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Inspector of the Dead
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The year is 1855. The Crimean War is raging. The incompetence of British commanders causes the fall of the English government. The Empire teeters. Amid this crisis comes opium-eater Thomas De Quincey, one of the most notorious and brilliant personalities of Victorian England. Along with his irrepressible daughter, Emily, and their Scotland Yard companions, Ryan and Becker, De Quincey finds himself confronted by an adversary who threatens the heart of the nation.
This killer targets members of the upper echelons of British society, leaving with each corpse the name of someone who previously attempted to kill Queen Victoria. The evidence indicates that the ultimate victim will be Victoria herself.
We take strict laws controlling the sale of narcotics so much for granted that it comes as a surprise to learn that opium, from which heroin and morphine are derived, was legally available in the British Empire and the United States for much of the 1800s. Chemists, butchers, grocers, and even paperboys sold it. The liquid form was called laudanum, a mixture of powdered opium and alcohol (usually brandy). Almost every household owned a bottle in the same way that aspirin is common in medicine cabinets today. The only pain remedy available (apart from alcohol), opium was dispensed for headaches, menstrual cramps, upset stomach, hay fever, earaches, back spasms, baby colic, cancer, just about anything that could ail anybody.
Thomas De Quincey, one of the most notorious and brilliant authors of the nineteenth century, first experienced the drug when he was a young man suffering from a toothache. He described the euphoria he felt as an “abyss of divine enjoyment…a panacea for all human woes…the secret of happiness.” For eight years, he used the substance occasionally, but by the time he was twenty-eight, he lapsed into lifelong dependency. The concept of physical and mental addiction was unknown in the 1800s. People considered opium abuse simply a habit that could be broken by anyone with character and discipline. Because De Quincey couldn’t stop, he was condemned for his lack of self-control, even though the pains of attempted withdrawal left him “agitated, writhing, throbbing, palpitating, and shattered.”
In 1821, when De Quincey was thirty-six, he released Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and sent a shock wave through England. The first book about drug dependency, it made him infamous for his candor at a time when many people shared his affliction but would never confess it because they feared the shame of exposing their private lives to public view. By then, the elixir effects of the drug had subsided, and De Quincey needed huge amounts merely to function. A tablespoon of laudanum might kill someone not accustomed to it, but at the height of his need, just to feel normal, De Quincey swallowed sixteen ounces a day while “munching opium pills out of a snuff box as another man might munch filberts,” a friend said.
The drug caused De Quincey to endure epic nightmares that seemed to last a hundred years every night. Ghosts of loved ones visited him. Every hurt and loss of his life surfaced to haunt him, and because of these nightmares, De Quincey discovered a bottomless inner world, “chasms and sunless abysses, depths below depths.” Seventy years before Freud, he developed theories about the subconscious that were similar to the future great psychoanalyst’s Interpretation of Dreams. Indeed De Quincey invented the term “subconscious” and described deep chambers of the mind in which a “horrid alien nature” might conceal itself, unknown to outsiders and even to oneself.
De Quincey demonstrated yet another remarkable ability. He was an expert in murder.
In the murderer worthy to be called an artist, there rages some great storm of passion—jealousy, ambition, vengeance, hatred—which creates a hell within him.
—Thomas De Quincey
“On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth”
The Killing Zone
Except for excursions to a theater or a gentlemen’s club, most respectable inhabitants of the largest city on earth took care to be at home before the sun finished setting, which on this cold Saturday evening, the third of February, occurred at six minutes to five.
That time—synchronized with the clock at the Royal Greenwich Observatory—was displayed on a silver pocket watch that an expensively dressed, obviously distinguished gentleman examined beneath a hissing gas lamp. As harsh experiences had taught him, appearance meant everything. The vilest thoughts might lurk within someone, but the external semblance of respectability was all that mattered. For fifteen years now, he couldn’t recall a time when rage had not consumed him, but he had never allowed anyone to suspect, enjoying the surprise of those upon whom he unleashed his fury.
Tonight, he stood at Constitution Hill and stared across the street toward the murky walls of Buckingham Palace. Lights glowed faintly behind curtains there. Given that the British government had collapsed four days earlier because of its shocking mismanagement of the Crimean War, Queen Victoria was no doubt engaged in urgent meetings with her Privy Council. A shadow passing at one of the windows might belong to her or perhaps to her husband, Prince Albert. The gentleman wasn’t certain which of them he hated more.
