Idressed down for my visit to Vernon’s base near the docks. My oldest coat, a battered wide brimmed hat, a moth eaten checked scarf, a long knife in my outside coat pocket. Underneath the coat a jacket with thin, hardened steel, plates sewn inside it, a prudent precaution even in normal times in that part of town. Clouds were gathering as I set off, the sun making a halo around their livid masses. By the time I had walked down the hill and started to think about my way down into the Old City the streets were emptying as rain swept across the cobbles.
The Old City is partly buried under the New Town. Its streets are deep trenches, twisted, blast defeating alleys. Narrow, grid-covered openings to the sky at the apex of the alleys let light and air down to the warren of shops and apartments built into the faces of the streets. These underground streets had survived two prolonged and brutal sieges during the second civil war, hand to hand street fighting and thousands of mortars raining down on them. With the threat of war receding in the thirties people began to live above ground again and the New Town had grown, building over the old, still within its outer fortifications. The two are connected by the original access points laid out by Hamilton at the turn of the century but also by hundreds of private stairways in the basements of the houses built above. Physically linked but worlds apart.
A lot of the grand houses in areas like Goldsmiths’ are built over their owners’ original homes in the Old City, making a bomb proof basement. In these areas the streets underground are mostly blocked off darkened alleys, with the windows and doorways filled in. In other parts the Old City is still very much alive, out of sight and out of mind.
Cheap, dirty, noisy, vivid and violent it is a different world to the one above. Some parts are Bohemian. Some parts are slums, shorn of any but the hardest law, anarchic and squalid places where dignity is in very short supply. The area around the docks is such a place. It was practically destroyed by three months of street fighting in the last siege and hurriedly repaired in the immediate aftermath. It was officially abandoned as the new dock area took shape in the peace. Officially the Old City stops before the docks.
Vernon had chosen an apartment a little way back from the slums in St Mark’s, a cheap and shabby area on the edge of the red light district. A working poor area, lots of people coming and going. I made my way to one of the main public access ramps, joining the throng spiralling down forty feet or so beneath the earth to street level. The sparse orange artificial light on the ramp made people look ill or old. Jostled together the smells were obvious, wet wool, tobacco, cheap perfume, sweat. The harsh crack of boots on the stone of the street sounded like an army on the march.
At street level the storm had made it gloomier than usual, shop windows stood out, the overhead lighting seemed brighter. Rain poured through the grills in the roof in a hard, thin, curtain from a purple sky. It was busy with people going home, ducking as they crossed the road through the sheet of water. A small open fronted food stall in the wall opposite me filled the air with the smell of hot fat, spices and vinegar. I turned right and headed toward Vernon’s flat. I wanted a good look around the area before I entered.
Shops and houses rose three storeys either side here and turned in sharp, defensible double corners every thirty yards or so. The walls were a rough split stone. Narrow iron gangways overhung the street, fire escapes for the upper apartments. Washing hung from them. More dangled on pulley lines stretched across the street.
I dodged a handcart full of vegetables wheeled by two small, wiry, men in oiled canvas coats, obviously father and son. Rain bounced off the brim of my hat. The gutter in the middle of the road ran swiftly, little scraps of paper and dead leaves raced and whirled down the river.
Side alleys branched alternately left and right, only one alley joined each straight section, at the middle to make a block. Some of the alleys were full-sized streets like the one I was on, others just simple tunnels to give access to the houses. To the right the alleys were dimly lit by orange streetlights. To the left the alleys ran up to the edge of the red light district which showed itself in distant gaudy neon and dark doorways. Late afternoon and that part of town was just waking up. Steam billowed out in a cloud in front of me as a woman, bent double under a huge bag of wet clothes, left a laundry. Through the misted window I could see the outlines of other women and a few men piling clothes into the machines, standing chatting, wringing out sheets. Splashing through the puddles in the uneven pavement I carried on. The shops thinned out and the street became gloomily residential, dark with closed and shuttered windows.
Vernon had picked a tiny top floor apartment in the middle of a row, a pair of windows looked out onto the street. I milled along with the sparse crowd past the front side of the block. There was no pub or other place for a watcher to sit discreetly. All the figures in the street were moving, going about their business. People here moved differently to the world above, slope shouldered, with the shambling gait of premature ageing. I checked the knife in my pocket as I turned into the next alley on the left to circle back to the entrance to the block. It was narrow and low, the overhead lights widely spaced, reflected in muddy puddles. Nothing moved. The sounds of the main street seemed suddenly distant. My rubber soled boots squeaked slightly on the stones. I looked carefully into each dark doorway. Peeling paint flaked away in the gloom. Bare wood showed grey underneath. The remains of old posters, advertisements for the delights of the area and protest bills spattered the wall near the far end. On the corner the outer door of a brothel, covered in badly painted steel plates, was slid back. Behind the inner door, bright scarlet, with a half-height window in leaded patterns of coloured glass, the bulk of a minder was framed by the low light. I could read the establishment’s name reflected in a muddy pool by the step.
Left again. The back of the block was a series of hole-in-the-wall bars, none of them open yet. Opposite a small music hall promised variety. It too was closed. No window looked straight down the alley to my destination. I turned left again back round the block into another low roofed rat run. The entrance to Vernon’s block would be on the left hand side. No one lurked in the entrance to the back of the bars. Silence. Outlines of people flitted across the opening to the main street. I found the common front door, the address “47 A-R”, painted on the wall.
