Isabella Duke
A Skeleton in Every House
A Skeleton in Every House
Chapter 1

The morning the body was dredged from the Thames, an impenetrable fog had rolled over London. The body was that of a man, quite evidently dead by the time he was hauled up limply, first onto a passing barge and then onto the damp wood boards overhanging the river at the dreary Limehouse docks. The initial assumption that he had fallen victim to a misstep on the riverbank, not an uncommon occurrence in such weather, quickly faded in the face of the obvious: He had been murdered. Before long, the police were summoned.

But as the same white fog swirled across her bedroom window that morning, Catriona Winters was not thinking of the murdered man. She did not yet know he was dead. She was thinking only of a letter and was putting off asking whether it had arrived.

Her house was unsettlingly quiet, her bedroom cast in the dim glow of a gas wall sconce and what meagre light had made its way through the parted curtains. Catriona usually took breakfast with her papa, but when she had gone down to the dining room just after six that morning, he had already departed.

She had asked her maid after him only to be rebuffed with the vague reply that he had left early on personal business. Sturdy, competent, and exceedingly practical, Emily was not one to speculate about exactly what sort of business this may have been. Her discretion was a quality for which Catriona had been grateful on several occasions, but today she gathered the maid had observed a little more than she was letting on, and the realisation annoyed her.

“Then I must catch him up at the office,” Catriona conceded, staring absently out the window, which overlooked Thurloe Square and the surrounding houses. “He will no doubt wish to print my story on the suffragist meeting last night.”

If she had expected Emily to enquire about the story or the meeting, she was to be disappointed. The maid simply stepped back, her fingers not having missed a beat with the hairpins, and surveyed her handiwork as she waited to be dismissed.

Catriona at last looked away from the window to the mirror above her dressing table. Her hair was piled atop her head in loose black curls, and her day dress, grey-blue with lace at the neck, complemented her colouring. In certain respects, she believed she took after her papa, but in her dark eyes and complexion, she undeniably resembled her mother.

“Excellent. Thank you, Emily,” she finally said, but as the maid turned to leave, Catriona could not stop herself. The words flew out: “Did a letter arrive for me this morning?”

“Mr Hughes did not say so,” Emily replied, referring to the butler. Instead of departing immediately as Catriona thought she would, she ventured, “A letter from Mr Hampstead?”

The anticipation had been broken, replaced by embarrassment. “Emily, really,” Catriona said, a wave of heat suffusing her face. But she said it with little feeling, knowing it was as good as an admission, and Emily slipped out, satisfied, without another word.

Catriona knew not why thoughts of Sidney Hampstead gave rise to such conflict in her. Three months had passed since he had set off by steamer back to Boston, his home city, where he would apprentice in his father’s business. She had made his acquaintance several years prior, and the two had since cultivated a casual romance: the occasional unchaperoned walk, a hand extended to help her descend from a coach, a shared glance of amusement across a crowded room.

She still thought of Sidney as a comfortable friend, but she sensed the expectation in him, in his letters, which arrived like clockwork every ten days, with mentions of a future they might share if he returned to England as planned. Perhaps it was the inevitability of it that set her so on edge, the knowledge that at some point he would ask more of her, and she would have to make the decision she had been avoiding.

In the meantime, he regaled her with the intrigues of life in an American city, and she clung to his adventures vicariously, because in London the season was over, and with it had gone her splendid fetes and leisurely afternoons strolling the green. Society had descended into a dull autumn, grasping for a scandal. Each day blurred into the next.

Having caught the train to Charing Cross, Catriona walked the familiar route to Covent Garden, to the offices of the Messenger. The staff had grown used to her comings and goings, and she believed they tolerated her presence, even indulged her occasionally, as when she wished to try to operate a Remington typewriter or observe the mechanics of the printing press on the lower floor. In reality, she knew they had no choice but to put up with her. Her papa owned the paper and she had decided to make herself useful there, given his decline in health as the cold set in, so nothing further was to be said on the matter.

For Sir Frederick Winters, the purchase of the paper had been made somewhat on a whim. Knight commander by merit of his military accomplishments, he was of that singular class of man who had made his own way in the world. His father, a third son and soldier himself, had been killed in an engagement in Burma shortly after his birth, leaving his mother, after whom Catriona was named, to instil in him an ethic of hard work and determination.

