Fluttering bravely in a fitful easterly wind, the red and white house flag proclaimed that the Dundee, Perth and London Shipping Line steamer was back home in the Tay. Detective Sergeant Mendick of Scotland Yard watched the smuts trail astern, fought the slow sinking sickness in his stomach, struck a Lucifer match and puffed his pipe to life. He stared at the passengers who milled at the rail, listened to their excited chatter and contemplated his immediate future.
He was returning to Dundee, God help him. He was returning to the only place on earth that frightened him. He had experienced the humid heat of India and the alien cultures of China; he had survived tropical typhoons that could raise waves sixty feet high, Baltic ice so thick it imprisoned a whole fleet of ships and the results of battle and siege. None of these had scarred him as Dundee had. Only the death of Emma, his wife had left a deeper impression.
Mendick did not smile as he watched the passengers stare at their surroundings or huddle into their cloaks as if doomed to exile. He felt like an exile himself: exiled to return to the place of his birth. He watched as Dundee loomed up on the north bank of the Tay, a town of slender mill chimneys penetrating an eternal pall of smoke, of mud-coloured tenements and of a harbour crowded with shipping. Above all was the Law, rising over five hundred feet of rock, grass, and woodland to dominate the town. He remembered his childhood thoughts of the Law as a watchful mother caring for her teeming children. Mendick snorted; he left her by sea, and now he was returning the same way. He would not stay long; he could not stay long, he must leave by the next tide. He had no desire to confront his past; he wanted to forget it, together with the nightmares that sometimes surfaced from his sleep. Even as he struggled to avoid the plunge into dismal memories, Mendick eyed the crowd, sorting them into their various categories and unconsciously searching for criminals. After the voyage from London he knew they were a heterogeneous bunch: tradesmen and businessmen, a few genuine travellers, a peddler or two, a sprinkling of families and a couple of gentlemen who filled the first class cabins. He grunted as he saw two undoubted pickpockets hovering on the fringes, their half-furtive swagger typical of their type and their youthful faces lean and predatory. Mendick searched his memory and nodded; he knew their names and most of their criminal history.
Seeking one of the benches that lined the upper deck, Mendick sat, placed his cane between his knees, folded his arms and tipped his hat forward over his face as though trying to sleep. It was a trick he had picked up years ago: a man sitting down was far less conspicuous than one standing, and he could observe while being overlooked. The pickpockets were working together, each moving either side of a large but flustered-looking gentleman in a morning coat. Mendick sighed, rose and stepped forward, swinging his cane. As always when Mendick was working, one or two of the not-quite-respectable guessed what he was and moved away, but the less guilty, or those who had not yet been detected in their crimes, remained static. He raised his voice slightly and allowed the authority to creep through.
“Move aside, there!”
Although the pickpockets had closed with their target, the large man seemed completely unaware he was a gull. While one lithe youth engaged him in conversation the other slithered at his left arm, nimble fingers ready for the quick dip. Mendick lifted the rattan and struck left and right, delivering a stinging cut to the shoulders of each youth.
“Jesus!” The nearest youth gasped at the unexpected pain. He swung around, snarling, but stopped at the sight of Mendick’s steady stare.
“Be off with you!” Mendick balanced his cane over his right shoulder and jerked his head in the direction he intended the pickpockets to go.
With a sneering glance at their intended victim, the youths slid along the deck, mouthing unheard obscenities over thin shoulders as they rubbed their injuries.
“Good God!” The intended victim adjusted his spectacles and stared at Mendick through pale, startled eyes, “What on earth was that all about? That young fellow was merely enquiring the correct time, sir!”
“That young fellow, as you call him, was distracting you, sir, so his companion could lift your pocket-book,” Mendick told him. “I am Sergeant Mendick from Scotland Yard. Those rascals were Robert Mitchell and Peter Smith − they are old lags, sir, and well known to the police courts . . . don’t check your pockets, sir, they will still be watching . . .”
“Good God,” the man repeated and immediately produced a fat pocket-book from the depths of his coat. “Well, I am very much obliged to you, Sergeant Mendick, very much.” Opening the pocket-book so the whole ship could see the contents, he fished out his card and handed it over. “My name is Leslie, sir, Adam Leslie, and I am a merchant in general goods and crockery.”
Mendick glanced at the card:
Adam J. Leslie:
Crockery dealer and general merchant;
Reform Street, Dundee.
He placed it in his inside pocket. “Thank you, Mr Leslie. If either of these young blackguards should come close again, pray do not hesitate to call on me.” Mendick prepared to return to his seat, but Leslie clung to his sleeve, flinching as the crowd surged to the rail. Men and women waved greetings to Dundee as if they had been at sea for months rather than days.
“If these boys are pickpockets, should you not arrest them?”
“I cannot arrest them on suspicion that they may commit a crime sir, but I will alert the local police to their presence the moment I step ashore in Dundee.”
