Gooseberry, the fourteen-year-old Victorian boy detective, is having his fair share of problems. Not only must he juggle the task of being Mr Bruff’s newly-appointed chief investigator with the unwanted responsibility of managing London’s entire criminal underclass, he also has to decide whether a drunken wretch of a man—who turns up on his doorstep claiming to be his father—is who he says he is.
But when the leading actress dies in mysterious circumstances on stage during a performance of The Duchess of Malfi at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre, Gooseberry feels duty-bound to investigate. It is, after all, a great deal more exciting than the last case he was assigned to: the tracking down of a rich old lady’s errant cat!
Join Octavius and his ragtag bunch of friends on their latest adventure, a revenge tragedy (of sorts) in (roughly—very roughly) three acts.
London. Thursday, July 1st, 1852; some eight hours earlier.
THE DOOR TO MR Bruff’s office opened and out stepped the first of his two new clients: Mr Hector Willoughby, a tall, soberly-dressed gentleman of northern extraction in his early thirties. He’d recently returned from South America, where he’d managed to acquire certain “exclusive mineral rights”—whatever they were! Best not to ask, I always think…they might try to tell you! Mr Joseph Peacock, also in his thirties (but with a noticeably more flamboyant dress sense), stepped out next. He had just inherited his father’s estates in the south of England; all he was waiting on now was something they call “probate”—whatever that might be! Again, best not to ask.
To build his refinery in South America, Mr Willoughby needed Peacock’s money. To increase the already large fortune that was coming his way, Mr Peacock needed Willoughby’s minerals. Though the pair had only reached what one might call “the early wooing stage”, they required a presiding minister if this marriage was to work: a solicitor, to wit; a post that Mr Bruff was surely born to.
‘George!’ cried my employer, as he stuck his head round the door. It was the leaner, trimmer, older of the two Georges who sprang to his feet. Five months in, the reducing diet that Mr Bruff had put him on was working like a charm. So far he’d managed to shed nearly three stone. The same could not be said of the younger George, I might point out. Several pounds heavier and as round as a pudding, he was currently slumped on the bench beside me, snoring his head off for all to see.
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Furtive dinnertime forays to his forbidden chophouse would have been my guess, not that my employer had ever asked me to look into it. Still, in the unlikely event that he did, as Mr Bruff’s newly-appointed chief investigator, it was always useful to have a working theory up my sleeve.
Chief investigator, eh? Or, to be more precise, chief and only investigator. But even so! It was definitely a step in the right direction. My one regret was that, although this promotion came with an increase in wages, it sadly didn’t come with an office. Hence here I sat beside the younger George, still relegated to the corridor bench.
‘George, you will accompany these gentlemen to their hotel,’ Mr Bruff explained, ‘where they will furnish you with a number of documents. You’re to take them and deposit them with my bank.’
‘The one in Lombard Street, sir?’ George enquired. ‘The new one?’
I rolled my eyes, for it certainly couldn’t have been the old one, which had burned to the ground earlier that year. It seemed that Mr Bruff picked up on this too, for he winced before nodding.
‘Oh, and, George,’ he added, ‘you’re to come straight back. I may need you to run further errands.’ He glanced at the snoring lad on my left and let out a sigh. ‘Gooseberry, my office, if you please.’
Well, at least I rated a “please”, I reflected, as I followed my employer into his inner sanctum. Having shut the door as requested, I sat myself down, removed my bowler hat, and adjusted my chair so that it faced Mr Bruff’s desk square-on. I find that little details like these create an impression of professionalism, so important when one’s just starting out in one’s career.
‘What do you know of Sadler’s Wells?’ my employer asked, carefully avoiding my eye. He usually does this when he’s embarrassed to talk about something.
‘It’s a theatre, sir,’ I replied, as candidly as I could, in order to put him at ease.
‘Theatre; yes, theatre,’ he mumbled. ‘Go on…’
‘It’s a twenty-to-thirty-minute walk from here.’ The “here” in question being Gray’s Inn Square, where Mr Bruff has his suite of offices. Surprisingly, this simple observation seemed to unnerve the man deeply.
‘Twenty minutes?’ he gasped, staring at me for the briefest instant before tearing his eyes away again.
‘Or thirty, sir. From the Gray’s Inn Road, you head north-east. I warn you, though, the route can be a little—how can I put it? Rough? Run down? Depressing?’
‘Rough?’ echoed Mr Bruff, seizing on my first attempt to describe it. Suddenly he began rummaging through his drawers, sending dip pens and quills flying everywhere. He pulled out an oft-resorted-to box of Anderson & Crombie Patent Liver Powders and emptied a sachet into the glass on his desk. He gave the contents a swirl and downed it in one. Having steeled himself in this fashion, he replaced the glass, closed his eyes, and muttered, ‘What else are you able to tell me?’
‘Well, they put on plays there, sir. I hear they’re currently reviving The Duchess of Malfi.’
