“All Londoners will see what the Watchers are capable of on Christmas Eve …"
December 1882. Attending the opening of the new Natural History Museum, Pall Mall Gazette reporter Alec Lonsdale and his colleague Hulda Friederichs are shocked to discover a body in the basement, hacked to death. Suspicion immediately falls on a trio of cannibals, brought over from the Congo as museum exhibits, who have disappeared without trace.
Alec however has his doubts – especially when he discovers that three other influential London men have been similarly murdered. When he and Hulda discover a letter in the victim’s home warning of a catastrophic event planned for Christmas Eve, the pair find themselves in a race against time to discover who exactly the Watchers are and what it is they want …
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London, Friday 15 December 1882
Alexander Lonsdale should have been happy. He had recently been appointed full-time reporter at The Pall Mall Gazette, winning the honour against some serious competitors, meaning he was financially secure. He was also engaged to an accomplished young woman who loved him. Yet he could not escape the sense that life was carrying him along at a rate of knots to a place where he did not want to be.
He was not sure why he should be discontented – most anyone else would have been delighted to be in his place. He also knew he was being ungrateful, especially as there had been times that year when he was not sure he would escape alive, let alone be in a position where everything was going so well. But he could not escape the nagging sense that all was not right.
He had confided his concerns to his brother the previous night, but should have known better than to expect understanding from Jack, a barrister who dealt in facts, not feelings. Jack had dismissed his worries, claiming all would be well once the lunatic Maclean was behind bars once more. He had refused to listen to Lonsdale's startled assurances that he was not in the slightest bit concerned about Maclean.
Lonsdale knew the reason for his brother's failings as a confidant: Jack's fiancée, Emelia, whom he was scheduled to marry the next spring, absorbed his every waking thought. Personally, Lonsdale failed to understand what Jack saw in her, and considered her dull, narrow-minded and stupid, which was unfortunate, as he himself was engaged to Emelia's sister. This put him in Emelia's company more than he liked. Luckily, Anne shared none of her sister's flaws – she was intelligent, witty, and blessed with an independent spirit, although there had been a recent and rather worrying tendency for Anne to take her sister's point of view.
He increased his pace as he walked across Kensington Gardens from his home in Cleveland Square. It was just ten o'clock; the morning was overcast, though, and he suspected it would never be fully light that day. Christmas was in exactly ten days, and there was a sense of anticipation in the air that reminded him of happy family times in Northamptonshire. Being the son of a country vicar had its advantages, and an idyllic childhood had been one of them.
That year, though, he would spend the holiday in London with his prospective in-laws, which was not something that filled him with delight. It was rather too easy to offend the Humbages, and the only member of the family he liked, other than Anne, was Lady Humbage's mother. Lady Gertrude was an elderly woman with a wicked sense of humour and an interesting past that her stuffy son-in-law forbade her to mention.
Lonsdale pushed the disquiet from his mind and turned his attention to that day's assignment: the opening of the British Museum's new Natural History branch in South Kensington. The building had been designed by Alfred Waterhouse, who bucked the architectural trend of following the Gothic style and had created a Romanesque terracotta façade reminiscent of a cathedral, with round arches and a double entrance portal. The façade boasted carvings conveying the museum's purpose – the west or 'zoological side' was adorned with living creatures; the east or 'geological side' with extinct ones.
To Lonsdale, it was an expression of the age – grand, ornate, imposing and lavish. The Times called it 'a true Temple to Nature', not only because of its fabulous exterior, but also because of the attention to detail on the inside. Everywhere – on staircases, walls and floors – were sculptures and paintings of the living world, every one scientifically accurate. Best yet, access to the museum was free, so everyone could marvel at its treasures. It was an honour, he thought, to be asked to report on the opening of such a magnificent institution.
He glanced around as he neared the Albert Memorial, sure he was being followed. He was, and he grimaced when he recognized the oily presence of Henry Voules. Lonsdale and Voules had been rivals for The Pall Mall Gazette job, although both had been thwarted when the man they aimed to replace had decided not to retire after all. Lonsdale had decided to cut his losses and was on the verge of returning to the Colonial Service – much to the relief of his family and Anne, who had never approved of his love affair with journalism, which they considered an inappropriate occupation for a gentleman – when he received some astonishing news. The owner of The Pall Mall Gazette did not want to lose him, so had created a new full-time post in order to keep him on.
Voules had not been so fortunate, and had been told his services were no longer required. His wealthy father had found him a job at The Echo, a sensational rag that never allowed facts to interfere with a good story. As Voules was not very good at sniffing out the kind of lurid tale The Echo's editor liked, he had taken to tailing Lonsdale in the hope that he would lead him to one – hopefully like the plot Lonsdale had exposed earlier that year, which had shaken the whole country. Lonsdale had no expectation of repeating the performance, but Voules was an almost constant shadow at his heels anyway. He did not like it, but Voules transpired to own an unexpected talent for following people, and was all but impossible to throw off.
