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LONDON, AUTUMN 1902
Some days, she liked the rain.
As a child she had often sought its purifying qualities, enjoyed the play of it upon her upturned face. Out in the garden of her parents’ home, heady with the scent of damp, fresh earth, she had allowed it to wash away all concerns; for her desperately unwell sister, her bickering parents, her ailing grandmother. She had not forgotten the comfort of those days, and even now, she still enjoyed the thrill of being caught in a sudden English downpour.
Today, however, was not one of those days. Today she would have rather been at home, curled up by the fire, or else in her barely used office beneath the British Museum, shuffling papers; anywhere but in Stoke Newington in a torrential downpour, standing amidst a gaggle of police constables and overeager civilians who had yet to be persuaded to clear the area.
Veronica angled her umbrella in order to look for Sir Charles Bainbridge, sending a cascade of pooled water over the brim, spattering her shoes. She sighed.
Bainbridge was standing a few feet away, muttering in low, fractious tones to another man she didn’t recognise. When he saw her looking, he gave a weak smile and raised a hand in brief salute. He looked hassled, which, Veronica allowed, was quite understandable, given the circumstances. All of the furore, all of the noise and bluster and milling crowds, centred around the thing on the pavement, the object that she had so far studiously managed to avoid. The people around her had already dubbed it—in hushed, scandalised tones—“the monster.” She could ignore it no longer. Bracing herself, she turned her head to regard it.
She stifled a gasp. It was even worse than she’d imagined. The creature was, without doubt, one of the most ghastly things she had ever seen.
It had once been a human being—although she couldn’t easily ascertain whether a male or female—but now its body was so bloated and malformed as to be almost beyond recognition. The victim appeared to be on its back, its belly distended to at least three or four times its natural capacity. The flesh had burst, and from deep within the intestines strange plant-like growths had erupted, pushing out through the ruins of the person’s clothes.
Tendrils, resembling masses of thick, ropey vines, were splayed across the pavement, spilling out from the corpse as if feeling their way towards the gutter. Pink tumours, resembling bulbous, fungal growths, nestled amongst the vines like sickly blooms, ready to burst open at any moment and dissipate their spores.
The flesh of the face was terribly misshapen, as if the same gnarly growths had formed beneath the skin, bulging out, warping the features into something less than human. The result was that the victim looked as if it had suffered from a severe case of elephantiasis, or that the corpse had been preserved mid-metamorphosis, frozen in a state of change. Perhaps most bizarrely, fresh green shoots had emerged from the fingertips of the right hand, which rested on the paving slabs nearest to Veronica, as if the dead person were reaching out to her in silent desperation.
She swallowed, feeling bile rise in her gullet.
Two constables were holding umbrellas above the remains, attempting to protect it from the storm, but despite their best efforts, raindrops were still bursting upon the creature’s hide, trickling over the exposed flesh and giving it a glistening, glossy appearance. While she watched, a man in a white smock nudged one of the constables out of the way and began poking around in the corpse’s mouth with his index finger.
“Horrible, isn’t it?” muttered someone nearby. The voice was familiar. She adjusted her umbrella and turned to see Inspector Foulkes standing just a few feet away, regarding the corpse with a thoroughly disgusted look on his face. He turned his head, his expression brightening slightly when he saw she was looking. He was a tall, bearded man in his late thirties, a good policeman who, in recent months, had begun to appear rather downtrodden by the interminable horror of his profession.
“It is, rather,” she confirmed.
They were silent for a moment.
“How are you, Inspector? Is your family well?” she asked, in an effort to dispel the pall of gloom that had seemingly settled over them. Neither of them, however, could tear their eyes from the sight of the unusual corpse.
“Oh, very well indeed, Miss Hobbes. And your sis—” He caught himself mechanically reflecting her question. “That is, I mean to say…” He looked pained. “Oh, I’m sorry, Miss Hobbes. Things must have been very difficult for you, since your sister passed, and I … I…” He trailed off, unable to find the right words.
Veronica smiled. “Why don’t you step out of the rain for a moment, Inspector? This umbrella’s big enough for two.”
Foulkes sighed with barely concealed relief. “Thank you, Miss Hobbes,” he said, with feeling. He edged closer and she held the umbrella aloft to accommodate him. As a result, she felt the patter of raindrops against the back of her plush red evening cloak. The garment, she knew, would never be the same again.
Foulkes blew into his cupped hands and tried, unsuccessfully, to wipe the dripping water from his eyes with his damp sleeve.
“What is it?” she asked, nodding in the direction of the body. “What’s happened here? I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Nobody seems to have any idea. It’s as if his body has been infested with these growths, plants that appear to have germinated in his guts,” Foulkes said.
“A parasite?” asked Veronica.
Foulkes shrugged. “Perhaps. I think Sir Charles is hoping that you and Sir Maurice are going to help to answer that particular question.”
“Hmmm,” said Veronica, as noncommittally as she could. She looked up to see Bainbridge concluding his conversation with the man he’d been talking to.
