Matthew Langton knelt beside his wife’s grave and watched the rising sun burnish the Transatlantic Span. Far below Everton’s hilltop cemetery, beneath stepped terraces of snowbound tenement roofs, the great bridge’s foundations stood anchored in the River Mersey’s mist and shadows, but its soaring towers and suspended steel cables turned first red, then gold. Light slid down the pristine steel and illuminated the road deck; rail lines like silver threads dwindled to a distant vanishing point lost somewhere in the haze over Ireland.
Langton tried to imagine those new rails stretching westward across the Atlantic, all the way from Liverpool to New York. He could not; the distance was too great, America too remote. Like the hopeful thousands waiting below for the Span’s inauguration, he would have to see for himself.
Now, as November cold gripped him, he stood up from the gravel path and read the headstone’s angular gold letters for the hundredth time. Like Egyptian hieroglyphs from one of the recently opened tombs, they meant so much more than the simple form of the words:
Sarah Jane Langton
Born February 2nd 1872
Died August 17th 1899
Langton shed a glove and laid his hand on the smooth black marble. The icy wind racing up from the Mersey froze the droplets at the corners of his eyes, then closed them. Three months. Only three months. Langton could almost willhis hand to register soft, warm skin, or feel the coiled hair gathered at the nape of Sarah’s neck on a summer’s day.
For a moment, Langton became as still as the sculpted monuments surrounding him. Frozen cherubs and angels reached up to the sky, their faces contorted with rapture, their bodies veined marble, granite, obsidian. How closely their rapture resembled agony. How unlike Sarah’s final, peaceful features that Langton had discovered when he raced to the Infirmary, already too late.
He turned away, the gravel path crunching beneath his feet. Other than the sound of Langton’s steps, only creaking tree branches and the ringing of small bells disturbed the silence. The bells stood above many of the graves, with cords or fine chains disappearing into the ground and into the coffins below. So many people feared being buried alive, being presumed dead rather than the doctors diagnosing narcolepsy or seizure. Langton could understand their fears: In his worst nightmares—the most recent—solid walls contained him, pressed in on him, robbed him of air; when he tried to scream, no sound came out; when he tried to move, he had no body.
Yes, he could understand those fears. In three months of daily visits, Langton had seen servants sitting beside the graves of the wealthy, waiting for signs of life from below, signs that never materialized.
Hope, Langton knew, came in many forms.
“Inspector Langton?” The cemetery gatekeeper stood in the lodge’s doorway, his gaunt body silhouetted by flickering yellow light. “Have you a few minutes, sir?”
Langton hesitated, then said, “I have, Mr. Howard.”
Thanks to his sleepless nights and early awakenings, Langton had almost two hours before he must report for duty. He left his coat in the hall and followed the gatekeeper into a sitting room filled with dark, heavy furniture; dusty ornaments; and a loud grandfather clock.
Howard crossed to the cluttered table. “It’s uncommon cold already, sir. We’ve a deep winter ahead.”
Langton warmed himself by the coal fire and glanced at the objects arranged on the mantel shelf. A severe woman stared back from a staged photograph; a ribbon of black velvet hung from the silver frame. A row of medals, some frayed and dulled with time, leaned against the photograph. “In all the times we’ve spoken outside, Mr. Howard, I never realized you were a Boer veteran.”
The gatekeeper, busy at the table, stood a little taller. “Queen’s Own Riflemen, sir. Togoland and Tanganyika, then the Transvaal, God’s own purgatory here on earth, sir.”
Langton stared into the fire and remembered the taste of South African dust, the hot–copper smell of fresh blood in the sun.
Howard continued, “That’s where I picked up the taste of coffee, sir, and it stuck with me. Expensive habit, I know, but I don’t smoke and I drink only to Her Majesty’s health. I’d bet a shilling you’re a coffee man yourself, sir.”
Langton took the proffered seat beside the fire. “You’d win your wager, Mr. Howard.”
He watched as the gatekeeper trickled coffee beans into a grinder, worked the handle, and then poured the fine grains into the hexagonal Italian percolator. When Howard screwed the steel percolator together it resembled an artillery shell; he placed it onto a pivoted rack and swung it over the coal flames.
Langton listened to the tick of the clock and the bubbling percolator. For two decades, many of Britain’s young men had fought the Boers, and many still lay out there beneath the baked red soil and the unforgiving sun. But so did the Afrikaners, women and children too. Langton had discovered how fear and desperation sounded out the true depths of a man’s soul, and that of an empire.
