A Lesson in Chemistry With Inspector Bruce

BOOK: A Lesson in Chemistry With Inspector Bruce
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Chapter One

Isle of Dogs, London, 1887

he signpost read: ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK. And in smaller letters below: E
“Wait here.” Inspector Archibald Bruce tossed the hansom driver an extra ten pence and set out across the shipyard.

In just a few short months the bomb-testing facility had proven itself invaluable to Scotland Yard. Sampling analyses of confiscated bombs, some exploded, some disarmed, had identified the chemical signature of at least two bomb makers.

It was going to be another full day. In fact, Archie suspected he was ludicrously overcommitted. “My schedule, Mr. Poynter?” He glanced at his assistant, Gareth Poynter, who opened a small leather journal.

“Explosives demo at Bow Creek, Isle of Dogs.” The young man penciled a check mark. “On schedule.”

“Let’s hope we detonate on time.” Archie made for the underground shelter built alongside the old dry dock pit. He and Poynter descended a flight of stairs and took up a post by one of the observation windows.

“You’re due at Whitehall for a meeting with Melville in—” Gareth checked his pocket watch “—little more than an hour.”

Archie frowned. “What kind of meeting?”

“Nineteen eighty-eight budget forecasting, I believe, sir.”

“Don’t call me sir.” Archie sighed. “And after that?”

“A luncheon at Burlington House.”

Begging for money, yet again. Still, he had high hopes the Royal Society might fund his research for the development of a fingerprint identification and classification system. A pet project he’d become rather enthusiastic about, of late.

“Then you’re back to the Whitehall lab for a staff meeting.”

Archie breathed a sigh of relief. “That’s it, then?”

“Not quite.” Archie glanced at Gareth and bristled. He had known Gareth since university and could sense that his assistant was struggling not to grin. “You agreed to teach a course at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society.”

“That’s today?” Archie growled.

“I’m afraid so.” Gareth shrugged. “You do it to yourself, Archie. You overextend—”

“In other words, there can be no unexpected delays.” He called out to the head man in the pit. “How much explosive, Mr. Turvey?”

“Something over sixty-five pounds in four casings.” The senior lab technician nodded to him more deferentially than was typical.

Archie had inured himself to the wary looks. Most of the older chemists and lab workers viewed him as the young upstart director of Scotland Yard’s crime laboratory. In the last few months, however, the undercurrent of remarks and raised brows had faded. Many of the fledgling lab’s innovations—including this bomb-testing facility—had been greeted with skepticism, then grudging acceptance, and finally a kind of veneration and pride that caused an inward smile. Archie’s ideas were now carefully considered, as were his requests for research funding. The crime lab had rapidly become indispensable to both the CID and Special Branch operations.

Several lab workers scrambled into the shelter. “Good to see you, Director Bruce.”

“Fire in the hole!” the senior man called out.

Archie’s heart rate elevated. This would be the largest amount of explosive ever detonated inside the black box. He scanned the bomb pit from the narrow slit of the bunker. A plain concrete structure stood in the middle of the refitted dry dock, its iron hatchway bolted shut. The Thames Ironworks had taken several months to manufacture and construct the twenty-foot-square bomb repository, which was made of concrete reinforced by steel—over five feet thick, top, sides, and bottom.

“Three, two, one, detonate,” Archie ordered.

The explosion caused a modest ground reverberation and a muffled boom. For one long moment they waited, all eyes on the box. Would the ground collapse, causing the container to implode? After several ticks of the second hand, a round of hoots and applause went up from the lab workers. The black box had contained the blast. Archie breathed a sigh of relief and congratulated the men. “Excellent work, Mr. Turvey,” he said. Archie made sure to shake hands with every man on the job, before making his apologies. “I’m afraid I have to dash back to Whitehall for a meeting. After you get a look inside, send a report up. Perhaps we can celebrate midweek—at the Rising Sun. First pint’s on me.”

Mr. Turvey puffed out his chest and nodded. “Very good, sir.”

