Chapter LXXXV: Race Against Time
3 April 1610
“The constable, before he was called back to the Peninsula, had brought me to investigate some of the deaths that had been going on around here and the surrounding towns…” Arturo’s mother explained as she passed some silver tubes over a flame.
She was not terribly old despite the age of sixty that she had told Madeleine on the way back to the hospital. Silvery hair made a nest on her crown which then weaved down across her back as elegantly as fountain water. Her hands, which manipulated the narrow cylinders with care, only had the slightest evidence of her age—a testament perhaps to her indigenous ethnicity mixed with a healthy life.
“My father was a doctor from Galicia,” Arturo added to the conversation proudly holding up a glass vial for his mother, “and he started a medical school here and taught my mother and myself a thing or two about medicine and surgery before he died. Even though Veracruz is a rich city, those who moved to be part of this new world worry more about necessity and living than put emphasis on who should be what—though I suppose you know all about that, Dońa Madeleine.”
Madeleine, who had been standing on the opposite side of the bed from where Arturo and his mother were preparing the instruments, could only manage a short look and a polite crack of a smile. Her pale face was an insomniac’s mask and it was as if all the colour had migrated from her cheeks and settled densely and darkly around her eyes. “Thank you, Arturo, and Seńora Ortiz…”
“Do not thank me yet,” the old woman replied, “there are still many things that can go wrong.” The words held Madeleine still and her eyes were fixed onto the pale and breathless face of her laying uncle. She almost did not notice when the silver needle pricked her uncle’s arm. Precious red, a hue so contrasted by the snowy bareness of de Fronsac’s arm trickled into the container Arturo had ready. When enough of the substance was collected, Seńora Ortiz applied bandages to the area. “You’re next, my child,” the old woman said to Madeleine.
“Explain to me again,” Riku spoke out half curious and half suspicious from the corner of the room. His form approached the bed as Seńora Ortiz rounded to the other side where Madeleine was already awaiting with a bared arm, “why would only Madeleine’s blood work in this treatment?”
“I’ve found through combining different blood samples that blood from family members mix the best,” she explained as all eyes were now on Madeleine’s exposed arm as the silver cylinder made contact. Willem’s gaze—the closest to the young girls’—visibly narrowed in a half wince at the puncture. Raul remained stoic while sitting at one end of the room.
A similar procedure as before was performed and now there were two containers filled with the blood of the de Fronsacs. Sealing both containers with corks, the woman also tied a ribbon on one of them to differentiate the two vials. Handing the one designated as Renault’s to her son, Arturo dutifully attached it to a leather strap, securely fastened it with a belt hook, and stepped to an empty corner of the room. Like a miniature David fighting some invisible goliath, the young boy whirled the leather tethered vial in a circle around him.
“This will take a little bit,” Arturo said to the rest.
“Once Arturo has separated the blood into its red and white parts,” Seńora Ortiz addressed the others, “we’ll be able to see if we can use Madeleine’s blood.”
“Red and white?” Riku inquired passively as he felt himself slightly hypnotized by the circular motion of the vial in the air.
“I found out about it by accident. I had preserved a vial of blood and set it on one of my shelves for a while. The redder portions separated to the bottom and the white remained on top. Almost like separating cream from milk. It was this portion that I tested around with and found that if I put it into contact with other blood, sometimes it would turn ugly and other times it would mix well. It mixed well the most between family members.”
“And transferring my blood to my uncle along with the medicines will help?” Madeleine asked forcing herself to stay upward.
“Correct,” was the woman’s reply. “Or so we hope. Admittedly… I’ve only tried it once before with the Dock owner and his daughter and he managed to live… so I cannot guarantee that that was not just luck.”
Madeleine nodded somberly before finding the closest seat and let herself down upon it. Her hand was still pressed against the bandage as a small dot of red appeared where she was stopping the bleeding. Willem watched the young lady waft like a wilting flower in the humid afternoon air. There was a stillness of the wind, but Madeleine’s radiance in the golden yellow of the high sun coming in through the window only served to accentuate the dark rings around her sleepless eyes and the coldness of her hungry body. Willem could not help but move, but he did so in the direction of the doorway.
“Where are you going?” Raul called out to the soldier. Willem was quick to turn around.
“Seńora Ortiz, you said that before the Dock Master it was the Fishing Guild master, the captain of the marine detachment, the don who owns the supply warehouse at the port, as well as some of the same in the other towns, correct?”
“Yes,” was her simple response.
“Then I’m going to the dock to see if I can’t find who is responsible for this,” Willem quickly said. He gave a brief look towards Madeleine who gave him a dazed expression. Something in him strengthened from that silent communication before he turned around and walked out with one of his hands already resting on his hilt.
