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A Detective Sergeant Best Mystery
By Joan Lock
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Joan Lock
All rights reserved.
He could not make out what the sound was or where it was coming from. It was oddly squeaky, as though some tiny animal was caught in a trap. A mouse? A squirrel? Then, a long intake of breath followed by a pathetic moan made him realize that the noise was, in fact, human. More, that this human was situated directly behind the hedged fence of the next-door garden.
As quietly as possible, he stepped up on to his chair, pushed aside the thick hawthorn and peered over. Despite his care, the tiny, hunched-over figure started and looked up. Tear-filled, hazel eyes met his embarrassed gaze. Either the young girl had heard him or merely sensed she was being watched.
'Sorry,' he murmured, as she turned her head away. 'I just wondered ... I mean I didn't know what the sound was ...'
She was very young, he realized. No more than twelve or thirteen years old.
'Go away!' she sobbed. 'Leave me alone!' She began choking on her sobs and then to hiccup violently. She couldn't stop.
'Oh dear,' he exclaimed. 'Stay where you are. My Auntie Rose taught me an infallible cure for hiccups.'
He dashed away, soon returning with a glass of water which he struggled to hand over the hedge, getting well scratched by the hawthorn in the process.
The girl heaved herself from the garden seat, swaying as she did so. As she stood up her shawl dropped away and he was startled to see that she was very pregnant. Noticing his surprised gaze she looked down at herself and began sobbing even harder and hiccuping as though she would choke to death.
'Stop that,' he commanded, pushing the glass into her trembling hand. 'Now, take a deep breath and start to drink. Keep drinking – without taking another breath – as much of the water as you can.'
The girl gazed up at him as if he was mad.
'Go on,' he insisted. 'It always works. Deep breath ...'
'Keep going. Keep going,' he cajoled when it seemed she was about to stop. 'Drink it all if you can.'
She managed the lot. Took the glass from her lips, gasped deeply, then waited, looking about her as if a hiccup might sneak up upon her any moment. It didn't.
She stared at him wonderingly, gulped and said, 'Blimey. It do work. Don't it?'
'Never fails,' he agreed, feeling pleased. 'Told you.'
They shared a shy smile. She clearly found this a new experience as hers soon began to waver and she looked down, abashed. Hers was a pleasant, if ordinary, freckled oval face. Her light-brown hair refused to be restrained by its makeshift bootlace Alice band and stuck out defiantly in all directions. But there was something about her eyes which he found beguiling: flecks of gold and hints of latent intelligence.
'Nella!' came a raucous shout from the back of the house. 'Where are you? Lazing about again! I need some 'elp here – now!'
Nella jumped. 'Gotta go,' she said and tried to run back up the garden. Her heavy state caused her to stumble and almost topple over but she saved herself and continued, walking fast.
He looked after her sadly. It could have been his young sister Caterina. He sighed at the cruelty of the world and thought, not for the first time, that this was the oddest job he'd had since joining the Metropolitan Police.
The distraction over, Detective Sergeant Ernest Best resumed his stance before his easel, gazing doubtfully at his attempt on 'loose' representation of the garden greenery. It looked inept to him. 'Do it loosely,' Helen had advised when he wrote to her about his dilemma, 'then you can say it's like the new French impressionism.'
Fortunately, his landlady, after an initial puzzled glance, took little interest in his reasons for spending so much time in her garden. On the whole she was content with her new lodger who was polite, smart and clean and seemed to have no unpleasant habits, indeed was quite a charmer. She merely sniffed a little when he and his easel got in the way as she hung out her washing.
The whole business had started at dawn, three weeks earlier. On Sunday, 4 August 1878, George Thomas Nichols had been driving cattle along Brewery Road heading for the huge, Metropolitan Cattle Market just off the Caledonian Road in Islington. Intended to replace the overcrowded Smithfield, the Metropolitan Market swallowed up a large chunk of Copenhagen Fields one-time tea gardens then a political meeting ground where support had been voiced for the French Revolution and the Tolpuddle Martyrs.
Cries of rebellion were now replaced by the shouts of the drovers, cattle salesmen and buyers striking a bargain; the wheedling yells of boys selling toffee, brandy balls and ash sticks; and the bleating and bellowing of the captive animals.
At least it was quiet now, thought George. His bullocks would not be on show till tomorrow morning. He had time to herd them in the bullock pens and feed and water them before going home for some much-needed rest. Thank goodness he lived in the next street. He was exhausted, as were Tiger and Brawn, his two collies. Bullocks were particularly difficult to keep in check and needed all the goading he could muster for this last lap on their journey from Norfolk.
Just as the Market Tower clock struck five he slowed down to fill his pipe. He knew his charges would become difficult to handle when they turned into the pens and got the whiff of the slaughterhouses by the gate. As he paused to inhale the rich smoke his eye was caught by something lying on the wall at the foot of the market railings – just below an iron pillar sporting a coat of arms and a lamb's head.
