A week after uncovering the secret of what really happened at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, history professor Matt Conroy was lying in a morgue with the back of his head blown off.
SFPD homicide inspector Tom McGuire, a long-time friend of Conroy’s, volunteers to assist the FBI in bringing the killer to justice. The FBI, however, is ordered to stand down for “national security” reasons.
They thought that would be the end of it. They were wrong.
Tom McGuire was not about to stand down. Not for anyone, not for any reason. That decision put him in the crosshairs of one of the world’s most secretive and dangerous organizations – an organization whose rich, powerful and ruthless members would stop at nothing to make sure their 140-year-old secret remained hidden.
Drawn into a labyrinth of conspiracies over a century old, Tom McGuire has just walked into his worst nightmare
"A first-rate thriller! Koller ratchets up the suspense in this fast-paced tale of history gone awry. Crisp writing and intricate plotting will keep you turning the pages."
The Martinez Gazette
"The Custer Conspiracy is a fast-paced crime novel, played against the backdrop of history, which races to its conclusion at a fever pitch. A must-read for fans of historical novels, with a conspiracy twist tossed in just for the fun of it."
Editor, Huron Plainsman
"Intriguing premise ..."
"Revealing a total mastery of the genre, author Dennis Koller has deftly crafted an inherently fascinating and original mystery that is a simply riveting read from cover to cover. While very highly recommended, especially for community library Mystery/Suspense collections, it should be noted for the personal reading lists of dedicated mystery buffs that "The Custer Conspiracy" is also available in a Kindle format ($6.99)."
Midwest Book Review
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She was trying to slip out of the house in Geelong when David caught sight of her. “Where are you going to all dressed up in your finery?” he sneered.
“I'm getting married,” she said, in defiance because an argument was inevitable.
“You’re not old enough to marry without Mam's permission.”
“Well she's away in Melbourne, so she's not here to give it.”
“You'll break her heart again. Don’t you think she’s had enough trouble of late?”
“No, she'll be pleased when she meets John. He's a good catch.”
“You’re just another of his children to bring her sorrow; Hannah, Jacob, James, Sarah and now you. You're all the same,” he said, in disgust.
“That's not true,” she was angry. “You’re just a loser and always will be, but I'm going to make something of myself, so I can look after Mother.”
“Make something of yourself! A convict’s daughter with such airs and graces, well you can leave Mother to me. I'll be the one looking after her.”
“Convict, what do you mean? Father wasn't a convict?”
“Where do you think he got those stripes on his back?”
“The navy, Mother said he'd been in the navy and they flog sailors, don't they?”
“A chain gang, that's where he got the lash, hundreds by the look of his scars. Mother too, she came to Australia as a convict. Do you think your fancy man would marry you if he knew he was marrying a currency girl, the daughter of convicts?” David was scornful.
“How do you know they were convicts?” Jane cried, on the verge of tears. “They never mentioned it.”
“I lived in the bloody convict orphanage for four years, didn’t I? Do you think I can forget that misery? But don’t worry I’ll not stop you from marrying this fellow. I suppose you’ve already lied to him about your age and religion because you wouldn’t be rushing to marry him if he were Catholic, or are you in the family way? No, I’ll not stop you because I don’t care what you do.”
He stormed out of the house, banging the door behind him, while Jane shook with rage and horror. If it were true, it explained much, but if John found out would he call off the wedding? Jane stood in the hallway of the house wondering what to do and then she decided to act as if nothing had happened.
Finalist for eBook of the Year General Nonfiction and Finalist for Book of the Year Nonfiction Military History in 2016
#1 Amazon Best Seller Cold War History for 5 Weeks
Ground zero for a nuclear war was just over an hour northeast of Frankfurt, Germany. The small town of Fulda is nestled at the base of a natural gap in the hilly wooded terrain of West Germany and was a corridor between East and West Germany. Referred to as the Fulda Gap, this corridor was very likely the path the Warsaw forces and the Soviet Union would have taken to invade Europe.
