”Well, just don’t stand there catching flies, Trueblood, take it,” Mundy urged, waggling the wallet at me. I reached out slowly and took it. I flipped it open. Inside was a new warrant card with my particulars, an oath of allegiance to the Commonwealth, and instructions to anyone unfortunate enough to have it flashed at them to assist in the bearer in anyway as commanded by the Lord Protector himself. The calligraphy was exquisite and was complimented by Mundy’s florid signature on the bottom left-hand side, and my own on the right.
There was a distant whirring and clattering, getting progressively louder. From behind us, clattering over the town, an aerial gunboat passed overhead, momentarily casting Mundy and me in shadow. It flew low due to the cloud base and was heading out towards the bay. Heads peered over the side of the gondola. Indeed, it was so low that I could tell that there was not a clean-shaven man among them, though the various moustaches and beards were in fine trim. The sponsons sagged under the weight of the complicated twin push-me-pull-you propellor arrangements on either side and the huge envelope seemed to ripple as it moved through the cold, damp air. The dark outline of a snub-nosed gun projected out over the bow and stern of the gondola. Large bore, short barrelled, not at all accurate; the guns were for ground targets, not aerial combat. They were prevented from swinging upwards past horizontal for an obvious reason; it is a trifle embarrassing to shoot oneself down. Mind you, it did take a spectacular mishap to discover that this safeguard was necessary; at the Spithead Review four years ago the aerial gunboat CSS Behemoth fired a salute as it flew over the Grand Fleet below. Although only firing blanks, the blast was enough to rip a large hole in the balloon envelope, sending the Behemoth crashing down onto the deck of Admiral Duncan’s flagship, the CSS Lord Nelson, killing thirty eight men, destroying a brand new aerial gunboat, damaging the battleship, and embarrassing the navy in front of thousands of spectators on the shore and the world’s press. Captain Tyron of the Behemoth survived the plunge but threw himself over the side of battleship in shame, only to land in a lifeboat on the deck below, breaking his neck in the process. This gave rise to the darkly comedic expression to take a captain’s dive, meaning a noble but thwarted gesture.
The shadow crept away across the sand and out over the grey waters, keeping pace with the airship above. A long, black smoke trail straggled out behind it and I felt soot smuts land on my face as I watched it bank sharply to starboard and swing over to Nothe Fort where it slowed, dropped the mooring ropes and began to descend. All of this had taken the best part of ten minutes during which time I had remained standing, hands held as though in prayer where I had been holding my brand new warrant card. I say where I had been because I no longer was. I looked at my empty hands and then at Mundy. He offered me the wallet again.
“For Darwin’s sake, Trueblood. Do you want the bloody thing or not?”
I sheepishly took it.
“Do take care of it,” he said, pointedly. He rose from the bench and began to stroll back along the Esplanade towards the harbour. I quickly caught up.
“I’m awfully confused, sir” I confessed. “You want me to work for you?”
“That’s it in a nutshell, yes.”
“But I didn’t think you liked me. You’ve always done your best to hamper my investigations.”
“Whether I like you or not is immaterial, Trueblood. What matters is whether you’re any good at your job. I meddled in your investigations when they clashed with those of my staff, and mainly because I did not want you showing them up. If there is one thing I will not tolerate, it is Morrison gloating. I’m not having any of his lot getting the credit for my hard work. I run a very special organisation, Trueblood, and you won’t find another department as sharp or as efficient as Foreign Affairs. I allow my agents free rein as long as they get results. Oh, and offer unswerving loyalty. The pay is nothing to excited about but at least you get to travel and have some fun. Have you travelled far, Trueblood?”
“I went to the Isle of Wight once as a child. My parents took me for a holiday.”
There was a sharp intake of breath from Mundy. “Time your horizons were broadened. Shame really that your first job is here, in this excuse for a resort.”
I was quite upset by that last remark. I had been quite fond of Weymouth right up until the moment a bomb landed on my breakfast table. It may not be very glamorous but it has a quaint charm that appeals to me.
