A Minor Misdemeanor

Chapter 27

Inside, the union office was fogged with blue smoke, forming a layer near the ceiling, which was far less impressive than in most headquarters, simply being layered with plain white plaster, which was yellowed by the perpetual pipe smoke. To the left, basic stairs led to an upper floor, cracked tiles forming their own elegant mosaic, while to the left, a sign indicated Westminster Rest. As there was a black licensing plaque over the door, this suggested that an unused railway sign had been repurposed, with the second word painted out and substituted, presumably by the same people who created the original signage, particularly given the silver tankard painted on the sign.

The room also featured a desk, behind which two burly figures were ensconced, wearing clothing that looked as if they'd stolen it.

Vastra marched up to the desk.

"My name is Madame Vastra. I need to speak to Mr Charles on an urgent matter." She announced. "My maid, Clara, will act as chaperone."

"One moment." The larger of the two said, before picking up a speaking tube that looked as if it was made using left-overs from a locomotive. "Ellie, we've got a Madame Vastra and her maid to see Brendan." There was a vaguely understandable chattering noise from the other end. "I'll send them up, then." He gestured to the stairs, before continuing "Mr O'Hara is able to see you now. First door at the top of the stairs."

As she walked past, Clara glanced at the surface of the desk, and spotted an open pack of cards, concealed under a flat railwayman's cap. In the 21st century, it would have been a minimized window featuring online poker or solitaire.

Vastra marched up the stairs, before turning into the office where the union official was rising to meet her. He was, again, dressed in garments that looked as if they were stolen, although they were somewhat better tailored than the door staff. The man's desk was an organised jumble of papers, forming two continental stacks, with an oceanic trench of clear space between them, featuring a battered stretch of green leather, and just a few sheets of paper. Even Vastra was forced to look up slightly at the man, who had the craggy face of a man used to settling disputes with an impromptu display of pugilism, coupled with red hair and a rugged underlying bone structure.

"I'm assuming you're here about some element of scheduling for the train that poor bastard was found dead behind." He said, sticking a hand into his 'out-pile'. "As it happens, I've got a copy of the driver's log, which should shed some light on things." He said, handing over a sheet of paper, with a log-book page printed on one side."

"Is there anywhere on that stretch where the trains stop between stations?" She asked.

"In case he hopped out before the station?"

"Yes." Vastra said, completely poker-faced, even behind her veiled hat.

"There are a couple of places where the signals need fixing." He said, before reaching into his pile again, and extracting a map showing the underground network, and the roads and houses it passed underneath. "There's a signal issue between and," he said. "And the points require manual assistance here." He continued, tapping the map briefly.

"Is there anywhere before Westminster bridge road, where the body was found?" She asked. "I'm wondering if a sufficiently athletic person could have gained access to the tracks that way."

"Now, ya see, if there were something where you could gain access, I suspect someone would have mentioned it to me, as I'm sure that the fenians would love that sort of thing. I would rather that they were kept well away from the tracks, as the packages they leave behind make a right mess of things." He told her. "I know that here," he tapped the map again. "Here, a bunch of foreigners have various balconies and such overlooking the tracks."

"Which of them have you had the most trouble with?" Vastra asked.

"Number eight. Some contessa or some such, who seems to think that we should be singing hymns while we work, and that all the brown bags of 'the devil's brew' should be confiscated. Now, I'm sure they weren't singing anything that would be offensive, but I know the lads like to sing drinking songs and shanties when they're laying track or repairing the brickwork. Most of them are alright, though. I don't think we've ever had any trouble from the Russian exile at number three, apart from the time he came down and joined in with the singing, and the drinking, and he always seems to be at least two sheets to the wind whenever we see him. That said, he has a big old hedge at the back, and another around the front."

Vastra passed about another ten or so minutes discussing assorted matters, such as travel costs, the union movement, a certain amount about Ireland, which revealed that, while O'Hara was in favour of a free Ireland, he wasn't in favour of freeing the country via outrages such as blowing up a bunch of young men who'd been sent to Ireland by their superiors and were no different to anyone else, even if they did wear red jackets.

When they got outside, Vastra hopped into the carriage, before extracting a stick of beef jerky from one of the inside pockets, and being given a stern look by Clara. The human girl quickly detached the horse from the hitching post, having packed away the nosebag full of oats, vitamins and a small amount of treacle, before climbing up behind it, and heading in the direction of Paternoster row.

