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Authors: Norman Russell

Depths of Deceit

BOOK: Depths of Deceit
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Norman Russell

etective Inspector Arnold Box and Sergeant Jack Knollys emerged from the cool and shady premises of Mr Mackinnon, the Clerkenwell Stipendiary Magistrate, and were immediately assailed by the hot, sultry heat of the August day. The sun blazed on its throne in a cloudless sky, even though the morning held a promise – or threat – of thunder to come. The water-carts had been out soon after nine o’clock, but the wide sprays of water had done little to make the pavements any cooler underfoot.

It wasn’t often that Box came out to Clerkenwell, but that day, Tuesday, 14 August 1894, it had been necessary to hand over personally two dossiers of evidence concerning a fraud case, the preliminary hearing of which the magistrate was due to hear the next morning.

As they began to walk out of Pear Tree Court, where Mr Mackinnon lived, a uniformed police constable hurrying along the opposite pavement caught sight of them, and they heard him utter a little cry of satisfaction. The man looked positively boiled in his heavy serge uniform, and, as he crossed the road to greet them, they saw that his round red face was glistening with perspiration. Box could see the gleaming silver identity badges on his collar:
G15. This man was one of Superintendent Hunt’s 480 constables in Finsbury Division, working out of King’s Cross Road.

‘Mr Box, sir,’ said the constable, saluting, ‘I’m glad to have caught you. Sergeant French knew you’d be here just about this time, because you were entered in the day book as coming on to our patch this morning. He’d be obliged if you’d come and see a dead body that’s been found in the old heathen temple next door to Priory Gardens.’

‘Sergeant French?’ said Box, raising his hat to acknowledge the constable’s salute. ‘Oh, yes, I remember. He and I worked together two years ago on that Shoreditch throat-slitting business. Have you got a name, Constable, or do you prefer to be called G 15?’

‘PC Gully, sir. Will you come? They only discovered this body three-quarters of an hour ago—’

‘You don’t stand on ceremony, do you, PC Gully?’ said Box, smiling. ‘Let me introduce Detective Sergeant Knollys. Now, I know you’re one of Mr Hunt’s gallant band of men from “G”, but are you a local man? Do you know your way around Clerkenwell?’

‘Yes, sir. I was born in Clerkenwell, near Hatton Wall. Will you—?’

‘Yes, yes, I’ll come. Don’t worry about it. Now this heathen temple: is that the archaeological dig that was reported in all the papers in June?’

‘Yes, sir. The “Mithraeum” they call it, or some such name. I don’t know what that means, but it’s Roman, so Sergeant French tells me.’

‘The Mithraeum – yes, I remember seeing some engravings of it in
It was excavated by a man called Professor Ainsworth, as I recall. And this body – it’s not some old skeleton, is it? I’m rather busy this morning. Sergeant Knollys and I want to get back to King James’s Rents before one o’clock.’

‘No, sir, it’s not a skeleton. It’s the body of a young man freshly killed. Perhaps it was an accident, or maybe it was murder. I don’t
know, sir. But Sergeant French would like you to come and take a look.’

‘A murder? I thought Clerkenwell was a genteel kind of place – at least in parts.’

‘It doesn’t happen often, sir,’ said PC Gully defensively. ‘Murder, I mean. There are some very nice people living in Clerkenwell.’

The three police officers turned left into Farringdon Lane. PC Gully stole a sly glance at Box, and thought to himself: you’d think a famous Scotland Yard detective would be taller. He couldn’t be more than five foot seven. Still, he looked very smart and dapper in that double-breasted fawn overcoat and the brown curly-brimmed bowler. The trim moustache suited him, too. How old was he? About thirty-five? He’d been one of the youngest inspectors in the Metropolitan Police at the time of his promotion, so he’d heard.

And that sergeant – Sergeant Knollys – was a giant of a man by contrast. He must be nearing six foot four – talk about the long and short of it!

