Previous: Carl Tennant: on the horns of the Gods
Memories better left behind – More members for the rifle club – Not meant for my ears – Safe in our own beds
I have shot and killed fourteen men at the time I write this.
I am, among other things, an expert sniper, so it is likely that
number will increase. I have never killed a woman, and I hope
I never will. Why killing a woman is worse than killing a man,
I cannot say for certain. Surely, the reasons for killing would
have to be as valid one way or the other. I suppose it all stems
from the fact that women are the ones to bring forth new life.
That is why they are protected, especially during the nine months
of their pregnancy when they are most vulnerable. Even now, in our
society, civilised away from the harsh realities of nature, men
are expected to make great sacrifices for women, and only violence
against a child is judged more harshly than violence against a
woman. An outdated hierarchy that is nonetheless deeply ingrained
in the human psyche, and is showing no signs of going away.
— Alexandra Tennant, “Decisions on the spot”
I took my father back from his physical therapy to his room. The old lady who cleaned our rooms had just finished, and she looked at us suspiciously, as though we were only going to make the room dirty again just after she’d left. She muttered some inaudible words in a language neither I nor Father had ever heard. It could be anything from ‘Enjoy your nice clean room,’ to ‘You pale-faced pigs are disgusting, and who has to clean it all up?’ She closed the door behind her. She might be a few stitches short of a tapestry, but I couldn’t deny that the room was spotless. Father sat down on his desk chair, He was busy typing up the manuscript of his reports about the Meso-american city of Anctapolepl. He was being uncharacteristically secretive about the whole affair, and never even let me look at any of his notes, even though I could have type-written his manuscript faster than he could with his mangled arm. His walking was slowly but steadily improving. He could walk from one end of the gymnasium to the other using only a cane. He now fitted and removed his metal leg in front of me without a second thought. He handed the prosthetic to me to hold while he changed his trousers.
“I’m really quite impressed with this leg, my dear. Your large friend did a marvellous job. My deformity didn’t even bother him. You have to admit you were turning green when you first saw it.”
I smiled. “I don’t think Andrew can be bothered by things like that. He has a strange mind.”
“He is a machine,” said Father. His eye was fixed on the metal leg in my hands. “He has no human feelings, but metal devices are his brothers and sisters.”
I looked away, into the distance. “I don’t think that is true,” I said. “I saw him help a young girl in Africa. He does have some compassion. He just seems to be unable to express it.”
“You know him better than I do,” said Father. “Well, I have work to do. Put my leg in the leg stand and get out of here.”
Father unlocked and opened his desk and pulled out his notes. I saw a drawing of a woman in splendid clothes. Father, Carl, and I all had some talent for drawing, though not as much as Mother had. I could see that Father had paid special attention to this drawing. Her face was very detailed, and beautiful.
“Who is that?”
Father looked round, startled that I was still there. He turned the page over quickly.
“Oh, nobody. One of the heathen priestesses in the city.” He frowned. “Don’t you have some female assassins to train?”
“I do,” I said. “In about half an hour. What’s her name?”
“I don’t know. I just saw her and made the picture.” He pulled out a fresh sheet of paper and put it in the typewriter. Father bent down over the keys, and I turned round to leave.
“She’s dead,” he said, quietly. I didn’t know if he intended for me to hear it.
I was on my way to the classroom where I taught my girls to assassinate people, when a boy walked up to me. I gave him a smile. I swear his face turned darker.
“How may I help you?”
“Um…” he hesitated. “I hear that there’s still some places left in the rifle classes. Can I…”
“Of course. What’s your name?”
“Bert, Miss. Bertram Greenford.” He pointed behind him. “That’s Nigel. He also wants to join.”
“The more the merrier,” I said. “I’m going to need consent forms from your parents, but I can give you the introductions if I supervise you throughout. Are either of you Quakers or Amish?”
One of the girls who had wanted to join had come from a devout Quaker family, staunch pacifists who would never allow their daughter even to touch a firearm. I could see trouble brewing in that family, but there was nothing I could do about that.
“No miss,” said Nigel. “C of E both.”
The Church of England has been disparagingly referred to as more of a social club than a place of worship. I wasn’t a regular churchgoer, but I was still a member in spirit. It was founded in the late sixth century by Augustine of Canterbury, at the orders of Pope Gregory the First, and remained Roman Catholic until King Henry the Eighth, having been denied a request to an annullment of his marriage by the Pope, declared himself the supreme head of the Church of England, told the Pope to get lost, and had his marriage annulled regardless. I suppose that was all for the better, given the fate of some of his wives. The Anglican Church remains to this day an eminently sensible and practical organisation, not given to excesses. More importantly, they were unlikely to protest these boys firing rifles at paper targets. Which was all I needed to know.