It took them about fifteen minutes to traverse the streets, most of which Clara spent exchanging invective and parentage allusions with the other traffic, while forging her way through in a slow, but reasonable fashion.

When the carriage arrived in the coach yard to the rear of the Row, she clambered down, before hauling open the door.

Inside, Vastra was curled up on the seat, which seemed to feature a padded hollow large enough for her to fit into, with the remains of a stick of jerky protruding from behind her left ear, fast asleep.

"Hoi!" She yelled. "This is the last stop, and if you don't get out, I'll be back with a bucket of water. With ice."

Vastra jumped almost vertically into the air, dropping momentarily into a combat stance, before suddenly scrambling around to find the suddenly dislodged stick of jerky that had fallen from behind her ear.

"Clara, please don't startle me." Vastra said, trying what she thought was a pleading tone. "It plays havoc with my digestion."

"Why were you asleep?" Clara demanded.

"I..."

"...raided the pantry, and had a whole roasting joint of beef?" Clara finished.

"I didn't think you would notice..."

"I spend most of my time supervising a mixed gender class of adolescent humans." Clara replied. "I could lose my job if I failed to notice two of them sneaking out at the same time." She grinned slightly, remembering a time she'd demonstrated that the door to the stationary supply room was not nearly secure enough to stop a teacher with a master key and a large bucket of something the science teacher had made up for her, which was several times more freezing than ice, and wouldn't damage paper. She'd then set the head teacher on the errant pair, armed with the facts.

"I was hungry..."

"No, you were comfort eating, and having far too much food."

The Silurian once again tried puppy-dog eyes.

Clara just shook her head, smiling despite herself.

"I've got large vegetarian moussaka on its way." She informed the horrified Silurian. "You do like ground forest mushrooms, don't you?"

"Jenny insists they're a part of the full English breakfast, along with tomatoes and baked beans." Vastra said, leaving out that the full English was the most efficient way of extracting her from bed, not to mention that the mushrooms were the second thing to disappear, after the bacon, of course.

"It's on the cooling shelf." Clara explained. "I suspected we'd need something we can eat on the job." Vastra gave her a genuine surprised look. "I spend all my time traveling with him. I'm going to become paranoid."

"I don't suppose you made any garlic bread?" Vastra asked, hopefully, before dodging the gently flicked coachman's whip Clara sent her way.

"You aren't allowed anywhere near the stuff." Clara replied. "I do not want to be bailing you out of the police station for starting a riot."

"It was only the one time." Vastra tried, hopefully.

"No!"

A few minutes later, Clara hurried inside, having ensured the horse was attached to the hitching rail, and that Vastra was inside the carriage, hopefully sleeping off three kilos of beef roasting joint. She quickly transferred the moussaka into what appeared to be a 21st century Tupperware box, before adding a second with two Tupperware plates, and some plastic cutlery, most of which showed tooth marks from a set of pointed, carnivorous teeth. She also found a thermos demijohn, which was quickly and efficiently filled with large amounts of tea, with a pint of milk added, before being laboriously lugged out to the carriage, along with a far smaller flask of what appeared to be navy rum. The packed lunch was tossed in on top of the massive flask of tea, before she reluctantly poked Vastra awake with the fire poker.

"Number three Gaywood Street?" She asked.

"Yez." Vastra replied. "Thiz one will join you when we get there."

Reluctantly, Clara once again set off, remembering some of the warnings about not going south of the river after midnight. She also remembered the thankfully expired caution for being drunk and disorderly she'd picked up as a young student at one of the London teaching colleges, after being detained for a section five public order offence, although she would dispute ever having used the p word to describe a police officer.

Thankfully, the traffic was far lightly, mostly being the equivalent of delivery vans, with a large number of hackney cabs thrown into the mix, but she was able to make steady progress to a mews just a bit south of the river, where she negotiated "two shillings six an hour, and if you lose the horse, I'll send Madame to ask for it back." Vastra had been poked determinedly awake using a pitchfork, and had been sufficiently grumpy and unusual looking to ensure that the horse wouldn't be lost.

They turned onto the road with their destination near the top, before clambering over the wall and vanishing into the remarkably heavy shrubbery, avoiding the various hawthorns and roses that seemed to have been planted in the middle of other shrubbery for no readily apparent reason to Clara.


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