“What on Earth was all that about?” I asked when I finally caught up to Hemlock.
“What was what about, Eddie?” Hemlock didn’t look at me as we walked. Her eyes seemed to constantly roam the street, from the cobbles to passers-by to the windows of shops and houses. Snow from the night before still coated windows and roofs.
“It’s Edward. And I’m quite sure you know what I mean. Being sugar-sweet, before throwing orders around. Has that ever worked before? It certainly shouldn’t!”
“Well, Eddie, we’re twelve. Most people look at twelve year olds and think that we’re either criminals in the making or simply children. In our case, as we are wandering around London, taking taxis and solving mysteries, they probably think we’re rather ridiculous. However, what these adults don’t understand is that children like us can get in almost anywhere – we’re ignored or tolerated, or our ‘daddy just went in there’ or 'I've lost my mother' or some other story. This means we can really do whatever is required to get the information we need. And, if we can get paid then I don’t need to talk to my father, which means I can afford to continue living comfortably without my father interfering with my endeavours, thank you very much.”
Given Hemlock’s tone, I thought it best to change topic with some rapidity.
“What do you think this winged thing is then?”
“I suspect it’s the Angel of Death, Edward.”
I laughed. Hemlock did not. “You can’t be serious,” I said. “The Angel of Death? Sent to London to kill some poor man at random in a restaurant?”
“I am utterly serious. Multiple witnesses saw this shadowy winged angel. Professor Bantam is dead. What we need to uncover is who sent it and why.”
“And how it killed Professor Bantam,” I added.
“No; that I know.”
“What? How? How did he die?”
Hemlock grinned. “Let’s see if you can work it out before I tell Mrs Bantam, shall we?”
“Is that where we’re going now? To explain it to Mrs Bantam?”
“Absolutely not. Do we know who or why? No, we do not. So, we are going to follow the obvious clue and see what we can uncover.”
I pushed my glasses back up my nose. “We have an obvious clue? Should the great Hemlock Jones even be following an obvious clue? Isn’t that the recourse of – ”
Hemlock stopped in the street and glared straight at me. “Of whom, Eddie?”
“Of, um, well… So you’ve found a clue?”
Hemlock said nothing. She raised one hand. Wedged between the first two fingers of that hand was the folded card she'd pulled from underneath the table.
Hemlock unfolded it. It was some sort of business or calling card. Creases cut through it, but did not obscure the image that was stamped on the white card in gold.
“What is that?”
“I’m not entirely certain,” said Hemlock. “It looks rather like the bank of England.”
“Or an ancient Greek temple.”
Hemlock tilted her head. “Yes. All Ionic pillars and a triangular top. Well, that’s useless isn’t it. I suspect it’s a card that allows entry to somewhere. But we don’t know where. So, we need to find out who killed Professor Bantam, what this card means, why it was in …”
And then a gunshot shattered the quiet.
The bullet ricocheted mere feet from us. People on the street shouted and ran in all directions. The horses attached to a nearby carriage bolted. I heard the thunder of hooves and wheels close by as it careened down the road.
Hemlock collided with my midriff and threw me to the ground. I landed hard, the breath blasted out of me. Despite the extreme danger, and Hemlock’s weight pressing down on top of me, I noticed for the first time that her eyes had the most curious golden flecks in them.
“Don’t just stare, Eddie, get up and run!” Hemlock scrambled across the cobbles on all fours. I rolled to my front and sprinted after her, trying to keep low to the ground, weaving left and right to make myself a harder target.
Hemlock crouched behind the spokes of an unhitched wooden trap, with two large wheels and the long guiding poles resting on the cobbles.
Another loud crack and ping as a shot ricocheted from the stone and I dived under the trap.
“Help! Police!” I cried out. Hemlock pressed a hand over my mouth.
“Shut up. And look up,” she hissed. I followed her pointing finger. Protruding from the roof of the building above us was the long, metal barrel of a rifle.
Hemlock removed her hand from my mouth and I whispered, “What do we do?”
“Do?” She replied, quietly. “Well, Edward, we race to the top of the building and bravely confront our would-be assassin.”
I snorted. “Don’t be ridicu…”
Hemlock dashed for the door of the building.
Cursing, I chased after her. As I reached the heavy door (the bronze plaque proclaimed the office to be the property of ‘Potterwitts, Quickfine and Shank’), Hemlock was already pushing it open. The interior was a typical office, full of tidy desks and neatly placed chairs. Gentlemen in drab suits were gathered at the window, peering out into the street and murmuring to each other. Several turned and stared, open-mouthed, as Hemlock charged through the room and out of the door at the back, her skirts flying in all directions.
