Okay, we’re there again. That wonderful time of year has returned; the season of good will and ghosts. Holly and horror. Mistletoe and malediction.
And that’s exactly where we’re going today, as we do at this time of year every year.
Alas, I was hoping to celebrate Christmas 2018 with you by posting a brand-new ghost story here on my blog. Unfortunately, time didn’t allow for that. I had what I considered a great idea for a new festive chiller, and in fact made plenty of notes, but for various reasons that one will now have to wait until next year.
Instead, I’ve opted to post a slightly older story, which I’m honoured to say won quite a few plaudits at the time of its first publication in 1999, illustrious US horror writer, Brian Hodge, saying of it: “Finch places considerable stock in atmosphere, and builds fear and unease well, with a judicious balance between what is seen, unseen and merely hinted at.”
It’s been reprinted a couple of times since in anthologies and magazines, and is the opening salvo fired in a themed e-collection of mine, MAJOR CRADDOCK INVESTIGATES, which first appeared in 2015. But it’s never appeared online before, or free-of-charge.
So there you are. If you haven’t read it before, I’m hoping you’re in for a treat. We’re heading back now to Victorian times, the Christmas of 1864 in fact, for a ghostly chiller of the old school. Please enjoy ...
THE MAGIC LANTERN SHOW
In the frosty chill of dawn they came. Down the narrow alleys between the mills. From the sewer pipes and basements. Lifting snowy grates, wheedling out from their black and crowded burrows in the spoil and slag, in the brick chasms between the tall, leaning houses, in the coal-bunkers, the railway sheds, the rubble-cluttered arches where the ice hung in spears.
Major Craddock watched from astride his horse at the head of Frog Lane, the sturdy animal blowing out steam, pawing the frozen cobbles. The man felt the cold far less than his mount did. Veteran of the Afghan frontier, his topper, scarf and heavy greatcoat with its thick shoulder-cape were enough for him. So he sat comfortably and watched the beggar boys as they crawled from their holes and limped through the snow in ragged, barefoot bands, huddled together in knots yet chattering like apes with the joy of Christmas morning.
At the turn of the road, a swathe of cindery wasteland around it, stood All Saints workhouse. Its tall windows were aglow with candlelight, yet it was still a dismal place, built from blackened brick, its roofs steep and made from broken slate. Here and there, gutters sagged loose, shreds of dead vegetation hung from clefts in the stonework. A high wall, topped with rusty spikes, hemmed in the structure. A single gate of iron railings was open at the front.
For two full hours the paupers trooped in, in their ones and twos, some hanging back at first, but all at length succumbing to the festive promise. Eventually, when only stragglers remained, the major urged his animal forward. With slow, clipping hoof-beats he made his way. If his ominous figure was frightening to the urchins, they didn’t show it. Grizzled, filthy, hair sticky and matted and hanging to their shoulders, and in all cases clad in tatters, they might normally be a wary, untrusting bunch, but not so on this occasion. Giggling, screeching, heads filled with hot tea and plum duff, they passed through the gate, oblivious to all else.
The major reined up to watch the final few, scanning their haggard faces for a certain single youth who maybe was different from the rest. At least a hundred had now entered, but scarcely one differed from another. Pale as ash, withered to the bone, masked in grime, to a one they’d aged years beyond their time.
Beside the gate, two men were arguing volubly. The first, stocky and red-bearded and bundled in a greatcoat, muffler and bowler, had squared up to a balding man who was much heavier-set, with steel-grey curls on fat jowls and a leather apron over his bottle-green tailcoat. At first, they’d spoken to each other civilly, but now their words were heated. The man in the apron shook his head vehemently, making sweeping gestures with his hands.
“Problem, Munro?” the major wondered.
Inspector Munro turned sharply. “Not really, sir. This is Mr. Lensop. Master of the workhouse. He insists the boys be bathed.”
“Rules is rules, sir,” the man in the apron said. “We always baths them first. Health regulations.”
Major Craddock didn’t trouble to look at Mr. Lensop. He knew about this petty official; how vocational he felt his position in the parish, how zealously he went about the Lord’s work, how obsessively he believed in the usefulness of whipping. Major Craddock had approved many floggings in his army days, but that had been for hardened combat troops whose negligence had endangered comrades, not frightened orphans whose only crime was hunger. A time might come when he’d have to look a little closer at Mr. Lensop.
“No baths, Munro,” he said simply, before riding on through the gate.
Inspector Munro turned back to Lensop.
The official was bewildered, but still defiant. “I’m sorry, Inspector. We can’t have that. There’s a risk of infection. We run a clean house, here.”
Munro shrugged. “Like I told you, sir, we need physical evidence. If our man is among this lot, and you wash him down, we’ll lose it all.”
Lensop shook his head, perplexed. “Really, sir – I can’t see there’s any hope. These children are starved. There’s not one of ’em strong enough to throttle a cat.”
“That’s not for us to say, is it, sir? We have to turn every stone.”
Lensop began to bluster. “It won’t do. The Board of Guardians won’t like it. They have strict rules.”
Munro smiled. “So does Major Craddock. And he’s Chief Officer of Police in Wigan. The Board must take it up with him.”
It was not Major Craddock’s preferred way to spend Christmas Day, but since the death of his wife, Abigail, on the malarial plains around Lucknow, the joyous season held little interest for him.
He’d once read a book by that journalist chap, Dickens. The narrative had been fresh and invigorating. It told of a diseased human soul transformed one Christmas Eve by several ghostly visitations. Much of it, of course, had been a fantasist’s ideal, and Major Craddock didn’t hold with that. Besides, this fellow Dickens was a reputed radical, and in some previous book about a scrounger and thief called Twist had derided the police as bumbling bullies, no better than the villains they fought.
As far as Craddock was concerned, his men were anything but. Handpicked for the most part, back in 1850 when he’d first taken this post and been charged with reorganising the small, demoralised and often drunken borough police force, the ex-soldier had brought them fresh from one old and traditional uniform service, the 14th Light Dragoons, into this relatively new one, firstly because he knew and trusted them, and secondly because they were the right stuff for it. It went without saying that survivors of the bloody Ferozeshah, Chillianwalla and Goojerat campaigns were tough and resourceful, but the boys he’d chosen had also been noted for their even tempers, fair-mindedness and, above all, quick wits. Civvy Street was not the army, especially in a town like this, where poverty and resentment were written in the millstone grit upon which it was built. Awareness and sensitivity were required, and, up until now, Major Craddock was convinced they’d got it right. The last few months, however, had strained their collective nerve to breaking point.
He led his horse through the workhouse yard and around to the rear of the old building, where he left it with Constable Coogan, who was waiting there by pre-arrangement. Like most of the other officers on duty that day, Coogan was in plain clothes and armed, a ten-bore shotgun resting by the metal post where he tethered the major’s horse. Craddock checked the six-chambered Smith and Wesson under his coat, then entered the building by a rear door, trotting up a narrow stair to a high gantry that was dark, dusty and hung with webs, but overlooked the main hall. Three more of his men – Butterfield, Duckworth and McDougal – were already there, concealed behind iron stanchions. Their muskets were at the ready, each one an army issue Brown Bess – old-fashioned in the age of the Springfield rifle, but the best he could do at such short notice.
