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Death in the Devil's Acre
By Anne Perry
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1985 Anne Perry
All rights reserved.
P.C. Withers sneezed as the icy January wind howled up the alley off the Thames. It was still three hours before dawn, and the gas lamps of the main streets barely lit this dismal passage on the very edge of the Devil's Acre, swarming with filth in the shadow of Westminster itself.
He sneezed again. The smell of the slaughterhouse fifty yards away was thick in his throat, along with the stench of the drains, old refuse, and the grime of years past.
Now that was funny—the yard gate was open! Shouldn't be, rightly—not at this time of the morning. Not important, probably; some apprentice boy forgot to do his job—careless, some lads were. But what meat there was would likely be safe in cold rooms. Still, it was something to do in the long boredom of walking the gray pavements.
He crossed the alley to the cold rooms. Better just look inside, see everything was in order.
He poked his head around. It was silent—just one old drunk dossed down right in the middle. Better move him on, for his own sake, before the slaughtermen arrived and kicked him out. Apt to make a bit of sport of the old boys, some of them were.
"'Ere, dad," he said loudly as he bent down and shook the man's ample shoulder. "Best be gone. You've no business in 'ere. Although as why anyone'd want to choose a place like this to kip, I dunno."
The man did not move.
"Come on, dad!" He shook him harder and lifted his lantern for a better look. Surely the poor old fellow was not frozen to death? Not that he would have been the first P.C. Withers had seen, by any means—and not all of them old either. Plenty of kids not more than a few years froze to death in a hard winter.
The light shone on the man's face. Yes, poor old basket, he was dead; the eyes were open and glazed.
"Funny," he said aloud. "Them as freezes to death usually goes in their sleep." This face had a startled look, as though his death had taken him by surprise. He moved the lantern farther down.
"Oh, God Almighty!" The crotch and thighs of the body were drenched in blood; the brown woolen trousers had been slit open with a knife and the genital organs completely removed. They were lying useless between the knees—bloody, unrecognizable flesh, a mass of scarlet pulp.
The sweat broke out on P.C. Withers' face and froze instantly. He felt sick, and his legs shook uncontrollably. Great God in heaven—what sort of a creature would do that to a man? He staggered backward and leaned against the wall, lowering his head a little to overcome the nausea that engulfed him.
It was several moments before his head cleared enough so he could think what he must do. Call help, that was certain. And get away from here, and from that abomination lying on the ground.
He straightened up, made for the gate, and closed it hard behind him, glad for the slicing wind from the east, even though it carried the raw iciness of the sea with it. Murder was hardly rare in the teeming slums of London in this year of Our Lord, 1887. But this was an act of bestiality unlike anything he had seen before.
He must find another man to stand guard; then he could report in and get his superiors to take charge. Thank heaven he was not senior enough to have to sort out this one!
Two hours later, Inspector Thomas Pitt, holding a lamp, closed the slaughterhouse gate and stood in the yard. He stared down at the corpse, still lying exactly as the constable had found it. In the gray morning light it looked grotesque.
Pitt bent down and lifted the shoulder of the corpse to see if there was anything under it—a weapon perhaps, or further injury. This dismemberment by itself would not account for his death. And surely a man so appallingly violated would have made some attempt to protect himself—to staunch the fountain of blood? The thought was sickening, and he forced it out of his mind. He ignored the cold sweat running on his skin, soaking his shirt.
He looked down the body. There was no blood on the dead man's hands, none at all. Even the nails were clean, which was extraordinary for anyone who frequented an area like this, let alone slept in a slaughterhouse yard!
Searching further, he found a wide, dark stain under the man, matting the cloth of his jacket. It was near the spine, straight through the ribs to the heart. He held the lamp higher for a closer look, but there was no blood anywhere else on the stones. He let out his breath and stood up, unconsciously wiping his hands on the legs of his trousers. Now he could look at the face.
It was a heavy-jowled, broad-nosed face; the skin was faintly plum-colored, the mouth marked with lines of humor. The eyes small and round—the face of a man who enjoyed good living. The body was portly and of barely average height, the hands were strong, plump, and immaculately clean; the hair was gray-brown.
The clothes were made of thick brown wool, baggy in places from wear, and wrinkled over the stomach. There were a few crumbs caught in the folds of the waistcoat. Pitt picked one up, crushed it experimentally in his fingers, and sniffed it. Cheese: Stilton, if he was not mistaken, or something like it. Inhabitants of the Devil's Acre did not dine on Stilton!
There was a noise behind him, a scuffle of feet. He turned to see who it was, glad of company.
"Morning, Pitt. What've you got this time?" It was Meddows, the police surgeon, a man capable of insufferable good cheer at the most inopportune times. But instead of seeming offensive, his voice this time was like a sweet breath of sanity in a terrible nightmare.
