The Catspaw, Chapter 2: Dead Man’s Hand
Edinburgh, 1925: On the run from the police, cabaret performer, cat burglar and demimondaine, Anna Schwarz, is exiled from her native Berlin. Seeking a diversion from her boredom, she has been hired to steal a macabre relic from the Anatomy Museum at Edinburgh University for an anonymous collector in Switzerland. But who is this mysterious client and what does he really want with the Hand of Glory? And how does the mysterious Coffin Club fit into Anna’s plans?
I stood at the bar of The Halfway House, plotting furiously and smoking like an express train. The Coffin Club was the catalyst I needed, the vital spark which would drive my whole plan.
The Coffin Club: I’d heard the name whispered again and again in the underworld since I’d arrived in Edinburgh. It was a name that drove terror before it, a secret society of amateur gentleman sleuths who investigated macabre crimes and weird mysteries that were beyond the scope of the law. Among ordinary thieves, the club had an almost supernatural reputation; it had foiled the conspiracies of many an evil mastermind over the years. It pursued a vague agenda, had its own ambiguous moral code and it’s network of members was said to be vast, extending well beyond Edinburgh to reach England, Europe, and the remotest outposts of the Empire.
Beyond this I didn’t know much about it. I assumed that most of what you read or heard was myth, speculative fantasy inspired by its morbid name and fuelled by sensationalist reports in the yellow press. However, my friend The Major assured me that the club itself was very real, though shrouded in secrecy and intrigue. Gathering facts about it was like trying to grasp a handful of smoke. It was impossible; there simply were no facts about The Coffin Club.
There was no shortage of rumour about it though. Popular legend claimed that it was a cabal of bodysnatchers, or a coven of warlocks who practiced black magic, witchcraft and necromancy. I was sceptical about all of this, suspecting that many of these tall tales could be traced back to disinformation spread by the club’s members themselves. There was always a chance that some of them contained an atom of truth, but the problem was, how did you separate it from all the bullshit?
If you moved in the circles I did and knew what to look for, you could find traces of the club’s activities in obscure little magazines, or filling up the dead space between the “real” news in the papers. Odd, seemingly unrelated little stories would occasionally pop up which, when stitched together by dates, places and names, were all suggestive of a larger underlying connection. The truth hovered around the edges of these far-fetched stories, which all seemed invisibly linked by the strange influence of the club.
Officially, it was nothing more than a run-of-the-mill society for the students of Edinburgh University Medical School. Equally officially however, the University denied it even existed. As far as I could see, if you took away all of the embroidery it was just the usual rowdy drinking club for over-privileged parasites who saw life as one long Boy’s Own adventure story. Similar to what we called a “Ringvereine” back in Berlin. Women, of course, were strictly verboten, which gave my plan to penetrate it an added piquancy.
It was only the club’s medical background that interested me. I didn’t much care what else the members got up to, though I certainly never wanted to encounter one of them in a doctor’s surgery, that was for sure (or during any of my “nocturnal activities” for that matter). No, infiltrating the club was a way of making well placed, powerful contacts within the Faculty who could help me gain access to The Hand of Glory, nothing more; although I supposed that some of its dirty little secrets might be of use to me later.
Obviously, you can’t just bang on the front door and demand to join a secret society, so the first part of my plan was to get my hooks into one of its members. I’d have to find one first, but didn’t know where to begin looking, so I decided to consult Maggie, the barmaid at Rutherford’s. Glancing at my wristwatch, I found that I had a couple of hours before closing time, so I drank up, stubbed out my cigarette and decided to head over there to speak to her.
I left The Halfway House in a haze of half-formed plans and French cigarette smoke, skipped down the steps of Fleshmarket Close, through the archway at the bottom and out onto Market Street. Outside Waverley Station I waved down a taxi and jumped in. Lounging back in the seat, I lit up another Boyard and picked up my runaway train of thought. As I considered the job again, my reservations faded and my enthusiasm grew. If I pulled it off, I had the opportunity to build the biggest crime syndicate in Edinburgh since the days of Deacon Brodie. My competitors were all big-league small-time, lacking my gifts, my vision, my flair. I was unique; this was my moment. I was a conquistador in the El Dorado of the North, greedily surveying a treasure trove of un-plundered museums, galleries, grand houses and boudoirs. The city was mine.
