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Chapter 2 Doodah Day

haven city, the lower elementsHOLLY Short's career as an elfin private investigator was not working out as well as she'd hoped. This was mainly because the LowerElements'mostpopularcurrent events show had run not one, but two specials on her over the past few months. It was difficult to go undercover when her face was forever popping up on cable reruns. 'Surgery?' suggested a voice in her head. This voice was not the first sign of madness; it was her partner, Mulch Diggums, communicating from his mike to her earpiece.

'What?' she said, her voice carrying to her own micro-phone, a tiny flesh-coloured chip glued to her throat.

I m looking at a poster of your famous face, and I'm thinking that you should have some cosmetic surgery if we want to stay in business. And I mean real business, not this bounty-hunting game. Bounty hunters are the lowest of the low.'

Holly sighed. Her dwarf partner was right. Even crim-inals were considered more trustworthy than bounty hunters.

'A few implants and a reshaped nose and even your best friend wouldn't recognize you,' continued Mulch Diggums. 'It's not as if you're a beauty queen.'

'Forget it,' said Holly. She was fond of the face she had. It reminded her of her mother's.

'What about a skin spray? You could go green, disguise yourself as a sprite.'

'Mulch? Are you in position?' snapped Holly.

'Yep,' came the dwarf's reply. 'Any sign of the pixie?'

'No, he's not up and about yet, but he will be soon. So stop the chatter and just get ready.'

'Hey, we're partners now. No more criminal and police officer. I don't have to take orders from you.'

'Get ready, please.'

'No problem. Mulch Diggums, lowlife bounty hunter, signing off.'

Holly sighed. Sometimes she missed the discipline of the Lower Elements Police Reconnaissance Division. When an order was given, it was followed. Although if she was honest, Holly had to admit she had got herself into trouble more than once for disobeying a direct command.

She had only survived in LEPrecon for as long as she had because of a few high-profile arrests. And because of her mentor, Commander Julius Root.

Holly felt her heart lurch as she remembered, for the thousandth time, that Julius was dead. She could go for hours without thinking about it, then it would hit her. Every time like the first time.

She had quit the LEP because Julius's replacement had actually accused her of murdering the Commander. Holly figured with a boss like that, she could do the fairy People ignore good outside the system. It was starting to look like she had been dead wrong. In her time as LEPrecon Captain she had been involved in putting down a goblin revolution, thwarting a plan to expose the subterranean fairy culture to the humans and reclaiming stolen fairy tech-Jiology from a Mud Man in Chicago. Now she was track-ing a fish smuggler who had skipped out on his bail. Not exactly national security stuff.

'What about shin extensions?' said Mulch, interrupting her thoughts. 'You could be taller in hours.'

Holly smiled. As irritating as her partner was, he could always cheer her up. Also, as a dwarf, Mulch had special talents which came in very handy in their new line of business. Until recently, he had used these skills to break into houses and out of prisons, but now he was on the side of the angels, or so he swore. Unfortunately, all fairies knew that a dwarf's vow to a non-dwarf wasn't worth the spit-sodden handshake that sealed the deal.

'Maybe you could get a brain extension,' Holly retorted.

Mulch chortled. 'Oh, brilliant. I must write that one down in my witty retorts book.'

Holly was trying to come up with an actual witty retort, when their target appeared at the motel-room door. He was a harmless-looking pixie, barely half a metre high, but you didn't have to be tall to drive a lorry of fish. The smug-gling bosses hired pixies as drivers and couriers because they looked so innocent and childlike. Holly had read this pixie's jacket, and she knew that he was anything but innocent.

Doodah Day had been smuggling livestock to illegal restaurants for over a century. In smuggling circles he was something of a legend. As an ex-criminal, Mulch was privy to criminal folklore and was able to supply Holly with all kinds of useful information that wouldn't find its way into an LEP report. For instance, Doodah had once made the heavily patrolled Atlantis—Haven run in under six hours without losing a fish from the tank.

Doodah had been arrested in the Atlantis Trench by a squad of LEP water sprites. He had skipped out en route from a holding cell to the courthouse, and now Holly had tracked him here. The bounty on Doodah Day was enough to pay six months' rent on their office. The plaque on the door read: Short and Diggums. Private Investigators.

Doodah Day stepped out of his room, scowling at the world in general. He zipped his jacket then headed south towards the shopping district. Holly stayed twenty steps back, hiding her face underneath a hood. This street had traditionally been a rough spot, but the Council were putting millions of ingots into a major revamp. In five years, there would be no more goblin ghetto. Huge yellow multi-mixers were chewing up old sidewalk and laying down brand-new paths behind them. Overhead, public service sprites unhooked burned-out sunstrips from the tunnel ceiling and replaced them with new molecule models. , The pixie followed the same route that he had for the past three days. He strolled down the road to the nearest plaza, picked up a carton of vole curry at a kiosk, then bought a ticket to the twenty-four-hour movie theatre. If be stayed true to form, then Doodah would be in there for at least eight hours.

Not if I can help it, thought Holly. She was determined to get this case wrapped by close of business. It wouldn't be easy. Doodah was small, but he was fast. Without weapons or restraints, it would be almost impossible to contain him. Almost impossible, but there was a way.

Holly bought a ticket from the gnome attendant, then settled into a seat two rows behind the target. The theatre "Was pretty quiet at this time of day. There were maybe fifty patrons besides themselves. Most of them weren't even "Wearing theatre goggles. This was just somewhere to put in a few hours between meals.

