"Where are you going?" Robert whispered, hoarsely. Behind him, the sounds of the party welled up the stairs. At least his wife wouldn't hear him calling after the luscious Lucinda. The girl showed a tantalising glimpse of ankle from the hem of her dress as she rounded a corner at the end of the hallway, leaving only her infectious giggle behind.
Robert steadied the two glasses and bottle he was carrying and started after the young temptress. He found her standing with her back against a bedroom door, bosom heaving under her dress. She bumped open the door with her bustle-bolstered bottom and stepped back into the darkened bedroom. The only light came from a street lamp and showed through a crack in the curtains. Robert checked back over his shoulder, then followed the girl.
He placed the glasses on a small table and began to open the bottle. Lucinda's hands wandered over his shoulders and down, around his waist, where she began fumbling with his cummerbund. "Wouldn't you like a drink, my sweet?" he asked.
Quite roughly, with surprising strength for a young woman of such petite build, Lucinda turned Robert to face her. "Love first. Wine later," she whispered, then walked over to the bed. Robert followed, eagerly, enjoying the sway of her hips as she moved. After a long, deep kiss, and much fumbling to loosen her dress and corset, Lucinda threw back the sheet.
Her scream was heard in the main hall.
Detective Inspector George Collingwood walked into his office on the third floor of New Caledonia Yard. He had just returned from a grilling from the Chief Constable on the progress of his case load. While Collingwood had defended his position and reiterated his request for more bobbies on the beat, he was not at all sure his arguments had been persuasive. He hung his walking stick from one of the hooks on the hat stand and slumped into his chair. Seemingly absent-mindedly, Collingwood started patting down the pockets of his overcoat, looking for his pipe and tobacco pouch.
"Cup of tea, Sir?" Sergeant Charlie Selby asked and, without waiting for a reply, turned away and lit the stove. Selby had worked with DI Collingwood for nearly three years and knew his boss would not refuse a cuppa.
Collingwood lit his pipe and puffed happily for a moment before replying. "That would be marvellous, Sergeant."
Tea was served with Selby's usual alacrity and the Sergeant returned to his own desk. As he sipped his tea, Collingwood gazed thoughtfully around his office. The walls, in those small areas which were not hidden by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, cabinets and maps of Laandan Taan, were of darkly panelled wood. Small gas lamps lit the corners and a larger chandelier was suspended from the ceiling. Commanding the whole office, on the wall opposite his desk, was a portrait of Victorina, the White Empress, whose empire spanned a quarter of the globe. Collingwood was merely a small cog in the machinery of Empire but he viewed his role as important. For, if law and order were to break down in the capital, what hope would there be for the rest of the Empire? He had put away countless thieves, muggers and brutes in his career and had sent ten murderers to the gallows.
His reverie was interrupted by Sergeant Selby's whistle of amazement. "Have you seen this, Sir?" Selby asked. He waved a copy of the Illustrated Police Gazette in the air. "Whitechapel Station suspects Jack the Ripper is really a vampire! They're advising members of the public to get baptised."
"Twaddle!" Collingwood retorted. "A story put about by La Vie En France, the largest importer of garlic in Whitechapel Market."
"But why else would the attacks only happen at night?"
"Sergeant," Collingwood began, patiently, "the killer is obviously an inadequate, cowardly rat who targets the weak and vulnerable. I remember the old days, when Eestend was run by the Crays. Everyone knew where they stood."
"It explains the marks on the womens' necks," Selby went on.
"So does strangulation or asphyxia in the height of passion."
"No buts, Sergeant. That Stoker chap has stirred up a hornets nest and no mistake. And don't get me started on all the New Agers. Orders, secret societies, theosophists and what not. They've turned the Age of Reason into an age of idiots. They'll be seeing ghosts, ghouls and goblins under every bed soon. What's needed here is some good, old-fashioned coppering. Next you'll be saying the Whitechapel lot suspect a Royal!" Collingwood sketched a shallow bow in the direction of the White Empress. Some said she could listen in to conversations through her portraits. More twaddle but better to be safe than sorry.
"Wow! Now there's a thought," Selby enthused. "One spoilt, rich sicko," the sergeant was not known for his love of the Royal Family, "who's fed up shooting foxes so they start on people. They've got the connections to cover it all up. Makes sense to me, Sir."
"Balderdash!" Collingwood snapped, as he wagged a disapproving finger at the Sergeant and glanced nervously up at the portrait. Was it frowning now?Collingwood was getting cross. He had a Lodge meeting at eleven that night and needed to calm down a bit.
Fortunately his flow was interrupted by a knock on the office door. "Come," Collingwood ordered.
A uniformed constable appeared in the door. The younger man looked nervous. Perhaps he had overheard some of Collingwood's tirade? "A call has just come through from Sloane Square, Sir," said the officer. "A dead body found at a society party. Your assistance is requested, Sir."
Oh Heavens above! thought Collingwood. This whole thing could turn political and that was not a comforting thought. Still, he mused, I could always take early retirement if it all goes south of the River.
The black Hansom cab rattled through the streets of Laandan, its iron rimmed wheels and the iron-shod hooves of its horse clattering over the cobblestones. Collingwood watched as the night-life flowed by. He had seen it all before, of course, but tonight there seemed to be something subtly different in the atmosphere. His copper's sense for danger vibrated down his spine. In nearly twenty years of policing the capital, he had rarely felt so nervous. What worried him most was that there seemed no reason for it. He had faced armed men and women and had even been shot once, taking the bullet in his left leg, but never once had he feared for his life. Why tonight? Maybe it was the full Moon driving people crazy, absurd though that seemed to the detective.
The Brass Lass public house had opened its doors and customers were clustered around small tables out on the pavement, drinking, smoking and generally having a high old time. Whatever next? thought Collingwood. They'll be opening pavement cafes like those damnable Frenchies! Trinket sellers, with trays of matches, bootlaces, pipecleaners, pouches of tobacco, cheap cigars and other gewgaws, suspended from their shoulders. They seemed to be making a roaring trade tonight with the crowd outside the Lass.
Ladies of the night walked the streets, their chatter and banter with gentlemen visitors strangely stilted and accompanied by many a glance over their shoulders. The ladies seemed more nervous than normal. Perhaps the Ripper had changed his hunting ground?
The cab passed gangs of street urchins, dashing along the footpaths, bumping into passers-by, intent on pick-pocketing or groping one of the ladies. Such tasteless assaults were met with curses of such vehemence that an Eestend docker would have blushed. One of the ladies even pulled a knife on one of her erstwhile attackers, its thin blade flashing in the light from the nearby gaslamp. Not that there were many lamps lit that night. Collingwood noted at least four broken lamps along the street. The lampwatch should have had them repaired and relit but had not done so: the street was a menacing tunnel of darkness for most of its half-mile length.
Finally the cab left the darkened streets and entered Sloane Square. The houses here were much newer, cleaner, and brighter, their white stone facades reflecting the many gaslamps that, fortunately, were in much better repair than those Collingwood had seen earlier. The driver pulled up outside a large house where two uniformed police constables were stationed at the black wrought iron gate.
Collingwood opened the cab door and stepped down into the street. His foot narrowly missed a pile of horse dung. What fool said Laandan was paved with gold? he wondered irritably. The two constables saluted smartly, which he returned with a curt nod, and, with Sergeant Selby trailing in his wake, Collingwood walked up the short flight of steps to the door which opened smoothly without his needing to knock.
Here he was met by an older man with thinning grey hair dressed in a smart black tail coat and black trousers with a silk stripe running down the seams. Small, round, horn-rimmed glasses were perched on his long narrow nose. He greeted Collingwood with a faint smile and small bow.
"Detective Collingwood, I believe?" he asked.
"Detective Inspector Collingwood," the DI answered coldly. He waved in the general direction of the sergeant. "My colleague, Sergeant Selby."
The old man nodded politely to the sergeant and said, "My apologies, Detective Inspector." He managed to inject some condescension into the last word, which Collingwood, with some effort, ignored. "We had not expected someone of such seniority to attend. I am Pike, the head butler of this household."
"Well, Mr Pike, who is the head of the household?" The words 'organ', 'grinder' and 'monkey', flashed across Collingwood's mind.
"Lord Mayberry is the owner and head, sir, but his lordship is in the country at this time."
"And how long has he been out of town?"
"For the last two weeks, sir." The butler paused and mumbled something under his breath.
"I'm sorry, Mr Pike?" Collingwood asked.
Pike composed himself. "It is such a shocking incident, sir. We are all quite shaken."
"All? How many people comprise 'all', Mr Pike?"
"Why, there are nearly fifty guests here this evening, sir."
Oh, good Lord, thought Collingwood. Questioning the witnesses would take until the small hours at least! He took a deep breath. "We will, of course, need to talk with each of the guests, tonight, while memory of the incident is still fresh in their minds."
"Are you sure of that, Detective Inspector?" Pike looked aghast. "Many of the guests have homes and businesses to return to. Pressing engagements. Surely you can wait until the morning." The butler looked over his shoulder, through the arch towards the main hall where the party had been held.
