[size=+2]CHAPTER ONE – IN WHICH WE MEET THE AGENTS OF “THE CHEESE SHOP”[/size]
[size=+2]THE AIRSHIP 'HUSSARS', ABOVE THE ATLANTIC OCEAN[/size]
AGENT RICHARD HOBBES!, hero of the British Empire and agent of the British Secret Service, RACES! down the corridor of the airship, pistol in one hand and briefcase in the other. Behind him, the footsteps of FOES UNKNOWN! follow him. He fires his weapon over his shoulder twice, before rounding the corner and wrenching open the door, the cold air of the sky hitting him and making him stagger slightly before he can launch himself out and onto the deck.
Behind him, Hobbes' assailants shout to each other, BOUNDING! out the door just after him in pursuit. He doesn't stop running, knowing his life depends upon reaching the life-ships and escaping this ship before his enemies can catch him. He hears a booming CRACK! behind him and a bullet whizzes past his shoulder, forcing him to dive into a load of crates for cover.
Rising up and levelling the pistol at the men following him, Agent Hobbes OPENS FIRE! Two of his pursuers, all dressed in immaculate suits and with bowler hats hiding their features, are hit an topple to the floor, but there are at least half a dozen more. Cursing, Hobbes throws the now empty pistol at the men and looks around for some form of escape.
His eyes immediately fall upon the cargo hatch, already beginning to close. Leaping up onto the barrels and using the momentum to launch himself into the air, Hobbes HURTLES! down into the depths of the cargo hold. He attempts to break his fall by rolling upon impact, but lands badly, his ankle twisting to an awkward angle and shattering. Crying out in pain, Hobbes attempts to begin limping away towards some form of cover behind the many crates in the dark, gloomy hold, but TOO LATE! Behind him, another man lands in the hold, and Hobbes whirls around to face him.
He stands there, calm as can be, dressed in crimson robes and with a Chinese moustache upon his face. Behind him, the bowler hat-wearing assailants all begin to land around their leader, waiting behind him as he strides forwards towards Hobbes. “Emperor Fu Manchu, I presume?” Hobbes asks defiantly, which raises a smile from the approaching man. “You pwezume cowwectly, Agent Hobbes,” the Emperor intones, his accent heavy and his voice cold, confident, “Now if you would be so kind as to hand over the information I wequire, I may consider wetting you wive.”
“I must decline, sir.”
“...very well.” He turns to his men and barks an order in Chinese before turning back to smile at Hobbes as the enemy agents move forwards. “No need to make it quick, now. Wet him... suffer.”
* * * *
“...dead, Q.” “WELL HOW THE BLOODY HELL DID THAT HAPPEN, THEN?!!”
“We're still unsure, Q. As far as we can tell the Chinese had a hand in it, though.” “BLASTED CHINAMEN AND THEIR MEDDLING! YOU KNOW WHAT THIS MEANS, DON'T YOU?!”
“...that once again, all our agents are listed as missing in action or deceased?” “YES! YES IT BLOODY DOES! INCOMPETENT FOOLS, NOT SURVIVING LONG ENOUGH TO AT LEAST BECOME MILDLY PREPARED FOR THE SITUATIONS WE THROW THEM IN! DO WE HAVE A LIST OF POSSIBLE RECRUITS?!”
“It's sitting on your desk as we speak, Q.” “EXCELLENT! THEY'LL DO!”
“...You... haven't even looked at their files, Q.” “DID I NOT JUST SAY THEY'LL DO, SMITHERS?! NOW SEND OUT THE SUMMONS, GET THEM ALL TO LONDON! I NEED NEW AGENTS AS SOON AS POSSIBLE IF WE'RE TO RECOVER FROM THIS CHINESE ATTACK!”
Governor St John’s Mansion, Bombay City; 3 Days Ago
The party was in full swing; hundreds of lords and ladies gathered in the grand hall around the enormous clock. Servants scurried amongst them, passing out delicate flutes filled with bubbling champagne. Raleigh was among them, stealthily weaving through the crowd, nodding and laughing to the guests, but never stopping to make merry. She had to get to the foyer before-
"There's my lovely daughter! And not a moment too soon, come, the Earl of Kent has come all this way just to meet-you have your handbag," the last words fell flat.
"Terribly sorry, father, but I have a dirigible to catch," Raleigh kissed her father on the cheek, then made to beat a hasty retreat, but was trapped between two other gentlemen.
"A dirigible?!" Governor St John sputtered, his face becoming redder by the second. "No, no, no, this will not do! You've only just arrived a week ago, and just where exactly do you intend to take a dirigible at this hour?"
Raleigh's window of opportunity was slowly falling shut, if she didn't escape right now, she would be arguing with him all night.
"To London, father, back to the Queen's Land."
And suddenly the chorus of hundreds of voices erupted.
"ALL HAIL THE QUEEN!"
Two hundred arms raised two hundred champagne glasses up towards the crystal chandelier in toast to the Queen's health. Raleigh lowered her invisible glass sooner than the rest and easily slipped through the open space left between the two gentlemen who blocked her path. Raleigh's cheshire grin stayed on her face until she reached the entrance to the foyer.
Raleigh obeyed, for the moment, and allowed the Governor St John to catch his breath, using the spare moment to concoct a good story. All she could come up with was the death of a close friend, but her only close friend was Tilly, and she had already died of the croup several times. Her father was bound to notice, this time. A change in tactics was in order.
“I was offered a job, to do work in a 'cheese shop' something or other-”
“You were offered a job in “The Cheese Shop”?!” He blustered. “I’m no old fool, Raleigh, I know what manner of work they do in “The Cheese Shop” and no daughter of mine-”
“Father, please, do you really think that they would make me an agent? I was offered a perfectly dull desk job translating documents,” Raleigh lied, “I’ll probably be assigned to work under a rich, old Duke who finds me quite charming.”
