MANX OF STEELE
First Printed: More Red Holt Steele #3
Summary: Laura and Remington try to stop a scientist who is tampering with nature on the Isle of Man.
Disclaimer: This “Remington Steele” story is not-for-profit and is purely for entertainment purposes. The author and this site do not own the characters and are in no way affiliated with “Remington Steele,” the actors, their agents, the producers, MTM Productions, the NBC Television Network or any station or network carrying the show in syndication, or anyone in the industry.
Laura Holt-Steele stood up gratefully at the end of the priest's sermon, and started to file out of the charming, chilly Irish church with her new husband, Remington. The white haired priest cut them out of the herd of parishioners with the skill of an experienced shepherd.
"Might I have a word with you, your lordship?" he asked.
Laura saw the twinge of concern in her husband's eyes. Could the priest suspect their informal marital status? The newlyweds had attended services partly to create good impression for their servants.
"A colleague of mine on the Isle of Man has a mystery that, well, is not a police matter, but is very odd," Father McKeen continued. "Would you have a cup of tea with me, while I tell you about it?"
"Always happy to help a man of the cloth," Remington replied. The three of them strolled to the rectory, as Remington cheerfully said farewells to the other churchgoers, most of them eager to shake the hand of the new lord of the castle.
They settled in at the rectory parlor with tea and biscuits.
"Naturally, we're delighted that you're here, your lordship, and particularly happy that we can look forward to generations of leadership in the community," the priest said, with a smile to Laura.
"We hate to disappoint you, Father," said Laura quickly, "but Mr. Steele and I have the detective business in Los Angeles. We can't stay in Ireland long."
Father McKeen sighed, "Ireland's lost so many fine people to America...but it's really your detective work that Father Dulse needs. He and I were in school together, and we've kept in touch since he was posted to the city of Douglas on the Isle of Man. He's been happy there, giving the folk comfort from baptisms to last rites. But he was looking over his baptismal certificates for the last few years, and discovered a very unusual pattern. Of the last hundred babies he baptized, 79 were boys. He looked over the records for the last two years before that—he does about a hundred a year, y’see—and found that those were also mostly boys. He’s inquired at the National Health Office, but they tell him it's just a statistical fluke."
"I studied mathematics before I became a detective," Laura responded. "I learned that it's normal for slightly more boys than girls to be born. Boys are more at risk for some genetic diseases, so the sex ratio is about 50-50 by early adulthood. Boys are also more likely to get into dangerous mischief than girls."
"With notable exceptions," murmured Remington. "Mother Nature plays odd tricks on the Isle of Man; cats with no tails, sheep with extra horns. Perhaps your friend's congregation simply has a lot of families that run to boys.
"But Laura and I might enjoy a visit to the little island. I stopped off there once when I was a lad, and I'd like to visit it again. I believe they have a motorcycle race coming up soon that's worth seeing. We'll talk about it, eh, dear?"
"We could use a little more privacy than we get in the castle," Laura said. "We can check on travel arrangements tomorrow."
"Thank you so much. It may be coincidence, but Father Dulse will be pleased that the great detective Lord Steele has taken an interest. Here's his address and telephone number. Some of our young people in town take the ferry to Man and work all summer at the restaurants and hotels; the Isle gets a lot of tourists. I'll write down a couple of good places where you might stay--your Lordship shouldn't have trouble getting reservations."
The Steeles walked to their car. "Please try not to introduce yourself as 'the great detective Lord Steele' when we get back to L.A.," Laura said dryly. "Now tell me about your visit to the Isle of Man when you were a lad."
"I was Xenos the sailor then. I didn't really see much of the island--we just put in at a little cove on a foggy night, and left before morning."
"Didn't want to bother the customs inspectors, I suppose?"
They chatted further, and decided that it would do them both good to have a few more days to relax before returning to the States. A minor mystery on a pocket-sized island sounded positively therapeutic. After a day of planning, telephone calls, and packing, they caught a train, then the ferry to the the Isle of Man, docking at Douglas.
At the ferry station, they saw a bus from the Casino Hotel and boarded it. Remington introduced them, and explained that they were booked into the honeymoon suite. The driver informed them that the hotel provided a special tour for newlyweds, in a horse-drawn carriage. They would reach the hotel shortly after they passed over the Fairy Bridge. The driver solemnly explained that it was the duty of all passengers to call out, "Good afternoon, fairies," when the bus crossed over the bridge, to ensure good luck on their visit. The Steeles and other passengers cheerfully obeyed.
