“The House of the Red Candle”—A Murder Mystery by Martin Edwards

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The House of the Red Candle

Martin Edwards

To the end of his days, Charles Dickens forbade all talk about the slaying of Thaddeus Whiteacre. The macabre features of the tragedy—murder by an invisible hand; the stabbing of a bound man in a room both locked and barred; the vanishing without trace of a beautiful young woman—were meat and drink to any imaginative mind. Wilkie Collins reflected more than once that he might have woven a triple-decker novel of sensation from the events of that dreadful night, but he knew that publication was impossible. Dickens would treat any attempt to fabricate fiction from the crime as a betrayal, an act of treachery he could never forgive.

Dickens said it himself: The case must never be solved.

His logic was impeccable; so was his generosity of heart. Even after Dickens’s death, Collins honoured his friend’s wishes and kept the secret safe. But he also kept notes, and enough time has passed to permit the truth to be revealed. Upon the jottings in Collins’s private records is based this account of the murder at the House of the Red Candle.

* * *

A crowded tavern on the corner of a Greenwich alleyway, a stone’s throw from the river. At the bar, voices were raised in argument about a wager on a prizefight and a group of potbellied draymen carolled a bawdy song about a mermaid and a bosun. The air was thick with smoke and the stale stench of beer. Separate from the throng, two men sat at a table in the corner, quenching their thirsts.

The elder, a middle-sized man in his late thirties, rocked back and forth on his stool, his whole being seemingly taut with tension, barely suppressed. His companion, bespectacled and with a bulging forehead, fiddled with his extravagant turquoise shirt pin while stealing glances at his companion. Once or twice he was about to speak, but something in the other’s demeanour caused him to hold his tongue. At length he could contain his curiosity no longer.

‘Tell me one thing, my dear fellow. Why here?’

Charles Dickens swung to face his friend, yet when he spoke, he sounded as cautious as a poker player with a troublesome hand of cards. ‘Is the Rope and Anchor not to your taste, then, Wilkie?’

‘Well, it’s hardly as comfortable as the Cock Tavern. Besides, it’s uncommon enough for our nightly roamings to take us south of the river, and you gave the impression of coming here with a purpose.’ He winced as a couple of drunken slatterns shrieked with mocking laughter. The object of their scorn was a woman with a scarred cheek who crouched anxiously by the door, as if yearning for the arrival of a friendly face. ‘And the company is hardly select! All this way on an evening thick with fog! Frankly, I expected you to have rather more pleasurable company in mind.’

‘My dear Wilkie,’ Dickens said, baring his teeth in a wicked smile. ‘Who is to say that I have not?’

‘Then why be such an oyster? I cannot fathom what has got into you tonight You have been behaving very oddly, you know. When I talked about Boulogne, you didn’t seem to be paying the slightest attention.’

‘Then I apologize,’ Dickens said swiftly. ‘May I thank you for your patience.’

Collins was not easily mollified. ‘Even when you mentioned your jaunt with Inspector Field the other night,’ he complained, ‘it was as if your mind was elsewhere. May I finally be allowed to know what lies in store for us during the remainder of the evening?’

Dickens pushed his glass to one side with a sweep of the hand as though, after wrestling with an intractable dilemma, he had at last made up his mind. ‘Very well. I shall enlighten you. Our destination lies at the end of this very street.’

Collins frowned. ‘By the river?’

‘Yes.’ Dickens took a deep breath. ‘You cannot miss it. There is a fiery glow in the window of the last house in the row. In these parts, people call it the House of the Red Candle?’

‘Ah!’ Collins’s eyes widened in understanding. ‘I take it that the name speaks for itself?’

‘Indeed. Unsubtle, but you and I have agreed in the past that even the most refined taste can have too much of subtlety.’

‘Quite.’ Collins chuckled. ‘So you favored a change from the houses of Haymarket and Regent Street?’

‘Even from those of Soho and the East End,’ Dickens said quietly.

‘A writer must indulge in a little necessary research!’ Collins laughed, his cheeks reddening with excitement. ‘Whatever strange resorts it takes him to. Do you recall telling me about your experiences at Margate, years ago? Margate, of all places!’

Dickens shrugged. ‘At the seaside there are conveniences of all kinds.’

‘And you knew where they lived! Very well, tell me about this House of the Red Candle. Come on, spare me no shocking detail!’

‘Later,’ Dickens said. ‘I have no wish to spoil your anticipation.’

Collins belched. ‘Really, I must complain. You should have mentioned this an hour ago. I would have been more abstemious if only I had realised the nature of the entertainment you had up your sleeve. You old rascal! I wondered why you were wearing such a mysterious expression and only taking ladylike sips from your glass!’

Suddenly Dickens leaned across the table and stabbed a forefinger toward his companion’s heart. ‘Tonight, Wilkie, tonight of all nights, whatever happens, I beg you to repose your trust completely in me. Do you understand?’

His massive forehead wrinkling in bewilderment, Collins exclaimed, ‘Why, my dear fellow!’

‘I must have your word on this, Wilkie. Can I rely upon you?’

A light dawned in the younger man’s eyes. ‘Oh, I think I understand! Go on, then, you rascal! What is her name?’

