The chime sounded politely for the third time in three quarters of an hour. The voice that followed was almost as polite.
“The library will be closing in fifteen minutes. At this time any patrons with books or materials they wish to borrow should proceed to the check-out desk, that we may assist you.”
Patrons so burdened moved to comply. Others gathered their belongings, replaced those materials that did not interest them sufficiently to find a place in the growing line at the main floor desk, and made their way toward the exit. Still others crawled about under tables, beckoning to small children uninspired by the prospect of going home to supper.
One patron did none of these.
Newly arrived, hair windblown, eyes wild, she blew past the reception desk and pounded up the middle of the staircase, placing her in the perfect position to come into contact with the maximum number of startled individuals heading the opposite way.
She didn't even attempt to weave.
At the top of the staircase, she slowed. Looked around. Saw, and made directly for, an official-looking person in a neat green blazer with a lanyard and ID tag hanging from her neck.
“Excuse me,” she panted, brandishing a book she had just pulled from under her arm, “can you please tell me where this goes?”
“Oh, I can easily put that back for—”
The vaguely orderly flow of traffic in the direction of the stairs stuttered to a halt around them.
“It's fine. I can do it. It's no trouble. Only where does it go?”
She held the book out beseechingly and, though clearly against her better judgement and in direct defiance of a career's worth of continued disappointment in the subnormal reshelving abilities of the library-going public, the library worker accepted it and scanned the spine. Almost immediately she shook her head and handed it back with a transparent combination of regret and relief.
“This isn't one of ours.”
The girl stared at the spine of the book, as if being told as much would enable her to now magically discern the truth of the matter too. But the call sign remained unchanged, as inscrutable as ever, so she was forced to look back to the woman in the blazer to hear her explanation.
“That book is in circulation with the historical society, not the public library. See the green tag? That's theirs. And if you flip open the cover,” she leaned forward to perform exactly that action, “you'll see their stamp right there.”
It was true.
The patron stared at the stamp, and when it, too, failed to transform she looked back at the helpful person in front of her.
“The archives, on Water Street.”
“Thank you!” she blurted, and whirled away once more. She was already halfway down the stairs when one additional piece of vital information occurred to the woman in the blazer. She called out “but they close at six!”
But she did not bellow, because library, so with the final rush of patrons descending the stairs it was no wonder the woman fleeing with the book did not hear.
12 Hours Earlier
“You're sure you don't mind, Emily? I know the money’s not a lot. If I could give you more . . .”
Emily waved a hand dismissively and reached for the bowl of peanuts with the other.
“Stop acting like you're asking for a kidney, Liv. It's fine. Tours are only half-operational for most of June anyway. I gave my shift to somebody who wanted it, and I get to help you out. They money’s just bonus. This is more than fine. It should be fun.”
She looked around the pub with considerable appreciation. Even without an academic focus on historical architecture, she would have been able to enjoy the space. Beams blackened by centuries of smoke from the old fireplace—finally fallen out of operation sometime in the last fifty years of the building's three-century lifespan—arched overhead. The walls were time-rubbed brick and the windows were cut deep into the considerable depth of them. Through wavy, salt-splashed panes of glass it was just possible to make out what remained of what had once been an unobstructed view of the harbour, whose professional and recreational travellers the pub had served since the day it had opened.
“You just want a kind of working outline?” Emily verified, already tugging out a pad of paper and eking out a combination of sketchy blueprint and point-form notes. “Historical high notes and how to use them with the existing setup? Sort of a mini tour arrangement using the history and form of the building. Right?”
Olivia did not immediately answer, so Emily looked up just in time to catching Olivia eyeing her pad of paper. She glared.
“If you tell me to get a tablet one more time, I will actually scream. I work better with three dimensional objects, okay?”
“I didn't say a word,” Olivia sighed. “But now that you mention it, Ems, honestly: just cause you're all into the past and stuff, doesn't mean you have to completely live in it, you know?”
Emily kept her gaze on the paper, but she could not resist a very quiet, firm reply.
“You gave up any pretense of a right to comment on that when we ended it. Just let me have the damn sketch pad, okay? I'll come up with some stuff you can use to market this place, no problem.”
Olivia had the grace to look, if not actually guilty, at least regretful. She nodded, took an awkward swipe at the counter, and stepped back.
“I already got a ton of books and stuff from the library. My cousin Hannah let me have them when she found out I’d bought the place. It used to be in the family, so she got all excited and gave me these.”
The family gift, embodied in the form of a stack of paper media, some hardback and others with well-laminated, glossy paper covers, was lugged out en masse from beneath the bar and thunked unceremoniously on top.
“She said they all have something about the place in them, or at least the time period. People who drank here, performed here, all that. She said it even used to be a smugglers’ den at some point, I guess? They used to supply booze to the Americans during Prohibition.”
“Who didn’t?” Emily countered, still dragging the tip of her pen across the surface of her paper. Olivia rolled her eyes.
“I don’t know, Ems, I’m not the historian. I’m the person who wants to make a go of this place, and you said you’d help me do it.”
Emily, rather than point out she was infinitely more architect than historian, and that wearing a mobcap and scratchy print gown and lace fichu to give scripted walking tours of the waterfront and downtown area hardly qualified her to pad her own resume to the extent Olivia seemed to think it did, simply nodded and grabbed the uppermost book.
“I will. Now leave me to it, will you? I can’t work with you breathing down my neck.”
So Olivia grabbed her purse and exited via the side door, leaving Emily to choose from the topmost of the stack of books and carry those, with her pad of paper, to the table in the far corner and settle in to read.
Exactly when Emily dozed off, she couldn’t say. She had definitely made good use of the first book, a weighty record of land holdings and alterations made within a fifty-year span during the 19th century, and she remembered a much smaller pamphlet from about fifty years earlier cataloging some of the storefronts in the area, but she could not remember if that had been followed by a collection of letters or if the book had only had some letters in it. She thought maybe there had been a signature: loopy and lovely, all curls and flourishes, with a name of myth and romance to match.
She jolted awake in her booth with a guilty start. What kind of friend was she? Trying to help Olivia out, and here she was falling asleep, letting people come in unnoticed, looking for somebody named—
“Diana, if I've told you once I've told you a thousand times, none of those soldier boys of yours are allowed around the side door. They buy a ticket to the show, they buy a drink, or they get the boot. That clear?”
