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Monday, 13 September 1813, the hours before dawn
T he boy hated this part. Hated the eerie way the pale, waxen faces of the dead seemed to glow in the faintest moonlight. Hated being left alone with a stiffening body while he dug its grave.
He kicked the shovel deep into the ground and felt his heart leap painfully in his chest when the scrape of dirt against metal sounded dangerously loud in the stillness of the night. He sucked in a quick breath, the musty smell of damp earth thick in his nostrils, his fingers tightening on the smooth wooden handle as he paused to cast a panicked glance over one shoulder.
A mist was drifted up from the Fleet to curl around the base of the nearby shot tower and creep along the crumbling brick walls of the abandoned warehouses beyond it. He heard a dog bark somewhere in the distance and, nearer, a soft thump.
What was that?
The boy waited, his mouth dry, his body tense and trembling. But the sound was not repeated. He swiped a ragged sleeve across his sweaty face, swallowed hard, and bent into his work. He was uncomfortably aware of the cloaked gentleman watching from the seat of the cart that waited at the edge of the field. The gentleman had helped drag Benji's body over to the looming shot tower. But he never helped dig. Gentlemen didn't dig graves, although they could and did kill with a vicious delight that made the boy shiver as he threw another shovelful of dirt onto the growing pile.
The hole was beginning to take shape. Another six inches or so and he'd-
The boy's head snapped around, and he froze.
A ragged, skeletally thin figure lurched from the gaping doorway of one of the tumbledown warehouses. "Wot ye doin' there?"
The shovel hit the ground with a clatter as the boy bolted. He fell into the newly dug grave and went down, floundering in the loose dirt. Feet flailing, he reared up on splayed hands, found solid ground, and pushed off.
"Oye!" shouted the ghostly specter.
The boy tore across the uneven field, his breath soughing in and out, his feet pounding. He saw the gentleman in the cart jerk, saw him gather the reins and spank them hard against his horse's rump.
"Wait for me!" screamed the boy as the cart lurched forward, its iron-rimmed wheels rattling over the rutted lane. "Stop!"
The gentleman urged the horse into a wild canter. He did not look back.
The boy leapt a low, broken stretch of the stone wall that edged the field. "Come back!"
The cart careened around the corner and out of sight, but the boy tore after it anyway. Surely the gentleman would stop for him? He wouldn't simply leave him, would he?
The boy was sobbing now, his nose running, his chest aching as he fought to draw air into his lungs. It wasn't until he reached the corner himself that he dared risk a frantic look back and realized the skeletal figure wasn't following him.
The man-for the boy saw now that it was a man and not some hideous apparition-had paused beside the raw, unfinished grave. And he was staring down at what was left of Benji Thatcher.
Tuesday, 14 September
S ebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, braced his hands against the bedroom windowsill, his gaze on the misty scene below. In the faint light of dawn, Brook Street lay empty except for a kitchen maid scrubbing the area steps of the house next door.
He could not explain what had driven him from his bed. His dreams were often disturbed by visions of the past, as if he were condemned to relive certain moments over and over in a never-ending spiral of repentance and atonement. But for the second morning in a row he'd awakened abruptly with no tortured memories, only a vague sense of disquiet as inexplicable as it was disturbing.
He heard a shifting of covers and turned as Hero came to stand beside him. "Did I wake you?" he asked, sliding an arm around his wife's warm body to draw her closer.
"I needed to get up anyway." She rested her head on his shoulder, her fine brown hair sliding softly across his bare flesh. She was a tall woman, nearly as tall as he, with strong features and eyes of such piercing intelligence that she frightened a good portion of their contemporaries. "I promised my mother I'd come meet a cousin she has visiting, but first I want to read through my article one more time before I turn it in to my editor."
"Ah. So what's your next project?"
"I haven't decided yet."
She was writing a series of articles on the poor of London, an endeavor that greatly irritated her powerful father, Charles, Lord Jarvis. But Hero was not the kind of woman to allow anyone's opinions to dissuade her from what she believed to be the right course of action.
Sebastian ran his hand up and down her back and nuzzled her neck. "Who's the cousin?"
