?'

 

'Now, if not sooner.'

 

Mulch knew Root. The commander was responsible for several of his government hotel visits. If Julius wanted to see him, it probably wasn't for drinks and a movie.

 

'Now? But it's daylight now. I'll burn.'

 

The LEP officer laughed.

 

'It ain't daylight where you're going, pal. Where you're going it ain't anything.'

 

Root was waiting for the dwarf inside the time-field portal. The portal was yet another of Foaly's inventions. Fairies could be introduced to and leave the time-field without affecting the altered flow inside the field. This effectively meant that even though it took nearly six hours to get Mulch to the surface, he was injected into the field only moments after Root had the notion to send for him.

 

It was Mulch's first time in a field. He stood watching life proceed at an exaggerated rate outside the shimmering corona. Cars zipped by at impossible speeds, and clouds tumbled across the skyline as though driven by force-ten gales.

 

'Mulch, you little reprobate,' roared Root. 'You can take off that suit now. The field is UV-filtered, or so I'm told.'

 

The dwarf had been issued a blackout suit at E1. Even though dwarfs had thick skins, they were extremely sensitive to sunlight and had a burn time of less than three minutes. Mulch peeled off the skintight suit.

 

'Nice to see you, Julius.'

 

'That's Commander Root to you.'

 

'Commander now. I heard that. Clerical error, was it?'

 

Root's teeth ground his cigar to a pulp.

 

'I don't have time for this impudence, convict. And the only reason that my boot is not up your behind right now is that I have a job for you.'

 

Mulch frowned. 'Convict? I have a name, you know, Julius.'

 

Root squatted to the dwarf's level. 'I don't know what dreamworld you live in, convict, but in the real world you are a criminal and it is my job to ensure your life is as unpleasant as possible. So if you're expecting civility just because I've testified against you some fifteen times, forget it!'

 

Mulch rubbed his wrists where the handcuffs had left red welts.

 

'Fine, Commander. No need to blow a gasket. I'm not a murderer, you know, just a petty criminal.'

 

'From what I hear, you nearly made the transformation below in the cells.'

 

'Not my fault. They attacked me.'

 

Root screwed a fresh cigar into his mouth.

 

'Fine, whatever. Just follow me, and don't steal anything.'

 

'Yessir, Commander,' said Mulch innocently. He didn't need to steal anything else. He'd already palmed Root's field-access card when the commander had made the mistake of leaning over.

 

They crossed the Retrieval perimeter to the avenue.

 

'Do you see that manor?'

 

'What manor?'

 

Root rounded on him. 'I don't have time for this, convict. Nearly half my time-stop has elapsed. Another few hours and one of my best officers will be blue-rinsed!'

 

Mulch shrugged. 'None of my concern. I'm just a criminal, remember. And by the way, I know what you want me to do, and the answer is no.'

 

'I haven't even asked you yet.'

 

'It's obvious. I'm a housebreaker. That's a house. You can't go in because you'll lose your magic, but my magic is already gone. Two and two.'

 

Root spat out the cigar. 'Don't you have any civic pride? Our entire way of life is on the line here.'

 

'Not my way of life. Fairy prison, human prison. It's all the same to me.'

 

The commander thought about it.

 

'OK, you slime. Fifty years off your sentence.'

 

'I want amnesty.'

 

'In your dreams, Mulch.'

 

'Take it or leave it.'

 

'Seventy-five years in minimum security. You take it or leave it.'

 

Mulch pretended to think. It was all academic, seeing as he intended escaping anyway.

 

'Single cell?'

 

'Yes, yes. Single cell. Now, will you do it?'

 

'Very well, Julius. Only because it's you.'

 

Foaly was searching for a matching iris-cam.

 

'Hazel, I think. Or perhaps tawny. You really do have stunning eyes, Mister Mulch.'

 

'Thank you, Foaly. My mother always said they were my most attractive feature.'

 

Root was pacing the shuttle floor.

 

'You two do realize we're on a deadline here, don't you? Never mind matching the colour. Just give him a camera.'

 

Foaly plucked a lens from its solution with tweezers.

 

'This is not just vanity, Commander. The closer the match, the less interference from the actual eye.'

 

'Whatever, whatever, just get on with it.'

 

Foaly grabbed Mulch's chin, holding him still.

 

'There you are. We're with you all the way.'

 

Foaly twisted a tiny cylinder into the thick tufts of hair growing from Mulch's ear.

 

'Wired for sound now too. In case you need to call for assistance.'

 

The dwarf smiled wryly. 'Forgive me for not swelling with confidence. I find I've always done better on my own.'

 

'If you can call seventeen convictions doing better,' chuckled Root.

 

'Oh, we have time for jokes now, do we?'

 

Root grabbed him by the shoulder. 'You're right. We don't. Let's go.'

 

He dragged Mulch across a grassy verge to a cluster of cherry trees.

 

'I want you to tunnel in there and find out how this Fowl person knows so much about us. Probably some surveillance device. Whatever it is, destroy it. Find Captain Short if possible and see what you can do for her. If she is dead, at least it will clear the way for a bio-bomb.'

