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Tales of a nightwatchman
Posted: Mon Feb 06, 2017 9:42 pm
Tales of a Nightwatchman: Prologue
It all began with a hanging. Mine, as it happens. Everyone enjoys a good hanging, especially if the villain was a real bastard, and I can't deny that I was one. But few people give much thought to how the whole thing works. You see, most hangings begin with a knock at the door. Some watchmen turn up and one of them reads a proclamation which you're too dazed to hear. He hands you the paper and says gently, "I'm terribly sorry, sir, but it's curtains for you," and off you go. And they do go. I did. And I've seen many others go too*.
Why not, asks every pub bore from here to Axum, rush the watchmen and make a break for it? At worst they'll shoot you and, he puts his beer down meaningfully and leans in close, don't you think that would be kinder, all told? You must have at least thought about it? And the truth is I have, and I had, and he's probably right, but that's not what you are thinking about. Oh, you're thinking of all the things you didn't do, and will never do, and most of all the things you should never have done, or at least done better. And you're thinking what if the wife and kids hear the shot and run out and see your body sprawled on the garden path and wouldn't that be just horrid. And maybe you're even thinking about your last words. Make 'em good and you're immortal - that's what I always tell them. Keeps their mind off things at least.
But the truth is you are thinking about one thing above all: if I keep breathing, keep putting one foot in front of the other, even just for a few more minutes, maybe I can weasel my way out of it yet. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise: they all think that. I sincerely believe even that awful fellow Fletcher thought he could get away with shooting the Protector. An army around him to see him hang, but who knows, maybe the Syndies had hidden bombs all around, could have blown up the whole lot, and saved their hero?
It almost never happens.
So I was led into the van, which was armoured but still equipped with large windows, not apparently to aid gawpers but to make sure you don't get switched at the last minute or something like that. The neighbours are usually out now, and everyone on the streets knows what that means and stops to stare. The worst rubberneckers race the van to the execution site. Get the right time of day and the children come out too and some of them always throw rocks at you. Children are heartless bastards. But then so am I, so I can't entirely blame them. I was taken to the square outside the court, and the arranged witnesses are already seated. A crowd begins to gather. Nowadays there's probably a video camera, but in my day the press photographers were lined up for their own pound of flesh.
You're led out onto the scaffold, and your crimes are read aloud, along with a concise summary of the evidence and the verdict. The courts like these things to be done properly, and so do the plaintiffs. It's no fun at all to be led out onto the scaffold for hanging the wrong man. I only did it once myself, but that was in Questers which doesn't count. Not long to go now, and you think perhaps you should have rushed the guards after all, except now the rope is around your neck, so there's really nothing for it but to go out like a man, or at least pretend you're one.
But my case was unusual in its own way, because I was to be hanged with two other fellows: stupid students who fell for syndicalism and were expelled from the jurists' academy. It seems they were rather serious fellows who didn't actually want to be full-time revolutionaries, but real jurists, and felt the whole thing had been blown rather out of proportion. So they tried to kidnap one of their instructors who was known to work late - after that the plan becomes hazy - by cornering him with a gun on his walk home. Unfortunately the silly old fool stood on principle, absolutely refused to move, and when they went to grab him he pulled out a revolver of his own. Brave fellow but eighty-six and with poor reflexes so they shot him. Their confederates were clearly taken with this romantic "propaganda of the deed" and came to get them.
The hood was over my head and my nostrils filled with acrid smoke. Christ, I thought, they haven't even pulled the leaver and this is what dying feels like. Two minutes later a handsome young man pulled the hood off my head and said, in a fay, faintly aristocratic Eastern accent, "Who the devil are you?". It almost never happens.
*This does not work with Malays.
Re: Tales of a nightwatchman
Posted: Mon Feb 06, 2017 11:07 pm
Tales of a Nightwatchman: The Quiberonnais Gambit
*** 1 ***
After my liberation from the gallows by a romantic gang of young student revolutionaries, I'd like to be able to write that they recognised me as a fellow victim of the injustice inherent in the system, took me back to their lair, and together we planned various shocking acts of outrage against polite society. I've never been very political, and if I had to choose I prefer government by boring middle aged men in uniforms and powdered wigs to government by over-excited lovesick young men in brightly coloured shirts and trousers that are much too tight. But it would have been an exciting life and I would probably sell more books.
