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The sun was rising slowly, splashing red light across the river. The drops thrown from Monk’s oars glowed momentarily in the air, like wine, or blood. On the other seat, a yard or so in front of him, Orme leaned forward and threw his weight against the drag of the current. They worked in perfect rhythm, used to each other now; it was the last week of November 1864, nearly two years since Monk had taken command of the Thames River Police at the Wapping Station.
That was a small victory for him. Orme had been part of the River Police all his adult life. For Monk it was a big adjustment after working first for the Metropolitan Police, and then for himself.
The peace of his satisfaction was shattered by a scream, which was piercing even above the creak of the oarlocks and the sound of the wash from a passing string of barges breaking on the shore. Monk and Orme both turned toward the north bank and Limehouse Pier, which was no more than twenty yards away.
The scream came again, shrill with terror, and suddenly a figure appeared, black against the shadowy outline of the sheds and warehouses on the embankment. It was someone in a long coat, waving their arms and stumbling around; it was impossible to tell whether it was a man or a woman.
With a glance over his shoulder at Monk, Orme dug his oars in again and swung the boat round toward the shore.
The low clouds were parting and the light became stronger; the figure materialized into a woman in a long skirt, standing on the pier, waving her arms and crying out to them, her words so jumbled in terror they were unintelligible.
The boat bumped at the steps and Orme tied it up.
Monk grasped the closest wooden beam and clambered out, going up the steps as fast as he could. When he got to the top he saw that the woman was now sobbing and putting her hands to her face as if to block out all possible vision.
Monk looked around. He could see no one else, nothing to cause such hysterical fear. Nor could he immediately see any evidence of a threat to the woman. The pier was empty except for her and Monk, and then Orme, coming up the steps.
Monk took her arm gently. “What is it?” he asked, his voice firm. “What’s wrong?”
She pulled away from him and swung round, jabbing her finger toward a heap of rubbish, which was slowly becoming more visible in the spreading morning light.
Monk walked over to it, his stomach clenching when he realized that what he had taken for torn canvas was actually the sodden skirt of a woman, her body so mutilated it was not instantly recognizable as human. There was no need to wonder if she was dead. She was twisted over, half on her back, her blue, sightless eyes turned up to the sky. Her hair was matted, and blood-soaked at the back. But it was the rest of her body that made his gorge rise and choked the breath in his throat. Her belly was ripped open, and her entrails were torn out and laid like pale, skinless snakes across her loins.
Monk heard Orme’s step behind him.
“Dear God!” Orme breathed out the words, not as a blasphemy but a cry for help, for what he saw not to be real.
Monk swallowed hard and grasped Orme’s shoulder for a moment. Then, stumbling a little on the rough boards of the pier, he went back to the woman, who was now standing trembling uncontrollably.
“Do you know who she is?” he said softly.
The woman shook her head, trying to push him away, but there was no strength in her. “No! God ’elp me, I dunno ’er. I come lookin’ fer me man. Bastard’s bin out all night! An’ I find ’er.” She crossed herself as if to ward off the horror. “I were terrified it were ’im, till I saw ’er, poor cow.”
“You found her just now, when you screamed?” Monk asked.
“Yeah. Ye’re River Police, eh?”
“Yes. What’s your name?”
She hesitated only a moment. With that thing lying on the boards, almost close enough to touch, perhaps the presence of the police was not such a bad thing as usual.
“Where do you live, Mrs. Jones?” Monk asked. “And the truth, please. You don’t want us coming looking for you, spreading your name up and down the riverside.”
She looked at his eyes and decided he meant it. “Northey Street, be’ind the work’ouse,” she answered.
“Look at her again, please,” he said more gently. “Look at her face. It’s not too bad. Keep your eyes off the rest. Think if you’ve seen her before.”
“I don’t! I don’ know ’er!” she repeated. “I’m not lookin’ at that thing again. I’m gonna see it the rest o’ me life!”
He did not argue with her.
“Did you just come down here, or were you waiting here for a while, maybe calling out for your man?”
“I were lookin’ fer ’im when I saw that. ’Ow long d’yer think I’m gonna stand ’ere, wi’ that beside me, eh?”
“Not very long,” he agreed. “Will you be all right to find your way home, Mrs. Jones?”
