Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer

  Mulch rubbed his finger along an ornate banister. In this case, probably both.

  Still, no time to moon about. Stairways did not tend to remain deserted for long, especially during a siege. Who could tell how many bloodthirsty troopers waited behind each door, eager for a fairy head to add to their stuffed trophy wall.

  Mulch climbed carefully, taking nothing for granted. Even solid oak creaked. He stuck to the borders, avoiding the carpet inlay. The dwarf knew from conviction number eight how easy it was to conceal a pressure pad beneath the deep shag of some antique weave.

  He reached the landing with his head still attached to his shoulders. But there was another problem quite literally brewing. Dwarf digestion, due to its accelerated rate, can be quite explosive. The loosely packed soil on the Fowl estate was very well aerated, and a lot of that air had entered Mulch’s tubes along with the soil and minerals. Now the air wanted to get out.

  Dwarf etiquette dictated that gas be passed while still in the tunnel, but Mulch didn’t have time for manners. Now he regretted not taking a moment to get rid of the gas while he was in the cellar. The problem with dwarf gas was that it couldn’t go up, only down. Imagine, if you will, the catastrophic effects of burping while digesting a mouthful of clay. Total system backup. Not a pretty sight. Thus dwarf anatomy ensured that all gas was passed below, actually aiding in the expulsion of unwanted clay.

  Mulch wrapped his arms around his stomach. He’d better get out of the open. A blowout on a landing like this could take out the windows. He shuffled along the corridor, skipping through the first doorway he encountered.

  More cameras. Quite a lot of them, in fact. Mulch studied the lenses’ sweep. Four were surveying the general floorspace, but another three were fixed.

  “Foaly? You there?” whispered the dwarf.

  “No.” The typical sarcastic reply. “I have much better things to do than worry about the collapse of civilization as we know it.”

  “Yes, thank you. Don’t let my life being in danger interrupt your merriment.”

  “I’ll try not to.”

  “I have a challenge for you.”

  Foaly was instantly interested. “Really? Go on.”

  Mulch pointed his gaze at the recessed cameras, half hidden in the swirling architrave. “I need to know where those three cameras are pointing. Exactly.”

  Foaly laughed.“That’s not a challenge. Those old video systems emit faint ion beams. Invisible to the naked eye, of course, but not with your iris-cam . . .”

  The hardware in Mulch’s eye flickered and sparked.


  “Sorry. Small charge.”

  “You could have warned me.”

  “I’ll give you a big kiss later, you baby. I thought dwarfs were tough.”

  “We are tough. I’ll show you just how tough when I get back.”

  Root’s voice interrupted the posturing. “You won’t be showing anyone anything, convict, except perhaps where the toilet is in your cell. Now, what do you see?”

  Mulch looked at the room again through his ion-sensitive eye. Each camera was emitting a faint beam, like the last evening sun rays. The rays pooled on a portrait of Artemis Fowl, Senior.

  “Not behind the picture. Oh, please.”

  Mulch placed his ear against the picture glass. Nothing electrical. Not alarmed, then. Just to be sure, he sniffed the frame’s edge. No plastic or copper. Wood, steel, and glass. Some lead in the paint. He curled a nail behind the frame and pulled. The picture came away smoothly, hinged on the side. And behind it—a safe.

  “It’s a safe,” said Foaly.

  “I know that, you idiot. I’m trying to concentrate here! If you want to help, tell me the combination.”

  “No problem. Oh, by the way, there’s another little shock coming. Maybe the big baby would like to suck his thumb for comfort.”

  “Foaly. I’m going to . . . Owww!”

  “There. That’s the X ray on.”

  Mulch squinted at the safe. It was incredible. He could see right into the works. Tumblers and catches stood out in shadowy relief. He blew on his hairy fingers and twisted the combination dial. In seconds the safe lay open before him.

  “Oh,” he said, disappointed.

  “What is it?”

  “Nothing. Just human currency. Nothing of value.”

  “Leave it,” ordered Root. “Try another room. Get going.”

