Radclyffe Halls – An old colleague – Unsavoury tactics – Voluntas – Battles of the mind – The final shootout – Disturbing news
Wheels do not turn on make believe
Linda Davenport reporting
It is easy to find reasons to hate Britain’s reliance on coal. The coal itself is mined under dangerous and unhealthy conditions. Burning it releases into the air dark clouds of smoke. Boiler explosions are costly in lives and material. But before we storm Parliament demanding that we abolish coal, we must have a good answer to the question of how we intend to power our factories, light our streets, and warm our homes in its absence.
It has been suggested that we replace our steam engines with windmills, such as the Dutch have been using in the Low Lands to grind their corn for bread, power their saws for sawing planks, and even to keep their heads above the water. But unlike a pile of coal that we can light whenever we wish, there are times when the wind does not blow, and the needs of our industry are constant. Also, a steam engine provides more power than even the tallest windmill.
Another obvious solution is that we free ourselves from the need for constantly turning wheels, but this is not easy to do. The industrial achievements of our age have enabled our country to grow far beyond what it could have without the invention of the steam engine. A solution to the belching chimney-stacks must not involve deporting half of Britain’s population elsewhere.
It is clear that we must find a better way of powering our civilisation that will not eventally turn the sky permanently dark, but what that way is, is not clear at all. Universities such as our own, and students such as you yourself, Reader, may well hold the key to the future in our hands.
Our small expedition, consisting of Mr. Nigel Arterton, Miss Jocelyn Vale, Miss Florence Albrecht, and myself, have arrived in Radclyffe Halls. We are ready for the first rounds tomorrow. For decency’s sake, we have two rooms – boys in one, girls in the other. We have a marvellous sea view, and I can’t help noticing that there are no buildings from which to snipe. You never truly retire, do you?
We are not the only contestants here. The hotel staff, after receiving the first couple of teams, are no longer surprised at the sight of groups of young people armed with a variety of firearms. I was amused to notice several undercover policemen casually lounging about in the lobby. Large collections of firearms do bring them out. Well, our rifle bullets are safely stored in the hotel safe as the Rules dictate, and our plans to found the independent Kingdom of Folkestone have been foiled. My slender .22 pistol is nestling in my holster, not even breaking the line of my jacket. I have no intention of bringing it out, Winston. This is my week-end off.
As you may know, I stayed here several weeks on an assignment to intercept a Romanian spy. Ultimately futile, as she had chosen Hull as her port of entry. I remembered well the quaint layout of the place, with its half-floors and crooked passages. The beds were still decent, and the furnishings had been re-done in tasteful greens and yellows. We put our luggage and weapons in the room, and went out to explore the town.
When next you see him, Winston, please tell Quentin that his tailing skills have not left him. They are as horrible as ever they were. I was pleased to see that my favorite seafood restaurant, the Kraken, was still there, even if it was under new management. I took the young folk there, with Quentin behind us. The menu has changed, and is now a bit on the pretentious side, but they do a very nice bisque. Miss Vale, who is a vegetarian, ordered the fruit-de-mer before I could explain to her what that was, but her vegetarianism does not extend to shellfish, so that was all right. Mr. Arterton and Miss Albrecht took their time studying the menu, then went for cod and chips. These young folks and their delicate palate.
As we were having our cups of coffee, Quentin joined us at our table with a very convincing “Well, as I live and breathe! Godfrey Pike?” He introduced himself as my long lost Army friend, and poisoned the youths’ minds with the most outrageous lies about my exploits. He did insist on picking up our bill, alluding to that time in Brindisi when I carried him to safety on my shoulders, under heavy enemy fire, all the while hinting that the enemies were the owners and proprietors of a local house of ill repute. Of course my young companions swallowed his stories hook, line, and sinker. Critical thinking, Winston. It’s a lost art among today’s youth.
As we left, Quentin slipped me the reports on your interrogation of our Russian guest, for which my thanks. I agree with your assessment that there is probably a Prometheus cell at large somewhere in London. We can’t have that, now can we? I wish you good hunting, and am grateful to Her Majesty’s Secret Service for taking the effort. I am retired, after all.
I have to admit that I worry about the situation back at Algernon U. The place is starting to feel like home. Head Porter Barker can assist you if it comes to direct action at Algernon. I have also briefed Dr. Wadcroft and Dr. Enderby on the information I have received so far, and they are holding the fort at Algernon.
I think I’ll take the young folk to the bar, and introduce them to the joys of hotel living. Non-alcoholically so, I hasten to add. Hangovers are not helpful to one’s aim, and I do intend to take that trophy home with us.
