It is a truth universally acknowledged, at least among private enquiry agents, that the most momentous of cases, the real corkers, begin on the blandest, most ordinary of days. I'm not sure why that is. One would think that criminals, on a beautiful morning like the one that occurred in early April 1886, would want to stretch themselves upon the grass of Hampstead Heath like the rest of the populace, and plot their next bit of deviltry some other day. It is a dreary little island from which Britannia governs its empire, and one must take every opportunity to enjoy a rare perfect Saturday, or so I told my employer, Cyrus Barker. Not that he ever listens to the advice of his assistant.
"Have you noticed there's not a bit of green in this entire court?" I asked, stepping away from the bow window of our chambers. "Not a blade of grass or a sprig of ivy, not so much as a weed. Nothing living except the three of us and that poor blighted shrub on the table there behind your desk."
"It is a penjing tree," my employer rumbled from the recesses of his green leather chair.
"It's a bush you take delight in tormenting. It might thrive if you let it alone."
The Guv opened his mouth to give me a dissertation on the history and practice of Chinese pruning techniques from the Han dynasty to present, but closed it again with a sigh. Apparently, I wasn't worth the effort.
"I might take Juno for a gallop in Battersea Park this afternoon," I continued. "It seems a shame to waste the entire day indoors."
"I was under the impression that the Welsh are a hardworking race," my employer mused. "Apparently, I was misinformed."
"It's hot in here," I said, ignoring his remarks upon the Welsh character, which is above reproach.
"As I recall, last week you were complaining that it was too cold."
"It was too cold last week. April's like that; variable," I replied. "Do you know what this morning would be perfect for? Book shopping. All the shops in Charing Cross will have their front doors open and their fresh discards in bins on the pavement. But if we go this afternoon when it is likely to rain, all the good books will be gone, because rainy days are when other people go to bookshops."
"Thank you for the suggestion," Barker said.
"Who would notice if we lock up a few hours early?"
"The potential client who needs our help and trusts that when we say we are open on Saturdays until noon, we are men of our word, but then, I suppose that is out of fashion nowadays."
I stopped myself from rolling my eyes. Cyrus Barker is convinced with all his Puritan soul that everything has gone to seed and nothing stands between us and the Lord's Return save a few final ticks of the clock. I would not mind so much if I were not always presented as the example of Man's Spiritual Decline.
"Well, lad, we cannot have you standing about all morning with nothing to do. Go to that news kiosk on Northumberland and buy the morning newspapers."
"You've already read The Times. Which ones shall I get?" "The Star, the Gazette, The Standard, The Chronicle, The Globe, and anything else that strikes your fancy."
"The Illustrated Police News!" our clerk Jenkins called in from the outer room.
"And of course, The Illustrated Police News."
"Right," I said, actually glad for something to do. "Back in a few ticks."
I nipped out the door into Craig's Court and rounded the corner into Whitehall Street, almost colliding with a young woman who had stopped to study her Baedeker guide. She lifted the metal tip of her parasol from the pavement in order to ward off my unexpected advances and I was forced to hop over it. When I looked up, I realized I was standing nearly face-to-face with a beautiful girl.
She wore a traveling suit of heather tweed, with a choker of black velvet, which set off loosely gathered hair, so pale as to look like spun silver. Her face was equally fair, but her brows and lashes were dark. I realized it must have been some sort of artifice: kohl, perhaps, or some other weapon of the female arts. It gave her eyes, almost gold, a foxlike look to them which was most attractive.
"Oh, I do beg your pardon," she said, before I could speak.
"You needn't beg for what is easily given, and anyway, the fault is clearly mine. May I help you?"
She held out the map in her hands. "I'm afraid I am quite lost."
"If it's any help, this is London," I said.
She smiled in spite of herself. "I'd worked that out for myself, thank you."
"What are you looking for?"
"It is due north, in that direction," I said, pointing. "It's but a few streets away."
"And Westminster Palace?"
"The palace is south. Look for the big clock tower. You can't miss it. Are you here on holiday?"
"How can you tell?"
"The Baedeker, of course. Do you require a cab?"
"Not if, as you say, I'm within walking distance. Thank you for your help."
"There's a price," I said, turning back to her. "I must have your name."
She looked at me under long black lashes, assessing me carefully. Whatever I said must have passed muster. "Sofia. My name is Sofia Ilyanova."
"I'm Thomas Llewelyn," I said, bowing. "It is a pleasure to meet you."
"And you, sir," she said, smiling. She had a very nice smile.
"Enjoy your walk."
One rule, when speaking to attractive women, is to leave them wanting. Rather than fumble for something further to say, I pinched the brim of my hat and went on my way, sincerely hoping my existence did not evaporate immediately from her memory.
