From the room above the mortuary basement, footsteps echoed hollowly in the air. Indistinct male voices, muffled by the intervening distance, filtered their way through the floor and down the cracked wooden stairs. In the damp, stone-walled basement, the assemblage of dead bodies laying quietly on the tables did not seem to mind the unexpected distraction. However, the three crew members of the Brass Griffin were much more animated.
“You said he’d be gone for hours?” Moira whispered while she looked around the tiny office for a hiding place.
“I didn’t say ‘hours’, I said an hour.” Thorias corrected her. “Something’s happened for him to be here now. This is not his usual routine.” Quickly, the doctor located a nearby towel to wipe his hands. Likewise he wiped off the tiny valve he had recovered from the corpse and dropped it into a pocket.
Leaving Thorias to the examination room, Hunter quickly looked around the main room with its neatly arranged tables and their burden of corpses. He spun on his heel and opened the remaining doors in the room. One revealed another room similar to the examination room Thorias was in, save this new one had no bodies in it. The last was being used as a storage room, as evidenced from the stacks of old crates and a few stained, dust-covered sheets. He turned to look at the main room again. A plan rapidly took shape in his mind.
“Moira, you and I will hide in the spare exam room and hope for the best it’s not a mortician working late.” Hunter said quickly. “If this is the caretaker as we suspect, he’ll have no reason to go in there. Thorias, stay in the examination room and continue to study the bodies, but be as quiet as you can about it. If they open the door and discover you, act as if you are here to catch up on work. A consulting physician for the constabulary.”
Thorias frowned in concern. “Given our circumstances, it’s the best we have, isn’t it? Keep an ear to the door. If it is a mortician, my ‘consulting physician’ story may not carry us very far.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll be next door. We can always get the jump on ’em and tie ’em up if need be.” Moira said in her own attempt to soothe the doctor’s nerves. Thorias, not completely reassured, chuckled weakly.
“Well, yes, and at least we’d have a place to put them temporarily.” He said wryly.
“Quickly Moira, step lively.” Hunter said, closing the storeroom door, then stepping inside the second small examination room that sat adjacent to the one Thorias occupied. Moira followed immediately after him.
Once they were both inside, Hunter eased the door shut and pressed an ear to the wood while the sound of the footsteps grew closer. Behind him, Moira looked at the little room around her. Like the other room, it held three narrow teak wood tables. A quartet of cabinets hung from the flimsy walls. Quietly, she pulled open each cabinet door to reveal a dizzying array of bottles and jars. Some were empty. Others held wide selection of contents, from surgical tools submerged in a fluid shaded a faint blue to various animal specimens in a yellowish liquid. Everywhere the smell of formaldehyde clung desperately to each jar and hovered like a pungent vulture in the air of the room.
Moira selected a large, stout jar holding a toad within its cloudy sample of formaldehyde and tested the weight as a potential bludgeon. She nodded in satisfaction.
Anthony noticed the motion out of the corner of his eye. “Pray tell, what are you doing with that toad?” He whispered.
“In case someone comes bustin’ in and tries anything ugly.” Moira said with a look of mild, genuine surprise, as if the thought of her brandishing a jar that held an amphibian preserved in formaldehyde as a weapon was an ordinary occurrence.
The captain shook his head slightly with a faint smile, then resumed his silent vigil at the door.
“Moira, we don’t even know who is … ” Anything else Hunter might have said was cut short as the door at the top of the stairs opened with a modest creak of its metal hinges.
The stairs groaned in mild protest as two men descended. Neither were dressed as a man of means, more as men of common labor. In the lead, an older man, a ring of steel gray hair surrounding his bald pate, paused at the bottom of the stairs. Wide-eyed, he warily looked around at the neat rows of bodies in the main room of the basement. Nervously, he wiped the sweat from his hands onto the front of his thread-worn coveralls.
“Cor blimey.” The man exclaimed in a light Scottish accent and a mild shudder. “Never do like comin’ here. All them here … layin’ just so. A body never gets used to it.”
