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Authors: Sally Spencer

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Historical

Blackstone and the Heart of Darkness (5 page)

BOOK: Blackstone and the Heart of Darkness
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Yardley
looks
uncomfortable
.
‘I
only
did
what
anybody
else would
have
done
in
my
place
,

he
says
.

‘You
saved
my
life.’

‘I
didn’t
do
it
for
you
,
Sarge
,

Yardley
says
,
his
discomfort increasing
by
the
second
.


No?’


No
.
I
didn’t
even
think
about
you
.
As
far
as
I
was
concerned
,
it
was
kill
or
be
killed
.

Blackstone
shakes
his
head

gently
,
because
it’s
still
hurting
.

‘You
could
always
have
cut
and
run,’
he
says
.
‘In
your
place
,
there’s
many
a
man
who
would
have
done
.

Tom
Yardley
grins
.
‘Didn’t
think
of
that
.
If I
had
,
maybe
that’s
just
what
I
would
have
done
,

he
says
.

Blackstone
places
his
hand
on
the
other
man’s
shoulder
‘Have
the
courage
to
admit
to
your
own
bravery
,

he
says
. ‘
I’m
in
your
debt
,
Private
Yardley
,
and
I
promise
you
I
won’t forget
it
.

*

And the fact that he was there, on a cinder track in Cheshire, was ample proof that he
hadn’t
forgotten.

 

 

Three

 

Blackstone reached the end of the cinder road, and saw the village of Marston spread out in front of him. Not that
spread
was quite the right word to apply to a hamlet that consisted of one main street, with a couple of truncated side streets running off it, he thought.

It was an ugly village, made up largely of squat terraced houses that looked quite bowed down under the weight of their heavy grey slate roofs.

It was an uncared-for village, with no gardens or fountains, no village green or duck pond—no evidence at all of civic pride.

But then, what had he expected to find? The village would have been built on the instructions of the same men who had sunk the gaping mines and constructed the disfiguring salt works, so had it ever been likely that the dwellings they created for their workers would be ‘little palaces?

A group of people—both men
and
women—were gathered at the closer end of the main street, clustered around some sort of cart. At first, Blackstone had no idea what they were doing, but as he drew nearer he saw the long, plain, wooden box resting on the back of the cart.

So it was a funeral.

He would have spotted that fact earlier if he’d been back in London. But then, if he’d been back in London, the funeral wouldn’t have been like this at all. In the capital, even the poorest of the poor costermongers would not have wished to be seen dead at a funeral like this one!

The costermonger would have wanted—would have
expected
—a polished hardwood coffin with heavy brass handles. And that coffin would have been conveyed to the churchyard in a hearse pulled by four jet-black geldings.

The costermonger would have wanted it, and the costermonger would have got it—because his whole family, who had not had the money for medicines to keep him alive, would have plunged themselves deep into debt to some back-street moneylender in order to stage the appropriate funeral!

In contrast, here—in this world, which Blackstone was starting to find as alien to his experience as the dusty hills of Afghanistan—the coffin rested on the back of what was (for all that the floral tributes tried to disguise the fact) a simple farm cart. And the horses that would pull that cart to the churchyard were no shining and high-spirited geldings, but dull brown carthorses—surefooted but uninspiring—which would be back ploughing the fields before the soil had even settled on the grave.

The mourners, too, failed to live up to the London example. Every man attending an East End funeral would first have paid a visit to his ‘uncle’—the local pawnbroker—where he would have paid over a few pence to get his black mourning suit out of hock. And though, as soon as the funeral was over, the suit would go back on the pawnbroker’s shelf, it would—for an hour or so—be getting an airing, as its owner wore it as a mark of respect.

No such effort had been made by the villagers of Marston. The men looked suitably respectful and solemn, but they were wearing their working clothes, and the only sign they were attending a funeral at all was the black bands wrapped around their forearms.

Blackstone, now twenty yards from the procession, came to a halt. He was not a part of this community, he told himself and, because of that, he had no right to intrude on its private grief.

The procession began to move slowly up the street, between houses in which all the blinds were tightly drawn. When it passed each house, it grew longer, as people joined it from their own doorways.

