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«The body at the Tower», Y. Lee

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Prologue

Midnight, 30 June 1859 St Stephen's Tower, Palace of Westminster

 

A sobbing man huddles on a narrow ledge, clawing at his eyes to shield them from the horror far below. It is dark, thus his terror is irrational; even if he wanted to, he could not make out what he's done, let alone note the gruesome details. Still, his mind's eye insists on the scene: gory, explicit, final. Imagination, not remorse, is at the core of his violent hysteria.

Within the hour he will exhaust himself, and even fall asleep for a few minutes. When he wakes – with a start – reason will return, and bring with it a degree of fatalism. Two paths now lie before him, and the choice is no longer his. He will pick himself up, carefully not looking over the edge. He will right his clothing, inspect his hands with care, and return home. And then he will wait to see what the future holds.

And he will vow to reveal the truth – but only at the time of his death. One Saturday, 2 July St John's Wood, London

 

The freedoms of being a boy, reflected Mary, were many. She could swing her arms as she walked. She could run, if she wished. She looked tidy enough to avoid police suspicion, but shabby enough to be invisible to all others. Then there was the odd sensation of lightness that came of having cropped hair; she hadn't realized how heavy her own hair was until it was gone. Her breasts were tightly bound, and even if they did ache a little at such treatment, she could at least scratch herself with impunity, scratching in public being one of those Boy Things she ought to enjoy while she could. It was therefore a shame that she wasn't enjoying the situation. Wearing boy's clothing was comfortable and amusing, and she'd enjoyed her escapades in breeches during her first-ever assignment. But this – today – was entirely different. It was serious, and she still had no idea why.

Her instructions were simple enough: to costume herself as a twelve-year-old boy and attend a meeting of the Agency at three o'clock this afternoon. No further explanation had been offered, and by now, Mary knew better than to ask for more details. Anne and Felicity always gave precisely as much information as they deemed appropriate. Of course, such knowledge hadn't stopped her from fretting about the possibilities, yesterday, overnight and all this morning. Over the past year, she'd delighted in her training: tests, lessons and brief assignments that offered a taste of the life to come. But there was little pleasure in her this morning. What did Anne and Felicity want? And what sort of assignment could be connected with her present guise?

The Agency had been created and was staffed entirely by women, and its genius lay in the exploitation of female stereotypes. Its secret agents disguised themselves as maids, governesses, clerks, lady companions, and other humble, powerless characters. In most situations, no matter how dangerous, few people would suspect a subservient woman of being intelligent and observant, let alone a professional spy. With this as the Agency's guiding philosophy, it made no sense whatsoever for Mary to be dressed as a boy.

She raked her fingers through her hair, then stopped abruptly mid-stroke: that was a girl's gesture. And the only thing worse than not understanding what she was doing was compounding it by making a poor job of it. As she neared the top of Acacia Road, where the Agency was headquartered, Mary pressed her lips together and took several deep breaths. Her cowardly impulse was to turn and make one last circuit of Regent's Park, to spend just a little more time thinking matters through. As though she hadn't already been marching about St John's Wood for the past two hours. As though physical movement might still her mind and soothe her nerves. As though she was calm enough to sort through the swirl of emotions clouding her mind.

It was time to act, not to think. A few brisk steps took her to the house with its wrought-iron gates and polished brass nameplate: MISS SCRIMSHAW'S ACADEMY FOR GIRLS. The Academy had been her home for years, now. But today, looking at the nameplate, she willed herself to look at it as a stranger might – specifically, as a twelve-year-old boy might. The house was large and well kept, with a tidy garden and flagged path. But in contrast with those of the neighbouring houses, the front steps were swept but not whitened – an essential task that proclaimed to the world that one kept servants, and kept them busy re-whitening the steps each time a caller marred them with footprints. The Academy's irregularity here was the only sign of the most unusual institution that lay within.

Suddenly, the front door swung open and disgorged a pair of girls – or, rather, young ladies. They were neatly dressed, neither at the height of fashion nor in the depths of dowdiness. They were having an animated conversation. And they looked curiously at Mary, whose nose was still inches from the closed gate.

"Are you lost?" asked the taller of the two, as they approached the gate.

Mary shook her head. "No, miss." Her voice came out higher than she wanted, and she cleared her throat hastily. "I was bid come here."

A fine wrinkle appeared on the girl's forehead. "By whom?"

"I mean, I've a letter to deliver."

The girl held out her hand. "Then you may give it to me."

Mary shook her head again. "Can't, miss. I'm charged to give it to Mrs Frame and no one else. Is this her house?" She'd spent all morning working on her inflection, trying to get the accent right while keeping her voice gruff.

The girl looked imperious. "You may trust me; I'm the head girl at this Academy."

Mary knew exactly who Alice Fernie was. Head girl, indeed! She was only head of her year. "Can't, miss. Orders."

Head Girl's face twisted into a scolding look, but before she could speak again her companion said, "Never mind, Alice. We'll be late if we stop to argue with him."

"I'm not arguing; I'm just saying…"

The second girl unlatched the gate and nodded kindly to Mary. "Go on, then."

Mary tugged her cap respectfully and dodged around the pair, leaving Alice scowling into the road. As she walked around to the side door – the front door wasn't for the likes of humbly dressed messenger boys – she grinned broadly. Her disguise had passed well enough before Alice and Martha Mason, which was a start.

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