Dead Good Christmas: An exclusive short story from Stephen Gallagher
On the fifth day of Christmas….
Here’s the fifth of our Dead Good #XmasShorts – exclusive free short stories, lovingly crafted by some of our best selling crime and thriller authors – and our December gift exclusively for Dead Good fans.
This short is from novelist, screenwriter, director (TV/Film credits include Chimera, Chiller, Bugs, Oktober, The Forgotten, Doctor Who and Silent Witness.) and ‘specialist in suspense’, Stephen Gallagher.
‘Out of Bedlam’ ©Stephen Gallagher
It was late in the afternoon when one of the ward orderlies appeared in the doorway to Sebastian Becker’s basement office. Sebastian had spent most of the day clearing a space to work. They’d given him a desk and a chair, and a hook for his coat. He would have appreciated a window.
The orderly, clearly not expecting to find the room occupied, said, ‘Oh.’
‘Is that my welcome letter?’ Sebastian said, eyeing the envelope in the orderly’s hand.
‘That would depend, sir,’ the orderly said. ‘Are you the Visitor’s man?’
‘I’m Sebastian Becker. Special Investigator to the Lord Chancellor’s Visitor in Lunacy.’
It was the August of 1912. Sebastian had been the Lord Chancellor’s man since the beginning of the year, and Sir James had been promising him an office for some time. Until now Sebastian had worked from coffee shops and corner tea rooms, collecting his messages from a pie stand under the Southwark Bridge Road railway.
And now he had a room of his own, this grim little chamber under the Bethlem asylum, a space that he shared with suitcases and trunks storing the effects of deceased patients. Despite it being within walking distance of his home, he’d already resolved to spend as little time here as possible.
The orderly said, ‘Then this is for you. From the Director, sir.’
It was no welcome note. It requested Sebastian’s immediate presence in the male patients’ gallery. The orderly led the way.
Lambeth’s Bethlem Royal Hospital had separate wings for men and women, separated by an administration block in the middle. The men’s gallery was light and airy, with pictures on the walls and the atmosphere of the roomy but relatively spartan hotel that some of the more deluded patients believed it to be.
The Director was standing outside one of the private rooms, in an animated argument with a tweed-suited man and an equally well-dressed woman. Curious patients had gathered to watch.
‘Mister Becker,’ said the Director. ‘You’re the Lord Chancellor’s man. Will you please explain the law to Mr Raby’s relatives, here.’
‘The law as applied to what?’ Sebastian said.
Raising a hand to forestall interruption from his two well-dressed visitors, the Director explained that inside the room lay the body of John Raby, a Chancery lunatic who had been a Bethlem patient for more than two years. Though Raby had always entertained hopes of release, the hospital’s Consulting Psychiatrist had declared him incurable. Raby, who was harmless but inclined to wander, had been locked into his room for his regular afternoon nap and had died in his sleep.
Sebastian turned to the visitors. ‘And you are..?
‘I’m Mrs Willis and John was my brother,’ the woman said. ‘We’re here to claim his property.’
‘A Chancery lunatic’s property is under the protection of the Crown,’ Sebastian said.
Mrs Willis was about to reply, but her husband cut in. ‘You call it protection?’ he said. ‘I call it control. Everybody knows that once the Masters of Lunacy get their hands on your fortune, you can wave it goodbye.’
Sebastian said, ‘Who found him?’
‘I did, sir.’ It was the orderly who’d brought him the note. ‘I went in to rouse him at four o’clock, for his afternoon tea. When he didn’t respond I sent one of the patients to fetch the Supervising Physician. I did not leave his side until Doctor Stoddard and the Director arrived.’
‘Is the Physician with him now?’
‘He is,’ said the Director.
‘Excuse me.’ Sebastian left them to resume their argument, and let himself into the private room.
Dr William Stoddart had finished his examination. A heavily-built man of some forty-four years, he was drawing the sheet across John Raby’s face as Sebastian entered and closed the door behind him.
‘Becker!’ Stoddart said. ‘You wasted no time in getting here.’
‘I was in the building,’ Sebastian said, ‘but the relatives got here faster. Did Raby keep much of value in the room?’
‘Mostly sentimental objects.’
‘His sister and her husband don’t strike me as a sentimental pair,’ Sebastian said. ‘What about those books?’
Stoddart looked around at the bookshelf. ‘I wouldn’t know,’ he said. ‘They’re fine enough bindings, I suppose. But I’m hardly an expert.’
Nor was Sebastian, but he moved to the shelf and took down a volume at random. Chancery lunatics were people of wealth or property whose fortunes were at risk from their madness. Those deemed unfit to manage their affairs had them taken over by lawyers of the Crown, known as the Masters of Lunacy. It was Sebastian’s employer, the Lord Chancellor’s Visitor, who would decide their fate. Though the office was intended to be a benevolent one, many saw him as an enemy to be outwitted or deceived, even to the extent of concealing criminal insanity.