The theatre was running The Hill of Tailke trilogy non-stop. The trilogy told a cinematic version of the events surrounding the Hill of Taillte battle, where the humans had finally forced the fairies underground. The final part of the trilogy had cleaned up at the AMP awards a couple of years ago. The effects were splendid and there was even a special edition interactive version, where the player could become one of the minor characters.

Looking at the movie now, Holly felt the same pang of loss as she always did. The People should be living above ground, instead they were stuck in this technologically advanced cave.

Holly watched the sweeping aerial views and slow-motion battles for forty minutes, then she moved into the aisle and threw off her hood. In her LEP days she would simply have come up behind the pixie and stuck her Neutrino 3000 in his back, but civilians were not allowed to carry weapons of any kind, and so a more subtle strat-egy would have to be employed.

She called the pixie from the aisle.

'Hey, you. Aren't you Doodah Day?'

The pixie jumped from his seat, which did not make him any taller. He fixed his fiercest scowl on his features and threw it Holly's way. 'Who wants to know?'

'The LEP,' replied Holly. Technically she had not identified herself as a member of the LEP, which would be impersonating a police officer.

Doodah squinted at her. 'I know you. You're that female elf. The one who tackled the goblins. I've seen you on digital. You're not LEP any more.'

Holly felt her heartbeat speed up. It was good to be back in action. Any kind of action.

'Maybe not, Doodah, but I'm still here to bring you in. Are you going to come quietly?'

'And spend a few centuries in the Atlantis pen? What do you think?' said Doodah Day, dropping to his knees.

The little pixie was gone like a stone from a sling, crawl-ing under the seats, jinking left and right.

Holly pulled up her hood and ran towards the fire exit. That's where Doodah would be going. He went this way every day. Every good criminal checks the exit routes in whatever building he visits.

Doodah was at the exit before her, crashing through the door like a dog through a hatch. All Holly could see was the blue blur of his jumpsuit.

'Target on the move,' she said, knowing her throat mike would pick up whatever she said. 'Coming your way.'

I hope, thought Holly, but she didn't say it.

In theory Doodah would make for his bolt-hole, a small storage unit over on Crystal, which was kitted out with a small cot and air-conditioning unit. When the pixie got there, Mulch would be waiting. It was a classic human hunt-ing technique. Beat the grass and be ready when the bird flies. Of course, if you were human, you shot the bird then ate it. Mulch's method of capture was less terminal, but equally revolting.

Holly stuck close, but not too close. She could hear the pitter-patter of the pixie's tiny feet scurrying along the theatre's carpet, but she couldn't see the little fellow. She didn't want to see him. It was vital that Doodah believed he had got away, otherwise he wouldn't make for his bolt-hole. In her LEP days there would have been no need for this kind of close-up pursuit. She would have had complete access to five thousand surveillance cameras dotted throughout Haven, not to mention a hundred other gadgets and gimmicks from the LEP surveillance arsenal. Now there was just her and Mulch. Four eyes and some special dwarf talents.

The main door was still flapping when Holly reached it. Just inside, an outraged gnome was flat on his behind, covered with nettle smoothie.

'A little kid,' he complained to an usher. 'Or a pixie. It had a big head, I know that much. Hit me right in the gut.'

Holly skirted the pair, shouldering her way on to the plaza outside. Outside, relatively speaking. Everything was inside when you lived in a tunnel. Overhead, the sunstrips were set to mid-morning. She could trace Doodah's progress by the trail of chaos in his wake. The vole kiosk was overturned. Lumpy grey-green curry congealed on the flagstones. And lumpy grey-green footsteps led to the plaza's northern corner. So far, Doodah was behaving very predictably.

Holly shouldered through the ragged line of curry customers, keeping her eyes on the pixie's footsteps.

'Two minutes,' she said, for Mulch's benefit.

There was no reply, but there shouldn't be, not if the dwarf was in position.

Doodah should take the next service alley and cut across to Crystal. Next time they were going after a gnome. Pixies were too fast. The fairy Council did not really like bounty hunters and tried to make life as difficult for them as pos-sible. There was no such thing as a licensed firearm outside the LEP. Anyone with a weapon, without a badge, was going to prison.

Holly rounded the corner expecting to see the tail end of a pixie blur. Instead she saw a ten-tonne yellow multi-mixer bearing down on her. Obviously Doodah Day had finished being predictable.

'D'Arvit!' swore Holly, diving to one side. The multi-mixer's front rotor chewed through the plaza's paving, spit-ting it out at the rear in centimetre-perfect slabs.

She rolled into a crouch, reaching for the Neutrino blaster, which had been on her hip until recently. All she found was air.

The multimixer was swinging round for a second run, bucking and hissing like a mechanical Jurassic carnivore. Giant pistons thumped, and rotor blades carved scythe-like through whatever surface fell beneath their blades. Debris was shovelled into the machine's belly, to be processed and shaped by heated plates.

It reminds me a bit of Mulch, thought Holly. Funny what crosses your mind when your life is in danger.

She back-pedalled away from the mixer. Yes, it was big, but it was slow and unwieldy. Holly glanced upwards to the cab, and there was Doodah, expertly manipulating the gears. His hands flashed across the knobs and levers, drag-ging the metal behemoth towards Holly.