“Very well,” I said. “Follow me.”
“Oh hello Nigel!” Jocelyn waved. I might have imagined it, but it looked like she was leaning forward a little more than usual. And had taken a deep breath. “Are you joining us?”
The poor boy could only mumble. I shot Jocelyn a look, but before I could say anything, there were three heavy knocks on the door. I opened the door to find the massive form of Andrew Parsons. Miss Felicia stood next to him, dwarfed by his bulk. Her job was to gently guide Andrew through a world filled with incomprehensible people. She gave me a bright smile.
“Hi, Miss Tennant. Can Andrew join your little club? I have the forms right here, all filled out.”
“Um… Of course,” I said, a little taken aback. Andrew might be many things, but a would-be rifleman wasn’t one of them. “But do you think it’s good for him to be firing weapons?”
Miss Felicia’s smile turned up a few notches in brightness. “Yes of course, darling. It’s not like you’re doing combat training is it? Andrew wants to know how guns work, and you are the go-to girl for things that shoot.” She moved a bit closer and lowered her voice to a whisper. “Also, he’s standing right next to me in case you didn’t notice. He’s really hard to overlook, and he can talk, you know?”
I blinked a few times, turned to Andrew. “Sorry Andrew. Of course you can join. I just got two boys joining as well, so I can give you the fire arms safety talk before we’re off to the range.”
“Thank you, Professor Tennant,” said Andrew.
“Oh, I’m not… Never mind. Come on in and find a chair.” Andrew nodded and walked past me. “Not one of the small ones,” I added.
Miss Felicia watched him find a chair and sit down. She turned to me. “Well then, I’ve got to be running. Take good care of him please.”
I was surprised at the edge that had crept into her voice. She left, and I turned to my class. Most of the girls were trying not to stare at Andrew, who was sitting with his hands on a desk that looked like it might collapse under the weight. Looks are deceiving, though, and the makers of Algernon University furniture knew well what kind of abuse their products would go through. Jocelyn meanwhile had her eyes turned to Nigel, and was biting her lip at him with intent. The poor boy was almost having a heart attack. Florence nudged her, and she turned her eyes forward.
I pulled out the rifles and set the girls to taking them apart, cleaning and oiling them, and putting them back together. Then, I took the boys through the firearms safety talk, and threatened them with eternal damnation if they ever broke one of the safety rules. With the theory settled, we filed out to the range. We were having the targets at a hundred yards now. Firing commenced, and I looked through my rifle scope to see how everyone was doing. Carrie was still the best, but to my surprise I saw Linda was giving her a run for her money, with Rina not far behind them. Bert needed a little coaching, but was doing alright for a first time. Nigel had his eyes firmly on the target, not daring to look at the next booth where frankly, Jocelyn was making a spectacle of herself. She was bending over in just such a way as to make her skirt fit tightly over her bottom. She fired a shot.
“Ooh yeah, baby,” she muttered. “Right on target.”
That convinced me that something was going on here, and it wasn’t that she had just fallen head over heels in love with Nigel. Jocelyn might not be one to hide her feelings, but even she couldn’t possibly think she was being subtle here. But finding out about that could wait. I walked over to the booth on the very left, where Andrew was shooting with a frown on his face.
“How’s it going Andrew?”
Andrew carefully put down his rifle to talk to me. “I don’t understand. I am aiming exactly at the target, but the bullets do not consistently hit the same place.”
With anyone else, that would have been conceit, but this was Andrew Parsons, who had once measured me with uncanny precision simply by looking at me. I looked at his target through my scope. His grouping was tighter even than Carrie’s, which was impressive. I picked up his rifle, checked the sight. It was set for one hundred meters. Meters, yards, same thing. Windage was no problem at these short ranges.
“Are you releasing your breath while firing, Andrew?”
“Holding the rifle too tightly perhaps?”
“Focusing on your sight rather than your target?”
“Hmm. Well, this is an old rifle. A little variation is to be expected.” I glanced at his target. “You’re doing fine, Andrew. Nothing to be ashamed of. Keep at it.”
Andrew gave me a puzzled look, then picked up his rifle and resumed firing.
