Lily Sing was nowhere near Limehouse when her house burned to the ground. She received the news in Switzerland weeks after it happened by noticing an item in a copy of The Daily Telegraph that some tourist had left in the hotel lobby: a scant two column inches with no hint of the web of crime and betrayal that led to an obscure restaurant being reduced to ashes and trash.
The police will investigate, but not very hard, Lilly reflects. Nobody was killed and nobody cares about a Chinese restaurant that will - rightfully for a change - be assumed to be part of London’s underworld. Lily had started disposing of valuables, transferring accounts, and squirreling away cash as soon as she heard of Evangely’s catastrophic failure. She let the insurance lapse, commissioned a series of false identification papers, and packed a trunk. When her spy at Bethlem reported Olrik’s escape, Lily tipped the man ten pounds, called a taxi, and headed for the London docks without a word. She assumes her people took the cue and fled as well, but doesn’t much care.
The loss of the building means very little to Lily in practical terms, but she is shaken. Lilymade the trip from London to Rotterdam to Zurich as quickly as possible, stopping only in large cities where she can blend in and avoiding broad daylight. With enough money it was possible to sequester herself in cabins, train cars and cabs. Zurich is not her final destination - that is yet unclear - but her main bankers are here and she knows people; former clients, potential clients, informers.
Lily takes the paper to the balcony of her small but stylish hotel and requests a cup of chocolate and a pastry to steady her nerves and occupy her hands. Something a little stronger would be pleasant, but would draw attention. Besides, she knows all too well the costs of self-medicating. She sets the paper before her but doesn’t read. Instead Lily discreetly surveys her surroundings. Is the man pacing the street below waiting for her? Is the stone-faced waitress a spy? Lily gives her head a shake: paranoia is as bad as carelessness. There will be no hired sniper or discreet dose of strychnine in her case. Olrik is not above such measures but this is a personal affair. He will come for her himself and look her in the eye, at least for a second.
Lily shudders. What had possessed her to sell Olrik to Evangely? Such a stupid mistake after a lifetime of canny self-preservation and promotion that had taken her from a tiny farming village, to the court at Lhassa, to bustling, gullible London. She had been doing so well. Through hard work and diplomacy she had succeeded in building her wealth and reputation without angering the established crime syndicates. This stupid business of the brain waves had ruined everything. The money involved had been, frankly, obscene, and it’s not like she hadn’t indulged in human trafficking before, but it wasn’t just business. Olrik had shown up on her doorstep on a nasty winter night long after the most dedicated devotee of the poppy would dare knock. He was wild, soaked to the skin, half-frozen, and desperate. She’d been glad to give him shelter. Anyone who had followed the Emperor would have done the same. As Basam Damdu’s chief of security he’d been a formidable player, clever, ruthless, resourceful, even attractive for a westerner. For a while she’d had hopes of forming an alliance, using his talents to spread her influence in Europe.
Olrik had ruined those hopes. After a night’s rest in her most comfortable guest quarters he’d emerged fragile, plagued by fits of trembling, headaches, and odd mental lapses where he’d stop mid-sentence and have to backtrack to make himself clear. It got worse: sweating, shaking, moaning in his sleep, seizures where he’d cried out in pain and begged for help. Tuog suggested morphine and Lily had allowed it, knowing it would not make him well. No matter. She only wanted him quiet. Soon Olrik required several doses a day, then double doses. Not only was he taking up space and eating her food (when he could choke it down) but also using up product with no payment in sight beyond muttered thanks and promises. She was soon sick of Olrik, disgusted by his weakness, his needs, his utter uselessness. She would never forgive him for disappointing her. Lily put out a few subtle feelers and when Evangely made contact, she was ready.
I should have let him recover or die on his own. I should have given him enough morphine to kill a lion. I should have injected an air bubble. I should turned him over to someone with half a brain.
She had told Evangely to be careful, even thrown in a good supply of morphine with the sale. Use restraints, she’d told him. Keep him drugged. He’s slippery, he’s tricky, he’s escaped untold dangers. Evangely had nodded and waved her off, the idiot. Thanks to him she’s sitting here, bored and nervous, with no income stream and no plan of action. Damn him! Damn all of them!
The waiter comes with her chocolate and a tidy little confection of almonds and cream.
“There is a gentleman asking for you, madam. Should I bring him over?”
Lily snaps her eyes to the door. It’s only Dulac. Of course it is. Calm down, for heaven’s sake!
“Please do. Add whatever he wants to my bill.”
Dulac is a skinny, greasy man and in better times she would scorn to meet with him directly. He is, however, an excellent informant and she needs to keep him happy and on side. He orders a pint of beer and a plate of doughnuts, revolting creature. She picks at her pastry with a fork and watches in horrified fascination as he stuffs himself, spilling sugar and jam, smacking and chewing audibly.
