CLICK ON THE SNOWFLAKE TO OPEN THE DOOR!
HAPPY HOLIDAYS FROM JOANNE SOPER-COOK
Physician, Heal Thyself
This is an extra scene from J Soper-Cook’s Inspector Raft series.
Around noon on Christmas Eve it began to snow: huge, feather-light flakes tumbling down out of a leaden-grey sky. Inspector Philemon Raft paused before the large double doors of the Norman Shaw Building and gazed upwards, squinting. “Hmph.”
“I think it’s pretty,” Freddie Crook said. He was a tall young constable with the faintly superior bearing of the upper classes. “Looks like one of those daguerreotypes for sale in the Commercial Road.”
Raft raised one dark brow. “The ones copied from French postcards?”
Crook coloured slightly. “No, sir.”
“You have an unfortunate tendency towards the romantic,” Raft said. “You would do well to curb it.”
Crook caught up with him by the lift. “With respect, sir, I fail to see why you deem it ‘unfortunate’.” He pulled open the gates and waited while Raft climbed into the cage. “In many cultures, romance is the cornerstone of art, of music, of poetry and – “
“We aren’t musicians or artists, Constable.” Raft unbuttoned his heavy overcoat as the lift rose clanking to the fifth floor. “We are police officers. Our profession is as far from romance as one can conceivably get.” The cage ground to a halt, bouncing slightly; Raft unfastened the gate and started down the corridor towards his office.
“Today is Christmas Eve.”
“Today is the day we apprehended Harry “The Mouth” Wilcox, Constable.” Raft turned and grinned as he opened his office door. “That ought to be celebration enough.”
“Sometimes I wonder about you,” Freddie murmured.
Raft pretended not to have heard. He fetched down their respective tea cups from the shelf near his desk and went into a small anteroom where a kettle full of water was kept at a perpetual near-boil on the back of the stove. “Wilcox will swing for what he’s done. Now I don’t know about you –“ Raft lifted the heavy kettle and deftly poured water into the teapot. “But I shall sleep very well tonight, knowing that one less murderer is prowling the streets.”
“Have any plans for the holidays yourself, sir?” Freddie watched Raft swirling the hot water around in the pot. He liked watching Raft, no matter what the inspector was doing; there was a certain inexplicable grace in the other man’s movements that excited Freddie.
“Just the usual.” Raft decanted water onto the tea leaves and replaced the top of the pot. “I hope to get through that stack of work on my desk. If I can manage to clear up some of the excess I shall feel quite satisfied indeed.”
By four that afternoon the snow had thickened to an impenetrable veil of tiny white particles and the wind had risen so that the view from Raft’s office window was almost entirely obscured. Freddie sat at his own desk on the other side of the room, squinting down at a sheaf of newspaper clippings, mentally cursing the Yard’s frugality (there was scarcely enough gas laid on in the room to see anything at all) and the early dark. The clippings were all concerned with the case of one Mary Rose Turpin who, in a fit of jealous rage, had killed her lover with scissors in the middle of an East End chophouse. She managed to inflict several deep punctures to the unlucky man’s face, neck and abdomen before being restrained by the other patrons. The photographs – of which there were many; Raft was dreadfully keen on using the latest methods – were almost unbelievably gory. Freddie was deep in contemplation of these when a curious noise cut through his concentration. He looked up, frowning. “What’s that?”
“Sorry?” Raft laid aside his nascent report on Mrs. Edwin Froud’s missing laundry.
“That noise.” Freddie cocked his head. “Do you hear it?” It sounded like a cross between the grinding of an industrial cotton mill and nothing he’d ever heard before.
Raft listened for a moment. “Yes, Constable – now that you mention it, I do hear that…noise.” He got up from his chair and went to the window but could see nothing beyond the blinding white swirl of falling snow. “What the devil is it?” He pressed his nose against the cold glass and peered hard into the darkness, eyes straining. “Good God.” He sounded like a man stricken. “It isn’t possible.”
“What isn’t?” Freddie came to stand just behind Raft. “Is something wrong?”
“It couldn’t be.” Raft was seemingly oblivious to the constable’s presence and sounded now as if he were talking to himself. “The first public police telephone won’t be introduced until 1891, in Glasgow. London won’t have them until 1923, when the…” He trailed off, backing away from the window. “Blue police call box.”
