The Bitter Peace had come six months ago, but you wouldn’t have known it looking at the people that surrounded Detective Inspector Blaise Maximillian. Even now, they scurried along the streets, lean-faced, most wearing the ration-issue uniform of the Imperial Volunteer Workers Corps. The yellow skin of Canary Disease marked many as having worked in the munitions factories. The thick blood they coughed and hawked into their handkerchiefs, or spat onto the floor, was a dark, almost tar-black colour. Globules of blood were quickly lost in the black dust coating the pavement, the ash from the firestorms hardened into a semi-permanent coating.
The East End of London had been in a sorry state before nineteen fourteen, but after the bombing from nineteen seventeen onwards, it was in even more of a state. Despite five years having passed since the first bomb dropped, only the most basic of repairs had been carried out.
To the bitter disappointment of many, those buildings deemed of strategic importance had been given the full attention of the Department of Public Works during the war, all others being left to literally fall by the wayside. Even now, only those buildings deemed to be important to the first stages of the Great Recovery were receiving any form of attention.
Many of the people were still carrying their gas masks, and even the familiar drone of the RAF’s latest D50 airships slowly passing overhead, caused many to hunch their shoulders, glancing up quickly, taking quick looks to see where the nearest shelter might be. One or two of the workers were still wearing aspects of their gas suits. Those that weren’t hurrying to work for their next twelve-hour shift, were somnolently shambling their way back to the tightly-packed tents.
Blaise continued to stride along the street, his brass-capped cane making a sharp tap on the pavement with every other step. His very presence marked him out as someone not to be messed with, and the red-lined, Norton and Sons, tailored three-piece suit marked him out as being Someone, the crowd parting as he made his way along Cable Street. Shrapnel holes pockmarked the buildings that still stood, and neat piles of bricks were all that remained of those buildings hit in the final days of bombing, the “Lassen Keine überleben“, otherwise known as ‘Let Nothing Survive.’
Those last few days had been hell for the people crammed into the slums and industrial districts of the East End of London as the bombs rained down upon them. High-explosive, incendiary and gas bombs fell continuously for ninety-six hours as wave after wave of Zeppelins and bombers showered the city. No-one who survived those final days was left unmarked.
Many had lost friends and family, had been deafened by the blasts, had burned lungs, seared eyes and scarred skin from the incendiary and gas bombs. The Imperial German Navy had first dropped incendiary bombs, causing such a firestorm that people were unable to breathe in the constraints of their gas masks. Five hours after the last incendiary had been dropped, the gas bombs fell alongside the explosives. Caught unawares, great swathes of the population were forced to scramble for their suits and masks, barely no-one in the East End escaped being injured by the gas.
Blaise, on the other-hand, was physically unmarked, well-fed and well-dressed. He walked ramrod stiff, his highly polished brown leather Loakes tapping as the metal tips on the sole struck sparks from the pavement. Going past Well Close he saw his prey turn right into Fell Street, skirting around the remains of a shell-hole.
Every so often the man would glance over his shoulder, bumping into people and drawing half-hearted curses from them. Slowly Blaise raised his reinforced bowler hat, tipping it towards his prey the next time he turned to look. His prey practically tripped over at the blatant threat, recovered and then started to run pell-mell down the street. Workers scattered, standing aside as the two men raced down the street.
The street opened up into a massive space. Wooden platforms supported the Communal Tents erected on them, and children leaped from one platform to another, sometimes using improvised rope swings. To the front of the square, the Imperial Ministry of Food had set up a number of soup canteens. Hundreds of people queued in front of them, either waiting for their breakfast, lunch or dinner. No matter what meal they were waiting for it was always the same, Ministry recommended soup, with a chunk of high-protein bread. Dodging through the crowd, his quarry suddenly leaped over a soup cart, stopped, and shoved the canteen over, scattering the people queuing in front of it. He gave a brief scream, shaking his hands as he ran, blowing on them and yelping as he did so.
Bloody cliché! He’s been in the Kino a few too many times. Blaise skirted around the rapidly spreading soup, shoving workers out of the way as they too tried to avoid the boiling liquid. Skidding to a stop, he drew his Webley.
“Special Intelligence Agent! Move out of the way!” He cursed as people did the exact opposite, scattering like a flock of startled chickens, and running in front of his line of sight almost deliberately.