Blackstone lit up a cigarette. There was no point in going to Tom Yardley’s home now, he thought, because there was no doubt that Tom himself would be part of the funeral cortège. There wasn’t much chance of getting a drink, either—and he could really have used one after his longish walk in the hot sun—since the pub would probably be closed until the funeral was over.

So, all-in-all, he supposed he could use the time to get to know the village, the fate of which Yardley seemed so concerned about.

*

The naked man was lying on a stone slab in one of the laboratories of the University College Hospital. When alive, he had been seriously overweight, and perhaps that had worried him occasionally. Now, nothing concerned him, not even the deep incision that had been made in his chest, nor the pair of hands rooting around in the blubber.

There were two living people in the room, standing at opposite sides of the slab like bookends—though, if that had been what they actually were, they would have been considered a very ill-matched pair.

The woman was still on the comforting side of thirty. She was of medium height, and though her frame was wiry, she had a pleasantly rounded bosom. Her light brown hair would have cascaded over her shoulders, had she chosen to let it down, but at that moment it was constrained in a tight bun at the back of her head. There was evidence of laughter lines around her eyes and her mouth, but her firm jaw indicated that when she wanted to look serious, she could seem very serious indeed.

The man was older, taller and much stockier. His hair was cut short and, though still thick, was rapidly turning grey. He looked like the kind of man who could be deferential—though never subservient—when the situation called for it, but who in times of crisis would rise to the occasion and exert his natural authority. It would have been an exaggeration to say that he looked at the woman adoringly, but there was certainly nothing of indifference in his gaze.

The woman withdrew her hands from the corpse’s insides, and said, ‘It’s poisoning all right, Jed, but it was self-administered.’

‘Self-administered?’ Jed Trent replied. ‘So it’s suicide?’

‘In a way,’ Ellie Carr agreed. ‘If I had to make a guess about his diet, I’d say the man lived mainly off eel pies and glasses of milk stout, and in the end his heart decided it had had enough.’ She paused for a moment. ‘Did I mention the fact that we’ll be going up north, Jed?’ she continued.

‘No, I don’t think you did, Dr Carr. And who’s this “we”, anyway?’

‘You and me, of course.’

Ellie Carr had spoken the words lightly, as if there were no question about it and—in a way—there wasn’t. For whilst Trent had originally been hired by UCH to be a general factotum, he was rapidly turning—much to the annoyance of the other doctors—into Dr Carr’s personal retainer.

‘And why are we going up north?’ Trent asked.

‘I should have thought that was obvious,’ Ellie Carr replied briskly. ‘The forces of law and order, finding themselves once more unable to deal with the complexities of modern crime, have again to resort to the subtleties of the scientific mind to rescue them from the mess.’

‘In other words, we’ll be working for the police again, will we?’ Trent said dryly.

‘Isn’t that what I just said?’ Ellie Carr asked.

‘Yes. I suppose so. More or less,’ Trent agreed.

He remembered the other jobs they’d done for the police, and more especially, the corners that Ellie Carr had made him cut to help her get her results—corners that could probably have landed them both in gaol if they had come under too much close public scrutiny.

‘Who’ll we be working with?’ Trent asked. ‘Will it be Inspector Blackstone again?’

Ellie Carr frowned. ‘No, not Sam, this time,’ she said. ‘It’s a Superintendent Bullock who says he wants our help.’

‘A superintendent! Well, we are going up in the world, aren’t we? And how does Sam Blackstone feel about it?’

‘Why should he care, one way or the other?’ Ellie asked sharply. Trent shrugged.

‘I asked you why he should care, one way or the other,’ Ellie repeated.

‘Well, it did look for a while back there as if you and him...you and him would...’

‘He and I would—
what?

Trent shrugged again. ‘You know.’

‘Would fall into bed together? Would make the beast with two backs all night long?’

Jed Trent tut-tutted disapprovingly. ‘There’s times you don’t talk like a lady at all,’ he said.

‘That’s because I’m
not
a lady,’ Ellie Carr told him. ‘Ladies are born, not created. Ladies sit around drinking tea—and sniping at absent friends. I’m a doctor and a scientist—a
woman
from the East End, who’s left her background behind her and got on in life by using her brain.’

