Read Constable & Toop Online

Authors: Gareth P. Jones

Constable & Toop (3 page)

‘You . . .'
Thwack
. ‘Shall . . .'
Thwack
. ‘Learn . . .'
Thwack
. ‘Your Latin verbs.'
Thwack thwack-thwack thwack
. Having spent his formative years in abject fear of this ogre of a man, Lapsewood was pleased when Mr Thornton's Dispatch documents had arrived on his desk. Lapsewood had taken his time over that document, savouring the pleasure and smiling to learn Mr Thornton's Christian name. If only he had known at the time that the man he feared above any other was called Hilary.

Lapsewood's eyes rematerialised first so he could maximise the time he spent gazing at the only good thing about being summoned to his superior's office: Colonel Penhaligan's secretary and the most beautiful girl he had ever seen.

Alice Biggins.

‘Hello there,' she said, smiling.

Short, plump, with perfect porcelain skin and auburn hair that fell down in ringlets, Alice was everything Lapsewood looked for in a girl and everything he had failed to find in life. He had never had the courage to ask what she had died of, but whatever it was didn't show from the outside. Quite the opposite. Whenever he was in the same room, Lapsewood found himself unable to tear his eyes away from her. As a consequence, he could barely utter a word in her presence.

‘You'll have to wait,' she said. ‘There's one already in with him.'

Lapsewood tried to think of something to say, something clever, something witty, something wry. Anything. Nothing came to mind.

‘He's in a terrible mood,' continued Alice, oblivious as usual to the inner turmoil endured by Lapsewood as a consequence of being in her company. ‘He's already had two clerks and the office boy carted off to the Vault, and it's not even nine o'clock. They all come out with faces like thunder but I tell them it's not so bad. At least they won't have to hang around this miserable place any more. Honestly, if I'd known I was going to end up working for that old sinner I'd have thought twice about accepting a job here at all.'

‘You don't mean that,' said Lapsewood, with more desperation in his voice than he had intended.

Alice pushed her hair away from her face and looked at him. For a moment he panicked that he had given himself away. If there was anything more unbearable than the agony of Alice not knowing how he felt, it was the dread of her finding out. Lapsewood had never been able to cope with rejection. Better, he thought, to grasp moments like this, when he could gaze upon Alice's perfect face, than attempt to reveal his true feelings and risk humiliation.

Besides, what could he possibly hope for, anyway? The dead didn't fall in love. The dead didn't marry. The dead simply trudged on, endlessly, hopelessly, inevitably, until the day they heard the Knocking and stepped through the Unseen Door.

It was so unfair. Alice deserved more. She should have had a real life in a real house with a garden and flowers. The best Lapsewood could offer her was a squalid, windowless room down the Endless Corridor where all employees of the Bureau spent their sleepless nights, no doubt identical to her own.

‘There's a Prowler in there right now,' she said, a twinge of excitement in her voice. ‘A new one . . . French fella. I heard he worked as a detective before he came here.'

‘A detective?'

The door to Penhaligan's office opened and a tall, slim man stepped out, carrying himself with easy elegance. He was immaculately dressed, with a thin moustache adorning his upper lip, piercing blue eyes and angular cheekbones.

‘
A
is the incorrect article,' he said in a smooth French accent. ‘You should use the definite article,
the
as in Monsieur Eugène François Vidocq,
the
great detective.'

‘So you worked for the police?' said Lapsewood.

‘The police are mindless brutes,' replied the Frenchman. ‘A detective is a gentleman of superior intellect who can detect that which goes unnoticed by the common man.'

Lapsewood didn't like the way he looked at him when he said
common
. He was even less keen on the way Alice gazed at Monsieur Vidocq, as though she were a knob of butter and he a piece of hot toast.

‘Ah, Mademoiselle Biggins, is it possible you have grown even more beautiful since I last saw you?'

‘Don't be daft. That was only five minutes ago.'

‘And yet, I think your beauty has increased even more in that small amount of time.'

Alice giggled.

‘But beautiful doesn't quite say it . . .' continued the Frenchman. ‘Radiant, perhaps. Exquisite . . . desirable. How
très difficile
it is to find the word for such beauty in this barbaric language of yours.'

‘Oh, Mr Vidocq, really.'

