Monk sat beside the fire and felt the heat seep through him. Outside was the kind of clinging silence that only fog brings. The river was shrouded, and dusk came early this time of the year. Monk was unusually conscious of being happy. This deep sense of peace was not a casual thing. He looked at Hester in the chair opposite him and found himself smiling.
He was not aware of the first knock on the door. It was only when Hester stood up that he realized what the sound had been. He rose quickly. “No, I’ll go.” Reluctantly, he went into the hall and unlocked the front door.
Sir Oliver Rathbone stood on the step, the porch light glistening on droplets of fog that covered his gray hat and the shoulders of his coat. His lean face was without its usual aura of wit.
There was no wind at all, and yet a breath of chill accompanied him.
“Come in,” Monk said quickly, stepping back to allow him room.
Rathbone obeyed and pulled the door closed behind him. He shivered, as if suddenly aware of how cold he was. He took off his hat and coat and hung them on the hall stand, stuffing his gloves in his pockets.
“It must be bad,” Monk said. They had known each other for years—in fact, for nearly all of the fifteen years since the Crimean War had ended in 1856. There was no need for social niceties.
“It is,” Rathbone replied. He both worked and lived on the north side of the Thames, so for him to have crossed the river to visit Monk at home meant the issue could not wait, even just until morning.
Monk led the way to the sitting room and opened the door into the warmth.
“I’m sorry,” Rathbone said to Hester. They, too, had known each other long and well. Rathbone had met her when she was a nurse, newly home from the Crimea and still believing she could change the world of medical treatment and its attitude toward nursing, and women in medicine in general. That seemed like a long time ago now. But the cause, even now, was hardly begun.
“You look frozen,” she said with understanding. “Tea?” Then she reconsidered. “Whisky?”
Rathbone smiled very slightly. “No, thank you. I need to keep a clear head.” He turned to Monk. “I know I’m intruding, but it can’t wait . . .” He sat down in one of the chairs next to the fire.
Hester said nothing, but she prepared to listen intently.
Monk merely nodded and took the seat opposite Rathbone.“A man came to me an hour or two ago in a state of extreme distress….His wife has been kidnapped. Her life is forfeit if he does not pay a ransom, which is a fortune.”
“A man came to me an hour or two ago in a state of extreme distress.” Rathbone’s expression reflected his own understanding of pain. “His wife has been kidnapped. Her life is forfeit if he does not pay a ransom, which is a fortune. He is a wealthy man, and has succeeded in raising the amount—”
“When was she taken?” Monk interrupted.
“I know what you must be thinking,” Rathbone replied with a bleak smile. “How did he raise the money so quickly? Unless he had it in a safe somewhere, this would not have been possible. She was taken yesterday, which, if you remember, was actually a beautiful day for this time of year. He was given until tomorrow, at about this time. The exchange is to take place—”
“Why the devil didn’t he report it immediately?” Monk interrupted him.
“He intends to pay. What he wants of us is—”
“Us?” Monk cut across him again. “If he wants the police, he should have gone to the regular London police, and yesterday, for heaven’s sake, when the trail was hot!”
Rathbone shook his head. “He doesn’t. She was taken from the riverbank, which makes it your area. And the ransom is to be paid on Jacob’s Island, which—”
“I know what it is!” Even though several years had passed since that bleak case, Monk shivered involuntarily at the memories the name “Jacob’s Island” conjured in his imagination. He could still see the fat man sinking slowly into the tidal ooze, his mouth open, screaming, until the mud cut him off, and inch by inch he disappeared from sight. His body had never been found.
Monk came back to the moment: to the firelight, to Hester, now sitting and leaning toward him, concern in her face; to the lamplight on Rathbone’s hair, which had more silver in it than before. Jacob’s Island was one of the worst slums in London. On the river’s edge, it was not literally an island, but a region of interconnecting waterways with old offices and wharfs. The warehouses built upon them were sinking slowly into their foundations as they rotted away and collapsed one on top of another. Jacob’s Island could be reached by land across one bridge, and by water through several landing piers.