“Yeah.” She jerked her arm sharply out of his grip. “Yeah.” She took a deep breath, then looked toward the body, the horror in her face replaced by pity for a moment. “Poor cow,” she repeated under her breath.
Monk let her go and turned to Orme. Together they went back to the corpse. Monk touched her face gently. The flesh was cold. He put a hand down to one of her shoulders, a little under the edge of her dress, feeling for any warmth at all. There was nothing. She had probably been dead all night.
Orme helped him turn her fully onto her back, completely exposing her ripped-open belly with its pale entrails bulging out, slimy with blood.
Orme let out a gasp of horror and for a moment he swayed, even though he was used to corpses. He was familiar with the destruction that time and predators could cause to a body, but this was a barbarity inflicted by man, and it clearly shook him to a point where he could not hide his shock. He coughed, and seemed to choke on his own breath. “We’d better call the police surgeon, and the local station,” he said hoarsely.
Monk nodded, swallowing hard. For a moment he had felt paralyzed with horror and pity. The river he was so used to seemed suddenly cold and strange. Familiar shapes of wharves and wooden piles jutting out of the water closed in on them, seeming threatening as the sharp dawn light distorted their proportions.
Orme’s face was grim. “Found her on the pier, means she’s our case, sir,” he said miserably. “But of course land police may know who she is, poor creature. Could be this is domestic. Or, if she’s a local prostitute, then perhaps we’ve got a lunatic on our hands.”
“Either way we have a lunatic on our hands. Even if it was domestic, no sane man could do this to his wife,” Monk said incredulously.
“Who knows? Sometimes I think hate’s worse than madness.” Orme shook his head. “The local station’s up the street that way.” He indicated with his arm. “If you like, I’ll stay here with her while you go get them, sir.”
It was the sensible thing to do, since Monk was by far the senior of the two. Still, he was grateful, and said so. He had no wish to remain standing on the pier with the chill of the wind seeping into his bones, keeping watch over that dreadful corpse.
“Thank you. I’ll be as quick as I can.” He turned and walked rapidly across the pier itself, onto the bank and up toward the street. The sky was pale, the early sun silhouetting the wharves and warehouses. He passed half a dozen stevedores on their way to work. A lamplighter, little more than a gray shadow himself, reached his pole up and snuffed out the last lamp on the street.
An hour later, Monk and Orme were standing in the local police station, still shivering. There was a chill inside that even hot tea with whisky could not shift. Overstone, the police surgeon, came in, closing the door behind him. He was in his sixties, his gray hair thinning but his face keen. He looked from the local sergeant to Orme, then to Monk. He shook his head.
“It’s a bad one,” he said very quietly. “Most of the mutilation was almost certainly inflicted after death, perhaps all of it. Hard to be absolutely sure. If she wasn’t dead already, that would have killed her. But there was still quite a lot of bleeding. She’s been ripped open practically from navel to groin.”
Monk looked at the man’s strained face and saw the pity in his eyes. “If she was dead when that happened, what killed her?” he asked.
“The blow to the back of the head,” Overstone replied. “Single one. Hard enough to break her skull. Piece of lead pipe, I’d say, or something like that.”
He was standing by a wooden desk piled with papers of varying sizes, handwritten by many different people. There were neat bookshelves all around, the contents not stuffed back in place untidily like Monk’s own. There were no pictures tacked up on the wall.
“Nothing else you can tell us?” Monk asked without much hope.
Overstone’s mouth turned down at the corners. “Pretty vicious. Lot of weight behind the blow, but it could have been anybody between five and six foot tall.”
“Left hand? Right hand?” Monk persisted.
“Probably right-handed, but could be either. Not much help,” Overstone said apologetically. “Most people are right-handed.”
“And the . . . mutilation?”
“Long blade: four or five inches, I’d say. The cuts are deep, edges pretty sharp. Butcher’s knife, sailor’s knife—or sailmaker’s, for that matter. For God’s sake, man, half the chandlers, lightermen, or boatbuilders on the river have something that could have cut the poor woman open. Even a razor! Could be a barber, for that matter. Or any man who shaves himself.” He seemed annoyed, as if his inability to narrow his answer stung him like some kind of guilt.
“Or any housewife with a kitchen,” the sergeant added.
Monk glanced at him.
“Sorry, sir.” The man lowered his eyes.
“No need,” Monk replied. “You’re right. Could be anyone at all.” He turned to Overstone again. “What about the woman herself? What can you tell me?”
