Read The Incendiary's Trail Online

Authors: James McCreet

The Incendiary's Trail (9 page)

‘Sir, I think you should see this,’ he said.

Inspector Newsome approached and gazed upon the map. He pointed to the most recent point. ‘What happened at this location, Mr Bryant? And what does it have in common with these other
points?’

‘A fire, sir? I recall a fire in a milliner’s on that date in Fleet-street.’

‘Yes . . . yes, let me see.’ The inspector traced a finger over the map and found a red point at each location he sought. ‘Fires, Mr Bryant. Each red point represents a fire.
Here we have the infamous warehouse blaze of Deptford, and here the brewery fire of Battersea. There is the Fenning’s Wharf fire of 1838, the Horselydown and Rotherhithe fire of two years ago
that destroyed three warehouses and fifteen dwellings. Are we dealing with an incendiary here, do you think?’

‘He does not seem the type, sir. Though one can never be sure.’

‘That is true. He has made his money somehow, and he does not strike me as a working man.’

Throughout all of this, the Negro butler, whose name was Benjamin, watched impassively. Like his friend imprisoned at Giltspur-street, he had learned from hard experience when to act and when
not to act. The wise man holds his tongue (when he has one) and restrains his fist when silence is the better strategy. Nevertheless, his brooding presence was an unnerving influence on the
policemen, who were no nearer to their goal.

The policemen even searched his quarters at the top of the house. His room was small but pleasantly appointed, with a level of comfort far beyond that of a typical servant’s quarters.
Indeed, it seemed as well furnished as the lower rooms and there were a number of personal possessions. An etching of a river steamboat hung on one wall and there were books on the shelves.
Inspector Newsome read the title of one:
A Voyage to the Indies
by Captain Percival Hubert.

‘So, you are not the dumb animal you appear,’ remarked the inspector, almost to himself. ‘There is something we are not seeing here, Mr Bryant. All of this silence – the
silence of the prisoner and his man – disturbs me. They are hiding something. It may be criminal; it may not be, but I will not have something hidden from me, by G—! I maintain that
there is something in this house that will provide a key to our man. If I have to look between every leaf of every book, I will find it.’

‘Sir – I was thinking . . .’

‘Well out with it! It’s no use inside your head, is it?’

‘Sir. If the prisoner had a policeman’s uniform, might he have other such clothing to hide his identity?’

‘Indeed.’

‘So I was think— We have looked in his wardrobes but not yet examined his actual clothes.’

‘You are correct, Mr Bryant. Let us descend.’

Mr Bryant opened the double doors of the large wooden wardrobe and beheld a fine selection of clothes that bespoke a man of the city who could afford good tailoring but who disliked ostentation.
Upon further searching, the policeman withdrew a suit of base corduroy fabric that seemed at odds with its neighbours.

‘What have we here?’ remarked the inspector. ‘That suit is more fitting for a costermonger than a gentleman. Keep looking.’

Searching further, Mr Bryant turned up the canvas attire of a sailor, a threadbare
ensemble
suitable for a beggar, and another policeman’s tailcoat. At the foot of the wardrobe,
behind a row of polished shoes, was a pointed staff like that used by the rag-picker, a basket that a pure-finder might use, and a walking stick which concealed a slender sword.

‘Well, we have uncovered a veritable masquerade warehouse here, haven’t we, my dusky fellow?’ said the inspector to Benjamin. ‘Does your master like to dress up when he
goes out?’

Benjamin stared back with that unnerving milky eye and made no sound or gesture.

‘I wonder what else we’ll discover if we apply ourselves with more care to the library?’ said Mr Newsome, to himself as much as to the other men. Whether he was acting upon his
years of experience, or whether it was a mere guess, he was correct to think that more secrets would lie there. For where better to ‘hide’ an item than among other seemingly identical
items?

And search they did, removing book after book from the shelves and checking it for inserts or false covers. History, poetry, art, biology, philosophy – all passed through the hands of the
policemen, their thumbs fanning pages for secrets. Such knowledge was wasted on them; it was little more than ink on paper. But what they lacked in erudition, they compensated for with
determination.

‘This is odd,’ said Mr Newsome, holding a brown leather-bound volume. ‘The spine proclaims it to be
Anatomy of the Cranium
by a Doctor Herbert Malham but the contents
are handwritten.’ He looked to Benjamin and saw the Negro’s jaw set in mute frustration.

Upon closer inspection, the book’s entire contents proved to have been compiled by one man, and the pages loaded with sketches and maps, all of which were carefully dated. Lists of names
and addresses filled pages, and there were more notes about fires. Articles from
the Times
that related to fires or other crimes had been cut out and catalogued. Inside the front cover was a
list of men’s names.

‘What is it, sir?’ asked Mr Bryant.

‘I have no idea. The more I learn, the less I understand. The Negro showed apprehension at us finding this book, and it has a false description on its spine (a very dull one) – no
doubt to deter the casual observer. We must try to discern what secret it holds. As for our prisoner, I admit I am at a loss. His address and his belongings are perplexing. Who is he?
What
is he? From where does he derive his income?’

‘I cannot say, sir, but I think we have enough information to start applying wedges to prise open the safe of his silence.’

‘In that, Mr Bryant, you are assuredly correct. We must talk to our prisoner further. ’

‘And the Negro?’

‘You may arrest him under suspicion of the theft of a police uniform and he can ride in the carriage with us. Let us go.’

And with that, the three gentlemen left the house. Benjamin gave no fight, but submitted to the irons with seeming calmness. The policemen cannot have known, however, what anguish the cold metal
brought to him, and what anger coursed through his body. Only his benefactor could save him now.

