Monday, October 20, 2008

Special Guests

Special Guests
(a sequel to "A Special Guest", originally printed in Something Good To Read)

Please note: the political (and perhaps some of the physical) geography of Africa in this story is imaginary, and belongs to the subcreated realm where these characters live. No analogy is proposed or intended with any real country, but to those real countries in our world adorned with the Congo River and the Mountains of the Moon (the Ruwenzori), I give a bow of esteem. Also, the "ChesterTeens" blogg is real, though it is now called Flying Ins, but none of the characters of my story are analogues of real members of that blogg. You will find a sprinkling of unattributed quotes of GKC's The Man Who Was Thursday and other of his writings, but that's only to be expected. Finally, you may wish to read the story called "A Special Guest" before you read this one. Or afterwards. It may even be better afterwards.
--Dr. Thursday

It looked hot out there, but September 15 was still summer. She was glad it wasn't a direct flight - she got to see a little more of the country that way. She leaned forward, peering out the tiny oval window at the ground crew loading luggage into the plane. She shivered again with excitement. She - Lucy Thérèse Findesac - a senior at St. Jerome High - had written the winning essay of the Livingston Adventure! She was going to New York, to spend a week at Channel Nine, with Barclay Livingston himself! She thought back to the day the FexEd package had come, stuffed with papers to sign: for her, for her parents, for her principal, and even a form for her physician... Everyone had been delighted with the great opportunity. But when she was about to announce her adventure on the ChesterTeens blogg, her mother told her to wait. "You can report on it afterwards, dear. You don't want to make anyone feel uncomfortable, do you?" And of course she agreed - it was the Chesterton way. But she bought herself two fresh notebooks and a bunch of pens to take along. That evening she stared out her window and watched the sun set over Grays Harbor, then got on her computer and posted (under her net-name of "Henneth Annûn", Tolkien's Elvish words meaning "Window on the West") a short quote from GKC's What I Saw In America about the New York sky-signs and her own thoughts about God's sky-signs.
She had never been to New York, but even with all the interesting things to see there, she didn't expect to be there the whole week. Not with Barclay Livingston as a host! Not only was he handsome and a superlative reporter, but he was well-known for getting to the most dangerous or impossible news events and bringing back unbelievable reports. Lucy doubted that they would be in New York the whole week. She had to bring her passport - and to give added certainty to her guess, there was that form for her physician, which had resulted in a couple of unexpected injections. Everyone knew that the Pope would be in Mexico on Thursday - the beginning of his Central American visit - and everyone also knew that the Livingston Report had not yet done a "Focus" on Benedict XVI. There were rumors on all the Catholic bloggs: Livingston was one of the most visible of Catholics in the media, and even the regular media had been speculating whether he would be dropping in during Benedict's visit. It was hard enough for Lucy to imagine being with Channel Nine's media legend, but with even a remote chance of meeting the Pope too? What an adventure!
She sighed and sat back. While she was watching the luggage being loaded, people had been getting on the plane. She looked around. A couple of businessmen were in the seats across the aisle, reading newspapers. A woman with a pack was going down the aisle to her seat, an attendant was helping an older woman from a wheelchair. Then she saw a pair of huge white sneakers sticking out into the aisle, and long legs in dark baggy pants... she heard the clicking of a laptop. She shrugged. Some young tech probably owner of a company. She took out her notebook and jotted down some musings. Maybe there'd be a kiosk at the airport so she could send e-mail to her parents... but there was sure to be something at the studio. She sighed happily and wrote as the attendants began preparing for takeoff.
* * *
When the plane landed in New York, Lucy saw the kid with the big sneakers stand up as soon as they came to the jetway. He was tall, kind of skinny, with short dark brown hair, and frowning nervously, but he had a nice face. He was wearing a deep blue shirt with a worn jean-jacket, and he had slung his laptop case on his shoulder. He hurried out as soon as it was permitted, but Lucy was impressed when he stopped to assist the old woman with her wheelchair. The businessmen were still reading their newspapers. She sighed, pulling her pack from under the seat, and got up.

Inside the terminal she saw a man in a deep blue suit, holding a clipboard. He glanced at it, then saw her and smiled. "Ah! Miss Findesac! Welcome to New York! I'm Martin Smith, assistant to Mr. Livingston." He put out his hand and she shook it. "Since we're all here, if you'll follow me?"
Lucy's eyes opened at that - then she saw that the tall kid with the laptop was standing next to Mr. Smith; the kid was smiling faintly as he stared at her.
Mr. Smith saw her hesitancy and realized he had made an unwarranted assumption, all but unforgivable for one of Mr. L's staff. "Excuse me. Miss Findesac, may I introduce Ben Boule? Mr. Boule, this is Lucy Findesac. You're the two grand prize winners. Both of you did most impressive work; Mr. Livingston is looking forward to this! Now, please come with me."
The two young people had mumbled a greeting, shaken hands and taken each other in - then followed their host through the terminal. Lucy wondered about her companion, and wondered if he was wondering about her - but he said nothing. But recalling how Father Brown would talk to his waiter in restaurants, she broke the ice: "I'm from Hoquiam, Washington. Where do you live?"
He didn't respond right away, maybe he thought she was talking to Mr. Smith. Finally he glanced over to her, but this time he smiled for real. (Probably nervous, even shy, she thought.) "In a little suburb of Chicago." His voice was deeper than she expected, but nice enough, with just the faintest midwest twang.
"It looked like a nice place - from the air."
He shrugged. "It's OK."
"I could hardly believe that I won."
"Me too. My dad said I spent way too much time on it. Took time away from my..." He cleared his throat. "He's all for schoolwork, but he thinks I waste my time. And after I bought this machine with my own money, too!" He patted his laptop case. "But he said it was a good thing I got something out of all that work." He shook his head, and frowned again.
"My parents said I could enter, but I had to keep up my regular work too. I..." She stopped; it was better she didn't say anything about blogging. "I've got to write up a report for when I get back."
"I got the machine, and as long as I get a connection I got to make stupid daily reports as things happen. Some people think I'm a kind of newshound." He shook his head. "I like to write, that's all." He dropped his voice, but she caught what he said. "I just never have any time for it."
"I know. Me too." She stopped, wondering about one of the last things she had read on the CT blogg: the writer named MegaPode said something about an adventure he was going to have. Casually, she looked at him again as she hurried to catch up. At first he seemed so skinny, but he was lots stronger than he looked. Nah. No way; she couldn't believe both of the Livingston Adventure winners were in ChesterTeens! But, she thought, it might be fun to find out if he knew Uncle Gilbert. She'd have to stay alert for an opportunity.
* * *
After they collected their luggage, Mr. Smith took them to the hotel suite where they would be staying. Each had his own bed and bath, but there was a common lounge, a dining area and kitchen, and two other bedrooms. Mr. Smith smiled. "No, we're not expecting anyone else, and you won't be eating here - but we have to keep suites like this ready - for our guests, you know."
Lucy was already hungry, and wondered what he meant. "We're not eating here?"
"Sure; in about an hour I'll be taking you to have dinner with Mr. Livingston."
Ben looked nervously at Lucy, then at Mr. Smith. "We're going to dinner? Tonight? With Mr. Livingston?"
"That's right. Any objection to Mexican food?"
"I love it!" Lucy said. She felt this gave additional support to her prediction.
Ben nodded his approval with a faint smile. "This place got wireless?"
"Certainly. I'll leave you to unpack and relax while I check in with Mr. Livingston; he had to finish off a couple of projects today, clearing his desk for this week. And should either of you have any problem while you are here, just call the front desk, and they'll take care of you." He nodded and went out.

The two young people looked at each other uncomfortably.
Finally Ben said, "Doesn't he have a son?"
"Who - Mr. Livingston?"
"Yeah. He's about our age, I think."
Lucy frowned as she tried to remember the biography she had once read of the intrepid reporter. "I know he's married, and I thought I once heard... I don't know. Maybe he'll be at dinner tonight."
Ben stared down at his huge feet and sighed. "You have brothers or sisters?"
"Yeah... one each. Mike's in fifth grade. And Maryann, she's only five. How about you?"
"Nope. I got a cousin Fred, we do a lot together - he lives the next farm over..." He broke off, suddenly uncomfortable.. "Uh. You don't need to bother about me. I... I'm kind of..." He reddened. "I think I'll just get changed before dinner."
Lucy wasn't sure what he had said that embarrassed him so badly, but she wasn't about to pry. "That sounds like a good idea. I probably smell like jet fuel, I've been on the plane all day!"
"You don't," she heard him murmur as he hurried off to his room.
* * *
Mr. Smith had taken them to the place where Mr. Livingston was waiting, then left after introducing them. Lucy wondered if the tiny cellar was really a restaurant, or just a basement kitchen in somebody's house. There was no menu, but food just kept appearing: all interesting, and all good. There was live Mexican music coming from somewhere nearby. Everything was tasty, and somehow more real than anything she had ever eaten at a chain "Mexican" place.
Lucy stared at Mr. Livingston - the fresh, honest face that (it was said) half the world knew: a handsome man, now in his forties, with dark hair and grey eyes, and a rich but unaffected speaking voice. He was friendly and quite casual, yet remarkably alert to his young guests. Lucy soon learned the reason for Ben's embarrassment. He lived on a farm, and not a very big one, but it had been in his family since the 1800s, and he was proud of it, but not of being a farmer - city kids liked to mock him as the classic farm boy. And on top of that, he didn't feel that he could be a farmer, he was too lazy for it - but he didn't want to lose the farm. Ben found out that Lucy wanted very much to be a writer, but had great math grades too, so she was thinking of studying engineering in college. Her father hadn't ever gone to college and he wanted her to aim high. "Besides, writing isn't the only - I mean, whether you write about pigs or the binomial theory - uh - it's like farming, somebody has to do hard jobs like that," she said, flustered. Ben stared strangely at her, but Mr. Livingston nodded in understanding.