“I assume you didn’t come merely to enjoy an afternoon treat with me?” she says, struggling to keep the acid out of her voice.
“I have news of your friend,” Dulac answers with a waggle of his eyebrows and a mouth full of dough. He claims to be French but his accent sounds German to Lily’s ear. She smiles thinly and waves for him to continue.
“So after he escaped from the hospital there were reports of him heading for the continent. Eyewitnesses placed him at Great Yarmouth.”
Those reports were garbage. He’s still in England.”
“Are you sure?”“
Positive. He’s reassembled a gang but he isn’t working for anyone at the moment He’s got some personal project going. His people have been spotted around Leeds, very busy. He’s got an agent looking you and three others. Well, two and a perhaps.”
Lily nods wearily and watches Dulac pull a wrinkled notebook out of his pocket.
“Professor Evangely, Lady Lisbeth Rowena, Harry McFarlane. That last one is a ‘presumed dead’ but he wants to make sure. He’s spending a great deal to find these people.”
“And I am paying you a great deal to find him.”
“He was in Halifax, I’d stake my life on it. From there… I have a few avenues for investigation.”
“The people on the list; do you know where they are?”
“According to Scotland Yard, McFarlane is definitely dead. No body, but some chemical evidence? That’s what they’re saying, anyway. The lady is in Monte Carlo looking for men to mine. Evangely…I thought I had found him and now I’m not so sure. There is evidence to suggest that he was in Halifax, then Olrik was in Halifax, and now both are gone.”
Lily rubs her left temple. If Dulac is right Evangely is rotting in the ground, probably in several pieces.
“It is absolutely critical that I find him.”
“Of course, Miss Sing. I am doing my best with what I have.”
Of course it comes to that. Lily reaches into her bag and pushes 300 francs across the table. Dulac slips it into his pocket like a magic trick, tips an imaginary hat, and scuttles away, last doughnut in hand. Lily looks at the table, all sticky with sugar and beer, and leaves her chocolate unfinished. She wants to rest and think and have a quiet meal in her room far away from people.
The conclusion is inescapable. Lily will not be safe until Olrik is dead. There’s no sense in trying to reason with or placate him. She has nothing to offer him and if she did, he would take the bribe and kill her anyway. It’s not just about revenge, although he is certainly vengeful. She has hurt him, she has seen him brought low, and Olrik will not tolerate that. Lily is also one of the few people in the world who knows about the Megawave connection, the links between Septimus and Evangely’s crew.
She cannot kill Olrik herself, that chance is gone. He will never allow her within arm’s reach again and she is not a reliable shot. Dulac is too petty a criminal to trust to arrange a murder, but there are others. Lily has no appetite for dinner but she indulges in a long bubble bath. She plucks her eyebrows meticulously, applies oils and creams as required, and gives her hair one hundred strokes, all the while mentally ticking off the list of killers among her acquaintances. Find Olrik, kill Olrik. Easier said than done, of course, but now that she’s made up her mind and has Dulac on the scent, Lily is able to relax a little.
She’s sleeping soundly, dreaming of Tibet, when an outrageous racket nearly shakes her out of bed. Alarms! Fire! She hears screams and the sound of running feet. Lilly runs to the door in her nightgown and stops dead, hand on the door. No. Not like this. All hell is breaking loose outside, but Lilly slips on a blue day dress, stockings, and pumps and takes her coat and purse. If the hotel burns to the ground she will be able to walk away without regret. Lilly steps into the hall, already crowded with guests and staff, some stumbling and babbling, some making their way forward with grim determination. She makes her way down the stairs to the lobby hemmed in by people pushing on all sides. There is the smell of smoke in the air and something else, something like burning hair and cheap perfume. It is so hot and close. There are too many people. If only she could stop a moment, but the crowd presses on. Firefighters are on the scene now. Lily clutches her purse and coat to her body and keeps her head down. People everywhere are yelling. A man waves a poisonous smelling cigar under her nose. Idiot! Who would smoke at a time like this? She must get fresh air, right now. Cigar fool has the same idea and follows her, trailing stink as he goes. She very nearly breaks into an undignified trot as she approaches the door, and in a moment she’s outside gasping for fresh air. She coughs and coughs. What is happening? She cannot take a full breath.
A firefighter in full rig takes Lily’s arm and leads her to a bench. He hands her an oxygen mask which she grasps greedily. She inhales deeply. It’s impossible to get enough air. She feels as if she will faint. Breathe, breathe. It’s not working. The firefighter sits on his heels, facing her, and removes his helmet. Good god.
“Hello, Lily. Wonderful to see you again.”
Lily stares into a pair of familiar blue eyes. She opens her mouth to speak but cannot make a sound. She feels herself being grasped, hauled upright, head swinging down. This is a fireman’s lift she thinks, absurdly, before losing consciousness.