“He wants the River Police to go with him to the exchange, the payment for his wife’s—Kate Exeter’s—life,” Rathbone said quietly. “That’s all he came about. He doesn’t expect you to catch the kidnappers, or to save the money, just to see that the exchange is made, and he and Kate leave there safely.”
“Kate Exeter?” Monk turned the name over in his mind. There was something familiar about it, but he could not place it.
“Harry Exeter,” Rathbone said. “His first wife died. Kate is his second. About twenty years younger than he. He’s devoted to her.”
Compassion showed in Rathbone’s face. He himself had married a second time, only recently. He had a happiness he had never believed possible, after the disappointment of his first marriage, followed by bitter loneliness. Rathbone knew how exquisitely precious happiness was, and how fragile. He tried not to think of the possibility of losing it again, but it was clear in his eyes, in the strain of his position, that his empathy with Harry Exeter was based in his own emotions, not imagination.
Monk did not need explanations. “So, he spent yesterday and today getting the money,” he concluded.
“Yes. He has nearly all of it, and his assurance of the rest tomorrow. It’s the price of five good-sized London family houses, in a decent area,” Rathbone replied. “I came to you tonight because Exeter’s in my chambers now. I want you to meet him. Get all the information you can. You’ll need tomorrow to plan. He has to hand over the money himself. It’s part of the bargain.”
“And bringing the police into it?” The consequences of even one slip were appalling.
“Doesn’t matter,” Rathbone said gravely. “He’s allowed to have at least one man go with him. He insisted on that. He doesn’t know the place, and he pointed out that alone in an area like that, carrying a bag full of money, he’d be lucky if he made it as far as the agreed rendezvous spot.”“Why wouldn’t they pick some reasonable place?” Monk asked, but already he knew the answer. Jacob’s Island was a warren that the ordinary Londoner would be utterly lost in, frightened, disoriented, always afraid of the rising tide.
“Why wouldn’t they pick some reasonable place?” Monk asked, but already he knew the answer. Jacob’s Island was a warren that the ordinary Londoner would be utterly lost in, frightened, disoriented, always afraid of the rising tide. “I’ll come and meet him,” he said before Rathbone could answer him. He stood up. “Get all the information I can. Tomorrow I’ll choose my men and speak to them. Some of them know Jacob’s Island fairly well. Although the damn place is changing all the time.”
Rathbone stood as well. “Thank you.” He turned to Hester. “I apologize,” he said, “but it should all be over after tomorrow night. Exeter will be considerably poorer, but his wife will be safe, even if she does have nightmares for a while.”
“They pass,” Hester said ruefully.
Monk looked at her, concerned. She had been kidnapped not so long ago. He could recall her waking in the night, gasping, fighting the blankets, once even weeping uncontrollably. He had held her close, assuring her. And now she was thinking of this woman who had been kidnapped and was waiting, terrified, perhaps on Jacob’s Island, trusting her husband could and would pay the ransom.
“We’ll get her back safely,” Monk promised. “It’s the money they want. And thank God Exeter seems to have it, and is willing to pay.” He glanced out the window. It was dark outside now. The fog smothered everything.
Hester smiled. “If she’s as lucky as I was, the kidnappers will be caught as well. Go now! Poor Exeter will be frantic with worry. Assure him, as much as you can.”
He smiled and leaned forward to kiss her quickly on the cheek. Her skin was warm, soft as always, and he inhaled the fragrance of her hair.
Rathbone was already waiting at the front door, his hat and coat on. He undid the latch, grimaced as he saw the fog was thicker than before, and stepped out into it. Monk followed after him, his coat on, too, though he still felt the damp cling to him immediately. He closed the door behind him and heard Hester lock it. He followed Rathbone down the familiar path to the street. By the time he reached it and looked back, the house was already swallowed up in the thick darkness.
From somewhere down the river a foghorn gave its long, mournful cry. There was no other sound. Even their footfalls were muffled on the pavement.
“There’ll be no ferries over the river,” Monk remarked. “We’ll have to see if we can find a hansom on Union Street. The Rotherhithe road is right on the water, and it’ll be even thicker there.”