I clattered off to the nearby kiosk and seized one of everything, making certain that I had not neglected to get Jenkins's Police News. Passing back through Trafalgar Square, I looked around, hoping for a second look at the girl, just to convince myself she was as attractive as I thought she was, but she had disappeared like a morning mist.
Back in our chambers, I put the hallowed pages of the News on Jenkins's desk and deposited the rest in front of Cyrus Barker. I seized the Pall Mall Gazette for myself, if only to tweak the conservative nose of my employer, and retreated to my chair. He lifted the first newspaper off the stack and settled back to read. Things were improving, I told myself. While other workers in London were struggling with heavy machinery or tabulating long columns of figures, I was being paid simply to read the newspaper. If I could continue this until noon, I would consider it a successful day.
The outer door opened then, and all of us looked up to see the bewhiskered visage of Inspector Terence Poole of Scotland Yard. He came in like a shunter in a rail yard going along its allotted route, until he came to a stop in front of Barker's large mahogany desk.
"May I consult?" he asked, falling into the visitor's chair in front of my employer. He looked tired and the edges of his pendulous side whiskers were frayed from where he had been tugging them. I knew something above the usual petty thievery or domestic squabble must have occurred.
Barker's thick, black mustache bowed in distaste. "You know I do not consult. After your men have trod all over everything and carted away the clues, you wish me to go somewhere and perform a magic trick? I'll take an unsullied crime scene, and if it's not too much trouble, a paying client."
"Ah, but you see, there is no crime scene. In fact, there is no crime ... yet. All we have so far is a potential victim asking for protection."
Barker waved his hand dismissively. "I don't do bodyguard work, but I have a good man I could suggest if you require one."
"No need. I myself have been given the duty. I understand Commissioner Warren asked for me especially. I only wish I could say I care for the assignment."
"I doubt the new commissioner loses much sleep at night worrying whether or not his inspectors like the assignments he gives them."
"True," Poole conceded. "At any rate, a steamer will be arriving tomorrow from Calcutta with a passenger who has been afforded diplomatic status."
"You are drawing this out on purpose. You must really want me to ask. Very well. Who is this man, Terry, and from whom are you protecting him?"
"I am to protect this man from a certain Mr. Cyrus Barker of Craig's Court, Whitehall."
The Guv's brows furrowed. "You've been hired to protect someone from me?"
"You have been known to take a man apart like a watch."
Barker considered this. "Not unless he deserved it. Who is this fellow who claims I'm an imminent threat to his safety?"
"You're the enquiry agent. You work it out."
"I can't possibly — oh, no. Surely you don't mean him."
"Who?" I spoke up.
"Please tell me Her Majesty's government would never grant him diplomatic status."
"Who?" I repeated.
"They have, Cyrus. I'm sorry."
"Damn and blast!" Barker growled.
"Who is it?" I demanded. "Will someone please tell me?"
"Sebastian Nightwine!" they barked simultaneously.
"Oh," I said faintly, sitting back in my chair.
We had crossed paths with the Honorable Sebastian Nightwine a little over two years before, during my very first case. He met us in a jungle of a conservatory, accompanied by a live jaguar. At the time I had guessed him to be a large-game hunter, but apparently he was a criminal, whose father had been a noted explorer and philosopher. I got the impression from Barker that the two had a long and problematic history together.
"How long have you known of this?" my employer asked.
"All of about an hour. It is a state secret."
Barker unhurriedly struck a vesta against the striker on his desk and lit his pipe before settling back in his chair again. I admit I was surprised by his reaction, or lack of it. I had met Sebastian Nightwine only once, but I thought it might have provoked some kind of response.
"Did the commissioner send you here to warn me to stay away, or did you come on your own?"
"He sent me, actually," Poole said.
"I was not aware he knew of my existence."
"He has since Nightwine insisted he needed protection from you."
"The man is not even in town and is blackening my name already."
"Warren wants you to know that if you go to the docks and attempt to interfere with his arrival in any way, he shall have me effect your immediate arrest."
"You'll put the darbies on my wrists yourself, then?" His fifteen-stone frame, his square jaw overshadowed by that proscenium arch of a mustache, and the black-lensed spectacles covering an old scar on his right brow and cheek made him a man to reckon with.
"If I am ordered to, I must, yes." Poole looked for a minute at the Guv. "So, you won't come, then?" Barker raised a finger. "I have not decided yet. I must consider what action to take."
"Don't be mule-headed. You don't want to do anything that will harm your reputation."
"You admit, then, that he is damaging my reputation. What has he said about me, precisely?"
