If You Want To Live
Bromley, Kent. 1986. Not Actually London
Good King Wenceslas may well have looked out but Mme Roux did not, trying to run and look backwards together and doing neither very well. She collided with a tuba. The Sally Army had slowed the late shoppers, the streets lit with a hundred creepy Santas all flushed, drunk and enjoying the spectacle. Mme Roux hated running. She knocked a plastic cup of soup, spilled chestnuts from a stand that later would sell undead sausages to club goers and was shouted at by a man whose shopping she caught. She bounced into Woolworths. The difference in temperature was marked. Still hurrying she walked now, her breath catching up. Her damp jumper steamed and she knew just how it felt. Her feet were soaked and hurt, her lovely coat and shoes she had abandoned further up Bromley high street.
“Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit...” she said. People stared. Giant boxes of milk tray, clutches of chocolate oranges and the world’s supply of bloody awful Turkish delight ran on for another mile. She looked again behind her and there just inside she caught a glimpse of The Little Tramp.
Without tiring he had pursued her. She had written off her car ten minutes before, using it as a weapon he had swerved aside from at the last moment. She running he had sauntered still gaining. Only in the crowds had she nosed ahead, he caught up in the sound and bustle of it, the colour of the decade. If not for Christmas lights and fairy bulbs it would already have been over. Rockingham had talked about The Little Tramp, one of the worst of the dago-men. The scratch seemed to like its vagrants. Certainly Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy were its most lethal agents. She swore again as ducking between horrid plastic trees she nearly put her knee out on an unexpected tub of plastic toy soldiers. The scratch was fighting back. Or so it had to be assumed, though Rockingham had opined many times that the scratch did not do anything, it just did. Its ways and wants were unfathomable.
Hopping, she swore again. What did she know about the fucking Little Tramp? He couldn’t be bluffed, he couldn’t be lied to or manipulated, threatened or as all Aunt Minerva knew – fought. The closest anyone had come was some German back in the Great War, and it had cost him an arm. Mme Roux arranged things always to her own benefit, and to enjoy the least possible effort. Being chased by someone who would not listen left her unarmed.
She nearly collided with The Little Tramp.
All in shades of grey, skin, eyes and teeth he held out a daisy. Mme Roux struck out with the palm of her hand only for him to sway suddenly back on impossibly bendy ankles. Mme Roux had expected nothing different. She turned right and away from the toys in the moment she had, skidding on wet tights into the kitchen supplies. Thinking, thinking always thinking Mme Roux caught up what passed for a weapon so that when she turned this time knowing he would be right there she smacked him full in the face with the frying pan two-handed.
The Little Tramp fell on his bum. His face contorted, stunned. Mme Roux having only moments was thinking too fast to be frightened now. Hurrying to the racks of awful clothing she tugged at pastel-flaring shirts, pink and purple leg warmers. The sleeves went over her hands and The Little Tramp peering comically about the corner made a great show of looking for her. Another row and he matching her progress aisle-by-aisle Mme Roux grabbed and spilled most of a tray of cheap cosmetics. Digging along those rows she found the most garish. Purple blusher and orange lipstick. She smeared them on her face. Lines and streaks, great blobs, a mad women or a child on too much chocolate at her mother’s dressing table.
His head turning The Little Tramp approached. His walk a little less cocky, his face mystified, sad, all in black and white from his black and white world. He did not see her. Mme Roux caught him about the back of the head. She hit The Little Tramp again, again, great over-shoulder blows with the frying pan that saw him jump on his back, a caught fish. Roy Wood said, ‘Take it kids’ and Mme Roux gasped, stepped back. On the floor an oily smear remained. Obeying its own laws a little bowler hat turned about and around like a spun penny before it too was still.
Chalon sur-Saone, 1909. Bien Mal Acquis Ne Profite Jamais
In the gardens the Prefect de Dames Blanche hunted a curious beast. The gardens once magnificent had like the temple itself fallen to disrepair, filth and squalor. Tangled, the paths now few and unlikely the Prefect hunted the winter wilds suitably contained by three walls. He sniffed the air, not smelling himself (a miracle of determined obstinacy) nor too his prey. A beast, a beast of cold and winter, a beast of power, of claws and frenzy but whose meat would grace the Noel table, honoured in a pink sauce with tiny shallots. The Prefect Jean Roux circled about the little shelter the Finns had made for him in the gardens. His prey had doubled back on him. It was a cunning beast.
