RAB Donnachie winced as his opponent’s fist thudded in just below the ribcage.
They had been at it for 12 rounds and the younger man was slowly but surely leaving his mark – the Hogmanay crowd were howling for more blood; how much blood did they want, to see in the New Year?
A stark crowded room at the back of the Foul Anchor tavern, a square of sorts chalked out on the floor and the paying spectators near enough to see the bruises, given and suffered.
These fights not authorised or under Queensbury rules but where there was money to be made, a man could aye find a way.
Humanity’s twisted ingenuity has a knack for that.
This time the bare knuckles smashed straight into his face, jerking up the head for a final coup de grace.
Rab would not have called it that, however, more a hammer blow just under the chin that sent him down among the graveyard men.
He was oblivious to the mixed roar of triumph or anger, depending on how you’d laid the money down.
Dead to the world.
If there was one sight the criminal fraternity of Leith did not wish to see as New Year approached it was Inspector James McLevy and Constable Mulholland on the saunter.
This consisted of an apparently aimless meander through the backstreets while McLevy whistled some Jacobite air and Mulholland loped along like a giraffe – one a grizzled figure, heavy overcoat, low-brimmed bowler, the other caped and helmeted rising above mere mortals on the quayside like a watchful lighthouse.
Pocket delvers stayed their hand, rooftop dancers abandoned thoughts of illegitimate attic entry, and nymphs of the pavé withdrew primly into the wynds.
No-one desired to spend Hogmanay in Leith station and one sure way of getting there was to think that you might somehow slide sin past these two.
But this crime landed in their lap with a vengeance as a piercing scream issued from the bowels of the Foul Anchor.
Knowing better than to attempt a frontal sally they shot round to the rear of the tavern, kicked in a reluctant rusty door and, as another scream rang out, traced along a narrow corridor to a dingy small room.
It stank of sweat and in the middle was a hefty barmaid who took another deep breath to let rip terror.
She gulped it back when McLevy put his fingers to his lips.
Like a tableau from a play, two figures lay on the floor, one a giant of a man the other a small dainty fellow, immaculately dressed and dead.
The giant’s hands were round the other’s throat and it would seem the dainty fellow had stopped breathing as a consequence.
“Donny Lapsley,” said McLevy. “Not before time.”
The giant groaned then began to stir, causing the hefty barmaid to try an exploratory squeak, but the inspector waved her aside as Mulholland unsheathed his lethal hornbeam stick just in case.
Rab Donnachie slowly opened his eyes to find his bruised and battered fingers clamped murderously around another’s throat.
His mouth opened and closed, but little emerged as another voice cut in.
“I knew this would happen. Ye murderous swine!”
A tall sallow figure, Aeneas Simpson, owner of the Foul Anchor, had made his appearance on the scene, a bar towel over one shoulder and his long horse-like face suffused in anger.
The barmaid decided to try one more scream.
Rab looked up at McLevy and blinked the cloudy grains of unconsciousness out of his eyes.
“Whit happened?” he asked.
Lieutenant Roach sniffed as McLevy finished his rendition of events so far.
He had been hoping for a quiet, almost stealthy, approach to the New Year, a peaceful return home to his wife, some song recital that he might unobtrusively slumber through but no. No – this was Leith and murder will out.
Rab’s incoherent version of the incident was as follows.
As loser of the bout, he had been dumped in a side room on a dirty table and opened his eyes to find a contemptuous face staring down at him.
Donny Lapsley, promoter of the fight, threw a few coins upon the big man’s body as payment and told him he lacked gumption for the fray.
He had laughed when Rab had demanded his rightful purse and claimed vast expenses had been incurred that needed to be paid. The big man was lucky to even get this much because he had put up such a pathetic showing.
“That wasnae fair,” said Rab as he sat in the cell with McLevy and Mulholland for company. “I’d done ma best. The boy was too good for me – jist bad luck.”
They had looked at his bruised and battered face; it bore the marks of many beatings and the simplicity of his words made them all the more damning.
“I have these times when it a’ goes dark. Mair and mair they come, such days. I wis fierce angry wi’ Donny and I reached out at his white collar.
“Then – when I woke up – he was there and you were there. And a big lassie was screaming.”
“Well, all that seems simple enough. You wonder why these people bother sometimes.”
“Rab Donnachie was a bonny fighter – bygone days – I saw him in the ring. He could hammer them out, but he took too many punches.”
