Thursday, August 27
Princeton, New Jersey
My front door hangs open, as strikingly large and incongruously blue as ever. Outside, the now familiar sight of wartime London calls. July 1945. The past, but my inescapable future.
I must go. Despite the best of intentions, all I’ve done is change the course of history for the worse. The Russian got the better of me. I’ll warn Harrison about him and the other lessons I’ve learned. Prepare him better than my Grandpa Harry prepared me. I can’t let him fail again. Correction. I can’t fail again.
How many times have I had this same thought?
I’ve done what I can to wrap up my affairs. The strangers who consider themselves my parents can take care of the rest, the things that can only be done once I’m officially declared missing.
I grab one last glance at my house. My grandfather’s house. It’s both disconcerting and comforting to know I will see this place again, even though I won’t be coming back.
I tense my muscles then spring into action, charging forward like a rampaging bull, committed now to this course of action. Seventh time lucky I tell myself as I rush through the open door…
Tuesday, June 30
Princeton, New Jersey
The weight of the ridiculously large sapphire blue door resists my efforts to close it behind me. I pull harder, banging it shut, then reach into a pocket for my key chain. Once it’s free, finding the right key is easy. Old-fashioned, with a long cylindrical shaft and two large, square teeth, it looks every bit as ancient as the lock.
A dull tingling in my fingers persists an hour after I stopped the car, the lingering effect of driving five hours straight without even a bathroom break. Pushing so hard wasn’t necessary—classes don’t start for several weeks yet—but the house beckoned. A thick layer of dust covered everything inside, but I was relieved to discover the place in good condition after being unoccupied for so many years.
I wiggle the key back and forth before finding the spot where it slides home. The key resists my effort to turn it. I push harder.
Damn. The shaft may break off in the lock if I twist too hard. Perhaps I should just leave the place unlocked in the hope someone will save me the trouble and cost of dumping Grandpa Harry’s appliances. How did anyone ever think a refrigerator or range hood looked good in mustard yellow?
I’m half-serious, but no one would take them, and I can’t risk the furniture. It’s even more dated—from the fifties maybe—but quality workmanship in a classic style. I like it, and not only for its sentimental value. One more try of the lock.
This time the key turns.
I drop the keys back in my pocket then tug at the door. It should hold. I’ll replace the lock with something modern, something secure, before I fill the place with white goods and electronics actually worth stealing.
As I turn to leave for my hotel, I dream of a long-awaited dinner—room service, but better than nothing—followed by a steaming hot shower and a comfortable bed.
WHAT THE F—
There isn’t time to finish my question in the instant between missing a step and kissing the pavement. And far too little time, or information, to answer it.
I lie there long enough to recover from the shock before sitting up with a loud groan. My right shoulder seems to have taken most of the impact. I rotate my arm in a slow, lazy circle. Just a little mild discomfort.
My neck hurts too, and now a dull, burning pain in my hands reaches my consciousness. I turn them over. Gravel rash on my palms. I drag my hands along my thighs, removing as much as possible of the dirt and fine pieces of concrete embedded in my skin.
Otherwise I seem OK. Wouldn’t I hurt a whole lot more if I broke or dislocated something?
Even my glasses are undamaged despite my inelegant face-down landing. It’s my pride that’s injured, far worse than my body. How stupid. I haven’t even moved in, and I’ve fallen down the front steps. The neighbors will think I’m a drunk.
When I look behind me, shock replaces anger at my own carelessness. At the top of the steps, four more than should be there, stands the door I just closed…
Attached to the wrong house.
Wrong because a few minutes ago this door was attached to my house. Although less wrong architecturally speaking; this grand Georgian structure is worthy of a door ten feet tall and five feet wide. Even the color that was so out of place in the Princeton house fits the style of this building. It is as if someone designed this door for this specific home.
Nevertheless, it doesn’t belong here. It belongs to my grandparents’ house, my house now, where it has stood for as long as I can remember.
I climb to my feet.
What is that smell? My nose twitches. Something burning. I take another breath, drawing the curious scent deep into my lungs. A hint of… sulfur. Gunpowder?
My God, did someone shoot me? Is that why I fell? Both hands pat furiously at my chest and stomach but find no blood or bullet wounds.
Slowly spinning around, sniffing as I go, I search for the source of the odor.
While subtle, it seems to be coming from every direction. Burning coal? Nobody burns coal anymore, other than in giant power stations, and even that’s on the way out.
