London: December 1870
Lord Riley Rochester returned to his position as a detective inspector at Scotland Yard on a cold December morning that brought with it a chill wind and the threat of snow. His appearance after two weeks’ leave necessitated by a family bereavement elicited a subdued muttering from the communal investigation room crowded with desks, piles of paper and tired men. His subordinates seemed unsure how to react to his return, a situation which Riley had anticipated. He acknowledged them with a raised hand. His official engagement to Amelia Cosgrove had been announced in the newspapers and everyone would know about it—just as everyone also knew about the death of his nephew and Riley’s subsequent elevation to the position as his brother’s heir.
A cause for celebration…with complications.
Riley reluctantly accepted that as things stood, he would become the next Marquess of Chichester. His decision to marry had created quite a stir in all levels of society. Some of the matrons, he’d been told, approved of his choice. Others thought that a man with his responsibilities should not marry a widow, and had a duty to take his pick from that year’s blushing batch of debutantes. Others still thought it showed a marked lack of respect when the announcement came so close on the heels of the family tragedy.
That a man with so many advantages would even consider a career in the police force had caused more than one disapproving tut. His changed circumstances had likely left his colleagues assuming, and in some cases hoping, that he would give it up to concentrate on family matters. Unfortunately for his detractors, they couldn’t have got it more wrong. Riley had an aptitude for detective work and enjoyed pitting his wits against London’s most violent criminals, bringing them to justice and making the streets just a little safer. His brother Henry would likely live for years yet, and any offers on Riley’s part to ease his burden would be met with suspicion and ingratitude by his vindictive sister-in-law. She was still mourning the loss of her only son and Riley’s presence would rub salt into her raw wounds.
‘Congratulations, sir.’ Jack Salter, Riley’s reliable and trusted sergeant, didn’t share his fellow detectives’ uncertainty, and stuck out his hand. ‘Welcome back.’
‘Thank you, Salter. It’s good to be here again.’
‘You would say that.’ Salter grinned. ‘It takes all sorts.’
Riley opened the door to his office and Salter followed him into it. He thrust his gloves into the pockets of his coat and tossed it over the stand in the corner. His hat received the same treatment. Riley breathed in the musty air, adjusted the black armband he wore as a sign of respect for his nephew, and rubbed his hands together in an effort to put some warmth back into them. Giving up on the idea—Scotland Yard’s hardy souls routinely sweltered in the summer months and froze in winter—he took possession of the chair behind his desk and gave the pile of paperwork that had accrued during his absence a jaundiced look. Some things never changed.
‘What have I missed?’ Riley asked.
‘Not a great deal, sir. We hardly noticed you were gone, as a matter of fact.’ Riley grunted. ‘The cold weather has kept the villains out of mischief.’
‘That I doubt.’ Riley stretched his arms above his head. ‘But still, a quiet run-up to the Christmas period won’t be unwelcome.’
‘Your first Christmas with Mrs Cosgrove. You deserve it.’
‘I doubt whether I’ll get it though, Jack. My mother has wedding preparations firmly in mind and is bound to return from Chichester early and inflict herself upon us for that purpose.’
‘Well, she’s waited long enough to see you hitched, sir, you can’t deny it.’
Riley allowed his amusement to show. ‘If I didn’t know better, Jack, I might think that you’ve been colluding with her yourself.’
Salter chuckled. ‘That’d be right, sir. A dowager marchioness talking to the likes of me. She’d never recover from the contamination. Anyway, when’s the wedding to be?’
‘February is the soonest that my family can respectably show their faces in public and pretend to be happy.’
Salter shot Riley a surprised look. ‘Your brother don’t approve of your choice?’
‘He doesn’t much care either way, to be frank. His wife on the other hand…’
‘I’m sorry about your nephew, sir. I know it was a happy release in many respects, but still, it would have come as a shock. Anyway, he’s at peace now.’ Salter shook his head and Riley knew that was all he would say on the subject. ‘The superintendent asked to see you the moment you got here.’
‘No peace for the wicked.’ Riley got to his feet again and headed for the door.
Riley had a good deal of respect for Superintendent Thompson, a fair-minded and intelligent man who didn’t feel the need to throw his weight about in order to reinforce his authority. Which was more than could be said for Riley’s immediate superior, Chief Inspector Danforth, or had been until he was implicated in the death of a prostitute who specialised in flagellation. Danforth, it transpired, had been one of her best customers, and would have lost his position within Scotland Yard as soon as the news became public had Riley not spoken up for him.
