The West Wind
We began before thick in autumn fog; we open now in the fury of a west and winter wind. Above us high loose clouds drive across a steep grey sky, and beneath our feet the dead leaves are driven before the unseen air like ghosts from an enchanter. Yellow and black and pale and hectic red, they swirl in dry squalls into narrow corners and lift in sudden gusts from the muddy gutters. It’s no weather for walking and as yet only the muffin-seller is braving the bluster, bent half double against the freezing wind and struggling to keep both his hat on and his basket covered. No weather for walking, and no weather for idle lingering either, so we will take shelter for a moment in a graceful Georgian doorway and survey this graceful Georgian street. To the south, the level leaden drab of the river; to the north the heave of early-morning traffic on the Strand. But here all is quiet, and the only other passer-by a large black cat making its way purposefully across the cobbles and down the area steps of the house opposite, a rat dangling from its mouth like a rakish moustache. Few lights burn yet in the upper storeys, even if the servants in the cellars have been up and busy these two hours and more. Though there is, it appears, one exception. In that same house opposite, there is one uncurtained casement high above the street, and if we move just a little we can see a figure standing at the window.
It is a young man. His face pale, and his eyes deep-set and drawn. Or at least that is how it seems from here. Perhaps it is merely the reflection in the bluish glass, or perhaps he has been wakeful all night, and stands there now, prey to the same dark concerns. One thing is certain: We may be interested in him, but Charles Maddox does not even register our presence as he gazes down at the almost empty street, listening to the rattle of the windowpanes, which is the only sound to trouble the tall and silent house. He sighs, understanding the exact pitch and weft of that silence, and knowing that it signifies there has been no change. Two floors below, in a larger and more elegant room than his, by a fine marble mantelpiece and a fire kept always carefully tended, his great-uncle lies unmoving in the same cold repose that has afflicted him now for more than three weeks. He breathes still—lives still—but it is a chill and twilight life, from which there may be no returning.
Charles turns back to the room. He has lived here more than a month now, and his attic space is finally taking the look of permanent occupation. Gone are the tea crates that brought his possessions half-way across town and up three flights of stairs, and in their place there’s a line of new shelves all along one wall. His books are now arranged in rows, his collection in clusters, the latter accompanied by more or less neatly written labels: Ethnographical, Zoological, Historical, Mineralogical. The books, in the main, are scuffed with over-use; the objects, by contrast, have been positioned with care. The coins are laid in chronological order on a piece of new red velvet, and the shells and pieces of coral have been freed at last from the glass jar they’ve been stored in since Charles was still at school. And if you look a little closer, you’ll see that this assortment of apparently unrelated items has not only been placed to best advantage, but as far as possible from floor level, though it’s hard to tell whether this is to protect the objects from the cat, or the cat from his own curiosity. Thunder, incidentally, is far too busy at this precise moment, feasting on his prize rat, to be interested in Charles’ curios, none of which is remotely palatable (though one or two of the brightly coloured stuffed birds on the top shelf do seem to be a little bald and abraded here and there, which may suggest that Thunder has his owner’s dedication to proper scientific methods, and has proved their inedibility with the odd practical experiment of his own).
Charles wanders now to the wash-stand and stands a moment, looking himself in the eye. The face that stares back at him in the mirror is rumpled from sleep, and the dark bronze curls unruly, but the cuts on his brow have left no scar. Much that he cares. The bowl on the stand is edged with ice, but when he goes to the door he finds no hot water waiting. He’s just drawing breath to bellow down at Billy when he sees instead his great-uncle’s former henchman making his slow way round the bend in the stairs, the steaming jug clenched in his gnarled hands. There was a time, years since, when there was no man more feared in the shadowier strata of London society than Abel Stornaway, though looking at him now you’d never think it; his legs are bowed, his back bent, and wisps of hair hang limply from his speckled wrinkled skull. Age has withered him, just as it has the man he served, but Abel has waned only in body, while it is the mind of the master thief taker that the decades have decayed.
Abel perches the jug on the wash-stand and eyes Charles as the younger man unwraps the dressing on his right hand. It may be that you have met with Charles before, in which case you will know how and why he came by this injury. You will know, too, that patience is hardly the first characteristic that comes to mind in relation to Charles Maddox, and will be surprised—perhaps—that he is still wearing the bandage when the hand must, by now, have almost healed. Though as the final strip of cloth falls away you can perhaps see why: With the bandage in place, the damage is masked; without it, there is no evading the fact that one finger is missing. Charles is not usually loath to confront reality, however unpleasant; indeed his rather bullheaded determination to do just that, and make others do so too, has got him into trouble more than once. But there is clearly something about this particular reality that he cannot bear, or cannot bear quite yet, and it does not escape Abel’s beady eye that a clean bandage was ready laid out and is even now being quickly fastened.
“What was it you wanted, Abel?” says Charles, a question that would sound to anyone else like the opening of a conversation but is really, as both men know, a changing of the subject. “You usually send the boy up with the water, so there must be something.”
“You remember the calling card that was left, Mr Charles? Have you done owt about it?”
Charles shakes his head and goes over to the wardrobe, which is an efficient if rather cowardly way of avoiding Abel’s eye.
“Not yet, Abel.”
“Men of his stamp dinna want to be kept waiting. It’s not mannerly, Mr Charles, and it’s not sensible, not for a man in our line of work.”
