Last one before The Asylum, Lincoln folks...
#7 stand alone
The Life and Crimes of Lockhart and Doppler
In nomine Patris et Filly et Spirits
“Sister Josephine! Sister Josephine!”
The short monochrome figure dashes up the cloister aisle, the hushed tap, tap tapping of her shoes on the stone-flagged floor speaks of habitual respect, tranquillity and restraint. The tip, tapping steps continued into the nave across marble floor until reaching the quire, then slowed down. The animated nun takes a few calming breaths before addressing the black clad figure kneeling before the altar.
“Sister Josephine, zer are men here,”
The French accented English and the slight breathlessness made the announcement sound more sensual than it should. The figure didn’t move,
“Official, I think zey may be military, they are not policemen, and…and…they are asking for you!”
The figure slowly stands, turns and looks down at the diminutive sister. And calmly says in English;
“Thank you Sister Phrygia. Would you be so kind as to find Sister Carmine, I think you will find her in the herb garden?”
Helpful Sister Phrygia quietly dashes back through the nave, through the cloister and past the kitchens to the garden.
As soon as Sister Phrygia had left the cloister, I hitched up my habit and legged it to my cell, hobnailed boots creating sparks as they skidded across the stone floor, around the corner and through the heavy wooden door. Inside it was sparse, as expected in a convent, and clean as required of the Petites Sœurs de la Lave, a Cistern order. I tugged my carpet bag out from under the cot-bed just as Sister Phrygia returned with Sister Carmine,
“Where are they now Sister?” I asked.
“Zey are with the Reverend Mother, she has taken them to her study, why are you packing?”
Sister Carmine, aka, Theodora Doppler, had disappeared to her shared cell and was also packing. I turned to the little sister, clutching my hands before me in supplication;
“Sister Phrygia, I need you to do something for me.” She nodded, “Something very important” she nodded, wide eyed, “It may go against your orders.” She stopped nodding.
“We have a secret, Sister Carmine and I. Remember when we arrived here?”
“Oui, it was a terrible thunderstorm that night, you were both terribly…ébouriffé…”
“Dishevelled, oui. We have been working for you know who.”
I looked at her meaningfully. Her little face searched mine for comprehension.
“You know, Number One, well, in this case, number nine; Big Daddy, White Smoke, sixty enter one man leaves, Pourii.”
Understanding was beginning to dawn. I put a finger to my lips.
“We have been tracking down some missing items from The City for him. It is very, very hush, hush. I’m sure you understand when I say, no-one knows about this, except those right at the top and now you.”
A sharp intake of breath. She covered her shocked mouth with her tiny hand. As I continued to explain to Sister Gullible, we had been hired personally by His Holiness to recover stolen items that would be an inestimable loss to the Church, and a scandal should it become publicly known, it was imperative that she keep quiet about us, she became more and more enamoured of the idea of assisting us to escape. That was the line of work we were in. Who on earth would suspect two Englishwomen?
And so Sister Phrygia became unwittingly embroiled in our scam…
Two months earlier…
I had been pouring over maps, journals (mine and, well let us say, those on long term loan from others), lists of archaeological digs and torn fragments of paper looking for something to pique my interest. My study had little stacks of reading material, mentally marked; to read, possibly, no and re-file.
I am, in fact, assiduously tidy in my study and in regards to my cataloguing and categorising, I know, you’re surprised aren’t you? Thought I was a Philistine, not at all, my study is my haven, my central command, my sanctum. The books on the shelves are organised by category first, author second. This cabinet contains all records of the Americas, this one is Africa, here we have good old Blighty, and then chronicles of individuals; name, age (if known), nationality, affiliations, addresses and finally graded by usefulness to my aims. Dotted around the study, and the rest of the house for that matter, are artefacts from my travels; the Stone of the Sons of Horus, a jade Inca mask, Obsidian daggers and so on. My eyes, travelling around the room, came to rest upon the Stone and that was how I settled on my plan.
I contacted Lady Celia Fox and Rene de Cavellier, both of whom were part of the recreational activity of acquisition by stealth. Lady Celia is a patron, collector, speculator and friend. De Cavellier, like me, plays the game of Finders Custodes. We met at Lady Celia’s’ home; Markham Manor, where I was delighted to see Meadows again. Meadows had gifted me a charming compilation of throwing knives – three were gone, embedded in the bellies of some pursuing primitives, and the Tesla gun had been swallowed by an ancient Incan deity- I must write to Mr T and see if he can produce another for me. The scheme was as follows; the players –that is, De Cavellier and myself, were to be given three months to obtain any artefact they felt like, but to try and make it more valuable than their opponents. Obviously neither of us would know what the other was aiming to acquire and so aiming high was essential. Lady Celia was to be the arbiter in the game, ultimately keeping said artefact for herself. The three months was for research, planning, travel, locating the item and returning to Markham Manor. We shook hands on the deal. Turning to de Cavellier, I asked;
“Shall we drink to it?”
He eyed me knowingly.
“Ah, Mon Cher, you think to slip me some concoction again, eh?”
“Rene, really? You don’t think I would pull such a ruse twice do you?” I smiled innocently.
“How do you English say? ‘Once bitten…?”
“You’re not shy…and I don’t bite…not hard anyway.” I raised an eyebrow and twinkled at him.
We had forgotten Lady Celia.