“Sir?” Freddie touched Raft’s shoulder, alarmed.
“Nothing.” Raft sat down heavily in his chair, his face ashen pale. “I…there’s nothing the matter.”
A tall, slender man (with, it must be admitted, an astonishing resemblance to Philemon Raft) stepped neatly over the threshold of Scotland Yard and shook a light dusting of snow off his shoulders. He wore a natty striped suit under a long beige duster and a pair of strange-looking canvas boots that ended just above his ankles. “Now then,” he announced with a grin. “This is what I call really living! Good old London, 1888…or is it 1889? It would make a difference, really.” He visibly shuddered. “Wouldn’t want to stumble into that Ripper nastiness.”
Desk sergeant Robert Kidney looked up from his penny dreadful with an irritated expression. “Here,” he grunted, “What the bloody hell is this, eh?” He took in the man’s attire with a raised eyebrow. “You lose your way from Bedlam?”
“Can’t say as I have,” the man replied, “although in another time or place – “ He broke off suddenly, his features arranging themselves into a dazzling smile. “You just made an era-specific reference!” He leapt forward, seized the sergeant by the shoulders and squeezed gently. “That’s brilliant!”
“Ere!” Kidney, more startled than he’d ever been, stepped back. “Don’t you be putting your hands on me.”
“Right.” The man dropped his arms back to his sides. “You lot don’t like that sort of thing, do you? All about the starch and the stiff upper wossit, yeah.” He sighed, immediately brightening in a way that appeared faintly psychotic. “I’m looking for one of your…er…well, he’s a what do you call ‘em? A copper. Works in this building. It’s very important that I talk to him before the stroke of midnight.”
Kidney raised a brow. “What happens at midnight?”
“Ohhh, you don’t want to know. Couldn’t divulge it, I’m afraid. Future of the entire race – species, really – not to mention the planet – I say, old man, are you all right? You look a bit…” One long-fingered hand described a series of circles in front of his face. “Peaky.”
“Who are you looking for?” Kidney’s tone was decidedly nasty. “Best tell me before you earn yourself a one-way trip to the cells.”
“Inspector Philemon Raft.” The jovial mask dropped away. “It’s imperative that I see him immediately.”
Kidney flagged down a passing constable. “Fetch Inspector Raft.”
He and the stranger waited; the constable returned. “Inspector Raft begs your pardon, Sergeant, but he’s terribly busy. Constable Crook’s coming in his place.”
Presently Crook emerged from the gloom of the stairwell, a sheaf of folders under one arm. He stopped short when he saw the visitor, and paled perceptibly. “Yes?”
“I’m here to see Inspector Raft.”
“I’m the constable assigned –“
“I need to see Inspector Raft – only Inspector Raft, I’m afraid.” His tone was gentle, reassuring, but firm. “Soon as you can, if you please.”
“He wants to see me?” Raft’s uneasiness crept into his voice as a definite squeak. “Me? Who is this man? I mean, what does he look like?”
“Except for the hair –“ Freddie described a shape in the air, “ – he looks like you. He looks exactly like you.” He gazed at Raft for a moment. “His hair is very odd. I mean, lunatic asylum odd. Like he just broke out of bedlam.”
Raft stared at him. “He’s an escaped lunatic?”
“Not as such.” Freddie shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. “I’ll fetch him, shall I?”
The visitor followed Crook upstairs, his tread curiously soundless, his presence a mere whisper of moving cloth and unobtrusive breath. Freddie tried to find out who the man was and the reason for his visit but his every enquiry was met with polite – albeit firm – resistance. He ushered the man into Raft’s office and closed the door quietly behind him but remained in the corridor – in case he was needed, he told himself.
“Philemon Joseph Raft?” The visitor held out a hand. “I’m…well, it hardly matters and it’s probably best if I don’t tell you. Avoid contaminating the time line and all that. I’ve come with a very important message. I realise this sounds a little mad, but…”
“It sounds quite mad, if you must know, but I’ve heard worse.” Raft gestured at the chair in front of his desk. “Have a seat?”
