The Sterling Directive

By Tim Standish

An espionage thriller set in an alternative late 19th century London.

“Gentlemen. Before we proceed, I must ask you both whether you are willing to resolve this dispute by any other means?”

The fog that clung to the concrete surface of the platform was given a pale glow by the first light of an early dawn. Burns, my second, could barely be seen where he stood, scarf wrapped across his face, in the shadow of a black iron pillar some way beyond me, a little further than the distance I would have to walk. It said much about the length of my absence from London society that the only second I could find at short notice was the man known about the Club as ‘Secondary’ Burns, a man who had, to my knowledge, offered his services as duelling assistant to eight of our fellow members, each and every one of whom had subsequently been unsuccessful in their aim.

No wordplay intended.

“Very well. On the count of one, you will each take a step in the direction you are facing. At each subsequent count, you should take an additional step until the count of ten is reached. At that time each of you will turn and fire a single shot at his opponent. If as a result either of you has been mortally wounded, or if honour is otherwise deemed to have been satisfied, the exchange is complete. If, however, these conditions are not met, you will reload and continue to fire until that is the case. Do either of you not understand these instructions?”

Somewhere between where Burns was standing and where my final pace would take me there was an empty cigarette packet on the ground, but from where I waited, I couldn’t tell the brand and, for some reason, this suddenly seemed oddly vexing.

The station official waited a sensible amount of time for either second to voice a concern or query. Both remained resolutely silent. The official nodded to the doctor who stood off to one side and, after one last enquiring glance to each party, continued.

“Very well. ONE”

The thought occurred to me as I set off that, if I stretched my strides slightly, I would be able to reach a point where I would be able to make out the lettering on the cigarette packet. I adjusted my pace accordingly, but stepped carefully; a heavy frost still lay, unmelted, on the platform’s surface.

“TWO”

Somewhere on one of the other platforms an early service from Paris hissed to a halt, whistling its arrival cheerily. I imagined newspapers being folded, cases grasped, coats donned, hats carefully seated on heads.

“THREE”

The industrialisation of London seemed to have grown apace, with smaller Engines appearing to be more commonplace than they were when I left for America. The military had of course retained the monopoly on the more complicated engines, the specifications of which were still secret. However, partial declassification of the technology involved had led to many smaller companies being able to compete beyond their natural reach and had instigated a commercial revolution. At least that was what it had said in the in-flight monograph that I had glanced at on the way over from Canada. From what I had seen of London so far it seemed mainly to mean: more smoke.

“FOUR”

The name on the packet was Victoria…. Or perhaps victory. Either would make for a suitably patriotic brand of tobacco.

It put me in mind of one of the first patrols I had undertaken in my posting; my section had come across a little village, barely more than a collection of shacks and lean-tos, inhabited by the French speakers who populated that area of the Canadian Provinces.

“FIVE”

Given what we’d been told about local sentiments I had been astounded to discover an almost life-sized picture of Her Majesty adorning the largest hut. I mentioned this symbol of heartening patriotism to my sergeant, a veteran of the region who responded to my question with a short laugh. ‘Bless you sir,’ he said, ‘that’s the name of the gin they make round here.’

“SIX”

Some weeks afterwards I was informed by a fellow officer that I had acquired the nickname “Geneva” Maddox. It was the last time that I had hazarded an opinion about the locals in earshot of my sergeant.

Something buzzed sharply past me and I was puzzling over its source when the sound of a shot echoed through the platform. Pausing in my stride I cautiously put a hand to my shoulder, and it was only when I saw it covered in a bright smear of blood that I realised what had happened. I was about to turn when another sound distracted me. I looked ahead and saw Burns collapse, gasping, to his knees. I turned to the official who had begun proceedings.

“If you will continue counting, sir.”

“But.. I mean… I”

“Continue the count, if you please.”

“SEVEN.” the official continued, more uncertainly than before.

I set off again, feeling the pain and warmth spread out across my neck and shoulder as blood began to slowly seep into the cloth of my jacket.

“EIGHT”

Over the years an increasing number of rituals and restrictions had been crafted to differentiate what happened at the Waterloo duelling grounds from the more common act of murder as practised by its grubbier protagonists in the rest of the capital. One of these, the embargo against weapons produced after 1815, lent a measure of confidence to my careful pacing that I might not have felt had we been using modern weaponry.

Even so, the percussion pistols deemed ‘quite the thing’ by fashionable society this season were one of the most sophisticated styles available and were relatively quick to load. As I stepped out the remaining two yards I ran through the reloading actions in my head, estimating that my opponent’s nerves would provide enough time for my remaining two strides.

It occurred to me that, while being shot once from behind said something about the baseness of the shooter, being shot twice from the same direction spoke more badly of me.

“NINE”

Burns was on all fours, pawing the ground, trying to lift himself up; his breath spouted in steaming gasps from his mouth. His face, as far as I could make out, seemed more puzzled than in pain.

I was close enough to see the packet clearly now. Victoria. The engine-stippled design rendered her majestic and unsmiling in a pose long since unrepresentative of her ailing health.

“TEN”

I turned. Edgar had his back to me, struggling along with his second to reload the pistol. “Edgar!” I called down the platform.

The Honourable Edgar Theodore Huntingdon looked round, his face white against the black of his second’s hat brim and time slowed, sound faded. I remembered him in our staircase at college, loudly confident, dismayed at our lack of enthusiasm for midnight carolling. And in London, determinedly the bon vivant of our set, dragging us all to the latest and brightest places. And in Cooper’s. Always back to Cooper’s.

I raised my arm and sighted, my breath clouding in the freezing air, held the gun steady, gently pulled the trigger and felt that guiltily reassuring kick of the gun’s blast. The cloud of smoke obscured my view and the gun’s blast froze my hearing, but I knew instinctively that I had hit.

I side-stepped for a clear view and I saw not only Edgar, but also his second seeming to hang for a moment as a faint red mist coloured the air around them both.

Hearing returned, breathing began and my senses quickened. The two men collapsed to the floor.

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