Rathbone fell in step with him without commenting. The nearest bridge was a stiff walk from where they were, and Lincoln’s Inn, where Rathbone’s chambers were, was a good deal farther than that.
It was half an hour before they found a cab, almost on the bridge.
They heard the horse’s hoofs on the cobbles, muffled by the distorted echoes. It was almost upon them before they saw its lamps approaching. Monk stepped into the street and caught the horse’s bridle, bringing it to a stop.
“Hey!” the driver shouted, fear sharpening his voice as he raised his whip.
Monk saw the shadow of the whip before it could strike him. “Police!” He moved forward, allowing his face to be seen, if dimly, in the small circle of light. “We need a ride to Lincoln’s Inn, please. Double fare.”
The driver grunted. “Up front?” he asked.
Monk fished in his pocket, and Rathbone did the same. They handed over the coins gratefully and climbed inside.
It still took them nearly three-quarters of an hour. Rathbone’s chambers were all lit, and his clerk opened the door before Rathbone had time to ring the bell.
“I’ll get you tea, sir,” the clerk said. “And a couple of sandwiches. Would cold beef be satisfactory?”
“It’ll be perfect,” Rathbone said warmly.
“I already took the liberty of serving Mr. Exeter, sir. He doesn’t look well, poor man.”
Rathbone thanked him and led the way to his own suite of rooms. He opened the door, Monk on his heels.
Immediately a man standing at the hearth turned to face them. He was above average height. His thick, fair hair was liberally sprinkled with gray, visible mostly at the temples. Monk guessed he would have been good-looking, were he not frantically worried, his skin slick with sweat.
“Monk?” he asked, stepping forward. “Are you the commander of the Thames River Police?” Without waiting for an answer, he grasped Monk’s hand. “Thank you for coming. It’s a filthy night, I know. But this can’t wait. I am Harry Exeter . . .”“Monk?” he asked, stepping forward. “Are you the commander of the Thames River Police?”
“Yes, I’m Monk.” He took the man’s hand briefly. “Rathbone told me about your situation.”
Exeter was shaking, in spite of the warmth of the room. “I’ve got almost all the money. I’m picking up the rest tomorrow. I have to be the one to hand it over. Don’t argue with me about that. They insisted. Kate . . .”
“I won’t argue with you, Mr. Exeter,” Monk assured him. “I’d like to know as much as you can tell me. That’s the best we can do tonight. Tell me what you know, and what you suspect. If you have ideas of who could be behind this. And, for heaven’s sake, sit down, man! Clear your head as much as you can. I have some idea how you feel.”
“How can you?” Exeter asked, his voice raised as if a sudden fury moved him. “How can you possibly know?”
“Because my wife was kidnapped a little while ago. I was lucky, I got her back. And we’ll do everything possible to get your wife back,” Monk replied.
“Oh . . .” Exeter looked at the floor. “I’m sorry. I . . . didn’t think. When something like this happens, you feel so helpless . . . so alone. Everyone else looks safe, and you . . . you don’t think anyone else can know how you feel.”
“I know. I felt desperate, too. But we got her back safely.”
Exeter searched his face, as if trying to judge how much of what Monk said was true, how much an attempt to calm him.
Monk gave him a brief, tight smile. “Don’t worry, Mr. Exeter, your wife will be returned to you before we do anything to catch the kidnappers. Have you any idea who they are or why it was she who was taken? Any enemies?”
“Kate? Never!” he said vehemently.
“I meant you . . . your enemies.”
“Oh! Yes, I suppose so. Every successful man makes enemies. I’m good at what I do. When I win a contract, it necessarily means that someone else loses. But that’s business. I lose, sometimes. I don’t hate the man who wins. I learn from it!”
“If anything comes to your mind, do let me know,” Monk dismissed the subject. “Now tell me what happened.”
“Kate had luncheon with her cousin, Celia Darwin. They are quite close. It was a lovely day, if you remember, nothing like today. They walked along the riverbank in the afternoon.”
“Over Chelsea Bridge, and then along Battersea Park—”
“Were there many people about?”
