The spread was excellent and the accommodation not too shabby either. Which ever of Mundy’s, or I should now say my spooks suggested our new guest house to Tom and Nellie evidently had an eye for comfortable, yet affordable lodgings. The proprietor, an ex-military man, would have been forgiven for turning us out on our ears when he found out what happened to our previous accommodation. I mean, who would want an assassin’s target supping tea in their hotel? On the contrary he couldn’t get enough of us. I guess it helped that the local press had made out that I was both the target and the hero of the hour.
“Come in, dear boy!” he bellowed from an upstairs window, when I had but placed a foot on the bottom step of the short flight that led up to the front door. There was a thunderous noise from within, like a cattleshed stampede, then the front door was flung open and the proprietor, clad in a regimental blazer of vivid scarlet, out of breath and red about the gills, grinned at us from behind the finest handlebar moustache this side of the Channel. “Come in, come in,” he boomed, with a voice deep and throaty from a life spent in the officers’ mess. “Welcome to the Bay View Hotel. You showed those damned peace-monkeys what-for, eh? It’s an honour to have you here, sir,” he continued, ushering us in and herding us into the breakfast room. “I was told you would be looking for rooms, sir, so when your man there came knocking I couldn’t book you in fast enough. Men of action, that’s what this country needs. I take my hat off to you.” He reached for his hat, seemed confused when found he wasn’t wearing one, looked briefly embarrassed, and then cried, “Sit! Sit! Please tuck in. I am just warming the pot. Your man wanted to the dirty work but I soon had him in his place, sir. I was making tea in the Western Ghat hills before he was but a lewd thought in his father’s loins; that’s what I told him.”
Tom looked a mite upset by this exchange and I patted his arm and gestured for him to sit down before he said anything untoward. We quickly arranged ourselves around the table laden with jams, quinces, teacakes, toast and, thank Darwin, marmalade. The proprietor was apparently aware of the tactlessness on his remarks for he quickly chimed in with, “And I understand your man had a hand in this morning’s heroics?”
“Tom,” I stressed, making it clear that my man has a name, “was the hero. I barely did anything. If it wasn’t for him we would not be about to enjoy your fine hospitality. We would have been taking tea and toast in the afterlife.”
“I knew your man was a splendid fellow the moment I set eyes on him. He has the bearing, if you know what I mean.”
I assured him I did. Nellie looked about to explode with pride.
“What regiment?” I asked, pointing at the blazer with a butter knife, a mortal sin in normal circumstances but hunger had overwhelmed reason by this point.
“Forty second mechanised battalion, Commonwealth Artillery sir,” he said, a man clearly in his element. “Finest and most decorated Elephant unit there has ever been. Saw plenty of action during the Oolong crisis.”
“Elephants? You sent elephants into battle?” said Nellie, clearly shocked. The proprietor laughed until tears began to seep into his moustache. We sat, patiently.
“No, no, dear lady, no. Not real elephants. They were huge armoured machines. Four legs like pistons, much better for travelling over rough terrain than wheels, and a great 12 pounder gun sticking out the front like an elephant’s trunk. Hence the name. They were great days. The Elephants have been superceded the Mammoth. Now that is a killing machine. Major Willoughby Green at your service. Can I get you anything?”
“The tea?” I suggested. The major looked puzzled, then as the cogs inside his mind slowly clicked into place, his eyes lit up in realisation.
“Yes, yes, of course,” he cried, saluted and hurried from the room. Saluted? For pity’s sake!
There is no sustenance as underrated as toast; toast and marmalade to be precise. If one’s spirits are flagging then a round of hot-buttered toast laden with generous dollops of thick-cut marmalade is just the tonic. That and a well-made pot of tea, of course. It was as I was finishing my third round and Nellie was politely trying to point out the bits of marmalade clinging to my moustache, that Klatz entered the breakfast room resplendent in a Harris three piece. I stood, quickly wiping sticky preserves from my lip weasel with a napkin. Tom, taking my lead, stood as well which completely flummoxed Nellie. Unsure as to why we were standing she nevertheless assumed she must follow suit and attempted to get to her feet, only to find the chair legs resting on the copious material of her skirt, effectively pinning her to her chair. She kept bobbing up and down, trying to free her ensnared clothing. One final yank sent the chair flying backwards into the coal scuttle, sending lumps of fossilised carbon skittering across the floor, whilst simultaneously upsetting her balance and pitching herself against the table. Her hand slammed down on the handle of a butter knife resting on the edge of a plate, catapulting it through the air at tremendous velocity straight towards Klatz. Time slowed, everyone froze. A hand shot out and grabbed the knife in flight just before it struck him in the chest. The owner of the hand stepped forward and presented the knife, handle first, to Nellie.
“Yours, I believe,” the woman said in a thick Prussian accent. “So fortunate I have good reflexes, no? Butter can be so hard to remove from tweed.”
