Context Clues: A Basil Coventry Misadventure
Basil Coventry sat across from three visions of the spherical, exceptionally frugal dullard, Reginald Roxbury. Coventry could have sworn there had been but a single Reginald when he had entered his superior’s office moments before. Had Reginald magically triplicated himself when Coventry wasn’t looking? As this was the end of the 16th century, complex ideas like cloning—not to mention moon shots and toaster ovens—were as incomprehensible as interstellar travel and honest politicians are now. Perhaps a clue to Coventry’s visions lay in his entrance, a spasm, really, involving much stumbling and an initial attempt to enter his superior’s office through a nearby wall. His head’s encounter with the wall did nothing to soothe the turbulent baying in his cranium. Obviously, Basil Coventry was soused.
This wet pile of laundry had not planned to meet with Reginald at all. Why, the poor sot had only just gone to bed. After finishing several bottles of wine at his favorite London alehouse, The Three Legged Lion, Coventry had stumbled home and fallen into a deep sleep without disrobing. Shortly, he was unceremoniously roused by the business end of a long pike. The weapon—not the fish—belonged to Reginald’s irrelevant subordinate, Horsby, who had been assigned the unfortunate and surprisingly complicated task of bringing in Coventry. Reginald’s boy had, of course, heard stories from other men who had been dispatched to fetch the agent, but what Horsby failed to recognize was that they were talking in fact, not hyperbole. A small blessing came when he discovered Coventry already dressed. Undertaking a geometrically complicated task such as getting him dressed would have been impossible. As it was, maneuvering the man out of bed, down the hall, and guiding him along the thoroughfare was like wrestling a large octopus with a pronounced tic into a fax machine.
Coventry was a middle-aged piece of cooked but forgotten tagliarini—limp and cold—with eyes that blinked in slow motion, whether he was intoxicated or not. His most distinguishing feature was a mangy mop of thick black seaweed perched, slightly askew, at the top of his head, with additional, equally askew colonies both above and below his lips. Coventry liked drinking as much as, if not more than, most men delight in lovemaking. His pick-me-up of choice was wine, preferably without pieces of wood in it, a rare find indeed in Elizabethan England. Basil Coventry drank often and with complete abandon. His unquenchable thirst for alcohol had caused (was causing and would continue to cause) problem after problem, in virtually every area of his life. Antigone had Haemon; Coventry had booze.
Alas, his condition was not only ironic, but also unfortunate; Basil Coventry was supposed to be as sharp as a splinter. He was supposed to think quickly and clearly in times of calm as well as extreme duress. His life, not to mention the lives of countless others, including Queen Elizabeth I, depended on it. For, you see, Coventry* was a spy, the world’s first** “secret agent.”
To elaborate: Consider the man with the license to kill—contemporary super-spy James Bond. If Bond were a computer, he would be the size of a peanut and be able to make at least a gazillion mathematical computations in the blink of an eye. He’d never malfunction, never need to be cleaned and he would run until the end of all existence.
Now, if Basil Coventry were a computer, he’d be the equivalent of Bond’s vacuum-tube forefather. He’d occupy an entire warehouse. His primary purpose would be to add the numbers two and two. Sometimes, if no one breathed, he might spit out the answer four after sounding like a lawnmower with a Tecumseh 6HP engine, but usually he’d simply catch fire. If you touched the wrong toggle, he might just launch an unprovoked nuclear attack.
“Did you get all that?” A single Reginald was now scowling at Coventry as if he had just finished explaining something frightfully important. Reginald dropped a sack of something on the table that sounded like small stones. Had Reginald been telling him about a new case or had he been scolding him, again, for his exorbitant imbibing? How long had Reginald been talking? What was in the bag?
Basil Coventry considered asking Reginald to repeat himself but as the result would undoubtedly be a month in the Tower of London, he quickly abandoned the idea. Reginald was not exactly sympathetic when people did not listen to what he was saying. Even though Coventry presumed he was the only agent currently employed by Reginald and he held a position of some security, the risk wasn’t worth it. That, and his tongue felt as if it were made of wet plaster, making clear communication impossible.
“Well?” Reginald stared at the agent sternly.
Coventry heard the question but was more concerned that while the room wasn’t exactly spinning, it definitely seemed to be listing.
