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The Christmas Murders

Richard James

London, Christmas in 1892, and Detective Inspector George Bowman investigates bloody murder.

The Christmas Murders

Richard James

London, Christmas in 1892, and Detective Inspector George Bowman investigates bloody murder.

December, 1892

A hard overnight rain had frozen hard as iron on the roads and paths. This Christmas Eve, the whole of London seemed an ice rink. Detective Inspector George Bowman gazed through the window of the two-horse brougham he had hailed on Finchley Road. The ice crunched beneath the wheels as they struggled for purchase. Pulling his scarf even tighter around his neck, Bowman marvelled at the morning sun sparkling on the frost. The skeletal London plane trees stood stark against the bluest of skies, their frozen fingers reaching to the heavens as if in search of warmth. The vagrants of St John’s Wood had set a fire outside Lord’s Cricket Ground, huddling together in the glow of its flames, pulling rags and blankets about themselves, their breath curling into the air. The dingy hovels of Marylebone shimmered with the tiny crystals that had formed on their windowpanes like delicate jewels.

Skidding down Park Lane, the brougham joined the throng of traffic making its way unsteadily towards the city centre. Bowman let his eyes wander over Hyde Park, its spacious grounds a field of frost. Passers by tucked their heads down into their coats and jammed their hands into their pockets, picking their way carefully across the network of paths that crossed from Lancaster Gate to Belgravia. As they rounded the corner into Grosvenor Place, Bowman saw a man slip on the ice. His arms windmilled comically in a vain attempt to regain balance, before he finally crashed to the path in a pile of flailing limbs. The inspector noticed his companion laugh and point before his legs, too, slipped away from beneath him. The result was a heap of helpless laughter as the two men struggled to regain their balance and their dignity. Bowman couldn’t help but smile at their predicament and made a mental note to watch his footing when he stepped from the footplate at Scotland Yard.

His thoughts were interrupted by a sudden jolt. He reached out to steady himself as the carriage lurched to one side, accompanied by the sound of splitting wood. Looking up, he could see the driver in his box trying desperately to regain control of his horses. The carriage came, at last, to a juddering halt by the roadside and Bowman was able to peer out the door as the driver jumped from his perch. A small crowd gathered as he bent to examine the near side wheel.

‘Looks like it’s had it, mate,’ offered a scarecrow of a man in a coat too large for him. There were murmurs of agreement.

‘Don’t reckon you’ll be gettin’ no tip today,’ guffawed an old lady wrapped in a torn blanket. She stamped her feet for warmth as Bowman jumped from the carriage, reaching out instinctively to steady himself against its chassis as he landed. ‘Reckon you’ll be on Shanks’ pony, now,’ she tittered. Bowman could smell the scent of gin on her breath.

The driver had taken his hat from his head to mop at his brow. ‘We must have hit a rut,’ he growled as the horses shifted impatiently in their harnesses.

Bowman looked out into the road. Churned up by the rain, it had frozen overnight into solid rifts and valleys of ice and mud. It looked hard as stone.

Bowman slipped a handful of change from his pocket and thanked the driver for his service. The poor man nodded back by way of thanks, then kicked his wheel in anger.

‘All right, mate, we’ll soon have yer right,’ said the scarecrow. ‘Don’t yer carry a spare?’

Bowman turned his face to the biting wind and picked his way carefully down Piccadilly. Despite the conditions, London was waking all around him. The smarter stores had already succumbed to the demands of the season, proudly displaying the Christmas trees that had become more ubiquitous in recent years. Candles burned in shop windows, lending an enticing glow to their wares. The finest jewellers and milliners kept awkward company with butchers and chop houses, the latter firing up their ovens for the morning trade. Bowman was met with the heady aroma of spices and roasting meat as he turned onto Trafalgar Square. His toes were numb from the cold.

On the corner with Whitehall, Bowman almost fell over a man at the kerbside. As he made his apologies, he saw the man was distracted by something over the inspector’s shoulder.

‘Spare an ha’penny for an old soldier, guvnor?’ the man said, suddenly, before Bowman had a chance to see what had caught his attention. His filthy face was lean and haggard. One eye was missing or damaged behind sunken lids, whilst the other blinked against the cold. Bowman could only guess at how the man had come by such an appalling injury.

‘Left it in Majuba,’ the man explained, tapping at his sunken eye socket. The inspector raised an eyebrow as he dug deep into his pockets.

‘Africa?’ he breathed, his voice hoarse. He had heard of it, and of the defeat of the British army at the hands of the Boers.

The man nodded. ‘Fifty Eighth Regiment. The Northamptonshires.’ His voice quivered with pride as he spoke. ‘Fine bunch of lads. Shame they don’t look after their own when the fighting’s done.’

As Bowman wrestled with his change, his attention, too, was drawn across the road to Spring Gardens. There, a familiar silhouette was bent in urgent conversation with a stout man in a ridiculously tall stovepipe hat. The silhouette belonged to Harris, the landlord of The Silver Cross on Whitehall. All he could see of the other man was a pair of great white mutton chop sideburns. It was impossible to discern their words at this distance, but they were clearly agitated. First one then the other would jab at the air with his fingers as he spoke. Periodically, Bowman noticed a hand go to a face or bunching into a fist. They were clearly doing more than exchanging pleasantries.

‘They picked us off one by one from the long grass,’ the soldier was continuing, as if to distract Bowman from the sight of the two men arguing. ‘Lesser men panicked and fled.’ He gave a bitter cackle. ‘Guess those who ran away are tucked up somewhere safe now, while those who stood their ground have been left to rot.’

The inspector nodded absently as he flicked the man a ha’penny.

‘God bless you, sir,’ the soldier rasped. ‘And a Merry Christmas to you.’

Bowman’s attention drifted across the road again. Their argument at an end, the two men were going their separate ways along Spring Gardens; Harris back to The Silver Cross, the stout man in the stovepipe hat across Trafalgar Square to the church at St Martin-In-The-Fields.

‘Yes, quite,’ Bowman stuttered, absently. ‘Merry Christmas.’

The inspector shook his head. His ears felt frozen. Straightening his coat about him, he turned carefully down Whitehall on his way to Scotland Yard, pausing only to peer in through the windows of The Silver Cross where Harris was busy preparing the bar for the morning trade.

***

The view from Bowman’s office had never looked prettier. A blanket of frost had been laid across the rooftops and the air was as clear as he could remember. The proliferation of tanneries, breweries and even less savoury industries often lent the capital’s air a sickly pallor and it was a rare day indeed when quite so much was visible from his window. Beneath him, rolled the Thames. The artery of London, carrying its lifeblood from its upper reaches to the estuary and beyond, the River Thames was a conveyor of trade and, Bowman knew, crime. The market in stolen goods depended upon its tributaries and tides. An entire industry of crime was predicated upon its ebb and flow. Sergeant Graves stood at the desk behind the inspector with the results of one such example.

‘Inspector Crouch has broken a smuggling ring in a warehouse near Tilbury,’ he was enthusing, his eyes bright. ‘Local officials reported their suspicions that it contained more than tea.’

Bowman turned from the window, his interest piqued.

‘Crouch inspected the dock master’s records and discovered the arrival of a small boat was logged twice a day at the same time.’

Bowman frowned. ‘I do not see the significance.’

Graves leaned over the desk in his excitement. ‘Tilbury is tidal. And the tide shifts throughout the month. According to the master’s logs, that boat would have been docking at times when the tide was too low to berth.’

Bowman nodded. ‘A mistake, certainly,’

‘Indeed. And that was enough. The false records concealed an opium smuggling operation at the docks. Upon raiding the warehouse, Crouch discovered that it did, indeed, hold more than tea,’

Bowman let the air whistle between his teeth. Opium was perfectly legal in various preparations but there was a thriving black market for its purest form.

‘Inspector Crouch has been busy enough for us all,’ Bowman smiled.

The two men were interrupted by a knock at the door.

‘Come!’ Bowman barked as he sat at his desk. For a moment, he half expected Inspector Hicks to come blundering in. Instead, he was greeted by the sight of a young sergeant with a fresh face and pomaded hair. The buttons on his uniform shone in the light from Bowman’s window.

‘We’ve got a body off St Martin’s Lane,’ panted Sergeant Matthews. ‘Found by a boy this morning in a yard near the printing works.’

He moved to the map that spanned almost the entire width of Bowman’s office wall. Lifting a finger, he tapped at the location of an alley opposite the Trafalgar Square Theatre. ‘Knife to the throat.’

Bowman frowned. He was not looking forward to going back out into the cold.

‘Shall we, sir?’ True to form, Graves was already bounding to the door like a puppy. Not for the first time, Bowman envied him his energy.

