The Burning Page Page 1


From: Peregrine Vale, 221b Baker Street

To: Inspector Singh, New Scotland Yard


For the love of God, can’t you give me anything challenging? London is a stagnant pool, and its criminals are petty, unimaginative and uninteresting. These last few weeks have driven me nearly mad with boredom. Nothing seems worth my time or attention. Even my research seems a waste of effort. I must have a decent case to occupy me, or else I believe the machine that is my brain will spin out of control.

In answer to your queries about Rotherham’s murder and the apparent hauntings at the Thames pumping works, I would have thought it clear that the two are connected.

It should be obvious that the victim was decoyed down to the new ultrafiltration membranes in the Thames pumping works and murdered there. His body was passed through the system to suffuse his lungs with fresh water, in order to give credence to the claim that he was drowned in the Serpentine in Hyde Park, where his body was found. Check the financial holdings of Rotherham’s niece, and her private library – I believe you’ll find evidence of her scientific studies there. The alibi that the niece’s husband gave her is also very dubious, and he will probably break under pressure.

Winters and Strongrock are out of London at the moment, on a mission to one of their parallel worlds. From what Strongrock has confided to me, Winters is suffering official displeasure for leaving her post in order to rescue him. Typical bureaucratic nonsense. Her superiors might not have condoned her methods, but she achieved the results they wanted anyhow. But I dare say it could have been worse.

Give me a case, Singh. It will keep me busy, and God knows I need to be busy. Logical thought and reason are the best medicine for my current inertia, and will keep me from worse alternatives.



The morning light glittered on the glass windows and on the blades of the guillotines in the central square. Pigeons squabbled noisily in the gutters, audible solely due to the general deadly silence. Only the creaking of cart wheels and the soft padding of footsteps disturbed the stillness.

Irene could feel an even greater zone of terrified hush surrounding herself and Kai. Passers-by avoided their gaze, desperate not to attract their attention. It was because of their ‘borrowed’ uniforms, of course: everyone was afraid that some day the National Guard might come for them, to drag them away for counter-revolutionary activities. And then would come prisons, and trials, and then the guillotine . . .

It made their outfits the perfect disguise for getting around unnoticed. Nobody was going to look twice at the National Guard. In case the National Guard looked back at them.

With a neat pivot, the two of them turned at the corner of the street and marched down it together, their steps in unison, out of view of the guillotines. Irene felt an illogical sense of relief in response. Even if they weren’t out of danger yet, she was spared from having to look at the thing that might chop her head off.

‘How much further?’ Kai murmured out of the side of his mouth. Even in the charmless National Guard uniform – heavy black wool coat and trousers, and tricolour sash – her assistant managed to look almost unrealistically handsome. The sun gleamed on his black hair and touched his face with a glow of pure health and physicality. When walking, he paced like an aristocrat, or a predator, rather than trudging like an ordinary man doing a nine-to-five job. There was very little they could do to disguise that, though. Smears of mud would have been out of place on a Guardsman, and disguising him as an ordinary citizen being taken for questioning would have been too risky.

‘Next street,’ Irene muttered back. Next to Kai she was comparatively plain, to her occasional regret, and so she was much better at going unnoticed. Her own plain brown hair and regular features took actual work to make them look interesting, or really any more attractive than ‘neat and tidy’. But since most of the time she wanted to go unnoticed, that was a benefit in her line of work.

Fortunately women served in the National Guard, and she hadn’t needed to bind her breasts, or anything like that, to blend in. The European Republic that had spread from the French Revolution in this alternate world was oppressive, vicious, hard-line and highly dangerous, but it did at least let women get themselves killed in the armed forces. Probably because they needed the manpower, as it were, due to the ongoing wars, but that was another problem.

They turned the next corner, and Irene flicked a glance towards the raddled old building that was their target. It was barely in one piece: decaying brick was seamed with ivy and cracks, the shutters were locked shut in place and covered with graffiti, and the roof was missing tiles. They marched up to the front door as though they had a perfect right to be there. Kai banged on the door, waited for a response, then kicked it open. The two of them stomped inside.

Kai peered into the darkness. Shafts of light filtered round the edges of the shutters, enough to let them see the utter ruin of the building’s interior. The staircase that led up to the first and second floors looked just barely passable, but all the furniture was gone, and the walls were covered with revolutionary dogma. It might once have been a library, but now it was a decrepit barn of a building, which would probably have been turned down by passing cows as too uncomfortable.

‘I don’t understand how there still can be a link to the Library from this place,’ Kai said.

‘Nor do we. But if it takes us back to base, that’s good enough for me.’ Irene kicked the door shut behind them. Without the light coming in through the doorway, the place was even darker. ‘Sometimes it can take years for a world’s entrance to the Library to shift. Sometimes it can take centuries. But with all the local libraries and bookshops shut down or under armed guard, this is our best bet.’

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