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Black Butterfly, Page 2

Mark Gatiss

  He chuckled again–rather hatefully. I said nothing.

  Allan Playfair was a dependable chap. Solid. Respectable. And about to replace me.


  The man who’d prevented the revivified zombie of Captain Scott destroying New Zealand with his steam-dreadnought the Terror Nova. The man who’d pursued and destroyed Dr Cassivelaunus Fetch and A.C.R.O.N.I.M.–the Anarcho-Criminal Retinue of Nihilists, Incendiarists and Murderers. The man who’d come out of the Second World War covered in glory (and certain unmentionables) after preventing the Nazis from exploding a miniature purgative inside the Prime Minister’s guts.

  I had risen to the top of my curious profession (oh, for goodness sake, I’m not going into all that again. Visit the library!). I was officially ‘Joshua Reynolds’, President of the Royal Academy. Not the oh-so-respectable bastion of Fine Art you might be imagining, of course, but the front for Her Britannic Majesty’s really, really Secret Service. (There, I’ve said it. No need to go to the library now. I’ve saved you the bus fare.)

  But to my old friends, old lovers, old tailors but most especially, dear old Reader, to you, I remain Lucifer Box.

  Would you know me, still? The tall frame a little stooped in the black linen suit, the hands knotty with veins. Perhaps the eyes would still surprise you. Sharp and brightly blue, like the sun-glistened edge of a melting snowdrift. Or do I flatter myself? Probably.

  My scandalous career had been quite a ride but, like all good things, had to come to an end. The Royal Academy was finally to be absorbed by the traditional MI6 mob: the ‘Service’. With their checkpoints and their microfilmed sex-acts and their shabby little assassinations in rainy Czech alleys.

  Playfair held up a hand. ‘Anyway, I’m in no rush, old love. You remember that. You have all the time in the world.’

  ‘One month,’ I said, contemplating the popping gas-fire. It was a stiflingly hot June, but Playfair was notoriously thin-blooded. ‘It really doesn’t take that long to clear one’s desk.’

  ‘What have you got on, anyway?’ he asked. ‘Something juicy, I trust? Something nice for me to inherit? Or are you going to sort everything out in four short weeks and leave me with slim pickings?’

  ‘I’m winding down gently…’ I began.

  ‘Out with it!’


  ‘I knew it, you old fox!’

  I shrugged. ‘Something down in Cape Town. Locals have been looking for Coelacanth.’

  ‘Beg pardon?’

  ‘Species of ancient fish,’ I explained. ‘Long believed extinct but still hanging around.’

  We both smiled at that.

  ‘Well,’ I continued, ‘the Cape Towners caught something all right, but it wasn’t what it appeared.’

  Playfair rubbed his hands together. ‘Don’t tell me! A robotic Soviet listening device covered in scales and fins!’

  ‘Nothing so interesting. Just a body. An old friend of mine, in point of fact.’

  He stopped sucking on his pipe. ‘Oh, I am sorry. What happened?’

  I shrugged. ‘Looks like suicide. Drove his car into the bay.’

  Playfair shook his head. ‘Bloody shame.’ He got up and started opening drawers. ‘Tell you what. I think there might still be some sherry here somewhere. Left over from the Coronation.’

  ‘No, thanks. And how about you?’


  ‘Cases? Pending?’

  Playfair pulled a face. ‘Usual pallid guff. Chinese making ugly noises. Narcotics scare out in the Balkans’. He paused with a dusty bottle of Sandeman in one hand. ‘Leftist grumblings in Venezuela…’

  I nodded dully.

  The parp of car horns and the unmistakable roar of the city sent a sudden and unexpected pang of emotion surging through me. I glanced round at the drearily respectable portraits and the drearily respectable room. ‘I just hope…’


  ‘I just hope you have some fun,’ I said. ‘It really used to be the most tremendous fun.’

  ‘Don’t think I signed the chit for “fun”,’ said Playfair. He smiled and raised his glass. ‘To you.’

  He got to his feet and buttoned his jacket. ‘Well, if you’ll excuse me. Pleasure, as always. And I’m sure I’ll see you again before you leave.’

  ‘If you like.’

  ‘Cheerio, old love.’ He took my hand and then glanced down at the desk, his attention already elsewhere. For all his bonhomie, I had been effectively dismissed.

