At some point in the night, I made my way back to my room, having first locked Grimes’ door as instructed. He had fallen asleep soon after I’d helped him with his ablutions. It’s an odd thing indeed to find oneself in such intimate association with a man who, until only hours earlier, was nothing more than a recognised face. My years at boarding school, followed by a brief and unsuccessful stint in the army, had prepared me, at least in part, for helping this sick man, but there was something pathetic about him that awoke feelings of pity and, I admit, some disgust in his current state.
Of course, I’d dismissed such thoughts as soon as they’d occurred, coming, as I knew they did, from those parts of the mind that have more akin with the animal kingdom than mankind. Even in this weakened form, I’d sensed there dwelt a power within him that was entirely alien to me. And so I’d watched as he fell asleep, my mind still whirling as it tried to make sense of the night’s events.5 – 20th December 1883
I settled down on my bed but knew that I would not find rest. I desperately needed to sleep, but each time I closed my eyes I saw pointed teeth and animal faces. I must have dropped off eventually because I woke suddenly, my heart racing, as I imagined Valentina leaning over me, her lips drawn back like those of a monstrous bat, as she stooped to feed.
The lodging house inmates tended to wake before 7am and their tramping on the threadbare carpeted stairs below was enough to ensure that I awoke also, though I had no idea whether I’d slept for minutes or hours. It certainly felt as though it was the former.
I relit the candle by my bedside and washed my face in the bowl of water I kept for the purpose beneath the windowsill. I have many faults – too many to list here – but I still take a little pride in my appearance and I did not wish to be seen by any of the lodgers until I had shaved and changed my clothes.
Dragging my razor across my chin, I winced as the blunt blade nipped me. I could see why Grimes wore a beard, but I still had a vestige of pride, so I ploughed on, wiping the blood from my neck with an old cloth and holding it up to the candle light. By God, I’d seen enough blood last night.
Eventually, the flow was halted and I was able to pull on my shirt without staining the collar – essential since I only had two white shirts to my name. The one I’d worn to work the previous day had been soaked and left to dry and I didn’t know what I’d do if this one became stained. I decided to keep my distance when I checked on Grimes and to get away as quickly as possible.
I knocked on his door and waited for a response. I was torn between the fear that something might have happened to him in the night and the hope that I could avoid having anything further to do with him. Presently, however, I heard shuffling footsteps on the floorboards and the door swung open to reveal his horrifically pale face, though I barely noticed that as I almost fainted at the disgusting miasma that accompanied him.
“Sorry, old chap,” he said. “Pongs a bit, I know. My pot probably needs another emptying.”
I stepped back a little and nodded. “Indeed. I was going to suggest fetching you some breakfast, but I see, and smell, that there is a more pressing errand.”
“You’re a good man,” Grimes said before disappearing into the darkness of the room and returning with the offensive item. His hand shook as he carried it and I almost reached out to grab him since, however unpleasant, carrying the pot was far preferable to having to clean its contents off the floor.”
The privy lay in the yard behind the lodging house, so I had the odious yet delicate task of taking the pot down three flights of stairs, along the main hallway and out through the pantry in order to tip its vile contents into one of the three booths. This task was made all the more difficult as it was still dark and the privies weren’t lit.
I reflected, as I tried desperately to hold my breath, that I had been born into a world where one’s only responsibility when it came to such matters was, shall we say, the production and not the disposal. Many times over the years I had regretted the careless manner through which I had squandered my opportunities in life, but never as much as I did then, spilling away Grimes’ effluent.
I turned back with relief and headed towards the light of the pantry window. Grabbing a plate, two thick slices of bread and a little butter, I made my way back up the stairs, nodding at the lodgers I passed on my way. All men, most of them on their way to work. Wiggins was a matchbox stamper and I wondered, as he shuffled by me, what he would think had happened last night when he saw the [evidence].
“Here you are, Grimes,” I said as I pushed open his door and stepped inside.
Mercifully, I found him dressed and sitting in the chair at his table. The light of the candle flickered across his craggy face and I could see that he was still gravely ill.
“But you should be in bed,” I said.
He took the plate from me and set it on his table. “Thank you, Mr Makepeace. Will you not join me?”
“No thank you,” I said, “I find I have little appetite.”
Grimes gave a grunt and engulfed half the first slice in his mouth as one of the carp in the Serpentine swallows bread. “I learned long ago never to miss an opportunity for grub. Where are you going?”
I turned back from the door. “I must hurry or I will be late for work.”
“Oh you’ll not be going back to your former employment, my friend.”
He lifted the remains of the second slice and waved it at me as he spoke. “You have seen too much and have learned even more. Do I not guess right that Valentina filled you in on how things stand?”
I shrugged. “She explained some of the events of last night, but she said I should look to you for my education.”
“Did she indeed?” he chuckled, spitting bread fragments over the floor and his bed. “Did she indeed? Very crafty that girl. But never mind, she is right enough. You’re working for me now. Can’t promise you much other than poor pay and constant danger, but you’ll be doing society a good deed.”
I shut the door for fear of being overheard and moved closer to him. “And what if I want to simply walk away and go back to my old life?”
