St. Bart’s Smithfields, London 1856
Professor Hatton lay slumped. His silhouette devoured by thrown shapes from an ebbing fire which was burning low in a grate. The morgue was completely quiet. And in its chasm, Hatton’s eyes were shut, shielding out the peeling walls around him. One lamp burned on his desk. He was still awake, but only just, exhausted by the great task before him, knowing his science, forensics, was forever in doubt.
“Professor Hatton. Open up, sir. There’s a carriage waiting. You are needed urgently, sir.”
He shuddered, gathered his thoughts, wondering what the dev il time it was, but knowing Monsieur Roumande must have gone home already. Hatton found his surgical bag. He took his hat, cane, and coat down from one of the meat hooks; opening the mortuary door, he stepped into a moonlit yard. Lantern light illuminated folding drifts as he tumbled into the waiting carriage. There was no need to find his pocket watch because a bell was chiming somewhere, three times, across the velvet skies of London.
“Good evening, Professor Hatton. My name is Inspector George Adams of Scotland Yard. Perhaps you’ve heard of me?”
Hatton looked at the man sitting before him, who thumped the roof of the hansom with his cane and lit a cigarette, offering one to him. Hatton shook his head, his eyes still bleary with sleep. The coach lurched towards the river, which was nothing more than a tapered line, soon lost in a swirling pall.
“All will reveal itself when we arrive in Chelsea. Are you sure you won’t join me, Professor? They’re Turkish, you know.” Hatton shook his head again. The Inspector shrugged.“ It could be a very long night.”
Hatton took note of his companion, saying, “Your reputation goes before you, Inspector Adams. I presume this is a medical jurisprudence matter?”
“Yes, Professor,” said the Inspector, stretching his legs out, partly enclosed in a gabardine coat. “It’s a case of the upmost sensitivity. But I’ve been wanting to work with you for some time now; I’m intrigued by your new science, Professor.”
Hatton nodded. He knew a little of this man, but Albert Roumande knew more. Hatton had many times heard his Chief Diener talk of Scotland Yard’s new celebrity detective, reading bits out of the papers about various cases.
To work with Inspector Adams? Hatton allowed himself a smile.
“As I said, I’ve followed your work with some interest,” continued the Inspector, in what Hatton guessed was an eastern drawl, not unlike his own accent once, when he was a boy, but this man seemed to relish in his drawn- out vowels, whereas Hatton had long since rubbed the edges off, keen to meet the requirements for a new professorship at St. Bart’s and a position of limited standing. But here was a man who clearly took no prisoners, nor apologised for what he was. A man to admire, then.
“I’m flattered,” answered Hatton. “Perhaps it is the series of articles in The Lancet you refer to? We are so misunderstood, Inspector. Forensics needs all the friends it can get, and I understand from my fellow pathologists that you are indeed a friend. So, I’m delighted to finally make your acquaintance.”
“The Yard is modernising. Look at me, for example. Do you think I would have stood a chance ten years ago? A lad from Cambridgeshire? An out- of- town Special? But I’m a regular working- class hero now, if you follow the crime pages. Although, don’t believe everything you read about me, Professor.”
The horse whinnied as they reached their final destination.
“This way, Professor.”
Hatton followed, briefly stamping the snow off his boots, then went up the steps to a house on Nightingale Walk which loomed before him. An ornate gas lamp illuminated a green gloss door. Hatton looked skyward at the clear night sky, which was brilliantly lit by an arch of flickering stars. A flurry of snow caught his face and he relished the bite. It would be overbearingly warm inside.
“You should know this is the home of a bohemian, as they like to call themselves. Her taste is not the same as mine. Nor yours, I suspect.” Hatton didn’t know what the Inspector meant by this attempt at solidarity, but as they headed up the stairs he could see the house appeared to be crammed full of everything. Shelves were brimming over with a thousand books competing for space with rocks, shells, feathers, cases of moths and butterflies. Hatton stopped in his tracks as they turned a corner into an expression of pure evil. Slashed red and black, with eyes yellow rimmed and teeth as jagged as knives.
“A tribal mask, I think they call it,” said the Inspector. “So, you will meet their late own er now. Prepare yourself, for there’s a great deal of blood.”
The room was as the Inspector had described it. More jumble, and a small group of policemen, doing what Professor Hatton didn’t rightly know, but he could feel his temper rising as he saw these clodhoppers poking about amongst the victim’s possessions, clearly unaware that anything they moved or altered could wreck his forensic gathering.
“Please, Inspector. Would you ask your men to refrain from doing that? Yes, that!” One fellow was bending down over a four- poster bed and pulling off pillows. Hatton was no novice to murder. He told the policemen to stop everything they were doing and step aside.
The wave of uniforms parted to reveal the crime.
The body before him was shockingly white. She had melded pallid with the floor, which was covered in the softest, hand- stitched rug. Its hibiscus flower petals, its coconuts and palms, its swinging monkeys, becalmed by a seeping blackness still sticky to the touch.