This made him give pause, if his only daughter could stay out of danger and possibly meet a suitable husband, then maybe he should. . .
St John shook his head violently, sending his monocle flying across the room. Luckily, a dutiful servant arrived with a spare within seconds.
“Absolutely not, Raleigh, you’re getting far too old to be playing these games.” Governor St. John stopped dead when a withering glare from Raleigh made his blood run cold and immediately regretted his choice of words.
“I’m old am I?” Raleigh’s voice had become deathly calm, and Governor St John could swear his crystal chamgagne flute had frost on it.
“Well, father, since I am so old, I will take advantage of certain privilages and eccentricities permitted to my station and do as I please,” and with that, Raleigh turned on her heel and made way for the front door, her skirts swaying with her purposefully brisk steps. She stopped suddenly, just as a servant opened the front door for her, and turned to her father, smiling pleasantly.
“No need to be so dramatic, father, I’ll put in a request for a holiday as soon as I get to London-I’ll be home in time for Christmas.”
“It’s New Year’s Eve, Raleigh!”
“Oh, and a Happy New Year!” The door closed behind Raleigh, leaving Governor St John alone in the cavernous foyer.
A servant helped Raleigh into the private car and shut the door once she was comfortably nestled inside. Suddenly, the automobile roared to life, sending great billows of steam from its multiple tailpipes. As the governor's mansion became smaller and smaller behind her, Raleigh opened the passenger window in order to have one last feel of the night air. From somewhere in the distance, she could hear a grand clock striking midnight.
Settler St., London; Present
"One would think a 'cheese shop' in London wouldn't be so difficult to find," the lady pulled her ermine stole closer around her neck to ward off the cold, and checked her directions again.
"I understand the need for secrecy, but must they make it so secret that its own agents can't locate it?" What Raleigh did not want to admit was this: that out of all of the cities in the world she had visited, London was the most difficult for her to navigate. There was something about it that simply did not make sense to her, and had not since she was a girl.
Determined to find her way, and not look completely lost while doing it, Raleigh tucked her directions into her handbag, adjusted her hat for luck and set off down the street for the third time.
Somewhere, in a house/doctor's office, on the Queen's (ALL HAIL THE QUEEN) Land...
Julianne--no, DOCTOR Julianne--was getting ready to set out to "The Cheese Shop". On this same day, she had an appointment, but it was an emergency. Some time could most definitely be spared in order to help boost a good person's immunity! She was down in her laboratory, dusting off her many tools and glass objects so all would be spotless when she left. Her research would have to be put on hold until further notice.
While she was writing down some notes to leave for herself, a bell could be heard clanking against her door upstairs. She gasped lightly to herself and scribbled the rest of the words down, her bottom lip curling outward when she saw just how sloppy the last half of her note was.
"No, no, no! This will not do!" she said to the pen in her hand, tossing it onto the floor. "I'm replacing you!"
Being a doctor, her handwriting was already fairly hard to read. Now, some of her notes weren't legible at all. She stuck it onto one of her projects anyway with hopes that when she returned, she could decipher it.
Rushing up the stairs, she stopped in front of a woman with her eight year old son who were standing in just a few feet in front of the door they entered. The boy had his left arm hanging in a cast that Julie so smartly put together for him. "Misses Wakefield and Evan! It's good to see you."
She smiled warmly at the two of them, getting smiles in return, though the woman shuffled a bit awkwardly. As for Evan, he adored Julie. He admired her personality and thought she was the least scary doctor in the country, which was why he refused to see any other.
"I'll have a look at...that," Doctor Julie said, making a crooked frown and furrowing her brows as she pointed to the broken arm. Evan giggled childishly at her expression, but his mother seemed unamused. She inspected the injury closely, prodding at it to see how he reacted and doing other things doctors did; listened to his heart, checked his breathing, looked into his ears...
"Evan's healing quite nicely, does he need anymore pain medication?" she asked, straightening herself. "How about your husband? He still coughing up every colour of the rainbow!?"
"Erm... Yes, he is. We have enough medicine for little Evan here, but I could use s-"
"Ah!" Doctor Carter held a finger up to the woman's face, signaling her to be quiet. "I'm on it!"
In a flash, she ran to a room that was filled with pills and syrups. She grabbed a bottle of capsules that would help Mister Wakefield with his illness and rushed back to the little family, handing it to the woman.
"One in the morning, one at night. He should be all better later in the week!" she promised, a really large grin of teeth plastering on her face. Misses Wakefield nodded nervously and pulled some cash from her handbag, giving it to the Doctor quickly so they could leave.
"One more thing..." She reached over to a coffee table with a dish of candy sitting in the center. "Lollipop for the good lad." Evan accepted the candy with joy, hugging her legs with his good arm while telling her how much he'd miss her while she was out 'on vacation'.
"You all take care now!" she called after them, then went back to finish cleaning up a few more things. A case was then picked up, which contained many objects. It looked small, but seemed to have unlimited amounts of space! This was perfect for her doctor's kit, as well as some other essential items she would need.
When all was set, she stepped out of her house/doctor's office, turned the sign that would say The Doctor is Out, then locked the door before setting out for "The Cheese Shop."
"The card was delivered by one of the Queen's officers."
Everyone in the opium den staggered to their feet and raised their drinks/pipes/mutton chops/Asian whores and yelled "GOD SAVE THE QUEEN!" before falling over again.
"GODSAHVAHBAH!" murmured Maximilian Vonheldus, as quickly as possible, before looking back at the invitation. He was sat at the corner table, the card in one hand and a woman's head in the other as it bobbed between his legs. His associate, Gleaves, waited patiently in the opposite chair.
"We are cordially invited?"
Gleaves nodded, "Cordially, Sir."
"Cordial means happy. Why would the Cheese Shop be happy to see us?"
Gleaves raised his fingers and did airquotes. " "Cheese Shop" "
"The secret service is anything but warm and friendly. Why are they pretending to be warm and friendly?"