The man bellowing was not, in fact, newly arrived from the street, as Emily had assumed. He was rather looking out from the doorway that led to the back hall, his face flushed and slick with sweat despite the sleeves of his open-collared shirt having been rolled up to the elbows.
The woman on the stage, in the middle of what appeared to be some kind of music rehearsal, gave a quick signal to her pianist and swept back a handful of golden hair from a striking, heart-shaped face. She gave the sweaty man a steady stare of unconcern.
“And I've told you an actual thousand times, Howard, that they are not my boys and this is not your property. You have no place flapping your hands at those boys, do you hear? I didn't hire you to chase chickens, so stop playing the farm wife in my alleyway. Indeed, I will thank you to keep very much away from it.”
Howard took this dismissal exactly as well as his appearance had led Emily to think he would. He turned an even brighter red, and that he did not clutch at his chest and keel over was probably better testament to his genetic lineage than it was his lack of cause for apoplexy. He swore loudly and unimaginatively.
“Am I or am I not your goddamned manager?!” he bellowed.
Diana regarded him thoughtfully over the metal cage of her standing microphone.
“D'you know, Howard,” she said sweetly, “that is the same question that has been weighing on me quite a lot, lately.”
Emily saw it coming. She wasn't sure how Howard didn't, unless perhaps his family lot in life was to accept proof against heart attack in exchange for their ability to read the writing on the wall. In any event, when Diana told Howard he was, in fact, very close to not being her goddamned manager after all, his eyes nearly started from his head.
“Like hell you’d give me the sack!” he blustered.
Diana flipped over a page of the sheet music in front of her, unfazed.
“Not actually your place to say so, now, is it?” she pointed out demurely. “You can come to terms with my expectations, or you can seek new employment. Understood?”
It was understood.
It was so clearly, plainly understood that Howard actually took a few impotently enraged steps forward, inspiring the pianist to leap to his feet with grim purpose and alarm perfectly mixed all over his fine, cleancut features.
But before he could answer Howard's advancement, the door much nearer the stage opened and a fourth player arrived on the scene.
One moment she was in the doorway. The next, the situation perfectly assessed, she was across the room and . . . Emily squinted.
She could not make out exactly what the woman did, but it was something with her thumb and forefinger against the man's neck, and it brought him to his knees with a squeal of shock and pain. She did not press her attack, but drew back, coldly assessing, and Emily saw she was as dark as Diana was fair. They looked like something artistic and ancient, standing shoulder to shoulder, watching Howard struggle to collect his wits and dignity as he lurched backward and to his feet.
“A mistake, I think,” Diana said lightly. The girl at her side did not answer, but watched Howard with calm impassivity. “A rash impulse acted upon, and no more. Wouldn't you say so, Nell?”
Thus enjoined, the girl Nell did stir.
“If you say so.”
Diana smiled sweetly at Nell's thwarted opponent.
“Oh, I do. Because Mr. Enderby says so, don't you, Howard?”
Howard Enderby blinked, stared from one woman to the other, and then to the looming, cleanly-muscled form of the pianist behind them both. He nodded.
“Impulse,” he said hoarsely. “That's all. Lost my . . . my head.”
“Only figuratively, though,” Diana pointed out. “An important distinction, I think.”
Howard seemed to agree. At least, he immediately launched into a verbal backpedal that would have made a cyclist proud. He was thoroughly abashed, he was deeply sorry for so forgetting his place, and of course he was sensible of what a privilege it was to be working for Miss Harper in her very fine establishment. Miss Harper undoubtedly knew best how to conduct her own affairs. If Miss Harper saw fit to honour the young soldiers about to ship out by indulging them at the side door, well, then who was he to stop her fun?
His apology, Emily thought, was even worse than his rage. She genuinely did not imagine he meant to suggest his employer was hosting stage door orgies, but his phrasing made it difficult not to see how such an interpretation was possible.
Diana evidently agreed. Her patience visibly snapped and she nodded to the street door.
“Mr. Enderby, it is a fine day. Why not clear your head with a little walk?”
Howard seemed prepared to protest, but Diana made a subtle motion, then, and Nell moved in obedience to her understanding of its meaning.
Howard scrambled back at her advance, retreating, trying to make it look like it was his choice, heading for the door. Then he was gone, out into the sunlight, and Emily caught a glimpse of the city that lay beyond the door before Nell moved to slam it shut.
It was only that—a glimpse, and nothing more—but that glimpse was more than enough.
A little boy passing in a peaked cap, a car that was eighty years out of date yet gleamed with the newness of its manufacture and, most tellingly, the wrong flag flying high over the government house halfway up the hill.
“Time travel,” Emily marvelled. “Well. How about that?”
It was not, Emily quickly deduced, the kind of time travel she always thought of when she did think of time travel. Which was not that often, but still about as often as a girl who wears a modern reproduction of an ancient outfit is bound to think of it, while telling ghost stories on walking tours in an old city. That was to say, nobody seemed able to see or hear her, though she could see and hear them, and they carried on with their discussion as though they were perfectly private. It was like she had slipped into somebody else's show, somebody else's story, and was no more a part of it than if she had still been in her own time, sitting at the table and reading a book.
The name Diana had been in the book, hadn't it? Had this been that Diana? She was in the pub, after all; said she even owned it. Emily stared with renewed fascination at the aftermath of the confrontation with Howard Enderby that was playing out in front of her.
The girl called Nell was sternly upbraiding Diana with an air not entirely reflective of an employee, as Emily had first supposed she was. Meanwhile the pianist, with an air of great tact and long familiarity, had dexterously excused himself from their company. If he lingered beyond the doorway to overhear their conversation, well, Emily could hardly blame him. There was something electric crackling through the air between the two women from which she herself could not look away.
Diana was not exactly heated in her manner, but she did seem a lot more animated when she argued with Nell than she had while arguing with Enderby. With Nell, she seemed to actually care about the outcome of the quarrel.
“—should know better by now than to pick fights when I'm not around!”
“You're never not around,” Diana tossed back lightly, “so I can pick fights whenever I like. Works out perfectly, don't you think?” Her smile was cheeky, but did not quite reach her eyes. Something grave and fathomless still lurked behind her levity as she studied the woman opposite her. With her next words, it rose to the surface.
