Read Constable & Toop Online

Authors: Gareth P. Jones

Constable & Toop (2 page)

‘Bellowed?' exclaimed Lapsewood.

‘I'd say it was a bellow, yes. He bellowed, “
DAMN IT. DAMN IT. DAMN IT. GRUNT, GET LAPSEWOOD UP HERE IMMEDIATELY.
”' The ghost looked pleased with himself for remembering this. ‘Yes, I think that was it.'

‘Did he sound angry?'

‘I ain't never heard a bellow that didn't sound angry. It's the nature of a bellow, isn't it? Shouting, now that's different. My wife used to shout at me all the time but that was on account of the deafness I got in one ear. Funny thing – since being dead, I can hear perfectly well in both. It's as though the hangman's rope dislodged the wax when it snapped my neck.' He chuckled.

Lapsewood had no interest in Grunt's post-death hearing improvements. His mind was as busy as a beehive, bustling with questions, concerns, theories and fears.

Colonel Penhaligan was angry with him. It had to be the paperwork, but what did he expect Lapsewood to do? He was working as fast as he could. The Bureau needed to employ more clerks to help to clear the backlog. That's what he would say. He would demand help. He refused to be forced to do a second-rate job for the sake of speed. Hadn't it been Colonel Penhaligan himself who had praised Lapsewood's exemplary work ethic and attention to detail last Christmas? Admittedly, the colonel had consumed a substantial quantity of spirit punch that night, so who knew whether he had really meant what he said.

‘Do you think I have time to walk?' asked Lapsewood.

‘You'd better not,' said Grunt. ‘In my experience, immediately means as soon to now as possible. Best use the Paternoster Pipe if I were you.'

Lapsewood glanced with dread at the small tube in the wall that led to the Paternoster Pipe Network. While all spirits had the ability to turn into the grey smoke-like substance known as Ether Dust, Lapsewood found the whole business thoroughly dehumanising. To quite literally disappear into a puff of smoke was another blatant reminder of his own deadness. He preferred to walk one step at a time like a man rather than whoosh about like burnt tobacco on a breezy day.

However, on this occasion he had no choice. He had wasted enough time already. If he stood any chance of persuading Colonel Penhaligan not to dispatch him, he needed to move quickly.

Lapsewood shook Grunt's hand solemnly. It was damp.

‘Mr Grunt, it's been a pleasure working with you,' he lied.

Grunt laughed. ‘You look like I did when I stepped up on to those gallows.'

‘That's precisely how I feel.'

More laughter. ‘Didn't no one tell you? You can only die once, Lapsewood.'

2
The Body in the Coffin

Sam Toop was awoken by a hammering on the door and a voice crying out, ‘Let me in! Charlie, I know you're there. Let me in!'

Charlie?
he thought, half asleep. Charles was his father's name, but he had never heard anyone call him Charlie.

Rain pelted against the window. Wind rattled the frame.

‘For God's sake, let me in, Charlie . . .'

Sam slipped out of bed and went to the window. Bare feet on the cold floorboards. It was the middle of the night and blowing a terrible storm outside. Who would be out in such weather? Customers never came at night. The business of funerals rarely called for urgency. The funerals of Constable and Toop were arranged as they were conducted: gracefully and calmly.

‘Charlie!' yelled the voice.

Definitely not a customer. Customers only ever spoke in hushed, respectful tones. It was as though they feared waking the corpses that were occasionally kept in the coffins in the back room.

The figure banged on the door. It occurred to Sam that maybe he was one of
Them
. But no, they didn't bang on doors. Why would they, when they could easily pass through them? Sam placed his hand over his right eye to be sure. Yes, he could still see him.

Lightning snaked across the black sky, illuminating the man's face. His eyes looked wild and desperate. Rain dripped off his crooked, broken nose. The realisation that this man was alive was of little comfort. Sam feared the living far more than the dead. Ghosts were powerless to hurt him. Their threats were empty. It was the living who could inflict pain.

A floorboard creaked and a light appeared at the base of his door. His father was up and crossing the landing, heading down the stairs and through the shop front. Sam watched the light of his lamp through the slit in the floorboards.

