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A late winter's night in London: the city hushed; the last revelers half an hour in their beds; a new snow softening every dull shade of gray and brown into angelic whiteness. For a quarter of an hour nobody passed down the narrow street. Such emptiness in this great capital seemed impossible, uncanny, and after a few moments of deep stillness the regular row of houses, covered so evenly by the snowfall, began to lose their shape and identity, to look as if they had nothing at all to do with mankind, but instead belonged to the outer edge of some low, lightless canyon upon a plain, in a distant and lonely and less civilized time.
Watching from the window of his unlit second-story perch across the way, Charles Lenox began to feel like an intruder upon the scene. In his experience there was a ten-minute period like this lying beyond every London midnight, though its actual time was unpredictable—after the last day had ended, before the next day had begun.
Just as his pocket watch softly chimed for five o'clock, however, the human stir returned to Chiltern Street. Abruptly a hunched figure in a dark coat strode past, heading south, and not long afterward the first fire of the day appeared in a low window, a small stubborn orange glow in the darkness. Soon another followed it, three houses down. Lenox wondered who the man had been, whether he was out especially late or especially early, whether his errand was one of mischief or mercy. He had been dressed respectably. A doctor, perhaps. Then again, perhaps not, for he hadn't been carrying the handled leather bag of that breed. A priest? A burglar? Few other professions called for a man to be awake at such an hour.
Of course, Lenox's was one of them. He was a private detective—lying in wait, at this moment, for a murderer.
Across the street, the light of another fire in its hearth. Now the day was very near beginning. Lenox thought of all the maids of London—his own included—who woke during the brutal chill of this hour to begin their chores, to light the fires. Then he thought of his wife, Lady Jane Lenox, and their young daughter, Sophia, asleep six streets away, and with a shiver pulled his coat tighter around him. The room where he had waited all night didn't have a fire, since of course he didn't want the light of one to draw attention to his presence here. What a queer way to make a living it was, detection. He smiled. It did make him happy. Even in moments of discomfort.
Not long before, his life had been very different. It was early January of the year 1876 now; only in October had he finally, after seven years of toil, given up his seat in Parliament. During the last ten months of that period he had been a Junior Lord of the Treasury, drawing a salary of nearly two thousand pounds a year (to some men a very great fortune indeed, in a city where one could live opulently on a tenth of that sum), and it had even been dangled before him that he might, with continued industry and luck, hope one day to compete for a very high office—indeed so high an office that one could scarcely utter its name without a feeling of awe. Even on a humbler level he might have remained useful in Parliament indefinitely, he knew. He had both an interest in and a talent for politics, and the discipline that success in that House required.
But during every hour of those seven years he had missed—well, had missed this, the previous work of his life, his vocation, detection, and while the evenings in Parliament had been comfortable, with their beer and chops and amicable companions, they had given him nothing like the thrill of this cold, wearying night. He was where he belonged again: doing what he was most suited to do. It might puzzle the members of his caste (for Lenox was a gentleman, and nearing the age of fifty more rapidly than he would have preferred), but this disreputable line of work gave him greater pleasure than all the authorities and appanages of Parliament ever could. He did not regret going into politics, having long wished to try his hand at the game of it; still less though did he regret leaving the game behind.
The first carriage of the morning passed down Chiltern Street. Nearly every house had a fire lit below stairs now, in the servants' quarters, and in one there was a second bright flicker of heat a story up, where Lenox could see that the head of the family had risen and was taking his early breakfast. A stockbroker, perhaps. They often had to be in the City by seven.
Another fire, and another.
Only one house remained dark. It was directly across the street from Lenox's window, and his gaze was focused steadily upon it. Surely the time was coming, he thought. When another carriage rolled down the street he followed its progress intently, before observing that there was a coat of arms on its door. That lost the vehicle his interest. He doubted that his quarry would arrive in such a conspicuous conveyance.
Another fire. Another carriage. The sky was growing faintly lighter, the absolute darkness of the sky lessening into a black lavender. Soon enough it would be daytime. Perhaps he had been wrong, he felt with a first hint of unease. He was out of practice, after all.
But then it came: an anonymous gig, a pair of thick-glassed oil lamps swinging from its hood, pulled steadily through the snow by a youthful gray horse.
It stopped a few houses shy of the one Lenox was observing, and a man stepped down from it, passing a few coins to its driver, who received them with a hand to the brim of his cap and then whipped the horse hard, in haste to be on his way to another fare. Or home, perhaps, who knew. Lenox's eyes were fixed on the person who had dismounted. Certainly it was he. Hughes: Hughes the blackmailer, Hughes the thief, above all Hughes the murderer.
