– SHORT STORY (PART 2) –
Here’s the second part of the short story that wasn’t selected for the Lethbridge-Stewart Short Story Collection (available to buy now from Candy Jar Books ). My story “Soldier in Time” was selected instead but perhaps you’ll like this one better? It’s 1969. Lethbridge Stewart and Anne Travers are working undercover on the British wrestling circuit to find out what happened to one of the country’s best secret agents.
(The first part posted on Tuesday is in green text. If you don’t need to read the first part again, just scroll down to the black text)
Lethbridge Stewart – Wrestling with Shadows by Martin Gregory
The spotlight shone on the curtain as it parted. The imposing khaki-clad figure stepped out, clearing a path through the crowd as he strode toward the ring. A small man in a dinner suit addressed the crowd via an unwieldy microphone suspended from the ceiling. “Ladies and gentleman, please welcome, led by his valet Miss Anne, the unstoppable soldier, the butcher in a beret, he is The Brigadier!”
Ten minutes later The Brigadier delivered his trademark short clothesline with devastating ferocity and Silky Sam went down like a ton of bricks – dropped from a height! “Ooh!” said the crowd before The Brigadier dropped his elbow on the crowd favourite. Showing the maximum sign of disrespect, he didn’t even hook his opponent’s leg as he made the pin. “One! Two! Three!” Some of them cheered. But not many. Most booed and threw things as Miss Anne scooped up her beaten, battered but victorious man and practically dragged him away.
On the other side of the curtain, Lethbridge-Stewart straightened and began to wipe the sweat from his chest and back with a large white towel. Various wrestlers and referees were milling about, crowding the small backstage space. Pipes ran along the bare brick walls and criss-crossed under the low ceiling. The whole place stank of DeepW Heat and urine.
The moment she arrived backstage Anne Travers slipped on a thick robe. “This is absolutely ridiculous!” she said as two extremely fat men in leotards walked by.
Lethbridge-Stewart guided her into the tiny cubicle that passed as their dressing room. “We’re not going to go through this again are we Miss Travers?” he sighed.
“I just don’t see how this is getting us any closer. I’m sorry.”
Lethbridge-Stewart started to button on a shirt. “Just a little longer.”
“You’ve been saying that for eight weeks! I’m tired of this ridiculous dress. And these crowds seem to be getting angrier.”
“Quite right Miss Travers they’re starting to really hate you.” A stocky man in a bright white suit and red shirt stood at the entrance of the cubicle. He looked like a stoat in a dinner suit. He was flanked either side by two ginger-haired giants with orange beards. “Excellent, excellent,” Jeremy Malacroix said clapping his hands between cigar puffs.
“I’m glad you’re ‘appy, Mr. M.”
Anne always had to suppress a giggle whenever she heard her colleague put on that cockney accent. She coughed and waved her hand to clear the cloud of cigar smoke that had wafted in her direction.
“Now then how much does uncle Jeremy owe you? Let’s see, the takings are,” Malacroix made an exaggerated show of doing sums in his head before pulling a thick wedge of notes from the inside of his jacket. “Come here my boy.”
Lethbridge-Stewart wore his very best poker face and put out his hand. He’d played this game before. The slippery promoter was watching his face, waiting for any sign of approval, that he was happy with the amount in his hand. As soon as Malacroix spotted it, he’d stop counting. The longer the cash counting continued, the slower it became. “There,” he said putting the barely damaged wedge back into his pocket. “That’s enough for both of you but there’ll be more for you next week.”
Anne and Lethbridg-Stewart exchanged a glance.
“That’s right. I want you in the ring with Koen…Koen”
“Koenraad?”he offered, trying not to show his amusement.
Aghast, Anne looked from one to the other. “But he’s twenty-six stone!”
Malacroix let out a hearty belly laugh. “I know! I know! Here’s how it’s going to work. Ko-Koen…The German, he’s gonna cream ya. Boom!” He acted out some wrestling moves, “everyone’ll be goin’ mental, it’s gonna be great! Then Andy, the Submission Machine is gonna come in, save you from a beating and that’ll lead into the following week’s match.” He was hopping from one foot to the other with excitement “Then the week after that maybe you and Andy can make a tag team against the monster. You like that? How does that sound? Sounds great doesn’t it? Anne, sounds great doesn’t it? I knew you’d love it!” He slapped his thigh and turned away to pay the next man.
