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The International Writers Magazine:

The Pefect Scandal
Emma Callan


Tell me Mr. Stead. How did you, such a respectable man, come to witness…’
Mrs. Argyle paused, unsure if she possessed the vocabulary necessary to finish this question. Silence prevailed, during which time Mrs. Argyle decided that, despite the words lurking in her mouth, she was graced with too much decorum to use them
.

Secretly pleased with this response, Mr. Stead began to tread the boards of his office until the sweat of satisfaction that had been crawling down his neck was swallowed up by his crisp, white collar.
‘I understand your curiosity and surprise madam, but you are asking the impossible – for a journalist to reveal his sources. All I will say is that by tomorrow morning, when you have read the plight of poor Emily Waton in full, you will not care how the information was gathered, only that the facts were discovered and the public rightly informed. This country is rotten at the core Mrs. Argyle. You know it, I know it. England needs to know it. By tomorrow the blackest disease of all will be revealed in all it’s iniquity’. He stopped, wondering whether a similar arrangement of words would serve as a head-line. Not nearly juicy enough. Not…apocalyptic enough.
‘Oh Mr. Stead, how terribly exciting. I mean, how dreadful. Parents selling their only daughter for…’ Once again her unfailing decorum, not her vocabulary, stopped her sentence short. Quickly, she changed tack.
‘But will people believe Mr. Stead. Even with such a reliable eye witness as yourself - so well respected.’
‘Reputation is a wonderful inviter of trust madam’, replied Mr. Stead with a twitch of a smile.
‘And’, he continued, ‘those sceptical enough and foolish enough to doubt the truth of such matters can always be persuaded by other means. I have pictures…’

This bait, dangled in front of Mrs. Argyle had the desired effect. Her eyes widened black, as if her pupils were invading the mottled green of her irises which had surrendered so completely to curiosity. Her gaze embraced the man standing before her. It caressed him from head to toe.
‘Would you…could I’…’
‘Patience Mrs. Argyle, patience…’

What these pictures promised was beyond even Mrs. Argyles’ imagination. That’s where Mr. Stead came in. He was the man with the moral courage to print social depravity as fact not fiction. Of course she loathed scandal and indecency, she always avoided those awful populist Wilkie Collins novels, which she was told, were quite wicked. But as a decent English citizen (one of the few), she had the moral obligation to open her eyes to the depravity around her. This, she told herself, was the source of her secret pleasure when she read about the Whitechapel murders and other such gruesome tales. It was the duty of a decent woman.

‘I trust I need not remind you that, as always, this must be kept in the strictest confidence until tomorrow’. Few editors would employ someone as indiscreet as Mrs. Argyle. But Mr. Stead was a professional. Like any successful journalist he knew his audience and knew that even more than her love of gossip, Mrs. Argyle loved to please him.
‘No reminder is necessary sir’, she answered. Mr. Stead turned his back and began to walk out the room when he stopped short. Without turning he called,
‘One more thing Mrs. Argyle…how do you like the title – ‘Maiden’s Soul Sold to Modern Babylon?’ He heard a sharp intake of breath, like a razor being dragged swiftly across dry skin.
‘Thank you Mrs. Argyle’, he called as he continued to walk away. ‘You’ve told me everything I need to know’.

Not twenty-four hours later, over breakfast the country was digesting the printed image of the shadowy figures exchanging a six year old girl for money. Whispers smouldered in the brisk December air - who was the merciless woman selling her daughter’s soul to the nameless ‘vagabond’? It was reported that her dress was ‘dirty’ and ‘shabby’, unmistakably that of the lowest class and that the facial features had reflected this. The report stated that the two figures were ‘living proof’ of Lombrosso’s theory which claimed that the shape and angles of the face could betray criminal tendencies. After studying the murky pictures closely, the more perceptive reader could indeed recognise criminality inscribed distinctly on the black, faceless silhouettes. But as for their actual identities, this remained very much unclear.

The paper had simply informed the public that information was gathered under cover and to reveal any personal facts about the people involved would put more than one life at risk. This small warning, laced with all the virtuous drama of the best tabloid journalism, was enough to quiet demanding questions. The fact that this child had been rescued due to the brave and shrewd actions of the gallant Mr. Stead was enough to silence them for good whilst riveting their eyes on to the black shameful figures now parading throughout England. Anonymity ensured that these figures were everywhere – in every department store, park or busy street. Imaginations were set free, spawned by horror and the overwhelming desire to be involved; to walk by or perhaps even boast an (unwelcome) acquaintance with the guilty. Contemplating such thoughts, Mr. Stead sprawled back in his chair, pipe in one hand, brandy in the other. He closed his eyes, re-playing in his head the merry melodrama he had so perfectly directed.