Left, right, left I swivel my head. Buildings three or four stories tall fill the street from end to end. There’s no sign of the detached suburban homes that should be here. And where are the majestic oaks lining my street? Or my car? I left it parked right out front.
The other side of the street is the same, townhouses abutting each other from one end to the other. Except for the house directly opposite. What’s left of it. Only a few walls and part of the second floor still stand. The rest spills onto the sidewalk and into the street, a pile of rubble mixed with the sad flotsam of a family’s life—splintered furniture, the shredded remains of bed linens and clothing, a headless doll. It reminds me of the bombed-out houses I’ve seen in dozens of black and white photos of wartime London.
Don’t be ridiculous. That would be impossible.
But it sure isn’t Princeton. Everything here is wrong. And dark, though it’s only a little after 5:30 pm in the middle of summer. Sundown isn’t for three or four hours yet. And even at night it should never be this black. Not a single streetlight pierces the darkness, there’s no traffic, and not a scrap of light escaping from a window anywhere.
What is going…
My vision blurs. Now I understand. I have a concussion. I’m hallucinating.
I sway, in small circles at first but they grow larger with each rotation. I can’t stand for another minute. My knees hit the ground then I tilt forward at the waist. Using my already injured hands to break my fall, I slump to the ground, once more face down on the pavement.
Everything rolls ninety degrees to the left. My cheek presses against the cold, hard concrete, and then this strange place disappears behind closed eyes. Everything will be fine when I wake up…
Thursday, July 1
The staccato rhythm of my heels striking the pavement echoes down the empty street. So eager am I for the familiar comfort of my London home I rush along despite the deep gloom of the blackout. Three nights in my own bed will be a welcome and much anticipated respite from the dull room in a drab house where I have spent far too many evenings since this horrible war started.
I pull up sharply at the foot of my front steps.
In my imprudent haste I almost tripped over a human lump lying at my feet. What is he doing there?
Passed out in a drunken stupor is the most plausible explanation. I kneel and smell his breath. To my great surprise there is no hint of intoxicating liquor. If falling down drunk is not the explanation, what is? At this closer range I can see a graze and the beginnings of a lump on his forehead, entirely consistent with a fall, or a fight. But robbery is an implausible motive given the sleek gold watch still attached to his right wrist. Left-handed. Interesting… but not germane.
Yet an explanation there must be; a man should never find himself lying unconscious on the footpath without good cause.
Though he is under-dressed—no waistcoat, no jacket or overcoat, no tie or cravat, and no hat—his trousers have the sheen of silk, his cotton shirt is finely woven, and his shoes have the shine of the best patent leather. Expensive garments and an elegant watch suggest a gentleman, or at least a person of means. And well-dressed, well-groomed, and bespectacled does not describe a man accustomed to casual violence.
The most plausible hypothesis is therefore that he was the victim of an assault, a troubling enough thought to compel me to involve the police. I move towards the stairs, then stop and turn back. In good conscience I cannot leave an injured man alone in the murky darkness whilst I go inside to telephone.
I kneel beside him once again. “Hello there.” He does not respond. I shake him by the shoulder. “I say, can you hear me?”
He moans as he turns onto his back and opens his eyes. They trace out a strange elliptical path as they roll around in their sockets. His eyes widen then narrow then widen again as he struggles to focus his vision on me. “What happen…”
“It appears you struck your head.”
The man pushes himself up with one hand. The other lightly touches his temple, the fingertips exploring the injury.
“Oww,” he says with a wince. “Where…” He shakes his head, his breath coming in ragged, panicked bursts. “Where am…”
“Please, you must rest easy. There will be time for questions once we get you inside. Can you stand?”
A hand reaches out. I take it and place my other hand beneath his elbow. He begins to rise but then releases my hand and drops forward onto his knees.
His palms rest on his thighs, his chin on his chest. “Sorry, but not under my own steam.”
An American accent, only hinted at in his earlier, monosyllabic utterances, is unmistakable now. What is his business in London? The obvious answer, that he is an American serviceman, does not fit his appearance. First, he has a beard. Though cropped short and neatly trimmed, it is not the mark of a soldier. Though the Royal Navy, unlike the other services, allows beards. But does the US Navy?
I do not know, but even if they do, it would not explain his civilian attire. Or his hair. It reaches in unruly, dark-brown waves to his shoulders, a style that does not belong on the head of any man, no matter what his profession or nationality. Certainly not a military man.