Behind him, a younger man sporting a curly tangle of reddish-brown hair paused on the stairs. He, too, looked out at the crop of bodies sorted like so many ghoulish cornrows and swallowed quietly.
“Always so eerie at night.” The young man said nervously. “An cold, too. Sure we gotta get that … uhm … whate’er it was? Can’t this be waitin’ till the mornin’?”
“Wish it could be, Toby,” the older man answered regretfully, slowly stepping away from the stairs to begin his long trek across the short basement. “Ah sure be wishin’ it could. But the constable be right specific. He’s wantin’ the files on them that were gutted.”
“That peeler still coulda waited till the sun’s up, Duncan.” The boy said scornfully, casting another disdainful look at the bodies around him. “Na be fair sendin’ anyone down here at night. Scare the ghost right out of a person, it does.”
Near the door to the office, the older grounds-keeper paused to give the younger man a reproachful glare. “Ah don’t be likin’ this any more’n ye do. Complainin’ don’t get it done. Besides,” he added, “we be in a basement where the sun don’t shine. Sun bein’ up won’t help a thing.”
Toby flushed a deep crimson at the remark and studied the wooden handrail that he clutched with undue interest. Wisely, he kept the remainder of his comments to himself.
Satisfied with the young man’s silence, Duncan sighed to steady his nerves, trying to ignore the rows of silent corpses. With his eyes firmly fixed on the open office door, he quickly navigated the tables and stepped inside.
Duncan sifted through the papers stacked there until he located what he was after: The same folder that Moira had found only a few moments before. The older man nodded to himself, then quickly walked back out into the main part of the basement.
“What’s he want’em for anyway, Duncan?” Toby asked, unable to keep quiet any longer.
“Ah dunno, lad. Way ah heard it from one o’ the nurses, who she heard it from one o’ the peelers themselves, they got a some sailor locked up. They’re tryin’ ta check when all the murders started. He had a skinnin’ knife, like what killed them folks.”
“Glad not ta be where he’s sittin’.” Toby said with a relieved look. “Ah bet he did it. Makes sense an all, him bein’ a sailor, he could just sail away when he wanted.”
At that, Thorias looked up from his work, his hands inside the chest of the corpse he studied. In the next room, Hunter and Moira exchanged a glance.
Duncan, who had quickly crossed the room much faster now than before, gave the young man another chastising look. “Oh it do now, does it? What else ye sussed out there, ‘Inspector’?”
Toby grinned at the Duncan. “That ye’ll be getting in trouble come mornin’ when the doctors find ye took their records.”
Duncan snorted with a smirk while he started up the stairs past the young man. “Shows what ye know. Ah’ll use that servitor upstairs in the office ta scribe a copy …once I find the windin’ key, that is. Then ah’ll give the copy over to the constable, proper. These ah’ll bring back down here.”
Just then, Duncan frowned. “Thinkin’ of it, ah don’t be rememberin’ that office door bein’ open when I did me rounds a few hours ago.”
Toby thought a moment. “Don’t right remember either way, meself.”
Duncan paused to cuff Toby smartly on the back of his head. The young man jumped slightly, more surprised and embarrassed than actually hurt. He rubbed his head and gave Duncan a dirty look.
“What ye doin’ that for?” Toby asked scornfully.
“That’s fer not payin’ attention. Ah told ye time and time again ta keep ye eyes open around here. With only two or three nurses about and patients asleep, we be the only ones ta make sure no one comes about and causes mischief.” Duncan replied sharply.
Inside the examination rooms, Hunter held his breath in anticipation while Moira clutched her jar just a bit tighter. Next door, Thorias, who had quietly completed his examination of the first body, paused with his hands on the sheet of the next.
Duncan turned away from the chastised Toby to carefully look the room over. Suspicion dampened his anxiety while his mind reviewed what he remembered from his last trip there. His eyes returned to rest on the office door and the rooms next to it. “Just somethin’ not right.” He muttered aloud. “Can’t quite put me finger on it.”
Toby broke Duncan’s concentration. “Duncan, the door went and popped open. Like the linen cabinet on the second floor. C’mon, it’s not right for the livin’ ta be down in a place like this fer long. ‘Sides, that peeler’s gonna be here soon and want those papers.”
