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Chapter 9 - Gambit Declined by A.J. Hall

The graveyard stank. It stank of rotting flowers and damp, unkempt grass. It stank of piss and excrement. Most of all, though, it stank of decay. The city’s expansion had put grave space at a premium; bodies were barely allowed to lie beneath the chapel floor a decade before they were exhumed, the bones carted to ossuaries, and other corpses interred in their place. Outside the chapel older gravestones, relicts of an era when it had been possible to bespeak a resting place in perpetuity, leaned at crazy angles. Many had cracked under the pressure of who-knew-how-many cycles of sodden autumns, baking summers and the iron frosts of winter.

John, crouched between the bulging chapel wall and one of the taller tombstones, suppressed a stab of pure, irrational terror. He chided himself. If the Devil was abroad tonight, it was only within the desires and devices of men’s own hearts. Strong arms and sharp wits were their defences, not holy water and counter-rituals.

A stir of movement by the graveyard’s iron gate caused him to press further into his hiding place. A veiled figure advanced with short, precisely placed steps, holding delicate satin skirts above the squalid mire underfoot.

She had almost reached the chapel door when it creaked open. A thin band of lamplight spilled out; a man, robed and hooded, stepped out into its glow.  

“So. You came.” His voice was rich, sonorous, with a faint foreign intonation, not that of any of the three kingdoms. 

“What choice did I have?” 

The hairs rose on the back of John’s neck. The veiled woman had a servant-girl’s sloppily enunciated consonants and over-rounded vowels, but those were the flimsiest of affectations. Shining through, like a diamond in a dark place, was a purity of diction that could have no source but one.

What persuasion can Sherlock possibly have used on her? And then: the King will kill us all, if he finds out.

That thought hit him with a heady rush, stronger than brandy or kif. Dizzy, he stood as if on a precipice, with sharp rocks yawning below, ready to claim him if he made one false move. The thrills of play, of the chase, even of the bedroom paled beside the all-encompassing surge of the moment. If he died next minute – well, nonetheless he would have lived.

The hooded man’s tone became almost indecently seductive. “I know your deepest care. Put your trust in me and I will relieve you.”

“But at what cost?” The woman’s voice was a breathy near whisper.

“Be assured, ma’am, my charges are most reasonable.” The honey-laden voice acquired a sharper edge, a bee-sting lurking amid the sweetness. “Can you, indeed, afford not to pay them?  Situated as you are?” 

“I spoke of cost, not charges. One cannot play with edged tools and not risk cutting one’s hands. What will tonight’s doings cost?”  

John’s heart ached. So gallant, so vulnerable. So lonely.

The hooded man laughed aloud. “My dear, from the moment you crossed the threshold of this ground you were committed. You have all to lose and nothing to save by retreating now.”

For a moment John truly felt in the presence of something diabolic. His fingers curled around the dagger at his belt.

The veiled figure paused, then nodded. “Proceed. I am prepared.”

John’s nerves quivered. Where was Sherlock?  Everything about this betrayed a trap, even the location. No-one would arrange an innocent assignation here.  

With a flourish, the hooded man reached into some recess in the walls and withdrew a slender wand, perhaps three feet long. He gestured with its point, describing lines on the ground about his companion’s feet. She stood like a statue, the folds of her cloak draped around her with a grace a sculptor might have spent hours trying to achieve.

The man bent to retrace the lines in chalk.

“Hold it there, conjuror!”

A shout cracked the night, loud as thunder. Suddenly there were men all over the graveyard, their harness jingling, multiple torches blazing pitilessly down. The hooded man dropped his wand, bundled up his robes, and sprinted for the rear wall of the graveyard.

“John. Don’t let him get away!” Sherlock’s voice, startlingly close. He swung his head from side to side, trying to see where the prince was hiding.

“No time, John. Deal with him; I’ll handle things here.”

