It was a foggy evening in late November. The gas lamps shone like misty balls of light and the horses slipped on the wet streets. Well-dressed Londoners wrapped mufflers over noses and mouths as they rushed home to supper in their warm houses. And four ragged boys, followed by a large dog, emerged from a filthy cellar below the pavement. Alfie grinned and the tight knot of fear in his stomach relaxed — Mutsy always made him laugh. His brother Sammy had just hit the high note of the song and the big, hairy dog joined in immediately, sitting on his back legs with his two front paws in the begging position, his nose lifted towards the sky and howling like a high-pitched fiddle. A crowd was beginning to gather — it always did when Sammy and Mutsy sang.
On this dark and murky evening, Alfie was relying on dog and boy being the focus of all attention. He had set everything up very carefully. Sammy, with Mutsy beside him, was standing on the corner just outside the Covent Garden Theatre, while Alfie himself was about a hundred yards away. Jack and Tom, their two cousins, were also in place.
‘He’s blind, poor little boy,’ said a woman’s voice, and Alfie heard the chink of pennies into the tin plate at Sammy’s feet. Now was the moment to put his plan into action. The shoppers were gathered around Sammy and Mutsy; nobody would be looking at Alfie.
And then he had a piece of good luck — there was a loud pop and a hissing sound, and a smell of gas floated down on the fog. One of the gas lamps had gone out. Slowly and quietly, Alfie moved until he was underneath that lamp-post. This would be a good place to lurk unseen. The lamplighter had already shouldered his ladder and gone home, so the corner between Bow Street and Russell Street would now stay dark till morning.
Alfie’s stomach was already empty, but it tightened even more with tension. This was his plan and it had to succeed. He licked his lips as he glanced around. Jack, his twelve-year-old cousin, was in his place, across the road, just ready to grab the horse’s head. Eleven-year-old Tom, Jack’s brother, was almost invisible, lurking in the shadowed doorway of a watchmaker. He would have his peashooter ready. Alfie could rely on him. Tom and Jack both had steady nerves and Tom never missed a shot.
Now! The moment they were waiting for! The horse-drawn van turned from Russell Street into Bow Street and a mouth-watering smell of newly baked bread floated above the sour, coal-smoke stench of the fog. Alfie braced himself. He saw the horse rear and kick — Tom had done his task with the peashooter. Alfie didn’t even look towards Jack — his cousin could always handle horses. Instantly he dashed to the back of the van.
It was all working. He could hear Jack’s voice shouting, ‘It’s all right, Mister, I’ve a hold of him.’ Now Alfie had his hand in the back of the van. The loaf was so soft and warm he could almost taste it. Tom was coming towards him. Between them, with luck, they would be able to snatch enough bread to last them for the next few days. No alarm was shouted; the crowd continued to listen as Sammy broke into his comic song, ‘The Catsmeat Man’.
Suddenly Alfie felt an arm around his neck, throttling him. He dropped the loaf and wheeled around to see a navy-blue uniform with the number twenty-two on the collar.
A gruff voice said, ‘You come along with me, lad.’
Alfie did not struggle. There was no point. The policeman had a firm grip of one arm now and was dragging him along the street. He tried a gentle wriggle — perhaps he could leave his jacket behind — but it was no good. Alfie knew where they were going. The Bow Street Police Station was next door to Bow Street Magistrates’ Court. He would probably be in front of the bench in less than half an hour.
What would be the sentence? Most likely, three months’ hard labour — that was the usual. He had never been in prison himself, but he knew many boys who had. Hard labour meant breaking stones, running on the treadmill or sewing mailbags for twelve hours of the day, and no one was allowed to say a word to any other prisoner. That was the worst of all, one boy had told Alfie.
And what would happen to Sammy, his blind brother, and to their two cousins who shared their cellar? Without Alfie, they might all starve. He was the one who organised everything, who had seen the comic possibilities in Mutsy with his large paws and his fringe hanging over his eyes, and the one who, until this moment, had kept them all out of trouble.
‘In you go.’ The blue light outside Bow Street Police Station gleamed through the fog. ‘Bet you’ve stolen that muffler, you little thief.’ The constable jerked at the scarf around his neck. ‘And that waistcoat, too!’ By now they were inside and Alfie was pushed into an office. His bare feet felt the smoothness of the tiled floor.
Carefully he removed his cap and smoothed down his dark curls. ‘It doesn’t matter about looking poor and having ragged trousers as long as you are polite.’ It seemed like yesterday that his mother had said that, but she had been dead for two years.
The police station was a small, one-storey building. There was an outer room, where three constables stood at tall desks and made notes in books, and an inner room beyond a green painted door. A man with a newspaper came out of that door and immediately PC 22 grabbed Alfie by the arm and hauled him into the back room, giving a quick knock on the still-open door. Alfie felt his legs go weak. He would soon know the worst.
