Despite the early afternoon sun, which had beaten back some of the stormy soot clouds that seemed to continuously clutch at Edinburgh, the courtyard was as gray as a tomb. The walls, formed by the somber, damp bricks of the surrounding buildings, formed a solemn barrier between the bustle of the city beyond and the pallor of death that now hung in the air.
That was not to say the courtyard did not have its own activity. Constables, having only recently arrived, searched the area for clues as to what had happened with regards to the gruesome discovery of the dead woman. All business, they had expertly and congenially separated any witnesses from one another before asking them questions. William Falke, in particular, had been guided to the far side of the courtyard from the entrance, where a small crowd of onlookers had already gathered.
The young man watched in a respectful silence while two constables gently exposed the rest of Maggie Campbell’s body from the refuse pile nearby. Two others, meanwhile, had rushed in with a stretcher and were in the process of laying it out next to the body. Even though he felt it disrespectful, William could not help but stare at the woman’s corpse with a clinical interest.
She had been a young woman in her early twenties, her skin still smooth and unblemished from factory work; life buried under the smog of the city. Locks of damp, dark brown hair with a natural wave cascaded out to frame her pale, bloodless face. Her hands – or the hand he could see from where he stood – bore what might be the beginnings of callouses. There was even an odd bluish mark on some of her fingers, like some sort of a bruise.
Maggie wore what had likely been a modest blue dress before someone took a knife to it. Now, it was sliced with an eerie precision. William was no tailor, but he swore that most of the cuts had been made along seams which normally would have held the dress together. It was hard to tell if all the cuts were so precise, what with the copious amount of blood staining the front.
The few cuts in her smooth, white skin just visible between slices of bloody fabric also struck a chord with the young man. He mentally grouped them into two kinds: one, very precise and specific, and another that was brutal and careless, like someone dressing a fresh kill. However detached his observations, the idea of subjecting anyone to what Miss Campbell had obviously gone through turned William’s stomach.
“Och, gruesome bit o’ work, that.” Detective Oren MacTaggart, still dressed in his customary tweed jacket and brown trousers, said with a touch of sadness in his voice.
Startled, William tore his eyes away from the corpse and gave the Detective a withered smile in greeting. “It is. How anybody could do that ta someone else.” The young man did not quite repress a shudder. “I just don’t know.”
Detective MacTaggart withdrew a small notebook and pencil from the inner pocket of his jacket. He flipped the notebook open to a blank page. “That be part o’ what makes all this difficult, lad. Just like at the cattle market where ye Captain found that cart belongin’ ta that peddler girl.”
“Miss Newt’s cart.” William said hollowly. “Do ya think … “?
MacTaggart shook his head and interrupted him. “Lad, Ah canna talk about an open case. It’s against the rules. However … Ah always try ta hope they’ll be alive.” The detective cleared his throat. “Well, we’ve been through some o’ this already, ah just want ta go back over a few things.”
William managed a thin smile. “All right.”
MacTaggart flipped back a page in his notebook a moment. “So, Sirrah Falke, what again brought all this ta ye attention, eh?”
William fidgeted slightly. He knew he had to be careful in what he admitted to, otherwise he would surely get himself, Captain Hunter and Moira in grave trouble. “I was walkin’ through the Grassmarket down from … uhm … where the flower sellers are … Victoria Street. Then, sure as day, I look up and see a couple of bludgers grab Mrs. Carpenter there an drag her off down inta the dark. I looked around, but no one seemed ta notice, so I took out after them.”
The detective nodded sagely, his pencil scribbling madly against the paper. “Ah see. A wee bit dangerous, runnin’ off after ’em like that.”
Young William shrugged with a casual air he honestly did not feel. “I couldn’t just stand around doin’ nothin’, and I didn’t see a constable anywhere. I figured if I knew where they were headed, then I could yell ma head off for a constable.”
“Ye spoke before like ye know Mrs. Carpenter.” The detective asked curiously. “Ye be a good acquaintance of hers?”
William hesitated a moment before he answered. “I wouldn’t go and say we’re mates, no. Just saw a lady that got herself in a tight spot. Like I said, I couldn’t just stand by and watch like nothin’ was wrong.”
Detective MacTaggart nodded silently again, which made William all the more uncomfortable. However, the detective did not seem to notice the young man’s discomfort, or he gave no indication that he noticed. “So, ye ran down the close after ’em. When ye got down here, what’d ye see?”
“Well, I was just back from the entrance,” William explained, pointing back down the alley, “when I saw two bludgers jump outta hidin’ and grab Mrs. Carpenter. The two were big, much bigger than me. They had broad shoulders, like they’re used ta haulin’ coal or crates, for a livin’, and were dressed in rough work clothes and boots.”
“From what ye said before, ye couldna see their faces cause o’ the masks they wore?” MacTaggart asked curiously.
William nodded. “True. They had black hoods coverin’ their heads, made from some kinda rough cloth. Burlap I think.” The young man shrugged. “In any case, they latched onto her arms – one on each side – and yanked her down the close outta sight. I got a bad feelin’ about it all, I mean nobody goes and does such fer a jest, y’know? So, I figured they’d meant ta hurt her.”
“Think back, lad, do ye recall any more about ’em? Anythin’ they said, a way they acted? Maybe one ran with a wee limp?” The detective suggested.
William frowned, thinking back to the moment when the two men first jumped out to grab Mrs. Carpenter. With the excitement since, however, the details had begun to blur together. Finally, he shook his head. “Not that I can recall. Just ran out, grabbed her and drug her off.”
The detective paused for a second, scribbled a word or two, then abruptly stopped. He leveled an unblinking, bespectacled stare at the young man. “Yet ye didna call for a constable.”
