When the womanizing aristocrat George March is found dead over his morning coffee, the immediate concern of his shocked Cardington Crescent household is quieting the scandal as discreetly—and quickly—as possible. Unfortunately for March’s wife, Emily, that means accusing her of the murder. But the family does not take into account Emily’s beloved sister, who is none other than the indomitable Charlotte Pitt. Together, Charlotte and her husband, police inspector Thomas Pitt, take on the seemingly irreproachable, upper-crust March clan and uncover an insidious web of corruption and depravity that leads them from the elegant Crescent town house to the hideous London slums, and from genteel society to murder—again.
About the Author
Anne Perry is the bestselling author of two acclaimed series set in Victorian England: the Charlotte and Thomas Pitt novels, including Death on Blackheath and Midnight at Marble Arch, and the William Monk novels, including Blood on the Water and Blind Justice. She is also the author of a series of five World War I novels, as well as twelve holiday novels, most recently A New York Christmas, and a historical novel, The Sheen on the Silk, set in the Ottoman Empire. Anne Perry lives in Los Angeles and Scotland.
Hometown:Portmahomack, Ross-shire, U.K
Date of Birth:October 28, 1938
Place of Birth:Blackheath, London England
Read an Excerpt
By Anne Perry
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1987 Anne Perry
All rights reserved.
Mrs. Peabody was hot and out of breath. It was midsummer; her stays imprisoned her unyieldingly and her gown, with its fashionable bustle, was far too heavy to allow her to go chasing down the pavement after a willful dog that was fast disappearing through the wrought-iron churchyard gates.
"Clarence!" Mrs. Peabody cried out furiously. "Clarence! Come back here at once!"
But Clarence, who was fat and middle-aged and should have known better, squirmed through the gap and shot away into the long grass and the laurel bushes on the other side of the railings. Mrs. Peabody, gasping with annoyance and clinging on to her broad hat with one hand, sending it rakishly over her eyes, tried with the other to force the gates open far enough to allow her extremely ample form to pass through.
The late Mr. Peabody had preferred women of generous proportions. He had said so frequently. A man's wife should reflect his position in life: dignified and substantial.
But it took more aplomb than Mrs. Peabody possessed to remain dignified while caught by one's bosom in a churchyard gate with one's hat askew and a dog yelping like a fiend a dozen yards away.
"Clarence!" she shrieked again and, drawing in her breath, gave a mighty heave, which had the opposite effect from the one desired. She let out a wail of desperation, and struggled through, her bustle now alarmingly closer to her left hip.
Clarence was barking hysterically and scuffling in the laurel bushes. The ground was dry after a week without rain and he was sending up spurts of dust. But he had his prize, a very large, sodden-looking parcel wrapped in brownish paper and tied securely with twine. Under Clarence's determined efforts it was now torn in several places and beginning to come undone.
"Drop it!" Mrs. Peabody commanded. Clarence ignored her. "Drop it!" she repeated, wrinkling her nose in distaste. It was really very unpleasant; it appeared to be kitchen leavings—unusable meat. "Clarence!"
The dog ripped off a large piece of the paper, wet with blood and coming away easily. Then she saw it—skin. Human skin, pale and soft. She screamed; then as Clarence exposed more of it she screamed again, and again, and again, until her lungs were bursting and she could not find breath and the world spun round her in a red haze. She fell to the ground, unaware of Clarence, still tugging at the parcel, and passersby forcing their way through the stuck gate in alarm.
Inspector Thomas Pitt looked up from his desk, strewn with paper, glad of the interruption. "What is it?"
Police Constable Stripe stood in the doorway, his face a little pink above his stiff collar, his eyes blinking.
"I'm sorry, sir, but there's a report of a disturbance in St. Mary's churchyard in Bloomsbury. An elderly person 'avin' 'ysterics. Quite respectable, and locally known—and doesn't touch the gin. 'Usband was Temperance, 'afore 'e died. Never bin a nuisance in the past."
"Perhaps she's ill?" Pitt suggested. "Doesn't need more than a constable, does it? Maybe a doctor?"
"Well, sir." Stripe looked distressed. "Seems 'er dog ran away and found this parcel in the bushes, an' she thought it was part of a person. That's what gave 'er 'ysterics."
"What on earth do you mean, 'part of a person'?" Pitt demanded irritably. He liked young Wilberforce Stripe; he was normally keen and reliable. This vague story was unlike him. "What's in this parcel?"
"Well, that's it, Mr. Pitt, sir. The constable on the beat says 'e 'asn't touched it more'n necessary afore you get there, sir, but by 'is reckoning that's just what it is—a part of a woman's body. The—er ..." He was clearly embarrassed. He did not wish to be indelicate, yet was aware that a policeman should be precise. He placed one hand across his waist and the other across his neck. "The top 'alf, sir."
Pitt stood up, papers cascading off his lap onto the floor and remaining there. In spite of his seventeen years in London, where the sumptuous and elegant heart of the Empire disported itself a stone's throw from slums that teemed with poverty so intense rotting tenements stood stacked against each other, fifteen people to a room living and dying together, he had not ceased to be shocked by the savagery of crime. He could not grasp the mass—the mind refused. But the pain of the individual still had power to move him.
