Scrotum stood looking down King Street towards St James’s Square. The spring wind was chill, and the young leaves on the trees in the square were struggling to look green. The old fashioned street lights gleamed on the rain-swept road and glistening pavements. He pulled his collar up around his neck, tugged at his trilby and shivered. This was no night for an assignation, this was a night to pour the Laird a stiff snifter of Glenfarclas in his suite at Pratt’s and to then retire to the kitchen for a drink with the Georges. A fresh blast of rain blew down over Christies and bounced off the front of the Golden Lion. He retreated to the shelter of a doorway and sighed. His breath swept out of his nostrils and hung in a brief mist before being beaten to the ground by the ice-sharpened rain. The things he did for the cause…
Monckton, meanwhile, was relaxing in front of the fire in his rooms at the club, sketching out some notes for the keynote he expected to deliver in Chicago in a few days. It would be a triumphant return, he was sure, though he thought he had detected some reluctance from his American comrades in arms in the great climate fight to pick up the tab for his first class airfare and extra baggage allowance. Perhaps Scrotum could travel in a trunk in the hold? He would phone British Airways in the morning.
Scrotum looked at his watch. A quarter past eleven. He snorted. Five more minutes, and he would be off. A soft whistle began to echo down the deserted street. The Third Man theme. Scrotum smiled and stepped out onto the pavement, but a hand reached out and grabbed his coat, pulling him back into the doorway. A voice hissed into his ear.
“For God’s sake, man, remember your tradecraft.” It was Mycroft Monckton, the Laird’s twin — the evil twin, he called him — the opposite of his Lordship in every way. Denied the title and family seat in the House Of Lords lavatory by the accident of being born ten minutes after Christopher, Mycroft prided himself of being everything that his brother wasn’t. Subtlety was his greatest attribute, and though he lost very few opportunities to embarrass his sibling, he always did it with great style.
“Bloody hell, you gave me a fright,” Scrotum croaked. “If you’re here, who’s that whistling over there?”
“The mob,” Mycroft replied, pulling Scrotum through the door and into an oak panelled reception. He pushed the door closed. “I had to borrow this place in a hurry. There have been developments. Follow me.”
Mycroft opened a door and stepped into what looked like a broom cupboard. He tapped the back wall. It swung open to reveal a staircase heading towards the basement. “Come on, man, hurry up,” he said, setting a brisk pace down the worn stone steps.
It seemed to Scrotum that were descending into the very depths of the city. The ground rumbled beneath his feet, suggesting they were near a Tube line. The walls began to glisten with rancid damp. Yellowing old posters clung to the walls — it must have been part of a of bomb shelter during the last war. His knees began to ache at the unaccustomed exertion and his breath came in short pants, bringing unbidden memories of childhood.
At last they reached a large room lit by a few yellowing bulbs. Chairs were arranged around a table at the centre. A single old fashioned black telephone, the handset cord worn and knotted, stood at one end.
“Churchill used that phone, y’know,” said Mycroft, seating himself in front of it. “Tea!”, he called out loudly, and a young woman emerged from the gloom carrying two large, chipped white mugs.
“Milk, two sugars”, she said to Scrotum. He nodded, surprised that his personal tastes were so well known. He sipped at the brown liquid. It was hot and tannic.
“What’s going on, Mycroft? I thought we were just meeting to run over arrangements for the Laird’s next trip to Chicago. A bit of rabble-rousing at the Heartland climate conference. Standard stuff, same as the last few years. You want me to tape some of the backroom goings-on…”
“He’s not going to Chicago,” said Mycroft.
Scrotum coughed and spluttered in surprise. “What? Nobody’s told him. Why on earth not?”
“Usual thing. He went a bit too far.”
Scrotum tugged at a pendulous ear lobe. “You mean the Unabomber billboard affair?” Mycroft nodded. “But I thought that was a huge success?” A puzzled look spread from Scrotum’s eyes and found easy purchase on the wrinkles crinkling around his chin.
“From our point of view, yes,” said Mycroft. “Heartland made to look like vulgar idiots, their backers withdrawing left and centre, big coal being forced to step out of the shadows and front up with money. All good stuff.”
