‘Madame…’ (cough, cough, splutter)
She waited, a trifle impatiently.
‘Madame…another time… (cough, splutter, spit)… might I suggest…’ (and here the goblet, now nearly empty, slipped from his fingers to clatter onto the magnificent marble floor)’…that you sweeten it… a little more…(cough, cough,cough, cough)’ – and now, with increasing urgency, the coughing took over, impeding speech, choking indeed – he grasped and struggled at his lace cravat, shook and shuddered …
She averted her eyes seconds before the body hit the floor with its sickening thud. She stared straight ahead rather than at those twitching fingers and foaming mouth and only stooped to pick up the goblet, now rolling aimlessly on those exquisitely cut tiles. There was still some liquid inside; she stepped carefully around the cadaver to the table where a miniature fountain splashed at its centre. After rinsing the goblet, and watching the stained water rush quite away, she set the vessel near the used fruit plate still containing orange peel and half-eaten apricots. And left. In silky silence. The candles burned low, sputtered, much as if they too had drunk from the same goblet, and finally gave out, one by one, until the room lay in semi moonlight. A wondrous scene indeed, this – a table laden as for a great party – yet enjoyed only by two; sugared fruit, wine, pies, jellies and ices, carafes… and in one of those carafes, that thick, dark liquid, so innocent in appearance. A silver label hung on a delicate chain around the neck, and engraved in elegant flourishing copperplate was the single word ‘Ciocolatte’.
‘Deadly Chocolate? Pyeeeewwww…’ It was neither a whistle nor an expletive. Something in between, redolent with disgust and comprehension.
Agent Ashton gazed down at the splendid remains of Comte de Fazan, now bathing in the glorious splendour of a morning sun, let in by a dutiful Mercury drawing curtains but minutes before discovering his master’s body.
Silver lace and embroidery on blue satin, powdered wig, not even a hair out of place. Agent Ashton tossed his own untidy head back irritably. Over manicured and over coiffured aristos always irritated him – particularly the male ones. Worst of all were the Franks. Britons tended to restrain themselves; it was bad taste to do otherwise. The Franks went on regardless, arrogant and unrepentant. No wonder the streets ran with blood in their homeland.
‘Comte de Fazan, Chef Ambassadeur, single, decadent and resident in Chevy Lane, Londinium, as of 1793. Dead, with traces of foam at the mouth. Any ideas?’ Ashton addressed the court surgeon, kneeling by the body and sniffing at the dead man’s mouth and nose.
‘Hmph, *sniff, sniff* strychnine, chocolate. Definitely enough to finish off a regiment, let alone this poor wretch.’ The surgeon stood again, his joints squeaking in protest.
Agent Ashton sighed and pulled a bottle of oil from the surgeon’s tool bag. He carefully anointed the surgeon’s knees. A little squeaking and squealing later, and the surgeon was nodding and pacing up and down gratefully. His clockwork face, usually expressionless, managed to look almost beatific.
Ashton’s eyebrow twitched. A shadow was hovering at the open doorway.
‘Yes?’ he snapped finally, as the hovering showed little sign of decision.
‘A message for you, sir. From Whitehall Office.’ The footman was little better than a page boy, barely able to hold a tray straight. Ashton whisked up the folded parchment, broke the seal, rushed through it and then, mindful of how little jugs may possess large ears, proceeded to question the lad intensively.
After some hesitation, a click of coins and some nervous blubbing, the boy was sent away with a promise that he ‘wouldn’t do it again, sir, really he wouldn’t’, and Ashton was left with more puzzles and fewer clues than before. He swore, almost silently. The surgeon nodded sympathetically.
‘Not an easy one, this, is it?’ he said – and it wasn’t really a question.
It was already the second such poisoning in the City in as many days. The previous victim had been the notorious Wilfred Fortesque, wealthy landowner, gambler, extortionist and more … if you believed the rumours. Poisoned marchepane. Again, in a well-appointed chamber with groaning banquet table, laden with sweetmeats, pies, great carafes of wine and so forth. The present meal, from what Ashton had gleaned from the eaves-dropping of the Comte’s lad, had also been laid out in expectation of company – but as to whose company, or why, was unknown.
A flicker at one of the long narrow windows caught his eye.
Wretched weather. He would have to warn Cog not to go out without his cover on. Clockwork automata functioned surprisingly well in winter– if you remembered to put the cover on. Ashton grimaced. On top of the weather, Cog had recently taken to inconsistent behaviour, and Ashton was worried.
But the summons to Whitehall necessarily came first. Portland had been quick and to the point as ever: ‘More news concerning the Fortesque case. Be prompt.’