  I went through into the outer office, a smaller, darker, cooler version of Playfair’s. Miss Beveridge looked up from her desk and smiled.

  Ah, Miss Beveridge.

  Charming girl. Carrying out her sherpa-like duties for the Service without a word of complaint. Padding up and down the olive-green corridors with buff files under both arms. Scribbling memos, delivering dockets. For a short while, she’d been seconded to the Royal Academy and that’s when yours truly, never content to doze off into a copy of Art and Artists when there’s something delicious about, had noticed other things about Miss Beveridge. I’d observed her long, lovely neck, for instance, startlingly brown against the crisp white of her lace collar; the way her eyes disappeared into crinkled half-moons when she smiled; her infectious and frankly dirty Lancastrian chuckle. In addition, having studied dusty files of my adventures in her youth, she was a dedicated fan. Perhaps, over a Madeira or four, I could immerse myself in a very different Beveridge Report…

  ‘The young lad’s here, sir,’ she said brightly.

  I had lost myself in dreaming again. ‘Is he? Right. Thank you, Beveridge.’

  ‘Smashing to see you again, Mr Box.’

  ‘And you, my dear.’

  As she began shuffling papers, I gazed at her. Slender, exquisitely coiffured and perfect. I was fooling myself. What the deuce would someone like her see in old Lucifer Box? An indulgent smile was all I would ever get.

  But as I moved to the door, she looked up again.

  ‘Sir? I just wanted to say good luck, sir. And…well, it won’t be the same without you.’

  ‘Thanks.’ I felt suddenly emboldened. Perhaps the party wasn’t over just yet. ‘Um…I was wondering…I have an appointment tomorrow. Rather a depressing matter, I’m afraid. Funeral. Old friend.’

  ‘Oh, I’m sorry to hear that, sir.’

  ‘Well, I was wondering whether you’d be available to accompany me? Hate to go to these things alone. Then, perhaps, a spot of lunch? And I can regale you with tales of some of my more sensational past glories.’

  To my delight, the girl’s face lit up. ‘Oh, that’d be grand, Mr Box!’


  ‘I can drive us there, if you like,’ she enthused. ‘I’ve nowt flash, mind, in the car department.’

  ‘That’s perfectly all right. It’s Number Nine, Downing Street.’

  ‘Yes, I know that bit,’ she chuckled.

  ‘Shall we say eleven o’clock?’

  Miss Beveridge nodded enthusiastically and, with as much insouciance as I could muster, I left the office and made my way down the peeling stairwell, grinning like a youngster and positively dancing on air.

  Awaiting me at the entrance was a little boy. He was sitting on a bench, legs sticking out before him like two white poles in neat grey socks. A beret covered most of the thick blue-black coils of his hair. He looked up as I approached but didn’t smile.

  ‘Good afternoon, Christmas,’ I sighed.

  ‘Hello, Daddy,’ he said.



  The Scouting Association has never held much appeal for me. I’ve no truck with paramilitary organisations. Way back in the mists, mind you, when the old Queen was happy and fairly glorious, I did have some slight acquaintance with Baden-Powell. Though quite why the defender of Mafeking devoted his declining years to all those athletic young lads–well–you have to wonder.

  However, my son Christmas had taken to Scouting with almost indecent fervour,
and was forever knotting Sheepshanks, sparking up campfires and shinning up those ropes with waxy ends you find dangling in chilly school gymnasia. He’d done so well, indeed, that he was to participate in some sort of International Camp and it was my duty, on that sultry afternoon, to set him on his way.

  I didn’t have the heart to tell him some of the things I’d done for International Camp but then fathers and sons shouldn’t have those sorts of conversations, should they?

  I’m getting ahead of myself, though.

  Christmas Box– you didn’t see that one coming, did you? The product of too much Montrachet and a broken axle on the road to Zagreb, he was an indiscretion that didn’t even have the excuse of being youthful. One really doesn’t expect bundles to turn up on one’s doorstep on frosty Yuletide Eves, when the heat is in the very sod and one is entertaining a plumber’s mate in the pantry (I bat for both the First and Second Eleven, if you recall). But that’s exactly what had happened. Several urgent tugs–at the doorbell, you understand–summoned me to the front door and I’d grumpily left off the plumb-bob. In the snow outside I found a tiny child with a gently snubbed nose and the brightest boot-button eyes. Tied to his toe was a scribbled shipping label in the clumsy hand of the Zagrebian temptress, explaining all.

