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Chapter 11 A Long Way Down

taipei, taiwan
TAIPEI 101 is among the tallest build-ings in the world. Some say it is the tallest, if the sixty-metre spire can be counted, but others argue that a spire is not a building, and so Taipei 101 can technically only be called the tallest structure in the world. In any event, there were four build-ings in construction — two in Asia, one in Africa and the fourth in Saudi Arabia — with their sights set on the world's tallest building crown. So Taipei's claim to fame could be a fleeting one.

Artemis and company landed in Chiang Kai-Shek International Airport barely three hours before the dead-line in a rented Lear jet. And though Butler was a regis-tered pilot, qualified for day and night flying in various aircraft, it was Artemis who flew most of the way.

Flying helped him think, he claimed. Also, no one would interrupt while he put the finishing touches to his auda-cious plan. Artemis was fully aware of the risks involved with this particular scheme. The pivotal element was purely theoretical and the rest was highly unlikely.

He briefed the others on the details in the back of a rented Lexus on the forty-minute drive from the airport to downtown Taipei. The entire group looked drained, even though they had eaten and rested on the plane. Only No.l was in high spirits. Everywhere he looked there were new wonders to be gaped at, and he could not imagine that anyone would be able to injure him while he was under Butler's protection.

'The bad news is that we are running close to the dead-line," said Artemis. 'So there will be no time to set a trap.'

'And the good news, Artemis?' said Holly grumpily. She was grumpy for a few reasons. She was dressed as a human girl, because Artemis had asked her to save her magic for when it would be needed. She had managed to boost her magical energy by burying a sealed acorn she kept round her neck, but there had been no full moon, so her power reserves were limited. Also she was completely shut off from the People, and to top it all she had no doubt that Ark Sool would have her up on charges if any of them did manage to survive the trade-off. After all, she had brought No.l halfway across the world instead of escort-ing him safely to Haven City.

'The good news is that Kong can't be too far ahead of us, so it is unlikely he had time to set up any traps either.'

The Lexus entered the Xinyi district, and Taipei 101 rose from the cityscape like a giant bamboo shoot. The buildings around it seemed to shrink back in awe.

Butler craned his head back to see the top of the five-hundred-plus-metre building. 'We never do anything small, do we? Why can't we for once have a meeting in a Starbucks?'

'I didn't pick this building,' said Artemis. 'It picked us. Fate has brought us here.'

He tapped Butler on the shoulder and the bodyguard pulled over into the first space he could find. It took forever. Taipei morning traffic was thick and slow-moving and spewed smoke like an irritated dragon. Many of the thousands of pedestrians and cyclists had smog masks strapped across their faces.

When the vehicle had stopped, Artemis continued his briefing.

'Taipei 101 is a miracle of modern engineering. The architects took their inspiration from the humble bamboo. But this shape alone would not keep the skyscraper steady in the event of an earthquake or high winds, so the design-ers built it on a frame of concrete-filled steel-boxed super columns, and installed a seven-hundred tonne steel ball as a mass damper pendulum to absorb the force of the wind. Ingenious. The pendulum swings instead of the building.

It's become quite the tourist attraction. You can even watch it from the observation deck. The owners have covered the damper with fifteen centimetres of solid silver, which has been etched by the famous Taiwanese artist Alexander Chou.'

'Thanks for the fine-art lesson,' interrupted Holly. 'Now how about you let us in on your plan. I want to get this over with and take off this ridiculous tracksuit. It's so shiny, I feel sure I can be picked up on satellite.'

'I don't much like this outfit either,' complained No.l, who was dressed in a bonnet and an orange floral muumuu. Orange, he had decided, was definitely not for him.

'Your outfit is the least of your worries,' noted Holly. 'I'm guessing that we're about to hand you over to a blood-thirsty hit man, eh, Artemis?'

'That we are,' confirmed Artemis. 'But only for a few seconds. There will be little or no danger to you. And if my suspicions are correct, it is just possible that we may save Hybras.'

'Go back to me being in danger for a few seconds,' said No.l, his thick brow folding in a frown. 'In Hybras, a few seconds can last a very long time.'

'Not here,' said Artemis, in what he hoped was a re-assuring tone. 'Here a Jew seconds is how long it will take you to open your hand.'

No.l opened his fingers a couple of times experimen-tally. 'That's still pretty long. Any way to cut it down?'

'Not really. If we do, it means sacrificing Minerva.'

'Well, she did tie me to a chair.' No.l glanced round at the shocked faces. 'What? I'm joking. Of course I'll do it. But no more orange. Please.'

Artemis smiled, but it did not quite reach his eyes. 'Very well, no more orange. Now, the plan. It is in two parts. If the first part doesn't work, then the second is redun-dant.'

'Redundant,' said No.l, almost unconsciously. 'Not needed, superfluous.'

'Exactly. So I'll explain that when necessary.'

'What about the first part?' asked Holly.

'In the first part, we meet a vicious hit man and his band of thugs and he will expect us to hand over Number One.'

'So what do we do?'

'We hand over Number One,' said Artemis. He turned to the slightly nervous imp. 'How do you like the plan so far?'

'Well, I don't like the first bit and I don't know the last bit. So, I'm really hoping the middle bit is exceptional.'

'Don't worry,' said Artemis. 'It is.'

taipei 101

The group took a high-speed elevator from Taipei 101's cavernous lobby to the observation floor. Holly and No.l had technically been given permission to enter the build-ing by a small plaque over the main door which simply urged visitors to come and go as they pleased. And seeing as she did not feel the urge to throw up in the elevator, Holly guessed that the plaque counted as an invitation.

