London did not make itself an easy city to love, Christina knew that better than most. She kept her eyes fixed to the cobbles underfoot and forced herself to ignore the flood of people crowded into the streets, their bodies pressing in on her as she picked her way past. The in-between ran across the bridges of London. It was the area where the nobility ventured out to gawk at the poor, worthless people who fell into the wrong side of London, and those same poor, worthless people lingered, hoping for scraps.
Christina pulled the rim of her hat lower and shrugged past the small mobs of well dressed gentry, into the maze of narrow alleyways and filthy terraces beyond.
Sidestepping the beggars who huddled in doorways she gripped onto her collar, hiding behind the discoloured leather. Here was where the unsavoury were kept out of sight, laws set out by men like Christina’s father, forbidding those ‘of less than pleasing appearance’ to step out into the main streets of London. Their presence was deemed too distressing for the general public, and in the interest of social well being, the poor was swept underneath the carpet.
‘Change miss?’ He was an old man whose skull pressed outwards against his skin, showing ropy veins that scrambled across the pockmarked flesh like damaged spider webs. Christina shook her head and dodged away from his clawed fingers. She may not have shared her father’s views but she wasn’t stupid enough to get too close to anyone on this side of the city. Illness was rampant in the ruined tenements, jumping from one sagging slum to the next, rattling its talons against the empty window frames below. Even then, the healthy ones would slit your throat for the clothes on your back and what might be in your pockets.
The old man was either desperately unfortunate, or he had fallen into the slums through bankruptcy or madness. Either way, his death had already been declared, and no amount of charity from her would help, all she would be doing is prolonging his time in hell.
She picked up her pace and left the old man behind. The buildings on either side of her leered inwards, resting against each other for support, blocking off any sunlight that managed to seep through the smog. Below, the stale air was trapped, festering and clogging the airways of the breathing. The house where Christina was heading was in slightly better condition than the rest, less decrepit, and there was glass in the windows instead of old newspapers. Wedged into the low doorway was an iron sheet, riveted in numerous places to keep it together and thicker than the doorway itself. Rapping on the cold metal Christina waited for an answer. She shifted from foot to foot and glancing up and down the street. If she was murdered she doubted her body would ever be recovered, no one had the money and care to deal with those who dropped dead in the slums. The foul smell of sewerage covered up rotting flesh just enough that most couldn’t tell a corpse from someone sleeping.
The sound of gears whirling permeated the door, and with a series of groans and whines the sheet edged inwards leaving a dimly lit opening with a broad silhouette occupying the space.
‘Didn’t expect you?’ the figure growled, he gripped the door-frame with one hand and and took his time looking her up and down. Christina knew she looked like her mother, tall and lithe, with layers of fiery red curls that refused to obey any attempts at restraint. The oversized leather jacket she’d stolen from the servants’ quarters hid most of her body, but even then it was clearly better quality than most would find around there.
‘I have an appointment.’ she said. She lifted her hand to wave him out of the way. Her sleeve slipped down her arm and the Doorman caught a flash of silver on her left hand.
‘My commiserations.’ said the Doorman, a sincere grimace on his gnarled features. “Date been set yet?”
Christina shook her hand and yanked the sleeve back over her fingers. He stood aside and let her pass.
‘That’s not important right now.’ she said, dread spreading through her chest as she thought about the diamond rings on her finger. ‘Is he in or not?’
The building was spread over four floors, two above her and the cellar below. The person she wanted to see was at the top, probably lounging in a tattered smoking jacket and sipping a cheap wine that resembled something closer to vinegar.
‘Go on up.He’s not seen anybody all day, said he could feel somethin’ bad rolling in or somethin’ like that.
He closed the door and the locks clicked back into place.
‘I don’t see how things could get much worse around here, but who knows,’ Christina snorted. She planted her foot on the bottom step of the narrow staircase that wound up from the tiny entrance way. Floral wallpaper made a valiant effort to cling to the walls but it was peeling in more places than it was sticking and Tara could smell the damp.
She came up onto a dimly lit landing with no carpets and flaking plaster walls. There was one door, not quite set into the wall straight and half hidden by shadows. Christina didn’t both to knock.
The heat hit her first. It was akin to stepping into another continent. While the landing behind her had been as sparse and bare as possible, the room beyond was full to bursting with stuff. Metal pipes ran the circumference of the room, spurting clouds of steam into a forest of greenery that had somehow been crammed in. Bamboos, fruit trees and long grasses sprouted up from large ceramic containers, their branches and leaves brushing the ceiling. Along with everyday furniture such as chairs and footstools there were numerous brightly coloured orchids jostling for attention and from the sounds above her, Christina was pretty sure there was a menagerie of birds somewhere in the rafters.
