Alien stars a harry stub.., p.1
Alien Stars: A Harry Stubbs Adventure, page 1
By David Hambling
Copyright © 2017 David Hambling
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No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations for critical reviews and certain other non-commercial uses permitted by copyright law.
Chapter 1: The Thing in Room Eight
Chapter 2: The Under-Gardener
Chapter 3: At the Sign of the Knyght’s Head
Chapter 4: Counting the Stars
Chapter 5: The Unexpected Visitor
Chapter 6: The Spy
Chapter 7: J. P. G. Higgs
Chapter 8: First Encounters
Chapter 9: Expulsion from Eden
Chapter 10: A Trip to the Museum
Chapter 11 On Streatham Common
Chapter 12: The Gipsy
Chapter 13: Reading the Leaves
Chapter 14: A. E. F. Horniman
Chapter 15: The Coal-Hole
Chapter 16: Streatham Fair
Chapter 17: Night in the Woods
Chapter 18: Unfinished Business
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Special thanks to Carly Randall, Archivist at the Horniman Museum, for her invaluable assistance and patience above and beyond.
The gull shall whistle in his wake, the blind wave break in fire.
He shall fulfil God’s utmost will, unknowing his desire,
And he shall see old planets change and alien stars arise.
Rudyard Kipling, “The Voortrekker”
When I was writing Pan and The White Powder I did not believe that such strange things had ever happened in real life, or could ever have happened. Since then, and quite recently, I have had certain experiences in my own life which have entirely changed my point of view in these matters.
Arthur Machen, Letter to Paul-Jean Touletin
If you are reading this document, then I shall be dead.
Latham and Rowe, a firm that I know to be trustworthy, has instructions not to release my papers until I have been legally judged to be deceased. I expect they will have explained this to you, but I wanted to be clear about it and also about my reasons for writing this narrative.
It was not my idea but Skinner’s and occurred when I told him about the written accounts of my previous activities. Skinner is a sharp chap—none sharper, in my opinion—and though not one for writing himself, he suggested this measure to me. His notion is that this document will leave so many clues as to make it impossible to do away with us without the guilty party being brought to justice—the idea being that because of the insurance policy, nobody would take the risk.
I will attempt to write matters up as they occur. As I write up each new section, I will deliver it to Latham and Rowe to be added, unopened and unseen, to the collection. Of course, in the event of my untimely demise, this story may be an unfinished one that you will have to complete yourself. If this is the case, I apologise to the reader for the inconvenience—though such an occurrence will be a deal more inconvenient for me than for you.
Also, if my presumed death is not sufficient warning, I am duty bound to advise you that these are dangerous matters. By reading this, you are putting yourself in some degree of peril, the reasons for which cannot be explained briefly and will become apparent in the following pages.
You may find much of what follows hard to credit. Not long ago, I would have agreed with you. But if you have seen the accounts of my earlier cases—now also lodged with Latham and Rowe for safekeeping—you will appreciate how my view of the world has altered in the past year.
The world is not as I thought it was. My process of discovery is a continuing one. It is not so much like discovering the South Pole or climbing a mountain. It is more like exploring a series of caverns and finding that at the end of each there is an entrance into another deeper, darker cavity where the rock formations are even more unpleasantly suggestive and where the markings on the walls lead ever farther into the abyssal depths. These caves are not uninhabited.
I am beginning to feel that these preliminary explanations and qualifications will only add to your confusion rather than dispelling it. Therefore, it is best that I conclude this introduction without more ado and proceed to business. And if you do decide to read on, I thank you for taking my side. Skinner is a good man to have in my corner, but as I know from my boxing days, it makes all the difference in the world to have spectators at the ringside cheering you on.
Chapter One: The Thing in Room Eight
I will skip some weeks of preliminaries and start at the point where Skinner and I were given our first significant assignment.
Skinner had been working on his own for a few months before I joined him. He was vague about his occupation since the war. He had served in the Fusiliers with some distinction, being involved in several notable actions, and his record made my time in the Royal Artillery look like a cakewalk. He had lost the taste for any kind of settled job after that. Working with Skinner felt like army life turned bandit, with more emphasis on loafing and looting than soldiering.
In the first weeks of my employment, our tasks were more in the nature of training exercises or manoeuvres than actual operations. We had daily and weekly schedules of tasks to be carried out. For example, we had to check whether a certain tomb in West Norwood Cemetery had been disturbed, look for the presence of certain articles in the lists published by auction houses, and read for mention of certain individuals in the local press.
Sometimes we had to follow a person or keep an eye on a building for a set period of time and note the comings and goings therefrom. Skinner called this “playing at spies.”
We also had more curious chores, such as renewing chalk marks on certain walls. The exact significance of the marks was never explained to us. Like good soldiers, we followed instructions to the letter.
