“’Angel of Death stalks London... Strikes at random... day or night... no one safe..’ Oh dear, I suspect this might cause a little panic.”
“Put down that rag, Eddie. We need to plan our next steps,” said Hemlock. She stood, gazing out of the window, her arms folded around herself as if she was cold. The visit from her ‘Uncle Jack’ had left her distant and despondent.
I ‘hmphed’, but folded the morning paper and placed it on the dining table. Mrs Figgins appeared with plates of steaming eggs, toast and still-sizzling bacon. I prepared to tuck in. She brought the jams and honey to the table along with the appropriate spoons.
“Oh, no honey this morning please, Mrs Figgins.”
“Um, no. I’ve quite gone off it.”
Mrs Figgins looked concerned. “Not coming down with something I hope, Master Whitlow?”
“Nothing like that, Mrs Figgins.”
The portly landlady smiled and poured the tea.
Hemlock left her place by the window and sat opposite me at the table. Mrs Figgins poured her a cup of tea as well.
“Angel of death, honestly,” Hemlock muttered as she buttered her toast.
“Oh a most horrid thing, Miss Jones!” Exclaimed Mrs Figgins. “I have heard tales from all over London of this dark angel appearing and killing people. Some say it’s the end of days.”
“What rot!” Hemlock said loudly. She took a deep breath and smiled at the landlady. “It’s not Judgement Day. It’s not even an angel.”
“Oh, I’m quite in agreement with you, Miss Jones. However, murders without explanation and strange apparitions walking the streets of London do fire the imagination, and not in a good way. I suspect we will see a great deal of superstitious panic and a swelling of congregations throughout the churches of London. After all, they say the Angel of Death walks through walls and has great black wings by all accounts. Witnesses have seen it all over the city, killing people, striking down the sinful.”
I looked up from my bacon and eggs. “I hadn’t thought you the religious type, Mrs Figgins.”
“I’m not, but if the Lord's angels are walking the streets of London and killing sinners, would you blame a woman for seeking the safety of the Lord?”
I wasn’t sure how to proceed. I am a man who would not discount the existence of God out-of-hand, but my senses told me that Hemlock’s utter certainty that this angel did not – could not – exist was well-founded and if someone as level-headed as Miss Figgins was worried, then I dreaded to think what the more unbalanced members of society might do.
Hemlock sighed. “Mrs Figgins, I promise you that I will reveal the truth behind this Angel of Death before the city descends in to complete religious panic.”
Mrs Figgins continued to look worried, but did her best to smile. She patted Hemlock gently. “I have every faith in you, Miss Jones. Nevertheless, I would certainly feel safer visiting a church. Mr Figgins, God rest his soul, would have ushered us both to the nearest priest without delay. It simply… well, it feels like the right thing to do in these uncertain times.”
As Mrs Figgins left and we heard the door shut downstairs, Hemlock pushed her plate away. “Ugh! Infuriating!”
“Hemlock, calm down. Faith is a powerful thing. Don’t you believe in God?”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Well, the angel...”
“Oh please, this angel has nothing to do with God. It’s a trick. We know that already.”
“Yes, Eddie, we do. The paper, the theatre… Keep up!”
“So, explain it then.”
Hemlock’s look was somewhere between murderous and frustrated. “Not yet. I have most of the pieces, but not all of them. But we’ll get to the bottom of this. We know who has been murdered and how. We need to work out why and by whom.”
“Hemlock, we have precisely no leads. Nothing.”
“Nonsense. We have the fact that Molly Dudgen worked for Mr Lively, who we are reasonably certain, is or was a fierce rival of the deceased Professor Bantam. And of course there’s the modus operandi. The allergic reactions. And that card with the odd gold logo on it from the Fern restaurant.”
“That doesn’t help us know where to look next.”
“Unless what?” I asked.
“Unless something was stolen from the Bantams’ house as well!” She looked at me triumphantly. “After all, something was clearly missing from the mantelpiece in the Lively house.”
“Hemlock... what are you suggesting?”
“Exploration, Eddie. What was it I said before? We must away?”
