The river looked like tar, sludging along, full of filth, she fancied as she hurried along the quay. She was searching for her dog, Hamish, a terrier of indeterminate lineage who had a predilection for the well-bred cats that infested the Bermondsey docks these days. It was a raw night in March and the damp in the air was palpable, a thick congealing mist that seeped through the fabric of her raincoat into her aching joints. She paused to catch her breath, gathering her collar tightly around her in a vain attempt to keep out the chill.
She glanced nervously about. There was not another soul in sight. Behind her loomed the gothic silhouette of Tower Bridge, its presence more felt than seen in the fog. Up ahead she could see the reassuring glow of the row of shops and restaurants below a block of converted warehouse flats. She scolded herself for being so nervy. Nowadays you were unlikely to encounter anybody more sinister than a stockbroker on the docks and, besides, who would be interested in bothering an old woman? Still, she thought, she had better collect her dog and get home before she caught her death.
"Haaamish!" she called out in a quavering voice. There was no response, so she continued on her way, her footsteps sounding hollowly on the pavement. She picked up her pace slightly as she passed a dark, boarded-off construction site. Eventually, she found herself in front of a derelict warehouse, one of the few remaining vestiges of the Thames's commercial past that had not yet succumbed to the property developers. Just ahead was St. Saviour's Dock, a narrow tidal inlet off the river. The channel was crossed by a footbridge and was lined on the far side by smart flats with pink and blue balconies. She shivered convulsively. At that moment she wanted nothing more than to cross over the footbridge and nip back home to put the kettle on.
She looked up at the dripping brickwork of the old Butler's Wharf warehouse with its rusted iron doors and stairways and gaping black windows. Her Harry had worked on these docks after the war in the heyday when London was still the largest port in the world and thousands of ships of all types and sizes crowded the six-mile stretch of river downstream from the Tower, carrying exotic cargoes from the far-flung outposts of the Empire. There were times, particularly after a fresh rain, when she could smell the faint perfume of cinnamon and cloves that still permeated the timbers of the old buildings. She gave an involuntary sigh. Everything had changed in the Sixties when the container ships all moved to Tilbury and Harry went on the dole. Mustn't wallow in it, she told herself, but it was hard to accept the gentrification of her old neighborhood.
"Where is that naughty dog?" she said aloud, getting truly cross now. She'd give him a proper scolding when he came back. Maybe he'd chased a cat into the old warehouse--
Her train of thought was interrupted by a faint whimpering sound. "Hamish?" she called out doubtfully. She strained to listen, but all she could hear was the river lapping against the pilings and the sound of her own breathing. She frowned. Perhaps it had been a rat.
Without knowing why exactly, she walked over to the concrete parapet and peered over. An iron ladder descended to the river; the pitted was stained with streaks of rust. She stared into the black, oily water and shuddered. The Thames had supposedly been cleaned up to the point where even a few foolhardy fish had ventured back, but she reckoned it would still kill you if you fell in. She was about to turn away when she suddenly froze.
There was a commotion at the base of the ladder. She stared, uncomprehending, as a hand rose slowly from the water and grasped the bottom rung. Then a head appeared and another arm, fingers splayed, stretching toward her. She could see the face now, festooned with strands of hair like seaweed, its mouth contorted into a silent scream. Before she could react, the body slipped back and disappeared beneath the surface of the water like a half-remembered dream.
Excerpted from Malice in London by Graham Thomas. Copyright © 2000 by Graham Thomas. Excerpted by permission of Fawcett, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.