At the hotel, the Steeles checked in, settled their baggage, and took a quick look around--the hotel did contain a casino, naturally rather quiet in the afternoon. Father Dulse had left them a welcoming message and an invitation to dinner. As they had a free afternoon, the hotel clerk called for their carriage, and they hopped aboard.
On the tour, they saw plenty of little shops catering to tourists, pastel homes with lovely gardens, and a number of recent roadblocks set up in preparation for the motorcycle race. The carriage meandered into a stretch of countryside, and the horse slowed to nibble wildflowers. Laura rested her head in a happy, drowsy way against her husband's shoulder, then they both suddenly stiffened, realizing that at least six tough looking teenagers had materialized around the carriage out of the tall weeds.
"We're highwaymen," the tallest one said. "Give us your money as ransom, or we'll take your bride."
The carriage driver softly said, "Here, sir, toss them these pennies," and gave Remington a small jingling bag. "They're harmless. This is a little prank like American children playing trick or treat."
Laura took a closer look at the boys, and realized that their scruffy clothes were intended to be bandit costumes. They looked younger than they had at first; a couple of them had mustaches that looked painted on.
Remington, trying to look good natured, pitched the bag of pennies like a fastball into a distant clump of bushes. The boys ran off to claim their loot.
"Excellent, sir, you've saved your lovely bride from the highwaymen. Now, let's hurry to the hotel and have a drink to settle our nerves." The driver whistled to the horse, and it galloped back to its barn behind the hotel.
"I hope you folks weren't alarmed; it's an old custom around here, to tease the newlyweds a bit," the driver said, as he led them to the hotel bar for free drinks.
"Never try it in L.A.," warned Laura, with a smile.
After a bit of relaxation, the dinner hour approached, and they rented a car and drove to Father Dulse's rectory.
The priest was pleasantly plump, with a fringe of gray hair, like Friar Tuck. Over a fine dinner, he talked about his congregation's bounty of boys, and other local news.
"This is a good time to visit, y'know. The motorcycle race starts the day after tomorrow, Bank Holiday weekend, and we always get a good crowd of visitors. Tomorrow we have a little festival which commemorates a Viking raid on the island. The townspeople dress up in robes or furs and act out the parts of the defenders or Vikings, and we have a feast afterwards. A retired doctor and his wife, the Eriksons, help organize it, and serve their own mead, that is, honey wine. Nice folks, used to be medical missionaries, been all over the world. I'll try to introduce you to them."
"Have you asked Dr. Erikson about the number of boys?" asked Laura. "It's possible that it's coincidence; my family runs to girls."
The priest beamed at her as if she had just won best of show at a livestock fair. "Bless you, my dear. If you and Lord Steele are interested in a summer house here, I know of a nice big one for sale, fine place to raise a family, and plenty of room for visiting cousins. I'm sure your family would be very popular."
"We're not ready for real estate at present," she said. "Now, about Dr. Erikson?"
"He just laughs and says I should tell the parents to count their blessings. Would you mind asking our local National Health Office to look into it, Lord Steele? I'll give you my notes. The request might carry more weight coming from you. You've probably heard that an expert is someone from more than a hundred miles away."
"I'm not sure I meet that qualification, but it couldn't hurt to ask."
They finished their meal, assured the priest that they would keep him posted, and returned to the hotel. The evening was still young, and activity at the hotel's casino was lively. They tried the baccarat table. Laura felt Remington's eyes on her, and kept her bets small. She'd had an astounding run of luck in Vegas once, but flushed when she remembered that he'd had to carry her away from the table to prevent her from risking thousands on one more throw of the dice.
After a while, she noticed a well-dressed man at the table opposite her, sipping a martini held in a slightly scarred hand. He seemed faintly amused at her caution, and tried to catch her eye. She rested her hand on Remington's arm, and showed off her wedding ring to the stranger. She glanced at him again, involuntarily, and felt a little chill. In general appearance, he was like Remington, or perhaps like some older brother of his who had been through a war. Laura felt Remington's arm stiffen a bit as he noticed the stranger watching her; the men exchanged sharp looks.
"It's been a long day, what with the train and ferry, dear, let's go to bed early," she said, with a little huskiness in her voice. Her husband brightened immediately.