I nodded. “Something along those lines, yes. Exploration sounds a lot like breaking the law. Again.”
“Don’t be so scared, Eddie,” she raised her arm, one finger pointing to the sky. “We must away!” She sounded more like herself again, as if she had taken the memories that Doctor Merryweather’s visit had stirred up, and stuffed them in to a dark recess in her mind, behind a locked door. I confess I was relieved to have the ‘normal’ Hemlock back. Though not particularly relieved to hear her ridiculous attempt at a catchphrase.
I sighed. “Fine, but I’m taking the bacon,” I said, gathering the crispy strips into my handkerchief.
The doorbell rang. Hemlock was already moving so I left her to answer it and returned to my breakfast. A short while later, she returned, carrying two large packages covered in brown paper and tied with string.
“You look like a cow chewing the cud, Eddie,” she said, walking past me.
I swallowed my mouthful. “A thoughtful and intelligent cow, though. And one whose appetite is being sated by bacon.”
“Over a week early for Christmas,” I said, taking one box from Hemlock and balancing it on the corner of the desk, avoiding the inner workings of the clockwork soldier still strewn all over. I turned to Hemlock. “It’s not your birthday is it?”
She ignored me, swinging the other box up on to the table with one hand. She quickly examined the box, checking each side and underneath before finally reading the label aloud.
“To Master Edward Whitlow, 211B Baker Street.”
“It’s for me?”
“Apparently. What about that one?” Hemlock indicated the other package.
I turned over the label. “It just says, ‘Hemlock’.”
I watched one of her eyebrows rise. “How informal.”
“I would have said ominous,” I replied.
Hemlock waved her hand as if brushing away a cobweb. “Let me have another look at them, then I think we should open them.”
She opened a drawer and removed a magnifying glass. She peered at the brown paper and the string. Ran her hands over the folds and spent some time scrutinising the label.
“Hmm. It’s all very nondescript. Paper and string could have been bought anywhere, the handwriting is neat but doesn’t provide any obvious clues as to the identity of the writer. Very suspicious indeed.”
“Perhaps,” I licked my lips nervously. “Perhaps we shouldn’t open them? Maybe call Inspector Trelawny? These could be warnings from the killer. Or worse.”
“Indeed they could be. There’s nothing else for it. Open your package.”
“No! What? No! Why me?”
“Because, Eddie, I will be studying and examining. I can’t very well do that and open a package, can I.”
I was dubious, but Hemlock gestured impatiently. “Get on with it then. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
I sighed and reached for my package. Hemlock’s arm shot out, a pair of gloves in one hand. She waggled them before my face.
Swallowing hard, I took the gloves and tugged them on. I grasped one end of the string and pulled.
The knot fell apart, the string unravelling and sliding away from the brown paper with a rough hiss. I unfolded the brown paper to reveal a plain cardboard box.
I glanced at Hemlock, but she was staring intently at the box, as if by sheer force of will she could see inside. She gestured with her fingers, as if to say ‘come on then, Eddie, get on with it.’
I opened the box, flinching away and squeezing my eyes shut.
I opened my eyes a fraction to peer inside the box.
The box was filled with torn up paper, acting as cushioning for a small case of some kind. It was hard, like boiled leather, with a small metal clasp on one side and hinges on the other.
Reaching in, I pulled out the small case and undid the clasp. I glanced at Hemlock. She nodded once. I took a deep breath and muttered a quick prayer to anyone that might be listening and braced for my imminent death.
I wrenched open the case, almost shouting my defiance in the face of some sort of explosion.
I didn’t explode. No flames or acid erupted from the small case. Rather, the contents of the case lay there, quite inert.
“My spectacles!” I exclaimed.
“Unexpected,” Hemlock murmured. “But not entirely.”
I removed my spectacles from their new case. A small note was folded up with the cleaning cloth. As I held the glasses up to the light to inspect them and gingerly placed them on my nose (I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I was still reasonably sure that this was all a trap), Hemlock read the note.
