#4 stand-alone story
The Life and Crimes of Lockhart and Doppler
An Illustrated journal of amusement, adventure and instruction
Howay the lads!
The cane came down rather smartish, I raised my umbrella and blocked. A punch jabbed at my ribs and as I buckled sideways I slammed the cane into a boot-clad ankle. A brief moment of panting, grimacing then we were off again; blocking, parrying, striking, stabbing. I kicked him sharply in the groin and yelped in agony as the toe of my soft boot made contact with something solid, we paused, he smiled smugly,
“W.G.Grace Patent Steel Box” he gloated.
I limped about whilst he regarded me with humour. He swished his cane about like a rapier as he strolled around me, waiting, like a gentleman, for me to recover. Switching his cane to a new handhold he thrust the point towards my head. Sudden dread causing adrenaline to force my arms into mobility, clouding the pain. I popped the umbrella open, purple silk rent as a silver tip thrust close by my face, I spun the umbrella causing the cane to slip from his grasp tangling it in the framework, thrusting the tattered accessory at my opponent with one hand whilst pulling the cane free with my other, I nimbly side-stepped and brought the cane down with furious accuracy on its owners shoulder. Tottering forwards but maintaining balance, he attempted a wild haymaker punch, making numbing contact with my arm. Dropping into a low crouch, I extended my right leg fast making contact with the side of his knee. I heard a satisfying snap.
“My apologies Mr Hanson,” I panted as I backed off, “I do hope there is no permanent damage”.
He half sprawled, clutching the side of his leg, glaring at me from beneath a mop of fair hair, his moustaches twitched with outrage. Hanson’s trademark cream attire was barely mussed whilst I felt rivulets running down my spine, my jacket was torn in a number of places, my foot throbbed from its contact with his nether guard and I could feel a bruise was forming over my left eye. My numb arm held close to me, I eyed what I had come for.
Between us lay a necklace of some beauty; the silver, diamond studded chain twinkled teasingly, the claret coloured stone surrounded by seed pearls beckoned to my avarice, it had been created by François Kramer for the wife of Napoléon III, Empress Eugénie. What a prize! It had been put on display in the private museum of Sir Charles Willoughby; collector, philanderer, one-time Member of Parliament, industry financier and apparent associate of Mr. Eric Hanson, member of the Royal Order of Dragons. Of course, the papers had been full of it, new item acquired by fat businessman.
I thought it a jolly jape to steal it from Willoughby’s collection, I knew there was a party going on, which could not be heard in this wing, but had not accounted for the presence of Hanson, staunch member of the R.O.D, upright and, as I had found to my cost, an excellent combatant. I had briefly met Eric Hanson only once before, on a train journey to Bath, ironically after relieving a party from the Royal Order of their kill. As I moved forwards to collect the jewel Hanson’s hand came from inside his coat pointing a gleaming ray pistol at me, one of the smart small devices that fit snugly and discreetly in an inside pocket, small but very deadly.
“I will use it Ms. Lockhart, you know I would. I’m not some Frenchie whose passions overtake him.”
His smooth, well-bred vowels confirming his public school education. He was referring to one Rene de Cavellier, my treasure hunting sparring partner – I thought of him wistfully, briefly, very briefly. Hanson had levered himself upright, still pointing the weapon directly at me.
“How did you know? That I would be here, I mean.”
“I didn’t” he admitted “Not for sure anyway, but I knew that you would not be able to resist a challenge, I just didn’t know when you would try, I really didn’t expect you to come when the house was in full swing, quite the daredevil aren’t we…”
“Well, I don’t know about you but…” I interrupted.
“ I was about to take a stroll in the rose garden, “ he re-interrupted, “ when I had a strong urge to come and take a look at Willoughby’s collection – stay still Ms. Lockhart! – as I was saying; a fine cigar after a fine meal surrounded by the most English of flowers, the r…”
“Actually, the rose is not an English flower at all, it arrived here from China only last century, it is native to Persia and…”
“Forget the roses Ms. Lockhart, and forget the necklace. Now go, before I alert the authorities. I like you, don’t ask me why, but you have a certain…je ne sais quoi, as your foreign friend might say, oh yes I know all about Monsieur de Cavellier, I make it my business to know about those who steal from the Order. Now Madam, I suggest you turn around and leave the way you came in.”
I eyed the necklace, laying close to the toe of Hanson’s boot.
“I will give you to the count of three, then I will shoot. And, I am a better marksman than a swordsman.”
I swallowed, he began counting. I left, rapidement…
I kept my head down for the next couple of days, Hanson kept his word, there were no repercussions from my attempt to steal from the home of Sir Charles Willoughby, although I was sure he would persuade the man to increase his security.
In the meantime, a letter had arrived from what appeared to be a solicitor; ‘Armstrong, Elliot, Irvine & Sons’, based up near Berwick upon Tweed, somewhere called Cocklaw. An inheritance of some sort; my parents had both resided in Scotland for many years, my mother being English my father Scottish. My mother had died in my early infancy, my father, Captain Lockhart, when I was but ten years of age, I had been cared for and educated by his eccentric yet adventurous brother Daniel Lammermoor Lockhart, who it turned out had left me an inheritance, it did not specify what that inheritance might be, but requested I attend personally to the matter.
“Pack for cold weather!”
I called to Doppler, who was upstairs making arrangements in her new study (the previous one having been lost when the house inexplicably blew up).
“Canada?!” she called back.
“Norway?” she asked hopefully, descending the staircase.