All around was pandemonium. Shoppers howling, emer-gency klaxons sounding. But Holly couldn't worry about that now. Priority one: stay alive. Terrifying as this situa-tion might be to the general public, Holly had years of LEP training and experience. She'd escaped the grasp of far quicker enemies than this multimixer.

As it turned out, Holly was mistaken. The multimixer was slow as a whole, but some of its parts were lightning fast. For example, the containment paddles, two three-metre high walls of steel that slotted out on either side of the front rotor to contain any debris that might be thrown up by the rotor blades.

Doodah Day, an instinctive driver of any vehicle, saw his opportunity and took it. He overrode the safety and deployed the paddles. Four pneumatic pumps instantly pressurized and literally blew the paddles into the wall on both sides of Holly. They bit deep, sinking fifteen centi-metres into the stone.

Holly's confidence drained down into her boots. She was trapped with a hundred curved strip blades tearing up the ground before her.

'Wings,' said Holly, but only her LEP suit had wings, and she had given up the right to wear that.

The paddles contained the vortex created by the blades and turned it back on itself. The vibration was terrific. Holly felt her teeth shake in her gums. She could see ten of everything. Her whole world was bad reception. Beneath her feet the blades greedily chewed the pavement. Holly jumped at the left-hand paddle, but it was well lubricated and afforded her no purchase. Her luck was equally bad with the other paddle. The only other possible avenue was straight ahead, and that wasn't really an option, not with the deadly rotor waiting.

Holly shouted at Doodah, maybe her mouth formed actual words. She couldn't be certain, not with the shak-ing and the noise. Blades snicked through the air, grabbing for her. With each pass they tore strips from the ground beneath her feet. There wasn't much ground left. Soon she would be feeding the multimixer. She would be shredded, passed through the machine's innards and finally laid as a paving slab. Holly Short would literally be part of the city.

There was nothing to do. Nothing. Mulch was too far away to be of any assistance, and it wasn't likely that any civilian would attempt to mount a rogue mixer, even if they had known she was trapped between the paddles.

As the blades closed in, Holly gazed towards the computer-generated sky. It would have been nice to die on the surface. Feeling the heat of the real sun warming her brow. It would have been nice.

Then the rotor stopped. Holly was sprayed with a shower of half-digested debris from the mixer's stomach. A few stone slivers scratched her skin, but that was the extent of her injury.

Holly wiped the grime from her face and looked up. Her ears rang with the engine's aftershock, and her eyes watered from the dust that settled on her like dirty snow.

Doodah peered down at her from the cab. His face was pale but fierce.

'Leave me alone!' he shouted. His voice seemed weak and tinny to Holly's damaged eardrums.

'Just leave me alone!'

And he was gone, scurrying down the access ladder, maybe heading for his bolt-hole.

Holly leaned against one of the paddles, allowing herself a moment to recover. Tiny sparks of magic blossomed on her many cuts, sealing them. Her ears popped, whined and flexed as the magic automatically targeted her eardrums. In seconds, Holly's hearing was back to normal.

She had to get out of here. And there was only one way. Over the rotor. Past the blades. Holly tipped one gingerly with a finger. A droplet of blood oozed from a tiny cut, only to be sucked back in by a blue spark of magic. Those blades would cut her to ribbons if she slipped, and there wouldn't be enough magic under the world to stitch her back together again. But the rotor was her only way out, otherwise she would have to sit it out here until LEP traffic arrived. It would be bad enough causing this kind of damage with the weight of LEP public liability insurance behind her, but as a freelancer she'd probably be thrown in jail for a couple of months while the courts decided what to charge her with.

Holly threaded her fingers between the blades, gripping the first bar on the rotor. It would be just like climbing a ladder. A very sharp, potentially fatal ladder. She stepped on a lower bar and boosted herself up. The rotor groaned and dropped fifteen centimetres. Holly held on, because it was safer than letting go. Blades quivered two centimetres from her limbs. Slow and steady. No false moves.

One bar at a time, Holly climbed the rotor. Twice a blade nicked her flesh, but the wounds were not serious and were quickly sealed by blue sparks. After a brief eter-nity of utter concentration, Holly pulled herself on to the hood. The bonnet was filthy and hot, but at least it wasn't sharper than a centaur's tongue.

'He went that way,' said a voice from ground level.

Holly looked down to see a large frowning gnome in a city services uniform pointing towards Crystal.

'He went that way,' repeated the gnome. 'The pixie who threw me out of my mixer.'

Holly stared at the burly public services guy. 'That tiny pixie threw you out?'

The gnome almost blushed. 'I was getting out anyway, he just tipped me over.' He suddenly forgot all about his embarrassment. 'Hey, aren't you Polly something? Polly Little? That's it. The LEP hero.'

Holly climbed down the cab ladder. 'Polly Little. That's me.'

Holly landed running, her boots crunching on pebbles of crushed pavement.

'Mulch,' she said. 'Doodah is coming your way. Be care-ful. He's a lot more dangerous than we thought.'

Dangerous? Maybe, maybe not. He hadn't killed her when he'd had the chance. It would seem that the pixie had no stomach for murder.

Doodah's stunt with the multimixer had caused chaos in the plaza. Traffic police, nicknamed Wheelies, were pour-ing in and civilians were pouring out. Holly counted at least six LEPtraffic magna-bikes and two cruisers. She was keeping her head down, when one of the traffic officers hopped off his bike and grabbed her shoulder.