Below, the stone-flagged hall was a hive of activity. Numerous trestle-tables were laid out for a knife-and-fork dinner, while the new arrivals, unused to the discipline of the institution, surged around them, clamouring for “vittles”, slamming cutlery on tabletop, ignoring the shouted commands from the matron and her helpers. The occasional crack of hand on face or birch-rod on buttock was lost in the mayhem. Master Lensop bullroared to no avail. The house inmates, a pale, shaven bunch, distinctively clad in shapeless cotton smocks, were ranged around the damp walls on benches, having already dined and now watching the rowdy newcomers with fascination. Such a thing had never been seen in the parish workhouse before; the homeless hooligans of the street – those who had consciously opted for the gutter rather than charity – invited en masse to share in the yuletide repast and the traditional magic lantern show to follow.
Wild cheering went up as wooden trolleys appeared. There was a sudden smell of cooking, and steam swirled out from the kettles and the cauldrons of potato broth. Major Craddock moved slowly along the gantry, having quiet words with each of his marksmen. Not one had seen anything suspicious yet; not that he’d expected them to from way up here. More likely his ‘spotters’ – other constables, equipped with sidearms, but dressed in the red jackets and charity caps of parish orderlies, and even now stepping cautiously among the urchins – would be the ones to make contact. Thus far there was nothing. But Major Craddock wasn’t unduly worried. There was ample time.
He turned and glanced through the barred window behind him. The town’s roofline was drawn black on the glacial sky: smoke-pouring stacks, flywheels. Wigan might only be small – eighty-odd thousand at the last census – yet on most days it was teeming, its deep, narrow streets thronged with people and their animals, jostling back and forth with wagons and carts. Three main railways and a network of canals, eternally alive with traffic, fed its raw industrial life.
For once, though, it was quiet. Usually, the din was stupendous: the shunting-crash of locomotives, the toot of klaxons, the clash of hooves and clog-irons, the bang and screech of falling, dragging crates. But on this special day, with the morning market done and all business closed, scarcely a bird was moving. As the major watched, slate grey clouds drew over and fresh snow began to fall, a pristine mantle forming on the gaggle of streets and courts, on the steep terraced roofs, on the heaped broken slag by the pitheads. Despite this, there was no feeling of Christmas peace. Major Craddock wondered if his quarry was still out there somewhere, or even now among them, feasting with the beggar boys.
Wigan was never a tranquil place at the best of times. Only one of numerous smoky citadels in the Lancashire heartland, where cotton and coal vied for kingship, it bred social turmoil as a by-product. But now an entirely new shadow lay over it.
The first murder had occurred in the mud and rain of late October.
Every peeler in town knew James O’Hare, the burly, two-fisted Irishman of St. Patrick’s Road, Scholes, the low-rent and lodging house district, the worst slum, in fact, in the entire slum-ridden town.
O’Hare was a legend even in that neighbourhood, and there were few sorry that sodden morning, when a patrolling constable emerged from a rubble filled alley on the bank of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, to find the dangerous individual floating face down. By the time Craddock arrived, the body, its clothing heavily waterlogged, had been hauled out and now lay on its back on the tow-path. Its brutish face was alabaster white and fixed in a frozen scream, the eyes starting from their sockets. Its hands were rigid claws. Craddock stood by indifferently, drawing his cloak around him in the thrashing rain, while a local doctor, complaining bitterly at having been called from his bed, knelt down to examine the victim.
“Drunk?” the major asked.
“Probably,” the doctor replied, water dripping from the brim of his hat. He took off his spectacles and cleaned them. “He usually was.”
“Slipped off the lock gate on his way home?” the major wondered.
The doctor knelt back. “More like thrown, I’d say.”
Craddock glanced at Munro.
“He was strangled,” the doctor added.
“James O’Hare, strangled?” Munro hardly believed it.
“Extremely forcefully.” The doctor yanked open the collar of the Irishman’s shirt. Beneath it, the flesh on his throat was scored and black with bruising.
The doctor rose to his feet. “His larynx has been crushed. We’ll find cracked vertebrae too.”
Craddock stared at the body. He was familiar with stranglings; as a young subaltern, his first posting on the Sub-continent had been Bombay, where remnants of the Thuggi cult were still active. He’d seen enough then to conclude that damaged neck bones meant manual strangulation rather than by ligature, which in this case implied great physical strength.
The doctor blew his nose loudly. “Suppose I shouldn’t say it, but it couldn’t have happened to a nicer fellow.”
The major nodded, and turned to Munro. “Secure both canal banks. The whole distance between here and the next set of lock gates.”
Munro nodded and immediately began delegating to the constables in the alley, huddled under their helmets and capes.
“And get Sergeant Repton to commence house-to-house enquiries,” Craddock added, indicating the tenements backing up to the tow-path.
“In hand, sir.”
“In that case, you can make your way to O’Hare’s lodgings. Inform his next of kin, if he has any. Search it while you’re there. Anything of relevance, I want it preserved for exhibit. Speak to his neighbours as well – let’s get to know him.”
Munro moved away.
“Sergeant Rafferty!” Craddock shouted.
On the far side of the canal, a bulky officer, crammed so tightly into his blue serge uniform that the tunic buttons looked ready to pop off, turned from where he’d been speaking to the lock-keeper, slid his notebook into his breast-pocket, and made his careful way across the slippery timbers of the gate.
“Major Craddock, sir?” he said, alighting safely. His face was weathered red and fringed by grey mutton-chop whiskers. When he spoke, it was a hard Munster brogue.
“Line-search, if you please,” the major said. “Both banks. You know what we’re looking for – any odd items, scraps of clothing, boot-prints, a splash of blood. Anything to indicate there was a struggle. Chop chop, sir, the weather’s against us.”
Rafferty nodded and hastened away.
It wasn’t the first unlawful killing Major Craddock had investigated in his fourteen years as chief inspector in the town. He’d dealt with fifty at least. However, most had been domestic tragedies: the slaying of wife by drunken husband, or even drunken husband by vengeful wife. There’d been one robbery-stabbing, though the itinerant responsible in that case had been apprehended and hanged within the year, while the rest were mainly manslaughters, the result of pub brawls at night or criminal negligence in the foundries and coal seams.
This case, he felt, was different. The very fact that James O’Hare had been strangled sent a chill through him. Men shot or bludgeoned each other; if they strangled, it would be a woman or child. Not another man. Certainly not a man like James O’Hare, a raging human buffalo from the backstreets of Dublin.
He sat back behind his cluttered desk, a cigar between his fingers. Jim Craddock was fifty-five that year, but reasonably robust. His snowy white hair and trim white moustache gave a false impression. Beneath his crisp shirt and silver-flowered waistcoat, his frame was strong, hard-muscled from years of front line duty. His skin, once brown as leather, may long have faded back to an ashy English hue, but it was still tight, still marked here and there by sabre cut or powder burn.