The following is a historical look at the Cold War in Germany through the careers of seventeen veterans who served there. These are their stories as they prepared to defend the Fulda Gap and ground zero
The brave men and women who served in West Germany were the first line of defense against the enemy horde that would come through the gap if hostilities ever began. Their mission was to hold that advancing horde for forty-eight hours until reinforcements arrived. None of them were expected to survive an invasion and they all knew it. This was what they had enlisted for, it was their job, and they did it proudly.
WINNER! MILITARY HISTORY BOOK OF THE YEAR. Book 3 of the Historical Documentary Series on the Cold War. Order Now!
The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separates North and South Korea and is the most defended border in the world.
Both sides have dug their heels in and fortified the DMZ with defensive positions, mines and booby traps, missiles, and soldiers as they remain vigilant for the recommencement of a war that never ended.
˃˃˃ READ ABOUT THE DANGEROUS JOB OF OUR SOLDIERS IN KOREA ON THE DMZ!
The soldiers were responsible for enforcing the armistice agreement that ended the Korean War. The North Koreans violated it almost daily sending spies, marauders, hit squads, and ambush patrols into the southern controlled portion of the DMZ in their never-ending effort to destabilize South Korea and cause its collapse. Their blatant violations of the agreement has left a bloody trail of dead bodies that includes many American soldiers. This book takes the reader on a journey through the history of the Cold War and the defense of the DMZ from the perspective of nine American veterans, and eleven tours, who served in different capacities in South Korea from 1962 through 1991.
Missions to the Moon traces our quest to explore this final frontier, starting with the deadly development of German V1s and V2s in the Second World War, through the pioneering adventures of the Apollo moon-landing program, and culminating in the future of lunar exploration with the recent missions by China, Japan, and Europe.
Through 150 stunning photographs and 20 beautifully recreated rare facsimile documents that almost make you feel like part of the crew, we witness the lethal Apollo 1 fire; celebrate the success of Apollo 8, the first manned spacecraft to orbit a celestial body; marvel at Apollo 11 and the first man to land on the moon; and share the dangers endured by the astronauts aboard the ill-fated Apollo 13.
These are events the whole word watched in rapt attention. Now everyone can relive the experience or enjoy it for the first time.
The historic facsimile documents include:
• Werner von Braun’s 1964 design for a space station
• A 1969 issue of the USSR newspaper Pravda, celebrating the success of Soyuz 4 and 5
• The official NASA photograph of the Apollo 7 flight crew
• The mission report from Apollo 11, as well as the descent map
• The Apollo 13 flight log
• A memo outlining future plans for Apollos 18, 19, and 20 before they were cancelled
• And more!
Set on the Anglo/Scottish border in the sixteenth century, a child’s dream of war is shattered, a boy is interned and the man travels a dangerous path not of his own design. This is the first volume of the Borderer Chronicles. Where life leads, someone always suffers.
Three Hills is a core of one man's story; poignancy, adventure and wit. Opening with the Battle of Solway Moss, it covers three periods of a life born out of the troubled English and Scottish Marches, where hardship and strife mold the local people. When English and Scottish sovereigns could only pick at each other, only to make their subjects bleed to satisfy their own royal vanity. It is a story that is the commencement of a sweeping saga of mystery, romance and adventure set against the backdrop of Sixteenth Century Europe and the terrible conflicts born out of man's ambition.
PROJECT ORION: WE COME IN PEACE (WITH NUCLEAR BOMBS!)