“My apologies Madam Fox.” Responded de Cavellier rising from his seat. “I, erm,”
“Don’t apologise Monsieur, I am well aware of the, ah, rapport between the pair of you. Now, if we have concluded our meeting,” she rose, “I have another matter to attend to. Please, do make yourselves at home, Meadows is on hand should you require anything. Lucy my dear, the Rose room is yours as usual, Monsieur, you have the Blue room.”
She looked sidelong at him then turned to leave. At the door she halted,
“Oh, did I forget to mention? There is nobody else staying here at the present, I am preparing to close the Manor in preparation for my stay in Paris. Be good while I’m away.”
And with a barely restrained smile at the corner of her lips, she was gone. Then the sound of her Ladyships carriage drawing up then leaving up the gravel drive.
The air was charged. I glanced through the veil of my fascinator at the figure opposite. De Cavellier was tracing patterns with his middle finger on the mahogany table top. He glanced at me from under his intense brows, his nostrils flared.
I stirred my tea gently;
“You know,” I breathed, “The Camelia Sinensis enjoys a warm, humid climate, it prefers a deep, light, acidic and well-drained soil. And the bush…”
The china tea service was sent scattering across the Persian rug. We slid around on the polished surface until the elimination of garments allowed for purchase. Even with my new, light corset I was finding it difficult to breathe until de Cavellier pulled a short knife from his boot and slashed the laces fervently…
We spent that night in the Blue room, sufficiently recovered from our ‘high tea’ to perform the pas de deux on the palisander desk, the chasse on the chaise longue and play blanket hornpipe, where else but on the bed! Did I lie back and think of England?! Not for one second.
“You must be joking?!”
Cried Doppler when I informed her of my plan. I had made my decision about which items I was going to purloin. Not specifics, not individually identified, but I knew where we were going and the sort of things we were after. There was no way we couldn’t win on value.
“But if we get caught, we will be sent down! Seriously Lockhart, this is crazy. There is no way we are getting in there.”
“Oh we will, with a little care and preparation. We can do this.”
I grabbed both of her hands in mine,
“Just think! If we pull this off, we will be,”
“We will be what?” She snapped, “It’s not as if we can tell anyone, it’s not as if we’re going to advertise our services and use this as proof of our capability. The only people who will know are you, me, Lady C and you’re Frenchman.”
I dropped her hands, disappointed,
“He’s not my Frenchman. And besides, we won’t get caught, I promise. Look, if you really don’t want to then you stay behind,”
“What and leave you to either kill or tup your way through Italy? I hardly think so. You need me, to slow you down, to reduce the risks, to cover your back… to repair you when you’re broken.”
At this last comment she blinked furiously and looked away. Her lips formed a tight line.
“OK.” I finally said. “You come. We plan, thoroughly. We take it steady. Slow and steady wins the race, eh?”
I knocked her gently, amiably on the chin. Doppler turned, her face had the ‘I’m resigned’ look, and something else.
It was a speedy flight, in the Professor Selwyn, across the Channel to Italy. A sunny day over Belgium and a couple of blustery days over Switzerland and finally Italy. There was a five day festival on for two saints and we had deliberately coincided our visit with this. They have so many Saints in the church it’s hard to keep up with who patronizes what. This festival was for Saints Luigi and Mario, patrons of pasta and moustaches I think. The festival did obligingly provide an excuse for us to be travelling and staying here. We brought the sphere into land in the Parco Urbano Del Pineto, there were many other airships dotted around the vast acreage, surrounded by vineyards and farmhouses. The parkland butted up to the walls of Vatican City.
“OK, do you have your papers?”
“Check and double check.”
“What did Painless give you?”
Painless, was Painless Pete, an old friend of ours who concocted and supplied all sorts of remedies; phials of sticky amber fluid, little green, blue or red tablets, unguents and salves, toxins and medicine. He and Doppler had spent a few days working together in her laboratory concocting supplies for this trip – I didn’t know if they had been tried out, I’m sure Painless would have been willing, I don’t think there was a substance on the planet the man hadn’t imbibed.
“Oh, some of the usual and get this!” Doppler became animated. “Remember that sticky spit you got on your face in Edinburgh? From that weird alien thing? Painless managed to reproduce it! It is a…ma…zing.” She beamed.
“I’m assuming he tried it out?” I enquired.
“Of course. You should have seen him, it was hilarious, and he said it was the “finest trip I’ve been on, man”, all croaky like.”
Here Doppler imitated someone who sounded like they were either in pain or had just woken up.
We headed off to lodgings on the Via Sebastiano. A shabby, innocuous boarding house that looked as if it had been a rather elegant villa in the past. Money up front for five days and extra to use the safety deposit box kept the concierge satisfied. Dressed like two regular tourists, Doppler and I did a tour of the City walls and surrounding streets (Rule #17: Know your way out). We drank toasts to the Saints with some locals, followed a procession of statues with masses of tourists, and then gazed at the wonder around Saint Peters Square. The City truly is a monument to art in itself, the architecture is beautiful, Saint Peter’s Basilica being the largest religious building in the world, beneath our feet was the remnants of Caligula’s and Nero’s circus, buried under a skim of Christianity.
The guards were an odd bunch, a mixture of Swiss Guard and volunteers. Another thing that was odd – there were actually very few official types about. Festival goers, tourists and pilgrims were gently directed to stay in the square or assisted to the Sistine Chapel and other small chapels.