‘You may call me Eugène.'

With no blood in her body, blushing was a physical impossibility, but Alice came as close to it as any ghost could. Lapsewood felt miserable.

‘LAPSEWOOD,' bellowed Penhaligan. ‘Are you out there?'

He would have done anything to avoid leaving Alice alone with the charming Frenchman, but he could no more avoid going through that door than any man can prevent the wheels of fate from turning.

‘Good luck,
mon ami
,' said Monsieur Vidocq, grabbing Lapsewood's hand and firmly shaking it. ‘I very much hope you are not . . .
pour la Vault
.'

Lapsewood didn't like Prowlers. They thought they were so superior because they got to go on missions to the physical world, walking amongst the living, haunting and scaring in the name of the Bureau. Of course, he understood that they were necessary, just as Enforcers were needed to bring Rogue ghosts into line. But where would any of them be without the paperwork, supplied, completed and diligently duplicated by the clerks?

‘LAPSEWOOD, GET IN HERE NOW OR I'LL HAVE YOU WHISKED TO THE VAULT SO FAST YOUR FEET WON'T TOUCH THE GROUND,' bellowed Penhaligan.

A last glance at Alice's pretty face and Lapsewood stepped inside the office.

4
Uncle Jack

Sam had hated his time at school, where the other boys relished taunting him every day. They would push him into walls to see whether he would pass through, failing to understand that being able to see ghosts was not the same as being one.

‘You must learn to ignore them,' his father had said.

‘How can I ignore them when they push me into walls?' Sam had responded.

‘I mean the spirits, son. You must learn to look through them; try not to let others know you can see them.'

Easy for him to say. He wasn't plagued by this disease. Once, Sam even tried wearing a patch over his right eye to hide the visions, but that drew yet more ridicule from the other children. It was a relief when, aged thirteen, he could stop going altogether. It was easier to avoid the existence of the living than ignore the presence of the dead.

Sam sprinkled a pinch more pepper into the soup and gave it another stir. He lifted the ladle and tasted it. It definitely still needed something.

‘Your son cooks like a woman, Charlie,' said Jack. ‘All tastin' and no dishin'. Come on now, enough of your delayin', boy. This ain't no royal banquet. Give your uncle Jack some of that.'

‘It's not ready yet,' said Sam.

‘It's ready enough for me. I don't like my cooking too fussy and I don't trust all them little pots you keep going to. I like to know what's in my food. It's too easy to drop in something that wouldn't agree with me, something along the arsenic line.'

‘Strangely, we don't keep arsenic in the kitchen,' replied Sam. He slammed a bowl in front of his uncle and dished a spoonful into it, carelessly splashing it on the table.

‘Mind what you're doing now, lad,' said Jack. ‘There's no point wastin' it, is there?'

Sam grabbed a cloth and sullenly wiped up the spilt liquid.

Uncle Jack tasted a spoonful. ‘Tastes like warm pond water,' he said, gulping it down. ‘Ain't you got no meat?'

‘The butchers has been shut since Mr Grant died,' said Sam.

Uncle Jack shrugged. ‘He looks like his mother, Charlie,' he said. ‘Where is she? Not upped and left you, I hope.'

Mr Toop turned to Sam. ‘Sam, you can go. Your uncle Jack will be leaving after his soup.'

‘Stay where you are,' ordered Jack, a little fire burning in his eyes. ‘I only asked after Liza.'

‘My mother's dead,' said Sam.

‘That's a pity. She was a sweet girl,' said Jack. ‘What took her?'

‘Liza died of a fever,' said Mr Toop. ‘Sam was still an infant.'

‘I'm sorry to hear that,' said Jack.

‘I think you should leave.'

‘Charlie,' moaned Jack. ‘We're still blood, ain't we? You're all I've got.'

‘Blood is one thing you never seem short of,' snapped Mr Toop.

‘You don't want to go believin' everything they say. These official types, 'alf of them are more corrupt than the criminals they're after.' Uncle Jack shovelled another spoonful of soup into his mouth.

‘Murdering a policeman is what he said,' said Sam's father. ‘I'd be relieved to hear you saying you've played no part in that, Jack.'