  Mulch nodded. Another room. Before his time ran out. But something was niggling at him. If this guy was so clever, why did he put the safe behind a painting? Such a cliché. Totally against form. No. Something wasn’t right here. They were being duped somehow.

  Mulch closed the safe, swinging the portrait back into position. It swung smoothly, weightless on the hinges. Weightless. He swung the picture out again. And back in.

  “Convict. What are you doing?”

  “Shut up, Julius! I mean, quiet a moment, Commander.”

  Mulch squinted at the frame’s profile. A bit thicker than normal. Quite a bit thicker. Even taking the box frame into account. Two inches. He ran a nail down the heavy cartridge backing and stripped it away to reveal . . .

  “Another safe.”

  A smaller one. Custom-made, obviously.

  “Foaly. I can’t see through this.”

  “Lead-lined. You’re on your own, burglar boy. Do what you do best.”

  “Typical,” muttered Mulch, flattening his ear to the cold steel.

  He twirled the dial experimentally. Nice action. The clicks were muted by the lead; he would have to concentrate. The upside was that something this thin could have only three tumblers at the most.

  Mulch held his breath and twisted the dial, one cog at a time. To the normal ear, even with amplification, the clicks would have seemed uniform. But to Mulch, each cog had a distinctive signature and when a ratchet caught, it was so loud as to be deafening.

  “One,” he breathed.

  “Hurry it up, convict. Your time is running out.”

  “You interrupted to tell me that? I can see now how you made commander, Julius.”

  “Convict, I’m going to . . .”

  But it was no use. Mulch had removed his earpiece, slipping it into his pocket. Now he could devote his full attention to the task at hand.


  There was noise outside. In the hall. Someone was coming. About the size of an elephant by the sound of it. No doubt this was the man mountain that had made mincemeat of the Retrieval Squad.

  Mulch blinked a bead of sweat from his eye.

  Concentrate. Concentrate. The cogs clicked by. Millimeter by millimeter. Nothing was catching. The floor seemed to be hopping gently, though he could be imagining it.

  Click, click. Come on. Come on. His fingers were slick with perspiration, the dial slipping between them. Mulch wiped them on his jerkin.

  “Now, baby, come on. Talk to me.”

  Click. Thunk.


  Mulch twisted the handle. Nothing. Still an obstruction. He ran a fingertip over the metal face. There. A small irregularity. A micro keyhole. Too small for your average lock pick. Time for a little trick he’d learned in prison. Quickly though, his stomach was bubbling like stew in the oven, and the footsteps were getting closer.

  Selecting a sturdy chin hair, Mulch fed it gently into the tiny hole. When the tip reappeared, he pulled the root from his chin. The hair immediately stiffened, retaining the shape of the lock’s interior.

  Mulch held his breath and twisted. Smooth as a goblin’s lie, the lock opened. Beautiful. At moments like these, it was almost worth all the jail time.

  The kleptomaniac dwarf swung back the little door. Beautiful work. Almost worthy of a fairy forge. Light as a wafer. Inside was a small chamber. And in the chamber was ...

  “Oh, gods above,” breathed Mulch.

  Then things came to a head rather rapidly. The shock that Mulch had experienced communicated itself to his bowels, and they decided the excess ai
r had to go. Mulch knew the symptoms. Jelly legs, bubbling cramps, wobbly behind. In the seconds remaining to him, he snatched the object from the safe and, leaning over, he clasped his knees for support.

  The constrained wind had built itself up to mini-cyclone intensity and could not be constrained. And so it exited. Rather abrasively. Blowing open Mulch’s back flap, and slamming into the rather large gentleman who had been sneaking up behind him.

  Artemis was glued to the monitors. This was the time when things traditionally went wrong for kidnappers— the third quarter of operations. Having been successful thus far, the abductors tended to relax, light up a few cigarettes, get chatty with their hostages. Next thing they knew, they were flat on their faces with a dozen guns pointed at the backs of their heads. Not Artemis Fowl. He didn’t make mistakes.

  No doubt the fairies were reviewing the tapes of their first negotiating session, searching for anything that would give them a way in. Well, it was there all right. All they had to do was look. Buried just deep enough to make it look accidental.

