Traveling With The Dead



The house was an old one, inconspicuous for its size. Curiously so, thought Lydia Asher, when she stood at last on the front steps, craning her neck to look up at five stories of shut-faced dark facade. More curious still, given the obvious age of the place, was the plain half timbering discernible under centuries of discoloration and soot, the bull's eye glass of the unshuttered windows, the depth to which the centers of the stone steps had been worn. Lydia shivered and pulled closer about her the coat she'd borrowed from her cook-even the plainest from her own collection would have been hopelessly fashionable for these narrow, nameless courts and alleys that clustered behind the waterfront between Blackfriars Bridge and Southwark. He can't hurt me, she thought, and brought up her hand to her throat. Under the high neck of her plain wool waist she could feel the thick links of half a dozen silver chains against her skin. Can he?

It had taken her nearly an hour to find the court, which by some trick of chance had been left off all four modern maps of this part of London. The whole yard was adrift in fog the color of ashes, and at this hour-Lydia heard three o'clock strike in the black steeple of the crumbling pre-Wren church that backed the old house-even the little remaining light was bleeding away. She had passed the house three times before truly seeing it, and sensed that had the air been clear, it would somehow still have been difficult to look at the place.

She had the absurd impression that by night, lanterns or no lanterns, streetlamps or no street lamps, it would not be visible at all. There was a smell about it, too, distinct and terrifying, but impossible to place.

She stood for a long time at the foot of its steps.

He can't hurt me, she told herself again, and wondered if that were true.

Her heart was beating hard, and she noted clinically the cold in her extremities, in spite of fur lined leather gloves and two pairs of silk stockings under her dainty, high heeled boots. Stouter shoes would have somewhat alleviated the situation, always supposing stout shoes existed that did not make their wearer look like a washerwoman-if they did, Lydia had never seen them-but the panicky scald of adrenaline in her bloodstream informed her that the cold she felt was probably shock.

It was one thing to speculate about the physiology of the house's owner in the safety of her own study at Oxford, or with James close by and armed. It was evidently quite another to go up and knock on Don Simon Ysidro's front door.

Muffled by the fog, she heard the tock of hooves, the jingle of harness from Upper Thames Street, and the groaning hoot of the motorbuses. Another hoot, deeper, came from some ship on the river. The click of her heels on the dirty steps was the strike of a hammer, and her petticoat's rustle the rasp of a saw. For all the house's age, the lock on the door was relatively new, a heavy American pin lock oddly masked behind what must have been the original lock plate of Elizabeth 's time. It yielded readily enough to the skeleton keys she'd found at the back of her husband's handkerchief drawer. Her hands shook a little as she then operated the picklocks in the fashion he'd taught her, partly from the sheer fear of what she was doing, and partly because, law abiding and essentially orderly, she expected a member of the Metropolitan Police to appear behind her crying, 'Ere, now, wotcher at?

Absurd on the face of it, she thought. It was patently obvious that no representative of the law had set foot in this square in years. She pushed her thick lensed spectacles more firmly up onto the bridge of her nose- Not only breakin' the law, roared the imaginary policeman, but ugly and four- eyed to boot!-slipped the picklocks and skeleton keys back into her handbag, and stepped through the door. It wouldn't be full dark until five. She was perfectly safe. The hall itself was much darker than she had expected, with the wide oak doors on either side closed. Trimmed with a carved balustrade, generous steps ascended carpetless to blindness above. The passage beside them to the rear of the house was an open grave.

There was, of course, no lamp.

Mildly berating herself for not having foreseen that contingency-of course there wouldn't