PL12 - Danske Macabre

by Haro James :

Copyright© 2019 by Haro James :

Science Fiction Story: When a Hamlet-loving crime lord visits Copenhagen on business, a trip to Elsinore looks like a sure thing. For Jeptha Walker, it seems outrageous fortune interferes. But then, this is not the 1890's we thought we knew. ~4,850 words.

Tags: Steampunk   Crime  


A man speaking on the Hamlets reveals all things about himself: Jephtha Walker


In 1894, five years after seizing leadership of the Guild of Thieves, Rogues and Allied Miscreants, Jephtha Walker finally felt the metropolitan criminal scene functioned as befitted civilization’s second greatest metropolis. He brought order, substantial profits, and a degree of respectability they had not previously enjoyed.

The new reality came at a cost, though. The informal network was increasingly replaced by a stratification that mirrored civil society. Those who did not fit in were brought to heel, sometimes in a terminal manner. The formerly open channels of communication became a series of barriers to direct contact with Walker. A fortnight was eaten up before the business proposition arrived in his hands.

Consideration of the proposal led to his attendance at a mediocre Strand production one blustery January night. Passing through the Special Guest entrance, his hat and coat were surreptitiously given over to a man dressed and looking very much like him. That individual suffered through the talentless first act while Walker kept an appointment in a private office above the main entrance.

Forty minutes later, he had negotiated to acquire certain confidential papers held by a Parisian bureau promoting industrial science development. A considerable sum was offered. While not adverse to considerable sums, Walker had an eye on larger prizes. He countered with a smaller amount, augmented by certain commercial intelligence. He asked for notice of the arrival of specific classes of American and Nipponese cargos in the Isle of Dogs over the next two years. He sought no guarantees, no immunities, only accurate information.

When his opposite came around, the discussions concluded quickly. He was handed a brief on a secure laboratory in the Rue Pavee, along with a twenty thousand sterling advance. Walker stepped out to mingle with the restive intermission crowd. Retrieving coat and bowler, he made his way to the street.

Once set in motion, the negotiations led to a plan, and the plan led to the theft itself. Three weeks after the initial meeting, Walker was pleased to find himself booked on a Royal Sky Services flight to Copenhagen. There he would personally accept the purloined documents.

His pleasure primarily arose at the prospect of being a scant thirty miles from Kronborg Castle. As the Jews to Jerusalem and the Mohammedans to Mecca, Walker would pilgrimate to Helsingor, setting of Prince Hamlet, greatest of all the Bard’s works. True, the final scene of Hamlet Rex was also set in the castle, but Walker considered it a flaccid finale to the gripping tale of the most notable of High Kings of the Skagerrak Shore. Walker never voiced his thought that the world would not suffer had Walter Shakespeare left it at a single play about the great Dane.


They boarded the RSS Iris, which was scheduled to dock in Copenhagen late afternoon. The morning was bright, and the stateroom Walker reserved was comfortable. Walker lounged on a satin-covered bench seat, coat and tie set properly, sleeves buttoned at the wrists. His only concession to travel was to unbutton his coat.

His companion carelessly hung his jacket on a hook, draped his tie over it, then scanned Walker’s clothing with a frown. Walker responded with typical mildness. “Think of it as just another instrument in our toolbox. A man in a proper suit is only steps away from an office in Threadneedle or Westminster. Those fellows are within reach of real greatness. Think of their take, Billy. Think.”

Billy Bruce, who ran the Stevedore Benevolent Association in the London docklands, jammed his sleeves up to the elbow before dropping on to the opposite bench. While this was not a protection-related trip, Bruce was a sensible choice as a companion. His eminent place at the Council table made it a politic demonstration of respect. That, and he was an excellent choice as back up in any dustup. As with all the Guild’s Risen Men, he was intelligent and discrete. Like many, Bruce was still a bit nostalgic for the rough and tumble of the good old days.

Walker set a stack of English language commercial and political journals on the bench to his left. He regretted again that his ability to speak so many languages did not extend to reading them. Three hours later, the stack sat to his right and he was grateful that French and German publications were beyond his grasp.

He took a break, splashed water on his face, walked up and down the corridor several times, and chatted with Bruce. When finished, he began with a series of Imperial Geographic Society monographs on international transport, then stopped after two articles. He left off reading to gaze out the port, where the fine weather had given way to North Sea sleet and hard winds.

At irregular intervals, great clots of slush slid from the upper surface of the aero to fall past the window. Walker found it interesting, at first. Now he just grunted when the ship lurched from a particularly large fall. Throughout the flight, Bruce had alternately read sporting papers and dozed, with one trip to the wine bar at the stern.

Their long association, going back well before Walker’s rise, permitted him to voice amusement at the other’s boredom. “Brooding on Sweet Elsinore, hey Wig?” He grinned at Walker’s grunt.