Pleased that he had the pompous old bat on the back foot, Collingwood smiled. "Don't panic, Pike," he said. "My men are thorough but quick. I'm sure, if your guests cooperate, we can have all their statements taken before their pressing engagements squeeze them too much."
Pike was about to protest more strongly - he could not inconvenience his lordship's guests; for some, being part of a murder investigation would be scandalous - when there was a knock on the front door. The butler opened the door to see eight more uniformed police constables arrayed on the steps.
"Ah, excellent, men," Collingwood said over the butler's shoulder. "You have arrived in time to prevent pressing engagements intruding on the ladies' and gentlemen's lives. Mr Pike, if you would be so good as to escort our officers to the main hall. Then you can kindly show Sergeant Selby and myself to the scene."
Pike, somewhat grudgingly, led Collingwood and Selby up a broad flight of richly carpeted stairs and onto the first floor landing. Small gaslamps lit the hallway and they rounded the corner to the bedroom.
"Sergeant. Post two men at that corner. Allow no-one to enter without my express permission," Collingwood ordered.
"At once, sir."
Collingwood entered the darkened bedroom. Almost absent-mindedly, he spoke over his shoulder to Pike. "Has anyone else been in here since the discovery?"
"No, sir. The young lady was hysterical. I believe she is downstairs recovering in the drawing room." Pike moved into the room, headed for one of the wall-mounted lamps and made to turn it on.
"Don't!" snapped Collingwood and Pike stopped short.
"It's rather dark in here Detective Inspector. I thought some light would be helpful," the butler stammered.
"I want no changes to this scene until it has been examined thoroughly. Please, Mr Pike. Stand at the door."
The butler nodded and withdrew as Sergeant Selby and two constables arrived at the door.
"Get lamps and the poles from the Hansom," Collingwood ordered. "Suspend the lamps from the poles and we can have some light while we investigate. Oh, and send a runner back to the Yard. We'll need some medical assistance here."
Selby snapped a salute. "Very good, sir."
With some rather unstable light illuminating the room, Collingwood and Selby examined the room. The wine bottle and glasses used by the couple who discovered the body were taken away for 'further analysis', despite Pike's protestations that the bottle was unopened and of a very expensive vintage. Collingwood used his cane to move the curtains. No hiding place was in evidence nor was there any easy means of escape. From where he stood, it was nearly twenty feet to the ground and one slip would have impaled the escapee on the iron railings below.
The police officers turned to the body. "I don't think we need to look at it that closely," Collingwood said and Selby drew the sheet up over the man's chest. "What do we know about him?"
Selby consulted his notebook. "Well, first statements from the guests say he's Gilbert Harrison. Bit of a playboy. Eye for the fillies, the two legged and four legged varieties, if you get my meaning, sir. Some say he's splashed a lot of coin at the gaming tables and race courses. Had a reputation of being something of a swordsman, too." Selby smirked. "Maybe he pulled the wrong sort of sword tonight?" The sergeant barely managed to stifle his snigger.
"Cut that out, Sergeant," Collingwood ordered, irritably. "Anything else?"
Selby controlled his mirth. "Errr ..." he started, then trailed off. DI Collingwood would not like the next snippet of information. "It seems that the deceased is the stepson of Lord Mayberry."
Oh, good God in Heaven! thought Collingwood. Mayberry had the ear of Matthew Ridley, the Home Secretary, who in turn played bridge with the Chief Constable. He could almost feel the Chief's whiskey-laced breath on the back of his neck. The DI wished he had trodden in the manure in the street. It would have smelled a lot nicer than this case was beginning to. Still, he was a long-serving officer in Her Imperial Majesty's Metropolitan Police Force of Laandan Taan. He was a professional. He had a job to do, even if that job could soon involve directing traffic outside Queen's Cross Station.
His train of thought was interrupted by a polite cough from Sergeant Selby. "The doctor has arrived, sir."
Collingwood turned to see a long-time acquaintance handing his hat and cane to one of the officers at the door. One small spot of luck, he thought, as he walked over to the doctor. He held out his hand with a smile. "John, damned fine to see you in this situation." The two exchanged pleasantries for a moment before Collingwood returned to business. "The body was discovered about an hour ago. I don't wish to tread on your toes, so, over to you, old man."
The doctor performed a preliminary examination, checking first the corpse's pulse and breathing. He had been caught out like that once before and would not allow it to happen again. He muttered under his breath and took notes as he did so. "Rigor mortis has not yet set in, putting time of death within the last three to four hours. No sign of external wounds or blunt trauma. No traces of bodily fluids either on the skin or sheets." Then he cast a gaze around the room. "No signs of narcotics paraphernalia, which makes the expression of extreme ecstasy and heightened priapism somewhat difficult to reconcile."
He turned to Collingwood. "I'm sorry, George. I can't give you much more than the estimated time of death. There's little to say what caused it. The look on his face seems to indicate drug use and the, err, well, other effects might bear this out also. According to a colleague of mine, a certain extract from the Agarvi plant can produce such effects. Though how he came to know this ..." the doctor paused, somewhat embarrassed, then rallied. "Come to think of it, I can make a pretty shrewd deduction about how he found out. Still, I'd need to autopsy the body. Sometimes we can find traces of evidence in the bloodstream, perhaps narcotics residue."
"An autopsy may be difficult, given the man's family background." Collingwood explained briefly Selby's findings. "We would need to have strong suspicions of foul play before authorising a medical examination."
The doctor checked his pocket watch. "Well, George, you'll have my preliminary report first thing tomorrow. Keep me informed, please, if you'd like any further assistance."
The two men shook hands again and, as the doctor turned to depart, Collingwood whispered, "John. This colleague of yours. He wouldn't be wanting to get involved in this, would he?"
Dr. John Watson smiled. "No. Not at this time. I believe he is in Durham, of all places, engaged on another case." With that, he tipped his hat to Collingwood and left the room.
Collingwood turned back to the bed. Hold on a minute, he thought. What's that? He had caught a glimpse of something reflective at the foot of the bed, almost hidden by the rumpled sheet. "Constable, the lantern, please," he said.
His left knee creaked as he knelt down on the floor. By the lantern light he could see the glint of gold. Taking his fountain pen from his jacket pocket, he fished the three fragments of a finely wrought gold bracelet from under the bed. Loathe to touch the fragments lest he ruin any trace of evidence they may contain, Collingwood fished a small magnifying glass from his pocket and examined the bracelet's fragments more closely. He called to Selby. "What do you make of this, Sergeant?" Selby, the younger man by almost fifteen years, had much sharper eyesight than Collingwood cared to admit.
His colleague knelt beside him and took the magnifying glass. "Jewellery, sir," Selby said, rather unnecessarily. "Expensive, too, by the looks. And what is that engraved on the links? A hallmark?"
"Well if it's a hallmark, it's like none I've ever seen. Certainly no British goldsmith uses marks like that. And if it's writing, then what sort of lettering and language? Not even Araby has script like that." Perplexed, Collingwood leaned back and winced at the crick in his back. "Bag it, Sergeant. We'll take it back to the Yard and examine it in more detail under brighter lights." The DI struggled back to his feet, leaning heavily on his cane, and watched as Selby artfully used tweezers to gather the pieces and slip them into a small manilla envelope, which he sealed and handed to Collingwood.
Big Bill was chiming two in the morning when Collingwood flopped down at his desk in New Caledonia Yard. Selby had gone to the morgue to check on the body and would be heading home after all the paperwork was completed. The DI had his own paperwork to get through. What this investigation was all about was motive and opportunity and he had to find evidence for both if he was to push the case further. He placed a thick sheaf of papers on his desktop blotter and began to leaf through the witness statements.
Most of the statements were routine. It was a party, officer: the string quartet; a few glasses of wine; some dancing; canapes by the waggon-load; all smothered in delicious gossip, rumour and opinion bordering on slanderous. The couple who discovered the body had been more closely questioned by Sergeant Selby but, aside from evasive answers concerning their illicit relationship, they seemed to be in the clear, having no other connection to the victim. Collingwood pitied the poor chap. He had seen the man's wife fuming in the corner of the main hall and did not envy him the coming confrontation.
He turned to the victim's profile. Gilbert Harrison: gadabout, gambler and ladies' man who had never done a decent day's work in his life. Given Harrison's lifestyle, Collingwood could finger half a dozen different motives. A wronged woman or three; a cuckolded husband; an unpaid debt; a fencing rival; a gambler cheated of his winnings; even a resentful half-sibling. But, sadly, he could ascribe no opportunities to any of the assembled guests.
Did it have to be a guest? he mused. Enough money could make any man blind to an anonymous visitor. Sneak in through the tradesmen's entrance, isolate Harrison, do the dirty deed and make an exit. With a long enough brass-neck, the visitor could have walked out through the front door. Collingwood made a note to question all the household's staff later that morning.