Coffee spluttered and bubbled and filled the room with a rich, acrid odor. Howard produced two china mugs. Langton breathed in the fumes for a moment before tasting the coffee. He smiled.
“Truth is, sir . . .” Howard said, then coughed and looked away. “Truth is, I wanted to mention something.”
“Well, sir, I’ve seen you every day now since . . . since your misfortune. Every morning at the same time. Not that I was spying on you, sir. But we got to saying hallo and to passing the time of day.”
Howard gulped coffee. “Fact is, sir, I did the same when my Maude passed away: I couldn’t say good–bye to her. The good Lord knows, I seen plenty of dead and dying, enough to last ten men’s lifetimes. Maude was different. Like someone had reached inside and ripped a piece of my soul right out.”
Closing his eyes, Langton concentrated on the coffee in his hands and the waves of heat from the fire.
“Sir, I just couldn’t get over it. Stopping me from sleeping, eating, everything, it was.”
“Mr. Howard, I—”
“Hear me out, sir. Please.” Howard topped up the mugs and said, “Maude’s sister told me about this woman over in Hamlet Street, the other side of the park; she’s a spiritualist, what some might call a medium.”
Langton stared at him. “You believe such fancies?”
“I didn’t, sir, not before, but I was so desperate I paid her a visit.”
So much more than a mere fad, spiritualism had erupted in every town and city in Britain. As science progressed and wars and pestilence flourished, people searched for answers, even the wrong ones. Through his fellow officers, Langton had heard of fake mediums and spirit guides defrauding anguished families of hundreds or even thousands of pounds. At the other end of the scale lay poor men like the gatekeeper.
Langton set his mug down. “I’m sorry, Mr. Howard.”
“She let me say good–bye to my Maude, sir,” Howard said. “She helped me and she can help you, sir, I know it. Perhaps I’m being forward, but I hate to see suffering. Especially in a comrade.”
Langton looked into the man’s face etched with deep lines, the eyes wide and still hopeful. “Mr. Howard, so many of these people are charlatans.”
“Not this one, sir. Not Mrs. Grizedale.” Howard reached into his waistcoat pocket for a small card. “If you feel able to, please call on her. You’ll not regret it if you do.”
Langton nodded, took the card, and slipped it into his jacket. “Perhaps I shall.”
As he collected his Ulster coat and gloves from the hall, Langton wondered if the spiritualist had actually helped Howard or whether the gatekeeper simply believed that she had. Either way, as long as Howard felt he’d benefited, the end result must be the same.
“I hope you’ll forgive me bringing this up, sir. Being forward, like.”
On the front step, Langton folded his collar up against the cold and then shook the gatekeeper’s hand. “I appreciate the consideration, Mr. Howard. And thank you for the coffee.”
Langton looked back from the massive wrought–iron gates and saw Howard stooped in the lodge doorway. He had a sudden image of the cottage standing alone in the snow, very far from the city’s bustle, with Howard guarding something neither of them understood, something quite different from the certainty of these manicured grounds. Something elemental. Then the icy wind shredded the image and brought Langton back to the city waiting below him.
He crossed Walton Lane and walked south toward the city center, dimly registering the whine of cart wheels and the snorting horses whose breath hung in clouds. Soot flecked the snow under Langton’s boots and he tasted coal dust in the air; most of the roadside tenement windows glimmered with candlelight or gaslight, and smoke writhed up from myriad chimneys to join the pall that never quite left the city.
As he crossed Walton Breck Road, Langton heard a steady roar and pounding like some great beast laboring uphill. The polished brass boiler and belching smokestack of a Riley steam car wheezed up the incline. Even before the vehicle veered to his side of the road, Langton recognized the insignia of the Liverpool Exchange Division Police, his own company. He stepped back as narrow rubber tires skidded on the compacted snow and the beast halted with a belch of blue–black smoke.
The two men in leather coats and fogged goggles resembled aviators, but the vehicle itself, with its curved wooden stern and brass boiler, looked like a boat wrenched from its natural home. Indeed, one of the men gripped the shaking tiller like a helmsman. The other man peeled off his goggles and saluted Langton.
Langton nodded in return. “McBride. You’ve chosen a noisy companion this morning.”
“She’s a fine craft, sir. And all the hansom cabs were out when I asked.”
