I’m not sure if time travel normally follows encounters with talking bears, but my first experience of it certainly did. The bear didn’t remain significant for long, but my encounter with Lucian Franklin, Earl of Radcliffe, in April 1807 could certainly be called noteworthy. I’m Cassandra Lawrence, a technical translator with a side-line volunteering as a Police Special Constable in my home town of Welhamstead in the Hertfordshire commuter belt. I don’t normally have much to do with earls, dead or alive, but this one managed to cope with a twenty-first century woman with admirable calm and only a sharp intake of breath every five minutes or so. The effect he had on me was rather less soothing, but we managed to solve the mystery of a missing girl together. I only wish I could work out how to have a relationship across two hundred years as easily…
Welhamstead Library, Hertfordshire, 11 May, not long ago.
‘You could perfectly well look this up on-line, Cassie,’ my sister Sophie grumbled, banging the vast red and gold book down on the library table. ‘And why you need me to do it for you, I can’t imagine.’
Across the room Jenny Gordon, a writer friend, looked up from her tablet, grinned at me, then went back to wrestling with her latest steam punk novel.
‘Because I don’t want to look at any information besides the details of the house and I’ll be tempted to peek if I had it in front of me.’ It was hardly a satisfactory explanation for someone who didn’t know that I was acquainted with the 3rd Earl of Radcliffe (born 1779) personally. Very personally.
‘Weird.’ Sophie pulled a face but she opened the book. ‘This for some kind of quiz? What did you say the name was?’
‘The surname’s Franklin, the title is Earl of Radcliffe. I just want to know what the family seat is and where it is, Soph.’
She flipped through from the back. ‘Upholland, Urville, Ralston… Here we are, Radcliffe, Whitebeams, Suffolk. Do you want the address and post code?’ She started tapping it into her phone.
‘Thanks. So it’s still in the family? Not been given to the National Trust or bought by a Hollywood A-lister?’
‘Nope. Belongs to the 8th Earl.’
‘I wonder if it’s open to the public.’ I fished out my own phone and had a look. ‘Yes, but not until June and we’re only May.’ That was probably a good thing. The thought of snooping around Luc’s family home was too tempting and too fraught with dangers. Someone alive two hundred years ago was dead now, of course I knew that. But I didn’t want to come face to face with his tomb in the family chapel, thank you very much.
We heaved the Peerage back on the shelves, waved to Jenny and walked along to the Stuck on You Coffee Shop in the High Street where I treated Sophie to coffee and a signature gooey treat as a thank you for humouring my unexplained obsession with Regency earls.
‘They’ve got new stock in at Slink,’ Sophie said, seductively. Soph can shop at Olympic level and, given a lucrative freelance IT career and a husband who is something in the City, does so at any opportunity.
‘I’ve got a paper on fluid mechanics to translate from German and a pile of invoices to prepare. And if I don’t get those out there’s no way I can cross the threshold at Slink, let alone buy anything.’ I could hardly tell my sister that I was getting an edgy feeling that I should go home, get close to the miniature of Luc that I had found in a local antique shop (the one with the bear which doesn’t talk, as it turned out). The miniature that had propelled me through space and time. There really is no easy way to explain to your elder sister that your latest date was born in the eighteenth century.
We finished our coffee and kissed and Sophie bounced off down the High Street, credit card cringing, while I turned for home, a flat in a converted Georgian house just off the High Street. The cat flap in the front door was swinging as I came up the stairs which meant that Trubshaw, my big ginger tom, had been out scrounging off the neighbours. They all think he’s adorable and under-fed. I can hardly lift the great lump.
I found him growling at the miniature of Lucian, frustrated because I’d finally managed to find a place to hang it where he couldn’t swipe it off the wall. I can’t decide whether he’s jealous of Luc or frightened of whatever the miniature is. Probably both. He was almost too busy being cross to eat the food I put down for him, but greed won.
‘Feeling edgy, Trubble?’ It was a one-sided conversation, he didn’t bother to look up. ‘Me too. I think I’ll get ready, just in case.’
