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Anne Perry

A Sunless Sea

CHAPTER 1

The sun was rising slowly, splashing red light across the river. The drops thrown from Monk’s oars glowed momentarily in the air, like wine, or blood. On the other seat, a yard or so in front of him, Orme leaned forward and threw his weight against the drag of the current. They worked in perfect rhythm, used to each other now; it was the last week of November 1864, nearly two years since Monk had taken command of the Thames River Police at the Wapping Station.

That was a small victory for him. Orme had been part of the River Police all his adult life. For Monk it was a big adjustment after working first for the Metropolitan Police, and then for himself.

The peace of his satisfaction was shattered by a scream, which was piercing even above the creak of the oarlocks and the sound of the wash from a passing string of barges breaking on the shore. Monk and Orme both turned toward the north bank and Limehouse Pier, which was no more than twenty yards away.

The scream came again, shrill with terror, and suddenly a figure appeared, black against the shadowy outline of the sheds and warehouses on the embankment. It was someone in a long coat, waving their arms and stumbling around; it was impossible to tell whether it was a man or a woman.

With a glance over his shoulder at Monk, Orme dug his oars in again and swung the boat round toward the shore.

The low clouds were parting and the light became stronger; the figure materialized into a woman in a long skirt, standing on the pier, waving her arms and crying out to them, her words so jumbled in terror they were unintelligible.

The boat bumped at the steps and Orme tied it up.

Monk grasped the closest wooden beam and clambered out, going up the steps as fast as he could. When he got to the top he saw that the woman was now sobbing and putting her hands to her face as if to block out all possible vision.

Monk looked around. He could see no one else, nothing to cause such hysterical fear. Nor could he immediately see any evidence of a threat to the woman. The pier was empty except for her and Monk, and then Orme, coming up the steps.

Monk took her arm gently. “What is it?” he asked, his voice firm. “What’s wrong?”

She pulled away from him and swung round, jabbing her finger toward a heap of rubbish, which was slowly becoming more visible in the spreading morning light.

Monk walked over to it, his stomach clenching when he realized that what he had taken for torn canvas was actually the sodden skirt of a woman, her body so mutilated it was not instantly recognizable as human. There was no need to wonder if she was dead. She was twisted over, half on her back, her blue, sightless eyes turned up to the sky. Her hair was matted, and blood-soaked at the back. But it was the rest of her body that made his gorge rise and choked the breath in his throat. Her belly was ripped open, and her entrails were torn out and laid like pale, skinless snakes across her loins.

Monk heard Orme’s step behind him.

“Dear God!” Orme breathed out the words, not as a blasphemy but a cry for help, for what he saw not to be real.

Monk swallowed hard and grasped Orme’s shoulder for a moment. Then, stumbling a little on the rough boards of the pier, he went back to the woman, who was now standing trembling uncontrollably.

“Do you know who she is?” he said softly.

The woman shook her head, trying to push him away, but there was no strength in her. “No! God ’elp me, I dunno ’er. I come lookin’ fer me man. Bastard’s bin out all night! An’ I find ’er.” She crossed herself as if to ward off the horror. “I were terrified it were ’im, till I saw ’er, poor cow.”

“You found her just now, when you screamed?” Monk asked.

“Yeah. Ye’re River Police, eh?”

“Yes. What’s your name?”

She hesitated only a moment. With that thing lying on the boards, almost close enough to touch, perhaps the presence of the police was not such a bad thing as usual.

“Ruby Jones.”

“Where do you live, Mrs. Jones?” Monk asked. “And the truth, please. You don’t want us coming looking for you, spreading your name up and down the riverside.”

She looked at his eyes and decided he meant it. “Northey Street, be’ind the work’ouse,” she answered.

“Look at her again, please,” he said more gently. “Look at her face. It’s not too bad. Keep your eyes off the rest. Think if you’ve seen her before.”

“I don’t! I don’ know ’er!” she repeated. “I’m not lookin’ at that thing again. I’m gonna see it the rest o’ me life!”

He did not argue with her.

“Did you just come down here, or were you waiting here for a while, maybe calling out for your man?”

“I were lookin’ fer ’im when I saw that. ’Ow long d’yer think I’m gonna stand ’ere, wi’ that beside me, eh?”

“Not very long,” he agreed. “Will you be all right to find your way home, Mrs. Jones?”

“Yeah.” She jerked her arm sharply out of his grip. “Yeah.” She took a deep breath, then looked toward the body, the horror in her face replaced by pity for a moment. “Poor cow,” she repeated under her breath.

Monk let her go and turned to Orme. Together they went back to the corpse. Monk touched her face gently. The flesh was cold. He put a hand down to one of her shoulders, a little under the edge of her dress, feeling for any warmth at all. There was nothing. She had probably been dead all night.

Orme helped him turn her fully onto her back, completely exposing her ripped-open belly with its pale entrails bulging out, slimy with blood.

Orme let out a gasp of horror and for a moment he swayed, even though he was used to corpses. He was familiar with the destruction that time and predators could cause to a body, but this was a barbarity inflicted by man, and it clearly shook him to a point where he could not hide his shock. He coughed, and seemed to choke on his own breath. “We’d better call the police surgeon, and the local station,” he said hoarsely.

Monk nodded, swallowing hard. For a moment he had felt paralyzed with horror and pity. The river he was so used to seemed suddenly cold and strange. Familiar shapes of wharves and wooden piles jutting out of the water closed in on them, seeming threatening as the sharp dawn light distorted their proportions.

Orme’s face was grim. “Found her on the pier, means she’s our case, sir,” he said miserably. “But of course land police may know who she is, poor creature. Could be this is domestic. Or, if she’s a local prostitute, then perhaps we’ve got a lunatic on our hands.”

“Either way we have a lunatic on our hands. Even if it was domestic, no sane man could do this to his wife,” Monk said incredulously.

“Who knows? Sometimes I think hate’s worse than madness.” Orme shook his head. “The local station’s up the street that way.” He indicated with his arm. “If you like, I’ll stay here with her while you go get them, sir.”

It was the sensible thing to do, since Monk was by far the senior of the two. Still, he was grateful, and said so. He had no wish to remain standing on the pier with the chill of the wind seeping into his bones, keeping watch over that dreadful corpse.

“Thank you. I’ll be as quick as I can.” He turned and walked rapidly across the pier itself, onto the bank and up toward the street. The sky was pale, the early sun silhouetting the wharves and warehouses. He passed half a dozen stevedores on their way to work. A lamplighter, little more than a gray shadow himself, reached his pole up and snuffed out the last lamp on the street.

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