Read an Excerpt
A Regency Crime Thriller
By James McGee
Pegasus Books LLCCopyright © 2012 James McGee
All rights reserved.
There were times, Matthew Hawkwood reflected wryly, when Chief Magistrate Read displayed a sense of humour that was positively perverse. Staring up at the oak tree and its grisly adornment, he had the distinct feeling this was probably one of them.
He had received the summons to Bow Street an hour earlier.
"There's a body ..." the Chief Magistrate had said, without a trace of irony in his tone. "... in Cripplegate Churchyard."
The Chief Magistrate was seated at the desk in his office. Head bowed, he was signing papers being passed to him by his bespectacled, round-shouldered clerk, Ezra Twigg. The magistrate's aquiline face, from what Hawkwood could see of it, remained a picture of neutrality. Which was more than could be said for Ezra Twigg, who looked as if he might be biting his lip in an attempt to stifle laughter.
A fire, recently lit, was crackling merrily in the hearth and the previous night's chill was at last beginning to retreat from the room.
Papers signed, the Chief Magistrate looked up. "Yes, all right, Hawkwood. I know what you're thinking. Your expression speaks volumes." Read glanced sideways at his clerk. "Thank you, Mr Twigg. That will be all."
The little clerk shuffled the papers into a bundle, the lenses of his spectacles twinkling in the reflected glow of the firelight. That he managed to make it as far as the door without catching Hawkwood's eye had to be regarded as some kind of miracle.
As his clerk departed, James Read pushed his chair back, lifted the rear flaps of his coat, and stood with his back to the fire. He waited several moments in comfortable silence for the warmth to penetrate before continuing.
"It was discovered this morning by a brace of gravediggers. They alerted the verger, who summoned a constable, who ..." The Chief Magistrate waved a hand. "Well, so on and so forth. I'd be obliged if you'd go and take a look. The verger's name is ..." the Chief Magistrate leaned forward and peered at a sheet of paper on his desk: "Lucius Symes. You'll be dealing with him, as the vicar is indisposed. According to the verger, the poor man's been suffering from the ague and has been confined to his sickbed for the past few days."
"Do we know who the dead person is?" Hawkwood asked.
Read shook his head. "Not yet. That is for you to find out."
Hawkwood frowned. "You think it may be connected to our current investigation?"
The Chief Magistrate pursed his lips. "The circumstances would indicate that might indeed be a possibility."
A noncommittal answer if ever there was one, Hawkwood thought.
"No preconceptions, Hawkwood. I'll leave it to you to evaluate the scene." The magistrate paused. "Though there is one factor of note."
"The cadaver," James Read said, "would appear to be fresh."
The oak tree occupied a scrubby corner of the burial ground, a narrow, rectangular patch of land at the southern end of the churchyard, adjacent to Well Street. Autumn had reduced the tree's foliage to a few resilient rust-brown specks yet, with its broad trunk and thick gnarled branches outlined against the dull, rain-threatening sky like the knotted forearms of some ancient warrior, it was still an imposing presence, standing sentinel over the gravestones that rested crookedly in its shadow. Most of the markers looked to be as old as the tree itself. Few of them remained upright. They looked like rune stones tossed haphazardly across the earth. Centuries of weathering had taken their toll on the carved inscriptions. The majority were faded and pitted with age and barely legible.
At one time, this corner of the cemetery would probably have accommodated the more wealthy members of the parish, but that had changed. Only the poor were buried here now and single plots were in the minority. The graveyard had become a testament to neglect.
And a place of execution.
The corpse had been hoisted into position by a rope around its neck and secured to the trunk of the tree by nails driven through its wrists. It hung in a crude parody of the crucifixion, head twisted to one side, arms raised in abject surrender.
Small wonder, Hawkwood thought, as his eyes took in the macabre tableau, that the gravediggers had taken to their heels.
Their names, he had discovered, were Joseph Hicks and John Burke and they were standing alongside him now, along with the verger of St Giles, a middle-aged man with anxious eyes, which Hawkwood thought, given the circumstances, was hardly surprising.
Hawkwood turned to the two gravediggers. "Has he been touched?"
They stared at him as if he was mad.
Presumably not, Hawkwood thought.
A raucous screech interrupted the stillness of the moment. Hawkwood looked up. A colony of rooks had taken up residence in the graveyard and the birds, angry at the invasion of their territory, were making their objections felt. A dozen or so straggly nests were perched precariously among the upper forks of the tree and their owners were taking a beady-eyed interest in the proceedings below. The evidence suggested that the birds had already begun to exact their revenge. They'd gone for the tastiest morsels first. The corpse's ragged eye sockets told their own grisly story. A few of the birds, showing less reserve than their companions, had begun to edge back down the branches towards the hanged man's body in search of fresh pickings. Their sharp beaks could peck and tear flesh with the precision of a rapier.
Hawkwood picked up a dead branch and hurled it at the nearest bird. His aim was off but it was close enough to send the flock into the air in a clamour of indignation.
