by Brian K. Asbury
“Dorcas Leigh, isn’t it? I didn’t know you were an alumnus of Bellamy College.”
“Sorry?” The tall blonde woman turned around to look at the plump brunette who had addressed her. “Um…?”
“Janet Smith? Remember? We met at last year’s Booker Prize ceremony? I was an agent for Farnak Books at the time. We published the winner?”
“Oh, of course,” said Dorcas, smiling as she finally recalled the meeting — and how tedious the garrulous Ms. Smith had been on that occasion. “Please excuse me, I was distracted.”
“That’s all right. As I said, I didn’t know you had been a student here.”
“I wasn’t,” said Dorcas. “I’m a Cambridge girl. Hampson College. Motto: ‘Who dares, wins.’ You know? I’m here at Oxford at the invitation of a friend.” Or, she added inwardly, at the prompting of an underworld informer who told me that someone here on the faculty at Bellamy has been under observation by members of the England for Humans group.
“Really? Well, I’m sure you’ll find this very interesting. Dr. Swann is a very popular man, and there are top people in his field here from all over the world. Ah!” She pointed. “There’s one I’m sure you’ll be interested in. Have you met Professor Lang from the United States?”
“No,” Dorcas said absently. “But I met his daughter Lana once. Will you excuse me, please? I’ve just seen my friend calling to me.” With that, she found a gap in the crowd and slipped through, away from the annoying Janet.
“Well, really,” said Janet. “How rude. Oh, Dr. Strange. How wonderful that you could make it!”
Dorcas made it to the back of the room and breathed a sigh of relief. What interest could a dull gathering of archaeologists like this hold for the people who had killed Raven Black? Of course, if one of them was secretly an alien — but who? It could be anyone.
A tapping on a microphone drew her attention, and everyone else’s, to a podium at the other end of the hall. An elderly man with a shock of white hair smiled as he said, “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for your presence here this evening. It’s truly good to see so many of you have come to honour our good friend Dr. Robin Swann, professor of archaeology here at Bellamy College, Oxford. Although this marks Dr. Swann’s twenty-fifth anniversary of being appointed to the faculty here at Bellamy, it somehow only seems as though it were yesterday that he took up his chair. In fact,” he added, his smile broadening, “Robin looks as though it were only yesterday. I have known him all that time, and he’s changed so little that I have a sneaking suspicion he has a portrait in his attic which is looking really ragged around the edges.”
This drew peals of laughter from all around the hall, but something stirred in Dorcas’ mind. What was it, she thought. Something that black girl on Ken Hanson’s staff had said…
“Unfortunately,” the speaker was saying, “as you’ve probably noticed, Robin is conspicuous by his absence at the moment. He has been delayed from joining us by an urgent matter involving one of his students, but he’ll be down shortly. In the meantime, please enjoy the refreshments, and we’ll make the presentation as soon as Dr. Swann gets here.”
Swann’s twenty-fifth anniversary, but changed so little. What was it that Sandie Bremmer had called Raven Black? The Peter Pan of the stage?
“Damn!” Dorcas muttered under her breath. She made her way to the door and slipped through it. She now knew who the intended victim was, and it was imperative that she find him first.
Dorcas started to run across the quadrangle to the main college building, then pulled herself up short. Wait! Where am I going? she thought. Where was Dr. Swann likely to be? In his private rooms? In a lecture room? In the library? With a student, the speaker had said. But that could be anywhere.
She spotted one of the college porters meandering across the other side of the lawn. Porters, of course! she thought, remembering her own college days. Porters at British universities were like sergeants in the army. They knew everything and, truth to tell, were probably the people who really ran the place.
Dorcas sprinted toward him. “Hey! Porter! Wait a minute, please. I need to ask you something!”
The porter, a short, emaciated man in his sixties, stopped and glared at her in disdain. “Madam, may I ask who you are? And who gave you permission to run across the college lawns in those heels?”
“I’m sorry about the lawn,” Dorcas panted. “But this is important. Do you happen to know where Professor Swann is?”
“Do you have an appointment, Madam?”
“No, but this is a matter of gravest urgency. His life may well be in danger.”
The porter gave a supercilious little snort. “Really, Madam, I assure you that I am not so foolish as to disturb Dr. Swann on such a pretext. Please come to the college office in the morning and make a proper appointment with…”
A low growl escaped from Dorcas’ throat. Her hair, tied up in a tightly coiled braid, suddenly freed itself, expanded outward and began to flow and writhe like a vast golden sail around her head. “What the–?” began the porter.
“Now look here, you silly little man. I want to know where Swann is, and I want to know now!” Strands of her hair billowed out and gripped the porter’s shoulders.
“I… uh… there!” the porter spluttered. “Lecture room three. That way,” he said, pointing.
“Thank you,” said Dorcas, releasing him. She slipped off her shoes and thrust them into the bewildered porter’s hands. “There. Now I can’t damage your precious lawns any more.” She also took off her glasses, put them in her handbag, and handed the bag to him. “I shall be collecting these later. Please make sure nothing happens to them.”
She began running in the indicated direction. There was no time to change into her costume, and she could only hope that all this had not been observed by anyone likely to recognise her as Dorcas Leigh. Reaching a door, she yanked it open with her hair and sprinted inside, scanning the numbers on the internal doors. Sixteen, fifteen… Damn! She was at the wrong end of the building.
