“Sometimes I wish I was dead,” Ada muttered as she flicked through the paper.
“Pardon?” Jesse sat up straight, his blonde hair unnaturally still despite his fast movement.
“That gel makes your hair look ridiculous. Put your hat back on.”
“No! Why did you just say that?”
“What?” Ada looked up briefly, raising a slim eyebrow.
“That you wish you were dead. You can’t mean that.”
Ada slapped the paper on the table with a sharp crack.
“That’s it,” she hissed, already going for the door as she smacked her black beret on her head, slinging on her coat. “Come on Jesse!”
With a long suffering sigh Jesse emptied the contents of his pocket onto the table, the spattering of coins still rolling as he left the café.
The black cab roared through the streets of London, swerving on the ice-slick road, the wheels spinning as it rounded the corner at an outrageous speed.
“Twice as much, in cash, if you can get there five times as fast,” Ada called over the noise of the engine, hanging onto the back of the cabbie’s chair as she helped him navigate.
“Cheque, not cash,” Jesse interjected, meeting the cabbie’s eyes in the rear-view mirror. A hint of a smile tugged at the cabbie’s mouth. By god, he’s enjoying this! Jesse tugged Ada back against the seat. “Do you want to die?”
“Didn’t I say so? Do you ever pay attention?”
Jesse’s grip tightened as Ada scowled at him.
“Lay off. You’re hurting my arm.”
“Is the chick your sister?”
Ada’s cry wasn’t nearly as adamant as Jesse’s, but even so the cabbie seemed mollified.
“It’s a common mistake,” Ada said kindly. “It’s the blonde hair and blue eyes, so I’m told, but I really don’t think we look anything alike.”
She wrinkled her pert nose.
“So he’s your boyfriend?”
“I’m single,” Ada said, looking more excited than she should. Jesse rolled his eyes, preparing to cut the conversation off.
“We’re here!” Ada exclaimed, nearly slamming into the cabbie’s headrest as the car came to a violent stop before an imposing, squat grey building. The cabbie forgotten Ada leapt out of the vehicle, clinging to the rusted iron bars of the fence. As Jesse wrote out a cheque the cabbie gave him a hopeful look.
“You don’t think you could write down your number?”
“You don’t think I was hitting on her, do you? Look at her- Hey! What’s she doing? She’s not picking that lock is she?”
“If you’re doing anything illegal just write the cheque and let me get out of here. I’m not hanging around to get arrested.”
“Why would they arrest you? You’re just the cab driver.”
“I’m a wanted man,” the cabbie said, giving a roguish grin. “And I don’t need my record tarnished by amateurs.”
Jesse gave a disgusted snort as he stepped out of the cab, brushing invisible lint from the sleeves of his jacket as the car swerved out into the empty street.
“He offended you, didn’t he,” Ada said, holding the wrought iron gate for him. She swung the lock around her finger, unable to hide the proud smile on her face. “Ten seconds. I think that’s a record.”
“How did you know he offended me?”
“That look on your face, the stuck-up standoffish one. Anyway, it’s not hard. What did he do? Doubt my honour? Ask for my number?”
“Actually, he wanted mine.”
“That’s even worse,” Ada said gravely, but couldn’t help the laugh that escaped her as she elbowed him in the ribs. “You should have said yes. You need to get out more often, liven up a bit.”
“If he was a woman, I might have been more obliging,” Jesse murmured, eyes narrowing as they approached a set of cracked steps up to the peeling wooden door. The building was set a fair way back from the road, and the sign that flickered in garish red neons above the door was no longer hidden by the twisted elm tree that took up most of the decaying front lawn. Half the letters were missing and the bulbs that weren’t blown exuded only the dullest shade of crimson. “Children’s Prison. Really? Is that where you’ve taken me? We came all the way out here for this?”
“It’s related to the case,” Ada said, giving a delicate shrug as she slipped in front of Jesse, her fingers running lightly over the rotting wood of the door. A few remaining specks of green paint came off on her skin. “Now shut up. I need to concentrate.”