At that moment, a peculiar feeling filled Basil Coventry’s stomach. His cheeks sank, turning—well, gray. He began to feel as if he might—
Coventry believed ending the meeting sooner rather than later was now in everyone’s best interests.
“Yes,” he gurgled, digging his fingers into his midsection.
Time was running out.
“Yes,” Coventry responded, struggling, “I’d be happy—”
“You understand then, do you?”
Coventry’s head nodded—er, drooped.
“Yes, well, good.” Reginald seemed pleased, which meant his face had a quality akin to basalt and not the usual granite. “Now, go down downstairs and see Cresswell. I want you mobile as soon as possible.”
Coventry stood up, grabbed the sack after first being reminded to do so by Reginald and pointed himself at the door. And, of course, by “door”, we mean, “floor.”
Coventry’s boss, Reginald Roxbury, was a single head on what was in fact a coalition of spies and informants, actualized by Sir Francis Walsingham, Secretary to Queen Bess herself. In his first meeting with Reginald, Walsingham had issued the following challenge: “You, Reginald, will lead the charge! Your men will live for a single purpose only: To root out all persons or companies of persons with diabolical intent, who—”
At that moment a page had entered. “Yes, put it over there—Can’t you see I’m speaking?” (“Hold all my calls” was an idea waiting to be born.)
Walsingham had continued, annoyed. “Now, where was I?—Oh, yes—who would do harm to the Queen, the Queen’s countrymen, or England herself!”
The organization had been given no official name, a fact that irritated Reginald greatly. He was forced to employ a profusion of vagueness in even the most mundane tasks. Reginald had a very hard time remembering whom he had told what, as nothing official was ever written down unless it was in code, which he did not know how to decipher. Walsingham had promised on more than one occasion that yes, he did intend to name his as yet unnamed organization, if for no other reason than to improve his director’s mood. However, as the status of this and many other matters never advanced beyond rhetoric, Reginald deduced that the Secretary’s forgetfulness was in fact intentional. Before long, Reginald was communicating in what future mathematicians might describe as a “binary” fashion, meaning that he spoke in a monotonous procession of elongated grunts and silences.
Administrative minutiae quickly fell by the wayside as the staggering task of catching villains and ferreting out conspiracies occupied Reginald’s full attention. He was drowning before he’d gotten his bathing suit on. The man never even finished unpacking. His office, the uppermost floor of a three-story building in the northwest corner of London, just south of Holborn, forever remained a maze of unopened crates and one of the worst firetraps in the city. The building was outfitted to look like an average, nothing peculiar, strange or in any way out of the ordinary going on here, sir, furniture shop.
Curiously, while Reginald’s organization remained anonymous, the furniture company did not; a fact attributed to the previous tenants being an actual, honest-to-goodness furniture company. So, rather than squander valuable time pressuring Walsingham to create a fictitious cognomen, Reginald simply evicted the previous owner and kept his name. Reginald Roxbury, to all those not in the know, became Fusil Winchester, a joiner of some repute who ran a store with the title The Winchester Furniture Company. As for the real Fusil Winchester, he disappeared rather suddenly. His clients never heard from him again, which they found odd, as the shop, as far as they could tell, remained open. They assumed the worst and honored the man by immediately taking their trade elsewhere.
For the amount of work they were required to do, Reginald’s team was shamefully understaffed. The roster was as follows: Reginald; Coventry; Wilting Cresswell, a special weapons expert; Moors, secretary; Horsby, the errand boy; a handful of low-grade furniture craftsmen and, at any given time, approximately twenty well-meaning, but not very well-trained, soldiers.
More men had been promised, but the Queen, who was notoriously frugal with the Crown’s coin, held tight to the purse from which Reginald’s budget was drawn. In addition, it was rumored that Walsingham had set up additional offices exactly like Reginald’s. This meant Reginald’s budget was shared by, he theorized on many a late-night trek home, the fuller shop run by a man named something Wells; a cooper’s, where mysterious meetings were held in the back by people communicating in hushed tones; a theater of important historical note; the always vacant home of Mr. and Mrs. Gerald Stubbs; Collinson’s Inn; and, finally, a stapler near St. Paul’s. Whether these branches were formed with the same objective as the Winchester Furniture Company, or to create a never-ending chain of clandestine micromanagement, Reginald had no idea. He assumed the latter.