Contriving a sly grin, Dickens said, ‘Ah, Wilkie, you are always too sharp for me.’

‘Go on, then! Her name?’

‘Very well. Her name is Bella.’

‘Splendid! And is she as pretty as her name?’

‘She is beautiful,’ Dickens said softly.

‘Ah! I do believe you are smitten. Now, don’t forget you are a married man, Charles, old fellow. How long have you known this – Bella?’

‘I have answered quite enough questions for the moment,’ Dickens retorted, springing to his feet. ‘Come, it is time for us to be away.’

Outside it was bitterly cold and fog was rolling in from the Thames, smothering the dim light from the sparse lamps. As Dickens led the way down the cobbled street at his customary brisk trot, Collins heard the restless scurrying of unseen rats. He knew this to be a part of the city where life was as cheap as the women, but he found the temptation of the unknown irresistible. Like Dickens, he always felt intensely alive during their late-night wanderings in dark and disreputable streets and alleyways. One never knew what might happen. For a writer—for any man with red blood in his veins—that shiver of uncertainty was delicious.

Just before they reached the river, they paused in front of the last house. A red candle burned in the ground-floor window, its flickering light the only colour in a world of grey. The curtains at all the other windows were drawn.

Dickens tugged at the bellpull beside the front door, but at first there was no response. Collins shivered and rubbed his hands together.

‘I shall be glad when I am warmed up!’

‘Patience, Wilkie, patience. I promise you one thing. You will not readily forget tonight.’

Collins was still chuckling when the door creaked open. A small and very fat woman peered out at them. Her hair was a deep and unnatural shade of red—Collins surmised that she wore a wig—and perched on her nose were spectacles with lenses so thick that they distorted the shape of her porcine eyes.

‘What d’ you want?’ Her voice was as sharp as a hatchet.

‘Mrs Jugg? Splendid!’ Dickens greeted her with gusto. ‘My friend and I have been given to understand that you have a young lady lodging with you by the name of Bella?’

‘What if I do?’ The woman had several chins, and each of them wobbled truculently as she spoke.

‘Well, the two of us are eager to make her acquaintance.’

‘Bella’s a lady,’ the harridan hissed. ‘A proper lady. She has very expensive tastes.’

‘Expensive and exotic, I understand,’ Dickens murmured.

‘There’s no one like her. If you’ve been recommended…’

‘We have.’

‘Then you’ll know what I mean.’

Dickens glanced over his shoulder, making sure that he was not observed by prying eyes. They could hear the rowdy harpies, presumably tired of baiting the sad woman with the scar, spilling out of the tavern in search of better entertainment. In the distance hooves clattered, but the fog was a shroud, and anything farther than five yards away was invisible. Satisfied, he put his hand inside his coat and extracted a wallet, from which he made a fan of banknotes.

‘My friend and I are not without means.’

The woman took a step toward them, as though keen to check that the money was not counterfeit. Collins caught the whiff of gin on her breath as she grinned, showing damaged and discoloured teeth.

‘Well, you look like respectable sorts. Proper gentlemen. I have to be careful, y’know. Come with me.’

She shuffled back inside, the two men following over the threshold and into a long and narrow passageway. The air reeked of damp and rotting timber. She led them into a cramped front room where a slim scarlet candle in a dish burned on the window-sill.

‘So you both want to visit Bella at the same time?’ she asked with a leer.

‘You read our minds, Mrs Jugg.’ Dickens contrived to step backward onto Collins’s toes, stifling his companion’s gasp of surprise as he passed a handful of banknotes to the brothel keeper.

The woman’s myopic gaze feasted on the notes for a few seconds before she secreted them among the folds of her grubby but capacious dress. ‘That’s very generous, sir. Very generous indeed. You’ll both be wanting to stay the night here, I take it?’

‘Not exactly,’ Dickens said. ‘I am on good terms with a man who keeps an inn not far away from here, and it would please us if Bella accompanied us there.’

The fat woman frowned and indicated their surroundings with a wave of a flabby hand. ‘This is her home, sir. She doesn’t care to go out much.’

Dickens said with animation, ‘But this is our one and only night in the locality! Who knows when we will return? My friend and I wish to enjoy a memorable finale to our sojourn south of the river!’

He passed her another sheaf of notes, and the woman caught her breath. So did Collins. Clutching the money tightly in her fist, as if fearing that he might change his mind, the brothel keeper whispered, ‘Well, sir, the circumstances are obviously exceptional. Very exceptional indeed.’

‘I’m glad we understand each other. Now, if we can be shown to Bella’s room?’

The woman glanced at a battered old clock on the sideboard and let out a snort of temper. ‘I’m sure she won’t be long. Perhaps you’d like to make yourselves comfortable in the parlour while I see what’s what?’

She shuffled back into the malodorous passageway, and they followed her into a rear hall, from which a narrow flight of stairs ran up to the floors above. Opposite the bottom of the staircase was an open door leading to another room. A bald, unshaven man in shirtsleeves, heedless of the chill of evening, was standing there, a tankard in his hand. He glanced at the two visitors, but seemed more interested in savouring his ale. Collins surmised that he was a ‘watcher’, retained to keep an eye on the girls and customers of the House of the Red Candle.

