“Good lord, would you look at that!” I exclaimed over my morning cup of milk and a slice of toast, kindly provided by Mrs Figgins.
“Eddie, whatever it is, I’m reasonably certain it’s fascinating, but I am rather busy.”
“Listen to this,” I continued, ignoring Hemlock. It was for her own good. She had to learn to listen to others occasionally. “They’ve just unveiled a play using a clever optical illusion that makes you see a ghost in the room. Isn’t that clever.”
“Who are ‘they’? And that trick has been around for years. Honestly, I expected better of you, Eddie.”
I made a rude sound with my tongue. “Don’t be such a know-it-all. And worse, a grump. I’m going to ask my father about getting us tickets, you’ll come with me and you’ll like it.”
“I most certainly will not. I’m far too busy.” Hemlock did not look up as she spoke, but continued to stick various metal implements into the clockwork soldier, like a surgeon or a watchmaker examining the intricate workings of a timepiece. She had a strange set of goggles strapped to her face, like a pair of jeweller’s loupes.
“Tosh. It will be splendid fun!”
Hemlock did finally look at me. Her eyes were obscenely large and frog-like through the goggles. “Edward, have you ever tried to painstakingly dissect intricate machinery, moving paper-thin clockwork pieces, layer by layer, over the course of several hours, while keeping track of each and every piece?”
“No, you haven’t. So you cannot possibly imagine how taxing it is. As such, I’d be most grateful if you’d stop your inane gossip while I get on with it.”
“Hmph!” I loudly shook the creases from my paper, hiding myself behind it.
A few minutes passed, during which I skimmed the obituaries.
“Fascinating,” said Hemlock.
I studiously ignored her and re-read the article on the new play, The Spectre of Evesham Hall.
“Intriguing. Enlightening,” Hemlock continued.
I continued to read.
“Well I never…”
I couldn’t stand not knowing any longer. I flung my paper down. “What? What is it?”
Hemlock wasn’t even looking at the clockwork soldier. She was sat in her chair, looking directly at me, with a bored look on her face. “Oh, nothing. Just wanted to confirm that your indifference was entirely fictitious.”
I sputtered for a response. Hemlock smirked and raised a delicate eyebrow. After scouring my mind for some witty retort, I relented. My shoulders sagged. “Fine, Hemlock. You win. I would indeed very much like to know what you have found out about our assassin.”
Hemlock nodded. “Good. About time you took a real interest. You’ll never make anything of yourself if you don’t.”
“My father is paying an exorbitant amount of money for me to go to school to ensure that I most certainly make something of myself,” I replied.
“Nonsense. He pays so that he can forget about you.”
I opened my mouth to reply, but the painful truth had somewhat silenced me. I am certain it was written plain on my face, but Hemlock either failed to notice or simply ignored it. She turned back to the desk at which she had been working.
“Come and take a look then,” she said. I sighed, rose from my armchair and moved to join her.
The clockwork soldier lay on its back. Where, before, its chest had been an impenetrable mass of clockwork parts, it was now more of a metal cavity. Spread around it on the scuffed and scarred wooden desktop were the soldier’s insides. Dozens and dozens of cogs and springs, carefully arranged in some order I couldn’t fathom.
“Do you see?”
I didn’t. I saw cogs and machinery, clockwork pieces, like an incomplete jigsaw. But, clearly Hemlock was referring to something specific. I shook my head.
“Well, let’s assume that the person who built this is working in London.”
“Isn’t that quite an assumption?”
“Not really. Otherwise they’re working outside London and lugging giant toy soldiers around the country to set them up on rooftops to try and kill us.”
“Ah,” I said.
“Yes. So, they’re working in London, using incredibly intricate cogs.”
“But where do they get all these things from? I mean, surely it’s a rather specialised area?”
She smiled, and for a brief moment, Hemlock Jones looked almost likeable. “Good Lord, Eddie, you are actually thinking. I think I might be rubbing off on you.”
I wasn’t sure if I should be offended or delighted. Hemlock continued, unfazed.
