See why everyone's still talking about London's favorite pickpocket.
With the coming release early 2016 of Between Good And Evil, first book in the Auburn Notch Mysteries, I thought it might be nice to pop back across the pond and revisit an old friend from London. Rook, Rhyme and Sinker is the second book in the Ernie Bisquets Mystery Series. It's a traditional English cozy set in contemporary London, and features one of my favorite characters—Ernie Bisquets. I'm working on the next book in this series, The Vicar of Whetstone, but the anticipated release is not until late 2016. Until then, I thought it might be nice to give those who haven't met Ernie yet a glimpse of this thrilling mystery. I've posted the first chapter below. Enjoy!
Rook, Rhyme And Sinker
CHAPTER ONE / So Cloudy Doth the Day Begin
For all the curiosities that meet the eye in Camden Town, and herein is reference to that which captures the attention of the endless stream of visitors crowding the streets of this section of London, one could be confident in saying they would be at a loss to find someone who could accurately describe the weather on the day of their visit. No matter what reason prompted the visit—the market stalls, the locals, or to take part in the darker pleasures this part of town has to proffer—the weather is neither seldom a consideration nor a deterrent. One can ask, and one may get a thoughtful attempt at an accurate depiction of the meteorological conditions, but invariably the conversation will revert back to the sights that overwhelmed their other senses. And for those who had gathered this day on the bridge overlooking the lock on the Regent’s Canal, they will be going back with more of a story than Camden Town usually has to offer. Even those characters who were the typical point of interest had their attention captured by the body bobbing in the cold water of the lock below. Some wondered if it was a friend; others, if it was a customer. Most were cinching up their collars on this wet, spring morning, just trying to get a better look at this poor soul, speculating amongst themselves how he’d met his end.
The police had cleared the area of spectators along the walkway between the shops and the wrought iron railing separating it from the lock. The less curious went about their business, unaffected by the event, while others remained intrigued and joined the group assembling on the dining terrace above. It’s for certain a dead body isn’t good for any neighborhood, but if you happen to own the cafe above a crime scene, it’s standing room only. With camera-phones clicking away, this poor chap’s end was quickly broadcast around the globe…a far cry from the privacy and dignity afforded those meeting a similar end prior to the advent of the digital age.
The discovery was called into the Holmes Road Station. Detective Inspector Thomas Byrne was first on the scene, followed by a number of constables. Within minutes of their arrival, they were joined by a contingent of Special Constables from the adjacent stations to help control the scene. All was put in order straight away, so it was just a matter of the Medical Examiner, now.
The lock was full when the body surfaced, having been in the midst of transferring a canal boat. Those aboard the boat were asked to remain below deck until the body was removed and it was determined if their presence would be required. Camden Lock is a double lock, so the rest of the canal traffic continued with use of the adjacent lock, but at a much slower, and more inquisitive, pace.
It was obvious from the bloated stomach and neck of the man bobbing in the water that he had been submerged for some time; the build up of gasses in the body had caused it to finally surface. This was the first thing Dobbs, the local Forensic Medical Examiner, or FME, noticed when he made his way down to the water’s edge.
Dr. Percival Dobbs was part of the Medical Examiners Group assigned to Camden Town. His training was complete, including the two-year probation required for the position. Most FMEs work on a part-time basis, but Dobbs was hoping for full-time status as he eagerly anticipated his renewable ten-year contract offer. He’d been an average student at King’s College, London, graduating in the upper middle half of his class. It wasn’t until he’d attended the Royal College of Surgeons that he’d begun to excel. His fascination with the effects of external forces on the human body was, to some of his colleagues, a bit obsessive, if not disturbing. To Dr. Percival Dobbs it was all in the name of science; to the official police it was an invaluable resource.
Dr. Percival Dobbs was in his mid-thirties, with brown hair and pleasant features. He wasn’t an over-achiever academically, but his curious nature and well-honed research skills never left him wanting for an answer to a problem. It would take very little time in his company to find his thin build was in complete contrast to his eating habits; he was rarely seen without a pocketful of biscuits or a takeaway container in hand. His bleached-white lab coat was dotted here and there with a mustard stain and, on those occasions when he turned out his pockets, a weekly collection of bakery crumbs would cascade out amongst the assorted coins.
Dobbs found the routine of hospital rotation so incredibly dreary that he’d slowly gravitated to forensics in the criminal environment. It was this calling that had brought him to the ME Group, and now found him at Camden Lock, assisting in the retrieval of the aforementioned body.
“What have we this time?” he called out as he approached the Detective Inspector.
