6:53 pm – 8th November, 1888
Joseph Barnett had been sitting on the edge of Billingsgate Dock for nearly an hour, pondering the sorry state of his miserable life. Over his right shoulder, he could see two uniformed sentries, taking a leisurely break from their duties as night guardians for the Custom House. Inside the building’s imposing, limestone and marble façade, the famous ‘long room’ stretched from end to end; its enormous, unsupported canopy of architectural braggadocio soaring majestically overhead; whilst within the beast’s cavernous belly, an intricate labyrinth of secret vaults shielded dusty oubliettes stacked to the ceiling with seized treasures, each inmate held within awaiting liberation upon receipt of unpaid port fees and taxes.
In the upper storey regions, nearly two thousand clerks and government overseers buzzed like an efficient hive of worker bees each day, their uniform cubicles now fallen silent and empty in the evening’s dank chill. Higher still, claustrophobic attics provided cramped housing for chars, cooks, and bachelor clerks. Along the sloped, grey slate roof, a forest of brick chimneys belched smoke and grease from dozens of hearths, where mutton roasted and stew simmered.
In all, the building seemed more community than mere edifice, and the night watchmen saw themselves as gatekeepers of a miniature city. The pay was meagre, but the job brought one prime benefit: keys to unlock cloisters filled with casks of wine, barrels of whisky, and wheels of cheese; as well as sea cans bursting with chocolate, spices, tea, exotic silks, and even sparkling gemstones. So long as they kept their pilfering small and confined to lesser items, the governor of the house turned a blind eye. After all, his hands were soiled as well.
Tonight’s excursion had taken the guards into a holding area filled with casks of Boutelleau cognac. Though considered a premium wine, they reasoned that one small cask amongst many dozens would never be missed. Standing now beside the western doors, the underpaid watchmen whispered together as they shared tin cups of purloined cheer and coarse amusements—most at Joe Barnett’s expense, for they cast their inebriated eyes upon him often, sometimes pointing in his direction.
The Custom House perched upon the Thames shoreline like a grand goddess of the waters. Architect David Laing’s impressive design ran for nearly five hundred feet along the river and featured two wings that branched from a protruding central base, decorated with six ionic columns and terra cotta bas-relief figures, representing the world of commerce. Atop this magnificent edifice, rested a massive, nine-foot tall clock dial, supported by marble statues of the chief gods of economy, ‘Plenty’ and ‘Industry’. The gods’ frozen faces looked down upon the lonely figure of Joe Barnett as if contemplating his isolation. The unemployed fish porter cared nothing for fine architecture or pagan imagery, content only that he’d found a solitary place in which to think.
Joseph shivered in the cold night air, his bumpy, florid nose wrinkling at the pungent reek of Indian spices, rotting fish, dead flowers, and horse muck. A light rain cut through the thick mist, spattering upon the rough cobbles that lined Lower Thames Street, and the clip-clopping of horseshoes echoed against the pea soup fog like a familiar drumbeat, percussing a dissonant refrain of endless toil and agony.
“Got some for me?” a thin woman asked, startling Barnett, as she emerged out of the grey haze like a pale ghost.
“Cor blimey, Ida! You’ll give a man an ‘eart attack, you will, appearin’ like tha’!” he exclaimed.
The woman stared, motionless in the night air, as if she were nothing more than a renegade statue, escaped from the Custom House façade; her pale eyes mere orbs of painted ceramic. Then she blinked, thawed from her frozen state as though touched by an unseen, warming hand.
“Sorry if I gave you a fright, Joe. I wonder if you’ve got a bit o’ gin to share; that’s all.”
“Bit o’ gin ta share?” he repeated, showing her an empty bottle. A lifelong speech tic caused Barnett to repeat the last few words he heard in conversation before forming his own reply, but his friends had grown accustomed to it. “Sorry, Ida. I done drunk it all away.”
