Two women at opposite ends of the social scale, both brutally murdered.
Principal Officer Dan Foster of the Bow Street Runners is surprised when his old rival John Townsend requests his help to investigate the murder of Louise Parmeter, a beautiful writer who once shared the bed of the Prince of Wales. Her jewellery is missing, savagely torn from her body. Her memoirs, which threaten to expose the indiscretions of the great and the good, are also missing.
Frustrated by the chief magistrate’s demand that he drop his investigation into the death of the unknown beggar woman, found savagely raped and beaten and left to die in the outhouse of a Holborn tavern, Dan is determined to get to the bottom of both murders. But as his enquiries take him into both the richest and the foulest places in London, and Townsend’s real reason for requesting his help gradually becomes clear, Dan is forced to face a shocking new reality when the people he loves are targeted by a shadowy and merciless adversary.
The investigation has suddenly got personal.
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Read an Excerpt
If Dan Foster, Principal Officer of Bow Street, had not gone into the office early to escape the chaos of the wedding preparations at home, he would not have taken the case. As it was, he had been the only officer present when the message came. A beggar woman had been found dead in the outhouse of a public house at Holborn. Such deaths were not uncommon on a cold, damp night, especially if the deceased was very young or very old.
"If it's just a matter of disposing of the body," said the night gaoler, peering down at the snot-nosed boy who stood breathless and dripping rain on to the floor of the deserted police office, "you can fetch the parish overseer."
"'T'ain't though," the boy answered. "Missus says she must have a Runner. 'Tis murder."
The gaoler rubbed his stubbled chin with thick, warty fingers. "And who says so?"
"Anyone can see 'tis. Her head's stove in."
"It's all right," Dan said, abandoning his paperwork without a pang of regret. "I'll go with him."
Which was how he came to be standing in a shed at the rear of the Feathers at the top of Hand Court on the north side of Holborn. The dead woman lay on a heap of sacks in the middle of the stone floor, surrounded by empty barrels and bottles in crates. She was huddled on her side with her knees drawn up. Dan crouched down and turned her over. As the boy had said, she had died of head wounds, several of them inflicted by booted feet.
Dan pushed her matted hair aside to get a view of her face. One of the boots had left a mark on her forehead. The pattern of the sole was distinctive: there was a triangular notch near the toe cap as if the owner had trodden on something sharp enough to leave an indentation. A tool carelessly left lying, perhaps, or a shard of metal or glass. Dan took out his notebook and made a sketch of the mark.
While he was at it, he jotted down a description. A young woman, at a guess just turned twenty, hair brown beneath the blood, a face that had been pretty. She was thin; had not eaten for some days. She had not been a beggar all her life: her coarse petticoat and blue cotton dress were ragged at the hems and filthy, but were still recognisably garments, not a patchwork of rags such as the wholly destitute wore. There were holes in her shoes and she had no stockings, apron, cloak or shawl, yet she had tried to keep up a decent appearance. A cheap straw hat lay nearby and her bodice was modestly cut, though she had not worn stays. Probably she had pawned them along with the other missing clothes, but she had kept a white muslin neckerchief to wear across her bosom. It lay in a grimy heap on the floor. Her pockets were empty.
Dan lifted up her hand, examined the dirty skin. Working hands, red and chapped. A servant perhaps. Her nails were ragged and there was skin and blood under them. She had put up a fight.
A fight she had lost long before she died. Her bodice was torn, her breasts bruised and scratched. When her killer had done raping her, she had pulled down her skirt and rolled over on to her side. Too injured to move, she had lain there until she'd died of her head wounds. There was no way of telling if it had taken minutes or hours, but her body was cold.
Dan sat back on his heels, looked at the floor. It bore a mass of confused scuff marks, but as far as he could tell there was only one set of footprints. He ran his fingers over the uneven flagstones, groping for buttons, pins, coins, any small clue that might have been dropped. There was nothing.
He pocketed his notebook, stood up and looked around and behind the barrels. Another fruitless search. He stepped out into the yard, shut the door behind him and inspected the lock. A padlock was attached to the hook, but it was too rusted to work.
He turned his head to the left, looked across the straw-strewn yard and through the archway on to the main road. The morning traffic, passing by on hoof or foot, was steadily increasing in volume. The rain had stopped, but heavy grey clouds still hung in the sky. He walked back and forth across the puddled cobblestones, his head bent, his gaze sweeping from side to side. The rain had done him no favours. It was impossible to tell if she had been dragged into the shed or, which seemed more likely from the way she had arranged the sacks around herself, had crept in looking for somewhere dry to sleep.
The boy watched him from the open stable door, a pitchfork in his hand.
"Were there horses in there last night?" Dan asked him.
"Yes, sir. Mr Jones the wagoner was here."
"Where is he now?"
"Left for Tewkesbury this morning."
"And you found her after he had gone?"
"Yes, sir. When I brought out the empties."
"Does he always leave at the same time?"
"Did he have any passengers?"
"Not today, only some barrels of oysters and butter and a carpet and a parcel he said was a skellington for one of the doctors there."
