The sound of the sirens is what has stayed with me. I remember the explosions, the engines of the Messerschmitts, the screams of men trapped beneath the rubble. Of course I do. But it is the wail of the sirens that yet haunts my dreams, settles that same cold sickness in my gut, that same cold slickness on my palms. It is the banshee shriek of coming death.
The night was cold and clear when that sound prickled along my arms like so many icy fingers reaching out from behind the drapes.
Rowan stilled her hands at the typewriter and ripped the sheet from the machine, lest some unscrupulous eye should take advantage of her temporary absence. She snatched up a grey cardigan, a torch, and the requisite gas mask, and had nearly gotten to the door before she turned back to look at me. Her dark eyes were as empty as ever.
‘Are you coming?’ she asked as she stuck one arm into a cardigan sleeve.
‘I’ll follow later,’ I said. ‘I thought to take advantage of the chaos.’
‘Your job,’ she said flatly.
She did not ask about that job. She never had, and I knew that she never would, just as I never asked about the papers she snatched from the typewriter to lock away in her briefcase each night. We had a good arrangement, Rowan and I. It was the most congenial possible billet.
She nodded and disappeared into the darkness of the garden, her exit punctuated by a pungent whiff of cordite.
I, meanwhile, indulged in my own business. I laid down my book and donned my hat and coat, slipping over my shoulder the strap of my own gas mask in its canvas bag; court danger though I might, I had no wish for scorched lungs.
The streets of London were deadly dark at that hour, save for the lurid orange stain of fires blossoming on the sky to the East. The blackout gave me the cover I required. Beneath me, I knew, were a million quivering hearts, children clinging to mothers, husbands to wives. They waited to hear the thunder of German boots, but I am no German, and my boots are silent.
At first, I only wandered. Rowan thought my nocturnal perambulations to be in the service of His Majesty, and in a way, they were. I would be of little use to Britain without them. There were, however, aspects which even Rowan, inured as she was to the unsavoury, might find difficult to stomach.
My first of the evening was a tramp, a young man with one eye and a dead arm, perhaps recently returned from the front. My second was a lady of the evening, stinking of alcohol, stumbling through the streets in a vain search for shelter. I left her near a club where I knew there to be a cellar, if only she could sober enough to find it. They both lived. The purpose of my reactivation, of course, had been the preservation of the British people, and would be but poorly served were I to start picking them off one by one.
Restraint, though, brought with it problems of its own. There was a third, and a fourth and a fifth followed. Despite the warning wail of the sirens, the streets of London were never difficult to hunt during a raid.
The sixth and last was an older man, a father no doubt, and a man of some standing. His entrails glistened amid the rubble that had killed him, that was killing him even as I found him. Blood oozed from the wound to mingle with the remains of his home. I took what was left of him and left his shell for the flames and the fire brigade.
A tired roar filled the air as another house was engulfed at the end of the street, and the buzz of the engines began to retreat. They had taken long enough to drop their loads, spreading out the destruction over a good half hour. I suspected that this particular flight had been given no specific target and wondered how many we had managed to bring down.
I took a roundabout route back to the house and slid down into the Anderson where Rowan was sitting in the dark.
‘We could put a light down here,’ I told her, ‘and you could bring a book.’
She turned to face me, staring past me through the gloom, and her right arm relaxed. The muzzle of a revolver fell away to point at the floor.
‘We could,’ she admitted, ‘and you could bring a book. I prefer to listen.’ She pushed a hand through her cropped hair and pulled her cardigan more tightly around herself. ‘Someone came while you were gone. I heard the back door open and shut.’
‘Hence the gun?’
‘Hence the gun. I heard the door twice, so either they’re gone now, or there are two inside. Will you take forward or back?’
‘Forward, thanks. I’ll round the downstairs and then the up and corral them back down to you if there’s anyone inside.’
I unbuttoned my coat and drew a pistol of my own from an interior pocket, a compact American automatic I had once stolen from a corpse. Though I possessed other, more organic weapons, the weight of a pistol in my palm carried with it a certain gravity that made the act of killing all the more real. Additionally, it would be difficult to explain my natural weaponry to Rowan.
‘Professor,’ she said, ‘don’t get yourself killed.’ There was a strange note of humour in her voice that made me wonder once more why she never asked about my part in the war effort.
‘Good advice,’ I told her dryly as I stepped once more into the night. Smoke had mingled with the distinctive chemical odour of the incendiaries, borne by a light breeze from the east, and my throat at once began to sting. Rowan fell in at my back. The gentle click was deafening as she drew back the hammer of her revolver.