Someone was coming down the stairs, taking them two at a time, stumbling over her skirts so that it seemed that she might at any moment trip and fall head over heels. The fat woman demanded, ‘Where d’you think you’re hurrying off to, Nellie Brown?’

Nellie came to rest at the foot of the stairs. She was a stooping, round-shouldered woman in a lace cap and a maid’s uniform. Pulling a handkerchief from a pocket, she blew her nose long and loudly.

‘Nowhere, m’m,’ she croaked.

‘I have two gentlemen here with an appointment to see Bella. You took His Lordship up a good three-quarters of an hour ago. You left the key with him, didn’t you?’

With eyes downcast, Nellie said, ‘Yes, m’m.’

‘Well, he never needs longer than thirty minutes. What are they doing up there?’

Nellie, evidently reluctant to meet Mrs Jugg’s gaze, bowed her head and declined to speculate.

‘Lost your tongue, girl? Why, he was supposed to be out of there a good fifteen minutes ago!’

‘Yes, m’m.’

‘I can’t abide cheats, whatever their airs and graces! He paid for half an hour, no more. If he wanted longer, that could have been arranged.’

Nellie’s shoulders moved in a hapless shrug as she considered the threadbare carpet.

Dickens shifted impatiently from foot to foot, and the woman snapped ‘Well, I can’t keep these two gentlemen waiting. You’ll have to rouse her.’

Nellie darted a glance at Bella’s visitors before shrinking away from them, as if fearing a slap, or worse. Collins thought she was afraid of Dickens; he had a fleeting impression of dark, secretive eyes and a disfiguring mark on her left cheek that she was striving to shield from his gaze.

For a moment Dickens seemed taken aback, but then he said, ‘Yes, my friend and I have made a special journey. We prefer not to waste our time.’

Collins was disconcerted by the sudden urgency in his friend’s tone. His mood of excitement had given way to fascinated apprehension. The whole evening had taken on an Arabian Nights quality. Dickens had a hedonistic streak, but his taste did not usually extend to houses of ill fame quite as unsalubrious as this.

‘Take them up with you, Nellie,’ the fat woman commanded. ‘Bang on the door until he leaves her be. I don’t care if he hasn’t got time to button up his trousers, d’you hear? He’s long overdue!’

‘But…’ Nellie sniffled. Her distress was unmistakable.

‘At once, or it’ll be the worst for you!’

The maid began to drag herself up the stairs as if her limbs were made of lead. At a nod from the old woman, the two men followed. When they reached the landing on the first floor, Collins whispered in his friend’s ear, ‘Both of us with the same girl? Taking her to a nearby inn? For heaven’s sake! What are you thinking of?’

‘I asked you to trust me,’ Dickens muttered.

The only illumination came from the faint glow of the moon through a skylight. The ceiling was low and a taller man would have needed to bend to avoid banging his head against it. Three doors led from the landing. From two of the rooms issued the unmistakable cries of men and women in the throes of ecstasy. Nellie halted in front of the thin door, and it seemed to Collins that a tremor ran through the whole of her body.

Dickens hissed, ‘Is that Bella’s room? Come, there is no need to be frightened. You can see we are gentlemen! I swear, we mean her no harm.’

She shot another glance at them, taking in Dickens’ extravagant clusters of brown hair and Collins’s fancy yellow waistcoat. Her lips were pursed, as if she were thinking: not quite gentlemen, actually. Her dark eyes, misty with suspicion, held something else as well. Collins realised that it was terror. Did this pitiful creature really believe that she would be called to join Bella in satisfying their lusts? The thought had the same effect as a drenching by a bucket of icy water.

‘My friend is right,’ he said. ‘And we mean you no harm either. What are you afraid of, Nellie? That Bella’s customer will want to punish you for disturbing him? We won’t allow it, do you hear? We simply won’t let him take out his anger on you, will we?’

Dickens nodded. ‘The sooner the blackguard is gone, the better.’

Tears began to form in Nellie’s eyes. ‘But, sir…’

Dickens patted her on the shoulder. ‘I am sure you are a good friend to her, Nellie,’ he said meaningfully. ‘So let me tell you this. The sooner you introduce us to Bella, the better for everyone.’

The maid seemed to have been paralysed. Even when Collins gave her an encouraging nod, she did not move an inch.

‘He has the key to this room,’ she said. ‘All I can do is knock. If he don’t answer…’

Dickens took a step toward her. ‘Does he hurt her, Nellie?’

She choked on a sob. ‘I…I can’t say.’

‘We must stop this,’ he said. ‘Will you knock at her door?’

‘Sir, I —’

She was interrupted by a sound, from inside the room. A low groan. And then, unmistakably, a man’s hoarse voice.

‘Please…help me!’

As the voice fell silent, Nellie screamed. Dickens leapt forward, hammering the door with his fist. ‘Let us in! For pity’s sake, let us in!’

Collins rushed to his friend’s side and pressed his ear to the keyhole, but he could detect no further sound from inside. The door was locked. Nellie’s head was in her hands and she had begun to weep. Dickens put his shoulder to the door in an attempt to shift it, but to no avail.