"Maybe it's just a turn of phrase, Sir. Y'know, good Queen's English."
Everyone in the opium bar staggered to their feet again. "GOD SAVE THE QUEEN!"
"GORABAH!" mumbled Max, waving his hand at the other smokers, who promptly fell back on their couches. He then grabbed the woman's head and pushed it back between his legs. "God, that's frustrating. Anyway, I don't care if it's good Queen's English..."
"GOD SAVE THE QUEEN!"
"GORABAH! The point is, Gleaves, they've used the word cordial in an official document, and that makes me suspicious. The Cheese Shop are not ones to mince words."
The prostitute raised her hands and did airquotes while continuing to suck him off. " "Cheese Shop" "
Max sighed, then did airquotes. "So why are the "Cheese Shop" inviting me to visit them in a..." He did airquotes again, " "cordial" manner?"
"I don't know, Sir. But you are one of the Queen's subjects, so you have to..."
"GOD SAVE THE QUEEN!" More people got up and fell over in the background.
"GORABAHVAH! I've only been the Queen's subject for five years."
"GOD SAVE THE QUEEN!"
"GOOR AVE UGH EEEN!" echoed the prostitute with her mouth full.
Max repositioned her head then did airquotes, "The only other thing "The Cheese Shop" could have meant is..." He did airquotes again, " "cordial" as in pertaining to matters of the heart."
Gleaves did airquotes, "Well that's good, Sir. Maybe that means "The Cheese Shop" need you to protect the heart of their operations - maybe the Queen herself."
"GOD SAVE THE QUEEN!"
"Ow!" Max yelled as the prostitute tried to pronounce the "D". He jerked in the seat, pulled the whore away, and zipped up his fly. "We're supposed to be planning the Paris Job, Gleaves. I don't have time to protect the Queen..."
"GOD SAVE THE QUEEN!"
"...or do the dirty work of some Cheese Shop."
Everyone in the opium bar leant towards Max and did airquotes. " "CHEEEEEEESE SHOP!" "
Max glared at them.
Gleaves did airquotes, "Well Sir, I don't think we want to upset "The Cheese Shop". They could make things very difficult for us. They could be very..." he did airquotes again, " "uncordial" if they wanted to be."
"Oh please! The Queen's men know nothing about my operations..."
"GOD SAVE THE QUEEN!"
"And even if they did, the Cheese Shop couldn't catch me."
Everyone in the opium den did airquotes. " "CHEEEEEESE SHOP!" "
"I'm faster and smarter than the Queen herself."
"GOD SAVE THE QUEEN!"
"So as far as I'm concerned, Gleaves. The Cheese Shop can..."
Everyone did airquotes. " "CHEEEEESE SHOP!" "
"... shove this Invitation up the Queen's arse..."
"GOD SAVE THE QUEEN!"
"...and "cordially" fuck themselves."
Everyone did airquotes. " "CORDIALLY!" "
"But Sir, the Cheese Shop knows what you did in America..."
Everyone did airquotes. " "CHEESE SHOP!" "
"And the Queen could order your arrest at any time."
"GOD SAVE THE QUEEN!"
"Ok fine," Max scowled and did airquotes. "I'll go to the stupid "Cheese Shop". He did airquotes again, "And be "cordial". But I'm telling you, Gleaves, I'm not keen on this idea at all."
"GOD SAVE THE..."
"Keen!" Max snapped at the other smokers.
Gleaves smiled. "You're doing the right thing, Sir. Just one little visit then we'll be back to business as usual. I'll tell the boys you've taken a holiday. We'll get the Paris Job prepared then wait for your orders."
"Fine. Just don't do anything stupid while I'm away." Max got up from his chair, pulling on his leather coat and downing his drink. "I'll contact you once I'm done serving Queen and Country."
Everyone did airquotes and whispered, " "God save the Queen." " Max frowned at them and they realised their mistake. Amidst the confusion and mutterings of treason, the Earl of Lincoln made his departure whilst rubbing the teeth-marks on his crotch.
Zakharov gathered his papers as the clock struck noon, marched down to the lecture hall, and sat down in a ancient oaken desk in front of dozens of chairs.
It was the first day of classes, and he had to be punctual.
The door opened, and a single student came in.
John glanced up from his papers, fixing the academic in an icy glare.
"What." His voice was cold as the artic wind, blasting across a frozen plain and forcing dozens of explorers to their untimely deaths.
"Well, sir...I couldn't find the textbooks"
"Do you think this class is a joke?!" John stood up, slamming his palms down on the desk. "Do you think that just because Deconstructivechronoptrics has a long name it's a unimportant course?! Do you find this funny, punk!"
"Well, no sir, I just couldn't find the books anywhere-"
"WELL FIND THEM!" Zakharov sat down at his desk again. "Next class is a week from now. Have them by then if you want to even think of stepping foot in this classroom. Now get out of my sight."
John idly twirled a pen in hand as he watched the student leave. He was pretty sure that he'd grabbed up all the copies of his textbooks in the area weeks beforehand, but he'd have to check the more distant bookstores just in case...
A card that had been in his mail caught his eye. Invitations weren't a common thing for him, especially not for something so simple as a cheese shop.
Might be worth a shot, though. Who knows? Maybe they had really good cheese or something.
Yes...he'd go investigate this "Cheese Shop". Though, he wasn't sure how much explosive was considered polite when invited to a party. He'd have to check the etiquette book the Provost gave him for that.
Raleigh sighed daintly into her teacup, before sipping, the contents so hot she could hardly taste it. It did little to warm her chilled body-the lady never did handle the cold very well.
After hours of searching, Raleigh discovered that there simply was no 23 Settler St., never had been. Refusing to let this little detail stop her, Raleigh then visited every single cheese shop on Settler Street . . . And there were a surprising number of them. With no real idea as to what she was doing, the only thing Raleigh was able to accomplish was to humiliate herself; which did little to boost her immunity against the cold.
