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The Regency Detective
By David Lassman, Terence James
The History PressCopyright © 2013 David Lassman & Terence James
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As the Royal Mail coach sped along the Great Bath Road the small market town of Calne was left rapidly diminishing in the background. The overnight journey from London had been mostly uneventful and so its scheduled arrival in Bath, in a little over two hours' time, now seemed certain. Nevertheless, the driver, ever mindful of potential delays on this stretch of road – a herd of cows on their way to milking and a fallen tree the most recent examples – snapped his whip twice and the newly tethered, four-horse team obligingly increased their pace.
Inside the distinctive black and maroon carriage Jack Swann awoke with a start from his nightmare and glanced around the interior. The other passengers – two women and a man – were still dozing, oblivious to his startled awakening. He turned his gaze to the countryside becoming visible in the reddening dawn sky and stared at it pensively as the wretched melancholy that always accompanied the aftermath of his nightmare enveloped him fully. At these times he found a little solace in a poem remembered from childhood – though its title and author long forgotten – which in some way he equated with his own situation. It concerned a ship bound for an undiscovered land, but blown off course onto jagged rocks by a storm, leaving the vessel holed but not wrecked. Forever cursed, as the poet had concluded, to flounder in troubled seas like a maritime Prometheus, never to sail calm waters again. And so it was that Swann felt cursed within this life of bad dreams and the melancholic gloom on waking from them, never to find a peaceful mind. He felt this disposition even more acutely this morning, travelling as he was for the funeral the next day of the woman he had called mother for the past twenty years; ever since she and her husband had adopted him at the age of twelve.
Mrs Gardiner had been a kind, caring woman who bestowed unconditional love on all members of her family and Swann reciprocated with feelings which would have been reserved for his real mother, had she not died in childbirth. Likewise, his sibling affections were easily and naturally imparted to his new 'sister', Mary, herself an only child. Regrettably, however, Mr Gardiner had been a different matter. Although as considerate and nurturing in his own way as his wife and daughter, he could never replace Swann's father – the man who raised Swann single-handedly to the threshold of manhood – and so a distance existed between them, neither able to completely benefit from the paternal bond the elder man was willing to offer 'the son he always wanted'. It was twenty years since Swann's real father was murdered, while attempting to protect the Gardiners' property, but not a day went by without his thinking of him.
Through this remembrance of his father, Swann's mind turned inevitably to his work and a case he had just concluded in his consultancy role for the Bow Street Runners – the law-enforcement organisation created some fifty years earlier by the novelist Henry Fielding and whose name derived from the London street where it was based. The case concerned a victim of blackmail that had resulted from his patronage of brothels and his specific requirements there. The practice of entrapping gentlemen in high office or powerful positions by criminal gangs, in collusion with disreputable brothel keepers, was rife in the capital, as no doubt elsewhere, yet the unsuspecting politician had blissfully walked straight into this well-honed trap. Unsuspecting? Swann considered the word and found it erroneous. When one held duties and responsibilities, professional and personal, as this married minister had, perpetual vigilance and constant awareness became foremost, especially with licentious temptations and extortionist activities being such easy bedfellows in the criminal underworld. Too much injustice already existed and far too many perpetrators roamed the streets unpunished to allow oneself, an upholder of the law, to become the hapless quarry of the criminality prevalent throughout the city. Unsuspecting or not, the minister had become entrapped. Realising, however, that recent ill-advised speculation on the stock market meant he would not be able to pay the blackmailers, and so making a public scandal certain, the minister had risen early on the previous Saturday, hired a hansom cab to Putney Heath and, after dismissing the driver, discharged a bullet through his own temple. After being informed of this news, Swann had spent the remaining weekend calling in favours from several newspaper owners to ensure, for the sake of the dead man's family, that reports regarding the politician's demise in that morning's papers lay the blame squarely on the fluctuating stock market and not on the more insalubrious aspects of the case.
From the beginning to the end of the case Swann had been able to do very little, other than put on a disguise and pursue a couple of tenuous leads to the heart of London's underworld. Indeed, ordinarily Swann would have politely declined the case, if it had not been for a name linked to one of the brothel keepers. It was a name he knew only too well, as it was the name cried out on that murderous night and which summoned the man who so callously ended the life of Swann's father: Malone. So, whenever a possible clue to the killer's whereabouts arose, however slender, a sense of responsibility to his father's memory dictated Swann follow it. As it transpired, the name turned out to be a false one and the petty criminal using it far too young. But then, it was always like that: a promising lead, an investigation and a disappointment. The obligation he felt to investigate each one, however, would continue until his quest was at an end; through his father's murderer finally being brought to justice, or else details surrounding his death authenticated.