"Of course, darling. Good night, ladies and gentlemen," he said, escorting her from the table with a triumphant smirk at the martini drinker.
The next day, they made inquiries at the National Health Office. The wiry, fair haired manager, Mr. Baker, was cooperative. After some number crunching in the birth certificate files, Baker verified that the ratio of male to female births in Douglas was three to to one. He seemed startled--he hadn't taken the priest's earlier inquiry seriously. But the children seemed healthy, there seemed to be nothing unusual in the environment, and the population of the island, about 64,000, was growing at its usual modest rate of approximately one percent per year, including immigration.
"I've heard that in China, an above average number of boys may have been caused by sex selection through abortion," Laura said hesitantly.
"But a Catholic congregation here has been severely affected," the manager responded. "At any rate, on this island, abortions are rare."
"The trend started right around three years ago, didn't it? Was there anything at all unusual in the health of the community for a year or so before that?" she asked.
Baker rummaged for a while in his prior year files. "What with the tourists coming through, especially in late summer, we generally all get influenza shortly after Bank Holiday... Hmmm... we had an epidemic of mumps about four years ago, in September. I remember it now, they closed the schools, and some businesses, but still quite a few adults went about looking like squirrels with their mouths full of acorns. A lot of people who'd already had mumps caught it, and the vaccine didn't help. Fortunately, there were no severe complications reported."
"Complications?" Remington asked, crossing his legs. "I've heard that mumps can be, well, disastrous for a grown man."
"We were concerned about the possibility of sterility, but I haven't had reports of it. The gossip in town was that quite a few couples decided to have a baby later that year to prove that no damage was done."
"May I ask a personal question, Mr. Baker?" asked Laura.....
As they left the building, Steele said dryly, "You should at least have a few dinners with a man before you ask him something like that."
"It was a health question, he is the manager of the National Health Office, and he is part of the population that experienced the epidemic. We had to ask somebody to take a test to see if his gametes are normal in terms of X-Y ratios. It isn't normally tested, and it's the only thing that could cause the extra boys. If he quietly gets other men in the health profession to take the test, we should learn whether there really is something different about the men of Man, without alarming the whole island."
They turned a corner. Laura suddenly felt an arm around her waist, and screamed as a large bearded man, dressed in fur and a crude helmet, lifted her onto his shoulder and started to run. Remington grabbed his other arm, which held a wooden sword, and swung him around to a stop, nearly making him drop Laura. From her high perch, Laura saw several other fur-bearing men in sword fights with robed villagers, some also grabbing women. Remington punched the abductor solidly in the face, and scooped up Laura as the shaggy man fell.
A robed man ran up to them, and showed a police badge. "Here, now, sir, you're being too rough; it's only a historical reenactment. Are you all right, Cecil?" He asked the bloody-nosed barbarian at their feet.
"I'll live. Sorry, ma'am, I got carried away; forgot you weren't part of the battle."
"Dr. Erikson at the first aid station will look at that nose, and a drink will kill the pain. Come on, then." The Steeles accompanied the historically dressed police officer and would-be Viking to the first aid tent.
Remington apologized to Cecil the Viking. "We had heard that there would be a mock battle, but a fellow doesn't stop to think when he sees a wild man grab his wife."
"I understand. Don't worry, sir, I got hit worse than this in rehearsals."
A grandfatherly man took Cecil in charge, and bandaged his nose. "At it again, eh, Cecil? Oh, do you folks need help? I'm Dr. Roger Erikson, my wife Mary's over there at the refreshment table."
"We're fine, just a little shaken up," said Laura. "This is the second time in 24 hours that someone's tried to kidnap me--all in fun, of course."
"We're Mr. and Mrs. Steele, here on our honeymoon, and experiencing more exciting local customs than we expected," Remington added.
"Eh, well, y'see, there isn't all that much to do on a little island like this, so people enjoy play-acting when they get a chance." The doctor sent Cecil off to trade war stories with other wounded Vikings and defenders on shaded benches.
"We've heard that you've had an exciting life yourself, Dr. Erikson, as a medical missionary. Perhaps you can shed some light on the local mystery that we've come to investigate. Please treat this as confidential. Father Dulse has noticed that far more boys than girls have been born in his congregation in the last three years, since the mumps epidemic. The National Health manager confirms that the whole town seems to be affected," Laura said quietly.