Lonsdale heard the clock at the Church of All Saints strike the hour as he turned down Prince's Gate. He was early, which meant there was time to slip into the ABC tea shop for something to eat. It was one of his favourite places, mostly because no one else from The Pall Mall Gazette seemed to know about it, so it was somewhere he could sit quietly and think. Most ABC – Aerated Bread Company – cafes were at or near railway stations, but the one off Prince's Gate was new and offered breakfast at an affordable price. As Lonsdale had left home with only a cup of tea inside him, breakfast seemed a very good idea.
The ABC tea shop was clean, warm and heavy with the aroma of freshly baked bread. There was a buzz of lively conversation, and the decor was simple but tasteful, with bright white tablecloths and pale cream walls.
Lonsdale pushed open the door, then stopped dead in his tracks, so abruptly that Voules, following close on his heels, barrelled into the back of him. Voules mumbled an insincere apology and went to inspect the cakes.
The source of Lonsdale's surprise was his colleague, Hulda Friederichs. She occupied the best table in the window and looked very much at home. He grimaced his annoyance. Was there nowhere in the city he could enjoy a quiet cup of tea without his colleagues?
Hulda smiled triumphantly when she spotted him and indicated with an imperious flick of her fingers that he was to join her. He did so warily, wondering if she was there to announce that, as the assistant editor's favourite reporter, she was to cover the opening of the museum. It would not be the first time she had airily poached a good assignment, leaving him with something dull instead.
'What are you doing here?' he asked coolly.
'Waiting for you,' she replied. 'Do you want to sit while I tell you why, or will you hear it while you loom over me like a vulture with its prey?'
If there was anything Hulda was not, it was prey, thought Lonsdale. He sat, saying a silent goodbye to his peaceful breakfast, and bracing himself to be railed at by a woman who could make even the strongest men quake in their boots.
Hulda was Prussian, although her English was perfect. It had become even more so after W.T. Stead, The Pall Mall Gazette's assistant editor, had suggested she make more use of the vernacular, so as to render her speech less 'foreign'. She had originally been hired as Stead's private secretary, but he had quickly recognized her talents and had made her a reporter. Moreover, he paid her the same salary as his male reporters – a first in the publishing world.
Lonsdale admired Hulda's intelligence and doggedness, but every time he started to like her, she infuriated or alienated him with her abrasive manners. He had all but given up trying to befriend her and had settled for a steely politeness that kept her at arm's length.
'Well?' he asked, irked that she should have anticipated his movements so accurately – not only that he would arrive early, but that he would visit the ABC tea shop. She had an uncanny ability to make him feel very staid and predictable, and he did not like it at all.
'Not that table, Voules,' she called, as The Echo man started to settle himself next to them. 'You'll be able to hear us talking, which I'm sure wasn't your intention, honourable fellow that you are. There's a spare spot over by the wall.' She smiled sweetly as she added under her breath, 'Near the lavatories.'
Voules blushed. 'Oh, Miss Friederichs! I didn't see you there. Would you like company? I'm a lot more fun than Lonsdale, who's a surly devil at the best of times.'
'He is,' agreed Hulda. 'But I have private business with him, so you must excuse us.'
Voules inclined his head and moved away. The table by the lavatories had just been taken, so he looked around for another. His eye lit on James Burnside, the photographer, who smiled a friendly greeting and indicated the empty chair next to him. When Voules sat, Burnside immediately began to gabble.
'We can't,' snapped Voules after a moment of it, firmly and rather loudly. 'It's too expensive and the technicalities are insurmountable.'
His response meant that Lonsdale knew exactly what Burnside had said, even though he had been unable to hear. Burnside was trying – yet again – to persuade a reporter that illustrating articles with photographs was the way of the future. Unfortunately for Burnside, most newspapers were unwilling to take the plunge. It was obvious from Voules's growing exasperation that it was not the first time Burnside had raised the subject with him.
Lonsdale watched the two men for a moment – one desperate enough to persist, even though it was obvious he was flogging a dead horse; the other more interested in reading the menu. Then he turned back to Hulda, noting that she had dressed unusually smartly that day, although her fair hair was scraped into a particularly austere bun. It boded ill for him – her assignment that week was overseeing the section of the paper called 'Occasional Notes', which entailed sitting at a desk and culling information from the morning papers. There should have been no need for her to make such an effort with her clothes, so he knew he should be suspicious of it.
'Stead learned something last night,' she said, leaning across the table and regarding Lonsdale with the intense blue stare he had come to know so well. 'The Natural History Museum has a great surprise for its visitors today.'
'A fabulous building designed by a talented architect who's done the nation proud?' he asked. 'I'll be less surprised than most – I was given a tour of it last week, by someone who works there.'