The Iris moored without incident at Copenhagen’s modest Bronsho Field. After passing through the customs gate, passengers departed in private carriages, hired cabs or waited on the horse trolley.

A group of young men sporting student caps huddled to debate the distances on the road signs. Once it was clear the “4” referred to kilometers rather than miles, they set off to walk to the city. Bruce muttered about the Danes adopting the metrique only to seem like a big country.

“Easy Billy. The first truth of thieving is that any place with a crossing over from one law, language, money or measuring system to another creates opportunity. Their grand dreams pave the way for our grand profits.”

Bruce made a sour face, then said. “Yes, yes. And money makes the world go around.” He left to secure a cab.

As arranged, they attended a concert at the Tivoli Garden Theater that evening. The orchestra led off with a domestic piece that began with a gigantic pop of a champagne cork. Bruce nodded off. Half a minute later, his head snapped up, and he maintained a grim alertness to the end.

They met Jep Nyborg in the crush of those leaving the hall. The Dane never looking directly at either as they exited side by side. Bruce brushed against him, effecting an unseen exchange of money and documents. Bruce shifted the package, and asked if it was the family bible. Nyborg grinned, and whispered “your money’s worth then, don’t you think.”

To Walker he whispered quickly that the job was tricky, but nothing suggested his break in had been discovered. Someone on the other side was nervous about something though. The Paris Guild was out in force, at rail and aero stations. As he crossed the lobby of the Gare du Nord, Nyborg spotted two familiar faces - l’Roi and Brule. He gave them the slip, hid out in a baggage car all the way to Brussels, finally relaxing when the train crossed into British Hannover. Even if he had been followed, he was on home turf now. Once he went to ground, no one could possibly find him. Nyborg bid them a quiet good night before moving off in the direction of the city.

The two Englishmen walked a bit further, then smoked cigarettes while looking at the miniature frigate moored in the park’s artificial lake. Bruce broke the silence. “Jep’s right about something going on. Brule is always trouble. Only fools shrug off the likes of him. Something’s amiss, just don’t know what.”

Walker nodded in agreement. They casually scanned the concourse, lit by the surrounding pavilion’s marquees. Bruce spotted the fake Boy Guard first.

The amusement park employed a host of ten to fourteen year-olds for their Boy Guard. Dressed in miniature Royal Guard uniforms, even to child-size bearskin hats, the boys serenaded, paraded and flanked entrances to the major venues. Bruce hissed when his scan stopped at the small figure pointedly not looking at them.

Now that he thought of it, Walker had seen this particular boy several times since arriving at the park. When still, the lad looked like the rest, but for an air of untidiness. In motion, he stood out as ill-trained and trying too hard. Understanding hit him like a gut punch. “Effin’ shite, Billy! They got our number. Nab that one. I’ll bail Jep.”

Bruce hesitated a full second, startled to hear anything resembling profanity out of Walker. Shaking it off, he dashed across the gravel. The sight of a twenty-one stone brawler charging him mesmerized the spy momentarily. He stared, open-mouthed, then disappeared around the corner, Bruce close behind. Walker ran too. He bolted through the nearest gate, ignoring the angry calls from jostled strollers.

He stared across what must be the widest roadway in Scandinavia. Walker sprinted across the nearer lanes, narrowly avoiding a knockdown from a horse cab. The boulevard and the far lanes proved less hazardous. Once across, he dropped to a hard walk, as he encountered poor lighting, uneven paving and the limits of his stamina.

Walker pushed along in the darkness, trailing his fingers along the brick wall for guidance. He spared a quick look at the still bright red brick, thinking this must be the fire brigade’s new hall. The building seemed to stretch half way to the next cross street. Half way along, he passed the three granite arches defining the tall central doors where the horse-drawn pumper wagons exited.

At the far end of the building, light poured out an open doorway, where two men in partial uniforms examined a crumpled form on the muddy ground beside the building. It was too late to help Jeppe Nyborg.

Spectators gathered. Some were passersby on their way to, or from, the Gardens. A few obviously emerged from the houses across the street. As always, there were those who materialized out of no place whenever there was something gawkable.

Although Walker would have applied all the bloody-mindedness expected of a Bermondsey Square urchin to save Nyborg, dead men need no defenders. He hung back in the second circle of onlookers, eyes and ears open, as a pair of policemen arrived. The firemen returned to their duties inside.

In the process of examining the body, a policeman extracted a wallet from an inside pocket. “Jeppe Nyborg, of Jagtvej Street in Norrebro. Does anyone know this man?” The constable looked around the arc of silent faces. “Anyone?”