[DECLASSIFIED IN 1979]
It could have been just like the movies. Specifically, the soppy sci-fi melodramas of the 1950s, those humorless, grim-faced sagas of men (always white Americans), square-jawed and broad of shoulder, who faced that Great Unknown, outer space (cue the reverb) with stoicism and Yankee guts. The troupe of six to twelve individuals were usually clad in faded blue jumpsuits (probably because they were all of military bent, possibly US Air Force)—no space suits or helmets for these guys; worrying about decompression is for sissies. These were steely-eyed, anvil-chinned rocket men. The heroes would walk up a ramp or climb a ladder into the great, gleaming, cigar-shaped silver rocketship (a long-lost term widely used in the early 1950s) without assistance or fanfare—in that sunny postwar era, it took only a handful of servicemen and a few elderly scientists to launch a manned rocket. Once inside, the crewmen would close a submarine-style hatch, strap themselves into great steel chairs, take one last look around their girder-festooned, capacious cabin (1950s rocketship flight decks were the size of your average New York bachelor pad and built like battleships), nod silently to the eldest of the bunch (usually wearing colonel's eagles), who would then push the button. This was inevitably a large red push button, marked in true military parlance with something like "IGNITE ROCKETS" or more simply "FIRE!" and off they would go into the Wild Blue Yonder, while on the ground (in a similarly military posture, perhaps within a Quonset hut in New Mexico), a few worried guys in white lab coats watched a twelve-inch radar screen with a huge white dot ascending. A handful of servicemen usually stood nearby, looking vacuously at meaningless blinking lights dancing on their consoles. A single computer, the size of a small RV, would click and whir nearby. This was Space Command (or some other imagined, militarized NASA precursor) after all.
Upon reaching space, the colonel would grasp an ice cream cone–sized microphone cabled to the control panel, and as he looked in awe at a receding Earth on the giant "televisor" screen, he'd announce in dour tones, "This is spaceship X-1. We are in outer space." It was all very dramatic and thematically colorless. If you don't believe me, check out the classic 1950s cinematic space extravaganzas The Conquest of Space or Destination Moon, staples of the genre. Be sure to watch closely during the launch scenes, as the actors' faces are distorted by the horrifying, and as yet little understood, g-forces of launch. Within moments the 737-sized, single-stage craft was in space—no dawdling in orbit—heading in a straight line for the moon or Mars. It's all very humbling and fun, in a deadly serious fashion.
To be fair to the pioneering producers of these epic motion picture dramas, little was known of spaceflight before the 1960s, and sci-fi movie budgets were puny. Few movie studios took the genre seriously, and it's amazing that these innovative moviemakers pulled off what they did, given the general lack of respect these drive-in, Saturday matinee potboilers gained for them.2 But as we now know, the dramatic scenario outlined above is not exactly how human spaceflight turned out.
But it could have been.
The Apollo lunar landing program, initiated shortly after these types of films were made, mandated a different approach. NASA's moon rocket, Wernher von Braun's masterpiece, would be a multistage affair, operating right at the edge of its weight-lifting capability. NASA's first plan was to ascend directly to the moon, land, then, after a suitable period of exploration, return to Earth, shedding stages at appropriate junctures. But this brute-force methodology would have required a truly massive rocket (it was to be called Nova, and was much larger than its successor, the Saturn V), well beyond the means at hand. A bit more planning and a lot of innovative thinking resulted in the moon program we all remember, with the still-massive 363-foot Saturn V rocket propelling a tiny capsule and lander to the moon, of which only the thirteen-foot-wide capsule returned. It took hundreds of thousands of people to build it, thousands to launch and operate it, and somewhere north of twenty billion 1960s dollars to finance it. Apollo was a far cry from the rocketships of the movies.
But there were alternative plans for a massive, battleship-sized single-stage spacecraft that could have flown to the moon and beyond. In its ultimate form, this behemoth would have dwarfed the motion picture versions. A hundred or more crewmen, leaning back in space-age versions of Barcaloungers, would have departed Earth with enough fuel, life support, and supplies to reach the moon, Mars, or even Jupiter and Saturn within months. Once in space the crew would have unbelted themselves and had far more room to drift, eat, work, and sleep than the International Space Station and even most modern submarines offer. It would have been like a well-appointed office complex in space, a true space liner—this majestic craft could have unlocked the entire solar system to exploration within the decade. And best of all? It was atomic.
