THE DEATH OF DANGLY DAN
An Occult Detective Novella
Detective Chief Superintendent Kenneth Hoxton levelled his finger and said, in clear and very practiced tones, “Baron Roger Hugo Tinton-Smythe, Yarl of the Spring Court, Ten-Thousand of Orange—” and then he ducked, tucked and rolled aside as a jet of flame filled the space where he’d stood.
“What are you going to do, pleb? Arrest me?” the baron chuckled, passing his flame from one hand to the other in a trickle. As the stream of fire connected his hands he flexed his shoulders, raised one hand and declared, “Kundalini Nagini Marana!” flicking the ribbon of incandescence out.
The ribbon of fire flared and blurred before taking on the appearance of a hooded cobra, which reared above Hoxton and then struck.
Hoxton threw himself aside, dropping into a slide as the ophidian fire twisted back towards him. As he rose from his knees, he stepped sideways, and the flaming cobra flickered, once more, through a space he wasn’t in.
The baron wheeled back, surrounding himself in tongues of spinning flame.
Hoxton took advantage of the lull, as the baron’s magick drew power to say, “Well, I was going to, but you had to go insulting an officer of the Crown, in front of my subordinates too, so now I’m going to use you as a training exercise.”
“Training exercise? Why you jumped up little oik! How dare you speak to me in that tone. I’ll burn you to the bone you insufferable, inconsequential, intolerable—”
The baron’s fire guttered, the writhing inferno collapsing around him as Hoxton hit him hard in the face with hand wrapped in a set of steel knuckledusters.
“Always carry iron or steel, it can be hard to get hold of, and can make you feel unwell if you’ve any trace of elf-blood about you, but as you can see it is most effective,” Hoxton lectured, his eyes never leaving the nobleman.
The baron rolled back on the floor, and tossed a ball of flame at Hoxton’s head. Hoxton jabbed lightly into the elemental magic, popping it into jumping yellow sparks. The baron clambered to his feet, bleeding from the nose and lip.
“You stubid fugging durd,” the baron spat blood down his white shirt, “I’n going to fug you ub, you fugging bleb!”
“Now, you’ll see the arrest subject is spouting his mouth off. Regardless of rank, they all do this, only a true gentleman, or the career criminal, will keep a civil tongue at this point, excuse me,” he ducked under a wildly swung flaming arm and twisted, planting his knuckledusters into the baron’s belly.
The baron collapsed with a whoosh of air and flame.
Hoxton walked back a couple of paces, and stood lightly balanced on the balls of his feet.
“For the true gentleman, it is an act of grace, for the career criminal— well, they know that insulting, or striking, an officer adds years to almost any sentence. Ordinarily at this point, you would complete the arrest, but for the benefit of Baron Tinton-Smythe’s pride and education we’ll allow him time to recuperate.”
The baron rose in a swift movement then, wrapping himself in flames that seemed to burn the wounds from his flesh, “Big mistake, you really are incredibly stupid.”
Hoxton shrugged, and bent his knees slightly into a loose ready position.
The baron erupted. Hungry tongues of flame lifted him from the ground with a roar and cast him toward Hoxton.
Hoxton danced his weight on the balls of his feet and then lunged into the flame. His right arm flying straight forward, fingers wrapped in steel.
The centre of the room exploded with blue-white light. Shadows, and afterimages, danced in the room as the two combatants were caught in the spell.
The baron blazed with elemental fury; wrapped in a cloak of flame that covered his limbs as he lashed out.
Hoxton dodged the jabs, ducked the swings, and surviving unburnt in the flames. He looked calm and perhaps a little bored.
Hoxton ducked his grey hair under a particularly wild swing, stepped lightly to the side, and moved behind the baron. He turned then and drove the steel into the baron’s ribs.
“Most important of all, remember that you are an officer of the Crown, and as long as you are in the pursuit of your duty you are protected —” he punched hard into the baron’s kidney, “— not by your badge, your iron, or your uniform, but by the office and titles of the most powerful sorceress the world has ever known.” Hoxton drove the knuckleduster through the noble’s profile, spraying blood and teeth across the ground, saying, “God save the Queen.”
“God save the Queen,” the other officers agreed, looking down at the unconscious noble.
“Lads, Talbot, he’s all yours,” he motioned at the limp form.
Detective Sergeant Fiona Henry-Canute-Victoria-Henry Gordon-Setter Talbot moved quickly, her fur bristled as she snarled, “Baron Roger Hugo Tinton-Smythe, Yarl of the Spring Court, Ten-Thousand of Orange, I am arresting you in the name of the Crown on suspicion of the Unseelie crime of the unlicensed murder of Melinda Glendale, barmaid of the ‘Duke’s head’ tavern, Putney. You do not have to say anything if you do not wish to do so, but anything you do say may be used against you in the Autumn Court.”
The other lads sped forward following Fiona’s lead. They cuffed the baron and then lifted him between them.
“Oh and lads, if he falls down the stairs, don’t carry him back to the top for another go,” Hoxton ordered, and beckoned Talbot closer, “I’m getting old Fi, and the hot-heads are getting faster.”
“You could have had him at the first, if you hadn’t started pratting about, Boss,” Talbot said dismissively.
“Yes, well —” Hoxton began.
“I mean, Guv, he didn’t even make contact with his Snake-Fire, and you could have had him easy until you started farting about,” Fiona Talbot paused looking at the man who had befriended three generations of her family and who was her godfather, “You shouldn’t have let him get to you like that, Guv.”
“And with that, I think you hit the nail on the head, I should have just lamped him and nicked him. Learn from my mistake so you never have to deal with the same thing,” Hoxton mentored. “Right then, let’s go see if they’ve got him in the paddy-wagon yet.”
Hoxton smiled behind the paper with his eyes closed. He pretended to nap, while pretending to be reading about the latest in the Parliamentary row between the Pink dominated Breeze Party and the Blue and Green coalition in Rain. Although, many of the Green were sliding, in anger, over to the Dark Clouds or Sleet parties. The paper also covered the ongoing debate about the new eastern tech alliances, and the situation with the Free Farmers around the Luna colony.
He ignored it all and instead listened to his two youngest and their friends bickering as they set the table for supper.
“Nah, I’m telling yous, ain’t no doubts, dey’re going to play the Brix’on ‘cademy in Occy-tober, an’ dey said it’ll be on de Gogglebox an’ wireless too. I saw it, fact, in da paper,” one of Stefan’s friends said, Hoxton struggled to remember his name, it was one of those funny new nicknames the kids seemed to delight in giving each other.
“Well, that may be so, Gobsie, but I read they was breaking up,” Stefan expounded as he laid spoons out.
“Actually, I read that Hinge had quit after what Monkey-face said about his mum at the Maidstone gig.” A girl’s voice said.
That was Denise, one of Hazel’s many school friends, her Dad had died in the big dock fire back in ‘78 and as a result, Denise was practically an honorary Hoxton. She only went home for about three nights in any week, and Hazel always went with her and helped tidy the house, walk the dogs, cook her mum’s tea, or whatever.
“That was in ‘The Snotrag’, you can’t trust anything that Gavin Randles writes about any of the real punks, not since ‘The Cockroaches’ kicked him out. He even claimed that ‘Her and the wossnames’ had been convicted for infernalism, but Dad said he’d never even heard of them,” Hazel, his youngest, said.
“Does your Dad really nick infernals den Stef?” Gobsie asked, looking over at the apparently sleeping copper.
“Yeah, infernals, psychos, toffs what have gone a bit mental, escaped and rogue Unseelie Fæ, and thems he won’t talk about,” Stef beamed with pride.
“What one’s he won’t talk about?” Gobsie asked.
Hazel, Stef, and Denise all chimed back together, “We don’t know, cuz he won’t talk about them,” and fell about laughing.
“Come on you lot, stew’s ready. Have you finished laying the table yet?” Ellen Hoxton shouted through from the kitchen.
“Yes Mum,” Hazel called back.
“Well then, come and get yourselves a bowl,” Ellen said as she hustled through holding two bowls of thick and meaty-smelling stew and a plate of bread and butter. She lowered the plate down on the table, and then gently placed the bowls. “Come on Ken, you can quit pretending to be asleep, and get some of this in you.”
Hoxton folded the paper and got up from his chair; he detoured to the fireplace and added the folded news to the kindling basket, before he joined his wife at the table. He gave her a kiss on the cheek as he sat down.
“Yum… Great stew Elly,” he said as he slurped up a spoon of tender lamb, peas, potato, and carrots.
“Ah, get away with you, you old charmer,” she huffed, “it’s just a stew.”
The table filled with kids all carrying steaming bowls.
“Hiya Dad, how’s business?” Stefan asked as he sat down.
Hoxton laughed and answered, “Not bad, Stef. Nicked a baron yesterday. Tonight’ll be paperwork and midnight sandwiches though.”
“Didn’t know dey still made you work nights, Mr. Hoxton,” Gobsie said as he sat down, “I ‘fought’ it were just a few Bobbies and a desk sergeant.”
“Hmph, chance’d be a fine thing,” said Elly.
“Unseelie crimes are more likely at night, Gobsie. So they do more business in Dad’s department then. Isn’t that right, Dad?” Hazel looked at Ken for confirmation.
“Sadly, that is true. Infernals and Goblins find midnight the easiest time to come through, all the Fæ are closer to Unseelie at night, and that goes double for our nobles as well, by the way, and then your average psychopath, well let’s just say they find busy daytimes a bit crowded for them.”
Gobsie stared at Hoxton, his face one of awe and curiosity, as he asked, “And the others?”
Hoxton stared back at the sixteen-year old lad making his face completely blank, apart from a twinkle as Gobsie suddenly looked nervous. Hoxton held the gaze a moment longer and then turned to Stefan, “How’d the alchemy test go?”
“Nailed it, it was just Darby’s original Orichalcum formula, after all that work you had me do on Wilkinson’s Greek bronze refinement,” Stefan explained.
“Good, but I’m surprised they didn’t ask about the bronze. How about you girls? Did you tell Mandy Ducksfoot what I said?”
“No, Mr. Hoxton, we couldn’t. Miss Duxford wasn’t in today, we did extra Maths with Mr. Hope instead,” Denise answered.
“That’s right Dad, they said she called in sick today, but don’t you worry Dad, I’m not going to let her get away with what she said happened in Ankara. I saw Mr. Hamilton today, during lunch break, and he said that he would have words with her about it, and that we were to go straight to him if she said anything like it again. And you know she will, that type are always spreading their lies,” Hazel broke in having finished a particularly large dumpling.
Hoxton took a breath about to leap into the fray. Amanda Duxford’s opinions of the Talbots and their war record were radically different to Hoxton’s personal experience, especially regarding the massacre of Ankara, a siege that Hoxton had fought. Having watched Talbots and men starve to death together in the besieged town, he couldn’t abide the lies the right-wing press had evolved around it, and he was about to tell everyone so again.
“Eat your tea love, it’s getting cold,” Elly Hoxton said, and both he and his daughter tucked back into the food. “So… Lindsey, how’s your mum?”
The table went quiet. Eventually Stefan elbowed Gobsie, “Oh, erm… she’s alright. Her leg’s been playing up again, so she hasn’t been able to dance in the foxtrot competition this year with Dad, but she says she’ll be ready for the waltz, come June. At least, according to Doctor Klein, it put a smile on her face. This is great stew Mrs. ‘Aitch.”
