aka The Curious Case of Archie Blake
. Archie Blake was driving. He had been driving for most of the night and, quite frankly, he was tired of it. But the curious request had been just too intriguing to ignore. So, there he was, in his car, at gone midnight, returning from a destination he had never heard of a fortnight before.
. Archie rubbed his eyes. His tiredness was drawing at him and beginning to make the moon coated roads a blur in front of him. Twice in the last half hour, rogue hedges had sprung up out of nowhere, almost sending Archie, and his automobile into one of the many roadside ditches. Archie had spent too much time in recent years, trudging around in muddy trenches. He had no desire to ever go back to them.
. He pulled over to the side of the road but left the engine running. The cold night air filled his lungs and lifted his spirits as he stepped out of the car. He reached into his jacket to pull out a worn cigarette case but stopped when he felt its weight in his hands. He had promised Alice on his return from the front in France that he would give them up. That it was just a nasty habit he had picked up from the others lads in his battalion. That he didn’t need it. But that’s just now how these things work. They had been a crutch in one of the worst times of his life. And there, on the side of dark Oxfordshire road, he reached for one again.
. His mind span back to Alice back home. No doubt waiting for him in their small flat above the teashop. He had told her it was a simple delivery, nothing different. Alice had nodded like she understood, though the truth was that they both knew there was nothing simple about it at all.
. Two weeks earlier, a defiant woman had stridden into the teashop that was owned by Alice’s parents. She had ignored many of the baked goods on offer, in much the same way she had ignored the pleas from Alice’s father to take a seat. Instead she walked past them all and through to the back of the shop to find Archie delivering a sack of flour to the shop as he did most Tuesdays.
. ‘You the delivery man?’ she demanded.
. ‘Yes?’ replied Archie, so thrown that he wasn’t even sure of it as he said the words out loud.
‘. I need something delivering.’
. Archie had looked to Alice who looked equally dumbfounded by the woman’s confidence. Even Allice’s father, who soon arrived in the woman’s wake to ask many questions which were soon ignored.
‘I am merely asking your delivery man if he can carry something for me Mr. Cole. Nothing more. No need to watch over us.’
. Alice’s father had clearly never quite met a force like the woman in front of him and faced with either objecting or complying, he quickly turned on his heel and returned to the safety of the customers several yards behind him.
. ‘Archie only does flour.’ Alice interrupted meekly as her father disappeared. ‘And sometimes sugar. Is that what you need delivering?’
. ‘Not exactly,’ the woman said with a smile. ‘But I will pay a hundred pounds for you to deliver something to two address in two weeks’ time at precisely midnight if you’re agreeable.’
Archie and Alice’s jaws dropped with such precision it was a surprise a Swiss clock maker was not somehow involved. Archie would have had many questions had his brain not stopped short after the seventh word.
. ‘Hundred pound?’
. ‘That’s near half a year’s wages Miss. That’s too much’ Alice chipped in while Archie’s brain still spun on the spot.
. ‘Yes, it is Miss Cole. Which shows just how important this is to me. Would you be agreeable Mr. Blake?’ the woman asked, her eyes looking past the still speechless Archie to read his name on the side of his cart.
‘Hundred pound?’ Archie merely echoed when words failed him yet again.
. ‘What is it you wanted delivering Miss?’ Alice asked. Say what you might about Alice Cole, only daughter of the tearoom owning Coles, she had a finely tuned instinct when something didn’t sit right.
. ‘An excellent question Miss Cole. Two packages. One to an empty house, for which I will provide a key. The other to a larger house. For that there will be extra complications.’
. ‘Complications?’ Alice repeated, her finely tuned sense now jingling like Yuletide bells.
. ‘Yes Miss Cole. But complications I won’t bother you with unless Mr. Blake agrees to my request.’
. The woman once again turned to the stunned Archie who, once caught in the headlights, looked to Alice. Alice wearing a look of shock as she was provided no help, leaving Archie to have to answer for himself.
. ‘I am the delivery man.’ he finally said as his confidence returned.
. ‘It’s hundred pound Alice,’ he objected. ‘We could go out. We could live a little. We could get a place of our own.’
. Alice’s meek resistance finally gave way at his last suggestion. She nodded her uncertain approval allowing Archie to turn back to the formidable woman.
. ‘Then yes Miss. I can deliver. Though if it’s over the river, I might need directions.’
. ‘It’s slightly further that south of the river I’m afraid Mr. Blake. Did you learn how to drive in the war.’
. ‘Yes Miss.’ Archie affirmed, finding words about the last few years difficult to say out loud. ‘Spent some time driving lads back and forth in Ypres.’
. ‘Excellent Mr. Blake. I’m sure they were all very grateful.’
. ‘Only the ones driving away.’ Archie whispered under his breath.
. ‘Someone will come here later with the two packages and key, Mr. Blake. She will also provide you with a car that you may keep for the two weeks to get used to it.’
. ‘Where’m’I supposed to keep a car?’ Archie worried.
. ‘That I can’t answer Mr. Blake. I can only provide the tools, it is up to you how you use them.’