I stood, agog. This woman, though not attractive in the conventional sense, had that certain something that can hit a man in the chest and loins like nothing else. She was tall and, I imagined, of athletic build, though it was hard to tell due to the loose nature of the modern clothing styles. The billowing top was pinched by a silk sash around her waist which made everything that was designed to stick out north or south of it do just that. Her dress stopped so short I could almost see her ankles. Her hair was dark, and worn up as is the fashion of the time. Her eyes large, green and piercing, cheeks prominent, lips thin but inviting. She smiled a smile that would have grown men babbling incoherently which, I suspect, I was.
Klatz pulled out a chair from under their table and the woman seated herself. After a few moments I became aware that I was the only person in the room who remained standing. Tom and Nellie were exchanging knowing smirks, whilst Klatz and his companion seemed indifferent to my sudden and considerable embarrassment. Klatz glanced up from buttering a scone and noticed me. “Ah, my dear Trueblood,” he cried, putting down the knife and rising, extending a hand. “I am Freiherr Rickert von Klatz. How rude of me not to thank you for dealing with that assassin fellow. That could have gone very badly for all of us.”
“Yes, well, actually it was Tom’s good work, sir,” I mumbled.
“Of course, of course,” he agreed in his Prussian burr and waving at Tom and Nellie with the hand that wasn’t enthusiastically pumping mine with a vice-like grip. “And this is my personal assistant and secretary, Victoria Lorelei Rheingold.”
An alarm bell rang violently in back of my mind and Mundy’s voice kept saying watch out for Victoria, she’s bad news over and over again, but I managed to suppress them and willingly kissed the hand she proffered, which was no mean feat considering Klatz was still shaking mine like he was drawing water from the village pump. It took a couple of attempts due to the Klatz-induced shaking but I managed to plant what I thought was a gentlemanly kiss just above the knuckle. Victoria smiled at me and my knees seemed to stop working. I could hear sniggering from our table so thought it best to disengage
“You may have heard of her father, Doctor Rheingold of the Institute of Alchemic Sciences in Winchester?” said Klatz as he resumed his scone buttering. I professed that I had not, being more of an engineering bent. “Ah, he is a very clever man, something that he has clearly passed on to his daughter.” She smiled at me again and I had to take my seat before my legs gave out completely. The rest of our late breakfast passed in a daze. I’m not sure that I enjoyed it at all. There was plenty of cross-table chit-chat but, for the most part, it was completely lost on me. I nodded in what I thought were the right places and tried to make idle small-talk but was conscious that the more I opened my mouth the more of a buffoon I sounded, so stuck with nodding. Tom and Nellie were completely insufferable throughout; they kept nudging each other and winking. When I glared at them they merely feigned looks of hurt indignation. I was quite relieved when Klatz and Victoria rose to leave. We all stood and mumbled our adieus, Nellie managing not to upset furniture or lob cutlery across the room this time. After our Prussians neighbours had left, Tom and Nellie broke into fits of uncontrollable laughter. I got quite cross with them and demanded to know the reason for lack of decorum, which just made matters worse. Piqued, I rose, threw my napkin on the table with as much displeasure as I could muster and stalked from the breakfast room. I had no idea where I was doing or where I was going but I needed some air to clear my head. I snatched my hat and coat from the stand and was just about to open the front door when a now-familiar voice behind me spoke.
“Doctor Trueblood,” she said. “I also would like to thank you for saving us from that terrible man.”
I turned. Victoria was standing halfway up the stairs, leaning on the on the balustrade looking at me in a way that caused my knees to have another relapse. I grabbed hold of the hatstand to steady myself in a way that I hoped looked casually intentional and nonchalant, and not like someone whose legs had stopped working. From this angle I really could see her ankles. Pull yourself together Trueblood old boy, you’re a gentleman I told myself and conjured up images in my mind of the various fungi I had studied to distract myself from Victoria’s unabashed display of above the boot hosiery. For some reason the only images I could bring to mind were a pair of robust Calvatia gigantea and a very fine specimen of Phallus impudicus. By Darwin I needed some air!
“I understand that we may be working close together, jah? That is something I very much look forward to,” she said, and smiled that smile.
I blurted something along the lines that I agreed with her sentiments. I am not entirely sure of the precise text as it sounded as though it was entirely made up of consonants but I smiled my sweetest smile back, turned and opened the front door straight into my forehead.
“The boss warned you about Miss Rheingold, didn’t he, boss?” I was leaning on the rust-stained railing that ran around the end of the quay, being preached at by a fat man hiding behind a beard. I knew Manny Bloom meant well but it didn’t seem to be helping. For one thing I had one hell of a lump on my forehead where it and the door had disagreed.
