Authors: Ashley Gardner
Tags: #Historical mystery
The letter, neatly folded at my plate, looked innocuous enough, but I had a sense of disquiet about it.
The letter had come through the post, my name and direction carefully printed by hand.
Captain Gabriel Lacey, South Audley Street
An auspicious address, though not my original. I’d married it. Six months ago, I had been living in straitened circumstances in rooms above a Covent Garden bakeshop. At New Year’s I had married Donata Breckenridge, a young widow, and moved into tasteful splendor.
The previous master of this house, Lord Breckenridge, had been a brute of a man, and a boor. Did I feel a sense of triumph that I had awakened with the beautiful Donata half an hour ago, while the foul Breckenridge was dead?
I did, I am very much afraid.
I breakfasted alone. Donata slept on upstairs, weary from her social engagements of the previous night. Her small son from her first marriage, Peter—the current Viscount Breckenridge—took his breakfast in the nursery, and my daughter had not yet woken. In the family, Peter and I were the early risers.
I eyed the letter for some time, filled with a sense of foreboding. I’d received two rather nasty missives in the last weeks, unsigned, purporting me to be an imposter—in fact
the Gabriel Lacey who had left my Norfolk country estate more than twenty years ago with a regiment posted to India. I was a blackguard who’d come to cheat Lady Breckenridge out of her money and leave her destitute. If I did not heed the writer’s warning, leave a substantial sum for him in a yet-to-be determined meeting place, and disappear again, he would denounce me.
I, of course, showed these letters to my wife at once. Donata had great fun with them, and was busy trying to decipher the handwriting. A jealous suitor, she proclaimed, though she had no idea which one. Could be dozens, she’d said, which unnerved me a bit, though I should not have been surprised. Donata had been quite a diamond of the first water in her Season.
I finished my ham and slice of bread, toasted to near blackness as I liked it, and took a long draught of coffee before I lifted the letter and broke the seal with my knife.
I make so bold to write to you, Captain, to beg a favor. I have a problem I have been pondering for some time, and would like another opinion. Sir Montague Harris, magistrate at Whitechapel, suggested I put the affair before you and see what you make of it. You would, unfortunately, have to travel to Wapping, but there is no way around that. If you would prefer to discuss the matter first, I am happy to meet you in a place more convenient to explain.
Thames River Police
“Barnstable,” I said to the butler, who hovered nearby, waiting to serve me. “Please send for a hackney. I am off to Wapping this morning.”
Barnstable, who was a stickler for appearances, wanted to rouse the coachman to have me driven across London in the Breckenridge landau. I forestalled him, seeing no reason to wake the man, Hagen, who’d been out until four driving my wife from place to place. Nor did I wish to roll into the seamier parts of London in a luxurious coach with the Breckenridge crest on its side.
A hackney would do. Barnstable made sure one halted at our front door, a plain black coach, shining with rain. I asked Barnstable to convey to Donata where I’d gone, in case she woke before my return, and I was off.
The coach had only reached the end of South Audley Street when the door was flung open again. The vehicle listed sharply as a large man climbed inside, slammed the door, and fell onto the seat opposite me. He gave me a nod.
“Mr. Brewster.” My hand relaxed on my walking stick, which had a stout sword inside it. “I would have hoped Mr. Denis had ceased sending a minder after me.”
Brewster folded his thick hands across his belly and returned my look blandly. “Mr. Denis pays me to follow you. When you dart out of your house at nine in the morning and leap into a hackney, I can’t but help wondering where you’re off to. If I didn’t find out, Mr. Denis would not be pleased.”
James Denis was not forgiving of those who disobeyed his orders. I had to concede Brewster’s dilemma.
“I am going to visit a man of the River Police,” I said. “Perhaps not an errand you’d wish to take.”
Brewster made a slight shrug. “I go where you go, Captain.”
Brewster was a criminal, a thief and possibly a murderer. James Denis, an even greater criminal, ever plotted to have me under his thumb. The association between us, however, had become much more complicated than that. My ideas about Denis had changed, though I had no illusions about exactly what sort of man he was.
The journey across London was tedious, its streets clogged with vehicles, animals, and humanity living as hard as they could under the cloud of smoke twined with mist from the river.
We moved along the Strand, then Cheapside, then through the heart of the City’s financial prowess at Cornhill and Leadenhall. We turned southward around Tower Hill and so to the docklands.
Wapping was in the midst of these, with tall ships lining the wharves, the forest of masts and yardarms stretching down the river. The bare rigging moved as the ships rocked, the vessels straining to be released to the freedom of the sea.
I’d sailed plenty myself in such ships, my longest voyage being to India when I’d been young and in the army, to fight in Mysore. I’d dragged my delicate first wife across the ocean with me. That she would not have the eagerness to see an exotic part of the world at my side had never occurred to me.
A similar ship had taken me to Norway, then to France, and finally to Iberia, to fight battle after battle in the unceasing wars. Since I’d returned to England in 1814, an injury denying me the glory of Waterloo, I’d been land-bound. The sight of the tall ships stirred in me a longing to explore parts unknown.
