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The Hellfire Conspiracy: Excerpt
I recognized the sound, though I had never heard it before. I was in the middle of the agency's account books, totaling figures, when it came. The window was open because it was warm in our chambers, and outside, the horse traffic inWhitehall Street was heavy. Inside, Cyrus Barker was at his desk answering correspondence, while Jenkins, our clerk was having a low conversation with a prospective client in the outer office. The agency had been doing well; we were busy and would no doubt be busier still. It was shortly after one o'clock on Friday, the twenty-sixth of June, 1885, and when I heard it, I thought to myself, That's the sound of a saber being drawn.
Barker's pen rolled off the edge of his desk and fell to the floor, and I heard the whisper of the revolver, holstered beneath his chair, clearing leather. I was not as well prepared. For one thing, the account book was in my lap, and for another, my pistol was tucked away in one of the drawers of my roll-topped desk. By the time I'd dropped the book to the floor and had my hand on the pull of the drawer, Jenkins was already backing slowly into our chambers.
"Visitor, Mr. B.," he stated with as much sangfroid as one can muster with the point of a saber thrust against the Adam's apple.
"Thank you, Jenkins," the Guv stated with the same aplomb. "Won't you come in, sir?"
Our visitor came into the room, spurs jingling and eyes resolute. He was a sight in his gleaming helmet and breastplate -- one of Her Majesty's Life Guards, her personal troops, the most highly trained soldiers in England, if not the world. Their parade grounds were just down Whitehall Street, but I had never seen one without a horse under him. Needless to say, we'd never had one in our offices before, taking a sword to a harmless clerk.
"He says I don't have an appointment," the man snapped. "Why does everybody need a bloody appointment these days?"
It's strange what goes through one's mind during a dangerous situation. In a moment, the fellow could be gutting our clerk and then my employer would be sure to shoot the man dead, but all I could do was stare in fascination at the officer's mustache. It was a deep, fiery red, waxed in the shape of a "W," and it quivered when he shouted.
"It is not necessary that you have an appointment," Barker said, setting his pistol on his desk. "But it is necessary that you cease threatening my clerk. Put away your saber, before you do someone harm."
The point of the saber came out from under the knot of Jenkins's tie, wavered in the air for a moment as if seeing what other mischief it could find, and then the major thrust it back into its scabbard with a loud snick of metal against metal. His features suddenly went slack and his epauletted shoulders slumped forward.
"He's going," Barker warned. Just then the officer's knees gave out, and I caught him, or tried to. He was six foot to my five four and outweighed me by at least three stone. His weight pressed me down until I lay on the Oriental rug with him splayed across me. He hadn't quite fainted. I still saw the gleam of his eyes under the shadow of his helmet, but he was obviously in a state of shock.
"Jenkins," our employer said as he came around the desk, "fetch the brandy."
"Right, sir," the clerk said, moving quickly to one of the back rooms of our chambers. It was the fastest I'd seen him move before three o'clock in the afternoon. He was generally feeling the effects of the previous night's liquor in the mornings, but it was remarkable how having one's tie pared with a saber will bring out the latent industry in one's character.
By the time Jenkins got back, we'd managed to get the slack-limbed soldier into the visitor's chair. His face grew as red as his tunic, and we feared under the circumstances he might break down. Barker looked at me from behind his black spectacles and his brows disappeared behind them in a frown. I believe we were thinking the same thing, which was that neither of us knew if his uniform contained such a thing as a handkerchief. We tugged them from our own breast pockets and proffered them simultaneously, but he shook his head, refusing both.
It is in a man's nature when faced with an emotional crisis to prepare for flight. If the person in crisis is a child, he feels he cannot possibly help the tot as well as its mother; if a woman, that he has blundered yet again and is not only unequal to repairing the situation but also probably could not even correctly diagnose the problem. But, if the emotional person is another man, it is the worst possible catastrophe. The societal fabric has been rent. A man would rather be shot by a firing squad than to break down in front of his fellows, and to witness such a breakdown is almost as bad a breach of decorum as to break down oneself.
The guardsman sat for a moment with his head in his hands, breathing heavily, and I feared he might pass out again. My employer, for once, was at something of a loss, looking away and drumming a finger on his blotter while waiting for the man to gain his composure. Jenkins stood beside us, holding the small snifter of brandy. If someone wasn't going to drink it soon, I would. Barker kept it strictly for medicinal purposes, but all this was getting on my nerves.
"Get hold of yourself, man!" my employer suddenly bellowed, and we all jumped. It did the trick. A soldier is accustomed to taking orders. When he jumped, he was as slack as a rag doll, but when he landed in his chair again, he was every inch a guardsman. He sat ramrod straight, and nothing but the redness of his stony face left evidence that anything had occurred.
"Good. Now say it out plain. Speak up, now!"
It took the man a moment to compose himself before he finally got it out. "She's gone, sir! They've taken my daughter, Gwendolyn."
"I don't know, sir. White slavers, I think. She's been abducted."
"I see. How old is your daughter?"
The guardsman frowned. "Eleven. No, twelve. Her birthday was in April. We got her a tea set. The little kind, you know. And a doll. It's still at home, but she isn't."
"From where was she abducted?" Barker questioned, trying to keep him calm.