My troop of snipers have done us proud. They have advanced to the quarter finals of the tournament, beating three other teams by a comfortable margin. Our Browning rifles are well up to the task. I have seen other teams with Olympic-standard target rifles, which have the advantage of being specifically designed for target shooting, rather than ours, which are optimised for shooting people. Whether we would have been as successful with our Lee-Enfields, I cannot say. Team spirits are high. Miss Albrecht has found someone from her previous school and is reviving old memories. Miss Vale and Mr. Arterton are out at the range, scouting the competition. So far, they seem confident, though standards are fairly high. Let’s not get complacent.
I have made contact with the local police. Apparently one of the secret policemen recognised me, prompting them to inquire what the hell I am doing here. I told them I am no longer on active duty, and am now Doctor Pike, here to watch over the well-being of one of the rifle teams with a good chance of taking the trophy away from Eton. If they check with you, Winston, please tell them I am here to unmask a group of white slave traders from the Emirates. Keep them busy.
The venue is a fairly modern sports complex. I believe it was intended for the rifle competitions in the last Olympics, which sad to say went to Greece. Their loss is our gain. The shooting range could easily be extended to a full mile. The area for the marksmen is lavishly furnished with soft mats for the children to lie down on. There are benches for the competing teams, and a larger area behind where the teams can rest from their labours while watching the goings-on. Tea, coffee, various fruit juices and biscuits are provided at a modest price. Surely, Winston, we bask in luxury. Lack of comfort will not be an excuse should we fail.
The team captain of the Eton team, a Mrs. Emily Awdry, is giving us funny looks, especially our rifles. She sidled up to me, asking if they were regulation weapons, which I have assured her they are. Then, she asked if she could see one, and I did a little “I’ll show you mine of you show me yours.” She does seem to know her stuff, and we spent a delightful few minutes comparing tools. Their rifles are a marvel of engineering, with hair triggers so fine you could fire the rifle by merely thinking of the shot, and very precise scopes. Our rifles by comparison are more like workhorses, rugged, proof against anything in a military campaign. Pleasant though it was, I do wonder why Mrs. Emily is taking an interest in our rifles. Professional interest? Does she intend to file complaints about them? A subtle kind of psychological warfare? Or is she merely struck by my devilish good looks? That will be my working hypothesis. Small glasses of sherry by candlelight may well be in my future. Wish me luck, Winston!
Godfrey “Casanova” Pike.
It is with a heavy heart that I write these words, but damn and blast it, I’ve been had! We were competing against a Richmond team, and young Mr. Arterton was at the range. Miss Vale, Miss Albrecht and myself were in the wings, with Miss Albrecht using my spotting scope to see how Nigel was doing.
“Nigel, you plonker!” she said, which was a bit unkind.
“What’s up?” said Jocelyn.
“He’s scored a two!”
Jocelyn grabbed the scope, looked. The announcer confirmed our fears. I looked at Nigel, who looked up, annoyed, then fired again. A seven this time, better, but hardly up to his usual standard. The boy scores bullseyes as a matter of course. His next two shots were nines, then he finally hit one bulls-eye. He got up, looking confused, and walked over to us.
“What was that all about?” Florence sneered at him. “Do you want to go home early?”
“Something’s wrong with the scope,” said Nigel. “I had to aim below the edge of the target to get a ten.”
“Forget to set it?” said Jocelyn.
“Do you think I’m an idiot? Here, eight hundred yards.”
“Give me that, my boy,” I said.
As I turned the range knob on the scope, I could feel it. Plain as plain. It was loose! Someone had turned it a full turn, so that it seemed to be set correctly, but wasn’t.
“Has anyone adjusted the scope recently?” I said, to emphatic shakes of heads. Not that I expected anyone to. We know how our weapons work, Winston. We don’t need to fiddle with them. There was only one person who had handled that rifle. I looked in the direction of the Eton team, and immediately spotted the smug little smile of Mrs. Emily Awdry. I knew, and she knew that I knew. Nothing to be done about it. I turned to my team.
“Nigel? Run to the girls’ room and get the other Browning. Jocelyn? Florence? All is not lost, but we will need to be at our best to win this round. Come with me.”
Florence handed Nigel the key to the girls’ room. “I’m warning you Arterton. The rifle is in the wardrobe on the right. If I find any of my things messed with, there will be… consequences.”
Jocelyn grinned at Nigel. “If they put one of those little chocolates on our pillows, bring that as well.”
“Right,” said Nigel, took the key, and sprinted off.
I took the girls to a quiet corner, and told them to sit down on the ground, cross-legged. I sat across from them, with a bit more effort.
“Someone messed with our rifle,” said Florence.