I’d given a lot of thought to preparing for time travel back to 1807, ever since members of the local old-established firm of solicitors turned up on my doorstep with the things I’d left behind me last time. It was the younger, bouncier, members of the firm who delivered the deed box, explaining that it had been gathering dust on the shelves since 1807 when an aristocrat had deposited the contents, and a sizeable fee, with strict instructions on when and where it was to be delivered. Understandably they were absolutely agog to find out what was in it. I wouldn’t let them look – and had to make up a story about an ancestress leaving her shocking correspondence – because I could hardly explain how a modern cross-body bag complete with phone and warrant card had got in there. And then they incautiously revealed that there were other boxes and I knew I was going back.
So… Faithful bag, to be worn at all times with the strap across so it survived the exceedingly bumpy ride. Inside: the Pill and a stock of condoms. (We weren’t lovers exactly. Yet. But…) Real handkerchiefs – try explaining paper tissues in 1807. Plain notebook with pencils. Very subtle mascara. Moisturiser. Lip gloss. Comb.
Then clothes. I wasn’t risking the cashmere yoga pants and top (Christmas present from Sophie, naturally) which I’d been wearing last time. Leggings, plain black trainers, t-shirt, oversize sloppy sweater were more practical. With any luck Garrick, Luc’s magnificent and enigmatic gentleman’s gentleman, would have kept the gowns and accessories that Luc had bought me last time.
Changed, bag slung on, I sat down and finalised invoices ready for emailing out. I pressed Send before I risked going over and touching the miniature. Yes, it was warm, almost hot, under my fingers. I unhooked it, carried it across to the desk, sat down and started to read through the technical paper. Fluid mechanics in German is not, frankly, very riveting, which was my excuse for picking up the miniature every two minutes.
Trubshaw came in smelling of gourmet cat food (Salmon Purrfection, to be exact) and sat on my feet, grumbling. In his opinion I should have been admiring him, not the Earl of Radcliffe.
‘He’s worth looking at, Trubble.’ Even in the small area of the head and shoulders miniature it was easy to make out Lucian’s dark hair, cut short and tousled, his eyes sea-green and hooded, his straight nose and the mole by the corner of his mouth. He stared out of the frame with a deceptive arrogance and a completely accurate degree of smoulder.
Then the image began to blur and shift. I had enough presence of mind to let go of it and hit Save and Close before everything went black. I was airborne, tumbling in a strong wind, falling…
Last time I landed in a filthy back alley between King Street and Pall Mall, at night, in the middle of a fight. This was much better and no-one was trying to kill me either. Instead I landed on a large sofa in a bright, warm room and into the arms of the Honourable Mr James Franklin, Lucian’s lovely brother. He’s blond, but otherwise unmistakeably a Franklin, about twenty-five and gay. Being gay was not healthy in early nineteenth century England where you were labelled with any number of offensive names and risked penalties ranging from death on the scaffold to hours in the pillory (where you might get stoned to death if the crowd turned nasty). The noose and the pillory were unlikely for the brother of an aristocrat – the privileged usually managed to flee abroad – but it was a precarious, dangerous, existence.
I’m exceedingly fond of James and when his arms came round me I held tight and kissed him. I’d just time to register that his cheeks were damp when there was a roar from the doorway.
‘What the hell is going on?’ It was Luc. ‘Cassandra?’
‘Yes,’ I said, somewhat superfluously. I mean, how many twenty-six year old females in leggings, trainers and sloppy sweaters were there in Albany in 1807? Then I stopped being picky when he crashed to his knees in front of the sofa and yanked us both into his arms. As group hugs went it was pretty good.
‘Cassie.’ More hugs. ‘You got your bag?’
‘The day I landed back home. You picked the right legal firm. When are we now?’
‘The eleventh of May, same year. Just after breakfast. Are you all right?’ He kissed me, a somewhat distracted peck.
‘I am. What’s wrong here? James?’
‘We’ve just heard that a friend of mine, George Coates, has hanged himself.’ He scrubbed his hand across his eyes and sat back, jaw clenched.
‘Not a very close friend?’ Not a lover, I meant.
He understood. ‘No. But I liked him, knew him well. I don’t know how Philip is going to cope. Doctor Philip Talbot. They were… involved.’
‘How did you hear?’
‘His landlady sent a message. You only just caught us,’ Lucian said. ‘She sounds exceedingly distressed and we want to get there before she thinks to get the Constable in.’