He was a very small fellow, not more than an inch or two higher than five foot. He was well made, however, with a handsome face and brilliantly shining dark hair. He carried a cloth case with a hard handle.
Lenox reached up above his right shoulder and gave the taut white string there one hard, decisive pull. He let it quiver for a moment and then stilled it with his hand. His heart was in his throat as he watched the criminal, to see if the man would fly—but Hughes continued without any hesitation toward the last dim house in Chiltern Street, the one Lenox had been watching. When he was at the door he peered at the handle for a moment, then opened his case and chose two or three items from it. He set to work on the lock. In what seemed a breathtakingly short time, not more than four or five seconds, he had the door open. It was the skill of a great criminal. He put his tools away quickly and walked inside with quiet steps, closing the door behind him. The house remained dark.
Lenox stood and smiled. He counted fifteen seconds and then walked toward the door of the room in which he had been sitting most of the night, careful to avoid moving past the windows, where his silhouette might be seen. His joints ached. His eyes felt at once tired and alive with alertness. It wouldn't be more than a moment now.
It was frigidly cold down on the street, and he was thankful, as he stepped into the snow on the pavement, for his rather odd-looking brown cork-soled boots, which he had ordered specially because they kept out the damp. The rest of his dress was more formal, his daytime attire: a dark suit, pale shirt, dark tie, dark hat, the only gleam of brightness on his person coming from the silver of the watch chain that extended across his slender midsection. He lit a small cigar, put a hand in his pocket, and stood to watch, his curious hazel eyes trained across the street.
"Come along, quickly," he said to himself under his breath. Chiltern Street was growing busier. Two carriages passed in quick succession.
Then suddenly the brick house opposite—the one into which Hughes had slipped so quietly—burst from stillness into commotion. A dozen lamps blazed to life, and a dozen voices to match them. When Lenox heard an aggrieved shout, he smiled. It was done. Hughes was captured. He dropped his cigar into the snow, stamped it out with his foot, and then, looking up and down the street to make sure no more carriages were coming, stepped briskly across to witness his victory at firsthand.
Thirty minutes later Hughes was secured in the back of one of the two wagons from Scotland Yard that stood on Chiltern Street. Enough people were awake and about that a small crowd had gathered nearby, their curiosity triumphing over the cold. Lenox was outside the house with Inspector Nicholson, a tall, bony, hook-nosed young man with a winning grin, which he wore now.
"He took the money in addition to the letters. Couldn't resist it, I suppose. Greedy chap." The dozen pound notes sitting alongside the letters in the desk had been Lenox's idea—their theft would make Hughes's crime easier to prosecute. "We'll need them for evidence, but you'll have them back in a month or two. Along with the rope and the bell."
Lenox looked up at the thin string toward which Nicholson gestured as he said this, hard to discern unless you were looking for it. It ran tightly overhead from one side of the street to the other; Lenox had used its bell to warn the constables waiting in the Dwyer house, the one that Hughes had entered, in case the thief was armed. Certainly he had shown time and again that he was not above violence. "There's no rush at all about the money," said Lenox, returning Nicholson's smile. "Though I'm afraid I must be off now."
"Of course. The agency?"
"Yes. Our official opening."
When Lenox had left Parliament, he had agreed to a proposal from his protégé, Lord John Dallington, to begin a detective agency—a venture that he had contemplated at first with reservations, but that filled him increasingly now with excitement. It would be the best in London. The founders were determined of that.
The young inspector extended a hand. He was one of the few men at the Yard who didn't look upon the new agency with territorial suspicion, or indeed outright disdain. "I wish you only the very best of luck. Though we'll miss the help you've given us over the last months, of course. Six of the seven names."
"Some scores to settle."
"And not bad publicity, I imagine."
Lenox smiled. "No."
It was true. Lenox had devoted the months of November and December to tracking down some of the old criminals whose freedom had rankled in his bosom, when Parliament had deprived him of the time to try to take it from them. Now the press that would gather in Chancery Lane an hour hence to take photographs and write articles about the agency's opening would have a ready-made angle: Lenox's return to detection prosecuted with single-minded determination over the past months, and resulting already in a safer London. It would bring in business, they hoped.
What a day of promise! Hughes in a cell, his partners waiting for him, the brass plate upon their door—which read LENOX, DALLINGTON, STRICKLAND, AND LEMAIRE—ready to be uncovered. Hopefully the broken window of yesterday had been mended; hopefully the office was tidied, ready for the eyes of the press. How right it had been to leave Parliament, he saw now! A new year. The energy one drew from embarking upon a new challenge, a new adventure. He walked briskly down the street, too happy with life to worry about the cold.
Had he known how miserable he would be in three months' time, he would have shaken his head bitterly at that misplaced enthusiasm.
Copyright © 2014 by Charles Finch