They turned abruptly out of Farringdon Lane and into Priory Gate Street. Halfway along the street, and set back several feet from the carriageway between a piano emporium and a stationer’s shop, a muddy platform constructed of stout planks had been built across the pavement. A wooden gate let into crude palings gave access to a roughly levelled area covered in rubble, in which stood a number of builder’s huts, marooned among heaps of
soil and stone. Tall, gaunt buildings of sooty brick rose to the rear and the left of the site, while to the right could be glimpsed an attractive miniature park.

‘Remind me, Constable,’ said Box, ‘there’s a name, isn’t there, for this little island of tumbledown buildings.’

‘It used to be called the Rat Run in the old days, sir, on account of the vicious folk who lived in the dark little courts and alleys between here and Baker’s Row. Most of it was thrown down in
the eighties, and the whole area’s due to be cleared by 1897. That’s how they discovered the underground heathen temple, sir, after they demolished a couple of empty courts in ’93.’

A small crowd had gathered at the entrance to the site, and two constables were busily engaged in keeping the bolder members of the throng from clambering over the muddy boards to see what was amiss. As Constable Gully helped Box and Knollys over the planks and down into the excavation site, the inspector could hear the comments of the onlookers, who, despite the rather gruff
of the constables to keep their distance, refused to disperse.

‘There’s been an accident…. Someone’s been killed…. Murdered, most likely…. It’s not that famous professor, is it? Ainsworth, he’s called. He’s the one who dug up that heathen place…. Maybe the old Romans put a curse on it. You hear some funny things …’

A rough wooden canopy had been raised over a yawning gap in the earth, and from the lip of this murky pit Box saw a flight of wooden steps leading down into the darkness.

‘Mind how you go, sir, and you, Sergeant,’ PC Gully warned them. ‘Those steps are a bit slippery, and they’ll take you down twelve feet into the bowels of the earth.’

Arnold Box stooped down, and, followed by Knollys, carefully descended from the bright sunlight of the street into the engulfing shade of the Mithraeum.


An emotionless, almost tranquil face, a halo of fair curls topped with some kind of leathern cap, and then a lithe body, the knee of the left leg pressed into the back of a writhing white bull; the left hand of the owner of the tranquil face pulled back the bull’s head, while the right hand, grasping a sickle, cut the beast’s throat….

All this Arnold Box saw in a haze of sepia, and umber, sienna, and pallid green as he stepped down on to the stone floor of the subterranean chamber. Then, as his eyes grew accustomed to the shade, he saw that he was staring at a brilliant painting, rendered
on plaster-covered stone, part of a structure resembling the reredos of a church, which rose some ten feet to the vaulted roof of the crypt. A great shaft of sunlight penetrated the chamber from the wide opening, bathing the reredos in a strong and steady glow, which was why Box had been so suddenly mesmerized by the image of the man with the sickle.

‘Good morning, Inspector Box, sir. It’s very kind of you to come. I’m over here, in this aisle.’

Instantly the spell of the pagan image was broken. Box moved cautiously in front of the reredos until he came in sight of Sergeant French. The sunlight glinted off the silver buttons of his uniform jacket. He was kneeling in a gloomy aisle beside the huddled form of a young man, and as Box crouched down, French opened the door of a dark lantern.

‘How are you, Sergeant French?’ asked Box. ‘This is Detective Sergeant Knollys, my colleague from King James’s Rents.’

The two sergeants nodded to each other, and then Knollys moved away, apparently on an investigation of his own. Box knelt down beside the sergeant, and looked at the body of the young man. What had he been doing in this pagan shrine? He was wearing a dark broadcloth suit, and well-polished shoes. No more than twenty-eight or thirty, thought Box. His arms were stretched out awkwardly at his sides.

‘His fingers are stained with chemicals,’ he said. ‘Perhaps he was a photographer. There’s a gold signet ring on the third finger of his left hand.’

The dead man’s head lay partly concealed by what seemed to be a fallen slab of stone. Sergeant French tipped the lantern on its side, so that it illuminated the ceiling of the vault. Box could see the space where the fatal block of stone had once been fixed.