  It was possible that Commander Root would try another ruse. He was a wily one, no doubt about it. One who would not take kindly to being bested by a child. He would bear watching.

  The mere thought of Root gave Artemis the shivers. He decided to check in again. He inspected the monitors. Juliet was still in the kitchen, scrubbing at the sink. Washing the vegetables.

  Captain Short was on her bunk. Quiet as the grave. No more bed banging. Perhaps he had been wrong about her. Perhaps there was no plan.

  Butler stood at his post outside Holly’s cell. Odd. He should have been on his rounds by now. Artemis grabbed a walkie-talkie.


  “Roger, base. Receiving.”

  “Shouldn’t you be on your rounds?”

  There was a pause. “I am, Artemis. Patrolling the main landing. Coming up on the safe room. I’m waving at you right now.”

  Artemis glanced at the landing cameras. Deserted. From every angle. Definitely no waving manservant. He studied the monitors, counting under his breath . . . There! Every ten seconds, a slight jump. On every screen.

  “A loop!” he cried, jumping from his chair. “They’re feeding us a loop!”

  Over the speaker, he could hear Butler’s pace quickening to a run.

  “The safe room!”

  Artemis’s stomach dropped into queasy hell. Duped! He, Artemis Fowl, had been duped, even though he’d known it was coming. Inconceivable. It was arrogance that had done it. His own blinding arrogance, and now the entire plan could collapse around his ears.

  He switched the walkie-talkie to Juliet’s band. It was a pity now that he’d taken the house’s intercom off-line, but it didn’t operate on a secure frequency.



  “Where are you right now?”

  “In the kitchen. Wrecking my nails on this grater.”

  “Leave it, Juliet. Check on the prisoner.”

  “But, Artemis, the carrot sticks will dry out!”

  “Leave it, Juliet!” shouted Artemis. “Drop everything and check on the prisoner!”

  Juliet obediently dropped everything, including the walkie-talkie. She’d sulk for days now. Never mind. There was no time to worry about a teenage girl’s bruised ego. He had more important matters to tend to.

  Artemis depressed the master switch on the computerized surveillance system. His only chance of purging the loop was a complete reboot. After several agonizing moments of screen snow, the monitors jumped and settled. Things were not as they had seemed only seconds before.

  There was a grotesque thing in the safe room. It had apparently discovered the secret compartment. Not only that but it had managed to open the whisper lock. Amazing. Butler had it covered though. He was sneaking up behind the creature, and any moment now the intruder would find itself nose down in the carpet.

  Artemis switched his attention to Holly. The elf was back to bed banging. Slamming the frame down over and over again, as though she could . . .

  It hit Artemis then, like a blast from a water cannon. If Holly had somehow smuggled an acorn in here, then one square centimeter of ground would be enough. If Juliet left that door open . . .

  “Juliet!” he shouted into the walkie-talkie. “Juliet! Don’t go in there!”

  But it was useless. The girl’s walkie-talkie lay buzzing on the kitchen floor, and Artemis could only watch helplessly as Butler’s sister strode toward the cell door, muttering about carrots.

  “The safe room!” exclaimed Butler, quickening his pace. His instinct was to go in all guns blazing, but training took over. Fairy hardware was most definitely superior to his own, and who knew how many barrels were aimed at the other side of that door right now. No, caution was most definitely the best part of valor in this particular situation.

  He placed a palm against the wood, feeling for vibration. Nothing. No machinery then. Butler curled his fingers around the knob, twisting gently. With his other hand, he drew a Sig Sauer automatic from his shoulder holster. No time to fetch the dart rifle, he would have to shoot to kill.

  The door swung open noiselessly, as Butler knew it would, having oiled every hinge in the house himself. Before him was . . . Well, to be honest, Butler wasn’t quite sure what it was. If he didn’t know better, that is at first glance, he could have sworn that the thing resembled nothing more than an enormous quivering. . . .

  Suddenly the thing exploded, jettisoning an amazing amount of tunnel waste directly at the unfortunate manservant. It was like being battered with a hundred sledgehammers simultaneously. Butler was lifted bodily and flung against the wall.