Ross sat down beside him, the thin folds of her cotton skirt billowing across emaciated legs like a pale blue shroud, making her seem more ragdoll than human being. “That’s all right. Mary’s not with you tonight?”
Joe shook his head. “Not wif me tonight? No, no she ain’t. Mary’s go’ no need o’ me, I reckon. Took up wif another o’ them trashy women friends. I don’ understands it, Ida. Mary used ta love it when I come ‘round. Now, she go’ no time fer the likes o’ Joey Barnett.”
“Don’t give up on her, Joe,” Ross urged him gently. “Mary’s worth it. Really, she is.” Ida grew silent for a moment, her eyes on the grey waves below them.
A watchfire burnt in an iron barrel near the southwest corner of Custom House Quay. The stoop-shouldered guard had finished his wine and now warmed gloveless hands against the damp, the bright flames painting his round features in flickering shades of yellow and orange.
“Have you seen any more of those strange animals about?” Ross asked as the sentry glanced her way.
“Strange animals about?” Joseph repeated. “No’ you as well! Like I done told Mary, there ain’t no wolves in London. Not ones what walks abou’ on two legs, anyhows. Now, iffin ya wants ta talks ‘bout them wha’ preys upon the poor o’ this city, then tha’s another thing. Like them men buildin’ this ‘ere bridge,” he said, pointing to the skeletal frame of Tower Bridge, begun two years earlier. “Bunch o’ la-dee-da layabouts, iffin ya arsk me! Fancy boots an’ fancier clothes. Lily white skin an’ all. No’ a callused ‘and amongst ‘em. It’s enough ta make a real man wanna drown ‘imself in a barrel o’ gin, it is. Where you been, girl? I ain’ seen you in nigh on a month.”
“I spent several weeks in hospital,” she sighed. “But I’m better now, and I got work. I’m back with Mrs. Hansen, up on Columbia.”
“Up on Columbia?” he repeated, absentmindedly. “Say it ain’t true, girl! I thought you was done workin’ on yer back.”
“Don’t scold me, Joe. Whorin’ at the Empress means clean sheets, a few coppers in my pocket, and regular meals. And it’s a sight lot better than working the streets.”
“Better ‘n workin’ the streets? You don’ look like a girl what’s sleepin’ sweet, Ida. Is them bruises on yer face? An’ them ain’t silks on yer limbs, my dear. Don’ Meg Hansen pay you enough, so’s you can buy a new frock now an’ then?”
Ross smoothed the creases of the blue muslin, and Barnett could see that she shivered. “I don’t like to wear those pretty clothes when I take a walk, Joe. B’sides, I’ve got other plans tonight.”
She grew silent again, her thoughts far away. Finally, as the chimes of St. Margaret’s Church tolled the hour of seven, she took a deep sigh, changing the subject as if trying to distract her own mind. “I heard Liz Albrook say that Mary might be meeting her and a couple o’ friends at Ten Bells pub later. Why don’t you go see if she’ll talk to you, Joe? I got a real bad feelin’ about tonight, and I’d hate for Mary to be alone.”
“Mary ta be alone? A bad feelin’? What sort o’ feelin’, Ida? You get another one o’ yer visions or summat?”
“I don’t know,” she whispered, her voice nearly lost in the night wind’s howl. “Joe, would you do me a kindness? Nothing that’ll cost you much. Just a bit of time.”
“A bi’ o’ time? What’s tha’, Ida?”
She opened the drawstring of her crocheted handbag and removed a slim white envelope. “Post this for me, will you? I’ve already put a stamp on it. All it’ll cost you is the time it takes to walk to a pillar box. There’s one at Mitre Square.”
“Mi’re Square? Cain’t you do it?” he asked. “No’ tha’ I minds, ya know, Ida. I don’. Jus’ tha’ I migh’ forget. My memory’s no’ the best—no’ since tha’ accident in the fish market down at Shadwell las’ year.”
She grew pensive, and he noticed that her eyes followed the path of a rusting trawler as it steamed past, bound for the dock beneath London Bridge. “Don’t you wish you could board one of those boats, Joe, and sail away to another country? Put all the bad choices behind you and start all over?”