After his final posting as commander of a fort in the West Indies, on the island of St Lucia, Sir Frederick had returned at last to England with a daughter in tow. Having made a series of favourable investments, he found himself with a small fortune and a desire to further capitalise on it, so he set his sights on the Messenger, then a salacious tabloid, and transformed it over the following fifteen years into a reputable institution of investigative journalism. From the Tichborne case to the Mordaunt divorce trial, the Messenger had covered it all.

As Catriona ascended to the second storey of the building, where her papa’s private office overlooked a bullpen of reporters, she did not expect him to have arrived yet, still occupied with whatever business had waylaid him. In fact, she expected none of the staff to be in quite yet, as they so often spent the better part of the morning following up on leads. So the sight of two men deep in conversation caught her by surprise. One, of course, instantly recognisable by his steely grey hair and aquiline features, was her papa, still wearing his coat, as if he had just come in.

The other was David Turner, Viscount Ashford, an old friend and military colleague of her papa. It had been Lord Ashford awaiting them at the port when Sir Frederick and Catriona returned from the West Indies, and his own children, Bethany and Nathaniel, had welcomed her into their circle at once from their home across the square. Although there was no blood relation, Lord Ashford had told Catriona she must call him her uncle, and indeed, she had come to see him as such.

He and her papa had fought side by side in the Crimea in their youth, and Lord Ashford had also gone on to an illustrious military career. But most recently, he had, as a personal favour to the home secretary, taken the helm as director of the newly formed Criminal Investigation Department within the Metropolitan Police. Beleaguered by scandals following a corruption trial involving several detectives, Scotland Yard was in need of a firm hand to guide it into modernity, and Lord Ashford, the home secretary had argued, was just the man for the job.

In the dim and quiet office, Catriona could just barely hear the ongoing conversation.

“Of course, Ashford,” her papa was saying. “More than happy to. I’ve been on the hunt for a skilled photographer for some time.”

“I ought to thank you before you have the sense to change your mind,” Lord Ashford said, holding his top hat in his hands. “That son of mine brings me grief to no end.”

The conversation stilled Catriona in place. They had not heard her come in, and she did not know whether to announce herself, sensing she was overhearing something not meant for her.

That past midsummer, Nathaniel Turner, though only recently returned from his studies at Cambridge, had abruptly left London for the Ashford country estate in Kent. It was no secret that there had been some strife between father and son in the weeks before his departure. She remembered how Nate had been—constantly drunk, shameless, a risk to his own reputation. The situation had been untenable, and it had been agreed, as Bethany later explained to her, her tone purposely light, that he would spend some time away from the negative influences of the city.

Yes, Catriona remembered how Nate had been.

Feeling suddenly breathless, she took hold of the edge of a nearby desk to steady herself, but her hand found a stack of reference books instead, which toppled neatly to the floor. The conversation ceased abruptly, and Lord Ashford turned and, having spotted her, bestowed her a magnanimous smile.

“Darling, are you quite all right?” he called out.

“Yes, simply clumsy,” Catriona replied, bending at once to collect the books. “Good morning to you both. I hope I haven’t interrupted something?”

“Ashford was just about to head out again, my dear,” her papa said. “Some business down in Limehouse, you were saying?”

“Yes, a dreadful affair,” Lord Ashford said. “A man’s been found dead, drifting off the docks.”

“An accident?” Catriona said, joining them.

“I daresay not,” Lord Ashford replied. “My men are looking into it.”

He hesitated before saying anything more, and Catriona thought he must be deliberating how much to share. Knowing Sir Frederick was a bloodhound for a good lead, he was no doubt choosing his words carefully.

“A murder, then,” Sir Frederick prompted. “How terrible.”

“Quite so,” Lord Ashford finally replied. Then, having apparently decided to share no more, he said, “I must be off. I have some matters to discuss with the detective inspector at the scene, on secondment down from Birmingham, handpicked by yours truly.”

Sir Frederick, conceding their conversation had come to its natural end, began finally to undo the buttons of his coat. “Will I see you at our club tonight, then?”