Langton doubted that was true, since Sergeant McBride loved all the new machinery, all the latest advances of Queen Victoria’s technological age, and needed little excuse to use them. Every week, wide–eyed, he related broadsheet stories of zeppelins and gyroplanes, warcraft and atomics, horseless carriages and landships.
“I called at your house, sir, and Elsie told me where I might find you.” McBride looked away as he mentioned Langton’s maid.
“Why the haste, Sergeant?”
“A bad business for us, sir, down at the docks.”
Langton, already climbing aboard the steam car, said, “What sort of business?”
A hiss, a roar, a grinding of metal cogs, and the car lurched forward. McBride turned and shouted above the din, “Murder, sir. And the work of a madman.”
The dead man lay facedown on the cobbles edging Albert Dock. All around the scene, dockers and supervisors bustled, steam winches hissed and groaned, beam cranes hoisted, men clawed at bales with metal hooks. But a subdued silence encircled the corpse and its waiting attendants.
Langton knelt beside the man. Dark woolen trousers, patched, and new boots, scuffed at the toes; no jacket but a white, collarless shirt and black waistcoat. A gold Albert chain trailed from under the stomach but had no fob watch attached. The chain’s last link had not been broken, as usually happened when a thief tore a watch away.
The man’s arms jutted out at unnatural angles, like some collapsed scarecrow, and Langton winced at the break points above the elbow on the left arm and above the wrist on the right. The unfastened shirt sleeves revealed skin tanned to the color of teak, with faint blue tattoos struggling through.
Langton knelt a little closer to the left arm’s tattoos and then focused on the head: cropped hair as black as jet, and a bald spot of pale white. The left ear had been pierced and held five gold studs of varying sizes. The head lay on its right cheek, so that the left side lay exposed.
Someone had sliced off the man’s face. Instead of tanned flesh was raw red bone, striated ligaments, and sagging tissue. A precise incision ran from the forehead, down the front of the ears, and under the jaw and chin. On one side of the cut lay the neck and throat, dirty tanned flesh. On the other, ruin.
As Langton stood up, he tried to remember the last time he had seen those injuries. Not since South Africa, and certainly not in Great Britain, until now. He looked around at the brick warehouses surrounding the grey water of the enclosed dock. Life continued as if nothing had happened. At every level, even the top floor a hundred feet or more in the air, men leaned out of open doors and steered roped cargoes up from the wharves below. Ships, steam and sail, lined every inch of the busy wharves; more waited at the open dock gates, impatient to unload and return to the river and sea.
And above all, towering over everything, stood the Transatlantic Span. It reduced even the enormous docks and steamships to toys.
Langton turned to the waiting circle. “Who discovered the body?”
A burly, unshaven man in a torn shirt spat into the water. “I did. First light. More’s the bloody pity.”
Another of the men, this one older and wearing a faded brown suit and hat, said, “You’ll show some respect, Connolly.”
The docker crossed his thick arms. “What for? I get paid when I work; more I stand around here, less I make.”
“Mend your tone or you’ll be on the street.”
“That’s enough, gentlemen.” Langton raised a hand to stop the older man from speaking, then turned to the docker. “Tell me what happened.”
Connolly nodded toward the enclosed grey water. “I was on my way to the office, to see if I could get anything for today. Healey was gang foreman last week so I didn’t get a ha’penny, even though I can do the work of two his cronies.”
Langton knew that the dockers found their work through Company–appointed foremen. They had to report every morning and hope they found a fair–minded man giving out the day’s employment. If not, they didn’t work, just as in Langton’s grandfather’s day. “Go on.”
“Well, I was walking alongside the ramp over there, where they sometimes haul the boats out, when I saw a shape in the water. Thought it was a tarpaulin or slung cargo, but closer I got, the more it looked like a man. So I grabbed a boathook and fished it in. Gave me a turn, it did, and I don’t mind admitting it.”
Langton looked down at the edge of the man’s face, where the flesh became raw red bone.
“Robbery, obviously,” the brown–suited man said. “We get a few bodies washed up every month with their throats slit or heads bashed in.”
“Nothing like this?”
The man hesitated. “Not to my knowledge.”
“And you are . . .”
“Perkins, Inspector. Assistant piermaster.”
Connolly spat eloquently into the dock again but said nothing. Perkins glared at him. “Of course, it could be someone inside the docks. You never know what these layabouts will get up to.”
