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|The meeting of two remarkable minds for the sake of half a dozen mediocre.||
The guards were quite understanding, all things considered. But not so far as to let Helen go. They frog-marched her, humiliated, along the corridors of the Town Hall until they reached the door leading to the red room she had seen from the window. Heavenly, glowering prettily, knocked sharply on the door. They waited for a moment before it was answered by a man built out of plosive letters.
"Come in," he said and directed them into the room.
It was suddenly filled with people. All tall people, the women with hair all tied severely back and the men scowling at each other with deep suspicion. But only one voice seemed to dominate and he was at the far back. Heavenly led her coterie through the crowd, apologising here and there until they came to the edge of the throng and hovered, watching the show unfold.
A beautiful man was standing in front of a table, gesturing at it to emphasise a point in his speech. Helen listened intently, drawn in by the deep resounding voice and the focused eyes that never quite seemed to rest on one person for too long. It appeared her captor was trying, unsuccessfully, to hail the man but he was too engrossed in his speech, stepping back to reveal the shape lying on the table.
"...we know the man was shot," he said, "A clean wound that splits the sternum."
Helen was shocked to see the corpse, packed round with ice, lying on the table, neatly composed, a blindfold about its eyes and a cloth draped over its torso. She could not help but stare. The field hospital had been filled with tables like this. Wide, white-silver slabs for the officers who lay in uneasy silences, waiting for the inevitable. The higher the rank of a man, the greater the width of his coffin was a phrase that grew up among Helen's platoon.
"This was the cause of death, no doubt..."
Helen's concentration suffered constant interruption from Heavenly, who was now talking darkly with an official looking councilman, who seemed disinclined to help anyone for anything. The crowd leaned forward suddenly and Helen looked at the man, all cheekbones and Mr Darcy, as he began drawing back the cloth over the body.
"...however, ladies and gentlemen, we at the Defence League have discovered something rather remarkable."
The men and women either side of Helen muttered amongst themselves. Even her guards could not resist following the man's indication to look at the chest of the dead thief; there, a patchwork of tiny, neatly arranged holes patterned the skin, almost invisible were it not for the halo of inflamed flesh surrounding each. It almost looked like a second skin. The patches between each outline of holes were unblemished however. The whole effect was quite peculiar and a few fascinated hands wandered close to the torso and Helen's curiosity reached fever pitch as the guide replaced the piece of cloth.
"General," said someone clearly from the front, "Forgive me, but what are we looking at? What caused these bites?"
The man was taken aback.
"Bites? They aren't bites, sir, they're seams."
There was some stirring of surprise amongst the observers but Helen could see Heavenly out of the corner of her eye, making her way back across the room, the elderly official in her wake.
"Needle holes," the man continued, "For what purpose, the Defence League have no clue. They are untidy and clearly done by hand, and the inflammation would no doubt have been the start of infection for the poor man. We will be making further examinations, of course..."
Helen shifted uncomfortably under the guard's grip, eager to be free before she would be taken down to some jail or reprimanded and have this exhibition torn away from her. In a desperate effort, she called out above the murmuring chorus,
"Could it be for securing a form of armour?"
Everyone turned to look at her. Voices took up the question, keenly, eager to hear the reply. The armour was clearly a popular topic on the council, since it seemed to be the only barrier to bringing a stop to the raids. The man turned his eyes on her, thunderous and exciting as a storm, opening his mouth to reply, eyebrows quirking in a surprised air. But before he could reply, Heavenly had latched onto Helen's arm and was pulling her away. Her entourage followed suit and the lieutenant found herself submerged by the justice.
"I'm sorry for the interruption, sir," Heavenly called primly over her shoulder, "Very sorry, sir. Excuse me. Excuse me." She moved politely through the crowd. However, she soon discovered that the matter had not been dropped. The official tapped her on the shoulder to signal that she was being hailed by the man, who was now waving and calling to her. She declined to notice him and continued on, her grip on Helen's arm growing in strength alarmingly. People were a hubbub of gossip now.
"Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much. I'll now hand you over to...to...excuse me! Miss! Stop! Ladies and gentlemen, the honourable Lord Ghabpa-Harvey."
Helen was smashed into the wall opposite the red room door and the door was hastily slammed behind the group.
"Get her out of here," hissed Heavenly to the guards. "I'm sorry about this," she said to the official in his pretentious outfit, "She just burst in demanding to see him."
"Can't have that sort of behaviour," her companion replied darkly.