We called quits an hour before dinner, brushed out the rifles, and stored them in the locked cupboard in our classroom. There was nothing to do before dinner, so the girls stayed and chatted, comparing scores. Nigel quickly made himself scarce, followed by Bert, who seemed a bit more relaxed. Andrew, having cleaned his weapon according to the rules, carefully put it in the cupboard and left without a word. I had a few things to do before dinner, so I made my excuses and left. About half way to my chambers, I remembered I needed the forms for the boys’ parents. If you don’t use your head, at least have nice legs or something. I turned round and stepped into the small office for the concierge that held all kinds of papers. As I was rummaging through the drawers, I heard voices in the hallway. The girls were making their way to the dining hall for a delicious meal of fried things with soggy potatoes and weapons-grade carrots. A meal to put some backbone into England’s younger generation. I could only just hear them.
“…such a crush on her! Especially when she’s demonstrating. She just looks all business.”
“I know. I saw you drooling over her. You may want to know that she’s got one of those skin tight suits.” A little laugh crept into the second voice. “Imagine her teaching wearing that.”
“Oh my goodness. I’d just die.”
“So now you know. Getting it on with girls can, in some cases, lead to severe crushing and death.”
I could hear their laughter disappear down the hallway.
“Um,” I said, to nobody in particular. Being a University tutor means never being stuck for words.
I found Prof. Dr. Margaret Enderby in the dining hall at a table. She had pushed aside her empty plate, and was reading an issue of the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, occasionally underlining a few words with a pencil.
“Mind if I join you?”
Margaret waved a hand. “Not at all. Gone for the chicken I see? Bad choice. I can tell it lived a long and happy life before dying of old age.”
I sat down, and started to disassemble my chicken. Margaret looked at me. Obviously, she saw something was bothering me.
“How’s the new generation of snipers coming along?”
“Swimmingly,” I said. I poured some gravy over my potatoes. “Even Andrew has joined.” I thought a moment, then looked Margaret in the eye. “Have you ever had a student develop, um… feelings for you?”
“All the time,” said Margaret, with a big grin. “I used to be quite a looker back in my tutoring days, if you believe it. So who’s the lucky boy?”
“I don’t know. Also, it’s… um… not a boy. You see my problem?”
Margaret laughed. “I certainly do. There’s so few places in this University that are really private.”
“I’m not… I don’t…”
Margaret got the better of her laughter. She put a hand on my arm.
“You’re an attractive young woman, and you’re in a university with lots and lots of students who are at an age where they are finally able to start exploring their sexuality, away from parental supervision. It’s bound to happen at some point.” Margaret chuckled. “Even Wadcroft had this doe-eyed girl follow him around for a while.”
I stared, trying to wrap my mind around the concept of the somewhat vulture-like Alan Wadcroft attracting the lewd attention of some young girl.
“Does it bother you that it’s a girl?”
“No,” I said. “It bothers me that it’s a student. I want to meet my lovers on an equal footing. I wouldn’t want her homework to include… well…”
Margaret is a very very difficult person to lie to. Whether her background in anthropology makes her a good judge of expressions, or whether it is the other way round, I don’t know.
“Easy then,” she said. “Just tell her you aren’t interested in girls. Sorry dear. Believe me, they’re used to hearing that.”
I started on my chicken. It wasn’t as bad as Margaret had hinted, but then again, maybe with age comes a more delicate taste.
“Got to find out who it is first. I can hardly announce it at the start of rifle class.”
“It would make for a lively lecture at least,” said Margaret. “Woolwich once announced in the middle of the French Revolution that he was going to take off all his clothes and all students were required to do likewise. Nobody even noticed.”
I gave a little snort. “Did he?”
“Not allowed. Health and bloody safety. Look Alexandra.” She gave me a small reassuring smile. “Don’t worry. These things start, maybe they last for a few weeks, and then they fizzle out when the girl sees she’s not getting anywhere. I promise.”
Despite Margaret’s words, I couldn’t sleep that night. One of the girls in my rifle club wanted to be in the same bed I was. Who could it be? Anna was the most quiet of the lot. It could be her. Jocelyn? No. Her voice was easy to recognise, and I had a feeling that if she wanted to, she wouldn’t waste any time letting me know. Florence? Linda? Christa? Carrie? Another thought kept coming at me, to be beaten down every time it surfaced. Which of them would I mind least? While I could recognise beauty when I saw it, I was not attracted to women in the least. Still. Acting on it was, of course, out of the question. Still.
I took a deep breath, and got up to clear my head. I walked over to the window, and pulled open the curtain. Moonlight streamed in, dazzlingly bright to my night vision. I looked out over the strange mix of buildings that made up Algernon University. The bell tower with its large clock that struck every fifty minutes, announcing the start of lectures and lunch breaks. The squat, square building where Alchemical experiments were performed, a safe distance away from the rest of the University. The chapel. The greenhouses filled with exotic botanical specimens. There was a chilly draft, and I turned round to go back to bed.