 

Mulch squinted across the landscape. 'I don't like it.'

 

'What don't you like?'

 

'The lie of the land. I smell limestone. Solid-rock foundation. There might not be a way in.'

 

Foaly trotted across. 'I've done a scan. The original structure is based totally on rock, but some of the later extensions stray on to clay. The wine cellar in the south wing appears to have a wooden floor. It should be no problem for someone with a mouth like yours.'

 

Mulch decided to take that as a statement of fact rather than an insult. He opened the bum-flap on his tunnelling trousers. 'Right. Stand back.'

 

Root and the surrounding LEP officers rushed for cover, but Foaly, who had never actually seen a dwarf tunnelling, decided to stay for a peek.

 

'Good luck, Mulch.'

 

The dwarf unhinged his jaw.

 

'Ank oo,' he mumbled, bending over for launch.

 

The centaur looked around.

 

'Where's everyone -'

 

He never finished that statement, because a blob of recently swallowed and even more recently recycled clay whacked him in the face. By the time he'd cleared his eyes, Mulch had disappeared down a vibrating hole, and there was the sound of hearty laughter shaking the cherry trees.

 

Mulch followed a loamy vein through a volcanic fold in the rock. Nice consistency, not too many loose stones. Plenty of insect life too. Vital for strong healthy teeth, a dwarf's most important attribute - the first thing a prospective mate looked at. Mulch went low to the limestone, his belly almost scraping the rock. The deeper the tunnel, the less chance of subsidence on the surface. You couldn't be too careful these days, not with motion sensors and landmines. Mud People went to extraordinary lengths to protect their valuables. With good reason, as it happened.

 

Mulch felt a vibration cluster to his left. Rabbits. The dwarf fixed the location in his internal compass. Always useful to know where the local wildlife hung out. He skirted the warren, following the manor foundations around in a long north-westerly loop.

 

Wine cellars were easy to locate. Over the centuries, residue seeped through the floor, infusing the land beneath with the wine's personality. This one was sombre, nothing cheeky here. A touch of fruit, but not enough to lighten the flavour. Definitely an occasion wine on the bottom rack. Mulch burped. That was good clay.

 

The dwarf aimed his scything jaws skywards, punching through the floorboards. He hauled himself through the jagged hole, shaking the last of the recycled mud from his trousers.

 

He was in a blessedly dark room, perfect for dwarf vision. His sonar had guided him to an uncovered spot in the floor. One metre to the left and he would have emerged in a huge barrel of Italian red.

 

Mulch rehinged his jaw and padded across to the wall. He flattened a conch-like ear to the red brickwork. For a moment he was absolutely still, absorbing the house's vibrations. A lot of low-frequency humming. There was a generator somewhere, and plenty of juice running through the wires.

 

Footsteps too. Way up. Maybe on the third floor. And close by. A crashing sound. Metal on concrete. There it was again. Someone was building something. Or breaking something down.

 

Something skittered past his foot. Mulch squashed it instinctively. It was a spider. Just a spider.

 

'Sorry, little friend,' he said to the grey smear. 'I'm a bit on the jittery side.'

 

The steps were wooden, of course. More than a century old too by the smell of them. Steps like that creaked as soon as you looked at them. Better than any pressure pads for giving away intruders. Mulch climbed along the edges, one foot in front of the other. Right in by the wall was where the wood had most support and was less likely to creak.

 

This was not as simple as it sounds. Dwarf feet are designed for spadework, not for the delicate intricacies of ballet dancing or balancing on wooden steps. Nonetheless, Mulch reached the door without incident. A couple of minor squeaks, but nothing that would be detectable by human ears or hardware.

 

The door was locked, naturally, but it may as well not have been for all the challenge it presented to a kleptomaniac dwarf.

 

Mulch reached into his beard, plucking out a sturdy hair. Dwarf hair is radically different from the human variety. Mulch's beard and head hair were actually a matrix of antennae that helped him to navigate and avoid danger below ground. Once removed from its pore, the hair immediately stiffened in rapid rigor mortis. Mulch twisted the end in the seconds before it became completely rigid. A perfect pick.

 

One quick jiggle and the lock yielded. Only two tumblers. Terrible security. Typical of humans, they never expected an attack from below. Mulch stepped on to a parquet corridor. The whole place smelled of money. He could make a fortune here, if only he had the time.

 

There were cameras just below the architrave. Tastefully done, nestling in the natural shadows. But vigilant none the less. Mulch stood for a moment, calculating the system's blindspot. Three cameras on the corridor. Ninety-second sweep. No way through.

 

'You could ask for help?' said a voice in his ear.

 

'Foaly?' Mulch pointed his wired eyeball at the nearest camera. 'Can you do anything about those?' he whispered.

 

The dwarf heard the sound of a keyboard being manipulated, and suddenly his right eye zoomed like a camera lens.