For now the mystery of his identity and his purpose here shall have to wait. Can I carry him inside? Should I call Father to help move him? Or he could telephone while I stay with the man…
But is Father even here? He may still be at the War Office. Mr. Churchill often keeps senior officers until the small hours of the morning. He may not even be in London. I did not check before I came down.
Mrs. Collins, on the other hand, is always here. But she would object vociferously to bringing a stranger inside. I would never hear the end of it. There must be a more palatable alternative.
I assess my subject again. While tall, he is quite thin. Lanky is the word to describe him. How much can he weigh? I am an independent woman. I will deal with this situation myself.
I squat, keeping my knees together as a lady should, even at night with no one around to see, and slip my shoulder under his arm.
“One, two, three,” I say then lift with my legs.
A long, deep, unladylike groan escapes my lips. More than it appears, is the answer to my query about his weight. Unsteady on his feet, the mysterious American cannot support himself without my help. I half-lift, half-push him up the stairs.
By the time we reach the landing my back aches, my heart thumps, and my chest heaves as I struggle to regain my breath.
With my key already in hand, I unlock and thrust open the door before I guide him inside and lower him to the floor, involuntarily letting him land with a thud.
Wide, narrow windows set high in the wall remind me of the tiny basement flat I rented in Chelsea.
So I’m in a basement? London townhouses all have basements. Back when they were built, these grand houses had armies of domestic helpers. ‘Downstairs’ was their domain.
Is this the basement of the townhouse that for some inexplicable reason has a door identical to mine? Wherever this is, it now appears to be some kind of informal sitting room, every inch decorated in the style of 1940s England. I look around the room, my gaze settling first on a painting on the wall, then on a piece of furniture, then on some small trinket sitting on a shelf.
The authenticity is staggering. Though military rather than social history is my primary field of interest, WWII is my specialty, and the fashions of the 1940s familiar to me. Yet I can’t fault a single thing, not even small details like the teacup and saucer sitting on the table in front of me. The delicate bone china is decorated with an antique pale blue floral pattern.
There’s tea in the cup. I lift the saucer, then raise the cup to my lips, closing my eyes as I take a long, slow sip.
It took the Brits some time to convert me, but they’re right—a ‘nice cup of tea’ is the universal tonic. If you know how to make it properly. Which most of my countrymen don’t. Boil the damn water, people.
The cup warms my hands as I hold it, staring into the milky liquid and hoping for answers. Where am I and how did I get here? I remember a fall. Then blackness until I’m sitting in this armchair.
My head aches. I examine my palms. Someone has cleaned the skin and applied what looks like iodine solution. A little old-fashioned, but effective. Grandpa Harry swore by the stuff.
Is this an elaborate prank perpetrated by my new colleagues, some kind of initiation ritual, my fellow history geeks’ idea of a joke gone wrong? But they would have needed to drug me or something to bring me here, wherever here is. That isn’t the sort of thing the faculty at a prestigious university like Princeton would do. Perhaps they took me for welcoming drinks and I consumed a few too many. I can recall nothing of the evening, not even before I started drinking, but what other rational explanation could there be?
A door opens and a woman I’ve never seen before enters the room. Is she one of them? I don’t remember her from the faculty directory.
I stand. Feeling lightheaded, I steady myself on the arm of the sofa.
My effort at politeness is ruined by my staring, but I can’t help it. She is slim and willowy without being bony and androgynous like those hideously skinny runway models. With a classic English complexion—pale freckles dance across her alabaster skin beneath strawberry-blond hair—she seems to draw all the light in the room to her, reflecting it back in an angelic glow.
But it isn’t her beauty that stuns me. Rather it’s the forties hairstyle and her clothing—a perfect replica of a woman’s Victory Suit—which fit the purported time and place every bit as well as this room’s decor.
Lively green eyes gaze back intently at me. “You have quite a bump on your head,” she says.
Her upper-class accent is every bit as faithful as the rest of this elaborate deception. I could easily imagine this woman invited to tea with the Queen. Someone went to a lot of trouble. But who?
She raises her hand with three fingers extended. “How many do you see?”
“Splendid. And do you recall your name?”
As I transfer my tea to my left hand, the cup wobbles on the saucer. Steadying my arm before I spill any, I extend my right hand. “Harrison Seely.”
Her hand, soft and delicate, rests in mine for a brief second as she says, “Lady Alicia Rowntree.”
