A fog had settled over the streets of London like a lazing river of smoke, and the branches swayed easily in the breeze as the night watch captain peered up at the clock tower. Half past one. They were late. In all his twenty-seven years on the force, he’d never experienced such a generation of tardy creatures. As the old owl muttered to himself, a faint glowing dot appeared, growing quickly.
“Sergeant,” he called quietly. “Ready the gate.”
“Aye, captain,” a younger owl answered from the tree line.
With the crescendo of clicking cobblestones, a badger-drawn cart appeared from the mist, a single lantern at its stern. Two guards were riding atop, facing opposing directions, rifles at the ready.
“You’re late,” the captain informed them as they approached.
“I didn’t know we was in a hurry,” one of the guards said, tipping back his helmet.
“What did you think this was, a midnight joyride? Take her in through the south side of the square. Be quick about it.”
The captain directed them with his wing and followed behind to the opening gate which allowed them entrance into a large grassy field surrounded by a fortified wall. The cart nearly scraped its wheels against the iron frame of the gate, then with a clang, it closed behind them. A group of guards emerged from a small hut in the east corner to help unload the cargo.
In the center of the square had been erected a massive vault of steel and concrete. Protected within were dozens of rows of gold bricks glowing in the lamp light, the only remaining space reserved for this final delivery from the Bank of England. The captain completed the unlocking procedure to open the vault, and the guards disappeared inside, guiding in the cart of gold.
The door closed behind them, and with a smile, the old captain retrieved a pipe from his jacket and began puffing it to life. The most was thick, yet the moon was still visible above him, and he felt at peace as he thought of his impending retirement.
His thoughts were interrupted, however, by a muffled uproar within the vault. Turning, he beheld a red cloud forming above the square, its body swirling into the sky. It appeared to be escaping from within the vault itself. A metal clanging at the door caused him to drop his pipe and run quickly over, and he soon realized the guards’ inability to exit. Dark red smoke began surrounding him as he turned the dial of the lock, his eyes burning, the numbers hardly visible.
The key slipped out of his grasp to the ground, and the captain spit a volley of curses. His lungs tightened and burned. The shouts from within turned to coughing screams until one by one, the voices faded. Recovering the key, he completed the unlocking procedure and waited. The beat of his heart racing, deafening in his ears as each second lasted an eternity. But as loud as the thumping of his pulse was, he could still hear the final cry beyond the door. Then his body stilled, and the world turned to black.
“There is something in the air here that makes me well, Doggart. Before the audience ever takes their seats, before the orchestra strikes up the overture and the players have taken their marks, there is a peace in the majesty of this place.”
Theodore Huxley, a pigeon smartly dressed in a blue herringbone suit, looked out from the stage of the Amble Theatre, drinking in the elegance of the auditorium capable of seating over nine hundred people in its three levels. Four columns were painted a soft crème with golden vines climbing up and branching across the convex curve of the second and third levels. Velvet seats glowed beneath the great chandelier above, lighting the space through a thousand crystals.
“Perhaps it’s not the best place for a magic show.” Franklin Doggart emitted a husky, deep-chested laugh with a pat on Huxley’s shoulder.
“That’s not what I meant,” he replied. “It belongs here as much as the acrobats, the opera singers, and the Arabian belly dancers.”
“It’s goin’ to be quite a night.”
“Indeed, it is,” Huxley nodded. “What were you wanting to show me? Something for your performance tonight?”
“Aye, and it’s a beauty!” Doggart, a brown burly squirrel, led Huxley backstage where several stagehands were busily making final preparations for the evening. Stationed to the side and standing upright, was a large glass box. He patted the side of it. “This is the water chamber that I’ll be shackled in. See that iron ring at the bottom?”
“Will you be escaping the chamber before you drown?”
“That’s been done,” Doggart scoffed. “No, I’ll be submerged in the water, chained to the bottom, and will have to drink the water before I drown. We’ll hoist the tank into the air to show it’s not simply draining out.”
Huxley’s eyes widened. “This must be a hundred gallons of water, and you’d have to drink at least a quarter of it. How could you possibly do that?”
“A magician never reveals his secrets,” he said with a wink.
“Oh, don’t use that old excuse,” said Huxley. “Besides, I did save your life in Somme.”
“You did…” Doggart frowned. “All right, fine. But you’d best not tell a soul, or I’ll have your tailfeathers.”
“You have my word,” Huxley chuckled.
