Midnight, 30 June 1859
St. Stephen's Tower, Palace of Westminster
A sobbing man huddles on a narrow ledge, clawing at his eyes to shield them from the horror far below. It is dark, thus his terror is irrational; even if he wanted to, he could not make out what he's done, let alone note the gruesome details. Still, his mind's eye insists on the scene: gory, explicit, final. Imagination, not remorse, is at the core of his violent hysteria.
Within the hour he will exhaust himself and even fall asleep for a few minutes. When he wakes - with a start - reason will return and bring with it a degree of fatalism. Two paths now lie before him, and the choice is no longer his. He will pick himself up, carefully not look- ing over the edge. He will right his clothing, inspect his hands with care, and return home. And then he will wait to see what the future holds.
And he will vow to reveal the truth - but only at the time of his death.
Saturday, 2 July
St. John's Wood, London
The freedoms of being a boy, reflected Mary, were many. She could swing her arms as she walked. She could run if she wished. She looked tidy enough to avoid police suspi- cion but shabby enough to be invisible to all others. Then there was the odd sensation of lightness that came of having cropped hair; she hadn't realized how heavy her own hair was until it was gone. Her breasts were tightly bound, and even if they did ache a little at such treatment, she could at least scratch herself with impunity, scratch- ing in public being one of those Boy Things she ought to enjoy while she could. It was therefore a shame that she wasn't enjoying the situation. Wearing boy's clothing was comfortable and amusing, and she'd enjoyed her esca- pades in breeches during her first-ever assignment. But this - today - was entirely different. It was serious, and she still had no idea why.
Her instructions were simple enough: to costume her self as a twelve-year-old boy and attend a meeting of the Agency at three o'clock this afternoon. No further expla- nation had been offered, and by now, Mary knew better than to ask for more details. Anne and Felicity always gave precisely as much information as they deemed appropri- ate. Of course, such knowledge hadn't stopped her from fretting about the possibilities yesterday, overnight, and all this morning. Over the past year, she'd delighted in her training: tests, lessons, and brief assignments that offered a taste of the life to come. But there was little pleasure in her this morning. What did Anne and Felicity want? And what sort of assignment could be connected with her present guise?
The Agency had been created and was staffed entirely by women, and its genius lay in the exploitation of female stereotypes. Its secret agents disguised themselves as maids, governesses, clerks, lady companions, and other humble, powerless characters. In most situations, no mat- ter how dangerous, few people would suspect a subservi- ent woman of being intelligent and observant, let alone a professional spy. With this as the Agency's guiding philosophy, it made no sense whatsoever for Mary to be dressed as a boy.
She raked her fingers through her hair, then stopped abruptly midstroke: that was a girl's gesture. And the only thing worse than not understanding what she was doing was compounding it by doing a poor job, too. As she neared the top of Acacia Road, where the Agency was headquartered, Mary pressed her lips together and took several deep breaths. Her cowardly impulse was to turn and make one last circuit of Regent's Park, to spend just a little more time thinking matters through. As though she hadn't already been marching about St. John's Wood for the past two hours. As though physical movement might still her mind and soothe her nerves. As though she was calm enough to sort through the swirl of emotions cloud- ing her brain.
It was time to act, not to think. A few brisk steps took her to the house with its wrought-iron gates and polished brass nameplate: MI S S SCR I M SH AW'S ACADEM Y FOR GI RLS. The Academy had been her home for years now. But today, looking at the nameplate, she willed herself to look at it as a stranger might - specifically, as a twelve-year-old boy might. The house was large and well kept, with a tidy garden and flagged path. But in contrast with those of the neighboring houses, the front steps were swept but not whitened - an essential task that proclaimed to the world that one kept servants and kept them busy rewhitening the steps each time a caller marred them with footprints. The Academy's irregularity here was the only sign of the most unusual institution that lay within.
Suddenly, the front door swung open and disgorged a pair of girls - or, rather, young ladies. They were neatly dressed, neither at the height of fashion nor in the depths of dowdiness. They were having an animated conversa- tion. And they looked curiously at Mary, whose nose was still inches from the closed gate.
"Are you lost?" asked the taller of the two as they approached the gate.
Mary shook her head. "No, miss." Her voice came out higher than she wanted, and she cleared her throat hast- ily. "I was bid come here."
A fine wrinkle appeared on the girl's forehead. "By whom?"
"I mean, I've a letter to deliver."
The girl held out her hand. "Then you may give it to me."
Mary shook her head again. "Can't, miss. I'm charged to give it to Mrs. Frame and no one else. Is this her house?" She'd spent all morning working on her inflection, trying to get the accent right while keeping her voice gruff.
The girl looked imperious. "You may trust me; I'm the head girl at this Academy."
From the Trade Paperback edition.