Ada got on her knees to inspect the lock but Jesse had already sidled up behind her, turning the handle with a faint rattle. Her lower jaw hung slack but she quickly recovered herself, straightening her borrowed great coat. It slid along the tops of her cracked leather shoes, a long slit down the back exposing the top of a scar that ran right down her spine and beyond the waistline of her faded jeans, mottling the pale skin of her thigh as the wound went deeper, where it had once hit the bone of her knee. Jesse knew. He’d seen it once. And his probing questions had ensured he’d never got to see it again.
“Are you staring? You are, I can feel it.”
“Sorry,” Jesse said, clearing his throat. “If you would just go in I wouldn’t have to.”
“Because a man is pointing a gun at me.”
“I would stay where you are, if I were you,” the voice was cold and unfamiliar and Jesse felt a shiver run through him. Ada cocked her head, curious rather than frightened.
“Who are you?” Ada asked.
“I ask the questions,” the man growled. “Your names. Now.”
“I was Lady Adelaide Hestia Lucia,” Ada said without a tremor. Her bravery was the thing Jesse admired most about her. No matter what life had done to her she still stood strong, despite any odds. “But now I guess I’m just Ada.”
“And the boy?”
“The man is Jesse,” Jesse replied, a hint of steel in his voice.
“Lord Mordecai Abraham Jezierski the Second, actually,” Ada corrected. Jesse stared at the back of her head, hardly able to believe she had just revealed that. “He’s a bit of a snob, but he’s actually pretty loyal if only you don’t go around pointing guns at his head.”
“A snob? I hang out with you.”
“See, there he goes,” Ada said, a lightness to her tone he didn’t much like. The gun wavered in the man’s hands and then he shoved it into his jacket pocket, the look on his face mutinous as he took the first step down the stairs at the end of the corridor. The hallway was bare, the white paint flecked with grey mould, the wooden stairs creaking as the man leant back against the balustrade for the unusual pair to pass. As Jesse shut the door behind him he noticed how strange they must have looked, he in his charcoal grey suit, black dress shirt and metallic dark blue tie and Ada with her unruly bun and tattered great coat. Ada had already disappeared up the stairs, and as Jesse approached the man on the landing he took a moment to inspect him. Seeing him up close Jesse noticed the man was no more than a teenager, maybe less than eighteen. His face was deceptively angular, his flinty eyes harsh and his black hair jutting out at all angles. His brown leather jacket was too big on his slim frame, coming down to his knees. As Jesse surveyed the boy he noticed the boy’s eyes roving his own figure, studying the sparkling cufflinks with interest. Jesse flicked his wrist and the boy’s gaze was instantly on his face.
“Just Cuthbert?” Jesse asked, cocking an eyebrow.
“That joke’s getting old,” the boy muttered. “To your right there’s a sitting room. Your girlfriend’s in there.”
Jesse didn’t bother to correct the boy as he took the last few steps in a single stride. The landing was as empty and tired looking as the corridor had been, the only light coming from the grimy window pane that stretched from waist-height to ceiling. There were three doors leading off from the space, two of them closed and the other slightly ajar. He headed for that one, hearing the faint shuffling of Ada’s feet from inside. Warm yellow sunflowers curled up the wallpaper, flaking off in places to reveal vivid green stripes and purple lavender from years gone by. The two lounges faced each other in bright, bold orange, their stuffing poking out at the corners and the dust sheets that had protected them sitting in dirty pools on the floor. Ada reclined on the one closest to the window, her back to the door as she tapped one foot absentmindedly on the battered floorboards.
“Take a seat,” Cuthbert said from behind him, and Jesse begrudgingly did as he’d asked. The couch sunk a bit in the middle, drawing Ada and Jesse closer together as they both struggled to keep a hold of the armrest. Cuthbert stood in front of the door, his hands by his sides, and the fingers of his right hand twitching for the comforting weight of his revolver. “What brings you here?”