“Oh, you can tell her, Barbara has got her colour in again, Lindsey. Mary, close the door love,” this last part was to the new arrival.
Mary kissed her parents before she sat at the table and grabbed a piece of bread and butter.
“Are you not having any stew, Mary?”
She rolled her eyes so only her siblings could see, “No Mum, Desmond’s taking us out for chips and a movie, remember.”
“Oh, did he get his city and guilds then?” Hoxton asked.
“I told you that love,” said Elly.
“Not that I remember.”
“Yes you do, it was when we went to the park on Wednesday, and we met Andrew and Cathy at the cafe.”
“Elly honey, I was working on Wednesday, John took you to the park,” Hoxton laughed.
“Oh, no you’re right, sorry love. Ooh, speak of the devil!”
John Hoxton burst into the room, smelling of grease, engine oil, and strong soap. “Hiya Mum, wotcha Dad. Oh Stef, I got your comics here, lad. Hiya Denise, saw your brother Eric today, he was with that girl from Watson’s, what’s her name again?” John busied about the room.
“Enid Platt, he’s pretty serious about her. Not sure she is ‘bout him though,” Denise answered.
“Stefan, if you’re done eating clear your plate. You can get your brother a bowl, too. John, have you washed your hands?”
“Of course, Mum, I wash my hands when I take the overalls off,” John said, but they both knew where this was going, and he’d washed his hands by the time Stef plonked half a bowl of stew on the table.
“Mmm…Yum…Nom!” was all the noise he made for about four minutes.
The backdoor banged open and the kitchen corridor filled with the sound of running little feet.
“Nan! Grandad! Uncky Step, Anny Hazy look,” the newcomer yelled, “I gotta Rocket Ninja offa the Goggly-box!” and proceeded to wave the tiny, black, doll with its coppery backpack around.
“Is that so, Blue?” Hoxton asked his eldest grandchild.
“Grandad, I’m not Blue, I’m Mark, silly. What’s that you’re eating Grandad?” Mark asked, trying to peep over the edge of the tablecloth.
Hoxton lifted him onto his knee, “Up you come, Blue. We’re all having stew. Would you like some too?”
“Grandad, you rhymed!” Mark giggled.
“He’s in here Lizzy,” Ellen called toward the backdoor, and leaned closer to Hoxton making eye contact, a silent reminder to watch his rhyming.
“Oh, Mark, come off Grandad, he’s trying to eat his tea before he goes to work. Here’s that fiver for the Christmas club, Mum. Hello everyone. Come on Mark, we need to get Daddy’s tea on. Oh Dad, Uncle Tony came in the office today, he asked me to tell you Great-Aunt Celia is in the hospital again. Mary, are you going to see Des tonight?” Lizzy gabbled.
“Yeah, we’re going to the pictures,” Mary answered.
“I want to go to the pictures! Bye Grandad, I’m going to the pictures!” Mark yelled and leapt free.
“Can you tell him that we’ve got a leak on our header tank again, but we’ve got the parts if he can come by on Saturday and give Jack a hand with it? Jack says it should be good practice for his City and Guilds,” Lizzy asked.
“Oh, didn’t you hear? He already got them, but I’m sure he won’t mind giving Jack a hand,” Mary smiled.
“Oh well, in that case it won’t take long at all, you come over on Saturday too, and we’ll have a game of cards and a bottle of wine, after they’re done. Come on Mark, we’ve got to go. Say goodbye to everyone.”
“Bye Grandad, bye Nan, bye Anny Mary, bye-bye Uncky Step, Uncky John, bye Anny Den, bye —hello who are you? I’m Mark,” Gobsie froze like a deer in headlights.
“Leave Uncle Stef’s friend alone Mark, he’s eating,” Elly said, “come on, Mummy’s waiting.”
“Oh yeah, sorry Uncky Step’s friend, I gotta go to the pictures,” and with that he was off with in an uncoordinated, windmilling run.
“Slow down Mark, see you everyone,” Lizzy said and headed out toward the backdoor, just in time to see Fiona Talbot open the backdoor and sweep up the flailing child like a ragdoll.
“Anny Fi! Stop it, your fur is tickly,” Mark giggled.
“Say it!” Fiona ordered.
“Oh, Anny Fi, what big teef, you got,” he gasped.
“All the better to eat you up! Nom! Nom! Nom! Hi Liz, here you go.”
Liz grabbed the giggling ball of child and held him on her hip as she asked, “Hi, Fiona, how’re things going with Vincent?”
“Oh, we broke up, wanted different things. I wanted him, and he wanted Penny Grey who works at the Bottle factory,” Fiona laughed.
“Penny Grey? I didn’t know that, sorry.”
“Forget it, he deserves everything he catches off her, and word is it’ll be more than fleas. I’m seeing a new guy on Friday, Danny Murphy,” Fiona said.
“Danny Murphy? The Irish fella? I didn’t know he dated anyone but Catholic girls. Learn something new every day, eh? I’ve got to go, pop round tomorrow for a chat after work, okay?”
“Sure Liz, see you. Bye Mark,” Fiona said then walked through to the sight of Hoxton mopping up the last gravy with a slice of bread. “Hey Boss, time to go, sorry. Oh hi, everyone, hi Elly.”
“Hello, Fiona love, will you have a bite?” Elly asked.
“No thanks Elly. Mum made me breakfast already, besides we’ve got to dash.”
“Don’t be silly, John’ll give you a lift to the Yard, won’t you John?”
“Yeah? Oh, yeah, sure thing — let me just go for a… I’ll be back in a minute, hang on,” John darted from the table.
“Wow, he’s a bit eager, what’s that about?” Stef asked.
“He’s got a crush on Fi. Sorry Fi, but he does,” Hazel explained.
“Since when?” Fiona asked.
“Last Thursday, when you had a shower after work, apparently,” Hazel said, “he said he just kept thinking about you, after you sent him outside for a slash while you were in there.”
“That’s so wrong!” Denise suddenly said, drawing shocked looks from everyone. “Urgh, it’s like incest or something! It’d be like me getting a crush on Stef.”
“Who’s got a crush on Stef?” John asked as he came back in the room, and looked confused at the peals of laughter around the table.
“Come on you two,” Hoxton laughed getting up from the table and going to get his hat and pipe.
“See you later everyone,” Fiona said and began to walk out.
“Bye Fiona, love.”
“Have a nice night, Fiona.”
“Don’t let him work you too hard, Fi.”
“Enjoy the car ride, ’cause that won’t be awkward at all.”
“Yeah, thanks Stef,” Fiona said sarcastically, but her tail wagged a smile in there.
Hoxton shook his head, “Don’t I get a good night or good bye?”
“Yeah, course: see ya auld fella,” Stefan laughed.
“Don’t go fishing for compliments, Dad.”
“Fishing for compliments, Mary?”
“Never mind, night Dad.”
“Night Dad, m’wah.”
“Night Hazel,” Hoxton blew her a kiss back, and then planted another on his wife, “Sleep well Elly.”
“Stay safe, love.”
The eastern sky was already stained with dawn as Alf Dryden tottered along the cobbled alley.
He carried a long wooden pole that he used as a walking stick. He rolled up to one of the streetlights and reached up with the pole to twist the valve, and snuffed the glowing sphere of fixed fire. He muttered to himself, pulling at his collar, as he crossed the alley on a diagonal, headed for the next lamp.
The old lamplighter wheezed up beneath the streetlight, doffed his flat cap, and mopped his brow with a lily-white handkerchief. Something wet suddenly splattered across his bare head, and he mouthed a silent curse at some unseen bird as he wiped himself again. He brought the handkerchief down and stared hard at the dark stain on the white cloth, before stepping a bit closer to the pole.
“Wossat?” Alf wrinkled his nose, sniffing at the cloth, and then stepped back with a start. “Blood?”
Shielded from the bright street lamp by his hand, his eyes followed the dark spattered wall of the church up into the pre-dawn twilight.
He jumped as the bells sounded six o’clock, surprising him, and he glanced along the street.
“An’ all’s well, my arse,” he muttered leaning to make out the gargoyle shape, clinging in silhouette to the dark church. He shuffled back a little, putting the lamplight below the shape, and held his hand so it cast a spider shadow across his face.
For the first time, he saw it clearly then, and as soon as he did he yelled, “Murder! Police!”
The street filled with sounds of soft boots flapping on cobbles, and the clatter of a dropped lamplighter’s pole, as Alf Dryden ran.
The silent form, hanging in tattered clothes from the parapet of the church roof, swayed gently in the morning breeze off the river, and continued to drip sanguinely, onto the pavement below.
Hoxton and DS Talbot arrived in a black and white. They were directed, by a white-faced Constable Nightingale, into the church and up the stairs to the roof. Constable Griffin was waiting at the top, his broad-shouldered silhouette dark against the grey and pink dawn.
“How long?” Hoxton gruffly asked, pointing at the corpse that dangled from the spiked gothic decorations at the edge of the roof, a particularly morbid gargoyle.
“At least an hour, Sir, but he was still dripping when we got here, so not much longer than that,” Griffin answered.
“When can we take him down? I assume there is a reason why he’s still—” Hoxton began.
“They said you’d want to see him in place…” Griffin trailed off.
“No, he didn’t die there, did he? Seems obvious he was killed there, where the roof is stained and then slid,” Hoxton directed with his pipe, first at the large dark mark and then tracing the brown stain in the green patina of the copper-coloured roof. “Get him down.”
Griffin looked from the stain, to the body and then back at Hoxton. He opened his mouth to ask something.
“I don’t bloody know Griffin; get a ladder, or a rope. Use some bloody initiative!” Hoxton anticipated, and stepped out onto the rooftop.
Griffin nodded, “Yes sir!” and disappeared back into the stairway.
Hoxton made eye contact with DS Talbot, who tilted her head listening and eventually nodded back at him.
He strode across the apex of the roof on the thin ladder-like walkway. His boxer’s frame and stance balanced him perfectly as he moved quietly out to directly above the dent. He stared down at it, and then looked about the roof. There was something he wasn’t seeing yet, he thought.
“Dangerous and stupid place to kill a man,” he said.
“Especially at night, Boss,” DS Talbot agreed, she was warily making her way out towards him, “I’ve got good night-vision compared to you and I wouldn’t choose to fight up here in the dark.”
“You’re right there, Fi,” he said, and plonked himself down on the rooftop, gazing out over the rooftops of London as he lit his pipe with a match and regarded the scene before him.
He tried to conjure up the picture in his mind’s eye, his imagination filling in the details of the roof in the dark. A scenario that would bring two combatants out onto the roof here though seemed elusive.
“What would bring two men out onto a roof, like this? You can’t smell anything can you?”
“Only blood Guv, all his.”
“So it wasn’t a gun then, no alchemical stains or lingering harmonics either, whoever did it, he didn’t send him out onto here and shoot him.”
“Or she, Guv, but I don’t smell anyone, but him,” DS Talbot dipped her head toward the corpse, “and Griffin having been here. It’s a lot of blood, but they must have a damn powerful deodorant charm for me not to smell them. Charm that powerful, that’s more a thing a woman buys.”
“Point taken, Fi, still it does rule out any powder as well. Humph, I guess we’ll need to take a gander at dangly Dan there, and see if we can find some clues. Still… something’s just not right.”