“Not a Polar expedition?!” she cried
“I’m afraid not. Scotland.” She pulled a face. “Well not exactly Scotland, kind of between Scotland and England – Border Country.”
I watched her expression. She frowned.
“What’s there? Killer haggis? Buried treasure of Bonnie Prince Charlie?!” she sneered
“Well you never know, I mean about the treasure not the haggis, obviously. No, you remember me telling you about your Great Uncle who pretty much brought me up?”
“You mean Loony Lammermoor?”
“Yes, him, and don’t call him loony, he was…eccentric, had ideas different to most people…”
“I’ll say, remember when he tried to make hover roller skates and a hover mattress and the best one, the self-tipping hat to greet people so you didn’t have to use your hands!” she began to laugh hysterically.
“OK, Ok, so he had some fairly odd ideas, but he did teach me a lot about weapons, travel, languages and, well everything. I have a lot to thank him for Thea. I’m curious as to what he has left up there though, maybe some land!
Used as we were to packing for different journey’s, it took us no time at all before we had all our luggage piled into a mechanized carriage and were heading off to catch the steam train to Newcastle upon Tyne.
Newcastle; iron-bound, ship rich and industry heavy. It resembled London in many respects, the buildings lofty and large, yet a permanent haze seems to blanket it from the coal dust from the goliath mechanisms which rise hither and yon throughout its coastline. The industrialists of the north had taken themselves farther south, away from the fug, the damp and into ‘society’.
The rail journey took around three hours. Doppler and I took the opportunity for a wander whilst we awaited our transport for the second leg of our journey. Like all towns in England, Newcastle upon Tyne was dirty and overcrowded. At long last the coach was made ready, as we boarded, two gents, a father and son by the similarities of their features, climbed in.
The rail journey took around three hours. Doppler and I took the opportunity for a wander whilst we awaited our transport for the second leg of our journey. Like all towns in England, Newcastle upon Tyne was dirty and overcrowded. At long last the coach was made ready, as we boarded, two gents, a father and son by the similarities of their features, climbed in.
“Alreet? Howay missus, we gannin' doon the Tweed?”
The older one spoke to me. I knew he had spoken because his lips moved and sound came out, as to what he said, I hadn’t the foggiest. He grinned a crinkled grin. I didn’t want to appear neither rude nor ignorant so responded,
“Er, would you like to share our transportation gents?”
“Aye, she’s a canny lass,” this to the young lad next to him, “You’ll no mind us sharin’?”
“Absolutely not” I smiled, beginning to get a handle on this odd dialect. Or so I thought.
As we began our journey, the old fellow began chatting away, but seeing mine and Dopplers blank faces attempted to translate his own words for us. He was incredibly accommodating, allowing us to write in a notebook words and phrases from the Tyne, we also acquainted him with some from the Pool. Leaving the town of Newcastle we headed into the Marches; undeveloped landscape of high moorland. The carriage rocked and leapt about until finally, backsides aching, we arrived in a most pleasant town, Berwick upon Tweed. We bid our travelling companions farewell. Clampy Moore and his son Roger shook our hands enthusiastically and sauntered off. After finding lodgings we sought out the solicitors.
‘Armstrong, Elliot, Irvine and Sons’ was a tiny, squat building apparently levered in between two structures of pinkish grey stone. Inside it was quite dim and at first we did not see that there were three males in here, seated at small square desks amidst an array of books, parchments and rolls of legal documents which were stacked on every surface, piled around the floor, leaning in precarious piles and drifting beneath the furniture. A mean coal fire spumed smoke into the space, one gaslight was lit, and the other three appeared to be stoppered. Someone was smoking a pipe. I coughed politely to draw attention.
“Hello?” I called.
"Aye, aye, dinnae fash yersel."
Came a crotchety, gravel response.
A figure arose from the rear of the gloomy room and whether through experience or a sixth sense, approached us through the labyrinth without causing a single paper to flutter and fall. Before us a short, bent, plaid clothed male with clay pipe hung from one side of his mouth, the rest of his face hidden by the brim of a dusty felted top hat that had seen better days. I introduced myself and Doppler, presenting him with the letter sent from this firm. It had a magical effect. The bent, old man uncurled to his full height, which was more than my five feet and six inches, revealing an empty sleeve pinned at the shoulder, he removed the pipe with his one hand and then…his hat rose from his head without his aid, tipping in greeting. I looked toward Doppler, she was gawping at the head gear, then abruptly burst out laughing.
Johnnie ‘Lefty’ Armstrong ushered us to the rear of the room and up a steep, cramped stone staircase. A low ceilinged chamber with a canvas cot to serve as a bed, a bedside stand with water bowl and jug beside it and a single wooden chair was all that was here, waggling the pipe at me, indicating for me to sit, I did so. I was about to speak when the old clerk held up a hand and went to peer cautiously out of the single, small window. Seemingly satisfied, he began tamping some tobacco into his pipe bowl, gingery strands hung loose as he set a match to it. He took a couple of long, slow puffs whilst openly checking myself and Doppler out. The cramped room soon filled with smoke.
“Whit’s with the young ‘un?” he pointed at Doppler. I explained that she was my companion and colleague. He harrumphed and pointing his pipe stem close to her,
“This ain’t no job for wee lassies, you’d best keep yersel oot o the way.” He warned.
“And you’d best not poke that stinking pipe at me again or I’ll cut your todger off!”
Doppler cautioned, indicating with her eyes, old Armstrong followed her gaze to the small knife she had held in front of his groin. He held her gaze for a few seconds before breaking out in a huge chortle.
