Read The Incendiary's Trail Online

Authors: James McCreet

The Incendiary's Trail (7 page)

A knock at the door interrupted that thought as it drifted with the tobacco smoke. A turnkey entered.

‘Gentlemen – Sergeant Williamson is arrived.’

 

FIVE

And as Sergeant Williamson laid forth the details of the crime to his superiors, its perpetrator was walking the streets a free man, dressed exactly as the dog-child had
portrayed. He could have been a costermonger or a dock-labourer if the hour had been different. In fact, he was that species of sub-criminal known as a ‘bully’: the man who, in concert
with a base street girl, plays the role of the outraged ‘husband’ to extort money from her client – or simply clubs the unfortunate fellow insensible for his watch and wallet.
Accordingly, he was known as ‘Bully’ Bradford.

His face, red and broken-veined with excessive drink, was that of the common labouring man: a blank slate, animated only with slyness and suggestion. No knowledge but that of the lower social
strata showed in his muddy eyes, and no kindness that could not be priced. As many of his ilk, he was short and stocky – born for a lifetime of hauling cargoes.

Walking now with his hands in his pockets, he looked behind him at every other step and navigated a zigzag course through alleys and across courts familiar only to one who had grown among them.
It was a low area in the environs of Rosemary-lane, with the smell of the river and of the docks hanging in the air as palpably as the strings of washing across narrow passages. The familiar
perfume of rotting wood, bilge water and the foetid compost of the gutter seeped behind the peeling plaster and mouldy brickwork of the slowly decomposing streets that he called home.

Presently, he approached a ramshackle marine store with a jumble of rain-tainted furniture before its grimy windows. With one final glance behind him, he entered.

The dim interior of the shop was empty of people. He looked around him at stacks of mildewed books, coats hanging on hooks, brass hearth-ware, stopped clocks and smoky glass. A smell of oakum,
furniture wax and sulphur pervaded all. The place was a metropolitan Sargasso, where the flotsam and jetsam of the larger ocean finds dead water and settles. Currents and winds move all about, but
it remains undisturbed, uncharted, undiscovered – a seeming lake in a limitless sea.

A lucifer match flared in a dark corner of the shop filled with leaning shelves of books.

‘General? Cast a glim, won’t yer – it’s precious dark in ’ere.’ The bully squinted in that direction of the flame.

The flame moved to an oil lamp on a table and an arm appeared briefly in its guttering light. Then the arm withdrew into the shadows and a chair creaked. He was there somewhere among the books,
looking out through their spines but hidden by cracked leather and winking gilt inscriptions. When he spoke, it was with an even and intelligent tone:

‘Is it done?’

‘Yes, General, I ’ave it. Alas . . . there was difficulties.’

‘Speak. Do not make me ask.’

‘Well, I found the paddin’ ken jus’ as yer directed. I went jus’ afore dawn as yer said. The door was no o’stacle for me and I made me way upstairs quiet as a cat
with them special shoes yer give me. It were tarry dark. I was like a groper in that place. A piece of luck – they was all asleep. All but someone sittin’ writin’ at a desk by
candle. It were two young girls sittin’ close by each other and one on ’em was the one yer described. I crept quiet as you like to nab the letter. But the d— floor began
singin’ like a canary. One of ’em turns and I sees that it weren’t two girls – it was one.
With two ’eads!
You didn’t tell me nothing about no queer
lully, General!’

‘I told you what you needed to know. Continue.’

‘Well, I fair screamed when I saw. I got out me blade, for they was a monster. I went to grab the letter but they covered it. One of ’em looked like she would scream so I cut her.
Then I grabbed the letter and I ran. The second started up yellin’ even as the claret was pourin’ from the other and I was runnin’.’

‘Where is the letter?’

‘I must tell yer, General, that there was more in this than what I bargained for. I had to kill one on ’em and now there is a rope ’bove my ’ead. I ’eard the bobby
settin’ off his coffee grinder and now I ’ears there’s a prime fuss. I’ll need to leave the city for a good while.’

‘You are asking for more money.’

‘It’s only fair. I’ve risked me neck for yer.’

‘That business is your own idiocy. Where is the letter?’

‘Shall we say twenty pounds?’

The man among the bookshelves leaned slightly forwards into the light so that his countenance was illuminated briefly by the lamp. His eyes were vitreous orbs of swirling grey smoke. He stared
into the muddy eyes of Bully Bradford as if reading the smudgy text of his mind. Then he leaned back into writhing shadow. He sighed.

‘Mr Hawkins!’

An unseen door opened and heavy footsteps entered the room. The man was easily six feet tall and hugely built about the shoulders. His nose was a mess of fractured and re-healed cartilage and
one ear seemed a deformed fungal growth.

‘Are you familiar with Henry Hawkins?’ asked the voice from among the books. ‘You might know him as “Butcher” Hawkins if you are one for “the fancy”.
Have you seen him fight, Mr Bradford?’

The bully attempted to puff his chest and stand taller. ‘Aye, I’ve seen ’im fight. Pretty ’andy with his mawlies, too.’

‘Henry is a good fighter because he fights with his head as well as his fists.’

‘Aye, I’ve seen ’im use his ’ead in more than one fight.’

Here the bare-knuckle fighter spoke. It was a voice bubbling from the bottom of a two-storey gin barrel: ‘There’s no more of that now we’ve got the New Rules . . . though I
make the occasional exception, heh-heh!’