***

As the two detectives strode up Whitehall, they had to fight to maintain their footing. Though bright, the morning sun had still not reached the height of its powers, and the icy pavements remained treacherous. All around them, passers by clutched at lampposts or groped at walls for support. The urchins that were wont to run between the legs of the shoppers now slid in the road, their arms outstretched. Their laughter echoed off the buildings around them, competing with the crackle of ice beneath the wheels of the passing carriages. A man selling chestnuts from a glowing brazier on the corner with Trafalgar Square smiled at the queue before him. Men and women from all stations of life stood shoulder to shoulder and exchanged pleasantries as they waited patiently in line, their faces flushed with cold.

As Bowman and Graves rounded the corner onto St Martin’s Lane, they could already see the commotion. A few hundred yards ahead, a crowd had gathered by the entrance to an alleyway. Two uniformed constables stood with their arms crossed, barring the way. As the two detectives approached, they turned as one.

‘Sorry, mate,’ barked one, ‘you ain’t goin’ down there.’

Bowman fumbled for his papers in an inside pocket, resenting the fact that he had to undo the buttons to do so. ‘Detective Inspector Bowman,’ he said as he handed the paper over. ‘This is Sergeant Graves.’

‘Beggin’ your pardon, sir,’ smiled the other as he peered over his companion’s shoulder to read. ‘Got a lot of gawpers today.’

He gestured to the motley ensemble of onlookers that, even now, was growing apace.

‘Scotland Yard!’ crowed a young lady with a basket of fruit. Clearly taking a fancy to Bowman’s companion, she sidled up to Sergeant Graves. ‘Arrest me now, sergeant,’ she said with a wink. ‘Lock me up and do what you will.’ There was a peel of laughter from the crowd and Bowman noticed much nudging of elbows.

Graves couldn’t help but smile. ‘Got to be found guilty of something first, I’m afraid,’ he sparkled.

‘Oh, I’m guilty of plenty, dearie,’ the young woman announced, bumping him with her hip.

‘Come on, Rosie,’ came another voice from the crowd. ‘Let’s go and try at Covent Garden.’

With a wink, Rosie turned away to ply her trade with her partner, another young woman with a tray of bread.

Bowman shook his head as Sergeant Graves chuckled amiably, his blond curls dancing about his head. Bowman had never understood how, firstly, Graves could maintain such levity in the face of so grim an investigation and, secondly, how he could forego a hat on such a cold day.

‘That’s quite all right,’ Bowman sighed as he took his paper back from the constable. ‘You’re doing sterling work. Any idea who the man is?’

‘The boy that found him says his name is Nathaniel Spendlove. He’s landlord of The Salisbury Stores, across the way there. The lad says he’d run errands for the man, so he’s certain.’

The constable nodded across the road to the public house that stood on the corner of St Martin’s Court. The Salisbury Stores was a newer public house than many. Even from this distance, Bowman could see its paintwork and signage gleaming in the morning sun.

With a tip of his hat, the inspector shouldered his way past the constables, Sergeant Graves following in his wake.

The alley was covered for part of the way, but soon opened up to the elements. It seemed colder still here and Bowman plunged his hands into his coat pockets. The sheer walls around him deprived the passageway of any light and so the frost was harder still. Even so, Bowman could see it had recently been disturbed. A pair of footprints led the way to the furthest reaches of the alley, where it narrowed to a flight of steps. There, laying at a seemingly impossible angle, was a body. As the two men approached, they could see the ice around it was thick with blood. Bowman could see it had also spattered up the walls. The man lay face down in the dirt, his arms and legs twisted into alarming shapes. It must have been a frenzied death, Bowman thought. Desperate.

‘Not too pretty, is it, sir?’ whistled Graves, already squatting on his haunches to examine the body further. ‘Looks like a knife, for sure,’ he continued as he rolled the poor man over. ‘Just as Matthews said.’

Bowman nodded. The man’s clothes were stained a deep red. A deep gash gaped at his neck. Bowman bent to look closer at the wretch’s face. There was something familiar about his white mutton chops, discoloured though they now were with the man’s blood. He cast his eyes about the alley in search of confirmation. Sure enough, there by the side of the steps, lay a battered stovepipe hat.

‘I know this man, Graves.’

Sergeant Graves looked up, alarmed. ‘Sir?’

‘Or rather, I saw him.’ Bowman’s moustache was twitching. ‘This morning, talking with Harris on Spring Gardens.’

‘Harris? From The Silver Cross?’

Bowman nodded. ‘The very same. It was a most animated conversation, then the man walked to St Martin-In-The-Fields.’ The inspector rose as he thought. ‘And now he is dead.’

‘If Spendlove was the landlord of The Salisbury Stores, I shouldn’t be at all surprised if he was known to Harris. There’s but half a mile between them.’

Bowman had taken several steps back to the mouth of the alley. ‘He’s but recently dead,’ mused Bowman, aloud. ‘Perhaps within the last half an hour. There must surely have been witnesses to his being dragged off the street.’

‘Doubt it, sir.’ Graves rose to join him, looking out to the street beyond. ‘Look at them.’

Bowman followed Graves’ gaze. The two constables had done a fine job of dispersing the crowd, and the view was clear. Almost to a man, the passers by that processed carefully along the pavements did so with their heads down.

‘They wouldn’t notice if the Ghost of Christmas Past himself appeared before them,’ Graves beamed.

Bowman stamped his feet against the cold. ‘Graves, I want you to go to The Salisbury Stores to learn what you can of Spendlove. I’ll go to Harris to see what he has to say for himself. There is nothing more to be learned here.’

‘Oh, I don’t know, sir,’ said Graves, beckoning his superior to join him. ‘What are we to make of this?’

As Bowman squatted beside him, the young sergeant reached out to Spendlove’s hand. It was bunched into a fist as if holding tight onto something. Uncurling the dead man’s fingers, Graves opened his palm to reveal several waxy leaves sticking to the man’s skin. Bowman’s eyebrows rose as Graves turned to face him. ‘It’s holly, sir,’ he said, perplexed.

The two men walked from the alley, each in thought. ‘Have the body taken to Doctor John Crane at Charing Cross Hospital,’ Bowman barked to the two constables on guard. ‘He’ll know what to do if he discovers anything out of the ordinary.’ The constables nodded curtly, then argued amongst themselves as to who should walk to the nearest police station in search of a Black Mariah.

***

As he opened the door to The Silver Cross, Bowman was dismayed to see his favourite chair by the fire was already occupied. A fat man in an ankle-length coat was sprawled across it, a newspaper upon his lap. With the morning progressing, it seemed many people had simply decided to take their midday meal a little earlier. Bowman noticed a pot of stew bubbling gamely in the small kitchen beyond the bar. As he moved through the throng, he could see Harris toiling with a ladle to fulfil another order.

‘Make way for Scotland Yard!’

The shout came from a small man at the bar and resulted in the turning of several heads. The man was blessed with a halo of bright red hair and a mouthful of haphazard teeth.

‘All right, Mayberry,’ Harris called from the little kitchen. ‘If the whole of Scotland Yard withdrew their custom, I’d have no custom left.’

Though his manner was jovial enough, Bowman detected a touch of frost in Harris’ response.

‘Don’t worry, inspector,’ Mayberry purred. ‘I have known Harris for many years. He has spoken of you often.’ The little man smiled, reaching for a pipe from his pocket. Bowman noticed the gaps in his teeth resulted in a strange whistling sound as he breathed.

‘Indeed?’ the inspector replied, warily.

‘Only to say how much I value your custom, inspector,’ chimed Harris from the stewpot, clearly uncomfortable at the turn in the conversation. ‘And that of your colleagues.’

‘You’re the fellow that was in the madhouse,’ the man leered as he struck a match against the bar. There was a sudden silence in the room. Bowman felt all eyes upon him. He swallowed.

‘Wish you were better at holding your tongue than you are at holding your beer, Mayberry,’ hissed Harris guiltily as he tried to avoid the inspector’s eye.

‘If the beer was better, you might not have to rely on madmen for custom.’ Mayberry cackled to himself, pleased with his response.

Bowman blinked as Harris brushed past with his bowl of stew and made his way to a table in the saloon. Sliding it across to a man who sat waiting with a handkerchief tucked into his collar, Harris called over his shoulder, desperate to lighten the atmosphere. ‘Your first drink’ll be on the house, Inspector Bowman.’

Mayberry puffed on his pipe, sending clouds of blue smoke into the air around him. Bowman eyed the man carefully as Harris made his way back to the bar. He held his head low so that his lank hair hung across his eyes, the better to avoid Bowman’s gaze.

