Authors: Anne Perry
Table of Contents
To Carol Ann Lee in appreciation
The wraiths of mist curled up slowly from the gray-and-silver surface of the river, gleaming in the first light from the sun. Over the river the arch of Lambeth Bridge rose dark against a pearly sky. Whatever barges followed the tide down towards the Port of London and the docks were still invisible in the September fog.
Superintendent Thomas Pitt stood on the stormy wet ledge of Horseferry Stairs and looked at the punt which nudged gently against the lowest step. It was moored now, but an hour and a half ago, when the constable had first seen it, it had not been. Not that a drifting boat was of any interest to the head of the Bow Street police station, it was what lay in it, grotesque, like some obscure parody of Millais’s painting of Ophelia.
The constable averted his eyes, keeping them studiously on Pitt’s face.
“Thought we should report it to you, sir.”
Pitt looked down at the body reclining in the punt, its wrists encased in manacles chained to the wooden sides, its ankles apart, chained also. The long green robe looked like a dress, but so torn and distorted it was impossible to tell its original shape. The knees were apart, the head thrown back, mimicking ecstasy. It was a feminine pose, but the body was unmistakably male. He had been in his mid-thirties, fair-haired, with good features and a well-trimmed mustache.
“I don’t know why,” Pitt said quickly as the water slurped against the steps below him, perhaps the wash from some passing boat invisible in the coils of mist. “This is not Bow Street area.”
The constable shifted uncomfortably. “Scandal, Mr. Pitt.” He still did not look at the boat or its occupant. “Could get very nasty, sir. Best you’re in at the beginning.”
Very carefully, not to slip on the wet stone, Pitt went farther down. The melancholy sound of a foghorn drifted across the water, and from some unseen cargo barges a man’s voice called out a warning. The answer was lost in the cloying vapor. He looked again at the man lying in the punt. It was impossible from this angle to see how he had died. There was no apparent wound, no weapon, and yet if he had died of a heart attack, or a seizure, then someone else had certainly had a grotesque part in leaving his corpse in such a way. Some family was going to begin a nightmare today. Perhaps life would never be quite the same for them again.
“I suppose you’ve sent for the surgeon?” Pitt asked.
“Yes sir. Due any time now, I should think.” He swallowed, and moved his feet, scraping his boots a little on the stone. “Mr. Pitt—sir.”
“Yes?” Pitt was still staring at the punt scraping its wooden prow on the steps and juggling a little with the wash of another boat.
“Weren’t only the way ’e is that I called yer.”
Pitt caught something in his voice and swiveled to look up. “Oh?”
“No sir. I think as I might know ’oo ’e is, sir, which is goin’ ter be very nasty, an’ all.”
Pitt felt the river cold seep into him. “Oh. Who do you think it is, Constable?”
“Sorry, sir. I think it might be a Monsewer de Mornay, ’oo was reported missing day afore yesterday, an’ the French won’t ’alf kick up a fuss if this is ’im.”
“The French?” Pitt said warily.
“Yes sir. Missing from their embassy, ’e is.”
“And you think this is he?”
“Looks like it, Mr. Pitt. Slender, fair ’air, good-lookin’, small mustache, about five feet nine inches tall, an’ a gent. Eccentric, by all accounts. Likes a bit of a party, theatricals an’ the like.” His voice was heaving with incomprehension and disgust. “Mixes with them aesthetes, as they calls ’emselves . . .”
Pitt was saved further comment by the clatter of hooves and the rattle of wheels on the road above them, and a moment later the familiar figure of the police surgeon, top hat a trifle askew, came down the steps, bag in his hand. He looked beyond Pitt to the body in the punt, and his eyebrows rose.
“Another one of your scandals, Pitt?” he said dryly. “I don’t envy you unraveling this one. Do you know who he is?” He let out a sigh as he reached the bottom step, standing precariously only a foot above the sucking water. “Well, well. Didn’t think there was much about human nature I didn’t know, but I swear it’s beyond me what some men will do to entertain themselves.” Very carefully, he balanced his weight and moved over to stand in the punt. It rocked and pitched him forward, but he was ready for it. He knelt down and started to examine the dead man.
Pitt found himself shivering in spite of the fact that it was not really cold, only damp. He had sent for his assistant, Sergeant Tellman, but he had not yet arrived. He looked back at the constable.