“You know I couldn't do any of this without you, don't you, Nell? Not just the business things, and all the extra—the boys at the door, the people who want to take more off me than they're owed and the war and all that, but the rest of it, too.” She leaned in closer, chin upturned, earnest, exposed. “You're the reason for everything I do. The reason I can. So please don't be the reason I feel guilty tonight, too. Tell me it's all right, won't you? Tell me you forgive me for telling him off before I had you at my side, because in the end I know you’re there to watch my back.”
It was a pretty turn of phrase, Emily thought, but an even prettier turn of the tables. Nell flushed beneath her warm, dark complexion in the face of Diana's warm, bright gaze. The girl's open faith was obviously an offering of greater value than the chance to win an argument could ever be. She bent her head, and caught Diana's chin under her forefinger.
“I will forgive you. I will always forgive you. Don’t you know that by now?”
Then slid her arm around Diana’s waist to draw her close, and Emily, no less uncomfortable for being unseen, was about to scramble guiltily for the open door of the back corridor and the relative privacy that awaited her there, when the door to the pub flew open again, forestalling whatever particular activity Nell might have wished to pursue in what she imagined was perfect privacy.
Both women and their unseen watcher whipped around to face the street. Rather than an early and ill-timed return by Mr. Enderby, the arrival was that of a girl in a dark blue dress and hat. She stumbled in from the street and stopped on the threshold, blinking rapidly in the gloom.
“Oh,” she said, and looked around cautiously. “I’m sorry. Is it not . . ?”
“We serve at six,” Diana answered the incomplete question. “Show at seven.”
“Show?” the new arrival echoed.
“That’s me,” Diana explained. “I’m the show.”
Nell’s hand still hovered at Diana’s waist, Emily saw. She was not sure if the girl noticed, but she definitely looked even more lost. Nell offered a quiet prompt.
“Were you looking for this place? Or another?”
This guidance seemed to brace the stranger. She nodded more confidently.
“There was a man on the street,” she said. “He whistled. I . . . I turned left.”
“Oh,” Diana said, and an air of perfect understanding seemed to blanket the whole room. Emily supposed some public interactions really did defy the test of time. Nell and Diana both traded knowing glances, anyway, and Nell moved behind the bar.
“Drink of water?” she suggested. “Stay as long as you need.”
“Thank you,” the girl sighed, settling into the closest chair. “That would be lovely. My train arrived ever so early this morning and I don’t leave until almost midnight.”
Diana caught Nell’s eye over the bar, and something Emily was at a loss to read passed swiftly between them. Then Diana ducked out the back, and Emily, craning her neck, distinctly saw the mortified pianist straighten hastily from where he was bent over a box of sheet music: where he had evidently been so arranged since disappearing from the room.
If Diana was tempted to accuse him of spying on her interlude with Nell prior to their interruption, she made no sign. She simply said,
“Not those ones, Ted. They’re all marked up. Use the good copies in the cupboard, there’s a love,” and strolled on down the corridor.
Emily, faced with the choice of staying in the front room to watch Nell fetch water for the woman from the street or chasing after Diana to get a look at the rest of the place, barely even hesitated. Without sound or any friction to speak of, she slid easily from the booth and through the back doorway, past the crouching form of Ted as he attempted to reorder the rejected music, and down the corridor at a rapid trot.
Diana moved through her establishment with exquisite, easy confidence. Emily following her, knew for an absolute fact that even if she owned this pub for her whole life she would never be able to take up space inside it the way Diana did now. She simply belonged there, like the beams and the bricks and the glass in the windows. She seemed as much a part of the pub as its core components.
She had a number of people working for her who seemed to belong there too, in their own way, and wove in and out of their respective roles as she moved through the back rooms. A woman washing windows gave a wink and a wave that Diana did not decry as too familiar, but rather answered in kind. Another woman, armed with a mop and scrub bucket, was despatched upstairs with instructions to “do for” the young lady newly arrived. A hefty man wrapped in a broad apron and conjuring delicious smells out of the microscopic kitchen traded topical discussion with Diana of the menu that evening, and Emily, listening reassessed her previous understanding of the nature of the pub. Not entirely restaurant, it seemed to cling much more closely to the notion of a traditional public house than she had imagined would be characteristic of this era.
If, she calculated, it was still serving meals and even offering rooms as late as the mid-40s, then that could open up a number of expanded tour options for Olivia.
She reached, reflexively, for her sketch pad, intending to overlay some of the rooms in her outline with possible suggestion for the tours, and realized that she did not have it with her. Had she left it on the table? Or had it not come with her at all?
She hesitated, torn, watching Diana push open a narrow door that opened onto the back alley, and tossed a cheery greeting to the boys hanging around beyond it, a truly motley assortment of wilted bouquets shared between them.
“Shipment tonight, fellas,” she warned. “Don’t want you hanging around when the transport rolls in. Irritates the hell out of the big boys.”
“Right-o,” one of the youngest-looking of the lot enthused. “We’ll make ourselves scarce, you’ll see.”
“I hope I won’t,” Diana rejoined lightly, and the boys all elbowed each other in exaggerated appreciation of this wit.
Emily decided that retrieving her sketch pad, if it were still there, was worth all she could add to it now. She backed away from the alley door and retraced her steps to the public room, coming across Ted again as she did.
He was speaking into the wall-mounted phone receiver keeping a wary eye prudently trained on the front room where Nell was, presumably, still entertaining the stranger.
“Yes, should be right after the show. Transport’s confirmed. Discretion will be of paramount importance, though. Place will still be crawling with people at that hour. Don’t want a hullabaloo.”
Emily completed her journey back to the front room and studied the girl seated at the bar. She did not look like the sort of person who would raise a hullabaloo—she looked like somebody’s secretary—but Ted seemed to have a healthy apprehension about her presence, so Emily was inspired to look closer.
Frizzy brown hair enlivened slightly by red undertones was done in an admittedly amateurish style. Emily’s idea of women in the 1940s featured magnificent victory rolls and sleek pageboy styles; maybe a chignon with some artistic loft above the crown. But this girl fit more in the role of somebody without the means or inclination to copy the styles she must have had access to in various magazines. Her hair was combed, parted in the middle and secured vaguely around the nape, resulting in a riot of ill-tamed curl at her neck.