The victim had been seen dancing with three different women earlier in the evening. A blonde, a red-head and a black-haired woman. All roughly the same height and build but all with different dresses. He reviewed the witness statements again and got conflicting descriptions. One may have been a parlour-maid, another a businessman's wife, the third the daughter of an MP. All were rumoured to have been romantically involved with Gilbert Harrison. A conspiracy motivated by revenge? thought Collingwood. Plausible but difficult to prove. Conspiracy would provide grounds for further investigation but the political aspects would make things thornier still. Best to keep that one quiet, he concluded.
The brass clock on the mantlepiece chimed three in the morning. Collingwood rose stiffly from his desk and went to the stove to make tea. As he stirred the pot the office door abruptly opened. Collingwood, almost asleep on his feet, whirled in alarm and splashed tea onto the floor.
"Morning George," Chief Constable Harold Nightingale said as he entered the office. "Oh, little accident?" he added in his typical Etonian old-boy accent, which Collingwood knew was as fake as his waistline: several whales had contributed to the corsetry restraining the Chief Constable's considerable girth.
"Sorry, Sir," Collingwood replied as he seized a cloth and bent over to mop up the puddle of tea. "I didn't expect to see you at this hour." He glanced over his shoulder at the clock.
"Well, George, some things can't really wait," but Nightingale waited until Collingwood was standing before continuing. "What about this little incident at Sloane Square?"
"Rather too early to say, Sir. Preliminary interviews and witness statements suggest a number of motives but little in the way of opportunity. Seems Mr Harrison was a bit of a cad at times. We have not yet ruled out foul play."
"You do know who his stepfather is, don't you, George?"
Collingwood did not like the way this conversation was going. "Yes, Sir. I do," he managed, "but that makes it all the more important to investigate thoroughly."
"My advice is that you tread gently, George. Preferably in directions away from Mr Harrison's social circle." The Chief Constable let the implied threat hang in the air for a moment.
There had been a train crash just north of Queen's Cross Station a few weeks before. Collingwood could see his career turning into just such a disaster area if he did not take Nightingale's hint. His brain was racing as phrases like "cover up", "scapegoat" and "getting away with murder" bubbled through it as though powering a steam engine. Before he blurted all those phrases to his superior, and just prior to receiving his marching orders, he managed to control himself and through gritted teeth, said, "Of course, Sir."
Nightingale smiled broadly. "Excellent, George. Excellent. You will keep me apprised of your progress, of course?"
A little calmer, now, Collingwood said, "I will, Sir."
At that, the Chief Constable turned and left the office. Collingwood lowered himself into his chair and lit his pipe. This cannot be allowed to stand, he railed inwardly. In all his years on the force, he had never dropped any case or let one criminal go unpunished if he had a free hand in the investigation. Now he had one hand tied behind his back. Or did he? He remembered the Chief's words that "you tread gently." Sergeant Selby could be trusted to make discrete inquiries on his behalf, while he pursued his own lines of investigation. He and Selby could then crib notes together and produce a balanced report for the Chief.
Satisfied that he could at least keep the Chief Constable off his back, Collingwood turned to the one piece of physical evidence he could work on.
Collingwood arrived at the British Museum at ten o'clock. He walked across the quadrangle, marvelling at the building's Greek Revival style, up the short flight of steps and into the north wing. His appointment was at 10:30 with Professor Reginald Chilcott, the Museum's resident expert on linguistics and writing. The professor's office was on the first floor, along a corridor of dark oak panelled walls and numerous doors, each with small brass name plates.
He knocked on the door and it was opened by a petite woman in her early twenties. "Good morning," she said with a polite smile, "Detective Inspector Collingwood, I presume?"
"Indeed, ma'am," Collingwood replied, with a polite tip of his hat. "I am rather early, I'm afraid."
"No matter, sir. The professor is waiting for you already. I was about to make tea. Would you care to join him?" Collingwood nodded his thanks and the woman went on. "Then please, follow me and I'll show you into the professor's office. May I take your coat and hat?"
They went into a small, cluttered office, occupied mostly by bookshelves, a writing desk and one of those new type-writer gadgets. Chilcott, a ruddy-faced man of about 50 with thinning blond hair, rose to his feet and the two men shook hands.
The woman smiled politely, said, "Tea will be along shortly, gentlemen," and left the small office.
"My student and assistant, Rose Geddes. Very intelligent young lady. I rather expect her to replace me in a few years."
Rose bustled back into the office carrying a tray, teapot, bone china cups and a small plate of shortbread biscuits. "Will there be anything else, Professor?" she asked.
The professor shook his head. "That will be all, Rose. Thank you." He waited until Rose had closed the office door before turning to Collingwood. "Well, Detective Inspector. What can I do for you this morning and at such short notice?"
"I am conducting an investigation into an unexplained death. Obviously I can't go into the details. Suffice to say that some rather important people are tangentially connected and the matter must be dealt with discretely."
"I completely understand, Detective Inspector," Chilcott replied. "Though I cannot see how my skills can help you."
Collingwood took the envelope containing the ruined bracelet from his jacket pocket. "I was told you are the foremost expert on obscure languages and texts in Laandan, if not the Empire." He noted the smug expression on Chilcott's face at the compliment. "So perhaps you can help with this." He opened the envelope and spilled the contents onto the professor's desktop.
Chilcott drew a sharp breath. "My word, Detective Inspector," he said with some wonder in his voice. "How did you come by this?"
"All I can say is that it was found at the scene."
The professor slipped on a pair of white silk gloves. "May I?" he asked and Collingwood nodded, so he picked up one of the fragments of the bracelet. "Would you be so kind as to pass me that magnifying glass?" he asked. Collingwood did so and Chilcott's sense of wonder changed to fascination.
"They are not letters I have ever seen," Collingwood put in.
"I should think not, Detective Inspector," Chilcott replaced the first fragment and picked up the second. Characters engraved on the second matched those on the first and, to be sure, he checked the third piece. "Astonishing!"
"You've seen such lettering before, then?"
"Yes, but never on an object. They mostly appear in books of," he paused, unsure how to phrase his next words, "... a certain type," he finished a little weakly.
"And what type would that be, Professor?"
"Why, spell books, Detective Inspector. Grimoires. Tomes of magical lore and theory stretching back hundreds, if not thousands of years."
"Don't be absurd!" Collingwood almost shouted and Chilcott blanched. "You cannot be telling me that the markings mean 'Abracadabra' or similar tosh."
The professor rallied. He was on his own ground, here, and did not appreciate Collingwood's attitude. "I am not saying it is a spell or any sort of incantation." The Detective Inspector seemed to relax a little at that. "I think it's a name."
"Poppycock!" Collingwood was about to launch into a tirade against such New Age nonsense but Chilcott brought him up short.
"Detective Inspector," he said firmly, then a little more calmly, "you asked for my assistance in this matter. If you are willing to listen, then I can help more."
Collingwood forced himself to remain calm. "Of course, Professor. I apologise. Please. Do go on." He sipped his tea.
Chilcott rose and went to one of his bookshelves. He hefted a heavy, leather-bound volume from the shelf and placed it on the desk. "The letters are from the Enochian alphabet. Dr. John Dee, Court Astrologer and Magician to Queen Elizabeth I, and his associate, Sir Edward Kelly, claimed that the alphabet and the Enochian language was transmitted to them by angels." He paged through the book, throwing up clouds of dust and a couple of dead moths in the process. "Here," he said, as he turned the book towards Collingwood and pointed at the relevant passage.
Collingwood looked at the page. It was covered in spidery, somewhat faded handwriting. A crude grid of the strange glyphs that adorned the bracelet was laid out with their phonetic English translations. The rest of the text was written in English over three hundred years old and Collingwood found it hard to fathom.
The professor clarified matters, reading Dee's script. "In the spring of 1579," he began, "Her Majesty ordered I continue in my researches. The Spanish were plotting and none of our agents could uncover their plans. Her Majesty directed me to explore other means. While espionage is somewhat distasteful to me, I could not refuse a direct Royal Edict. With prayer, fasting, potions and careful preparation, Kelly and I opened the gate to the Heavens and sought the advice of the angels. Their words are presented here and their aid has proven invaluable in our cause against France and Spain." Chilcott paused for a moment, then said, "There's quite a lot more here but you get the general gist."
The Detective Inspector leaned back in his chair and blew out a huge sigh. He got the gist, alright. Elizabeth I had sanctioned the use of magic to spy on France and Spain and, secret though such tactics should have been, it seemed the knowledge leaked and had somehow made its way through the ages to the here and now. It was quite unbelievable. Maybe that was the point, he thought.It's superstitious nonsense designed to mislead an investigation. I could spend weeks chasing this down and all the while the perpetrator - if, indeed, there is one and the death was not due to natural causes - walked away scott free. Collingwood's train of thought latched onto Chilcott's earlier point. "You said the markings represent a name of sorts." He was off and running now. It might be a deliberate taunt from the killer or a false lead to a scapegoat. Either way, it was worth pursuing further. "Can you decipher it, Professor?"
"With a little time, of course, I can," replied Chilcott. He reached for his pen and pad.
It took a little under an hour but the name was meaningless to Collingwood. Taithan-Quedraeng-Shyendir. Sounded distinctly foreign to the Detective Inspector but not even the French had such odd names and that was saying something. His new lead had petered out and he clutched at some straws. "Professor, who else might know of these letters?"