Rutherford’s was a tough working man’s dive up on Drummond Street, affectionately known to the locals as ‘The Pump’. It was slightly more upmarket than a Glaswegian bottle party, but not as classy as a shebeen. It also happened to be one of The Major’s favourite drinking holes. He was well enough known there to get me in the door without any objections from the regulars — any friend of his was, if not a friend of theirs, at least tolerated. Everybody went to Rutherford’s; it was an egalitarian mix of high and low life in the best Edinburgh tradition. It was also the greatest source of rumour, scuttlebutt and innuendo in town. If you wanted to know anything and everything about anyone who was anyone, Rutherford’s was Delphi and Maggie the barmaid was The Oracle.
I bumped open the saloon doors and cut my way through the crowd. Shoving in, I passed two hardmen sitting on a bench at a corner table. One of them looked up at me, nudging the other as I went by. ‘What’s wi’ the fancy clothes, hen? Yer a bit late fur guisin’ — Hallowe’en wiz last month!’ I glared at them, but kept my mouth shut. They were strangers, not regulars. As I approached the bar, Maggie looked up, spotted me and smiled.
‘Look who it is! The Canongate Kid!’ she grinned; I grinned back. ‘You’re lookin’ perjink the night, as always!’
‘Good evening Maggie,’ I replied ‘You are also looking — er — perjink? You are well today I hope?’ I was picking up the good Scots tongue from her, but occasionally I struggled to keep up.
‘Ach aye, I’m fine doll, just fine. And how’s yourself?’
I gazed warmly into her sparkling blue eyes. ‘Pour me something to cut the phlegm, Maggie. I’ve just had a shocking experience. I walked into a bar back there and collapsed on the floor.’
‘Aye?’ she smiled a wry “tell-me-another-one” smile. ‘Was it an iron bar?’
‘No, much worse.’ I paused, looking at her gravely. ‘A Temperance Bar.’
She laughed, I laughed, and even some of the regulars around us joined in. George the barman, less impressed, looked at me disapprovingly from the corner of his eye and muttered under his breath. We both looked at him and laughed again, harder.
The Major and I would stop by at Rutherford’s a couple of times a week. I’d quickly developed a rapport with Maggie because, unlike most of the regulars, I understood that nobody ever, ever pulls the barmaid. I charmed her without the least idea of it actually leading anywhere, simply because we both enjoyed each other’s patter. She was also undoubtedly impressed by the fact that I clearly didn’t give a damn for the pub’s unwritten rule that said ‘NO WOMEN!’. In most bars in Scotland back then, the only place we would have been allowed was the snug, a small separate lounge where we could sip a demure sherry, or a half pint of Sweetheart Stout, safely chaperoned by husbands, boyfriends or whatever. Rutherford’s didn’t have a snug.
Maggie set an Old Gold Watch and a half pint of beer on the counter in front of me. I picked up the whisky and swigged it down. After a moment, I slid ten shillings across the bar and asked ‘Where’s the best place to go hunting medical students, Maggie?’
She looked at me slyly. ‘D’you want to sell your body to science?’
‘Not while there’s still breath in it, no.’ I winked and waved away my change which she slipped into her pocket. ‘I always follow the money, Maggie, and medical students have plenty of it. It’s that simple.’ I said, playing it vague.
‘Well, you’ll find all sorts o’ students in here at the weekend,’ she said, placing another whisky in front of me. ‘Lawyers, artists, poets…and medics. The lot really. They’re rowdy and mouthy, but they spend well. Flashy, ye understand. I ken fine how tae keep them in line.’ There was pride in her voice, defiance in the way she folded her arms.
‘I’m looking for a very specific set of students though.’ I lowered my voice and moved in a little closer. ‘The Coffin Club.’