“Would I miss it?” Lord Ashford said, then turned to Catriona, who allowed him to press an affectionate kiss to her cheek before he swept from the room, strode through the bullpen, and descended the stairs to the street.

“There must be a report on the incident, of course,” Sir Frederick said as soon as his friend had gone. He paused in undoing his coat buttons. “How typical of Ashford to hint at a good lead and then run off! A shame none of the staff are in yet. I’ll have to head out myself.”

“Papa, you must do no such thing,” Catriona said, reflexively backing towards the open doorway of his office as though to stop him by force if necessary. “Remember your heart! You’ve barely recovered. No, the cold and damp at the docks could be most injurious to your health.”

She sensed that the opportunity to present him with her story on the suffragists was quickly slipping from her grasp. The topic was one of particular interest to her. Though Catriona was not politically inclined, she found the prospect of women uniting to exercise power thrilling. After all, it was no longer only wealthy landowners who could vote. Any respectable man, certainly any who had made her acquaintance, had been granted suffrage. Why not women too?

Recalling the temerity of those at the meeting, Catriona was struck by an intriguing possibility, and she said without thinking, “Papa, perhaps I could go.”

“Catriona!” Sir Frederick exclaimed with such uncharacteristic vehemence that she knew at once what his answer would be. “That is out of the question. No daughter of mine shall be permitted to go skulking about Limehouse.”

“Papa, please consider it,” she said, feeling like a child, a feeling she resented. “Lord Ashford said the police are on the scene at this very moment. Surely one might rely on their protection.”

Sir Frederick looked out over the empty bullpen. As was always the case following a display of emotion, he had mastered himself quickly. “You ask because you know I cannot say no to you,” he said.

Catriona waited in silence, suspecting that if she pressed his decision, she might still encourage a refusal. Sir Frederick had never limited his daughter, never restricted her freedoms beyond what was demanded by society. In some ways, Catriona felt her papa was progressive, even avant-garde. She only hoped it might be that side of him, or the side that valued a good headline, which would win out now.

“Fine,” he said at last, removing his coat. “You may go before I have second thoughts.”

“Oh, Papa, thank you! I shall not let you down.”

He draped his coat over the wingback chair at his desk and said matter of factly, “You never do, my dear.”

She rose on her toes to grace him with a kiss on the cheek. She knew she should leave quickly now, but she could not help herself. “Papa, before I depart,” she said, “forgive me, but I overheard some of your conversation with Lord Ashford.”

Sir Frederick regarded her with a raised brow. “I suspected you had,” he said. “Yes, he wants to keep it hush-hush for now, but Nathaniel will be returning from the country within the week.”

“Oh, that is…within the week, indeed?” An unwelcome heat returned to her cheeks. “Bethany must be so thrilled.”

“Yes, but I gather Ashford is slightly less so,” Sir Frederick said. “You know I care for Nathaniel as though he were my own son, but you and Bethany will have to endeavour to keep him on the straight and narrow upon his return. If only your Hampstead were still in London to set him a good example!”

“Hmm, quite,” Catriona said, now willing her papa to drop the subject quickly.

“Well,” he said with finality, then settled himself in his chair, and she took that as her sign to leave—but not before he called out after her, “Remember, my little journalist, to pry some information from the police at the scene!”

· · ·

Having taken the Underground to its last eastwards stop and failed to hail a hansom cab willing to go any farther at that early hour, Catriona had faced a long walk to Limehouse. As she neared the river, she was met with a damp mist which seemed to creep under the skin. Missing were the sounds she had imagined, the shouts of sailors and dockworkers and the clacking of cargo carts over the cobblestones. Only the cries of gulls pierced the fog, and the buildings were so near one another that very little light penetrated their shadows.

A grim scene awaited at the docks. The police had halted all activity, and the barges in the basin were still laden with cargo, the skeletal masts of waiting ships rising from the Thames beyond the canal. Dockworkers milled about, squatting to smoke or throw dice in doorways. On the boards nearest the river lay a tattered greyish sheet over a still body.

A small curious crowd had gathered near the scene, held back by a freckled young man, perhaps a detective constable. Pushing her way through somewhat indelicately, Catriona produced from her reticule a small diary in which she might make note of anything that stood out.

