Kings of Bedlam
It was a dismal morning to be called to a murder. Although, as Charles Drake gripped the brim of his hat against rain-spitting gusts, he thought maybe any morning commenced with an inquiry into a murder and dismemberment would be dismal. Carriages rattled past, springs creaking over uneven macadam. Women in black velveteen bonnets with stained smocks called to him to buy a bun. Aldgate was a seedy district, and Drake, dressed as always with military precision in a black wool overcoat and bowler hat, stood out like—well, like the well-clothed arm of the law poking about in London’s shit factory.
The Pump, known for providing illicit comforts of a masculine nature, was, officially, a common lodging-house on Leadenhall Street, near the Aldgate Pump, which lent the place its sobriquet. That, and—one assumed—the crude pun. The Pump had a soot-streaked stone façade, a shabby memoriam of fallen Georgian respectability. Drake knew it at once as his destination, not just because of the small crowd of gawkers craning their necks by the streetlamp outside, but by the police officer who stood in the mouth of the alley next to the building, shining a lantern down on a blued corpse.
As he strode through the onlookers, someone hissed at him and grabbed his arm. “You’ll want to stay back, boy. Bad business. Dead body, and the poor fellow’s manhood was ripped clean off. They’re saying the Strangler done it! Law’s thick as ants on a kicked anthill.”
The “boy” rankled, but it was years since Drake had let it show in his face. He just nodded, dislodged the gawker’s hand from its clench on his arm, and strode on. Two Metropolitan beat officers stood in front of the alley, their shoes coated in mud. One flung up a hand to halt his progress.
Drake pulled a warrant book from an inner coat pocket and snapped it open. “Detective Constable Charles Drake.”
He didn’t bother to look at the whey-faced young copper as he folded the warrant book shut, replaced it in his now-unbuttoned coat, and stepped passed them into the alley.
The corpse lay with one hand outflung, naked skin waxen and shining in the gleam from a mirrored lamp one of the foot patrols held.
Sleet slanted down through a filthy gray sky. Soot-creased mounds of snow lay piled against alley walls, pock-marked with icy raindrops. Drake’s coat hem slapped at his ankles with the weight of ice clinging to the fabric as he paced the body, visually charting its proximity to the wall, the alley mouth. At last, he halted in front of the body. He took out a charcoal pencil and a notepad from his inner coat pocket and crouched near the corpse.
An icy chill shivered down his spine but he felt almost feverish, heat-swamped and shaky. Drake breathed through his mouth once, twice. He took care not to show it, but death always struck him this way. A tide of sickness rising in his gorge. He swallowed against the sensation of vaporous terror and, like that, his mind seemed to snap back into its ordinary cold clarity.
Drake flipped to a blank page and began to sketch the corpse. Well-built but without the musculature of a working man, his skin was pale and smooth. Young, or youngish, and possibly middle class, possibly a clerk or other office dweller. Sandy hair, cropped short, but for long strands that hung in front of his ears, plastered to his pale cheek. The observer’s eye drew, of course, to the bloody gap at his groin, and the fleshy member, severed and discarded near the man’s head. The man had long sideburns and the severed member was circumcised, both of which details made the existence of a skullcap and tasseled undergarment extraneous. This was a Jewish corpse. Drake made a notation in his notebook. Not that he needed to note it: he already knew the corpse’s name. The dead man’s face was marbled but recognizable as that of Lewis Bloom—a regular associate of a mapmaker named Israel Sabelinksy. Drake had followed Sabelinsky last night to a seditionist haunt called the Sugar Loaf.
Drake knelt and put a gloved fingertip to the body’s head, lifting it enough to study the neck.
Drake pushed his hatbrim back to look up at the foot patrol. The name French was stitched on his collar. The young constable’s eyes were wide, a nervous tic fluttering in one eyelid.
Loose wet flakes fell on Drake’s forehead and turned to cold dribbles of water. With the tip of his charcoal pencil, he touched the ligature mark, swollen and livid on the man’s neck. “The larynx is collapsed. Yes, he was strangled.”
Drake scanned the body. The man’s body was slender, unbruised. A faint crust of some—substance, indeterminate in nature—in his thin chest hair. Drake took off his glove and brushed his thumb over it. Soap scum, perhaps? He narrowed his eyes and glanced up at the brick wall of The Pump. A better bet it was dried semen. He looked back at the body, continued his journey down the stiffened limbs. The man’s hands were curled in a rictus. It was bitterly cold, and Drake reckoned the body’s regular cooling off period after death had been accelerated, but by how much he couldn’t tell. He pried the fingers apart, enough to see a hash of pale lines. “See here,” he said, and the young constable called French snapped to attention, coming to his side to bend over and look at the corpse’s hand.
“This mark on the palm indicates the victim struggled with the perpetrator. The perpetrator likely attempted to strangle the victim from behind, but our victim got a hand between the cord and his neck. See?” The split edges of skin were white with a thin line of dark pink beneath, the blood vessels stilled in death and the bloodless epidermis peeling away from the tissue beneath.
