Read The Incendiary's Trail Online

Authors: James McCreet

The Incendiary's Trail (26 page)

Lucius Boyle walked away from the scene still dressed as a fire engineer. His veins flowed with the exhilaration of the conflagration and he could not suppress a smile beneath
his ‘smoke scarf’. As long as there was a scent of smoke in the air, he might go unchallenged. The Oxford-street fire had cast a pall across most of that part of London, protecting him
within its compass.

He made his way towards a nearby square until he came to a short flight of stairs leading up to a black door. There, he used the brass knocker to rap three times.

A gentleman rather than a manservant appeared at the door. He beheld the ‘fire engineer’ reeking of smoke and assumed from the scent of the evening air that the fire was close.
‘Is the property in danger?’ he asked.

‘That depends.’ Boyle unwrapped his smoke-scarf and allowed the gentleman to behold his uncovered face.


You!

‘Indeed.’

Boyle pushed the gentleman into the house and kicked the door closed behind him. Though clearly perturbed, the gentleman led the intruder towards a parlour, looking over his shoulder all the way
lest a weapon be suddenly produced.

The room was decorated in the good taste of the moderately wealthy. Shelves of books revealed their owner to be a man of limited but expert interests, and some of the books lay open alongside
written notes on a large wooden table. A fire burned in the grate, crackling into the silence between the two men.

‘So you are the writer of that nicely written letter – my “observer”,’ said the house owner.

‘I am.’

‘You take a formidable risk appearing in person like this. Are you not afraid? Someone may have seen you on the doorstep and bring constables here
en masse
.’

‘Not at all. It is you who have reason to be afraid, sir. Afraid of me and of what I know. Shall we be seated?’

‘What do you want?’

‘What does anyone want? Freedom, wealth . . .’

‘I am not a wealthy man.’

‘Maybe not, but you have position – at least, more position than one such as I. You are able to do things that I cannot, and you know things that I do not. I wonder what the
newspapers would make of it? It is one thing to consort with a woman of Mary Chatterton’s sort, but quite another to produce progeny of Eliza-Beth’s kind: illegitimate and abandoned in
addition to her other woes. I fear you would not be so welcome at your club if such details were known.’

‘You d— scoundrel! I could kill you right this moment and be a hero in addition to being rid of you.’

‘You are welcome to try. Only you have no conception whether I am the only man to know what I know, or what mechanisms are in place for making it known should I be harmed.’

‘Hmm. You are a practised blackmailer. So – for my amusement, then – what do you expect from me if not money?’

‘I am a highly visible man at the moment. I need a place to hide where nobody will think to look. You will provide it . . . wait! I have not finished. You will also do everything in your
power to see that those who pursue me will not find me. These are the preliminaries.’

‘Preposterous! The outrageousness of it . . . do you understand the implications of my hiding
you
? And what can I possibly do to hinder the police investigation? Your demands are
unrealistic.’

‘Nevertheless, they shall be met.’

‘And if I refuse? What will you do – kill me also? What evidence have you got against me? At least demonstrate the proof you base so much expectation upon.’

‘Well – first, I have the testimony of Mary Chatterton herself, delivered under circumstances not conducive to dishonesty. She spoke of a great love tainted by ambition, of
abandonment and of bitterness . . . and I see from your face that you still carry the guilt.’

‘Mary Chatterton is dead. Imbecile that you are, you have killed the one person who might corroborate what you say.’

‘Take care with your words, sir. You need not die tonight, but you are still of value to me wounded. I also have the locket from about the girl’s neck, which contains a lock of your
hair. It is the same colour still.’

‘Like many men (or women, I might add) in London and in the entire British Isles. Is this all you have?’

‘I have the letter penned by Eliza-Beth herself. It is covered in the blood of her own execution and names both you and Mary as parents. I believe that Mary communicated these facts to the
child in anticipation of welcoming her back. Then, of course, there is the letter you have in your possession from Mary herself, informing you of your fatherhood.’

‘What letter . . . you are speaking nonsense . . .’

‘Your pallor would suggest otherwise. In fact, it was I who sent the letter. I found it on her writing desk. I thought it would make a fitting complement to my own. So, let us not waste
any more time discussing your situation.’

‘I must see the letter from Eliza-Beth. How else should I believe in its existence.’

‘Why, when it is printed in
the Times
?’

‘You — blackguard! I should kill you now.’

‘That is certainly one solution. Have you much personal experience of murder? I sit here quite unarmed. No? Well – let us consider where I will be staying henceforth. Certainly not
here.’

‘I am ruined.’

‘Not yet. As long as you are my protector, you are safe.’

‘And I am also d—d.’

‘We are all d—d. Now – I will be venturing out again in a moment. Before then, there are some other things I will have you do. First among them is a change of
clothes.’

 

NINETEEN

Let us retrace our steps for a moment and venture back before the Oxford-street fire to the house of Mr Hardy and his unusual colleagues, where we left Noah and Detective
Williamson welcoming the writer Mr Askern. It was there that Detective Williamson had agreed with Noah that the latter would venture out in search of Razor Bill and learn from him what he
could.

It was also decided there that Mr Askern, as with the performers, must go to ground that very day for his own safety – no matter how unlikely they thought the threat from Lucius Boyle. The
writer had only seen the murderer in passing, but that might be enough justification for attack. Without even returning home, the writer was to be taken away by carriage to a place where he might
be unseen until Boyle was captured or killed. Mr Williamson would accompany him there after dark and be one of only four – being himself, the carriage driver, Inspector Newsome and the owner
of the place – who knew the whereabouts of the writer. Not even Noah would know.

