I turned north into Pagan Alley and saw the dark silhouette of the steeple of a church outlined indistinctly against the faint orange glow of the city. Water had pooled among the uneven cobblestones so that I had to lift my skirts and thread my way carefully through the filthy puddles. The odor was nauseating: putrefying vegetables and excrement, the decomposing carcasses of rats (and only rats, I hoped) and rancid ale. The buildings on either side of the lane rose ominously overhead, rendering the alley perilously dark and desolate. But I was not alone.
On either side of the narrow passage, shapeless forms huddled in doorways or clustered together in an attempt to stay warm. Some of the figures stirred as I walked past; one or two stretched out a beseeching hand, as if by some instinct they realized the steps that passed belonged not to another unfortunate creature, but to someone who might part with a shilling or two (quite mistaken on that point, I assure you). My progress had slowed to a crawl; I had to inch forward to avoid stepping on any of the alley’s inhabitants, and I was sure that I was drawing close to my destination, though it was difficult to tell in the mist and smoke and darkness.
Behind me, a boot scraped the stones; there was a scuffling noise, a crash and a venomous oath split the air. I whirled round at the commotion, but it was impossible to see down the length of the alley. Around me, the sober sleepers bolted upright, while the drunks whimpered and moaned and thrashed about.
“Oi!” said a rough voice. “Watch where you’re walkin’, you great oaf.”
I heard a low murmur; the rough voice swore, grumbled and subsided. The alley’s inhabitants remained poised for a moment, sniffing the air, debating whether the ruckus heralded the arrival of the peelers to roust them out of their night’s accommodations, then hearing nothing further, as one body they turned in unison and resumed their slumbers.
I waited breathlessly for a moment, my eyes searching futilely through the inky blackness. Trying to dispose of a dead body and trawling through one of London’s most dangerous neighborhoods at midnight had made me a trifle jumpy. But there was nothing to see and nothing more to be heard, and so I turned to resume my slow journey through the passage.
A hand encircled my wrist, and a foul, gin-scented breath gusted around my face. “This ain’t no place for a lady to be at this time o’ night.” A soft laugh echoed off the glistening walls. “’Course, you bein’ no lady, you got no cause for concern.”
“Vincent, you little blighter,” I hissed, extracting my wrist from his grasp.
“What brings you out on a night like this, India?”
“I’ve a job for you. Is there somewhere we can talk privately?”
Vincent took possession of my wrist again and drew me along in his wake, stepping with caution among the sleeping figures until we reached the end of the alley and saw the dark bulk of St. Margaret’s looming before us.
“This way,” said Vincent, leading me past the entrance to the church and around the side to a set of stairs that disappeared into the gloom below street level. “Wait here,” my guide instructed me, and I heard him descend as cautiously as a cat, feeling his way down the steps. After a few moments, a sullen yellow glow filled the landing at the bottom of the stairs, and Vincent appeared with a bull’s-eye lantern in his hand, beckoning me to join him. He cracked open the door that led into the cellar of the church, and I followed him into a dank, airless passage that Vincent had adopted as his own. The light from the lantern revealed a roll of damp blankets, the end of a loaf of bread, a dried scrap of cheese, and a half-empty bottle of gin.
“Very cozy,” I said.
“It’ll do when my reg’lar lodgings at the Ritz ain’t available.”
Vincent set the bull’s-eye on the floor and sank gracefully to a sitting position on the bedroll. “’Ave a seat, m’ dear,” he offered, like a gentleman, nudging the blanket beside him, “and tell me why you’ve walked out on such a night.”
The floor was streaked with grime, and the passage smelled of must and mildew. I’d no intention of getting my taffeta anywhere near the floor, nor the blanket, either, which was likely home to a colony of fleas. “Thank you, no. I’ll only be a minute.”
Vincent shrugged. “Suit yourself.” He picked up a piece of wood and a knife, and began slowly planing its surface, affecting a cool disinterest in the purpose of my journey. In the lamplight, he looked all of ten years old, which he might well have been, though I believed him to be fourteen, at least, if not older; the lack of fresh air and decent food, sleeping rough and fighting to survive the streets of London tended to stunt the growth of most street urchins. The do-gooders were forever trying to whip up sympathy for the poor, rescuing some innocent with the face of an angel from the streets, washing his face, dressing him in a set of stiff new clothes, teaching him how to say the Lord’s Prayer and showing him off as the very model of an enlightened attitude toward the poverty-stricken. But the do-gooders would have taken one look at Vincent, averted their eyes and scuttled past.