“Star’ all over?” he repeated as he scratched his pockmarked nose. “You shore is funny tonigh’, Ida. Nah, I ain’ never wanted ta visit nowheres else. London’s all a man needs. Tha’ an’ a warm woman ta come ‘ome to on a winter’s evenin’. Why don’ you lemme buy you a drink over at the Ten, eh? It’s gettin’ migh’y cold out ‘ere, an’ I ain’ so sure it’s safe.”
She shook her head, causing several of the restrained, strawberry locks to tumble from their pins. The fallen strands whipped about her face in the rising east wind. “It’s not all that cold,” she lied. “If you’ll just post that letter for me, Joe, it’d be a blessing. And tell Mary how much I appreciate all she did for me. Tell her I tried to get away. I really did.”
“Ge’ away? Whatcha mean, girl? Ge’ away from wha’?”
“Get away from him,” Ross answered as the trawler sounded its horn. Overhead, the shadow of a large bird skittered across the iron grey waves of the river, and a seagull’s cry split the air in chorus with the fishing boat’s call. “It’s not safe out here anymore,” she said mournfully, looking towards the inky vault overhead. “Something’s coming, Joe. Something hideously dark. Darker than any night.”
Barnett tucked the envelope into the right pocket of his moth-eaten coat. “Darker ‘n any nigh’? No’ safe no more? You’re startin’ ta sound like them women down at Shadwell! Them wha’ crosses themselves like some ghost’ll get ‘em iffin they don’. It’s just gulls, girl. Naught bu’ one o’ them seagull’s nibblin’ on a dead fish or summat.” He placed a brotherly arm around her slender shoulders to offer warmth and fellowship. “I don’ like ta leave ya, Ida,” he said gently. “Come wi’ me, won’ cha? We’ll share a buttered tater an’ a pint o’ bitter. My treat.”
“No, thanks, Joe. That’s kind of you, but I’d like to stay,” she insisted. “Just post that letter for me. It’s important.”
High in the sky, the lengthening shadow lingered upon the murky waters, its form impossibly still, as if the night bird hovered just over their heads. Ross glanced up, and a shiver ran through her bones. “It’s getting late. You’d best go now, Joe. Find Mary and see if she won’t make up with you this time. She needs a man with her, Joe. She needs protecting.”
Barnett pushed himself up by steadying his right hand against the stained brickwork that lined the dockside. “She needs protectin’,” he repeated, the persistent tic sticking stubbornly in his brain. “Don’ stay ‘ere too long, Ida. Keep close ta them watchmen. Does ya need money fer a ride ‘ome? I go’ a copper in me pocket. It’s yourn, iffin ya wants it.”
“That’s generous of you, Joe. I’ve got a little money, so you keep it,” she assured him, though she had none. “Go on. I’ll keep safe,” she promised.
Reluctantly, he turned to go.
As Barnett left the dock, Ross could hear the sharp echo of his thick-soled, black boots upon the limestone setts. The watchmen for the Custom House shared one last laugh, but within ten minutes, they, too, had departed, leaving Ida Renée Ross all alone in the freezing fog. The twenty-seven-year-old could hear the rhythmic waves slapping against the sides of the concrete stairs below her vantage point, as if the hypnotic voice of Old Father Thames, the river god, beckoned her to leap and join him in eternal sleep.
High above her head, on the east side of the massive clock dial, a winged figure perched upon the head of Plenty. He’d been watching the entire time, listening to the conversation, calculating the woman’s intent. Now that she sat completely alone, the spirit entity wrapped himself in human form and descended to the street.
“Why do you sit by yourself?” he asked, causing Ross to turn around. He stood tall and regal, dressed in elegant attire, and the silvery moonlight fell upon his perfect features, revealing ice-blue irises and long, raven hair.
“I’m not working tonight, sir,” Ross replied. “I hope you’re not looking for anyone just now.”