“Clearly, whoever built this machine bought parts in order to do so. We simply need to speak to the shop or manufacturer from which our villain purchased his cogs, get the address and,” she clicked her fingers. “We’ve got him.”
“That’s brilliant, Hemlock.”
“Quite so. Now, get your coat. We have enquiries to make.” Hemlock grabbed her coat from the back of a chair, buttoned it up and reached for her scarf. I hadn’t moved.
“Come on, Edward. Chop, chop!”
“But, we don’t know where to go,” I said. “And don’t you want to brush your hair?”
Hemlock ignored me as she tied her scarf and headed for the door. “Second row, third from the left,” she said loudly.
I turned and looked at the desk. The second row of cogs, third from the left. It was a small spider’s web, a little over an inch wide, made of some silvery metal. I squinted, trying to make out any name or detail.
“Use the goggles!” She shouted from the hallway.
I tugged the goggles on to my head and carefully positioned them over my glasses. The world became a strange, mutated place of giant curves and unfocused hugeness. I groped for the small cog and eventually managed to grasp and raise it up to my face.
I turned it over in my hands. There, in the centre, were some tiny words.
“Van Kaspian & Co,” I said.
“What?” Hemlock shouted from the bottom of the stairs.
“Van Kaspian!” I called back.
“Well yes, obviously! Now do come on!”
I huffed to myself and turned to gather my overcoat, scarf and hat from the coat-rack. The strangely magnified room spun and swirled.
“And for pity’s sake, take off the goggles, Edward!”
It took twenty minutes to walk from Baker Street to Van Kaspian & Co. on Bond Street. Twenty minutes during which my nerves were stretched to breaking point by every unexpected movement or surprising noise. Hemlock seemed entirely oblivious to the chances of another scrape with a violent death, and strode along the pavements with her chin high and hands tucked into her coat pockets. It was most a tomboyish walk, in a most bizarre coat: Full of pockets, compartments and hidden pouches. There were many times when Hemlock would pull some useful tool or item – a pair of tweezers, or a set of lock-picks, or a metal file - from a previously unbeknownst pocket of her coat.
Van Kaspian & Co. was a small, cramped wood-and-glass-fronted building, squashed between two much larger shops. Miss Jones wasted no time in thrusting open the door and advancing on the wizened, whiskered gent behind the counter. His moustache was impressive: white and well groomed.
“Cogs,” she said.
The man was hunched over a pocket-watch, a small screwdriver held in a hand like knotted rope. He did not look up.
“Size? Make? Type of clock? Do you know exactly what you need? If not, there’s a consultation fee.” His voice was shakier than his hands, and I detected a whiff of the French in his accent.
Hemlock stopped at the counter and began to nonchalantly peruse the various timepieces and parts under the glass. “One and one half inches in diameter, steel and silver. Large central hole, four smaller holes around it, sixteen spokes.” Her gaze began to roam around the shop, taking in various things in a bored way. “The make is Van Kaspian.”
The aged clock-maker paused momentarily before continuing with his work. “I’m afraid I cannot help you, little girl; I do not have such a piece in the shop.”
Hemlock stopped looking around. Her eyes snapped in to focus on the man’s face. “Really?”
He shook his head slightly.
“But you have made such a piece?”
The aged man shook his head once again. “No.”
“I find that surprising, Mr Van Kaspian.” Hemlock’s voice remained neutral, but her eyes were fixed on him. “I have in my possession such a piece, clearly marked with your name.”
The old gent paused again and sighed. Slowly, he lowered the pocket-watch and screwdriver to his work bench, before slowly looking up. His eyes were dark and hidden beneath heavy lids and bushy white eyebrows. “As I said, I do not have such a piece.”
“But you have had such a piece, Mr Van Kaspian. I have it in my possession now, so we both know it. So, why don’t you tell us who ordered this cog and we can be on our way, leaving you to continue your work in peace.”
“Let us say that I have made this cog you mention.” Van Kaspian spread his hands. “This is a shop, young lady. I do not request the name of every person who comes in.”