As they were eating their dessert, Ben asked, "Sir, I seem to recall you have a son? Isn't he about our age?" Lucy smiled at his courage, and listened attentively.
Mr. Livingston answered without hesitation. "Yes, his name is Toby. He'll be sixteen soon, so he's a bit younger..." He smiled but his voice trailed off and he stared into space. "Excuse me a moment." He got up and went out.
Ben's eyes met Lucy's. "That's probably the only time in his life he's ever been at a loss for words."
She nodded; it was unusual. "Maybe it's his son's birthday, and he just remembered."
"I sure hope everything's all right."
"Probably I shouldn't have brought it up."
"No; I think he was delighted that you were interested in him. I'd like to meet Toby, wouldn't you?"
Ben was about to reply when Mr. Livingston reappeared. "I apologize, I just remembered a phone call I had to make."
"Everything all right, sir?" Ben asked.
"Oh, yes. But I had a promise to keep." He nodded to himself, and stared at the candle flame in the centerpiece. "Almost ten years now..."
Lucy screwed up her courage. "Ben and I were just saying we'd like to meet your son - you said he's about our age, right?"
Mr. Livingston glanced oddly at Lucy, but then smiled. "I... Why, yes that's correct - it's very kind of you. I'll certainly mention it to him. He's rather busy with his studies, now that he's a junior and starting to think about college... and our schedule is rather tight, but I'll see what we can do."

But Lucy felt sure there was something else he wasn't saying. As she got ready for bed that night, she thought she could hear Ben typing furiously. She wondered if Toby's case wasn't similar to Ben's but magnified: Toby Livingston was merely the son of a world-famous character, probably tired of having his father's life rammed in his face... Probably lonely, like Ben. And as much as she loved her family, she was lonely sometimes too. She sighed, said a quick prayer, and fell asleep.
* * *
They woke to find menus had been slid under their doors - a note from Mr. Smith said that they were to order whatever they wished for breakfast, and be in the lobby ready to be picked up at 8:30 for a tour of Channel Nine. Lucy chose a light green top to go with her deep green skirt, but added a denim vest and matching purse. Ben was again wearing his baggy dark cargo pants and white sneakers, but had changed to a red plaid shirt, and was lugging his laptop. Mr. Smith greeted them, and soon they were at Channel Nine.
"We're not going to tour the whole place today, just Studio Nine where Mr. Livingston's show is shot. We'll have lunch here, as there are a few of the staff who want to meet you."
Ben yawned and nodded. "You have wireless here?"
"Yes, but you won't be able to use it; there are policies about Internet usage here. Sorry."
Ben shrugged. Lucy yawned, hoping she wasn't going to be doing that all day.

After they had signed in, Mr. Smith took them around. He showed them the glass-enclosed Control Room; from there they got their first sight of the famous Studio Nine with Mr. Livingston's desk and chair. Technicians and cameramen were wandering around the set, busy doing things. A short, chubby man in a vest stared glumly at them as they gawked, and Mr. Smith cleared his throat. "Excuse me, Sam. These are our guests today - the winners of the contest. Ben Boule, and Lucy Findesac. Ben, Lucy, this is Sam Preston."
"Pleastameecha," Mr. Preston said in flawless Brooklynese. He winked; his glum face didn't change. "Get 'em down there and prepped, Marty, we don't got all day."
Lucy paled, and Ben had turned very red; he looked like he was choking. "Uh... did you say 'guests'?"
"Sure did, kid; buck up. It don't hurt none. Dincha eat with the Big Bark last night? Part of the deal, you know. Hey, hold on a second." He leaned over the console and pressed a button. "Hey Toby! That's no way to treat a camera. I catch you doing that again and you'll buy us a new one." He shook his head. "You gotta watch these new kids all the time, I tell ya."
Ben perked up. "Did you say Toby? Is that Toby Livingston?"
"Nah, kid." His glum face wrinkled at one side, maybe it was a smile. "That's my old pal Toby Mortimer, he's been here for years. Started the year after I did; once he and I nearly... uh - did you just say Toby Livingston?"
"Yeah." Ben looked uncomfortable. "Uh... but never mind. I was just wondering about him, you know, how he's doing. Kinda hoping to meet him."
Now it was Mr. Preston's turn to look uncomfortable. "Well... ah... look, you gotta go get prepped. Mr. Livingston likes me to start on time, OK? So you gotta ask him about Toby, I ain't seen him for a while now. Just don't be doing it around here and delaying things, OK? Now lemme get busy here..."
Mr. Smith escorted them down onto the set, smiling wryly. "You know, it was in the fine print that you would do an interview, but you've both been on top of everything, so I expected that you knew it was coming."
"Well, I did read that, but I guess I forgot," Ben said.
Lucy smirked. "I knew it, but figured it would be at the end."
Ben decided to take a chance. "So what's this about Toby?"
Mr. Smith frowned. "Look, we don't have time for that now. And don't be pestering him about it here. If I get time later I'll try to explain... Oh, here's makeup. I'll talk to you afterwards."

The two were quickly made up on-set and taken to their seats by the desk under the bright lights. Then a sound man came and attached tiny microphones, then he had them read some short silly verses - they were soon laughing and at ease, and had taken care of the sound check as well. Other crew seemed to cluster around, busily doing strange half-hidden things in the dimness beyond the lights.
Soon Mr. Livingston appeared. He came and shook their hands; he seemed a little apologetic. "I thought you'd prefer to get this out of the way, then we can enjoy ourselves the rest of the week." Then he smiled. "Besides, one never knows what might happen: we may have to hurry off to Japan or Mexico or England to handle something exciting - and that is part of the deal, too."
He sat down, drank some water, let the sound man fix his microphone, then began reciting the Gettysburg Address for a sound check.
Mr. Preston's glum voice came from somewhere. "Ready when you are, Barclay."
"You two ready?" he asked.
"Shoot," Ben moaned, as if he was about to be given an injection.
"Yes, sir," gasped Lucy, making the sign of the cross.
"Good. Let's go, Sam."
"Hold on..."
The room seemed to exhale. There was a tremor among the people beyond the lights.
The hidden voice came again. "Barclay, you gotta get up here - right now."
Mr. Livingston yanked off the microphone and hurried off the set.
A minute or so went by. Ben was about to get to his feet, then the glum voice ordered, "Hold on, you two. Ned, get them disconnected, then bring 'em to his office."

Ben and Lucy sat in Mr. Livingston's office, waiting. The walls were covered with pictures of great and well-known people. Lucy looked around, trying to see how many she recognized. Then she saw something in the corner, half-hidden behind the open door. "Ben, what do you think that is?"
He got up and looked. It seemed to be a very large wooden chair, but parts of it were charred. "I don't know. Some kind of chair? Whatever it is must be important." There were ribbons fastened across the arms, as if to prevent anyone from sitting there. The walls of that whole corner of the room lacked photos - except for one, rather small, mounted in an elegant gold frame. "Check out this picture, Lucy."
She got up and peered at it. "A picture of the sun?"
"I never saw the sun look like that. I was going to say it was a freeze-frame of a match being struck."
"Almost looks like whatever it is, this chair is in the picture too."
"Hey - you're right! But what on earth could..."

