Extract from Remembrances of a Gutter Press Hack by Gideon Pound, published Hardier-Walt, 1923
Few things give me gooseflesh. I am blessed by a most excellent constitution not prone to flights of whimsy, and my occupation has inoculated me at even the most lurid of penny dreadfuls. Blood is just rusty rouge, and as for the moaning winds of Gothic horror, I’m more chilled by the thought of dying of consumption than a creature of the night breaking through my window.
And yet what I saw in the morgue that night still haunts me, for it came from ripe from the world of the fantastic. I would see many strange things in the days ahead, of man and beast and somewhere in between, but that first creation opened my mind to a sea of possibility I had not countenanced.
The Southwark Morgue was an inconspicuous little building, with plain red-brick façade and a few steps leading up to a freshly painted red door. There were no crackles of lightning above it, nor particularly looming shadows. In fact the only thing in the air that night was the pervasive whiff of yeast, as the strange pipes and tanks of the Goggler Brewery sat directly behind this modest home of for suspicious corpses.
Entry was simple enough. A few coppers spilled into the hands of the attendant, and a known quantity had free reign to peruse even the most macabre cases (if you weren’t known, you’d be suspected of having undesirable urges and get a sound beating). As a journalist I had visited several times before, and indeed had used some of the more infamous corpses on display to inform my copy. The main morgue was, I knew, in the basement, and was by all regards furnished with the latest technologies for the practising physician. The mortuary slab above a grate, allowing blood to flow across the tiles and down into the sewers; the lighting was electric and therefore less prone to the mysterious shadows of gas; and a sink with hot water, soap and even oil of geranium to disinfect the tools used to hack up the departed. I made my way there quickly, and within moments had set my eyes on the prize.
There were three bodies stretched out in the mortuary that eve, all covered in clean white cotton sheets to preserve modesty, personal affects stored neatly to one side. The coroner had presumably gone for the day, and so I had ample time to study the stiffs as I chose. The first was (I could tell from the blood stains on the cloth) a common stabbing, the second (from the dip of cloth where there should have been skull) presumably a gunshot wound to the head. That meant unlucky victim number three was our Miss Patterson. As I edged closer the queer pong I’d first sensed at Fenchurch Street filled the air, and I knew at once I was correct.
That’s when I noticed it. The hideous object that shook my world to its foundations.
Emily Patterson’s head sat in a weighing scale. Or, more precisely, what should have been her head. For someone had skinned that creature, so that only her flesh was present, slumped in a pile like a deflated balloon. The appearances were there – that same, impossible chin and ivory complection – but there was nought but air where once there had been skin and bone. I staggered with fright, and whipped off the covers of her corpse, desperate to confirm I was misled.
The corpse of a Chinese man stared back at me. Around his neck was the same ivory skintone, but from the throat upward he was masculine, with a whisp-thin beard and those remarkable doll’s eyes I had seen at the station. I reached down to the throat and touched the cold, clammy skin of the dead, my finger slipping and confirming my suspicions.
I came to the scales, the spectres of fear fleeing in front of my new knowledge. This was not Emily Patterson’s head, but simply theatrical rubbers and a wig. Upon closer inspection, it was not even that remarkable, much like a parlour mystery once you know the trick. Such a thing was of magnificent manufacture,but it was simply a jawline, and a false nose, and then a well-fit hairpiece. One could easily imagine how such simple pieces, like a puzzle, could slip over another’s features and utterly transform them with the aid of theatrical paint. And, once done, the illusion would be complete. This may not have been the true likeness of Emily Patterson, but as I was convinced Emily Patterson did not exist, that hardly mattered at all.
“Needs must, y’see.” The voice echoed around the chamber, causing me to spin in surprise. A young man stood in the doorway, a cocksure grin on his face. He wore the stylings of a naval officer, and had a charge-pistol all crackling with electricity and ready to fire.
“Excuse me?” I exclaimed, somehow succeeding in not evacuating my bowels from the fright of this sudden alarm.
“Needs must. Oh, hand’s up, there’s a good fellow? Thank you, much obliged.”
“You can’t do this, I’m a member of the press!” It was a weak protest, though a press card has been known to send a shiver up even the most callous of hounds.
“And I am sure your readers would lament if I had to use this, hmm? Now, step away from the item, if you so please.”
“What is this?” I demanded.
“National security. You see, your persistence has resulted in your discovery of certain things Her Majesty’s government is at labour to keep quiet. That mask – quite ingenious, isn’t it? – is but one of many points we’d rather not telegraph to the opposition.”
“Would another be that there was no Emily Patterson?”
