Authors: David Lassman
‘Again?’ asked the man.
The boy nodded.
‘All right, but watch carefully this time.’
The man’s fingers hovered over the three inverted wooden cups and then, with a dexterity borne out of practise, began shuffling them – two at a time – around one another on the table. The deliberate staccato rhythm of each separate action merged into a blur of movement, much to the awe and delight of the watching boy; his wide-eyed amazement belying an intense concentration.
The shuffling stopped.
‘So,’ said the man, ‘which cup is the pea under?’
Without hesitation the boy pointed to the middle one. The man’s right hand remained poised above the chosen cup momentarily, as if building suspense for an imagined audience, before lifting it to reveal – nothing! Affectionate laughter accompanied the revelation but the boy was too preoccupied to notice, staring incredulously at the empty space left by the cup.
A noise came from elsewhere in the house and the laughter ceased.
‘The master must have returned early. Stay here son.’ The man then smiled. ‘And don’t touch the other cups while I’m gone.’
The man stood up, ruffled his son’s hair and after checking his own appearance in the reflection of a large copper pan hanging on the wall, left the kitchen.
The boy remained seated at the table, his gaze transfixed at the upturned cup which had been his choice. It lay with its opening facing toward him. An opening he had come to view as a gateway to another world; one he did not yet fully understand and so could therefore not enter. The only way to enter this world was through the ‘solution’, which his father had promised to reveal when he thought the boy ready.
Against his father’s wishes the boy now tentatively lifted the second cup, the one to his left … but again, nothing! There was no solution to it he told himself, no answer to the game, other than watching the cups more closely, more intently, as they were being shuffled. It was the speed of the hands against the quickness of the eyes. And if the physical skill of one could be learned, so could the other. He would therefore practise observing over and over and not just with cups but anything capable of movement, until finally he would be able to choose the correct cup on the first attempt rather than the last. He reached his hand over, this time lifting the remaining cup with a more determined grip and stared in disbelief at what was underneath.
Crash! A vase smashed in the hallway.
The boy stood and went to the kitchen entrance. For a couple of seconds, as he watched from the doorway, he saw his father entangled in a ferocious struggle with another man, a man he did not recognise, before they fell, still grappling with each other, into a front room and out of sight. By the time the boy reached this entrance, his father lay on the floor, one arm outstretched, his hand inching closer to the fireplace, with the intruder’s arms entwined around his legs trying to stop him. But then, in one swift action, his father gripped a cast-iron poker and thrust the pointed end into the intruder’s right cheek. As the red-hot metal made contact there was a piercing scream, the smell of scorching flesh, and a pitiful but loud cry of a man’s name: ‘MALONE!’
From elsewhere in the house Malone now appeared in the hallway, pushing the boy roughly aside and onto the floor as he rushed past in to the front room. And it was from this position, lying on the hallway floor, that the boy witnessed the images which seared themselves into his memory, scarring him as permanently as the poker on the stranger’s flesh: the glinted blade … the raised arm … his father’s gesture of capitulation … the brutal kick to the head … and then, the callous, calculated thrust of the knife which … but before the final image could play itself out the boy always let out a primeval
and the nightmare would mercifully end.
As the Royal Mail coach sped along the Great Bath Road the small market town of Calne was left rapidly diminishing in the background. The overnight journey from London had been mostly uneventful and so its scheduled arrival in Bath, in a little over two hours’ time, now seemed certain. Nevertheless, the driver, ever mindful of potential delays on this stretch of road – a herd of cows on their way to milking and a fallen tree the most recent examples – snapped his whip twice and the newly tethered, four-horse team obligingly increased their pace.
