The Affinity Bridge
A Newbury & Hobbes Investigation
By George Mann
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2009 George Mann
All rights reserved.
LONDON, NOVEMBER 1901
The room was full of ghosts.
Or so Felicity Johnson would have had him believe. Sir Maurice Newbury, weary from a day spent scouring the dusty stacks of the British Library, drummed his fingers on the table with a quiet impatience. The dinner party was not working out at all as he'd anticipated.
Around him, the other guests sat in a wide circle, spaced evenly around a large round table, their faces glowing in the dim light of the gas-lamps. Overturned tumblers, tarot cards, holly leaves and other assorted paraphernalia littered the table-top, and their host, her shrill voice piercing in the otherwise silent room, was attempting to raise the dead.
Newbury, decidedly unimpressed by the charade, glanced at the other guests around the table. Their faces were difficult to read in the half-light, but many of them appeared captivated by the performance of the woman as she waved her arms about her, wailing, her eyes shut tight, her body tensed; possessed, apparently, by some kind of unearthly spirit. She was currently engaged in babbling something about Meredith York's dead brother, and the poor woman was entirely taken in, sobbing on her husband's arm as if she truly believed she were receiving messages from beyond the grave.
Newbury shot a look at the man seated beside him and shrugged. Sir Charles Bainbridge was a Chief Inspector at Scotland Yard, a favoured agent of Queen Victoria herself and one of the most rational men in Newbury's acquaintance. He didn't think for a minute that his old friend would be taken in by any of this nonsense. He was older than Newbury, about ten years his senior, and was greying slightly around the temples. His moustache was bushy and full, and his eyes were bright, shining with mischief and the glassy patina of alcohol. Acknowledging the pained expression on his friend's face, Bainbridge offered an amused smile, the flickering light casting his face in stark relief. Clearly, he was considerably more forgiving of the indulgences of their host. Newbury shook his head in exasperation.
A few moments later, Miss Johnson fell back into her chair with a gasp, her eyes suddenly flicking open, her hands raised to her mouth in affected shock. She turned to survey her guests. "Did I —?"
Meredith York nodded emphatically, and a moment later, when the gas-lamps were turned up and the room was once again cast in a warm orange glow, the small audience paid tribute to their host with a hearty round of applause. Newbury sat back in his chair, relieved that the spectacle was over. He rubbed a hand over his face, feeling a sense of lethargy creeping over him. The other guests were already deep in conversation as he surveyed the scene with the air of someone ready to take their leave. He didn't want to be drawn out on his opinions of the evening's pursuit, lest he inadvertently cause offence. He patted his friend on the arm.
"Charles?" The other man turned to meet his gaze. Newbury stifled a yawn. "My lodgings beckon me. I'm intent on taking a stroll. Would you care to join me?"
Bainbridge allowed himself a brief chuckle at the other man's expense. "That keen to get away, Newbury?" He shook his head in feigned disapproval, but his smile was barely concealed. "I had a feeling that you'd find this all rather objectionable. Come on, let's bid our friends good night and take our leave."
The two men stood together, and Felicity Johnson almost leapt out of her seat when she spotted them out of the corner of her eye. She briefly patted Meredith York on the back of the hand before turning to regard them. "Oh, gentlemen, must you go so soon?"
Newbury edged around the table and took her hand. "I am afraid that duty calls, my dear Miss Johnson. Both Charles and I have early appointments to keep in the morning. Thank you for a pleasant evening." He paused, unsure how to go on. "It has been an ... entertaining diversion." He inclined his head politely and turned to reclaim his coat from the butler standing by the door. The woman's face fell, and she stammered briefly before replying. "Always a pleasure, Sir Maurice." She turned to Bainbridge, who was just collecting his cane from the hat stand in the hallway. "And you, Sir Charles. I do hope we will see you both again soon." And with that, she returned her attention to the adoration of Meredith York and her other guests.
* * *
Outside, the pavement was covered in a layer of hoary frost. Newbury turned his collar up against the biting winter chill. The moon was full in the sky, the night was clear and people bustled along the street, their breaths making foggy clouds in the cold air. Newbury drew the crisp air deep into his lungs, obviously relieved to have escaped further embarrassment at the hands of Miss Johnson.
Bainbridge, his cane clicking rhythmically against the ground as he walked, turned to Newbury as they made their way back towards Piccadilly. "Really, Newbury, did you have to cut her so?"
"Oh, Charles, the woman's a buffoon! She's trifling with things she has no real concept of, making light of Mrs. York's bereavement. Games like that are dangerous and hurtful." He shook his head, sighing. "I did not aim to cause offence. I simply wanted to let her know that we were not taken in by her little merriment. You know as well as I do, there were no spirits present in that room."