In the middle of the room an oval shaped rug covered the little visible floor space there was and a heavy set desk had been positioned slightly off centre. With his feet up on the ink blotter was Gregory Yikes. Exceedingly tall and thin, with a burst of yellow hair sprouting from his scalp, piggy eyes and stubby fingers which fumbled continually with whatever object he was holding, Gregory Yikes did not strike a pleasant chord.
‘Now, now, now,’ he grinned and leaned forward, pushing his glasses further up his nose. ‘What would Lord Winter’s precious daughter be doing in the slums at this time of night?’
‘It is not night at all Yikes,’ Christina sighed, unwilling to play along to the man’s patter. ‘Do you even own a clock, or has time lost all meaning to you by this point?’
Yikes shrugged. ‘I don’t have much need for clocks, I can see Westminster from any rooftop in the city so why would I need one in here?’
‘You would be able to tell when someone is running late to meet you,’ she suggested, noticing that all the seating in the room had been nailed to the floorboards, meaning that nothing could be dragged forward for her to sit on.
‘No one ever runs late to see me,’ Yikes replied, his grin twisting darkly. ‘No one would dare.’
‘How would you know if you can’t even tell day from night?’ Christina murmured. She sighed and touched her fingertips to her temple and closed her eyes. ‘I’m starting to think that I’ve come to the wrong person, I need a professional, not a crackpot whose only companions are the birds who live in the roof of his office.’ She threw a glance upwards, and examined the canopy of leaves with a scathing expression. For someone as accredited as he was, Yikes had more than a few loose screws.
‘Yet we both know that there is no one else you can go to,’ Yikes replied. ‘No one you could trust with a situation of such a delicate nature.’
Christina frowned. ‘You sound as if you already know why I came here.’ She tucked her hand into the folds of her skirts.
‘It falls within my best interests to understand the matters of cases such as these; they tend to hold distinctly…’ Yikes paused, eyes fixed on her hidden hand, ‘…volatile outcomes.’
‘If you know what I’m asking, then why the questions when I walked in?’
‘Good old fashioned manners,’ Yikes smiled. ‘They don’t cost a penny you know.’
‘Unlike you,’ Christina retorted, seeing Yikes’ eyes flash with excitement. ‘I’ve heard your drive a hard bargain.’
‘I’m flattered, it’s always nice to hear that people haven’t forgotten me.’
Christina’s lips quirked into a small smile. ‘I would have thought you’d prefer to remain in the shadows. Like you said, the outcomes of some of your cases can be distinctly, volatile.’
Throwing his head back Yikes let out a splintering chuckle, a sound that reminded Christina of bones creaking beneath great pressure. ‘But I handle them with such finesse!’ he grinned. ‘Gregory Yikes, murders, theft and arson, for those who wish to make their point crystal clear.’
‘And somehow you reputation hasn’t landed you in the Tower yet. Tell me, how do you get around the Bow Street Runners? Is it bribes? Threats?’
Tired of standing, Christina perched herself on the edge of his desk, angling herself so that Yikes was forced to look up at her.
‘Because there is no one that the Bow Street Runners won’t take down,’ she whispered, bringing her head lower. ‘So your reputation is either a lie, or you having something exceedingly interesting over someone exceedingly important.’
Yikes grinned at her. ‘And there was me thinking that you didn’t like me,’ he said, his hand settling on her waist.
Christina’s hand shot towards his jaw, cracking across the stubble and sending his head rocketing backwards. Chuckling, Yikes held up his palms and prodded the tender spot at the corner of his mouth with his tongue.
‘My apologies, I forgot that I was dealing with a promised woman.’
‘Don’t talk about me as if I’m some object,’ Christina snapped. ‘Even without this ring on my finger there would be a greater chance of you being ordained Pope than me finding you even the slightest bit attractive.’
‘I’ve been told that I’m an incredibly handsome man,’ Yikes smirked, adjusting his glasses.
‘Was this before or after you paid her?’ Christina shot back. Yikes’ grin dropped from his lips and was instantly replaced with a scowl.
‘Don’t forget why you’re here Lady Winters. One more crack like that and I may be inclined to send you and your business elsewhere.’
‘I’m not so sure you mean that. You want the opportunity too much to let it slip through your fingers now!’
