/ / Language: English / Genre:det_history

Professor Moriarty The Hound of the D'Urbervilles

Kim Newman

Anyone who has ever read a story about the legendary Holmes and Watson has heard of Professor Moriarty and Sebastian Moran. But now Kim Newman sheds light on the secret history of "Basher" Moran and the "Napoleon of Crime" and how they came together to solve the unsolvable and even change the course of history itself…all in the name of profit and, sometimes, occasional sheer bloody-mindedness.

Kim Newman

Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the D’Urbervilles

PREFACE

Even during the global crisis which broke more famous financial institutions, the failure of Box Brothers was noisy. The private bank collapsed shortly after the arrest of Dame Philomela Box, Chief Executive Officer, on charges of fraudulent dealing. A warrant was also issued for her nephew, Colin Box. Press speculation that he had done a runner ended when his body was discovered in the boot of a burned-out Volvo on Havengore Island, Essex. Autopsy determined that Colin’s head had been sawn off and used as a football. No one has ever been charged with his murder, or those of two other bank officers found dead in the next six weeks.

Only after the CEO’s indictment could Box Brothers be called in print what it was, and always had been: the criminals’ bank. Founded in 1869, the family-owned business maintained premises in Moorgate, Gibraltar and Bermuda[1]. For nearly a century and a half, Box Brothers provided financial services (no questions asked) to law-breakers great and small. Their client list ranged from underworld gangs (and, from the 1960s on, terrorist cells) with enormous turnovers to conceal to lowly smash-and-grab merchants with bloodied cash deposits to make. As their still-live website euphemistically has it, Box Brothers’ twenty-first-century speciality was ‘offshore wealth management’ — which is to say, getting the loot out of the country. The house’s oldest service was the most confidential and secure storage facility in the City of London — which is to say, a box to keep the jewels or paintings (or, in several cases, people) out of sight until the heat died down.

At the time of writing, the Moorgate premises remain under twenty-four-hour armed guard as suits and countersuits regarding access to the safety deposit vault (where it is rumoured the trophies of several famous, unsolved thefts are to be found) are argued. Or not… since it seems the management were not above dipping into the till to pay for Dame Philomela’s passion for airships or Colin’s white rap label[2]. Lawrence and Harrington Box, the founders, would have been aghast at the decline from the standards set in their day. Their simple philosophy was scrupulous honesty. Clients were expected to set aside their habitual larceny in dealing with the bank, just as the brothers made no moral judgement about business brought to them.

Before the crash, my dealings with Box Brothers were limited.

While my A History of Silence: Victorian Crimes Against and By Women[3] was in proof, my cat went missing. When I left for work, Crippen was locked in the flat. When I came home, the flat was still locked but Crippen was gone. The next day, my Female Serial Killers seminar was interrupted by a special messenger making a recorded delivery of a lawyers’ letter which suggested I delete any mention of Box Brothers from my forthcoming book. I first read ‘if the offending material is not removed, no further legal action will be taken’ as a mistyping. Then I saw ‘no further legal action’ did not mean ‘no further action’. When I got home, Crippen was back, with a triangle snipped out of her ear. The offending reference consisted of a footnote in a chapter about nineteenth-century brothelkeepers[4]. I made the edit.

When Box Brothers fell, several hastily researched articles about the bank’s history appeared in the papers. Evidently, the bank no longer had the wherewithal to put pressure on journalists and historians. I assumed — not without Schadenfreude — that their in-house catnappers were busy avoiding larger, more dangerous animals. Widows and orphans and pension funds and small businessmen with accounts in Iceland run screaming to the government when their savings are in peril, but the sort of customer who banks with Box Brothers takes more direct action.

In July, 2009, I took a call in my office at Birkbeck College from Philomela Box’s private secretary, Henry Hassan.

‘Ms Temple, are you free to come into Dame Philomela’s office this afternoon for a consultation?’

‘On what?’ I asked.

‘Historical documents,’ he said.

Considering Crippen’s snipped ear, I was of a mind to tell Hassan where to file his historical documents. And to tell him it should be Professor Temple.

But it had been a boring week. The long summer vac was filled with faculty meetings about budget cuts. The only interesting PhD student I was supervising[5] was off working as a tour guide in Barcelona. So I agreed to visit the City.

Dame Philomela’s office was not in Holloway Prison. She was still in Moorgate. Windows smashed by an angry mob were boarded up. The building was guarded both by uniformed policemen and helmeted private security. A faction of anti-capitalist enthusiasts mounted a cosplay protest which had thinned over the months since the credit crunch started to bite. Ghost-masked young folks wore loose pyjamas decorated with broad arrows, and dragged about Jacob Marley chains of ledgers and strongboxes. Their slogans suggested they didn’t see Box Brothers as more criminal than any other bank.

Mr Hassan, the last loyal retainer, met me in a cavernous, dim reception room. Dustsheets were draped over the furniture. Loose wires showed where computers had once been plumbed in. Unfaded oblongs on the plush wallpaper marked the spots formerly taken by pictures which had walked out with suddenly unemployed staff. A cleaner had been arrested legging it down Silk Street with two Vernets and a Greuze in a Budgens ‘Bag for Life’.

I was ushered into an inner office.

A tall, thin woman came out from behind a desk to shake my hand. A red light flashed on her ankle bracelet.

‘Henry, get us espresso… if the plods haven’t taken the last of it along with every bloody thing else,’ said Dame Philomela. ‘I’ll have gin in mine, but the professor won’t, I’m sure.’

Mr Hassan retreated, backing out like a nervous courtier.

Dame Philomela’s office was hung with airship mobiles. She had a framed print of The Hindenburg disaster. On bookshelves where most bankers display leatherbound tomes of financial lore she had a complete set of Jeffrey Archer first editions. She was evidently a bit of a fan: in a photograph, she and Lord Archer wore matching flying helmets and her smile showed half a skull. I assumed he’d give her tips on how to get by in prison.

Dame Philomela was sixty. From experience with postgraduate students, I knew at once she was a functioning anorexic. She wore a tailored dark suit with a short skirt. Her long, straight black hair had a white streak — she must dye twice for the effect. Her only items of visible jewellery were a lapel-brooch in the shape of a dirigible and a discreet silver nose-stud.

The newspapers had made a lot out of Dame Philomela’s resemblance to a Disney cartoon villainess. I wondered if she didn’t cultivate the effect.

Her computer was gone. The Fraud Squad were going through thousands of Zeppelin.jpgs and.avis while looking for evidence. A brass-hinged wooden box stood on her desk where the monitor would have been.

‘Sit,’ she ordered.

I complied. She stood by her desk, long fingers on the box.

‘Do you know the legal status of items left undisturbed in safety deposit for, oh, eighty years?’

‘No,’ I said.

‘Neither do I,’ Dame Philomela admitted. ‘That was Colin’s area. Bloody idiot. Anyway, I can tell you what we do with them here… it hardly matters any more. We use a master key our depositors don’t know about to open the box, and divvy up the contents if obviously valuable… or stick them in a sub-basement junk room if not. That started before my day. A necessity, with new clients coming in and needing secure space. There’s a waiting list — or, rather, there was — for our vault. Rather than go to the trouble of getting new boxes put in, it was easier to clear out lost causes and move on. Contrary to what you read in those awful rags, it’s not all crown jewels and wodges of banknotes. If you want a giggle, I’ve a collection of musty old letters used to blackmail people who’ve been dead so long no one could possibly care about their sad old secrets. Have you heard of Sebastian Moran?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘He was a minor Victorian. A soldier and explorer, big-game hunter. Implicated in something called the “Bagatelle Card Club Scandal”. He was caught cheating by a man called Adair, who was later shot dead. Moran was arrested for the murder, but didn’t hang… no one is quite sure how he got off, though he did go to prison for a few years. The only reason he’s remembered is because the Adair case was the first solved, after the socalled “great hiatus”, by…’

‘Good, yes, fine, you know your scoundrels,’ Dame Philomela interrupted. ‘Now, don’t go on, woman. Showing off is all it is. Anybody can Wikipedia this stuff now, so there’s no need to have it all up in your head to be spat out again. Very unattractive, it is. I’ve no earthly interest in the old dead bastard, anyway. Except for this.’

She took the box from her desk and gave it to me.

On the lid was a brass plate, inscribed: ‘Col. Sebastian Moran, 1st Bangalore Pioneers, Conduit Street.’

‘It’s not locked,’ said Dame Philomela.

Inside was a manuscript. Two separate sheafs, which I guessed were different drafts of the same material: a longhand version, neatly written on lined paper, and a typescript, with crossings-out and emendations in ink.

‘Is it authentic?’ she asked.

‘I couldn’t possibly say without closer examination.’

Dame Philomela looked annoyed. That cracked her tight face and brought out her inner hag.

‘Well then, you silly bitch, examine closely,’ said Dame Philomela.

I thought about leaving.

Mr Hassan came back with the espresso. It was criminally strong. I decided to stay, for a while.

‘I want to know if there’s money in this,’ said Dame Philomela. ‘And how quickly I can get it.’

‘I’ll have to take this away and have it looked at. Besides analysing the text, tests can be done on the paper and ink to get an estimate of the age.’

‘I should cocoa,’ snorted Dame Philomela. ‘This stays here. You can read it in the next room. Then tell me what I’ve got. And how much it’s worth.’

I took the typescript out of the tin, and riffled through it. It was a book-length manuscript, with numbered pages, divided into chapters. There was no title page, or author credit.

On the first few pages, someone had carefully inked out a recurring name and written in ‘Mahoney’ above the black patches. Then, the same hand scribbled ‘sod it, can’t be bothered!’ in the margin, and gave up on the pretence of concealing identity.

The name someone had thought briefly to hide was Moriarty.

‘Professor Moriarty?’ I asked.

‘Yes,’ Dame Philomela said. ‘I dare say you’ve heard of him.’

‘A client of Box Brothers?’

‘One of the originals. So was Moran.’

‘He left a safety-deposit box?’

‘Yes. Inside was a pornographic deck of Edwardian playing cards I’ve put on eBay, a string of pearls I’m keeping for my old age, and this. Now, do you want to read it or not?’

I did. I have. And, with minimal editorial alteration, this is it.

Dame Philomela didn’t and doesn’t care if it’s an authentic memoir, though she was keen to establish that if it’s fake, it’s at least an old fake. No living author will come forward to claim royalties.

Tests were done. I confidently assert that this is the work of Colonel Sebastian Moran. Vocabulary and syntax are consistent with his published books, Heavy Game of the Western Himalayas (1881) and Three Months in the Jungle (1884)… though his tone in these memoirs is considerably less guarded. He incidentally settles a long-standing academic dispute by identifying himself as the anonymous author of My Nine Nights in a Harem (1879)[6]. The undated longhand pages were written between 1880 and 1910. Different paper and inks indicate the author worked intermittently, writing separate chapters over twenty years. It is probable sections were drafted in Prince Town Prison, where Moran was resident for some time after 1894.

Internal evidence suggests Moran intended to publish, perhaps inspired by the commercial success of others whose memoirs — many overlapping events he recounts — had already appeared. Of course, those authors did not confess to capital crimes in print, an issue which might have given Moran second thoughts. He was considering publication as late as 1923–4, when the typescript was made. We cannot definitively identify the person or persons who typed his manuscript for him[7], but can be sure it was not Moran — though the annotations are in his handwriting.

Without a research project which Dame Philomela, who is now serving a seven-year sentence in Askham Grange open prison, is unwilling to fund, a full assessment of the veracity of Moran’s memoirs is impossible. Given that the author characterises himself as a cheat, a liar, a villain and a murderer, we are entitled to ask whether he was as dishonest in autobiography as he was in everything else. However, it seems he felt — perhaps later in life — a compulsion to make an accurate record. Few in his time thought Sebastian Moran anything but a rogue, but his famous associate saw straight away that he was what we might now diagnose as an adrenalin junkie. When age kept him from more active pursuits, perhaps writing a book which could lead to him being hanged was a substitute for the thrill of hunting tigers or breaking laws. However, he was in healthy middle age when he began writing up the crimes of Professor Moriarty — and was in fact busy helping commit them. Where dates, names and places that can be checked are given, Moran is a reliable historian — more so than some of his less crooked contemporaries.

On the text: I have made few corrections to Moran’s spelling or syntax, except for consistency. He did go to Eton, after all. Some contemporaries took him for a fool, but he was an educated, well-read, intelligent man and articulate when he chose to be. The manuscript is overrun with hyphens and dashes which are pruned to some extent in the typescript, and have been pruned further by me. Moran held to nineteenth-century conventions (‘cow-boy’, ‘gas-light’, ‘were-wolf’) which would distract the modern eye. I have resisted a temptation to cut digressions or offhand references which raise tantalising matters upon which no further information is available. A thorough search of the vaults of Box Brothers has turned up no other Moran manuscripts — so we’re unlikely to find out more about the ‘Mystery of the Essex Werewolf’ or the ‘Affair of the Mountaineer’s Bum’.

Perhaps surprisingly, given his candour, Moran exercised a degree of self-censorship. Make no mistake, the Victorians could be as foul-mouthed as we are. Moran won an Army — Navy swearing contest held in Bombay in 1875, outlasting ‘the vilest bosun in the Fleet’ by a full half-hour of obscene profanity without repetition or hesitation, but with a great deal of deviation. However, in his manuscript, he blots out swear words. Some pages look like heavily redacted CIA intelligence reports. The typescript is clearer, but still tactful (‘c-t’, ‘f-k’, etc.). Where necessary, I have kept that archaism.

I have chosen not to include several passages which would prove offensive or stultifying to modern readers. Some material (dealing with race, sex or politics) exists in manuscript but not typescript, suggesting Moran himself had second thoughts. As a sometime pornographer, Moran’s accounts of sexual encounters run to dozens of detailed, unedifying pages; he writes about big-game hunting, horse-racing and card games in an identical manner. Where not directly germane to the narrative, I have trimmed paragraphs on these subjects. They are only of academic interest and this academic wasn’t especially interested — Heavy Game of the Western Himalayas has been out of print for over a hundred years for good reason. If Moran had been only a tiger hunter and libertine, he would be forgotten. As he admits, if he is remembered at all, it is because he was Moriarty’s lieutenant. In this edition of his memoirs, I have concentrated on that association, sparing the reader aspects of his life and times which now make Moran seem more appalling a human being than his inclinations towards larceny, duplicity and homicide.

Professor Christina Temple, BA, MA, PhD, FRHistS.

School of Social Sciences, History and Philosophy,

Department of History, Classics and Archaeology

Birkbeck College, London.

February 2011.

CHAPTER ONE: A VOLUME IN VERMILION

I

I blame that rat-weasel Stamford, who was no better at judging character than at kiting paper. He later had his collar felt in Farnham, of all blasted places. If you want to pass French government bonds, you can’t afford to mix up your accents grave and your accents acute. Archie Stamford earns no sympathy from me. Thanks to him, I was first drawn into the orbit, the gravitational pull as he would have said, of Professor James Moriarty.

In 1880, your humble narrator was a vigorous, if scarred, forty. I should make a proper introduction of myself: Colonel Sebastian ‘Basher’ Moran, late of a school which wouldn’t let in an oik like you and a regiment which would as soon sack Newcastle as take Ali Masjid. I had an unrivalled bag of big cats and a fund of stories about blasting the roaring pests. I’d stood in the Khyber Pass and faced a surge of sword-waving Pathans howling for British blood, potting them like grouse in season. Nothing gladdens a proper Englishman’s heart — this one, at least — like the sight of a foreigner’s head flying into a dozen bloody bits. I’d dangled by a single-handed grip from an icy ledge in the upper Himalayas, with something huge and indistinct and furry stamping on my freezing fingers. I’d bent like an oak in a hurricane as Sir Augustus, the hated pater, spouted paragraphs of bile in my face, which boiled down to the proverbial ‘cut off without a penny’ business. Stuck to it too, the mean old swine. The family loot went to a society for providing Christian undergarments to the Ashanti, a bequest which had the delightful side effect of reducing my unmarriageable sisters to boarding-house penury.

I’d taken a dagger in the lower back from a harlot in Hyderabad and a pistol-ball in the knee from the Okhrana in Nijni-Novgorod. More to the point, I had recently been raked across the chest by the mad, wily old shetiger the hill-heathens called ‘Kali’s Kitten’.

None of that was preparation for Moriarty!

I had crawled into a drain after the tiger, whose wounds turned out to be less severe than I’d thought. Tough old hellcat! KK got playful with jaws and paws, crunching down my pith helmet like one of Carter’s Little Liver Pills, delicately shredding my shirt with razor claws, digging into the skin and drawing casually across my chest. Three bloody stripes. Sure I would die in that stinking tunnel, I was determined not to die alone. I got my Webley side arm unholstered and shot the hell-bitch through the heart. To make sure, I emptied all six chambers. After that chit in Hyderabad dirked me, I broke her nose for her. KK looked almost as aghast and infuriated at being killed. I wondered if girl and tigress were related. I had the cat’s rank dying breath in my face and her weight on me in that stifling hole. One more for the trophy wall, I thought. Cat dead, Moran not: hurrah and victory!

But KK nearly murdered me after all. The stripes went septic. Good thing there’s no earthly use for the male nipple, because I found myself down to just the one. Lots of grey stuff came out of me. So I was packed off back to England for proper doctoring.

It occurred to me that a concerted effort had been made to boot me out of the subcontinent. I could think of a dozen reasons for that, and a dozen clods in stiff collars who’d be happier with me out of the picture. Maiden ladies who thought tigers ought to be patted on the head and given treats. And the husbands, fathers and sweethearts of non-maiden ladies. Not to mention the 1st Bangalore Pioneers, who didn’t care to be reminded of their habit of cowering in ditches while Bloody Basher did three-fourths of their fighting for them.

Still, mustn’t hold a grudge, what? Sods, the lot of them. And that’s just the whites. As for the natives… well, let’s not get started on them, shall we? We’d be here ’til next Tuesday.

For me, a long sea cruise is normally an opportunity. There are always bored fellow passengers and underworked officers knocking around with fat notecases in their luggage. It’s most satisfying to sit on deck playing solitaire until some booby suggests a few rounds of cards and, why just to make it spicier, perhaps some trifling, sixpence-a-trick element of wager. Give me two months on any ocean in the world, and I can fleece everyone aboard from the captain’s lady to the bosun’s second-best bumboy, and leave each mark convinced that the ship is a nest of utter cheats with only Basher as the other honest hand in the game.

Usually, I embark sans sou and stroll down the gangplank at the destination, pockets a-jingle with the accumulated fortune of my fellow voyagers. I get a warm feeling from ambling through the docks, listening to clots explaining to the eager sorts who’ve turned up to greet them that, sadly, the moolah which would have saved the guano-grubbing business or bought the Bibles for the mission or paid for the wedding has gone astray on the high seas. This time, tragic to report, I was off sick, practically in quarantine. My nimble fingers were away from the pasteboards, employed mostly in scratching around the bandages while trying hard not to scratch the bandages themselves.

So, the upshot: Basher in London, out of funds. And the word was abroad. I was politely informed by a chinless receptionist at Claridge’s that my usual suite of rooms was engaged and that, unfortunately, no alternative was available, this being a busy wet February and all. If I hadn’t pawned my horsewhip, it would have got some use. If there’s any breed I despise more than natives, it’s people who work in bloody hotels. Thieves, the lot of them, or, what’s worse, sneaks and snitches. They talk among themselves, so it was no use trotting down the street and trying somewhere else.

I was on the point of wondering if I shouldn’t risk the Bagatelle Club, where, frankly, you’re not playing with amateurs. There’s the peril of wasting a whole evening shuffling and betting with other sharps who a) can’t be rooked so easily and b) are liable to be as cash-poor as oneself. Otherwise, it was a matter of beetling up and down Piccadilly all afternoon in the hope of spotting a ten-bob note in the gutter, or — if it came to it — dragging Farmer Giles into a sidestreet, splitting his head and lifting his poke. A comedown after Kali’s Kitten, but needs must…

‘It’s “Basher” Moran, isn’t it?’ drawled someone, prompting me to raise my sights from the gutter. ‘Still shooting anything that draws breath?’

‘Archibald Stamford, Esquire. Still practising auntie’s signature?’

I remembered Archie from some police cells in Islington. All charges dropped and apologies made, in my case. Being ‘mentioned in despatches’ carries weight with beaks, certainly more than the word of a tradesman in a celluloid collar you clean with India rubber. Six months jug for the fumbling forger, though. He’d been pinched trying to make a withdrawal from a relative’s bank account.

If clothes were anything to go by, Stamford had risen in his profession. Tiepin and cane, dove-grey morning coat, curly brimmed topper, and good boots. His whole manner, with that patronising hale-fellow-snooks-to-you tone, suggested he was in funds — which made him my long-lost friend.

The Criterion was handy, so I suggested we repair to the bar for drinks. The question of who paid for them would be settled when Archie was fuddleheaded from several whiskies. I fed him that shut-out-of-my-usual-suite line and considered a hard-luck story trading on my status as hero of the Jowaki Campaign — though I doubted an inky-fingered felon would put much stock in far-flung tales of imperial daring.

Stamford’s eyes shone, in a manner which reminded me unpleasantly of my late feline dancing partner. He sucked on his teeth, torn between saying something and keeping mum. It was a manner I would soon come to recognise as common to those in the employ of my soon-to-be benefactor.

‘As it happens, Bash old chap, I know a billet that might suit you. Comfortable rooms in Conduit Street, above Mrs Halifax’s establishment. You know Mrs H.?’

‘Used to keep a knocking-shop in Stepney? Arm-wrestler’s biceps and an eight-inch tongue?’

‘That’s the one. She’s West End now. Part of a combine, you might say. A thriving firm.’

‘What she sells is always in demand.’

‘True, but it’s not just the whoring. There’s other business. A man of vision, you might say, has done some thinking. About my line of trade, and Mrs Halifax’s, and, as it were, yours.’

I was about at the end of my rope with Archie. He was talking in a familiar, insinuating, creeping-round-behind-you-with-a-cosh manner I didn’t like. Implying that I was a tradesman did little for my ruddy temper. I was strongly tempted to give him one of my speciality thumps, which involves a neat little screw of my big fat regimental ring into the old eyeball, and see how his dove-grey coat looked with dirty great blobs of snotty blood down the front. After that, a quick fist into his waistcoat would leave him gasping, and give me the chance to fetch away his watch and chain, plus any cash he had on him. Of course, I’d check the spelling of ‘Bank of England’ on the notes before spending them. I could make it look like a difference of opinion between gentlemen. And no worries about it coming back to me. Stamford wouldn’t squeal to the peelers. If he wanted to pursue the matter I could always give him a second helping.

‘I wouldn’t,’ he said, as if he could read my mind.

That was a dash of Himalayan melt water to the face.

Catching sight of myself in the long mirror behind the bar, I saw my cheeks had gone a nasty shade of red. More vermilion than crimson. My fists were knotted, white-knuckled, around the rail. This, I understand, is what I look like before I ‘go off’. You can’t live through all I have without ‘going off’ from time to time. Usually, I ‘come to’ in handcuffs between policemen with black eyes. The other fellow or fellows or lady is too busy being carried away to hospital to press charges.

Still, a ‘tell’ is a handicap for a card player. And my red face gave warning.

Stamford smiled like someone who knows there’s a confederate behind the curtain with a bead drawn on the back of your neck and a finger on the trigger.

Libertè, hah!

‘Have you popped your guns, Colonel?’

I would pawn, and indeed have pawned, the family silver. I’d raise money on my medals, ponce my sisters (not that anyone would pay for the hymn-singing old trouts) and sell Royal Navy torpedo plans to the Russians… but a man’s guns are sacred. Mine were at the Anglo-Indian Club, oiled and wrapped and packed away in cherrywood cases, along with a kitbag full of assorted cartridges. If any cats got out of Regent’s Park Zoo, I’d be well set up to use a hansom for a howdah and track them along Oxford Street.

Stamford knew from my look what an outrage he had suggested. This wasn’t the red-hot pillar-box-faced Basher bearing down on him, this was the deadly icy calm of — and other folks have said this, so it’s not just me boasting — ‘the best heavy game shot that our Eastern Empire has produced’.

‘There’s a fellow,’ he continued, nervously, ‘this man of vision I mentioned. In a roundabout way, he is my employer. Probably the employer of half the folk in this room, whether they know it or not…’

He looked about. It was the usual shower: idlers and painted dames, jostling each other with stuck-on smiles, reaching sticky fingers into jacket pockets and up loose skirts, finely dressed fellows talking of ‘business’ which was no more than powdered thievery, a scattering of moon-faced cretins who didn’t know their size-thirteens gave them away as undercover detectives.

Stamford produced a card and handed it to me.

‘He’s looking for a shooter…’

The fellow could never say the right thing. I am a sportsman, not a keeper. A gun, not a gunslinger. A shot, not a shooter.

Still, game is game…

‘…and you might find him interesting.’

I looked down at the card. It bore the legend ‘Professor James Moriarty’, and an address in Conduit Street.

‘A professor, is it?’ I sneered. I pictured a dusty coot like the stick-men who’d bedevilled me through Eton (interminably) and Oxford (briefly). Or else a music-hall slickster, inflating himself with made-up titles. ‘What might he profess, Archie?’

Stamford was a touch offended, and took back the card. It was as if Archie were a new convert to papism and I’d farted during a sermon from Cardinal Newman.

‘You’ve been out of England a long time, Basher.’

He summoned the barman, who had been eyeing us with that fakir’s trick of knowing who was most likely, fine clothes or not, to do a runner.

‘Will you be paying now, sirs?’

Stamford held up the card and shoved it in the man’s face.

The barman went pale, dug into his own pocket to settle the tab, apologised, and backed off in terror.

Stamford just looked smug as he handed the card back to me.

II

‘You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive,’ said the Professor.

‘How the devil did you know that?’ I asked in astonishment.

His eyes caught mine. Cobra eyes, they say. Large, clear, cold, grey and fascinating. I’ve met cobras, and they aren’t half as deadly — trust me. I imagine Moriarty left off tutoring because his pupils were too terrified to con their two times table. I seemed to suffer his gaze for a full minute, though only a few seconds passed. It had been like that in the hug of Kali’s Kitten. I’d have sworn on a stack of well-thumbed copies of The Pearl that the mauling went on for an hour of pain, but the procedure was over inside thirty seconds. If I’d had a Webley on my hip, I might have shot the Professor in the heart on instinct — though it’s my guess bullets wouldn’t dare enter him. He had a queer unhealthy light about him. Not unhealthy in himself, but for everybody else.

Suddenly, pacing distractedly about the room, head wavering from side to side as if he had two dozen extra flexible bones in his neck, he began to rattle off facts.

Facts about me.

‘…you are retired from your regiment, resigning at the request of a superior to avoid the mutual disgrace of dishonourable discharge; you have suffered a serious injury at the claws of a beast, are fully recovered physically, but worry your nerve might have gone; you are the son of a late Minister to Persia and have two sisters, your only living relatives beside a number of unacknowledged half-native illegitimates; you are addicted, most of all to gambling, but also to sexual encounters, spirits, the murder of animals and the fawning of a duped public; most of the time, you blunder through life like a bull, snatching and punching to get your own way, but in moments of extreme danger you are possessed by a strange serenity which has enabled you to survive situations that would have killed another man; in fact, your true addiction is to danger, to fear — only near death do you feel alive; you are unscrupulous, amoral, habitually violent and, at present, have no means of income, though your tastes and habits require a constant inflow of money…’

Throughout this performance, I took in Professor James Moriarty. Tall, stooped, hair thin at the temples, cheeks sunken, wearing a dusty (no, chalky) frock coat, sallow as only an indoorsman can be; yellow cigarette stain between his first and second fingers, teeth to match. And, obviously, very pleased with himself.

He reminded me of Gladstone gone wrong. With just a touch of a hill-chief who had tortured me with fire ants.

But I had no patience with his lecture. I’d eaten enough of that from the pater for a lifetime.

‘Tell me something I don’t know,’ I interrupted…

The Professor was unpleasantly surprised. It was as if no one had ever dared break into one of his speeches before. He halted in his tracks, swivelled his skull and levelled those shotgun-barrel-hole eyes at me.

‘I’ve had this done at a bazaar,’ I continued. ‘It’s no great trick. The fortuneteller notices tiny little things and makes dead-eye guesses — you can tell I gamble from the marks on my cuffs, and was in Afghanistan by the colour of my tan. If you spout with enough confidence, you score so many hits the bits you get wrong — like that tommyrot about being addicted to danger — are swallowed and forgotten. I’d expected a better show from your advance notices, “Professor”.’

He slapped me across the face, swiftly, with a hand like wet leather.

Now, I was amazed.

I knew I was vermilion again, and my dukes went up.

Moriarty whirled, coat-tails flying, and his boot-toe struck me in the groin, belly and chest. I found myself sat in a deep chair, too shocked to hurt, pinned down by wiry, strong hands which pressed my wrists to the armrests. That dead face was close up to mine and those eyes horribly filled the view.

That calm he mentioned came on me. And I knew I should just sit still and listen.

‘Only an idiot guesses or reasons or deduces,’ the Professor said, patiently. He withdrew, which meant I could breathe again and become aware of how much pain I was in. ‘No one comes into these rooms unless I know everything about him that can be found out through the simple means of asking behind his back. The public record is easily filled in by looking in any one of a number of reference books, from the Army Guide to Who’s Who. But all the interesting material comes from a man’s enemies. I am not a conjurer, Colonel Moran. I am a scientist.’

There was a large telescope in the room, aimed out of the window. On the walls were astronomical charts and a collection of impaled insects. A long side table was piled with brass, copper and glass contraptions I took for parts of instruments used in the study of the stars or navigation at sea. That shows I wasn’t yet used to the Professor. Everything about him was lethal, and that included his assorted bric-a-brac.

It was hard to miss the small kitten pinned to the mantelpiece by a jackknife. The skewering had been skilfully done, through the velvety skinfolds of the haunches. The animal mewled from time to time, not in any especial pain.

‘An experiment with morphine derivatives,’ he explained, following my gaze. ‘Tibbles will let us know when the effect wears off.’

Moriarty posed by his telescope, bony fingers gripping his lapel.

I remembered Stamford’s manner, puffed up with a feeling he was protected but tinged with terror. At any moment, the great power to which he had sworn allegiance might capriciously or justifiably turn on him with destructive ferocity. I remembered the Criterion barman digging into his own pocket to settle our bill — which, I now realised, was as natural as the Duke of Clarence gumming his own stamps or Florence Nightingale giving sixpenny knee-tremblers in D’Arblay Street.

Beside the Professor, that ant-man was genteel.

‘Who are you?’ I asked, unaccustomed to the reverential tone I heard in my own voice. ‘What are you?’

Moriarty smiled his adder’s smile.

And I relaxed. I knew. My destiny and his wound together. It was a sensation I’d never got before upon meeting a man. When I’d had it from women, the upshot ranged from disappointment to attempted murder. Understand me, Professor James Moriarty was a hateful man, the most hateful, hateable, creature I have ever known, not excluding Sir Augustus and Kali’s Kitten and the Abominable Bloody Snow-Bastard and the Reverend Henry James Prince[8]. He was something man-shaped that had crawled out from under a rock and moved into the manor house. But, at that moment, I was his, and I remain his forever. If I am remembered, it will be because I knew him. From that day on, he was my father, my commanding officer, my heathen idol, my fortune and terror and rapture.

God, I could have done with a stiff drink.

Instead, the Professor tinkled a silly little bell and Mrs Halifax trotted in with a tray of tea. One look and I could tell she was his, too. Stamford had understated the case when he said half the folk in the Criterion Bar worked for Moriarty. My guess is that, at bottom, the whole world worked for him. They’ve called him the Napoleon of Crime, but that’s just putting what he is, what he does, in a cage. He’s not a criminal, he is crime itself, sin raised to an art form, a church with no religion but rapine, a God of Evil. Pardon my purple prose, but there it is. Moriarty brings things out in people, things from their depths.

He poured me tea.

‘I have had an eye on you for some time, Colonel Moran. Some little time. Your dossier is thick, in here…’

He tapped his concave temple.

This was literally true. He kept no notes, no files, no address book or appointment diary. It was all in his head. Someone who knows more than I do about sums told me that Moriarty’s greatest feat was to write The Dynamics of an Asteroid, his magnum opus, in perfect first draft. From his mind to paper, with no preliminary notations or pencilled workings, never thinking forward to plan or skipping back to correct. As if he were singing ‘one long, pure note of astro-mathematics, like a castrato nightingale delivering a hundred-thousand-word telegram from Prometheus.’

‘You have come to these rooms and have already seen too much to leave…’

An ice-blade slid through my ribs into my heart.

‘…except as, we might say, one of the family’.

The ice melted, and I felt tingly and warm. With the phrase, ‘one of the family’, he had arched his eyebrow invitingly.

He stroked Tibbles, who was starting to leak and make nasty little noises.

‘We are a large family, many cells with no knowledge of each other, devoted to varied pursuits. Most, though not all, are concerned with money. I own that other elements of our enterprise interest me far more. We are alike in that. You only think you gamble for money. In fact, you gamble to lose. You even hunt to lose, knowing you must eventually be eaten by a predator more fearsome than yourself. For you, it is an emotional, instinctual, sensual thrill. For me, there are intellectual, aesthetic, spiritual rewards. But, inconveniently, money must come into it. A great deal of money.’

As I said, he had me sold already. If a great deal of money was to be had, Moran was in.

‘The Firm is available for contract work. You understand? We have clients who bring problems to us. We solve them, using whatever skills we have to hand. If there is advantage to us beyond the agreed fee, we seize it…’

He made a fist in the air, as if squeezing a microbe to death.

‘…if our interests happen to run counter to those of the client, we settle the matter in such a way that is ultimately convenient to us, while our patron does not realise precisely what has happened. This, also, you understand?’

‘Too right, Professor,’ I said.

‘Good. I believe we shall have satisfaction of each other.’

I sipped my tea. Too milky, too pale. It always is after India. I think they put curry powder in the pot out there, or else piddle in the sahib’s crockery when he’s not looking.

‘Would you care for one of Mrs Halifax’s biscuits?’ he asked, as if he were the vicar entertaining the chairwoman of the beneficent fund. ‘Vile things, but you might like them.’

I dunked and nibbled. Mrs H. was a better madame than baker. Which led me to wonder what fancies might be buttered up in the rooms below the Professor’s lair.

‘Colonel Moran, I am appointing you as head of one of our most prestigious divisions. It is a post for which you are eminently qualified by achievement and aptitude. Technically, you are superior to all in the Firm. You are expected to take up residence here, in this building. A generous salary comes with the position. And profit participation in, ah, “special projects”. One such matter is at hand, and we shall come to it when we receive our next caller, Mister — no, not Mister, Elder — Elder Enoch J. Drebber of Cleveland, Ohio.’

‘I’m flattered,’ I responded. ‘A “generous salary” would solve my problems, not to mention the use of a London flat. But, Moriarty, what is this division you wish me to head? Why am I such a perfect fit for it? What, specifically, is its business?’

Moriarty smiled again.

‘Did I omit to mention that?’

‘You know damn well you did!’

‘Murder, my dear Moran. Its business is murder.’

III

Barely ten minutes after my appointment as Chief Executive Director of Homicide, Ltd., I was awaiting our first customer.

I mused humorously that I might offer an introductory special, say a garrotting thrown in gratis with every five poisonings. Perhaps there should be a half-rate for servants? A sliding scale of fees, depending on the number of years a prospective victim might reasonably expect to have lived had a client not retained our services?

I wasn’t yet thinking the Moriarty way. Hunting I knew to be a serious avocation. Murder was for bounders and cosh-men, hardly even killing at all. I’m not squeamish about taking human life: Quakers don’t get decorated after punitive actions against Afghan tribesmen. But not one of the heap of unwashed heathens I’d laid in the dust in the service of Queen and Empire had given me a quarter the sport of the feeblest tiger I ever bagged.

Shows you how little I knew then.

The Professor chose not to receive Elder Drebber in his own rooms, but made use of the brothel parlour. The room was well supplied with plushly upholstered divans, laden at this early evening hour with plushly upholstered tarts. It occurred to me that my newfound position with the Firm might entitle me to handle the goods. I even took the trouble mentally to pick out two or three bints who looked ripe for what ladies the world over have come to know as the Basher Moran Special. Imagine the Charge of the Light Brigade between silk sheets, or over a dresser table, or in an alcove of a Ranee’s Palace, or up the Old Kent Road, or… well, anywhere really.

As soon as I sat down, the whores paid attention, cooing and fluttering like doves, positioning themselves to their best advantage. As soon as the Professor walked in, the flock stood down, finding minute imperfections in fingernails or hair that needed rectifying.

Moriarty looked at the dollies and then at me, constructing something on his face that might have passed for a salacious, comradely leer but came out wrong. The bare-teeth grin of a chimpanzee, taken for a cheery smile by sentimental zoo visitors, is really a frustrated snarl of penned, homicidal fury. The Professor also had an alien range of expression, which others misinterpreted at their peril.

Mrs Halifax ushered in our American callers.

Enoch J. Drebber — why d’you think Yankees are so keen on those blasted middle initials? — was a barrel-shaped fellow, sans moustache but with a fringe of tight black curls all the way round his face. He wore simple, expensive black clothes and a look of stern disapproval.

The girls ignored him. I sensed he was on the point of fulminating.

I didn’t need one of the Professor’s ‘background checks’ to get Drebber’s measure. He was one of those odd godly bods who get voluptuous pleasure from condemning the fleshly failings of others. As a Mormon, he could bag as many wives as he wanted — on-tap whores and unpaid skivvies corralled together. His right eye roamed around the room, on the scout for the eighth or ninth Mrs Drebber, while his left was fixed straight ahead at the Professor.

With him came a shifty cove by the name of Brother Stangerson who kept quiet but paid attention.

‘Elder Drebber, I am Professor Moriarty. This is Colonel Sebastian Moran, late of the First Bangalore…’

Drebber coughed, interrupting the niceties.

‘You’re who to see in this city if a Higher Law is called for?’

Moriarty showed empty hands.

‘A man must die, and that’s the story,’ Drebber said. ‘He should have died in South Utah, years ago. He’s a murderer, plain and flat, and an abductor of women. Hauled out his six-gun and shot Bishop Dyer, in front of the whole town. A crime against God. Then fetched away Jane Withersteen, a good Mormon woman, and her adopted child, Little Fay. He threw down a mountain on his pursuers, crushing Elder Tull and many good Mormon men[9]. Took away gold that was rightful property of the Church, stole it right out of the ground. The Danite Band have been pursuing him ever since…’

‘The Danites are a cabal within the Church of Latter-day Saints,’ Moriarty explained.

‘God’s good right hand is what we are,’ insisted Drebber. ‘When the laws of men fail, the unworthy must be smitten, as if by lightning.’

I got the drift. The Danites were cossacks, assassins and vigilantes wrapped up in a Bible name. Churches, like nations, need secret police forces to keep the faithful in line.

‘Who is this, ah, murderer and abductor?’ I asked.

‘His name, if such a fiend deserves a name, is Lassiter. Jim Lassiter.’

This was clearly supposed to get a reaction. The Professor kept his own council. I admitted I’d never heard of the fellow.

‘Why, he’s the fastest gun in the South West. Around Cottonwoods, they said he struck like a serpent, drawing and discharging in one smooth, deadly motion. Men he killed were dead before they heard the sound of the shot. Lassiter could take a man’s eye out at three-hundred yards with a pistol.’

That’s a fairy story. Take it from someone who knows shooting. A side arm is handy for close work, as when, for example, a tiger has her talons in your tit. With anything further away than a dozen yards, you might as well throw the gun as fire it.

I kept my scepticism to myself. The customer is always right, even in the murder business.

‘This Lassiter,’ I ventured. ‘Where might he be found?’

‘In this city,’ Drebber decreed. ‘We are here, ah, on the business of the Church. The Danites have many enemies, and each of us knows them all. I was half expecting to come across another such pestilence, a cur named Jefferson Hope who need not concern you, but it was Lassiter I happened upon, walking in your Ly-cester Square on Sunday afternoon. I saw the Withersteen woman first, then the girl, chattering for hot chestnuts. I knew the apostate for who she was. She has been thrice condemned and outcast…’

‘You said she was abducted,’ put in the Professor. ‘Now you imply she is with Lassiter of her own will?’

‘He’s a Devil of persuasion, to make a woman refuse an Elder of the Church and run off with a damned Gentile. She has no mind of her own, like all women, and cannot fully be blamed for her sins…’

If Drebber had a horde of wives around the house and still believed that, he was either very privileged or very unobservant.

‘Still, she must be brought to heel. Though the girl will do as well. A warm body must be taken back to Utah, to come into an inheritance.’

‘Cottonwoods,’ said Moriarty. ‘The ranch, the outlying farms, the cattle, the racehorses and, thanks to those inconveniently upheld claims, the fabulous gold mines of Surprise Valley.’

‘The Withersteen property, indeed. When it was willed to her by her father, a great man, it was on the understanding she would become the wife of Elder Tull, and Cottonwoods would come into the Church. Were it not for this Lassiter, that would have been the situation.’

Profits, not parsons, were behind this.

‘The Withersteen property will come to the girl, Fay, upon the death of the adoptive mother?’

‘That is the case.’

‘One or other of the females must be alive?’

‘Indeed so.’

‘Which would you prefer? The woman or the girl?’

‘Jane Withersteen is the more steeped in sin, so there would be a certain justice…’

‘…if she were topped too,’ I finished his thought.

Elder Drebber wasn’t comfortable with that, but nodded.

‘Are these three going by their own names?’

‘They are not,’ said Drebber, happier to condemn enemies than contemplate his own schemes against them. ‘This Lassiter has steeped his women in falsehood, making them bear repeated false witness, over and over. That such crimes should go unpunished is an offence to God Himself…’

‘Yes, yes, yes,’ I said. ‘But what names are they using, and where do they live?’

Drebber was tugged out of his tirade, and thought hard.

‘I caught only the false name of Little Fay. The Withersteen woman called her “Rache”, doubtless a diminutive for the godly name “Rachel”…’

‘Didn’t you think to tail these, ah, varmints, to their lair?’

Drebber was offended. ‘Lassiter is the best tracker the South West has ever birthed. Including Apaches. If I dogged him, he’d be on me faster’n a rattler on a coon.’

The Elder’s vocabulary was mixed. Most of the time, he remembered to sound like a preacher working up a lather against sin and sodomy. When excited, he sprinkled in terms which showed him up for — in picturesque ‘Wild West’ terms — a back-shooting, claim-jumping, cow-rustling, waterhole-poisoning, horse-thieving, side-winding owlhoot son of a bitch.

‘Surely he thinks he’s safe here and will be off his guard?’

‘You don’t know Lassiter.’

‘No, and, sadly for us all, neither do you. At least, you don’t know where he hangs his hat.’

Drebber was deflated.

Moriarty said, ‘Mr and Mrs James Lassiter and their daughter Fay currently reside at The Laurels, Streatham Hill Road, under the names Jonathan, Helen and Rachel Laurence.’

Drebber and I looked at the Professor. He had enjoyed showing off.

Even Stangerson clapped a hand to his sweaty forehead.

‘Considering there’s a fabulous gold mine at issue, I consider fifty thousand a fair price for contriving the death of Mr Laurence,’ said Moriarty, as if putting a price on a fish supper. ‘With an equal sum for his lady wife.’

Drebber nodded again, once. ‘The girl comes with the package?’

‘I think a further hundred thousand for her safekeeping, to be redeemed when we give her over into the charge of your church.’

‘Another hundred thousand pounds?’

‘Guineas, Elder Drebber.’

He thought about it, swallowed, and stuck out his paw.

‘Deal, Professor…’

Moriarty regarded the American’s hand. He turned and Mrs Halifax was beside him with a salver bearing a document.

‘Such matters aren’t settled with a handshake, Elder Drebber. Here is a contract, suitably circumlocutionary as to the nature of the services Colonel Moran will be performing, but meticulously exact in detailing payments entailed and the strict schedule upon which monies are to be transferred. It’s legally binding, for what that’s worth, but a contract with us is enforceable under what you have referred to as a Higher Law…’

The Professor stood by a lectern, which bore an open, explicitly illustrated volume of the sort found in establishments like Mrs Halifax’s for occasions when inspiration flags. He unrolled the document over a coloured plate, then plucked a pen from an inkwell and presented it to Drebber.

The Elder made a pretence of reading the rubric and signed.

Professor Moriarty pressed a signet ring to the paper, impressing a stylised M below Drebber’s dripping scrawl.

The document was whisked away.

‘Good day, Elder Drebber.’

Moriarty dismissed the client, who backed out of the room.

‘What are you waiting for?’ I said to Stangerson, who stuck on the hat he had been fiddling with and scarpered.

One of the girls giggled at his departure, then remembered herself and pretended it was a hiccough. She paled under her rouge at the Professor’s sidelong glance.

‘Colonel Moran, have you given any thought to hunting a Lassiter?’

IV

A jungle is a jungle, even if it’s in Streatham and is made up of villas named after shrubs.

In my coat pocket I had my Webley.

If I were one of those cowboys, I’d have notched the barrel after killing Kali’s Kitten. Then again, even if I only counted white men and tigers, I didn’t own any guns with a barrels long enough to keep score. A gentleman doesn’t need to list his accomplishments or his debts, since there are always clerks to keep tally. I might not have turned out to be a pukka gent, but I was flogged and fagged at Eton beside future cabinet ministers and archbishops, and some skins you never shed.

It was bloody cold, as usual in London. Not raining, no fog — which is to say, no handy cover of darkness — but the ground chill rose through my boots and a nasty wind whipped my face like wet pampas grass.

The only people outside this afternoon were hurrying about their business with scarves around their ears, obviously part of the landscape. I had decided to toddle down and poke around, as a preliminary to the business in hand. Call it a recce.

Before setting out, I’d had the benefit of a lecture from the Professor. He had devoted a great deal of thought to murder. He could have written the Baedeker’s or Bradshaw’s of the subject. It would probably have to be published anonymously — A Complete Guide to Murder, by ‘A Distinguished Theorist’ — and then be liable to seizure or suppression by the philistines of Scotland Yard.

‘Of course, Moran, murder is the easiest of all crimes, if murder is all one has in mind. One simply presents one’s card at the door of the intended victim, is ushered into his sitting room and blows his or, in these enlightened times her, brains out with a revolver. If one has omitted to bring along a firearm, a poker or candlestick will serve. Physiologically, it is not difficult to kill another person, to perform outrages upon a human corpus which will render it a human corpse. Strictly speaking, this is a successful murder. Of course, then comes the second, far more challenging part of the equation: getting away with it.’

I’d been stationed across the road from The Laurels for a quarter of an hour, concealed behind bushes, before I noticed I was in Streatham Hill Rise not Streatham Hill Road. This was another Laurels, with another set of residents. This was a boarding house for genteel folk of a certain age. I was annoyed enough, with myself and the locality, to consider potting the landlady just for the practice.

If I held the deeds to this district and the Black Hole of Calcutta, I’d live in the Black Hole and rent out Streatham. Not only was it beastly cold, but stultifyingly dull. Row upon monotonous row of The Lupins, The Laburnums, The Leilandii and The Laurels. No wonder I was in the wrong spot.

‘It is a little-known fact that most murderers don’t get away with it. They are possessed by an emotion — at first, perhaps, a mild irritation about the trivial habit of a wife, mother, master or mistress. This develops over time, sprouting like a seed, to the point when only the death of another will bring peace. These murderers go happy to the gallows, free at last of their victim’s clacking false teeth or unconscious chuckle or penny-pinching. We shun such as amateurs. They undertake the most profound action one human being can perform upon another, and fail to profit from the enterprise.’

No, I had not thought to purchase one of those penny-maps. Besides, anyone on the street with a map is obviously a stranger. Thus the sort who, after the fact, lodges in the mind of witnesses. ‘Did you see anyone suspicious in the vicinity, Madam Busybody?’ ‘Why yes, Sergeant Flat-Foot, a lost-looking fellow, very red in the face, peering at street signs. Come to think of it, he looked like a murderer. And he was the very spit and image of that handsome devil whose picture was in the Illustrated Press after single-handedly seeing off the Afghan hordes that time.’

‘Our business is murder for profit, killing for cash,’ Moriarty had put it. ‘We do not care about our clients’ motives, providing they meet the price. They may wish murder to gain an inheritance, inflict revenge, make a political point or from sheer spite. In this case, all four conditions are in play. The Danite Band, represented by Elder Drebber, seek to secure the gold mine, avenge the deaths of their fellow conspirators, indicate to others who might defy them that they are dangerous to cross, and see dead a foeman they are not skilled enough to best by themselves.’

What was the use of a fanatical secret society if it couldn’t send a horde of expendable minions to overwhelm the family? These Danite Desperadoes weren’t up there with the Thuggee or the Dacoits when it came to playing that game. If the cabal really sought to usurp the governance of their church, which the Professor confided they had in mind, a greater quantity of sand would be required.

‘For centuries, the art of murder has stagnated. Edged weapons, blunt instruments and bare hands that would have served our ancient ancestors are still in use. Even poisons were perfected in classical times. Only in the last hundred and fifty years have fire arms come to dominate the murder market place. For the cruder assassin, the explosive device — whether planted or flung — has made a deal of noise, though at the expense of accuracy. Presently, guns and bombs are more suited to the indiscriminate slaughter of warfare or massacre than the precision of wilful murder. That, Moran, we must change. If guns can be silenced, if skills you have developed against big game can be employed in the science of man-slaying, then the field will be revolutionised.’

I beetled glumly up and down Streatham Hill.

‘Imagine, if you will, a Minister of State or a Colossus of Finance or a Royal Courtesan, protected at all hours by professionals, beyond the reach of any would-be murderer, vulnerable only to the indiscriminate anarchist with his oh-so-inaccurate bomb and willingness to be a martyr to his cause. Then think of a man with a rifle, stationed at a window or on a balcony some distance from the target, with a telescopic device attached to his weapon, calmly drawing a bead and taking accurate, deadly shots. A sniper, Moran, as used in war, brought to bear in a civilian circumstance, a private enterprise. While guards panic around their fallen employer, in a tizzy because they don’t even know where the shot has come from, our assassin packs up and strolls away untroubled, unseen and untraced. That will be the murder of the future, Moran. The scientific murder.’

Then the Professor rattled on about airguns, which lost me. Only little boys and poofs would deign to touch a contraption which needs to be pumped before use and goes off with a sad phut rather than a healthy bang. Kali’s Kitten would have swallowed an airgun whole and taken an arm along with it. The whiff of cordite, that’s the stuff — better than cocaine any day of the month. And the big bass drum thunder of a gun going off.

Finally, I located the right Laurels.

Evening was coming on. Gaslight flared behind net curtains. More shadows to slip in. I felt comfy, as if I had thick foliage around me. My ears pricked for the pad of a big cat. I found a nice big tree and leaned against it.

I took out an instrument Moriarty had issued from his personal collection, a spyglass tricked up to look like a hip flask. Off came the stopper and there was an eye piece. Up to the old ocular as if too squiffy to crook the elbow with precision, and the bottom of the bottle was another lens. Brought a scene up close, in perfect, sharp focus.

Lovely bit of kit.

I saw into the front parlour of The Laurels. A fire was going and the whole household was at home. A ripening girl, who wore puffs and ribbons more suited to the nursery, flounced around tiresomely. I saw her mouth flap, but — of course — couldn’t hear what she was saying. A woman sat by the fire, nodding and doing needlework, occasionally flashing a tight smile. I focused on the chit, Fay-called-Rachel, then on the mother, Helen Laurence-alias-Jane Withersteen. I recalled the daughter was adopted, and wondered what that was all about. The woman was no startler, with grey in her dark hair as if someone had cracked an egg over her head and let it run. The girl might do in a pinch. Looking again at her animated face, it hit me that she was feeble-witted.

The man, Jonathan Laurence-né-Jim Lassiter, had his back to the window. He seemed to be nodding stiffly, then I realised he was in a rocking chair. I twisted a screw and the magnification increased. I saw the back of his neck, tanned, and the sharp cut of his hair, slick with pomade. I even made out the ends of his moustache, wide enough to prick out either side of the silhouette of his head.

So this was the swiftest pistolero west of the Pecos?

I admit I snorted.

This American idiocy about drawing and firing, taking aim in a split-second, is stuff and nonsense. Anyone who wastes their time learning how to do conjuring tricks getting their gun out is likely to find great red holes in their shirt-front (or, in most cases, back) before they’ve executed their fanciest twirl. That’s if they don’t shoot their own nose off by mistake. Bill Hickok, Jesse James and Billy the Kid were all shot dead while unarmed or asleep by folk far less famous and skilled.

Dash it all, I was going to chance it. All I had to do was take out the Webley, cross the road, creep into the front garden, stand outside the window, and blast Mr and Mrs Laurence where they sat.

The fun part would be snatching the girl.

Carpe diem, they said at Eton. Take your shot, I learned in the jungle. Nothing ruddy ventured, nothing bloody gained.

I stoppered the spyglass and slipped it into my breast pocket. Using it had an odd side effect. My mouth was dry and I really could have done with a swallow of something. But I had surrendered my proper hip flask in exchange for the trick telescope. I wouldn’t make that mistake again. Perhaps Moriarty could whip me up a flask disguised as a pocket watch. And, if timekeeping was important, a pocket watch disguised as something I’d never need, like a prayer book or a tin of fruit pastilles.

The girl was demonstrating some dance now. Really, I would do the couple a favour by getting them out of this performance.

I reached into my coat pocket and gripped my Webley. I took it out slowly and carefully — no nose-ectomy shot for Basher Moran — and cocked it with my thumb. The sound was tinier than a click you’d make with your tongue against your teeth.

Suddenly, Lassiter wasn’t in view. He was out of his chair and beyond sight of the window.

I was dumbfounded.

Then the lights went out. Not only the gas, but the fire — doused by a bucket, I’d guess. The womenfolk weren’t in evidence, either.

One tiny click!

A finger stuck out from a curtain and tapped the windowpane.

No, not a finger. A tube. If I’d had the glass out, I could confirm what I intuited. The bump at the end of the tube was a sight. Lassiter, the fast gun, had drawn his iron.

I had fire in my belly. I smelled the dying breath of Kali’s Kitten.

I changed my estimate of the American. What had seemed a disappointing, drab day outing was now a worthwhile safari, a game worth the chase.

He wouldn’t come out of the front door, of course.

He needn’t come out at all. First, he’d secure the mate and cub — a stronghold in the cellar, perhaps. Then he’d get a wall behind his back and wait. To be bearded in his lair. If only I had a bottle of paraffin, or even a box of matches. Then I could fire The Laurels: they’d have to come out and Lassiter would be distracted by females in panic. No, even then, there was a back garden. I’d have needed beaters, perhaps a second and third gun.

Moriarty had said he could put reliable men at my disposal for the job, but I’d pooh-poohed the suggestion. Natives panic and run, lesser guns get in the way. I was best off on my tod.

I had to rethink. Lassiter was on his guard now. He could cut and run, spirit his baggages off with him. Go to ground so we’d never find him again.

My face burned. Suddenly I was afraid, not of the gunslinger but of the Prof. I would have to tell him of my blunder.

One bloody click, that was all it was! Damn and drat.

I knew, even on brief acquaintance, Moriarty did not merely dismiss people from the Firm. He was no mere theoretician of murder.

Moran’s head, stuffed, on Moriarty’s wall. That would be the end of it.

I eased the cock of the Webley shut and pocketed the gun.

A cold circle pressed to the back of my neck.

‘Reach, pardner,’ said a deep, foreign, marrow-freezing voice. ‘And mighty slow like.’

V

My father always said I’d wind up with a noose around my neck. Even Sir Augustus did not predict said noose would be strung from a pretentious chandelier and attached firmly to a curtain rail.

I was stood on a none-too-sturdy occasional table, hands tied behind my back with taut, biting twine. Only the thickness of my boot heels kept me from throttling at once.

Here was a ‘how-d’you-do?’.

The parlour of The Laurels was still unlit, the curtains drawn. Unable to look down, I was aware of the people in the room but no more.

The man, Lassiter, had raised a bump on my noggin with his pistol butt.

I had an idea this was still better than an interview with a disappointed Professor Moriarty.

On the table, by my boot toes, were my Webley, broken and unloaded, the flask-glass, my folding knife, my (emptyish) notecase, three French postcards and a watch which had a sentiment from ‘Violet, to Algy’ engraved inside.

‘Okay, Algy,’ drawled Lassiter, ‘listen up…’

I didn’t feel inclined to correct his assumption.

‘We’re gonna have a little talk-like. I’m gonna ask questions, and you can give answers. Understand?’

I tried to stand very still.

Lassiter kicked the table, which wobbled. Rough hemp cut into my throat.

I nodded my understanding, bringing tears to my eyes.

‘Fine and dandy.’

He was behind me. The woman was in the room too, keeping quiet, probably holding the girl to keep her from fidgeting.

‘You ain’t no Mormon,’ Lassiter said.

It wasn’t a question, so I didn’t answer.

The table rocked again. Evidently, it had been a question.

‘I’m not a Mormon,’ I said, with difficulty. ‘No.’

‘But you’re with the Danite Band?’

I had to think about that.

A loud noise sounded and the table splintered. A slice of it sheared away. I had to hop to keep balance on what was left.

My ears rang. It was seconds before I could make out what was being said.

‘Noise-some, ain’t it? You’ll be hearin’ that fer days.’

It wasn’t the bang — I’ve heard enough bangs in my time — it was the smell, the discharged gun smell. It cleared my head.

The noose at my throat cut deep.

I had heard — in the prefects’ common room at Eton, not any of the bordellos or dives I’ve frequented since those horrible days — that being hanged, if only for a few seconds, elicits a peculiar physiological reaction in the human male. Connoisseurs reckon this a powerful erotic, on a par with the ministrations of the most expert houri. I was now, embarrassingly, in a position to confirm sixth-form legend.

A gasp from the woman suggested the near-excruciating bulge in my fly was externally evident.

‘Why, you low, disgustin’ snake,’ said Lassiter. ‘In the presence of a lady, to make such a…’

Words failed him. I was in no position to explain this unsought, involuntary response.

Arbuthnot, captain of the second eleven, now active in a movement for the suppression of licentious music hall performance, maintained this throttling business was more pleasurable if the self-strangulator dressed as a ballerina and sucked a boiled sweet dipped in absinthe.

I could not help but wish Arbuthnot were here now to test his theory, instead of me.

‘Jim, Jim, what are we to do?’ the woman said. ‘They know where we are. I told you they’d never give up. Not after Surprise Valley.’

Her voice, shrill and desperate, was sweet to me. I knew from the quality of Lassiter’s silence that his wife’s whining was no help to him.

I began to see the advantages of my situation.

I had been through the red rage and fear of peril and come to the cold calm clearing.

‘At present, Mr and Mrs Lassiter,’ I began in somewhat strangulated voice, giving them their true names, ‘you are pursued only by foreign cranks whose authority will never be recognised by British law. If your story were known, popular sympathy would be with you and the Danites further frustrated. Those I represent would make sure of that.’

‘Who do you represent, Algy?’

That was the question I’d never answer, not if he shot all the legs off the table and let me kick. Even if I died, Moriarty would use spiritualist mediums to lay hands on my ectoplasm and double my sufferings.

‘If I step off this table, your circumstances will change,’ I said. ‘You will be murderers, low and cowardly killers of a hero of the British Empire…’

Never hurts to mention the old war record.

‘Under whatever names you take, you will be hunted by Scotland Yard, the most formidable police force in the world…’

Well, formidable in the size of the seats of their blue serge trousers…

‘All hands will be against you.’

I shut up and let them stew.

‘He’s right, Jim. We can’t just kill him.’

‘He drew first,’ Lassiter said.

‘This isn’t Amber Springs.’

I imagined the climate was somewhat more congenial in Amber Springs, wherever that might be. The community’s relative lack of policemen, judges, lawyers, gaolers, court reporters and engravers for the Police Gazette — which in other circumstances would have given it the edge over Streatham in my book — was suddenly not a point in its favour.

Even with my ringing ears, I heard the click. Lassiter cocked his gun.

He walked around the table, so he could at least shoot me to my face. It was still dark, so I couldn’t get much of a look at him.

‘Jim,’ protested Jane-Helen.

There was a flash of fire. For an instant, Lassiter’s fiercely moustached face lit orange.

The table was out from under me, and the noose dragged at my Adam’s apple.

I expected the wave of pain to come in my chest.

Instead, I fell to the floor, with the chandelier, the rope-coil and quite a bit of plaster on top of me. I was choking, but not fatally. Which, under the circumstances, was all I could ask for.

A tutu and a sweetie would not have made me feel more alive.

Lassiter kicked me in the side, the low dog. Then the woman held him back.

