Ah, I’ve finally started diving into writing again! This is the first piece of FOUL WATER, the first book in what I hope is a series. It’s set in 1878 around DS Will Harper and the Princess Alice disaster on the Thames. Bodies in a shed? What fun…
Will Harper rounded the corner, his heart pounding in his chest. Rain dripped down the brim of his helmet, but wiping his face with the sleeve of his jacket did little good. His uniform was soaked but he was used to it. The wool was supposed to keep him dry—it never did.
The section of Lower Shadwell running along the basin was tricky on nights like this; people were known to drown by slipping and falling into the water. No one would hear you out here; no one would care. The mud made it hard to keep your footing and he watched the boy slip then regain his balance. For once he was glad his boots were heavy.
He kept running. He’d been chasing the boy since the High Street and he was getting tired. But judging from the closing gap between them, the lad was slowing too. His shadow appeared and reappeared under the yellow mist cast by the oil lamps lining the street. If they went much further the boy was apt to veer off into one of the dark, narrow alleys. It would be near impossible to find him in there. A second later, as if reading his thoughts, the boy disappeared. The boy must be new at this, Will thought. He turned right and thrust himself forward, pushing his body to full capacity. Almost—almost—Will reached out and grabbed a handful of cloth and yanked the boy to the ground, falling hard on top of him. “Gotcha!” he managed, a smile breaking out over his sweat-soaked face. “Stupid shit! It’s a dead end.”
Shadwell Police Station was busy despite it being so early and the warmth of the fire hit his face the moment he walked in. Stevens, the night clerk, was desperately trying to finish up the arrest of a drunken woman while Sergeant Wilkenson, a large brick of a man, restrained her. Constable Davis was escorting another woman into the cells and screaming ensued between the women. Will grinned. If his mother heard some of the language spoken beneath this roof she’d faint dead away. The smell of sweat and gin mingling with the slight odor of mildew coming from the stone walls were all familiar to him.
“Don’t move. I’ll be back for you in a minute.” Will tossed the boy down in a chair and peeled off his soaked great coat. Hanging it by the fire with others while water dripping steadily onto the wooden floor, he walked slowly back and sat down behind his small desk.
“I ain’t done nuthin!” the boy finally exclaimed loudly.
“Really now?” Will heard it time and again but it never ceased to amaze him. Caught red handed and still claiming innocence. “So, tell me—why’d you run so far then when I told you to stop?”
“I didn’t know who was chasin’ me.”
“Oh, so when I yelled, Stop! Police! You thought I was what? The baker?”
“I didn’t hear ya.”
“Course you didn’t.” Will sat down and threw his helmet on the floor. “Maybe you should clean the dirt outcha ears once in a while then.”
“Sod off.” The boy mumbled beneath his breath.
“Ain’t that nice language Duncan O’Grady. I bet if your mum comes down to get you out you’ll be all a wailin’ and sorry.”
“You callin’ for me mum?” his face went pale and Will suddenly felt sorry for the boy. He couldn’t be more than fourteen, his thin frame common with the poor.
“Whatcha think we were going to do Duncan? Just slap your wrist and tell you not to take what ain’t yours?”
“I dunno.” He stared down at his boots for a moment then back up at Will a frightened look in his pale blue eyes. “I swear, I didn’t mean to steal nuthin. It was just hangin’ there—has been for days now. All dirty like from the smoke and shit.”
“Watch your mouth.” Will warned calmly.
“Well it was! I been watching it. They musta moved out or somethink cause it ain’t been brought in for near a week now.”
“Now, where would the Murphy’s go?”
“How do I know? But what was I suppose to do? Let someone else take it?” Survival instinct. He couldn’t blame the kid.
“Oh, so you were doing the right thing by stealing the linen? That it?”
“Sure. I’d a made sure it was safe is all!” Will watched the boy’s face as the thought seemed to sweep over him suddenly.
“You were just savin’ it from thieves then?” Will put his pencil down and raised his eyebrows.
“Yeah, keepin’ it safe. I knows these boys Officer ‘arper. I knows them real good. Linen like that—it’d be sold up for at least six shillings!”
“Well, that’s mighty good of you Duncan. Thinking of the Murphy’s like that.”
“Sure. Gots to protect our own don’t we?” The boy was excited now, his face a combination of pleading and righteousness. Will couldn’t help but grin.
“Oh yes, we sure do. I think, seems you didn’t really take the linen, just protecting it, well, maybe I should rethink this whole arrest thing.”
“Really?” his eyes widened and relief swept over his face.
“I dunno though. What if I let you go and you get in trouble again? You’ll make me look bad for letting you go right now. And I can’t have my superintendent thinking I let a criminal back on the streets. Even though I know you’re a good kid, others might not see it that way.”
“I ain’t sir! I promise.”
“You going to ‘protect’ anyone else’s linen, Duncan?’
“No I bloody hell—“
“Oh, sorry. I don’t care if its on fire I won’t touch it!”
“Maybe next time you can let me do the protecting. It’s my job.”
“Yes sir!” the boy’s face beamed for a moment before he looked gray again. “You gonna still tell me mum?”
“Well,” Will sighed, clasping his hands in front of him on the desk and leaning towards Duncan, “that depends on you don’t it then. You keep your nose clean and I’ll keep my mouth shut.”
