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A feller did not survive as a London street Arab for long, let alone prosper, if he couldn’t keep his wits about him under any and all circumstances. And he didn’t rise to the heady heights of the front ranks of the Irregulars and the good graces of the guv’nor without having nerves of steel wire and a mind like a rattrap, ready to snap on any bit of information that came his way. Wiggins himself trusted Tommy as his right-hand man, and the guv’nor trusted no Irregular more than Wiggins.
With that sort of regard resting on his shoulders, a feller had to be smart, quick, and steady as Windsor Castle. A feller couldn’t let himself get the wind up about anything, no matter how spooky it was. There was more than enough peril in the alleys and shadows without letting your imagination make more.
But Tommy Grimeshad to admit to himself that the toff he was following through fog-wreathed streets was giving him a lot of goose bumps. That was strange, because there wasn’t much that put the hair up on Tommy’s head, and he’d poked into more nasty places than most. And it was strange, because so far, the gent had only acted a bit peculiar, and Tommy followed fellers who had acted quite mad before without getting collywobbles about it. So, he was getting the cauld grue, and it was for no obvious reason that he could see.
It wasn’t how the blighter looked; he was well dressed, in a long, double-breasted dark coat and matching trousers; without an overcoat, which wasn’t unusual tonight, but without a hat, which was. His graying black hair was cut longer than most, wavy, and a bit disheveled, but in a manner a lady would likely say was “artistic.” As gents went, he’d probably be reckoned handsome, by ladies anyway. Except for his hair, everything about him was fastidiously tidy. No one was giving him a second glance as he passed by. But then, this was a nice neighborhood; good thing it was dark and no one could see the tattered state of Tommy’s clothes. Not that people like this paid any attention to a lad like him anyway, so long as he didn’t get within an arm’s length of ’em, on account of if he got close, they’d likely think he was about to stick his hand in their pockets. This toff, though, he fit right in and only occasioned a slight smile from a lady, or a nod from a gent as they passed each other on the street. Simple politeness among the gentry.
Not that there were many of the gentry out at this time of night. Folks what lived around here were all asleep, trusting to their locks, their servants, and the police to keep ’em safe. Mostly they were asleep in their own beds, though sometimes they were in beds where they didn’t rightly belong, but that was none of Tommy’s business, ’cept when the guv’nor made it his business.
But this toff had caught Tommy’s attention on account of Tommy could tell he wasn’t just strolling, but paying right close attention to whether or not there was anyone about. Once the street was clear, he stopped dead still, inclined his head as if he was listening to someone—nodded, and then whispered a word or two back—and then continued on his way with the determined step of someone who knew exactly where he was going. Tommy’d thought maybe the old gent was a bit barmy, until he did it a couple more times, and each time he did, it was pretty obvious he was getting directions. But directions from what?
The second time he’d listened to something that weren’t there, Tommy knew his instincts hadn’t been playing tricks on him, and there was something even the guv’nor might not be able to explain going on. He thought about breaking off at that point and letting the gent go on his way, but you never knew what scrap of odd knowledge might be worth something to the boss. Maybe not the boss, though. Maybe the Major. Talkin’ to things as ain’t there’s more his line. That was all right. The Major paid just as well as the boss did.
And, as they got closer and closer to the Thames, and the respectable types gave way to loungers and drunks and whores, no one but Tommy saw him make tiny little gestures and whisper a few more words, and then go on as completely unmolested as if he was invisible. That made Tommy go cold all over and think again about continuing to follow the man. Surely he had enough, even for the Major.
But it didn’t seem that the man knew he was being followed, so Tommy gathered his tattered courage about him and put everything the boss had taught him about tailing agent into immediate use. Because the Major would pay more, a lot more, if he knew what the man had been getting directions to.