“Ah. Yes sir, I see that.”
“And the perpetrator could not complete the act of strangulation.” He set his gloved hands on either side of the corpse’s head and twisted it. Clumps of ice glued strands of dark hair to the snowbank. The hairs pulled loose when he lifted the crown of the head from its resting place. He ran his thumb down a lavender and yellow mark across the side and back of the neck.
“My belief is that the perpetrator threatened the victim with a knife, got him to strip, and then attempted to strangle the victim, who fought back. I suspect he got away, or was able to turn to run, whereupon the perpetrator smashed the victim on the neck with some heavy object. His vertebrae are crushed here. The victim would have lost sensation and fallen. The perpetrator was then free to stab the victim here, under the second rib, straight into the aorta. Instant death. The mutilation of the victim would then occur post-mortem.”
The constable shifted his weight. He looked pea-green.
“Is it the same strangler what killed that poor woman in September?”
“There’s no reason to think so.”
“But that was—was at a molly house too.”
“The method was different. A belt was used in that case.” Drake got to his feet. “This was clearly a thin cord. More to the point, that was a woman’s body. And this, most clearly, is not.” He felt the taint of marbled skin, the cloying salty scent of blood and piss infecting his hands. He wiped his palm on his coat and pulled his glove back on.
“Mr. French, you can call to have the body removed.”
“Yes, sir,” the uniform named French said.
Drake folded his notebook closed and put it back in his overcoat pocket.
The scrum of gawkers gathered around the mouth of the alley had swollen. A bright phosphorescent flash turned the alley white. Drake’s vision dazzled in the aftermath.
“Get that newsman out of here,” he said.
French whistled, and another police constable hurried over to force the intrepid photographer back into the wide-eyed, stretch-necked clot of humanity.
Reinforcements arrived in Metropolitan blue helmets and overcoats whitening with a crust of sleet. One of them, shielding his eyes against the ice slicing down from the sky, whistled when he saw the corpse. “The Strangler strikes again!”
“We don’t think it’s the same perpetrator, Evans.” French hefted his lantern, splashing garish yellow light across the corpse’s bent head. He touched his own neck with his free hand. “Blow to the back of the neck suggests a different method of strangulation, see?”
The Metropolitan officer blinked at the constable. “Well that’s a whole theory and a half for you.”
Drake shook his head and left them bickering.
He circled the building, and paused, briefly, imagining the dismay of the Yard’s chief, Sir Howard Vincent, when he would be forced to explain why he’d enter a sex- and brandy-scented molly house once again. At this rate, it was starting to look like a habit. Drake’s mouth twisted. He climbed the steps to a black door, unassuming and subtle.
Most of the inhabitants of The Pump were in various states of dress, gathered in the front parlor, trying to get a look outside. Whispers about a corpse with a severed cock choked the room, thick as pipe smoke after dinner.
The house proprietor was in his office, a wide-eyed young sodomite informed Drake. He was a freckle-faced lad with a ginger tint to his over-long locks and garish red lipstick. He waved a hand. “Follow me, sir. Just in there, sir.”
The molly licked his rouged lower lip as Drake passed him. Drake rapped on the office door even as he opened it, not giving the proprietor—Carrington, apparently—time to busy himself.
Carrington was a fat, pock-faced man with ferret-sharp eyes: clever, but in a sneaky, carnivorous way.
Drake sat, uninvited, on a high-backed horsehair chair facing Carrington’s desk. He pulled out his warrant card and his notebook. He set the warrant book with his identification and credentials down on the desk and flipped open the notebook.
“Mr. Carrington, my name is Charles Drake, and I presume you know why I’m here.”
“The dead man outside what they’re saying the Strangler killed.” Carrington’s voice went up at the end, a question that wasn’t a question.
Drake said, “I doubt the killer in this case is the same one who killed those women. Sexually motivated murderers who target prostitutes tend to target those they’ve had sex with or desired to have sex with. If you’ll pardon my presumption, a man drawn to women prostitutes would be unlikely to be one of your clientele.” With his charcoal, he sketched shapes, shaded, smudged with his thumb. When he’d finished sketching a still-living version of the corpse’s face, he turned the notebook toward Carrington. “Do you recognize this man, sir?”
Carrington frowned down at the sketch of the corpse’s face.
“Odd hair,” he said, touching his own generously-plumed sideburns. “Don’t know him. I’d remember the hair.”
“He’s a Jew,” Drake said. “He might not have looked it when he came, though. Perhaps tucked his sidecurls up under a hat. Please consider the shape of the nose, the eyes. Are you certain you did not see this man before?”
“No, gov, I swear.”
“Who was he here to visit?”
“Sir?” The porcine little eyes stretched in a parody of innocence. “As I said—”
Drake sighed. He put his book in his coat pocket and leaned forward. “I have no interest in anything that happens within these walls, Mr. Carrington, except as they pertain to a dead body outside the edifice. The deceased was discovered in his natural state, that is to say, entirely in the nude. Now, perhaps he was stripped of his clothes, mid- or post-mortem. But given the reputation of your establishment, I suggest to you that he could equally have been found without clothes because he was in a state of intimacy at the time of death.”