“Not sure about this one,” replied Inspector Byrne, walking across the gates from the brick island that separated the two locks.
After the body had surfaced, it had floated into the upper corner, against the right side gate, where it remained. It was face up, pink, and grotesque in appearance. The fish had nibbled a bit at the ears and eyelids, only enhancing the overall grimness of the man’s demise. He was fully clothed, though the expansion of his stomach had popped a few of the lower buttons of his plaid shirt. His neck was also bloated, something to be expected when a body has been in the water for a few days. Though darker, since it was wet, his brown hair held no trace of grey.
“Give a hand, here,” Dobbs said to the inspector, pointing at the body with the biscuit he was eating. “Let’s get him out and take a look.”
Fortunately, the water level was up, so the two men wrestled the body on to the pavement without much effort. Dobbs knelt down next to it. He looked for a place to set his biscuit, but instead stuffed the remaining piece in his mouth. He leaned in for a closer look at the head and face, while holding his hands away from the body and brushing the crumbs off. He continued to slowly look over the body, stopping only to lift the right arm.
“Don’t like the looks of that,” he said, holding the arm out for the inspector to see. “He’s a user, this one, but only occasionally by the looks of these marks. You see this one?” Dobbs said, and the inspector leaned down for a look. “This needle mark is fresh, but these others look quite old. I’d say this chap recently slipped back into an old habit.”
“Not surprising for this part of town,” replied Inspector Byrne. “A bit queer though, that is, him being out, dressed like that.”
“Brilliant,” Dobbs said, rising to his feet. “I noticed it, too, and that, sir, will give you a reasonable place to start. It’s been chilly for the last two weeks, except last Thursday evening was exceptionally warm and it continued into Friday. By midday Friday the cooler weather had returned, and it’s still with us. I’d put his end at Thursday, late. This would explain the short sleeve shirt and light trousers. It might be accidental, but I’d put a fiver on him having a bit of help with his late night swim. I’ll know more when we get him back to the lab. Who found him?”
“The couple on that canal boat,” replied Inspector Byrne, pointing over at the boat tied off in the lock. “Or rather, it was at the woman’s scream that drew attention to the body. The lock was filling, apparently, when he surfaced.”
“Right. Do we know who he is?”
“I checked for a wallet when I arrived, but his pockets are empty.”
Dobbs knelt down again and took a close look at the left arm of the deceased. “I believe he had a watch, too. Probably taken with the wallet.”
Dobbs stood back up and fished around in his jacket pockets, finally pulling out a yogurt container and a plastic spoon. Inspector Byrne gave him a curious look. Dobbs fumbled about for a moment but retrieved a second yogurt from another pocket and held it out to the inspector. As Inspector Byrne shook his head in response to the offer, he noticed a familiar figure in the crowd standing down towards the bridge. He appeared to be waving in an attempt to gain the inspector’s attention. With some reluctance Inspector Byrne gave a nod to the constable to allow the man through.
A gaunt figure shuffled over from where the crowd was being held back. He was an older man, slightly hunched and very gruff in appearance and attitude. The local police knew him in the area, more by his appearance than by his name. “I believe I may be of some help, Inspector,” the man said as he approached the two officials.
“And how might that be?”
“I had the misfortune to be at the end of this bloke’s random plea for help,” said the man. “No doubt he got my name from the book. It’s a dog’s breakfast, it is. The first time I don’t ask for my fee up front and look what happens.”
“So, you know this man?” Dobbs asked.
“No,” was the sharp reply. The old man sneered at Dobbs for a moment and then looked over at the inspector and continued. “Last week a man calling himself Mr. Simon Railes came to my office. He handed me an envelope and a wallet, asking that I hold them for him until he returned on Sunday. I said I would do so, but I expected payment for my services also at that time. He agreed, and that was the last I saw of him.”
“Would that have been Thursday?” Dobbs asked.
The old man didn’t acknowledge the question. “Well, I can see why he didn’t make it to my office yesterday,” he said, giving the body a nudge with his foot.
“So, you’re saying you can identify this as the man who came to your office?” Inspector Byrne asked.
“I’m saying this looks remarkably like the man who introduced himself as Simon Railes. Plaid shirt. Dark hair. He was a bit on the nervous side. It was late Thursday afternoon when he knocked up. Here”—he paused, handing a watch to the Inspector—”he gave me this for collateral. It’s a fake, otherwise I’d be pawning it for my fee.”
“It’s evidence, now,” Inspector Byrne said, taking the watch from his hand.