‘Mayberry is a civil servant in Whitehall,’ explained Harris at the pump.

Bowman nodded.

’Colonial Office. He thinks that means he can lord it over the rest of us.’ Harris flashed Bowman a conciliatory smile as he passed over a pint of porter.

‘I am merely a cog in the machine of government.’ Mayberry raised a glass to his lips. ‘But I like to think I provide a little lubrication.’ He drank deep, slamming his glass on the bar as he finished.

Bowman noticed the hubbub had returned to the room. Looking around, he saw heads bent in conversation again. The moment had passed.

‘Harris, I need to speak with you.’ The inspector leaned over the bar. ‘Might we find a quiet corner?’

Harris nodded, certain he was about to experience the detective’s wrath. ‘Follow me into the back room,’ he said at last, lifting the flap in the counter so that Bowman might follow.

***

Sergeant Graves had interrupted Mrs Spendlove at her housework. He had been directed to her home off Tottenham Court Road by a surly barman at The Salisbury Stores.

Irene Spendlove was a sturdy woman with an apron tied round her waist and her hair tied into a bun. She had been cleaning cutlery when Graves knocked at the door. The sergeant found her sweating over a canteen of knives.

‘I take in work where I can,’ she had explained. ‘These are for Mr and Mrs Levitt in Knightsbridge.’ Graves had to profess that he had not heard of them.

Now, he stood in the parlour of the small but smart house on Chenies Street, his heart thumping in his chest. He had not considered that Mrs Spendlove might not yet know of her husband’s death.

‘Mrs Spendlove,’ he began, ‘I am here on a most serious matter.’

Irene twisted her apron in her fingers, suddenly fearful.

‘Oh lord,’ she gasped. ‘Is it Nathaniel?’

Graves nodded, sadly. ‘I’m afraid I must tell you that he is dead.’

Mrs Spendlove’s hands went instinctively to her mouth. ‘An accident?’ She whispered.

‘Worse.’ Graves struggled to find the right words. ‘Won’t you sit?’ He gestured to a small chair by the window. Irene complied, her eyes brimming with tears.

‘What has happened?’ she asked, her voice cracking with emotion.

Graves took a breath. ‘Mrs Spendlove, your husband’s body was found in an alleyway off St Martin’s Lane this morning.’

Irene fumbled in an apron pocket for a handkerchief.

‘I have just come from the scene of the crime.’

The poor woman’s eyes grew wide in astonishment. ‘Crime?’ she echoed.

Graves cleared his throat and watched Mrs Spendlove carefully as he continued. ‘Your husband was murdered,’ he said, simply.

‘Murdered?’ Mrs Spendlove pronounced the word as if it were something entirely alien to her. ‘But… how?’

Graves lowered himself into the chair opposite her, suddenly conscious of the paper ornaments that adorned the mantelpiece. They had been cut into the shape of snowflakes and Christmas trees. He leaned forward over his knees as he explained.

‘It seems he was killed with a knife to the throat.’

Mrs Spendlove threw her hands to her face. ‘What shall I tell the children? And at Christmas, too?’

Graves’ heart stopped. ‘You have children?’

He looked again at the paper ornaments and saw that they had clearly been made by small hands.

Mrs Spendlove nodded through her tears. ‘They are both at school for the morning. What will I tell them?’

Graves had no answer for her. ‘I am sorry,’ he whispered. ‘Mrs Spendlove, I must ask. Is there anyone who would wish your husband dead?’

Irene gave a dry laugh in spite of her grief. ‘He is a pub landlord. What do you think?’

Graves blinked.

‘I am sorry, Sergeant Graves. This is all so terrible and I am afraid I am quite at sea.’

Graves met her eyes. ‘Did Mr Spendlove show any change in his behaviour over recent weeks? Did he, for example, have any money worries?’

Mrs Spendlove drew a breath, baulking at the personal nature of Graves’ questions.

‘Mrs Spendlove,’ the sergeant entreated, ‘is there anything that would shed more light on your husband’s death?’

Irene Spendlove seemed to steel herself. ‘I can think of nothing,’ she said at last.

Graves could not help but admit he was disappointed.

‘I am sorry, Sergeant Graves,’ Irene continued, ‘but we have lived a model life together. Nathaniel was a perfect husband to me and a perfect father to our poor children.’ She dabbed at her eyes. ‘He moved us out of The Salisbury Stores when the little ones came along, determined they should not have to grow up in a public house.’ There was a look of pride in her eyes. ‘He has been determined to make a success of himself since leaving the railways. The Salisbury Stores gave him the means to do so.’

Graves thought. ‘Then he has done well at The Salisbury?’

Mrs Spendlove smoothed her apron across her lap, absently, as she spoke. ‘Nathaniel was its second landlord, but it was his third public house. He went to much trouble to make it a place worth spending time in, and fought hard to attract the right sort of person.’

If Graves detected a hint of snobbery in her response, he did not let it show.

‘Where is he now, Sergeant Graves?’ Irene had risen to stand at the fireplace, her back to the room.

‘His body is at Charing Cross Hospital.’

‘I suppose you will need an identification of the body. Might I see him?’

‘I shall make the necessary arrangements,’ Graves replied as he stood. ‘And I will be sure a cab is here to take you. The paths are treacherous.’

Irene Spendlove turned to face him. ‘Thank you, Sergeant Graves,’ she said quietly. Then, with more force, she leaned towards him. ‘I want you to find the monster who killed my husband. And I want you to string him up.’ For a moment, her whole body trembled. Then, with a breath, Mrs Spendlove composed herself again. ‘You will see your own way out?’

Graves dipped his head. ‘Of course,’ he said. As he moved to the door, he took a final look at the widow by the fire. He noticed her hand move to the mantelpiece as one by one, she removed each of the paper Christmas decorations and threw them into the fire.

***

‘The poor man,’ Harris sighed as he flicked his long hair from his eyes. ‘But, inspector, what has this got to do with me?’

Bowman leaned back against the table in the small back room. Even here, there was a tang of tobacco and alcohol in the air. He could hear the hum of the saloon bar through the walls. The room was small and packed with boxes. A few pieces of broken furniture stood at alarming angles. A tattered rag hung at the window in place of a curtain. Far from the fire by the bar, Bowman felt there was a chill in the very walls. He could see his breath as he spoke.

‘Harris, I think you might know the man.’

Harris’ leathery face creased into an expression of concern. ‘Know him?’ he gasped.

‘It was Nathaniel Spendlove.’ Bowman noticed a flash of alarm in Harris’ eyes. “I believe he was the landlord at The Salisbury Stores on St Martin’s Lane. He was found in an alleyway just opposite.’

Harris rubbed his jaw as if in thought. Bowman thought the gesture just a little too theatrical.

‘I knew of him, certainly,’ the landlord admitted, slowly. ‘But I can’t say I knew him well.’

Bowman sighed, his moustache twitching. ‘Then how can you explain the fact that I saw you conversing with him on Spring Gardens only this morning?’

Harris seemed surprised by the revelation, but did his best to hide it. At first he feigned a cough, then puffed and harrumphed as he sought for an answer. ‘He took me quite by surprise,’ he said, at last.

Bowman raised his eyebrows.

‘At first, I thought he was accosting me, such was his vehemence.’ Harris was thinking fast. ‘Turns out The Salisbury Stores is in trouble. Losing money hand over fist.’ He swallowed before continuing. ‘To put it plainly, Inspector Bowman, he was after money.’

Bowman narrowed his eyes. That would certainly explain the animated nature of the discussion he had witnessed that morning. ‘Money?’

‘He was an inveterate gambler. I dare say he’d lost the proceeds from the Salisbury on a bad wager.’

The inspector frowned. ‘You said you did not know him well.’

There was a pause before Harris tapped his nose. ‘Word on the street, inspector. Word on the street.’

‘And would the word on the street extend to knowing just who might have killed him?’

Harris shook his head. ‘That I couldn’t tell you.’

Bowman was certain the landlord was hiding something. ‘Harris,’ he began, ‘can you see why I might have an interest in your encounter with Spendlove given that, just an hour later, I found myself kneeling over his body?’

Harris nodded, weakly. ‘I can certainly see how that might look, yes.’

Bowman let the moment hang in the air. ‘I will leave it there for now,’ he said, at last, ‘but I might have more questions for you at Scotland Yard.’

Harris’ jaw hung slack for a second. ‘Of course,’ he nodded.

‘There is one other thing, a detail that has me perplexed.’

Harris swallowed. ‘Oh?’

Bowman spoke slowly, keen to watch the landlord’s reaction. ‘A single sprig of holly was found in Spendlove’s hand.’ He held Harris in his gaze. ‘I am at a loss as to its significance.’