In a man such a handshake would be considered a sign of weakness. In her case it seems elegant and refined, and somehow an unspoken assertion of social superiority.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Seely.”
She motions for me to sit as she lowers herself into the seat opposite, her back ramrod straight, and her knees pressed together and tilted to one side. From the ease with which she assumes the pose, it appears well practiced.
“Perhaps pleasure may not be the best word,” she says, “given the circumstances. How are you feeling? Quite a deal better I hope.”
I groan theatrically. “I think I’ll survive.”
“Do you know where you are?”
There it is. Should I call her bluff or play along? Which choice is more likely to lead to answers?
Play along. For now. “London. Though I can’t tell you the address. Or how I got here.”
“32 Hartness Street, Kensington. I found you outside in quite a sorry state and brought you in.”
“You’re in the habit of collecting strays?”
“Well thank you for making an exception, for sheltering me in your home. It is your home…”
“Title resides with my father and will pass to my brother, but yes, it is my home. In a manner of speaking.”
“In a manner of speaking?”
She waves the question away. “As to the broader question, perhaps if we knew what brought you to London, we might determine how you managed to end up lying unconscious on the footpath outside my front door. Are you part of the United States military? I ask because there are so many American soldiers on our shores now, but you are not wearing a uniform.”
“Only indirectly.” I touch the side of my nose with my forefinger. “I’m not at liberty to say more, you understand.”
Her eyes widen. Aha. Whoever is behind this ruse didn’t prepare her for this particular answer. But before I can think of a follow-up, her face stiffens and her shoulders relax, indicating she has regained control.
“Absolutely,” she says. “Loose lips sink ships and all that.”
“Exactly.” For a moment I thought I was on the front foot. If only I could think of something to put her off balance again.
“And you remember nothing of the events preceding your unfortunate mishap this evening?”
Her brow furrows.
“I remember nothing. Nothing at all.”
“Do you at least know where you reside?”
I place my cup and saucer on the side table then stand. “I do.”
It’s not a good idea to engage an unknown enemy under the best of circumstances. But with my brain as foggy as it is, continuing this battle of wits would be asking for trouble.
“And on that note,” I say as I move toward the door, “I really should thank you for your kindness and be on my way.”
“We should telephone for someone to fetch you.”
She slides to her left, just enough to obstruct my path unless I push rudely past her. “You did lose consciousness. Notwithstanding your remarkable ability to count fingers, I fear you may have suffered a nasty concussion.”
Whoever this woman is, she is a talented actress. Her concern, an obvious ploy to get me to stay, seems so genuine. All the more reason I should leave. Now.
“That won’t be necessary. If you would direct me to the nearest tube station, I can take it from there.”
“It is after midnight, Mr. Seely. Underground services will have stopped by now.”
“Then I’ll find a taxi,” I say as I step around her. “Or walk,” I add as I rush for the stairs.
THE WOMAN PLAYING the part of Lady Alicia Rowntree closes the door until only her head is visible through the six-inch gap between door and frame. “A very good evening to you, Mr. Seely.”
“And to you, Ma’am.”
Her lips move as if to speak, but she stops and shakes her head instead. “Good evening,” she says again, before closing the door.
At the top of the steps I pause, gazing out into a dark and unfamiliar street. What’s my next move? If this is London, I can find my way to a hotel; it’s just over five years since I lived here. If not, I’ll find out soon enough and take it from there.
Behind me I hear the sound of the key doing its work.
I spin around. All I can see is dark outlines. I reach out in the darkness, groping for the door.
My smartphone beeps. I pull it from my pocket. A reminder to call Mom. As I swipe to dismiss the notification, illumination from the screen, though faint, spurs a mental connection. Flashlight app!
Two quick taps and I have useful light.
Now I can see the lock. It looks identical to mine, except the brass on this one is shiny, like it’s been freshly polished. I remove my keys. Will mine fit?
I turn the phone off and slip it back into my pocket. After waiting a few minutes in the dark, I press my ear to the door. No sound. I guess she’s in bed by now, somewhere on one of the upper floors.
I hold my breath as I feel for the lock. There. I place a finger beside the keyhole, rest the key against it, then guide it in. Unlike the lock on my grandfather’s house—my house—the key slips smoothly into this one. Too easily. No jiggling required. It can’t be the same lock. Of course it isn’t. But I rotate my wrist to the left anyway, even though I expect the key not to budge.
It gives way without resistance, the bolt retracting with a smooth click.