"Outside some of the more esoteric and downright strange groups in Laandan and abroad at the moment, I can't really say. Rumour has it that even the Masons have some academic interest in these things."
Collingwood squirmed inwardly. Forget directing traffic outside Queen's Cross, he thought. If this goes any further, I'll be found floating in the Thames! He pulled himself together and tried a different tack. "What about the maker? It's obviously a fine piece of craftsmanship. How might I trace the person who made it?" He gestured airily around the office. "The Museum has so many artefacts, can one of your colleagues help further?"
Chilcott considered for a moment. "Freddy Dunbar, one of our antiquities specialists, may be able to help. His expertise has exposed a number of forgeries made by rogue craftsmen across the capital, most of whom are now behind bars, of course." He pinged the small brass bell on his desk. Rose Geddes poked her head around the door. "Ah, Rose. See if you can find Dr Dunbar, please. Ask him to come up here."
Dr Frederick Dunbar arrived a few minutes later. Chilcott performed the introductions and the three men sat back around the professor's desk. Collingwood sketched in some of the case's background and directed Dunbar to the fragments of the bracelet. He borrowed Chilcott's gloves, placed a jeweller's eyeglass in his right eye and began his inspection.
"Marvellous workmanship," he murmured, "not old, though. Of quite recent manufacture. And certainly not a fake." He removed the eyeglass and turned to the policeman.
"Why isn't it a fake?" asked Collingwood.
"Because it is an original, Detective Inspector. Custom made. Nothing like this has been seen in any historical period I am acquainted with and no item amongst the ninety-thousand or so artefacts we have housed here even remotely resembles this piece. It's such a shame it has been damaged."
"I found it in this state at the scene," Collingwood explained. "Given your expert assistance in forgery cases, do you know of anyone who might be able to make an item of this quality?"
Dunbar sat back. He did not like the steely gaze Collingwood was directing at him. Did the policeman take him to be a rogue like those he had helped convict? Guilt by association. "At this time, I would say only two or three legitimate," he emphasised that last word, "artisans could have made this. I will have my secretary provide you with a list, if you'd like."
"That would be most helpful, Doctor."
Dunbar left the office and returned a few moments later. He handed a folded piece of paper to Collingwood, then looked, somewhat sheepishly, down at his feet. "Detective Inspector, I have a request, if I may?" Collingwood's raised eyebrow encouraged Dunbar to proceed. "Could I take a rubbing of the bracelet? It would add to the Museum's collection of diagrams and may prove of use to future researchers."
"This is evidence, Doctor, in an unexplained death, which could become a murder investigation," Collingwood replied, somewhat coldly. "You can take a rubbing, of course, so long as you do not damage the item and keep any such diagrams under lock and key until the case is closed." The stick had been waved about so now he dangled the carrot. "Of course, if no legitimate owner comes forward, the bracelet could be bequeathed to the Museum, as a token of the Metropolitan Police's gratitude for your assistance."
"Many thanks, Detective Inspector!" Both Chilcott and Dunbar replied gleefully and were soon gathered around the desk with silk gloves, sheets of paper and chalks.
Collingwood watched the antiquarians at work. They were skilled, precise and unhurried, despite their enthusiasm, employing the sort of techniques he wished more police officers could be trained to use. Perhaps the only reason he had found the bracelet was because he had cordonned off the room in the first place. Light fingered staff or other guests could have pilfered the bracelet before he and Selby had a chance to investigate properly. He would include the principles of restricted access to crime scenes into his report to the Chief Constable.
His reverie was interrupted when Chilcott said, rather shakily, "Err ... Detective Inspector, you should probably see this." Collingwood looked over Dunbar's shoulder and his eyes widened in amazement.
He watched as the pieces of the bracelet, spread out on the desktop, began moving, wriggling towards each other, in the manner of snakes or worms. In a few seconds, the sections had aligned into a perfect circle. Before any of the men could stop it, the ends fused, making the bracelet whole again. Sparks glinted across the metal and the bracelet lay still.
Sergeant Selby had reached his desk just after eight in the morning. He read Collingwood's note over his first cup of tea and did not like his boss's instructions. While it was clear that DI Collingwood was taking some heat from the Chief Constable, Selby was not keen on Collingwood's plan to talk to the poor parlour maid. The whole thing stank of finding a convenient scapegoat amongst the household's staff and letting the upper classes come out smelling of roses. Charlie Selby, however, prided himself on being a good copper. The DI had given him an order and he was duty-bound to carry it out. He would find out the DI's reasoning, which he hoped was more than simply ducking and covering his own hide, when they met at the Silver Lion coffee shop the following night.
Collingwood limped into the The Golden Apple, one of the better establishments just off Soho Square. His leg was killing him. He began to wonder if the surgeon had removed all the bullet fragments from his thigh. Finding a small corner table, he sank wearily into a chair, sitting with his back reassuringly against the wall. One could never be too careful. A serving boy wearing a grubby grey apron came over to the table. "What can I get you, Sir?" he asked.
"Brandy, a large one," Collingwood answered, holding his right thumb and index finger about three inches apart. The boy smiled, dashed off and returned a couple of minutes later with a not-too dirty glass filled with a generous measure of dark brown brandy. The DI did not usually drink on duty but had a couple of reasons to make an exception today. For one, he had walked from Knightsbridge to Holborn, with many a diversion down side streets and back alleys, chasing down the three artisans Dr Dunbar had given him. All of these enquiries had proven fruitless. He had been met with polite denials and, with his policeman's instinct working full-tilt, could tell the craftsmen - and craftswoman, in one case - had been telling the truth. The bracelet was as much a mystery to them as to the experts at the British Museum. And that, of course, brought him to the matter of the bracelet itself.
After the bracelet had reformed itself, Collingwood had ordered a more detailed investigation. Several of the Museum's resident academics had been brought in to inspect the item. This did not sit well with the DI - too many people were involved and knew what had happened - but he needed the expert advice. Tests had been run for magnetic properties, chemical composition, electrical conductance and even light sensitivity. Nothing. The most powerful microscope available at the Museum had been used to inspect each link and no cracks, joins or other imperfections had been found. It was as if the bracelet had never been damaged at all.
Collingwood slipped the bracelet from its envelope and laid it flat on his palm. He was no connoisseur but even he could tell it was a thing of beauty. Chilcott said the strange letters spelled out a name but whose? The professor had kindly provided him with copies of the rubbings and a clearer sketch of the letters and their translation. Taithan-Quedraeng-Shyendir. He could barely pronounce it, let alone determine the nationality.Well, he thought, I've hit so many dead ends today that it might be time to take a sledgehammer to one of the walls. There was, perhaps, one person who might be able to help. The last of the brandy bit at the back of his throat as he emptied the glass. Goodge Street, only a short walk away, was the nearest station. From there, he could commandeer a cab to take him across Taan.
"South of the River, at this time of night? Are you sure, Sir?" asked the constable at the reins of the hansom.
"Absolutely, constable," replied Collingwood, as confidently as he could muster. "Gray's Lane, Tooting."
The constable blew out a huge sigh and checked that his billy club was securely lodged in the seat beside him. Hopefully, he wouldn't need it but you could never be sure down there.
Collingwood settled into the hansom's cab. Despite the confidence he displayed to the constable, he was also nervous of travelling over the Thames. A cautious approach seemed sensible. He inspected his walking stick, which by itself could be used to deliver a hefty whack, pressed a catch near the curved hand grip and pulled. A blade of finely tempered steel, two feet long and nearly an inch wide, slid slowly from the wood. He tested the edges with his thumb, they were razor sharp, as ever, then slid the sword back until it locked in place with a click.
The cab pulled in to Gray's Lane, a row of twenty red brick terraced houses. Well, Collingwood assumed they had originally been red brick. Now so much soot and other grime had accumulated on the walls, it was difficult to determine their original colour. Collingwood stepped down from the cab. "Wait here, constable," he ordered as he looked around the dingy lane. "I don't know how long this will take, so stay alert. I'll need a lift back to the Yard later." The constable saluted and Collingwood walked up the lane, gingerly stepping around piles of refuse and the occasional dead rat, towards number eight.
Situated roughly in the centre of the north side of the lane, number eight looked as dilapidated and squalid as the other nineteen houses. A short flight of worn stone steps led up to the front door. Collingwood hesitated at the foot of the steps. It had been over ten years since he last visited this place. The ferocious argument that had led to him storming out of the house still haunted his dreams. The brandy, however, fortified his courage somewhat and he walked up the steps and rapped three times on the grubby brass door knocker.
There was the rattle of several bolts, chains and locks being unfastened. The door itself swung silently open and Collingwood could see along the short, hallway, dimly lit by wall mounted candles. He stepped forward and looked around the back of the door. No-one there. It was as if the door had unlocked and opened of its own accord. Stage magic, he thought, disdainfully. There was probably a counterweight system built into the doorstep, intricate clockworks and sufficient oil on the hinges to ensure the silent opening. Skeptically satisfied for now, Collingwood started down the hall and could hear the sound of the chains, locks and bolts refastening behind him. He did not turn around.
