Puppet Masters

by Mary-Jean Harris

part 1


There were very few dangers that could befall a philosopher on his daily excursion to the library, but apparently, Sir Patrick of Marksbury encountered one of them. He had been on Watling Street near Dane John Gardens, which was where Louis and I were investigating this afternoon.

I doubted we would discover anything, and yet I had no means of explaining what had happened to Sir Patrick. Just this morning, on his way to a meeting of the Order for Investigations into Curious Metaphysical Phenomena at the library, he suddenly found himself in the Larkeyvalley Woods south of Canterbury. By his pocket watch, he had lost over an hour. The last place he remembered being was Watling Street, which he would not return to for the world.

Since this was just the sort of phenomena I investigate for the Order, I was sent at once. Louis, our youngest member by over a decade, often accompanies me, and together, we have discovered many strange occurrences, most of which involve no small risk to us investigators, which is why the other philosophers of the Order are content in purely theoretical speculations.

This suited me just fine, and although Louis often scowled and pleaded when I came to take him from his readings about idealism, as long as he was girded with our Order’s heirloom, Alexander the Great’s sword, he was just as content as I was when out investigating.

Louis stopped before a tall manor of dark stone frosted with lichen and ivy, watching it with wide, dark blue eyes.

I stopped next to him. “We’ve passed this at least four times,” I said. Louis tilted his head but, shortly later, continued walking.

We eventually stopped next to Dane John Gardens, and Louis examined his brass pocket watch.

“I don’t suppose we lost any time there,” I said.

Louis shook his head and returned the watch to the pocket of his orange waistcoat. As we watched a carriage make its third round about the gravel path through the Gardens, he asked, “Is there an opium den around here, Edwin?”

“Louis!” I said.

“I mean, if Sir Patrick went in there, he could have lost track of the time.”

“Ah, I see. I don’t suppose there is one, but I wouldn’t know. Besides, that could hardly explain how he ended up in the woods two miles away.”

Louis shrugged. He brushed his golden curls from his face and continued to watch the street intently.

Nor did I suppose that Sir Patrick had been knocked out and transported while unconscious, for he had no headache or so much as a scratch. Moreover, he was still in possession of his pound and ten shillings, which he had counted out in the morning for the purchase of Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation.

Discouraged, I looked down the cobbled lane lined with stone houses. There was a young lady walking toward us. Her green dress was floating above the cobbles, and her hands were clasped at her waist. By her dress and the elegant arrangement of her fair hair, she did not appear to be a servant. I wondered why she was walking alone.

Although this was not sufficiently peculiar in itself, at about ten yards from us, she stopped and abruptly turned to walk back the way she had come. This time, she swung her arms widely to give herself more momentum. It appeared ludicrous, as if her arms were being jerked by invisible strings. And yet I felt an inexplicable unease. Louis seemed to as well, standing tense with his hand on the hilt of Alexander’s sword.

The lady turned into the courtyard of a manor, the same one Louis had given particular scrutiny to, and proceeded up the walkway. When we could no longer see her, Louis and I exchanged a glance and proceeded down the street in her direction.

I caught a glimpse of the lady kneeling next to a bush, and she removed something from it and tucked it in her sleeve. She then stood and returned to the street, setting off at a formidable speed away from us, back the way she had come.

Louis and I hastened to keep up with her, always about twenty paces behind. She never once turned back and, at one point, she whisked by an old gentleman. Her speed would have caused him to topple into a rosebush had I not sprinted forward to catch him. He thanked me, but the young lady didn’t so much as turn around.

Fourteen minutes later, as verified by both Louis’s and my pocket watches, which we were monitoring diligently, the lady stopped abruptly and turned to an old Tudor-style house with black shutters and wooden flower boxes with violets. I slowed my pace, but Louis continued on just as rapidly.

“Wait, Louis,” I whispered, though it was more of a stage whisper, for he was already a dozen paces ahead of me.

He ignored me, and to my horror, removed Alexander’s sword from his scabbard. It was a wretched thing, all rust and decay, but it somehow gave Louis courage.

The lady had reached the porch, and had presumably knocked, for only shortly later, a manservant appeared. After a few words with her, he moved to let her inside. Louis, however, ran up to the porch, yelling, “Stop! Don’t let her in!”

Seeing a young man charging up one’s walkway with an ancient sword hardly lent credence to Louis’s words, so I ran to catch up with him, my heart racing as I tried to determine what he could mean by all this. It was, however, too late.

The manservant, shocked at Louis’s sudden approach, only watched him in bewilderment, giving the lady the opportunity to skirt past him into the house. Louis followed suit, which the manservant could hardly prevent, for Louis was the one with the sword, not he.

Yet when I reached the door, he regained his wits and firmly blocked the doorway, glowering at me.

“Please, I’m trying to stop this,” I began. “The young man with the sword—”

A cry from within ended our conversation. It was the lady, and at the subsequent sound of a chair toppling over, the manservant ran inside, and I followed.

We entered a parlour just to the right of the front door where we found Louis, the lady, and a tall gentleman. The lady was holding a dagger, and Louis held his sword to her breast. The gentleman was clutching a fountain pen, as if it were the only item he had found that approximated a weapon.