He stalked over to join them. “Foulkes, get rid of these people,” he said, waving a hand at the crowd. “Close both ends of the lane until we know what we’re dealing with.”
“Very good, sir,” replied Foulkes. He glanced at Veronica with a look so forlorn that she had to stifle a laugh. He looked like a drowned, moping puppy. Sighing heavily, he stomped off to speak with one of the uniformed constables.
“It’s good to see you, Miss Hobbes,” said Bainbridge, taking her by the hand. He seemed distracted. “Where’s Newbury?” he asked, peering over her shoulder. The lapels of his heavy woollen overcoat looked sodden, and rain was spraying from the brim of his bowler hat. Droplets had settled in his grey-speckled moustache. He seemed beyond the point of caring.
Veronica sighed. “Otherwise engaged,” she replied. She tried to keep the disappointment from her voice.
Bainbridge frowned, his shoulders sagging. “Oh, don’t tell me we’re back to that? We’re not going to have to drag him out of one of those despicable Chinese smoking dens again, are we?”
Veronica shook her head. “No. Not that. He’s gone north. He received word that Lady Arkwell had been operating out of a small mining town near Durham, and took off at once. That was two days ago.”
“Oh, perfect,” snapped Bainbridge, leaning heavily on his cane. “Stuck in the rain with a … a … well, I don’t know what it is, and Newbury’s nowhere to be seen.” His moustache twitched in frustration. “This Arkwell woman is becoming another of his ruddy obsessions.”
“Hmmm,” murmured Veronica, by way of agreement. She fought back a sharp stab of jealously, cursing herself for such petty emotions.
Newbury had, indeed, become rather obsessed with his pursuit of the female agent in recent weeks, and Veronica had seen very little of him, save for the brief episodes during which he attended to her sister’s health at Malbury Cross. He’d taken to turning down many of the cases that would otherwise have captured his interest, and now, he was absent even when his oldest friend, Sir Charles Bainbridge, was in need of his help.
“What the Devil are we going to do now?” barked Bainbridge in consternation. He was being somewhat unreasonable, expecting Newbury to be available at his beck and call, but all the same, Veronica knew it was derived from concern for his friend, and for his investigation, rather than any real sense of entitlement.
Veronica put a hand on his arm. “I’ll do my very best to assist in any way I can, Sir Charles,” she said, pointedly.
Bainbridge’s eyes widened as the nature of his unintended slight suddenly dawned on him. “Oh, quite so, Miss Hobbes. Quite so.” He gave a forced smile. “And most welcome such help will be.”
Veronica bit her tongue. “So,” she said breezily, despite the sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, “what would Sir Maurice do?”
Bainbridge’s face creased in an unexpected grin. “Other than drop to his knees in that filthy puddle, poke the corpse with the end of his pen, and utter ominous and obtuse noises, you mean?”
Veronica laughed. “Other than that, yes.”
“Well, for a start, I believe he’d be interested in whatever Dr. Finnegan here has got to say,” replied Bainbridge, taking her gently by the elbow and leading her over to where the man in the white smock was still hunched over the corpse, poking about in its mouth with his ink-stained fingers. He didn’t look up or appear to acknowledge their presence.
Veronica gave the man a brief appraisal. He was in his middle to late fifties, with wild, wispy grey hair that clung to his balding pate in thin cusps. He wore thin, wire-framed spectacles on the end of his nose, and was reviewing the body with something approaching glee. He was wearing his cotton smock—once white but now stained with patches of faded brown, which Veronica recognised as spilt blood—over a loose-fitting brown suit. His left trouser pocket bulged dramatically, as if he were harbouring something alive inside of it.
“Why’s his pocket … well, moving like that?” whispered Veronica, leaning closer to Bainbridge in order to be heard over the sounds of the storm. He smelled of damp cloth and lavender.
“Ah. That’ll be his ferret,” replied Bainbridge, apparently nonplussed.
“His ferret!” remarked Veronica, unable to contain her bemusement. “Here, at a crime scene?”
“A potential crime scene,” replied Bainbridge. “We’re unsure what happened, yet.” He shrugged. “Finnegan’s an eccentric old blighter, but he does a solid job. He’s one of our best surgeons. Newbury’s fond of him.”
“Hmmm,” said Veronica, grinning. “That explains a lot.”
“Guinea Golds,” announced Finnegan, suddenly, stepping back from the body and arching his back, his hands on his hips. He sighed heavily, and flexed his neck from side to side. He spoke with a clipped Irish brogue.
“I’m sorry?” said Veronica.
“No need,” said Finnegan, shaking his head. “It’s not your fault the poor beggar had a fondness for cigarettes, now, is it?” He peered at her over the top of his rain-spattered spectacles and offered her a wide, gap-toothed grin. What was left of his hair was now plastered to the side of his head with rain, but he seemed not to notice. “Or is it?”
“It’s most definitely not,” said Bainbridge, interjecting. “Dr. Finnegan, this is Miss Veronica Hobbes. She’s assisting with my enquiries.”
“Delighted to meet you, my dear,” said Finnegan, thrusting out his hand.
