London did not make itself an easy city to love; Christina knew that better than most. Keeping her eyes fixed to the cobbles underfoot, she forced herself to ignore the flood of people crowding into the streets, focusing on following the map tucked away in her memory. The 'In-Between' ran across the bridges of London. An area where the nobility could be found, braving the fetid air drifting across from the slums, gawking at the poor, worthless people who fell into the wrong side of London.
Pulling the rim of her hat lower Christina shrugged past the well dressed sightseers, slipping into the maze of narrow alleyways and filthy terraces which made up the slims. Sidestepping beggars; who huddled in doorways with outstretched palms, she gripped onto her collar, hiding behind the discoloured leather as she moved quickly. Here was where the unsavoury were kept out of sight. The laws set by men like Christina's father forbid those 'of less than pleasing appearance' to step onto the far banks of the Thames. Their presence was deemed too distressing for the general public, and in the interest of social wellbeing, the poor was swept underneath the carpet.
"Change miss?" asked an old man whose skull pressed outwards against his skin, showing the ropey veins that skittered across his pockmarked flesh like damaged spider webs. She shook her head and dodged away from his clawed fingers. She may not have shared her father's views but she wasn't stupid enough to touch anyone in this area of London, the squalor they lived in allowed disease to run rampant. It jumped from one sagging slum to the next, hidden by the perpetual smog and rattling it's talons against the empty window frames below. The old man was either desperately unfortunate, or he had fallen into the slums through bankruptcy, perhaps even madness. Either way, his death had already been declared, and no amount of charity from her would help; she would be prolonging his time in this hell if she tried.
Hurrying onwards she left the old man behind, the buildings on either side of her leering inwards, resting against each other for support and blocking off any sunlight that managed to seep through the smog. Below, the stale air was trapped, festering and clogging the airways of the breathing. The house that Christina was heading for was in slightly better condition than its neighbours; less decrepit and drooping, with glass in the windows instead of old newspapers. Wedged into the tiny doorway was an iron sheet, riveted in numerous places to keep it together and thicker than the doorframe itself. Christina rapped her knuckles on the cold metal and waited, shifting from foot to foot, glancing along the street. If she was murdered; she doubted anyone would bother to return her body to her father. No one had the money, or the care to deal with those who dropped dead in the slums. The foul smell of sewage covered up rotting flesh just enough that most couldn't tell a corpse from someone sleeping anyway.
The sound of gears whirling permeated the door, and with a series of groans and whines the sheet edged inwards leaving a dimly lit opening where a broad silhouette stooped forward to see who was standing outside.
"Didn't expect you?" the figure growled, gripping the doorframe with one hand and taking in her hastily bound hair. It was the same as her mother's had been, fiery red and determined to defy any attempt at restraint. In the end Christina had shoved as much as she could under her hat and hoped that the numerous pins fixing it would hold. The rest of her was hidden by an oversized leather coat, patched in places but still of a much higher standard than anything she would find someone wearing in the slums. It wasn't enough to stop anyone recognising her if they actual looked, but it was enough that she could just about sneak past most people.
"I have an appointment." she smiled, waving her hand as if to shoo the Doorman out of the way. Her sleeve slipped down her arm and the Doorman caught a flash of silver on her left hand. Yanking the sleeve back down to cover her fingers Christina ducked under his arm, her smile dropping once she was in the building and the door clanged shut behind her.
"My commiserations." said the Doorman, a sincere grimace on his knarred features. "Date been set yet?"
She shook her head and tried to push the comment aside.
"That is not what's important." she said; dread spreading through her chest as she thought about the diamond rings on her finger.
The building she was in spread over four floors, two above her and the cellar below. The person she wanted to see was at the top, probably lounging in a tattered smoking jacket and sipping cheap wine that resembled something closer to vinegar.
"Go on up." The Doorman grunted, noticing her hesitating by the bottom of the staircase. "He ain't gonna bite ya. Much."
"I know that!" she snapped, still facing the staircase.
Swallowing any doubts she was having Christina planted her foot firmly on the bottom step, decided against using the handrail and made her way up the two flights. Floral wallpaper made a valiant effort to cling to the walls, but the remaining scraps were fast becoming discoloured or consumed with mould. Overall the staircase was uninviting, distinctly disgusting and Christina was glad to get to the top.
It led out onto a narrow landing with no carpets and bare plaster walls where chunks were missing. Probably removed by the fists of unhappy customers, or perhaps, if they had been unwilling to leave the premises, the plaster had left in their hair, as the Doorman put forward his best argument for their exit.