Her expression grew serious; she glanced around and whispered, ‘MacFarlane’s gang? What do ye want to get mixed up wi’ that lot for? Whit are ye up to, hen?’
My ears pricked up at the name; I dodged her question with one of my own. ‘MacFarlane? Is he the ringleader?’
‘Aye, after a fashion. Peter MacFarlane. He’s the President of the club. “Chief Mourner” to give him his official title.’
‘And what is he like, this Peter MacFarlane?’
‘Like the rest. A toff, a swell, a sleekit bastard. He got to the top of the pile because he bullies his pals, and he has the loudest mouth of them all. His faither runs a fleet o’ steam puffer boats on the river Clyde and up the islands on the west coast. The family aren’t exactly shipping magnates, but they do well enough and keep him plied wi’ cash. They fund his trouble making with one hand and keep him out of court with the other. He’s just cunning enough to keep them from cutting him off, and he lets the other club members take the blame for him as often as possible.’
‘And what does he look like?’
‘Och, handsome enough I guess. If ye like that sort of thing,’ she added cryptically. ‘About 23. Tall; just this side of six foot I’d say. Very slender face wi’ high cheekbones, the real teuchter type. ‘
‘Teuchter?’ I asked, completely lost.
‘Aye, a highlander. A bumpkin. Viking blood ye ken. Fair complexion, red-gold hair in waves. Over fond o’ the brilliantine bottle. A wee cat’s-lick o’ a moustache. Always dressed tae the nines. A bit like yersel’! Cannae miss him, hen.’
‘Is he ever in here?’
‘Aye, sometimes on a Saturday night maybe. But more often than no’, ye’ll find him and his cronies up the Forrest Hill Buffet.’
This was all I needed to know about MacFarlane. Rich, arrogant, greedy, vain — a bully. This was all good news. I knew exactly how to play him. I’d built my whole stage persona around his type; the well-heeled, fickle young cad. A cold-hearted, ruthless, swaggering shit. At least in Britain they could be channelled into the professions, the army or the civil service; spread them around the Empire a bit and stop them from doing too much damage at home. You could always depend on another war to thin them out a bit too. But back home in Germany at that time we had a particularly nasty strain of them. They were angry and resentful about the Treaty of Versailles, and the ones who had been too young to actually fight in the war felt they had missed out somehow and were determined to make up for it. In Berlin, I’d had ample opportunity to observe them at close quarters. I think it’s safe to say everybody knows how they turned out.
Maggie was called away to the other end of the bar to serve a little huddle of regulars. I settled into my favourite corner on a bench that ran the length of the far wall near the fireplace. I tipped the whisky into my beer like a hardened local: a half and a half. It hadn’t taken me long to go native in Scotland.
While supping this witch’s brew, I absent-mindedly reached into the poacher’s pocket of my overcoat and took out the little hand mirror I’d swiped from Arnheim. I adjusted my monocle and gave myself the once over. I had no idea if I was beautiful or not, and frankly I didn’t care. 25 years old, athletic build, clear grey eyes, light chestnut hair cut in an Eton Crop. I attracted a lot of interest, so I assumed I was at least interesting.
As if to prove my point, I gradually realised that the low murmur in the bar was revolving round me. I snapped out of my trance and became self conscious, looking around at the mixture of faces; some old and broken, some young and fresh, navvies and shop-boys and foundry workers, with a sprinkling of slumming bourgeoisie. All of them men. Maggie and I were the only two women in the place, and I realised that most of my fellow drinkers hadn’t noticed this at first. Now they were looking at me curiously, gesticulating and whispering, clearly threatened by what they took to be feminine man in their midst. I looked down at the bar and slowly pocketed the mirror again. Eventually, my audience forgot about me and turned back to their own conversations. All except the two smart-arses I’d passed on the way in. They sat staring straight at me, carrying on an intense conversation I couldn’t hear.
Maggie approached me with a look of concern. ‘I think I better be going’, I said. ‘I seem to be causing a bit of a commotion.’
