HEY YOU! Yeah, you. Prepare yourself to read the first two chapters of a long-awaited work in progress. It’s set at the end of the 18th Century, and is historically accurate (um, apart from all the fantasy). It’s gone through a few revisions, through the invaluable feedback of D.M. Cornish and Jacinta di Mase. At the moment it’s on the back burner, while I focus on my illustration Masters.
~ PROLOGUE ~
The Frenchman was a long way from home. The tropical humidity made his black cravat stick to his neck. He had given up swatting the mosquitoes. It was as if the little bloodsuckers knew who he was—as if they had been hired by the Revolutionary army to hamper his progress. The Frenchman grimaced at the thought. He couldn’t help but imagine the Revolutionaries themselves as bloodthirsty insects, buzzing maniacally around the guillotine.
He was one of the most famous men in all Europe, and the best swordsman in France, though only a handful of people would recognise his face. People whispered when they spoke about him and the name they whispered was Le Chat Noir.
And he was about to die. He had died before, of course, what—five, six times now? He had lost count, to be honest. His memory was not what it had once been. A line of black cats was inked upon the skin of his forearm, each representing a life, gone. There were four there. But he had an uneasy feeling that he had forgotten to tally the last couple.
His coach rattled through the West Indian rainforest, bumping and jolting along an overgrown path. A tree was fallen across the track. The driver let out an oath and pulled hard on the reins. Then he was shot, and the ferns on the roadside came alive with bandits, and he collapsed on the splashboard.
Within the coach, Le Chat Noir grasped at his silver pocket-watch. “Sacré Bleu!” he hissed. “We have not the time for this! The packet-boat leaves on the hour.”
“Ah,” replied his companion, a six-foot-four grenadier who barely fitted inside the coach. “There are only … ah—six of them. We should not be detained overlong.”
“All the same,” grumbled the spy, “I would sooner quit this God-forsaken island than remain another minute longer.”
The grenadier took the hint and began preparing a grenade from his haversack. He lit the fuse with the priming of his pistol and counted three seconds. He tossed it out into the darkness.
It got two of them. The blast unsettled the horses, but there was nowhere for them to move. Le Chat Noir slipped through the door and away from the lantern glow and was all but invisible in the night shadows. In his right hand he flourished his faithful rapier and in his left he held the pocket-watch, as if he planned to defeat the remaining bandits in record time. It took forty-seven seconds. Not bad for three men, but he couldn’t remember his previous best. He racked his brain. But then he heard the coach rock on its axles, and then the strangled gasping of his grenadier from within. Silence. A thump on the floor of the coach and the grenadier’s mitre cap rolled out the door.
Le Chat Noir was halfway back to the coach when the killer emerged. It was a puzzle how they had both fitted inside, for this dirty great fellow, the last of the highwaymen, was bigger still than the dead grenadier. It was like cracking an egg and seeing a bear clamber out.
He leapt from the coach and the ground shook.
He wore a black eyemask like the highwaymen of English lore, though his face was already well-hidden behind the standfall collar of a mud-flecked greatcoat and a battered old tricorn and a grizzled brown beard. And strangest yet, over the eyemask, perched on his broken nose, was a pair of round gold-rimmed spectacles, through which he peered at the spy.
Le Chat Noir discovered himself staring agape at the man-mountain. Was this fear that he felt? It was new and made his stomach heavy and he did not like it at all. But was he not Le Chat Noir? He decided that he was more than a match at sword for this behemoth, and besides, if there was some stroke of bad fortune, there was always the pocket-watch.
He lunged at the highwayman with perfect form.
The highwayman merely pulled a pistol from his coat, cocked, and fired. Le Chat Noir fell to the ground, dead. Alas, even heroes—and anti-heroes—have their time, and then their time is up. The highwayman snatched the silver pocket-watch from the dead man’s fingers. He turned around to examine his prize in the moonlight. It would fetch a tidy sum back in old London town, he reckoned.
Then there was a swordpoint pressed on his back, and a French voice said: “I am in something of a hurry.”
“Oi!” boomed the highwayman, lurching around and brandishing an old cutlass. “Aye just shot ye!”