The cool grey eyes, with which he wore down even the most stubborn suspect in the interview room, were his best asset. They gave little away, neither emotion nor thought. Certainly nothing of the razor-edged intellect behind them. When Craddock had returned to Horse Guards in 1850 and promptly resigned his commission for a post in the recently formed civilian police service, the best they’d said of him was that the premature death of his wife had unhinged him. Others had been less kind: he’d lost his nerve in the savage fighting at Goojerat; he was secretly a coward and now unable to conceal it; he lacked ambition; he was a fool, a traitor, an agitator even – after all, his father, a philanthropist and lay-preacher, had been a great advocate of the reform movement. The truth was, of course, that nobody really knew. They never did where Jim Craddock was concerned. And he never told them. He never told them anything. Not that he was always sure, himself. That dull October afternoon at his desk, he pondered the murder of James O’Hare, and found it perplexing.
Cigar smoke wafted around him, further browning the low ceiling and the heavy book spines lining the shelves. Outside, the icy downpour continued, thundering on the tiles and window panes, plunging like a cataract into the flooded barracks yard.
At length, Inspector Munro entered, unbuttoning his coat. He hung his drenched bowler on the rack by the door, and tossed a notebook onto the major’s desk.
“James O’Hare was not a popular fellow,” he said.
Craddock nodded. “You do surprise me.”
Munro dragged up a chair and sat. “Quarrelsome, especially in his cups, which was most of the time. He was also in money disputes with several different firms. Once, he had to be ejected from the premises of Balder & Sons for making a nuisance of himself. Said they owed him wages. They denied it.”
Craddock considered. “Criminal associates?”
Munro gave his senior a blank stare. “Surprisingly, none known.”
Equally blank, the major stared back. “Tell me another one, Jack. He was a carter, for God’s sake. He must at least have had form for handling?”
Munro shook his head. “None known, as I said. All previous convictions drink-related.”
“Unmarried. Single child. Parents sent him over here with his uncle in 1845. Uncle’s been dead nine years.”
The major drew on his cigar. “Any intelligence on who he might have been socialising with last night?”
Munro shrugged. “Still working on that one.”
“I want names, Jack. Any you don’t like, lock ’em up. We’ll speak to them in here.”
“Sir. “Munro rose to his feet.
Munro turned as he opened the door. “Sir?”
Craddock fixed him with those cool grey eyes. “What does it take to snap a man’s neck?”
“Brute strength, I suppose.”
“More skill than the average railway worker or collier?”
Munro nodded. “Possibly. Couldn’t rule them all out, though. There are some very strong working men in this town. Some of them will have had military training.”
The major nodded, and then waved his underling away. Much as he’d thought. It wasn’t going to be an easy investigation.
He was certainly right on that score, because enquiries were still going on a week later – when the killer struck for a second time.
Kathleen McConnolly, to begin with, was female – and when a female died at the hands of a maniac there was usually only one reason for it. By the same token, this slaying had occurred in the early evening, and had been discovered no later than nine o’clock, when many abroad in this district were drink-sodden and dangerous. Not that Major Craddock was convinced by these arguments. In fact, even before he arrived at the crime scene, he had a gut feeling that he’d be surveying the work of the same ruthless hand.
He made his way there in company with Inspector Munro through a maze of squalid backstreets, some so narrow that two men couldn’t walk abreast. All manner of refuse strewed the muddy footways – waste paper and rags, rotted food, broken bricks, human slops. Everything was caked in soot, while some alleys ran underneath railway lines, becoming pitch-black tunnels alive with rats and cockroaches. On all sides, doorways gave in to dens of misery and degradation. Flickering candles showed damp, tiny rooms, where emaciated children, clad in tatters, huddled together for warmth. In others, men doused in coal dust slapped at their women or slumped at tables, drinking from bottles. Others stood on the step, glaring out. Even in the chill October night, the cloying air stank of coke and sweat and human faeces. It also rang with coarse Irish accents, many in the tongue of their native homeland. Most, it seemed, were swearing, or laughing drunkenly, or sobbing aloud.
“Why do these people live like this?” Craddock said, pushing with his stick at a ragged shape lying in their path. “Out of the way, or I’ll arrest you for vagrancy!”
Muttering guttural threats, the drunk hauled himself to his feet and shambled into the shadows. More laughter came cackling down from above. Munro looked up nervously. Open windows overhung them at many points. At any moment, the contents of chamber pots could hurtle down.
He didn’t bother to reply to his superior’s question for two reasons:
Firstly, because they both knew the answer. It was now nearly twenty years since the potato blight had bitten into rural Ireland’s economy, condemning the population to death if they didn’t seek their fortune elsewhere. Thousand upon thousand had taken that desperate option, arriving in England via the port of Liverpool, intending to find ship to America, but eventually being farmed out through their old foe’s industrial north, where there were canals to be dug, pits to be sunk, looms to be worked.
Secondly, because the senior officer didn’t mean it as harshly as it sounded. Inspector Jack Munro, once Captain John Munro of the 14th Light Dragoons, knew his commander’s temperament well; knew that the major’s ‘Chartist’ upbringing on a modest estate not many miles from another woebegone Lancashire town, Blackburn, had made a deep impression on him; knew that once his wife had died and his purpose in India ceased to be, the much decorated soldier had taken this post as police chief for no other reason than because he felt he could do some good. In many ways, though, Craddock was still a warrior. He sympathised with the struggling and downtrodden, but not with the abject surrender so many of them showed. ‘Fight back’ was his motto.
“I’m going to enjoy delivering this bastard to the Assizes,” Craddock said, gazing down on the strangled woman.
“Has she been used?” Munro asked of the various constables gathered there. “Has anyone looked?”
Tough and granite-faced as they were, they shrugged sheepishly. It was easy to understand their dilemma. A multitude stared out and down from the surrounding windows; in all adjoining passages, dark groups of locals were being held back. It wasn’t the done thing for peelers to be caught peeping under a woman’s skirt, even if she had just been slaughtered by some demented person.
“The doctor can do that when he arrives,” the major said. He knelt beside the body, his face grave. His voice lowered to a monotone. “Gentlemen – there is a monster among us. We must step very carefully from here on in. Inspector Munro, you will cancel all leave until this matter is settled.”
“Yes sir, of course.”
“You will also concentrate night-patrols on the Scholes district. I don’t mean to leave other areas unprotected, but this neighbourhood must have particular attention.”
“Now ...” The major rose to his feet. “We’ll need to speak to as many of these people as we can. We’ll start straight away.”
“Major Craddock, sir!” came a frantic voice.
They turned, to find one of the division’s youngest officers scrambling up a narrow ginnel toward them. He was red-faced, his helmet in his hand. “It’s Constable Butterfield, sir!” he shouted. “He’s found a witness!”
Two minutes later, they’d moved en masse to one of the neighbourhood’s communal yards. Once again, rubble strewed it, much of it spilling from overflowing dustbins. In one corner there was an outhouse, a rickety old structure knocked together from planks and nails. Constable Butterfield, his lantern on the ground, was leaning against it, speaking through a tiny gap.
“Come on, Roisin, love!” he was saying. “You know who I am. It’s PC Butterfield. I’m always round this neck of the woods. You can trust me.”
