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Sympathy for the Devil- Chapter Four 3/3

 

In the long gallery, Frank stopped dead in the middle of a quiet attempt to break into a cabinet full of interesting-looking drawers, hearing footsteps pass the half-open door. He hissed under his breath and drew back into the shadow of a tall glass case full of hats from the Second Anglo-Maratha War. Luckily for him, styles in that period appeared to have tended towards the flamboyant, and the case was densely and fluffily crammed with excessive sprays of ostrich feathers.

"Danny!" hissed Nicholas, crouching into the shadows of the opposite wall. "You're supposed to be up top, ringing the doorbell! What're you doing down here?"

"Wuzzat a cat?" said a voice. It sounded rather like Arthur Pringer.

"Have to be a really ill cat to make that noise," said Henry Archer.

"I'm supposed to be what?" whispered Danny, frantically. "You never said that!"

"I'm sure I heard something," insisted another of the men upstairs, whose slight accent identified him as Huw Libby. More footsteps, closer now. "Come on."

"No, no, we should spread out and search," said someone who, by process of elimination, had to be William Treacher. He sounded rather nervous– as, in fact, did the rest of them. "Divide et impera, and all that."

An awkward shuffling noise followed this suggestion, possibly indicative of four grown men trying to spread out while remaining bunched together.

Danny was starting to get the panicky snowballing feeling that he'd messed this whole thing up royally. In a few seconds, one of the four was going to get up the nerve and come down into the scullery, and if that happened, Nicholas was as good as found. And worse.

This was exactly why he would have been a lot happier– well, not happier so much as just better, perhaps, but still– being left out of the entire venture. Maybe left outside as a lookout. Stealth and cleverness were not his forte, as anyone might have told Nicholas beforehand, if he'd asked. Means well, but… not the sharpest flint in the tinderbox.

Maybe, said something else, suddenly. Whatever it was, it was a lot more astute and a damn sight more practical. Prob'ly, that's what everyone thinks. But you can use that.

He swallowed, then gave Angel a determined look and stepped out into the square of light which fell from the hallway to the bottom of the scullery steps, squinting up with his best vaguely bewildered grin into the glare of William Treacher's lantern.

"S'all right, gents," he said, wobbling, as if standing was at the moment a bit more tricky than, say, an entirely sober man would have found it. "S'only me."

The looks on the historians' faces instantly relaxed into one of simultaneous annoyance and relief. Oh, they said. It's just the Chief's big stupid son. He looks like he's had one too many tonight, and there's a draft because he's broken the window, the thick sod. Thank god.

"What in God's name you think you're doing?" snapped William Treacher, shoved to the front of the lot. "This en't your house!"

This Danny, thought Nicholas, crouching down by Danny's knees just out of sight, is a genius. The idiot savant gene for playing with people's heads, not letting them see what's really there, must run in his family. I could never convince people this easily. This is nearly as brilliant as the bit where my Danny played at being a murderer and stabbed me in the ketchup sachet.

William Treacher's revelation appeared to be a bit of a stumper to Danny, who blinked owlishly as he tried to process it. "Nonono… I was on my way home, right, but then, then I ran into them new lads, an' I remembered 'bout this new curfew, so I nipped in your window so as not to get in trouble." He turned and looked at the window in question, putting a hand on the wall for balance and neatly blocking Nicholas from view with his legs. "…sorry 'bout that, I sort of thought it was bigger. Anyway, 'cause you're not s'posed to be out unless you're police."

There was something a little out of kilter with the last part of this train of logic, and from his slow-gathering, introspective frown and squinched-up nose, Danny looked as if he might even work out what it was at some point in the next ten minutes, if he wasn't interrupted.

"You iijit," sighed Treacher, giving up potential anger for resignation, and grabbed Danny by the shirt material by his shoulder, and hauled him up the stairs. "Get up here."

You'd better hope to God Frank's using this diversion, said the Inspector to Nicholas. He's not likely to get a better opportunity after this.

Silence descended over the scullery. For a while, the irritated up-and-down noises of a debate that was really not far from an argument drifting from the front hallway suggested that removing Danny from the premises was taking the four gentlemen of the Historical Society quite a bit of persuasion, and possibly pushing. Finally, the front door slammed, and after a few moments of silence, one of them (possibly Huw Libby) made what sounded like quite an unkind joke, there was a murmur of laughter, and the conversation in the front room resumed itself.