“I am—” the spy deliberated, “—difficult to kill.”
“We’ll see about that!” growled the highwayman.
“Before we fight,” the spy said, lowering his blade, “I would make a deal.”
The highwayman raised an eyebrow.
“If you win,” continued the spy, “very well, you may keep the watch, but if I win—if I win, you will accompany me on my errand, as my private escort. Consider yourself a hired mercenary. There would be handsome plunder, of course.”
The highwayman raked his fingers through his ragged beard. “If it is possible for ye to best the likes o’ me in a game o’ swords, mate, why would ye be needin’ a guard?”
“I have my reasons. Do we strike a deal?”
“Alright,” the highwayman nodded. “Aye daresay as Aye mistrust a man who takes iron in ’is stride, but let’s see how ye go wi’ steel!” And with that the battle was joined. Rapier and cutlass clashed with violent clangour, and between the finesse of one and the strength of the other, the match was even enough at first. But the spy’s pride was his undoing. He went to merely disarm his opponent with a classic manoeuvre. The highwayman matched every step, parried the stroke, and pushed his own advantage, sending the spy on a hasty retreat and stumbling over a root in the mud.
“You dare—!” cried the Frenchman.
“Ha!” the highwayman bellowed. “Ye be th’ short-heeled wench who slipped! T’is hardly even wet!”
The spy jumped up, gained a better footing and struck again, stabbing at the highwayman’s hand.
“Yow!” cried the bandit, flicking his hand away and dropping the pocket-watch in the darkness. He scowled and licked the wound. And then—he twirled and swished his heavy cutlass through the air as effortlessly as a fencer’s foil. Shing! He flung the spy’s rapier into the darkness and with a hefty shove, sent the spy to the ground, again.
Le Chat Noir coughed and spluttered, and wiped his mouth with a muddy sleeve. “Bête homme,” he spat. “Idiot.”
The highwayman pulled another pistol from his coat and pointed it at the spy. This time Le Chat Noir panicked. He had been careless. How many lives could he afford to lose? “Please,” he moaned, “I—I am no mere sojourner … I am important—significant.”
“Ye’re significant enough to own a shiny timepiece, mate, and it’s such that Aye covet.”
“The watch,” Le Chat Noir smiled and shook his head. “A mere … trinket—of personal value. Nothing more. On the coach, however, you will find my sea-chest. Beneath the black frock coat is a purse of valuables. Here, I give you the key freely—if you let me live. Otherwise I swallow it.”
The highwayman growled and clawed his beard again. He snatched the key and strode towards the light of the carriage lanterns.
As soon as he was gone, Le Chat Noir was feeling around in the mud, frantically looking for the thing which could save his life. Voilà! His trembling fingers touched the thin silver chain and he clasped the pocket-watch with shaky hands. That was too close. His heartbeat began to settle. He was about to press the button on top of the watch when he heard the sound of laughter, and he hesitated for a moment. This was his greatest mistake.
The highwayman was crouching a few yards behind the coach, reading a scrap of paper in the light of the carriage-lanterns. He looked up at the spy with a great hairy grin. “Levasseur!” he cried, “ye’ve got orders to assassinate Levasseur! The Buzzard himself!”
The spy kept his eyes hidden. This was a volatile game he played. That paper, of course, was supposed to be burnt to nothing. It must have been smothered when the bandits attacked. And this giant, this monster, somehow knew of his mark. Le Chat Noir wondered if he could use him after all. He spoke in a low voice. “What do you know of The Buzzard?”
“Aye know ’im all too well, mate! Ha! A man on a mission te kill Levasseur! Now that’s valu’ble!” The highwayman was quiet again, as he finished interpreting the blackened French handwriting. He looked up again with fire in his eyes. “Ye know where te find ’im, master? D’ye know where ’e is?”
“Then fort-yune’s rolled yore way t’night,” boomed the highwayman, “and ye’ve got yerself an escort after all. Aye’ll make sure ye come to no ’arm ’til ye’ve got yer man.” He lit a pipe and puffed at it casually.
Le Chat Noir rasped his cheek and gazed up at the starry sky, as if consulting the zodiac. Then he pointed to the grenadier’s lifeless body through the open coach door. It wore a red and white uniform.