Collingwood walked past several portraits on the dark oak panelled walls. He couldn't escape the feeling he was being watched. The door at the end of the small hallway opened as silently as had the front door. The flicker of candlelight and the scent of incense met him as he reached the door. And then the voice, barely a whisper but still with unmistakable authority and clarity: "I knew you'd be coming. I'm surprised you came so soon."
As a gesture of manners, Collingwood doffed his hat and even bowed slightly to the woman who lay stretched on a velvet-upholstered chaise-longue. "Not much has changed here," he said, as he glanced around the sitting room.
"No, I've done my best to keep it the way we remember it. Seems to me, that this place is one of the few that hasn't changed. For better or worse," she finished with a slight shrug. She rose to her feet and walked slowly towards Collingwood. Now in a slightly brighter pool of candlelight, the detective had a better sight of the woman he had not seen for over ten years. She had, of course, aged, and her hair, formerly of the deepest brunette shot with grey when Collingwood had last seen her, had now whitened and lay like snow over her shoulders. Her eyes remained clear blue and had lost none of their sharpness and somewhat wicked glint. As ever, those eyes bored into Collingwood's own.
Lillian Margaret Collingwood looked over her only child. Years of pounding the beat and dealing with Laandan Taan's burgeoning criminal fraternity had not been kind to her son. His hair was almost as grey as her own and he looked tired, almost to the point of exhaustion. The collar of his shirt was grimy with sweat and not as sharp nor as freshly starched as she had normally made them. He needs a good woman in his life, Lillian thought. Her son's string of arrests had made the papers over the years - she had kept clippings of all the reports - but it was clear that the demands of the job had taken their toll. Sleep with dogs, wake up with fleas, had been her own grandmother's maxim. Perhaps, if he would let her, she could take some of the burden from his shoulders.
"Sit down before you fall down, my boy," she ordered and sat back down on her chaise-longue.
Collingwood sank gratefully into a leather armchair and placed his feet on a small stool. He began by outlining the case and the investigation so far. His mother leaned forward and paid rapt attention to his account. When he described the bracelet, her eyes widened even further. "Quite honestly, I don't know what to make of it," he finished. "It goes beyond everything I've seen in twenty years on the Force."
Lillian sat back. She knew her son well, even after ten years of separation, and he would not like her appraisal of the situation. "You won't believe me, George, but you've come to me for advice, so I'll give it. What you do with it is your own affair. Behind the veil we call the real world," she paused and rapped on the wall to enforce her point, "things are moving." She made what Collingwood thought was an odd emphasis on the word 'things'. "I'm not some old recluse, George. I do stay abreast of what's going on out there. I catch up with the gossip, you see. The Post Office love me," she said with a smile, "the amount of letters I send and receive, keeps them all nice and busy. I even take the papers. Sometimes they even have something in them that's worth reading." There was a slightly chilly pause before she said, "I've heard about the orders, the secret societies, the circles. Some powerful people involved in some of them, too."
"You know what they're up to?" Collingwood asked.His mother laughed, high and clear. When she composed herself, the wicked glint had returned to her eye. "Oh, dear Lord no! I don't even think they know what they're up to." Another chilly pause. Her son looked disappointed that he'd come half way across Taan on a fruitless errand. "But I can help you find out what they've done."
They sat opposite each other at an octagonal table topped with green baize. Collingwood could swear this had once been his long-dead Father's old card table. How much had the old coot lost over the years? he wondered vaguely. "You're not going to be reading the tea leaves or cards, are you?" he said uneasily.
Lillian could not resist a little tease. "Well, sometimes they can be useful. I'm pretty accurate with them, too. I've gotten better over the years." Her son squirmed in his chair. It was precisely those forms of divination that had triggered their argument all those years ago. "No," she went on, calmly, and George relaxed a little, "it's a technique called psychometry. With it, I can sense traces of emotions that have affected a place or an object. May I see the bracelet?"
Collingwood opened the envelope and let the bracelet slip out onto his mother's outstretched hand.
"Yes," she said as she examined the gold links for a few moments. "A fine piece of craftsmanship. The lettering is Enochian, a few hundred years old by all accounts."
"I'm told it represents a name. I can't pronounce it but it's spelled like this." He handed over a copy of the rubbing and translation the academics had provided.
"Taithan-Quedraeng-Shyendir," murmured Lillian. "Seems your eggheads missed something though."
"This doesn't just represent a name but also a," she fumbled for a moment, "type. A species, perhaps, like that chap Darwin wrote about."
Collingwood could clearly remember the furore that publication had caused. "A type of what?"
"A creature from beyond the veil of our world. Something supernatural. A demon. Specifically, a succubus."
"Utter tosh!" Collingwood said vehemently. He made to snatch back the bracelet and intended to leave. Quite clearly, his mother had gone stark-staring mad!
"It is not tosh!" Lillian hissed. With surprising strength, she grabbed George's hand and pressed it firmly down onto the table top. "Here," her right index finger jabbed at four more Enochian characters which did not have a corresponding translation. Lillian fixed her son with her gaze. He seemed to wilt slightly and she felt the muscles of his arm relax. "If you will indulge your old mother for a few more minutes, I'll prove to you that I haven't gone stark-staring mad."
How in God's name had she known what I was thinking? Collingwood wondered, desperately.
Lillian went to a nearby shelf and returned with an old book which she placed gently on the table. As she paged through the volume, she spoke quite clearly. "There are at least six varieties of these supernatural creatures. Some are relatively tame, if that's the right word, while others are little more than bloodthirsty monsters that relish the chance to kill." She had found the page she was looking for and turned the book towards her son. "I'd bet this is what you're dealing with. You'll see that the letters the Museum gentlemen did not translate match these characters here." Her finger rested on the sketch of an alluringly attired woman and a handsome-looking man. The female figure was labelled with the same four characters, the male with somewhat different lettering. Their dress was almost two hundred years old in appearance. "Succubi and incubi, female and male. These are mere sketches. They can appear in any form and can change appearance on a whim. They are wish granters and bring you your every desire. In this day and age, though, that usually means outright hedonism and other corruptions of mind and body."
For all his skepticism, Collingwood could not deny that the letters matched. It went against all reason, he knew, but he had to follow this lead as far as it would go. "What is the purpose of this, then?" he asked. "Why have such a bauble custom made and leave it broken at the scene of a mysterious death?"
"First of all, it is no mere bauble, George. You said yourself. It seemed to throw off sparks as it reformed. There is power here but no power the scientists and academics at the Museum could measure or even detect. I can feel it, though." Lillian let that thought sink in to her son for a moment before continuing. "As to its purpose, I would say that it is a binding object. This creature, Taithan-whatever, was brought to this world and a deal was struck. It was given a task to perform and would be released from service if it completed its task. If it failed or declined, it would forever remain bound to this plane. For such a creature, that would be a living Hell. The bracelet acts somewhat like a signature on a contract but one which is spiritually binding, rather than legally binding."
Finally, Collingwood recognised terms he could understand. "So breaking the bracelet means that either the contract was broken and rendered null and void, so the 'signature' was useless," he fumbled for the next words, "or the task was completed, the signature expunged from the contract and the creature ... what? Returned home?" I can't believe I just said that, he thought. He rather hoped his mother would laugh at him for such crazy notions.
"I would suggest the latter," Lillian replied, both surprised and impressed that her son had made such a leap of faith.
"And you make that deduction, why, precisely?"
"The gentleman whose body you found. No wounds. No evidence of narcotics. His rather unnatural physical state. It is entirely possible he was the intended victim of a succubus demon, sent to kill him in an act of unbridled passion." Lillian let her statement hang in the air.
Collingwood thought this through. If he ignored the fact that her idea was a flight of fancy, he could find no real problem with his mother's logic. It might explain a few of the odder points, he mused. A mysterious guest, perhaps one who could change her (or its) appearance, lured Gilbert Harrison away from the party, had her wicked way with him, quite literally, it seemed, then vanished without a trace. In a case where motives abounded, this explanation, as insane as it sounded, provided opportunity.
"So you are implying that someone summoned this creature, made a pact with it and directed it to kill Gilbert Harrison in the height of passion? Black magic as a murder weapon?"
"Not as the weapon, simply the means. The weapon would be the succubus herself. Much the same as buying a pistol round back of Camden Market."
Far too true, thought Collingwood, as he stared down at the table. Six years ago, one of his cases had involved just such an event. While the buyer had, indeed, pulled the trigger, the seller had been convicted as an accessory to murder. In that investigation, he had followed a chain of inquiry to the gun's seller. With Harrison's case, the seller would essentially be the bracelet's maker but he had run down all those possibilities earlier that day and drawn a blank. Which, of course, was why he was here. He threw off his mood of despondency and looked up at his mother. Better be hanged for a sheep as a lamb, he mused. "So. What can you tell me about the bracelet that some of the Empire's foremost academics have missed?"
"I'm glad you asked," replied his mother, with a smile.
Collingwood watched intently as his mother closed her eyes and seemed to drift off to sleep. Her breathing became shallower and a look of serene relaxation came over her face. He shivered, and not just because he was nervous and concerned for his mother's safety. The room was becoming colder by the minute.