To this offering of McLevy’s Roach shook his head.
“A barbaric practice at best. Well, as I say, a simple enough case, write it up and sign it off. With a decent lawyer he might plead manslaughter.”
“Rab doesnae have the money for a decent lawyer.”
“Well perhaps you might take up a collection,” said Roach with some asperity.
Mulholland scratched at one of his rather large ears.
“One thing. Donny’s pocket book had little in it. He’d have made a fair killing on such an event at that time of year.”
“Expenses, did he not say?”
“Donny Lapsley was a liar,” McLevy suddenly spat out with unexpected venom. “A dirty conniving liar.”
“Well, he’s dead now,” replied Roach. “And the law must take its course.”
With that the lieutenant disappeared into his office to commune, no doubt, with the portrait of his beloved Queen Victoria, leaving McLevy and Mulholland monarchs of all they surveyed in the station.
The inspector had a look on his face that warned the assembled young constables to steer clear if they wished a Happy New Year and Mulholland knew the reason well enough.
Donny Lapsley had his fingers in many pies but his main resource was as money-lender.
He loaned to the poor at exorbitant rates and his bully boys were ruthless in the collection of same.
McLevy had witnessed the results, families thrown out on the streets and the hopeless look on broken faces as their pitiful possessions were sold from under them.
As far as he was concerned, strangling was too good for the man.
But though money-lending was legitimate, murder was against the law.
“You start the paperwork,” he growled to Mulholland. “I’m going outside tae get a breath of fresh air. It stinks in here.”
A cream carriage with two fine black horses clipped its way down Great Junction Street and the woman inside called herself all sorts of a fool for leaving her place of service – a place that was heaving to the gunnels with randy clients – on what might well be a wild goose chase.
Of course, it helped that Jean Brash owned the aforesaid place of employment, Edinburgh’s premier bawdy-hoose, the Just Land, and had left it under the firm command of Hannah Semple, her good right hand and Keeper of the Keys, but all the same it was a daft venture.
Jean was dressed to the nines in high fashion, with red hair, green eyes and a porcelain complexion that displayed no trace of sin – yet for once she was at a loss as to how to carry forward proceedings.
She could send her coachman Angus into the police station, but that might cause McLevy a big red face, and foul temper would not be the way to start this business.
Though by God and maybe this was an omen, was that not the man himself mooching about by the entrance?
A call brought the carriage to a halt.
“McLevy!” she hissed, leaning out urgently. “Get in quick before somebody gives me a bad name.”
“Are ye deaf, man? Get in!”
His eyes narrowed in annoyance but he scrambled inside as bidden while the carriage quickly moved round the corner, where it came to a halt.
The pair struck a contrast, Jean the height of sophistication and the inspector like a bear new-draggit from the cave, but they had been through murder plus mayhem together, were bonded by a strong love of good coffee and as regards other ventures, had a rapport which, as the good book would say, passeth all understanding.
And was no-one else’s business.
Not that you would have guessed from the way they glared at each other.
Jean hammered in first.
“You have Rab Donnachie in the cells?”
“For murder. Done and dusted.”
“So I hear.”
Her network of spies and informants meant the mistress of the Just Land heard about crime in Leith often before victims had even registered the happening.
“His daughter Jessie works for me.”
“Polishing the silver, no doubt.”
“Never you mind. The girl’s in floods o’ tears. Maintains her father could do no harm.”
“A violent profession.”
“Gentle as a lamb outside the ring.”
“Jeannie – the man has black-outs. Told me himself. He reached for Lapsley’s throat. Remembers no more.”
“Whit was it you told me once? Murder. The simpler it looks, the more suspicious I get.”
“Did I say that?”
“Ye were a real thief-taker then!”
With that McLevy found himself somehow bundled out of the carriage which rattled away indignantly, leaving him in a similar state.
In the cold room, he and Mulholland gazed down at the tidy corpse of Donny Lapsley. McLevy had nabbed the constable on the way back through the station, niggled by what Jean had said.
He had been going to wait for the police surgeon but – never assume.
“The simpler it looks, the more suspicious I get.”
He looked at the marks on the neck; bruised yet…
“How many strangulations have we seen?” he demanded.
“Enough to fill the Theatre Royal.”
A somewhat exaggerated response, but they had witnessed their quota.