“I suppose so. I really don’t know. Celia was distraught! Poor woman felt as if it were somehow her fault. I couldn’t get a lot of sense out of her. I’m sorry.”
“It doesn’t matter. We can ask your wife when we get her back. What did Celia say?”
“That a young man came up and asked the way, then started some sort of conversation. Celia’s attention was diverted, and the next moment a group of people came by and Celia and Kate were separated, and when the newcomers were gone, Kate was, too . . . and so was the young man. She thought at first it was nothing, just silliness, but then when Kate didn’t come back, she grew frightened and called for help. The police came, but there was no sign of Kate.”
“The police looked for her?”
Exeter’s expression filled with a mixture of anger and desperation. He seemed to be trying everything he could to keep his voice steady. “One pretty young woman, one plain one. A young man who apparently was handsome.” He spread his hands helplessly. “They drew their own conclusions. Celia told them Kate was married, and would never do such a thing. Celia was so upset. She is plain and older, and she has a pronounced limp. They thought she was feeling alone, unwanted, and they didn’t believe her. They intended to reassure her, but they only ended up insulting her.”
“And then?” Monk prompted.
“She couldn’t tell them anything more. They sent her home.”
Monk nodded and returned to the subject of the kidnappers and the demand for ransom.“And then they sent me a lock of Kate’s hair, and a piece of her dress, and a demand for money. They were all in an envelope that was pushed through my letter box.”
“And then they sent me a lock of Kate’s hair, and a piece of her dress, and a demand for money. They were all in an envelope that was pushed through my letter box.” For a moment, Exeter lost control of his emotions and buried his face in his hands.
Monk was not sure whether to stop, or if that would only draw attention to Exeter’s momentary breakdown. He decided to continue. “Did you answer them? Was it required?” he asked.
“No,” Exeter replied after a moment. “There was no way to answer them. They told me how much money they wanted, or they would . . . kill her. And how and when I was to meet them and make the exchange.” He lifted his face up. “Jacob’s Island, for God’s sake! It’s a hellhole!”
“Do you know it?” Monk was surprised. As far as he knew, Exeter developed expensive land, and built even more expensive houses on it.
“By repute. I haven’t been there. Why on earth would I? That’s another reason I need help. I imagine you have to know it?”
Monk gritted his teeth. “Yes. What instructions did they give you? Any particular time?”
“They drew a sort of map. I gather there are tunnels and passages when you get across the bridge and into the worst part of it.”
“Do you have the map with you?”
“Yes,” said Exeter. He fished in his inside jacket pocket and passed Monk an extremely scruffy piece of paper. It was dog-eared, partly torn, but when it was opened out, it was drawn clearly enough to show directions for access by way of the river, through a couple of very old, collapsing houses, and into a tunnel that divided. An arrow was drawn one way. There was some wreckage to be climbed over and around, and more cellars, stairs, and tunnels.
“What time?” Monk asked, his stomach knotting up because he was already certain of the answer.
“What?” Exeter looked at him.
“Let me guess . . . about half-past three . . . four . . . ?”
“Four o’clock. How did you know?” Exeter was incredulous. He glanced at Rathbone, who also looked startled.
“Dusk at this time of year,” Monk answered. “And low tide. By five the tide will already be rising again, cutting off some of these tunnels.” He took a long, deep breath. “We’ll do it, Mr. Exeter. But there is no room for error. None at all.”
“Oh God!” Exeter buried his face in his hands.
Monk waited a few moments for Exeter to recover himself, then continued, “I will speak to my men, choose which to bring, and we will meet at the Wapping Police Station at quarter-past three—”
“That’s early,” Exeter interrupted.
“We have to go by water to get to the place marked on your . . . map. If we are early we can stand off, a hundred yards away. We can’t afford to be late.”
“No . . . no, of course not. I’m sorry.”
“So meet us at the station. You know where it is?”
“At quarter-past three. With the money . . . or as much as you have.”
“I’ll have it all.” Exeter said it without hesitation, but his voice was hoarse.
“Good. We’ll get her back.” Monk held out his hand, and Exeter grasped it.