Our Victorian boy detective’s next big case is a revenge tragedy (of sorts) in (roughly—very roughly) three acts. New chapters will be posted each Friday in the lead-up to its March 1st release. This week: Chapter One. Join Gooseberry—AKA Octopus—real name Octavius—on his most perplexing case to date! Available to pre-order now at a very special price!
IN A SUDDEN, BLINDING flash of inspiration, Guy’s Seventh Rule of Detection sprang fully formed into my head (and, no, I wasn’t miscounting—I have six other rules to precede it). Never allow good evidence to fall into the hands of the police. I shuddered at its simple perfection, then realized I needed to write it down quickly, lest by some cruel quirk of fate I should forget it, and its beauty be lost to the world for ever. There was a dip pen and ink well on Bella’s dressing table, and a scrap of crumpled paper in the bin. Just a little flattening out and it served my purpose admirably.
With the seventh rule safely down for posterity, I began scouring the room for something to wrap the costume in. When nothing presented itself, I was forced to remove my jacket and bundle it up in that. Hugging it tightly to my chest, I sped along the corridor and out into the theatre foyer, which, apart from an unhappy-looking Mr Bruff, now stood quite deserted. I was soon to discover why my employer looked so miserable.
‘First you disappear without a word of explanation, then my clients abandon me, leaving me here to await your return on my own! What if those ruffians from earlier had decided to come back? What then, eh? What then!’
‘Calm yourself, sir. I’m here now. Let us see about getting you home.’
The prospect so cheered him that he completely forgot to quiz me about where I had been.
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We exited the theatre together into the cool evening air. The sky was dark and cloudless and the moon was full. It was only a short walk up to the City Road, where I had no trouble hailing him a cab. I thought about cadging a ride with him, as I was headed in the same direction, but quickly decided against it. So far he hadn’t noticed my bulky jacket; why press my luck any further?
I set off for my lodgings in fine spirits, reciting my latest Rule of Detection in my head. I’d made it as far as Rodney Street when I became aware of a sound behind me: clomp, clomp, clomp. Footsteps, and rather loud ones, at that. I sped up; they sped up. I slowed down; they slowed down. I stopped; they stopped. There was only one possible explanation: Octavius Guy was being followed!
Giving my pursuer no warning, I spun round to confront him. On the far side of the street, two men in docker’s caps—both somewhat worse for drink—were staggering arm-in-arm along the pavement. But apart from them (and a sleek ginger tomcat), there was no one else in sight.
I might have shrugged the whole thing off as my imagination playing tricks on me, but when I took the short cut home up Winchester Street I heard the clomp, clomp, clomp again.
By the time I reached my lodgings, I’d formulated a plan. Instead of bolting upstairs as I normally do, I stood inside the stairwell entrance and listened. The footsteps came progressively closer, then, quite abruptly, they stopped. My shadow, whoever he was, was standing mere inches away from me; I even fancied I could hear his ragged breath. But before I could jump out and tackle him, however, I heard another burst of clomp, clomp, clomp, this time of the retreating variety. I darted out from my hiding place, only to find that the wraith who’d been tailing me had vanished.
Up on the landing, I let myself in as quietly as I could, and stood watching, unobserved, by the door. Bertha and Julius were seated at the table, working on money together.
‘Four nice, fat ’errings; ’ow much is that, Sprat?’
Bertha was a big man, tall and rather fleshy. Even in a primrose skirt with his hair tied up in ribbons, you couldn’t mistake him for a woman. He still looked like a man.
‘Two for a penny; that’s tuppence,’ replied my brother.
I find it hard to believe, but Julius turned eleven in April. My boy is growing up. Everyone says that he looks like me—well, like a miniature version of me. For my part, I’m not so sure, though he certainly has my eyes.
‘Good lad. And a ’alf-pint scoop o’ sardines?’
‘That’s a ha’penny.’
‘So ’ow much all told?’
‘Now, keep that figure in your ’ead as you think about wot I just give you.’
‘You gave me sixpence.’
‘Right. Now do the change. Start by roundin’ up the cost of the fish to the nearest penny.’
Julius picked up a coin and Bertha nodded—presumably a halfpenny.
‘And that makes wot?’ Bertha prompted.
‘And a penny makes fourpence; and another makes fivepence; and this one ’ere makes sixpence!’ The coins clinked their way into Bertha’s hand.
It was a minor miracle. In the six months that Bertha had been teaching him, Julius’s counting had improved out of all recognition. As much as I hated to put an end to the lesson, I had the news to break to Bertha—after all, he had known Bella too.