As I turned round, I could hear the sound of a key in my door. Had someone mistaken their door for mine? My name was on a small sign on the door, but who stops to read that? I half opened my mouth to call out, but the door opened and someone came in, quickly closing the door behind him. He looked at the bed, found it empty, then saw me standing by the window. He gave a surprised hiss, drew a knife and charged at me.
When you are confronted with a knife-wielding opponent, and you don’t have a weapon yourself, there is only one correct course of action. Be somewhere else, and fast. Sadly, he was between me and the door. You can tell a lot about a fighter’s intentions from their stance. If they come at you, knife out, flashing it in front of your face, they want to scare you. They are hoping you will freeze in fright, and they can make their demands for your money or your life. Which allows you some kind of scope for negotiation, however small. On the other hand, if they come at you with their empty hand first, they are planning to force you to deal with their empty hand, leaving their weapon hand free to strike. When they do that, abandon all compassion, all restraint, because they want to kill you.
It was clear that this person had wanted to stab me in my sleep, or perhaps put a pillow over my face. Stealth was his primary objective. It would have been embarrassing for me to scream like a little girl, so I didn’t. I screamed like a big girl. I managed to dodge his first lunge. Rather than try to grapple, I slapped his hand away and shoved, putting all my weight behind it. He crashed into my desk, but recovered quickly. He came at me again. I was now between him and the door, but I wouldn’t have the time to open it.
He came at me again. This time, he managed to grab one of my wrists. He pulled my arm up, exposing my side. I countered with a quick, hard punch to his ribs. He gave a startled cough. I wrenched my wrist out of his grip. That is not as hard as it seems. No matter how strong a grip your opponent has, if you push down between their thumb and fingers, you have superior leverage. With my left hand free, I hit him with a flat palm in the face. He reeled back, and I took a leap backwards, grabbed the top of the bunk bed, and pulled it over in front of him. While he scrambled over it, I put my fingers behind the wardrobe, then pulled that over on top of him. That gave me just enough time to open the door and get out.
I sprinted down the hallway, still yelling my head off, but he was still after me. A weapon. I needed a weapon. There would be knives in the kitchen, but that was miles away. To my left was a concierge’s cupboard. Ah. It held a mop and a metal bucket. I pulled the door open and just had enough time to grab a broom before he caught up with me. This time, I was ready. I swung the broom round in a great arc that he dodged easily. It hit the floor with a crack, and the broom handle broke, giving me a sharp end. He took a quick jump forward and tried to grab my broom handle, but I saw him coming. I swung round the blunt end and hit his wrist. He cried out, and tried to stab me in the chest. I leapt back and stabbed at his face with my longer weapon. He blocked with his knife arm.
At that moment, I could hear the noise of running feet. Several of the porters, dressed in almost comical pyjamas, were coming up behind me. All I had to do was not get stabbed. My attacker saw them coming, slashed out once more with his knife, turned tail and ran. I started after him, until I recognised the nightgown-clad form of Miss Felicia in the middle of the hallway.
“Get away!” I shouted, but she stared wide-eyed at the dark knife-wielding maniac in front of her. He slashed out at her with his knife, and she just had the notion to throw her arms up in front of her face.
She screamed in pain, but the attacker, bent on escape, only shoved her aside and ran on. I fell to my knees beside Miss Felicia’s crumpled form. Blood was spurting from a cruel slash in her arm. I grabbed it, fumbled at her elbow for the artery and pushed it shut.
“Quick! Get a doctor!”
One of the porters, a large man named Barker, kneeled down next to me while the rest of the porters ran on after the assassin.
“Good, Miss. Hold it closed for just a little while longer.”
He took my broom handle and broke it in two. Then, he pullled the cloth belt from his nightgown and tied it round Miss Felicia’s arm. He stuck the broom handle in the loop of cloth and turned it to tighten it.
“You can let go now, Miss. If you’d be so good as to fetch the medical kit from the office, I would be most obliged.”
I looked at Miss Felicia’s face. Tears were streaming down her face, her eyes were half closed, and she was making small whimpering noises. I sprinted to the office, got the large medical kit, and ran back. I ripped away Miss Felicia’s sleeve, and started winding hydrophilic gauze tightly round her arm. For good measure, I also fixed the tourniquet in place with a few extra rounds.
“Thank you, Miss,” said Barker. “Let’s take Miss Sunderland to the infirmary.”