In which we are introduced to Henry, or 'Dash' as he is soon to be known by some.
The light falling across the pile of books and loose papers on his desk suddenly made Henry Percival-Smythe aware that it was far later in the morning than he thought it was. He frowned and almost knocked over the cup of tea that Hill had brought in for him what seemed like only moments before—but one sip of the now ice-cold contents of the cup proved that it must have been hours ago.
He made a face at the excessive tannin that now sat in the cup where fresh tea once had been. Henry removed his glasses and rubbed at the bridge of his nose. He gave the glasses a good wipe, so he could return to reading the documents spread out before him. But first he rang for Hill and requested a new pot of tea. Hill was duly unimpressed with the fact that the previous pot had gone to waste, but Henry didn’t notice as he had already returned to the small packet of photographs that had been wedged inside a field journal.
It was a magnificent creature. It was also the strangest, almost unimaginable, creature that you could have ever seen. And it had Henry enthralled.
“Are you looking at those again, sir?”
Henry almost jumped; he was so surprised by Hill’s sudden reappearance at his side. The manservant to the department carefully made some room on Henry’s desk where he could place the tray bearing the teapot, milk and sugar jugs, cup, and strainer.
“It’s the thylacine, Hill.”
Hill gave the pictures a cursory glance and then turned back to the more important subject of his own sphere. “Would you like me to pour for you, sir?”
“Please, Hill.” Henry pulled out one of the larger photographs and tried to coax some interest from the other man. “Of course, it’s also commonly known as the Tasmanian Tiger or the Tasmanian Wolf. But they’re misnomers, of course. It is actually a marsupial.”
“One or two sugars?”
“One, please. It’s perhaps the strangest animal to come out of Australia, and that’s saying something because all of their animals are unique and bizarre.”
“Lemon or milk?”
“Milk,” Henry sighed. As usual, it was an uphill battle to try and get anybody interested in his own private obsession. “It’s a sad story, Hill. The thylacine has been hunted until now it stands on the edge of extinction. Besides a few disputed local sightings, the only place you can really see one alive now is in a handful of zoos around the world.”
“Here you go, sir.” Hill pointedly handed him the cup, so Henry was forced to recognize its existence. “Anything else?”
Henry shook his head despondently, and Hill nodded before leaving the room.
The photographs captivated him again, and Henry laid the cup of tea aside without having taken a sip.
There was something about the tiger’s outlandish appearance that charmed Henry and made it truly beautiful in his eyes. Sadly, the last thylacine in captivity in a London zoo had died in 1931, before he had formed his obsession. Henry had only seen black and white photographs and jerky film footage of it, but he knew the tiger to have a caramel-colored coat with distinctive dark brown stripes that wrapped around its back and a tail as stiff as a broomstick which usually jutted out at an angle from its body. It could also be mistaken for a strange dog until it opened its most enthralling feature: the mouth. The gaping jaws opened like that of an alligator; some of the photos Henry owned of it yawning could still send a shiver through him. The thylacine was a miracle.
And he had come across its existence purely by accident. It hadn’t been that long after he had come to work in the archives section for Ealing College, a job that he had only managed to obtain because of strings his father had pulled. Henry hated nepotism, but he wanted this job so badly he didn’t care in this instance. Why work for the public library system or the archives of some Fleet Street broker when you could work as a junior level researcher and archivist in the world of academia at a small but prestigious college?
The oblong cardboard box addressed to his section hadn’t seemed that out of the ordinary when it was first brought to him. It sat on his desk for a couple of hours before he finally got around to it, using his pocketknife to cut the twine that held it together. A pungent smell emanated from it, and he wrinkled his nose unhappily. But when he pulled the cover off, he saw for the first time the glorious pelt of the thylacine, along with the first photographs that would become part of his collection.
His collection. Of course, it wasn’t his and he had no claim to it. But he had come to think of it as his and his alone. What he hadn’t expected were the tears that came to his eyes as he ran his hand over the fur while reading the notes that came with the pelt. The photos gave the animal a face, the fur gave it a sense of realism, and the fact that it was merely a pelt made the tragedy of the thylacine hit him with full force. With great sadness he cataloged the specimen and found himself returning day after day to gaze upon it. Then he began the research.