“I’m afraid so,” I said. “I must confess that I let the coach of the Eton team look at our rifle. I am truly sorry.”
I blame myself, Winston. I’ve had mental battles with spies both male and female. I have been beaten up by some, seduced by others, and managed to keep my wits about me. Mrs. Emily Awdry was not the most alluring one by a large margin, and yet she managed to distract me long enough to sabotage our rifle. I simply did not expect such unsportsmanlike behaviour, and I fell for it like the greenest of recruits. It stings, Winston. I’m afraid this is war. I will not allow our chances to be spoiled by this woman. I looked from Florence to Jocelyn.
“I’m going to bloody stab her,” said Jocelyn.
“That will get us disqualified,” I said.
“No judge will convict us,” said Florence.
“Ladies?” I said, rather brusquely. “What has happened, has happened. Please take a moment to accept the situation for what it is, then dismiss it from your mind. It does not matter. It does not signify. It does not exist. All that is important, is our next shots.” I sat up straight. “Close your eyes, ladies. Breathe in through the nose, deep but not uncomfortably so. Hold your breath for a few moments, then breathe out through the mouth.”
Jocelyn scowled. “What’s this? Some sort of heathen mumbo jumbo?”
I gave her a stern look. “Miss Vale. Jocelyn. What we are about to do, is a meditational technique that once enabled me to shoot an artilleryman in the head from a mile away, while his shells exploded all round us. I am loath to teach it for the simple purpose of a shooting match, but we will not be defeated. Now please do as I say. We don’t have much time, but what time we have, we will use well. Close your eyes. Breathe in.”
Jocelyn looked at me with dark eyes, then did as told. I let the girls take a few deep breaths.
“You are angry,” I said. “Breathe in. Feel that anger. It will not help you. Breathe out. Let the anger flow away. Breathe in. You feel the desire to win, to beat your opponents who have wronged you. It does not help you. Breathe out. Let the desire float away. Breathe in. You feel the fear of failure. To fail your friends here. The ridicule of your fellow students back at home. This fear does not help you. Breathe out. Let it flow away.”
“Breathe in. See in your minds the target,” I said, almost in a whisper. “Outside the circle of the target, there is nothing. See the crosshairs in your mind. Feel the pressure of the trigger against your finger. Wait for your heart to beat slower. Wait for the right moment. Breathe out. Pull the trigger. Watch the bullet fly towards the target. Watch it hit the bullseye. Breathe in. Pull back the bolt, push it forward.”
In our minds, we fired five rounds, each of them a bullseye. Florence and Jocelyn sat perfectly still, breathing. I had to smile. Winston, I am proud of them, and of young Nigel.
“Observe, ladies. Take note of the state of your mind. We will name this state, and we will call it Voluntas. Purpose. Say the word. Voluntas. Voluntas.”
Jocelyn and Florence, eyes still closed, repeated the word. Words have power, Winston. I need only mention water lilies to Quentin, and he will recall exactly what I am talking about. I was counting on it now.
“Good,” I said. “Now open your eyes. Think of nothing but putting the bullet in the bullseye. Nothing else matters. If your mind wanders, repeat the word Voluntas to recall this state of mind.”
We got up and made our way back to the range. Nigel was waiting for us with the other rifle. I took it from him, held it up to Florence.
“Remember, my girl. Nothing matters except the next shot. Voluntas.”
“Voluntas,” said Florence, and walked out to the range.
I sat down on the bench, looked up at the scoreboard. The Richmond team had scored eighty-six points so far. If their third contestant scored the same, they would total one hundred and twenty three. We could ill afford any mistakes. Nigel sat down next to Jocelyn, and gave her a sad look.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
Jocelyn gave him a smile. “It doesn’t matter. Only the next shot matters.”
We all looked as Florence lay down on the mat, took aim. Fired.
“Ten,” said the announcer.
There were cheers from the crowd, then hisses to be quiet. Florence fired again.
Even before the crowd settled down, Florence fired again, and scored another bullseye. She fired again.
There was a pause, as Florence composed herself. The audience was completely quiet. She aimed. Fired.
“Ten, for a total of forty-eight points. Mr. Jenkins of Richmond University to shoot next.”
Florence joined us on the bench, and handed the rifle over to Jocelyn.
“Voluntas,” said Jocelyn.
Nigel looked from Jocelyn to Florence. “What are you on about?”
“It’s a magic word,” said Jocelyn.
At that moment, Richmond’s first shot fell, and there were cheers.
“Oh bollocks,” said Nigel.
Richmond had obviously saved their best marksman for last. Mr. Jenkins scored two more bullseyes and a nine. There was a lot of noise from the audience, and it took the announcers a few moments to quiet them down. We all craned our necks as Mr. Jenkins aimed, fired again.
