The Hunt (A Case for Frey & McGray) (2 page)

I drowned any responses I may have made with whisky.

‘Now it is entirely different, Ian. I thought I liked that girl for one of my sons, and you should know I was quite pleased when you announced your engagement, but now the little wasp has shown her true colours, jumping on to the better candidate as soon as you dropped your own career into the spittoon.’

I only snorted.

‘I am harsh, I know,’ said Father. ‘I still do not approve of your stupid … occupation. Rubbing shoulders with scoundrels of all sorts in Edin-bloody-burgh. I’d rather you stayed at home.’

‘Like Oliver? Doing nothing useful and destined to watch over Catherine in her old age?’

‘At least Oliver has given me fewer headaches than you. Do you think I never found out about that ghastly affair in Edinburgh? A Frey of Magdeburg strolling about graveyards at midnight!’

I thought it best not to mention the sewerage episode.

‘Nevertheless …’ the old Mr Frey could not look me in the eye, ‘I have to admit I was wrong about Eugenia … and I may be wrong about other things too. I will sound overly sentimental,’ he went on, watching the tears of whisky sliding down the walls of his glass, ‘but all a father ever wants is the best for his children. We may want it so badly that in the end we only worsen things. I’ve had a bloody damned good life and I always expected you all to surpass that. Now I realize a lot of my achievements were pure good luck, and if any of you four turn out to be half as fortunate as I was, I shall be satisfied.’

I smirked. ‘Only half?’

‘Indeed! I was very lucky in business, but that is nothing compared to how blessed I was at the altar. I married two women of good names and the best possible wombs:
male heirs in a row – how I’ll mock Henry VIII when I see him in hell!’

‘That is possibly the most misogynistic speech I have heard, even from you.’

Father smiled back. ‘You were obviously not there when I first heard Catherine’s mother was dead.’

As we laughed, I realized it was probably the only time in our lives we had done so together.

Somebody knocked on the door. It was Uncle Maurice, looking rather grave.

‘They have gone, William,’ he said, ‘but they will not manage to catch a train today. I had to let them stay at the old dowager’s house, and Catherine insisted we send them a share of the banquet.’

‘That is more than fair,’ said Father, downing his drink. ‘In fact, I might go and have a word with them after dinner,’ he said, stepping out, ready to feast and drink on. He took his indulging very seriously during the winter holidays.

I lingered for a moment, reflecting on our little chat and feeling surprisingly uplifted.

I am so glad I sipped that drink at leisure, and basked in the snowbound view from my father’s bedroom. An hour later I gorged myself with the most delicious meats and sweets, before settling by the fire to tell horror stories about body snatchers, clairvoyants and killers.

Those good times would be short lived.

A few days later I’d be heading back to Edinburgh, and as the train took me north a strange discomfort began to settle in my stomach. As the air became colder and the clouds darker, so grew a strange sense of impending doom, as if the most primitive depths of my psyche were yelling at me, begging me to turn back.

I discarded those feelings, telling myself to be rational. However, the dark omens would not be entirely out of place. During my second assignment in Scotland, following Nine-Nails McGray, there would be moments when I’d miss the sight of a mere eviscerated musician.

New Year’s Day, 1889.

In Edinburgh’s lunatic asylum, a patient escapes as a nurse lays dying. Leading the manhunt are legendary local Detective ‘Nine-Nails’ McGray and Londoner-in-exile Inspector Ian Frey.

Before the murder, the suspect was heard in whispered conversation with a fellow patient – a girl who had been mute for years.

What made her suddenly break her silence? And why won’t she talk again? Could the rumours about black magic be more than superstition?

McGray and Frey track a devious psychopath far beyond their jurisdiction, through the worst blizzard in living memory, into the shadow of Pendle Hill – home of the Lancashire witches – where unimaginable danger awaits…

’Tis at such a tide and hour,

Wizard, witch, and fiend have power,

And ghastly forms through mist and shower

Gleam on the gifted ken;

And then the affrighted prophet’s ear

Drinks whispers strange of fate and fear,

Presaging death and ruin near

Among the sons of men; –

Sir Walter Scott

The Dance of Death

31 October

‘Open the curtains,’ Lord Ambrose demanded, almost gagging from the effort. ‘I need to see them die.’