“N … no.” William stammered. “I just sorta jumped in.”
Detective MacTaggart raised an eyebrow quizzically and pushed his glasses up from the end of his nose. “Ye ‘sorta’ jumped in?”
“Well, what was I supposed ta do?” The young man blurted out, his nerves punching a small hole in the calm demeanor he was trying to maintain. “They were chokin’ her! I’m not gonna go runnin’ off ta find a constable while that’s goin’ on, fer all I know, she’d have died if I’d gone off like that.”
“Ye coulda been windin’ up dead by jumpin’ in, also.” Detective MacTaggart tartly replied. With a sigh, the older man’s features softened slightly. “Lad, I understand what ye be feelin’ about this, but from here on out, just remember, this be our job. Ye shoulda made some commotion right when it happened.”
William opened his mouth to protest, but decided against it. Instead he wisely replied, “Yes, Sirrah.”
The detective smiled. “Good lad. Now, where were we? Och, Ah remember. That twas when ye jumped in with yer skinnin’ knife? Yes?”
“Aye. Just ta run ’em off.”
“Ah see. Might ah be seein’ ye knife?” The detective replied.
“Surely.” William eagerly withdrew the knife from his shoulder bag and offered it out to the detective hilt-first.
The detective gingerly accepted the knife, turning it over in his hands. While he examined the weapon, two of the constables slowly walked by, carrying the medical stretcher with its silent, bloody burden wrapped in a dirty blanket. William watched the procession with a long, sad face.
Slowly, the two constables carried the corpse across the courtyard, pausing where the alley began. There, a newcomer to the spectacle, a tall thin man dressed in a trim blue suit and waistcoat carrying a black leather medical bag, stopped them. He lifted the blanket to inspect the woman’s dead body silently. William finally looked away from the cold scene to the gray courtyard pavestones, walls and the long dark windows that bore silent witness to it all. Anywhere that he hoped might seem a bit more cheery to take his mind off the memory of the dead woman’s face.
Fortunately, Detective MacTaggart provided such a distraction. “Sirrah Falke, how did ye find the body?”
William turned around to gaze behind him. He gestured to the pile of refuse. “Mrs. Carpenter’s basket got knocked aside. She was all worried over it, so I went ta retrieve it fer her. When I was puttin’ vegetables back inta it, I looked up and thought I spied an onion in the pile just there.”
“Only, it na be an onion?” The detective offered.
William shook his head and replied solemnly. “No, not a bit.”
MacTaggart wrote something hastily in his notebook and was about to say more when the brass and leather shape of a dragonet servitor flew up and into the midst of the two men. Two foot long from head to tail, it was made primarily from a thin shark skin leather with brass joints, fittings and steel inner workings. It was obviously one of the better-made servitors that could be bought.
The clockwork device flapped its membranous wings rhythmically to hover a moment, turning its orange-amber eyes on the two men. It stared at William first.
“Not Acquainted,” the small device droned in a flat, unemotional tone. It then turned its mechanical gaze on the detective.
“Acquainted.” The servitor said in a higher, almost chipper tone. From a small compartment in its chest, it withdrew a small folded note and held it out to the detective. “Message for you, Detective.”
MacTaggart took the message and unfolded it. He read it quietly a moment, then re-folded it.
“Thank ye fer that. Na return message, Fiver.” The detective told the servitor.
“Very good, Detective.” Was the machine’s only reply before it soared off with a flurry of its wings. William watched as it flew over to say something to the thin man with the doctor’s bag.
“Sirrah Falke,” MacTaggart said slowly, while resuming his examination of William’s skinning knife. “Ah be thinkin’ here. Ye’ll need ta come back to headquarters with a constable and meself. Ah’ll need ta ask ye a few more questions involvin’ some other bodies, and yer skinnin’ knife.”
William’s eyes snapped back to the detective in alarm. “What? Why? All I’d done was help Mrs. Carpenter.”
“Seems a skinnin’ knife has been playin’ a part in more than just ye rescue of Mrs. Carpenter.” Detective MacTaggart explained. “An we need ta be havin’ a long chat as ta how ye knew the lady’s name be ‘Carpenter’ when ye seem ta be suggestin’ ye only just ran over ta help a lady being accosted in the Grassmarket.”
“Now, hold up there.” William said in protest. “I’d not said anythin’ o’ the kind!”
From across the courtyard, Vivian looked up sharply at William’s outburst. “What’re ye on about with that young man there? If it hadn’t been fer him, ah’d have been done for!” She called out around the constable that stood next to her. “Don’t you worry none, if these peelers give ye any trouble, ah’ll send fer ya Cap’n square away!”
From a pocket, the detective pulled a handkerchief and wrapped it securely around William’s skinning knife. “Just a lady ye saw needed some trouble, then? Constable?”
Over at the refuse pile, Constable Martin looked up from where he was searching the area. “Yes, Detective?”
MacTaggart pushed his glasses up from the end of his nose again. “Would ye be so kind as to escort young Sirrah Falke back to headquarters? Wouldn’t do to let him wander off. Quite since ah believe he might be havin’ more to say.”
Constable Martin stood, brushed his hands on his coat in an attempt to dislodge some of the dirt there and walked over to William. “Come along now, lad. Ye heard the detective.”
William fought back an overwhelming wave of panic. He had completely misspoke how he knew Mrs. Carpenter a moment ago, and now felt as trapped as a rabbit in a snare. If he said any more, he was worried he would only make everything worse. “Am I bein’ arrested?”
The constable sighed slightly and gave the young man a small, almost reassuring smile. “We’ll see lad, we’ll see.”