The massive spaceship was called Project Orion (no relation to the modern shuttle-replacing spacecraft beyond the cool name), and it would have been a nuclear-powered behemoth. Orion was first formally conceptualized in a 1955 study by Stanislaw Ulam, a Polish American mathematician who was part of the Manhattan Project in WWII, and Cornelius Everett, working from notions that Ulam had first pondered soon after WWII. Besides working on the bombs dropped on Japan, Ulam was, along with Edward Teller, a prime mover on America's first hydrogen bomb project. Soon after completing his work on H-bombs, Ulam formalized his thoughts about nuclear rocket propulsion. Other work was being done on atomic rockets, but was less dramatic—these projects involved superheating a fuel mass, such as liquid hydrogen, inside a fission reactor to eject it at high speeds out of the rocket nozzle. While much more efficient than the chemical rockets being designed by von Braun and others, it was not the massive leap in propulsion that would take humanity to the stars. Ulam had a different idea—nuclear pulse propulsion, which was not fully declassified until 1979.3 From the abstract:
Repeated nuclear explosions outside the body of a projectile are considered as providing means to accelerate such objects to velocities of the order of 106 cm/sec.4
Yes, that's right. Rather than fiddling around with rapidly expanding heated gasses with a nuclear reactor, Ulam took the most direct path to high energy release: nuclear explosions. Ulam had been mulling this over for more than a decade, reasoning that chemical rockets were terribly constrained by both the mass of the fuels and the temperatures at which they could realistically operate. Other proposals to detonate tiny nukes inside combustion chambers (one proposal suggested a chamber diameter of 130 feet, or almost four times the diameter of the Saturn V), while an improvement over chemical rockets, were deemed impractical, and did not offer a large enough increase in performance to impress Ulam. But what if the combustion chamber could be eliminated altogether and a small nuke simply detonated in open space? A percentage of the energy released by a reasonably sized nuclear explosion—not specified in the paper, but probably on the order of a half to one kiloton (about 10 percent that of the Hiroshima bomb)—would nudge a nearby spacecraft with propulsive force that, while brief, would be enormous.
Ulam characterized the spacecraft as an unmanned thirty-three-foot diameter, disk-shaped ship, with a mass of twelve to twenty tons. It would experience an acceleration of up to 10,000 g (the Apollo astronauts, riding atop the Saturn V, maxed out at just under 5 g, though the rocket was capable of more)—hence the unmanned nature of the design. Human occupants would have been turned into puddles of red jelly within moments. This robotic probe would carry dozens to hundreds of bombs, to be released at roughly one-second intervals (accompanied by a disk of plastic or container of water that would vaporize when the nuke ignited, to enhance the effect), and the resulting force of these continual explosions would propel the craft forward—right now.
Ulam was concerned about the heat impinging on the base of the craft, and suggested that a magnetic field might help to shield the spacecraft from the high-energy, one-millisecond flashes.
This was about as far as he got—it was a short study, but an intriguing one, and did not go unnoticed. In 1955 a new company called General Atomics was founded. It was a subdivision of General Dynamics, a huge defense contractor and builder of military submarines. General Atomics would specialize in efforts to harness the recently liberated power of the atom—in effect, their mission would be to find profit in nondestructive uses of atomic fission. The company became involved in a number of ventures, including a commercial nuclear reactor power generator, which was widely deployed. They also became interested in Ulam's classified paper (to which the chiefs of the company were apparently privy), and decided to pursue a serious study of the completely theoretical ideas within. Thus was born Project Orion, the nuclear pulse spaceship.
She asked the driver to turn around. Her cabbie could not drive fast enough to suit her. When she walked through the lobby of the Cinema 18, everyone was buzzing. She ran toward the crime scene but authorities had closed the hallway where she had been attacked. Her superhero had vanished.
Too late. Now what? Brandi’s hands were still shaking. Her palm felt cold against her forehead. Then, deep in thought, she was startled to hear a raspy male voice behind her.
“Brandi? Hi, my name’s Cody.”
She turned around. Her stomach, still in knots, leaped into her throat. His chiseled face was handsome in a home-on-the-range sort of way. His sculpted cheeks were partially masked by a rough-hewn beard — the obvious cover-up for scars visible through his whiskers. His nose had been broken at least once. This guy had been in some fights.
The Pirates cap he had worn earlier was now in his back pocket and his sandy blond hair wet around the sides. Did he know that his shirt had turned pink on the front? The blood spatters had faded together, partially washed off by heavy rains.