Jane tried to push him back to bed. The man was frail – ancient, some people said – and had been ill for months, but he’d managed to stand up and walk the five feet that separated him from the window. Jane winced at the sheer hatred that moved his old bones.

‘You’ll hardly see a thing, master. ’Tis new moon night.’

Open them, you filthy wench!
’ he roared, pulling his arms away, breaking into a fit of coughing, spitting phlegm and blood all over the white nightgown into which Jane had just changed him.

The maid snorted. No matter how often she washed and changed him, the old man constantly reeked of urine and disease; the stench saturated the very stones of the chamber.

‘Very well,’ she said, wiping his chest and mouth vigorously with a damp cloth. ‘But then you’ll have a good long rest.’

‘Indeed I shall rest,’ he grumbled. His bony, blotchy hand was already clenching the drapes. They could hear the cries of the crowd. Jane pushed him aside and drew the curtains at the perfect time. The execution was about to begin.

Through the diamond-paned glass they saw the castle and Lancaster’s main square, where roaring torches cast ominous shadows over hundreds of heads. The gallows were ready and people clustered around them like restless ants.

The old man unlatched the window, and a blast of icy wind filled the room.

‘Here they come,’ he said, straining to see.

The six witches were marching miserably across the main square, their feet shackled, dragging heavy chains that rattled on the cobbles. Centuries would come and go, but the echoes of those rusty links would linger, for the hags’ souls would never find rest.

Dressed in rags, their faces soiled, their hair grey and greasy, they were the very image of wickedness, and the crowd showed no mercy: men, women and children shouted, mocked and threw rotten vegetables at the sentenced women.

Jane squinted in disgust, hating that multitude of morbid, heartless bullies who’d be attending church the following morning, calling themselves good Christians.

The witches’ backs were crooked and their feet bare, but they still reached the gallows with some dignity. They did not beg, moan or cry, not even when the executioner covered their faces with filthy hoods that still reeked of previous victims. He slipped the ropes over their heads, tightening the knots, as the bishop prayed and offered them pardon.

Lord Ambrose did not blink or breathe, clutching the windowsill with trembling hands. He let out a faint gasp when he saw the witches drop into the air.

They did not die right away though.

For a ghastly moment their bodies writhed like worms on a fishing line, as the mob cheered wildly. Then, even as they convulsed in agony the witches’ arms rose slowly, straight like masts, all six pointing at the same spot, somewhere in the crowd.

People instinctively stepped aside, as if the bony fingers were about to spurt fire. One man, however, remained petrified. An imposing man swathed in beaver fur.

‘Is that your son, master?’ Jane breathlessly asked Lord Ambrose, even though she knew too well. ‘Is that Master Edward?’

‘We should have burned them,’ Lord Ambrose whispered. There was terror in his eyes, a terror such as Jane had never seen.

From under the filthy hood of one of the agonized witches – nobody could tell which one – resounded a horrid voice, deep and howling despite the ropes around their necks.

All Lord Ambrose could hear of the curse was the number thirteen. But the crowd heard it in its entirety, and the terrified townsfolk began to rush away.

The arms rose further still, this time pointing at the highest level of the town’s largest house.

Jane shivered. The witches were pointing at them, directly at the open window, their eyes apparently seeing through their cowls and blindfolds.

Right then, as if pushed by invisible hands, Lord Ambrose fell backwards, his bones cracking as he hit the floor. He knocked over his chamber pot, spilling its nauseating contents all around himself.

The most illustrious and powerful lord of the house of Ambrose, whose great-grandfather had fought alongside kings in the War of the Roses, was now expiring in a puddle of his own filth.

Jane nearly uttered the name of the Holy Virgin. She wanted to cross herself, but the window was wide open with hundreds of Protestant partisans to see.

‘Witches hanged on a new moon night,’ she muttered, looking down at the square and remembering it was All Hallows’ Eve.

2 December

Dr Clouston could not help feeling like a thief, slipping away like this in the middle of the night.

He stroked his beard and contemplated the distant glow of Edinburgh, the city diminishing as the carriage drove him quietly into the frosted wilderness. Tom was doing a good job of keeping the horses as quiet as possible, but the price was moving at a frustratingly slow pace.