"I sense much anger here," his mother whispered. "The man was a blackguard of the first water. Deep down he was callous and spiteful but hid his true nature behind a mask of affability and generosity. Enemies circled him like moths around a gas lamp."
"Enemies?" Collingwood asked, his own voice a hoarse whisper. He had suspected many such possibilities but lacked the proof, and political connections, to pursue them further.
His mother took a deep breath. "I cannot read them all. There are too many." Her voice almost cracked. "Ohhhh! He was hated with a passion!" she growled.
"For what reasons?"
"The innocence of a love, trodden into the mud. Pride besmirched by shame and an anger at loss of favour." She trailed off as her breathing became more ragged.
Collingwood did not wish to press her further. He reached out and took her hands, hoping to bring her back to the here and now. Her fingers were icicles and their breath was clouding in front of their faces.
"Three of them!" she cried. "Used and abused by this man. Their blood stained the gold of this bracelet."
"No blood was found on the bracelet," he said as calmly as he could. Perhaps some logical, real-world ideas would impinge themselves on her consciousness?
"The traces of their spirit have been absorbed into the metal itself. They cannot be seen but I can feel them." Tears were starting from the corners of her eyes.
Collingwood now began to get scared. His mother was either a consummate actress or was on the verge of a seizure. "Mother! Wake up!"
Then there was a sudden change in her. She began to laugh, clear and high, as the tears dried and she opened her eyes. "Oh, you sneaky little rogue, you!" she said between the giggles. "Ah. George, my boy. There you are."
Collingwood helped his mother back into the sitting room and poured some drinks. A sherry for her and a very fine cognac for himself. She looks quite pleased with herself, he thought as he took a seat.
Lillian sat quietly and sipped her sherry for a moment before she spoke. "There's a lot of hatred in that thing," she said, quite viciously. "I don't want to see the bloody thing again, much less wear it."
Collingwood obediently put the bracelet back into the envelope and placed it in his pocket. His mother sighed and nodded contentedly.
After a while, Collingwood said, "That was quite a shocking moment. You had me quite frightened for a while. How do you feel?"
"I feel fine now, George, thank you." She finished her sherry and waved for a refill which her son supplied. "I know you're full of questions, so I will tell you what I can."
"Three women had been wronged by your victim," she could no longer bring herself to call Harrison a 'gentleman'. "One, a young girl who loved him and thought he felt the same. The second, a woman of some substance who wanted even more and was to wed him for gain, only to be shamed when she discovered his dalliance with the younger girl. The third, a woman who had been supplanted by him and stood to lose the inheritance she thought was hers."
The wronged woman, thought Collingwood. Or women, in this case. And certainly, a case for conspiracy could be made. Would a jury believe it? That was another question entirely.
"I thought you were about to have a fit," Collingwood said. "Then you just burst out laughing. Was there something else or," and he could not control his skepticism as he added, "were you just playing games with me?"
"I was not playing you for the fool, George," she replied coldly. "What I just did was traumatic. I dug down through all the hate and anger infusing the bracelet and sensed something else, which brought me a sense of relief, in a way. Just like this." She drained her glass and gestured towards the drinks cabinet.
Collingwood took the hint and refilled her glass. He had never seen her drink so much, so quickly. Obviously, she was quite badly shaken. "So what else did you find, or sense, or see, or however it is you uncovered it?" he said over the rim of his own glass. He would not rush this first rate cognac.
His mother, calmer now, took a ladylike sip of her sherry and set the glass to one side. "It was strange," she said, "hidden under the hatred, I felt some pride. Professional pride. The sense of a job well done."
He could well understand that sensation, having experienced it several times with the successful conviction of a felon. "There's something else, is there not? Who is the 'little rogue' you spoke of? Don't keep me dangling, please Mother."
With a smile, she said, "It's a sensation I've had only once, with this." She held up her left hand to display the gold wedding ring. "The one who made this ring also made the bracelet."
"That's impossible!" Collingwood blurted. "Your own mother gifted you that ring fifty years ago and it was old even before she passed it on to you. Its maker cannot be alive today."
"The aura is unmistakable, George," she replied so firmly that Collingwood could not allow his skepticism to override her words.
"And I know where he lives." Lillian Margaret Collingwood rose to her feet, swaying slightly due to the sherry. "Coming?"
Collingwood helped his mother down the steps and into the street. "Wait a minute, you didn't lock up."
"No need to worry about that," she said with a smile, as she walked towards the waiting hansom. Her words were punctuated by the sound of bolts, chains and locks being drawn. Succubi weren't the only supernaturals existing outside the real world.
He hurried to join her, helped her into the cab and settled beside her. "Wardour Street, constable," Collingwood ordered. The officer heaved a sigh of relief, at least they were heading north of the River, and nudged the horse into a trot.
They passed the journey in silence. Collingwood really could not think of anything to say to his mother and, in her turn, decided to let her son ruminate on all she had said.
The hansom pulled up at the kerb. A little further down Wardour Street, music was blaring from The Grey Fox pub, and customers had spilled onto the street.
"You're sure this is the place?" Collingwood asked. He was staring from the cab window down a narrow back alley between two buildings of crumbling brick. From where he was sitting, he could dimly see a small sign, hanging askew, above a shop door.
"Positive," answered his mother, firmly. "I used to come down here when I was younger, you know?"
Collingwood almost choked. "Here?" he spluttered.
"Oh yes. Used to be a wonderful little bakery just past the pub," she gestured down the street. "And don't you insult your mother by saying that!" she snapped.
"That I've 'been around a bit'. You young rascal!"
How on earth did she know what I was thinking? Collingwood thought. While he had always held his mother in the highest regard, even while they had been separated, there was clearly more to his old mother than met the eye. What had he missed during his childhood?
Ever the gentleman, he helped his mother down from the hansom and told the constable to wait for them and keep an eye on the rowdies outside the pub. Then they walked across Wardour Street and into the mouth of the alley which seemed to have no name sign displayed on its walls. There was just enough light to see the shop's sign which, in peeling green paint on a gold background, read John Silverside, Esquire, Artisan Extraordinaire. Through the grubby, leaded windows Collingwood could see the inside was dimly lit and a man sat with his back to the window, seemingly busy on some intricate task. Collingwood rapped his cane on the door and was pleased to see the man jump and spin around in some consternation.
"What do you want at this hour?" said the man, testily.
"I wish to speak with Mr John Silverside. I am Detective Inspector Collingwood of New Caledonia Yard."
The door opened with a squeak and was kept ajar by a stout brass chain. Collingwood turned and had to look down to see the man who had opened it. He was short, somewhat plump, with a grey beard and impressive silver-haired muttonchop whiskers. On his broad nose were perched a pair of gold rimmed spectacles. "I am John Silverside," said the man, "what can I do for you?"
"It would be best if we talked inside, please, sir." Collingwood glanced furtively around the alley and leaned conspiratorially towards Silverside. "You know what some people are like around here. They see a copper and get all sorts of odd ideas."
"One moment please," Silverside muttered, then closed the door. He returned a moment later, wiping his hands on a towel, then unchained the door and, with a startling lack of manners, turned his back on Collingwood and went to the stool on which he had been sitting.
Collingwood had to stoop to pass through the door, whose lintel was almost level with his chin. Fortunately, the room's ceiling was higher and he could straighten to his full height. He towered over Silverside, who appeared to be somewhat shorter than five feet tall. The detective glanced about and he noted that whatever task Silverside had been working on, it was now covered with a cloth. Without preamble, Collingwood held up the bracelet and said, "I've come to ask you about this pretty little thing."
Behind his glasses, Silverside's eyes bulged. "Never seen it before," he squeaked. To Collingwood, he looked startled and seemed to be looking for an exit.
"I have it on good authority that you have seen it because you made it," Collingwood said firmly.
"Who's authority?" Silverside replied suspiciously. He was desperately trying to recover his poise.
Collingwood stepped aside and his mother walked forward. "Good evening, John," she purred.
If Silverside had seemed nervous before, now he positively panicked. The small man jumped from his stool and lunged towards the rear of the workshop. Collingwood dived after the smaller man. He batted his way past a leather curtain dividing the shop-front from the rear and grasped Silverside by his collar as the absconder was tugging on a bell rope near the back wall. The detective manhandled Silverside into an armlock with his face pressed against the roughly plastered wall. His captive squirmed and screamed imprecations but Collingwood held firm. After a few moments of fruitless struggling, Silverside calmed and went almost limp. Collingwood lowered him to the floor and handcuffed him to a nearby water pipe.
"Now, Mr Silverside," he began quietly, "about this bracelet."
The Silver Lion coffee shop, proprietor Mrs Evadne Skinner, was tucked away in a little-visited alleyway just off Carnaby Street. From the outside the shop looked somewhat run down, which tended to be off-putting to casual visitors, but the inside was warm and homely. Collingwood, who rather preferred his Earl Grey, was only a semi-regular visitor but, for this meeting he wanted some anonymity, so he took a table in a small curtained booth near the door to shop's kitchen. He ordered a pot of coffee, two cups and generous slices of fruit cake. As he waited for Charlie Selby to arrive, he read over his notes.