“She’ll do.” He nodded.
“Do for what?” I demanded, “I thought I was simply claiming an inheritance, what’s with all the cloak and dagger dramatics?”
“My client wishes to hire your services Miss Lockhart. I cannot tell ye much more at the moment. Suffice to say, we wanted no-one to know aboot the reason for your journey. Discretion is the key madam. We are very aware of your reputation and…shall we say…skills. You will be paid for your work of course. The Monk will send transportation.
Johnnie Armstrong asked that we reside in the dreary room until arrangements were made for our client meeting. Our belongings were removed from the lodgings and somehow squeezed into the hovel. There was nothing to do but wait to be summoned, by the Monk.
Eventually we rolled into, and beyond, Cocklaw village, well, an expanse of heathery hills and rosy cattle strewn about. No actual village centre. A coaching inn, dairy and slaughter house with adjacent tannery. The odd squat, solid abode dotted about was about it. Farmhouses could be spotted out in yonder hills. Finally pulling up to a stop, Doppler and I breathed the fragranced, clean air deeply. Before us stood a four story, solid, dour, stone building, more of a keep than a house, Mediaeval in origin I’d guess. The coachman, who had said barely two words to us the whole journey, jumped down and proceeded into the building without a backward glance leaving the mighty oak door ajar. Above the door was a carved motto which read ‘INVICTUS MANEO’. Inside was no more cheery than the exterior, gas lamps and candles were placed wherever it had been felt necessary to plant a small illumination. The great hall had men seated, squatting and standing all about, one peeled himself off a nearby piece of masonry and bowing low, so his length of fly- plaid over his shoulder tickled the floor, his wavy blonde hair flopping into his eyes,
“Greetings fine ladies,” he said in an odd accent, “you’ll be leaving your fine weaponry at the door.”
He stepped forwards, reaching to remove the pistol at my belt. Clamping my hand around the grip I leant on my cane and putting my face close to his, whispered,
“If you can take it, it’s yours, otherwise I’ll take those fingers.”
He paused, we stayed eyeballing each other for some seconds before a small snick could be heard close by, and he glanced sideways to Doppler, who had pulled out her nasty little extending stiletto that she had so fortuitously used to defend against some undead golem thingy in Edinburgh. It shone, she smiled, he stepped back.
The rest of the room was silent, but a tension was in the air, some men had moved closer, hands hidden beneath folds of fly-plaid, definitely reaching for concealed weapons, others openly holding knives, clubs and canes. As we were ushered further into the hall, towards a great fireplace and dining table, I felt as a lamb to the slaughter, my sixth sense was ringing alarm bells. Unnoticed, I tapped Dopplers elbow and spun around so we were back to back, the ranks had closed in behind us. Doppler made the first move, I felt her body tense as her arm lashed out, and a shrill scream confirmed a hit. A short, stocky figure lurched at me from the left, cosh raised high – had no-one taught the fool not to expose his torso I sighed – I jabbed into his sternum then followed up with a smart crack across the side of his head as he doubled over. Another came from directly in front, swishing the cane horizontally to keep him at bay, I called, “Change!” Doppler and I rolled about each other in a well-practised ballet of strikes and stabs, she sprayed the oncoming fellow in the face with a concoction. He yelled, dropping his weapon to cover his face. “Down”, and I swung the cane in a circle as Doppler ducked. A couple of the older fellows were keeping a distance now, or simply not bothering at all, but the youngsters still had the taste for it. Since my encounter with Eric Hanson I had seen fit to cap the toes of all my boots with steel and it worked wonderfully, more than one fellow got a crushed sporran I can tell you. There was a sudden pause then,
They had decided to try the rugby scrum approach and very quickly we were hemmed in and crushed, jostled and shoved about. I attempted to head-butt one fellow, but came off the worse. Another yelped as Doppler brought her knee up into his breeches flap.
“Wheesht now lads!” came a deep call.
And the mob immediately fell back, collecting dropped hats, knives and so forth from the floor. They resumed their positions as previous, as if nothing had occurred at all. The fellow who had initially greeted us indicated a figure descending a stone stairway against one wall, and gave another low bow towards him as he approached us.
“Stop beggerin’ aboot Irvine and fetch the ladies a drink and some food.” Turning to us, “Would you like some food?”
His accent was like Irvine’s; not quite English, not quite Scottish, Northumbrian I decided. I nodded in answer to the question. Shooing the rest away with his hand, the new arrival indicated for us to be seated at the large table. He stood about five feet ten inches, he had very dark, very short (unfashionably so) hair, with a beard and moustaches cut close. He was wearing what appeared to be an old, dun coloured dressing gown with black leather boots flashing from beneath. His eyes were grey as the Northumberland sky, his gaze, when he did look at us, quite fierce. When we were seated, and food laid out he introduced himself,
“Firstly apologies for the encounter. Welcome to Bastle House, I am Gregor Armstrong. Hopefully, your client.”
“What!” I demanded, “Was that all about? We come here, invited, and are attacked by some checkered, semi inebriates”,
A murmuring from the assembled,
“With bad breath! Yes you, I’m looking at you Red.”