Not much more than seven or eight minutes had elapsed, but when one is stuck in a small, dangerous space in the dark, even one minute passes like several small eternities. When something tapped gently on the outside of the open window, it sounded like a gunshot.

"Come on," whispered Frank. Crouched in the flowerbed outside, he reached down to give him a hand up. "Nothing left to do here."

It was almost funny how unhesitatingly Angel reached for it. Almost.

"What'd you manage?" he asked, when they were both standing in the back garden, Nicholas wincing as his rib throbbed under its dressing, Frank puffing from the exertion of lifting a hundred and fifty pound man out of a window. "I got cut off."

"Not that much, I'm afraid," said Frank, unshouldering one of the canvas bags they had brought with them. It clanked. "Most of those blades were useless– they'd have fallen apart even if we could have put a decent edge on them. Found you a sabre that might be some good once we get the cobwebs off it." He passed Nicholas a long, black-and-silver-enameled, and extremely dusty scabbard. "No use to me– I'm all thumbs with that sort of thing, always was."

"Well, if we ever get into close-quarters, I'll have something that'll only have been outmoded for a century," said Nicholas, grimly, and unsheathed about an inch of folded steel for a look himself. "How long do these Brown Bess guns take to reload, again?"

"That really depends on whether they're in the hands of a competent marksman or a complete nincompoop," said Frank, rummaging in the bag. "They take a bullet and powder from a paper cartridge. For some reason some people decided you're supposed to bite the top off of them, which is all very gung-ho in theory, nice dramatic flair and all, but only if you fancy ending up playing hunt-the-bullet on the floor with a mouthful of gunpowder. I'd say about twenty seconds, if you're good."

"Twenty seconds, to stop in the middle of a firefight and reload. For one shot." Nicholas's voice sounded flat.

"We're just going to have to make sure we don't all shoot at once," said Frank, matter-of-factly, passing him an ancient-looking pair of dueling pistols. "Keep each other covered. This is the best of the lot so far, if you ask me."

He pulled out a short, solid crossbow, of such a functional and uncomplicated make that it was impossible to say how old it was. It wasn't a pretty design or a clever mechanism, it just was, just the essence of a tool made to store up pure force into something that could kill.

"Either that, or strap fifty rifles we don't have to our backs," said Angel. He looked a little ill. "Jesus, this is the perfect recipe for someone to get killed. Does that thing even work?"

"Only one way to find out." Frank dug into the bag again, hunting the double handful of bolts he'd swept into it from the crossbow's case.

At this juncture, Danny came hurrying around the side of the building, ducking under a few low-hanging branches. "What're you doing still hanging round here?" he hissed, urgently. "They might catch on any minute!"

"Yes," said Nicholas. "I'd like to leave too. Now. Frank?"

 

*

 

The dispensary was located on the edges of the town, which made it easier for Doctor Cleaver to get to the farmers living some distance off without waking up the neighbors. While this was fine in peacetime, it made it a little more difficult to get back when there was a good chance you could get shot. There was, for example, a two-hundred yard run where there was no cover whatsoever, until you ran out the old gatehouse to the town, and could crouch behind a low wall for breath (the same wall Nicholas would go jogging past every morning in a hundred and seventy-three years time), and pray no one had heard you running by with a sack full of clank.

Several ducks by the moat-pond, awoken by the noise, gave irritable low quottings, and swam to the center.

Frank gave Danny a rather stiff, awkward sort of smile as he let him duck past into the cover of the wall. It wasn't that he found being in such close proximity to his ancestor unpleasant, exactly, no, it was just that the young man was so much like his own son that it was very hard to bear in mind that there was a difference. His first slip-up back in the police station's cellar had been proof enough of that. When he'd heard Danny brazening out his discovery in the museum, and he'd heard everything quite clearly through the half-open door, he had experienced– not for the first time– a yanking gape in his chest which Nicholas would have recognized in a heartbeat. He'd been on the receiving end of that same kind of brilliantly open deception before, as well.

"Nearly there," he murmured. "As long as–"

The next moment, he stopped dead as he heard- as they all heard- the sound of footsteps coming around the corner of the moat. More than one set, loud, careless steps on the gritty path- not, by the sounds of them, the footsteps of men who are trying to hide anything.

