A special seasonal Inspector McLevy story by DAVID ASHTON has the greatest detective of Victorian Edinburgh tackling a murder case that begins at the very start of New Year
THE Old Ship heaved with merriment and raucous delight as sailor boys from ships new-docked and nymphs of the pav lurched and cavorted to celebrate Hogmanay.
In truth the tavern was one of the more respectable in the Leith Docks but tonight had joined its disreputable neighbours in letting slip the ropes of Presbyterian propriety. The air was thick with tobacco smoke, which may well have done some of the nymphs a favour since their maiden-days were far ahent them. Be that as it may, they hurled their bodies with abandon, hooking arms and even legs to a fierce jig provided by two ancient fiddlers who crouched in the corner, smiling at the musical mayhem they were engendering in the service of a New Year on the approach.
A few apprentices and the odd clerical worker also bobbed in the wake of the whirling women and tarry-breeks, but a keen observer would have noticed that in this chaotic jumble of limbs one of the cubicles where a bulky man sat quietly nursing a hooker of whisky was carefully avoided by one and all.
A sudden howl indicated the coming hour and noise then abated as the fiddlers sawed a jarring chord to signal that ears must be tuned to a different melody.
Dimly outside, the far-off bells of St Thomas's church on Sheriff Brae began to toll the hour of twelve.
As the last chime sounded, the door of the tavern creaked open, thus forestalling the impending rendition of Auld Lang Syne. A figure entered. He was tall and dark of features but his hands were empty, holding to his body until they fell away to disclose two large patches of blood that stained his heavy seaman's coat on each side.
In the silence, he made as if to speak but a trickle of blood flowed from the corner of his mouth. He toppled, to land face down upon the floor.
No-one moved. The bulky man levered himself out of the cubicle and walked over to look down upon what was obviously a new-minted corpse.
"No rest for the wicked, eh?" said Inspector James McLevy.
LIEUTENANT Robert Roach avoided the baleful stare of his monarch Victoria on the wall opposite. She had hung there for many years now.
Two men stood before his office desk: McLevy, white parchment face under a low-brimmed bowler, and Constable Mulholland, lanky frame jutting out at all angles, hair neatly parted, Irish-blue eyes bearing no trace of the fact that he had been hauled from his bed at an unearthly hour to render service unto the first crime of this New Year.
Roach peered at three items that had just been laid upon his desk.
"The man's papers identified him as Issac Caspar, Dutchman, officer on the good ship St Elmo just docked from Amsterdam. According to his mates, a wild man, gambler, girl in every port, happy-go-lucky, take no thought of the morrow. Jolly Jack tar."
"Not so jolly now," offered Mulholland after the inspector's sardonic recitation.
"Robbery?" asked Roach.
"Possible," replied McLevy. "But the death wounds were absolutely precise, one from the left, one from the right. A bang on the head would do the thieving jist as well."
Roach picked up one of the items McLevy had parked before him. It was a thick coin. As he turned it round, his eyes narrowed.
"This is counterfeit," the lieutenant muttered.
"Double-headed. The Roman God Janus. Twin-faced as well. Clutched in the dead man's hand."
"His lucky charm," added Mulholland. "So the shipmates told us."
"Most fortunate," said Roach, dryly picking up the second item. A tobacco pouch. Thin black leather.
"I found it in his pockets," said McLevy.
The lieutenant opened the pouch and looked inside.
"It is completely empty," he observed.
"Exactly," came the response.
Roach sighed and picked up the third item. Part of a torn-out newspaper page. A picture of some kind. Foreign language under the image.
"Dutch, sir," said Mulholland.
The lieutenant blinked his eyes at the picture. It was crumpled somewhat but seemed to be the image of a spherical object, pale against the dark border.
"We found the paper in his cabin, tucked away in a drawer. That is a photograph of the Hartjammer pearl!" proclaimed McLevy.
Roach blinked once more. News of the pearl's theft had reached even the nether regions of Leith. One of the most valuable jewels in the world stolen in Amsterdam some months before, it had vanished without trace.
McLevy had that weird glint in his eye and the lieutenant sensed a flight of fancy that it was his bounden duty to nip in the bud.
"A counterfeit coin, empty tobacco pouch and an old newspaper photo of a stolen pearl. I see nothing that indicates the solving of a murder case."