‘Aye. I think ye are. Look hen, if you’re goin’ after MacFarlane, just be careful. I dinnae ken what you’re wantin’ wi’ him, but it cannae be good. Look after yersel’.’ I smiled at her. ‘Don’t worry, I always do.’ I knocked back what was left of my drink. “That’s time, gentlemen!” bellowed Maggie.
It was just before midnight when I let myself into The Major’s flat in Royal Circus, over on the other side of the city. I needed to unwind, so I headed to the kitchen and prepared some hot milk. I sipped thoughtfully at it for a while, added a generous tot of navy rum, then stumbled off to bed. Sleep wouldn’t come though. I was still caught up in the web of my thoughts and by three in the morning I was in that place that lies halfway between sleep and wakefulness. I dozed restlessly, going over and over the details of my plan in my imagination, until they blended seamlessly with vivid, lucid dreams…
I seemed to look down on the city from on high — the courtyards and gardens stretched out below me like the squares of a colossal chess board, criss-crossed by narrow cobbled streets. From my magpie’s eye-view, Edinburgh was a city of dark corners, of invisible terrors. I watched myself far below lost in the labyrinth of vast, sepulchral streets and plazas. My body ran ahead while my mind floated along in its wake, like a child’s kite on a fragile cord of spider silk. I sprinted up and down steps, clambered over walls, darted through courtyards, slinked through closes, crept across squares, parks, gardens, kirkyards while an army of faceless enemies waited for me, unseen in the shadows.
It was going on for noon when I finally woke up. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I felt fucking dreadful. I bathed, breakfasted and pulled myself together. I was ready to talk to someone.
I spent the best part of the day lounging around drinking tea and leafing through the magazines that friends sent to me (care of The Major of course) from Berlin. I liked to keep up with the scene back home, so I was kept well supplied with the latest copies of Die Freundin and BIZ. The housekeeper was away visiting her elderly mother in Corstorphine, so I had the run of the place. I rattled around, taking the opportunity to help myself to the contents of the kitchen, slug The Major’s whisky from the bottle, and to run through some new routines I was working on. I had to keep my hand in you understand, for when it was safe enough for me to head back to Berlin and the stage of The Cafe Domino. Still dressed in my pyjamas, I stood in the middle of the lounge, surrounded by gramophone records and piles of sheet music, belting out the latest hits from Harlem at the top of my lungs. My poor neighbours — all of them dear little old ladies — must have been completely terrified.
I still had plenty of time to kill before heading over to The Forrest Hill Buffet, so I decided to take a stroll through town on the way. I threw on a chalk-striped dark blue three-piece suit, wrapped myself in my leather aviator’s coat and went out. It was a bitterly cold day and I felt the chill deep in my bones. Thick haar from the River Forth mixed with great clouds of vapour and smoke from a thousand and one chimneys to form a lowering smoggy pall which hung over the streets and mingled with the warm Scotch Broth smell of the breweries; never had the term ‘pea-souper’ seemed more appropriate.
I enjoyed the atmosphere on days like these. It was as dark as midnight and I had to glance at my wristwatch to remind myself that it wasn’t even 4 in the afternoon yet. The shops, houses and bars all glowed warmly— only the windows were visible in the murk, the buildings themselves were blurred and indistinct, merging into one great grey mass. The harsh glare of the street lamps had softened and they stretched out into the distance before me like strings of pearls. It was the first of December. Christmas trees and lights wouldn’t appear for weeks yet.
The city’s landmarks were invisible; Calton Hill, Arthur’s Seat, Salisbury Crags, all had vanished beneath the shroud creeping up from the sea. Castle Rock was up there somewhere I supposed, an ominous presence in the cloud. The Castle itself loomed down over the city like a gigantic aerial liner, it’s windows pricking the gloom with beams of amber light.
I paid a visit to Darnley, my tailor on Prince’s Street, chewed the fat with him about the latest width for Oxford Bags, bought a couple of ties and collars, then walked briskly through the Gardens to warm up. Then, after a late lunch and a drink in The Cafe Royal, I headed up towards the Old Town again. I had an appointment to keep.
