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Chapter 9 Ace in the Hole

 ARTEMIS tried the doorknob and got a scorched palm for his trouble. Sealed. The fairy must have blasted it with her weapon. Very astute. One less variable in the equation. It was exactly what he himself would have done.

 

Artemis did not waste any time attempting to force open the door. It was reinforced steel and he was twelve. You didn't have to be a genius to figure it out, even though he was. Instead the Fowl heir apparent crossed to the monitor wall and followed developments from there.

 

He knew immediately what the LEP were up to - send in the troll to secure a cry for help, interpret it as an invitation, and next thing you know a brigade of goblin stormtroopers were taking the manor. Clever. And unanticipated. It was the second time he'd underestimated his opponents. One way or another, there wouldn't be a third.

 

As the drama below unfolded on the monitors, Artemis's emotions jumped from terror to pride. Butler had done it. Defeated the troll, and without a single plea for aid passing his lips. Watching the display, Artemis appreciated fully, perhaps for the first time, the service provided by the Butler family.

 

Artemis activated the tri-band radio, broadcasting on revolving frequencies.

 

'Commander Root, you are monitoring all channels I presume ...'

 

For a few moments nothing but white noise emanated from the micro speakers, then Artemis heard the sharp click of a mike button.

 

'I hear you, human. What can I do for you?'

 

'Is that the commander?'

 

A noise filtered through the black gauze. It sounded like a whinny.

 

'No. This is not the commander. This is Foaly, the centaur. Is that the kidnapping lowlife human?'

 

It took Artemis a moment to process the fact that he'd been insulted.

 

'Mister ... ah ... Foaly. You have obviously not studied your psych texts. It is not wise to antagonize the hostage-taker. I may be unstable.'

 

'May be unstable? There's no may about it. Not that it matters. Soon you'll be no more than a cloud of radioactive molecules.'

 

Artemis chuckled. 'That's where you are mistaken, my quadrupedal friend. By the time that bio-bomb is detonated, I will be long gone from this time-stop.'

 

It was Foaly's turn to chuckle. 'You're bluffing, human. If there was a way to escape the field, I would have found it. I think you're talking through your -'

 

Thankfully it was at that moment Root took over at the microphone.

 

'Fowl? This is Commander Root. What do you want?'

 

'I would just like to inform you, Commander, that in spite of your attempted betrayal, I am still willing to negotiate.'

 

'That troll had nothing to do with me,' protested Root. 'It was done against my wishes.'

 

'The fact is that it was done, and by the LEP. Whatever trust we had is gone. So here is my ultimatum. You have thirty minutes to send in the gold, or else I will refuse to release Captain Short. Furthermore, I will not take her with me when I leave the time-field, leaving her to be disintegrated by the bio-bomb.'

 

'Don't be a fool, human. You're deluding yourself. Mud technology is aeons behind ours. There is no way to escape the time-field.'

 

Artemis leaned in close to the mike, smiling his wolfish smile.

 

'There's only one way to find out, Root. Are you willing to bet Captain Short's life on your hunch?'

 

Root's hesitation was highlighted by the hiss of interference. His reply, when it came, was tinged with just the right note of defeat.

 

'No,' he sighed. 'I'm not. You'll have your gold, Fowl. A tonne. Twenty-four carat.'

 

Artemis smirked. Quite the actor, our Commander Root.

 

'Thirty minutes, Commander. Count the seconds if your clock's stopped. I'm waiting. But not for long.'

 

Artemis terminated the contact, settling back in the swivel chair. It would seem as though the bait had been taken. No doubt the LEP analysts had discovered his 'accidental' invitation. The fairies would pay up because they believed the gold would be theirs again as soon as he was dead. Vaporized by the bio-bomb. Which, of course, he wouldn't be. In theory.

 

Butler put three rounds into the door frame. The door itself was steel and would have sent the Devastator slugs ricocheting straight back at him. But the frame was the original porous stone used to build the manor. It crumbled like chalk. A very basic security flaw, and one that would have to be remedied once this business was over.

 

Master Artemis was waiting calmly in his chair by the monitor bank.

 

'Nice work, Butler.'

 

'Thank you, Artemis. We were in trouble for a moment there. If it hadn't been for the captain ...'

 

Artemis nodded. 'Yes. I saw. Healing, one of the fairy arts. I wonder why she did it.'