That had been two years ago. It was now beyond an obsession. Henry’s tea had grown cold again as he excitedly pored over the new mail that had been handed to him that morning by Hill. It was the letter addressed to him which had come from Tyenna, Tasmania, that made his blood sing with joy and fear.
December 30th, 1934
I enclose for you some recent documents following a rash of sightings of the thylacine in the area of Maydena. It has been quite some time since the thylacine was seen around here, but lately we are getting a wave of them reported by reliable witnesses. This may be just what you’re looking for. A friend of mine is on his way to speak with your superiors to try and give weight to our claims and support you in launching a personal investigation. His name is Jack Chambers, and they, as well as yourself, may find him… a little rough around the edges. But he is the man you are looking for, and you will get what you need with him. He will probably arrive not that long after you receive this, and he will be bringing further evidence with him. I hope this means that we will see you soon in our country and we may begin to undo the damage that has been done by both of our governments.
Henry wasn’t too happy about this strange Australian about to turn up at the college to try to lay claim to his own personal project, but he trusted Gordon. Henry had been in correspondence with him ever since he had first seen the pelt, and Gordon had supplied him with more pieces for his collection. The thylacine had become a popular exhibit, although most of the people who gawked at it seemed to see it as some sort of monster rather than the creature of beauty and mystery it truly was.
So now it was time to pull out the big guns. Henry quickly swept up his papers and stuffed them into his satchel. He slung it around his shoulder and ran out the door with it bumping against his hip. Professors and students alike turned in his hurried wake to wonder what he was doing, showing such disregard for social order in the very halls where dignity reigned.
The sunlight that had previously made him aware of the passing hours had disappeared; it was now raining heavily as he ran through the courtyard that would take him to the main administration building. He was instantly soaked through, even in the brief time it took him to get from one end to the other. He burst through the outer door of Jonathon Larwood’s office, all decorum absent, dripping wet and panting.
Diana Winton, Larwood’s personal secretary, ran a cool gaze over him. He shivered under her scrutiny.
“You’re wet,” she observed matter-of-factly.
“It’s raining,” he said, feeling rather stupid.
“I take it you got the message I sent you?”
Henry frowned. “No. You sent me a message?”
“Oh, honestly!” she said disapprovingly. “Nobody ever picks up the telephone in your department.”
“I never even heard it.”
“Was that meant to surprise me?” She stood up and moved from behind her desk to a small closet built into the wall, her high heels clacking on the tiles he was dripping on. Diana held a towel out to Henry in her manicured hand, her marcelled hair and red-lipsticked mouth a direct rebuke to his disheveled appearance. “You can’t go in to see him like that.”
Diana shook her head. “I just don’t know what to make of you sometimes, Mr. Percival-Smythe.”
“I’ve told you to call me Henry.”
“And I’ve told you that wouldn’t be professional, Mr. Percival-Smythe.” She gave him an aloof smile. “Now, dry yourself off. Mr. Larwood is speaking with someone at the moment, but he’ll want you in there presently.”
Henry began rubbing his hair dry. “Who’s in there with him?”
Diana sat back down behind her desk. “Well, I can’t tell you that. But oh….” She trailed off with a strangely dreamy smile on her face.
“Oh?” Henry repeated.
“He’s a foreigner. From the colonies.”
“American?” It had been a long time since America was their colony, but regarding them as such was a particular amusement of the British.
“Australian. His accent would strip the paper off the walls, but he is very charming.” There was that smile again. “Very, very charming.”
Henry felt an odd pang of jealousy, even though he had never been interested in Diana that way.
“Really?” And then the realization struck him. “Australian, you said?”
“Yes, Mr. Percival-Smythe.”
“His name wasn’t Jack Chambers, was it?”
“If it was, that wasn’t how he introduced himself.”
“Oh.” Henry was relieved. It meant he still had time to try and win Larwood over to his side before Chambers could show up to try and take it all away from him.
“May I get you a cup of tea while you wait?”
He nodded. “Please.”
Henry was enjoying his first hot cuppa of the day when Larwood stuck his head out of his office and noticed Henry. “Ah, Miss Winton, I was just coming out to ask you if you had heard from young Henry.”