Salter had not been happy about that. He’d decided that Riley should take Danforth’s place. But Riley preferred the daily nitty-gritty of running criminals to ground. Besides, with his added personal responsibilities, he was not in a position to consider promotion. Now that Danforth was aware that he owed his survival to Riley, the tension between them had eased to a point. But Riley got the feeling that nothing had really changed. Danforth still resented and envied Riley and everything he stood for, and would bring him down without a second thought if the opportunity were ever to present itself. It was true what they said, he mused; no good deed ever went unpunished.
The superintendent stood when Riley entered his office and extended his hand.
‘Congratulations, Rochester,’ he said, ‘if that’s the right expression.’
‘If you are referring to my engagement, then thank you, sir,’ he replied calmly. ‘It most definitely is. As to the business with my nephew…well, the family had known for a long time that Jasper would eventually succumb to his frailties. He had never been strong and in the end he simply lost the will to live.’
‘It changes things for you, though,’ Thompson said, resuming his seat as Riley took the one across from him. ‘You intend to continue here?’
‘Good.’ Thompson released a long breath. ‘I won’t pretend that I don’t need men of your calibre. You never allow your personal circumstances to interfere with your work, and have more than proved your dedication to duty.’
‘Nothing will change for me in the foreseeable future, other than that I will get married early in the new year.’
‘Married life has a lot to recommend it.’ Unlike Danforth, Thompson was a family man through and through and did not, as far as Riley was aware, harbour any unnatural desires that could not be satisfied within the marital bed.
‘So my mother has been trying to tell me for years.’
‘Yes well…’ A tap at the door caused both men to glance in that direction. At a signal from Thompson, the desk sergeant, a sometimes surly but always dependable man by the name of Barton, entered the room. ‘What is it, Barton?’ Thompson asked.
‘Can’t find the chief inspector,’ Barton replied. He had probably not, Riley suspected, looked too hard. Barton was one of Danforth’s worst detractors and continued to show him scant respect. Since the uniformed officers beneath Barton’s command took their lead from him, Danforth had not had an easy time of it. ‘Anyway, just got word of a suspicious death. Thought you should know.’
‘Murder?’ Riley asked.
‘Sounds like it, sir, but the details are sketchy. A maid run out in a road in Mayfair, screaming her head off, and waved down a uniformed constable.’
‘Mayfair?’ Thompson quirked a brow. ‘That’s your territory, Rochester. You’d best get down there. Nothing like returning to the thick of it, eh?’
‘Has anyone been left to protect the scene?’ Riley asked, standing.
‘I’ve sent Peterson and Harper down there to control things until you arrive,’ Barton replied. ‘I know you get along with them two.’
Riley acknowledged Barton’s gesture with a nod. ‘Thank you.’ He turned towards Thompson. ‘If there’s nothing else, sir?’
‘No, get along, Rochester. Glad to have you back.’
Riley felt re-energised as he returned to his office to reclaim his coat, calling Salter and two detective constables, Carter and Soames, to join him.
‘Looks like we’ve got ourselves a murder in Mayfair,’ he told them as they strode from the room. ‘That’s all I know so far…’
‘Seems like the villains were holding fire until you got back, sir,’ Carter said, grinning.
‘Half Moon Street, off Piccadilly,’ Riley said, consulting the piece of paper with an address scrawled on it that Barton had just handed to him.
He set off at a brisk pace to walk the mile and a half. It was still bitterly cold, but the exercise would likely warm them all and probably get them there quicker than if they risked hailing a Hansom and getting themselves stuck in the heavy traffic. Palls of smoke from dozens of chimneys fed dark clouds that seemed close enough to touch. Few people loitering on the street corners, Riley noticed. The weather appeared to have deterred even the hardiest pickpockets from their dishonest activities.
‘This is a prestigious address,’ he told his detectives as he turned up his collar, pulled his hat lower and increased his pace. ‘An area known for genteel lodging houses, which probably explains why the maid who found the body ran into the road rather than to a master or mistress.’
‘I imagine she’d be a maid of all work who looks after all the tenants,’ Salter said.
‘Very likely. Anyway, we shall soon know.’
‘You assume it’s one of the tenants that got done in, sir?’ Carter asked.
