Category Archives: Gideon Pound

XI. Gideon

Extract from Remembrances of a Gutter Press Hack by Gideon Pound, published Hardier-Walt, 1923

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Illustration believed to show Cmdr Kyle Dale, R.N. at recreation

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.

Grease-paint.

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.”

“Taipangs?”

“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.”

“What?”

“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?

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VII. Gideon

Extract from Remembrances of a Gutter Press Hack by Gideon Pound, published Hardier-Walt, 1923

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Tea clipper-catamaran coming in to dock

The Patterson suicide played on my mind for five days straight. It was a neat little worm, always burrowing away at the back of my mind as I filed copy, to the point that it drove me to distraction.

The news that week had been dominated by the balloon farce. Some posh madam with a fine, double-barrelled name (not Welsh, thank heaven) had landed a dirigible in the East End, and every column inch was consumed with supposition about her actions. Everyone from the Times to the lllustrated News got involved, extolling her virtues or admonishing her for ridiculous faults; one leader, penned by some lofty editor who presumably only ever entered the real world to dine, even complained that a woman should have not been allowed to pilot a dirigible. Presumably he preferred the Sacramento‘s passengers (and assorted bystanders below) all to die in fiery conflagration than breach protocol. As I’ve said, there’s nothing society likes more than a scandal, even when there’s no scandal to be found.

Balloons did not interest me. Nor did the rest of the ‘news’, which consisted of the usual Northerners going on strike about their coal mines, the usual Royal Navy squadrons departing from Scapa Flow, and the usual white-whiskered gufftraps blathering about in parliament. And thus I found myself returning, again and again, to that platform at Fenchurch Street.

I pride myself having a nose for a story, and there was something queer wafting in the tale of Emily Patterson. According to the information I could garner (a little too easily, I felt), she was 24 years old and a governess by trade, and had recently returned from Madeira where she had been engaged in private capacity. All of this was perfectly proper for superficial inspection. But as you dug your nails in to the flesh of her story, a strange mask began to peel off Ms Patterson.

Her place of birth was listed as Rochester. Very well. But her school was given as ‘Lowood’. As any simple sleuth knows, Lowood is the school from Jane Eyre, whose heroine falls in love with Mr Rochester. If that were not a strange enough coincidence, Jane herself is a governess. The details seemed as though they had been conjured up at short notice, and the lowest hanging fruits in the mind had been harvested.

This was enough to make me wonder why Patterson would have been on the train; she had no registered abode in London, and besides trains from Rochester run to London Bridge, not Fenchurch Street. An examination of the timetables showed the train ran from Shoeburyness via Southend, and out through Pitsea, Vange and Horndon and so to Fenchurch. It so happened that these final three stations (through the bumpkin countryside and far from true civilisation) had short platforms, and thus no one would have ventured to the final carriage. Shoeburyness was a nothing station too, only used to alight holidaymakers, which suggested she had boarded at Southend.

Why would a governess have been at Southend? The ‘recent return from Madeira’ could have been a good reason; many steamers chose to anchor at the mouth of the Thames than venture deep up its blackened waters. Indeed, the entire nation’s tea supply relied on the clipper-catamarans from the Orient, which habitually docked at Southend or Gravesend. Yet I suspected Madeira was false, too; in Jane Eyre Rochester’s mad, attic-bound wife is from that tropical port. This forced me to travel there myself, and check the harbour records.

Here my hunch proved sound.  Only one ship had docked that day, and not from Madeira. The Fiery Cross had been collected by steam tug and brought to Southend docks at 9pm that eve. She was still in harbour, too, and a magnificent sight: a four-master tea clipper-catamaran, built in the latest design of smooth lines and soaring sails. Sail had surrendered to coal fire years before, but the clipper fleet were the apotheosis of an age, and their fine lines still beat the salt-caked smoke stacks of the heavy steamers given good weather. Fiery Cross had made the passage from Hong Kong to England in only 80 days, which was about as fast as any ship could muster.

The Cross proved the final nail in Ms Patterson, too. For I found the mate in a nearby sailor’s stew, a swarthy chap of calloused complexion, and slipped him a bob to talk of passengers. His response was clear.

The Cross had a passenger, yes, and she fit Ms Patterson’s description. And yes, come to think of it her name was Patterson, though she kept to her cabin much of the time.

“And she disembarked that night?”

“‘Course,” says the salt. “Her and the tea chests.”

“Tea chests?” The plural struck me. One chest for a travelling governess would be reasonable. But two was an extravagance of personal effects.

“That’s right. Two. Sent ’em to the Dog’s Face, where she took up board.”

“She did not go to the station?”

“Not that I know of squire.”

“And was there anything strange about her behaviour?”

“Nah, mate,” he said, taking out a pipe and beginning to suck on it, lifting a match to its bowl. “Though it was a night of strange things.”

“Such as?”

“As we came in to dock, there was a hoot. Like an owl, only bigger. More strained, like a throttling, hollow sound. She didn’t seem bothered by it, but I confess it sent a chill down my britches. It was a portent, so it was: an evil omen. And sure enough, later that night we get the horror, clear as a picture. It was the call of the banshee.”

