Authors: Alanna Knight
An Inspector Faro Mystery
For Douglas Cullen,
who gave me the playing card
There are fourteen published novels and casebooks covering 1872 to 1887, Jeremy Faro’s legendary years as Chief Inspector of the Edinburgh City Police and personal detective to HM Queen Victoria at Balmoral.
At the request of his many readers worldwide, eager to know of his early days and how his distinguished career began, this is his third casebook, dated 1861. The first two,
Murder in Paradise
The Seal King Murders,
are available from Allison & Busby.
‘Got what she deserved.’
Detective Constable Jeremy Faro bit back a shocked rejoinder at the sergeant’s brutal words as the police surgeon’s head shake confirmed that life was extinguished and signalled one of the waiting constables to summon the mortuary van.
Faro looked with compassion at the dead woman. Young, twenties perhaps, but she could have passed for thirty-five, despite the paint and scarlet satin gown, now muddied and torn, that advertised her trade. She had been strangled in this dark foetid close watched over by the lofty heights of Edinburgh Castle, dark and forbidding, wrapped in its own terrible secrets and a long and bloody history, no stranger to violence.
This area surrounding Fleshers Close had gained notoriety nearly forty years ago in the 1820s by association with Burke and Hare, serial killers with their den in nearby Tanner’s Close. The stench of death and decay still lurked from the tanneries by which it got its name.
Faro hated this place, these vermin-infested tenements. Once they had been his own daily beat and he had never learnt how to establish communication with the inhabitants, who seemed part of an alien race. Occasionally he smiled to himself, for so was he; from the Orkney Islands, still regarded as a newcomer by the Edinburgh City Police – and that after ten years.
But the creatures who inhabited these foul closes seemed out with the general pattern of ordinary folk. Some lived out their short lives in indescribable poverty and neglect, never travelling more than a few streets away from the hovel where they were born. Some seemed hardly human, coated in filth, their speech never beyond a few words strung together, to read and write undreamt of, unattainable luxuries.
At Faro’s side, the police surgeon was muttering to Sergeant Gosse. ‘You in charge? Where the devil is Wade, then?’
Detective Inspector Wade should have been first on the scene of the crime. His non-arrival hinted at dereliction of duty. As Dr Grace departed with an angry shake of the head that threatened trouble at the Central Office, Faro said: ‘A sorry business.’
Sergeant Gosse laughed. ‘Who’s sorry for her? I’m not! One less whore on the streets of Edinburgh, one less disease to spread.’
‘The second murder in a week, Sergeant. Isn’t that going it a bit?’
His sarcasm was lost on the sergeant, but the truth was that this would certainly put a strain on the Central Office’s facilities.
The city was more or less peaceful during the long summer nights, apart from occasional eruptions with drunks, pickpockets and prostitutes, and a few easily suppressed riots – such were the general disorders they had to deal with. Except when Her Majesty or one of the Royals nipped up from London or down from Balmoral Castle to open a bridge or a hospital, or to graciously lend their presence to some other worthy cause, all of which necessitated a full muster of the police force. They might grumble but security had to be tight. Remember, ‘the Hanoverian upstart’, as some still called Victoria, had been the target of assassins several times. Occasions only known to the Central Office records and kept with difficulty out of the news-sheets.
Two constables clattered down the stone stairs behind them, sent to talk to the occupants in the six-storeyed tenement.
‘Well, get anything?’ Gosse demanded sharply, but even as he asked the question and before heads were shaken, he knew the answer and shrugged. ‘No surprises there,’ he grumbled.
It was always the same. Where they were willing, by persuasion or implied threat, to open the door a couple of inches, still no one ever knew anything, had heard nothing. The sight of a uniformed peeler was enough to turn any of them mute. They would give away no information, bound together by a strange loyalty – anything to avoid being hauled into the dreaded ‘polis’ interview room at the station – especially those, and there were many, whose occupations would not bear even the feeblest scrutiny while further enquiries were made.
This could be a leisurely procedure and Faro knew that the suspect might be detained for some considerable time, left to rot in a prison cell, the cause of their incarceration overlooked entirely, the reason for his or her detention conveniently forgotten while more important matters of criminal justice were being pursued.
From their earliest days of comprehension, even the youngest inhabitants of Fleshers Close had dinned into them that one golden rule: ‘Have nothing to do with the polis; whether ye’ve done anything or no, once they have yer name on their books they’ll never be off sniffing about yer doorstep.’