“Who found this, and what time?”
“I found it meself, sir. This is my beat along ’ere. I were goin’ ter sit on the steps an’ have a bite to eat when I saw it. That were about ’alf past five, sir. But o’ course it could ’a bin there a lot longer, ’cause in the dark no one’d ’ave seen it.”
“But you saw it? A bit dark, wasn’t it?”
“More like ’eard it, bumpin’, an’ went ter see what it was. Shone me light on it, an’ near ’ad a fit! I don’t understand the gentry, an’ that’s a fact.”
“You think he’s gentry?” Pitt was vaguely amused in spite of himself.
The constable screwed up his face. “Where’d a working bloke get fancy clothes like that dress? It’s velvet. An’ you look at ’is ’ands. Never done a day’s work wi’ them.”
Pitt thought there was a strong element of prejudice in the constable’s deductions, but he was probably right anyway, and it was good observation. He told him so.
“Thank you, sir,” the constable said with pleasure. He had aims of being a detective one day.
“You had better go to the French Embassy and fetch someone to see if they can identify him,” Pitt went on.
“Who—me, sir?” The constable was taken aback.
Pitt smiled at him. “Yes. After all, you were the one alert enough to see the likeness. But you can wait and see what the surgeon says first.”
There were a few moments’ silence, then the punt rocked a little, scraping against the stone. “He was hit on the head with something very hard and rounded, like a truncheon or a rolling pin,” the surgeon said distinctly. “And I very much doubt it was an accident. He certainly didn’t tie himself up like this.” He shook his head. “God knows whether he put the clothes on or someone else did. They’re torn enough to indicate a struggle. Very difficult to do anything much with a dead body.”
Pitt had been expecting it, but it still came as a blow. Some part of him had been hoping it was an accident, which would be ugly and stupid, but not a crime. He also hoped profoundly it was not the missing French diplomat.
“You’d better see for yourself,” the surgeon offered. Pitt clambered inelegantly into the rocking punt and in the now clear, white light of sunrise, bent to examine the dead man carefully, detail by detail.
He appeared to be in his mid-thirties, very clean and well nourished but without any surplus flesh. He was a trifle soft, fat on his limbs rather than muscle. His hands were fine and soft. He wore a gold signet ring on his left hand. There were no calluses, no marks of ink, but there was a fine scar on the first finger of the left hand, as if a knife or similar blade might have slipped in his grasp. His face was expressionless in death, and it was hard to judge anything of character. His hair was thick and finely barbered, far better than Pitt’s had ever been in his life. Unconsciously he put his hand up and pushed it off his own brow. It fell back immediately. But then it was probably six inches longer than that of the man on his back in the punt.
Pitt looked up.
“Be diplomatic, Constable. Just say we’ve found a body and would like his help in identifying it. There is some urgency.”
“Do I tell ’im it’s murder, sir?”
“Not unless you have to, but don’t lie. And for heaven’s sake, don’t tell him any of the details. You won’t get the ambassador himself, but get a senior attaché, not a clerk. This will have to be handled with some care.”
“Yes sir. You don’t think, in view o’ the . . . the dress, and the like, that mebbe Sergeant Tellman should go?” he asked hopefully.
Pitt knew Tellman very well. “No, I don’t,” he replied.
“ ’E’s ’ere!”
“Good. Send him down. And take a hansom to the French Embassy. Catch!” He tossed up a shilling for the fare. The constable caught it and thanked him, hesitating a moment longer in the vain hope that Pitt would change his mind, then reluctantly obeyed.
The mist was lifting off the river. Here and there water shone silver and the dark shapes of barges were no longer softened and blurred but sharp, mounded with bales of goods bound for all the corners of the earth. Upriver on Chelsea reach the parlormaids would be setting breakfast tables, valets and kitchen maids would be carrying bath-water and putting out clothes for the day. Downriver all the way to the Isle of Dogs dockers and boatmen would be lifting, hauling, guiding. The first markets at Bishopgate would have started hours ago.
Tellman came down the stairs, lantern jaw set, hair slicked back, his disgust written already in his expression.
