Prologue

    I descended from the dome of St. Paul’s, back down the iron staircase. I found the view utterly dispiriting. There was nothing to be seen from the Gallery but fog: even the spires of the City churches were mere pin-pricks in a billowing sea of brown filth. I can hardly now recall why I went up there at all. It was, I suspect, a ridiculous attempt to calm my nerves. Indeed, the only thing I remember is the iron-work of the staircase itself. As I followed the spiralling steps, I had a peculiar fancy that I was caught in the coiled springs of some giant clock. I wondered, was it possible that both I and my fellow sight-seers, travelling up and down in weary groups of two and three, were ourselves simply particles of dust, the dirt in the ancient, rusting mechanism? It seemed rather fitting.
   
Then the bells chimed four o’clock. I stopped upon the stairs to gather my thoughts. I must have looked somewhat distracted, since a solitary woman, who was ascending up to the Gallery, gave me a queer look. She was a woman of middling years and wore a capacious old-fashioned crinoline. She merely looked away when I nodded back to her.
   
Dust to dust, I thought.
   
I stepped aside, leaning against the railing to let her proceed. Of course, there was still very little space between us. Her skirts rustled over my feet as she passed and her face flushed crimson. But she pulled up her skirts a little higher, all the same, to allow me a quick glimpse of her stockinged ankle. What do you think of that? A woman of her age and station baiting such a trap; it quite turned my stomach.
   
I see. Yes, we have little time. Pray, forgive me.
   
Well, then I made my way down to the nave, and tipped the attendant a happenny, much to his annoyance. Doubtless I had the look of a half-crown about me. Then I quit the place by the southern door, and stepped outside. It was far worse than up above: the fog had rendered everything dark and muddied. Believe me, if a man tells you a London fog is a romantic affair, he is a liar. Indeed, I felt as if I had wandered into a different element, in which it would have been just as natural to swim or fly, as to walk. I wrapped my scarf about my mouth, though it did little to remove the stink in the air.
   
‘Sir?’ said a voice by my side.
   
I peered about me, to find a little girl, a sweet-faced creature, a deceptively angelic countenance, perhaps thirteen years old. She sat upon the ancient steps in the dirt, her rust-coloured skirts spread out around her, a bunch of wilting violets and dried blooms her lap. She reached down and held one up to me.
   
‘Penny a flower, sir? Nice violet?’
   
I have a weakness for a pretty face, I admit. Please, do not blush. But she had the voice of a typical cockney street-child, quite belying her looks. Now, how did she speak? I cannot put it any better than flaar and vi-let, as if her lips were too slipshod and lazy to express anything more than a syllable or two at a time. Indeed, I do recall I noticed her mouth in particular; her lips were chapped and dry, fissured by the winter air.
   
‘I have no need for dried flowers,’ I said, pushing her hand aside; but I dropped a penny in her lap, all the same.
   
I carried on down the steps into St. Paul’s Churchyard and then directly across the road, down Godliman Street. I knew the route well enough, even in the fog. In no time I stood in the courtyard, opposite the entrance to Knight’s Hotel.
   
Now, it was a modest place; not what you might imagine, if you read the papers. An old stucco-clad town-house, pristine and decent as to its exterior, most likely the home of some prosperous merchant in the days of the Prince Regent. A whited sepulchre, mind you, like so much of our great metropolis.
   
I steeled myself and went inside – for the door was left open for visitors – and addressed myself to the owner. He was a large, round-faced swarthy fellow, whom, at the time, I took for a Jew. I found him seated behind a large mahogany writing desk, in the front parlour.
   
‘May I help you?’ he said, standing.
   
‘Mr. Brown?’
   
‘At your pleasure, sir.’
   
‘I hope I have not called at an inconvenient time.’
   
‘Not at all, Mr. …’
   
‘Smith. An acquaintance mentioned your establishment to me,’ I replied.
   
‘I see,’ he replied, nodding, but eyeing me cautiously. ‘An acquaintance.’
   
‘I should like a room.’
   
‘A room?’
   
‘If you please? I would very much like room fourteen. Is it vacant?’
   
‘Fourteen? Oh, sir, that is one of our best. That will be a difficult matter …’
   
‘How much?’ I asked.
   
‘A half sovereign, my dear sir. No more than an hour.’
   
‘Here.’
   
I handed him the coin; I had it ready. He looked at both sides, admiring the gold. It was, I do recall, rather tarnished. I half expected him to bite it.
   
‘It is legal tender, I assure you. ’
   
The wretched man chuckled to himself, and pocketed it. ‘I mean no harm; please, I mean no harm,’ he said, opening a drawer in the desk, and retrieving a key, which he handed to me. I noticed that he had dirty, stubby little fingers, his nails quite gnarled and unpared. ‘You will find it on the first floor, up the stairs, to the left.’
   
I took the key and thanked him. He did not smile, as such, but there was a curt insolence about him, something in his manner. I do not have much time for such specimens of continental manhood, I confess.
   
No matter.
   
I turned about and ascended the stairs. The landing was lit by an ornate, gilded gaselier, five descending circles of spurting flames, an abbreviated Inferno. It shed light upon the small brass numbers attached to the lintel above each door. In consequence, I found the door, fourteen, with no difficulty. I knocked and walked in.
   
It had the appearance of a makeshift, rather ill-kept seraglio, for which I was quite unprepared. Indeed, it was as if some poor relation of the great Haroun al-Raschid had decamped from Bagdad to the City of London in some distant decade, and speculated upon a job lot of velvet drapes. For there was no inch of the wall not smothered in crimson cloth, hung at jaunty angles from the picture rail, the ceiling, from every conceivable corner. And upon the bed lay a pile of Arab cushions, heaped into a veritable mountain. And, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, leaning back upon the cushions, lay a fair-haired young woman. She did not seem at all surprised by my arrival. I placed my hat down upon the dresser which stood by the door.
   
‘You were expecting me?’ I asked.
   
She smiled, and gestured to the ceiling above the door. There hung a small, wired bell; a neat arrangement – merely the servant’s bell in reverse. Doubtless the proprietor had rung it, upon exchange of the key.
   
‘I see,’ I said.
   
She made no reply. I removed my collar and tie, and placed them both by the hat.
   
‘Are you mute?’ I said.
   
‘I speak when I’m spoken to, darling.’
   
Flaar. Daar-lin. How remarkable, I thought to myself, that this flower should have bloomed in the sound of Bow Bells. A Bow belle! But she was a beauty, dressed in a night-gown of fine white silk, that clung to her body as she reclined upon the bed. Her arms were bare and milk-white, her hands dainty and graceful; her smile as sweet as any I have ever seen. An awful shame.
   
And then?
   
Why, I locked the door.

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