Raleigh spared a glance out the frosted window of the inn, darkness was creeping in, the lamps had already been lit, and a fresh snow was beginning to fall.
Not too keen on the thought of freezing to death in the streets-far too undignified for a lady such as herself; Raleigh considered ordering supper and retiring for the night in one of the inn’s undoubtedly warm rooms, when something outside caught her eye.
A flash of red-a scarf drawn tight around a man’s face, as he walked down the empty, snowy street. His blond hair was unkempt and his clothes were strange (an American?) but what puzzled her the most was that she seemed to be the only one to take notice of him. Spotting a strangely dressed rogue in the streets should not have been enough to cause her to jump from her table and practically sprint outside to follow him, but her Woman’s Intuition spurred her to do it. Raleigh had always been particularly proud of her Woman’s Intuition.
The man turned down a side street, and Raleigh rushed to catch up with him, only to find the place and empty and dark when she reached it. Unwilling to give up, and regain some of her lost pride, Raleigh steeled herself against fear, and followed.
Open doorways spilled light and the sounds of racuous music and brawls into the narrow street. Occasionally, someone would address her.
“‘Ello luv, fancy a go?”
Raleigh held her head high and pretended not to hear their guffaws as she passed.
A grimy hand reached out, grabbing hold of her skirts, “Pardon us ma’am, we di’n’t know ye’ was propah like,” the hand caressed the fabric brutally, and Raleigh realised her mistake.
Bleeding gypsys and their bleeding curses.
“Us gents just wanted ta’ treat the lady ta’ a lil’ tup ah’ gin-”
From the corner of her eye, Raleigh saw something sharp and silver flash in the dim light. In an instant, Raleigh turned swiftly on her heel, and slapped her handbag across the man’s face. His hold on her skirts released, and there was the sound of several of his teeth clattering to the cobblestones, followed by a bodily thump.
Raleigh had not stayed to admire the work the brick in her handbag had made. Frosted air poured from her mouth in puffs as she ran back the way she came, knowing that she was being pursued.
Electricity arced from two large poles with spheres topping them off. The poles were connected to a series of cables and wires and tubes, all of which were connected to a giant machine with a large spinny-thing on the inside, which was connected by yet another series of wires to a smaller console with three input controls: a large lever that activated the machine (because all large machines that conjured electricity was deserving of large levers), a massive dial that only turned right to increase power output (because why would you ever want to lower output?!), and a tiny red button in the upper right corner: an emergency 'OFF' button. Because sometimes, fires happened.
"... NOW WHAT CAN WE DO WITH IT?!"
Two youngsters in long white coats cowered in the far corner of the room, black goggles strapped over their horrified visages. Hair was sticking up on both of their heads, and pads for notes and pens with deep ink wells had been discarded and forgotten on the floor when their terror had risen. Standing afore them was a tall man, skinny and weighing no more than an average sized man. He wore a metallic helmet with black lenses, and underneath it all could be heard the cackling of maniacal laughter.
Or was it victorious laughter?
The electrical arcs continued to cast off along both massive sphere-tipped poles, paper and other loose debris kicking up all around. Alaister Nemo, Lord-Commander of the Queen's (God Save the Queen!) Navy, Lord of Strange and Earl of Derby, clapped his black, rubber-gloved hands excitedly before whooping his arms above his head. In a swift movement, he flipped the over-sized lever and the machine began to slowly shut down, the spinny-thing whining down to a stop. The towering assistants leaped from their feet then, grappling their clipboards before making it look like they had been attentive and nonplussed the entire time.
"Very good, sir."
"Indeed, sir, very good."
"A brilliant use of technological marvel."
"Yes, sir, brilliant."
"The Queen will be over-joyed by your advances!"
"God Save the Queen, sir."
"YES," Alaister said, voice booming and responded to all of their chatter. He clapped his hands again and flung his rubber-gloves off in a single swift movement, throwing his arms out to either side. He lifted his helmet, the 'Face of Lord Strange' as it had become known, and began to peel away at the large rubber suit he wore. It is worth noting that, Alaister had taken all sorts of safety precautions when it came to turning on his newly-christened machine.
He had not afforded his assistants any kind of protection.
Standing half-nude in the dark lab-shop, Alaister began to scribble away at his own journal. He would look up every few moments, bright blue eyes sparkling in half-madness as he went over another thought before jotting it down. He made a face finally before shoving the pen between his teeth, ink suddenly spilling down the side of his mouth as he ran a hand through his sweat-matted dark brown hair. It was a tad unkempt, on the longer side, flowing down past his ears near the nape of his neck. He had a lean face and strong jaw, covered in the stubble of a man who did not keep to appearances. His eyes were deep set, with dark rings indicating he slept little.
He opened his mouth to say something, pen falling to the floor before a door opened at the back of the room, at the top of a long narrow stair, casting down a bright beam of light into darkness.
"Lord Strange, sir, a letter has arrived."
"A LETTER?!" Alaister darted across the stone floor of his basement lab-shop and met the butler at the top of the stairs. His man-servant had long ago learned that it spelled certain doom to himself to come down into his lab without express permission. Actually, it was probably better not to go down even with that permission.
"Th-there's nothing here!" Alaister complained as he flung the carefully folded paper open. It was blank, completely blank, saved for his address written on the back of the paper in a careful, vaguely feminine hand.
"Ahem, sir," the butler said, offering up a gloved hand. In his grasp was a small card. "You... dropped it."
"So I did!" Alaister snatched the card away rudely and turned his back on his man-servant, holding the card up to catch the light that was coming in from behind. "Oh, it's an invitation. "The Cheese Shop"?" He asked, unable to stop himself from making quotation fingers with one of his hands. "What the bloody--well, I like cheese, at any rate. Prepare me a suit!"
