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Authors: David Morrell

Inspector of the Dead

BOOK: Inspector of the Dead
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To Grevel Lindop and Robert Morrison

for guiding my journey into all things Thomas De Quincey

and to historian Judith Flanders

for leading me along dark Victorian streets

W
e take strict laws
controlling the sale of narcotics so much for granted that it comes as a surprise to learn that opium, from which heroin and morphine are derived, was legally available in the British Empire and the United States for much of the 1800s. Chemists, butchers, grocers, and even paperboys sold it. The liquid form was called laudanum, a mixture of powdered opium and alcohol (usually brandy). Almost every household owned a bottle in the same way that aspirin is common in medicine cabinets today. The only pain remedy available (apart from alcohol), opium was dispensed for headaches, menstrual cramps, upset stomach, hay fever, earaches, back spasms, baby colic, cancer, just about anything that could ail anybody.

Thomas De Quincey, one of the most notorious and brilliant authors of the nineteenth century, first experienced the drug when he was a young man suffering from a toothache. He described the euphoria he felt as an “abyss of divine enjoyment…a panacea for all human woes…the secret of happiness.” For eight years, he used the substance occasionally, but by the time he was twenty-eight, he lapsed into lifelong dependency. The concept of physical and mental addiction was unknown in the 1800s. People considered opium abuse simply a habit that could be broken by anyone with character and discipline. Because De Quincey couldn’t stop, he was condemned for his lack of self-control, even though the pains of attempted withdrawal left him “agitated, writhing, throbbing, palpitating, and shattered.”

In 1821, when De Quincey was thirty-six, he released
Confessions of an English Opium-Eater
and sent a shock wave through England. The first book about drug dependency, it made him infamous for his candor at a time when many people shared his affliction but would never confess it because they feared the shame of exposing their private lives to public view. By then, the elixir effects of the drug had subsided, and De Quincey needed huge amounts merely to function. A tablespoon of laudanum might kill someone not accustomed to it, but at the height of his need, just to feel normal, De Quincey swallowed sixteen ounces a day while “munching opium pills out of a snuff box as another man might munch filberts,” a friend said.

The drug caused De Quincey to endure epic nightmares that seemed to last a hundred years every night. Ghosts of loved ones visited him. Every hurt and loss of his life surfaced to haunt him, and because of these nightmares, De Quincey discovered a bottomless inner world, “chasms and sunless abysses, depths below depths.” Seventy years before Freud, he developed theories about the subconscious that were similar to the future great psychoanalyst’s
Interpretation of Dreams.
Indeed De Quincey invented the term “subconscious” and described deep chambers of the mind in which a “horrid alien nature” might conceal itself, unknown to outsiders and even to oneself.

De Quincey demonstrated yet another remarkable ability. He was an expert in murder.

In the murderer worthy to be called an artist, there rages some great storm of passion—jealousy, ambition, vengeance, hatred—which creates a hell within him.

—Thomas De Quincey
“On the Knocking at the Gate in
Macbeth

London,
1855

E
xcept for excursions
to a theater or a gentlemen’s club, most respectable inhabitants of the largest city on earth took care to be at home before the sun finished setting, which on this cold Saturday evening, the third of February, occurred at six minutes to five.

That time—synchronized with the clock at the Royal Greenwich Observatory—was displayed on a silver pocket watch that an expensively dressed, obviously distinguished gentleman examined beneath a hissing gas lamp. As harsh experiences had taught him, appearance meant everything. The vilest thoughts might lurk within someone, but the external semblance of respectability was all that mattered. For fifteen years now, he couldn’t recall a time when rage had not consumed him, but he had never allowed anyone to suspect, enjoying the surprise of those upon whom he unleashed his fury.

Tonight, he stood at Constitution Hill and stared across the street toward the murky walls of Buckingham Palace. Lights glowed faintly behind curtains there. Given that the British government had collapsed four days earlier because of its shocking mismanagement of the Crimean War, Queen Victoria was no doubt engaged in urgent meetings with her Privy Council. A shadow passing at one of the windows might belong to her or perhaps to her husband, Prince Albert. The gentleman wasn’t certain which of them he hated more.

Approaching footsteps made him turn. A constable appeared, his helmet silhouetted against the fog. As the patrolman focused his lantern on the quality of clothing before him, the gentleman made himself look calm. His top hat, overcoat, and trousers were the finest. His beard—a disguise—would have attracted notice years earlier but was now fashionable. Even his black walking stick with its polished silver knob was the height of fashion.

“Good evening, sir. If you don’t mind me saying, don’t linger,” the constable warned. “It doesn’t do to be out alone in the dark, even in this neighborhood.”

“Thank you, constable. I’ll hurry along.”

  

F
rom his hiding place,
the young man at last heard a target approaching. He’d almost given up, knowing that there was little chance that someone of means would venture alone onto this fog-bound street but knowing also that the fog was his only protection from the constable who passed here every twenty minutes.

Deciding that the footsteps didn’t have the heavy, menacing impact that the constable’s did, the young man prepared for the most desperate act of his life. He’d endured typhoons and fevers on three voyages back and forth from England to the Orient on a British East India Company ship, but they were nothing compared to what he now risked, the penalty for which was hanging. As his stomach growled from hunger, he prayed that its sound wouldn’t betray him.