Where was the house? Confidentiality forbids me from revealing its precise location, but I may say that it was a property known to a select few of the higher-echelon police and used by them for
various purposes. Shall we follow the detective and Mr Askern as they approach the property and make themselves familiar with its arrangements?

The carriage stopped outside the house and Mr Williamson stepped down into the street, casting his eyes about for any signs of observation. A cab was coming from the opposite
direction and he waited until it passed out of sight before opening the carriage door and beckoning Mr Askern to exit.

They walked briskly to the street door of the house, which opened in anticipation and closed behind them in a moment. The carriage left immediately.

The two gentlemen were welcomed by the housekeeper, a man of about fifty years with a military bearing and greying hair. When he moved, however, he manifested a curious off-centre gait and a
slight limp. Mr Williamson knew that the man had been one of the first recruits to the Metropolitan Police, and one of the many to be almost killed while doing his duties, set upon by a gang of
ruffians and left for dead in Deptford.

‘Mr Askern, may I introduce you to Mr Charles Allan. He will be your host until this business is over. He does not know why you are here, and nor should you tell him. He is accustomed to
accommodating men for various times and purposes and will provide you with meals, newspapers and anything you might reasonably require.’

‘I thank you, Mr Allan, for your kindness,’ answered the writer. ‘I wonder if it would be possible to receive some writing materials and books.’

‘Certainly, sir,’ answered Mr Allan. ‘But you will not be permitted to send letters from this address, by post or by personal messenger. They could be intercepted.’

‘Why, whatever you think best.’

‘Mr Allan has long experience in these matters,’ said Mr Williamson. ‘You may trust him completely, as do I. Will you show us to the room, Mr Allan?’

‘I have chosen the safest room in the house, if you will follow me downstairs. It is a cellar room beside the kitchen, which only I use. There is one door, a thick wooden one reinforced
with iron bands. It would take half a dozen men some time to demolish it – in the unlikely event that half a dozen men were able to enter this kitchen. The door locks from the inside only,
with double locks.’

They came to the door, which did indeed seem impressively stout. It was ajar and Mr Allan pushed it – whereupon a bell rang loudly behind it.

‘That is to alert me that the door has been opened,’ said Mr Allan, demonstrating the mechanism. ‘I can hear it all over the house. There is also a wedge here to place under
the door lest someone attempt to force the two locks. It is quite unnecessary, but might provide you with a sense of added security.’

The room itself was simply but adequately furnished: a single bed with blankets, a desk and a chair, a wardrobe, and coal already in the fireplace. There was a small window – too small to
admit a person – which was barred with thick iron rods fastened securely to the interior masonry.

‘It is a little spartan, I’m afraid, but I trust you will not be here long,’ said Mr Williamson. ‘I will see that you are well supplied with books. Perhaps it will be an
opportunity for you to begin something new. ’

‘Yes, yes – perhaps.’

‘Do not be disheartened, Mr Askern. These measures are for your safety – perhaps for your survival.’

‘Who else resides here?’

‘That is not for you to know. Even I do not know. Only Mr Allan knows the identity of the other residents, if such currently exist. He delivers their food, and supplies all their needs.
This is the safest way.’

‘Who knows about this house?’

‘A very few – a handful of senior detectives and the police superintendents. Constables know nothing of it. Naturally, those who have stayed here know of it, but they owe a debt of
gratitude to the police and maintain their silence – or at least we trust them to. In truth, the place is seldom used.’

As the two men spoke, Mr Allan busied himself at the grate and soon had a hearty fire burning. A little smoke had entered the room and Mr Askern began to cough. Fortunately, he was able to
stifle the fullness of his convulsion with a handkerchief pressed tight to his mouth. His relief was palpable.

‘Forgive me, sir, ’ said Mr Allan. ‘It is a narrow chimney, but once the fire is burning there will be no smoke. You will need a good fire as it gets cold here during the
night. You have sufficient blankets, however, so you will not be chilled once the fire has burned out.’

‘I thank you, Mr Allan. You are most kind.’

‘It is nothing. You may bathe in exactly one hour on the floor above – for no longer than forty minutes. I will ask you to be punctual as other tenants have their own specified times
so they will not meet inadvertently. I will serve dinner after you have bathed and then you may retire.’

‘Good,’ said Mr Williamson. ‘Everything is in order, then. I will leave. I have important matters to attend to. You will not see me again, Mr Askern, until it is safe for you
to leave. It will be just a few days, I am sure.’

Thus did the detective leave Mr Askern in the capable care of Mr Allan and return home. Finally, it seemed, he was gaining the upper hand in the case: Mr Askern was safe, the
performers were safe (at another location on the periphery of the city) and the criminal Boyle was a hunted animal, his face sketched upon thousands of newspaper pages distributed across London.
Noah was searching out the garrulous Razor Bill. Only the Reverend Archer remained at liberty and at risk. Whatever his role in the case, whatever his innocence or guilt, his life may be in danger
and he would have to be traced – traced and persuaded to go into hiding.

Mr Williamson was tired as he returned home for the first time in what seemed like days. The fire in his grate had been cold for a long time and he shovelled some coal into its white ash. His
home was simple but clean. A frame above the mantel in the parlour contained a piece of embroidery that faded year after year despite being under glass. A clock ticked methodically.

He made a pot of tea and ate a meat pie he had purchased from a street vendor, then sat in one of two chairs facing the flames. The other chair had not been sat in for some years. He thought of
Noah and Lucius Boyle, of Inspector Newsome and Commissioner Mayne and their expectations of him. It was a difficult case – perhaps the most difficult he had ever dealt with.

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