I gave the door a sharp bang, as if I’d just entered; Julius’s head shot up, and he leapt out of his seat to greet me. Bertha shrugged good-naturedly and began packing away the coins.
‘There’s soup in the pot,’ he muttered, as he rose and adjusted his skirts. ‘Pea and ’am. Ain’t ’alf bad, even if I says so meself.’
I stowed the executioner’s robe on top of the surplus crockery, then went and helped myself to a plateful, spooning a little of it into my mouth as I did so. Bertha was right. It wasn’t half bad.
‘Julius, will you do me a favour?’ I said, as I carried my plate to the table.
‘’Course I will,’ replied Julius, his high, squeaky voice mimicking Bertha’s gruff tones to a tee. ‘Wot d’yeh want?’
‘Go and slip this under Mrs Maddox’s door.’ I extracted a sixpence from my pocket and tossed it across the room to him. Julius caught it and went to fetch his bowler. Unlike me, he seldom wears a hat indoors.
‘Take care not to wake her,’ I added. ‘And be careful out there. If you hear anything unusual, you run like the wind. All right?’
‘Won’t be long,’ he shouted, slamming the door behind him.
With this little act of philanthropy, I’d managed to kill two birds with one stone. Mrs Maddox, the poor, half-blind old duck who does our laundry for us, was refusing to take any money from me. It was payment enough just to be working for someone of my esteemed position, she said. Well, at least now the old girl wouldn’t go short on my account. Moreover, it got rid of Julius for half an hour, long enough for me to tell Bertha about Bella’s murder.
‘It ain’t right,’ he growled, once I’d recounted what had happened. ‘Oo’d want to go and throttle poor Bella? She ’ad a ’eart, she did. Never fleeced no saps, our Bella. She saved ’er talents for dodgy cusses…like in that “Copper Turned to Gold Job” wot she pulled…’
‘The one where she targeted that gentlemen’s club in the Haymarket? I remember it well. She had me playing the messenger boy. I never really got the gist of how it worked, though.’
Bertha chuckled. ‘Oh, it were priceless, Octopus. Priceless!’
‘Go on, then. Explain it to me.’
The big man stroked his chin. ‘Well…’er first task, see, was to rope in someone on the inside…wot they calls an “unwillin’ accomplice”.’
‘Don’t you mean an unwitting accomplice?’
‘Ain’t that wot I said? The mark that she set ’er sights on, ’e was a right sap…the youngest son of some baronet or other. First she charms ’im…promises ’im ’er undying love. Then when ’e’s good and besotted with ’er, she touches ’im up for a loan. Nothing big, mind; just a few measly pounds.’
There’s nothing measly about a few pounds, I reflected, as Bertha swept on regardless.
‘When ’e asks ’er wot it’s for, she tells ’im about this deal she’s been offered…wot they calls a “’vestment opportunity”—’
Bertha threw me a look. ‘Oo’s tellin’ this story? You or me?’
‘You are, Bertha.’
‘Then don’t go interruptin’! Where was I?’
‘She was telling him about her investment opportunity.’
‘Right. She’s got a chance of doubling ’er money overnight, but she needs a particular sum, and she’s short. She spins ’im some tale ’bout ’ow she’s been sworn to secrecy, but gives ’im ’er word that she’ll pay ’im back before the week is out…along with ’is share of the profits.’
‘If I recall rightly, she paid him back six times what he lent her, not double.’
‘Clever touch, that,’ observed Bertha, nodding appreciatively. ‘Nice little detail. ’Course the sap, ’e can’t keep ’is screech shut ’bout ’is girlfriend’s windfall; ’e goes blabbing about it to all ’is mates at ’is club. Naturally they asks to meet ’er, but when they do, she’s acting all guilty, like. Says ’ow she reckons the deal was dodgy, and now she regrets ’aving any part of it.’
‘And that’s where I came in…delivering the note from Glad-handing Jack.’
‘Jack, ’e was Bella’s partner back then; it was ’im wot played the crooked clerk,’ Bertha reminisced. ‘D’yeh happen to remember wot the note said?’
‘That she had another chance to double her money. In so many words, she told me to go to hell.’
Again the big man chuckled. ‘And wot did the marks do then?’
‘They grabbed me by the collar and forced me to take them back to Jack.’
Bertha wagged his finger at me as primly as any schoolmaster. ‘Nah, nah, nah; not the sap,’ he insisted. ‘’Im she begs not to go, and, bein’ besotted with ’er as ’e is, ’e complies. Like I said, Octopus, Bella never fleeced no saps; she only went in for greedy cusses.’