“Thank you.” The visitor folded his long body down into the chair and gazed at Raft with intense interest. “He’s right, you know, your constable. It’s like looking in a bloody mirror, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” Raft got up and came round the desk. “D’you mind…?”
“Oh, not at all. Look as much as you like. The right’s my best side, although if I do say so myself I don’t really have a bad side.” His tone was jovial but there was something eminently uneasy in the stranger’s eyes.
“Freckles…across the nose…had them long, have you?” Raft reached out a tentative hand and only just stopped himself from touching the other man’s face.
“Well…more or less.” The stranger caught hold of Raft’s wrist. “Listen,” he said urgently, “this won’t wait and you’ve got to understand what I’m about to tell you. You know your constable…?”
“Tall, blond, handsome, toff-looking lad who’s probably right now pressed up against the door listening?”
Freddie peeled himself off the wall and retreated a pace or two.
“By midnight tonight…” The visitor huffed out an exasperated breath. “Right. Best way is to dive right in. This won’t make any sense to you, but –“ He leaned close and whispered into Raft’s ear.
The effect was immediate: Raft straightened up, his cheeks stained with hot colour. “I beg your pardon, sir, but such behaviour is illegal.”
“In this day and age, yes.” The stranger contemplated him for a moment. “But you don’t strike me as a man who lacks courage, Inspector.”
There was silence as the two men regarded each other. Finally, Raft shifted a little and spoke. “And this has to be done before midnight, you say.”
“Before midnight. It may be that he knows nothing of it – but if he does, I’m willing to bet he would be in agreement. Will you do as I ask?”
Raft raised his chin. “I’ve no desire to – to do that!” He fished out his handkerchief and mopped his sweating brow. “But you say it’s necessary. How necessary?”
The stranger’s expression was grave. “Very. It signals a very important turning point in not only your life but in the lives of many other people – some of whom you know, some of whom you will never know. It’s like…” His long-fingered hands shaped a sphere in the air. “There are certain moments in time, moments that are absolutely fixed, and around which other moments turn. Do you understand what I mean?”
Raft felt in his pocket for the green glass paperweight he’d carried with him since childhood. Its cool, smooth shape reassured him that there were some things in the world he could count on. “Yes.”
“Inspector, it’s been a pleasure meeting you.” The visitor fished a fob watch out of his vest, flipped open the cover and peered at it. “My! Is that the time? Can’t be! Right, I’m off.” He started for the door, stopped suddenly and, turning, grasped Raft’s arm. “You must,” he said, urgently. “Promise me.”
“It’s that important?”
“It’s that important.”
“Is there anyone…” Raft blinked, aware of the gravity of the question. “You yourself, I mean. A…friend? A companion?”
A pall of sadness fell over the visitor’s face and his dark eyes welled with tears. “Occasionally.” His voice was husky. “They leave, every one of them…forget me.” He drew himself up. “Don’t forget.”
Raft nodded. “I won’t. I promise.”
The snow fell thick and fast, wrapping the landscape in a soft white pall that muffled sound and movement. Philemon Raft pulled his office door closed behind him and started down the stairs. It was twenty minutes to twelve.
“Guv?” Freddie Crook materialised out of the darkness and fell into step with Raft. “What did he want?”
“He had me make a promise. It involves you, Constable.” Raft looped his arm companionably through Freddie’s, pulling the constable close to his side.
“It’ll be Christmas in less than twenty minutes. Me, sir?” The feather-light flakes caught on Freddie’s long eyelashes and the collar of his coat. “A promise.”
“Here.” Raft stepped into the shadow of a deep doorway, drawing Freddie after him. “I have no idea why he wanted this, but I intend to honour him. Understand, Constable, that I mean you no disrespect by what I am about to do, only…” A pang of sadness struck him; it was suddenly difficult to breathe. “Forgive me.”
He leaned forward and caught Freddie’s lean face between his gloved hands and kissed him. A ball of heat bloomed deep in his belly and spread as Freddie’s mouth opened underneath his own, deepening the caress. Raft stood for a long time after the kiss had ended, his forehead pressed against the constable’s, his hands holding Freddie’s face while the snow fell gently all around them and the sound of midnight tolled gently along the dark Embankment.
About the author: Literary novelist and crime writer, born on The Rock, champion of free speech and free opinions. I do my own forensic experiments.
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