Riley sent his detective a reproving glance. ‘I never make assumptions, Carter. You should know that much about me by now.’
The inevitable crowd of onlookers had gathered around the front railings to number seven. Peterson stood on the front steps, officious and impenetrable, filling out his uniform with his substantial form. He saluted Riley and cleared a path so that he and his detectives could ascend the steps.
‘Stand back now,’ he said authoritatively. ‘There’s nothing to see here.’
‘Thank you, Peterson,’ Riley said. ‘What do we know thus far?’
‘The house is divided into four lodgings, sir. Two on the first floor and two more on the floor above, with communal rooms on the ground floor. The victim was in one of the sets of rooms on the first floor.’
Peterson shook his head. ‘A young gentleman is all I’ve been told. Harper is inside, getting the particulars. I thought it better to stay down here and keep this lot out the way.’
‘Quite right.’ Riley nodded his approval. ‘And the other residents?’
‘Harper has roused them…Not that they needed much rousing. The maid’s screams had them all poking their heads round their doors. Anyway, Harper told them all to dress and he’s got them in the parlour, along with the maid.’
‘Well done, Peterson.’ Riley led the way into the relative warmth of the narrow entrance hall. ‘Right, we’ll take a look at the victim first, Salter. Carter, you and Soames take names and statements from the residents. Did they hear a disturbance? What can they tell you about the victim? You know the questions to ask. I will join you shortly.’
Riley and Salter climbed the stairs, allowing the overpowering smell of death to guide them to a wide-open door on the left. Riley took a moment to prepare himself, glanced at Salter and, with a grim nod, walked through it. This would not be the first murder victim that Riley had been obliged to view, but the procedure never got any easier. A reminder, if one was necessary, that life was fleeting and that one should make the most of every opportunity, regardless of the obstacles placed in one’s path. Riley thought of his Amelia and the objections to their union that had been either raised or implied by his family. The disapproval. The accusations of selfishness. Viewing a young man, cruelly cut down in the prime of his life, would help to put things in perspective.
The body lay on its back in the middle of a small yet surprisingly elegant and otherwise undisturbed sitting room. Sightless eyes stared up at Riley, as though the victim somehow held him responsible for his untimely demise. An open door showed a bedroom beyond. A thin cord had been used as a ligature to strangle the man and had cut a deep groove in his neck. There was no sign of it now, implying that the killer had taken it with him. The man’s tongue protruded from between his lips, blue and swollen. A horrible way to die, Riley thought, imagining the terror as the man fought to draw air into his lungs. He wondered what thoughts passed through his head when he realised it was not a battle he would win.
‘Must have been killed last night, sir,’ Salter observed, ‘given that he’s still in his evening togs.’
Riley’s absent nod wore an air of inevitability. He had hoped when told the address of the victim that he wouldn’t recognise him, but the rents here would be beyond the reach of the hoi polloi so he’d accepted that he very well might. This was just the type of address that a single man from a good family would aspire to if he kept rooms for himself in London but lived permanently at his family’s country estate. The upper classes were a tight-knit bunch and everyone knew everyone else, if only by sight. His last case had involved the murder of a personal friend. Roderick Woodrow, the man at his feet, was not a friend but Riley had been acquainted with him. As a minor member of the aristocracy he was indeed, as Superintendent Thompson had so eloquently put it, one of Riley’s “lot”.
‘You know him, sir?’ Salter asked when Riley crouched to take a closer look at the body.
‘I do, Jack. His name is Woodrow, Roderick Woodrow. He’s the youngest of Viscount Woodrow’s three boys. A handsome charmer with, as far as I am aware, no occupation other than being a professional “spare man”.’
‘A what?’ Salter scratched his head, looking totally bemused. ‘I don’t get how you lot do things.’
‘He’s socially acceptable, Salter, and therefore a great favourite with hostesses when they require an extra person to make up numbers. Usually there is a shortage of men.’
‘Gawd forbid that they should be uneven at table,’ Salter replied, rolling his eyes.
‘Quite.’ Riley glanced at the invitation cards lining the mantel to emphasise his point. ‘I wonder which one he accepted last night. Anyway, first things first. It would have taken considerable force to eItstrangle him. Rod was young and strong and would have resisted, which implies a male antagonist. Even if he was taken by surprise, which seems unlikely since he was attacked in his own rooms, he would have been able to fight off a small assailant.’