Craddock shouldered his way forward. The constable saw him and drew back. “It’s Roisin Lachlan, sir. She’s Kathleen McConnolly’s drinking partner. Or was. She won’t come out. She’s frightened half to death.”
“Sure she’s not just relieving herself?” someone wondered, to coarse chuckles.
“No jokes, please,” Craddock said sternly.
Butterfield certainly wasn’t laughing. “They’re always out together, them two, sir. On the game, if you want my opinion. Thing is, they sop up gin like rubbing rags.”
“What’s she saying?” Munro asked.
The constable scratched his head. “Well, she doesn’t speak English very well, I’m afraid. I can’t really tell.”
Craddock stepped back. “Alright – break the thing down.”
The constables went at it as a team, prying the rotted slats apart with their blackthorn staffs. A few moments later, Roisin Lachlan, shrieking hysterically, was hauled out into the lamplight. She was a disgusting sight: gap-toothed, grubby-faced, hair white but filthy, and hung in rat-tails. Her bodice and many layered skirts were heavy with dirt, ripped full of holes.
“O Dhia, O Dhia …” she screeched. “Nil me ag iarraidh dul leis! Nil me ag iarraidh imeacht leis!”
It took the burly officers several minutes to restrain her, so frantic were her kickings. There were mutters of disbelief from the gathered crowd.
“Now, now come on Miss Lachlan,” Munro said, trying to be reasonable. When she bellowed right in his face, he staggered backward. “Lord-God almighty … smells like a bloody still!”
“What happened, Miss Lachlan?” Craddock asked. “What did you see?”
“Nach dtuigeann sibh? An bhfuil sibh uile as bhur meabhar? Ta muid cailte. Leann se muid. Leann se muid an bhealac ar fad anseo!”
“What in Christ’s name is she gabbling about?” a constable wondered.
“Bhi a fhois agam gur e a bhi ann. Bhi se beag. Comh beag le paiste. Cheap Caitlin gur paiste a bhi ann. Chuaigh si thar n-ais chuige tar eis a d’imigh muid thairis. Cheap si go raibh se gortaithe. Ansim do leim se … A Thiarna, do leim se mar a dheineadh cat!”
Craddock turned to Munro. “Can any of these people translate for us?”
“She says he was small, sir,” came a wavering voice from behind. “Like a child.”
They turned. Sergeant Rafferty stood there, gazing at the fevered woman with odd, haunted eyes. His normally ruddy face had paled; his brow was beaded with sweat.
“Like a child?” Munro said, bewildered.
The big Irish sergeant listened as the woman gibbered on. If anything, he grew paler. “She ... she says that she and Kathleen McConnolly passed him in the alley. They thought he was hurt. Then he attacked them. I think after that she must have fled.”
“Get her to be more specific, Rafferty,” Craddock said.
The sergeant nodded, but before he could ask her anything else, the woman sprang savagely at him and had to be held again. Her hair was now a frenzy, her eyes wide enough to burst from their orbits. She jabbed at Rafferty with a dirt-encrusted finger.
“Tusa! Ta a fhios agat-sa! Ta tu ar n-os muidine! Ta tu mar I gceanna linne! Is duine dar gcuid fein tu! Ta a fhios agat cad e seo! Ta a fhios agat!”
Rafferty never flinched from the tirade, but the sweat dripped from his brow. Only after several seconds did he turn to the major. “She’s just babbling, sir. Not making sense.”
Craddock nodded. “Alright. Munro … get her to the office. See if you can calm her down.”
“She’s very drunk, sir,” the inspector said.
“I don’t give a damn. She’s not going anywhere ’til she’s given us a full statement. Just make sure you don’t let her have anything else.”
Munro nodded and signalled to various constables, who hustled the terrified woman away.
“Ta se thar n-ais chugainn!” she screamed, to the awed silence of the crowd. “Ta se linn aris! Togfaidh se muid ar fad leis!”
It was close on midnight, and Craddock and Munro stood alone in the great Gothic hallway of the Infirmary mortuary. Green tiles arched high over their heads. A dank dimness hung at either end of the long, wide passage. Silence reigned.
“You know, there was a man guillotined in France five or six years ago,” Munro finally said. “Dumollard, his name was. He’d killed ten women. Bludgeoned them to death one after another, after luring them into a wood.”
Craddock glanced up. “What are you trying to tell me?”
“I’m just saying, it’s happened before.”
The major sniffed. “What did he kill them for? Did anyone bother to find out, before truncating him?”
“He was a thief, as far as I know. He wanted their clothes.”
“And you believe that?”
Munro shrugged. “That was the reason they gave.”
Craddock strode about, trying to press the creeping chill from his feet. “I doubt our man would get much for the clothes of these victims.”
Munro nodded. “Just a thought. Course, we don’t even know the same man committed these murders yet.”
“Oh, I think we do,” put in the house surgeon, appearing at a side door. He was stripped to his waistcoat and watch-chain. His shirt-sleeves were rolled back, his forearms wet and soapy. He mopped them down with a towel. In the fire-lit chamber behind him, a figure lay on a slab, draped in a bloody sheet.
“Yes indeed, gentlemen,” he added in his cultured Scottish accident. “I think we do. The injuries are virtually identical. Crushed windpipes, shattered neck vertebrae. A very strong person, with a very strong pair of hands.”
“Sexually molested?” Craddock wondered.
The doctor shook his head. “Not a trace.”
“Did he beat her?” Munro asked.
The doctor mused, and then again shook his head. “A few abrasions and scratches. Nothing that wouldn’t have been caused by her dropping to the ground after he’d finished with her.”
“Our killer is efficient,” Craddock said.
“Worryingly so,” the doctor replied. “The James O’Hare death was no fluke, Chief Inspector. In neither case was there a fight. Scarcely a struggle, in fact. Once he’d got a grip on them, it was over. They didn’t stand a chance.”
Munro shook his head. “And he’s supposed to be small? Like a child?” He glanced at the major. “Or are we discounting that?”
Craddock turned sharply, striding from the hall. “We’re not discounting anything yet.”
Continued enquiries revealed little of immediate significance.
James O’Hare, it was suggested, could have been murdered by one of his many enemies. The physical way he had been mastered was difficult to explain, but then he’d been dead-drunk at the time. The only problem with this thesis was that no-one was prepared to name a name, not even in the teeming rat-holes of Scholes, where loyalty could be bought for a few tots of impure alcohol. The same was true of Kathleen McConnolly. Most of the people who had seen her that fateful day reported her as having been inebriated, staggering from one crowded gin house to another, her friend Roisin Lachlan loyally in tow. As with the James O’Hare case, there was no suggestion they had fallen foul of anyone in particular.
Over a period of days, the woman Lachlan gradually became more coherent, until at last Sergeant Rafferty was able to interview her properly. In mental terms, however, she was in a pitiful state, maintaining that her friend had been attacked by a child, or at least someone of a child’s stature. She herself had been too fuddled with drink to intervene, but not so that she didn’t remember the killer’s odd apparel. This was especially interesting, but also baffling. He’d been dressed like a monk, she said. Hooded – only in Hessian or sackcloth. It had covered his body entirely, but hadn’t encumbered him so that he couldn’t leap at his victim like a tiger.