The boring truth is that my liberator was rather more honest than I was and, when he realised he had set loose a real criminal, he actually made to level his gun at me. So I gave him a quick right hook and disappeared into the crowd, happily still obscured by the smoke grenades they had let off. They caught him, dazed, lying where I hit him ten minutes later and hanged him with the same rope meant for me. That's what you get, I suppose. The rest of his gang was recaptured and hanged a few weeks later after trying to sneak aboard a freight ship to Questers. But I got away. I was a villain, you see, so I knew all the tricks: where to lie low and how to move.
It went without saying that I had better leave Eskmouth. No one really cares about Eskmouth, so it wasn't necessary to go as far as Questers or Axum, but I also resolved to go straight from then on. I could say that as I stood on the gallows with the rope around my neck, preparing to meet the final judge of all things, I reflected on my life and the harm that I had done, and decided to make amends. Mostly, though, it just brought home my limitations: I had failed in my career as a criminal, the price of failure in that game was too high, and while I had skipped out on paying true to form, it was by dumb luck alone.
*** 2 ***
It was with a sense of irony that I placed the following advertisement in the Metropolitan Hourly Advertiser (which proudly boasted being the world's only hourly newspaper): INVESTIGATOR AND NIGHTWATCHMAN - INTELLIGENCE AND EXECUTION - EXPERIENCED, EFFECTIVE, DISCRETE. I had been funding myself by duping rich students into betting they could beat me at pool, but my face was getting known in the more popular student establishments by the time I dropped my last hundred on a single hour in the Advertiser. It was a long shot. My first client made me my career, and almost cost me my life.
Monsieur Bertrand Gachot of Evian was a short, pudgy man in a three piece suit that was all the fashion five or ten years before. Even he had to stoop as he stepped into my attic office and apartment. His body man, bent almost double, looked around in disgust at the peeling paint and mouldy windowsills. "Do not stare, Didier," Gachot said in his own tongue, which he presumed I wouldn't understand. "This is how the common people live here."
I indicated that they should sit. Gachot glanced at the hard wood stool, and decided to stand. "Je suis Garchot," he said.
And Didier translated, "This is Monsieur Garchot. He is an eminent laywer in Evian. He presents his credentials."
Garchot took a laminated card out of his pocket with a picture of himself on it, and slid it across the desk. I took it, examined it - it was very fine indeed, even if the photograph was not particularly flattering - pocketed it, and handed him a business card of my own. Garchot immediately gave a look of consternation and Didier made as if to reach into his jacket. I wasn't having that, and my revolver was levelled in flash.
"Non, Didier, non," Garchot began, indicating that Didier stop, and grinned broadly. He switched into a heavily accented Praetannic, "I see zhat you are just ze man I am looking for. You may keep ze card, it can be replaced. I am a wealthy man, Monsieur."
He sighed. "But I have lost something very dear to me. My wife."
And then he stopped, as if that explained everything.
"OK, so you don't like the business card," I said, keeping the revolver at the ready, "I don't like 'em either. So, tell me about this wife. Do you want me to find her? Is she in Haversham?"
"She is..." he stopped, "You may know zhat in Quiberon, a woman has many rights. I am a lawyer, Monsieur. I know better zhan anyone what a woman can do. I am also a rich and ugly man, Monsieur - non, non, c'est vrai - and so, as a lawyer, I have availed myself of ze services of ze law. Zhat is the word, Monsieur, precisely as in your tongue. I married my wife 'ere, Monsieur.
"But before today I have never visited zhis country. I come now to claim my rights under ze Common Law. Please, allow me to reach into my jacket, and I give you ze contract."
I replaced my revolver, and he laid the paper on the table. I skimmed it with mild interest at first, then doubled back, and then as I read more and more I knew that I had finally met a bigger bastard than myself. "You want me to kill your wife," I said matter-of-factly.
"Non, non! Non, Monsieur! Zhat is not necessary," he had a pleading expression on his face, "I just want 'er punished. You can give 'er, 'ow you say? a fright? But ze real thing is 'er lover. I want him dead."
I laughed. "I don't think you understand, Monsieur. I'm not a jurist," I laughed again, though Gachot had no idea why, "but our Law ain't all that hard really. We have a saying: what you see is what you get. Or another: does what it says on the tin. And on this tin," I tapped the contract, "it says if she leaves you you can kill her. Doesn't say anything about frights. Doesn't say anything about anything, actually, since you own all her property anyway, but that. And I can't touch any lover who didn't sign a contract of his own, which I'm guessing he never did and never would."
