From grand social events to elite gentlemen’s clubs to the inside of the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, the search for a brutal murderer takes Lonsdale and Hulda through the many and varied strata of Victorian London.
December, 1882. Attending the opening of the new Natural History Museum, reporter Alex Lonsdale of The Pall Mall Gazetteand his colleague Hulda Friederichs are shocked to discover a body un the basement, hacked to death. Suspicion immediately falls on a trio of cannibals, brought over from the Congo as part of a museum exhibit, who have disappeared without trace.
Lonsdale, however, has his doubts – especially when he discovers that three other influential London men have been similarly murdered. When he and Hulda discover a letter in the victim’s home warning of a catastrophic even planned for Christmas Eve, the pair find themselves in a race against time to discover who exactly the Watchers of the Dead are and what it is they intend to do …
London, Monday, 4 December 1882
‘This reminds me of the last time I stood in the cold, waiting for the Queen to appear,’ muttered James Burnside, shivering inside his fashionable but thin coat. ‘I hope she won’t need saving a second time, because my hands are blocks of ice.’
He was speaking to Alexander Lonsdale, a reporter for The Pall Mall Gazette. They were in the crowd that had gathered outside the new Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand, a glorious edifice, almost cathedral-like in its grandeur, which had taken some eight years to complete. Her Majesty was due to open it that day, and the two men were there to record the event – Lonsdale with words, Burnside with his camera.
It was a bitter afternoon, and a wicked wind scythed down from the north. The Queen was late, and they were chilled to the bone. Both seriously considered giving up and going home.
To take his mind off his discomfort, Burnside told Lonsdale how he had saved the Queen’s life. Lonsdale had heard the tale several times already, but listened politely as it was trotted out again. Wryly, he noted that the roles Superintendent Hayes and the Eton boys had played grew less significant with every telling.
‘Poor Maclean,’ he said when the photographer had finished. ‘Hunger and privation must’ve driven him to lose his wits.’
Burnside spat his disdain. ‘He’s a violent killer, and I risked death to disarm him. Of course, I got barely a nod of thanks for my pains. I should’ve been appointed Royal Photographer. Indeed, I wrote to the Palace suggesting it, but they haven’t bothered to answer my last three letters. Maybe Maclean was right to take a shot at the old harridan.’
Lonsdale regarded him askance. ‘The last three? How many have you sent?’
Burnside shrugged sheepishly. ‘A fair number. But this is important, Lonsdale! Credit should go where it’s deserved, not to a police officer who was just doing his job, and two boys who happen to come from wealthy families. Without me, the Queen would be dead.’
‘Here she is at last,’ said Lonsdale in relief – it meant the end of Burnside’s tirade.
The royal carriage clattered to a standstill and important men hurried towards it. Once she had alighted, the Queen did not linger in the icy wind – she aimed for the massive porch at an impressive clip, glancing up as she passed through it in acknowledgement of its grandeur. Once inside, she made a short speech and unveiled a plaque, then indicated with a regal nod that she was ready for the guided tour she had been promised. Most reporters left at that point – the building was now officially open, so what more needed to be said? And it was far too cold to stand around outside.
Lonsdale longed to go too, but his sense of duty kept him rooted to the spot – he had been charged to report the event, and leaving while it was still going on was hardly professional. Burnside stayed too – he was so down on his luck that he had no choice but to follow every event to its bitter end in the hope of getting the picture that everyone else had missed. Their breath plumed in front of them as the temperature dropped even further.
‘There’s Alexander Haldane,’ said Burnside, nodding to an elderly gentleman who was almost running in his haste to escape the wind. ‘The famous barrister.’
‘He owns The Record, too,’ said Lonsdale, watching the man in question disappear through the Royal Courts of Justice’s massive front door. ‘The newspaper for Evangelical Christians. The assistant editor at The PMGreads it. It’s quite influential in certain circles.’
But Burnside did not seem very interested in newspaper politics, so Lonsdale let the subject drop. They stood together in silence, watching the busy hubbub of the traffic clattering along the Strand.
It grew ever colder as the short winter day faded into dusk. Smoke from tens of thousands of chimneys belched into the air, rendering it thick and choking, especially when a mist swirled up from the river. The evening was dull and gloomy, and the elegant spires and pinnacles of the Royal Courts of Justice were soon lost to sight. Burnside mumbled something about thawing his camera lenses, and loped away, unsteady on feet that were numb with the cold. Lonsdale considered following him, but professional pride kept him in his spot. That and his old-fashioned, but warm, woollen greatcoat.
After an hour, Burnside returned, his face pink and glowing. Lonsdale assumed he had been in a tavern, but there was no scent of alcohol on his breath. Then it occurred to him that the photographer might be so hard up that he had no money for drink, so had settled for a brisk walk to drive out the chill instead. He was about to suggest tea in the café opposite – his treat – when several solicitors emerged from the courts, talking in hushed, horrified whispers. Burnside stopped one and asked what had happened.
‘Roderick Maclean,’ replied the lawyer, and he shook his head worriedly, although his eyes were alight with excitement. ‘The police have just released the news that he escaped from Broadmoor sometime this past month. Let’s hope they catch him soon, as no one’s safe with him on the loose.’
‘Especially me,’ said Burnside importantly. ‘I’mthe one who stopped him from committing regicide. He may well want an accounting with me. I’ll be ready, though.’ He looked thoughtful. ‘Or perhaps I should beg sanctuary in Buckingham Palace …’
At that moment, there was a ragged cheer from the hardy few who had waited for the Queen. She hurried down the steps and was inside her carriage long before Burnside could ready his camera. He swore softly to himself; he might as well have gone home.
‘Someone must’ve told her about Maclean,’ said the solicitor, watching the royal coach clatter away. ‘And she decided she’d rather be safe at home until he’s back under lock and key.’
As Lonsdale and Burnside turned to leave, there was a commotion inside the courts. As the Queen had gone, the building was open to the public, so they went in to see what was happening.
‘They’ve just found Mr Haldane in the basement,’ explained a clerk, who was sitting on a bench in the lobby, his face pale and his body shivering with shock. ‘He’s been murdered.’
‘Haldane?’ breathed Burnside, shocked. ‘But we saw him a couple of hours ago.’
‘How do you know he was murdered?’ asked Lonsdale.
‘Because I saw the body,’ whispered the clerk, shaking his head in stunned disbelief. He looked up at them slowly. ‘He’d been chopped to pieces.’