Jean Roux did not look at the temple. He went there only when the perverse call of the moving pictures proved too great. The moving pictures that arrived from Paris, when they arrived from Paris at all. The temple desecrated by the Spaniards more than ten years before remained nearly untouched. The bodies had been left where they had fallen. Where the mirrors made by the late Prefect Joseph Nicephore Niepce had once caught, magnified, every magical moving picture long after its machine had stopped now a hundred broken shards remembered every story, every wonder projected there. Each scene unshot, each tale between, and every image suggested.
The Spaniards, those professed angels, had broken the mirrors and left across the chamber a scar in those fragments. A scratch upon the world that haunted Jean Roux, but in which chamber when a new story was shown was still amplified, intensified. He feared it, he hungered for it. He would squat and watch the flickering images and then swear to god and reason that never would he return. Twice he had made to burn down what remained of the temple, but each time had faltered and sobbing, relented. At first hating his self for returning there, but a hate that failed as the need grew. A need that followed him always, and which whispered.
The temple had become a place of local superstition and he the Prefect Jean Roux an increasingly revered figure, the hermit-knight. He that had stood vigil over the treasures of the Chevalier de Dames Blanche, too holy for the false-angels of Spain. That Jean Roux had been on a long ride during the destruction had been long forgotten. What was remembered was his ride through Chalon sur-Saone, in the protection (it was now said as far as Frenchmen travelled) of the saint Jeanne d’Arc. The hermit-knight the last of a line that went back to the crusades, to Charlemagne, to the end of the path, as long as his arm and no further than his puckered buccin de chocolat - and true for a good decade now. The Bishop enjoying the increasing pilgrimages undertaken to his cathedral had done nothing to speak out against such heresy. Indeed, encouraged it.
Which Jean Roux found hilarious, for though he rarely left his gardens and never the environs of the temple, his was a wild and romantic figure. He thought so and said so, and the two that remained of the Finnish guard (who enjoyed an easy life) agreed.
From the temple he heard pieces of his last, tearfully ecstatic visit now. A new print of Milies Le Voyage Dans La Lune, something of Verne and something of Wells. And of the more recent Le Voyageur De Temps, as if the clearly superior Verne had written the popularist Wells. Brooding he started when nearby bushes shook.
“There!” said Jean. He raised the long hunting gun, a muzzle-loader but of considerable accuracy. There he spied the beast, and the beast spied Jean Roux. The beast had been brought to the temple by a follower, a religious man, a man who brought the sacrifice to the temple each year stolen from zoo, university or private collection. Jean Roux now faced that great beast of the total winter that capped the planet. The most terrible of bears, a killer without peer, a cunning monster a yard high, black and white, bottle-shaped, with lethal flippers folded for now, beak closed. Jean Roux approached with exaggerated stealth to within three yards of the monster before slowly levelling his six-foot gun. It was quite the shot. The polar bear’s head vanished and its body toppled backwards. Jean with his fingertips touched blood to the cheek. They would pluck it and stuff it and have bear for the Noel banquet. He had never tasted bear and would later discover it tasted just like penguin.
Seven Dials, 1987. Pass The Mustard
“How much is this case worth to you?” said Alf Bittersweet. It was a busy time of year for Bittersweet’s Treats. Shoppers looking for gifts for people who had absolutely everything they might want were in the market for the strange. Casual shoppers were turned away. The serious enquiries were shown the dusty wonders of a bygone age. In the shop Mr Susan was demonstrating a gold-and-pearl fighting yoyo, genuine one previous owner only, ask not who.
Alf was not his father. He did not rule a small army of stepsons. Susan and Lucy the youngest of those remaining were themselves far from young men. Times changed. Alf could find anything it was true, but little instantly. So he suggested the quickest way, “I can spread it about, case looks like this, weighs this much, worth whatever-you-say. Get the rats out of their warrens.”
“Well yeah, money.”
That was not really Mme Roux’s field. She knew the case was in London but the trail had thereafter gone cold. Her usual method of just wandering about and ending up mostly where she ought to be had led her here. Alf hadn’t seen her for a year, but out of respect for the Pop he still worshipped was truly trying to help. She said, “Can I use your phone?”
Alf waved to her to a Bakelite affair on his writing desk, “Look Mrs, I’ll act for you, I’ll sort it, I’ll even front it. But you’ve got to underwrite it.”
Looking down her notebook Mme Roux checked to see if Lord Rockingham was still alive. And if so at what number he might be contacted. The idea of using someone else’s money to fund someone else’s effort sounded absolutely perfect. The world was doubtless still in danger both grave and terrible, but she hadn’t bought a single present for anyone yet. And presents were tricky. Mme Roux could never be entirely sure when she would celebrate it, nor therefore with whom. With handset to her ear but before dialling she said, “Will it take long?”
“Who knows, Mrs? A day, a month, a year – more?”
“Madame,” she said, correcting him.