Gachot had looked deflated from the moment he walked in, but now he visibly crumpled before my eyes. I still hadn't had lunch, so I decided to bring things to a head. "So. What's it to be, Monsieur? Your card back, or Madame soufflé?"
The little Quiberonnais's eyes met mine. They were glowing. He stammered in disbelief. "You mean - you actually mean - you will actually do zhat?"
"Don't see why not. You said you were rich didn't you? Well, it'll cost you."
"Non, non, zhat is nothing," he ran around the desk and started shaking my arm half off, "Whatever you want! Whatever! I give you gold, you people like zhat, non? And much more if I get -" he grinned slightly too malovently even for my taste, "Madame soufflé.
"And another fifty pounds of gold if ze lover should 'ave an accident. I mean nothing more zhan zat - an accident."
I was in business.
Re: Tales of a nightwatchman
Posted: Mon Apr 24, 2017 9:53 pm
*** 3 ***
"Well why else do you think I came to a man such as you?" Gachot looked askance at me. "You think zey were in 'aversham? They are not stupid. They know what I can do to them 'ere, with full colour of ze Law. Non, zey are in Questers, where there is no law."
I'm not exactly what you would call a patriot. At that precise moment I had probably done more damage to my country than most of its foreign enemies ever managed. But I really did feel I must object to this off-hand treatment of our Questerarian brothers. I just couldn't quite pinpoint the precise error in his statement before he went on.
"I 'ave been generous enough, and you will be rewarded further when you succeed. You thought there would be no effort? No danger? In zhat case pas d'argent aussi, n'est-ce pas?"
I could happily argue with his logic, but I couldn't argue with his generosity. Two days later I was sitting in the first class lounge of the All Red Line in a tailored white linen suit, fighting the temptation to fiddle with my brand new Constitution Crescent revolver. You must understand that it still meant something to fly in those days, back before the no-frills airlines that let the riff-raff on board and banned fags and guns. And the All Red Line was the best there was, the best in the world. The Tie That Binds Our Commonwealth Together, their glossy brochures proclaimed, a half dozen Wentworth Amitys in Praetonian, Questerian, Tairendian, North Point and Axumite colours flying side by side each trailing the red and white. I'm not exactly what you'd call a patriot, but it almost brought a tear to my eye.
As for the other passengers, well, I could hardly complain, except that these rarified creatures all seemed to know one another and take no interest whatsoever in me. That was probably for the best, and I was happy to leave them to it. The odd colonel in his uniform, the minor celebrity or journalist, or suited millionaire drifting by probably had a story to tell, but any one of them would have seen through me in an instant, and it would be best not to draw attention to myself. So I contented myself with the company of the hostesses until I boarded the plane and was accosted by my neighbour.
"Boris Trevelyan, how d'ye do?" his plump, bright red face beamed into mine. I stared and him without replying. His grim didn't diminish, nor did his voice lose its candour, "Would ye mind at least letting me take my seat?"
I stood up and let him through. He sat down, and turned back to me right away, thrusting his hand toward me. "As I say, Trevelyan. Supplier of wholesale supplies and sundry goods to the Subcontinent."
I reluctantly took his hand. "How do you do."
"No name? That's quite all right. I deal with nameless men all the time. Not a lot of nameless men on his plane d'ye see but I'm sure it is quite all right."
We sat in companionable silence for several seconds.
"I say, you're not going to Jesselton, are you?"
"Ah... of course not, or you'd have taken the direct flight. But they all go to Jesselton their first time."
"What makes you think this is my first time?"
I didn't reply. He was making me distinctly uncomfortable.
"Don't worry old boy," he laughed, handing me a cigar, "When you've been there a while you won't carry a fancy gun like that. Fancy gun like that'll get you killed, because your thief might well value his life less than he values a fancy gun like that."
I made a point of not drawing my jacket closed. "You'd best be worried for him, not me," I said, "but what would you carry?"
Trevelyan suddenly looked serious. "Pair of sunglasses most like!" And then his face assumed its previous form with a huge smile plastered across it. "Tell you what, if you're going to the resort, which I'd guess you are seeing as you're not afraid for your life and don't know what you're doing and so forth, I'll show you around. Professional man are you? Yes, good. Not many of those at the resort. You'll make a pretty penny most like in whatever it is that you call your business. I know I will. So let's go together. And you can show me your fancy gun. Ever been to the Merchant Venturers' Club? Not much of a club. I'll vouch for you and get you in and then you'll be someone. Well, sort of someone at least."