 

T wonder too,' said Butler softly. 'We certainly didn't deserve it.'

 

Artemis glanced up sharply. 'Keep the faith, old friend. The end is in sight.'

 

Butler nodded; he even attempted a smile. But though there were plenty of teeth in the grin, there was no heart.

 

'In less than an hour, Captain Short will be back with her people and we will have sufficient funds to relaunch some of our more tasteful enterprises.'

 

'I know. It's just ...'

 

Artemis didn't have to ask. He knew exactly what Butler was feeling. The fairy had saved both their lives and yet he insisted on holding her to ransom. To a man of honour like Butler, this was almost more than he could bear.

 

'The negotiations are over. One way or another she will be returned to her kind. No harm will befall Captain Short. You have my word.'

 

'And Juliet?'

 

'Yes?'

 

'Is there any danger to my sister?'

 

'No. No danger.'

 

'The fairies are just going to give us this gold and walk away?'

 

Artemis snorted gently. 'No, not exactly. They're going to bio-bomb Fowl Manor the second Captain Short is clear.'

 

Butler took a breath to speak, but hesitated. Obviously there was more to the plan. Master Fowl would tell him when he needed to know. So instead of quizzing his employer, he made a simple statement.

 

'I trust you, Artemis.'

 

'Yes,' replied the boy, the weight of that trust etched on his brow. 'I know.'

 

Gudgeon was doing what politicians did best: trying to duck responsibility.

 

'Your officer helped the humans,' he blurted, mustering as much indignation as possible. 'The entire operation was proceeding exactly as planned, until your female attacked our deputy.'

 

'Deputy?' chortled Foaly. 'Now the troll's a deputy.'

 

'Yes. He is. And that human made mincemeat of him. This entire situation could be wrapped up if it wasn't for your department's incompetence.'

 

Ordinarily, Root would have blown his top at this point, but he knew that Gudgeon was grasping at straws, desperately trying to save his career. So the commander just smiled.

 

'Hey, Foaly?'

 

'Yes, Commander?'

 

'Did we get the troll assault on disk?'

 

The centaur heaved a dramatic sigh. 'No, sir, we ran out of disks just before the troll went in.'

 

'What a pity.'

 

'A real shame.'

 

'Those disks could have been invaluable to Acting Commander Gudgeon at his hearing.'

 

Gudgeon's cool went out the window. 'Give me those disks, Julius! I know they're in there! This is blatant obstruction.'

 

'You're the only one guilty of obstruction around here, Gudgeon. Using this affair to further your own career.'

 

Gudgeon's face took on a hue to match Root's own. The situation was slipping away from him and he knew it. Even Chix Verbil and the other sprites were sidling out from behind their leader.

 

'I am still in charge here, Julius, so hand over those disks or I will have you detained.'

 

'Oh, really? You and whose army?'

 

For a second Gudgeon's face glowed with the old pomposity. It evaporated the moment he noticed the conspicuous lack of officers at his shoulders.

 

'That's right,' snickered Foaly. 'You ain't Acting Commander any more. The call came through from below. You've got an appointment with the Council, and I don't think it's to offer you a seat.'

 

It was probably Foaly's grin that drove Gudgeon over the edge.

 

'Give me those disks!' he roared, pinning Foaly to the operation's shuttle.

 

Root was tempted to let them wrestle for a while, but now wasn't the time to indulge himself.

 

'Naughty naughty,' he said, pointing his index finger at Gudgeon. 'No one beats Foaly but me.'

 

Foaly paled. 'Careful with that finger. You're still wearing the -'

 

Root's thumb accidentally brushed his knuckle, opening a tiny gas valve. The released gas propelled a tranquillized dart through the latex fingertip and straight into Gudgeon's neck. The Acting Commander, soon to be Private, sank like a stone.

 

Foaly rubbed his neck. 'Nice shot, Commander.'

 

'I don't know what you're talking about. Total accident. I forgot all about the fake finger. There are several precedents, I believe.'

 

'Oh, absolutely. Unfortunately Gudgeon will be unconscious for several hours. By the time he awakens, all the excitement will be over.'

 

'Shame.' Root allowed himself a fleeting grin, then it was back to business. 'Is the gold here?'

 

'Yep, they just inserted it.'

 

'Good.' He called to Gudgeon's sheepish troops. 'Get it loaded on a hover trolley and send it in. Any trouble and I'll feed you your wings. Understood?'

