June, 1914. A young man is mauled to death by a polar bear at London Zoo. Shortly afterwards, another young man leaps to his death from a notorious Suicide Bridge. Two seemingly unconnected deaths – and yet there are similarities.
Following a third attempted suicide, DI Silas Quinn knows he must uncover the link between the three men if he is to discover what caused them to take their own lives. The one tangible piece of evidence is a card found in each of the victims’ possession, depicting a crudely-drawn red hand. What does it signify? To find the answers, Quinn must revisit his own dark past. But can he keep his sanity in the process?
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10 July, 1914.
Stanley Ince looked out of a first-floor window, down on to No. 2 Airing Court. A group of about twenty or so male lunatics occupied themselves in various forms of activity, or, in the case of most of them, inactivity.
One stood talking to a tree. His head cocked intermittently to listen to the tree's responses. Stanley recognized him as one of the syphilitic patients.
A number of the men paced their own small patches of earth, wearing the lawn brown with their incessant steps. Round and round they went, in ever-diminishing circles, until each reached a point where they came to a stop, turned around and began the pacing again, gradually widening the spiral of their exercise. It was strange how this obsessive practice had recently spread among them, both the males and the females, despite the strict segregation of the sexes.
Two men occupied a bench, each staring straight out in front. He had seen them together before. Stanley didn't like it when they formed bonds like this. A single, isolated madman was bad enough. But when they started to conspire, well, there was no saying where that would end. He made a mental note to keep them apart in the future.
One of the younger attendants tried to engage three of them in a game of badminton, over a makeshift net strung between two trees. It was a fruitless task. The lunatics seemed to delight more in throwing their racquets as high as they could into the air.
Stanley shook his head disdainfully. He was about to open the window and shout a warning to his less experienced colleague when he caught sight of a solitary figure dressed in a gardener's smock, working patiently among the shrubs at the edge of the court. He could not see the man's face but he knew immediately who he was. Timon Medway cut a very distinct figure. It was almost as if there was a line drawn around him, a fine black border that marked him out as ... as being Timon Medway. Or perhaps it was more accurate to say that Medway emanated some special quality of his own. A kind of dark charisma.
Stanley had never admitted it to anyone. Hardly even to himself. But he could no longer deny the truth. He was afraid of them.
And he was afraid of Timon Medway most of all.
But whenever he was in the presence of any of them, he felt it. His scalp tingled. A cold sweat broke out over his back, trickling down his skin. He could taste the fear on his own breath.
There was only one way to get past that moment. A thump thrown out in passing. A chair leg driven down with force on to a bare foot. A twist and tug of hair. Or a lit match tossed casually into one of their faces.
Then he would be able to go on. To face them with equanimity. With a jaunty laugh even. To lay hands upon them in whatever way was required.
Of course you had to be careful.
Not everyone on the staff shared his approach. Some of the doctors were particularly fastidious.
You could test the water with a harmless jest at the lunatic's expense. If you got an appreciative laugh, you knew that here was someone you could get along with. You could risk a light slap around the chops. Nothing too heavy handed. Delivered with a brisk, jolly quip, to show that it's all meant in fun.
But if, at mere words, the other fellow tenses up, if his eyes challenge you with silent rebuke, then best to leave it at that. And be on your guard with him in the future.
Store up the slaps for later, when you're alone with one of them.
For you will need to buy your peace of mind somehow.
Of all the occupations in the world that he could have chosen, it was strange that he had ended up here, at Colney Hatch, working among them.
What was even stranger was how long he had stayed here. It was almost as if, however much he hated to be in their presence, he hated even more the thought of letting them out of his sight.
He could still remember the day he arrived at the asylum, even though it was over twenty years ago now.
It was a beautiful spring day. The trepidation that he had felt on the train turned to wonder at his first sight of the building. It was such a fine, grand edifice, a broad palace of a place, stretching out to possess the gentle slope upon which it had been built.
At that first glance, it was impossible to think of it as the home of madness and despair. The sunlight winked along the rows of windows. A sense of rational optimism seemed to emanate from the place. As if all that was needed to cure its inmates of whatever ailed them was a sunny day.
As he had approached the main entrance, walking through the well-kept gardens, breathing the floral scents, his ears pleasantly assailed by birdsong (and not the screams of the mad that he had expected), he almost felt that he would be turned back. That they would tell him there was no longer any need for his services. All the lunatics had been cured and sent home.
He had felt so hopeful that first day. Whatever was contained within that splendid building was not to be feared. This was the modern way to deal with a problem such as madness. To build a fine and well-appointed palace around it. Airy rooms, high ceilings, plenty of illumination. A pleasant aspect, good drainage, fresh air far from the smoke and grime of the city.
Nor had he entered there with any intent to harm the poor wretches who were to be given into his care. Indeed, he was drawn to the work by vaguely philanthropic sentiments. And by a strange and almost overpowering curiosity.