The layout of Winchester had the joiners occupying the first floor, the only floor with more than one window, where they existed like fish in an aquarium, giving Reginald’s thimblerig some credibility. The soldiers occupied the second floor and spent most of their time playing draughts. Reginald utilized the top floor, where his office looked south toward the Thames, which is why it always smelled like dirty seawater. The river and open sewers combined to turn the average day at the Winchester Furniture Company into an experience not unlike keeping one’s head in a cage full of irritated ravens for as long as one’s sanity could endure it. Cresswell, The Winchester Furniture Company’s special weapons expert lived—yes, lived—in the sub-basement.
Coventry had left Reginald’s office as he entered: leaning on Horsby’s shoulder. As they moved awkwardly towards a staircase at the end of the hall, Reginald’s secretary, Moors, a burly man with a crooked grin and a scar over his left eye, winked at Coventry. As usual, the wink remained unrequited and Moors’ hopes of initiating a flirtatious yet witty dialog with the agent remained but a figment of his bored imagination.
Horsby half-carried, half-escorted his charge through a cluster of serious-looking men building stools on the first floor into a large, unoccupied room at the back of the building. On the southernmost wall stood a large fireplace. No fire ever burned within it for the back was a fake. Normally, a good shove revealed a stone ladder as well as a secret passageway leading down into the darkness. The shaft completely bypassed the actual basement, accessed via a proper but not often used staircase at the front of the building. The fireplace led to the secret sub-basement, where Reginald’s special weapons officer, Wilting Cresswell, had perfected the art of constructing items sane men could neither command nor comprehend.
Horsby threw his shoulder against the stone door no less than six times before it reluctantly swung open. The door in the fireplace had failed before: On one occasion, trapping Cresswell in the darkness for a week. Ironic, for Cresswell had designed the door in the first place.
After first handing the sack to his companion, Coventry descended downwards…
The agent’s stomach had quieted somewhat. It was no longer trying to leap out of his abdomen and run across the room like a skittish Oryctolagus. Nevertheless, his trip down the ladder was tortuous and time consuming. His legs were weak, his vision, blurry, and the stone rungs, damp and slippery.
Coventry dripped from rung to rung like sap down the bark of a tree. Meanwhile, Horsby sat next to the fireplace, listening to his stomach snore like a wildebeest, wondering if he had time to sneak off for a loaf of fresh bread. However, as Coventry’s eyes had yet to sink below the edge of the floor, Horsby remained in place. The agent glowered at him, catching a foolish, manchet-inspired grin on the young man’s face.
“What?” Coventry asked.
The grin evaporated. “Hummm?” The wildebeest grumbled.
Coventry’s eyes narrowed. He knew the boy was mocking him.
“Is something wrong?” Horsby stammered. “You’ve hardly moved.”
Coventry considered telling the young boy to go choke on a vaginal pear, a medieval torture device too horrid to be described in detail, but decided that reprimanding Horsby and climbing down the ladder were too laborious to be performed simultaneously. Instead, he said nothing.
“Do you need help?”
Quiet, Coventry groused to himself. Was the boy intentionally trying to distract him? Can’t you see I’m busy?
“Are you stuck?”
The agent wondered if Horsby, like so many of Reginald’s brood, wanted his job? Did this infant want Coventry to slip and fall and kill himself? Well, Coventry snorted, launching, as he so often did, into a dialogue in his own cranium, if this sour bowl of milk wants my job, he’s going to have to come up with something a little more—
Coventry’s body hit the dirt below with the timbre, tone and resonance of an obese cherub being launched from a canon.
Horsby winced like a parent who just watched his child fall from the roof. He wondered if Basil Coventry—the man who had single-handedly defeated the best and brightest villains Elizabethan England had to offer—was dead.
“So,” Horsby declared, peering down into the darkness, “if you need me…”
Coventry grunted, a feat requiring all his strength and energy.
Horsby sighed, relieved. The young man surely would have been blamed had the agent perished. And to be blamed for such a thing meant execution. Basil Coventry’s greatest “gift” was that frequently he was able to get those around him, be they friend or enemy, man or animal, killed. Thus, with disaster averted and the agent lost in the darkness below, Horsby’s returned straightway to thoughts of warm baked goods.
