The sky was red over a city of grey, and only too right – for that night, by the banks of the Thames in the dank dark gutters of the place called London, murder had been done.
The vault of heaven glowered crimson as I took a long stroll along the waterfront, as I was wont to do in the warmer months when the early hours permitted mobility with only a few layers of coats. It was a portentous sign, and I knew it. So much I said to a nearby beggar, still attempting sleep on a hard, freezing slab of concrete which served most other Londoners as a bench. He spoke with a cockney accent so ludicrous that purveyors of caricature and satire might take him to court for infringement, as he told me what I might do with my portents in a string of curses which would’ve dyed my hair white, were I not so amused. His powerful performance of perdition and punition perforce complete, the aged vagrant turned over and commenced to sleeping once again as though he’d never woken. I had to wonder if he hadn’t said all that in his sleep.
Unfortunately, the grave circumstance foretold by the ruddy dawn prevented me from investigating the matter further, and I reluctantly obeyed his injunction to “leave a poor blighter be,” departing for the Metropolitan Police station with utmost haste. I had a sense my counsel would be sorely needed.
I arrived at a quarter past 8 by my watch and 10 minutes after by the clock mounted above the door of the station. On multiple occasions, I had impressed upon the sergeant his need to service the mechanisms of the old contraption and rectify the continual loss of time. He’d yet to listen to sound advice unless forced to the point, however, and it seemed unlikely that today would be the day of change. As I stood outside, waiting in the pleasant, damp morning air for the doors to be unlocked, I wondered how to phrase my suspicions without myself sounding suspect. I knew the Yard to get numerous tips in the course of an ordinary day, yet none so strange and macabre as the ones I regularly delivered. Pitied and despised as I was by much of the constabulary, whenever the sergeant at last turned from the empty well of the forensic sciences to the deep and proven waters of spiritual mysticism, my information always netted results of a prosecutorial nature.
“Oh christ alive, not you again,” the old watchdog said, announcing himself as he emerged from the fog rolling heavy down the cobbled street. Were I a more superstitious man, I might have recalled the saying Speake of the devil, and he shall appeare… though in this case, it would need to be amended to thinking of the fiend.
“And a very pleasant morning to you as well, Sergeant Bailey,” I replied with my utmost underhanded obsequiousness. I noted, as ever, the persistent purple bags beneath his eyes and the deep crows’ feet surrounding them, giving his face an aspect not unlike a large, pitted prune…
“You know I can hear you thinkin’ about me,” he ejected suddenly, cutting off my rather descriptive (if not somewhat lurid) train of thought just before it reached my old favorites: comparing his nose to an old squash, or drawing a rather keen comparison between his eyebrows and the kind of fuzzy caterpillars who nibbled away at the flowers in my planter boxes…
“Can still hear you,” Bailey said, needlessly reminding me of the fact as he set to unlocking the front door. There was a slight tremble in his hands that belied his attempt to appear fully awake and sober for the sake of public opinion…
“Look,” he said as he turned towards me, brandishing the large iron key in a way that recalled the way most ruffians brandish knives, “I know you’ll be writin’ this all down in your little rag, so I suggest you stuff all that and stick to the plain facts. We clear?”
As I made some stammering excuse that I was thinking all this rather than writing it (at least, at that moment), he returned to the doorway and at last found success in opening it. I kept any further mental comments about the amount of time it took him to accomplish the feat to myself. This forbearance, alas, left me rather short of my typically vivid vindictive evaluations, and thus I found myself, to my chagrin and your deep loss, forced to consider what Bailey so banally described as “the plain facts” of the working relationship between the sergeant and myself.
London is too small a town for two gentlemen (or rather, a gentleman and a constable) of not-inconsiderable extrasensory aptitude to avoid one another for long, and yet I had successfully evaded any such encounter for at least a decade. In that space of time, I lived a quiet, retired life of peaceable solitude and contemplation, alone but for the company of a few likeminded individuals of particularly keen insight and an open-minded nature…
“Come off it, Walsh, you were living in an opium den,” Bailey remarked with his usual uncanny acuity. I kicked myself as we entered the station, cursing my habit of constructing written narratives around events as they transpired. Though I am quite the independent investigator and whip-smart wordsmith (Bailey chuckled as I thought this, but reserved his comments), I find it easier to write from psychic reexperience than from the more pedestrian recollection most authors utilize. Though some might complain such talents grant an unfair advantage in my chosen field of true-crime journalism (or indeed, in the field of solving said crimes), I say that we cannot choose the gifts we are given, and should not forbear from their use for the sake of other people’s opinion. One may as well criticize Kipling his skill in flowery verse by complaining that he’s just showing off.