Fiona Talbot kept quiet, watching Hoxton as he drew on his pipe for a while. He closed his eyes and she heard him muttering to himself. Fiona knew he was having what he called ‘one of his turns,’ and she listened intently to the stairs for PC Griffin’s return instead, ignoring the muttered folk-charms.
She watched her godfather lift his mature frame from the roof and walk further out along the apex. He stared down at his feet as he moved along, crouching once to examine a rung in detail. He looked out over the city, taking in the view. He could see clear to the docks and the bridges, and count churches and Tesla Corp nimbus towers across London. Then he turned, slowly lowered himself to his hands and knees, and looked back along the rooftop at her.
“I’ve got it!” he said.
Fiona turned her head, glancing at the body and then back at Hoxton quizzically.
“The blood there, I couldn’t see it before, but from here it’s obvious.”
“What is, Boss?”
“It’s not run down the roof, because it’s pooled, how can it pool on the roof like that?”
Fiona stared at the dark blotch of blood, it was pooled somehow, she laughed suddenly seeing it, “There’s a bloody great dent there— O-oh, meaning no disrespect to the departed.”
“I reckon if his shade’s here abouts, he’ll be a lot more worried about us finding his killer, or telling his wife the bad news, than you swearing a bit. Unless he hates puns, in which case, you are on your own, I’m not putting down any ghosts for you.”
“No, sir,” Fiona said, then added a moment later, “Boss, Griffin’s coming back.”
“Right,” he strode back toward her and shooed her back toward the stairs, “Go on, get back.”
They reached the doorway just as Griffin rounded the corner, puffing and carrying a rope.
“I’ve,” Griffin huffed, “brought a rope, sir.”
“Great,” Hoxton grinned, “get him down and see if you can find a wallet, or label on him. You might need to find a tailor’s mark and check their records. I doubt, he had his ticket on him, but he might, and that would help a lot.”
“What? Sorry, sir? Label? Ticket?” Griffin muttered.
“He wasn’t killed on the roof in the middle of the night,” Hoxton smiled.
“He wasn’t?” Griffin blinked.
“No, don’t be stupid man, he was killed on an Airship over the roof, and was dropped. See if you can find a ticket or purser’s label. Right, Talbot you’re with me. Griffin, get him down and see if you can find his name, I’ll be at the yard. We need to find out what was directly overhead ninety minutes ago,” he checked his watch, “Oh-four-fifty. Bet you breakfast it’s a mail ship, Talbot?”
“I’m sure you’re right sir,” Fiona said as she led the way down the stairs.
“No bet?” Hoxton laughed, “Does that mean I’m buying breakfast?”
Hoxton and Fiona sat a little while later in a greasy spoon a few streets from New Scotland Yard.
“Oh, there’s no rush Fi,” Hoxton sighed.
“There isn’t? But I thought we were off to check the rosters on that five-twenty-four mail ship, Guv’,” she mumbled through a mouthful of sausage and black pudding.
“Breakfast first, and I’ll explain why we are in no rush,” Hoxton said and cut a triangle of fried bread free, pushing it through egg yolk, tomato juice, beans and brown sauce, before he lifted it for a bite. He chewed, swallowed, and took a slurp of strong tea before he carried on, “We got the call at about the same time as the mail ship landed, that means when it landed, someone was missing.”
“Yes, dangly Dan, we know that,” she said, and watched frustrated as he built a stack of bacon, sausage, and mushrooms on his fork prongs.
“So, tell me this, if you know so much. Why has no one raised a missing persons report for said Mr. Dangly?” and he left her to think on that while he plunged the stacked fork into the yolk and beans, and then chewed on the gooey mess.
Fiona opened her mouth to speak, and then paused, and looked confused, “Nope, you’ve got me there, Boss. The company should have called it in as soon as they noticed he was missing.”
“Unless…” Hoxton prompted, scraping up a forkful of beans and tomatoes.
Fiona chewed on a bit of bacon while she thought. Finally, she shrugged, “Unless they killed him.”
“I like your instinct for the dramatic, but more likely, the company is trying to cover it up, wouldn’t do ticket sales a lot of good, would it?”
“Hush, that’s a dirty word, never to be said in connection with any case I take. No — more likely to be some middle manager squashing it for the good of the company. Unless, of course, Griffin is here to tell us that the whole case is dropped.” He gestured with a sausage, behind Fiona.
She sniffed, “He’s certainly nervous.”
Constable Griffin came in through the door, “Sir! Glad I found you.”
“Sit down Griffin and stop puffin’ and gasping, we’re trying to eat here.”
“Yes-sir, sorry-sir,” he dropped into the seat, eyeing the toast and teapot.
Hoxton waved him toward some toast, “Help yourself, Constable. We were just talking about our case, and trying to work out who our corpse might be.”
“Ah, well—” Griffin mouthed around toast, “seems there’s a bi’ o’ news about that, word is he’s a Knigh’ Erran’ workin’ for the Foreign Office, an’ you know wha’ tha’ means.”
“It means it’s not our case anymore,” Hoxton said, and stopped eating, gently resting his knife and fork.
Griffin nodded, “Yes, I mean no, sir, begging your pardon. Well, it might mean that, but he’s probably a spy!”
“Yes Griffin, but if he’s “Eyes-of-the-Crown” we won’t get wind of the rest. Which is happy news, as it means I don’t need to eat, I can clock-off and go home to sleep.”
“Err… No sir, that’s no’ what I’ been told. The Old-Man told me to come get you, he said it was urgent.”
“Griffin, you are a clown.” He grabbed some toast and built a sandwich that he took with him as he swept from the cafe.
Fiona stabbed one of the remaining sausages from his plate and added it to her own.
“Are clowns the one with the big red noses and shoes?” she asked Griffin.
“Shut up,” he snapped and then remembering added, “Ma’am.”
“Sorry, I just can’t remember, are they the ones with the wigs and the horns, or are they the quiet ones that pretend they’re stuck in box?”
“That’s mimes,” said Griffin.
“Mimes! Yes, wonder what the Commander wanted him for.”
“Oh, I know that. The Old Man said he was going to sack him. Wait, where are you going? You can’t tell him that!”
Fiona caught Hoxton at the corner as he waited to cross. He munched on the sandwich with more gusto than it probably warranted, and without acknowledging her, dashed suddenly through the traffic. She waited for a British racing green Omnibus to rattle past and then weaved herself into the traffic behind it. A red double-decker almost winged her in the next lane, followed by the spinning milking stool motion of a Martian travel machine. She dashed forwards and a sleek black auto, with silver cats leaping along its flanks and grill screeched to a halt almost hitting her.
The driver revved the engine impatiently.
She snarled at him and flashed her badge, causing him to slide his cap down to hide his face, as he tried to melt into the seat. She thought about booking him, but then remembered why she’d risked life and limb in the first place.
Hoxton was proceeding along the pavement with a long, swing-legged parade stride that his generation had learned in basic training. She had to jog to catch him, and shot him an evil look.
“Don’t tell me! He was told not to tell me, and the bloody fool shouldn’t have told you either!” he growled.
“How? How do you do that?”
“Tricks and mirrors, Talbot,” he lowered his tone still further, he may as well had said, “Bad Dog!”
“Sorry, sir,” she said, dropping her ears, her tail plunged as well.
“No, it’s not you I’m angry with Fiona. I’m sorry. You didn’t deserve that. Truth is you wouldn’t have come running after me holding a sausage on a fork, unless Griffin had said something.”
She glanced down at the hand, clutching tightly around the fork, and raised it for a bite, “Okay, then, I guess I’ll just go back to eating my breakfast, and not tell you. See you later, maybe.”
Hoxton frowned, “I’m not going to rise to that, your Granddad Max would have just told me, you know.”
“Yes, but he only ever made sergeant, I’m already detective sergeant and at my age he was still a Bobby,” she said.
“Not wanting to upset you, but that ain’t true, love. At your age, he was knee deep in bloody snow up in Finland. Unless, what are you, nineteen? That was when we were dropped into Romania, five months of werewolves, vampires and mad sparks, with no support, not so much as a supply drop. That was a bad Christmas, let me tell you, and it got no better when we went to Ankara for the summer. No, he wasn’t a Bobby at your age; he was a lance-corporal fighting in the Great War.”
“I’m sorry, Guv. I didn’t mean —”
“It’s fine. Tell you what, walk with me Fiona,” Hoxton told her, and headed back towards the Yard.
“Yes Boss,” she dashed after, “So, do you want me to tell you or not?”
“Persistent, I’ll give you that. No, not — probably.”
They proceeded at quite a pace up to the gently revolving sign that declared ‘New Scotland Yard’ and headed into the main building. They followed the ‘Homicide & Unseelie Crime Command’ signs until at last they reached the Chief’s door.
Commander Gregory Winston, One hundred thousand of Grey and Bailiff of the Autumn Court, the door sign said, Hoxton rolled his eyes at the sign and knocked.
He pointed Fiona away, before Commander Winston barked “Enter!”
Winston was a great walrus of a man, all moustache, and military manner, who blinked over too small spectacles, trying to work out who had entered, before he said, “Ah, Hoxton! Take a seat, damn rum business this is, what?”
“Yes sir, as you say.”
“Can’t go having murders taking place on a Royal Mail Airship, whole bloody country would fall apart, eh?”
“Indeed sir,” Hoxton stated.
“Oh, and you can quit the Jeeves’ing Ken. I’m no longer your operational Commander,” Winston said flatly, eyeing him over the spectacles.
“If you say so Greg, where’ve they moved me to?”
“Nowhere, you are out on your ear! Seems someone has finally taken a dislike to you strong enough to persuade them off their fat behinds and into making a complaint. You’re fired! Now, what do you think of that?” Winston opened his drinks cabinet and slopped some scotch into a tumbler before offering it to Hoxton.
“I think that’s between me and my Union Rep, Greg,” he said, but took the whisky.
“Hey now, no need to get insolent, I can still have you banged up in the cells for a bit you know,” then Winston laughed, “Do you remember—”
“—that little village Bobby in Belgium,” Hoxton joined in the laughter.
“He never did work out how we got out,” Winston bellowed, and made himself a drink too.
“What about my pension and all of that?” Hoxton asked.
“Gone, I should imagine. Personnel will tell you that, but listen, Ken, this isn’t about you getting sacked.”
“The hell you say, bloody feels like it to me, Greg.”
“No,” Commander Winston leaned in with a whisper he added, “this order didn’t come down normal channels, it skipped its way in from the Dawn Court, some Aurora named Tweedle, ring a bell?”
“Tweedle? No I don’t know him,” Hoxton swigged on the whisky, then swirled it, letting it coat the glass, before he knocked back the rest, “should I? What the hell are the Dawn Court doing passing orders to the Met?”
“We serve all the Courts,” Winston chimed.
“…Autumn first, by order of the Crown,” Hoxton finished, “Look Greg, what the hell is going on, why is someone from Health and Education getting me kicked out of my job?”
“Oh well, that’s the best bit, they didn’t even name you,” Winston grinned, waving a bit of paper.
“What? Let me see that, how can that be legal?” Hoxton grabbed for the memo and read it quickly, “The Senior Investigating Officer must be fired for investigating the murder of Knight Errant, Gareth Colburn, ten million of Violet? I’m being fired for being on duty when dangly Dan did his dive?!”
