The Hunt (A Case for Frey & McGray) (4 page)


McGray was aghast. He grabbed his moth-eaten overcoat and ran to the small stables.

Tucker, McGray’s golden retriever, appeared to understand his master’s fear: the dog came from the library and followed him, barking nervously.

I barely had time to throw some clothes on, for McGray had rushed me with unintelligible spurts of Scottish abuse (note to self: purchase Grose’s
Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue

Joan apologetically handed me a small cup of black coffee. I gulped it down in one go, wrapped myself in my thickest overcoat and stepped out into the bitter cold of the Edinburgh night.

When I reached the stables McGray was already on Rye, his sturdy chestnut horse, holding a large bull’s-eye lantern. The stump between his middle and little fingers was evident under the light.

‘Will ye hurry, ye carbuncle face!’

Few times have I seen him so scared, so I ignored the verbal lashing and jumped into my saddle. Philippa, my white Bavarian mare, did not welcome the early ride, and carried me with sulky strides.

I lifted my fur-trimmed collar, resenting the icy wind, but McGray was so anxious he could have ridden through a hurricane and hardly noticed.

I knew what was in his mind. He was imagining the worst.

Pansy, his young sister, could well be the girl in question.

It was difficult not to contemplate that possibility. I’d seen Miss McGray merely a couple of times, but her story was so sad and terrible it moved me whenever I thought of it. To McGray the wound was still sore – perhaps it always would be – and I felt for him as he led the way in a frantic gallop.

We must have been like a thunderous dart through the deserted streets, our horses’ hooves and neighing cutting the silence along with Tucker’s barking. We crossed the Old Town under relatively good lighting, but beyond it the gas lamps became sparser, and soon I felt as if I were riding through a black wilderness. The asylum was at the southernmost extreme of the city, where a mere handful of large estates sat. Occasionally we would come across a pair of glimmers at the gates to extensive grounds, which under a full moon would have been enough to illuminate that road; unfortunately, that was precisely the darkest night of the lunar calendar, and the only constant light came from McGray’s lantern.

How he found his way to the asylum I do not know, but we soon saw the glow of its many windows. That was not a good omen: if almost all its rooms were lit at this odd hour, the place must be in commotion.

We passed through the main gates, where a couple of officers had just a split second to greet us, and we found another two men guarding the main entrance. Another bad sign.

‘Why would Campbell send so many people?’ I asked out loud, but McGray was not listening. He was already dismounting and I had to run to catch up with him.

‘Inspector McGray,’ said the officer standing by the door, ‘the doctor’s waiting for ye.’

‘How many o’ youse are here?’ McGray asked, silencing Tucker’s barks with a brief gesture.

‘Nine, sir.’


‘Aye. Two at the gates, us two, another one at each o’ the two back gates, and three guarding the room where they have the lassie.’

‘Jesus,’ McGray murmured, making his way in. He knew the corridors of that building like the back of his hand, and again I had to trot to match his pace.

The asylum was indeed agitated: nurses and orderlies ran everywhere, and the eerie shouts of countless inmates filled the place like an army of ghouls.

‘Something terrible has happened,’ I said, feeling a sudden chill.

‘Mr McGray!’ A haggard-looking nurse came up to us. ‘Thank goodness ye got here so quickly!’

‘Miss Smith,’ McGray answered, ‘what’s going on? Was it –’

‘Follow me, sirs.’ She was already walking briskly. ‘Dr Clouston says every second counts.’

She guided us to the west wing, where the most affluent patients stayed. I saw McGray frowning, and I soon understood why. I remembered these corridors too.

‘We seem to be going to Miss McGray’s chambers,’ I said.

‘Aye,’ said Miss Smith, but as we turned a corner we saw that the girl’s door was shut. The adjacent room was open, and three officers were standing nearby, wincing at the horrible, guttural screaming that came from within. ‘It’s not Miss McGray,’ Miss Smith added, pointing at the wide-open door. ‘It’s all happening in there. Please go in.’

I saw a hint of relief in McGray’s eyes as we entered, but it did not last, for that room was an assault on the senses: a deeply upsetting scene, repulsive smell and icy temperature.

The window had been shattered, the very frame ripped out of the walls, and there were glass shards scattered all over a Persian rug. A relentless draught had been slowly killing the fire, and a pathetic glow was all that remained in the hearth.

There we found Dr Clouston. As soon as he saw us he let out a long sigh. His usually neat beard was dishevelled and his ever assured eyes were sunken.

‘Adolphus, Inspector Frey, you are just in time!’

He pointed at a four-poster bed; it was not a humble thing at all, decked with a thick velvet canopy and curtains. The screams came from behind them.

I could not contain a shudder when I saw that poor woman, partially concealed by the drapery.

I cannot say that she lay on her back. She was face upwards, but her spine was contorted brutally, forming a ghastly arch – her chest in the air, her weight resting on her hips and shoulders. Nobody’s back could bend like that without breaking a few vertebrae.