He could not hear what was said but he heard the door open and the man step inside, accompanied by a gust of wind that rushed through the building. A feeling in the pit of Sam's stomach kept him rooted to the spot. From the back room he heard the sound of banging. Hammer on nail. A familiar enough sound, except never before in the middle of the night. He waited until his father's footsteps came back up the stairs and had passed his room before he went back to his bed, curling up and gripping his toes to warm them.

He must have eventually fallen asleep because when he opened his eyes, the sky was light blue and there were voices downstairs. He could hear his father saying, ‘I'm afraid I haven't seen a thing. It's just me and my boy here.'

‘Then I'd like to speak to the boy too,' said a man's voice.

‘Sam,' shouted Mr Toop. ‘Please come down.'

Sam climbed out of bed, dressed quickly and went downstairs. A man dressed in black with grey pockmarked skin stood in the doorway. His suit had the look of clothing that had been smart when first put on, but was now bedraggled and damp.

‘Sam, this gentleman is the law,' said Mr Toop.

‘Savage,' said the man. ‘Detective Inspector Savage. Some of your neighbours said they heard a hollering last night. Did you hear anything, young man?'

‘I fell asleep last night and woke up just now,' said Sam. ‘I don't know of anything in between.'

Sam neither knew where the lie came from nor how it was that it sprang so readily to his lips, but he sensed his father's relief upon hearing it.

‘May I ask who it is you're looking for?' asked Sam's father.

‘A villain by the name of Jack Toop. I noticed the name on the shop sign. There's a coincidence, I thought. You wouldn't have a relation by the name of Jack, would you, Mr Toop?'

‘None that I know of,' he replied. ‘But Toop is not such an uncommon surname.'

‘Nor such a common one neither. You have no brother nor uncle by that name?'

‘I was born an only child and orphaned as an infant, sir,' said Sam's father.

‘Then you've done well for yourself, Mr Toop. A shop with your name on it.'

‘I have been fortunate.'

‘Tell me about this fortune,' said Inspector Savage.

‘As a lad, a carpenter took me under his wing and taught me the ways of his noble trade, then, as a man, I had the great honour of making the acquaintance of the man who would become my business partner: Mr Constable. A finer and more upstanding gentleman you will never meet. He made me a partner, and gave me and my boy a roof above our heads. He has been as good as a second father to Sam.'

Inspector Savage glanced around the shop at the solemn paintings that hung on the wall, the items of funeral paraphernalia on display in the glass cabinet and the statues of angels carefully arranged on the shelves. These were decorations placed to set the right tone in the shop, while subtly suggesting items that could be purchased and incorporated into each funeral. To an outsider they were, no doubt, gloomy and morbid. To Sam they had the familiarity of any ordinary domestic ornaments.

‘This Mr Constable lives here too?' asked Inspector Savage.

‘He has his own house not far from here,' replied Mr Toop.

‘You won't mind if I take a look around,' said the inspector. It was more statement than question.

‘I won't stand in the way of the law,' said Mr Toop.

‘You're a wise man. Your living quarters are up there?' Inspector Savage pointed to the staircase to one side of the shop. Mr Toop nodded and the inspector climbed the stairs up to the landing. Sam and his father listened to his heavy footsteps on the floorboards above.

‘Father . . .' Sam began.

Mr Toop raised a finger to his lips, silencing Sam.

When Inspector Savage came back downstairs he pointed at the door that led to the back room. ‘What's through there?'

‘That's my workshop,' said Mr Toop. ‘We keep the bodies there sometimes.'

‘And have you a stiff in there now?'

‘One. He's to be buried this afternoon.'

Without invitation, Inspector Savage opened the door and entered. Sam and his father followed. Sam glanced at his father and saw the slight discolouration of fear in his eyes. There had been no body in the back room yesterday and there was no burial planned this afternoon – and yet, as they entered the room, there was indeed a coffin resting on the table, its lid nailed down.

‘Nice carpentry,' said Inspector Savage. ‘You make this yourself, then?'

‘Yes. My partner deals with most other aspects of the business.'

‘Other aspects?'

‘The money and what have you. We always say Mr Constable is better with the living, whereas my strength is the dead.' Mr Toop smiled at his usual joke.

Inspector Savage made no effort to return the smile. He turned to Sam. ‘Pretty gloomy place for a lad to grow up,' he said.