“I look only for you, Ida,” he answered gently. “May I sit?”
His voice bore a strange accent, yet it sounded familiar to Ross, although she could not fathom why. “Do I know you, sir?”
“In a way,” he told her, his voice entrancing and sweet as he sat beside her. “You are quite lonely, aren’t you, my dear?”
“Not really,” she insisted. “My memory’s not the best, sir. Not since my illness. How do I know you? Did we meet at the Empress?”
“No,” he answered, placing his warm cloak about her shoulders and touching her frozen hand. “We did not meet there. I’ve known you for a very long time, Ida. I’ve been watching you since you were a small child. That letter you asked Mr. Barnett to post; why didn’t you place it in the pillar box yourself?”
“How do you know about that?” she asked, finding her mind strangely fragmented.
“I know a great deal about your life, Ida. I know that you left home because your father molested you in the months after your mother died. You were only twelve years old when you arrived in London. A woman named Isabel Crighton took you off the streets, and she sold you to rich men. She taught you to perform degrading acts for them. Taught you to please them, and how to convince each of your maidenhood, selling you night after night as a perpetual virgin. Mrs. Crighton shared very little of her income with you. Isn’t that so? And when you could no longer convince the wealthy bankers and businessmen of your innocence, she tossed you back onto the streets, where you slept in overgrown graveyards and church doorways for almost two months before encountering the woman who would become your friend. Irene Winters. Little Irene who shared her food, her lodgings, and helped you to find employment; though not the respectable sort. It was she who introduced you to Margaret Hansen, wasn’t it? Hansen convinced you that whoring was your only skill—that it was the only way a solitary woman could survive the unforgiving streets of London.”
Ross’s head lowered in shame. “Yes, sir, but Irene was right. Whoring is all I know.”
He took her chin in his hand, tilting her face upwards. “Untrue. However, your entire life changed direction whilst there, did it not? Just one week after arriving at the Empress Hotel, you met two men who would forever alter your life. One would abuse you mercilessly for the next ten years. The other served as the solitary ray of hope in that nightmarish darkness: the handsome policeman with the beautiful smile and azure eyes.”
Her face went white. “How can you know that?”
“I told you; I know everything about you, Ida. I know that you are in love with this ray of hope, though you would never tell him. I also know that he cares about you as well. Charles Sinclair would be most upset if you do this.”
“If I do…what?” she asked, stunned.
“The river is very cold tonight,” he said. “Cold as the grave. Won’t you allow me to escort you to safety? The myth of the beautiful, drowned woman is only that: a myth. L’Inconnue de la Seine died hopeless and alone, despite her famed beauty. I also tried to stop her, but she refused my help. I hope you will not follow in that poor girl’s futile footsteps and pursue a watery grave, my dear Ida. Only poets profit from such an ignominious death.”
The dark waves licked hungrily against the dockside stairs, as if the ravenous river god awaited her decision. “Who are you? How do you know so much about me? About my thoughts?”
“I am your true friend,” he assured her, standing. “Take my hand, Ida Renée. Allow me to help you.”
Ross’s heart warned her to resist the beautiful man’s tempting smile, but the offer felt so welcome, so right, as if sent from heaven above. She had come to Billingsgate Dock to end her life, but the oppressing gloom and despair that haunted her thoughts suddenly felt lighter. Despite her doubt, she accepted the long, pale hand, and he drew Ida to her feet. Standing now beside him, Ross could see just how magnificently tall the man was, and that his regal bearing seemed strangely familiar—like something from a distant dream.
Ross smiled, her mind no longer fixed upon suicide. “Who are you, sir?” she asked.
“I shall tell you my name soon, Ida, but for now, just think of me as your guardian angel.” A crested brougham drawn by a pair of midnight black Friesians stopped in the lane that ran beside the Custom House, and he pointed towards it. “Come with me, Ida. I shall take you to safety and a new life.”