"Then we'd better go and see," he replied, ignoring the disarray around him and leaving his hat on the stand where he had thrown it on arriving in the morning.
"Yes, sir." Stripe fell in behind him, following Pitt's familiar disheveled figure along the corridor, down the steps past several other constables, and into the hot and dusty street. An empty hansom clattered past them, not believing Pitt, with his coattails flapping and his tie askew, to prove a likely fare. Stripe, in uniform, was not even worth considering.
Pitt waved his arm and ran a few steps. "Cabbie!" he shouted, his anger directed not at the personal slight but against all crime in general, and this one he was going to pursue in particular.
The cabbie drew rein and looked at him with disfavor. "Yes, sir?"
"St. Mary's churchyard, Bloomsbury." Pitt scrambled in and held the door for Stripe, behind him.
"Will that be the east side or the west side?" the cabbie inquired.
"The back gate, off the avenue," Stripe put in helpfully.
"Thank you," Pitt acknowledged; then, to the cabbie, "Get on with it, man!"
The cabbie flicked the whip and made encouraging sounds, and they moved off, rapidly increasing to a trot. They rode in silence, each absorbed in his own speculations as to what they might find.
"This 'ere where you wanta be, sir?" the cabbie leaned down and asked dubiously.
"Yes." Pitt had already seen the little knot of people and the harassed constable in the middle. It was an ordinary, rather seedy suburban churchyard; dusty, grass dry with the summer heat, gravestones uneven and ornate, marble angels, and over on the right before the yew trees, a clump of dark laurels.
He climbed out, paid the driver, then crossed the pavement and spoke to the constable, who was obviously overwhelmed with relief to see him.
"What have you got?" Pitt asked dourly.
The constable jerked his elbow towards the high, spiked railings but did not turn his head. His face was pale and there was a heavy beading of sweat on his lip and across his brow. He looked wretched. "Top 'alf of a woman's body, sir." He swallowed hard. "Pretty 'orrible, it is. It was under them bushes."
"Who found it, and when?"
"A Mrs. Ernestine Peabody, out walking 'er Pekingese dog by the name o' Clarence." He glanced down at his notebook. Pitt read from it upside down; 15th June, 1887, 3:25 P.M., called to St. Mary's churchyard, woman screaming.
"Where is she now?" Pitt asked.
"Sittin' on the seat in the church vestibule, sir. She's took pretty bad, an' I said as soon as you'd spoke to 'er she could go 'ome. It's my opinion, sir, as she won't be much use to us."
"Probably not," Pitt agreed. "Where is this ... parcel?"
"Where I found it, sir! I didn't touch it more'n to make sure she wasn't 'avin'—delusions, like. On the gin."
Pitt went to the gates, heavy wrought iron and stuck fast, a little over a foot apart, wedged in the ruts of the dried mud. He squeezed through and walked along the inside of the railing till he came to the laurel bushes. He knew Stripe was immediately behind him.
The parcel was about nineteen inches square, lying where Clarence had left it, paper torn and pulled away to expose the meatlike flesh and several inches of fine-grained, white skin smeared a little with blood. There were flies beginning to gather. He did not have to touch it to see that the portion showing was part of a woman's breast.
He straightened up, feeling so sick he was afraid he was going to faint. He breathed deeply—in and out, in and out—and heard Stripe blundering away, choking and retching behind a gravestone carved with cherubs.
After a moment of staring at the dusty stones, the trodden grass, and the tiny yellow spots like pinheads on the laurel leaves, he forced himself to turn back to the dreadful parcel. There were details to note; the kind and color of the paper, the twine that wound it, the type of knots. People left their mark—tied string loosely or tightly, length or width first, made slipknots, running knots, tied at each crossover or merely looped. And there were a dozen different ways of finishing off.
He blanked from his mind what was inside it and knelt to examine it, turning it over gingerly when he had seen all he could from the top. It was thick paper, a little shiny on the inside, two layers of it. He had often seen such paper used for tying parcels of linen. It was strong and usually crackled a little if touched—only this was wet with blood and made no sound, even when he turned it. Inside the brown paper was clear, greased kitchen paper, another two layers, the sort butchers sometimes use. Whoever had wrapped this hideous thing must have imagined it would hold the blood.
The string was unusual—coarse, hairy twine, yellow rather than white, wrapped lengthways and widthways twice and knotted at each join, and finally tied with a loop and two raw ends about an inch and a half long.
He took out his notebook and wrote it down, though it was all something he would like to forget—wipe totally from his memory. If he could.
Stripe was coming back, awkwardly, embarrassed by his loss of composure. He did not know what to say.
Pitt said it for him. "There must be more. We'd better organize a search."
Stripe cleared his throat. "More ... Yes, Mr. Pitt. But where should we start? Could be anywhere!"
"Won't be very far." Pitt stood up, knees stiff. "You don't carry that sort of thing longer than you have to. Certainly not further than you can walk. Even a lunatic doesn't get into a hansom or a public omnibus with a bundle like that under his arm. Should be within a radius of a mile at the outside."