 

No one actually replied, but it was understood. No doubt about it.

 

'Good. Now hop to it.'

 

Root disappeared into the operation's shuttle, Foaly clopping behind him. The commander shut the door firmly.

 

'Is it armed?'

 

The centaur flicked a few important-looking switches on the main console.

 

'It is now.'

 

'I want it launched as soon as possible.' He glanced through the laser-proof refractor glass. 'We're down to minutes here. I see sunlight poking through.'

 

Foaly bent to his keyboard in earnest. 'The magic is breaking up. In fifteen minutes we're going to be in the middle of overground daytime. The neutrino streams are losing their integrity.'

 

'I see,' said Root, which was basically a lie again. 'OK, I don't see. But I do get the fifteen minutes bit. That gives you ten minutes to get Captain Short out of there. After that we're going to be sitting ducks for the entire human race.'

 

Foaly activated yet another camera. This one was linked to the hovertrolley. He ran a finger experimentally across a trackpad. The trolley shot forward, almost decapitating Chix Verbil.

 

'Nice driving,' muttered Root. 'Will it get up the steps?'

 

Foaly didn't even look up from his computers.

 

'Automatic clearance compensator. One-point-five metre collar. No problems.'

 

Root speared him with a glare. 'You do that just to annoy me, don't you?'

 

Foaly shrugged his shoulders. 'I might do.'

 

'Yes, well, count yourself lucky my other fingers aren't loaded. Get my meaning?'

 

'Yessir.'

 

'Good. Now let's bring Captain Short home.'

 

Holly hovered beneath the portico. Orange shards of light striped the blue. The time-stop was breaking up. There were only minutes left before Root blue-rinsed the whole place. Foaly's voice buzzed in her earpiece.

 

'OK, Captain Short. The gold is on the way. Be ready to move.'

 

'We don't bargain with kidnappers,' said Holly, surprised. 'What's going on here?'

 

'Nothing,' replied Foaly casually. 'Straightforward exchange. The gold goes in, you come out. We send in the missile. Big blue bang, and it's all over.'

 

'Does Fowl know about the bio-bomb?'

 

'Yep. Knows all about it. Claims he can escape the time-field.'

 

'That's impossible.'

 

'Correct.'

 

'But they'll all be killed!'

 

'Big deal,' retorted Foaly, and Holly could almost see him shrug. 'That's what you get when you mess with the People.'

 

Holly was torn. There was no doubt that Fowl was a danger to the civilized underworld. Very few tears would be shed over his body. But the girl, Juliet, she was an innocent. She deserved a chance.

 

Holly descended to an altitude of two metres. Head height for Butler. The humans had congregated in the wreckage that used to be a hallway. There was disunity between them. The LEP officer could sense it.

 

Holly glared accusingly at Artemis. 'Have you told them?'

 

Artemis returned her stare. 'Told them what?'

 

'Yes, Fairy, told us what?' echoed Juliet belligerently, still a bit miffed over the mesmerizing.

 

'Don't play dumb, Fowl. You know what I'm talking about.'

 

Artemis never could play dumb for very long. 'Yes, Captain Short. I do. The bio-bomb. Your concern would be touching, if it extended to myself. Nevertheless, do not upset yourself. Everything is proceeding according to plan.'

 

'According to plan!' gasped Holly, pointing to the devastation surrounding them. 'Was this part of the plan? And Butler almost getting killed - all part of the plan?'

 

'No,' Artemis admitted. 'The troll was a slight blip. But irrelevant to the overall scheme.'

 

Holly resisted the urge to punch the pale human again, turning instead to Butler.

 

'Listen to reason, for heaven's sake. You cannot escape the time-field. It has never been done.'

 

Butler's features could have been etched in stone.

 

'If Artemis says it can be done, then it can.'

 

'But your sister. Are you willing to risk her life out of loyalty to a felon?'

 

'Artemis is no felon, miss, he is a genius. Now please remove yourself from my sightline. I am monitoring the main entrance.'

 

Holly buzzed up to six metres.

 

'You're crazy. All of you! In five minutes you'll all be dust. Don't you realize?'

 

Artemis sighed. 'You've had your answer, Captain. Now, please. This is a delicate stage in the proceedings.'

 

'Proceedings? It's a kidnapping! At least have the guts to call it what it is.'

 

Artemis's patience was beginning to fray.