The commotion must have roused the watcher down below; for a coarse voice roared, ‘What’s to do? What’s to do?’

One of the doors to the landing was flung open, and a half-dressed man appeared. ‘What’s happening, for God’s sake? Are the peelers here?’

Within moments the place was in uproar. The man who feared the arrival of the police was fastening his britches with clumsy desperation. A grizzled old fellow emerged from the second room, wheezing so frantically that Collins feared that he might succumb to a heart attack at any moment. The bald ruffian from the parlour was lumbering upstairs, with the fat brothel-keeper trailing in his wake. Looking into the other rooms, Collins could see two naked girls cowering in the shadows. Their clients jostled past the bald watcher, the younger man taking the steps two at a time in his haste to escape.

The watcher grabbed Dickens by the arm. ‘Causing trouble, mister? Why did she scream?’

‘We heard the voice of Bella’s client,’ Dickens said.

‘He sounded frightened and in pain. But the door is locked and I cannot force it open.’

The man pushed him aside and heaved against the door. Timber splintered, but the lock held. Puffing furiously, the fat little woman arrived on the landing.

‘What’s all this to-do?’ she demanded, turning furiously to Nellie. ‘Where’s Bella?’

The maid was sobbing piteously and unable to speak. Fearing that the fat woman would strike her servant, Collins interposed his squat frame between them and said, ‘We heard her visitor. Something – is very wrong.’

The watcher grunted and took a step back before charging at the door. They heard the wood giving way. He charged again and this time the door yielded under his weight. Bella’s room was no more than twelve feet square. Apart from a tall cupboard and a double bed, the only furniture was a cracked looking glass and a battered old captain’s chair on which were piled a pair of tweed trousers and an expensively tailored jacket as well as a man’s underthings, evidently discarded in haste.

Stretched out on the bed lay the body of a naked man. His wrists were tied to the bedstead by lengths of rope, his glassy eyes staring sightlessly at the ceiling. Collins had a sudden fancy that he saw in them a look of horrified bewilderment. Tall and broad-shouldered, with heavy jowls, the man had a shock of jet-black hair. His lips had a sensual curve. Blood dripped onto the sheets from a gash in his stomach, an inch above the navel.

The watcher uttered an oath. ‘She’s done for him!’

‘Murder!’ the fat woman cried. ‘Oh, Bella, you stupid little bitch!’

Behind them, Nellie retched. Dickens was the first to move. He rushed into the room and bent by the corpse, searching for a pulse. After a moment he said, ‘Nothing. Nothing at all.’

‘There’s her weapon,’ the watcher said, pointing to a pair of scissors lying on the floor. They were dark with blood.

The brothel-keeper lifted the man’s coat from the chair.

A leather wallet tumbled from one of the pockets. She picked it up and folded it open. They could all see that the wallet was empty.

‘So she’s a thief as well as a murderess! She’ll swing for that. Precious little bitch, just see if she won’t!’

Only four of them were in the room: the fat woman, the bald man, Collins, and Dickens. Outside the door Nellie was wailing, her head in her hands. Of Bella there was no trace.

‘She must be in there!’ the fat woman cried, waving at the cupboard.

The two friends held their breath as the bald man flung open the cupboard door. Collins was not sure what he expected to see: a cowering woman, stripped and covered in blood, he supposed. The cupboard was crammed to overflowing with gaudy gowns and dresses. As well as a pair of tasselled boots, there was a mass of lace and ribbons piled high on the cupboard floor. The watcher tore the clothes aside, as if to unmask his quarry, lurking behind them. But there was no sign of her.

The room had a small rectangular window set high in the wall above the end of the bed. Collins could detect no other means of egress. The watcher ripped the blankets from the mattress, but found nothing. He got down on his hands and knees and peered underneath the bed, discovering only dust.

Unable to help himself, Collins cried, ’Where is she?’

The fat woman clasped a podgy hand to her heart. ‘The window is bolted shut. Besides that, there are bars outside.’

‘Could the bars have been tampered with?’

The bald watcher clambered onto the bed and shoved at the window. There was no hint of movement. Shaking his head, he said, ‘I couldn’t move ‘em, never mind a young slip of a girl like her.’

‘How can she vanish into thin air?’ Collins demanded.

‘This Bella, is she a wraith, a phantom?’

‘All her clothes are in the cupboard,’ the fat woman gasped. ‘Every stitch. But where is the key?’

‘The girl must have it,’ the watcher said. ‘She is hiding somewhere.’

‘Not in here,’ Dickens murmured.

Beyond argument, he was right. Dickens pointed to the corpse. ‘This man came here alone, I take it?’

‘Oh, yes. He was one of her regulars. Always paid handsomely for her time.’

‘When he arrived, you handed him the key and asked Nellie to escort him up to this room?’

Mrs Jugg nodded. Ain’t that right, Nell?’

The maid, still snivelling out on the landing, managed a grunt.

Dickens said, ‘You saw him enter the room?’

‘As he put the key in the lock,’ the maid croaked, ‘he told me I could go.’

‘So you did not see Bella herself?’ Collins asked.