"When's Jones due back?"
"He sets off on Monday, gets here on Thursday, goes back Friday. You don't think it was Mr Jones, do you?"
Dan ignored the question. He looked around the yard. "You don't have much coaching business?"
"No. Just the Tewkesbury man mostly. The coaches go to the big inns."
A door in the main building opened and footsteps tapped across the yard. A short, brisk woman bore down on Dan in an angry rustle of skirts. Her avaricious little eyes flashed. The thin line of her lips parted to release a shrill voice.
"Haven't you moved it yet? This is a respectable house, this is. And we'll have the breakfasts in soon. And you, Thomas, get on with the mucking out and don't stand there gaping."
The boy ducked back inside the stable.
"Mrs Clarke, is it?" Dan said. "The body will have to stay where it is for now. Until I can arrange for the coroner."
"Coroner? I don't want no coroner here. We've never had an inquest at the Feathers and don't want one. Can't you move it to the church?"
"No, I can't. The woman has been murdered."
"I know that right enough, and it's as plain as day why. Had the effrontery to bring a man on to my premises, tried to cheat him, got what's only to be expected."
"Even if you are right, the law doesn't allow a man to murder a woman because she's bilked him."
"That's rich, that is, when a decent householder can't find a constable for love or money when he's being robbed or burgled. I know my rights, and I won't have the thing on my premises. This is a respectable house, this is. You can take her and your inquest elsewhere."
"The body is staying here. If you're so keen on having a constable about the place, I can arrange for one to come and stand guard until the coroner arrives."
"What, with my customers due in? I'll have something to say about it to your blessed coroner if you do."
"That's up to you. But if there's no need for a constable ..."
She opened her mouth, snapped it shut, tossed her head and finally muttered, "No."
"In the meantime, the quicker I can get on, the sooner you can be free of the body. Did you know the woman?"
"Of course I didn't know her. She came in for two penn'orth of beer last night. I was in two minds whether to serve her, but she was well mannered enough. Not so obvious as they usually are. Turned out she only had a penny so I told her to take herself off."
"Who do you mean by 'they'?"
"You don't look as if you were born yesterday. The Dyot Street whores, of course. That's where all the trouble round here comes from."
"What time did she come in?"
"Late. Gone ten."
"Did you see her talking to anyone?"
"Did anyone leave at the same time she did?"
"No. I saw her off the premises myself. After we closed, I sent Thomas out here to see to the horses and make sure all was shut up, and the shed was empty then. I've been meaning to get a new padlock, but what with one thing and another it was driven out of my head. To think that the baggage crept back and made free of my property."
"And you didn't hear anything during the night?"
"I was asleep, as any respectable person should be."
"I'll need the names of whoever was drinking here last night."
"I haven't got time to be making lists! Besides, we were busy."
"As many as you can remember, then. I can come back with a warrant if you prefer." He doubted the chief magistrate would sign off on that, but she was not to know.
"It will have to wait until this afternoon. And now if you don't mind, I must go and see to my breakfasts." She spun round on her heel and flounced off.
"Did you give her a pennyworth of beer?" Dan called after her.
Mrs Clarke turned back. "What?"
"She had a penny. Did you give her a pennyworth of beer?"
"No. I told her to take her custom elsewhere."
When she had gone, Thomas bobbed into the stable doorway.
"Is that right?" Dan said. "The shed was empty when you came out last night?"
Dan eyed him sternly. The boy blinked at him, innocent or stupid, or both. Dan judged he was telling the truth. Dan went back into the shed and came out with one of the crates, wedging it against the closed door.
"No one is to go in there. I will know if this is moved, and it will go hard on anyone who interferes with police evidence."
Dan left the boy gazing in awe at the crate.CHAPTER 2
Dan walked through the archway and on to Holborn. He glanced back into Hand Court. There was another public house called the Wheatsheaf at the end of the court, and a couple of smart-looking oyster shops. He stopped to decide on his next move. Mrs Clarke could be right about the dead woman coming from Dyot Street. St Giles was where vagrants generally ended up.
Caroline had warned him to be back in good time to change before going to church. He pulled his watch from his waistcoat pocket. He calculated that he could easily get to Dyot Street and still be home for lunch.
There were two kinds of people who passed along St Giles High Street. There were those about legitimate business, be it idling or working, who, as they went by, shrank from the network of stinking alleys, filthy lanes and decrepit buildings that opened out from the thoroughfare. Then there were those who turned aside to creep, shuffle or swagger into the maze, where they were at home. Dan knew there were many amongst them who had little choice in the matter, who could afford nothing better than the crowded, rotten tenements. They included men and women who had failed at their trade; foreign seamen abandoned by their employers once they had sailed their ships into port; Irish families who had come to London looking for work; betrayed women; ruined men; discarded children. Once in, they were soon drawn to all the Rookery had to offer in the way of drink and filth and sin.
Three kinds of people, Dan mused, if you counted the police, but they did not often venture in. He was something of an exception to the rule. He could not say it held no terrors for him, but it was familiar. He knew such places from his childhood, knew their language, knew the way they worked. Knew that you never left your back unguarded and you never went in unarmed.
