First Chapter: The Darkest Walk by Malcolm Archibald

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“Ready?” Sergeant Restiaux blinked the drizzle from his eyes and looked upwards to where drab dawn cracked open the terrible dark of a London night. ‘Pray to God that we don’t get lost today, lads.’

“I thought you knew this place like the back of your hand?” Constable Mendick nodded towards the ugly morass of the Holy Land, whose foul stenches only enhanced the feral reputation of the inhabitants.

“As well as any man on this side of the law,” Restiaux agreed and quickly qualified his statement, “Well enough to have no desire to linger.” He lifted a black-gloved hand. “Listen.”

Mendick heard the chimes of St Giles, an oxymoron of hope beside the seething slum that crowded its walls. Unconsciously, he counted out loud, feeling the familiar hollowness in his stomach, “Four, five . . .”

Restiaux nodded and slowly intoned the old words, “Lord, I shall be very busy this day; I may forget thee, but do not forget me.” He exaggerated his wink. “These are good words to remember at times like these.” He turned to the silent man who stood at the back. “What do you think, Foster?”

Foster nodded. “Anything that helps is worthwhile.”

The only man among them who did not wear the blue uniform of the police; he straightened his arm and brandished the blackjack he carried in lieu of a truncheon. The foot-long sausage of reinforced linen was weighted with sand and tipped with solid lead.

“Now, I’ve chased this man to Manchester and back, so let’s make sure that he doesn’t escape this time.”

“We’ll do our best.” Restiaux lifted his head as St Giles clattered its final message. “Seven o’clock. And in we go!”

Raising his voice to a yell, he rose from the shelter of the scarred brick wall. For a second he was silhouetted against a candlelit window, his prominent nose verifying the French ancestry his name suggested, and then he was moving forward, head up, booted feet splashing through the unthinkable filth on the ground.

The two constables followed, checking that their long staffs were secure in their pockets and directing the beam of their bull’s-eye lanterns to illuminate Restiaux’s path. The lights jinked over walls weeping tears of dirt, passed windows blank with despair and settled on a repellent door.

“God knows what depravity is hiding behind that,” Restiaux muttered. Mendick sighed. Was this what his life was reduced to? Crawling about in the dark chasing insignificant criminals through the back slums? Surely all those hours poring over books as he painfully learned to read and write must have had more purpose.

“Keep the light steady there!” Constable Williamson slammed himself against the wall beside the door, waiting for Restiaux to take the lead and Foster, the Scotland Yard detective, to follow.

Restiaux lifted his foot. “No point in knocking politely,” he explained, “not in the Holy Land.” He smashed his massive boot against the bottom panel, which shook but held so he kicked again, putting his entire weight behind the blow. Candles began to flicker in the adjoining windows.

“The Holy Land is awakening,” Mendick warned.

Dogs began to bark, their racket echoing in the crooked street.

“For Christ’s sake, boot that bloody door in!” Foster looked around in some apprehension; nobody wanted to linger in the Holy Ground.

Taking a step back, Restiaux tried again, this time grunting with satisfaction as the wood splintered. “That’s it! Light!”

Mendick’s lantern illuminated the panel, and in a series of short, savage kicks, Restiaux created a jagged hole. Kneeling, he thrust his arm through and withdrew an iron bolt.

“Stand aside, sergeant!” Williamson pushed past, staff in hand.

“Be careful, you young blockhead!” Restiaux warned, but Williamson clattered ahead, his boots echoing on a flight of stone steps that led downward to a black abyss. The stench of dampness and human waste rose to greet them. Restiaux shook his head.

“Shine that light just ahead of me, Mendick, and don’t stray. God alone knows what’s down here.” He produced a pistol from his pocket. With its four inch barrel and wide muzzle, the weapon would be deadly at close range. “This barker has a three quarter inch bore, so it can stop an elephant dead, but let’s hope we don’t need it.” With the pistol held in his right hand, he began the descent.

“Blake’s the most efficient forger you’ll never want to meet,” Foster said quietly, “but I need him alive, not face up in a coffin.” He glowered at Restiaux. “He’s far too valuable.”

“So are my men,” Restiaux said bluntly. “So if he is a threat to any of us, I won’t hesitate to shoot him.” Turning his back on the detective, he nodded to Mendick.

“Ready?”

“Aye.” Mendick looked into the darkness ahead. He did not feel ready, but did it really matter?