Bishopsgate, 1991. Not Gene Autry
It had to be worth something. He had begged at Bittersweet’s Treats for a message to get to her, to meet, and when pushed for where he had said The Black Raven. But the Raven had been demolished in ’86. The great ted pub dragged down and crushed. Developed, replaced. There was nothing left now. Just Artie, and other people (if they remembered the teds at all) might remember Showaddywaddy from Top Of The Pops from when they were kids. Artie West hated Showaddywaddy, just like he hated Mud. Boil-in the-bag teds, the tourist-teds that had never been teds in the first place. Artie smoked, lighting one from the butt of the other. The twisted little bodies of ten more bobbed in the puddle about his faded crepe souls.
Artie had seen them in the market. Artie had stood, horrified, when they walked by. When the fat one had paused, Artie had ducked down. He hadn’t waited to see what they did next. Norvell and Arthur, Laurel and bloody Hardy, with a bloody saw and spattered dungarees and ignored by everyone else. Not far down the road and some office party was bawling out Bohemian Rhapsody (third time in succession) from Dirty Dicks. Set to be this year’s Christmas number one. It was monkeys outside, pissing with rain. It was still better than last year Artie remembered. Last year it had snowed. The radiator in his bedsit had burst. Setting a bowl under the drip he had found it full of ice by morning. He had seen them and fretting had tried to contact Mme Roux with her magic bullets.
Collar tugged up, hands cupped around his fag for warmth Artie nearly died on the spot when streetlight shadows reached the toes of his brothel-creepers. One fat, one thin.
“He thought we hadn’t seen him,” said Norvell.
“He certainly didn’t,” said Arthur.
The Absolute Arse Of Saxony, 1919. To Being A Wicked Bastard
He wished he’d taken up the offer of the goggles. Layered, padded and with gumboots to the knee he could not have clapped had he wanted to, and in the mittens would have made little sound anyway. The air was frozen, the air – and with not a cloud to be seen, nor anything else for a mile in each direction but for the horrid little truck Rockingham had provided – scratched Jeremiah’s eyes. The cab was about as well heated as it was sprung, and it certainly wasn’t sprung. A traction engine would have been slower but at least he could have hugged the boiler till his skin burned.
It had not been hard to narrow down where the case had been thrown from the train. Jeremiah had spent half his school days calculating ‘if train a leaves station b, and station b is so many miles away, then where does train x pass train y, if...’ and to within a mile or so it was here. Or as best as he could navigate it with the map. Jeremiah hated it. He was to his shins in frozen mud that was not actually half-nearly frozen enough. It was nearly Christmas. He set off cursing the world and Lord Rockingham in particular. When he tripped on a hidden root he shouted aloud. When it took him three tries to get up again filthy, wet and stinking down his front he tried to find and kick the root in retaliation, hurting his foot in the process.
But he did find the little hat, a bowler, battered and worn.
Enough was most certainly enough. He turned about and as fast he was able hobbled back to the frightful little lorry. He would telegram Rockingham to say there was no sign of the case. And if Rockingham wanted Jeremiah back in a land where winter sports meant kicking a bloody heavy leather ball then he could bally well come out here and escort him back at gunpoint.
Bishopsgate, London. 1991. A Devil Put Aside For Me
Drowned by Bohemian Rhapsody the sight of Artie being held down by Norvell whilst being sawed at by Arthur had been silent. The saw had gone across and back, across and back in time to Queen. No, no, no, no, no, no, we will not let you go. The last stroke had jumped free of all resistance. Artie a smear of oil on wall and pavement was gone. Norvell and Arthur had nodded in unison to one another in beaming satisfaction. As one they had turned to stare back at Mme Roux who had been reluctant before to meet with Artie, but not half as much as she regretted it now.
“It’s over,” she said.
“I see a long woman,” said Arthur, “and a dark journey.”
Mme Roux pointed up Bishopsgate, “Bear!”
Both jumped, both looked, both looked back. Mme Roux was running and swearing at the lack of cabs. Not far to Liverpool Street she only had to keep ahead of the two fools for a minute, three at most. She thanked the weather for making her mind up earlier on heels. She cursed the time of day and London in general for its lack of available rakes to throw in her path. When a motorbike coming in the opposite direction drew up before her Mme Roux swerved only to skid when she saw the rider.
The leathers were far too big. The boots comically oversized. The little hat, toothbrush moustache and savage little grin however had not changed. She backed away, made to turn but Norvell and Arthur arm-in-arm were a bare fifty yards away and closing. Back again to The Little Tramp she turned, trapped.
Who held out a hand and in a thickly accented voice said, “Come with me if you want to live.”
Part Nine tomorrow: My Baby Shot Me Down