The truth is, he had no experience in administering to the mentally afflicted before that day, having previously worked as a porter in the freight yard at King's Cross. The idea of madness both appalled and fascinated him. He thought too that it would be easier work – physically, that is – than lugging crates about.
If he thought about the type of individual he would be called upon to look after, he imagined a weak and docile imbecile, who could be persuaded and directed by subtle guidance, the application of the gentlest pressure at the elbow perhaps.
All this was before he had clapped eyes on his first lunatic.
He had not counted on the calamitous effect that that would have upon his morale.
For in that encounter, madness ceased to be an abstract idea. It became real, dangerously personal, and frighteningly close.
He remembered the case well.
It was a young man, apparently of good family. His father, who was recently deceased, had been a doctor. It was said that the patient was studying medicine too. His father's death (the rumour was that he'd committed suicide) seemed to have precipitated some kind of crisis in the young man's mental equilibrium. A breakdown. His behaviour had become erratic, frightening to those who knew him. He had been making a nuisance of himself to his landlady's daughter and had threatened a fellow lodger with violence. A delusion had taken root in his mind that he had killed the other man, whom he saw as a rival for the girl's affections. There was no evidence that this was the case.
Some might consider it remarkable that Stanley could recollect so many details of the case. But this was his first exposure to an insane individual. It cannot be surprising that it made an impression upon him.
What struck him most about the young man – what shook him – was how, well, ordinary he looked. If you didn't know, you would never have thought him mad. He had what Stanley would have described as a 'clever' face. His eyes were alert and engaged. Stanley had believed that lunatics could be identified by their 'stark, staring' expression. There was no sign of that in this young man. Perhaps his gaze was a little too searching, as if he was expecting something from you. Was it a sign of madness to expect things from your fellows?
Nor was he raving when he spoke. Admittedly, there was a certain overstimulated brightness to his manner. But nothing that he said went beyond the bounds of rational speech. He was fluent and articulate. A little garrulous perhaps. But rather divertingly so. Stanley found himself hanging on his every word.
'You have caught him on a good day,' one of the old hands observed. 'Most days we cannot get a word out of him. He curls himself into a ball and cowers in the corner. He would not stir for days at a time, even soiling himself as he festers there. Must be he likes you.'
That notion horrified Stanley. It seemed to suggest that there was some kindred spark between him and the young man.
He had believed that the insane were a separate class from himself. Almost a distinct species. Something less than human. He could have nothing in common with them. And if there were steps that took a sane person into the realms of insanity, they were such immense and unimaginable steps, associated with such outlandish circumstances, that they could have nothing to do with him.
But this boy, it was said he had gone mad purely on account of the death of a parent. That was the sort of thing that might happen to anyone.
And here he was, on the day that Stanley first encountered him at least, clean, presentable, coherent, if a little excitable. How was it possible that he could be this bright young thing one day and a closed-off catatonic depressive the next? If this boy could go so easily from one state to the other, then perhaps anyone could? The barriers that existed between the sane and the insane were not as solid as Stanley had imagined.
Such a realization might have inspired compassion in another man. But in Stanley Ince it had provoked only horror.
Suddenly Timon Medway straightened from his task and turned his face to look up, directly at Stanley. Their eyes met, no doubt about it. Not for the first time, Stanley had the impression that Medway had read his thoughts. The sly ironic smile he detected on the lunatic's lips seemed to confirm it.
'Fucker.' Stanley spoke the word out loud, moving his lips with deliberate articulation. If Medway couldn't read minds, then he would at least be able to read that.
He turned on his heel to be confronted by Drummond, one of the psychiatric nurses on the male wards. Drummond was a member of the bleeding heart brigade. The type who believed in treating the lunatics with tenderness and brotherly love, and all that rot. He had once caught Stanley punching an inmate on the ear and had threatened to have him dismissed if he ever so much as laid a finger on one of them again.
'Dr Pottinger requires your presence in the waiting room.' Drummond's tone made it clear that if it were down to him, Stanley's presence would not be required anywhere. 'Pick up a straitjacket on your way. We have a new admission and he is somewhat agitated.'
'And Dr Pottinger knows that if anyone can calm him, it is I.'
Drummond made no effort to conceal his distaste. 'You are merely to report to Dr Pottinger with the straitjacket.'
Stanley could not conceal his amusement. 'He sent you to fetch me.'
'Don't push it, Ince.'
'Or what, Mr Drummond?'
'I am watching you.'
'You may not approve of my methods ...'
'You have no methods! You're not allowed to have methods! You're a glorified porter. Your job is to do as the qualified medical staff instruct you.'
'Calm yourself, Mr Drummond. Otherwise, who knows? One day you might find yourself admitted as a patient here. Now wouldn't that be a lark?'
'Get a move on, Ince. Dr Pottinger is waiting for you.'