Scrotum sipped his tea and recalled the numerous phone calls between Tannochbrae and Chicago a month ago, the long “marketing plan” the Laird had put together for Joe Bast, the helpful artwork he’d drawn up for an advertising campaign. “This’ll make the buggers sit up and pay attention,” he’d said.
To begin with, the Chicago lobbyists hadn’t been too keen on Monckton’s proposals. “Hitler’s passé,” Bast had said. “Doesn’t test well with the focus groups. They seem to think he was a vegetarian and liked cats. Might be different in England.”
The Laird had been non-plussed. His plus fours were around his ankles in surprise, pantalogically speaking.
“I always find that an occasional swastika goes down well with the base,” he said.
“We are aware of your thinking,” Bast replied icily. “But I want the Unabomber and Bin Laden. Hitler and Lulu are out, and that’s final.”
“What about my poster designs?”, Monckton asked plaintively.
“They’ll do,” Bast had replied. “The first one’s up tomorrow.”
“Great,” said Monckton. “Now, about my conference keynote…”
“We’ll get back to you,” said Bast. The line had gone dead, and Monckton’s brow had ruffled with odd thoughts and insecurities. Surely they still loved him?
Scrotum dragged his wandering thoughts back to the present. “So what’s the problem?”, he asked Mycroft. “He was supposed to get Heartland into hot water.”
“Yes, but not to give them third degree burns. Not only will they never trust him again — which means we’ve wasted a lot of time and effort in making him into an unwitting double agent — but some of the more excitable Americans have hired a hit team to ‘take him out’, as I believe the cousins put it.”
“Good God.” Scrotum was shocked. “You mean the guy in the street was a hit man? You said ‘the mob’. You mean mafia?”
“Nothing that mundane,” said Mycroft. “A team of former special forces operatives who normally ride shotgun for Bankroll Barry, the last big Heartland backer. We call them The Mob because they come from Chicago and like to go around in fours.”
Scrotum whistled softly. “So the Laird’s in danger.”
“Yes. They know he’s in London. We think they’ve had a little help from inside the Pentagon, which is why that bloke in the street knew our signal. My best guess is that they were planning to snatch you then force you to lead them to Chris.”
Scrotum turned a whiter shade of pale. The room was spinning harder, and his mind was turning cartwheels across the floor. He steadied himself with a deep draught of tepid tea.
“Do they know he’s in Pratt’s?”
“We’re not sure,” said Mycroft grimly. “We need you to get him out of there, and to a place of safety.”
Scrotum leaned across the table towards Mycroft, and listened to a machine gun list of instructions.
“Got that?”, said Mycroft.
“Roger,” said Scrotum.
The trip back to Pratt’s had left the wrinkled retainer as short of breath as he was short in stature. Mycroft’s young assistant had ushered him through a warren of tunnels and past a multitude of doors. Passages spread out into the gloom like the tentacles of a particularly armful octopus, a decapod of directions, but only one led to the cellar at the Laird’s club. At the foot of the steps, the black-stockinged young lady had thrust a little phone-like object into his hand.
“What’s this?”, he’d asked.
“A one-time routefinder,” she’d explained. “Follow the green arrow on the screen, and it will take you to the rendezvous.”
The Laird was unimpressed by Scrotum’s appearance — the retainer was puffing, sweat dripped off his long lank eyebrows, and there was a wild look in his eye.
“What’s the matter with you, man. You look like you’ve just seen, or possibly shagged, a ghost!” Monckton took a sip of whisky and leaned back in his chair, which creaked alarmingly. “Now, listen to this…”
“Your lordship,” Scrotum raised his voice to an unaccustomed pitch and tried to look severe, “your life is in danger. We must leave the club now.”
“What poppycock!” cried Monckton. “Who would want to bring harm to me?” His brow furrowed, and seagulls gathered behind the plough looking for worms. “Unless…” He paused. “It’s the enviro-fascist left, isn’t it? It’s the UN-sponsored green Nazis who can’t tolerate open debate. They’ve given up on beasts of prey and are about to resort to…” He paused again. “What are they about to resort to, Scrotum?”