"What a flat dunderwhelp 'e was," sniggered a voice. "Just had to tell 'im that 'e was rendering services to the law and country and God, and he just gave over the cider. Just like that!"

"Oi. Twenty minutes until we have to report," said another. "And I knows, Armstrong. Was there, wasn't I? Cor, my feet ache; I en't movin' until we have to."

There was the gritty sort of sound, as someone sat on the wall above their heads. In the pond, ducks quotted nervously, and a swan slid out from under the bridge and hissed at Frank, the one closest to the water.

Frank decided that the best policy was to stay very still and not make any eye contact with the bird. He wasn't a big fan of swans in general, origami patterns aside. His right arm still twinged sometimes, in chilly weather.

He shifted, very carefully, pulling himself further into the lee of the wall alongside Nicholas and Danny, and tucked the crossbow into the crook of his arm, making sure no part of it could strike the stones and make a noise. He'd kept it out of the sack, mainly because it had turned out to have a good, powerful draw and would have been useful in an emergency.

"Ey, 'ey, 'ave a deck at that," said one of the men above their heads, suddenly, gleefully. "Bet there's good eating on one o' them."

The swan looked up at them. It is a little-known fact among people who have limited experiences with swans –the ones who have only seen them in romantic pieces of art, and had The Ugly Duckling read to them a few hundred times as a child– that swans are not actually the lovable, oversized-yet-elegant ducks with the souls of angels and saints and will rescue drowning swimmers like the Disney-friendly creatures they are. When a real swan looks at you, and you look back, you realize there is nothing behind those misleadingly preened feathers, that long slender neck, and those dark beady eyes, but the evil mind of a wasp.

A wasp that can break your arm.

It wonked, mournfully.

Armstrong scrabbled in the uncut grass of the verge and found a stone, which he lobbed lazily in the bird's direction. It ploonked heavily into the water about two foot to the left of it, scattering the ducks, but the swan was either made of sterner stuff or stupider, and it only paddled around the sudden turbulence, hissing up at him in an irritated manner. If swans could speak, this one would probably be uttering the avian equivalent of Your mum, or possibly, Come down here and do that, sunshine.

Armstrong was more annoyed by the fact that he'd missed. He'd had quite a lot of cider, and to him the hiss sounded suspiciously like a snicker. He picked up another, bigger rock.

"'Ang on," said the other, grabbing his arm. "I heard, right, I heard they belong to the King."

His companion shook him off. "Didn't you hear the Chief?" he laughed. "We c'n do whatever we want, no-one in this little shithole's goin' to stop us."

In the shadow of the wall, Frank's eyes narrowed slightly.

"Yeah? And what you gonna do wit' it after, ey? You'd get a dead swan in a pond." This philosophical point put across, Armstrong's partner chucked a fingernail-sized piece of stone that ricocheted off the swan's cob. "Dunno if the law says anythin' about chucking bits of rock at 'em, though. Here, try and see if you can get one in b'tween its wings, in that bowl, like."

"Tuppence sez I can get it 'afore you," said Armstrong, and threw a stone which clocked the swan on the tail. It reared up in the water, thrashing its wings indignantly and making a racket which sent the ducks swimming for their lives all the way under the bridge, but unfortunately did nothing to deter the two men. Another piece of masonry bounced off the side of its neck, this time drawing a different sort of honking noise. Given the proper vocal equipment, this one would have been closer to Ow! You little fuckers!

In the lexicon of human body language, there is a difference, subtle yet distinct, between keeping quiet and still because it is necessary, and going quiet and still because you are absolutely bloody furious. Granted, Frank was not a fan of swans, and in his experience they didn't tend to subscribe to the Frank Butterman Fan Club either. This had just ceased to matter. What mattered was it was a Sandford swan. It was representative of the harm his doppleganger was inflicting on the village, that these two interloping louts should be able to– to swan in and treat it like this.

Never mind that this wasn't his Sandford. The conviction that something needed to be done, right now, flooded into him, and the overwhelming sensation was pure, blessed relief. Knowing what was right, knowing what to do, he'd missed that feeling so much.

So it was with a sense of not quite being aware of what he was doing that he eased back on the safety catch of the crossbow, the tense bowstring slipping into the notch behind the bolt with a thick, quiet thrum, like the pluck of a muffled rubber band.