The sun had now fully risen and the reddened sky turned blue when the coach entered a slight dip surrounded by trees. The semi-darkness caused the window to act as a mirror, revealing Swann's reflection. He looked tired, but not just the kind of tiredness expected from overnight travel; in fact, the journey had proved less arduous than anticipated. No, there was a deeper tiredness, one borne out of prolonged exposure to London's criminal fraternity. The circumstances were not as he would have wished but Swann was grateful for the few days they would afford him out of the capital.
And it would be good to see Mary once more. Dear Mary, her mere presence in a room was enough to lighten Swann's darkest mood. From the moment she had put her hand into his on the day of his adoption, knowing she now had a brother, a special bond, strong as any blood tie, had developed between them. Swann had given himself the role of his sister's 'protector' as they grew up. In reality though, he became more an observer, watching in admiration on returning home from boarding school and later university as Mary blossomed into a strong-spirited, independent-minded woman. Her sharp wit had developed in tandem with her artistic talent, most markedly shown on the pianoforte. And what she lacked in original composition, she made up for in her interpretation of others: most notably Bach. If she did have a slight imperfection, or rather a feminine Achilles heel, perhaps it was that at times she could show a naivety where matters of the heart were concerned. In the past, it had twice led her to the threshold of imprudence, although thankfully on both occasions fortuitous circumstances had conspired to bring her reputation through safely intact.
Mary was now twenty-four years old and still unmarried, which in certain households might have given cause for concern. Her financial independence, however, meant that she did not have to rely on finding a husband to secure a future. Nevertheless, Swann would be comforted to see her at least betrothed in the not too distant future and although not wishing to cast himself in the role of match-maker, there was a lawyer acquaintance who had expressed a wish to be introduced to Mary when Swann brought her back from Bath to live with him in London ... but that was moving too far ahead. There was the funeral to attend first and putting his adoptive mother's affairs in order.
There was, of course, the other reason Swann was coming to Bath and which would occupy part of his stay. If there had been one positive aspect to the case he had just completed back in London, it was that when he had been visiting one of the several disreputable public houses seeking information, he had overheard a conversation; the details of which he had hastily written down afterwards. As the coach came out of the tree-lined dip and into open countryside once more, he tapped the notebook secured in the breast pocket of his jacket, aware the hastily scribbled notes, written three nights ago, contained the next possible lead to finding Malone. Swann looked outward to the western horizon, beyond which the city of Bath was beginning a new day.CHAPTER 2
In 1702, and again the following year, Queen Anne visited Bath and it is true to say that the city never looked back. Her royal patronage prompted the rich and powerful elite of British society – Goldsmith's 'people of distinction' – to do likewise and this one-time medieval textile centre, located ninety-seven miles west of London, now found itself the most fashionable resort in the land. In turn, the middling classes followed the elite and throughout the eighteenth century the economic prosperity this brought with it resulted in a sustained programme of building and rapid population expansion rarely witnessed anywhere in Europe beforehand. By the start of the nineteenth century, however, the elite, as is always the way with fashionable and ephemeral pursuits, had now bestowed their patronage elsewhere, on spa towns and health resorts such as Cheltenham and Brighton.
Yet the middling classes, with their domestic entourages in tow, still kept coming in ever increasing numbers and alongside them came a multitude of shopkeepers, tradesmen and skilled labourers who flocked to the city to provide for their every need. But with this influx of the middle, lower and skilled classes, the city also attracted the underclass – the impoverished section of society drawn to places of wealth and abundance, ready to take their share in whatever way they were able. These were the beggars, pickpockets, con-artists, prostitutes and other nefarious characters that saw in Bath a place ripe for plunder. And where crime becomes rife, organised gangs and iniquitous leaders quickly emerge to control it. In Bath the undisputed criminal boss was an Irishman called Thomas Malone, a one-time bare-knuckle fighter who it was said had killed at least two men during his 'career'. He had arrived in the city several years earlier and in a relatively short space of time ruthlessly intimidated and brutally murdered his way to take control of the city's underworld. He had held that top position ever since and during that time had seen off at least three major rivals for his territory and survived as many attempts on his life. At present there were several, less powerful, gang leaders in and around the city with their sights set on seizing power but in reality there was only one serious contender: Frank Wicks.