"Oh, there you are," said Mr. Livingston as he hurried into his office. "Hold on while I make a call." He sat down, grabbed his phone and turned his chair, facing two large pictures just behind his desk, framed in gold like the strange one by the big chair in the corner. One was a lovely woman, dark and dusky with distinctive Mediterranean beauty. The other was the smiling face of a young man, he might have been a classmate of Lucy's or Ben's.
"Toby, I've got to leave. Something came up. and I might not be able to call you or Mom tonight - or for a day or two. Yes, out of the country. I'll tell you as soon as I know more... No, I can't tell you who. No, it's not him. No, not him either. I hope to see him later this week, but it depends on what happens now. Nope, not him; that's three guesses! Ha, ha. OK, one hint. I'll be flying southeast on a lunar quest. Ha ha! Nope; didn't think you'd guess. OK. See you soon, please God. Thanks, Toby. Oh - when I get back I have a couple of friends that would like to meet you. Yes, of course I'll..." his voice trailed off. "Fine. Then when I get back. OK, Toby. Bye."
Ben and Lucy looked at each other as all their guesses were voided. Father and son sounded authentically happy - which was even more unexpected than the first mysterious phone call.
"Sir? Where are - I mean - are we going with you? Where?"
He was poking through a desk drawer and looked up. "Oh, yes. Certainly you're going. I suspected this... gosh, ten years ago people were talking about him... and now here it is. Finally. The message I long expected - yes, hoped to hear." He got up and stood in front of the strange chair, his eyes closed for a moment, then he turned to them. "You'll have to go back to the hotel for your things, just pack a couple changes of clothes - and wear your sturdiest shoes, you may have to walk a bit... What's wrong, Ben?"
Ben was frowning at his huge sneakers. "Uh, sir. These are all I brought with me. Kinda hard to get my size, you see. I got boots at home, but they - I mean - uh - "
"For farm work; sure I understand." He went back to his desk and pressed a button on his phone. "Annette. We need a pair of hiking boots, size..." He looked at Ben.
"Sixteen and a half, standard width."
"Sixteen and a half, standard width. We're leaving here at seven; he's got to have them to check the fit before we leave. Thanks. See you."
"But sir? Where?"
"Sorry, can't tell you just yet. Soon. Sorry about having to postpone our interview, but perhaps we'll get a chance later this week. We got a lot to do... I would sure hate to tell the Pope I can't make it."
Lucy's mouth dropped open, and Ben stared. Who was it that might make even the Pope take a back seat?
* * *
It was a Lear jet, Lucy saw as they walked towards it across the tarmac. She had switched back to jeans and a pullover and hikers; Ben was clomping along in his new boots. The Livingston Report field crew was already on board; they and the jet crew were ready to go whenever - and wherever - Mr. Livingston might need them to go. Three cameramen, ranging from almost dwarf-size to hulk, a normal-size technician, and a relief airman - all stood and greeted Lucy and Ben. Then Mr. Livingston came on with a briefcase, and they took off.
Once they were at cruising altitude and everyone had a drink, Mr. Livingston opened his briefcase and took out a map. He fastened it to the corkboard on the wall.
"That's Africa," Ben said.
"Correct, Ben. That's where we're headed."
"No kidding," said the middle-size cameraman. "We're betting it's Dr. Stanley. Finally."
"Also correct, Ed."
"Ten years!"
"More like fifteen - or twenty," added the dwarf cameraman. "Rumors were rife years ago. A scientist of an almost forgotten type, when they were the generalists you read about in books. And of an insatiably inquisitive mind. One rumor said he had found dinosaurs, deep in the jungles. Others said it was some new genus of bird, or an unknown tribe, or a rich deposit of diamonds, or some impossibly rare flower... all speculation on the unknown. Now we'll find out what he discovered."
Mr. Livingston sipped some coffee. "We might. But first we'll have to discover something even more rare."
"What's that?"
"First we have to discover Dr. Stanley himself."
* * *
Mr. Livingston had given Ben permission to use the plane's network, once he had promised not to reveal the mission they were on - so Lucy had fallen asleep to the tapping of keys. She woke up suddenly in the dimly lit cabin. She peered out the window at the dark Atlantic; a star glimmered above. She used the rest room and went back to her seat. The others were asleep - even Ben. She looked out the window again, and soon was asleep.

When she woke again she smelled coffee. The sun was coming in the windows and people were moving around. Ben was already typing away.
"Good morning, Lucy," Mr. Livingston said with a smile. "I hope you had a good rest. It takes some time to get used to sleeping on a jet."
"It was fine."
"Help yourself to coffee or juice; plenty of nice pastries today."
As she made her selection, she said, "May I ask - how much further do we have to go?"
"Another couple of hours, I believe."
"Where - I mean, what country are we going to?"
"It's one of the newer ones, called Mbognu. It's on the Congo River."
"Do you... uh... know their language?"
The middle-size cameraman chuckled as Mr. Livingston said, "I know French; it used to be a French colony. My wife has tried to give me a little Greek, but it is dialect and I'm not very good. But Dan Myers here knows Arabic," he indicated the small cameraman, "Ed Detweiler handles Russian, and Ron 'Rocket' O'Malley does Spanish and Italian," he nodded to the middle and large members. "Then we have our technician, Mike Borat, who has been able to make himself understood in every oriental country we've been to; I don't know if he's a polyglot, or has Solomon's Ring or what." The cameramen snickered and the tech bowed elegantly. "How about you two? Will you be able to assist us, Lucy?"
"I won't be very helpful," she shook her head. "I've had a couple of years of Latin, and started Greek." She smiled at Ben, but he didn't notice; he was staring gloomily at his monstrous new boots. "I've played with Quenya too, but that's not even a human language."
Ben glanced up at her words, but she didn't notice. Mr. Livingston replied, "One never knows with Latin; it used to be universal, you know. So was Greek, as my wife keeps telling me. How about you, Ben? Any languages?"
"No sir. Not yet. I'm still struggling with English."
Mr. Livingston smiled. "It's a difficult tongue to learn well. But I think you'll find studying another language actually helps you with your own." He finished his coffee. "Now, if you'll excuse me I have some business to attend to." He went over to the little desk to use his laptop.
"Sir, one question."
"Yes, Ben?"
"Mbognu. The capital of Mbognu is Niossa - that's where we're going?"
"That's correct."
* * *
The jet landed at the airport of Niossa; two heavy-duty Carabiner SUVs were waiting for them. The cameramen loaded the luggage and equipment into them, and soon they were checking into rooms in a big hotel in downtown Niossa. Lucy thought it looked a lot like New York, except for the bright sun, and a somewhat different array of smells.

The jet crew were asleep; the cameramen were going over the equipment with the technician, and Mr. Livingston was talking on the phone with a government official, something about arrangements for a helicopter. Ben was in his room working on his laptop and Lucy was looking out her window when there was a tap on her door.
It was Ben. "You got a minute?"
"I want you to see something."
She followed him to his room. He had the ChesterTeens blogg displayed on his laptop.
ChesterTeens To Invade Africa? read the title of the latest posting. She sat down and read the short article. It sounded speculative, but the speculations seemed to be phrased as if the writer knew exactly what was going on.
She turned and looked up at him, her eyes narrowing. He frowned down at her, and before she could decide how to begin, he said, "So - you used Mr. Livingston's computer on the plane last night while we were all asleep, - didn't you? You sent e-mail to somebody."
"No - not me! I never touched his computer."
"Then you must have posted this on the ChesterTeens blogg yourself. You can't hide behind a pseudonym, Miss Pigs-and-Binomials! I recognized that quote you made at dinner! You're in ChesterTeens - admit it!"
She looked at him, half embarrassed, half amused. "Me? Why - why - you mean, you think I'm in ChesterTeens?" Then despite her uncertainty, she began to have a suspicion, and turned to her favourite adventure for a response. "Whatever made you think of ChesterTeens in connexion with me? Your suggestion is ridiculous."
A corner of Ben's mouth twitched. "The process was was simple enough. I think you look like a ChesterTeen. Besides, even your boots have 'CT' written all over them."
She peered down at her hikers. "Oh. Yeah. But that stands for 'Country Trails'..." she shook her head, then smiled cunningly and quoted, "'Have my boots got a watchful look? Do let me be a postman'."
He was smiling now too, and replied in kind. "Do you swear you're not in ChesterTeens? Will the devil dance at your funeral? Will the nightmare sit... uh." He shrugged glumly. "I forget the rest. But speaking of boots - these new boots of mine sure got a watchful look."
"Maybe you should try saying 'Boots' ninety times," she snickered. "I don't have a blue card to throw down, and I'm betting you don't either. But I'm willing to bet that someone with big feet gets his net-nickname from the Greek words for 'Big Foot'."
"So? Like someone who uses Tolkien's languages for her own 'window on the west'?"
"Yes; why not? But look - I didn't post that. I've not sent a single e-mail since I left home. The kiosk in the airport was down. Nor did I make any phone calls."
"Well..." he shrugged, "then how did this 'Ray Immobilis' find out about this trip we're on?"
"I don't know, Ben. How about you? You were on the computer a lot, I've heard you typing. Did you leak something, maybe inadvertently?"
"I ... uh, OK. I did post that I'm on an adventure. A plane ride, meeting new people..." his mouth twitched, almost like he was trying to keep from smiling. "And that I had dinner in a cellar, though at least it wasn't Lobster Mayonnaise." He grimaced. "What a name. Turns my stomach to think of such a thing. But that's beside the point. That was posted that first night, before we knew we were coming here. And yeah, I wrote up some stuff since then - it's been a blast so far - but it's all on my hard drive. I didn't put anything out. Not on bloggs, not by e-mail.

