Miles screamed as he held the bubbling flesh of his arms to the metal window pane, still red from the licking flames. Crystal clarity returned to his mind, banishing for just a moment the pain, and the terror of collapsing back inside the wreckage of the flying machine. He gathered his strength for one last push to save himself from the metal cage crumbling and burning around him.
Outside, standing calm and quiet amidst tearing gusts of alpine snow and wind, the thing in the shape of a man waited. It gave every impression of watching Miles and his life and death struggle... despite the empty black holes where a man's eyes should be.
For just a moment, as its tongue peeked out in anticipation from between bloodless lips, Miles wondered if it would be better to let go, to fall back and die in the flames than to face... the demon.
Switzerland, The Pennine Alps, above the village of Zermatt
Miles wrapped both hands around the warm glass and sipped. He looked out the window at the Matterhorn taking up most of the sky in the cold, still dusk. Past the line of chalets dotting the craggy mountainside, its crooked peak glowed orange and ominous.
"Excusez-moi, Monsieur Bell. Voulez-vous un autre toddy?"
Miles looked up at his host, Monsieur Ducard. He shook his head. "No, Henri, the one toddy was perfect, thank you." It was indeed perfect, Miles thought: a bold mix of clove and whiskey - none of that Rum business that was becoming popular in the trendier parts of Europe. He wished he could sink back into the lovely chair and accept another, but that was not in the cards. He sipped again, as the keeper of the chalet moved across the sitting room to see to the needs of his other guests.
The chalet was beautiful. The modest building had been in the Ducard family for generations before the village of Zermatt had become popular, after Miles' own countryman Edward Whymper became the first to successfully ascend the Matterhorn in 1865. Since then, Henri's brothers and sisters had left the village for cities where the lights burned all night and winter's cold was kept at bey. Never having children of their own, Henri and his wife Mariette had opened their family home to visitors to the famed mountain above them.
All this Miles had divined over the dinner service that night. He was glad for the Ducard's and the lovely chalet they kept. Comfort wasn't always afforded him when he was dispatched by his Masters. More likely he would find himself in far less restful surroundings, and he was determined to enjoy whatever remained of his visit to the Swiss alps before the needs he had been dispatched to see to became pressing.
A shaft of light appeared on the well-worn rug and he darted his eyes to the kitchen door. He let ingrained reactions take him as the door swung wide to admit the plump Mariette, carrying a tray of sweet rolls for her guests. With a sigh, Miles let his fingers fall away from the derringer hidden inside his vest and return to the warmth of the toddy. Six years in his Majesty King George's secret service had taught Miles vigilance. 'Wakefulness and watchfulness make a good hunter', the old saw went. Miles had found the advice equally useful in surviving a few bracing moments where he'd found himself the hunted.
He declined Mariette's offered treats with some pretty french words, a piece of local slang which delighted her to hear on the lips of one hailing from England.
"Oh well spoken, Monsieur!" she laughed, before joining her husband with their other guests. Miles was used to this reaction, and he was happy to offer the trifle to the woman who had been so fastidious with turning down his sheets and pressing upon him clean towels when he'd barely creased the last set given him.
Miles turned back to the window, and caught his own reflection there: a thin, pale face beneath unruly brown hair cut short to keep it tamed, and styled somewhat dandily. The vest he wore had a paisley pattern, and was cut in keeping with the latest fashions from Paris and Milan, adding to the 'dandy' image. The frame inside the clothes was as thin as his face: no Hercules was he; nor did his job often require him to practice the physical arts. He was more often bending the brain in his skull, rather than his bicep, in the course of his duties-however some prudent application of force was within his grasp, when required.
Words were his stock and trade, and his command of languages -sixteen now, and a little pidgin Urdu. That was what made him so valuable to the King. He had spent much of the Great War at the bottom of a foxhole, and had buoyed his fellow soldiers' spirits with imitations of the German soldiers. In time his superiors had put his skills to use confusing the German's shouted orders when things went pear-shaped, and if Miles was pressed on the matter he would confess he believed himself responsible for saving a great many lives. He was pleased to make whatever small contribution he could to the Empire, and doubly pleased to find, after his time defending hills of dirt in the war was past, that his gift with languages was valued in the more complex and lesser known game of international brinkmanship known as espionage.
Patience, however, was not chief among the skills he practiced. Oh, he was capable of it - a month hiding in a fishing village on the Xanxi river in China, surviving on fish heads and rice had proven that -but it wasn't his preference to wait for events to take shape, if he could at all help them along. The haste with which he'd been dispatched from London on this mission made even the luxury the Ducards strived to provide for him damnably frustrating.
“Let the games begin!” he muttered under his breath.
Miles rose, straightened his lapels and handed his glass to Henri, who appeared at his side with the sixth sense of a good innkeeper. "My jacket, please, Henri. I feel like a stroll."