As if by magic, the shopkeeper appeared. I must admit that he looked a bit startled, but then he’d every right to be since I was sitting in his office chair with my feet up on the desk, flicking through a selection of his schmutzliteratur. I’d left the safe door ostentatiously ajar, having given the thing a damn good rifling. I waved a “sunbathing” magazine in his face and smiled conspiratorially ‘Furtive Mr A! Very furtive!’
He nearly choked on his embarrassment, collar stud taking the strain as his Adam’s Apple shot up and down faster than a Flapper’s hemlines. I thought he was going to expire right there on the rug. Which would’ve been fine by me to be honest. When he finally found his voice, it was like someone throttling a parrot. ‘Hell’s bells and bloody ding-dongs!’ he spluttered. ‘What in Christ’s name are you doing here, and how in blue blazes did you get in?!’
‘It was simple really. I’m a fucking magician. Have you forgotten our conversation of last night? I’m here to tell you that I’m happy to accept the commission to steal the Hand of Glory from the Anatomy Museum. I also thought this would be the perfect opportunity to give you a little demonstration of my talents. If you want to know how easy I found it to gain entrance to the premises and open your safe while you were in the front shop, I’m afraid that’ll cost you extra. Security consultancy services are a separate sideline I’m afraid.’ I got up and wheeled his chair towards him. He collapsed into it with an explosion of profanity.
‘I think you could do with a brandy, old man!’ I said cheerfully, opening his desk drawer and extracting the bottle. ‘And I might as well help myself to a whisky while I’m at it. Oh that reminds me, I hope you don’t mind, but while I was amusing myself with the safe earlier, I took my retainer out of your petty cash box. Just to save you the trouble of going to the bank later, you understand.’
He glared at me, still trembling with shock and rage. I thought I better mollify him a little before I left, so I raised my hands in a gesture of mock innocence, then fished my cigarette case out. I withdrew one, tapped it on the corner of the desk then fitted it into my holder.
‘My dear Arnheim, I’m so sorry! I really didn’t think you’d take on so. Just my idea of a little joke — I thought you’d appreciate it, but I see now it was in bad taste. I’m afraid sometimes I can’t resist showing off and I get carried away.’ I shuffled his magazines into a neat pile and replaced them carefully in the safe, which I closed reverentially.
He gulped down a mouthful of brandy and slowly regained a little of his composure.
‘Better?’ I asked, not giving him the opportunity to reply, ‘Excellent! Now what can you tell me about The Coffin Club?’
The smile vanished from his face. He replied in a hard, stony voice. ‘I can tell you nothing about The Coffin Club. Except that they are very dangerous young men, and you should avoid them.’
I didn’t know what to say to that, so I let it go and we soon settled into a nice, stony, awkward silence. I enjoy a good awkward silence, as I’m sure you do yourself, so I decided to ride it out, just for fun. I cleared my throat and sipped my drink. Then for variety, I crossed my legs and cleared my throat and sipped my drink. I smiled at him innocently, wrinkling my nose in mock-bashfulness. The clock ticked, as clocks always do in situations like this. But I quickly saw the smarmy glint creeping back into his eyes (though it may only have been the booze and the milk-bottle specs to be honest). I’d tried this gambit with him on my previous visit and he was on to it; that tight lipped little smirk was back on his shiny chops again.
‘You look a little tired. Did you sleep well, Miss? Are you rested and ready for your ordeal?’ he said, goggling at me deviously through spectacles so large and thick they could have easily doubled as naval binoculars.
It was an odd thing to ask. I peered back at him, trying to figure out exactly what he was driving at. The awkwardness continued; I cleared my legs and crossed my throat, the clock ticked, etc. etc.
Eventually I said ‘If you’re trying to seduce me Mr Arnheim, I’m afraid you have no chance. For me, you possess all the charm and excitement of a wet Wednesday afternoon in a municipal labour exchange.’ He grinned malevolently, revealing a startling array of unnaturally white dentures in the process. Unnerved, I decided I should leave. I’d wasted enough time in this goblin’s company already.
Summoning up as much bravado as I could, I reached over, lifted the lighter from his desk and flamboyantly lit my cigarette. ‘Well, what is it they say here? “No rest for the wicked”?’