"OK, then we have another mystery on our hands. But that one can wait until we're back in New York. Meanwhile, we've got to see what we can do to help with this project."
"Huh? How can we help? You know anything about this Dr. Stanley?"
"No. But you're the one that has the computer." She stood up and gestured, and he sat down.
"Yeah, that's as good a place to start as any..." As he began typing she pulled another chair close and tried to read the display. "Hold on, don't scroll it so fast. Jerome Bentley Stanley. Two doctorates, biology and biochemistry. Supposedly missing since 1994 (or 1990) on a research expedition in the Ruwenzori Mountains (also called the 'Mountains of the Moon')." She nodded. "Are we anywhere near them?"
He opened another window and brought up a map of Mbognu. "Maybe 500 miles."
"That far? How far from Egypt are we?"
"Oh, maybe another 2500 miles or so, straight north from there. These are the mountains where the Nile starts. Even the ancients knew about them - you've heard of Ptolemy, haven't you?"
"Never mind that now. It's staggering to think how vast this continent is. And how strange - but beautiful."
He had flipped back to the biography of Dr. Stanley. "Oh, yeah. No wonder he was in love with it. So many fascinating things here... He's written dozens of journal articles about African flora and fauna."
"Didn't one of the cameramen say he supposedly discovered dinosaurs?"
He leaned back and closed his eyes. "Well, that summary mentioned that there were rumors like that, but he's certainly found several new species of plant and insect, all well-documented. But there are so many oddities here. The weather. The animals. The plants. Some things grow really large - strangely large - on those mountains... simply gigantic plants. There are fantastic mineral resources. And there are terrible diseases here too, and terribly poor people just trying to stay alive..."
"You just read all that?"
"No, but I've read about Africa. The other Stanley and Livingstone - you know. It was almost the reverse of our pair. Stanley was a reporter, hunting for Dr. Livingstone, who was half-missionary, half-explorer, trying to find the headwaters of the Nile."
"When was that?"
"Oh, in the early 1870s."
"No, really? It wasn't that recent - was it? After the Civil War?"
"Yeah - and Stanley fought on both sides, not at the same time, of course! Then he got a job as a journalist, and they had him go to find Livingstone, who was reportedly lost somewhere in Africa."
"I'm starting to see the parallel. Did that bio say if our Stanley is a missionary too?"
"No; it's mostly about his scientific work. Serious scientists don't get much slack if they show they have what my mom calls 'invisible means of support'."
"I know what you mean. But we'll..."

There was a knock on the door. Ben got up and opened it. Mr. Livingston came in.
"Ah, I though perhaps you'd be together." He sat down on the bed facing them. "We're going to be flying out tomorrow, very early, on a government helicopter, to a city called Nokimi, just beneath the Mountains of the Moon - then up to... to where we're going."
"You've got a clue where Dr. Stanley is now?"
"Yes. At least we know where he had been for quite some time. Like Archimedes, he seems to have gotten past a lot of the politics, and though the governments have changed several times over the years, they leave him in peace. He's doing too much good for them to interfere."
Lucy asked, "I thought he was lost?"
"Only in one sense," Mr. Livingston smirked. "He wanted to be left alone to do his work. Nobody seems to have noticed that he's still publishing four or five journal articles a year. He can't be all that lost!"
"So then what's all the adventure?"
"Ah, but you see - he wasn't lost then. He is now. They don't know where he is. Nobody knows where he is."
"So who sent you the message - you know, the one that interrupted our interview?"
He pulled a folded paper out of his pocket. "That's what is so strange. It came from an office of the government of Mbognu, but was signed Dr. J. B. Stanley. And nobody there knows where he is." He handed the paper to Ben, who glanced at it and gave it to Lucy. This is was she read:

"Have come to an impasse re new discovery. You are known all over the world and you have my respect. I need you. Come to my mountain. Bring cameras and witnesses."

It was dated Monday, and signed Dr. J. B. Stanley.

She read it a second time, wondering about the request for "witnesses," then handed it back to him and asked, "What was this? A fax?"
"That's right. Our tech department was checking into its authenticity even before I spoke to you in my office. Last evening on the jet I got confirmation from them, but I had already received word from my contact here. It's quite authentic."
"What's 'my mountain' mean?"
Mr. Livingston chuckled. "He means Mt. Stanley, named for the famous explorer; he wasn't any relation, but Dr. Stanley has - or had - a research facility on it, or near it. That's the one piece of the puzzle that is not clear."
"For one thing, it's far away from civilization. And then there's the strange political game. It seems that he was wise enough to keep some of his work very well hidden from local politics. The authorities in Niossa have always had radio contact with him, and he has a mailing address in their post office here. But no one in Mbognu seems to know exactly where that facility is, though they always understood it to be within their country. It could even be across the border in Shasalia or Rubundo. I've been in communication with those governments too, but they are not admitting anything. If we don't get anywhere tomorrow, we may have to try there too."
As he stood up to go, Lucy asked, "So tomorrow we fly to Nokimi, then up to look over Mt. Stanley for his research place?"
"That's right. I have a few more calls to make, and I've got to make a courtesy call in at their television station here. So stay here - I advise you to stay in the hotel - have dinner when you're hungry, get some rest - and don't stay up late. We're leaving at 5:30 tomorrow, local time."

The two went down to the hotel restaurant. It was about 1 PM locally, but felt like 7 PM to them, and they were hungry.
The waiter was a huge black man who greeted them with a vast smile and handed them menus.
Thinking of Father Brown, Lucy smiled at him and asked, "Sir, we are visiting here - almost by chance. Please tell us. What's good to try here?"
"All very good, lady," he said with a smile. "My cousin is cook. There is monkey today, you try?" When their faces wrinkled, he said, "Ah, but you are Americans?"
"Yes, we are with Mr. Livingston."
"Ah, Barkley Livingston! You are reporters? Young. It is good. You are - married?"
"No, sir," Ben responded quickly, not looking at Lucy. "We are cousins."
"That's right," Lucy added emphatically, not looking at Ben. "Close cousins."
"Family very important to us here," the waiter nodded. "My daughter marry this weekend, she your age. Family very pleased." He leaned close and murmured, "You try moambé - it is spicy chicken with peanuts and rice? My cousin makes. Famous dish here."
"Sounds good," Ben said, and Lucy agreed.
"You wish hot tea to drink?"
"That's fine."

After he placed the order, the waiter brought the tea, and again Lucy spoke up. "Have you ever seen these Mountains of the Moon?"
The waiter nodded. "Many strange things there..." Then his eyes opened wide. "Is this where you go? To Ruwenzori? With Barkley Livingston?"
"Yes, tomorrow; to Mt. Stanley."
He made a strange kind of snort of surprise. "This strange. My cousin speaks of this today."
"We are seeking Dr. Stanley, the great scientist. Mr. Livingston was told he is lost."
He looked at them oddly, with a kind of cunning grin. "Oh, that one. You have good adventure, then."
"You know him?"
"All in Mbognu know Dr. Stanley."
"Is he - what is he like?"
The waiter smiled broadly. "He is a good man. Old, very wise, very kind."
As he left to return to the kitchens, Lucy said, almost to herself, "I hope he's all right."

The food was unusual but good. After they ate, they went back to their rooms; again Lucy seemed to hear Ben typing away as she fell asleep.
* * *
It was about 3 AM when she woke again; her internal clock had not even adjusted to New York time, and now she was six hours further off. She sighed; all was quiet. She went to the window and looked out. The street was empty. There were no streetlights nearby and she could see the stars - two very bright ones near each other - but her room faced south and she had no idea what she was looking at. She took a shower, got dressed, then went through her pack, hoping she had perhaps left a book in accidentally - but she had been too thorough before she had left. She took out her notebook and started writing.

There was a knock on her door - she looked at the clock by her bed - it was 5:25. When she opened the door Ben was standing there, pack in hand, and laptop on his shoulder.
"You ready?"
"One minute."
She shoved everything into her pack and went out.

The sky was growing light as the government helicopter took off. With them was a man who Mr. Livingston introduced as Ali - he worked for the government, but was an old friend, and was the one who had sent the fax.
The ride was rather noisy and not very smooth, but Lucy didn't mind it. She peered around at the others. Ben seemed half-asleep. Mr. Livingston was alert and interested as he stared out the window. The technician had a hand-held camera out, trying to capture some of their journey. The three cameramen showed varying signs of discomfort; they did not seem to be handling the ride very well. Ali sat in a certain nervous silence; he was suffering even more than the cameramen.
As they flew on, Lucy was able to see the jungles and watercourses below. Even from the air, the plant life seemed strange. Further ahead, the mountains began to loom, shrouded with mists.