Was she face-to-face with a superhero? He was not as tall as she remembered. His fiery eyes that could have intimidated Lucifer earlier were now softer, like quiet blue waters. He offered his hand, but his shallow, forced smile told her he was not certain how she would respond. Was his shyness just an act?
Whew! His extended hand was attached to a massive forearm. His neck was wide and muscular, his body built to last, rough-cut from head to toe — a description that would make good print in her eyewitness report for the Gazette.
“I wanted to thank you,” Cody told her, “for savin’ my life earlier.”
She could hardly believe her ears. Was it a come-on? Was his voice naturally that raspy, or just a poor attempt to imitate Batman?
“You want to thank me? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?”
She extended her hand. It was cold and unsteady. Would he notice? His handshake was warm, ardent, but gentle — the same paw that had just mauled three professional tough guys. She tried to swallow her stomach back down into place but her mouth was too dry.
“Well, I would’ve been a sittin’ duck if you hadn’t deflected that guy’s arm. You showed presence of mind and courage.”
“Presence of mind and courage?” She snickered. “You mean for a girl?”
Elizabeth opened the door to the stranger letting her mouth hang upon in surprise, as the woman shouldered her way into the cottage, stooping so as not to damage her plumage on the lintel.
Once inside she looked about her. One room downstairs by the look of it and a ladder to another room above; a labourer’s cottage, plain to see, with its sparse, home-made furnishings. Earthenware pots littered a plank table along with the remains of a meal of cheese, plum bread, sliced apples and beakers of ale. Bill, her younger brother by a year, took a step towards her in surprise. His face looked grey and careworn. Was he only thirty-six?
‘Betsy, is it you? How did you know it was Mary’s funeral?’
‘I didn’t. I had business in Brigg so I thought to surprise you. I have been meaning to come for some time. I am sorry for your loss, brother. I wish now I had visited earlier.’ A polite mistruth as the fact of his recent loss made her plan easier to accomplish.
‘Sit down and take some refreshment. Elizabeth, this is your Aunt Betsy. You’re named after her. Fetch her some ale will you.’ Elizabeth dropped a quick curtsey and left to do as she was bid.
Betsy perched herself on a low, wooden bench and, after delivering further commiserations, she asked Bill the names of his children.
‘Well let’s see, there’s Elizabeth our eldest, then Tom, Hannah, William, John, we call him Joe, and our youngest Uriah. James, the baby died soon after his mother.’ Bill counted them out on his fingers. ‘That makes six, doesn’t it?’
‘If you don’t count James,’ Betsy concurred. ‘That’s the reason I came to visit. I have a proposal to take one off your hands. I have a very comfortable income and I need an heir. The doctor, I kept house for, left me a good-sized house in Grimsby and a respectable annual income.’
Bill did not know what to say. It did not feel right to give away one of his and Mary’s children. He thought for a moment and said. ‘Our Hannah will be a good mother to the youngest, we can just about manage. They don’t go hungry; Elizabeth is in service and brings in a little and Tom works on the farm with me. It’s better now than it was at the start of the war. At least there’s no shortage of bread now.’
‘That’s good. In these dismal times, I wondered how you’d been faring. I wrote to the vicar in Broughton and he told me where you were living.’
Bill looked baffled. To be honest it had been a few years since he had thought much of his sister. Times were hard and he had enough problems of his own to concern him, without thinking of his sister’s situation. It must be nigh on fourteen years since he had last seen her, the day of his wedding.
‘Just consider the advantage for the child. He will have an education and be able to choose any profession.’
Bill continued to look puzzled until he dragged his mind back to Betsy’s proposal. ‘One of my sons then; you want a boy?’ He studied the tamped down earthen floor for a long moment, turning the offer over in his mind. ‘I suppose Uriah will not remember us if you take him.’ Bill swallowed hard; perhaps it would be best for the child. He was barely two years old and it would free up Hannah for service in another year or two.
‘No I want one that’s old enough to be biddable and young enough to learn. What about that one?’ She pointed to William.
‘Not William. He’s his mother’s favourite.’ Her brother checked himself and said ‘was,’ in a way that caused Betsy to pat his hand.