. ‘Yes Miss.’ Archie said until the woman laid out a small stack of £1 notes, that as it turned out, was half his agreed fee. The woman handled the money like it was nothing, but to Archie and to Alice, it was the promise of a new life.
. ‘I’ve got more questions Miss.’
. ‘Then you shall have to ask my agent when she arrives later Mr. Blake.’
. ‘Archie,’ he replied distractedly as he stared at the small fortune in front of him. ‘where you going Miss?’
. ‘Archie don’t ask her that.’ Alice chided as she scooped up the money to try and keep his senses in his head.
. ‘That’s perfectly fine Miss Cole. I am off to a gala Archie, for which I must dress and beautify myself so that people I care about do not realise I am lying to them. I’m sure you know what I mean by that Miss Cole.’
. ‘I do Miss.’
. ‘Penni,’ the woman finally admitted.
. ‘Alice.’ Alice replied because it seemed everyone was telling revealing their names. Penni simply returned a smile that would have won competitions the world over.
‘Archie, Alice. You have been kind beyond measure. I do hope you keep this to yourselves for now. I have come to you to make sure no one finds out what is going on.’
. ‘I’m not sure I know what’s going on.’ Archie admitted as Alice tucked the money somewhere where no reasonable person would reach for it.
. ‘Then everything is as it should be.’ Penni grinned back to him. ‘I shall remember you both for as long as I live.’
. ‘And I you Miss.’ Archie replied as she Penni walked out, her glorious auburn hair twisting as she spun.
. Of course neither could know just how right they had been.
. Archie finished his cigarette and decided that as he had already broken one promise to Alice, breaking the same one again wouldn’t hurt too much. They had enjoyed the last two weeks greatly. They had gone for a swanky fish supper that night and Alice had quietly gone around looking for somewhere that they could live.
. Many places had objected to an unmarried young couple moving in, but Archie had planned for that as well. He had used a small amount of his money to buy a ring that he planned to give to Alice on his return to the capital on the promise that she would consider marrying him as part of the bargain. He had dressed up, he had bought a special waxen jacket and even grown a splendid rakish moustache he had seen some folk wear when they came for tea in Alice’s parent’s shop. Alice’s mother had not liked the facial hair but Alice had, and for Archie, that was all that mattered.
. The delivery itself had been an entirely odd affair. The initial delivery had not been to an empty house at all. Archie had used the key as instructed but a man was there waiting for him. He had been wearing valet clothes that Archie recognised from others who had frequented the capital. So Archie had said nothing, simply handing him the package and moving on before too many questions were asked.
. He had then driven the short distance to the far larger house in the country after treating himself to a quick stiffener in the local Leroy Inn. It was a raucous crowd, too many of whom made noises about Archie’s jacket and moustache. But he didn’t care. Within the half hour he’d have finished his job and he could drive back to his sweetheart Alice for whom he had never felt good enough. Thanks to a strange request from a mysterious siren, he finally could give her the life he thought she deserved.
. The ring still jiggled in his pocket. He had almost dropped it while struggling for the question card he had used at the house. Though the young woman had been rather precocious to Archie’s taste, he had tried to keep his feelings to himself. She sported the same rich locks as the woman who had sent him on his quest only weeks before. So the least she deserved was for Archie just to play his part in whatever was going on.
. Drawing his last drag from the dying embers of his cigarette, Archie replaced the case in his pocket. It was only then that he noticed the two lights coming down the road towards him. Seeing another car on the road was an odd enough sight in itself, let alone at this time of night. There were a number of large houses in the area and Archie wondered for a second if it was some local residents being driven back from some do or other from one of the nearby colleges.
. The car began to slow as it neared and Archie waved at them, hoping to indicate that he was there and not to be run over.
. It was only as the car stopped, its headlamps shining into his eyes, that Archie began to suspect that the occupants were not returning partygoers. He carefully reached into his pocket for a pistol that Alice had made him carry with him. She had told him that with all that money they would have to be careful.
. So Archie was careful, calling out past the blinding lights to see if the driver needed any help. Archie could not provide much help if some were needed, but it seemed the best thing to say in the quiet night.
. The sound of a car door opening was soon echoed as two other doors also joined it. Archie could still not see the figures in front of him, even when the slimmer of the two taller figures spoke in an accent Archie thought he had left well behind in Flanders field.
. ‘What was that?’ Archie replied.
. Which, had Archie had the chance to look back at his last words on this earth, did not convey the majesty of the life he had lived. They did not carry the deeds he’d done, the hopes yet accomplished nor the love he had in his heart for Alice. They went out as a question unanswered as a bullet ended the life of Archie Blake and ruined the lining of a waxen jacket bought only one week before.
. As Archie fell back, his head swirled with strange thoughts and senses. The soft rose perfume Alice wore, and the sweet smell of dough her clothes always carried after a day in her parents shop. A shop she would now sadly never leave.
. Archie wished he could have had more time with her. Time to laugh, to argue, time to do anything really. He would have given everything for one more moment. But that’s the strange thing with time. It is endless, going in every direction forever. And yet each of us only gets a certain amount. And when it’s up, it’s up. For everyone.
. Well. Nearly everyone.