Arms pumping, the temporarily useless Webley pointing to the sky, Blaise started to sprint after the man again. A worker was too slow in getting out of the way of his quarry and was sent spinning as he was elbowed in the face. There was a sudden zipping sound, a sound that Blaise had heard far too many times before the Bitter Peace, far too fucking many times since peace too! There was another zip, a thwack and a soft sigh. A worker just in front of him folded and dropped to the ground as if he was a marionette whose strings had been cut.
This time the people moved, diving for the ground as pure instinct took hold. The sound of hot metal scything its way through the air was familiar to all, workers and veterans alike and constant exposure meant that their bodies took action before they even realised it. With a clear shot, Blaise dropped to one knee, ignoring the pain as the sharp rubble sliced into his knee.
Another bullet zipped past him as he casually raised his pistol and fired a shot of his own back. His target squealed, dropping his weapon as he grabbed the wound that had opened up on his arm. He turned and started to run, giving Blaise the perfect shot. Controlling his breathing, steadying his aim, Blaise took careful aim and gently squeezed the trigger. There was a heart-stopping click as the hammer slammed forward onto the round, with no effect.
Fucking hell! He snapped off another shot, missing as anger caused him to snatch at the trigger. Many veterans believed that the war had been lost at home as much as it had on the battle field, more so in some cases. Poor materials and poor workmanship, but mostly poor materials, had meant that there was an increasing amount of duds being delivered to the battle field.
Blaise felt his blood surging through his veins as he started running full pelt after his prey. He cursed at the weight of the belt at his hip as he raised his left hand and spoke into his Radio Chronograph,”Bill, the target’s running down the Fell Street brownfield, he’ll be on to St George street shortly. I’m pursuing. Cut him off! Cut him down! I don’t care, just bloody stop the blighter!’
Men cursed and women exclaimed as he barged his way down Fell Street, the crowds were thicker here as the workers queued for their meal ration. With every step he closed on his prey, despite the weight of the equipment he was carrying. Digging deep, he came out of Fell Street and turned left, barely yards behind the man. The man looked over his shoulder once again and then turned to put on a burst of speed. All of a sudden his head snapped back. His legs kept running and it actually looked as if he was running up into the air. His feet were still running as his body lost its battle with gravity. With a sickening crack the back of his head slammed into the pavement, the rest of his body crashing down with a ‘woof’ as the air was driven from his body.
Blaise rapidly stomped to a stop within a few steps, leaning back on his heels and making his steps smaller and smaller, stopping without losing balance, and smiled as he saw the outstretched arm of his assistant, William ‘Bill’ Thatcher.
‘Bloody good effort Detective Sergeant, bloody good effort!’
He looked down at the man on the floor, watching him try to draw breath into his lungs, mouth opening and shutting like a fish out of a water. Casually, he took a skipping step and slammed a highly polished shoe, heel down, onto the man’s diaphragm, blasting what air he had managed to draw back out of his lungs. Spittle and vomit pulsed weakly out of the man’s lips.
‘What sort of shit steals from an orphanage sergeant? Not just any orphanage, an Imperial War Hero’s Orphanage! Do you think that this piece of excrement.’ short, sharp kicks stabbed into the man’s ribs, ‘ever served the Empire?’
‘No sir, I doubt we’d ever have let him join our hallowed ranks. I mean, he can’t even rob the poor defenceless little orphans without getting fucking caught.’
The thief had just about got his breath back, ‘Please …. please, God I’m sorry. So sorry.’
‘No, I don’t think you are sorry. Not yet.’ with that, Blaise smashed his cane into the man’s face. Blood and bits of teeth flew and he screamed in agony. Another blow and the man’s right cheek bone shattered, the red and yellow contrasting with the man’s pale skin. A third blow opened a gash on this forehead and more shrill screams bubbled out of the ruined mouth. A final, double-handed blow smashed the man’s nose back into the skull, caving his whole face inwards as if it was being sucked down a plug hole with a horrendous, wet, crunch.
The man’s heels drummed on the floor and his fingers curled as his hands grasped in the air as if trying to pull himself up. Barely breathing hard, Blaise calmly wiped his cane clean, dropping the handkerchief down on to the man’s chest. They stood in silence for the next couple of minutes as the man slowly died before them, snoring, snorting and squealing like a pig, the noise gradually diminishing.
Satisfied that the thief was finally dead, Blaise spoke into his Radio Chronograph, ‘Thief apprehended. Looks like the crowd got hold of him before we could. Ambulance required for disposal of the cadaver.’
He looked over at Thatcher, ‘Drink Sergeant? I seem to have worked up a thirst.’
‘Don’t mind if I do sir, don’t mind if I do.’ Slowly, they strolled off in search of the nearest pub.