"Oh, my good God!" He stood beside Pitt and stared down. "Poor fellow."
"He was stabbed in the back," Pitt said quickly.
"Indeed?" Meddows cocked an eyebrow and looked at Pitt sidewise. "Well, I suppose that's something." He squatted down, balanced his bull's-eye lamp at precisely the right angle, and began to examine the body with care. "Don't need to watch," he remarked without turning his head. "I'll tell you if there's anything interesting. For a start, this mutilation is a pretty rough job—just took a sharp knife and sliced! And there you are!"
"No skill?" Pitt asked quietly as he stared over Meddows' head at the dawn's light reflected in the slaughterhouse windows.
"None at all, just—" Meddows sighed. "Just the most god-awful hate."
Meddows pulled a face. "Who knows? Catch him and then I'll tell you—maybe. Anyway, who is this poor devil. Do you know yet?"
Pitt had not even thought of searching the body. It was the first thing he should have done. Without answering he bent down and began going through the man's pockets.
He found everything he would have expected, except money—and perhaps he had not really expected that. There was a gold watch, very scratched but still working, and a key ring with four keys on it. One of the keys appeared to be a safe key, two were door keys, and one was for a cupboard or drawer, judging by its size—just what any middle-aged, moderately prosperous man might have. There were two handkerchiefs, both grubby but of good Egyptian cotton with finely rolled hems. There were three receipted bills, two for quite ordinary household expenses, the third for a dozen bottles of a highly expensive burgundy—apparently a man of self-indulgence, at least as far as the table was concerned.
But what mattered was that his name and address were on the bills: Dr. Hubert Pinchin, 23 Lambert Gardens—a long way from the Devil's Acre, in social standing and every other aspect of the quality of life, if not so very far as the London sparrow flies. What was Dr. Pinchin doing here in this slaughterhouse yard, appallingly murdered and maimed?
"Well?" Meddows asked.
Pitt repeated the name and address.
Meddows' face creased into comic surprise. "How very unlikely," he observed. "By the way, he was probably unconscious and damn near dead by the time they did this to him." He gestured toward the lower part of the body. "If that's any comfort. I suppose you know about the other one?"
"Other one? What are you talking about? Other what?"
Meddows' face tightened. "Other corpse, man. The other one we found castrated like this. Don't say you didn't know about it?"
Pitt was stunned. How could he have failed to hear of such a monstrosity?
"Some gambler or pimp," Meddows went on. "Other side of the Acre—not your station. But, as I said, he was emasculated, too, poor sod, though not as badly as this one. It looks as if we've got some kind of maniac loose. Managed to keep the papers from making too much of the first one. Victim was the sort of man that's always getting knifed—they do in an occupation of that kind." He stood up slowly, his knees cracking. "But this one's different. He'd seen better times, perhaps, but he still ate well. And I'd say at a guess that his shabbiness might be more of an eccentricity than a lack of means. His suit is pretty worn, but his linen is new—and reasonably clean, not had it on more than a day, by the look of it."
Pitt thought of the Stilton cheese, and the immaculate fingernails. "Yes," he said flatly. He knew Meddows was staring at him, waiting. "All right. I suppose if you've finished here we'd better have him taken away. Do a proper autopsy, and tell me anything else—if there is anything."
Now came the worst part; once again, Pitt mentally debated whether he could delegate the task of informing the family—the widow, if there was one. And, as always, he could not escape the conviction that he must do it himself. If he did not, he would feel he had betrayed both the junior he sent and the bereaved he might have comforted.
He gave all the necessary orders to the men waiting outside. The body must be removed, the yard sealed off and searched for anything at all that might render a clue as to who had done this thing. A search must be initiated for vagrants who had been in the area, for lodgers who might have been returning home, for idle prostitutes, for someone who might have seen something.
Meanwhile he would go to number 23 Lambert Gardens, and inform the household—at this hour probably just sitting down to breakfast—that their master had been murdered.
Pitt was met at the door by an extremely competent butler. "Good morning, sir," the man said politely. Pitt was a stranger to him, and it was too early for a social call.
"Good morning," Pitt answered quietly. "I am from the police. Is this the residence of Dr. Hubert Pinchin?"
"Yes, sir, but I am afraid Dr. Pinchin is not at home at the moment. I can recommend another doctor to you if your need is urgent."
"I don't require a doctor. I'm sorry, I have bad news for you. Dr. Pinchin is dead."
"Oh dear." The butler's face tightened but his composure remained perfect. He moved back a step, allowing Pitt to enter. "You had better come in, sir. Would you be good enough to tell me what happened? It might be easier if I were to break the news to Mrs. Pinchin. I am sure you would be most tactful, but ..." He delicately left the obvious in the air.
"Yes," Pitt said with a relief that struck a spark of guilt in him. "Yes, of course."
"How did it happen, sir?"