‘Even if he was plastered?’
‘When someone creeps up on you from behind and throws a ligature around your neck, Jack, I would imagine survival instincts kick in.’ He again crouched beside the body and gave it a closer look. ‘But there are actually few signs of a struggle.’ He frowned. ‘Odd, that. None of the furniture has been knocked over and Rod’s clothing remains undisturbed.’ Riley stood again and took a better look around the room. ‘Perhaps he invited his killer in and was caught unawares.’
‘Or got a little too friendly with one of the ladies he was invited to escort to some fancy shindig and the lady’s husband took exception.’
‘It is not beyond the bounds of possibility. Woodrow had quite a reputation as a lady’s man. I heard it said more than once that he always seemed to have plenty of cash, yet he doesn’t have an occupation. His father isn’t well enough situated to keep him solvent, much less pay the rent on these rooms. Some reckoned that his ladies helped him out and he always struck me as the sort who wouldn’t be too proud to accept their charity.’
‘In return for services rendered, I dare say,’ Salter said, scowling. A highly religious man, Salter would not approve of such behaviour, Riley knew.
‘It wouldn’t surprise me.’
Their cogitations were interrupted by the arrival of the police photographer in company with Dr Maynard, the pathologist.
‘Lord Riley,’ the doctor said cheerfully, holding out a hand. ‘I hear congratulations are in order. My very best wishes to you for your future happiness.’
‘Thank you,’ Riley replied, shaking the man’s hand. ‘This is, or should I say was, the Honourable Roderick Woodrow, Viscount Woodrow’s youngest and wildest son.’
‘Well, the poor fellow won’t be up for any wild antics now,’ Maynard replied, crouching beside the body and conducting a swift examination. ‘Strangled by a male antagonist,’ he confirmed. ‘Strangulation takes considerable strength, even if the victim obliges by sitting still and allowing the killer to get on with it.’ He waited until the photographer had finished before pushing the body onto its side and revealing a small patch of partially concealed blood on the rug beneath it. He pulled aside an area of Woodrow’s thick hair that seemed to interest him. ‘Ah hah! I thought as much.’
Riley leaned forward and noticed a wound. ‘He was struck before being strangled?’
‘Looks that way. This room wouldn’t be nearly so tidy if he had not been.’
‘Why not just carry on thumping him until he died then?’ Salter asked. ‘Begging your pardon, sir.’ He glanced a little sheepishly at Riley.
‘The attacker probably didn’t want to risk making too much noise and alerting the neighbours,’ Riley replied. ‘He only needed the victim to be unconscious so that he could finish him off by throttling him.’
‘Could he have used his hands?’ Salter asked. ‘If he did, it would explain the lack of a ligature.’
‘No.’ It was Riley who answered him. ‘Take a closer look at Woodrow’s neck, Jack. A thin cord of some sort was definitely pulled so tight that it cut into the neck like a noose.’
‘Well, Lord Riley,’ Maynard said, ‘I can officially confirm that life is extinct. He has been dead for some hours. I would say sometime around two o’clock this morning, immediately after he returned from whatever engagement he kept last night.’
‘Could he have been killed before he went out?’ Salter asked.
‘No. There would be signs of rigor mortis if he had. Either coming on or easing off. It is not an exact science. Besides, he reeks of whisky.’
Riley glanced at the sideboard, upon which sat an elegant and expensive lead crystal decanter and four glasses. Only four? That seemed odd. Such things almost always came in sets of six. He wondered if the killer had indeed been an invited guest who had taken not only the murder weapon away with him, but the glasses they had drunk from too, just to muddy the waters or preclude any possibility of identification. He suspected that crystal ware of that quality originated from his father’s house. He would make a point of asking about it when he broke the sad tidings to Woodrow’s family.
‘There is nothing more I can do here, Lord Riley.’ Maynard’s voice recalled Riley’s attention. ‘If you have no more questions for me, I shall have the body taken away and attend to the post mortem tomorrow.’