‘Ah, you are overdoing it my dear. You do seem a little peaky. I suggest that you get to bed early this evening.’
This really was a decidedly strange conversation. I paused to spitefully flick some fag ash on his carpet. This would have been a more effective statement of my contempt if it hadn’t already been a filthy old ruin, but there you go. It’s the thought that counts.
‘Yes, you’re right. It’s well past my bedtime, I must be off. I’ll contact you again as soon as possible.’
‘Rest assured, I shall inform our employer that you have agreed to undertake this task for him. I look forward to hearing that you have successfully concluded your mission. And remember — failure is not an option. Should you not deliver the hand to our client, he would be most displeased. Most displeased indeed.’
‘Really?’ I said, raising my eyebrows, ‘You do surprise me. However, there’s no need to worry. I’ve never failed yet.’ I’m sure you won’t be shiocked to learn that this was a slight exaggeration. There was that incident with the troop train in Petrograd for a start, but I thought it wise not to mention it.
‘Of course. I’m glad that we understand one another. Well, I’ll wish you Goodnight, Miss. I won’t delay you any longer, I’m sure you have pressing matters to attend to. Don’t stay out too late — oh, and sweet dreams!’
‘I have a lot to do tonight.’ I replied wearily. ‘I don’t have time for dreams.’
The Forrest Hill Buffet sat on the corner of a little side street next to Greyfriars Kirk. I stepped inside and asked the barman for something to gargle, ‘Let me get a fruit cocktail honey, I’m feeling kinda hungry!’ He stared blankly back, then slammed a pint of beer down in front of me. I stuck my tongue out archly and turned my back on him. I had been prepared to part with some more money to ask him to point me in the direction of his Medical Student regulars, but I didn’t need to. They were easy enough to identify and the place was stuffed with them: all dressed in white tie and all as pissed as a fiddler’s bitch.
MacFarlane was there alright. The still centre of a hurricane of boisterous youths, he wasn’t difficult to spot. My plan was naively simple. I’d spend the next few days charming him into accepting me as one of his own, persuade him to initiate me into The Coffin Club and then manipulate them all into smuggling me into the Anatomy Museum. Afterwards I’d vanish with the Hand of Glory, leaving him and the rest of the club to take the fall. Hey presto!
My initial approach wasn’t subtle, but then it hardly needed to be with this bunch. I simply strode boldly up to the bar, stood behind MacFarlane and jogged his elbow as he raised a brandy and soda to his lips. The contents slopped agreeably down his starched front. Instantly, he span round and glared at me. ‘You bloody imbecile! Look what you did to my shirt!’ he barked, red-faced and trembling with fury. He lashed out to slap at me, but I was faster, and brought the handle of my cane up between us. He snatched it and tugged viciously. The top six inches slid upwards revealing the dull glint of the Toledo steel concealed within. He gazed at the blade drunkenly for a few seconds — all the swagger and rage knocked out of him. I gently removed the cane from his grip, and settled the handle back into place with a smart click.
He snapped out of his stupor and looked me in the eye, so I went into my best obsequious-foreigner routine. I took his hand and gently led him away from his friends towards the end of the bar. ‘My dear sir, I am ever so sorry!’ I said, gazing bashfully back at him. ‘However can I persuade you to forgive me!’ I whisked a perfumed silk handkerchief from my breast pocket, and blotted his chest with it, allowing my hand to linger there a fraction of a second longer than I should have.
‘There we are, that’s mopped up the worst of it.’ I withdrew the handkerchief and began using it to slowly polish my monocle while gazing up at him coquettishly from between downturned lashes. He blushed fiercely. His startled confusion told me that I’d snared him immediately. I held his gaze intently as I replaced the monocle and doffed my hat to him. ‘My name is Herr Karl Andreas Van der Vogel, at your service!’ I bowed and clicked my heels together in the best Prussian fashion — I knew that this sort of guff would impress him and the others around the bar. ‘Please allow me to replace your drink.’ I snapped my fingers in the air with a flourish and called ‘Barman! A brandy and soda for this unfortunate gentleman!’ In the blink of an eye, I was pressing a glass into McFarlane’s numbed fingers. It was clear from the slightly stunned look on his face, that he still didn’t know what had happened, and wasn’t sure who (or what) I was.