“Death,” Ada said, smiling chirpily. Jesse kept his eye on the gun, not willing to believe this boy wouldn’t up and shoot them as soon as they said something he didn’t like. He was a bolter; a shoot and run, don’t bother to ask questions kind of guy. But for now he seemed intrigued, and Jesse could only hope that was enough to keep them alive. “A man was discovered floating in the Thames last week, a bullet wound to his head. He’d been stripped of all identification, but the money in his wallet hadn’t been touched. From his facial features it would appear he was German, and from the brief look at his wrist I got as they were zipping up the body bag he had a familiar tattoo. A small, circular mark about the size of a penny, a Swastika imprinted over the shape of a cross. The brand of a particular smuggling ring that was active during the war, one that has gone underground since the fall of Nazi Germany, that has barely been active until a few years ago when the ring leader went bankrupt and took his own life.”
“How do you know all this?”
“Because my father was that ring leader. He’d been drinking and gambling for years, refusing to take on a proper job, plotting the trade routes of his smuggling ring at nightfall when his wife and daughter were in bed. When he went bankrupt he lost it. He’d always wanted a boy to take over the business, and here I was a good-for-nothing girl who didn’t even have the charms to win a rich husband. He always kept a sword-stick with him; it had belonged to his father before him and his father before that and had been passed down for generations. I still have the scar from when he lashed out. After that he locked himself away in his study for a week. And on Friday the eleventh of September nineteen forty seven we heard the shot. Since then I’ve been taking out gang members one by one. Searching for loopholes in gang politics. But this man wasn’t one of my kills. The man in the Thames was an MI5 agent, working on the inside. And somehow he was discovered.”
“Why do you care?”
“I want to know how the ring are getting their information. I need to stop the flow before it strengthens them. They need to be defeated once and for all.” Ada was practically glowing, the energy of her speech captivating the boy as he slowly sunk down onto the arm of the sofa opposite.
“How did you know about this place?”
“I went through my father’s notes,” Ada said. “There were false bottoms to the drawers of his desk, but a lot of the information was still in code. I managed to decipher some of it, and that was what I was quoting this morning,” Ada turned earnestly to Jesse. “Sometimes I wish I was dead. That was a line from my father’s suicide note. But that wasn’t what he meant, and when you pointed it out to me I realised how stupid I’d been. The note wasn’t actually about suicide at all. It was one of the few pieces that wasn’t in code. It was not something he’d written, it was a letter written to him. A lot of refugees came over from Germany during the war, and I know a lot of the children ended up in places like this when their parents were suspected of being Nazi sympathisers. These children ended up being sent to Germany and were hired as smugglers, returning to England when they were of age and using their heritage as an excuse to travel back and forth. Neither country had much to offer them in the way of work; Germany’s economy was crippled and those who had abandoned Germany in her time of need were looked down upon, while in England they were the foul German offspring of the Nazis’. Smuggling was their way to survive. But this letter came from one boy in particular, someone who I’d once met. I knew he’d grown up here, not far from my house. When he was fourteen he was shipped off to Germany, but four years later he returned and came straight to my father, begging for work. He kept referring to the letter he’d sent my father a few months ago, about how he wanted to die. That money was sparse and that he was sorry, so sorry about ‘her’. I never found out who she was, but once I’d made the connection between the suicide note and the fact that it was not, in reality, a suicide note at all I began to think. The article in the newspaper was referring to the German economy, and as I was sitting in that café, my brain working overtime I realised that it was likely those two letters were one and the same. My father also refers to an anonymous ‘her’ in his note and I’d always thought it strange that he had never signed it. The boy hadn’t because he never knew his name. His parents had died before his fourth birthday, and he couldn’t remember a single thing about his life in Germany. And so I came here to look for anything the boy might have left behind. Because I believe he knew something, and I also believe my father didn’t kill himself. However much I might hate him I have always respected that he was a fighter.”