AHEM. Returning then (distraction dispensed with) to the long and storied history of two paranormal parishioners destined to become the greatest (or at least strangest) crime-fighting duo the empire had ever seen. At the time of our first encounter, Bailey was un-gainfully employed by the Strand Magazine, distributing (amongst other things) Doyle’s woefully frivolous mystery fiction to the literature-starved masses. He was an avid reader of the Holmes tales, and himself dreamed of one day solving mysteries. Bailey’s abilities, alas, were pitiably underdeveloped, manifesting only in a dim seventh sense for people’s intentions; one which granted him quite the advantage as a salesman. Mine, on the other hand, were wide-awake and sharp as scalpels, despite the opiate haze that hung over everything else. I was strolling down the street that morning, a hand to my brow to keep the all-too-brilliant sun out of my eyes, and decided to spend the small change in my pocket to procure the publication previously presented (not for the fiction within, mind you). I saw at once that I had discovered a kindred soul: a mind-reader of such extraordinary talent and natural power that he put all before him to shame and disgrace…
“In here,” Bailey spoke, interrupting another beautifully composed paragraph of thought as he held open the door to a small office and indicated I should enter. I obliged with a nod and a smile, thinking (not for the first time) how someone who could read minds as easily as you or I read the words printed here could be so rude as to interrupt my ruminations not twice, but three times in the span of ten minutes.
“Your writin’s not so easy to read,” he said in answer to the unspoken question, “and be assured, I’m doin’ it on purpose.” He grinned wickedly, and I found myself forced to acknowledge this as the type of jest expected between old friends of a certain temperament. Bailey nodded, pleased as punch with himself as he turned to sit behind the worn and battered desk in the middle of the room. I took a small wooden chair opposite and tried not to think how all of Bailey’s good fortune was definitively derived from my tutelage.
Bailey scowled, and I knew my attempt not to think of something had produced the usual effect of making me think of nothing less. Thankfully the old bloodhound said nothing else about the matter…
“Old bloodhound?” Bailey scoffed, so angered that he almost rose out of his chair, “I’m 34!”
My blood ran cold. “Merely a figure of speech, I assure you,” I replied without thinking (as was usually best in the presence of telepaths), “In praise of your tenacious talent and tremendous tolerance of my tiresome tenancies. Pray pardon this poor participant in police proceedings his paltry powers of persuasion and preeminent poverty of polish.”
“Bloody hell,” he replied as I, breathless, attenuated my alliterations; “You need a glass a water or something, Kenn?”
“Please,” I replied, coughing briefly into my sleeve.
As Bailey pushed back his chair and departed to procure some liquid libation, I allowed my mind to wander back again to that fateful street corner meeting. As I fumblingly dispensed my sixpence into his clammy, upturned palm, my fingers unintentionally brushed against his (owing, of course, to their persistent trembling). As they did, I perceived in one terrible flash this man’s great heritage and even greater future as he stared at me, asking me to please, kindly, remove my hand from his person. Alas, I did not, and the bloodied nose I received in consequence was more than worth the elation I felt: the elation of finally discovering one like oneself in this sea of strangers and aliens.
I explained to him over the course of three short, awkward, and occasionally violent encounters on the street what I felt that fateful morning I first came in contact with him: that he possessed a supernatural acuity unparalleled in London society, a talent that could not be allowed to go to waste. Though he attempted (and eventually succeeded) in evading me each time, his powers grew with each encounter, and we were drawn together again and again like two poles of a magnet. At last, worn down by my persistence and the persistent psychic noise which made his work as a salesman untenable, he agreed to submit to my teaching and comradeship – on two conditions. First, that whatever course of study I presented would not include the use of mind-altering substances (with specific emphasis on the poppy concoction I so dearly treasured), and second, that I myself would make every effort to avoid its use. While I was none too pleased with these conditions, I accepted for the sake of his friendship and singular talent, the likes of which…
“Here you are,” Bailey said suddenly from the present, returning from the hall with a small glass of brown liqueur I correctly ascertained to be brandy from the potent smell and taste. I accepted with gratitude, making certain to think it as loudly as I could whilst I downed the strong, bracing spirit. The sergeant must’ve thought I looked sickly pale as I entered; or else couldn’t find anything other than strong drink in the station at that hour.
“Both,” he said in reply to my unspoken question, then added; “You ain’t lookin’ well, I have to say.”