Hatton was surprised to feel the warmth of her temple, although he knew it was fast ebbing away. He sprung his surgical bag open and, finding a thermometer, nodded to himself because first impressions were rarely wrong.
Hatton made a note. The state of rigor mortis was setting in just around the bottom of her jawline. Hatton stated the facts, “She’s been dead three hours, perhaps four, Inspector. The livor mortis effect is creeping across her body and her temperature will continue to drop, causing this blue marbled discolouration.”
Hatton knelt down and sniffed her skin. He felt his audience’s disapproval and so added, “It’s an unusual practice here in En gland, Inspector, but it’s a device I have adopted after hearing of my colleagues’ criminal successes in Germany, but it would be better without this infernal cigar smoke.” He sounded peevish but nevertheless couldn’t help himself, and so theatrically beat the air, which was already filled with the scent of tobacco. “When we take her to St. Bart’s, there will be no smoking there.”
“Well, of course not, Professor,” the Inspector said, drawing on his own cigarette and then, thinking better of it, stubbing it out. “But for those of us not so grounded in forensic matters, please, Professor, would you be so kind as to explain yourself?”
Hatton surveyed the room. Two men looked back at him, clearly not Adams’s minions. “Her scent is slightly odd,” he replied. “I won’t know what it is until I have dissected her.”
“Have you no respect, sir? Damn him, Adams. I thought you said this one was good. Dissected her? For God sake’s, man. You have no permission for that.”
The gentleman who had spoken was dressed in garb found only in the most elevated of London Society. Hatton had seen pictures of Sir William Broderig in the papers a great deal recently. The Liberal’s views on religion and science had ensured this peer was rarely out of the limelight. Coiffed and buffed to a shine, Sir William looked oddly out of place in this lair of death. Hatton looked at Adams for support, who interjected with, “It’s the word I think that vexes you, Sir William, but this is a police matter and so we must do as we see fit. I merely wanted Professor Hatton to see the crime scene.”
Adams turned to Hatton. “Lady Bessingham was a close friend of the Broderig family. Sir William lives in Swan Walk, just five minutes from here. A scullery maid found the body, raised the alarm, and Sir William called us immediately. Isn’t that right, sir?”
“I have known her since she was a child. And her late husband also. He was a dear friend of mine.” The gentleman stumbled a little, grasping the edge of an armchair.
“Hurry up and get Sir William a glass of porter, Constable.”
Sir William took the porter and, recovering a little, said, “I apologise, Professor. I am out of sorts. We’re most grateful for you coming here, but everything you see and hear to night must remain between these four walls. We need your absolute discretion.”
Hatton bowed. “Of course.”
Sir William gathered his thoughts and continued, “Lady Bessingham courted controversy before she died. As have I, Professor. But in death she deserves some dignity, surely? This brutal crime will have a thousand tongues wagging and a thousand of those Grub Street scribblers selling their lies for thru’pence. We will be awash with rumours before the sun has risen.” Sir William wrung his hands. “What ever you have to do, Professor, please do it, but I beg you, as a gentleman, proceed with the utmost discretion.”
Hatton answered that he would proceed as required and turned to the Inspector. “It’s a delicate question, but was she found semi- naked like this?” and as he spoke, Hatton ran his eye along the lines of her hips and curves. He was already elsewhere, thinking about the cutting of her flesh which lay ahead.
Adams nodded. “There’s a dress over the back of a chair in the adjoining room. There was a fire still smouldering in the grate when we found her. Its ebbing now, but the room, as you can feel, is still warm, although I doubt she slept like this. She still has her stockings and corset on. Not normal attire for bed even for a bohemian.”
Hatton looked around him for some sort of clue as to what she might have been doing half dressed like this, and then made another note. Perhaps she was simply preparing for bed when somebody found her. Hatton knew little of women, especially rich ones, but he knew enough to tell him that few prepared their evening toilette without a maid to carry out their bidding. To brush their hair, to unbutton their stays, to warm and fetch a nightdress. But there was no fresh nightdress on the bed and no warming pan, either.
“She hasn’t been moved or touched. She is exactly as she was found, Professor,” continued Adams. “But I think we need to get her to the mortuary now. We’ll follow you on with the hearse. I assume you are happy to be observed as you work?”
Hatton nodded, and if truth was known, he welcomed it. There was no opportunity here for theatrics or demonstrating his talent. “Yes Inspector, but it’s five hours till dawn. It’s midwinter and the mortuary is gloomy at the best of times, so with your leave, I shan’t start the cutting till ten o’clock. It’s easier to do such work when the sun has fully risen.”
The Inspector said, “But of course, Professor,” before turning to Sir William and saying,“ You and your son are free to go now, sir. Ah, forgive me, Professor. I should have introduced you before. This is Sir William’s son, Mr. Benjamin Broderig. He also knew our victim.”