“You think nobody else would have noticed someone like that?” the major asked, as he and Rafferty left the lodging house where the petrified witness had buried herself.
He stopped to wipe his boots on the kerbstone. A passing beggar doffed his ragged cap. The major acknowledged him with a wave of his stick.
“People don’t notice much in this district, sir,” the sergeant said, standing by. “Too lost in their own misery.”
“Sympathy, Rafferty?” Craddock said, setting off down a narrow lane between rows of slum terracing.
The sergeant followed, eyes fixed ahead. “They’re my own people, sir. Brought here on false promises, most of ’em. Expecting jobs, better standards of living. Paid their own way with what few coppers they had, in many cases. Found themselves in – this. Little better than slaves, and that’s the ones who’ve got work.”
The major lit a cigar and puffed on it. “Emotional words for an Irishman who served in Queen Victoria’s army.”
“It was King George’s army when I joined up, sir.”
“That makes a difference?”
Still Rafferty gazed ahead. “There wasn’t no famine as such then, sir. People were in control of their own survival. If anything, things were worse over here. What with the cotton strikes and Swing riots.”
Craddock blew out a plume of smoke. “Not quite sure I follow, sergeant.”
They’d emerged onto Chapel Lane, a busy trunk road, and were forced to step back as passing wagons threw up fountains of mud.
“What I’m saying, sir, is – when I left Ireland to join the British Army, I wasn’t running away. I wasn’t taking no responsibility – I wasn’t being a traitor to my own kin.”
Craddock nodded. He hailed a cab, which pulled up, skidding. “And that’s what Roisin Lachlan’s been saying to you?” They climbed in together. “Police barracks, driver! That you’re a traitor?”
“Not as such, sir, no.”
Rafferty stared out into the traffic. Once again, beads of sweat stood on his brow. “Well – Ireland and Irish folk are sometimes a queer thing for an English gentleman like yourself to understand. If I might be so bold, sir. I think some things are best left unsaid.” He couldn’t seem to meet his superior’s gaze.
“Nothing to do with the case in hand, I hope?” the major said.
“Not really, sir. No.”
After a moment’s thought, the sergeant shook his head forcefully. “No, sir. On my mother’s soul!”
Wigan was not the sort of town to be badly distressed by an unsolved double-murder, at least not when winter was drawing near with all its threats of ’flu, whooping cough, diphtheria, frostbite. November brought more heavy rain, flood tides on the River Douglas, cave-ins below ground, then ice, sleet and fog, which, thanks to the borough’s mass coal-burning, was thick and sulphurous.
The force constables were gradually despatched back to routine duties, while the ongoing investigation made painfully little ground. In fact, other crimes took precedence: a double-death in Wallgate, the town’s main thoroughfare, when a furious driver ran his cart over two children; a serious assault, when a Saturday night clog fight left a rowdy collier with two cracked shinbones; a violent burglary in a pub off the market square.
In all these cases, Inspector Munro made good progress, securing arrests and convictions. In the background, amid a welter of statements and reports, Major Craddock continued to work on the strangulations. He established that there were no connections between James O’Hare and Kathleen McConnolly. He established that aside from Roisin Lachlan, nobody had seen or heard a thing. He established that no-one suspected anyone. He also established that no-one really cared.
On the first day of December, he put on his greatcoat and gloves and took his horse out for exercise. The animal would enjoy it even though the early morning wind cut like steel and the cobbled roads were slippery with frost. They left the station at seven sharp, and rode up through the town centre, already lit with braziers and thick with steam from the cellar gratings. Working folk crowded back and forth along the ginnels, mouths smoking, mittened hands banging together. Ice cracked under iron-shod boots.
The major worked his way through, returning one or two surly ‘good mornings’, then pressed on down the Douglas Valley, crossing an iron bridge and heading through the gloomy rookeries of Scholes. Beyond the roofs and chimneys, the mountainous coal tips were white, almost luminous on the still-black sky. It reminded him of Kashmir and the frozen peaks of the Himalayas.
As he negotiated the metals of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway, his thoughts unavoidably drifted. Sure-footed, his mount picked its way along steep embankments of slag and clinker. To his left, the sprawling mass of mill chimneys, wreathed in shimmering mist as the pale eye of day winked open, gradually fell into unreality.
The din was amazing. Above the crash and scream of cannonade was that frightful wailing so typical of Sub-continental warfare, the brazen pipes and trumpets, the wild clashing of drums and symbols.
Craddock closed his eyes. It was so romantic when you remembered it in that textbook fashion. But there was no hiding the reality of the aftermath. The stench of blood and bowels and gunpowder. The fields of twisted, broken bodies slowly baking in raging heat, swarming with bloated flies. The major hung his head. In comparison, Wigan, for all its squalor and turmoil, was joyous.
Then he heard the chuckle. The rasping, papery chuckle.
Curiously, he turned.
Behind him, running parallel to the L&Y was a secondary cutting, once used to accommodate a mineral line, the rails and sleepers of which had long been removed. Instead, the gully was now filled with brick rubble, broken planks and dead, frozen vegetation. Thirty yards along it, close to an old footbridge, at a point where a wheeled coal tub lay rusting on its side, a figure was seated on a mound of earth, its back turned.
Craddock’s spine prickled when he saw it. It was warming itself by a meagre fire built on a heap of white sticks, but it sat completely still, like something dead. Its clothing, he saw, was of old sacking, but heavy, voluminous even, and greenish in colour. On top, the material had been pulled up high into a monk’s pointed cowl.
More frightening than this, though, the figure was diminutive in stature. The major could tell that even from this distance.
He felt his heart begin to thump. He cleared his throat to speak, which seemed to take seconds. From the fogged urban landscape behind there was a sudden silence. Wintry gusts blew hard on the snowy slag-heaps.
“I say, fellow!” he called. “You – what are you doing here?”
It made no reply; didn’t even move.
Craddock eased his horse forward and steered it down the slope, broken ground crumbling beneath its hooves. When he reached the bottom, the air was even colder. Rigid wheel-ruts were slick with grey-green ice. He turned to face the hooded shape again. It was still there. The fire flickered beside it.
“I know you can hear me!” the major said, urging his animal forward. “I’m James Craddock, Chief Inspector of the borough police. You’d best have an answer.”
Apparently the figure didn’t. It held its posture. Craddock reined up when he was ten feet away. Whatever this thing was, it was indeed small; probably under three feet. Yet Craddock knew it cared nothing for his presence. He was insignificant to it, an insect, maybe less. His fingers tightened on his riding crop; he sensed his mount growing uneasy, snorting, pawing hard. He thought of black and mangled necks, heads lolling.
“I’ll arrest you,” he said quietly. “So help me God, I’ll arrest you for nothing if I have to. I’ll make the charges stick. They’ll drop you through that trap like a mealy-bag.”
And only then did it turn toward him.
But with infinitesimal slowness.
Scarcely seeming to move, its hooded form twisted laboriously round, a hint of space appearing under the folds of rancid cloth, a space in which at any moment he’d see a face. God alone knew what kind of face, but a face that would explain all.