The maid shook her head, but the fat woman said impatiently, ‘Of course, Bella was in the room, waiting for him. She was here all evening, same as usual. Nellie brought her up and locked her in, same as always. The gentleman had an appointment. He called upon her every Thursday at nine, regular as clockwork.’

‘She must have done him in and then locked the door on him,’ the bald man said. ‘It’s the only way.’

‘If she’d come down to the ground, you’d have stopped her, wouldn’t you, Jack, my lad?’

‘She could never get past me,’ he boasted. ‘She’s tried it once or twice and I made her pay for it, so help me.’

‘Then,’ Dickens suggested, ‘if she is flesh and blood and not a poltergeist, she must be concealed in one of the other rooms on this floor.’

‘He’s right,’ the watcher said.

‘What are you waiting for, then?’ the fat woman demanded. ‘Let’s find her, quick!’

They hurried out and into the adjoining bedroom. Dickens moved swiftly to Nellie’s side and whispered something to her before returning and pulling the door shut behind him.

‘What did you say to her?’ Collins asked.

Dickens was staring at the pale flesh of the dead man.

‘Do you recognise him, Wilkie?’

‘The face seems familiar, but—’

‘This is the Honourable Thaddeus Whiteacre. You heard the woman refer to him as “His Lordship”? He liked to play up his noble origins. Besides that, he fancied himself as something of an artist, although to my mind his daubs were infantile. John Forster introduced me to him a year ago at a meeting of the Guild for Literature and Art.’

‘You are acquainted?’

‘Regrettably. De mortuis, Wilkie, but he struck me as one of the least agreeable men I have ever met. I recall a conversation in which he sought to convince me of the pleasure that could be gained from inflicting pain – and having pain inflicted upon oneself.’

Collins shivered as he considered the corpse’s face. Even in death, the saturnine features seemed menacing. He found it easy to imagine that they belonged to a man with vile and sinister tastes.

‘Do you believe that Bella killed him?’

Dickens put a finger to his lips. ‘Come, let us join the search.’

The watcher and his mistress were opening and slamming shut cupboard doors and drawers scarcely large enough to accommodate a box of clothes, let alone a full-grown woman. It was absurd, Collins thought, to imagine that the missing girl could have taken refuge in a room where a colleague was entertaining a client—but where might she have concealed herself? The brothel-keeper was cursing and describing in savage terms what she would do to Bella once she was found. Nellie had scuttled off downstairs, while the shivering prostitutes hugged each other in a corner and tried not to attract the fat woman’s attention.

‘She’s been spirited away!’ one of the girls said. Her face was blotchy and tear-stained, her body covered in yellowing bruises. Collins doubted if she was yet sixteen years of age. ‘It’s the Devil’s work!’

‘Bella would never hurt a fly!’ the other girl cried. ‘Someone else has done this! Or something. Killed His Lordship and then kidnapped Bella!’

‘Shut your mouths!’ the brothel-keeper shouted. ‘Bogeymen don’t stab strong fellows to death with scissors. And as for you, Jack Wells, don’t think I’ve finished with you – not by a long chalk!’

‘I told you, she couldn’t have passed me,’ the bald man said mutinously. ‘I never take my eye off the stairs when there are visitors in the house.’

‘Then where did she go? I’ve been by the front door ever since Nellie roused me at five.’

‘You reside on the premises, I suppose?’ Dickens said.

‘In the basement, that’s right. But it would have been impossible for her to get down there. Jack or I would have seen her. And there aren’t any windows she could have climbed through to get out of the building. Besides, her boots were in the cupboard. That’s her only pair. She can’t have got far without her boots!’

‘The fact remains,’ Dickens said, ‘that Bella has vanished. It is as if she never existed. Yet my friend and I have not enjoyed the privileges for which we paid handsomely. May 1 ask for reimbursement of—’

The bald man took a couple of paces toward them and seized Dickens’s collar. ‘So you want your money back, do you? Well, you’ll have to whistle for it!’

‘That’s right!’ the fat woman shouted, as if glad to find a target for her fury that was made of flesh and blood. ‘If you two know what’s good for you, you’ll clear off now like these other lily-livered bastards!’

‘Please assure me,’ Dickens said, rubbing his neck as the bald man released his grip, ‘that there is no question of your summoning the police.’

The fat woman stared at him. ‘Think I was born yesterday? No fear of that, mister. Them peelers would like nothing better than to pin something on me.’

‘But the body—’ Collins began.

‘Jack will find a graveyard for it,’ she interrupted. ‘Don’t you fear.’

‘At the bottom of the Thames, I suppose?’ Dickens said.

The bald watcher scowled at him. ‘You heard what she said. It’s as easy for me to chuck three bodies in the river as one.’

Dickens caught his friend’s eye and nodded toward the stairs. ‘Very well. We will go.’

‘And don’t come back,’ the fat woman said. ‘You’ve brought trouble to this house, you two. Theft and murder. Now, Jack, you see to the body while I get Nellie to help me look for that murderous little bitch.’

Dickens hurried down the stairs, with Collins close behind. As they reached the ground, they heard the brothel-keeper calling Nellie’s name, but Collins could not see the maid in the parlour. He presumed that she was in the front room, where the red candle burned. Dickens caught hold of his wrist and manhandled him down the passageway and out into the fog.