"He was attacked, stabbed in the back. I think he probably knew very little pain. I'm sorry."
The butler stared at him in a moment of immobility; then he swallowed. "Murdered?"
"Yes. I'm sorry," Pitt repeated, "Is there someone who can identify the body—perhaps someone other than Mrs. Pinchin? It will be distressing." Should he mention the mutilation now?
The butler had regained his self-possession; he was in command of himself and of the household. "Yes, sir. I will inform Mrs. Pinchin of Dr. Pinchin's death. She has an excellent maid who will care for her. There is another doctor in the neighborhood who will attend her. The footman, Peters, has been with us for twelve years. He will go and identify the body." He hesitated. "I suppose there is no doubt? Dr. Pinchin was a little less than my height, sir, very well built, clean-shaven, and of a rich complexion...." He let the vague hope hang in the air. But it was pointless.
"Yes," Pitt answered. "Did Dr. Pinchin have a suit of rough brown tweed, I should judge of some years' wear?"
"Yes, sir. That is what he was wearing when he left home yesterday."
"Then I am afraid there can be little doubt. But perhaps your footman should make sure before you say anything to Mrs. Pinchin."
"Yes, sir, naturally."
Pitt gave him the address of the mortuary, and then advised him of the nature of the other wounds, and that the newspapers would inevitably make much of it. It would be a kindness to keep the reporters out of the house for as long as possible, until some other event superseded the murder in the public eye.
Pitt left without meeting the widow at all. She had not risen from her bed, and only in his imagination did he see her shock, followed by disbelief, slow acceptance, and finally the beginning of overwhelming pain.
He must, of course, go to see the officer dealing with the other murder that appeared to be so similar. The two crimes may or may not be connected, but to ignore the possibility would be absurd. Perhaps he would even find himself relieved of the case. He would not mind in the least; he felt no sense of proprietorship, as he had in some cases. Whoever had committed this crime had entered a realm far outside the ordinary world of offense and punishment.
As he trod on against the squally wind fluttering rubbish off the pavements, he reflected that he would not mind in the least if they took this one away from him. He crossed the road just before a hansom cab clopped past. A boy who was sweeping a clear path from the horse droppings stopped and rested on his broom. His small hands were chapped red, and his fingers jutted out of the ends of his gloves. A brougham swished by and splattered them both with a mixture of mud and manure.
The boy grinned to see Pitt's irritation. "Oughter've walked on me parf, mister," he said cheerfully. "Then yer'd not get yerself mucked."
Pitt handed him a farthing and agreed with him wryly.
At the police station he was greeted with an unexpected warmth. "Inspector Pitt? Yes, sir. I suppose as you've come about our murder, sir—it being the same as your one this morning, like?"
Pitt was taken aback. How did this young constable know about Hubert Pinchin? His face must have reflected his thoughts, as it often did, because the constable answered the question before Pitt asked it.
"It's in the afternoon extras, sir. Screaming about it, they are. Downright 'orrible. Course I know they write up things something chronic, adding bits to shock people into 'ysterics. But all the same—!"
"I doubt they added anything to this one," Pitt replied dryly. He unwound his muffler and took off his hat. His coat flapped loose, one side longer than the other; he must have done it up on the wrong buttons again. "May I speak to whoever is in charge of your murder, if he's in?"
"Yes, sir, that'll be Inspector Parkins. I reckon as 'e'll be real glad to see you."
Pitt doubted it, but he followed the constable willingly enough into a warm, dark office that smelled of old paper and wax polish. It was larger than his own, and there was a photograph of a woman and four children on the desk. Parkins was a dark, dapper man; he sat dismally looking at a sheaf of papers in his hand. The constable introduced Pitt with a flourish.
Parkins' face lost its lugubrious expression immediately. "Come in," he said heartily. "Come in—sit down. Here, move those files—make yourself comfortable, man. Yes, disgusting affair. You want to know all about it? Found him in the gutter! Dead as mutton. Quite cold—of course no wonder, weather we've been having! Filthy! And it'll get worse. He'd been stabbed in the back, poor devil—long, sharp blade, probably kitchen knife, or something like it." He paused for breath and pulled a face, running his hands through his sparse hair. "Man was a procurer—corpse found by a local prostitute. At any other time, I would have said that was not inappropriate. I suppose you'll want to take the case now, since it's almost certainly connected with yours." He made it a statement.
Pitt was startled. "No!" he said involuntarily. "I thought you—"
"Not at all." Parkins waved his arms as if declining some favor. "Not at all. Senior officer, much more experience than I have. Admired you for the way you handled that Bluegate Fields business." He saw Pitt's surprised expression. "Oh, we get to hear the odd thing, you know. Friends, a word here, word there." He held up a finger and waved it in some vague gesture of understanding.
Excerpted from Death in the Devil's Acre by Anne Perry. Copyright © 1985 Anne Perry. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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