Harris’ hair fell into his eyes as he shook his head. ‘I can’t think what it might mean, sir.’ Harris licked his lips as if they were suddenly dry. ‘Perhaps it has no significance, at all.’

Bowman eased himself from the table and pulled his coat about him as if to signify the end of the conversation.

‘Inspector,’ Harris said suddenly as Bowman reached for the door. ‘I am sorry for Mayberry. He has ever had a loose tongue.’

Bowman nodded, remembering Mayberry’s jibes about the lunatic asylum. He could only have known through Harris. ‘Then it seems he is not alone.’

Harris dropped his gaze to the floor.

‘I will avail myself of your stew, Harris,’ Bowman announced, finally, ‘and then I must continue my investigations into the death of Nathaniel Spendlove.’

Emerging back into the bar, Bowman was relieved to see the crowd had thinned. He smiled to himself as he noticed his favourite chair by the fire was available and, having hung his coat on a hook by the chimney breast, he sat back to wait for Sergeant Graves.

He appeared at last as Bowman ate the last of his stew.

‘I had not thought to ruin someone’s Christmas when I woke up this morning,’ the sergeant sighed as he slumped into the chair opposite.

Bowman dabbed at the corners of his mouth with a napkin. ‘I am sorry, Graves,’ he said with feeling. It was always a disconcerting sight to see Graves brought low.

The young sergeant ran his fingers through his curls. ‘He was a father, too.’ He puffed out his cheeks. ‘I do not know how Mrs Spendlove will cope.’ As he leaned back in his chair, he told Bowman of his visit to Chenies Street and the sad picture Mrs Spendlove had presented.

Bowman nodded in sympathy. ‘It’s a sorry tale, indeed, Graves,’ he said as he stared into the flames of the fire.

Sergeant Graves shook his head, as if to rid himself of his despondency. ‘What did Harris have to say for himself?’

Bowman turned to the bar to seek out the landlord. Harris, he noticed, was trying his best to keep out of sight. ‘He was hiding something, Graves. Though heaven alone knows what.’ He turned to his companion. ‘He suggested Spendlove had money problems and that was the subject of their altercation this morning. Was there any hint of that in your interview with his wife?’

Graves shook his head. ‘Quite the reverse,’ he admitted. ‘Mrs Spendlove presented him as nothing less than a model husband, intent on providing for his family. Their rooms looked comfortable enough.’

‘Then why would Harris impugn Spendlove’s character in such a manner?’ Bowman looked back at the bar as Harris disappeared into the back room.

‘Maybe we don’t know Harris at all,’ whispered Graves as he followed his superior’s gaze.

‘Maybe not,’ conceded Bowman. ‘But perhaps there’s someone who does.’

***

In stark contrast to the year before, Christmas Day was spent alone. In truth, Bowman was grateful for it. He attended Eucharist on Christmas morning, but stood at the back of the church so as not to catch anyone’s eye. Though not especially religious, Bowman had felt a need to hear the expressions of hope and joy contained within the sacrament.

His landlady brought down some goose for dinner after which he walked on Hampstead Heath. He stopped by the ponds to watch a young family attempt to launch a kite into the still, lazy air, impressed at their persistence. As he strolled to higher ground, Bowman let his eyes wander across the horizon. To the north, he knew, lay Colney Hatch. He could not help but think of the poor wretches who languished there. Perhaps a good many of them might never leave. He thought of Wilkes and Taylor, of the matron and the chaplain. Most of all, he thought of the strange alienist whose methods had led to Bowman’s recovery. He could not pretend to understand them fully, but he was grateful to feel, at last, as though he was something of the man he had been before he had lost his wife. He was able to think of her now with none of the anguish that had so plagued him before his treatment. He could even view his part in her death as if from a distance, dispassionately. Of course, he wished she were with him – and could even imagine it being so – but he no longer succumbed to the delusions that had plagued him. He could see, now, that her frequent appearances before him since her death had been the work of a feverish mind. He could even start to imagine a future without her. He flinched at the thought almost guiltily, then turned towards the path that would lead him home. As he reached the viaduct, his thoughts turned to Harris and his part in Spendlove’s death. Something Graves had said at The Silver Cross had bothered him. ‘Maybe we don’t know Harris at all,’ Graves had suggested, and perhaps he was right. Harris had felt like a constant in Bowman’s experiences as a detective; dependable and unchanging. To consider that he might have something to do with Spendlove’s murder troubled the detective inspector enormously. But why else would he have prevaricated so? He had been evasive at best, and Bowman dreaded the reason why.

As he tripped down the steps to his basement rooms on Belsize Crescent, Bowman cursed the fact that he could not further pursue his enquiries for another two days.

***

Boxing Day passed in equal quietude. As he tidied his rooms, Bowman realised he was getting used to being alone. He decided to spend the afternoon rearranging his furniture, an activity which led to him discarding the things he would no longer need. Aside from a picture of Anna, he determined that he would be rid of everything of hers that would not be of use. Unsure what to do with her clothing, he bundled it up and carried it upstairs to his surprised landlady. She stood, at first, with her arms folded across her bosom, a suspicious look upon her face. At last, she accepted the gift, perhaps relieved that she would no longer have to step carefully around the clothes on Bowman’s floor as she cleaned. As there was still time in the day, she resolved to box them up, as was the tradition, and leave them at the church for distribution to the poor. It was a gesture that Bowman had not thought of but one of which, he knew, Anna would have approved.

***

Finally, the festivities were over. Bowman felt relieved that he had navigated his way through Christmas so artfully. He was dismayed, however, to find a dusting of snow had been laid down overnight. He trudged miserably to Finchley Road to find a cab, then sat in contemplative silence on his way to Whitehall.

At last, the Colonial Office rose above him. Stepping carefully from the footplate, Bowman paused to look up at the building before him. Towering over five stories, it was faced with Portland stone, giving the whole construction a solidity quite befitting an office of state. An impressive entrance stood beneath a weighty portico supported on three arches and it was towards the centre of these that Bowman turned his feet.

Pushing at the heavy wooden door, he found himself inside an opulent entrance hall. Large portraits and accompanying coats of arms hung from the walls, their subjects staring solemnly down from beneath powdered wigs. Bowman had no doubt but that they had been powerful men in their time and had been afforded their lofty positions accordingly. Even in death, they stood in judgement over the comings and goings of the Empire.

The inspector’s footsteps echoed to the vaulted ceiling as he paced to a large desk set in a corner. A few men stood about, some in formal dress, others in uniform. Bowman felt suddenly very conspicuous. Just as he was about to approach the rather po-faced man behind the desk, he heard his name echoing from the wide staircase to his left hand side.

‘Inspector Bowman, I do declare!’

Bowman swept his hat from his head and knocked the melted frost from its brim. ‘Mr Mayberry,’ he smiled with some effort, ‘you have saved me from enquiring after your whereabouts.’

Mayberry was descending the marble stairs beside a tall man in a Fez.

‘Indeed?’ Mayberry’s eyebrows rose in mock concern as he approached. ‘Am I to be investigated?’

Bowman was suddenly aware that he was the centre of attention. A large man in a corner lowered his newspaper to watch. Two men in colourful African dress leaned from behind a pillar, the better to follow proceedings.

‘Inspector Bowman, might I introduce you to the Ambassador Of The Ottoman Empire?’

The man beside him flashed a tense smile beneath a wide moustache and bowed his head in greeting.

‘The pleasure is all mine,’ he said in an exotically accented English. For all his manners, he looked eager to leave and be about his day.

Bowman nodded his head in response, unsure how to address an ambassador. He could sense Mayberry stifling a laugh at his expense.

‘That was a most productive meeting, Your Excellency,’ said Mayberry easily. ‘I shall look forward to many such more. Do let me know if there is anything I can do to improve your stay.’

The ambassador nodded towards the tall windows that looked out into the street beyond. ‘Perhaps you might do something about the weather?’ he teased. Bowman sensed it was more than a joke.

Mayberry gave a polite laugh. ‘I’m afraid, ambassador, that that is beyond even my powers.’ Bowman noticed how relaxed the little man was in such exalted company. In truth, he envied him for it. ‘Do send my regards to your wife,’ Mayberry continued.

The ambassador reached forward to shake the civil servant by the hand, then made his way smartly to the desk to retrieve his coat.

Bowman looked at Mayberry through narrowed eyes. He was struck by how different this version of the man was from that he had seen in The Silver Cross. Where the one had been crass and insulting, this one seemed the very epitome of manners. Perhaps Harris had been right to insulate he could not hold his drink.