The major’s skin crawled. His horse was now jerking, stamping. The figure was looking up slowly. Any second, any second he’d see it – and then the scream, the colossal, ear-shattering scream, which almost threw Major Craddock from his saddle.
His horse bolted, throwing itself about, hurling him from side to side, leaping and bucking. It took every inch of his mastery to control it, and all the while, on the tracks above, the Manchester Express blasted thunderously past, whistle shrieking, motion clanking, carriage after carriage roaring along the metals in deafening cacophony.
And then, just as quickly, it had gone, a swirl of steam behind it.
Cursing aloud, Craddock yanked back the reins and wheeled his animal about.
He was alone.
Of the cowled figure, there was no trace.
Angrily, the major dismounted and scrambled forward, kicking his way through frosted brambles. But among the clutter beside the up-ended coal truck, there wasn’t a sign anyone had been there. Except, perhaps, for the remnants of a very old fire – a few sticks of white-charred bone. Whether human or animal, he couldn’t tell, but when he stirred them with his crop, they crumbled away to powder, eddying in the breeze.
Two days later, the killer struck again.
Marion Mary Rourke died in exactly the same manner as James O’Hare and Kathleen McConnolly; strangled with such force that her neck broke. She was found among the snowy headstones in St. Patrick’s churchyard, Scholes. She had clearly been thrown from the adjoining street, because shreds of her skirt and shawl were snagged on the tips of the spiked railings.
By trade she’d been a pit-brow worker, and thus a sturdy woman. Though reportedly drunk and tottering on the night she was attacked, the evidence suggested that Mrs. Rourke had put up a fight. The fact that one of her clogs was still clutched in her right hand indicated she had been defending herself. Apparently that had not been enough, for the assailant had snapped her right wrist the way a normal person might snap a twig. Perhaps this show of defiance had angered him, hence the hurling of her body over the high churchyard fence.
Whichever, this third killing in the series differed from the others in that the victim was well known and well liked. The morning the body was discovered by the sexton, a large and unruly crowd began to gather despite the blizzarding snow. There were shouts and jeers when Major Craddock arrived. One constable had his helmet pushed off. Arrests were made. There were scuffles. Despite the parish priest’s attempts to calm them, the local population quickly assumed the dimensions of mob. A local cretin, Simple Saemus, was produced. He was slapped, shoved, pushed over into the slush and straw of the gutter. Someone hit him with an iron bar, splitting his eyebrow. Constables Butterfield and McDougal had to draw their staffs and charge in order to rescue him.
Bloodied and gibbering, the wretch was led away to safety, but not before he grabbed at Major Craddock’s coat. The police chief turned to look at him.
“T’wunt me, boss, t’wun’t,” the vagrant stammered. “T’wuz a young un see, t’wuz a young ’un. Saw ’un wi’ me own eyes, did. T’wuz a young ’un.”
Craddock stared, saying nothing.
Saemus became frantic. “T’wuz a young ’un! All dressed up, he were, like a monk u’ Benedick. Danced a jig, too. T’wuz a young ’un. Can’t trust young ’uns. Can’t trust any ’un.”
Slowly, Craddock took the man’s claw and disentangled it from the lapel of his coat. A bloody print remained. The major turned to Constable Duckworth.
“Take this fellow to the office. Get him some dry clothes and hot tea. And clean his eye up. Keep him there until I get a chance to speak with him.”
The officer nodded, leading the innocent soul away. Craddock glanced back through the gate into the graveyard. Sergeant Rafferty was standing over the sprawled body of the victim, gazing down with an apparently shocked expression. Close by, Inspector Munro knelt with a sketch pad and charcoal, copying impressions from any boot indentations in the snow. Craddock sidled in, keeping clear of the actual murder scene.
“On your mother’s soul, eh, Rafferty?” he said, coming to stand beside the sergeant.
Rafferty stiffened. “Aye, sir. On my mother’s soul.”
Marion Mary Rourke no longer looked human. She’d already frozen solid, and snowflakes were gathering on the blackened mess of her face. Her head lay virtually at a right angle on her shoulder.
“Ready to talk to me now?” Craddock wondered. “Now that we’ve got another body on our hands? Perhaps ready to tell me what it was you were too embarrassed to tell me before? About what Roisin Lachlan really said.”
Rafferty stumbled for the right words. “I’m an Irishman born and bred, sir – but perhaps I’m too long away from the old country. I didn’t believe it when she told me. I couldn’t believe it. No right-thinking man would.”
“Try me,” the major said.
The sergeant shrugged. “How long did we serve together in India, sir?”
“Thirty years or more. Why?”
“Didn’t we see some strange sights while we were out there? Hear some odd tales?”
“That we did, Rafferty.”
“You remember Calcutta market, sir?”
“And the fakir – floating in the air while he slept? I mean, we saw that, sir. We all saw it with our own eyes.”
“That we did.”
“And the fellow on the bed made from nails? Not a scratch on his back. Not a drop of blood drawn?”
“And you says to me, ‘There’s more goes on in Heaven and Earth than me and you will ever know, Padraig Rafferty’.”
“I remember that,” the major said.
Once again, the sergeant wore a haunted look. “Well try this for size, sir.” He cleared his throat, as if not knowing how to start. “There’s an old story – from my own country, sir. One you may have heard, but I doubt it. About the Pooka?”
Craddock shook his head. “The Pooka?”
Rafferty nodded. “A mythical creature. A sort of evil faerie. An imp, if you like. Back in Ireland, they never pick blackberries after September because the Pooka will have pissed on them.”
Craddock looked back to the violated corpse. “We have three unsolved murders, and you think we should be looking for faeries?”
“Roisin Lachlan does. And she saw what happened.”
The major pondered this. “Tell me more.”
“You don’t scoff at our Irish legends, sir?”
Craddock half-smiled. “My mentor was General Gough, Rafferty. You recall him, I take it? Our commanding officer at Goojerat.”
“How could I forget him, sir?”
“He was an Irishman, was he not?”
“He was indeed.”
“Did he not win the war?”
“That he did?”
“And the peace, bringing the Sikh nation under our banner when all other methods had failed?”
Craddock nodded. “I respect the Irish, Rafferty. So tell me – the Pooka?”
Again, the sergeant had to think before speaking. “In England you think of the faerie folk as something from a children’s book – pretty woodland spirits doing mischief. In Ireland it’s darker. The Pooka, they used to say, was something to be feared. A bringer of mayhem. A being who existed by his own rules. He especially disliked drunks. He’d prowl at night and if he came across any – he’d strangle them.”
Major Craddock stiffened, as if a frozen wind had picked up. He managed to suppress it. “As you say, it’s only a legend.”
Rafferty didn’t seem convinced. “So far only Irish people have been killed.”
“Your Pooka kills only the Irish?”
The sergeant shuddered. “My Pooka is punishing his own people because they are disgracing themselves in the face of the enemy – the Saxon.”
That made sense, Craddock decided, in a tribal, feudalistic kind of way. But looking again at the mangled remains of Marion Mary Rourke, it still seemed harsh.