He wasn’t cherubic, or handsome, sweet, kind or humble. He was toad-faced, quarrelsome and cunning, with the heart of a mercenary. His voice could crack windows, and he could drink a navvy under the table. There wasn’t a dirtier boy in London, and that’s saying something, that is. In summer, he attracted more flies than a Cairo camel market, and in winter you could just tolerate being in the same room with him provided the fire was low and the window cracked open. He was an incorrigible little snoop, as skilled as any of Her Majesty’s spies at ferreting out useful bits of information, and not at all reluctant to use what he’d learned to his advantage. If you wanted to know which bint had a history of relieving her clients of their valuables or attempting to extort money from their gentlemen callers, Vincent knew. I always vetted my girls with him; he was as good as an employment agency at winnowing the wheat from the chaff.
Further to his credit, he had his own code of ethics, which was unusual in a boy of the streets: he discharged with alacrity any commission he was given, gave value for the money received, only blackmailed those who deserved it and was as silent and inscrutable as the Sphinx about his activities. Consequently, I trusted him, which was why I was here now.
“I need a horse and cart,” I said.
“Tonight?” Vincent tested the blade of the knife with his thumb. “That’ll cost you.”
I opened my purse and fished out a handful of coins. “Bring it down the alley behind the house. Be quiet about it.”
“Got the landlord after you, have you?” There was a glint of humour in the boy’s eye. His attention remained fixed on the knife and the piece of wood in his hands. “Doin’ a runner in the middle of the night?”
“I’ve a parcel to deliver,” I said shortly.
He glanced up at me, a half smile on his face. “Delivered where? Wapping Stairs? Blackfriars? Or am I to catch the tide?”
“I’ll want the parcel found,” I said. “But not anywhere near Lotus House. And there must be nothing to connect it with me. Can you do it?”
“’Course I can. Though I must say I’m surprised at you, India. This ain’t your style. Ain’t your style at all.”
“I didn’t help him along, Vincent. The old gent died of a heart attack.”
“That’s a great relief to me, India. My faith in human nature is restored. Why do you want the body found?”
“There’s a wife.”
“Ah. It will cost you more if you want me to keep it quiet that India Black’as the milk o’human kindness flowin’ through her veins.”
I snapped shut my purse. “Cheeky sod. How long will it take you to get the cart?”
“I’ll’ave to call in a favor,” he said. “Say an hour or two.”
“I’ll be waiting for you. Knock quietly at the kitchen door. Mrs. Drinkwater will let you in.” I nudged the crust of bread on the floor with my toe. “When did you last eat a proper meal, Vincent?”
He scratched his head, making a show of thinking. I’d no doubt he knew exactly when he’d consumed his last meal. “What day is it?”
“Then ’twas Friday mornin’. I stole a bun from the baker’s.”
I found another coin in my purse and handed it to him. “Get yourself something. You’ve a long night of work ahead of you.”
“I’m touched, India.”
“Don’t be. I can’t have you fainting while you’re hauling my body away.”
He touched his forehead mockingly. “Then I’m at your service. Shall I walk you ’ome?”
I hesitated, remembering the scrape of boot leather in the alley. But dawn was just a few hours away, and there was no time to lose. “I’ll be careful, Vincent. You go after the cart.”
Vincent extinguished the bull’s-eye, and we groped our way out of the cellar and up the stairs. I breathed deeply of the night air. Foul as it was, it smelled much better than Vincent’s hiding place, the odor of which had reminded me of the monkey cage at the Regent’s Park Zoo. Outside the church, we parted, with Vincent disappearing quickly into the mist-shrouded darkness on his errand and me turning resolutely toward Lotus House. I chose a different route than I had come, however. The thought of returning through the cramped blackness of the alley, with its silent forms sleeping restlessly in the doorways, did not appeal. My route took me along broader streets, which were better lit, but these thoroughfares were just as devoid of human presence (well, they would be, as in the distance the bells of St. Margaret’s tolled midnight. I legged it home, striding along like a champion sprinter, head swiveling to peer into each shadowy doorway and alley that I passed, ears pricked to catch the slightest sound in that damp, suffocated world. I kept my hand in my purse, fingers curled around the grip of my pistol.