That futile boot was encouraging. The fast gun was losing his rag.

Gaslight came up. Hands disentangled me from the brass fixtures and the noose, then brushed plaster out of my hair and off my face.

I looked up, blinking, at a very pink angel.

‘Wuvvwy mans,’ said the glassy-eyed girl, ‘Rache want to keep um.’

VI

Though still tied — indeed, with my ankles bound as well — I was far more comfortable than I had been.

I was propped up on a divan in the parlour of The Laurels. Rache — the former Little Fay — was playing with my hair, chattering about her new pet. She must have been fifteen or sixteen, but acted like a six- or seven-year-old. I remembered to smile as she cooed in my ears. Children can turn suddenly, and I had an idea this child-minded girl could be as deadly as her foster father if prodded into a tantrum.

She introduced me to her doll, Missy Surprise. This was a long-legged, homemade, one-armed ragdoll with most of her yellow wool hair chewed off. She got her name because there was a hiding place in her tummy, where Rache kept her ‘pweciousnesses’ — cigar-tubes full of sweets.

The ‘Laurences’ were still undecided about what to do with me.

It’s all very well being a gunslinger, but skills that serve in the Wild West — or the jungle, come to that — need to be modified in Streatham. At least, that was the case if you were a fair-play fathead like Jim Lassiter.

These were truly good, put-upon people. That made them weak.

Rache kissed my ear, wetly.

‘Stop that, darling,’ said her mother.

Rache stuck out her lower lip and narrowed her brows.

‘Don’t be a silly, Rache.’

‘Rache not a silly,’ she said, knotting little fists. ‘Rache smart, ’oo knows it.’

Jane-Helen melted, and pulled the girl away from me, hugging her.

‘Not so tighty-tight,’ protested Rache.

Lassiter sat across the room, gun in hand, glowering.

Earlier, he had been forced to tell a deputation of concerned neighbours that Rache had dropped a lot of crockery. No one could possibly mistake gunshots for smashing plates, but they’d retreated. Blaming the girl had put her in a sulk for a moment, and inclined her even more to take my part.

This blossoming idiot was heiress to a fabulous gold mine.

‘We could offer him money,’ Jane-Helen said, as if I weren’t in the room.

‘He won’t take money,’ Lassiter said, glumly and — I might add — without consulting me for an opinion.

‘You, sir, Algy…’ began the woman.

‘Arbuthnot,’ I said, ‘Colonel Algernon Arbuthnot, Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers…’

A right rabble, that lot. All their war wounds were in the bum, from running away.

‘Hero of Maiwand and Kandahar…’

I’d have claimed Crécy and Waterloo if I thought they’d swallow it.

‘Victoria Cross.’

‘’Toria Ross,’ echoed Rache, delighted.

‘Colonel Arbuthnot, what is your connection with the Danite Band?’

‘Madam, I am a detective. Our agency has been on the tracks of these villains for some months, with regards to their many crimes…’

She looked, hopeful, at Lassiter. She wanted to believe the rot, but he knew better.

‘…when we were alerted to the presence in London of dangerous Danites, well off their usual patch as you’ll agree, we made a connection. Of course, we knew you were here under an alias. We had no reason to bother you, but the movements of incognito Americans — possessed of fabulous riches, but content to live in genteel anonymity — are noticed, you know. If we could find you, so could they. We’ve had men on you round the clock for two weeks…’

That was a mistake. Lassiter stopped listening. Anyone who could hear a cocking pistol through a window and across the road would have noticed if he were being marked.

‘…if I’m not at my post when my replacement arrives, the agency will know something is amiss.’

Jane-Helen looked hard at me. She hadn’t bought it either.

Still, in the short term, my story would be hard to disprove. I had introduced a notion that would snag and grow. That I was to be relieved, that confederates would be arriving soon.

Lassiter’s sensitive ears would be twitching.

Every cat padding over a garden wall or tile falling off an ill-made roof would sound like evidence of a surrounding force to our rider of the purple sage.

‘Algy wants to see Rache ’utterflee dance now,’ announced the girl.

She fluttered dramatically about the room, trailing ribbons, inflating sleeves and lifting skirts. One of her stockings was bagged around her ankle.

‘’Utterflee ’utterfly, meee oh myyy,’ she sang.

Lassiter’s face was dark and heavy. I was quite pleased with myself.

I snuck a peek at the clock on the mantel and made sure I was noticed doing it.

‘’Utterfly ’utterflee, look at meee…’

Lassiter chewed his moustache. Jane-Helen seemed greyer. And I was almost starting to enjoy myself again.

Then the front window smashed in and something black and fizzing burst through the curtains.

I saw a burning fuse.

VII

Lassiter got his boot on the fuse, killing the flame.

‘That’s not dynamite,’ I said, helpfully. ‘It’s a smoke charge. They want you to run out the front door. Into the line of fire.’

I didn’t mention that I’d thought of something similar.

‘Jim, they’re out there,’ Jane said.

‘Asty mans,’ Rache said, peeved by the interruption.

There was a crack. More glass broke behind the curtains. A ragged hole appeared in the velvet. I’d not heard the shot. Another shattering and the curtain whipped with the impact. And again.

‘Untie me and I can help,’ I said.

Lassiter wasn’t sure but Jane fell for it. She did my hands while Rache unpicked the knots at my ankles. I took my Webley from the floor, shaking off the flakes of plaster. Of course, it was empty.

The curtain rail, rope still attached, fell off the wall as another silent fusillade came. Cold wind blew through the ruined window. More panes were shot out.

The neighbours would be around again soon. This was not the thing for a respectable street.

Bullets ploughed into the floor, rucking the carpet, and the opposite wall. Our sniper had an elevated position.

I waved my gun, to attract Lassiter’s attention.

He dug into his pocket and brought out a handful of bullets, which he poured into my palm. I loaded and closed the revolver. I noticed Lassiter noticing how practiced I was. Algy Arbuthnot, VC, was an old soldier and daring detective so that shouldn’t be too much of a surprise.

‘Where is the gunman? Top floor of the house on the corner?’

Lassiter shook his head.

‘Tree on the other side of the road?’

Lassiter nodded.

I’d been behind that tree earlier. It had been twilight when Lassiter conked me and was full dark now. No one was about when I took my watching spot; now, there were armed hostiles.

‘How many?’

Lassiter held up four fingers, steadily. Then another three, with a wriggle at the wrist. He knew there were four men — Danites? — out there, and felt there might be another three besides.

I’ve come through scrapes with worse odds. From Moriarty’s background check, I knew Jim Lassiter had too.

‘This might be a moment for one of your famous rockslides,’ I ventured.

Lassiter cracked a near-smile.

‘Yup,’ he said.

As Drebber had mentioned, Lassiter was once chased up a mountain by a mob and precipitated a rocky avalanche to sweep them away. His history was studded with such dime-novel exploits.

Was Drebber out there? And Stangerson? With other guns?

My suspicion was that, weighing up their contract with Moriarty & Co., the Danites decided £205,000 was a mite steep for an evening’s work. They had come to us in the first place not because they were leery of doing their own murdering but because this wasn’t their city and they didn’t have any idea how to track Lassiter and his women to their hole. The Professor had come straight out and announced where they were to be found, to show off how bloody clever he was. No thought as to whether Basher might get caught ’twixt the guns. My only consolation was that Moriarty undoubtedly meant what he said about Higher Law. For breaking the deal, he’d probably exterminate the Danite Band to the last man (their horses and dogs too), then arrange a cholera outbreak in Salt Lake City to scythe through the Latter-day Saints.

I, of course, would still be dead.

Lassiter and I were either side of the window, just peeking out at a sliver of night.

Another shot.

I heard a rattling about from one of the nearby houses. A spill of light lay on the street as a front door opened. In that illumination, I glimpsed a figure in rough work clothes. A pointed red hood covered his entire head, big circles cut out for the eyes, gathered at the neck by a drawstring. Our shy soul froze a moment in the light and stepped back, but Lassiter plugged him anyway, reddening one of his eyeholes. He collapsed like an unstrung puppet.

An irritated, bald man in a quilted dressing gown came out of his house, to make further complaint about the infernal racket. He was surprised to find a masked gunman lying dead over his front gate, obscuring the ‘no hawkers or circulars’ sign. The neighbour looked around, astonished.

‘What the devil…’

Someone shot him. Oops, it might have been me. I was always one to blaze away without too much forethought.

Lassiter looked disapproval at me.

A great many curtains fell from fingers in nearby houses.

The neighbour was only winged, but made a noise about it. The fellows who had accompanied him on his earlier deputation put cotton in their ears and went back to bed.

So my shot had accomplished something.

Lassiter looked out of the window, searching for another target.

From where I was, I could easily shoot him in the stomach and try to hold Drebber to coughing up the agreed fee.

Evidently he could hear the wheels turning in my head.

‘Algy,’ he drawled, gun casually aimed my way, ‘how’d you like to go through the winder and draw their fire?’

‘Not very much.’

‘What I reckoned.’

Another bomb sailed through the window, without meeting any obstruction, and rolled on the carpet, pouring thick, nasty smoke. They’d let the fuse burn down before lobbing this one.

‘Is there a back door?’ I asked.

Lassiter looked at me, pitying.

Upwards of four men could surround a villa, easily.

Jane looked at Lassiter like a pioneer wife who trusts her man to save the last three bullets to keep the women out of the clutches of Injuns. I always wondered why those covered wagon bints didn’t backshoot their pious pas and learn to sew blankets and pop out papooses, but I’m well known for my shaky grasp of morality.

Bullets struck the piano, raising strangulated chords.

‘This is London, England,’ Jane said. ‘We left all this behind. Things like this don’t happen here.’

Lassiter looked at me.

We both knew everywhere was like this, herbaceous border in the back garden and ‘Goodbye, Little Yellow Bird’ sheet music propped on the piano or no. He’d have done better going to ground in the Old Jago or Seven Dials, where life was more obviously like this — those rookeries had well-travelled rat runs and escape routes.

The smoke was getting thick and the carpet was on fire.

I saw an empty bucket lying by the grate. The water had been used earlier to douse the fire. That was my fault.

Lassiter chewed his moustache. That was his ‘tell’, the sign he was about to ‘go off’.

‘I’m goin’ out the front door,’ he said.

‘You’ll be killed for sure,’ Jane pleaded.

‘Yup. Maybe I can take enough of ’em with me so’s you and Little Fay can get away clean. You’re a rich woman, Jane. Buy this man, and men like him, and keep buyin’ them. Ring yourself with guns and detectives. The Danites will run dry afore the gold.’

I peeked into the road again. The groaning neighbour was doubled over on the pavement, but the dead Danite had been dragged off.

Fire was coming from at least two points. Just harrying, not trying to hit anyone.

There was someone on the roof. We could tell by the creaking ceiling.

Lassiter filled his guns. He had two Colts with fancy-dan handles. He ought to have had holsters to draw from, but would have to carry them both. Twelve shots. Maybe seven men. He’d get hit several times, no matter how good he was. I might even be able to put a couple in his spine as he strode manfully down the path of The Laurels and claim it was a fumble-fingered accident.

He was an idiot. If it’d been me, I’d have picked up Jane and tossed her, in a froth of skirts, through the window. She was the one they wanted, heiress to the Withersteen property. At the very least, she’d be a tethered goat to draw the big game into range.

I was cold and clear and clever again. The Professor would have been proud.

‘They can’t afford to kill the women,’ I said. ‘That’s why they didn’t throw dynamite. They want someone alive to inherit, someone they can rob through Mormon marriage.’

Lassiter nodded. He didn’t see how that helped.

‘Stop thinking of Jane and Rache as your family,’ I said. ‘Start thinking of them as hostages.’

If he didn’t take umbrage and shoot me, we might have a chance.

VIII

‘We’re coming out,’ I announced. ‘Hold your fire.’

Rache giggled. I held the baggage round the waist, gun in her ear, and stood in the doorway.

To the girl, it was a game. She had Missy Surprise hugged to her chest.

Lassiter and Jane were more serious, but desperate enough to try.

They had objected that the Danites would never believe their man would harm his beloved wife and daughter. I told them to stop thinking like their upright, moral, tiresome selves and put themselves in the mind-skins of devious, murderous, greedy blighters. Of course they’d believe it — they’d do the same thing with their own wives or daughters. Unspoken but obvious was that I would too.

Indeed, here I was — ready to spread a pretty little idiot’s brains on the road.

It’d be a shame, but I’ve done worse things.

I took a step out into the garden. No one killed me, so I took another step down the path.

Lassiter and Jane came after me, backwards. The Danite perched on the roof wouldn’t have a shot that didn’t go through the woman.

Hooded men came out of the shadows. Five of them, carrying guns. All their weaponry was kitted out oddly. The barrels were as long again as they ought to be, and swelled into thick, ceramic Swiss-roll shapes. Silencers. I’d heard of the things, but never seen them. Cut down the accuracy, I gathered. The cat couldn’t hear you firing, but you’d probably miss. I’d rather use one of Moriarty’s airguns than a ridiculous contraption like that.

‘Parley,’ I said.

The leader of the band nodded, silly hood-point flopping.

The funny thing was that the hood was useless as disguise. Most masks are. You remember faces first of all, but people are a lot more than their eyes and noses — hands and legs and stomachs and the way they stand or hold a gun or light a cigar.

I was facing Elder Enoch J. Drebber.

I assumed our agreement was voided.

‘You don’t want these lovely ladies harmed,’ I said.

‘I only need one,’ Drebber responded, raising his gun.

At this range, he could plug Rache in the breast and the shot would plough through her and me, killing us both.

‘Rache not like mans,’ she said. ‘Rache poo on you!’

Drebber’s eyes widened in his hood-holes. Rache held up Missy Surprise, and angled the rag-doll, her fingers working the hard metal inside the soft toy.

Lassiter’s second gun went off and Missy Surprise’s head flew apart.

The Danite on Drebber’s right fell dead.

‘You’re next,’ I told Drebber.

I was sure she’d been aiming at him in the first place, but he wasn’t to know that.

The man on the roof decided it was time to take his shot. His finger had probably been itching all evening. I’ve had trouble with fools like that on safari, so keen on not coming home without having cleaned the barrel, they need to fire an elephant gun at the regimental water bearer just so they could say they’ve killed something.

Lassiter was quicker than a Bhishti, and not struggling with a ridiculously overweighted yard-and-a-half of rifle.

The keen rifleman tumbled dead into the flowery bower around the front door.

Seven, minus three. Four.

‘Drop the ironmongery, Elder,’ I ordered.

Rache blew a loud raspberry.

Drebber was shaking. He nodded, and guns fell onto the road.

‘All of them,’ I said.

Hands went to belts and inside pockets and boots and special compartments and a variety of hold-out single-shots and throwing knives rattled down as well.

‘Now, take your dead folks and scarper.’

The four surviving Danites did as they were told. The fellow in the bower was a sixteen-stone lump of his many wives’ cooking and it took two to lift him.

They had a carriage down the road, and it trundled off.

Not a bad night’s work, I thought. Providing it was over.

Rache was dancing around, and I thought it a good idea to relieve Missy Surprise of her.45 calibre insides. I gave the doll back and the girl loved it none the less for not having a head.

Jane was looking at me with something like rapt gratitude. Usually a good moment to make a proposition. I doubted my currency with Jim Lassiter stood as high as that.

‘Colonel Arbuthnot, what can we ever do to repay you?’

‘You can die,’ said a voice I recognised. ‘Yes, die.’

IX

I was fuming.

Moriarty didn’t deign to explain, but I had caught up on it.

Of course, he knew the Danites would try to save the fee and go for the kills on their own.

Of course, he had mentioned the Laurence address deliberately, to prompt fast action.

Of course, he had followed me and watched my travails all evening long, not intervening until the danger was over.

Of course, he had found a way to profit.

He strolled up the street, head bobbing. He was dressed all in black, for the night-time. He also had a carriage parked nearby, with Chop, his Chinese coachman, perched up on the box. He enquired solicitously after the neighbour, who was still making a performance of being slightly shot. Somehow, the man got the notion he had been saved by my intervention from a conspiracy of high-ranking Masons who wanted him dead over some imagined slight. It would be a risky proposition to complain officially about such well-connected villains since they owned the police. He bustled inside and drew his curtains, hoping to hide from inescapable doom under his coverlets.

Then Moriarty applied himself to the murders.

I was not privy to the arrangements the Professor made with Lassiter and Jane. I had to be in the still-smoky parlour, while Rache — excited to be up long past her bedtime — banged at the gutshot piano while singing more verses of her butterfly song.

At the conclusion of negotiations, Moriarty was proud owner, through hard-to-trace holding companies, of the Surprise Valley Gold Mine. Amusingly, he was now a major employer in Amber Springs, Utah.

Jim Lassiter/Jonathan Laurence, Jane Withersteen/Helen Laurence and Little Fay Larkin/Rachel Laurence were dead, burned to crackling in the smoking ruins of The Laurels, Streatham Hill Road. It was the gas mains, apparently. And the neighbours had some stories to tell.

What amazed me most was that the Professor had the corpses ready. Chop and I had to wrestle them into beds before the fatal match was struck. I suspected three strangers of the right ages had been ‘burked’, but Moriarty assured Jane the substitutes were ‘natural causes’ paupers rescued from anatomists’ tables. She believed him, and that’s what counts with women like her.

He had a satchel full of documents: passports, birth certificates, twenty-year-old letters, used steamer tickets, bank books, even photographs. If the Lassiter/Laurences wanted to assume other identities, they should have come to him in the first place — when it would have cost less than a gold mine. He let Mr and Mrs Ronald Lembo of Ottowa keep a private fortune of, amusingly enough, £205,000, deposited at Coutts. Not unlimited wealth, but most people should be able to live comfortably on the interest. I’d run through it inside a week.

Jane said the Professor was a wonderful man, but Lassiter knew better. He went along, but knew he’d been bushwhacked. I now think Moriarty even contrived for Drebber to come across the Laurences in the first place. For him, a fugitive in possession of a fabulous gold mine is someone who needs their exile life turned upside down.

Rache was afraid of the man. She wasn’t stupid, just different. She would have to learn a new name, Pixie, and address her parents as Uncle and Aunt, but they’d adopted her in the first place.

Along with the evidence of full lives lived from birth up to this minute, the Lembos found that they had been staying — in a suite at Claridge’s! — in London for several days. Travelling trunks, including entire wardrobes, were ensconced there. I had no doubt the staff would recognise them and they’d be offered their ‘usual’ at breakfast the next day. The family were on a long, leisurely world tour and had tickets and reservations for Paris, Strelsau, Constantinople, and points east. Eventually they would fetch up in Perth, Australia.

In the coach on the way back to Conduit Street, I asked about Drebber and Stangerson.

‘If anyone deserves to be murdered,’ I said, ‘it’s those splitters.’

The Professor smiled. ‘And who will pay us for these murders?’

‘Those two I’d slaughter for free.’

‘Bad business, giving away what we charge for. You won’t find Mrs Halifax bestowing favours “on the house”. No, if we were to take steps against the Danites, we would only expose ourselves to risk. Besides, as you know, giving out an address is often a far more deadly instrument than a gun or a knife.’

I didn’t understand and said so.

‘Elder Drebber mentioned another enemy of the Danites, one Mr Jefferson Hope. Not a fugitive, in this case, but a pursuer. A man with a deadly grudge against our clients which dates back to a business in America which is too utterly tiresome to go into at this late hour.’

‘Drebber was half expecting to run across Hope,’ I said.

‘More like he was expecting Hope to run across him. This is even more likely now. I’ve sent an unsigned telegram to Mr Hope, who is toiling as a cab driver in this city. It mentions a boarding house in Torquay Terrace, Camberwell, where he might find Drebber and Stangerson. I gather they will try to get a train for Liverpool soon, and a passage home, so I impressed on Hope that he should be swiftly about his business.’

Moriarty chuckled.

If you read in the papers about the Lauriston Gardens murder, the Halliday’s Private Hotel poisoning and death ‘in police custody’ of the suspect cabman, you’ll understand.[10] When the Professor sets abut tidying up, slates are wiped clean, broken up and buried under a foundation stone.

So, at the end of it all, I was in residence at Conduit Street, part of the family. I was the Number Two in the Firm, the Man in Charge of Murder, but had a sense of how far beneath the Number One that position ranked. I had been near-hanged and shot at, but — most of all — kept out of the grown-ups’ business. Like Rache, good enough to spring the big surprise but otherwise fondly indulged or tolerated, I wasn’t party to serious haggling, just the bloke with the gun and the steady nerve.

Still, I knew how I would even things. I began to keep a journal. All the facts are set down, and eventually the public shall know them.

Then we’ll see whose face is red. No, vermilion.

CHAPTER TWO: A SHAMBLES IN BELGRAVIA

I

To Professor Moriarty, she is always that bitch.

Irene Adler arrived in our Conduit Street rooms shortly after I undertook to assist my fellow tenant in enterprises of which he was the pre-eminent London specialist. In short, sirrah, crime.

The old bread and honey came into it, of course[11]. The Professor had me on an honorarium of six thousand pounds per annum. Scarcely enough to make anyone put up with Moriarty, actually, but it serviced my predilection for pursuits the naïve refer to as ‘games of chance’. However, I own that the thrill of do-baddery attracted me, that blood-running whoosh of fright and delight which comes from cocking repeated snooks at every plod, beak and turnkey in the land. When a hunting man has grown bored with bagging tigers, crime can still jangle the nerves and keep up the pecker. The bloodless Moriarty got his jollies in the abstract, plotting felony the way you might play a hand of patience. I’ve heard him say the business of committing the crime itself is but a tiresome necessity, the practical proof of a theorem already solved to his satisfaction.

That morning, the Professor was thinking through two problems. A portion of his brain was calculating the timings of solar eclipses observable in far-flung regions. Superstitious natives can sometimes be persuaded that a white man has power over the sun and needs to be given handy tribal treasures if bwana sahib promises to turn the light on again. Bloody good trick, if you can get away with it[12]. The greater part of his attention, however, was devoted to the breeding of wasps.

‘Your bee is a law-abiding soul,’ he said, in his reedy lecturing voice, ‘as reverent to their queen as the clods of England, dedicated to the production of honey for the betterment of all, buzzing about promiscuously pollinating to please addle-minded poets. They only defend themselves at the cost of their lives, for they sting but once. Volumes are devoted to the care of bees, and apiculture exists to exploit their good nature. Wasps do nothing but sting. Persistently venomous, they fly from one assault to the next. Unwelcome everywhere. Thoroughly nasty sorts. We are not bees, Moran.’

He smiled, a creepy thing for a man with lips as thin as his. His near-fleshless head moved from side to side. I couldn’t follow Moriarty’s drift, but that was usual. I nodded and hoped he would come, eventually, to a point. A schoolmaster before taking to villainy, his rambles tended to wind towards some inverted moral.

‘Summer will be upon us soon,’ he mused, ‘the season for picnicking in the park, for tiny fat arms to go bare, for governesses to sit and gossip unveiled, for shop girls and their beaux to spoon in public. This will be a bumper year for our yellow-and-black-striped friends. My first generation of polistes pestilentialis is hatching. The world is divided, Moran, between those who sting and those who are the stingees.’

‘And you would be the sting-ers,’ shrilled that voice.

The American Nightingale had been admitted by Mrs Halifax.

‘Miss Irene Adler,’ acknowledged Moriarty. ‘Your Lucia di Lammermoor was acceptable, your Maria Stuarda indifferent and you were perhaps the worst Emilia di Liverpool the stage has ever seen.’ [13]

‘What a horrible man you are, James Moriarty!’

His lips split and sharp teeth showed.

‘My business is being horrible, Miss Adler. I make no effort at sham or hypocrisy.’

‘That, I must say, is a tonic.’

She smiled full-bore and arranged herself on a divan, prettily hiking her hemline up over well-turned ankles, shifting her décolletage in a manner calculated to set her swanny mams a-wobble. Even Moriarty was impressed, and he could keep up a lecture on the grades of paper used in the forgery of high-denomination Venezuelan banknotes while walking down the secret corridor with the row of one-way mirror windows into the private rooms where Mrs H.’s girls conducted spectacularly indecent business day and night.

I still maintain all would have been well if only I’d shown the Adler minx what was what straight off, tossed her skirts over her head, plonked her fizzog-down on the reception room rug (a tiger whose head snarled as if he still bore a grudge from that tricky shot I made bringing him down) and administered one of my famous Specials. Had I but properly poked that Yankee popsy, she might have broken the habit which eventually set all manner of odd bods scurrying around trying to clear up her confounded messes.

Irene Adler had the face of an angel child, the body of a full-grown trollop and a voice like a steel needle slowly sliding into your brain. Even warbling to an audience of tone-deaf Polish, she hadn’t lasted as prima donna. After her Emilia flopped so badly the artistic director of the Warsaw Opera had to blow his brains out, the company cut her adrift, leaving her on the loose in Europe to the disadvantage of several ruling houses.

And here she was on our settee.

‘You are aware that the services I offer are somewhat unusual?’ the Professor said.

She fixed Moriarty with a steely glint that cut through all the sugar.

‘I am a soprano from New Jersey,’ she began, pronouncing it ‘Noo Joisey’. ‘I know what a knob crook looks like. You can figure all the sums you like, Professor, but you’re as much a capo di cosa nostra as the Moustache Petes in the back room of the Burly-Cue. Which is dandy, because I have a job of burglary that needs doing urgently. Capisce?’

The Professor nodded.

‘Who’s the red-faced gent who hasn’t taken his glims off my teats for the last minute and a half?’

‘Colonel Sebastian Moran, the heavy-game shot.’

‘Good with a gun, eh? Looks more like a shiv-man to me.’

She pointed her index fingers at her cleavage, which she thrust out, then angled her fingertips up to indicate her face.

‘That’s better. Look me in the lamps, Colonel.’

I harrumphed and paid attention. If she hadn’t wanted fellows to ogle, she shouldn’t have worn that dress. There’s no reasoning with women.

‘Here’s the thing of it,’ she said. ‘Have you heard of the Duke of Strelsau?’

‘Michael Elphberg, so-called “Black Michael”, third in line to the throne of Ruritania.’

‘That’s the fellow, Prof. Things being slow this season, I’ve been knocking around a bit with Black Mike. They call him that because of his hair, which is dark where the rest of his family’s is flame-red. He’s a gloomy, glowering type as well so it suits him on temperamental grounds too. As it happens, photographs were taken of the two of us in the actual pursuit of knocking around. Artistic studies, you might say. Six plates. Full figures. Complete exposures. It would ruin my reputation should they come to light. You see, I’m being blackmailed!’

Her voice cracked. She raised a kerchief to her eye to quell a tear, then froze, a picture of slighted maidenhood. Moriarty shook his head. She stuffed the hankie back into her sleeve and snorted.

‘Worth a try just to keep my hand in. I’m a better actress than critics say, don’t you know? Obviously, I’m not being blackmailed. Like you said, there are stingers and stingees. We are stingers.’

‘And the stingee?’

‘Another bloody colonel. Colonel Sapt. Chief of the Ruritanian Secret Police. Which has been a dozy doddle for the last thirty years, since it’s one of the most peaceable, least-insurrection-blighted spots on the map. Not so much as a whiff of dissent since forty-eight. When, admittedly, the mob burned down the old White Palace. There are very scenic gardens on the site. Anyway, intrigue stirs. King Rudolf is getting on, and there’s some doubt about who gets the throne next. Rudolf the Red, the Crown Prince, is set on shoring up his case by marrying his cousin, Princess Flavia. Where do they get these names? If you put them in an opera, you’d be laughed off stage. Rudolf is fond of a tipple and a tumble, and Black Michael would like to paint himself as the more responsible, conscientious brother. He hopes, for some bizarre reason, to appeal to the people and be acclaimed a worthy sovereign if Rudolf trips up a few more times and does something silly like not arriving at his own coronation. Sapt is loyal to Rudolf, and dead set against Michael. Lord knows why, but there you are. Some people are like that. He’s also a keen appreciator of the aesthetic worth of a fine photo.’

‘I see,’ I said, ‘this Sapt thinks to blacken Michael’s name — further blacken, I suppose — so the duke will never be king.’

Irene Adler looked at me with something like contemptuous pity.

‘Horse feathers, Colonel of the Nuts. If those pics were seen, Black Mike’d be the envy of Europe. He’d be crowned in a wave of popularity. Everyone loves a randy royal. Look at Vicky’s brood. No, Sapt wants the photographs off the market, so Mikey can be nagged into marriage by Antoinette de Mauban, his persistently pestering mistress. Which would scupper any chance he might have with Flavourless Flavia.’

‘You said Rudolf was engaged to the princess?’

She made a gesture, suggesting the matter was in the balance. ‘Whichever Elphberg marries Flavia is a cert to be king. She’s second in line. Black Michael is scheming to cut his half-brother out. Are you following this?’ [14]

Moriarty acknowledged that he was.

‘Why do you want those photographs?’

‘Sentimental value. I come off especially well in Study No. 3, where the light catches the fall of my hair as I lower my… No? Not convinced? Rats, I must work on this acting lark. Obviously, I want to blackmail everyone — Colonel Sapt, Black Mike, Red Rudi, Mademoiselle Toni, the princess… With half of Ruritania paying me to keep quiet and the other half to speak up, I should be able to milk the racket for a good few years — at least, until succession is settled — and secure my comfortable old age.’

She could not have been more than twenty-five.

‘And where might these “artistic studies” be found?’ Moriarty asked.

She dug into her reticule and produced a paper with a map drawn on it.

‘The Ruritanian Embassy in Belgravia,’ she said. ‘I have a collector’s interest in floorplans, schedules of guards, and the like.’

‘What’s this?’ the Professor indicated a detail marked with a red circle.

‘A safe, hidden behind the portrait of Rudolf III, in the private office of Colonel Sapt. If I had the key, I wouldn’t be here. I’ve been driven to associate with criminals by the need for skills in cracksmanship. You come highly recommended by Scotland Yard.’

Moriarty sniffed haughtily. ‘Scotland Yard have never heard of Professor Moriarty.’

‘For someone as crooked as you, I call that a recommendation.’

Moriarty’s head started bobbing again. He was thinking the thing through, which meant I had to look after practicalities.

‘What’s in it for us, missy?’ I asked.

‘A quarter of what I can screw from the Elphbergs.’

‘Half.’

‘That’s extortion!’

‘Yes,’ I admitted with a wink. ‘We’re extortion men, you might say. Half.’

She had a little sulk, made a practiced moue, shimmied her chest again, and bestowed a magnificent smile which warmed my insides. At some point in this business, I knew the old BMS would be required.

‘Deal,’ she said, sticking out a tiny paw to be shaken.

I should have shot her then and there.

II

The Ruritanian Embassy is a mansion in Boscobel Place. Belgravia fairly crawls with embassies, legates and consulates. The streets throng with gussied-up krauts strapped into fancy uniforms, tripping over swords they wouldn’t know what to do with if a herd of buffalo charged them. I’ve no love for your average Johnny Native, but he bests any Frenchy, Sausage-Eater or Dutchman who ever drew breath. ‘Never go into the jungle with a Belgian,’ that’s my motto.

If Irene Adler had gone to a run-of-the-mill safe-breaker like that cricket-playing fathead [15], the caper would have run to after-midnight window-breakage and a spot of brace-and-bit boring, with perhaps a cosh to Colonel Sapt’s dome as an added extra.

Moriarty scorned such methods as too obvious and not sufficiently destructive.

First, he wrote to the Westminster Gazette, which carried his angry letter in full. He harped on about the sufferings of the slum-dwellers of Strelsauer Altstadt — some of which weren’t even made up, which is where the clever part came in — and labelled Ruritania ‘the secret shame of Europe’. More correspondence appeared, not all from the Professor, chiming in with fresh tales of horrors carried on under the absolute monarchy of the Elphbergs. A long-nosed clergyman and an addle-pated countess formed a committee of busybodies to mount a solemn vigil in Boscobel Place. The protest was swollen by less dignified malcontents — Ruritanian dissenters in exile, louts with nothing better to do, crooks in Moriarty’s employ.

Hired ranters stirred passers-by against the vile Ruritanian practice (invented by the Professor) of cleaning the huge cannons of Zenda Castle by shoving little orphan girls into the barrels and prodding them with sticks until their wriggling wiped out the bore. A few of the Conduit Street Comanche — that tribe of junior beggars, whores, pickpockets and garrotters whose loyalty the Professor had bought — got themselves up as Zenda Cannon Girls, with soot on their faces and skirts, and threw dung at anyone who so much as dared step outside the Embassy.

After typical foreign bleating and whining, Scotland Yard sent two constables to Boscobel Place to rap truncheons against the railings and tell the crowd to move along quietly. To the Comanche, a bobby’s helmet might as well have a target painted on it. And horse dung is easily come by on the streets of London.

So, within three days, there was the makings of a nice pitched battle outside the Embassy. Moriarty and I took the trouble to stroll by every now and then, to see how the pot was boiling.

Hawk-eyed, the Professor spotted a face peering from a downstairs window.

‘That’s Sapt,’ he said.

‘I could pot him from here,’ I volunteered. ‘I’ve a revolver in my pocket. It’d be a dicey shot, but I could make it.’

Moriarty’s head wavered. He was calculating odds.

‘He would only be replaced. We know who Sapt is. Another secret police chief might not be such a public figure.’

My right hand was itching and I had a thrill in my water.

I had a notion to haul out and blast away, just for sport and hang the scheme. There were enough bearded anarchists about to take the blame. Sometimes an idea takes your fancy, and there’s nothing to do but give in.

Moriarty’s bony hand was on my wrist, squeezing. Hard.

His eyes shone. Cobra eyes.

‘That would be a mistake, Moran.’

My wrist hurt. A lot. The Professor knew where to squeeze. He could snap bones with what seemed like a pinch. He let me have my hand back.

Moriarty rarely smiled, and then usually to terrify some poor victim. The first time I heard him laugh, I thought he had been struck by deadly poison and the stutter escaping through his locked jaws was a death rattle. That day’s Times report from Ruritania solicited from him an unprecedented fit of shoulder-shaking giggles. He wound his fingers together like the claws of a praying mantis.

The prompt for this hilarity was Black Michael’s vow to free the Zenda Cannon Girls.

‘Let us wish him luck in finding them,’ the Professor said. ‘How delicious that the duke should be our staunch ally in this enterprise. Then again, Queen Victoria has also expressed sympathy for our imaginary orphans.’

Flashes came from the Embassy. My hand was on my revolver.

‘More photographs,’ the Professor said. ‘Colonel Sapt’s hobby.’

Sapt’s face was gone, but a box-and-lens affair was pressed against the window. Moriarty and I had coats casually pulled up over our faces, against the wind.

‘The Secret Police Chief likes to know his enemies, Moran. A man in his position collects them.’

‘Why’s Sapt in London anyway? Shouldn’t he be cracking down on bomb-throwers on his home turf?’

Moriarty pondered the question. ‘If we are to believe Miss Adler, Sapt can best serve his cause here.’

‘His cause?’

‘Up the Red, down the Black. But the Elphberg brothers are halfway across Europe. So, Sapt’s attention is directed here on subtler business.’

‘The woman?’

Moriarty’s shoulders lifted and dropped.

‘The old goat probably hopes she’ll give him a tumble to get her snaps back,’ I suggested. ‘I’ll wager he pulls the pics out of the safe every night and gives ’em a proper looking over.’

‘If that were the case, she wouldn’t have engaged us. Miss Adler does not strike me as a lady who likes to share. Yet she has willed over half the earnings of a profitable enterprise to us.’

‘No choice, Moriarty. Who else could get her what she wants?’

The Professor tapped his teeth. ‘No one but us, Moran. Evidently.’

Moriarty’s fingers went to his watch pocket. In my years of association with the Professor, I never saw him pull out the timepiece I presume anchored the chain across his flat middle. Once an associate understood the import of timekeeping, everything went to schedule. Otherwise, there might have been consequences.

He had barely stroked his chain when Filthy Fanny dashed from the crowd and began kicking the police guard.

Fanny had been successfully presenting herself as a ten-year-old waif for a full two decades without anyone being the wiser. It was down to the proper application of dirt, which she arranged on her face with the skill other tarts devote to the use of paints and powder.

Now, Filth wore the sooty skirts of a Zenda Cannon Girl. And heavy shin-kicking clogs.

She harangued in backslang (‘Reggub the Esclop!’) that sounded mighty like Ruritanian, or whatever heathen tongue they use. [16]

After some painful toe-to-shin business, the plod got his truncheon out.

With a command of the dramatic that would put a Drury Lane tragedienne to shame, Filth tumbled down the Embassy steps, squirting tomato juice from a sponge clapped over her eye.

Moriarty handed me a cobblestone and pointed.

I threw the stone at the gawking copper, and fetched off his helmet. I’d once brought down a Bengal tiger with a cricket ball in exactly the same manner.

Then, the mob rose and rushed the Embassy. Moriarty hooked me with an umbrella handle and we milled in with the crowd.

The front doors caved, and the first rush of intruders slid about on the polished marble foyer floor like drunken skaters. Three guards tried to unscabbard sabres, but the Comanche set about stripping them — and the environs — of anything redeemable. Pawn-shop windows would soon display cuirasses, plumed helms and other items stamped with the Elphberg Seal.

Sapt poked his head out of his door. Moriarty signalled. A couple of bruisers laid hands on the Secret Police Chief.

The Professor sidled next to the anarchist with the biggest beard and suggested he draw up a list of demands, phrasing it so the fellow would think the whole thing was his idea.

Sapt looked about furiously, moustache twitching. Dirty hands held him fast.

A bunch of keys rattled on Sapt’s belt. Moriarty pointed them out, and an urchin brushed past, deftly relieving Sapt of the keys.

‘Give him a taste of what the Cannon Girls get,’ I shouted.

We left the mob happily shoving the Police Chief feet-first up the nearest chimney. The anarchist had posted lookouts at the doors, and was waving an ancient revolver at the still-surprised constables.

‘You can’t rush us,’ Comrade Beard said. ‘This Ruritanian territory is claimed by the Free Citizens’ Committee of Strelsauer Altstadt. Any action against us will be interpreted as a British invasion.’

The average London crusher[17] isn’t qualified to cope with an argument like that. So they bullied someone into making them tea, and told the anarchist to hang fire until someone from the Foreign Office turned up. In return, Beard promised not to garrotte any hostages just yet.

Sapt, it appeared, had got stuck.

With all this going on, it was a simple matter to slip into Sapt’s private office, take down the portrait and open the safe. It contained a thick, sealed packet — and, disappointingly, no cash box or surplus crown jewels. Moriarty handed me the goods, and looked about, brows knit in mild puzzlement.

‘What? Too easy?’

‘No, Moran. It’s just as I foresaw.’

He locked the safe again.

There was a clatter of carriages and boots outside. Boscobel Place was full of eager fellows in uniform.

‘They’ve called out the troops.’

‘Time to leave,’ the Professor said.

Back in the foyer, Moriarty gave the nod. Our Comanche confederates left off pilfering and detached themselves from those still intent on making a political point.

Sapt had fallen head first out of the chimney, sooty as a sweep. The Professor arranged the surreptitious return of his keys.

We left the building as we came, through the front door.

The Comanche melted into another crowd.

I came smack face to face with a junior guards officer, who was about to set diplomacy aside and invade. I stiffened my neck and snapped off a salute, which was smartly returned. Once you’ve worn the colours, they never wear off.

‘Carry on, Lieutenant,’ I said.

‘Yes, sir,’ he responded.

As often, Moriarty had contrived not to be noticed. Like those lizards who can blend into greenery, he had the knack of seeming like a forgettable old stick, someone who has got off the omnibus two stops early and wandered into a bloodbath which was none of his doing.

We strolled away from the battle. Shouts, shots, thumps, crashes and bells sounded. Nothing to do with us.

A cab waited on the corner.

III

Moriarty was in a black thinking mood. He chewed little violet pastilles of his own concoction — a substitute for the cigarettes which had yellowed his fingers and teeth but were now abandoned because he’d taken it into his head to deem tobacco a threat to human health — and paced his room, hands knotted in the small of his back, brow set in a crinkled frown.

I was still full of the thrill of jizzwhackery, and minded to pop downstairs to call on Flossie or Pussie or whatever the tiny blonde with the lazy eye said she was called. After the hunting grounds, the boudoir. I’d learned that in India, along with how to keep an eye on your wallet in the back of your trousers while they’re draped over a chair. Fifi. Her name was Fifi. She really was French. And she had a friend. Véronique.

But the Professor was preoccupied.

The evening papers were in, along with tear-sheets of fuller reports that would be in tomorrow’s editions. Sapt was claiming that dangerous Ruritanian revolutionary movements needed to be exterminated. He called upon Great Britain, Ruritania’s ancient ally, to join the crusade against insurrection, alleging that the assault upon the Embassy (and his person) had been equally an insult to Victoria and Rudolf. Typical foreign sod, wanting us to fight his battles for him.

Back in Streslau, there had been street skirmishes between Michaelists and Rudolfites. Many arrests had been made and Sapt was expected to return to his country with information which would lead to a complete sweep of the organised troublemakers.

The packet of photographs lay on our bureau. It seemed that reclaiming this property of a lady had interesting side effects. Moriarty’s imaginary revolution had genuinely to be put down.

‘I hope the blasted country don’t go up in flames before Irene can cash these chips, Moriarty. She’ll get no blackmail boodle out of ’em if they’re hanging from lamp posts in the public gardens.’

Moriarty growled. He left the room, and closeted himself in the dark, buzzing space where he raised his wasps and plotted the courses of heavenly bodies.

Speaking of heavenly bodies, my eyes went to the packet.

The seal was nice and red and heavy and official.

I remembered the line of Irene Adler’s throat, the trim of her calves under silk, the swell of…

No one had said anything about not examining the merchandise.

I listened out: Moriarty was whistling to his wasps, likely to be absorbed for hours; there was no tread on the stair and Mrs Halifax was ordered to keep all callers away. So, no chance of interruption.

I sat at the bureau, and turned up the gas lamp to illuminate the blotter.

With a deft bit of penknifery, I lifted the seal intact so it could be reattached with no one the wiser. My mouth was dry, as if I’d been in a hide for hours, watching a staked-out goat, awaiting the pad of a big cat. I poured a healthy snifter of brandy, an apt accompaniment to this pleasurable perusal.

With a warm pulse in my vitals, I slid the contents out of the packet.

It was like iced water tipped into my lap.

There were photographs. Views of Zenda Castle, with figures on the battlements. One wore a gauzy hat with a dead bird stuck to it, the other a comic opera uniform. Even at distance, I’d recognised the lovebirds. Irene Adler and Colonel Sapt.

‘Disgusting,’ I blurted.

A sheet of paper was slipped into the sheaf of photographs.

My Dear Col. Moran,

I knew you’d not be able to resist a peek at these ‘artistic studies’. Sorry for the disappointment.

For what it’s worth, you may keep all monies which can be raised from them. If b

---

l proves unprofitable, I suggest you license them to a manufacturer of postcards.

My very best to the Prof. I knew I could rely on him to toss a pebble in the pond, sending out ripples enough to make a maelstrom. An ordinary workman would just have secured the package and been done with it. Only a genius on the level of a Bonaparte could turn a simple task into the prompt for turmoil raised across a whole continent.

Please convey the thanks of another colonel. Being Chief of Secret Police in ‘one of the most peaceable, least-insurrection-blighted spots on the map’ was not a career with a future. The Elphbergs were intent on retiring him, but now — I fancy — he’ll be kept on with an increase in salary.

I expect you to retain the last figure for sentimental reasons, and I remain, dear Colonel Moran, very truly yours,

Irene Adler

I flipped through several more entirely innocent tourist photographs of picturesque Ruritania, until — at the bottom of the stack — I beheld the full face of the American Nightingale. In this final, studio-posed photograph she wore the low-cut bodice she’d affected on her visit to Conduit Street, somewhat loosened and lowered, though — dash it! — artistic fogging around the edges of the portrait prevented complete immodesty. Through the fog was scrawled her spidery autograph, ‘as ever, Irene’. Even thus frozen, she looked like the sort who would be much improved by a Basher Moran Special. I gulped the brandy, and chewed my moustache for a few moments, contemplating this turn of events.

Behind me, a door opened.

I swivelled in the chair. Moriarty looked at me, eyes shining — he had thought it through, and was unhappy. When the Professor was unhappy, other creatures — animals, children, even full-grown men — tended to learn of it in extreme and uncomfortable manners.

‘Moriarty,’ I began, ‘I’m afraid we’ve been stung.’

I held up Irene’s photograph.

He spat out a word.

And that was how a great shambles broke out in Belgravia, shaking the far-off kingdom of Ruritania, and how the worst plans of Professor Moriarty were exploited by a woman’s treachery. When he speaks of Irene Adler, or when he refers to her photograph, it is always as that bitch.

CHAPTER THREE: THE RED PLANET LEAGUE

I

Professor Moriarty excelled in two fields of human endeavour.

Mathematics, for one. Never was such a fellah as the Prof for chalking up sums. Or the rigmarole with more squiggles than numbers. Equations. Did ’em in his head, for fun… damn his eyes.

I would wager several pawn tickets held on the family silver that you lot have little or no interest in fractional calculus or imperfect logarithms. You’d all be best pleased if I yarned up the other field in which James Moriarty was top of the class.

Crime. Just the word gets you tingly, don’t it?

Well, tough titty… as the house captain who tried to roger me when I was a whelp at Eton used to say. Because this story is all about mathematics. I got my penknife to the house capt’s goolies, by the way. Preserved my maidenly virtue, as it were. Blighter is Bishop of Brichester these days. That’s beside the point: maths is the thing!

Get your thinking caps on, because I might put in some sums. Make you show your workings in the margin and write off for the answers. It will cost an extra 3d and a stamp just to find out if you’re as clever as you think you are. Probably, you ain’t. Most fellahs (including — I’m not ashamed to admit it — me) aren’t as clever as they think they are. Moriarty, though, was exactly that clever, a rare bird indeed. More dodos are around than blokes like that. According to Mr Darwin, that’s good joss [18] for the rest of us. Elsewise, we’d have long since been hunted to extinction by the inflated cranium people.

Drifting back to the subject in hand, Professor Moriarty was Number One Heap Big Chief in both his vocations. Which meant there was something he was even better at than complicated number problems or turning a dishonest profit — making enemies.

Over the years and around the world, I’ve run into some prize-winningly antagonistic coves. I recall several of that species of blood-soaked heathen who bridle under the yoke of Empire and declare war on ‘the entire White Christian Race’. Good luck to ’em. Pack off a regiment of curates and missionaries led by Bishop Bum-Banger to meet their savage hordes on the field of carnage and see if I care. In India, some sergeants wear armour beneath the tunic because no soldier serving under them can be trusted with a clear shot at their backs. I’ve also run into confidential police informants, which is to say: grasses. Peaching on one’s fellow crims to escape gaol is guaranteed to get you despised on both sides of the law. Fact is: no bastard born earned as many, as various, and as determined enemies as Moriarty.

First off, other crooks hated him. Get your regular magsman or ponce on the subject of Professor Jimmy Bleedin’ Moriarty, and you’ll expand the old vocabulary by obscenities in several argots. Just being a bigger thief than the rest of them was enough to get their goats. What made it worse was villains were often forced to throw in with him on capers, taking all the risk while he snaffled the lion’s share of the loot. If they complained, he had them killed. That was my job, by the by — so show some bloody respect or there’s a rope, a sack and a stretch of the Thames I could introduce you to. To hear them tell it, every cracksman in the land was just about to work out a foolproof plan to lift the jewels from Princess Alexandra’s knickers or riffle the strongboxes in the sub-basement of the Bank of England when Professor Moriarty happened by some fluke to think of it first. A few more tumblers of gin and their brilliant schemes would have been perfected — and they wouldn’t have to hand on most of the swag to some evil-eyed toff just for sitting at home and drawing diagrams. You might choose to believe these loquacious, larcenous fellahs. Me, I’ll come straight out and say they’re talking through a portion of their anatomy best employed passing wind or, in certain circumstances, concealing a robin’s egg diamond with a minimum of observable discomfort.

Then there were coppers. Moriarty made sure they had no earthly notion who he might be, so they didn’t hate him quite as personally as anyone who ever met him — but they sure as spitting hated the idea of him. By now, you’ve heard the twaddle… vast spider squatting in the centre of an enormous web of vice and villainy… Napoleon of Crime… Nero of Naughtiness… Thucydides of Theft, et cetera, et cetera. Detectives of all stripe loathed the unseen King of Krooks, and blubbed to their mummies whenever they had to flounder around after one of his coups. ‘Scotland Yard Baffled,’ as if that were news. Hah!

One man above all hated Professor Moriarty. And was hated by him.

Throughout his dual career — imagine serpents representing maths and crookery, twining together like a wicked caduceus — the Prof was locked in deadly survival for supremacy — nay, for survival — with a human creature he saw as his arch-enemy, his eternal opposite, his nemesis.

Sir Nevil Airey Stent.

I don’t know how it started. Stent and Moriarty were at each other’s throats well before I became Number Two Big-ish Chief in the Firm. Whenever the Stent issue was raised, Moriarty turned purple and hissed — and was in no condition to elucidate further. I know they first met as master and pupil: Moriarty supervised young Nevil when the lad was cramming for an exam. Maybe the Prof scorned the promising mathematician’s first quadratic equation in front of the class. Maybe Stent gave him an apple with a worm in it. Upshot is: daggers drawn, eyes ablaze, lifelong enmity.

Since this record might be of some academic interest, here are a few facts and dates I’ve looked up in back editions of the Times:

1863 — Boyish twenty-three-year-old Nevil Stent, former pupil of James Moriarty, rocks the world of astronomy with his paper ‘Diffractive Properties of an Object-Glass with Circular Aperture’. Not a good title, to my mind — which runs more to the likes of

Heavy Game of the Western Himalayas

or

My Nine Nights in a Harem

(both, as it happens, written by me — good luck finding the latter: most of the run was burned by order of the crown court and the few extant volumes tend to be found in the collection of the judge who made the ruling).

1869 — Stent appointed to the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge University, succeeding brainboxes like Isaac Newton, Thomas Turton and Charles Babbage. Look ’em up — all gems, so I’m told. If said chair were a literal piece of furniture, it would be hand-carved by Chippendale and covered in a three-inch layer of gold flake. The Lucasian Professorship comes complete with loads of wonga, a free house, all the bowing and scraping students you can eat and high tea with the dean’s sister every Thursday. Stent barely warms the Lucasian with his bottom before skipping on to occupy an even more exalted seat, the Plumian Chair of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy. It’s only officially a chair — everyone in Cambridge calls it the Plumian

Throne.

1872 —The book-length expansion of ‘Diffractive Properties’ lands Stent the Copley Medal of the Royal Society. This is like the VC of science. Wear that little ribbon and lesser astronomers swallow their chalk with envy when you walk by.

1873 — Stent publishes again!

On an Inequality of Long Period in the Motions of the Earth and Venus

so radically revises the Solar Tables set out a generation earlier by Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre that the Delambre Formulae are tossed into the bin and replaced by the Stent Formulae. JB is dead or Moriarty would have had to queue up behind him for the job of Nev’s arch-enemy, methinks.

1878 — Stent knighted by Her Majesty, Queen Victoria — who couldn’t even count her own children, let alone calculate an indice of diffraction — and is therefore universally hailed the greatest astronomical mathematician of the age. Rivals choke on their abacus beads. Naturally, Sir Nevil is also appointed Astronomer Royal and allowed to play with all the toys and telescopes in the land. Gets first pick of which bits of the sky to look at. Can name any cosmic bodies he discovers after his cats. The AR position comes with Flamsteed House, an imposing official residence. Greenwich Observatory is tacked onto it, rather like a big garden shed. Lesser mortals have to throw themselves on the ground before Sir Nevil Airey Stent if they want to take so much a shufti at the man in the moon.

Cast your glims over that little lot, and consider the picture of Sir Nevil in the rotogravure. Tall, fair-haired, eyes like a romantic poet, strong arms from working an altazimuth mount, winning little-boy smile. Mrs Sir Nevil is the former Caroline Broughton-Fitzhume, second daughter of the Earl of Stoke Poges, reckoned among the beauties of the age. Tell me you don’t hate the swot right off the bat.

Now… imagine how you’d feel about Stent if you were a skull-faced, reptile-necked, balding astronomical-mathematical genius ten years older than the Golden Youth of Greenwich Observatory. Though recognised as a serious brain, that ‘European vogue’ for your ‘Treatise on the Binomial Theorem’ is but a faded memory. Your career has scarcely stretched beyond being ousted from an indifferent, non-Plumian chair — no more than a stool, they say — at a provincial university few proper dons would toss a mortarboard at. Officially, you’re an army coach — cramming sums into the heads of dimwit subalterns who need to pass exams before haring off to do daring deeds (or die of jungle fever) in far distant quarters of the Empire. No one knows about the coups and triumphs of your other business. And Stent is a hero of the world of science, a veritable comet zooming through the night sky. If you aren’t grinding your teeth with loathing, you probably lost them years ago.

Stent. It’s even a horrible name, isn’t it?

All the Dictionary of National Biography business I found out later. When Professor Moriarty, tense as a coiled cobra and twice as venomous, slithered into the reception room brandishing a copy of The Observatory — trade journal for astronomers, don’t you know — I’d have been proud to say I had never heard of the flash nob who was giving that evening’s lecture to the Royal Astronomical Society in Burlington House.

My understanding was that my flatmate and I were due to attend an exclusive sporting event in Wapping. Contestants billed as ‘Miss Lilian Russell’ and ‘Miss Ellen Terri’ in the hope punters might take them for their near look-alikes Lillian Russell and Ellen Terry were to face off, stripped to drawers and corsets, and Indian-wrestle in an arena knee-deep in custard. My ten bob was on Ellen to shove Lilian’s face into the yellow three falls out of four. I was scarcely best pleased to be informed that our seats at this cultural event would go unclaimed. We would be skulking — in disguise, yet — at the back of the room while Sir Nevil Stent delivered his latest crowd-pleasing lecture.

His title: ‘The Dynamics of an Asteroid: A Comprehensive Refutation’.

II

‘Has it not been said that The Dynamics of an Asteroid “ascends to such rarefied heights of pure mathematics there is no man in the scientific press capable of criticising it”?’

Sir Nevil Stent smiled and held up a thick volume.

I was familiar with the blasted book. At least a dozen presentation copies were stuffed into the shelves in our study. It was the Professor’s magnum opus, the sum total of his knowledge of and contribution to the Whole Art of Mathematical Astronomy. In rare moments of feeling, Moriarty was wont to claim he was prouder of these 652 pages (with no illustrations, diagrams or tables) than of the Macao-Golukhin Forgery, the Bradford Beneficent Fund Swindle or the Featherstone Tiara Theft.

‘Of course,’ Stent continued, ‘we sometimes have our doubts about “the scientific press”. More sense can be found in Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday.’ [19]

A tide of tittering ran through the audience. Stent raised his eyebrows, and shook the book in humorous fashion, as if hoping something would fall out. Chuckles ensued. Stent tried to read the book upside down. Something which might be diagnosed as a guffaw erupted from an elderly party near us. Moriarty turned to aim a bone-freezing glare at the old gent — but was thwarted by his disguise. He wore opaque black spectacles and held a white cane in order to pass himself off as a blind scholar from Trinity College, Dublin.

Stent slammed the book down on the lectern.

‘No, my friends, it will not do,’ he said. ‘Being beyond understanding is of no use to anyone. Astronomy will never progress from simple stargazing if we allow it to be dominated by such… and I don’t hesitate to use the term… piffling tripe as Professor Moriarty’s pound and a half of waste paper. It would be better titled The Dynamics of a Haemorrhoid, for its contents are piles of nonsense. This copy was taken by me this afternoon from the library of the Greenwich Observatory. As you know, this is the greatest collection of publications and papers in the field. It is open to the finest scholars and minds on the planet. Let us examine this Dynamics of an Asteroid, and see what secrets it has to tell…’

Stent picked up the book again and began to leaf through it. He showed the title page. ‘A first, and indeed only, edition!’ Then, he turned to the opening chapter, and drew his finger down the two-columned text, turned the page, and did the same, then turned the page and…

‘Aha,’ he exclaimed. ‘After twenty pages, we find that the next leaf is uncut. As are all remaining leaves. What can we deduce from that? This book has been in the library for six years. I have a list of academics, students and astronomers who have taken it out. Seventy-two names. Many I see before me this evening. It seems no one has managed to read beyond the first twenty pages of this masterwork. Because I am not averse to suffering for my field, I have read the book, cover to cover, 652 pages. I venture to say I am the only man in the room who can claim such a Herculean achievement. Is there any comrade here, to whom I can extend my condolences, with whom I can share my sufferings? In short, has anyone else managed to finish The Dynamics of an Asteroid? Hands up, don’t be shy. There are worse things to admit to.’

The handle of the Professor’s cane snapped. He’d been gripping it with both knotted fists. The sound was like a gunshot.

‘So you have joined us, James,’ Stent said. ‘I rather thought you might.’

A sibilance escaped Moriarty’s colourless lips.

‘We shall have need of you later,’ Stent said, producing a long thin knife — which he proceeded slip into the book, cutting at last its virgin leaves. ‘You can take off those ridiculous smoked glasses. Though, if you have suffered some onset of blindness which has not been reported in the press, it would explain a great deal. Gentlemen of the Royal Society of Astronomers, it is my contention that no man who has ever looked through a telescope with sighted eyes would ever be able to make the following statement, which I quote from the third paragraph of page one of The Dynamics of an Asteroid…

Stent proceeded to dissect the book, wielding words like a scalpel, and flicking blood in Professor Moriarty’s face. It was a merciless, good-humoured assassination. Entertaining asides raised healthy laughter throughout the evening.

The sums were well above my head, but I snickered once or twice at the amusing way Stent couched his refutations. I should have kept a stonier face: the next day, Moriarty had Mrs Halifax despatch Véronique, my second favourite French dollymop, to Alaska as a mail-order bride. Fifi, my first choice, was too good an earner to waste, but I’d learned a lesson.

At every point, Stent invited a response from Moriarty. None came. The Professor sat in silence as his theorems were shredded, his calculations unpicked, his conclusions burst like balloons.

Sir Nevil Airey Stent had no idea that the Professor’s interests extended beyond equations. Blithely, the Astronomer Royal continued his lecture. Though I knew only too well what the clot was getting into, I could scarcely blame him for digging his own grave in public.

No one would have believed, in the next-to-last years of the nineteenth century, that his lecture was being watched keenly and closely by an intelligence greater than his own; that as he blathered on and on he was scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a berk with a microscope might scrutinise the tiny wriggly bugs that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency, Stent read from his little sheaf of notes, serene in the assurance that he was royalty among astronomers.

Yet, across the gulf of the lecture hall, a mind that was to Stent’s as his was to those of the beasts that perish, an intellect vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded the podium with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew his plans against him.

‘In brief, sirs,’ Stent said, wrapping things up, ‘this asteroid is off its course. Heavenly bodies being what they are, this cannot be allowed. Stars are inexorable. The laws of attraction, gravity, propulsion and decay are immutable. An asteroid does not behave in the manner our colleague alleges it does. This august body will fall prey to… to men from Mars, with three legs, eyes the size of saucers and paper party hats… before the asteroid will deviate one whit from the course I have charted. I would wager five pounds that Professor Moriarty can say no different. James?’

The pause stretched on. Moriarty said nothing. It was summer, but I felt a chill. So did the rest of the audience.

The silence was broken by Markham, the adenoidal twit who had introduced Sir Nevil. He stood up and called for a round of thunderous applause, then announced that the gist of the speech was now available as a pamphlet at the cost of 6d. There was a rush for the stall outside the lecture room, where a brisk trade was done.

Moriarty remained in his seat as the room emptied.

‘James,’ Stent said cheerfully from the podium as he gathered his notes, ‘it’s pleasant to see you in such evident health. There’s actually some colour in your cheeks. I bid you a respectful good night.’

The Professor nodded to his nemesis. Stent left by a rear door.

Moriarty didn’t move from his chair. I wondered if he even could.

Stent had set out to murder Moriarty the Mathematician. He didn’t suspect his victim had another self. An unmurdered, unmerciful enemy.

‘Moran,’ he said, at last, ‘tomorrow, you will call on The Lord of Strange Deaths in Limehouse. [20] The Lord is out of the country, but Singapore Charlie will act for him. You remember the Si-Fan [21] were able to import the swamp adder we supplied for Dr Grimesby Roylott[22]. I wish to place an order for a dozen vampyroteuthis infernalis. That is not yet an officially recognised genus of coleoidea, but specimens come on the exotica market from time to time.’

‘Vampyro-whatsit?’