"Not yet," responded the inspector with a sudden savage grin. "Not yet." A knock at the door and, on Roach's call, a young constable appeared with something in his hand. "Letter for ye, inspector," he announced. "Hand-delivered at the desk. Dead urgent."
A baleful glance from his superior sent the young man scurrying off.
The other two watched as McLevy's stubby fingers prised open the envelope to release a waft of perfume into the masculine air of the office.
"A billet-doux, McLevy?" asked the lieutenant.
"Of a kind," replied the recipient. "Of a kind."
THE JUST LAND was a handsome house in the high reaches of Leith set in fine gardens with ornamental gates and nothing about it proclaimed the possibility of a bawdy-hoose; which indeed it was. The owner of this palace of licentious delight, Jean Brash, nodded to the shivering old woman who sat at table in the large kitchen area.
The house was quiet. A heavy night before when a tranche of respectable Edinburgh citizenry found their carnal appetites sated and subdued, had given birth to a hushed silence as the girls lay abed and dreamt of knights in shining armour.
"Tell the inspector, Maisie," said Jean.
Maisie Phillips swallowed hard. By her own description she had seen sweeter days. A lifetime bartering her charms upon the streets and deep fondness for John Barleycorn had left its marks. Also she was intimidated by the man in front of her. McLevy. The thief-taker. No mercy. His slate-grey gaze bored into her. Tell the truth, Maisie, she thought, or you're a dead duck.
"I wis down the docks. Hoping for trade. A wee tremble in the wynds. It was gey dark. At my age that suits. Less they see the better. But nae luck."
Mulholland looked at a ravaged face where the wispy hair clung tenaciously to her skull and was not surprised at the lack of fortune.
"Then I saw this man. Standing. Twa others on each side. He pit out his hand. Palm up. They moved arms. Plunged in. Out. He fell back against the wall. I let out a wee squeak. They turned. Saw me. I ran for my life."
"Did ye see their faces?" asked the inspector.
"Dark. Hats. White hair underneath. But they looked the same. Dead spit! Like twa wee evil goblins. Dead spit!"
"Small of stature?"
"Aye. Runty. I ran for my life."
McLevy signalled Mulholland to continue and moved off from the table with Jean for company. She spoke quietly aside as Mulholland carried on a soft but insidious line of questioning.
"Maisie turned up on the doorstep, this morning. Early. Couldnae sleep," she said. "Told me the story."
"Was she stinking of whisky?"
"Sober as a judge."
"Judges are rarely sober."
McLevy fell into a profound silence. As he brooded inwardly, Jean looked at a man she had known for so many years now. On opposite sides but bonded by worship of good coffee and a wary affection that puzzled many, especially Lieutenant Roach.
"I'll keep Maisie here safe," she said. "Till you might require her."
"Very kind to a soul in need."
"I owe the woman. A man attacked me in the wynds. She cracked a bottle on his head. I was young at the trade then."
"And look at you now," he murmured. "An upright citizen."
She smiled. He looked at her green eyes, set against the red hair and clear complexion that showed no hint of hidden sin and wondered what she was scheming.
"Oh, I nearly forgot, Jean," he announced. "Happy New Year."
AS THE policemen walked through the grounds of the Just Land skirting the ornamental pond where Jean's bloated tropical fish still lurked, it being mild for the time of year, the constable broke silence.
"I could not shake Maisie's story. One addition, though. Well dressed, she said. Top hats. Capes. Exact the same. Runty. Peas in a pod."
"The Archibald Twins," said McLevy.
"It came to my mind also."
The description fitted two men McLevy had been after these many long years, fences of the finest degree who moved through high society like malignant dwarfs and had customers that ranged from princes to oligarchs all over Europe.
They were also sworn and deadly enemies of Jean Brash; rumour having it that the hostility stemmed from their mistreatment of one of her girls who had been unwise enough to accept a private assignment at their hands.
"Angus and Andrew," he stated. "Receivers of stolen goods."
McLevy then aired a thought that had struck him when Maisie spoke about a dead spit.
"The coin in the man's hand. Janus. Two-headed. Twin-faced. If he knew he was dying that might have been a last indication of his killers."
"A long shot," replied Mulholland soberly.
