2727 words (10 minute read)

The Gauntlet

The key was small and flat, with sharp, triangular teeth. It was untagged, but it was unmistakably one for a safe-deposit box down in the club’s vault.

The conversation had turned to the amenities afforded to the club members, and Benson, admitting that he’d already availed himself of one such amenity, had taken the key out to show them.

“Lucky of you,” Eric said. “I wanted to get a box earlier today, to keep this manuscript in—better than carrying it home and here every day—but the vault was full at the time.”

“Old Faithful just didn’t trust you with a key,” Wolfe replied.

Eric thought it highly unlikely, but Benson, seemingly oblivious, carried on. “Mr. Aldershott showed me how it all worked—how to choose a box and all that. It seemed easier to just hand everything to the porter and let him do the rest. Either way, Mr. Aldershott said it’s safer than the Bank of England.”

Looking around, Eric saw Aldershott had returned to the bar, just within earshot. Eric guessed that he was actively listening in on their conversation. Insufferable as Wolfe could be, he was also an excellent storyteller . . . as long as he didn’t realise you were part of his audience. The only other club officer about was Saxon, still doodling notes into his Greek text at the far end of the bar. He hadn’t moved since they spoke earlier, though he mercifully seemed to have exhausted his supply of apples.

Wolfe, meanwhile, was eyeing Benson speculatively. “Aldershott thinks that, does he? I’ll wager fifty pounds that whatever you’ve got squirreled away there, I could have it out of the vault and on this very table by this time tomorrow.”

“You’re having me on! I’ve seen the vault. You can’t get in without the combination, and then there are all the keys—”

“Is it a bet, then?”

“What? No!”

Eric nodded his approval of Benson’s refusal. “I’ve learnt the hard way not to take up wagers with Wolfe unless you’re prepared to lose. Wolfe never makes a bet on his own exploits without first carefully considering how he might pull it off.”

Wolfe raised an eyebrow. “Are you suggesting our new friend here doesn’t have fifty pounds to put on the table, Peterkin?”

“Not in the least. I’m suggesting that you’re taking advantage of the poor fellow.”

That might have been the end of it, if Aldershott had not decided to jump in.

“I thought I heard my name taken in vain.” He chuckled. “Is this another of your silly wagers, Wolfe? I think you may have bitten off more than you can chew this time.”

“You’ll take it, then? Our lily-livered friend here won’t.”

“Certainly. Fifty pounds against your ability to sneak into the vaults and lift just one item from a safe-deposit box—whose number, by the way, Benson here is not going to tell you.” Aldershott gave Benson a wink. “Nor is he going to tell you what’s inside. Is it agreed?”

“I never agreed—” Benson began, but Wolfe laughed.

“Just one item? Child’s play! Make it a hundred pounds, and I’ll have the mystery prize on this table before noon.”

As Benson hesitated in bemusement, Aldershott slapped him on the shoulder and said, “Come on, be a sport! It’s all in good fun, and no harm done. It’ll be a fine way of testing the club’s security.”

“I’ve no choice in the matter, have I?” Benson said, looking from one officer to the other. He seemed, on the one hand, eager for a bit of a lark with his new club mates, but uncomfortable with the very idea of letting someone break into his private possessions. For a moment, Eric thought he caught a fleeting glimpse of something calculative in Benson’s expression, but this was quickly overridden by anxiety. Benson closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and came to a decision. “Very well, then. I’m in.” He didn’t sound entirely certain about it.

“That’s the spirit!” Aldershott shook hands with Benson, and then with Wolfe. “We’ll have no brutality, of course: no broken windows or anything of the sort. I know you, Wolfe, and I know you’d rather die than leave a mess behind, but it still bears saying. Peterkin here will act as referee, of course?”

Was it a ploy to make him look foolish? Wolfe specialised at that sort of thing, after all, and Aldershott knew it. You’re just being ridiculous, Eric admonished himself. What would your father say?

“Of course. I’ll be here at noon tomorrow, and if Wolfe hasn’t made good on his claim by then, the two of you win. Benson, in the interest of fairness, I think I had better have a look at what you’ve got in there—just so I know what Wolfe’s meant to find.”

“A wise decision, Peterkin. I was about to suggest something along those lines myself.” Aldershott clapped Eric on the back, and Benson stood to lead the way down to the vault.

Behind them, Eric observed Wolfe leaning back in his chair and lighting a cigarette, supremely sure of himself. Eric was glad he had not been talked into the wager. Aldershott, meanwhile, appeared to be in an uncommonly good mood.