'Were you?' asked Hulda resentfully. 'You didn't tell me. I'd have joined you – to see the place before the hordes start screeching through it.'
'You weren't invited,' retorted Lonsdale, and winced. What was it about Hulda that brought out the worst in him? He was not naturally boorish, but there was something about her assumption that she should be informed about and included in everything that he found profoundly annoying.
She glared at him. 'But I would have been, had you thought to include me.'
'The offer was for me alone,' said Lonsdale, then struggled to sound less combative. 'It was a condition for my friend agreeing to it. He didn't want to let me in, because he's so busy with the opening, and it wasn't easy to persuade him to spare me an hour.'
Hulda continued to glare. 'And who is this "friend", exactly?'
'A man I met when I was the assistant to the Governor of the Gold Coast,' explained Lonsdale. 'His name's Tim Roth, and we spent two months together, conducting surveys of the southern reaches of the Black Volta River. He compiled some impressive zoological data, but the journey ruined his health, so now he's rather ...'
He faltered, suspecting Hulda would not appreciate being informed that her bombastic presence might be too much for the now-fragile Tim Roth. There had been times towards the end of their survey when Lonsdale had thought Roth might die, although he had been robust enough at the outset. Roth had survived, but it had taken months for him to recover even a shred of his former vigour, forcing him to return to London. Six years later, Lonsdale also had left Africa, when he became disenchanted with the policies and actions of the British administrators in the Cape Colony and the Transvaal.
'So he's a sensitive soul,' mused Hulda thoughtfully. 'Don't worry – I'll treat him with goat gloves. When will we meet him?'
'Kid gloves,' corrected Lonsdale. 'And we won't meet him. We can't distract him from his duties today of all days – he'll be too busy.'
'But he might be able to give us inside information on the cannibals,' objected Hulda. 'And that's why I'm here.'
Lonsdale blinked his puzzlement. 'Cannibals?'
Hulda smiled superiorly. 'Real ones, brought from the interior of the Congo. They'll be on display in the Empire and Africa exhibition, and are sure to draw the crowds.'
Lonsdale frowned. 'Tim never mentioned cannibals, real or otherwise. Are you sure?'
Hulda smiled again. 'It's been a closely guarded secret, so as to maximize the impact. It'll create a sensation and attract even more visitors. So, your frail friend didn't confide in you, eh? Perhaps he doesn't hold you in as high regard as you believe.'
'Or he was sworn to secrecy and he's a man of his word,' Lonsdale flashed back. It was true that he and Roth had drifted apart since Roth had left Africa eight years before, but he was sure his old friend would never mislead him without good reason.
'You should've taken me on this tour, because I wouldn't have let him leave out the interesting bits,' declared Hulda. 'Besides, I've a particular interest in dinosaurs, and would've got a lot more out of a preview than you.'
Dinosaurs, thought Lonsdale sourly: dangerous reptiles that ate each other and fought all the time. Of course Hulda would like them! He made an effort to be pleasant. 'When I was in West Africa, I found a dinosaur claw. It's at home.'
'Then you should be ashamed of yourself,' scolded Hulda. 'First, much information is lost when fools take things from their original locations; and second, that claw should be in a museum, where everyone can appreciate it.'
It was Lonsdale's turn to be smug. 'I found it minutes before it would've been blown up by dynamite – it was in a mine, and had I left it there, it would've been lost for ever. Moreover, I've contacted the museum's director with a view to handing it over.'
'You mean Richard Owen, the fossil man?' asked Hulda keenly. 'I should like to meet him! I admire his work greatly. Of course, he's wrong to dismiss the theory of evolution. I'm sure God didn't put dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden, as that would have rendered it somewhat precarious for the other inhabitants.'
'Right,' said Lonsdale, not about to debate such a contentious subject in public – the tea room was crowded, and people were sensitive about matters touching on religion. 'I'll take the claw to him next week.'
'Then I'll go with you,' determined Hulda. 'I'll explain evolution in a way that will make it impossible for him to remain a creationist.'
'I see,' said Lonsdale, deciding to do whatever was necessary to keep them apart. 'But to return to the cannibals ...'
'Stead sent me to find out exactly what the museum has in mind for them,' she explained. 'He hates the notion of "human zoos".'
It was not unusual for museums to use real native peoples in their exhibitions and, while Lonsdale appreciated that they added an air of authenticity, he also deplored taking folk from all that was comfortable and familiar to put them on show.
'Stead wants us to gather information about these cannibals,' Hulda went on, 'so he can write something that will prevent them from being paraded about like circus beasts. Other papers will trumpet about the sensation these cannibals create, but The PMG will take a more ethical stance.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Watchers of the Dead"
Copyright © 2019 Simon Beaufort.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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