 

'Handy,' breathed Mulch. 'I've got to get me one of these.'

 

Root's voice crackled through the tiny speaker. 'No chance, convict. Government issue. Anyway, what would you do with one in prison? Get a close-up of the other side of your cell?'

 

'You're such a charmer, Julius. What's the matter? Are you jealous because I'm succeeding where you failed?'

 

Root's foul swearing was drowned out by Foaly.

 

'OK, I've got it. Simple video network. Not even digital. I'm going to broadcast a loop of the last ten seconds to every camera through our dishes. That should give you a few minutes.'

 

Mulch shuffled uncomfortably. 'How long will that take? I'm a bit exposed here, you know.'

 

'It's already started,' replied Foaly. 'So get moving.'

 

'Are you sure?'

 

'Of course I'm sure. Elementary electronics. I've been messing with human surveillance since kindergarten. You'll just have to trust me.'

 

I'd rather trust a bunch of humans not to hunt a species to extinction than trust an LEP consultant, thought Mulch. But aloud he said, 'OK. I'm away. Over and out.'

 

He sneaked down the hall. Even his hands were sneaky, padding the air as if he could somehow make himself lighter. Whatever that centaur did must have worked, because there were no agitated Mud People racing down the stairs, waving primitive gunpowder weapons.

 

Stairs. Ah, stairs. Mulch had a thing for stairs. They were like predug shafts. He found that inevitably the best booty lay at their summit. And what a stairway. Stained oak, with the intricate carvings generally associated with either the eighteenth century or the obscenely rich. Mulch rubbed his finger along an ornate banister. In this case, probably both.

 

Still, no time to moon about. Stairways did not tend to remain deserted for long, especially during a siege. Who could tell how many bloodthirsty troopers waited behind each door, eager for a fairy head to add to their stuffed trophy wall.

 

Mulch climbed carefully, taking nothing for granted. Even solid oak creaked. He stuck to the borders, avoiding the carpet inlay. The dwarf knew from conviction number eight how easy it was to conceal a pressure pad beneath the deep shag of some antique weave.

 

He reached the landing with his head still attached to his shoulders. But there was another problem quite literally brewing. Dwarf digestion, due to its accelerated rate, can be quite explosive. The loosely packed soil on the Fowl estate was very well aerated and a lot of that air had entered Mulch's tubes along with the soil and minerals. Now the air wanted to get out.

 

Dwarf etiquette dictated that gas be passed while still in the tunnel, but Mulch didn't have time for manners. Now he regretted not taking a moment to get rid of the gas while he was in the cellar. The problem with dwarf gas was that it couldn't go up, only down. Imagine, if you will, the catastrophic effects of burping while digesting a mouthful of clay. Total system back-up. Not a pretty sight. Thus dwarf anatomy ensured that all gas was passed below, actually aiding in the expulsion of unwanted clay. Of course, there's a simpler way of putting this, but that version can only be read in the adult book.

 

Mulch wrapped his arms around his stomach. He'd better get out of the open. A blowout on a landing like this could take out the windows. He shuffled along the corridor, skipping through the first doorway he encountered.

 

More cameras. Quite a lot of them, in fact. Mulch studied the lenses' sweep. Four were surveying the general floorspace, but another three were fixed.

 

'Foaly? You there?' whispered the dwarf.

 

'No!' The typical sarcastic reply. 'I have much better things to do than worry about the collapse of civilization as we know it.'

 

'Yes, thank you. Don't let my life being in danger interrupt your merriment.'

 

'I'll try not to.'

 

'I have a challenge for you.'

 

Foaly was instantly interested. 'Really? Go on.'

 

Mulch pointed his gaze at the recessed cameras, half hidden in the swirling architrave. 'I need to know where those three cameras are pointing. Exactly.'

 

Foaly laughed. 'That's not a challenge. Those old video systems emit faint ion beams. Invisible to the naked eye, of course, but not with your iris-cam.'

 

The hardware in Mulch's eye flickered and sparked.

 

'Oww!'

 

'Sorry. Small charge.'

 

'You could have warned me.'

 

'I'll give you a big kiss later, you baby. I thought dwarfs were tough.'

 

'We are tough. I'll show you just how tough when I get back.'

 

Root's voice interrupted the posturing. 'You won't be showing anyone anything, convict, except perhaps where the toilet is in your cell. Now, what do you see?'

 

Mulch looked at the room again through his ion-sensitive eye. Each camera was emitting a faint beam, like the last evening sunrays. The rays pooled on a portrait of Artemis Fowl Senior.

 

'Not behind the picture. Oh, please.'

 

Mulch placed his ear against the picture glass. Nothing electrical. Not alarmed then. Just to be sure, he sniffed the frame's edge. No plastic or copper. Wood, steel and glass. Some lead in the paint. He curled a nail behind the frame and pulled. The picture came away smoothly, hinged on the side. And behind it. A safe.

 

'It's a safe,' said Foaly.

 

'I know that, you idiot. I'm trying to concentrate here! If you want to help, ............

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