“Nine! For a total of forty eight, bringing the final score for Richmond up to one hundred and thirty four! Miss Jocelyn Vale of Algernon University, Ipswich, to shoot next.”
“Oh boy,” said Nigel, after some mental calculations. He looked at Jocelyn. “Anything below a nine, and we’re stuffed.”
“No pressure,” said Florence.
I stood in front of Jocelyn, put my hands on her shoulders, looked into her eyes.
“It doesn’t matter, Jocelyn. Nothing matters except the next shot. Voluntas.”
There was a set to Jocelyn’s jaw as she repeated after me. Voluntas. She stepped out to the range, lay down on the mat, concentrated. Florence gripped my hand on one side, and Nigel’s on the other.
“Come on, Crazy Girl. Let them have it!”
“Yes!” Nigel raised his fist. “Keep going!”
Jocelyn’s next shot was another ten. As she took aim again, there was movement by the target, and to our horror, a pigeon fluttered down, sat down on the top of the target. We all looked at Jocelyn as an assistant came and shooed the bird away with a handkerchief. Jocelyn had put her face on the ground, covered by her dark hair. She looked up, over her shoulder at us. We could all see her suddenly grin. She blew her hair out of her face, aimed, fired.
Almost before the announcer had called out the score, Jocelyn fired again, then again.
“Ten, and Ten Ladies and Gentlemen! Total score for Algernon is one hundred and thirty five! Algernon University continues to the semifinals!”
Jocelyn jumped to her feet, raised the rifle into the air, then came trotting towards us with it slung on her back.
“Christ Almighty,” said Nigel. “Are you trying to give us all a heart attack?”
“Got bored,” said Jocelyn.
“Well, we didn’t,” I said. I looked over to where the Eton team sat. Mrs. Awdry smirked at me, and quietly clapped her hands. I turned to my team.
“Well done you all,” I said.
“Girls rule,” said Florence. “Boys…”
“You all rule,” I said. “If Nigel hadn’t compensated as well and as quick as he did, we’d be on the train by now.”
Jocelyn pulled the brush through the rifle barrel on its string, then pushed the rifle back into its bag. There was a noise behind me, and I turned round to see Mrs. Emily Awdry and her team standing behind me, a false smile on her face.
“Congratulations,” said Mrs. Awdry. “It’s always good to see a team compensate for the mistakes of its weaker members.”
I gave her a warm smile. “Isn’t it, though? Well, best of luck to you. I would hate to miss meeting you in the finals.”
Nigel looked at their backs as they walked away, then looked up at me.
“That was a dig at me,” said Nigel. “She’s the one who messed up my rifle?”
“I’m afraid so.”
Nigel scowled. “I’m gonna crush them.”
This is not over, Winston. If Mrs. Emily Awdry has won previous tournaments using such underhand tactics as these, then it will be my duty and my honour to take the trophy away from her. Doctor Pike is a vengeful Doctor, and they will not escape my wrath. I know my team will be up to the task. And now, I will take them to a bar for well-deserved cups of tea and an early night. Tomorrow, semifinals and finals!
I am well aware that an account of the deeds of the Algernon Rifle Club has little to do with the sinister goings-on at the University, but indulge me. Some day, Nigel, Jocelyn and Florence may find out that an account of the Folkestone Rifle Tournament has found its way into the archives of Her Majesty’s Secret Service. In any case, it is a nice change from murder, torture, and bloodshed.
We left our hotel early, to go to the venue. I had a word with one of the organisers and went to the range to re-calibrate our sadly abused Browning rifle. Luckily, there was no actual damage, and after some re-adjustment it once more fired straight and true. We had brought the other rifle, but it’s always nice to have something to fall back on. I found Florence in the waiting area, but Jocelyn and Nigel were nowhere to be seen. I looked at the score board. Florence was the first to shoot, so they weren’t needed right now, but a shepherd wants to keep all his sheep in the same place.
“Where’s the rest?” I said.
“Jocelyn is teaching Nigel that Voluntas spell,” said Florence.
“It’s not an actual magic spell, you know?”
“Don’t knock it, it worked. And now Nigel can do it as well.”
“And he will teach others in his turn,” I said. “There will be a mighty wave of calm over Algernon University.”
Florence looked at me, with a little sneer on her face.
“Either that or they’re hiding somewhere eating each other’s faces.”
I raised my eyebrows. It is not my place to stand in the way of love, Winston, but distractions of that sort are not to be encouraged. We have a tournament to win.