Gosse looked thoughtful. ‘We’ve got our killer for the first one. Pity that, we could have nailed him for this one. Two for the price of one.’
The only similarity, Faro realised, was that the victims had been strangled, the first woman a victim of domestic murder in the Pleasance ten minutes’ walk away from where they stood. She had been strangled by her jealous husband who, contrite, had confessed all and was awaiting the gallows in due course. This was obviously a bitter disappointment to the sergeant’s eager expectations. Gosse enjoyed executions and had been known to bribe the hangman for a substantial piece of the rope used, to be sold on at so much per inch, a macabre but popular souvenir of the day …
Faro was aware of a small face in the gloom. A child’s face, watching them, white and scared. No tears or cries, already well trained in suppressing feelings of fear, knowing that in her short life, far from gaining any sympathy for pain or affliction – a struggle for survival did not include
such luxuries as sympathy – all that cries of pain would incur was another brutal blow.
‘The bairn over there must have seen it all,’ he whispered to the sergeant, who after a quick glance, shrugged.
‘Too young to give us any help. Pity.’
‘Poor wee mite,’ muttered Faro, wishing he could approach and thrust a coin into that tiny hand, but well aware that such actions were forbidden and any approach would have her fleeing in terror. ‘What will become of her?’
The sergeant shrugged. ‘The workhouse – the usual – and the best place for the poor little bastard. Till it’s old enough to go out and work.’
‘It’ indeed. Neither male nor female as far as the sergeant cared. ‘She’s a wee lass,’ Faro protested indignantly.
The sergeant sniggered. ‘Aye, and chances are she’ll turn out like the one over there and get herself strangled too,’ he said, pointing his foot towards the body on the stretcher now being carried out to the mortuary van. Seeing Faro’s expression, he grinned sardonically. ‘You’ve either too much imagination or you’re too sensitive, Faro. Surprised you got your promotion when you’re so soft on the job.’
Faro knew that his promotion was a sore point at the Central Office. God knows he had earned it and almost lost his life down in England on his first case. Shot, barely escaping death, he had been sent to Orkney – home – to recover, and had promptly got himself involved in another violent death.
‘Don’t take it to heart, lad,’ said his one friend, the elderly now retired detective superintendent Brandon Macfie. ‘Envy and jealousy, they’ll get over it. You’ve proved yourself.’
And the superintendent’s regard for the young constable
who reminded him so much of his only son, dead from consumption these five years, was, although the old man did not realise it, another thorn in Faro’s popularity with his colleagues, especially with beat constables older than himself, grinding away for years on dull and boring incidents hardly worthy of the word crime. Many were content – they didn’t want to put their lives in danger – but it gave them a good talking point, something to grumble about, that they had been overlooked by the authorities. Favouritism, aye, that’s what it was.
Dawn had turned into what passed for daylight, a dull twilight from which any luxury such as pure fresh air was forever excluded in closes like this one, so narrow that, separated by only a few feet, the occupants of the tall tenements could shake hands – or fists – at neighbours opposite.
‘We’re done here,’ said Gosse, their bullseye lanterns extinguished – necessary accessories for patrolling areas like this one where gas-lit streets were still a distant and not very welcome dream.
‘She might not be from these parts,’ Faro offered helpfully.
There had been nothing on the body to identify the woman and Gosse said: ‘Right enough. As you well ken, this wasn’t one of your whores with fancy clothes who offer beds for the hour like in yon Leith Walk brothels; this kind do their business against the walls here. “Gi’ ye a quick one for a penny, mister.”’ His laugh was a grating humourless sound. ‘“Next customer, please.”’
Faro had been woken up that morning by Gosse, summoned by the beat policeman who had discovered the
body, and with enough examination by lantern light, had ascertained death by manual strangulation, the bruise marks clear about her neck. He had also noticed that her gaudy and provocative dress didn’t belong to the local variety of street women but signalled one used to patronising a better clientele.
Faro’s glance took in the immediate area. ‘She had no reticule, Sergeant.’
Gosse shrugged. ‘Probably stolen,’ he said, apparently unaware of the significance of its absence.
Now, as a new day struggled through heavy clouds frowning down over Salisbury Crags, the dark closes were coming sluggishly alive. Smoke poured from chimneys in residential areas where Edinburgh was opening its eyes and its newspapers to the second killing in a week.