‘I've never known any different,' said Sam.

Inspector Savage shrugged then gestured to the coffin. ‘Who's in there, then?'

‘Mr Grant,' said Sam's father.

Sam lowered his gaze. Mr Grant had been buried two days ago.

‘What kind of man was he?' asked Inspector Savage.

‘He was the butcher.'

That, at least, was true. Sam felt Savage's eyes upon him.

‘Open it up,' ordered the inspector.

Sam looked at his father.

‘Now really,' argued Mr Toop. ‘I know you have a job to do, but so do we. When someone places their dearly departed in our care they do so knowing that they are in good, capable hands.'

‘I just want to look at him.'

‘This man you're looking for,' said Mr Toop. ‘Tell me, what does he looks like?'

‘Like a rogue,' said Inspector Savage sharply.

‘Have you no more detailed a description?'

‘I've never seen him up close,' he admitted. ‘All I have is the name.'

‘And what crime is he charged with, this other Toop?'

‘The worst there is. He murdered a copper, a good man by the name of Heale. Now, bid your son get a hammer and open it up.'

Mr Toop nodded his consent. Sam took a hammer from the shelf and began pulling out the nails one by one.

‘Be careful now, son,' said Mr Toop. ‘Try not to damage the wood.'

When the last nail was out Sam stood back and his father took the hammer from his hand.

Inspector Savage lifted the lid off and leaned it against the table. Lying in the coffin was the man Sam had seen from the window last night. He recognised his broken nose, his weather-worn skin, his lank hair, thinning in places and revealing an uneven skull. He was dressed in one of the cheap suits they kept for the deceased with nothing smart enough to be buried in. The man, whoever he was, lay as still as a corpse, his eyes shut. Unmoving.

‘Ugly-looking fella,' said the inspector, eyeing him carefully.

‘Now, please,' said Mr Toop. ‘I will not stand and have you insult the dead.'

Inspector Savage picked up one of the man's hands. ‘He feels cold enough to be dead. Mind you, this criminal we're looking for is also a cold man.' He turned to Sam. ‘Boy, fetch me some pepper. Let us see how dead this man is.'

Sam looked at his father uncertainly.

‘Do as you're told now,' said Mr Toop calmly.

Sam went upstairs to the pantry and picked up a small tin of ground peppercorns. He returned with the pepper and handed the tin to Inspector Savage, who took a handful and sprinkled it liberally over the man's face.

‘Please, Detective Inspector,' said Mr Toop. ‘Not satisfied with insulting this poor dead man you are now seasoning him.'

Sam noticed how tightly his father was clutching the hammer. Was he contemplating attacking this man Savage? Or perhaps it was the man in the coffin who would receive the blow.

Inspector Savage stared at the body.

There was no movement.

Nothing.

He grunted and said, ‘My condolences to this butcher's family.'

He turned around and marched out of the room and back through the shop to the door.

‘At Constable and Toop we believe in the dignity of death,' said Mr Toop, returning the hammer to its place on the shelf and following the inspector out.

‘And I believe in the sanctity of life, Mr Toop,' replied Inspector Savage, without turning. ‘A good day to you.'

The shop bell rang as he left.

Sam looked back at the man in the coffin.

The man opened his eyes, making Sam jump.

‘He gone?' he said in a low, gruff voice.

Silenced by fear, Sam nodded.

‘Thank God for that,' said the man. ‘I . . . ah . . . ah . . . ah . . .'

The sneeze that rang out was loud enough to wake the dead themselves, and Sam only hoped that Inspector Savage was far enough away not to hear it.

3
The Beauty of Alice Biggins

First thing in the morning was the worst time to be using the Paternoster Pipe Network. The pipes were clogged up with the Ether Dust of clerks, scribes, dogsbodies, secretaries and all the other working spirits running late for work or heading off to their morning appointments.

Approaching the twenty-fifth floor where Colonel Penhaligan's office was situated, Lapsewood experienced a similar dread to that which he used to feel when his old school master, Mr Thornton, summoned him to his office. Mr Thornton had been a cruel and strict disciplinarian, who deployed a heavy wooden ruler on the backsides of his pupils, hitting them in time with each remonstrating syllable he uttered.

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