14th December 50AD (After Darwin)
An interruption whilst on holiday is never welcome; when the bomb was thrown through the window on Wednesday morning and knocked over the toast rack during breakfast I was most displeased. I was sipping my tea at the time so the assailant caught me at a bad moment. Tom reacted swiftly, grabbing the bomb and hurling it back through the window into the street. It was a pity that he missed the pane broken by the assassin and smashed a fresh one, but that was largely immaterial a second or so later when the thing exploded and blew in the window completely. We had the presence of mind to duck beneath the table and thus avoided the blast, however we did not escape injury; I spilled my tea and Nellie dropped a buttered crumpet down her blouse. There was the silence that fills the void after a calamity followed by the gentle sound of small pieces of glass falling. We emerged from our shelter and took in the damage. It did not look good; a portrait of the old Queen Victoria was slashed about the jugular by a large splinter and the grandfather clock lay in pieces. There was worse; the teapot had been shattered and there was plaster in the marmalade. I hate having my breakfast ruined.
I prefer to start the morning with Earl Grey and this morning had been no exception. I find that it coddles and soothes the tastebuds as one slides, often ungracefully, from the pleasant unconsciousness of sleep into the grim reality of waking. With patient teaching, Tom had learnt to make a very passable cup of Earl Grey; this morning had he had surpassed himself and got the infusion spot-on. When we had arrived at the guest house he had been quite firm with the proprietor about my requirements which had almost led to unpleasantness but Nellie had smoothed things over and persuaded Tom that, as he was on holiday, perhaps he should relinquish some of his duties. Tom had reluctantly agreed on the proviso that he made the tea. He considered the making of the tea his sacrosanct obligation and I, for one, would not be churlish enough to deny him. Considering that only a couple of months ago he had been a charabanc driver, hauling steam coaches around the southern counties, he had come a long way in a short space of time. Admittedly he was never going to be one’s ideal gentleman’s gentleman but after he had saved my skin, or more precisely my brain, from an insane New Forest innkeeper only a couple months back, I thought that he had potential in the Commonwealth’s employ.*
We had sojourned in Weymouth in an attractive little guest house by the harbour side. The establishment was called The Harbourside Guest House which showed a certain lack of imagination by the proprietor but it suited us to a tee. The Dorset coast in December is a quiet place and it gave Tom and myself the chance to get to know each other properly before our work began in earnest. It also gave Mrs Tom Batchelor and myself chance to get to know each other; wherever Tom went, Nellie did also. She was what one might politely call a ‘character’ and reminded me a little of Nelson’s Victory; her numerous aprons, blouses and skirts billowed like a ship of the line under sail, and she was likely to give you a nasty broadside if one fell foul of her. Having said that Tom utterly adored ‘his little Nellie’, a description I felt owed a lot to artistic licence, and for her part Nellie was terribly protective of her ‘young Thomas’. That protectiveness extended to a considerable distrust of me and ‘young’ Thomas’s new line of work. It had taken all of Tom’s charm and persuasiveness to convince Nellie that I was not a member of the criminal underworld, dragging her husband away from an honest, if dangerous and poorly paid, living. As a result she insisted on tagging along to make sure I was strictly above board. When one is a high-ranking officer in the Internal Affairs Department of the Combined Intelligence Service this does rather cramp one’s style.
We were still standing, surveying the carnage, when the door of the breakfast room swung open and then fell off its hinges. The proprietor peered at us, open-mouthed. “I’m sorry to say that we were quite unable to finish our breakfast. I trust that it will be removed from the bill,” I said, flicking bits of masonry from my shoulder, “I think we shall go for a stroll; we could do with some fresh air, too dusty in here for my liking.” I squeezed past the proprietor into the hall way and fetched my hat and coat off the stand. A gentleman, presumably another guest was descending the stairs and he too wore an expression of shock and amazement that no quantity of facial hair could conceal. To his credit he did sport a beard one could hide a badger in and I can only guess that this had been grown to compensate for the lack of hair on top, for he was a bald as cue ball. A pince-nez perched atop the bridge of his nose. He removed it, swiftly polished the lenses with a cloth from his pocket and placed it back on his nose, as though the cleaning of his glasses would somehow make sense of the scene before him. “Breakfast is off,” I said to the gentleman, nodding towards the still-settling remnants of the dining room and opening the front door. Nellie gave the old boy a little curtsey, which I found very touching, and we stepped outside.
A fair-sized crowd had formed in front of the guest house and were gawping as only hoi polloi know how. Several buildings either side of our holiday residence had suffered broken panes as a consequence of the blast and the masts of the fishing smacks that had poked above the harbour wall on the low tide were now largely matchwood. A few people were looking at the mangled velocipede that lay upon the cobbles, the majority were arrayed along the dockside looking at something in the harbour. I muscled my way through to the front and saw the object of their attention; it was a body, face-down, rising and falling slowly with the motion of the water. Even viewed from behind it was evidently male and his clothes were utterly shredded. Poor fellow must have been caught in the blast.
