Introductions – Operation safe and sound – Rifle practice – Who do you think you are kidding?
FIRE AT WILL: CHANGES AT THE RIFLE CLUB
Linda Davenport reporting
As most of you are aware, Miss Alexandra Tennant has had to relinquish her place at the Algernon Rifle Club. Much to the relief of the club members, the mantle has passed to Dr. Godfrey Pike. In addition to his most important job in keeping our powder dry, our aim straight and our shooters sharp, he lectures Recent History, and has assumed the position of Head of Security at Algernon University, a new appointment in the light of the recent attacks on Miss Alexandra. It is to be hoped that his tenure will be a restful one, or as Dr. Pike refers to it, “A retirement without the immobility so similar to death.”
As for the rifle club itself, under Dr. Pike’s chairmanship, it has grown to twenty-three members, and much to everyone’s surprise, boys have been detected amongst our number. We allow them to carry our rifles for us, a job for which their superior strength qualifies them satisfactorily. The practice of rewarding them with extra bullets must, however, be discouraged, as it allows them to practice more, and the thought of any of them achieving a higher score than us girls does not bear entertaining.
I have finally achieved what you have always recommended to me: a quiet job in a quiet place, far away from the excitement, the chases, the flying bullets and the sudden loud noises. I am now the Head of Security in the small but well-respected Algernon University at Ipswich. I have also received an honorary doctorate in History, so I am now Dr. Godfrey Pike, and I’ll thank you to address me as such in person and in writing, perhaps with a small bow so you know your place as an uneducated boor. We academics do appreciate some decorum.
Idyllic as this situation may seem, I have a good reason for boring you with this rather detailed account of the goings-on. Things are not as quiet as they may seem, and I am not talking about the young lads sneaking into the girls’ dormitories. There has been violence done in this quiet place, having to do with a rather ill fated expedition mounted by the late Prof. Hammond of Arkham University. One of our professors, a Dr. Alan Wadcroft, the flame of endeavour burning brightly in his breast, set off to save the poor souls of that brave band of Colonials, and came back trailing an awful lot of trouble. Several attempts were made on the life of a rather attractive young lady named Alexandra Tennant, which is just not on. She has now taken herself right into the lion’s den with her family, on board of their airship named the Lady I after their mother. I would have advised against that, but the Tennants are a hardy bunch, and their safety is ultimately in their own capable hands.
Of the members of Wadcroft’s expedition, three persons remain at Ipswich, and they are my responsibility. First, Prof. Dr. Alan Wadcroft, in Geology, Alchemy, and Biology. I never had much to do with him during my time here, but he seems like a personable old chap, tough as an old boot, and almost bright enough to confide my tactical information to. I hold off only because I haven’t actually seen him in action.
Second is Prof. Dr. Margaret Enderby. Good heavens, Winston, she is a handfull and a half, teaching physics, anthropology and archaeology, and widow of the world famous crypto-zoologist Gerald Enderby, whom she accompanied on many of his searches for creatures that don’t exist. It is said that she herself shot some kind of cryptid that killed her unfortunate husband. Wilhelm Richard Wagner would have worshipped at her feet. Lest you think that she is some kind of frightful harpy, let me assure you that she is the nicest lady one could hope to meet.
Third and finally, the esteemed Mr. Andrew Parsons. He is a bit of an odd one. He stands at least six feet six or seven tall, and is nearly as broad. He bends steel into shape with his bare hands, and is without exaggeration the most brilliant engineer England has ever produced. This has come at the cost of any human empathy or understanding. I have given up trying to explain that his life is in danger. He maintains that there is no danger, as there is no cogent reason to harm him. We both have escorted people who see attackers behind every tree, Winston. Mr. Parsons comes out the other way. He has an assistant in the rather pleasant Miss Felicia Sunderland, who is his guiding light in a world filled with incomprehensible humans.