‘He can be my favourite then.’ Betsy liked the look of William and she disliked the name Uriah, an unlucky name, for did not David have him killed to claim Bathsheba? She was indifferent to John. Had not Salome demanded his head on a plate? William, however, was a strong name, a lucky name, the name of their father, another William Holtby. Yes, she liked that. As she studied him, she began to see a likeness to his grandfather, maybe not in his colouring, but in his green eyes which were set wide apart and the long, thin nose and the square set to his chin. He would grow up to be handsome and she was not averse to handsome.
Betsy also noted the way William sat still on his aunt’s lap, not fidgeting like Joe, or picking his nose like Uriah. William appeared to be listening to the conversation going on around him. She could see him thinking. He would do very well and she made up her mind.
‘I’ll give you twenty pounds as a dowry for your daughters. The younger one has an eye that wanders; she will need money if she is to find a husband.’
Bill sighed. His sister had always been bossy but how could he turn down a fortune, more money than he earned in a year? It was true, Hannah’s squint was going to be a burden to her. He rubbed his head as though it would make his thinking clearer, but tiredness, grief and resentment muddied his mind. Why did Mary have to die and leave him with all these problems? He’d been content with his lot but within forty-eight hours his world had blown apart. Betsy tapped him on the arm, impatient for an answer.
He took the safest option. ‘Mary was never one to mollycoddle the children but she thought William special, said he would amount to something. Maybe it’s you who will make that happen, Betsy, because all I can see for the future is more poverty. If the fields are enclosed and we must work for a pittance, how will we cope? Then there’s all this talk of invasion. Tom and I have been called to train for the militia, although we only have pikes for weapons. I often worry what will happen to the children if I am killed fighting. Pray God it never comes to that.’ Bill swallowed hard again and shook his sister’s hand to seal the deal and she passed him a bag of sovereigns, not that suspicious paper money the government had introduced, but gold. More money than he had seen in his life. He would need to find a good hiding place for it.
‘Well if we are to reach Brigg by dark we ought to set off. You’d best make your goodbyes brother. We’ll not visit again; it will unsettle the child.’
In 1866, Peter Baxter’s misfortune ends the day he leaves Badgerys Creek orphanage. Unsure of what to do next, Peter finds himself on a farm run by Mr. Brown. An aging man, Brown needs help and is happy to give Peter a place to live in exchange for his labor. Unbeknownst to Peter, Brown’s past is riddled with dark secrets tied to the same orphanage, which he has documented in a red folder.
During a chance encounter, Peter meets Rose. Peter cannot help but fall in love with her beauty, grace, and wit but fears that his affection will go unrequited as a result of his crippling poverty. But fate changes when Peter joins the search for gold in Hill End, New South Wales. Striking it rich, he returns to Rose a wealthy man. Peter is changed by his new found affluence, heading towards the mire of greed. Will Rose regret her relationship with Peter?
Meanwhile, Rose has her own troubled history. One that is deeply entwined with Brown’s past and Peter’s future.
14A Nobfiddler's Lane
Thursday, August 22nd 1889
Bill Sikes to Doctor J. Watson:
Hand-delivered by Urchin
Deer Docter Watsen
I am sure yule forgiv this intrushon inter your privat life, but I have come upon a situashon what you might be abel ter help with (or indeed, your pal Mister Holmes). As you knowe, I have lately been on the strayt and narrow after being a bit of a robber fer most of my lyfe, so have been involvd in doin some cleanin fer the gover ment. In fact, I have been cleanin the basement in the monument what is knowne as Big Ben. An while doin so I have come inter contact with a gentleman by the name of Mister Hannay.
Anyway, I will get to the point of this letter: Mister Hannay is a writer what is interested in writin crim books and books about villins an that, an he was arskin me what I thought about stuff. Well, whil we was talkin, he arsked how many steps there was up to the tower, so I said there were about four undred.
He was a bit upset at this and said 'So, not thirty-nine, then?'
'No,' said I.
'Bugger,' said he.