When I finally allowed him a chance, he spoke in chastened tones.’Quite alright, old — er — man. Thank you, think nothing of it. Could’ve happened to anyone.’ I glanced over to see what the rest of his mob were doing. As I’d hoped, they’d forgotten the incident already and were guffawing over some new wheeze involving a top hat and a pickled egg.
Thankfully, MacFarlane didn’t seem to mind that I was a “beastly Hun”, probably because he fancied himself as a man of the world. The war had been over for nearly ten years and it seemed that anti-German sentiment in Britain was now limited to the laughably xenophobic outpourings of The Bulldog Drummond school of sensational fiction.
I pressed home my advantage. ‘I believe that you and your friends over there are the very gentlemen I am looking for. You are Herr Peter MacFarlane, are you not? I am a fellow practitioner of the arts of Asclepius. I was late in matriculating — a slight problem with my visa you understand — and I now find myself rather behind in the society of my colleagues. Put simply, I know very few of my contemporaries here, and was advised that yours was the group to make contact with if I wished to enhance my professional standing.’
Flattered, he grinned and pulled himself up a few inches to look condescendingly down his nose at me. ‘And your social life too. You’ve been well advised, and I admire your resourcefulness in seeking me out.’ He raised his glass to me; I returned the compliment by tilting my tumbler of Old Gold Watch at him.
I couldn’t very well ask him about the club straight out, that would have had him heading for the hills, so I kept the conversation casual, feeding him a lot of old rubbish about my family background and Germany. After a while I noticed that his companions were looking over at us anxiously, tapping at their wristwatches and nodding towards the clock. Clearly they had to be somewhere, and I guessed that it had something to do with club business, or I would no doubt have been invited along.
MacFarlane slipped his calling card into the breast pocket of my suit. “Come around and see me at my digs tomorrow. I won’t make it to lectures. I have a late night ahead of me, you understand.” He grinned at me wolfishly and dug me painfully in the ribs. I reeled back against the bar and laughed half-heartedly. I hate hearty bonhomie.
‘Landed the bastard!’ I thought triumphantly as I left the bar. I was feeling pretty pleased with myself as I walked off whistling and chuckling.
I had only taken a few steps when I heard the sound of the pub grow momentarily louder as the doors swung open again behind me. I knew instantly that I was being followed. Without looking back, I carried on walking away towards The Cowgate. The buses and trams had stopped running, and taxis avoided the south side of the city at night in those days, so I decided to head over to see if I could pick one up on Lothian Road.
I walked down Candlemaker Row as nonchalantly as I could, still whistling as I went. I didn’t hear any footsteps behind me, but I stayed on the alert. As the street curved down out of sight of the pub, I glanced behind me, saw no one, then dodged into the entrance of Greyfriars Kirkyard, squeezing through the railings of the iron gate. Within the high stone walls was an ancient, overcrowded graveyard, a labyrinth of headstones, tombs and huge vaults. Perfect cover. The light from the streetlamps didn’t reach this far. I could easily throw off my pursuers in the smog among the gravestones and crypts, then slip over the wall and into the maze of courtyards and closes to the West Port beyond.
My mistake had been to expect attack from the rear. They were ahead of me in the dark, loitering beneath the portico of a large, ornate tomb: the two comedians from Rutherford’s the previous night.
They were indistinguishable from the thousands of other poor, middle aged drunks to be found anywhere in the city. Drab, coarse woollen working clothes and caps; clapped out boots, leathern faces like battered footballs, lips and eyes barely discernible among the puffy creases and the week’s worth of stubble. They couldn’t have been any older than their late thirties. The one on the left spoke up. ‘Look who it is! The Canongate Kid!’ They turned and looked at each other and laughed dry, wheezy laughs.