Absent at this point, for the sufficient reason that everybody here seems to hate his guts, is Mr. James T. Riley, a Yank, and a spy for Arkham University. I suppose he is fairly competent and experienced, but has had the bad luck to fall into enemy hands, and those hands were not gentle. I met him briefly while en route from Paris to Ipswich, and he’s a heartless bastard. I’m not entirely sure where his loyalties lie, even whether he has any loyalties. He seems to be motivated purely by revenge, and we both know where that can lead. The last message from the Lady I put him on board there. Mildly worrisome, Winston.
Of our enemies, I’m afraid I know very little. Prof. Wadcroft has given me a copy of the expedition reports for the expeditions into Africa and France. All I know is that they call themselves Prometheus after the Titan who stole the fire from the gods. They have an unhealthy interest in a poisonous variation of pitchblende. Madame Curie identified it and told us to keep it in a leaden box to avoid being poisoned. Alchemy puts its practitioners in dangers as acute as bullets, it would seem. Their leader, a Mr. Nicholas Slate, seems to think that it has some kind of energy that may be harnessed to make coal as such obsolete. Their organisation is capable of organising a complicated assassination attempt by getting someone on our payroll with the run of the whole University. You can depend that that sort of thing will not continue as long as I am Head of Security here.
Meanwhile, when I am not reading recent history, we are on the most recent Franco-Prussian War, I am teaching a group of young boys and girls the noble art of marksmanship. Which reminds me, Winston, some of my pupils are good enough that they would benefit from using a proper sniper rifle rather than the relics we are using now. Could you persuade Quentin to part with one or two? That would be splendid. If he makes trouble, just remind him of Brindisi. He’ll know.
Well, Winston, I’m afraid that this is all the information I have for you at this point. I will keep my ear to the ground and my eyes wide open, hoping always for news from the Tennants. I’m off to the dining hall for a large portion of nostalgia with mash, peas, and slightly doubtful gravy.
Doctor Godfrey Pike.
Thank you very much for the rifles, they will be put to good use in my little club. That is, when I get the bullets that go with them. I can imagine Quentin chuckling to himself. There is no gratitude left in this world, Winston.
Meanwhile, I have started settling in here. I have established a rapport with the Porters, especially a huge man named Barker who is the primus inter pares of this fine body of men. The Porters are Algernon University’s main department for Getting Things Done, from decorations at festivities, carpentry, crowd control, right up to emergency medical aid and guard duties when things get scary. They were also the people who hired a Prometheus assassin, but I checked their paperwork and I’m not surprised they were fooled. Our adversaries are not idiots. The only error they made was not realising that it takes the mail boat more than a week to travel from Cairo to London. To prevent this from happening again, I’ve asked to be in the review committee for new hires.
Most of the Porters are ex-army, or at least Home Guard. Very good to see that they’re not stupid. They were just not prepared for a determined attack against us. It puzzles me why the enemy haven’t given up yet. Their attempt to kill off all witnesses at Paris has failed, they failed to shoot Lady I out of the skies, and they can depend that any secrets they did not want Wadcroft and Company to divulge, have been. Their concern seems not to be what they may have done till now, but what they are going to do. Neither Wadcroft nor Enderby can imagine what that might be. Parsons? He will just be doing what he always does. I’ve seen some of his creations, Winston. They range from completely useless to thoroughly frightening. What are they afraid of, though? That is the question. I’m hoping for some more information from our American friend, but he may not be able or willing to provide it.
On a lighter note, my small band of trained assassins are making excellent progress. Most of them can now hit a bullseye reliably at two hundred yards with a Rifle, Short, Magazine, Lee-Enfield. Especially Miss Carrie StJohn shows promise. She is the one I was thinking of when I asked for some proper rifles. Truly, the female of the species is more deadly than the male. The only boy who shows as much promise is young Mr. Nigel Arterton. We now have twenty-four members, and we’re having to practice in batches. For now, I can still impress them with my pistol shooting but at some point, the students will surpass the teacher. I have, without telling them, entered the Algernon Rifle Club in a tournament in Folkestone in three months’ time. I’m sure they’ll do us proud. We have a rather nice shooting range here, with a maximum range of about five hundred yards, so I’ll be able to train them up to tournament standards. When Miss Alexandra returns, she will know that we have not been wasting our time in her absence.