‘Vampyroteuthis infernalis. Hellish vampire squid. Often mistaken for an octopus. Don’t let Singapore Charlie palm you off with anything else. They are difficult to keep alive above their spawning depth. Pressurised brass containers will be necessary. Von Herder can manufacture them, reversing the principle of the Maracot Bell. Use the funds from the Hanway Street jeweller’s, then dip into the reserve. Expense is immaterial. I must have my vampyroteuthis infernalis.’

I pictured what a hellish vampire squid might be. And foresaw unpleasant experiences for Sir Nevil.

‘Now,’ the Professor said, ‘there is just time to catch the last falls. Would you be interested in making haste for Wapping?’

‘Rath-er!’

III

The next few weeks were busy.

Moriarty dropped several criminal projects, and devoted himself entirely to Stent. He summoned minions — familiar fellahs from previous exploits, like Italian Joe from the Old Compton Street Café poisonings, and new faces nervous at being plucked from obscurity by the greatest criminal mind of the age. ‘PC Purbright’, a rozzer kicked off the force for not sharing his bribe-takings, was one such small fish. A misleadingly strapping, ferocious-looking bloke and something of a fairy mary, PCP specialised in dressing up in his old uniform and standing lookout for first-floor men. He had a sideline as a human punching bag, accepting a fee from frustrated criminals (and even respectable folk) who relished the prospect of giving a policeman a taste of his own truncheon. If you paid extra, he’d turn up while you were out with your darby girl and pretend to make an arrest — you could beat him off easily and impress the little lady with your fightin’ spirit. Guaranteed a tumble, I’m told. He came out of the Professor’s study with wide eyes, roped into whatever bad business we were about.

I was sent out to make contact with reliable tradesmen, all more impressed by the colour of Moriarty’s gelt than the peculiarity of his requests. Paul A. Robert, a pioneer of praxinoscopes, was paid to prepare materials in his studio in Brighton. According to his ledgers, he was to provide ‘speculative scientific educational illustrations’ in the form of ‘rapidly serialised photograph cells from nature and contrivance’. Von Herder, the blind German engineer, bought himself a weekend cottage in the Bavarian Alps with his earnings from the pressurised squid tanks and something called a burnished copper parabolic mirror. Singapore Charlie, acting for the mad Chinaman who had cornered the market in importing venomous flora and fauna, was delighted to lay his hands — not literally, of course — on as many squid as we could use.

The pets were delivered promptly, by Chinese laundrymen straining to lift heavy wicker hampers. Under the linens were Herder Bells, which looked like big brass barrels with stout glass view-panels and pressure gauges. A mark on the gauge showed what the correct reading should be, and a foot-pump was supplied to maintain the cosy deep-sea foot-poundage the average h.v.s. needs for comfort. If this process was neglected, they blew up like balloons. Snacks could be slipped to the cephalopods through a funnel affair with graduated locks. The Professor favoured live mice, though they presumably weren’t usually on the vampyroteuthis menu.

Mrs Halifax supplied a trembling housemaid — rather, a practiced harlot who dressed up as a trembling housemaid — to see to the feeding and pumping. Pouting Poll said she’d service the entire crew of a Lascar freighter down to the cabin boy’s monkey rather than look at the ungodly vermin, so hatches were battened over the spheres’ windows at feeding time. Not wanting to follow ma belle Véro to Frozen Knackers, Alaska, Polly did her duty without excessive whining. The Prof spotted the doxy and promised her a promotion to ‘undercover operative’ — which the poor tart hadn’t the wit to be further terrified by.

The squid were quite repulsive enough for me, but Moriarty decided their pale purplish cream hides weren’t to his liking and introduced drops of scarlet dye into their water. This turned them into flaming red horrors. The Professor, cock-a-hoop with the fiends, spent hours peering into their windows, watching them turn inside out or waggle their tentacles like angry floor mops.

Remember I said other crooks hated Moriarty? This was one of the reasons. When he was on a thinking jag, he couldn’t be bothered with anything else. Business as usual went out the window. While the Professor was tending his squid and sucking pastilles, John Clay, the noted gold-lifter (another old Etonian, as it happens), popped round to lay out a tasty earner involving the City and Suburban Bank. He wanted to rope in the Professor’s services as consulting criminal and have him take a look-see at his proposed scam, spot any trapfalls which might lead him into police custody and suggest any improvements that would circumvent said unhappy outcome.

For this, no more than five minutes’ work, the Firm could expect a healthy tithe in gold bullion. The Professor said he was too busy. I had thoughts about that, but kept my mouth shut. I’d no desire to wake up with a palpitating hellish vampire squid on the next pillow. Clay went off in a huff, shouting that he’d pull the blag on his lonesome and we’d not see a farthing. ‘Even without your dashed Professor, I shall get away clean, with thirty thousand! I shall laugh at the law, and crow over Moriarty!’

You know how the City and Suburban crack worked out. Clay is now sewing mailbags, demonstrating the finest needlework in all Her Majesty’s prisons. [23] A flash thief, he’d been an asset on several occasions. We’d never have got the Rajah’s Rubies without him. If Moriarty kept this up, we wouldn’t have an organisation left.

One caller the Professor deigned to receive was a shifty-eyed walloper named George Ogilvy. I took him straight off for a back-alley shiv-man, but he turned out to be another bally telescope tosser. First thing he did was whip out a well-worn copy of The Dynamics of an Asteroid (with all its leaves cut) and beg Moriarty for a personal inscription. I think the thing the Professor did with his mouth at that was his stab at a real smile. Trust me, you’d rather a vampyroteuthis infernalis clacked its beak — buccal orifice, properly — at you than see those thin lips part a crack to give a glimpse of teeth.

Moriarty got Ogilvy on the subject of Stent, and the astronomer poured forth a tirade. Seems the Prof wasn’t the only member of the We Hate N.A. Stent Society. I drifted off during the seventh paragraph of bile, but — near as I can recollect — Ogilvy felt passages of On an Inequality of Long Period owed a jot to his own observations, and that credit for same had been perfidiously withheld. It was apparent that, as a breed, mathematician-astronomers were more treacherous, determined and murder-minded than the wounded tigers, Thuggee stranglers, card-sharps and frisky husband-poisoners who formed my usual circle of acquaintance.

Ogilvy happily signed up as the first recruit for the Red Planet League and left, clutching his now-sacred Dynamics.

I ventured a question. ‘I say, Moriarty, what is the Red Planet League?’

His head oscillated, a familiar mannerism when he was pondering something dreadful. He looked out of our window, up into the pinkish-brown evening sky over London.

‘The League is a manufacturer of paper hats,’ he said. ‘Suitable apparel for our cousins from beyond the vast chasm of interplanetary space.’

Then Moriarty laughed.

Pigeons fell dead three streets away. Hitherto-enthusiastic customers in Mrs Halifax’s rooms suddenly lost ardour at the worst possible moment. Vampire squid waved their tentacles. I quelled an urge to bring up my mutton lunch.

Frederick Nietzsche witters on about ‘how terrible is the laughter of the Übermensch’ — yes, I have read a book without pics of naked bints or big game! — and establishes there is blood and ice in the slightest chuckle of these superior beings. If Fathead Fritzi ever heard the laugh of Professor Moriarty, he would have shat blood, ice and sauerkraut into his German drawers.

‘Yes-s-s,’ he hissed. ‘Paper hats-s-s.’

IV

From the Diary of Sir Nevil Airey Stent.

September 2

Notices are in! My lecture — an unparalleled triumph! The Dynamics of an Asteroid — in the dustbin! Moriarty’s hash — settled for good! I may draw a thick black line through the most prominent name on the List.

Now — on to other things.

Remodelling of Flamsteed House continues. All say it’s not grand enough for my position. Workmen have been in all week, installing electric lamps in every room. In my position, we must have all the modern, scientific devices. Lady Caroline fears electricity will leak from the wiring and strike dead the servants with indoor lightning. I have explained to her why this is impossible, but my dear featherhead continues to worry and has ordered the staff to wear rubber-soled shoes. They squeak about the place like angry mice.

Similarly, the Observatory must expand, keep apace, draw ahead.

At ninety-four inches, our newly commissioned optical-reflecting telescope shall be the biggest in the world! The ’scopes at Birr Castle and the Lick Observatory will seem like tadpoles! I almost feel sorry for them. That’s two more off the List!

Kedgeree for breakfast, light lunch of squab and quail eggs, Dover sole and chipped potatoes for supper. Congress with Lady C. — twice! Must eat more fish.

Reviewing my life and achievements on this, my forty-fifth birthday, I concede myself well-satisfied.

All must admire me.

Looking to the planets and stars, I feel I am surveying my domain. My Queen has her Empire, but she has gifted me the skies for conquest.

Mars is winking at me, redly.

September 6: A curious happening.

Business took me to the lens-grinders’ in Seven Dials. Old Parsons’ work has been indifferent lately, and I made a personal visit to administer a metaphorical boot to the seat of his britches.

After the booting was done, I left Parsons’ shop and happened to notice the premises next door. Above a dingy window was a sign — ‘C. Cave, Naturalist and Dealer in Antiquities’. The goods on offer ran to dead birds, elephant tusks, shark maws, fossils and the like. I’d thought this site occupied by a bakery, but must be misremembering. Cave’s premises had plainly stood for years, gradually decaying and accumulating layers of dust and dirt.

My attention was drawn to the window by a red flash, which I perceived out of the corner of my eye. A stray shaft of light had reflected off an odd object — a mass of crystal worked into the shape of an egg and brilliantly polished. It might do for a paperweight if I were in need of such a thing, which I was not.

Then, I heard voices raised inside the emporium. One was known to me — that upstart Moriartian Ogilvy. Alone among the fraternity of astronomers, he has written in defence of The Dynamics of an Asteroid. His name was on the List.

I stepped back into the doorway of Parsons’, but kept my ears open. Og was haggling with an old man — presumably, C. Cave himself — over the crystal lump, for which the proprietor was asking a sum beyond his purse. An opportunity.

Casually, I wandered into the shop.

Cave, a bent little fellow with egg in his stringy beard and a tea cosy on his head, had the odd mannerism of wobbling his head from side to side like certain snakes. I thought for a moment that I knew him from somewhere, but must have been mistaken. He smelled worse than many of his antiquities. I say, that’s rather good — must save the line for my next refutation.

Og was going through his pockets, scraping together coins to up his offer.

Upon seeing me, Og said ‘Stent, how fortunate that it’s you,’ with undue familiarity as if we were the closest of friends. ‘Could you extend me a small loan?’

‘Five pounds,’ insisted Cave. ‘Not a penny less.’

Og sweated like an opium addict without funds for his next pipe. Most extraordinary thing. I hadn’t thought he had the imagination to be so desperate.

‘Of course, my dear fellow,’ I said. His face lifted, and his palm came out. ‘But first I must conclude my own business.

My good man, I should like to purchase that curious crystal in your window.’

Og looked as if he had been punched in the gut.

‘Five pounds,’ Cave said.

‘Stent, I say, you can’t… well, that is… I mean, dash it…’

‘Yes, Ogilvy, was there something?’

I drew out my wallet and handed over five pounds. Cave entered the sale in an ancient register, then fussed about extracting the object from the window.

I looked at Og. He tried unsuccessfully to cover fury and disappointment.

‘Now about that loan,’ I said, wallet still open.

‘Doesn’t matter now,’ he said — and left the shop, setting the bell above the door a-jangle.

Another name off the List!

Cave came back with the object, cradled in black velvet. It struck me that I need only say I’d changed my mind to reclaim my outlay. But Og might creep back and get the blessed thing after all. Couldn’t have that.

Cave held up the crystal and said something about ‘the inner light’. Strange phrase. He meant the refraction, of course, but a lecture on optics would have been out of place in this circumstance. No fee would be forthcoming, and it doesn’t do to cheapen the currency of scholarship by dishing out lectures gratis.

I took the thing away with me. Perhaps I can use it as a paperweight after all.

Roast boar with apricots at the Lord Mayor’s. Congress with Lady Caroline in the carriage on the way home. Top-hole!

September 7: An odd day.

Luncheon at Simpson’s in the Strand with Jedwood, my publisher. Cream of turbot, hock of ham, peppered pear. An acceptable Muscadet, porter, sherry. The Refutation pamphlet is shifting briskly, and J. is eager for more. Pity Moriarty hasn’t fired other literary clay pigeons I could blast. J. proposes a collection of Refutations and suggests I consider expanding the arena of combat, to launch my intellectual ballista against other so-called great minds of the age. J. is a dolt — he doesn’t understand the List, or that it is as important to choose the proper enemies as the proper friends. Nevertheless, I’m tempted. Tom Huxley, Darwin’s old bulldog, could do with having his ears boxed for a change. And I didn’t care for the way George Stokes hovered over Lady Caroline at the last Royal Society formal. Those Navier — Stokes equations have their tiny little cracks.

Most extraordinary thing. As J. and I were leaving the restaurant, a wild-haired, sunburned fellow accosted us in the street, gabbling ‘the Martians are coming, the Martians are coming!’ Ever since Schiaparelli put about that nonsense about canals, there has been debate about how one should address the notional inhabitants of the planet Mars. I am firmly of the belief that ‘Marsian’ is the only acceptable term. I took the trouble to correct the moonatic on this point, but he was in no condition to listen. He grabbed my lapels with greasy fingers and breathed gin in my face. He called me by name, which was discomforting. ‘Sir Nevil,’ he said, ‘keep watching the skies! Look to the Red Planet! Look into the crystal egg!’

J. summoned a hefty constable, who laid a hand on the madman’s shoulder. The fellow writhed in the grasp of the law, and a look of heightened terror passed over his face. It is no wonder men of his stripe should fear the police, but the extent of his pantomime of fright struck me as excessive even for his situation. Curiously, the constable seemed humpbacked, tailored uniform emphasising rather than concealing a pronounced lump on one shoulder. I assumed the Metropolitan Police imposed strict physical requirements on their recruits. Perhaps this fellow’s condition has worsened in recent years? Something was not quite right about his hump, which I could swear wobbled like a jelly on a plate. His eyes were glassy and his face pale — indeed, our lawful officer was evidently in as poor a shape as our degenerate semi-assailant.

‘Don’t let them take me,’ begged the madman, ‘they wraps round you… and they bites… and they sucks your brains… and you ain’t you no more. I’ve seen it!’

‘Let’s… be… ’avin… you… my… lad,’ said the policeman, voice like a prolonged death rattle, monotonous and expressionless. ‘You… don’t… want… to… be… a-… botherin’… these… gentlemen…’

The madman’s face contorted in a silent scream.

There was something peculiarly hideous about the constable’s voice, as if he were a music hall dummy manipulated by a wicked ventriloquist.

‘Mind… ’ow… you… go… sirs!’

The policeman lifted the madman — not a small individual, by the way — one-handed. He marched off stiff-legged, bearing his whimpering prisoner down the Strand. As he walked, his hump seemed to shift under blue serge as if it were a separate entity. I had a sense of evil eyes cast at me.

J. asked me if I had any idea who the maniac was.

He had something of a military mien, I thought — though come down in the world, perhaps having frazzled his brains out in some sunstruck corner of the Empire. It came to me that I had seen him before — perhaps in the audience at one of my many popular lectures, perhaps skulking on the street waiting for the chance to accost me. J. pointed out that he had known who I was, but — of course — everyone in England knows the Astronomer Royal.

‘It should definitely be “Marsian”,’ I insisted. ‘The precedents are many and I can recall them in order…’

J. remembered he had forgotten another appointment and left before I could fully convince him. Must send him my monograph on planetary possessives. Some still rail against ‘Mercurial’ and ‘Jupiteric’, though a consensus is nearly reached on ‘Moonian’ and ‘Venutian’. By the end of this century, we shall have definitively colonised the sunnar system for proper naming!

September 7: later.

I had thought to dispel completely the unpleasant memory of this afternoon’s strange encounter… but the words of the madman resounded.

By some happenstance, this was literally true.

The long-necked cabbie who conveyed me back to Greenwich bade me a jovial farewell with ‘keep watching the skies, sir.’ An unusual turn of phrase to hear twice in one day, perhaps — but a sentiment naturally addressed to a famous astronomer in the vicinity of the biggest telescope in the land.

Galvani, the Italian foreman of the gang who have completed — at last! — the electrification of Flamsteed House, handed me a sheaf of wiring diagrams marked ‘for the attention of the householder’ and clearly said ‘look to the Red Plan, et… es essential for to understan’ the current en the house’. There was, indeed, a red plan in the sheaf, but it seemed to me he had stressed the first part of his sentence, which echoed the words of the madman, and thrown away the second, which conveyed his particular meaning.

Then, before supper, I was passing the kitchens and happened to overhear Mrs Huddersfield, the new housekeeper, tell the butler to ‘look into the crystal’, referring to our fresh stock of Waterford glassware, a scant instant before Polly, the new undermaid, exclaimed ‘egg!’ in answer to a question about the secret ingredient of the face paste which keeps her complexion clear. To my ears, these separate voices melded to produce a single sentence, the madman’s ‘look into the crystal egg’.

Lady Caroline is at her sister’s. I dined alone, unable to concentrate on supper. Every detail of the business on the Strand resurfaced in my mind.

I was shocked out of my reverie only by the sweetness of dessert — and looked down into a crystal bowl to see a quivering scarlet blancmange, with a curiously eye-like glacé cherry at its summit. In its colour, the dish reminded me of the planet Mars, and, in its movement, the somehow unnatural hump of the strangely spoken police constable.

Only then did I remember the paperweight snatched out from the grasp of the odious Ogilvy yesterday.

A mass of crystal, in the shape of an egg!

A crystal egg! Could the madman of the Strand have been referring to this item of bric-a-brac?

Unable to finish my dessert for thinking.

September 7: Still later. A great discovery!

After supper, I repaired to my study, where I keep my collection of antique and exotic optical and astronomical equipment: telescopes, sextants, orreries and the like. Signor Galvani’s men have disturbed them greatly while seeing to the electrification of the room.

A new reflecting telescope arrived this morning, a bulky cabinet affair on trestles, with an aperture where a separate lens must presumably be attached. It is an unfamiliar design — a presentation, in honour of my achievements in mapping the night skies, from an august body who call themselves the Red Planet League. I have had my secretary respond with an autographed photograph and a note of thanks. Entering the study, I saw at once that the workmen had mistaken this gift for a species of lamp, and wired it up to the mains. I would be inclined to chide Galvani most severely, had this error not nudged me on the path to discovery.

I unwrapped the supposed paperweight and made close examination of it under the steady illumination of the electric lamps. Cave, the vendor, had mentioned an ‘inner light’ — a phenomenon I soon discovered for myself. It is a trick of the optics, of course — if held up to the light, the interior of the crystal egg coruscates, seeming to hold multiple refractions and reflections.

By accident, when Polly reached into the room and turned off the lights at the wall switch, I discovered the crystal had the unusual property of retaining luminosity even when the light source was gone. I did not measure the time of glow-decay, because the undermaid was fussing and apologising for not seeing I was still in my study when she plunged me into darkness. She whimpered that these newfangled inventions were not like proper gas. I fear Lady Caroline’s ‘indoor lightning’ theory has infected the servants with irrational terror.

‘What’s that egg?’ exclaimed the maid, meaning my crystal. ‘And why’s it lit up?’

I ventured to explain something of the laws of refraction, but saw my learning was wasted on this simple soul. Nevertheless, it is to Polly that I owe my next, most extraordinary discovery. She picked up the crystal egg, rather boldly for a person in her position I might say.

‘Doesn’t it go here, sir?’ she said, slipping the egg into an aperture of the Red Planet League’s reflecting telescope. It was a perfect fit. Before I could chide her, Polly had fiddled with a switch which triggered an incandescent lamp inside the cabinet — projecting a beam through the crystal, which diffracted out into the room. Suddenly, the opposite wall was covered by a swirling, swarming red cloud. Polly yelped, and fled — but I hadn’t the heart to pursue and chastise her.

I was transfixed by the pictures on the wall.

Yes, pictures! Pictures that move! With a faint flicker, accompanied by a definite whirring from inside the reflecting telescope. I had never before seen the like.

At once it came to me that my crystal egg was in fact a crystal lens. When light passed through it just so, the crystal egg — by some means as yet undetermined by science — transmitted images from its interior.

The process was astounding, but I was more overwhelmed by the picture. It was as if I were looking out of a window which floated high over a ruddy desert far from Greenwich. Faintly visible above the horizon were familiar stars, skewed in the sky — as observed not from our home world, but from a body which must be considered (on a cosmic scale) our near neighbour. I perceived the tiny blue-green circle of Earth, and knew with utter certainty that this window looked out onto the plains of Mars.

The Red Planet.

All the tiny incidents of the last two days impelled me, inch by inch, towards this discovery.

I knew the subject of my next lecture, my next book. Indeed, the remainder of my career could be devoted to this. I am Master of Mars. No other can come close. Og must have had some inkling, but this is to be Stent’s triumph — not Ogilvy’s. From henceforth, this acreage of red dust will be Stent’s Plain. In the distance, I saw slumped, worn hills, more ancient than the sharper peaked mountains of Earth — the Caroline Range! A deep channel grooves across the landscape, flowing with a thick, red, boiling mud — Polly’s Canal, to commemorate the child whose unknowing hand urged me to this discovery! Nearby, a gaping pit was scraped raw like a bloody gouge in the Marsian soil. I named this Victoria Regina Chasm in honour of the gracious lady who has bestowed so many honours on my name.

Inside VR Chasm, something stirred. My heart stopped, I am sure, for long, long seconds. Pads like large leaves, a richer scarlet than the crimson of the desert dirt, flopped over the rim and anchored in the soil. These were the tips of sinewy tentacles, which held fast and contracted as a Marsian being hauled itself out of its hole.

What manner of men might inhabit the Red Planet? Not men at all, it seems — but creatures beyond classification.

I saw its bulging, filmed-over eyes. Its beak-like mouth. Its mess of limbs. Its swelling carapace.

The thinner atmosphere of Mars and a colder, drier climate have shaped that planet’s ruling species differently from us. I had no doubt that I was looking at a Man of Mars, not a brute animal. All around were signs of an intelligent species, a civilisation perhaps older than our own.

There were structures — a Marsian factory, perhaps, or a school. The Marsian hauled itself across metal frames, fighting the pull of its planet, and came closer to the window.

I confess to a moment of stark, irrational fear. As I could see the Marsian, could it see me? Did the crystal egg have a twin on Mars?

With no earthly object for comparison, it was difficult to get a sense of scale. The Marsian could be the size of a puppy or an elephant.

It wriggled closer to the ‘window’. Its features grew gigantic on the study wall. I could see the wallpaper, the bookshelves and pictures through its phantasmal image. Then, suddenly, it shut off. There was a flapping sound, and a brief burst of bright, blank light — that died too, along with the incandescent bulb inside the Red Planet League’s reflecting telescope.

How ironic that a body named after Mars should provide the device which lead me to gain such an unprecedented view of our planetary neighbour!

I turned the switch on and off, and I fiddled with the crystal in its aperture, trying to reopen the line of communication. But the window closed as mysteriously as it had opened.

Still, I am too excited to be frustrated. I am certain that the phenomena shall be repeated.

Otherwise, I fear I have a head cold coming on. It may be the turn in the weather. I took a solution of salts in lemon and barley water. Though especially prepared by Mrs H. from her own curative recipe, this concoction served only to exacerbate my condition. I passed an indifferent night, with frequent recourse to the cp and my handkerchief.

September 8: Invasions!

That confounded cold has set in, in my head and chest. The servants have been lax in tending draught-excluders. Or else Signor Galvani’s foreign crew have imported alien bacteria into the household — for which they will be reprimanded. I am known for my good health. These minor ailments do not normally afflict me.

Breakfast — porridge, honey-glazed gammon, courgettes, preserved pears. More of Mrs H.’s vile (and inefficacious) home remedy. It’ll get worse before it gets better, I am assured — which is scarce comfort. I have instructed the housekeeper to dispense with her brews, and procure proper medicine from the chemist’s.

My digestion was incomplete when Flamsteed was impertinently invaded. In my study, making a start on notes for my Marsian Announcement, I became aware of a great ringing on the bell and knocking at the door. My first thought was that barbarians were at the gates. This proved to be the case — though, a singular barbarian, the opprobrious Ogilvy, rather than a horde.

I ventured out into the hallway and found Mrs Huddersfield in the process of calling the stableboy to throw Og off our front step. Much as it would have pleased me to see the inky git tossed into the gravel and given a good kicking, it occurred to me that he should be consulted. Plainly, he had some dim perception of the importance of the crystal egg. It would be best to find out what he knew.

I instructed Mrs H. to let Og into the house. She stood aside and I had momentary pause about my decision. Having run across a superfluity of madmen in recent days, I saw at once that Og was one of their number. His collar was exploded and his cravat tied carelessly. The skirts of his frock coat bore singe marks as if he had jumped through a bonfire. There was a peculiar burned smell about him. He had no eyebrows left and a serious case of the sun. It had been overcast lately and I doubted Og was freshly returned from some tropical adventure.

‘Brandy,’ he insisted. ‘Brandy, for God’s sake, Stent.’

Mrs H. frowned, but I told her to send Polly to fetch decanter of the third-best brandy. No sense in wasting the good stuff on a hysteric. I’ll need it to fight off this cold.

In my study, Og saw the egg, still fitted into the aperture of the new telescope.

‘So you know what it is?’ he exclaimed.

‘Indeed.’

‘A window — a portal — to the Red Planet. Have you seen the Martians?’

‘Marsians,’ I corrected.

‘Their tripod machines? Their firing pit? Their heat devices? Have you determined their purpose, Stent? Their hideous purpose?’

The fellow was ranting, but I expected as much.

‘I have made notes of my findings,’ I told him. ‘I will reveal my conclusions when I am ready to publish.’

‘Publish! Who will there be to typeset, print and bind your conclusions, Stent? Who to read them? Do you hope to amuse our new masters with your book? They don’t seem the types to be great readers, but I suppose you never know…’

Og was laughing, now — bitterly, insanely, irritatingly. Polly arrived, and Og snatched the decanter from her tray. He drew a mighty quaff, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Never the most savoury of characters, he had apparently decided to become a wild Indian.

‘There were four eggs,’ he said. ‘As far as we can tell.’

‘We? Of whom are you speaking?’

‘The Red Planet League,’ he said. ‘What there is left of it. When you took the final egg, we had this telescope delivered to you. I am loathe to admit it, but you are the greatest astronomical mind of the age…’

‘True, true…’

‘…and if anyone has a chance of cracking the egg’s secrets, it is you.’

‘No doubt.’

I fancied I caught a slight smirk from Polly. I told her she could be about her business. She left.

‘It must have been fate that brought you to Cave’s emporium. Cave is dead, by the way. The police report says “spontaneous combustion”, if you can credit it. There has been a rash of such phenomena. Almost an epidemic. Colonel Moran and I had a brush with the heat weapons, two nights back. We were separated afterwards. His nerve snapped. Terrible thing when a brave man’s nerve goes. He’s faced tigers and native rebels and charging elephants, but that flash from the copper tube boiled away all his heart. You saw Moran yesterday, I believe — before they caught up to him.’

‘I saw no one yesterday.’

‘In the Strand, outside Simpson’s. Moran would have seemed, ah, irrational. Lord knows, we all act like cuckoos. With what we have in our heads. It’s only to be expected. A big man, Moran. Red-complected…’

I remembered. The madman who was taken away by the hump-backed policeman.

‘Moran brought me into the League. He’s a big-game hunter and adventurer. He found the first of the eggs, in a temple in India. It was the eye of an idol worshipped by an obscene cult. When the light fell into the temple on certain days of the year, the portal opened and the cultists saw their “gods”. You know what they really saw, Stent. The men of Mars. Those tentacles, those eyes, those mouth parts! Another crystal was looted from the collection of the Emperor of China, carved into a goblet. I would not drink from that goblet for all the tea in its rightful owner’s dominions, would you? A third was found fresh, among the hot fragments of a new-fallen meteorite in the California desert. All these came to the League, and all have been taken — taken back, one might say.’

Og kept glancing at the crystal. I worried that he would snatch it from the telescope and flee the house.

‘This one was sent here, to England. I don’t know how Cave came by it. Dishonestly, I suppose.’

‘It is mine,’ I reminded him. ‘Paid for and bought.’

He wasn’t listening to me. ‘Stent, have they seen you? The portal opens both ways. That we can see them is incidental, an accident, a flaw in the great plan. From the other side, from Mars, they spy us. Spy on us. It’s what the eggs are for. They are taking our measure, making a study. Drawing plans. At first, the meteorites just brought the eggs. It’s only recently that they have come. Just a few, but enough — for their purpose. Across millions of miles of empty space! What explorers they must be, what conquerors! They ready their armada, Stent, their fleet…’

I concede that Og was alarming me. A great deal of what he said struck me as fanciful drivel. Conquerors, indeed — what nonsense, as if creatures without hands or clothing could hope to stand up to the military might of Great Britain! But I worried there were eggs in other hands. Dangerous hands — other scientists eager to ‘scoop’ the Great Stent. If half of what Og said is true, someone else might publish first.

I cannot let that happen.

The doorbell rang. Mrs H. came into the study, and presented a carte de visite.

Colonel Sebastian Moran, Conduit Street.

‘Your comrade in the League has extricated himself from the police,’ I told Og.

The fellow looked further stricken, which was not what I expected. I got little sense from him. I feared this would also be true of Moran — yesterday, he had been singing from the same hymn book.

‘Don’t let him in,’ said Og, grabbing my lapel. ‘In the name of all that’s…’

‘There’s a policeman with the caller, sir,’ said Mrs H. ‘Constable Purbright.’

I could not have been more relieved. With all the ranting, raving and lapel grabbing, a policeman might be just what the doctor ordered. Clap these madmen in irons, and leave me to conclude my Marsian studies.

‘Show them in,’ I said.

‘Very good, Sir Nevil. Don’t you be straining yourself. Remember you’re not a well man.’

Og threw himself into an armchair, in a pose of stark terror. Under his sunburn, he even went pale.

‘Hullo… Sir… Nevil… Hullo… Ogilvy…’

It was the madman from the Strand, but much changed. His demeanour was more sober, respectable. His voice was uninflected, somehow metallic. And, since yesterday, he had grown a humpback. A long, red scarf wound around his neck, ends trailing down his back.

‘Good… morning… gentlemen,’ said the police constable beside Moran.

They could have been brothers, with the same shifting deformity, the same strange manner of speech.

‘Keep them away from me,’ shrieked Og ‘They’re… them!’

‘Don’t… make… a… fuss… old… chap.’ Moran and Purbright spoke in unison, like a music hall turn. Their voices scraped the nerves. I was overcome by a powerful wish that all my visitors would leave. I could do with a medicinal tot and some peace.

The constable walked, stiff-legged, across the room, to the telescope. He laid a hand on the crystal egg.

‘That’s delicate scientific equipment,’ I warned Purbright.

‘Evidence… sir,’ he said, twisting the egg free.

‘I must protest…’

‘Obey… the… law…’ Colonel Moran said.

Moran was in my way. Beyond him, I saw the constable slipping the crystal egg into his tunic.

‘I paid five pounds for that!’

‘Stolen… goods…’ Moran said.

I tried to strong-arm him out of the way, but he was immovable. My hand fell on his hump, and his long scarf unwound, showing where his jacket seam was split by the swelling. An angry, inhuman eye looked out from the hole! Sinewy, venous scarlet ropes wound around Moran’s exposed neck. A beak-like barb was fixed to his throat, under the ear, blood dribbling from the conjunction.

A cowardly knee met my groin and I doubled over.

When I righted myself, Moran had rearranged his scarf. I knew what I had seen.

Og leaped up from the chair and flew at Moran.

From a pocket, Moran pulled a curious object — a tube with a burnished copper disc at one end. A beam of light seemed to project from this — and fell on Og, whose jacket started smoking. With a scream, Og fled from the room, down the hall, and out of the house. His clothes were on fire.

Moran turned to me. Purbright had also produced one of the heat-casting devices. Both were aimed in my direction.

I was in danger. But if the egg left the house, I would have no proof, no basis for my findings!

Og’s screams still echoed.

‘We… must… be… going…’ Moran said.

‘Not with my crystal egg.’

The copper discs were glinting at me. But I was resolute. No somnambulists, puppeteered by angry-eyed inhuman humps, would stand between me and recognition for my achievements.

‘I am Sir Nevil Airey Stent, the Astronomer Royal,’ I reminded them. ‘I will thank you to return my property. On this world, sirs, I am not to be sneezed at.’

‘Sneezed… at?’ they both said.

At that inopportune moment, my cold struck again — and I had a sneezing fit.

This had the most peculiar effect on my threatening guests. They turned tail, in something like panic, and ran. Purbright dropped the egg which — mercifully — did not shatter. As they ran, they slumped over, arms dangling uselessly, heads lolling — as if they were piloted by their tentacular humps, who could no longer concentrate on even the semblance of normal conduct.

My sheer physical presence, and the dignity of my office, had overwhelmed these creatures.

But I did not doubt they would be back.

I took some brandy, for my chest and sinuses, and reflected over my triumph in this skirmish of the spheres.

Mrs H. called me to the garden. On the gravel driveway lay a human-shaped pile of ashes, already drifting in the wind. I don’t have to worry about Ogilvy horning in on my findings any more…

Feeling much better, despite sniffles, I returned to my study.

In Lady Caroline’s continued absence, attempted congress with Polly — but, for some reason, was thwarted. Have much on my mind.

D-- this cold!

September 8: Later. I capture a Marsian!

Mrs H. is has obtained a supply of a patent medicine, Dr Tirmoary’s Infusion for Coughs, Colds and Wheezes. According to the label, it is mostly diacetylmorphine hydrochloride. The stuff burns in a basin, and is inhaled under a damp towel. I spent ten minutes breathing acrid fumes before supper — dressed Cornish crab, lamprey surpris, calamari, conger mousse, langoustines — and, finally, gained some measure of relief from congestion, sniffles and associated symptoms. Not only am I sneezing less, I am thinking more clearly.

After a fresh, post-prandial infusion of Dr Tirmoary’s, I retired to my study, determined to tinker with the crystal egg until it yielded its secrets. But, light-headed and with a sense of fullness in my stomach and other parts, I fell into a doze in an armchair…

I was awakened by a whirring which I recognised as the sound of the telescope when the egg-portal is open. The room was bathed in a red, flickering light. The window to Mars!

Again, I saw Stent’s Plain, the Victoria Regina Chasm, the Caroline Range. Now, there was great activity. Structures had changed, been erected or expanded. Many Marsian creatures could be seen, crawling about their purpose — which seemed to me to be the construction, within the Chasm, of a great cannon-like device. This could be aimed, I saw at once, at the tiny bluish speck on the Marsian horizon.

I recalled Og’s ravings about a Marsian armada readying for a trip across the gulf of space.

Poppycock and nonsense!

My study door opened, and Polly came in. The possibility of renewed attempt at congress arose and I bound from my chair into the beam of egg-light. For a moment, I was distracted by my own silhouette, cast on the wall as images from Mars played across my body.

Something was amiss. Polly, hunched over, wore a heavy shawl — not suitable for indoors. She carried a wicker basket which I had not asked to be brought to me. Emboldened, I tore away her shawl. A red, wet creature pulsed on her shoulder, tentacles wound around her neck, face buried in her throat.

My maid was host to a Marsian!

I tripped over the carpet and fell back into the armchair. My nerve was resolute, but my limbs betrayed me — some side effect of Dr Tirmoary’s, I’ll be bound, for which the manufacturer will receive a stern letter. I could not stand. The room became a swirling red blur, as much Mars as Greenwich. I fancied the beings I saw working on their cannon could see me across the void and might crawl through the portal.

Polly set down the wicker basket.

She attempted a clumsy curtsey and craned her cheek against her Marsian master, stroking its slimy hide as if she were indulging a kitten. The creature, bereft of its native atmosphere, was in evident difficulty. I’ll wager they can’t last long among us. Susceptible to all manner of Earthly ailments, drowning in our alien air, boiling in what was to us a cool evening.

The lid lifted from the basket, and a curious contraption rose from within — like a brass diving bell, on three mechanical legs. Some sort of clockwork enabled it to ‘stand’, and ‘walk’. A thick window showed the tentacle-fringed, scarlet face of a Marsian. Within the sphere, it was comfortable — sustained by liquid atmosphere, doubtless rich with the nutrients of Mars.

This must be the chief of the Marsians on Earth, leader of the expedition, the planet’s most able diplomat. I looked it — him! — in the eyes, and began to introduce myself.

‘We… know… who… you… are… Mr… Stent…’

The words came from a hooded figure who had slipped into the room. I realised at once that the superior creature in the bell could exert mental control over a human without the need for physical contact. This facility must be developed among the higher castes of the planet. The hooded figure was a meaningless person. His head bobbed from side to side like an imbecile’s as the Marsian Master spoke through him.

‘It strikes me that you have not conducted yourselves in the proper manner,’ I told him. ‘You should have come to me first, not wasted your time with this ragtag Red Planet League.’

Meaningless syllables stuttered from the hooded puppet. The laughter of Mars!

‘Well you may laugh, sir! A serious misunderstanding could have come about between our two great planets, as a result of your involvement with the likes of George Ogilvy. He holds no great office. Now you have come to the proper person, the Astronomer Royal. You are in communication with someone best placed to reveal your presence to the worthies of Great Britain. Treaties can be brokered, as trade agreements are being made in our world’s Orient. If travel between planets is possible, we may send you missionaries, medical staff, advisers. We must form a limited company. Anglo-Marsian Trading. I perceive you get scant use from your famous canals, but a few Scots engineers will have a railway system up and running across your red sands in no time. You have a surfeit of coolies, I see.’

The syllables continued. Not laughter, I think — but song! A native hosanna at the prospect of deliverance from a state of ignorance and depravity.

I looked into the Marsian’s huge, lidless eyes.

The hooded man spoke. ‘I… speak… for… you… would… call… him… Roi… Marty… King… of… Mars.’

I was impressed that such an exalted personage should be my guest.

‘And what service may I do the King of Mars?’

Polly and the hooded figure raised now-familiar copper tubes, which caught the red light from the telescope. I sensed Marsian treachery!

‘You… can… burn…’

Then, things happened swiftly.

A sturdy broom scythed down on Polly’s shoulder, squelching her alien master — which detached from her with a hideous shriek and flew across the room to explode against the mantelpiece, swollen organs bursting through its skin. The redoubtable Mrs Huddersfield was in my study, swinging her broom like a yeoman’s quarterstaff. The hooded figure turned, and fire broke out on the wall where fell the beam from his copper tube. Mrs H. tripped him and he tumbled in a heap.

‘Take that, you fiend from another world, you,’ Mrs H. shouted, with some relish. ‘I’ll not have you botherin’ the Astronomer Royal!’

Polly, bereft of a controlling mind, stood staring, still as a statue, angry weals on her neck and bosom. Mrs H. took to battering and sweeping the King of Mars’ puppet, driving him from the room, and — indeed — out of the house.

The King’s Bell began to move, edging away on its three legs. With all the skill of my days as a varsity three-quarter, I fell on the contraption, pinning it down, preventing its escape.

Robbed of its puppet, the King had no way to converse. Its eyes bulged in mute, frustrated fury.

‘Your highness, you are captured!’ I told it. ‘You will surrender yourself to my authority.’

The spell of the crystal egg was broken. A last unsteady image held for a few moments, then bright red light replaced the vista of Mars. The whirring sped up after the picture was lost. Something flapped loosely inside the telescope before it shut off entirely.

Mrs H. returned, broom over her shoulder, and the puppet’s hood in her grip. She reported that she had seen the puppet — a demented tramp, she believed — hightailing it down the drive. He was unimportant, I knew. No more than a set of vocal chords.

Polly was recovered from her upright faint, but still in a dazed state. She did not relish the memory of communion with the creature which lay dead in a jumble in the fireplace. All she could say was that its touch was slimy and sharp. I suggested a dose of Dr Tirmoary’s, but she turned it down — she has promised her mother not to have truck with such potions, apparently. Mrs H. similarly passed up the opportunity to taste her own medicine, but I felt another dose would be restorative and invigorating. I am becoming quite partial to its effects. A certain gaiety is upon me after each infusion. Of course, I am in a heightened state of excitement just now, in the midst of these great events.

War is over before it is begun! I have captured the Marsian King!

Also, I have one of the copper tubes. A gun of Mars. I must find out how the hot-beam works. The burned patch on my study wall has a chemical smell, as if some reactive compound were smeared on the paper and left to ignite — but I sense the truth of the process is to do with transforming light into heat. I shall experiment with this device in safer, less expensively decorated premises.

The King squirms and writhes in his metal shell. The three legs are wired together, so it may not ‘walk’ free.

I have communicated by telegram with the Royal Society, setting a date three days hence for my Marsian lecture. I shall use the crystal egg and display the terrain and inhabitants of the Red Planet to those who would call themselves my scientific peers. I shall demonstrate the use of the copper tube — maybe singe the trousers of some of my more disbelieving colleagues, to make a point. Then, as the crowning moment, I shall present the King of Mars!

Surely, ennoblement must follow. I shall be Lord Flamsteed of Mars!

Considered congress with Mrs H. and/or Polly, but was persuaded instead to cap off the evening with another infusion of good old Dr Tirmoary’s.

I am Conqueror of Mars!

V

Pah! Ever read such rot, eh? Believe me, those were the interesting pages. The rest of Stent’s journal is fit only to start fires. His entries are stuffed with menus and ‘congresses’ and remarks about how brilliant, acclaimed, well loved and admirable he is. By my count, the Astronomer Royal penned 17,000 heated words about a controversial boot-scraper installed, removed, installed again, relocated by six inches and finally removed from outside the servants’ door at Flamsteed House.

How did I get hold of the journal? Stole it, of course.

By pasting in these pages, I’ve saved myself a deal of penwork, which is all to the good. More time down the pub, rather than filling up an exercise book with this scribble.

Of course, you knew me at once when I turned up in Stent’s narrative — doing my old ‘madman’ act, which has proved persuasive in many a tight spot. When I start frothing and raving, you wouldn’t want to be around. Avoided being fed to crocodiles by throwing a similar wobbly. The queer… halting… voice… took more effort, and Moriarty had to coach us — me, PCP, Polly — in the proper hollow tones. We used Punch and Judy swizzles, as well. That’s the way to do it!

As for the rest of it, the Professor only let us into as much of his grand scheme as he deemed necessary. Like his imaginary Squid King, Moriarty puppeteered his subjects, speaking words through us, chivvying Stent along until the fool fancied himself Conqueror of Mars. Of course, Ogilvy didn’t know how flammable the gunk poured on his jacket really was. The cretin hopped around outside Flamsteed House, on fire from head to foot, until a bucket of merciful water was sloshed over him. By then, he was almost in as poor shape as the ash and cinder outline laid out on the gravel to represent his incinerated remains. Threw a sulk about that, he did. Still, can’t make an omelette and all that. In Ogilvy’s case, it’s true. He lost the use of his hands and so literally can’t make an omelette or perform many other everyday tasks. That’s what you get for volunteering.

I’ve rarely had cause to remark upon Professor Moriarty’s genius for disguise. There’s good reason for that. Anyone less wholly shoved up his own bum than Sir Nevil Stent would have seen through Moriarty’s beards and hoods and skullcaps and spectacles in a trice. That snake-oscillation mannerism always gave him away. He didn’t list card-sharping among his favoured crimes, or he’d have known about ‘tells’ and taken steps to suppress his. On one occasion, I tried to raise the matter in as tactful a fashion as possible, venturing to suggest that the Professor moderate his ‘cobra-neck tell’ when incognito.

‘What are you talking about, Moran? Have you been at the diacetylmorphine hydrochloride again?’

There was no sense in pressing the matter further. Genius or no, Moriarty truly didn’t know about the thing he did with his neck. I wondered if he was unconsciously trying to make it difficult for the hangman. Probably not. It was just a habit. Other men scratch their balls, fiddle with their watch chains or chew their moustaches. That’s when it’s a good time to double up, throw the mortgage into the pot and slide an ace out of your cuff.

Nevertheless, Moriarty acquitted himself adequately in the multiple roles of ‘C., Cave’, filthy shopkeeper, ‘long-necked cabbie’, dispenser of jovially ominous sentiments, and ‘Hooded Man of Mystery’, mouth-piece of Martian Royalty. (Stent never did persuade anyone else to say ‘Marsian’.) As you can tell from the diary, the worthy Mrs Halifax, pouting Polly, Italian Joe (Signor Galvani), PCP and some nobly self-sacrificing specimens of vampyroteuthis infernalis also strutted and fret their weary hours on the stage.

It’s a shame there wasn’t any money in it. The whole palaver cost the Firm a great deal, exhausting the proceeds of five good-sized blags, and sinking Moriarty into debts we had to work hard to pay off. I know we have a reputation as rotters and crooks and all, but it doesn’t do to default on payments owed someone who likes to be called the Lord of Strange Deaths. Hellish vampire squid wouldn’t have been the half of it.

For the Prof, the pay-off came at Stent’s lecture.

VI

This time, the Royal Astronomical Society wasn’t a grand enough platform for Sir Nevil, but we were back in Burlington House. The edifice is also HQ of the Royal Society, a body so sniffily superior it feels it doesn’t even need to give you the full name — which, as it happens, is The Royal Society for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge — when you are expected to prostrate yourself before the hallowed altars of high science and furthermore purchase an illustrated souvenir program booklet to memorialise the hours you spent snoozing through a lecture. Chairman at the time of these occurrences was Thomas Henry Huxley, and you know what the Astronomer Royal thought of him. I don’t doubt Huxley thought the same right back at Stent, who — for reasons which by now must be glaring — was not as popular with the general community of test-tube sniffers and puppy-vivisectors as he was with his home crowd of stargazing toadies.

Again, we took our seats. Sans disguises, on the assumption Stent wouldn’t notice us in the crowd — at least, not until the crucial moment. The hall was packed, as if word had leaked out that Lola Montez would be tightrope-walking nude over the audience while Jenny Lind sang all eighty-six verses of‘The Ballad of Eskimo Nell’. Every branch of science was represented, for Stent had announced his lecture would radically affect all of them equally. A lot of textbooks would need revising (or burning) after this one, the rumour-mill insisted. To me, the mob looked like an unkempt crowd of smelly schoolmasters on a spree, but the Prof clucked and tutted to himself, listing the great names who had shown up. Besides our home-grown brainboxes, there were yanks, frogs, krauts, eye-ties, dressed-up natives from far-flung lands and an authentic Belgian — all trailing more degrees, honours, doctorates and professorships than you could shake a stick at. It would have been humbling if they weren’t mostly aged and chalk-covered. We had salted the room with a few of our own fellahs, who carried hat boxes or picnic hampers and were a bit fidgety in clean, respectable clothes. A squeaky-voiced draper’s clerk tried to squeeze in on a platform ticket, but was properly ejected for being a lower-class bounder. [24]

This time, Stent went for dramatic effect.

The house lights dimmed, and a spot came up on the lectern. The Conqueror of Mars posed dramatically in a vestment-like long white coat.

‘Gentlemen,’ he began, ‘we are not alone…’

He whipped a dust cloth from the ‘reflecting telescope’ which incorporated the ‘crystal egg’. In the end, Polly had been forced to draw him a picture to show how she had ‘accidentally’ made it work. Between shows, someone had to reset or replace the strip of exposures inside the box and put in a new incandescent bulb — which meant getting Stent away from his toy. Fortunately, he’d quite a nose for Dr Tirmoary’s Infusions and was often in a daze.

‘I give you… the Planet Mars!’

Stent toggled a lever and electric current made a motor grind. Red images were cast on a white board erected on the platform. Squid crawled across a sandbox, gagging for water. There were gasps of awe, though a few coughs of scepticism too. A few sequences wound backwards, which gave an eerie, unnatural effect — as if pictures that moved weren’t unnatural enough.

I’d seen some of these views ‘taken’ by Mr Paul A. Robert of Brighton. Urchin assistants had to hand-colour the scenes, picture by picture. Robert has a glass-roofed studio under construction on the Downs. I had to be blindfolded and driven up and around country lanes before visiting it because he fears some Yankee swine is out to poach the process and present it as his own invention. Good luck to him, I say. Apart from making a fool of the Astronomer Royal, all Robert’s whateveroscope is good for is giving anyone who stares too long at the stuttering pictures a blinding headache. There was still that damned whirring and flapping as exposures passed in front of the incandescent. The bloody racket is why Robert’s Box Pictures in Motion will never ‘catch on’, if you ask me. They’ll never replace the stereopticon. [25]

After the images from the crystal egg passed, Stent was assailed by questions. Some were about the creatures, but most were about Robert’s Box — which several in the audience had heard of before. One or two had even seen the thing demonstrated while the inventor was soliciting funds for development of his annoying wonder of the age. When Stent repeated his assertion that the Box was a ‘reflecting telescope’, someone called him a ‘blithering idiot’. He looked displeased. Several helpful souls shouted out the principles on which the Box worked. A couple of young fellahs got into a heated argument about ‘persistence of vision’ and ‘Muybridge strips’. No one cared much about what they had seen (it could have been a chuffing train or a couple snogging, for all they cared) but many were intrigued by the process whereby moving images were cast on a board. Stent had caused a sensation, but not the way he expected.

Moriarty smiled to himself.

Seeing things not going his way, Sir Nevil hastened on to what would have been his grand finale.

‘Sirs, men from Mars are among us! They have been here quite some time!’

Hoots, whistles, laughs.

Stent lifted another dust cloth from an exhibit.

‘This is the King of Mars,’ he announced.

There was sudden hush. The window in the bell had a magnifying effect, and the hideous red face of the creature trapped inside loomed. The buccal orifice clacked angrily.

For a moment, everyone was struck quiet and frozen. Swollen alien eyes, set in angry red facial frills, seemed to range over the assembled scientific multitudes, as if ready to direct a ‘hot beam’ across their ranks and wipe out the great minds of Earth before calling down a sky-fleet of bloodthirsty horrors. Red tentacles writhed, ready to crush human resistance before hauling up the Martian standard on the blackened ruins of Burlington House.

The Robert’s Box was forgotten, and this new horror held the attention.

Stent, seeming to sense he was on the point of winning a few converts, radiated a certain smugness, as his thick hide recovered from the earlier pinpricks. His shirt front puffed out a bit, like a squid rising above its spawning depth, and he allowed himself to look on the audience with his old superior attitude. If this King of Mars could cow the Royal Society, then Stent might transfer his allegiance from the lesser, terrestrial monarch he had hitherto served. If his mighty brain went unappreciated on this poor planet, then perhaps he should look elsewhere for patronage…

Then, just as Stent was on the point of recapturing his audience, the Professor stood up and shouted, ‘Where’s his party hat?’

Stent was horror-struck at the sight of an enemy he’d thought bested. His mood turned. For a moment, I assumed he’d seen through the whole business and understood how he’d been gulled, but it was a passing doubt. The Astronomer Royal remained firm in his convictions. He believed what Moriarty had made him believe.

‘I insist,’ he said, holding up a copper tube, ‘this is a visitor from another world.’

Seconds ago, he had been taken at his word. Now, the sceptics and rationalists — for is this not an age of doubt? — were inclined to get close to the old gift horse and pay close attention to his choppers.

An elderly Frenchman from the front row got up and took a closer look at the bell, squinting through pince-nez.

‘This is a “hot beam” device,’ said Stent, voice cracking. ‘A weapon of Mars!’

He aimed it at the now-bewildered crowd, as if willing it to burst them into flame. Of course, we weren’t smeared with the slow-acting chemical concoction which provided the fire when the pretend guns were used in Flamsteed House.

‘This is a squid,’ announced the Frenchman. ‘Someone has cruelly dyed it red. An uncommon specimen, but not unknown.’

Some laughter was forthcoming. A paper dart, folded from a program, zoomed from the back of the room and sliced past Stent’s head.

‘This is the Marsian King,’ Stent told the onion eater. ‘Roi Marty. You, sir, are an unqualified dolt. You know nothing of alien worlds.’

‘Eh bien, perhaps,’ the Frenchman admitted. ‘But I, monsieur, am Professor Pierre Arronax, greatest living authority on denizens of the deep. In debate about the courses of the stars, I would allow you are far more expert than I. However, in matters of marine biology, you are a child of five and I am an encyclopaedia on legs. This, I repeat, is a squid. An unhealthy squid.’

‘I say, Stent, is that the sick squid you owe me?’ brayed one wit.

‘Here here,’ shouted a vocal clique of Arronax supporters. ‘A squid, a squid!’

Stent’s world was collapsing. He knew not what to say. His mouth opened and closed, but no words issued forth. I saw he was desperate for an infusion of Dr Tirmoary’s — damn fine stuff, let me tell you, though even I would caution against excessive use. The Astronomer Royal pressed his fists to his temples as if to shut out the catcalls and retreat into his own ‘sunnar system’. There, many-limbed things crawled across the sands of Mars, intent on climbing into three-legged suits of armour, hurling themselves at the Earth to subjugate humanity for food and amusement.

Moriarty’s facial tendons were tight as leather drum skin dried in the sun, making his face a skull-mask rictus of glee. His eyes lit up like Chinese lanterns. I’d wager every muscle in the old ascetic’s stringy body was tight with sordid pleasure. He got like that when he had his way. Other fellahs might pop a bottle of fizz or nip down to Mrs H.’s for a turn with a trollop, but the Professor just went into these brain-spasms of evil ecstasy.

Huxley left the hall in disgust, followed by a dignified procession. Some of his colleagues, perhaps pettier, stayed to jeer. The draper’s clerk poked his head in, and asked if he’d missed anything.

‘Wait, don’t leave,’ Stent said, vainly. He viciously pressed a stud on his copper tube. No one caught fire. ‘There’s danger in disbelief. The Marsians are coming! You fools, you must listen. If you don’t support me, you’re next! They’re here! The Marsians are among us!’

At that moment, Moriarty gave a signal.

Our people stood up in their seats — one or two were stationed ‘backstage’ — and lobbed struggling missiles at Stent. Out of water, the squid didn’t last long — but they fought hard, as Polly and I can bear witness, getting tentacles around something convenient and squeezing madly while internal pressure blew them up like balloons. It was a sight to see, but most of the paying customers were gone.

A volley of squid fell upon Stent. He yelled and slipped, knocking over the lectern. Tentacles wound around his legs, his waist, one hand. A squid fixed to his lower face like a mask, beak thrust into his mouth in a ghastly kiss, shutting off his screams. Plastered with vampyroteuthis, he threw a full-on fit, back arching, limbs twitching. Eventually, attendants came and pried burst, dead creatures off him.

Arronax tried to lodge a protest at this mistreatment of rare specimens, but slipped into French to do it and was properly ignored. There are idiot Englishwomen (of both sexes) who would be generally happier to see children whipped, starved, laughed at, shot and mounted in the Moran den than brook any abuse of their ‘furry or feathered friends’ — but it was a rare crank, like Pop-eyed Pierre, who gave two hoots for anything with tentacles and a beak.

With all our wriggling shots fired, the Professor gave the nod — and our picked men melted into the crowds, well paid and frankly little the wiser for tonight’s business. When Moriarty handed over coin and told you to bowl a squid at an astronomer, your wisest course was to ask ‘over-arm or roundarm?’ and get on with play.

As a strait-waistcoat was strapped around him, Stent begged for an infusion of Dr T.’s. He had the shakes, the sweats and the abdabs at the same time. All his strings were cut.

It so happened that the director of Purfleet Asylum — a far less pleasing official residence than Flamsteed — was in the audience, and well positioned to take the babbling madman off Lady Caroline’s hands. I think she had papers already drawn up, assuming control of all Sir Nevil’s estates and monies. Being the second daughter of an Earl doesn’t come with much ready cash, but getting hold of the Stent fortune would do her for a while. I made a note to look her up.

The Astronomer Royal was carried from Burlington House, strapped to a stretcher.

We lingered in the imposing hallway, lined with portraits of past presidents. The attendants paused for a moment. Moriarty leaned over his now-broken nemesis.

Stent’s eyes rolled upwards. His cheeks were striped red and dotted with horribly familiar sucker marks. He tried to focus on the face looming over him, the thin-lipped leering countenance of the author of The Dynamics of an Asteroid.

‘I have, I think, made my point,’ said Professor Moriarty. ‘And you, Stent, have finally learned your lesson.’

CHAPTER FOUR: THE HOUND OF THE D’URBERVILLES

I

As I entered our reception room, a slicing noise alerted me. A stick slashed at my head. I arrested its arc with a quick grab. As part of an unending ‘testing process’, Moriarty often tried to catch associates off guard. Some, not having my jungle-honed instincts, got broken heads.

I let the cane go and the Prof handed it to me.

Some lackwit had called while we weren’t in. Mrs Halifax had turfed him out, but he’d left his stick behind. That foul October, London was full of fools tapping through vile, yellow fog. Angry blighters collided at every corner and laid about each other like Italian duellists. Pickpockets left watches, but snatched canes.

‘Moran, what can you deduce about the owner of this item?’

Moriarty had picked up a craze for deductions. Don’t know where he got it from. Don’t bloody care. When I met him, he was set against guessing games. Still, when he was in a mood for ratiocination, it was best to humour him.

‘Apart from that he’s a forgetful sod, you mean?’

The Prof leered at my pleasantry.

I paced, swinging the stick, deliberately just missing scientific implements, pots of inestimable value and souvenirs of crimes past. Moriarty hissed as prized fetishes were in peril. Served him right for the blasted ‘testing process’. I seldom miss a shot, but confess I’ve sometimes missed just missing. A stuffed dodo under glass wobbled. Moriarty’s eyes glowed like wreckers’ lights. I stopped larking.

The stick was a specimen of the ‘Calcutta Clobberer’ or ‘Chicago Good-Night’. A decent heft, solid lead handle and longer than usual. It had seen hard use. Stains dried to black; I knew my night-work — fresh, they’d been red.

I spouted my deductions.

‘I should say this belongs to a chap who makes a habit of dashing the brains out of puppies, breaking the shins of beggars and throwing his weight around. A right bastard, I’ll be bound. Oh, and taller than the average. Does that cover it?’

Moriarty’s head craned from side to side. ‘As it happens, our prospective client’s legitimacy is in dispute.’

Hah! A client.

That wasn’t much of a deduction. Visitors to our Conduit Street HQ either wanted a consultation or were dragged squealing into Mrs Halifax’s basement with a flour sack over their heads. In basement cases, I’d often use my favourite cane — a flexible, steel-cored ‘house prefect’s coach-whip’, relic of cherished boyhood days. Many conversations flow better if punctuated with thwacks.

‘Anyone we know?’ I asked.

Moriarty flicked a calling card at me, putting spin on it. As I bent down to pick it up, he showed teeth in a mirthless gurn.

JASPER STOKE, TRANTRIDGE, WESSEX.

In a long life spent at gaming tables, in brothels, up mountains and in the bush, I’ve gained valuable insights into human nature. Anyone called ‘Jasper’ is an arrogant, untrustworthy scoundrel. Anyone called ‘Cedric’ is liable to be worse. And anyone called ‘Piers’ should be shot on sight. Don’t say you’ve never learned anything from my memoirs, for these are True Facts.

In the criminous line, arrogant, untrustworthy scoundrels might be valued customers. The Prof’s reputation for ingenious mercilessness convinces Jaspers and Cedrics to modify their habits in one particular. Your slick wastrel thinks nought of running up sky-high tabs on the never-never with tradesmen. However, the most unreliable gadabout — even a Piers — understands that a bill from Professor Moriarty must be settled to the farthing the instant it falls due. Otherwise, the flour sack and the Eton whip are but the beginning of a hard education.

‘Wessex,’ I spat. ‘Been through it on a train a time or two. Sheep-shagger country. Nothing worth shooting except wild ponies and potty parsons. Can’t say I’ve heard of Jasper Stoke. Is Trantridge a village or a house?’

‘Both. An estate of six thousand acres, it incorporates an ancient forest called The Chase. Trantridge Hall has been in the Stoke family since 1855. Properly, the tribe are the Stoke-d’Urbervilles. When the usurer Simon Stoke bought the property, he conjoined his humble name with that of a distinguished family thought extinct.’

‘This Jasper is Old Simon’s son?’

‘Nephew. Simon’s son and heir was killed over twenty years ago.’

‘Oh ho! Did slippery Jasper ease his way to the fortune with grease on the back stairs or ground glass in the brandy butter?’