Henry winced internally. He hated being called that; it was a result of having practically grown up in the college due to his father’s philanthropic endeavors with the faculty.
“As you can see, he’s here,” Diana replied, sipping her tea.
“Quite,” Larwood said. “Would you make another pot of tea, please? Henry, come through.”
Henry smiled at Diana, and she gave a slightly unprofessional roll of her eyes in return. He left his empty teacup with her and followed Larwood into his office. The dark walnut paneling made the interior seem even darker than the wintry day outside, as much as the bankers’ lamps tried to rebel against it. Henry could make out a dark form slumped comfortably into one of the chairs before Larwood’s desk, with one muscular leg swinging over the arm.
“I have a visitor here,” Larwood said. “Mr. Chambers, this is Henry Percival-Smythe.”
The dark shadow stood and moved into the light. “Christ, Larwood, I told you, Mr. Chambers is my dad.”
Larwood appeared slightly flustered. “Erm, yes. Henry, this is Mr.… uh, Dingo. Mr. Dingo Chambers.”
The oddly named man could now be fully seen in the meager light from the window. “You almost got it there, mate. Dingo Chambers.”
“Dingo” was like a fictional character out of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel. Tall, broad-shouldered, and bronzed, he was an Antipodean Adonis, and Henry found himself catching his breath. His sand-colored hair was strangely tousled, and Henry immediately found himself searching the chair the man had just vacated; his deduction proved correct, for a hat was propped against the leg. Henry looked back over to the man Diana had dubbed “the foreigner” who was looking back at him with unabashed interest. Henry realized Dingo’s nose was slightly squashed, as if it had been broken and set unevenly, although it only served to give his face character, especially when partnered with the crooked smile beneath it.
“Give us your handle again, mate. I didn’t catch it,” Dingo said around his thick accent.
Henry looked at him in confusion. “Handle?”
“Your moniker, mate. What’s your name?”
“Oh, of course.” Henry offered his hand. “Henry Percival-Smythe.”
“Jesus, that’s a mouthful,” Dingo replied. But as he said it, his gaze passed over the crotch of Henry’s trousers and an almost lascivious smirk spread across his face.
Henry froze. Was that meant to be some sort of double entendre? He looked to Larwood for support; the other man seemed oblivious, and rather in awe of Dingo himself, although it could have been fear of what this strange native from the distant colonies might do next more than anything else.
As if he hadn’t done a thing to unnerve the other man, Dingo continued. “I’ll just call you Dash, okay?”
“But that’s not my name,” Henry said, realizing with each passing second he sounded even more stereotypically prissy and British than before.
“What, do you think my parents christened me Dingo?” The man in question tipped back his head and laughed heartily.
Henry eyed him suspiciously. “Quite frankly, it wouldn’t surprise me.”
“For heaven’s sake, Henry,” Larwood finally spoke up. “You heard me introduce him as Jack Chambers.”
“I’ve been Dingo longer than I’ve been Jack,” Dingo said abruptly.
“Well, no doubt you two have a lot to discuss,” Larwood said hopefully. “Why don’t you take Mr.… er… Dingo, to your office, Henry?”
“Professor Larwood, I was hoping to—” Henry started.
“Right, that we do.” Dingo scooped his hat from the floor and clapped it onto his head. He grabbed Larwood’s hand and pumped it heartily. “Thanks for the nice welcome, mate, and I’ve no doubt we’ll be meeting again as soon as Dash here and I finalize our plans.”
“Wait, we can’t just—” Henry protested.
“Sure we can,” Dingo said cheerfully. He grabbed Henry’s bicep and dragged him to the door. “We should get to know each other better. We’ll be spending a lot time together, and it’s a trial to be out in the bush with a man you can’t get on with.”
Henry looked back pleadingly at Larwood over his shoulder, and the older man shrugged philosophically, but a tiny smile played over his lips. Henry imagined that Larwood was thinking “rather you than me” as Henry was hauled from the room, feeling Dingo’s fingers squeeze his arm as if assessing how much muscle he had.
In the anteroom, Dingo released him to smirk engagingly at Diana, saying, “Thanks for the cuppa earlier, Miss Winton. Warms a man’s bones on these nippy days.”