'Did you see what happened, missy?'

Missy? Holly was tempted to twist the hand on her shoul-der and flip the officer into a nearby recycler. But this was not the time for outrage — she needed to redirect his attention.

'Why,thankgoodnessyou'rehere,Officer,'she twittered in a voice at least an octave higher than her normal tones. 'Over there, by the multimixer.There's blood every-where.'

'Blood!' exclaimed the Wheelie, delighted to hear it. 'Everywhere?'

'Absolutely everywhere.'

The traffic cop dropped Holly's shoulder. 'Thank you, missy. I'll handle it from here.'

He strode purposefully towards the multimixer, then turned back.

'Excuse me, missy,' he said, recognition glimmering in his eye, just out of reach. 'Don't I know you?'

But the hooded elf had disappeared.

Ah well, thought the Wheelie. I should probably go look at the blood everywhere.

Holly ran towards Crystal Street, though she felt sure there was no need for haste. Doodah had either decided that there was too much heat on him to reveal his bolt-hole, or Mulch had him. Either way it was out of her control. Once again, she lamented the loss of LEP back-up. In her Recon days, all it would have taken was a quick order into her helmet microphone, and every street in the area would be cordoned off.

She skirted a street-cleaning robot, turning on to Crystal. The narrow street was a service lane for the main shopping plaza, and consisted mostly of delivery bays. The rest of the units were rented out for storage. Holly was 32

surprised to find Doodah directly in front of her, rummag-ing in his pocket, presumably for the access chip to his unit. Something must have held him up for a minute. Maybe he had ducked behind a crate to avoid the Wheelies. Whatever. She had another shot at him.

Doodah looked up, and all Holly could do was wave.

'Morning,' she said.

Doodah shook a tiny fist at her. 'Don't you have better things to do, elf? All I do is smuggle a few fish.'

The question cut Holly deeply. Was this really the best way to help the People? Surely Commander Root had wanted more from her? In the past few months she had gone from top priority surface operations, to chasing down fish smugglers in a back alley. That was quite a drop.

She showed Doodah her hands. 'I don't want you to get hurt, so stand perfectly still.'

Doodah chuckled. 'Hurt? By you? Not likely.'

'No,' said Holly. 'Not by me. By him.' She pointed at the patch of mud under Doodah's feet.

'Him?' Doodah looked down suspiciously, suspecting a trap. His suspicions were absolutely correct. The ground beneath his feet fizzled slightly as the surface earth shiv-ered and bounced.

'What?' said Doodah, lifting one foot. He would doubt-less have stepped off the patch, if he'd had time. But what happened next, happened very quickly.

The ground did more than just collapse, it was sucked from below Doodah with a sickening slurping sound. A hoop of teeth cut through the earth, followed by a huge mouth. There was a dwarf on the other end of the mouth, and he breached the ground like a dolphin jumping, driven apparently by gas from his rear end. The ring of teeth closed round Doodah, swallowing him to the neck.

Mulch Diggums, for of course it was he, settled back into his tunnel, taking the unfortunate pixie with him. Doodah, it has to be said, did not look quite so cocky as he had a second ago.

'A d-dwarf,' he stammered. 'I thought your People didn't like the law.'

'Generally they don't. But Mulch is an exception. You don't mind if he doesn't answer you himself; he might acci-dentally bite your head off.'

Doodah squirmed suddenly. 'What's he doing?'

'I imagine he's licking you. Dwarf spittle hardens on contact with air. As soon as he opens his mouth, you'll be locked up tight as a chick in an egg.'

Mulch winked at Holly. It was about as much as he could gloat at the moment, but Holly knew that he would spend the next several days boasting about his skills.

Dwarfs can tunnel through kilometres of earth. Dwarfs have jet-powered rear ends. Dwarfs can produce two litres of rock spit-tle every hour. What have you got? Besides a famous face that keeps blowing our cover?

Holly peered into the hole, the toe of one boot hooked over the edge. 'OK, partner. Good job. Now, can you please spit out the fugitive.'

Mulch was happy to oblige. He hawked Doodah on to the lane's surface, then clambered up himself, rehingeing his jaw.

'This is disgusting,' moaned Doodah, as the viscous spit-tle solidified on his limbs. 'It stinks too.'

'Hey,' said Mulch, injured. 'The smell is not my fault. If you rented storage in a cleaner lane…'

'Oh yeah, stinky? Well, this is what I think of you.' Doodah attempted a pixie hex gesture, but fortunately the rock spittle froze his arm before he could complete it.

'OK, you two. Cut it out,' said Holly. 'We have thirty minutes to get this little guy to the LEP before the spittle loosens up.'

Mulch peered over her shoulder towards the mouth of the lane. He turned suddenly pale underneath his coating of wet earth, and his beard hair bristled nervously.

'You know something, partner,' he said. 'I don't think we're going to need thirty minutes.'

Holly turned away from her prisoner. There were half a dozen elves blocking the entrance to the lane. They were LEP, or something very like it. They wore plain clothes with no markings or insignia of any kind. They were official, though. The heavy artillery cradled in their elbows attested to that. Holly noticed with some relief that none of the guns were pointed at her or Mulch.

One of the elves stepped forward, popping the visor on her helmet.

'Hello, Holly,' she said. 'We've been looking for you all morning. How've you been?'

