of the Serpent

An Inspector McLevy Mystery




a straight driver


The Diary of James McLevy

There is a legend that after Lucifer had been cast into hell, God granted him the one wish to make up for what must have been a severe disappointment.

Satan thought long and hard, then averred that he would wish to grant mankind the gift of desiring power.

God could see no harm in that: He Himself had possessed supreme omnipotence for all eternity and see the good job He’d made of it.

So, God granted the wish.

And Satan has been laughing ever since.

I have reached my third coffee. The cup has left a yellow ring at the top of the page where I write but nothing is perfect. Not even myself.

I am James McLevy, inspector of police. I record in this wee book what the French call my ‘pensees’, or what the Scots would term ‘whatever passes through a body’s mind’.

My existence is a struggle between personal human frailty and the desire to serve justice. An exactitude forever compromised by the very people who framed the laws they now wish to bend.

I look back to see the anguish and pain I have caused for others and caused to myself by the unyielding pursuit of justice. I look ahead and see much the same prospect. So be it.

Break the law, high or low, I’ll bring ye down. Suffer injury, high or low, I will avenge ye. To the best of my compromised ability.

I’m down to the dregs now. Coffee is like blood in my veins.

Out of my attic window, I can see a thousand torches flickering in the sky from the direction of Waverley Market.

They light the way to power. Politics. The dunghill upon which many a cock has crowed.

I turn the other way and look out over my kingdom.


Who finds the heifer dead and bleeding fresh

And sees fast by a butcher with an axe

But will suspect ’twas he that made the slaughter?


Leith, March 1880

Sadie Gorman shivered as the cold east Edinburgh wind bit into her bones. No place to hide. She looked down at her dress, dirty yellow like the lamplight and thin as a winding sheet. What kind of life was this? She should have decent drawers, keep her old bones warm and cosy, but no, she had to be accessible to all comers. Shed her shanks to liberal or conservative. All comers.

She laughed suddenly and the sound echoed in the silence of Vinegar Close. It was late, past midnight, other folk in bed, ten to a room, drunk men snoring, children clenching knees to keep the contents of their wee bladders at bay, and the women?

Well, whatever they were, at least they were spared standing on a corner in Leith on a dank March night, hoping for some mortal old fornicator fuddled with drink on his way home from the big meeting. On his way home, but, Christ Jesus this wind was cold, just enough blood in his veins to prove that a standing cock has nae conscience.

The gaslight flickered and she caught sight of her image on the other side of the street, reflected in the oily glass of one of the half-uncles, the wee pawn shops, dotted round the closes. A shop she’d been in many a time herself, the door well locked, window empty save for this daft soul in a yellow dress slavering back at her.

Look at the sight. The woman was ancient, for God’s sake, if she was a day. A single white feather stuck in the back of her wispy hair added a gay touch to the shipwreck.

What year was it now? Soon she’d be coming up to fifty. Sadie shared a birthday with Queen Victoria, May the 24th. That day Her Gracious Majesty would be a sight older but better preserved. People would kiss her hand, kiss her backside if they could find such under all those skirts and petticoats and God knows what else. Aye they’d get lost in there, choke on all that flannel guarding the Queen’s private parts, choke, kiss her backside and sing the National Anthem. All at the same time. On their knees.

She walked across the street and looked closely at herself in the glass. By God, she was a treat to behold. Face white with powder and chalk, eyes black as pitch, cheeks rouged up like a paper doll and her mouth a big red gash. Not exactly a shrinking violet but what’s a shop without a sign? She opened her lips, and pouted comically at herself. A big mouth. Her speciality.

In the silence, faintly, the sound of a child whimpering from one of the black, grim, warren of houses in the close, then it was quiet.

Set out with high hopes this night, high hopes. Some palaver-merchant had been blowing up a storm at Waverley Market, big crowds, men getting demented over politics. That was good, good for business; they would spill down the hill to Leith, lash out their money and their love-drops; that baby’s howling again, must be her teeth coming through, poor wee soul. Born tae suffer.

None of that for her, no cuckoos in the nest, she sheathed the custom up, and if not, a sponge-and-vinegar girl. Not a seed born of man survived that barrier. A sponge-and-vinegar girl. In Vinegar Close.

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