Anyway, then he said he would have ter go and I watched him goin off down the streete. Then I appened ter notice that two surly-lookin fellers was followin him, so I hurried on down and catched up with him and took him inter a nearby pub.
The long and the short and the tall of it, Docter, is that Mister Hannay needs your help. I have enclosed the address at where he is stayin and have told him to expect you shortly.
I ope this were alright.
Saturday, August 24th 1889
To Sherlock Holmes Esq. from Doctor Watson
As you appear to be ignoring my messages, I have taken it upon myself to investigate the matter I brought to your attention the other day. Since our old pal Bill Sikes is unwilling to inveigle himself any further in the affair, I sent a telegram to 'The Uphill Gardener' (a public house of dubious repute) arranging to meet with Mr Hannay and attempt some sort of intervention.
When I arrived at the aforementioned hostelry last evening, I alighted from my Hansom in a flurry of excitement. I hasten to say the excitement was not of my doing, but created by a group of young apprentices in the midst of a series of strange tasks: some bigwig by the name of Lord Shagger had demanded they ascertain the cost of performing an appendectomy on the cheap. Identifying me as a physician by my Gladstone bag, the rabble pinned me to the wall and fired a barrage of questions regarding surgical cuts etc. I whipped out my trusty revolver, prompting the youths to back off, at which point they spotted that old fiend Dr Knox across the road (still on the run concerning that body-snatching business), and set off after him.
Finally free of the fray, I scurried into the public house and located the property owner. He glanced around nervously and bade me make haste to an upstairs room where I found our client, Richard Hannay.
'Where's Sherlock Holmes?' said he, with what I deduced to be an unhelpful degree of resentment.
I explained how Mr Holmes was engaged on another matter, but that I would do all I could to help. At this, he crumpled in a heap on the fireside rug and began to sob loudly. Feeling somewhat embarrassed at this show of unmanliness, I determined to explore my feminine side and knelt down beside him. Slipping an arm around his shoulder I must admit I found the experience of human contact rather comforting (as you know, Mrs Watson has been somewhat distant lately, following her fling with that Italian ice cream seller).
It transpires that Hannay cannot return to his own flat as one of his admirers is tormenting him with threats of libel etc. (I use this term loosely, since his melodramatic plots are completely ridiculous and unlikely to provoke anything other than utter boredom). However, I persuaded him that it was foolish to stay away from his own home and we should go there at once to face whoever (or whatever) awaits us.
In the end, I only managed to convince the man after showing him my trusty weapon. His eyes lit up on seeing it, and he begged me to let him touch it. I agreed to this, since I didn't see any harm in letting him feel its solid shaft and hair trigger, so long as the damn thing didn't go off in his hand!
Thus empowered, he became considerably animated and minutes later, we hailed a cab and set off for his apartment. Had I known what lurked in the shadows of that deadly spot, I might have taken more notice of Hannay's concerns.
To be continued
Diary of Doctor J. Watson
Flat 14, Windemere Mansions
Later the same day...
It was dark when Hannay and I arrived at his apartment. My companion’s initial enthusiasm (spurred by the knowledge of the gun in my pocket), had by this time dissipated somewhat. He began to display signs of anxiety; sweating profusely from every pore, an inability to get his key in the lock, visibly starting at the click of the light switch etc. I made myself useful by making a pot of tea while he hurried to the window and drew the curtains.
I busied myself in the kitchen and was a little disappointed to discover there were no Custard Creams. When I returned, Hannay had not moved from his position by the window.
'Here we are, old bean,' I said, handing him a mug of Darjeeling. 'This’ll perk you up.'
Holding the edge of the curtain open, he took the cup and stared at me for a moment, then his gaze moved back to the street outside. 'They’re back again, see?' He turned to me, a look of utter fright in his eyes. 'What the devil can they want?'
I shrugged and peered over his shoulder. In the street below, two rather iffy-looking men were standing by a telephone box, gazing up at the flat. I determined to put a brave face on it: 'Looks perfectly innocent to me – just a couple of chaps having a quiet smoke.'
Hannay shook his head. 'No, they’re after my plot.'
I blinked. 'Your what?'