Holly swallowed a relieved sigh. It was Wing Commander Vinyaya, a long-time supporter of Holly and Julius Root. Vinyaya had blazed the trail for all females in the forces. In a five-hundred-year career she had done everything from leading a Retrieval team to the dark side of the moon, to heading up the liberal vote on the fairy Council. In addition to this, she had been Holly's flight instructor in the Academy.

'Fine, Commander,' said Holly.

Vinyaya nodded at the solidifying mass of rock spittle.

'Keeping busy, I see.'

'Yes. That's Doodah Day. The fish smuggler. Quite a catch.'

The commander frowned. 'You're going to have to cut him loose, Holly. We have bigger snails to pop.'

Holly placed her boot on Doodah's midriff. She was reluctant to jump through LEP hoops, even for an under-cover wing commander.

'What kind of snails?'

Vinyaya's frown deepened, cutting a slash between her brows.

'Can we talk in the car, Captain? The regulars are on the way.' Captain? Vinyaya had referred to her by her old rank? What was going on here? If the regulars were LEP, who were these fairies?

'I don't trust the force as much as I used to, Commander. You need to give me something before we go anywhere.'

Vinyaya sighed. 'Firstly, Captain, we're not the force. Not the one you think, anyway. Secondly, you want me to give you something? I'll give you two words. Care to hazard a guess what they are?'

Holly knew at once. She felt it.

'Artemis Fowl,' she whispered.

'That's right,' confirmed Vinyaya. 'Artemis Fowl. Now, are you and your partner prepared to come with us?'

'Where are you parked?' asked Holly.

Vinyaya and her mysterious unit obviously had a serious budget. Not only were their weapons state of the art, but their transportation was way out of the usual LEP league. Within seconds of scraping Doodah Day and slip-ping a tracker into his boot, Holly and Mulch were strapped into lounger seats in the back of a stretch armoured vehicle. They weren't prisoners exactly, but Holly couldn't help feeling that she wasn't in control of her destiny any more.

Vinyaya took off her helmet, shaking out long silver hair. Holly was surprised.

The commander smiled. 'You like the colour? I got fed up dyeing it.'

37

'Yes. It suits you.'

Mulch raised a finger. 'Sorry to interrupt the salon chat, but who are you people? You're not LEP, I'll bet my bum-flap on it.'

Vinyaya swivelled to face the dwarf. 'How much do you know about demons?'

Mulch checked the vehicle's cooler and was delighted to find sim-chicken and nettle beer. He liberated both.

'Demons. Not a lot. Never seen one myself.'

'What about you, Holly? Remember anything from school?'

Holly was intrigued. Where could this conversation be going? Was this a test of some kind? She thought back to her history classes in Police Academy.

'Demons. The eighth family of the fairy People. Ten thou-sand years ago, after the Battle of Taillte, they refused to move underground, opting instead to lift their island out of time and live there in isolation.'

Vinyaya nodded. 'Very good. So they assembled their circle of warlocks and cast a time spell over the island of Hybras.'

'They disappeared off the face of the Earth,' recited Mulch. 'And no one's seen a demon since.'

'Not quite true. A few have popped up over the centuries. One quite recently in fact. And guess who was there to meet him?'

'Artemis,' said Holly and Mulch simultaneously.

'Exactly. Somehow he was able to predict what we couldn't. We knew when, but our where was off by several metres.'

Holly sat forward. Interested. Back in the game.

'Did we get Artemis on film?'

'Not exactly,' replied Vinyaya cryptically. 'If you don't mind, I'll leave the explaining to someone more qualified than me. He's back at base.' And she would say no more on the subject. Most infuriating.

Mulch wasn't one for patience.

'What? You're just going to take a nap? Come on, Vinyaya, tell us what little Arty is up to.'

Vinyaya would not be drawn. 'Relax, Mister Diggums. Have another nettle beer, or some spring water.' The commander took two bottles from the cooler, offering one to Mulch.

Mulch studied the label. 'Derrier? No thanks. You know how they put the bubbles in this stuff?'

Vinyaya's mouth twitched with the ghost of a smile. 'I thought it was naturally carbonated.'

'Yeah, that's what I thought until I got a prison job at the Derrier plant. They employ every dwarf in the Deeps. They made us sign confidentiality contracts.'

Vinyaya was hooked. 'So go on, tell me. How do they get the bubbles in?'

Mulch tapped his nose. 'Can't say. Breach of contract. All I can say is it involves a huge vat of water and several dwarfs using our… er,' Mulch pointed to his rear end '… natural talents.'

Vinyaya replaced her bottle gingerly.

As Holly sat back in her comfortable gel chair, enjoy-ing yet another of Mulch's tall tales, a niggling thought nudged through. She realized that Commander Vinyaya had avoided answering the dwarf's initial question. Who are these people?

Ten minutes later, that question was answered.

'Welcome to Section Eight Headquarters,' said Vinyaya. 'Forgive my theatrics, it's not often we get to wow people.'

Holly didn't feel very wowed. They had pulled into a multi-storey car park several blocks down from Police Plaza. The stretch armoured vehicle followed the curved arrows up to the seventh floor, which was stuffed below the craggy roof ceiling. The driver parked in the least acces-sible, darkest space, then switched off the engine.

They sat for several seconds in the damp darkness, listen-ing to rock-water drip from stalactites on to the roof.