Approaching footsteps made him turn. A constable appeared, his helmet silhouetted against the fog. As the patrolman focused his lantern on the quality of clothing before him, the gentleman made himself look calm. His top hat, overcoat, and trousers were the finest. His beard—a disguise—would have attracted notice years earlier but was now fashionable. Even his black walking stick with its polished silver knob was the height of fashion.
“Good evening, sir. If you don’t mind me saying, don’t linger,” the constable warned. “It doesn’t do to be out alone in the dark, even in this neighborhood.”
“Thank you, constable. I’ll hurry along.”
From his hiding place, the young man at last heard a target approaching. He’d almost given up, knowing that there was little chance that someone of means would venture alone onto this fog-bound street but knowing also that the fog was his only protection from the constable who passed here every twenty minutes.
Deciding that the footsteps didn’t have the heavy, menacing impact that the constable’s did, the young man prepared for the most desperate act of his life. He’d endured typhoons and fevers on three voyages back and forth from England to the Orient on a British East India Company ship, but they were nothing compared to what he now risked, the penalty for which was hanging. As his stomach growled from hunger, he prayed that its sound wouldn’t betray him.
The footsteps came closer, a top hat coming into view. Despite his weakness, the young man stepped from behind a tree in Green Park. He gripped the wrought-iron fence, vaulted it, and landed in front of a gentleman whose dark beard was visible in the shrouded glow from a nearby street lamp.
The young man gestured with a club. “No need to draw you a picture, I presume, mate. Give me your purse, or it’ll go nasty for you.”
The gentleman studied his dirty, torn sailor’s clothes.
“I said, your purse, mate,” the young man ordered, listening for the sounds of the returning constable. “Be quick. I won’t warn you again.”
“The light isn’t the best, but perhaps you can see my eyes. Look at them carefully.”
“What I’ll do is close them for you if you don’t give me your purse.”
“Do you see fear in them?”
“I will after this.”
The young man lunged, swinging his club.
With astonishing speed, the gentleman pivoted sideways and struck with his cane, jolting the young man’s wrist, knocking the club from it. With a second blow, he whacked the side of the young man’s head, dropping him to the ground.
“Stay down unless you wish more of the same,” the gentleman advised.
Suppressing a groan, the young man clutched his throbbing head.
“Before confronting someone, always look in his eyes. Determine if his resolve is greater than yours. Your age, please.”
The polite tone so surprised the young man that he found himself answering, “Eighteen.”
“What is your name?”
The young man hesitated, shivering from the cold.
“Say it. Your first name will be sufficient. It won’t incriminate you.”
“You mean ‘Ronald.’ If you wish to improve yourself, always use your formal name. Say it.”
“Despite the pain of my blows, you had the character not to cry out and alert the constable. Character deserves a reward. How long has it been since you’ve eaten, Ronald?”
“Your fast has now ended.”
The gentleman dropped five coins onto the path. The faint glow from the nearby street lamp made it difficult for Ronald to identify them. Expecting pennies, he felt astonished when he discovered not pennies or even shillings but gold sovereigns. He stared at them in shock. One gold sovereign was more than most people earned in a week of hard labor, and here were five of them.
“Would you like to receive even more sovereigns, Ronald?”
He clawed at the coins. “Yes.”
“Twenty-five Garner Street in Wapping.” The address was in the blighted East End, as far from the majesty of Green Park as could be imagined. “Repeat it.”
“Twenty-five Garner Street in Wapping.”
“Be there at four tomorrow afternoon. Buy warm clothes. Nothing extravagant, nothing to draw attention. You are about to join a great cause, Ronald. But if you tell anyone about Twenty-five Garner Street, to use your expression it’ll go nasty for you. Let’s see if you do indeed have character or if you throw away the greatest opportunity you will ever receive.”
Heavy footsteps approached.
“The constable. Go,” the bearded gentleman warned. “Don’t disappoint me, Ronald.”
His stomach growling more painfully, astonished by his luck, Ronald clutched his five precious sovereigns and raced into the fog.