Jack smiled. ‘Oh, it's so black and white for you, ain't it. Livin' up here in the hills, away from the smoke. With your clerks and your gentry takin' the train up to London by day then back here before the city comes to life. The true London is lit by gas, not by sunlight. Down there, nothing's black nor white. It's all just grey.'

‘Murder's murder,' said Mr Toop.

‘Some people don't deserve life,' said Jack, spitting soup across the table.

‘I don't want my son subjected to any more of this. You'll leave now if you know what's good for you.'

Sam had never heard his father speak so sternly.

‘Please, Charlie,' whined Jack. ‘They'll string me up if they catch me. You know they will. So I've done wrong. I admit it. But I had my reasons. And someone's done me over. I know they have.'

‘I'm glad to hear you had a good reason to take another man's life,' said Mr Toop angrily.

‘Things 'ave changed since we were lads,' said Jack.

‘You'll speak no more of that,' interrupted Mr Toop.

‘No, I suppose you've forgotten, ain't you?' replied his brother.

‘You listening to this?' said Jack, addressing Sam. ‘Your father would throw his own flesh and blood to the wolves. His own flesh and blood.'

Sam said nothing.

‘If they found you here we'd all hang for harbouring a criminal,' said Mr Toop.

‘As it is, you'd rather it was just me that felt the squeeze of the 'angman's rope, wouldn't you?' replied his brother.

‘Two nights, Jack,' conceded Mr Toop.

‘A week. It'll give time for the heat to die down,' said Jack. ‘After all, as I see it, you still owe me.'

Mr Toop glowered at his brother. ‘I'll have to ask Mr Constable, and you won't take one step outside. You don't even come downstairs. You're as silent as a mouse then you leave and you never come back. After that, we're no longer brothers. And you'll leave the boy alone as well.'

The shop bell rang and Jack shot up from his seat like a startled rabbit.

‘That will be Mr Constable now,' said Mr Toop. ‘Stay here.'

‘You were working for him when I last saw you,' said Jack. ‘How did you wheedle your way into his business then?'

‘He made me partner.'

‘He'll turn me in if he knows about me.'

‘No, he won't.'

‘It'll be in his interests not to.' Jack spoke in a threatening whisper.

Sam's father left the room, leaving Sam alone with his uncle.

‘Any more of that soup, boy?' Jack held the bowl up for him to take.

‘I thought you didn't like it.'

‘Sensitive soul, ain't you? Funny you should act so much like a woman when you've been brought up entirely by men.'

As Sam took the bowl he saw the ghost of a young woman in a nightgown step through the wall and fall to her knees, sobbing loudly. ‘Oh, I've found you. Please, you must help me. How could he do it? How could he? With my own sister too? He said he'd be mine forever and now he's with her,' she wailed.

Sam glanced at his uncle. He had no desire to reveal his gift to him. He tried to ignore the ghost but she continued to go on. ‘They say you're a Talker. You can hear and see us. They say you'll help us. Please help me. I must tell my Tom not to marry her.'

Sam disliked the maudlers and the mopers most of all, always coming to him, begging for help. At least this one was pretty. A few years older than Sam, twenty perhaps, but even in death he could see she had been a beauty.

He shifted his eyes to indicate that he would speak with her outside, then poured a ladleful of soup into the bowl and placed it back in front of his uncle.

‘You shouldn't listen to your old man,' said Uncle Jack. ‘We used to be as thick as thieves, me and him. I don't know what he's said about me before, but every story has two sides. Most have more.'

‘He's never mentioned you,' replied Sam honestly.

Jack swallowed a mouthful of soup. ‘This tastes better now, lad. You'll make someone a good wife some day.' He laughed. ‘Oh, there you go again with your sulky looks. It was a joke.'

The lady in the nightdress sniffed.

‘And pay no attention to her, neither,' added Jack in a hushed voice. ‘I'll bet her chap's better off with the sister than with that moaning old trout.'

5
Penhaligan's Problem

Colonel Penhaligan was sitting as usual behind his desk. For a man who took every opportunity available to talk about how he had died fighting for his country, he had always been strangely silent about his lack of legs. He wore a plush red army jacket, with shiny gold buttons and ornate epaulettes on his broad shoulders. Thick black sideburns framed his permanently frowning face.

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