Two stalked him from behind, two from the side. One of the boys from behind tipped the man’s hat and, as his hands left his pocket to catch it, Pyke saw his watch being removed and his vest pocket being emptied by the boy next to him. Only when the boys had parted ways and disappeared into the adjacent back alleys did the man realise what had happened, by which time it was too late. No one came to his rescue when he cried for help.

On Fleet Street there was a noisy procession involving a ragtag bunch of poorly dressed whiskered men; some were banging tins, others shouted anti-papist abuse. They were heading for Hyde Park, where one of Daniel O’Connell’s supporters was organising a rally in favour of Catholic emancipation. Pyke knew this because all the Bow Street foot patrols had been summoned by Sir Richard Fox to police the situation and keep the two warring sides apart. They had been told to act as peacemakers, but Pyke knew as well as anyone else that, should there be trouble, many of the assembled Runners would join forces with the Protestant mob and turn on the papist rabble- rousers. Pyke had no special affinity with the Protestant religion, which he saw as joyless and disciplinary. But he would not lose sleep over the spilling of Catholic blood. In the end, Catholics and Protestants could kill themselves and others to earn glory from a God who didn’t care about them, but Pyke would not be fooled into such pointless sacrifice.

But he was grateful for the distraction of the march, because it meant he could conceal himself in the crowds. As he walked, Pyke occupied his mind by trying to guess where Swift might be heading and, for no other reason than the habit of adjusting himself to the worst outcome, he opted for the rookeries of St Giles. A man could instantly lose himself in the warren of blind alleys, passages and yards that made up London’s most overcrowded slum.

Nowadays Pyke rarely ventured into the rookeries, both because of the physical danger and because the chances of catching someone were remote. Bow Street Runners were usually well known and often found their paths barred by hostile onlookers. Furthermore, the dense network of interlinked yards and passages meant that thieves could escape pursuers without too much exertion.

Yet when Swift crossed over on to Drury Lane and darted into a side passage adjoining one of the street’s many theatres, Pyke decided not to give up his pursuit, even though the alley led into the heart of the rookery. He was now excited by Swift’s presence in such a place. Who did he know here? And what was the purpose of his visit?

Pyke had grown up in this neighbourhood but still didn’t know all its nooks and crannies. Nor did it ever feel like home, whatever that term might mean. He had never tried to romanticise its narrow streets and ripe smells, either to himself or to others. It was a brutal place where desperate men and women lived desperate lives. He knew the buildings all too well, just as he knew what might be inside them, together with plagues of rats. Cobblers and gin distillers trying to put together a living in rotten hovels that stank of human faeces; broken-down forgers oxidising coins in substances that would eventually kill them; prostitutes fucking against alley walls while pimps waited in the shadows to mug the customer of whatever money was left; tricksters on the lookout for their next mark; scavengers trawling the slum’s black holes for signs of food and life; travellers crammed ten to a room swapping germs and tales of other places; men and women living in near-constant darkness who shouted and fought and drank and swore and fucked until their despair no longer seemed to matter.

But of all the rookeries Pyke knew and feared - feared because in his world you were only ever one step away from poverty - the bleakest was the Holy Land, an area that housed most of the city’s transplanted Irish population. It was there, in ‘Little Dublin’ as some liked to call it, that Swift ended up. Antiquated hovels backed on to narrow streets. In windows filled only with tattered paper, grim stares met his wary gaze. Livestock roamed freely in and out of open doors and the smell of burned animal fat wafted from rooms that housed as many as could lie top to toe on bare floors. These people didn’t care about political emancipation, he thought grimly, only about where their next meal was coming from.

Halfway along a typically windy street, Pyke was close enough behind to see Swift disappear, without warning, into a run-down building. A small sign on the door indicated it was a lodging house for dock workers and their families.