'My plot,' said he. 'They want to steal The 39 Steps.'
I considered this for a long moment, debating the consequences of such a proposition. 'Sorry, what?'
He uttered a low moaning sound that hinted at his current mental state. 'Watson! Don’t you get it? It’s all about my book – The 39 Steps. They want to steal the plot.'
I began to experience a growing sensation of annoyance. 'What, you mean this isn’t about some international spy ring?'
'Spy ring? God no, it’s much, much worse.'
My blood ran cold. 'You mean - they’re writers?'
'Of course they’re bloody writers, damn it. Ever since I came up with a cracking good idea for my new novel, everyone’s been after it.'
I sighed. 'You’re an idiot. Sorry Hannay, but I’m going home.' I began to put on my socks and string vest. However, a knock at the door startled us both. 'Who the fuck’s that?'
'It’s them!' screamed Hannay, 'they’re going to kill me.'
I pulled on my trousers. 'Don’t be ridiculous. It’s probably just someone who’s lost their way and seeking directions.' I hastened to the door and pulled it open.
Standing before us was a moustachioed man wearing a frock coat. He leaned forward slightly and muttered, 'Ostovich.'
'What?' I said. But our visitor spake no more. He pitched forward and fell in a heap on the floor. And that’s when I noticed the knife in his back.
There was little need to check the man’s vital signs, but I went through the motions nevertheless. Given my companion’s somewhat heightened sense of terror, I decided to break the news to him as gently as possible:
'He’s snuffed it.'
'My God! I’m next!' Hannay’s hands flew to his face, cupping those rosy cheeks in a girlish manner that put me in mind of my own dear wife and the ‘swooning maiden’ act she sometimes adopts whenever I ask her to iron my longjohns.
'We must fetch Sherlock Holmes,' he cried, tugging at my lapel. 'Only he can save us.'
I brushed him aside. 'Don’t be such a nancy-boy, Hannay. Pull yourself together.' I checked through the dead man’s pockets and found two items: a picture postcard of some obscure Scottish village and a small white card displaying a silhouette of a man and the slogan ‘Scudder’s Marital Aids’. Slipping both articles into my pocket, I stood up. 'His name’s Scudder and judging from his business card I don’t believe him to be involved in creative writing. Now, Hannay, this is very important – the word he uttered before he fell…'
Hannay clenched his hands. 'I thought he was asking for the Post Office.'
I shook my head. 'No, that’s meaningless. I'm certain the word was ‘Ostovich’, which is obviously Russian. This man is a secret agent.'
'But what’s that got to do with me?'
I walked over to the window and retrieved my cup of tea. 'I think this has something to do with your writing, Hannay, but it’s also got something to do with spies.'
'But I don’t know anything about spying,' he wailed.
'Ah,' said I. 'And yet, in your recent novel ‘The Forger and the Gin-Juggler' you went into great detail about the process of creating false passports.'
'Oh, you read my books?' His manner changed abruptly and he began pawing at my chest like a lovesick pig.
'Indeed,' I muttered. I turned my face away lest he perceive my lying eyes. 'I didn’t like to say so before, but I’m rather fond of a good story and the depth of research that goes into your work might easily prompt a less intelligent casual reader to think you were involved in spying yourself.'
He shrugged. 'Actually, I make it all up, but I suppose it’s possible…'
'Not only possible, but highly likely. You said yourself someone was trying to steal your new novel.' I rubbed my chin the way I’ve seen Holmes do in such situations. 'I believe that the men who've been following you are enemy agents. Scudder here was obviously involved – perhaps he was a double agent. A triple agent, even.' I peeked through the curtains and noted with a grim nod that the two men at the phone box were still there. 'We have to leave.'
'And go where?'
At that precise moment in time I had no idea, but then a thought occurred to me. Pulling the postcard out of my pocket I studied the picture closely – it depicted a traditional Scottish village and the slogan ‘Frae Bonnie Scotland’. 'We need time to consider our next move,' I said, waving the card. 'We’ll catch the next train to Edinburgh and head for Newton Stewart – no-one will think of looking for us there.'
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