She was freckled, Emily noted, and somehow noting that made her look much younger. Like she was barely even Emily’s age, and certainly nothing close to the full maturity of Nell or Diana.
Nell seemed to have put her somewhat at her ease, though. She was asking after the girl’s home, and accepting with every appearance of interest a wealth of detail about a little farm in the middle of the country, with all manner of livestock intelligently and thoroughly described.
Emily tore her focus away from this conversation long enough to ascertain her sketch pad was not, in fact, in the booth, and was about to retrace her steps to Diana when the front door again opened, this time to admit a silver-haired man wearing a trim dark suit and a conscious appearance of discomfort.
He looked around doubtfully, and his gaze landed on Nell.
“Ah. Good afternoon, Eleanor.”
Nell’s face lost some of the gentler expression she had adopted for her existing guest, and became more remote.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Harper.”
He reached for his hat, then hesitated, as though unsure how long he planned to stay, or maybe even how comfortable he intended to be.
“Is Diana in?”
“Here, Dad!” Diana called, sailing in from the back. She crossed the room to fling both arms around the neck of her parent and welcome him with a kiss. “Gosh, what a nice surprise. I spoke to Mum only last night, and she never mentioned you were planning to come up.”
“She didn’t know.” Mr. Harper looked around again, as if expecting something to jump out at him from the corner of the pub.
And it could not, Emily thought, have been her he was trying to see, because he wasn’t looking anywhere near her.
Evidently satisfied that no additional audience lurked unseen, however inaccurate his conclusion might be, Mr. Harper returned his attention to his daughter.
“Diana, is there somewhere private—”
The girl on the stool almost fell off in her haste to make the room in which she sat as private as she was able.
“I can leave,” she said hastily, “I’m very sorry to intrude.”
“Nothing to apologize for,” Diana said lightly. “You really mustn’t rush on Dad’s account or you’ll never stop moving.” Then she shifted her address slightly to one side.
“Nell, I’ve had Mrs. Porter make up a room, but she won’t be done just yet. Maybe our friend would like a mirror and a bit of hot water while she waits?”
Nell murmured her assent and gestured ahead of her at the corner doorway, from which she herself had emerged when Howard was about to make an unwise choice. The obliging young guest moved up the stairs beyond it, and Nell followed close behind. Once they had vanished from sight, Diana returned her attention to her father.
“Now then, Dad, what’s this?”
Her father made no protestations of innocence.
“I brought Jimmy up on Monday to enlist. He’s shipping out by week’s end.”
Diana drew back abruptly, all traces of expectation and warmth crashing away as if struck off her face by her father’s own hand.
“Like hell you did,” she said unsteadily.
Mr. Harper’s brow knit together.
“Diana, your language!”
“My language? Dad what do you think Mum’s will be, when she hears?”
“Of course your mother is inclined to keep him at home another year or two. But the boy’s of age, after all, and there’s nothing to be gained by having him at home compared to what might be gained by adding him to the forces.”
“He’s just one person, Dad, he’s hardly going to win the war single-handed.”
“One man may make all the difference, Diana. Certainly, every one of them we can send over will make a difference, and no two ways about it.”
Diana shook her head, transparently furious.
“I cannot believe you’d go behind Mum’s back and—”
“I will not be lectured by my own daughter! Lord above knows what you’ve done to your mother yourself, keeping this place as you have. What my brother was thinking when he left it to you I’m sure I couldn’t say, but that’s nothing next to your deciding to actually run it. Together with your . . . friend.”
Diana’s stare became positively glacial at the final word.
“Why did you come here, then, Dad? Why not just take Jimmy to the recruiting office and avoid the unpleasantness of being reminded I’m here?”
Mr. Harper sighed.
“Jimmy would appreciate you being there to see him off, I’m sure. Your mother’s health will not permit it, but you, at least, could be there.”
“I, at least,” Diana echoed, then laughed, quietly. “Yes that sounds like me.”
Mr. Harper launched into the first few syllables of an angry retort, but Diana forestalled him with a nod.
“I’ll be there, Dad. Of course I will. Just . . . none of the brave smiling face, from me. So don’t ask it.”
“I am sure I know better by now,” Mr. Harper said dryly. He moved as if in search of a parting kiss, but Diana had already moved away, positioning herself behind the bar. Mr. Harper cleared his throat, moved as if to replace his hat and then, discovering he’d never removed it, effected a hasty departure.
Emily had felt a few times since this whole bizarre adventure began that she was intruding unpardonably on a private moment, but now, with Diana standing alone in the room, she felt it so acutely she stumbled backward, intending to go out of the room and into the corridor. She did not exit quite quickly enough to miss Nell’s return. Diana looked up as the other woman returned, and she moved forward to melt against her.
Nell bore her up, steady, sure, and asked: “Jimmy?”
Diana's expression was bitter.
“Dad couldn’t leave well enough alone. He’s going to get himself killed over there.”
“Maybe not,” Nell suggested. “I mean, with everything we can do, who knows? It could help.”
“Is it enough, though?” Diana hissed back, gesturing around them. “It seemed like enough, at first. But I don’t know anymore. It feels like we’re playing some kind of relay game, while people are out there losing their actual lives. Maybe it’s not enough.”
“Maybe it’s not,” Nell allowed. She fit her arms gently around Diana’s waist and drew her in. “But I don’t think you believe that.”
Diana looked like she wanted to argue, but instead pressed her face against Nell’s shoulder, and her own began to heave.
This time Emily did retreat, more determinedly and less desperately than before, arriving in the corridor just in time to see Ted also quietly retreating, as though he had suddenly thought better of entering the room.
His calculated scarcity might just have been his professional courtesy, Emily supposed, but she also wondered if it might not be borne of even keener insight into the nature of his employer's private life than that. Which she thought made sense. She had not exactly made a study of it, or anything, but she knew, vaguely, people had conducted their relationships with only a certain measure of tact even in these days. The rest of the time, there was a kind of open secret about it. She thought she remembered Olivia telling her some story, even, about great aunts or maybe cousins of some kind, who had shared a home, even raised some inherited child or other, and made the best of the most they could possibly have, given the time.
