Letting the door to the White Hart Tavern shut behind him, William Falke stepped onto the uneven cobblestones that ran along either side of the Grassmarket. The press of crowds had thinned considerably, since most of the morning patrons had bought what they needed, then returned to their lives elsewhere in Edinburgh. Not that the market area was empty, as the merchants sorted and reorganized the contents of their carts in preparation for the afternoon crowds.
William was only partially aware of his surroundings while he turned to his left and strolled along the cobblestones. His mind was caught in a small struggle with the information he had obtained so far. From what he had been told, the flowers could not have been a day or two old. However, Miss Olivander had said her friend was missing four days prior. And then there were the people that Mrs. Givens had said had asked after Miss Newt. Lydia and Vivian, he knew of. However, this ‘Mary’, bothered him. With no family name, she would be near impossible to find. Why, there must be hundreds of ladies named ‘Mary’ in Edinburgh alone! With a heavy sigh of frustration, he looked up just as he was about to step off the cobblestone sidewalk.
“Here now! Watch’ yeself!” The cab’s horse whinnied sharply as the driver yanked on the reins.
The young man jumped back in surprise, just inches from being run down. He looked around in stunned shock. What with being so preoccupied with his own thoughts, he had walked the stretch of the Grassmarket and almost out into the intersection where Victoria Street began! William managed a flustered smile.
“‘Scuse me, Sirrah.” William replied quickly, a crimson flush of embarrassment on his cheeks. “Just lost in my thoughts. I’ll be watchin’ where I’m headed.”
The driver, a thin man with a mustache dressed in a black coat and stovepipe hat, sniffed in exasperation as he shifted the reins to his clockwork right hand. “Well, see ye be doin’ that.” He snapped the reins and the horse obediently moved forward.
William rubbed a hand over his eyes and took a deep breath to steady his nerves. He looked up once the cab had passed by, and much to his surprise, spied Vivian Carpenter – the owner of the boarding house in which Lydia Olivander resided – across the short stretch of road. She was attired in the same green dress as before, but in addition wore a thin gray shawl over it and carried a chestnut wicker basket. The basket was thick with all manner of fresh vegetables.
The young man grinned at his superb luck. Fate had just saved him a long walk down Candlemaker’s Row to talk to Mrs. Carpenter. He looked right, then left before stepping off the cobblestones to stroll towards her.
William was only four paces closer when, from out of a narrow close, two men wearing unremarkable, rough cotton work clothes and black burlap masks hurried out and jerked a startled Vivian Carpenter back into the darkness of the alley! Stunned, William looked around, but no one else either noticed or cared. Astonishment crumbled away to a hot anger that propelled William towards the alley as fast as his feet would carry him.
Just inside the yawning, dark opening of the close, William came to a quick stop. It was too dark to see, and he was not fool enough to find an already lit lantern that would reveal his presence. He knew he would have to find his way along the alley by other means besides sight. So, he turned his head and listened. At first there was nothing. Then, a low whisper of muffled voices reached him. Suddenly, the whisper became a grunt and an ugly string of curses.
“She bit me!” Exclaimed a muffled, angry voice.
“If ya’d whacked her on tha head at first, this’d be easier!” Said another.
William reached into his bag and withdrew a skinning knife. Only a four inch long blade with a handle made from a stag bone, the knife was not the most formidable of weapons, but what it lacked in looks, it made up for in use. William kept the blade sharp enough to shave with. He gave the knife handle a reassuring squeeze and hurried towards the shadowy exit ahead of him.
There, in a tiny courtyard formed from tall buildings made of somber gray stonework, broken at regular intervals by thin, dark windows and doors with wood the color of old blood, the two men struggled with their victim. One of the large men was trying to push a dirty rag into Vivian’s mouth while the other attempted to hold her flat on her back against the ground! In a panic, Vivian kicked and struggled wildly. She clawed at the mask of one man, but the dark burlap fabric held firm. When that did not work, she lashed out with a balled fist against the man with the rag. A satisfying crunch echoed off the gray stone walls of the isolated courtyard. It was a sound that William knew could only be the man’s nose being broken.
Trying to catch them off guard, William rushed forward. With a wild whoop, he immediately threw himself into the fray. Once, twice, his knife lashed out. The first swing sliced deep into the man trying to suffocate Vivian while the second slash cut nothing but air as the two men abruptly released the woman in the suddenness of William’s attack.
William crouched low and turned his knife to hold it in a hammer grip, the blade pointed at the ground. He snarled like a hungry wolf while he stalked forward. Warily the two ruffians backed away; one with a hand up to nurse his broken nose through the black burlap mask, the other with a hand on the knife cut that had begun to freely ooze blood.