‘Alexander Stoke-d’Urberville was murdered by his mistress, Theresa Clare. A stupid girl who, to complicate matters, claimed descent from the d’Urbervilles. She was hanged at Wintoncester. I despise amateurs, Moran. Murder is a calling. Few have the gift.’ [26]

I wasn’t surprised Moriarty could spout the facts. He committed volumes of the Newgate Calendar to memory, and had the lives of Jonathan Wild or Charley Peace off by heart. Reverting to the monotone drone which hampered his original career as a university lecturer, he would bore the Conduit Street Comanche with lectures about ill-prepared, foolish fellows — or, as here, fillies — who ventured unwisely into the field of crime. These digressions were Bedtime Stories for Bad Boys: instead of ‘Say your prayers and wash your hands or else nanny will give you a smack and your best tin soldier will be given to the poor children,’ it was ‘Scout your lay beforehand and eliminate your witnesses or else Sergeant Bigboots will truncheon your bonce and Jack Ketch will give you the Drop.’

‘The slut muddied the waters of succession by birthing at least one bastard,’ he continued. ‘Her issue by Alexander might have inherited.’

‘Don’t hold with cousins breeding. The whelps always have withered arms or come out as giant frogs.’

‘By most accounts, the child did not survive infancy.’

I looked again at the card. ‘So Jasper don’t want his family tree pruned?’

‘All we know is that he has lived the greater part of his life in the Americas, North and South. He intends to take possession of his family seat and assume the life of a country gentleman.’

‘You deduced this from his bloody walking stick?’

‘No, I read this in the bloody Times.’

A three-month-old newspaper lay on the table. In quiet moments, Moriarty would clip unusual words and proper names out of headlines — they came in handy for anonymous letters of instruction, persuasion or revelation. The section on ‘lately arrived’ visitors debarking from ships included a notice: ‘having lived the greater part of his life in the Americas, North and South, Mr Jasper Stoke now intends to take possession of his family seat and assume the life of a country gentleman’. I assumed that meant bouncing milkmaids, sheltering from sheets of rain in his leaky mansion, and pickling himself in poisonous Wessex ‘scrumpy’.

Moriarty stood at the bay window.

‘What d’you suppose Stoke wants with us?’ I asked.

‘I’ve no idea, Moran. But we shall find out soon enough. A man wearing an American hat is on the point of grasping our bell-pull.’

In Mrs Halifax’s parlour, a bell jangled as someone yanked the chain in a frenzy. Usually, this signified the imminence of one of several regulars who paid to be secreted in a boudoir wardrobe with peepholes. For them, frenzied yanking was a way of life. I deduced this caller, coarsened by the Americas, was unfamiliar with civilised trappings like doorbells, roofs and trouser buttons.

The Professor whistled into a speaking tube, signalling Selden, the bruiser who kept the door, to admit our prospective client. The tintinnabulation ceased, succeeded by the clumping of heavy boots on our stairs. Our visitor can’t have done much Indian fighting or buffalo hunting in the Americas. Anyone this noisy would soon be scalped or starved.

The door pushed open and a giant burst in. He wore a ten-gallon hat which might actually hold the full ten gallons. The norm is scarcely a single gallon and the orthography down to misapprehension of the Spanish for ‘high gallant’, don’t you know? He snatched the stick from my hands, which stung for a day afterwards.

‘There y’are, Gertie,’ he exclaimed, hugging the cane like a long-missing gold coin. ‘I was a-feared I’d lost yuh!’

‘Mr Jasper Stoke?’ enquired the Professor.

The giant looked perplexed. He wore an odoriferous fleece overcoat. His enormous, blue-stubbled jaw sagged, showing jagged brown teeth.

‘No suh, I ain’t a…’

‘I am Jasper Stoke,’ purred a smaller gent who made his way into the room in the giant’s wake.

Neither Moriarty or I had thought to deduce that stick and card belonged to different people. I wasn’t ashamed of the oversight, but it would rankle the Professor.

Stoke carried a curly brimmed topper and no stick. He could walk without support and had the giant on hand for cudgelling folk who got in his way. He was sharply dressed, with a deal of fancy braid on his waistcoat. Darkly handsome, if you care to know that sort of thing. He sported a double-dash of moustache, thin and oiled — with eyebrows to match. One cheek was faintly marred by parallel scars. Something clawed — a kitten or at least kittenish — had once had a go at him. His neat, white hands said ‘card sharp’ rather than ‘cowboy’.

There I go, making deductions with the best of them. We may have theorised from the wrong stick, but I’d been spot on at ‘right bastard’. Takes one to know one, as they say — before they get punched in the head for smugly spouting platitudes.

‘This is my top boy, Dan’l,’ Stoke said, indicating the stick cuddler. ‘Known in three territories as Desperado Dan’l. There’s a price on his head for killing a man…’

‘T’ain’t right, Mr Jass,’ Dan’l said. ‘Only white men I killed were shot fair and square in the front. That price ain’t legal. Ain’t no law against killing a Chinese in the back. Not accordin’ to Judge Bean, and if’n it’s his ruling in Texas, it’s good enough for Arizona. Aye, and Engerland, too.’ [27]

Moriarty was impatient with this legal footnote. ‘What can we do for you, Mr Stoke-d’Urberville?’

One of Stoke’s brows flicked up.

‘Professor Moriarty, I want a dog killed.’

II

‘No crime too small’ was never exactly Moriarty’s slogan, but the criminal genius would apply himself to minor offences if an unusual challenge was presented. To whit, if a sweetshop had a reputation for being impossible to pilfer from, he’d devote as much brainpower to a scheme for lifting a packet of gobstoppers as he would a plan for abstracting the Crown jewels from the Tower of London.

Before you ask — yes, Moriarty did ponder that particular lay. Rather than pull off the coup bungled by Thomas Blood [28], he negotiated quietly with a terrifying Fat Man in Whitehall. The plan was sold to HM government for a tidy sum, enabling the Yeoman Warders to institute countermeasures. Well-known objects are nigh impossible to fence at anything like list value, anyway. In 1671, the baubles were valued at £100,000, but Blood said he’d be lucky to get £6,000 for the mess of jewel-encrusted tat. The Professor was tempted to return annually to the well with improved schemes, but the prospect of getting further on the wrong side of the Fat Man gave even him pause.

Any rate, assassinating dogs was not generally in our line. On occasion, we had adversely affected the health of certain horses. If there were more lucre in fixing dog fights, we’d have applied similar methods to the odd pit bull. But there isn’t and we hadn’t. In Russia, I’d hunted wolves with a Tartar war-bow — but that was sport, not business.

I doubted Jasper Stoke-d’Urberville was bothered by a neighbour’s yapping pooch in darkest Trantridge. If that were the case, Dan’l could settle its hash. I’d already noted Gertie’s suitability for puppy braining. With Dan’l’s weight behind her, I dare say the stick could fell a prehistoric mastodon.

But our prospective client had brought his doggie problem to us.

‘I am prepared to pay five thousand pounds,’ Stoke said, ‘for a pelt.’

Even at today’s shocking prices, not a sum to be sniffed at, sneezed on or otherwise nasally rejected.

‘Mr Stoke-d’Urberville,’ said the Professor, rolling the name around like a sheik savouring a sheep’s eyeball before popping it between his back teeth, ‘whose recommendation brought you to our door?’

‘I’ve had doings with Doctor Quartz of New York…’

The Professor flicked his fingers. Stoke knew enough to shut up.

Some said Jack Quartz, vivisectionist and educator, was to the Americas what Moriarty was to Britain. [29] You were well advised not to suggest the equivalence in either’s earshot. I knew Quartz was still smarting over Moriarty’s Surprise Valley Gold Mine coup, a foot set in his sphere of influence — though its fabulous output had run dry after a few months, leaving the Firm on the scout for prospects like Stoke-d’Urberville. Moriarty expressed concern that Yankee tentacles were feeling about the globe. Quartz had supposedly secret treaties with the Unione Corse and the Camorra in Southern Europe and Dr Nikola and the Si-Fan in Asia. Outwardly, Moriarty and Quartz maintained courteous, professional relations: each would refer petitioners departing for foreign shores to the other.

The Lord of Strange Deaths could sit at their table, should that mandarin deign to dine with beaky barbarians. The Grand Vampire, chief of Paris’ Les Vampires, might have been admitted to the sewing circle, but no holder of that title had lived long enough in the office to take a hand in this Great Game.

Bet you didn’t know the world was cut up like that.

‘I am aware of Quartz,’ conceded the Professor. ‘Outline your situation, omitting no relevant detail.’

Stoke sat in the client’s chair. He lit a cheroot and took his ease.

‘I’ll give you the straight of it, Professor,’ he began. ‘A year back, I reached an unwelcome conclusion. I was about to be run out of Tombstone, Arizona. That’s a silver town. Previously, I made money in silver. Not digging it out of dirt, digging it out of miners. I operated saloons, gambling hells, rooming houses, some French girls. The real earner is baths. For the privilege of staying in business, everyone in Tombstone tithes to a brood of badged-up robbers. The Earps. Every damn brother holds some office. Federal marshal, town sheriff, tax collector. All want paying. Town has a shrinking economy. Mines are flooded. Silver’s petering out. So the Earps saw no reason to let me retain the remainder of my income. They were set on discussing matters at a particular corral where financial disputes are oft-times settled with long rifles. I saw no profit in war, but the alternative was unprepossessing at best. Then, as providence has it, word came via telegraph. An estate is mine for the taking in a country where constables’ hands might be out for pay-off but don’t have Buntline Specials in them. I gathered my top boys and set out to stake my claim.’

‘I got powerful sick on the boat,’ put in Dan’l. ‘Puked like to fill the wide ocean deep.’

Stoke shrugged.

‘My spread is the Trantridge Estate, in Wessex. Uncle Si, who used to be called “Simon Screw-the-marks”, bought it after a lifetime of squeezing pennies from widows. He didn’t live long enough to enjoy his spread, but Auntie hung in there. On her deathbed for thirty years, by my reckoning. When she finally kicked the bucket, it turned out I’m the only living relative. I inherit the entirety of her holdings. The land, the village, a forest, a church, flocks of sheep, herds of cattle, fields of whatever muck they grow. Even a saloon. A pub they call it. The Old Red Dog. As Master of Trantridge, I own people… peasants, serfs, yokels. Slaves.’

In school, they say Wilberforce abolished slavery in the Empire and Lincoln freed the blacks in the Civil War. Abolition sounds impressive, doesn’t it? It bears repeating that all the acts and decrees and petitions — plus the maintenance of an anti-slaving fleet off West Africa — didn’t make slavery go away. Busybodies just made slavery illegal and, therefore, much, much more profitable. Pass a law against any endeavour and the honest merchants drop it. So who do you think takes over? Yes, criminals. There are laws against murder, theft or blackmail, but no windy politician or curate gets up and takes a bow for abolishing ’em. I’ve knocked about and seen plenty of human flesh bought, sold and put to work. The child purchased outright for six shillings in Piccadilly is as much a slave as any native on a block for ten dirham in Marrakech.

‘Auntie kept a light rein on Trantridge,’ continued Stoke. ‘She never got over losing her sight, much less the cluster-hump with cousin Alec’s murdering whore. A manager, Braham Derby, oversees rents, tributes and whatnot. This goof-off let the tenants misremember their situation, settle into a life of unearned ease and comfort. They’re on d’Urberville property. All they keep from their labours is the gift of the master. Id est, me. With the old lady planted, the situation is in flux.

‘On the trip over, while Dan’l was a-heaving, I read up German books on “economic models”. Having just lost one business, I’m not about to be beggared again. Trantridge isn’t like a silver town: big money for a few years, tailing out to nothing when the seam is exhausted, with the added drawback of thieving Earps. It’s more akin to the big Texas cattle outfits or the old Southern cotton plantations: potentially big money forever, if the peons are ridden hard. The “economic model” can work, so long as malcontents are dealt with smartly.

‘English landlords have sweated the paddies for generations. If the fighting Irish can be ground under by milksops, Wessexers ought to be a pushover, right? Hang a few, burn out a couple of hovels, cut some fences and they’ll get an understanding. Then, I sit back and enjoy the life of a country gent. Buy a seat in parliament and a box at Toneborough Race Track.’

Stoke sat back and took a puff. I wondered when the dog would come into it. ‘Economic models’ are all very well, but if you put a dog at the beginning, there had damn well better be barking before act two.

‘First priority is to explain to my tenants — as much my property as the sheep, chickens and crops — that I intend to exercise full rights. I had Derby, kept on in strictly advisory capacity, call a meeting at the Village Hall and make sure every man-jack turns up. So, this hubbub of smock-frock, fringe-beard straw-suckers sat on hard benches, wishing they were in the Red Dog. I kept ’em waiting a few hours.

‘At last, I strode in. Place went hush. You could hear the tinkling of my silver spurs. My boys were stationed at strategic points, coat-tails folded back to show iron on their hips. In German economics, you learn to impose your will on a workforce through theatrical devices. Trantridgers have never seen the like of these hombres. Lazy-Eye Jack has been in a range war or two, Nakszynski the Albino once ate a Canadian mounted policeman’s liver and Dan’l here fills a room without hardly trying.

‘I delivered a speech, nothing too hard to follow. Two or three points, with pauses so the outraged babble could die down. What they considered theirs is mine. When the complaining went on too long, Lazy-Eye fired a slug into a beam. Shut everyone up. A roomful of clods stuck fingers in their ears. I awaited the inevitable. The point of giving the whole herd the bad news all at once is to stir the toughest, most resolute c--sucker into making a move. Then, you knock him down and the rest fall in line.’

Professor Moriarty, a follower of economic theory, nodded approval.

‘So, who got up but Diggory Venn, a f--ing startling individual. Apache red in the face and hands. Owing to his former profession of peddling sheep-dye, if you can believe it. Nowadays, he wanders the lanes preaching dignity of labour and the rights of man. A veritable c-t. Venn isn’t even a tenant. Just passing through. I counted on there being someone like him at the meeting. Venn aspired to go head-to-head about what I categorise as a “workable economic model” and he calls “bounden servitude”. Of course, this wasn’t a debate. This was an announcement.

‘I gave the sign and Lazy-Eye and the Albino served the reddleman the way they treat sod-busters in Texas. Dragged onto the village green, tied to the village pump and given a village barbed-wire whipping. His back wound up matching his face and hands. The complaints stopped. Trantridge began to turn a profit… for me. Tenants might go a trifle hungry or have to patch up old coats rather than buy new, but that’s how things are ordered in accordance with the property laws in Jolly Old England. Now, it’s my turn to get comfortable… which I managed for about a fortnight.’

The Professor paid close attention.

‘Venn is whipped. If he makes more trouble, I’ll have him up at the assizes for sedition. Braham Derby has to listen to whining yokels and isn’t exactly joyful, but keeps book smartly. Besides, I also shelter his sister Mod, the only poke-worthy baggage in the county.’

‘Miss Mod’s so purty,’ Dan’l said, in tones which suggested Gertie had a rival. Stoke’s expressive eyebrow twitched at his top hand’s gush. Mod Derby was a tender point with him, which suggested she’d be worth meeting. Even a double-dyed Jasper can have a blind spot.

‘Mod’s a step up from her brothers, that’s sure.’

‘Brothers?’ jabbed Moriarty.

‘Besides Braham, who’s useful enough when it comes to following milk yields and pig prices, there’s Saul, a dreamy mooncalf.’

‘I like Saul,’ Dan’l said. ‘He talks to me.’

‘That’s all you can say for Saul Derby,’ conceded Stoke. ‘He rubs along with Dan’l. He even cosies up reasonably with the Albino, who frightens most as much as… well, as much as you do, Professor.’

Moriarty smiled, not unpleased.

‘The Derbys are like Injun scouts, you know. Injuns don’t ever really go tame, but once they’re beaten they see reason. Wessex, it transpires, is as fraught as the West. Adders in the fields. Mires on the moors. Dyed-red rabble-rousers. Escaped convicts from Prince Town Gaol. It’s a marvel they don’t have f--ing Earps, while they’re at it. Though I’d rather be up against a Buntline Special than Parson Tringham’s campfire bogey. You can backshoot even the fastest pistolero. With Tringham’s dog, bullets don’t take.’

‘Who is Parson Tringham?’ asked the Professor.

‘Another unwelcome visitor. Breezed up one afternoon, eighty years old and babbling foolishness. I’d not underestimate the damage this mule head has done in a lifetime of sticking his prick into other people’s compost. Makes a hobby of the d’Urberville family. Can you credit it? Preacher digs about in someone else’s history for jollies. Even my daffy aunt knew better than let him cross her threshold. With her gone, Tringham wanted another stab at getting into “the archives”. I should’ve had the Albino cut his throat and dump him in The Chase. Instead, Braham turned him away. He slunk to the saloon and told his tale of a dog.’

Now, we were getting to it.

‘I had this later from Lazy-Eye. He’s courting Car Darch, a local strumpet. They do their carousing in the Red Dog. Tringham came in, settled by the fire, ordered a pint of ole goat piss, and yarned to the starving serfs — they’ve tin enough in their pockets for drink, notice. He told ’em how their pub got its name…’

As he talked, Stoke leaned forward, voice low, cheroot-end burning bright, eyebrows like horns.

‘My uncle bought the d’Urberville name outright. I couldn’t tell you who his father… my grandfather… was, but I’ve a parchment listing d’Urbervilles all the way back to Sir Pagan, who came over in 1066. Simon Stoke was from no one out of nothing and laid out gelt for centuries of tradition. He bought ancestors. Also, the family seat, a pew in the church and a mess of ghost stories. A phantom coach heard when a d’Urberville is about to die. Just to confirm that Uncle Si got the family curse with the name, it was reported running to schedule when Cousin Alec was pig-stuck. Tess the Knife is supposed to haunt us too. Her spook can be recognised because her head lolls the wrong way, on account of vertebrae separating when she was hanged.’

‘I seen the Brokeneck Lady,’ Dan’l said. ‘By The Chase, at night, net over her face, wailing…’

The giant shook in his fleece. Stoke was irritated by the interruption.

‘You can set aside the phantom coach and the moaning murderess. It’s the dog that’s a bother. A great red hound. A big bastard beast. This is what I want killed. I want its hide above the fireplace in Trantridge Hall. I want its paws made into tobacco pouches. I want its teeth on a necklace for my fancy woman. I want its tail wound round the brim of my tall hat.’

Moriarty tapped his teeth with a yellow knuckle.

‘This dog of yours…’

‘He goes by “Red Shuck”.’

‘This “Red Shuck”? Am I to understand this is not a living animal but a ghost?’

Stoke stubbed out his cheroot and nodded grudgingly.

‘Yes, it’s supposed to be a ghost, but, answer me this… Can a ghost rip out a strong man’s throat?’

III

I’m going to interrupt. I know, just as we’d got to the dog. So far, like Tristram Shandy, Red Shuck has barely figured in a story which purports to be all about him. Now, I’ll tell you about the dog.

Stoke gave us the gist he had from Lazy-Eye Jack of what Tringham told the Trantridge soaks — which the parson, in turn, had gleaned from old Wessex wives. At the end of this chain of Chinese whispers, we got great red hound… big bastard beast… said to be a ghost… ripped-out throat. Very ominous and in line with Stoke’s stated policy of theatrical effect, but scarcely useful intelligence. Moriarty had me pop round to the British Museum and look up our prospective quarry. The prime source on Sir Pagan d’Urberville is the Historia Ecclesiastica of Orderic Vitalis [30] and there’s a chapter on Red Shuck in the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould’s Book of Were-Wolves [31].

So, herewith, the terrible tale of the ‘Curse of the d’Urbervilles’. Read it by candlelight at midnight and be prepared to whiten your hair and soil your drawers.

As Stoke mentioned, Sir Pagan ‘came over in 1066’. This signifies that, like many of the best families, the d’Urbervilles were founded by a bandit whose crown-snatching patron could bestow estates as he saw fit. During the Norman Conquest, Pagan was a sly, ginger-headed youth. How anybody could advance in a priest-ridden era with his name is beyond me! I imagine he spent his life trying to convince folk it was pronounced ‘Pah-ganne’.

He was one of seventy-six Frenchmen who claimed to have put that fatal arrow into Harold at the Battle of Hastings. Several began the day fighting on the English side and three didn’t even have right arms. An ancestor of the spotty prig who flogged me for misappropriation of buns at Eton shot the King from Calais. He claimed God’s winds fetched his shaft straight into Harry’s eye. This leads me to deem the typical eleventh-century frog no more trustworthy than today’s nation of moustache musketeers, bedroom bandits and painted midgets. Sir Pagan, at least, was at the battle.

Having just taken over a whole country, the new king had a lot on his plate. For a start, he was on a tear to get everyone who’d scorned him as William the Bastard to hail him as William the Conqueror. Bill the Conk couldn’t be bothered to sort through the claims, so seventy-six lying bowmen got knighted in a job-lot. After that, they felt literally entitled to claim their own fiefdoms. Sir Pagan d’Urberville’s land-grab netted him a third of Wessex. He built himself a castle at Trantridge.

Titled and landed, Sir Pagan toadied less to the Conqueror, but knocked along with the Bastard’s son, William Rufus. William I was an empire builder, a man with a mission; William II was an empire enjoyer, a pursuer of virile pastimes. Junior succeeded to the English throne in 1087 and grumbled that he would have preferred Normandy, which went to his older brother. With his pal crowned, Sir Pagan became eminent. After William Rufus remarked offhand that d’Urberville’s forest offered the finest ‘chase’ in his kingdom, it became known as The Chase.

The new king was a fiend for hunting. His primary interest was any game animal which might provide horns, hide or tusks to decorate his castles. William II was killed by a close friend while they were out after deer. Something similar happened to a tiger-stalking crony of mine in India. It was said Walter Tyrell, William Rufus’ slayer, was too good a bowman to make such a mistake. A like criticism was laid against me. I refer the interested reader to my earlier remark about how difficult it can be to just miss a shot.

With English game ripe to be brought down by Norman sports, Sir Pagan threw himself into the pursuit. Every huntsman has to have his dogs. The Trantridge kennels became famous. Though he cleans it up somewhat, Baring-Gould recounts a rumour that Sir Pagan d’Urberville himself sired the litter which became his hunting pack, getting puppies on a she-wolf imported from the Harz Mountains. The dogs came out big, hungry and red.

Even taking the she-wolf story with a pinch of the proverbial, Sir Pagan remained essentially French in his habit of tumbling anything which strayed past. You’re aware of the custom of droit de seigneur, that the feudal lord is entitled — nay, obliged — to take first jump at any local bride on her wedding night? Pagan imported the custom to England. When grooms complained, he ruled that, to be impartial about it, he’d take his pleasure with them too. Extensive romping and riding to hounds made Sir Pagan a fine, rollicking fellow to lordly Norman chums and a bitterly hated tyrant to smelly Saxon underlings.

After a few years’ happy hunting, Sir Pagan’s dickybird got him into trouble. Comes to us all, I’m afraid. Sir Pagan, like several of his lineal and nominal descendents, came a cropper because he stuck it in the wrong hole — or at least the wrong hole-bearer.

Word got out that d’Urberville was regularly rogering peasant bridegrooms. Venic of Melchester, a Saxon monk, left his monastery to raise a fuss about such shocking behaviour. He turned up at Trantridge in the middle of a feast and had the poor judgement to deliver a fiery sermon against sodomy, fornication and the wicked habit of calling English meats by French names. Sir Pagan was a firm adherent of the philosophy that you could hunt or prod anything and often do both. He had Venic whipped and set off after the monk with his dogs. Baring-Gould doesn’t go into what happened after Pagan ran down his prey in The Chase — but it’s a fair bet Venic got served in the Bulgarian fashion and staggered away bow-legged. Don’t see the attraction myself, but Mrs Halifax says it takes all sorts to butter a biscuit.

Aggrieved, Venic took a petition of complaint to the court, calling for the King’s Justice upon Sir Pagan. When William Rufus laughed off his pal’s high-spirited prankery, the monk went to the church and called for Heaven’s Justice. The Bishops knew the king and his axeman lived closer to their palaces than the Pope in Rome, let alone God Almighty, and dismissed Venic as a crank. At this, he despaired. He swore aloud at a crossroads that he would deal with the Devil, if Hell’s Justice were levelled against Sir Pagan d’Urberville…

Now pledged a monk for Satan, Venic returned to The Chase, where he lived wild, more beast than man. He harried Sir Pagan’s men-at-arms, killed the livestock and raided foodstores. Sir Pagan made his own vow to kill Venic and — for months — set out regularly with his dogs. Even before Venic moved in, The Chase was reputedly haunted. Paths were ill mapped and changed from day to day. If you walked around the wood, it was no larger than a small-holding; if you walked through, it seemed the breadth of a kingdom. Still, Sir Pagan knew his woods and should have been able to catch Venic again.

Failing to bring back his monk’s head, he grew moody. He let serfs go inviolate to their marriage beds. He failed to attend court and slid from Royal favour — making room for the rise of Walter Tyrell… and we all know how well that turned out.

He laid off hunting anything but the mad monk.

Cheated of regular prey, the pack became unruly, vicious, and fought among themselves. Soon, they were killing and eating each other. That’s when Sir Pagan first noticed Red Shuck. Originally the runt of the she-wolf’s litter, he grew stronger, surviving many battles. He grew wilder, redder even, as if taking on substance from dogs he killed, ’til he stood tall as a pony, long as a boat — with bloody froth about his mouth and fangs like daggers. Sir Pagan’s remaining cronies cautioned him against the dog, but the Master was pleased with Red Shuck. He thought that only when it had consumed the hearts of the rest of the pack would it be able to root out Venic. At last, Red Shuck had the kennel to himself, as Sir Pagan was left alone with his servants by the desertion of his household. His wife and children removed themselves across Wessex and established the d’Urberville seat of Kingsbere.

Still, Venic was not found, no matter how knight and dog sought him. He would appear in the village, speaking against Normans in general and Sir Pagan in particular — but when d’Urberville and Red Shuck came, he was back in The Chase. This went on until Sir Pagan took it into his head to flush out his quarry by burning the forest to ash. In India, this is known as hunquah. It’s a tricky practice, as likely to raze the village as flush out the tiger.

Hayricks were carted to a clearing and a fire started. It wouldn’t spread, as if the breath of Hell kept it back. At sunset, Sir Pagan sensed his enemy nearby and sicced his dog. Red Shuck bounded from the clearing, intent on rending Venic apart. Fearful cries, human and animal, were heard. Sir Pagan’s last servants abandoned him — except one page, necessary to recount the end of the story. Sir Pagan ranted at the trees, his failing fire and the skies. Then, who should step into the clearing but Venic of Melchester, wearing the bloody skin of Red Shuck.

Most versions of the tale throw in ‘hold, varlet’/‘Norman dog’/’Saxon swine’/‘have at thee, sirrah’ chatter out of Ivanhoe. I imagine the actual talk between mortal enemies ran to free exchange of Old English and French words not in Sir Walter Scott’s vocabulary.

Sir Pagan reached for his sword. Venic wrapped the dog-hide around his shoulders, until it was tighter than his own skin. Then his eyes got big. He had more and longer teeth. He was covered in red fur. He was, in fact, Red Shuck, walking on his hind legs like a man. Baring-Gould’s version is that the dog was the monk all along, but Orderic Vitalis has it that Venic commingled with Red Shuck just as the top dog had taken on the strength of the pack — by consuming his flesh and spirit. At any rate, this thing which was both Red Shuck and Venic fell upon wicked Sir Pagan and tore out the knight’s gullet. To finish off his meal, the big dog ate d’Urberville’s still-beating heart.

Since that day, the legend goes, Red Shuck has lived in The Chase, snacking off lost children, feasting on d’Urberville meat whenever the family produces a tyrant or villain. Which, as you might expect, has happened often.

Over the centuries, dozens of dastardly d’Urbervilles have been killed in circumstances ambiguous enough to allow the legend of the avenging demon dog to enjoy periodic revivals. Few of the family died in bed — unless you count those stabbed by their popsies like Alec Stoke-d’Urberville or poisoned by impatient heirs like Puritan General Godwot d’Urberville. No wonder the true line was extinct when Shylock Si was rooting for a new name. It’s a mystery the d’Urbervilles lasted as long as they did, considering an apparently hereditary predisposition to suspicious accident, outright homicide, unusual suicide (Sir Tancred d’Urberville arranged to be eaten by rooks), inexplicable mutilation and unsolved disappearance.

The phantom coach is a sixteenth-century addition to the family’s spectral register, summoned by Lizzie d’Urberville to fetch her naughty children off to Hades. When you say ‘naughty children’, you mean broken crockery and pulled pigtails… when my sanctimonious pater said ‘naughty children’, he meant gambling debts and housemaids in the pudding club… when a sixteenth-century d’Urberville said ‘naughty children’, she meant violated churchyards, drowned schoolfellows and a castle burned to the ground.

Before and after the story of the coach was put about, the primary d’Urberville ghost was Red Shuck. However, upon examination of first-hand accounts, the spook tales mostly amount to a d’Urberville dying and within three months someone seeing a dog in the dark which might have been red but might equally not, or could also have been a large goat or a stile with a blanket thrown over it.

It’s on record that, at various times, rashes of savage attacks on animals and people have taken place in or near The Chase. In the 1820s, the naturalist Dunstan d’Urberville advanced a theory that the legend of ‘Red Shuck’ related to some as-yet uncatalogued animal found only in the thick of the ancient woodland.

In clubrooms, I’ve run across the odd sportsman — Long John Roxton comes to mind — obsessed with hunting specimens which aren’t in the books. Undeterred by the obituaries of predecessors who actually have pre-deceased them on the trail of monsters, they set out to bag Scotch lake serpents or the Beast of Gévaudan. Few of these Nimrods bring back trophies which don’t look like they’ve been sewn together for a funfair. However, every year, in unexplored corners of the globe, new creatures are catalogued by intrepid men of science — shortly followed by intrepid men of sport, like yours truly. Sticking a Latin name on a lemur or warthog or dragonfly is all very well, but it can’t compete with the honour of being the first to pot the marvel and mount it over the mantelpiece. As a veteran of a couple of go-rounds with the Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas, I know whereof I speak.

Duffer Dunstan posited the existence in The Chase of a large, unusually hardy wolf species which had survived the extinction of wolfkind in the rest of the British Isles. While tracking his ‘Wessex Wolf’, Dunstan tripped over a tree stump and broke his fool leg. He expired, without heir, of odoriferous gangrene and that was the last of the d’Urbervilles.

…Until Simon Stoke saved up his pennies.

IV

Having outlined the Red Shuck legend, as told by Parson Tringham in the Red Dog, Jasper Stoke continued his own story.

‘Two nights later, there was a howling in The Chase. I’ve heard coyotes and I’ve heard Injuns pretending to be coyotes. This was different. You know that animal screech you hear after someone’s been tortured a spell?… After the tough leather has gone out of a hard customer, but before the body’s completely done for?… The deep-lungs scream that comes when the mind cracks like a walnut?’

Professor Moriarty nodded, with a tiny smile.

‘Well, the howling was worse than that. The whole house stirred from their beds, or whoever’s beds they were in, and clattered about in nightshirts and boots. We found guns and gathered in the great hall.’

‘I fetched Gertie,’ Dan’l said.

‘Howling seemed to come from all around, as if it had got into the house like a draught. Nakszynski, the coolest of hands, let shot fly and pimpled a suit of armour. The maids quacked like geese. Saul, who isn’t all there, sat by a window, gazing out at the bright moon. He looked like a ghost himself. He uttered “Red Shuck”, which was the first I heard the name. I asked what he meant, but he was dreaming out loud. Mod stopped me from shaking an answer out of her brother, saying Saul always comes over queer on full-moon nights. Just one more piece of f--ing information calculated not to set the mind at ease.

‘The howls were going on full-throat and the Albino firing a shotgun indoors hadn’t soothed the ears any. Lazy-Eye Jack heard “Red Shuck” and dug up what he recollects of Tringham’s yarn. The phrase “ghost dog” gave me a sudden insight. I was being fooled with by someone who wished ruin to my prospectus for Trantridge. I don’t credit tales of infernal animals or a d’Urberville curse. I’m more inclined to lay my troubles on the corporeal, contemporary Diggory Venn. I suspected red-stained fingers in the puddle. I told the boys to track down the howling c-t and put it out of its misery.’

Dan’l looked sheepish at this.

‘I expect a deal of smart snapping-to when I give out an order,’ continued Stoke. ‘On this occasion, there was general hesitation. Though Lazy-Eye hadn’t seen fit to pass the parson’s ghost story to me, he’d spread it round the bunkhouse, with embellishments to frighten superstitious, ignorant morons…’

He looked at Dan’l.

‘Mod and her brothers knew the tale from childhood. So did the servants. I was the only prick to whom Red Shuck was fresh news. As master, it fell to me to venture out with my Winchester and see off the howling nuisance. Braham advised against it, and he’s supposed to be the sensible, educated one in his family. Nakszynski was fired up to shoot something which would bleed. We stepped out the big front door. As soon as we were outside, the howling shuts off… and the rest of the yellow-livered curs joined us in the drive…’

‘Was anyone absent?’ asked the Professor.

‘No,’ responded Stoke. ‘I counted heads and checked off names. I thought, like you, that it was an inside job. But we were all present. At sun-up, two maids and a stablehand gave notice and hared off as if there was an Earp price on their heads. One dolly didn’t even stay to pick up her wages. The other said she’ll be safer on the game in Casterbridge. Which gives you an idea of what I’m facing.’

‘All this from a noise in the night?’ I snorted.

‘Something got into the chicken coops and tore apart the poultry…’

‘Feathers and guts and beaks and eyes everywhere,’ elaborated Dan’l. ‘Like to put me off mah feed!’

‘In daylight, Braham grew back his balls and concluded a fox or a weasel was the guilty party. Maybe a fox and a weasel, working together. Nasty critters, foxes and weasels. I ordered new wire fences around the coops, stouter timbers… and restocked the place. No fox-weasel is going to fright me off my land. I got more of the Red Shuck story from Lazy-Eye Jack and Mod. It isn’t happenstance Trantridge Hall got raided and howled at. This was direct challenge to me and my position.

‘Next night, there was howling again… further off from the house. I’d set night-guards, but they didn’t see anything. I was all for charging into The Chase and killing whatever and whoever was behind the racket. Again, I was cautioned against this. After a moment, I saw Braham’s right and I’m wrong. Not because a demon dog is waiting in the clearing where wicked Sir Pagan was devoured… but because I knew this was a trick to draw me into the wild woods where I could be done away with in such manner a ghost can take the blame. No law’s ever hanged a ghost. So, I insisted we all go back to bed and ignore the rumuckus. I personally had a fine night’s sleep.

‘Next morning, one of the tenants, Git Priddle, was missing some sheep who’d bled a deal before being fetched off, but that’s his problem. Payment was still due and, after the Albino knocked Priddle about a bit, was forthcoming. I know there is subterfuge round Trantridge and still suspect a red hand in it, though Venn hasn’t been sighted since he took his back-stripes. I took advantage of the rent-collection round to have the estate entirely searched, prying into every barn and pen to conduct a census of livestock necessary for the accounts, and to see if anyone, or any creature, is concealed. We turned up beasts scurvy tenants were keeping off the rolls and clipped ears with wirecutters to discourage the practice. I’m in two minds about Git Priddle’s famous black ram, which strikes me as more likely in hiding than done for, but it didn’t show up. No trace of the reddleman either. And no Red Shuck.

‘By day, I had The Chase searched, though that’s the definition of futile endeavour. Next night, last of the full moon, I thought to get ahead of Red Shuck and frame my own trap. Leaving the Hall and grounds unguarded would be too obvious, so I had the boys sit up after dark, complaining loudly at the inconvenience, then slope off in the small hours as if shirking duty. Trick of it was that, well before sundown, without letting anyone else in on it, Lazy-Eye secreted himself by the coops under a blanket of twigs and leaves which makes him look, even smell, like a garbage heap. The old Injun fighter can lay still for days if need be. Among the aliases on his ”Wanted — Dead or Alive“ poster is “Ambush Jack”. He had orders to shoot any c--sucker who showed face on the grounds. That night, there was no howling. I figured Ambush Jack trumps Red Shuck…

‘Lazy-Eye wasn’t at his post the next morning. His blanket was flung aside and tracks led into The Chase. Dan’l and I set out after him. Trail was plain even in the early morning mist. When we found Jack, in a clearing, he wasn’t yet dead. Blood bubbled out of his throat. Air whistled through a hole. He died without saying anything. His holster was empty. We found the gun yards away, still in his hand — Jack’s hand wasn’t on the end of his arm any more. I’m no tracker, but I could tell something’s been about from the broken bushes and trampled grass. In soft earth, we found this…’

From his coat pocket, Stoke produced an object wrapped in a red scarf. He passed it to Moriarty, who unwound the scarf.

‘Your department, I think, Moran,’ he said, and tossed it over.

I’d seen similar things. It was a plaster of Paris impression of a pawprint, or at least a dent in the ground made by something shaped like a big animal’s foot. From the shape, the print was dog or a wolf, but the span suggested something the size of tiger or rhino.

‘The detail which springs out of the foolishness of the legend,’ continued Stoke, ‘is that Red Shuck persecutes d’Urbervilles whenever one of the family is “a tyrant or villain”. I’m not given to the vice of self-deception. My tenants view me as tyrant and villain. If that’s their comfort, fine. So long as they work and pay and bow and scrape. My plan for Trantridge depends on me being tyrant and villain. My conviction, from study of German economics, is that what was once categorised as tyrannical and villainous is, in modern times, respectable and even necessary. That aside, it’s my personal whim to play tyrant and villain. As Master of Trantridge, it is my lawful right. This is why I have brought my business to you…’

Moriarty nodded.

‘Red Shuck may be a phantom and a fraud, but it’s killed my top boy. I can’t let that go. Word about Lazy-Eye Jack spread over the county afore noon. And suddenly everyone’s talking up that damned Red Shuck. Already, Trantridgers grumble about paying rents and following orders. A few beatings, and even a barn-burning, and they’re still not trodden down enough. They whisper that Venic of Melchester has come back in demon dog form to serve me as he served wicked Sir Pagan. This interferes with my affairs, do you understand? My position depends on the exercise of terror. By me, not against me. When I walk about, peasants must crap their britches. They must be in mind of Diggory Venn’s bloody back, or Git Priddle’s black eye, or the Kail lad’s clipped ear, or the poorhouse hells they’ll fetch up in if I turn them off the land. I cannot be seen to be afraid. I cannot be struck at without returning the blow tenfold. I had it from an old-time Georgia overseer: if one slave runs, hang ten. Most don’t have the salt for it, not least because the ones you hang are your own property and their worth comes off your book. But once you do it, they tend their own pens, keep their own troublemakers in shackle.

‘In Wessex, I might be able to hang a shepherd or two, but ten would be more trouble than they’re worth. So, I pick a family at random, the Balls, and evict ’em, set to wander and beg on the roads and wind up destitute, derelict and, I fervently hope, dead. That’s for Lazy-Eye Jack. But it’s not enough. While the parson’s ghost tale is going round, I can’t press on with my economic plan. So there must be no more bedtime stories, no whispers that New Master will get his comeuppance, not even a hope of deliverance. You understand? The dog must be killed, even if it doesn’t exist. I’ve come to you, Professor, because I need the story killed. Now, can you do that?’

The Professor pondered. Stoke glared intently, playing with his still-glowing cheroot stub.

‘Your problem — though inherently absurd — has features of interest,’ Moriarty said.

I was interested enough by the mention of £5,000 for a pelt.

Stoke let out breath. People aren’t usually relieved when Moriarty involves himself in their affairs, but I suppose it has to happen from time to time.

‘Legends of spectral avengers abound,’ said the Prof, ‘and encourage a persistent fiction that “evil-doers” who, by ingenuity and endeavour, evade human justice must answer to supernatural authority. Such fables are a hindrance to the Calling of Crime. By eliminating your Red Shuck, we chip away at the monument of this myth. I shall accept your commission…’

And the five thousand plums!

‘… and replace the fairy tale of Virtue Triumphant with the brute fact of Wickedness Rewarded. A philosophical — nay, a mathematical — point must be proved. Your problem provides an opportunity to serve the cause of Higher Thought.’

Moriarty read his German economics too. It’s all very well to theorise that wickedness, cruelty, self-interest and the whims of the few overriding the bleats of the many are essential to the furtherance of an efficient, modern society. But, to me, deep-thinkers like Moriarty, Nietzsche and Machiavelli miss an essential truth — it’s a lot of jolly good fun being an ‘evil-doer’. None of these coves seem to relish being a total rotter — though Moriarty, at least, did not confine his evil to theory like some of the windier philosophers. I believe that — in his tiny, shrivelled, eight-months-gone apple of a heart — the Professor got spasms of enjoyment from his crimes, for it’s a sad rogue who strives his life long to increase the miseries of his fellow man without getting at least a warm feeling when he sees others beggared or dumped in unmarked graves on his account. Everyone knows I’m a sentimental soul.

Moriarty’s head oscillated. Dan’l, alarmed, gripped Gertie as if he were worried the Prof was about to turn into a snake as old Venic turned into Red Shuck. I knew the Prof’s habits — he was calculating…

‘I am currently much involved,’ he announced. ‘Several crimes require my presence in London…’

This was news to me.

‘…you will soon read of the Barrie-McTrostle disinheritance… the Clapham Gas House atrocities… and the Winklesworth & Company stock malfeasance…’

He was making this rot up, but Stoke’s eyes goggled — imagining vast feats of inconceivable criminality. Moriarty was not above puffing up his feats by reference to imaginary crimes. Usually, he was deceiving someone about something and had a long game in mind, so I played along.

‘There’s the abduction of the Ranee of Ranchipur, too,’ I put in.

The ‘Ranee of Ranchipur’ was the professional name of Molly Duff, one of Mrs Halifax’s girls. She stained herself brown to pass as a Hindu princess.

Moriarty nodded sagely. ‘Yes, an exacting proposition. The Ranee is to be taken from under the Rajah’s nose and sold to a Scottish peer during her birthday party. That will require my personal attention.’

Stoke’s wonderment was tinctured with dismay as he saw his own knotty problem sliding down the agenda and out of the door.

‘However,’ said the Professor, ‘in this instance, I can with full confidence entrust your dog to my associate, Colonel Moran. He is known far and wide as the greatest hunter of the age. If an animal draws breath, he’s killed it.’

The old chest fairly swelled with pride, though I knew the Prof was stroking the client while palming the job off on me.

‘I know all about keeping natives under the lash,’ I said. ‘I doubt those of Wessex differ much from the heathens I ran into out East.’

‘Moran will run down to Trantridge with you…’

‘…bringing along my guns, what?’

‘…suitably armed to bring down any Wessex Wolf. He will take stock of your situation, then act expeditiously to effect a satisfactory outcome.’

Stoke had the temerity to baulk at this.

‘I’ve set a pile of money on the table, Professor… I was hoping for the boss of this outfit, not the top hand.’

‘Mr Stoke-d’Urberville, when it comes to tramping through mud and muck after ferocious beasts, the Colonel has far more experience than I. Moran will set down observations and send me regular communiqués about his progress…’

This again was news to me, and not entirely welcome.

‘A portion of my brain will be fully occupied with Red Shuck. Even if I am removed from the scene of your travails. If you are beset by a mysterious “do-gooder”, he or she will be thwarted. On that, you have the word of Professor James Moriarty.’

Which, as far as it went, was impressive. If Moriarty promised to cut your throat or assault your sister and get away with it, you could be assured he’d follow through. Otherwise, his word was worth about as much as my promissory notes to tailors or cabbage-men… but Jasper Stoke, tyrant and villain though he might be, set much by hollow wordage from so distinguished a gent.

V

I packed guns for a trip west.

Impertinent reviewers of my Heavy Game of the Western Himalayas made waggish remarks about the Moran propensity for ‘droning at length’ about guns. I still hold those seventy-eight pages, with practical footnotes, on the rifle ‘Prometheus’ a worthwhile addition to the literature and essential to the understanding of later, more immediately exciting chapters. Discerning readers have given testimonials as to the fascinating, educational and profoundly important nature of these outpourings from my pen — which not a few rank higher than anything from Dickens or Shelley.

‘Prometheus’, custom-made by George Gibbs of Bristol, is sadly lost. Having served me better than any woman I’ve ever paid for, the rifle suffered tragically when pressed into service as a crutch as I hobbled out of an East African jungle on a broken leg. I laid the gun to rest in a grave with the three bearers who deserted me. I don’t officially record those sammies, because close-up executions spat from an abused and spoiled weapon can’t be set beside the true shots of the gun’s great days. But they constituted the final bag. Had ‘Prometheus’ survived beyond publication of Heavy Game, I might have added a literary lion or two to its tally. Luckily, the Eton coachwhip was to hand when opportunity came to answer my critics.

If you’ve a fancy to hang the antlers of a Grand Duke in your lodge, you might need a recoilless pistol which looks like a pair of opera glasses and doesn’t make a noise louder than a round of applause. Then, Blind Herder’s your man. Still, if Red Shuck was actual game, I needed a game rifle. Gibbs & Co. remained my preferred supplier. I’d not named a gun since ‘Prometheus’, but I’d a rack to choose from. Elephant, lion, tiger, bear, native and witness widows across the Empire could attest to their reliability. I took three rifles, including one calibrated for shots of up to three-quarters of a mile with an optical contraption for sighting purposes. My Webley had finally succumbed when I was forced to use its barrel as a jemmy and its handle as a hammer to extricate myself from the oubliette of Arnsworth Castle. So, I needed a side arm. Officially, Gibbs does not make a revolver — but, as a service to a valued customer, they furnished me a superbly crafted, teak-handled specimen superior to the job lots of shooting iron turned out by Yankee bodgers like Samuel Colt.

It was arranged that, three days after our first consultation, I would meet Jasper Stoke at Paddington Station and we would chuff-chuff west. Before leaving, I conferred with Moriarty in the windowless study where he experimented. He was not busy with other crimes, imaginary or genuine. He was dissecting a violin. An Amati of Cremona, if that means anything. He had secured it at auction for a fabulous sum — solely, I believe, to keep it from a rival bidder for whom he had a particular dislike. With dressmakers’ scissors and a surgeon’s scalpel, he anatomised his fiddle, snipping strings, sundering joins. Perhaps the Prof hoped to find out where the tunes came from.

Looking up from his labours, Moriarty saw me dressed for the country and raised a bony finger to signal I shouldn’t leave just yet.

He pushed away from his workbench, rolling his chair on castors across uncarpeted floor towards a cabinet of many drawers. The Professor boasted that this contained a thousand unique methods of murder — though, when someone was to be got rid of, he usually left the mamba venom envelope gum and asphyxiating orchids to his oriental peer, relying instead on tried-and-true British bludgeoning or my own marksmanship. He pulled a drawer marked ‘58’ and took out a small cardboard box.

‘It’s not a spider, is it, Moriarty? You know my opinion on arachnids!’

The Professor opened the box, which was full of apparently ordinary bullets. Moriarty plucked a rimmed.455 pistol cartridge. They make them by the thousand. But instead of dull lead, its nose gleamed sterling silver.

I whistled and commented, ‘Pricey.’

‘Indeed,’ Moriarty said. ‘Material is costly and manufacture complicated. But you lecture often on the importance of using the proper loads. The literature would have it that supernatural game such as Red Shuck requires a silver bullet. I shall want a precise account of every shot fired. Any rounds not discharged are to be returned when this matter is settled.’

I slipped the box into my pocket.

‘Moriarty, do you give any weight to the notion that there’s a ghost or goblin behind this business? Our client plainly doesn’t…’

‘Our client, though not unperceptive in some matters, is a limited man.’

‘I’ve seen mysteries beyond explanation in the East, but run into many more which turn out to be some clever fakir trying to put one over on the white man.’

‘Dullards would have you believe that once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth… but to a mathematical mind, the impossible is simply a theorem yet to be solved. We must not eliminate the impossible, we must conquer it, suborn it to our purpose. Whatever remains, however dully probable, will satisfy earthbound thinkers, while we have the profit of the hitherto inconceivable. Besides, I daresay anyone with a silver bullet in his brains couldn’t tell it from lead.’

From this, I knew Moriarty was playing his own game. When he rattled on, he was mesmeric. He could convince you Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland — also the product of ‘a mathematical mind’, remember — made sound sense. Most criminals were so rapt by his phrases and his eyes and his snake-neck wobble they blithely did whatever he wanted without knowing why. I was not immune, but had been with the Firm long enough to know the Prof’s tricks.

I left Moriarty to his musical experiments, and Chop drove me to the station.

VI

In our first-class compartment on the Great Western Railways train to Stourcastle, I quizzed Jasper Stoke about the layout at Trantridge. It’s advantageous to know the territory before setting a foot there. I had conned maps, almanacs and gazetteers; now I drew Stoke out on things nobody thought to set down. You can deduce — to use the word of the week — a great deal from smells. Not a pleasant topic, especially when the odours of Wessex are under discussion, but revealing.

‘The Chase stinks like Pennsylvania,’ Stoke said. ‘Open-cast mine country.’

‘Is there any mining?’ I asked.

‘In the New Forest, towards Bramshurst, there are pits, but nothing in The Chase. I can’t even say what the luciferous stench is. Chemicals in the ground? And something rotten. Like eggs gone off.’

Stoke filled up the compartment with fug, puffing on his cheroots. He gave a lot away when smoking. He tried to exhale confident clouds, Indian signals announcing himself as Big Chief, but chewed the stub, got leaf-bits stuck to his teeth and punctured the will-o’-the-wisp. A man for putting up a front, he couldn’t keep it together. No wonder he’d been chased out of Tombstone by the improbably named Earps. He was buckling in Wessex, and — if he didn’t get his dog-pelt soon — would probably be chased out of Trantridge too.

I can’t say I took to Stoke. British-born, he might be — but American in his ways. Big-talking, craven, insensitive and miserly. In his terms, a compleat c--sucker. If he ever ran across Jim Lassiter, he’d be dead in the dust before he could clear his holsters. Still, at least he wasn’t a bloody Mormon.

He didn’t want to look yellow-livered, though — despite his tale of terror — and compensated with high-handed, down-the-nose lecturing. In advance of the promised five thou, a small sum had passed from his coffers to ours. He felt this entitled him to treat Moriarty & Moran as jobbing carpenters hired to put up shelves. He gave out German cant about ‘payment by results’ and it still rankled that the Professor wasn’t personally in Wessex dancing to his tune.

Dan’l, the savage giant, was more forthcoming. From him, I picked up the fact that The Chase put folk in a funk even before the story of Red Shuck was revived. This stretch of ancient woodland had been the site of many crimes, it seems — now even the most daring poacher hesitated to trespass there. Dan’l wasn’t that troubled by the beast which had done for Ambush Jack, which he said did less damage than a mountain lion. He’d killed mountain lions with Gertie, and showed me deep old scars to illustrate the yarn. I have a few of those too and we played a jolly game of pulling up sleeves and opening shirts to display manly badges. However, Dan’l was scared of the Brokeneck Lady. Something was done to Theresa Clare in The Chase which she didn’t complain about at the time. It excited her spirit post-mortem, though. Dan’l said that, while taking his turn on guard, he’d seen her, veiled, head lolled to one side, creeping out of the woods.

‘Put the fear in me, she did,’ he said. ‘Mountain lion’s nothin’, but there’s no tellin’ with a haint. All sorts of ways a haint can hex you.’

Stoke snorted, but I took note. There might be a bagful of spooks to deal with, though our client only laid bounty on the dog. Still, I had a box of silver bullets.

At Stourcastle, a covered trap waited.

It was, of course, raining.

VII

Moriarty asked me to set down my observations. Very well…

I have visited all the shitholes of the world and Wessex ranks with the worst of ’em. Whores smell better in Afghanistan. Weather is nicer in Tibet. Cuisine is more appetising in the Australian outback, where snakes count as a Sunday delicacy you look forward to all week. And the natives are more welcoming in the Andaman Island Penal Colony.

The dull, driving rain made me miss London’s pea-souper.

Two bedraggled souls stood outside the station, sheltering under a lean-to which was near collapse.

‘Where’s the coachman?’ barked Stoke.

This was addressed to a burly man with the puff gone out of him. A well-chewed moustache and creeping baldness betokened a tendency to fret and fuss.

‘Come on, Derby,’ continued Stoke. ‘Out with it.’

Derby didn’t elucidate, but his smaller companion — a reedy, floppy-haired, permanently smiling cove in a peculiar tweed singlet and dun-coloured hooded cape — piped up cheerily.

‘Coachman fled the scene,’ he said, with a strange whistling voice. ‘Took fright. Not the only one. More maids quit. And the cook. And Chitty, the butler. Thring’s taken his place. We’ll have to make do as best we can, Mr Stoke. As best we can.’

Stoke, angry at the news, made no introductions. I gathered these were Braham Derby, Stoke’s overseer, and his purportedly mad brother, Saul.

‘You should have hired someone,’ Stoke said. ‘How does it look to have my manager doing scut-work like carriage-driving?’

Braham shrugged. ‘No one’s to be had, Mr Stoke. Not at any price.’

I understood. Besides the prospect of being ripped by Red Shuck, none of the locals wanted anything to do with fetching home the hated New Master. They’d be best pleased if Stoke caught a chill on the platform and died.

‘Been more howling,’ Saul said, almost cheerfully.

He turned to me, wide eyes darting up as if he glimpsed something high over my shoulder, swooping towards my back. When I cast an eye behind me, there was nothing. He caught me once and I resolved not to be fooled again. In turn, Stoke, Dan’l and even Braham — who ought to be used to his brother’s ways — owl-twisted their necks and got rain in their faces. Saul whistled to himself, seemingly unaware. I had him down as either the village idiot or a genius wearing the cloak of lunacy.

Saul was snug in the carriage while Braham sat up on the seat in the wet and grimly drove us to Trantridge. Stoke said nothing to encourage it, but Dan’l — who evidently felt the mooncalf a kindred spirit — asked for news.

‘Much disturbance among mammals,’ said Saul. ‘Hares and rabbits and rats and shrews and stoats. The Hall is plagued with their mischief. The creatures of The Chase are quitting their homes. The pink-eyed man shoots at them. But they get into the house and fight the cats. All nature is in an uproar. I have written to the press about the phenomenon.’

Stoke snorted. He didn’t know what it means when small game flees. A bigger predator is about.

I was in tiger country.

VIII

Seen through a veil of drizzle, Trantridge Hall was what you’d expect — big front to impress the peasants, but boarded upper windows and fallen tiles suggested lack of care with the upkeep.

The drill for greeting the Master in the lesser great houses of the shire counties is standard. Even if the landowner has only popped into town to have a tooth pulled or purchase the latest number of La Vie Parisienne, he expects to come home and find the servants have left off whatever they were doing — or pretending to do — and lined up smartly on the front lawn, showing teeth in beaming smiles.

If it’s wet, that’s just hard cheese. Valets, maids and the like are too afraid of dismissal without references to come down with sniffles like high-born folk.

The showing outside the Hall was like inspection the morning after a skirmish. Gaps in the ranks betokened casualties or — most likely — desertions. Such smiles as were on display didn’t pass muster. Here, dismissal in disgrace was early parole.

The carriage halted. An undersized menial advanced to open the door and lower the step, then offer Stoke the temporary shelter of an umbrella. Thring had a red splotch birthmark as if a ball of mud flung at his eye had spattered half his face. He was a jumped-up footman, filling the too-big tail-coat of the butler who’d taken flight.

‘Welcome home, sir,’ Thring said — as if he hated his Master enough to think he deserved a place like this.

Stoke grunted and stepped down, boots sinking into the miry, rutted drive. He paid no heed to the line of soggy servants, as if about to make an undignified dash for the front door. In the lea of the gothic door arch was a woman wrapped in oilskins. She took the prize for most convincing sham smile in the vicinity, and even fluttered flirty fingers.

From Dan’l’s sigh, I gathered this was his favourite — Braham and Saul’s sister Mod. I’d marked her down as ‘of interest’ because she was reputedly the finest piece on the estate. One would be hard-put to determine the yay or nay of that from her weatherproof bonnet and fishing gear, though she showed a pleasant, pink face.

Thring made no move for the house and Stoke deigned to look at the line. Some maids curtseyed, but most made no effort to pretend they weren’t cold and miserable. A snap produced more snarling smiles.

Leaning against a wall was a pink-eyed, skull-faced apparition wrapped in a Yankee cowman’s duster coat. He had cracked a whip to signal the respect due the Master. Dead-white hair straggled from under his broad-brimmed hat. Even a rank amateur deducer would peg him as Nakszynski the Albino, Stoke’s surviving gunhand.

‘Back to work, the lot of you,’ shouted Stoke — in the circumstances, almost a kindly gesture. He didn’t have to say it twice; the servants hurried out of the rain.

Under Thring’s umbrella, Stoke trudged towards the door and the charms of Miss Derby.

I unbent myself out of the trap and looked about.

‘Best get inside, Colonel,’ Braham said. ‘Get a hot toddy in you.’

Mod Derby opened her arms and spread oilskin bat wings as if to envelop Jasper Stoke.

Then another woman appeared, from behind a bush, and levelled a rifle at Stoke. He threw himself into the mud, squealing. The grim-faced harpy, dress front torn open and hair caked with dirt and twigs, stood over the Master of Trantridge and took surprisingly steady aim.

The Firm was on the point of losing a client before the job was half started.

The woman’s weapon was a Brown Bess. The musket might have been a relic of Waterloo, kept for seventy years in a corner with the brooms. I doubted the would-be assassin had kept her powder dry.

Stoke fairly blubbed for his life. He crab-walked backwards three or four yards, making a muddy arse-and-boot-heel trail in the grass. No wonder he’d quit Tombstone. If an apparition with an antediluvian firearm reduced him to wailing terror, I could imagine the effect of a sharp-eyed Earp with a working Winchester.

‘Mattie Ball, come away,’ said Braham. ‘Kill him and you’ll swing for sure.’

The woman didn’t take heed. With her thumb, she pulled back the cock.

I strode into the scene and interposed my chest, shoving up against the musket’s cold barrelmouth.

‘If you want to shoot someone,’ I said. ‘How about me? Got the sand for that, eh? I’m Colonel Sebastian Moran, of the First Bangalore Pioneers. I’ve cheated death in all corners of the world and don’t fancy a Wessex grave. Not at all, my good woman. If you were in shooting mood, you’d already have discharged this antique.’

I recollected Stoke had turned a family named Ball off the estate. Mattie must be a survivor of the clan, demented by sufferings too sordid to dwell on.

She could fire her musket but once — if, indeed, it would fire. She’d not get a chance to reload, pack and take aim again. The avenging farmgirl wouldn’t want to waste her shot on anyone but the author of her misfortunes.

Mattie Ball was demented, but I faced her down. I’ve done as much to men and beasts — and similarly bloodthirsty females — before. A moment of clarity, of understanding, decides the way the cards will fall. Such encounters are over with between the ticks of a clock… but the seconds stretch to hours while you’re in it.

Thus far, the turn has always been in my favour.

Hesitation sparked in the woman. I made a grab for her gun, got a grip and forced the barrel upright. I slipped my gloved thumb into the lock, which bit as Mattie Ball jerked the trigger. The lock scarcely penetrated leather.

I wrenched the musket from her hands. The Albino, who should have kept better lookout, was suddenly there, holding Mattie from behind, spade-bladed Bowie to her neck. Not the proper tool for opening a throat, but it’d do.

Braham wanted to protest, but Nakszynski showed yellow teeth in pink gums which matched his eyes. He began a shallow, preliminary cut.

‘Enough of that, Chalky,’ I said. ‘Miss Ball is just leaving.’

I wasn’t having some bunny-eyed Johnny-come-lately Yankee Polack mule-skinner spoiling the moment. I’d shared something with Mattie Ball, more intimate than the usual mess between man and woman. I wasn’t minded to let it go yet. The knife-touch pricked the woman’s soul. Her eyes and teeth were set in defiance.

Nakszynski gave me a ‘Who are you?’ look, but didn’t press on with his murdering.

Stoke, muddied all over, was helped up by Thring and Dan’l. Mod indicated she’d like to fuss over him, but held back because of the dirt.

‘Hello Mattie,’ Saul said. ‘I was sorry to hear about your poor mama… and your brothers… and Granver Ball… and…’

I assumed Stoke would have need of Nakszynski’s whip. Instead, he broke free of his aides and sloshed at Mattie. Squirting angry tears, he stuck a craven fist into her belly. She doubled, twisting out of the Albino’s grip, and fell, retching. Stoke kicked her in the side, and rolled her over. He spat on her and kept kicking. Animal whining and growling came out of him. His kicks echoed inside her chest as if it were a tight drum.

I started to feel the pinch of the gun-cock.

I gently eased it back and removed my throbbing thumb. I was right about the musket’s age, but it had either been cared for well over the years or recently restored.

Mattie curled, hugging her face, knees over her stomach. Stoke kept booting her spine. Thring stood by, umbrella raised over his Master’s head. A little more rain could hardly put the self-declared tyrant and villain in a sorrier state.

In the spirit of experiment, I cocked the musket and pulled the trigger.