Angel's hand clapped down on the stock of the crossbow. "It's a swan, you tit," he said, voice so lowered that his lips were brushing Frank's ear to be heard. "If you exercise lethal force over a swan, I will bite off your ear and eat it." Angel's voice was also angry, the calm sort of anger that you get when someone has just nearly done something so beyond the pale that the only way you can rationalize it is to plunge your soul into subarctic fury, because to become hotheaded means to lose all control. The coldness of extreme disappointment, of repeated betrayal, of how dare you?!

The sounds of splashing, honking, and laughter continued in the background, completely unaware of the potential danger from below.

Frank flinched at the sound of the young man's voice. The certainty drained away, leaving the reality, and it was every bit as cold as Angel's words. He couldn't even meet his eyes.

He had been about to shoot a man in the back for throwing stones at a swan.

Well done, said that small clear voice in the back of his mind, with weary disgust. It had tried, at one point or another, pretty much everything else, and now disgust was pretty much all it had left. And he called you an officer.

He dropped his hand from the trigger and withdrew the bolt from its groove, then lowered the crossbow altogether and sagged back against the wall. He remained silent, turning the bolt over and over in his hands, as the men above their heads threw a few more stones and then lost interest, probably because the swan had finally processed the danger in its swan-brain and retreated out of range.

"Didn't you spend any of your time in that cell focusing on getting better?" snarled Angel, when the guards had passed on, and the three of them slumped against the wall in relief. "I mean, if they'd sent you off to a prison, I'd be a little more understanding. But you were in a psychiatric institution. You had all your resources at your fingertips, you could have been rehabilitating yourself with all the help they were putting on a platter for you, but no, you're a stubborn bastard who probably couldn't stop himself from stabbing a sweet-nicking ten-year-old if he actually tried. Your wife would be ashamed of you."

Frank hadn't moved much, and he still didn't try to meet Nicholas's eyes, not even in response to this. After a moment or two, he reached out with the same blank, blurry sleepwalker's movements and folded the crossbow back into the canvas bag.

"I know."

Just that, just a quiet, bland statement, as if it was a couple of years ago and he'd just been told some repeat offender had parked in his space at the front of the police station. Just that, and then he stood up quickly, turning away in the direction of Dr. Cleaver's cottage, before Nicholas could see his face.

Well, almost, anyway.

"No," said Nicholas, pushing past Danny, too incensed to care. He shoved Frank from behind. "No you don't. If you did, you wouldn't have just done that. If you did, you'd have done something about it while you were in Buford Abbey. If you did, you wouldn't have gone off in the first place and done something so stupid and selfish that'd have put the village at such a risk, and potentially alienating Danny. If you'd known, acknowledged it all, you'd have accordingly changed your behavior. But you haven't. So you don't."

Frank stumbled, and turned.

Help? I should pretend I need help? When we both know I never did anything I didn't set out to do? Come to that, I should pretend I deserve help, should I? Yes, I let them go for the insanity plea. They're lawyers, it was their job. I didn't care, why should I? What does it matter where I end up? My life's over. The rest is just…" He slung out a long arm, tossing the idea aside. "Paperwork."

There was a new expression in his eyes. It had been hinted at there before, over the last few days, but never with this awful clarity. This was the truth of his hell, the kind of prison which didn't need any cells or barred windows or locked doors, because he carried it with him inside his own head, and any attempt at an escape would be like this, for all his intelligence; desperate but without understanding. Punches, thrown at a fence of barbed wire.

Now, though, the façade was crumbling, Not much more now, perhaps, and it would be beyond repair. Only somebody as close to meltdown as he was could seesaw like this, claw back from the edge to a stumbling contrition, trying to prevent the inevitable.

"But I'm just now– I wasn't thinking–"

"Damn straight you weren't thinking," snapped Nicholas. American film dialogue was now occasionally seeping through into his vocabulary. "How the hell am I supposed to trust you with a firearm if you can't even control yourself? I am your superior officer, and I order you to get your impulses under control. Then you can earn back your respect, for yourself and from me. Because it's not what you deserve, it's what you earn. So put some effort into it."

Behind the two of them, Danny glanced from one to the other, silent and tense, hardly daring to breathe.

