Titan Christmas Calendar — Day Ten
Welcome to Day 10 of the Titan Christmas Advent Calendar! A wonderful treat for today as Mark Latham, author of The Lazarus Gate has written a special Christmas short story set in the world of The Lazarus Gate series. Pour yourself a mulled wine and snuggle down to read:
Hanlocke’s Christmas Spirit
London, Christmas Eve, 1885
Ambrose Hanlocke sat back in his favourite armchair in front of a small but enthusiastic fire, and raised a glass of ruby port to an empty room.
“Merry Christmas, old chap,” he said, toasting a job well done. He downed the best of the glass and giggled to himself. His eyes were fixed, as they so often were at these times, upon his mantelpiece, whereupon no stockings hung, but something altogether more cheering to the soul of the self-styled “gentleman thief”.
After a prosperous visit to his preferred fence, Mr. J.J. Pollack of Drury Lane, Ambrose was finally on his uppers. Mr. Pollack, ostensibly a respectable pawnbroker, if such a thing existed, was one of those excellent fellows who asked no questions, and who seemed able to raise collateral against even the rarest and most conspicuous of goods.
Take, for example, the silver music-box that now rested upon Ambrose’s mantel, the product of his prodigious skills as a cracksman. Inside its lid was an original enamelled painting of a certain Lady S—, posed somewhat scandalously it had to be said, by the controversial young artist Walter Sickert. On the open market it was little more than an invitation to be caught by the law. To one of Mr. Pollack’s private collectors, or those in the blackmail trade, however, it was worth a small fortune. Three potential buyers had already been contacted, and their responses were so promising that Ambrose had taken out large amounts of credit already to ensure a very fine Christmas.
Next to the box was a pair of silver candlesticks, which Ambrose had retained as a keepsake from last month’s haul. He had been visiting his dear Aunt Eliza in Anglesey, and had broken his own rules about burglary in familiar territory. Having duped his way into a festive masquerade ball at a great country house upon the banks of the Menai Strait, Ambrose had surreptitiously loaded a young earl’s private carriage with hideously expensive silverware throughout the night, before disguising himself as a footman and driving away with carriage, team and riches. He snorted out loud as he recalled the details.
But his greatest triumph had only just been realised; one that made Ambrose giddy with glee. For just two days ago he had returned to England after a week in Paris, where a year’s worth of preparation had come to fruition. There, he had entertained—and been entertained by—the Comtessa Bernadette de la Mare, a woman whose purse was even more ample than her many other assets. It had taken several months of subterfuge; the writing of letters most florid—and torrid; brief meetings in hotel lobbies across Europe, at which Ambrose pretended he had been staying before departing on some urgent business. He had employed thugs in Milan to set upon the comtessa’s carriage so that he, under the assumed name Humphrey Antoninus Cecil Esq., might save the day. He had falsified business letters and bills of lading from London showing that his father had died (for the fifth time in Ambrose’s chequered history), and left his family in ruins, by which time the comtessa was under his spell, and the money began to roll in.
He almost felt guilty. Almost. The woman was just old enough to be his mother, but Ambrose had played his part as well as any mummer at the Imperial. She was five hundred guineas worse off, and had given him, upon their last—scandalously amorous—parting, a diamond necklace worth five hundred more. That necklace now sat glittering on his mantelpiece, the crowning glory of his collection. He imagined the comtessa would be heartbroken that her young, raven-haired beau was gone forever; but she was a woman of means. She would find some other youth to comfort her in the lonely nights to come, he was sure. Meanwhile, she had done Ambrose a great charity, for how else could he afford a flat in the Crescent? His own family fortune was long gone; his father had seen to the ruination of the Hanlocke name before he genuinely had died. Were it not for Ambrose’s unique talents coming to the attention of Apollo Lycea, he would have been in a debtor’s prison long before now. The threat of prosecution still hung over him. Sir Toby Fitzwilliam, the great and respected judge, saw to that. One day, there would have to be a reckoning, if Ambrose wasn’t killed in the line of duty first.
Ambrose drained the rest of his port and poured another. He was allowing his moment of victory to become marred by thoughts of heartbroken widows sobbing into silk pillows, of his father, and of Sir Toby and the Apollonian. He let his eyes caress the diamond necklace in its open box, considered the means by which he would break it down and sell it on to Mr. Pollack. Yes, that made him feel much better.
There had been many such jobs over the years, almost too many to count, but none half as successful as these. It seemed a string of good fortune had come Ambrose’s way all at once. He would be able to pay off his debts and live like a king for the next six months. More, if he cut down on the parties. He laughed to himself.
“Not much chance of that, old chap.”
Ambrose stretched out a hand to tap the silver-handled cane that leant against his side-table, and ran his fingers over the carved monogram—A.H. The ebony cane was an elegant object, containing within a slender blade, which had saved his life on more than one occasion. Of late, however, the blade had become tarnished and slightly bowed, and he had not been able to afford a replacement. That would soon be remedied; Ambrose resolved to visit Smith’s of Oxford Street as soon as Boxing Day was done. He would order five identical canes, so as to never be caught unprepared.