As the gentleman continued up Constitution Hill, his watch now showed eight minutes past five. The watches of his associates—also synchronized with the Greenwich Royal Observatory—would display the same time. Everything remained on schedule.
At Piccadilly, he turned right toward one of London’s most respectable districts: Mayfair. He had waited what seemed an eternity for what he was about to enjoy. He had suffered unimaginably to prepare for it. Despite his fierce emotions, he kept a measured pace, determined not to blunt his satisfaction by hurrying.
Even in the fog, he had no trouble finding his way. This was a route that he had followed many times in his memory. It was the same route that he had taken fifteen years earlier when, as a desperate boy, he had raced to the right along Piccadilly, then to the left along Half Moon Street, then left again onto Curzon Street, this way and that, begging.
“Please, sir, I need your help!”
“Get away from me, you filthy vermin!”
The echoes of that hateful time reverberated in his memory as he came to the street known as Chesterfield Hill. He paused where a gas lamp showed an iron railing beyond which five stone steps led up to an oak door. The knocker had the shape of a heraldic lion’s head.
The steps were freshly scrubbed. Noting a boot scraper built into the railing, he applied his soles to it so that he wouldn’t leave evidence. He clutched his walking stick, opened the gate, and climbed the steps. The impact of the knocker echoed within the house.
He heard someone on the opposite side of the door. For a moment, his anticipation made it seem that the world outside the fog no longer existed, that he was in a closet of the universe, that time had stopped. As a hand freed a bolt and the door opened, he readied his cane with its silver knob.
A butler looked puzzled. “His Lordship isn’t expecting visitors.”
The gentleman struck with all his might, impacting the man’s head, knocking him onto a marbled floor. Heartbeat thundering with satisfaction, he entered and shut the door. A few quick steps took him into a spacious hall.
A maid paused at the bottom of an ornate staircase, frowning, obviously puzzled about why the butler hadn’t accompanied the visitor. In a rage, the gentleman swung the cane, feeling its knob crack the maid’s skull. With a dying moan, she collapsed to the floor.
Without the disguise of his beard, the gentleman had been to this house on several occasions. He knew its layout and would need little time to eliminate the remaining servants. Then his satisfaction could begin as he devoted his attention to their masters. Clutching his cane, he proceeded with his great work.
Memories needed to be prodded.
Punishment needed to be inflicted.
The Curtained Pew
St. James’s Church looked almost too humble to occupy the southeastern boundary of wealthy Mayfair. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren, it gave no indication that the great architect was also responsible for the magnificence of St. Paul’s Cathedral, so strong was the contrast. Narrow, only three stories tall, St. James’s was constructed of simple red brick. Its steeple had a clock, a brass ball, and a weather vane. That was the extent of its ornamentation.
As the bells announced the 11 A.M. Sunday service, a stream of carriages delivered the district’s powerful worshippers. Because a special visitor was expected to relieve the war-gloom, St. James’s filled rapidly. The morning’s sunlight gleamed through numerous tall windows and radiated off white walls, illuminating the church’s interior with glory. It was a dazzling effect for which St. James’s was famous.
Among those entering the church, a group of four attracted attention. Not only were they strangers, but two men in the group were exceptionally tall, nearly six feet, noteworthy at a time when most men measured only about five feet seven inches. In contrast, the third man was unusually short: under five feet.
The group’s clothes attracted attention also. The tall men wore shapeless everyday street garments, hardly what one expected among the frock coats in St. James’s. The short man—much older than the other two—had at least made an attempt to dress for the occasion, but his frayed cuffs and shiny elbows indicated that he belonged in another district.
The fourth member of the group, an attractive young woman of perhaps twenty-one…what was the congregation to make of her? Instead of a fashionable, elaborate hooped dress with voluminous satin ruffles, she wore a loosely hanging skirt with female trousers under it, a style that newspapers derisively termed “bloomers.” The outline and movement of her legs were plainly visible, causing heads to turn and whispers to spread throughout the church.
The whispers increased when one of the tall men removed what seemed to be a newsboy’s cap and revealed bright red hair.
“Irish,” several people murmured.
The other tall man had a scar on his chin, suggesting that his background wasn’t much better.