 

SEVEN

Sergeant Williamson paced the murder scene in Lambeth. The pitiful performers had been moved to another address the previous day, but the house retained the atmosphere of one
still inhabited. Their breath and scent remained – as did the blood.

Does a place retain a memory of a murder? When the blood is scrubbed away, when the curtains are replaced and the furniture washed, can another occupy the same room with undisturbed sleep? When
we walk the midnight streets, do we feel the chill fingers of those who have perished there in fires and fights? Are their spirits a hidden population among us?

No such thoughts entered the head of Mr Williamson, who was still simmering with indignation. The meeting with his superiors had not been amicable. He had entered that room at Giltspur-street
with his eyes tired from lack of sleep, and had been in no mood for excessive deference.

‘Inspector Newsome, Superintendent Wilberforce – I have been called from investigating the scene of a murder in Lambeth. The very room lies unattended as I stand here. May I enquire
as to why I have been summoned?’

‘Have some courtesy in the presence of the Superintendent,’ warned Mr Newsome.

‘Forgive me, sir, but you know my methods. In cases such as these, the critical thing is to strike quickly and gather clues before they are lost. There is too much laxity in the handling
of crime to allow any further opportunities to the criminal.’

‘All will be explained, Sergeant,’ said Mr Wilberforce, restocking the bowl of his pipe.

And indeed all was explained: their scheme for expediting investigations, the discussions with Commissioner Mayne, and their possible plans for the unnamed prisoner in the solitary cell. As they
might have expected, they did not find a willing participant in Sergeant Williamson.

‘With respect, Superintendent Wilberforce, it goes against everything I stand for as a police officer and as a detective. The idea of working
with
a criminal rather than against him
is preposterous.’

‘And if it allowed you to catch a greater criminal or solve a greater crime in order to protect a greater number of people?’ answered Mr Wilberforce. ‘Is it so different from
the information we occasionally receive from captured criminals in order to apprehend their cohorts?’

‘A convicted criminal’s place is in gaol or, if it is absolutely necessary, on the gallows, not on the streets in companionship with a detective.’

‘I respect your opinion, Sergeant Williamson. You are one of our finest men. But if Commissioner Mayne decides that this scheme will be put into action, your consent will not be necessary.
The reputation of the Metropolitan Police may one day depend upon the services of such a criminal. Should that be the case, he may be put in the charge of a trusted investigator such as you,
Sergeant.’

‘I am flattered by your words, sir, but I will—’ ‘You will follow your orders to the letter, as you always have. Now, please tell us the full details of your Lambeth
murder case before you return. Omit nothing.’

A group of people loitered persistently outside the Lambeth house, no doubt waiting for it to give up further secrets. PC Cullen was still on duty and in dire need of being
relieved. But for his presence, they would have been inside enjoying the horror.

Nevertheless, one piece of evidence had emerged from the onlookers: shortly after the police had arrived, a stranger had been among them asking what all the fuss was about. When he heard of the
murder, he fled. The locals had described him variously as ‘a toff’, a ‘west-end boy’ or a ‘foreigner’. To these people, however, anyone from across the river
might well fit the latter appellation.

Sergeant Williamson cast his eyes over the mournful scene: the chair where Eliza-Beth had sat; the spatter of blood up the wall and on the floor; the beds of the performers with their still
rumpled sheets. Daylight added little illumination to the place, but he had discovered some minor clues.

There were partial bloody footprints, presumably made by the killer as he stepped around the chair to grab the letter or the locket, neither of which could be found in the house. From the sole
print, it appeared a curious species of shoe: completely flat (without a heel) and a little broader than typical. They had carried their taint of blood down the stairs, but become too faint to see
beyond the front door. Upon close inspection, the door appeared to have been forced open, most likely with an iron jemmy. No razor had been found in or around the house.

Resorting to his usual method, he tried to reason through the little information that he had to hand, writing it in his notebook:

Victim: A two-headed girl, part of a ‘freak show’ – no known family.

Location: A poor boarding house in Lambeth – a transient address.

Clues: Shoeprints, a missing locket, missing letters, a broken lock, sundry visiters (and visiting cards).

Suspect: The scarred man seen by the dog-child and heard by Miss Eugenia; the ‘west-end boy’ seen loitering outside.

Weapon: Most likely a razor.

Motive: To steal the locket? To steal the letters? Revenge?

Such conclusions were unhelpful, even contradictory. The broken lock suggested a common burglar, while the shoes could have been the gutta-percha or cork soles utilized by
highly skilled cracksmen. The killer’s attire, however, indicated that he was more probably the former than the latter – so why did he wear silent shoes if he was planning to break the
lock?

Since every man owned a razor, the choice of weapon was of no great consequence: it was quick to use and easy to conceal. Moreover, the house was in a poor district and was unlikely to contain
anything of great value – unless the killer had foreknowledge of some other prize. The locket itself was worth little, except to poor Eliza-Beth, herself an unfortunate accident of nature
with no other possessions of her own. Only the letters provided a possible link to some outside agency, but – until found – they appeared to be nothing more than an attempt by a parent
to recommence his or her role after a prolonged period. In short, the avenues of investigation were more akin to
culs de sac
and the vicious murder seemed entirely unjustified.

Detective Williamson looked again at the visiting cards that Mr Coggins had given to him. The ‘strange cove’ doctor was Dr Cole of 26, Harley-street: a surgeon specializing in spinal
deformities (to whom a constable had been dispatched to make an appointment for an interview). The writer was Mr Henry Askern MA (Oxon.) with an address in Portman-square. The detective would call
on him presently.

Would either of those gentlemen be able to throw illumination on details of the girl’s past life that might motivate someone to kill her? The possibility was a distant one.

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