“Thank you sir!”
“But!” Will frowned seriously, hoping to frighten the boy a bit, “If you get in trouble one more time Duncan, I’ll have no choice. Arrest and I tell your mum.”
Will watched the boy almost run from the station and back out into the drizzle of another London morning. The Shadwell station was close enough to the river that water seemed to bleed in through every crevice. It came in the shape of rain, fog and a faint mist that seemed to steal in silently and settle over everything. He picked up the pile of linen he’d taken off Duncan. It was sodden from the rain and caked with drying mud. Still, Will could see the boy had been right; they were gray from smoke. He suddenly remembered seeing them on the line a few nights ago and thinking the Murphy’s were lucky they’d lasted that long out in the yard. It was strange too, because he was quite sure the family didn’t have a spare.
“Willie ole’ boy!” Wilkerson slapped Will on the back sending the Murphy’s out of his mind. “Christ man, come by the fire and get dry.” Wilkerson stood almost a full head above him despite Will being 6’1 without shoes or stockings. Men had to be at least 5’8 to be accepted on the force but everyone felt small around Wilkerson. “Crazy bitch night out there. Brought in three whores all fighting over one corner. Think on a night like this they’d give in and get drunk like the rest of ‘em.” Wilkerson shook his head and tossed more coal in the stove.
“They do it on purpose, don’t you know that by now?”
“I bloody think they do!” Wilkerson took a seat on the other side of the stove and they both ignored the mayhem around them. More officers wandered in through the door, a long shift finally over. Others braced themselves for the vile weather; heads down they begrudgingly left the warmth and comfort of the station.
“Shitty night out there.” Davis joined them, wiping mud and blood from his pants the best he could. There was a reason their uniforms were dark. “I think I caught the death of me out there.” Davis was three years younger than Will and had only been on the force for less than a year. Will liked the man but he wondered if he’d make it. The tough conditions and meager pay guaranteed a high turnover rate. Some were cut out for it, others weren’t. Davis wasn’t.
“Looks like a bad time of it in here too.” Will offered, looking around.
“Nothin’ new. Bet you won’t miss this place when you’re gone! Up to Bow Street with the big boys.” Davis sighed with envy.
“You’re not rid of me that easy! It hasn’t come through yet. Who knows, it might not.” Will shrugged dismissively but he prayed every night his transfer to the plain clothes division, now called Criminal Investigation Division, or CID as it had already been shortened to, would happen. Even after the scandal from the previous year he wanted nothing more than to be part of the division. To solve crimes, not just lock up drunks and prostitutes. Real police work! Not laundry hanging on a line. And it would be nice to shed this heavy uniform and wear real clothes again. Since joining the force three years ago he’d worn nothing but his uniform. It was the job. On or off duty he slipped it on every morning, the duty band the only thing changing. How he longed for a suit again. He’d been putting money aside each pay period ready for the call. He had enough for a nice suit, maybe two if he found the right tailor. And a nice pair of shoes! No more of these heavy, uncomfortable boots. The thought seemed to make his uniform more uncomfortable, his boots more cumbersome. Will took off his boots and stockings; they were soaked too and he hung them to dry.
“Well, they’d be daft not to grab you. Besides, you know the Inspector would put a good word in for you.” Wilkerson added lazily. Will knew he didn’t want him to go but certainly wouldn’t hold it against him.
“I’m sure he has. I don’t know if it’ll be enough.”
“I’m rooting for you.” Davis grinned and put his helmet back on. “Well, gotta get home before the missus gets outta bed! If ya know what I mean.”
“Sure.” Will smiled and gave him a mock salute.
“Horny bastard.” Wilkerson grumbled as he watched Davis leave. He hadn’t like Davis from the moment he’d joined and was quite vocal about it. To Will anyway. He was polite enough when the constable was around. “Seen his wife? Ugly as they come.”
“Aw, she ain’t so bad. Least he’s happy.” It had been a long time since Will had any desire to rush home. A long time since he had a reason. Kate had obviously decided sex with her husband was too much work. And heaven knows she avoided that as much as possible. “We can’t all have exotic women tucked away.” Will added with a grin. Wilkerson’s mistress was a beautiful thing with long black hair and dark eyes. He refused to marry but she didn’t seem to mind. Rumour had it she had been a procurer of girls for a local brothel when Wilkerson met her.
The men sat and talked for over an hour before Will put his now dry socks back on and slipped them into wet boots. It would take days for them to dry out. Luckily he’d gotten his father’s boots when he’d retired, so he had a spare. Most officers would have to walk in damp boots for days. ‘I’m going home. I suggest you do the same.’
‘Nah, why do that? The city’s just wakin’ up! I think I’ll go for a drink.’ Wilkerson smiled broadly. The man never stopped, and he never seemed tired. He would be off to one of the pubs that opened for the morning work crowd; coffee and rum before a long hard day. Then home to his mistress’s flat.
‘Well, go easy.’ Will yawned again, stretching leisurely before grabbing his jacket and slipping it on.
‘I’d tell you to as well but you’ve only an alley to pass through before you’re warm in bed.’
‘Believe me, it’s much warmer out there.’ Will pulled up his collar and they walked out into the rain.