I added, eyeing one young flame headed fellow in particular. Gregor Armstrong, aka, The Monk then proceeded, after more apologies and explaining the tradition of ‘the testing’, to lay his proposition before me, he wanted a certain item stealing from an arch-rival. Mr William Ridley was a local dignitary, he was also part of a network of business men who kept the working classes under the cosh. Cheap labour was to be found aplenty in the Marches;
“Enslavement of the Negro may have ended Miss Lockhart, but the shackles placed on the kith and kin this far North are as bad. The Debateable Lands to the West, from Longtown to Gretna are a mass of mills, turbines, the green now swathed in stone and steel. Newcastle to the South is a veritable hive of mines; iron and coal ripped from the shoreline to the hills. The land is being chewed up and spat out an acre at a time to line the pockets of them that do not live here. And what is needed to keep all this running? People, Miss Lockhart, simple poor folk, farmers and their wives whose land can no longer be farmed, fishermen whose streams are filled with the effluence of their nightmare machines, horse men whose pastures have been stolen from them, people of the land, a land now choked, strangulated with the insatiable noose of avarice and callousness, those same people now toil and bend under the yoke of industry.”
Although Gregor Armstrong had been talking quietly, his voice carried a resonance, so when I happened to glance up I could see heads nodding in agreement all around.
“Very touching, but what is it you want me to do and how much are you paying?” I enquired.
He seemed a little put out that his tale had not elicited a stronger reaction, he sat back into his chair eyeing me.
“What?” I continued, “Did you expect me to shed tears, that my heart would be moved to work for free?”
“No Miss Lockhart, I did not expect any of these things, what I did expect though was a little compassion.”
Under his blue-grey gaze I felt…what did I feel? Was that guilt making my stomach turn, or was it the haggis? Was it embarrassment that made my skin flush or the wine? Did a melancholy for the plight of the wretched cause my heart to palpitate? Are you kidding, surely by now dear reader you know me; Lockhart the intrepid, Lockhart the brazen, Lockhart the libertine, Lockhart the, oh god! I looked into the face of Gregor Armstrong, his unwavering gaze, his hands resting in his lap gently he looked for all the world like his moniker, The Monk, and I found myself wondering what sort man this was.
The skills of the clansmen were many; horse riding, smithing, cattle breeding, cattle rustling, soldiering and raiding, yet not the particular kind of skills required for the job in hand. They needed a cracksman, someone who knew life, who could half-inch something without feeling morally challenged, enter yours truly. The Monk had done research, he wanted an outsider yet a person who would have reason to be in the Borders, a person unknown locally and who would be unsuspected – a female, who had some family connections had reason to visit, especially if they had received notice of an inheritance.
Mr William Ridley, the mark, had in his possession an immensely valuable diamond that he used as a kind of collateral against payment for his industry. How he acquired it, Armstrong did not know, Ridley had shown it to a very limited number of people, who had in turn invested heavily in his businesses. Le Bite Bleu was secreted in Ridley’s house. Old ‘Lefty’ Armstrong had ‘discovered’ a ground plan of the property among the mess that passed for legal paperwork in his office. Ridley Rise was but a thirty minute ride from Bastle House, when I had decided when I wanted to go, Jed Armstrong would take me and leave me and Doppler there, the rest; the Armstrong’s, Irvine’s and Elliot’s were to launch their own assault on the closest mill town, Trooser Doon, to cause a diversion and release some of the child labour they knew to be there. Gregor Armstrong and I discussed and agreed my fee; property and lands hereabouts, plus a hefty financial sum the amount of which I am too polite to talk about.
Two nights later, Jed, Doppler and I saddled up and rode for Lammermoor. I can ride a horse and so can Doppler, but Jed, he looked like he’d been born on a horse. As the hooves tramped over the heathered hills he laughed recklessly, the wind roared up the glen as I squinted into the dark, maybe this had been a mistake. It was all well and good sneaking about towns or torch lit tombs, but this was shear madness, it was pitch black out and I had to put my trust in the horses and Jed. Before long tiny lighted windows began to appear, Jed bid us to dismount about half a mile away as the horses would be heard if we rode too near.
“I'll tie ‘em up on this heor bush, they'll stay. Ahm heading back.” Then added seeing my frown, “These fellas knaa thor way hyem, aal yee hev te dee is tell them te gan.”
And with that he was away and almost immediately became invisible. I looked at Doppler,
“Well, I suppose we use Shank’s Pony from here.”
As well as our usual kit that Doppler and I carried for such enterprises, we had both been issued with a Scottish dirk each, twelve inches of the hardest steel I had so far encountered. Arriving close to Ridley Rise we could see it was a more extravagant affair than the Bastle House, more mansion than keep, many of its windows showing light, especially the downstairs where every casement shone. A social event was underway, a lavish affair no doubt. Out on the front drive were an odd assortment of vehicles, horse-drawn carriages, mechanical carriages and steam-powered vehicles.
Doppler and I did a recce of the exterior, to the rear of the house was a large outbuilding, had it been unguarded we would probably have let it be, but a person does not place a guard unless something is worth guarding. Light from the main building spread across the lawn towards the large outbuilding and lent a little illumination to the proceedings. There were two men, dressed in the English style, that is to say, they wore no tartan, had brown Derby’s on and both carried cudgels, my hand crept to the police cosh, which I affectionately called Sergeant Snooze, hanging from my belt . Doppler placed her hand on mine and showed me that she had her blowpipe all ready to go. She was a crack shot with this little device, rarely, if ever, missed and added her own concoction to the tips. The sentinels didn’t seem to have a routine, wise, but the building was big enough that each was alone for some minutes after passing mid circumvent.