Under the persona of an English school teacher and her ward, we approached a number of security types, a nun and locals. My young ward and I would love to meet His Holiness the Pope, oh dear, that wasn’t possible. Ah well, we shall have to await Sunday when he gives his Papal Blessing, from, which window was it? Oh yes, I see, top floor second from the right. Not this week? I do hope His Eminence is not in poor health! A small cold you say? No, no, he had an accident. He is away on tour. He is gravely ill. He is not available due to personal circumstances.
Whatever the reason, the result was the same. Pope Pius IX was not going to be seen during this festival of Saints, and, he had not been seen for some weeks! Intriguing.
Outside on the streets the story was different; the Pope was not in residence, he was in exile due to the Republicans activities. Rome was convulsed in various revolutionary movements. The Pope had claimed to be above national interests and refused to go to war with Austria. There was strong opposition to him and his policies in some quarters. The festival, it was claimed by some, was not a good idea – there would be trouble.
You know, these Italian chappies get themselves in such a lather over anything. You can stroll down any via at any time and see animated arguments, arms flailing, words shooting out like bullets. Men shout and show disdain for their adversary. Women scream insults from windows at departing lovers. And yet, at the end of the day, they share some vino, smoke a cigarette and fall into each other’s arms with tears in their eyes and kisses on their lips. All is forgiven – until next time!
We met our contact in a little café where the air was awash with excitable gossip and cigarette smoke. Zelda Caradonna sat outside with a miniscule coffee cup and oversized cheroot to hand. She was dressed all in deep purple with an old fashioned, lacy hat on top of her auburn locks. Zelda was voluptuous to say the least, her large eyes were bright blue today as if reflecting the clear skies, her lips were like overripe plums and her orbs gleamed in the sunlight drawing admiring glances from men and women alike.
“Ciao darlings.” She said as we approached, and kissed us on both cheeks – these Italians!
“Sedersi, per favore. Volete un rinfresco?”
“Grazi signorina Caradonna. I shall have whatever you’re having, thank you. Doppler?”
Doppler eyed the tiny cup suspiciously. To Doppler, drink is to refresh and slake thirst, this small, insignificant portion could only mean one of two things; it was either very strong, or poison. Poison comes in little packages. So she opted for a beer.
Zelda Caradonna chatted away as if we were lifelong friends even though we had never met before. She was the perfect image of Italian middle class gentility. We slipped from Italian to English as Doppler’s grasp of the language was limited, she believes everyone should just learn English, the best language in the world she says. We spent an hour talking about, well nothing. Whenever I tried to steer the conversation to our reason for meeting, she adroitly led us back to the latest fashion with Italian ladies compared to English. Her laughter was like a sparkling brook, her smile like sunshine, the waiters adored her and made excuses to come and serve our table, she was charming, cheerful and witty. The best at her game I had ever met – and I didn’t fully know what Signorina Caradonna’s game actually was. I knew she had spied for her country. I knew she had managed to infiltrate a notorious French prison and release a person of eminence. I would bet my house that her eyes weren’t the only part of her that convinced authority figures towards indulgence!
Then she stood to go.
“Don’t forget to give Great Aunt Mimsy my gift darlings. It has been delightful seeing you both. Ciao!”
And with that she was gone, in a swirl of purple taffeta and yearning glances.
“Blimey!” Doppler said, breaking the momentary silence after the chatter and laughter.
“I know. She’s quite a talker isn’t she?”
“I meant her… you know…” Doppler held her hands in front of her over invisible large breasts.
“Oh, those…yes. Quite…impressive.”
“Are you jealous?” queried Doppler, squinting through the sunlight to see my features.
“No! Not at all! Well, maybe just a little. Although, thinking about some of the tight squeezes we’ve been in. If I had them, I’d still be in that tomb in La Ventura to this day!”
“And imagine running?!” Doppler whispered.
We picked up the parcel for Great Aunt Mimsy that Caradonna had left beneath the table and went back to our lodgings.
Signorina Zelda Caradonna was definitely going into my filing system when we got home. The supplies were perfect. Two nuns habits, all white. Letters of introduction, false papers, wire framed spectacles, a small Bible and Book of the Saints each. Now all we had to do was brazen it out.
The nuns in the Apostolic Palace are various nationalities, but rarely, if ever, English. And so we deemed it prudent that only I would speak, as languages is one of my innate talents. Sister Carmine had taken a vow of silence. Both Sister Carmine and Sister Josephine were to be German, from the small town of Schnickerdoodle (famous for its overly sweet biscuits) on the border next to Holland.
The following morning we presented ourselves at the offices of the Apostolic Palace. Doppler was nervous, this was most definitely the most dangerous venture we had undertaken, not because we could encounter monsters, but if caught, the consequences were dire. Imprisonment at best. Execution at worst. We were briefly questioned and our documentation examined cursorily. A nun, dressed like us in the full white, arrived.
“Guten Tag Schwestern. Let me show you to your quarters sisters.”
And with Doppler nodding meekly and me peering myopically through my spectacles, we trundled after her through corridors and rooms. Everywhere was opulent. Paintings, carvings, sculptures, frescos, marble inlaid floors. The walls of the corridors were crammed with imagery rising to the ceilings in a Roman arch, patterns covered the surface, floral, abstract, geometric designs in rich Byzantium colours. Every surface was decorated. Taken piece by piece (and how I would love to!), the work was simply gorgeous, however, I felt like I was trapped inside a chocolate box designed by a madman who just had to use every single colour in his paint box. It was a riotous kaleidoscope of myths and motifs.