Laying the sack on the floor, the boy called out, “Yes, well, as you seem to have everything under control—”
Coventry lay in the dirt, trying to convince his body to sit up, while he listened to the sound of stone rubbing against stone. Horsby was closing the fireplace and, in a moment, he would be gone. Lying on the floor, his back twisted, his brain pounding, Coventry did the only thing he could: he vomited.
Several soothing cups of murky brown water later, Coventry found he was standing next to Wilting Cresswell, staring down at he didn’t know what. There was a lantern on the table but Coventry knew what that was for…at least he thought he did. It was always difficult to tell what was what where Cresswell was concerned.
Wilting Cresswell was a short, blind man with thick, gray, clothesline strands of hair that defied geometry, splaying in all directions. He had lost his sight at a young age when he had inadvertently set fire to an ample pile of potassium nitrate, sulfur and carbon.
The Coventry didn’t-know-what sat on a long, wooden table, surrounded by flickering darkness. The lantern cast long shadows amongst the piles of tools, weapons and armor lining the walls like insulation. All were disassembled and the parts interchanged in an unimaginable fashion. Some wondered if Cresswell’s cave was akin to the images Leonardo da Vinci saw when he closed his eyes. No visitor to the world of Wilting Cresswell left without first adding at least one—if not several—bruises to their person. The lack of illumination inevitably caused much stumbling about. This, in turn, led to Cresswell getting quite irritated and abruptly expelling his visitors. Coventry had more bruises than anyone, as visiting Cresswell when intoxicated was a bit like touring a machete factory intoxicated.
Cresswell stared in the general direction of the Coventry didn’t-know-what, exhibiting giddy, maniacal pride. “Can’t do much for your pain, I’m embarrassed to say,” Cresswell laughed, “but, as far as the current escapade Roxbury is sending you on, these little works of art should be exactly what the physician ordered.”
These? Coventry had assumed he was looking at a singular he-didn’t-know-what. The fact that he was looking at several items concerned him deeply. He had never received more than a single, special device for a mission, aside from the standard issue bedroll, rations, and extra set of clothes. Multiple special-issue devices meant the mission was more dangerous than usual or that Cresswell had had a productive week—or perhaps both. The agent was still hazy about the exact nature of his assignment; About all he knew so far was that he was going on one…maybe. All his other missions had started this way: some manner of clue from Reginald and questionable implements from Cresswell. He decided to end the mystery of his exact task once and for all.
“Do not interrupt me!”
Coventry’s dulled senses were not aware that he was interrupting anything. Had Cresswell been talking? Now that the agent was paying attention, he realized his error. In addition, Cresswell had picked up the Coventry didn’t-know-what and was showing it to him. The item on display resembled a pillow-sized bundle of cloth and wood.
“These,” Cresswell explained, “are your wings.”
If Coventry had had the energy, he would have blanched.
“Wrap this and this,” England’s preeminent covert weapons expert explained, motioning to a snarl of leather straps, “around your waist and shoulders—here and here.” Cresswell was amazingly adept at handling complex items like these. His fingers danced back and forth like a concert pianist’s—during a recital, of course, and not while eating breakfast—or worse, sleeping. “Open these up like so…” As he spoke, he pulled out the “wings”, which, when fully extended, were a little more than seven feet across.
Throughout history, human beings have always attempted to perform activities they have no natural predilection for. * Cresswell continued this proud tradition.
The special weapons expert continued with his explanation. “A good breeze and you can coast… ” He paused, thinking. After clearing his throat embarrassingly, he added, “They haven’t been fully tested but my guess would be you could, in theory, go quite far!”
That the bundle had yet to be tested didn’t surprise Coventry. He had yet to receive an item from Cresswell that had. Now, had the opposite been true—had Cresswell started spitting out words like “perfect” and “infallible”—then Coventry would have wondered if he had gone mad, for Wilting Cresswell never distributed anything higher in rank than a prototype.
“Then,” the madman continued, “fold them back up like this.” Cresswell collapsed the entire thing even quicker than he had set it up; his hands were a blur. “And—done!” The wings were now no bigger than a cushion. “Slip them into your pack,” Cresswell smiled as he did just that, “and nobody will even know you have wings, unless you tell them.” The pack looked pregnant. “Useful, don’t you think?”