"Nevertheless. We'll pay a wee visit."
As they moved off towards the ornamental gates, a heron flapped overhead and cast an interested glance at the pond below. But the bird knew from experience that a net covered the expanse of water.
Too well protected. Not worth the effort. Flap on.
IT WAS a truly disconcerting experience to regard the Archibald twins. Skin drawn tight against the skull, eyes deep in sockets, thin lips and a beaked predatory nose gave them a puppet-like appearance as if they had been sculpted together.
Angus and Andrew. Stunted. Symbiotic. They finished each other's sentences and had the same flat identical expression.
"Last night?" said Angus. "We saw in Hogmanay."
"One glass of malt whisky each," added Andrew.
"Then to bed. We rise early."
"The demands of business."
The twins ran an export firm, excellent cover for other activities.
"May one ask why you inquire, inspector?" Angus said primly.
"A murder in Leith Docks. Two men of your description seen. I wondered if you might…"
"Have observed anything?" finished Mulholland, picking up the twins' habit.
"Observed?" said one.
"Observed what?" said the other.
"Murder, for instance," said McLevy.
Angus twisted his thin lips impatiently. Andrew did the same.
"We were here – "
"Not there – "
"Leith Docks are most dangerous at night – "
"Wouldnae be caught dead in that place – "
Something in their self-containment set McLevy's teeth on edge and he could sense the contempt behind their blank stare.
But that was not a bad thing. McLevy scratched the nape of his neck as he looked around the twins' study and living room. Two identical desks, family portraits on the wall, some expensive furnishings, Persian carpets on the floor and in the corner, on a solid stand, an elegant shape in fine porcelain.
"Nice wee vase," he declared awkwardly.
"From the Ming dynasty," corrected Angus.
"Priceless," added Andrew.
Again McLevy had the impression of a hidden derision but played his part through, nodding at Mulholland.
"Aye well, come along constable, we'll not bother these busy men any longer, they have money tae make while you and I toil."
As the policemen moved to the door, Angus stopped them with a question.
"Who supplied the description of … these two men?"
"Oh – we have a witness right enough."
"They must have been drunk," Andrew said dismissively.
"Aye. Right enough."
McLevy grinned somewhat foolishly, looked at the floor then suddenly shot out a question of his own.
"The Hartjammer pearl?"
For a moment, the twins' stony gaze flickered, Angus in the left eye, Andrew on his right, then they recovered.
"What's that to do with us?"
"Not a thing," said McLevy. "Jist something I found in a drawer."
He grinned again then shambled out the door followed by Mulholland.
The twins were silent for a moment, then one spoke.
"I don't like witnesses," said Angus.
"Neither do I," said Andrew. "And I know that woman's face."
EARLY EVENING and a weary McLevy attempted to explain his suspicions to a sceptical superior.
"It is your contention then," sniffed Roach, "that Issac Caspar was carrying the pearl?"
"The empty tobacco pouch," replied the inspector doggedly. "Perfect receptacle. Clean as a whistle. Not a whiff of baccy and his shipmates told me that the man didnae smoke."
"He hands the pearl over to the Archibald twins, instead of payment they kill him and – disappear into the dark. That is your contention?"
"I feel it in my bones."
"Bones need flesh," Roach pronounced acidly.
McLevy sighed. Proof was indeed the problem.
"I have sent Mulholland back to question the old woman. She may bring something else to mind."
"A drunken vagabond in a bawdy-hoose? I know your predilection for the charms of Jean Brash, McLevy, but what in God's name do you hope to gain from this action?"
As if in answer, the door flew open and a flustered Mulholland burst in.
"Maisie Phillips has been snatched from mortal sight!" he announced, coming over a bit Irish in excitement.
"She sneaked out of the Just Land to get some stuff from her lodgings – she told one of the girls – whisky probably. Never came back. A neighbour saw her being bundled into a carriage by two men."
"Big as a house."
"Hired for the job no doubt," said McLevy, on the move already.
"Where are you going, inspector?" asked Roach alarmed by the wild gleam in his inspector's eye.
"A life is at stake. Vagabond or not. All are equal in the sight of the law!"
With that he was gone, followed by his constable.
Roach glanced worriedly at Queen Victoria. She did not seem impressed. But then notions of equality rarely electrify those of royal blood.