  I’d done the decent thing–for once in my life–and given the brat my name, plus another in honour of the season (I was never going to call him Noel, was I?), then packed him off to some ancient boarding school for his betterment. On high days and holidays, I was obliged to take him out for an airing.

  Despite my best efforts at succouring his artistic soul, Christmas had sat glumly through various exhibitions and museum trips, only brightening at the prospect of a knee-grazing trip to the park. I fear that, like his mother, he had an unhealthy interest in outdoor pursuits.

  The little squib was forever complaining that everything was awfully boring and why couldn’t we go and see some racing cars down at Brooklands or something? Finally, in a kind of desperate parental funk, I had enrolled the lad in the Scouts.

  Well, that’s not strictly accurate. For, with National Service winding down and Teddy Boys slashing up the upholstery in crumbling picture-houses, the dib-dib-dibbers had been reborn as the grandly titled ‘New Scout Movement’. The great unwashed had seized on this with fervour, gleefully stuffing thousands of their grisly offspring into camps where they could expend all their pent-up energy washing Morris Travellers and helping veterans of El Alamein across the road. Its Honorary Chairman was the much-loved Lord Battenburg and it was a real force for good, according to the Daily Mail–although that’s rarely a happy sign.

  To me it all sounded horribly healthy and well-intentioned but then, as you may know, I had a depraved childhood.

  For some unfathomable reason, the whole summer knees-up was set to kick off on one of those queer little islands that squat in the outer reaches of the Thames. Christmas and I motored through Town and then headed south through Richmond until we came to a crumbling wooden footbridge that connected the mainland to the island.

  The bruised sky threatened thunder.

  Christmas, looking like a little lead soldier in his navy-blue coat, stomped boldly over the bridge and past scrubby outcrops of leafless bushes. We then crossed a second, more substantial bridge, over a weir, where water thundered down in plumes.

  ‘Come on, Daddy,’ mewled Christmas. ‘We’ll be late. Miss ffawthawte says that punctuality is a virtue.’

  ‘Oh, does she now?’ I grumbled. I was already conjuring visions of flyblown church halls and pallid youths in vests doing physical jerks. Which is not nearly as much fun as jerking physical youths in vests, pallid or otherwise. ‘I’m sure whatever wonders they have in store, they’ll keep. And who is this Miss…what did you say she was called?’

  ‘Miss ffawthawte,’ piped the boy. ‘You know. She’s the one who got me started.’

  ‘I thought I was the one who got you started.’

  ‘You just signed the forms.’

  ‘So I did.’ With a heavy heart and not in the least interested, I pushed open a sagging wooden gate marked Private.

  Beyond lay a broad meadow, dotted with pyramid-shaped tents and small wooden houses, jetties leading from each to the river. The pathway was overhung by weeping willows. From beneath one of them, a woman in a well-cut skirt and jacket suddenly appeared.

  I took in her steel spectacles and a heart-shaped face of alabaster loveliness. Lustrous burnt-sienna curls hung to her shoulders. Only a tiny scar just above the mouth marred the perfection. A hare-lip, clearly, though long ago put right. By her parents, I wondered–or by an altruistic lover?

  The newcomer extended a slim white hand.

  ‘Melissa ffawthawte,’ she purred. ‘You must be Mr Box. I’m very pleased to meet you.’

  ‘My absolute pleasure,’ I said silkily, straightening up and smoothing down my waistcoat.

  ‘And here’s my little Christmas!’ She planted a hand on the top of the boy’s beret and he beamed up at her. ‘We are all thrilled and honoured to have such a clever young man as part of our team.’ Her green eyes widened. ‘You must be very proud.’

  ‘Oh, bursting with it,’ I lied. ‘Positively bursting.’

  Miss ffawthawte pushed an errant curl from her face. I couldn’t keep my eyes off the tiny pulse beating in her pale throat. She had the look of a girl I’d fox-trotted across the floor at Maxim’s on Armistice Day, 1918. What a night! The Germans hadn’t been the only ones to surrender.

  ‘To get this far, Mr Box,’ said Miss ffawthawte, ‘your son has passed a huge number of tests and obstacles.’

  ‘Has he?’ I said, pulling a face. ‘Dear me. Sounds rather like schoolwork! Are you sure you didn’t mind, Christmas?’