P.S. Damn it Winston, they are trying again. Just as I was getting ready to post this, Barker informed me that some rather nasty chemicals have gone missing from the Alchemy department. I went there, and the Head, Prof. Dr. Derek Lowe, informed me that some unpronounceable compounds have been stolen. I asked Wadcroft to translate for me, and the old fart actually turned pale. Apparently, a single vial of this Devil’s cocktail can eat its way through steel beams in seconds. I have to admire these alchemists’ nerves, Winston, to work with these hellish chemicals day in day out, and never dying more than strictly necessary. I asked Wadcroft what this stuff might be used for, and I think our intrepid thief might be wanting to get into one of the University vaults. Which means that poor Wainwright will have the unenviable job of standing guard over them. I had to remind him that not all jobs for a spy are watching pretty ladies on a shopping trip. It also means that I won’t get any sleep tonight either, and tomorrow, I will be as sleepy as my History students. This is starting to look less and less like retirement, Winston.
P.P.S. I can report a partial success. We succeeded in preventing damage to the University vaults, but not to the person who intended to get into them. I was guarding the East safe, while Wainwright was on the South one. At around four in the morning, he came over to me looking pale as a sheet. He took me to the safe and showed me what remained of our amateur Alchemist. Wainwright observed him entering the vault room, watched him go to a specific vault, and reach into his inside pocket. Wainwright pulled out his revolver and confronted him, but the thief pulled out a knife and charged him. Knowing that a non-lethal shot might not stop him, Wainwright blocked his knife hand and tried to dissuade him with a sturdy blow to the guts. This, unfortunately, broke the vial the man was carrying, and the chemical burned a hole clean through his body. I don’t blame poor Wainwright for losing his dinner at that, and let me assure you that I didn’t wish this kind of an end to that poor misguided soul either.
We tightened our belts, got a stretcher, and carried the remains to the infirmary, where Dr. Bernhardt performed an initial autopsy. It was a man in his late twenties, brown of skin, possibly Egyptian or Moroccan, though he was smart enough not to carry anything to identify him. He bore no tattoos, nor any other distinguishing features, but no doubt Dr. Bernhardt will be able to tell us more once he continues his autopsy in the morning. I may not be at my best in tomorrow’s history class, as I doubt I will be able to sleep having seen what I saw today. Wainwright is worse off, though. He’s well earned the pittance we pay him here. I am posting this now, and will send you all the information that I can get my hands on when I get it.
I am much recovered after last night’s excitement, and I have information. Dr. Bernhardt’s autopsy revealed nothing much. “Cause of death: Missing vital organs due to acid.” Our Doctor does have a rather macabre sense of humour. A study of his clothes, though, showed that our unfortunate thief was not Moroccan, not Egyptian, but Sudanese. He was wearing undergarments coloured with a dye originating from Khartoum. This dye is used by the lower classes there, not being very expensive, and more importantly, pointless to export. The knife he was using was an English seaman’s knife made in Sheffield, purchased locally. Also in his possession were a rather advanced set of lock picks of unknown origin, and a rather nasty piece of cheese wire for the purpose of strangling people. I think we can conclude is that we have here a trained operative from Sudan, and we may want to show his picture to some interested parties there.
Have our relations with Mr. Bouzid Moghadam improved to the point where he may be willing to offer us some insights? I read the story about none other than our very own Miss Alexandra Tennant breaking and entering into his mansion to retrieve some information there. He was understandably a bit disappointed with us, but this situation may be enough to convince him that co-operating would be good. Unless of course he is already in this game, and on the side of Prometheus. Not a possibility to be overlooked.
