PROLOGUE

London 1918

Her hands were red, the colour of postboxes and central route buses; a contrast to the white skin of her wrists. She scrubbed and scrubbed in between her fingers and under her nails, picked and scratched at the lines that criss crossed her palms and the water in the chipped sink swirled pink and brown. Hot tears left streaks down her cheeks, each side racing the other down to her jawline, they curved around her nose and along the small indent beneath it onto her lip. She didn't notice. Her skin and everything beneath it was numb; frozen and killed by what she'd witnessed; by what she'd done.

The boom of explosions; the crumbling of brick, the collapse of timbers and glass, was carried on the breeze. The smell of fire, of burning, of water. The city looked like Hell, and it smelt like it. The German planes were no more than shadows and ghosts in the night sky. They left chaos and devastation in their wake and she moved through it unnoticed: the woman covered in blood and stunned into silence didn't look out of place and she made it back to the house unchallenged.

The air in the kitchen was ice, her breath plumed out in front of her, kissing the frost covered window and rising until it was consumed by the cold. The lungs protested as she filled them with each loud and laboured breath, a whimper escaping with each exhale. Heels and soles clicked against the flagstones, a rhythmic pace repeated back and forth across the room. She stopped in the mouth of the narrow passageway and stared into the darkness which led up to the rest of the house. She daren't go up yet, in fear of finding the others and in fear that her unsteady legs wouldn't carry her the distance. She retreated back, bumping the small of her back against the thick tabletop and she slumped onto the cold and dusty floor.

What had happened? They had planned it meticulously, how did everything go so catastrophically wrong? It was replayed in flashes, like the bright yellow spark of a camera; snippets of sound and voices, images that she'd rather not see again. She pulled her knees up to her chin and hugged them tight, buried her face in the folds of her skirt and made the dark darker still.

The smell hit her instantly; strange, warm, metallic. Her blouse, once white, was now streaked and tainted red. She clawed ferociously at the buttons, her clumsy fingers fumbled them through the holes and she tore it from her shoulders. It seemed to her as despicable as what she'd done, the events of the night personified in that single inanimate object. It sat scrunched before her feet and she breathed deeply to stop the bile rising in her throat. What should she do with it? What could she do? The blood wasn't her own; she hadn't a scratch on her, not even a mark. Her hands found the cold cast iron of the range; the temperamental beast dominated the kitchen, it belched coal smoke and steam and reduced everything to charred black dust. She struck a handful of matches and hoped that was still the case as she ignited the coals. The thin cotton burned quickly. She watched until it was destroyed and curled up fetus-like on the stone, praying that there was a bomb destined for this house; for her.

She was conscious of those solitary hours, as though the minutes were grains of sand passing through an hourglass. Would she change anything that had led her to here, to now? The moments of happiness and love and good she'd felt since returning to Brewer Street sat on a balance with all the ghosts and memories and war... And murder.