“Eyes of the Crown,” Winston said by way of an explanation.
“This isn’t a note from the Crown, this is from the Dawn Court, Greg,” Hoxton growled.
“Yes, yes, I can read, and I’ve had quite some time to digest it while you were having your breakfast and chatting with your pe—”
“Goddaughter,” Hoxton whispered back, daring Winston to take another step along that track.
Winston may have been old-fashioned, but even he knew there was no way he’d come out of that media maelstrom with his job if Hoxton accused him of racism.
The Theriocephalic league were political heavy-hitters these days. Fiona owed her rapid promotions to their prodigious campaigning and Winston had been a darling of the liberal press when he’d promoted a female Talbot to the rank of Detective Sergeant. Even the right wing had, however grudgingly, admitted that her nose made her a “one woman forensic unit”, a drum Hoxton had been banging loudly since the sixties, and had earned him half the nicknames he had amongst the less progressive crowd in the Met.
“Of course, Goddaughter — say, how is old Max?”
“Max was her grandfather, has been dead for eight years, and you two never got on, Greg. What’s more, it’s only because the Old-Man back then didn’t like Talbots — just like you, and you both used mnemonic-cartography too much for my liking — that you’re sat in that chair and I’m sat in this. Is that why you’re letting this happen?” Hoxton waved the paper about.
“No, Ken. Sorry, I remember Max passing — now you brought it up — he was a good soldier and a good copper. And your thoughts on the mnemonic-cartograph, and the Witch-eyes, being a breach of innocent ‘til proved guilty, are a matter of public record, unfortunately. No, this has nothing to do with any of that. Listen, you’ve got me all wrong,” Winston smiled.
“Hardly, but go on, say your piece, because when you’re done, I’m taking this letter, going home to bed and tomorrow I’ll be raising merry hell with the Union and my contacts in the Autumn Court.”
“No, you won’t. Just bloody listen, for once. I’ve never believed any of the lies that go around here about you,” Greg Winston hissed, “You are a bit soft on the Talbots, but a lot of us owed them a shit-load in the war. I never held with any of the Infernal Affairs investigations, and you’re right to avoid the MC, because — you’re right, nothing to hide, nothing to fear is bollocks, everyone is guilty of something and we can always nail them with a mnemonic-cartograph, plus it hurts like blazes — but this has nothing to do with that, either. You’ve come to someone’s attention. I don’t know who, and I’d like to say I didn’t care, but I do. I bloody do. Look, I know we haven’t seen eye to eye in the past, Ken, but we fought together, and we looked out for each other over there, and that still counts for something in my book.”
“Yes, mine too,” Hoxton said, thinking how many times both of them had been saved by Max Talbot, whose senses had warned them of uncountable ambushes and improvised bombs, and who had once ripped the throat out of an Hungarian werewolf commando with his bare teeth in front of them both.
“Something stinks about this, as you say. Word to drop the case came from the Crown this morning, the Herald was polite, and he complimented you for your work, by name, I might add. He came to my home, my home Ken, to tell me, while you were still up on that the roof. Told me how the Crown regretted that the police would not be able to work the case, due to jurisdictional nonsense, because of your proven record of accomplishment, no less. Then that turned up in the mail about an hour after I got in.”
“In the mail you say?” Hoxton unfolded and turned the paper, looking it over in minute detail. “The envelope?”
Winston blinked, and picked it from the bin. It was franked with today’s date, but bore no stamp. Hoxton handled it gently, teasing apart the remains to examine the empty insides. Winston watched as Hoxton muttered something and rubbed at his eyes, sniffing the contents and then sat back with his eyes closed.
“What is it?” Winston blustered.
“Oh, nothing, nothing… just tired you know. Do you think DS Talbot could have a whiff of these and confirm what I suspect?”
“What? Yes,” he stood up and strode to the door, opened it and bellowed, “Talbot! Someone get DS Talbot here on the double.”
Fiona appeared in the doorway, as if she hadn’t been listening to the entire conversation from her desk, “Yes Commander! What can I do for you, sir?”
Winston pointed her into the office and muttered, “Hoxton’s got a job for you.”
“Guv?” she smiled, holding her hand out for the letter and envelope.
“How long ago was this written and sealed, Fiona?” Hoxton said handing over the papers.
Fiona sniffed at it, and gasped, “Days ago sir!”
“Days? Well, I knew it wasn’t this morning, but days?” Hoxton grinned.
“Sir, this letter was written at least three days ago,” she sniffed again, “maybe four. It was handled by four people in that time. The first was the writer, then it sat for a while, perhaps two days, before some else carried it in a pocket or bag. Then it sat in a post bag for at least an hour, before it was machine sorted, and then touched briefly by a Columbine, or a Peristo, I’d know her if I smelled her again, postal worker, probably, then the postie, presumably.”
“There you go then Commander,” Hoxton announced.
“There I go then what?” Winston blathered, not seeing Hoxton’s point.
“Sir, how can this order to fire the officer investigating a murder, have been written at least two days before the murder?” Fiona Talbot asked.
Commander Winston blinked very slowly then, “Eh? What?”
“It was written, left lying around for at least a day, posted, sorted and delivered by the postman, Gregory. When the “Eyes-of-the-Crown” was falling from the mail ship, this little beauty was already in the post office,” Hoxton snatched the paper and held it in front of Winston’s eyes.
“Well, there’s no mystery in that Hoxton, this Aurora Tweedle is a prognosticator, that’d never stand up in Court, and I think you’re missing the point.”
“Easily checked, I’ll charm up the records. Aurora Tweedle, can’t be too many of them in the Dawn Court.”
“No Ken, you can’t do that. Don’t give me that look. Why? Because you’re sacked. Besides, I already checked, what do you think I was doing while you two were eating breakfast? Aurora Tweedle is a deep seer, long forecaster, specializing in social policy. He says you’re sacked, and it’s all I can do to not let the door hit you on the way out.”
“Jesus, Greg, we’re going around in circles here, if he’s a seer, why didn’t he write my name? Could have warned somebody instead, he knew Gareth Colburn’s name, and title.”
“That doesn’t matter, it’s legal. Trust me, they have you sacked. The real question is what you are going to do now you’re sacked.”
“I’ll bloody fight it, is what I’ll do.”
“Yeah, you probably would too, you might even win, get your old job back, and never get another chance,” Winston beamed.
Hoxton stopped dead, he tracked his mind back along the conversation, “Fiona, out,” he said.
She got, closing the door behind her.
“You think?” Hoxton whispered.
“Listen, all I know is: the Crown comes telling me that it’s a shame you won’t be investigating this, as the police are off the case then, bang! — You’re not in the police, because someone who looks years into the future says cut you loose. Damn Ken, I’m almost surprised this letter didn’t turn up first, but if it had he’d have had to name you,” Greg Winston hissed back in, “that’s all I know.”
“It’s a bit of a leap isn’t it?” Hoxton replied.
“Well, yeah, but what are you going to do? Me, I’d go and sleep. Sleep a week, if nothing woke me, but you… Something tells me you’ll be out asking questions and finding things out. Investigative Reporter? Private Detective? Security Consultant? Something to do with eyes, maybe…”
“I think you might be onto something there. Well, I guess I’ll be seeing you, Greg,” Hoxton shook the Commander’s hand and went to leave.
Hoxton got up and walked to the door, “Erm Greg, personal favour for me and Max?”
“I’ll keep an eye on her, as long as she stays,” Winston coughed.
“Thanks Greg, she’s career, one day she’ll be after your job.”
“Yeah, that’s what worries me,” Winston laughed, “Good luck, Ken.”
It was morning again, and Hoxton yawned and sprawled in the bed. Elly had taken the news badly the day before.
He laid there sprawled trying to work out what he was going to do with himself.
He briefly considered walking down to the university and asking to challenge a Professor to assess his magic, claim a title and…
He snorted, “And then what? Join parliament, live off the land the Crown would have to give me? Go hunting with the Tinton-Smythes in Hampshire? No, not I.”
He slumped into silence, besides to do so would break his word, he was a sworn folk-magician and he’d remain one. Besides what use would his magic be at anything other than investigation? Psychometry, object reading, it was barely a Baronet power.
He reached over to the bookshelf he kept near the bed, all books that he’d picked up during the course of his work, representing an occult library at least the equal of many high-ranking nobles. His gift sniffed out the right book, and he flopped it open at the table that scored his own gift, Baronet. Practically middle-class, he’d still need a job if they weren’t to end up in the Poorhouse.
“Mind you, I bested a Marquis once, I could try duelling, I guess.” He heard one of the kids come dashing up the stairs, all hooves, and thunder.
Hazel stuck her bouncing curls around the door, “Dad, there’s some toff here wants to talk to you, he said it was about his brother.”
“Alright, I’m just coming,” he muttered and rolled out from under the warm blankets and quilt. The bedroom still clung to the night’s cold despite the morning sun; Hoxton huffed and danced from foot to foot until he had his socks on.
He pulled on his old, battered pinstriped suit trousers and a fresh-ironed shirt, with the shorter collar he preferred, and headed down stairs.
There was a tall man, very well dressed, sat looking very out of place at the kitchen table. He was politely drinking his tea from a mug, but still holding his little finger out, as though he refused to believe tea came in anything but teacups.
“Good morning,” Hoxton said to the room in general.
“Morning Love!” Elly called from the kitchen, she brought him a mug of tea, saying, “Toast and bacon is on.”
“Good morning, Detective Chief Superintendent,” the man said, “please forgive my intruding on your breakfast.”
“Oh, it is just Mr. Hoxton now, I’m afraid, and you aren’t interrupting one bit. Please join me for a little breakfast, Mister?”
“Colburn, Viscount Stephen Colburn.”
“I see, milord, you wish to know how we came to find your brother yesterday?” Hoxton guessed.
“Oh, no the Crown were quite forthcoming in that regard. No, I was told that you are now a Consulting Detective, and I rather hoped that I could hire you. The Crown’s Herald was quite certain that you would be able to help me, and expressed regret that they could not employ you directly to investigate my brother’s death. I was told your rates were very reasonable at four hundred a day, plus expenses, seeing as how you’re practically guaranteed to produce results,” Viscount Colburn explained.
He reached into a pocket, pulled free a large wad of folding cash, and placed it upon the kitchen table, “I was told you’d appreciate a five day advance in cash, against travel costs and the like. I hope you don’t think it impertinent of me.”
Hoxton stared at the pile of money, almost a month’s wages sitting in cash on his table, “Erm, yes — that will be very helpful during my transition from public to private sectors.”
Elly busied in a plate piled high with bacon and toast and some side plates, placing one in front of Hoxton and another in front of the Viscount. “Bloody Nora!” she yelped as she saw the pile of cash sitting on the table, “Beggin’ your pardon, your vi-count-ness.”
He smiled back at her, and made himself a sandwich. “Erm, could I trouble you for a little ketchup?” Colburn asked.
“Of course, your lordship, Hazel go and get the Viscount some ketchup,” Elly flapped a tea towel at the youngest Hoxton.
“’Course mum, would you prefer to-mar-toe or mushroom ketchup, sir?” Hazel asked, headed toward the pantry, “oh, it seems we are out of mushroom,” she returned and placed the bottle on the table, “will the to-mar-toe do, Viscount Colburn?”