A carriage of the most peculiar kind darted down the cobble-stone streets of London. In the back was two hydraulic pumps over a boiler, constantly pumping and spewing out steam and casting a water-trail down the street. At the front of the carriage was a single man with wild, scared eyes, holding a long steering stick attached to the too-small front wheels, steering the black-and-steel contraption. In the back was the Lord Strange himself, Alaister Nemo, clad in his most finest raiment.
Whilst wearing his peculiar, metallic helmet with those strange goggles.
"You know, sir," the driver said in a loud voice, attempting to speak over the steam wooshes and whistles of the pumping boiler in the rear. "You didn't have to leave RIGHT AWAY." "Nonsense!" Bellowed Alaister, his voice booming over the engine. "I was invited to "The Cheese Shop"," he said, making peculiar quotations in the air with his gloved hands, resting his cane in between his knees. "I shall get there in all due haste! Hear-hear, this be Settler Street, stop here! I want to walk about London on this fine--er, day!"
The weather was typical London weather. Not so fine, but to a native Londoner, fine weather was a day without heavy fog, disgusting rains, and wailing children. Well, two out of three wasn't bad, either.
"Gentlemen, you will fire six rounds a minute, and you will do so accurately, that is unless you want the frogs to sack the Queens lands" Nathaniel Harper, Major in her majesty's army called out, and with a return cry of "GOD SAVE THE QUEEN!" the rifle regiment loaded and primed their rifles drawing back the hammers on clockwork mechanisms and the two ranks of men fired independently, but near simultaneously, working furiously to load another two rounds of shot and powder into their rifles before bringing them up to their shoulder, firing once, drawing back the hammers, twice, before repeating the reloading and firing process.
they had been at it for near three hours now, and had gone from firing four rounds a minute to near eight, not that Harper had let on about that fact, knowing that the swifter their reload the greater their firepower and the greater their firepower the more likely they were to survive combat.
as the last man fired the final shot, Harper stopped the timer and looked to the weary and bedraggled men
"Well done Gentlemen" he began, but it was at that moment that an Officer rode up to the unit, calling out to the Major
"Major Harper Sir, word from London, you are to make all due haste to the 'Cheese Shop'" the Officer, a Lieutenant said as he drew up to the major making a queer gesture with both of his hands as he did so, before handing Harper a sealed envelope
"Right. Thank you Lieutenant. Sergeant Perkins! see that the men get a pint of beer for their efforts here, and get them squared away until i return" he said, Sergeant Major Jacob Perkins, Harpers closest Friend and most trusted ally, nodded, turning on his hell, bellowing orders at the men that Harper barely heard as he headed towards London.....And the Secret Service, though what the lying dastardly and dishonest men of that arm of Her Majesty's armed forces would want with Harper the Major had no idea.
Raleigh was caught before she could reach the haven of the street lamps. Yanked backwards by her dress, she was pulled down in the alley shadows by the two men. The larger of them had a docker's build with hunched shoulders, prominent prow and chubby hands that seized the woman's ankles. His younger, more wiry associate, more wiry put a knife to Raleigh's throat and fumbled for her buttons.
"Nah jus' you relax, Miss, and we'll 'ave ye done in no time." His breath, heavy with the stench of gin and cabbage, was quickening with arousal.
The noise was dull and rather loud, bringing both men to silence. The big one frowned, carefully let go of Raleigh's legs, straightened up, then felt the top of his head.
There was a pause.
A plank of wood appeared over the top of the man's head and slammed into his skull a second time. The thug finally understood what was happening, and as his head got thumped a second time he keeled to one side and landed unconscious. And with his shadow no longer blocking the light from the main street, Raleigh's saviour was revealed.
"I'd like to plank you for coming toni..."
Before Max Vonheldus could finish his witty introduction, the smaller thug released a sharp cry and lunged at him with the knife. Max dropped the wood and darted backwards, dodging left and right. His fists came up into a pugellist's stance and he jabbed the villain once in the eye, once in the ribs, then grabbed him as he crumpled.
Raleigh was left flat on her back, watching as the two men grappled. The knife went flying into the air, then Max took a punch and whirled around in a daze, recovering just in time to catch the knife and swing back at the thug. But the thin man ducked and tackled Max against the wall. Max put the elbow in then delivered another flurry of blows, driving the man back and using his colleague's prone form as a vaulting point. His knee connected with the thug's jaw and splayed him against the opposite wall, where Max got his hands around the man's throat.
They struggled, grunted, spat, hissed, snarled....
Max suddenly let the man go and stood back. "Well I never. How the devil are you?"
Raleigh lay on the floor, blinking.
"Ah, not too bad, Sir." Ricky sniffed and gave a shrug. "Can't complain I s'ppose."
"I didn't recognise you." Max looked down at the unconscious thug. "Who's this?"
"Oh, that's Leacher - e's new. Joined us from the docks. Got the sack on accounts of 'is rage."
"He's a bit rapey too, isn't he?" said Max with a disapproving raise of the eyebrow.
Ricky looked at Raleigh then scratched the back of his neck. "I din't mean no 'arm, Mister Von'eldus. It's just, she smells like me muvver."
"I see. And how is your mother?"
Ricky picked up his knife and sat on his associate's body. "Business is slow, Sir. She ran out 'o razors last week. Been scarin' off the punters evah since."
"Well, that's the economy for you. I thought you boys were over in Southwark"
"Nah, we 'ad to move after the Dulwich Gang got leery. It ain't no place for the skin an' blister, y'see? So we came 'ere to do a bit o' muggin', else we ain't gonna afford the Christmas turkey."
"Oh nonsense, I'll have a pheasant sent over to your mother in the morning."
Ricky grinned childishly, "That's mighty kindsome of ye, Mister Von'eldus." Then he pointed at Raleigh with the knife. "And I'm sorry about the Thomas. I din't realise you wus gonna apple the three-wheel yourself."
Max glanced at Raleigh then back at the thug. "Well, just you keep mum. I'm doing a robin so leave me to the lemon, alright? Play the garden and I'll split the bugs with you later."