The blast caught everyone’s attention. I’d like to say a far-off bird tumbled from the sky, but the ball went wild and fell spent. Brown Bess had a fine record in seeing off England’s enemies, but only in the days when Jean François marched close enough for you to smell the garlic breath before you let fire. For accuracy at a distance, you were better off with a longbow.

The crack of the shot echoed.

Stoke froze in mid-kick and Mattie Ball scurried away, quick for someone who’d taken such punishment. She hared across Trantridge Hall’s well-kept lawns towards tangled forest. The Chase. Mattie paused, tiny against the thick, tall trees, and raised a fist. Then she was gone.

No one was inclined to follow.

‘Moran,’ shouted Stoke, ‘what the Devil do you think you’re about?’

‘Put a bounty on the pelt and I’ll bring her down from here,’ I said, raising Brown Bess as if to take aim. The gun, of course, was empty, though I judged Stoke in no state to distinguish a single-shot musket from a repeating rifle. ‘But my understanding is that I’m here to hunt a dog. Anything else is out of season. Now, someone mentioned “hot toddy”. It would behoove us to show the sense to get out of the f--ing rain…’

No one argued the point.

I strode to the door, where I encountered Mod Derby. She gave me a welcoming wink and hand squeeze.

‘Colonel Sebastian Moran, ma’am,’ I said, raising her hand to my lips.

‘Welcome to Trantridge, gallant Colonel,’ she said. Her smile put a dimple in her cheek, and I always appreciate a dimple. ‘You have saved us all from murder.’

It was possible that, after putting her single ball in Stoke, Mattie Ball could have found a bayonet in her shawl, fitted it to the musket and skewered the entire household. I’d have laid odds against, though.

‘I suppose I have,’ I said, as if the thought of receiving thanks never entered my head. ‘All in a day’s work, ma’am.’

‘Modesty,’ she said. ‘But you may call me Mod.’

As with Mattie, I shared a long moment with Mod in which things were settled. Again, my hand took a trick. Without words, something to our mutual benefit was decided.

Stoke, plastered with filth, barged past into his house. He took no notice of what had passed between me and his supposed fancy woman.

We all went into Trantridge Hall.

IX

In conduct under fire, Jasper Stoke had settled the question of the hue of his innards — a sickly custard-yellow. His hands, the servants and the Derby siblings knew it. Even simple Dan’l and fairy-feathered Saul. Having ‘lost face’, as the Celestials say, mine host kept the company waiting for supper. Another theatrical device, no doubt. Probably made sense in German economics.

We convened in a big gloomy room. Blazing logs raised steam from damp furnishings within a few feet of the fireplace. Cow-gum stink suggested wallpaper paste liquefying. Paintings above the mantel, warped by years of radiant heat, did not hang true. However, the warmth did not reach as far as the table. We might have sat in Siberia or Staines for all the good the fire did us.

Gussied up in regimental dinner jacket, displaying a shelf-load of gongs earned by bravery and homicide in the service of the Queen, I did my best to ignore the cold. Mod Derby had abandoned oilskins for more flattering dress, with the neck cut lower than is the London fashion — displaying one or two reasons for favouring counties over capital. She had a head of long, fine, flaxen hair. I was persuaded to recount anecdotes relating to my medals. Seated at my right, Mod jogged my memory by replenishing my goblet with wine from Simon Stoke’s recently discovered cellar. Twittering Saul was to my left, grazing on plates of nuts and berries set out to keep stomachs from rumbling as the evening meal was delayed by the non-appearance of the Master of Trantridge.

Also present were Braham and Nakszynski. Dan’l evidently took his eats with the children or the cowboys. I was surprised to discover another guest at table: that same Parson Tringham who was the unwitting inspiration for Stoke’s dog problem or else an active participant in the plot against him. If the old idiot were puzzled that Stoke — who’d turned him out on his ear the last time he attempted to call — should ask him to dine, it hadn’t stopped him coming. Tringham nattered about long-dead d’Urbervilles as if anyone were interested. He was of our company because Stoke thought he should be grilled for further intelligence. After listening to his witterings, it seemed to me a happier outcome would be if the parson were simply grilled. The Albino had no compunctions about eating a mountie’s liver. Surely, a clergyman’s tongue would at least serve as an appetiser?

I ignored Tringham and maintained attentions to Mod. I had every reason to anticipate private entertainment from that direction.

It nagged, however, that Moriarty had charged me with making detailed observations. Encomia to Modesty Derby’s teats would not interest the cold, sad maniac. No, the Professor would rather have the ramblings of a crackpot genealogist.

Tringham had long sought entry to the archives of the family — meaning the centuried d’Urbervilles, of course, not the jumped-up Stokes. The dinner invitation had persuaded him such was now within his grasp. Well past the age when any self-respecting Eskimo would have packed himself off on an ice floe, his enthusiasms — and his mouth — were unstilled. To be so close to a cherished objective pricked his bump of excitability, and he expostulated about every item in the room.

Of all things, Tringham started on about the paintings.

Over the fireplace was a full-length portrait of Simon Stoke-d’Urberville. In a case of ‘never mind the picture, look at the frame’, an oblong of gilt curly flourishes and oak leaves surrounded the moneylender. The Shylock’s hand rested on a stack of ledgers. The fizzog was bland — the sort you forget while you’re looking at it — but the artist had worked on that long-fingered hand, giving the impression its usual placement was in someone else’s pocket. To Simon’s right, in an equally pretentious, equally twisted frame was a veiled young crone, posed in a bower. Birds perched on her head and arms as if she were a Christmas tree, chickens mixed in with robins and sparrows. This was the widow who’d lingered long abed upstairs before leaving the accumulated boodle to her remittance-man nephew. Being blind, she couldn’t have known how hideous her picture was; being rich, I doubt she was troubled by anyone telling her.

Tringham called our attention to the third in the trinity above the mantel. The matching frame should have been inhabited by murdered Alexander, beloved sprog of Mr and Mrs Stoke-Parvenu. Instead, a red-bearded brute in armour skulked in the woods, a big red mastiff curled about his metal boots. The painting was old, dark and curling at the edges.

‘Pagan Plantagenet d’Urberville,’ the parson said. ‘Circa 1660. Costumed as the original Sir Pagan. Born Percy d’Urberville, he took the names of his ancestors, provable and fancied. He believed secret marriages intermingled the blood of the d’Urbervilles with the line of the rightful kings of England. When the Interregnum ended, Pagan Plantagenet nominated himself as a truer heir to the throne than Charles. Few supported him. Lord Rochester ridiculed him as “Percy the Pretender”. He spent a fortune on forged documents, muddying the waters of d’Urberville scholarship for centuries to come. It’s a frightful bother when a scrap of Norman parchment might be a Restoration fake.’

‘Looks a grim old swine,’ I said. ‘What happened to him?’

‘He perished in a duel with a neighbour, Squire Frankland. He insulted the squire by shooting his terrier. In a manner of speaking, he was another victim of the legend of Red Shuck. While posing for this picture, he was bitten by the dyed mastiff used as a model for the original Red Shuck. This gave him an entrenched terror of dogs. He took to carrying a brace of pistols for protection from them. That’s how he came to kill the squire’s pet. As aggrieved party, Frankland had choice of weapons and picked rapiers. For all his Norman affectations, Pagan Plantagenet was a poor swordsman. But he shouldn’t be here.’

‘What d’you mean, Parson?’ I asked. Tringham was agitated about some wrongness.

‘His picture shouldn’t hang in this spot. Certainly not in that horrible frame. The d’Urbervilles were long gone from Trantridge Hall in Pagan Plantagenet’s time. His seat was Kingsbere-sub-Greenhill, as are the family tombs. Incidentally, it might amuse you to know I once had cause to alert John Durbeyfield — an offshoot, degenerate modern twig of the family — to the existence of those tombs. Later, to my astonishment, the wife and children of this peasant “Sir John” took up temporary residence among their ancestors, like Indian ghouls. What do you think of that?’

‘Not much,’ responded Mod — who, in a brief flash of teeth, indicated this footnote amused her not at all. I had come in on the last act of a play which was a long evening in the running, and couldn’t hope to pick up all the plot threads.

‘If Percy were fascinated by his ancestor,’ I suggested, getting back to the portrait, ‘wouldn’t he have poked around here?’

‘Much as you have,’ added Mod, with a cutting tone which didn’t cut the thick-skinned parson.

‘Pagan Plantagenet was afraid of The Chase,’ he answered. ‘Red Shuck, you know, supposedly abides hereabouts. The painting is Ecole de Lely. Face and dog were executed by the commissioned artist at a sitting, the rest assigned to pupils. One would have done the armour, for instance, from an empty suit. A junior could have visited The Chase to put in the trees without the sitter having to come near the place. The mystery is how the picture comes to be at Trantridge not Kingsbere.’

‘Him,’ Mod said, pointing at Simon Stoke, ‘he’s your answer. He bought his ancestors in a job lot. He probably put the picture up. Hung so he himself seems superior. A sign of conquest, of his swallowing of the old d’Urbervilles.’

‘My sister has a point,’ Saul said. ‘Stoke probably didn’t know which Pagan he had, and took Percy the Pretender for the original.’

‘It’s not so much the picture that excites,’ Tringham said, ‘but the possibility Mr Stoke acquired other items along with it — documents, perhaps, or books. Pagan Plantagenet collected authentic items along with his fakes. Among his sins was the sacrilege of destroying them to provide raw materials — scraping manuscripts clean, so he had properly aged paper upon which to set out mendacious scrawls. If the cause of scholarship is just, Pagan Plantagenet d’Urberville might be judged the worst man in his family…’

‘Might he now?’ announced Jasper Stoke-d’Urberville, sweeping into the hall, scrubbed and scented, in evening clothes. A dramatic entrance, of course. The doors were held open by footmen. ‘Might he indeed? I hope to contest that title, Parson.’

He sauntered to his place at head of table.

‘I intend to go Mr Percy Pagan Plantagenet one better,’ said the Master of Trantridge. ‘When I have a dog shot, it’ll be the right one.’

From this, I deduced Jasper had loitered outside, eavesdropping, awaiting the theatrical moment.

Suddenly, in another stage device, maids were hurrying about under Thring’s direction, setting food on the table. They began with Jasper rather than, as tradition would dictate, the company’s sole lady. I always advocate feeding a filly first, since such trifles make the dears more warmly inclined to one’s advances. Scorning points of amatory order leads to nights in cold, lonely beds — even, nay especially, on the part of blokes who foolishly suppose they have proprietary interest in some delicate personage. Stoke had staked claim by referring to Mod Derby as his ‘fancy woman’. Finely attuned as I am to feminine character, I could tell that if he expected a midnight visit after this day’s work, he was out of luck.

Stoke dug into his grub without waiting for his guests to have plates in front of them. Tringham, served last, muttered needless grace over his mess of cabbage and boiled beef. No one else troubled the Divinity before scoffing.

With his mouth full, Jasper announced he had sent word to the constabulary, indicting Mattie Ball for attempted murder.

‘I’ll have the countryside against her,’ he crowed. ‘I’ll post bounty on her, as you suggested, Moran. She’ll not be taken alive. An example must be made. One deranged female won’t stand in the way of progress.’

Mod and Braham Derby exchanged glances.

‘It is not enough that the Ball woman failed in her murderous mission,’ Stoke continued, warming to his subject, flecks of gravy marring his starched dickey. ‘The story of her attempt, her exploit, must end in defeat and degradation. Matilda Ball must be despised and laughed at, not to suit my vanity, mind you, but in the spirit of propaganda. Her downfall will elevate my status as Master of Trantridge.’

I remembered sobbing, muddy Jasper Stoke kicking a defenceless damsel. I usually advocate kicking a man when he’s down. What better time, indeed, to kick a man than when he’s suitably arranged within boot distance? But for a passionate surge of victory, the tiger you bring down must have claws. I’d shared a moment with the musketeer maid. It rubbed the wrong way when Stoke, in his telling of the tale, got between me and her. I care not two hoots and a shit for prayer before meals. Food is brought to table by violence and drudgery or wanting because some other sod has skipped grace and eaten it first. God don’t come into it. But Stoke’s manner in talking of Mattie Ball was my idea of sacrilege.

Saul Derby took the conversation off on another tangent — a proposed study of badger runs in The Chase. He ventured they might be of more use than overgrown, broken and disused human paths.

Then, as the poet has it, there came a knocking. Not a gentle raven-tap at the window, but a hammering on the front door. This resounded through the foyer and thence to the dining room. I had noticed a great iron handle, suitable for raising such a racket, stuck to the front of Trantridge Hall.

Stoke ordered Thring to see who it was and tell them to piss off. Proving himself not a complete fool, he gave Nakszynski the nod to go with the butler. Even discounting ghosts, he had a superfluity of here-and-now enemies who would love a clear shot at him.

‘Come now,’ said Braham, as the Albino stood up. ‘It’s not like anyone who wants to kill Mr Stoke would just walk up the drive and knock on the door…’

That marked Braham Derby as an amateur. In point of fact, a murderer often knocks on the door — summoning a victim conveniently to the point of a knife or the end of a gun. I’ve paid such calls myself, tipped my hat to a cooling corpse, and walked off before hue and cry can be raised.

Stoke wavered and Nakszynski sat again.

The doors were flung wide again. The caller trumped the Master’s strut with a genuine theatrical effect. A big man, dressed entirely in crimson from his shoes to his tall hat, he was bright scarlet in the face and hands. Across broad shoulders he carried a heavy, limp bundle. Completing the infernal effect, he whiffed of something like brimstone. Frankly, I’ve met subtler volcanic eruptions.

The Albino had a Colt.45 drawn. I kept my Gibbs out of sight, but equally out of my pocket. If needs be, I could fire under or through the table. Mod gave a little intrigued parp as my cold revolver brushed her thigh.

Diggory Venn, the red-dyed radical — for it could be no one else! — shrugged off Thring as the butler tried to lay hand on him. Venn heaved his bundle onto the table. It displaced the remains of the meal, and splayed before the Master of Trantridge.

As the bundle slid, wrapping came loose.

A white face showed, with a red hole beneath it. Mattie Bell was open-eyed in death, throat ripped out.

Before Stoke could blurt ‘what is the meaning of this?’ or somesuch, Tringham stood up, gulped, and fainted.

‘Satisfied?’ said the reddleman, directly addressing Stoke.

The Master was astonished and queasy. Blood dripped into his lap. Corpse-eyes looked up at him.

If you swear by Mrs Beeton, this was probably the wrong time for the maid to fetch in the port. But Jasper Stoke wasn’t the only one among us glad of access to fortified spirits.

Pistol back in my pocket, I examined the body. I shut Mattie’s eyes. My smell was still on her, but some other animal had taken what was rightly mine. That ticked me off and made this a personal matter. Hunter’s honour, you know. I don’t expect anyone to understand, but these things run deep.

I would skin that bloody Red Shuck.

X

I doubt anyone else at Trantridge Hall slept that night as soundly as I did. I know no one else breakfasted as heartily the next morning.

Even the Stoke-d’Urberville kitchens couldn’t go far wrong with breakfast. We were served buffet fashion in the foyer. Mattie Ball was still laid out on the dining table, a drop cloth for a shroud. I had second helpings of poached eggs and devilled kidneys.

When setting off on a hunt — or a punitive military expedition — it’s essential to be rested, refreshed and well fed, else you’re halfway to failure before you’ve taken your first shot. I’ve the happy knack of being able to pinch out thoughts like a candle as soon as I bed down. No nightmares trouble the rest of Basher Moran. I run into enough while I’m awake.

Stoke, however, was red-eyed from a case of the horrors. He cuffed a maid who offered him toast. Braham Derby, if anything, looked worse. From Mod, I knew her brother and Mattie had once had an ‘understanding’ which didn’t survive the New Master’s German economics.

We’d forgotten Parson Tringham, and left him where he fell. Some time in the night, he’d roused to find himself alone with Mattie and quit the Hall.

Stoke was worried he’d be browbeaten into traipsing into The Chase. On that score, he had no concern. No use for a yellow liver in a hunting party. I also recalled cases where the Firm lost a fee because a client happened to get killed before his bill was settled. So: five thousand reasons to keep Jasper Stoke among the living.

It fell to me, as ranking shikari, to pick beaters and bearers. From the Hall, I chose Nakszynski and Saul. I reckoned the Albino a stealthier accomplice than blundering Dan’l, and gathered he had experience in tracking and killing dangerous beasts and deadly men. The strange youth knew the wilds and paths of The Chase better than anyone alive. Practically raised in them. On first-name terms with the squirrels. Knew every tree to talk to. They have holy fools like that in India. Some make damn decent guides — they take you to where the tigers are, and no one is too put out if they get eaten.

Outside the Hall, Diggory Venn waited. He hadn’t slept under Stoke’s roof. The client still favoured shooting the reddleman, being three-quarters convinced he was in league with the demon dog. I saw his reasoning, but he was wrong. Stoke could have sacrificed an ally to deceive an enemy — a trick I’d essayed a time or two myself — but Venn, foolish fellow, rang true. He could no more slaughter an innocent than turn blue.

The beast had killed Mattie Ball and Lazy-Eye Jack, on opposite sides at Trantridge. Red Shuck was indiscriminate, as much a threat to the villagers as the Master. Venn, self-declared protector of downtrodden tenants, wanted it dead as much as Stoke, self-appointed oppressor of the unwashed.

Since his whipping, the reddleman had been living off the land. He had a lair in The Chase. He was careful not to say if anyone in the village or at the Hall helped him with the odd hot meal or mug of tea — though I’d swear he hadn’t been abiding on nuts, berries and edible bark alone.

I quizzed him. He’d come across signs of a large animal or animals in the woods and heard nocturnal howling, but hadn’t so much as glimpsed red hide through the trees.

‘No ghosts then?’

‘Didn’t say that,’ replied Venn. ‘I seen the Brokeneck Lady. Or someone like. After I found Mattie, she were there — at edge of Temple Clearing, close by a tree. An ululation alerted I to her presence, such as no human nor animal tongue could make. First, I were ’suaded ’twas Mattie’s spirit, gone from her mortal clay, lingering to see justice done. Then, I perceived this woman were garbed different. Long black dress, with shiny black buttons up the front. A thick veil, like twenty year of cobweb. Head kinked over to one side. From the hanging, they do say.’

‘You think it was Theresa Clare?’

‘Tess Durbeyfield as was?’ he said, shrugging. ‘Couldn’t see this one’s face through the veil. I never set eyes on Tess when she were living. Can’t say who this were. She been seen hereabouts afore. I had little concern for her. Were Mattie Ball to think on.’

From concealment in The Chase, Venn had seen what happened at the Hall yesterday. When Mattie fled into the forest, he resolved to offer her shelter and succour. When he caught up with her, she was dead on the ground, eyes glassy. In his rage, Venn assumed Stoke responsible, just as Jasper blamed the reddleman for the death of Lazy-Eye Jack. Now, there was uneasy truce. A third party, set against both factions, was in play: Red Shuck, perhaps in league with this spectral lady.

I’d risen early, with a hunting thrill in my water and a stiff prick. It takes little to make me happy — something new to kill today, and someone new to bed tonight. Prospects fair in both categories, I judged.

Holstered under my arm, my revolver was loaded with silver bullets — which I hoped to conserve, though one or two might make souvenirs. I put my trust in plain lead and carried a rifle I reckoned almost equal to the late ‘Prometheus’. The gun’s bag ran to six tigers, nine lions, a few Welshmen and one Honourable Lord brought down in testing circumstances from the visitors’ gallery to save the House from an excessively dull speech on the subject of Irish Home Rule. Never let it be said that Moriarty & Moran made no contribution to politics.

A drab, damp, cold October day. Sunrise about ten-thirty ante meridien; near full dark just after lunch. It had stopped raining. Thick strands of mist stirred at knee-height like ghost eels.

Venn and Saul, in a huddle, argued over the best path to take to the clearing where Mattie had been found. Venn looked even stranger under thin sunlight which brought out the peculiar, unrelieved redness of his entire person. He carried a stout straight stick which was a match for Dan’l’s Gertie and held it as if he had some skill at the old English sport of quarterstaff. I’ve seen men with long sticks beat men with short swords, so I didn’t care to underguesstimate the reddleman’s martial prowess.

Saul was in a Norfolk jacket and knickerbockers, armed only with a bag for scientific specimens. He’d been responsible for the plaster cast Stoke had brought to Conduit Street and was silly enough to whimper that we should take Red Shuck alive since it might be an unknown species. I promised we’d name it Canis Rufus Saulus, but it’d be easier to stick on a label post-mortem.

Nakszynski wore a shaggy coat made from grizzly hide, tailored with pockets for concealed hold-out pistols and lengths of cheesewire. The lining sheathed sufficient knives to serve boneless duck and fish at a Lord Mayor’s dinner and have enough left over to perform emergency amputations on a cartload of railway-crash wounded. He performed a familiar ritual — loading and checking guns, spitting on blades. His murder tools were in order, ready for use. Stoke stood by his man like a prize-fight trainer, happy to dispense advice on the theory of fisticuffs yet happier still not to be the fellow stepping into the ring to put the advice into practice while another bludgeon-fisted ape pounded on his head.

Most of the household were here to see off our expedition. Mod planted a crafty kiss on my cheek, and slipped a hand into my trousers to administer a secret squeeze. Stoke scowled at the intimacy he could see, but losing a poke-partner came a long way down his list of frets. I reckoned he’d retreat inside and have the Hall barricaded until we came home with Red Shuck hanging upside down from Venn’s stave.

We set off across the lawn, and paused in the shadow of The Chase.

‘This is a truly venerable tract of forest,’ Saul announced, as if lecturing sightseers, ‘one of the few remaining woodlands in England of undoubted primeval date, wherein Druidical mistletoe is still found on aged oaks. Enormous yew trees, not planted by the hand of man, grow as they did grow when they were pollarded for bows.’

He made a few more remarks about ‘sylvan antiquity’. I disregarded them like the steam of his breath. The tall stark trees were more black than green. Within the woods, groundmist was waist high. The Chase showed its true self.

It was not a forest. It was an English jungle.

XI

Saul — smallest, least encumbered of the party — bent low and scurried through his famous badger runs. Venn, the Albino and I had to take less thorny paths through the dripping woods.

We could scarcely have got wetter if it were raining.

The morning mist didn’t burn off, which made looking out for beast’s spoor an iffy prospect. Exposed roots and the mouths of rabbit-warrens became mantraps. A sane hunter was exceedingly careful where he put his boots.

Sunlight was intermittent. Every step took us back in time. All Saul’s rot about Druidical mistletoe and pollarding for bows brought to mind high old merrie England. Flagons of foaming mead and clots in armour gallantly clouting each other. This was more savage, cold and bloody uncomfortable. As Stoke had warned, it stank like a tannery.

‘What is that smell?’ I asked Venn.

‘What smell?’ he responded. His nostrils must have been burned senseless by living with the stench. In fact, now I came to think of it, the reddleman had the pong on him like the stain on his face.

I like jungle, but The Chase was a Pit of Hell on a wet Wednesday.

After an hour of slow going, we felt we had travelled ten hard leagues but might well have only penetrated a few hundred yards into the wood. Venn tapped his stave against an oak, signalling a halt. We had found an open space about fifty paces across. The trees were so tangled above, the clearing was like a leaky cathedral. Shafts of light poured down through a ceiling of woven wood.

‘Here be the place,’ the reddleman said.

‘Temple Clearing,’ Saul said, popping out of his badger-run. ‘Where Venic turned and Red Shuck killed Sir Pagan. They found that Lazy-Eyed Jack fellow here with his gizzard gone.’

Venn walked slowly, stirring the mist with his stick.

‘Mattie were here,’ he said, ‘lying on this.’

He knelt and waved mist away from a long, flat stone — the size of a table or a tomb. Hewn from rock, smoothed by time. Someone had taken the trouble to haul it here from a quarry.

‘Scary Face Stone,’ Saul said.

I looked at it several ways, but couldn’t see it. Cracks in rock or knots in wood can pull a face, but this was featureless.

‘The name is a corruption,’ Saul went on. ‘Originally, it was Sacrifice Stone. Old even in Sir Pagan’s time. Our Palaeolithic ancestors used it. It’s been washed over and over in blood.’

There were traces of blood on it now.

‘You say the woman was lying here?’ I addressed Venn. ‘How? Arms and legs out, as if thrown away? Or tucked straight, as if on display?’

Venn thought about it, red brows knitting. ‘The second way.’

‘Her hands? Show me how her hands were. By her sides, or…?’

I made defensive claws, as if shielding my throat. Venn crossed his wrists, palms flat against his breast.

‘Never known an animal arrange kill for a funeral,’ I said.

Venn nodded. ‘Only one do have such a habit. That be a human man. But a human man don’t bite out a woman’s throat.’

That showed how limited the reddleman’s experience of the world was. As Moriarty and I learned during the Affair of the Hassocks Hobgoblin, some specimens of ‘human man’ have exactly that predilection. In this case, I’d seen Mattie’s wound and concurred that no man had done that damage.

‘Only a beast could have killed Mattie, but only a man would have laid her out,’ said Saul. ‘In the story of Red Shuck, Venic was sometimes man and sometimes beast.’

Nakszynski spat tobacco at Scary Face Stone, unimpressed.

I was conscious of my silver-loaded revolver. As if on cue, the howling started.

The others had heard this before, but all bristled. Even Nakszynski’s white hair rose under his patched hat.

I don’t know what men mean by fear. My nerves aren’t plumbed in that way. But that howling — softer, more expressive than I’d imagined from reports — pricked an instinct I’d thought dead. It was as if a sail-maker’s needle slid into the nape of my neck then drew down, scraping every bone-knob in turn. My wet skin crawled in disgust at myself, the others, the noise…

We looked around, but it was impossible to tell where the howling came from. I fancied it might be high up, in the trees — but dogs, no matter how big, don’t climb. Red Shuck wasn’t a cat — they scratch as well as bite and Mattie had no claw marks on her. Besides, I know cats. You can live with cats if you’re wary, but you can’t use them the way you can dogs. Red Shuck was being used.

Nakszynski, guns in his hands, wheeled about, scanning for movement. Venn stood slowly, in a fighter’s stance — a double-grip on his stave. The howl died down. There was a noise of birds taking flight. The Albino aimed upwards, but didn’t waste a shot.

Saul, not at all concerned, whistled shrilly.

It was a wonder Nakszynski didn’t shoot him there and then. I knew at once what he was doing.

In answer to his trilling came another howl. Longer, and closer.

With the mist and the trees and the wet, even the best tracker wouldn’t be able to run down Red Shuck in his own woods. But bringing the beast to us was easy. All we had to do was sound a dinner gong.

Saul whistled again.

XII

In the Carpathians, they say this about werewolves: there’s always a tree between you and it, but never a tree between it and you.

I tugged off my right glove with my teeth and stuffed it in a pocket. I like a naked finger on the trigger, no matter the cold. I unslung my rifle and took a firing position, stock to shoulder. Beyond the gunsight, I saw only trees. Thick black pillars in white mist.

There was movement in the mist.

We could still hear howling, but Temple Clearing was confusion to the senses. The noise didn’t seem to come from the moving shape.

I kept my gun up. Eddies and waves in the mist told me something big was coming, careening between trees, picking up speed. We heard crashes, saw lower branches shake. The thing was running blind.

Beats, like a galloping horse. It was coming fast and low, without regard for itself or us.

Another howl sounded, shrill and close and mocking, off to one side. Not from the onrushing creature.

I looked to the howling, bringing my aim round.

We were in The Chase with more than one beast.

I swung back to the more imminent threat, just as some big, black — not red! — and shaggy quadruped burst into the clearing, barrelling like a bull, snorting like a hog, foaming like a mad dog. I fired true and placed a shot in its skull. Momentum kept the thing coming. What was it? Venn whacked with his stave, which was snatched from his hands. I cleared my breech and reloaded. The Albino’s guns went off, blasting fist-sized red gobbets out of a woolly hide.

The howling kept up. I didn’t fire again. This might be a tactic to get us to waste our shots.

‘It’s Old Pharaoh,’ shouted Saul.

It must be dead or dying, but still it tore around, head down, butting at us. Venn, off his feet, slammed into me. I fell backwards into damp mist and put out my hand — which jammed painfully against cold rock. I fell onto Scary Face Stone. My rifle hit me in the face.

‘Git Priddle’s prize black ram,’ Saul explained.

I recalled the beast, which Priddle claimed was taken by Red Shuck. Stoke suspected Old Pharaoh was hidden from his tally-man, so the farmer could duck out of paying tax due.

Through agitated mist, I saw the ram was as big as some lions I’ve shot, humped like a buffalo, with curls of battered, hardened horn. Blood leaked from the hole I’d put in its bulbous forehead. Life was gone from saucer-sized eyes, but it took long moments for the message to reach the body.

Then, Old Pharaoh fell, dead.

Outside Temple Clearing, the howling abated.

I groped in the mist for my gun. Saul waded towards me — to help? His boot came down on my bare hand, crushing it against Scary Face Rock. Two or three fingers broke. Pain rushed up my arm.

I swore.

Saul tried to apologise. I kept swearing, at the pulsating hurt as much as the blundering idiot. Saul took me by the shoulders and helped me get my balance. I found the rifle on the ground, but agony hit again as I made a fist to pick it up.

I raised the gun in a rough aim, but could no more fit my snapped trigger-finger into the guard than you could thread a needle with a sausage. I threw the rifle down. My revolver was slung for a cross-draw. I had to reach into my coat and fish the gun out of my armpit with the wrong hand.

I laid against a bleeding wall of mutton, as if the dead ram were a pile of sandbags. Venn was beside me.

‘Sheep be driven,’ he said. ‘By a dog.’

I’d worked that out by now.

Even though we’d all suspected human agency behind Red Shuck, no one at Trantridge — including yours truly — had thought it through. With my hand swollen and useless and the smell of just-dead sheep in my nose, I had a moment to wonder whether Moriarty had seen the truth and not troubled to mention it. It was the manner of smug trick he was given to, a refined version of his testing via sudden missile or sharp question.

From Stoke’s story, I’d pictured a canny malcontent importing or discovering or raising some unknown species of canine and letting it prey on whom it might. This feint with Old Pharaoh bespoke more active agency. Our as-yet unknown enemy had Red Shuck trained as a sheepdog. Doubtless, the doggie was tutored in amusing tricks — fetch out the fellow’s throat, jump up and bite, roll over and kill. In Wessex, it wouldn’t even take a mastermind. A half-skilled shepherd could manage the trick, and the region was thick with the bastards. If I survived the afternoon I’d call on the Priddle hovel with harsh questions for a well-known ram-withholder.

I was still trying to make a fist, to control the knot of pain at the end of my arm.

Venn coughed blood. It smeared his chin, matching his skin. Even his teeth were red.

Saul, in the centre of the clearing, shrugged off his sample-bag, ears pricked. The Albino was by him, reloading. Besides Old Pharaoh, he had shot several trees — which bore fresh, white scars.

The howling stopped, but I didn’t think the beast had gone away. It had been called to heel.

Saul whistled again, drawing out his trill.

I brought up my revolver. I’m a fair left-hand shot, and the pistol was best for close work anyway.

In answer to Saul’s whistle came a low growl.

‘Shuck be hungry,’ Venn said.

‘Chalky,’ I called. ‘It’ll be under the mist. Can you shoot fish?’

The Albino nodded.

‘If it comes into the clearing, blast it!’

I flapped my crushed hand, as if telling Nakszynski — and whoever else might be spying — I was out of the fight. My thought was to leave the sheepdog to the Albino and save my silver for the shepherd.

Saul whistled again, higher — as if trying out signals.

‘Shut up, you damn fool,’ I shouted. ‘Dog knows we’re here. Dog don’t need a foghorn to find us.’

Saul swallowed and was silent. Who’d have thought such a fairy-footed fellow could do so much damage? My hand felt as if it’d been stamped on by an elephant in clogs.

I didn’t like the way this expedition was going.

Either you bring back trophies or scars — often, both. I could claim Old Pharaoh’s horns, but ram wasn’t the game I’d set out for.

Unlike Old Pharaoh, our new caller came stealthily. The mist was all about like a smoking pool, thickening by the moment. I couldn’t see my own boots. The ram’s hump was barely an island. Saul was in it up to his chest. Nakszynski, furthest off, was almost a ghost.

I heard the dog. It might be a Wessex Wolf or a Trantridge Terrier, but it was a dog. Only dogs pant that way. Only dogs rattle spit as they contemplate din-dins.

We were supper on the hoof.

Though it was only early afternoon and less than a mile from Trantridge Hall, we were lost in nighted jungle, with monsters on all sides.

‘Why be you smiling?’ Venn asked.

‘If you don’t know, I can’t tell you,’ I said.

I might die in The Chase. The notion made me hot and angry. It rankled I was so ill-prepared as to find myself in this fix. But a curl of my brain — which everyone from the fulminating Sir Augustus to the calculating Professor Moriarty found fault with — was alive now as at no other time. Some chase women, some chase opium dragons, some chase pots of gold. Dammit, some chase postage stamps or currant buns. I chase these edge-of-life-and-death moments — when an animal or man tries to kill me, and I kill them instead. It’s the surge inside — in the water, behind the eyes, in the loins. That’s what Basher Moran’s about. All the rest is fancy trimming. Nice enough to have, but not real. I’d protested when the Prof diagnosed my ‘addiction to fear’ on our first meeting, but had come to see he’d known me better than I knew myself in those innocent days.

There was that smell again. The Chase smell, vile to the nose and eyes. Old and faint on the reddleman, sharp and new on the dog.

Nakszynski was taken by a red devil which leaped up on his chest and bore him under the mist. I glimpsed eyes of flame and teeth like yellow knives. No point in firing wild. I guess the Albino dropped his guns and tried to get a grip on the neck of the thing with its fangs in his throat.

A long string of terrible Polish words came out of Nakszynski — the only speech I ever heard from him. I’d thought him mute. Then, with a liquid gurgle, his verbal torrent petered out.

‘Saul, run,’ I shouted.

He needed no further orders and bolted for one of his tunnel-paths. I looked for a red streak in the white — and took aim. If Saul Derby played hare to this hound, it might afford me a shot.

No movement.

I turned to Venn, to suggest he watch our backs. Red Shuck could come at us from any direction.

The reddleman’s face was an open-mouthed mask of surprise. He saw something behind me. A whining, straining, inhuman sound assaulted my ears. I turned and brought up my gun. A heavy length of wood smacked into my skull.

A human figure rose out of the mist, head hung to one side. It was veiled, wore a long black dress and held Venn’s stave.

I wondered if silver bullets were good for ghosts.

Before I could fire, the apparition swung. I took a whack to my head. Hot wet blood gouted from my ear and I went down. This time, I went out too.

XIII

I woke up in an earth-floored, flame-lit space. My cold, wet clothes were now hot, wet clothes. Blood crusted in my ear, under a field dressing. My fingers were splinted and bound.

I tried to sit up, which hurt.

Venn, bent over the fire, stirred a cauldron of broth. With his flame-lit, scarlet face, he could pass for a pantomime demon. The sulphurous smell was thick. Runic scratchings marked rock walls. Stick-figure men chasing big-mouthed, pointy-eared dogs twice their size.

‘Where are we?’ I asked.

Venn noticed I was awake. ‘Red’s Hole. Old, old place. Be my home, for now. Plenty live here afore me, back to Bible times.’

That was a comfort.

‘It might sound ungrateful to ask, but why aren’t we dead?’

‘Brokeneck Lady. Drove off Shuck. Patched you up.’

I’d expected to be torn to pieces by the beast which brought down Nakszynski. Unconscious, I couldn’t have put up a fight.

‘Where is this spectral Flo Nightingale now?’

‘Outways,’ Venn said, jerking his thumb towards a woven curtain of vines.

‘She have much to say?’

‘Not so you’d note. Ghosts, generally, don’t.’

My head hurt from more than the thwacking now. I’d failed to make the proper deductions…

By my watch, it was getting on in the evening. I still had my half-hunter, though my guns had been taken.

I was hungry enough to try the reddleman’s soup.

The curtain rustled. A white, long-fingered hand gathered a fold and switched it aside. Into Red’s Hole came the Brokeneck Lady…

A wet dress dragged on the ground. The veil hung to the waist on one side but almost up to the ear on the other. I’ve seen hanged men. Their heads loll just the same.

Venn glanced up, but kept stirring.

The ghost’s head rolled, as if it were trying to set skull on spine like a cup and ball game. For a moment, the head was in its proper position. Then it inclined in the other direction. And back again. Then, evenly, it nodded from side to side. The veil swung.

I knew that cobra-neck wobble!

The veil was lifted.

‘Moriarty,’ I shouted. ‘You f--ing c-t!’

Professor Moriarty showed teeth and hissed. His eyes were flint.

‘What I mean to say is… damn it, what’s the meaning of this?’ I blustered. Few call the Prof a ‘f--ing c-t’ and live to write their memoirs. ‘How? Why? What the…’

‘Fair questions, Moran,’ he said. ‘They shall be answered.’

Moriarty unfastened his dress, pinching a row of little black buttons out of their eyelets. Underneath, he wore his town clothes.

I saw his dress and veil were shiny, waterproof material. More practical than unearthly. In his cocoon, the bastard kept snug and dry. Whereas I felt like shit. Wet shit that’s been trodden in.

‘You hit me,’ I said. ‘Twice!’

‘You were about to waste silver, Moran.’

It was like him to be more concerned over expenses than the threat to his life. Even with my left hand, I’d have shot him square.

‘One can learn more observing from concealment than out in the open,’ he expounded. ‘With you in the field, Moran, no one looked for me.’

So, I’d been the hare to flush out this hound. I wasn’t surprised. Being used this way came with the position of Number Two. Everyone in his employ was expendable. I wasn’t even angry he had acted according to his nature, just as I would to mine. That didn’t mean I liked being so used, or would forget.

‘How long have you been here?’

‘I came down on the same train as you,’ he said. ‘In the next compartment. I overheard every word which passed between you and our client. Stoke, in fact, mentioned the significant point of the smell in The Chase…’

‘Hold on a mo, Moriarty! You couldn’t have got off at Stourcastle. We’d have seen you.’

‘I travelled on to Sherton Abbas and made my way back to Trantridge via hired trap. I have been in The Chase ever since.’

I couldn’t imagine the habitué of lecture halls and laboratories in the wild woods, even with his waterproof frock.

‘Where did you sleep?’

‘I did not sleep. I took an injection. Too much had to be found out and tested. I exploited rumours of the ghost of Theresa Clare to conceal my presence.’

He would never admit it, but I knew Moriarty derived some thin, watery thrill from ‘dressing up’. Like his deduction craze, it came on him as if he were in a competition whose terms were set by another he wished to better. Usually, he was rotten at dissembling. He couldn’t do voices and the snake-neck thing gave him away. This performance was well above his average. The Polish Jew in Irving’s The Bells wasn’t half as eerie.

‘How did you make the noise? The ghost sound?’

The Professor’s lips set in a tight line — his approximation of a smile. From his pocket, he produced a wooden box with a crank-handle. He worked it and a whine filled the cave. It set my teeth on edge.

‘You don’t imagine I would dismantle an Amanti on a whim? The violin was sacrificed to this invention.’

Mercifully, he shut the toy off.

‘Wouldn’t rattling a chain and going “woo-woo” have been a damn sight cheaper?’

‘This is not for your ears, Moran. Nor any human ears.’

‘Communicating with spirits now, Moriarty? I’d not take you for a table-rapper.’

‘This instrument has nothing to do with ghosts. It is for dogs.’

XIV

It was full dark in The Chase.

Venn remained in his hole. He was not Red Shuck’s master. Our commission was to kill the dog only. Therefore, we’d no quarrel with the radical reddleman.

Moriarty returned my guns. I could balance the rifle on my bandaged paw and pull the trigger with my left hand — but accuracy would be an issue.

‘Saul has queered my game,’ I complained. ‘What happened to the idiot? Did Red Shuck get him?’

If Saul made it home, he’d be taken for the party’s sole survivor. That would really put the wind up our client, who was panicky enough to start with.

Moriarty lead the way with a dark lantern, as if he knew The Chase as well as Saul. In his few hours as Weird Witch of the Woods, he’d explored thoroughly.

He stopped in his tracks and shone the beam at a thicket between two old tree trunks. Red scuffs showed on bark.

‘Blood?’ I asked.

‘Reddle.’

‘Venn?’

The Professor shook his head. ‘Smell it,’ he said.

I bent to sniff. That damn pong!

‘I can’t understand why Venn doesn’t whiff this,’ I said.

‘He’s lived in it for years,’ Moriarty said. ‘He no longer notices.’

I touched fingers to sludgy stains. Wet powder, not blood. That goes sticky and stops being red.

‘Sheep dye,’ Moriarty said. ‘Not presently being used on sheep.’

He lifted aside the bushes, which were uprooted but tethered together. They disguised a gate fixed between the two trees. He unlatched it. We entered a concealed enclosure.

Moriarty shone his light around.

‘What is this?’ I asked.

‘Originally, Venic of Melchester’s hideaway. Recently, put back in use. Look…’

Iron animal cages were at present empty, gnawed animal bones strewn in the straw. Drinking bowls bore the marks of chewing. Posts set in the ground had iron rings and shackles.

‘Red Shuck’s lair,’ Moriarty said. ‘Here, our demon has been trained to viciousness. Here, he has been reddened…’

Under a tarpaulin, we found brushes and pots of dye.

‘He?’

I counted six cages.

‘Strictly speaking, they.’

I saw spoor on the dirt. Not the fantastic, elongated, claw-toed prints of the plaster cast, but tracks I was more familiar with. I’d seen enough in the snows of the Steppe.

‘Wolf,’ I said.

‘White wolf,’ concurred Moriarty. ‘Large, not inexpensive. Imported from the Russias. I made enquiries with the usual importers of exotic animals about recent purchases of unusual canines. As a professional courtesy, Singapore Charlie was forthcoming. You know the Lord of Strange Deaths’ fondness for spiders and such…’

I did — though that’s not a story I want to go into now, or indeed ever.

‘Some months ago, a customer paid cash for six white wolves, giving the name “Pagan Sorrow”. Wolf fur is prized, but I fear dye makes these pelts unsaleable.’

‘Except to Stoke. He’ll be happy with fox-red tails, just so long as Red Shuck is brought down.’

Moriarty nodded in agreement.

‘It’s not just Red Shuck, though. Someone — this “Pagan Sorrow” — whistled up the doggies and sicced ’em on Stoke…’ I continued.

‘Indeed.’

‘And tricked up the plaster cast? To sell the Red Shuck story?’

‘Quite so.’

‘Cunning bastard!’

Moriarty shrugged, allowing a neatness to the scheme.

‘Moriarty, if these cages are empty… where are the wolves?’

The Professor looked at me. ‘I’m sure we shall find them before they find us.’

With that comforting thought, we were on our way again.

XV

Outside Trantridge Hall we found Dan’l, standing guard, Gertie at the ready.

‘Saul said you wuz done for. Et by a dog demon.’

‘Saul’s not the first and won’t be the last to report my death. He’s alive then?’

‘Came back in a state. Said hounds of Hell were after him.’

‘So they were.’ I noted the plural.

Inside, we found the company in the dining room. A Guy Fawkes’ Night bonfire roared and spit on the huge grate. A carved, bloody side of beef was hacked to the bone on a platter. Stoke, drunk and affrighted, sunk in an armchair. Mod, in a scarlet satin dress, poured for the Master. Braham paced in front of the fire. Thring stood by, with a trolley of bottles fetched up from the cellar.

Saul, it seems, had gone early to bed after an exhausting day.

Mod swarmed up at me in a froth of concern.

‘Sebastian,’ she cooed, ‘it’s such a relief you are living! We thought you’d perished in The Chase. Another victim of the Curse of the d’Urbervilles.’

‘No, that was Nakszynski.’

She touched my bandaged head and kissed my cheek.

‘You’ve been heroically wounded. Who did those splints for you? I’ll change them properly. You’ll take brandy, of course. And supper.’

I warmed under the spell of feminine attentions. Mod cocked her head, as if only just noticing I was not unaccompanied.

‘This is Professor Moriarty,’ I said. ‘My associate.’

She curtseyed and extended a hand which the Prof did not take. He sized Mod up with a single watery-eyed glare.

Moriarty distrusted and disliked women. I only distrust them.

‘Moriarty and Moran — f-kload of use you’ve been,’ blustered Stoke from the depths of his chair. ‘Nakszynski’s dead, and the dog’s not.’

Moriarty looked at our client.

‘You will have your pelt,’ he assured the craven sot. ‘But, first, Mr — Derby is it? — would you fetch down the portrait which hangs above the mantelpiece? The one on the left. Yes, the fellow in the armour. I wish to examine it…’

Braham was surprised to be so addressed.

‘Are you sure?’ he responded. ‘It’s a dirty, ugly thing.’

‘If I were not sure, I would not make the request. Now, in the name of your Master, please comply.’

In his sozzled fug, Stoke gave a shoulder hitch which indicated his manager should follow Moriarty’s orders.

‘It’s Sir Pagan Plantagenet d’Urberville,’ said Mod to the Professor. ‘Last night, Parson Tringham told us…’

Moriarty waved her silent. She pouted, but recovered.

Braham carried a tall-backed chair close to the fire and stood on it. He had to stretch to heft the picture off its hooks. Flames licked at his trousers. He wobbled on the chair, finding his burden unwieldy. Sticky canvas parted from the frame in a curl.

‘Careful, you shitbird,’ shouted Stoke. ‘That’s my f--ing property!’

Braham stopped the music hall comedy turn and deliberately chucked the picture onto the fire. He reached into his jacket and pulled a pistol.

Making the most expensive left-hand shot of my life, I plugged Braham under the chin. Silver ploughed up through his skull. The top of his head spattered over Uncle Si’s portrait. Braham dropped like a liquid turd from a loose-bowelled elephant.

I assumed my chances with his sister were up the chimney.

Moving fast, Moriarty fetched the picture off of the fire and laid it on the table. He blotted out flames with a napkin.

Mod had her hand in her mouth, stopping a scream.

Braham lay where he fell. No point even checking to see if he was dead. Still, I kicked his gun out of his hand, into a far corner of the room.

Stoke tried to focus. Dan’l hurried in, summoned by the shot.

Thring squeaked and ran. I drew a bead on his back as he made for the kitchen door.

‘Let him go,’ Moriarty said, still concerned with the painting. ‘The butler has nothing to do with it.’

The Professor took the peeled-up corner of the portrait, then ripped the canvas from the frame. Pagan Plantagenet’s picture had been glued over the portrait of a handsome, weak-faced young man.

‘Remind you of anyone?’ asked the Professor.

The hair was dark — otherwise, it was Saul Derby to the life.

This had to be Simon’s son and intended heir, the rake who was too stupid not to turn his back on a woman when a knife happened to be within easy reach.

I felt a sharp pain in my back. Craning around, I saw a meat fork stuck out of my left shoulder. It had been pulled from the beef and put into me. Mod, less solicitous of my health than before, twisted the fork. Pain ran down my arm. My revolver fell from nerveless fingers.

I was no longer in a position to sneer at the late Alexander Stoked’Urberville.

From the foyer, a whistle sounded.

The doors opened. In walked Saul Derby, accompanied by four wolves. The pack trotted in step with him — big mouths open, spit-ropes hanging from fangs, eyes bright, fur thick with reddle and gore.

One animal broke ranks and loped over to Braham to lick salty mess from his head. Saul whistled, sharply. The wolf sat up, alert.

Sauntering as if he owned the Hall, pets matching his pace, Saul came to the table. He admired the portrait as if looking in a flattering mirror. Then, he took notice of the picture’s discoverer.

‘Professor Moriarty, I presume,’ he said, mildly.

Moriarty nodded and responded ‘…and you are “Pagan Sorrow”. Sorrow Durbeyfield.’

Saul regarded the Prof with admiration.

‘You could call yourself Sorrow Clare, if you took your mother’s married name,’ continued Moriarty. ‘Or claim the name and estates of your father, variously called Alexander Stoke, Stoke-d’Urberville or plain d’Urberville.’

Saul touched his father’s painted face. I suppose he was mad, but who in this room wasn’t?

Moriarty lectured on what was doubtless the wolf-whistler’s favourite subject: himself.

‘You’re supposed to have died in infancy, are you not? There’s some tuppenny tears anecdote about an unbaptised babe refused the solace of a tiny grave in Marlott churchyard. Was that a trick or did you have a shortlived twin? No matter. You were raised discreetly with your mother’s siblings. No one in Wessex keeps a name whole. Over centuries, D’Urberville became Durbeyfield. Clipping it to Derby was a recent expedient. This is your Aunt Modesty. That fellow cooling by the fire is your Uncle Abraham. Your aunt Elizabeth-Louise is around somewhere, hanging her head in shame for her impersonation of her sister’s ghost. Did you huddle together in the d’Urberville tombs all those years ago, swearing to have your birthright and bring ruin to the perfidious Stokes?’

Saul-Sorrow shrugged. So did his wolves.

‘It’s a curious thing, when one parent murders the other. Clouds issues. And the inheritance.’

‘Trantridge is mine, whichever way you look at it,’ said Saul-Sorrow, who didn’t seem so foolish now. ‘Whether through the Stokes or the d’Urbervilles, I am true Master.’

‘C--sucker!’ rumbled Stoke from his chair. He’d drawn up his legs at the sight of so many Red Shucks. He must think he was seeing through the multiplying glass of drink. ‘Whey-faced c-t!’

It was easy to forget Stoke was in the room. While Moriarty laid out the plot, I was more concerned with the pressing — not to say stabbing — matter of the fork in my back.

‘There is another claimant,’ Moriarty told Saul. ‘My client.’

‘That’s for damn certain,’ put in Stoke.

‘I want no battle with you, Professor,’ Saul said. ‘I am an admirer. I daresay few appreciate your achievements as I do. What I’ve done has taken applied thought. It’s not been rushed into like ordinary crime. It has been a scientific campaign.’

Moriarty’s head oscillated. Someone was in trouble.

I wished the bloody fork out of my back. My hands were at present useless to me. Saul stepping on my gun-hand was no mistake but a strike in his campaign.

‘I had to prime Tringham to revive the Red Shuck legend. I had to craft that plaster cast to sell the monster. I had to find, treat and train my pack. I had to harry away, not too quickly, removing all Stoke’s comforts and aides. It’s taken much to reach this pass. There have been sacrifices.’

We all stood or sat still, mindful of the beasts in the room. Mod, in theory of the wolves’ party, was uncomfortable around them. Among Saul’s ‘sacrifices’ had been his brother’s former fiancée, I remembered. Aside from physical discomfort, I was rather cheered it was all now out in the open. You know where you are when you can see the animal’s eyes. Or, in this instance, the animals’ eyes.

‘Whatever Stoke is paying you, I’ll double,’ Saul said to the Prof. ‘Look at him. Your client. A useless, drunken, cowardly braggart. Practically an American! No fit Master of Trantridge. I have plans for the estate, Professor. Scientific plans. I intend to reintroduce the Wessex Wolf to England. I’ll clear out the village, of course. People get in the way. But The Chase will be preserved. Do we have an understanding? Double the fee!’

Stoke whimpered, clutching an empty goblet. I believe he wet himself.

Moriarty’s head continued its swaying.

‘No, Mr Sorrow,’ he said, at last. ‘It will not do. I have taken a commission. Thus far, Mr Stoke-d’Urberville has kept his part of the bargain. I have a reputation to uphold.’

That was a laugh. He’d sold out clients for profit so often it was almost a habit — though he was careful to keep it quiet so as not to inhibit trade.

Stoke looked desperately hopeful.

‘Have you ever seen anyone torn apart?’ Saul asked. ‘By wolves?’

‘Not by wolves,’ the Professor replied.

‘It’s most… instructive…

Saul gave a short, shrill whistle. His wolves leaped…

XVI

Stoke screamed as Red Shuck — four Red Shucks! — swarmed all over him. Their teeth caught in his clothes. Cloth ripped.

Then, another noise assaulted my eardrums.

And the wolves laid off our client.

Moriarty had produced his crank-handle music box. Its thin, unearthly whine filled the dining room. Unpleasant to human ears, it was agony to canine senses. The wolves rolled over, choking on their froth, biting their own tails, pawing their skulls.

Saul was almost as sorely affected. The confidence went out of him. Dan’l got meaty arms around him and held him from behind.

I scraped the fork out of my back against a long-case clock. I felt a wet seepage inside my jacket. Better out than in, though.

Mod made a rush towards the Professor, but I tripped her — then put a boot on her head to keep her on the carpet.

The wolves’ eyes rolled and bulged, as if their brains were boiling in their pans. Bloody tears started from their eyes. Red foam oozed from their nostrils.

My gold back teeth pained me.

At once, the Professor’s gadget shut off, with the twang of a snapped string in its works. Its job was done, though. The demon dogs lay, heads leaking — dead as fur rugs.

Stoke uncurled from his ball of terror and stood. In a poor state, quivering like a recruit who’s survived his first charge, he bled from a dozen scratches. Half his face was slack, skewing his villain’s moustache to one side.

Swiftly, our client got his starch back. As he crossed the room, he stood taller, taking pleasure in having the upper hand and his enemies out in the open.

Mod writhed and kicked, but I kept her down with boot pressure. For skewering me, the minx deserved worse.

Stoke would serve his enemies as he saw fit.

He picked up Gertie, which Dan’l had dropped, and felt the stick’s weight. I recalled my deduction that it had been used in night-work. Saul struggled in Dan’l grip, but had nothing to say for himself. He bled from the ears, showing kinship with his wolves.

Stoke fetched an enormous clout to Saul’s face. Cheekbones gave way.

Let go, Saul fell to his knees. Stoke rained blows on his head and shoulders, then launched into kicks to the chest — with odd reverse heel-stabs which would have made sense if he were wearing spurs — and vicious jabs at the groin.

Our client kicked Saul from one side of the hall to the other. Saul’s clothes soaked through until they were a match for Diggory Venn’s.

Mod keened in frustration. I noted a sympathetic spasm on Dan’l’s face. The big cowboy wasn’t entirely with his boss in all this. He liked Saul and Mod and — despite what had happened in front of his face — his slow mind wouldn’t change for a while yet…

Eventually, Stoke left off kicking and went to the table. He stuffed a thick slice of beef into his mouth and washed it down with a quaff of wine. Exercise had given him an appetite.

Saul rolled into a heap, among his dead wolves.

Stoke was drunk on the thrill of hurting someone helpless, aglow with the sudden change in his fortunes. He wasn’t afraid any more. Despite the sorry state of his appearance, he was Master of Trantridge again.

‘You’ll join me in a drink, Moriarty? Moran?’

I needed to get a hellcat out from under my foot, but appreciated the offer.

‘Just a tipple,’ I said.

Mod thumped the floor.

‘Our business is concluded,’ Moriarty said, curtly — freezing Stoke as he reached for the bottle. ‘There is the question of the agreed fee. Five thousand pounds for a pelt.’

Stoke grinned. ‘Indeed. You’ve earned it right smartly, Professor. You and your little gimmick-box. That was your angle, of course. You could have just sold me the box and I’d not have needed your personal services. I’ll not grudge you that. It’s sound economics, one businessman to another.’

Stoke took a key from his waistcoat and opened a cabinet. Inside was a big, solid safe. Several gents of my acquaintance could have opened it quicker without knowing the combination beforehand than Stoke did working the wheel with excited, still-bloody fingers.

‘Silver to your satisfaction?’

Stoke laid five weighty bars of Tombstone silver on the table.

Moriarty waited, making no move.

‘What is it?’ asked Stoke.

‘We agreed five thousand pounds for a pelt… you have four. You do not need a Professor of Mathematics to tally that up as twenty thousand pounds. Silver is acceptable.’

The mobile half of Stoke’s face fell to match the dead side… then he caught himself and managed a cracked chuckle. He brought up a finger in mock-accusing, would-be jovial fashion.

‘Ah, a good one, Moriarty. A fine funny gag. You nearly had me there…’

Moriarty’s head began to oscillate.

‘Surely, no, you can’t be serious?’ said Stoke. ‘That’s… why, that’s gross extortion. No, I’m grateful as all get-out, Moriarty. You’ve served me well, but what you ask is… ridiculous, out of the question, unholy. Contrary to all principles of sound business. No, five thousand is the limit. The price we agreed, and the price I’ll pay.’

Stoke took a Gladstone bag from the cabinet, and transferred the silver to it under the vulture eye of Professor Moriarty.

‘A fair sum for services rendered,’ he said. ‘I’ll even throw in the bag.’

He tried to grin, though his face wasn’t working yet.

A movement caught my eye. A pair of feet disappearing through the kitchen door. A bloody trail across the floor showed where Saul had dragged himself.

‘Now,’ said Stoke. ‘There’s the matter of another thrashing. Colonel, if you’d shift your boot…’

I did so. Mod gathered her skirts and stood. She spat in Stoke’s face. He smiled.

‘My family owes yours a murder,’ he said. ‘Yours won’t be in the papers, though. You’re for an unmarked grave in The Chase with your brother — nephew? — and his f--ing mutts.’

Moriarty picked up the Gladstone bag as if it were a specimen.

‘Moran, our business here is done,’ he said. ‘We should leave Mr Stoke and Miss Durbeyfield to their discussions. I doubt they’ll care for witnesses.’

‘Hah,’ Stoke said. ‘You’re a card after all, Moriarty. I’m glad to have known you, and no hard feelings. You’ve not done badly out of Trantridge.’

My wounds might argue, but I didn’t.

Moriarty and I made for the door. Jasper reached for a carving knife.

Then Dan’l noticed there was one body missing from the pile of human and animal remains in the corner.

‘Where’s Saul?’ he asked.

‘What, eh, what?’ Stoke said.

We left the dining room.

In the foyer, we saw Saul — reddled and torn from head to toe — on the stairs, supporting himself on a banister, trying to work his wrecked mouth.

There were six wolves. Only four bagged.

When he saw us, Saul’s remaining eye shone with rage. He uttered strange, angry sounds.

Moriarty nodded polite acknowledgement to the bloodied heir of Sir Pagan and Red Shuck. We no longer had business with him.

Behind us, the dining-room doors opened again. Stoke charged out, waving Gertie.

‘There you are, you c--sucker!’ Stoke shouted at Saul. ‘Prepare for a complete skull-f--ing!’

Saul managed a shrill screech. Two red wolves, larger than their slain comrades, charged down the stairs towards the Master of Trantridge. Their eyes shone, as if with nightshade drops.

Mod was at the dining-room doors. Dan’l held her back with tender restraint which suggested she’d suffer less at his hands than his employer’s.

Saul sank to his knees, bleeding. His whistle became a rattling sigh. He kept trying to raise his hands. Stoke struck one of the red, snapping beasts with the stick, but the other was on him, forepaws to shoulders, jaws around his face. Gouts of gore sprayed the wallpaper.

Moriarty helped me out of the house and closed the door behind us.

Across the lawn, stepping out from The Chase, was a woman in a long black veil, head hung to one side. I lifted my splinted hand to wave at her, and she darted back into the trees.

From inside the house came a howling.

We walked away from Trantridge Hall, leaving claimants to settle disputes among themselves.

CHAPTER FIVE: THE ADVENTURE OF THE SIX MALEDICTIONS

I

Professor Moriarty did not readily admit his mistakes. Oh, he made ’em. Some real startlers. You were well advised not to bring up the Tay Bridge Insurance Fiasco in his gloomy presence. Or the Manchester and Provincial Bank Robbery (six months’ brain work to set up, a thousand pounds seed money to pull off: seven shillings and sixpence profit). The Professor was touchy about failures. Indeed, he retained me to keep ’em quiet.

However, one howler he would own to.

He was ruminating upon it that morning, just as the sensational events I’ve decided to call ‘The Adventure of the Six Maledictions’ got going. Jolly good title, eh, what? Makes you want to skip ahead to the horrors. But don’t… you won’t fully appreciate the gut-slitting, dynamiting, neck-breaking, Rawhead-and-Bloody-Bones business without understanding how we got neck-deep in it.

In our Conduit Street rooms, we were doing the books, perhaps the least glamorous aspect of running a criminal empire. Once a mathematics tutor, Moriarty enjoyed balancing ledgers — as much as he could enjoy anything, the sad old sausage — more than robbing an orphanage trust fund or bankrupting a philanthropic society. He opened a leatherbound book and did that side-to-side snakehead thing which I’ve had cause to mention before. Everyone else who met him remarked on it too.

‘I should not have taken Mr Baldwin as a client,’ he declared, tapping a column of red figures. ‘His problem was of minimal interest, yet has caused no little inconvenience.’

The uninteresting, inconvenient Ted Baldwin was a union ‘organiser’ in Pennsylvania coal country. As ever in America, you can’t tell who were the worst crooks: the mine-owning robber barons or the fee-gouging workers’ brotherhood. In our Empire, natives dig dirt, plant tea and fetch and carry for the white man. However, Red Indians don’t take to the lash and the Yanks fought one of the century’s sillier wars over whether imported Africans should act like proper natives.

