Joan Merriweather raised herself for a moment, irritatedly pushed a stray strand of hair back into place, and gladly took the opportunity to straighten out an aching knee. As quiet as a mouse, with those over emphasised motions of “silence” that people are wont to make, she took a sip of tea. She’d have let out a sigh if she hadn’t remembered just in time, and comically slapped her hand over her mouth. Rebuked, refreshed, and disturbances to her concentration momentarily removed, she eased herself back down into her vantage point.
She was kneeling by the side door to the Drawing Room in the Dale View, her ear tightly pressed against the keyhole. A pang of guilt stabbed at her heart for a second. She hadn’t meant to pry – God forbid! – but with all that shouting, well…. her best glassware was in there! And that Sir Archibald, a respectable gent, make no mistake, but locking the doors to the room… and asking for all the keys!
Her mind drifted for a second. If only there’d still been a Mr. Merriweather she mused, thinking of how useful it would be to have a man about the house at times like these... It’s a shame that Inspector Morris and the “other” guests don’t get on she thought, and caught herself blushing slightly. Pushing such thoughts to the back of her mind, she resumed her watch, absentmindedly running that strange gold chain and pendant through her fingers as she did so…
“Commendable deduction, Sergeant Taylor,” Sir Archibald commented tonelessly, his watery grey eyes examining every aspect of Taylor’s nervous face.
Taylor coughed uncomfortably, then wiped his brow with his handkerchief. His palms were sweaty, his shirt felt damp. For the last ten minutes he’d explained, in a confused, awkward mumble, all that he and Inspector Morris had discussed in the local earlier that day. Things had come to a head. Something was wrong with the whole bloody thing here in New Brighton, and it was time to straighten it out. Or at least that was the plan…
He felt like a fool. Hearing the boss comprehensively outline the inconsistencies in the case is one thing, trying to explain it to three hardnosed, “seen it all before you poor little sod” types is another altogether. Wakely hadn’t said anything, just stared at him emotionlessly with those glistening old eyes of his. Wilson, the Ministry man, well, had been as animated as a rock, occasionally nodding along in a patronising, “understanding” manner whenever he caught Taylor’s eye. Morris, well the boss did what he always bloody well did, left the awkward stuff to poor old Taylor.
It had started angrily at first; shouts, accusations, Christ he’d almost whopped that arrogant bastard of a Yank! Would have seen to him good-style as well if the bloody boss hadn’t stopped it. ‘Like to see you step into my East End boozer, Kenton, you little… “But I presume, and please do not be offended, Sergeant Taylor,” Sir Archibald continued, snapping Taylor out of his reverie, “that these are largely Inspector Morris’ deductions, am I correct?”
Taylor nodded slowly. The five of them were positioned around the small Dale View drawing room. The last vestiges of the day were disappearing in a cloudy sunset. It was warm still, a sluggish and humid end to an unnaturally hot day, which wasn’t helping Taylor keep relaxed at this precise moment in time. The window was open, and gave a fine view over the coastline, framed by the banded pastel hues of the magenta, lilac and orange, but there was little breeze to give respite from the heat.
Kenton leaned near the window, feverishly smoking those foul Camels of his, paying more attention to the comings and goings along the seafront than the issue at hand. He was a well-kept man, lithe and fit for his thirty or forty odd years. He was dressed in an old linen shirt, sleeves rolled up to his mid forearms, and a pair of slacks, held up by braces. Occasionally he idly ran a hand through his wavy brown hair.
Wilson sat nonchalantly in a chair. The Ministry man was of medium height, with thinning brown hair; standard, well cut blue pinstripe suit. He had Oxbridge written all over him, Taylor thought. A self-assuredness that came across in his every movement and (sparse) word. As likely to quote Thucydides or Plutarch as anything remotely useful to the case. Maybe he meant to appear benignly helpful, but to Taylor he just came across a self-important, condescending sod.