‘How may I be of assistance, Detective Inspector Bowman?’ smiled the man before him, his red hair glinting in the light.

Bowman looked around him. ‘Is there somewhere we may talk in private?’

Mayberry smiled again, evidently pleased at the opportunity to play the host.

‘Of course, inspector. Won’t you follow me?’

As he turned back to the staircase, he launched into an excited monologue concerning the building around him. ‘The architect was most unhappy with the finished building, you know. Lord Palmerston rejected his original proposal and so he was forced, quite literally, back to the drawing board.’ Mayberry chuckled as they ascended the stairs. ‘I find the classical style to be rather fitting. It serves to impress upon our visitors the permanence of the Empire.’

Mayberry waved the inspector into a smart office with wood panelling on the walls. An impressive desk took up most of the room, laden with books. A globe stood on a shelf by the window. A  wing-backed chair was the only other furniture.

‘It is a humble office, but mine own,’ grinned Mayberry as he threw himself onto his chair. Bowman guessed the lack of additional seating was deliberate. No wonder the Ottoman Ambassador had been so eager to leave.

Mayberry reached for a pipe and leaned back. ‘I have just fifteen minutes until I am due to meet with the Under Secretary,’ he announced. ‘I trust you can say all you need to say in a quarter of an hour?’

‘If you are forthcoming I may be gone in less,’ Bowman snapped back. ‘I need to talk with you about Harris.’

Mayberry raised his eyebrows as he bit down on the stem of his pipe. ‘Emmett Harris? At The Silver Cross?’

Bowman nodded. He had not heard Harris’ Christian name before. In fact, he had never considered that he might even have a Christian name. ‘I understand you know him of old.’

Mayberry blew smoke from between his clenched teeth. Bowman was alarmed to see the bit of his pipe was clamped into a gap between them. ‘I’ve known him since his railway days.’

Bowman frowned. ‘He worked on the railways?’

‘For a time,’ nodded Mayberry, amused that Bowman could take an interest in such things. ‘I got out before he did, mind. Found meself a job in government.’

‘Where?’ Bowman shifted on his feet.

‘York, at first, for the Board Of Trade.’ He had affected an airy nonchalance. ‘Then, some seven months ago, I was offered a position here.’ He leaned over his huge desk. ‘A position I find to be most favourable.’ Mayberry let go great clouds of smoke as he chuckled. ‘That was when I decided to look up old Emmett. I had heard he had a public house nearby, and so I found him at The Silver Cross.’

Bowman gnawed at his lip. ‘What was Harris’ position in the railway?’

Mayberry laughed. ‘Drunk on his back, for the most part. Although, in truth, he earned it by day.’

‘He was a navvy?’ Bowman’s eyes narrowed. He knew the work of the railway gangs to be hard and dangerous. The navvies would move as they laid their track, erecting makeshift turf and timber shacks on the embankments in which to live. They would spend their days digging, carrying and laying explosives and their nights drinking and fighting. With his wiry frame, Harris seemed a world away from the type of man who lived such a life. He was struck again by how little he knew of the landlord’s past. Harris had certainly never volunteered any facts about his younger days but then, supposed Bowman, he had never asked.

‘It was a brutal life, Inspector Bowman.’ Mayberry patted his desk. ‘You may imagine how keen I was to leave my shovel behind for the life of an office worker.’

Bowman understood entirely. Mayberry had done well for himself. ‘And Harris?’

Mayberry rose from his chair and walked to gaze out the window. A bank of grey clouds threatened more snow. ‘Harris continued for some months. As I understand it, an incident necessitated him leaving some time later.’

Bowman’s moustache twitched. ‘Incident?’ he echoed.

‘In the Copenhagen Tunnel. I do not know the details,’ Mayberry admitted, his back to the room. ‘But it was enough to see Harris and some others out of a job.’

‘And he has never spoken to you of it?’

Mayberry turned to face Bowman and ran a hand through his hair. ‘He is a closed book, inspector.’

Bowman thought back to his interview with Harris at The Silver Cross. A closed book he was, indeed.

‘Where might I learn more of this incident?’

Mayberry smiled a crooked smile and rubbed his chin. ‘Not here at the Commonwealth Office, that is for sure.’

Bowman was downcast. ‘Then you can be of no further assistance?’

Mayberry spread his hands wide as if to show he had no more to give.

‘Mr Mayberry,’ Bowman began, ‘you should know I am investigating a murder.’

Mayberry’s eyes grew wide. ‘And you suspect Emmett Harris?’

‘I did not say as much.’

Mayberry was agog. ‘But why else would you ask so many questions? I had never considered Harris a murderer.’

‘He was never violent as a navvy?’

‘No more than any other,’ mused Mayberry. ‘And certainly not of a disposition to kill.’

Bowman nodded. He was sure the man was right, but then…

He took a breath. ‘Thank you, Mr Mayberry.’

‘I can only apologise for not being of more assistance.’ The little man with the red hair moved to see Bowman out. ‘But perhaps you could enquire at the Great Northern Railway offices in King’s Cross? Their records might shed a little more light on the matter.’

***

‘A navvy?’ Detective Sergeant Anthony Graves was intrigued. ‘Harris?

The inspector had called in on Scotland Yard following his meeting in Whitehall. There, he had convinced Sergeant Graves to accompany him to King’s Cross. In truth, the sergeant had needed no convincing at all. After exchanging the compliments of the season and enquiring how Bowman had spent his Christmas Day, Graves had shrugged on his coat, eager to be about the investigation.

‘According to certain information I have come by,’ Bowman confirmed, ‘he lived an itinerant life in his younger days.’

Graves gave a whistle. ‘I always considered him a dark horse.’ He seemed almost in awe of the man.

‘He was involved in some incident or other that saw him dismissed from his employment. But where does Spendlove fit into all this?’ Bowman sighed. ‘And the sprig of holly?’

‘I don’t know about the holly,’ Graves replied, ‘but there might be a connection to Spendlove.’

Bowman turned to his companion, his eyes watering in the bitter chill of the air. ‘How so?’

Graves leaned towards the inspector, conspiratorially. ‘Mrs Spendlove said something about her husband working on the railways prior to becoming a landlord.’

Bowman frowned. ‘It seems a path well-trod.’

‘Could it just be a coincidence?’

‘I don’t know, Graves. But I do know that Harris is holding something back, and perhaps the answer lies behind those doors.’ Bowman gestured to the offices of The Great Northern Railway that stood across the road.

King’s Cross Station stood, dirty, in the snow. In the forty years since it had been built, it had outgrown itself as a small child outgrows an overcoat. It had been built and opened as a terminus to the East Coast Mainline but, over the successive years, had grown to accommodate the various suburban lines that, along with the River Thames, were the capital’s lifeblood. Its original two platforms, one for arrival and one for departure, had been added to and added to again so that it was now a web of iron and steel united only by a single footbridge that connected each platform. As the two detectives watched their cab slide away on the icy road, they were suddenly engulfed by a tide of people, all flowing from the station behind them.

‘Come on Graves,’ called Bowman and, together, they carefully navigated the Euston Road to enter the building opposite.

The offices of The Great Northern Railway were functional, at best. A large door gave onto a cavernous but plain hall lined with tiles. Bare electric bulbs hung from the ceiling, lending the place a sterile air. Bowman was reminded of a hospital or even, and he shuddered at the thought, Colney Hatch.

A line of bored people, mostly men in long coats and top hats, waited in a queue for a teller’s window. A few others sat on low wooden benches beneath windows. What they were waiting for, Bowman could only guess.

‘Reckon he’s our man?’ Graves nodded over to where a portly man stood in the uniform of The Great Northern Railway, a corduroy hat jammed on his head. He chewed the damp stump of a cigarette as he surveyed the scene before him.

As Bowman and Graves strode across the concourse towards him, the man clearly chose to pretend that he had not seen them.

‘Good morning,’ chimed Graves, mischievously.

The man snapped open his pocket watch, as if to be certain. ‘It is,’ he relented, at last. ‘Just.’

‘We are from Scotland Yard,’ Graves proclaimed.

‘Oh, yes? And I’m a monkey’s uncle.’ The portly man spat the end of this cigarette to the floor and ground it underfoot as he spoke.

‘That’s as maybe,’ retorted Bowman, impatiently, ‘but we are in need of information.’

The man had yet to make eye contact. ‘Concerning what?’

Graves stepped forward and offered him a smile. ‘Something called the Copenhagen Tunnel.’

The man sighed. ‘What of it?’

‘We need to see records of its construction,’ Bowman interjected. ‘Are they held here?’

‘I dare say.’ The man had reached into his pocket to retrieve a pouch of tobacco.

