The Notorious Doctor Cleghorn

A penny-dreadful
transmitted by Ætherweb

26 December 2009

Part Two

Isabel’s boots crunched through the settled snow as she ran back towards the Queen’s Head. Cold, implacable fury coursed through her. Stupid of her to believe the Ministry would hold their end – but, no, she cautioned herself, incomparably stupid of them to have revealed their hand so carelessly.

‘Mr Cottar.’

The Ministry man looked up from his cards.

‘Miss Constance?’

Isabel was still catching her breath. ‘As I’m sure you’re aware, a good friend of mine has had the misfortune to be involved in an altercation with some of your associates. I trust you have a full explanation?’

Cottar leant back casually. ‘I’m quite sure I don’t know-’

‘Kindly don’t be so gauche.’

Cottar smiled.

‘Your man Cleghorn has caused us quite some trouble in the past; I’m sure you’re aware. There are some in the Ministry who’d like to take steps to ensure his loyalty to the Crown.’

‘My understanding was that he was to be brought to you directly.’

‘And yet you failed to do so.’ Why was he smiling like that? Like a snake.

‘I could hardly thrust him into your tender custody in the middle of a public house. These things take time.’

‘Time, Miss Constance, is the one thing my colleagues and I are perpetually short of. Fortunately, some bright spark foresaw your…hesitation, and planned ahead.’

Isabel looked at Cottar’s opponent, the other Ministry agent. His impassive face continued to stare at the table. She turned again to Cottar. A ticking sound at the periphery of her hearing was beginning to unnerve her slightly.

‘Do indulge me, Mr Cottar: for how long has the Royal Institute been a branch of Civil Intelligence?’

He stiffened. ‘We still call on freelance agents. On occasion.’

‘”Freelance agents”? Crank and Gallowman?’

‘Upstanding and reputable businessman, by all accounts.’



‘And where, pray tell, does their loyalty stand?’

Cottar gazed at her levelly. ‘They’re not dangerous men, Miss Constance. Not to us, at least.’

Isabel glanced about the room warily; each patron seemed to be straining to ignore them. ‘How dangerous, Mr Cottar, do you believe the good Doctor to be?’

‘As I’ve said-’

‘Is he perhaps more dangerous than – shall we say – a prominent member of the Inner Circle of the Skyway Corsairs?’

Cottar sat back.

‘Are you making an offer?’

Isabel snorted. ‘You could call it that.’

The fire crackled in the grate. Cottar watched her hawkishly for some seconds before speaking.

‘I’m calling your bluff, Miss Constance. You’ve no more access to the Corsairs than you have to Prince Albert.’

Isabel’s riposte was rendered inaudible by the shop across the street exploding.

Tiny shards of glass lay scattered across the snow, sparkling in the warm light. Fragments of slate and brick had embedded themselves in the outer wall of the Queen’s Head, and a thick dust filled the air, mingling with the snow and turning it a dirty grey.

Isabel carefully picked her way across the debris. Cottar and his laconic accomplice had disappeared as soon as they heard the blast, evidently unwilling to leave the investigation to the police. Although the clockmaker’s still stood, its roof was quite gone, and a great quantity of material had been scattered across the length of the street. A plume of smoke was rising, almost comically, from the upper floor.

The constabulary rushed hither and thither with reckless abandon, herding the gathering crowd of Londoners into adjoining streets. Isabel couldn’t see the Ministry men; they’d melted into the throng.

She advanced across the smoking rubble. A constable approached her; she waved him away with an irritable flash of her Party card.

The ground floor of the shop was intact, mostly, though the windows were shattered and a small fire had begun in the further reaches. True, an elegant old longcase had been thrown to the floor, and some tatty replicas of superior Swiss craftsmanship had lost their moorings on the wall, but otherwise the premises remained in a curiously upright state.

Isabel became aware that the constable was still behind her, still jabbering some ill-informed nonsense about structural instability and secondary explosions. As she turned to face him, her eye was caught, momentarily, by a familiar insignia carved into the doorframe.

Cleghorn maintained his horizontal position on the floor, careful to hold hid hands steady about the chair-legs they had hitherto been inexpertly tied to. From his vantage point, he could see Crank lying sprawled on the ground, surrounded by the smoking rubble from the upper storey, by which he had been struck. Gallowman was standing over him, his raspy voice raised to a nerve-scraping shout as he tried to revive his stunned associate.

Casting an eye about, he saw Gallowman’s rusty knife, discarded on the floor and bearing a thick coat of plastery dust. He could hear footsteps outside, running footsteps. His eyes flicked to Gallowman: already the villain’s unease was beginning to get the better of him. Cleghorn heard a shout, followed by a Peeler’s whistle, and took the opportunity afforded by Gallowman’s momentary hesitation to grab the knife from the floor and kick himself upright off the chair, landing full force on the ruffian, blade to his throat.

‘I suggest you plan your next move very carefully, Mr Gallowman.’ Hoarse from the dust in his windpipe, he fervently hoped he sounded intimidating.

Gallowman – consummate professional – refused even an involuntary twitch. In that moment Cleghorn abruptly thought himself mad: surely this man must have been mortally threatened before? By people of laxer morals than he? By people who (and here a ghastly realisation dawned) could be relied upon to hold the knife the right way around?

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