Outside, the streets were hung with gold-painted cogwheels and bells; rogue choirboys rambled about in groups singing the Great Clock and Thirteen Bells until people told them to shut up or paid them to go away. Pie-men did good business on corners, and mistletoe was popular this year so the flower girls were out in force as well. Ashton wrinkled his nose and turned down Nuggit’s Lane, something of a short cut – and quieter, away from all the crowds, singing and shouting. Half way up the lane, and he realised someone else had had the same idea: a little man and his clockwork attendant were standing in the middle, deep in dialogue, or rather, the little man was. ‘Now, come along, Rivet, I can’t carry you, you know,’ wheezed the little man. His buckles needed polishing, his hat had not been dusted recently nor had his wig been powdered. His attendant topped him by a good head. ‘Just try bending down a little, do…’ continued the little man.
‘Morning, Mr Pontius,’ said Ashton aimiably as he came up ‘Same old trouble, then?’
‘Oh, Mr Ashton, you’ve no idea – and never when he might be bending or kneeling, no, no, always when he’s standing up so I can’t reach his neck…’
‘I’ve told you before about stilts, now, haven’t I?’
‘With my fear of heights? Nay, now don’t mock … it ain’t kind, it really ain’t.’
Ashton stopped and held out his hand. The little man, without a flicker of expression, whipped out a key.
A few turns and creaks later, the clockwork attendant was turning his head and swinging his arms. Mr Pontius doffed his hat and bowed to Ashton.
‘Thank you, Mr Ashton, you always were kind to us. Not like some.’
Ashton’s brow wrinkled briefly. ‘You live in Chevy Lane, don’t you ?’ It wasn’t really a question. ‘Same street as Comte de Fazan…’
‘Him? What got himself poisoned ? Well, if he will invite strange females to his house at odd hours…’
Ashton leaned forward and lowered his voice.
‘And when was this, then, father Pontius?’
‘Why, night before he was found, of course. All cloaked and hooded.’
‘How can you be certain it was a woman? ’
‘Heard her call for a sedan, didn’t I.’
‘Really? How late was this?’
‘Late. The chimes had gone half after eleven; all dark with only a slice of moon.’
‘But you didn’t recognise the voice?’
Mr Pontius shrugged. ‘Sounded young. Sounded strong. Sounded like… one of them …’ and he nodded in the general direction of the notorious House of Sweet Sisters.
Ashton grunted. It was still too generalized. Any number of women might possess such a voice. He hurried on to Whitehall.
Portland was standing at a window when Ashton arrived, looking out. This was never a good sign.
He must have heard Ashton cross the floor but remained where he was holding something in one hand. ‘What do you know about Fortesque?’
‘Wealthy, not liked – rumoured to be an extortionist.’ Ashton chose his words carefully. Portland nodded and held up his hand; he was holding … Ashton blinked. A piece of pastry?
‘Read, if you please.’
‘1788, Giacomo,’ Ashton leaned forward, reading aloud the writing iced onto the pastry in white sugar.‘What does it mean ? ‘
‘This was found under a napkin on the banquet table, near the body. We know he was associated with a certain Bianca di Pastafrolla. Her brother Giacomo was a famous pastry chef in his homeland, but there is no record so far of him visiting this country. Be that as it may when he heard of his sister’s condition and disappearance, he is said to have vowed justice – with a vengeance.’
‘Interesting- for it seems the assassin may have been a woman.’
Portland raised an eyebrow.’Explain.’
Ashton explained. Portland showed no further surprise, but suggested the Fazan residence be re-searched.
Ashton returned home by way of Baker Street- past the house where Fortesque had met his prandial end; several more automata were standing about in the odd piazza in different positions, their keys in their necks, or hanging from their pockets, while their owners, or humans, pottered about helplessly muttering, protesting at the difficulty of winding their companions up again.
He reached home just as the lamp-lighters were beginning to make their rounds. Ashton pulled out his door key, wondering a little as he pushed the door open. Unlike Cog not to be there, standing to attention, clink-clanking up and down the corridors…what had happened?
Ashton stepped through to the main living room and hesitated. Cog was standing at the fireplace, head bowed, seemingly investigating something fascinating between his toes. Immobile – not even squeaking in the joints.
Ashton sighed, shook his head and walked up to the clockwork automaton. He drew out a key and slotted it into the back of Cog’s neck and jiggled, poked and turned it sharply to the left. Clunk. Another turn. Clank. Cog raised his head slowly and turned.
‘That’s the third time in as many days. What’s the matter with you, man?’ Spoken not so much in complaint as concern.
Cog raised a hand and pointed at the carriage clock on the mantelpiece.
Ashton stared at the clock face, then took out his repeater.
‘It’s not twelve o’clock,’ he commented, still puzzled. ‘The clock has wound down.’