Pitt turned back to the body and started to look more carefully at the extraordinary clothes the man was wearing. The green dress was torn in several places. It was impossible to tell if it had happened recently or not. The silk velvet of the bodice was ripped across the shoulders and down the seams of the arms. The flimsy skirt was torn up the front.
There were several garlands of artificial flowers strewn around. One of them sat askew across his chest.
Pitt looked at the manacle on the man’s right wrist and moved it slightly. There was no bruising or grazing on the skin. He examined the other wrist, and then both ankles. They also were unmarked.
“Did they kill him first?” he asked.
“Either that or he put them on willingly,” the surgeon replied. “If you want my opinion, I don’t know. If a guess will do, I’d say after death.”
“And the clothes?”
“No idea. But if he put them on himself, he was pretty rough about it.”
“How long do you think he’s been dead?” Pitt had little hope of a definite answer. He was not disappointed.
“No idea beyond what you can probably deduce for yourself. Sometime last night, from the rigor. Can’t have been floating around the river for long like this. Even a bargee would notice this a little odd.”
He was right. Pitt had concluded it would have to have been after dark. There had been no mist on the river the previous evening, and on a fine day, even up to dusk, there would be people out in pleasure boats or strolling along the embankment.
“Any signs of struggle?” he asked.
“Nothing I can see so far.” The surgeon straightened up and made his way back to the steps. “Nothing on his hands, but I daresay you saw that. Sorry, Pitt. I’ll look at him more closely, of course, but so far you’ve got an ugly situation which I am only going to make even uglier, I imagine. Good day to you.” And without waiting for a reply, he climbed up the steps to the top of the embankment, where a small crowd had gathered, peering curiously over the edge.
Tellman looked at the punt, his face puckered with incomprehension and contempt. He pulled his jacket a little tighter around himself. “French, is he?” he said darkly, his tone suggesting that that explained everything.
“Possibly,” Pitt answered. “Poor devil. But whoever did this to him could be as English as you are.”
Tellman’s head came up sharply, and he glared at Pitt.
Pitt smiled back at him innocently.
Tellman’s mouth tightened, and he turned and looked up the river at the light flashing silver on the wide stretches clear of mist and the dark shadows of barges materializing from beyond. It was going to be a beautiful day. “I’d better find the river police,” Tellman said grimly. “See how far he would have drifted since he was put in.”
“Don’t know when that was,” Pitt replied. “There’s very little blood here. Wound like that to the head must have bled quite a lot. Unless there was some kind of blanket or sail here which was removed after, or he was killed somewhere else and then put here.”
“Dressed like that?” Tellman said incredulously. “Some kind of a party, Chelsea sort of way? Some . . . thing . . . went too far, and they had to get rid of him? Heaven help us, this is going to be ugly!”
“It is. But it would be a good idea to see the river police anyway and get some idea how far he could have drifted if he went in around midnight, or an hour or two either side of it.”
“Yes sir,” Tellman said with alacrity. That was something he was willing to do, and a great deal better than waiting around for anyone from the French Embassy. “I’ll find out everything I can.” And with an air of busyness he set off, taking the steps two at a time—at considerable risk, given the slipperiness of the wet stone.
Pitt returned his attention to the punt and its cargo. He examined the boat itself more closely. It was lying low in the water and he had not until then wondered why. Now he realized on handling and touching the wood that it was old and many of the outer boards were rotted and waterlogged. It had foundered against the stairs rather than simply catching against them. It was obviously not a pleasure boat which anyone currently used on the river. It must have lain idle somewhere for a considerable time.
Pitt looked again at the body with its manacled wrists and chained ankles, its grotesque position. An overriding passion had driven his murderer, a love, or hate, a terror or need, had made this disposition of the corpse as much a part of the crime as the killing itself. It must have been a tremendous risk to wait long enough to take off whatever clothes the dead man was wearing, dress him in this torn silk and velvet gown and chain him onto the punt in this obscene position, then set the boat adrift out in the water, getting himself wet in the process. Why had anyone bothered?
The answer to that might be the answer to everything.
He stood in the faintly rocking stern, adjusting his balance to keep upright as the wash of a string of barges reached him. Had the murderer brought the green dress and the manacles and chains with him, and the artificial flowers cast around? Or had they already been at hand wherever he had killed him? Certainly he had not brought the boat. That would have been impossible to move far.