“I think he’s got the hots for her something rotten. Really. Jocelyn was in hospital for a night, after someone tried to stab Miss Tennant in her sleep and she shot the attacker. Nige came running into our dorm, and someone thought it’d be funny to tell him she’d been in a fight with an assasin. Never seen a boy run that fast since the Dressing Room Incident. Jocelyn says he nearly threw himself into her arms. Which is a much better story than Nige just standing there and mumbling.”
Well, Winston, that at least partially explained why Miss Vale had been so eager to join the team that she would go practicing late at night. I could only hope that it would motivate them as much to win. Florence and I went to see the first couple of rounds, paying special attention to the Eton team. Two boys, one girl. They were wearing sports gear in their university’s colours, with their names and numbers in gold letters on the back. They were confident to the point of arrogance, and won their round with ease, with their lowest score being a single unlucky eight. It would take our best to beat them fairly.
Except, after what Mrs. Awdry had done to our rifle, I had no intention whatsoever of beating them fairly. You may suspect me of planning to throw a gremlin at their equipment, Winston. But none of it! I will not stoop that low. I will stoop even lower, and throw a gremlin at their minds.
With every lens in the place aimed at the target, mine went from boy to girl to boy, studying their behaviour. The boy on the range now was named Adam. By the way he carried himself, he clearly thought himself the team leader. The girl’s name was Beatrice. She had clearly had to fight hard for her place on the team, and not just by shooting straight and true. The other boy was Christopher, and he was the calm one who could be relied on to bring in the points. Before he lay down on the mat to shoot, I saw him kiss the cross on a chain round his neck. Going by the scores up to now, Christopher was the best shot, Beatrice the least. I sat back and thought. There was still some time for battle plans, and my team would need to win their next round, or they would not meet at all.
Jocelyn came to join us with Nigel in tow. Florence raised her hand.
“Voluntas,” she said.
“Voluntas, Sister,” said Jocelyn.
They both looked at Nigel, who closed his eyes solemnly and nodded.
“Voluntas,” said Nigel.
They all looked at me. What could I do? I folded my hands, and repeated the word. Voluntas, a word I’d just picked at random, had now officially become the team mantra. Isn’t it strange how much such small things can do for team morale? I’ve been in plenty of military groups, and they all have these small phrases. They are trotted out when the rain is pouring down on a long march. Before joining battle. At least our mantra was not as rude as some others I’ve heard.
Our semi-final round was against a team sailed in from Prussia. They did not wear the traditional Pickelhaube, but they did honour their tradition of being damn good shots with a rifle, as our fathers and fathers’ fathers have learnt to their loss. Their names were Gustav, Walther and Franz, and they were the very picture of politeness and efficiency. Of course, they were using Mausers. No true Prussian would use any of that foreign rubbish. Miss Tennant uses the same brand of rifle, which I say is damn unpatriotic of her.
They won the toss, and elected to shoot first. Gustav lay down, aimed, and pulled off a splendid fifty points in great style. Next was our own Florence, who took more time, but also landed a perfect score. Given the high standards, Winston, I would not be surprised if next year’s competitions would be one thousand meters rather than eight hundred. Have to keep these young folk on their toes. Next was Walther. He broke rank by not getting a perfect score, but still managed an impressive forty seven. Nigel was next. He made himself one with the weapon, one with the target, slowed down his heartbeat, and scored an astounding forty eight points for the team. He was replaced by Franz, who also scored a perfect round, leaving Jocelyn to score at least forty six. She walked out to the mat, and lay down. Just what inspired her, I have no idea, but it worked. In scarcely more than a minute, she scored a perfect round. She came walking back to us, rifle on her shoulder. She raised a hand to us.
“Voluntas,” she said.
We all repeated the word, and went to the bar to celebrate with a well-earned cup of tea. We were in the finals!
I turned to my team.
“Well done, people,” I said. With the round over, it was time for the real battle. “Is anyone up for a little bit of theatre?”
We found the Eton team sitting at a table in the lounge, by the large window overlooking the range. Studied nonchalant expressions were on their faces as Nigel and I led Jocelyn to the space next to them, each holding her by an arm. Nigel pulled back a chair for her, and Jocelyn felt for the table with one hand as Nigel pushed the chair into the back of her knees and she sat down, back to the window. She had ruffled her hair a bit, and stared straight ahead of her. Nigel sat down next to her. The Eton team gave us a few strange looks. Nigel glared at them, then turned his back on them, concentrating on Jocelyn. She blindly felt for him, grabbed his wrist and pulled it towards her mouth. Nigel pulled it back.
“No,” he said, sternly.
“I hunger,” said Jocelyn.
“Not where people can see,” said Nigel.