Nowadays, America employs — which is to say, enslaves — the Irish for such low purposes. A sammy takes only so much field-slog before up and cutting your throat and heading into the bush. Your bog-trotter, on the other hand, grumbles for 700 years, holds rowdy meetings, then decides to get very, very drunk instead of doing anything about it.

On the whole, I prefer natives. They might roast you on a spit, but won’t bore the teats off you by blaming it on Cromwell and William the Third. Yes, I know Moran is an Irish name. So is Moriarty. That comes into it later, too.

Our client Baldwin’s union — the Vermissa Valley Scowrers (don’t ask me what that means or if it’s spelled properly) — were undone by a Pinkerton operative who, when not calling himself John McMurdo, went by the unbelievable name of Birdy Edwards. The Pinkerton Detective Agency is a disgrace to the profession of Murder for Hire. If you operate in a country where captains of industry and hogs of politics make murder legal so long as it’s a union organiser being murdered, what’s the point, eh? Moriarty never lobbied for laws to make it all right for him to thieve and murder and extort.

Posing as a radical, Edwards infiltrated the Scowrers. As a result, most of the reds wound up shot in their beds or hanged from mine-works, but our man Baldwin was left in the wind at the end of the bloodletting with a carpet bag full of union funds. In his situation, I’d blow the loot on women and cards, but Baldwin was of the genus bastardii vindice.

Just to rub it in, this Birdy flew off to England with Baldwin’s sweetheart. Hot on the trail and under the collar, Baldwin came to London and called on the Firm. A wedge of greenback dollars hired us to locate the Pink, which we did sharpish. Sporting the more plausible incognito of John Douglas, Edwards was sunning himself at Birlstone, a moated manor.

An easy lay! Shin up a tree in the grounds and professionally pot the blighter through the leaded library window as he sits at his desk, perusing La Vie Parisienne. Aim, pull, bang… brains on the wall, ‘Scotland Yard Baffled’, notice in The Times, full fee remitted, thank you very much, pleasure to do business with you!

But, no, the idiot client got all het up and charged off to Birlstone to do the deed himself. Upshot: one fool face blown through the back of one fool head. Yes, sometimes they have guns too. A careful murderer is mindful of the risk inherent in turning up at a prospective victim’s front door with a red face and a recital of grievances.

With the client dead, you might think we’d close the account and proceed to the next profitable item of deviltry. Not how the racket works. We’d accepted a commission to kill Edwards-McMurdo-Douglas. Darkly humorous remarks about persons not being dead when Professor Moriarty has been paid to polish them off were heard. Talk gets started, you lose face. Blackguards with inconvenient relatives take their business elsewhere. The Assassination Bureau, Ltd. or that Limehouse Chinese with the marmoset would be delighted to accommodate them.

So, at our own expense, we pursue Edwards, who has booked passage to Africa. This is where you might remember the bounder. He — ahem — fell overboard and washed up on the desolate shore of St Helena. We could have shoved Birdy off the dock at Southampton and been home for tea and — ahem, encore — crumpet in Mrs Halifax’s establishment for licentious ladies. Not obtrusive enough, though. Nothing would do for the Prof but that the corpse be aimed at the isle of Napoleon’s exile. He spent hours with charts and tide-tables and a sextant to make sure of it. Moriarty was thinking, as usual, two or three steps ahead. There was only one place on Edwards’ escape route anyone — specifically, anyone who scribbles for the London rags — has ever heard of. A mysterious corpse on St Helena gets a paragraph above the racing results. A careless passenger drowned before embarkation doesn’t rate a sentence under the corset endorsements. Advertising, you see: Moriarty strikes! All your killing needs satisfied!

Still, it was Manchester and Provincial all over again. Baldwin’s dollars ran out. On St Helena, the Professor insisted we take the sixpenny tour and poke around the eagle’s cage. He acquired a unique, if ghastly, souvenir which figures later in the tale — this is another ominous intimation of excitements to come! The jaunt entailed five different passports apiece and seventeen changes of mode of transport across two continents. Expenses mounted. The account was carried in debit. [32]

‘Politics will be the ruination of the fine art of crime,’ Moriarty continued. ‘Politics and religion…’

This is the moral, Oh My Best Beloved: never kill anyone for a ‘Cause’.

For why not, Uncle Basher?

Because causes don’t pay, Little Friend of all the World. Adherents expect you to kill just for the righteousness of it. They don’t want to pay you! They don’t understand why you want paying!

Not ten minutes after our return, malcontents were hammering at our door, soliciting aid for the downtrodden working man. Kill one Pinkerton and everyone thinks you’re a bloody socialist! Happy to risk your precious neck on the promise of a medal in some twentieth-century anarchist utopia. I wearied of kicking sponging gits downstairs and chucking their penny-stall editions of Das Kapital into the street.

Reds fracture into a confusion of squabbling factions. The straggle-bearded oiks didn’t even want us to strike at the adders of capital. That would at least offer an angle: rich people are usually worth killing for what they have about their persons or in their safes. No, these firebrands invariably wanted one or other of their comrades assassinated over hair’s-breadth differences of principal. Some thought a Board of Railway Directors should be strung up by their gouty ankles on the Glorious Day of Revolution; others felt plutocrats should be strung up by their fat necks. Only mass slaughter would settle the question. If the GD of R has not yet dawned, it’s because socialists are too busy exterminating each other to lead the rising masses to victory.

I think this circumstance gave the Prof a notion about Mad Carew’s quandary. Which is where the blessed maledictions I mentioned earlier — you were paying attention, weren’t you? — come in, and not before time.

II

Just after the Prof let loose his deep think about ‘politics and religion’, the shadow of a man slithered into the room. Civvy coat and army boots. Colonially tanned, except for chinstrap lines showing malarial pallor. Bad case of the shakes.

I knew him straight off. Last I’d seen him was in Nepal. He’d been plumper, smugger and without shot nerves, attached to the British Resident; attached to the fundament of the British Resident, as it happens. Never was a one for sucking up like Mad Carew. Everyone said he’d go far if he didn’t fall off a Himalaya first.

Fellah calls himself ‘Mad’ and you know what you’re getting. Apart from someone fed up of being stuck with ‘Humphrey’ and dissatisfied with ‘Humph’.

There’s a bloody awful poem about him… [33]

He was known as ‘Mad Carew’ by the subs at Khatmandu,

He was hotter than they felt inclined to tell;

But for all his foolish pranks, he was worshipped in the ranks,

And the Colonel’s daughter smiled on him as well.

Reading between the lines — a lot more edifying that reading the actual lines — you can tell Carew knew how to strut for the juniors, coddle the men, sniff about the ladies of the regiment (bless ’em) and toady to the higher-ups. Officers like that are generally popular until the native uprising, when they’re found blubbing in cupboards dressed as washerwomen.

Not Carew, though. He had what they call ‘a streak’. Raring off and getting into ‘scrapes’ and collecting medals and shooting beasts and bandits in the name of jolly good fun. I wore the colours — not the sort of colonel with a daughter, but the sort not to be trusted with other colonels’ daughters — long enough to know the type. Know the type, I was the type! I’m older now, and see what a dunce I was in my prime. For a start, I used to do all this for army pay!

‘Mad’ sounds dashing, daring and admirable when you hold the tattered flag in the midst of battle and expired natives lie all over the carpet with holes in ’em that you put there. ‘Mad’ is less impressive written on a form by a commissioner for lunacy as you’re turned over to the hospitallers of St Mary of Bedlam to be dunked in ice water because your latest ‘scrape’ was running starkers down Oxford Street while gibbering like a baboon.

Major Humphrey Carew was both kinds of Mad. He had been one; now, he was close to the other.

‘Beelzebub’s Sunday toast fork, it’s Carew!’ I exclaimed. ‘How did you get in here?’

The blighter had the temerity to shake his lumpy fist at me.

After a dozen time-wasting socialist johnnies required heaving out, Moriarty had issued strict instructions to Mrs Halifax. No one was admitted to the consulting room unless she judged them solvent. Women in her profession can glim a swell you’d swear had five thou per annum and enough family silver to plate the HMS Inflexible and know straight off he’s putting up a front and hasn’t a bent sou in his pockets. So, Carew must have shown her capital.

Moriarty craned to examine our visitor.

Carew kept his fist stuck out. He was begging for one on the chin.

Mrs Halifax crowded the doorway with a couple of her more impressionable girls and the lad who emptied the pisspots. None were immune to the general sensation which followed Carew about in his high adventures. Indeed, they seemed more excited than the occasion merited.

Slowly, Carew opened his fist.

In his palm lay an emerald the size of a tangerine. When it caught the light, everyone on the landing went green in the face. Avaricious eyes glinted verdant.

Ah, a gem! So much more direct than notes or coins. It’s just a rock, but so pretty. So precious. So negotiable.

Soiled doves cooed. The pisspot boy let out a heartfelt ‘cor lumme’. Mrs Halifax simpered, which would terrify a colour sergeant.

Moriarty’s face betrayed little, as per usual.

‘Beryllium aluminium cyclosilicate,’ he lectured, as if diagnosing an illness, ‘coloured by chromium or perhaps vanadium. A hardness of 7.5 on the Mohs Scale. That is: a gem of the highest water, having consistent colour and a high degree of transparency. The cut is indifferent, but could be improved. I should put its worth at…’

He was about to name a high figure.

‘Here,’ Mad Carew said, ‘have it, and be done…’

He flung the emerald at the Professor. I reached across and caught it with a cry of ‘owzat’ which would not have shamed W.G. Grace, the old cheat. The weight settled in my palm.

For a moment, I heard the wailing of heathen worshippers from a rugged mountain clime across the roof of the world. The emerald sang like a green siren. The urge to keep hold of the thing was nigh irresistible.

Our visitor’s glamour was transferred to me. Mrs Halifax’s filles de joie regarded my manly qualities with even more admiration than usual. If my pisspot had needed emptying, I wouldn’t have had to ask twice.

The stone’s spell was potent, but I am — as plenty would be happy to tell you if they weren’t dead — not half the fool I sometimes seem.

I crossed the room, dropped the jewel in Carew’s top pocket, and patted it.

‘Keep it safe for the moment, old fellow.’

He looked as if I’d just shot him. Which is to say: he looked like some of the people I’ve shot looked after I’d shot them. Shocked, not surprised; resentful, but too tired to make a fuss. Others take it differently, but this is no place for digressions.

Without being asked, Carew sank into the chair set aside for clients — spikes in the backrest could extrude at the touch of a button on Moriarty’s desk, and doesn’t that make the eyes water! — and shoved his face into his hands.

‘Privacy, please,’ Moriarty decreed. Mrs Halifax pulled superfluous spectators away, not forgetting to tug the pisspot boy’s collar, and closed the door. Listeners at the keyhole used to be a problem, but a bullet hole two inches to the left indicated Moriarty’s un-gentle solution to unwanted eavesdroppers.

Carew was a man at the end of his tether and possessed of a fortune. An ideal client for the Firm. So why did I have that prickle up my spine? The sensation usually meant a leopard prowling between the tents or a lady of brief acquaintance loosening her garter to take hold of a poignard.

Before he said any more, I knew how the story would start.

‘There’s a one-eyed yellow idol to the north of Khatmandu,’ began Mad Carew…

Lord, I thought, here we go again.

III

Some stories you’ve heard so often you know how they’ll come out. ‘I was a good girl once, a clergyman’s daughter, but fell in with bad men…’ ‘I fully intended to pay back the rhino I owed you, but I had this hot tip straight from the jockey’s brother…’ ‘I thought there was no harm in popping in to the Rat and Raven for a quick gin…’ ‘I must have put on the wrong coat at the club and walked off wearing a garment identical to — but not — my own, which happens to have these counterfeit bonds sewn into the lining…’

And, yes, ‘There’s a one-eyed yellow idol to the north of Khatmandu…’

I’ve a rule about one-eyed yellow idols — and, indeed, idols of other precious hues with any number of eyes, arms, heads or arses. Simply put: hands off!

I don’t have the patience to be a professional cracksman, which involves fiddling with locks and safes and precision explosives. As a trade, it’s on a level with being a plumber or glazier, with a better chance of being blown to bits or rotting on Dartmoor — not that most plumbers and glaziers wouldn’t deserve it, the rooking bastards! Oh, I have done more than my fair share of thieving. I’ve robbed, burgled, rifled, raided, waylaid, heisted, abducted, abstracted, plundered, pilfered and pinched across five continents and seven seas. I’ve lifted anything that wasn’t nailed down — and, indeed, have prised up the nails of a few items which were.

So, I admit it — I’m a thief. I take things which are not mine. Mostly, money. Or stuff easily turned into money. I may be the sort of thief who, an alienist will tell you, can’t help himself. I steal (or cheat, which is the same thing) just for a lark when I don’t especially need the readies. If a fellow owns something and doesn’t take steps to keep hold of it, that’s his lookout. But even I know better than to pluck an emerald from the eye socket of a heathen idol… whether it be north, south, east or west of Kathmandu.

Ever heard of the Moonstone? The Eye of Klesh? The All-Seeing Eye of the Goddess of Light? The Crimson Gem of Cyttorak? The Pink Diamond of Lugash? All sparklers jemmied off other men’s idols by fools who, as they say, ‘Suffered the Consequences’. Any cult which can afford to use priceless ornaments in church decoration can extend limitless travel allowance to assassins. They have on permanent call the sort of determined, ruthless little sods who’ll cross the whole world to retrieve their bauble and behead the infidel who snaffled it. That also goes for the worshippers of ugly chunks of African wood you wouldn’t get sixpence for in Portobello Market. Pop Chuku or Lukundoo or a Zuni Fetish into your game bag as a souvenir of the safari, and wake up six months later with a naked Porroh man squatting at your bed-end in Wandsworth and coverlets drenched with your own blood.

Come to that, common-or-garden, non-sacred jewels like the Barlow Rubies, the Rosenthall Diamonds and the Mirror of Portugal are usually pretty poison to crooks who waste their lives trying to get hold of ’em. Remember the fabled Agra Treasure which ended up at the bottom of the Thames? [34] Best place for it.

Imagine stealing something you can’t spend? Oversize gems are famous, thus instantly recognisable. They have histories (‘provenance’ in the trade, don’t you know? — a list of people they’ve been stolen from) and permanent addresses under lock and key in the coffers of dusky potentates or the Tower of London where Queen Vicky (long may she reign!) can play with them when she has a mind to.

Even cutting a prize into smaller stones doesn’t cover the trail. Clots who loot temples are too bedazzled by the booty to take elementary precautions. Changing the name on your passport doesn’t help. If you’re the bloke with the Fang of Azathoth on your watch chain or the Tears of Tabanga decorating your tart’s décolletage, you can expect fanatics with strangling cords to show up sooner or later. Want to steal from a church? Have the lead off the roof of St Custard’s down the road. I can more or less guarantee the Archbishop of Canterbury won’t send implacable curates after you with scimitars clenched between their teeth.

Ahem, so, to return to the case in hand. Since the tale has been set down by another (one J. Milton Hayes — ever heard of anything else by him?), I’ll copy it longhand. Hell, that’s too much trouble. I’ll shoplift a Big Book of Dramatic and Comic Recitations for All Occasions from WH Smith & Sons and paste in a torn-out page. I’ll be careful not to use ‘Christmas Day in the Workhouse’, ‘The Face on the Bar-Room Floor’ or ‘The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck (His Name Was Albert Trollocks)’ by mistake. Among the set who stay away from music halls and pride themselves on ‘making their own entertainment’, every fool and his cousin gets up at the drop of a hat to launch into ‘The Ballad of Mad Carew’. You’ve probably suffered Mr Hayes’ effulgence many times on long, agonising evenings, but bear with me. I’ll append footnotes to sweeten the deal.

There’s a one-eyed yellow idol to the north of Khatmandu,

There’s a little marble cross below the town;

There’s a broken-hearted woman tends the grave of Mad Carew,

And the yellow god forever gazes down.

He was known as ‘Mad Carew’ by the subs at Khatmandu,

He was hotter than they felt inclined to tell;

But for all his foolish pranks*, he was worshipped in the ranks,

And the Colonel’s daughter§ smiled on him as well.

* * *

e. g.: setting light to the bhishti’s turban, putting firecrackers in the padre’s thunderbox… oh how we all laughed! — S.M.

§

Amaryllis Framington, by name. Fat and squinty, but white women are in short supply in Nepal and you land the fish you can get. — S.M.

He had loved her all along, with a passion of the strong,

The fact that she loved him was plain to all.

She was nearly twenty-one* and arrangements had begun

To celebrate her birthday with a ball.

* * *

forty if she was a day. — S.M.

He wrote* to ask what present she would like from Mad Carew;

They met next day as he dismissed a squad;

And jestingly she told him then that nothing else would do

But the green eye of the little yellow god§.

* * *

since they were at the same hill station, why didn’t he just ask her? Even sherpas have better things to do than be forever carrying letters between folks who live practically next door to each other. — S.M.

§

that’s colonel’s daughters for you, covetous and stupid, God bless ’em. — S.M.

On the night before the dance, Mad Carew seemed in a trance*.

And they chaffed him as they puffed at their cigars;

But for once he failed to smile, and he sat alone awhile,

Then went out into the night beneath the stars.

* * *

kif, probably. It’s not just the natives who smoke it. Bloody boring, a posting in Nepal. — S.M.

He returned before the dawn, with his shirt and tunic torn,

And a gash across his temple dripping red;

He was patched up right away, and he slept through all the day*,

And the Colonel’s daughter watched beside his bed.

* * *

lazy malingering tosser. — S.M.

He woke at last and asked if they could send his tunic through;

She brought it, and he thanked her with a nod;

He bade her search the pocket saying ‘That’s from Mad Carew’,

And she found the little green eye of the god*.

* * *

if you saw this coming, you are not alone. — S.M.

She upbraided poor Carew in the way that women do*,

Though both her eyes were strangely hot and wet;

But she wouldn’t take the stone§ and Mad Carew was left alone

With the jewel that he’d chanced his life to get.

* * *

here’s gratitude for you: the flaming cretin gets himself half-killed to fetch her a birthday present and she throws a sulk. — S.M.

§

which shows she wasn’t entirely addle-witted, old Amaryllis. — S.M.

When the ball was at its height, on that still and tropic night,

She thought of him* and hurried to his room;

As she crossed the barrack square she could hear the dreamy air

Of a waltz tune softly stealing thro’ the gloom.§

* * *

the least she could do, all things considered. Note that M.C. being stabbed didn’t stop her having her bally party. — S.M.

§

poetic license at its most mendacious. You imagine an orchestra conducted by Strauss himself and lilting, melodic strains wafting across the parade ground. The musical capabilities of the average hill station run to a corporal with a heat-warped fiddle, a boy with a Jew’s harp and a Welshman cashiered from his colliery choir for gross indecency (and singing flat). The repertoire runs to ditties like ‘Come Into the Garden, Maud (and Get the Poking You’ve Been Asking For All Evening)’ and ‘I Dreamt I Dwelled in Marble Halls (and Found Myself Fondling Prince Albert’s Balls)’. — S.M.

His door was open wide*, with silver moonlight shining through;

The place was wet and slipp’ry where she trod;

An ugly knife lay buried in the heart of Mad Carew§,

’Twas the vengeance of the little yellow god.

* * *

where were the guards? I’d bloody have ’em up on a charge for letting yak-bothering clod-stabbers through the lines. — S.M.

§

how much worse than being stabbed with a pretty knife, eh? — S.M.

There’s a one-eyed yellow idol to the north of Khatmandu,*

There’s a little marble cross below the town;

There’s a broken-hearted woman tends the grave of Mad Carew,

And the yellow god forever gazes down§.

* * *

yes, J. Milton skimps on his poetical efforts by putting the first verse back in again. When Uncle Bertie or the bank manager’s sister read it aloud, they tend to do it jocular the first time, emphasising that rumty-tumty-tum metre, then pour on the drama for the reprise, drawing it out with exaggerated face pulling to convey the broken heartedness and a crack-of-doom hollow rumble for that final, ominous line. I blame Rudyard Kipling. — S.M.

§

Have you noticed the ambiguity about the idol? Is it only one eyed because M.C. has filched the other, or regularly configured like Polyphemus and now has its single eye back? Well, Mr Hayes was fudging because he plain didn’t know. To set the record straight, this was always a Cyclopean idol. And the poet didn’t hear the end of the story. — S.M.

Oh, I know what you’re thinking — if Mad Carew’s emerald-pinching escapade led to a twit-tended grave north of Khatmandu, how did he fetch up un-stabbed in our London consulting room, presenting a sickly countenance? Ah-hah, then read on…

IV

‘I took the eye from the idol,’ Carew admitted. ‘I don’t care what you’ve heard about why I did it. That doesn’t matter. I took it. And I didn’t give it away. I can’t give it away, because it comes back. I’ve tried. It’s mine, by right of… well, conquest. Do you understand, Professor?’

Moriarty nodded. If he understood, that was more than I did.

‘I had to fight — to kill — to get it. I’ve had to do worse to keep alive since. They’ve not let up. They came for me at the hill station. Nearly had me, too. If letting them have the stone would save my hide, I’d wish it good riddance. But it’s not the gem they want, really. It’s the vengeance. Blighters with knives have my number. Heathen priests. That’s an end to it — they think, at any rate. Some say they did get me, and I’m a ghost…’

I’d not thought of that. He didn’t look like any ghost I’d run across, but, then again, they don’t, do they. Ghosts? Look like what you’re expecting, that is.

‘I didn’t just take this thing. I copped a fortune in other stones and gold doodads, too. Not as sacred, apparently. Though most folk who bought from me — chiselled at a penny in the pound, if that — are dead now. Even with miserly rates of fencing, I netted enough to buy out and set myself up for life. Thought I could do a lot better than Fat Amy Framington, I tell you.

‘Resigned my commission, and left for India… with the little brown men after me. More of ’em than I can count. Some odd ones, too — brown in the face, but hairy all over. White hairy, more brute than man. There are a few of ’em left in mountain country. Mi-go or yeti or Abominable Snowballs. They’re the trackers, when the priests let them off their leashes. They dogged me over India, into China… across the Pacific and through the States and the Northern Territories. Up to the Arctic with them after me on sledges… they have yeti in Canada too, Sasquatch and windigo. I heard the damned beasts hooting to each other like owls. Close scrape in New York. Had to pay off the coppers to dodge a murder charge. Steam-packet to Blighty.

‘They nearly got me again in a hotel in Liverpool, but I left six of ’em dead. Six howling bastards who won’t make further obeisance to their bloody little yellow god. Now I’m here, in London. The white man’s Kathmandu. I’ve still got this green lump. Worth a kingdom, and worth nothing…’

‘This narrative is very picturesque,’ Moriarty said, ‘though I would quibble about your strict veracity on one or two points. You could place it in the illustrated press. What I fail to perceive, Major Carew, is what exactly you want us to do?’

Carew’s eyes became hooded, shifty. For the first time, he almost smiled.

‘I heard of you in a bazaar in Peking, Professor. From a ruined Englishman who was once called Giles Conover…’

Him, I remembered. Cracksman, and a toff with it. Also enthusiastic about precious stones, though pearls were his line. Why anyone decided to set a high price on clams’ gallstones is beyond me. Conover went for whole strings. Lifted the Ingestre Necklace from Scotland Yard’s Black Museum to celebrate the centenary of the burning down of Mrs Lovett’s Fleet Street pie shop. I’ll wager you know that story. [35]

The Firm had done business with Conover. Before his spine got crushed.

‘You are… what was Conover’s expression… a consultant? Like a doctor or a lawyer?’

Moriarty nodded.

‘A consulting criminal?’

‘A simple way of stating my business, but it will suffice. Professionals — not only doctors and lawyers, but architects, detectives and military strategists — are available to any who meet their fees. Individuals or organisations have problems they have not the wits to solve, and call on those with expertise and experience to do so. Criminal individuals or organisations have problems too. If sufficiently interesting, I apply myself to the solution of such.’

‘Conover said you helped him…’

‘Advised him.’

‘…with a robbery. You — what? — drew up plans he followed? Like an engineer?’

‘Like a playwright, Major Carew. A dramatist. Conover’s problem required a certain flamboyance. Parties needed to be distracted while work was being done. I suggested a means of distraction.’

‘For a cut?’

‘A fee was paid.’

The Prof was being cagey about details. We arranged for a runaway cab to collide with a crowded omnibus at the corner of Leather Lane and St Cross Street. This convenient calamity drew away night guards at Tucker & Tarbert’s Gemstone Exchange long enough for Conover to nip in and abstract a cluster known as ‘the Bunch of Grapes’. Nobody died except a drunken Yorkshireman, but seven passengers were handily crippled — including a Member of Parliament who couldn’t explain why he was in the hansom with two tight-trousered post office boys and had to resign his seat. A fine night’s work all round.

Carew thought about it for a moment.

‘They are in London. The brown priests. The yeti. They mean to kill me and take back their green eye.’

‘So you have said.’

‘They nearly had me in Paddington two nights ago.’

The Professor said nothing.

‘Consider this an after-the-fact consultation, Moriarty,’ Carew said, taking a plunge. ‘I don’t need help in planning a crime. The crime’s done with, months ago and on the other side of the world. I need your help in getting away with it.’

It became clear. The Professor ruminated. His head oscillated. Carew hadn’t seen that before and was startled.

‘You will be killed,’ the Professor said. ‘There’s no doubt about it. In all parallel cases — you have heard of the Herncastle Heirloom, I trust [36] — the, as you call them, “little brown men” have prevailed. Unless some other ironic fate overtakes him first, the despoiler is routinely done to death by the cult. Did Conover tell you of the Black Pearl of the Borgias?’

‘He said he’d lost the use of his legs and been driven from England because of the thing, and he didn’t have it in his hands for more than a minute or two.’

‘That is so,’ Moriarty confirmed. ‘There are differences between your circumstances, between your Green Eye and his Black Pearl, but similarities also. With the Borgia pearl, the attendant problem was not presented by brown men, but by a white man, if man he can truthfully be called. The Hoxton Creeper. He has haunted the pearl through its unhappy chain of ownership, breaking the backs of all who try to keep hold of it. He crushed Conover’s bones to powder, though the prize was already fenced. I dare say the Creeper, a London-born Neanderthal atavism, is as abominable as any Himalayan snowman.’

Some in dire situations are gloomily happy to know others have been in the same boat. Not Carew.

‘Hang the Creeper,’ he exclaimed. ‘There’s only one of him. I’ve a whole congregation of Creepers, Crawlers and Crushers after me!’

‘So, you must die and that’s all there is to it.’

The last remaining puff went out of Mad Carew. He might as well change his daredevil nickname to Dead Carew and be done with it.

‘…and yet…’

Now the Prof’s eyes glowed, as other eyes glowed when the emerald was in view. His blood was up. Profit didn’t really stir Moriarty. He loved the numbers, not the spoils they tallied. It was the problem. The challenge. Doing that which no one else had done, which no one else could do.

‘All indications are that you must die, Carew. The raider of the sacred gem is doomed, irrevocably. Yet, why must that be? Are we not greater than any fate or superstition? I, Moriarty, refuse to accept any so-called inevitability. We shall take your case, Major Carew. Give Colonel Moran a hundred pounds as a retainer.’

Surprised and suspicious, Carew blurted out ‘Gladly!’ and produced a cheque book.

‘Cash, old fellow,’ I said.

‘Of course.’ He nodded glumly, and undid a money belt. He had the sum about him in gold sovereigns.

I piled them up and clinked them a bit. Sound. Coin, I can appreciate!

‘You are to take lodgings in our basement. There is a serviceable room, which has been used for the purpose before. Meals are provided at eight shillings daily. Breakfast, dinner, supper. Should you wish high tea or other luxuries, make private arrangements with Mrs Halifax. I need not tell you only to eat and drink what comes to you from our kitchen. We must preserve your health. I prescribe Scotch broth.’

Now, he was talking like a doctor. The Moriarty Cure, suitable for maiden ladies and gentlemen of a certain age.

‘One other thing…’ he added.

‘What? Anything?’ Carew said.

‘The Green Eye. Sell it to me for a penny down and a penny to pay at the end of the week, with the stone returned to you and the first penny forfeit if I fail to make the second payment. I shall have a legal bill of sale drawn up.’

‘You know what that would mean?’

‘I know what everything would mean. It is my business.’

‘I’ve sold it before. It comes back, and the buyers… well, the buyers are in no position to come back. Ever.’

The Professor showed his teeth and wrote out a legible receipt.

‘Moran, give me a penny,’ he said.

Without thinking, I fished a copper from my watch pocket and handed it over. Seconds later, it struck me! I’d roped myself in along with Moriarty on the receiving end of the curse. Don’t think the Prof hadn’t thought of that, because — as he said — he thought of bloody everything.

Moriarty exchanged the coin for the emerald.

It lay on his desk like a malign paperweight.

So, we were all for the high jump now.

V

Our client was snug in the concealed apartment beneath the storerooms — a cupboard with a cot, where we stashed tenants best advised not to show their faces at street level. Mrs Halifax, alert to the clink of a money belt, supplied tender distractions and gin at champagne prices. When Swedish Suzette (who was Polish) went downstairs, Mrs H. called it a ‘house call’ and charged extra. If Mad Carew wasn’t dead by the end of the week, he’d be dead broke.

Professor Moriarty disappeared into the windowless room where he kept his records. We were up to date on the Newgate Calendar, the Police Gazette and Famous Murder Trials. The Professor knew more about every pickpocket and high-rip mobster than their mothers or the arresting officers. The more arcane material was in code or foreign languages, or translated into mathematics and written down as page after page of numbers. [37] He said he needed to look into precedents and parallels before deciding on a plan. I had an intimation that would be bad news for some — probably including me.

While the Prof was blowing the dust off press cuttings and jotting down cipher notes, I had the afternoon to myself. Best to get out of the flat and beetle about.

I decided to scratch an itch. On constitutionals through Soho, I had twice had my trouser cuffs assaulted by a pup in Berwick Street Market. The tiny creature’s excessively loud yapping was well known. It was past time to skewer the beast. You could consider it a public service, but the truth is — and I don’t mind if it shocks more delicate readers — killing an animal always perks me up. I’d prefer to stalk big game in the bush, but there’s none of that in London except at the zoological gardens. Even I think it unsporting to aim between the bars and ventilate Rajah the Lion or Jumbo the Elephant, though old, frustrated guns have tried to swell their bags this way when gout or angry colonial officials prevent them from returning to the veldt.

A small annoying dog should take the edge off this hunter’s bloodlust. The prey would be all the sweeter because it was the pet of a small annoying boy. I’ve a trick cane which slips out six inches of honed Sheffield steel at a twist of the knob. The perfect tool for the task. The trick was to stroll by casually and perform a coup de grâce in the busy street market without anyone noticing. In Spain, where they appreciate such artistry, I’d be awarded both ears and the tail. In London, there’d be less outrage if I killed the boy.

I swanned into the market and made a play of considering cauliflowers and cabbages — though drat me if I know the difference — while idly twirling the old cane, using it to point at plump veggies at the back of the stalls, then waving it airily to indicate said items didn’t come up to snuff under closer scrutiny. The pup was there, nipping at passing skirts and swallowing titbits fed it by patrons with a high tolerance for noisome canines. The boy, who kept a tomato stall, was doting and vigilant, his practiced eye out for pilferers. A challenge! Much more than the fat, complacent PC on duty.

For twenty minutes, I stalked the pup. I became as sensible of the cries and bustle of the market as of the jungle.

Which is how I knew they were there.

Little brown men. Not tanned hop pickers from Kent. Natives of far shores.

I didn’t exactly see them. But you don’t. Oh, maybe you glimpse a stretch of brown wrist between cuff and glove, then turn to see only white faces. You think you catch a few words in Himalayan dialect amid costermongers’ cries.

At some point in any tiger hunt, you wonder if the tiger is hunting you — and you’re usually right.

I approached the doggie, en fin. I raised the stick to the level where its tip would brush over the pup’s skull. My grip shifted to allow the one-handed twist which would send steel through canine brain.

From a heap of tomatoes, red eyes glared. I looked again, blinking, and they were gone. But there were altogether too many tomatoes. Too ripe, with a redness approaching that of blood.

The moment had passed. The pup was alive.

I rued that penny. Though not strictly the present possessor of the Green Eye of the Yellow God, I had financed the transfer from Carew to Moriarty. I was implicated in its purchase.

The curse extended to me.

I hurried towards Oxford Street.

The pup knew not how narrow its escape had been. I only left the market — where it would have been easy for someone to get close and slip his own blade through my waistcoat — because I was allowed to. The bill wasn’t yet due.

Eyes were on me.

I used the cane, but only to skewer an apple from a stall and walk off without paying. Not one of my more impressive crimes.

Hastening back to our rooms by a roundabout route, I forced myself not to break into a run. I didn’t see a yeti in every shadow, but that’s not how it works. They let you know there is a yeti in a shadow, and you have to waste worry on every shadow. Invariably, you can’t keep up the vigilance. Then, the first shadow you don’t treat as if it had a yeti in it is the one the yeti comes out of. Damn strain on the nerves, even mine — which, as many will attest, are constituted of steel cable suitable for suspension bridges.

Only when I turned into Conduit Street, and spotted the familiar figure of Runty Reg — the beggar who kept lookout, and would signal on his penny whistle if anyone official or hostile approached our door — did I stop sweating. I flicked him a copper, which he made disappear.

I returned to our consulting room, calm as you like and pooh-poohing earlier imaginings. Professor Moriarty was addressing a small congregation of all-too-familiar villains. The Green Eye shone in plain sight on the sideboard. Had he summoned the most light-fingered bleeders in London on the assumption one would half-inch the thing and take the consequences?

‘Kind of you to join us, Moran,’ he said, coldly. ‘I have decided we shall assemble a collection of Crown jewels. This emerald is but the first item. You might call this gem matchless, but I believe I can match it.’

He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out something the size of a rifle ball, which he held up between thumb and forefinger. It glistened, darkly. He laid it down beside the Green Eye.

The Black Pearl of the Borgias.

VI

Before Moriarty, the last person unwise enough to own the Black Pearl was Nicholas Savvides, an East End dealer in dubious valuables. Well known among collectors of such trinkets, he was as crooked as they come — even before the Hoxton Creeper twisted him about at the waist. When the police found Savvy Nick, his bellybutton and his arse crack made an exclamation mark. His eyes were popped too, but he was dead enough not to mind being blind and about-face.

The peculiar thing was that the Creeper didn’t want the pearl for himself. He was the rummest of customers, a criminal lunatic who suffered from a glandular gigantism. Its chief symptoms were gorilla shoulders and a face like a pulled toffee. He lumbered about in a vile porkpie hat and an old overcoat which strained at the seams, killing people who possessed the Borgia Pearl, only to bestow the hard-luck piece on a succession of ‘French’ actresses. These delights could be counted on to dispose of the thing to a mug pawnbroker, and set their disappointed beau to spine twisting again. He’d been through most of the cancan chorus at the Tivoli, but — as they say — who hasn’t?

The Creeper had been caught, tried and hanged by whatever neck he possessed, and walked away from the gallows whistling Offenbach. To my knowledge, he’d been shot by the police, several jewel thieves and a well-known fence. Bullets didn’t take. Once, he’d been blown up with gelignite. No joy there. Something to do with thick bones.

I had no idea Moriarty had the Black Pearl. Since his arse was still in its usual place, I supposed the Creeper hadn’t either. Until now. If the prize were openly displayed, the Creeper would find out. He lived rough, down by the docks. Eating rats and — worse — drinking Thames water. Some said he was psychically attuned to his favoured bauble. Even if that was rot, he had his sources. He would follow the trail to Conduit Street. As if we didn’t have enough to worry about with the vengeance of the little yellow god.

Moriarty’s audience consisted of an even dozen of the continent’s premier thieves. Not the ones you’ve heard of — the cricketing ponce or the frog popinjays. Not the gents who steal for a laugh and to thumb their noses at titled aunties, but the serious, unambitious drudges who get the job done. Low, cunning types we’d dealt with before, who would do their bit for a share of the purse and not peach if they got nobbled. When we wanted things stolen, these were the men — and two women — we called in.

‘I have made “a shopping list”,’ announced the Professor. ‘Four more choice items to add lustre to the collection. It is my intention that these valuables be secured within the next two days.’

A covered blackboard — relic of his pedagogical days — stood by his desk. Like a magician, Moriarty pulled away the cloth. He had written his list clearly, in chalk:

1. The Green Eye of the Yellow God

2. The Black Pearl of the Borgias

3. The Falcon of the Knights of St John

4. The Jewels of the Madonna of Naples

5. The Jewel of Seven Stars

6. The Eye of Balor

Simon Carne, a cracksman and swindler who insisted on wearing a fake humpback, put up his hand like a schoolboy.

‘You have permission to speak,’ the Professor said. It’s a wonder he didn’t fetch his mortar board, black gown and cane. They had been passed on to Mistress Strict, one of Mrs Halifax’s young ladies; she took in overage pupils with a yen for the discipline of their school days.

‘Item three, sir,’ Carne said. ‘The Falcon. Is that the Templar Falcon?’

‘Indeed. A jewelled gold statuette, fashioned in 1530 by Turkish slaves in the Castle of St Angelo on Malta. The Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem intended it to be bestowed on Carlos the Fifth of Spain. It was, as I’m sure you know, lost to pirates before it could be delivered.’

‘Well, I’ve never heard of it,’ Fat Kaspar said A promising youth: his appetite for puddings was as great as his appetite for crime, but he’d a smart mind and a beady eye for fast profit.

‘It’s been sought by a long line of adventurers,’ explained Carne. ‘And not been seen in fifty years.’

‘So some say.’

‘You want it here within two days?’

Moriarty was unruffled by the objection.

‘If there’s no fog on the Channel, the Templar Falcon should join the collection by tomorrow morning. I have cabled the Grand Vampire in Paris with details of the current location of this rara avis. It has been in hiding. A soulless brigand enamelled it like a common blackbird to conceal its value.’

‘The Grand Vampire is stealing this prize, and giving it to you?’ Carne said.

I didn’t believe that either.

‘Of course not. In point of fact, he won’t have to steal it. The Falcon lies neglected in Pére Duroc’s curiosity shop. The proprietor has little idea of the dusty treasure nestling in his unsaleable stock. We have a tight schedule, else I would send someone to purchase it for its asking price. If any of you could be trusted with fifteen francs.’

A smattering of nervous laughter.

‘I have offered the Grand Vampire fair exchange. I am giving him something he wants, as valuable to him as the Falcon is to us. I do not intend to tell you what that is.’

But — never fear — I’ll release the feline from the reticule. On our St Helena excursion, Moriarty took the trouble to validate a rumour. As you know, Napoleon’s imperial bones were exhumed in 1840 and returned to France and — after twenty years of lying in a cardboard box as the frogs argued and raised subscriptions — interred in a hideous porphyry sarcophagus under the dome at Les Invalides. You can buy a ticket and gawp at it. However, as you don’t know, Napoleon isn’t inside. For a joke, the British gave France the remains of an anonymous, pox-ridden, undersized sailor. The Duke of Wellington didn’t stop laughing for a month.

On the island, the Prof found the original unmarked grave, dug up what was left of the Corsican Crapper and stole Boney’s bonce. That relic was now on its way to Paris by special messenger, fated to become a drinking cup for the leader of Les Vampires, France’s premier criminal gang. A bit of a conversation piece, I expect. Les Vamps run to that line of the dramatic the Frenchies call Grand Guignol. Supposed to make their foes shiver in their beds, but hard to take seriously. Grand Vampires don’t last long. There’s a whole cupboard full of drinking cups made out of their skulls.

‘Moran, you’re au fait with the Jewel of Seven Stars.’

I had heard of item five. It was an Egyptian ruby with sparkling flaws in the pattern of the constellation of the plough, set in a golden scarab ring, dug out of a Witch Queen’s Tomb. Most of the archaeologists involved had died of Nile fever or Cairo clap. The sensation press wrote these ailments up as ‘the curse of the Pharaohs’. I knew the bauble to be in London, property of one Margaret Trelawny — daughter of a deceased tomb robber. [38]

Just for a jolly, while idly considering the locations of the most valuable prizes in London, I’d cased Trelawny House in Kensington Palace Gardens. Fair-to-middling difficult. But, see above, my remarks on famous gems: Thorny Problem of Converting Same into Anonymous Cash. Also, the place had a sour air. I’m not prey to superstition, but know a likely ambush from a mile off. Trelawny House was one of those iffy locations — best kept away from. Might I now have to take the plunge and regret the fancy of planning capers one didn’t really wish to commit?

‘The Jewels of the Madonna are of less intrinsic interest,’ continued Moriarty. ‘These gems — mediocre stones, poorly set, but valuable enough — bedecked a statue hoisted and paraded about Naples during religious festivals. I see I have your interest. A notion got put about that they were too sacred to steal. No one would dare inflict such insult on Mary — who, as a carpenter’s wife in Judea, was unlikely to have sported such ornament in her lifetime.

‘As it happens, the real reason no one tried for the jewels was that the Camorra decreed they not be touched. Italian banditti who would sell their own mothers retain a superstitious regard for Mother Mary. They wash the blood off their hands and present pious countenances at mass on Sunday. However, as ever, someone would not listen. Gennaro, a blacksmith, stole the jewels to impress his girlfriend. They have been “in play” ever since.

‘Foolish Gennaro is long dead, but the Camorra haven’t got the booty back. [39] At this moment, after a trans-European game of pass the parcel with corpses, the gems are hidden after the fashion of Poe’s purloined letter. One Giovanni Lombardo, a carpenter whose death notice appears in this morning’s papers, substituted them for the paste jewels in the prop store of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. Signorina Bianca Castafiore, “the Milenese Nightingale”, rattles them nightly, with matinees Wednesday and Saturday, in the “jewel scene” from Gounod’s Faust. It is of scientific interest that the diva’s high notes are said to set off sympathetic vibrations which burst bottles and kill rats. I should be interested in observing such a phenomenon, which might have applications in our line of endeavour.’

‘What about the eye-tyes?’ asked Alf Bassick, a reliable fetch-and-carry man. ‘They’ve been a headache lately.’

‘Ah, yes, the Neapolitans,’ the Professor said. ‘The London address of the Camorra, as you know, is Beppo’s Ice Cream Parlour in Old Compton Street. They present the aspect of comical buffoons but, by my estimation, the activities of their Soho Merchants’ Protective Society have cut into our income by seven and a half per cent.’

The SMPS was a band of Moustache Petes selling insurance policies to pub-keepers and restauranteurs: don’t agree to cough up the weekly payments and your place of business has trouble with rowdy, window-breaking customers; stop paying and you start smiling the Italian smile. That’s a deep cut in your throat, from ear to ear; it really does look like a red clown’s grin.

‘Hitherto, the London Camorra has merely been an inconvenience. Now they know their blessed jewels are in the city, they will be more troublesome. It is a cardinal error to classify the Camorra as a criminal organisation, an Italian equivalent to Les Vampires…’

Or us, he didn’t say. He liked to think of the Firm as an academic exercise: abstruse economics, sub rosa mathematics.

‘…at bottom, the Camorra — and their Sicilian and Calabrian equivalents, the Mafia and the ’Ndrangheta — are a romantic, fanatic religious-nationalist movement, as remorseless and unreasonable as the priests of the yellow god. They care not about dying, as individuals. This makes them exceedingly dangerous.’

He let that sink in.

‘Don Rafaele Corbucci, chief of chiefs of the Camorra, has vowed to return the jewels to the Madonna. He has taken an oath on the life of his own mother. He has personally followed the jewels across Europe and is presently in London. He paid a call on the late Signor Lombardo at his place of business yesterday. Measures must be taken to pluck the fruit before he can get his hands on it.’

To scare each other, criminals told stories about Don Rafaele. You can imagine how they run. It is said that when a devoted lieutenant thoughtlessly spit out a cigar end in church on a saint’s day, the pious Don had him strangled with his only son’s entrails. He took his culture seriously, too — and had a sense of humour. While infatuated with that bitch Irene Adler — yes, he’s another of her leavings — he took against a critic who ridiculed her performance as Duchess Hélène in I Vespri Siciliani. The man wound up with his own ears cut off and a donkey’s ears nailed onto his head in their place.

I was surprised to learn this monster had a mama. If it were a matter of keeping his word, Don Rafaele would personally sink the old biddy in the Bay of Naples.

‘What about item six?’ Carne chipped in.

‘The Eye of Balor,’ Moriarty said. ‘A gold coin, named for a giant of Irish mythology, reputed to have been taken from a leprechaun’s pot… Lately the “lucky piece” of “Dynamite” Desmond Mountmain, General-in-Chief of the Irish Republican Invincibles, which brought him only poor luck, since last week an infernal device of his own manufacture went off in his face when he thumped the table too hard at a meeting of his Inner Council of Immortals.’

I told you Ireland would come into it.

‘The Eye of Balor is currently among Mountmain’s effects, in the possession of the Special Irish Branch of Scotland Yard. Half a dozen sons, cousins and brothers would like to obtain the coin. It’s said that, if “the wee folk” approve, the owner will ascend to the office of Mage-King of Ireland, whatever that means. The chief contestant for the position is Desmond’s son, Tyrone.’

That was foul news. Another ‘romantic, fanatic religious-nationalist movement’. Your paddy bomber though concerned with his own individual skin is too hot-headed as a rule to preserve it. Dynamite Des wasn’t the first Fenian to blow himself up with his own blasting powder.

Tyrone Mountmain, the heir apparent, figured high on my list of people I hoped never to meet again.

So, now we had to worry about brown priests and marauding mi-go, the Hoxton Creeper, Mysteries of Ancient Egypt, the Knights Templar, the Naples Mob, the little people and the bloody Fenians! It was a wonder Malvoisin’s Mirror, the Monkey’s Paw, Cap’n Flint’s treasure and Sir Michael Sinclair’s Door were off the ‘shopping list’.

How cursed did Professor Moriarty want to be by the end of the week?

VII

Recall my remarks re. nuisance value attendant on one little murder carried out in the service of a trade union?

Ask anyone who knows us (and is still in a position to talk) and you’ll be told we are a mercenary concern. We kill anyone, of whatever political stripe or social standing. For a price. It’s not true that money is all that interests us. The thrill of the chase is involved. If nothing else is on, I’d cheerfully pot someone or steal something just to keep my hand in.

Moriarty claims pure intellectual interest in the problem at hand, and can be inveigled into an enterprise if it strikes him as out of the ordinary. He feels pepper in the blood too, in the planning if not the execution. The moment of clear thrill which burns cold — as a perfect shot brings down a tiger or an archduke — is the closest I can get to the fireworks which go off in the Prof’s brain when his reptile head stops oscillating… and he suddenly knows how an impossible trick can be brought off.

We have no cause but ourselves. We have no politics. We have no religion. I believe in Sensation. Moriarty believes in Sums. That’s about as deep as it needs run.

It was an irritant when the misconception set in that we were in sympathy with the working man. That inconvenience was as nothing beside the notion that fellows with names like Moriarty or Moran must support Irish Independence.

From time to time — usually when an American millionaire who’d never set foot on the isle of his ancestors for fear of being robbed by long-lost cousins decided to fund the Struggle — one or other of the many branches of Fenianism secured our temporary services. If Desmond Mountmain weren’t so all-fired certain he could handle his own bombmaking, he might have been buried in one piece. It takes a more precise touch to blow the door off a strongroom than the medals off a chief constable. Dynamiters on our books have names like ‘Steady Hands’ Crenshaw, not ‘Shaky’ Brannigan.

As a rule, Irish petitioners were much more trouble than they were worth.

Over the years, half a dozen proud rebels had tried to enlist us on the never-never in fantastic schemes of insurrection. You could separate the confidence men from the real patriots because simple crooks venture sensible-sounding endeavours like stealing cases of rifles from the Woolwich Arsenal. Genuine Irish revolutionaries run to crackpottery like deploying an especially made submarine warship to overthrow British rule in Canada. We decided against throwing in with that and you can look up how well it turned out. [40] Canada is still in the Empire last I paid attention, though I’ve no idea why. The place has nothing worth shooting (unless you count Inuit and Sasquatch which, at that, I might) and boasts 50,000 trees to every woman.

When a bold Fenian’s proposal of an alliance — with our end of it providing the funds — is rejected, he acts exactly like a music hall mick refused credit for drink. Hearty, exploitative friendliness curdles into wheedling desperation then turns into dark threats of dire vengeance. Always, there’s an appeal to us as ‘fellow Irishmen’. If the Prof or I have family connections in John Bull’s Other Island, we’d rather not hear from them. We’ve sufficient unpleasant English relatives to be getting on with.

It is possible the Professor is a distant cousin of Bishop Moriarty of Kerry, though rebels know better than to raise that connection. The Bishop — in one of the rare sensible utterances of a churchman I can recall — once declared: ‘When we look down into the fathomless depth of this infamy of the heads of the Fenian conspiracy, we must acknowledge that eternity is not long enough, nor Hell hot enough to punish such miscreants.’ Far be it from me to agree with anything said in a pulpit, but the Bish was not far wrong.

So: Tyrone Mountmain.

Here’s why he wasn’t at the meeting of the Inner Council of Immortals of the Irish Republican Invincibles which ended with a bang… he was the only man in living memory to devote himself with equal passion to the causes of Irish Home Rule and Temperance.

A paddy intolerant of strong drink is as common as a politician averse to robbing the public purse. An Irishman who goes around smashing bottles and barrels has few comrades and fewer friends. If he weren’t a six-foot rugby forward and bare-knuckle boxer, I dare say Tyrone wouldn’t have lasted beyond his first crusade, but he was and he had. Dear old Da, whose favoured tipple was scarcely less potent than the dynamite which did for him, could not abide a teetotaller in his home and exiled his own son from the Invincibles. They had a three-day donnybrook about it, cuffing each other’s hard heads up and down Aungier Street while onlookers placed bets.

After the fight, Tyrone quit the Irish Republican Invincibles and founded the Irish Invincible Republicans. He attracted no followers except for his demented Aunt Sophonisiba, who advocated the health-giving properties of drinking from her own chamberpot, the tithing of two pennies in every shilling to establish an Irish Expedition to the Planet Mercury and (most ridiculous of all) votes for women.

Tyrone promulgated a plan for bringing Britain to its knees by dynamiting public houses. The Fenian Brigades would never countenance such a sacrilegiously un-Irish notion. With Desmond dead, Tyrone rallied the unexploded remnants of the IRI and folded them into the IIR. Claiming Aunt Soph was in touch with his Da on the ethereal plane, Tyrone relayed the story that if Dynamite Des hadn’t been so annoyed at a wave of recent arrests made by the Special Irish Branch he wouldn’t have hit the table so hard. That made Desmond a martyr to the Cause. Tyrone declared war on the SIB.

As has been said about any number of conflicts, including the Franco-Prussian War and the Gladstone-Disraeli feud, it’s a shame they can’t both lose.

Tyrone had a bee in his bonnet about the Eye of Balor.

Soph put it into his head that he must have the coin to rise to his true position. Desmond had thought it an amusing relic to show off to his drinking cronies. Tyrone, who had no drinking cronies, believed it possessed supernatural powers.

The only reason he hadn’t yet tried to steal it back from Scotland Yard was that Soph said she knew from ‘a vision’ that if the Eye of Balor were not in the hands of its rightful owner, the ‘little people’ would bring about the ruination of anyone who had the temerity to hang onto it. So, the Irish Invincible Republicans were waiting for the Special Irish Branch to be undermined by leprechauns. I assumed they were all down the pub, against Tyrone’s orders, leaving him home with only a vial of his own piddle, as recommended by potty aunts everywhere, to warm his insides.

Ireland! I ask you, was ever there such a country of bastards, priests and lunatics?

VIII

As promised, another item for our collection arrived first thing the next morning. Hand-delivered by an apache from Paris, who took one sniff at an English breakfast, muttered, ‘Merde alors’, and hopped back on the boat train. Can’t say I blamed her.

1. The Green Eye of the Yellow God

2. The Black Pearl of the Borgias

3. The Falcon of the Knights of St John

4. The Jewels of the Madonna of Naples

5. The Jewel of Seven Stars

6. The Eye of Balor

The fabulous gold, jewel-encrusted Templar Falcon looked like a dull black paperweight. A label attached by string to one claw indicated decreasingly ambitious prices. Generations of Parisian tat connoisseurs had not nibbled. On principle, the Grand Vampire had stolen the bird — murdering three people, and burning the curiosity shop to the ground — rather than meet the asking price (which, I’m sure, Pére Duroc would have lowered yet again, if pressed). I trusted our esteemed colleague was enjoying his afternoon anis from the skull of the Emperor Napoleon.

‘Are you sure there are jewels in that?’ asked Fat Kaspar, who was trusted with dusting the sideboard.

Moriarty nodded, holding the thing up like Yorick’s skull.

‘What was the point of it again?’ I enquired.

‘After the Knights of St John were driven off Rhodes by Suleiman the Magnificent, the Emperor Carlos let the order make stronghold on Malta and demanded a single falcon as annual rent. He expected a live bird, but the Knights decided to impress him by manufacturing this fantastically valuable statue… which was then stolen.’

Fat Kaspar prepared a spot for the bird, and Moriarty set it down.

‘What happened afterwards?’ the youth asked.

‘What usually happens when rent isn’t paid. Eviction. The Templars were booted out of Malta. In shame. Later, they were excommunicated or disavowed by the Pope. In Spain and Portugal, they practiced “unholy” rites — the usual orgiastic behaviour such as you’d find in any brothel when the fleet’s in, but with incense and chanting and vestments. Other orders made war on them, hunted them down. It is said the last of them were hung on cartwheels and left for the crows to peck out their eyes.

‘But the Knights of St John still exist, and I am sure they wish the return of their property. I doubt the present Grand Master feels any obligation to deliver it to the Spanish Crown.’

‘Who’s this Grand Master wallah?’ I asked.

‘Marshall Alaric Molina de Marnac.’

‘Never heard of him.’

‘That would be why it’s called a secret society, Moran. The Knights of St John have many other names in the many territories where they operate. In England, they are a sect of Freemasons, and have conjoined with several occult groups. Their Grand Lodge, in the catacombs under Guildhall, is abuzz with preparations for a visit from the Grand Master. The call has gone out and the Holy Knights will answer. De Marnac heard that the falcon had surfaced in Paris…’

‘What little bird whispered that in his ear?’

Moriarty’s thin lips approximated a sly smile. ‘He set out by special train from the Templar fastness in Cadiz, but arrived too late… as the embers of the Duroc establishment were settling. A troop of men-at-arms, in full armour, clashed with Les Vampires in Montmartre. Lives were lost. I calculate they delayed the arrival of de Marnac on these shores by eighteen hours. The Grand Vampire will be less inclined to do us favours in the future. I had taken that into account — we shall have to do something about France when this present business is concluded.’

I did not think to remind him that our purpose was simply to save one rotten Englishman’s hide. Moriarty had not forgotten Mad Carew. He was playing a much larger game, but the original commission remained.

Fat Kaspar looked at the falcon. He brushed its jet wings with his feather duster, and the thing’s dead eye seemed to glint.

Something was going on between boy and blackbird.

Moriarty had already assigned the day’s errands. Simon Carne was off in Kensington ‘investigating a gas leak’. Alf Bassick was in Rotherhithe picking up items Moriarty had ordered from a cabinetmaker whose specialty was making new furniture look old enough to pass for Chippendale. Now, it was my turn for marching orders.

‘Moran, I have taken the liberty of filling in your appointment book. You have a busy day. You are expected at Scotland Yard for luncheon, the Royal Opera for the matinee and Trelawny House for late supper. I trust you can secure the items needed to complete our collection. Take whoever you need from our reserves. I shall be in my study until midnight — calculations must be made.’

‘Fair enough, Prof. You know what you’re doing.’

‘Yes, Moran. I do.’

IX

So, how does one steal a coin from a locked desk in Scotland Yard? A castle on the Victoria Embankment, full to bursting with policemen, detectives, gaolers and ruthless agents of the British State. An address — strictly, it’s New Scotland Yard — lawbreakers would be well advised to stay away from.

Simple answer.

You don’t. You can’t. And if you could, you wouldn’t.

For why?

If such a coup — a theft of evidence from the Headquarters of Her Majesty’s Police — could be achieved, word would quickly circulate. The name of the master cracksman would be toasted in every pub in the East End. Policemen drink in those pubs too. Even if you left no clue, thanks to the brilliance of your foreplanning and the cunning of the execution, your signature would be on the deed.

Rozzers don’t take kindly to having their noses tweaked. If they can’t have you up for a given crime, they take you in on a drunk and disorderly charge, then tell anyone foolish enough to ask that you ‘fell down the stairs’. Once inside the holding cells, any number of nasty fates can befall the unwary. When the Hoxton Creeper was in custody, the peelers got shot of seven or eight on their most-hated list by making felons share his lodgings.

No, you don’t just breeze into a den of police with larcenous intent and a set of lock picks. Unless you’ve a yen for martyrdom.

You walk up honestly and openly, without trace of an Irish accent. You ask for Inspector Harvey Lukens of the SIB and buy whatever you want. Not with money. That’s too easy. As with the Grand Vampire, you find something the other fellow wants more than the item they possess which you desire. Usually, you can cadge a favour by giving Lukens the current addresses of any one of a dozen Fenian troublemakers on the ‘wanted’ books. The Branch was constituted solely to deal with a rise in Fenian activity, specifically a bombing campaign in the eighties which got under their silly helmets — especially when the pissoir outside their office was dynamited on the same night some mad micks tried to topple Nelson’s column with gunpowder.

Here’s the thing about the Special Irish Branch: unlike their colleagues in the Criminal Investigation Department, they didn’t give a farthing’s fart about English crime. As far as Inspector Lukens was concerned, you could rob as many post offices as you like — abduct the postmistresses and sell ’em to oriental potentates if you could get threepence for the baggages — just so long as you didn’t use the stolen money in the cause of Home Rule.

When it came to Surrey stranglers, Glasgow gougers, Welsh wallet-lifters, Birmingham burglars or cockney coshers, the SIB were remarkably tolerant. However, any Irishman who struck a match on a public monument or sold a cough drop on Sunday was liable to be deemed ‘a person of interest’, and appear — if he survived that far — at his arraignment with blacked eyes and missing teeth.

Shortly after luncheon — a reasonable repast at Scotland Yard, with cold meats and beer and tinned peaches in syrup — I left the building, frowning, and made rendezvous with a band of fellows. Thieves, of course. Not of the finest water, but experienced. All persons of special interest:

Michaél Murphy Magooly O’Connor, jemmy-man.

Martin Aloysius McHugh, locksmith.

Seamus ‘Shiv’ Shaughnessy, knife thrower.

Pádraig ‘Pork’ Ó Méalóid, hooligan.

Patrick ‘Paddy Red’ Regan, second-storey bandit.

Leopold MacLiammóir, smooth-talker.

They did not think to wonder what special attributes qualified them for this particular caper. The Professor was in it, so there’d likely be a payout at the end of the day.

‘It’s no go, the bribery,’ I told them. ‘Lukens won’t play that game. So, it’s the contingency plan, lads. The coin’s in the desk, the desk’s in the basement office. I’ve left a window on the latch. When the smoke bomb goes off and the bluebottles run out of the building, slip in and riffle the place. Take anything else you want, but bring the Professor his item and you’ll remember this day well.’

Half a dozen nods.

‘Ye’ll not be regrettin’ this at all at all, Colonel, me darlin”,’ Leopold said. His brogue was so thick the others couldn’t make out what he was saying. He was an Austrian who liked to pretend he was an Irishman. After all, whoever heard of a Dubliner called Leopold? It’s possible he’d never even been to the ould sod at all.

Ó Méalóid pulled out a foot-long knotty club from a place of concealment and Regan slipped out his favourite stabbing knife. McHugh’s long fingers twitched. Shaughnessy handed around a flask of something distilled from stinging nettles. The little band of merry raiders wrapped checked scarves around the lower halves of their faces and pulled down their cap brims.

I left them and strolled back across the road. Pausing by the front door, I took out a silver case and extracted a cylinder approximately the size and shape of a cigar. I asked a uniformed police constable if he might have a lucifer about him, and a flame was kindly proffered. I lit the fuse of the cylinder and dropped it in the gutter. It fizzed alarmingly. Smoke was produced. Whistles shrilled.

My thieves charged across the road and poured through the open window.

And were immediately pounced on by the SIB Head-Knocking Society.

The smoke dispelled within a minute. I offered the helpful constable a real cigar he was happy to accept.

From offstage came the sounds of a severe kicking and battering, punctuated by cries and oaths. Eventually, this died down a little.