Crossing the landing she pushed past the only door there was, any earlier hesitation gone as she bypassed knocking as strode straight in.
The heat hit her first. It was akin to stepping into another continent. While the landing behind her had been as sparse and bare as possible, the room beyond was full to bursting with objects. Metal pipes ran the circumference of the room, spurting clouds of steam into a forest of greenery that had been fitted into the small space. Christina found herself recognising bamboo, and maybe a few other plants, but most she couldn't name or place. Along with everyday furniture such as chairs and footstools there were numerous brightly coloured orchids jostling for attention and from the sounds above her, Christina was pretty sure there was a menagerie of birds somewhere above.
In the middle of the room an oval shaped rug covered the little visible floor space there was and a heavy set desk had been positioned slightly off centre. A leather winged-back armchair stood behind, and in it, reading the day's newspaper, was Gregory Yikes. Exceedingly tall and thin, with a burst of yellow hair sprouting from his scalp and stubby fingers which fumbled continually with whatever object he was holding, Gregory Yikes did not strike a pleasant chord.
"Now, now, now." he said, grinning over the top of his paper and sliding his glasses further up his nose. "What would Lord Winter's precious daughter be doing in the slums at this time of night?"
"It is not night at all Yikes." Christina sighed, unwilling to play along to the man's patter. "Do you even own a clock, or have timings lost all meaning to you by this point?"
Yikes shrugged and set down his paper on the desk. "I don't have much need for clocks; I can see Westminster from any rooftop in the city so why would I need one in here?"
"You would be able to tell when someone is running late to meet you." she suggested, noticing that all the seating in the room was nailed to the ground, meaning that nothing could be dragged forward for her to sit on.
"No one ever runs late to see me." Yikes replied darkly, "Do one would dare."
"How would you know if you can't even tell day from night?" she said. Sighing she touched her fingertips to her temple and closed her eyes. "I'm starting to think that I've come to the wrong person, I need a professional, not a crackpot whose only companions are the birds who live in the roof of his office." She threw a glance upwards, examining the canopy of leaves with a scathing expression before turning on her heels and making her way back towards the door. For someone as accredited as he was, Yikes had more than a few loose screws.
"There is no one else you can go to." Yikes sang, leaning forward in his chair. "No one you could trust with a situation of such a delicate nature as yours!"
His words had the desired effect. Her footsteps faltered and Christina turned back to face him, her eyes narrowed. "You sound as if you already know why I came here." she said, her hand vanishing into the folds of her coat to rest against pistol just beneath her hip.
"It falls within my best interests to understand the matters of cases such as these; they tend to hold distinctly
" he paused, eyes fixed on her hidden hand, "
volatile outcomes." he finished, reclining back into his seat.
"If you know what I'm asking, then why the questions when I walked in?" she asked, amusement trickling into her voice even though her hand hadn't moved from its place on the pistol.
"Good old fashioned manners." Yikes smiled, "They don't cost a penny you know."
"Unlike you." Christina retorted, seeing Yikes' eyes flash with excitement. "I've heard stories about the fees you extract from your clients."
"I'm flattered, it's always nice to hear that people haven't forgotten me." he said.
"Really?" Christina asked. "I would have thought you'd prefer to remain in the shadows. Like you said, the outcomes of some of your cases can be distinctly, volatile."
Throwing his head back Yikes let out a splintering chuckle, the sound of someone breaking bones. "But I handle them with such finesse!" he grinned. "Gregory Yikes, murders, theft and arson, for those who wish to make their point crystal clear."
Christina gave a tight lipped smile. "I'm surprised that your dazzling reputation hasn't landed you in the Tower." she said. "What do you have that makes you so untouchable to the Bow Street Runners?"
Tired of standing, Christina perched herself on the edge of his desk, angling herself so that Yikes was forced to look up at her.
"Because there is no one that the Bow Street Runners won't take down." she whispered, bringing her head lower. "So your reputation is either a lie, or you having something exceedingly interesting over someone exceedingly important."
Yikes grinned at her. "And there was me thinking that you didn't like me." he said, his hand settling on her waist.
Christina's hand shot towards his jaw, cracking across the stubble and sending his head rocketing backwards. Chuckling, Yikes held up his palms, prodding the tender spot at the corner of his mouth with his tongue.
"My apologies, I forgot that I was dealing with a promised woman."
"Don't talk about me as if I'm some object." Christina snapped, "Even without this ring on my finger there would be a greater chance of you being ordained Pope than me finding you even the slightest bit attractive."