“Of course. However, someone who requests very unusual cogs made to his specifications… I imagine you’d take his details so that you could inform him as to when the pieces were completed.”
The clock-maker smiled mirthlessly. “Ah, yes. I suppose that I would.”
“Then perhaps you could save us all some time and provide us with the name and address of the person who commissioned you make that cog.”
The man’s smile didn’t falter. “But, if I did that, Miss – ?” Hemlock didn’t reply, so the man shrugged and continued. “If I did that, then I would swiftly garner a reputation as someone who cannot keep his clients’ trust.”
“Rot! All shop-owners keep records of transactions. We are trying to solve a murder and the person who ordered that cog is vital in our investigation. Mr Van Kaspian, I must insist you give us that name.”
“You are not the police. You are little more than a child! Miss Whoever-you-are, it in no way benefits me to help two private citizens hunt down someone who might be a well-paying client. If of course, they existed at all.”
Hemlock nodded once, slowly. “Ahh. I see. Eddie, haven’t you always wanted a Van Kaspian pocket-watch?”
Startled, I spluttered, “What? I’ve never even heard of… “
Hemlock’s sideways glance promised a great deal of pain.
I coughed. “I mean to say, why yes I have! And this is the day! Just this morning I said, ‘to the hells with food and board, I need a Van Kaspian’!”
The old gent reached under the counter. “You have excellent taste, young sir. Did you have anything in mind? You look like the sort who would want an expensive timepiece.”
“Do I?” I sighed. “Of course I do.” I pointed at a random pocket-watch sporting a label reading two pounds. “That one looks just dandy.”
“An excellent choice, and a real bargain at only twelve pounds.”
“Twelve pounds? That’s almost two months rent!” I could feel Hemlock’s glare. “Er, and a steal for a Van Kaspian. I’ll take it.”
I signed the credit slip and Van Kaspian handed me a gold-plated pocket-watch. I slipped it into my pocket and threaded the chain. It looked quite ridiculous, and certainly not the sort of thing a sensible young man would carry around. I would worry about explaining to my parents why I'd spent two months room and board on a vastly overpriced timepiece later.
Van Kaspian withdrew a large, heavy order book from beneath the counter. He turned the pages before finding what he was looking for and scribbling on a scrap of paper. He offered it to Hemlock.
She took the proffered page and tucked it into a pocket. “Thank you, Mr Van Kaspian.”
His voice oozed unpleasant French sarcasm when he replied, “A pleasure doing business with you.” He put the book away. “Now, I’m very busy so I’d be grateful if you’d leave my shop. And, please, do not return.”
The address that Van Kaspian had scribbled down was, in fact, located in Green Park. Our latest taxi pulled up on the wide, flat expanse of Piccadilly and we continued into the narrow side streets of Shepherd Market on foot.
The afternoon sun was weakly struggling to shine through the low clouds, and the tight passageways were cold and dark, with old brick walls and buildings held together by grubby mortar. The snow hid any dirt or unpleasantness, the quiet, close streets reminded me of the areas behind dressers and chests of drawers; slightly less clean, ignored and gathering dust.
“There’s something about London,” I muttered.
“Hmm?” Unsurprisingly, Hemlock wasn’t listening. She walked next to me, with her usual lack of lady-like grace: Slightly hunched, leaning forward as if hungry to get wherever she was going, her eyes darting about as she walked.
“I can’t quite get used to these little alleys. They make me nervous. Nothing like home.”
We turned down another street. At the far end looked to be a small square, not that dissimilar to a market square in any village in my home county.
“No need to be nervous, Edward. The poor in Green Park aren’t the kind of poor that might rob you.”
“Oh, do stop whining, Eddie. We’re here.”
‘Here’ was a large building, originally white stone, but left to grey in this quiet, narrow street hidden in the warrens of Piccadilly. Boards covered the large windows. There was a large set of double doors up two stone steps. The doors were chained shut and I noticed that the snow that covered the steps and entrance of the theatre was unsullied by feet.