Eric wondered which of the two would still be in such a good mood when the clock struck noon on the next day.

#

They descended to the lobby, passing the Arthurian Knights, then walked down the corridor past the club president’s office and the porter’s office. Near the end of the corridor was a nondescript wooden door. At their request, Old Faithful opened it and led them down a narrow staircase to a windowless antechamber, where both members were advised to stand back while Old Faithful busied himself with the combination lock on the steel door of the vault. This door finally swung inwards, triggering the illumination of a single bare bulb overhead.

Eric didn’t know what use this room had seen before it was appropriated for the club’s vault. Its walls were whitewashed concrete, blinding in the electric light, and its floor was picked out in mosaic, blue grey and cream, more intricate than was right for a room so rarely seen. There was an antiseptic hush as they crossed the threshold into the room. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, the old Latin phrase of Horace’s, ran right across the middle of the floor: “It is sweet and honourable to die for one’s country.” Once, perhaps, it was a source of pride to the warlike, patriotic members of the club; but the Wilfred Owen poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” made that motto something of a bitter joke these days. A plain wooden table was positioned over it in some attempt to pretend it didn’t exist.

A bank of deposit boxes lined the far wall, an array of steel doors set into a solid frame of yet more steel. Benson walked around the table to the bank of doors, tracing his fingers over them until he found the one he wanted: number 13. He unlocked this door, withdrew the snugly fitted box from behind it, and set the box on the table.

Upstairs in the lounge, Benson had given every impression of being just a little simple, but there was a subtle change in his manner now. The softly rounded shoulders squared themselves, and the once-slack jaw seemed to set itself into something closer to the concrete and steel surrounding them. The man who looked at Eric from the other side of the table was not a village idiot but a knight errant, and Eric had an idea that it wasn’t cowardice that had kept Benson from fighting in the trenches.

Eric looked inside the box. There was a hypodermic kit, containing a well-kept hypodermic syringe and a few needles. Its lid was engraved with a stylised letter S. There was a pair of surgical scissors, the sort with long, slim handles and sharply pointed blades. There was a photograph of a very pretty dark-haired woman in the uniform of the Voluntary Aid Detachment, smiling over a birthday cake. A few other VAD nurses were gathered around her, and a number of patients as well. And at the bottom of the box was a manila folder containing a medical report for one Horatio Parker, who’d apparently received a nasty cut to the face and required stitches.

Eric had expected valuables, or private papers, or even a war souvenir or two. He could think of no earthly reason why anyone would want to keep this rubbish under lock and key. Or could he? It was a puzzle, and Eric’s brain began churning over possible ways in which these pieces could fit together. Meanwhile, Benson the knight errant was watching Eric like a hawk. Eric said, as mildly as he could, “Are these things very important, somehow?”

“Taken together,” Benson said, “I expect these things to right a great wrong from the past. Oh, I don’t mind Wolfe getting at them—it’s not Wolfe I’m afraid of. But there are a few people around here who could stand a bit of shaking up.” He added, under his breath, “I just worry we’re going a bit too quickly.”

Eric looked back down into the box and frowned. If he had to guess, he’d say these were the detritus of a temporary war hospital, now returned to civilian use. The photograph had found its way into his hands, and he studied the face of the nurse who was its main subject. There was a luminous, Madonna-like quality to its oval shape. “Do I know this woman?” he wondered out loud. “I rather wish I did.”

“That’s my wife, Helen,” Benson said mildly. “I doubt you’ve met.”

“Oh.” Eric turned his attention to the surrounding faces. They were strangers, most of them, but wasn’t that . . . yes, that was Aldershott in the background, wasn’t it? Not one of the patients, no; but unmistakably Captain Edward Aldershott in his uniform, holding himself as stiff as ever while a pair of pretty nurses laughed from either side of him.

“Is this something to do with Aldershott?” Eric asked.

But Benson only smiled and plucked the photograph out of Eric’s hands to return it to the box.

“You know,” Eric remarked, “you don’t strike me as the sort who’d just skive off his duty to his king and country. Why didn’t you join the Army like everyone else?”