Another stepped forward and shook Hatton’s hand. Hatton returned the gesture and took his face in, which was easy on the eye after so much elaborate detail. The son was sandy, sun- kissed. He nodded and said, “I believe you can help us find her killer, Professor. I’ve heard a great deal about your work. I’m a scientist myself and I’m honoured to make your acquaintance, but please forgive me, I must take my father home. But if I may, I will come by the mortuary room later. It would please my father knowing that one of us is with her. To the very end, if that’s how I can put it.”
Hatton was relieved for this support. “Of course, sir. Ask for me directly or for my Chief Diener, Monsieur Albert Roumande. I would be more than happy for you to observe. But, as I said to the Inspector, I shan’t start till ten, and so perhaps, now, you can get a little sleep?” The younger man nodded again, taking his father’s arm.
“Thank goodness they’ve gone,” quipped Adams. “I can do without the relatives breathing down my neck. But Sir William’s right about the press. They’ll be all over this one.” Inspector Adams looked at Hatton for a second, then brought out his tin of tobacco. Hatton, despite himself, said nothing.
“I prefer a cane tip. Wool gets in the teeth. Anyway, it’s going to be hard to operate in this jumble, eh, Professor?” The penny smoke was lit. “It will be easier once we’ve moved her, but do what you can. Do what ever you like, in fact.”
The Inspector smiled at Hatton as he billowed out a haze of smoke, then waved it clear again. Hatton got on with his work, looking around the room, which was a muddle of woven baskets and copper pots, fossils, lumps of crystal. And on a table by her bed, a gorgeous display of conches. Hatton would have loved to put one to his ear and listen to the waves, but instead just moved towards the shells, taking his little brush to gather evidence and to admire the largest, Strombus gigas. It was pink and wet with shine.
“A regular magpie, wasn’t she? No husband anymore to rein her in, but plenty of money and time on her hands, I dare say, to indulge in all flights of fancy. Perhaps a flight of fancy is what got her killed, Professor?” Adams showed less deference than Hatton, picking up the shell and holding it to his ear. For a moment he seemed lost in thought.“Marvellous things. Now then, let’s see what we can tell you. No sign of a struggle. No forced entry. Just the hall window slightly open to tell us someone was here that oughtn’t to be. We haven’t done a thorough search yet, but on the face of it and according to the servants”— he looked at his notes—“everything, more or less, as before. Apart from one thing. A missing maid. Name of Flora James, who’s been in ser vice here for three years and by all accounts was the mistress’s favourite. Pretty thing, I’m told. Fair- haired. Quite ladylike in her manners, of medium height, well turned out, nineteen or thereabouts. The description is a rough one but we’re putting a likeness together based on what we can gather. We’ll track her down, but it’s odd because there’s nothing of value missing, and if the little madam was a thief, well, the jewellery would be gone. Apparently, she had been sent ahead of the other staff, the day before Lady Bessingham’s murder. The rest were at the country residence, at a place called Ashbourne. Flora was on an urgent errand it seems. Are you listening to me, Professor?”
Hatton nodded, but was distracted by a tiny bird, which was scratching forlornly in the bottom of its cage. How he loathed the practice of keeping birds imprisoned like this. He had a mind to let the poor thing go, but thought better than displaying such unmanly sensibility in front of Inspector Adams. The detective might misjudge him.
He looked at the room again to find something— anything— which could illuminate this crime. There were three little upright music chairs by a bay window, covered in brocade dresses and piles of material. Nothing unusual in a woman’s dressing room, but then it came to him. It was the tiniest thing, but significant. Hatton looked at the highly polished writing desk.
“Are there any papers lying around, Inspector? Any correspondence, perhaps? Parcels waiting for despatch or post not opened?” Hatton paused waiting for a response.
“And your point, Professor? We’ve seen all her main correspondence, but they’re innocent affairs. Mainly orders for books, bills from dressmakers, and other such daily dealings with domestic matters. There are several bundles of letters to museums and other scientific institutions, as it appears our victim was rather doting on crusty academics. She provided some money, I understand, to several beneficiaries. I shall be investigating this further to establish any links to her death, but in my experience, Professor, the crime is often an obvious one. I suspect a lover or a thief.”
There was something in his approach, so defiantly de facto, that jarred Hatton, but nevertheless, he said again, “Yes, but has anyone checked to see if there were other, perhaps unfinished letters?” His eyes travelled, scrutinising this romantic testament to art and nature. A cacophony of silks, exotica, exuberant pictures of dark bodies jostling and dancing in the clearings of far- flung places captured in oil, and iridescent beetles in graded succession imprisoned in glass. Books deftly creased, to mark a point or a query.
“Look about the room, Inspector. What do you see?”
“I see a mess, Professor.”
“Well, I see something else. Something I have seen before but not in a house, rather in a University. This woman was at work in her boudoir, Inspector. At work on some intellectual pursuit, and if that’s the case, then why is her desk entirely clear of papers? Where are the thoughts, the observations?” Hatton
Excerpted from Devoured by D. E. Meredith
Copyright © 2010 by D. E. Meredith
Published in 2010 by St. Martin’s Press
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.