Bowman unfolded his identification papers. ‘Then I dare say there’d be no need to charge you with the obstruction of an investigation.’

At last, the man deigned to look at the detective inspector. Rolling his eyes, he shook his head. ‘Name’s Giddings,’ he rasped. ‘I’d be grateful if you could remember it when it comes to recording how helpful I’ve been.’

Graves could barely contain himself. Sharing a look, the two detectives followed the reluctant Giddings to a door in the corner by the teller’s window.

‘I’ll be five minutes, Dawes,’ Giddings announced as he reached for a ring of keys at his belt. ‘Scotland Yard are after me.’ He gestured with his thumb at the two men behind him.

‘Right you are,’ Dawes replied, cheerily. ‘Best hide all your ill-gotten gains, then.’ The two men shared a throaty laugh as Giddings swung the door open and waved his visitors through. ‘Third door on the right,’ he barked. ‘That’s the records office.’

It was a dark and unwelcoming room with a single table at its centre. Piles of boxes blocked the light from the windows. Shelves lined every wall, some of them home to the greatest profusion of cobwebs that Bowman had seen for some time.

‘Is there a system to all this?’ Sergeant Graves gasped as he looked around. ‘Some method of storage and retrieval?’ He was suddenly afraid that he would be spending several hours in this airless room.

By way of a response, Giddings slammed a large book onto the table, sending clouds of dust into the air around them. Bowman resisted the urge to cough.

‘Copenhagen Tunnel,’ Giddings announced, pointedly. ‘What do you need to know?’

‘What is it?’ Graves asked, simply.

Giddings sighed again. Sweeping his hat from his head, he rubbed his eyes in exasperation. When he spoke, it was with the impatient tones of a teacher to a pair of slow-witted children.

‘What we know of as the Copenhagen Tunnel is actually three. The first was built under Copenhagen Fields some forty years ago, a mile out of King’s Cross.’

‘Hence the name,’ Graves nodded.

Giddings blinked at the interruption. ‘The second was built in Eighteen Eighty Seven and the third six years ago.’

Bowman turned to his companion. ‘Harris has been at The Silver Cross for quite some time,’ he mused.

Graves nodded. ‘Certainly longer than the six years since construction of the third tunnel, by all accounts.’

Bowman frowned. ‘How old would you say he was?’

‘Difficult to say,’ Graves shrugged. Harris, with his leathery tanned skin and long hair, seemed as old as the hills. The more impolite of his customers would joke that he had served behind the bar for as long as there had been a drinking establishment on the site. The young sergeant knew that to be at least a couple of hundred years.

‘It’s certainly easy to believe he’s in his sixties,’ he concluded. ‘Best look at the construction of the first tunnel, I’d say.’

Bowman nodded in agreement, then turned to the stout man beside him. Giddings had clearly been following their conversation. Before Bowman had opened his mouth to speak, he had already leafed through the volume before him and found the relevant entries.

‘Thirteenth June, Eighteen Fifty,’ he announced, swivelling the book round to face the inspector. ‘Construction begins on the Copenhagen Tunnel.’ He stabbed at the relevant entry with a chubby and tobacco-stained finger.

Bowman peered closer. Flicking through the pages with his thumb, he saw page after page of closely-written text in several colours of ink and in several different hands. The pages on the right were divided into columns and denoted dates and times of pertinent events, the moving of equipment and supply of provisions. It also included occasional entries of names connected with specific incidents. ‘Dinklage, William,’ read one. ‘Dismissed, drunkard.’ ‘Roberts, Albert,’ read another, ‘injured.’

The pages on the left detailed the teams of men assigned to any given stretch of track. They were arranged in groups of four. No doubt, thought Bowman, one of them would have been in the position of supervisor.

‘Where do we start?’ breathed Sergeant Graves at the inspector’s side.

‘We look for any entry for Emmett Harris.’

‘Should be easy enough,’ puffed Giddings. ‘The first tunnel was a relatively straightforward affair with only some four hundred teams.’

‘But that’s sixteen hundred names,’ Bowman sighed. ‘We may well have to take this book away with us, Mr Giddings.’

‘No need, sir,’ interjected Graves, suddenly. He was leaning forward over the table in his excitement. ‘Look there.’

Bowman followed his gaze to an entry on a left hand page. Beneath a date, the Eighteenth of August, Eighteen Fifty, he could read the name Emmett Harris.

‘And look.’ Graves was sliding his finger down the page. ‘Nathaniel Spendlove.’ He moved his finger down again.

‘Norman Atkinson,’ Bowman read aloud.

‘That would be the team,’ offered Giddings, unbidden. ‘The name above them would be the foreman.’

Bowman directed his gaze to the top of the list. ‘Jacob Holly,’ he read.

‘Holly?’ Giddings seemed suddenly taken aback.

Bowman straightened himself at the table. ‘Is that pertinent, Mr Giddings?’

Giddings rubbed his great jaw as he thought for a while then, with a sudden flurry of activity, spun the book round to face him. Licking his fingers, he leafed frantically through its pages. ‘Eighteen Fifty Two,’ he said at last. ‘The last stages of construction.’ Again, he spun the book round so that the inspectors might read more easily.

There, on the left hand side, the same team was listed among many others. Holly, Atkinson, Harris and Spendlove. Tracing across to the opposite page with a finger, Bowman noticed an entry for the Twenty Third of February. ‘Incident,’ it read, simply. ‘Atkinson, dismissed. Harris, dismissed. Spendlove, dismissed.’ Bowman took a breath as he read the last entry. ‘Holly, deceased.’ He looked to Graves.

‘What happened, Mr Giddings?’ the sergeant asked, fearfully.

Giddings seemed suddenly engaged. ‘Quite a famous case, actually,’ he boomed, ‘at least, that is, in railway circles.’ He leaned his weight against the table. ‘His was the only death recorded in the construction of that first tunnel, so the story has endured.’

Bowman could quite imagine. The life of a navvy was a dangerous one. To have only one such death on a stretch of track was an achievement, indeed.

‘What is the incident referred to?’

Giddings was back at the shelves, retrieving another book from amongst the cobwebs. ‘Jacob Holly was a hard man by all accounts, and would drive his men hard, too. He would cut corners to get ahead of schedule, then pocket the bonus himself. His men were tired and overworked but he cared not. Then, just as they were completing one of the last sections of the tunnel, several of the other teams pulled back for the day. But not Holly’s. He worked his men into the night, determined to be the man to break through.’ Giddings rolled a cigarette between his fingers as he spoke. The glint in his eye showed just how much he was enjoying himself. He seemed a different man entirely to the surly individual the detectives had met on the concourse. ‘His team set explosives and retired to a distance to wait, but the explosives failed. Furious, Holly went to investigate.’

Graves winced. He had a feeling he knew what was coming next. Giddings nodded as if to confirm his suspicions. ‘They found every part of him but his right arm.’

‘Mr Giddings,’ Bowman frowned, ‘all this happened forty years ago. How are you so conversant with the details?’

Giddings leaned forward to stab at the page. There, on the left hand side, the name ‘Edward Giddings’ was listed in another group of four.

‘You were there?’ Graves’ eyes were wide.

Edward Giddings puffed out his chest. ‘Been a railwayman all my life,’ he said, proudly. ‘First building ’em and now running ’em.’

Inspector Bowman felt a sudden respect for the man. ‘You worked on the Copenhagen Tunnel?’

Giddings nodded, suddenly wistful. ‘We heard the blast from where we were camped,’ he whispered. ‘We knew at once something was wrong.’

Bowman blinked. ‘How so?’

‘The blast was too big,’ Giddings replied, simply. ‘Turns out they had laid three times the explosives they needed.’

Graves sucked air in through his teeth.

‘There were suspicions, of course,’ concluded Giddings. ‘But nothing was proven.’

Bowman narrowed his eyes. ‘What do you think, Giddings?’

Giddings thought for a moment. ‘His men were tired. He’d pushed them hard. Mistakes happen.’

Graves offered his thoughts. ‘But it may not have been an accident?’

Giddings struck his match against a shelf and jammed his cigarette between his lips. ‘Not for me to judge,’ he said from the side of his mouth.

Bowman thought fast. Was the man who had served him faithfully at The Silver Cross only that very morning really responsible for Jacob Holly’s death?

‘Was there an inquiry?’

Giddings blew smoke into the already gloomy room. ‘Naturally,’ he said. ‘And the findings are detailed here.’ He opened the second book upon the table and leafed through its pages until he found his place. Bowman turned the book towards him.

‘It says no further action would be taken beyond the men’s dismissal.’

‘Nothing could be proven either way, as I remember,’ added Giddings.