Sir Archibald, wearing an old tweed suit, leaned against an mahogany cabinet, cradling a glass of malt. He looked tired. And with the tiredness came his increasingly choleric temper. Of his man, the Sikh Lal Singh, there was no sign. Inspector Morris was sitting in an old rocking chair by the fire, puffing gently on his pipe. The pungent pipe smoke merged with that escaping the fire, creating a slightly dense ambience of wood smoke and Mild Black Cavendish. The inspector’s eyes were closed, his fingers steepled before his face; a sight Taylor had seen a thousand or more times in the past.
Taylor finally broke. “So? Aren’t you going to say anything?!”
Sir Archibald guffawed, a laugh which soon gave way to a painful cough. He shook away Wilson’s helping hand. Needless to say, Morris and Taylor didn’t budge. Wilson sat back down. “It is not pertinent for us to reveal all the details of the case…yet… Sergeant Taylor,” Wilson stated, “but suffice to say, I think I can enlighten you a little…”
Taylor sat upright in his chair. His tongue was dry; a nervous twitch had developed in his cheek. Wilson continued: “You seem to think this is a cover-up of some kind. In some ways it is, but not of the type you think. Tell me Sergeant Taylor, look at the equation. Why don’t we send you back? What do we gain by keeping you here, stoking your suspicions? What do we gain by staying here? Are we here just to keep you here?”
“I’ve got bloody better things to do for a start!” the old India hand commented, before letting out a short wheezing cough.
Wilson smiled sycophantically and continued. “Trust me, we will all need your help and advice… when the time comes. Yes, your release had been pre-sanctioned. The documents were ready; we had foreseen such an eventuality. Admittedly, the circumstances are more curious than even we anticipated…”
“You are both here for a reason,” Sir Archibald interrupted. “You both possess, shall I say, a certain mental fortitude…”
“The reason we have not acted, indeed why we have waited, is because we are at a momentary loss,” Wilson added. “I am sure you will understand the situation, we must not move too soon lest we stir our prey into flying their nest. There is still something here in New Brighton which interests them. Something which they will stop at nothing to get. Kenton,” he checked himself, “the man who appeared to be Kenton, was just a preliminary. They seek something more here…”
“For the detriment of all Western Civilisation!” Sir Archibald, his whiskers bristling, thrust his walking stick forcefully towards Taylor.
“… something that we are convinced they will seek soon…”
“Yes, yes, quite soon!” the old man prodded his walking stick against the ground with great intensity.
“… no matter how dangerous it may be, or the police presence. That’s why we remain here, under the pretence of inactivity. A bickering, worn out mission; they will see our apparent confusion, think us weak, and act.”
“And we’ll be ready for them!” Wakely finished, determinedly.
Taylor had listened intently. It seemed, however, that both men were using a lot of words to say very little. “What, you mean like those Chinese lot and their mates near the Turks Head?” Taylor asked.
Wilson shrugged his shoulders. “Perhaps… yes, quite possibly, but maybe they are not… Involved, as minions, perhaps; our first link, but maybe they are not the true villains we seek…” He didn’t seem altogether sure.
“Do not underestimate the capacity of your Chinaman for malevolence and violence!” Sir Archibald interjected forcefully.
Taylor looked across at Morris. He seemed to be snoring gently… “But what about Kenton? His double? Who’s behind that?” A quick glance was exchanged between Wilson and Sir Archibald. Both looked towards Kenton, but the American was still staring out at the sunset. Inspector Morris, eyes still closed, abruptly broke the silence.
“Mr. James Kenton, born in Boston, July 14th, 1897. Travelled to France in 1914. Joined the 2e regiment de marche of the 1er étranger… the French Foreign Legion, sergeant… and ultimately the regiment de marche de la Légion étrangère. Highly decorated: Legion of Honour, Croix de Guerre. Mentioned in dispatches twice. Fought with distinction at Hill 140 and Hill 119 in Artois, Belloy-en-Santerre and Aubérive. Joined the American army in 1917. Again, fought with distinction throughout the remainder of the war. Then, things become hazy. An outstanding warrant for his arrest in Belgium. Surete has basic information on record. Scotland Yard has a file on record, but it’s been pulled.” Inspector Morris looked at his partially stunned companions, and banged the dottle out of his finished pipe. “I’ve been a policeman for many years; you’re not the only one who can play the ‘contact game’, Sir Archibald.”