The job had some of the sense of army life about it, of the seemingly purposeless ritual activity that nevertheless had a hidden motivation. I do not know why they always set you to painting all the stones white in an army camp, but it did have some psychic effect on the occupants of the base. And perhaps that was the main function of these tasks—to remind us what we were about and keep our minds focused.
Such assignments were not generally enough to keep Skinner and me occupied the entire day, but we were obliged to put in the hours and to be on call in case we were needed. Plenty of those summer afternoons found us sitting in the office, Skinner idly reading out snippets from the newspaper or working his way through the crossword puzzle while I worked away at a correspondence course. Skinner found the idea of learning to be a private detective by post highly comical, but then, he had little respect for any form of book learning. I would never learn to recognise a bile bean, or know how to bribe an official, from a book. Perhaps that sort of business was better learned while on duty with a suitable police force, but I did pick up some useful tips during my studies.
The name of our employer was never to be spoken out loud. While strictly speaking there was nothing illegal about our activities, he treated
The pay was more than generous. My stock of good shirts and collars increased. A quiet evening drinking with a friend was not a luxury, and I could enjoy nights out at the Conquering Hero without fretting about buying a round. I was happy to be tapped for loans as more of my friends found themselves laid off or working reduced hours. I could afford a good seat at the pictures whenever I wanted, and I was able to replace my old, worn-out kit at the boxing gym.
My biggest extravagance was books. I did not take the opportunity to stock up on the great classics, I am ashamed to say. A person cannot always be bettering himself. I built up my own little library of good shilling editions—cheaply bound versions of popular novels. With my new income, I could pick up Kipling or Rider Haggard or Buchan whenever I felt like it. We were living, as Skinner liked to say, on Easy Street in the land of milk and honey.
Skinner is notionally my superior, having been in this employment a few months longer than me. He is an easy-going type, and working with him is not burdensome. Some might say he is too easy-going. He is the only man I know who smokes Blue Box, the ones with a mix of Russian, Turkish, Egyptian, and Havana mix cigarettes. Perhaps that says something about his restless spirit.
Skinner was briefly taken on by my friend and patron Arthur Renville, whose trade in consignments of goods occupies a lucrative grey area between legal and illegal and involves many individuals with no regular employment. Arthur was not pleased with Skinner’s efforts and suggested that a day’s hard work would probably kill him. Skinner cheekily replied that this sounded like a good enough reason to avoid hard work. Arthur has not found need for Skinner’s services since, but had recommended him to our current employer
Now, Skinner and I had been assigned the task of confronting a woman he had traced to a rooming house in Sydenham. As per our usual procedure, he gave me a short briefing. Standing side by side, we might have been part of a sketch from a Charlie Chaplin film. Skinner would be Chaplin, the comedic tramp, always with one eye out for a pretty girl; I’d be Eric Campbell, the enormous bully who smashed things up and chased him around the set. Of course, Campbell came out worse in the end, but he was always back for the next encounter. Or at least until his untimely death in 1917.
“I’ve only seen her properly once,” said Skinner. “She’s calling herself Mabel Brown, which may be an alias. She’s probably somewhere between twenty and thirty years of age, medium height, slim build, and with short brown hair that is shingled. Not a bad-looking girl, either, as far as I could tell.”
“Do we have any information about this item we’re meant to be retrieving?”
“Not a dicky bird.” Skinner turned the paper over to see if there was anything on the other side and gave me the conspiratorial smile of an NCO to his squad in the face of poor direction from his superiors. “They’re sending us in blind. But are we downhearted?”
“No, no, no!” I gave the traditional army response, which was both expected and merited.
“I dare say we will be able to improvise. As per usual.” Skinner made it sound simple. He never lacked confidence. He possessed what the French called savoir faire. I envied his way of adapting himself to any situation. All too often, I felt like an actor without a script arriving halfway through a scene. Skinner had lines at his fingertips for every situation; others thought they knew where they were until he confused them with his ad-libbing.
“It’s like a dance,” he said, seeing my troubled look. “Neither you nor I know what this is about, as the powers that be have not seen fit to enlighten us. But this Mabel Brown knows. When she sees us, she’ll know the game is up. She’ll lead us in a dance, and whether she waltzes or foxtrots, we’ll match her step for step.”
Skinner was an old hand in the dance halls, but I have never been a dancer. People would laugh at me if I tried. But I understood the gist. Skinner’s plan was that he would loiter near the rooming house and follow Mabel Brown when she emerged. I would be waiting by the bus stop at the far end of the street. When I saw him follow a woman, I was to step out, and then the two of us would confront her so she could not easily get away.
“She won’t scream or cry out,” he said. “The last thing she wants is a scene and the police being called. But we’ll have to be careful.”