“Perfectly, thank you Miss Hoxton.”
Hoxton smiled at Hazel’s exchange with the nobleman, as he chewed on the bacon and toast and upgraded his train of thought to an express. He didn’t think they’d ever bought any mushroom ketchup, and wondered where she’d even heard of such a thing. He wasn’t comfortable with that pile of money either. He was being manipulated, and felt pushed — practically shoved — by the Crown, no less.
It didn’t bode well, but he needed a job, and it was a lot of money. He resolved himself, it would be harder without the cover of Police Charms and being able to call on the power of the Crown, but he felt he was up to it.
He nodded to himself then, as he finished chewing a bite of the sandwich.
“Well then, Viscount Colburn, I’ll take your job on, and find your brother’s murderer, if I can. What do you want me to do with that information when I get it, am I to inform you of their identity, or should I inform the Crown?”
“Hmm, an interesting question, of course I want to know, but you should do what you see fit, what is legal in a case like this?” the Viscount asked.
“That’s a question for the Autumn Court — since your brother was ‘Eyes-of-the-Crown’ his death is Crown jurisdiction. If I find anything out I would probably have to let someone in the Foreign Office know, not having any connections with the Crown,” Hoxton answered.
“Right, yes — so sorry — the Crown’s Herald did say I should give you his card,” Colburn reached into his pocket and pulled out a silver card case, and snapped it open. “Here, his card and mine.”
Hoxton glanced at both cards. Viscount Stephen Colburn, One Thousand of Green and Banker of the Dusk Court, Chief of finance for Renard motors, UK division; and the other, Graham Branford Earl of Redbridge, Crown’s Herald, One Million of Pink, One Hundred of Red, Ten of Green, Dreamer of the Summer Court.
He sighed, a list of titles like that usually meant Earl Branford was a duellist, his colours and Summer Court title taken in combat. Mind you, for a Crown Herald it was a pretty short list. The Herald’s card had a message charm on the other side.
“That’s convenient,” Hoxton declared.
“Yes, the Heralds all do that, you know. It’s not a direct line though; I believe it all routes through some part of the post-office. You’ll find out when you read the charm. Well, thank you Mr. Hoxton, Mrs Hoxton, Miss, but I’m afraid I must get into the city and begin talking to the family lawyers. They will contact you shortly regarding your contract and billing. Did you say you were transitioning to the private sector? Might it be convenient for them to help you with that?”
“I’m sure their assistance would be invaluable, please tell them to contact me,” Hoxton agreed, standing to shake hands with the Viscount. “Again, sorry for your loss.”
“Find the man that did this, please Mr. Hoxton. Better yet, the one responsible, and I am sure my sorrow shall diminish. Good day and good luck. Madam, miss,” he said, replaced his hat and left.
The room went quiet.
Then Elly said, “You are going to need business cards, Hazel run to McGinty’s and get a price on five hundred, and Ken you’ll need a new suit, that one might be alright for eating breakfast with a Viscount, but you wouldn’t even get in to see him at work dressed like that. You’d better get one tailored today. You know, if you’re going to go running around as a detective again, you’ll have to buy some armour charms, and healing, you’d best buy a gun too.”
“I haven’t carried a gun since the war, and I don’t want to start again now, but I do think we need to go and do a little shopping, and a trip to the bank, love,” he said patting the pile of notes.
It was early afternoon by the time Hoxton made it to the Docks. He tracked down his cousin easily; Barnie was carrying a cargo container casually under each arm of his Loader as he stepped from ship to dock.
“Hiya Ken, how’s all?” Barnie shouted down from his control harness.
He stacked the containers and stepped over to beside his cousin. His loader hissed steam as he powered it down. The long, metal limbs collapsed and folded in. He rattled down the rope ladder and patted Hoxton warmly on the shoulder. “What’s happening?”
“I got the sack, but I’m working for myself now. I need to know about the mail ship that came in this morning at oh-five-twenty-four, client’s brother got murdered on it and then dropped onto a church,” Hoxton explained.
Barnie coughed, “You got sacked? You? Bloody hell, Ken. Let me check the list on your boat. What’s the pay like in private sector?”
“Not bad,” Hoxton admitted as Barnie swarmed up the rope ladder, pulled free the papers he kept up there, and then clambered back down.
“No pension or anything though, is there? Here you go, RMS Chipping Sodbury. Bad way to go, falling off a ship,” Barnie noted.
“Oh, he was probably already stabbed and dead, but still… So where’s the ship then? Can I get on board and have a poke about?”
“She’s halfway to Edinburgh by now Ken, won’t be back till tomorrow at the earliest,” Barnie laughed, “we can’t afford to just leave them lying around all day waiting on private detectives.”
“That’s consulting detective, Barnie. Well, cheers for the info, guess I need to get peddling if I’m going to get to Edinburgh,” Hoxton shook hands with his cousin, “Cards on Saturday?”
“If you buy a nice bottle,” Barnie agreed climbing back into the loader’s harness again.
“Figure you earned a nice whisky or two, see you Saturday.”
Hoxton headed back into the low sprawl around the docks, and hopped on the back of a slow trolley that was nursing a load of crates up the hill. He sat thinking for a few minutes as he rode. He needed a lift to Edinburgh and only knew one way he’d get there ahead of the mail-ship.
He jumped from the trolley as it began to turn into one of the many warehouses and walked down toward a bright red metal and glass phone booth. He pulled open the heavy door and kicked a few broken bottles out of the way, as he picked up the handset and fumbled for some change. As he dialled, he cast an eye over the cards pressed into the windows. Harlots and whores mostly, a few legitimate business cards, mostly dockside repair shops, this city never changes.
“Faebyrne,” a man’s voice answered.
“Jack, this is Hoxton, I need a lift.”
“Where are you, and where are you going?” Jack’s voice gruffed.
Hoxton told him, and hung up.
Someone knocked on the booth and he pushed his way out.
“All yours,” he said to the spiv waiting outside, before he realised who it was.
Jack Faebyrne grinned at him, wearing a rather dapper pinstripe, and carrying a walking stick, he looked out of place on the dock road, and instead like he should be hustling billiards in some gentleman’s club, actually on second thoughts Jack Faebyrne looked out of place almost anywhere.
“I heard you got fired.”
“How the hell did you hear I’d gotten fired?”
“Annie told me, I don’t know where she heard exactly, but you are quite the buzz in the Autumn Court this morning.”
Lady-Justice Faebyrne-Smith was Jack’s little sister, both were unregistered and technically untrained mages of tragic circumstances, but neither of them had let it stop them. Annie had risen through the ranks of the Autumn Court with a little help from Hoxton and his friends over the years. Her less academically gifted big brother, Jack, had friends in every criminal gang in the city and, while he’d never turn evidence or actually grass, he knew everything that was going on, and trading rumour in and out of the Autumn Court was always profitable, both ways.
“I suppose it’s only a matter of time before the press get it too. They’ll love to sink their teeth into it,” Hoxton muttered.
“Shouldn’t wonder, is that why you’re off to Edinburgh? Hey, you ain’t on the lamb from Elly, are you?” Jack asked.
Hoxton laughed, “No, new business, you are looking at the country’s newest Consulting Detective, my first case is a Viscount’s Brother, murdered for who-knows-what reason. The ship he was on is going to land in Edinburgh in about thirty minutes, so…”
Jack nodded, “Oh right, yeah. Edinburgh is a fair way, you know. I guess this one’s on the house, seeing as you’re starting a new business and all.”
“Oh no Jack, this Viscount already paid, you invoice me, and I’ll pay right up,” Hoxton smiled as he took the offered walking-stick shaft.
“Invoice?” Jack turned to look at Hoxton.
Hoxton laughed and handed over a little of the cash from one of his pockets, careful though not to let Jack see how much he was carrying.
Faebyrne smiled as he flicked the notes and folded them away, “Edinburgh, we’ll want the Old North Road, I guess we start in Bishop’s Gate,” then as easily as he hid the notes in his pockets, he whipped the Dock road out of sight.
Hoxton clung to the walking stick, as Jack fluttered reality like a map, London vanished replaced with a vision of a long country road, the Trooping Færy spirit-road, or Trod, along which Jack drew him.
Hoxton hated travelling this way — his gift drew flickers of the real-world locations that Jack stepped in; pulses of presence that told him short stories in their instant contact. Here was an old coaching inn, now a restaurant (where a duke had once been murdered), then the step to a crossroads where criminals used to be buried, then another coach house, now a foreboding tree hanging over the road. Hoxton closed his eyes, and tried to ignore the stories his feet and gift were telling him.
“Still travel sick?” Jack asked.
“You know that’s not it.”
“If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, I’m going to ignore the leather jacket, green Mohican, electric guitar with flames coming out of it, cigar, and the fact it’s riding a Mechanimal T-Rex with Martian Heat-rays for eyes, and call it a duck,” Jack laughed, “Besides we’re here.”
Hoxton opened his eyes. They were stood in a quiet park that was definitely not in London. He looked up at the spikes of yellow-grey buildings and the brown-green hill, surmounted with a huge nimbus tower, overlooking the city, and then he tracked a flash of sunlight reflecting off a ship landing somewhere downhill behind the buildings.
“Thanks Jack, I’ll take Shank’s mare from here.”
Jack muttered something dismissive and waved a hand before vanishing. Hoxton turned and began walking for the docks.
RMS Chipping Sodbury lifted at one o’clock from the docks in Leith. Hoxton watched the city drop away clutching his ticket and cabin key in one hand and the rail in the other. The ticket had not been cheap, he had paid Jack Faebyrne less to bring him here in minutes, but they only had first-class tickets available. Still he had a cabin of his own, and the same access to the ship that Colburn would have had, and had five hours to find something out, but first, something to eat.
He found his room while trying to find a restaurant, and opened the door out of curiosity, to find an impressively large room, with a table with a menu resting upon it. He entered and flicked up the menu, glancing through the lunch options when he noticed the Mechanimal humanoid servant. A rather well put together Oltenian automatic footman made from Suleiman brass, its eye lenses gleamed like jewellery as it regarded him.
“Are you interested in lunch, sir?” it surprised Hoxton with the golden plum tones of some actor that Hoxton couldn’t identify, but sounded familiar, someone off the wireless perhaps. The Oltenian design had obviously been upgraded with a Saint-Clare, Mercurio & Smith cognitive engine, very fancy.
“Yes, I think the pork chops with creamed potatoes and broccoli, a touch of mustard sauce, sounds lovely.”
“An excellent choice sir,” the servant said and connected the palm of its hand to a wall socket with a clatter of cogs. “I shall order it directly, what can I offer you to drink sir, perhaps a —”
“A light cider would be perfect, thank you,” Hoxton interrupted.
“Yes sir, at once.”
The food and drink popped from a dumb waiter a few minutes later and Hoxton tucked into the meal voraciously. While he ate, he thought. He made a mental checklist of the places he needed to visit on board the ship. The obvious first place to start was the deck rails.
“Was the meal to your satisfaction, sir?” The automatic servant asked as he finished eating.
“Yes, it was good, thank you. Now, can I walk the deck?” Hoxton asked, “Or are we already too high?”
“Breathing masks and flight furs are always available at the first class airlock, sir. The closest is down the hall to the left.”
“Thank you,” Hoxton said and rose to leave the room.