“Oh, don’t look so hurt,” Mundy laughed. “A few months working for me and you’ll see what I mean. When you’ve been travelled continents in my service, Albion Magna shall seem very small; more reason why we must protect her from those who wish her harm. Which brings me neatly to the task in hand -,” we were passing the Jubilee Clock and the bench where we had previously conversed. A man was sitting where I had been. He got up and approached. His hand dipped inside his jacket and I tensed, sensing trouble. Mundy just held out a hand. The man drew out a leather portfolio which Mundy took and thanked him for. The man nodded, turned and hurried away. Mundy passed me the portfolio. “All the information you’ll need is in there. Straightforward job; keep Klatz alive so he can continue his espionage.”
I stopped, leaving Mundy still walking. He came to a halt and turned round, looking irritated. “Yes? What is it?” he snapped.
“Let me get this straight; my task is to keep an enemy alive so he can spy on us?”
“We’re not at war, Trueblood, we don’t have any enemies. Not at the moment. What we have, in this case, is an interested party, a visitor, a foreign guest if you like. And it is important that this particular foreign guest is not blown to smithereens as his government may take a very dim view of our hospitality, and if he is in little bits we can’t feed him information that may bugger up things that could be used against us. Did you not get everything I told you earlier?”
“Yes. Yes I did. Except at that point I didn’t realise it was going to be me playing nursemaid to a Prussian spy. Sort of sticks in the throat.”
Mundy laughed. “Oh don’t be so melodramatic, Trueblood. Remember what I said about chess? That’s all it is, only a lot more fun because it’s played on my terms. And, for your own peace of mind, I do like you. I liked the fact I had to keep your nose out of my business; it shows you’re a damned fine agent. I’ve been trying to persuade Morrison to let you go for ages so I could get you on my team. Grouchy old bastard wouldn’t play ball. He may not have been terribly fond of you but he recognised your abilities. Anyway, you’ve got work to do so jump to it.” With that he turned on his heels and walked away. After a few paces he stopped, as though he had remembered something. “Oh yes, and watch out for Menthe. She’s bad news. Good luck.”
An electric cab, making far more noise than its name would suggest, pulled up and Mundy, with a struggle due to his height, got in. It drove off and he did not look back in my direction. I remained there on the breezy seafront for a few minutes, clutching the portfolio to my chest, trying to take in everything that had happened so far that morning, and all I that ran through my mind was Who, in Darwin’s name, is Menthe?
You would think that I would be pleased by the day’s events so far. I mean, not everyone starts their day escaping death, then gets fired from one’s job only to be hired again in the next instance by a better boss for a more exciting role; but I’m an ungrateful sod and I wasn’t. In fact I was downright miserable. I’m not sure why but perhaps I felt I was not in control, just a piece in Mundy’s chess game. Not a major piece either; a pawn, and probably a sacrificial one at that. As I ambled slowly back towards the harbour, not really knowing where I was going, I was half-tempted to fling the blasted portfolio away and tell Mundy where he could stick his Prussian. I suspect it was only Tom’s beaming face coming towards me, followed by Nellie’s scowling one, that distracted me from my sullen train of thought.
“By Darwin’s ghost, am I pleased to find you, sir? We’ve been looking all over the town for you,” cried Tom. “I’ve booked us some new accommodation -,” here Nellie gave him a rough smack on the arm, “ – we’ve booked us all some new accommodation along the front here, sir. Overlooking the bay. Very comfortable. I’m sure you’ll like it.”
“Oh good,” I replied moodily. An audible rumbling came from beneath my greatcoat that made me blush. “Not serving breakfast I suppose.”
“The owner is making something especially for us, sir. He’s heard all about this morning’s exploits and wouldn’t want a man to go hungry just because of some hoodlum with explosives. He’s also found room for the other chap, you know, the beardy bloke, along with his assistant,” said Tom.
“I have no idea what the assistant’s name is, sir.”
“No, Tom, you fool, the chap with the beard. He’s Klatz. He’s staying where we are?”
“Oh yes. He seemed very happy with the arrangement, especially when your men helped him move.”
“My men? What men? I don’t have any men. For the love of Alfred Russel Wallace, what on earth are you on about? Nellie, what’s he talking about?” I blabbered.
“Don’t you go dragging me into this,” she snapped back. “I came ‘ere for an ‘oliday, not to be mixed up in your shenanigans. But what I will tell you is if my Tom tells you something, it’s what Tom tells you.”