"If the trend continues, the population of Man will be all men, and will someday be the Isle of No Man," Remington continued.
The doctor smiled. "I think you're exaggerating the problem. In some countries, this would be considered a very fortunate situation. There are still many places where the birth of a daughter is a disappointment. In Southeast Asia, Mary and I saw people living on boats. Their little boys had blocks of wood around their necks as life preservers; the little girls had none. In Tibet, if a family had a son and daughter, and only a little milk, the boy got milk, and the girl got water. You've probably heard of female infanticide and bride burning in India.
"Missionaries like us tried to educate people to treat their daughters as well as their sons, but it was an uphill battle. If girls had more freedom, they might decide that there's more to life than having eight children. I still get letters from people I saved thirty or forty years ago. One man wrote that, thanks to my vaccines, he survived, and has 65 grandchildren. When I look at world population figures, sometimes I wonder whether I did the right thing."
"Mistreatment of girls is tragic, but it surely doesn't explain the strange population trend here," Laura said.
"Remember, we're dealing with a small island, Mrs. Steele. If you flip a coin 100 times, it would be surprising if it came up heads exactly 50 times; some variation is to be expected. Also, I hesitate to add, the people here might be a trifle inbred. If there were some hereditary tendency to have mostly boys, it could have been exaggerated by isolation. At any rate, the parents seem to be happy with the children the good Lord sends them. I'm content to leave it at that."
Another wounded Viking arrived.
"Oh, that fellow's going to have quite a shiner. Excuse me while I tend to him. Do stop by the refreshment table; Mary's justifiably proud of her mead."
They visited with Mary, but had tea and sandwiches instead, as the time was only around noon. As the Steeles balanced paper plates and cups, Laura saw her husband jump a bit. "Something's got my foot--seems to be a snowball with teeth."
Mary clapped her hands sharply. "No, Cubby, bad cat!" Cubby, a tailless fluffy white cat, stalked away, and attacked a scrap of food. "Sorry about that. He loves shoelaces. He follows us like a dog, especially when there's a chance of food."
"Have you been on the island long?" asked Laura.
"Five years, since Roger retired. That's our house, over there," Mary responded.
"It's lovely. It must be a relief to retire to such a nice house, after living in the field for so many years."
"Oh, yes," said Mary. Laura felt a habitual twinge of suspicion. The couple had a fine home, for people who had lived on missionaries' pay. Mary evidently noticed, and added, "Roger and I received an inheritance from his parents.
"Oh, look, they've killed the Viking leader, now they'll have a funeral," Mary said brightly, pointing to a knot of fighters. "That happened in the original battle, but the surviving Vikings carried off a lot of the young women in town anyway. It wasn't really a victory for us, but we'll have a feast later. More tea, dear?"
Laura and Remington walked away to watch more of the mock battle from a distance. "Interesting couple, the Eriksons," she said.
"We're not the only ones who are curious about them. Recognize that gambler from last night?"
The lean, dark haired man, now casually dressed, helped himself to a cup of mead at the refreshment table. Cubby swiped at his shoelaces, and the gambler stiffened. He gave the cat a knowing look, as if he expected it, and glanced toward the first aid tent with a grim little smile. He walked away with his untouched mead toward the Casino Hotel.
"He was giving me the 'policeman' look last night," Remington said softly. "As if he were halfway sure he'd seen me on a wanted poster."
"One more reason to get home to Los Angeles next week; your other personas have too much history on this side of the Atlantic."
"I'd like to find out what's happening to this cozy little island before we do that. Hmm, Mrs. Erikson seems to be out of mead." Disappointed Vikings ringed the refreshment table. The woman made apologetic gestures, and briskly walked to her house. Rather than going indoors, she hopped into her car and cautiously drove through the crowd, apparently heading out of town.
"Let's follow her," said Laura.
They collected their car from the hotel. Following a slow moving car on a small island was no challenge. They kept well back to avoid calling attention to themselves.
Mrs. Erikson stopped at a barn deep in heather, near a cliff at the edge of the sea. She went in. The Steeles settled into the car behind a clump of trees to observe.
"What are those boxes, out in the field?" Laura asked.
"Beehives," her husband answered. "Actually, this cliff is familiar. I noticed it as we drove up. I think this is the spot I visited as Xenos. I'm almost sure that if we climbed down the cliff, we'd find caves at the base, and a good spot to moor a boat."