“I could see, once,” said Jocelyn. She bowed her head, strands of hair falling in front of her face. “So… thirsty.”
“I will get you some water,” I said, made to stand op.
“No water! I don’t drink…”
At that moment, the next quarter finalists were announced. Jocelyn jerked up straight. The first shot fell.
“Eight,” said Jocelyn.
“Eight,” said the announcer.
“Nine,” said Jocelyn, staring straight ahead of her as the Eton team looked on with their mouths hanging open.
“Nine,” said the announcer.
“Ten,” said Jocelyn, wincing. “Ten! Please!”
The Eton team gave us strange looks as Jocelyn called out every single score correctly, a moment before the announcer did. Her hands were on the table, clawing at the smooth surface. Her voice cracked as the last shot of the round fell.
“Seven,” she whispered.
“And that’s a seven, for a total of one hundred and thirty two. Cambridge to continue to the semi-finals, well done!”
Jocelyn bent her head down, onto the table.
“Miss the Sun,” she whispered. “I miss the Sun so much.”
I put my hand on Nigel’s shoulder and gave him a look. I could see his lips tremble. Then, he gave a small nod. He took Jocelyn by the hand and led her away. A few moments later, Florence joined me.
“Nigel is helping her,” I said, my voice dripping with hidden meaning.
Florence crossed herself, turning pale.
“Don’t do that,” I said, sternly. On the next table, the Eton team were carefully not looking in our direction. We sat quietly, listening to the rounds of the other quarter finalists. Almost none of them passed our own score, but that was no reason to get complacent. After a while, Nigel rejoined us, walking unsteadily, sporting a very visible bandage on his left wrist.
“Get him some orange juice, Florence,” I said. “And a few biscuits.”
“Yes, Sir,” said Florence, and walked to the bar.
I turned to Nigel. “How is she?”
“Good. Your dedication will be rewarded.”
“Thank you, Sir,” said Nigel.
Florence waved me over to the bar, and I left Nigel alone for a while. As I looked back, I could see Christopher from the Eton team bend over to Nigel, presumably asking him if he was all right. Nigel scowled and told him to mind his own business. Florence put his drink in front of him, and Nigel gulped it down, ate the biscuits. Florence put a gentle hand on his shoulder.
At that moment, Jocelyn came walking into the room. She had brushed her hair till it shone, put on a fresh shirt that wasn’t wrinkled. As a trained observer, I even noticed a hint of lip gloss. She swept up to our table with several young men watching her, sat down next to Nigel, and turned to Beatrice at the next table.
“Are you up yet, my darling?”
“Um…” Beatrice swallowed. “Round after the next, I think.”
“Wonderful,” purred Jocelyn. “Good luck.”
She gave Beatrice a brilliant smile, and I could see the tiniest dot of red on one of her teeth. So could Beatrice. She stared, then got up.
“I think we’d better go and prepare.”
With an almost military flair, the Eton team got up and left. Nigel, Florence, and Jocelyn glanced at each other, clearly trying not to laugh. I tapped the table.
“Well, that went rather swimmingly, I’d say. Now all we need to do is keep our scores in the high forties, and we may yet bring home the trophy. Finals start at four. I suggest you go and prepare.”
“Voluntas,” said Nigel.
There was still an hour or so to go, and I decided to go back to the hotel to see if there were any messages from Quentin or you. As I walked to the door, I could hear the voice of Mrs. Emily Awdry.
“For crying out loud! No! I am not filing a complaint that one of the contestants may be a vampire!”
“But she was blind!” Christopher’s voice sounded a few tones higher than normal. “And she was sitting with her back to the range! How could she know what every score could be, even before the announcer?”
Well, one way she might have done it, was for her friend Florence to sit a few tables away with a spotting scope, signalling the scores to Jocelyn by holding up her fingers. If Jocelyn weren’t a blood-sucking vampire with a talent for extra-sensory perception, that would definitely be one way to do it.
I’m afraid I indulged myself in an evil little chuckle, Winston. First sign of madness, I know. Time for a cup of tea, and then we’ll see if I can calm the children down enough to win their finals.
Dr. Godfrey “Nosferatu” Pike.
Well, that was a tournament well worth its report in the Algernon Clarion, Winston. Young Nigel is writing up the notes as we speak. Did we win? Did we lose? Did Eton finally taste the defeat it so richly deserved? Read on.