“Mrs. Carpenter? Ya hurt bad?” William asked, when he at last stood next to Vivian.
She nodded, coughed, and croaked a reply William did not understand. So, he guessed. “I’d not called the constables, but I’d be thinkin’ this much commotion will bring ’em here anyway.”
Vivian shook her head and coughed again. “Blessed be, lad,” she paused to take another hoarse breath, “open ye ears. Ah’d said ‘use their guts fer garters and save me a piece, while ye be at it’.”
William grinned. He knew he liked Mrs. Carpenter for some reason. His grin took a malicious, wolf-like turn towards the two marauders. “Ya heard the lady. Who’ll be first?”
The larger of the two men, who had just been cut by William’s knife, snarled, “Ya try it Runt, I’ll box ya ears till they fall off!”
Before he could leap at William, the other ruffian held out an arm. “Na here. Too many eyes.” He gestured down the close to the distantly-lit entrance.
In the direction he indicated, a set of figures formed a rough group of silhouettes framed by the brighter light that bathed the Grassmarket. They were talking among themselves – nervous, excited and curious. Merchants and patrons, they had been drawn from the Grassmarket by the commotion of William running wildly into the alley.
“Don’ think yer gettin’ off with this, Runt!” One of the masked men yelled angrily. “Your times’ comin’! Ya just wait for it.”
Next to him, the other large man jerked on the other’s sleeve “Shut it! We got no time fer that!”
The figure with the bleeding cut jerked his arm free of his companion with a roar and backed away. “Ya remember that, Runt. Just remember it! Ya gonna wake up one night and I’ll be the last sight yer ever gonna have!”
With that, the two men turned and raced for one of the red wood doors that lead into one of the adjacent buildings. One of the pair slammed a heavy boot against the door latch and the door exploded inward with a loud crack. Immediately they rushed inside.
Vivian’s cough drew distracted William from the personal death threats towards the more immediate concern of the older woman’s health. He knelt down next to her, helping to ease her up into a sitting position while she gulped at the air.
“Are ya alright?” William asked, eyes brimming with concern.
Vivian smiled in a proud, motherly fashion. “Och, Ah be fine enough. They just took the wind from me … Ah just need a moment ta be getting’ it back.” She took another deep breath and coughed. “Where’d me basket get to?”
While the onlookers from the Grassmarket hurried into the courtyard, William looked around for Vivian’s basket. Finally, he spotted it. During the struggle, it had been knocked a few feet away from her towards a forgotten pile of rotten cloth and wooden planks. Her vegetables were spilled across the ground.
“It’s over here. Ya sit here and get ya breath back, I’ll get it for ya.” William reached into his bag and produced a small rag. Quickly he wiped the blood from his blade and stuffed both blade and rag back into his shoulder bag, lest any of the newcomers develop the wrong idea about him and what he was doing there. He had enough to worry about as it was.
With a single, smooth motion, William scooped up the basket and began to refill it with vegetables. Most had survived the fall relatively undamaged, with perhaps the exception of the onions. Those had fallen into a dirty puddle of mud near the garbage pile, and looked completely unappetizing. He pulled the first from the small mire, then shook it to encourage the grayish brown slime to slip off and return to the ooze on the ground. Before he resigned himself that the muck was not going to let go, he noticed something white just under the wood in the refuse pile not far from the puddle.
At first, he thought it might be another onion. However, the longer he looked at it, the less ‘onion-like’ the color seemed. Cautiously, he set Vivian’s basket down, walked over to the debris, and crouched. Slowly, he began to remove the wood. The more debris he moved, the more color drained from this face while a fear, a raw terror, gnawed hungrily at his mind.
On seeing William’s apparent interest in the refuse, Vivian excused herself from the small crowd to join him.
“What be the matter?” Vivian asked with a hoarse croak, her throat not quite having recovered from the attack. “Ye look like ya seen a banshee.”
William removed a broad plank to reveal the still, cold face of a woman; her face ashen, eyes closed in the tranquil sleep of death. The young man glanced up at Vivian, who gasped in shock and horror.
“Heavens protect us.” Vivian said in a quavering voice. “It be Maggie. That’s where she vanished off ta.”
“Maggie?” William asked, but as soon as the word left his mouth, he remembered the name Vivian had mentioned to them. “Ya mean Maggie Campbell, the other lady who had been stayin’ at yer boarding house?”
“Yes, the very one.” Vivian covered her mouth in horror and knelt down next to the body. “Oh my poor, poor girl. What did they do to ye?”
William looked past her at the few people gathered in the courtyard. “Call a constable! Tell ’em we’ve found a body!”