His lantern barely repelled the darkness but Barrow was obligated to keep going. He’d caught the man in the act and having given pursuit this far he couldn’t bring himself to turn round now, not when the suspect’s fleeing steps still echoed from the black. He adjusted his bowler, tightened his fist around the billy’s handle and willed the lantern light on as he dove into the vaulted, brick tunnel.
Inspector Barrow came upon the scene just minutes previous, a man bent over a woman most of her hidden behind his draped trench coat. “What’s happened here?” Barrow asked thinking the woman had been injured by a passing carriage, not uncommon in the narrows come dusk. The man leapt to his feet at Barrow’s words, a knife held stiff in his right hand. Barrow stepped forward, glanced to the woman, at her garments, drenched dark just above her waist. The man made to drive towards him, eyes wide in anger not the panic Barrow would presume of one caught in such an act. He saw the man’s eyes drop to the cudgel held tight in Barrow’s hand giving pause to his intent, for he turned and set off down the alley.
Barrow’s whistle was between his lips and screeching before his thoughts caught up to his body. He checked the woman, her eyes blinked and a stained hand rose to grasp his, soft and uncallused. Strange, given her apparent station, a washerwoman he’d venture from her dress. “Help is coming. Be still.” She manage a grimaced smile, oddly white, he thought. He turned to a young boy, he knew as Litl’ Donovan, wedging himself between onlookers’ legs eager to have a glimpse at the scene, “You. Find a constable. Tell him what happened here and that I am after the suspect.” The boy nodded and pushed himself through the growing crowd. Pulling the nearest bystander down beside the victim, he pressed her hand into theirs, “Stay with her,” he instructed as he stepped over the woman and set after the man in the trench coat.
Well into the tunnel Barrow’s senses failed him. The attacker’s footfalls had fallen away and he flinched with every scrape of the brick floor, their echoes giving away nothing of their real source. His lantern pushed the darkness aside but only a few feet, for his foe he must stand as an island of light the man could do with what he wished. The trench coat man may well be pressed against the curved brick wall waiting for Barrow to pass then make for the exit. The inspector was wary of a more plausible alternative, one he already saw in the man’s eye when they met over the woman’s bloodied body. Barrow’s hair needled across the back of his neck aware of his likely shift from pursuer to the one stalked.
Rationalizing a need to even the odds, Barrow fought against his base instincts. He slid the lantern’s cover open, pulled a breath, hesitated a moment peering past the lamp’s glow then blew the flame out. The black suffocated his vision leaving behind a phantom breath of the flicking flame branded upon his eyes. He caged an inherent rise of panic.
The sound came far ahead to his right, a boot scuff against mortar. Reflex made him look to the disturbance with eyes wide open, a mad peering into nothing. He willed his hearing to take over, to paint what lay ahead. “He’d been there watching, then. Waiting,” Barrow kept the deduction to himself.
“You don’t know what she is,” the man’s voice bounded from the black startling Barrow more than he liked. “Extreme moments define the character of the man.” The words of his superintendent spoke from a desperate point in his mind. Barrow admitted to little pride in himself at this moment. His eyes squinted into the emptiness forcing themselves to work.
“You should have let me finish my work,” the voice was moving yet remained ahead of him. Barrow edged sideways, an outstretched hand reaching for the bricked wall. “Damned if I’m to be taken from behind,” he reasoned to himself.
“Put a match to your lantern, Constable, so that we can speak as men, face to face,” the voice moved again. It taunted, but to Barrow it lacked conviction. To his ear the voice’s confidence was forced. The man was little at easy in the dark, no more than Barrow. He took solace, the odds were balanced.
The voice waited before speaking again, “No? Mayhaps, you’d feel better if I dropped my knife.” The man’s voice hadn’t moved but a flat metal tank sounded off the opposite wall and echoed along the tunnel. The trench coat man wanted Barrow to speak. He needed a bearing on the Inspector. “Constable,” he’d called him. He took Barrow for foot-patrol. But why? He had no uniform, just a badge fitted to his lapel. Was he ill-educated or a stranger to the city, to London? Never seen a plain-clothes cop before? Whatever the reason, Barrow was not about to give away his position but he needed something to break the stalemate.
He knelt down spreading his hands out feeling along the cobbled floor for a broken bit of masonry, a shard of brick, a scrap for distraction. His fingers shuffled through a pile of pebbles, bits and pieces windblown, maybe, built up at the meeting of wall and floor. He gathered up a palm full and rose careful of creaking knees or a brush against the brick at his back. Readying himself he tossed the handful out into the darkness. Echoes bounded and bounced scattering the silence into a cacophony. Barrow took his chance sidling along the wall further down the tunnel betting on his ingenuity to catch the man with the ruse. The melange of echoes faded escaping the tunnel the way he’d come. Barrow stopped, listening for the man to give himself away, a breath, a misstep. He inched a step further, then one more, a metal clamor broke free from his last step, a tin skittering across the floor. Barrow cursed the tramp who’d dumped his rubbish about.
A hand grabbed his vest, “Got ya, Constable”.