“Christ,” Carrington said. He sounded close to tears. His hands opened and closed, as if spasming helplessly. “There is no need to be flinging accusations and the like around. This is a respectable lodging house, sir. But you have to understand, I don’t know what those as rent my rooms get up to, but if there was any impropriety, I’ll have ‘im on his arse.”
“No need for that,” Drake said. “I presume from your havering that you have an idea of whom he may have visited.”
“No, gov, I swear.” But Carrington’s eyes flickered down and to the left. His thumbnail dug into the edge of his desk.
“Ah,” Drake said. “So you do have an idea who it might be.”
“Not as such, sir, but, erm, I know one of the lads as, erm, rents a room from me—I know he has some acquaintances of the Semitic type.” Eyes stretching again. “That’s all I know, gov. I hope as no one I’ve graciously given succor to is a murdering type.” He made a sketch over his chest, but if the man had been Catholic in this or any past life, Drake would eat his hat.
Drake smiled. He stood and gestured to the door. “Excellent. That’s all I need to know. Please show me to this man’s room.”
Carrington led him up a broad staircase with a faded carpet, the wallpaper that once sported elegant flower designs now faded and starting to bubble and peel, and down a hall lined with rooms. Carrington halted at one door and rapped his fist on the lintel.
No answer from within, but Carrington pulled out a ring of keys, clinked them around, found one, and slotted into the keyhole. He jiggled the handle, and over his shoulder said, “Door sticks a mite.” With a corpulent hip, he shoved it open. Panting, he leaned into the room.
“Jamie?” he said into the room. “Got a gent for you.”
From inside the room, a voice, light, somewhat thick as if from sleep, said, “Chrissakes, I told you, no more punters tonight.”
“He’s not—” Carrington glanced over his shoulder at Drake, mouthed, “So sorry, gov, he’s not usually—”
Drake gently shifted Carrington out of the way with a well placed left hand to the shoulder, right hand to the lower back—a man shifted sharpish when you touched him there.
“Thank you very much, Mr. Carrington. I won’t be a moment.”
Drake entered the room.
And stopped short.
It wasn’t that the man—looked more like a lad, really—on the bed was entirely naked, though that was a bit of a blinker in its own right. It was that Drake knew him. Had, in fact, spent the best portion of the night before staring at this same, elfin-faced lad from across the Sugar Loaf.
A week ago, Sir Howard Vincent, Director of Criminal Investigations at Scotland Yard, had set one of his detective inspectors, Sir John Bisquith, to investigate a rumored bomb plot. Bisquith, on his part, sent his sole detective constable off to investigate a list of Jewish socialists. Drake had been on the trail of one of those socialists, a man named Mr. Israel Sabelinksy. After a asking around, Drake had collected a list of associates and public houses Mr. Sabelinsky frequented. His usual was called the Sugar Loaf, and Drake had spent the last several nights at the Sugar Loaf, where he had watched Mr. Sabelinsky, who arrived like clockwork at seven each evening. Some evenings, he sank a few pints with the man now lying dead and dismembered in the alley below. Other nights, he met up with a young man to play chess—and that other man stared up at Drake now, naked as sin.
For two hours last night, Drake had sipped at a rather nice sour ale, attempting to concentrate on Mr. Sabelinsky but, well, rather distracted by the fairy elegance of the young invert playing chess across from his quarry.
Now, dry-mouthed, Drake felt the heat under his skin, the pulse in his forehead. He swallowed. And hoped to Christ he sounded like the professional he was when he said, “I believe your name is James, is it not?”
Jamie sat naked on a narrow bed, leaning his head against the wall and watching rain turn an Aldgate warren into a watery seascape. The rooftops were ghostly armies, their clay chimney pots sentries marching behind crenellated ridgepoles. His arms hooked around his knees, he gripped a shotglass in his left hand and, from time to time, took small sips of the viscous liquid in it.
From the alley below, a coalbin rattled. He heard shouts, people calling to each other. A woman shrieked. Something or other was going on. In this part of town, something was always going tits up. But his day was over, and whatever buggery was afoot was some other sod’s problem. Jamie was done for the evening. He took another sip, swallowed the peppery burn down, waited for the warm coils that slithered through his chest, his head, his arms.
A knock at the door startled him and he almost dropped the glass. Tinted liquid slopped over his knuckles.
“Jesus Christ,” he said. “You’re joking me.”
The knock was a formality, apparently, since he heard the jingle of keys and rattle of the lock. Jamie swallowed the rest of the liquid in a gulp, the gunpowder bitterness of opium tainted with saffron and cinnamon overwhelming. The insides of his teeth were furry. He coughed, leaned over the edge of the bed to hide the glass underneath, and wiped his mouth with his …