Mrs. Erikson came out with a little cart, loaded with jugs. She transferred the jugs to her car and headed back to town. The Steeles snuggled, so if she did notice a car among the trees, she would assume the occupants simply wanted privacy.
"Shall we look around, as long as we've come this far?" asked Remington.
Laura felt a twinge of guilt. They'd be trespassing without a shred of probable cause. Still, there was something strange happening on the island, and something strange about a retired doctor who maintained a barn at a smuggler's landing. "How bad could the penalty be for burgling a barn? Let's look."
Remington had his lock picks with him, as always. He remarked that the barn had a surprisingly good lock, but opened it in a couple of minutes. They stepped inside. It was warm, dim, and sweet with the smell of heather honey. Jugs of mead, jars of honey, honeycombs, and beekeeping supplies were neatly arranged. Laura realized that the barn seemed smaller on the inside than the outside. They tapped the walls, looking for a hidden room. At length, they found a hollow sounding area, and after some frustration, popped open the door an inch. They saw equipment inside before the door snapped shut again, and they heard a creak behind them.
They spun around, to see and hear a cloud of angry bees. They dove for the barn door, which had locked itself. "I need a couple--ow!-- of minutes with no distractions to get through--damnit--are these killer bees?" asked Remington. They tried to shelter themselves with beekeeper's hoods.
"Smoke!" gasped Laura.
"No thanks--arrrghh-- I'm trying to quit."
"Do you have your lighter? I'll try to put the bees to sleep with smoke."
He tossed it to her. "Remember we're in a barn--bloody hell--don't set it on fire."
Laura grabbed some beekeeping magazines and turned them into a torch. The smoke at least reduced the severity of the attack enough that Remington was able to unlock the door. Just as they left, sprinklers turned on in the barn. They ran for the car, jumped in, and spent the next several minutes swatting determined bees.
"Let's head back, but not too directly. We may have set off an alarm, and we don't want to meet the Eriksons on the road," said Remington.
"Damn, I wish we'd seen more. If we report this, we'll look like burglars and fools. We didn't even know what we were looking for. Now they'll know that someone suspects them, and if they see us covered with stings, they might call the police on us."
"We at least know that the Eriksons have an important secret. Maybe Mildred can dig up something on them," said Remington. "And by tomorrow, maybe the man at National Health will have some test results for us."
They returned to the hotel, stopping off at a chemist's first for bandages and bee sting remedies. They sheepishly explained to the hotel clerk that they'd gotten banged up in the mock battle. They skipped the feast to avoid encountering the Eriksons, and ordered room service and some 80-proof anesthetic. They tipped the bellboy generously to visit the feast for them, and bring back some mead. He returned with half a jug, which they stashed in their little refrigerator.
Laura called Mildred, who agreed to research the Eriksons. Mildred seemed distracted, and explained that she and Mickleen had been busy when Laura called.
The next morning started with a roar. Laura muzzily wondered why such a large number of lawn mowers needed to be under their window, and peeked out.
The courtyard was full of motorcycles. "They've changed scenes from The Viking to The Wild One," said Remington. "With a horror movie, The Bees, in between."
Laura liked the black leather her husband wore, to blend with the crowd.
The Steeles went downstairs to the breakfast line. Laura noticed the gambler at breakfast, also in black leather. She was tempted to ask him a few questions, but decided that after their failure yesterday, she should wait until she had more answers from Mildred and Mr. Baker before she risked stirring up another beehive.
They settled into a booth behind some German visitors. Laura itemized clues softly. "So, we have a doctor with a barn, and possibly a lab, convenient for smuggling. We have an island where far more boys than girls are born, with no obvious medical explanation. We have an epidemic of mumps, and perhaps influenza. And a gambler who gives you a 'policeman' look."
"The staff's seen the gambler going out with binoculars and a camera bag. They say he says he's an ornithologist from Jamaica. It looked like he got a sample of the mead. I think he's investigating, but if we offer to share information, he's sure to run a check on me, and I won't like what he finds. Let's steer clear of him for now."
After breakfast, they strolled around the town, watching last-minute preparations for the motorcycle race. Many streets were closed to automobiles for the occasion. Dr. Erikson, his face bandaged, was on duty in the first aid tent, they noted from a safe distance. Mrs. Erikson was at the refreshment table again, offering breakfast foods and presiding over a keg of beer; no mead, apparently. She wore long sleeves, gloves, and a scarf around her face.