I quickly assured him that I’d never felt better (though for the life of me I can’t remember whether I answered aloud or not) and raptly summarized the reason for my untimely appearance at the station. It took a good few minutes to communicate the complete story (though in truth it started and ended with the foreboding sunrise over the Thames). As I spoke, Bailey leaned further and further back in his chair. I paid little attention to his facial expressions, but when I finally revived from my reverie, I noted his look of distinct disdain and disbelief, dousing my delight.
“God’s sake, is that all you came here to tell me? Sky’s red this mornin’? Coulda got as much from any sailor worth his salt.” He shook his head, stood, and started for the door.
Before he could disappear in disgust, I aptly appended that while red sky at morning was, indeed, a common sailor’s warning, it was typically due to the presence of clouds beyond the western horizon, threatening to blow in with storm on the prevailing winds. As the summer had thus far been uncharacteristically dry for the isle of Britain, I reasoned, such atmospheric phenomenon must be due to some other cause – one beyond the pale of ordinary meteorology.
That at least gave the sergeant pause, and he turned back to me with a look I hoped was curiosity and not pity. “You sure?” he inquired after a long, uncertain moment.
It was a question a pupil of mine should’ve known better than to ask. Nothing about our business was certain, including and especially our own abilities. In the time I spent teaching the ex-newspaper man how to master his own, my premonitions began to grow weaker and less reliable. At first, I believed this due to my dutiful abstinence from the opium pipe and the company I procured thereby. However, when I lapsed back into weakness after several months and returned to the den, I found the drug did not enhance my abilities as once before, but only dulled my vision further. When Bailey (by then a newly minted constable of the Metropolitan Police) discovered my return to that fearful dark and smoky haunt I’d once forsworn, he urged me to leave with him once more. I reluctantly agreed, and he housed me in his small set of rooms on Fleet Street for several months while I flushed the narcotics from my system. Cohabitation did little to improve our relationship, however, and words were spoken that could not be undone as the days dilated to darkness and the declination of my abilities became deadly direful.
At last, pushed beyond the limits of human patience and grace after a particularly frightful altercation, Bailey had me removed from the premises with naught but a few pounds and a grudging Good Luck. So it was that we parted company, coming into contact only when necessary. He began to climb the ranks of the Yard, while I began publishing a spiritualist newspaper to support my own lifestyle. I provided my insights free of charge to the police whenever they touched on matters of a criminal nature, but beyond that, I kept a respectful distance and went about my business as before: the solitary psychic, without a friend in the world…
It was only then that I realized that Sergeant Bailey had been waiting patiently some manner of response as I was thinking all this. As he already knew our long, sad history better than I did, I simply answered that I was as sure of the portent as ever I could be.
“You know, you could have just started with that,” he said, turning and holding the door open to indicate I should follow, “Woulda saved time, I say.”
I smiled. “Ah, but whence would come the wild and wishful wantonness in wording, then?” I replied, standing up and following him back out in the station proper, “Where the wisdom awash in willful waves of wastefulness? My dear Bailey, against alliterative anglicism all antagonists of affectation array themselves, antithetical to the animating animalism of action and adverbiage. Forthwith, I pray forgive my flippant filigree and fanaticism, and allow me freedom of florid phonology.”
As I spoke, Bailey refused to answer, walking straight towards the desk of the booking sergeant where the log of London’s late-night licentiousness laid waiting. As he turned over the yellow pages, I brought to an end my speech and peered over his shoulder. Though my vision was hazy in the dark of the Station after so long in the foggy morning light, I could make out a few entries. For the most, they seemed to be the usual sort of troubles my countrymen so oft enjoy: drunken conduct, public disturbances, petty theft, and untoward behavior. I saw, however, no indication of any acts of murder, and when Bailey turned around, displeased with my presumption to read over his shoulder, he confirmed as much. For the first time he could remember, no bodies had been brought to the mortuary that night.
It is here I must confess I felt an inkling of doubt. For many months I had questioned the validity of my own predictions and wondered if my reputation as a prophet was predicated on the particular power of my oratory rather than ready, reliable results. And yet…
“Sergeant!” a constable exclaimed as he burst through the door in a breathless sweat, “Come quick! There’s been a murder!”
Bailey looked first to the young copper, then back to me, aghast. I couldn’t help the smile spreading silently over my visage. “Indubitably,” I said, grabbing my coat collars and pulling them tight like a knight strapping on a breastplate. Striding towards the door, I called back to Bailey, still standing stiff and stoic. “Come now Sergeant – the dance has begun!”
“Lord almighty,” Bailey muttered as he followed me back out into the cold, grey city, just waking up beneath a sky of red.
To be continued…