Death Of A Stranger
Book 13 in the William Monk series, 2002
To David Thompson,
for his friendship and his profound help
All characters are fictional except William Colman, who won the right to be mentioned as a character in the story, but of course his words and actions in this are invented by me. I hope they are acceptable to him.
Monk stood on the embankment staring at the lights reflected on the misty waters of the Thames as dusk settled over the city. He had solved his latest case to the satisfaction of his client, and twenty guineas were sitting comfortably in his pocket. Behind him, coaches and carriages moved through the spring evening and the sound of laughter punctuated the clip of hooves and jingle of harness.
It was too far from here to Fitzroy Street for Monk to walk home, and a hansom was an unnecessary expense. The omnibus would do very well. There was no hurry because Hester would not be there. This was one of the nights when she worked at the house in Coldbath Square which had been set up with Callandra Daviot’s money in order to give medical help to women of the streets who had been injured or become ill, mostly in the course of their trade.
He was proud of the work Hester did, but he missed her company in the evenings. It startled him how deeply, since his marriage, he had been accustomed to sharing his thoughts with her, to her laughter, her ideas, or simply to looking across the room and seeing her there. There was a warmth in the house that was missing when she was gone.
How unlike his old self that was! In the past he would not have shared the core inside him with anyone, nor allowed someone to become important enough to him that her presence could make or mar his life. He was surprised how much he preferred the man he had become.
Thinking of medical help, and Callandra’s assistance, turned his mind to the last murder he had dealt with, and to Kristian Beck, whose life had been torn apart by it. Beck had discovered things about himself and his wife which had overturned his beliefs, even the foundations of his own identity. His entire heritage had not been what he had assumed, nor his culture, his faith, or the core of who he was.
Monk understood in a unique way Beck’s shock and the numbing confusion that had gripped him. A coaching accident nearly seven years before had robbed Monk of his own memory before that, and forced on him the need to re-create his identity. He had deduced much about himself from unarguable evidence, and while some things were admirable, there were too many that displeased him and lay shadowed across the yet unknown.
Even in his present happiness the vast spaces of ignorance troubled him from time to time. Kristian’s shattering discoveries had woken new doubts in Monk, and a painful awareness that he knew almost nothing of his roots or the people and the beliefs that had cradled him.
He was Northumbrian, from a small seaboard town where his sister, Beth, still lived. He had lost touch with her, which was his own fault, partly out of fear of what she would tell him of himself, partly because he simply felt alienated from a past he could no longer recall. He felt no bond with that life or its cares.
Beth could have told him about his parents and probably his grandparents too. But he had not asked.
Should he try now, when it mattered more urgently, to build a bridge back to her so he could learn? Or might he find, like Kristian, that his heritage was nothing like his present self and he was cut off from his own people? He might find, as Kristian had, that their beliefs and their morality cut against the grain of his own.
For Kristian, the past he believed and that had given him identity had been wrenched out of his hands, shown to be a fabrication created out of the will to survive, easy to understand but not to admire, and bitterly hard to own.
If Monk were at last to know himself as most people do automatically-the religious ties, the allegiances, the family loves and hates-might he, too, discover a stranger inside his skin, and one he could not like?
He turned away from the river and walked along the footpath toward the nearest place where he could cross the street through the traffic and catch the omnibus home.
Perhaps he would write to Beth again, but not yet. He needed to know more. Kristian’s experience weighed on him and would not let him rest. But he was also afraid, because the possibilities were too many, and too disturbing, and what he had created was too dear to risk.
There was a noise outside the women’s clinic in Coldbath Square. Hester was on night duty. She turned from the stove as the street door opened, the wood still in her hand. Three women stood in the entrance, half supporting each other. Their cheap clothes were torn and splattered with blood, their faces streaked with it, skin yellow in the light from the gas lamp on the wall. One of them, her fair hair coming loose from an untidy knot, held her left hand as if she feared the wrist were broken.
The middle woman was taller, her dark hair loose, and she was gasping, finding it difficult to get her breath. There was blood on the torn front of her satin dress and smeared across her high cheekbones.
The third woman was older, well into her thirties, and there were bruises purpling on her arms, her neck, and her jaw.
“Hey, missus!” she said, urging the others inside, into the warmth of the long room with its scrubbed board floor and whitewashed walls. “Mrs. Monk, yer gotter give us an ’and again. Kitty ’ere’s in a right mess. An’ me, an’ all. An’ I think as Lizzie’s broke ’er wrist.”
Hester put down the wood and came forward, glancing only once behind her to make sure that Margaret was already getting hot water, cloths, bandages, and the herbs to steep, which would make cleaning the wounds easier and less painful. It was the purpose of this place to care for women of the streets who were injured or ill, but who could not pay a doctor and would be turned away from more respectable charities. It had been the idea of her friend Callandra Daviot, and Callandra had provided the initial funds before events in her personal life had taken her out of London. It was through her also that Hester had met Margaret Ballinger, desperate to escape a respectable but uninteresting proposal of marriage. Her undertaking work like this had alarmed the gentleman in question so much he had at the last moment balked at making the offer, to Margaret’s relief and her mother’s chagrin.
Now Hester guided the first woman to one of the chairs in the center of the floor beside the table. “Come in, Nell,” she urged. “Sit down.” She shook her head. “Did Willie beat you again? Surely you could find a better man?” She looked at the bruises on Nell’s arms, plainly made by a gripping hand.