‘At first sight, Sergeant,’ said Box, ‘it looks like an accident. This young man was probably here on legitimate business of some kind, and died instantly when that block of stone suddenly fell on him. When was the body discovered?’

‘Not more than an hour ago, sir. One of the workmen came down from the sheds to look for something that he needed, and found him. Constable Gully was here within minutes, and sent a man round to fetch me from the local station.’

Arnold Box sighed. French was a good man, but he had a very hazy concept of time. Box slipped his watch from his waistcoat pocket, flipped open the lid, and looked at the dial.

‘Sergeant French,’ he said, ‘it’s exactly half past ten. What time was it when the body was found? What time was it when you arrived? It’s no good telling me that PC Gully arrived “within minutes”.’

‘I’m sorry, sir. I’ve logged all the times here, in my notebook. Let me see – the body was discovered at twelve minutes past nine. Gully, who was out on his beat, arrived here at twenty past, and I was here before the half-hour had struck.’

‘Good. And why did you send for me, Sergeant French? Surely this is a case that “G” can handle without assistance from Scotland Yard?’

‘Asking your pardon, Mr Box, but I don’t think it was an
. There’s something weird and horrible about this business. Would you lie on your side, sir, and take a peek under that stone slab?’

As Box moved to do as the sergeant advised, his eyes were drawn momentarily to the tranquil pagan man in the leathern cap. A silent witness…. What abominations had that figure seen enacted in this hot, oppressive vault over tens of centuries? Sacrifices, perhaps. Wresting his eyes away from the pagan figure, Box lay on his side, and directing the beam of the dark lantern, looked under the fatal slab of stone.

He saw at once that something was wrong. The slab was, in fact, leaning against the wall of the aisle, so that the dead man’s head was untouched by it. Poor young fellow! His abundant fair hair was clotted with congealing blood. His blue eyes were still open, gazing incuriously at Box from only inches away. His
features retained an expression of sudden surprise. In the cramped area beneath the fallen stone, Box’s sensitive nose could detect the first faint signs of dissolution.

What was this? A clear yellow liquid had escaped from the dead man’s mouth. It formed a sticky patch, no bigger than a penny, on the pavement of the vault. As though in answer to an unspoken question, Sergeant French said, ‘It’s honey.’


‘Yes, sir. That’s one reason why I sent PC Gully to find you in Pear Tree Court. There he lies, Mr Box, apparently killed in an accident – an “accident” which in my opinion was faked – and with his mouth full of honey. I wouldn’t touch him until you arrived, sir. I’ve sent another constable for the police hearse. We’ll have to move him out of this dark corner soon, and get him to Clerkenwell Mortuary. This hot weather …’

‘How long do you think he’s been dead, Sergeant? Did you send for a doctor?’

‘I did, sir, but nobody’s come, so far. I reckon he’s been dead for about three hours, Mr Box, which puts his death at about seven this morning. I’m usually correct at making these estimates when there’s no doctor at the scene.’

‘From the present state of the body, Sergeant,’ said Box, ‘I’m inclined to agree with you. Seven o’clock sounds about right to me.’

Arnold Box stood up, and dusted the knees of his trousers.

‘And you’re quite right about this not being an accident. That honey…. It’s a very sinister detail, Sergeant. As for that stone slab, I thought at first that it had been placed deliberately over the body to suggest an accident, but whoever did this deed wasn’t concerned to conceal the fact of murder. The honey in the mouth shows that. What we must do now is get him out of that dark corner, so that we can look at him properly, and perhaps find out who he was. Sergeant Knollys— Where is he? Where are you, Sergeant?’

Box’s professional interest was now fully aroused. For the first time since he had descended the steps, he was no longer conscious of the pervasive image of the bull slayer in the leathern cap. Sergeant Knollys, who had ventured further into the area of the temple behind the reredos, appeared out of the darkness.

‘There are some massive baulks of timber rising to the ceiling at the back of this chamber, sir,’ he said. ‘I expect they’ve been put there to support the roof.’

BOOK: Depths of Deceit
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