' Wow,' said Mulch. 'This is something. I guess you people spent all your money on the car.'

Vinyaya smiled. 'Just wait.'

The driver ran a quick proximity scan on the dashboard scanner and came up clean. He then took an infrared remote from the dash and clicked it through the transparent plastic roof at the rock face overhead. 40

'Remote-controlled rocks,' said Mulch dryly, delighted at the opportunity to exercise his sarcasm muscle.

Vinyaya did not respond — she didn't have to. What happened next shut Mulch up all on its own. The parking space rose hydraulically, sending the car catapulting towards the rock face above. The rocks did not move out of the way. There was no doubt in Holly's mind that when rock went up against metal, the rock would win. It made no sense, of course, that Vinyaya would bring them here only to crush the entire party. But there was no time to consider this in the half a second that it took the stretch vehicle to reach the hard unforgiving rock.

In truth the rock wasn't hard or unforgiving. It was digi-tal. They passed right through to a smaller carport, built into the rock.

'Hologram,' breathed Holly.

Vinyaya winked at Mulch. 'Remote-controlled rocks,' she said. She flipped open the rear door, stepping out into an air-conditioned corridor.

'The entire headquarters has been hewn from the rock. Actually most of the cave was already here. We just lasered off a corner here and there. Forgive all the cloak-and-dagger, but it's vital that what we do here at Section Eight remains secret.'

Holly followed the commander through a set of auto-matic doors and down a slick corridor. There were sensors and cameras every few paces and Holly knew that her identity had been verified at least a dozen times before they reached the steel door at the end of the corridor.

Vinyaya plunged her hand into a plate of liquid metal at the door's centre.

'Flux metal,' she explained, pulling her hand out. 'The metal is saturated with nano-sensors. There's no way to fake your way through this door. The nano-sensors read everything from my handprint to my DNA. Even if some-one cut off my hand and stuck it in here, the sensors would read a lack of pulse.'

Holly folded her arms. 'All this paranoia in one place. I think I can guess who your technical consultant is.'

The door whooshed back, and standing on the other side was exactly the person Holly had expected to see.

'Foaly,' she said fondly, stepping through to embrace the centaur.

Foaly hugged her warmly, stamping his rear hooves with delight.

'Holly,' he said, holding her at arm's length. 'How have you been?'

'Busy,' replied Holly.

Foaly frowned. 'You look a little skinny.'

'Amazingly, so do you,' laughed Holly.

Foaly had lost a little weight since she had last seen him. And his coat was glossy and groomed.

Holly patted his flank. 'Hmm,' she mused. 'You're using conditioner, and you're not wearing the brain-probe-proof tinfoil hat. Don't tell me you have a little lady centaur tucked away somewhere.'

Foaly actually blushed. 'It's early days yet, but I'm hope-ful.'

The room was packed from floor to ceiling with state-of-the-art electronics. In fact some of it was in the floor and ceiling, including wall-sized gas view screens, and an incredibly realistic sim-sky overhead.

Foaly was obviously proud of what he had put together. 'Section Eight has the budget. I get the very best of every-thing.'

'What about your old job?'

The centaur scowled. 'I tried working for Sool, but it didn't work out. He's destroying everything Commander Root built. Section Eight headhunted me discreetly at a speed-dating weekend. They made me an offer and I accepted. I get plenty of fawning adoration here, not to mention a huge salary hike.'

Mulch had a quick nosey around and was irritated to find that there wasn't a single crumb of food in the room.

'None of that salary went on vole curry, I suppose?"

Foaly raised an eyebrow at the dwarf, who was still coated with tunnel dirt.

'No. But we do have a shower room. You do know what a shower is, don't you, Diggums?'

Mulch's beard hair bristled. 'Yes, I do. And I know a donkey when I see one too.'

Holly stepped between them. 'OK, you two. No need to take up where you left off. Let's hold off on the tradi-tional insults until we find out where we are, and why we're here.'

Mulch lowered himself gleefully on to a cream couch, |, fully aware that some of his mucky coating would rub into the furniture. Holly sat beside him, but not too close.

Foaly activated a wall screen, then touched it gently to navigate to the program he wanted.

'I love these new gas screens,' he snickered. 'Electric pulses heat the particles to different temperatures, causing the gas to turn different colours, forming pictures. Of course it's a lot more complicated than that, but I'm dumb-ing it down for the convict.'

'I was completely exonerated,' objected Mulch. 'As you well know.'

'The charges were dropped,' Foaly pointed out. 'You were not exonerated. It's a different thing. Slightly.'

'Yes, like a centaur and a donkey are different things. ‘Slightly.'

Holly sighed. It was almost like old times. Foaly was the LEP technical consultant who had steered her through many ^ operations, and Mulch was their reluctant helper. It would be difficult for a stranger to believe that the dwarf and the centaur were actually good friends. She supposed this irritating bickering was how the males of every species showed affection.

A life-size picture of a demon flashed up on the screen. Its eyes were slitted, and its ears were crowned with spikes.

Mulch jumped. 'D'Arvit!'

'Relax,' said Foaly. 'It's computer-generated. Amazing picture quality though, I grant you.' The centaur enlarged the face until it filled the screen.

'Full-grown buck demon. Post warp.'

'Post warp?'