When finally we arrived in our dormitory, I whipped the spectacles off and squeezed my eyes tight shut. Doppler sagged one of the two narrow beds, when I looked over, she was shaking.
“It’s going to be OK.” I said kneeling before her and taking her hands in mine. “You’ll see. Just need to do a recce, find something suitable and go.”
She looked up with pink rimmed eyes, then started to giggle.
“You” she laughed, “Kneeling there like a supplicating nun.”
We both laughed, with relief as much as anything. We were in!
The duty roster was given to us. The nuns in the Apostolic Apartments did the cooking, cleaning and laundry for the Big Man, and so we proceeded to clean. There was minimal cooking as the Pope was currently ‘not at home’ we were told. The Apartments were comprised of ten rooms including the Popes private bedroom and study. We acquainted ourselves with the dust in them all, apart from the last two which were locked. Lunchtime was a dreary affair. I could never be a nun. The sex, or absence of it, for one thing, and all that kneeling, I was going to want a certificate in genuflection before I left this place. Black clad priests wafted through the corridors of the Palace, but here, it was free of Catholic testosterone.
Outside, in the distant inky night, a clock chimed the midnight hour. When the ecumenical sisterhood had retired and silence fell, we tiptoed from our room. Scurrying like mice along the corridors to the private study. Doppler kept a lookout whilst I picked the lock. Inside it smelt like leather and beeswax, old books and incense. We began a thorough search. In fact, we didn’t have to look far, as upon the writing desk sat a delightful reliquary statue, beside the desk, on a simply carved lectern, was a manuscript.
Doppler held a light near as I read, assayed and marvelled. It was the manuscript of St. Thomas Aquinas from the thirteenth century! The pages were fragile, like moth wings, the few illuminations still contained their colour but the original vibrancy was gone. I couldn’t believe we had struck this lucky. I could not even begin to put a value on this. Handling the sacred object with utmost care, we wrapped it in a piece of silk, then put it in a velvet bag. On a corner shelf stood another reliquary, simpler than the figurative one, it had a distressed glass piece in the front showing what appeared to be a finger bone, I took it.
We crept back to our room and whilst Doppler securely packed the manuscript in a wooden cutlery box that had been prepared inside for such deceit, I examined the reliquary statue. It was about six to eight inches tall, a three quarter figure of Mary holding the infant Jesus. The surface was gold with painted faces, small precious stones were inlaid around the Virgins veil and seed pearls were stars on her gown. I couldn’t find a way to open it, it seemed to be sealed after putting whatever the body part was, inside. So I gave it to Doppler to secrete somewhere.
The following morning was the same routine as the previous day, cleaning, polishing, sweeping. One of the nuns fell seriously ill and had to be escorted to hospital. As we stood outside with the remaining four nuns, I looked at Doppler from the corner of my eye, nothing, not a flicker – but I knew better. Later we heard that two priests and a secretary had also come down with some strange virus. Dark murmurings in the corridors. I happened to come across one of the nuns worriedly whispering to a priest, I kept my head down as I swept;
“Do you think it’s a sign from God, Father?”
“Now, now Sister, probably something they ate.”
“Are you saying my cooking poisoned them Father, because if you are...”
“Not at all. I just meant that, maybe the fish was off, just a little, nothing to do with your cooking skills.”
“Do you think it’s because of Him?”
The priest looked about warily. I tucked my head down.
“Ssh! don’t mention…Him...don’t even think about…”
“But Father, how long are we to keep the people in the dark? I can’t bear it anymore Father. They will expect him back soon, surely, and then what?”
The priest, becoming impatient, grasped the Sister firmly by the upper arm and began to lead her away, all the while admonishing her. I straightened up and slinging the broom over my shoulder made my way up to find Doppler.
“Please Lockhart, can’t we just go, now? We have a valuable treasure, surely de Cavellier won’t have anything to better it?”
“I want to see inside.” I persisted.
She trotted after me as I headed to the private quarters.
It was mid-morning, most of the staff would be engaged with the newly arriving tourists, wandering in the Basilica or square to give the impression of numbers. I was trembling with anticipation as I applied my pick to the lock. A beautiful, well-oiled click, I turned the doorknob and looked up at Doppler, resignation all over her face she motioned for me to get on with it. The room was in semi-darkness, the curtains drawn but still allowing some light through the thin fabric. We stealthily entered and closed the obligingly silent door behind us. A small room, in comparison to the rest, there was a bed, a chair and a little side table with a lamp on it. The bed was occupied. Doppler and I stared. I put my mouth close to her ear and whispered,
“Is that him?”
“How should I know? I’ve never seen the Pope before.”
I indicated with my head that we should go nearer. It was only three long strides from the door to the bed, but we stole slowly, either side of the white covered bed until we stood looking down at the slumbering figure. I bent my ear to his mouth, he was breathing, but very shallow. I snapped my fingers in front of his face, Doppler made as if to grab her weapon, but found only a rosary at her belt. She removed it and began winding it around either hand. The figure on the bed had not moved one iota.
“What are you doing?” I hissed in a loud whisper. “He’s out of it, not a twitch. Put that away. You are not, I repeat, not to strangle the Pope!”