“It never occurs to him, Rafferty, that maybe his own people are in this wretched state because of the Saxon? Because Irish landlords, loyal to the Saxon, exploited them? Because profit-making exports came first, before famine relief?”
The sergeant shook his head sadly. “The Pooka only respects integrity, sir. There can be no excuses.”
“I’d like to meet him,” Craddock said.
“But you don’t believe in him.”
“No, I don’t. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a madman in this town who does.” Craddock turned back to the street, where further disorder was brewing. “Sergeant Repton, I want these roads cleared! Now, d’you hear! Tell these people this is an unlawful assembly. If they don’t disperse, I’ll have the Riot Act read. I’ll call in the Fusiliers, so help me!” He glanced back to Rafferty. “We need ...”
His orders tailed off, for the Irishman had fallen to his haunches and was examining something in the snow. Eventually he picked it up, but gingerly, by its corner.
“A piece of sacking, sir,” he said, holding it out. “Possibly torn off our murderer’s clothes during the fight. And it’s green, sir. It’s emerald green.”
It was the Christmas Day of 1850 when Major Craddock finally returned home from the Punjab War. They’d crushed Shere Singh’s supposedly invincible army the previous February, and had spent the next ten months harrying and pursuing the scattered remnants. But that first day of his well-earned leave was a gloomy one. Caked in dust, his red and gold tunic in rags, he’d stood on the deserted verandah and stared through an open door into an empty bungalow. No happy words greeted him; there was no delicious smell of wildfowl broiling in curry. Instead, the whitewashed villa was festooned with black curtains of mourning.
Abigail, it seemed, had died the previous June – or so he’d eventually found out by questioning a nautch girl in the neighbouring village. Craddock would wonder ever after if the East India Company’s agents had seriously attempted to cable him, or were simply lying to cover their embarrassment. Either way, it had finished him in the military.
Now, on another Christmas day, fourteen years later, he stood alone again in a pall of uncertainty. Below him, in the workhouse hall, the clamour for food and drink went on, though he neither saw nor heard it. At length, Inspector Munro appeared beside him.
“As far as we can see, sir, they’re just children.”
Craddock nodded, but said nothing. He gazed down absently.
“Sir,” Munro said quietly, “I think we’ve exhausted this line of enquiry. We’ve checked every fair in the county, every circus. There are no dwarfs missing, no midgets behaving oddly. Even if there were, and he was hiding out among the paupers in Wigan, there’s no guarantee he’d come here for his Christmas dinner.”
Craddock glanced up. “Free food, free drink, free warmth. You think he’d turn that down on a day like this?”
Munro was clearly in doubt. “Do we even know for sure that he’s a vagrant?”
The major thought again of the seated figure on the mineral line. At the time he’d been certain of what he’d seen; now that almost a month had passed, he was beginning to wonder. “It was always a long shot, I suppose.”
“Shall I stand the men down?” Munro asked.
Craddock bristled at that suggestion. “Not yet.”
“We’ve been here five hours!”
“Not yet, Captain Munro!”
Bored constables glanced around, surprised at the harsh tone.
Munro leaned closer, and whispered. “Jim – it’s Christmas Day and we have a full shift on. At the moment they’re not doing anything. We all want to catch this lunatic, and we will. But he isn’t here. Let me send the lads home?”
Craddock took out his watch and glanced at it. “Give it another half-hour, and we’ll talk again.”
Munro stood back, irritated but unwilling to dispute it further. He had a wife and youngsters of his own, of course. Craddock’s house, meanwhile, would be cold and empty, filled with the desolate gloom of a late December afternoon. The major wondered if he was being overly insensitive with his men, but then he remembered the frozen, twisted bodies, their clawed hands and ghastly faces, and his resolve hardened.
“I’ve a reason for this, Jack.” He looked at his watch again. “And now is the time for it. Come with me.”
Munro followed as the major made his way down to the lower levels, and pushed through the mad bustle in the dining area to a separate but adjoining chamber. It was long and low, and overhung with dirty rafters. Various benches and stools were being arranged there by parish orderlies. There were no windows – only a door at the far end, though this was now masked by a white sheet suspended between the walls like a piece of laundry. A strong light had been positioned behind it, so that a figure moving there appeared as a black phantom.
That figure now peeped around the edge of the sheet. He saw the two officers and came out, promptly stumbling on the uneven paving stones.
“Gerry Flaherty, sir,” he slurred with a heavy Irish lilt. He offered them a shaking hand. “Sh – showman extraordinaire. And a happy Christmas to you. Glad to be of service to the po-lis.”
He was stooped and balding, with wisps of grey hair behind his ears, and clad in a tight, chequered suit, worn and patched at its cuffs and elbows. His face, blotched and reddish, revealed his own fondness for a tipple or two.
“Pleased to have you along, Mr. Flaherty,” Craddock said, shaking his hand. “You recall the modifications we discussed?”
Flaherty saluted. Then hiccoughed.
Craddock gave him a dubious stare. “The situation is simple. You will proceed with your show as normal. Ignore our presence as much as is feasibly possible. You won’t even see us unless necessary, which it probably won’t be. There’s nothing else really to tell you.”
“Right you are, sir,” Flaherty said with a broad smile. His breath was soused with whiskey.
“Munro,” Craddock said, “have Sergeant Repton search the rest of the building. Tell him to stick his nose in every grid and mousehole. I want the bloody place turned inside out. And get Rafferty and the men to take their positions outside. Join me back here when you’ve finished.”
With an audible sigh, the inspector walked away.
The magic lantern show began five minutes later, the vast majority of the paupers having now filed in, in what could only be described as paroxysms of excitement. There were many more of them than there were seats, so a good number were sitting on the floor or in the aisles. A hush fell over them – few had beheld a wonder like this before.
Craddock stood at the back, as unobtrusively as possible, wrinkling his nostrils at the stench of unwashed hair and bodies. He’d watched them carefully as they’d trooped by. From what he’d seen, there was little argument with Munro’s verdict: the killer was not here. All of these were young children, though some faces were so drawn and haggard that it was often hard to tell. Still, the final test was yet to be made.
Almost on cue, the shadow puppets began to dance on the big white curtain. At first it was the tale of Aladdin and his wonderful lamp. ‘Oohs’ and ‘aahs’ erupted from the audience as clearly distinguishable Chinamen with pigtails and bandy legs trotted back and forth, bowing to each other against a backdrop of pagodas. Flaherty might have been a drunk, but his skill was undeniable.
Several minutes later, Munro slid in. He took his place beside Craddock. On the curtain, a boyish figure, seated cross-legged on a rock, was polishing a big lamp.
“Everything’s in order,” the inspector muttered.
Craddock nodded, but said nothing. On the curtain, through a billowing mass of smoke, the genie had appeared. The well-loved tale rolled on through its many convolutions, the two officers watching in silence over the rows of heads.
“I take it there’s a purpose to this?” Munro eventually asked. “It’s almost dark outside. I seriously doubt there’s much more we can do.”
“Patience, if you please,” the major replied. “We’ve one more card to play.”
