Anarchy - excerpt
Dorothy’s was a women-only restaurant, a novelty in London. It was particularly popular with feminists, bohemians and libertarians. Billings stood outside, watching a group of urchins on tip toes, pressing their noses against the restaurant’s window.
At around half past one, a woman wearing a dark blue dress and large feathered hat, stepped out of the restaurant, leaned against the doorway, took a cigarette out of her handbag and popped it in her mouth. She looked attractive and confident. The urchins by the window were intrigued by her. She smiled at them, which encouraged them to approach her and hold their hands out for some money. She gave them something out of her handbag. Billings couldn’t tell whether it was a coin or a sweet, but whatever it was, the urchins were happy with it. They left, skipping and laughing down the street.
Billings walked towards her and joined her by the doorway. “I have been sent by Joseph Hirsch,” he whispered to her. He wasn’t sure whether he had the right person, but the woman’s reaction quickly confirmed that he had.
“Joseph?” She looked concerned. “Why isn’t he here himself?”
“Mr Hirsch is indisposed.”
“Who are you?”
“I am friend.”
“Where is Joseph?”
“He asked me to pass on a message to you.”
“What sort of message?”
“It’s confidential. I’d rather not tell you here.”
“It’s quieter around the corner.” She threw her cigarette on the ground, crushed it with her boot and rushed off down the street.
Billings followed her to a small side street.
The woman stopped in front of one of the large elegant houses which lined the street. “Well, what is it?” She looked tense and worried.
Billings took his badge out of his breast pocket and showed it to her. “My name is Detective Sergeant John Billings from Scotland Yard. Joseph Hirsch is wanted in connection with a police investigation and I have reason to believe you might know where he is.”
The woman went silent. Her brow furrowed as she tried to register what was happening. “So you tricked me,” she said at last.
“I’m afraid I have.”
“What makes you think I know where Joseph Hirsch is?”
“You sent him a letter asking him to meet you at Dorothy’s Restaurant.” Billings took the letter out of his breast pocket and showed it to her.
The woman frowned. “Those letters weren’t meant for you. And anyway, it should be perfectly clear from those letters that I don’t know where he is!”
“Joseph Hirsch is on the run from the police. I’d like to talk to you about him. You may have some information which could help us locate him.”
“Why would he be on the run?”
“He is suspected of the murder of his brothers, Issachar and Zebulun Hirsch.”
The woman laughed. “I have never heard anything more ridiculous in my life!”
“I’d like to take you to the police station so we can talk.”
“There’s no need for that, Detective Sergeant. We can talk here.” She took a bunch of keys out of her handbag and climbed the steps of the house before which they were standing.
Billings looked confused. Was this her house?
“Well, come on, then,” the woman said, opening the front door.
Billings followed the woman in. He was taken aback by the house’s splendour. Four doric pillars decorated the hallway. The marble tiles on the floor and walls shimmered so brightly that his eyes had to adjust to the light. The house would have looked like a mausoleum had it not been for the various potted palms and aspidistras which were placed against the wall.
“We’ll go to the drawing room,” the woman said, climbing the marble staircase. “Bessie will bring us some tea. She’ll have heard us come in.”
Billings followed her to the living room.
The woman perched herself on the red velvet sofa. “Sit down,” she said, pointing at the sofa opposite her, “and tell me more about that ridiculous theory you have concocted.”
Billings sat down. “You have a nice house, Miss…um…”
The woman smiled. “You have no idea who I am, have you?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Well, brace yourself, Detective Sergeant, for I shall tell you. My name is Zuzana Olexa, Countess of Bohemia.”
Billings tried not to look impressed, but failed.
The woman smiled at his reaction. “But I don’t care much for titles, so you can call me Miss Olexa. Or Zuzana, if you prefer.”
“What are you doing in England?”
“My father came here in the sixties after his attempt to re-establish a Bohemian Kingdom failed. I grew up here. But you’re not really here to talk about me, are you? You mentioned something ludicrous about Joseph having murdered two of his brothers.”
“How do you know Joseph Hirsch?”
“I know all of the Hirsch Brothers. I helped them settle down in this country when they were forced to leave France.”
“How did you help them?”
“By giving them money.”
“When did you meet them?”
“I met them at the Autonomie Club when they arrived in England.”
“Are you a member?”
“They don’t allow women. But I’m a regular donor so I was invited to meet them.”
“Are you an anarchist?”
“Yes, I am. You’re surprised, aren’t you? That there is such a thing as an aristocratic anarchist. But it’s not fair that I should have all the opportunities in life, simply because I had the good fortune of being born into a wealthy family, whereas someone who is far more talented and gifted than I has no hope whatsoever because he was born poor. So I do what I can to redress the balance.” She reached towards the coffee table and opened the lid of a silver cigarette box. “Do you smoke, Detective Sergeant?”
Billings shook his head.