* * *

An hour later the two friends were ensconced in the more congenial and familiar surroundings of the Ship and Turtle in the heart of the City. Exhausted on their arrival after racing from Greenwich, they had quaffed a couple of glasses of ale to calm their nerves with scarcely a word of conversation.

An extraordinary evening,’ Collins said at length. ‘Expensive, too.’

Dickens shrugged, his expression shorn of emotion. So energetic by nature, he seemed in an uncharacteristically reflective mood. ‘For the Honourable Thaddeus Whiteacre, undoubtedly.’

‘Well, I realise you are a man of means, old fellow, but you must be bitter at having spent so much for so little reward.’

‘Oh, I’m not so sure about that, Wilkie.’

Collins stared at his friend. ‘I really think that it is time that you were frank with me. Your behaviour tonight has been most extraordinary. I thought that we were out for a little innocent amusement…’

‘I agree that what happened was neither innocent nor amusing.’

‘…and instead we ended up running through a peasouper, fleeing from a madam’s hired ruffian. Even since we’ve arrived here, you’ve spent most of the time staring into space, as if trying to unravel the most ticklish conundrum.’

‘In which endeavour I believe I have succeeded. You are right, Wilkie. I do owe you an explanation. But first – let us have another drink.’

‘You almost sound as if you are celebrating a glorious triumph,’ Collins grumbled as a waiter replenished their glasses.

‘In a sense,’ Dickens said calmly, ‘I am. Your health, dear Wilkie!’

‘But we have been present at the scene of a brutal slaying!’ Collins protested. ‘What is worse, the circumstances are such that we cannot inform the police. I might be a young nobody, but you are Dickens the Inimitable, the most famous writer in England. Not even your friendship with Inspector Field could save you from disgrace if the truth came out. He could not hush up your presence at the scene of the crime, even if he wished to do so. The author who patronised a house of ill repute on the night of a murder – how the scandal sheets would love that story!’

‘True, true.’

‘You have not yet told me how you became acquainted with Bella,’ Collins grumbled.

‘Forgive me, Wilkie,’ Dickens said. ‘Undoubtedly you deserve an explanation for the night’s events.’

‘In so far as you can explain the inexplicable.’

‘Oh, I shall do my best,’ Dickens said, with an impish smile. ‘I met Bella one night when my nocturnal ramblings took me to that God-forsaken tavern the Rope and Anchor. I was sitting just where you and I sat this evening. Looking round, I noticed a young woman in the company of Jack Wells, whom you met this evening. Her profession was apparent from her dress, if not from her demeanour, yet I was struck by her quite astonishing beauty. She is no more than seventeen, Wilkie, but her face and figure were as fine as any I have seen in a long time. More than that, there was an innocence and purity about her that I found mesmerising. It was as if, by some miracle, she had yet to be tainted by her profession. But it was plain that she was in the depths of misery, above all that she was in mortal fear of her brutish companion. I surmised that she was a dress lodger and that the madam of the house where she plied her trade had instructed Wells to keep an eye on her.’

‘That is the way these people run their business, is it not? A watcher dogs the dress lodger’s footsteps to make sure that she does not run away from the brothel.’

‘Exactly. As I studied the girl, I found myself speculating about her history, imagining the sequence of events that had reduced her to such dire straits. It can happen easily enough, you know.’ A dreamy look came into Dickens’s eyes. Collins had seen the same expression when he acted before the Queen at Devonshire House, throwing himself body and soul into his part, so that any deficiencies in thespian talent were amply compensated by the intensity of his imaginative investment in his performance. ‘A young woman, perhaps an orphan, becomes destitute and is “rescued” by an apparently kind-hearted older lady. She is offered salvation in the form of board and lodging, only to learn – too late! – that the price is higher than she can afford. Possibly she is accused of a petty theft – a put-up job, with the threat of criminal prosecution supposedly bought off by the bribing of a bogus police officer. By whatever means, the madam ensures that the victim stays deeply in her debt. The poor wretch must repay by selling the only wares that she possesses. Oh, yes, Wilkie, there are female slaves in plantations across the ocean that enjoy liberty for which a dress lodger in a mean London brothel can only offer up hopeless prayers!’

Collins swallowed a mouthful of beer. ‘It is pure wickedness.’

‘Indeed. I hold that a woman is free to sell herself, just as a man is free to buy. That is the way of the world, and has been throughout history. But when all that the woman earns goes to the harridan who keeps her in thrall… Well, emboldened by drink, I decided that I must do something. This young woman might only be one of a thousand dress lodgers in this city, but I vowed to myself that I would set her free.’

‘But you knew nothing of her.’

‘Only what I had seen in her lovely, wistful face. Yet it was enough, Wilkie. I decided to bide my time and when the watcher succumbed to a call of nature, I approached the girl. I urged her to come with me and escape from her guard while she had the chance. But she was terrified and suspected a trap. I could see in her eyes that she yearned to believe that I was offering her a chance to start a new life, but her fear of Jack Wells and his mistress was stronger than the faith she could muster in the words of a complete stranger. Within a minute I realised it was no good. I had time merely to ask her name and where she lived.’