The idea of that being the case for Diana and Nell, maybe even with the casual, albeit unspoken support of some of the pub staff, made Emily feel almost ridiculously warm and fuzzy inside. The feeling lasted her all the way through the following hour of preparations, which was great, because she couldn't actually drink the alcohol so she was glad to at least feel like she would have if she'd been able.
The dinner was not gourmet far, but it appeared to please the patrons who packed the floor and made a meal of it. Nell drifted in and out, accepting greetings from a few who were clearly regulars, and fielding questions about Diana from those who were evidently not regular enough to know Nell would not look kindly on their efforts to pry.
“Busy,” she said curtly, when one especially persistent fellow badgered her a third time as to Diana’s whereabouts. “Enjoy your meal.” And she stalked off, rather than glide, as Diana would have done.
Emily, curiosity stoked, went in search of Diana herself. She found her heading down the corridor, fully decked out in a spangled blue gown, hair combed into a gleaming golden arrangement that looked exactly as Emily had always imagined hair in the 1940s would. A riot of artful curls framed her face, and she was smiling out into the alleyway at her assembled collection of men with wilting flowers as graciously as though they had come in the front door with everyone else.
“Now you remember your promise, boys,” she said lightly. “Out of sight, as a courtesy to the big boys. They get so antsy.”
“You got it,” the nearest one promised, and was favoured with a particularly glittering smile.
Diana was on the point of closing the door when Nell found her.
“Lot of new faces tonight,” she said shortly. Diana considered this message as if it meant something more to her than it did Emily.
“Any cause for alarm?” she asked. Her tone seemed too light to be sincere. Nell hesitated over her response.
“New faces are always a little alarming,” she said at last. “We have our regulars, so who are these?”
“Hungry people, presumably,” Diana sighed. “You’ve heard of hungry people, Nell?”
Nell stared at Diana for a long moment. Emily, watching, knew instinctively Nell was not seeing the art and artifice of the stage ensemble Diana had drawn around her. Knew she was looking at the woman under the shields, as only a woman who had been invited behind them would know how to do.
“Be careful tonight,” Nell said at last. “That’s all. Just be careful.”
“I’m always careful, Nell,” Diana smiled. “But as to being safe, isn't that why I have you?”
Then she brushed past Nell and Emily followed, as much a victim of the glamour as her own burning desire to hear Diana perform again, leaving Nell alone, staring after.
Diana was a sensation. Emily found she had just generally assumed she would be, but to think so and actually discover it for herself were two entirely different experiences. She was magnificent, and seemingly tireless besides. The show lasted two hours without seeming to take even a quarter of that, and the audience sat entranced.
Ted's playing was light and sure, buoying Diana’s performance without ever detracting from it in any way. Nell emerged at last from the corridor to take up a watchful position by the door, and Diana's voice soared, rich and sure, through several more popular numbers of the day before a sudden, violent bang from the back alley shook the wartime crowd into uneasy silence.
Emily twisted around with the rest of the crowd, trying to see what the cause might be. Nell quickly disappeared down the back hall, and the crowd was jostled into reluctant attentiveness once more by Ted's choice of something softer and sweeter, with less of an upbeat tempo.
It was the ballad of a lover scorned, and though Emily had never heard it before, it was obviously deeply affecting to the crowd. They swayed and sought partners and that was how she spotted him, because he had come with none, and he was moving not in dance, but rather in a purposeful, dogged line from the front of the room toward the stage. He stood out not just for his motion, or for his singleness of being, but also for being the one other person in that room that Emily recognized.
Howard Enderby, looking rather the worse for wear after his encounter that morning, was moving through the crowd toward Diana, and he had murder in his face.
He was getting closer the stage, moving through the crowd, and where was she? Where was Nell? This was her job. Emily felt that so keenly, so sharply, that it was almost like a physical pain moving through her.
She tried to remember the book she'd been reading, the one with Diana's name. Had it told of this moment? Was she watching the last moments of a girl whose secret love and tragic end would become fodder for tourist consumption in Olivia's new business venture? Would somebody stand in a reproduction wartime dress and shining golden wig, her lips made up with modern off-brand lipstick in a casual approximation of what they imagined might be correct, as she talked about kissing the woman she loved every night before a show, then dying on that very stage because Nell had once been too far from her side?
The very idea nauseated Emily.
So she screamed.
Screamed, and moved for him. Yelled his name, and Nell's, and Diana's also, knowing all the while that they could not hear her, wanting to believe they could, wanting to think this was all some dream and knowing, as sure and sharp as the tang of the cigarette smoke burning her nose and the sour scent of the alcohol in the cups—on his breath most of all—that it was not.
She tried to grab for his hand, dipping into his breast pocket, and as with every fleshly thing in this place, her own lack of flesh slid right through it. His hand was emerging, she was powerless to stop it, and he was drawing it out, brandishing . . .
A little pocket calendar. Date book. Whatever they were called. He was waving it, glaring at Diana, and her attention was finally caught.
When she saw the thing he held, from her reaction it might as well have been a weapon. All colour leeched from her cheeks and she stumbled badly over the notes.
Ted swivelled on his seat, looking askance, and saw Howard too. The date book didn’t seem to mean as much to him as it did to Diana, but the look on Howard’s face must have been pretty communicative in its own way, because he immediately tacked a hasty ending onto the song and gave Diana her out.
“That’s our show, folks!” he called into the mic, as Diana retreated from its range. “We sure do appreciate you coming out.”
Diana was already stepping off the stage with excessive care, as though she did not trust her legs to hold her, and moving toward the back corridor. Howard lumbered through the crowds to cut her off, and Ted was not far behind.
“Oh, no you don’t,” Howard warned, as Diana tried to slip past. “You can fire me if you like, my girl, after I’ve said my piece, but you are going to explain yourself.”
“I don’t answer to you, Howard,” she said coldly, and he laughed.
“Of course you don’t. You answer to these folks, don’t you?” He waved the date book in her face. “The ones supplying us. Supplying you. That’s what this is, right? Shipments? Pretty regular intervals, here. No names. What’s the big idea, Diana? You’re supposed to be buying from my boys. That was our arrangement. Cut rate prices, first class service. That’s what you wanted, right? I didn’t cut up rough over too much when it came to your little temper tantrums, here, because I thought we were exclusive in the only way that mattered, but if that’s changed, I can always change my tune.”
“Won’t make me pay you any better attention, Howard,” Diana sighed. She tried again to push past him, but this time Howard caught her by the arm and hauled her into the corridor.