“I have no idea, your lordship,” said Scrotum, “but I am assured your life is in danger.” He sidled to the window and pushed the curtain cautiously until he could see down to the street. In a doorway opposite he could see four men in trenchcoats carrying what looked like violin cases. “Look,” he said, waving Monckton towards the window.
Monckton peeped around the edge of the window. “Blimey,” he said. “You think they’re after me?”
“I’d move back from the window if I were you sir,” said Scrotum, pushing the Laird a trifle too firmly, sending him staggering backwards into his chair. As Monckton collapsed into the old leather, the window made a loud cracking noise and a little round hole appeared in the curtain material. A bullet buried itself in the ceiling and dropped a little spurt of plaster onto Monckton’s silvery pate. The Laird began to whimper softly, clutching his arms across his chest and swaying backwards and forwards. “Get me out of here, Scrotum,” he cried. “For pity’s sake..”
“For your father’s sake, sir, I will.”
They’d been in the tunnels for at least a quarter of an hour. Monckton had insisted on putting on his anti-raptor body armour and solar topee, and was beginning to perspire furiously as he struggled to keep up with the old retainer’s new found fleetness of foot.
“Stop here for a moment, will you?”, he said hoarsely. “I need to catch my breath.”
Scrotum looked at the routefinder, then at his watch, and nodded. He pulled a handkerchief from the breast pocket of his tired black suit and mopped the Laird’s brow. It was deathly quiet down here, just an occasional drip of water from the ceiling, and then a strange susuration wandered down the tunnel to the two men’s ears. It sounded as though a group of people were grunting “hear hear” in unison. It meant nothing to Scrotum, but Monckton’s ears pricked up like a terrier’s, and his nose twitched like one of the beagles he’d hunted at Cambridge. He began to walk slowly down the tunnel towards the sound, muttering to himself. Scrotum followed, listening intently. The Laird was chanting softly to himself. “The Lords, My Lords, Lords temporal, Lords templars…”
Scrotum knew he had to move fast. They were obviously under the Houses of Parliament, and Monckton was back in the thrall of that odd place. Ever since they’d told him he was not and could never be a member of the House of Lords, the Laird had wanted nothing else. He was prone to interminable fugues of lust for parliamentary status, aching with desire to sit on the cross benches and guffaw along with all the others, to the free bus pass and privileged use of gold-painted Boris bikes that was their preserve.
Monckton pressed his ear to a grating in the wall. A tear formed in the corner of his eye and his lower lip quivered. Scrotum looked at his watch, shrugged his shoulders and gave the Laird a swift but servile kick to the fork. Monckton yelled in pain, and looked around to chastise his attacker. Scrotum grabbed his arm, and got him moving once more.
“Sorry, sir,” he said softly. “But we have to hurry. The mob may yet be on our tail.”
The grating was heavy. Through the thick bars Scrotum could see trees and lights against a dark sky. He wedged his back against the iron and pushed up as hard as he could. The grating popped up easily, and his head emerged in the middle of a pavement. A couple of passers-by looked at him in astonishment. He touched his forelock and smiled at them, then reached down into the hole to help Monckton climb the last few rungs of the ladder. While Monckton dusted himself off, Scrotum looked around. They were under the London Eye, the gleaming white ferris wheel that whirls tourists around above the Thames. The river was black and choppy, the South Bank walk almost deserted — except for four men carrying violin cases, trotting towards them from the direction of the Festival Hall. Scrotum tugged at the hem of his Lordship’s coat, and pulled him towards the bottom of the great wheel. Where the hell was Mycroft?
Even at this late hour there were a few hardy souls lining up for the Eye. Scrotum and his master brushed past the queue, muttering apologies and trying to look inconspicuous, but their chasers were closing fast. When they reached the ticket office, Mycroft appeared from nowhere and whisked them through the gate and into one of the glass pods. He closed the door.
“We’re safe for now,” he said with a grim smile. “Well, Chris, what have you done to deserve this?”