He glanced back at Cog, then again, more sharply. ‘And what have you done to yourself?’ For the clock-face in the middle of the automaton’s forehead had stopped at the same time.
Twelve. Both hands on twelve. Twelve twelve. Twelve twelve … He clapped a hand to his forehead.
‘Twelfth hour of the twelfth night of the twelfth month – of course,’ he muttered, and swore again.
‘I am so, so sorry, Cog – I completely forgot.’
A quiet click from the automaton, followed by a gentle chime.
The twelfth of December – the day of the Great Chime. Far out of the city, following the river west, there was the giant clock, an immense piece of clockwork with a huge, exquisite bell.
Once a year, in droves, the automata, often brought by their humans, would come together at the foot of the giant clock and wait for the Great Chime. Once it had sounded, something would happen – some form of energy ,passing along the clockwork people, tingling the air blue and purple, letting off the occasional golden spark. There would be a moment of silence – total, complete silence – then all of them, with one accord would turn and begin the journey home, recharged and ready to continue in the service of their humans.
Humans had the Winter Solstice celebrations with candles and mirrors. The automata had the Great Chime. Ashton apologised again – they would go as soon as possible, as soon as a mongolfier could be found…
He was interrupted by rapping at the front door.
Another messenger, once more from Portland. ‘Lord Belch, Charterhouse Square. Surgeon already on his way.’
Lord Belch, gourmand and distant cousin to the King. Ashton wondered briefly how many enemies he might have had. He shoved his tricorne on at a careless angle, and leaving Cog with instructions to cover up, set off in direction of Charterhouse. Lord Belch had a large building on the edge of the square, with outsize garden, trees and more –everything with Belch was large and overdone. Especially the puddings. Ashton was shown straight through to the dining room; great walnut doors, huge bowls of flowers everywhere …. The valet, evidently waiting for him, bowed deep as he pulled the doors open,and indicated the room beyond. The surgeon was indeed already there; Ashton paused briefly to take in the surroundings.
A Banquet, seemingly for one. Custards, trifles and possets, with a huge bowl of syllabub at one end of the table. To its choice ingredients had been added one other. Whether through carelessness, drunkenness or intent, Lord Belch had allowed his head to be completely submerged in it, so that only his wig was visible. His hands hung by his side. Had he really fallen asleep, or in drunken stupor?
‘Well?’ Ashton asked the surgeon, who was already kneeling by the body.
‘Hmmmm,’ commented the surgeon, tugging at something. Ashton approached. Lord Belch’s right hand had been clenched around something. With a final grunt, the surgeon stood and showed Ashton what it was. A meringue. Ashton examined it carefully. A date and a name had been spelled out in green angelica: 1787, Gustave. He turned to the valet.
‘Know anything about this? Bit of a shock to the household, I imagine.’
The valet coughed respectfully.
‘It’s how he would have wanted to go. Very fond of syllabub, his lordship was.’
‘When was the first time you noticed anything untoward ?’
‘This morning; on finding his chamber empty. I knew he was expecting a guest, so I went downstairs to see if he was still here, discovered the scene and immediately called for the Constable.’
‘You did right. Any notions as to who his guest might have been ?’
The valet hesitated between discretion and duty.
‘Not by name, but I imagine it might have been a lady. He made a comment about cutting a figure with the ladies yesterday, while I was dusting his wig.’
‘The lady in question might have been of … foreign extraction.’
‘What makes you say that?
The valet coughed again.
‘He made reference to her Latin character – a woman of passion, I gathered.’
The valet was now looking at the meringue.
‘How long have you been in his Lordship’s employment?’
‘Since 1780, sir.’ Ashton gleamed. ‘And does the date 1787 hold any significance for you ? Some … accident in the household?’
The valet allowed one eyebrow to rise a little while he pondered.
‘His lordship had a temper on him, didn’t he? Prone to … taking it out on servants? Perhaps one of them called Gustave?’
The valet’s face cleared. ‘Ah, that would be the pastry chef. Taken on after he escaped the Revolutionaries in Paris. One day he singed his Lordship’s custard pies – at a particularly trying time.’
‘What happened? Did his Lordshop kick him downstairs?’
‘I understand it was an accident. But he was unavailable for duty for some considerable time…’
Ashton waited, sensing there was more to come.
‘… which enabled Lord Belch to acquaint himself better with Gustave’s wife.’
Ashton looked at the valet. ‘And Gustave’s wife’s name was…?’
‘Esmeralda.’ No hesitation there. The incident – or perhaps the woman – had left a fairly clear impression. ‘Esmeralda Brisé’
Ashton remembered Portland’s suggestion of searching the Fazan residence again. Some constables would already be combing through; he made his way there directly, this time taking Cog with him.