“Now look here, you little bitch—” he growled, only to find himself knocked back by Ted. He was maybe not as elegant in his execution as Nell, Emily thought, but he had height and muscle on his side, whereas all Howard had was heft.
“You can keep your hands to yourself or you can call the meeting off,” Ted decided. Howard looked ready to answer with a suggestion of his own, but Diana cut them both off.
“If you two boys are quite finished making this entirely about yourselves,” she rapped out, “I will be glad to get a word in edgewise.”
They fell silent, duly humbled.
“Ted,” she said, “go back into the front room. Make sure everybody’s settled out there.”
He departed in obedience to her edict, and Diana rounded on her other companion.
“Howard, I put up with exactly as much from you as I did because of our business arrangement. Believe me if you like, or not, if you don’t, but I would not do anything to jeopardize that. You make one hell of a liquor, and I intend to keep buying from you, and only from you, for as long as you’re selling.”
“Then what the hell is this?” Howard tapped the book. “It was in that box of music you left outside the kitchen door. If it’s not liquor, then what the hell is the shipment, anyway?”
“Howard, if I could tell you—”
“What’s stopping you? Somebody got something on you, Diana? What’s such a big deal that you can’t even tell me about it? What exactly are you moving here, anyway?”
Diana regarded him steadily. Emily could see quite clearly she was not going to give . . . but not everyone was made of such stern stuff. Some people were just not cut out to withstand interrogation, even if it was only somebody else’s.
Howard and Diana both looked over to the doorway, where the frizzy-haired girl in the blue dress stood, clutching a small bag in front of her.
“She’s moving me.”
“Howard, it is probably illegal for you to even hear this.”
“Diana, for Chrissakes I don’t understand even understand half of what I just heard. I don’t think they’ll arrest me for being an idiot.”
“No, they’d have caught you by now, if that were the case,” Diana agreed dryly. She looked around the small supply room into which she had hustled her gobsmacked manager, her trembling guest and, although she didn’t know it, an absolutely riveted Emily, who was enjoying the hell out of every moment.
“But either way, this is . . . criminally reckless. You need to know that.” She cut a meaningful stare at the girl. “Both of you.”
The girl nodded, pale under her freckles, but determined.
“I know. But you’ve been so wonderful, you and Miss Pierce. I can never thank you enough. It’s been terrifying, coming out here to who even knows what. It’s important work, I know, but . . . but I’m frightened.”
Diana nodded, her expression softening.
“Most of you have been,” she assured the girl. “It’s an enormous responsibility. But I don’t think they’d have kept it up this long, if it weren’t doing some good.”
“I know.” Her guest’s resolve firmed perceptibly. “I have to always think of that. How many people we’re going to help. That makes it all right.”
“So you really are in the Navy?” Howard stared at the slight slip of a girl backed up against a shelf of dish towels and preserves. “The honest-to-God Navy?”
“Women’s Royal Naval Service,” she confirmed, albeit barely above a whisper.
“And you’ve been sent down here, given some code about a man whistling you’re supposed to blather when you duck in—”
“Oh no,” the girl interjected, “a man really did whist—”
“Sure, sister. Pull the other one. You give them some malarkey about a man whistling, just to get in here in a reasonable way, and . . . then what?”
“Wait,” Diana said crisply. “Until transport. We’re only a junction point, Howard. A stopping place. They’ll take her on elsewhere, then again, and so on, until the final place. Then she’ll work there until . . . well.” She shrugged. “It’s all over.”
“Doing what?” Howard demanded, half scornful, half intrigued. But both women shook their heads.
“I don’t know,” Diana said firmly, just as the other woman said,
“I’m not allowed to say.”
Howard did not meet this evasion with the same incredulity he had Diana’s original denial. Instead he turned it over solemnly, and finally nodded.
“All right,” he said, “so say you.”
He straightened up as though the secret itself had given him reason to stand a little taller, adjusted his lapels, and headed for the door. Diana caught him by the arm in a sudden, low grade panic.
“Howard, wait. Please—promise me. You can’t say anything.”
He looked at her in deep and aggrieved offence.
“Diana, if you’re not double dealing me on the liquor, there’s no quarrel between us. But even if you were, there’s no call for you to go suspecting I’d do a thing like that. What do you take me for?”
Diana’s shoulders slumped in palpable relief. Howard, dignity offended, nevertheless nodded to them both and hustled out of the supply closet, leaving Diana to look at her guest in a fresh agony of indecision.
“I do wish you’d not told him. He was vetted to a degree, of course, when they picked us for this post, but nothing close enough for him to actually know all of that.”
The Wren, whose name, Emily was rapidly coming to realize, even Diana did not know, looked abashed.
“I should have thought,” she said. “How foolish of me. Of course you are aware, but once Miss Pierce made it plain she knew too, I assumed all the staff were trustworthy.”
Diana, who had clearly not once in her lifetime classified Nell as “staff,” looked as nonplussed as her guest had done moments before.
All she said, however, was “Come with me. Your ride should be here any minute.”
And she led the way to the alley doors, her charge and Emily following close behind.
The alley was empty when they arrived. No sign of young men with bouquets, nor of any truck of any nature. Diana, unconcerned, perched on a shipping crate and tilted her head back to study the sky above.
“Have you come very far?” she asked, at last.
“Yes,” the Wren said. “It’s been awful. Exciting, yes, and I know it’s for a good cause, but I’ve never been this far from home before. I don’t imagine I shall ever be accustomed to it.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Diana considered. “I think if you find a place where you want badly enough to make a new one, and people you care to build it with, you might see things differently.”
And she smiled, but in such a private and gentle way that both Emily and her guest discreetly looked away.
In the silence that followed, the door to the alley opened and Ted looked around the frame.
“Both out here, now, are you?” he observed. “Well. Might as well join you, then.”
“Not right now, thanks, Ted,” Diana smiled. “It’s not the best time.”
“Oh,” said Ted, coming fully around the door, to reveal the neat, bright little pistol he held, leveled directly at them both, “I’m afraid it’s all the time we have left. Now keep very quiet, please, Diana. And you too, Miss. I think we’ve had our fill of crowds for tonight.”