Likewise, Ambrose frowned upon his meagre scuttle of coal at his hearth, realising that he had forgotten to make arrangements with his landlady. Outside it was snowing fiercely, and there was barely enough coal left to stoke the already dwindling fire.
Ambrose had lived hand-to-mouth for too long; the flat was in disrepair, his stores were running low. Except for drink, of course. There was always money enough for that.
He reached for the port bottle again, but found it empty. Frowning, he instead took up his brandy decanter. Port and brandy always made him sleep like the dead, but with the weather so inclement, Ambrose thought that might be for the best.
He drank a small brandy quickly, and then, finding it warming, poured a second, larger one.
Yes, this was a good time to be alive. In the morning Ambrose resolved to ingratiate himself on some gullible acquaintances for the Christmas festivities, and thereafter start planning for a brighter future.
Ambrose woke shivering.
He had had a strange dream, whereupon he had escaped from the clutches of an over-amorous comtessa by climbing from her bedroom window. Except when he had alighted the ground, he was not in her manicured Parisian garden at all, but in London, upon the banks of the Thames. The sky was red and swirling, as though on fire. The stylish Embankment was crumbling, falling into the river. There were screams all around him, and citizens fled from shadowy figures that flickered through crimson streets like nightmares given form. London burned.
In the dream, Ambrose had turned from the river that threatened to engulf him, only to come face to face with himself—an exact double, except with eyes that shone like candlelight. The other Ambrose screamed in his face, so mightily that it had created a gale, which blew Ambrose backwards, back towards the murky water. He had fallen, weightless, towards the cold depths, and had jumped awake before meeting the water’s surface.
Now, he peered around his cold, dark room. The candles within the stolen candlesticks had burned out entirely. The little fire had died in the grate. Ambrose had no idea what time it was. He fumbled at his breast pocket for a match, and his watch, the fug of that last brandy refusing to relinquish its grip upon his senses.
Ambrose felt the hairs on the back of his neck tingle. He had not woken merely because of the bad dream, which itself was doubtless the product of alcohol and a disagreeable slice of cheese he had earlier taken from his half-empty pantry. No, for a moment he felt sure he had heard a noise inside the flat.
He leaned forward in his chair, and strained his ears. There was nothing now but utter silence. Until…
Something fell from the chimney. Dislodged soot and brick-dust tumbled in a light cascade. Ambrose almost jumped, but although drowsy, his nerves were made of sterner stuff. Instead he finally found his matches, and set about lighting a stubby candle from the packet on his side-table. He wedged the candle into the empty port bottle and held it up so that he could see around the room.
“Don’t tell me Father Christmas has come calling,” Ambrose muttered to himself.
At that very instant, there came a loud booming sound that echoed impossibly within the small room. Ambrose felt it deep within his bones, and it shook him to the core. It was followed by a flash of yellowish light, which came quite unmistakeably from the fireplace. The light dimmed immediately, but then grew again to a steady glow. Along with it came a fearful, high-pitched whine, an ululating trilling sound that grew louder and more shrill with each passing moment, until Ambrose could scarcely bear it.
Just when he thought his ears might burst, a crashing and clattering came from the chimney breast, and the whining sound ebbed away. A great torrent of soot and detritus fell from the fireplace and spilled onto Ambrose’s threadbare Persian rug, causing him to half jump out of his skin and push himself—and the armchair—bodily away from the fireplace.
By the light of his single candle, which now shook in his trembling hand, he saw the pile of black dust grow and unfold, until he realised that the form of a man was coalescing on his rug. The figure, when fully straightened, was tall and rakish, and dressed in a tailored suit that was now covered in soot.
“Tsk. That really is a fine mess,” said the black figure, in a voice that sounded familiar to Ambrose’s ears.
“Wh… who are you?” asked Ambrose, for it was impossible that an intruder could have so entered his middle-floor flat, and so he was certain that either he was in the grip of another dream, or some phantom had come to haunt him.
“The ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, old chap,” said the figure, dusting itself off.
Ambrose drew in a breath. “Really?” he asked, weakly.
The figure swept close most abruptly, grabbed the bottle from Ambrose’s hand, and held the light from the candle near to its own face. Even through the soot, Ambrose recognised it. Oiled black hair, small moustaches, and lively, devilishly handsome eyes. It was like staring into a dirty mirror.
“No, not really,” said the Other Ambrose. “And I’m really terribly sorry about this.”
“About… what?” Ambrose could not move. His voice stuck in his throat.
The figure, in a fluid movement, dropped the candle, grabbed the sword-cane and unsheathed it.
“About this. I hope you understand. Nothing personal.”
Ambrose saw the gleam of his own blade as it flashed toward him, piercing his heart so swiftly he barely felt it. A strong hand rested upon his shoulder, and rolled him from the chair and onto the filthy hearth. He looked up, mouth working noiselessly, the air of his final breath leaving his lungs.
He saw the other him, picking up the candle and righting it on the side-table, straighten the armchair into its original position, and take a seat. The Other Ambrose poured an overlarge glass of brandy, held it up to his stricken counterpart and, with a wink, said only:
“Merry Christmas, old chap.”
The Lazarus Gate by Mark Latham is out now.
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