The lantern light picked out crumbling stone steps descending through darkness into a stink that seemed so tangible it could be cut up and packaged. There was a loud cry ahead, a hollow shout that echoed for agonisingly long seconds.

“Williamson!” Restiaux yelled, but there was only the sound of scurrying footsteps, followed by solid silence.

“What the hell’s happening?” Foster sounded alarmed as he tapped the blackjack against the wall. He peered narrow-eyed down the steps.

“Williamson!” Restiaux called again, but the empty echo mocked him. He lowered his voice. “It looks like there’s trouble ahead; have you anything more lethal than your staff?”

“Yes, Sergeant.” Mendick patted his shoulder holster, where his pistol nestled uncomfortably but reassuringly against his breast. Emma had never been happy with his choice of profession, but she had insisted that he should at least be prepared for trouble.

Restiaux nodded. “After me then, and don’t worry about taking Blake alive.” He ignored Foster’s savage glare.

Testing each step, they negotiated the remaining twenty stairs with the light flickering and bouncing from chipped stone and crumbling mortar.

“What’s that?” Foster pointed to a darker shadow ahead.

“It’s Williamson.”

The constable lay crumpled across the bottom step, blood oozing from a ragged wound in his scalp. Beyond him, faint light flickered and coarse voices grumbled from behind a closed door.

“I told him to wait!” Kneeling at Williamson’s side, Restiaux checked his pulse. “He’s alive, thank God.” He glanced at the door, and grunted. “Spring your rattle.”

Hauling the rattle from his inside pocket, Mendick swung it around his head. The spring pressed a wooden tongue against a ratchet wheel, creating a distinctive sound that would immediately summon all available police constables.

“Christ, man, that noise will warn anybody for half a mile.” Foster looked behind him to the cruelly crowding dark.

“That’s the idea. Now, follow closely and mind your backs!” Restiaux poised himself then kicked open the door and rushed through, his pistol levelled in front of him.

From the darkness of the stairway they rushed into a scene of which Dante would have been proud. Lit by the guttering remains of three candles, a mass of human bodies covered the floor of a low room and piled onto a grease-darkened bench. There were men and women of all ages from twelve to sixty, some whitely naked, others clad in itching rags and one in the remains of a clerical suit. Some were stirring, rising from torpidity to suspicion as they struggled to see who had entered, but others merely glanced up and returned to the anonymity of the mass.

“He’s not here,” Foster said at once and prepared to move on, but Restiaux placed a heavy hand on his shoulder.

“Wait. Somebody will know,” he advised, and raised his voice: “We’re looking for Thomas Blake!”

Mendick flashed the lantern across the chaos, catching a poisonous eye, a scarred back, a tangled mess of lousy hair or the slender curve of breast or buttock.

“Who?” the man in the suit asked, blinking as the light focussed on his face.

“Flash Tom,” Restiaux said. “You know him.”

When the man shook his head, Restiaux sighed. “Remind him, Constable.”

“Yes, Sergeant.” Pulling his staff from its pocket, Mendick stepped forward, ignoring the squeal as his nailed boot thumped on the leg of a teenage draggletail.

“No!” The clerk cowered backward, seeking sanctuary from companions who seemed only too eager to allow him all the attention of the police. “I don’t know him at all!”

“I’m afraid I don’t believe you.” Mendick pressed the rounded edge of his staff, with the VR lettering in faded gold, hard against the clerk’s chin. “Where is Thomas Blake?”

“I don’t know,” the clerk said, but for a second his eyes flickered toward a door at the far end of the room.

“Thank you,” Mendick kept his voice dry as he stepped over the cleric. “This way, Sergeant. You too, Sergeant Foster, if you will.” He treated the Scotland Yard detective with cautious respect.

“I hope Flash Tom kills you both.” Covering herself with what looked like a handful of rags, a woman pointed a long-nailed finger at Mendick. “I hope you die squealing, you Peeler bastard.”

“If there is any trouble from you or anybody else in this room,” Restiaux told her quietly, “you’ll be in the Bower before this day’s finished.”

The woman closed her mouth and sat down with a thump, her eyes screaming hatred.

“Right, Constable, lead on.” Foster glanced over his shoulder as a cacophony of curses came from the room behind them. “Christ but I hate this job.”

They plunged through the door into a short passage, scented with sewage and punctured with three dark openings.

“Which one?” Mendick allowed the beam of the lantern to linger over each doorway in turn.