Ricky nodded knowingly then folded up his knife and gave his associate a kick. Tugging his forelock, he smiled at Raleigh with his two remaining teeth. "Evenin' Miss. Sorry for the inconvenience."
He helped his associate up and the two of them staggered off into the night, leaving Raleigh alone with the Earl of Lincoln.
Max lowered his red scarf slightly to give a smile, then offered his hand to the prone woman. "Maximilian Vonheldus, at your service. I trust, Madam, that the ruffians did not besmirch your dignity?"
Lord Antilles looked at the card that had been delivered to him only moments ago "Pray Sir, what would this be" Even though he read it he was still confused, he'd never been much of a fan of 'Cheese' and it showed.
"It appears to be an invitation m'lord" the manservant replied
"I expect this shall be most unpleasant, very well I should be heading to the armory, gaston I expect to remain on the premises no longer than thirty minutes. After that I make for this "Cheese shop' God save the Queen'" with that he departed, hearing only Gaston's replay of "God Save the Queen m'lord"
The first thing the Lord of Guns did when he entered his personal armory was admire the weapons he had, dozens of them lined the walls. The plainer ones seemed little more than the Revolvers and Flintlocks they were. Otheres though scarcely seemed anything human, guns created to shoot specialized ammunition that exploded milliseconds after impact, others made to shoot lightning infused rounds or even fires hundreds of rounds within a minute. Lord of Guns he was, but Lord of 'Cheese' that was something he was not.
He selected his weapon, a pair of his specialized "High Explosive" rounds, and a rifle that could burn through nearly anything he left his mansion and mounted his favorite horse, Octavion, and rode out from his estate, weapons kept secure beneath his coat, along with plenty of ammunition.
He felt deep down something wrong with the Cheesey buggers he was about to encounter, and that he'd likely get the sharp end of things in the end, but that was something he'd deal with as it happened. Currently he rode, enjoying the wind in his hair and the sound of the horse's hooves upon the cobblestones as he rode to a less then Gouda fate.
On a cold winter's eve in the city of Paris, in a slum for only the most immoral and wretched of souls, there existed a tavern of a most fray condition. Within and at the very top of a rickety set of stairs, there was a tiny room. Patches of moonlight darted across the floorboards, changing their position as the thin, tattered curtain swayed to and fro in the window breeze. It was an astonishingly vacant dwelling, spare an old bed in the centre of the room, atop of which lay a dreamy youth by the name of Florentz Delacroix. Lifelessly stretched out upon the mattress in nought but a crisp white shirt, Florentz was locked in a stare. He was looking at the ceiling, except that he wasn't. He was just looking. At his right hand rested a page, a letter, from Camille, his once-upon-a-time lover. The words therein read;
O, my dear Flortentz. It's been a while since my last letter, eh? Apologies. I guess that I had given up when you failed to reply for the thirteenth time. But no matter, what's done is done, and you know better than I that the past cannot be stopped... nor changed. Goodness gracious! Pardon me if I act distantly. It's not my intention to seem bitter, really. And don't fret, I shan't keep you too much longer. No doubt my strange mood has already bored you to tears. It's just that I've been feeling sad of late. You took the colour with you when you left. Our already dull hometown is now so faded that it's unbearable. Despite how I might dream, you've made off to the city, gone forever, and I remain here in this place. Alone. So utterly alone. And I arrive at my point. Naively I dismissed the part that fate has played, but now I can see that it meant for this separation to be permanent. At least in this world. You know, I really did have hope. Alas, tis foolishness.
I do wish that I could muster up the courage to wait a while longer, but the pain is too great to be prolonged. I'm sorry. I'm tired. By the time you read this I will be gone. I love you. Try to understand.
"Agent Delacroix!", a booming voice interrupted at the door. Forceful knocking ensued. The door shook awkwardly as though it was about to come free of it's hinges. Mildly vexed by the rude intrusion, Florentz crawled to his bare feet and started for the door. "Sacred bleu, monsieur!", Florentz yelled as he scrambled at the lock and pulled open the door. Before him stood two members of the French secret service. Dark clothing, exponentially unimpressive and middle aged.
"Whaaaaaat iz ze meaning of zis insulting rudeness?"
"You are not wearing any trousers".
"You ARE a pair of trouseeeers".
"Hm...", he mused.
"Explain yourselves", Florentz barked.
"For you, Agent Delacroix", grumbled the French agent while he placed a card into Florentz's open palm.
"What is zis? Anozer suicide, per chance?", Florentz regarded the card and the agents dismissed themselves.
'Le Chausser, 7:30. Don't keep the driver waiting, Florentz', he read into himself. 'Le Chausser? Ah... the restaurant'. It was situated in a locale vastly different from the one in which he currently resided. A place where the rich go to flaunt and waste their coin. To drink up their sorrows and to make advances upon the beautiful people. Quite rightly so, Florentz was rather smitten with that part of town. 'Very well, monsieur boss man'. Florentz gathered up his belongings (small in number as they were), starting for the door and swinging on his floor length fur coat in the process.
Twenty minutes had come and gone since he had raced down the stairs and been driven across half of Paris to attend his employer's conspicuous meeting. The street was cold so Florentz wasted no time in darting inside Le Chausser. A waiter pulled the door ajar for him and Florentz mumbled a line of Shakespeare, causing the fellow to jolt in alarm before showing him to his table. "Merci, little man", Florentz smiled and patted the waiter's head. "Bonjour", he greeted the person sitting on the opposite side of the discreet table. Florentz reached into his pocket and pulled out a cigarette with his lips, motioning at his fellow diner to provide the fire. "Anything in particular you need doing? FLOWER ARRANGING, PERHAPS?"
The train to London was a bit boring. Miles and miles of English countryside, with not a single bear or hideous abomination upon god in sight. It was rather disappointing, really. Dangerous as it was the landscape back home was at least interesting.