“As a clerk in a soap factory?” Grimes said, laughing so loud I put a finger to my lips. “Oh, go back if you wish, I can’t stop you. But make sure you come home before dark or I can’t speak for your chances of making it back to your bed.”
“What do you mean?” I spluttered.
His face tightened in an instant and all signs of jocularity vanished. “They know you, John, and that puts you in peril. I am also a marked man, though they’ve learned to be wary of me. Nearly got me last night, for all my experience. How long d’you think you’d last?”
I sat on the edge of the bed and cast my mind back to the horrors of the night before. I’d be dead now if it hadn’t been for Valentina and Grimes. Or, looked at another way, had I not stepped in to aid him, I’d be heading to the soap factory for a normal day’s work. I realised that, in all likelihood, my normal life was over whether I liked it or not.
“I don’t know what to do,” I said. “I feel as though I’m caught between two awful choices – to run as far as a penniless man can go and spend the rest of my life looking over my shoulder, or to stay here and fight. But I am not a fighting man, Grimes.”
He struggled to his feet, padded across and put his hand on my shoulder as he sat beside me. “You showed uncommon bravery last night and uncommon decency in coming to my aid. You stuck to your task when any sane man would have cut and run. You have it in you to fight, all you need are a few skills – and I shall be your tutor in that regard – and the courage you have already shown me. We are at war, my dear Makepeace, and we have need of you.”
I gave a brief nod and he hauled himself to his feet. “Come, let us tidy the room and let some light in. Unless I am very much mistaken, we will soon have a visitor.”
Sure enough, we’d barely had time to get his small room in order and for me to grab a slice of bread to break my fast when there was a knock at the door.
“Come in Jimmy,” Grimes said once he’d seated himself in the chair at his desk.
The door swung open to admit the young scruff known to us all as Jimmy Crivens. I need not recount the tragic story of how this young lad from Glasgow came to live in a home for working men in the south of England, suffice it to say that his was not the most desperate background and neither was he the youngest tenant.
“Mister Grimes,” he said, tugging an imaginary forelock. “Genkleman downstairs says ‘e wants to see you.”
“Did he give you a card?”
Crivens nodded his head. “Oh aye, sir.”
“Then let’s have it!” Grimes roared.
The boy leapt across the little room in a blur and handed it over.
“Send him up, if you please.”
Crivens darted out of the room and we heard his thumping steps as he vaulted down the stairs two at a time.
“Little blighter’ll break his neck one of these days,” Grimes said with a smile. “Handy as a page, though. Has an instinct for the wrong’uns.”
I took the card and read as follows.
Undersecretary, Ministry of International Affairs
“Do you know this man?” I said.
“Oh yes, Charlie and I go back a long way. He’s the closest I generally get to my employers. A bit of a pompous ass, but not a bad chap as they go.”
We heard a steady tread on the stairs and a single knock.
At Grimes’ invitation the door swung open and, in Jimmy’s place, stood a tall man in dark clothes who cradled a top hat under his arm. He brushed the last of the morning’s rain from the cape of his ulster and then noticed me.
“Who is this?” he said. He had piercing blue eyes set rather too close together behind an aquiline nose that served to remind me of a buzzard or even the legendary basilisk.
“My name is John Makepeace,” I said, feeling flustered and under inspection.
McBride thumbed in my direction. “And what is Mr Makepeace doing here?”
“He is my associate,” Grimes responded with complete serenity.
“Since last night when he saved me from having my neck chewed by one of Peregrine’s missing sheep.”
To my utter astonishment, McBride strode across the room and shook my hand with genuine warmth. “Well done indeed, sir. You don’t know how vital your action in saving Mr Grimes was. I expected to find him dead or missing this morning and was so relieved when the page told me it was not so.”
“What is this?” Grimes said. “I mean, I’m touched by your concern, but all the same.”
McBride let go of me and turned to Grimes. “You haven’t heard then? My God, Grimes, there was a purge last night such as we have never seen before.”
“I knew about Jasper, of course. How many others?”
“All of them, Grimes. Except you.”
Grimes’ pale face drained of all remaining colour and he slumped in his chair, shaking his head slowly. “All? No, it can’t be so. There were two dozen that I knew of.”
“Now there is just you,” McBride said.
“And me,” I said, stoutly, though not truly understanding what had happened.
McBride shook his head. “No, Mr Makepeace. Crucial though your intervention was last night, Mr Grimes needs a suitable partner, one he can train to operate independently in time. If the truce holds, that is.”
“Who would be suitable?” I said.
“We will find someone from the forces – the marines, probably. Someone who already knows how to kill.”
Grimes banged his fist on the table. “You will not,” he said and I was surprised to see that his face was wet. “Mr Makepeace is my partner and that’s final.”
“But surely a soldier would be a better choice, or even a policeman?”
“Did that help the poor devils who were massacred last night? Most of them were ex-forces as I recall. I tell you now, McBride, we were betrayed. One of us, or one of you, knew enough about our movements to be able to attack each of us when we were at our weakest. I don’t have partners, as a rule, but I will have Makepeace because he has the one thing no-one else can boast.”
McBride shrugged. “And what is that?”