Crouching between a rhododendron bush and a statue of a male I did not recognise, Doppler took aim, I breathed in as she did, held my breath, then phtu! The dart shot unseen, through the darkness and into the neck of target number one. As they all do, he slapped his hand to the offended area, thus pushing the sliver deeper still. He was looking about warily, cudgel hefted in one hand. I was about to step out and face him when Doppler restrained me, she was smiling. I knew what had happened, she had concocted something new and was keen to see the results before I waded in heavy handed. Why did she always have to experiment when we were on a job? I pondered. I suppose there was very little chance to try out ones drugs on a day to day basis I reasoned. I wondered vaguely if she had ever given me anything without my knowledge.
“I call this one Saint Vitus.” She whispered close to my ear and turned to discharge a second dart into number two stooge.
He copied the hand slap of the previous fellow who was now rounding the farthest corner muttering and scratching his thighs. He had begun a spasmodic twitching, jerking out a leg here the other leg there. Stooge number two turned to see his companion in some distress, he then glowered in our direction, we were pretty sure he couldn’t see us, but he wasn’t stupid, he knew he’d been attacked, pinching the tiny dart from his neck,
“I knaa you’re out theear!” he yelled, sounded like a Yorkshireman, “I'll fine theur, theur bastards 'n when I'm done wi' theur…”
He was cut short by his own legs which were twitching like his chums.
“What’s ‘appenin’ Bert?!” cried the first fellow. “Uz legs won’t stop!”
Doppler pressed a hand over her mouth stifling a giggle. I had to admit, it was a most unusual and entertaining spectacle. We stepped out from our concealment. Bert turned on us raising his cudgel, then hesitated at the sight of two women. He frowned in puzzlement then his legs took him on a little jig, to which Doppler and I burst into peals of laughter. Bert and pal held onto each other’s arms, Bert trying very hard to control himself made occasional efforts to swing his weapon at us, we dodged easily as he gambolled and pranced about, the other one was whimpering as his legs capered without consent. I had to resist the urge to laugh too loud else we attract attention from the house. As Bert valiantly tried to resist the Dance his comrade fell to the floor, jiggling and writhing like a caught eel, he began clawing at his collar, his heels digging into the damp grass, he couldn’t breathe. Bert watched in horror as his chum slowly suffocated before him, and when I say before him I do mean in advance of himself. He stared at Doppler and me with fear stretched eyes before hitting the deck and going through the same motions. I nudged the two limp forms with the toe of my boot then I looked at Doppler,
“Was it what you had hoped for?” I enquired
She nodded and pressed her lips together.
“Hmm, could be a bit faster acting.” She replied “But it was interesting all the same.” She smiled.
I rolled my eyes, “Let’s go.”
It was a good lock, but a judicious application of acid soon had it open. Inside we shone our Tesla lamps. What we saw shocked us into silence and immobility. Before us stood row upon row of what looked like giant deep sea diving outfits. Standing at around eight feet tall each had a compartment within the head and torso for a single man to sit. I clambered up into one, there were levers and switches that appeared to assist with movement of the limbs, the helmets had speaking tubes and ear covers. One button stood out from all the rest, this one was red, it had a symbol like a lightning flash on it, but I didn’t press it. Instead I hastily clambered back out of the machine-man and returned to Doppler.
“What, what are they?” she enquired quietly.
“I don’t know” I frowned “They look like, well, armour I suppose, deadly armour with weapons. They give me the creeps.”
What was the Honourable William Ridley up to? I wondered. Leaving the deadly diving suits behind, we headed for the house. We located the access to the cellar via a small, sturdy and heavy door. Inside the smell of damp and oak barrels filled my nostrils. I had memorised the plan that ‘Lefty’ Armstrong had given me and knew that the two most likely places that a man like Ridley would keep a safe were, his bedroom or his study.
The study was on the first floor, above the party which we could not hear due to the incredible breadth of the stones. The master bedroom was on the third floor. We decided to split up. Doppler would climb the exterior to the bedroom whilst I would attempt to find a way to access the study. I couldn’t be seen wandering about dressed like this, I needed a change if I was to access the next floor.
The usual arrangements for social events in these big houses was often to hire help, in addition to the staff that lived here there should be some ‘out of towners’, I reasoned. Whilst Doppler made her way back out and up, I proceeded to the kitchens, scullery and pantries. The place was full of diligent maids, waiting on staff, caterers, footmen and so forth, dashing here and there. From my nook beneath a staircase I caught a glimpse of stately ladies in glittering gowns, gentlemen in a range of uniforms, some I recognised; Belgian Cuirassers, Russian Hussars, Prussians, and British of course. A rather militaristic gathering indeed. When there was a lull in the toing and froing, I sidled along the wall to my right and rounded into a stores pantry, where I came upon an unfortunate low ranking, and young, male domestic. I say unfortunate, because as he turned and said,
“Sorry, staff only in here, where can I direct you, I say, you’re not…”
I pounced on him, covering his mouth with one gloved hand, I apologised, before sticking him with twelve inches of Scottish steel. I lowered his body gently to the floor, opened a low cupboard and bundled him in. I then secreted myself in the shade between two tall cupboards. I didn’t have to wait long before a voice was heard,
“I dinnae know! I’ll fetch it mesel.”
A female of some girth bustled in, went straight to the corner the lad had been at and proceeded to arrange a platter with some meat item and trimmings. When she had completed her task. I shot her with a lightning gun – after all, I didn’t want to kill everyone did I?! She squeaked a little as she vibrated then dropped to the floor. I quickly undressed her, and as she had been of the round persuasion, was able to fit her uniform on over my outdoor clothes. I pulled on her cap and picked up the platter, remembering at the very last moment to remove my gloves!