“Do you think she might be dangerous?”
“Women are always dangerous,” Skinner said, patting me on the arm. He considered himself an expert on the fairer sex, having—he said—carried out extensive research in the field. And numerous other places.
We moved off to our allotted posts. Skinner could loiter anywhere without attracting attention; he was a born loafer. He was one of those types you saw propping up walls or leaning on lampposts, providing a running commentary to each other on the comings and goings on the street. Skinner could push his hat back, adopt an attitude, and look as though he had been a fixture since the street was built. Nobody looked twice at him.
Sydenham was a prosperous suburb inhabited by working people, and there was a steady stream of folks on their way to work or queuing politely behind me at the bus stop.
I perused the posters, feeling that my physique again put me at a disadvantage. I did not have the knack of hanging around, even at a bus stop where people might linger by rights. Self-consciousness had much to do with it. What with my size, the broken nose, and my general demeanour, people gave me looks, and that made me awkward. I never knew what to do with my hands. The more I tried to keep out of sight, the more furtive I appeared. Even standing there, reading about the attractions at the funfair coming to Streatham Common—“Death-Defying Displays of Acrobatic Prowess! Entertainment for Young and Old! Prize Contests of Skill and Chance!”—I sensed passers-by steering around me.
After an interminable period, during which buses came and went and people passed by, Skinner ambled up. “She’s late. Just like a woman. Let’s go in and confront her.”
“You mean knocking on the door?”
“No. Breaking and entering. Are you game, Bombardier?”
For two men to break into an occupied house in broad daylight was lunacy, but Skinner was nothing if not daring. I did not need to tell him that if anybody decided to call the police, we would be sunk. I had neither aptitude nor experience as a cat burglar. But as the saying goes, fortune favours the brave.
“Yes, Sergeant,” I said.
“Good man!” He slapped my shoulder. “Walk this way. It’s a sad day when two bachelors as eligible as you and me have to break into a ladies’ rooming house. Normally, I can find an obliging damsel to let me in the back door… but we’re in a hurry, and needs must.”
The rooming house was a four-storey affair of red brick, built as a family home in the last century when people had troops of servants rather than just one or two. There was a main entrance at the front and a side entrance for deliveries down a sort of alley. In that alley, Skinner had spotted that one of the windows that followed the staircase up the side of the house had been left open a couple of inches. It was eight feet above the ground.
We strolled in as though approaching the side entrance. Without being asked, I formed a stirrup with my hands and boosted Skinner up. Steadying himself with one hand on a drainpipe, he struggled with the window.
“Can you manage a tad higher?” he whispered.
It was no great feat for me to lift him first to chest height, then up to shoulder height, and finally high above my head.
“Wa-hey,” said Skinner. “The Flying Bonzini Brothers are in town! Going up. Second floor, ladies’ undergarments, here we go…”
It was an awkward piece of gymnastics, but the window latch clicked as Skinner worked the mechanism, and in a second his weight lifted from my hands. He appeared at the window and, by dumb show, indicated that I was to go to the side door. I was hardly there before it opened.
I passed him his hat and briefca
“Thank you kindly,” he whispered then ushered me in. “Welcome to no man’s land.”
There was a clatter of cutlery and crockery from the kitchen, where someone must have been washing up, but no other sign of life. Keeping quiet, as our male voices would attract instant attention, we made our way to the front hall. Skinner scanned the letters laid out on the hall table.
You could tell it was a ladies’ rooming house. Like a men’s rooming house, there was a background smell of boiled cabbage, but here it was masked by sweeter, feminine scents of powder and perfume and fancy soaps. Cigarettes and the less pleasant male odours were absent. A stand by the door held half a dozen dainty umbrellas and a couple of parasols, and there were no dirty boots. Every surface sprouted little china knick-knacks, the sort that would last five minutes with even sober men tramping through.
Skinner found a letter in the pile addressed to Mabel Brown and slipped it into an inner pocket while I struggled to make sense of the guest book. A gramophone played in one of the downstairs rooms. The swirling tones of Midnight Waltz added to the unreal quality and highlighted my impression of being in a different world.
I held up eight fingers and gestured towards the staircase to signify that Mabel Brown was in room eight. We tiptoed upstairs like thieves. I was still imagining the embarrassment I would feel if someone found us there, when Skinner pointed to a door bearing a porcelain shield with painted irises and the number eight.
He turned the handle stealthily; the door opened at his push. Skinner stepped in briskly, and I was right behind him. I half expected a scream, but there was no sound.
The room was empty.
I closed the door noiselessly behind me.
“Where is she?” whispered Skinner, and I shrugged.
If Mabel Brown had left, she had not troubled to lock the door behind her, and there were no signs of flight—no drawers left open or items scattered around.
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