He was interrupted from his day dream by a loud banging at his door. As it continued he heard the shrill tones of Mrs. Argyle – ‘Sir, I don’t know what you think you’re doing! You can’t just barge into Mr. Stead’s office like this’.
‘You wait n’see if I can’t…If he don’t open this door in five seconds…’ Before Mr. Stead had time to place his brandy beside him and pull his shirt down over his protruding belly, the man with a voice like falling rubble was in front of him.
‘Where’s my girl?’ he growled. His short but decidedly stocky frame loomed over a dumb-struck Stead. ‘I said where is she?’ bellowed the stranger.
‘Your…girl?’ stuttered Stead, unable to disguise his trembling hands as they fumbled at his shirt. He stood hesitantly. All but his eyes met his interrogator.
‘My girl,’ hissed the man. ‘The one you bought off my wife’.

A small crowd of spectators had gathered at Mr. Stead’s door. Not one of them broke the aching silence. Stead was forced to leap to his own defence.
‘Don’t be ridiculous’. He half sang this repost. ‘I’ve never met you before. I don’t know what you’re talking about’. His words seemed to crack under the alto pitch his voice unwittingly betrayed.

‘My name is Will Trapper. You’ve never met me, but you’ve met my bitch of a wife. You’ve met Joe Briggs, a Deptford beggar who you paid to be photographed with her. And you’ve met my girl. Now, for the last time where is she?’

Like a bad case of writer’s block, Mr. Stead was lost for words. Unable to summon sound or sentence, he began to back slowly away from his accuser. Just as Will Trapper had cornered him, another voice broke through the doorway.
‘Break it up now the lot you’. A constable complete with helmet and truncheon squeezed his way through the ever growing crowd of spectators. He forced a gap between the lion and his prey while two other policemen accosted the former, and dragged him out, lashing and cursing as he went.
‘Officer! Thank God! This lunatic is accusing me of buying his daughter!’
‘So I hear Sir’, replied the policeman running his eyes up and down the breathless fat man he had just saved. ‘We’ve all read the article. In fact we knew about this man’s claim over a week ago. Came to the station ranting and raving about some muck-raking journalist taking his little girl he did’.
‘Absurd’, snorted Stead, tucking in his shirt and clearing his throat so that the last traces of crippling fear were dispelled.
‘That’s what we said. Some hungry urchin planning on demanding compensation for his child. In this job you see all kinds but this was odd to say the least’. The police man chuckled and Stead joined in so that they laughed in unison. ‘Of course, the oddest thing is that he never asked for any money. It just seemed like a random claim’.
The laughter slowly died.
‘Must be out of his mind, poor fellow. Still, plenty of places for his kind to go, eh?!’ Stead followed his statement with another bout of laughter. The constable smiled but made no attempt to join in with the fat man’s cackle. Stead felt the sweat begin to gurgle hungrily under his skin.

‘Of course today’s article rang a few bells with us and of course you are the man responsible for its publication’. The sweat had erupted through his pores and was eating away at Stead’s upper lip and temples. ‘Any doubts we had were laid to rest. Your reputation for immoral intolerance precedes you sir, but we feared Trapper may be genuinely under the misapprehension that you were guilty so we followed him here in case he targeted you’. Stead breathed. It felt like his first proper breath for fifteen minutes.
‘Thank you, officer. Good work. You never know, this could prove excellent material for a future article on the plague of lunatics in Britain’. Again he laughed and this time the constable laughed with him along with the band of spectators.
‘One more thing, Sir’. The constable’s voice broke through the laughter. Trapper insisted we get a search warrant. Ridiculous I know, but other papers keen to discredit your success may give him publicity. Much better to put the whole thing to rest now than risk any more upset’.
Stead, along with the laughter, felt his heart stop.
‘But that’s ludicrous. Who would believe him? Listen to him?’
‘Several people already have I assure you, including the magistrate. Now I know a journalist must protect his sources so a search warrant is much more practical’.
‘How about a cheque, just to keep his stupid fancies to himself. I mean’, he continued grasping at the pretence of pride and dignity, ‘a search warrant’s an invasion of man’s privacy’.
‘Like I told you Sir,’ whispered the policeman, bending in towards the trembling damp flab, ‘he’s not interested in money.’
‘Mrs. Argyle, do you not agree…’ But Mrs. Argyle’s head vanished behind the doorway. The policeman put his arm round Stead’s disbelieving shoulder ready to lead him out.
‘Please don’t make this difficult sir. You have your reputation to consider’.
©
 Emma Callan February 2008
emcb@hotmail.co.uk

Emma is studying for her masters in creative writing at the University of Portsmouth
Life After Death
Emma Callan
I was thirty four years old when I died. I’d never thought about dying before.


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