I stared hard into this funny little man's eyes for a little longer than he was comfortable with. He blinked. An honest fool. Possibly useful.
"Awfully good of you, Trevelyan. Let me buy you a drink."
Re: Tales of a nightwatchman
Posted: Tue Jun 26, 2018 3:48 am
*** 4 ***
Questers isn't what it used to be, says every clever dick who's never let his toe caps stray past the chrysanthemums. Damn right, it's more than it ever was. You stroll past a ruined Syndicalist tank that no one ever bothered to clean up and the natives know that you did that. They stand up straight when they see an Oriental and don't look you in the eye. I'm not talking about the old Sikhs on the board of jurists of the Court of Maritime Settlement but they're too good to spit on you if you were on fire anyway. The common people of this country know who rules and they go in awe of us and our Law. I'm not much of a patriot, but it almost brings a tear to my eye when some young snipe runs up and, rather than going for a chap's wallet, salutes in the Eastern Association style with a hearty "Ganjang Syndikalis!". Quite right, my lad. Quite right.
As it turns out, Trevelyan was right about everything but one: a chap doesn't need a gun here because it's the most orderly place on earth. The car was driven from the airport by a Gurkha whose slightest glance could have put a whole rabble army to flight. Why did these people ever fight us? They were fools that's why and there is no other reason. Don't let anyone tell you it was a fair fight; we won because we were better and that is that. We drove through their shanty towns and the squatters stood up and stared forlornly, hopelessly, and just watched as we entered the resort. This area was shelled heavily by the Estates during the landings and much of the damage was still visible. They didn't want to go for a second round and I didn't blame them.
The resort itself was a heavenly place. Oh, you might think that there's no place like home and the High Street of the old town will always be special in your heart. But it really won't. There's something quite unlike anything when you feel like a whole town is your back garden, especially when you've never even been there before. Oh, sure, you wouldn't even dream of trampling on the chrysanthemums. Especially not with that Gurkha looking. But only because they're your chrysanthemums and he's your Gurkha and if he ever had to give someone a frightful shoeing for trampling on them you'd only be sad he had to scuff his shoes so badly. He worked hard to give them that shine and he didn't deserve to have it ruined like that.
Trevelayn led the way and I was content to follow him for the time being, amiable fool that he was.
"D'you know, I was here throughout the whole thing? Oh, no, not Eastern Association or anything like that. Supplier of wholesale supplies. An army needs supplies, you know. Whatever side it's on..."
The Merchant Venturers' Club stood out as an island of scaffolding and mess in a sea of perfection. It was expanding, you see, as the Merchant Venturers' was everywhere in this country. The age of the nabob was back, and Questers was the place to be again for a young man in search of fortune. One in a hundred might make his billion. But there were more than a hundred. Far more.
"I say! I say, old timer coming through!" Trevelyan struggled to bawl as he batted his way past a crowd of applicants with his umbrella. "Dear Lord, what a nuisance."
A Gurkha swatted an overzealous youth in the mouth and he fell, convulsing, into the road. "Stand back!"
Trevelyan thanked him amiably and beckoned me into the club. No one bothered to check our identity. Trevelyan was known, I suppose, and that was good enough for me. Had he really been loyal to the Estates' throughout the occupation? If so, he was probably more than I'd bargained for and I'd best bail sooner rather than later.
"Drink? Least I could do really."
I had no idea why.
"Double Cock on the rocks," he ordered, indicating some continental single malt, "and make it two."
I had a taste for Senland whiskey, but I could take a Cock at a pinch and it seemed rude to decline.
"You're an awfully good man Trevelyan," I said, somewhat awkwardly, because it occurred to me that a successful merchant venturer intended to make a profit on every transaction.
"Ah now, that's where you're wrong. You see, I have some wholesale supplies that need to be, ah... supplied... to a certain prince of my acquaintance, and perhaps you could, ah, here come the Cocks," he handed one to me, gulping his own enthusiastically. "Yes, well, anyway, a certain prince who was loyal to the Estates' through the whole blasted thing and now still faces a hell of a time from his own dishonest and unworthy people and he really deserves better - but I needn't tell you that, a man like yourself wouldn't risk his life for such things, even for stupendous profit, I can tell that, you're a cautious man and if anything I respect it..."