‘And I’d better not forget that,’ Trent said.

‘And you’d better not forget it,’ Ellie agreed.

Jed Trent grinned. ‘Well, I suppose I’d better go and pack my bag, hadn’t I?’

‘Yes, that would be a good idea,’ Ellie said.

She waited until Trent had closed the laboratory door behind him before lifting a clean swab to the corner of her eye, and wiping away a tear.

She did
miss
Sam Blackstone, she thought, and often—in the long dark hours of the night—she found herself wondering what had gone wrong between them.

*

The church was separated from the rest of the village by the Trent and Mersey Canal, and since the only way to cross the water was to go over the humpbacked bridge next to the Jubilee Salt Works, that was the route the funeral cortège took. As it reached the crown of the bridge, the huge steam whistle at the salt works released an ear-piercing scream. ‘Even if the bosses don’t come to the funeral themselves, at least they’ve got the decency to show their respect,’ said one of the miners at the back of the cortège, as the sound of the whistle died away.

‘Is that what you think it is?’ asked the man walking next to him. ‘A sign of respect?’

‘Well, what would you call it?’ the first miner asked.

‘I’d call it a reminder to the lads workin’ at the Jubilee that they’ve been given one hour to attend the funeral, an’ if they’re a minute late gettin’ back to work, it’ll be docked from their pay.’

The first miner did not want to argue about callousness of the bosses—not on an occasion like this—and turned instead to the only other subject of conversation that was readily available.

‘Two funerals in three days,’ he said. ‘It’s bloody tragic. I can’t remember anythin’ like that ever happenin’ before. But at least Cedric Wilson died in his bed, which is more than you can say for the other poor bugger. Still, I suppose accidents do happen.’

‘So they do,’ his friend agreed. ‘But there’s accidents and accidents, aren’t there? And some accidents are more preventable than others.’

‘What do you mean by that?’

‘Blasters are blasters, and drift masters are drift masters. A blaster knows what he
should
do, but he also knows that he has to do what the drift master
tells
him to do. So if anythin’ goes wrong, whose fault do
you
think it is?’

*

There were places which, from a distance, seemed far less intricate than they actually were, Blackstone thought. An Afghan town could look like no more than a collection of mud walls when viewed from afar, for example, but once inside you became aware of its intriguing system of alleyways and of surprising areas of calm where small tea shops overlooked placid squares.

Marston was not like that. What you saw from a distance was exactly what you found when standing right in the middle of it. A canal marked its northern boundary, and the flashes (which had been working salt mines until they flooded) marked the southern one. A railway spur, running from the salt works to the town, provided its western border, and current salt-mine workings its eastern one. It was a working industrial unit, where the product came before the people—and it didn’t pretend to be anything else.

And it was so ordinary—so mundane! So what did the place have to offer to a jewel-smuggler? Certainly not the bright lights and the high living! Then what other advantages
did
it have?

None at all, as far as Blackstone could see.

Master criminals knew that the best place to hide themselves was in a crowd, which was why they usually set up their operations in the middle of big cities. To choose a small village—where they would be under constant public scrutiny—was nothing short of madness.

Yet Torn Yardley had given the strongest possible hint in his letter that a jewellery-smuggling ring
was
at work in Marston, and Blackstone, who had once trusted the man with his life, was prepared to trust him on this, too.

*

The vicar was standing by the newly dug grave, but was looking in the direction of the church. The crack in the east wall was growing longer every time he looked at it, he thought. Longer—and wider.

But then that hardly came as a surprise, even to a man who professed as little interest in the physical world as he did. The church, like the rest of the buildings in the village, had been constructed over a honeycomb of mine shafts and brine workings. The whole village was slowly sinking, as the treacherous ground beneath it gave way. And there was no reason to assume that God’s house would fare any better than the houses of the miners who had partly been the instruments of their own destruction.

One of the mine workers coughed, and the vicar was reminded that not only was life short for these men, but time was money to them too.

BOOK: Blackstone and the Heart of Darkness
4.19Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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