The snow descended from the sky in dull grey flakes that seemed to Cleghorn half the size of playing cards. From his study, he watched the freezing precipitation fall into the royal park beyond the magnificent Georgian terraces. Ghastly. He bent down to refill his pipe.
As he looked up again, he was confronted by the sight of a winged creature staring directly at him through the glass. A pigeon, or a dove – white feathers? dove – having caused no more of a disturbance by its landing than did the snow falling around it, sat in a state of some agitation not twelve inches from his face.
It looked at him. Clasped around its head was a brass apparatus, affixed with tiny mirrors, and an opaque bulge around the back of the head. He perceived in its avian gaze an air of impatience, which struck him as all the more ungracious coming from a damn pigeon.
Very solemnly, it tapped its beak on the glass. Twice.
Not knowing what else to do, he opened the window. The bird sauntered over to him, and held its leg out.
Cleghorn removed the message tied carefully around the leg. The bird continued to look at him.
There was a silence.
Eventually, Cleghorn – rather tentatively – retrieved a piece of pie crust from the desk, where lay the remains of the evening’s meal, and placed it on the window ledge. The pigeon gave it an indifferent glance, then turned and flew away.
Closing the window, Cleghorn opened the furled missive. Queen’s Head, it said. Eight o’clock. Isabel.
Cleghorn swore furiously.
‘I didn’t know whether you’d show up.’ Miss Constance smiled coolly across the table.
‘I almost didn’t. What on earth, madam, possessed you to send your summons by pigeon?’
‘Telegraph simply isn’t safe. From me to you, through so many hands. Anyone could have their finger on the key.’
‘Pneumatic’s worse. Everything going through the central dispatch office. You might’ve heard from me by September?’
Dr Cleghorn exhaled. ‘I have an æthervox.’ She laughed at that.
‘What? And shout my message across the whole of London?’ She raised a delicate hand against his protestations. ‘In any case: here you are. And I’m sure you’re quite itching to hear what I have to tell you.’
Cleghorn took in Miss Constance’s expression – a mask of tranquillity concealing, he suspected, gathering delight at his confusion – and said nothing.
‘I believe,’ she continued, ‘we share a mutual acquaintance. Notre ami dans Paris.‘
‘I have a number of friends in Paris.’
‘Professor Belmont.’ Her mask slipped – was that a hint of seriousness? Cleghorn stared quite mute for a second.
‘Tell me what you know.’
‘Not here.’ She inclined her head toward the two dark-coated men Cleghorn had recognised on the way in. He glanced involuntarily, stupidly, in their direction, whispered, ‘Ministry?’
Cleghorn stood; taking care to avoid directing his gaze toward the Ministry men, he calmly crossed the bar and left via the front door. The sharp chill outside snatched his breath, and he cursed as he realised he’d left-
‘You left this.’ Miss Constance stood beside him, proffering his hat. He took it.
‘I’d rather walk.’ She turned sharply to the left and headed down the gaslit street; reluctantly, Cleghorn fell into step. Their boots crunched the snow underfoot as they hurried through the fog.
‘Are they following us?’ He tried to keep the tension out of his voice.
‘Hard to say. I’d imagine if we kept up a good pace, we might lose them.’
‘Do you know somewhere safe?’
‘Of course.’ She turned to the right, into a narrow street Cleghorn didn’t recognise, until they were halfway down and he was brought face to face with the familiar frontage of the Horse and Trap. Almost reflexively he started inside, feeling the warmth emanating from the tap room, before he felt Miss Constance’s grip on his arm, and he was impelled into the adjacent alleyway.
They waited there several seconds. Isabel risked glancing around the corner, and turned back to Cleghorn, mouthing all clear – before her eyes widened, and she stepped back, and Cleghorn saw her terror and felt the sheer weight of the presence behind him, the man in the shadows who’d been just hidden enough, and he turned around and saw the vast bulk of Mr Crank towering over him.
‘Allo, Alloysius,’ came the voice, rumbling up from somewhere deep inside. ‘You an’ me, are goin’ to ‘ave, a little, frien’ly, talk. In’t that right, Mr Gallowman?’
‘Your summation is adequate, Mr Crank, though perhaps a trifle euphemistic.’
‘I been learnin’ tact, Mr Gallowman.’
Isabel was gone.
‘Perhaps the learned doctor would like to accompany us into the back room of this reputable drinking establishment, where we might engage in a spirited confabulation on the business of the day? I should be particularly interested to hear the latest exploits of that excellent gentleman Professor Belmont.’
Cleghorn looked around helplessly for another way out of the alley. He saw none.
‘Or perhaps Mr Crank needs to provide some encouragement?’
Cleghorn’s world went black.
‘I fear your encouragement may have been somewhat premature in this instance, Mr Crank.’ Gallowman bent down. ‘Our notorious physician does still appear to be breathing, so that’s a mercy.’
‘I got bored waitin’.’
‘Then let us hope, for his own sake, that Doctor Cleghorn will not be so unwise as to bore you further.’