"Merely that he fears moving about the city freely with you in it."
"He has reason to fear me." Barker leaned back in his chair and tented his fingers.
"I'll trod on him like the vermin he is."
Poole leaned forward with his hands on Barker's desk. "You're not going to listen to reason, are you? As an official of Scotland Yard, I'm warning you to stay away from the docks."
"Which docks in particular would that be? I'd hate to be working on a case tomorrow and accidentally pass by the one dock I was supposed to avoid, only I didn't know it."
"Just stay away from all the docks," Poole answered, running a finger over his mustache.
"I would not want to inconvenience Captain Nightwine when he arrives."
"That's Colonel Nightwine. He has been promoted."
"Really? When last I saw him he was slinking out of town with a knot in his tail. How is it that he is returning two years later with diplomatic status?"
Poole shrugged. "I only know what the commissioner told me."
"Do you still have the files you collected?" Barker asked.
"They are hidden where I can get to them if I need them."
"Good. You understand him, then. He's got powerful friends and a long memory."
"I don't believe I was chosen to protect him out of pure chance. I'm having my nose rubbed in it." Poole stood. "I should be getting back. You've been officially warned off."
Without a good-bye, the inspector quitted our chambers. There was silence in Barker's office, save for the occasional drawing on his pipe.
"He forbade you to go, but I suppose you'll go all the same?" I asked.
"And what was that about files?"
"I gave Poole a copy of everything I'd gathered for years on Sebastian Nightwine. I was naïve enough to believe it would at least make the CID aware of the scope of his activities.
"Then Terry made some of the information known to Henderson and it even reached the point where the former commissioner considered doing something about it, but the aristocracy closed ranks against him. After that, Henderson dropped the investigation. Poole told me later he went to 'A' Division every morning for six months believing he was going to be sacked. In the end, however, it was Henderson who was dismissed."
"Black Monday," I said.
Two months before, on February 8, two rival unions had organized demonstrations in Trafalgar Square. The meetings occurred without incident, but afterward, the crowd, five thousand strong, had no way to work off the emotion engendered by the impassioned speeches. The mob smashed windows in Pall Mall and St. James's, waking aged peers from their club chairs. A similar meeting in Hyde Park that evening resulted in looting in Oxford Street.
Two days later, during one of London's "particulars," word got out of another approaching mob and the citizens panicked. However such false rumors spread, Scotland Yard was blamed for instigating the warning and probably for the fog, as well. Realizing that he was about to become the scapegoat in the whole affair, Henderson promptly resigned. Feeling, perhaps, that radical unionism required a firmer hand, the selection committee replaced him with a commissioner who had a background in the military.
"I thought the commissioner was sacked over the riot."
"He was, but they were already inclined against him for daring to make charges against Nightwine. That's why I'm a private enquiry agent and not a CID man. I prefer to be beholden to as few men as possible."
"Did they ever offer you a position?"
"No, they didn't."
I thought about that. If I were in charge of hiring constables, would I choose a man who wore black spectacles and knew a hundred ways to kill people?
"Their loss, then," I replied.
Barker flashed me a rare grin. "I was of the same opinion."
Cyrus Barker may not be an aristocrat, or the son of a famous explorer and philosopher, but his money has allowed him to grow accustomed to being waited on. It was one of my duties whenever I attended the sparring matches he held irregularly with Brother Andrew McClain to tie on his boxing gloves. He didn't thank me; he was off in that little self-contained world of his behind his quartz spectacles, fighting whatever demons dwelled there. His arm was out, and I was tying up his glove, but the Guv seemed unaware of my existence.
"Brother Andrew," I murmured to his opponent, before stepping between the ropes and down to the floor. We were in the reverend's mission in Mile End Road, where he kept a boxing ring according to professional standards in the basement.
"Tommy Boy," he said back to me at once, patting me on the shoulder.
"Do you need help with your gloves?" I asked, standing on the verge outside and holding onto the ropes.
"I learned how to tie on my own gloves before you were born. What's got your master's blood up?"
"He didn't tell you? Nightwine's coming to town."
I hopped down to the floor and tugged once on the string attached to the clapper of a bell, causing it to clang. I had not so much as turned around when the two men met and began trading blows. Looking over my shoulder, I saw that Barker had crossed the canvas and engaged the missionary to Darkest England in his own corner.
There was a smile on Andrew's lips even after a punch to his jaw rocked his head back. Not so Barker, who looked grim and determined. Having attended dozens of these sessions in this manner, I could state it was not his custom to charge his partner. Normally, he waited to be advanced upon and counterpunched. As McClain had said, his blood was up.