'Toshiba elevators,' said Artemis, reading from a pamphlet he had picked up at information. 'These are the fastest elevators in the world. We are moving at eighteen metres per second, so it shouldn't take much more than half a minute to reach the eighty-ninth floor.'

Artemis consulted his watch when the doors dinged open.

'Hmm. Right on time. Impressive engineering. I may get one of these for the house.'

They stepped out into the observation area, which had a restaurant at the far end. From this lofty vantage point, visitors could walk all the way round the floor and shoot video of the panoramic view. From this height it was even possible to see China across the Taiwan Strait.

For a moment the group forgot their worries and allowed themselves to be awestruck by the grace of this enormous structure. The sky was outside the window and blended almost seamlessly with the sea on the horizon. No.l was especially dumbfounded. He turned in small circles, the muumuu swishing round his legs.

'Less of the pirouetting, little man,' advised Butler, the first to get his mind back on the job. 'You're showing your legs. And pull that bonnet down over your face.'

No.l obliged, though he was not happy with the bonnet. It was shapeless and saggy, and made his head look like a bag of washing.

'Good luck, Holly,' said Artemis, into thin air. 'We will meet you on the twenty-third floor.'

'Get this done as quickly as you can,' Holly whispered into his ear. 'I don't have enough magic for a long shield. I'm barely invisible as it is.'

'Understood,' said Artemis, from the side of his mouth.

The small band walked slowly towards the bar area and took a table below the enormous mass damper, suspended a metre above the eighty-ninth floor. The seven-hundred tonne ball was a sight to behold, like an indoor moon, its surface etched with traditional Yuanzhumin drawings.

'This is the legend of Nian,' explained Artemis casu-ally, while Butler scanned the room. 'A ferocious beast that would feed on human flesh each New Year's Eve. To scare Nian away, torches were lit and firecrackers were set off, because Nian was known to fear the colour red. Thus the splashes of red paint. It seems likely from the pictures that Nian was actually a troll. Chou must have based his work on contemporary accounts.'

A waitress came to their table.

'Li ho bo,' said Artemis. 'Can we have a pot of Oolong tea. Organic, if you have it.'

The waitress blinked at Artemis, then looked up at Butler, who was still standing.

'You are Mister Fowl?' she asked, in excellent English.

I am Master Fowl,' said Artemis, tapping the table for attention. 'Do you have something for me?'

The waitress passed him a napkin.

'From the gentleman along the bar,' she said.

Artemis glanced down the arc of the metal railing and buffer system which kept patrons away from the mass damper, and more importantly kept the mass damper away from them.

Billy Kong was seated a dozen tables down, waggling his eyebrows in their direction. He was not alone. No one else was eyebrow-waggling, but three men were at the table with him, and several others were dotted around the bar area. Minerva was on Kong's knee. He held her fast by the forearm. Her shoulders were tense but there was defiance in the set of her mouth.

'Well?' Artemis said to Butler.

'At least twelve,' replied the bodyguard. 'Billy must have friends in Taiwan.'

'None of them invisible, thank goodness,' said Artemis, opening the napkin.

Send the creature to the reserved table, read the message on the napkin. I will send the girl. No tricks or people will get hurt.

He passed the napkin to Butler. 'What do you think?'

Butler gave the message a summary glance. 'I think he won't try anything here. Too many cameras. If the secur-ity doesn't get him on film, a tourist will. If Kong goes for a double-cross, it will be outside.'

'And by then, it should be too late.'

'So we hope.'

The waitress returned with a bamboo tray, bearing a clay pot of tea and three glasses. Artemis took his time pouring himself some of the steaming liquid.

'How are you feeling, Number One?'

'My leg hurts a bit.'

'The painkiller is wearing off. I'll ask Butler to give you another shot later. Are you ready to go? Everything will be fine, I assure you.'

'All I have to do is open my hand?'

'As soon as we're in the elevator.'

'That's it? Do you want me to distract the bad man with some witty banter, like you do with Holly?'

'No. That won't be necessary. Just open your hand.'

'Should I look scared?'

'That would be appropriate.'

'Good. Shouldn't be a problem.'

Butler was functioning in full action mode. Generally, he reined himself in, walking with a slight stoop to avoid drawing attention. But now, he stood tall and tensed, ready to spring into action. His gaze was fierce, and muscles bulged in his neck. He caught Billy Kong's gaze and zeroed in on his eyeballs. Even across a crowded room, the hostil-ity was almost palpable. A couple of more psychically sensi-tive bystanders suddenly felt anxious and cast their eyes about for the nearest restroom.

When he was finished staring down Billy Kong, Butler knelt to give final instructions to No.l.

'All you have to do is walk down to that table with the reserved sign. Wait until Minerva gets there, then continue on to Kong. If they hustle you out straight away, count to twenty then open your hand. If they wait for us to leave, open your hand when the elevator doors have closed. Understand?'

'I understand everything. In any language you care to speak in.'

'Are you set?'

No.l took a deep breath. He could feel his tail vibrat-ing anxiously. He had been in a bit of a daze since the time tunnel. How could anyone take all of this in? Skyscrapers, for heaven's sake. Buildings that actually scraped the sky.

'I'm set,' he said.

'Off you go then. Good luck.'

No.l began his long lonely walk back ............

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