The first detail to strike her was a fine silk top hat lying some distance from the body, as if its owner had simply discarded it there. But the uniformed constables were taking care not to tread on it as they walked by, and she realised it must belong to the victim. The quality and workmanship were fine; it reminded her of the hats her papa wore but in a more modern continental style, the top a little shorter.

Nearest the dock, a patch of boardwalk was stained wine dark. Blood, she knew, and not an insignificant quantity. The victim had been stabbed or struck, perhaps even shot, before he found his way into the river. But if there had been violence at the docks, surely someone must have witnessed it?

At the easternmost end of the boardwalk, a weather-beaten edifice overlooked the scene. Its signpost displayed English and Chinese lettering; it was a boarding house of the type frequented by foreign sailors. Its windows were shuttered against the morning light, and no one had come or gone whilst Catriona watched the door, but perhaps some of the boarders had seen something of interest.

She stepped towards the young constable managing the crowd and made her presence known. “Excuse me,” she called out. “Catriona Winters, with the Messenger. I understand a man has been found dead. Any comment for the public on these events?”

The others in the crowd descended into quiet murmurs as though hoping also to hear his answer.

“Well,” the constable began, then shifted on the spot, hesitant if somewhat flattered at having been addressed as though he were an authority on the matter. He cleared his throat before continuing confidently: “I should say only that—”

“Whitby!” boomed a stern voice from across the docks.

Whitby started, falling silent, and Catriona turned to see whence the voice had come. Standing over the body, a man stared intensely their way. An inspector, she realised, perhaps the very same her uncle had mentioned that morning.

“Not a word, Constable, do you hear?” he called out.

“Yes, sir!” Whitby shouted, and when he turned back to her, Catriona knew she would get nothing from him. “My apologies, ma’am.”

“Of course,” she said, tucking her diary away. “Detective Constable Whitby, was it? Thank you nonetheless.”

She turned to push her way back through the crowd, past damp coats and jutting shoes, and broke free at the mouth of a laneway. With the constable blocking off access to the scene, she would have to try another tactic. Catriona surmised that the maze of narrow streets alongside the docks might lead back around to the boarding house, so she set off in that direction and thereby found herself doing precisely what her papa had warned against: skulking about Limehouse.

The laneway smelled of coal smoke, refuse and washing water, and the eternal Thames. She raised a gloved hand to cover her mouth and nose. From the windows overhead drifted scattered snippets of conversation: a man calling to his neighbour, a mother scolding a wailing child. Conditions in the district were squalid, marked by chronic poverty and want. Catriona saw why her papa had not wished her to come here. This was a side of London many preferred to pretend did not exist, and in peering into it, she felt disconcerted, as if she were not meant to have seen it at all.

Surely her uncle knew more about the circumstances of the murder than he had said. A man had almost certainly been killed in plain sight of the docks. Had Lord Ashford already come and gone from the scene in the time it had taken her to make her way there? If he had first gone to Scotland Yard to commandeer a police coach for the journey, he would have arrived much earlier than she. Or perhaps he had managed to hail a cab directly from their offices.

Pulling her overcoat tighter against the damp cold, Catriona turned the corner and immediately withdrew into a doorway, having spotted a shock of white hair emerging from the fog ahead. Speak of the devil and he shall appear, she thought as she glanced back out. Lord Ashford stood under a stone archway at the mouth of a small courtyard, speaking with an unfamiliar woman—Chinese and of middle age, Catriona thought, dignified in appearance despite her surroundings.

The mist hanging listlessly in the lane muffled their conversation, and Catriona could make out not a single word. Within a moment, the two had passed through the archway and out of sight.

She waited, listening for footsteps or any sounds of approach, before emerging. She had no doubt that the courtyard beyond the stone arch led to the back entrance of the boarding house, and Lord Ashford was now inside, questioning the boarders. Her chance to do so discreetly had come and gone.

The laneway in which she stood was deserted. She could not return to her papa with nothing. There must be another way to get a view of the scene, perhaps even of the body. She tried not to imagine it, how the man might appear, waterlogged beneath that tattered sheet. Were his sightless eyes open? Did he still look like a person at all, or had the slithering creatures of the river got at him?

A footstep sounded behind her in the laneway.