 

'Butler, do we have any tranquillizer hypodermics left?'

 

The giant manservant nodded, but didn't speak. At that precise moment, if the order came to sedate, he wasn't sure if he would, or could. Luckily Artemis's attention was diverted by activity in the avenue.

 

'Ah, it would seem the LEP have capitulated. Butler supervise the delivery. But stay alert. Our fairy friends are not above trickery.'

 

'You're a fine one to talk,' muttered Holly.

 

Butler hurried to the demolished doorway, checking the load and catch on his Sig Sauer nine-millimetre. He was almost grateful for some military activity to distract him from his dilemma. In situations like these, training took over. There was no room for sentiment.

 

A fine haze of dust still hung in the air. Butler squinted through it, into the avenue beyond. The fairy filters rigged over his eyes revealed that there were no warm bodies approaching. There was, however, a large trolley seemingly driving itself up to the front door. It was floating on a cushion of shimmering air. Doubtless Master Artemis would have understood the physics of this machine, all Butler cared about was whether or not he could disable it.

 

The trolley bumped into the first step.

 

'Automatic compensator, my foot,' snorted Root.

 

'Yeah, yeah, yeah,' replied Foaly. 'I'm working on it.'

 

'It's the ransom,' shouted Butler.

 

Artemis tried to quell the excitement rising in his chest. This was not the time to allow emotions to enter the equation.

 

'Check for booby traps.'

 

Butler stepped cautiously on to the porch. Shards of disintegrated gargoyle lay scattered beneath his feet.

 

'No hostiles. Seems to be self-propelled.'

 

The trolley lurched over the steps.

 

'I don't know who's driving this thing, but he could do with a few lessons.'

 

Butler bent low to the ground, scanning the trolley's underside.

 

'No explosive devices visible.'

 

He extracted a Sweeper from his pocket, extending the telescopic aerial.

 

'No bugs either. Nothing detectable at any rate. But what do we have here?'

 

'Uh oh,' said Foaly.

 

'It's a camera.'

 

Butler reached in, pulling the fish-eye lens out by the cable.

 

'Nighty-night, gentlemen.'

 

In spite of the load it carried, the trolley responded easily to Butler's touch, gliding across the threshold into the lobby. It stood there humming softly, as though waiting to be unloaded.

 

Now that the moment had come, Artemis was almost afraid to seize it. It was hard to believe that after all these months, his wicked scheme was minutes away from fruition. Of course these last few minutes were the vital ones, and the most dangerous.

 

'Open it,' he said at last, surprised at the tremble in his own voice.

 

It was an irresistible instant. Juliet approached tentatively, spangled eyes wide. Even Holly closed the throttle a notch, dropping until her feet brushed the marble tiling. Butler unzipped the black tarpaulin, dragging it back across the cargo. Nobody said a thing. Artemis imagined that somewhere the 1812 Overture was playing. The gold sat there, stacked in shining rows. It seemed to have an aura, a warmth, but also an inherent danger. There were a lot of people willing to die or kill for the unimaginable wealth this gold could bring.

 

Holly was mesmerized. Fairies have an affinity for minerals, they are of the earth. But gold was their favourite. Its lustre. Its allure.

 

'They paid,' she breathed. 'I can't believe it.'

 

'Neither can I,' murmured Artemis. 'Butler, is it real?'

 

Butler hefted a bar from the stack. He dug the tip of a throwing knife into the ingot, gouging out a small sliver.

 

'It's real all right,' he said, holding the scraping up to the light. 'This one, at any rate.'

 

'Good. Very good. Begin unloading it, would you? We'll send the trolley back out with Captain Short.'

 

Hearing her name dispelled Holly's gold fever.

 

'Artemis, give it up. No human has ever succeeded in keeping fairy gold. And they've been trying for centuries. The LEP will do anything to protect their property.'

 

Artemis shook his head. Amused.

 

'I've told you ...'

 

Holly took him by the shoulders. 'You cannot escape! Don't you understand?'

 

The boy returned her gaze coolly.

 

'I can escape, Holly. Look in my eyes and tell me that I can't.'

 

So she did. Captain Holly Short gazed into her captor's blue-black eyes and she saw the truth in there. And for a moment she believed it.

 

'There's still time,' she said desperately. 'There must be something. I have magic.'

 

A crease of annoyance wrinkled the boy's brow.