Walker hadn’t seen this approach to policing before, and decided it might be time to slip away before he laughed out loud. As he started to turn away one of the policemen asked his name, home country and business in the city. Good eyes to note the feature, or perhaps the cut of his clothing. They might not be the bumpkins he assumed. Deciding it was safer to play the curious visitor rather than stir things by running, he gave awkwardly worded answers in tourist French.

One of the onlookers peered at him over the shoulders of those in front, even though there was plenty of room to step forward. Walker’s experience told him the man wanted to see but be minimally seen, much like himself. The elaborate moustaches, modern bifocals and expensive shirt marked him as a Frenchman who fancied himself financially clever. Regardless of road or rue or droga, Walker had skinned dozens just like him.

As the policemen asked similar questions from other onlookers, Walker waited in apparent complacency. Bruce sidled up to engage in a wordless conversation. Walker’s raised eyebrow drew a shrug and a pinkie drawn half an inch sideways at the collar. Killed him? Walker had wanted information not brute retribution. Bruce bobbed his head slightly before sliding a metallic lump into Walker’s coat pocket. Walker examined it by feel. Not the last thing he expected, but near enough.

It fit nicely in his palm. Depending on how one opened the various attachments, it was a knife, an over-and-under or knucklers. This was the signature brawling tool of les Apaches. That realization pushed disapproval of killing the boy aside. Paris had been organized long before he began to remake the underworld of London. Like proper society in both cities, there were those hanging about the edges of the criminal class. These outliers, as the French called them, were narrow-minded, vicious, unpredictable.

When feral gangs arose in London, civil and criminal communities moved decisively to purge the problem. The Parisians did not. They wrung their hands a bit, but left the Apaches in possession of the poorer quarters. Those in the criminal trade dealt with them with the same caution used in approaching street dogs. Brule and l’Roi had come up from the Apaches to a respectable gang in the third arrondissement. Likely, so had this one.

Bruce caught his eye before drawing a little finger downward, nail to cheek. The spy needed a shave, and by inference, was no child, but a small adult. Walker paused to give the cold lump of brass and steel further consideration. A mad dog weapon, employed by mad dogs. And now, a flicker of inspiration.

Every confidence man worth his salt knows to run a story so that the mark practically begs to open his wallet. This was no different. The Apaches were his angle. And the rush of excitement in his chest said this was his moment. He stepped closer to the investigating officers, cleared his throat for attention, then began to speak without asking permission.

This was less robbery than what Parisians call the Apache Kiss, an assassination of a most nefarious sort. Typically, two villains run up on the victim, calling out something like “doctor, doctor”. The victim stops and the first man runs past, turns and demands his money. In surprise, the victim steps back, where the second drops a garrote over his neck.

That second one, called the hoister, turns away from the victim to yank him off his feet. There they are, back to back, the garrote simultaneously holding and strangling the victim. The first villain darts forward to pillage wallet and jewelry. Or in this case, to deliver the coup de grace.

The Frenchman was clearly offended. Walker suspected the other had come to a similar conclusion, but took umbrage at any besmirching of civic honor. Walker swept his eyes around the faces, looking for killers among them. He found only a crowd replaying the events in their heads. Such a rapt audience: the hook was set in so many places. The trick was to reel in the right fish.

To his audience, it was as if Walker shrugged into a gown and mounted a podium. The professor was one of his favorite roles. His luck held. Most of them could follow his French, and they seemed to be on his side already. It was in the air, and the policemen must have felt it too.

He held up a hand, inviting them to observe four things. Walker appreciated that he had just disparaged criminology by crowd a minute ago, and was now playing that very card.

“First, the line about his neck is deepest under the apple, with both sides running upward.”

Second finger. “These very large prints are first of normal depth, then are quite deep beside the body. Note that those prints are pointed back towards the Tivoli. Their depth could only come from hefting the victim.”

His third point was to note the victim’s pockets were intact. “In the name of efficiency, footpads rip the pocket edge down to get at the goods straight away.”

“Finally is this very interesting knife wound. A good, fatal thrust for sure. Did the job without spilling his guts all over. Must have sliced the liver by how much he bled. The blood foam on his lips says the killer also tipped the blade up to nick the lung. Any of those three would finish off most men. Whoever the knifeman is, this is a show of murderous expertise.”

All in all, he said, the game was to disguise assassination as a rough and uncaring robbery.

The offended Parisian attacked. He spoke in a rapid, upper-class French. Walker didn’t understand all the words, but a sneer is universal. Walker gave his best dumb look in response. In irritation, the other switched to heavily accented English. “Your extensive police experience tells you all this?”

Walker hid the smile of small victories. “No, two other relevancies enable me to read this sordid tale. First, I am a thief. I am well versed in the distinctions between thieving and murdering. This was the latter, a most distasteful business.”

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