MULHOLLAND was shaking in his large policeman's boots. What he was about to do lacked sense and was most probably against the law.
But it was his own fault. As they rushed through the streets, his inspector had asked a fatal question.
"Before. When I mentioned the Hartjammer pearl, did ye see their eyes shift?"
"I did," he had replied unwisely. "They looked over your right shoulder."
"Exactly! Too clever by half. Now here is what you must do."
And God help him, he was about to perform as directed. He looked down from his great height at the scowling faces of the twins.
He and McLevy had been grudgingly readmitted and the inspector, announcing that Mulholland had some further enquiries to make, had retreated into the background.
They waited. He opened his mouth and then suddenly let out a howl of fear and pointed to the window. The twins' heads jolted round in unison – the old tricks are often the best – and while they were thus distracted the constable sensed McLevy spring into motion behind them all.
"Thought I saw a ghostie," Mulholland apologised feebly. Angus and Andrew sniffed disparagingly then turned back to see McLevy holding the Ming vase in his dainty hands.
"I am about to test the law of gravity," he announced and then let the thin porcelain slip from his fingers to crash onto the metal fender of the fireplace and shatter into a thousand pieces.
Another howl from Mulholland, fear of dire consequences fuelling his lungs, and a cry of anger and dismay from the twins.
The inspector paid no heed and poked with his shoe amongst the delicate shards to uncover in their midst, a small tissue packet.
He picked it up and unfurled the paper to reveal a spherical object whose inner radiance caused it to glow against his palm.
"Ye were right," he told the stricken twins. "That vase was priceless."
JEAN BRASH shivered in the cold night air as she looked from her open window to the shrouded figure in the garden below.
"D'ye know what time it is?" she scolded.
"I couldnae sleep," James McLevy responded. "And I've run out of coffee."
Despite the temperature, her lips quirked with humour.
"The hero of the hour," she said.
The inspector had banged upon the door earlier, thrust a shaken Maisie Phillips into Jean's arms, admonished her to take better care this time and then vanished. Now he was back, throwing pebbles at her window.
"Funny thing about thae twins," he announced. "Together they were a fierce redoubt but as soon as we questioned them apart, they sang like linties."
"Issac Caspar had delivered tae them before but this time he wanted ten times the fee. Gambling debts. And he knew the value of the pearl."
"So they stabbed him?"
"One blames the other but since the wounds are from opposite sides, I disbelieve the judge will buy it."
McLevy then, impervious to the damp cold, told her of the events; how he had noted on mention of the pearl that their eyes had flicked to the Ming vase behind him, then instructed Mulholland on their return visit to provide distraction so that he might make his move.
"Ye did all that for Maisie?"
"I did it for the law," he rebuked sternly. "I shook her whereabouts out of them. A cellar down by the docks. Their men were waiting for high tide."
Jean shivered again. Maisie was now sleeping sound. It could have been for ever.
"But why break the vase?" she asked.
"I could see something down there but I couldnae get my hand in the neck."
"Turn it upside down."
"Might not have come out. My way was better."
"But ye broke a priceless artefact. Ancient!"
"All that glisters is not gold," came the mysterious response.
"Whit the hell does that mean?"
"When I lifted the vase I noticed some writing on the bottom."
"Not exactly. It said" – McLevy took a deep breath – "Made in Birmingham."
Jean Brash began to laugh. Once started, it seemed as if she would never stop. At last she pulled herself together and looked down at his solemn face.
"I suppose I better scare you up some coffee."
"That would be nice."
For a moment their eyes met, then she closed the window.
The heron, which had swooped silently down while this conversation ensued, to land upon the garden wall, watched while the man walked towards the house.
The door opened and a shaft of light cast a woman's shadow across him. The man hesitated a moment, then entered. The door closed.
The heron looked towards the pond but the net was still in place, so it lurched off the wall and beat its wings to fly into the inky darkness of a New Year's night.
David Ashton, December 2009
• A Trick of the Light by David Ashton, the third novel in his Inspector McLevy series, has just been published by Birlinn, priced 9.99. Jack O'Diamonds, the third part in the sixth series of McLevy, starring Brian Cox in the title role, will be broadcast on Radio 4 on Monday, 4 January at 2:15pm.