Scowling like only a young person can, she retied the beads to her belt. Turning to survey the room, Doppler found a gold pendant laid respectfully on the little table, she examined it as my eyed alighted on something else.
“Lockhart, I think it’s another reliquary, it’s got hair in it, come and…”
“Look! It is him. Oh my…” I stepped towards the headless mannequin in the corner.
“Oh no. Don’t you even think about it! Lockhart, put it back, what the hell are you doing?!”
In no time at all I was attired from top to toe in mitre, robe and pallium. The effect ruined slightly by the nun’s habit poking from beneath. I grinned stretching my arms out,
“Come my child.”
And then the clock began to chime midday. I looked swiftly to the window then at the figure on the bed and dashed for the door.
“Lockhart!” came Dopplers cry.
I skidded to a halt in front of the private study. Had the door open before the sixth chime. Doppler raced in behind me,
I headed for the window. Eighth chime.
“Lockhart! Are you mad?!”
I unlocked the shutters.
“We are going to get caught!” she hissed.
Over the ledge was the red Papal flag, gently flapping in the noon breeze. Twelve.
I swung the shutters open and stood, framed in the window, the sun beating down and stretched my arms. Doppler ducked swiftly out of view. She knew she couldn’t pull me away, not now, what would people think?! I looked down, St. Peter’s Square was milling with pilgrims and tourists. A low hum began, the ‘Pope’ had been spotted, the crowd became more vocal, and a cheer went up that spread like Cupids Measles through the crowd. I nodded, smiled and made what I thought were beneficent movements. Doppler was behind, pacing in the shadows. I could hear her breathing and muttering. Then the pacing stopped.
“Look, just don’t speak. I’m going back to our room, get things ready to go. OK? Whatever you do, don’t say a word.”
I heard her leave and close the door.
Below me, the flock stared up, some waved, some had their hands together in prayer, a little clique over there was singing, something about praising the Lord, a small voice shouted something, it was taken up by the next person, then the next and now I could hear it; “A Blessing! A Blessing!” it became a chant. Tempted though I was, I resisted and made apologetic motions, pointed to my throat indicating I couldn’t speak but made the sign of the cross and a silence crept through the throng.
What had I done? Idiot! I didn’t know how to make the sign of the cross! A couple of figures in bright blue, gold and red began edging forwards, one pointing up to the window. Oh ballocks! I retreated hurriedly, whipped off the clothing and regained my veil. I snuck out and ensuring there was nobody in the corridor, headed along as if I was about my chores. I passed one of the other nuns who was carrying a pile of laundry, we nodded in acknowledgement and continued on our ways, then I heard her steps slow, I turned, she had turned to look at me quizzically, her eyes flickered to the Papal chamber door. I had to find a distraction. Assuming my most authoritarian Germanic accent I addressed her;
“Schwester Floribunda. It is Floribunda isn’t it? Well I need you to come and look at the sheets in our room,”
Gesticulating for her to follow, I began marching away. All the while I made remarks about the poor standards of laundry compared to my last place of work. The woman trotted behind with her load, apologising. I knocked brusquely on the door before swinging it open and ushering the unluckiest nun in Vatican City into our room. The woman regarded the two carpet bags, open drawers and the dishevelled beds. She turned her puzzled gaze upon me,
“I don’t understand.”
She managed before her eyes rolled and knees buckled. I caught her on the way down and lowered her gently onto the bed. Doppler wiped the syringe on a piece of sterile lint. The figure on the bed rolled her head and made a little groaning noise.
“What was that?”
“You really don’t want to know.”
“Doppler. Will she be alright? I don’t want her dying on us. She did nothing wrong. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“She will be fine. She’ll probably sleep for a few hours and have a headache when she wakes.” She looked up at me, “Honestly. Look, Painless brewed this stuff with some Prussian chemist, tried it out themselves. Both still alive. It’s a totally new drug, not on the market yet.”
“Yet?! You mean it’ll be out on the streets? And it is what?”
“A combination. Morphine and methamphetamine.”
“We’re calling it ‘M and M’.”
“We?!” I goggled.
“Lockhart, we don’t have time for this, we need to get out of here, now.”
Totally gobsmacked, I followed Doppler as she snuck from the dorm and hefting her carpet bag made her way along the corridor to the stairwell. A commotion had broken out. I could hear angry, passionate voices crying for access to the Popes private quarters, others pleading for calm. We took the stairs to the top floor. A small access door led onto the roof. There was a kind of walkway around a central atrium, from this side we could not be seen from the crowds below.
I must say, the roofers of Italy really are considerate of anyone having to traverse the skyline. The tiles made for a sure footing and that warm terracotta makes for a lovely grip. And there are chimney pots and projecting attic windows galore. We tottered along a ridge, one foot either side. The pressure on the ankle joints becomes quite intense after about eight hundred feet and we had to rest. I couldn’t understand why an alarm hadn’t gone off and then, as if my thinking it made it happen, a bell began clanging madly. Commands could be heard issuing from open windows below. The uniform crunch, crunch, crunch of numerous boots on gravel as they began to organise themselves. I scooted back.
I decided it would be safest to travel as far as possible by rooftop, rather than climb down and run through the gardens. So we continued; managing to negotiate the Borgia Tower, along to the Vatican Library – oh, the treasures that must be housed in there I reflected momentarily – past the Tower of the Winds and towards the Belvedere Courtyard. Halfway along a small hatch popped open at the farthest end and a uniformed figure climbed out. He shouted in French;
“In the name of the Pope and the Holy Catholic Church I arrest you for the attempted murder of His Holiness!”