Entering I found a hall with six doors and a narrow staircase. A line of bins stood underneath the stairs. The stairwell smelled of rubbish, the shared bathroom and old cooking. I could hear a child yelling in one of the flats at the far end. A rumble of voices made it through the meagre front door of the nearest flat. I climbed the first flight, every tread squeaked. My steps sounded loud and hollow as I doubled back past the doors on the first floor. Loud creaking and moans came from the last room at the foot of the stairs. The upper landing was deserted, apartment 47P, silent. With a final shriek the creaking from downstairs ceased.
A simple lock. I slid a thin palette knife along the door jamb, pushed back the bolt and opened the door. I drew my knife and stepped slowly over the threshold. A tiny bare-boarded hall. Empty. Open doors, one on the right led off to a bedroom, just big enough for a double bed, a second to a smaller bedroom on the left. Ahead a half-open door gave onto a living room. As quietly as I could I edged toward it. There was no one there. It was getting darker every moment. If I didn’t want to chance a light on in the room then I would have to work fast.
Closing the front door I surveyed the scene. It was a complete shambles. A sideboard stood with its doors sagging forlornly. The food, plates and glasses it had contained were tossed in a corner. A kettle lay on its side next to the stove. Furniture had been tipped over and thrown to one side of the room, all the baggy old cushions slashed, rag stuffing everywhere. A cheap Bible lay in the mess, half its pages torn out, the front cover hanging on by a few threads.
A door banged shut somewhere below, heavy steps descended the stairs. The walls were paper thin on all sides except the thick front wall facing the street. I examined the windowsills carefully, keeping my head down and away from the window. They were solid and normal, no hatches or trapdoors. The floor was bare boards; a threadbare rug had been hauled aside by the intruders. No sign of a loose board. I stiffened at the sound of steps coming up the stairs. They stopped on the floor below. A door opened to a knock and closed.
There would be space in the roof, beams supporting the earth above. I looked up at the plaster. It was surprisingly sound, one long crack ran corner to corner but there were no continuous cracks that could join to make an entrance to a hidey hole.
The larger bedroom was dark. I closed the door to the living room and tried the light. Vernon must have left money in the meter. A weak glow filled the dingy room. Bits of the mattress covered the floor. An iron bed frame filled most of the floor space. A few clothes that had been hanging on a rope along the wall had been shredded and left by the door.
At one time a child had lived in the smaller bedroom. Someone had stuck pictures from a comic or an old children’s book over part of the wall next to the bed. They had been well pasted on and although some were a little yellowed they tried valiantly to brighten this grubby little room. A fat cartoon owl. A tiny picture of a piglet. In the middle a large, bright pink, elephant sat grinning inanely in pride of place. An elephant. The Elephant? I looked closely at the picture. Like the others it was well glued down all round. Carefully I cut around the edge of the picture. Behind it a shallow hole had been hacked into the plaster of the wall. In the hole was an envelope. It contained a short handwritten note and a folded card, like a slim passport, in black textured cardboard. Its outside had a leopard print pattern in gloss and matte finishes. Inside was embossed a beautifully drawn angel, wings spread, wrapped around it the legend ‘Seraph, admission to Heaven.’ In small, neat, silver script at the bottom, ‘Masks obligatory. Evening wear only. Etiquette to be observed at all times.’ The paper, torn from a notebook, said simply, ‘Third Saturday of the month. Fifty guineas entry. Only coin acceptable. Five hundred minimum needed. 7pm onward. Lotus House, Grand Crescent. Watch the waiter.’
I stared at this out of place bit of fluff. Fifty guineas would be more than many here would earn in a month. The card itself had cost a small fortune to print. How had it got here? The third Saturday of the month was just gone. I pocketed the prizes. A buzzing noise came from the living room, then a click and the lights went out. I turned toward the door fast, knife out, heart thumping. Then realised it was the meter cutting out. I left quickly. The creaking had started again in the first floor flat. Someone further along was cooking, pans rattling. The child on the ground floor was still wailing as I closed the outer door.
I left the Old City as cautiously as I had come. I went back up the quiet alley towards the music hall, at the end I turned and then stepped back against the wall out of the stream of people. I waited thirty seconds; no one emerged from the alley. Someone began opening the shutters on the theatre. I worked my way around the edge of the red light district, then further back into the Old City, stopping, looking in windows, trying to see if anyone had followed me. Eventually I made it to a bar I knew, that had its own stairs up to the surface. I went in, through the bar to the toilets, past them through a staff door and quickly up the iron stairs at the back. At the top I waited. No one came.
I pulled my hat down over my face and pulled up my scarf against the pelting rain and splashed back across town. A small detour up the hill took me along Grand Crescent. This was a set of newly built, expensive and imposing, town mansions. New money. A hell of a lot of it. Lotus House was one of the biggest and ugliest. Slightly set back, the front garden had been landscaped to shield the front door, the gates were firmly closed. I didn’t stop but fought my way into the rising wind and rain and the gathering gloom of the night.
More coming next week. Extract from ‘Renaissance’ an adventure thriller by Jeremiah Hope. Copyright Jeremiah Hope 2019.