"Looks like the bees were still mad when they checked the barn," said Laura. Her own stings still hurt.
They watched the morning amateur races. Remington seemed genuinely excited by the machines, she noticed with amusement. A race of historic motorcycles would take place at 1:00, and the professional race was scheduled for 2:00. She left him to watch the races and the Eriksons while she went to check at the health office.
When Baker answered her knock, he seemed to be a shaken man. Laura gave him the mead to test, and described her suspicion of the Eriksons.
"Dr. Sanders says that I can have as many children as I want, as long as I want sons," Baker said, a bit dazed. "He was amazed. He'd never actually separated out the X and Y bearing cells before, and counted them. He said he would've assumed there was something wrong with the test if he hadn't found the same results with five other men, all very deficient in X-bearing gametes. And one man had only lived in town three years; he moved here after the mumps epidemic."
"So it was something other than mumps."
"Actually, a very mild case of mumps might be mistaken for influenza. The virus might have returned without our noticing it, and without anyone deliberately causing it. The incubation period is two to three weeks, so a person might not remember being exposed," Baker continued.
"I checked the test. I went to the dock, collared six young fellows right off the ferry from Scotland and offered them 25 pounds each to...ahem. They thought I was pretty strange, but it was the easiest 25 quid they ever made. Their gametes showed the normal 50-50 ratio of Y to X. They are equally likely to have sons as daughters."
Laura thought out loud. "Can we follow a group of men in some kind of controlled test, starting when they arrive here, and find out when they get the illness? God, what am I saying? No one should be subjected to that risk; the island ought to be evacuated, or quarantined. Does the effect ever wear off?"
"We could find men who have moved away from the Isle of Man in the last three years or so, and ask them to be tested. I'll talk to the postmaster, and try to come up with a list. As to evacuation or quarantine, I think that's premature at this point. We don't want to start a panic. But I will inform London that we have a situation."
"Could you ask if they know of any investigation that is already in process? We don't want to disrupt what they're doing." Laura also asked him to consider testing summer employees and tourists. She worried about Remington.
As she left the office, a young man popped in. "Are you still paying 25 pounds for, er, specimens?" he asked Baker.
Laura called Mildred from the hotel. Her assistant reported that the Eriksons were generally considered to be saints. Dr. Erikson and his wife had risked their lives for 30 years delivering medical care in jungles, deserts, refugee camps and battlefields. When Dr. Erikson grew too old for jungle treks, he "semi-retired" to develop new vaccines for childhood illnesses through recombinant DNA work, and only fully retired at the age of 65. The bulk of his income came from large pension checks from a drug company based in Hong Kong.
"You think these people are deliberately creating an epidemic? Making a case against them would be like going against Santa Claus," said Mildred.
"He has the means--he can modify diseases. He has the motive, I think. He's seen the worst side of overpopulation; he might feel that it's his medical duty to slow down population growth. And he has the opportunity. His wife hands out drinks that were fermented in the barn where we're sure he has a lab. A small island of healthy people who keep good records would make a fine test group," Laura said.
"There are only so many places where one can get equipment to splice genes. See if you can trace any to him since he moved to the island. Thanks, Mildred."
She caught up with her husband at the races, and talked about the findings. "Hong Kong, eh? A new kind of China Syndrome," Remington mused.
"It's unsettling to think about," Laura said. "What if the disease becomes worldwide and permanent? What would that do to a society? So many men would have no hope of a normal family life. They might turn to kidnapping, like the Vikings and highwaymen we joke about now. Women really would be a minority at the ballot box, and would be under great pressure to have more children, as populations fell. We'd be as scarce in real life as we are in action movies. In Star Wars, Princess Leia was practically the only woman in the galaxy—at least the only one who got out in public much. I don't think I'd like to live in that galaxy.
"Anything new with the Eriksons?" she asked.
"They're going to be in the vintage motorcycle race that starts in a few minutes. Oh, you see, there they are in that old German one with the sidecar. They're slowly cruising through the crowd, doing some handshaking." He laughed. "They've got the cat with them, in the woman's lap in the sidecar."
"Let's wander over to the gas station. We'll get a good view from there, and we can blend in with the Germans who won the amateur race. I don't want the Eriksons to notice us. Hmm, Mrs. Erikson doesn't look happy, for someone about to take part in a fun event at a festival. Looks like she's been crying," Laura said.