With that John was away. Over the wall – a long drop onto cobbles in the narrow wynd on the far side – a stumbled landing, lucky not to twist his ankle – a flap of black robe vanishing round the corner ahead –

Feet pounding, heart racing, exulting in his youth and speed, his city unrolling before him, his quarry – bulkier, slower, a stranger, weighed down by age and his own sins – looming ever larger before him, no escape possible –

The fleeing man’s foot hit a patch of rotting vegetables, he grunted, slithered, windmilled his arms in a frantic effort to regain his balance. John launched himself forward, caught him round the hips and brought him crashing down.

The hooded man lay still beneath him, too dazed or spent to offer any resistance. John had never been one to take needless chances. On leaving his father’s house that evening he’d taken certain precautions. He fumbled inside his jerkin for the lunatic restraints.  

Only when the leather cuffs were buckled tight around ankles and wrists, and the stout cord pulled tight, leaving his prisoner like a trussed chicken in the filth of the wynd did he raise his head and bellow out, “I have secured the wizard!  Here!”

The guards were efficient, soldierly men who brushed off all his attempts to explain his presence with a curt, “That’s for the captain’s ears, sir.”  

They shouldered their bundle and strode back to the graveyard, John in their wake.

Around the fringes of the graveyard a crowd had gathered. They packed the wynd, standing on boxes and each other’s shoulders to glimpse what was transpiring within. Those at the back, safe amid the invisibility of numbers, called out ribaldries at the woman who stood, draped in Harry’s aquamarine satin gown, in the full glare of the torches.  

She had been allowed to retain her veil. John could hardly have expressed the gratitude he felt to the captain of the guard for that infinitesimal, priceless grace.

“He caught him, sir,” the largest of the guards said, nodding in John’s direction as they deposited their trussed burden at the captain’s feet. 

“How fortuitous you were able to assist us,” the captain said. John cocked an ear, alert to any hint of sarcasm. Sherlock was, still, nowhere to be seen and the plan – sketchily outlined in the wineshop earlier – had included no details about what happened once they secured Shlessinger. Nor, indeed, did he know whether the intervention of the authorities had been planned or simply predicted.

“Shall we see what you’ve caught?” The captain bent down and, with one move, ripped off the hood. A man – perhaps in his forties, though his ascetic, aquiline features and close cropped hair made his true age hard to gauge – blinked up at them in the torchlight. Despite the situation, the hint of a superior sneer hung about the curve of his finely sculpted lips.

“Dr Shlessinger, is it?”  

Tied as he was, he could hardly shrug. Still, the man contrived a suitably dismissive wriggle of his shoulders. “If I spoke my real name your ears could not encompass it and your puny brains would stretch and crack in terror. But in this age and time they call me Shlessinger, yes.”

Ignoring the awed ripples running through the crowd, the guard captain nodded cheerfully. “Ah, well, we get plenty who don’t care to share their birth names with us. It’s all one, so that we have the name they go by in the city. And that would be Shlessinger. Very good. So, what brings you to this churchyard?”

The doctor looked sideways at the impassive veiled figure, then away.

“I came here at the behest of a lady. It is hardly for me to betray her confidence.”

The captain stooped down and picked up the wand. “And your explanation for this?”

Shlessinger managed almost to sound bored. “I find it assists in concentrating the mind when casting a horoscope. You are not, I take it, an enemy of the science?  I think you would find few to stand beside you if you were.”

“So you and this lady came here to cast a horoscope?” The captain’s eye swept the decaying graveyard, and his expression spoke volumes. 

“I cannot betray a patient’s confidence,” Shlessinger said. “However, a physician would be trebly a fool, whatever the consultation, not to commence by consulting the stars.”

“I see.” The captain had his booted foot resting on a flat-topped tomb, a seemingly negligent pose which nonetheless conveyed an air of subtle energy. His troop were carefully deployed about the graveyard’s perimeter, leaving the crowd in no doubt that any attempt to press closer would lead to summary retribution. That being understood, the captain seemed more than happy to continue to provide a free show for the neighbourhood. 