Of course, they had to search, make sure there was nothing that would incriminate anyone else, hide the dead man’s secret life before his family discovered it. ‘Give me five minutes to change and I’ll come too. You still have my clothes?’
Luc stood up, reached for the bell pull, but before he got to it Garrick walked in. Lucian’s gentleman’s gentleman is – was – fortyish and stocky and imperturbable and the only other person in on the secret of who I was and when I’d come from.
‘Good morning, Miss Lawrence, I thought I heard your voice. Your garments are laid out in the spare bedchamber.’ To hear him I might just have popped out to the shops an hour ago.
‘Thank you, Garrick.’ I gave him a kiss on the cheek as I went past and he did colour up a little. I could never get him to call me Cassie, and I had no idea what his first name was – he would probably have fainted if I’d used it anyway – but we had bonded over joint cookery sessions before.
I scrambled out of my clothes and into my petticoats, stays (laced at the front) and gown. I kept my knickers, I don’t care if ladies of the time went commando, it’s draughty, although given the dire shortage of facilities for females to relieve themselves, it must have been handy. The narrow ankle boots were uncomfortably lacking in support and the laces were fiddly, but I remembered the knack of it, shook the contents of my bag into the reticule, jammed the bonnet on my hair (dark blonde and cropped into a style that was dashing but acceptable for 1807) and whisked out of the door. Garrick was waiting with a spencer for me to put on and we were ready to go.
‘We’ll take a hackney, it will attract less attention,’ Luc said as we went down the steps into the Albany courtyard at the pace considered acceptable for a lady. It amused me that he did not baulk at taking me to see a suicide but treated me like spun glass in the street. One part of his brain had grasped that I was some kind of law officer when I came from but the protective Georgian gentleman mode kicked in instinctively once I was in skirts.
In the space of a month I’d forgotten how everything smelt outside. The combination of coal smoke and horse dung and human waste and cooking and the sweat of crowded unwashed, un-deodorised, humanity was an assault on the senses. Men like Luc and James who followed Brummell’s habits of bathing and grooming were in a minority.
The hackney carriage stank of the last passenger who had apparently dined on raw onions so I deployed my handkerchief as a fan. ‘Is it far?’
‘No, he had a small apartment in Conduit Street, easily walkable if we weren’t in a hurry.’
The carriage lurched across Piccadilly, up Old Bond Street and into New Bond Street.
‘Tell me about George Coates,’ I said to James. He had himself under control now, grim-faced but dry-eyed.
‘About my age, works – worked – as a clerk in the Home Office and just been promoted, I think. Youngest son of a large family, Yorkshire minor gentry. He’s been close to Philip for almost a year, I’d say.’ His gaze went unfocused as he thought back. ‘He’s seemed tense recently but I’d put that down to pressure at work. George was always a hard worker, conscientious rather than brilliant – I cannot imagine what drove him to do this.’
‘If he did do it,’ I said, thinking aloud.
‘Are we sure it was suicide?’ I’d been to a fascinating lecture on hanging and how pathologists and detectives could tell whether it was self-inflicted or not. At least, it had been fascinating when the bodies in question had not belonged to friends of people I was fond of. ‘I know what to look for,’ I added.
‘You are not going in there,’ Luc said. ‘A dead body – ’
‘We went to a morgue last time,’ I reminded him. ‘And those bodies weren’t fresh.’ I told him about the lecture. ‘We haven’t the resources now that they have in my time, but there are things I can check.’
The carriage swung around another corner and James leaned out of the window. ‘No sign of any activity, she can’t have called for the Constable, thank God.’ He rapped on the roof and the driver drew up.
The landlady must have been watching for us because she flung the door open almost immediately, making me jump as I studied the array of bell pulls. It was a sign of just how upset she was that she didn’t react at all at the sight of me, only thrust a key into James’s hand and burst into tears.
‘You go and sit down, Mrs Kentish.’ He gave her a little push towards an open parlour door. ‘Get your girl to make you some strong sweet tea. We will look after Mr Coates.’
‘Does she know?’ I whispered as we climbed to the next floor.