It was for such cases that the Visitor had engaged Sebastian. His job was to seek out the cunning dissembler, the dangerous madman whose resources might otherwise make him untouchable. Rank and the social order gave such people protection. A former British police detective and one-time Pinkerton man, Sebastian had been engaged to work ‘off the books’ in exposing their misdeeds. His modest salary was paid out of the department’s budget. He remained a shadowy figure, an investigator with no public profile.
‘What do we know about Raby?’ he asked Stoddart.
Raby had been a bachelor of some prosperity. A shrewd investor who had lived well off his dividends and indulged his hobbies. He read, wrote bad poetry, and received few visitors. Sebastian leafed through the fifteenth book of The Odyssey, Pope’s translation, in full leather boards. It was dated 1724, and its bindings were spotted with age.
Stoddart was preparing to leave. Without looking up from the book, Sebastian said, ‘Was it a natural death?’
‘He died alone in a locked room. There are bars on the window. No-one could approach through the gallery without being seen by at least a dozen people. There’s no trace of poison and the body’s unmarked. I know you’re paid to be suspicious, Becker, but in this case you’re wasting your time.’
‘Can you tell without dissection if a rib has been broken?’
One minute later, Sebastian stepped out into the gallery. A book – not the Pope translation, but a different volume from the same shelf – was in his hand.
Mrs Willis said, ‘Are you satisfied? Can we go in now?’
‘I fear not, Mrs Willis,’ Sebastian said. ‘Your brother’s room must be kept secure until the police arrive.’
‘The police?’ the Director said, and Willis echoed him in almost the same breath.
Sebastian was looking at the orderly, who was standing behind and apart from the others. Sebastian said to him, ‘Does the prospect worry you?’
‘Why should it?’ the orderly said, with no change in his expression.
Sebastian said, ‘You unlocked the room and discovered the body. You stayed with body after sending for help. You took care to be the guarantor against any suspicion of foul play. Unfortunately, if foul play should then be discovered, your own position becomes awkward, to say the least.’
The orderly said nothing.
Sebastian said, ‘Is anyone familiar with the term, “burking”? No?’
No one claimed familiarity. But the Director was taking a keen interest.
Sebastian said, ‘We can thank Burke and Hare for its coinage. The Resurrection Men would dispatch a victim by putting their considerable weight on the chest while pinching the nostrils and clamping the jaw shut with the heel of the same hand. It caused rapid suffocation with no obvious mark. I asked Doctor Stoddart to check Mister Raby for any broken ribs. There were none, but he did discover several ribs separated from the sternum. I believe a post-mortem will show that pressure forced a tearing of the ligaments.’
To the orderly, again: ‘I would hazard that Mister Raby was merely asleep when you unlocked his door. In full view of the other patients you pretended to discover him dead and called for the supervising physician. Then while alone with the “body” you took his life without waking him.’
‘Oh, my poor brother!’ Mrs Raby said with a sudden and explosive show of grief.
The Director said, ‘But what possible advantage could one of my staff gain from the death of a patient?’
‘None,’ said Sebastian. ‘Unless someone paid him to do it.’
Willis was about to speak. Sebastian didn’t miss the subtle nudge from the man’s wife that made him stop.
‘Raby was a man who received few visitors. I dare say the hospital’s signing-in book will show exactly how often his sister and her husband came to see him. Yet on his death, they were here within the half-hour. I’m sure there’s an explanation, of course. Perhaps they live locally. Or had some business in the area. Any explanation other than that they knew the likely time of their relative’s death, and stood ready to swoop.’
‘This is an appalling slander, sir,’ Mrs Willis said. ‘And my brother not yet cold. We have nothing to gain by being here.’
‘No?’ Sebastian said. ‘Then this must be a surprise to you.’
He let the book fall open in his hand, and from between its pages took a sheet of folded paper.
‘A share certificate,’ he said. ‘There appear to be two or three hidden in every one of Raby’s books. By this means he kept some portion of his fortune out of Chancery control. A fortune that you would have inherited in time, if only you’d had the patience to wait.’
‘A fortune bled dry and squandered by then,’ Willis said.
And his wife said, ‘Say nothing.’
The Director said, ‘Perhaps we’ll await the police.’
‘Indeed,’ Sebastian said. ‘You can denounce my speculations to them, and have faith that they’ll grasp your obvious innocence in the matter. In the meantime I’d remind you that this is a secure establishment. An early departure might be difficult.’
‘To my office?’ suggested the director.
‘I should think so,’ said Sebastian. ‘I don’t fancy the smell in mine.’
Well, we hope that you enjoyed that. All of the other published stories can be found in our Short Stories section. We’ll be revealing more right up to Christmas Eve.
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