“My pleasure, sir; now, if you will please excuse me,” the Mechanimal servant began to clear the table.
Hoxton closed the door and walked left along the corridor, seeking the airlock. It didn’t take long to find, and he pulled on the thick furs and breathing mask. He fiddled with and adjusted the various straps and buckles. Eventually, with everything secured, he slapped the button and the airlock cycled, popping his ears and making him yawn, before releasing him onto the deck.
Even the thick furs and the mask didn’t stop the thin, cold air from biting. He shifted the furs carefully and then re-gripped the frost-rimed rail as he tottered on the icy deck. He crunched, and skated, slowly out to the gunwale rail and then began to circle the ship.
It took nearly an hour, and his hands and feet felt painfully cold, but finally he found a blood spot. The cold and altitude had fused the drop to the hull just above the deck. Hoxton hunkered down gingerly on the slick ice, and removed his left glove.
“This is going to hurt,” he said as he flexed his hand a few times and tried to clear his mind. He pressed the exposed palm over the blood drop and the frozen Orichalcum hull, and hissed through the pain. The sky seemed to darken, contracting into shining, sharp points and he looked about the dark night sky and then across the deck. The frosted wood glistened in the lights of the superstructure.
A door burst open onto the deck and a man erupted drunkenly from within. He leapt across the deck, staggering, but not slipping or falling. There was something wrong with the man, something very strange. He hardly seemed to bend properly and flopped about in almost impossible ways as he rushed straight toward Hoxton before leaping cleanly over the rail.
Only then did Hoxton notice the ice on the deck, little flecks of frost seemed to explode up, retreating away from him, before the door suddenly jerked open again. Hoxton rocked forward, straining to examine one of the tiny circular marks blown into the ice, and then he slipped.
The vision faded, and Hoxton recovered himself. He rubbed his frost-burned hand vigorously on the furs until it stung, and then regloved it. He stood up and, nursing throbbing fingers, headed for the door he had seen snatched open.
Once inside with the door cycled, he disrobed the furs and opened the medical cabinet there. He slathered on a jar of ‘Goodman-Brown & Stokes Medicinal Phoenix Balm’ and read a ‘Boot & Lloyd Patented Regenerative and Curative Charm’ he found. It felt like plunging his frozen hand into a tepid bath, and he sighed contentedly, and then noted the usage in the book with his room number and the date and time.
“Right then, where do I go next?” he muttered, looking around the inner-door of the airlock. This was third-class country, the deck and walls were bare metal, and there were stairs leading down.
He scanned the metal stairs as he descended. The woven Orichalcum mesh that made up the stairs was almost impossible to read, but he eventually noticed that one or two of the square holes on each step were distorted, the wires slightly bent.
He descended slowly, finding each bent wire that marked a step, until he could find no more. The imprints ended in front of a pressure hatchway in the forward bulkhead and a sign that read, ‘Crew only’.
Hoxton took the wheel and turned it. The levers and bars creaked, squealed, and groaned, as he twisted. The door popped into the cargo area, snatched out of his hand, as the air in the stairway equalised with that within.
Hoxton rubbed his ears and yawned to equalise his own pressure difference.
He reached a hand for the door again and pulled the door back closed. Just before it closed all the way, he stopped it and tested his forehead against the door, closing his eyes.
“Tricky,” he muttered as visions and flashes snatched at his attention. There, amid the flickers of loadings, unloadings, and dramatic accidents, he saw Gareth Colburn, a slimmer, shorter version of his brother.
The visionary image of Colburn walked with a low crouch, carrying a crowbar and a knife. He stalked through piles of crates and sacks of mail until he found what he was looking for.
Hoxton watched as Colburn cut the mail seal and pulled open a particular mailbag, reached in, and removed a large, white envelope and touched it to his forehead. Hoxton saw a flash of recorded magic spraying blue and gold light through the envelope, and then Colburn smiled. He slid the envelope back and then closed the bag. He tied the seal loosely and then blew off the knot, with a touch of magic that flared bright yellows and greens in Hoxton’s vision, leaving the string intact.
Then there was a click, a creak and a noise like clockwork gears slipping. Colburn slid into the shadows, shining into brilliant amber transparency in Hoxton’s revelation, as he wrapped himself in a concealment charm. Hoxton chuckled at the fact that, as a Psychometrist, Colburn would have known he made himself more obvious to another like himself. All magic left traces, obvious to an object or place reader, even concealment magic.
Suitable concealed, in actuality, if not to Hoxton, Colburn stole himself forwards, crowbar, and knife poised, ready to parry and strike.
Hoxton watched as Colburn approached a particular crate, marked with Han ideoglyphs, as well as Ottoman machine marks. Colburn crouched by the crate and listened to the wood. He touched his hand to the crate and it flared gold and blue, and then puzzlement claimed his features. He stood and took the crowbar to the edge of the lid, cracking it up just an inch or so, instantly the lid seemed to hinge upward and Colburn shot up from the metal deck and his head twisted around in a complete revolution, before he dropped like a ragdoll. He gurgled a little, twitching three times as if he was stabbed before he was lifted again by his invisible assailant and dragged towards the door and up the stairs. Hoxton heard the sharp, metallic tap of each invisible step, and creaks and metallic groans as the invisible thing climbed the stairs.
“Iron shadow,” Hoxton muttered, and then heard real steps on the stairs above; he opened his eyes and looked up the stairwell.
Two of the crew were hurrying down towards him, “Sir, you can’t go that way, I’m afraid you missed the companion forwards, sir,” one said, a midshipman.
His companion, a tinctured airman, his chest enlarged and his shoulders carrying two pairs of thin arms, looked Hoxton over, noting the balm-covered hand, “You hurt sir? I wunna be surprised iffen a charm’s gone bad here, Horace.”
Hoxton decided to go with it, feigning a misspelled charm he mumbled, “Well, thank goodness for you, took some medicine, but I think the charm went awry… couldn’t find my way… descending into Tartarus from an airship, ha-ha! Door of hell itself, abandon hope, the wind tried to suck me out, thought I was going to fall… held on to the door, dangling from the hull. Thank goodness you dragged me back in.”
“Er… yes sir, this way. Let’s get you to Doctor Moran and he can lift that bad charm. Mind your step, sir,” Horace the midshipman said.
Hoxton let them lead him to the ship’s doctor, who looked him over and tutted as he decharmed him, before applying some actual healing to his hand.
While he worked, the doctor gently questioned Hoxton.
“Oh I feel like such a fool,” Hoxton said, “I thought I had come back in by the door I had left, and then was very confused by the stairs. I think I thought they went down to the ground. I confess, I thought I had walked down those stairs for hours, before I found the door. So stupid to open a hatch like that without any protection anyway, but then I was blown out by the wind and just hung on the door with my eyes closed, trying not to think about the drop and hold my breath. I must thank your crew for saving my life!”
The doctor apologised for the malfunctioning charm and sent him accompanied by the two aviators back to his cabin, prescribing a lie down with a complimentary brandy. Hoxton thanked the junior officer and the airman and tried to press a fold of notes on each of them for saving his life.
“We cunna rightly accept, sir. You wunna actually in any danger. It were just a botched charm and the door to the hold, sir,” the four-armed aviator remarked.
“And even if you were in danger, sir. Our duty is to the protection of the passengers in our charge. Now, the doctor said you should lie down and rest, so we will leave to let you do that. Good day, sir. Come on Gideon,” Horace said, throwing a tidy salute before beckoning the four-armed Gideon away.
Alone in the cabin with the Mechanimal servant, Hoxton rested on the bed and slurped at the snifter he was presented with. He cocked half an ear to an officer talking to a sailor outside his door, as he pulled tobacco from his pouch and pressed it into his pipe.
“No sir, he thought he was dangling from the ship, he didn’t even step inside. Gideon Morgan and I reached him in a minute or so… Doctor Moran said the charm must have been dodgy, perhaps even a counterfeit, he said it’s been happening more often… No, I don’t think he’ll sue… middle-class, and they never want the expense, or embarrassment… Oh, definitely, Gideon said he carries a set of steel knuckledusters… No, definitely not a noble.”
Hoxton smiled and drained the brandy. He pulled his matches and wallet out. He lit his pipe and fished out the cards the Viscount Colburn had given him earlier. He popped his lips a few times on the stem, getting a rosy glow in the bowl before taking a slow draw. He blew smoke towards the door and vents before he examined the Automatic footman more closely.
“May I offer you another beverage?” the plum voice inquired.
“No, thank you. Do you have a privacy mode?” Hoxton asked it.
“Of course sir, would you like me retire? You may awaken me by pressing here,” it directed his attention to a large push button on the side of its head.
“Thank you, please retire,” he told the machine, and waited while its soft ticks and whirs, eased down to nothing.
He stepped closer and pressed an ear to the mechanism. Complete silence.
He puffed on the pipe a few more times, and then read the communication charm quietly.
A female voice greeted him telepathically, “Good afternoon, Mister Hoxton, please hold for the Earl of Redbridge, Crown’s Herald.”
“Thank you,” he projected the thought, and tried to keep his mind clear.
A new voice sounded in his head, warm and cultured, “Ah, Mister Hoxton, a pleasure to hear from you so quickly. How can I assist your investigation?”
“Lord Redbridge,” Hoxton began.
“Please call me Graham or Branford, I think we can dispense with titles, Mister Hoxton.” Branford interrupted.
“And please call me Hoxton, everyone does. Hmm, how best to tell you? I believe, although I have little beyond circumstantial evidence that Colburn died in the course of his duties from a rather alarming misadventure.”
“I see, perhaps we should arrange a meeting to discuss your findings in detail? Where are you currently?”
“I am currently in my cabin aboard the RMS Chipping Sodbury, returning to London directly.”
“I understand. Well, perhaps tomorrow then, I will invite Viscount Colburn, so that he may hear your explanation, and we’ll decide the best course of action from there. You may find my address on the card, and shall we say nine tomorrow morning?”
“Of course, I still have some poking about to do around the docks when I land. I hope to learn more, but at the moment, whilst I can say with some degree of certainty that Knight Errant Gareth Colburn was not the target, there is something terribly amiss here, and I intend to find out why.”
“Perhaps you require some assistance, I could have one of our agents meet you at the docks,” Branford offered.
Hoxton thought carefully, aware that his inner monologue was being heard. It would be exciting to work with an “Eyes-of-the-Crown” agent, but there would be little need of such help. He had personal contacts in the docks and ought to be able to find the information he wanted easily enough himself.
“No,” he thought clearly, “I don’t think that will be necessary. Although I would suggest that a Forensic Psychometrist took a look at the blood on the gunwale and perhaps observed the third-class starboard stairwell near the stern, or perhaps a Talbot.”
“Ah yes, perhaps you would like me to detach Detective Sergeant Talbot from her duties to assist you?” Branford asked.
Hoxton thought about that a little too noisily, she’d kill me if I ruined her career, “No, better not,” he added.
“I understand,” Branford chuckled, “well until the morning then. Good luck and good hunting, Hoxton.”
Hoxton finished the pipe and rested the remainder of the trip. He even managed a light doze and woke to find the headache had lifted. He punched the servant’s head lightly and it ground gears as it ticked violently into life.
“May I help you, sir?” it inquired. Hoxton watched as it reconnected its hand to the geared slot on the wall.