Charles smiles, despite himself, at that ‘our,’ and wonders for a moment how long it is since Abel worked a case—how long, indeed, since Maddox worked a case. He’s seen the files in the office downstairs, and knows now that his great-uncle has been battling for his reason for far longer than Charles assumed that night, only a few short weeks ago, when Abel came looking for him and the two of them returned to this house to find Maddox flailing like a madman, and stinking in his own soil. And yet against all hope and medical opinion the master thief taker has once or twice returned, and when he has, the edge and incision of his insights have made the madman seem like an obscene dream. It was the lucid, not the lunatic Maddox who helped Charles solve his last case—that same Maddox who taught him everything he knows about the art and science of investigation, that same Maddox who both is, and is not, lying now in the room beneath them, marooned in an eerie fretful immobility.
“You cannae bring him back by watching,” says Abel softly. “The doctor—”
“What does he know?” snaps Charles, his blue eyes flashing. “He cannot even tell us what ails him, much less do anything useful to cure it.”
“Mebbe there is no cure, Mr Charles. Mebbe we will have tae let him go.”
Charles turns away, but Abel sees the lift of his chin and knows he is fighting back the tears.
“I know how much he means to ’ee, but you cannae spend every waking hour by his side. He wouldnae want it.”
“I should have been here. I should have done something.”
Abel sighs; he’s suspected for some time that this might be at the bottom of it. “It wouldnae hae made any difference, Mr Charles. The fit came upon him so quick—it would hae been the same whoever was by. And the reason you were nae here was because you were doing your job. That’s what he’d hae wanted. Just as he’d want you to go call on that gentleman who left his card. For courtesy’s sake, if naught else.”
“What’s the use?” says Charles with a shrug. “It’s probably just some paltry indoor case. Servants pinching the pastry-forks. And it’s not as if we need the money.”
“Work is its own reward, as my old father used to say. And you need to get yerself away from this house for a few hours. Exercise yer mind. Even if it does turn out to be naught more than pilfering.”
Charles takes a deep breath, then nods. “All right. I’ll go this morning.”
He turns heavily and contemplates his small collection of shirts. “I suppose I had better make myself look presentable. If I’m going calling on a baronet.”
On his way down the stairs half an hour later Charles pauses for a moment at the drawing-room door. The curtains have been opened and Abel is attempting to feed Maddox from a bowl of porridge. And we can see that the old man’s face is drawn down on the left side; just the left hand and arm seem bent and unnaturally stiff. It will be obvious to you, now, what has happened, and there are doctors in London whom Charles could summon who might look likewise wise and diagnose an apoplexy. But they will not be able to help him. Most of the porridge has already ended up on the napkin tied bib-like under the old man’s chin, and he is making small whimpers of distress at Abel’s every attempt with the spoon. A month ago Maddox would have dashed it to the ground in fury and frustration, but now he has neither the will, nor the capacity, even to push the food away. With the mind he once had, and the dread and deference he once commanded, there could hardly be a more bitter degradation. It’s pitiful to watch—too pitiful for Charles—and he moves to close the door, but at that moment a thought strikes him and he turns back into the room.
“You did say, didn’t you, Abel, that it was seeing that man’s calling card that brought on my uncle’s attack?”
Abel pauses in his spooning and looks up. “Well, I cannae say exactly that’s what it was—”
“But that was what the two of you were talking about, just before it happened?”
“Aye, so it was.”
“And the last word he said before he collapsed was a name—a woman’s name.”
“Aye, Mr Charles. The last thing he said to me was ‘Mary.’ I thought he were talking about that woman he loved all those long years ago, before you were born. But you said you thought it could be someone else entirely.”
Charles takes the card out of his pocket and looks at it again. “Yes,” he says quietly. “I think it is.”
Charles’ destination is Belgravia, which is a good stretch on a day like this, and he starts with every intention of walking, but after ten minutes of battling against the wind, his eyes squinting and streaming in the flying dust, he admits defeat and joins the queue for the omnibus. The early rush has subsided so he manages to get a seat, and sits with his shoulders hunched as the ’bus inches its way through the din of wagons, coaches, carts, and hansoms pressed nose-to-tail along the Strand, and turns slowly into St Martin’s Lane. This route is usually thronged with pedlars, beggars, ballad-singers, and tinkers, but in weather like this only the boldest are braving the wind, both buyers and sellers. And as Charles well knows from his time in the police, most of the city’s street-sellers and coster-mongers live so hand-to-mouth that the edge of starvation is as close as three-days’ rain.
Half an hour later Charles steps down from the ’bus a mile and a world away, and starts through Belgravia’s pristine stucco squares—a district so deep-rooted in the London landscape now that it’s hard to believe these buildings date back only to the late 1820s; some of the houses Charles passes are even now not fully completed. But despite that fact, and the rather unsightly corners of builders’ rubble and cast-off brick, these serene white houses are home already to the richest population in the world. And then as now, that kind of cash secures intangible assets as much as tangible ones, and the most valuable of them all in this rowdy dirty town is privacy. Hence the eight-bar gates across the entrance to Chester Square, and the polite if somewhat pugnacious gate-keeper who insists on seeing the calling card left at Buckingham Street before allowing Charles to pass. A performance he then has to go through a second time for the benefit of the butler who answers the door at number 24.
“Are you expected?” the man says, glancing rather disdainfully at the (by now) rather dog-eared card, and clearly wondering if Charles has fished it out of a bin.
“Not, perhaps, this morning,” he replies, sardonic, “but seeing as the card was accompanied by a request to call, I imagine my arrival will hardly come as a complete surprise.”
The butler frowns slightly. “I will see if my master or my lady is at home.”
The door closes, and Charles stamps up and down for five minutes on the steps trying to keep warm, not much bothered that the noise must be perfectly audible from inside the house.
The door opens again, and the butler reappears.
“If you could come with me.”
Excerpted from A Fatal Likeness by Lynn Shepherd. Copyright © 2013 by Lynn Shepherd. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte Press, 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.