 

'I hate to disappoint you, Captain, but there is absolutely nothing.'

 

Artemis paused, his gaze tugged momentarily upstairs to the converted loft. Perhaps, he thought. Do I really need all this gold? And was his conscience not pricking him, leeching the sweetness from his victory? He shook himself. Stick to the plan. Stick to the plan. No emotion.

 

Artemis felt a familiar hand on his shoulder.

 

'Everything all right?'

 

'Yes, Butler. Keep unloading. Get Juliet to help. I need to talk to Captain Short.'

 

'Are you sure there's nothing wrong?'

 

Artemis sighed. 'No, old friend, I'm not sure. But it's too late now.'

 

Butler nodded, returning to his task. Juliet toddled along behind him like a terrier.

 

'Now, Captain. About your magic.'

 

'What about it?' Holly's eyes were hooded with suspicion.

 

'What would I have to do to buy a wish?'

 

Holly glanced at the trolley. 'Well, that depends. What do you have to bargain with?'

 

Root was not what you'd call relaxed. Increasingly wide bands of yellow light were poking through the blue. Minutes left. Minutes. His migraine was not helped by the pungent cigar feeding toxins into his system.

 

'Have all non-essential personnel been evacuated?'

 

'Unless they've sneaked back in since the last time you asked me.'

 

'Not now, Foaly. Believe me, now is not the time. Anything from Captain Short?'

 

'Nope. We lost video after the troll thing. I'd guess the battery is ruptured. We'd better get that helmet off her ASAP, or the radiation will fry her brain. That'd be a pity after all this work.'

 

Foaly returned to his console. A red light began pulsing gently.

 

'Wait, motion sensor. We've got activity by the main entrance.'

 

Root crossed to the screens. 'Can you enhance it?'

 

'No problem.' Foaly punched in the coordinates, blowing it up 400 per cent.

 

Root sat down on the nearest chair.

 

'Am I seeing what I think I'm seeing?'

 

'You sure are.' Foaly chuckled. 'This is even better than the suit of armour.'

 

Holly was coming out. With the gold.

 

Retrieval were on her in half a second.

 

'Let's get you out of the danger zone, Captain,' urged a sprite, catching Holly by the elbow.

 

Another ran a rad-sensor over her helmet.

 

'We've got a power source breach here, Captain. We need to get your head sprayed immediately.'

 

Holly opened her mouth to protest, and had it instantly filled with rad-suppressant foam.

 

'Can't this wait?' she spluttered.

 

'Sorry, Captain. Time is of the essence. The commander wants a debriefing before we detonate.'

 

Holly was rushed towards the Mobile Ops unit, her feet barely touching the ground. All around her Retrieval Cleaners scanned the grounds for any trace of the siege. Techies dismantled the field dishes, making ready to pull the plug. Grunts steered the trolley towards the portal. It was imperative that everything be relocated to a safe distance before the bio-bomb went in.

 

Root was waiting on the steps.

 

'Holly,' he blurted. 'I mean Captain. You made it.'

 

'Yessir. Thank you, sir.'

 

'And the gold too. This is a real feather in your cap.'

 

'Well, not all, Commander. About half I think.'

 

Root nodded. 'No matter. We'll have the rest soon enough.'

 

Holly wiped rad-foam from her brow.

 

'I've been thinking about that, sir. Fowl made another mistake. He never ordered me not to re-enter the house, and seeing as he brought me in there in the first place, the invitation still stands. I could go in and mind-wipe the occupants. We could hide the gold in the walls and do another time-stop tomorrow night ...'

 

'No, Captain.'

 

'But, sir ...'

 

Root's features regained whatever tension they'd lost.

 

'No, Captain. The Council is not about to hold off for some kidnapping Mud Man. It's just not going to happen. I have my orders, and believe me they're written in stone.'

 

Holly trailed Root into the mobile.

 

'But the girl, sir. She's an innocent!'

 

'Casualty of war. She threw her lot in with the wrong side. Nothing can be done for her now.'

 

Holly was incredulous. 'A casualty of war? How can you say that? A life is a life.'

 

Root spun sharply, grasping her by the shoulders.

 

'You did what you could, Holly,' he said. 'No one could have done more. You even retrieved most of the ransom. You're suffering from what humans call Stockholm Syndrome: you have bonded with your captors. Don't worry, it will pass. But those ............

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