“And you think this boy will help you? Apart from the letter, how are the two incidents connected? I see nothing to bring them together,” Cuthbert’s hand was achingly close to the gun and Jesse had the urge to leap off the couch and tackle him to the ground. Ada wasn’t at all concerned, and to be honest Jesse thought she was getting somewhere. Cuthbert knew something. Both of them could taste it, but Jesse was also aware of the danger. He sat further forward on the seat, his muscles tense and ready to pounce if Cuthbert so much as twitched.
“The boy arrived the same night my father died,” Ada said, her voice dropping to a lower pitch, her face dark with emotion. “He was the last person to see my father alive. That past week my father had been locked in his study and he had not let anyone in. The only reason I know my father was still alive on that Friday night was because I heard him and the boy arguing. There was about fifteen minutes of silence. And then the shot. My mother and I raced down stairs but by the time we got there the boy had gone and my father was lying on the floor in a pool of his own blood, the letter in his hand. Because it wasn’t a suicide, was it? It was cold blooded murder. And that note was a warning to anyone else who tried to cross you.”
Cuthbert had gone still, the colour completely drained from his face. Jesse watched for that moment when he went for the gun, but it didn’t come. The boy was a statue.
“My father didn’t want to offer you a job, did he? Because ‘she’ was getting dangerous. He was worried that you wouldn’t be able to survive; he was trying to save you from yourself. Because that mysterious woman was someone you’d cared about, wasn’t it? Maybe she was your lover or your sister but it doesn’t really matter. Because she’d joined the gang and become addicted. Addicted to that way of life; the money, the continuous travel, avoiding the law, the thrill of a backstreet shoot out. As she moved up the ranks she became more ruthless. A mindless killer. In that letter you were apologising for bringing her into it, weren’t you? Because she was giving the game away, taking too many risks, exposing the smuggling ring to the world. Your plan was to take back your place in the smuggling ring so you would have enough money to support her; so that she would no longer need to be a part of that world. But my father realised that she was too far gone; that you would never truly be able to take her away from the gang. You were so angry at his refusal that you became ‘her’. You killed my father for the one good thing he ever tried to do in his life.”
“She didn’t deserve that life,” Cuthbert growled, on his feet now, the gun pointed firmly at Ada’s head. Jesse noticed the tremor in his hands, the shaking that always came with the thought of death. But then the boy took a deep breath and his hold was suddenly steady, a steely glint in his eyes. “No one does. You should be grateful I took your father away from it.”
“It wasn’t his time.”
“How is what you’re doing any better? How can you decide the role of good and evil? You have killed men; you said so yourself. So how is what I did any worse than what you have done?”
Ada’s face dropped and in that second Cuthbert pulled the trigger. Jesse threw himself at Ada, the two of them tumbling to the floor amongst a shower of glass. Jesse was immediately on his feet, searching the room for Cuthbert, but that was when he saw the boy crouched on the sill, streaks of blood marring his body as he brushed up against the jagged shards that still resided in the frame.
“I have one bullet left in this gun,” Cuthbert said, his voice no more than a whisper. The revolver was dangling loosely from his fingertips but now he raised it to point at Jesse. “Is it for you or for me?”
Jesse watched as the gun slowly rotated back towards Cuthbert’s head and uttered a cry before a second shot echoed through the confines of the room. The boy’s body went slack and then he crumpled in upon himself before his arms and legs flew wide against the forces of gravity as he fell towards the earth. Jesse winced as he heard the impact, breathing heavily against the shock. He looked down at Ada, curled up at his feet. She peered up at him, her blue eyes sparkling with tears.
“It’s over,” he told her gently, kneeling beside her as he wrapped her small hand in his large one.
“This battle maybe be over but the war is not,” she said, wiping at her eyes with the back of her grimy sleeve, leaving black lines like war paint on her cheeks. “The crusade goes on until those who are wrong are brought to justice. Until the world is free of evil.”