“Rab Donnachie is a huge man and strong but – would you not say these imprints are light of touch?”
The constable narrowed his eyes. McLevy was right – of course with the hands round the throat you would predict this to be the cause of death, but – there was none of the deep indentation you would expect from such violence.
The inspector was already peering up the nostrils of the money-lender. He poked a cautious pinkie up the cavity and hooked something out.
It was a small scrap of feather. White in colour.
McLevy swiftly moved to the corpse and stripped the covering blanket so that the arms were laid bare. Just below the elbow on each side of the forearms were bruised patches of skin.
The inspector looked at Mulholland and grinned like a wolf.
“Now it begins,” he said. “All over again.”
Aeneas Simpson was a happy man. Business in the Foul Anchor was booming – aside from the drawback of murder on the premises, it was as if events were falling over themselves to help his cause.
He had lost a duplicitous partner, gained a deal of money and the Hogmanay trade was roaring.
Therefore it was with a rare smile on his long face that he greeted the two policemen.
“Gentlemen – whit is your pleasure?”
“We’d like to look at the scene of the crime once more,” said McLevy a trifle dolefully.
“Be my guest. You know where it is, sir.”
To this the inspector nodded as if to go on his way, but Mulholland scratched at his ear and sighed.
“One thing puzzles me,” he announced. “The takings from that fight would be considerable yet Donny had little on his person.”
“I know nothing of that,” replied Aeneas, wiping at the bartop. “Lapsley handled a’ the money matters. I jist put up the venue.”
“We talked with Rab Donnachie once more,” continued Mulholland. “And he remembered something.”
Indeed the big man had, shaking his head, his face creased with the effort of memory.
‘When Donny drapt the money on me. He had a big velvet bag in his hand. Heavy wi’ coin.’
“No sign of it though,” the constable insisted doggedly. “You’d wonder why?”
“Who could take the word of a murderer for anything,” said Aeneas. “And the man’s punched out his wits.”
“A good point, Aeneas,” said McLevy grumpily. “Come on constable, through the motions and get this over. It’s damn close tae New Year, I have better tae do.”
“Well,” Mulholland said almost plaintively as he trailed after, “If the bag was taken, it’s robbery of the dead and that’s serious crime. A near hanging matter.”
He was safe. He had locked the door. What a fool to keep the bag on the premises, should have taken it somewhere else, his mother’s for instance.
But while these idiots were busy at the murder scene he could slip out, his mother only two streets away, give it her to plank in the coal bunker and he was safe as houses.
That is, until Mulholland’s large boot kicked in the door so that he and McLevy came charging into the room.
They saw Aeneas Simpson crouched over a loose floor-board, a heavy velvet bag clutched in his sweaty hands.
The man’s mouth fell open as McLevy shook his head in grim remonstrance.
“I wondered, Aeneas, about how quick you were tae shift blame onto Rab at the outset, so we tried a wee trick. I went tae the murder room but Mulholland hid away tae watch and you – fool that you are – took the bait.”
The constable smiled at the stricken face.
“We thought if we laid down some fiction about the crime of robbing the dead and the hangman’s rope that it might move your guilty soul and so it proved.”
“And see whit I also found,” added McLevy. “Stuffed away in a wee cupboard – the murder weapon!”
He shook out a crumpled pillow, which emitted a few white feathers.
“There’s traces of saliva on the cover and similar feathers up the nose of Donny.”
He let out a roar of laughter.
“My surmise is you keeked in, saw Rab collapsed, Donny probably passed out through sheer blind panic, and took your chance. Grab the money, but maybe Donny woke up or maybe ye jist disliked him as much as a’body else. Whatever. Ye took the pillow and ended the partnership.”
“Just a business transaction,” said Mulholland.
Both policeman seemed to find that idea amusing but Aeneas near howled in terror.
“No! I admit such. I saw them lying there and took the money. Then Donny began tae jitter. But his eyes were closed shut and I ran like hell out of there.”
Simpson’s long horsey face wrinkled up in fear.
“As God is my witness, I never killed the man. I never laid finger upon him!”
Lieutenant Roach’s countenance exhibited a grudging admiration. McLevy was one of the most annoying men he had ever had the misfortune to come across in his life but he could dig up the roots of crime like a badger on the scrape.
“So Rab Donnachie may yet escape heavy charge – that should put a smile on your face, inspector.”