‘Be that as it may, those men frogmarched me through the streets like I was their blinking prisoner! And when we reached that fusty, little garret that Jack had leased, Jack damned-well kicked my backside down the stairs!’
‘You got paid for it, didn’t yeh? Besides, ’e had to make them think ’e was angry with yeh for bringing them there.’
‘Oh, they thought he was angry, all right! So, tell me, what happened after I’d been ousted so rudely?’
‘Nothing bleedin’ happened.’ Bertha sat back in his chair and smirked.
‘I don’t understand…’
‘Now that ’e’s got them there, he refuses to talk. ’E stubbornly don’t say a thing!’
I frowned. ‘How’s that going to get him their money?’
‘Octopus, Octopus! The art of a fine confidence trick is to get people to force money on yeh, even if yeh say you don’t want it. So wot do they do when ’e clamps up like a h’oyster? Why, they knows there’s somethin’ dodgy afoot, so they threaten to summon the rozzers.’
Bertha nodded. ‘At this, Jack breaks into a sweat, see? And when one o’ them leaves the room to make good on their promise, ’e finally cracks. ’E tells them how ’e clerks for a ’countancy firm—’
‘An accountancy firm?’
Bertha glared at me. ‘A ’countancy firm wot handles the books for a bunch of small copper mines out in Van Diemen’s Land. It’s ’is job to open the ’spatches wot comes from abroad.’
‘Open the what?’ Even my impressive interpretive skills were foiled by this one.
‘The ’spatches, Octopus. Letters and the like.’
‘Every so often, ’e tells them, one of the mines’ll turn up something unexpected…a seam of this, a seam of that; even a seam of gold. ’Course, if that was to happen, the shares in that mine would go through the roof. With me so far?’
I nodded and set about summarizing: ‘Glad-handing Jack—who’s not really a clerk—opens non-existent letters from non-existent copper mines in far-off Australia, and now he’s about to tell the marks that one of those mines just struck gold.’
‘’E don’t just tell them, ’e goes and shows them the letter…’
‘The one from the Whim Creek Mining Company…announcing the news of their good fortune. ’E says that, though ’e can put off filing it with the proper authorities for a day or two, ’e can’t act on the information ’isself. It’d look suspicious if ’e tried to buy shares. Wot ’e’s needs is a ’complice to buy them for ’im.
‘’Course, by now, these greedy sots ain’t got no use for ’im.’ Bertha giggled. ‘They knows the name of the company—remember?—’cos ’e showed them the bleedin’ letter! And that’s when ’e plays the in-and-in.’
‘To prove that if they’re in, ’e’s in too….gets rid of any last doubts they might be ’arbouring. ’E begs them…begs them, mind…to take fifty pound of his own bleedin’ money to ’vest on ’is behalf.’
‘How’s frittering away his hard-won cash on non-existent shares going to help him?’
‘Oh, the Whim Creek Mining Company existed all right, and so did those blinkin’ shares. But it were based right ’ere in London—see?—and unless its two directors got theirselves nabbed and sentenced to transportation, they weren’t never gunna see Australia!’
Bertha nodded. ‘One of them was Bella…’
‘Oh! And the other was Glad-handing Jack!’
‘Quick, ain’t yeh? ’Course, the company was set to go bust, making those shares they bought worthless.’
‘I was the bearer of those tidings, too. Lord, those marks were fuming! I swear there was murder in the air when they went off to hunt for Jack. I suppose he and Bella had made good their escape by then?’
‘Nothin’ of the sort! They still had the brush-off to do, didn’t they?’
‘Giving their targets a damn good reason to keep their noses clean and their traps shut! When they get to Jack’s garret—see?—they find ’im and Bella squabbling—and this time it’s ’er wot’s threatenin’ to go to the police. Says ’er conscience just won’t take it no longer. She tries to leave to summon the old Bill, but Jack, ’e grabs her by the wrists and hauls ’er back into the room. She wrenches one of her lills free—’
‘’Ands, Octopus, ’ands! She wrenches one of her lills free and goes at ’im good and proper with ’er nails, tearing and scratching at his eyes, see? ’E snatches up a letter opener from ’is desk, and, before you know it, ’e’s plunged it deep into ’er ’eart! Blood goes spurting everywhere! ’Course it’s only cockerel’s blood from the cackle-bladder wot she’s got strapped to ’er chest—but there’s gallons of it, Octopus, gallons!