“The nearest,” Restiaux said and barged in the door. They thundered into another room reeking of human misery as huddled children stared up from their rags. One boy, his eyes ancient and evil as Hades, spat at them. The next room held more filth, more destitute people, more sorrow, but no Thomas Blake.

“We’re wasting time.” Foster sounded worried.

Restiaux shoved the last door. “Locked,” he said laconically, and again resorted to his boot. The door shuddered once, twice, and finally gave with a mighty crash. The lantern probed ahead, revealing more steps, spiralling upward.

Foster swore foully. “This place is a maze.”

“Tom! Tom Blake!” Restiaux’s shout echoed endlessly in the dark. Feeling his way with care, he began the ascent, pistol held ready to fire. Mendick followed, aware of the clinging dankness and the sudden alteration in atmosphere. The foetid stench had metamorphosed into something much worse. He could sense danger, as if unformed evil was hovering above.

“He’s up there,” he whispered, touching the butt of his pistol. Years of experience in the back slums of London had heightened him to the importance of instinct. If he felt that something was wrong, then something was wrong.

Restiaux nodded. “I know.”

Restiaux was the expert on the Holy Land. He knew every slithering alley, every crumbling building, every half-human denizen of the ten rat-run acres that huddled between the soaring spire of St Giles and the bulk of St George’s church in Bloomsbury. The name Holy Land was a mockery, taken from the proximity of the churches, but although there were worse rookeries in London, there were few that gave such easy access to the more privileged areas of Leicester Square, Regent Street and the Haymarket. For that reason, the Holy Land was a thieves’ paradise, a devil’s playground of the downtrodden and the vicious, a Satan’s sanctuary for the pickpockets and cockchafers, the coves, cracksmen and queer dealers who scraped a dishonest living by robbing their betters.

“Jesus!” Foster glanced over his shoulder as somebody unleashed a laugh fit for bedlam. “Please God I live to see my retirement and a pension.”

The steps ended at a brick wall pierced by a ragged hole through which a man might just be able to squeeze. A draught edged aside a fraction of the stench.

“Bastard’s escaped again!” Foster kicked the wall with his iron-studded boot.

“Lantern,” Restiaux ordered, and Mendick bent forward, one hand holding his pot hat in place. The light probed the hole and vanished into the unknown beyond.

“After me, I think; this is my parish.” Pushing him gently aside, Restiaux took a deep breath and thrust his head and shoulders through the hole.

The sound of the shot was very loud in the confined space, and he yelled and fell back cursing.

“Sergeant!” Mendick saw blood on Restiaux’s face. “Are you all right?”

Restiaux nodded but suddenly paled and slid downward until he was sitting with his back to the wall.

“Douse the glim,” he said, and Mendick pulled the metal shutter across the lantern. The sudden darkness pressed down on them, thick with menace.

Another shot cracked out, the bullet bouncing from the brick wall behind them and ricocheting dangerously around their ears. Mendick swore, ducking down, as Restiaux flinched and covered his head with his arm.

“Tom!” Foster shouted, keeping back from the hole in the wall. “It’s me, Foster of the Yard. I have other police officers with me. Better come out quiet now.”

“Bugger you, bluebottle bastards! Did I kill Restie?” The voice was surprisingly high-pitched.

“No,” Mendick said. “It’s not the rope yet, Tom. You’ll just get a spell in limbo or maybe a free voyage across the pond.”

“Twenty-one years I’ll get, Peeler, twenty-one years of transportation, slaving under the lash in Van Diemen’s Land. Better the rope than that.” He fired again; the shot splintered the bricks opposite the hole. Dust drifted over Restiaux, who coughed and wiped away the blood that trickled down the line of his jaw.

Keeping his head back from the hole, Mendick eased open the shutter of his lantern to examine the residue left by the bullet. “Half-inch calibre lead ball,” he said, “and judging by the gap between the shots, he probably has a single-barrelled pistol.” He raised his voice, taunting. “You’re trapped, Tom, there’s no escape.”

“Then I’ll die game, Peeler!”

The pistol cracked again; the ball ripped past Mendick’s face. Choking white smoke surged through the hole. Mendick cocked his pistol and raised his eyebrows toward Restiaux.

Standing flat against the wall, Foster shook his head. “I want him alive,” he reminded. “I have a particular task for Flash Tom, so a corpse is no use to me.”

“We’ll try to keep Blake alive,” Restiaux assured him. “There are forty seconds between each shot, Mendick, and you’re about the most active officer in the force.” He jerked a thumb toward the hole. “Could you do it?”