The old India veteran lowered himself into his chair with a soft groan. “That, gentlemen, is why you are here. Resourcefulness. Perseverance. A willingness not to immediately take things at their base appearance. And…though it is being tried now… a modicum of patience.” Sir Archibald raised his glass to his lips, and drained the last vestiges of Scotch in a solid gulp.
“Tell, me Sergeant Taylor, are you aware of the case involving the murder of Madame du Saliér?” Sir Archibald asked, almost nonchalantly, as he poured himself another finger of malt from the tableside decanter.
“Sort of,” Taylor stammered. “Quite famous really… brutal murder of this high-class French prostitute in London… during the war, I think.” He show a quick glance towards Morris, his eyebrow raised in a Why the hell is he asking me? look, and was surprised to see Morris, eyes open and alert, staring fixedly at Sir Archibald, the colour rising in his cheeks. “Unsolved,” Taylor added helpfully, by now distinctly confused with the affair.
Sir Archibald smiled. “Not quite.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You see, Sergeant Taylor, the case of the murder of Madame du Saliér was solved, wasn't it Inspector Morris?” the old man continued, and turned his head slowly, his gaze resting on the Inspector. Morris remained silent for a few long heartbeats, his eyes never leaving those of Sir Archibald.
“Make your damn point.” Morris' voice was hardly more than a whisper, but it conveyed all the gravitas it needed. Sir Archibald placed his glass down gently.
“My point, Inspector Morris, is that you solved the case. Special Branch was called in, and after some trials and tribulations, you identified the prime suspect. All evidence seemed to imply an open and shut case. A commendable piece of police work, if I may say so, but unfortunately you never gained the plaudits you earned. Am I correct?” Sir Archibald raised a bushy eyebrow in query. Morris remained silent, not moving his eyes from the old man's face. Taylor didn't think he'd even blinked.
“Let me recap for the benefit of Sergeant Taylor here. Special Branch found that all evidence pointed to a single criminal. His alibi was demonstrated to be wholly false, her blood was found on his discarded clothes and the one reliable witness gave an excellent description. It turned out that this man was an aristocrat, a European of considerable standing, a Graf von Rabenstein, if I'm correct?” Sir Archibald said, turning towards Wilson. The ministerial man nodded, almost imperceptibly; Sir Archibald continued. “Von Rabenstein, you see, Sergeant, was an Austrian, and a prominent one at that. A talented diplomat and great friend of the Kaiser-und-König of Austria-Hungary…”
“But we were at war with the bloody Austrians!” Taylor snapped, his patience with this charade lessening by the minute. Sir Archibald let out an exasperated sigh.
“Exactly! Rabenstein was here in secret! He was our means to communicate with the Austrian emperor… Sergeant Taylor, at that time we were secretly trying to pull Austria-Hungary out of the War!” Taylor looked shocked.
“Now, Sergeant, what would happen to our fragile peace negotiations if it was made common knowledge that an Austrian aristocrat, here in secret, the close friend of the Emperor, had been arrested and charged for the brutal murder of a London whore?”
Taylor said nothing. Instead he looked limply at his Inspector. “So you kept it quiet.”
“Yes, Sergeant Taylor. He kept it quiet. Nothing came of those negotiations immediately, admittedly, but I can assure you that the nation had much to be thankful to Inspector Morris for. Above all else, gentlemen, above your professional abilities, one key factor is crucial in your participation in this case: your ability to keep a secret.” Sir Archibald smoothed his whiskers with a wrinkled finger. A brief silence descended.
“So,” stated Morris finally, refilling his pipe, “we just wait?”
“Yes, Inspector Morris. I think that puts it really rather well,” Sir Archibald shrugged, and moved to pour himself another Scotch. He stopped abruptly as a muffled scream sounded from the side door:
“Why you heathen brute! Get… mmphhhh…”
Within a second the door was thrown open, its lock broken, its panels cracked. Mrs Merriweather was pushed bodily into the room, her upper arm firmly in the grasp of that hulking Sikh, Lal Singh’s hand. The Sikh’s face was fury itself, Mrs. Merriweather’s a mix of consternation and righteous indignation…
“What the hell…” Taylor leapt out of his chair. Morris stirred himself up, his hands grabbing the rocking chair arms.