A sudden noise made Clouston jump in his seat. Turning so quickly that he hurt his neck, he saw that it was the flapping of an approaching raven. The bird squawked loudly, almost sarcastically.

Clouston took a deep breath, trying to compose his shattered nerves, but his anxiety combined with the icy weather made him shiver. From the moment he began his studies in psychiatry, almost three decades ago, he had known that his profession would take him to the darkest of places, that he would witness not only the indignities of the mentally ill but also the occasionally horrible reactions of his patients’ kin. Madness was a terrible thing; it brought out the best and the worst out of people, and tonight, sadly, he was about to face the latter. These cases usually flocked to him, but this one was different. This one he’d brought upon himself.

Why had he accepted this shameful deal? It was not the first time he’d done something of the sort. His compassion had been stronger than his good sense, he now understood; or rather his weakness of character had prevailed, as his wife had remarked. Clouston wanted to tell Tom to turn around and take him back, but he’d given his word, even if a gentleman’s word meant less and less as the years passed.

Tom tapped the side of the carriage as they stopped in front of a low stone wall, half buried in snow. Some twenty yards beyond it there was a small, derelict farmhouse. Its crooked walls made it look rather like a beaten pile of straw, and the only sign of life was a faint light coming from a narrow window.

Clouston took a deep breath and opened the door, but he didn’t even get to set a foot on the ground.

Ferocious barking filled the air, and three enormous hounds seemed to spring out of nowhere to run wildly towards him. He closed the door an instant before the first dog reached it, and through the window he had a disturbing glimpse of wet fangs and angry little eyes.

The dogs swirled around the carriage, barking and growling, but soon they were silenced by a single gunshot and retreated with their tails between their legs. The bulky shadow of a man patted each of them as he approached Clouston’s carriage.

He held a bull’s-eye lantern but the light was very dim. Clouston could not make out his rough features until the man stood right in front of the carriage door. He saw weather-beaten skin, flaccid cheeks, a broad nose and eyes as small and fierce as the dogs’.

‘I – I have an appointment,’ Clouston said after a painful gulp; his formality sounded jarring even to himself. ‘I have come to meet Lady –’

Don’t speak her name!
’ the man snarled. ‘Get out and follow me.’

Clouston hesitated for a moment, but then he saw Tom jump down to the ground, rifle in hand, in a sudden movement that made the man take a step back. It was reassuring that his most trusted orderly was as intimidating as this towering stranger.

‘The mistress is inside,’ the man said as he walked briskly towards the house.

Clouston gave Tom a quick nod and they followed.

The old door emitted a piercing creak as the man kicked it open and made his way in. Tom entered first and took a quick look around.

‘She’s here, Doctor.’

The night was bitterly cold, so Clouston was not too reluctant to step inside. The interior, however, offered little consolation: the room was small and dark, the plaster of the walls was falling apart and the floor was covered in straw, leaves and rubbish. The house had evidently not been inhabited in months.

There was an improvised fire, its weak flames keeping the temperature barely tolerable, and the only furnishings were a cracked table and two chairs. Seated on one of them, and visibly uncomfortable, was Lady Anne Ardglass.

Clouston’s first impression was that of a fairy-tale crone. Thin, tall and imposing, Lady Anne was in her late sixties, but she looked much older; the fire cast sharp shadows on her wrinkled face, accentuating her deep frown and tense lips.

She’d tried to make herself look common by wearing a simple black dress and a cheap taffeta hat, but the effect was rather theatrical. She could never hide her poise: her back proudly straight, her chin raised high, her long hands, protected by lace mittens, demurely folded on her lap. And the hat did not completely conceal her silver hair, arranged in the most intricate of braids.

‘Have a seat, Doctor,’ she offered in a clear, commanding voice.

As he sat Clouston perceived an odd mixture of lemon verbena and brandy in the air. He – like everyone in Edinburgh – knew that Anne Ardglass was nicknamed Lady Glass, and looking closely he noticed the dark, veiny rings under her eyes which spoke of a lifetime of heavy drinking. She probably tried to conceal the scent of alcohol with herbal sachets and perfume on her clothes.

‘As you can see, I have brought all the paperwork,’ she said, pointing at a stack of documents on the table. ‘All we need is your signature.’