Accelerating, she counted off the doors. Ten, nine, eight… Just as she passed room number four, a young woman emerged from the next door, only to jump back at the sight of the apparition bearing down on her.
“Dr. Swann… is he in there?” Dorcas gasped.
“You’re… you’re Godiva, aren’t you?” the young woman said, goggling.
“Yes! Answer me! Is he in there?”
The student nodded dumbly. Dorcas pushed open the door and found herself in a lecture theatre. At the front desk, a handsome blond man was putting something away into a briefcase. He looked up as she entered. “Yes? Can I help you?”
Before Dorcas could answer, a low hum came from the far side of the room. A glowing circle of light opened up, and through it stepped a man looking for all the world like William Shakespeare.
“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day,” said the man in Elizabethan costume, as a second man, clad in black and carrying a glowing box, materialised in the coruscating gateway. “To the last syllable of recorded time, and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!”
Dr. Swann stared at the costumed intruder as he recited his speech. “What in the world is going on?”
“Get down, doctor. Let me take care of this,” yelled Godiva.
“Take care of what? Who on earth are you?”
The Shakespeare lookalike began to raise a small instrument resembling an orange studded with small black objects.
“I said get down!” Dorcas’ hair snaked out and lifted Swann bodily by the shoulders, flinging him to safety behind the desk. A look of annoyance played about the Bard’s face.
“I bear a charmed life,” he said, “which must not yield to one of woman born.”
“Whatever!” muttered Godiva. Her hair lashed out toward him.
“Yet do I fear thy nature!” he cried out, diving to one side. His companion was slower to move and was snared in his place. Hissing in annoyance, Godiva bounced him up to the ceiling, causing him to drop the device he was holding, and then hurled him among the tiers of seats.
Unfortunately, this was all the time the Bard needed. “Suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune!” he cried, hurling the orange sphere toward the distracted heroine. It exploded midway into hundreds of tiny darts and balls.
Instinctively, Dorcas retracted her hair and formed it into a shield around her, hardening it to the texture of steel. A cacophony of little explosions sounded around as the tiny missiles detonated. Even her miraculous hair was not sufficient to protect her entirely, and she was shoved back into the now-closed door with a bump that momentarily winded her.
The explosions having stopped, she withdrew her shield of hair, only to find the room full of smoke. “Dr. Swann! Are you all right?” She began to whirl her hair like a huge fan, and could make out the glow of the strange gateway.
Then something stepped in front of her. “Frailty, thy name is woman.” There was a flash of light, and Godiva was flung backward again, this time shattering the door and flying back into the hallway beyond. She instinctively formed a cushion of her hair, but it could not prevent her from slamming into the far wall with stunning force.
She shook the cobwebs out of her head and blinked furiously to dispel the flashing lights before her eyes, but it was only too apparent that she had blacked out, if only momentarily. Pulling herself groggily to her feet, she staggered back into the shattered doorway. The lecture theatre was a scene of carnage, pock-marked with black, smoking craters where the missiles born of the Bard’s strange weapon had hit. Of the Shakespeare-quoting villain, his henchman, or the glowing gateway, there was no sign.
The heavy oak desk lay on its side, and a foot protruded from beneath. “Dr. Swann!” she breathed. Her hair reached out and dragged the desk away, but it was obvious that the man beneath was quite dead. She had failed in her bid to protect him.
“Well done. You performed excccellently. I am pleasssed.”
Billy Palmer shuffled on the spot. “Yes, but…”
“But what? Your misssion was carried out to perfection. My invessstment in you ssseemsss to have been well worthwhile. From now on I believe I will make you my firssst line of attack, and dissspenssse with thessse lessser hirelingsss.”
Palmer closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “I’m not sure I want to do that.”
“Not sssure? Exxxplain!”
“I… I know I volunteered for this. I know I said I wanted to get back at the alien scum for what they did to us, but this doesn’t seem right somehow. I’ve killed at least three people. That isn’t me, Mr. D. I’m not a killer!”
“Clearly you are!”
“No! It’s almost as if, when I’m out there on a mission for you, I’m not me at all. It’s as if somebody else takes over my body. I’m not Billy Palmer any more, but the Bard, an insane, Shakespeare-quoting killer. Have you any idea how that makes me feel? I’ve got to stop this now, before it gets out of control!”
“Out of control? Missster Palmer, you were never out of control!”
“But I was. And despite the fact that I eliminated Swann back there, don’t forget that just about everything else went wrong. There was a super-hero on the scene. If I hadn’t acted quickly, she could have caught me. As it is, the kid got left behind, and so did the gate gizmo he was operating.”
“Not relevant. I have deactivated the ssspace warp generator. It is ussselesss to our enemiesss.” The voice behind the screen became grim. “But Missster Palmer, we cannot have thessse doubtsss. Regard!”
A bright light stabbed out from the centre of the screen, directly into Palmer’s face. “No. No!” Palmer writhed and screamed as if held by the light and unable to break free. Then the struggles ceased, and he stood still. The light went out.
“Better. Much better,” intoned the voice of Mr. D. “Now all of your doubtsss are gone, I trussst.”
“All gone. Aye.”
“Excccellent! I have done you a great ssserviccce, my ssservant. Billy Palmer, with hisss doubtsss and anxxxietiesss, is no more. Now and forever, you are inssstead the Bard!”