I knew this because I’d read a review of said play that claimed it was one of the most bloodthirsty ever written. Apparently everybody’s dead by the curtain-fall. I’d been longing to see this alluring production for myself, but the question was how I might fund this; my per diem for daily expenses had been reduced to a measly shilling, of which I was obliged to account for every penny. Blast Mr Crabbit and his damnable receipts!
‘It stars a Miss Isabella Prynn in the role of the duchess,’ I continued, purposely skirting around the play’s rather bloodthirsty nature; it was bound to offend Mr Bruff’s quaint notions of what were and what were not suitable topics for discussion where a fourteen-year-old boy was concerned. ‘You may well have heard of her, sir. I believe she’s quite famous.’
Very, if the article I had read was anything to go by. As I was rapidly running out of things to say, I gave a discreet cough and came straight to the point.
‘Mr Bruff, wouldn’t it be easier if you just told me what it is you wish to know?’
Mr Bruff opened his eyes and blinked. I watched the tip of his tongue striving to moisten his lower lip as the seconds, if not minutes, ticked by.
‘Is it…safe?’ he enquired at last.
‘Safe…to go there…at night.’
‘Oh, dash it all, I’ve read the reports in the papers! The thuggery that goes on outside its walls! The public displays of drunkenness when you venture inside the theatre! The building’s in such an awfully remote spot, I can’t help worrying that, if I attend, I shall end up being set upon by thieves!’
‘Are you to attend, sir?’
Mr Bruff nodded miserably. ‘Peacock’s been going on about it for days, and Willoughby needs the man’s money so badly, he’s not only reserved them a box, he’s jolly well gone and fixed it for him to meet the entire cast! So when they asked me to accompany them, I could hardly say no, now, could I? I had no wish to appear faint of heart.’
I should like to go on record as saying that Mr Bruff is not usually faint of heart, nor does he put much faith in what he reads in the papers. He’s far too level-headed for that. Clearly something had put the wind up him, but what?
‘When, sir?’ I asked.
My employer sighed. ‘Tonight.’
A truly inspired idea occurred to me. ‘What if I were to come with you, sir? I’d see to it that no harm befell you.’
Mr Bruff regarded me with a sceptical eye. ‘How?’ he asked, rather bluntly. ‘If a big, burly mugger came at us with a knife, how could a tiny lad like you hope to defend yourself?’
‘Before you were kind enough to employ me, sir, and rehabilitate me of my iniquitous ways, I was a well-respected and—dare I say it? revered—member of the criminal fraternity. No one would harm a former brother-at-arms, sir. You would be perfectly safe with me.’
Safer than he might imagine, for I was now in charge of these very same criminals. Having publicly fought their leader and won, the title of kingpin had fallen to me. By the rules of our time-honoured code, I was the person they now answered to.
‘What about your mother, Gooseberry? Won’t she be expecting you home?’
The “mother” he was talking about was in fact my house guest, Bertha, who, you may as well know from the start, is a man. The one time they’d met, Bertha had been wearing his beloved skirt and blouse, and his hair had been done up in ribbons. I’d never had the heart to disabuse Mr Bruff of his illusion, for I doubted he could cope with the truth.
‘No,’ I replied brightly. ‘She’s well aware of my need to work late on occasion.’
‘But I feel as if I’m imposing…’
‘Sir! No imposition at all! I’d be delighted to be of service.’ I smiled and added hopefully, ‘What time do we leave?’
Mr Bruff blinked. ‘Willoughby and Peacock expect me at seven; we’re to meet the cast before the show begins. I suppose you and I might get a bite to eat at around, say, five, and then go on to the theatre from there. The local chophouse should do us quite nicely.’
Supper, a show, and I get to meet the cast? Could the day get any more perfect? Well, perhaps it could in just one respect…
‘Sir,’ I said, ‘I know of somewhere much better than the chophouse, and it’s not even out of our way.’
I was talking, of course, about Mrs Grogan’s on the Gray’s Inn Road, where the food was vastly superior to that of any chophouse. But our reception at her esteemed establishment, shortly after the appointed hour of five, could only be described as downright frosty. I, it seemed, had made it squarely into her bad books. It was something that happened all too frequently to me these days.
‘And where, pray tell, have you been hiding yourself?’ she asked, staring down her nose at me as we installed ourselves at one of her tables. ‘I ain’t seen hide nor hair of you in weeks! What’s the matter? Ain’t my food good enough for you any more?’
‘Mrs Grogan, your food’s just—’
‘Funny, isn’t it?’ she went on darkly, talking over me to address the non-existent companion at her side. ‘One teensy taste of power, and they quickly go forgetting who their friends are! Oh, you may rule the roost now, lad, but it wasn’t always so. And who was it that cooked for you throughout all those years when you were a good-for-nothing nobody? Why, me, that’s who! Yes, ME! And now you go blinking-well ignoring me! Can you honestly not see how it gives people the wrong kind of impression?’
I glanced at Mr Bruff, who was watching this ticking-off with an expression of mild amusement. So far he hadn’t caught on to what it meant…and I was determined to keep it that way.
‘Mrs Grogan! Mrs Grogan! You’re right,’ I butted in, before she let something slip that he did understand. ‘I admit it; I let my promotion—to chief investigator—go to my head.’