Hawkwood approached the tree. His first thought was that it would have taken a degree of effort to haul the dead man into place, which indicated there had been more than one person involved in the killing. Either that, or an individual possessed of considerable strength. Hawkwood stepped closer and studied the ground around the base of the trunk, careful where he placed his own feet. The previous night's rain had turned the ground to mud. But earth was not made paste solely by the passage of rainwater. Other factors, Hawkwood knew, should be taken into consideration.
There were faint marks; indentations too uniform to have been caused by nature. He looked closer. The depression took shape: the outline of a heel. He circled the base of the oak, eyes probing. There were more signs: leaves and twigs, broken and pressed into the soil by a weight from above. They told him there had definitely been more than one man. He paused suddenly and squatted down, mindful to avoid treading on the hem of his riding coat.
It was a complete impression, toe and heel, another indication that at least one of Hawkwood's suspicions had been proved correct. Hawkwood was an inch under six feet in height. He placed the base of his own boot next to the spoor and saw with some satisfaction that his own foot was smaller. The depth of the indentation was also impressive.
Hawkwood glanced up. He found that he was standing on the opposite side of the tree to the body. The first thing that caught his attention was the rope. It was dangling from the fork in the trunk, its end grazing the fallen leaves below. The noose was still secured around the neck of the deceased.
In his mind's eye, Hawkwood re-enacted the scene and looked at the ground again, casting his eyes back and to the side. There was another footprint, he saw, slightly off-centre from the first. It had been made by someone planting his feet firmly, digging in his heel, taking the strain and pulling on the rope. The indication was that he was a big man, a strong man. There were no other prints in the immediate vicinity. The hangman's companions would have been on the other side of the tree, hammering in the nails.
Hawkwood stood and retraced his steps.
He looked up at the victim then turned to the gravediggers.
"All right, get him down."
They looked at him, then at the verger, who, following a quick glance in Hawkwood's direction, gave a brief nod.
"Do it," Hawkwood snapped. "Now."
It took a while and it was not pleasant to watch. The gravediggers had not come prepared and thus had to improvise with the tools they had to hand. This involved hammering the nails from side to side with the edge of their shovels in order to loosen them enough so that they could be pulled out of the oak's trunk. The victim's wrists did not emerge entirely unscathed from the ordeal. Not that the poor bastard was in any condition to protest, Hawkwood reflected grimly, as the body was lowered to the ground.
Hawkwood stole a look at Lucius Symes. The verger's face was pale and the gravediggers didn't look any better. More than likely, their first destination upon leaving the graveyard would be the nearest gin shop.
Hawkwood examined the corpse. The clothes were still damp, presumably from last night's rain, so it had been up there a while. It was male, although that had been obvious from the outset. Not an old man but not a boy either; probably in his early twenties, a working man. Hawkwood could tell that by the hands, despite the recent mauling they had received from the shovels. He could tell from the calluses around the tips of the fingers and from the scar tissue across the knuckles; someone who'd been in the fight game, perhaps. It was a thought.
"Anyone recognize him?" Hawkwood asked.
No answer. Hawkwood looked up, saw their expressions. There were no nods, no shakes of the head either. He looked from one to the other. No reaction from the verger, just a numbness in his gaze, but he saw what might have been a shadow move in gravedigger Hicks' eye. A flicker, barely perceptible; a trick of the light, perhaps?
Hawkwood considered the significance of that, placed it in a corner of his mind, and resumed his study.
At least the manner of death was beyond doubt: a broken neck.
Hawkwood loosened the noose and removed the rope from around the dead man's throat. He stared at the necklace of bruises that mottled the cold flesh of the victim's neck before turning his attention to the rope knot. Very neat, a professional job. Whoever had strung the poor bastard up had shown a working knowledge of the hangman's tool. In a movement unseen by the verger and the gravediggers, Hawkwood lifted a hand to his own throat. The dark ring of bruising below his jawline lay concealed beneath his collar. He felt the familiar, momentary flash of dark memory, swiftly subdued. Odd, he thought, how things come to pass.
Placing the rope to one side and knowing it was a futile gesture, Hawkwood searched the cadaver's pockets. As he had expected, they were empty. He took a closer look at the stains on the dead man's jacket. The corpse's clothing bore the evidence of both the previous night's storm as well as the brutal manner of death. The back of the jacket and breeches had borne the brunt of the damage, caused, Hawkwood surmised, by contact with the tree trunk as the victim was hoisted aloft. He had already seen the slice marks in the bark made by the dead man's boot heels as he had kicked and fought for air.
There were other stains, too, he noticed, on the front of the jacket and the shirt beneath. He traced the marks with his fingertip and rubbed the residue across the ball of his thumb.
Hawkwood examined the face. There was congealed blood around the lips. Had the rooks feasted there, too?
Hawkwood reached a hand into the top of his right boot and took out his knife. Behind him, the verger drew breath. One of the gravediggers swore as Hawkwood inserted the blade of the knife between the corpse's lips. Gripping the dead man's chin with his left hand, Hawkwood used the knife to prise open the jaws. He knelt close and peered into the victim's mouth.
