London, 1882. Alec Lonsdale, a young reporter on the Pall Mall Gazette, is working on a story about a fatal house fire. But the post-mortem on the victim produces shocking results: Patrick Donovan’s death was no accident. But why would someone murder a humble shop assistant and steal part of his brain?
When a second body is discovered, its throat cut, and then a third, Lonsdale and his spirited female colleague, Hulda Friederichs, begin to uncover evidence of a conspiracy that reaches to the highest echelons of Victorian society.
|Publisher:||Severn House Publishers|
|Edition description:||First World Publication|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.20(d)|
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Thursday 20 April 1882, London
Alexander Lonsdale blinked soot-laden rain from his eyes as he slogged over the well-manicured but sodden fields of Regent's Park. The downpour came in sheets, beating against the butts as he walked through the area reserved for the Royal Toxophilite Society; on reaching the Outer Circle, the ring road around the park, he followed it to Clarence Gate.
A greasy, grey plume, darker than the clouds, lay across the rooftops in the distance. His assumption that there was a blaze somewhere was confirmed by the clanging bells of a fire engine, audible over the ever-present rumble of traffic. The cold, dreary weather meant London's Fire Brigade was busier than usual for April, as hearths were left burning whenever their owners could afford it. Lonsdale kept moving, feeling rain course down his neck and his trousers stick unpleasantly to his knees.
A row of hansom cabs waited at Park Road, their miserable drays standing with drooping heads and matted coats. Drivers stood in huddles, chatting together, or puffing on their clay pipes, waiting for the inclement weather to push customers their way. They eyed Lonsdale hopefully, and he considered hiring one, but he was already sodden and still indignant at the way he had been dismissed at the Zoological Gardens that morning. Thinking exercise would help alleviate his bad humour, he kept walking, eventually reaching Harewood Square, where imposing grey mansions sat behind smooth stone pillars.
But his thoughts kept returning to the irritating business of his unsuccessful morning. It was the second time that week he had arrived for an appointment with the director of the Zoological Gardens. It was also the second time that, after a lengthy wait, he had been informed that Dr Wilson was unavailable, and would he come back another time. As it happened, Lonsdale was not particularly interested in returning, but a commission was a commission, and if the editor of The Pall Mall Gazette was prepared to pay for an article on London's magnificent zoo, then Lonsdale would provide him with one.
More rain found its way down the inside of Lonsdale's collar, and he increased his pace. He resented being treated in such an ungentlemanly manner, and he had declined to leave until Wilson's secretary had put a new date in his diary: between seven and eight the next evening.
Lonsdale decided that if Wilson was indisposed a third time, the article would be written without his input. Perhaps he would include a few home truths: that the lions were mangy rather than ferocious, that cramped conditions were probably responsible for the bizarre behaviour of the monkeys, and that most of the tropical inhabitants would probably thrive and would certainly be healthier if they were ever let outside. Wilson would be hard pressed to deny these charges, and would heartily wish he had spoken to the reporter.
Engrossed in his vengeful musings, Lonsdale stepped off the pavement to cross the road. A sudden yell and an urgent jangle of bells brought him to his senses, and he leapt backwards as a fire engine hurtled past, the horses' iron-shod hooves striking sparks against the cobbles. He watched the engine swing down one of the side streets, and the clanging faded.
He had just begun to walk again when a shrill cacophony warned of the approach of another engine. Lonsdale glanced up at the sky, and saw that the dirty grey streak was now a thick cloud of smoke, hanging heavy across the rooftops. He could smell burning, too. As the engine thundered past, its brass pumps gleaming, he thought how unusual it was for three fire crews to attend the same blaze.
He hesitated. There were few things he despised more than ghoulish spectators at the scene of a tragedy. Yet he knew that if he were ever to be hired full-time – something for which he desperately hoped – he should take advantage of any opportunity that came his way.
As he hovered indecisively, he saw others were not allowing fastidious pretensions of dignity to prevent them from indulging their curiosity and were converging on the scene of the fire. Some were servants, cloaks hastily thrown over uniforms, sent to find out what was happening for their masters; others were chance passers-by. Mentally shrugging, Lonsdale followed them.
The engine turned into Marylebone Road, then jigged right into Wyndham Street. Here, among the solid, unpretentious villas of the city's clerks, shopkeepers, and transport employees, was a row of tightly packed, two-storey terraced houses, each with a tiny, low-walled front garden. Halfway down the road, bright tongues of flame licked out of the windows of two of them, and smoke seeped through their roofs – spiralling upwards.
The reason three engines had been sent was painfully clear – the fire was spreading to the adjoining houses. It was obvious that the two homes were lost, and the firemen were concentrating on their neighbours. Clad in their uniforms of dark serge, they laboured furiously with pumps and hoses, and hoisted ladders to the upper windows to drench the rooms and create a sodden barrier in the hope of preventing the fire from advancing.