“It’s quite true, sir,” said Tom. “We were scouting around for a new place to stay and these chaps approached us, told us about your change of position and that you were now their boss. They pointed out a lovely guest house that had rooms available and even helped us move. It was them that suggested we book a room for Katz…”
“…yes, him. And his secretary, or assistant, or whatever she is. Very helpful, your new chaps. You could have told me, sir. I was quite brusque with them to start with, didn’t believe a word they said. Very embarrassing, but they were very good about it. I do hope this isn’t got to affect my position, sir. I know I’ve only been in your service a short while but I’d like to think I’ve been up to the mark,” Tom’s usual cheery demeanour had slipped and he looked distressed. I swore I could see a watering of the eye, which is something to behold in someone who looks as though they were hewn rather than born.
“Tom,” (I put on my most reassuring voice, like a that of bank manager advising you that he will give you that loan for an electric velocipede after all), “Tom, you’ve saved my life on two occasions now. If there’s one man I want around when things get sticky it is your good self. No, what I am still trying to get my head around is the fact that someone has told you about my change of circumstances, more than likely before I’d even been told about them myself. And that I have men. What men? Mundy didn’t say about any men.
“Probably because he thought you’d realise that we came with the job, sir,” said a voice behind me, causing me to squeal and drop the portfolio in alarm. It burst open on the ground, scattering sheaves of paper. Tom scampered after them as they breeze whipped them about, whilst Nellie shouted encouragement and refrained from offering assistance.
There were two men, dressed blandly so as to be unremarkable. They looked like a couple of working class blokes. One set about helping Tom gather up the last wayward sheets, the other addressed me, his brow shielded by the cap he wore yet from within that shadow peered the most intense dark eyes I have ever seen. “I am Edward Eldritch and my colleague over there is Manny Bloom. There are two more of us but they are currently at work.”
“What work is that?” I asked.
“Your work,” Eldritch replied and I detected a slightly bitter timbre in his voice.
“Oh, jolly good. I don’t suppose you could tell me what that is?” I said.
“It’s all in the document case,” came the frosty answer.
“It’s all out of the document case,” I laughed, pointing at the ongoing paperchase, attempting to inject some humour into the conversation and failing. Manny and Tom gathered up all the loose sheaves and herded them back into the leather portfolio. Tom, being his usual protective self insisted on keeping hold of it and handing it back to me personally. Manny just smiled in a benign sort of way from behind a beard that looked like it had been left to go to seed.
“It’s all in there,” Eldritch said, nodding at the case I once again clutched to my chest. “Perhaps we should go somewhere quiet to discuss the contents?”
“Splendid idea,” I said jovially. “Tom tells me that the proprietor at our new lodgings is getting a spread together so perhaps we could discuss this over tea?”
“I wouldn’t recommend it, sir,” hissed Eldritch.
“Why ever not? I am absolutely famished and I imagine Tom and Nellie could do with a bite to eat. Both of you look a meal away from death so come on chaps, this is on me,” I countered, flummoxed at Eldritch’s reluctance.
“The contents of your document case largely refer to a gentleman who is also now residing at the same establishment, sir. It would not do for him to overhear what we might discuss.” Eldritch stared at me, unblinking, awaiting my response.
I thought for a moment. “Ah, yes, quite. Obvious really. Well, in that case, we shall retire to our lodgings for tea and will meet you later to discuss what there is to discuss. I leave the venue up to you. My preference is for somewhere warm and welcoming with plenty of noise in the background. Let me know your choice in due course but, please, don’t rush.”
“But, sir, the job -,” said Manny, a look of concern clouding over his evidently normal sunny disposition.
“The job can wait whilst I have tea. If I don’t have tea soon I shall expire,” I retorted, a touch dramatically. “Klatz isn’t going anywhere in a hurry. I am presuming that lodging him in the same accommodation as myself is Mundy’s idea so we can keep a close eye on him. Therefore I shall know a great deal of what there is to know by watching him over the rim of a teacup. Until later, gentlemen. Tom, lead on.” I finished with a flourish and followed Tom as he strode off, with Nellie at his elbow. It is not really good form to upset your staff straight away but I did have mitigating circumstances; the security of the nation, as I saw it, depended on a strong cup of Nilgiri.