‘Caught stealing a loaf of bread from the evening delivery van, Inspector. Make a bow to Inspector Denham, you young ruffian. Shall I take him into the court? The magistrates are still sitting.’
‘Yes,’ said the inspector absentmindedly. He was studying some papers on his desk, turning them over and knitting his dark bushy eyebrows over them. Then he waved his hand. ‘No!’ he said abruptly. ‘Just leave him with me, Constable, will you.’
What did he want? wondered Alfie, looking at the inspector as the door closed behind the constable. He was a small man to be in charge of all of these burly constables who could be seen every day, patrolling Bow Street and Covent Garden. The inspector looked briefly down each piece of paper, before putting it into one of three neat piles on the desk and going on to the next.
The room was cold in spite of the coal fire burning in a small metal grate. Alfie’s sharp eyes noticed that one of the sash cords was broken and the window was sagging down on one side, allowing the damp, freezing air to seep into the little room. He stayed very still, looking attentively at the inspector as he shuffled his papers. When he looked up, Alfie saw that he had a pair of keen eyes, as black as Alfie’s own.
‘Live around here, do you?’ The inspector’s tone was casual.
‘That’s right.’ Alfie wasn’t going to give any of his gang away.
‘Know the St Giles district?’
Alfie nodded. St Giles, a district of tumbledown wood-built houses, where a single room could house up to four families, was a good five-minute walk from Alfie’s cellar on Bow Street itself.
‘Come with me.’ Inspector Denham was on his feet. He opened a door at the back of the office and led the way down a long, dimly lit corridor. There was a damp coldness in the air and a strange smell.
‘In here.’ Inspector Denham took a large key from the bunch at his waist and opened a door. The room was almost in darkness; there was just one small, high window. It showed as a pale rectangle on the wall, but gave little light. Inspector Denham clanged the door shut behind them and walked confidently forward. Alfie followed him, his heart thumping.
‘Ah, that’s better.’ There was a hiss and a sudden smell of gas, the noise of a match striking, and then the flame sprang up. Alfie took a step backwards, then recovered himself and stepped forward again.
The room was a small one, but it had three occupants. All were lying on high narrow iron beds, covered by a sheet. All were very still. Alfie sniffed the air and knew that the smell was death. He had smelled it often enough. He swallowed once and felt the sweat break out on the palms of his hands.
Why had the inspector brought him in here with these dead men?
Inspector Denham went swiftly to the bed at the far side of the room and turned back the top of the sheet from the face.
Alfie took in a long breath as quietly as he could. ‘I know him,’ he said, trying to sound indifferent. ‘I’ve seen him before.’ He examined the purple, swollen face with its faded ginger moustache and sideburns.
‘Know his name?’
‘Mr Montgomery… Mr Montgomery from Bedford Square. Up Bloomsbury way.’ Alfie went a little nearer. He had been shocked at first to see a man that he knew, but he had recovered now. He had seen quite a lot of dead bodies in his lifetime.
‘When did you see him last?’ Inspector Denham was standing in front of the body, slightly blocking Alfie’s view.
‘Last night in Monmouth Street.’
‘No, he had a girl with him.’ Alfie winked, trying to look like a man of the world. He wanted to impress this inspector.
‘What’s the girl’s name?’ The question came quickly.
‘Don’t know.’ He did know, but Alfie didn’t think that he was going to tell it to Inspector Denham. Betty couldn’t have murdered this fellow — he wasn’t a very big man, but he was at least twice her weight. Alfie was sorry that he had mentioned a girl now, but no doubt the inspector already knew about this. Alfie edged a bit nearer to the body.
‘Been garrotted,’ he said. Might as well show the inspector that he wasn’t stupid. ‘Look at the mark of the wire, there under the chin.’
‘I had noticed,’ said Inspector Denham dryly. ‘We found him in Monmouth Street early this morning.’ He leaned over the man and pulled the sheet down the whole way. The body was still dressed: expensive frock coat, colourful waistcoat and over them both a greatcoat of heavy dark wool; check trousers and polished boots finished the outfit. A heavy walking stick was lying beside him. The pockets of the greatcoat were pulled out and protruded at right angles from the body, the clean white linings showing up brightly under the flaring gas lamp.
‘Robbed, as you see.’ Inspector Denham’s voice was neutral.
‘Nah.’ Alfie gave him a quick grin. He was beginning to understand this policeman. He was testing Alfie. ‘Never.’
‘Oh? Why not?’ There was still no trace of expression in the policeman’s voice.