Clouston perused the papers. He’d warned Lady Anne that he would not help unless she followed the law. According to the Scottish Lunacy Acts, no one could be declared insane unless two independent doctors examined the patient and agreed on the diagnosis. It appeared that Lady Anne had obtained a certificate from some unknown psychiatrist in Newcastle. The quality of the report revealed the incompetence of said doctor, and under other circumstances Clouston would have firmly refuted its validity; nevertheless, the insanity of Lord Joel Ardglass was far from debatable. Lady Anne’s only son had attempted suicide on a number of occasions, and it had been weeks since his last coherent speech – not to mention that ghastly violent episode.

‘Doctor,’ said Lady Anne, ‘before you take my son, there is something I need to ask you.’

Clouston wanted to slam a fist on the table and shout that he had not even started the first favour yet, but he opted to take a deep breath instead.

‘What is it, ma’am?’

Lady Anne looked at her servant, and he produced a crumpled envelope from his breast pocket. Lady Anne pulled out a single sheet, which she unfolded on the table. ‘Will you please sign this as well?’

As she spoke her servant brought ink and pen.

Clouston had only read the first few lines before he snapped, ‘Lady Anne, are you seriously asking me to sign this?’

‘Indeed. You made me look at the law and I did so thoroughly. There is no act to keep doctors from telling everyone about their patients’ affairs. There was only one case my solicitors found: some London physician divulged how one of his patients aborted an illegitimate child. The trollop’s husband heard about it and divorced her. She then successfully sued the doctor. The court deemed his statements to be “libel and defamation” – despite it all being true.’

‘And by signing this I admit that if I ever speak out on this matter I’ll be defaming you,’ Clouston read.

‘That is correct. The very words used in that precedent case. That would save us much time in court if this were ever made public. To the world, my son died this afternoon on his way to Belgium.’

Clouston snorted. ‘I thought you had a higher opinion of me and my professional practices.’

‘And I do, Doctor, but I need to make sure that the name of my family is not tarnished. I am sure you will understand.’

Clouston kneaded his temples.

‘You make me crawl in the shadows like a delinquent … we are signing patched-up documents to pretend this arrangement is within the law … and now it is
who must agree to
terms? You high-born are more merciless to your mad folk than us poor commoners.’

Dr Clouston knew that all too well. Insanity was a shameful business for the aristocracy: for them it implied weak blood, wicked ancestry, or even a curse or demonic possession.

Lady Anne produced a fine hunter flask from her small purse, together with a little silver cup, and demurely poured herself some drink. Clouston wanted to believe she was ashamed of herself, but he was not sure she was capable of that feeling.

‘Do you want more money?’

‘Lady Anne, there are things your money cannot compensate for.’

She had a rather long drink, gulping twice before lowering the cup. ‘I know.’

‘What if I refuse to sign?’

‘I will be forced to seek help elsewhere, and you know what that will be like.’

Sadly, Clouston did know. No other respectable doctor would agree to her terms. She would end up dealing with one of those tricksters who ran dreadful asylums with methods that were downright medieval. They would not even attempt to understand or improve Joel’s condition; they’d simply keep him out of sight, slowly rotting to oblivion.

Lady Anne fixed her empty gaze on the fire. It was the only time her voice came out as a whisper.

‘Don’t make me beg, Doctor.’

The fire crackled in the hearth, and for a moment there was no other sound in the room. It felt as if the entire world had halted, waiting for the doctor’s answer.

Clouston rubbed his face in utter frustration. ‘Something tells me we are all going to regret this …’

He finally snatched up the dip pen and signed so angrily he almost gashed the paper.

Outside, one of the dogs howled. The others followed, and very soon there was a cacophony of barking.

‘What the hell?’ Lady Anne’s servant shouted as he opened the door, letting an icy draught in. He and Tom went outside, while Clouston stood in the doorway.

He had to squint to make out what was happening. The dogs were running to the road, and amidst their piercing barks Clouston heard the frenzied galloping of a horse. It took him a moment to actually see it, for it was a jet-black mount – as black as the hooded figure that spurred its hindquarters riding …side-saddle?

‘Put that down,’ Clouston told Tom, who was nervously pointing the rifle.

