Walker and I had quit London for the moment, traveling some sixty-odd miles to Suffolk, where there are more horses than men. Newmarket itself had a rustic, charming quality about it, and as we strode through the high street we carefully avoided the larger puddles. The streets were thronged with followers of the turf, each man clutching a folio of bills as though it were his own child. We passed two men, one tall, one short, both arguing inanely over their losses and how they would explain them to the tall one’s wife. Every variety of man under the sun roamed and caroused. It was a good day for the bet-takers.
“Our mutual friend Dithers’ banker is a fellow by the name of Battle-Crownes. Oliver Battle-Crownes,” said Walker.
“Describe him to me,” I said, neatly sidestepping a cart loaded with manure.
“Bald and brainless,” said Walker bluntly. “Full of vim, you know?”
“Right. Over-enthusiastic and under-cautious. I know the type.”
“A bit of a philanthropist, helping orphans, donating to all manner of charities.”
“Very much so. Does he figure well in your plan?” asked Walker.
“Indeed he does. Your information has been most helpful,” I said.
As we made our way to the track, the crowd seemed to congeal, the nattily dressed toffs hastily attempting to keep their distance from a raggedy figure. Unfortunately for myself, I was swept by the pull of the crowd into the beggar’s presence. A tattered and worn man, his eyes burned from some madness that welled from within. In his arms he clutched a ginger moggie of truly terrifying proportions, whose matted fur and scowling visage, coupled with its extreme heft, provided a nightmare worthy of Bosch.
“It speaks,” the beggar whispered. “The hellcat, he speaks, and of things man does not wot! Life is a hideous thing, truly!”
“Very good, sirrah,” I said, uncomfortable.
“Beware,” intoned the beggar in a voice most sepulchral and iron. “Beware the Great Old Ones! They come. Shuuulz! Berqlibr’thed! Al-Qap, the mad Arab! The Kid in Yellow! Beware! They come, from beyond the mortal veil, invading the world material and driving innocent men to Bedlam and beyond! The Brainless Hound of Infinite Spittle, who gnaws at the souls of the unwary, he comes. The beast-men of Raw-Li Ch’rrch come, bringing with them untold tides of despair. The tiger that walks as a man, he comes. Beware!”
Walker grasped my shoulder. “I daresay this fellow’s been touched by some imp or other. Come, let us leave this crackbrain, and be about our business.”
We eased away from the howling madman, who continued his tirade, at times raising the great feline in his arms for inspection by the crowd, but his words haunted me. The tiger that walks as a man. I remembered Lady Nimue’s words of warning: “‘Ware the tiger. ‘Ware the tiger.” Was I doomed to be forever haunted by the spectral stripes and phantom fangs of some unseen predator?
It was therefore with feelings of profound doom that I allowed Walker to guide me through the crowd, until at last we found our quarry, the elusive Mister Frazier, beneath a somewhat worn canopy, betting slips nearly covering the rickety table before him.
He was a tall, thin young man, his blonde hair knotted and unruly. His every motion suggested a man deep in unease, and for a brief, bewildering moment I thought it was my nemesis Hobbes. However, after a moment it became clear the resemblance was only co-incidental. He wore finely cut clothing, suggesting a young man of some means, but the fine lines on his face--and the dram of gin by his elbow--hinted at unpaid debts, at late-night visitations by creditors, at bankruptcy and forlorn hopes dashed. A well-built young woman sitting next to him, while somewhat plump, was sufficiently statuesque to delight the eye, but the cut of her gown and the cheapness of the fabric implied a certain mercenary aspect to their relationship.
“Mr. Frazier?” I asked. He looked up with eyes filled with dread, and I continued. “I come from our mutual friend Duke.”
With this remark his face turned ashy pale, but to his credit he held his ground, and merely nodded. “Do what thou must,” he said resignedly. “The barb may sting but a moment, but the shame of cowardice shall endure into eternity. I await thine killing blow.”
A poet. Typical. “Spare me your dramatics,” I said with as much sarcasm as I could muster. “I come to offer you a business proposal, not assassination, if that is not overly pedestrian for the likes of you.”
Frazier’s brow nearly met his hairline. “Who are you?”
“My name is Dennis St. Michel. I am the Viscount of Stokington.”
“Edwin Frazier, esquire,” he replied, standing and making a bow. “The young lady to my right is my esteemed muse and paramour, who rejoices in the name Miss Fredericka Ritz. She is the eternal and undying inspiration for every note I commit to paper.”
“Charmed,” I replied, and sketched a bow. “This is my partner Mr. Christopher Walker, of Africa.”
“How may I be of service?” asked Frazier.
Walker and I sat. “Mister Duke has apprised me as to the fact that you owe him nearly five thousand pounds.”
“Alas,” cried Frazier. “By equus and absinthe I am undone, my love of Lady Luck goes unrequited and the dice curse me at every throw.”
“I would like to offer you a chance to escape penury,” I said evenly. “I have need of a young man skilled in the arts of cards and you seem to match my requirements. I also need a young lady of Miss Ritz’s fashion; perhaps she would also like to assist us.”
“For what purpose, sir?”
“A small game concerning a gentleman of property but no morals.”
“A proper villain, then? Perhaps, perhaps. Do you possess any great chance of success?”
“I would put money on it,” I said, smiling.
Frazier grimaced. “As would have I, once. For most men--till by losing rendered sager--will back their own opinions by a wager.”
Walker glanced at me quickly. “If you follow, your debts shall be covered, and you shall away with a tidy sum. The part you play is but small.”
“And no great vice?” Frazier asked, and I could sense in his voice a weakening of resolve, a desire to escape his mean station by any methods offered to him. “No uncalled-for sin?”
“Can one sin ‘gainst a sinner?” I asked, raising an eyebrow. “Think, my friend. Enough money to pay off Mister Duke, and perhaps to put your young muse in finery fit for a demigoddess, rather than a demimonde.”
Frazier sighed, and buried his face in his hands. For long moments he was silent. Then at last, as though from a great distance, he said, “What is my part?”
“A gambler, a role for which I think you most well-suited. And one other, but that shall require you to work an honest day’s work.”
He let out a death-groan. “First you blackmail me into whatever shenanigan Mister Duke has planned, then you condemn me to the hell of…labour.”
“It is but light work,” I said hurriedly. “You shall sit behind a desk and move papers about, nothing more.”
With an obstinate expression he said, “It is the principle of the thing.”
“And besides,” I said, “‘Tis not Mister Duke’s play. ‘Tis my own.”
“Yours?” he said, startled.
“Indeed. Will you act?”
He sighed, but then extended his hand. “It seems I have but little choice.” We shook.
Arrangements were made to transport young Mister Frazier and his lady back to the city. As Walker and I proceeded by coach to the warm and welcoming bosom of that noble municipality, I explained to him the role our gambling friend was to play. I also elaborated on the Vital Matter of the Banker.
Now, to find a forger and all would be in readiness!
The Life, Times, and Misadventures of Dennis St. Michel, Viscount of Stokington, Soldier, Gambler, Diplomat, Scoundrel, Notorious Rakehell, and Lord of Menacing House, in his Own Words.