I’m aware that our case may not be at the top of the priority list of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and I’m most grateful for your assistance up to now, if only because records entrusted to you are proof against going missing, but perhaps you could see your way clear to asking some of our Khartoum agents to devote some attention to this.
I’m afraid the Khartoum authorities are shrouding themselves in clouds of silence, and are unwilling to discuss our business with us. I think we need someone to mediate on our behalf, possibly without revealing that we are on the other side of the mediator. We are running into dead ends, Winston. I would prefer to get some sort of handle on this before one of the members of the Wadcroft expedition ends up dead. I may not get a tenure if that were to happen.
Meanwhile, I have tried to gain access to the vault that our thief was interested in, but I have not been granted permission. Mildly disappointing, Winston. You’d think that it were in the interest of Algernon University to allow me in to see if anything in there could have invited Prometheus’ avarice, but no. I have no doubt that some pompous jobsworth feels like making his influence felt. I’ll ask Malcolm Munroe, our Chancellor. Surely he can get that damn vault open? Most annoying. Do we really need someone of our own to come to harm before I get the cooperation I need? I pray not.
There is someone at the door. Will finish this later.
Well, Winston, Prof. Margaret Enderby just earned herself my respect and admiration. I bumped into her at the cafeteria queue, and we had lunch together. She knew about our little adventure, and I told her we weren’t allowed to look in the vault.
“Which vault?” she asked.
I gave her the number. She looked at me strangely.
“That’s my vault! Who said you couldn’t get in?”
I told her the name of the Dean, with the apprehension of having doomed him to some terrible fate. The look in her eyes, Winston! I don’t know what fate she put Dean Black to, but she showed up at my door an hour later, waving the vault key.
“Let’s go,” she said, and I followed her to the catacombs.
She opened the door, lit a lamp and walked in, with me on her heels. Good Lord, Winston, it looked like something out of a horror novel. Wild beasts of who knows what origin lined the walls, ranging in size from a small dog to a fully grown bear. She must have seen me staring, because she looked at me with an expression on her face that combined a deep long-lasting anger with a grim smile.
“My late husband’s collection, Mr. Pike. All of them, from the Yeti to the Homo Wukong, to the Coatl, determined to be fakes by so-called experts who never set foot outside of their laboratories.” She scoffed. “Gerald never took my advice of stuffing a few of them and adding them to the collection. But anyway.”
She led me to a desk, and together we hefted a standard expedition trunk onto it.
“The Hammond Expedition findings. Unless Prometheus have developed a sudden interest in crypto-zoology, I’d guess that is what they’re after. God only knows why, though. Wadcroft read through some of it and it’s complete gibberish.”
“But Prometheus may not know that,” I said. “And even fools may occasionally stumble upon something useful.”
“Maybe Prometheus think there’s something useful in that nonsense,” said Margaret. “And the question is, do they want to have this information, or…”
“Do they want us not to have it?” I added.
“Either way, in that case, throw this garbage out on the street,” said Margaret. “Publish it, or even better, let the Arkham lot publish it, and be done with it. Then everybody will have it and chasing after us will be futile.”
“But what if it is all gibberish? Then Prometheus will think that we have kept something valuable back and come back here to get it. Even if we put out a story in the paper that this vault and everything in it was burnt to a crisp, they won’t believe it.”
“Damn. Nothing to be done about it, then. Well, all I can think of is to actually read all of this and see if there is something in there that a bunch of power-crazed maniacs could want. I can probably do the Physics related things. Wadcroft can do the Alchemy. We may have to get someone in from Arkham to do the spiritual mumbo-jumbo. We’re going to need a big pot of tea. And a lot of gin and tonic.”
We moved the expedition trunk into Wadcroft’s chamber, and they set to. At the rate they’re going, we’ll have an answer by the end of the week. I will let you know if anything comes of this.