“I was wondering how long until we land now?” he asked.
“I was just making a very similar enquiry myself, sir, it seems that there are twenty-two minutes until we land, we have already descended to observation altitude, if you would like another walk. I am told that it is raining, but quite warm now.”
“Thank you, very much, I think though I will wait here, until we have landed.”
“Of course, sir.”
It didn’t take long after landing before Hoxton found Barnie and was directed to the correct warehouse.
The warehouse manager shook him by the hand and asked after his wife and kids; John Highgate had been accused of murdering his wife five years ago, Hoxton had easily cleared him, and caught the burglar that was actually responsible.
“Sure, we can take a walk around, let me get the manifests,” Highgate said, pulling open the large filing cabinet behind his desk.
He flapped through the dividers until he plucked free a thick file and then extracted a couple of thin sheets. He handed Hoxton the papers and resealed the cabinet, pocketing something as he did.
“Ah, here we go, floor three, section eight,” Hoxton read.
“Yeah, I was up there with one of the Crown Heralds this morning. This way, Ken. We’ll take the lift, listen what’s this about, someone smuggling something? The Herald had the whole lot impounded, everything from that ship.”
“Perhaps John, perhaps, I really can’t say yet. At the moment, it’s a hunch more than anything else,” Hoxton answered as the warehouse manager dragged the lift door closed.
“Well, I’d trust your hunches as much as many men’s facts. What does your hunch tell you?”
“I think someone is smuggling black-metal Mechanimals into the country. Now, it could be a war memorabilia collector, after an old Ottoman model, but —I don’t know — something seems off about that.”
The lift stopped and John heaved the gates open. He led Hoxton along the third floor, passing hundreds, or thousands, of crates of all shapes and sizes.
“A black-metal Mechanimal, are you serious?” John said, looking fearful.
“I am, and its active, already killed once; so when you have identified the crate, you might want to keep back a few steps, while I open it. You remember what they were like during the war, tearing through the enlisted men and officers?”
“Yeah, I remember, I’d stay outside the cage, but this gauge of Orichalcum wire wouldn’t even slow one down. Those things were a fury, they just went berserk once they were turned on, the Ottoman’s could never get them back, and you couldn’t put one in a crate. Here we are, section eight,” John said and unlocked the padlocked gate with his hands trembling
He reached in and lifted down the clipboard, skimmed down the list and then stopped, “Small problem Ken, the crate has been picked up already, looking at this, minutes after me and the Herald walked around. Someone has done a fine job of forging my signature here, to say I cleared it. I didn’t. Everything off that ship was meant to be here, until the Crown gave orders freeing it.”
“Do you have the Herald’s card?”
“Card? No, he showed me a warrant and I have a copy of that, impounding everything,” John reached into his pocket and pulled free the paper, he showed it to Hoxton, but didn’t let go of it.
It was a standard impound warrant, signed by Lord-Justice Barrowclough of the Autumn Court. Hoxton knew Barrowclough, a dour Alban Laird from Aberdeen. Still the impound warrant bore no sign or mention of the Herald who had served it.
“Did the Herald give his name?” Hoxton asked.
“Not that I recall, he identified himself as a Herald of the Crown, handed me the warrant and stated that he would like to review the contents. I took him at his word.”
“Fair enough, I say, but still: a Herald usually leaves a card, unless… perhaps he was ‘Eyes-of-the-Crown’ himself, rather than ‘the Voice’, or he might have been the very person who liberated the crate, wait did he ask you to sign something?”
“When? Were you up here?” Hoxton asked, looking about the room. As he listened for a response, he closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose.
“Yes, he asked me to sign a receipt for the warrant, strictly for his own records, he said.”
Hoxton nodded, “Then he borrowed this clipboard and held it just so, while you were signing… Am I right?”
“Yes, damn it — he tricked me into signing that release myself! Christ, that’s my job and maybe my life over, the impound warrant!”
Hoxton looked grim, “Oh, no you are innocent, signature or not, you were tricked. I’d be more worried about that ‘Herald’ coming back, if he hears I’m on the case and you can identify him. Listen John, I need a minute to collect my thoughts, and maybe a pipe?”
“You can’t smoke in the building Ken, fire risk, but we can go outside. I could do with a fag myself.”
“Sure, that would be great,” Hoxton let John lock the gate behind him before he carried on, “If you see that Herald again, don’t be alone with him, understand?”
John nodded, looking worried, “Look Ken, how deep is the trouble I’m in, you’re a copper… you know these things.”
“John, I’ll be honest with you, I’m not a copper anymore, the Crown arranged me to get sacked so I could investigate this… and you know what? The more I poke about this case, the worse it seems to get. I started the day trying to solve a murder, now I’m trying to unpick an international conspiracy from the one frayed end I found. Honestly, I can’t say how much trouble you are in, because I’m not sure who the players are. The Crown seems to be only peripheral to this case, brought in because of an accident, but if you have any holiday time owed, it might not be a bad idea to take it, have a week on the continent, or something, but first we need you to identify this Herald. Can you work with a… bugger no sketch artists! Sorry John, not used to flying solo yet…” Hoxton paused just inside the door to fill his pipe.
John Highgate pulled a battered blue pack of cigarettes from a pocket and fished out a mechanical lighter that he sparked, and took a drag. Hoxton stepped out and struck himself a match, holding it cupped, but so the wind blew it out.
“Can I borrow that impound warrant a second John?” he asked, John handed him the paper and Hoxton used it to shield his match as he struck it and puffed on the stem. He closed his eyes, enjoying the taste as he drew on the pipe, and read the warrant with his gift.
The warrant showed him the face of the man who had claimed to be a Herald, but gave him little more than that, no name and few details. The man had taken the warrant from the desk of Lord-Justice Barrowclough sometime this morning, and before that, the only event it ‘remembered’ had been Barrowclough signing it. He handed the paper back, and puffed gently on the pipe.
John Highgate took the paper back and sucked hard on his cigarette, the tip glowing bright in the shadows.
Hoxton glanced up at the darkening sky, and then looked at his watch. “Is it really six o’clock already?”
Highgate took his own pocket-watch out and flipped it open, “Very nearly, three minutes to. Look Ken, I need to get back to the office and finish up the shift.”
“Yeah, of course, thanks John. Stay safe and if that Herald turns up again, call me.”
“Will do,” John promised and headed back into the warehouse.
Hoxton found an Omnibus stop, and rode into the city, swapped to another bus, and rode home. All the way, he turned the puzzle of the case around in his mind, trying to find another thread he could tug on that might unravel it.
At this rate, he was going to have to go to Hong Kong just to track down where the crate had come from, unless he could catch the unnamed and probably false Herald.
He was so deep in thought that he missed his stop and had to walk back to his street.
Elly was busy cooking as he got home, but he joined her in the kitchen to share a kiss and the stories of their day.
He decided he quite liked working for himself, if only because there was no night shift.
The kids arrived home, and the family ate in shifts around the table, with Hoxton and Elly holding court over the whole meal.
The kids and Elly told him that if he was tracking people who owned Black-metal Mechanimals then he needed to carry a gun.
Stef put it clearly, “You can’t reason with an Iron Mechanimal Dad, you just need to kill it. You told me that.”
Hoxton hadn’t taken it well, he’d pulled out one of his old saws, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail. I won’t carry a gun, and that is my final word.”
The rest of the dinner conversation had been a crash investigation of John and Fiona’s single date, a trip to the picture house. Both had felt awkward and eventually decided that they were too close to date, whatever that meant.
Once the older kids had gone out and Hazel had gone to her room to do homework, Elly argued again for him carrying a gun. “A small toneloque derringer even, I don’t like the idea of you being unarmed against dangerous men, and maybe a German gun for that Mechanimal. If you’ve a choice, that’s not like carrying a hammer is it?”
Finally, he agreed that he would go tomorrow and purchase a double-barrel toneloque, for the flexibility.
He privately decided that a curse-loque barrel and a donkey-kicker were probably the way to go. The curse-loque was a good generic barrel, common and easily replaced, and a donkey-kicker had stopping power. The kinetic shot would even open a braced door, and would affect iron, so it was a sensible choice, even if it was a hammer.
Elly seemed content at that, and they settled on the sofa to watch a little gogglebox.
The Hoxtons collectively decided that the BBC’s latest comedy wasn’t funny after a few minutes, and tried an Agatha Christie adaptation on IGB that annoyed Hoxton as all the details needed to solve the case were hidden until the final reveal.
“I hate it when they do that,” he moaned, “it’s just lazy writing. If real murder investigations went like that, we’d never get a conviction you know. Usually we know who did it weeks before we have the proof to bring them in.”
Elly agreed wholeheartedly, if somewhat wearily, after all this conversation happened at least once a month. She took off her goggles and went to make them cocoa.
Hoxton thought about this a moment before he spoke again, “Sorry love, I guess it’s just this case, I thought it was an intrigue involving the Crown, but now it turns out the Herald was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and black-metal is always heavy stuff. No one looks lightly on a breach of the Black-law.”
“It’s alright love, Agatha almost always does that, you know. I really don’t know why you try to solve them before she wants you too. I’d have thought you’d have enough of that with work. Besides, who would want an uncontrollable killing machine? It sounds like one of her plots, or actually more like Doyle.”
“The ones built during the war were completely psychotic, the Ottoman and the Han just used to drop them on our lines… Parachute would activate them. Something about the black-metal makes the logic gears malfunction. I talked to Mercurio about it once; he said the iron cogs get magnetized.”
“Well there you go then, he’d know. So who’d be mad enough to reactivate one of them on a ship?! I’m surprised it only killed Viscount Colburn’s brother, aren’t you?”
Hoxton pulled off his goggles and stared towards the kitchen, “Bloody Hell, Elly you’re right. I nearly realised it when I was talking with John Highgate, but then with the crate being missing, I forgot again.”
“Language Ken,” Elly said handing him a mug of cocoa.
“This coming from the woman who shouted ‘Bloody Nora’ in front of Hazel and a Viscount?”
“I did no such thing! You take that back. Besides, I was objecting to the second word more than the first! You, of all people, know how easy it is for —” she mouthed ‘one of them’, “— to come through. The slightest invitation is all they need, you said.”
Hoxton laughed, “But Elly my love, my job was dealing with them, they can’t take me, they’ve tried, and I’d spot one riding you, or the kids, and have it out faster than it could get used to where the kitchen utensils are kept. Plus — they can’t make cocoa this good.”
“How would you get rid of one without hurting the kids or me?” Elly asked suddenly and slurped her cocoa.
“Personally, I always favour the oath exorcism, but to be honest I’ve seen everything fail at one time or another, you have to know the person well. For the kids, just me saying ‘get’ might be enough, for you I’d have to get holy water and a priest… Maybe the whole bell, book and candle ritual.”
“I see you’ve given this some thought… Seems fair though… Right! I’m done,” Elly said as she went to wash out her mug in the kitchen.
She stopped on the way back to kiss her husband as he sat staring into space, “Night Ken, don’t be up too late.”
“Soon as the kids are all back,” Hoxton replied, “Night love.”
Hoxton woke at four-thirty in a cold sweat.
He stared up at the ceiling watching the rippling shadows of the net curtains and the streetlight outside, listening to the clock ticking away.
“Bad dream?” Elly yawned.
