CHAPTER 19: The Lie

Doc stirred uncomfortably.  He couldn't move his left arm.  "Why?"  His eyes flickered open and scanned his surroundings.

His arm was strapped down to an immobilizing board that was used when a doctor did not want intravenous units disturbed by a patient's unconscious movements.  Doc looked.  Two units -- saline solution and glucose -- dripped their life-sustaining fluids into his body.

From the feel of his muscles, he reasoned he'd been here for at least a week -- possibly more.

His gaze traveled around the room.  The lighting was muted, but bright enough to let him identify his surroundings.  He was in the recovery room attached to his private surgery in his 86th floor offices.

He closed his eyes and tried to concentrate.  Hadn't he been in Castle Aldea?  How long ago?  What had happened?  Blurred memories of his last conscious moments tumbled madly in his mind.  There had been a cave-in...he'd been trapped...almost killed...and Orlonda...Johnny had killed Orlonda!

"NO!"  Doc's eyes flew open as the tortured denial split the silent air.

"Doc?  Doc...you're awake!"  Monk's disheveled visage popped into view from a nearby chair.  He had obviously been dozing while keeping vigil next to his leader.  His eyes were red from lack of sleep and his face was unshaven and haggard.  He leapt for the door.

"Hey, you guys!" he yelled into the outer offices, "Doc's awake!"  He turned and raced back to the bed.

Monk was joined by four other bleary-eyed and disheveled figures.  All looked like they had spent the last week or two sleeping in their clothes.  Even Ham was not his usually immaculate self.  They gathered round the bed of their leader -- all looking as happy as if he'd returned from the dead!

"Well," said a warm and familiar voice, "So you've decided to rejoin the land of the living!"

Doc's eyes swung to the door and encountered the fatherly gaze of Dr. 'Bugs' Benton -- his own personal physician.

"You know, young man, you had us all scared stiff!"  The elderly doctor who had been one of Doc's earliest tutors moved to the bed and proceeded to examine him.   "Hmmm -- no untoward effects that I can see..." he muttered after a short time.  "What's the last thing you remember, Clark?"

Doc's head swam.  "The castle...Orlonda..."  He stopped as he saw the look of confusion that suffused the surrounding faces.  "How did I get here?" he murmured.

"Your men called me in about two weeks ago when they came in and found you unconscious in your lab.  You've been in a coma for that long!"  The doctor spoke gently, his keen eyes searching for any sign of agitation or disorientation in his patient.

"Coma...two weeks?...What day is this?"

"It's the twenty-third, Doc," proffered Long Tom.  "Monk and Ham found you on the ninth, when they came up to borrow some equipment."

"Yeah," chimed in Monk.  "We called in Doc Benton, cancelled your appointments and have been telling everyone you're outta town.  We kept you here 'cause we didn't want it leaked out that you were -- well -- we were afraid you were gonna die!"

"These men have virtually lived here the past two weeks," added the elderly physician.  "You couldn't have gotten better round-the-clock care if you'd been in the finest hospital!  They seemed to think it imperative that no one know about your incapacitation -- and, in view of the enemies you've made for yourself in the underworld, I concurred."

"But..." Doc murmured, almost to himself, "Ten days ago we were in Moldania!"

"You kept muttering about Moldania every once in a while when it seemed like you would come out of it -- then you'd slip back into a deeper coma and we'd despair of you ever reviving!" said Renny.  "We checked the newspapers for any news of Moldania -- but the only thing that has happened there recently was that there was a bit of border trouble that had been put down by the local militia.  Ham clipped the articles and they're sitting on your desk."

Doc lay back and closed his eyes.  It hurt to think...almost as if someone had given him medication to keep him from doing just that.  "Countess Aldea and Premier Von Thuroczy...thery were here..."

"Yes," said Ham's voice.  "They were one of the few appointments you'd made that we had to cancel.  We told them you'd been called away on urgent business and that you'd get in touch as soon as you returned.  It seems that they've solved their own problems, though, according to the newspaper clippings I've been collecting."

"We didn't go to Moldania?" Doc queried, his golden eyes sweeping the tired faces of his men.

"Only in your dreams, Doc," whispered Monk.  "...only in your dreams!"

* * * * *

It was midnight.  A fine mist filtered through the deserted lower passages of the ancient castle.  For several hours there had been no sound of human movement in or near the tombs.  The guards who patrolled the castle had all retired to the upper levels for the night.

The southeastern wall of the tomb oozed a silky, pearl-white mist which swirled and took the form of a great, old, white wolf.  The ancient animal lifted its muzzle and sniffed the air.  Satisfied that it would not be disturbed by humans, it once again shifted its shape.  Soon a withered old woman stood in the vault.

The crone shambled to the closed casket of ebony and inlaid ivory, lifted the lid and, with a strength that belied her age, dislodged the wooden stake that pierced the piles of dust covering the floor of the coffin.

As soon as the wooden object had been removed, a wondrous change occurred!  The dust swirled, heaved and became the recumbent form of a beautiful, ebon-haired woman.  She signed and sat up.

"Faithful Simonetta, what would I do without you?" she smiled.

"Did HE do this, Mistress?" the hag hissed.

"No...it was his men...and I cannot condemn them for their actions, for they did what they thought best -- out of love for him!"  She sighed wearily.  "I have lost him for the moment...but once I have reclaimed my estate, I shall seek him out once again."

"Reclaimed your estate, Mistress? But it has been publicized that the Countess Orlonda died or frail health!  How can you reclaim your estate if all the world knows you are dead?"

She chuckled.  Doc's men had somehow managed to enlist the aid of the authorities in covering up the real facts of her 'death'.  "Well," she laughed, "Did the notice of my demise include the information that my will had named my successor?"

"Yes, Mistress, ...a distant cousin named Azuri.  But...you have no cousins -- distant or otherwise!"

The Countess smiled and became somewhat insubstantial.  When she re-formed, she was younger and had red-gold hair.  Only the age-old eyes remained the same.   

"I think," she said, as she moved towards the secret tunnel, "That within the next few days the authorities will meet and be convinced of the authenticity of...'Cousin Azuri'."

The crone smiled.  "Yes, Milady!"  All was right once again with her world.  The people would be protected -- as they had been protected throughout the centuries.  Orlonda was but a memory...Azuri was now the reality.  So it had ever been.

Simonetta gathered several handfuls of dust from the undisturbed secret chamber, refilled the coffin and replaced the stake.  No one could have told that it had ever been disturbed.  She closed the casket and followed her mistress into the secret lair, closing the portal behind her.

TAKE ME TO THE NEXT CHAPTER, PLEASE! 

The Doc Savage characters are the property of Conde Nast.  All text and images are  1999 by Paty Cockrum and may not be copied without her express written permission.