The teeth and tongue had been removed.
The extraction had been performed with a great deal of force. The ravaged, blood-encrusted gums told their own story. Hawkwood could see that a section of the lower jawbone, long enough to contain perhaps half a dozen teeth, was also missing. A bradawl had been used for the single teeth, Hawkwood suspected, and probably a hammer and small chisel for the rest. Hard to tell what might have been used to sever the tongue; a razor, perhaps.
The verger's hand flew to his lips, as if seeking reassurance that his own tongue was still in situ. He stared at Hawkwood aghast. "What does it mean? Why would they do such a thing?"
Hawkwood wiped the blade on his sleeve and returned it to his boot. He looked down at the corpse. "I would have thought that was obvious."
The three men stared back at him.
Hawkwood stood up and addressed the verger. "Your most recent burial – where was it?"
Verger Symes looked momentarily confused at the sudden change of tack. His face lost even more colour. "Burial? Why, that would be ... Mary Walker. Died of consumption. We buried her yesterday." The verger glanced at the two gravediggers, as if seeking confirmation.
It was the older man, Hicks, who nodded. "Four o'clock, it were, just afore the rain came."
"Where?" Hawkwood demanded.
Hicks jerked a thumb. "Over yonder. Top o' the pile, she was."
A sinking feeling began to stir in Hawkwood's belly.
The gravedigger led the way across the burial ground towards a large patch of shadow close to the boundary of the churchyard, and pointed to a dark rectangle of freshly turned soil.
"How deep was she?" Hawkwood asked.
The two gravediggers exchanged meaningful glances.
Not deep enough, Hawkwood thought.
"All right, let's take a look."
The verger stared at Hawkwood in disbelief and horror.
"I'd step away, if I were you, Verger Symes," Hawkwood said. "You wouldn't want to get your shoes dirty."
Blood drained from the verger's face. "You cannot do this! I forbid it!"
"Protest duly noted, Verger." Hawkwood nodded at Hicks. "Start digging."
Hicks looked at his partner, who looked back at him and shrugged.
The shovels bit into the soil in unison.
At that moment Hawkwood knew what they would find. He could tell from the expressions on the faces of the gravediggers that they knew too. He had the feeling even Verger Symes, despite his protestation, wasn't going to be surprised either.
In the event it took less than six inches of topsoil and a dozen shovel loads to confirm it.
There was a dull thud as a shovel struck wood. They used the edges of the shovels to scrape the soil away from the top of the coffin. What was immediately apparent was the jagged split in the wood halfway down the thin coffin lid.
"Good God, have you no pity?" The verger made as if to place himself between Hawkwood and the open grave.
"If I'm wrong, Verger Symes," Hawkwood said, "I'll buy your church a new roof. Now, stand aside." He nodded to Hicks. "Open it up."
Hicks glanced at his partner, who looked equally uncomfortable.
"Give me the bloody shovel," Hawkwood held out his hand.
Hicks hesitated, then passed it over.
The three men watched as Hawkwood inserted the blade of the shovel under the widest end of the lid and pressed down hard. His effort met with little resistance. Other hands had already rendered the damage. The cheap lid splintered along the existing split with a drawn-out creak. Hawkwood handed the shovel back to its owner, gripped the edges of the shattered lid and lifted.
The verger swallowed nervously.
Hawkwood knelt, reached inside the coffin and lifted out the crumpled fold of cloth.
The burial shroud.
Burial plots were at a premium in London and mass graves were common in many parishes. It was often impossible to dig a fresh grave without disturbing previously buried corpses. The pit at St Giles in the Fields was a prime example where, for years, rows of cheap coffins had been piled one upon the other, all exposed to sight and smell, awaiting more coffins which would then be stacked on top of them. The depths of the pits could vary and coffins weren't always used. A year or two back, in St Botolph's, two gravediggers had died as a result of noxious gases emanating from decomposing corpses. Graves were often kept open for weeks until charged almost to the surface with dead bodies. In many instances the top layer of earth was only a few inches deep so that body extremities could sometimes poke through the soil.
Which made it easy for the body stealers.
Hawkwood left the gravediggers to fill in the hole and retraced his steps back to the murder scene. He looked down at the corpse and then at the grubby shroud in his hand.
Strictly speaking, bodies were not considered property. Burial clothing, however, was a different matter. Steal a corpse and you couldn't be done. Steal clothing or a shroud or a wedding ring and that was a different matter. That carried the punishment of transportation. Whoever had ransacked this grave had been careful.
Which begged the obvious question.
Excerpted from Resurrectionist by James McGee. Copyright © 2012 James McGee. Excerpted by permission of Pegasus Books LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Potential to be good tale, but totally spoiled by over the top violence, horror and blatant sexual abuse. Sensationalism for its own sake adds nothing to the story. I am too old to be shocked, but really do not need this.