Fingers to the Bone
As part of Bristol's Brunel 200 celebrations, crime writer Andrew Taylor has penned a whodunit tale set in the engineer's time and featuring the man himself. Read the installments here all this week.
4: A Tribe Of One
On the second evening of his visit, Sir John Ruispidge dined at the Royal Western Hotel. After his adventure yesterday evening, he was pleased to discover that he was regarded as something of a hero. The story had already reached the newspapers – how a distinguished visitor to Bristol had surprised a burglar in his room and coolly put a bullet through the scoundrel. The villain had not yet been apprehended, but traces of blood had been found.
Returning to his rooms after dinner, Sir John passed through the lobby of the hotel. A young man was engaged in an altercation with two of the hotel servants.
“I'm not going,” the man was saying in a strong Bristol accent. “Not till I've seen him.”
“You'll be pitched out on your ear. I'll summon a constable.”
To judge by his clothes, the young man belonged to the labouring class, but he looked clean and respectable. He had a pleasant, manly face, Sir John considered, and he appeared sober. To the baronet's surprise, the fellow pointed at him.
“Why, there he is! Sir John, sir, let me speak to you.”
“What is it, my man? Who are you?”
The man pulled off his cap. “Robbie Trevine, sir, at your service. It's – it's about your watch. And what happened last night.”
Sir John frowned. “The burglar? What had he to do with my watch? It was stolen hours earlier.”
“I know, sir. If you'd let me explain?”
“Come over here.”
Sir John led the way to a sofa near the fire. He sat down and the man stood cap in hand before him. The servants hovered but kept their distance.
“The watch was stolen by a young woman I know,” Trevine said.
Sir John's eyebrows rose. It had not been given out that the thief was a woman. “Go on.”
“She's not a thief, sir, I swear it, not by nature. Her mother's ill, and she can't pay for the doctor.”
Sir John waved a hand. “Right is right, Trevine, and wrong is wrong. Nothing can alter that.”
Trevine's lips tightened. “Yes, sir.”
“Do you know where she is now?”
“Then I'm obliged to you. If this results in an arrest and the recovery of my watch, I shall see that you receive the reward. Tell me where to find her and leave your direction with – ”
“I don't want your reward.”
Trevine lowered his voice. “She's wounded, sir. I saw her through a window not an hour ago, lying in a yellow dress like a streetwalker's. There's blood on her, all over the place. Maybe someone shot her.”
“Stuff and nonsense.”
Sir John glanced at the servants, making sure they were still out of earshot. He remembered the scrap of yellow silk he had found on his bedroom floor. “And – and where precisely is she?”
“If I tell you, you'll help her, sir?”
“I make no promises.” Sir John wished he had not described his burglar to the authorities as “a hulking great brute”. “But I'm not a vengeful man. If this young woman can procure the return of my watch, I shall be content to let sleeping dogs lie. But first things first. Where is she?”
“In Clifton, sir – up near the Downs where they're building the new bridge. Rodney Place.”
“I don't know, sir. But it's where the Missionary Society is. Mr Fanmole's house.”
Sir John slumped back in his chair as though flicked by an invisible finger. The air rushed from his lungs. “Fanmole?”
Trevine looked at him in astonishment. “Yes, sir. A reverend gentleman.”
“Little fellow with a fat neck? Slimy voice and a laugh like a hacksaw?”
“That's him to the life, sir.”
Sir John stood up. “Damme, I see it all now.” He waved to the nearest servant. “You there! Whistle up a hackney-carriage.” He turned back to Robbie Trevine. “Wait – I must fetch something. Then we'll see what Mr Fanmole has to say.”
When he came back to the lobby, he was wearing a hat and a big overcoat and swinging what looked like a weighted walking stick. He swept Robbie into the hackney-carriage at the hotel door and they rattled up the hill to Clifton. Sir John talked as they drove – he would have talked to anyone; he was as full of pressure as a GWR Northern Star locomotive.
“That damned rogue Fanmole! My brother gave him one of our livings just before he died. But it didn't take long for the rumours to start. Tittle-tattle about the village girls. Then the mother of one of my tenants died, turned out she'd just altered her will in Fanmole's favour. Next thing I knew, he'd invested some money on behalf of his curate, and the money was lost; and the poor fellow blew out his brains; and guess who owned the company? Fanmole's aunt, or some such. I could have taken him to court, but the scandal would have looked bad. So I made him resign the living; and I had a quiet word with the Bishop too.”
“Mary says it's his aunt's house in Rodney Place,” Robbie said.
“And what does the aunt say about her precious nephew, eh?”
“If she does any talking, sir, no one's taking much notice. She's in a private asylum in Totterdown. But he runs his Missionary Society from her house.”
“For the benefit of the heathen, eh? A tribe of one, I'll be bound, and its name is Fanmole. Any servants?”
“None that live in, I believe.”
The hackney-carriage drew up in Rodney Place. Sir John told the driver to wait, stormed up the steps and hammered on the door. A moment later, bolts scraped from their sockets, and the door opened.
Fanmole blinked up at them. “Why such unseemly noise, my dear sir? In any case, the Society is closed until the morning.”
Sir John thrust his stick into the doorway. “You blackguard.”
He shouldered his way into the house with Robbie at his heels. Fanmole gave ground before them, retreating up the dimly-lit hallway.
“Where's my watch? Where's that unfortunate girl?”
“The girl you shot, Sir John?” Fanmole said. “Who now lies at death's door? She came to me for help, and I gave her shelter. She is a common prostitute by the look of her, but no doubt that was part of her charm for you. I wonder what Lady Ruispidge will say when she hears that you consort with common sluts and then murder them.”
last updated: 11/03/2008 at 11:04