Mendick’s shrug was genuine. “I can try,” he said, “but not in this hat. Do I have your permission to discard it, Sergeant?”

Restiaux smiled weakly. “Just make sure you protect your head.” He put a hand to his head. The blood now covered the left side of his face and dripped onto his broad leather stock.

The rabbit skin hat weighed eighteen ounces and was intended as protection against an assailant’s cosh, but in this confined space it was only an encumbrance. As an afterthought Mendick shrugged off his swallowtail coat which would catch on every jagged brick. Taking deep breaths, he crouched at the side of the hole as Foster hugged the wall. The detective swore softly.

“Are you Peeler bastards still there?” Tom fired on the last word. As soon as the pistol sounded, Mendick threw himself into the hole, kicking madly in an attempt to gain momentum. The wall was thicker than he had expected, and rough brick scraped the flesh from his outstretched hands as he frantically hauled himself through. He had forty seconds to reach the screever before Flash Tom finished reloading. Forty seconds between life and possible death: how long had he already been?

Did it really matter? He hesitated, embracing death for a fraction of a second, but duty forced him onwards. Peering into the darkness, he glimpsed a bearded white face and the blurred hands of somebody urgently working the ramrod of a pistol. The man looked up, his eyes vicious above a rainbow waistcoat. Mendick scrabbled with his feet, seeking purchase, as Flash Tom withdrew the ramrod and stepped backward into the dark. There was a solid click as he cocked the hammer.

“Peeler bastard!” The words were followed by a torrent of foul vituperation that echoed repulsively around the dark chamber.

Mendick flinched; with his head and upper body protruding from the hole, he was hideously vulnerable. “It won’t do, Tom. If you shoot me, it will be the gallows. Think, man.”

“Gallows or not, bluebottle, you’re a dead man.” Extending his arm to aim, Tom pressed the trigger just as Restiaux gave Mendick a final push that propelled him through the hole. He gasped as burning powder from the muzzle of the pistol filled the air, but the ball screamed wide and smashed into crumbling brick. Coughing with the reek of shrouding smoke, he instinctively rolled away, but Flash Tom did not attack.

Jerking upright, he glanced around, grateful for the beam of light that Restiaux directed through the hole.

He was in a small chamber with an arched brick roof and walls smeared with flaking white plaster. A small stove emitted residual warmth, while the pot on top still contained the congealed metal that was the raw material of the coining trade. Half a dozen spoons lay scattered on the ground, together with a number of tools, a pile of documents and a variety of pens and bottles of ink. It was obvious that a master forger worked here. There was no sign of Blake, but there was a small opening in the far corner.

“Sergeant,” Mendick called through, “the bird’s flown. I’m going to follow.”

“Don’t be a fool, man,” Restiaux ordered, but there was no strength in his voice. “You can’t wander around the Holy Land on your own.”

“There’s no choice, Sergeant. We can’t let him escape now.”

Before Restiaux adjusted his advice into an order, Mendick crouched at the opening through which Flash Tom had escaped. Taking a deep breath, he plunged in, to find himself at the top of half-rotted wooden steps descending to a square courtyard piled high with human filth. There was a single exit between two buildings, so narrow he had to squeeze through sideways, emerging into a crooked street of misshapen houses. The dirty light of dawn did nothing to alleviate the dismal appearance of soot-smeared walls, stagnant filth-spilling gutters and shuffling, dull-eyed people. Mendick did not hesitate.

“Police!” he roared. “Stand aside!”

One or two edged aside as he splashed through the street, but others made to block his path. He barged them aside, their underfed bodies fragile before his weight. There was movement ahead, a glimpse of a rainbow waistcoat as Flash Tom briefly turned, eyes bright with malice, before sliding into another narrow alley.

“Blake! Tom! It’s no good, man!”

Slithering on human filth, he eased into the alley, slipped sideways and tottered for a second, swearing as he realised he had walked into a trap.

“Badgered, by God!”

He stood at the edge of a deep cesspit, straddled only by a single greasy plank. Beyond the pit, Blake stood with his arm extended and his pistol levelled directly at his face.

“Bye, bye, bluebottle.”

As Blake pulled the trigger, Mendick ducked, put his boot under the edge of the plank and heaved upward. Heavy with moisture, the timber did not travel far, but it made enough contact with Blake’s shin to distract him so his hand jerked aside.

“Jesus!”

The crack of the pistol echoed around the alley, but the bullet flew wide, flattening harmlessly against the wall.