I couldn’t account for my apprehension; I was a sensible woman, born and bred on these streets, and I knew my way around the neighborhood. There were places in London where even I wouldn’t set foot, but for the most part, I felt safe here in my own patch. But as I walked along, my scalp was bristling and a shiver was playing up and down my spine. I attributed it to the stress and anxiety of the day: Bowser’s death, leaving him rolled up under the bed for the afternoon while Calthorp and Mary sang hymns in the parlor, my midnight ramble through the streets in search of Vincent. The nagging feeling of being watched, and that footfall in the alley behind me.
I was glad to turn the corner into St. Alban’s Street and see the dim yellow glow of a lamp burning behind the curtains of my study. The remainder of Lotus House was dark. Mrs. Drinkwater was no doubt snoring in the kitchen, and the girls had all gone to bed long ago. I lifted the latch of the gate and strode up the brick path to the front steps, fumbling for my key. The door swung open on oiled hinges, and I gained the safety of the front hall, locking the door behind me and taking my first easy breath since leaving the house hours before.
There was nothing to do now but wait for Vincent. Mrs. Drinkwater was asleep in the kitchen with her head on the deal table, and I briefly considered waking her to make me a cup of tea, but instead I poured myself a restorative glass of whisky and drank it in one long gulp, standing in my cloak and bonnet in the study with the water dripping onto the floor. Feeling somewhat refreshed, I topped up the glass, removed my wet outer garments and collapsed into my chair. The clock ticked soothingly, the whisky burned delightfully as it slid down my throat, and for the first time since Arabella had come stumbling into my study with the news that Bowser had crossed the River Jordan on my premises, I felt relaxed, if not wholly content. There was still the body to dispose of, after all.
There was an hour or more before Vincent was due to arrive; I had just time enough for a quick nap. I struggled upright and unlaced my boots, fingers fumbling at the laces. I tugged them off and let them lie where they fell, then got up to extinguish the lamp. The curtains were drawn, and the room was inky as a tomb. I felt my way to the window to open the draperies, so that the faintest light of dawn would be noticeable, hoping Vincent would arrive long before daybreak.
Tomorrow the street would be full of hawkers, plying their trade in oranges and buns, tea and scones and pies. Tradesmen would open their shops, and the pubs would fling wide their shutters, and the sidewalks would come alive with the bustle and roar of busy Londoners. Tonight all was quiet. The street seemed unfamiliar, the houses and shops strangely alien, their signs and windows barely visible through the fog. If Vincent arrived soon, we should be able to load Bowser’s body and be gone before the first souls stirred.
Then from the sooty darkness of the street opposite my window, a match flared briefly, a bright blue orange spark that drew my eye but was gone almost before it had registered in my mind. My feeling of ease evaporated.
The sensible thing to do, of course, was to ignore the flaring match, down another whisky and toddle off to dreamland to catch a few winks before Vincent appeared. And usually, I am sensible. But the fact that I had a dead body wrapped in a rug and stuffed under the four-poster made me nervy as hell.
The kitchen door creaked as I slipped outside. I waited on the back steps for a moment in the vain hope that my eyes would adjust to the darkness, but the clouds were so thick and the night air so charged with fog and mist that I couldn’t see my hand when I waved it before my face. Hardly optimum conditions under which to search for a mysterious figure. Still, I started off down the alley that ran behind Lotus House, parallel to the street, aiming to flank the doorway where I’d seen the fleeting glow of the match and come upon the match-wielder from behind. A good plan, if only I’d been able to execute it, but that was deuced difficult with no moon, a blowing mist and a fog as thick and viscous as custard. I stumbled along, slipping over soft, rotting fruit (at least, I hoped it was rotting fruit and not worse), tripping over oyster shells and broken crates, and generally making enough racket that any minute I expected Bowser to lift the sash of Arabella’s window and demand to know what the devil was going on.