"After all those bee stings, I'm not surprised."
The Germans were refueling their motorcycles. Remington introduced them, and mentioned that his European work had included recovery of the Hapsburg Dagger and the Maltese Cross. They were impressed. A petite Valkyrie named Heike spoke good English, followed crime news as a hobby, and seemed dazzled by Remington. Her boyfriend Hans looked less thrilled.
"Look, the other old vehicles are lining up, but the Eriksons are heading out of town," said Laura. "They know someone's on to them, so they're leaving permanently. That's why they brought the cat. The roads are closed to cars. In the time it would take to get ours, and argue with police, they could be on a boat at their smuggler's cove."
"Laura, please call the fellow at the health office, ask him to get the police out to their bit of beach near the farm--he should have some sort of emergency powers. Hans, may I borrow your motorcycle and helmet, bitte?" Hans agreed.
"I'm coming with you," said Laura.
"Sweetheart, I'll have to be too cautious if we ride double."
"I can drive a motorcycle. May I borrow your bike and helmet, Heike?" Heike was happy to oblige, and also offered her leather jacket.
"The things a fellow learns on his honeymoon. You don't look like the type."
"When I was seventeen, Mom pressured me to be more popular, not such a bookworm," Laura said as she wriggled into the jacket and helmet. "I flirted with the class biker to get back at her. He taught me to ride--she almost had a heart attack when I came home driving his Harley. It didn't last long. I went to college, he didn't.
"Go follow the Eriksons, but keep a safe distance. They may be armed. I'll call Baker, and catch up with you," Laura said.
Laura made the call. Baker said he'd try, but the police already had their hands full with crowd control for the race. It would take some persuasion to get police to arrive on the doorstep of a retired doctor who was widely respected. The tests on the mead were still in progress.
Laura mounted Heike's motorcycle. Remington was still barely in sight on the road out of town. "Just like riding a bicycle," she murmured. She started the motor, and drove to catch up with him.
She saw him turn off into a stand of trees on a hill half a mile from the barn. She joined him.
"They went into the barn a few minutes ago. We're not equipped to go in after them. Any word on reinforcements?" He asked.
"Baker's trying, but he says it will take a while."
"Ah, well. As long as they're holed up there, we at least have a stalemate."
"They're coming out with... what? A picnic cooler? I'll bet it's full of virus soup."
The Eriksons packed the cooler and another box into the sidecar, barely leaving room for Mrs. Erikson and the cat. The doctor and his wife seemed to have a brief argument, and the woman snuggled the cat more tightly.
Dr. Erikson drove near the cliff and peered over it. He turned to his wife, looking jubilant. They returned to the road, heading south.
"Let's see what they're so happy about," said Laura. The Steeles ran to the cliff, and dropped into the heather for concealment before they looked.
"A ship...big yacht, actually, about a mile out. That one can go fast and far," Remington said. "The Eriksons have a motorboat on the beach."
"If they reach the yacht, they could be in international water by morning. We don't have enough evidence to ask the Navy to stop them," said Laura.
Remington checked the map. "The nearest real road down to the beach is five miles away. I expect there's a path to get down on foot in this area, that young people without luggage can manage safely. If we can find another way down the cliff, there are caves all along it, carved out by the tide. We'd have enough cover that we might be able to surprise them."
They scurried along the cliff, keeping low to stay out of sight, looking for a path down. "This doesn't look too bad," he said.
The path was easier than it looked; the elderly couple probably could have managed it themselves if their hands were free.
They ducked into a cave for a moment. "Let's start by punching a hole in their boat," Laura said. "We should have plenty of warning when that motorcycle comes up the beach. And keep some good throwing rocks handy."
"Let's just steal a part off the motor; we might need the boat ourselves at some point. Also, that yacht may have spotted us; depends how closely they were watching the cliff. They might not pay too much attention to a couple strolling on the beach who pause to admire a boat. If they see us destroy it, they’ll send a launch to deal with us."
They strolled, admired, and stole. They heard the motorcycle in the distance. "Icy calm...I'm going to take off my jacket, let it carelessly drag behind us as we walk, and brush out our footprints on the way back to the cave," Remington murmured. "We look like a couple who just want a little privacy."
They reached the cave. The sand that they had crossed was disturbed, but Laura hoped that the old couple had enough on their minds not to notice.