Langton did not want to get diverted, and so he told Connolly, “Give your address to Sergeant McBride here and you can go back to work. Mr. Perkins, have you any idea who the dead man might be?”
Perkins didn’t look down at the body. “How could I? Besides, he wouldn’t be one of our workers, not dressed like that.”
“Well, the boots, the trousers and waistcoat: They’re issued by the TSC.”
Langton glanced at the bridge. “The Transatlantic Span Company?”
“I’m sure of it, Inspector. You can’t help but notice them, swanking about with their pockets full of silver, even though most of them are no better than navvies. That’s why I’m sure it’s robbery.”
As if speaking to himself, Langton said, “But they didn’t take his gold chain or rings.”
Langton looked up. “Where can we find you if we need you?”
“That brick cottage next to the dock gates, but—”
“Thank you, Mr. Perkins. We’ll finish our work here as soon as we can.”
As Perkins left, Langton checked the dead man’s pockets. He found no identification, but a fine steel chain secured a key to the man’s belt; triangular in shape, with the simplistic outline of a bridge engraved into the metal, it reminded Langton of keys used by watchmen to prove they had done the rounds of their assigned buildings or routes—they would slip the key into a suitable clock that time–stamped their presence.
A guard or watchman would no doubt have unfettered access to the Span. He could identify its weak points, its vulnerabilities. And he would know that the Queen herself would inaugurate the Span in five days.
Langton waved forward the two waiting stretcher bearers. As they rolled the body onto the canvas stretcher, Langton saw the whole face in full. It grinned back at him like some gruesome effigy. Langton closed his eyes and took a deep breath; when he looked again, the bearers had loaded their cargo in their horse–drawn black wagon.
“Are you all right, sir?”
“I’m fine, Sergeant. Fine.”
McBride nodded at the last man remaining, a bearded giant broad across the shoulders. “What shall I do with him, sir?”
“Who is he?”
“Olsen, sir, a stoker from the steam brigantine Asención. Reckoned he saw a small boat slipping through the Canning Half–Tide Dock gate around four this morning. Mind, he’s been hard at the liquor.”
The disheveled sailor clung to the iron lamppost like a shipwreck survivor with a piece of driftwood.
“Do you have his statement?”
“Aye, the gist of it, sir.”
“Then send him to his ship. We’ll talk to him tonight, after he’s slept off some of the drink.”
As the stoker lurched toward the King’s Dock gate to the south, Langton took a final inventory of the scene. The man could have been murdered anywhere and his body dumped in the water from boat or carriage. Or simply hurled over the side of the docks.
And the motive? Langton had encountered so many in his career: greed, hatred (for as many reasons, both real and imagined, as man could devise), love, and fear. Or madness, the most difficult to fathom since it relied on its own perverse logic. Robbery was the simplest explanation but the wrong one here; the victim’s thick gold watch chain, earrings, and rings would not have survived.
And thieves would have no reason to slice off the man’s features.
“Sir, is there anything else?” McBride went toward the swing bridge leading to Gower Street.
“Return to the station,” Langton said, “and ask Doctor Fry to check the man’s body for any more tattoos and scars, especially around the chest and stomach. This is not just another murder, Sergeant.”
McBride seemed about to ask a question, then nodded and walked toward the steam car parked on Gower Street well out of the lanes of passing horses and carts.
“One thing, Sergeant,” Langton said. Then, as McBride turned around, “Why did we get this call? We’re not on the duty roster this week.”
McBride shook his head. “I never asked why, sir. I just did what the Chief told me, and came to collect you. Did I do wrong?”
“No. I’m sure he has good reason,” Langton said, still wondering why Chief Inspector Purcell should want him on this case. Perhaps the Chief wanted to distract him, although Langton had never attributed compassion to the man. Perhaps he had misjudged him.
Leaving a constable at the scene, Langton crossed the east swing bridge into Salthouse Dock and walked its perimeter until he reached busy Wapping Road. The cold November air would clear his head and help him think. It might help him to remember what those tattoos signified; back in the Transvaal, he’d been adept at reading the enemy’s intricate body art. No design was redundant—all had a special meaning. And he had no doubt the man was a Boer. The tattoos confirmed it.
Why would a Boer veteran, an enemy of Britain and all its dominions even after the Bloemfontein truce, work on the Transatlantic Span?