It was a four-foot standing jump over the cesspit, but with no other choice Mendick leapt, pushing himself onwards with sideways pressure on the wall, and landed just as Blake threw his pistol and turned to run.

“It’s a dead end, Tom!”

Without looking back, Blake scrabbled up the broken brickwork of the wall, finding purchase on the ledges of windows and swearing frantically as rotted wood crumbled under his feet.

“Bye, Peeler!”

Ignoring the crowd that had gathered to roar Blake on, Mendick searched for handholds to follow the forger. His fingers slithered across damp bricks, but his childhood as a climbing-boy, a chimney-sweep’s apprentice, stood him in good stead, and he followed quickly as Blake raced upwards and sideways.

“Nobody climbs that fast,” he muttered until he realised there was a series of iron spikes cunningly set in the brickwork. He grunted; anywhere a screever could climb, he could follow.

The spikes were old and partly rusted through, but he had to trust them, pulling himself across the wall only a few yards behind Blake.

Pausing at an upper window, Blake glanced back, his breath clouding around his head like smoke from some infernal demon. Spitting contemptuously downwards, he hauled himself onto the roof.

“Here! Catch this!” The first of the slates missed Mendick by an inch, the second bounced from a window ledge to splinter on the ground below, and the third crashed onto his right shoulder.

He flinched at the shock, and his right hand slipped so he hung one-handed with that appalling drop sucking at him. Below, the crowd was baying for his life.

“Die, you Peeler bastard!” Another slate hurtled down, turning edge over edge before it splashed into the dung heap below.

With his entire weight dragging agonisingly on his left shoulder, Mendick swung himself against the wall, scrabbling for purchase. He gasped with relief when he found the spike and clung motionless for a second. He sensed the disappointment from the crowd as he dragged himself up and over the gutter onto the roof.

Dawn’s early grey had changed to an arterial red that highlighted the skyline of spires and towers marking the greatest city in the world. Mendick surveyed the litter of uneven rooftops that lay before him. Blake skidded on damp slates before ducking behind a crazy chimney-breast twenty yards ahead. He followed, balancing his feet either side of the cracked ridge of the roof. When Blake glanced back, the slanting sun caught him, momentarily glittering on narrow eyes in an anxious face.

“You’re a persistent bugger, peeler, whatever else you are.”

Gathering his strength, Mendick leapt the gap between two buildings, felt his boots scrape down the slates and reached down for balance just as Blake turned to descend another ladder of spikes. Mendick followed Blake through an open window into a small room where semi-naked women howled abuse. The building smelled of damp and human excreta, but Blake was only a few yards ahead, thrusting at a door that led outside.

“Hold the bluebottle, girls!” Blake roared, and the human detritus swarmed to obey.

“Police!”

Mendick tried to defend himself from a score of filthy hands. The room seemed full of women, all talons and bile as they raked at his face and grabbed hungrily for his genitals. One was screaming, her voice rising to a maniacal screech.

Reaching for his pistol, he pointed it upward and fired. The shot reverberated around the room and brought down a shower of plaster from the ceiling.

“He’s got a gun! The bastard will kill us all!”

The women backed off, some howling in vitriolic frustration, others gesticulating and promising obscene revenge. Mendick pushed through the door just as Blake disappeared over a stone wall into a neighbouring timber yard.

The wall was easy to scale, but as Mendick dropped down, Blake was twenty yards ahead and easing through the yard gate; outside waited a dark four-wheeler. Cursing, Mendick stumbled past piles of neatly stacked timber. As he reached the gate, Restiaux nodded calmly to him through the open window of the coach. Blood stained the bandage that swathed his head.

“Glad to see you kept up; you drove Blake to me very adequately.”

“You have him?” Mendick leaned against the wheel of the coach, only now aware that his breath grated in his chest and that his legs and shoulder throbbed with pain.

Restiaux nodded. “I knew he would run and that you would not give up. Over the roof and through the brothel is a recognised escape from the Holy Land, so it did not take much to have the four-wheeler waiting.” His grin faded slightly. “In you come. You’ll have to pay for the damage to your uniform, of course.”

“Of course,” Mendick agreed, replacing the pistol in its holster and clambering inside the cab.

His wrists secured by handcuffs, Blake glowered at him from behind the beard. “If I get the chance, Peeler, I’ll kill you. That I swear.” His eyes were acidic.

Sitting at Blake’s side, Foster thumped a meaty hand on his shoulder. “That will not be for a very long time, Tommy Flash. You and I have work to do.”

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