“Go with him, Riku,” Raul ordered, “I’ll stay here.”
Riku acknowledged with a grunt and rushed out the door as well.
As the Finn left the chamber, a short silence descended on all there. Raul, unable to feel himself getting frustrated at the delay, idly ran his fingers against his tunic unconsciously. His digits pressed against a bump in between his skin and the fabric of his clothes—it was something he did while looking at the floorboards in contemplation. Arturo was still swinging the apparatus around and the young man’s mother was preparing a bladder skin and some quills.
“Madeleine…” a voice called out. The young woman rushed to her feet and to the side of the bed.
“It’s going to be alright,” she instinctively said as she took the raising hand of her uncle, “We have a medicine woman here for you—”
“The papers… I gave you—”
“Yes, uncle,” she tried to save him the effort to speak, “I still have them. The map and everything, I have it.”
“You need…” the old man was trying to speak through cracked lips as if he was buried under a pile of autumn leaves. The irises of his eyes moved rapidly behind half closed lids as if his very gaze could push those words from his mouth faster towards the young girl. “There is more…” he kept trying to say.
Madeleine took the cue to bring some paper and one of the quills not being used. “I’ll write it down for you… don’t burden yourself.”
“Remember…” Renault was straining and after each syllable there seemed to be a growing wince in his eyes, “the story… how I proposed—” here, his body convulsed in a cough.
“Yes,” Madeleine, holding back tears, acknowledged her uncle by guessing what he was about to say, “your proposal to Aunt Carmen… she always told me the story. You proposed to her on the beach during your vacation to San Diego. You gave her some calligraphy that didn’t mean anything and told her that it was your own word for a marriage proposal.”
“Good…” Renault nodded tiredly, “do you remember… what that word was?”
Madeleine ruffled her forehead curiously but it did not stop her hands from recreating the symbol crudely on a peace of parchment. “This?” she asked showing it to her uncle. Renault nodded painfully with his eyes barely open.
“You will need it…” he gasped out in wheezing breaths, “when you go… when you go—” Renault’s cheeks puffed vainly as he urged words past urgently before he could feel himself drifting back to unconsciousness. “Within…” he faintly uttered as he grew weaker; Madeleine’s hand gripped his tightly as if her energy might give him an extra ounce more of stamina, “friends…” was the whisper like word before the man swooned once more.
“Within friends?” Madeleine asked the unconscious relative. She scanned those closed lids hoping an extra breath might rise from the half dead throat. A hand gently pressed against her shoulder.
“I’ve mixed the blood and the serum; you should be compatible with him…” Seńora Ortiz told the young lady slowly, “we must begin the procedure now if we are to save your uncle.”
“The thirteenth pier?” Willem asked the dock man attempting to reiterate his Continental Spanish so that the man’s colonial understanding would comprehend him.
“Yes, Seńor,” the man replied, “The boat there hasn’t moved for months. The Dock Master tried to look into it before but that was when he caught the sickness.”
“Gracias,” he told the man before sliding off down the boardwalk.
“You can’t just barge onto a boat if that’s what you’re thinking of doing, Willem,” the rational voice of Riku admonished him. It did not stop that young man from making his way toward the end of the harbor.
“The assassin is probably there,” Willem replied matter-of-factly.
A hand grabbed Willem’s elbow and forced him to stop halfway turned. “That’s more than obvious,” Riku told him with his face coming closer, “but we’re thousands of miles from the Peninsula, many of our key operatives have been poisoned, and the garrison was recalled. This is not something we were prepared to handle.”
“This is something I have to do,” Willem pulled away from Riku but the Finn kept up behind him as he walked faster down the planked way.
“If you want what’s best for her, you won’t get yourself killed, Van Axel.” It made Willem stop and Riku nearly plowed right behind him. “I can’t believe I’d say this but you’re acting a lot like Raul.”
“It’s not like that,” Willem said with his back still turned. “I’m just—”
“It’s obvious in the way you look at her,” Riku bit back impatiently, “it’s as if you both already shared a secret. I may have spent the good years of my teenage life in His Most Catholic Majesty’s payroll, but I can recognize young love when I see it.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Willem said scornfully, “nothing’s going to happen between her and me. She’s the Viceroy’s daughter and I’m just a soldier. And as a soldier, I have a job to do,” Willem recited sarcastically and resumed his walk. Riku sighed and followed.
The ship itself was rather large for a merchant vessel. Like a Manila Galleon it dominated the entire end of the harbor and loomed over the pier like a fort wall. There was a simple plank to get onto the vessel and strangely enough, Willem noted, the ship did not seem to move or crest. Granted it was a calm harbor, but it the ship itself was like an extension of the pier.
