Read The Incendiary's Trail Online

Authors: James McCreet

The Incendiary's Trail

 
THE
INCENDIARY’S
TRAIL

JAMES McCREET

PAN BOOKS

 

If every man who receives a cheque for a story which owes its springs to Poe were to pay tithe to a monument for the master, he would have a pyramid
as big as that of Cheops.

— Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

 

CONTENTS

ONE

TWO

THREE

FOUR

FIVE

SIX

SEVEN

EIGHT

NINE

TEN

ELEVEN

TWELVE

THIRTEEN

FOURTEEN

FIFTEEN

SIXTEEN

SEVENTEEN

EIGHTEEN

NINETEEN

TWENTY

TWENTY-ONE

TWENTY-TWO

TWENTY-THREE

TWENTY-FOUR

TWENTY-FIVE

TWENTY-SIX

TWENTY-SEVEN

 

ONE


Murder! Murder! Mur-der!

A ragged-looking boy ran shouting from the darkness towards the larger gaslit streets of Lambeth.

And silence again filled the nameless alley from which he had emerged. Its cobbles were greasy with night rain and its gutters stopped with soil. A weak halo of moisture hung about the bare
flame of the gaslight at its entrance, though the open door of the house was in shadow. Close by, the river breathed mud.

No sign of interest yet stirred. Any common fight or drunken disagreement might yield its cry of ‘Murder!’ It was an area where such things were common enough. Only a fool, or a
drunk, attended cries of murder before dawn in this place.

Or a policeman. The sound of boots clattered from the main street, echoing among dank brickwork and sagging timbers: Police Constable Cullen, a burly six-footer holding his bullseye lamp before
him as he ran behind the boy back towards the house. They approached the low lodging house and paused, panting, at the door.

Here, the boy drew back, unwilling to proceed further into the house. If he shivered, it was horror rather than cold that animated his frame, fear rather than hunger that swirled in his stomach.
The policeman touched his slender shoulder.

‘All right, lad. You stay here and direct the other officers when they come. You can do that, can’t you? Good lad.’

The boy wrapped his arms around himself and looked to the main street. PC Cullen held up his lamp and entered.

The cramped hallway smelled of damp and the previous evening’s meat and potatoes. The kitchen to his left was empty, its grate just ashes at this hour and the plates still on the table,
unwashed. Muffled sobs, low voices and the shuffle of feet came from an upstairs room.

There were no gaslights in this squalid tenement – only candles and oil. The beam of the constable’s lamp cast a flickering light up the narrow, uncarpeted staircase. He coughed
loudly to announce his presence.

‘Police! I am coming up the stairs.’

A thin, reedy wail started in the room above: an inhuman sound made only by the desperate, the insane and beasts. It raised the very hairs on PC Cullen’s neck and crawled with icy fingers
up his scalp into his stovepipe hat. He patted the truncheon at his hip to be sure of its presence. Then he drew it.

Footfalls skittered hollowly like rats in the wall. From the top of the stairs, he saw a hallway and an open door. Within, he could see a single oil lamp standing on a table by a peeling wall. A
dull painting of fields and farm workers hung askew on the wall. The place was clearly little more than a cheap lodging house – albeit a curiously uncrowded one.

Whispers emanated from the room and sent fresh shivers across PC Cullen’s back. His knuckles whitened on the truncheon.

‘I am entering!’

He stepped into the room with his lamp held high and flashed its beam rapidly about him. Immediately, he became aware of a group of people standing in the shadows against the far wall: perhaps
half a dozen of them. Their static nature and collective breathing unnerved him. He turned his lamp full upon them and beheld . . . a vision that dealt a hammer blow to his heart.


O! O!
What is this infernal place? L— protect me!’

The beam from his lamp jerked crazily across their faces: a spectacle he had never before witnessed – a tableau of horror that defied reality but which could not be denied. He backed
towards the door, fumbling for his rattle as his eyes again beheld what they would not believe. The faces – if one could call them such – were now directed as one at another spot to his
side. He turned swiftly with the lamp, expecting an assault.


O! O!
In the name of G—! O! G— protect me!’

As the seated figure fell under the beam of the lamp, the walls seemed to crowd in upon him. There, in the stark and emotionless eye of the light, was not a human thing but a hideous waxwork.
The blood, however – its unmistakable metallic tang and its dull glistening – was real enough. He turned and banged furiously down the stairs into the street, where he set the rattle
going with all the energy he could muster, calling out:

‘Murder! Murder! Murder!’

Still shaking, he began muttering to himself and rubbing his eyes, as those benighted residents of Bethlem Hospital are wont to do:

‘I have never seen . . . O! It is burned on my brain even when I close my eyes!’

A clatter of boots was heard at the corner and two other police officers approached the grim alley with truncheons drawn. Breathing heavily, the taller one spoke:

‘What is it, Cully? A murder? You look as pale as—’

Cullen removed his hat and wiped his face with a handkerchief. He rested a supporting hand against the doorframe. His colleagues looked from one to the other with foreboding: John Cullen was not
known for his sensitive nature. When he spoke, it was with a constricted throat.