"I've been told that I'm an incredibly handsome man." Yikes smirked, adjusting his glasses.
"Was this before or after you paid her?" Christina shot back. Yikes' grin dropped from his lips and was instantly replaced with a scowl.
"Don't forget why you're here Lady Winters." he hissed. "One more crack like that and I may be inclined to send you and your business elsewhere."
"I'm not so sure that you mean that."Christina crooned, "You want the opportunity too much to let it slip through your fingers now!"
Yikes' grin was back in place. "It is certainly tempting." he admitted, placing his fingertips against each other and resting his chin on the steeple. "It is certainly more challenging than anything I've taken on before."
"Of course it is!" Christina scoffed. "I doubt you will ever find another case to match it, no matter how long you survive in this game, or who walks into your office."
Yikes' expression creased in concentration, his eyebrows furrowing so that they almost met and his eyes glazing over. Christina shifted, uncomfortable with how much it looked as if he was staring at her chest, despite his gaze being completely blank.
"I would have to vanish." he mumbled to himself, "I would be open to attack if I took this on."
Christina forced herself not to scowl, Yikes would have to do more than vanish, he would have to be dead if did as he was supposed to. She couldn't risk leaving him any other way.
"I have already catered for afterwards." She told him, breaking him out of the trance he seemed to have slipped into. "All you would need to do is make sure you reach Tower Bridge by midnight."
Yikes looked at her distrustfully. "Why do I doubt that I'll leave that bridge alive?" he asked.
"I really have no idea." she said, her voice flat and emotionless. "Have I given you reason to doubt me?"
"You're arranging your father's assassination." Yikes pointed out. "And your family does have a previous record for being rather fickle."
Christina slid from the desk. "I think that I'll be going now." she said coolly, rearranging the fabric of her coat. "We're done here. I don't have time for those who simply wish to compare me to my father."
Yikes chuckled. "Surely you must see the similarities? I mean, if it wasn't for him then your mother would still be alive would she not?"
The temperature in the room plummeted, and even Yikes had to quail beneath Christina's glare, the tips of his fingers turning blue as she loomed over his desk towards him.
"A true Lady of the Winters." he croaked, doing his best to remain calm even though he was fairly sure he could feel his blood freezing. "If you don't mind, I'm not sure my birds are overly fond of the cold." he said, trying to glance upwards but finding his eyeballs wouldn't move.
There was silence in the office, the birds' pervious chatter gone as ice crept across the plants.
"No." Christina said dryly, keeping her eyes fixed on Yikes. "I don't suppose your birds do."
Slowly the room began to warm again, though the bird's remained silent and Yikes could see his hands shaking.
"It seems that you would be more qualified to deal with matters than I am." he said carefully, reaching for his paper and trying to still the tremors in his fingers. "I've always heard that freezing to death is a truly unpleasant way to go."
"I need a resolution that doesn't implicate me." Christina said calmly, all trace of her previous anger gone. "So do not forget and do not be late, midnight on Tower Bridge. My man will deal with your payment."
"Do you not want to ask how much I will cost?" Yikes called, his voice muffled by foliage as she walked out of the room. Christina didn't bother to reply as she started down the stairs.
The doorman grinned toothlessly at her as she left the metal door slamming shut behind her. They must have oiled the gears while she was upstairs. Back out on the street Christina could almost convince herself that Yikes' exotic office and the conversation were all part of some strange dream. The stench of death and decay coiled around her in the slums, desperation and despair seeping into her skin until reality seemed so distant that it almost didn't exist. Putting one foot in front of the other she headed to the richer part of London. Returning to her white mansion where they would be men cleaning the walls outside, the same as every Thursday, and the servants would skitter away as she walked down a corridor.
It was as if Christina's father had taken a knife to London, slicing it down the Thames and leaving the one half to rot while the wealthy poured money into the other half. It hadn't bothered her as a child; she hadn't needed to worry about the impact of her father's actions. That was before he'd taken a mistress, and cast off her mother as if she were a piece of clothing that had gone out of fashion.
Somewhere among the slums was her mother's body. Dead, not because her father had ordered it, but because he'd allowed his wife to be dragged into the rotten half of the city. All for a woman who'd eventually run off with a groom.
His death was only partly revenge though. With it she would be able to break off her engagement, retreat to the country and claim that grief prevented her from marrying. With the family fortune she would be able to do as she pleased and there would be no one to say otherwise.
Crossing back over into the other half of London she made a note to order her man to find out what exactly it was that kept Yikes out of the Tower. She never knew, it could prove to be useful information for a rainy day.