‘Mr Bradford is asking for more money, Henry. What do you think about that?’

‘I have the letter here, General,’ answered the bully. ‘I ’ave not read it meself—’

‘Because you cannot read. Place it on the table beside you there.’

‘And if I ’ave somethin’ else to offer?’

‘Show me.’

‘Well, it depends on what it might be worth, don’t it?’

‘Mr Bradford, my patience with you is exhausted. Show me what you have directly, or Mr Hawkins here will gladly instruct you in the finer points of bare-knuckle fighting, preferably that
variety untamed by the New Rules.’

‘I’m not a man to be threatened, General. Nor am I afraid of Mr ’Awkins.’

‘Brave, but thoroughly dishonest. Give it to me.’ ‘It’s a locket – the one what she were wearin’. It’s bloody, as I grabbed it while she were
sprayin’ the claret.’

‘I will give you five pounds for it and you will accept my offer.’

‘There may be another as would give more.’ ‘Mr Hawkins, retrieve that locket from Mr Bradford.’ The bully rapidly extracted the locket from his trouser pocket. ‘I
accept yer offer, General.’

‘As I expected you might. Give it to Mr Hawkins. He will pay you for all. Good. Now – I suggest that you go to ground. That scar on your face is like a bell to identify your
movements. If anyone saw you in Lambeth—’ ‘Not a soul, General.’


If
anyone saw you, the constables hereabouts will recognize the description in a moment. You will be in Newgate before you can draw breath, and we do not wish that on any man. Go
to the country, or to Scotland. Wherever you go, stay there for at least six months.’

‘I will, General. Yer talk good sense.’ ‘Go. You have been here too long as it is.’ The door clattered behind Mr Bradford and Mr Hawkins spoke:

‘Should I follow him, General?’

‘No – there is no need. To be sure, he will not take my advice. He could no more venture from these verminous streets that he could from his own skeleton. In one hour he will be in
the gin palace or the bawdy house.’

‘You should have asked me to get the letter.’

‘No, you are too valuable for me to risk you on such a venture. Mr Bradford is expendable, especially now that the imbecile has committed a murder. The police will not shed a tear when
his
body is dredged out of the Thames or found stiff in an alley. ’

‘I should kill him?’

‘The time for that will come. For now, I would like you to return to the house in Lambeth. Watch it and report to me who enters and leaves – discover their names if possible. I want
to know who is investigating the case and what they know. Give me that locket before you go. Good.’

Alone now in the dust and detritus of the shop, the ‘General’ moved closer to the light and turned the necklace in his hands. It was the same one he had seen about
the neck of the girl: a simple and unadorned oval of gold, worth very little of its own accord but invaluable to those who could read its contents correctly. He opened it and saw two differently
coloured locks of hair – nothing other. That made him smile. Had Mr Bradford also opened the locket and did he know what was inside? That would soon not matter.

He turned his attention to the bloodstained letter. It was written in an ornate hand, most likely with a steel pen. There was no address on the reverse and the paper seemed odourless apart from
the faint metallic tang of blood. The whole text was legible:

Dear Parent

We believe we may begin so after receiving your letter. You say we have met and spoken while we are in London, but we have met so many visiters at the house and at our
shows that the numbers are bewildering. Nevertheless, we feel that we know in our heart who you are because we saw an uncommon sympathy in your eyes among the many that have gazed upon us.
And we share a striking similarity (or rather a family trait if our assumptions are correct)!

We have kept the locket you allude to from our earliest memory and know that the Lord Himself has prevented it being taken from us in our childhood. Surely He always intended for us to be
united again after our trials. We have hoped for nothing less in our prayers.

You write that the time will soon approach when you will make your true identity known to all and reclaim us from the unpleasant Mr Coggins (who has much to answer to when the Day of
Judgement arrives). We anticipate that day with joy and . . .

The letter ended thus. That cretin Bradford had taken the wrong letter: the reply rather than the original. Still, it was valuable in its way. He flicked a match with his
thumbnail and watched the flame dance. No jewel was more attractive to him. He watched the flame work its way along the wood until pinched extinct by his calloused fingers. Then he opened the
locket once more, taking out one of the curls of hair and holding it closer to the light, turning it about between thumb and forefinger to examine its colour and texture.

What he had intended as a theft – a minor and irrelevant occurrence that would interest nobody – had become a murder thanks to Mr Bradford and his ready razor. Now everyone would be
looking at what was previously under his gaze alone. And it would be virtually impossible to gain access to the house to search for the original letter. Worse still, the investigation might –
however inconceivable it might seem – lead back to him. Mr Bradford would be the first to be silenced. But not here, and not at this exact moment. Better to arrange for him to meet his end
elsewhere, and in a manner more fitting his habits.

The shop door opened and a man in a broad-brimmed hat poked his head inside.

‘The body of the girl is now at Bart’s. The surgeons are arguing over her bones. I have not been able to learn anything more.’

‘Very good. There may be a letter about her person. If you can obtain it, there will be five pounds for you. That is all.’

‘Gen’l.’ The man touched the brim of his hat and was gone.

When a bonneted woman walked into the shop shortly afterwards to enquire about a mantel clock in the window, she found the place completely empty. Only a sharp, sulphurous pall remained.

 

SIX

The prisoner lay sleeping on his mattress at Giltspur-street. He turned frequently and murmured indistinct words. Were we to enter his head and observe his feverish dreams,
what would we see?

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