Spy: I want you to wear—that.
Highwayman: Like ’ell!
Spy: You killed my grenadier. Don’t you know who I am?
Highwayman: Well, Aye ’eard ’im call ye ‘Leshanwah,’ but that don’t mean nought te me.
Spy: You have not heard of Le Chat Noir? Ignoramus! Pah! Well, if you wish to travel by my side, you will not be doing it looking—and smelling—like that. You will wear this uniform, you will use my cologne, and you will tell me your name.
Highwayman (grinning): Harmack, mate—Mr. Ilvé Harmack.
Spy (frowning): Ilvé Harmack? This is not a real name.
Harmack got a vicious look and slapped the spy on the forehead.
Le Chat Noir was caught off guard, again, and stumbled to the mud. He jumped up in a rage, only to see the highwayman’s open palm, a bloodstain and a squished mosquito.
The spy thought of the Revolutionaries, the English, The Buzzard. There were many people against him. It could not hurt to have one more on his side. He should have kept note to get another cat inked on his arm, but this death too slipped through his memory.
He was Le Chat Noir—The Black Cat—the spy with nine lives. And if he had paid closer attention, he would’ve realised that his lives were running out.
~ THE FIRST PART ~
The month was October, and the year was 1792. One of those rare times when the English and the French were not at war. As strange as it sounds, this was nearly as significant in the Caribbean as in Europe, because island colonies like Saint Vincent were the rope in the great and terrible tug-of-war. Of war. In the eighteenth century alone, Saint Vincent had changed nationality no less than four times. It was currently as British as roast beef (with perhaps a dab of French mustard), and would jolly well stay British, if Gilbert Gibbs had anything to do with it.
Gilbert Gibbs woke up with the light of the dawning sun and sat on the edge of his bed. It would be another perfect Caribbean day. He splashed water on his rosy cheeks and tied the back of his curly ginger hair into a short stub, as was his custom. He pulled his trousers on, and suddenly remembered the object he had stolen the night before. With trembling fingers he withdrew it from his pocket and looked it over in the privacy of his room. He let out a gasp. It was exquisite.
The silver pocket-watch gleamed in the morning light. The delicate porcelain face bore its maker’s mark, Bréguet, and two bronze hands were adorned with fleurs-de-lys, the symbol of French aristocracy. Although it was protected by a smooth, high-domed crystal, a few hairline cracks ran across the white dial, and on the reverse of the watch, the silver casing was blackened as if by fire. Even so, thought Gilbert, it must be worth a pretty penny. On the end of the chain, there was a fob seal – for pressing into sealing wax – in the shape of a cat. Gilbert rubbed his bleary eyes to make out the time. It seemed to be around five-forty-something, but he was still waking up, and couldn’t get his brain to focus. He pressed the repeater button on top, which would chime the last hour and quarter-hour, to make sure.
Gilbert woke up—again—with a start. The watch quivered and chimed in his hand. It had all been a dream, and he must have pressed the button in his sleep. How curious. He counted the chimes as the repeater mechanism whirred. Five normal dings for the hours, and two shriller tings for the quarters: five-thirty. He looked through his window to find the sun’s first rays barely illuminating the sky.
Gilbert was almost fifteen years old, though he looked about twelve. In the court of the gods, Puberty is a jester. Gilbert made up for his small size and cheek-pinching cuteness with fiery red hair, glowing red cheeks and a dazzling mind. His pluck came from his Scottish father, and his English mother shared his easy-going nature, but where his cleverness came from was a puzzle to them both. If anything, it seemed to come indirectly from his uncle.
The sun was well above the hills by the time Gilbert had made his way through the winding cobblestone paths of Kingstown—the capital of Saint Vincent—to his uncle’s cluttered workshop. Uncle Bill was none other than the famous sea captain William Snelgrave-Sprat, veteran of the ‘Battle of the Saints’ and inventor extraordinaire.