My intention for a bit of quiet and some air to clear my head had been quashed almost as soon as I stepped outside. As I left the Bay View I sensed I was being followed. I looked about but could see no-one nearby apart from the odd hardy soul braving the chill wind blowing in off the channel. I clamped my bowler down hard on my head to stop it being blown away. It dug into the gathering bruise on my brow and I cursed. The wind was whipping up a bit of spray which gave the air a salty flavour and made the cobbles slippery underfoot. I aimed for the end of the quay. I had no idea why; I had no purpose to my walk but felt that a period of staring at the grey bleakness of the sea might settle my confused mind. Damn it! I was sure I was being watched. I spun round and snapped angrily “Will you just bugger off?”
Now this is hardly the behaviour of an agent of the CIS but I would plead mitigating circumstances you understand. That, of course, was no comfort to the elderly lady in widow’s weeds not five yards behind me, trailing a boss-eyed pug who was valiantly trying to empty its bowels despite a constant yanking of the lead.
“Well, really!” she barked (the woman, not the pug). “Come along Horatio,” she said, turning on her heels and dragging the still-defecating dog across the cobbles. Should I apologise? Well, yes, but it seemed rather pointless. I sighed and continued my little trek to the end of the quay. As I gripped the rail, licking the salt from my moustache and the wind stinging my eyes I became aware of a couple of fellows standing either side of me. I tried not to look surprised and failed.
“A word to the wise, sir,” said Eldritch, to my left. “Don’t go insulting old ladies. Doesn’t do much for the department’s reputation. Got standards to maintain, sir.”
“Bloody hell. How do you do that?” I asked.
“Do what, sir?” replied Bloom on my right.
“Just appear like that. Damn well gave me the willies. I thought someone was following me but I didn’t see you at all.”
“That’s because we’re good at what we do, sir,” said Eldritch. “Don’t want some amateurs working for you, do you now, sir?”
“Well, no, I suppose not, seeings how you put it like that.” A thought suddenly struck me. “You know, we’re not that far from the hotel. We can be seen.”
“Yes, sir,” agreed Manny and produced a fishing rod from inside his greatcoat. Eldritch did likewise. “Just a couple of chaps hoping to get a bite.”
“Bloody hell, you are good!”
Eldritch flicked his line out over the water. I noted that there was only a weight attached to the line; it had no hook. Clearly he wasn’t risking the mess of actually catching something. “Have you had chance to read the reports yet, sir?”
“Oh for Darwin’s sake, give me a chance. I’ve had some tea and toast and then got a little distracted. Anyway, I did ask that we meet somewhere warm and welcoming. Preferably with good liquor available.”
“You’re in Foreign Affairs now, sir,” hissed Eldritch. “Nowhere is warm and welcoming.”
That sent a shiver down old Trueblood’s spin I can tell you. August old chap; what are you getting into?
“The boss warned you about Miss Rheingold, didn’t he boss,” said Manny. “She’s not what she appears.”
“I should cocoa!” I snorted.
“Seriously, sir. She’s one of us,” Manny said, reeling in his line and casting off again.
“What? A chap?” I said, mind a-boggle. If she was a gentleman in disguise it was a bloody good one.
“No. I mean she’s one of them that’s one of us. Do you see?”
I confessed that I didn’t.
“She’s no more a secretary than I’m captain of the Albion Magna cricket team,” snarled Eldritch. “She’s in the service of the Nachrichten-Abteilung.”
“The what now?”
“Prussian naval intelligence, sir. You have a lot of catching up to do, if you don’t mind me saying so, sir.”
“No I don’t mind, Edward,” I conceded, “but I do wish you’d stop all this formal sir stuff. My name’s August. If you must insist on a title then call me Doctor.”
“As you wish, Doctor, sir.”
A long and tired groan escaped me. “Coming back to the matter in hand, I am struggling to see how someone like Victoria could be mixed up in all this spying nonsense. I mean, she’s a… she’s a…,” What was she? My brain seemed to be racing round and round inside my head. The hefty bruise on my brow throbbed painfully. “She’s a lady.” I said, finally.
Eldritch and Bloom looked at each other for a second and then doubled over, laughing. It seemed terribly unprofessional.
“You have a lot to learn, sir,” Eldritch said, through bouts of giggling. I had never known a man make the sound of laughter seem so sinister. “She’s the slickest operator you’ll ever meet. Why do you think the boss warned you about her? Why do you think she’s working with Klatz?”
I’d been in the employ of the CIS Foreign Affairs Department for less than a morning and I already felt I was out of my depth and sinking fast.
“If I were you, sir,” said Manny, stifling his smirks, “I would go back to the hotel, lock yourself away for a few hours claiming a headache,” here he prodded my lump, making me yelp, “and read the documents. All will become crystal clear.”
“I thought you were the nice guy,” I grumbled, holding a damp hanky to my bruise.
“No-one’s nice in this job, sir. Best be on your way; we’ve got to keep the boss up to speed on your progress,” said Eldritch.
“Progress? I don’t even know what I’m supposed to be doing?”
“Well read the bloody documents, Doctor, sir,” grinned Manny, and they both turned their backs on me and stared at the end of their rods.