The Murder Pit by Mick Finlay
London Society takes their problems to Sherlock Holmes.
Everyone else goes to Arrowood.
1896: Sherlock Holmes has once again hit the headlines, solving mysteries for the cream of London society. But among the workhouses and pudding shops of the city, private detective William Arrowood is presented with far grittier, more violent, and considerably less well-paid cases.
Arrowood is in no doubt who is the better detective, and when Mr and Mrs Barclay engage him to trace their estranged daughter Birdie, he’s sure it won’t be long before he and his assistant Barnett have tracked her down.
But this seemingly simple missing person case soon turns into a murder investigation. Far from the comfort of Baker Street, Arrowood’s London is a city of unrelenting cruelty, where evil is waiting to be uncovered . . .
South London, 1896
Horror sometimes arrives with a smile upon her face, and so it was with the case of Birdie Barclay. It was early New Year, the mud frozen in the streets, smuts drifting like black snow in the fog. Shuddering horses trudged past, driven on to places they didn’t want to go by sullen, red-faced men. Crossing sweepers stood by waiting for punters to drop them a coin, while old folk clutched walls and railings lest they should slip on the slick cobbles, sighing, muttering, hacking up big gobs of germs and firing them into the piles of horse dung as collected at every corner.
We hadn’t had a case for five weeks, so the letter from Mr Barclay inviting us to call that afternoon was welcome. He lived on Saville Place, a row of two-bedroom cottages under the train lines between the Lambeth Palace and Bethlem. When we reached the house we could hear a lady inside
singing over a piano. I was about to knock when the guvnor touched my arm.
‘Wait, Barnett,’ he whispered.
We stood on the doorstep listening, the fog bunched thick around us. It was a song you’d often hear in the pubs near closing time, but never had I heard it sang so very fine and sad, so full of loneliness: ‘In the gloaming, oh my darling, when the lights are dim and low, and the quiet shadows
falling, softly come and softly go.’ As it built to the refrain, the guvnor shut his eyes and swayed with the chords, his face like a hog at stool. Then, when the last line came, he started singing himself, flat and out of time, drowning out the lady’s mournful voice: ‘When the winds are sobbing faintly, with a
gentle unknown woe, will you think of me and love me, as you did once long ago?’
I think it was the only line he knew, the line that spoke most direct to his own battered heart, and he ended in a choke and a tremble. I reached out to squeeze his fat arm. Finally, he opened his eyes and nodded for me to knock.
A broad, pink-faced fellow opened the door. The first thing you noticed was his Malmsey nose, round at the end and coated in fine fur like a gooseberry; beneath it the thick moustache was black though the hair around his bald scalp was white. He greeted us in a nervy voice and led us through to the front room, where a tall woman stood next to a pianoforte. She was Spanish or Portuguese or somesuch, dressed in black from head to toe.
‘These are the detective agents, my dear,’ he said, wringing his hands in excitement. ‘Mr Arrowood, Mr Barnett, this is my wife, Mrs Barclay.’
On hearing our names a warm smile broke over her face, and I could see from the way the guvnor bowed and put his hand flat on his chest that he felt humbled by the lady: by her singing, her deep brown eyes, the kindness in her expression. She bade us sit on the couch.
The small parlour was packed out with furniture too big for it. The pianoforte was jammed between a writing desk and a glass-fronted cabinet. The couch touched the armchair. A gilded Neptune clock took up most of the mantel, its tick ringing out maddeningly loud.
‘Now,’ said the guvnor, ‘how about you tell us your difficulty and we’ll see what we can do to help?’
‘It’s our daughter, Birdie, sir,’ said Mr Barclay. ‘She was married six months ago into a farming family, but since the wedding we’ve heard nothing from her. Nothing at all. No visits, no letters, not even this Christmas last. I’ve twice tried to call for her but they wouldn’t even let me in the house! Said she’s out visiting. Well, sir, it simply cannot be true.’
‘Surely young ladies visit?’ asked the guvnor.
‘She’s not the type to visit, sir. If you knew her you’d understand that. We’ve been driven wild with worry, Mr Arrowood. It’s as if she’s disappeared.’
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