‘There is a petition here on behalf of his widow,’ the inspector continued. ‘She asked for a pension on account of his long service. It appears she had a son by him.’ Bowman looked to Graves, pointedly. ‘Her petition was refused.’

‘He was only a baby, if memory serves,’ said Giddings. The tip of his cigarette glowed a fierce red as he drew upon it.

Graves was thinking. ‘So, he would be, what, in his forties now?’

‘If he lived,’ offered Giddings, cruelly.

‘The holly found in Spendlove’s hand,’ said Bowman, turning to his young companion. ‘Might that be meant as a symbol?’

Graves nodded. ‘Perhaps something to do with Jacob Holly?’

‘Or his son,’ Bowman added.

Graves fell upon the first book again, flicking furiously through its pages in search of the list of names.

‘Spendlove, we know about,’ he said as he read it again. ‘And Harris, of course. But we need to find this Norman Atkinson.’

‘Ah,’ interjected Giddings. ‘Now there I might be of further assistance.’

The two detectives turned as one to face the man in the smart uniform.

‘Go on,’ Bowman entreated.

‘We railwaymen stick together. Some years ago, I was approached by Atkinson.’

Bowman raised his eyebrows by way of encouragement.

‘He was moving to London and was in search of rooms.’ Giddings spat a stray strand of tobacco from his tongue. ‘I put him in touch with a landlord I knew.’

‘Why was he moving to London?’ Graves was enthralled. Giddings was proving to be more forthcoming than he could ever have imagined.

‘To take up a position as rector at St Martin-In-The-Fields.’

‘In Trafalgar Square?’ asked Bowman, his moustache twitching. He remembered Spendlove’s visit shortly after his argument with Harris.

‘The very same,’ Giddings confirmed. ‘And for all I know, he is there to this day.’

‘Sergeant Graves,’ said Bowman, a note of urgency in his voice, ‘get to Atkinson as soon as you can. Tell him he may be in danger. I’ll go to Harris.’

Graves nodded as he turned to the door.

‘Thank you for your time, Mr Giddings,’ panted Bowman as he followed.

‘Not at all,’ replied Giddings without a trace of irony. ‘It was a pleasure to be of assistance.’

***

It was dark already. The clock had barely struck three of the clock but, already, the sun had dropped below the rooftops. Graves knocked the snow from his shoes as he stood before St Martin-In-The-Fields. It had once stood shoulder to shoulder with other buildings until Trafalgar Square had been created. Now, it stood like a beacon on its east side, enjoying an open aspect that allowed the passing crowds to stop and gaze at its portico, pediment and supporting Corinthian columns.

Graves walked carefully up the wide steps and pushed at the door to gain entry. The church was empty. With the Christmas season over, mused Graves, most had had their fill of religiosity. With the door closed against the busy street, the interior of the church rang with a silence that almost hurt his ears. An arcade of columns stretched before him as he made his way slowly up the aisle. Candles flickered and guttered around him.

‘Hello?’ he called, only to hear his own voice echoing back from the vaulted ceiling. His eyes wandered across the galleries and vestibules that lined the building. Despite the gravity of the situation, he couldn’t help but stare in admiration at the stucco cherubs, clouds and shells that adorned the panels around him.

Reaching the end of the aisle, Graves stopped before the altar. The ephemera of Christmas was still littered about the place. Candles and silverware stood amongst a selection of carved wooden figures arranged to represent a nativity scene. The sergeant lifted his gaze and stared in awe at the figure that hung on the cross above him. The silence pressed down upon him. He felt like an intruder upon some sacred event.

Just as he was about to turn and leave, he caught sight of an open door leading to the sacristy.

‘Hello?’ he called again. Nothing. Steeling himself, Graves walked across the cold flagstones and leaned against the door to open it further still. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he saw a shape on the floor. He took a breath as it resolved itself into the shape of a body. A man lay sprawled on the floor, his legs twisted beneath him. Just as Graves feared, a slick of blood oozed from a wound at his neck.

‘Atkinson,’ Graves whispered, kneeling beside him on the cold floor. As he leaned over the body, he noticed something clenched in Atkinson’s fist. Unpeeling his fingers, he saw that he was clutching at a sprig of holly.

***

Inspector Bowman had left Graves at Charing Cross and turned down Whitehall towards The Silver Cross. Approaching through the crowds, he was surprised to see the tavern closed to customers, its doors locked and its shutters thrown across its windows. As he stood beneath the sign of the cross that hung from the storey above him, he heard a noise from the side of the building.

Fearing the worst, Bowman turned up his collar and picked his way carefully up the alley beside the tavern. The ice was harder here and, once or twice, Bowman had to reach out to the wall to keep from slipping. At last, he reached the end of the alley, where he saw the hatch to the tavern’s cellar laying open in the path. Bowman could hear the scrape of wooden barrels being moved beneath his feet. As he bent to peer closer into the darkness, he was surprised by the appearance of a tousled head in the hole in the ground. He recognised Harris’ lad at once. Bowman had often seen him scurrying about the bar, fetching and carrying. He guessed the boy was readying himself for the evening’s trade, but where was Harris?

‘Brompton cemetery,’ said the boy, unbidden.

‘I beg your pardon?’ Bowman was taken aback.

‘Drunk as a lord, he was.’ The boy wiped his nose on a sleeve. ‘Reckon something must’ve been botherin’ him.’

‘Harris?’ Bowman squatted on his haunches. He needed to be certain they were talking about the same man.

‘Of course, Harris. Who else would you be lookin’ for? I arrived early for me day’s work, only to find him nursin’ a bottle of brandy.’ The lad winked. ‘I say nursin’, attackin’ more like.’ He gave a cackle. ‘I’ve never seen him so in his cups.’ The urchin pulled his elbows up through the hatch and rested them on the dirty ground around him. ‘He drained the bottle, mumbled somethin’ about Brompton Cemetery, then bid me shut up shop.’

‘Do you know why?’

‘No idea.’ The boy sighed. ‘I only hope he gets back in time for the evening rush. I won’t get paid otherwise.’

Bowman nodded in sympathy. ‘And you’re sure he said Brompton Cemetery?’

‘Aw, not you as well,’ the boy moaned. ‘I know what he said. I ain’t deaf.’

Bowman gave a half-smile as he rose. Stretching his legs to restore some feeling, he leaned against the wall to start his return journey back down the alley. A sudden thought struck him.

‘What do you mean, not you as well?’ He turned to face the boy in the hatch.

‘Can’t a boy be left to get on with his work?’ the lad complained. He rolled his eyes. ‘You’re the second man to ask after Harris in the past half hour. I’ve never known him be so popular.’ He gave a smirk.

‘Someone else has asked for him?’

‘Bloke with a missing eye,’ the boy confirmed. ‘He was most persistent, too.’

***

The snow fell as a blanket upon the city, lending an air of peaceful serenity to the graves and monuments that stood in Brompton Cemetery. Once a pastoral landscape just three miles from the centre of London, the cemetery lay between Old Brompton and Fulham Roads, on the western border of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Built in response to the growing population and the lack of space in which to bury its dead, it was one of seven park cemeteries created around the capital. And it had filled up quickly.

For the richest in society, here was an opportunity to be laid to rest in conspicuous grandeur. Granite and marble mausoleums lined the central avenue. They loomed through the bare lime trees, the final place of repose for generations of the same family. Stone angels stood as perpetual mourners over other plots in a great circle bordered with impressive colonnades. Wide steps led down to iron doors, beyond which lay the catacombs. Here, the less prosperous could be laid on shelves to await their eternity in God’s judgement.

Emmett Harris wove his way through the plainer headstones beyond the circle towards a collection of graves beneath a high wall. He mumbled wildly to himself, his eyes peering through his curtain of hair as he trudged through the virgin snow. He held a bottle in his hands and paused only to take the occasional slug, wincing as it hit the back of his throat.

‘Forgive us!’ he called as he neared the graves. ‘Forgive us all!’

He stopped at the granite wall that soared above him and reached out to a plaque that had been fixed there. ‘Dedicated to the memory of those who fell in the construction of the railways,’ it read, ‘this plot provided in lasting gratitude by the Amalgamated Society of Railway Engineers.’ Harris ran his trembling fingers over the symbol of two crossed hammers and a stretch of railway leading from a tunnel. A string of drool hung from his lips. ‘Forgive us,’ he whispered.

‘You are the last,’ rasped a voice from behind him.

Harris spun round, clutching at his head in his drunken delirium. He focussed his eyes on a man beneath a nearby yew tree. Harris was alarmed to see he had only one eye.

‘Emmett Harris, you are the last.’

‘I am sorry,’ wailed Harris as he fell to his knees, heedless of the snow. ‘Spare me!’