‘Bella, from Mrs Jugg’s lodging, the House of the Red Candle in Greenwich,’ Collins murmured.

‘Precisely. Even as she gave me those few details, a look of panic crossed her face, and I realised that Jack Wells was returning to take charge of her. I made myself scarce – but not without whispering a promise that I would see her again and set her free.’

‘Hence tonight?’

‘Hence tonight.’ Dickens sighed. ‘I had not reckoned that Fate would intervene in the sordid shape of her regular client, the Honourable Thaddeus Whiteacre.’

‘I suppose he abused her terribly.’

‘No doubt,’ Dickens said softly. ‘Yet Bella does not lack spirit. She did not trust a stranger in a tavern to rescue her, but she was prepared to save herself. So she conceived an audacious scheme of her own, to kill Whiteacre and escape with all the funds he kept in his wallet.’

‘You are sure that she did murder him?’

Dickens gave him a pitying look. ‘Who else?’

‘Indeed. But how?’

‘There, my dear Wilkie, I can only speculate.’

‘For the Lord’s sake, Dickens, you can’t leave it at that!’

For a moment Dickens eyed his friend, scarcely able to contain his amusement. ‘Very well. If you wish to hear my theory, then I shall be glad to share it with you. I make just one condition.’

‘Name it.’

‘That, after tonight, we never speak of this matter again. No matter what the circumstances. Can I trust your discretion?’

‘Naturally,’ Collins said in a stiff voice.

‘I mean it, Wilkie. We must hold our tongues forever. Two lives depend upon it.’

‘Two?’

‘Those of Bella and the maidservant Nellie Brown.’

Collins frowned. ‘It was hardly the maid’s fault that she led Whiteacre to his death and that Bella contrived to flee from the House of the Red Candle. If indeed she did escape.’

‘Oh, I think she did.’

‘But how?’

Dickens finished his ale and put the tankard down on the table. ‘I helped her to escape.’

‘We have been together all evening,’ Collins said. ‘How could you have done so?’

Dickens grinned. ‘When I saw the chance for her to get away, I whispered that she should seize it. My fear was that she might be overcome by remorse at the enormity of her crime and confess her guilt to the madam. I do not condone the taking of life, but tonight I am tempted to make an exception.’

‘But I don’t—’

‘She masqueraded as Nellie Brown,’ Dickens interrupted. ‘You saw the real maidservant yourself. She was waiting at the Rope and Anchor for her friend. Remember how the drunken women mocked her, and all because of the scar on her cheek?’

‘That was Nellie?’

‘I am sure of it. Bella had borrowed her clothes, so as to fool Mrs Jugg. I suppose they slipped out of the house while Mrs Jugg was dozing and under cover of the fog sliding in from the Thames, Bella put Nellie’s garments on under her own dress. Once she was back in the upstairs room, she reversed the outfits. She must have strapped her bosom down – I recall that she was quite formidably endowed, Wilkie! – and used cosmetic preparations to mimic the scar on her friend’s cheek. She is a couple of inches taller than Nellie, and she needed to stoop and kept her head bent so as to avoid close scrutiny. She was relying on Mrs Jugg’s poor eyesight and Jack Wells’s lack of imaginative intelligence. When, in Nellie’s character, she showed Whiteacre into the room and then revealed herself as Bella, no doubt he was amused by the impersonation, perhaps even excited by it. We can speculate as to the inducement she offered to persuade him not only to strip for her but to allow her to tie him up. When he was at her mercy, she stabbed him, but with insufficient force to kill him straight away. Then she stole his money. Knowing Whiteacre’s penchant for heavy spending, I suspect she found enough to keep her and Nellie out of the brothels forever and a day. She committed a wicked crime, but I cannot find it in my heart to condemn her for it.’

‘She must have been trying to escape when we saw her coming down the stairs.’

‘One can scarcely imagine her feelings when she was forced to take us back to the room,’ Dickens said softly.

‘And when she heard her victim’s dying words. No wonder she vomited when faced with the horror of his corpse. But how did you guess what had happened?’

‘Guess?’ Dickens raised his eyebrows in amusement ‘The scar was my clue. It bore such an uncanny resemblance to that which disfigured the woman in the Rope and Anchor that the whole scheme revealed itself to me. But Bella made one mistake.’

‘Which was?’

‘When she put on the make-up, she forgot that she was applying it to an image in a looking-glass. And so her scar ran down the right cheek. But Nellie’s was on the left.’

-End-

About the Author

Martin Edwards is one of Britain’s leading authors of short crime fiction. In 2014, he won the inauguaral CWA Margery Allingham Prize, after a national competition, for his story ‘Acknowledgments.” He has also won the CWA Dagger for best short story of the year with ‘The Bookbinder’s Apprentice’ and ‘Test Drive’ was short-listed for the same CWA Dagger. His stories have often been included in collections of the year’s best short crime stories in Britain and the US, and they have been translated into many languages.