“Master Whitlow – I believe you dropped these. I have taken the liberty of having them repaired. N.”
“Oh. Enn,” I replied. “Who is Enn?”
“As in the letter, Eddie. N. It’s clearly an initial for something.”
“His name perhaps? Neville? Nathaniel?”
Hemlock shook her head. “No, that’s too easy. Think about it, Edward. This ‘N’ must be the man from the theatre, the same 'N' who painted his initial on the clockwork soldier. He found your glasses and, somehow, knew who you were. He then repaired them and sent them to you. It’s as much a warning as anything. He’s saying ‘I saw you. I know you. I know all about you.’ He’s setting himself up as...” She looked at me through my newly repaired glasses. “As our Nemesis. N is for Nemesis.”
I shivered despite myself. “That’s really very ominous reasoning given currently the only thing this person is guilty of is returning my glasses. And fixing them to boot.”
Hemlock snorted. “But how did he know where to send them? He knows your name, Edward. And where you’re living. Isn’t that even the slightest bit unnerving?”
“Well, when you put it like that...” I removed the glasses and put them back in their case, removed the gloves and handed them to Hemlock. She tugged them on and we turned our attention to her package.
“I didn’t drop anything that I’m aware of, so I wonder what our mysterious ‘N’ has in store for me.”
She moved the box, turning it until she was happy with its position on the table. She tugged on the twine bow and the string fell away.
The box exploded outwards.
I fell backwards, my cry of shock mirroring Hemlock’s own as the cardboard burst apart, flying in all directions, while torn up packing paper filled the air like a blizzard.
Something erupted from the box. Something with lots of legs and too many joints and strange coloured fur.
“Spider!” Hemlock shrieked as she back-pedalled.
“Good God!” I cried out as I fell backwards over the arm of a chair. I sat up as best I could to see the huge arachnid monstrosity launching itself through the air towards Hemlock. It was as big as both my hands spread out. And it chittered and whirred as it flew.
Hemlock ducked and the spider landed on the windowsill with a heavy clunk. It turned on the spot in that unpleasant, alien way that spiders do, each leg rising and falling to as it rotated. It was black and hairy, with red and yellow bands on its legs and some strange pattern on its back. It raised its front legs and hissed, revealing unfathomably large fangs. I reached for a cushion.
“Eddie,” Hemlock said quietly, never taking her eyes from the creature. “Pass me the poker.”
I continued to stare at the spider as I reached to one side and groped for a poker.
As if it knew what I was doing, the spider suddenly launched itself in my direction. I held up the cushion and felt the weight of the creature as it collided with my makeshift shield.
I cried out in terror, feeling the cold limbs scrabbling around the cushion and clawing at my hands.
“Help!” I shouted, trying to push myself back and away from the spider, but succeeding only in tipping the armchair back.
The chair overbalanced and, with a cry of terror, I fell on to my back.
I frantically moved the cushion over my face, shaking it and pushing it away from me to keep the spider’s massive fangs from reaching me.
“Throw it,” Hemlock barked.
I did, slinging the small pillow across the room. It landed against the door and the spider crawled to sit on top it, clicking and hissing.
“Eddie, the poker. Now,” Hemlock said quietly.
Unable to tear my eyes from the spider, I reached behind me. I wrapped my hands around the metallic handle of something and slowly offered it to Hemlock’s outstretched hand.
She took the coal shovel and readied it, realised it wasn’t a poker and instinctively turned in my direction, drawing breath to admonish my stupidity.
The spider leapt again, legs wide apart, as if meaning to wrap itself around Hemlock’s head.
Hemlock swung the shovel with all her might.
The coal shovel connected solidly with the spider with a loud metallic clang, sending the creature careening into a wall with a disturbing crunching noise, before it plummeted to the carpet.
“Bravo!” I cried as I rolled out of the chair and on to my feet. “W G Grace would be proud! What a stroke!” I edged to stand next to Hemlock, struggling to catch my breath as I stared at the spider. It lay, twitching, on the floor.
Hemlock turned and held out the shovel for me to take. “Does this look like a poker, Edward?”