He trailed off and I didn't bite. He looked disappointed.
"Well, never mind. You're some nobody from Haversham but you are not a fool, which means you intended to meet someone here, but you came for a drink with me which means you don't know where he is."
He smiled wickedly.
"You don't know where she is. Am I right?"
Re: Tales of a nightwatchman
Posted: Wed Aug 01, 2018 2:12 am
*** 5 ***
Three days later I set out from the resort with joy in my heart and a head filled with dreams of profit, leading a convoy laden with a fair tonnage of Trevelyan's "wholesale supplies". I know what you're thinking, but it really wasn't as bad as all that. Granted, Trevelyan had taken me for more of a fool than I really was, but it's not like a merchant venturer makes a great profit by losing all of his client's goods. There might still be fighting in the Nampataland - if you could call it fighting - but this country was pacified. All the world knew that. Even Garchot had chided my timidity in his first cable from Quiberon, where a man, such as he was, could hardly tell the muzzle of a gun from its butt plate. But what really decided it was that I couldn't find hide nor hair of Madame Garchot in the resort, and I wasn't being paid on retainer. Trevelyan's money was my security, and that was what really reassured me. Perhaps I could give Garchot the bunk and set myself up in an altogether more lucrative and agreeable profession.
As we passed, the gatehouse guards saluted my four Wentworth Cougars headed by a captured Syndicalist armoured car, whose scorched turret I declined to make my command post. The squatters gathered and watched, expressionless. Or so I suppose, for I had retired to comfortable quarters in the second Cougar from last, observing the environment with indifference as we turned off the squatters' main street onto the jungle road.
"Very good, sir!" the gurkha had snapped when I entrusted the armoured car to his charge, positively gleaming with joy. No doubt at the thought of mowing down Syndies with its 20mm gun, the bloodthirsty bastard. Didn't have much to say about landmines, though. Damned ungentlemanly things.
The first day passed without event, and I was happy to be distracted from the mind numbing surroundings by communications from Haversham. My landlord was not best pleased at my arrears in rent, and he intended to seize all my property remaining in the premises. Good luck to him; he could have my old stools and desk and may he choke on them. For that matter, so could the lovely Miss Fletcher of 7 Cedarhurst Lane. But as we drove deeper into the jungle my nerves got the better of me and I spent more and more time sitting up front with the stout Sikh driver, my head dangerously vulnerable through the sunroof of a car meant for haulage rather than fighting.
In my declining years I admit that I was bit by the Questers bug and all the world seemed mine to command, the impossible wasn't and riches were within my closest grasp. When you walk past a dozen mediocre men throwing bills into the street because they didn't care to carry them or even just to watch the reaction of those passing by, a man loses his ordinary sense and enters a sort of delirium to which I, I must admit, am more than usually susceptible. For every hundred pub bores telling you about "that time in New Senland when I almost..." there was one nabob who really made his billion and that one man shines so much brighter than the other hundred put together. In my mind, a thousand times brighter. We are what we are, and I have never claimed to be perfect.
It was leaning against the sunroof of my aging Wentworth Jaguar that I watched my friendly gurkha meet his ungentlemanly end at the hands of a man without the strength and courage to clean his boots but more than enough to bury a piece of metal in the ground and run off into safety of the jungle. Maybe it was as bad as all that.
Some men fight, some men die, and some men hide. I'm not ashamed to say I'm the last, and it's served me well over the years. Certainly neither of the others would have served me well for years, for all they may have served me better for a time. For the hero is long forgotten before his classmates live to grow old, and the fighter wears his laurels thin and all old men look weak just the same. But some old men are rich, and that is all I've ever wanted.
The slaughter was famous, or so I heard later, much later. Famous enough that the Army of Observation moved in with its tanks and its helicopters and its guns, and made a point of punishing those who fought us so ungentlemanly that day, and erected a monument to frighten and baffle all who may walk in the jungle and stumble upon that spot. And the men of the resort still celebrate it, every year, on the anniversary, the heroes who set out from there, and met that end, and whose end was punished so.
But for those of us who were there, those few who survived, there was nothing to commemorate, and nothing that we would sooner forget - forget forever. The Syndicalists knew their business as well as I knew mine, and they took out the front and the last vehicle and then made a shooting gallery of everything in between that could neither go forward nor go back. And I made it into the jungle long enough that I was taken prisoner. And there my story, in some sense, begins.