Inside the distinctive black and maroon carriage Jack Swann awoke with a start from his nightmare and glanced around the interior. The other passengers – two women and a man – were still dozing, oblivious to his startled awakening. He turned his gaze to the countryside becoming visible in the reddening dawn sky and stared at it pensively as the wretched melancholy that always accompanied the aftermath of his nightmare enveloped him fully. At these times he found a little solace in a poem remembered from childhood – though its title and author long forgotten – which in some way he equated with his own situation. It concerned a ship bound for an undiscovered land, but blown off course onto jagged rocks by a storm, leaving the vessel holed but not wrecked. Forever cursed, as the poet had concluded, to flounder in troubled seas like a maritime Prometheus, never to sail calm waters again. And so it was that Swann felt cursed within this life of bad dreams and the melancholic gloom on waking from them, never to find a peaceful mind. He felt this disposition even more acutely this morning, travelling as he was for the funeral the next day of the woman he had called mother for the past twenty years; ever since she and her husband had adopted him at the age of twelve.
Mrs Gardiner had been a kind, caring woman who bestowed unconditional love on all members of her family and Swann reciprocated with feelings which would have been reserved for his real mother, had she not died in childbirth. Likewise, his sibling affections were easily and naturally imparted to his new ‘sister’, Mary, herself an only child. Regrettably, however, Mr Gardiner had been a different matter. Although as considerate and nurturing in his own way as his wife and daughter, he could never replace Swann’s father – the man who raised Swann single-handedly to the threshold of manhood – and so a distance existed between them, neither able to completely benefit from the paternal bond the elder man was willing to offer ‘the son he always wanted’. It was twenty years since Swann’s real father was murdered, while attempting to protect the Gardiners’ property, but not a day went by without his thinking of him.
Through this remembrance of his father, Swann’s mind turned inevitably to his work and a case he had just concluded in his consultancy role for the Bow Street Runners – the law-enforcement organisation created some fifty years earlier by the novelist Henry Fielding and whose name derived from the London street where it was based. The case concerned a victim of blackmail that had resulted from his patronage of brothels and his specific requirements there. The practice of entrapping gentlemen in high office or powerful positions by criminal gangs, in collusion with disreputable brothel keepers, was rife in the capital, as no doubt elsewhere, yet the unsuspecting politician had blissfully walked straight into this well-honed trap. Unsuspecting? Swann considered the word and found it erroneous. When one held duties and responsibilities, professional and personal, as this married minister had, perpetual vigilance and constant awareness became foremost, especially with licentious temptations and extortionist activities being such easy bedfellows in the criminal underworld. Too much injustice already existed and far too many perpetrators roamed the streets unpunished to allow oneself, an upholder of the law, to become the hapless quarry of the criminality prevalent throughout the city. Unsuspecting or not, the minister had become entrapped. Realising, however, that recent ill-advised speculation on the stock market meant he would not be able to pay the blackmailers, and so making a public scandal certain, the minister had risen early on the previous Saturday, hired a hansom cab to Putney Heath and, after dismissing the driver, discharged a bullet through his own temple. After being informed of this news, Swann had spent the remaining weekend calling in favours from several newspaper owners to ensure, for the sake of the dead man’s family, that reports regarding the politician’s demise in that morning’s papers lay the blame squarely on the fluctuating stock market and not on the more insalubrious aspects of the case.
From the beginning to the end of the case Swann had been able to do very little, other than put on a disguise and pursue a couple of tenuous leads to the heart of London’s underworld. Indeed, ordinarily Swann would have politely declined the case, if it had not been for a name linked to one of the brothel keepers. It was a name he knew only too well, as it was the name cried out on that murderous night and which summoned the man who so callously ended the life of Swann’s father: Malone. So, whenever a possible clue to the killer’s whereabouts arose, however slender, a sense of responsibility to his father’s memory dictated Swann follow it. As it transpired, the name turned out to be a false one and the petty criminal using it far too young. But then, it was always like that: a promising lead, an investigation and a disappointment. The obligation he felt to investigate each one, however, would continue until his quest was at an end; through his father’s murderer finally being brought to justice, or else details surrounding his death authenticated.