And as he spoke, Flaherty began to play it. On the curtain, the scene abruptly changed. From the emperor’s fabulous palace, the location was suddenly a field somewhere, a couple of withered trees to indicate hard times. As the paupers sat entranced, too unfamiliar with the Aladdin story to realise that a diversion had been made, two bowed figures, struggling to push a plough, appeared. Half way across the screen, they stopped, stood upright and took off their hats as if to pray. It was lost on the audience, but not on Munro. Instantly, he recognised an image of rural Ireland – two peasants had halted in their daily toil to say the Angelus.
After they had finished, they recommenced their work. Now they seemed terribly tired. One collapsed to his knees. Digging in what was clearly supposed to be earth, he held up only thin and twisted roots.
Craddock watched the audience closely. Thus far there wasn’t a peep from them. They were so absorbed that not one of them had moved for several minutes.
On the curtain, meanwhile, the two peasants, now in rags, were crawling to the feet of a tall man in a tailcoat and topper. By his profile, he had a huge jaw, which he held up proudly. Though the two beggars implored him for help, he ignored them, turning and striding away. Huddled together in misery, the two figures slumped down to the earth and lay still – but only for a moment or so. Slowly and jerkily, they rose back to their feet, but now they were no longer men. They were skeletons, walking heaps of bones. Frightened gasps came up from the audience, yet as they watched, more skeletons appeared, standing alongside the first two.
“I hope he doesn’t overdo it,” Craddock said quietly.
Munro stared at the curtain, amazed.
It was filled with skeletons of all shapes and sizes. What was more, many of them were hideous, light shining through narrowed eyes and jagged grins for mouths. As one, like an army almost, they began to advance, growing steadily larger. Beggar children screamed and shouted. Those at the front threw themselves back. Chairs were overturned.
“Stupid bastard!” Craddock snapped. “This isn’t what I asked him to do!”
He lunged forward, fighting his way through the packed mass of shrieking, struggling youngsters. On the curtain, the skeletons had assumed demonic proportions, leaning down toward their victims with hooked talons for hands. Munro felt a prickle of fear – no magic lantern man was this talented. With a surge of panic, he hurled himself after the major. Seconds passed before they were able to reach the screen. Craddock yanked it aside, ready to shout and bawl at the drunken buffoon who had so let him down – only to find a scene of horror.
Flaherty lay chest down in a heap of stick-and-paper puppets. He had been throttled with such unimaginable force that his head had twisted right round and his face looked up over his back. His eyes were wide and bloodshot, filled with burst vessels. Grey froth still bubbled on his blue, grimacing lips. Clearly, he had been killed only moments earlier. As if to confirm this, beyond the table where the spirit lamp burned, a narrow door hung open on the snow-filled yard.
“Quickly!” Craddock shouted, dashing through, drawing his revolver.
Munro followed, but outside there was no-one to see – only Constable Coogan with his shotgun. The constable had been lounging against the far wall, smoking a pipe, which, on seeing his senior officer, he quickly beat out on the bricks.
“Someone just came out this way,” the major said, hastening toward him.
Coogan shook his head, startled.
“Weren’t you awake, constable?” Munro demanded.
“Sir – no-one came out. I swear.”
“The bloody door’s wide open!” Craddock roared.
“It was open all along, sir, honest,” Coogan stammered. “No-one came out!”
The major and Munro glanced at each other, bewildered. “What the devil is going on here?” the inspector whispered.
“Devil is right,” Craddock said. “I ...”
“Sir, look!” Coogan suddenly hissed. “Up there.”
All three found themselves staring up the high gable wall of the workhouse. To their incredulity, a figure was framed on the darkening sky, balancing along the topmost parapet, perhaps eighty feet above them.
“He’ll break his bloody neck!” Coogan breathed.
“I very much doubt it,” Craddock said. “Shoot him down.”
The constable glanced at his chief in disbelief. “Sir?”
“Do as I say, man!” the major reiterated. “Shoot the bugger down, now!” He took aim with his own Smith and Wesson, but knowing the weapon wasn’t insufficiently accurate over such a range, refrained from squeezing the trigger.
Uneasily, Munro tried to intervene. “Sir, I’m not sure we can just ...”
“Damn it, Munro, look at him!” Craddock snarled. “That’s our man.”
High above, the figure was still in its precarious position. But now it was capering rather than balancing, prancing back and forth along the narrow ledge in a wild and ludicrous jig. What was more, it was covered in ragged Hessian or sackcloth, green by the looks of it, and pulled over its head in a pointed cowl.
“That little heathen’s murdered four people,” Craddock shouted. “Shoot him down, Coogan!”
Despite their horror at what they were seeing, the junior officers were still hesitant to open fire on an unarmed person. Men had hanged for less.
“Sir, I can’t,” Coogan pleaded. “Look, I’ll try and get him down. I’ll go up. I’ll talk to him ...”
Then a Brown Bess crashed like thunder in the workhouse yard.
Involuntarily, all three ducked. When they looked up again, they saw Sergeant Rafferty. He’d appeared silently by the corner of the building. His musket was still to his shoulder, still pointed upward, still smoking at the end of its barrel. He wore a strained, almost hypnotised expression. Attention switched back to the roof. The jig had ceased. The green-hooded figure hunched slowly over, arms clutched across its belly. Without a word, it fell, plummeting silently to earth. It hit the icy flagstones with a dull thump, the way a bundle of laundry might.
Craddock hurried forward, revolver cocked and aimed. Warily, he prodded the pile of rank cloth with his toe. It didn’t move. Slowly, finger tight on the trigger, he hunkered down, reached out, and with trembling hand began drawing back folds of material. Always though, there was more beneath. Until, at long last, he reached the solid ground.
Slowly, he rose to his feet. The rest of the men came and stood with him. One after another, they kicked at the heap of green sacking, or thrust their guns through it, seeking at least ash or bones or some sign that a living creature had once dwelt there. None of them were successful.
It was a dark and lonely Christmas Night, as they all had been since the death of Abigail.
Her husband sat alone in the kitchen of his home, a single candle on the table. He smoked a cigar and poured out brandy. The house was still so cold that he hadn’t bothered to remove his greatcoat or muffler. The hot fluid went down in a single gulp.
Craddock filled his glass again.
As he did, there was a clatter of metal from the narrow street outside. A bin, fallen over and rolling, he supposed. He glanced at the window. Frosty starlight shone through. In some high part of the house, a draught was moaning. He thought nothing of it, and blew out smoke, drank more brandy – anything to stop him brooding on the events of the day. Outside, meanwhile, the bin continued to roll.
If it was a bin.
The major glanced at his brandy. And he wondered. Eventually though, he threw it down and poured himself another. Why worry? There was no Irish blood in his veins. As far as he knew.
MAJOR CRADDOCK INVESTIGATES, which you can acquire for the non-too-princely sum of £1.99.
Whatever you opt to do on that front, here’s hoping that everyone checking in here has a great Christmas and a very happy New Year. See you in 2019.
(The image at the top is a superb piece of festive chiller art that I’ve seen floating around online for a while without a credit attached. I have no idea who the original artist is, but if he/she wants to get in touch, I will happily post their name).