But there was no smile to be seen.
“Aeneas Simpson admits the robbery but denies the murder, and strangely enough – I believe him.”
Roach shook his head.
“If you had heaven, McLevy, you’d want hell alongside it.”
The lieutenant was already dressed to leave and stuck out an equally grudging hand.
“When it arrives I wish you a Happy New Year, James – God knows you have sore need of happiness.”
He also shook Mulholland’s bony appendage and left swiftly before further complications ensued.
“So,” said the constable. “Where do we go from here?”
A memory had come into McLevy’s mind. The speed of events had buried it for a while but now it had surfaced with a vengeance. And – vengeance was the word. Indeed.
The hefty barmaid had been sent home to recover from the sight of murder.
Her name was Colleen Cowan and she lived in a single room in Brodie’s Wynd, a room she kept clean as a whistle but which was now filled with herself and two great lumps of men.
Colleen’s eyes were blue but not a dancing colour, more like chips of ice as she trained them on McLevy.
“You resemble your mother,” he said. “Your face lodged in my mind but I could not put it to place until now.”
Still there was no response.
“She was a nice wee woman, but weak,” McLevy ploughed on. “Got in bad trouble wi’ the money lenders. They found her floating in Leith Harbour. Suicide maybe?”
“She drank too much,” said Colleen tersely.
“But she was your mother. And Donny Lapsley was the usurer concerned.” Colleen was a Dublin girl and Mulholland tried his winning Irish ways.
“Ye see Colleen, the inspector has it like this. You came in; saw the scene, a man you hated on the floor but still moving. Coming out of it. So – like a clever girl – you took your chance. Got the pillow, knelt on his arms. It would only take a few minutes. Someone might have seen you coming in though, so stuff the pillow in the wardrobe, open your lungs and start to scream.”
Colleen looked at him for a long moment, and then said two words.
“Rab Donnachie is nothing to you. A big beast. But he will get the blame for this murder and swing for it. He has a daughter – she loves him dearly as you no doubt did your mother. Can you bear that on your conscience?”
Colleen thought for a moment and then replied.
“I’ll let ye know that in the morning.”
Her face was like stone. McLevy nodded.
“So be it.”
As they walked back down the wynd, Mulholland murmured,
“Ye didn’t mention Aeneas Simpson was deep in the frame?”
“No,” replied the inspector. “Keep it simple.”
The bells began ringing out to signal a New Year.
The day itself was bright and blowy. Good drying weather. Jessie Donnachie pulled the sheets from the line and her father Rab took them in his great paws and folded them gently over his arm.
Jean and McLevy sat in the garden of the Just Land inside an ornate gazebo, sipped coffee with sugar biscuits to hand and watched the scene.
A letter from Colleen Cowan had been delivered to Leith Station that morning. In it she confessed to the murder of Donny Lapsley exactly as McLevy had intuited, and had this letter witnessed by two respectable neighbours.
When the police had immediately rushed to her lodgings, the young woman was gone. Vanished.
A ship had sailed for Dublin that very day but it was packed with folk going home for New Year and it would be like searching out a needle in a haystack.
At least that’s what McLevy said to Jean and she laughed.
“This is what ye hoped for, you’re a crafty bugger.”
“Not at all. The coffee’s very good.”
“Of course, if you’d told her Aeneas Simpson was also suspected – Colleen wouldnae have moved a muscle.”
“Possibly not. He’s a miserable bugger. But I appealed to her family instincts wi’ Rab. Family is a strong dunt.”
Rab pretended to square up to his daughter, who rapped him over the head with her knuckle.
He grinned and they both disappeared into the Just Land with the sheets.
“Had him released under my surety,” said McLevy. “But he’ll have to go back.”
Jean looked thoughtful.
“I have a friend, a rich widow, needs a reliable coachman. Rab could fit the bill.”
“If and when he is released,” was the response. “And ye’d have to keep watch for the black-outs. Mind you, should he stop getting the lights punched out, that might help.”
He sooked loudly at his coffee and she tried to ignore the awful noise.
“Do you have a resolution for this New Year?”
Now it was his turn to think.
“Drink good coffee.”
“Does that mean you’ll be scrounging round here?”
“Possible. Aye possible.”
For a moment their hands were close together and then he reached for the sugar biscuits.
He crunched. She sipped.
That was the way of it.