Ted, Emily thought, was still ridiculously affable. Even with the gun. Even with his palpable intent to use it if need be, which had provoked at least temporary complete silence from both of the women he could actually see.
He spoke with excellent courtesy, directing them this way and that, maneuvering himself and Diana deeper into shadow while the Wren he obliged to stand in the foreground, facing the mouth of the alley. Diana stood with more beautifully correct posture than usual, the barrel of the gun serving as an inducement at the base of her spine.
“They’ll never take her, with you here,” she warned. “It’s what you want, isn’t it? To find out where she’s going? They told us somebody was looking.”
“A lot of somebodies are looking, in fact,” Ted admitted. “It’s quite the operation they have going. It’s in certain folks' particular interests that we find out where the bases are. They intend to, shall we say, set the cat among the pigeons.”
“They won’t take her,” Diana repeated. “The shipping contingent will see you and refuse transport.”
“Come now, Diana, give me a little more credit than that!” Ted scoffed. “I will be perfectly out of sight the whole time. Out of sight,” he nudged her meaningfully with the gun, “but well within range.”
Diana’s jaw set.
“Nell will be here soon.”
“I’m relying on it. Your friend here and Nell will make the trip together. Shouldn't occasion comment. You’ve moved two girls in the past—I saw as much in your notes.”
Emily tracked his meaning as quickly as if she’d already known. Notes. The pile of marked-up music he had been looking through, and the day planner tucked inside it.
“Why do you want to send Nell?” Diana demanded, and Ted did not begrudge her an answer.
“I need somebody reliable to call back with the destination. Your Wren here might have second thoughts, being all besotted with her purpose and duty and all that, but I can trust Nell to tell me exactly where they take her.”
“You’re barking mad!” Diana laughed. “She would never do that.”
Ted’s disappointment in his captive’s estimation of his intelligence visibly deepened.
“Oh, Diana,” he said gently. The jab of the gun became a caress. “Don’t tell me you think I’ll believe that.”
Diana went very still. Emily almost thought she could hear the woman's heart rate accelerate, and her own picked up speed in response.
“She’ll call me all right, Diana. She’ll do it for you.”
“You imagine she would actually commit treason?” Diana challenged, her voice shaking. Ted shrugged.
“I’m doing it just for the money. Don’t tell me Nell wouldn’t do that and more if it meant saving you.”
Diana couldn’t tell him that. Not truthfully. She fell silent again, but this time she was shaking palpably. Emily, too, believed it. She had seen them together for only a few hours, but the way Nell looked at Diana . . . a little light treason was probably only the beginning of what she’d do to keep her safe.
A sense of mounting helplessness rose up within her, so fierce and quick and complete that it was as if it were coming from within Diana herself. Like something inside the woman had reached out to something inside Emily and drawn her forward, steady, purposeful, increasingly desperate, seeking a means to use her lack of true, complete presence in the world to make an end of this mess.
Her hand, almost of its own accord, stretched out for the gun. Fired by Diana’s own desire to be free, she was grabbing at it, struggling, failing . . .
It was like reaching into Howard’s pocket again, but worse. Because that had been a possibility, a might-be danger, and this was certainty. This was life or death, and however many years after everybody she was standing with now had already been dead Emily might have been born, she could not shake Diana’s own radiating certainty that what was happening here, now, mattered.
But Emily could not make contact with Ted, no matter how she tried, and she felt wretchedly useless as she struggled to. She could not touch his skin. That much was clear.
There was, in his hand, cold metal, polished wood on the grip, and that she could feel. That she could touch. That she could grab, and did, clumsily, as through fog and sand and time long passed, a distant past, playing out right in front of her like it must have played out in reality so many years ago.
She clutched, ineffectually, at the thing she could feel but not truly hold, and she fancied, though maybe it was only damnable wishful thinking, that she was slowing him down. That he could not lift and swing the gun as freely as he had thought he should be able to. That the expression of faint confusion, showing even through his cold intention, was perhaps in some way of her own making.
She clutched tighter, yelled louder, Nell's name now, only Nell's.
And Nell was there. All at once, as if summoned, as if she'd heard the call and come in answer to it. She rounded the corner from the front of the alley at the same time as twin, blinding beams of light cut into the gloom and dazzled everybody looking out at them. Behind Nell there was a delivery truck, staffed by four efficient looking young men who no longer carried bouquets of flowers.
They did not move as quickly as Nell.
They did not have as much reason.
She was across the alley in less time than it took Emily to fully know she was there. Her hand flew up, silver flashed a reflection of the truck’s headlights, and she swung it down, straight for the neck. Ted went down with it. The gun flew out of his grip, and he collapsed, folded up on the bricked alley floor, as Diana fell forward to collapse against Nell.
Emily folded up too, tangled in a heap. The clatter of voices, the truck engine and Nell’s distant, gentle reassurances all closed over her, loud and overbearing, and then . . .
She woke up.
In the dim of the pub, through her hazy waking state, Emily could just make out the shimmering golden figure of a woman on the stage. An even hazier shadow rested against the bar, no longer tense, but settled, sure and strong in her place.
The Coors Light advertisement shadowed through the latter was indication enough that Emily was trying to wake up. That the last day was fading now, and she was dry-mouthed, light-headed and truly, impressively hungry.
But before she rubbed her eyes to clear them of the last traces of sleep, the apparition stepped forward, as one would step to a microphone, to speak in a faint but otherwise perfectly ordinary voice.
“You need to put the book back, Emily. Put it back exactly where it goes. It's so important that you do. I wanted to thank you, but I can only do so if you do this. So please put it back, immediately. We'll all be glad you did. Don’t wait. Just go.”
Then Emily did rub her eyes, and if the figure at the bar raised a glass in the gesture of toasting her health, she was now too wide awake to see it.
It was just her, the pub . . . and the book.
Emily checked the clock. Half six. And the library closed at seven.
If she ran the whole way, she might just make it.
The archives on Water Street closed at six. Not seven. Six. Emily had not heard the library worker say so, but she found it out for herself soon enough when she reached Water Street, and the archive, and read the posted hours.
A blank, unreasoning nothingness rose up before her at the sight of those words.
Instinctively, as is the instinct of most persons confronted with a locked door, or a door at least reported or likely to be locked, she tried the handle anyway.
It was locked.