He had dragged a halberd up with him and now stood on a flat section of roof, essentially blocking our passage. Standing like a pair of chimpanzees I glanced down into the courtyard some hundred or so feet below.
“We didn’t come to kill your Pope!”
I called to the guard. Turning to Doppler I asked what she was carrying.
“You have the manuscript and Virgin reliquary.”
“Quick! Get the other one out, quickly!”
She fumbled at her bag, pulling out items of clothing and grabbed a wrapped bundle, she handed it to me.
“See!” I called, unwrapping the finger bone reliquary, “No killing, we stole this!”
He squinted through the afternoon light as I began to move towards him. He lowered his halberd defensively. Its point glinted wickedly. I continued to advance, Doppler following at a distance.
“Put it down Madam.”
He instructed. I continued.
“I am trained to kill madam, now drop the reliquary!”
“But it will get damaged, it might roll off the roof and smash into fragments. Imagine the trouble you would be in if they found you were responsible for damaging something this valuable.”
I began to move quicker as the rooftop flattened to a level, I lobbed the item towards him, high, and ran. To my astonishment, the guard caught the airborne finger bone in one hand and swung the halberd in an arc at me with his other. I ducked just in time. Dashing forwards, I tackled him low about the waist. The momentum shoving him back against the wall. He seemed to pocket the reliquary and had the halberd around my shoulders, holding me close in, pulling with both hands.
“You are under arrest madam!” he gasped.
I think he had garlic for lunch. I couldn’t worm myself free. I began pummelling his sides with my fists, but he merely grunted and held on. I was too close to raise my knee and he seemed quite prepared to crush the pair of us to death when I heard Doppler call out. I made myself go limp and slid down his body. I heard a sharp intake of breath, I looked up into his glassy eyes, a vague empty smile spread across his face,
And he slid heavily forwards. I was pulled down with him and we came to rest with our upper torsos hanging over the edge of the terraced rooftop. Shoving his heavy weight off me, I rolled over to see Doppler dashing forwards, blowpipe in hand.
We eventually made it to the farthest northern building in the complex. Looking about we could see occasional figures loping along the roofs, so we searched for an obscure corner on the roof of the art gallery. Hunkered down in our hot, hidden nook we waited for the sun to go down, planning our escape. As night arrived with its welcoming shadows we noted lights on in many windows, lantern lights progressed with purpose from building to building and circumnavigating the City wall. When the coast was clear I stood, stretching the stiffness from my back and joints. Doppler began pulling on her Spider gloves. We had emptied the contents of one bag into the other, keeping only what was absolutely essential. A pair of pants were looped through the handles to tie the whole thing to Dopplers back. I had my dirk and bandolier of throwing knives, couldn’t risk gunshot and attracting further attention.
“Be safe, be quick.”
I said before giving her a quick hug. I assisted Doppler over the edge of the roof and she disappeared from sight.
From this point she was on her own. The plan was that she could descend the walls much quicker than me, with her Spider gloves she could traverse pretty much any surface that wasn’t glass or polished metal. Doppler was to descend then climb the City wall immediately opposite, out over the top and make it back to the Professor Selwyn and make it ready to fly. I would have to make my own way, albeit slowly, down the building, across the lawn and find a route out. My toes touching air, I peered over the edge. I couldn’t see her, I pulled down my night goggles and took a few moments to locate the slim figure, away to the left, adroitly moving from ledge to pier, cornice to window. Then a yellow light rounded the corner. Two figures, talking quietly to each other passed, swinging the light at waist height, seemingly checking the ground level, the shrubs and buttresses against the outer wall. Doppler hung there like a four legged arachnid, motionless, her cheek pressed to the slowly cooling stone.
When I saw her safely up and over the wall I began my descent. It took me a little longer than it had Doppler, but eventually I was crouched on grass. I dashed to the corner of the building, checking there were no lanterns close by I raced for the perimeter wall and climbed. As my aching arms and hands dragged me over the top a bellow rang out, from my height I saw a number of lights bobbing in the dark towards me, a shot was fired. In my haste to flee I let myself drop over the wall, I was not going to climb down, too slow.
Hands on knees, I knelt in the dark, gasping like a landed fish. I could hear the calls on the other side, no time to rest. I heaved my bruised, weary carcass up and began running. A bell began clanging frantically, lights in farmhouses came on. I darted through rows of vines, then onto open grassland. A gorgeous spurt of flame beckoned me on, Doppler was firing up the engines.
I clambered up the side of the Professor as it began lifting. Something whistled past.
“What the hell!?”
I tumbled headlong into the sphere, then standing on the gantry watched the gathering militia. A miscellany of missiles flew our way, bullets pinged off the sphere. I ducked in and pulled down the hatch. Doppler was busy at the controls, positioning fins and boosters. I pulled the top off a bottle of English gin, slugged and grinned at Doppler. She flopped into the seat opposite, tendrils of hair plastered to her sweaty face.
“Do we have any crème de menthe?” I asked, rummaging around.
Doppler waved her hand vaguely. Crème de menthe was the strongest thing I would allow her to drink, she rarely imbibed and even then was restrained about it. I potted about as we sailed along, rolling in the breeze. Humming to myself as I searched in the lower storage.