He left the High Street and strode past lodging houses where you could have a bed for two pence a night, if you were willing to share with half a dozen strangers. He drove off dogs and pigs, stepped over heaps of muck, swerved around sleeping drunks, avoided half-clad, haggard women reeking of gin and sweat, and ragged children with wicked, despairing eyes.
A few twists and turns brought him to Dyot Street and the Old Blind Beak's Head. The house had been known by that name ever since he could remember, though the faded sign over the door said 'Welsh's Head'. It was one of the drinking dens where beggars gathered to do business with one another early in the mornings before they set off on their rounds. There was a daily market in the hiring out of babies and young children. Some of the children were deformed; Dan knew that many had been maimed deliberately to increase their value.
Others came to prepare for the day's labour by rubbing sores, scratches and ulcers into their own and each other's flesh, or wrapping blood-soaked bandages around sound limbs. Not all the broken bodies were fake. There were sailors injured in battle, ruptured workmen, men and women born crippled or made that way by their labours.
Here too they passed stolen goods from hand to hand and plotted new robberies and murders. And it was to the Old Blind Beak's Head they returned in the evening. Then they laid aside their crutches, eye patches and soiled dressings, and spent the evening dancing, drinking, quarrelling and coupling.
One or two looked up from their drams when Dan entered, recognised him with a spit or a scowl, and resumed their activities. Some looked towards a table in the corner of the room, guessing that it was to its occupant that Dan was heading. This was Peg Long, also known as Dark Peg, perhaps because of the rumours about past foul deeds, perhaps because of a complexion inherited from one of her parents. Peg was a madam, a receiver of stolen goods, and landlady of the nastiest tenements in the Rookery. Her fat body was bundled in an assortment of petticoats, skirts and shawls. She was reputed to have packets of money sewn into the many layers. She had a glass of gin in front of her and a copy of The Lady's Magazine.
She looked up as Dan's shadow fell across the page. "If it isn't Officer Foster." She had a deep, gruff voice; angered, it could strike terror into her minions.
Dan pulled out a chair, sat down, stretched his legs in front of him.
She snapped her fingers at one of the slatternly girls by the counter. "Coffee."
The coffee served in the Old Blind Beak's Head, at least that served to Dark Peg, was surprisingly good and Dan did not refuse the offer.
She turned over a page of her magazine. "What can I do for you today, Mr Foster?"
Dan thanked the girl who brought him his cup. She leered at him in surprise, and shuffled away. "I'm looking for information about a woman who may have been seen around here in the last couple of days. In her twenties, brown hair, blue dress, down on her luck."
Peg tore out a picture of a woman modelling a concoction of silks and lace, folded it up and put it in a leather case that hung from the belt around her waist. "As who isn't?"
"I think she was begging, but not working. Had not long been on the streets."
Without looking up from her magazine, Peg called, "Betsy!"
A woman at a nearby table threw down a handful of cards, rose and sauntered over, picking her teeth with a filthy fingernail. One of Peg's higher-class girls, her dress was tawdry but not tattered, her face splotched with rouge, her lips reddened, her lice-riddled hair curled about her shoulders.
"Tell Mr Foster about that woman you spoke to yesterday."
"Happy to oblige Mr Foster any time. She came in looking for work, said she'd do anything — scrub pots, empty slops, pick oakum. I told her there was only one kind of work for a woman around here. So then she started wringing her hands and wailing, 'Oh dear, what shall I do?' In the end I says you'll have to sell something if you want money and she says but I've nothing to sell and I says what about that cloak of yourn? And after a bit of face pulling, she sold it me and I took it into Simes's pawnshop this morning and got twice what I gave her for it."
"What colour was the cloak?" Dan asked.
"Did she tell you her name? Say where she was from?"
"I didn't ask for her life story, if that's what you mean."
"Just fleeced her."
"A lamb waiting to be shorn, that one. But what's your interest, Mr Foster? She hasn't had a go at lifting some gent's wiper, has she?"
"Not as far as I know. She was found murdered in the yard of the Feathers this morning."
Betsy screwed up her mouth and spat philosophically on to the floor. "Like I said, a lamb."
Dan took out his drawing. "The man who killed her raped her first. His boots left this mark on her."
Peg took the sketch, examined it, then passed it to Betsy. Neither woman could shed any light on the wearer. Betsy shivered, handed it back to Dan.
Peg jerked her head. Betsy winked at Dan and went back to her card game and gin.
Dan pocketed the drawing. "There are beggars, women and thieves on the streets round Holborn at all hours, and most of them come from St Giles. I need to know if anyone saw anything last night. There'll be no questions asked about who they are or what they were doing. If you hear anything, will you let me know?"
Dark Peg shrugged. "We've had men like that on the streets before. We'll have them again."
"But I want this one."
She picked up her glass. "If I hear anything, I'll let you know."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Death Makes No Distinction"
Copyright © 2019 Lucienne Boyce.
Excerpted by permission of Silver Wood Books, Ltd..
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