The banquet table was fairly undisturbed; one constable was standing on guard duty beside it. He saluted as Ashton entered.
‘Good evening sir, there is an item we thought you might be interested in.’ He pointed at a carafe, with a silver label hanging around its neck. Ashton took the carafe from the table and lifted the label. ‘Ciocolatte,’ it said on the one side. ‘1786. La Choux’ on the other.
La Choux… la choux…more pastry. Was somebody playing an elaborate joke?
He replaced the carafe and turned to go – and nearly bumped into Portland’s messenger.
‘Urgent from Mr Portland, sir.’ The lad held out a sealed, folded parchment which Ashton tore open:
‘La Choux – a revolutionary group made up of disaffected refugees; intent on removing from high society those deemed corrupt and guilty of moral crimes ; so far, our secret agents have discovered the following to be connected: Bianca di Pastafrolla, Esmeralda Brisé, and Rosa Pastafoglia. A Pastafoglia once worked at the Palace. Suggest immediate action to prevent his Majesty eating any pastries …’
Ashton dashed from the house, followed at a reduced pace by Cog.
The Palace was awash with visitors, who were gradually wandering their way to the banquet hall. The King was celebrating an early Solstice, with a special welcome extended to those fleeing the Terror in France, including his distant cousin Louis, now residing at Hampton. They had started with junkets and roast pigeons, had enjoyed the beef and stuffed qualis’ eggs and were about to enjoy some sweet pastries proffered by the Royal Footman in Chief when –
‘Drop those tarts!’ Ashton flung himself on the startled footman and dislodged the pyramid of pastries which slipped off onto the floor and slid across the tiles, in ruby-esque randomness.
Gasps and nervous giggles from the gathered guests; the King was in mid-speech addressing a gigantic butter statue of a pineapple, and continued impervious. Ashton leapt across to the door, dragging the protesting footman behind him : ‘To the kitchens – now!’
And down they clattered, followed by the more curious or more bored of the guests, past the buttery, the parlours, the pantries and the cellar, along the corridor to the huge kitchen areas.
Clockwork stirrers, beaters and peelers stood to attention, immobile, their keys hanging next to them on respective wall hooks. The occasional breath of steam escaped from copper tureens but further than this, sound came there none.
Ashton paced to the great table in the centre of the galley. Slumped in a chair at an angle sat a clockwork chef, head bowed forward with its white linen cap half dislodged, its apron dishevelled and hanging askew. The key was still lodged in its neck. Around the neck hung a piece of parchment.
Attached was a note. ‘I am returned. And my name is Nemesis.’
The banquet was delayed until the court surgeon arrived. After carefully sniffing at all the pastries, he pronounced the tarts to be indeed the venomous culprits Ashton had suspected. Who had managed to add the poison to the jam remained unclear, but the how was revealed when several guards were discovered, opium-drugged just outside the kitchen back door.
Guards were kept at all main doors for the next few weeks, many peers of the realm were warned to keep an eye on their dinner guests – but the poisonings ceased as abruptly as they had begun.
To all intents and purposes there would be peace and joviality for the Winter Solstice after all.
It was the twelfth day of the twelfth month.
Cog stood at the wheel of a mongolfier, steering gently, straight-backed and impervious. Behind him, Ashton looked over the edge of the basket to take in the landscape.
A jewel-like patchwork of emerald and ermine stretched out beneath them, broken only by the occasional flare of musket fire as hunters gave voice to their shot.
Lacy white on green velvet, mused Ashton. Lacy…intricate…a white doiley on a green..emerald green velvet… green and white… white and green …
There was movement – riders on horseback – three of them. Surely part of that hunting expedition.
Ashton looked again. Splashes of colour shot out from the riders’ garments : a patch of red, a slip of green, a pinch of white …
White and emerald … and red… three colours…
Ashton drew in his breath sharply. They were riding towards the coast. He scrabbled furiously about in the satchel attached to the side of the basket and pulled out some travelling binoculars.
On and on the three riders went, unbridled, relentless, unstoppable, on and on, riding eastwards … to the coast.
Ashton drew back, a cold shiver running down his back. Some long lost quote surfaced in his memory – war, famine, plague … that made only three. He looked again through the binoculars, and raised his sights to the hills immediately ahead. Surely, if he looked hard enough, there was a fourth horse and rider standing, waiting on the crest on one of them. As the other three galloped up, the fourth reared, turned – and joined them in their rush to the sea.
Ashton lowered his binoculars. He placed them deliberately back in their case and turned to join Cog at the wheel.
Below them, the landscape grew greener and further North was now visible the golden gleam of Great Chime.