“Mycroft, thank god you’re here,” Monckton gasped. “It must be the enviro-fascists. I must be getting close to the heart of their conspiracy to impose a one-world socialist government funded by carbon taxes on every living thing.”
“They’re a bit closer to home, I think you’ll find,” said Mycroft. “Those four men…” He waved at the men as they jumped over the ticket barrier, knocked aside the uniformed attendants and sprinted for the next pod. “They’re from Chicago.”
Monckton frowned. “You don’t mean…”
“I do,” said Mycroft. “They’re associates of your friends in the windy city, upset that your marketing plan and poster design has got them into such deep trouble.”
The pod began to rise up above the river, and the lights of the London skyline began to spread out around them. In the pod behind, the four mobsters were opening their violin cases and extracting weapons of considerable sophistication. A blob of laser light started to bob around Monckton’s body. The Laird began to shimmy and shiver in as impressive display of the frug as Scrotum had ever seen.
“Don’t worry, Chris,” said Mycroft. “This glass is bullet proof. You’re quite safe for the time being.”
“What do you mean, for the time being?”, asked Monckton querulously.
“Well, we have to get you out of here,” said Mycroft. “They’ll have a chance to get a few shots off if they’re quick.” Monckton’s face took on a ghostly pallor, and his shaking intensified.
High up on the Clock Tower of the Palace of Westminster a huge golden eagle stretched its wings and preened an out of place feather. Below its razor sharp talons the clock chimed the quarter hour. Aethon was ready for action.
The next twenty minutes passed more slowly than any other period of Monckton’s long and incident-packed life. The mobsters had passed out of sight below their feet as the pod had swung up into the sky, but as they approached the top they came back into view. They were sitting on the bench, their guns trained on Monckton. Mycroft opened his briefcase and pulled out a leather harness.
The Laird laughed. “Aha, Mycroft. Your secret is revealed. You are a fan of leather and restraint. Now I know why Nanny left us all those years ago…”
“Very funny, Chris,” said Mycroft. “Help him to put this on, Scrotum. It’s important that the big loop reach above his head.” Scrotum fiddled with the buckles and straps while Mycroft opened a panel in the ceiling and began to turn a handle. The roof began to split open. The mobsters were milling around their pod, obviously trying to work out what Mycroft was doing.
As the pod reached the top of its arc above the great city, Mycroft stopped winding the handle. “Right, brother,” he said, “we’re going to give you a boost up so that you can climb out onto the roof.”
“I’ll do no such thing,” said Monckton, looking truculent. “I’ll fall to my death.”
“I won’t be able to protect you from those mobsters when we get to the bottom,” said Mycroft. “It’s my way or a coffin. Your choice.”
Monckton protested, but stuck his courage to the sticking post and clambered up Mycroft and onto Scrotum’s shoulders until his head and shoulders were out of the pod. Scrotum could see that the mobsters had worked out how to open the roof of their pod. It wouldn’t be long before they were able to get a shot at the Laird. “You better get a move on,” he said to Mycroft, who was busy pressing buttons on his mobile phone.
Monckton was oblivious to the danger. He scrambled up on to the roof of the pod and began to look around. The view was amazing. London was laid out at his feet like a brightly lit model city crawling with life, stacked with stories. What tales it could tell, he thought. He got to his feet, spread his arms and shouted “Look at me, Ma! Top of the world!”
A bullet whizzed over his shoulder. Monckton yelled, and then his voice was drowned by a raucous scream as a giant eagle swooped down and grabbed the loop in the leather harness. More bullets whizzed past his feet as the great bird flapped its wings and lifted him out of the spotlights and towards the stars.
Scrotum watched his master’s departure and the outrage on the faces of the gunmen, and smiled at Mycroft. “Nicely done,” he said.
“Thanks,” Mycroft nodded. “It means you’ll be in hiding for a while, of course. Low profile, not Tannochbrae or Australia.”
“Understood,” said Scrotum, taking the glass of Pol Roger Mycroft had poured. “But what about them?”, he said, waving at the mobsters.
“I think the SAS has plans for them. And I have an idea too…”
This is the sixth tale in The Monckton Files.