Overstone shrugged in a gesture of futility. “Mid-forties. Quite healthy, as far as I can tell at a quick examination,” he replied. “About five foot four. Fairish hair, bit of gray at the sides. Blue eyes, pleasant face but no remarkable features. Good teeth; I suppose that’s unusual. Very white. Slight crossover at the front. I imagine when she smiled that might have been attractive.” He looked down at the worn, wooden floor. “Sometimes I hate this bloody job!”
Then instantly he lifted his head and the moment’s weakness was past. “Might be able to say more tomorrow. One thing I can tell you now, with mutilation like this, feelings are going to run very high. As soon as word gets out there’ll be fear, anger, then maybe panic. I don’t envy you.”
Monk turned to the sergeant. “You’d best keep it as quiet as you can,” he ordered. “Don’t give any details. The family doesn’t need to know them, anyway. If she had one. Don’t suppose anyone’s been reported missing?”
“No, sir,” the sergeant replied unhappily. “And we’ll try.” But his words lacked conviction.
Monk and Orme began near Limehouse Pier and worked along the stretch of Narrow Street, north and south, asking everyone they passed, or in the shops now open, if they had seen anyone going toward the pier the previous evening. Did they know anyone who would return home that way after work, or prostitutes who might seek customers in the area?
The description of the woman was too general for the police to try to identify her: average height, fair brown hair, blue eyes. And it was too early for anyone to be considered missing.
They were told of several prostitutes, even one or two people who liked to walk that route, as Narrow Street offered a pleasant view of the river in places. They gathered a dozen names.
They moved inland up the alleys to Northey Street, Orme in one direction, Monk the other, asking the same questions. It was cold, but the wind had dropped and there was no rain. The low winter sun held no heat.
Monk was walking along the footpath in Ropemakers Fields when a small woman in gray came out of a door carrying a bundle of laundry balanced on her hip. Monk stopped almost in front of her.
“Excuse me, do you live here?” he asked.
She looked him up and down suspiciously. He was dressed in his usual dark, plain clothes, like those a waterman might wear, but the cut was far better, as if a tailor had made them rather than a chandler. His speech was precise, his voice gentle, and he stood with both grace and confidence.
“Yeah . . . ,” she said guardedly. “ ’Oo are yer as wants ter know?”
“Commander Monk of the River Police,” he replied. “I’m looking for anyone who might have heard a fight last night, a woman screaming, perhaps a man shouting at her.”
She sighed and rolled her eyes wearily. “If I ever ’ave a night when I don’t ’ear nobody fighting I’ll tell yer. In fact, I’ll tell the bleedin’ newspapers. Now, if yer don’t mind, I got work ter do.” She pushed her hair out of her eyes and with an irritable gesture began to move past him.
Monk stepped sideways to block her way. “This wasn’t an ordinary fight. The woman was killed. Probably an hour or two after dark, on Limehouse Pier.”
“Wot kind of woman?” she asked him, her face suddenly frightened, mouth drawn tight with a new anxiety.
“About forty or so,” he replied. He saw her face relax. He guessed she had daughters who passed that way, possibly even stood around gossiping or flirting. “She was an inch or two taller than you, fair hair with a little gray in it. Quite pretty, in a quiet way.” He remembered the teeth. “Probably a nice smile.”
“Dunno,” the woman with the laundry answered. “Don’t sound like no one as I ever seen. Yer sure she were forty, like?”
“Yes. And she was wearing ordinary clothes, not like a woman looking for business,” he added. “And there was no paint on her face that we could see.” He felt callous speaking of her like that. He had robbed her of character, of humor or dreams, likes and dislikes; probably because he wanted to rob her also of her terror. Please God, she did not know what had happened to her afterward. He hoped she had not even seen the blade.
“Then ’er ’usband done ’er in,” the woman replied, pulling an expression of weary grief. “But I dunno ’oo she is. Could be anyone.” She pushed a few trailing hairs back off her face again and adjusted the weight of the laundry bag on her hip.
Monk thanked her and moved on. He stopped other people, both men and women, asking the same questions and getting more or less the same answers. No one recognized the woman from Monk’s description of her. No one admitted to being anywhere near Limehouse Pier after dark, which at this time of the year was about five o’clock in the afternoon. The evening had been overcast and damp. Little work was possible after that. No one had heard shouting or anything that sounded like a fight. They were all keen to go home and eat, find a little warmth and possibly a pint or two of ale.