Her arms were twisted in odd directions, her hands stiff and her fingers set like claws. To complete the disturbing picture, her eyes were bloodshot and her mouth was wide open, unleashing a succession of horrendous cries.

The room stank of vomit, and I saw that the bed sheets were a repulsive mess. However, that was not the only smell; there was also a chemical trace in the air.

‘She doesn’t have much time left,’ Clouston said, just as the woman’s limbs contorted in uncontrollable spasms.

‘Oh my …’ McGray muttered, stepping closer. I knew that somewhere in his mind he must be already considering it a demonic possession. That bent spine, however, was an unmistakable symptom to me.

‘Strychnine?’ I asked.

Clouston nodded, sombrely. ‘In a terrible dose; there’s nothing I can do.’

There was nothing
could do.

McGray pulled a chair from a corner and sat by the bed. His blue eyes flickered over the dying woman, and he spoke in an almost fatherly tone. ‘Lassie, who did this to ye?’

‘There is no use,’ I said. ‘She is in the last stages of –’

She roared then, a deep, animalistic sound.

Lord … Lord …

She did not manage to speak again. With a last spasm, her back twisted further. I heard bones cracking and then her roaring stopped, followed by a ghastly gagging as she struggled to breathe. Her chest heaved, but I knew no air could reach her lungs now.

Her last exhalation came out in a long, raw-throated croak, and then her chest relaxed, unlike the rest of her body: her spine remained arched and her fingers stiff. It was only her eyes that suddenly showed peace, as if welcoming the numbness of death. She was gone.

There was a long silence. Nobody dared even move. God knows how long we would have remained thus, but then I felt … something.

It was a tingle creeping up my leg and sending a shiver through my body. Everyone looked at me as I contorted to reveal I’d stepped on a trail of ants.

I had not entirely composed myself when I heard a soft noise behind me. As I turned around I saw a large raven pecking at splinters of the window frame. It was barely a glimpse, for after a strident caw the bird flew away.


McGray poured a double whisky and handed it to Clouston.

The doctor had dropped into the leather chair behind his desk, and was covering his brow with an exhausted hand.

‘Here, doc,’ said McGray, offering him the glass. ‘Wet yer whistle, ye’ll feel better.’

‘At least warmer,’ Clouston answered, welcoming the drink with a slurp.

McGray poured another two whiskies and we both sat at the desk. We savoured our drinks for a silent moment, and once the fire in my throat had partially restored my spirits, I was the first one to speak.

‘Well, Doctor, can you tell us what happened?’

Clouston stared at the tears of whisky on the sides of his glass. He was so tense the tendons were standing out from his neck. ‘Gentlemen, I must have your word. Nothing I’m about to say can leave this room.’

‘Ye ken ye can trust me,’ McGray said. ‘And if this London cock goes out singing, I’ll personally cut off his – crest.’

‘That shan’t be necessary,’ I retorted in my most phlegmatic tone. ‘Doctor, speak freely. Nothing shall ever pass my lips.’

Clouston still stared at his glass, then took a deep breath and downed the remaining drink in one swift gulp.

‘The woman you saw die was Miss Greenwood,’ he said, putting the glass down. ‘Wonderful nurse, very hard-working. Twenty-four years old. She’d been with us five … six years, the poor thing.

‘She was doing the night shift. Miss Smith was supposed to be going home, but I believe she forgot something and came back. When she did, she heard screams and rushed to the room. She saw the shattered window and … well, Miss Greenwood lying on the floor, crying she’d been poisoned. She could not speak much sense after that.’

‘Do you have any idea who did this?’ I asked.

‘It could only have been one person, Inspector. The inmate she was tending to. The man who smashed that window and ran away.’

He looked down as he uttered a name that would become our curse.

‘Lord Joel Ardglass.’

McGray lifted his head, as shocked as if he’d heard a hex. ‘
That cannae be true! The one Joel Ardglass I’ve heard of is dead. He’s been dead for years!’

Dr Clouston took sighed and picked up his glass. ‘That’s why I need your silence. And I am also going to need another one of these …’

I cannot find a word to describe the shock on our faces. The doctor’s mouth had run dry at almost every sentence, and by the time he’d told us the entire tale there was hardly any whisky left in his decanter.

‘How could you accept such a deal?’ I asked.

‘I’ve told you, Inspector. I could not find any other possible way to help that man and his daughter. Do not believe I don’t regret it. I know now that I was a damn fool.’

‘That bitch, Lady Glass!’ McGray hissed, pacing manically around the room. He had not managed to stay in his chair for half the story. ‘How could she mock me and my sister when she herself had a lunatic in her viper’s nest?’

‘It wasn’t all to your detriment,’ Clouston said. ‘Your house in New Town, she was set on taking it from you. It was my blackmail that prevented it.’

McGray pressed a hand to his forehead. He was gripping his empty glass fiercely.

‘Dr Clouston!’ I said, half smiling. ‘I’d never have thought you had that in you!’