Moments later, the motorcycle arrived. Erikson began to wrestle the cooler into the boat. Mrs. Erikson held Cubby; her eyes were on her husband.
"Their hands are full. Now!" whispered Remington.
They started a quiet sprint toward the old couple--but not quiet enough. Dr. Erikson heard them, dropped the cooler, and spun around with a handgun.
"Dr. Erikson, you haven't harmed anyone yet," Laura said quickly. "Don't start now. The police will be here soon. Put down the gun. With your reputation, the authorities will go easy on you, probably whitewash the whole thing to avoid publicity."
"You're the Steeles, aren't you? Nice Catholic couple, and famous detectives. How many children were you two hoping to have, Mrs. Steele?" Asked the doctor.
"We hadn't planned that far yet," Laura said. She wanted to keep him talking.
"Our dining room table serves six," said Remington. Laura smiled, tightly.
"Even your furniture tells you to go forth and multiply," said the doctor. "Over five billion people on earth, almost half of them undernourished, but with reproduction still as their strongest instinct. Birth control is unreliable. If you live to my age, the population is likely to be twenty billion. World religions deal with the problem by advising abstinence--as if every pair of adults who loved each other could be celibate for years at a time. Who could live up to standards like that?" The doctor continued.
"You'd be surprised," said Remington.
"Dr. Erikson, do you have something against women, that you'd want to prevent them from being born?" asked Laura.
"My financing comes, indirectly, from one of those countries where people don't provide life preservers to little girls, Mrs. Steele. So does the yacht. People prefer sons--they name their daughters Roberta and Danielle. They rebel if they are forbidden to have any children, but they can be content with a son or two. It is the females that actually determine a population's potential for growth. I had hoped that if girls became more scarce, worldwide, they would be treated better, a rare commodity. Every woman would have her pick of rich, faithful husbands. Some men aren’t cut out for family life. They are happiest with their cars, gadgets, and guns, and treat women like disposable bed-warmers."
Laura saw something shark-sized approach the shore behind the doctor.
"If I were defusing atomic bombs, I'd be a hero. By reducing the number of women born, I'm defusing the population bomb. I can't let you two stand in the way. If we tie you up, and leave you in the caves, you'll have a chance, as long as the police arrive before the high tide does."
The shark-thing now looked more like a seal. A sleek head rose from the water. Further out, what looked like a small iceberg surfaced beside the yacht.
"Sounds like the reverse of a movie I saw once," said Remington, stalling. "Casino Royale. Woody Allen tried conquer the world, and make himself appealing to women by developing a weapon that would kill all men taller than he was."
"Waste of film, that. Drop the gun, Doctor," said a figure, who splashed to a standing position behind Erikson. The startled doctor obeyed, when he saw the speargun in the hand of the tall man in the black wetsuit behind him.
"Your mead has been declared a health hazard. Her Majesty's government needs to talk with you. Sir, would you take his gun? Shall we use your little boat, Doctor, or should I call for one from the iceberg?"
Remington took the pistol, and displayed the motorboat's spark plugs. He handed the gun to Laura. "Just need to make an adjustment first," he said.
Remington fixed the motor, and shoved the boat into the water. The doctor, with wife and cat, settled into the boat, along with the gambler in the wetsuit. The doctor tested the engine, and looked at the speargun resignedly.
Erikson still felt compelled to lecture. "Bees have been successful because they leave reproduction to a small fraction of the population," he said.
"Oh, shut up, Roger," said his wife.
"Her Majesty's government is very grateful for your assistance, Mr. and Mrs. Steele. Of course, you will keep this matter confidential," said the gambler. "Perhaps she will call on you again."
"Thank you," they called. Relieved, Laura laughed. "Mr. Steele, we're needed."
They climbed up the cliff, rode back to the hotel, and returned the motorbikes and gear. They checked in with the police, Mildred, and Baker, informing them that the problem had been taken care of, but they were not at liberty to discuss the details. Baker indicated that he was under a gag order also, but was allowed to say that the number of girls born should return to normal within a year or two.
On the ferry home, Laura was thoughtful. "That virus is a devastating weapon. And it's a drug that would be in high demand in some places. I hope they destroy it."
"Don't worry, Laura. Our friend the gambler will eliminate any technology that reduces the world's population of lovely young women. Enlightened self-interest. Now, we have some interests of our own to take care of."
They enjoyed a long kiss in the sunset.