After about three hours, they neared the mountains. Clouds clustered about the peaks and there was a moist smell to the air. They went over a small town, then ascended along a ridge. Then they saw some low buildings, a small house, and a round paved area painted like a target. The chopper descended and landed there, and the Livingston team got out.
Lucy stared at the strange plant life surrounding them. No wonder they called this the "Mountains of the Moon"! Strange, gigantic, yet beautiful. There was an odd smell - she had no words to describe it. It was a compelling sight. The buildings looked like any modern corporate facility.
As the cameramen began unloading their equipment, Ali came up to Mr. Livingston, looking very uncomfortable. "This is the research lab of Dr. Stanley. I have been here before. His landrover is there, so likely he is at home."
Mr. Livingston shook his head. "It's not going to be this easy, Ali."
"If Allah wills it so, yes. If not, no. But I know him, and so I must agree with you. We shall have to ..." He bent over and retched.
"Are you...?" Mr. Livingston began. Then the largest of the cameramen came over; his face was green. "Sir... Ed says he don't feel so good."
They turned and saw that the other two cameramen were leaning against the helicopter in similar condition, but Ed Detwiler (the mid-size one) was clutching his abdomen.
Mr. Livingston shook his head. "Oh, man. How do you feel?"
Lucy and Ben said they were fine, and so did Mike the technician. Then the pilot opened the window and spoke, but Lucy didn't understand - she guessed it was French.
"Now they tell me!" Mr. Livingston threw his hands into the air. "I wish they had stayed in the hotel."
"What did he say?"
"Food poisoning has been going around some of the Niossa restaurants."
"But Ed's also got a sharp pain - in his lower right."
Mr. Livingston rolled his eyes. "Oh, that's just splendid. Appendicitis here?"
"We... must return..." Ali gasped.
"No, you must return," Mr. Livingston said sternly, then turned to the pilot and rattled off an order in French.
"OK, you three - you're going to the hospital in Toima with Ali. Rocket, help Ed back on the chopper. If that is appendicitis, he's got to have medical attention quickly."

As the doors of the chopper closed and the blades began to turn, Mr. Livingston turned to Mike, Lucy and Ben. "Well, it's even more of an adventure now. Mike, get the equipment under a roof, and get a handheld and all the usual trimmings. You two, follow me. We're going to pay a call on the Doctor."

Once the chopper had gone, Lucy noticed the strange noises - birds, insects, machines - it was hard to know what it was, though she guessed the low hum was an electrical generator. They went to the front door and rang the bell, and knocked, and called. But there was no reaction.
"No one at home," Mike the tech said. "Hope you told that chopper to come back sometime, Barkley."
Mr. Livingston shook his head and tried the knob. It turned, and he pulled the door open - and the others followed him inside.

He called but no one responded. It was a nice little house, just enough furniture and art and clutter to make it feel like a home. It smelled fresh; there was air conditioning somewhere. They peeked into room after room, but found no one. Finally they came to the kitchen at the back of the house. Someone had eaten there, and not all that long ago; there were dirty dishes in the sink. On a little table by the window facing the mountains was a sheet of paper. As Lucy came close she saw it had nothing but simple doodle or outline - she thought something seemed strange about how it was lying there, but before she could consider it further, Mr. Livingston picked it up and examined it.
"Ah." He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a map and unfolded it, comparing it with the sheet. "All right. I think - uh, yes, I think it might be better if you two wait here. Mike and I will just do some reconnaissance. No, don't worry, we're not going to proceed with anything, I just want to check the roads. The mountain area is - well, just a bit dangerous. Once we see where the path goes to, and how risky, we'll come back. We may need - ah - some other supplies."
Lucy sighed, but Ben sat down at the table and pulled out his laptop.
"I doubt that you'll get any connection here, Ben; though I have no idea what Dr. Stanley might have arranged. I'd advise you not to eat or drink anything. We'll be back very soon, we're not going very far."
"Try one of the landrovers?" asked Mike, heading for the door.
"That's right. We'll be back soon."

They heard a landrover start up; it sounded like it had no muffler at all, but the sound soon receded. Lucy frowned in frustration, and started examining the kitchen. It seemed very tidy and convenient. Ben had booted his machine and was typing away.
"You get a connection?"
"Yeah. Nice and fast, too. I'm going to try something I thought of sometime last night."
"I made a guess at the e-mail address of that ChesterTeen who posted about this adventure - that Ray Immobilis..."
"Oh, Ben. That seems so unimportant now - we're here in the wildest, strangest part of Africa - Mount Stanley, in the Mountains of the Moon - and you're trying to make contact with a pseudonym?"
"Sure, why not? There's nothing else to do." Suddenly he looked closely at the screen. "This is really funny."
"It's him! He wants to talk."
"You got the software for that?"
"Oh yeah." He clicked, typed, clicked again...
There was a crackling, then a young but confident voice came from a tiny speaker in the laptop. "Hello? Is this Megapode?"
"Sure is. Is that Ray Immobilis?"
"That's me. How you guys doing? Are you really on Mount Stanley?"
"Yeah - how do you know that?"
The speakers crackled, but some of it was "Ray" chuckling. "I have my methods, Watson."
"Very funny, Ray."
"Ah, do I hear the delightful voice of the estimable Henneth Annûn?"
"Yes, that's me, but you may call me by my real name, Lucy."
"Hello to you, Lucy. I hope the adventure...." there was another crackle, and then nothing.
"Hold on Ray, the speaker just cut out."
A window popped up, and Ben read the message. "He can still hear us... I bet it's these speakers. I was jamming last week, and I thought they might go soon." He reached into the laptop case and pulled out a set of tiny earphones, and slipped them on. "Mountains of the Moon Adventure to Ray... you there? OK, I put earphones on so I can hear you again."
Lucy leaned close to Ben, she could just hear Ray's voice. "Too bad, but I'm glad we can talk for a little. So tell me - what's happening?"
"We started with three cameramen, a tech, a star, a government official, and the two of us. And the chopper crew. Now, it's just our star and the tech, and us. And no one at all here, in Dr. Stanley's home."
"Doctor Stanley!" came the tiny voice. "So that was who he... Never mind. Yeah, he's supposed to be lost somewhere in Africa. So... what country did you land in?"
"It's called Mbognu." Ben pronounced it "Ma-bog-new."
"No, no," came the tiny voice. "You have to kind of bite off that B while you hum, and the o is long: M'bow,gnu. It means Land of the River." Ben tried but he couldn't manage the bitten-off humming B. Lucy tried it, and she heard Ray say, "That's pretty good, Lucy!"
Ben gave it up in frustration, then asked, "So - you know that language? What's it called?"
"It's called Tshondé . I know some of it."
"Some kind of special school, huh?"
"Sort of." There was a pause. "Sometimes I... I have a lot of - uh - free time. You know what I mean."
"Yeah. That's why I got into blogging."
"I've seen yours, you have some good stuff. Good short stories. And so do you, Lucy."
"Thanks, Ray. I've not seen yours - I mean, except for what you've done on ChesterTeens."
"I'll..." Lucy heard a faint sound, like a groan. "I'll send you the link to mine; I post there with a different id."
In the distance they heard the sound of the landrover returning - but there was another sound, too - much closer. The back door of the kitchen was opening. Through the curtains they could see a dark hand turning the knob.

"Hold on, Ray," Ben said. "Someone's coming, and it's nobody we know."
The door opened and a dark-skinned boy in native clothes came in, his eyes wide. He said something - it sounded like a question to Lucy, but she shrugged.
Quietly Ben asked, "Ray! Did you hear that?"
"Yes - he said, 'Where is the Asker of Questions?' Do you know?"
"He must mean Mr. Livingston. We can hear the SUV coming, he should be here soon."
"OK - then say, mbuy kwa ngo ngab ets..."
"Wait Ray, tell Lucy, I can't do it." He took off the earphones and handed them to her.
After she put them on, Ray said the phrase again and she repeated it. The boy's eyes opened wide, and he smiled, then said something more.
In Lucy's ears, Ray said, "He said, this is good, then he asks if you are hungry."
"Oh, yes."
"Nishi," Ray translated and she repeated it.
"But even more, we need to find Doctor Stanley."
The boy jumped at the name, but listened for Lucy's mouthing of Ray's translation - then he said something more.
"He said, you will find him with the food, but you must follow him."
Lucy looked at Ben, and he said "We have to wait for them - then we can go."
Ray told Lucy what to say, and the boy nodded and responded, "Nishi."

Soon the sound of the landrover got louder, then it stopped. In moments they heard the front door open. "Lucy, Ben - you still here?"
"We have a guest," Ben called. "He says he'll take us to lunch where we'll meet Dr. Stanley."
Mr. Livingston hurried in, followed by the tech. "What did you say?" Then he saw the boy. He tried speaking in French, but the boy shook his head and spoke again, pointing to Lucy.
"What's going on?" Mr. Livingston asked. In Lucy's ears, Ray's voice was nervous as he translated, "Is - is that the Asker of Questions?"
"Nishi - yes," she said. Mr. Livingston stared at her, but the boy smiled at him and extended his hand. Nonplused, he took it and shook it warmly, smiling back. "Very pleased to meet you."
Lucy echoed Ray's translation of the boy's response: "I welcome you, O Asker of Questions. Please follow me to the discovery of Doctor Stanley."

