Betrayal at Lisson Grove
‘That’s him!’ Gower yelled above the sound of the traffic.
Pitt turned on his heel just in time to see a figure dart between the rear end of a hansom and the oncoming horses of a brewer’s dray. Gower disappeared after him, missing being knocked over and trampled by no more than inches.
Pitt plunged into the street, swerving to avoid a brougham and stopping abruptly to let another hansom past. By the time he reached the far pavement Gower was twenty yards ahead and he could see only his head with its flying hair. The man he was pursuing was out of sight. Weaving between clerks in pinstripes, leisurely strollers, and the occasional early woman shopper, with her long skirts getting in the way, Pitt closed the gap until he was less than a dozen yards behind Gower. He caught a glimpse of the man ahead: just bright ginger hair and a green jacket. Then he was gone, and Gower turned, his right hand raised for a moment in signal, before disappearing into an alley to the left.
Pitt followed after him into the shadows, his eyes taking a moment or two to adjust. The way was long and narrow, bending in a dogleg a hundred yards down. The gloom was caused by the overhanging eaves and the water-soaked darkness of the brick, long streams of grime running down from broken guttering. People were huddled in doorways; others made their way slowly, limping, or staggering beneath heavy bolts of cloth, barrels or bulging sacks.
Gower was still ahead, seeming to find his way with ease. Pitt veered round a fat woman with a tray of matches to sell, and tried to catch up. Gower was at least ten years younger, even if his legs were not quite as long, and he was more used to this kind of thing. But it was Pitt’s experience in the Metropolitan Police, before he joined Special Branch, that had found West, the man they were now chasing.
Pitt bumped into an old woman and apologised before regaining his stride. They were round the dogleg now, and he could see West’s ginger head making for the opening into the wide thoroughfare forty yards on. They must catch him before he was swallowed up in the crowds.
Gower was almost there. He reached out an arm to grab at West. In that moment West ducked sideways and Gower tripped, hurtling into the wall and momentarily winding himself. He bent over double, gasping to get his breath.
Pitt lengthened his stride and reached West just as West dived out into the High Street, barged his way through a knot of people and disappeared.
Pitt went after him and a moment later saw the light on his bright hair almost at the next crossroads. He increased his pace, bumping and banging people, but he had to catch West. West had information that could be vital. The tide of unrest was rising fast all over Europe, and becoming more violent. Many people, in the name of reform, were actually trying to overthrow government altogether and create an anarchy in which they imagined there would be some kind of equality of justice. Some were content with blood-soaked oratory; others preferred dynamite, or even bullets.
Special Branch knew of a current plot, but not yet the leaders behind it, or — more urgently — the target of their violence. West was to provide that — at risk of his own life if his betrayal were known.
Where the devil was Gower? Pitt swivelled round once to see if he could spot him. He was nowhere visible in the sea of bobbing heads, the bowler hats, caps and bonnets. There was no time to look longer. Surely he wasn’t still bent double in the alley. What was wrong with the man? He was not much more than thirty. Had he been more than just knocked off balance? Was he injured?
West was up ahead, seizing a break in the traffic to cross back to the other side. Three hansoms came past almost nose to tail. A cart and four clattered in the opposite direction. Pitt fumed on the kerb. To go out into the road now would only get him killed.
A horse-drawn omnibus passed, then two heavily loaded wagons. More carts and a dray went in the other direction. Pitt had lost sight of West, and Gower had vanished into the air.
There was a brief hold-up in traffic and Pitt raced across the road. Weaving in and out of the way of frustrated drivers, he only just missed being caught by a long, curling carriage whip. Someone yelled at him and he took no notice. He reached the opposite side and saw West’s bright head for an instant as he swung round a corner and made for another alley.
Pitt raced after him, but when he got there West had disappeared.
‘Did you see a man with ginger hair?’ Pitt demanded of a pedlar with a tray of sandwiches. ‘Where did he go?’
‘Want a sandwich?’ the man asked, eyes wide. ‘Very good. Made this morning. Only tuppence.’
Pitt fished frantically in his pocket; found string, sealing wax, a pocket knife, a handkerchief, and several coins. He gave the man a threepenny bit and took a sandwich. It felt soft and fresh, although right now he didn’t care. ‘Which way?’ he said harshly.
‘That way,’ the man pointed into the deeper shadows of the alley.
Pitt began to run again, weaving a path through the piles of rubbish. A rat skittered from under his feet, and he all but fell over a drunken figure lying half out of a doorway. Somebody swung a punch at him, he lurched to one side, losing his balance for a moment, glimpsing West still ahead of him.
Now West disappeared again and Pitt had no idea which way he had gone. He tried one blind courtyard or alley after another. It seemed like endless wasted moments later before the familiar figure of Gower came out of one of the side alleyways leading to the yard of a public house.
‘Pitt!’ Gower clutched at his arm. ‘This way! Quickly.’ His fingers dug into Pitt’s flesh, making him gasp with the sudden pain.
Together they ran forward, Pitt along the broken pavement beside the dark walls, Gower in the gutter, his boots sending up a spray of filthy water. Pace for pace, they went round the corner into the open entrance to a brick yard and saw a man crouching over something on the ground.
Gower let out a cry of fury and darted forward, half crossing in front of Pitt and tripping him up in his eagerness. They both fell heavily. Pitt was on his feet in time to see the crouched figure swing round for an instant, then scramble up and run as if for his life.
‘Oh God!’ Gower said, aghast, now also on his feet. ‘After him! I know who it is!’
Pitt stared at the heap on the ground and saw West’s green jacket and bright hair. Blood streamed from his throat, staining his chest and already pooled dark on the stones underneath him. There was no way he could possibly be alive.
Gower was already pursuing the assassin. Pitt raced after him and this time his long strides caught up before they reached the road. ‘Who is it?’ he demanded, almost choking on his own breath.
‘Wrexham!’ Gower hissed back. ‘We’ve been watching him for weeks.’
Pitt knew that, but only the man’s name was familiar. He had never seen Wrexham’s face, but there was no time to explain that now. There was a momentary break in the stream of vehicles. They darted across the road after Wrexham, who, thank heaven, was an easy figure to see. He was taller than average, and — in spite of the mild weather — he was wearing a long, pale-coloured scarf, which swung in the air as he twisted and turned. It flashed through Pitt’s mind that it might be used as a weapon; it would not be hard to strangle a man with it.
They were on a crowded footpath now, and Wrexham dropped his pace. He almost sauntered, walking easily, swiftly, with loping strides, but perfectly casual. Could he be arrogant enough to imagine he had lost them so quickly? He certainly knew they had seen him, because he had swivelled round at Gower’s cry, and then run as if for his life. Perhaps he was trusting to his very appearance of normality to make him invisible.
They were now walking at a steady pace, eastwards towards Stepney and Limehouse. Soon the crowds would thin as they left the broader streets behind.