It did the trick; it put a stop to her tirade. ‘You what?’ she asked, frowning.
‘May I present my employer…the SO-LI-CI-TOR, Mr Bruff?’ I emphasized the word as forcibly as I dared, considering how I didn’t wish Mr Bruff to remark upon it in any way. ‘This is the man who recently made me his chief IN-VEST-I-GA-TOR.’
The woman’s eyes narrowed into slits. Planting both of her palms on the table, she leaned forward and peered at me closely—uncomfortably closely. ‘Chief investigator?’ she queried.
She cocked her head and cast a sidelong glance at Mr Bruff. ‘And he’s a solicitor?’
‘I am, madam. Mr Mathew Bruff of Gray’s Inn Square. At your service.’ Mr Bruff can be quite charming at times.
Mrs Grogan scrutinized the cut of his jacket and the quality of his black silk top hat, then straightened her back and took a long, deep breath. I expect she thought I had a plan afoot to swindle the old man out of his money. Fussing with the tea cloth at her apron strings, she pursed her lips sourly.
‘So what can I be getting you two fine gentlemen this evening?’
Her manner thawed by the tiniest degree when I told her we would be happy to place ourselves in her capable hands. The stew, when it arrived, was cooked to perfection, with dumplings like pillows and meat that fairly melted on the tongue.
‘That was extraordinary,’ declared Mr Bruff, when at last she came to clear away our plates. ‘The bread was especially delicious.’ Mrs Grogan is famed for her bread.
‘It’s all to do with the flour,’ she confided, blushing at the compliment. ‘You don’t take nothing out of it, and you don’t go putting nothing in; no chalk, no lead, and certainly no arsenic!’
Now perhaps you can see why she’s so famed for her bread. There was a tricky moment when my employer asked for the bill and she began to inform him that naturally our meal would be on the house. She noticed me shaking my head just in time. It didn’t prevent her from stuffing a large bag of cheese cakes into my hand as we took our leave, though. The way she saw it, it couldn’t hurt to keep on the right side of the capital’s criminal overlord, even if that overlord was a mere lad of fourteen. Sadly, she was not the only one to see things this way.
Ever since I’d defeated Johnny Knight, people had been falling over themselves to foist little gifts on me. Daily I was plied with so much fresh produce that Bertha had taken to cooking up pots of soup on the stove—hence my waning need to patronize Mrs Grogan’s, an act which Mrs Grogan viewed as a gross betrayal on my part.
To serve the soup, I’d been presented with a dozen Spode soup plates, a dozen bread and butter plates, and a dozen silver soup spoons. The rest of the set, comprising dozens of dinner plates, cups, saucers, and assorted cutlery, sat gathering dust in a corner. It was all so embarrassing. It wasn’t as if my lodgings could hold a dozen people. In all honesty, it was stretched to cope with three.
The real problem came when I noticed this same generosity being extended to my brother, Julius. One day he let it slip that he was no longer expected to pay for his dinner, be it a pie or potato. I soon put a stop to that, for I did not raise my little brother to be a wanton sponger! I pointed out to him that all these gifts came with expectations and obligations attached. Some were as straightforward as endorsing a particular business concern, such as Mrs Grogan’s (which, in Mrs Grogan’s case, I was only too happy to do). Others were more complicated, involving, as they did, extending my personal protection and assurances—for instance, to firms regularly targeted by shoplifters. Not a simple matter, I think you will agree.
Julius wasn’t very happy that I put paid to his free meal, but in the end he forgave me. My brother, bless his soul, isn’t one to hold grudges…well, not for more than three or four days at a time.
Such was my train of thought as Mr Bruff and I set out for the theatre. The sun was still shining and the evening was balmy, so when Mr Bruff went to hail a cab, I boldly suggested we walk.
‘Look at the weather, sir; it’s such a fine day. I’m sure it will do us good.’
Famous last words.
Since I hadn’t taken his fear of attack seriously—for the venue lay roughly in the same direction as my own humble abode—I was as shocked as he was when, on turning a corner, we chanced upon a most unsavoury scene.
Two youths, neither of whom I recognized by sight, had some poor chap on the ground, and were taking it in turns to give him the kicking of his life. It was all the more shocking that this attack was taking place right outside a House of Correction—the largest House of Correction in the land, as it happens. Both Mr Bruff and I froze.
The youths looked up, noticed my bulging eyes and my bowler hat (my proprietary trademarks, if you will), glanced uneasily at each other, and—respectfully removing their own hats—rose and stood to attention.
‘Oh, my,’ whispered Mr Bruff through tightly-clenched teeth, ‘what are we to do?’
‘Just keep walking, sir,’ I replied. ‘I shall deal with this.’
‘But I can’t leave you here on your own!’
‘Trust me, sir, it will be safer for me if you do!’
Much safer, since I had no idea what these two were about to say to me or, indeed, what I might need to say to them in return. Oh, the trials and tribulations of being a kingpin of crime when you’re trying to hold down a respectable job!
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