me 'sir', they do," he assured the crumbling buildings that
used to house shipping companies and maritime supply shops. "Well,
the little ones, at least. I give them impromptu lectures on military
strategy. Awfully useful when living in the wild like this, you
The street seemed unimpressed, presenting a solid row of shut doors
and boarded windows. What had happened to the river trade? he wondered.
All commerce seemed ground to a halt.
When he got to the pier, there was some kind of operation taking
place. Several coaches and a large wagon had pulled up and blocked
off the entrance. Horses' breaths clouded the freezing air. Men
holding kerosene lamps went from encampment to encampment, herding
whole families towards the gaping doors of an old, creaking cattle
car, from which two ominously large padlocks hung.
"What in blazes is going on?" he asked.
In the middle of it all, a man wearing only a thin, mouse-colored
raincoat, kept cupping his hands and repeating announcements, like
the ringmaster at a circus.
"You will be given a thorough medical examination," he
promised, "provided with a meal, a change of clothes, then
returned here, or wherever else you wish to be taken. In the meantime,
all your possessions will be safeguarded."
Despite these temptations and assurances, no one seemed particularly
eager to enter the increasingly overcrowded car. However, being
poor, they were used to being ordered about, though the men with
the lanterns carried no weapons and bore no outward badge of authority.
Even the Colonel, whose mouth, at the mere mention of the word "meal",
had begun to water, could sense something fishy about the proposal.
Christmas had been just last week, and no one had come round then.
"See here!" he called, and began walking toward the lit
circle of activity, squeezing past the teams of horses that obscured
Two men tackled him from behind.
"Ouf!" Colonel Carter gasped, trying to effect a Malayan
Choke Hold, but instead found himself waving his arms in the air
as he was lifted like a parcel by a huge man in a raccoon coat.
An accomplice, shorter and plump, scuttled alongside them, carrying
his friend's bowler hat, which had fallen off in what passed for
the struggle. "Help! Murder!"
"Shut up," the voice in his ear commanded. "Saving
your skin, we are. Least you could do is be grateful."
"Unhand me!" the Colonel roared.
"Suit yourself," the man shrugged, and unceremoniously
dumped him on his backside.
The Colonel got up, springing into a defensive pose, but then saw
that the two men, both prosperously dressed, were in no mood to
renew their assault.
"Go," the big man said, nodding to the eerily illuminated
pier. "There's still time. Look at'em, like lambs to the slaughter,
being packed into that there car. Think they are going to a meal
of peaches and cream like the bloke says? More like going to meet
their Maker they are. And what a story they will have to tell Him."
The Colonel once again surveyed the scene, taking care now to crouch,
as the other two did, behind a row of pilings that lined the approach.
There was indeed something sinister about the silence and efficiency
with which the area was being cleared.
"Who are these people?" he hissed.
"His Majesty's Investigatory Service," the shorter man
answered. "A special branch of government." He frowned
at the Colonel's threadbare attire. "Excuse me, sir, but are
"Oh...a bit," came the Colonel's unexpectedly timid reply.
Egan, before the words had left the man's mouth, was shrugging off
his massive fur coat. Still staring ahead, he handed it to the Colonel.
Only now, with the solid fur wrapped round his shoulders, did the
Colonel's body indulge in the luxury of shivering violently. Every
joint went numb.
"Tut, tut, you wouldn't have lasted the medical examination,"
Egan said. "No peaches and cream for you." Then he spoke
to his friend: "Hopeless, it is. We arrived too late, as usual.
I tell you, our only hope is to take the offensive. Blow the responsible
parties to smithereens."
"What h-h-happens to them?" Colonel Carter asked.
"Your fellows? Well, no one knows for sure. Except they don't
come round again. Trying to stop the spread of the contagion, they
are. It is a rather primitive solution to the problem. Which I do
not object to, primitive solutions, that is, when they work. But
it don't work in this case. There will always be more people to
come and fill this pier, wouldn't you say...is it Major?"
"Colonel." He extended a hand swollen and discolored with
frostbite. "Carter, Jonathan S. Retired."
"Lackey," Egan corrected, taking the hand with both his
own and holding onto it, as if he had the power to heal.
"Beg your pardon?"