by Sarah Lam
Distant thunder resounded through the empty streets. Clouds as dark as onyx blanketed the sky, relentlessly hurling rain at the earth below. I leaned back into my chair and rubbed my temples. After all the effort it took to obtain this letter, it was utterly useless. Two months of being on this trafficking case and this was the first solid lead. Two weeks of tailing the courier before finally managing to intercept him. And then another hour of staring at this letter. A bolt of lightning briefly bathed my office in a ghostly white light before disappearing again.
I sighed and reached for a cigarette. My lighter ignited with a flash. I took a long drag and absent-mindedly tapped the cigarette over the letter. I immediately bolted upright. Brown-yellow streaks had appeared where the ash had landed. I tapped more ash onto the paper, closer this time. Those were no coffee stains. Those were letters.
It took me a few minutes to realise that it was the heat of the ash, not the ash itself, that produced this effect. With the help of my lighter, I managed to piece together the message.
18 WILSON AVENUE
11PM 6 JUNE
LUCIENNE IS COMING
Today was the 6th of June. My watch told me it was a little past three in the afternoon. Is this an invitation to some clandestine meeting? Is this address their base of operations? Who is Lucienne? There were too many questions and too much uncertainty. If I blindly showed up to the address, I could very well be walking into the lion’s den. I needed support and there was only one place in London I could go to, though I was fairly certain they wouldn’t want me back…
“You have twenty seconds to tell me why you’re back in my office before I kick you out.” Commissioner Powell didn’t even look up from his paperwork.
“I need five men.” I replied bluntly.
His eyes met mine slowly as he set his pen down. “Why?”
“I have a new lead. An address. I need men to help secure the place because I don’t know what’s there and I don’t have a lot of time.” I threw down the letter as proof. Powell ignored it.
“The answer is no, James. The door is behind you.” He gestured expectantly. I didn’t budge.
“Please, Powell, it’s the only-”
Suddenly, Powell got up, the legs of his chair scraping loudly against the wood floor. In three steps, his face was right in front of mine.
“I am not trusting a single one of my men to you. In fact, I don’t even know why you thought you could just waltz back here after what you did and just ask for help. You are a disgrace to the Yard and a disgrace to your country,” his voice dropped to a menacing whisper, “so get out of my office.”
I pursed my lips together. I hadn’t expected scones and tea on my return to the station but I hadn’t expected Powell to dismiss me so soon.
“Aldridge! Please escort Mr Crossley out before I give him a second dishonourable discharge.” He sneered.
“How dare you-!” I lunged forward but he sidestepped my grapple easily. A moment later, my arms were pinned to my side.
“James, I suggest you leave now to avoid making a scene.” Aldridge whispered in my ear, still holding my arms down. I grunted and let myself be pushed through the door.
I guess I’ll have to do this my way…
In the distance, Big Ben heralded the eleventh hour. I shifted around, trying to stop my legs from cramping. It was a frosty night and I had been staking out the place from the opposite roof for almost an hour. My earlier reconnaissance told me that there was only one entrance so surely… There was a flash from the second floor before darkness shrouded the building once again. Someone had lit a match. I immediately swung off the roof from the drainpipe, cursing as my foot landed in a moonlit puddle. No one had gone in through the front door so there was definitely a second entrance… But I had little time to consider this- if I wanted to crack this case, I needed to get inside.
I reached into my belt and pulled out a scroll of leather. Silver glinted in the moonlight as I pulled out a tension wrench and a narrow rake. The tools of my trade. In a few seconds, the lock clicked. I counted to five. Hearing nothing from the inside, I gently pushed the door open. A long, narrow corridor greeted me as I crept inside and shut the door. I could barely make out the silhouette of a wooden staircase at the end. Each step I took created a small cloud of dust. I began ascending the stairs, silently praying that none of the steps would creak.
I reached the top and let out a breath I didn’t realise I was holding. Warm yellow light spilled out from the gap between a door and the floor ahead.
“We must move the plan ahead! That infernal Steinbach has caught wind of our activities.”
“Impossible! He is bluffing, to trick us into moving too hastily!”
“Gentlemen, please. There is no need to raise your voices. We should wait for Lucienne’s report before making any decisions.”
I crept closer, hoping there would be a keyhole for me to peer through. There was none. I pressed my ear to the door instead.
“- that much is obvious. He has hired someone.”
“Crossley? The ex-copper?”
“Mhm. Ex-copper, ex-soldier and current detective.”
The mention of my name caused me to take a step back. No sooner had I done so, I felt something poke me in the back of the head. The unmistakable click of a pistol echoed through the empty space.
“So we finally meet, Detective Crossley.”