  And as he lay there, consciousness slipping away from him, he prayed that Master Artemis hadn’t managed to capture the moment on video.

  Holly was weakening. The bed frame was nearly twice her body weight and the ridges were tearing cruel welts in her palms. But she couldn’t stop now. Not when she was so close.

  She slammed the post into the concrete again. A cloud of gray dust spiraled around her legs. Any second now, Fowl would tumble to her plan and she’d get the hypodermic treatment again. But until then . . .

  She gritted her teeth against the pain, heaving the bed frame to knee height. Then she saw it. A sliver of brown among the gray. Could it be true?

  Pain forgotten, Captain Short dropped the bed, sinking quickly to her knees. There was indeed a small patch of earth poking through the cement. Holly fumbled the acorn from her boot, clasping it tightly in bloody fingers.

  “I return you to the earth,” she whispered, worming her fist into the tiny space. “And claim the gift that is my right.”

  Nothing happened for a heartbeat. Perhaps two. Then Holly felt the magic rush up her arm like a jolt from an electrified troll fence. The shock sent her spinning across the room. For a moment the world swirled in a disconcerting kaleidoscope of color, but when it settled, Holly was no longer the defeated elf she had been.

  “Right, Master Fowl.” She grinned, watching the blue sparks of fairy magic seal her wounds. “Let’s see what I have to do to get your permission to leave this place.”

  “Drop everything,” sulked Juliet. “Drop everything and check the prisoner.” She flicked blond tresses expertly over a shoulder. “He must think I’m his maid or something.”

  She hammered on the cell door with the flat of her hand.

  “I’m coming in now, fairy girl, so if you’re doing anything embarrassing, please stop.”

  Juliet punched the combination into the keypad. “And no, I don’t have your vegetables, or your washed fruit. But it’s not my fault, Artemis in-sis-ted I come right down. . . .”

  Juliet stopped talking, because there was nobody listening. She was preaching to an empty room. She waited for her brain to pass on an explanation. Nothing came. Eventually the notion to take another look filtered down.

  She took a tentative step into the concrete cube. Nothing. Only a slight shimmering in th
e shadows. Like a mist. It was probably these stupid glasses. How were you supposed to see anything wearing mirrored sunglasses underground? And they were so nineties, they weren’t even retro yet.

  Juliet glanced guiltily at the monitor. Just a quick peek, what harm could it do? She whipped up the frames, sending her eyeballs spinning around the room.

  In that instant a figure materialized before her. Just stepped out of the air. It was Holly. She was smiling.

  “Oh, it’s you. How did you—”

  The fairy interrupted with a wave of her hand.

  “Why don’t you take off those glasses, Juliet? They really don’t suit you.”

  She’s right, thought Juliet. And what a lovely voice. Like a choir all on its own. How could you argue with a voice like that?

  “Sure. Caveman glasses off. Cool voice, by the way. Do re mi and all that.”

  Holly decided not to try deciphering Juliet’s comments. It was hard enough when the girl was in full control of her brain.

  “Now. A simple question.”

  “No problem.” What a great idea.

  “How many people in the house?”

  Juliet thought. One and one and one.

  And another one? No, Mrs. Fowl wasn’t there.

  “Three,” she said finally. “Me and Butler and, of course, Artemis. Mrs. Fowl was here, but she went bye-bye, then she went bye-bye.”

  Juliet giggled. She’d made a joke. A good one too.

  Holly drew a breath to ask for clarification, then thought better of it. A mistake, as it turned out.

  “Has anyone else been here? Anyone like me?”

  Juliet chewed her lip. “There was one little man. In a uniform like yours. Not cute, though. Not one bit. Just shouted and smoked a smelly cigar. Terrible complexion. Red as a tomato.”

  Holly almost smiled. Root had come himself. No doubt the negotiations had been disastrous.

  “No one else?”

  “Not that I know of. If you see that man again, tell him to lay off the red meat. He’s just a coronary waiting to happen.”

  Holly swallowed a grin. Juliet was the only human she knew who was probably more lucid under the mesmer.

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