Good Lord, he thought. I can't possibly take action over this. The Chief Constable would have me incarcerated in Bedlam if any of this was to come to light. He fervently hoped Selby had found something more solid on which to hang the case. He started when his train of thought was interrupted by a quiet ahem and "Morning, sir."
Collingwood looked up at the rather dishevelled Sergeant. He himself had had little sleep that night and the Sergeant looked somewhat worse. The DI directed his colleague to the chair opposite and said, "Help yourself, Charlie," as he gestured at the coffee pot.
"Don't mind if I do, sir," Selby replied, a little surprised at his boss's use of his given name. Usually the DI was strictly business and the familiarity unsettled him a little. "I had two cups of my old mum's strongest tea before I started out and even they haven't shifted the cloud of sleep from in front of my eyes." He poured a coffee, stirred in some cream and two heaped spoonfuls of sugar, and drank deeply. "That hits the spot," he said with a sigh.
"You had a long day, then, Sergeant?" asked Collingwood, returning to business.
"Long and frustrating, sir. I questioned the parlour maid, Aimee Bennett, as you ordered. The rumours we heard on the night in question were correct. She was having an affair with Harrison and suspected another girl was sharing his bed on her off evenings."
His interest piqued, Collingwood said, "Go on."
"That turned out to be a blind alley. The second girl was not romantically linked to our victim. She said she was working for another woman, Hailey Elliot, who happens to be an MP's daughter."
"Sebastian Elliot, Reigate, I believe," Collingwood put in.
"That's the chap. Anyway, the daughter wanted Harrison for her own. You know, to marry up in station, from the Commons, to the Lords. That's how the moneyed sort think." Selby finished with a slight sneer.
The DI ignored the jibe. "Anything else?" The involvement of two women was making a charge of conspiracy more plausible.
"The rest was mostly gossip amongst the chattering classes. Some said Harrison's step-sister, from Lord Mayberry's first marriage, hated him with a passion. She felt her inheritance, and the title that goes with it, would be given to Harrison in preference to her."
"And the woman's name?"
The pieces clicked together like a child's jigsaw. "You're absolutely sure of that, Sergeant? You have a sworn statement to that effect?"
Selby noted the expression on his boss's face. Something's up, he thought. "Of course, sir. Lord Mayberry's butler, Pike, had the family solicitor at the house when I was there." He flipped through his notebook. "Ah, here. The solictor, Oswald Drummond, said there had been a recent amendment to Mayberry's will and that Miss Rhys-Mayberry was not at all pleased. I could get no further when he realised what he had let slip and claimed client confidentiality."
Collingwood could barely restrain his excitement. He forced himself to focus on the facts before getting carried away. "The three women. Can you give physical descriptions?"
"Aimee Bennett is seventeen years old, slender, with black hair and brown eyes. Quite pretty. Hailey Elliot is a little older, blue eyed and, like her father, has bright red hair and, it seems, the temper to go with it. Gwendolyn Rhys-Mayberry is the oldest of the three, nearing thirty, I believe, tall and haughty with green eyes and ..."
"... Blonde hair," Collingwood finished.
"Yes, sir. Have you met her?" Selby wondered if Collingwood had been following him from place to place to keep tabs on his enquiries.
"No, but I have similar physical descriptions for all three women ... and this." He produced a bill of sale from his amongst his case notes. It was on clean, smooth paper, headed John Silverside, and noted the bill was fifty pounds Sterling for a gold bracelet with intricate markings. Collingwood tapped the bottom of the bill. Four sets of initials, JS, AB, HE and GRM were written in four different scripts, each over a smear of brownish red.
"Oh, Lord. Are they bloodstains?" whispered Selby. "Aimee Bennett's thumb was bandaged. She said she had cut it while polishing the silverware. How did you come by this, sir?"
Collingwood dangled the restored bracelet in front of Selby's eyes and described his investigations of the previous day. "As I explained in my note yesterday, the Chief Constable had advised me to pursue my own line of enquiry. I went somewhat off the beaten track, you see, and I am frankly amazed it took me this far. Between your findings and mine, we can present a pretty strong case for conspiracy, if not to commit murder but at least on indecent assault. We have expert testimony from the British Museum and other sources and, of course, physical evidence from the maker of the bracelet."
"And what about all this black magic? Surely we can't arrest them for witchcraft? We would be laughed out of court, sir."
"The witchcraft laws were repealed in the middle of the last century but were replaced with laws against fraudulent claims of sorcery and similar abilities. And under the Vagrancy Act of 1824, fortune-telling, astrology and spiritualism are punishable offences." Collingwood paused and sipped his now tepid coffee. "The real question is: what do we do next?"
Selby drained his coffee cup and sat back a little. Clearly the political pressure would be immense and one false step could make or break a police officer's career. The sergeant was not a political animal and was at a loss. He shrugged and looked at the DI for leadership.
"If all of this is true, or even possible, then we have a duty not to let these three witches get away with murder." Collingwood could scarcely believe he had just said that. "I see two options. We either take this to the Chief Constable and watch as he laughs us off and sweeps the matter under the carpet. Or we wade in with our size nines, arrest all three women, and try to get confessions."
Sergeant Selby peered through the small window set in the interview room's door. Aimee Bennett, wearing her maid's uniform, was sat at the table, glancing around the room. The girl was clearly nervous, noted Selby. That did not, by any stretch of the imagination, indicate guilt. Merely being in a police station was enough to unsettle many people.
Selby entered the room and sat opposite. He decided to start gently. "Can I get you anything, Miss?" he asked politely. "Water, tea?" She shook her head and looked around the room, her eyes wide, as perspiration started to bead on her forehead.
Selby passed her a handkerchief and she mopped her brow with a grateful little smile. "I hope your thumb's getting better." Her right thumb was still bandaged in white gauze which now looked somewhat grubby. He remembered the brownish smear under the initials AB on the bill of sale.
"Mr Pike wants the cutlery looking like mirrors. It was only a little slip but blow me, it bled like there was no tomorrow. It still aches a bit," she finished with a weak smile.
"You are aware of what happened two nights ago, yes?", Selby said, returning to business.
Miss Bennett nodded. "It was terrible, sir. I heard it said that other people heard the girl's scream even downstairs in the main hall."
"So you were not on duty that night?" Interesting, thought Selby.
"N ... No," she said nervously. "I ... I was supposed to be but my mum took sick that night and I had to look after her." Miss Bennett looked down at the table.
Selby tried a kinder tack. "It's never easy having a loved one taken ill or," he let his sentence trail off. The girl's shoulders started to shake and she was clearly having difficulty restraining her sobs. "Your relationship with Mr Harrison, for instance. You must feel terrible about what happened."
"I loved him," Miss Bennett managed to gasp."He was going to move out of the city and take me with him. And now he's gone!" Miss Bennett broke down in floods of tears.
As the girl cried, Selby went to the door, summoned a constable and requested he bring a cup of water. She took a drink, hiccupped, and dried her tears with Selby's handkerchief. "Please believe me, sir," she said, "I didn't mean it to happen the way it did. Gilbert didn't deserve what we did to him."
Collingwood entered the interview room and stood for a moment by the door as he appraised the young woman he suspected of being complicit in a murder.
Hailey Elliot was seated at the table, idly brushing lint from the sleeve of her dark blue dress. The matching hat, with its small, red rose and black lace veil, was skewered to the tabletop with two long hat pins. Her flame red hair was tied back and secured at the nape of her slender neck with a jewelled clasp. As Collingwood entered, she looked up with piercing blue eyes.
"I hope you have a startlingly good explanation for these trumped up charges," she began. "When my father hears of this, he will have you run out of the Yard and you will spend the rest of your career mucking out the horses!"
Unperturbed, for he had already considered that possibility, Collingwood sat down opposite Miss Elliot. "So your father has not been informed?" Interesting, he mused.
Miss Elliot tutted, annoyance plain in her face. "He would be, if I could drag him kicking and screaming from the Palace of Westminster. The place is nothing but a glorified gentlemen's club."
"Oh, so you'd approve of female MPs?" Collingwood asked. "It seems a rather absurd idea." Though his manner was gentle, he hoped to provoke the woman into a furious outburst. And it worked.
"Absurd? I'll tell you what's absurd!" Miss Elliot almost screamed. "Having bigotted, corrupt, inebriated fools pass laws over the rest of the Empire. What the place needs is a good dose of common sense. And who better to provide that than women?" She forced herself to calm down. "But they will never change," she finished, a little sadly.
"Which brings us to your relationship with Mr Gilbert Harrison," Collingwood went on. Miss Elliot was on the back foot now and he needed to press the advantage. "He had a certain reputation. Do you think you could have changed him as well?"
"I suppose I did," she replied, a little wistfully. "The naivety of love, you see. It soon became clear he was a lost cause."
"No chance of redemption?"