“I guess you’ll want these, too.” The old man pulled an envelope and a wallet from his pocket and handed them to the inspector. “When he didn’t show yesterday I decided to open the letter. It seems your friend, here, was intending to depart this world rather abruptly. I was bringing these to you at the station when I saw the crowd gathering here.” The old man stood slightly hunched over, causing him to strain a bit as he looked up at Dobbs. He curled his lip and tossed another sneer in his direction. “Maybe it will help you determine the cause of death.”
The inspector accepted the wallet and envelope. He removed the letter from the envelope and took a moment to read it over. It was brief and to the point.
By the time these words are read aloud, I will have left those I’ve walked amongst for so long. Though I cannot erase the sorrow I’ve caused others, I can, in good conscience, promise there will be no more. S.R.
“Suicide, you say? He must have been incredibly determined to do it,” Dobbs said nonchalantly, brushing at the yogurt that dripped on his waistcoat.
“Why so?” the old man snapped back, choosing once again not to acknowledge Dobbs’ presence by addressing the remark to Inspector Byrne.
“Despite one’s desire to end their life,” Dobbs continued, unaffected by the deliberate snub, “most people have the involuntary reaction to preserve it, especially in the water. Drowning is not a first choice for those opting to off themselves, and if it were, they would most certainly weight themselves down or leap from a very high bridge. This would eliminate any chance of an involuntary action thwarting their intended result. Pills, a gun, hanging—these are more permanent and preferred methods. Once you kick out the chair it’s extremely difficult to change your mind, no matter what involuntary reaction you have. But, there is always the exception.”
“Yes, there is the exception,” snarled the man slowly. “Like I said, I only met him once. He was a bother then and he’s proving to be an even bigger bother now. I’ll be lucky not to catch my death of cold standing out in this dampness with your lot. He still owes me money, you know.”
“So you mentioned,” said the inspector, looking over the note once more.
“Let me understand this,” Dobbs said, with an accusing glance. “A perfect stranger brings you a note and hands you his watch and wallet with a promise to return on a specific day. When he doesn’t return, you read the note, realize he is intending suicide, and do nothing to stop him, or even raise an alarm until the next day?”
“Unless I had the foresight,” the old man slowly replied, drawing out each word with contempt, “to drain the Regent’s Canal prior to his visit, there wasn’t much I could do to stop him, was there? So cloudy doth the day begin. Well, if this conversation continues on any longer, I may have use for a rope and a chair myself. I’ve done my duty—not that I’ll be paid for my trouble—so I’ll be off. Good day, Inspector.”
With that said, the old man stuffed his hands deeply into the pockets of his long, black coat and started back towards the bridge.
“Pay no attention to him,” Inspector Byrne said, taking hold of Dobbs’ arm. He waited for the old man to disappear into the crowd and then continued. “He’s a lawyer here in Camden. His office is on the High Street. Miserable old bugger, he is.”
“Do you believe him?” asked Hobbs.
“For now, yes.” The Inspector bent down to take a closer look at the face of the man they’d pulled from the canal. “As for Railes, I know the name. He’s been in and out of trouble here for years. This could be him. I’ve seen him in the station and around town, here. He’s a confidence man, always on the hustle. Looks about the right age. There is a resemblance, and we do have his wallet, now, but you’ll let me know what you find out.”
“We should be able to get prints,” Dobbs said. “He’s been in the water too long to make a computer match, but a good fingerprint man should be able to match them to any you have on file for this Railes chap. I’ll get them off to the Yard straightaway. If you have any documents of his I can match the handwriting against that would be of help, also. We should have the results by the end of next week, unless you want me to put a rush on them.”
“No,” said Inspector Byrne. “I may change my mind if you turn up any evidence of foul play, or if someone comes forward inquiring about a missing person other than Railes who fits this same description. For now, I would have to say Simon Railes has left this earth by choice, but for reasons yet to be determined.”
“Right. The method still concerns me,” Dobbs said, pulling the second container of yogurt back out of his pocket. “Judging by the note, and the fact that he bothered to leave one at all, he’s put a fair amount of thought into this. Then, in contrast to that, he picks a perfect stranger to announce his intentions to, and chooses a suicide method that seems more accidental than planned. I don’t think we’ve learned all there is to learn about the demise of Mr. Simon Railes. I’m not convinced this was by choice. I’ll get him back to the lab and we’ll see what else he has to tell us.”
Michael is represented by Sunbury Press, and is a proud member of the Crime Writers Association and Mystery Writers of America. To read more about his books, visit: rmichaelphillips.com.