But when it became very clear that the gent was heading for the waterfront and the docks themselves, Tommy grew very unhappy indeed, and for a whole different set of reasons than just unchancy behavior. This wasn’t his lay; another set of gangs ruled the waterfront, and they didn’t much like the Baker Street boys cutting in. Sure, some of them answered to the boss, but plenty more didn’t, and no telling who was in which until there was a knife looking for your liver and you found your luck had run out.
But whatever was making the fancy toff invisible to the gangs seemed to be working for Tommy, too. No one harassed them; the waterfront was uncannily quiet. The man’s path took him away from the taverns and alehouses, down silent, darkened byways Tommy would have got lost in on his own, avoiding anything other than the occasional night watchman. On they went, first to and then under the docks. And oh, even to Tommy’s nose, inured as he was to smells, this place stank. Sewage warred with dead fish, which in turn warred with the smell of rotting things best not guessed at. The tide was going out; it was the hour of the mudlarks, as the Thames left its odorous leavings on the mud-banks, and anything could be found, from a silver coin from the time of the eighth Henry to a deader, though most of what washed up was rags and bits of wood and rotten stuff. Needless to say, the deaders outnumbered the silver coins by quite a lot. There was the suicides, of course; there was always one or two of those a night. But there was also them as hadn’t gone into the water of their own free will. And accidents, though it was hard to tell them from the ones that was pushed.
Tommy didn’t dare follow the gent out into the mud (though somehow he wasn’t sinking ankle-deep in the stuff like any proper human would), but he skulked in the shadows on the rocks under the docks and watched with all his eyes as the gent went straight to—something—lying asprawl in shallow water in the silvery moonlight.
The gent turned the thing over with a curious air of reverence, and a particularly strong beam of moonlight revealed a white, white face and long golden hair, and a fan of pale dress splayed out on the mud like so much seaweed.
“Perdóname, querida,” said the gent, and the blade of a very sharp knife flashed for a moment in the moonlight.
Tommy felt horror grip him. It was one thing to cut up a man who meant to cut you up. It was quite another to cut up the dead. The dead should be left alone.
Then clouds covered the moon, and as Tommy found himself caught in a paralysis of terror, the man . . . did something to the corpse. Tommy heard a roaring like the sea in his ears, and everything went dark for a moment, and when he came to himself again, clutching at the wet, barnacle-covered support he’d hidden behind, the gent . . . was gone.
Quite gone, as if he had vanished right into thin air, like a conjurer. Except that Tommy knew quite a lot of conjurer’s tricks, thanks to the boss, and no man that he knew of had ever been able to vanish from off a mudflat on the banks of the Thames without leaving a trace of his passing.
So, when Tommy managed to gird up his courage and make his way out to where the body lay, he found that, to his relief, the cove had made a decent set of footprints going back besides the set he’d made going out. So at least he hadn’t been following some mad spirit or . . . demon. . . .
Even if those prints were far shallower than they had any right to be, as if the man had weighed no more than a child.
But then he discovered what the man had been after, and the discovery sent him floundering back to the banks, to the wharves, and racing for his life for the familiar and understandable evils of drunken savages and opium fiends and twelve-year-old prostitutes and murderous thieves.
For what manner of decent, upright man could possibly have wanted the arm bone of a poor drowned girl and her long, muddy, golden hair?
And most of all, in the name of all things sane . . . why?
It was just after luncheon, in a neighborhood that mostly catered to working-class people. The buildings were all three and four stories tall here, several had little shops on the ground floors, or the offices of those professional men who could not afford more prestigious neighborhoods. A very few were still the dwellings of single families who could afford several servants. For the most part, however, the place was chock-ablock with reasonably priced flats—reasonably priced if one was doing well as a shopkeeper or a rising clerk, and if one was not, well, one could always find someone to share the flat with.
This was certainly the case with the gentleman who was about to interview the two young ladies who were outside a greengrocer’s establishment. “Well,” said Nan Killian, gazing across the busy street at the very unprepossessing front of a purely residential building. Tall and narrow, like most buildings in this part of London, it might have been the home of one of those single families, with a kitchen on the ground floor and servants’ quarters in the attic, but it was, in fact, carved up into flats presided over by a landlady who resided on the ground floor and provided meals and charlady services to her lodgers. There were three flats; their goal was the middlemost one.