I stepped out. Glancing around I could see the bottom of the staircase I needed to use and made my way to it. I had to pass by the main doorway to the function and as I had almost slipped by, a uniformed male stepped out,
“You there!” he barked “Yes you with the tway. Weally, staff in these parts are wotten I say.”
I had my head lowered and turned my eyes to look at this scrawny excuse for an Englishman.
“Whit can a git ye?” I said, making an attempt at a Scots accent.
“Downwight wude!” he chided, “Bwing that mutton in here at once, and don’t dilly dally, or I shall weally get cwoss and weport you to your employer.”
I followed him into a huge room that had sideboards around the walls, loaded with plates of food. I placed my platter down and curtseyed to the officer, turned and left. As I left he followed me to the doorway and said,
“And maybe I will have to wepwimand you a wittle later. Hmm?” he waggled his eyebrows.
I dipped another curtsey and turned to go, colliding with one of two figures entering. A gruff voice spoke in a Germanic tongue to the figure I had bumped, they both laughed, I kept my head low, curtsied yet again and circled past as they continued inside. I could not help noticing the clothing of the gentleman I had collided with, it was linen, cream linen, all cream, beautifully tailored with a leaf pattern brocade waistcoat - Eric bloody Hanson! What was he doing here?! I turned my head just enough to see into the room, he had turned his head too, he was looking at me, he was trying to work out if he recognised me. I scurried out of his line of sight. I could only hope that the increased girth with the layers of clothes, the maids’ uniform and deferential manner would keep him satisfied that I was not me.
I made an attempt to go up the stairs but was waylaid by one of the house staff and curtly hustled to a different pantry for supplies. As I was prodded and scolded I passed the Englishman without his rs. He was accosting a young scullery maid, she pressed her back to the wall in an attempt to blend in and disappear, I kept watching as I passed but was hurried on by the Butler or whatever he was,
“It’s none of your business.” He cautioned in a soft Scottish accent. “Whatever the guests of Ridley Rise want, they get, even from the hired help. Do I make myself clear?”
I nodded in mock subservience. Then I was alone. I needed a way up those stairs and I thought I’d just found my way, the rescuing of a damsel in distress was all to the good too. I slunk back the way we’d come and found the officer and scullery maid still in position, I hovered a way off until I’d succeeded in catching his eye, made a couple of insinuating gestures and strolled past.
“I shall have you for dessert my wittle dove.”
He trilled to the girl before turning on his heel and following me. I made coy movements with my head, allowed him to catch me about the waist near the foot of the stairs,
“You’re a wittle wascle aren’t you, eh?”
I made movement with my eyes up the stairs, he glanced up, and then back at the gathering, he seemed suddenly undecided. I squeezed one skinny buttock in my hand and whispered,
“I’ll make it worth ye while English.”
I had him. He practically dragged me up the stairs, the Butler, passing through the hallway barely glanced at us. I played a game of cat and mouse, acting all coquettish, stopping at doorways, turning aside as he leant in for a kiss, giggling and squealing like some slip of a girl that I wasn’t. When I was sure I had located the study, I grasped the knob –the door knob! – raised my eyebrows as if asking, Should we be naughty and do it in here? He pressed forward, well he pressed something forward. We slipped into the room, a single small gas lamp was casting its welcome glow. I ran my eyes quickly over the walls, paintings were the obvious place, there was a large mahogany desk a number of shelves and cabinets for housing collections. A hand grasped me around the waist,
“You’re wather a homely lass aren’t you? I like some meat on my girls. Now how about that wepwimand eh? Eh? Shall I spank you first or will you do it to me?”
I still had my back to him,
“Oh if you insist.” I sighed.
And using the full force of my turning body I landed my fist in the side of his head, his temple to be exact. He looked momentarily, like he’d caught his jewels in a carriage door, before toppling to the floor like a deflated sheep’s bladder.
Quickly, I locked the door from the inside and began my search. Only once did someone attempt to enter, making some appropriate sounds soon sent them looking elsewhere for their own love nest. I was thorough. It wasn’t here. I could only hope Doppler had found it. She was the next floor up and I wondered if I could get up to that level unheeded. I bound and gagged the unconscious officer and propped him behind the window drapes. I carefully unlocked the door and opening the door a crack, spied along the landing both ways. All clear. I dashed for the next stair level and slunk upstairs to the sleeping quarters. I located the master bedroom, gave a light tap, the lock clicked and in I went.
Doppler exclaimed, showing me what looked like a beautiful walnut wardrobe that she had removed the side panelling from. A sturdy ‘iron chest’, not the wooden kind that were still so commonly used in England, this was the kind used in banks, French made, fire proof and with a triple locking system. I removed the redundant maids outfit and I took out my set of picks while Doppler went and stood by the door, listening out. The knuckles of my right hand still ached where I had landed a blow on lover boys head. I blew on my fingers and flexed them, then set to work.
I worked in silence. It was getting hot in here. Doppler maintained her position without a sound. I could feel the sweat beginning to prickle on my back. After ten minutes I had released only one lock, but now having the sense of it, the other two should be easier. Another ten minutes and all three were free. I took a deep breath and pulled open the door.
Inside was an oblong case, inside this wrapped in a dark blue fabric, was a stunning blue diamond the likes of which I had never seen in my life. It was gorgeous even in a semi dark room, I wanted to see it in daylight. The Bite Bleu lived up to its name, it was a very curious shape, long like a finger and the same length as my middle finger, I could not begin to estimate its worth. I re-wrapped it and put it into my side pouch, leaving the box.