It was a horsewoman, and a very skilled one.

She reined in with perfect control and hopped down. The hounds howled and jumped around her, but kept their distance. Lady Glass’s brute of a servant ran back to the house, almost knocking Clouston down.

‘She’s here, milady!’

‘For goodness’ sake, tell me a name, Jed!’

He didn’t have the chance. The hooded woman had already arrived, walking in with confident strides.

She pulled off the hood and Clouston saw the pretty face of a nineteen-year-old girl. He recognized the bone structure of Lady Anne: the long face, the soft jaw, the pointy chin. On the other hand, her skin was smooth and unblemished, and her brown eyes glowed with turbulent determination. She was also rather short, or appeared so next to the enormous Jed.

‘Caroline!’ Lady Anne stood up, walked briskly towards the girl and in a swift movement slapped her hard across the face. It sounded like a whip cracking.

Clouston instantly planted himself between the two women. ‘Lady Anne, I will not see such savagery!’

‘She is my granddaughter; I shall do as I see fit!’ ‘Touch her again and I will leave you to deal with this misfortune on your own.’

Lady Anne’s eyes were bloodshot, her nostrils swelling like bellows as she swallowed her anger. She looked at the girl over the doctor’s shoulder.

‘Who the devil told you we were here? Was it Bertha?’

Caroline nodded. Despite the vicious blow the girl showed no hint of tears.

‘I knew it,’ Lady Anne grunted, returning to her seat. ‘That old nag is not to be trusted. The beating I’ll give her when we return –’

‘Don’t!’ Caroline said. ‘I forced her to tell me. It is my fault, I had to be here.’

‘You had to be here!’ Lady Anne mocked. ‘Whatever for?’

He is my father!
’ It was then that a single tear rolled down Caroline’s cheek, but Lady Anne simply downed another sip of spirit.

Dr Clouston ignored the usual formalities and gently placed his hand on the girl’s shoulder. ‘Pray, calm down, Miss Ardglass. Have a seat.’

She took a step towards the remaining chair, but then shook her head. ‘No – no, I need to see him.’ She looked up at Clouston with imploring eyes. ‘Please, Doctor, where is he?’

Clouston looked at Lady Anne.

‘The second bedroom,’ she said, and Caroline immediately ran to the staircase. Clouston heard her frantic steps above, and then a sudden burst of weeping.

‘What a brutal way to treat her at a time like this,’ he said, casting Lady Anne an infuriated look.

She took another drink, this time from the flask itself, most likely to drown the words she really wanted to utter. Lady Anne was one of the most powerful women in Scotland, unused to having her will or methods questioned by anyone.

‘Jed, bring him down.’ She cleared her throat. ‘We have signed the documents; nobody needs to stay here any longer.’ She chuckled bitterly. ‘Not after that scandalous entrance of hers.’

Jed went upstairs and fetched Lord Ardglass. The poor man was tightly wrapped in a woollen blanket and swayed almost as if he were drunk … or perhaps he’d been purposely intoxicated to keep him docile. Joel was a slender man, like his mother and daughter, and his long face was much like theirs, but tonight he lacked the firm gaze of the two women. Tonight he was a sad, broken figure. Clouston looked at his grey hair and his grimace; the most hopeless expression he’d seen in a long time.

Caroline came behind them, holding a wadded handkerchief to her mouth to muffle her sobs.

Joel tilted his head, and after mouthing the words he managed to speak in a dreamy voice. ‘My poor creature … you must love me so much.’

He caressed Caroline’s face, and she pressed her father’s hand against her skin for an instant, before Jed dragged Lord Ardglass outside. Caroline tried to follow, but Lady Anne grabbed her by the arm.

‘He is in good hands now,’ Clouston whispered, but he knew that no words could console the girl at this time. He also knew she would not be allowed to visit her father; no girl of good society could ever be seen at a mental institution. All in the name of propriety.

Other books

A Stolen Season by Steve Hamilton
Half World by Hiromi Goto
Enchantment by Monica Dickens
Ginny Aiken by Light of My Heart
Eric Bristow by Eric Bristow
Overtime by Roxie Noir
The Detention Club by David Yoo
THE CRITIC by Davis, Dyanne