I attempted to tip my top hat, rearrange my glasses on my nose, follow Hemlock and mutter apologies to the room as I half ran, half fell through the small office room.
Hemlock was already at the top of the first flight of stairs as I entered the hall. I took them two at a time, trying to cling to my cane and hat as I chased her upwards.
Hemlock’s sensible boots hammered on the wooden stairs above me. I swung around the banisters and continued to pelt upwards. Another landing, then the stairs ended in a heavy-looking door. Hemlock was poised to open it. She looked back as I reached her.
“Ready?” She asked. She was breathing heavily, though compared to my great gulps and wheezes she was fresh as a daisy.
I hefted my cane in two hands and nodded.
Hemlock turned the handle and threw open the door. We charged on to the flat roof.
I would like to provide a second-by-second recount of our daring charge, likening it to Tennyson’s courageous Light Brigade, confronting an army armed to the teeth with rifles and pistols, while we wielded one walking cane between us.
But, what we encountered as we burst out on to that flat roof terrace in Green Park was not a small army or band of professional killers. There was no charge through muzzle flash and gun smoke.
What there was, on that snow-dusted roof, was a lone soldier.
Clutching a large hunting rifle, aimed at the street.
With a wind-up key in its back.
Our dramatic and brave rush ended abruptly. We stood, silently, and watched. Another deafening gunshot rocked the soldier and he shook. Gears and springs clacked and rattled.
He was a little over three feet in height; just tall enough to lean on the low wall surrounding the roof terrace. He was in full army fig, though not the patriotic red of the British. Rather, his uniform was blue, as was his tall, flat-topped hat, with gold brocade epaulets on his bright blue military jacket.
He was also clearly made of metal. His brown hair was painted on. As were his buttons. The hat looked real. And the gun clearly was.
I spoke first. “What. On. Earth?”
Hemlock shook her head. “I’ve no idea, Eddie. But, it’s got a gun. We should deal with it while it thinks we’re still down there.”
“So, kill it?”
“You can’t kill a tin soldier. But, perhaps we can break it. Give me your cane.” Hemlock held out a hand.
I grasped the cane all the tighter. “Absolutely not.”
“Fine then,” she gestured at the toy soldier. “You go hit it.”
I tip-toed across the slightly ridged roof tiles.
I managed to sneak right behind the toy soldier. This close, I could see small pistons on the backs of its arms and on its legs. In the gaps between the tin plates, I could make out hundreds of tiny cogs and gears whirring away. Small puffs of steam escaped from valves where its ears were painted on.
I drew back my mahogany walking cane and drew in a breath, readying myself to club the thing.
Then the head turned and over-large blue eyes stared at me and I might have yelped in fear. The toy stood up from leaning on the wall and began to take jerky, marching steps to turn its body round to face me. The gun was presented barrel forwards, as if to fire on the march.
I swallowed my fear, and forced myself to ignore the insanity of my situation, as well as the deadly threat it posted.
As the soldier completed its marching steps to turn around, I smacked it as hard as I could.
The thin sheet metal buckled under the head of my cane. There were strange hisses and clunks. Steam spilled from a cracked piston. The soldier staggered, very humanly, to one side. Nevertheless, its small hands – jointed like a man’s – still held tightly to the rifle.
I swung again, connecting solidly. The tall blue hat, with a little black peak on the front, wobbled but the strap held it in place. The toy soldier was knocked off its black-painted feet. Sparks flew. The soldier pulled the trigger and the gun went off again, the bullet flying off into the air.
I placed one foot on the metallic soldier’s chest and swung with all my might down on to its painted face. The face crumpled under the blow. There was a crack and a mournful whine, and smoke began to seep from its head. The cogs slowed, and the levers and pistons ceased.
“Take that!” I cried out victoriously.
Hemlock placed a hand on my shoulder. “Great job, Wellington. Now if you could refrain from further destroying the… whatever it is, that would be wonderful.”
“Hey now! I just saved our lives!”
“Of course you did, now let me have a closer look, would you?” Hemlock stepped around me and crouched down. “Hmm. Very interesting.”
“I just saved our lives?” The reality of the situation struck me. We had been shot at. I had nearly died. “Hemlock, what on earth are we doing? We’re twelve, we shouldn’t be risking our lives!”
“Nonsense, didn’t come close to risking our lives. Now look at this, it’s fascinating.”
“I don’t want to look at that! I want to go ho— what is that?” I couldn’t help but look over Hemlock’s shoulder.
She had pulled up the dented tin plate of the soldier’s face and was looking intently at what looked, to me, like the internal workings of a rather complicated clock.
“What is it? And why was it shooting at us?” I asked.