Clouston smiled wryly, pouring the last drops of whisky. ‘I never thought it myself.’

‘Are you certain it was Lord Ardglass who poisoned her?’ I asked.

‘Oh, there’s no doubt about it, Inspector. You heard the girl herself trying to say
. We have a few quite affluent patients, but not any other with a title. Some inmates called him the Lord of Totty Head, others, Lord Bampot.’

‘She could have been delirious,’ I said.

‘Why would he run away if he hadn’t poisoned her?’ McGray snapped. ‘Which reminds me, Doc, have ye sent anyone to look for him?’

‘I didn’t think it sensible to send people out – it is too dark and the man is too dangerous. I sent one of my orderlies, Tom, a very strong man, to warn the neighbouring estates.’

‘Ye thought well.’ McGray nodded. Then he called some of the officers in and sent them out to look for Lord Ardglass. ‘It’s likely to be useless,’ he said, finally sitting down. ‘As ye said, it’s too dark to find a bloody elephant out there, but we must at least try.’

‘In the meantime, there is a lot to do,’ I added, thinking of a similar case I’d seen in my early days at London’s Scotland Yard. ‘Doctor, I need you to ask your staff to check for any missing items. I am looking for materials Lord Ardg-lass could have planned to use for his escape: weapons, money … Count your horses, of course. And also, please ask them to check particularly for missing rat venom.’

‘Is that where you think he got the poison?’ McGray asked.

‘Most likely. Strychnine is usually the main ingredient.’

‘Now I remember,’ said McGray. ‘Wasn’t that what the Rugeley Poisoner used?’

‘The very thing,’ I said. The Rugeley Poisoner had been executed decades ago, but he was still fresh in the nation’s memory, particularly since his list of victims included some of his own children.

Clouston rang a bell to summon the head nurse. ‘Anything else you need, Inspectors?’

‘The patient’s full history,’ I said.

‘And we need to question yer staff,’ McGray jumped in, ‘and have a proper look at that room.’

‘We also need to take the body for a post-mortem,’ I said. ‘Dr Reed is going to have a very nice New Year’s Day. Oh, and I must send an urgent message to Superintendent Campbell: as soon as we know whether Lord Ardglass got away on horse or foot we can establish the extent of the area to search. And we will have to inform the press – people in the city will need to take precautions if we cannot find him soon.’

Clouston cleared his throat. ‘I’m afraid that won’t be possible.’

‘Excuse me?’

‘I have just told you, Inspector, that there is a damning legal statement I signed …’

I chuckled. ‘Doctor, you
be serious!’

‘I’m afraid I am. Nothing must leave this room.’

‘Are you trying to protect Lady Anne’s reputation?’

Clouston jumped to his feet and I regretted my derision.

Of course not!
I am trying to save my career and the salary that sustains my family! I am head of this great institution and a respected lecturer. I have written and preached much about the rights and treatment that people with mental illnesses deserve, yet I admitted an inmate without thoroughly checking his sanity certificate. And this is not a man to go unnoticed: people will revel in gossip and my name will inevitably come out. Lady Anne would as soon sue me for libel. I could lose my medical licence. I curse the day I let him in, but there is nothing I can do to mend that now.’

‘A demented man is at large,’ I insisted. ‘Are you telling me you are willing to leave the entire city at the mercy of a lunatic for the sake of keeping your good name?’

Clouston pressed a tired hand to his forehead and sank back on to his seat. I felt truly sorry for him, suddenly cornered by his own desire to help others.

‘You must excuse me,’ I said, ‘but surely you understand that we need to conduct a thorough investigation. We cannot let this man walk away at his leisure.’

‘Frey,’ McGray intervened, ‘I won’t argue with ye right now. Ye’ve had a couple o’ drams; drinks get ye too bold for yer own good.’

‘As much as I appreciate your attempt at wit, this is
we are dealing with. I must insist that we put these feeble scruples aside and –’

McGray grabbed me by the arm and dragged me out of the office. ‘Sorry, Doctor. Ye don’t need to hear what I’m gonnae tell this dandy.’ He banged the door and whispered irately: ‘Keep yer sanctimonious police procedure shite to yerself! I won’t let ye ruin Clouston’s career.’

‘Sanctimonious! Is that not too long a word for you?’

I thought he was going to punch me. ‘It’s not a bloody joke, Frey.’

‘You owe your loyalties to Clouston and I understand that. In fact, I understand it too well. Which makes me think it would be best for everyone if you were not involved in this case.’

‘How could I not be?’ McGray rubbed his face in frustration. ‘When my sister and me were in the worst way he stepped in. Haven’t ye just heard? He even saved the bloody house where yer staying now!’

‘Not because I want to, I may add –’

‘Of course I bloody owe him!’ McGray banged his fist on the wall. ‘Now that he needs help, I’ll do anything I can, even if it takes me all the way to hell.’

Then he turned and went back in, slamming the door mightily.

‘I’m sure you will,’ I said with a sigh, ‘and you will drag me with you.’

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