'Yes, Holly. Demons do not grow like other fairies. They are quite cuddly until they hit puberty, then their bodies undergo a violent and painful spasm, or warp. After eight to ten hours they emerge from a cocoon of nutrient slime as demons. Before that, they are simply imps. Not the warlocks though, they never warp. Instead their magic blos-soms. I don't envy them. Instead of acne and mood swings, a pubescent warlock demon gets lightning bolts shooting out of his fingers. If he's lucky.'

'Where do they shoot out of if he's unlucky? And why do we care about any of this?' asked Mulch, cutting to the chase.

'We care, because a demon popped up recently in Europe and we didn't get to him first.'

'So we heard. Demons are coming back from Hybras now?'

'Maybe, Holly.' Foaly tapped the screen, splitting it into smaller sections. Demon pictures appeared in each one. 'These demons have materialized momentarily over the past five centuries. Luckily none of them have stayed around long enough to be captured by the Mud Men.' Foaly high-lighted the fourth picture. 'My predecessor managed to hold on to this one for twelve hours. He got a silver medal-lion on to him, and there was a full moon.'

'That must've been a special moment,' said Mulch.

Foaly sighed. 'Didn't you learn anything in school? Demons are unique among all the creatures of the Earth. Their island, Hybras, is actually an enormous moonrock that came down in the Triassic period when the moon was hit by a meteorite. From what we can glean from fairy cave paintings and virtual models, this moonrock punched into a magma stream and more or less got itself welded to the surface. Demons are descended from lunar micro-organisms that lived inside the rock. They are subject to a strong physical and mental lunar attraction — they even levi-tate during the full moon. And it is this attraction which pulls them back into our dimension. They have to wear silver to repel the lunar pull. Silver is the most effective dimensional anchor. Gold works too, but sometimes you leave bits of yourself behind.'

'So let's say we believe all this interdimensional lunar attraction baloney,' said Mulch, doing his utmost to wind Foaly up. 'What has that got to do with us?'

'It has everything to do with us,' snapped Foaly. 'If the humans capture a demon, who do you think will be next under their microscope?'

Vinyaya took up the backstory. 'That is why, five hundred years ago, Council Chairman Nan Burdeh set up Section Eight to monitor demon activity. Luckily Burdeh was a billionaire, and when she died, she left her entire fortune to Section Eight. Hence the rather impressive set-up. We are a very small, covert Council division of the LEP, but everything we have is the best. Over the years our brief has expanded to include secret missions that are too sensi-tive to entrust to regular LEP. But demonology is still our priority. For five centuries our finest minds have been study-ing the ancient demon texts, trying to predict where the next demon will pop up. Generally our calculations are correct and we can contain the situation. But twelve hours ago something happened in Barcelona.'

'What happened?' asked Mulch, a reasonable question for once.

Foaly opened another box on the screen. Most of the picture was white. 'This happened.'

Mulch peered at the box. 'A very small snowstorm?'

Foaly wagged a finger at him. 'I swear, if I wasn't such a fan of mockery myself, I would have you tossed out of here on your combustible behind.'

Mulch accepted the compliment with a gracious nod.

'No, this is not a small snowstorm. This is white-out. Someone was blocking our Scopes.'

Holly nodded. Scopes was the shop name for the shrouded trackers attached to human communications satellites.

'You can see that whatever happened in our little snow-storm must have been pretty unusual, because the Mud Men are very eager to get away from it.'

On screen, humans outside the white-out zone ran away wildly or drove their cars into walls.

'Human news programmes report several sightings of a lizard-like creature appearing out of thin air for several seconds. Of course there are no photographs. I had calcu-lated that there would be an appearance, but more than three metres to the left, and we had set up an Elldee, sorry, Light Distortion projector accordingly. Unfortunately, although we got the time right, the exact location was wrong. Somehow, whoever was inside that ball of interfer-ence got the location exactly right.'

'So Artemis saved us,' noted Holly.

Vinyaya was puzzled. 'Saved us? How?'

'Well, if it hadn't been for that interference, our demon friend would have been all over the Internet by now. And you think that Artemis was inside the ball of interference.'

Foaly grinned, obviously delighted with his own cunning. 'Little Arty thought he could outwit me. He knows the LEP keep him under constant surveillance.'

'Even though they promised not to,' interjected Holly.

Foaly ignored this technicality, ploughing on. 'So Artemis sent out decoys to Brazil and Finland, but we put a satel-lite on all three. Took a big chunk out of my budget, I can tell you.'

Mulch groaned. 'I am either going to barf, or fall asleep, or both.'

Vinyaya slammed a fist into her palm. 'Right. I've had enough of the dwarf. Let's just toss him in a holding cell for a few days.'

'You can't do that,' objected Mulch.

Vinyaya grinned nastily at him. 'Oh yes I can. You wouldn't believe the powers Section Eight has. So shut up, or listen to your own voice bouncing back at you from steel walls.'

Mulch locked his mouth and threw away the key.

'So we know Artemis was in Barcelona,' continued Foaly. 'And we know a demon appeared. He was at several other possible materialization sites too, but no demons showed up. He's involved somehow.'

'How do we know that for sure?' asked Holly.

'Here's how,' said Foaly. He tapped the screen, enlarg-ing a section of the Casa Mila's roof.

Holly stared at the picture for several seconds, looking for whatever it was she was supposed to see.

Foaly gave her a hint. 'This is a Gaudi building. You like Gaudi? He designed some lovely mosaics.'