Seeing that she was surrounded, the lady threw the dagger at the man before collapsing to her knees. Yet, due to Louis’s restraint on her from the sword, she hadn’t been able to throw with nearly enough force, and the dagger fell short of its target by a foot. The dagger clattered upon the hardwood floor and skidded beneath the gentleman’s desk, useless without a conniving mind to wield it.

Louis still held the sword to the lady’s throat, not with any expertise, but he certainly had the lady fooled. She knelt there in motionless terror, her hair now unpinned, and not an iota of the cold determination remained that had crossed her features only moments ago.

The manservant hastened to the lady, securing her hands behind her and forcing her to stand. The gentleman, who had regarded this all with impressive poise, set his pen down and said, “Who are you?”

The lady looked about the room, and in a gasp, said, “Where am I?”

The gentlemen frowned. “I know not who sent you here, but they might have informed you that I am Sir John Paddington, and I do not permit assassins in my house. Clive, take her to the police at once.”

“Of course, sir,” the manservant said, inclining his head and leading the lady out of the room. She did not struggle, but as she was leaving, cried, “But I’m not a murderer! I didn’t even try! I...” She looked at Louis. “What happened?”

Louis returned his sword to the scabbard. “I don’t know. But I’ll find out.” He gave her an awkward glance before she and Clive departed.

When we heard the front door closed and bolted, Sir John crouched next to his desk, picked up the dagger, and set it down on a stack of papers as if it were a paperweight rather than a blade that might have taken his life. “That’s the second time this week,” he said with a sigh.

“I beg your pardon?” I said, still acutely alert from what had just happened.

Sir John only shook his head. “I thank you, gentlemen, for preventing this assassination. Just two days ago, a young man approached me in Dane John Gardens and tried to run me through with a letter opener. I took him to be a madman, but now...” He scowled again.

“These are strangers to you, then?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“I’m afraid we have no real answers to satisfy you, but we are investigating the matter, and will certainly inform you of our results.”

“Yes, that will be sufficient.” Sir John then regarded Louis and me in turn. “Who are you both, anyway?”

Louis and I exchanged glances. “We are philosophers,” I said.

“Philosophers? Running about with swords?”

I smiled. “If more philosophers were soldiers, the world would certainly be a better place. But we should be off; we have much to investigate.”

So we took our leave from Sir John, and, at his request, I took the dagger in case we came across any more ‘indoctrinated assassins.’

When Louis and I were back outside, I said, “How could you have possibly known that the lady was an assassin?”

“The dagger.”

“But how did you know she had it?”

We had begun to walk back to Watling Street briskly, though not nearly as briskly as the lady assassin.

“The bush,” Louis said. He seemed on edge after the event at Sir John’s, as if he would at any moment spring back into action. I have to admit that his sudden act of heroism had taken me by surprise, but I suppose it was the only honourable thing to do once he had begun to suspect the lady.

“When she knelt next to the bush,” he continued, “she picked something up and put it in her sleeve. It was long and made her take more care of that arm when walking, as if it might cut her.”

“I see.” Why he hadn’t told me this earlier, I let pass, though it would have saved me considerable anxiety.

“She didn’t know what she was doing,” Louis said.

“Or so she wants us to believe.”

“I could tell: after she threw the dagger, it was like she became a different person. Like something had possessed her, then left.”

“It certainly seems that way. As well as with Sir Patrick. But I can hardly make sense of it. If there are indeed spirits that have the ability to possess people, surely we would have seen more of them in the past. As would countless people throughout history.”

Louis shrugged. I had no more speculations about the matter, so we let it rest.

When we returned to Watling Street, I half expected to see another unnaturally brisk passerby with, perhaps, a kitchen knife or a heavy iron pot to clobber their opponent. Yet the street was empty save a carriage leaving Dane John Gardens. As we continued down the street, I noticed a flitting sensation at the back of my neck. I brushed it away, taking it to be no more than a fly, but it kept returning.

All of a sudden, I felt an enormous gust of wind, as if I had walked up against an invisible wall in the air. I stopped abruptly as it whistled about me. I could hear whispers within it, voices that seemed to sweep down to me from cold mountain passes.

I looked to Louis and was amazed that he was standing still and his hair wasn’t flapping in the wind. But then again, my hair and clothes were also still. I saw only a look of horror on Louis’s face before the world started to blur into rushes of streaming light.

And then I knew no more.

* * *

“What? What? How could this be?” a lady was crying.

I blinked a few times as I regained awareness. I was down on one knee on the porch of a red stone manor in front of a lady, standing in the open doorway. She was of a large build, and must have been about fifty.

By the way she regarded me, with her small red mouth in a perfect ‘O’ and her nostrils flaring, not to mention the half-knitted scarf with knitting needles held in an X before her chest like a shield, I realized that I must have committed some grievous error.

I stood and, trying to divine the situation — whatever it might be — said, “Good afternoon, madam. I’ll be on my way now.”

I turned to leave but walked into Louis, who was standing behind me with a hand on the hilt of his sword.

“Oh!” the lady cried, and raised a hand to her forehead. She then hurried inside and shut the door forcefully.

I turned back to Louis. He was tight-jawed and solemn, and held out his pocket watch for me to see. I leaned forward and read two thirty-eight. I had lost over half an hour.

* * *


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2017 by Mary-Jean Harris

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