“How so?”

“One of the dock hands vanished. One of the foreign workers, little yellow chap brought over by the tea magnates. Drowned no doubt, twisted up in the bow lines. Must have slipped and caught himself between ship and the dock while unloading the crates. Not a pleasant way to go, if you get my meaning; the Devil claims anyone who slips in such a gap, and all it takes it one wrong foot on the gangplank to end up there.”

“Is that common?” I baulked a little at the grisly discovery, and wondered if the Gazette‘s readers might revel in the dangers of longshore work. The mate shrugged and pulled on his pipe.

“Common enough not to be worthy of mention in a busy port. It was only the hoot that makes it memorable, chum. The banshee. It was callin’ the fellow to his doom. Aye, and when I hear it again, I’ll make sure I say a prayer to God and hope he’ll take a sinner yet.”

I returned on the first train to London, bamboozled. The Dog’s Face (yes, I did visit that dockside den) proved a dead end, for no woman had taken lodgings that night, and the trail of Emily Patterson vanished into the aether.

Still, the death of the dock worker convinced me I was on the right scent. A woman returns from China; a Chinaman dies in strange circumstances; the woman is found dead on a train that very night.

My nose smelled the fresh ink of column inches in this tale. And I knew the answer lay waiting for me in the Southwark Morgue.


I. Gideon

Extract from Remembrances of a Gutter Press Hack by Gideon Pound, published Hardier-Walt, 1923

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Incredible peril: child abducted by a monkey

We led with a monkey on the front page. It’s the first rule of common man journalism: always lead with the monkey. Blood is good, child endangerment is better, and savagery tops the list. A monkey stealing a baby and dangling it off a building? That’s a rum mix that ticks every box. Nothing scandalises a reader than the Empire failing to control nature, and there is nothing society likes more than to feel scandalised.

Death only made the splash if there was something exotic about it. The woodcuts of Vicky’s London always show some gruff sod hauling a coffin, and it’s for sound reason. Britain was, in truth, three realms in those days. There was London, where ladies and gentlemen marvelled at the wonders of our age; the Country, where they went to escape those wonders; and there was the underbelly, all ripe with faeces and fevers. For every gentleman’s invention ten Yorkshire lads broke their backs shovelling coal into a furnace, and for every woman who promenaded across Westminster Bridge with a parasol under her shoulder there were two seamstresses dying of consumption.

The Gazette thrived on this blood like a leech to London’s sores. The Times could keep its wars and high brow readership, who study its pages like verses from the gospels over cigars and brandy. The Illustrated Crime Gazette gave the people what they wanted: gruesome tales of terror, yours for a mere penny, and every word the truth, God as my witness.

That’s why I found myself attending the Patterson death. The issue was short some colour, and when we heard the station was sealed off I was tasked with poking my beak in to see if it was because of something interesting we could print.

I arrived at Fenchurch Street a little after two in the morning. The mutton chompers were out in full force, at least a dozen constables accompanied by two mechanised Lovelace Coppers, giant wheezing clockwork rustbuckets that constantly spat hot water from their tanks and clattered along rhythmically. No good for detection, but a seven foot lumbering copper and brass automaton armed with a truncheon is dashed useful for law enforcement – which is precisely why the Corporation of London had hiked up the taxes to pay for a fleet of ’em.

I slipped one of the more corrupt (by which I mean human) constables a bribe to tell me what happened, then side-stepped the Copper patrol and crept to the platform for a look-see to confirm it. They’d cut the body down, and the poor bastard who found the girl had been taken for a stiff drink. The corpse was laid out for the coroner on the platform, and as I came closer I couldn’t help but think it was rather queer.

I’d covered hangings before and knew how bodies kick and convulses, roughing up the flesh even if the neck snaps clean on the fall. Yet her neck was sublime, without a scratch or sign of rope burns. Her China doll eyes, too, were out of place, for they were two clear unblemished beads; strangulation turns eyes bloodshot as the capillaries burst. And then there was the scent. She smelled like a musty rose, a heavy kind of sweet perfume that hung in the air. I couldn’t place it, but it was no fragrance I knew, and it seemed out of place on a corpse so recently hanged.

I think I’d have pinned that whiff down if I’d smelt it for a bit longer, but at that moment was caught by the constabulary, and soon found myself hauled back behind the cordon. After that the Met’s commander set a Copper to block the doors, and, avenues of inquiry exhausted, I returned to the press to file copy.

My story made page 4, as I recall. We typeset it the next morning, the print blockheads titling it ‘Fearful scene – suicide at Fenchurch Street’, and the artists drawing her dangling there with a swollen, black tongue poking out of her mouth. I told them it wasn’t like that, and said straight up I didn’t believe it was a suicide, but I was only a junior reporter at the time and nobody cared. Emily Patterson had been a governess. She wasn’t in high society and her guts hadn’t been smeared down the Commercial Road, so she wasn’t worthy of the dog’s bollocks. The matter was closed.

That’s why The Gazette went with a monkey as its lead on the day it all started, and I almost missed the biggest story of my career.