Murder was news, although deaths were commonplace in a city where a vast number were carried to the local cemeteries each day – stillborn babies, blue as tiny monkeys, laid to rest beside the young mothers who had given their lives in vain.
For the very young and the very old – fifty was an average age – and those in between, the dreaded consumption was relentless, carrying off increasing numbers, many from the cream of society, whose young people were unable, by any means of wealth, position or medical care, to escape its deadly hold.
A rattle of wheels and the large frame of Inspector Wade emerged from a hired cab, looking flustered, angry and even somewhat sheepish.
‘Where’s Dr Grace?’
Gosse and Faro were aware that the body should not
have been moved until his arrival. An explanation was called for and rapidly supplied. The inspector had not been at home.
‘I was away visiting friends for the night,’ he said shortly.
Friends, eh. Gosse gave Faro a wink. The inspector was well known as a womaniser. If he ever hoped to achieve chief inspector, he had better either reform or be very careful indeed at covering his tracks. Involvement in a divorce case would be the end of his career.
‘Anything to report, Gosse?’
As the inspector nodded vigorously to Gosse’s negative information, Faro noticed a piece of paper – no, a playing card – jammed in the cobbles where the woman’s body had lain. Crumpled and dirty, it had remained invisible until what passed for daylight entered the close.
‘Sir,’ he interrupted the two men. ‘This might be evidence.’
Silencing Faro with a look, Gosse sniggered. ‘Go on, so she played cards.’
Ignoring Gosse, Faro handed the card to the inspector. ‘Sir, I remember that at the first killing, that other woman in the Pleasance, there were cards. I picked up one like this.’
A sigh and a dagger-like glance from Gosse at this interruption. The inspector’s smile was thin and dismissive as Gosse said: ‘A coincidence, sir.’
‘I agree. The other woman’s husband was a notorious gambler.’
‘Whores all play cards, sir,’ Gosse put in eagerly. ‘Probably told fortunes too.’
‘Like enough,’ said the inspector, but Faro wasn’t convinced. He vividly recalled the domestic murder. A pack
of cards scattered on the table. The nine of diamonds, the same card he now held in his hand. A coincidence or—
‘They’re always gambling, this lot, making a bit off the side,’ said Gosse.
‘Exactly,’ said the inspector, anxious to get into the fresh air again.
‘This one might be of significance, sir, to the killer’s identity,’ Faro insisted.
Wade gave him a withering glance and Gosse chortled: ‘Get away, you daftie.’
Faro looked round, suddenly aware of the child’s presence. She had been brushed aside or fled at the arrival of Wade, but there she was again, standing, watching them. Had the dead woman been her mother? He needed to know, overcome by reluctance to just abandon her to this tragic vigil.
‘Well, what are you waiting for?’ demanded Wade.
‘The child, sir.’
Faro nodded in her direction. Gosse had clearly forgotten all about her, a possible witness to that terrible act of violence.
‘Oh that! Someone will take care of her – none of our business.’
Faro stared at Gosse and at the small girl. He couldn’t leave a terrified child here. Should he take her to his landlady, Mrs Biggs?
The police van with its burden had left, accompanied by Wade. A woman, Faro presumed a neighbour who had prudently kept out of sight, appeared and scooped up the child who now gave way to sobbing long suppressed.
‘Whesht, now!’ And to Faro, ‘I’ll take her. She can bide wi’ me. I have six o’ my own, another wilna’ mak much difference.’
Faro said. ‘You know her?’
The woman regarded him through narrowed eyes. ‘Aye,’ was the cautious answer.
Faro halted her imminent departure with: ‘A moment! Her mother?’
It was a question and the woman’s expression tightened. She shrugged. ‘Seen her around.’
‘What was her name?’
‘I dinna’ ken that. Just like I said, she came here. Dinna’ ken where she bided.’
‘Last night—’ Faro began hopefully.
‘I saw naethin’, naethin’,’ was the sharp and not unexpected answer. ‘I was asleep in ma bed till yon noisy polis wi’ his rattle wakened us up, alarming folks.’
‘How did you know the wee girl was with her mother?’
The woman thought about that for a moment. ‘Saw her walking in the street yonder wi’ her one day.’
That was feeble enough, and conscious that the woman knew a great deal more than she was prepared to admit, Faro asked: ‘She must have lived somewhere nearby, then.’