a sketch

The offices of Blunt & Dun took up the whole ground floor of a two-storey bluestone building on Havers St. It was a couple of blocks back from the Eastern road, in a quiet area where small-time solicitors and accountancy clerks kept offices, and women kept boarding houses for unmarried, professional men.

Adelaide Blunt sat in her office, which had a clear view of the pavement on the other side of the street. What she saw there troubled her.

The warehouse ledger was open on the desk in front of her, incoming and outgoing items marked in columns in Rahdesh’s neat hand. The packet of signed receipts was open beside it.

Her office was large, and panelled in dark, polished wood. It had a masculine austerity about it that was useful to her. It somehow absorbed sound, so that books were hushed on the shelves, and what light ventured through the glass lay quiet as a dozing dog across the carpet.

“Miss Savage,” she called, looking away from the window.

Her personal secretary looked up from her desk at the back of the room. “Yes, Mrs Blunt?”

“I need to go out, and I may not be back in today. Will you finish checking the receipts, and get them to Mr Mehra before six?”

“Of course, ma’am.”

Adelaide gathered up her coat, hat and umbrella out in the hallway. She was aware that Penny Savage lingered by the office door. She fit her hat more snugly around her ears and met the other woman’s eyes. They weren’t friends, but they had known each other a long time. Penny’s eyes were troubled. She was as familiar with the old life as Adelaide, and knew when it intruded here, without being told.

“Mac and Dick are over the street,” Adelaide said, indicating the door with her head.

Penny drew in air through her nose, and looked away. “You’d best go, then.”

Adelaide spared no feelings for her secretary, or the door that was shut in her face. Mac wouldn’t have come here, if it wasn’t urgent. He wouldn’t have dared.

 * * *

Mac pulled the door of the Hackney closed after him, and rapped on the roof. The two large men braced themselves back against the seat as the carriage lurched into movement.

Adelaide pulled her black leather gloves on, her movements efficient. “Tell me.”

 * * *

The dark alley went no further. They had reached one of those dead ends where refuse mounted the walls on three sides and the cobblestones emerged like the spine of some ancient creature buried beneath the East End of London. It was dark, but not too dark for Adelaide to see Coachman’s skin when Mac threw him facedown to the ground and his sleeves rode up his arms.

He looked back at her over his shoulder. He tried to scramble to his knees and Mac pushed him back down.

“Hold his legs,” Adelaide said, and knelt on his back. Her knees dug into his ribcage, so that he felt splayed beneath her like something pinned to a board, all gristle and muscle. She felt every one of his breaths. It didn’t matter.

She would speak no words to him at his end. She had already made all her promises and threats to this man – standing outside Maria’s door in the stinking summer dawn she had told him exactly what would happen to him the next time he raped his wife.

He would either go to God and account for his sins, or there would be nothing at all and Jeremy Coachman would be done.

Either way, anything she had to say now would be as useless as spitting into a storm.

She put her hand into Coachman’s hair and gripped it, hard. He had a lot of hair – the kind of thick pelt a man would be proud of. It was like dog fur against her fingers, but oily by the scalp.

His breaths were hard against her knees. She knew she was still breathing, because she heard it as it passed her ears from within, steady and loud.

She took the small ivory knife from her pocket, flicked the blade open, and cut Jeremy Coachman’s throat.

There was a warm, rhythmic spurt over her fist. Some of his blood had gotten on her, she thought. She didn’t move until the last efforts of his living tissue had ceased.

Mac offered his hand, and she took it. She mightn’t have come to her feet, otherwise.

She cleared her throat and took a deep breath. All she could smell was blood. She could taste it, as though it had dispersed into the heavy air.

She had to speak. “We’ll need to let Reever know it’s —”

Someone vomited loudly.

Adelaide spun around, and now her heart hammered. Now she could barely hear anything past it, could feel it take her whole chest in its convulsive fist.

A man stood in the mouth of the alleyway, one pale hand planted on the wall, his body taut as he vomited again onto the ground. Even in the dim light she could see the dull shine off his waistcoat and the gold chain that ran from pocket to pin. His coat was open, but was too well-fitted to gape around him, and when at last he finished vomiting he didn’t wipe his mouth on his sleeve, but pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and held it, shaking, to his face.

He was wealthy, and he had seen her kill Jeremy Coachman.

“Fetch Reever and his dogs,” she said to Dick.

“Ma’am…”

She turned on the larger Moran brother. “I hope, for your sake, that you have a very good reason for questioning me.”

Dick looked unhappy, but he didn’t attempt to put her off again. He loped away down the alley, and settled for growling quietly at the rich cove as he passed him.

The rich cove shrank back against the wall.

Adelaide and Mac approached him more slowly.

“Please don’t kill me,” he said. A black hat lay, ruined, on the ground a short way from him. His hair was light – a thick, elegant tumble. He looked like he’d just come from an evening at his club. He looked like he’d just pulled the skin back from the world for a drunken wager, and discovered bloody viscera.

“I’m not going to kill you. But you will have to come with me.”

He flinched back.

“Just until you’re steady on your feet,” she said. “Then you’re free to go where you please.”

Even in the dark, she could see his eyes were dilated. “Are you Mrs Blunt?” he asked. “Of Blunt & Dun, Debt Collection Services?”

She considered lying, then discarded the notion. He would be able to identify her easily enough. “I am.” But how on earth did he know it?

“I had come to see you,” he said. “About the Sexton property. I was going to ask about Diana’s rings – the one with her grandmother’s hair, and the gold Egyptian rings she’s so proud of. You killed a man. You…killed a man.”

“What is your name?” She kept her voice calm and even, just as she would speak to Reever’s dogs, were she unfortunate enough to still be here when they arrived.

He swallowed and seemed to manage to stand a little straighter. “I’m Merryweather St Acre. You are Mrs Blunt, aren’t you?”

“Mrs Adelaide Blunt.” She held her hand out, because she knew his manners would be so deeply ingrained they would come to his aid even now. Christ, a St Acre.

He shook her hand, then dropped it. They both stared at the dark stain that had passed from her hand to his white glove.

“Give me your gloves,” she said, before he could be sick again.

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