‘I think she might and that is why she sent for someone she knew was his friend and not direct to the law. It could be that she pretended she didn’t know George’s preferences because she liked him. He was a good, quiet lodger and I can’t imagine he ever did anything to upset her.’
The main stairs were on the right-hand side against the party wall. The landing had a door off it to the left and presumably the floors above were the same. A large hot-water jug stood outside. James touched it with the back of his hand. ‘Barely warm.’ He turned the key in the door, visibly braced himself, and walked in. Luc put me firmly behind him and went next.
‘Stop right there and don’t touch anything,’ I ordered, transforming into Special Constable Lawrence on the spot. Admittedly, so far I hadn’t had to speak commandingly to anyone except a few gaggles of teenage boys who’d been drinking, some dog-walkers who’d failed to scoop poop and the occasional bike rider on the pavement, but I channelled the sergeant down at the cop shop and the men stopped dead.
I wriggled between them into what was clearly the living room and stopped too. It wasn’t a pretty sight. Dressed in trousers and shirt, bare-footed, George Coates dangled from a thin rope tied around the hook in the middle of the ceiling. The lamp that must have been suspended from the hook was placed carefully on a table. A chair was on its side beneath his feet. Like most houses of the time this first floor above ground level was the most prestigious, which meant the ceilings were high.
‘It’s a complete hanging,’ I said slowly, trying to recall the points in the lecture in a logical order. It made it easier if I thought of it like a training session. ‘He’s right off the ground. It’s a typical knot.’ I walked towards the body, looking at the carpet. ‘Nothing here. No drag marks.’ The chair, when I picked it up, was just the right height for him to have stood on it and then kicked it away. I pointed that out and looked up at the purpled face and protruding tongue. His hair was standing on end, I realised, an early sign of rigor mortis.
It was an effort to keep my voice steady. But this man was James’s friend and I had to do my best to find the truth for him. ‘He strangled, he didn’t break his neck. The drop wasn’t far enough for that.’ The head was tipped to the side away from the knot and I remembered a really important fact. ‘Look, there are the stains from saliva on his shirt front. They are in the right place for him to have died of hanging in that position. If someone put him up there to die he would have struggled and we’d see signs of that. But if he had been knocked out, or drugged unconscious first and had lain for any time on the floor while they set things up, the stains wouldn’t be in the same place.’
Luc circled wide around the body. ‘His hands are not tied and there is no sign of a struggle in here.’
‘I agree. Let him down and try not to touch his hands.’
I moved the lamp from the table to make room for them to place George there. There was a tumbled pile of clean sheets on the floor by the door – I guessed Mrs Kentish had been bringing them in when she found him. I spread one over the polished surface in time for James and Lucian, breathing heavily, to lay him down.
‘He’s very stiff,’ Luc said as he tried unsuccessfully to arrange the limbs in a dignified manner. ‘Almost rigid.’
‘Then he possibly died almost twelve hours ago,’ I calculated out loud, wishing I’d got a clinical thermometer. ‘Look at his hands.’
‘No signs of a fight, no signs that anything has tied his wrists and there are hemp fibres caught in the nails,’ Luc said after a moment.
‘Which means he probably put the rope up there himself. And the lamp was placed on the table carefully. If someone else had done this, would they have bothered?’
James ran his hands over his friend’s head, the touch gentle. ‘No bumps, no wounds I can feel.’
We took off the noose and could see evidence of no other means of strangulation, only the mark it had left. ‘I think it was suicide,’ I said. ‘Unless he was drugged and they were very clever.’
‘We must put the rope back around his neck,’ Luc said, doing just that. ‘James, cover him up, we’ll replace the chair where we found it for the constable to see. Now, we search.’
There was no note in any obvious place, then James, hunkered down by the side of the desk, stood up with an unfolded sheet in his hand. ‘It must have blown off in the draught from the door.’ He passed it across for us to read.
Oh, God. Philip – what have I done? George. The nib had torn through the paper at one point.
‘What the hell does that mean?’ James demanded as he folded it carefully and put it in his pocket book. ‘We’ll have to give it to Philip,’ he said. ‘Poor devil.’
‘What have I done?’ Luc repeated slowly. ‘I do not like the sound of that.’
‘You think this can get worse?’ James demanded.
‘Oh yes. Very easily indeed.’