‘Corbett – go . . . go to the watch house and fetch the surgeon. Tell the inspector . . . tell him there’s been a murder in this dwelling. PC Hamilton – we must guard
this place until reinforcements arrive. There is going to be a sensation about this one and no mistake. O! I feel quite—’

And here the doughty PC Cullen vomited. If it were not for the extreme nature of what he had witnessed, he might have been reprimanded for such behaviour while on duty. He would not be the last
to react thus.

By now, lights were appearing at windows, curtains were twitching and the first weak streaks of dawn were struggling through an overcast sky, barred by the manufacturer’s chimneys. Smoke
started to billow brown and yellow from houses as the city began to wake, though the miserable streets remained dark.

Not a soul could be seen, but the news was already spreading. The young boy who had first heralded the crime was gone. Husbands spoke to wives, mothers to children, neighbours to neighbours. And
as the early workers ventured out into the metropolis with crusts of bread in their pockets and hot tea in their bellies, they spoke to their workmates. People were coming – first from the
surrounding streets, then from surrounding districts. They came hungry for news, that currency of conversation.

By the time Sergeant George Williamson of the Detective Force and Police Surgeon McLeod had arrived, there was a handful of people being prevented from entering by PCs Cullen and Hamilton.
Constable Cullen, who knew of Mr Williamson only by rumour and reputation, recognized him immediately.

The detective’s pockmarked face bespoke a near fatal acquaintance with smallpox that lent a perpetual scowl to his features, while his legs were bowed slightly from his years of walking
out in all weathers as a beat policeman. Even in his stovepipe, he was visibly at the lower height limitation for the force and, in his civilian clothes, he might have been an artisan of some kind
– a watchmaker, perhaps, or a skilled tailor who could take the measure of a man with a glance. To him, an eighth of an inch was as critical as a yard. He was a hero to many constables.

PC Cullen spoke with care: ‘Nobody has entered or left since I arrived, sir. I believe this is the only door. There is a dead, er . . . woman upstairs and a number of, er, people in the
room. They are—’

‘Has the property been searched, PC Cullen? Have you made a search of the surrounding area for a weapon? Have you questioned the people upstairs or the local residents for what was heard
or seen about the time of the crime?’

‘No, sir . . . I have been standing guard here.’

‘Well, see to it, PC Cullen! Enquire of these people what they may have witnessed and search the streets for any likely weapon or evidence of a crime. The murderer could very well be one
of these people standing here, couldn’t he? Or she.’

At this revelation, a murmur went up from the people standing about the alleyway. They moved apart and looked at each other with new suspicion.

‘Yes, sir!’

‘Now – let us see the scene of the crime.’

Mr Williamson held up his lamp (noting immediately that the door lock was damaged) and entered, closely followed by Dr McLeod. They had seen murders enough to walk without fear up the narrow
staircase to that room above. As he ascended, the detective directed his lamp at the treads for signs of blood or anything dropped by the fleeing murderer – if indeed he had fled. It was
difficult to see anything but the coarsest detail in the gloom and a man could easily hide himself in the shadows.

They turned into the open room at the top and Mr Williamson shone his lamp at the people still cowering against one wall. They were seemingly unmoved since PC Cullen’s entrance. Four years
on the beat and two more as a detective had not prepared him for what he saw.

The first face to appear in the lamplight was up in the roof timbers. The man must have been seven or eight feet tall and possessed of shoulders like an ox. A huge prow of a chin projected from
his face as he stared dumbly at the lamp and his arms hung limply by his side. But for his immensity, he could have been a child, admonished and sent to stand in the corner.

Next to the giant was a man of average height and build, but without a face – or rather it was a horribly disfigured face which appeared to have folded in on itself, sucking his features
into a fleshy cleft and twisting his mouth into a gash of awkwardly protruding teeth. His tiny black eyes darted nervously about him and his hands reached up – too late – to cover his
shame. A fervid tongue licked rapidly at the contorted lips.

Beside this man was a woman of gigantic bulk sitting in a huge chair that must have been made for her. Rolls of pudding-like fat supported her head where a neck should have been and her arms
sprouted from her vast body like two enormous air-filled bladders. They twitched obscenely like the fins of a large fish out of water. By her leg, some kind of dog cowered. But . . . no, this was
no dog. It was a child of about seven whose entire countenance was covered in hair, right to the very eyeballs. Incisors glistened between her lips as she flinched away from the light and whimpered
in a canine fashion.

Still another appeared to be a child attired in the garb of an adult: a tiny suit and waistcoat complete with a minuscule top hat. He (if it was a he) looked frankly back at the detective,
seemingly unashamed and unabashed.

Detective Williamson stood rigid. His province was the law, but it seemed that here the very laws of Nature had been violated. Dr McLeod, who knew professionally of such things, was at once
repelled and fascinated by the spectacle.

‘A freak show, Williamson! We have stumbled on the residents of a freak show. I believe I have read of it in
the Times
: “Dr Zwigoff’s Anatomical Wonders”, they
call it. It’s been at Vauxhall Gardens the last fortnight. But where is the . . . O! Good L—!’

The bullseye lamp settled on the figure of a seated young woman – a girl, really – the corpse.

Girl . . . or girls? Two red-haired heads presented themselves; two slender necks descended to one body with two arms and two legs. But only the left throat bore a gaping wound that had emptied
a body’s worth of blood over the front of her dress, soaking it to an almost uniform black in the light of the police lamp. McLeod approached the body with some trepidation.

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