“Just one thing, Mr Malacroix.”
Slowly, the little man turned and removed the cigar from his lip. “Yes,” he said in a less friendly tone.
Trying to straddle the middle vocal ground between intimidated and threatening, Lethbridge-Stewart said “Tony was dropped on ‘is head the other week. By Koenraad.”
“What about it?”
“Just a bit concerned. Tony was down for weeks after and now his memory’s a bit funny. Told me the other day he can’t remember the names of his mum or dad.”
Malacroix’s associates took a threatening step closer. “That was an accident. One time only. Tony wasn’t being careful.”
“I know, it’s just, well, I got to rely on my body to make a living.”
Now it was Malacroix’s turn to take a threatening step toward him. “You making trouble? You telling me one of my boys is taking liberties?” He puffed on the cigar and blew smoke into his face. “That man’s my star attraction. So, if you think you’re gonna stir up-”
“No, no. I was, I was just thinking.”
“You’re not paid to think.”
With the curtain pulled across the cubicle allowing her a small degree of privacy, Anne began extracting herself from the low cut sequinned dress she hated so much. It went against all her feminist principles but acting as The Brigadier’s manageress-come-valet was the only way of inveigling her into this world of sweat, socks and blood.
Lethbridge-Stewart was just thinking how good at this wrestling stuff he was getting when an mountain of a man hoved into view before him. A set of large teeth set into a friendly rictus-like grin bore down on him. A foot-like hand came down on Lethbridige-Stewart’s shoulder. “We have a good match next week, yes?” Koenraad asked in broken English.
Lethbridge-Stewart nodded. “Looking forward to it, old chap.”
The giant displayed more of those large teeth. “Good! Good!” he thundered jovially, “we make crowd explode!”
Anne came out of the cubicle wearing her much preferred trousers and jumper. “Was that Koenraad I heard? He sounded very jolly.”
“Yes,” he said thoughtfully.
“Means he either really rather enjoys hurting people or… What if he’s on to us?”
“Then that monster is going to drop me on my head, just like he did to Captain Anthony Carruthers.”
“And then you’ll be an amnesiac just like him!”
He smiled. “I’m sure it won’t come to that.”
“And you think Malacroix’s in on it?”
Lethbridge-Stewart watched the eel-like promoter counting money into the hand of a muscle-bound Japanese wrestler. Having read a sign of satisfaction in the man’s face he abruptly stopped counting and, with his entourage, wandered away. “I’d be surprised if Malacroix didn’t know everything that’s going on around here.”
The following week the crowd were baying for blood. Koenraad, known to the punters as Killer Klaus, was indeed the star attraction. The bad guy they all loved to hate. The Brigadier was just hated. There was no doubt who’s blood they were hoping to see on the canvas that night. And there would be blood.
“I want to see some colour out there tonight, fellas,” Malacroix told the four of them before they stepped through the curtain. “Fifteen minutes and Koen, you loose by disqualification for using excessive violence. Then when he hears the bell, Andy’ll come down to the ring for the big ending. All clear? Excellent, excellent.”
Anne looked nervous, that was expected but so did Koenraad. Head bent forward, eyes staring at the floor, the massive German stood by the curtain in a state of deep thought. He’d hardly said anything all day. In front of him his manager, Lowry shuffled his feet impatiently. Francis Lowry was a short, thin Londoner with a distinctly nervous disposition and pronounced stutter. He always looked terrified of the huge men on the wrestling circuit, leading Lethbridge-Stewart to wonder why he didn’t find a different job.
The bell rang to get the crowd’s attention as the ring announcer cleared his throat. “Ladies and gentleman, boys and girls, people of all ages, it’s time for tonight’s main event,” every word was over-exaggerated. “In a moment we will welcome the challenger. A newcomer to Britain’s wrestling circuit but in a short time he has dominated opponent after opponent.” The spotlight shone on the curtain as the crown began to chant. “Led by his beautiful valet, please show appreciation for the steel soldier, the living Action Man, “The Brigadier!”
