Anne Perry

Death in the Devil's Acre


P.C. Withers sneezed as the icy January wind howled up the alley off the Thames. It was still three hours before dawn, and the gas lamps of the main streets barely lit this dismal passage on the very edge of the Devil’s Acre, swarming with filth in the shadow of Westminster itself.

He sneezed again. The smell of the slaughterhouse fifty yards away was thick in his throat, along with the stench of the drains, old refuse, and the grime of years past.

Now that was funny-the yard gate was open! Shouldn’t be, rightly-not at this time of the morning. Not important, probably; some apprentice boy forgot to do his job-careless, some lads were. But what meat there was would likely be safe in cold rooms. Still, it was something to do in the long boredom of walking the gray pavements.

He crossed the alley to the cold rooms. Better just look inside, see everything was in order.

He poked his head around. It was silent-just one old drunk dossed down right in the middle. Better move him on, for his own sake, before the slaughtermen arrived and kicked him out. Apt to make a bit of sport of the old boys, some of them were.

“’Ere, dad,” he said loudly as he bent down and shook the man’s ample shoulder. “Best be gone. You’ve no business in ’ere. Although as why anyone’d want to choose a place like this to kip, I dunno.”

The man did not move.

“Come on, dad!” He shook him harder and lifted his lantern for a better look. Surely the poor old fellow was not frozen to death? Not that he would have been the first P.C. Withers had seen, by any means-and not all of them old either. Plenty of kids not more than a few years froze to death in a hard winter.

The light shone on the man’s face. Yes, poor old basket, he was dead; the eyes were open and glazed.

“Funny,” he said aloud. “Them as freezes to death usually goes in their sleep.” This face had a startled look, as though his death had taken him by surprise. He moved the lantern farther down.

“Oh, God Almighty!” The crotch and thighs of the body were drenched in blood; the brown woolen trousers had been slit open with a knife and the genital organs completely removed. They were lying useless between the knees-bloody, unrecognizable flesh, a mass of scarlet pulp.

The sweat broke out on P.C. Withers’ face and froze instantly. He felt sick, and his legs shook uncontrollably. Great God in heaven-what sort of a creature would do that to a man? He staggered backward and leaned against the wall, lowering his head a little to overcome the nausea that engulfed him.

It was several moments before his head cleared enough so he could think what he must do. Call help, that was certain. And get away from here, and from that abomination lying on the ground.

He straightened up, made for the gate, and closed it hard behind him, glad for the slicing wind from the east, even though it carried the raw iciness of the sea with it. Murder was hardly rare in the teeming slums of London in this year of Our Lord, 1887. But this was an act of bestiality unlike anything he had seen before.

He must find another man to stand guard; then he could report in and get his superiors to take charge. Thank heaven he was not senior enough to have to sort out this one!

Two hours later, Inspector Thomas Pitt, holding a lamp, closed the slaughterhouse gate and stood in the yard. He stared down at the corpse, still lying exactly as the constable had found it. In the gray morning light it looked grotesque.

Pitt bent down and lifted the shoulder of the corpse to see if there was anything under it-a weapon perhaps, or further injury. This dismemberment by itself would not account for his death. And surely a man so appallingly violated would have made some attempt to protect himself-to staunch the fountain of blood? The thought was sickening, and he forced it out of his mind. He ignored the cold sweat running on his skin, soaking his shirt.

He looked down the body. There was no blood on the dead man’s hands, none at all. Even the nails were clean, which was extraordinary for anyone who frequented an area like this, let alone slept in a slaughterhouse yard!

Searching further, he found a wide, dark stain under the man, matting the cloth of his jacket. It was near the spine, straight through the ribs to the heart. He held the lamp higher for a closer look, but there was no blood anywhere else on the stones. He let out his breath and stood up, unconsciously wiping his hands on the legs of his trousers. Now he could look at the face.

It was a heavy-jowled, broad-nosed face; the skin was faintly plum-colored, the mouth marked with lines of humor. The eyes small and round-the face of a man who enjoyed good living. The body was portly and of barely average height, the hands were strong, plump, and immaculately clean; the hair was gray-brown.

The clothes were made of thick brown wool, baggy in places from wear, and wrinkled over the stomach. There were a few crumbs caught in the folds of the waistcoat. Pitt picked one up, crushed it experimentally in his fingers, and sniffed it. Cheese: Stilton, if he was not mistaken, or something like it. Inhabitants of the Devil’s Acre did not dine on Stilton!

There was a noise behind him, a scuffle of feet. He turned to see who it was, glad of company.

“Morning, Pitt. What’ve you got this time?” It was Meddows, the police surgeon, a man capable of insufferable good cheer at the most inopportune times. But instead of seeming offensive, his voice this time was like a sweet breath of sanity in a terrible nightmare.

“Oh, my good God!” He stood beside Pitt and stared down. “Poor fellow.”

“He was stabbed in the back,” Pitt said quickly.

“Indeed?” Meddows cocked an eyebrow and looked at Pitt sidewise. “Well, I suppose that’s something.” He squatted down, balanced his bull’s-eye lamp at precisely the right angle, and began to examine the body with care. “Don’t need to watch,” he remarked without turning his head. “I’ll tell you if there’s anything interesting. For a start, this mutilation is a pretty rough job-just took a sharp knife and sliced! And there you are!”

“No skill?” Pitt asked quietly as he stared over Meddows’ head at the dawn’s light reflected in the slaughterhouse windows.

“None at all, just-” Meddows sighed. “Just the most god-awful hate.”


Meddows pulled a face. “Who knows? Catch him and then I’ll tell you-maybe. Anyway, who is this poor devil. Do you know yet?”

Pitt had not even thought of searching the body. It was the first thing he should have done. Without answering he bent down and began going through the man’s pockets.

He found everything he would have expected, except money-and perhaps he had not really expected that. There was a gold watch, very scratched but still working, and a key ring with four keys on it. One of the keys appeared to be a safe key, two were door keys, and one was for a cupboard or drawer, judging by its size-just what any middle-aged, moderately prosperous man might have. There were two handkerchiefs, both grubby but of good Egyptian cotton with finely rolled hems. There were three receipted bills, two for quite ordinary household expenses, the third for a dozen bottles of a highly expensive burgundy-apparently a man of self-indulgence, at least as far as the table was concerned.

But what mattered was that his name and address were on the bills: Dr. Hubert Pinchin, 23 Lambert Gardens-a long way from the Devil’s Acre, in social standing and every other aspect of the quality of life, if not so very far as the London sparrow flies. What was Dr. Pinchin doing here in this slaughterhouse yard, appallingly murdered and maimed?

“Well?” Meddows asked.

Pitt repeated the name and address.

Meddows’ face creased into comic surprise. “How very unlikely,” he observed. “By the way, he was probably unconscious and damn near dead by the time they did this to him.” He gestured toward the lower part of the body. “If that’s any comfort. I suppose you know about the other one?”

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