If Emilia hadn’t been dwelling on the combination as she dashed across Hyde Park, she wouldn’t have turned left instead of right at the Marble Arch exit. But her feet ached from shoes that weren’t designed for high-speed progress across royal parks and half her mind was on the painstaking – not to mention expensive – work of the hairdresser that would be reduced to a bedraggled tangle by the time she arrived. She was standing at the end of the Edgware Road before she realised.
Bayswater Road was deserted, as though even the usual taxis and buses had gone home in disgust with the weather. She took the chance to scurry across, so she’d at least be on the right side when she backtracked to Oxford Street.
The wail of a horn announced that the road wasn’t as deserted as she thought. She bounded on to the traffic island, her heel tipping her on to her hands and knees. Swearing at the receding tail lights didn’t solve anything, but it was all she could do for now so why the hell not?
When she paused for breath, she felt grass rather than paving stones beneath her hands, which was strange because grass wouldn’t have made her palms sting like this. What it would do was cover the knees of her trouser suit in mud, so she let rip with another torrent of language she very rarely used.
It was just after she ran out of words that she heard the creak. She looked up, seeing three wooden posts in the gloom in front of her. She could barely see them, which was strange because Bayswater Road had to be one of the best lit streets in London. The orange light was still there, but it had faded as if all the lights were running at a fraction of their power.
Or as though they were much further away than from across the road.
She stood up carefully, relieved to find she hadn’t twisted her ankle. In front of her, the three posts reached up to where they were joined at the top, by horizontal beams forming a triangle. Each beam suspended a large bundle that hung just above the ground.
Forgetting for a moment that she was late, she stepped closer. Surely these bundles weren’t what they looked like. It was no more than a trick of the anaemic light.
She stepped to one side, to where the light allowed her to see slightly better. She wanted to pretend that she wasn’t looking at a woman’s face. Even more, she wanted to pretend that the rope suspending her from the beams wasn’t around her neck.
The light was poor, she told herself. She could be mistaken.
A stronger light flickered across the hanged woman, leaving Emilia no space for doubt. The light was of a similar orange tone to the streetlights, but it was stronger and getting more so.
Emilia spun around to face a flame advancing on her. She wanted to back away, but then she’d back into the hanging woman and her feet refused to let her do that. As she watched, a figure in a dark cloak resolved behind the flame. The flame wasn’t floating in the air, she saw, it was a lantern that the cloaked figure was holding before it.
“Heard you shouting.” A man’s voice shouted from behind the lantern. “Was you calling the watch?”
“What?” Emilia wiped rain from her eyes. “Who are you?”
The man held the lantern closer.
“What’re you doing here?” he shouted. “Go back to where you came from!”
She stepped back before she knew she was doing it. She whirled round, horrified at how close she was to the corpse.
There was nothing behind her.
She turned back to the cloaked man. The traffic island was bathed in sodium light, but there was no one else standing on it. A bus droned past on its way toward Oxford Street.
Where Emilia was supposed to be.
“I’m late,” she said as she followed it.