Sworn to Secrecy

Clarence Howett crouched uncomfortably with an ear pressed against the door of the safe. His fingers deftly moved the combination knob. A reassuring click sounded like a thunderclap in the small office. He leaned back and knelt before gripping the large brass handle. With a downward pull the door opened. He breathed deeply. Inside the small safe, he quickly found the envelope of papers he was looking for and placed them inside his jacket pocket. Being a cold night, he retrieved his coat and silk scarf from the office chair and dressed. After buttoning the coat, he made sure nothing was out of place and left with a silent step.

Outside, a cold, bitter breeze took Clarence breath away as he turned from the dark alley into Zeppelinstrasse. The chimes of the Castle Friedrichshafen bells told him it was two o’clock. It was with relief that he saw a hansom cab a little way up the street and quickened his step. At half past the hour, the post train stopped every night to pick up mail, and he planned to be on it.

“Friedrichshafen Stadt, danke.”

The journey was going to be long and tiring, stopping at all towns. Despite this, through his careful preparations, Clarence knew this was the quickest route to Strasbourg, France. Safe from those seeking the papers and a good start upon them, another train to Paris and his employer meant a successful conclusion to his mission and five hundred francs.




The large brass carriage clock on Mr. Winterbottom’s mantlepiece ticked slowly with a soft reassuring note that made one feel comfortable and relaxed as did the scent from some freshly picked roses arranged in a china vase. His rosewood desk was covered in rolled and ribboned legal papers and a map, still held open with glass pebbles securing the edges. It lay in the center as though the focus of unfinished attention. A pile of various size books with worn bound covers had been placed precariously to one corner of the desk, looking that they might fall any second. A significant gap in the floor to ceiling bookcase that occupied the space of one wall showed where they had been taken from.

I sat in front of the desk on one of two large padded and winged armchairs positioned on the pile carpet covering most of the wooden floor. The windows behind the desk looked out onto the Derbyshire countryside and a dry rock wall that lined the road leading away from the town and up and over the hills. It was a beautiful view that had one appreciate and wonder at the stone’s permanence and strength; a sign that the men who built it with much precision had stamped our culture upon it with a bare hand. My mind became relaxed in these surroundings, unlike the stressful alternative I endured daily at my office in The Strand of London City.

What disturbed the otherwise pleasing atmosphere, and my cheerful disposition was the occasional scratch of the book clerk’s pen as he made entries into a large green leatherbound ledger. Sidney Sneep never turned my way since offering me the chair and informing me of Mr. Winterbottom’s return within the hour. His ruddy face was hidden by a mass of wiry gray hair that fell either side of this face and across his hunched shoulders as he worked without pause. His fingers holding the pen showed small stains of ink each time he stopped writing to dip the pen into a large inkwell with a stabbing motion, as though irritated. His open brown jacket hung loosely about him, and his free hand constantly rubbed a cold knee. There being no heat in the grate, the office was cold despite it being summer.

Heavy footsteps on the stairs together with creaking loose boards announced Mr. Winterbottom’s arrival. Sneep placed his pen in its holder and rose from his chair. Without a word, he stepped over to the door and opened it.

“Mr. Harry Friendly is here, Sir.”

Sneep announced my presence in a low servile voice before Mr. Winterbottom walked through the door and then returned to his desk.

“Mr. Friendly. I am pleased the meet you. My apologies for my lateness.”

Mr. Winterbottom, of small stature and slim build, stood before me with an outstretched hand. I caught a faint smell of Eau de cologne as we greeted. A pair of thick-lensed spectacles, magnifying gray-green eyes, rested half-way down his little-pointed nose. His bald head bore the most curious of birthmarks; a bright red marking that resembled a drop of paint with two other smaller, similar markings next to it. Dressed in a smart black pin-striped city suit as befits a Queen’s Council, he urged me to sit while he settled into his chair.

“Sneep, go make some tea and take your time. I want ten minutes alone with Mr. Friendly.”

With Sneep gone, Mr. Winterbottom Q.C. leaned forward over the map and entwining his fingers beneath his chin, rested his elbows on the desk.

“You come highly recommended, Mr. Friendly. I cannot tell you how important a task I have that needs your expertise. The problem I have, despite a colleague’s recommendation, is to whether I can trust you. I have decided to test your trustworthiness by assigning you the first half of the task. If your loyalty and trust come into question at all for the slightest of reasons, then our association will come to an end.”

With a steady gaze and pointing finger, I knew how serious a man he was and by the tone of his voice that whatever the task, it was something that would test all my abilities as a private investigator.

“The terms you outlined in your letter confirmed my appointment but made no mention of my inquiries on your behalf. I came because I was curious and-”

“And because you have been offered a generous sum plus expenses for your time,” cut in Mr. Winterbottom. “The sum offered will remain in place even if I decide you are no longer required at any time during your work for me. Understand, you will work only for me, and no-one else and this business will be carried out in the utmost secrecy, for if a slip of the tongue reveals who we are working for, the consequences will be dire. I will say no more but proceed to instruct you on your first inquiry.”

The door opened, and Sneep came into the office carrying a tray.

“You can leave that here on my desk and then go and instruct the junior clerks downstairs. Make sure I am left in peace.”

Mr. Winterbottom waved Sneep away as the tray was laid in front of him.

With the aroma of black tea rising from my cup and a generous slice of sweet-smelling fruitcake served, I sipped while instructions were explained. I felt no need to interrupt or ask questions as it was clear the task had been planned meticulously. My curiosity turned to eagerness, and I was keen to learn more once I had earned my client’s trust.


“Lake Constance? We’re going to Lake Constance?”

Mary Dupree, my assistant, was born with a name that suggested aristocracy or at least high society. In truth, she came from a good working-class background. Her grandfather settled in Yorkshire after immigrating from southern France many years beforehand to marry a woman who refused to leave England; a bossy no-nonsense woman Mary once told me. Mary was from the same mold. Her father died in the mines, and her mother passed several years later with consumption. Being the only child and just twenty, she moved to London and found lodging in a small room above a bookshop in The Strand. Her rent was paid in return for working the shop and a pittance that bought her a poor diet. I regularly visited the shop for books on a variety of subjects and got to know her well. I became impressed with her knowledge on reference books and her powers of memory. It was with little persuasion some two months since we met that I managed to employ her.

“Yes, Lake Constance,” I answered. “We are to leave almost at once, and you are not to question me about our work. I am sworn to secrecy.”