However, the rest of the contents of the safe were equally fascinating, for there were letters and blue-prints pertaining to the machines we had witnessed in the outbuilding. William Ridley, honourable, William Ridley had built an army of exceedingly horrendous war machines that could be ‘worn’ by soldiers for battle, they carried explosive devices, and something called ‘rocket launchers’, which could annihilate whole sections of an army with the push of a single button. They could give a single man the strength of a hundred men. They had rapid-fire weapons built into the arms. They could be lived in for weeks months even, because, and this was the worst part, the man would become integrated with the machine. I did not know how the men would get out of these suits of armour – if at all. I collected as much as I dared, folded and stuffed them into Doppler’s knapsack and made ready to depart. We closed up the safe, shut the cupboard doors and left by the window. We made haste back to the tethered horses,
“We need to show this to Armstrong” I shouted to Doppler through the wind and rain. We spurred our horses into action, galloping through bracken and heather, moss and flint until arriving at Bastle House a swinging lantern drawing us and the cry,
“Come forth, come forth good riders!” greeting us.
We slid from the beasts and made haste into the hall where Gregor Armstrong sat alone by the roaring fire. He was spattered in mud and blood. He had a melancholy air about him and only now did I notice the two figures laid upon the dining table. Jed Armstrong and the red headed boy I had teased. They were dead, sodden with rain and mud but their causes of death all too clear. A deep wound in the stomach of the boy gaped like a sneering mouth at me and Jed had been cleaved about the head, I could hear his wild laughter still.
“I hope you had more success than us” he quietly said “We didn’t release a single soul, not a single one! Ridleys men had moved them. Our information was wrong and I lead these two men to their deaths.”
I almost said, so much for Invictus Maneo, but I didn’t have the heart. There was no-one else in the hall and Doppler approached the two dead men, appearing more curious than concerned. I went to Gregor and knelt before him. I removed the wrapped bundle and set it in his hand. He opened it without joy, held it up to inspect by the fire light. We admired it together, well I admired it, he merely shrugged and returned it to its cloth. I hurried to where Doppler had dropped her knapsack,
“Maybe this will be of more interest to you then,”
I chattered as I unfolded the papers we had discovered. I presented them. He sat up straighter, now he was interested, he took the blueprints and plans, scanning them over and over, he grabbed the letters and began to read. Moments later,
“Have ye read these?” he asked
“No. We just looked at the plans and realised how important they are. Do you see what he’s intending to do? He was having a party, all military types from across Europe. I think he’s showcasing his wares, going for the highest bidder, but I’m not sure if all those present would be involved, maybe they were to detract from the few who Ridleys interested in.”
“Smart lassie. These letters are from the military leaders of three countries, Russia, Austria and the Holy Roman Empire. He has begun the bidding process and tonight was to be his big showcase, as you say. The other guest will indeed be there to provide the illusion of a businessman socialising on all fronts. Well done, we’ve got the bugger. How did you know they weren’t all involved?”
I shrugged. I didn’t tell him about Eric Hanson, I don’t know why, but I did not believe for one minute that Hanson was involved in this warmongering. He struck me, not just literally the swine, but figuratively speaking, as an honest chap. He did after all protect a man’s property and he is a member of the Royal Order of Dragons, a sickeningly righteous group of Empire defenders. Gregor Armstrong seemed revitalised, but then turned towards his fallen comrades. He told Doppler there was a room made ready for her on the next floor up when she felt like sleep. She was sat cross legged on the floor writing in her little leather-bound notebook. Dropping the papers and letters onto a side table he took hold of my hand gently, looked at me with those grey eyes and turned to the stairs. He completely expected me to follow, who did he think I was? No dearest darling, no double entendres, no wooing, simply a tug of the hand and I’d follow?!
Well, how could I not…
The following morning I awoke in the massive feathered bed of Gregor Armstrong. He lay curled with his back to me, I could see a network of scars across his skin, he was one tough man, or very lucky man. His room was sparse. The bed, a wash stand with small shaving mirror besides, a chest of draws and a chair near the window was all. The surfaces had few personal items; books whose titles I could not read from here, grooming equipment and a dirk. As I stretched and yawned there came a hammering at the door. He was up and opening it before I could shout for the intruder to go away.
“There’s a messenger from Ridley. He wants a match!” the panted voice declared.
Gregor nodded and began to dress. I asked him what was happening.
“He knows we have his stuff. We’re to have a hugball match.”
“Hugball, ach, it’s similar to your football except” he paused mid pulling on of breeches, “it’s a wee bit more physical.”
“He wants a game of football because you have his diamond?!” I was astonished.
“It’s no that simple. It’s an old tradition in these here parts. Traditionally, when one clan had a grievance against another, the two clans, or towns would take part in the game, winner takes all. It’s a matter of honour and cannot be turned down. We must play.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I’d gone to all that trouble only to possibly lose the damned thing over a game of football! I began to dress and followed Gregor into the great hall downstairs, it was full of shouting men, young and old. The venue and time had been fixed. Tomorrow at noon. The table, now cleared of the corpses, now held in their place, a round object, it was old, dark leather with a raised band around its circumference. It looked heavy. An elderly fellow sidled up to me,
“Aye, ye can touch it, it’ll nae bite.”
I picked it up, it was quite large, the leather hardened with age, but lighter than expected. I weighed it in one hand.