“Hmm…hm...Hm…Tiddle de tum…how about Angostura Bitters?”
I called, my head shoved into a crate of supplies.
“What do you want that for? What are you making?”
“Thought I would make a celebration cocktail.”
I leapt up with a lemon and bottle in my hands, grinning madly at her.
“We must celebrate, don’t you think? Oh come on Thea, we have just pulled off the heist of the century!”
“You have cuts all over you.” She solemnly responded.
“Cuts! Schmuts! Who cares?”
I tottered sideways a little as the sphere swung starboard. I spent the next half hour experimenting with my ingredients. I was happy, I was more than happy, elated. There was no way de Cavellier would have something as good as ours. Ooo, I paused, I could make him pay a forfeit too, hmm, now let’s see.
“Steady on Doppler old girl!”
I spilt some cocktail as we rocked.
“Hm? Tiddly pom.”
“Lockhart! We have a problem.”
“And I have created a brand new cocktail my dear.” I presented the garish green drink and sipped. “I think I shall call it…”
“We are losing height!”
I moved to Doppler’s side to check the dials. I peered out of the porthole, took a sip of the drink, passed it to Doppler and headed for the hatch. Raising it as high as it would go, I strapped myself to a harness and winch, and climbing out as Doppler reeled out the rope I crawled onto the lid and peered up at the balloon. In the dark I couldn’t see a thing.
“I need a light!”
I began to climb one of the suspension cables, torch between gritted teeth. I had removed coat and jacket earlier, now I was shivering in the chill air. I shone the small light around the scoop, then worked steadily around the envelope, until finally I found the problem. I returned to the sphere, shivering, damp and despondent.
“I think we were shot. There’s a couple of holes and tears, only small but I don’t think we’ll make it back to Blighty.”
I pulled my unspilt cocktail towards me, sipped thoughtfully.
“I’m going to call it… Fallen Angel.”
We finally came to rest in a field in France some twelve hours and six hundred miles later. As we emerged from the Professor, the balloon sighed gently to the ground. We collected together some necessities in the remaining carpet bag. Firearms, wrapped in underwear in a canvas shoulder bag and, donning the rumpled, white habits we began to trudge towards the nearest farmhouse. It began to rain as we approached. The farmer and his wife invited us in, well who wouldn’t invite two lost nuns into their home on a rainy afternoon?! I explained that we were travelling from the town of Gotenhimle and had become separated from our transport, a kind of pilgrimage and would be extremely grateful if they could offer assistance. Monsieur Aude Vaisselle took us in his agricultural tracteur à vapeur down the rugged road for about an hour. The rain had become a horrendous torrent, dips filling swiftly, visibility was reduced to a few feet in front of the vehicle. Finally a large, ghostly pale building emerged from the storm. Grabbing our bags, Monsieur quickly dashed to the door and yanked the bell-pull. Seconds later a small hatch opened, a pair of eyes swivelled at the three of us, slid shut and then the turning of keys in locks could be heard.
We stood like two drowned, white rats in the refectory awaiting the Reverend Mother. A number of nuns had come to stare, probably didn’t get many visitors out here I imagined. The Reverend Mother took us to her room, where she questioned us as to our order – Sisters of Eloy, Patron of Brass- workers. What was our reason for travelling? To visit all the shrines across France and Germania dedicated to this little known saint. Finally, satisfied, she allowed us to stay in the guest quarters until we decided to continue on our journey.
And so, over the next couple of weeks we were sequestered with the Petites Sœurs de la Lave, Doppler, or should I say, Sister Carmine, spent much of her time in the herb garden. She introduced some of the young novices to the joys of home brew. They built a distillery in the disused stables. Sister Wortle wondered why the potatoes on the table were less than usual and what had happened to this year’s juniper berry crop? They also began to produce some medicines that the nuns had never before encountered and more than one Compline was sprinkled with titters and giggles on the back row.
I took long, meditative walks. Or at least that was what they believed. I spent days on and off, making arrangements for the Professor to be repaired. Via the farmer, I got a message sent to a contact in France, who passed a message onto a man who knew a man who knew my man. An engineer and speed freak, he rarely stayed still was always finding excuses to gad about and he had the family fortune to do so. Miles Prower was to arrange transport for us and collection of the Professor. He would just love a chance to fly, sail and drive to and across France.
I waited a full week for his reply. So in the meantime, I set up a pontoon club for those nuns who were willing, they had no money of course, so we bet for favours; taking on each other’s chores. I’ve played pontoon since I was a kid, so you can imagine my domestic duties dwindled fast!
Sipping gin from the stable distillery and smoking a cigar- how shocking squealed the young nuns, but sniffed in the fumes like naughty schoolgirls - I had a regular flow of visitors to my guest room, eager for tales of the Sisters of Eloy. If I was anything to go by, half the nuns wanted to change orders and the other half, the older more fusty ones, were outraged and thought it little wonder that they hadn’t heard of this order, that the lack of discipline and loose morals were probably the cause of its reduction and anonymity. God could not possibly endorse an order like that!
And now, some men had turned up. I asked Sister Phrygia to check outside the convent, how many and what transport? On her return she informed us that there were three males, all with the Reverend Mother and outside sat a vehicle she did not know what it was, only that it was black and very big. Doppler began to assemble our belongings whilst I dashed out through the gate to see what they had arrived in.