John’s nerves prickled. He had no regard for Shlessinger – the man could hang for all he cared, and the world would be a cleaner place for it – but if this went on much longer it became close to inevitable that the woman’s veil would slip. After that – he shuddered. How to tell the captain he was playing with fire?  And, more to the point, where the hell was Sherlock?

Another guard forced his way through the crowd around the gate and trotted up to the captain, extending a piece of paper. From the distance and the erratic flickering of the torches John could make little of it – some sort of handbill, garnished with crude woodcuts. 

The captain waved it under Shlessinger’s nose. “This one of yours?”

For the first time Shlessinger’s air of contemptuous ease faltered. 

“I have no need of such stuff. Those who wish to avail themselves of my services can always find me.” He paused. “Though from time to time those I have helped choose to laud me in this fashion.” Again, that delicate wriggle of the shoulders. “I can hardly prevent it, though I do not encourage it. But you will understand I cannot control what they choose to say. “

Nicely handled, even though the captain plainly believed as little of it as John did. He snorted audibly. “This – unsolicited testimonial – refers to your ‘lifting the curse of Elizabeth and Sarah’. That would mean curing barrenness, would it not?”

“Your Biblical knowledge is to be commended. Nonetheless, my point remains. I cannot discuss individual cases.”

“But, in this case, I can.” The pure, fluting voice was unmistakable. Both the captain and – to the extent he could, given his restraints – Shlessinger craned their heads towards the veiled figure. The crowd, sensing a change in the wind, fell almost silent. She reached inside her bosom, produced a small sheaf of papers and extended them to the captain.

“These are the notes exchanged between me and Dr Shlessinger arranging this rendezvous. I think you’ll find what you need in them.”

“You fool!  I told you to burn – “

Shlessinger broke off, abruptly. The captain nodded. “Thank you, ma’am.” He scanned the notes, lips pursed. “I see. Barrenness, indeed.”

“Which the good doctor hastened to assure me – given a suitable alignment of the planets and constellations – Sol featured extensively, as did Draconis – he had every expectation of resolving.”  

Something about the timbre of the veiled woman’s voice gave John a heart-beat of warning – no more, certainly. Then the veil dropped. Sherlock smiled out on the assembled crowd.  

“Of course,” he added, “I suspect Dr Shlessinger – whatever his talents – might have found this particular problem in barrenness rather beyond him. Sol and Draconis notwithstanding.”

He had pitched his voice to carry – full, deep and very definitely a man’s. A shocked gasp from the crowd modulated into outbreaks of nervous giggles and then, like sparks amid the stubble driven by a warm, rising harvest wind, gales and waves of laughter. Had there ever been any demons in the graveyard, they would surely have fled before that barrage of pure, human hilarity. 

Shlessinger curled round in a heap on the stinking grass, his arm shrugged up to conceal his face. John thought he seemed somehow smaller, deflated.

“Well,” the captain said, the hints of a broad grin still about his mouth, “for a man who promotes himself as famous magician, it’s bad practice not to divine that one coming.”

Sherlock’s grin matched his. “Perhaps you might suggest an amendment to the handbills?”

“Oh, I think we won’t be seeing any more of those. Not after Shlessinger’s spent a day in the stocks and left town with his tail between his legs.”

John gaped. “The stocks?  I thought – I  mean, necromancy isn’t exactly small beer.”

The captain’s grin widened. “Ah, yes, but that’s the Archbishop’s business. Us, we’re the city authorities. Adulterated beer, verdigris in the wine, plaster in the flour. Charlatans skinning money off desperate women. This one – ” he nudged Shlessinger in the ribs with his boot-toe, none too gently. “He’s our department. Leave him to us. Don’t want him to get the reputation of being a real wizard.”  
He raised his hand in a salute to Sherlock. “Our respects to the lady who put you onto his practices, sir. Not many at Court would have such a mind to their waiting gentlewoman, or to her married sister, neither. Whoever she is, sir, she’s a good one. Tell her that from the lads.”