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Boxiron looked inside the oven, the wreckage of the body stuffed into the space, then fixed Charlotte with a steely stare. ‘I would suggest you switch your patronage to an alternative supplier.’
There were a lot of scenes that Dick Tull might have imagined discovering on the other side of the door when Commodore Black opened it to him and Sadly. The sight of a gorilla-sized steamman ruffian and a beak-nosed fellow sprawled across the floor of Tock House’s entrance hall pinning down a woman was not one of them. She looked young, and whoever the girl was, she was writhing on the tiles spitting out fever-mangled sentences as she twisted and turned.
‘A wicked storm crow, riding two minutes forward of the darkness,’ the commodore practically hissed at Dick. Without another word, the old u-boat man fished into Dick’s coat and came out with his hip flask. Leaving the door open, the commodore rushed back to the struggling woman, grabbing something out of a paper bag the other man was proffering towards Blacky, crushed it, mixed it with Dick’s fire water, then poured it down the girl’s throat.
Her thrashing lessened, and the commodore ordered the brutish steamman and his beak-nosed friend through to his kitchen table.
‘You and me,’ Dick called to the commodore. ‘Words, now!’
‘The board can bloody wait,’ the commodore called back as he disappeared down the corridor. ‘Lock the door behind you.’
That is what you think, Blacky. What’s coming after us ain’t going to wait, not for a second.
‘Are you sure we’ve come to the right place, Mister Tull?’ asked Sadly, disbelief wrinkling his disagreeable features.
‘Don’t you mind old Blacky, he was raised with the fleet-in-exile. Manners of a pirate, he has.’
Sadly was bending down on the floor where the girl had been seconds before, examining a long cloth-wrapped object left there. ‘Oh my giddy aunt. See here, Mister Tull. Lords-a’larkey—’ he flourished King Jude’s sceptre. ‘Oh my pretty, is this …?’
‘It’s the rope outside Bonegate jail,’ said Dick, snatching the sceptre off Sadly. ‘For anyone caught with it, if it’s real. Get your thieving hands off.’
Dick went after the commodore, the informant hustling after him, still seemingly mesmerized by the sceptre. ‘We need to be on our heels, Mister Tull. Low profile is the thing, not every Ham Yard crusher and redcoat in the regiments beating the bushes with their sabres looking for that.’
That’s Blacky all right, never a dull moment. Where did the board think he got his fortune from? Running grain shipments across the sea?
The steamman and his friend were lifting the girl onto the kitchen table while the commodore cleared it of a leftover meal by the simple expedient of sweeping the contents crashing onto the floor. She was speaking like a madwoman, her words incomprehensible, coming out garbled in a rapid continuous stream.
‘What language is that?’ Dick asked.
Before anybody could answer, her trembling hand thrust out towards Dick. ‘The spear-carrier, the spear-carrier has arrived.’
Dick glanced to at the sceptre still in his hands, the hulking steamman noting the rod in the agent’s possession and snatching it back off him. Not much of a spear. Then the girl returned to vomiting alien nonsense once more.
‘She is being ridden by the Loa,’ said the steamman. ‘She speaks the language of the spirits, the dead.’
‘Damson Shades,’ said the steamman’s friend, restricting the girl. ‘Peace. Keep still. You are going to bite your tongue off.’
‘Poor lass,’ said the commodore. ‘She has it bad, she does. Pass me another one of your foul little sweets Jethro, so I can mix it with a drop of the hard stuff.’
Dick saw the bag of Bunter and Benger’s aniseed drops about to exchange hands and he grabbed the commodore’s arm before the old u-boat man could accept it. ‘No more of those for her.’
‘Are you the doctor we sent for?’ asked the man.
‘Doctor my arse. He’s the wicked rascal I told you about,’ said the commodore. ‘Dick Tull, a filthy government officer come along to disturb my quiet.’
‘I know enough about drugging a body and keeping ’em alive enough to answer questions at the end of it,’ said Dick. ‘You give the girl another dose of whiskey and opiates and she’ll die on you. The booze jolted her out of her fit, give the opiates another five minutes to pass through her blood and stop her whispering that nonsense.’
‘I can assure you there are no opiates in any Bunter and Benger’s aniseed drops,’ said the beak-nosed man. ‘That is merely a scurrilous rumour spread by their competitors inside the trade.’
Dick shook his head in annoyance. ‘Who are these two damn jokers, Blacky? A music hall act?’
‘I am Jethro Daunt,’ said the man proudly, as if he was announcing he was a prince among men. ‘And along with my colleague Boxiron, we’re protecting the young Damson Shades here. She is in the care of our agency for private resolutions.’
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