Monk met up with Orme at noon. They had a cup of hot tea and a ham sandwich at the corner stand, finding a little shelter in a doorway as they spoke, coat collars turned up.
“Nobody’s seen or heard anything,” Orme said unhappily. “Not that I expected them to. Word’s out already that it’s pretty bad. All suddenly blind and deaf.” He took another bite of his ham sandwich.
“Not surprising,” Monk answered, sipping his tea. It was hot and a bit too strong, but he was used to it. It was nothing like the fresh, fragrant tea at home. This was probably made hours ago, and added to with boiling water every time it got low. “Ruby Jones probably told her friends, and they told theirs. It’ll be all over Limehouse by this afternoon.”
“They should be frightened enough to want this butcher caught,” Orme said between his teeth.
“They’re shutting their eyes and pretending it’s all miles away,” Monk replied. “Can’t blame them. I would if I could. That’s how half the bad things happen. We don’t want to know, don’t want to be involved. If the victim did something wrong, something stupid, and brought it on themselves, if we stay out of it then it won’t happen to us.”
“But it isn’t miles away,” Orme said softly. He was leaning a little against a stanchion, gazing far away into the distance. Monk had no idea what he saw in it. There were startling moments when he felt he knew Orme intimately because of the bitter and terrible experiences they had shared, things that were understood but could never be put into words. But there were far more days like this when they worked together with mutual respect, something bordering on a kind of friendship, but the difference between them was never forgotten, at least not by Orme. “It’s right here. Unless she came here by boat. Either way, she was killed there on the pier, and then cut open like that.” His mouth tightened. His face was very pale under his windburn. “Or I suppose they could’ve killed her somewhere else, and then cut her here?” he suggested, his voice grating in his throat.
“She wouldn’t have bled like that if she’d been dead awhile,” Monk replied. “Overstone said that from the way the blood was, and the bruising, he reckoned she was just recently dead.”
Orme swore under his breath, then apologized.
Monk waved his hand, dismissing it.
They both stood on the cold stones of the street, saying nothing for several moments. Other people were coming for the tea, their footsteps loud on the cobbles. Somewhere a dog was barking.
“Do you think they could’ve cut her up like that in the dark?” Orme finally broke the silence. “Not seeing what they were doing?”
Monk looked at him. “There were no streetlamps where we found her. Either they did it in the dark, or while there was still some daylight left.”
“Why there, anyway?” Orme asked. He tightened his hunched shoulders as if his jacket were not enough to keep him warm. “It’s not a place a prostitute would take a man. The riding lights of a barge would illuminate you long enough to be seen.”
“Maybe they were seen,” Monk thought aloud. “From the distance, a man struggling with a woman could look like an embrace. Lightermen would just laugh at his boldness doing it out in the open, a kind of bravado. They would think he was taking his pleasure, not killing her.”
“Not much point looking for anyone who saw,” Orme said unhappily. “They could be anywhere by now, from Henley to Gravesend.”
“Wouldn’t help us much anyway,” Monk replied. “They’d have no way of knowing if it was her they saw, or any other couple.” The thought depressed him. A woman could be murdered and gutted like a fish, out in the open, in full view of the ships going past, on the most populous river in the world, and no one notice or understand what was happening.
He straightened up, eating the last of his sandwich. He had to choke it down. There was nothing wrong with it, but his mouth was dry. The bread tasted like sawdust.
“We’d best see if we can find out who she was,” he said. “Not that it will necessarily help us much. She was probably just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“There’ll still be people to tell,” Orme responded. “Friends, even a husband.”
Monk did not answer. He knew it. It was the worst part of the beginning in any murder case: telling those who had cared about the victim. In the end, the worst was finding the person who had done it, and those who cared about them.
Together they walked back up Narrow Street to the corner of Ropemakers Fields and then along it slowly. On the north side there were alleys every few dozen yards. Some led up to Triangle Place, and then on to the workhouse.
They asked there, giving as good a description of the dead woman as they could, but no one was missing. In any case, the dead woman’s hands had not looked like those of a woman used to physical labor: red from long hours wet or submerged in caustic soap, scrubbing floors or laundering, or calloused from the constant prick of the needle while sewing canvas.