Mr. Livingston nodded to the boy, but turned to Lucy and said, "How are you doing that?"
"I have a net-friend who knows Tshondé. But Ben's speakers are blown, so I'm using the earphones."
"Very clever. But if we are leaving you had better disconnect."
She nodded. "Yes - but - Ray, I need to ask 'Is it far?'"
Ray translated her question and the boy's response. "He said, 'It is a short walk of many steps'." She eyed Ben; it sounded like a Chestertonian paradox.
"Very well," Mr. Livingston said. "Please lead us."
Ray gave Lucy the translation; the boy replied "Nishi" and moved towards the door.
"Ray, we have to leave now, we're probably going to lose you outside. But we'll try to re-connect as soon as we can."
"That's fine," came the tiny voice in her ears. "It's dinnertime for me anyway. But call when you can; I keep late hours, and I'm a light sleeper. I'm at your service, O Henneth Annûn!"
She nodded to Ben and he closed down his laptop and hung it on his shoulder. Then they followed the boy outside.
* * *
They went back to one of the low buildings. The boy pulled out a key and opened the door. It was pleasant inside, and smelled faintly of chemicals. They went down a long hallway, passing a library, offices, and several laboratories, then down another bare-walled hallway. The boy unlocked another door which opened onto a dim descending staircase.
Down, down, down they went, every few turns there was another naked bulb giving just enough light to keep from stumbling. The air had that fresh-concrete smell, and Lucy guessed the stairs had been recently built. Finally they came to the end, and another door which opened into a dark hall lined with rock.
Mr. Livingston and the tech had pulled out flashlights.
"Shankwa!" the boy said, pulling on Mr. Livingston's arm; he looked plaintively at Lucy.
"I think he doesn't want us to use the lights," she said.
He exhaled, glancing at his tech a bit doubtfully. "Very well." They turned off the lights.
"Nishi," came the boy's voice in the darkness. They heard him moving to the left as he went down the passage, so they followed him slowly. There was a faint sense of moving air and a moist smell of vegetation but it was silent except for the boy's footsteps.

But in moments they realized that there was a light ahead, and they came into a warm, dimly lit cavern. The smell of vegetation grew; it reminded Lucy of her aunt's florist shop. Ben was near her, she could hear him breathing nervously.
The light increased as they advanced into the cavern. Various bushes and other plants hid the rocky walls. The boy called out, and an elderly voice answered him, and then it said, "Welcome, welcome, welcome, O Asker of Questions!"

Mr Livingston glanced at his tech, but he had already lifted his handheld camera, and the "record" light was lit.
He went forward a pace or two and smirked; he was unable to resist. "Dr. Stanley, I presume?"
Lucy saw him shake hands with the old man, who was sitting in a chair. His face was very red and wrinkled, and his hair was a thin but fluffy white, and he was smiling.
"And I see you have brought the requested witnesses! Good work, sir; thanks. They shall have two tasks; the first here, and the second when we are finished with this."
He nodded; the boy brought him a glass of water, and he took a swallow. Then he indicated a chair, and Mr. Livingston sat down.
"Dr. Stanley - most of the world thought you had been lost for years. Will you tell us where you have been, and what you have been doing?"
"Certainly, Mr. Livingston. I've been here, at my laboratories, studying the various living things of the area. I've published a number of papers over the years, I've lost count of them, of course, but they describe several new species: plants, animals and single-celled. Some are very beautiful, some are rather dull, and some are dangerous, but all are interesting."
"Wonderful. And - may I ask - why have you brought us to this cavern?"
"Ah. This is the latest - and perhaps greatest - discovery. I've been studying it for some time now, and gotten a few papers written, but I have not wanted to submit them, as it may cause quite a bit of shock. But the time has come." He reached down and lifted up a folder, "I shall ask you to take this back with you to America for submission to the various scholarly journals. Along with your own testimony, and that of your witnesses, there ought to be enough to settle most doubts. Yes. Please come forward, my young friends."
Lucy and Ben stepped to his side, and he shook their hands.
"Hello Lucy, welcome; Welcome Ben. You see all this?"
"Yes, Doctor, I do. It's beautiful."
"Yessir; so do I."
"Tell me, Ben. What do you see?"
"A cave, deep in the rocks of Mt. Stanley. But it's well-lit, and full of plants. But I don't see any lights, and no windows."
"Lucy? Your turn."
"I see... something unbelievable." She gulped, deeply moved. "Mr. Livingston, can I borrow your flashlight?"
He handed it to her in silence.
A tear ran down her cheek. It was beautiful. "I see a lamp by the light of the trees. It's like Valinor..."
"Correct. I've read both Chesterton and Tolkien. You two bear witness to this?"
"Yes, sir."
"Yes, I do."

Mr. Livingston cleared his throat; he desperately wanted some water. "Yes, so do I, Doctor. But - what is this? As we entered, I thought it might be an underground greenhouse."
"That's right. That's what it is. But the interesting thing is that I did not make the greenhouse. No one did. It's natural."
Lucy gasped, and Ben's eyes popped. "You're kidding!" blurted Mike the tech.
"No, sir; I am not kidding. The warmth and the light are natural, but are not from the sun, nor from any human device. The warmth is natural radioactivity - have no fear; there is no danger. I have monitors in place, and check them constantly. It is a reactor, perhaps like that which once occurred in Oklo, up in Gabon; but it is small, and deep below us, and the heat is tempered by the intervening rocks."
"But Doctor - the light? I looked around, and I thought perhaps it was green from sunlight shining through the leaves. Now I see the light comes from the leaves!"
"That's right, Mr. Livingston. I shall explain, just a little. There are some rather interesting plants here that have entered into symbiosis with some other tiny creatures - that is, they live and work together. There are some lichens, a kind of miniature moss. I believe them to be a species of Trapelia. It somehow extracts uranium and stores it. Then there is another miniature plant, one of the desmids, which stores zinc sulfide. The uranium decays, and excites the zinc sulfide, which glows. Marvellous. And there are these bushes, a dwarf form of Ilex, unusual for their moist leaves... With such a low level of light, they don't grow very big, of course, but they do grow. All a very delicate balance. There is a chain of caverns that reaches the surface, far from my labs; long ago a rock fall made it all but impassable except for insects, and few like the darkness. There's water constantly seeping down from the mountain through cracks in the rocks."
He sighed. "But there is another matter. I've made a full report to the government about this place - it is already within their national reserve, and so it is protected; I have explained to them about the delicacy of the balance. But it needs further study; there are several aspects of biochemistry and ecology which are interesting. So I am sending a representative to present papers at the next International Biological Conference." He tapped his folder. "After that we shall arrange for a visit from their selected representatives. But! and this is the stipulation for any scientist who wishes to visit! There is work here which I cannot neglect - other biological work, far more important to the common people, to this country." He turned and smiled at the boy. "If they wish to come, they must come prepared to assist me in my laboratories. I hope some will come; I must begin to plan for a successor. I..." he sighed. "As you shall see, I am going to take steps in that direction later today, but you shall understand shortly. Kinsi!"
The boy jumped to his side and handed him a ring of keys.
"Kna mbu atali ta. It is time for us to return."
The boy assisted him to his feet, and the Doctor pointed in the direction they had entered. "It will take me a little to ascend, but please go ahead, and wait at the top for me."
* * *
"There was so much more to ask," Mr. Livingston said as they trudged up the stairs. "How he found it. How it was able to develop, how long it will last. Then there's the radioactivity; I didn't think there were important mineral deposits in this area, but we're fairly far underground, deep enough for a mine."
"You don't think the government will let them mine in a reserve?"
"I doubt it, Mike. Our country surely would not do it."
"I wonder what steps he means to take."
"Yes... he's holding something back."