“Do we know who he is?” I asked the man next to me who, by co-incidence, was a police constable.
“The anarchist, sir,” he replied.
“The bomber, sir. Got blown up by his own weapon and serves ‘im right I say, sir.”
It would seem that Tom’s quick reaction had caught the chap by surprise. I surmised that he had thrown his bomb threw the window and was in the process of pedalling away when he was hoist with his own petard. In this case, literally. I had a quick look about but could see no other obvious casualties. “Anyone else hurt?” I enquired.
“T’is a miracle, sir, that the villain was the only victim,” said the constable. “Ah, our lads will fish the bugger out,” he continued, pointing. A skiff was being rowed out from the other side of the dock. A couple of constables stood at the prow, one wielding a long boat hook. I had no desire to remain watching the spectacle any longer than necessary. Indeed, a little peace and quiet would go a long way in letting my mind settle after the excitement so I asked the constable to keep me updated on developments. He was about tell me to read the newspaper like anyone else when I flashed my badge. He turned crimson, then quite pale, and his jaw flapped a few times but no sound came out. I pointed to our guest house; there was just a hole where the window should be. Our landlord stood in that hole, an expression of complete bewilderment on his face. The constable’s jaw continued its silent exercise. “Those are, or rather, were, our lodgings for the week. You can find out from the proprietor where he will have sent our bags on to. The name’s Trueblood; Doctor Trueblood. Your assistance will be appreciated my good man.” I tipped my bowler to him and slipped away, leaving the constable agape.
I went to join Tom, who was being berated by Nellie and the two of them were attracting a crowd of their own. As Mrs Batchelor was already deeply suspicious of me, my work and my employment of her husband, this morning’s incident had done little to raise me in her esteem. As I approached I heard Nellie’s shrill voice exclaiming something along the lines of “ – what was wrong with the buses? That bloody fool will get us both killed.” She seemed both furious and concerned at the same time; flushed red with anger, shouting in poor Tom’s face whilst brushing bits of debris from his clothes and picking splinters out of his beard. Having little experience in diffusing domestic situations I decided to tackle the matter in my usual manner. “Everything alright? How about we go and get a nice cup of tea?” I asked innocently and strode off down the harbour side. I think Tom may have been about to protest but Nellie put her arm through his and half-dragged him along until they had caught me up and trotted alongside. Nellie positioned herself in between Tom and myself and seemed to travel as though under her own dark cloud that suggested severe gale nine, violent storm eleven later. We continued in this way for quite some time and covered a lot of ground but, I’m sad to say, tea was nowhere to be found. This being barely nine of the clock on a Wednesday morning in December, the few teashops there were appeared shut for the season. The public houses however appeared never to shut at all and we retired to the Jolly Boatman for hot gin.
After around half an hour, things were beginning to settle down. Nellie was now merely incensed rather than furious and Tom largely free of guest house debris. Splinters, glass shards and Rococco plasterwork lay in a small pile on the table and every now and then Nellie would pick another piece out of Tom’s worsted jacket. Despite my outward demeanour I was rattled, and that is something I do not like to be. Whilst I acknowledge that I am involved in potentially dangerous work this is the first time that someone has tried to assassinate me and, what is worse, I don’t even know why. I had been mulling the events of the morning so far and smoking my second pipe since we had arrived in the pub, coming to the conclusion that, as some chap once said, the second is never as good as the first, when the saloon door opened and an exceptionally tall man stooped to enter. I knew him at once: Gregory Mundy, Section Head, Combined Intelligence Services – Foreign Affairs; a mind swifter than one of Babbage’s counting engines, a tongue as sharp as a scalpel blade, and a spy network covering the globe. People live and die across the world on a daily basis in his service and yet here he is; in Weymouth, just after a bomb attack, in the same pub as old Trueblood. It would not be a co-incidence.
We had crossed paths a few times over the years, usually when one of my internal investigations blundered onto his territory. On these occasions I had been duly summoned and told, in no uncertain terms, exactly where my investigation would be proceeding from there on. Needless to say we did not see eye-to-eye. Not many people did with Mundy and not just because of his height.
Mundy did not look around but glanced at the barman who nodded in our direction. Part of his network no doubt. By Darwin, he’s good! Still stooping, he sauntered over to our table, pulled up a chair without invitation and sat down. Tom and Nellie looked from Mundy to me and back again, unsure as to exactly who the interloper was, and waited for an introduction. I sat, reading Mundy’s face, saying nothing. He was, of course, inscrutable.
This is how we remained for several minutes, in silence, simply watching each other. I almost enjoyed it as it actually stopped Nellie and Tom bickering. Eventually Mundy took out a cigar case, flipped it open, drew out a Rothschild and made a show of patting about his pockets for his matches. It was all a game but I played along and placed my box of Bryant & May on the table in front of him. Mundy lazily lit his parejo and slid the matches back towards me. He took a few leisurely puffs and then said, “Trueblood; you and I need to have a little chat.”
* Read the The Collector and all will become clear.