Both made it to the ring without being struck by any handbags, or anything wet landing on them.
“Now it’s time to welcome the champion. Weighing in at twenty-six stone, he has decimated his enemies and destroyed his doubters. Now he faces his greatest challenge yet. Feast your eyes on the size of the problem, here is the wrestling champion of the United Kingdom Killer Klaus!”
Even though he’d slipped into character and was throwing insults at members of the crowd as he walked by, there was definite change in the German’s character.. Intelligence reports said he was a Hungarian agent working for the Russians, masquerading as a German wrestler in order to infiltrate a British agents. Nobody had told Lethbridge-Stewart why a British agent should be anywhere on a touring wrestling circuit, no doubt something highly secret but when the time came, Captain Carruthers had no choice but to step into the ring with Koenraad. Even if Carruthers had suspected what was about to happen, he had no choice but to go along with it or he’d have blown his cover. Now, he wasn’t even aware there was a cover to blow. He’d been dropped on his head by somebody powerful, who knew what they were doing. Unfortunately for Lethbridge-Stewart, the only way to be certain Koenraad had done the damage was to put himself in the same position Carruthers had been forced into.
It had taken weeks to get to the level where Malacroix was eager to see a match between The Brigadier and his star attraction, and weeks before that had been spent learning how to wrestle. Thanks to Anne’s pronounced reticence and overt annoyance the weeks had felt like months. Long, long months.
The two men stood nose to nose, or nose to neck as was the case. At the referee’s behest the two men grudgingly shook hands. Lethbridge-Stewart glanced at Anne who stood beside the ring apron. Lowry was on the opposite side, his eyes boring into his client.
Killer Klaus launched himself toward The Brigadier and the two men locked up in the time-honored tradition. A swift shoulder drag sent The Brigadier crashing to the canvas. The crown booed loudly as he retreated on his backside to the safety of the corner but Koenraad was showing no mercy. He stomped toward him, ignoring The Brigadier’s mimed cries of “No! Please.” It had been a trick. Holding onto the ring ropes, The Brigadier delivered two boots to the giant’s solar plexus and sent him reeling backwards. He took his chance and jumped onto the massive back of his opponent, arms wrapped ’round his head in a well and truly cinched-in sleeper hold. The Killer’s arms flailed wildly as he staggered around the ring, making a good show of trying to shake off his determined opponent. With almost indecent ease the hold was broken and The Brigadier found himself being pulled upside down over Koenraad’s head until he was staring at the canvas below. His head was clamped between Koenraad’s thighs. This was it, Lethbridge-Stewart thought, a piledriver. A simple yet dangerous move, this must have been how he did it. Now at the giant’s mercy, held his breath as the giant got ready to drop to his knees and spike his head on the mat. Why was he hesitating? Was Koenraad waiting for him to counter the move? Wriggling his legs and delivering weak-looking jabs to Koenraad’s ribs the grip weakened and he was dropped unceremoniously to the mat.
Slightly dazed from being squeezed while in an upside-down position, Lethbridge-Stewart took the opportunity to get some air into his lungs. His vision was slightly blurry but through the haze he could see Koenraad and Lowry having an intense discussion at ringside. He glanced at Anne but she hadn’t noticed.
Sliding in under the ring ropes, Koenraad grabbed a handful of The Brigadier’s hair and yanked him to his feet. “Ooof,” was all Lethbridge-Stewart could say as a clumsy kick to the stomach connected with a dull thudding sound. Bent double, The Brigadier was pulled off his feat into the upside down position he’d been in a moment ago. Head between the giant’s legs, he could see Lowry on the outside of the ring smiling and nodding. He turned his thumbs-up into a slow thumbs-down and the crowd roared with excitement. Why was Koenraad hesitating? Taking a small razor blade from between the layers of white tape around his wrists, Lethbridge-Stewart made a small but quite deep cut below his left eyebrow. Again, he kicked his legs and delivered weak jabs to the giant’s side, “forcing” his opponent to drop him. He knew the match would be over as soon the referee saw the blood. Playing along, Koenraad began to rain blows down on The Brigadier despite the ref’s attempts to pull him away. No sooner had the bell been rung, then Andy, otherwise known as the Submission Machine ran to the ring but things were not going to plan.