Benson’s smile faltered, and a muscle twitched under one eye. No doubt he’d had to defend himself to countless others before Eric. Turning away, Benson busied himself with replacing his box in its compartment, and said, “It’s the ‘conscientious’ part of ‘conscientious objector,’ Peterkin. I refused to fight because I believed the War was wrong. You were there, yes? Can you think back on all those years of carnage and tell me that it was good and just? I did my part when I volunteered as a stretcher-bearer, bringing the dead and wounded back from the field. That means going out into a battlefield without so much as a knife for self-defence. And mark this, Peterkin: conscription didn’t start until 1916, which means I was out there in Flanders well before His Majesty’s government made me go.”

“And now here you are.”

“Here I am.” Benson’s face turned grim. “It’s a grand honour.” But there was a twist of irony in his tone that made Eric wonder. And before Eric could make any further remark on it, the lock of straw-coloured hair fell into Benson’s eyes again. The grimness faded away, the blandness returned, and Benson was once again the oafish lump who needed things explained extra slowly.

#

Saxon was scowling from his end of the bar when Eric and Benson made it back up to the club lounge. The Greek text was on the bar behind him with a beer coaster shoved between its pages. He’d got wind of the wager, of course, and he looked none too happy about it. “So,” he growled, fixing his glare on Benson, “you’ve gone and got yourself caught up in one of Wolfe’s ridiculous little productions. And on your first day, too. Peterkin, I’m holding you responsible.”

“Me? I told him it was a bad idea!”

“You should have told him harder!”

Benson, looking sheepish, rubbed the back of his head. “Well, it’s too late now. Or is it? D’you think I should tell Mr. Wolfe the bet is off?”

Eric glanced over to the fireplace, but Wolfe was no longer there. Saxon said, “Try it, and he’ll ruin you. Especially now that Aldershott’s involved as well.” He let out a gusty sigh and heaved himself from his bar stool. “Forget it. Let’s just go home.”

The pair of them had just reached the lounge doors when said doors were flung open by Edward Aldershott’s wife, Martha, who was emphatically not supposed to be here. Club attendants hastened from the shadows to halt her progress, but she would have none of it. She’d been a military nurse before her marriage, and she strode past the attendants with the same air of brisk purpose with which she must have handled life and death on the field, an effect only heightened by the military cut of her double-breasted tunic dress and the spit-shine of her boots. Her posture made her seem taller and more formidable than she was, and her blond hair was cut into a severe Dutch bob that seemed to have more to do with workplace functionality than fashion.

“Martha!” Saxon barked. “You’re not supposed to be here.”

That arrested her progress. Mrs. Aldershott was also Oliver Saxon’s cousin, and the bonds of family could slow her even if they could not stop her entirely. The cousins looked little alike: Mrs. Aldershott kept herself impeccably dressed in the latest fashions, and as neatly turned out as a disinfected hospital ward, whereas Saxon shaved roughly once a week if he remembered. But one thing they did have in common was a seeming disregard for the rules of conventional society.

“Hullo, Oliver,” she said, flinging one end of a fox fur stole over her shoulder. “I hope you don’t plan on being ridiculous. I certainly don’t plan on staying longer than I can help.” She wrinkled her nose. “Those foul cigars you men insist on smoking—it’s enough to ruin one’s dinner. I’m just here for that husband of mine . . . Where is he? Hiding, I suppose. Well, he can’t hide forever. And who’s this, then?”

“Albert Benson. You remember, I—”

“Benson? Oh, Benson!” Mrs. Aldershott’s face lit up with delight. “I remember now. Emily wrote to me about you quite often. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you face-to-face. Listen, we simply must have you over to dinner at your earliest convenience.”

Meanwhile, Benson’s ears had gone quite pink at the mention of this Emily, and Eric, watching unobtrusively from one side, felt a spark of curiosity. Hadn’t Benson said his wife’s name was Helen? Who was this Emily, then? A mistress, perhaps?

Before anything more could be said, Aldershott emerged from one of the lamplit armchair groupings and hurried over. Before his wife, he looked more like a naughty schoolboy than the stiff-backed martinet he normally pretended to be. “Martha,” he was saying, “you know the club rules prohibit—”

“Oliver’s already reminded me. Is there some reason you have not deigned to return home for dinner?”

“I mean, look, I’m dreadfully sorry, but something’s come up and . . .”

Behind them, Saxon just shook his head and turned to go, dragging Benson along with him. Eric decided to take his cue from them and picked up his manuscript from where he’d left it. Amusing as it was to see Aldershott being taken down a peg by his wife, the night outside the Britannia wasn’t getting any clearer, and Eric wanted to be home before the rising fog turned the journey into something unpleasant.