Everyone expected the motley group to remain in the standing area at the back, where servants and other commoners worshipped. Instead, the attractive young woman in the bloomer skirt—her eyes a startling blue, her lustrous, light brown hair hanging in ringlets behind her bonnet—surprised everyone by approaching the chief pew-opener, Agnes Barrett.
Agnes was sixty years old, white-haired and spectacled. Over the decades, she had risen through the ranks of pew-openers until she was now the custodian of the most important keys. It was rumored that the gratuities she received from pew renters had over the years amounted to an impressive three thousand pounds, well deserved because a good pew-opener knew how to be of service, polishing the pew’s oak, dusting its benches, plumping its pillows, and so forth.
Puzzled, Agnes waited for the young woman in the disgraceful bloomer skirt to state her intention. Perhaps the poor thing was lost. Perhaps she intended to ask directions to a more appropriate church.
“Please show us to Lord Palmerston’s pew,” the young woman requested.
Agnes’s mouth hung open. Had this strange creature said “Lord Palmerston’s pew”? Agnes must have misheard. Lord Palmerston was one of the most influential politicians in the land.
“Lord Palmerston’s pew, if you please.” The troubling visitor gave Agnes a note.
Agnes read it with increasing perplexity. Beyond doubt, the familiar handwriting was indeed Lord Palmerston’s, and the message unquestionably gave these four odd-looking strangers permission to use his pew. But why on earth would His Lordship lower himself to do that?
Agnes tried not to seem flustered. She moved her troubled gaze toward the unusually short man whose eyes were as strikingly blue as the young woman’s and whose hair was the same light brown. Father and daughter, Agnes concluded. The tiny man clutched his hands tensely and shifted his balance from one foot to the other, walking in place. On this cold February morning, his forehead glistened with sweat. Could he be sick?
“Follow me,” Agnes reluctantly replied.
She walked along the central aisle, past pews in a configuration known as “boxed.” Instead of rows that stretched from one aisle to another, these pews were divided into square compartments, eight feet by eight feet, with waist-high sides, backs, and fronts. They contained benches sufficient to accommodate a gentleman and his family. Many box pews resembled sitting areas in homes, with cushions on the benches and carpeting on the floor. Some even had tables on which to set top hats, gloves, and folded coats.
Lord Palmerston’s pew was at the front, to the right of the center aisle. For Agnes, the distance to it had never seemed so long. Although she kept her gaze straight ahead, she couldn’t help sensing the attention that she and the astonishing group with her received. Approaching the white marble altar rail, she turned to face the congregation. Conscious of every gaze upon her, she selected a key from a ring she carried and unlocked the entrance to Lord Palmerston’s pew.
“If His Lordship had notified me that he intended to have guests use his pew, I could have prepared it for you,” Agnes explained. “The charcoal brazier hasn’t been lit.”
“Thank you,” the young woman assured her, “but there’s no need to give us heat. This is far more comfortable than we’re accustomed to at our home church in Edinburgh. We can’t afford to rent a pew there. We stand in the back.”
So she’s from Scotland, Agnes thought. And one of the men is Irish. That explains a great deal.
Lord Palmerston’s box had three rows of benches with backs. The two tall men sat on the middle bench while the woman and her father occupied the front one. Even when he was seated, the little man’s feet moved up and down.
With a forced nod of politeness, Agnes jangled her keys and proceeded to the back of the church, where a churchwarden shifted toward her, looking as puzzled as Agnes felt.
“You know who that little man is, don’t you?” the churchwarden whispered, trying to contain his astonishment.
“I haven’t the faintest. All I know is, his clothes need mending,” Agnes replied.
Again, Agnes was certain that she hadn’t heard correctly. “The Opium-Eater? Thomas De Quincey?”
“In December, when all the murders happened, I saw a picture of him in the Illustrated London News. I was so curious that I went to one of the bookshops where the newspaper said he would sign books for anyone who bought them. An undignified way to earn a living, if you ask me.”
“Don’t tell me he was signing the book.” Agnes lowered her voice, referring to the infamous Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.
“If his name was on it and someone was willing to buy it, he was ready to sign it. That scandalously dressed woman is his daughter. At the bookshop, whenever he tried to pull a bottle from his coat, she brought him a cup of tea to distract him.”