‘“Oh, ’elp me!” she gurgles. “Please, for the love of Gawd, ’elp me! ’Elp me, or I am surely done for!”’ Bertha’s ham-like fist had suddenly become a pleading claw.
‘Seein’ this, the marks, they scatter—they weren’t countin’ on being involved in no blinkin’ murder—leaving Jack free to mop up the mess while Bella goes and draws ’erself a nice, ’ot bath.’
‘Bravo! Bravo!’ I rose and gave Bertha a well-deserved ovation for his most vivid and detailed account. Bertha stood and made a gracious curtsey. ‘I’ve just one question, I said. ‘What’s a cackle-bladder?’
‘Use your bleedin’ imagination, Octopus! Wot else would it be but a poultry bladder filled with blood?’
Fair point. ‘So what happened to her, Bertha? How did Bella make it out of the Life?’
‘Well, like you, she just disappeared, see? ’Ere one day, gone the next.’
‘When was this?’
‘Four years ago, maybe five. There was this rumour went round as ’ow she went to ply ’er trade up Manchester way. It were only a rumour, mind. I wouldn’t put no stock in it.’
‘Do you remember her surname? I’m almost sure it wasn’t Prynn. It was something like it, though.’
‘It were Prince. Bella Prince.’
‘Of course it was.’ Then why the letters “B. C.” embroidered on her handkerchief?
‘So wot yeh gunna do about it?’ Bertha asked, his voice suddenly becoming serious. ‘’Er murder, Octopus. You realize it’s down to you to avenge ’er, don’t yeh? Bella Prince was one of us.’
I realized it only too well. I also knew how difficult it would be, for I’d have to investigate the case in my own time, and pay any expenses out of my own pocket. There’d be none of Mr Bruff’s per diems for Bella. Had the good Sergeant Cuff faced similar obstacles when he was first starting out in his career?
I was still mulling the problem over the next morning when I arrived bright and early for work. I wasn’t surprised to find that the older George had made it in before me; that happened quite often these days. What surprised me was the fact that he was reading a newspaper. Though I sometimes brought in a paper myself, this was a first for George. In all honesty, up till that point, I had no idea the young man could read.
‘What’s it mean,’ he asked, as I sat down beside him on the bench, ‘when it says, “the theatre will remain dark until Monday”?’
I looked with interest at where his finger was pointing. The article was all about Bella.
‘I think it means they’ll be cancelling all performances until then,’ I replied, noticing the prominent headline, “Death of a Great Tragedienne”. ‘George, can I borrow your paper a moment?’
He nodded and handed it over. I gave the paper a satisfying flick, and then began to read:
Miss Isabella Prynn, arguably the greatest tragic actress of our age, was accidentally strangled to death last night during a performance of Webster’s Duchess of Malfi before a capacity crowd at Sadler’s Wells Theatre. Though attempts were made to revive her, Miss Prynn was pronounced dead at the scene.
Mr Eustace Tuttle, the manager of Sadler’s Wells, stated that, ‘Miss Prynn was an actress of rare distinction. This appalling mishap has robbed an entire generation of its most glittering star. Thespis himself should be wailing and tearing his hair out.’ As a tribute to the late Miss Prynn, the theatre will remain dark until Monday, when the young but much-accomplished actress Miss Juliet Cartwright will undertake to play the role of the duchess.
In accordance with her family’s wishes, Miss Prynn’s funeral is to be held in private. Members of the public are invited to attend a memorial service for her at St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, on Monday, July 5th at 2 pm.
Accidentally strangled? This appalling mishap? Did this mean what I thought it did, that the company had deliberately withheld any mention of a fourth executioner? Had they told the constable nothing? How, I wondered, had they roped the doctor into cooperating with them? Or had the officer bullied the man so badly, he’d closed up like a clam? And what would they do if there was an inquest, I asked myself? Would they all continue to lie?
I began to ponder the effect this development would have on my own investigations. After some consideration, I came to the conclusion that it might just work in my favour, by lulling the murderer into believing that his crime had gone undetected. Little would he realize that Octavius Guy was now on the case!
‘If you’ve finished with my paper, can I have it back please?’
Distracted, I folded the journal haphazardly and passed it back to him. He opened it and continued reading.
‘What’s a “tragedienne”?’
‘It’s a…well, it’s a…’ I had to stop and think. ‘It’s an actress, George. A special kind of actress. A really great one, see?’ At least that’s what I imagined it would be.
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