‘Why not?’ Alfie decided to play along, though he guessed that the inspector knew the truth as well as he did; the man didn’t look stupid. ‘Why take the stuff from his greatcoat pockets and leave the watch? I can see the chain. It’s still on him. Can I touch him?’
‘Just the clothes.’
Alfie leaned over and, with the sensitive fingers of an accomplished pickpocket, he pulled out a heavy gold watch from below the man’s waistcoat.
‘There you are,’ he said. He stroked the rounded sides of the gold case, then turned it over and looked with interest at the marks on the back. ‘In his fob pocket, the usual place. Any thief would look there first. This is a good watch. He was quite a swell, always.’
‘Perhaps the thief forgot about the watch,’ suggested Inspector Denham with an expressionless face. ‘Out of sight, out of mind, they say.’
‘Nah! Never! In any case, why leave the boots? They were in sight. Why not pull them off and take them? I know plenty on Monmouth Street that would give me —’ Alfie suddenly remembered that he was talking to an officer of the law, ‘at least … I’ve heard that you can get a good price for a pair of boots like that. Nah, this were no thief; this were a toff that garrotted him and then wanted to pretend that he did it just to rob him. I’d lay a bet that Mr Montgomery had nothing at all in those greatcoat pockets. Most of the gents these days keep their money in their trousers or waistcoat pockets. It’s obvious to anyone that this were no thief that done this,’ he finished.
The inspector said nothing, but Alfie could see an expression of satisfaction on his face. He searched his mind for more memories of Mr Montgomery. The man had returned from India a few months before and Alfie had taken a great interest in the stories about him that Sarah, the scullery maid in the Montgomery house, had told the boys. But would it be safe to talk about these to the inspector?
‘What about the ring?’ Alfie asked suddenly. ‘He always wore a great big diamond ring. I’ve seen it flashing.’
One hand was half-tucked under the body; ignoring the inspector’s order, Alfie reached across and pulled it out. The ring was still there.
‘It’s embedded in his flesh. He’d put on a lot of weight since he first had that ring,’ the inspector said indifferently, watching Alfie closely.
‘Most people that I know — most thieves that I’ve heard of, would have taken finger and all to get a ring like that,’ said Alfie firmly. ‘It would be worth a lot, that ring, wouldn’t it?’
‘I’d say so.’ The inspector sounded almost friendly. Alfie said no more, though, and Inspector Denham, having turned out the gaslight, ushered him through the door and locked it firmly behind them. Even when they were back in the office again, Alfie still kept silent, his mind busily working. What was the inspector up to?
‘What do you know about Mr Montgomery and his household?’ It had taken a few minutes for Inspector Denham to make up his mind, but now his tone was sharp, and somehow different.
Alfie sat up a little straighter and assumed a businesslike air. He had been about to deny knowing anything more about the dead man, but then changed his mind. It occurred to him that he had passed some sort of trial in there, in that room where the police kept their dead bodies, and he was anxious to retain Inspector Denham’s good opinion.
‘There’s him and his missus, and his son who’s a young toff — doesn’t do no work, I’ve heard — and they’ve got a butler, a coachman, a cook, a housekeeper, a parlour maid and a scullery maid — and some other servants, I suppose.’
‘How do you know all this?’
Alfie hesitated. Sarah often fed him on the leftovers from the Montgomery meals and he didn’t want to betray her, but after a quick glance at Inspector Denham he changed his mind. The inspector, he reckoned, might be willing to forget about the bread van if Alfie was able to assist him.
Alfie and his gang had known Sarah for about six months now. After hearing his brother Sammy singing in the streets, Mrs Montgomery had got her coachman to bring him to the house at Bedford Square, where she had played the piano while Sammy sang some of his songs. Afterwards, Sarah had been told by the parlour maid to escort Sammy home. She had stayed for half an hour in their cellar, entertaining them all with her stories of the Montgomery household and Mr Montgomery, and how he had been in India for years while his wife, who didn’t like India, lived with their son in London. Since then, Sarah had visited the cellar every time she was allowed out to go to night classes or in her free time.
‘I know the scullery maid.’ Alfie had made up his mind that there could be no harm in admitting that.
‘Good.’ There was no mistaking the satisfaction in the man’s voice, and Alfie began to feel quite interested.
‘Do you know anything about Mr Montgomery’s earlier life?’ the inspector continued.
‘He’d been out in India until six months ago, and that’s where he made all his money. His missus and his son lived here in London all the time that he was away,’ said Alfie.
The inspector nodded. ‘That’s right and that’s where you come in. The son, Mr Denis Montgomery, thinks that his father has been murdered because of something that happened in India. It appears that when Mr Montgomery was out there, a native Indian, working on the tea plantation owned by him and his partner, Mr Scott, was found guilty of stealing a bag of coins and was hanged.’