“Filled wi cork.” He grinned a toothless grin, “For when it goes in the river.”
I gave him a questioning look.
“Aye, ye see, the object o the game is tae capture and keep the ball, and the team that gets it to their ayne home is the winner.”
“So there isn’t a goal?”
“Aye, that is the goal. It’s no played like the English softies lassie, its no got a time limit, could last an hour, could last all day.”
I was amazed at this bizarre, medieval set of rules, it was going to be something to see. Doppler and I were invited to ride out to the starting area or ‘hurling in’ point. This was where the ball would be hurled into the crowd to start the game. There would be about fifty men all told involved. While we were making our way back a galloping rider was fast approaching from behind, he shouted something to our guide as he dashed past which I did not catch and we were immediately chivvied back to the house. It turned out that Ridley was planning to lay an ambush for the opposition and was amassing his supporters. Gregor had sent messengers to the outlying Marches for assistance. There was nothing to do but wait. In the hall there were little groups doing odd exercises like bringing their knees up to their chins whilst lying on their backs, others were running very quickly on the spot, still others were play wrestling. Doppler and I watched with amusement, but there was little amusement on the faces of the players, this was serious, this was more than a game.
The next day, the old fellow who had explained the rules to me, Kinmont Willie, took us to the hurling in point where others had gathered for a front row view. From our left, the south, men began appearing. This must be the team I thought, but they kept coming and soon more than a hundred men were gathered at a point outside the hurling centre. Gregor Armstrong followed by about thirty men arrived from the north. Ridley was standing in the front of his crowd.
“I think you’ll have to declare Armstrong” he jeered
Gregor looked up at the sky,
“It’s not mid-day yet William Ridley. I still have my time.” He smiled serenely.
What was he up to I wondered. Then my wondering was over. A crowd of men began to appear from the hills beyond, striding purposefully. Ridley looked a little shaken, but there were still not as many as he had and he smiled. Then the two sides approached the centre, a figure stepped forward with the ball and shouted,
“I declare this hugball hurled.” And as he said it, he hurled the ball into the two clashing teams.
I couldn’t see where the ball was at all, there was such a ruck of bodies. At one point it popped up from the crowd and a hundred clawing fingers reached for it. Ridleys boys were pushing the Armstrong’s away. Someone broke away from the crush and began running south, the Ridleys had it, the Armstrong’s gave chase, but not desperately. Doppler and I were shoved along in the crowd of onlookers as it followed the action. The ball carrier ran speedily in the direction of the South March followed by everyone else. Suddenly he slipped, the ball flying from his grasp, the rest of the Ridley and the Armstrong’s were bearing down on him, when there was a shrill cry from somewhere behind. I turned as did the rest of the crowd to see a host of men racing towards the throng, they swept past us like a river round a boulder and hurled themselves onto the ball and its erstwhile carrier.
Ridleys boys were suddenly confronted with a hundred or so men, I saw the flash of a blade, a raised club then the fighting began. The ball shot up into the air again, there was a scream as the mass began to move itself in the opposite direction. Half the men were now punching and kicking, rolling on the muddy ground, pounding faces with fists, the rest were trying to guard the ball or acquire it. I caught a glimpse of Gregor and a shout from the Ridleys went up,
“The Monk has it!”
And he disappeared under a mass of muddy bodies. A Ridley had it now and was surrounded by his pack, it rolled and wheeled sideways as it was shoved by the Armstrong’s. A familiar figure with fly-plaid and wavy blonde hair emerged like a cork popping from the ocean bottom he began to run back towards his own ground, found himself cut off and diverted to his left, we had to run to see the action, he was about to leap a narrow stream, but was yanked back by his plaid, he fell and was covered by the mob.
By now, bodies were sprawled, groaning across the landscape, someone booted the ball into the air, figures leapt to reach and grab, a cry went up from the Armstrong’s,
“Howay the lads!”
And an unbridled surged pressed tight, men chanted together like sailors at work or labourers on a rail gang. It was a deep, resonant sound and with each;
“Invictus Maneo”, “Invictus Maneo” ,they stepped rhythmically, en masse slowly edging forwards, steamrollering any Ridleys that got in their way. About two hundred yards from the Bastle House, Irvine without his plaid and blonde hair plastered over his eyes, was shoved from the huddle and raced forwards, the rest of the Armstrong’s stood their ground, fending off Ridleys left, right and centre. Fists flew, feet skidded, until a bell could be heard ringing frantically, a massive cheer went up from the Armstrong’s,
“Hurrah boys, Hurrah!”
Irvine was raised up high, his torn and grubby bit of plaid found and draped around his shoulders. He held the ball up for all to see. Gregor Armstrong came over to where Doppler and I stood, a huge grin on his bruised, bloody and muddy features. He hugged us both, he hugged the hurler in man, and he hugged his clansmen. Looking to find Ridley to shake his hand, to seal the agreement, he saw groups of men carrying the injured from the ‘field’.
Final score: two dead, including Ridley.
I did get my money from the Armstrong’s, plus a few acres of land with a fair sized property, peel tower included. Armstrong was going to keep the letters and blue prints, I guessed he would be in touch with the bidders to tell them the deal was over.
Later I found out that the land and property The Monk had given me had belonged to my family all along, it was Lockhart holdings, passed from my father to my uncle, so he had tricked me, the so and so, he paid me with what was mine to start with!
Ah well, Le Bite Bleu looks good on my desk. If he wants it back, he’ll have to come and get it!