“Well indeed, and well enough,” Sarah Lyon-White replied, flashing an impish smile at her tall friend. “Shall we go beard the dragon in his den? It would be a shame to have come all this way to show the white feather and run away, besides being a great disappointment to Lord A and Master M.”
“Mister M can go stuff—” Nan began.
“Nan!” said Sarah, in pretense of shock.
“—his hat up a drainpipe for all I care,” Nan continued smoothly. “But I would never like Lord Alderscroft to think we were too cowardly to deal with a mere mortal man. Even if, up until a few days ago, we thought he was merely a literary construction. All right then. On we go. After all, it’s only an interview.”
Suiting her actions to her words, Nan checked the oncoming traffic for runaway hansoms and inconsiderate carters and strode across the London street, with her much shorter friend Sarah half-skipping along beside her.
Not troubling to wait for the landlady to answer a knock, she opened the door to the narrow, tidy, but sparsely furnished entryway, and spotted the staircase leading to the first floor and flat “B.” Still leading Sarah by a few paces, she ran up the stairs and knocked briskly on the door. It was opened almost immediately.
The gentleman in the dark gray suit who opened it raised one sardonic, heavy eyebrow. “Very prompt, I see. You would be—”
“Miss Killian. And this is Miss Lyon-White,” said Nan, taking the open door as an invitation to come in, which she did. Sarah was right on her heels.
“Indeed. Would you take a—” the man began, but Nan strode across an untidy room packed with all manner of curious objects and smelling strongly of tobacco and faintly of gunpowder and chemicals, and threw open the window that overlooked the street.
“I hope you are not some manner of fresh air fiend, Miss Killian,” the gentleman said, without showing a flicker of surprise that Nan had made so free with his window. “I am sorry to say that the air on this street is not the most salubrious.”
“Not at all, sir,” Nan replied, half-turning from the window. “But as you are well aware, Sarah and I are only half of the quartet you are to interview.” A swiftly moving shadow flashed between the light and the window, and there was a sound of flapping wings as an African grey parrot suddenly landed on the sill. “Ah, here is the third of the party,” Nan said calmly, offering a hand to the parrot, who stepped up onto it, then used it as a launching point to take a shorter flight across the room to come to rest on the back of the chair Sarah had taken at the invitation of their host.
A much larger shadow interposed in the next moment, and an enormous raven replaced the parrot on the sill.
“And here is the last of us,” said Nan with satisfaction. The raven leapt ponderously to her shoulder with a flap of his wings and she closed the window again. With the raven balanced precisely on her shoulder, she took her place in the armchair next to Sarah’s, closer to the fire. The raven transferred himself to the back of her chair. The gentleman took his own seat on the settle opposite them, and silence descended as they took stock of one another.
Nan knew what he would see as he looked at them; she wondered if it surprised him, amused him, or merely entered into his calculations. Two young women in their early twenties, regarding him with direct and unwinking gazes, as direct as if they had been young men, and not women. The shorter, Sarah, had the sort of face that could have graced a Professional Beauty, if she had cared to travel that route, surmounted by a slightly untidy coif of masses of blond hair piled up in an approximation of a pompadour hairdo. She wore no hat, largely because she had a tendency to lose them. As for Nan, she had a face that could charitablybe called “strong” and which she privately thought of as “horsey,” and her own hair was confined in a very tidy French Roll under a small, neat, unadorned round felt hat. They were both wearing gowns of dull colors—grays and blues for Sarah and browns for Nan—which might be described as “dowdy” (although Sarah could never look dowdy in anything). However, the knowing eye would recognize their gowns as Ladies’ Rational Dress, a mode of non-fashion that allowed the wearer almost as much freedom of movement as if she were in a bloomer suit. Nan rather thought their interviewer had already recognized that.