"Call 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 know."
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 the pier.
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 you cold?"
"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?"