Not long after midnight, as Swann and the Royal Mail coach were somewhere between Maidenhead and Reading, events connected to the scribbled notes in his notebook were unfolding in Bath; the consequences of which would trigger more far-reaching effects than anyone involved could ever have imagined.
The warehouse door slid open and Thomas Malone stepped through into the building, swiftly followed in single file by several of his men. His eyes scanned the semi-darkness until they stopped at the solitary figure of Richard J. Kirby, standing on the loading platform at the far end. Malone gestured for his men to wait as he walked across the uneven earthen floor towards the waiting man.
'So, what's that important it couldn't wait 'til morning?' Malone sneered, as he ascended the few wooden steps to come level with the other man.
'I am terminating our understanding Malone – and I am aware you desire to receive disagreeable news immediately.'
'We don't have an "understanding" Kirby,' Malone replied, contemptuously. 'I pay you and you do as I say.'
'However you wish to describe our situation, it is over. And from now on you call me Mister Kirby.'
Malone stepped forward, bringing their faces only inches apart.
'Now you listen to me, Mister Kirby. I own this city and not you or anyone else tells me what to do.'
'I'm sorry you feel like that Malone, but then you leave me no choice.'
In one sudden movement Kirby raised a small wooden truncheon from behind his back and struck the side of Malone's head, knocking him unconscious. On seeing their leader fall to the floor his men rushed towards the platform but from the shadows a larger group appeared and surrounded them. The fight between the two gangs of men was brief but brutal and in the aftermath all of Malone's men lay dead or dying. Two of the victorious group now came up onto the raised platform and after a gesture from Kirby hauled the unconscious Malone to his feet. Kirby slapped the other man's face several times and slowly Malone's eyes opened. Looking around he saw his gang decimated on the warehouse floor.
'I will kill you for this, Kirby, and send your body down the Avon.'
'That's no way to speak to an associate of mine, Malone,' said Wicks, as he stepped out from the shadows to face his rival.
'Wicks! You'll join him too.'
'And what makes you sure it isn't you ending up in the river?'
'I know people in London,' said Malone, still defiant.
'That's interesting, because your "people" have already sent word they'll not interfere. It seems they're having doubts about you and I have to agree.'
'What d'you mean?'
'Well, there was a time you'd never have walked into such an obvious trap as this, at least not with so few men. No, your time in this city is over, Malone.' Wicks took another step forward and as he did so drew a large cutlass from its scabbard attached to his belt. For the first time, fear appeared in Malone's eyes.
'Wicks, now wait a min ...' but he didn't get a chance to finish his words, as the cutlass was driven deep into his midriff by Wicks, who watched with malicious pleasure as the blood spurted from his adversary's mouth. Wicks then gave the blade a victorious twist as it reached its hilt, before drawing it out unhurriedly, savouring every moment of his triumph. As Malone slumped to the ground dead Wicks turned to his own men.
'Right, finish off any of Malone's men still alive and get rid of all the bodies. Dump them in the river. That'll show people who's in charge now.'
Wicks turned to his 'associate', still standing next to him.
'You've done well, Kirby. I won't forget this.'
'I am glad to be of service,' Kirby replied.
They glanced at Malone's body as it was being dragged away.
'This city is mine now,' said Wicks, 'and there's no one to stop me.'CHAPTER 3
In May 1760 it was decided by 'The Corporation' – the self-regulating, self-appointed body of men who controlled everything in the city from municipal policy to granting sedan licences – 'that the Town Hall be newly built in a more commodious place, and a committee formed.' This conclusion being drawn from the realisation that the current building had not only outgrown its original purpose but through its location in the middle of the High Street, which happened to be the main thoroughfare, had become a fairly substantial obstruction to the ever increasing volume of traffic entering the city. And so began one of the most controversial and convoluted episodes in Bath's architectural history. The saga dragged on for seventeen years until the old building was finally vacated (and unceremoniously pulled down soon after) and the Mayor and council officials made their way across the street to take up residence in the new Guildhall. And in the quarter century which had elapsed since then, the building had become the symbol of corporate authority in Bath and its seat of justice.
Inside the main courtroom the early session was reaching the culmination of its first case of the morning: a private prosecution brought by Theodore Evans against one Mr Tyler with local magistrate Richard J. Kirby presiding. Kirby banged his gavel, bringing his court to order. He did not look any the worse for his nocturnal activities as he turned to address the all-male jury.
Excerpted from The Regency Detective by David Lassman, Terence James. Copyright © 2013 David Lassman & Terence James. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
VOLUME I SWANN'S WAY,
VOLUME II SWANN AND THE FUTURE PAST,
About the Authors,