"Look, what's the harm in just talking to the man, for goodness' sake?" Helen cried, struggling against the guards forcing her down the hall towards a distant doorway. Heavenly ignored her and merely repeated her apologies to the man and began to talk in a low voice to him about some other matter that appeared to concern them.
"I'm not a sodding criminal!" Helen shouted. She was furious. She had planned to hide in one of the rooms and lay low for a while but even her best efforts of clinging to the bottom of a coffee table had not saved her. She thought of sullen Mr Bordred triumphant in his distrust of her... "Let me go!"
The red room door crashed back open and the beautiful man ran out into the corridor, nearly barrelling into Heavenly and having to stagger to a halt.
"Why on earth did you..." Then he suddenly spotted the guards, still moving down the hall and gave chase. He moved beautifully. "Stop! Stop right there."
The guards did so and split obediently apart, leaving Helen standing rather nakedly in front of him. He replaced their hold on her arms and a happy little thrill of shock and Elizabeth Bennet. But he was looking back down the corridor in Heavenly's direction.
"Go back to your desk, please, Heavenly," he said coolly.
"Sir, I really do think that it would be wiser to just-"
"Thank you so much," the man replied, "You're a peach."
He glanced either side at the guards. They too broke away, not making eye contact with one another, following their mistress back the way they had come towards the entrance hall. Heavenly did not even look back once, but kept her head straight and her pace steady.
Gently, Helen found herself being steered about towards a door on her left, beyond which lay a cosy looking office, overlooking a side street, furnished with a desk, wall-to-wall bookcase, armchairs and charming poof all lined in one way or another with gold filigree. The door banged shut behind her and she dropped instinctively to her knees.
"Sorry," the man behind her said, "It always does that." He helped her to her feet, "Now, can I be frank?"
"As long as I can be Jane."
"Never mind. Carry on."
"How did you know about the armour?"
Helen risked a grain of truth: "Oh, it's mentioned in the Town Almanac. It just occurred to me that markings like those on the body...did it never strike you like that?"
"Yes. It struck me. But no one believed me."
He examined her thoughtfully and Helen felt deeply exposed under those black eyes. He lowered himself down into one of the chairs and indicated for her to sit in the one opposite. She gingerly acquiesced. While she was enjoying the word 'acquiesced' in her head, the man leant forward, leaning his arms on his knees and letting his long white coat sweep forward. Helen sat stiffly upright, tucking herself in on every side. She fumbled at her spectacles, licking her lips and calming her thoughts.
"But enough of this," the man suddenly broke in, breaking his reverie, "What was it you wanted to talk to me about?"
"What?" Helen exclaimed, then hastily went over the past few minutes in her head. It dawned on her- "Oh! General Palm! Of course, the body!"
Palm looked mildly taken aback.
"Well, that's not the way I'm often recognised but yes, Richard Palm, pleased to meet you. You are..."
"Likewise. Oh! Yes. I'm from the Guild of Deceased," Helen gabbled, "I came with some colleagues to take the thief in question back for proper burial and...and..."
The general had returned to his feet and, with an air of quiet patience, took the spectacles gently off Helen's nose. He grinned and raised his eyebrows.
"I'm Richard Palm, pleased to meet you," he repeated slowly, "And you are...?"
She stood very still, watching Palm empty out the pockets of her coat, take out her pistol and take it apart. Money, papers, medals. Cascading out into the armchair and spilling over the edges. Hanging the coat neatly up on the hanger on the back of the door, he began sifting through the belongings. He ignored the money, merely piling this back into one mound, but picking up each paper in turn and scanning over it through long lashes. Once or twice, he would look up at Helen but she would only steadily return his gaze until he went back to his work.
Helen's hands clenched in her lap when he came to the letter. She could not help but let out a little groan as he opened it up, kicking herself for not leaving it behind in her room. It was an unfortunate force of habit to never leave any belongings lying around when they could be kept about the person. She watched helplessly as Palm read the letter over to himself, waiting for the call for guards or the yell of outrage that Pyg's signature may well invite. To her surprise, there was no such outburst.
"Guild of Decency!" he cried, and his face split into a huge smile. He pointed at the letter and looked up at Helen, "Did you accept this? Are you really here on Pyg's behalf?"
She said nothing. As far as she was concerned, he was still the enemy. But Palm was quite beside himself. He began to laugh. Runny, honey laughter that pooled in golden puddles round the room and warmed the air.
"The Guild of Decency! I never would have guessed it. A woman in the Guild."
Helen's face betrayed nothing. Do you not believe she would have heard a thousand similar diatribes in her career? It barely phased her anymore; she was not living her life in order to prove a feminist point.