A magnificent beast, some eight feet in length, the hood housing the engine was elongated. It looked to seat six persons. All the panels were, at first glance, black, but on closer inspection I could see it was the darkest red ever, polished to a mirror finish. The grilles and bumper gleamed. The rear of the vehicle had what appeared to be a raised boot. I squinted through the tinted glass of the passenger window, I tried the handle. I almost gave a little shout of delight as the door popped open, so quietly, releasing a smell of leather interior and cologne. I just couldn’t resist. I slid into the driver’s seat, oh my. I wriggled around on the perfectly finished leather, I squeezed the steering wheel with its slightly cushioned, perfect leather grip.
Suddenly, stood in front of the vehicle, was Doppler, bag clenched in each hand glowering at me through the windscreen.
“I was just trying it out.”
I gabbled, shifting out of the car, but keeping one foot on the footplate and holding the door.
“Ze gentlemen are coming!” came the shrill cry of Sister Phrygia from the doorway.
“Keep them busy!” I instructed, “Remember, it’s for the Big Man.”
Doppler opened the boot and threw the bags in, then ducked into the passenger seat saying,
“There’s a two wheeler in the back there.”
I threw a bottle of Dopplers Benedictine to Sister Phrygia,
“Have one on us!”
I climbed into the adorable, leather interior, squirming like a self-satisfied cat.
“Just move it will you!” blared Doppler.
“Just be patient oh spikey one, you can’t rush a dream like this.”
Doppler peered over her shoulder,
“Well you better get this dream moving because it’s about to turn into a nightmare!”
Tiny Sister Phrygia was making stunning efforts to keep a dark suited male from exiting the convent. Shoving and praying, faking pain and obstructing the doorway, we saw hands grasp her under her arms and simply lift her to one side. I turned the ignition on. The petite soeur grasped frantically at their dark sleeves, pleading. Two figures began running as we moved off, the nearest pulled out a gun and levelled it at the windscreen, I kept ploughing forwards. He dived sideways, but not before firing off three shots. Doppler and I both ducked involuntarily, the vehicle swerved on the grass. In rear-view mirrors I could see three figures aiming their weapons.
“Mind the paintwork chaps.”
Said I, getting to grips with the configuration of gears and levers, it was all on the wrong side, definitely not British made. Something went bang and we slewed awkwardly this way and that. A tyre had been hit. Only now did we notice that the windscreen had not been damaged, not a scratch. What sort of car was this?
“They didn’t aim for the paintwork Lockhart,” said Doppler who was turned around in her seat watching out of the back window. “One aimed deliberately at the tyres and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t bullets coming from the other guns.”
The three figure began running, but we soon made some distance when I put my foot down. Then a small orange light began flashing.
“What’s that?” Asked Doppler ominously.
“How the hell should I know?”
“We might blow up!” she exclaimed.
“I shouldn’t think they would blow something like this up, I mean look at it, must have cost a fortune. Just look at the craftsmanship. See the little fancy designs everywhere.”
“What you mean these crossed keys?”
A mere ten minutes later we were losing power, the car made a low humming, descending as the car slowed, slowed and stopped. I jiggled the ignition button to no avail. Doppler was jumping out of the car as I was desperately trying to find the fault. Seems they had some kind of remote ‘key’, possibly the guns they were firing weren’t guns at all. I leapt out and ran around to the back where Doppler was struggling to remove a hefty motorized velocipede from the back. Our bags strewn on the road,
“Watch it” I warned, “The manuscripts in one of them!”
“Just...give...me…a hand.” She huffed.
It took us some time to find the switches that released the clamps holding the velocipede in place. In the distance, three tiny, dark figures were resolutely jogging our way. We finally had the mini-beast extracted. A two wheeled twin of its carrier; darkly gleaming, leather and chrome, it was – sex on wheels –
I mounted the bike. Doppler got on behind, shoving the bags into the space between us. I gave it a trial rev, it purred. Looking up we saw one of the figures attempting to increase his speed, the other two had stopped, shoulder’s slumped dejectedly. I guess we were too far away for the ‘keys’ to work. As Doppler waved, I made the sign of signum crucis and laughing wildly, we sped off across the fields.
Miles Prower was as good as his word, he had not only organised for collection and transportation of the Professor and balloon, but provided another airship for the return flight. He was there on the bridge when we boarded,
“Permission to come aboard Cap’n.” I joshed.
We exchanged hugs and handshakes.
“Good Lord Lockhart, looking a little, outré, aren’t we. Have you been dragging this poor darling through the dirt again?”
He gave Doppler’s shoulders a squeeze, she made sad, puppy eyes at me. He tossed his head, flicking a dark fringe from his eyes.
“Crikey, you gals, whatever have you been up to this time? And whose was that fantastic machine I saw you roll up on?”
“Long story Miles, we’ll tell you on the way. Take us home.”
So, who won the game then? Well, Lady Celia was immensely impressed with the King of Latvia’s sceptre and orb and was about to declare de Cavellier the winner after comparing it to our reliquary. Then, we brought out the manuscript and she and de Cavellier were speechless, literally, for a full two minutes they stared from the fragile papers to me and Doppler and back again.
“The Pope? You stole from the Pope?” Lady C choked.
We won, she kept the items, which headed directly for her secret safe, never to see the light of day again. She could never sell them, never show them, but she had them and we four knew.