Frank stared at Nicholas, his wide eyes magnified a little unevenly by the old-fashioned spectacles. He looked startled, almost comically so, and after a moment his gaze slid past Nicholas altogether, into unfamiliar territory. It was a bit like when he'd brought up the gun incident, except this time it wasn't any memory that Frank was watching, playing out in the empty space beyond Nicholas's shoulder. It was something much more elusive, far harder to see.

He'd never thought about why that little voice had been trying so hard to batter through. He'd never thought that maybe, with all its painful badgering and accusations, it might be the only part of him which could grasp that maybe, the past wasn't the most important thing.

"I'm so sorry, Nicholas," he said. "For all of it."

He straightened.

"Alright. Yes. Yes... sir."

"Good."

Angel glared a hole up through Frank's face, then turned on his heel and shouldered the largest, heaviest sack of the lot. The mud from the melted snow was slippery over the bridge, and it was still a way to the doctor's house, not far from the now-empty post office.

*

By the time they arrived back at the cottage, it was almost midnight. Danny, stepping carefully through the gate at the side of the house ahead of the other two, was surprised to see the lantern in the porch still alight and burning.

Charlie Halper was sitting on the hall stairs, mixing a solution in a glass jar. This wasn't a skilled procedure, and in fact a device would be invented in about a hundred years or so which made it simply a matter of sticking the jar in a couple of clamps and leaving a motor to do all the shaking, swirling, and turning-upside-down. The device would do it faster, too, and probably better than Charlie, whose head was slipping slightly forwards even as his hands continued to agitate the jar.

Frank closed the hall door behind them as they came in, and at the sharp clack of the lock, the apprentice's head snapped up, sharply. He blinked at the three of them, shaking the mixture with renewed vigour.

"D'it go all right, sir?" he asked Angel, who was in front.

"Went fine," sighed Angel, sitting on the stairs, unloading himself, and trying to massage the knots out of his shoulders. "Thanks to PC Buttleman. The man's an uncredited genius. Frank did quite well, too." He didn't look up. "What're you still doing up? You look rather tired."

"Dr. Cleaver's out on an emergency," said Charlie, grimly. "Emma Reaper's expecting, an' those bussteds ain't lettin' the midwife break curfew. He left me t'give you a message when you got back."

"Oh?" Nicholas removed the sabre from the sack, and started to work the dust off the handle. "What is it?"

Charlie picked up his jar and stood up. "He says, 'f you need any more stuff, you should have a look in the attic."

"Why? What's in the attic?" 

*

When Horace Cleaver had been a young man, before he’d settled in Sandford, he had gone off- like many young men bored with their upbringing- in search of adventure. In his case, adventure had included India and a position as an army surgeon.

It hadn’t been that fun, to be honest. Certainly not what young fresh-faced Horace had set out to find. But in turn, it had given him a lot of unpleasant medical experience, a morbidly cheerful sense of humour, a moderate drinking problem, and several dozen extremely dangerous souvenirs from thankful patients.

But that’s another story.
 

*

"Frank," said Nicholas a little later, with absolutely enforced calm. "I really, really hope you know how to operate these things, because we're not going to get any practice in without the whole valley hearing us."

continue...

 

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
bakaknight
Jun. 14th, 2009 05:07 pm (UTC)
Oh, brilliant!
(I'd have a whole heap more to say, but I need to leave for work in half an hour.)
miss_dearheart
Jun. 14th, 2009 08:38 pm (UTC)
Your story is absolutely amazing! Although I only get round to reviewing now, I have been looking forward to your posting every day. The idea is great; it reminded me of Terry Pratchett's "Nightwatch" in which another policeman ends up 30 years in the past. And since I love that book this is meant as a compliment. I'm hanging on the edge of my seat to find out how Nicholas is going to get back eventually. And I love the allusions to Danny and Nicholas being together.
So, in a nutshell - thanks for writing this!
random_nexus
Jun. 14th, 2009 08:44 pm (UTC)
I cannot express how much I'm enjoying this!
I was like on the edge of my seat when Nicholas and Frank Butterman were getting into it there by that wall. I mean. STERLING stuff here.

AHHHH! THERE'S NO MORE!!!???
*whimper*
waffleguppies
Jun. 14th, 2009 11:36 pm (UTC)
There will be soon! Tomorrow morning. I'm gonna post early as I'm going up to Lon-don. ^__^
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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