Gilbert pushed open the familiar door of his uncle’s workshop. Desks were littered with compasses, barometers and chronometers, scattered papers and open books. Ropes, pennants and flags hung from the rafters and scale models of ships and steam-engines were arranged haphazardly against one another. On the walls hung carved wooden artifacts, overlapping maps and charts. Normally, Gilbert could spend hours poring over his uncle’s collection, but not today.
As soon as he had shut the door behind him, an enormous blue parrot landed on his shoulder with an ear-splitting screech. Gilbert froze stiff as the creature dug its claws in.
“Anodorynchus Hyacinthinus,” said the captain, “Latin, of course. It’s a hyacinth macaw. Can ye hold still, lad? I must clip its feathers ere it escapes.”
Gilbert wouldn’t mind the bird escaping. The captain leant in with the clippers, and stretched out the macaw’s wing. It was huge. Just that one wing was more than two feet wide.
“I don’t understand why yer wings weren’t clipped afore ye was sent to us,” said Snelgrave-Sprat. “Ye be a first-rate specimen, but what earthly good is a wedding gift that flies away?” He pressed the clippers together on the bird’s flight feathers, but it flapped its great wings and the clippers were knocked to the ground.
“Rawk! Flustered fussock!” squawked the parrot.
Gilbert snorted. It had just called his uncle a drunk fat woman.
William Snelgrave-Sprat was shocked. He raised his finger at the parrot, and was about to say something disciplinary, but the parrot latched onto the inviting knuckle and bit down, hard. The hyacinth macaw is the largest parrot in the world, and has enough mandible strength to bite through a broomstick. A finger is no problem.
“Yah!” cried the captain as his finger was clipped. It bounced on the floor. The bird flew straight back to its cage, and Captain Snelgrave-Sprat hopped around the room, holding his maimed hand. He tried to curse, but he was out of practice. “How dare ye—ye … ye flustered fussock!”
Gilbert quickly found a handkerchief and gauze, and helped bind his uncle’s bleeding stump. The captain’s temper soon subsided under his nephew’s gentle care. After a few minutes the captain leant down to retrieve his left-hand index finger from the floor and he plopped it in a jar of what smelt like whisky. It floated eerily. The blood clouded the liquid alcohol before the dismembered thing settled at the bottom, pointing at the bird in a ghostly accusation.
“I wish I knew who sent us that creature,” frowned the captain. “Verily, it seems more of a prank than a gift. What good be it?”
“It is a very handsome bird, sir,” suggested Gilbert, cautiously flicking the latch on the cage, and locking the bird inside. The bird’s feathers were the most brilliant blue he had ever seen.
“True enough, Gil,” returned his uncle. “Yet somehow I feel it would be handsomer yet—without that look in its eye.”
Gilbert sighed and looked to his shoe-buckles. “Uncle,” he asked, tentatively, “what would be the worth of a bird like this?”
“Hum. Well, in terms of money, lad … I suppose … exotic parrots being highly sought-after back home, I would put it at no less than twenty pound. Think ye I should sell it?”
“No, no—you are in no need of cash, sir. I am merely comparing prices. What—what would be the worth of a—a French pocket-watch … for example?”
“Ha—now ye’re closer to my field of expertise. I do admire the intricate mechanics of a pocket-watch, and a French one, ye say? Did ye know that some watches can take a whole team o’ workers nearly four years to produce? Cost perhaps two years’ wages—but—more like five or six years on what I’ll be paying ye! If ye was thinking of buying one, lad, well … I do happen to have a pair, and if ye’d like to work towards—”
“No, no,” said Gilbert, holding up his hands. “I don’t want one … don’t need it—I mean … I have one already.” He immediately regretted his words.
The captain frowned. “How have you a pocket-watch, boy? Yer parents aren’t in a position to afford such niceties.”
“No, they didn’t … I, ah,” Gilbert gulped, “I—I found this watch, last night. At the wedding party.” He withdrew the silver watch to show his uncle.
The captain’s eyes grew large. “A repeater! A Bréguet repeater! Lad, forget what I said about four years’ work and two years’ wages. This be both finer and more complex. But ye found it last night, ye say? Tell me what happened, boy. Precisely how and where did ye come across such a thing?”
Gilbert sighed. “Alright,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “It all started at the Farmer George.”