"A Mrs. Victoria Hart-Davis. I believe she's the granddaughter of one of my mother's uncles, but I could have that wrong. She was raised in India, so I've never met her."
"And she's staying with your mother?"
"Mmm. For weeks."
"Jarvis must be thrilled."
Hero gave a soft chuckle. Jarvis's low opinion of most females was notorious. "Fortunately he's so busy plotting how to rearrange Europe after Napolon's defeat that I doubt he'll be around enough to be overly annoyed by her."
"Bit premature, isn't it?" Napolon was in retreat, but he was still far from defeated.
"You know Jarvis; he's always been confident of victory. After all, with both God and the irrepressible sweep of history on our side, how can England fail? Such a brazen upstart must be wiped from the face of the earth." Her smile faded as she searched Sebastian's face, and he wondered what she saw there. "So what woke you? Troublesome dreams?"
He shook his head, unwilling to put his thoughts into words. Yet the sense of restless foreboding remained. And when a patter of rapid footsteps broke the silence of the deserted street and a boy appeared out of the mist, he somehow knew the lad would turn to run up their front steps.
Hero glanced at the ormolu clock on the bedroom mantel. "A messenger arriving at this hour of the morning can't be bringing good news."
"No," agreed Sebastian, and turned from the window.
P aul Gibson dropped the wet cloth he'd been using into the basin of water and straightened, his arms wrapping across his chest, his gaze on the pallid face of the half-washed corpse laid out on the stone slab before him. The boy had been just fifteen years old, painfully underfed and small for his age, his features delicate, his flaxen hair curling softly away from his face as it dried. What had been done to the lad's emaciated body twisted at something deep inside Gibson, something the surgeon had thought deadened long ago.
He was a man in his mid-thirties, Irish by birth, his black hair already heavily intermixed with silver, the lines on his face dug deep by the twin ravages of pain and an opium addiction he knew was slowly killing him. There was a time not so long ago when he'd been a regimental surgeon. He'd seen soldiers blown into unidentifiable bloody shreds by cannon fire and hideously maimed by sword and shot. He'd helped bury more butchered, mutilated women and children than he could bear to remember. But he'd never been confronted with something quite like this.
Not here, in London.
Reaching out, he tried to close the boy's wide, staring blue eyes, but the rigor still held them fast. He turned, his peg leg tapping on the flagged floor as he limped over to stand in the open doorway and draw the clean, damp morning air deep into his lungs. He used this small, high-windowed outbuilding behind his Tower Hill surgery for both official autopsies and the surreptitious, covert dissections he performed on cadavers filched from London's teeming churchyards. From here he could look across the yard to the ancient stone house he shared with Alexi, the vaguely mysterious Frenchwoman who'd come into his life some months before and stayed for reasons he'd never quite understood. The sun had burned off the last of the mist, but the morning air was still pleasantly cool and tinged with the smell of the smoke rising from his kitchen chimney.
As he watched, the rickety gate that led to the narrow passage running along the side of the house opened, and the man Gibson had been waiting for entered the yard. Tall, lean, and dark haired, Devlin was younger than Gibson, but only by a few years. Together the two men had fought George III's wars from Italy and the Peninsula to the West Indies. The experiences they'd shared had forged an unusual but powerful bond between the Irish surgeon and the son and heir of one of the grandest noblemen in the land. Now they sometimes worked together on murders the authorities couldn't-or wouldn't-solve.
"I received your message," said Devlin, pausing some feet shy of the building's entrance. His fine-boned face was taut and unsmiling, his strange, amber-colored eyes already narrowed as if in preparation for what he was about to see. "How bad is it?"
"Bad." Turning, Gibson led the way back into the room.
Devlin hesitated a moment, then stepped into the cold, dank building. At the sight of the battered body laid out on Gibson's stone slab, he sucked in his breath with a hiss. "My God."
So far, Gibson had managed to wash the dirt and blood only from the front of the boy's body. But against the pale, waxy flesh, the welts and cuts that covered the cadaver's arms, legs, and torso stood out stark and purple.
"What the hell happened to him?" said Devlin after a moment.
