Home > The Custom House Murders

The Custom House Murders
Author: Ashley Gardner

 

CHAPTER 1

 


London, 1819


I pondered the package that reposed on the dining-room table for a long time.

It had been delivered by a thickset man in a long woolen coat as I was descending the main staircase in the South Audley Street house in search of breakfast on a foggy September morning. From the dining room, I watched the man scan the front windows, and Barnstable, my wife’s cool, dark-haired butler, venture out to discover his business there.

After exchanging a few words, our butler stiff with hauteur, the man handed Barnstable a small, paper-wrapped package. Barnstable took it gingerly between his fingers and carried it inside through the front door.

The man remained in place, staring intently at the windows as though trying to watch Barnstable move through the house. Once Barnstable entered the dining room, where I had filled my plate from the sideboard, the man turned away and vanished into the fog.

Barnstable deposited the parcel on the table’s edge, as though it contained a tin of horse manure. Next to it, he laid a letter. I sat down with my plate, broke the seal on the heavy paper, and read:

Deliver this to Mr. H. Creasey at Number 11, Hill Lane, off Lower Thames Street, near the Custom House. To be done by the end of the day. J. Denis

I was growing used to James Denis’s brevity. He’d used an entire sheet of paper for this message, as usual. Also as usual, I tore the clean part off for my own use, a habit from the days I’d had little money for such luxuries as foolscap.

Barnstable, who would never profess interest in a gentleman’s correspondence, had discreetly departed. I was alone in the room, only the crackle of a fire on the hearth as my company.

After regarding the package with deep misgivings, I carefully slid it to me and unwrapped it. The parcel was not addressed to me, but the last time I had delivered a message for Mr. Denis I had become embroiled in a tangle that had nearly killed me. Ironically, it had nearly been the end of Denis as well.

Inside the wrappings, which were clean and crisp, I found a wooden box, about four inches by four and three inches high. A fine piece, made of mahogany, varnished and polished.

The box had a clasp but was not locked. I imagined Denis knew I’d want a look inside and hadn’t bothered with a lock I’d only break.

I opened the lid. Inside, nestled on a bed of black velvet, lay a chess piece. A queen, made of ivory.

The piece was perhaps two and a half inches long, carved in a simple shape. I lifted it between thumb and forefinger and held it up to the gray light from the foggy window.

It was an ordinary piece, the sort sold in shops. No costly gilding or gems adorned it, and nowhere was there any indication of cavity inside, perhaps to smuggle something small and exotic. I examined the queen thoroughly for telltale cracks or hidden catches but found none.

I contemplated the piece for some time then laid it back into its box.

It meant something—why else would Denis insist I deliver it when he could have any of his lackeys, such as the man who’d brought it to me, run such a simple errand?

Denis had told me, at the end of my holiday in Brighton this summer, that he expected me to perform a task for him in return for his help during that sojourn. I’d expected an onerous chore, one dangerous or distasteful. Instead I was being instructed to carry a chess piece to an unknown man on the docks.

Very likely the task was dangerous, but I knew Denis would never impart the details to me. He was the sort who expected obedience without question.

However, I refused to let forebodings of doom spoil my breakfast. I returned to my plate and tucked into a hearty if cooling portion of our cook’s best offerings.

 

I INQUIRED OF BARTHOLOMEW, my valet, when he entered to see if I needed anything, whether Thomas Brewster was in the house.

“Indeed, he is, Captain,” Bartholomew answered. “In the kitchen, come to have his breakfast.”

It was a rare day that Brewster, my hulking bodyguard, did not come to breakfast to supplement his wages with food. My lady wife, whose house this was for her lifetime, had given the kitchen staff orders to feed him. If Brewster’s job was to keep me safe from harm, she said, the poor man ought to gain some reward for it.

My wife’s servants, proud of their status as staff to a viscount and his mother, had been coolly distant at first to Brewster, a ruffian and thief who did not hide his past, but they’d begun warming to him. Brewster could be blunt and rude—he was to me, always—but he was also loyal, friendly, and even kind in his own way, when he wished to be.

Brewster turned up at my home almost every morning to escort me on even the most trivial of errands. He no longer worked for Denis, who had employed Brewster to keep me alive and useful, but he continued to watch over me because, in Brewster’s opinion, I needed a minder.

He came up from the kitchens after I sent Bartholomew down to him, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand, and met me in the ground floor hall. A sweeping staircase, paneled in white, its niches filled with statuary, wrapped around this hall to the next landing. The decor was beautifully elegant, reflecting the taste of my wife, the former Viscountess Breckenridge.

“Should let me deliver it, guv,” Brewster said after I told him my errand.

“I doubt Mr. Denis will thank you. This is the task that will release me from my debt to him for saving my life.”

“Seems I did my share of the saving.” Brewster shoved his hands into the pockets of his square-cut coat. “’Tis one reason I got the sack.”

“He asks that I go to this Mr. Creasey and hand him the box,” I said. “That is all.”

“Huh. Creasey’s a right evil bloke. No good will come of it.”

“Well, I did not expect the errand to be mundane. Why would Denis send Mr. Creasey a chess piece?” I lifted the box, which I’d rewrapped in its paper. “A white queen?”

Brewster pursed his lips then shrugged. “No idea. Is it solid gold?”

“No, quite ordinary.”

“Then it could mean anything, guv. Right. We go, me one step behind you. You throw the box at Creasey, and then you run the other way. Understand?”

“I will hand it to him politely, or better still, leave it with whomever answers his door. I agree we should not linger.”

“Good.” Brewster sent me a doubtful glare, but he at last ceased arguing, and we were off.

It was a foul day, too cool for summer and too warm for winter, the fog hanging in thick patches that grew denser as we approached the river. I’d acquiesced to letting Hagen, my wife’s coachman, drive us in the family carriage. I did not relish the idea of rolling into the docklands with the viscount’s coat of arms blazoned on the coach’s door, but the carriage did move us quickly through the crush.

Mayfair had been quiet, as most families that leased houses there had retired to the country for the remainder of the year. As we traveled through Piccadilly to Haymarket and into parts of London where residents lived year-round, the traffic increased. Not all had the means to escape the hot, stinking London summers, and laborers were needed throughout the year. Commerce did not cease because Parliament wasn’t sitting and the haut ton had departed for more salubrious climes.

Hagen drove us along the Strand to Fleet Street and then around the bulk of St. Paul’s to Cheapside. From that busy thoroughfare we inched down lanes until we reached the Thames and its many wharves. I was alone inside the coach, but I imagined Brewster, sitting on a perch on the back, watching the teeming masses with a sour eye.

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