Archie and Gareth dashed across the yard and into the waiting cab. Settling in for the ride to Whitehall, Gareth tucked his notebook away. “Another feather in your cap, Archie.”

“Good news can’t hurt going into a budget meeting.” Archie’s nod was grudging. “Let’s hope it’s enough to get an increase in funding for the lab.”

Gareth hooked a finger into his fob pocket to check the time. “Have your budget notes with you?”

“Bugger me, I left them in my office.”

“At least we don’t have to go back to the pit. We’ll have the driver take us round front. You go straight to the meeting, I’ll bring your notes over. Better late than never.”

Archie nodded. “Good. I’ll suggest you remain for the meeting. It will give Melville a chance to get to know you better.” Archie rocked with the cab as it turned onto Commercial Road. “There may be times, in the days and months ahead, that I’ll need you to take a meeting for me. We need to get Melville used to the idea.”

“I should think you’d want the old badger all to yourself.”

Archie shot a sideways glance at Gareth. He didn’t care for his assistant calling the director of Special Branch, Scotland Yard, an old badger. He had actually grown somewhat fond of Melville, a man who was difficult to warm up to. “I see enough of the director as is,” he said. Archie contemplated Gareth. Here was a young man, a talented chemist and scientist in his own right, who had been content to take the deputy director position under him. Frankly, Archie could not have managed this past year without him.

Caught in a snarl of traffic, the cab slowed. Archie glanced out the window and was immediately caught up in the scene ahead. A man—quite tall and imposing—exited a hansom and jogged off after someone. Archie craned his neck and followed the figure down the side of the road. Something was awfully familiar about the man. Then it hit him. “Phineas Gunn.” Archie spoke the words in a whisper.

Gareth tipped his head for a look. “The Special Branch man? What’s he doing out here? And where are we exactly?”

“Limehouse.” Archie never took his eyes off the undercover agent. “He appears to be shadowing someone.”

Their cab lurched forward—enough to catch up with the agent in question. He knew Phineas Gunn to be a clever agent and a crack shot. One of the most thrilling episodes of his career at Scotland Yard thus far had involved two agents, Gunn and Lewis, and a twenty-five-foot submersible, which Archie had piloted under the St. Katharine docks. A thrilling adventure, indeed.

Thinking back on it, Archie could hardly believe he’d managed such a feat. A twinge of envy swept through him as he watched Finn round a corner. He was off to a budget meeting with Melville, and Finn was tracking a malefactor—possibly one of the men working for Grey de Ruthyn. Rumor was, Melville had mustered a task force of operatives to bring a case against de Ruthyn. Something that would lock him away in Wormwood Scrubs once and for all. The man was a dangerous arms trafficker, supplying weaponry, gunpowder, and explosives to anarchist factions all over Europe, the Americas, and Britain. But de Ruthyn had proven himself slippery and clever—so far.

“Hold on.” Archie did his best to follow a blur of motion and a flash of metal—just a glint.

Gareth strained to see better. “What’s going on—?”

“There’s a man at Agent Gunn’s back, holding a knife or a gun.” Archie sucked in a deep breath. What to do?

He opened the trapdoor in the roof. “Pull over at your first opportunity,” he called to the driver.

“Where are you going?” Gareth’s face was a mixture of fear and confusion. “You can’t help him. You’ve got no weapon.”

“Bollocks, Gareth, the man’s in trouble.” Archie launched himself out of the hansom.

His assistant jogged up alongside him. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”

Up ahead, the man behind the Special Branch agent steered them both into an alley. Archie halted at the break between buildings and took a quick look. Nothing notable about the closed court except for the garishly painted doors. No awnings or signs over the entrances. He noted three colors: blue, yellow, and Union Jack red. Exotic traces of joss stick wafted in the air, and something sickly sweet—the scent of opium.

A group of hired dockworkers unloaded a dogcart near the blue door. Archie counted a number of metal cases and several small barrels of . . . was it opium or explosives? The man shoved Agent Gunn inside the den, followed by the last of the deliveries. Two of the workers were handed a few coppers and sent away. By Archie’s calculation, that left three men inside along with the Special Branch agent.