Try as he might, Coventry couldn’t figure out the circumstances in which such a contraption might prove advantageous. He said so as delicately as he could.
“Have you ever wondered what it might be like to see the world from—up there?”
Coventry assumed he meant the sky and not the ceiling.
“Have you never longed to drift through the air like an autumn leaf?”
Cresswell’s eyes narrowed. “Have you not wondered what it would be like to infiltrate a well-guarded fortress unnoticed?”
The corners of the two men’s mouths went in opposite directions.
Cresswell’s suppositions presumed, Coventry thought, he would have access to high ground—a hill, a tree, an item or place with height—from which to launch. Otherwise, the wings, no matter how clever their construction, would be useless. Besides, hadn’t Leonardo da Vinci tried—and failed—to construct a similar device?
The agent unwittingly said this last part out loud.
“Da Vinci?” Cresswell snapped. “An incompetent child! A fool. Do not mention his name in my presence again!”
“Time is short. Now, pay attention.”
There was a pause.
“Did you roll your eyes?”
It was clear to the agent he would learn nothing from Cresswell—nothing of value, anyway. He closed his mouth, his pupils slowly rising towards the ceiling…
The rest of the meeting went quickly, as Coventry was quiet, pretending to listen. Occasionally, he tried to pay attention but for the most part, his mind wandered. He heard something about a “musket”, which was “something to load” but “compared to the sword…”
The fields of pink lilies abruptly evaporated when Cresswell seized the agent’s rapier. Coventry tried to stop him but the old man was too quick.
“What are you doing?”
“As long as you have this,” Cresswell said, referring to the rifle, “you won’t need this.” He sneered at the rapier. Coventry wasn’t so sure he agreed. His rapier had served him well, when it wasn’t getting caught on doorways, or chairs, or piercing innocent passers-by. For the sake of time he decided not to argue.
Cresswell placed the musket next to the pack, assuring Coventry it was “the weapon of the future.” Coventry shrugged.
The weapons guru spent the next ten minutes talking about wax. Coventry didn’t understand why until his host picked up an unlit candle. In reality, the item was not a candle at all but a cylindrical container, masquerading as a candle. It even had a wick sticking out through a hole in the object’s removable lid.
While Cresswell couldn’t see the agent’s befuddled gaze, he knew it was there. “For hiding something you don’t want anyone else to know about,” he explained, removing the top. Coventry nodded, puzzling over this item. Was he supposed to steal something?
Next came a long string of items customarily referred to as “standard issue.” They were: fifty feet of rope; a lantern; a bedroll; rations; water; ammunition, powder and flint; a dagger and an extra set of black clothes. (Coventry longed for clothing with a bit more style and color, but as his work often involved hiding behind this or sneaking into that, clothing even remotely flamboyant would have been impractical.)
Last but not least, Cresswell gave the agent some money in a small cloth purse. This was the only occasion when currency ever changed hands. Basil Coventry received no salary. Instead, his superiors paid his bills and his debts. Each time he received an assignment, he was given an allowance that, in this case, consisted of various angels, crowns and shillings. When the job was complete, he was allowed to keep whatever money was left over.
The deal sounded quite excellent when Reginald first presented it, but in the hands of Basil Coventry, quite the opposite was true. Unfortunately, the leftover amount never seemed to rise above zero. Often the financial pendulum swung the other direction and Coventry ended up owing the Crown money.
The pack was full and the musket was tied to its side. The agent raised the complete bundle, straining under the weight. Coventry was not a big man. Often, when meeting the man for the first time, images of not altogether healthy insects usually sprang to mind.
“Good luck,” Cresswell said sincerely to the trunk next to Coventry. The agent snorted. He considered saying “thank you” but the weight of the pack was squeezing the air out of his lungs. The thought of climbing back up the ladder and shoving the fireplace open was almost more than he could bear. And that was just the thought of it. He felt like a hummingbird with a hippo on its back. He considered staying where he was. Of course, that would mean spending more time with Cresswell. In the time it takes Clint Eastwood to knock someone’s teeth in, Coventry was climbing feverishly.
“Wait!” Cresswell croaked. Coventry’s knees wavered. The old man flew across the room, miraculously avoiding one unidentifiable obstacle after another. He stuffed a roll of paper in his visitor’s teeth. “Almost forgot the map!”