Stripe's brows went up. "Would 'e walk a mile, sir? I wouldn't. More like five 'undred yards, if that."
"Five hundred in each direction," Pitt answered. "Somewhere five hundred yards from here." He waved his arm round the compass.
"In each ..." Stripe's blue eyes were confused.
Pitt put the thought into words. "Must be a whole body altogether. That's about six parcels, roughly this size. He couldn't carry them all at once, unless he used a barrow. And I doubt he'd draw attention to himself by doing that. He certainly wouldn't be likely to borrow one, and who owns barrows except tradesmen and costers? But we'll check for any seen in this area, either yesterday or today."
"Yes, sir." Stripe was intensely relieved to have something to do. Anything was better than standing there helplessly while the flies buzzed round the appalling heap in the grass.
"Send a message back to the station that we need half a dozen constables. And the mortuary cart, and the surgeon."
"Yes, sir." Stripe forced himself to look down once more, perhaps because he felt somehow callous disregarding the enormity of it, walking away without some acknowledgment. It was the same instinct that makes one take off one's hat at the sight of a hearse passing in the street, even though one has no idea who is dead.
Pitt walked between the gravestones, curled and decorated, marred by weeds, and came to the graveled entrance to the church. The door was open and it was cool inside. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the gloom and the hazy colored splashes on the stones from the stained glass. A large woman was collapsed, half prostrate, on a wooden seat, her hat on the floor beside her, the neck of her dress undone. The sexton's wife, holding a glass of water in one hand and a bottle of ammonia smelling salts in the other, was muttering something comforting. They both looked round, startled, as Pitt's footsteps sounded on the floor. A ginger-colored Pekingese dog was asleep in the doorway in the sun and ignored him completely.
She stared at him with a mixture of suspicion and anticipation. It was not entirely displeasing to be the epicenter of such a drama—providing, of course, that everyone understood she had no connection with it but that of an innocent woman drawn in by chance.
"I am she," she said somewhat unnecessarily.
Pitt had met many Mrs. Peabodys before, and he knew not only what she felt now but what nightmares were to come. He sat down on the bench beside her, a yard away.
"You must be extremely distressed"—he hurried on as she drew in a gasp of breath to tell him precisely how much—"so I will trouble you as little as possible. When was the last time you walked your dog past the churchyard?"
Her carefully arched eyebrows shot up into her rather sandy hairline. "I don't think you understand, young man! I am not in the habit of finding such ... such ..." She could frame no words for the quite genuine horror that seized her.
"I'm sure," Pitt said grimly. "I assume that if it had been there the last time, your dog would have found it then."
Mrs. Peabody, in spite of her shock, was not without common sense. She saw the point immediately. "Oh. I came this way yesterday afternoon, and Clarence did not ..." She trailed off, not liking to complete such an unnecessary remark.
"I see. Thank you. Do you know if Clarence pulled the parcel out from under the bushes, or was it already out?"
She shook her head.
It did not matter, except that had it been in the open it would probably have been noticed earlier. Almost certainly, whoever had put it there had taken the time to hide it also. There was really nothing else to ask her but her name and address.
He left them and went outside again into the heat and began to think about organizing a search. It was half past four.
By seven o'clock they had found them all. It was a grim business; going down the steps into disused areaways, sifting through refuse in rubbish cans that could be reached from the street, poking under bushes and behind railings. Parcel by parcel the rest were retrieved. The worst was in a narrow and fetid alley just over a mile from the churchyard, in the sour tenements of St. Giles. It should have provided the first clue to her identity, but as with two of the others, feral cats had discovered it first, led by scent and their ever devouring hunger. There was nothing recognizable now but long, fair hair and a crushing injury to the skull.
The long summer day did not darken till ten in the evening. Pitt trudged from door to door asking, pleading, occasionally bullying an unfortunate servant into an admission of guilt for some domestic misdemeanor—perhaps an illicit flirtation that had held them on the back steps longer than usual—but no one admitted to having seen anything remotely relevant. There had been no costermongers but those on long known and legitimate business, no residents or strangers carrying mysterious parcels, no one hurrying furtively, and no one reported missing.
Pitt was back at the police station as the sun set cherry-red over the roofs, and the gaslights came on in the fashionable thoroughfares like so many straying moons. Inside, the station smelled of closed doors, heat, the sharpness of ink, and brand new linoleum on the floor. The police surgeon was waiting for him, shirt sleeves still rolled up and stained, his waistcoat done up on the wrong buttons. He looked tired, and there was a smear of blood across his nose.
"Well?" Pitt asked wearily.
"Young woman." The man sat down without being asked. "Fair hair, fair skin. As near as one can tell, she might have been quite good-looking. She certainly wasn't any beggar. Hands were clean, no broken nails, but she'd done a bit of housework. My first guess would be a parlormaid, but it's only a guess." He sighed. "And she'd had a child, but not within the last few months."
Pitt sat down behind his desk and leaned on his elbows. "How old?"
Excerpted from Cardington Crescent by Anne Perry. Copyright © 1987 Anne Perry. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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