Authors: Maureen Jennings
Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Crime, #Crime Fiction
THE MURDOCH MYSTERIES
Except the Dying
Under the Dragon’s Tail
Poor Tom Is Cold
Let Loose the Dogs
Vices of My Blood
A Journeyman to Grief
To Iden, as always
And to Al and Barbara Lyons,
who have been there from the very beginning
… as truly as to heaven
I do confess the vices of my blood,
So justly to your grave ears I’ll present
How I did thrive in this fair lady’s love
And she in mine
, sc. iii
STHER GOT OUT OF BED
, wrapped a shawl around her thin shoulders, and shuffled over to the window. The winter morning light was dull, the sky heavy with unshed snow, and the window itself was crusted with a rime of frost on the inside. She peered down into the street below, where a few men were making their way to work, all huddled into their coats against the cold. She must have slept longer than usual. She glanced over at the bed where her son Wilf was now awake. He started to make a tortured, guttural sound, which she knew meant that he needed to use the commode.
Her daughter was still asleep, the threadbare quilt pulled over her nose for warmth. Strands of her dark hair were spread on the pillow, and Esther felt an unaccustomed rush of tenderness at the sight. They’d had a bad row last night when she’d tried to tell Josie she had to be up early for the Visitor. Josie had cursed, upsetting Esther with the vileness of her language and told her daughter so. Josie had laughed at that. “I should think that’s the least of your worries, Ma. I doubt God is going to punish me for a few cuss words and overlook everything else. But you never know, maybe he’s just like you.”
It was as if she had stabbed her mother in her heart, the sensation so physical Esther had been forced to sit down. Later, trying to explain to Josie what she had done that afternoon, Esther said it was because of that one remark. She felt as if she had been living in a fog and an icy wind came and blew it away. She could see clearly the squalor of the room where all three of them lived. She knew she’d grovelled before the authorities to get their charity. She stared into a pit of despair and saw her own destroyed soul reflected back at her.
“So you might say, ‘The worm turned.’ Yes, that’s the best way to put it, ‘The worm turned.’” Esther laughed as if she’d said something witty, but a soft, plump-bodied worm wasn’t anything like the hard, sharp anger that suddenly bit at her guts, like a cancer she’d been carrying for a long time without knowing it.
URDOCH HAD RECENTLY
been promoted from acting to full detective and given a raise in wages of three dollars a month. But his new status was not reflected by a better office, and from his desk he was contemplating the same old furnishings of a battered metal filing cabinet and a visitor’s chair that the rag-and-bones man would have rejected. The walls, he noticed, would benefit greatly from a fresh coat of paint, as he was wont to use the one wall as a blackboard and the chalk marks never quite rubbed off. He needed a new lamp, or at least some better oil, as the one on his desk was smoking badly.
Having made this gloomy assessment, he took a gulp of the hot strong tea that he’d brought in from the duty room and got back to his task. He dipped his pen into the inkwell. He had a fine working fountain pen in his pocket, but he couldn’t bring himself to write a letter to his absent mistress with a pen his beloved deceased fiancée had given him.
Dear Enid. I haven’t yet received a letter from you, but I hope that is only because of the bad weather and not because you don’t want to write to me. How is your father faring?
He paused. That last line seemed ridiculously stiff. But he’d have to leave it. This was the third draft he’d started. Oh just cross out
, for Christ’s sake.
How is your father? I do hope his health is improving
Of course, the reason she had not written could be because her father had died. If that was the case he wondered if she would return to Canada. And then he wondered how he would feel about that if she did. It had been almost two months since she had been summoned back to Wales to take care of her ailing parent. This had been the primary and acknowledged reason for her departure, but they both knew that sitting just behind it was Murdoch’s inability to make up his mind to marry her.
Another dip in the ink and he made a large blot on the page.
. These pens were police issue and leaked badly. His fingers were stained already.
Tell Alwyn I am thinking of him. I have still got his sled and
He’d been going to write
and I look forward to the time when he returns
, but that was implying a promise he didn’t know if he could keep.