“A theatre?” I craned my neck to look upwards at the shallow, debris-strewn balcony.
“A derelict one,” Hemlock replied.
“Why would – what name did Van Kaspian give you?”
“A false one. ‘John Smith’. Rather unoriginal for our toy soldier-making adversary.”
“Er, yes. Very dull,” I said, before quickly changing the subject. “So, why would ‘John Smith’ choose a derelict theatre? Rather intriguing, wouldn’t you say?”
Hemlock quietly snorted. “Intriguing? Hardly. I’d say it’s a rather obvious hideout for someone who makes clockwork soldiers. A toy shop would be even more obvious, but this is a close second.”
“Oh Eddie. Look,” she pointed at the doors. “What do you see?”
I peered at them. “A pair of heavy wooden doors, the glass panels have been broken and boarded over.”
“And it’s all locked by a chain and padlock,” I finished, removing my spectacles and cleaning them with my handkerchief.
“Close, but wrong.”
“The lock, Eddie. Do you see anything unusual about it?”
I replaced my glasses and walked up to the doors. Tucking my walking cane under one arm, I grasped the thick metal chain and tugged on it. “Hemlock, this chain is clearly locked up tight with a padlock.”
Hemlock hadn’t moved. “What sort of lock is it? What sort of key would fit it?”
I inspected the lock. It was solid metal, with three letters embossed upon it: WAR. I looked at Hemlock helplessly, lock held in my hands. She sighed and walked up the steps, stomping through the thin coating of snow. “Give it here,” she said.
I let go of the lock.
Hemlock took it in her hands and shook the lock a little. “Brass lock. Heavy, solid, economical. Brand new.”
Hemlock raised an eyebrow as she looked at me. “Did you notice the engraving on the front?”
“Yes, it says ‘War’. I’ve never heard of the make before.”
Slowly, she moved her thumb to the engraved circle and maker’s name on the front of the padlock and pushed down. The padlock opened with a loud click.
“It’s not a lock, at least in the traditional way. No key in the world will fit it. But, if you know, you press the front and back and the ‘padlock’ will open.”
“How could you possibly know that?”
“A couple of things. Firstly, have you ever heard of a ‘War’ lock? Not a name you see on locks very often. That would suggest to me, given the lock looks similar to most locks you can purchase in London, that all is not as it seems.”
With a twist of her wrist, the lock was free. The chain dangled from the wooden door handles. “Secondly, I had a smaller version of the ‘War’ lock as a child. My grandfather left it for me in a trunk of his things. It’s a trick lock that a stage magician might use in an escapology trick.”
“That’s not detective work! That’s... cheating!”
Hemlock smiled. “Demystifying work, Eddie. Not detective work.” She gestured to the unlocked door. “Shall we?”
“Shall we what? Commit a crime by breaking and entering a dangerous and derelict building?”
“We’re not breaking and entering. We’re trespassing. Besides,” Hemlock said as she tugged open one of the theatre doors. “We’re following the suspected murderer of Professor Bantam.”
With that, she slipped through the door.
“Oh yes, how could I forget, we’re breaking into a derelict building hunting a man who has already tried to kill us once.”
Hemlock poked her head back through the gap between the doors. “I never said it was a man.”
“Then it’s a woman?”
“Then why correct me?”
“You were making an assumption and inferring I had done the same. Which I hadn’t. You can make assumptions all you want, Eddie. I am a demystifier and, as such, deal with certainties. Or at least high probabilities. Now be quiet and follow me.” Her head disappeared again.
Sighing, I squeezed myself through the space between the doors. Once inside, Hemlock reached back out and fumbled with the lock and chain.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Locking the chains.”
“But, we’ll be trapped, Hemlock!”
“Only until whoever is using this theatre returns to it.”
I tried to avoid raising my voice, but fear and frustration were getting the better of me. “That could be days! Weeks even!”
“Oh calm down. I can always reach my arm through and let us out again. Now, come on.”
I breathed heavily, swallowing my frustration before, on tip-toes, I followed Hemlock Jones into the darkness of the abandoned theatre.