"The East End," he stated. "Hypatia -- that's my wife -- volunteers in the East End once or twice a month. Says it does her soul good to help the poor, and she has made friends there. She takes our daughter along, says it is good for her to see how the other half lives. What was she thinking? She had no business taking Gwendolyn to the East End. Anyone could see how dangerous it is. She -- she -- "
As if it were an automatic response ordered from the baser parts of the brain, the major took the glass from Jenkins and emptied its contents down his throat. He gave a shudder afterward, as the heat from the alcohol rose up his throat, and he absently wiped his lips with the back of his gloved hand.
"What is your name, sir?"
The man seemed to consider it, but the words took a moment to sink below the surface. "What? Oh, sorry. It is DeVere. Major Trevor DeVere."
"Very well, Major DeVere. From where in the East End was she abducted, specifically?" Barker had retrieved his pen and opened his notebook, but he was tapping the pen against his blotter impatiently. So far the major had not been very coherent, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt that he would be of more use on the battlefield. He had a missing daughter, after all.
"Bethnal Green, at the corner of Green Street and Globe Road."
My employer had a cabman's knowledge of London streets as well as a statistician's grasp of crime. "That area has its share of criminal activity, but it is not quite the Black Hole of Calcutta. Do you know for certain she was taken? Perhaps she just met a local girl and is off playing in the street somewhere."
DeVere shook his head until his helmet rattled. "No, sir. The children don't play in the streets there anymore. Their mothers won't let them. Hypatia says they are afraid the white slavers will take their children and sell them to brothels in France or seraglios in Araby."
"I believe your wife has been reading too many sensational newspapers," the Guv pronounced.
"No, sir," the major responded. "I spoke to a family this morning who'd had their daughter taken. Poor family but respectable. The girl had been their pride and joy and just twelve. She's been gone close on to a year now. And now the monsters have my Gwendolyn. I'll kill them, I will. I'll track them down and skewer every last one of them if it is the last thing I do in this life!"
"Let us do the tracking," Barker said. "We are experienced man hunters, after all. When was your daughter last seen?"
"About nine o'clock this morning."
"And what does she look like?"
"Beautiful, sir. Long blond hair, blue eyes. She's small for her age and has a smile that goes straight to the heart."
Barker cleared his throat. "For what agency does your wife work?"
"The Charity Organization Society."
"Obviously you have been on parade. How did you learn of your daughter's disappearance?"
"Hypatia sent a telegram."
"And what did you do then?"
"I rode off to Bethnal Green, of course. I questioned Hypatia and all the staff. Then I spent an hour riding about the area. After that, I thought to tell Scotland Yard, so I rode back here. A fine lot of good that did me. They claimed Gwendolyn must be missing for twenty-four hours before they would lift a finger! Damned incompetence!"
"Their hands are tied by regulations, Major. You must not blame them. What brought you to my door?"
"Well, sir, I thought if the official detectives won't do it, perhaps a private one will."
"Why did you choose me, if I may ask it?"
"Your door had the shiniest plaque."
Barker and I looked over at Jenkins, who favored us with a smug smile. Five years developing a reputation as one of the best private enquiry agents in London and many pounds sterling outlaid for advertisements in The Times, and someone came to his door on the strength of the shine of the brass.
"Very well, sir. I shall accept your case and begin searching for your daughter. Have you brought a retaining fee?"
"Uh, no, sir," the major said, abashed. "I didn't think of it. I don't carry money in my tunic."
"Then Mr. Llewelyn here shall collect it later." Barker cleared his throat. "Major, most guardsmen do not ride independently about the city in full regalia. Did you have leave to hunt for your daughter or have you in fact deserted your post?"
DeVere lowered his head. "I did rather ride off, I'm afraid. I shall be in a spot of trouble when I get back."
"Then I suggest you cross the street to your barracks, take your medicine like a man, and leave the case in my hands. I cannot believe Her Majesty's army would be so callous as to demote you under the present circumstances, though you had better prepare yourself for a sharp reprimand."
Major DeVere slowly rose to his feet. "You are correct, of course, Mr. Barker. I must return to my duties."
"Yes, but you look a fright. I have a mirror and comb in one of my back rooms. Come this way."
Barker led him down the passage to one of the rooms behind his chambers, and Jenkins followed, leaving me alone to think. It seemed to me I'd read something in the newspapers about the white slave trade, girls forced into prostitution and boys into hard labor in mines and foundries. I'd seen women in the East End, pursuing their occupation boldly in the light of day, but it had never occurred to me that they might not have come to the work willingly or were below the legal age of consent, which was thirteen years.
DeVere came back into the room. Barker was tugging at the bottom of the fellow's tunic as Jenkins brushed his shoulders. I got the absurd notion we were all seeing him off to a dance instead of a reprimand. His face was still red, but his mustache was combed.
"When shall you call upon me?" the major asked anxiously.
"Immediately, if she is found. Otherwise, tomorrow."
DeVere clanked out, sword swinging and the rowels of his spurs clanking at the expense of our floor. We crossed to the window and watched him mount a gray gelding unsteadily before turning toward the direction of his barracks.
"Do you think she has really been abducted?" I asked.
"I scarce can say," Barker answered. "The newspapers are full of dire warnings, but I have never heard of those who traffic in white slavery brought to the dock. But, come. Every minute we waste increases the odds that we won't recover Gwendolyn DeVere alive."
Copyright © 2007 by Will Thomas