Veronica glanced at the corpse, then back at the hand. She took it gingerly. “A pleasure to meet you, Dr. Finnegan,” she said.
“Owen, my dear. Owen. I insist!” He retracted his hand and rubbed emphatically at his temples, as if trying to encourage his brain. He swatted at a sudden burst of movement from his pocket, frowning at the unwanted distraction. “Not now, Barnabas. Can’t you see I’m busy?” The pale brown head of a ferret popped out momentarily from the pocket, glanced around nervously with little beady eyes, and then ducked back inside.
Veronica gave a polite cough. “So, tell me, Dr. Finnegan—Owen—have you any idea what it is, yet?”
Finnegan nodded enthusiastically. “Why, it’s a corpse, my dear,” he said, by way of reply.
“We can ruddy well see that!” said Bainbridge, impatiently. “What can you tell us?”
Finnegan offered him a fierce, quizzical glare.
“About the body, I mean!” clarified Bainbridge, the exasperation evident in his tone.
Finnegan gave a brief nod. “It’s a man, in his late twenties, I’d estimate. He was once a heavy smoker, and seriously malnourished. He carries an old wound to his left shoulder. He’s been infected with the revenant plague for some time—” At this Veronica took an involuntary step back, and Finnegan watched her, appraisingly. “But curiously the infection has not run its full course,” he continued. “His damaged flesh appears to have been healing.”
“Healing?” echoed Bainbridge, astonished.
“Yes, it’s really quite remarkable,” replied Finnegan. “His body seems to be rejecting the plague.”
“Like Sir Maurice,” said Veronica. “He’s somehow established a tolerance for the infection, through previous exposure. Immunity, if you will.”
Finnegan shook his head. “No, not immunity. This poor sod had already succumbed to the plague. It’s more that he appears to have been making steps towards recovery. Look here.” He prodded the dead man by the left ear, easing back a ragged flap of torn skin. “The necrotic flesh has peeled away, but there’s fresh, pink growth forming underneath.”
“This is unprecedented,” said Bainbridge. “Is it related to all of this bizarre flora?” He waved the end of his cane to indicate the eruption of vegetation emanating from the dead man’s belly.
Finnegan wavered for a moment. “I don’t know. It may be entirely unrelated, or it may be that whatever species of plant infected him had a bearing on the progression of the disease.” He removed his glasses, wiped them on the front of his already sodden smock, and replaced them. He frowned at the fact he still couldn’t see through the smeared lenses.
“Forgive me, Dr. Finnegan, but is it really possible for a plant to take root inside a person’s body?” asked Veronica. “It seems … somewhat unlikely.”
Finnegan nodded. “Yes, quite right, Miss Hobbes. Highly unlikely. I wouldn’t testify to it, but I have a theory that what we’re dealing with here is a microsporidia infestation.”
“A what?” blustered Bainbridge.
“A parasitic fungus,” explained Finnegan. “But I’ll have to take it back to the lab to confirm.”
“Well, you’d better get on with it, then,” said Bainbridge, shaking his head.
Finnegan turned and glanced over his shoulder, beckoning to two uniformed constables who were sheltering in a nearby doorway beside a wooden cart. Reluctantly, they stepped out into the downpour and slowly wheeled the cart over. Finnegan was just about to start issuing instructions when Veronica interjected with another question. “Just one more thing, Dr. Finnegan. This parasitic fungus—assuming that’s what it is—I take it it’s not native to the British Isles?”
Finnegan looked thoughtful. “No, I would imagine it originates in a more tropical climate,” he said. “Otherwise we’d have likely seen it before.”
“So, do you think there might be foul play at work?” Veronica pressed.
Finnegan shrugged. “Who’d want to murder a plague revenant?” he said. He turned and began conversing with the constables in low, precise tones.
“It’s a good point, Miss Hobbes,” said Bainbridge, from over her shoulder. “The poor fellow does seem the most unlikely of targets for a murder. Damned odd though, isn’t it?”
Veronica nodded, although she was watching the three men manhandle the bloated corpse onto the wooden cart in preparation for ferrying it away to Finnegan’s laboratory. “Something about it doesn’t sit right with me, Sir Charles. I can’t help thinking there’s more to it than meets the eye.”
“Perhaps you’re right,” said Bainbridge, in a conciliatory tone. “Finnegan will have more for us in the morning. Right now, I think we could both do with getting out of this damnable weather.”
Veronica turned to him, and smiled. “I can’t argue with that,” she said.
“Come on,” said Bainbridge, indicating the other end of the lane with the tip of his cane. “I have a police carriage waiting. I’ll drop you at home.”
“Thank you,” said Veronica, looping her arm through his as they negotiated the slick cobbles. “And tomorrow?”
Bainbridge laughed. “Tomorrow I shall send for you as soon as there’s word. We can question Finnegan together. If you’re still unsure after that—well, we’ll have to see.”
Behind them, Finnegan and the two constables trundled off into the downpour, bearing their unusual cargo along with them.
Copyright © 2019 by George Mann