And it was one of those old steamers, too. Nobody in the entire country but him seemed to want a Lightning Rail established. A shame, really...he would have much preferred to get this ride over in minutes instead of hours.
John had brought with him a briefcase of tools, his usual cut-and-thrust sword, and slight more than the standard amount of explosives and matches. There was no telling what these people would want from him, so he needed to be prepared.
Besides, any "Cheese Shop" that had quotes around its name deserved extra firepower.
Walking along Settler street, he found a most curious contraption. It was a steam-based horseless carriage, of the sort that some people had been developing. But something about it seemed...off...
Glancing up, there was a timid-looking man on the top. "Sir, is this yours? I ask, because I can't help but feel something's wrong with the design..."
"NOTHING IS WRONG, SIR!" Bellowed a voice from the back of the carriage. It was a deep voice, nigh unto baritone, and had a metallic-echoey-twang to it.
"And I do say that an education is deemed necessary at this time, 'less I announce you an ignorant oaf and demand a duel of sorts to remedy that little insult which I have deemed part of your questioning of MY design!"
The door swung open left-to-right, and out stepped a gangly-tall man in a spectacular wardrobe of black and white. He wore long black trousers, and a waistcoat and frock coat all of matching black and fabrics. He wore a white linen shirt underneath, with a brilliant Robin egg blue cravat underneath the collar. For some odd-reason, he wore black leather riding boots of a military design with a shimmering polish and shine; they were flawless.
There was something even more odd with his wardrobe, than the shoes he had chosen to wear. Upon his head was a conical helmet with a domed top made of burnished metal, with large, round black lenses over where the eyes would be, giving the effect of goggles of a sort. On top of the helmet, in a comical fashion, was a black top hat.
"This is the horseless steam-carriage, as you no doubt can see, of my OWN design as per dictated by the Queen herself, God Save the Queen," he said, flourishing a hand out and stepping back, showcasing his traveling contraption. "In the rear here is the double-boiler, for added stability and strength (and to avoid explosions, of course), and here are the pumping turbinical hydraulic tubulars! The steam itself offers the necessary power to make these begin their pumpitude. When these pump, they begin to fuel and power arms that cannot be seen from this vantage point, but leave you no doubt that they make the wheels turn. Yes, these here." He gestured to the wheels that were clearly unnecessarily large.
"The front here is a simple mechanic; a steering wheel which you can no doubt guess are attached to these front wheels here," he gestured to the clearly too-small wheels. "And of course, there's the break-handle here, adjacent to the steering wheel, which will slow down the horseless steam-carriage. With added metals, it is a FINE fighting vehicle for the Queen's men, all Hail the Queen. Do you disagree?"
Before the passer-byer could comment on all that Alaister had said, he began to flag down an attractive woman with long red hair who had just turned to walk down Settler street. She had the look of an educated person; a lawyer, perhaps? Or maybe a Doctor.
"You there, Miss! Miss, madame!" His metallic voice nearly echoed down this side of the sidewalk. "Miss, I have an inquiry of you! What do you think of my horseless steam-carriage? Flawless, is it not?!"
Julianne ventured by her lonesome to the street written down on her invitation. This was a peculiar, she had to admit, but couldn't shake the feeling that it was important. Anything with quotes was important!
"Perhaps I should call myself "Doctor Carter" from now on!" she said to herself, making air quotes with her case still in hand. One person cast her an odd look, wondering if she might be talking to them. Since she was still merrily making her way to "The Cheese Shop", the passerby didn't bother with her. Julianne was an odd woman with insane tendencies; it was her reputation.
Just as she turned a corner, someone was calling out to her. Her head turned to the direction of a man wearing a helmet, calling out to ask what she thought about an invention. There was another man by him... Though, she didn't analyze him for long. The eccentric fellow that grabbed her attention is who had her eyes. Or eye, rather. The metal over her other socket didn't really count as an eye, however it did help with magnifying in her basement laboratory.
She raced towards this stranger, looking over his 'horseless steam-carriage' with an excited look on her face. "Sir, this is positively brilliant! Built this yourself, did you? Here's a round of applause!"
Julie clapped her hands together, her ruby lips stretching as far as they could to form a smile. It intrigued her that anyone would even ask for her opinion on something that didn't involve something medical! She ended up getting too excited, her clapping coming to an end when she realized how sore her palms got. Both her hands flattened and turned, her nose scrunching with disapproval at the reddened skin.
After a couple seconds, she shrugged and held one of her hands out, plastering another one of her large grins. "Your outfit is spectacular, too! I... I must know your name! As for me, I am Doctor Julianne Carter." She then turned her head, looking to the other stranger surveying this contraption,
Of course John recognized the owner of the carriage; in the realm of science there were no englishmen with quite his fashion sense. He went back to inspecting the carriage, the wheels, the placement of the boilers...
"Nice work with my ultracompact boilers, by the way. Though without some hydraulics or something similar I'm afraid your suits of armor will be too slow to be much use."
John glanced under the carriage, made a face, then stepped back a bit so he could see the whole thing.
"Yeah, there's no way this would work as an armoured transport...there's too much weight on the back end, see? The rear end has all the boilers and water tanks, while the front end has...not much. It wouldn't take all that much effort to flip it over..."
He pointed at the back wheels. "And this whole area...nice job on the differential steering, but you'll need someway to reduce shock before this thing can be declared safe. It's center of gravity is too high for it to go without some sort of shock absorbers, or, again, it will tip over."
John walked over a bit to behind the carriage, glancing up and down the boilers.
"And these things...you're going to have an awful hard time with how much water and heat these vent. Try going for cyclic boilers instead, they're more useful."
John turned back to Nemo. "Just my thoughts so far. If you want, I can give you my advice on the front wheels..though your fashion sense might be a more pressing matter."
The only indicator that Alaister had been listening to John was that the black, shiny lenses of the goggle-like eyes of the helmet he wore, the oft-whispered Face of Strange, stared down on him.