They stopped as a ground train trundled by, the huge steam engine roaring as the fireman stoked the flames, the carriages behind it bouncing along the cobbled road, their wooden wheels creaking under the strain. Newbury caught stuttering glimpses of the people inside the small carriages as they rushed by, snug inside their little booths, speeding on towards their destinations. The driver, on the other hand, was wrapped up warm against the elements, sitting atop the engine itself on a large dickey box, a huge steering wheel clasped between his gloved hands. They watched as it rattled away into the night, causing hansom cabs and more traditional horse-drawn carriages to divert from their paths. Newbury smiled. It was time for the past to make way for the future.
The two men crossed the road and continued on their way. Newbury decided it was time to change the subject. "So, tell me, Charles, any new developments in the case at hand?"
The other man sighed. "Not as such. Can't seem to get past this ridiculous story about the glowing policeman. It's making life very difficult for my constables. They keep being accosted out on their rounds. No one will answer their questions, and the men themselves don't want to go out at night, lest they find themselves running into this damnable fellow. Superstitious prigs!"
Newbury looked suddenly serious. "Charles" — he patted the other man on the shoulder — "look who has his ire up now! Don't be so swift to discount these stories, at least before we have any real evidence to the contrary."
Bainbridge looked incredulous. "Heavens, Newbury, surely you're not putting any stock in these ridiculous tales? They are clearly as much poppycock as Miss Johnson's spirits!"
Newbury hesitated. "Look, Charles, I know I was dismissive of Miss Johnson, but I've spent the entire day scouring shelves in the British Library, looking for references to a glowing policeman, and I assure you, there is more to it than meets the eye."
Bainbridge stopped in his tracks. He leaned on his cane. "How so?"
"There's a case from about twelve years ago. A bobby who was murdered by a gang of petty thieves — found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. You know the sort of thing." Bainbridge nodded. "Well, for a month after the body was interred, a 'glowing bobby' was seen looming out of the fog around the Whitechapel area, his pale skin shining an iridescent blue. One by one, the bodies of the thieves turned up, all strangled, all dumped in the same area of the city. Witnesses reported sightings of the dead constable, come back from the grave to seek revenge on his aggressors. After the last of the thieves turned up dead, the 'glowing bobby' was never seen again." He paused. "Until now, that is. I pieced the story together from various newspaper reports."
Bainbridge shrugged. "It was probably the other boys from the station, using the story as a cover to take revenge for the murder. They don't take kindly to one of their own being put in the soil."
Newbury nodded. "That may well be the case, but until we know more, I think we need to follow this line of inquiry. It may turn out to be nothing but poppycock, but we shouldn't dismiss it until we've had the opportunity to investigate a little further first."
"Very well." Bainbridge covered his mouth with the back of his hand as he coughed. "Come on, let's get out of this cold."
Newbury sauntered along beside him. "Would you care to join me for a nightcap at the White Friar's? They have a shockingly good brandy."
Bainbridge was about to reply when a sudden powerful gust of wind knocked them both back a step, and the older man found himself clinging to his hat to ensure it wasn't lost in the draught. He looked up. "Damn airships! I wish they wouldn't fly them so low over the city."
Newbury laughed, following his gaze. The underbelly of an immense vessel was scudding overhead, scintillating in the reflected light of the city and temporarily blotting out the moon, casting the two men in a dark shadow. The airship companies had been enjoying a period of rapid growth in recent months, with demand for air travel almost exceeding their capacity to build new vessels and clear space for berthing fields. The appearance of a sizeable ship such as this was becoming a frequent occurrence in the skies over London, as the Empire grew larger and an increasing number of people found profitable business abroad. With the haulage companies taking to the skies, too, there was no longer any need to relocate to foreign climes on a permanent basis, and many businessmen had taken the opportunity to set up subsidiary companies in India, America and the West Indies. Newbury himself had never travelled on one of the vessels, but he was certainly enamored with them, and watched in wonder as this one drifted lazily overhead, en route, he supposed, to a berthing field south of the city. He glanced back at Bainbridge, who had finally finished repositioning his hat. "Well? To the White Friar's?"
Bainbridge shook his head. "Not tonight, old friend. You've given me much to think about, and I must say that that pudding of Miss Johnson's is sitting rather heavily on me now. Don't have quite the constitution I used to."
Newbury smiled. "You'll hear no argument from me." He held out his hand, and the other man grasped it firmly. "Let me know if there are any further developments in the case. In the meantime, I bid you well and good night." He turned and made off in the direction of the White Friar's Club, gazing up at the sky in wonder at the vapour trails left in the wake of the passing airship.