He ambled over to give the flannel-wrapped bundle a poke with his cattle prod. Soft, with some harder bits. He shrugged. Some scraps and bones someone intended to take home for their dog but forgot. He unwrapped it nonetheless.
Two days later, at ten minutes past six on a mild but cloudy morning, an ostler named Edward Arthur Jones was walking up the long and dramatically curving sweep of Highbury Crescent – in a much more salubrious part of Islington. Pairs of lofty Italianate villas peered down on to a half-moon of fields – one of the few large green places left after the building frenzy of the last fifty years. Highbury Fields clung on.
The crescent was surprisingly steep (the good air of the heights was one of Islington's major attractions) and Mr Jones was feeling his age this morning. He puffed and slowed down a little. As he did so his eye was drawn to a small bundle resting against one of the fences surrounding the fields. He called this parcel to the attention of a passing constable on his way off duty.
The very next day, about a mile south-west of Highbury Crescent, a boatman spotted a brown paper parcel floating in the Regent's Canal.
Within the next eight days, small parcels were found spread all around the borough. One was discovered in a cesspit, another in a dustbin. Two small boys happened upon a bundle which lay behind a hedge in Laycock's Dairy Farm, and the conductor of the last tram from Moorgate to Archway pulled such a package from the luggage rack as he checked his vehicle before going home. The rose bushes in the gardens of the strangely Gothic Lonsdale Square gave shelter to another, as did a gravestone in St Mary's Churchyard which overlooked busy Upper Street.
Inside each bundle was a newborn baby. Most showed signs of malnutrition, quite a number had injuries to their skulls indicating a violent death.CHAPTER 2
'You know what this means?' asked Detective Chief Inspector Arthur Amos Cheadle.
Best knew that he wasn't expected to answer the question so merely looked attentive.
'Another Camberwell,' announced Cheadle. 'That's what it means.'
Best nodded. 'Looks like it, sir.' In fact, the comparison was a bit of an exaggeration. In Camberwell, a few years back, no fewer than sixteen dead babies had been found within a few weeks.
'I wants you ...' As usual, Cheadle's huge frame had been gradually slipping down his shiny, leather-covered chair and, as usual, he shot himself upright and leaned forward. 'I wants you to go in there,' he said bluntly.
'Take on the case?' said Best. 'Yes, sir.'
'No, I wants you to go in there – undercover. Get lodgings near a suspect house. Do some shadowing. Nose around.'
Best was startled. Cheadle pre-empted him, shaking his head slowly so that his large and luxuriant moustache swayed and quivered hypnotically. 'It's no use getting the divisionals to do it. Too many people knows them.'
'What about Sergeant Relf, sir?'
One time he wouldn't have dared question the orders of Scotland Yard's most astute detective and most ill-educated man. One time he would have suspected this was one of Cheadle's attempts to bring his fastidious and 'arty' sergeant down to earth. But times had changed. The recent disgrace brought on Cheadle's beloved department had simultaneously diminished the spirit of the old warhorse and put Best, proven to be one of the few honest Scotland Yard detectives, in a more favourable position. It had also made promotion to inspector imminent. Or should have done.
'Relf's h'otherwise engaged,' said Cheadle. 'And I wants you' – he heaved himself up again 'to 'elp bring back our good name. Besides,' he added with some venom, 'this is detective work, ain't it? This is murder.'
Well, it might be murder but it had been going on for a long time. Dead, new-born babies were frequently found discarded in small parcels all about this great capital city and had been for many years. It was only when the numbers found in one place became outrageous and the authorities were unable to ignore the situation that it was felt that something should be done about it. They were pressured into action and there was a flurry of activity for a while. Something certainly had been done about 'the Camberwell business' – Mrs Waters, baby-farmer, had been hanged.
On that occasion it had been two local uniformed officers, Sergeant Relf and Constable Tyers, who had taken action and become the heroes of the hour. Soon after, when there was an outbreak in Islington, Relf and Tyers had been put into lodgings in College Street, several doors from the 'suspected house'. They reported 'nothing suspicious happened' due, Relf was certain, to the suspects knowing they were being watched and were being extremely careful since the recent baby-farming convictions – not to mention the subsequent execution.
Later, Relf and Tyers were prominent witnesses before the Parliamentary Select Committee on the Protection of Infant Life which in turn had brought about legislation to see it didn't happen again. But, the laws passed were weak and the problem widespread so, of course, it did.
Scotland Yard detectives had made one or two half-hearted sorties into this arena both before and after the legislation – with little success. Now, however, when the department's stock was so low, they needed to show how much they cared.