Lonsdale watched the tiny spouts of water hiss ineffectually against the leaping flames, before moving among the crowd, storing impressions in his mind and looking for someone to tell him who lived there and how the blaze had started.
Some of the spectators lived nearby, and fear that the fire would take their own homes induced them to scream orders and advice, all of which were ignored by the sweating firemen. There seemed to be a body of opinion that the terrace should be demolished before the fire spread further. This proposal was vociferously contested by a thin-faced, frightened man who stood amid a random collection of chairs, clutching a biscuit barrel. Next to him, a woman dazedly rocked a screaming child in her arms, and said nothing. Lonsdale balked at intruding on their despair, and looked for someone else to talk to.
Near the back of the crowd was a man wearing the distinctive peaked cap of a railway guard and a woman with a beaky nose, her sleeves rolled up and her arms dusted with a film of flour. Lonsdale surmised that, unless she often walked around with dough on her arms, they were residents of Wyndham Street and that she had been baking when the excitement started.
'What happened?' he asked, as hot tiles began to slip from the roof to smash on the ground below. A harried policeman and brigade volunteers tried to prevent onlookers from surging forward to snatch a better look.
The railway guard shook his head, while the woman studied Lonsdale suspiciously, pushing a tendril of wet hair from her eyes and leaving a smudge of flour on her nose. Her gaze turned from his face to his clothes, as if assessing his respectability by the quality of the top frock he wore. Lonsdale waited politely, although he knew that any conclusions she drew from his appearance would almost certainly be wrong.
He had spent most of his adult life in the Colonial Service – one of Queen Victoria's faithful representatives in Africa, where he had passed the better part of nine years. He had then returned to London, where a year later he had horrified his family by informing them that he intended to become a newspaper reporter. So Lonsdale, whose clothes were of good quality but not at the height of fashion, was difficult to assess solely on the basis of his attire. Even so, she decided he was sufficiently respectable to warrant a reply, and began to speak in a nasal, self-important voice.
'I was just putting the bread in the oven when I heard yelling outside, so I went to see what the fuss was about. This is a respectable street, and we don't pry into each other's business, so I didn't rush straight out, like some would have done.'
'What did you see?' asked Lonsdale, when she paused for – he assumed – an acknowledgement of her proper manners.
The woman coughed as a billow of smoke rolled over them. 'Mr Donovan was yelling something about his chimney being blocked and catching fire. Then he rushed back inside again. I didn't believe him – he'd had the sweep, you see, so I assumed he was ... well ... intoxicated.'
She pursed her lips in prim disapproval, and regarded Lonsdale with bright little eyes. Lonsdale was bemused.
'He called for help because his house was on fire, and you thought he was drunk? And what does the sweep have to do with it?' She sighed impatiently, and when she spoke, it was slowly, like an adult to a backward child. 'Mr Donovan had his chimney cleaned last week. People's chimneys don't catch fire after the sweep has been, because he removes the soot that causes fires.'
'I see,' said Lonsdale, although he still failed to understand why Donovan's claim that his house was on fire had led her to conclude that he was drunk. Suspecting they would become pointlessly sidetracked if he pressed the matter, he moved on. 'So Mr Donovan's home is one of those burning?'
She nodded. 'Number twenty-four – the left of the two in the middle. Anyway, I went back in the kitchen and put it from my mind. Then Molly Evans from next door came running and said there was smoke pouring from Mr Donovan's roof. We sent her boy for the fire brigade, while her Bert tried to break down the door to get Mr Donovan out.'
'Did he succeed?' asked Lonsdale. The house now was little more than a dark silhouette among the leaping yellow flames. The breeze sent sparks fluttering towards the crowd, which stepped back with a collective gasp of alarm.
The woman scanned the onlookers, then turned back to Lonsdale. 'I don't think so. I can't see him here, and he wouldn't go off while his house burned, would he?'
'I imagine not,' replied Lonsdale, although experience had taught him that people did all manner of strange things in fraught situations. 'What happened next?'
Her husband took up the tale. He did not look at Lonsdale, but addressed his words to the flames, which reflected yellow and orange in the shiny buttons of his railwayman's uniform.
'I was coming home from work, when I saw Bert kicking at Patrick Donovan's door. By then, flames were pouring out of the windows. Funnily, the door was shut fast – locked or bolted. Then I saw the fire had spread to number twenty-two, so Bert and I ran to help Joe Francis with his chairs.'
He nodded towards the man who stood disconsolately with what he and his neighbours had managed to salvage.
'So Mr Donovan is still inside?' asked Lonsdale in horror, astonished that they should abandon their efforts to save a life in order to rescue furniture. 'What about his family? Are they in there, too?
He gazed at where the flames had seared the paint from the door, and envisaged the hapless residents crawling towards it with cinders and flames erupting all around them, only to find it blocked, and then dying in the knowledge that safety was but a few feet away.
'He lives alone,' replied the woman. 'He isn't married and his father passed away last summer.'