Duncan scowled at the room one last time. “Ye right, lad. Probably just the door’s old. Let’s be off.”
The stairs creaked at the usual places while the pair returned upstairs. A heavy silence blanketed the room, accented by the sound of muffled footsteps as they receded. Another minute crept by, until finally Captain Hunter eased open the examination room door. Behind him, Moira stood at the ready with her improvised weapon. In the adjacent room, Thorias likewise stepped out to join them.
“That will be a problem.” Anthony said after a moment.
“Just one?” Thorias said in a wry tone. “What with the police constables on their way, this place will be nothing resembling quiet. Obviously those two don’t understand what they’ve taken to copy. Once they hand the copies over, the constables will immediately demand the actual medical records, if they don’t go off into the hospital to recover them for themselves.”
“They’d be chargin’ in, just like that?” Moira asked in surprise.
“Depends on the mood of the constable, I imagine.” Hunter replied. “Which, given the hour, I’d suspect would be quite unpleasant.”
Moira shrugged. “So we get there first?” She suggested.
“And hopefully not be seen by any patients that will accidentally wake once the police arrive and cause a stir. Not to mention being seen by the groundskeepers who, I might add, are at least suspicious of something going on. The older one, in any case.” Thorias replied sourly.
Hunter considered that a moment. “If we’re careful and quick about it, we won’t be seen. The constables are not here yet. They likewise mentioned using a servitor to scribe a copy of the records. That takes a few minutes, at best. So we’ve a small window of opportunity to learn what we can.”
“We’d best be goin’ then.” Moira said quickly.
“Agreed,” Hunter glanced over at Thorias, “anything else of interest about the victims?”
Thorias sighed slightly, as if he was about to begin a college lecture. “Nothing obvious, unless you know what you’re seeing. While they were killed much the same way, it wasn’t by knife. That came afterwards.”
“So, they were already dead when all of that was done to them. That is a small comfort, at least, that they didn’t suffer.” Hunter said solemnly. “Just how did they die?”
“Suffocated, actually.” The doctor replied. He quickly returned to the examination room and replaced the sheets over the corpses there. “It’s an unusual technique, and normally leaves no trace of the killer. It’s called ‘burking’ after the serial murderer William Burke. I studied the case notes a number of years ago on the West Port murders that took place here in Edinburgh. Fortunately for us, the young woman struggled while she was killed.”
Thorias returned from the examination room. “So, on her face, there are some faint, telltale bruises in the shape of a man’s fingers around her mouth. On the back of her head, I also found a cut where some dirt had been matted into her hair around the wound. At first, I wasn’t sure what happened there. However, if you think about that she was suffocated and struggling, she likely hit her head while the murderer held her head down. The dirt is probably from where it happened.”
Moira shuddered involuntarily. “Poor girl.”
Thorias nodded, “Indeed. I nearly missed the bruises. If it hadn’t been for those, I’d have assumed the cut on her head happened after she fell from being stabbed.”
“Which means the constables might be unaware of it, also.” Hunter withdrew a pocket watch from his coat. “Do you recognize the soil?”
“Not at the moment.” He replied.
“I had hoped we would have found more here.” Hunter said regretfully.
The elven doctor gave Hunter a sour look. “I likely would have found more for you, but what with all these interruptions, I just cannot give a proper examination!”
“I hate ta say anything, but we really need ta be goin’.” Moira said nervously. “Like ya said, we really won’t know when them constables be gettin’ here.”
Hunter smiled at the doctor. “It’s good enough for what we need, old friend. Moira’s right, however. We’re wasting time.”
He looked at both Moira and Thorias. “Now, make sure we’ve left nothing here and head back up. We have no idea how long until the constables arrive, and we’ll need to be far away by then. I’ve no wish to spend my evening in their tender care answering far too many questions.”
Moira looked at her jar with the toad, and quickly returned it to its home. “All good.”
“I can think of nothing I’ve left.” Thorias said with a shrug.
Hunter nodded, “Good. Let’s go.”