"Someone took a whip to him. Repeatedly. And cut him. With a small, very sharp knife."
"He was found like this? Naked?"
A muscle jumped along Devlin's set jaw as his gaze focused on the wide purple ligature mark around the boy's neck. "I take it that's what killed him?"
Gibson nodded. "Probably strangled with a leather belt or strap of some sort."
"Any idea who he was?"
"Actually, yes. His name was Benji Thatcher. According to the constable who brought him here, his mother was transported to Botany Bay some three years ago. He's been living on the streets of Clerkenwell ever since-he and a younger sister."
Devlin let his gaze drift, again, over the boy's thin, tortured body. "This was all done before he died?"
"Most of it, yes."
Devlin went to stand in the open doorway as Gibson had done, his hands on his hips, his nostrils flaring as he breathed in hard. "Who's the magistrate dealing with this?"
"It should be Sir Arthur Ellsworth, of the Hatton Garden Public Office. The problem is, he's already closed the investigation. Seems Sir Arthur has better things to do with his public office's time than worry about the death of some young pickpocket. They held a cursory inquest yesterday afternoon and then released the body to the parish authorities for burial in the local poor hole. He's only here because that didn't sit well with one of the constables-a man by the name of Mott Gowan. So he brought the lad's body to me instead."
It was a long way from Clerkenwell and Hatton Garden to Tower Hill, and Gibson heard the puzzlement in Devlin's voice when he said, "Why here?"
Gibson hesitated, then said, "I know Gowan through Alexi. He's married to a Frenchwoman."
Devlin's jaw hardened, but all he said was, "Ah." The enmity between Alexi and Devlin was both long-standing and intense. "You say the boy was a thief?"
Devlin turned to stare again at the small, battered corpse. And there was something about the expression that flickered across his features that made Gibson suspect his friend was thinking about his own infant son, safe at home. He said, "Over how many days was this done to him?"
"Two, maybe three. Some of the wheals were already beginning to heal, although most of the slashes and shallow stab wounds were probably done either right before he was killed or as he was dying."
Devlin's gaze focused on the raw wounds circling the boy's wrists. He'd obviously struggled frantically against his bonds. "Rope, you think?"
"I found hemp fibers embedded in the flesh, although there are signs he was also shackled at some point. He was gagged too; you can see the chafing at the corners of his mouth."
"So no one would hear him scream," said Devlin softly, letting his gaze drift, again, over the boy's pitiful, tortured body. "Where was he found?"
"On the grounds of the old Rutherford Shot Factory, off Brook Lane, just outside Clerkenwell. Some ex-soldier sleeping in one of the abandoned warehouses awoke and heard what sounded like digging. He listened to it for a while, then finally got up to investigate."
"And what he'd heard was someone digging a grave?"
"Yes. The digger ran off when the soldier shouted at him."
"Was this soldier able to provide your Constable Gowan with a description of the killer?"
"Not much of one, I'm afraid. He claims there were actually two men-one doing the digging and another fellow who stayed with the horse and cart."
Devlin's gaze met Gibson's. The thought of even one person capable of committing such an abomination was troubling enough; the existence of two such men seemed incomprehensible.
Devlin said, "You say Benji has a younger sister?"
Gibson nodded. "Sybil. Constable Gowan says he's tried to find her, to tell her about her brother. But no one's seen her."
Something leapt in Devlin's eyes. "For how long? How long has she been missing?"
Gibson felt a cold dread wrap around his guts and squeeze as he realized the implications of what he was about to say. "Three days."
S ebastian left Gibson's surgery and walked toward the old stone watering trough where his young groom, or tiger, waited with his curricle and pair.
A slight, gap-toothed lad, Tom had been Sebastian's tiger for nearly three years now, ever since that cold, dark February when Sebastian had found himself accused of murder and on the run. In those days Tom had been a hungry pickpocket left behind to fend for himself when his mother was transported to Botany Bay-just like Benji Thatcher. And Sebastian found himself thinking about the difference in the ultimate fates of the two boys as he watched Tom bring the chestnuts around and draw up, his sharp-featured face alive with curiosity.