Map? “Roxbury had me draw this up for you, based on everything what’s-his-name told us.” What is the man talking about? What map —To where? — And who—?
Cresswell bid Coventry auf Wiedersehen. He might also have said adiós or vaarwel for Cresswell was a polyglot. As far as Coventry was concerned, good-bye in any language could not have come quickly enough. The agent resumed inching vertically back up towards the fireplace.
With a mighty push on the rocks, Coventry moved up into the light. He cursed Horsby’s name as he retrieved the abandoned sack, making a mental note to report him at the first opportunity and headed home. By the time the agent made his way out into the street, the note had been forgotten. At the end of the block, the man and boy passed one another and Coventry quickly remembered. But his back hurt, and his legs were tired, so, rather than pursue what was bound to be an exhausting objective, he moved on. Horsby smiled, his mouth so full of bread he looked like a squirrel preparing for winter.
Coventry’s tenement was small and uninspiring and sat just off the elbow that formed the northeast corner of the Thames. It had very few rooms—one, in fact—and no view, which was odd, for the agent lived on the second floor. Curiously, the butcher leasing the first floor had a better view—he had windows. Alas, holes in the walls for ventilation and peace of mind were but a solitary item on a long list of amenities the agent pined for.
When one considers that Coventry spent most of his youth in a parish, this residence, while small, was a utopia. Coventry was an orphan. What had happened to his parents remained a mystery.
He owned few belongings. Material trivialities are irrelevant when one spends most of one’s time out and about, exposing fractious activity. Even at this early stage, espionage was not an upwardly mobile career choice. Coventry would not have been able to afford furnishings, even if he wanted to, which he did. What held the top slot on Coventry’s wish list? Fine clothes? Gilded trinkets? The love of a good woman? No, Basil Coventry longed for people of a subordinate social rank to wait on him hand and foot, day and night.
No sooner had Coventry entered his room than his tired body targeted the only prominent piece of furniture: the bed. He deposited the pack, musket and map from Cresswell as well as the rattling sack from Reginald on the floor and sat on a pile of dull colored blankets covering a cheaply constructed frame. He knew he should be getting on with his mission, but….
Coventry’s dizziness had ebbed considerably since his meeting with Cresswell. His stomach was no longer performing three shows a night. Now, his body longed simply for sleep. But a need to know his assignment pushed the agent on. Where to start—the sack or the map? Coventry couldn’t decide. He picked randomly, unrolling the parchment….
His forehead wrinkled as he stared at the drawing. “The middle of nowhere—again!” he groaned. “Just once, just once…” Coventry drifted off, stifling his ire. “Would it be so terribly difficult to send me somewhere—nice? I should be talking to kings and queens—or, at the very least, a yeoman—but not…” He made a sound not unlike a bull before it charges. “I am so dreadfully tired of commiserating with the masses.”
By modern standards, the map was painfully inaccurate. Nothing was to scale. If it had been, there was a carrack as big as Scotland floating off the coast of York. Words were misspelled. From a late 16th century point of view, the map was brilliant. In brief, it showed England as a large, kidney-shaped lump. A series of black splotches represented the population centers. A trellis of crisscrossing, circuitous lines, which one assumed were the roads, connected the splotches.
Coventry stared at the splotches and the trellis and the carrack for several long minutes. A fair effort, he thought. Well-drawn, fine lettering but…? The answer to his unfinished question hit him like a cannonball. Near the center of the map, towards the western edge of Northampton, was a large black “X.” Coventry rubbed his eyes. How could he have missed such a glaringly obvious marker? It doesn’t matter, he thought, slumping into a chair, as long as I have a destination—a star by which to navigate. For the first time all day, Coventry smiled.
Often, when one smiles, something positive has happened. Therefore, should not a celebratory drink accompany the thing that gave birth to the smile? Did not the smile indicate that something had happened worth celebrating? To both these questions, Coventry’s answer was an unequivocal “yes.” A moment later, he had retrieved a bottle of wine from the cabinet.