Also, Alaister's body was quivering slightly. Not from the cold. Definitely not from the cold.
Finally, he cocked himself on his heels and approached Doctor Julianne Carter.
"Greetings, my dear woman, and thank you for taking notice of not only my brilliant contraption which serves the Queen so highly, God Save the Queen, but that my sense of fashion and style is indeed keen and quite contemporary!" He took her hand and bowed deeply, flourishing out his top hat in his other hand as he balanced his walking stick underneath his arm.
"Allow me to introduce myself- I am Alaister Nemo," He said as he began to not-so-stealthily impose himself between Julianne and John. As a matter of fact, he took an exaggerated step to do so. "From my visage, you might recognize me as Lord of Strange! But please, no formalities between a beautiful woman such as yourself, and a man of my stature."
He spun on the ball of his foot and took up a position next to Doctor Carter, offering his cocked arm for her to take. "This fellow, I really have no idea whose name is, but he is quite the... Um... He has no idear what he talks of! 'More useful,' indeed!"
Doctor Carter bowed in return, her long hair falling past her shoulders and the hand not holding her case pulling out the fabric of the imaginary dress she was wearing. She knew how to be polite, she just didn't dress the most feminine of ways. Considering the work she did, she had to be more professional and wear clothes that wouldn't be worn with regret. A dress would get very ruined in her work environment.
"Is that so!?" Julie looked to this John fellow, picking up that he must have been critiquing Alaister's invention. They might have been decent amounts of advice, but she really had no clue, and just took this other man's word for it since he did say it served her highness! That was impressive information, yes indeed...
"Indeed!" she agreed, mimicking that single word after Nemo had said it.
She was charmed by the offer of his arm. No one really made these gestures to her, even though she was woman. Without any hesitation, she linked her arm with his, half-tempted to break out in song while they strolled down the street. It then occurred to her that she was on her way to someplace. Someplace important! A genius such as this man might be headed to the same location. After all, he did get dropped off on the same street as her.
"So, you're an inventor? What else have you created? And, what brings a man like you out here on this beautiful day?" she asked curiously, coquettishly twisting some hair around her index finger with the case in hand, since her other hand was occupied with his arm. Despite her interesting eye replacement and her crazy behaviour, she was an attractive woman that took the best care of herself. After all, she was a doctor!
John ignored Nemo entirely, going back to staring at the carriage.
"And you mentioned arms along the bottom...it seems rather extravagant to use those, a turbine with some gears would work just fine....I could probably tip this over with a well-placed brick..."
He turned back towards Nemo as the man introduced himself.
"Yes, I know who you are, as my earlier comment about your work no doubt made clear. It is, however, quite clear that you do not know who I am, and hold to the belief that those you do not know must be your lessers. A rash assumption. You should check it, it may get you in trouble one day..."
He went back to looking at the carriage.
"It's a good concept, but severely lacking in execution..."
One of the perks, Raleigh had to admit, to being a lady in distress was that no one expected her to do much; except lie prone, paralyzed from shock, scream for help, hysterical with fright. It afforded her a few select luxuries; like listening in on the conversation between captor and saviour, and quietly slipping the pins from her hat.
“Slightly ruffled,” she gratefuly took his offered hand, “but certainly not besmirched,” the humor in her voice was a little too hurried, a little too harsh to be genuine. She was shaking, but not from the cold. The neat bun, secured by her hat, had loosened, allowing tendrils of her dark har to fall in her face.
Once steady on her feet, Raleigh tilted her head upward, to take in his half-covered face. He was definitely the man she had followed in to this dismal alley, which was a bit of luck. A strangely dressed gentleman who could move about so comfortably in so low a place.
Perhaps he was some sort of guide, or test.
“Thank you for saving my life,” Raleigh tucked her hair behind her ears. “It was most,” Raleigh seemed to be having trouble choosing her next words, “cordial of you.”
Max's eye twitched at the word 'cordial'. He pulled his scarf around his mouth again as he watched her, then suddenly bent down. "Oh, your bag."
Picking up the brick-laden handbag, he rose too quickly and bumped into her. His other hand slipped inside her jacket then withdrew quickly as his fingertips brushed the hilt of a dagger.
"Crap!...er..." His other eye twitched. "Terribly sorry." He passed the handbag to her.
"Lady Raleigh Victoria St John" she said, doing a little courtsey as she took the bag.
"Not the most sensible of places for Lady Raleigh Victoria St John to be walking.
"Well if you must know, Maximilian Vonheldus, I'm out shopping for "cheese". " She did airquotes.
Max did airquotes. " "Cheese" you say?"
Raleigh did airquotes. "Yes, "Cheese". "
"How fortuitous." Max did airquotes, "For you see, I am also shopping for "Cheese"."
Raleigh did airquotes. "And have you found any good "Cheese", Mr Vonheldus?"
Max did airquotes. " "No" "
They stared at each other. Then they turned as they heard the sound of applause from the main street. Raleigh did airquotes as she listened. "Perhaps there will be "Cheese" on the main street."
Max did airquotes. " "Yes, perhaps you're right." " He continued doing bunny ears with his fingers as he stared at her. There was an aukward silence and then Raleigh cleared her throat and stepped daintily past him, both hands on the strap of her handbag. Max followed, peering at the folds of her dress for other concealed weapons.
"The scoundrel seemed rather enamoured of you, Sir."
Max looked up quickly as she glanced over her shoulder. "Childhood friend."
"Did many of your childhood friends grow up to be rapists?"
"It was a boring childhood."
When they came out onto the main street, it was to see two men in tophats and a red-haired woman standing around a steam-carriage, clearly involved in some stuffy debate. Like Raleigh, they looked entirely out of place on Settler Street. Max placed one hand inside his coat, ready to draw his pistol and put it to Raleigh's back.
If this was a trap, then he would use her as his first hostage.