Newbury leaned back in his chair and, with a sigh, spread his morning copy of The Times out before him on the desk. After retiring from the White Friar's Club the previous evening, he'd found he was unable to sleep. Nonetheless, with the coming of the dawn, he had risen, dressed and caught a cab across the city from his Chelsea lodgings to his office at the British Museum. He had little doubt that his housekeeper, Mrs. Bradshaw, would curse him colourfully in her delightful Scottish tones for failing — yet again — to inform her of his plans, but he also knew that she was growing used to his unpredictable comings-and-goings, even if she feigned exasperation to his face.
Outside, the sun was settling over the city, and the streets were gradually coming to life as people set about their daily business. Soon the museum would be bustling with his fellow academics and, not long after, with members of the public, come to gaze in awe and wonder at the treasures on display in the gaudy exhibits. Newbury had been an agent of the Queen for nearly four years, and whilst he was typically engaged in some case or other — whether helping Scotland Yard or left to his own devices — he continued to maintain a position at the museum all the same. He was an experienced anthropologist, with a particular speciality in the religion and supernatural practices of prehistoric human cultures, and he often found his academic work had resonance with his work in the field. At present, he was engaged in writing a paper on the ritualistic practices of the druidic tribes of Bronze Age Europe. He'd hardly found time to touch it for a week, however, what with the string of bizarre strangulations occurring around Whitechapel and his desire to aid his old friend, Bainbridge, in the hunt for the killer. Discovering that the culprit may have supernatural origins had only solidified his resolve to see the case through to the end, and what's more, the revelation put the case firmly and directly into his specific area of expertise. Since briefing the Queen with a missive the previous day, any time he spent aiding Bainbridge with his investigations was now considered official business.
Newbury yawned. It was still early, and his secretary had yet to arrive at the office. He was anxious for a cup of tea. He regarded the newspaper before him, paying no real attention to the article he'd been trying to follow, which concerned a politician involved in some lurid financial scandal. He was dressed in a neat black suit, a white shirt and crimson cravat. His hair was dark — the very colour of night itself — and swept back from his face, and he was clean-shaven. His eyes were a startling emerald green. A casual observer would have placed him in his early thirties, but in truth, he was approaching his fortieth year. He looked up at the sound of someone bustling into the adjoining room and called out, "Good morning, Miss Coulthard. I'd like a pot of tea when you're settled, please." He returned, distractedly, to his reading.
A moment later, there was a brief rap at his door. He didn't look up from his newspaper when the door itself swung open and someone crossed into the room. "Thank you, Miss Coulthard. I trust you are well?"
The woman cleared her throat. Newbury's eyes flicked up from the print. "Oh, my dear Miss Hobbes. I do apologise." He fumbled for a moment, unsure how to remedy his error. "I'm afraid I'm still getting used to the notion that another person will be sharing my office. Do come in." He half stood behind his desk, embarrassment clearly written on his face, as his recently hired assistant, Miss Veronica Hobbes, crossed the room and took a seat before him. She was pretty: brunette, in her early twenties, with a dainty but full figure, and dressed in a white blouse, grey jacket and matching skirt.
She smiled. "Please don't apologise, Sir Maurice. It takes more than a little case of mistaken identity to offend me."
Newbury returned her smile. "Very good. Let's get you settled in, then, shall we? But first ... I don't suppose you're at all handy with a kettle?"
* * *
An hour later, fortified by a constant supply of Earl Grey, the office had become a hive of activity. Newbury was working through his notes from the previous day, trying to make sense of the various newspaper reports and apparent sightings of the "glowing bobby" around Whitechapel. He was wearing a frown, lost in thought and deep concentration.
Veronica was hard at work, clearing the spare desk across the other side of the room, unpacking her small box of belongings and filing the many sheaves of abandoned notes she continued to find in drawers and random piles all around the office. She had placed her jacket over the back of her chair, rolled up the sleeves of her blouse and attacked the mess like it was some sort of villain in need of appeasing. Newbury was suitably impressed by her fastidiousness.
It was into this scene that a distraught Miss Coulthard came running, late, her hastily tied bun coming loose so that strands of her hair flapped around her face as she came to rest in the doorway, breathless. Both Newbury and Veronica looked up in concern.
Newbury was on his feet immediately, worry etched on his face. "My dear Miss Coulthard, whatever is the matter?"
The woman cowered, as if afraid of what she had to say. Veronica offered her a heartfelt smile.
"Oh, sir, it's my brother Jack. He disappeared yesterday, and we've every fear that he may have succumbed to that terrible plague."
Newbury shuffled uneasily. "I understand your concern completely, Miss Coulthard. Look —" He indicated his visitor's chair. "— come and take a seat for a while, and Miss Hobbes here will fetch you a hot cup of tea." He glanced at Veronica apologetically, and she waved dismissively before hurrying off into the other room to organise another pot of tea.
Newbury put a hand on Miss Coulthard's arm to reassure her. "Now, why don't you tell me exactly what you know?" (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Affinity Bridge by George Mann. Copyright © 2009 George Mann. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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