Singh turned to Sir Archibald, pointed to his ear, and then to the broken door. Wakely nodded grimly. “Now, Mrs. Merriweather, I appreciate your hospitality, but when, on a matter of importance to the Crown, I ask for privacy, I damn well expect that my wishes be adhered to!”
“I… I… just wanted to see if you wanted some tea! I’m no… I mean…” Joan Merriweather spluttered.
“Stop wittering woman! And don’t try to hide your perfidy, damn ye,” Sir Archibald’s old weathered face was contorted in rage, his gnarled hand holding his wavering walking stick just in front of Mrs. Merriweather’s nose.
“How dare you speak to me like that!” Mrs Merriweather reactions would have made a Shaolin monk proud: her open-handed slap sent Sir Archibald staggering backwards. Then the scene devolved into chaos… Lal Singh roughly flung her to the floor in reply. Mrs. Merriweather fell with a shriek, half caught by the lunging Inspector Morris. Taylor leapt from his chair, arm coiled to strike the impudent native, but he suddenly sprawled incongruously to the floor, tripping over the outstretched leg of Kenton. Wilson, panicking, reached for nearby telephone, and frantically called for the operator…
A striking, neighing laugh brought the whole scene to a standstill. Sir Archibald was straining to rise, using his walking stick to push himself up from his knees. Panting, he turned his suddenly ebullient features on his companions. “We’ve done it! This, my friends, is the key our adversaries need! Haha!” The old man, amidst scenes of violence and hate, a minute ago choleric and intemperate to the extreme, started to bizarrely dance a small jig on the spot.
Everyone, except Wilson, looked on in dumb confusion. Sir Archibald was holding some small item which seemed to glitter in the radiant firelight. Inspector Morris cautiously moved forward, and Sir Archibald placed the item in the inspector’s outstretched hand. Closer inspection showed it to be a fine gold chain, with an attached pendant, also seemingly gold. The pendant was in the shape of what appeared to be a featureless bull’s head. Mrs. Merriweather gasped, and checked her apron pocket. She made to speak, but no words would come out.
Sir Archibald smiled again.
“And now, gentlemen, the waiting is nearly over… now they come to us…”
It is hard for anyone standout amongst the polyglot multitudes of Zanzibar, but the tall Frenchman sitting in the dockside café managed this and more. Alongside the Africans, Asians, Arabians and even the Europeans, Alphonse D’Huberres marked himself out as something special. He was no sunburnt, sweating ros-bif, with his ludicrous topee-hat and public school manners. No fat, be-fezzed trader. No, there was something different about him. It wasn’t so much his appearance, as his bearing: an inherent arrogance to his character, which came across in his every movement and word. This was a man who knew his purpose, and woe betide them that came between the two of them.
If anything, he was most alike the men he was seated with now, in this small dingy café among the maze-like dockside streets of the Stone Town. They were all Arabs, with maybe a few savage-looking Indians amongst them (descendants of Baluchis, no doubt). Several of them shared the same crucial characteristic as Alphonse D’Huberres. They had the eyes of a killer.
D’Huberres was tall and well built, with large, rough hands that looked to have seen a few brawls in his forty or so years. He was dressed in a new beige suit, which was cut too small, accentuating the size of his powerful hands and feet, and stretched tight across his barrel-like chest. A white pith helmet lay on the small wicker table beside him, along with a burnished brass hookah pipe, some fruit and a small cup of harsh Arabian coffee.
But it was his face that was most distinctive. It was longer than most, defined by a protuberant, cleft square chin, which jutted forcefully out from his face, emphasising his proud, arrogant demeanour. A prominent Gallic nose was met at the base by a thick black moustache. His wide mouth held full, yellow teeth. A thick shock of wavy black hair framed his well-tanned, pockmarked face, whips of grey showing at the sides and on his sideburns.