The man’s voice was thick with anger. ‘As you spared my father?’ He reached into his pocket. Harris sobbed as he saw the man retrieve a knife, the cold metal of its blade flashing in the white light.

‘Before you die,’ the man continued, ‘you will know my story. I am the son of Jacob Holly.’

Harris nodded weakly. ‘We learned of you at the inquiry,’ he whispered. ‘You must believe it was an accident.’ He wrapped his arms around himself in search of solace, his great sobs shaking his body.

Holly gazed dispassionately at the wretch before him. ‘It matters not,’ he said simply. ‘A life for a life.’

‘But three? If I am the last, then you have already taken Atkinson as well as Spendlove. If a life for a life, then why take three?’

Holly was trembling as he fought to maintain control of his ire. ‘One each for the lives you took,’ he hissed. ‘Spendlove was for my father, Atkinson was for my mother. But you…’ he held his knife before him. ‘You are for me.’

Harris looked about him as if help might be found in the graves and mausoleums. He rose slowly to his feet, his legs barely able to support him.

Holly held him in his gaze. ‘My mother and I were left to the mercy of the workhouse when the railways refused to give her a pension.’ He fixed his remaining eye on the plaque on the wall and spat. ‘All we got for my father’s life was a communal grave.’ He turned to scan the stones before him. Each, he knew, marked the spot where several workers lay. All had lost their lives on the railways, but none had been deemed worthy of name on a stone. The only marking was the insignia of the Amalgamated Society.

‘We were young,’ Harris was pleading as he scanned his surroundings for a way out. His head was pounding and he was struggling to think clearly. ‘Your father worked us hard. We were tired and not thinking straight.’

‘Not one of you thought to check the explosives?’ Holly boomed. ‘Not one of you thought to question it?’

Harris shook his head, aware that any explanation would be insufficient for the vengeful spirit before him. ‘We were young,’ he repeated, feebly.

‘You have lived a life,’ Holly suddenly wailed. ‘A life that was denied to my father and mother.’

Harris’ lip quivered. He peered through the snow towards the grand entrance to the cemetery. He was sure he could make out a dark shape resolving itself in the sleet.

‘After she died, I joined the army to find purpose,’ Holly continued, ‘but I was abandoned once more at Majuba. Left for dead by those I trusted, just like my father before me.’ He took a step nearer his quarry. Fumbling in the folds of his coat, he took a sprig of holly from a pocket. ‘I left this as a marker on the other two, to show my father his death had been avenged.’ He stretched out a hand and held the holly before him. ‘Take it,’ he hissed.

Harris reached out, knowing all the while that a cold death awaited him. Soon, he knew, he would be lying in the snow, his hot blood melting the ice.

‘A last drink?’ he implored, his words slurred.

Holly nodded as the landlord raised his bottle to his lips. Grateful, Harris closed his eyes and prepared to take his last drink upon this Earth. The last thing he expected was for the bottle to be blasted from his hands. A loud crack rent the air about him, echoing off the stone wall at his back.

Cautiously, Harris opened his eyes, first one and then the other. Holly stood before him, his knife held weakly in his fist. He had dropped the sprig of holly to the ground and now stood, mesmerised by a hole that had appeared below his shoulder. He reached up to grab at his clothing where a slick of blood had started to soak through from his skin. He blinked furiously, searching Harris’ eyes for an explanation. As Holly pitched forward, Harris saw the figure of Detective Inspector Bowman standing immediately behind him, his revolver raised. He had a look of intense concentration on his face as he drew a whistle from his pocket and blew hard.

‘I thought I was a dead man,’ Harris whispered, his voice cracking with relief.

‘Not today, Harris,’ replied Bowman as he lurched forwards to restrain the man in the snow. ‘Not today.’

He heaved Holly to his feet. Holding his hands behind him, Bowman marched him unceremoniously back towards the cemetery entrance, there to enlist the help of the local constables who were, even now, running towards him.

Harris was left to collect his thoughts and follow him unsteadily, but not before his gaze had fallen upon the sprig of holly in the snow. It had settled where his dreadful assailant had dropped it, its leaf as sharp as any needle, its berry as red as any blood.

***

Following the events in Brompton Cemetery, Harris had presented himself, sober, at Scotland Yard to give the inspector the whole of his story. Bowman had listened intently before deciding that the landlord had nothing to answer for. As far as he was concerned, the findings of the original inquiry stood. Even so, four days passed before Bowman dared to set foot in The Silver Cross.

At last, Sergeant Graves convinced him to enjoy a drink to mark the passing of the old year. The two men sat in their usual places, their damp coats steaming on a hook by the chimney breast. Bowman knocked the moisture from the brim of his hat and placed it on the table as he sat in his favourite chair by the fire. The tavern was particularly lively tonight, marked the inspector, and the two detectives sat in the glow of the fire as, it seemed, the whole of London descended upon The Silver Cross.

Having noticed their arrival from behind the bar, Emmett Harris poured two pints of porter and steeled himself. Marching to the table by the fire, he passed each man their drink and leaned in close.

‘No, Harris, I will not permit it,’ said Bowman before the landlord could even open his mouth. ‘We have had too many drinks upon the house.’ He reached into his pockets and pulled out a wallet. ‘In fact,’ he continued, ‘I will pay for my drink and Graves’ drink.’ He raised his voice to be heard above the melee in the saloon. ‘And a drink for every man and woman in this bar, in a mark of respect and admiration for its landlord, Emmett Harris.’

A great cheer rose from the assembled drinkers and a few of them embarked upon a chorus or two of ‘For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow’, before rushing at the bar with their empty tankards. Harris was only too happy to oblige them, pulling at the taps as if a man possessed, his lank hair falling into his face as he smiled back at the detectives by the fireplace.

‘So, you saw Holly at Spring Gardens?’ Graves took a draft from his glass. He had barely seen Bowman these last few days. The sergeant had been busy with paperwork and was eager to hear the final details of the case.

Bowman nodded. ‘When I saw Harris’ altercation with Spendlove. Little did I know I was conversing with the man who would kill them both.’

‘Then Spendlove led Holly to Harris?’ Graves shook his head.

‘And then to Atkinson at St Martin-In-The-Fields. Harris says Spendlove found the sprig of holly on his bar at The Salisbury Stores and was concerned at its significance.’

Graves’ blue eyes were wide. ‘Concerned enough to warn the others,’ he said with a sudden understanding.

‘Holly was just lucky that the three men had settled in such close proximity to each other.’

‘As Giddings said at King’s Cross, railwaymen stick together.’

Bowman lifted his glass to his lips. ‘Particularly those who have been through so much together.’

The young sergeant looked towards the bar where Harris was busying himself cleaning glasses. He felt pity for the landlord, that he should be so haunted by an event from forty years ago. ‘I suppose we’re all prisoners to our past,’ he murmured.

‘Not all of us, Graves,’ Bowman smiled, holding his companion’s gaze. ‘Some of us have escaped it, with help from our friends.’ The two men clinked their glasses and sipped from their drinks as the bell rang.

‘That’s it, sir,’ beamed Graves, wiping the froth from his upper lip. ‘Midnight.’

A cheer rang out in the saloon bar.

Bowman looked into the fire. ‘So it is.’

‘Which means,’ continued Graves, leaning across the table, ‘that I am now a detective inspector.’

It took a moment for the news to sink in. Bowman’s moustache twitched as he turned back. Graves was nodding. ‘I had the news over Christmas, but I couldn’t seem to find the right time to tell you. Effective from the first day of January.’

Bowman sprung from his seat to clap the new inspector on the shoulder. ‘Why, Anthony, that is marvellous news, indeed!’ A rueful look settled upon his face. ‘I shall miss you.’

Graves laughed. ‘You won’t be getting rid of me that easily,’ he grinned. ‘I dare say you’d be welcome in my office from time to time.’ His eyes sparkled with a mischief that Bowman had come to adore. ‘By appointment, of course.’

The two men laughed as Bowman sank back into his chair.

‘Thank you, sir,’ said Graves. ‘I know you smoothed the way for me.’

Bowman shook his head, indignant at the very suggestion. ‘I did no such thing, Graves. I merely suggested to the commissioner that you were just the sort of man who would excel as an inspector. And just the sort of man we need in such a post. You’re an asset to the Yard.’ He raised his glass.

‘I’ll drink to that,’ said Graves, raising his own.

Bowman took a breath and looked at the young man before him. It had been quite a year, and not one he’d care to live through again. He met Graves’ eyes and smiled.

‘Happy New Year, Detective Inspector Graves,’ he said.

 

This short story was taken from City of Death, by Richard James.