Now, why did respectable high-ranking government officials with direct access to the Queen have a man in their employ that can only be described as the Foster Brooks of the 16th century? The answer: Any man holding a position with an institution such as the Office That Has No Name must be at the very least partially…expendable. And Basil Coventry was, unfortunately or fortunately, as expendable as they came. He had no friends, no personal or professional obligations and no family. Basil Coventry was alone in the universe.
Exactly how long he had been with the agency was a matter of debate amongst the soldiers and the stool-makers.* If he did not return from a mission, only those within the walls of the Office That Had No Name would ever know. Considering all of this at once, it becomes wholly clear that Basil Coventry was the perfect man for a job involving great risk and danger.
It should also be mentioned that the man had never failed to solve a case. His record was impeccable. The fact astounded—well, everyone. Many a man had lost many a shilling betting on Basil Coventry’s demise.
No sooner had the agent retrieved the bottle of wine from the cupboard than he had—in his opinion, anyway—a brainstorm. Of the items Cresswell had given him, the candle had seemed positively useless. Then he speculated that its value depended not on the item itself, but on whatever was enlisted to go inside. This new thought gave him new hope which quickly blossomed into elation as a realization struck him, like a large man with an even larger gisarme: wine. If the candle was filled with wine…
Coventry snapped into action. In a flash, he was back on the bed, suckling the wick of the candle turned flask.
He passed out a half hour later.
Noon: a pleasant enough time of day, unless you were an espionage agent employed by the Crown and your orders explicitly demanded that you leave on your mission as soon as possible.
Coventry awoke like a chicken unexpectedly flung onto an ice-covered pond. Unlike a chicken, a man has a brain capable of determining the whys and wherefores of his situation and calming himself. Had this story been about a chicken, it would have been brief. The forsaken fowl would have frozen to death in a few pages and, let us be honest, can anyone bear more than a single sentence about a chicken struggling to survive on a frozen lake?
Luckily, Basil Coventry soon realized his error. He had been stagnant when he should have been mobile. He had fallen asleep when he should have been making his way towards a large “X” in Northampton as the splotch that was London disappeared behind him. A day’s travel had been lost. He now needed to slip out of the splotch unnoticed and conquer the task at hand, whatever it was.
In a paroxysm of stumbling and incoherent mumbling, Coventry collected his things, donned his coif and left his building. It was a bright, beautiful day. Unfortunately, the sunshine had the same effect on Coventry that a Pachycephalosaurus might have had had it been lobbed at his head. An item, prescient of a pair of sunglasses, flashed into the agent’s cerebrum, accompanied by a loud, “Yearrgghh!” meaning, “The sun—what a blight upon our sky! The glowing villain! If only I had something to—”
Coventry buried his face in his cloak and rapidly moved down the street. Truthfully, it was best Coventry did not pursue the “sunglasses” he envisioned in that brief flash; they were made of solid gold, presenting both weight and opacity problems. He skittered down the cobblestone streets, marinating in the filth of numerous Jordans emptying you don’t want to know what out into the streets. Weaving his way through a cyclone of pepperers, ironmongers and skinners, Basil Coventry made his way out of London as a storm quietly bubbled on the horizon.
* Coventry was also a city, of course, known at this particular period for its thread, but earlier for Lady Godiva’s ride in the 1000s and the last hanging of a martyr in 1555.
** Okay, maybe not the “first” secret agent. Homer refers to spying in The Iliad and yes, it’s mentioned in The Bible and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Bishop Pierre Cauchon had a spy, Father Nicholas Loiseleur, who posed as a shoemaker, and together they aided the English and sealed the fate of Joan of Arc. But these clever individuals are not good candidates for a bit of diversionary pastry such as this tale.
* They blast into space in enormous rocket ships. They travel the oceans in submarines. And from the moment the first Neanderthal saw his first ground sloth, mankind has always been obsessed with trying to fly. A monk named Roger Bacon in the year 1260 penned the earliest evidence of this delusion. In Bacon’s work, De Mirabili Potestate Artis et Naturae, he claimed all man needed to overcome his lack of natural wings was a globe filled with “ethereal air”, a concept that would eventually be realized by numerous freethinking hippies in the late 1960s.
* Coventry may have been with the agency for a short time, from the perspective of a star, which burns for hundreds of thousands of years before erupting into a supernova. Or, a very long time, from the perspective of a fruit fly, whose life span barely exceeds the time it has taken to pen this sentence.