He looked at the letter. It was a mess with two crossing-outs and three blots. He crumpled it up and threw it into the basket with the others. He’d write later at home, not here at the police station where there were distractions. He’d heard the clack of the telegram machine in the front hall and decided to get up and see if anything interesting had come over the wire. It had been a quiet day so far.
He swallowed the rest of his tea and went out into the main hall.
There were no miscreants or supplicants gracing the wooden bench that ran around the room and it wasn’t time for the shifts to change so the only two officers present were the stenographer, Callahan, and the duty sergeant, Gardiner, who was sitting at his high stool behind the desk. He grinned when he saw Murdoch and waved a piece of paper.
“We’ve got a telegram from Hamilton. Callahan just typed it up. You might want to have a look at it.” He handed Murdoch the wire.
BE ADVISED STOP WATCH FOR QUEER PLUNGERS STOP WE SUSPECT A SUPPOSED FAMILY OF THREE STOP WOMAN MID AGE STOP YOUNGER MAN STOP ONE BOY ABOUT EIGHT TO TEN YEARS OLD STOP COULD BE RELATED TO EITHER STOP PROBABLY IN TORONTO AND WORKING THE KING STREET AREA STOP ALIASES GIVEN AS MRS WRIGHT AND SON BOBBIE STOP NO NAME FOR MAN STOP VERY CONVINCING STOP
Murdoch saw that Callahan was watching him curiously, but he averted his eyes immediately when Murdoch glanced his way. The constable was almost obsequious in his dealings with the detective, whom he feared. With good reason. Murdoch couldn’t stand the fellow.
He walked over to him. “You’re no doubt wondering, young Liam, what a queer plunger is.”
Callahan nodded, apparently unsure how he was supposed to reply. Murdoch perched on the edge of the desk. “Never be afraid to admit you don’t know something, young Liam. You don’t want to be a constable third class forever, do you?”
Callahan flushed. “No, sir.”
“Thought not. Our lad is ambitious, sergeant. Don’t let that fresh-faced, just-off-the-boat look fool you. Right, Liam?”
Murdoch was goading him to the point of eruption, but the stenographer swallowed hard. He smiled a snake smile but his eyes were dark with anger, and Murdoch could see that thoughts of revenge were churning in his mind. He didn’t care. He knew very well that Callahan was as two-faced as the month of January.
He gestured at Gardiner, who looked puzzled by Murdoch’s uncharacteristic incivility. “Explain to the lad, sergeant.”
Gardiner pursed his lips, going along with it.
“Queer plungers is a cant term for folks who commit fraudulent acts upon the public. Typically, they work in groups of three or more. For instance, a favourite trick is for one of the group to pretend to be despondent, and in full view of a crowd, he will plunge into some water, the lake or a river like the Don. The second member of the gang will then effect a rescue. The half-drowned one will be taken to the closest house. They always make sure it’s a tavern or failing that a church just emptying of the congregation. Then there is some cock-and-bull story about why the poor man wanted to commit self-murder in the first place. Debts of honour, most like. A go-around is suggested so he can redeem himself. Another go-around for the rescuer. Get the picture?”
“I do, sir, thank you. I suppose they can only really pull that one in summer.”
“Mostly. They do other things, of course. If there’s a woman involved, the boy acts as her son and he might take a dive under a carriage and then pretend to be injured. Or he might be a pickpocket and take off with her savings that she was just about to deposit at the bank. The possibilities are endless, the common denominator is the go-around, where they rely on public sympathy. As long as they move from place to place, they can get away with a lot, and believe me, if they get a good crowd, the takings can be more in one day than Murdoch and me make in a week. Last Christmas Eve, we nabbed two young tads who’d got fifteen dollars in their pockets.”
Callahan looked impressed.
“Mind you,” interjected Murdoch, “the one titch had a broken collarbone from being stomped on by the horses, so the price can be high.”
“Yes, sir. I wasn’t considering taking up queer plunging, if that’s what you are implying.” Callahan tried a tentative smile.
“Of course not, constable, I know you’re too canny for that. But it’s one way to earn your daily bread.”
The constable spat out, “It almost sounds like you condone what they do, sir. But they are breaking the law after all.”
Murdoch shrugged. “They’re harmless enough.”
