The boarded-up door closed behind us with an ominous finality and we were left in blackness. A mustiness pervaded the still air inside. The floor was solid beneath my feet, perhaps marble, but something, a layer of dust and dirt, muffled my steps. There was a bitter, acrid taste in my mouth and, with each step, I could feel something coating the inside of my nose.
“Hemlock?” I whispered.
“Hang on,” came a hushed reply from one side.
I waited. There was a faint rustling sound. Then, with a rasp, a match burst into flame. Hemlock’s face glowed orange in its light. There was more rustling as she put the match flame to the wick of a small candle in a miniature version of a storm lantern.
“Where do you keep that?”
“In a pocket. Now, follow me.” Hemlock moved the metal shutters on the storm lantern so that the light only shone forward and walked to the doors to the auditorium of the theatre. The doors were little more than wooden frames, warped and blackened. Broken glass crunched underfoot.
“What kind of wood is that?” I whispered.
Hemlock ran a finger over the wood that once held the glass we stood on. It came away grubby. “Oak, I think. Hard to tell; there was a fire.” She pushed on one of the doors. It moved loosely and noiselessly. “Surprisingly well oiled for an abandoned, burnt-out building.”
I followed Hemlock through the doorway, careful to gently guide the door to a rest behind me. Turning around, I saw that she had widened the beam of her small lantern to illuminate as much of the theatre as possible.
Fire had ravaged what had clearly once been an impressive building. The fabric and padding of the chairs had burnt away, leaving them little more than skeletons, lined up row upon row.
The floor between the seats and in the aisles, where the carpet hadn’t fed the fires, was soot-covered, the original colour lost to the same blackness that covered everything else. The balcony above was charred and I moved swiftly from underneath it, feeling that the whole thing was ready to collapse at any moment. Near the domed and vaulted ceiling I could just make out a chandelier hanging limply.
“I don’t like that,” I muttered.
Unsurprisingly, the stage dominated the room; a huge space that swallowed one end of the theatre. The tattered remains of heavy, velvet curtains clung to the sides. The stage itself had nothing on it; no stage backgrounds or props. It looked like a giant, charcoal-black maw. The size and emptiness of the place gave me a most uncomfortable sensation.
Hemlock moved slowly down the aisle, shining her little candle-lantern this way and that, then stooping down and walking bent over, examining the floor.
I followed, not too closely and, sure enough, without warning, Hemlock halted.
“Careful, but not quite careful enough,” she said.
“What is it?”
“A footprint. Or part of one. I suspect whoever has been frequenting this building has been trying to walk without getting his shoes covered in soot. “There are lots of other prints here, but they’re older. Made when the carpets were wet with water and then left to dry. And there are these big, flat patches. I’m not certain what they are. But, just here,” she said, pointing, “you can see a shoe has scuffed the carpet. It’s newer.”
I peered at the floor. Hemlock’s candle illuminated a small circle of carpet. It was black. That was the sum total of information I could derive.
Hemlock jabbed her finger down. “There, Eddie.”
I squinted a little, tilted my head to one side. And there it was. Incredibly difficult to make out, but the soot on one bit of the carpet seemed, well, squished. It appeared slightly ‘off’ in the light. Like grass that has been pressed down by a body.
“Oh yes! Is it recent?” I asked.
“It was made after the fire, and the padlock outside hasn’t been there long enough to be weathered. I would say someone has been here very recently.”
“The question is,” I began.
“Who,” Hemlock finished. “Precisely. And why here?”
“I was just about to say that.”
Hemlock smiled. “You’re finally starting to think like a demystifier, Eddie. About time, too.”
“But, what’s the answer?”
“That is what we need to find out. I suspect the answers lie somewhere behind the stage.”
I looked at the stage again. It was dark and empty. My dubious expression must have been plain to see as Hemlock patted my shoulder. “There’s nowhere else to hide something, and there’s no reason to be in a burnt out theatre except to hide something.”
I couldn’t argue.
“Well,” I said. “We’re already trespassing. Might as well do it properly.”
“That’s the spirit! Now, watch where you walk. We don’t want to make it too obvious that anyone else has been wandering around. Stick to the edges.”
We made our way down the aisle in a wide-legged waddle, Hemlock’s lantern throwing light in all directions as it swung to and fro.
As we approached the stage, I couldn’t help but feel that there was something odd about it. It was altogether too empty.
The theatre was silent. Dust and ash drifted down, moved by an imperceptible breeze above us. The rustle of our clothing was the only sound to disturb the air. The lamp the only light to break the blackness.
Hemlock stopped and cocked an ear towards the door.
“What is –” I began, but she silenced me with a raised finger. She drew the lantern up to her face, opened one of the shutter doors and blew out the candle. We were plunged into darkness.
I drew breath to complain, but Hemlock’s hand clamped down over my mouth. She whispered in my ear. I can’t recall exactly what was said, as I was a little distracted by the feeling of her lips tickling my skin as she spoke, but it was something along the lines of, “There’s someone here.”
My heart thudded once, loudly and forcefully. I pulled Hemlock’s hand from my mouth and allowed myself a couple of panicked gasps.
Hemlock kept hold of my hand and dragged me along a row of chairs. For once, I couldn’t hear her unladylike boots clumping. She was amazingly quiet. In contrast, I felt that my clothes were rubbing and scratching at a thunderous volume.
We reached the end of the row and I felt Hemlock’s hand lead me down. I crouched behind a collection of burnt springs and metal that had once been a chair, and strained my ears to listen.
I didn’t have to try very hard. Someone was speaking from what I assumed to be the atrium. The voice was male, but young-sounding, which might seem ridiculous but a young man’s voice is quite distinct from that of an older man. Light shone through the broken inner doors as one of them swung open. He walked in, carrying an odd lantern.
The light flashed around the chamber. It was strange, cold and focused. Not at all like the warm light of a candle or gas lamp. An occasional crackle emanated from the lantern as this newcomer walked down the aisle towards the stage.
Behind him was a much larger figure. I presumed it to be a man, though giant would have been a better description. The light blinded me somewhat and I found it hard to make out details.
“Fascinating,” breathed Hemlock beside me.
The smaller of the two paused and I ducked lower behind our makeshift cover. I heard him sniff once, before continuing up the steps on one side of the stage.
At the top of these steps, he spoke again. The sheer size of his companion, who had not yet set foot upon the stage steps, was clearly evident. The smaller man was now able to look his companion in the eye. This time, his voice carried clearly to us. He sounded young, in his teenage years perhaps, but well spoken. There was also something cold and cruel in the tone.
“We are very close, Cain. The machine works, and our investors have promised me everything I need to make an army. Before long, all of London will be under our control! Do you understand?” He paused here, but if a response was issued, I didn’t hear it. “No, of course you don’t. Never mind. I never intended for you to provide me with wit and conversation. Come, we have much work still to do!”
The smaller man – boy? – turned back and stepped on to the stage. His companion lumbered slowly and heavily behind him. He made odd noises: each breath was rasping, one of his boots squeaked. The wood groaned under his weight.
As the large man finally reached the top of the steps, the young man took two or three paces towards the back of the stage.
He disappeared and, with him, the light.