The Eton team’s semifinal round was against a team from Norwich. I was amused to see that while they won easily, their rows of bullseyes and nines were marred by the occasional eight and even one seven. The prospect of exsanguination must be weighing on their minds. They returned to the canteen. The only table available was next to ours, so they sat down with aplomb. Can’t show fear in the face of the enemy. Nigel gave them one single look, then turned to Jocelyn. Jocelyn, frankly, was playing her role as a femme fatale with a worrying ease, smiling at Nigel, whispering quietly at him. Florence, the least threatening of us, turned to Beatrice of the Eton team.
“Well done,” she said. “It seems we’ll be meeting in the finals.”
“Best of luck,” said Beatrice. “You’ll need it.”
“Slight advantage to us,” said Adam. “But I’m sure you won’t mind.”
“Advantage?” said Florence.
“Two boys, one girl against two girls, one boy.”
Jocelyn looked over her shoulder once, then turned back to Nigel.
“Why,” said Florence, ice on her voice, “would that be an advantage?”
“Well, I am the best of the boys, Bea is the best of the girls, and the third is determined at random from the best ten overall. Luckily, we got Christopher.”
“I am here because I scored better than all the boys except him.” She pointed at Nigel, “And better than all the girls except Carrie. If she hadn’t broken her wrist, this might have been an all-girls team.”
Adam looked at Nigel, who was leaning his head on his arm, white bandage clearly visible under the sleeve of his jacket. Florence glared at Adam.
“There is no need to feel sorry for either me or Jocelyn. We can hold our own against any of you, boy or girl.”
“If you say so,” said Adam. An arrogant little smile was on his lips, and I could see Florence boiling.
Anger is not your friend if you are a sniper, Winston. I am not at the level of competence where I have to wait for the pause between heartbeats to pull the trigger, but my mind and Florence’s have to be at rest. You cannot allow yourself to think of anything but the rifle and the target. For civilians, being able to attain that tranquility of mind is the greatest reward for all your practice. All that Adam did to destroy Florence’s tranquility, was to be a pompous ass, which came naturally to him.
I tapped my finger on the table in front of her. She looked round to me.
“Florence? You are the first to shoot next round. Let’s prepare.”
I took Florence to one of the private dressing rooms, and sat her down on the floor. Sadly, tranquility was not yet at its optimum.
“What an arse!”
“I agree,” I said. “Feel that anger, and let it slip away.”
“He thinks he can beat me, just because I’m a girl!”
“I’m sure he can count as well as any of us, Florence. He was trying to get under your skin.”
“At Algernon U, the girls are better than the boys!”
“Florence.” I took her hand, till she looked into my eyes. “This is not helping. We can beat them, but unless you can let go of this anger, it will not happen. The Algernon Rifle Club is better than this team Eton has fielded. But it is not because they have more boys or we have more girls. We are better because we do not make the distinction. You are here because of your score in the trials. If Bertram had beaten your score, he would be here today. But he didn’t, and here you are, and you have given us no cause to regret our choice.”
“I will beat him. Trust me.”
“I do trust you. But you will not beat him. As you should know by now, Florence, marksmanship is a mind game. Every fraction of your concentration must be on your rifle, your target. Beating some pompous arse should not even be in your world. You must detach yourself from all distraction. Only then will you be able to score your best.”
“Yes you will. Now close your eyes. Breathe in. Hold. Look through your scope. See the target. Become the target. Breathe out, slowly.”
The time of the finals arrived. Florence and I rejoined Jocelyn and Nigel.
“They won the toss,” he said. “They are going to shoot first.”
“Good,” I said. “Play time is over. No more propaganda. No more nonsense. From this moment, all that matters is the bullseye.”
Eton’s first contestant was Adam. He scored two nines and three bullseyes. I handed Florence her rifle as Adam walked by us.
“Distance is eight hundred yards,” he said. “Don’t forget to set your scope.”
Florence looked at him, then got up and stepped out. Her first shot was a nine. Her second was a bullseye. Her third was another bullseye. Her fourth was a nine. I could see her look away for a moment, aim again. It took her longer than usual. The gun went off.
“Nine, for a total of forty-seven! Beatrice Hammond of Eton to shoot next.”
Florence walked back to us, determined and steadfast, aware of all the eyes on her. She closed her eyes and handed the rifle over to Jocelyn.
“Sorry,” she said. “I… wandered.”
“You did well, my dear,” I said. “Only one point behind.”
“I wanted to beat him,” said Florence.
“We all do Flo,” said Nigel. “We’re not finished yet.”
As we watched, Beatrice scored forty-seven.
“Nice,” said Jocelyn. She got up.
“Remember, Jocelyn,” I said. “Think of the target, not of what our opponents say.”
Jocelyn looked down the barrel of the rifle, flicked off a speck of dust. “They’re idiots,” she said. “Who cares what they say?”
Nigel raised a hand. “Voluntas.”