“Mercy,” Agnes said. “Do you suppose the bottle contained laudanum?”
“What else? He must have drunk five cups of tea while I watched him. Imagine how much laudanum he would have consumed if his daughter hadn’t been there. I hope I don’t need to emphasize that I didn’t buy any of his books.”
“No need at all. Who would want to read his wretched scribblings, let alone buy them? Thomas De Quincey, the Opium-Eater, in St. James’s Church? Heaven help us.”
“That’s not the whole of it.”
Agnes listened with greater shock.
“Those two men with the Opium-Eater. One of them is a Scotland Yard detective.”
“I recognize him from the constitutional I take every morning along Piccadilly. My route leads me past Lord Palmerston’s mansion, where the younger man over there visits each day at nine. I heard a porter refer to him as ‘detective sergeant.’”
“A detective sergeant? My word.”
“I also heard the porter and the detective talk about another detective, who apparently was wounded during the murders in December. That other detective has been convalescing in Lord Palmerston’s mansion. The Opium-Eater and his daughter stay there, also.”
Agnes felt her cheeks turn pale. “What is this world coming to?”
But Agnes couldn’t permit herself to be distracted. The special visitor would soon arrive. Meanwhile, gentlemen gave her impatient looks, waiting for their pews to be unlocked. She clutched her ring of keys and approached the nearest frowning group, but as if the morning hadn’t brought enough surprises, she suddenly saw Death walk through the front door.
The mid-Victorian way of death was severe. A grieving widow, children, and close relatives were expected to seclude themselves at home and wear mourning clothes for months—in the widow’s case for at least a year and a day.
Thus Agnes gaped at what she now encountered. Astonished churchgoers stepped away from a stern, pinch-faced man whose frock coat, waistcoat, and trousers were as black as black could be. Because Queen Victoria and Prince Albert disapproved of men who wore other than black, gray, or dark blue clothing, it was difficult to look more somber than the male attendees at St. James’s, but the stranger made the glumly dressed men in the church look festive by comparison. In addition, he wore the blackest of gloves while he held a top hat with a mourning band and a black cloth hanging down the back.
A man whose clothing announced that extremity of grief was almost never seen in public, except at the funeral for the loved one he so keenly mourned. Dressed that way at a Sunday service, he attracted everyone’s attention.
But he wasn’t alone. He supported a frail woman whose stooped posture suggested that she was elderly. She wore garments intended to show the deepest of sorrow. Her dress was midnight crepe, the wrinkled surface of which could not reflect light. A black veil hung from the woman’s black bonnet. With a black-gloved hand, she dabbed a black handkerchief under the veil.
“Please unlock Lady Cosgrove’s pew,” the solemn man told Agnes.
“Lady Cosgrove?” Agnes suddenly realized who this woman was. “My goodness, what happened?”
“Please,” the man repeated.
“But Lady Cosgrove sent word that she wouldn’t attend this morning’s service. I haven’t readied her pew.”
“Lady Cosgrove has more grievous concerns than whether her pew has been dusted.”
Without waiting for a reply, the man escorted the unsteady woman along the center aisle. Again Agnes heard whispers and sensed that every pair of eyes was focused on her. She reached the front of the church and turned toward the right, passing the Opium-Eater and his strangely dressed companions in Lord Palmerston’s pew. The little man continued to move his feet up and down.
The next pew at the front was Lady Cosgrove’s. Situated along the right wall, it was the most elaborate in the church. Over the centuries, it had acquired a post at each corner and a canopy above them. Curtains were tied to the posts so that in the event of cold drafts, Lady Cosgrove’s family could draw the curtains and be sheltered on three sides while facing the altar. Even on a warm day, the occupants had been known to draw the curtains, supposedly so that they could worship without feeling observed by the other parishioners when in actuality they were probably napping.
As Agnes unlocked the pew, Lady Cosgrove lowered her black handkerchief from beneath her black veil.
“Thank you,” she told the pinch-featured man.
“Anything to be of assistance, Lady Cosgrove. I’m deeply sorry.”
He gave her a black envelope.
Lady Cosgrove nodded gravely, entered the pew, and sank onto the first of three benches.
- On Sale
- Mar 24, 2015
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Mulholland Books