“Best go in now, before they get settled.” Archie turned the corner and headed straight for the blue door. He turned to Gareth, who trailed behind. “We’ll be a couple of dragon chasers, looking for a bit of pipe.”

Gareth shook his head. “We’re not regulars—they’ll suspect something.”

Archie slowed his pace. “We’re just going to stumble in, have a look about.”

“But what if—” His assistant followed him into a darkened room with low ceilings.

Unable to stand upright, Archie felt his way through air thick with the brown smoke of opium. To each side of the narrow aisle, wooden berths were stacked three to a wall, like the sleeping quarters of an emigrant ship. Dimly through the haze, he caught a glimpse of bodies languishing on mattresses. Chinamen and several seamen, all looking as though they had recently had a taste. Finally, a lackluster eye turned to him.

He leaned over the man. “Looking to imbibe a bowl or two.” The dull-eyed Asian continued his stare. Perhaps he had the wrong man. Archie rocked back on his heels and caught his balance, dizzy from the effects of the drug-laden air. Gareth nudged him. “Look there.” Archie squinted into deeper shadows. A strange dance of orange-red embers glowed, then faded, then glimmered again as the devil opiate was dragged through the burning bowls of long slender pipes. There were many more lotus-eaters in this den than he’d first imagined.

Archie ventured further inside. He was aware of voices—patrons’ nonsensical conversation spoken in low monotones. Finally, a sallow-skinned man trotted up with a pipe and a supply of the drug. The attendant bowed and gesticulated, urging them to follow.

At the end of the aisle, they were shown to an open berth beside a cast-iron stove. There was a niche in the wall and a stairway leading upward. Archie settled back onto the mattress and nodded for Gareth to follow.

“The price is godawful high right now, perhaps you share a pipe? Five and six?” The man spoke broken English through a toothless smile. When Archie nodded, the Asian loaded the bowl, took a few puffs to kindle the pasty flakes, and turned the stem toward him with a bow.

“Another smoke, here.” At the bidding of an awakening patron, the attendant retreated back down the aisle.

Gareth eyed the pipe suspiciously. “Now what?”

Archie handed the stem over. “Puff—but don’t inhale. I’ll be right back.”

Gareth looked a bit woeful. “Wait! Where are you going?”

Archie put his finger to his lips and disappeared into the shadow of the stairwell. He reached the landing and listened at several doors until he heard a good deal of mumbling. “Ah, here you are.” A turn of the knob released the latch and the door opened a crack—enough for Archie to have a peek about. Two dockworkers sat at a table—and another man stood at the window watching the yard below. The man standing was dressed more like a Fleet Street banker than an arms trafficker. Archie sucked in a breath. Stacks of chests and several small powder barrels. Not a very large shipment, yet something about the scene smacked of importance. They were waiting for someone, Grey de Ruthyn perhaps?

Archie scanned the rest of the room. The burly types were playing cards. Ah, there he was. Agent Gunn was tied, ankles and fists, and laid out on a narrow iron bed, close to the door. In fact, Archie just might be able to slip in between the bed and the wall.

He looked up, directly into Phineas Gunn’s gaze. Archie winked and carefully shut the door. Inching away, he flew downstairs and back into their berth. His assistant was looking decidedly bleary-eyed. “I told you not to inhale.”

“I haven’t, but what do you expect? I’m stupefied on fumes,” Gareth whined.

“Never mind—I’ve got a task for you.” Archie set the pipe down. “Take that pitcher of water on the stand over there, grab a few pillows, douse them with water, and shove them in the stove. Be sure to get a good plume of smoke up, then run through the den shouting, ‘Fire! Call the fire brigade!’ Make a nuisance of yourself. Keep yelling all the way into the yard. Got it?”

A wide-eyed Gareth nodded.

“Top of the lungs,” Archie coaxed, backing away. “Agent Gunn and I will make a break as soon as we hear you shout.”

BOOK: A Lesson in Chemistry With Inspector Bruce
12.11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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