“It’s a clockwork soldier. And it wasn’t.”
I pushed my glasses back up my nose.
“Hemlock, it had a gun, it shot it at me,” as I said it, the reality of the situation struck me. I’d nearly been killed. My legs felt rather weak at that moment and I sank to my behind on the tiled roof.
“No, Edward. It did not.” Hemlock lifted the soldier’s head up so its cold eyes were staring at me.
I shuddered. “Ugh, don’t. I can’t stand the way it looks at me.”
“It can’t look at you, Eddie,” the demystifier replied and flicked one of its eyes. “Its eyes are made of glass. It can’t see. It’s a clockwork toy, albeit a large and dangerous one.”
Hemlock traced a large, ornate ‘N’ on the left side of the soldier’s blue jacket with one finger.
“I wonder why that’s there,” she said quietly. “And I wonder what’s beneath it.”
She picked up the gun and thrust the barrel under the soldier’s blue jacket (though actually the front was painted white) and pressed her weight down. The tin plate bulged and then broke away with several popping noises. Underneath were layer upon layer of small bronze cogs and wheels, pistons and other things that looked like they whirled or pumped, pushed or spun.
“It’s incredible,” I breathed. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
For once, Hemlock didn’t have a witty retort. She studied the soldier’s inner workings. She tapped on a small dial in the centre of its chest.
“This is how it was shooting,” she said. “This timer counts down, and each time it completes a revolution – I’d think every minute or so – it reaches this,” she pointed at a small cog with a pronounced arrow on it, “which results in various gears moving.” Her hand traced a line from the soldier’s chest, down its arm and to its hand. “The gears eventually make these fingers flex, pulling the trigger.”
“But it turned to face me.”
“Hmm, true,” said Hemlock. “It’s possible that every so often it would march in a circle or something, to ensure that anyone sneaking up on it got a nasty surprise.”
“So, it was just firing randomly on to the street?”
“Not quite. I suspect whoever placed it here arranged it to fire at a particular spot, either telling it when to first fire or trusting to probability that we’d be walking through that spot as the timer went off. Which would suggest…”
“That someone was watching us enter and leave The Fern Restaurant!” I exclaimed.
Hemlock smiled at me, but it was a grim smile. “Precisely, Eddie. Someone who doesn’t want us to find out what really happened to Professor Bantam.”
“But, if it’s on a minute timer, that means whoever set it up must have left moments before we were shot at!”
“Well, a minute before, but yes. Sadly, far too long ago for us to follow them now.”
“Do you think those gents in the office downstairs saw whoever it was?”
She shrugged at me. “Maybe, but I doubt it. We passed an unlocked back door to this building. Far more likely that whoever it was who placed the trap came and went, unnoticed, through that door.”
I blew out a long breath. “I can’t believe someone just tried to kill us with a toy soldier.”
“Oh, I don’t think it was really an attempt at assassination, Eddie; far too clumsy and risky. I think it was probably a warning; someone is playing with us.”
“They are? Who?”
“That’s something we need to find out,” Hemlock said.
“Right. So, what do we do now?” I asked with some trepidation.
Hemlock tapped her pursed lips with a finger. “Hmm. Ideally, I’d like to take it back and have a nice long look at it, but I can’t see us being able to carry it around London.”
“I could simply hail a cab on the street and we could take the… thing… back to Baker Street.”
Hemlock nodded. “Yes, let’s do that. But quickly. I imagine that the constabulary will be here shortly and no doubt their ineptitude will lead them to arrest us or something equally ludicrous.”
“The police?” I said. “Gosh.”
I ran down the flights of stairs, through the office (tipping my hat once again) and out on to the street. People continued to mill about in confusion, the immediate fear of death replaced by a nervous curiosity. I ran to the end of the street and waved my cane frantically in the air.
A hansom cab pulled by two rather fine looking chestnut horses came to a stop in front of me.
“Where to, young sir?” The driver asked in his cheerful cockney voice.
“If you’d be so good as to head down here to collect my friend, that would be wonderful. We’ll be going to Baker Street.”
“Right you are, guv’nor!”
I hopped into the cab and, with a flick of his whip, the driver set it in motion. The horses trotted briskly along the cobbled street, pulling up opposite the restaurant. Hemlock was waiting, the toy soldier cradled in her arms like an over-large baby.
“Hop in,” I said. She held out the toy soldier for me to take while she clambered in.
“211 Baker Street,” I said to the driver.
The horses broke into a trot again. Hemlock leaned forward over the clockwork assassin, her eyes roving around as if to take in every detail of every person and place we passed. I slumped back and dabbed my brow with an already rather damp handkerchief.