The café was sited on a little promontory, from where he could glance down into the teeming harbour. The sun glinted off the placid turquoise lagoon, rendering it in an iridescent, mirror-like quality. Thousands of small craft traversed the inland sea, mostly fishing boats, incongruous against the lone, grey hulk of the British frigate, its ensign flapping in the wind.
Beyond the lagoon, to the west, the gentle aquamarine waves of the Indian Ocean appeared to dance as they caught the sun, shimmering like a field of diamonds. Countless dhows bobbed gently on the waves, their bleached white sails reflecting the radiant sun in a majestic display. Beyond, on the hazy horizon, you could just make out the African coast.
The monsoon was blowing from the southwest and brought a hint of reality to the picturesque scene. The stenches of excrement, tar, slowly rotting fish and the unwashed masses, all of them wafted up from the harbour to his little retreat. A sudden cross-breeze brought the pungent aroma of cloves from the hillside plantations above him, adding another feature to the heady mix which assaulted his olfactory senses.
D’Huberres took nature’s hint. The Frenchman pulled a small pewter cigarette case out of his pocket. Clove cigarettes. He’d picked up the taste whilst he’d been in the east. He lighted up, and revelled in the sweet smoke he inhaled. His mouth gradually became pleasantly numbed. A small grey-furred monkey sidled up from one of the other tables, and climbed onto a nearby chair, eyes flicking between the fruit on the table and D’Huberres in mute appeal. The monkey was clever – it didn’t dare a theft.
The Frenchman smiled, and cut a small piece of a banana for the creature. He followed by breathing a strong plume of sickly sweet smoke in the monkey’s white-highlighted face. The monkey squealed and shot off, taking the hint. No more fruit today.
He smoked peacefully for a moment, taking in the grandeur that surrounded him. Further down the coast, along the milky-white sandy beaches, he could see the surf breaking in its gentle rhythm. The incessant chatter of port filled his ears: Swahili, Arabic, Gujerati, English and a score other tongues and dialects. A donkey-cart carrying mangoes had been overloaded, and tipped backwards, lifting the poor bemused beast into the air. A ragged group of Arabs were pulling at the donkey’s legs in an effort get the animal down, shouting and arguing as they worked to no avail. Nearby hawkers were peddling rapidly rotting, dried shark meat at poorly covered stalls. A young African boy, carrying a couple of large melons, approached the café, got one look at the clientele, and rapidly left. The monkey followed him down the road.
The Frenchman took a sip of his coffee, and grimaced. Christ! Even the crap he’d been served in Algeria wasn’t as bad as this. He checked his watch. Swiss. He permitted himself a small, rare smile, as he remembered the day he got it. July 4th: Belloy-en-Santerre. Mon Dieu, how can you forget such a day! Crawling through mud and human offal to take some little village in the Somme campaign. Luckily he’d crawled past Lt. Steiner, a rotund little Swiss fellow, who had a rather nice timepiece. Well he didn’t really need it anymore, not with his stomach eviscerated. July 4th: American Independence Day. A frown crossed his face.
The watch struck two. The Frenchman looked down the path towards the Asian quarter. Just in time.
Slowly, striding out of the heat haze as if in a dream, a lone figure approached. He easily negotiated the bustling masses; they seemed to simply melt away at his approach. The very picture of him was striking: an Asian man, physically unimposing, but wearing a three-piece cream-white suit, well fitted, with two-tone brown and white leather shoes. A Panama lay at a slightly rakish angle on his head, a gold watch chain could be seen glinting from his waistcoat in the sun.
The man in the white suit came closer, walking with timely, languid strides. He seemed to move with an almost effeminate grace, his right hand swinging a walking cane lazily in time with his step. A battered leather dispatch cased was held in the left. The Asian approached the table. The Frenchman examined him intently. He was short, not more than five and half feet in height, and of slim build; quite definitely Indian, but from where? Clean-shaven: there goes most of the north… Bombay? Certainly not Madrassi or from the greater Carnatic or Ceylon, his skin coloration was too light.