“Yeah, go back to sleep, I’ll be alright,” he replied giving her a cuddle, as he laid there in the half-light, adrenaline would probably keep him awake now.
The thought of a Black-metal Mechanimal on the loose in London had awoken memories he thought he’d dealt with years ago.
He was surprised when the alarm went off seconds later, the sky outside the window was lighter now, dawn well on the way.
Elly grumbled and sat up, stilling the ringing alarm, “Did you go back to sleep?” she asked.
“I think so, I blinked, and it became morning,” he answered, sitting up and stretching.
“Well, I’ll get breakfast on. Are you going to be working today?” she kissed him as she talked.
“Erm? Yes, I have a meeting with the Viscount and a Herald at nine,” he told her.
“You better go and get a shower and a shave then love,” she said stroking his salt and pepper stubble.
He got up and did as he was told, arriving at the breakfast table twenty minutes later.
“Looking sharp, Dad,” Stef said, to a chorus of agreements.
“Yeah, nice suit Dad, you look like you work in the city.”
“You’re right John, he just needs a bowler hat,” Mary added.
“Might help hide the bald spot too,” John pointed out.
“Leave Dad’s tonsure alone, I think he looks very respectable,” Hazel said.
“Tonsure? Look, I didn’t come here to be insulted,” Hoxton said, with mock seriousness.
“Oh yeah?” said Stef, “Where do you usually go?”
“Work,” he answered automatically before adding, “but they’ve been rubbish since I got sacked.”
This caused peals of laughter at the table. They all tucked into porridge and a pile of toast that Elly placed on the table, before they scattered for the day.
He rode part of the way with John, Stef, and Hazel, before they dropped him at the tube station.
He said good-bye to the kids, told the two youngest to be good in school, and then descended into the station. Three changes spat him from the underground railway into Westminster. He lost no time in finding Great George Street and then lost a great deal of time trying to find the address.
He eventually found the building behind a large crowd of police and security people, and negotiated his entrance with the Herald’s card.
Hoxton took the stairs, rather than squeeze into the lift, and made his way up two flights, before he was met by Graham Branford Earl of Redbridge and Herald of the Crown, at the door to his office.
Branford was younger than Hoxton had expected, certainly no older than twenty-six.
“Ah, Detective, a pleasure to meet you. I’m a huge fan of your work,” he said shaking Hoxton by the hand.
Hoxton felt a ripple of magic emanate from the Herald, but his steel knuckledusters in his pocket stopped the magic dead, whatever it was.
Branford looked slightly confused, and perhaps a little perturbed.
“Nice to meet you in the flesh too, I’m surprised your address is so far from the College of Arms,” Hoxton said ignoring the look of confusion.
“The College?” Branford said, “Oh my, no, I like to be close to the action. The College is more of a social… Well, never mind that, the Viscount is in here.”
The Viscount was sat primly on a seat tucked away behind the door, he rose as Hoxton entered and offered a hand, “Good morning Mr Hoxton, how are your wife and daughter?”
“Good morning Milord, they are well, thank you, and send their regards.”
“Well then, Hoxton. Shall we?” Branford motioned towards the desk.
“Of course,” Hoxton took a seat, “My lords, first let me put the Viscount at his ease, somewhat. I do not believe that your brother was murdered over any personal grievances, but rather that he was killed, rather like the cat, from his own curiosity. It may be true that his duties lead him to this terrible end, but only if his duties involved tampering with the Royal Mail, and I cannot believe that treason would be in his mind.”
Branford the Herald paled slightly, but did not interrupt. Viscount Colburn did seem relieved, but also curious sitting forward.
“You see, for whatever reason he did it, I believe that Knight-Errant Colburn entered the cargo-hold of the RMS ‘Chipping Sodbury’ where he encountered a large shipping crate, roughly six cubic yards in volume. It was marked with both Han ideographs that identified it as having shipped from a specialised agricultural manufacturer in Hong Kong, and with Ottoman machine markings, which I can only assume it received in order to make it through the Ottoman automatic postal service.
“I cannot say why the Knight-Errant decided to investigate the crate, perhaps he was drawn to the Han markings, or perhaps he could read the Machine marks. For all I know, he heard the thing ticking as he walked past it. I cannot say whether the contents of the crate were still those put in there in Hong Kong, I suspect I would have to go to trace it backwards to determine that. Istanbul is where any substitution probably occurred.”
“We have people overseas for exactly this sort of thing,” Branford interjected, “I shall have it investigated.”
“Gareth always was too curious about things, our mother always said it would get him into trouble one day, that’s why she sent him to work in the foreign office, she thought his curious nature would be well tempered by the travel, but he would be well looked after.”
Branford positively blanched at this.
“Anyway,” Hoxton continued, “when your brother tried to investigate the crate, whether he simply got close, or tried to open it, I could not find out. I would assume that he tried to open it, and the device inside was activated. Now here, my tale becomes very speculative indeed, as I shall point out. I think that the crate contained a Steel Mechanimal, which based on its behaviour I can only assume had been upgraded, or even specially constructed. I am lead to this conclusion by the evidence, which I’ll lay out for your examination. First, there were physical signs of a Mechanimal in the Third-class stairwell of the ship. Secondly, this Mechanimal was able to defeat a Knight-Errant quickly and silently. I can only assume that your brother would not normally go without a fight?”
“Good Lord no, Gareth was a scrapper, and while he was a Psychometrist, he was also trained in Technomancy by Professor Saint-Clare at Cambridge, and he could throw a mean psychokinetic-ball,” the Viscount smiled, reminiscing.
“Well then, the device must have been constructed with Black-metal. If he studied with Professor Saint-Clare, he certainly knew how to disable a Mechanimal. The fact that no crew were alerted by spellcraft noise, points toward any magic he attempted being negated by iron, which is my third piece of evidence. I can assure you from almost personal experience that a Black-metal Mechanimal is a quick way to die, they are startlingly efficient.”
Viscount Colburn stared back at Hoxton, “Thank you for that, it is strangely, though horrible, a comfort to know that he did not suffer long.”
“He was almost certainly dead before he was removed from the cargo-hold and cast overboard. However, here we have reached the most alarming part of the story. Having killed your brother, and disposed of the body, the Black-metal Mechanimal then returned to its crate.”
“I’m sorry Hoxton? Why is that so alarming?” Branford asked, “Surely it would simply be completing its programming, which was almost certainly to stay hidden.”
“I forget that you younger people have little grasp of what a Black-metal Mechanimal was like. Once they were activated they were simply killing machines, they could not be controlled. Not the Ottomans, the Han, nor the Martians ever perfected a way of controlling the things. They had to destroy them if they approached their own lines. No, I have never even heard of one cleaning up behind itself before. I can only surmise that this Black-metal Mechanimal must have been built or upgraded with a SMS Technologies cognitive engine, they are shielded from the magnetism, very modern and expensive technology. That monster stuck to its mission, and returned to the crate.”
“That is astounding,” Viscount Colburn exclaimed, “My brother, it seems, stumbled into something huge.”
“Actually I think I might, in the interests of national security have to ask you to keep that conclusion, and indeed everything Mister Hoxton has been telling you, completely secret. In fact, I think Viscount that I may have to ask you to leave, so that the Detective and I may discuss this matter further, in private,” Branford stated flatly.
“What? Oh! Oh, of course, Detective Hoxton, may I say your reputation is well earned, but our business is not yet concluded, if you remember. I shall arrange a retainer, regarding that business, if that is acceptable?”
“I do remember, an issue of responsibility, if I’m not mistaken. I will have to discuss this with you at some other time, perhaps tomorrow?”
“Yes, indeed. That would be most suitable, perhaps dinner at my club? Good. Well good day, Detective, my Lord Redbridge.”
Viscount Colburn rose and bowed before leaving.
Hoxton focused his attention of the Herald then. Branford looked distracted.
“It seems you have stumbled upon something exceedingly dangerous, Ken. May I call you Ken?”
Hoxton waved the inquiry away, “I know.”
“A clear breach of the Black-law, if proven. I have a couple of questions, firstly what has happened to the crate and its contents?”
“The crate and its contents were stolen from under an impound warrant by the man who delivered said warrant, he claimed to be a Herald. Finding him will point me towards the crate and its contents.”
“A Herald? Do you have a name?” Branford leaned forward his young features clouded with concern.
“I don’t, but I have a witness, who I have suggested remove himself from the country for a short holiday, and I intend to get a sketch and perhaps a Talbot on the scent. I believe a crime has been committed that my old unit would have jurisdiction over. I don’t believe that it was really a Herald though, he presented no identification at all.”
“I see, no you are correct, a Herald always names himself when acting for the Crown, may I ask what you intend next?” Branford leaned back in his chair.
“The Viscount has asked for a name, the one responsible, I intend to find it, if I can,” Hoxton replied.
“As it happens, I rather think the Crown may want that name as well. When you entered I tried to read your mind, I couldn’t, yet we communicated that way yesterday, so I know you are not a blacksmith. I presume you are carrying Iron.”
“A sensible precaution I would say. You have a gun also?”
“Not yet, my next stop, actually.”
“You will need a concealed weapons licence, allow me to expedite that for you,” Branford said as he slid a wallet across the table. Hoxton flipped it open; there were numerous papers inside, including a passport, gun licences, and business licenses.
“Private Detective, Free-lance Journalist, Certified Bailiff, Witch-hunter, Demon-slayer, wait what’s this? A thief-taker’s licence, is that even legal?”
“It’s still on the books,” Branford said wryly.
“No letter of marque?” Hoxton joked.
“You don’t have a boat,” Branford grinned, “Oh, and you may accept the title of Bailiff in the Autumn Court, if you like.”
“Bailiff? That’s generous,” Hoxton coughed, “I was a Clerk.”
“As I understand it, if you had even a Baronet’s gift you’d be replacing Colburn in the lists of Knights-Errant and probably in the Eyes. This was considered an appropriate set of rewards for someone of your status.”
Hoxton waited, holding his tongue. Branford hadn’t said commoner, but Hoxton had heard it veiled in the sentence.
“Especially considering the efforts that were taken to recruit you; I think someone was almost expecting you to develop magic during the course of your investigation. In light of the fact that didn’t happen, and that you cannot officially be reinstated, the Crown thought you might enjoy the Queen’s protection again, on condition that you consult at your usual rates with the Police and the Crown when requested.”
“That usually requires a warrant card.”
“As I said, Bailiff of the Autumn Court. Your card.”
He slid the warrant card across the desk.
Hoxton lifted it and examined it. He was a Bailiff of the Autumn Court, within the Office of Tipstaff, which gave him powers of a Special Constable, with powers of arrest even within the Courts. His hands trembled slightly.
“Yes, well. Congratulations, Bailiff Hoxton, and I wish you good luck in your current undertaking. When you have the name, please report your investigation to me, or any other Herald of the Crown. You may want to report to the Autumn Court to swear yourself back in at your new rank, at your earliest convenience, but go and get the guns first.”
“Yes, is that it Branford?”
“Unless you have anything else you’d like to share?”
“Not that I’m aware of.”
“Then there must be nothing at all, good day, Mister Hoxton,” Branford smiled, “and really, good luck!”
“Thank you, Mister Branford.”
Hoxton left the offices with a spring in his step, and a smile in his heart, if not actually on his face. He had a busy time ahead.