LONDON, June 1857
Grayson Woodridge III paid his carriage driver and hopped down into the beautiful surroundings of St James Park. He’d decided to walk the last few streets back to the Palace of Westminster, or Houses of Parliament as they were more colloquially known, to consider his options. He knew that he had the information that the Lord Chancellor wanted. He also knew that once he handed that information over to his master all potential profit-making avenues were closed to him. Unlike the Lord Chancellor Grayson hadn’t been lucky enough to have a privileged upbringing and had fought tooth and nail to get his position. Of course he was grateful to his master for taking him under his wing but he knew that he was just one of a number of minions that the Lord Chancellor called on when circumstances deemed it necessary. His position as deputy was purely ceremonial and didn’t afford him the lifestyle of many of his peers in the seat of British Government. That he was in hock to his bookmaker didn’t help matters of course, but perhaps this new situation could be played to his advantage in more ways than one, clearing his debts once and for all.
He stopped by a tall chestnut to bang out his pipe and reload it, chewing on the end while he pulled the tobacco apart. As he prepared his smoke he wondered what price the Elixir would command on the open market. Surely thousands, if not hundreds of thousands. He would be set for life. A smile played on his lips, curling up just enough at the ends of his mouth to twitch his moustache gently. Of course there was the matter of confirming the information was correct first and it was this thought that led Grayson to up his pace across the park, head straight out onto Birdcage Walk and then Great George Street towards Parliament Square.
Once safely through the Parliamentary gates Grayson made his way through the labyrinth of offices and meeting rooms that the Members used on a daily basis until he found himself at the great Lord’s Chamber. This was the home of the House of Lords, the second chamber or ‘Upper House’ of parliament which existed to work with the House of Commons to make and ratify laws, check and challenge the actions of government and provide a forum of independent expertise. Although less powerful than it’s sister house since the Reform Act of 1832, the House of Lord’s was still in a position to question government and it made good use of that role.
At the entrance Grayson stopped briefly as he always did to admire the grandeur of the space before him. Generally regarded as Augustus Welby Pugin’s masterpiece the Lord’s Chamber was the most lavishly decorated room in the Palace of Westminster. The Chamber’s ceiling was divided into eighteen panelled compartments each showing ancient emblems such as the white hart of Richard III. The monarchs of England and Scotland were depicted in the original stained glass windows by Pugin and the armorial bearings running beneath the side of the galleries were of the sovereigns from Edward III and the Lord Chancellors from 1377. Between the windows were statues of the sixteen barons and two bishops known to have been present at the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215. Grayson also knew, following long port-fuelled diatribes from his master that many of the fittings and furnishings in the Chamber were designed by Pugin himself, including the solid brass gates at the entrance of the chamber, each weighing some three quarters of a ton.
Focusing his mind on the task at hand Grayson turned away from the opulence and headed towards the Throne at the far end of the chamber. He passed by the woolsack on which the Lord Speaker sat when the chamber was in session, thought to have been introduced in the 14th century to reflect the economic importance of the wool trade to England, and walked around the throne to a small door that was mostly hidden from the rest of the chamber. Grayson knocked twice gently and waited. When he was sure there was no-one coming to answer he turned the round looped handle. The door led into a small ante-room whose decoration was a complete anathema to it’s neighbour, similarly wood panelled but sparse and simple with just a wooden table and chairs and a large wardrobe. The wardrobe contained the robes of the Lord Speaker, controller of the House of Lord’s, and the room could easily have been in use but thankfully it was quite separate from the Speaker’s office which was situated further along the hall and so Grayson was alone.
From this point on he would be relying on the words of Oliver Stockett to guide him. The old man had been insistent that he follow his instructions precisely so he paused for a moment again to remember them. Taking a breath to steady his nerves he walked to the far wall and placed his hand in the middle of the panel that was second in from the window and second up from the floor. The surface was smooth and identical to the others around it. He felt along each edge of the panel looking for the loose section that Stockett had described to him. Finally part of the panel gave way under his fingers and as it moved forward a small space was revealed below behind the panel, just large enough for Grayson to hook his index finger behind. Saying a silent prayer he pressed down gently and felt a mechanical ‘click’. Immediately the panel moved outward by almost an inch. Grayson held both sides of the panel and pulled it gently along the pair of runners that allowed it to move forward and backward. Once it was far enough forward for him to reach his hand behind, he manoeuvred himself over to the side to give himself more room. His hand slid between the panel and the wall into a small box-like space. He felt his way carefully along the floor of the box until his fingers touched something. It was cold and smooth and about four inches high, cylindrical but tapered at the top with what felt like a stopper. Grayson closed his hands around the small flask and pulled it gently towards the front of the box.
It was just at this moment that he heard another mechanical sound, but this time it was behind him and it was most definitely not a sound that he was hoping to hear. As the looped handle turned further and the door to the ante-room opened Grayson realised that he was in the worst position possible - not only was he in a room that he shouldn’t be in but he was about to give away the secret of his salvation and future success. He left go of the flask and pulled his hand away quickly, hoping to be able to move in front of the panel before his discovery was seen.
However, the man who entered the room didn’t seem at all surprised to see Grayson sitting on the floor of the Lord Speaker’s dressing room. Nor did he ask him what he was doing there. Instead he simply smiled.