The New Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes collects his acclaimed Sherlockian pastiches, and special features in this ebook include an introduction by expert Sherlockian David Stuart Davies, who says: ‘One only has to read a few pages to realise that Martin Edwards has not only caught the style and quality of the originals, but the characters speak with Doylean voices. In short, Martin Edwards knows his Holmes, and he puts that knowledge to great effect in this set of cases…all the tales presented here are finely constructed mysteries in which Holmes is able to demonstrate his brilliance as a detective.’

Where Do You Find Your Ideas? and Other Stories collects Martin’s earlier stories, and is introduced by Reginald Hill, creator of Dalziel and Pascoe, who said: ‘The crime writer, especially in the short story, must not only comprehend causes, but also have the art to conceal them, at least until the last page. In this collection Martin Edwards again and again proves he is a true crime writer. I congratulate him.’ The stories marked with an asterisk below are included in Where Do You Find Your Ideas?

Harry Devlin Stories

It’s Impossible*
The Boxer*
When I’m Dead and Gone*
Never Walk Alone*
I Say a Little Prayer*
My Ship Is Coming In*
With a Little Help From My Friends*
A House Is Not a Home*

Psychological Suspense

Are You Sitting Comfortably?*
Act Of Kindness*
A Job For Life*
Where Do You Find Your Ideas?*
Diminshed Responsibility*
Wish You Weren’t Here*
Neighbours*
Penalty*
A Stolen Life*
Waiting for Godstow*
Mind Stalker
Twenty Four Hours From Tulsa
Sunset City
Melusine
Test Drive
The People Outside
InDex
The Bookbinder’s Apprentice
Bedside Manners
Clutter
Squeaky
No Flowers
The Killing of Captain Hastings
A Glimpse of Hell
Acknowledgments
Consuming Passion
Lucky Liam
Through the Mist

History Mysteries

Serpent’s Tooth*
Corpse Candle*
To Encourage Others*
Natural Causes*
The Mind Of The Master*
War Rations*
The Basement*
The Mystery of Canute Villa
The Witching Hour
The House Of The Red Candle
The Restless Dead
Mr Halkett’s Hobby
Blue Serge

Sherlockian Stories

The Case Of The Eccentric Testatrix
The Case Of The Suicidal Lawyer*
The Case Of The Persecuted Accountant*
The Case Of The Sentimental Tobacconist
The Case Of The Impoverished Landlady
The Case Of The Musical Butler
The Case of The Choleric Cotton Broker

Martin Edwards is one of Britain’s leading authors of short crime fiction. In 2014, he won the inauguaral CWA Margery Allingham Prize, after a national competition, for his story ‘Acknowledgments.” He has also won the CWA Dagger for best short story of the year with ‘The Bookbinder’s Apprentice’ and ‘Test Drive’ was short-listed for the same CWA Dagger. His stories have often been included in collections of the year’s best short crime stories in Britain and the US, and they have been translated into many languages.

The New Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes collects his acclaimed Sherlockian pastiches, and special features in this ebook include an introduction by expert Sherlockian David Stuart Davies, who says: ‘One only has to read a few pages to realise that Martin Edwards has not only caught the style and quality of the originals, but the characters speak with Doylean voices. In short, Martin Edwards knows his Holmes, and he puts that knowledge to great effect in this set of cases…all the tales presented here are finely constructed mysteries in which Holmes is able to demonstrate his brilliance as a detective.’

Where Do You Find Your Ideas? and other stories collects Martin’s earlier stories, and is introduced by Reginald Hill, creator of Dalziel and Pascoe, who said: ‘The crime writer, especially in the short story, must not only comprehend causes, but also have the art to conceal them, at least until the last page. In this collection Martin Edwards again and again proves he is a true crime writer. I congratulate him.’ The stories marked with an asterisk below are included in Where Do You Find Your Ideas?

Harry Devlin Stories

It’s Impossible*
The Boxer*
When I’m Dead and Gone*
Never Walk Alone*
I Say a Little Prayer*
My Ship Is Coming In*
With a Little Help From My Friends*
A House Is Not a Home*

Psychological Suspense

Are You Sitting Comfortably?*
Act Of Kindness*
A Job For Life*
Where Do You Find Your Ideas?*
Diminshed Responsibility*
Wish You Weren’t Here*
Neighbours*
Penalty*
A Stolen Life*
Waiting for Godstow*
Mind Stalker
Twenty Four Hours From Tulsa
Sunset City
Melusine
Test Drive
The People Outside
InDex
The Bookbinder’s Apprentice
Bedside Manners
Clutter
Squeaky
No Flowers
The Killing of Captain Hastings
A Glimpse of Hell
Acknowledgments
Consuming Passion
Lucky Liam
Through the Mist

History Mysteries

Serpent’s Tooth*
Corpse Candle*
To Encourage Others*
Natural Causes*
The Mind Of The Master*
War Rations*
The Basement*
The Mystery of Canute Villa
The Witching Hour
The House Of The Red Candle
The Restless Dead
Mr Halkett’s Hobby
Blue Serge

Sherlockian Stories

The Case Of The Eccentric Testatrix
The Case Of The Suicidal Lawyer*
The Case Of The Persecuted Accountant*
The Case Of The Sentimental Tobacconist
The Case Of The Impoverished Landlady
The Case Of The Musical Butler
The Case of The Choleric Cotton Broker

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