"No-one gets a second chance!" Miss Elliot said vehemently. Her eyes flashed with barely restrained anger. "As soon as I heard how far he had lowered himself with that, that ... girl," she almost spat that word, "I swore I'd have nothing more to do with him."
"One of the below-stairs types. Bennett, I think she was."
"Yes. That's the one. She was so stupid not to see him for the cad he was. I had a rude awakening when I was told what he was up to. Of course, I didn't believe a word of it but Bennett let it slip when I confronted her. After that, Gilbert was on his own!"
"And who told you what he was 'up to'? That could be construed as slander."
"It's only slander if you spread malicious, untrue gossip. What she told me was disgustingly true."
Miss Elliot's temper was on the rise again, Collingwood could see. Just one more little push. "She?"
"Gwendolyn! His step-sister. The one with the flowery name. Lord, what a grudge she held against him! I'm surprised she didn't take a knife to him and be done with it."
The image of Gwendolyn Rhys-Mayberry, the first and only time he would meet her, would stay with Collingwood for years to come. Six foot tall, her back ram-rod straight, blonde hair tumbling in a most unseemly fashion to her tightly-corsetted waist, chin up, a slim black cheroot held between index and forefinger of her right hand and a look of absolute defiance in her emerald green eyes, she looked every inch a warrior queen, set to do battle and trample her foe into the mud. The DI felt his throat tighten as he entered the room and realised he, himself, was the foe here. He had hoped the atmosphere of New Caledonia Yard would give him an advantage but he would enjoy no such edge tonight.
"Would you care to sit, Miss ..."
"I am the Lady Rhys-Mayberry to you, officer," she cut Collingwood off with a voice that brooked no disrespect, "but you may address me as your ladyship."
Clearly, Lady Rhys-Mayberry expected to be obeyed. Maybe that's her weakness, thought the DI. "Of course, your ladyship," Collingwood faked a slight stammer in his voice and was rewarded with the tiniest smirk on the woman's perfectly rouged lips. "If you would allow me?" Collingwood pulled out the chair and gestured for his "better" to sit. This she did, and the mixture of her perfume and the cheroot smoke assaulted his senses. That's not just tobacco in the cheroot, thought Collingwood. Pity it's not illegal in this day and age.
Collingwood sat opposite and laid the case file on the table between them. "We are investigating the death of your step-brother, Gilbert Harrison," he began without preamble.
"Oh," she gasped and leant forward over the table with a look of shock in her eyes. To Collingwood, she looked as if she would burst into tears at the mention of her step-brother's death. Then, just as suddenly, she relaxed back into her chair and with a look of perfect innocence said, "I thought you had brought me in here to talk about something serious!"
No sign of shock, grief, disbelief or even honest-to-God surprise, mused Collingwood. He had heard of people with just such an emotional detatchment being incarcerated in Bedlam. "You don't find his death in any way serious?"
"I find it a cause for celebration," she replied, coldly. "And don't look so surprised, officer. Everyone knows I hated Gilbert."
"Everyone? Would that include ... hmm ... let's see. Hailey Elliot and Aimee Bennett?"
"Well, I wouldn't necessarily call them confidantes, you understand, but little Aimee bore the brunt of my temper one afternoon when I found out about her dalliance with Gilbert."
"And Miss Elliot?" Collingwood could sense he was close, if not to a confession, at least an admission from the woman.
"That little firebrand can control her temper little better than I. As far as I'm concerned Hailey was welcome to Gilbert but she wisely refused to give him a second chance."
"And your own grudge with Mr Harrison? A change in your father's will?" Collingwood watched Lady Rhys-Mayberry closely, searching her face for any expression of anger or disappointment.
With the slightest flinch of annoyance, she replied, "Why yes, I was rather miffed."
Collingwood admired the woman's restraint. "Miffed enough to wish him harm?"
She rolled her eyes at the ceiling. "Anyone who listened to even half the gossip surrounding Gilbert and myself could have told you that."
"Would people listen to you and your own brand of gossip? People who wanted Mr Harrison harmed in some way?" Before she could refute this point, Collingwood pressed on. "Miss Elliot and Miss Bennett, for example."
Lady Rhys-Mayberry laughed in a most unladylike manner. When she calmed a little, she said, "Little Aimee was too lovestruck to see harm done to Gilbert and Hailey, you have met her so you know what she is like, would have concocted some sort of public humiliation for him. I believe she knows several men on Fleet Street, so a scandal would have been all over the papers."
The DI was losing patience and he knew he had to tread carefully but such verbal fencing was beginning to grate on his nerves. "Your own vengeance. What form would it have taken, I wonder? Had I been in your position, I would have been apoplectic at being written out of my father's will."
"You are not in my position, officer. Women of quality do not sink to that level."
"So you are above getting your hands dirty?" She nodded and Collingwood went on, "But not a little bloody, I imagine."
"I don't know what you mean," she replied with a slight narrowing of her eyes.
"Just this," Collingwood placed the bill of sale on the table. "This receipt shows that someone with your initials essentially signed in blood for the production of a masterpiece of craftsmanship. Moreover, two others, with initials matching those of your 'not-quite-confidantes' also signed this receipt, along with the maker."
"And this means, precisely, what? The coincidence that I share the initials of someone with a taste in expensive jewellery?" Gwendolyn scoffed at the notion.
Collingwood blew out a heavy sigh. "Ordinarily I would agree with you, your ladyship. However, when the item in question was found at the scene of your step-brother's death and a chain of investigation leads, initially, so-to-speak," Collingwood allowed himself a small grunt of laughter, "to three women with known grudges against the deceased, coincidence seems less likely than conspiracy." He finished icily and let the last word hang in the air.
He stood and folded the bill of sale into his pocket. "Lady Rhys-Mayberry, I will be charging you with conspiracy to grievously assault Gilbert Harrison occasioning his death. You will be remanded into custody in Pentonville Prison until the trial of you and your fellow conspirators can be arranged." Collingwood whirled and headed for the door.
As he reached the door, he stopped suddenly at the giggles behind him. "You have no idea who you're dealing with, do you?" Gwendolyn managed between her laughs.
"Then enlighten me, Madam," Collingwood said, almost as if begging for a release from this conundrum.
"All will become clear, in time, officer." With that, Gwendolyn Rhys-Mayberry folded her hands on the table in front of her and said no more.
Infuriated, Collingwood replied, "That's Detective Inspector Collingwood to you, Madam." He left the room and walked down the short corridor of rooms where the interviews had been conducted. At each door he passed, he heard "All will become clear in time, officer". He shuddered and went to his office.
The women were incarcerated in Pentonville Prison to await trial. They were isolated from the rest of the population due to the influence of their parents or employer.
Gwendolyn leaned close to the small wicket gate in her cell door. "Are we all here?" she whispered.
"This place is disgusting!" Hailey muttered. "I swear I saw a rat in the corridor a moment ago."
"I dunno," put in Aimee, "me old gran served time in here years back. Seems almost homely."
"Then Heaven forbid we ever end up in your definition of squalor," Hailey replied. "It's a dungeon! I was led blindfold down three flights of steps. And if I ever meet the guard who manhandled me like that, I swear ..."
"Ladies, please," Gwendolyn said, a little louder this time. When the others went silent, she continued. "Do we have everything we need?"
"I have her name," said Aimee, and began unwrapping the bandage on her thumb. Written on the cloth in the Enochian script - all her own work - was the name Taithan-Quedraeng-Shyendir.
"I have something sharp," added Hailey as she produced one of her hat pins.
"And I have the rest," Gwendolyn finished, as she lit the last of her cheroots, made with a special blend of tobacco and other herbs, and let the potent mixture expand her mental horizons.
In the dirt coating the floor of her cell, Gwendolyn inscribed the name of their demonic contact, an exact copy of Aimee's own flowing script. This she then underlined in her own blood, drawn from her thumb with the silver hat pin. The incantation was long, taking the form of painstakingly memorised mantras, precise hand gestures and poses which may have been regarded as fashionable three centuries previously. In the end, she finished, "Taithan-Quedraeng-Shyendir, by ancient ritual and under family pacts dating back hundreds of years, I summon thee to do my bidding, with no harm to myself or my companions, under pain of incarceration upon this plane for all eternity."
The voice, when it came, sounded as if whispered from leagues away, but still came through so clearly that all the women heard. "My Lady," Taithan said in perfect, crystal clear English, "Threats are unnecessary. I come at your bidding and honour your family's pacts. What are your wishes?" The demon stepped from the shadows in the corridor and, if such a being could be capable of pleasure in an earthly sense, was rewarded by the gasps of envy and awe from the three imprisoned sorceresses. Indeed, Taithan could make an entrance when she so desired. Her fashion sense encompassed the ages and she was dressed in the height of turn-of-the-century chic, her waist so tightly corsetted a man could have encircled it with both hands, and her dress made of the finest silks and most detailed embroidery known in this or any other sphere.
"I must meet her dressmaker," whispered Hailey.
"All we wish is to be released from this prison," said Gwendolyn, "and escorted to a safe place of our choosing, ensuring no harm comes to us on the way."
"That is acceptable," said the demon, and with that, three locks clicked, three doors swung open, and three witches walked to freedom.