“Judge Rose doesn’t share your opinion, sir. I heard he sent down a pickpocket for two years’ hard labour. And Judge Pedlow ordered ten stripes of the lash for a man who robbed a farmhouse in Markham.”
“So they should,” chipped in Gardiner. “You’ve got to put the fear of God into people like that or there’s no knowing what they’ll do.”
Murdoch went back to the duty desk. The disparities between certain crimes and the punishments they were accorded had bothered him for a long time, but this wasn’t the place to debate it. The sergeant was an affable sort to those he considered peers but punctilious to a fault when it came to lawbreakers.
“Anything else I should know about?”
Gardiner gave him a rather sheepish look and lowered his voice. “Not in the work line, but I wanted to let you know that Mary and me are going to have a young ’un.”
Murdoch thrust out his hand. “Congratulations, Henry. What’s that now, your sixth?”
Gardiner shook hands. “Seven, actually. Mary dearly wants a little girl this time. And by the way, she wanted me to ask if you’ve heard from Mrs. Kitchen as to how Arthur is getting on?”
“He’s doing well. Mrs. K sounds quite optimistic.”
“That would be a miracle if he recovered. Mary don’t think he’ll see spring.”
They were interrupted by the shrill ring of the telephone. Callahan picked up the receiver and put it to his ear.
“Number four station.”
There was a pause while he listened to the message being relayed, some alarm on his face. He scribbled something down on the message pad in front of him, as the other two watched. He replaced the receiver on the hook, and swivelled around to address Murdoch.
He was excited.
“The alarm has been sounded at Jarvis Street and Carlton, sir. Headquarters says to get over to Chalmers Church right away. Apparently, the pastor there has been found murdered.”
“Good heavens, that’s my own church,” exclaimed Gardiner. “Surely it’s not Mr. Howard.”
Callahan checked the notepad. “Yes, sir. That is the name I was given. Reverend Charles Howard.”
“Do you have any details?”
“Only that it has just been discovered. One of the parishioners found him. He had been stabbed and beaten.”
Gardiner flinched. “Any culprit apprehended?”
“Not so far, sir. Constable Fyfer raised the alarm. He is at the church now.”
Murdoch was already over at the coat rack retrieving his coat and forage hat.
“This is absolutely dreadful,” said the sergeant. “I can’t believe it. Reverend Howard is a fine fellow. As good as they come.”
“We’d better order out the ambulance,” said Murdoch.
“Shall I telephone for a physician, sir?” Callahan asked.
Murdoch nodded. “I’ll meet him at the church.” He hustled into his coat. “I’ll ride my wheel, it’ll be faster.”
Gardiner leaned his head on his hand, and Murdoch went over to him and touched his shoulder in sympathy.
“I’m sorry, Henry.”
“I just saw the man on Sunday. As hale and hearty as you and me. And he has a young family. How his wife will take it, I don’t know. She is devoted to him. What the deuce could have happened?”
Murdoch headed for the door. “Send Crabtree over as soon as he comes back from his tea, will you?”
Once outside, he grabbed his bicycle from where it was leaning against the station wall, lit the oil lamp, and pedalled off along Wilton Street. The year was still more on the side of winter than spring and there was a vicious bite in the air. Darkness was taking over and the streets were full of people hurrying to get home to a warm fire and their tea. As he turned right onto Church Street, a streetcar clanged by, jammed to capacity with passengers. Murdoch kept to the side of the road. It was all too easy to catch a wheel in the tracks. He’d crashed twice before in that way and still had a lump on his elbow to show for it.
Some people on the streetcar were watching him and, not for the first time, Murdoch was struck with the separateness of human life. A man was lying murdered, a good man, said Gardiner. His wife was now widowed and children orphaned. Their lives were changed irrevocably and yet the lives of everybody else continued. Once again some poor woman would be struggling to understand how God could have mercy and yet so cruelly take away.
Murdoch had investigated murders before, of course, and he was experiencing his usual feelings of both apprehension and excitement as he approached the place of the crime. “What happened?” Gardiner had moaned, and for Murdoch the reason for being a detective was the need to find the answer to that question.