Inspector Lukens came out of the building and, without further word, dropped a tied handkerchief into my hand. He went back indoors, to fill in forms.

Six easy arrests. That was a currency the SIB dealt in. Six Irish crooks caught in the process of committing a stupid crime. As red-handed as they were redheaded.

This might shake your belief in honour among thieves, but I should mention that the micks were hand-picked for more than their criminal specialties and stated place of birth. All were of that breed of crook who don’t know when to lay off the mendacity… the sort who agree to steal on commission but think for themselves and withhold prizes they’ve been paid to secure. Dirty little birds who feather their own nests. Said nests would be on Dartmoor for the next few years. And serve ’em right.

It didn’t hurt that they were of the Irish persuasion. I doubt any one of them took an interest in politics, but the SIB would be happy to have six more heads to bounce off the walls or dunk in the ordure buckets.

You might say that I had done my patriotic duty in enabling such a swoop against enemies of the Queen. Only that wouldn’t wash. I’ve a trunkful medals awarded on the same basis. Mostly, I was murdering heathens for my own enjoyment.

I unwrapped the handkerchief and considered the Eye of Balor. It didn’t look much like an eye, or even a coin — just a lump of greenish metal I couldn’t tell was gold. In legend, Balor had a baleful, petrifying glance. On the battlefield, his comrades would peel back his mighty eyelids to turn his Medusan stare against the foe. Stories were confused as to whether this treasure was that eye or just named after it. Desmond Mountmain claimed it had been given to him during a faerie revel by King Brian of the Leprechauns. I suspected that the brand of pee-drinking lunacy practised by his sister ran in the family. It was said — mostly by the late Dynamite Des — that any who dared withhold the coin from a true Irish rebel would hear the howl of the banshee and suffer the wrath of the little people.

At that moment, an unearthly wail sounded out across the river. I bit through my cigar.

A passing excursion boat was overloaded with small, raucous creatures in sailor suits, flapping ribbons in the wind. The wail was a ship’s whistle. Not a banshee. The creatures were schoolgirls on an outing, pulling each other’s braids. Not followers of King Brian.

Ever since the tomato stall, I’d had my whiskers up. I was unused to that. This business was a test for even my nerves.

After a few moments, I carefully wrapped the coin again and passed it on to a small messenger — Filthy Fanny, not a bloody leprechaun — with orders to fetch it back to Conduit Street. Any temptation to run off with the precious item would be balanced by the vivid example of the six Irishmen. The professional urchin took off as if she had salt on her tail.

I summoned the not-for-hire cab I had arrived in.

‘The Royal Opera House,’ I told Chop, the Firm’s best driver. ‘And a shilling on top of the fare if we miss the first act.’

X

Some scorn opera as unrealistic. Large licentious ladies, posturing villains, concealed weapons, loud noises, suicides, thefts, betrayals, elongated ululations, explosions, goblets of poison and the curtain falling on a pile of corpses. Well, throw in a bag of tigers, and that’s my life. If I want treachery, bloodshed and screaming women, I can get enough at home, thank you very much.

I dislike opera because it’s Italian. The eye-tyes are the lowest breed of white man, a bargain-priced imitation of the French. All hair oil and smiling and back-stabbing and cowardice, left out in the sun too long.

This brouhaha of the Jewels of the Madonna of Naples was deeply Italian, and thoroughly operatic. The recitative was too convoluted to follow without music.

The gist: a succession of mugs across Europe got hold of the loot first lifted by Gennaro the Blacksmith, also known as Gennaro the Damned and Gennaro the Dead. The Camorra — a merciless, implacable brotherhood — was sworn to kill anyone who dared acquire the treasure, but no fool thought to return the loot and apologise. They all tried for a quick sale and a getaway, or thought to hide the valuables until ‘the heat died down’. Under the jewels’ spell, they forgot about the only institution ever to combine the adjectives ‘efficient’ and ‘Italian’. The Camorra carries feuds to the fifth generation; there’s little to no likelihood of anyone or their great-grandchildren profiting from Gennaro’s impetuous theft.

As mentioned, the latest idiot to acquire the Jewels was Giovanni Lombardo, a propmaker for the Royal Opera. He’d received the package from an equally addled cousin, who expired from strychnine poisoning at a Drury Lane pie stall a few hours later. Lombardo had been victim of a singular, fatal assault in his Islington carpenter’s shop. His head chanced to be trapped in a vice. Several holes were drilled in his brain-pan. A bloodied brace and bit was found in the nearby sawdust.

An editorial in the Harmsworth Press cited this crime as sorry proof of the deleterious effects of gory sensationalism paraded nightly in Italian on the stage, instead of daily in English in the newspapers as was right and proper. That Faust was sung in French didn’t trouble the commentator. Generally, the French are to be condemned for license and libertinism and the Italians for violence and cowardice. When foreigners copy each other’s vices, it confuses the English, so it’s best to ignore the facts and print the prejudice.

The Harmsworth theory, which Scotland Yard was supposedly ‘taking seriously’, painted the culprit as a demented habitué of the opera, sensibilities eroded by addiction to tales of multiple murder and outrageous horror. No longer satisfied with the bladders of pig’s blood burst when a tenor was stabbed or the papier maché heads which rolled when an ingénue was guillotined, this notional fiend had become entirely deranged. He doubtless intended to recreate gruesome moments from favourite operas with passing innocents cast in the roles of corpses-to-be. No one was safe!

This afternoon, a gaggle of ladies loitered outside the Royal Opera House with banners. One pinned a ‘suppress this nasty foreign muck’ badge on my lapel. I assured the harridan I’d sooner send my children up chimneys than expose their tender ears to the corrupting wailing of the so-called entertainment perpetrated inside this very building. If there were still profit in selling brats as sweeps, I’d be up for it. Only the mothers of my numberless darling babes, mostly dark-skinned and resident in far corners of the Empire, would insist on their cut of the purse and render such child-vendage scarcely worth the effort.

While chatting with the anti-opera protester, I cast a casual eye about Covent Garden. No more suspicious, olive-skinned loiterers than usual. Which is to say anyone in sight could — and perhaps would — turn out to be a Camorra assassin. One or two of the protesting ladies wore suspicious veils.

Lombardo’s wounds consisted of two medium-sized holes, one small (almost tentative) hole and one large (ultimately fatal) hole. He had kept the secret of the jewels until that third hole was started. Then, the final hole was made to shut him up. All very Italian.

Lombardo had asked around London fences for prices on individual stones, so the spider in the centre of his web heard of it. Moriarty also knew the carpenter had been commissioned to provide props for the current production, and saw at once where the loot was hidden. In act three of Faust, Marguerite, the stupid bint who passes for a leading lady, piles on a collection of tat gifted her by the demon Méphistophélès and regards herself in a mirror. She gives vent to the ‘Jewel Song’ (‘Ah! Je ris de me voir si belle en ce miroir!’), an aria which sets my teeth on edge even when sung in tune (which is seldom). It’s about how much lovelier she looks when plastered with priceless gems.

Thanks to Moriarty’s learned insight, we knew about the jewels. Thanks to strategic cranial drilling, Don Rafaele knew about the jewels. The Camorra could have saved some elbow-work if they’d read their Edgar Allan Poe. [41] The only person in the case — I dismiss Scotland Yard, of course — who didn’t know about the jewels was Bianca Castafiore, the young, substantial diva enjoying a triumphant run in the role of Marguerite.

When the Milanese Nightingale performs the ‘Jewel Song’, the unkind have been known to venture she would look lovelier still with a potato sack over her head. However, la Castafiore had a devoted clique of ferocious admirers. I knew the type: several of Mrs Halifax’s regulars couldn’t get enough of the Welsh trollop known as Tessie the Two-Ton Taff.

As I entered the foyer of the Opera House, I thought the banshee associated with the Eye of Balor had pursued me. A wailing resounded throughout the building.

Then I recognised the racket as that bloody ‘Jewel Song’.

A commissionaire was worried about a chandelier, which was vibrating and clinking. A small, crying boy was led out of the auditorium by an angry mama and a relieved papa. I swear they were bleeding at the ears. In the garden, dogs howled in sympathy. The silver plugs in my teeth hurt.

Vokins, the Professor’s useful man at the opera, awaited me. Not an especially inspiring specimen: all pockmarks, bowler hat and whining wheedle. His duties, mostly, were to fuss around the petticoats of chorus girls who no longer believed they’d be whisked off and married by a baronet — usually, being whisked off and something elsed by a baronet put paid to that illusion — or could rise to leading roles by virtue of their voices. Alternative methods of employment were always available to such. A modicum of acting ability came in handy when seeming to be delighted at the prospect of an evening — or ten expensive minutes — with Mrs Halifax’s more peculiar customers. Vokins, officially an usher, also scouted out the nobs in the boxes and passed on gossip… ‘All part of the great mosaic of life in the capital,’ Moriarty was wont to say.

First off, I asked if there’d been any break-ins or petty thefts lately.

‘No more’n usual, Colonel,’ he replied. ‘None who didn’t tithe to the Firm, at any rate.’

‘Seen any remarkable Italians?’

‘Don’t see nothing else. The diva has a platoon of ’em. Dressers and puffers and the like.’

‘Anyone very recently?’

‘We’ve a ’ole new set o’ scene-shifters today. The usual lot ’oo come with the company didn’t turn up this morning. Took sick at an ice cream parlour, after hours. All of ’em, to a man ’ad cousins ready to step in. Seventeen of ’em. Now you mentions it, they are a remarkable bunch, for eye-talians. Oh, you can’t mistake ’em for anythin’ else, Colonel. To look at ’em, they’re eye-tye through and through. Waxy ’taches, brown complexions, glittery eyes, tight trews, black ’air.

‘But there’s a funny thing, a singular thing — they don’t squabble. Never met an eye-tye ’oo didn’t spend all the hours o’ the day shoutin’ at any other eye-tye within earshot. Most productions, scene-shifters come to blows five or six times a performance. Someone storms out or back in. Elbow in the eye, knee in the crotch, a lot o’ monkey-jabber with spitting and hand gestures ’oose meanin’ can’t be mistook.

‘There’s been woundin’, cripplin’, even, all over ’oo gets to pick up which old helmet. But this lot, the substitute shifters, work like clockwork. Don’t say anythin’ much. Just get the job done. No arguments. Management’s in ’eaven. They wants to sack the no-shows, and keep this mob on permanent.’

So, the Camorra were already in the house.

They couldn’t have the jewels yet, because the song was still going on, and it would last a while longer. The Castafiore clique would call at least two encores. The rest of the house might be impatient to get on with the story — especially the bit in act five where Marguerite is hanged — but the diva would milk her signature tune for all it was worth.

I peeped through the main doors. Marguerite’s jewels sparkled in the limelight and her mirror kept flashing.

‘When she goes offstage, what happens to her props?’ I asked Vokins.

‘A dresser takes the jewels and the mirror off her. ’Attie ’Awkins. She’s took ill, too; must be somethin’ goin’ round. But ’er sister turned up with the others. Not what you’d expect, either. Funny that a yellow-’aired Stepney bit called ’Awkins ’as a sister called Malilella who’s dark as a gypsy. I made ’umble introductions and proffered my card, enquiring as to whether she’d be interested in a fresh line of work. This Malilella whipped out one o’ them stiletters and near stuck me Adam’s apple. You can still see the mark where she pricked.’ He pulled back his collar to show me a red welt. ‘She’s in the wings, waiting for the jewels.’

I saw where the snatch would be made. There was no time to be lost.

‘Vokins, round up whoever you can bribe, and get ’em in the hall. I need you to reinforce the Castafiore clique. I must have as many reprises as you can get out of her — keep the “Jewel Song” going!’

‘You want to ’ear it again?

‘It’s my favourite ditty,’ I lied. ‘I want to hear it for twenty minutes or more.’

Enough time to get round to the wings, minding out for the girl with the stiletto and her seventeen swarthy comrades.

‘No accountin’ for taste,’ Vokins said. I gave him a handful of sovereigns and he rushed about recruiting. Confectionary stalls went unmanned and mop buckets unattended as Vokins lured their proprietors into an augmented clique.

Bianca Castafiore, up to her ankles in flowers tossed by admirers, paused to take a bow after concluding her aria for the third time. Even she looked startled when the crowd swelled with cries of ‘Encore, encore!’ Never one to disappoint her public, she took a deep breath and launched into it once again.

‘Ah! Je ris de me voir si belle en ce miroir…’

Groans from less partisan members of the audience were drowned out, though more than a few programs were shredded or opera glasses snapped in two.

This is where the Moran quick-thinking came into it.

The situation was simple: upon her exit, the diva would surrender the Jewels of the Madonna without knowing they were real. The valued new staff of the Royal Opera House would quit en masse.

So, why hadn’t the jewels been lifted before the performance? Well, if Don Rafaele Corbucci held one thing almost as sacred as the Virgin Mary, it was opera. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the jewel scene performed with real jewels was an overwhelming temptation. He would be in one of the boxes, enjoying the show before fulfilling his obligation to avenge the indignity perpetrated by Gennaro. I hoped his brains had been boiled by la Castafiore’s sustained high notes, for I needed him distracted.

Once the jewels were offstage, they were lost to me.

So, what to do?

Simple. I would have to seize them before they made their exit.

By a side door, I went backstage. In a hurry, I picked up items as I found them on racks in dressing rooms. When I told the story later, I claimed to have donned complete costume and make-up for the role of Méphistophélès. Actually, I made do with a red cloak, a cowl with horns and a half-facemask with a Cyrano nose.

I noticed several of the new scene-shifters, paying attention to the noise and the stage and therefore not much interested in me. I found myself in the wings just as la Castafiore, whose prodigious throat must be in danger of cracking, was chivvied into an unwise, record-setting seventh encore.

A little man with spikes of hair banged his fists against the wall and rent his shirt in red-faced fury, screeching ‘Get that sow off my stage!’ in Italian. Carlo Jonsi, the producer, had little hope his pleas would, like Henry II’s offhand thoughts about a troublesome priest, be acted on by skilled assassins. Though, as it happened, the house was packed with skilled assassins.

The dresser’s supposed sister Malilella — she of the stiletto — was waiting impatiently for her moment. I wouldn’t have put it past her to fling her blade with the next jetsam of floral tributes and accidentally stick the star through one prodigious lung.

‘Can’t someone end this?’ Maestro Jonsi shouted, in despair.

‘I’ll give it a try,’ I volunteered, and made my entrance.

To give her credit, the Camorrista sister was swift to catch on. And her knife was accurately thrown, only to stick into a scenery flat I happened to jostle in passing. I boomed out the Barrack Room lyrics to ‘Abdul Abulbul Amir’, lowering my voice to deep bass and drawing out phrases so no one could possibly make out the words or even the language.

Marguerite was astonished at this demonic apparition.

Most of the audience, who knew the opera by heart, were surprised at the sudden reappearance of Méphistophélès but, after eight renditions of the ‘Jewel Song’, were happy to accept whatever came next, just so long as it wasn’t a ninth.

‘Those joooo-oooo-wels you muuuuu-ust give baaaa-ack,’ I demanded. ‘Your beau-uuuuu-ty needs no suuuu-ch adorn-meeee-ent!’

I picked up the prop casket in which the jewels had been presented and pointed into it.

With encouragement from Vokins’ clique, who chanted ‘Take them off!’ in time to the desperately vamping orchestra, Bianca Castafiore removed the necklaces and bracelets and dropped them into the casket.

I was aware of commotion offstage. A couple of scene-shifters tried to rush the stage but were held back by non-Italians.

As the last bright jewel clinked into the casket, I looked at the woman in the wings. Malilella drew her thumb across her throat and pointed at me. I had added to my store of curses. Again.

There were Camorra in the wings. Both sides.

So I made my exit across the orchestra pit, striding on the backs of chairs, displacing musicians, knocking over instruments. I didn’t realise until I was among the audience that I had trailed my cloak across the limelights and was on fire.

I paused and the whole audience stood to give me a round of applause.

Clapping thundered throughout the auditorium. Which is why I didn’t hear the shots. When I saw holes appear in a double bass, I knew Don Rafaele was displeased with this diversion from the libretto.

I shucked my burning cloak and dashed straight up the centre aisle, out through the foyer — barging past a couple of scene-shifters on sheer momentum — and out into Covent Garden, where Chop awaited with the cab.

I tossed my mask and cowl out of the carriage as it rattled away.

Cradling the jewel casket in my lap, I began to laugh. The sort of laugh you give out because otherwise you’d have to scream and scream.

That is how I made my debut at the Royal Opera.

XI

After such a day, with two coups to the credit, many a crook would feel entitled to a roistering celebration. It’s usually how they get nabbed.

Your proud bandit swaggers into his local and buys everyone drinks. Asked how he comes to be suddenly in funds, he taps the side of his hooter and airily mentions a win on the dogs. No track in London pays out in crisp, freshly stolen banknotes. Every copper’s nark in the pub recalls a sick relative and dashes off into the fog to tap the plods ‘for a consideration’.

So, in my case, no rest for the wicked.

However, before proceeding to the evening’s amusement, I had Chop drive back to Conduit Street.

I chalked off the latest item myself.

1. The Green Eye of the Yellow God

2. The Black Pearl of the Borgias

3. The Falcon of the Knights of St John

4. The Jewels of the Madonna of Naples

5. The Jewel of Seven Stars

6. The Eye of Balor

Moriarty emerged from his thinking room with sheets of paper covered in diagrams. Finding the celebrated circles and clown-smile squiggles named for the mathematician John Venn inadequate to the task, he had invented what he said — and I’ve no reason to doubt him — was an entirely new system for visually representing complex processes. He was delighted with his incomprehensible arrays of little ovals with symbols in them, stuck together by flowing lines interrupted by arrows.

Indeed, the diagrams excited him more than his latest acquisition. He waved aside the casket of jewels in his eagerness to show off a form of cleverness I was incapable of making head or tail of. If he hadn’t been distracted, he might have taken steps to introduce his system to the wider world. Schoolboys destined for the dunce cap could curse him as the inventor of Moriarty Charts. As it is, Mr Venn rests on his inky laurels.

Mrs Halifax reported that Mad Carew was given to noisy spasms of terror. He was losing faith in the Professor’s ability to save his hide. She’d sent Lotus Lei to the basement with a sixpenny opium pipe which would cost the client seven shillings, in the hope that a puff might calm his nerves. However, at the sight of the celestial poppet, the loon took to gibbering, ‘The brown-skin monks of Nepal have slant eyes.’ In the gloom of the basement, Lotus reminded him of the sect sworn to avenge the stolen eye.

‘Funny thing is,’ I remarked. ‘The Chinese are about the only fanatic race we haven’t offended this week.’

‘I considered adding the Sword of Genghis Khan to our shopping list,’ said the Professor. ‘The hordes of Asia will rally to any who wield it, and I know where it can be found. The Si-Fan would certainly view it falling into Western hands as sacrilege. But the tomb in Mongolia would take months to reach. For the moment, it can stay where it is.’

That was a relief. I’ve reasons for not wanting to go back to Mongolia. Under any circumstances. It’s a worse hole than Bognor Regis.

Discarded on the desk were the cartes de visite of Marshall Alaric Molina de Marnac, Don Rafaele Corbucci and Tyrone Mountmain, Bart. A wavy Nepalese dagger lay beside them, gift of the priests of the little yellow god. The Creeper didn’t run to cards, but the broken-backed corpse left on our doorstep in a laundry basket probably served the same function. Runty Reg wouldn’t be at his post from now on. So, I gathered the interested parties all knew their most precious preciouses were arrayed on our sideboard.

‘I trust we’ve reinforcements coming,’ I said.

The Professor arched an eyebrow.

‘This little lot don’t play tiddlywinks,’ I continued. ‘Runty’s liable to be just the first casualty. Consider that stand which has just set up across the road, feller who’s bawling “Get-a ya tutsi-frutsi ice-a cream-a,” could be a noted opera lover dressed in a white hat and apron. The monks soliciting alms for the poor on the corner creak under their robes — steel jerkins and chain mail long-johns. The friends and relations of the Irishmen we handed over to the peelers this lunchtime are drunker and rowdier than usual in the Pillars of Hercules.

‘It’ll be the Battle of Maiwand out there soon. I doubt that Mrs Halifax standing on our doorstep looking stern will keep the blighters out long.’

Moriarty mused, making more calculations.

‘Not quite yet, I think, Moran. Not quite yet. The constituent elements are volatile, but one more is required for combustion. Now, off with you to Kensington to fetch the Jewel of Seven Stars.’

He patted me warmly on the chest — a unique gesture from him, with which I was not entirely comfortable — and disappeared back into his den.

As few men, I had his trust. Which was terrifying.

Outside, I found Chop by his cab, just about to stick his tongue into an ice cornet freshly purchased from the furious Don Rafaele.

‘Don’t eat that,’ I warned, dashing the cornet into the gutter. It fizzed surprisingly.

More than the usual amount of rubbish and rags were in the street. Some of the piles were shifting. I saw glittering eyes in the trash heaps. Our original Nepalese admirers remained foremost among the array of annoyed maniacs which came along with our Crown jewels.

I climbed into the cab, ignoring the gypsy death signs chalked on the doors, and we were away — for more larceny.

XII

The streetlamps were on, burning blue. Autumn fog gathered, swirling yellow. Chop’s cab rattled down Kensington Palace Road, and drew up at a workman’s hut erected beside a grave-sized hole in the gutter. Signs warned of a gas leak. Simon Carne had watched Trelawny House all day from inside the hut. He wore another of his disguises, as an old Irishman he called ‘Klimo’. Dialect humour was superfluous to the simple lookout job, but Carne was committed.

Other residences on the street had stone roaring lions flanking their driveways. Trelawny House favoured an Egyptian motif: sphinxes stood guard at the gate, the columns beside the front door were covered in hieroglyphs, and a pyramid topped the porch.

Carne gave a brief report. This evening, Margaret Trelawny was entertaining. Carriages had come and gone, depositing well-dressed people who took care not to let their faces be seen. Their coaches were of quality, many with their distinctive coats of arms gummed over with black paper. Vaguely musical sounds and rum, spicy smells emanated from the house.

‘I’ve managed to secure an invitation,’ Carne said.

He led me into the hut, where two of our associates sat on a purple-faced fellow who was securely bound and gagged.

‘Isn’t that Henry Wilcox? The colossus of finance?’ I asked.

At mention of his name, Wilcox writhed and purpled further, about to burst blood vessels. Known for sailing close to the wind in his business and personal life, he had just capsized. I kicked him in the middle. When an opportunity to boot the goolies of capital presents itself, only a fool misses it. Karl Marx said that, and it is the only socialist slogan which makes sense to me.

Carne’s men had taken a gilt-edged card bearing the sign of the ram from their captive, and Wilcox’s bag contained a long white robe and a golden mask with curly horns and a sheepish snout.

Obviously, this was my day for fancy dress.

I got into the ridiculous outfit and took the card.

Wilcox protested into his gag. Another kick quieted him.

I climbed back into the cab and Chop made great show of delivering me to the door of Trelawny House.

The knocker was in the shape of a green-eyed serpent. At a rap, the door was opened by a gigantic black prizefighter wearing harem pantaloons. His face and chest were painted gold. I handed over the ram card, which he dropped into a brazier. He stood aside.

I followed the noise and the — slightly intoxicating — smell. Through a hall filled with the usual clutter of elephant’s foot umbrella stands and potted aspidistras gone to seed, down stone steps into a cellar, where scented oil-lamps cast odd shadows. People dressed like silly buggers gyrated to the plinkings of instruments I couldn’t put names to. A proper knees-up.

The large cellar was decorated like an Egyptian tomb. I should say, decorated with an Egyptian tomb. All around were artefacts looted from the burial place of Queen Tera in the Valley of the Sorcerer. Each item cursed seven ways to sunset.

The guests were all of a type with Wilcox. Robes and masks didn’t conceal thick middles, bald pates and liver-spotted, well-manicured hands. Well-to-do and well connected, I judged. Members of Parliament and the Stock Exchange, commanders of manufacturing empires and shipping lines, high officers of the law and the armed forces, princes of the church and our ancient institutions of learning. More money than sense, more power than they knew what to do with.

So, the hostess was working a high-class racket. With marks like these on her lists, Miss Trelawny was well set-up.

Mixed among the robed, masked guests were professional houris of both sexes, immodestly clad in gold paint and little else. They sported Egyptian fripperies: hawk headdresses, golden snake circlets, ankhs and scarabs, that eye-in-the-squiggle design. Some might have been imported from Eastern climes, but I recognised a body or two from the city’s less exotic vice establishments. Mrs Halifax had mentioned a few of her younger, prettier earners had gone missing lately; that mystery was now solved.

At the far end of the cellar was an altar. Two little black boys waved golden palm fronds at the high priestess of this congregation.

Margaret Trelawny dressed to show off her person, though she would stop traffic in a nun’s habit. Already a tall girl, she towered well over six-and-a-half feet with the famous crown of Queen Tera set on her masses of jet-black hair. The headdress consisted of seven intertwined, jewel-eyed serpents with onyx-inlaid cheekguards.

As a connoisseur, I would venture her frontage — judged by size, firmness and ‘wobble factor’ — finer than Lily Langtry’s… and, after a couple of gins, Lily could crack walnuts between her knockers. To display the goods, Miss Trelawny wore an intricate yet minimal bustier composed of interlinked gold beetles. A transparent skirt gathered in a knot under her bare belly. If tautness of tummy were your prime requirement in womanly form, she’d pass the bounce-a-sixpence-off-it test with flying colours.

A big sparkling ruby was set in a ring on her forefinger. The Jewel of Seven Stars looked like a congealed gobbet of blood. Her eyes had a mad, green-and-red lustre. Her commanding — indeed demanding — beauty was uncommon among the milk-and-water ladies of Kensington.

Miss Trelawny danced, which is to say undulated, in a shimmy which drew further attention — as if attention were required — to her broad hips, serpentine stomach and generous bosom.

Beneath an exotic arrangement, I recognised the tune her three-piece slave band was playing. ‘The Streets of Cairo, or the Poor Little Country Maid’. You probably don’t know the title — I had to ask a cocaine-injecting trumpet player from the Alhambra — but it’s sung the world over by dirty-minded little boys. You can hear many, many variations on the rhyme ‘oh, the girls in France/do the hoochy-koochy dance… and the men play druu-u-ums/on the naked ladies’ buu-u-ums,’ et cetera, et cetera.

For the moment, I entertained the possibility that Margaret Trelawny was — as she claimed — wicked Queen Tera reborn. She possessed at least one demonstrable supernatural power. In her presence, I suffered a prominent inconvenience in the trousers. I believe this condition was shared by not a few of the other gentlemen present.

I was drawn through the crowd, as if by magnetic attraction… or an invisible thread knotted about my gentlemen’s parts. I was gripped by tantalising, almost painful desire. I had to concentrate on the real object of my visit — the ruby. Its redness grew large, tinting my whole view. I suspected there was something funny in the incense.

All about, houris were groped by guests and responded with a fair simulation of wild abandon. Divans were set aside for continuance of these activities, several already in use by knots of two or three — or, in one rather dangerous-looking conjunction, five — dedicated, conscience-free revellers.

Some masks had slipped. A prominent social reformer and a tiresomely staunch advocate of female emancipation were sandwiching a slave-boy; the maiden ladies who signed their petitions and wore their banners would probably disapprove. A magistrate known for harsh sentences was bent over a wooden horse, taking a spirited whipping from two Cleopatra-wigged tarts.

Jam jars of sweet, sticky cordial were passed around, suitable for drinking or smearing. I forgot myself and took a swallow of the stuff, which seemed laced with gunpowder.

I had a notion that Margaret Trelawny wouldn’t give up her prize as easily as Bianca Castafiore.

The music rose in frenzied crescendo. The dancing — and other activity — in the room became faster and faster. Someone indeed played drums on the posteriors of unclad maidservants, slapping with more enthusiasm than skill.

I was near the altar-dais now, and the crowd was thicker. A girl with bared teeth and wide eyes tore at my robe, but I discreetly kneed her in the middle and threw her aside. She was pounced on by a provincial mayor who wore his chain of office and nothing else.

Miss Trelawny’s exertions were extraordinary.

My inconvenience throbbed like a hammered thumb.

Then, a gong was struck, resounding throughout the cellar. Everything stopped.

Masks came off, en masse. I made no move to doff mine, but it was gone anyway.

Margaret Trelawny took a scimitar and lashed, precisely, at my head. I was unharmed, but unmasked. No, not quite unharmed. A line across my forehead dribbled blood. I clamped a hand to the wound.

My imperious hostess held a blade to my throat.

‘Balls,’ I said, with feeling.

XIII

I woke in darkness, wearing clothes not my own. Not even clothes, I realised as my senses crawled back. Tight wrappings which smelled of mothballs. I wriggled and found my legs tethered together and my arms bound to my chest. I was bandaged all over! I shifted my shoulders and banged against confining walls.

With a grinding sound, darkness went away. Something heavy shifted and I was looking up at Margaret Trelawny. Next to her stood a fork-bearded cove I didn’t recognise, wearing a steel balaclava. I lay in an Egyptian sarcophagus, trussed like a mummy.

‘Apologies for the “rush job”, Colonel Moran,’ my hostess said. ‘Before wrapping, you should have had your heart, lights and liver removed to be placed in canoptic jars and your brains pulled out through your nostrils. Revival of the arts of Egypt proceeds slower than I would like.’

Why had they wrapped and entombed me, then taken the trouble to reopen the sarcophagus? Miss Trelawny must want something from me before I was buried for the archaeologists of 3,000 years’ hence to exhume and put on display. I swear, the maledictions upon Moriarty’s Crown jewels are a Sunday stroll compared to the curses I’ll lay on those fellows. Beware the wrath of Basher Moran, you unborn tomblooters!

The party had broken up. I hoped not on my account.

I couldn’t get that da-da-daaaah-da-da ‘Streets of Cairo’ whine out of my head. Oh, the girls in France…

‘I’ll be humming it for days,’ I said. ‘Don’t you hate it when you get a tune stuck?’

Margaret sneered, magnificently. She still wore her queenly vestments. This angle afforded me a fine view of those excellent teats. With every breath, metal scarabs seemed to crawl over all that pink poitrine. My bandages stirred, which was all I needed. My hostess was less likely to be flattered by the response than swat the swelling with her scimitar.

She dangled a hand in front of my face. My eyes and mouth were free of bandages.

That bloody jewel loomed like the sun and the moon and — most particularly — the stars. I saw the sparkling flaws, in the shape of the constellation of Ursa Major. I’ve never been able to see the Plough or Bear in it, just seven dots which look like a saucepan with a too-long handle. Now I had cause to wish myself upon some far star, rather than in a Kensington basement at the mercy of this monumental (if decorative) cuckoo.

Maniac Marge took the Queen of Ancient Egypt business seriously. To her, it wasn’t a racket, but a religion. Another lunatic, albeit more tempting… I’ve no idea why anyone would be willing to blow themselves up for Irish Home Rule or get their throat cut for the honour of a tatty Neapolitan statue, but a tumble with the fleshly incarnation of wicked Queen Tera might well be worth small discomfort. Though at this point, that was a distant prospect.

I tried to sit up, but had no joy. You think of mummy wrappings as rotten old things, but new linen bandages are stout stuff.

Then rough hands grabbed handfuls of bandage where my lapels would have been and hauled me half out of the coffin. The angry man beside Miss Trelawny had lost patience. He snarled in my face. He wore iron gauntlets and a tabard with a crusader cross.

‘Calm down, Marshall Alaric,’ said our hostess, both soothing and commanding.

‘He must be put to the Question! The Falcon must be recovered!’ the man demanded fiercely.

I thumped back into my coffin, bumping my head on a stone pillow.

Margaret patted me on the chest. If the ring had a smell, it would have been in my nostrils.

I realised I’d just met Marshall Alaric Molina de Marnac, Grand Master of the Knights of St John. It should have come as no surprise these people knew each other. There were occult, Masonic ties between the Templars and Queen Tera’s orgiastic cult. Rivalries, too, but a lot in common. They would have friendly competitions, like the Oxford — Cambridge boat race or the Army — Navy rugby match but with more sacrificed virgins and obscene oblations. Though — even after an evening in the basement of Trelawny House — it was hard to credit that Margaret could preside over anything more chaotically perverted than the piss-up which follows the Army-Navy brawl.

De Marnac, a foreigner, spat.

‘I won’t tell you where the Falcon is,’ I swore — knowing that, realistically, I’d tell him before he got to the fingers of my right hand. I can stick more pain than most but I’ve tortured enough to know everyone talks in the end.

‘It’s on your Professor’s sideboard, silly,’ Miss Trelawny said. ‘All London knows. Among other trinkets, you also have the Green Eye of the Yellow God and the Jewels of the Madonna of Naples. Once Moriarty took to collecting, word got round.’

Again, I should have known that would happen.

My hostess made a fist and pressed her ring to my forehead.

‘I can’t think what goes on in that head of yours, Colonel,’ she said. ‘Did you really believe you could just wander in here and take the Jewel of Seven Stars? It’s the focus of aetheric forces which have enabled me to endure centuries in darkness and enter this shell to live anew. I was hardly likely to give it up.’

‘You all say that…’

She slapped me, lightly.

‘You are asking yourself why we’re having this conversation. Why are you not screaming in a tomb, using up precious air?’

I did my best to shrug.

‘While we were going through your clothes, an odd item came to light…’

I had French postcards in my wallet, but nothing likely to shock Queen Tera Redivivus. The two-shot pistol holstered in my sock, perhaps?

‘Why was this in your waistcoat lining?’

She held up a shiny black oval. The Borgia Pearl. I remembered Moriarty patting me, and thinking it an odd gesture. Now, I realised he had slipped me one of his Crown jewels. However, I had no idea why…

‘Swapsies?’ I suggested.

Would she have the thing set in another ring? Wearing the Jewel of Seven Stars and the Black Pearl of the Borgias would be asking for double trouble… I’d been collecting cursed items for two days, and what had I got for it? Mummification and the prospect of burial alive.

The Marshall made an iron fist and aimed at my face.

‘Steady on, old man,’ I said, ‘try not to lose your rag.’

Of course, that was calculated to inflame him further. I’d the measure of the Grand Master. Wrath was his presiding sin. He launched a punch. I shifted my head to the side of the sarcophagus. Metalled knuckles rammed the stone pillow. He swore in French and Spanish and bit his bluish beard.

‘You mustn’t let things get on top of you, chummy. Try whistling,’ I suggested.

This time, he put his hand flat on my chest and pressed down. That hurt. Quite a bit. I didn’t consider whistling.

‘You are a puzzle, Colonel,’ Margaret said. ‘I don’t suppose you would consider… an arrangement?’

She pouted, prettily. The snakes set off her face.

In disgust, de Marnac left me alone. He had disarranged my bandages and, as I’d hoped, torn through a few. If you loosen one, you loosen ’em all. My sister Augusta knitted me a cardigan for my twelfth birthday which suffered from the same flaw. A tiny dropped stitch and the whole thing unravelled. I made a play of breathing heavily, expanding and contracting my chest inside the bandages. I fancied I’d be able to get my arms loose.

’employment with me offers “benefits” I doubt you get from that dried-up maths tutor,’ Margaret said, trailing fingers over my face. ‘A desirable package is offered.’

Leaving Moriarty’s employ wasn’t as simple as she suggested. And, when working for him, I wasn’t likely to be transformed into an ass simply by a wink and a shimmy. I knew myself well enough to know this would not be the case if I became an attendant to Queen Tera. When there’s a woman in the crime, you always anticipate ‘benefits’ but get dirked in the arras. I speak from sorry experience, to whit: Irene ‘that bitch’ Adler, Mrs Sarah ‘the Black Widow of Lauder’ Stewart, Hagar ‘Thieving Pikey’ Stanley, et cetera, et cetera.

‘The Falcon, the Falcon,’ muttered the Marshall, obsessively. There was something about these objects. You set out to own them and they end up owning you. Tera Trelawny was a ring wearing a woman.

Above, outside, there was a crashing, and a drawn-out scream.

I hoped for Simon Carne leading an army of Moriarty’s hand-picked roughs in a well-armed, brilliantly conceived frontal assault, intent on my rescue. But the quality of the screams suggested otherwise. No matter what disguise Carne wore, he wasn’t that terrifying.

Margaret and de Marnac exchanged anxious looks. I managed to sit up, arms free under the bandages, and wasn’t instantly slapped down.

‘What is that?’ said the Grand Master.

A huge shape blocked the doorway. A huge shape topped with a porkpie hat. A knocked-over lamp underlit a jowly, pig-eyed face which seemed to have melted. Big fists opened and closed.

De Marnac drew a sword.

The Hoxton Creeper tottered into the cellar, eyes fixed on Margaret, but not for the reason most blokes stared at her. In her open palm glistened the Black Pearl.

‘Who are you?’ demanded de Marnac.

The Creeper whistled the ‘Barcarolle’ from Tales of Hoffman. He had a tune in his head, too. As he advanced, he loomed bigger. His shadow grew.

‘Here,’ said Miss Trelawny, ‘Grand Master, you’d better have this.’

She popped the pearl into the back of his tunic and it disappeared. He reached awkwardly for the back of his neck, but couldn’t trap it. He wriggled, as if a bug were burrowing under his armour.

The Creeper wheeled about and stared at the Knight of St John. He raised his arms.

Margaret’s black prizefighter, blood streaming from his broken face, came into the room and laid hold of the Creeper’s shoulder, only to be shrugged off and thrown against the wall.

All the while, I was unpicking my bandages. I rose from the coffin. Bereft of jewels, I was of no interest to anyone.

De Marnac slashed at the Creeper, who blocked with his arm. The blade bit into the giant’s knotted sinew like an axe in wood, then wouldn’t come free. The Creeper got a hold of the Grand Master and twisted him round. The crack of spine snapping was louder than the squeak of scream he managed before the angry lamps went out in his eyes.

Something small, like a marble, rolled from his armour onto the floor.

Miss Trelawny looked at the dropped pearl. It fascinated her as she fascinated me — a nigh-irresistible urge to seize. The Creeper, too, sighted the object of his fixation.

I saw where this was going. And rooted around for the scimitar, which was lying on the altar. I doubted it’d be any more use against the Creeper than the sword he prised out of his arm.

The Creeper bent down and tried to take the Borgia Pearl.

It had not occurred to me, but fingers thick as bananas were a handicap when it came to picking up something the size of a boiled sweet. The Creeper scrabbled, rolling the pearl this way and that, unable to get a grasp.

I had a good two-handed grip on the scimitar. I judged the distance to the door.

The hostess took pity on the monster. She plucked the pearl in her delicate fingers and dropped it into the Creeper’s cupped palm. He peered at it, content for the moment — but also perplexed. He didn’t know what to do now. Then he saw Queen Tera. She stood up, magnificent. Her fluence struck the brute man like a bucketful of ice water. The Creeper’s eyes glowed too, with fresh adoration. Could Margaret cancan? With her long legs and that costume, high kicks would be worth seeing.

Like a queen, Miss Trelawny extended her hand. She snapped her fingers.

Shyly, the Creeper gave away his precious and stood back in worship. Would the transference take? I’d not be surprised if from now on, the giant’s heart beat to follow Queen Tera. If so, I was about to land myself in his bad books.

Margaret Trelawny again made a fist around the Borgia Pearl.

I ran towards her and scythed my blade down on her wrist, neatly lopping off her hand. She shrieked and blood gouted into the Creeper’s face. I snatched up the hand — still shockingly warm — before its grip could relax, and bolted for the stairs.

The giant was temporarily blinded. Miss Trelawny was temporarily distracted. The Grand Master was permanently dead.

I ran through the hallway, naked but for a bandage loincloth, streaking past dazed houris — the gilt had mostly rubbed off — and a sticky law lord. I nearly tripped over a spine-snapped corpse.

Why didn’t people just get out of the Creeper’s way when they had the chance? Miss Trelawny’s cringing staff would have to clear up more mess than usual. Mr Pears’ soap is recommended for getting blood out of your Egyptian altar hangings, by the way.

Still clutching my gruesome prize, I bounded out of Trelawny House. My cab was still waiting. The Creeper hadn’t done away with Chop on his way in.

‘Conduit Street,’ I ordered. ‘Chop-chop, Chop!’

I laughed. Chop-chop, Chop! I’d only needed one chop. In my lap, Margaret Trelawny’s hand opened like a flower. I took the pearl and the ring, and tossed the thing into the gutter for the dogs to fight over. If Queen Tera had all the powers she claimed, her hand might take to crawling after me like a lopsided, strangling spider. I could do without that.

It had been an interesting, eventful day.

XIV

I had a teeth-gnasher of a rage on. Often in the course of our association, I felt an overwhelming urge to box Professor Moriarty’s ears. Or worse. He had taken me into the Firm because — not to put too fine a point on it — I had proven myself more than willing to gamble my skin on any number of occasions, just to feel the iron rise in my blood and cock a snook at death. So, by his lights, I had volunteered to be put repeatedly in harm’s way and shouldn’t complain about it.

However, that little trick with the Borgia Pearl — slipped into my supposedly undetectable secret pocket — was typical high-handedness. Admittedly, things had sorted themselves out in our favour. Equally admittedly, if the Prof had troubled to inform me of the stratagem, I’d have refused to go along with it. All for risk, disinclined to suicide: that’s me.

Deep down, despite his genius, I couldn’t help but think Moriarty threw the pieces up in the air and hoped for the best, then claimed it had come out exactly to plan. It’d have been the same to him if the Creeper had crushed my spine or Maniac Marge had mummified me or the Grand Master had done whatever it is Grand Masters do to those who annoy them. He wasn’t notably upset by the fate of Runty Reg, and the lookout had been with the Firm longer than I.

Still, with a balloon of brandy and a fresh set of clothes, I calmed down and could even feel a pride of achievement. Every item on the shopping list was scored through:

1. The Green Eye of the Yellow God

2. The Black Pearl of the Borgias

3. The Falcon of the Knights of St John

4. The Jewels of the Madonna of Naples

5. The Jewel of Seven Stars

6. The Eye of Balor

Any one of these keepsakes would have been a premier haul, but six within forty-eight hours was a miracle.

The Professor stood in front of the glittering sideboard, hands out as if feeling the warmth of a fire. His head oscillated. Then, he clapped his hands.

‘Nothing,’ he said. ‘No detectable supernatural power. These objects effect no change in temperature or barometric pressure. Miracles or malign mischances do not occur in their vicinity. They are simply trouvées men have arbitrarily decided to value.’

‘I don’t know, Moriarty,’ I said. ‘I’ve been feeling rum all day. I don’t say it’s the curses, but your Crown jewels have something. If enough people pray to the things, maybe they pick up juju the way a blanket gets wet if you empty a bucket of water on it?’

The Professor’s lip curled.

‘Whatever you or I think, plenty have invested so much belief in these prizes they’d kill or die to get ’em back,’ I said. ‘If that’s not supernatural, I don’t know what is.’

‘Foolishness, and a distraction,’ he said.

I conceded, with a shrug, he might be right. The wallahs who were after these pretties grew stupider as they neared their objects of desire. Even the Creeper, who was already an imbecile. At a glimpse of the sparklers, they lost habits of self-preservation. A fanatic flame burned in the lot of ’em. You could see it in their eyes.

‘One thing puzzles me yet,’ I admitted.

Moriarty raised a hawkish eyebrow, inviting the question.

‘What has this collection got to do with saving Mad Carew’s worthless hide? The heathen priests are still after him. After us, too, since we’ve got their Green Eye. Now, we’ve also to worry about the Creeper, the Templars, the Fenians, the Camorra and the Ancient Egyptian mob. We’re more cursed now than when we started and Carew’s no better off.’

Using a secret spyglass — which meant not presenting a tempting silhouette in the front window — Moriarty had kept up with the comings and goings in Conduit Street. Mostly comings.

We were besieged.

The gelato stand was open, well after the usual hours and in contravention of street trading laws. Don Rafaele Corbucci was at his post, though he’d dropped the tutsi-frutsi call. A gang of scene-shifters gathered around, including dark-eyed Malilella of the stiletto. They all stared up at the building, licking non-poisonous ice cream cornets.

The Pillars of Hercules had fallen ominously silent, but stout Sons of Erin loitered outside, whittling on cudgels. Among them, I distinguished a tall, better-dressed goon with a bright-green bowler hat and a temperance ribbon. Tyrone Mountmain, with a pocketful of dynamite. Aunt Sophonisiba was there too. No one quaffed from the flask she offered round, disproving the old saw that an Irishman will drink anything if it’s free.

The armoured monks held their corner. Bereft of a Grand Master, they still had vows to uphold. Moriarty said a new Grand Master would be elected within hours. The Knights of St John openly held swords and crossbows. We’d already had a bolt through the window.

A dark carriage was parked across the street. In it, a veiled woman with an alabaster hand sat alongside a grim giant. Margaret Trelawny and the Creeper remained, at least for the moment, an unlikely item. How had she got the hand so quickly? A few of her cult-followers stood about, fancy dress under their coats. Slaves, I suppose.

As for our original persecutors, the priests of the little yellow god… some of the rubbish heaps stood up on brown legs. A troupe of Nepalese street jugglers put on a poor show. Did they feel crowded by the presence of so many other groups of our enemies?

A pair of constables, on their regular beat, took a look at the assembled factions, about-turned and strolled away rapidly.

‘I suppose we can only die once,’ I said. ‘I’ll fetch out the rifle with telescope sights. I can put half a dozen bastards down before they take cover. Starting with Temperance Ty, I think…’

‘You will do no such thing, Moran.’

The Professor had something up his sleeve.

The doorbell rang. I adjusted the spyglass to see which fanatic was calling. It was only Alf Bassick, with a large carpet bag, back from Rotherhithe.

I pulled a lever which — by a system of pulleys and electric currents — unlocked our front door. Moriarty had designed the system himself. Wood panelling over sheet steel, our entrance was more impregnable than the vaults of Box Brothers. Even the dynamite boyos would have trouble shifting it.

Bassick didn’t immediately come upstairs.

Moriarty told me to go down and determine the cause of the delay.

When I reached the bottom of the stairs, I saw Bassick was stretched out on our hall mat with a Nepalese dagger stuck between his shoulders. If we’d sent Carne on Bassick’s errand, he might have come through it — that fake hump at least protected his back. It was after midnight. The besieging forces were bolder.

I turned Bassick over and ignored his gasped last words — blather about his mother or money or the moon — to get the bag. Whatever Moriarty had sent him for, death was no excuse for failure.

Returning upstairs, I didn’t need to tell the Prof what had happened. I assumed he’d taken it into account in his squiggle charts.

Moriarty opened Bassick’s bag and took out six identical caskets. He lined up the boxes on his desk and flipped each of their lids open. Inside, each container was custom-made to contain a different treasure, with apertures ranging from a bird-shaped hole for the Templar Falcon to a tiny recess for the Borgia Pearl. Every Jewel of the Madonna had a nook. The Professor fit his acquisitions into their boxes and shut the lids.

‘There should be keys,’ he said.

I rooted about in the carpet bag and found a ring of six keys. Moriarty took a single key and locked all the boxes with it. He shuffled the boxes around on the table.

‘Moran, pick any two of these up.’

They weighed the same.

‘Shake them.’

They rattled the same.

‘In addition to their respective jewels, each box has a cavity holding loose weights,’ the Professor explained. ‘Any would balance a scale exactly with any other. They sound alike. They look alike. Tell me, Moran, could an object-worshipper differentiate between them?’

‘If they can, they’re sharper pencils than me.’

‘Is it possible some may be supernaturally attuned to the contents? They’ll be able to pick out their own hearts’ desires through magic?’

‘If you say so.’

‘I say not, Moran. I say not.’

I tapped a knuckle on a box. It was not just wood.

‘A steel core, like our front door, Moran,’ Moriarty said. ‘The boxes will take considerable breaking.’

I still didn’t know what he was up to.

He put the boxes back in the carpet bag. And pulled on his ulster and tall hat. He regarded himself slyly in the mirror, checking his appearance but also catching his own clever eye. Odd that someone so unprepossessing should be a monster of vanity, but life is full of surprises.

‘We shall go outside… and surrender our collection. But, remember, only one box to each customer.’

‘What’s to stop us being killed six ways as soon as we open the door?’

‘Confidence, Moran. Confidence.’

Terrifyingly, that made sense. I stiffened, distributed three pistols about my person, and prepared to put on an almighty front.

XV

Professor Moriarty opened wide our front door and held up his right hand.

It seemed everyone was too astonished to kill him.

He walked down our front steps, casual if a little too pleased with himself. I followed, my thumb-cocked six-shot Gibbs in one hand, a Holland & Holland fowling piece tucked under my other arm. If this was where I died, I’d take a bag of the heathen down with me.

Moriarty signalled for the interested parties to advance. When they moved en masse, he shook his head and held up his forefinger. Only one of each faction was to come forward. There was snarling and spitting, but terms were accepted.

Tyrone Mountmain, chewing a lit cigar. That meant he had dynamite sticks about him, with short fuses.

Don Rafaele Corbucci held back, and sent my old girlfriend. Malilella spat at my boots and I noticed inappropriately that she was damned attractive. Shame she was a bloody Catholic.

A Templar Knight unknown to me crossed himself and advanced.

Margaret Trelawny let the Hoxton Creeper help her down from her carriage. She was more modestly dressed than on the occasion of our last meeting, but her veil was pinned to the snaky headdress. She looked no fonder of me than the stiletto sister.

They stood on the pavement, wary of each other, warier of us.

‘One more, I think,’ Moriarty said.

A heap of rags by the rubbish bins stirred. A brown, lean beggar crept forth. He had a shaved head and a green dot in the centre of his forehead. The high priest of the little yellow god.

‘You each wish something which is in our possession,’ Moriarty said.

Mountmain swore and his cigar-end glowed. Malilella flicked out her favourite blade. Margaret Trelawny flipped back her veil with her alabaster hand — she must have been practising — and glared hatred.

‘I intend to make full restitution…’

‘Ye’ll still die ye turncoat bastard,’ Mountmain declared.

‘That may be. I do not ask payment for the items you believe you have a right to. Nothing but a few moments’ truce, so Moran and I might return to our rooms and set our affairs in order. After that, we shall be at your disposal.’

I held up the sack like Father Christmas. The boxes rattled.

Six sets of eyes lit up. I wondered again if the fanatics could sense which box held which desired, accursed object.

Don Rafaele gave the nod, accepting terms, binding the others to his decision. That made him the biggest crook in the assembled masses, if only the second biggest on the street.

‘Moran, do the honours of restitution.’

I was at sea. How was I to know which box went to which customer?

‘Do you await a telegram from the Queen, perchance?’ Moriarty said.

He was enjoying himself immensely. I wanted to kill him as badly as anyone else.

Without fuss, I took out a box.

‘Ladies first,’ I said, and shoved it at Margaret Trelawny. She tried to take it with the hand whose fingers wouldn’t close and it nearly fell, but then caught it with her remaining hand and clutched it to her ample chest.

‘And you, big fellah,’ I said, delivering a box to the Creeper. He considered it as an ape might consider a carriage clock.

‘Malilella, grazie.’ Giving her a prize.

‘The gentleman from Nepal,’ I addressed the little brown priest.

‘Worthy Knight,’ I said to the Templar.

‘And you, Tyrone. Fresh from the pot at the end of the rainbow.’

Mountmain took his box.

Recipients examined their gifts and thought about trying to get into them. Suspecting trickery, not unreasonably, Tyrone handed his box to a follower and told him to open it with a cudgel.

Moriarty took a step backwards. I did too.

Eyes were on us again. I shot out a streetlamp as a diversion, and we whipped inside. The door slammed shut. A Templar sword thudded against it, splitting wood and scratching steel.

From the hall, we heard the commotion outside.

We went back upstairs and took turns with the spyglass. The Creeper had the wood off his box, but it was still shut. A long-fingered Camorra man worked a set of picklocks. Tyrone’s cudgel man gave his box a good hammering.

‘Let’s make it a little easier,’ said the Professor.

He opened our front window a crack, sure to stay out of the line of fire, and tossed six loose keys into the street.

The brown priest was first to pick one up. And first to be disappointed. He was the new owner of the Black Pearl of the Borgias.

The Creeper threw his own box into the gutter and strode towards the little man, arms outstretched. Nepalese jugglers got in the giant’s way, but were tossed aside, twisted into shapes fatal even to a full-fledged fakir. Before the giant could get a grip on the pearl-clutching priest, another — larger — bundle of rags stirred. Something the acromegalic Neanderthal’s own size, red-eyed and white-furred, barrelled across the road to protect its master. The Creeper and the mi-go locked arms in a wrestler’s grip, then rolled out of sight.

Other keys were found. Other discoveries made.

The knight was rewarded. He opened his box and found what he wanted. The Falcon was at last restored to the Order of St John! He was shot by a blind-drunk Irishman anyway, setting off a Fenian — Templar scrap. Cudgels against swords wasn’t an equal match, but when dynamite came into it, armour didn’t hold up. Tyrone tossed fizzing sticks at the monks, who were hampered by heavy armour and confining robes.

The Camorra pitched in with knives and garrottes. Mountmain and Don Rafaele tried to throttle each other over a prize neither of them wanted: the Jewel of Seven Stars. Malilella and Margaret Trelawny circled each other, stiletto against scimitar. Maniac Marge had surprising left-handed dexterity with the blade, but shocked the Camorrista by lashing her across the face with her new, unyielding hand. Malilella responded with unkind words in Italian and a series of stabs which struck sparks off Tera’s serpent crown.

Blood ran in the gutters. It did my heart good. My nerves were back. We settled in to enjoy the show.

There were alarums and a great deal of smoke. A few fires started. Even the police would have to show up soon.

The Templars, who initially got the worst of it, threw over the handcart from which they had been soliciting alms to reveal one of Mr Gatling’s mechanical guns. Evidently, the mediaeval order kept up with the times. Fire raked the pavement, throwing up chips of London stone. Irishmen, faux Egyptians, Neapolitans and Nepalese scattered. Dead bodies jittered back into a semblance of life as bullets tore into them.

Half of me wanted to be out in the street, stabbing and shooting and scything with the rest. A more cautious urge, carefully cultivated, was that I should stay well out of this. Still, it was a jolly show!

The barrel organ of death chattered for a long minute, until an asp-venom dart from an Egyptian blowpipe paralysed the gunner. Then, things quieted a little.

The fight wasn’t out of everyone, but few were in a condition to continue.

Moriarty took the speaking tube and ordered Mrs Halifax to bring him his nightly cocoa.

I was not surprised he could sleep.

This time, he really had thrown all the pieces up in the air just to see where they’d come down.

XVI

Most of the rest of it was in the newspapers. I can’t give you a thrilling first-hand account because I wasn’t there. However, here’s a rundown of the outrages.

In the next two days, fifty-seven people were murdered. Irish, blacks, knights, innocent parties, Nepalese itinerants, well-regarded members of society with Masonic connections, scene-shifters, fences, fortune-hunters, policemen, a white hunter who set out to bag the mi-go for the Horniman Museum, and so on. Two members of the Castafiore clique fought a duel with antique pistols, and blew each other’s chests out — tricky shooting with unreliable weapons, considered a draw. Some smiled the Italian smile. Not a few displayed the Killarney Cudgel Cavity. Others expired from wounds not associated with any particular region.

The ice cream parlour on Old Compton Street was destroyed by a supposed act of God. Don Rafaele returned to Naples, accompanied by Malilella — they came out of the wars with the best loot, though they didn’t get back the Jewels of the Madonna. These days, the virgin of Naples is paraded about with the Jewel of Seven Stars and the Eye of Balor. An influx of Irish and Anglo-Egyptian tourists might not let that situation continue. Corbucci later got himself poisoned, to nobody’s surprise. [42]

The Hoxton Creeper had vitriol dashed at his chest. He was seen falling into the Thames, clutching the Templar Falcon. I knew better than to think him dead.

With the Falcon lost, reputedly in the mud with the Agra treasure, the party of the late Grand Master Alaric Molina de Marnac had to gouge out their own eyes and flagellate for six days and six nights to atone. Rumours persist that the blackbird has turned up in Russia or China and the search goes on. There may be more than one flapping about on the market. The Templars aren’t the only interested party. Fat Kaspar, who had never heard of the rara avis before the Professor mentioned it, was struck queer by an obsession and took off after the statue. He didn’t believe it was in the river. Another promising career ruined. [43]

Margaret Trelawny’s house was blown up, supposedly due to a gas leak. Found barely alive in the ruins, she’s in hospital now, mummified in bandages and speaking a tongue not heard on the Earthly plane in thousands of years. The membership list of Queen Tera’s Circle happened to be delivered to the Pall Mall Gazette with scandalous photographs. Resignations, retirements, suicides and scandal ensued.

Tyrone Mountmain expired from drinking poisoned ginger beer. His Auntie Soph was hanged for it. There are more Mountmains, though — so the Struggle goes on. Eternally.

XVII

Early the next morning, the Professor had me roused from Fifi’s bed — all that killing naturally had my blood up, and there was but one handy treatment for that — and insisted we take a promenade across the battlefield.

Conduit Street was strewn with debris. Bullet pocks scarred walls and pavements. All the windows were broken. Don Rafaele’s stand smouldered. Other residents were appalled, and complaining. Not all the corpses had been carted off. A Templar was crucified across the doors of the Pillars of Hercules. A pile of rags lay on our front step, brown hands outstretched and empty. A policeman — one of ‘ours’ — shooed away busybodies.

The street was full of trash.

Margaret Trelawny’s white hand, all but two fingers broken off, lay in a pool of congealed, melted ice cream.

A few of the Jewels of the Madonna were about too, amid the crushed ruin of one of Moriarty’s trick boxes. Their settings were bent and broken.

Moriarty spotted the Green Eye of the Little Yellow God and the Black Pearl of the Borgias, rolling together in a gutter like peas in a pod. Someone’s real eye, red tangle of string still attached, lay with them.

‘Pick those up, would you, Moran? We’ve still a client to service.’

‘Just the Green Eye?’

‘We’ll have the Black Pearl, too.’

‘We’d better hope the Creeper drowned.’

‘I’m sure he didn’t. Excessive lung capacity. An entirely natural, if freakish attribute, before you ask. But for the moment, there’s little risk.’

Moriarty was pleased with his handiwork.

‘This wasn’t about Humphrey Carew, was it?’

‘Not entirely, Moran. Very perspicacious of you to notice. I never get your limits. You have them, of course. No, the Green Eye was the least of our items of interest.’

‘A lot of trouble for an item of little interest.’

‘There is always a lot of trouble in situations like these. I can’t abide a fanatic, Moran. They are variables. They do not fit into calculations. The mumbo-jumbo is infinitely annoying. Consider the Camorra — a perfectly sound criminal enterprise, poisoned by infantile Marianism. Really, why should a bandit care about a statue’s finery? Likewise, the Fenians and their hopeless ‘Cause’. They may free themselves from British rule, but for what? The Irish will still have priests to rob and rape them and bleat that it’s for their own good, and they never think to shrug off the yoke of Rome. The Templars — who knows what they are for? They’ve forgotten themselves. At bottom, none are any better than the Creeper. Baby brains fixated on shiny things.

‘It is best for us, for the interests of the Firm, that these cretins be taken off the board. The Italians and Irish and pseudo-Egyptians shall trouble us no longer. The Soho Merchants’ Protective Society is smashed. Our tithes will be paid without complaint. Mrs Halifax will lose no further assets to Margaret Trelawny. Navvies and poets who might have been tempted to sink monies in the Irish Invincible Republicans will gamble and drink and whore in establishments we have an interest in. The wealthy and powerful who need to be blackmailed will not have to dress up as pharaohs to do it.’

For the only time I can remember, Moriarty smiled without showing teeth.

This morning, as on few others, he was content. His sums added up.

‘What about the little brown priests?’ I ventured. ‘They’ll still come for us. We have the emerald.’

‘If I do not pay the remainder of the purchase price today, ownership reverts to Major Carew. Moran, do you have a penny about you?’

‘Why, yes, I…’ I began, fishing in my watch pocket. I caught Moriarty’s eye and my fingers froze. ‘No, Moriarty,’ I said. ‘I’m short of funds.’

‘Pity. We shall have to return Carew’s property, with apologies.’

The man himself was in the street, blinking in the daylight. He took in the carnage and destruction.

‘Is it over? Am I safe?’

‘That’s for you to decide. I can guarantee that you will not be murdered by the priests of the little yellow god.’

Carew laughed, still mad — but happy, too.

He walked down to the dead priest and kicked him. The Nepalese rolled over. He had been shot neatly through the dot in his forehead.

‘That’s what I think of your blasted yellow god,’ he said.

Moriarty gave Carew back his emerald, and he waved it in the dead priest’s face. A laughing daredevil again, he cast around for ladies to impress with his flash.