Lowry was berating Koenraad in the middle of the ring, yelling in his face and jabbing a bony finger into his chest. Soon Malacroix was in the ring, waving his arms and demanding why the match had been so short. The German giant stood, looking from one from the other as the two small men had an argument. The crowd were too loud for Lethbridge-Stewart to hear was being said between them but he certainly saw what happened next; Koenraad scooped Lowry up, flipped him round in mid air and turned him upside down, into the piledriver.
The crowd whooped and cheered as they watched one of the hated managers getting their comeuppance, at the hands of his own client no less.
Anne stood helplessly watching Malacroix waving his arms and jumping up an down on the spot shouting. “No, no!”. He was like a gnat to an elephant as Koenraad gave him a gentle shove which sent him staggering backwards. With Dowry’s head clamped between his thighs, Koenraad fell backwards onto his backside, driving the man’s head into the mat. Anne knew just how severe this could be. If the move hadn’t killed Lowry it would certainly have compacted several vertebrae in his neck and sent a shock wave to the base of his spine.
Malacroix stood open mouthed as the cigar unstuck itself slowly from his lip and fell to the mat. Soon, the canvas was on fire. Wrestlers, managers and referees rushed to ringside with buckets of water, all to the delight of the crowd who were united in their opinion that this had been the best match they’d ever seen. When the sprinklers came on the mood changed from enraptured delight to outrage and anger. They disappeared pretty quickly, almost as quickly as the police arrived on the scene.
At the back of the building Lethbridge-Stewart watched as Lowry was loaded into the back of an ambulance and watched it drive off into the night, sirens blaring. Anne stood beside him “Koenraad’s lucky not to have killed him.”
“He judged it to perfection,”
She put her hand on his shoulder. “You weren’t to know. And you were prepared to get dropped on you head.”
“Duty, Miss Travers. And Koenraad,” he looked at one of the wrestling posters showing a picture of Koenraad . “Presumably he did it to keep his spot at the top of the pyramid.”
“What’s going to happen to Carruthers?”
“Someone’s coming to get him. They’re going to introduce him to his wife, see if that jogs any memories.”
“You’re not convinced it’ll work, are you?”
“You saw the state of Lowry.” A thought crossed his mind and he sighed wearily. “I suppose it makes us equal.”
She looked at him, frowning. “I don’t understand.”
“We’ve lost one of ours, they’ve lost one of theirs.”
Koenraad and Malacroix were led from the building in handcuffs. Two of the Met’s burliest constables were holding Koenraad and had a difficult time trying to make him fit onto the back-seat of the tiny panda car. They watched as the car drove away.
“So does this mean we can go home now? That I don’t have to wear these silly sequins ever again?”
Lethbridge-Stewart watched as a blonde woman in her forties emerged from the ticket booth carrying a tin of point. She went over to a poster advertising next week’s wrestling show and painted the word ‘CANCELLED’ in foot-high red letters.
Being a wrestler had been an eye opener, he thought as a shock pain went through his shoulder. He winced as he gently pressed a swollen lump under his eye. Or had it been an eye-closer?
Anne Travers packed her sequinned dress into the suitcase for the last time. It wouldn’t fit. As she rummaged in the case she came across an extra item that hadn’t been in there before. She pulled out a thin cardboard tube and removed the rubber stopper from the end of it. She tipped the role of paper onto the floor and bent down to unfurl it. It was a poster.
ONE TIME ONLY.
Smiling to herself she rolled up the poster, put it back in the suitcase and threw the sequined dress into the nearest rubbish bin.
The strictly limited edition book featuring my story, Soldier in Time is available exclusively from the Candy Jar website celebrating 50 years of the long running character, Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart from the classic series of Doctor Who and the much-loved Sarah Jane Adventures.
£1.50 from each book goes to support the Velindre Cancer Centre in Cardiff.
“Wrestling with Shadows” copyright Martin Gregory