They did not wait long; Doctor Stanley was in good shape though a bit unsteady after the climb, but Kinsi was at his side. "Now. Kinsi told me you were hungry, and I apologize for not observing the amenities, but some things must take precedence. And you will not have to wait long. I ask you to accompany me to the village, there will be a brief ceremony, and then a feast."
After carefully locking the door to the staircase, he led them outside and locked that door too. Then they piled into the landrover, and he drove down the hill with alacrity.
Over the thunder of the vehicle, Mr. Livingston yelled, "In a hurry, Dr. Stanley?"
"Rather. I'm hungry too. Mah gwi mba, Kinsi?"
The boy smiled warmly. "Nishi."
As the landrover came into the village, people began pouring out, cheering.
Mr. Livingston signaled his tech to resume recording, then cleared his throat; he was very thirsty. "Sir - what is this?"
He stopped the vehicle and turned, shaking with emotion. "This, sir, is my wedding day."
* * *
It was not only Dr. Stanley's wedding day, but also the day he formally adopted Kinsi as his son. And there certainly was a feast! Ali showed up; he had been merely air-sick. The cameramen's cases were also trivial, and they showed up later that afternoon. Lucy met the new Mrs. Stanley; she was Mr. Stanley's cook Dr. Stanley had been a widower for a long time, and their courtship was slow but authentic. She was somehow related to Kinsi, who had been orphaned last year; she had started bringing him to help in the kitchen, but Dr. Stanley noted his careful style and bright, curious intellect, so he began helping in the lab. The village hospital, though tiny, was well-staffed and supplied; so was the village school - these were assisted by Dr. Stanley's presence in the area. There was also a tiny church, dedicated to St. Augustine of Hippo, where the wedding ceremony had been performed. Ben and Lucy had signed as witnesses for the wedding; the ceremony was part of the Mass and went by so quickly it was all over when it suddenly dawned on her that she had been maid of honor - and Ben was best man! She'd have to ask Mr. Livingston if he could print a photo from the video they had taped; neither Dr. Stanley nor any of the natives had taken photos.
Immediately after the wedding, Ali had brought Kinsi forward and performed a short ceremony of adoption. Again Lucy and Ben signed as witness. From her pack Lucy pulled out an unused notebook and a fresh pen; Ben reached into one of his numerous pockets and took out a small magnifying glass. Kinsi received the gifts in solemn silence, but his new parents smiled their thanks, and the crowd watching were enthusiastic in their appreciation. As the crowd began to move towards the reception area, the Doctor caught the two and murmured, "Your generosity is not unimportant here. You also have entered the family, and are on a rank as my son's uncle and aunt." He pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his eyes. "I cannot tell you how it touches an old man to gain such relations as I have today!"

The feast lasted far into the night. The music was strange, and what Lucy would call "native" - but she ended up dancing with Ben. The food was unusual, and she tried everything, not wanting to know what any of it was. Some dishes were very good, others she tasted and surreptitiously discarded. There was a little hotel nearby where Mr. Livingston had obtained rooms for them. She was so tired she fell asleep instantly, heedless of the festival outside.

When she woke the party was still going on. Mr. Livingston had some difficulties getting his cameramen awake, but soon everyone was having breakfast at the ongoing festival. None of the Stanley family was there, but Ali came and spoke with Mr. Livingston. He explained that the mystery had been at the bidding of Dr. Stanley: while he preferred to keep things professional, his country had such an admiration for their famous guest they would got to great lengths to accommodate his desires. The helicopter had returned to Dr. Stanley's landing pad, and was ready to return to Niossa when they wished. But as he spoke, there was a terrible crash of thunder, and the sky opened. Everyone ran for cover.
"We will have to wait until the storm passes. We do not fly the helicopter in such storms."
Mr. Livingston checked his watch and sighed. "Very well. As soon as may be, then."

The storm kept them at Mt. Stanley most of the day. It was late when they got back to the Lear jet. Lucy yawned as she fastened her seat belt. Everyone - even Mr. Livingston - was tired. But before the sun set they were flying west, trying to catch the sun. She fell asleep to the click of Ben's laptop keys.
* * *
"Lucy... Lucy, we've landed."
She sighed. The dance was such fun... but that voice - it wasn't... No. her eyes opened. It was Mr. Livingston.
"Sorry, sir."
"It's OK, Lucy; it's quite a life, running all over the world. It does catch up with a person, but among my gifts I am able to sleep when I can, and save it up, kind of like a camel."
She chuckled; the image was witty. "Is there breakfast?"
"We'll eat at the hotel. We're waiting for you."
"OK." She unfastened her seat belt, then it suddenly dawned on her. "Sir? Where are we?"
"Mexico City."
"Ah-HA!" she cried with glee. She grabbed her pack and hurried after him.

After the rush to the hotel, a hurried breakfast and another rush to the stadium where the Mass would be celebrated, there was a long wait. Lucy and Mr. Livingston were the only ones who stayed awake.
In the end, the Pope came, and Mr. Livingston got nearly fifteen minutes on tape - all three cameramen were taking it, just for safety. Both Ben and Lucy shook his hand; Lucy remembered to kiss his ring - he smiled warmly at her, then he was gone.

After the Mass, they went back to the hotel. Mr. Livingston had ordered a feast in his suite. It was nothing like the wedding festival for Dr. Stanley, but it was good - the food was even better than what they had had in the tiny cellar back in New York.
At the end, Mr. Livingston told them, "Barring any new adventures, we'll return to New York tomorrow afternoon. Then on Monday we'll get to that interview."
"Oh, man - I forgot all about that," Ben moaned.
"I didn't," chuckled Mr. Livingston. "It's my business."
* * *
They slept late on Sunday morning, and after a breakfast in the hotel they boarded the Lear. They had sandwiches on the way; it was evening until they got back to New York. Martin Smith picked them up at the airport and took them back to their suites. Lucy took a long shower and got into bed with her notebook and pen. It had been almost too amazing to write about, but she had to get it down while it was all still fresh...

The phone rang. She yawned and picked it up. "Hello."
"Good morning Lucy, I thought it would be best if I called to be sure you were awake." It was Martin Smith.
"I am now."
"Order whatever you like from room service. I'll be there at 8:30 to pick you up for your interview."
"OK." She hung up, stretched, and got out of bed.

After the excitement and intensity of the last week, the interview was nothing. Mr. Livingston elicited short histories from each, then asked about their expectations, for themselves and for society. Though he proceeded in all seriousness, both Ben and Lucy seemed to chuckle at every other question, and even Mr. Livingston was in high spirits. Afterwards, the crew cheered, and he thanked his guests and said: "One of the most unconventional interviews I've done, and one of the best. I think we're going to do this again."
They walked with him back to his office. "We'll get some lunch and I have a few little matters to attend to, but there's something I want you to see - it's got to be ready for this evening, but we'll get to see it before then, as we'll be busy later."
Ben and Lucy looked at each other. Now what?

The two had lunch with Mr. Livingston and Sam Preston, where they met Nelson Vitron, the executive vice president of Channel Nine, and Roger Itonovik, the producer of the various Livingston shows. Afterwards they returned to Mr. Livingston's office, where Martin Smith took them around to see some more of the facilities while Mr. Livingston attended to some duties.
They had seen several studios, ranging from small and intimate to huge, and several rooms of equipment and busy people. Both Ben and Lucy were getting tired and bored. Finally Ben asked, "So, Mr. Smith, can you tell us anything about Toby? Toby Livingston?"
He looked very uncomfortable. "Well, I... Didn't he tell you? You should have asked him. It's... it's not really for me to go into."
But Ben was in a funny mood, and he wasn't going to cut him any slack. "All right, then. How about that big wooden thing in his office? It's behind the door, it looks like some kind of gigantic chair."
Now Mr. Smith actually paled. "You would ask about that.. I wasn't here for that, but I heard about it. You can see the picture on his wall - we don't have the tape any more, it got lost. That chair from when he interviewed..."
Then his phone beeped and they heard Mr. Livingston's voice: "Marty."
"Bring them to my viewing room."
"We're on our way." He put his phone back in his pocket, then turned back down the hall.
"So? Who was he interviewing?"
"I don't know for sure, I never heard any name - I told you I wasn't here then. Uh - you might want to ask Mr. Livingston about it, if we have time." He hurried them along, and they got nothing more out of him. He took them into a dimly lit room like a miniature theater, where Mr. Livingston and his field crew were waiting, together with Mr. Preston, Mr. Itonovik, Mr. Vitron, and several others.
"Ah, good," he said. "Take a seat. OK, Matt, we're ready."
"Yessir," came a voice. The screen lit up and the "Livingston Focus" theme played. All the video that had been recorded during their adventure in Mbognu had been woven into a show - the jungles, the cavern with the glowing plants, the wedding, the adoption, the festival - and the invitation from Dr. Stanley - and frequent appearances of Lucy and Ben. An amazing saga.
When it finished, there was a silence almost louder than any applause. It was uncanny. Then the voice came: "You want it played again?"
Mr. Vitron stood up and shook Mr. Livingston's hand. "I don't think I could take that again just now, Matt. Quite an excellent job. Not just historic and compelling, but the real human adventure. Maybe your best ever, Barkley."
"Nah," Sam Preston added glumly. "His best ever was that interview with..."
"Sorry to interrupt, but I've got an appointment," Mr. Livingston said. "Matt, cut DVDs for our guests, please? And when it's done, send them one of the Focus on the Pope, too."
He pointed at Lucy and Ben. "You two, come with me. See the rest of you tomorrow."
* * *
Martin Smith drove them across town to a region of three-story brownstones. "Here we are. Number 936. You're expected; just ring the bell. I'll be seeing you later."
They got out and went to the door and rang the bell.
A lovely dusky-skinned woman opened the door; she looked familiar but they didn't have to guess. "Welcome! I'm Hannah Livingston. Barkley should be here any minute now."
"Who is it, Mom?" came a voice from upstairs.
"It's our guests, Toby."
"Hello guests!" he called. "I'd come down but I'm kind of tied up at the moment."
She snickered. "He's always that way. The greatest standup comic on earth - not that he'd call himself that, of course. Just go right up. But first - would you like something to drink? Dinner won't be ready for a little while, but I'll be up with some hors d'oeuvres."
"Ginger ale," Ben said, and Lucy seconded him. Mrs. Livingston nodded and went off.