Ross allowed the enigmatic stranger to lift her into the interior of the sumptuous coach, and within seconds, the entire rig had disappeared into the dense fog.
As the coach departed, a second spirit creature landed upon the Custom House roof. Two small imps, their contorted limbs covered in rough scales, flanked the taller being. The gargoyles’ claws gripped the heads of the marble statues; leathery, bat-like wings folded against their curved spines.
“Do we eat now, my lord?” the taller imp snarled.
“Patience,” the Watcher replied. “All in good time.”
“Good? Time is not good! Time is a prison!” the second imp bit back; its black spittle dropping as frozen pellets upon the slate roof. “Why must we wait? Do you fear your brother?”
“I fear nothing!” the Watcher snapped, his eyes points of fire. “Nothing and no one. Our ultimate triumph draws ever nearer, but it requires that we free my other brethren.”
“All of them? That could take years, Lord Raziel! It is too long to wait. We hunger now, my lord. We crave sustenance!”
“As do I, Shishak,” the fallen angel replied, stroking the imp’s pointed ears. “The veins of this city’s humans pulse with a dark buffet of sweet delights. I do not think it would cause too many ripples if we enjoy a small taste.”
“A taste merely whets the appetite,” the younger complained. “If we must share this sweet buffet with your brethren, who then will be the first to emerge, my lord? Which merits such an honour?”
The Watcher smiled, his ice-blue eyes twinkling. “The foolish men of Redwing have uncovered the prison belonging to Saraqael, so he will be the first to join my army.”
“Did not Sara once aid in your imprisonment, Lord Raziel?” the elder enquired, his chameleon eyes twisting in all directions. “Why must he be freed at all?”
“Because I require all thirteen brethren, you fool! Do you know nothing of the old texts? However, once his usefulness is finished, I shall repay Sara for his treachery. I’ll repay all the traitors who bound me within that stone.”
The two imps gazed at one another, and the younger’s head tilted to one side. “Yours is the greatest power,” he declared with a low bow. “Since you speak of traitors, do you think Lord Samael has taken the woman for a reason, my lord?”
“Reason eludes my brother,” the Watcher answered with a sardonic smile. “Sama’s mind has turned to sentimentality, which makes him weak.”
“Then, might he be vulnerable, sir? Might he be easier to slay?”
The Watcher laughed. “Slay the slayer? A delightful thought, Globnick. Perhaps, we should follow him to see just why Samael has taken the woman. Summon your packs—both of you!—for we require many eyes to spy upon one so deviously powerful as Samael the Betrayer.”
Leaping with glee, the hideous gargoyles unfurled their wings and sounded their battle cries—squawking and squealing in high-pitched calls audible to few, save their loyal minions.
Below the slate roofline, Eddy Morrain, the younger of the two watchmen, had just left the west entry of the Custom House to relieve himself, when he heard animal cries rise up in the distance. A shiver ran through his rawboned frame, and Morrain felt certain he heard a kind of cruel laughter, ringing like an unwelcome, animal chorus against the city’s night sky. Hundreds of black rats rushed past, and a red fox ran across the lanky lad’s path, stopping to stare at him with eyes that looked eerily human; its sharp snout open as if to speak.
Suddenly, the voices of a thousand animals of all kinds rose up from every direction. The nocturnal chorale followed the retreating coach, and the Cerberean pack snapped at its turning wheels; the terrifying cacophony causing yellow gaslights in houses along the path to spring to life.
Hastily buttoning the fly of his woolen trousers, the young night watchman wanted only to return to the refuge of the Custom House, but a monstrous, inky shadow suddenly obscured the white face of the waning moon, and the air temperature dropped by ten degrees. Turning about, the youth could see something enormous leave the roof, the shadowy figure shaped like a gigantic man; but then it sprouted wings so wide that even the stars winked out momentarily.
As he raced back into the building, Morrain crossed himself, certain that he’d just seen Satan himself.