Best felt he'd made a good start by actually finding lodgings with Mrs O'Connor, right next door to one of the 'suspect houses'. Mrs O'Connor's standards of cleanliness were adequate but not quite up to those of the fastidious Sergeant Best and he found the dingy decor rather depressing. But his landlady was a cheerful, friendly enough soul – once she had got used to the idea of having a respectable gentleman lodger who was not 'engaged during the day'. Indeed, she had only consented to take him when he had offered more than her 'moderate terms' and promised not to get under her feet.
Her partial-board cooking turned out to be really quite good if a little on the over-substantial side. One would think her lodgers were Irish navvies rather than one thirty-year-old bank clerk, a youthful assistant in a high-class gents' outfitters, and himself – a recuperating invalid with an artistic bent.
Painting watercolours offered Best a legitimate excuse to hang around the garden during the day. Here he could keep an eye on the house next door while, hopefully, making some casual acquaintances among the staff and residents.
But it proved a little difficult to sustain the pretence that the unkempt and overgrown plot, littered with various rusting domestic and garden implements and straddled by washing lines, was a picturesque subject. He thanked heaven for the clumps of Michaelmas daisies run wild by the fence and hung about with sprays of dog roses, though he was coming to the end of the number of times he could attempt to reproduce their riotous abandon in watercolour.
Thank goodness that he had also established that resting in his room was part of his pretended invalid regime. Fortunately the room overlooked the street, so from its window he could watch the comings and goings at the house next door while bringing himself up to date on this baby business – and re-reading Helen's letters for the third and fourth time.
From the start it had struck him how cruel this assignment was for him. Emma had died before they could have children, a miscarriage only hastening her death from the scourge of consumption. Now, he longed to become a father but he longed for Helen even more and children were part of the problem between them. Still, she was coming home from her studies in Paris at last. Only a week and two days to go!
Best stabbed his brush angrily at his painting. He hated all this baby-farming business and despised the heartless women who became involved in it – and he wasn't a man usually given to despising.
'You look ever so cross,' said a voice from the next door garden. 'Won't it come right?'
It was Nella. Bigger than ever, her brown dress now held together with safety pins at strategic points, and carrying a heavy basket of washing. It was hard to despise Nella. He decided to plunge straight in.
'Thinking about children,' he confessed.
'Oh,' said Nella, plonking the basket on the grass and looking ruefully down at herself. 'I don't think about nuffink else, do I?' She smiled wanly. 'Ain't got no choice.'
'Don't you want the baby then?'
'T'aint that. Didn't expect it, did I?' She glanced anxiously back at the house then picked up a pink woollen shawl liberally embroidered with blue flowers. For a moment he thought she was going to fall over but she managed to steady herself and straighten up to pull a peg from the bag stretched around what had once been her waist.
'And you're too young,' nodded Best. 'But once you've got it, I bet you'll be pleased.'
'I'll be glad it's come all right. So will they.' She nodded towards the house then reached down for another shawl.
'Will you be able to look after it?' he enquired casually while mixing pale-rose pink yet again.
She shook her head. 'Oh no. I ain't keepin' it,' she insisted. For a moment she looked sad, then she brightened and smiled. 'It's going to ever such a good 'ome. Rich people. It'll have lots to eat. Lovely clothes and never, ever, 'ave to work.'
'That's nice,' said Best, not daring to raise his eyes from his rose-pink mix now grown too red for his purposes. 'Are you sure that's going to happen?'
She frowned, perplexed. 'Course.'
He wasn't sure how to handle the next question so dithered then eventually just murmured, 'Why's that?' But she had moved too far to hear him when she'd noticed that Martha, the dark and dumpy older girl he'd seen around, was striding down the garden towards her.
Murphy made an incongruous city clerk, thought Best as he watched the man tuck into his lamb chops. He had attempted to constrain his robust frame with a smooth, tight, dark suit but the effort only made his ruddy cheeks look ruddier, his rugged features more rugged and had thrown into prominence his crinkly fair hair and flinty blue eyes. His spare time was more appropriately occupied helping out Patrick, his friend from back home, with his house-clearing activities.
'Lovely chops, Mrs O'Connor,' said young Eddie Linwood. 'You must have a good butcher.'
Always the right word, thought Best, looking up from his supper which was, to his relief, smaller than that of the others on the grounds that he was recuperating and was not, at present, a working man. No wonder Linwood did so well at his job, charming wealthy customers while taking their measurements. The contrast between the sparky, sleek and dapper youth and the stolid Murphy couldn't be more pronounced.
'I certainly have,' said Mrs O'Connor. 'I'm a lucky woman in that respect.' Being Irish, Best realized, gave her some immunity to the seduction of soft words, having been weaned on the crack. But she liked to please her lodgers and appreciated Linwood's effort, particularly since he was an Englishman to whom compliments did not come so easily. 'Kind of you to say so.'
Excerpted from Dead Born by Joan Lock. Copyright © 2013 Joan Lock. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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