The two looked at each other. Something wasn't making any sense - but they went up the stairs, eager to find the solution.
Just a few steps up Lucy stopped, her face contorted. "Ohmygod."
Ben stopped and looked at her. "What?"
"Ray Immobilis! I never noticed. It's... it's Latin: Re immobilis. I wonder if..."
"We've had enough mysteries, Lucy. Let's just find out." He continued up and she followed him.
At the top they saw an open door into a lighted room. They shrugged and went in.

The young man smiled at them and chuckled. "Hello, Ben. Hello Lucy... or should I say - 'MegaPode' and 'Henneth Annûn'?"

Their eyes were wide and mouths agape. They didn't expect to find a smiling young man sitting in a large wheelchair, surrounded by electronic equipment. He was a stunning image of his father.
"I know you!" Lucy gasped as Ben nodded. "You - You're 'Ray Immobilis'!"
"Yes... yes." He laughed with all the sinister mad-scientist tone he could muster. "Heh, heh... ha ha ha! I - yes, I am the man in the dark room - the one that made you ChesterTeens!" He laughed so hard tears flowed. "Oh happy day! You're the first ones I've met in the flesh! Please shake my hand." His right arm moved slightly, and Lucy took it - it was warm but gave no response. She would have started crying but he chuckled and said, "And now I turn into an elephant and float away."
As Ben shook Toby's hand, he said "No, please don't bring up elephants. I tasted elephant last week."
"Really? What did it taste like? Like chicken?"
"Nah. It's endangered, so it tasted like bald eagle."
Toby laughed heartily. "Oh, man, this is the best. If I had known you were both in ChesterTeens I would have told my father to bring you sooner. But I was worried; he was so busy last week, I was afraid he wouldn't get to tell you about me, and he doesn't ... ah... he's not as flexible as I am." He chuckled again. Then his mother came in with a tray.
"Here's your drinks, and some cheese and crackers." She put the tray down on a table near her son. "Dinner's nearly ready, I'm just waiting for your father."
Lucy and Ben had normal glasses, but Toby's looked like something from the chem lab; it was connected to a piece of clear plastic tubing that looped around and ended near his mouth. He took a swallow and said, "Thanks Mom."

After she left, Lucy said, "But Toby - your father never did tell us about you. We'd like to know. And there's that thing in his office - that big chair - maybe you can tell us about that."
His face clouded. "Oh... No. That one you'll have to hear from him. I could tell you, but you won't believe it."
Ben nodded, and Lucy said, "OK - what about you, then?"
"It was a freak bike accident. I was eight. Dad was devastated at first, but we had done so many things together already. And he's kept me in the loop; he lets me in on all his adventures - I get sneak previews all the time. He calls me and Mom every night, unless he's out of range, or can't get out of his commitments. And there's a part I really don't know. Something happened to him - it has to do with that chair. Mom said he never was the same afterwards, he just kept getting better. I remember it, him coming home and smiling, and hugging me, because we went to the zoo that very day..." His eyes closed in delight of the memory.
"And you deal with your limitations?"
"Of course. The doctors did what they could, and the rest is up to me. It's so very Chestertonian: you've got to draw the line somewhere. I just have to use machinery to draw my lines." He smirked.
"And you - you learned Tshondé? How?"
"The net, and local friends. All kinds of people come to New York. I've learned a bunch of African languages - it's my dad's weak spot in his field team, as you found out! But it's lots of fun to learn. I like languages. Besides, I told you - I have a lot of free time."
Lucy smiled. "You're amazing, Toby! And all those postings on ChesterTeens - and you said you have your own blogg too?"
"Oh yes. I'll send you the link." He smiled again. "I think we're going to have a lot more to talk about."
Then they heard someone running up the stairs. It was Mr. Livingston.
He hugged his son's head. "I got a new show - you won't believe it."
"You met Dr. Stanley?"
"Yeah, how did you guess?"
"I did some translation for," he cleared his throat, "Mbu a Kwimbi Kwembi - the Asker of Questions."
"What! How do... you mean - you were the one doing the translation for Lucy? You're the one Ben and Lucy were talking with? Wait a second - you know that African dialect?"
"That's right Dad. And a few others too."
He stared down at his son in silence, Toby just smiled. Finally he said, "But this is - uh - incredible!"
"Like I told Ben and Lucy, I have a lot of free time."
"Yeah, I know how little you sleep. So that's what you've been busy with! Excellent. Well, then - I can foresee you playing a role in my future visits to Africa. An important role." He turned to Lucy and Ben. "And I owe this discovery to you two! Well, this has been quite an adventure. Ah - it's dinnertime."
Mrs. Livingston came in pushing a cart of food. "We have potato salad, hotdogs, hamburgers, and gyros." The cart opened into a serving table, and she began laying out the food.
Mr. Livingston took a seat. "After a week of very unusual experiences and strange feasts, we thought it would be something fun to have an authentic American meal - the natives call it a peek-neek, though I am not sure if I am pronouncing it correctly."
Ben and Lucy smiled at each other in delight, and Toby chuckled. "Oh, I think they understand, Dad. Perhaps you two would like to eat on the floor?" He winked.
His parents stared, but Ben laughed. "I sure won't insist on the protocol; how about you, Lucy?"
"No, this is sufficiently peek-neek under the meaning of the Act."

The meal was a lot of fun; Lucy found the gyro enjoyable. But the real surprise came at the end. Mr. Livingston stood up.
"Well, we all had some great surprises over the past week. Meeting each other, finding Dr. Stanley and hearing about his amazing discovery - and learning that my son has been surreptitiously developing into a linguist with an specialization in African dialects. Whew! But there's one more surprise which is mine to reveal. Hannah?"
She nodded, and went out. In a moment, she returned carrying a cake with lighted candles.
"Oh, Mom!" Toby said, embarrassed.
"You gotta be kidding!" Ben said, turning red.
"I... I didn't expect..." Lucy said, her eyes closed tight.
"Finally, I'm the one who knew what was coming," Mr Livingston gloated. "So none of you knew - that you three have a common birthday - did you?"
The three young people stared at each other. Clearly none of them knew.
Sternly Lucy turned to Toby. "And don't you go posting this, Ray!"

The evening was a blast for everyone. They watched the DVD show about Dr. Stanley; later Lucy and Ben watched Toby post on ChesterTeens about their meeting... all too soon Martin Smith was there to take them back to their suite. "We'll meet again soon - on the net!" they promised Toby.
Their host escorted them to the door. "Martin will be taking you to the airport after breakfast tomorrow - and I hope we shall meet again. But for now, this is farewell. My sincere thanks for all your help - it was a real delight for me."
"Thanks so much, Mr. Livingston!" Lucy said, hugging him.
"It was an amazing adventure, sir," Ben added as they shook hands. "Thanks for letting us share it."
* * *
Lucy was crying as they went into their suite. "What's wrong, Lucy?" Ben asked gently.
"It - it was so wonderful, and it's over."
Without hesitation he put his arms around her. "Nothing's really over, Lucy. You know that. It's just a taste..."
She sniffed, and nodded. He let her go, and she dried her eyes. "I know. The Inn at the End of the World."
"That's right: 'all roads point at last to an ultimate inn'..."
"Where He keeps the good wine. Oh yeah." She sighed, smiling up at him. "I wish you lived in Hoquiam."
He smiled back. "I wish you lived near Chicago."

Then she reddened, and he paled.
"I - I better go."
"I... uh... Good night."

Then she knew for sure that he was a real friend.

At his door he turned back. "Anyway, we have each other's e-mail address. We'll talk."
"And the Chesterton Conference is in Seattle next year. Maybe you can come?"
"We'll see." He turned to his door.
"Sure would be nice to see Toby there."
"Yeah. They ought to ask his dad to give a talk." He went in and closed the door.

She got ready for bed, thinking about her new friends. What an adventure it had been! Lots to write about. She turned off the lights and got into bed, murmuring a prayer for her family - her larger family...

Then she sat up, putting her hands to her face. They never did find out about that big chair! Well, she thought as she lay down again, she'd have to e-mail Toby once she got home. He had to know - something about it had the classic Chestertonian feel. She fell asleep wondering.

The End

(If, Like Lucy, you also are wondering, you can read "A Special Guest" and find out the whole story about that big chair.)

All text and pictures copyright © 2008 by Dr. Thursday

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