Not far from the Custom House, Maxwell ‘Stinky’ Tubbs, one of the city’s few remaining nightsoil men, guided his laden cart towards his next stop in the east, just the other side of Bishopsgate. He, too, saw the mammoth nightmare pass overhead, but Tubbs could also see the dense, supernatural pack that pursued the black brougham. This hellish mob rushed towards the coach and pair, eyes red as flame, and it seemed to Tubbs that the animals’ shaggy legs never touched the ground. But there was no mistaking what they were: Wolves. Enormous, grey wolves, some on all fours, some running upright like men, calling to one another in hideous, black speech.
Tubbs could hear their dark conversation. Even understand it, for something translated it inside his head:
Snarl! Claw! Rend and bite!
Satan rises on this night!
Blood and flesh and cracking bones;
Enter all their happy homes!
Destroy the world of men and then;
Our fallen world will rise again!
Crush the skull and bind the head;
And hail the king amongst the dead!
Far away, on a lower level hospital ward, beneath the streets of Hackney Wick, a desperate man writhed upon a narrow cot, his pointed ears twitching as he listened to his altered brethren sing the hideous rhyme.
The king amongst the dead, he thought to himself, as the remaining portion of his once human brain strained to recall the boy’s face. Five years old, he was. Tall, kind, with eyes of a unique, azure blue. He’d once called the boy his friend—or so the hybrid man believed.
Had the boy been there that day? The day when his father had died?
Now, why is it I keep remembering it? the man worried. I was there, all right. Standin’ alongside the other one. The cruel angel with the pistol smoking in his hands.
A beautiful woman had rushed out of the mansion at the sound of the gun’s report, and she’d bent low to hear the dying man’s last words. Then, she’d turned pale with fright and raced back towards the house to find the child.
But the boy was already there, standing upon the green. He’d seen it all. Watched his father shot down like a helpless rabbit upon the manicured lawn of his own home.
That was the name of it. Rose House!
Why does the story make me sad? the man wondered. His transformed mind struggled with the painful memories. Why should blood make him sad? Why should a child’s pain—his tears—make him so very sorrowful?
And where had he seen those same eyes since that day? He’d smelled the child only recently—on that other one. The hospital visitor. The old man with the white hair and top hat.
But I’m an old man, too, the patient thought, looking down at his leather-bound wrists and forearms. Their once papery skin used to hang upon the thinning bones like crepe upon a widow’s back, but not today. Not now. New, firm muscle and glorious hair rippled along the powerful limbs now!
But the boy. What of the boy? He’d seen those same, distinctive azure eyes here in London once. He felt certain of it. He’d seen them in the east…but where?
The boy was an adult now, and he’d worn a uniform.
That’s it! A uniform made of darkest blue with brass buttons, and a tall helmet sat upon his curling black hair, just above those unforgettable eyes of azure blue.
The king! the unbalanced hybrid thought wildly. My king! The boy king with the beautiful eyes and the perfect blood.
And he was crying.
Now, why does that make me sad?
Fury overwhelmed the man’s altered mind, and a hideous strength surged through his bound limbs. No, I’ll wait, he reasoned, the human part of his brain regaining control over the animal instinct. I’ll wait a little longer. Wait until HE calls me. The Other One. The nice angel. Perhaps, he’ll help the boy again. Allow me to help, too.
A tear ran down his cheek, and the hybrid creature began to weep great, anguished tears. “Forgive me, sir!” he whispered aloud. “Lord above, forgive me! If there is redemption for one such as myself, I beg you to reveal it!” he whimpered. “I don’t want to do these things anymore!”
Print Book Available at Amazon by Clicking Here:
- Series: The Redwing Saga
- Paperback: 488 pages
- Publisher: Rose Avenue Fiction; 1 edition (December 22, 2017)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0998096733
- ISBN-13: 978-0998096735
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
Kindle Version is Available at Amazon by Clicking Here
- File Size: 906 KB
- Print Length: 449 pages
- Publication Date: December 25, 2017
- Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC
- Language: English
- ASIN: B078HDTV2K