Sergeant Webb opened the door of The Red Lion and was greeted by the clammy embrace of the ever-present fog. He shivered involuntarily and contemplated whether it would be prudent to remain for one more drink, before venturing back onto the murky streets.
“Oi, Webb!”, called the landlord, “Shut the bloody door!” Sergeant Webb turned and gave the landlord the eye.
“I’ve got my eye on you, John Sutton.” He growled.
“More like you’ve got your eye on another glass of porter, you old reprobate!” answered the landlord, amongst peals of laughter from the other patrons.
“I will have you know that I have important Police work to attend to, Mister Sutton,” said Sergeant Webb stiffly, “However, your card is now marked…”
“And I’ve added several ‘marks’ to your tally, Sergeant,” said the landlord pointedly, “so unless you’re planning on settling up this evening…?”
“Let’s not be hasty, John,” said Webb hurriedly, “I’m sure we can overlook the matter on this occasion…”
John Sutton rolled his eyes. Getting Sergeant Webb to cough up what was owed was more difficult than getting a thrup’ny upright for less than the advertised rate. Still, his patronage did prevent the less savoury sorts from causing any trouble on his premises.
“Whatever, you say, Sergeant,” he sighed, “Now, will you please close the ruddy door?”
Webb stepped out into the night, firmly closing the door behind him. Other than the muted hum of conversation from the pub and the faint creaking and hoofbeats of a lone hansom purveying late night revellers home to their beds, the streets were quiet.
Best see where young Stanley’s got to, thought Sergeant Webb, no doubt he’s found some obscure inscription on a random piece of statuary and is a-busy scribbling some notes.
Webb stepped out onto the cobbles and made his way towards the lamp post where he had parted company with Constable Rowan earlier that night. As he drew closer to the railing surrounding St. Gilbert’s, his eye was drawn to a vague form stumbling about in the grounds, lamplight flickering spasmodically as though held in a palsied hand.
Instincts honed from many years patrolling the streets had him reaching for his truncheon and whistle without conscious thought and he advanced cautiously, his whistle poised for immediate use.
The shadowy figure lurched towards the gates, knocking them open with a squeal of tortured metal, and Constable Rowan staggered into view, managing a few faltering steps before dropping to his knees, his regulation lamp dropping from nerveless fingers to spin away across the ground.
“Stanley!” Cried Sergeant Webb, rushing forward, all thoughts of summoning assistance banished by his overwhelming concern for his young colleague.
Webb knelt swiftly by the younger man, practiced eyes running over his body, searching for evidence of assault. Rowan seemed dazed, his features pale, but his collar and cuffs were still fastened, which suggested that no Night-stalker had caused this condition. They usually went for the wrists or throat, where the arteries were closer to the surface, although the silvered thread woven into the Black Museum’s uniforms provided an effective deterrence against assaults of this kind.
Webb grabbed for Rowan’s discarded lantern and shone the light into his face. The young man’s eyes were unfocussed, staring at God knew what, and what was that livid mark upon his cheek? As Webb tried to get a closer look, the mark began to fade from view, until it vanished completely, leaving Rowan’s face unblemished.
All the while, Rowan had been muttering to himself, repeating the same phrases over and over. Webb leaned closer, trying to make out what was being said. “What is it, lad?” He queried gently, “What are you trying to say?”
“The brass walls…the circled star…so lonely, for SO long…” whispered Rowan.
Webb stood quickly, raised his whistle to his lips and gave three piercing blasts. Constables Nash and Moore were also patrolling Blackwell that evening and this summons would bring them running as soon as they were able. Webb cast the light form Rowan’s lamp into the shadowed confines of the churchyard, seeking answers or at least the felon responsible for poor Stanley’s attack, but to no avail.
Anxiously he stood guard over the slumped form of his junior officer, his tension only easing as he heard the pounding of regulation issue boots heralding the arrival of reinforcements. As Nash and Moore appeared from the billowing fog, concern evident upon their faces, Webb found his thoughts returning to the strange mark he had thought he had seen on Stanley’s cheek.
He had only glimpsed it for a moment, but could have sworn that it was the impression of a woman’s lips…