Holly looked harder. 'Oh my God,' she said suddenly. 'It can't be.'

'Oh, but it is,' laughed Foaly, enlarging a particular rooftop mosaic until it filled the entire wall screen. There were two figures in the picture, stepping from a hole in the sky. One was obviously a demon, and the other was clearly Artemis Fowl.

'But that's impossible. That building must be a hundred years old.'

'Time is the key to this whole thing,' said Foaly. 'Hybras has been lifted out of time. A demon who gets sucked off the island drifts through the centuries like a temporal nomad. This demon obviously got hold of Artemis and took him along for the ride. They must have appeared to one of Gaudi's artists, or maybe even the man himself.'

Holly paled. 'You mean Artemis is…"

'No, no. Artemis is home in bed. We've pulled a satel-lite out of orbit to keep twenty-four-seven watch on him.'

'How is this possible?'

Foaly said nothing, so Vinyaya answered the question. I'll take this one, because Foaly doesn't like saying the words. We don't know, Holly. This affair leaves a lot of important questions unanswered. That's where you come in.'

'How? I don't know anything about demons.'

Vinyaya nodded craftily. 'Yes, but you know a lot about Artemis Fowl. I believe you keep in touch."

Holly shrugged. 'Well, I wouldn't say we really…'

Foaly cleared his throat, then called up an audio file on the system.

'Hey, Artemis,' said a recording of Holly's voice. 'I've got a little problem you might be able to help me with.'

'Happy to help, Holly,' said Artemis's voice. 'Something difficult, I hope.'

'Well, there's this pixie I'm after, but he's a fast one.'

Foaly switched off the file. 'I think we can say you're in contact.'

Holly smiled sheepishly, hoping nobody would ask who gave Artemis a fairy communicator.

'OK. I call from time to time. Just to keep an eye on him. For the greater good.'

'Whatever your reasons,' said Vinyaya, 'we need you to contact him again. Go to the surface and find out how he can predict demon appearances so accurately. According to Foaly's calculations, there isn't a demon appearance due for six weeks, but we would like to know where exactly it's going to be.'

Holly took her time to think about this.

'In what capacity would I be contacting Artemis?'

'Full Captain, your old rank. Of course, now you'd be working for Section Eight. Everything you do for us would be hush-hush.'

'A spy?'

'A spy, but with excellent overtime and medical insur-ance.'

Holly jerked a thumb at Mulch. 'What about my partner?'

The dwarf jumped to his feet. 'I don't want to be a spy.

Far too dangerous.' He winked slyly at Foaly. 'But I could be a consultant, for a fee.'

Vinyaya scowled. 'We're not prepared to grant Diggums a surface visa.'

Mulch shrugged. 'Good. I don't like the surface. It's too close to the sun and I have sensitive skin.'

'But we are prepared to compensate him for loss of earn-ings.'

'I don't know if I'm ready to put on the uniform again,' said Holly. 'I like working with Mulch.'

'Let's call this mission a probationary term. Do this one I for us. See if you like the way we operate.'

Holly mulled it over. 'What colour is the uniform?'

Vinyaya smiled. 'Matte black.'

'OK,' said Holly. 'I'm in.'

Foaly hugged her again. 'I knew you'd do it. I knew it. Holly Short cannot resist adventure. I told them.'

Vinyaya saluted stiffly. 'Welcome on board, Captain Short. Foaly will complete your briefing and get you kitted out. I expect you to make contact with the subject as soon as possible.'

Holly returned the salute. 'Yes, Commander. Thank you, Commander.'

'Now if you'll excuse me, I have a debriefing with a pixie we've managed to place inside the goblin triads. He has been wearing a scale suit for six months and he's having a bit of an identity crisis.' 52

Vinyaya left, her silver mane rippling behind her. The automatic doors closed with barely a whisper.

Foaly dragged Holly from her seat.

'I have so much to show you,' he babbled excitedly. 'The fairies here are nice, but a bit on the square side. Sure they ooh and aah, but no one appreciates me like you do. We have our own shuttle port, you know. And field equipment! You are not going to believe the spec. Wait until you see the new Shimmer Suit. And the helmet! Holly, this thing comes home on its own. I built a series of mini-thrusters into the skin. It can't fly, but it can bounce wherever you want it to. The thing is beyond genius.'

Mulch covered his ears. 'Same old Foaly. Modest to a fault.'

Foaly aimed a kick at Mulch, pulling it at the last second.

'Keep it up, Diggums. I could snap at any moment. I am half beast, remember.'

Mulch moved the hoof away from his face with a finger. 'I can't help it,' he whined. 'All this melodrama. Someone has to poke fun.'

Foaly turned once more to his precious wall screen. He selected and enlarged an artist's impression of the island of Hybras.

'I know this all sounds very cloak-and-dagger, and I know you think I'm making an anaconda out of a stinkworm. But believe me, somewhere on that island there is an unsuspecting demon who is about to make a reluctant visit to Earth and make life very difficult for us.

Holly stepped close to the screen. Where was that reluc-tant demon? she wondered. And did he have any idea that he was about to be snatched from his own dimension and propelled into another?

As it happened, Holly's questions were inaccurate on two counts. Firstly, the demon in question was not actu-ally a demon, he was just an imp. And secondly, the imp in question was anything but reluctant. In fact, visiting Earth was his dearest wish.



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