The officer smiled. “And why would you say that?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I was ranting at this point, I confess. “That someone invented her history from the pages of Jane Eyre? That a Chinese worker – this one, I suspect – vanished from Southend the very night of her supposed death? That this Chinese worker was hanged up wearing a mask and her clothes to convince someone that she’d committed suicide? Oh, I’ve figured it all out. And I’ll find out what was in those tea chests, too.”
The officer lowered his pistol, and gave a slight clap. “Close. Though, not quiet on the button. Y’see, Mr Pound – may I call you Gideon?”
“If you must.” I dared not ask how the fellow knew my name. It’s a paradox of modern times that one craves recognition right to the point one achieves it; after that, all you wish is stark, boring anonymity.
“Thank you, Gideon. Now, the security of our nation often applies to small things. This is not a principle your class understands, but as your version of this mystery would be far more harmful than the truth, and as I have no real interest in shooting you dead, I suppose I’d better explain.” He took a seat on a vacant mortuary slab at that, and took snuff.
“I suppose you’d better.”
“Quite. In actuality I suppose I should keep my lips closed tight, but if I have any failings as a spymaster, it is that I find it impossible to keep secrets.”
A grave fault for his line of work, I grant you, but I wasn’t going to interrupt to tell him so.
“My interest,” he continued after a sneezing fit, “is to know the arcane mysteries of other cultures. This allows us to identify prophecies and beliefs that could harm the Empire. Do African tribes have a prophecy that men with sticks of fire shall arrive on iron creatures belching smoke? If so, we should consider if sending soldiers by rail would be beneficial or harmful to our position. And, of all the cultures causing us problems at the moment, the Taipangs are the most troublesome.”
“The Kingdom of Heavenly Peace. A Chinese rebellion that’s swept up half the country into civil war. Several million fanatics who live and breath a twisted version of Christianity, where they are ruled by Jesus Christ’s brother and have blue bowels.”
“Precisely, it’s all utter rot. It is rot, however, that threatens to spread to the fine oak that forms Her Majesty’s empire. My agent was returning from Hong Kong with some rather vital items. When she arrived at Southend, she was attacked by this chap. She dispatched him, but decided for expediency that it was best to feign his attempt had been successful. Now, my agent’s gift is mummery, disguises and the like. She happened to have supplies available, and so promptly dressed up her assassin and sent him off, apparently mission accomplished.”
So now that mystery was solved. The strange smell, the body that was clearly dead before it had been hanged, the contents of those tea chests.
“Then she faked someone falling into the harbour, to explain the coolie’s disappearance, and affected another guise to lodge at the Dog’s Face. I presume a man, for no woman signed in, and it would shake suspicions of her survival.”
“You presume correctly. Indeed, Gideon, you presume a singular amount for a man who has not graced the halls of a university.”
Typical of the upper-class bumblers that ran the Empire, I thought. To assume a man could not read, or could not surmise, simply because he had the fault of being born to parents in somewhere unaccustomed to wealth and favour.
“The last time I checked, Jane Eyre is available in most public libraries, and not just the hallowed cloisters of academia.”
“Ah, yes. That was my mistake. An invented Miss Patterson requires a background, and I hastily cobbled it together. I had much to do in a short time, and the little details came all too readily. Rather than simply concoct a story, I had to convince the police and coroner not to investigate this corpse too intently. My agent was attacked again – this fellow must have had an accomplice – for they sabotaged the dirigible she was riding in. You’ll have read about that in your own sheet, I suppose? If it had not been for the fortunate interventions of a lady travelling with my agent, the attempt would have succeeded.”
“And where is the agent now?”
“Busy doing her job, and you need know little more. As for my role, I am here collect and dispose of the tell-tale body, a task I’ll oblige you to help me with in a moment’s time.”
“And why would I do that?”
The man laughed, gun still in hand. “Gideon, my dear fellow. I shall not appeal to your sense of patriotic duty, for I doubt you have one. Nor shall I appeal to your sense of honour, for you have walked among thieves too long. Instead, I appeal to your curiosity. For I know what drives a journalist to work for such a sordid publication as yours. It is not money, fame or even a sense of morality. It is that you are addicted to telling stories.
“I imagine a good story is a tot of the headiest wine to you, something you cannot refuse to imbibe. You have to know all the dirty secrets so that you can tell all the dirty tales to your friends in the public houses. And that, Gideon, is a trait that has nurtured in you a talent I can use. You are an excellent solver of mysteries.”
I laughed at that final, outrageous remark. Here, in a mortuary, standing over the body of a crossdressed Chinese assassin, I was being offered the Queen’s shilling by a exposition-obsessed spymaster wielding an electric firearm.
“I’m quite serious, Gideon. You would be an asset to the foreign service.”
“And if I decline?”
The man smiled. “I said I had no inclination to shoot you dead. I did not say I would hesitate if necessary.”
Put like that, how does one refuse?