“Hardly the area in which a lady should walk alone, don’t you think?”

The voice was familiar. Catriona whipped around to face him, and a tingling shock ricocheted through her, followed by relief as she realised it was only the inspector from the docks.

“Good Lord! You startled me,” she said accusingly.

“Not my intention,” he replied without a hint of contrition. “By all means, do continue your attempt to intrude upon a crime scene.”

Catriona was struck by an immediate and intense dislike for the man. He was arrogant, she had decided, and presumptuous. From his manner of speech, that open drawl characteristic of the Midlands, she gathered he was indeed the inspector on secondment from Birmingham of whom her uncle had spoken. He wore no hat over his dark hair, and in the morning light, his eyes were a peculiar shade of grey. He regarded her with an inscrutable expression.

“Intrude? I am making enquiries on behalf of the public,” she said, forcing authority into her voice. “Catriona Winters, with the Messenger. I understand a man has been murdered. And you are?”

“Detective Inspector Thomas Marlowe,” he replied, then at last gave a small bow, nothing more than the slightest incline of his head. “At your service.”

“Inspector Marlowe, I had the pleasure of speaking with Constable Whitby earlier before you interrupted us,” Catriona said. “Perhaps you wish to make a comment instead? Has the murdered man been identified?”

His mouth twitched. “Did you imagine I might be at liberty to divulge that information to a journalist?”

It was not often that a man refused her anything. Feeling as though she had stumbled over a hurdle and barely righted herself before hitting the ground, Catriona pressed on. She recalled the fine silk top hat and said, “Do you not find it odd that a gentleman of his class was present here on a Monday morning?”

“Are you sure he was killed this morning?”

“You suggest he was not?”

He glanced over her shoulder and down the laneway before his gaze again met hers. His eyes were keenly intelligent, even perceptive, she conceded, though looking into them felt like looking into deep water. “Regardless, Miss Winters,” he said, “you might be surprised at the reasons men of his class find themselves in places such as this.”

Was he trying to shock her? She had read more than a few sensationalist accounts of the opium dens and brothels of the East End, and she recalled them with infinite curiosity. She wanted to ask him about the boarding house into which Lord Ashford had gone, mere steps from where the body had been pulled from the river. One did not speak of such things, but she knew those types of lodgings were often fronts for unsavoury enterprises. Had the murdered man been engaged in something illicit? Why else might he have ended up dead in the river?

“Might I be?” she finally said, and left it at that. “You agree the death was not accidental, so was he killed on the dock, or did he drown?”

“The body has yet to be brought to the police surgeon, as you well saw,” he said. “I have no desire to speculate as to the cause of death.”

“Speculation is unnecessary if there were witnesses,” she said. “The docks are rarely empty. Someone must have seen something amiss.”

He gave a quick exhale. Aggravated or amused, she could not tell. “The inquiry is ongoing,” he said. “If you wish to follow up at a more appropriate time, see me at my office at Scotland Yard.” He extended a plain card towards her.

She knew he was patronising her, that the conversation had ended and she had coaxed nothing from him. But she knew not what else she could say, so she simply took the card without reading it and tucked it into her diary.

He shoved his hands into his coat pockets, already half turned from her. “If there’s nothing else, madam, I suggest you not linger,” he said. “I hear this place is not known for its hospitality.”

And with that, he turned and retreated down the laneway towards the docks. Catriona breathed deeply, long enough to quell the strange hot feeling that had crept up her neck. It was annoyance, annoyance at him and disappointment in herself for having been brushed aside.

She hoped very much that she should never have cause to speak with Inspector Marlowe again.

Seeking distraction, she glanced at the boarding house, its facade rundown and its roof shingles crumbling. What was Lord Ashford asking the boarders inside at that very moment?

Before Catriona could muse further, a door slammed some distance away, and a drunkard stumbled out into the street, cursing. A wave of pity and disgust overcame her, and she turned towards the mouth of the laneway from which she had come and hurried away before the filth of the area could taint her further.

Infuriating as she had found him, the inspector had a point. She might take his advice and return to the Messenger offices after all. Did she not have what she needed to craft a compelling story for the evening issue? A wealthy gentleman, a sudden bloody act of violence, and the cold, murky finality of the Thames.

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