General Palm now crossed the space between them and put out his hand. Helen eyed it but did not take it. He laughed again,
"I am truly sorry, milady. I swear, if I had known you were from little old GOD then I would have had no fear! I take it you are new here? Well, if so, let me tell you that there is a reason why every agent of Pygmalion's has been identified, searched, made to talk and still walked away labelled as a non-threat. You'll forgive my amusement but, if it's any consolation, you had me going for a while."
He dropped down on the edge of the desk and observed her with a rye grin still on his features. Helen shifted in her seat.
"They have something of a reputation," she said.
"Yes! Hundreds of them! GOD knows, as the saying goes. But usually even someone as bubble-headed as Heavenly can spot a GOD member- especially the new ones. Whatever did you do to make him take you on?"
She did not deign to reply. He shrugged.
"Well, it's a shame. You're going to be rather wasted in that forsaken hole." He went to begin gathering up her belongings again and replacing them in her coat pockets, apart from her pistol and Pyg's letter, she noted chilly. He glanced over his shoulder at her as he took her coat off the door. "Look...I like you. There's not many people I can say that about. I'm afraid I must go back to my guests, but I would very much like to speak with you again. Maybe you will eventually tell me what it is you wanted to see me so urgently about..."
"I think it's somewhat irrelevant now," Helen remarked.
"Alright then," Palm sighed, "You really are a peculiar case all over." He seemed to consider something. Then he went over to the desk, opened a drawer and pulled out a pre-printed envelope, tossing it to Helen. She looked at the name on the front.
"SIR MERYTON, OXIG. OBE, MC, ADD? I'm sorry to disappoint you but you haven't guessed my fancy-dress outfit yet," she said, raising her eyebrows.
"Merry's decided he's not coming. Don't open it now. If you just want to turn your coat over and take off those daft spectacles, I actually think I can get you out without drawing too much attention..." He was in the middle of pulling out the sleeves of her greatcoat when he stopped and looked at the colour in amazement. He looked up. "A lieutenant?"
Helen took the garment quickly from his hands and pulled it on. She dropped the letter into the pocket, bid a swift farewell, then exited through the door, which banged terrifically in her wake. Her face was burning. She had been seen through! Her first attempt and she had been seen through; it was a humiliating way to leave. She half-expected the general to come running after her like before but when she turned to glance back down the corridor, she saw it was empty and the only sound was that of voices drifting out from the red room.
Reaching the foyer, she hunched her shoulders and walked quickly by the desk, where Heavenly appeared to be engaging in chocolate boxes and so managed to reach the door before even the second "Excuse me!"
She almost tripped her way down the steps. Out on the road, she walked blindly forward, refusing to look back or to pull down her skewed red collar. And suddenly, she saw it all before it arrived; Pyg's boot was sticking out of the shadows. They were already whispering to one another before she reached them. Bordred kept moving so the noise echoed in the alley. Mr Reeves' lanky shape stood out as clear as day, and the rest of them were humped in a massive outline of awkward childish concealment. She even caught the sound of someone giggling.
Five seconds later, they emerged, staggering out in what they supposed to be a shock of ambush.
"So!" Pyg cried dramatically, "What have you discovered?"
"You're not wearing the spectacles," Loganamnosis pointed out, "You're not wearing Mr Bordred's spectacles, why not? Why not?"
"I'm sorry," she said, "I was spotted."
The group visibly deflated, Pyg rubbing at his cheek and Pontivy drawing out his bottle again. But Helen quickly tried to reengage their interest.
"But I have found something out about the body of the thief and General Palm, he's given me this letter..."
They stood there, waiting expectantly. Pyg had his hand extended, asking to see it. Helen cleared her throat, "Monsieur, perhaps somewhere less open would be preferable in revealing said document...?"
Pyg looked somewhat putout but agreed that they would return to the headquarters. Helen followed him, only pausing with the others to give Mr Bordred back his glasses. Pontivy and Fourte offered to go and buy some more bread and they split apart, two to the bakery and five to St Olivia Drive. Helen kept her eyes on Pygmalion's back all the way there and tried to shut out the gaze of passers-by in the highstreet, some of whom shouted crude remarks as they passed. She thought she glimpsed a face in the oily windows of the bookshop but put it down to her imagination, and mentally extinguished the first little flame of doubt.
|Author's Confession 3||Lieutenant Arc, Ch.2|
|Lieutenant Arc Ch.4||The Sable Fields|
|The Knights||All the Stars|