‘Thank you,’ Riley said automatically, a little disturbed by the relish he felt at being faced with what might be—at least on the surface—a fiendishly difficult case to crack. Not because he approved of violent death but because he wanted to help enhance the reputation of the relatively new Detective Department at Scotland Yard. Often the subject of vicious criticism, he wanted to prove that specialist detectives could make the streets safer. That they could effectively deter criminals who had once more or less enjoyed carte blanche to do as they pleased. Prior to the introduction of the Detective Department, there had been little risk of such miscreants being apprehended by an overworked, disorganised and lacklustre police force. This was Riley’s purpose, and it gave him a great deal of satisfaction. He too was a younger son, albeit not in Woodrow’s impecunious state. But if he didn’t have Scotland Yard as an excuse to turn down the myriad invitations that found their way to his door, he would be in danger of turning into a social irrelevance, like poor Rod. The ubiquitous “spare man”. He shuddered at the prospect and returned his attention to the task in hand.
‘Take a careful look around these rooms, Salter.’ Riley entered the bedchamber and glanced in a wardrobe filled with good-quality clothing. ‘What do you see?’
‘Decent furniture,’ Salter replied promptly. ‘I’ll wager Woodrow furnished them himself. He wanted to impress.’
‘Or was not prepared to lower his standards. I doubt whether he entertained in these rooms. They aren’t big enough. Well,’ Riley amended, ‘they’re big enough to entertain a lone female, but nothing beyond that. He needed the address to maintain appearances, but I don’t suppose he spent much time here, other than to sleep. The rest of his time would have been taken up by his clubs, or dancing attendance upon hostesses in need of his services.’
‘Appearances are everything.’ Salter nodded. ‘I suppose these rooms are small by your standards Maybe Woodrow wouldn’t have wanted his posh friends to see just how small.’
‘Exactly. Anyway, conduct a methodical search. I’ll send Carter up to help you.’
‘What am I looking for?’
‘I have absolutely no idea, but hopefully something will come to light that points to the reason for the crime. Clearly he’d upset someone. I doubt whether a disgruntled husband would resort to murder, but we cannot afford to dismiss the possibility. There is no sign of a female having been in here recently, if at all. The type who would accompany a gentleman to his rooms would reek of perfume and I can’t smell any. Anyway, we need to learn as much as we can about Woodrow’s personal life, distasteful as I’m sure you will find it.’
‘Good man. A diary or an address book would prove particularly useful. Bank statements or anything to do with investments. I want to know how he financed his lifestyle, where he got his money. That, I sense, is at the heart of this mystery. I’ll leave you to it and go and introduce myself to the rest of the tenants.’
Riley took the stairs slowly, musing upon the senseless waste of a life, just as he always did when called to the scene of a murder. He hadn’t known Woodrow well, but couldn’t find it in himself to approve of a man who chose to idle his time away. The source of his independence troubled Riley. His rooms were lavishly furnished, his clothing supplied by a first-rate tailor. Perhaps he had acquired a wealthy mistress. He had certainly never lacked charm or self-assurance, traits which generally enthralled a certain type of lady, most especially bored and neglected wives with time and money to fritter away.
Muted conversation ceased when Riley pushed open the door to the parlour into which the residents had been corralled. Two men, a lady and a girl in a maid’s uniform with reddened eyes and blotchy face all looked up at him.
‘Good morning,’ he said. ‘I am Inspector Rochester. I apologise for keeping you all waiting. I hope I will not have to inconvenience you for much longer.’
‘It’s true, then,’ the lady said. ‘Poor old Rod finally got his comeuppance.’
‘I say, Maud,’ one of the other tenants protested. ‘You make it sound as though the chap deserved to be strangled.’
‘Strangled?’ Riley raised a brow at him. ‘What makes you suppose he was strangled?’
‘Well, it was fairly obvious.’ The remaining tenant came to the first man’s aid. ‘Dudley and I live on the top floor. When Jessie starting screaming fit to wake the dead…’ He covered his mouth with his hand. ‘Sorry, poor choice of words. Anyway, when Jessie started screaming it sounded like she was being murdered so we both rushed down to find out what the fuss was about. By then, she’d run into the street and flagged down a policeman, but Woodrow’s door was open. Obviously, we were curious when he didn’t appear to find out what the ruckus was all about, so we went in to investigate and saw him lying there. It was obvious that he’d been strangled.’
‘Did you touch or remove anything?’ Riley asked sharply.
‘Gosh, no! We got out of there and waited for you lot.’
‘Very well. I know you have already given statements to my officers. I would like to speak briefly to each of you individually myself, then you can go about your business.’ He smiled at the maid. She looked unnaturally pale and shook like a leaf. ‘Jessie, perhaps you would like to go first. Is there somewhere we can talk?’