Alfie shrugged his shoulders; these things happened all the time. In London, when his grandfather was young, they used to hang anyone who stole goods over the value of a shilling. Why should India be any different?
‘Now, the butler at the Montgomery household says that he saw a young Indian, not much more than a boy, hanging around their house yesterday. He told Mr Denis about that. It’s possible that the hanged man’s son came to seek his revenge. There are two ships from the East India Company in dock at the moment, just down river from here.’
‘And you want me to sniff around and see if I can come across any sign of this Indian, that right?’
‘And anything else that you can find out. Anything about the household — the servants, I mean. Also, anything that passers-by might have seen, either in Bedford Square or in Monmouth Street.’
So that was what Inspector Denham had been after.
‘What’s in it for me?’ It was always worth asking, Alfie thought.
‘Perhaps, if you’re lucky, the constable might forget what is written down in his notebook about this evening’s incident with the bread delivery van.’
Alfie brushed that aside. ‘Any reward?’ he asked. Although he couldn’t read, he had a sharp eye for figures, and the wall outside Bow Street Police Station was papered with posters offering rewards.
‘There is a reward of one hundred pounds put forward by Denis Montgomery,’ said Inspector Denham cautiously. ‘It might be that you could earn yourself some small share in that. Here’s a shilling for you in the meantime.’ He got briskly to his feet and opened a second door at the back of the room. ‘You can go out this way, unless you want to see the constable again.’ There was a suspicion of a wink as Alfie walked past, and then the door slammed shut behind him.
Alfie felt quite dazed and for a moment he hardly knew where he was. Then he realised that he was in Crown Court, a small, square, empty space between the police station and the magistrates’ court. He gave a quick glance over his shoulder and then ran as fast as he could. He didn’t want to linger; he’d had a narrow escape and the sooner he was away from there, the better.
Out in crowded Bow Street, Jack was carefully sweeping horse-droppings from the roadway so that a stout, middle-aged lady could cross. Alfie stood and watched him while his heart slowed down. Jack and Tom’s mother had died when Tom was born and Alfie’s mother had taken in her sister’s two children. No one knew where their father was. On the whole, the cousins got on well. Jack was easy-going and good-natured and always willing for Alfie to be the boss, and Tom, though he could at times be moody and resentful of Alfie’s authority, could usually be persuaded by Jack to do what Alfie wanted.
Despite Jack’s efforts with the broom, the woman was holding her purple dress high above her ankles, showing a frill of white petticoat. The road was even dirtier than usual because of the fog that had lasted three days already. Alfie noticed that the woman was carrying her basket securely tucked under her shawl, away from the reach of the pickpockets who did such a good trade around the Covent Garden fruit and vegetable market. Her mouth was tight with distrust as she glanced around.
Alfie stood well back from her while she stepped on to the pavement, dropping something into Jack’s hand and then hurrying down the street.
‘You got out, then.’ Jack sounded off-hand, but Alfie could detect a note of relief in his cousin’s voice and there was a grin on his freckled face.
‘How much did she give you?’ Alfie did not want to talk about Inspector Denham out in the street.
Jack opened his hand. ‘A farthing,’ he said with disgust. ‘I thought it would be a halfpenny at least. The old—’
‘Look.’ Alfie, a smile widening his mouth, gave a nod towards the woman.
A one-horse gig, driven at high speed down Bow Street, had sent a spray of semi-liquid horse dung all over the woman’s skirt, even neatly landing a fair-sized dollop on the very crown of her stiff-brimmed bonnet.
Alfie and Jack clutched each other, shaking with merriment at the sight of the woman’s disgusted face as she scrubbed at her skirts with a small handkerchief. It felt so good to laugh again after the worries and tension of the past hour that they went on for several minutes.
‘Come on,’ said Alfie, still chuckling with mirth. He threw his arm over Jack’s shoulders, eyeing the brightly lit butcher’s shop across the road. ‘Let’s get some sausages and a loaf of bread. I’ve got a shilling.’
At that moment, a carriage drawn by four lively horses swung around the corner from Long Acre into Bow Street. The oil lamp, dangling from the back of its roof, flared suddenly, lighting up the shadowy doorway of the house across the road.
Brown-skinned and dressed in dark clothes, his white turban grey with the London dirt, the young boy lurking there had remained invisible up to that moment against the murky wooden door. Now he was sharply illuminated, staring across the road at the two boys. It was unusual to see an Indian in the West End of London and Alfie had no doubt that this must be the boy that the inspector had been speaking of — the boy under suspicion for the murder of Mr Montgomery.
How long had the Indian boy been standing there, his fist clutched over something hidden? Had he seen Alfie come out of the police station? Did he guess the inspector’s commission?
Alfie swallowed twice, almost feeling the bite of a garrotting wire around his throat.
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