Damn, what do I do now? I have a key, but the law is clear. This is still breaking and entering. I can just imagine the headline in The Daily Princetonian: NEW ASSISTANT PROFESSOR ARRESTED. Mine will be the shortest appointment in the history of the university, fired before I teach a single class.
But I have to find out what the hell is going on. I have no idea where I am, who this house belongs to, or how I got here. Somehow the key to the front door of my house in Princeton fits the lock to this door, the entrance to a house that looks for all the world like it belongs in wartime London, not New Jersey.
I lay a palm against the door then push it open inch by inch, biting my lip when the hinges squeak.
I don’t know what I expect to find. But it isn’t this. The inside of my own house.
I CHARGE INTO THE living room and press my face against a large picture window facing the road. Oak trees, single-family homes, my almost new Subaru Outback still covered in the grime and splattered insects of a cross-country road trip, all illuminated by the long, soft rays of an afternoon sun sitting low above the western horizon.
The sight of a normal suburban street has never been so welcome or appeared so welcoming. Relief at being back in Princeton crashes into me like a wave, one of those big ones that comes out of nowhere and dumps you head first into the sand.
I drop to the floor and sit with my head in my hands, overwhelmed by this strange ordeal.
Am I going mad?
About an hour passes before I summon the will to stand. Maybe in the morning I will find the answers, but for now all I want is to return to my hotel. Dinner and a shower can wait. I need to crawl into bed, pull the comforter over my head, and wake up tomorrow to a normal, boring, time-travel-free day.
I open the door to leave.
Outside is the gloomy streetscape I thought I’d escaped. I rush back to the living room window.
Then the front door.
Back and forth I shuttle, running in circles like a cat chasing its tail.
Stepping outside, the soft afternoon light spills from my door into an otherwise all-encompassing darkness. I turn, tilt my head back and look up. The upper floors of the townhouse loom over me in the night, like an evil giant. Yet through the open doorway I can see the inside of my house. How is any of this possible?
I PULL THE DOOR closed behind me and look up and down the street once again. I’m more convinced than ever. This is wartime London.
The implications of my discovery are astounding. Shouldn’t I tell someone?
An image appears in my mind, influenced by too many movies I’m sure: men riding in black SUVs screeching to a halt in front of my house, helicopters hovering overhead, scientists from some unknown government agency clad in HAZMAT suits commandeering my home to study this wormhole or whatever it is.
No, this is my find, my secret. If I can move at will between the past and the present—or seen from here, the present and the future—the possibilities for my research are endless. I could gather data for a dozen groundbreaking papers, any one of which would launch me on the fast-track to tenure.
But how to be sure?
A newspaper. I need to see a newspaper.
In the inky gloom of the blackout I must walk at a painfully slow pace to avoid tripping. But it’s still less than fifteen minutes before I come to a sign pointing to the Underground.
Finding my way becomes progressively easier as my eyes adjust to the dark, and five minutes later I stand across the road from the entrance to Gloucester Road Station.
The station is closed. I duck into a nearby alleyway, disappearing into the shadows. In a country embroiled in total war, paranoia is epidemic. At all costs I must avoid looking suspicious. That’s not easy though—lurking in a dark alley is exactly the sort of thing a German spy would do.
I’m forced to wait more than two hours. It’s deathly quiet at first, but around 4:30 am the city begins to stir. Every passing vehicle and person strengthens my conviction I have traveled to London in the 1940s.
By the time the newsboys arrive, between 5:00 and 5:15 am according to the large clock mounted above the station’s entrance, I know what I’ll see. But it’s important for my research to establish the exact point during the war this day falls.
Leaving the security of my hiding place, I take one step into the road before jumping back. Shit, I looked the wrong way. Fortunately, there’s no traffic, but it was still a stupid rookie mistake. I should know better; I almost got wiped out that way when I first moved to London.
I step off the curb again, this time checking to my right first, forcing myself to do the exact opposite of what Mrs. Walton taught us in the first grade. The road is clear, so I dash across, stopping on the other side a few feet in front of a boy waving a paper above his head.
RAF PUMMELS RUHR AGAIN! the headline shouts triumphantly.
The bombing campaign against German industrial facilities in the Ruhr Valley occurred in the first half of 1943, only stopping when Bomber Command’s Lancasters and the Flying Fortresses of the US Eighth Air Force switched to the pointless and inhumane firebombing of Hamburg. But I have no idea when this particular raid occurred.