I remained motionless and silent, clenching my fists, tensing my upper body, legs flexing gently in a boxer’s stance. Since the first had failed to get a response out of me, the second really turned on the charm. ‘Hand it ower ya bitch!’, he bellowed.
I understood now. It hadn’t only been the way I was dressed that had attracted their attention. The mirror, which I was foolishly and vainly still carrying this evening, was just the sort of shiny bauble to attract a couple of down and out magpies like these.
I stood my ground and glowered at them determinedly, watching looks of uncertainty and fear pass between them. They’d never encountered the likes of me before, and weren’t sure how to handle the situation. They’d expected me to roll over and submit to them, like every other woman they’d beaten to get what they wanted, but clearly I wasn’t going to be intimidated by them — and what was puzzling them the most, I actually seemed to be spoiling for a fight.
They were unlikely to be packing pistols, but there was a real possibility that they were armed with coshes, or even razors.
They approached me quickly, one on my right, the other to my left. I suppose they thought this was a “classic pincer movement”. Lefty rushed me and threw a wide haymaker punch that he couldn’t have telegraphed any earlier unless he’d made an announcement in The Times. The only one of us he surprised was his witty little mate, who stood there gaping like a goldfish. I dropped down, then sprang forward and up, ramming my shoulder into Lefty’s armpit and throwing him off balance. I gave him a light shove and he fell flat on his back, skull cracking sharply on the grave-slab. I quickly took the opportunity to stamp my heel into the socket of his right eye, then grind it a bit. He didn’t seem to like that much.
I span round to face the smaller one. He was a bit slow on the uptake, but finally roared and sprang forward, both arms outstretched, fingers clawing at me. He was a lover not a fighter this one, clearly. I’d already slipped on the knuckledusters I always carry in my pockets, and as he closed with me, I shot a fast slash into his upper lip. I only loosened his front teeth, but the lip itself came almost clean away like a piece of orange peel and was now hanging by a shred of skin, flapping freely on this chin. Grotesquely, his bared, bloodied upper teeth showed starkly against the darkness of his face. He screamed, and with a satisfying crunch went down nose first into the ornate headstone of one William Smellie (1740–1795) — which I chalked up as a nasty little bonus for me.
I admit I felt absolutely no remorse for my harsh treatment of the pair — and neither should you. Boring journalists often ask what the secret is to my longevity and youthful good looks. I tell them that I have the heart and soul of an innocent child — and that I keep them in a jar by the side of my bed. That usually wipes the simper off of their fucking faces. They expect me to say no sex, no booze, no fun and a boiled egg at precisely 6.34pm every day for 80 years. The real answer is this: dirty fighting. Dirty fighting all the way. If I can give you any advice dear reader it’s to put your opponent down as quickly as possible, by any means possible. Then make sure they want to stay down. There’s no time for sentiment or ethics when someone’s trying to make fretwork of your windpipe. If you’re trying to kill me, I’ll bloody well try to kill you back, regardless of race, creed, colour, or social standing. I’m famously egalitarian. Hell, I’ve taken pot-shots at a real live Baron in my day.
Scowling, I stood over them both and unsheathed my sword cane. I swung the point of the blade threateningly over the most vulnerable regions of their saggy carcasses. ‘Be thankful I took only what I did,’ I hissed ‘and left your balls intact.’ With a flourish, I sheathed the sword, sprang nimbly up onto the roof of the portico and slipped over the wall.
When I eventually got back to Royal Circus I spent a moment prowling in the back garden like a common burglar before scouting the close for anyone lurking in the neighbouring doorways. Then, relieved to be off the street, I slipped quietly into the hallway of the flat and leaned back against the heavy door. When the lock clicked securely into place, I finally relaxed. Tension drained away, my shoulders sagged and I sighed with relief. It had been a punishing 24 hours; I was looking forward to the moment when I would finally slip between the sheets and pull the blankets over my head. Just a quick nightcap to steady the nerves was all I needed first.
I took a step towards the light switch. I heard the sharp, oily click of a heavy revolver being cocked, then a voice rang out of the darkness: ‘Don’t move. Or I’ll blow your hat clean off — and take your head with it!’