‘I’ll have this green carbuncle cut up in Amsterdam, and sold to the corners of the Earth. Then I’ll have the last laugh! Hah!’

‘My bill will be sent to your club,’ Moriarty said. ‘I suggest you settle it promptly.’

‘Yes, yes, whatever… but, hang it, I’m alive and this blighter’s dead. All the blighters are dead. You’re a miracle worker.’

I knew — with an instinct that the Professor wouldn’t call supernatural — Mad Carew would gyp us. He was that sort. Couldn’t help himself. One implacable foe was off his back — for the moment, at least — yet he was thoughtlessly on the point of making another.

Carew pumped my hand and pumped Moriarty’s hand. The Professor gave our client’s shoulder a friendly squeeze and pushed him away. Carew walked off with a bounce in his stride, whistling a Barrack-Room ballad.

We watched him leave.

‘One thing, Moriarty,’ I said. ‘You promised Carew he wouldn’t be murdered by priests of the little yellow god. Even if the London nest is wiped out and their hairy pet is on the run, there are others back home in the mountains. An army of them, just like this fanatic, sworn to get back the emerald. They’ll know of this mess soon enough, and they’ll send other priests across the globe for Carew and the Eye.’

‘True.’

‘So you lied to him?’

‘No. I seldom lie. It spoils the equations. When I clapped his shoulder, I gave him a present…’

He opened his hand. The Black Pearl of the Borgias wasn’t in it.

‘It will take the next assassins months to get here from Nepal. It will take but hours for the Creeper to get out of the river.’

XVIII

So, now you know how it came out. According to Carew’s will, he was to be buried at his last posting. They fit him in a coffin, face up but toes down, and some obliging Nepalese who happened to be visiting London transported him all the way there. The emerald went with him and was stolen from his body before burial. So, the poet had the truth of it, after all — with the exception that Amaryllis Framington married a tea trader and retired to Margate.

There’s a one-eyed yellow idol to the north of Khatmandu,

There’s a little marble cross below the town;

There’s a broken-hearted woman tends the grave of Mad Carew,

And the yellow god forever gazes down.

CHAPTER SIX: THE GREEK INVERTEBRATE

I

‘James,’ the Professor said.

‘James,’ his brother acknowledged.

‘You’ve not met my associate,’ Moriarty said. ‘Colonel Moran, Colonel Moriarty.’

‘Colonel,’ nodded the thin-faced cove.

‘Colonel,’ I responded.

I’ve seldom had cause to mention Moriarty’s family. Read on, and you’ll find out why.

Until that winter, I knew little of the clan. The parents had been lost at sea some years previously. The single odd thing my partner in crime — not just a turn of phrase — had let slip about his people was that Mr and Mrs Moriarty had such a liking for the name ‘James’ they gave it to each and every child of their union.

‘It’s James, James,’ the Colonel said.

Yes, there was a third Moriarty brother. It was fortunate there were no sisters.

The triplicate nonsense would have been even more confusing if any of the three brothers could lay claim to a single intimate acquaintance who might wish to address them by their first name. You’re feeling sorry for them now, aren’t you? No love for the Jameses Moriarty, boo hoo hoo. Just goes to show you never met any of ’em. If you had, you’d suppress a shudder and nod sagely. Only one Moriarty is a villain in the public eye (though not, as it happens, a court of law), but if you ask me the Professor wasn’t the worst of them.

Most of us are saddled with relations. I’ve touched on my own from time to time. Seldom happily. With regret, I discern traits passed down — though not anything useful, like the family loot — from old Sir Augustus to me. He was a terror, a bully and a cool shot in the service of Queen and Country. I’ve worked for myself — or the Prof — but otherwise carry on in pater’s tradition. I’ve also attained that sorry point in life when I look into the shaving mirror after a heavy night in the tap-room and see the old man staring back at me with bloodshot orbs. The propensity for slipperiness with cards, believe it or not, I have from dear Mama, who showed me how to deal from the bottom while I was in velvet knickers and had ringlets.

Somehow, the notion that Professor Moriarty had parents — might have been a child — never sat right. A viper is a snake straight from the egg. I couldn’t help but picture little Jamie as a balding midget in a sailor suit, spying Cook and the baker’s boy rolling in flour on the kitchen table through his toy telescope, and blackmailing them for extra buns.

It had been a profitable season for the Firm. We’d done nicely out of the Mystery of the Essex Werewolf, come out of the lamentable business of the Four Lemon Drops with surprising credit, and salvaged more than could be expected from the disaster of Loki Tunnel. Lately, England was too confining a laboratory for Moriarty’s experiments in crime.

We were expanding on the continent, tactfully skirting — for the moment — territories claimed by others and offering consultant services to blackguards in Spain, Holland and Poland. Moriarty had put his stamp on a series of coups — kidnappings, major thefts, an assassination — which raised his stock as the premier criminal mastermind in Europe.

Queen Victoria could unroll a map of the world and take pride in the extensive red patches which mark the Empire; the Prof had similar ambitions for the globe in his study. Stuck with red-headed needles wherever a Moriarty crime had been accomplished, the globe increasingly resembled a pincushion.

I had recently greatly enjoyed murdering a Member of Parliament with a garrotte of red ribbon, then providing succor to his saucy widow, his blushing twin daughters… and, thanks to a fortuitous midnight encounter, his tweeny maid. I’d have done the prig for the bonuses alone, but that business put twenty thou in the coffers. You’d never believe who paid for that forced bye-election. My only regret was that I couldn’t mount an honourable head on the wall. I contented myself with draping the ribbon on some antlers and keeping intimate trophies from the ladies of the deceased’s household in a private drawer alongside like items.

It was a new year, a new decade: 1891. Life was fine. Crime was paying.

Then, early in January, Professor Moriarty asked me to accompany him to the Xeniades Club to meet with his brother, Colonel Moriarty.

Are you familiar with that breed of novel heroine who prefaces a chapter of awful experiences with ‘had I but known…’? Well, had I but bloody known, I’d have stayed in bed with or without a tweeny foot warmer. But I didn’t and got up. Cheerful as a goose-throttler the week before Christmas, I put on my hat, picked up my cane, and toodled along to Jermyn Street and Colonel Moriarty’s club.

A few words on the Xeniades Club — what a horrible place! I’m a member of the Anglo-Indian and the Tankerville myself, though I tend to let niceties like paying annual fees slide for the odd decade. As a cardplayer, yarn-spinner, hero of the Empire, big-game hunting bore (I admit it) and devotee of manly pursuits, I’ve been in and out of every gent’s club in London, from the Athaneum and the Beefsteak through the Troy Club and Boodle’s to the Club of the Damned and the Mausoleum Club (pronounced Mouse-o-layum, if you ever get the invite). I’m also known at exclusive gathering places catering to fellows who are most decidedly not gentlemen but can afford to pay for their pleasures and the privilege of having those who provide them keep quiet afterwards.

The Xeniades Club was founded by whining bounders who’d been blackballed at any number of established London clubs and decided that at least one should have no barriers at all to membership. You can imagine the shower that let in: grubby-fingered tradesmen, monomaniacs and cranks of every persuasion; plain-speaking provincial aldermen; foreigners, even. Furthermore, the Xeniades encouraged ‘lively debate’, and was thus one of the noisiest big rooms I have ever been in… not excluding the mess hall at Sing Sing Prison during a riot in which twelve inmates and three guards were killed, or the auditorium of the Paris Opéra after a chandelier fell on the audience during (what else?) that bloody jewel song from Faust.

If I were in the habit of thinking things through, I’d have made these deductions: the Xeniades was for blighters so objectionable no other club would have them. Colonel James Moriarty was a member. Colonel James Moriarty. What kind of colonel can’t even get into the Army and Navy, which is open to any serving officer on full or half pay? Any soldier who can rise to the rank of colonel — which is, admittedly, where they leave you when they tumble to what sort of a rotter or loon you are behind the medal ribbons and, yes, I am speaking for experience — ought to have distinguished himself in some manner which would at least get him into Stoats and Weasels.

No, Colonel James was in the Xeniades.

At least, we didn’t have our awkward introductions in the Loud Room but rather in a draughty, underused annexe I gathered was called the Cold Room.

The Professor was vague as to which regiment his brother was a colonel in, but had let on that the fellow was still serving. Somehow — and, again, I of all people should have known better — that made me imagine a younger, straighter-spined, suntanned version of the James Moriarty I knew. More hair on his head and a set of fierce whiskers, in full uniform, bristling with martial fervour. I envisioned a cruel, canny Moriarty brain applied to devastating pre-emptive strikes against the foe (always best to get your reprisals in first, I say).

Instead, the Colonel was a sallow, slouching fellow with a sunken chest, the ill-cared-for clothes of a clerk who no longer has hopes of advancement, a perpetual cold which required odd poultices and compresses which afforded no appreciable benefit, and a little square of moustache like a patch he’d missed with his cutthroat three days ago. He was seven years younger than the Professor, but seemed nearer death.

From one whiff of him, I knew he’d never set foot on a battlefield. Asked what army line he was in, he bluntly said ‘supplies’ and left it at that. I assumed he was less a soldier than a wholesale orderer and deliverer of boots, tins of bully and those greased cartridges which make Indians mutinous. Again, I leapfrogged to a conclusion. Throughout this whole affair, I did that. I wish I could say I learned my lesson, but plainly I didn’t.

So, minimal pleasantries aside, to the point: ‘It’s James, James.’

‘My youngest brother is a stationmaster in the west of England, Moran,’ the Professor stated.

‘Fal Vale Junction, in Cornwall,’ said the Colonel.

‘Where he can’t do any harm,’ said the Professor.

‘So you say, James.’

‘I do say, James.’

At that, the Professor’s head began its familiar oscillation. Unnervingly, the Colonel began to sway his head from side to side in mirror of his brother. It was a family habit! The two bobbed heads like Peruvian llamas working up to a spitting contest. My hands convulsed in a kind of terror. Was this a tussle of fraternal wills or some species of communication beyond other mortals? The brothers kept it up for several minutes.

I wondered if it was possible to get a drink in this place.

At length, they quit playing silly beggars.

‘Through my influence,’ the Colonel said, ‘James has secured his present position…’

‘He owes you his station, you mean,’ I interjected.

‘As I said… Colonel Moran, was that one of those, what are they called, jokes?… I have gone to no little trouble to put James where he is. I gather he is not satisfied, which will scarcely come as a surprise to you.’

‘James is seldom satisfied,’ the Professor said, addressing me as an aside.

I shrugged, unsure what was required.

‘James will attempt to rope you in, James,’ the Colonel said. ‘He has ever tried to play us off, one against the other. You remember when he was expelled from Greyfriars?’

‘An incident not one of us is liable to forget.’

‘Indeed not. This time, I insist you stay out of it. No good can come of your involvement. James is hysterical and unreliable, again.’

‘In that case, I wonder you troubled to use your influence in your brother’s cause, Colonel,’ I said.

The question of how a supply officer could ‘influence’ a railway company appointment did occur to me.

‘Blood is thicker than vinegar, Colonel,’ the Colonel said.

‘True true,’ I assented, like a pious idiot.

‘James will approach you, James,’ the Colonel continued, fixing eyes on his brother. ‘You will ignore him. All will benefit. Have I made myself clear?’

‘Admirably, James.’

‘Good. Now, James, f-k off back to your blackboard.’

The Colonel turned and walked back into the noisy room. I gathered, with some astonishment, that we were dismissed.

My face burned. Professor Moriarty stood there, expression unchanged.

‘Moriarty, does your brother… your brother, the Colonel… have any idea of your real business?’

The Professor cocked his head to one side, smiling unpleasantly.

‘James is not the most perceptive of us.’

Moriarty was sensitive about defiance and discourtesy. The last man to tell him in so many words to f-k off was a cracksman who came across some jewels in a safe he was rifling for documents we had paid him to obtain, and foolishly decided no tithe was owed on them. After a week in our thick-walled basement, what was left of the poor sod was grateful to be tossed into the Thames.

‘If you want me to kill him, I’ll do it for nothing. As a favour, Moriarty. To repay your years of, ah, friendship. Bare hands?’

The Professor considered it.

‘No, Moran. It’s not yet time. And this matter is not ended.’

‘Well, any time you want it done, it’s done. You can count on me.’

‘I have often said that, Moran.’

That was news to me. He laid a cold hand on my shoulder. From him, this was almost a singular gesture. Recalling that the last time he unbent so, he palmed the cursed Black Pearl off on me, I instinctively patted my pockets. If the Professor noticed, he was too lost in his own thoughts to pass comment.

I fancied he was in a melancholy humour.

Family reunions will do that to you.

II

When we returned to Conduit Street, a telegram awaited. From the third James Moriarty. The Professor read the wire, and passed it to me.

JAMES — FAL VALE TERRORISED BY GIANT WORM! — COME AT ONCE — JAMES.

I gave him back the telegram.

‘A giant worm?’ the Professor said. ‘What, pray, does James expect me to do about it?’

I considered the matter.

‘Tricky proposition, giant worms,’ I said. ‘Hard to know which gun to pack. Or which end to shoot. A good, sharp kris is your best tool. You have to chop the devil into slices rather than segments, or they all wriggle off separately and you’ve got a pack of little crawlers to deal with rather than the one outsize specimen.’

I knew what I was talking about. I’ve come across six-foot worms, mouths ringed with shark teeth, in South Africa. They looklike pale, boneless pythons and can eat through solid rock, let alone a man’s chest. You tend to mistake them for a thick rope or a draught-excluder, until you see a swallowing ripple run along their length or discern the disgusting brownish-pink core at the centre of the creamish translucent tube.

‘James doesn’t mean worm in that sense, Moran.’

‘Is there another?’

‘Archaic English, sometimes ourm. A synonym for dragon. The notion that such fantastic creatures breathe fire is associated with the English worm dragon rather than the Chinese lizard dragon.’

That was a different challenge.

‘I’ve never stalked dragon, but I fancy an elephant gun would suffice.’

I was not entirely serious. I mean, I’ve heard of the kuripuri of the Amazon — degenerate survivors from the prehistoric age of reptiles — and I’ve shot the head off a Komodo dragon, which is merely an overgrown iguana and poor sport. If you’ve paid attention, you’ll know I’ve tangled with several mythical species. Red Shuck and his pack turned out to be just dyed wolves, but the taxonomists were still out on the mi-go I’d run across in Nepal and Soho. Still, I wasn’t prepared to swallow a worm unknown to science in Cornwall. Moriarty’s head bobbed, though, so I knew there’d be trouble in it.

After furious oscillation, Moriarty crumpled his brother’s telegram and tossed it into the fire. It went up with a puff, like a stage magician’s flash paper.

‘More urgent matters must be attended to, Moran,’ the Professor declared, turning away from the fire. He touched fingertips to his pinpricked globe and gave it an idle spin. ‘Soon, we must consider seriously the obstacles presented to our continental expansion by the entrenched interests of our colleagues in France and Germany.’

I’d known this was coming.

In Paris, a new Grand Vampire held office. He had displaced his predecessor after the Affair of the Six Maledictions — in which Les Vampires had been involved, not very happily. Having been forced (by us) into unprofitable battle with the Knights Templar, the Frenchies had cause to feel they’d not been dealt fairly. Reprisals were expected.

In Berlin, an ambitious pup was slavishly imitating the Moriarty Method by assembling his own criminal cartel. More adept at disguising his person than the Professor, this upstart seldom showed his real face. On our books, the kraut-eating swine was marked for an eventual seeing-to because one of his favoured impostures — a shock-haired, stooped alienist with mesmeric eyes — was an impudent caricature of the man whose act he had blatantly stolen. He even guyed Moriarty’s side-to-side head wobble, which ticked off the Prof more than the arrant plagiarism of his Loughborough Diamond Coup in the Dusseldorf Marzipan Stone Substitution.

It wasn’t just restlessness, a jaded need to expand an empire, which compelled Moriarty into border skirmishes with his continental rivals. In his mettle, he needed to be the best — which is to say, worst — in his field.

The Firm would go to war!

Not soon enough, said I. For I wasn’t content to be content, to grow plump and pampered in a London rut — no matter how many blushing twins were thrown into the pot — when there were savage lands to be conquered, and desperate campaigns to be waged. The hunter’s blood stirred and would not be quieted. View halloo, and into the fray…

Then, a railway messenger arrived. The lad was startled to be greeted on our doorstep by Tessie the Two-Ton Taff, in peignoir and straining stays. Mrs Halifax was off with one of her filles de joie, selling a healthy ‘inconvenience’ to thin-blooded, childless Americans, so the Great Lay of Llandudno was serving in Mrs H.’s stead for the day. The Welsh girl took the messenger by his ear and hauled him up to our reception room, where he presented a sealed envelope to the Professor. Having taken a shine to the railway lad, Tess then dragged him into the kitchens for what she referred to as ‘a nice dollop of dripping’. I doubt the boy ever reported back to his office, though I don’t credit the rumour spread by envious, bonier girls that Tess ate him.

This time, Stationmaster Moriarty enclosed a signed letter on the headed paper of the GS&W Railway Company. If presented to the conductor of the Fal Vale Special, which was to leave Paddington at two o’clock that afternoon, the document would entitle the bearer to accommodation gratis for himself and his party.

A wilful contrarian, Professor Moriarty was in a quandary. One brother had ordered him not to go to Cornwall. The other had summoned him to Cornwall. He could not disobey both equally. To defy one, he must satisfy the other. Besides weaving his head from side to side, he was grinding his teeth — a new habit, so far as I knew.

I tried to get him back to continental matters, asking his estimate of the Great Vampire’s intriguing new protégée — a female who styled herself ‘Irma Vep’ and was reputedly the greatest man manipulator in the business since that bitch herself.

But he would not be distracted from family business.

‘There’s nothing else for it, Moran. We shall have to seek out this worm. Pack guns.’

‘Your brother doesn’t mention a fee.’

‘He would not.’

‘Family discount, eh?’

Moriarty’s shoulders were rounder than usual. I saw my needling was getting through. Family can worry under the skin like a tick. The Professor was, in his way, a great man. Yet, despite what many who encountered him said, he was still a human man.

I’ll warrant Gladstone, Palliser and Attila were the same — in command of their destinies and fixed on their great goals, but red-faced and sputtering when joshed by some sibling who remembered when nursie smacked their bottoms for making sicky-sicky on their bibs. Attila, of course, could have irritating relations thrown into a wolf pit. However, in the so-called enlightened modern age, such methods of easing domestic stress were frowned upon.

So, we were hunting dragons. With no payday in sight.

I consoled myself with the thought that this expedition was but an appetiser: a quick kill to warm up for the long, delicious hunt to come.

We were at Paddington Station in good time for the Special, which was ready to board at its platform. We passed through scalding steam to reach the steps to the single carriage. Other passengers were already in their seats, which made me wonder who else was invited on the Fal Vale Worm Express. A conductor stood by the steps, with a whistle and a clipboard. Folds of skin hung loose under his eyes and chin.

Moriarty presented his brother’s letter to the official, who stated — in a tedious West Country drone — that no one had told him of extra passengers, opined that anyone could obtain a sample of the company’s stationery and declared he had never heard of the supposed signatory.

‘This b’ain’t no good yurr,’ he said. ‘Only money or murder’ll get yer ’board this train, or my name b’aint ’Ubert Berkins.’

Foolishly, we opted for money.

III

As the Fal Vale Special steamed out of London, the Professor sank into a deep quiet. He was thinking.

I’d known him not speak for a week, then arrange the removal of a human obstacle to one of his designs and become almost morbidly cheerful. I’d seen his crazes start up like a sudden summer storm, ending in ruination of one stripe or another for someone who had crossed him.

I need not mention again Nevil Airey Stent, the former Astronomer Royal. Even the Red Planet League business pales beside the fate of Fred Porlock, convicted in a court convened in our basement of a capital crime for selling information about the Firm’s dealings to outside interests. What was done to the traitor made the Lord of Strange Deaths seem lenient, and stood as a serious disincentive to anyone else who might consider following his unhappy path of collaboration with the law.

I’d even been in the room while the Moriarty brain ticked as he worked over purely abstract problems. As a devotee of games of chance and calculation, I’m a fair hand at practical maths, but Moriarty’s sums were well beyond my capabilities. He could have said ‘ah-ha!’ or ‘eureka!’ and chalked stickmen on the blackboard, claiming to have solved a puzzle which had baffled generations of clever clogs, and I’d be none the wiser.

But this was different. His head was not bobbing. His chin was clamped to his chest. He was still grinding his teeth. He would not be spoken to.

I’d never seen Moriarty like this. I concluded that only family could put him in such a black humour. His brothers set him equations for which there were no solutions, but which prompted endless, futile calculations. This was a new side to the Professor, and, I admit, I was uncomfortable with it. This forced me to a strange, giddying realisation that I had become comfortable with Moriarty’s other sides, the ones which were terrifying to the rest of the world. What did that say about me? Through association, had I become as much a freak of nature — as much a monster — as the old man?

Moriarty wasn’t in conversational mood and I’d not packed anything to read. Railway bookstalls tend not to stock Mistress Payne’s Rollicking Academy or R.G. Sanders’ Natives I Have Shot, my favoured perusing material. I was thrown back on eyeing up the other passengers.

Since this was a Special, the rest of the crowd must also have been invited.

I couldn’t immediately see how they fit together. A young lady, travelling alone — always promising, rarely delivering — trim enough figure, but affecting pince-nez and a severe look. A funny little Frenchman with waxed moustaches, deep in the Journal of the Society for Psychic Research. A middle-aged parson with white powder in his hair and dusting his cassock; an old scratch on his cheek, a scar you’d be more likely to pick up duelling with sabres at Heidelberg than reading up Acts of the Apostles at Lampeter. A man-about-town type, who had clocked the lone young lady and was buffing his nails in an attempt to draw her attention. And a gaunt, floppy-haired gent, who ogled me balefully. I tossed him a jovial smile, and got a more penetrating stare for my pains. He produced, filled and lit an ostentatious pipe, wreathing himself in rings of pungent smoke.

‘We’re all for Fal Vale, then,’ I ventured.

Yes, an extraordinarily stupid thing to say. It often helps to give an impression of extraordinary stupidity. Folk think so little of you they don’t pay attention when you’re standing behind them with a handy shiv.

‘Indeed,’ the parson said, in a high-pitched voice. ‘The Special only stops there.’

‘That is why it’s called a “Special”, don’t you know,’ drawled the man-about-town type. Too much hair oil for a proper Englishman. ‘I’m Lucas, by the way. Eduardo of that ilk. I’m in it, too. Psychical research.’

The little Frenchman shrugged ‘nom de’ something. He continued to make squiggly notations in the margins of an article on ectoplasmic manifestations.

‘I suppose you’ve heard of the Fal Vale Worm,’ I said.

Lucas nodded. ‘I imagine we all have. It’s why we’re here.’

‘I was not given to understand that this would be a tourist excursion,’ the gaunt pipe smoker said. ‘I took this for a serious investigation.’

‘Who might you be, old bean?’ Lucas asked.

‘Thomas Carnacki,’ the fellow replied.

The little Frenchman, impressed, muttered ‘nom de’ something else.

‘The Ghost Finder,’ the parson observed. ‘Celebrated investigator of the Whistling Room, the Horse of the Invisible and the Dwellers in the Abyss? This is quite a pleasure…’ [44]

‘Yes, indeed,’ I said. ‘I should like to shake the hand of the famous Mr Carnacki.’

‘I imagine you would, ah…?’ Carnacki asked, making no attempt to stick out a hand to be shaken.

‘Sebastian Moran,’ I said.

‘Colonel Moran, the big-game hunter,’ the parson said. Plainly, he was handily up on his Who’s Who. I waited for him to list my medals, distinctions and tiger bags, but he didn’t.

The celebrated psychic sleuth fiddled with his pipe.

‘My name is Cursitor Doone,’ the parson said, with a curt little nod as if acknowledging a salute. ‘I am a ghost finder myself, in an amateur manner of speaking. Our friends the spirits are much misunderstood, I believe.’

‘Sabin,’ the Frenchman said. ‘I take a sceptic’s interest. All can be explained by the light of reason and logic. You will see — yes, you will — I am correct. There is no worm.’

The Reverend Doone seemed on the point of rebutting the sceptic, but Lucas spoke over him…

‘Miss…?’ he said, raising a hopeful eyebrow at the lady.

‘Madame… Madame Gabrielle Valladon,’ the woman said. ‘I am Belgian zoologist.’

Which was odd, since she had a German accent.

But not as odd as someone who wasn’t Thomas Carnacki claiming to be him. The hollow-cheeked, pipe-puffing lookalike might have fooled someone who’d seen a picture in the rotogravure, but I know Carnacki. I’d fallen asleep during one of the Ghost Finder’s interminable tale-telling evenings in Cheyne Walk, and was booted out for having the temerity to snore during an account of his encounter with the Persistent Poltergeist of Penge.

During the Affair of the Mountaineer’s Bum, a tale for which the world will never be ready, the Firm secured Carnacki’s services to establish the supernatural bona fides of a public convenience in Tooting we wished to convince Inspector Patterson of Scotland Yard was haunted. Given his reputation as the least credulous of his profession — the dimwitted Flaxman Low, for instance, is eager to credit every twitching curtain and damp patch to phantoms from beyond the veil — a Carnacki verdict is respected. It is one of the Professor’s greatest triumphs that he was able to pull the wool over such perspicacious eyes.

This gaunt stranger was someone else. A disguise merchant. That narrowed the field down a little, even if men of a thousand faces were becoming ten a penny. Sometimes — as on this train — you couldn’t toss a bottle without beaning a detective made up as a ruffian, a crook posing as a toff, a swell larking about as a disfigured beggar, or a swindler in a dog collar and surplice. But I couldn’t put a name to this particular mask.

I didn’t let on that I’d tumbled the imposter and kept smiling like a fathead.

‘Oh,’ I said, as if remembering there was one more introduction to be made. ‘This is Professor Moriarty.’

Moriarty didn’t come out of his thought fugue.

‘The mathematician?’ the parson said. ‘Author of The Dynamics of an Asteroid?’

‘No, the master criminal, author of ransom notes and blackmail demands,’ I didn’t say — though it did spring to mind.

‘Yes. He’s one of your cold fire of logic boys, too, Monsieur Sabin,’ I said instead. ‘Between the party of us, we’ll soon have this worm in its place.’

‘If place it has, Colonel,’ the parson responded, as if that meant something. ‘If place it has.’

There were two others with us. It was peculiar that a single-carriage Special should need two conductors, especially since one took the trouble to stay away from the passengers. The jowly Berkins, who had gouged us for our ‘gratis’ travel, passed regularly down the aisle, offering ‘refreshments’ which also turned out not to be complementary. While another person in the black, silver-trimmed tunic and cap of the GS&W line spent the journey sat at the rear of the carriage, peak pulled low over a face further obscured by several bandagelike strips of sticking plaster. Yes, another play-actor — though an uncommon shapely one. Despite a sparse moustache and thick eyebrows, this conductor was — as the swell of the tunic-front told my practiced eye — a woman.

‘I say, let’s pass the time with a hand or two,’ Lucas said, producing a deck of cards from his top pocket and pretending to be clumsy as he shuffled. ‘Sixpenny stakes, to make it more interesting, eh what?’

That was blood in the water to this old shark.

By Fal Vale Junction, I would have earned back the train fare and more. I could feel it in my cracking knuckles.

IV

I arrived at Fal Vale a little poorer, but much wiser. Lucas was a lamentable cheat, almost ostentatiously… but lost, consistently. Sabin could have won most hands, but folded early… not bothered by winning or losing, and putting on a show as a distracted, exasperated logician. By the second deal, I knew Reverend Doone and Madame Valladon were playing as secret partners. I kept my losses down, resisting subtle suggestions that stakes be upped just when I held a surprisingly strong (but not winning) hand.

The fake Carnacki did not play with us, but took out a deck of tarot cards and laid out a patience I swear he invented on the spot just to look mystic. The real ghost finder wouldn’t have wasted a captive audience, the whole carriage would have been regaled with his exploits. The Incident of the Boiling Kettle, The Mystery of the House of the Improbable, The Dreadful Affair of the Slug — I’ve heard them all.

The gaunt fellow watched the game through his tobacco fug. He couldn’t have kept a closer eye on us if he’d produced a magnifying glass.

After rattling along the main line at speed — when an engine only has to pull a single carriage, it can beat timetabled trains by hours — we slowed down and chuffed along a Cornish branch which wound through deep cuttings and past tiny stations. Finally, we stopped at one of these neglected halts.

‘Fal Vale Junction,’ ’Ubert Berkins announced, needlessly. ‘All change yurr.’

It was already full dark. The station was lit by three poor lamps.

I nudged Moriarty. He was suddenly alert.

‘None of our fellow passengers are who they say they are,’ he whispered. I’d worked that out for myself, thank you very much. ‘Watch out for the Greek woman in the conductor’s uniform. She has a throwing knife holstered between her shoulder blades.’

That was news. Later, Moriarty would explain how he knew her nationality from the way she buttoned her borrowed trousers or chewed her little fingernail, and I’d pretend to pay attention. It was an impressive parlour trick, but tiresome all the same. The throwing knife gen was useful info, though.

We busied ourselves collecting our belongings. I took care with my gun case, not letting Berkins ‘assist’ me, rather shooing the pest out of the way to try and cadge a tip from someone else. We all descended from carriage to platform.

The mysterious other conductor deigned to step down after us, but slipped into the steam cloud before anyone could try to talk with her. I watched her go, then noticed Madame Valladon also had an eye on her. In silhouette, the conductor’s womanly gait was obvious.

The echt-Belgian zoologist looked away from me, casually. Lucas was still lingering about her, with the air of a near-sighted lion who doesn’t realise the gazelle he’s stalking has a revolver in her handbag. See, I can spot a concealed weapon too.

Sabin collared Berkins and issued instructions for the unloading of heavy trunks which supposedly contained delicate scientific instruments which should not be piled upside down. The conductor could have done with another pair of hands, but his distaff colleague was gone.

The Reverend Doone beamed, and announced, ‘The emanations are strong here. I sense a presence. Discarnate, but welcoming. Can anyone hear me on the astral plane?’

I was more concerned with the earthly plane.

Especially when the Special pulled out of the station, steaming off with a shrill of its whistle. I wondered where the train was going, since this was its only stop — then guessed it had to loop about somewhere before going back to London. Nothing had been said about return travel arrangements.

The engine driver had made haste away from Fal Vale Junction, not lingering even for a pie and a cup of tea. It seemed someone who knew more about this stretch of country than I did was keen not to bide here long. At that, most people with a brain would take fright. I felt a thrill in my water.

In a moment of clarity, I felt every droplet of mist in the night air, heard every tiny sound from the trees. I anticipated danger with a half-sickened, half-excited craving which — I now admit — was close to the hateful love a dope fiend has for the pipe or a drunkard for the bottle. With potential death in the air, I was alive!

Berkins was gone with the Special. As far as I could tell, the woman conductor had not got back on board.

Moriarty strode along the platform, ulster flapping like bat wings, chin thrust out. I wondered if and when he would trouble to take me into his confidence. From experience, I knew he had an idea of what was going on. But frequently it suited him to keep it all to himself, and just tell me when to shoot someone.

Fal Vale Junction was not much of a station. There was a waiting room, with a welcoming open fire and a selection of periodicals on a rack… but it was locked. Out on the platform, without the benefit of the fire, it was freezing. The tearoom was open, in the sense that its door was wedged with a brick… but it was dark and cold. I touched the urn to see if there was still hot water, but it was like ice. Cakes and sandwiches from an earlier decade were on display. Something with teeth and a tail had been in among them and left chew marks and droppings.

‘A warm welcome,’ I commented. ‘I was hoping for one of those famous Cornish clotted cream teas.’

‘Can’t get they yurr,’ Lucas said, guying Berkins.

Outside, the Reverend marched about, sensing things of a spiritual nature. His boots clicked on the flagstones of the platform.

A branch veered off from the line and vanished into a hillside tunnel. A big wheel on the platform worked a set of points which could send trains into this hole. I’d looked up Fal Vale Junction in Bradshaw’s Guide, and not been able to determine where this offshoot ran to. Probably a tin mine, clay pit or unloading dock in Poldhu Cove. Beyond the hill was the coast, which put me in mind of wreckers and smugglers. It wasn’t like Bradshaw to be vague, though. The rails were shiny and well maintained, so the branch was obviously in use.

Moriarty walked nearly to the end of the platform, and peered into the dark as if through a telescope. Could he discern life on some far-distant star? Or was he just fixed on some theoretical point half a mile into the tunnel?

‘I sense a visitor,’ the Reverend said, and stood up straight as if for inspection.

We were all ignoring him now, but he was right. In the dark of the tunnel, a tiny flame burned.

‘It is an apparition of fire,’ Doone announced. ‘We must be calm and receptive. Those who have passed beyond the veil are more frightened of us than we are of them.’

The flame was bigger. No, it was the same size… but coming closer.

Madame Valladon’s hand was in her bag, curled around her revolver, no doubt. She could fire through the seam if she had to.

We watched the light. It bobbed slightly as it advanced.

‘Well met, spirit,’ Doone said, almost singing.

The fake Carnacki touched his fingers to his temples, as if doing a music hall mind-reading act.

‘That is no spirit light,’ Monsieur Sabin declared. ‘It is a railwayman’s dark lantern. There is always, you see, a logical explanation. Have I not proved this? Yes, I have.’

The Frenchman was right.

Now we could see the lantern, swinging from side to side, and make out the man carrying it. He wore a peaked cap, which flashed silver, and a long, black coat.

‘James, is that you?’ the Professor shouted.

‘Yes, James,’ came the answer.

‘Hurry up,’ Moriarty insisted. ‘It’s cold here on the platform.’

‘I’m aware of that. It’s cold here in Cornwall. On winter nights, those tend to be the climactic conditions throughout these isles.’

‘Climatic. “Climactic” refers to a climax or culmination, not the weather,’ the Professor said.

The newcomer shrugged off the correction.

Stationmaster Moriarty trudged along the gravel rail bed and up the incline to the platform, where the Professor waited impatiently. The brothers exchanged beak nods. They walked together towards the rest of us. They shared a stalking gait.

Young James was a Moriarty all right, with piercing eyes behind thin-rimmed spectacles and the beginnings of the family stoop. His face had not yet sunk to the vulture leanness shared by the Colonel and the Professor, but that would come in a few years if nobody hanged him. Walking up to our group, he set down his lantern and took off his cap. He had a fuller, darker head of hair than either of his brothers. He ran his fingers through his locks, probably a sly dig.

‘James, you’re not looking well,’ he said, mildly. ‘The country does not agree with you. You are a city bird.’

‘I say, do you two know each other?’ Lucas asked. ‘I only just realised, same name and all that. Stationmaster Moriarty. Professor Moriarty. You must be father and son?’

At this suggestion, the Jameses made faces as if they’d bitten something sour.

‘They are brothers,’ Sabin said. ‘I am surprised you failed to find that out when you researched our summons here.’

‘Research? Oh I never bother with that. Prejudices the mind. Prods you to premature conclusions.’

‘Tchah,’ said the Frenchman, dismissing Lucas’ pensée.

‘I suppose James told you to keep away from Fal Vale,’ Stationmaster Moriarty said to the Professor. ‘He’s made his position clear, as usual.’

‘I thought you were James?’ Madame Valladon said.

‘No, he is James,’ Doone said. ‘Professor James Moriarty.’

Neither brother explained. Our fellow travellers were left in confusion.

Professor and Stationmaster smirked together, almost undetectably — a family expression which excluded the rest of us. I got a chill from more than the night air.

The brothers didn’t much care for one another, but each knew the other well. I was on as intimate terms with the Prof as he would allow, yet I was often forced to admit I shared rooms with a stranger. Hitherto, it hadn’t bothered me: Moriarty kept secrets from everyone, so why should I be any different? I was his employee, not his friend. We knocked about for mutual advantage, not hale-fellow-well-met nonsense. Sometimes, I despised him more than I hate my old man… with a similar, curious sort of hate commingled with admiration, passion and a sense they were impossible to get away from.

I broke with Sir Augustus to avoid becoming simply ‘the dutiful son’, only to become Moriarty’s Number Two. In many things, the Professor had supplanted pater — whippings were less direct, but no less frequent. With the appearance of Moriarty’s brothers, I realised there were those closer to his cold heart. Family by blood, not association. I’d thought the Professor invincible, beyond human hurt or harm, but it seemed the other Jameses could prick him.

Stationmaster Moriarty produced keys and opened the waiting room. We all pressed eagerly indoors. Thanks to Lucas lifting his hat and getting in the way, Madame Valladon claimed the chair nearest the fire. Sabin wasn’t happy leaving his precious boxes on the platform, but reluctantly did so. Doone said he was sure the spirits wouldn’t disturb Sabin’s belongings.

Only the fake Carnacki kept away from the fire. I wondered if he was wearing a wax nose which would melt if he got too close.

The Stationmaster stood like a man in command, enjoying the company he had put together, anticipating fun and frolics. I’ve known society matrons take pleasure in seating next to each other people they know will quarrel before the fish course is done. ‘Fireworks’ are all part of the entertainment. I wondered if Young James had combined sceptics and believers in this party for similar reasons, then recalled none of this lot were who they said they were. Ergo, this ghost-worm hunt was nothing of the sort.

The Professor stood to one side, watching his brother.

One other thing: Young James Moriarty hadn’t asked who I might be.

During the journey, I’d ferreted out that everyone else present had received a personal invitation. Though his note to the Professor referred to ‘you and your party’, the Stationmaster could scarcely have expected his brother — a maths master, so far as anyone knew — to show up at Fal Vale with a war-scarred, semi-notorious reprobate in tow. Most folk would be astonished that Professor Moriarty was even on a nodding acquaintance with the ferocious Basher Moran. So, I reckoned Young James already knew who I was. Unlike Colonel Moriarty, he had an idea what business the Prof was really in. Our Stationmaster hid his dark lantern under a bushel in the Cornish wilds, but some stratagem boiled in his Moriarty brain.

‘Now, about this worm…’ Young James began. ‘What am I bid for its secrets?’

V

I had not expected to attend an auction in the waiting room of an obscure railway station. Apparently, the ‘secrets of the worm’ were on the block. I couldn’t say whether Stationmaster Moriarty intended his brother to join the bidding or had invited the Professor to observe and be impressed.

None of the other Special passengers immediately stuck up paws, scratched noses or waved sheaves of banknotes. The game had changed quickly, and our pack of psychic investigators were still playing the last hand.

Young James looked pleased with himself.

‘The legend of the Fal Vale Worm is well known,’ he said. Stepping aside, he pointed to an indifferent, faded picture hung over the fireplace. It showed a creature slithering white coils among green Cornish hills. Hairless and earless, it had a catlike snarl and human eyes. A knight in armour raised a lance against plumes of flame pouring from the beast’s nostrils. Rude peasants sensibly scattered away from the titanic combat. The creature had no legs, but from the peculiar way the unknown artist had depicted the running peasants I judged legs weren’t his strong suit, so he might have been tempted to leave them out.

‘The story is old as clay,’ the Stationmaster continued. ‘An undying beast, native to the depths of the ancient mine-workings, the worm emerges by night to exhale infernal flame. Every village hereabouts has an inn called The White Dragon where folktale collectors buy drinks for yokels who trot out their family legends. Always, someone claims their grandfather or great-uncle saw or met or fought the worm, and it’s always some other man’s grandfather who got burned or eaten. You have variations on this theme all over the country, in remote regions where a Beast of the Bog or a Wyvern of the Wold might hide away from the local hunt or the catchers from London Zoo.’

He produced another framed picture to spice up the narrative, a photograph of a canvas and papier-mâché worm with twelve human legs protruding from its body posing against a stone wall. It had a snarling, frilly eyebrowed, fanged head at either end.

Young James continued, ‘Every year at the Padstow May Day Festival, a team of six Fal Vale men represent the worm. They skirmish in the street with rivals from other villages who dress up as ’obby ’osses.’

Evidently, lecturing was a Moriarty family trait. I wished Young James would hurry up and get to it.

‘Uncommonly for its breed, the Fal Vale Worm has been active lately, and left evidence of its night work. You will have seen notices in the press of the fires which have troubled this area in the last few months; fires which will not be put out by buckets of water. Copses and haystacks turned to white ash. Fields brown and smoking after heavy rain. A farm at Compton Dando burned to the ground. A scarecrow caught fire two nights ago, and the black skeleton of a crucified man was found where the scarecrow had stood.’

The Professor nodded. If he had known about this incendiary outbreak, he hadn’t shared the information.

‘There is natural explanation,’ Sabin insisted.

‘You never know, though,’ Lucas said. ‘Not with a worm.’

‘I doubt a spirit would cause such harm,’ Doone said.

I was not immediately inclined to conclude that the Fal Vale Worm was the genuine article. My first suspect would be some sweaty, burn-marked little fellow with a box of lucifers, a jug of paraffin and a heart which skips whenever anything catches light.

We had a couple of firebugs on our lists; gents who go by names like Benny Blazes, Tim the Torch or Firebrand Sam. Even if there’s a solid bit of profit, from insurance or otherwise, to be had, it makes sense to use someone who knows — and loves — fire to perform arson duties. They’ll do it for nothing but jollies, for a start. The flame which burns when doused with water is a firebug tell. It’s not magic, just a mix of chemicals: they all have favourite recipes and jealously guard their secret ingredients.

‘The worm has been seen,’ the Stationmaster said, ‘zooming along the rail bed outside, disappearing into the tunnel faster than any train. I can produce sworn testimony. But sworn testimony will not, I believe, impress anyone in this room. I shall accept no bids until you’ve the evidence of your own senses.’

He smiled, readily. Not an expression I associated with his brothers. From his waistcoat pocket, he produced a railwayman’s watch.

‘If we forsake the comfort of this room for a few moments, we may bear witness to an, ah, occult phenomenon.’

‘…Which runs on a timetable, James?’

‘Yes, James. Punctually.’

‘Many spirits are affected by cycles of the moon,’ Doone put in.

I had the uneasy feeling I was the only one in the room completely in the dark. It was plain we were no longer hunting ghosts.

‘I say,’ Lucas said. ‘Where’s our Carnacki toddled off to?’

Madame Valladon swore in German.

The imposter had slipped out of the room when everyone else was paying attention to the Stationmaster. He had left his pipe propped by a stopped clock, so his smell lingered.

‘This is not to be tolerated,’ Sabin declared.

‘Raw-ther,’ Lucas agreed.

‘Mayhap Mr Carnacki was an astral projection all along?’ ventured Doone.

‘An astral projection who left the door open?’ I said.

The Stationmaster seemed to be thrown off his game by this distraction, but swiftly tried to re-establish order. He held up his watch and tapped it.

‘I insist that agreed rules of conduct remain in force,’ said the Frenchman.

Young James put his railwayman’s whistle to his lips and blew a shrill toot.

‘I suggest we follow my brother’s direction, for the moment,’ the Professor said. ‘We shall see what is to be seen, then draw conclusions. Is that acceptable?’

Sabin nodded. The others fell in line.

Moriarty looked to his brother, like a headmaster who has shown a junior staff member how to quiet the boys. Our host, I fancied, was irritated. Of the three Jameses Moriarty, he was the least commanding… It seemed a comedown that a family which could produce a Professor Moriarty and a Colonel Moriarty should run to a mere Stationmaster. Now, I wondered whether Young James had not been promoted above his natural abilities.

The Professor lead us out onto the platform. His brother followed.

A thick mist had risen, turning the rail beds into rivers of white. I smelled something like sulphur… which I associate with firearms rather than hellfire. I could taste danger in the air. Fal Vale Junction felt like a fort just before the attack. While the others formed their observing party, I sauntered towards the pile of luggage and slipped a rifle out of my gun case. I carried it unostentatiously, barrel-down like a crutch. I felt much happier with a loaded gun at hand.

‘What’s through that tunnel?’ Lucas asked.

‘Tin mines,’ explained the Stationmaster. ‘In the daytime, ore trains run to and from Tarleton. The metals are cold at night.’

‘The so-called worm, it abide in its mine by day, and emerge by night?’ Sabin asked. ‘This is your suggestion?’

‘More than a suggestion,’ Young James said. ‘You can set your watch by it.’

Everyone turned towards the tunnel. All I could see was night and fog.

In a music hall, when the magician wants you to watch the pretty lady in tights or pay attention to his waving wand… that’s the time to look everywhere else, to see how the trick’s being pulled off. I let the ghost-finding brigade peer into the hole, and scanned the station and environs. The fake Carnacki was hiding somewhere. I’d not forgotten the lady conductor with the throwing-knife either. With all this mist, there were many places nearby where a person could lie low.

‘Can you hear that?’ Lucas asked, hand up to his ear.

From inside the tunnel, there was a sound. A shushing, wailing, rattling. Worms, as a rule, are quieter. Even giant ones. The gunpowdery smell was stronger.

‘There are spirits…’ the parson began.

‘Shush, Hugo,’ cut in Madame Valladon. ‘You can stop play-acting.’

Doone shut up, crestfallen.

The noise grew louder.

‘Something runs on the rails?’ Sabin said. ‘A train, hein?’

It sounded like no train I’d ever heard.

‘Look…’ Lucas pointed.

There was firelight in the fog. It barrelled towards us faster than something without legs or wheels ought to be able to.

I had my rifle up. Whatever came out of that tunnel would get one between its eyes, if eyes it had.

Stationmaster Moriarty was still brandishing his watch, grinning. He seemed to be enjoying the spell cast over his guests. The Professor hung back, tutting impatiently.

A cold, sharp point pricked under my chin. The rifle was firmly twisted out of my hands. A female person pressed close to my back, arm about my chest. The Greek lady, of course. I stood stock still.

Then, in a rush, the worm was out of its hole…

…and rushing through the station past us, leaving only a swirling wake. The disturbed fog reformed over the rails.

The worm wasn’t white and fires burned in its belly. A foul smell lingered behind: it was a mechanical thing.

Down the line a way, bright flame blossomed. For an instant, the countryside lit up as if it were daytime. I blinked away fire patterns burned into my eyes and watched as a burning wave swept across a field that inclined towards the rail bed. An old shed was instantly obliterated. Flaming sheep scurried, screaming, for the horizon. A butt of water exploded into fragments.

In the firelight, the worm was visible — it had soundlessly halted on the tracks. Liquid fire dribbled from hose-like cannons protruding from its sides. It was armoured, shield-like plates bolted together in a limber, flexible carapace — a big, bulletproof version of the May Day Festival worm costume.

The worm was a war train! A land dreadnought.

The bogus ghost finders chattered to each other, in several languages. I had an idea now of their true profession.

‘England alone must not have this thing,’ Sabin said. ‘It would mean catastrophe for the civilised world.’

‘So we hear from France,’ Stationmaster Moriarty said. ‘Can I take it that a bid is made?’

Sabin nodded.

‘Thank you, Monsieur de la Meux. What of Imperial Germany? Fraulein von Hoffmannsthal, can you and Herr Oberstein make an offer?’

Madame Valladon — whose real name turned out to be Ilse von Hoffmannsthal — conferred with the parson — the notorious spy Hugo Oberstein — and gave a nod. They had abandoned their pretence of not knowing each other, let alone their fraying cover identities. I was relieved not to have to listen to any more prattle about spirits from the Reverend Doone.

‘Mr Lucas. You are a free agent. Do you act, in this instance, for the Tsar of all the Russias?’ Young James addressed the dandy.

‘A little to the East, old top. A more humane mikado ne’er did in Japan exist, you know… and they have the railways too, very modern.’

This was a nest of damn foreign spies! I’ve played the Great Game myself, on several sides. Nothing crawls like as a patriot lying and sneaking for his country.

‘So “Carnacki” represents the Tsar?’ the Stationmaster asked.

‘That one acts for himself, James,’ the Professor said. ‘If you troubled to use your brain, you should have seen that first thing. He is the imposter among imposters. The real fake Carnacki is trussed in a trunk in the left-luggage department at Paddington.’

‘Come, come, James. Nothing is amiss.’

‘No? Then why is Miss Kratides holding a knife to my man’s throat?’

Now, everyone looked at us. I raised the paw not pinned by the lady’s grip in an attempt at a cheery wave.

‘Don’t mind me,’ I said. ‘Play on. Though, apropos of nothing, Oberstein: when you’re introduced to people, you start to click your boot heels then remember not to. Few English parsons have that habit. If you’re to continue your, ah, theatrical career, you might try to get that seen to.’

Oberstein spat on the platform. That wasn’t like a clergyman, either.

Ilse von Hoffmannsthal took out her revolver, as she had been dying to do all evening, and pointed it at people who didn’t notice or care.

The fire down the way wasn’t dying down. The worm wasn’t moving. It had no funnel and wasn’t expelling steam. I wondered in an academic sort of way why it was so bloody fast. I had more immediate concerns, though. Blood was dribbling into my collar.

Young James was off his stride.

‘Sophy,’ he said. ‘Is that you?’

The lady pushed me away. I stumbled, but got my balance and clapped a hand to my throat. For a moment, I was worried this Sophy Kratides person had slit my throat. They say you don’t feel it if the knife is sharp enough, though who ‘they’ might be who’ve lived to pass on this intelligence, I couldn’t say. Everyone whose throat I’ve cut has only managed a minute or so of inarticulate gurgling before shutting up permanently. I let my wound go and saw only spots of blood on my fingers. She’d just administered an attention-getting scratch.

Turning, I saw Miss Kratides peel off her mask of sticking-plaster, taking off the moustache and eyebrows with it. Sophy had a handsome, if severe face, and held a knife like someone practiced in its use. She slid it between her fingers, wiping off my blood. The top three buttons of her uniform jacket were undone. A smaller knife was holstered in the front of her corset, handle nestled between prize plums. How many other blades had she concealed in out-of-the-way portions of her anatomy? It might be diverting, if dangerous, to discover the answer. Her flashing eyes and sharp edges reminded me of other exciting ladies of my acquaintance… Mattie Ball of Wessex, Malilella of the Stiletto, Lady Yuki Kashima, Mad Margaret Trelawny. Yes, I never learn. I like the dangerous ones.

‘You’re not supposed to be here,’ the Stationmaster said to her. ‘You’re supposed to be on the Kallinikos. Keeping an eye on Lampros.’

‘Miss Kratides is where I want her to be, James,’ said a voice from the other side of the platform. ‘Keeping an eye on you.’

‘James?’ sputtered Stationmaster Moriarty.

I looked at the Professor, who raised his shoulders in a ‘not me’ shrug.

‘Yes, James,’ said the voice.

Out of the fog stalked Colonel James Moriarty.

We had the full set.

VI

So this is what the Colonel meant by ‘supplies’. Secret weapons. I should have known no Moriarty would spend his life on bully and boots. I still took him for a sickly desk-rider, but he could do damage enough while sitting on his arse.

‘James,’ the Colonel said to the Stationmaster, ‘I gave you this position to perform one duty, and one duty only. To revive and disseminate the legend of the Fal Vale Worm. To keep prying eyes away from the Kallinikos…

Just to show I paid some attention at Eton… the war train was named for Kallinikos of Heliopolis, inventor of ‘Greek fire’, as used by the Byzantine Empire against the infidel circa 672 AD. The secret of the weapon, a forerunner of arsonists’ accelerants, was supposedly lost. It seemed it had been rediscovered.

‘Not only have you failed in this, James. You have contrived to gather all the prying eyes in one party.’

‘Yes, James,’ responded Stationmaster Moriarty. ‘On my own initiative. You can round them up. Buy them off. Shoot them. Whatever you do, they won’t be spying on your trials and reporting back to their masters. Isn’t that more useful than leaving them at large?’

‘Not cricket, eh what,’ Lucas said. ‘You’ve got to have some standards!’

‘No, Mr Lucas, you do not,’ Young James responded. ‘Do you not understood your own profession? As a spy, you must have no standards at all!’

M. Sabin — Herbert de la Meux, Victor-Duc de Souspennier — tried to step back into the shadows. My new girlfriend was there behind him, two interesting little knives slipped out of her bracelets. She made symbolic slices in his jacket. He didn’t try to escape again.

We were all going to have to play audience to this family discussion.

‘James,’ the Stationmaster appealed to the Professor, ‘tell James about human nature.’

The Colonel blew his nose. ‘I see you are in this too, James,’ he said. ‘Despite express instructions.’

‘Your cover is outmoded, James,’ the Professor told the Colonel, his voice dripping with scorn. ‘Putting the spook story about to scare off the curious might have done for Dr Syn. In those days, a dab of phosphor on an old sack-mask could turn a smuggler into a marsh phantom frightening enough for ignorant folk to shiver under their bedclothes on nights when the ghosts rode. But this is a world of telephone and telegraph. Entire societies of busybodies chase ghosts with anemometers and Kodaks.

‘Reviving the worm legend is not a sensible tactic for keeping people away from military secrets. Rather, it is an invitation to every crank in the land to crawl over your proving ground. Frankly, it’s a wonder this party consists only of spies. It won’t be long before someone hires the real Thomas Carnacki to poke about with his electric pentacle and plum-bob. If a circulation-chasing newspaper puts a bounty on the worm, you’ll have to deal with Moran’s game-hunting fraternity too.’

The Colonel was on the ropes, his brothers ganged against him.

All three heads oscillated as they stared at each other, like a convocation of cobra. It was hard to look away from, but harder to look at.

The Kallinikos was on the move, coming back this way. I glimpsed the Greek invertebrate’s operators through slits in its hide. Like the Cornish worm, the war train had a head at both ends. Two engines. It could move at equal speed in either direction, so long as there were rails to run on.

Metal snail tracks were creeping all over the world. The machine was not made for my sort of war: putting down natives, chasing hill-bandits, looting dusky potentates’ treasure stores. It was built to roll over Europe, pissing fire on uhlans, cathedrals and shopkeepers. The contraption stank of bloody cleverness. The representatives of foreign powers took mental notes. Which wouldn’t do anyone’s empire any good without the plans. It’s always the plans spies are after.

The worm slid into the station.

I didn’t swallow Stationmaster Moriarty’s latest version of events, in which he’d selflessly rounded up the most dangerous spies in Britain. I judged young James had the cold, calculating self-interest of his eldest brother. No atom of patriotism stirred in his breast. He might have planned a double-cross — technically, a triple-cross — but, if not for the early arrival of Colonel Moriarty and Miss Kratides, he’d at least have tried to get paid for the secrets of the worm before turning his catch over to the mercies of the Department of Supplies.

Lucas considered the Kallinikos wistfully. I could imagine the riches the Emperor of Japan would bestow on the man who brought him such a dragon.

I just felt a kind of congealed disgust.

It was like the first time I saw a Maxim gun in action. Oh, for a minute or two, the rat-tat-tat is exciting, and it’s quite amusing to see wave upon wave of spear-chucking, astounded natives jigging like broken marionettes as red chunks of their bodies fly off in all directions. Then, a battle which would once have raged for three days — and seen seven Victoria crosses bestowed (five posthumously) on the brave, foolish lads who defended some flyblown ridge just because a Union Jack fluttered above it — is over and done with inside two minutes. As the operator fusses about his overheated precious gadget, wiping grease off his spectacles and calling for tea and biscuits, it all seems terribly empty.

Anyone who can direct a hosepipe can turn the crank of a wonder-gun and murder more heathens in a single burst than a sharpshooter with clear eye, steady nerve and taste for the kill — which is to say, Basher Moran or the nearest offer — can pot in an entire campaign. I knew how handloom weavers must have felt when factory owners installed the spinning jenny. One thing about Mr Hiram Maxim’s gun, though: a sock full of blasting powder and pebbles, shoved down a fat barrel and packed tight with a swagger-stick, makes for an amusing incident the next time the clerk in charge gives the machinegun a test-fire to impress the staff officers.

Professor Moriarty, who had science instead of a soul, was interested in the Kallinikos. He quizzed Colonel Moriarty, who — I saw — was not beyond wanting to impress his older brother.

‘You have George Lampros, then?’

‘This is a Lampros — Partington design,’ the Colonel admitted.

Now, it was the Professor’s turn to lecture. ‘The formula for “Greek Fire” has been preserved since the Byzantine Empire by a family of alchemists and engineers. George Lampros is the last of them. Moran, you will recall I drew your attention to his obituary in The Times and listed the seven significant factors that suggested his death had been faked to cover a new, secret employment…’

I did not recall. Quite often, I didn’t pay attention when the Professor was off on one of his tears. I’d probably been waiting for him to hand over the paper so I could see how much I’d lost at the races the day before.

‘Lampros is a Greek patriot,’ continued the Professor. ‘Why has he shared his secret with Britain?’

The Colonel made a pfui gesture. His face was dark red in the light of the still-burning fields. He responded, ‘As a Greek patriot, Lampros envisions a coming war between Christian Europe and the Ottoman Empire, in which our island fortress will be the last redoubt. He is politically naïve, of course. We have a contingency plan for modern crusades against the infidel Turk, but it is but one among many potential conflicts for which we must prepare. The Kallinikos is a prototype, the first launch of a land fleet which will take the rails against any threat to the interests of our Empire. One day, soon, half the world will be in flames thanks to the Lampros formula… I intend to make sure Great Britain is in the other half.’

Sadly, I had no sock of blasting powder about me.

‘You disagree, Colonel Moran?’ Colonel Moriarty said. ‘Does the Kallinikos offend your sensibilities?’

Like the Professor, the Colonel could read my face. It’s not such a trick. When I’m angry, I frown like thunder. When I’m enjoying myself, I grin like an ape. Only when I’ve got a better hand than the other fellow does the curtain come down and I present an aspect of stone. I was frowning, now.

‘It does take the sport out of it,’ I suggested mildly.

Three Moriarty brothers craned their necks to glare electrically at me.

‘Sport!’ spat the Stationmaster. ‘Have you missed the last fifty years of history?’

‘No, chummy, I’ve been in the thick of it, where the medals are won and the bodies are buried. I’ve had the fun, while you’ve been clipping platform tickets.’

‘In a generation, you’ll be obsolete,’ Colonel Moriarty told me. ‘The first time the Kallinikos sees off a cavalry charge, your type of soldier will be one with the dinosaurs. It may be less sporting, less fun, but we shall win.’

‘You may be right, Colonel,’ I told him. ‘But you’ll have the deuce of a battle first. Not with the enemy, with your own lot. You’re still in the British army and they’ll never stand for…’

‘I’m not in the British army,’ he said, with a Moriartian gleam in his eyes. ‘I am the British army. Just now, in command of a single train, I outgun all the medal-laden idiots who rode into the Valley of Death but didn’t learn from it.

‘You think the Empire’s war machine is still run by public school bullies who went into their father’s regiment and had a commission warm and waiting? I admit there are all too many of that breed. You can find them guzzling brandy in deadly dull clubs or sweltering in Turkish baths, swapping yarns about the wily Pathan and Johnny Zulu. They’re for show, Moran. For parades and guarding Buckingham Palace and skirmishing with brown bandits.

‘When we go against, say, Kaiser Wilhelm — and, make no mistake, we will — the Kallinikos, designed by scientists and operated by engineers, will carry the day. We’ll keep you on, of course. Your kind of soldier. We might call you a land captain and put you on top of the train like a figurehead. We’ll give you medals when you get your head shot off. But soldiers in overalls, not scarlet uniforms, will carry the fight.’

Colonel Moriarty looked at me and saw the sort of men who sneered at his precious Department of Supplies and would never let him sit at the top table no matter how many battles his choo-choo juggernaut won. He couldn’t even make or operate the Kallinikos — just fill in the forms to get it on the rails.

I took my revolver from my coat pocket and pointed it at the Colonel’s head. That shut him up.

‘Moran,’ cautioned the Professor, mildly.

In that moment, I couldn’t tell whether Moriarty would be grateful or furious if I killed his brother out of hand.

‘I could have you burned where you stand, before you manage to fire,’ Colonel Moriarty said.

I had noticed the nozzles of the flame-cannons swivelling to point at me.

Turning, I fired… and took off one of Oberstein’s kneecaps. He was felled and the palm-sized compression pistol — disguised as a big pocket watch — rolled from his grip. He had been creeping into a position where he could have shoved the thing in the small of the Colonel’s back and blasted his spine.

‘Can I have another medal for that, chief clerk?’ I asked. ‘I seem to have saved your life.’

Sophy Kratides’ face was burning. She’d been behind Oberstein and had not seen him reaching under his cassock.

At my shot, Lucas and Sabin had thrown themselves on the ground. Ilse von Hoffmannsthal, however, stood straight.

Oberstein swore in German.

Lucas and Sabin began to roll along the platform and — in a flash! — I perceived something not one of the brothers Moriarty had yet realised.

I can’t sniff dropped cigar ashes and tell you the inside-leg measurement of the smoker. But I’ve come through numerous battles with skin relatively intact because I don’t suffer from a maths teacher