“Well, the secret is the bottom of the box where there’s a small gap leadin’ to an empty secondary chamber inside the glass itself. Look carefully. Can you see it? What happens is, there’s a special rope disguised as a hoist rope, and as I’m pretendin’ to drink the water, it’s pulled slowly,” he said, pointing. “That rope attaches to the dividers between the main and secondary chambers, and when pulled, it lifts the divider to allow the water out of the main chamber, lowerin’ the water level enough for me to breathe.”
“Fascinating,” Huxley whispered. “Quite ingenious. I can’t wait to see it all in action.”
“Beg your pardon, Master Huxley.” Dressed in a clean uniform of black and white that complimented the greyish blue of his feathers, Engle, Huxley’s valet, approached the two. “The press is waiting.”
“Ah, yes. I nearly forgot. Doggart, would you care to join me?”
“Not for a thousand quid,” he laughed again. “You’re on your own.”
Huxley left his friend, walking down the aisle to the entrance. At his signal, Engel opened the doors, and Huxley was accosted by a small mob of reporters, some writing into notepads, others flashing their cameras before hurriedly changing the bulb to get another shot.
“Mr. Huxley! Will everything be ready for the opening tonight?”
“The question is, will you be ready?”
“Mr. Huxley! Are you at all concerned about ticket sales?”
“Only that I won’t have enough tickets.”
The reporters laughed. “Mr. Huxley, do you have any position on the strike by the trade union coal miners?”
“I’m in support of their right to do so.”
“But don’t you feel that they should continue working out of duty to country?”
“I agree with the King,” said Huxley. “Try living on their wages.”
“But, Mr. Huxley—”
“Gentlemen, please,” Huxley said, holding up his wings to quiet them. “Tonight, the Amble Theatre opens for the first time since 1893, before my father was forced to close these doors. However, it was always his dream to reopen them, and my only regret tonight is that he will not be here to see his dream realized. This evening will be an extravaganza, unparalleled by any in our lifetime, and I will be dedicating this night to him.”
“Mr. Huxley, some of the public are condemning the prices of your tickets, limiting your audience to the elites of London. Is this because of the outrageous cost of putting on this show?”
A dark figure appeared behind the reporters, dressed in official black and a brooding countenance.
“No more questions for now,” Huxley smiled, and gave Engle a nod to see them out. A moment later, he approached the raven standing by the far wall. “Inspector Hugo. You’re here a bit early. The show doesn’t begin until this evening.”
“I’m afraid my constabulary duties may interfere with such things,” Inspector Hugo replied, giving Huxley a grave expression. “Mr. Huxley, may we have a word in private?”
“Of course, Inspector.”
Huxley ushered the inspector to the side of the auditorium and through a single door. A moment later, they were in his office, and Huxley took a seat behind his desk. “Now then, Inspector. I assume you’re here regarding the missing gold.”
“How did you know?” he asked, quite stunned.
“How could I not have known? The Bank of England’s reconstruction required the gold to be relocated. You assured the public it was being held in vaults that were, what did you say, impregnable? You practically threw down the gauntlet to just about every skilled thief in Britain.”
“It’s a Sceptre vault. It is impregnable, designed specifically to house everything at Finsbury Square as securely as the Bank of England,” he argued. “But the vault wasn’t bro-ken into.”
“No. The gold, well, disappeared.”
“Inspector, we both know that gold doesn’t simply disappear, though many a married fellow might beg to differ.”
“I knew this morning, but now…” Inspector Hugo shook his head. “Now, I’m not so sure. The last delivery of the Bank of England had just been completed, and all was accounted for. It’s a mystery.”
“Well then, in the appreciation of a good mystery, shall we depart to the scene of the crime?”
“I’ll take you there, but I can’t stay. I’ve got to go visit the families of the dead,” said the inspector quietly.
“The dead? What dead?”
“The constables that were guarding the square… the lot perished inside the vault. Almost twenty of them.”
“My god. How?”
“I’m thinking poison gas, maybe chlorine, but we’ll need autopsies to confirm that. My first thought was espionage, but this is beyond the capabilities of our foreign enemies or the IRA. There is one survivor who’s still unconscious. Hopefully he’ll come ‘round soon to shed light on what happened.” Inspector Hugo sighed. “As heartless as it sounds though, our biggest problem is the gold. As it stands right now, the British Empire is virtually bankrupt, and I don’t have even the slightest explanation to give Home Office.”
“If there’s one thing I know,” Huxley said, standing, “it’s that there is an explanation for everything, even the impossible. Sadly, it seems that what may be our greatest clue comes at the cost of lives.”
Copyright © 2019 by Stephen Daniel Ruiz