I crossed the garden quickly, ascended the step, and opened the door as silently as I was able. The ageing hinges defied me, though, and let go a soft protest. I froze, and I listened. There was no flurry of movement from inside, no harsh breath, no answering squeak of a cupboard or wardrobe that might indicate an adversary seeking cover. Still, the things that come after me are not always obvious about it.
I left Rowan outside and moved through the kitchen, through the empty dining room and into the sitting room. The front door was still locked from the inside, the key in my pocket and the bolt securely thrown. If anyone had come in through the back, they had not left through the front. Rowan’s typewriter was undisturbed, as was her case. The pile of the carpet had taken no prints, as far as I could see. I crept silently up the stairs, leading with my pistol close to my chest. No one had turned a light on, and no glow of a torch was visible. I checked my own room first – the wardrobe, beneath the desk, under the bed – then Rowan’s room and the WC. Nothing.
There was a lingering scent in the air, though. A man’s heavy cologne, one I did not recognise.
I checked behind the drapes, just in case. Still nothing. I almost found it hard to believe that the intruder had left; the smell was still so strong.
‘Rowan!’ I called. ‘It’s empty. There was someone here, though. Possibly a looter.’
She came up behind me so quickly, she must have been inside already. Her revolver was still at the ready; apparently, she did not trust my judgement.
‘It smells like a solicitor’s office,’ she commented. ‘You checked upstairs?’
‘Every hiding place?’
‘Did you notice anything missing?’
She looked up at me, and her lip curled in an almost imperceptible sneer. I smiled at getting a reaction out of her.
‘Turn on the bloody lights and look again. How in hell can you see anything in here, anyway?’ She stormed over to the light switch – or she would have, if the darkness had not compelled her to move gingerly, one arm outstretched lest she collide with the wall. A moment later, the electrics flooded the room with their yellow glare.
I squinted and returned my gun to its holster, removing my spectacles to polish them on a kerchief drawn from my pocket. So it was that I was momentarily blind when I heard Rowan’s grunt of surprise.
‘Must be convenient,’ she said cryptically. Something rustled, and her blurred form held out a blurrier form in my direction. ‘It’s for you.’
I hastily returned my glasses to the bridge of my nose and found a large envelope in my face, its flap securely tied and its front indeed bearing my name in unremarkable block letters. One glance told me that fingerprinting it would be useless, and the overpowering reek of the cologne masked any more recognisable trace scent. Clever.
‘It was in your chair,’ she said as I took the envelope from her hand, ‘sitting on top of your book. Don’t open it inside.’
I am sure that I probably rolled my eyes at her. She shrugged, scratched at the back of her head, and went upstairs, leading with her revolver. I had known since we first met that she was paranoid, but she was also still alive, so she must have been doing something right.
The envelope was bulky, but its surface was free of suspicious lumps, and it bent easily in my hand. Only paper, then. It occurred to me, though, that while my mysterious gift might not be explosive, it could easily be accompanied by something equally as unpleasant. A pathogen, perhaps, or some toxin. I donned gloves and took it to the kitchen to open it over the basin.
A thick stack of papers slid out into my hand, and at the top was a folded note addressed to me in a hand I did recognise. A subtle, slimy sort of feeling settled in my stomach as I understood what had been delivered.
‘New courier, gentlemen?’ I asked under my breath. ‘I think I liked the old one better.’ The old one, at least, had the decency to deliver these things to the door or leave them with the regular post. It was dangerous, perhaps, risking the packages being found, but it seemed less dangerous than sending messengers sneaking through the smoke of a raid. I unfolded the note, neglecting to remove my gloves, and read:
We regret that your services will once more be required to safeguard the security of our home front. Please find enclosed all relevant data. Unfortunately, those data have been scarce; this case falls undoubtedly more under your expertise than ours, and as a result, we are unable to provide information to the same extent as in the past. Due to the unusual nature of the assignment, your regular compensation will be tripled. Additionally, arrangements have been made for your travel north for this holiday season, barring unforeseen circumstances. As always, all of our resources are at your disposal.
From the open back door, the sound of the all-clear raised gooseflesh on my arms. I shut the door and locked it. Then I moved the note to the bottom of the stack, shook the envelope for any stray papers, and migrated back to my room, brushing past Rowan as she descended the stairs, her revolver concealed once more.
‘Good,’ she remarked in passing. ‘I’m glad it didn’t kill you.’
I ignored her and retreated behind a closed door, locking myself in before I spread out my materiel on the desk. There were perhaps forty pages of carbon paper typescript and a small bundle of glossy photographs beneath that. In slightly crooked letters, the header proclaimed:
NAME: Signe, surname unknown. DIRECTIVE: eliminate