A picture of stillness, it was also mirrored by the quiet of its deck and the lack of any crew to greet the trespassers. “There’s no one here, not even a watch…” Willem said uneasily. If the soldier was hesitant, Riku already had reached into his sleeve. “Let’s go down into the hold,” Willem said as he traversed the bare deck.
“I don’t like this, Willem… we’ll be totally cut off if we go down below. Can’t even jump into the water from there.”
“Stand guard up here then and I’ll go down below just to peek. If anyone comes up, you can call me.” Riku was about to protest but Willem was already descending the staircase.
The inside of ships was not unfamiliar to Willem: it had that same seafaring smell that punctured the nostrils with a taste of healthy salt. The wood gave the hold a kind of moldy humidity and Willem’s eyes adjusted from the bright afternoon of the Mexican coast to the dusty shade within. Descending the steps, he braced himself for any potential ambush, but once more there was no one to be seen. In fact, there was no cargo from end to end.
Aside from the usual deployment of beams and braces, there was just one more set of stairs leading to the deck below. Willem decided that perhaps the third time was the charm. Curiosity and zeal taking hold of both of his legs, he passed into the next staircase and lowered himself into the bowel of the ship. Once his boot reached the planks of the wooden floor, he looked down at the length and was silently dumbfounded. For a second, his heart leaped in his chest: Was the boat sinking? Indeed, ahead of him was the vast plane of the water’s surface. It was as if the ship had nothing at the bottom of its hull but open water.
“What is going on here…” he whispered.
“Watch your step, Herr Van Axel,” a voice scratched out at him. Willem turned and drew his weapon but no one was there. The voice appeared to come from a barely lit corner of the hull—but all he could see was a strange black like box attached to the ceiling. Was it some kind of window that he’s speaking through in the woodwork? Impossible, Willem thought, he had just been in upper floors, there was nothing there.
“Are you the assassin?” Willem called out indignantly while backing up towards the staircase.
“Yes,” was the scratchy voice once more from the strange box at the ceiling.
“Where are you! Show yourself!” Willem demanded. At first there was no answer, but then the distorted voice came from the box once more.
“I’m at your hospital,” was the response. There was a tinge of mockery involved.
“Spare me your blatant lies!” Willem called back as he started up the staircase thinking to see the man on the other floor, but no one was there. The deck floor itself could not be thick enough to house a whole person.
“I’m going to have to finish the job I started before that little witch doctor you conjured up tries to ruin my handiwork,” the voice said with a little chuckle to punctuate his point. “Maybe I’ll poison that little French girl too now that de Fronsac wrote down everything we need to know.”
“I swear you won’t even get near Madeleine!” he growled.
“And I don’t want to,” the voice replied quickly. “You could help me avoid all this, Van Axel.” At first, there was no response from the Dutchman. “de Fronsac is near death… it’s inevitable… make sure he dies and bring me a copy of Madeleine’s papers and I swear to you on your God’s name that I will not harm her.”
“Van Axel!” Riku’s voice interrupted from the floor above. “There’s men approaching the boat, we have to go!”
Willem hesitated for a second as he heard Riku already start to make his way higher on deck. “Bring the papers back here. I will know if Renault is dead,” the voice spoke to him again. “Do this and none of you will be harmed.”
“Van Axel!” was a yell from above. Willem had no more time, he ran back up the stairs.
Pablo ran up the staircase. “Make sure they’re dead and bring me the case and I’ll agree to the sum you negotiated.” was the text message that he memorized in his brain. Already, the bloody knife was slick in his hand and dripped Taguchi’s life liquid on the sterile floor, but he had not much time to waste. Leaping past steps, he came upon the wing where they held the Royce child. He went a bit slower this time past the guest rooms where the others were sleeping. It was the room at the end of the hall, he remembered. It was that room where Rodrigo was holing up across from where Tom’s bed was. Maybe Rodrigo felt guilty and he had to watch over Tom all the time, Pablo thought to himself as he snuck by the other doors. Nonetheless, it didn’t matter to him now and he would surprise both in their sleep and take the case. Soon enough, there would be a van waiting for him a few blocks down from the building and he had already scouted the escape he would use from the window.
“Stop!” he heard from behind him. Turning quickly, he saw Rodrigo—he hadn’t been in the room! “Captain DeWitt!” the young man called out down the hall. There was no more time to waste; those who wanted to give him his pay would have to deal with only two of the three targets taken care of. Pablo sped into the room where Tom was sleeping.
Chapter LXXXVI: Into The Room (coming soon)