Yikes chewed his bottom lip. ‘It is certainly tempting,’ he admitted, placing his fingertips against each other and resting his chin on the steeple. ‘It is certainly more challenging than anything I’ve taken on before.’
‘Of course it is!’ Christina scoffed. ‘I doubt you will ever find another case to match it, no matter how long you survive in this game, or who walks into your office.’
Yikes’ expression creased in concentration, his eyebrows furrowing so that they almost met. Christina shifted, uncomfortable with how much it looked as if he was staring at her chest, despite his gaze having gone completely blank.
‘I would have to vanish,’ he mumbled to himself. ‘I would be open to attack if I took this on.’
Christina forced herself not to scowl, Yikes would have to do more than vanish, he would have to be dead if did as he was supposed to. She couldn’t risk leaving him any other way.
‘I have already catered for afterwards,’ she told him, breaking him out of the trance he seemed to have slipped into. ‘All you would need to do is make sure you reach Tower Bridge by midnight.’
Yikes looked at her distrustfully. ‘Why do I doubt that I’ll leave that bridge alive?’
‘I really have no idea,’ she said, her voice flat and emotionless. ‘Have I given you reason to doubt me?’
‘You’re arranging your father’s assassination,’ Yikes pointed out. ‘And your family does have a previous record for being rather fickle.’
Christina slid from the desk. ‘I think that I’ll be going now. We’re done here. I don’t have time for those who simply wish to compare me to my father.’
‘Surely you must see the similarities? I mean, if it wasn’t for him then your mother would still be alive would she not?’ Yikes wriggled his left eyebrow. ‘Your turbulent family history is hardly a secret.’
The temperature in the room plummeted, and even Yikes had to quail beneath Christina’s glare, the tips of his fingers turning blue as she loomed over his desk towards him.
‘A true Lady of the Winters,’ he croaked, doing his best to remain calm even though he was fairly sure he could feel his blood freezing. ‘If you don’t mind, I’m not sure my birds are overly fond of the cold.’ He tried to glance upwards but finding his eyeballs wouldn’t move and his breath plumed in clouds before him. The temperature continued to drop.
There was silence in the office, the birds’ previous chatter gone as ice crept across the plants.
‘No,’ Christina said, keeping her eyes fixed on Yikes. ‘I don’t suppose your birds do.’
Slowly the room began to warm again, though the birds remained silent and Yikes could see his hands shaking.
‘It seems that you would be more qualified to deal with matters than I am,’ he said carefully.’I’ve always heard that freezing to death is a truly unpleasant way to go, though you’re meant to feel warm at the end.’
‘I need a resolution that doesn’t implicate me,’ said Christina, brushing the frost from her clothes, all trace of her previous anger gone. ‘So do not forget and do not be late, midnight on Tower Bridge. My man will deal with your payment.’
‘Do you not want to ask how much I will cost?’ Yikes called, his voice muffled by foliage as she walked towards the door.
‘Trust me,’ she called back. ‘You’re more than affordable.’
The doorman flashed her a toothless smile as she left, the metal door slamming shut behind her. Back out on the street Christina could almost convince herself that Yikes’ exotic office and the conversation were all part of some strange dream. The stench of death and decay lurched at her the moment her feet hit the cobbles, desperation and despair seeping into her skin until reality seemed so distant that it almost didn’t exist at all. Putting one foot in front of the other she headed towards the richer part of London. Returning to her white mansion where they would be men cleaning the walls outside, the same as every Thursday, and the servants would skitter away as she walked down a corridor.
It was as if Christina’s father had taken a knife to London, slicing it down the Thames and leaving the one half to rot while the wealthy poured money into the other half. It hadn’t bothered her as a child, she hadn’t needed to worry about the impact of her father’s actions. That was before he’d taken a mistress and cast off her mother as if she were a piece of clothing that had gone out of fashion.
Somewhere among the slums was her mother’s body. Dead, not because her father had ordered it, but because he’d allowed his wife to be dragged into the rotten half of the city. All for a woman who’d eventually run off with a groom.
His death was only partly fueled by revenge though. With it she would be able to break off her engagement, retreat to the country and claim that grief prevented her from marrying. With the family fortune she would be able to do as she pleased and there would be no one to say otherwise.
Crossing back over into the other half of London she made a note to order her man to find out what exactly it was that kept Yikes out of the Tower. She never knew, it could prove to be useful information for a rainy day.
The mists were creeping in off the river.
Just another day in London. Just another miserable, grey day.