The footsteps came closer, a top hat coming into view. Despite his weakness, the young man stepped from behind a tree in Green Park. He gripped the wrought-iron fence, vaulted it, and landed in front of a gentleman whose dark beard was visible in the shrouded glow from a nearby street lamp.

The young man gestured with a club. “No need to draw you a picture, I presume, mate. Give me your purse, or it’ll go nasty for you.”

The gentleman studied his dirty, torn sailor’s clothes.

“I said, your purse, mate,” the young man ordered, listening for the sounds of the returning constable. “Be quick. I won’t warn you again.”

“The light isn’t the best, but perhaps you can see my eyes. Look at them carefully.”

“What I’ll do is close them for you if you don’t give me your purse.”

“Do you see fear in them?”

“I will after
this.

The young man lunged, swinging his club.

With astonishing speed, the gentleman pivoted sideways and struck with his cane, jolting the young man’s wrist, knocking the club from it. With a second blow, he whacked the side of the young man’s head, dropping him to the ground.

“Stay down unless you wish more of the same,” the gentleman advised.

Suppressing a groan, the young man clutched his throbbing head.

“Before confronting someone, always look in his eyes. Determine if his resolve is greater than yours. Your age, please.”

The polite tone so surprised the young man that he found himself answering, “Eighteen.”

“What is your name?”

The young man hesitated, shivering from the cold.

“Say it. Your first name will be sufficient. It won’t incriminate you.”

“Ronnie.”

“You mean ‘Ronald.’ If you wish to improve yourself, always use your formal name. Say it.”

“Ronald.”

“Despite the pain of my blows, you had the character not to cry out and alert the constable. Character deserves a reward. How long has it been since you’ve eaten, Ronald?”

“Two days.”

“Your fast has now ended.”

The gentleman dropped five coins onto the path. The faint glow from the nearby street lamp made it difficult for Ronald to identify them. Expecting pennies, he felt astonished when he discovered not pennies or even shillings but gold sovereigns. He stared at them in shock. One gold sovereign was more than most people earned in a week of hard labor, and here were
five
of them.

“Would you like to receive even more sovereigns, Ronald?”

He clawed at the coins.
“Yes.”

“Twenty-five Garner Street in Wapping.” The address was in the blighted East End, as far from the majesty of Green Park as could be imagined. “Repeat it.”

“Twenty-five Garner Street in Wapping.”

“Be there at four tomorrow afternoon. Buy warm clothes. Nothing extravagant, nothing to draw attention. You are about to join a great cause, Ronald. But if you tell anyone about Twenty-five Garner Street, to use your expression it’ll go nasty for you. Let’s see if you do indeed have character or if you throw away the greatest opportunity you will ever receive.”

Heavy footsteps approached.

“The constable. Go,” the bearded gentleman warned. “Don’t disappoint me, Ronald.”

His stomach growling more painfully, astonished by his luck, Ronald clutched his five precious sovereigns and raced into the fog.

  

A
s the gentleman
continued up Constitution Hill, his watch now showed eight minutes past five. The watches of his associates—also synchronized with the Greenwich Royal Observatory—would display the same time. Everything remained on schedule.

At Piccadilly, he turned right toward one of London’s most respectable districts: Mayfair. He had waited what seemed an eternity for what he was about to enjoy. He had suffered unimaginably to prepare for it. Despite his fierce emotions, he kept a measured pace, determined not to blunt his satisfaction by hurrying.

Even in the fog, he had no trouble finding his way. This was a route that he had followed many times in his memory. It was the same route that he had taken fifteen years earlier when, as a desperate boy, he had raced to the right along Piccadilly, then to the left along Half Moon Street, then left again onto Curzon Street, this way and that, begging.

“Please, sir, I need your help!”

“Get away from me, you filthy vermin!”

The echoes of that hateful time reverberated in his memory as he came to the street known as Chesterfield Hill. He paused where a gas lamp showed an iron railing beyond which five stone steps led up to an oak door. The knocker had the shape of a heraldic lion’s head.

The steps were freshly scrubbed. Noting a boot scraper built into the railing, he applied his soles to it so that he wouldn’t leave evidence. He clutched his walking stick, opened the gate, and climbed the steps. The impact of the knocker echoed within the house.

He heard someone on the opposite side of the door. For a moment, his anticipation made it seem that the world outside the fog no longer existed, that he was in a closet of the universe, that time had stopped. As a hand freed a bolt and the door opened, he readied his cane with its silver knob.

A butler looked puzzled. “His Lordship isn’t expecting visitors.”

The gentleman struck with all his might, impacting the man’s head, knocking him onto a marbled floor. Heartbeat thundering with satisfaction, he entered and shut the door. A few quick steps took him into a spacious hall.

A maid paused at the bottom of an ornate staircase, frowning, obviously puzzled about why the butler hadn’t accompanied the visitor. In a rage, the gentleman swung the cane, feeling its knob crack the maid’s skull. With a dying moan, she collapsed to the floor.

Without the disguise of his beard, the gentleman had been to this house on several occasions. He knew its layout and would need little time to eliminate the remaining servants. Then his satisfaction could begin as he devoted his attention to their masters. Clutching his cane, he proceeded with his great work.

Memories needed to be prodded.

Punishment needed to be inflicted.

BOOK: Inspector of the Dead
7.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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