“Diana, please call me Diana,” the usually unapproachable Miss Winton purred, practically melting under the sun of Dingo’s smile.
“The name of a goddess too,” Dingo said admiringly. “Huntress of the moon. You’ve got the look of her. Saw a statue once, in Rome.”
Henry seethed as Diana’s slender figure seemed to shiver with delight at the broad compliments, although he wasn’t certain what ticked him off more, her reaction or Dingo’s easy confidence in his own powers of attraction.
“Will we be seeing you again, Mr. Chambers?” Diana tried to seem nonchalant as she asked.
Dingo winked at her. “Try and keep me away. Although Dash here,” he clapped Henry on the back, nearly sending him staggering awkwardly toward the door, “and I have a lot to discuss about our expedition.”
Thrilled, Diana’s eyes opened wide. “Where are you going?”
Leaning closer, Dingo confided, “Deep into the wilds of Tasmania. It’s a dangerous country, full of snakes, spiders, and wild animals. And the Aborigines; a savage lot they are. We may never be seen alive again.”
“You—and Henry?” Diana emitted a dainty trill of laughter.
Henry glared at her, clutching his satchel under his arm. What was so funny about the thought of him in Australia? Not that he’d agreed to go anywhere with this crazy colonist, and as soon as he got him alone, he would tell him so. And of course, he didn’t much like the sound of those spiders.
“Why, don’t you think Dash has what it takes?” Dingo turned to glance at Henry and something about his laughing face made Henry want to hit him. And he wasn’t a violent man.
“Why do you keep calling him Dash?” Diana leaned her chin on her hand, prepared to be enthralled with Dingo’s answer.
“Why, it’s that fine, fancy, double-barreled last name of his, isn’t it?” Dingo laughed. “Percival Dash Smythe. Too much to mouth over every time. We Aussies like to cut to the meat of things.”
“Dash.” Diana giggled when she said it, but her gaze was newly speculative when she looked at Henry.
Dingo turned to hoist a well-worn bag to his shoulder from where it leaned against the wall and hooked his arm through Henry’s. “Come on then, Dash. You’re wasting this pretty lady’s time, standing here flirting with her.”
“Me?” Henry sputtered. “I haven’t said a word—”
“Bit shy with the ladies, is our Dash,” Dingo confided to Diana. She giggled again and wiggled in her chair as if she could barely contain her delight. Of course, Diana wiggling was merely the motion of shifting in her chair once or twice. But for Diana, it was practically akin to standing and breaking into a wild, bohemian Charleston.
Once in the hallway, Henry tried to pull his arm free, but Dingo was a bit sturdier than he and didn’t let go so easily. “Where the fuck—”
“Blimey! You do have a mouth on you after all,” Dingo said admiringly, and Henry was embarrassed to feel a flush of gratification at the praise. “Tell me, got a bottle in your office?”
“A…a bottle… of what?”
“Grog, mate. Booze. I need to wash the flavor of that tea from my mouth. It’s a fretful taste, Dash.”
“My name isn’t Dash, and I don’t have a bottle,” Henry disclaimed, although he actually did have a little nip stashed away in a certain locked drawer.
“I guess it’s the local for us then, Dash.”
Henry succeeded in freeing his arm at last. “I’m not going anywhere with you, not the pub nor Australia. This is my project, and I’m doing it on my own.”
“Right you are, and I’m going with you.” Dingo grinned. “Call yourself the head of the expedition if you like, but you’d play hob without me. Think you’ve only got to stroll up to Tassie’s home and knock on the door? ‘Come on in, Dash, and have a cuppa’, they’ll say, right before they have you for their tea.”
“Of course I don’t think that,” Henry sputtered. “For one thing, the thylacines do not eat people. But surely—”
“Don’t call me Shirley, call me Dingo,” the other man urged. “And are you certain they don’t? Anyhoo, if you’ve any humanity in you, show me to the nearest pub. I’m dry as a desert.”
“Fine, I’ll show you where it is, but I’m not coming in with you,” Henry said with a sinking feeling that Dingo wouldn’t hesitate to drag him inside by main force. He opened the door and stepped out into the pouring rain for his second soaking of the day.