“Bonjour, Monsieur D’Huberres,” the Indian greeted the Frenchman without looking up; his voice soft and cultured, representative of Oxford rather than the Malabar Coast. He carefully took off his hat, and placed it on the table.
The Indian reached into his jacket pocket and removed an ancient, battered leather spectacles case. He took out an old pair of wire-framed glasses, and affixed them carefully to his ears. Finally he looked up, and accosted D’Huberres with a serpentile stare with his strangely European grey-blue eyes. He locked his gaze with the Frenchman’s for a good five seconds, before finally uttering: “Kenton is alive.”
No other three words could have brought more shock to Alphonse D’Huberres than those the Indian uttered. “What?!”
“I am not in the habit of repeating myself,” the Indian countered frostily. “The American is alive.” He brushed an annoyingly persistent fly from his cheek.
“But it was him! The appendix scar, passport, tattoo, my men checked!” D’Huberres was strangely flustered.
“You saw him? Up close? Personally? You spoke with him?” the Indian persisted. There was a curious sibilance to his voice, disconcerting to all who heard it. His present companion was no exception…
D’Huberres retorted with a snort: “Of course I damn well didn’t! The game would have been up in a second! He’d have recognised me in an instant…”
“Aaahhh… of course. You served together didn’t you? In France, during the War? Comrades in arms…” The Indian didn’t even try and hide the facetious condescension from his voice in his last three words.
D’Huberres ignored him. “Yes, we served together. In the Legion. I was his officer. We met up again after the war. Smuggling. Holland. Belgium. Then… we had a disagreement.” The Indian’s eyes bored into him, encouraging him to tell more. “Money, women, the standard things…” the Frenchman muttered.
The Indian giggled with glee, slapping the table, upsetting the coffee.
D’Huberres ignored him. “Anyway, if he wasn’t Kenton, who the hell was he? And why did he have the box? The whole thing was simple. Kenton’s experienced in this kind of work, knows the territory; has the connections. He takes the risks, gets the box for us, and then we kill him…”
The Indian readjusted his spectacles. “Yes, the box. Therein lies another problem. An item is missing.” The Indian opened his dispatch case and pulled out a tattered, yellowing sheaf of papers. D’Huberres recognised them: the Wilmarth Manuscript. The Indian found the page he was looking for, pushed it across the table. “The girl. She lost the pendant…”
“Pendant?” D’Huberres didn’t understand.
“That, Monsieur D’Huberres,” the Indian pointed at an etching reproduced on the page, “the one she stole off of our…‘impostor.’” The picture showed a pendant, quite delicate but not overly small. It was crafted in the shape of what of what appeared to be a bull’s head, but featureless. D’Huberres shuddered at the recognition. A single word was scribbled next to the etching. Orichalcum.
The Indian produced another sheet, with a drawing of a large rectangular box, the very object that had been recovered from the beach. D’Huberres had only seen it once. The Indian pointed with a long, indolent finger at the lock mechanism, in the otherwise featureless object, a small depression in the shape of the pendant…
D’Huberres laughed, Oh how he laughed! A long throaty laugh, tears running down his cheeks. “You’ve got the box,” he forced out, finally, “make a bloody cast!”
“It’s not as simple as that you fool!” the Indian hissed, his hand grasping D’Huberres’ like a talon, his fingers digging into his flesh. D’Huberres, with all his strength, couldn’t draw his hand away. The Indian held firm. “You know what we’re dealing with here, Frenchman…”
“Get your damn hand off of me.” D’Huberres held the Indian’s gaze with his steely own. His other hand moved towards his jacket pocket.
“Be careful, Monsieur D’Huberres,” the Indian smiled, and motioned around him. D’Huberres turned around. All eyes in the café were on him. Eyes bent on murder. The sun glinted on more than one half-drawn dagger.
“We need the pendant before we can progress further, Monsieur D’Huberres. The girl will have difficulty in getting it. The British government have become involved. We need a professional. You will be travelling ahead of schedule.” The Indian let go of D’Huberres’ hand. He gathered his papers together, placing them back in his case, and put away his spectacles. Rising he placed the Panama back on his head. “Au revoir, Monsieur D’Huberres.”