“I hope you’re not one of those men who is offended by the sight of a woman smoking.” She grabbed a cigarette from the box, popped it in her mouth and lit it. “It helps me to relax.”
The conversation was interrupted by the maid, who entered the drawing room with a tea tray.
“Oh Bessie, darling, you’re an angel,” Olexa said as the maid placed the tray on the coffee table.
Billings looked surprised when the maid sat down in the armchair and joined them for tea.
“Bessie always joins me for tea,” Olexa explained. She poured the tea into the three cups, then picked up a cup and saucer and handed it to the maid.
“Thank you, ma’am,” Bessie mumbled.
“Bessie is not a servant,” Olexa said. “She is a human being, just like myself, and is treated with the same respect I bestow on anyone.”
Billings glanced at the maid. She looked uncomfortable, perched on the edge of the big armchair, wearing her maid’s uniform. He wondered whether the maid really appreciated the countess’ eccentricity. He was convinced that she would far rather be sitting in the kitchen, gossiping with the cook.
“I’m not here on a social visit, Miss Olexa,” he said, gesturing at the maid. “I would like to ask you some personal questions.”
“Bessie may hear everything you have to say. I have no secrets.”
“Very well.” Billing shrugged and continued with his interview. “You are aware, I suppose, that the Hirsch Brothers are wanted by the French Police.”
“Of course I am.”
“They are wanted for the murder of thirteen factory workers.”
Olexa frowned. “Those deaths were an accident.”
“You think the fire at the textile factory was an accident?”
“No. The factory was bombed by the Hirsch Brothers, but there wasn’t supposed to be anyone in there. It was one o’clock in the morning. The factory was supposed to be closed. But Jacques Hirsch had his people working there day and night. Those workers were treated like slaves and were only paid a mere pittance.”
“But they’re not being paid anything now, are they? They no longer have a factory to work in.”
“The old order needs to be destroyed before we can build up a new one. We must all suffer to create a better world.”
Billings looked around him at the opulent surroundings. “Are you suffering?”
Olexa paused before replying. “Don’t judge me, Detective Sergeant. You don’t know anything about my life.”
“Are you still in touch with the Hirsch Brothers?”
“We quickly lost touch with the four older brothers. They wanted nothing more to do with Anarchism and disappeared. I’m only in touch with Joseph now, and through him, with Issachar and Zebulun.”
“You know that Issachar and Zebulun are dead.”
“I read about it in the newspaper.”
“Do you know how they died?”
“Issachar was stabbed in the street by some crook. And Zebulun was found in an abandoned building with his throat slit. I suppose you’re going to tell me that it was Joseph who killed them.”
“Would you believe me if I did?”
“Of course not. What reason does Joseph have to kill his own brothers!”
“What precisely is your relationship with Joseph Hirsch?”
“What do you mean?”
“How close are you to him?”
Olexa went silent for a few seconds. She turned towards her maid. “All right, Bessie, you can go now.”
Bessie was quick to jump up from the armchair and rush out of the room, relieved to have finally been set free.
Olexa waited for the maid to leave the room and shut the door before finally answering the detective. “I suppose what you’re really asking is whether Joseph and I are lovers. Well, the answer is yes. Why should I deny it? We are both unmarried and we share the same philosophy. I already told you that I care nothing about class.”
“Are you his only lover?”
Olexa was taken aback by the question and paused before replying. “What kind of question is that?”
“I ask because because there was a girl at his address in Spitalfields who is expecting his child.”
“A girl? What kind of girl?”
“A sixteen year old German beauty by the name of Rebekah Hochst.”
Olexa’s face tensed up. She stared at the detective without responding. She picked her cigarette up from the ashtray and took a drag. “I know what you’re doing, Detective Sergeant. I know this tactic. You’re trying to turn me against him so that I will betray him. But it won’t work. Joseph Hirsch is a good man. I stand by everything he does.”
“Do you know what he is plotting at the moment?”
“No, I don’t. But whatever is, I’m sure it’s a good thing. This horrible inequality in which we live must cease.”
“He is plotting to bomb Westminster Abbey during the Queen’s Golden jubilee celebrations.”
“Do you think it’s funny? Half of Europe’s aristocracy will be there. Your cousins. They might all be killed.”
“I think you’re overestimating Joseph’s abilities, Detective Sergeant Billings. He only does small scale attacks. And he won’t do anything which will result in people losing their lives. I already told you that the deaths at the textile factory were an accident. I think it’s time you left.” She put her cigarette down on the ash tray and stood up. “I have been civil with you. I have invited you into my house, I have answered your questions, but you repay me by insulting the man I love. And by insulting him you have insulted me. So please leave now. I want you out of my house.”
Billings stood up. “I am sorry if I offended you, Miss Olexa. That was not my intention. But it seems to me that you are deluded about Joseph Hirsch. I have met him myself. He is a dangerous man. I would advise you to stay well away from him.”
“Will you go now, please.”
“I will,” and nodding his goodbye, Billings made his way out of the living room and down the stairs.