I move closer, stretching my neck as I try to read the date on the masthead.
“It ain’t no library, Guv.”
“You want to read it,” the kid says, “you pay your money.”
I hide my face as I slink away. I would have bought the paper if I could have, not just to satisfy my curiosity, but for the paperboy’s sake. He can’t be any more than eleven or twelve. His sallow face and skinny arms and legs suggest he can only dream of three square meals a day. In my time kids his age don’t get out of bed this early, they don’t work, and obesity is a far bigger problem than hunger. This is definitely not 2015.
If I’m going to come back—of course I am—I’ll need to do something about money. That might not be so easy, getting hold of British notes issued before 1943.
But for now I’ve got what I want, the date.
I stare up at the awning overhead as I recall the events of July 1943… until I notice the sideways looks I’m getting from passing commuters. I must look like a madman.
Before leaving I glance up at the station clock. 5:25. My watch, still on Princeton time, shows 11:25 pm. The time difference between the east coast and the UK should be five hours…
But no, the UK was on Double Summer Time during the war. The time difference is right. Apart from the seventy-two years, to the minute, I’ve traveled into the past.
I pause in front of the mirror for a final wardrobe check. A wide smile beams back at me from underneath a charcoal-gray fedora. With my hair tucked into my hat, I could have stepped straight out of 1943 London. My new look is the result of a week of meticulous preparation. Every moment not devoted to moving in, I’ve spent scouring online markets for period clothing and shoes, an antique watch, and other vintage items.
But my eye prescription would require super-thick lenses with 1940s technology, glass rather than plastic lenses. I don’t want to look like Mr. Magoo, so I’m sticking with my modern eyewear. The style, small, round lenses in a tortoiseshell frame, should fit right in. They’ll only be a problem if someone examines the lenses closely, not easy to do if I keep them on my face. As for seventy-year-old underwear—used underwear—I’m not going there. Not that anyone should see my boxers.
Though pleased with my disguise, I’m less happy about the effect on my finances. 1940s chic doesn’t come cheap, and junior academics are notoriously underpaid. My new position pays better—once I start. And I’ll save on rent living in this house. Cash flow is my problem. My credit cards are almost maxed out. If I keep spending this way, I’ll drain my meager savings before the paychecks from my new job start arriving.
I’ll have to think about that one. Time travelers solve the problem in the movies by giving their future selves stock tips or, hello Biff Tannen, by betting on sporting events. Of course, Hollywood isn’t real life. Neither is time travel, or so I believed until recently.
I touch my pockets, feeling for the pouches of tobacco. Check. I don’t smoke, but cigarettes were in high demand in wartime England. U-Boats sent so much of Britain’s vital imports to the bottom of the Atlantic, dedicated smokers turned to the black market. Such is the addictive nature of nicotine, they would pay astronomical prices.
In contrast, a pound of loose tobacco cost me just fifty bucks. Though I did feel vaguely dirty going into a tobacconist. These days, to be a smoker is to be an object of pity.
My original plan was to put the tobacco in vintage tins, but I need them to appear new. The ones I found online were scratched and dented, the paint dull and faded after seventy years. So I’ve wrapped my wares in brown paper pouches tied with string instead.
I also bought all the pre-1943 British currency I could find for sale. At a hundred dollars for a ‘tenner’ it wasn’t bad value. Ten pounds was a lot of money back then—what a skilled worker might earn in a week or two. But the £143 in old, worn notes tucked into an antique billfold in my pocket still won’t last forever. Selling tobacco should be a more sustainable strategy for acquiring local cash.
I check the time on my phone and make a quick calculation. The time in London should be 4:30 am. Sunrise will be a little after 6 am. The idea is to arrive while it’s still dark. That way I shouldn’t run into Alicia Rowntree while using her door, but not be there so early I’ll have to wait for hours to get on with business.
I put the phone away. From the drawer of a small table standing in the entrance I grab the old key, now detached from the keyring.
Making a point of leaving the lights on, I open the door and step outside.
I SIT HUNCHED OVER a table in the back corner of a pub called The Hand and Flower. A thin, smoky haze fills the room, giving it a warm, intimate, and mysterious air, like a key scene from an old movie, one where you know critical events are about to unfold.
The smoke drove me mad at first, irritating my eyes and nose. But I’ve been here long enough now for that to stop, or at least to learn how to ignore it. And to be most of the way through my third drink.