THE SECRET STEALER
Somewhere in London
Friday, April 11, 1958
Envelope encased, the carrier cylinder traveled through miles of pneumatic pipes from its place of origin to the dark, deep dungeon of the Filing Department—falling neatly from the end of the pipe and into the corresponding receiver box, as if by some magical, invisible postman.
A bell chimed as the envelope landed in receiver box fifty-five.
Michelle White’s eyes shot open as she lurched back from the edge of sleep. She blinked at the flashing yellow light on the noticeboard above her. It was her job to ensure all letters were sorted out the minute they arrived: those that met agency requirements were to be organized by date and slipped into the Inquirers’ in-box for later investigation. Those that did not went straight into the rubbish bin, and those of which she was unsure what to do with, into a looming pile on the desk. But crime and crookedness had been on the decline the last few weeks in London and so, assuming the letter would be a lead on something petty, Michelle White staggered across the Filing Department in no particular hurry.
She lifted the lid on receiver box fifty-five, the endpoint of a six-mile pneumatic tube that fed off from a letter case hidden in Passing Alley in Farringdon.
Envelopes and letters pulled from the receiver boxes were usually addressed to the agency in general: Dear people under the ground, or similar.
But tonight was different.
To Miss M. White, Inquirer.
It was odd, yet she couldn’t help smile at the thought of it. Michelle had once dreamed of becoming an Inquirer; she had come so close to the reality, too. But she was just not good enough. Not clever enough, not brave or talented enough. Not quite anything enough.
Ten years ago, at the age of twenty-two, she’d been recruited from a textile factory where she’d toiled long hours as a quality control assistant. But like everyone who came to work in the sunless labyrinth, Michelle had swiftly and without much consideration renounced the liberties of her previous, lackluster life in exchange for the opportunity to begin a new and thrilling vocation as an Inquirer, where she’d hoped to finally make use of her very particular set of skills.
But things had not quite turned out that way, which is why—instead of scouring London’s streets for criminals and delinquents—Michelle had ended up here, spending her evenings as the night-duty filing assistant in the establishment’s dullest department. In fact, had it not been for her other, far more satisfying role—that of Border Guard, protector of the secret—then perhaps she would have quit years ago.
But now Michelle wondered, as she stared at the envelope in her hand, how whoever had sent it knew where she worked or why they had considered her the worthy counsel of their troubles. She ran her thumb over the words—Miss M. White, Inquirer—as if they might be absorbed through her skin and become true.
For a moment, she was reluctant to open the envelope, concerned it might be a joke. One of the young apprentices playing a trick. She clenched her jaw at the thought, breathed, then entered the letter’s details into the register file: time and date received, receiver box number and her initials. But when she opened the envelope and read the final detail—the nature of the inquiry—her breath began to quicken.
The letter was short. A name, a time, a place and one simple revelation. And yet it unleashed a torrent of angst.
Several weeks ago, something had gone missing from her handbag—something invaluable, irreplaceable, something that might dredge up a secret long since buried across the Border. At first she’d been so certain of who had taken it, and for countless nights thereafter she’d turned in her sleep, anxious the nasty thief would soon come looking for the paired device she kept locked in her private office, and with that the secret would be uncovered.
But if the letter she’d just received was to be trusted, Michelle’s anxieties had been misplaced—the secret had already been discovered. She wasn’t sure how, or even why, but if she followed the letter’s directions, she might soon find out.
Though sirens of warning blared in her head, Michelle had already made up her mind. Of course she could take the letter to someone more qualified than herself, but it had been addressed to her—whoever had sent it had entrusted her with this, a most precious and urgent secret. And besides, as the letter had said, if only for tonight, Miss White was an Inquirer.
As instructed, she lit a match and held the letter under the flame. Once the paper had turned to ash, she packed up her things, grabbed her handbag, locked the office and rushed up the staircase toward the library. She stopped at the lock room gate, far on the other side of the grand hall of glorious bookshelves. The gate was ajar, just as she’d expected.
She stepped inside, pausing immediately as a wave of something cool and cutting passed in front of her, a curious thing. She rubbed her eyes and looked around the dully lit room, at the hundreds of steel drawers, safes in which were kept the agency’s most hallowed files and documents. The lock room, with its thick walls and high ceiling, was always chilled, but tonight it felt particularly so.
Something split from the wall behind her. She turned to the sound but saw only a shadow move across the room and something that looked like a large black box being removed from inside the wall. She hesitated, then moved a little closer. But it came again—a wave of cool air, dancing in front of her. She dabbed her eyes with the cuff of her sleeve; they were now surely playing tricks on her, for everything had turned to a strange blur of nothing. Michelle started to panic, her thoughts as unfocused as her eyesight. Her head began to spin. Her limbs to tingle. This might have been the moment she ran for her life, out of the lock room and away from the evil she now knew had been waiting for her there. But terror had immobilized her. There was nothing she could do to get her legs to move, not even when she heard the rush of footsteps, some behind her, some in front. Not even when she felt the brush of air against her neck.
“What’s happening,” she asked in a staggered groan. “I know you’re there…I know it was you…” She trailed off, the words in her head no longer making sense.
She dropped her handbag. Something hard rolled out and across the floor. She was too disorientated to realize what it was.
In a drawn-out moment that seemed to last forever, Michelle’s senses grew dull and viscous. She could no longer trust her eyesight, her ears. She might have seen an amorphous shape crouching in front of her. She might have seen it lift something from the floor. Certainly, however, she felt the sharp burn of a cold, ragged blade as it sunk quickly and easily through the delicate skin across her throat.
Warmth, darkness and nothing more.
Excerpted from Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder @ 2020 by Tessa Gukelberger, used with permission by Park Row Books/HarperCollins.