  The boy shrugged and gazed up at Melissa ffawthawte with cow-eyes. ‘I didn’t mind.’

  She took off his beret and stroked his head. ‘Now, at last, he has joined the elite. The cream.’

  ‘How lovely for him,’ I said. ‘I shall rely on you to ensure that he doesn’t curdle.’

  The beauty managed a small smile and I felt encouraged, just as I had been by Miss Beveridge’s response. This was more like it! If not exactly raging against the dying of the light, I was at least a little cross with it. Miss ffawthawte ushered us on down the path.

  All around the meadow, bell-shaped tents had been erected and there was that pervasive grassy smell one associates with village fêtes and flower shows. Each tent swarmed with athletic-looking youngsters in khaki shorts and absurd sombrero-like hats. I was suddenly rather uncomfortably reminded of another youth group which had gained some little popularity in thirties Nuremberg.

  ‘You must forgive my ignorance,’ I said, stepping carefully over a guy-rope, ‘but this camp of yours–what exactly goes on?’

  ‘You were never a Scout, Mr Box?’ enquired Miss ffawthawte.

  I chuckled. ‘No, I—’

  ‘After your time, of course,’ she cut in. ‘What a shame.’ Tilting her head, she appraised me with the sort of pitying look that is the special preserve of youth. Miss ffawthawte and her Teutonic tonic, I thought, could stand a little puncturing.

  ‘You have funny names, don’t you,’ I said cheerily, ‘for the wallahs in charge of it all? Something from Kipling, isn’t it–the Kim, the Baloo?’


  ‘The Mowgli?’

  ‘Akela,’ she repeated, with depressing earnestness, rouged mouth setting into a firm line.

  ‘That’s the chap.’ I looked around. ‘Is he about?’

  Miss ffawthawte shook her head. ‘Not at present. We’re very busy–as you can imagine.’

  ‘Oh, I’m sure,’ I chuckled. ‘All that pop to uncork. But you understand I must be content that my boy is in safe hands.’

  ‘Don’t you worry about a thing, Mr Box,’ she said, fondling Christmas’s hair. ‘We’ll take the best care of him. The very best. I wasn’t fortunate enough to have such opportunities when I was a girl, so
now I’m keen to spread some of my good fortune around.’

  ‘Very laudable. I’m sure he’ll have marvellous fun.’

  ‘Fun, yes,’ said Miss ffawthawte, gazing down into the lad’s eyes. ‘But he’ll also learn lots of new and exciting things. Our charges must “be prepared” in all things. That’s what we’re all about.’ She looked into the middle distance. ‘It will be a great Movement.’

  ‘I always say it’s important to manage a great Movement at least once a day.’

  Her green eyes narrowed. ‘Great because young people,’ she said silkily, ‘are the future, are they not?’

  ‘Well, there’s no arguing with that,’ I said. ‘They’ll still be here, long after we’re dust.’

  Miss ffawthawte gave me a look over her steel spectacles that seemed to say: ‘Long after some of us are dust.’

  ‘So,’ I said, moving on in the hope of speeding up the whole wretched parental business. ‘When does everyone arrive for the knees-up?’

  Miss ffawthawte crossed her hands in front of her. ‘The Jamboree begins next week. In Kingston.’

  ‘Super,’ I said distractedly, imagining how disappointed all those foreign Scouts would be with suburban little Kingston-on-Thames. But no doubt gallons of ginger beer and pickled eggs would put them right.

  We were approaching a large dark hut, constructed from logs in that quaint fashion one associates with spa towns and skiing resorts. It was exactly the sort of lifeless place I had expected and, once we were through the double doors, I took in the noticeboards covered with neatly typed announcements, the stacks of tubular chairs and a slightly crippled ping-pong table under a tin lampshade. The place stank of damp.

  A long corridor stretched off immediately in front of us, the windows inset in it looking into cheaply panelled rooms. From the blur of white vests and navy-blue pants within, it seemed the Scouts were engaged in vigorous exercise.

  I was about to look away when I became aware that someone was watching us through one of the interior windows. I took a step back.

  It was a strange and sickly boy, hollow-eyed and jaundiced-looking, like the ghost of a Victorian child drowned in a weir. Limp yellow hair slimed its way across the pale forehead, and his arms and legs were pathetically shrivelled in indigo pants and a startlingly white vest.