“Voluntas,” said Jocelyn.
She walked out to the range, gave the mat a little kick to straighten it out, lay down. We all held our breath. The first shot fell.
I watched in total shock and awe as Jocelyn put in a perfect score as though it came naturally to her. She came walking back to us with a little smile on her face, and handed her rifle to Nigel.
“There,” she said. “Two ahead again. Don’t miss.”
She settled back on her seat. On the bench next to us, Adam looked at her. She gave him a little smile, licked her lips. Adam looked away.
Christopher of the Eton team walked up, kissed the cross round his neck, lay down on the mat, aimed, fired.
“Ten!” The announcer sounded enthusiastic. Christoper fired again, for another bulseye. We all looked at each other.
“If he gets a perfect round too, i’ll be very cross,” said Jocelyn.
Out on the range, Christopher scored another ten.
“Lucky,” said Nigel.
There was a longer pause as Christopher aimed, looked away, aimed again, fired.
The audience erupted in a rush of excited whispers.
“Quiet please, quiet please!”
For the briefest moment, I saw Christopher’s face, rigid, tense. This would be the last shot of the tournament for the Eton team. His lips moved in a silent prayer, and I could feel the weight pressing down on his shoulders. He aimed for too long, then fired.
“Nine! A total of forty nine, a grand total of one hundred and forty four! With forty-eight points required to win, Nigel Arterton of Algernon University to shoot next.”
Nigel stood up straight, rifle in the crook of his arm. He looked at each of our faces.
“Voluntas,” said Jocelyn.
Nigel smiled. “Voluntas.”
We all kept our fingers crossed as Nigel walked out for the final round of this tournament. We have come far, Winston. Miss Tennant has every right to be proud of her snipers. The official handed Nigel his bullets. He loaded his rifle, and lay down on the mat. He aimed. Fired.
“Yes!” said Florence, grinning at Jocelyn.
Nigel fired again. “Ten!”
“Good,” said Jocelyn. “Three more.”
Just as Nigel was getting ready to fire again, there was a crash from the table next to us. I looked round to see that Adam of Team Eton had dropped his rifle on the floor. Nigel looked round, disturbed.
“Sorry,” said Adam, one of the most insincere apologies I have ever seen. Most unsportsmanlike, Winston. This was simply not on.
Nigel aimed, fired again.
Florence uttered a word under her breath that polite young ladies are not to utter. Jocelyn sneered, got up, walked over to the other bench. She bent over Adam. I could not hear what she said, but I could see Adam turn pale and shrink at least five inches in size. Jocelyn came walking back, a little smirk on her face.
“What’d you say?” whispered Florence.
“I said Gruzh maga il nodruz burzum dr’ma.”
“Good Lord,” said Florence. “What does that mean?”
“Don’t know,” said Jocelyn. “I made it up.”
“Quiet please, quiet please! Mr. Arterton, in your own time.”
We all looked out to where Nigel was taking aim again. He fired.
“Boy’s back,” said Jocelyn, satisfied.
“One more shot,” said Florence. “Come on, Nige!”
We all watched as Nigel took one or two deep breaths, then a final one.
“And a final bullseye for Mr. Nigel Arterton, for a total of forty eight, a grand total of one hundred and forty five, and the tournament!”
The crowd erupted in cheers as Nigel jumped to his feet, raised his rifle in the air. We all rushed out to him, Jocelyn first. She wrapped her arms round Nigel and kissed him, to a roaring applause.
After about half a minute, with no sign of stopping, I looked at Florence. She looked back at me and shrugged. She walked up to Nigel and Jocelyn and poked her.
“Oi! I scored almost as much as Nigel did!”
Jocelyn turned round to Florence, arms wide, stepped towards her. Florence put her hand on Jocelyn’s chest and pushed her away.
“Yes, no thank you. Just stop making a spectacle of yourselves, you…”
Nigel put his arm, still holding the rifle, round Florence. I tried to escape, but couldn’t.
We’ve done it, Winston!
Was there ever any doubt?
Just a quick note to tell you we are about to return to Ipswich. We turned in early, at least I did, and so did young Nigel. I did not hear him get up again after a while, and I definitely did not hear Miss Vale giggling at the door as he joined her. I did not hear that because I am a very sound sleeper. He was sound asleep in bed the next morning. Very sound.
I’ll just have a quick final look if there are any messages for me at the reception desk, and then it is off to Ipswich to see if the place is still standing without me for three days.
Yours as ever,
P.S: Damn it, Winston! I honestly can’t leave them alone for even a few days! I just heard the news that of all people Andrew Parsons has been arrested by the police. Time to put out another fire.