Pyke waited for as much as a minute and followed Swift into the building. Without natural light, the candle- blackened entrance hall was gloomy and the room smelt of wax and cooked food. The walls and ceilings seemed to press in on him. Hearing a noise from somewhere above, he started to ascend the rickety, corkscrewed staircase; on the next floor, he inspected the various closed doors but, on hearing the sound above him once more, he opted to continue his ascent of the staircase and found himself on the upper-floor landing. Everything was quiet. In all probability he had lost Swift downstairs or out of the back of the building. Looking around him, he counted five doors, all of which were closed.

Pyke tried one of the doors and found it was locked. Turning to the adjacent room, he eased the handle and applied pressure to the door. As it swung open, the rusted hinges groaned audibly.

The stench hit Pyke with an explosive force. It seemed to invade his nostrils and peel off the skin from the inside. Pyke did not think of himself as delicate and, in his work as a Runner, he had been confronted by rotting animal carcasses and the occasional dead body, perhaps even of his own doing. Still, he had to check himself as he entered that room, and take his time to adjust to a smell that was so visceral it made him want to be sick.

It was a bleaker room than many prison cells and it had neither heating nor natural light. A torn mattress filled almost a quarter of the floor space. The rest of the room was occupied by two motionless figures pressed against the wall farthest from the door. Taking a candle lantern from the landing, Pyke set it down on the wooden floor in the middle of the room. He called out but did not get an answer. Nor did the occupants move or even flinch. At first he fancied they might have been high on laudanum, but almost at once a squelchy feeling underfoot put paid to such a notion. Pyke had known even before he’d stepped into the room that the smell was that of putrid flesh and fresh blood, and it took less than a few seconds of rational thought for the two figures to become corpses. Still, it wasn’t until others arrived with gas lamps and replacement candles that the full horror of the scene would reveal itself. Then he would see for himself what had happened. He would see that a man and a woman no older than twenty had been bound and gagged. He would see that their throats had been cut from ear to bloody ear, and that the cuts themselves went so deep their heads had almost been severed from their bodies.

If that had been the extent of the horror, then, gruesome as it was, Pyke might have been able to walk away from what he had witnessed there, with his fortitude and resolution intact, for he had long adjusted himself to the fact that human beings were capable of committing acts of unfathomable cruelty.

In those first moments, he did not see the bloodied sheets tossed on to the floor nor the metal pail beside them until his eyes had fully adjusted to the darkness. While both corpses had been propped against the wall like rag dolls, the metal pail was right in the centre of the room. Pyke kicked it and felt something move inside. Gingerly, he edged the lantern into the middle of the room with his foot and bent over, peering into the pail.

Pyke spotted a tuft of hair. It looked like a small animal.

He brought the lantern closer.

What he saw, then, was a collapsed jumble of tiny, delicate limbs and soft, pinky flesh. He saw a head, then two legs, two arms, a body, some feet and fingers. He strained for a better look, not able to trust his eyesight, and saw that the head, tiny as it was, had been squeezed out of shape, as though someone had taken it between their thumbs and pressed as hard as they could until it split apart like a piece of overripe fruit.

There was a faint whiff of urine but no liquid in the pail, just a dead baby. Pyke prodded it with his finger and instinctively pulled back. It did not move. The bruised flesh resembled melted wax. Pyke looked into its staring eyes, like small chunks of freshly mined coal, and felt unsteady on his legs. Supporting himself against the wall, he tasted bile in the back of his throat and barely had the chance to open his lips before a hot spike of vomit exploded from his mouth.


Once reinforcements from Bow Street arrived, it took them a further two hours to clear the upper floors of the lodging house and herd the curious residents downstairs into the apartment and back yard of the landlady, a plump spinster called Dulcibella Clamp. She, of course, objected vociferously to her home being overrun, as she put it, by foreign hordes, but only, Pyke fancied, because it gave her lodgers the chance to see how comfortably she lived, in comparison with the squalor of their own quarters. Pyke, whose task it had been to take her statement, dismissed her objections and went to rejoin Sir Richard Fox and Brownlow Vines, who were waiting

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