'You said you returned to your baking after Mr Donovan first raised the alarm,' said Lonsdale, considering her story in the careful, analytical way that had proven successful for him, both in the Colonial Service and at his newspaper. 'While he ran back inside his house.'
'Yes,' said the woman. Her voice became unfriendly. 'To salvage his belongings, I suppose. What of it?' 'So where are they?' asked Lonsdale.
The woman scanned the road, saw the proprietorial way each small pile of possessions was jealously guarded by its owners, and shrugged. 'He probably didn't have time to bring anything out.'
'But you suggested there were several minutes between him first shouting for help and Mrs Evans telling you the fire was out of control,' Lonsdale pointed out. 'Surely he should have managed to save something, even if only a painting or a book?' The woman frowned, disliking his questions. 'Well, obviously he didn't.'
Lonsdale moved away, watching the firemen battle on as the steam engine on their pump spat and hissed furiously. Down the street, more residents were taking the precaution of dragging their belongings outside. Lonsdale went to help an elderly woman with a table, then stood by helplessly while she wept in distress and shock. He stood next to her, knowing he was supposed to be observing, not joining in, and wondered if he would ever possess the cynical indifference that seemed necessary to make a good reporter.
Fires were not uncommon in a city where coal and wood were used to heat homes, and London blazes regularly caused loss of life and possessions. Donovan's tale, though pitiful, was hardly front-page news. Still, W. T. Stead, the flamboyant assistant editor of The Pall Mall Gazette, was always on the lookout for thrilling, sensational, or tragic tales that would attract readers away from the dignified morning dailies, so there was generally a place for 'human interest' pieces.
Lonsdale rummaged in his pocket for his pencil and notebook, and began to write:
Tragedy struck today at the home of Patrick Donovan of 24 Wyndham Street, when a blocked chimney resulted in a fire so intense that it not only destroyed the adjoining house but threatened to engulf other homes as well.
He frowned at what he had written. Donovan's neighbour had said the chimney had recently been swept, so the fire being caused by a blocked flue was unlikely. So perhaps the sweep had left a brush in the chimney. It would not be the first time incompetence had brought about a tragedy. He continued writing.
Neighbours valiantly tried to smash through the door to save Mr Donovan's life, but to no avail.
He frowned again. Was Donovan still inside, or had he managed to leave via the back door or a window? That Donovan had escaped seemed more plausible than that he had rushed into the street howling that his house was on fire, and then allowed himself to become trapped inside. And if he had run back to salvage his belongings, the absence of so much as a stick of furniture was puzzling. It seemed unlikely that Donovan would have been completely unsuccessful, especially as the woman had assumed he was drunk specifically because she had seen no evidence of fire.
Lonsdale walked to the end of the street, turned the corner, and looked to his right. Running parallel to Wyndham Street was a narrow alley, where more firemen struggled in the swirling smoke. No belongings stood outside, nor – he ascertained from another neighbour – did Donovan.
Lonsdale returned to Wyndham Street. Dozens of spectators were there now – servants, street vendors, well-dressed gentlemen, and the respectable working classes who lived nearby. They stood elbow to elbow, winter-pale faces lit orange in the flames, their mouths hanging open as they gazed upwards. They oohed and aahed as the flames crackled and snapped. A few cast sympathetic glances at the bewildered victims, but most just watched with fascination.
Eventually, the firemen began to win the battle. The flames were less intense, and there was more steam than smoke. Most of the small, pleasant houses in Wyndham Street would be saved.
'You a reporter?'
The soft voice, close to Lonsdale's ear, startled him, and he turned around quickly. The woman who had spoken flinched away from his sudden movement, and looked as though she might bolt. She cast a fearful glance behind her. Lonsdale glanced at the pencil and pad in his hand and thought the question was spurious. Who else made notes at such an incident?
'I write for The Pall Mall Gazette,' he said.
'The Pall Mall Gazette? That's not a big paper, is it, not like The Daily Telegraph?'
'No,' he replied. 'It's aimed at an evening audience, not a morning one.'
She regarded him sceptically, as if wondering who had time to waste reading a paper at night, when darkness brought the opportunity for more interesting activities. 'Well, it doesn't sound as good for me purposes as one of them big jobs, but I suppose it'll do.'
She glanced around again, making Lonsdale wonder what 'purposes' could necessitate such furtive behaviour.
'Are you one of Mr Donovan's neighbours?' he asked.
It was a question designed to begin a conversation, rather than for information, as he already knew the answer: the Wyndham Street residents were solidly upper working class, decent, clean, and dogged adherents of social convention. The woman before him had a pale, thin face, plastered with make-up; her body emanated a stale, unwashed smell, and her clothes were cheap and ostentatious. She was not the kind of person who could afford a home on Wyndham Street, nor one who would be accepted by its residents.
Excerpted from "Mind of a Killer"
Copyright © 2017 Simon Beaufort.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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