Of course it was locked. The archive closed at six. Said so right there, on the door. But Emily tried the handle again, because the archive couldn't be closed, she would not allow it to be, so obviously there had to be some mistake.
The door, it turned out, was still, most uncooperatively, locked.
But in the exact manner of the proverb, Emily saw, the window above the gallery steps had not been made so fast. It stood open, in approved casement style, and as much as she might later wish to be able to report some hesitation on her part at the sight, in truth she paused only long enough to wedge the book she held firmly between her teeth before she threw her leg over the railing, edged her toe out along the brick, and caught hold of the sill.
A quick tug and she was up, over and in, landing with a graceless thump on the floor.
Lucky, she thought, there had not been something very inconvenient there, like a potted fern or globe or somesuch. The room seemed the kind predisposed to both. Tall shelves, of the old library kind, narrowly-spaced and crammed with books. It took her less time than she'd thought to find the right space, where the tags matched the tag on her book, and slide it neatly home.
She stood back, breathless, waiting. Hoping for some manner of sign, some indication she had made the right choice, done the right thing, gotten it there in time . . .
But nothing happened.
Emily felt a prickle of reality return, in a sort of heavy, ugly weight that settled into her stomach. Goodness, what stupidity was this? Of course this was nonsense, start to finish. She had just fallen asleep in Olivia's new pub and had some ridiculous dream inspired by her surroundings. There was no great forgotten romance between a singer and her self-appointed bodyguard. No ghost had enjoined her to return this book to its proper place at all speed, that they might be satisfied. She was a complete and total fool to imagine otherwise.
. . . And she had just committed a crime. She had actually broken into the archive. Not to steal, it was true, just to put something back, but that seemed a pretty fine distinction to expect a judge to make.
Her only saving grace was that nobody had actually seen her come here. So there was still time. She could still turn this around. All she had to do was go back out the way she had come in, and hope against hope nobody would—
“Who the hell are you?”
She whipped around, more startled than prepared to answer, only to catch the heavy edge of a book full across her cheek. As she reeled back against the shelf, her last coherent thought before giving herself up to giddiness was, simply, “too late.”
Her name was Hannah. The girl with the book and the impressive swing. They had established that much, once Emily had recovered her wits enough to attempt to explain herself. It helped that she had led with the sanest part of the truth, and had the actual book on the shelf to prove it. But then she had gotten a little carried away and told her the rest of it, too, because . . . well, because Hannah had a heart-shaped face and wide green eyes and a glorious wing of golden hair that sprang up and back from her forehead, and Emily, it turned out, whether in the grip of a true thing or not, was at least truly in its grip.
Hannah looked at her for a long time when she was done.
Emily looked back.
Finally Hannah said,
“Are you really expecting me to believe all that?”
“Honestly I’m not sure I believe it myself. Maybe I need to be admitted for observation. Maybe this is all some kind of fever dream, and I’m actually passed out from heatstroke on the corner of some street corner, dying in my stupid walking tour costume. I could be traumatizing German tour groups right this moment by sweating to death in front of them and I wouldn’t even know it. But . . . yeah, actually. I think I do expect you to believe it.” She squinted at the girl in front of her, the sense of familiarity that had struck her since the moment Hannah had—well—struck her finally finding a name.
“You actually look a lot like her. Did you know that?”
Hannah’s lips parted, then closed. A small, faint smile curved them up at each end.
She reached for the frame that sat nearest her on the jumbled little desk, hesitated, and then flipped it around.
“Everybody says I take after Nan.”
The photo was of Nell and Diana, some years after she had met them. They were standing on the stoop of the pub, Nell slouched against the doorway with her hands in her pockets, Diana beaming directly at the photographer in such a fashion that it would have rendered useless any function of the flashbulb. Hannah’s smile widened, and the resemblance deepened.
“She’s my great grandmother. It’s a family place, that pub. Didn’t Liv tell you? My dad sold it after Nan died, and it started a big fight between him and Liv’s dad. We didn’t see each other for years, but when she contacted me last week to say she’d bought it, and she had somebody who was going to help her scrape the damn Heineken posters off the walls and put some dignity back into the thing, I couldn’t wait to help.”
She sat back, flipping the photo around to stare at it herself.
“I guess Nan couldn’t, either.”
She looked up at Emily again, half incredulous, half thrilled.
“They were a stopping point for Wrens?”
“Yes, but doing what, I still don’t know.”
“Oh!” Hannah looked surprised, as though it hadn’t occurred to her this could ever be a mystery. “Working with LORAN, I’d assume. Down on the south shore, or else up near Coverdale. This whole region was important at the time because of its position. There were two critical stations within a day’s drive of each other in the area. Wrens tracked submarine movements, they intercepted code and passed it on overseas, to the people at Bletchley. This one might have been going to either station. Shortened the war by as much as two years, I think the estimate is.”
She paused, much struck.
“And to think Nan and Mamie were a part of that.”
“Up to their necks,” Emily agreed emphatically. Then she paused, considering. “You said she was your great grandmother. But . . .”
“Oh,” Hannah laughed, “Great-great aunt, really. My granddad was her brother’s kid. Born overseas. When Jimmy didn’t come back at the end of the war, Nan wrote that Jimmy’s wife and his kid should come stay with them. Except the wife died too, in one of the air raids, so it was just Granddad they sent, and Nan raised him. Nan and Mamie both.”
She smiled wistfully.
“They never made much of a secret of themselves with him, but I guess it was all pretty discreet otherwise. They left the city eventually. Nan had a few record contracts and they hired somebody to manage the pub.”
She looked back down at the frame in her hands.
“They were happy. That’s how Granddad talks about them. It’s how I’d like to think they were.”
Emily nodded. Swallowed. Nodded again.
Hannah looked up at that, drawn back into the moment, but not rudely or resentfully. More as one who has sat up to discover the daylight, and does not hate the sight.
She was definitely, Emily realized, looking at her as if she did not hate the sight.
“Look,” Hannah said, with an excess of care, “do you think . . . I mean, if we were to go to the pub, could you . . . show me? Where it happened? How you—you saw it all?” She looked half nervous, half hopeful, as if it were she who was caught breaking into something she had no right to.
Emily, having already been surprised by this girl a couple times tonight, and in more ways than one, felt it was only fair that she return the favour.
So she leaned in, and surprised her back.
“I’d love to.”