As he walked away, Stanley exhaled vigorously through his nose in a series of snorts: not laughter, a mockery of laughter, almost silent. But audible enough, he felt, to leave Drummond in no doubt as to his contempt.
At any rate, he ignored the urgency of Drummond's command. He frankly dawdled. It made the powers that be more appreciative of his contribution if he kept them waiting. Besides, time in a lunatic asylum had a different quality to it to time outside. A moment could last an eternity. While ten years went by in the blink of an eye.
The corridors of Colney Hatch were his domain. All six miles of them. He proclaimed his sovereignty with the crisp echo of his footsteps. His shining black steel-capped shoes rapped and squealed against the boards.
The exposed brick walls were painted a chill institutional blue, wan and spiritless. Once it had been thought that the colour had a calming effect on lunatics. Now the walls were always repainted the same colour out of tradition. If it was meant to put them in mind of a summer's day, it failed. Perhaps it worked by sapping their will. It certainly absorbed nothing of their pain, but rather amplified it, resonated with it, turning the corridors into a vast sounding box of misery. The terracotta tiles on the ceiling added a thin, harsh stridency to the notes. (He had never been convinced that the honeycomb design was a wise decision. If he had a guinea for every inmate who imagined himself persecuted by giant bees, he would be a rich man by now.)
He kept the keys to the store cupboard at the end of a long chain, together with all his other keys in a massive fob. He felt the weight of it in his trouser pocket. The chain was deliberately long, so that he could swing the fob threateningly at recalcitrant lunatics. From time to time, if needs be, he would let the weight of spiky metal strike home. Some of the keys were now crusted with dried blood.
And so the object in question, the lethal claw of keys, never failed to provoke a certain reaction in him, even when he was wielding it innocently as now. It was a kind of awe, a quickening of the heart, accompanied by an icy, empty sensation. As if a blast of wind from some desolate polar vastness had blown away his soul.
It was the feeling a man experiences when he faces up to what he has become and does not like it.
The store cupboard smelled as if it was where they kept the despair. He took a straitjacket from the shelf, releasing with it the more precise odours that it had absorbed over the years in the restraint of troubled humanity. Sweat, mucus, vomit, blood, urine, faeces. He did not think he detected semen. It would be hard even for some of the prodigious masturbators in Colney Hatch to engineer an ejaculation with their hands so tightly tethered. But he wouldn't put it past them.
The semi-muted cries of some self-torturing wretch came to him from the depths of a padded cell. But the howls of the mad were trivial in this place. He hardly heard them any more.
As he moved towards the central block of the asylum, he began to be aware of a second source of screaming. Sharper, rawer, louder than the first. He knew most of the inmates by their screams. But these new screams he did not recognize. He had the feeling that he had heard them once before, long ago. It was not impossible. The mad were never cured, and those who were from time to time released often found themselves readmitted.
He quickened his step, as if hurrying to meet an old friend. But as he reached the top of the stairs, he stopped dead. The screams were suddenly much louder here as they reverberated up the stairwell. And yes, there was something half-familiar about them. The pitch, the timbre, the peculiar ferocity coupled with a brittle fragility, the sharp broken edge of them. It was a long time ago. But he was beginning to be convinced he had heard these sounds before.
The young man he had thought of earlier now came to mind again. Could it really be?
His hand drifted towards the key fob in his pocket, as if for comfort. It was his protective talisman. And, of course, it had a more practical function. The youth had been the first to feel the brunt of it across his cheek.
Not a youth any more, Stanley had to remind himself. More than twenty years had passed. He would be middle-aged now. Stanley couldn't be sure he would recognize the man, not from a distance. Time had a habit of ravaging lunatics more viciously than the sane.
It never failed to impress him how much chaos a single lunatic can generate, how quickly he can fill a room with it. Any room, of any size: the chaos expands around him. Put a single lunatic in the Albert Hall and he will fill it.
This one was all flailing arms and incoherent screaming. Frantic bursts of pacing, going nowhere, as if he was trying to break free from imaginary restraints. Coming to a sudden halt, as if fresh restraints now bound him.
The policeman who had brought him in stood nearby. His work was done, but he couldn't quite tear himself away from the spectacle. For most people, a maniac in full, florid flow was not something you saw every day. There were two other men with him. One had the air of being some kind of official. A plain-clothes police detective, Stanley guessed. His expression was strangely anguished, almost as if he had some kind of connection with the individual at the centre of it all. The other man carried a physician's leather bag.
Excerpted from "The Red Hand Of Fury"
Copyright © 2018 R. N. Morris.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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What People are Saying About This
Silas Quinn is a superb, complicated and brilliantly-realised detective and THE RED HAND OF FURY is a wonderful addition to a gripping series. Don’t hesitate!” WILLIAM RYAN, award-winning author of THE CONSTANT SOLDIER