Axe-murders in Exeter
As we reached Exeter in the middle of the next morning, Jonas fixed his gaze on the tower of St Peter’s and declared that he had no choice but to prevail upon the hospitality of his brother bishop. And off he hurried through the city gates.
Tremayne, Kato-san and I turned aside into the dock quarter, looking to enquire about passage to London, when we arrived upon a scene at the quayside. A small agitated crowd was gathered about two constables who were using boathooks to drag out yet another body found floating in the docks.
“Devil take my soul,” exclaimed one of the constables, “this is the fifth one in a week!”
Whilst Kato and I held back, Tremayne pushed through the crowd and learnt that there had been a string of killings, the bodies found in the mornings in the weirs on the River Exe or in the Exeter Canal that led down to the estuary. Looking at the body before the constables could cover it he saw many deep wounds, as made by some wide, flat blade like an axe. When he remarked upon this, the more vocal constable muttered softly, “I blame that witch.” The first corpse had been found the morning after a condemned witch had died in the gibbet in the town square.
Tremayne worked the crowd like a preacher, engaging their concerns and learning that the victims had been three men and two low women who frequented the docks. More alarmingly he learnt that the witch, who had been tried and sentenced to death in a gibbet a little more than a week ago, had gruesomely bitten open the veins in her own wrists and had been heard to curse the town as she died, shrieking “By my blood will I have revenge!” Tremayne was positive that this revenge was not being realized through the action of any supernatural creature.
Unsurprisingly I found no blood about the corpse in the gibbet, a midwinter week since the witch’s death, but I did note that her blood might likely have drained through a small grate that gave onto some void below the streets themselves. After the horrific bloody manifestation of the vengeance of Roger Ivens, we were suspicious as to the fate of the witch’s blood if it might be the vehicle of her sorcerous power. We learned that grates in the streets give onto a subterranean tributary of the Exe and were able to locate its egress at the level of what might loosely be called water in the side of the quay. We thought the foetor and miasma were truly not to be endured, but we had not reckoned with Kato’s power of Endurance. Resisting all attempts to deter him, he stripped to nothing but an outlandish loin cloth and waded waist deep in frigid ordure into the sewer with a lantern in one hand and his kodachi sword in the other. I hurried to the gibbet grate and commenced to whistle a popular air. At length I descried Kato’s light below. Briefly he appeared beneath my feet, indicated with a mute grimace that there was nothing to be seen, and promptly staggered in desperation back towards the open air.
The remainder of the afternoon was spent in attempting to learn anything from the townsfolk of Exeter about the victims or their whereabouts when they were murdered, but all to no avail. Tremayne pointed out that women of ill repute might be expected to look out for one another’s wellbeing, and might only emerge after dark. But with nightfall the streets emptied and there was an air of fear in the few folk who were abroad. Eventually I located a pair of slatterns and managed to persuade them that it was in their interests to tell us anything they knew, but that proved all too little. They opined that any talk of a witch’s curse just showed the ignorance of menfolk, and that the murderer was surely some lunatic man with an axe.
As the night drew on we continued to roam the town and the docks, more by way of a patrol now. I concluded that the killer’s weapon might be the tool of a particular craft, such as a shipwright’s axe, but all the dockyards were deserted and locked up. And then I realised that a butcher’s cleaver could equally have inflicted those wounds, and we concentrated our patrol in the vicinity of the shambles.
It was in the shambles sometime after midnight that Kato exclaimed, “Wha’ the fuh’?!” and pointed to a dark-clothed figure poised in mid-clamber out of a pair of shutters. Tremayne surged forward, manhandled the figure out of the window and bundled him to the cobbles.
“Od’s blood!” came a breathless curse.
“Give it up, man,” quoth I. “You’re under three guns!”
Jonas rushed up to train his blunderbuss and his newly purchased episcopal pistol upon the miscreant.
It soon became clear that our man was no cleaver-wielding murderer but a young footpad protesting that he had resorted to crime only because his family’s poverty required him to steal food, or maybe a candlestick upon occasion. I remarked that the candlestick-maker’s shop would be two doors down from the butcher’s where we’d caught him, but I think he failed to hear me. Kato was subjecting him to a torrent of criticism both of his moral failings in turning to crime, and then of his ineptitude in having emerged from that property empty-handed, a failing which would cost him a finger in Kato’s country. Our outlandish companion ended by charitably giving the captive a silver shilling.
The lad, who gave his name as Bob (but wasn’t a lass), pleaded not to be handed over to the sheriff. I told him he was coming with us, thinking him likely to know the streets of Exeter better than we. But it was to Tremayne, who had first apprehended him, that Bob attached himself.
A Shadow in the Dark
Some hours later, a scream sliced through the winter night, seeming to come from immediately ahead of us. I saw a shape in the darkness and gave it the ultimatum, “Halt or I shoot!”
The shape slunk on unabated, and I had no choice but to discharge my weapon into the air. “Uncover your lanterns!” I urged my companions, pointing where they should shine a light.
Tremayne dashed forward, drawing steel and seeing in his lantern light a number of blood drops on the cobbles ahead. But 20 yards on, where the street turned left or right, no further drops showed which way the figure had gone. Tremayne went left, Bob following directly behind him, but they saw nothing that way. Kato ran up too and turned the other way, but also saw nothing.
The slowest of our party, I myself had taken only a few paces as I hastened to re-charge my pistol, and the bulky figure of Jonas was only a little ahead of me as he held his lantern aloft and stepped through the doorway from which I’d seen the shadow emerge.
A second scream wrenched out into the Exeter night, this one coming from the throat of Jonas de Winkler as he beheld the slaughterhouse carnage within. But he rapidly mastered himself (BENNY) and looking about he descried fresh scratches in the floorboards several inches long, as though made by the claws of some animal.