For now, I turned my back on the ships and descended from the coach in front of the narrow house that was an office for the Thames River Police.
Formed by merchants and ship owners tired of cargo being stolen from the holds of moored ships, the Thames River Police patrolled the river, watch over the ships and docks, and apprehend thieves. While the river was their jurisdiction, they did sometimes help the magistrates and Runners throughout London with investigations.
I entered the house to find a small room filled with desks, maps of the river, and pigeonholes crammed with scraps of paper. A wiry young man scampered into the back when I removed my hat and gave my name.
Brewster did not enter the house behind me. He remained outside next to the hackney, leaning on its wheel and narrowly watching anyone who passed. He had no intention of letting the hired driver leave, he’d said, in case I needed a quick departure, but neither had he any intention of voluntarily walking into a house full of patrollers.
Peter Thompson came through a door in the rear of the room and held out his hand to me. He was a tall, bony man with lively eyes in a thin face, wearing a frock coat and breeches that hung loosely on his limbs. So he’d looked every time I’d seen him. He was only minus his frayed gloves this morning, clasping my hand with a bare, callused one.
I’d been in the office to which Thompson ushered me before, long ago, when I’d investigated the affair of the Glass House. I’d met Thompson not long before that, when his men had pulled the body of a young woman out of the water and asked my help identifying it.
Thompson’s room hadn’t changed. He had a desk and chair for himself, a stool for any visitor. I remained standing, remembering that the stool was less comfortable than leaning on my walking stick.
“Thank you for coming, Captain.” Thompson also remained standing, a man who disliked to be still. “I hesitated to write to you, but this has been weighing on my mind for some time. Puzzles intrigue you, so I decided to ask your opinion.”
While I’d gained something of a reputation for ferreting out things that were none of my business, I had to wonder why a man of Thompson’s repute would ask for
help. He had plenty of young, sturdy men at his disposal to assist him in investigations.
“It is an old mystery, I’m afraid,” Thompson said. “I must not lie to you—my superiors have told me to let it be. If no one has come forward in all this time, we are to make a mark through it and continue with more pressing matters. But I dislike leaving a thing unsolved.”
“And you recalled that neither did I,” I supplied.
The corners of Thompson’s lips twitched. “You have a tenacity I admire, Captain. I believe you are the exact man for this little problem.”
“You’ve piqued my interest,” I said. “As you knew you would with your cryptic letter. Now I cannot leave here without knowing the whole of it.”
“For that, I must show you.” Thompson took up his hat and gestured for me to follow him out of the office. He led me from the house entirely, and around a narrow path between buildings to a yard in the back.
Brewster was not having me walk through tiny, dim passages with only a man from the River Police to protect me. He fell into step behind me, his stride even.
Thompson opened the door to another gray stone house, its bricks crumbling from years of exposure to damp, mist, and rain. A light rain was falling now, fog thickening until we stood in a ghostly atmosphere, the air gray-white around us.
Inside the door was a set of steps leading into a cellar. Thompson took us down these into clinging chill.
Candles burned in the darkness to light our way. Crates and boxes were piled in the room below, in front of open cupboards of filled pigeonholes. In spite of the cold, it was somewhat dry down here, no windows to let in the outside air.
Two young men stood in front of tall desks, making notes in ledgers. When they saw Thompson, they stood upright, at attention.
“Take some air, lads,” Thompson told them. “Stretch your legs.”
The two patrollers looked grateful and wasted no time hurrying up the stairs.
“They catalog things here,” Thompson said, waving his hand at the ledgers. “Things we find in the river, goods seized from smugglers, evidence in cases, that sort of thing.”
I glanced at Brewster. I wasn’t certain that information about goods taken from smugglers was a wise thing to pass on to a known thief, but Brewster did not comment or even look interested.
“They catalog things more gruesome as well,” Thompson said. He moved to a heavy, bolted door, and when he opened it, my breath fogged in the air that came out.
We looked into a chamber with a very low stone ceiling and thick walls, as though it had been carved into the banks of the river. The cold was enough to make my throat raw.
Shelves held wooden and metal crates and boxes, though not as many as in the outer room. Thompson lifted a crate from only a step inside the door and brought it out.
He set down the crate to close and lock the door again then carried it to a long table at the back of the main room. Brewster helped him lift the crate to this table, then Thompson used a long piece of metal to pry off its top. Thompson reached inside, lifting out a rolled piece of canvas.
“Will you move the crate for me, sir?” Thompson asked Brewster. Brewster lifted it down, clearing the table, now as intrigued as I was.
Thompson laid the canvas bundle on the table and carefully unrolled it.
“’Struth,” Brewster breathed.
On the dark, stained canvas was a collection of bones. Human bones, clean and preserved.
Thompson started laying them out, one by one, until we gazed down at a near-perfect skeleton of a human being lying before us. The skull, which was mostly intact, bore a large gouge from the top of the head down to the right eye socket.
Someone had smashed a cudgel into this poor creature long ago and left him to die.