Leslie pulled at Mendick’s sleeve, his eyes wide. “Does Scotland Yard appoint a detective to watch for pickpockets on every London boat? I rarely travel by boat, you understand. My son, my stepson rather, died at sea so I prefer the coach or the railway, but London is so very far away.”
Mendick shook his head. “No sir. I am afraid Scotland Yard do not appoint a detective on any boat. I am going to Dundee on quite another matter. I am sorry to hear about your stepson, sir; you have my condolences.”
“But sir . . .” Leslie retained his hold of Mendick’s sleeve and followed him, his heavy steps thundering on the deck. “You must be off-duty, then. You had no need to help. I really am most grateful to you.”
“You have no need to be grateful, sir, I assure you. It is my constant charge to prevent crime and catch criminals wherever and whenever I can.” Mendick touched his hand to the brim of his hat, “Now, if you will forgive me sir? I must prepare to disembark. You be heedful of such people in the future.” Mendick removed Leslie’s hand and sauntered along the deck in the wake of the two pickpockets. It had been a small episode, nothing of importance, but it served as a reminder that he was not the small boy who had left Dundee, but an experienced police officer. If he kept that in his mind he could face Dundee with more equanimity. He straightened his coat, swung his cane through the air and nearly whistled, but that was bad luck on board a ship, so contented himself with poking the weighted end of his cane into the back of Mitchell. “I am watching you, my lad!”
London eased into Dundee docks and Mendick stepped ashore; his feet sounded like the sonorous drumbeat of hell on the quay. He was back in Dundee but not for long. Please God, not for long. As if on order, the rain started.
Dundee police headquarters squatted morosely in West Bell Street, slightly to the north of the town centre. It was not an unlovely building, but to Mendick it still appeared as grim and unprepossessing as the prison next door. He stood outside for a moment, watching the coming and goings of the uniformed police as he tried to get the measure of the place and the people. One officer stopped, doffed his hat and reached out to touch the square pillars that framed the entrance. Raindrops collected on the scar disfiguring the man’s face, then ran down from his forehead to drip from his chin. The officer mouthed something, replaced his hat and vanished inside; Mendick tapped his cane on the ground and followed.
The duty officer carefully closed his book and looked up. He saw what seemed like a civilian thrust through the door, remove his hat and stand just inside the entrance. Water eased from his coat onto his glossy boots.
“Here’s another one.” The duty officer did not try to hide the contempt in his voice. “A so-called gentleman, I wager, enticed into a disorderly house by a girl and relieved of his wallet.”
The office Sergeant, grey-haired and running to fat, grunted, “I doubt he’s a gentleman, Sturrock. Not with that stance. See those shoulders? Erect as a guardsman, and his left thumb is in line with the seam of his trousers. Ex-ranker in the military or he’s a Frenchman.”
“He could be an officer,” Sturrock guessed. “That would make him a gentleman.”
“An officer has private means,” the Office Sergeant said, “but no gentleman would entertain a cheap one shilling hat like that. He is no officer and no gentleman. Look at his face, he has seen more life than a man of his age should have.”
Sturrock grunted. “If he is ex-military, he should have had more sense than to listen to one of those sirens.”
The sergeant grinned. “Few men have sense where women are concerned, son. As soon as a woman shows a hint of ankle, all sense flies out of the window. You’ll learn that in time. Now, look at this fellow: about five foot nine, maybe 32, 33, maybe 35 years old? Yes? Now observe the way he’s dressed. He’s not dressed like a soldier,” the sergeant nodded across the room. “That’s a fine Chesterfield coat he’s wearing so he either stole it or he has aspirations to something better than a mill hand or cab driver; his boots are polished to a glitter, so he has pride in himself, and see the way he carries that cane? A sign of some authority. A corporal at least, I would say.”
The sergeant watched, intrigued, as Mendick continued to stand just within the doorway, tapping his cane against the side of his boot as he inspected every inch of the office. “Now you think on, Sturrock,” the sergeant said, “and we’ll see how right I am.”
Mendick stepped to the desk, nodded to Sturrock and addressed the sergeant.
“Good afternoon. I am expected.” He reached inside his Chesterfield and produced an official staff, adorned with the Crown and VR. “The name is Mendick, Sergeant Mendick, Criminal Officer of Scotland Yard. I am here to collect a prisoner and take him back to London.”
“Ah, Sergeant Mendick,” the sergeant glanced at Sturrock. “We have your man all tucked up nice and secure.”
Mendick replaced the staff in its inside pocket and tapped his cane on the desk. “No sense wasting time then. Take me to him, Sergeant.”
“You surely have time for a mug of tea, Mendick?”
Mendick shook his head. “I have neither time nor desire to linger, Sergeant. I stepped off the DLP steamer London a bare half an hour ago and I have tickets for the DPL ship Perth to London; she leaves on the next tide. Pray take me to the prisoner.”
The sergeant glanced at Sturrock. “Definitely a military snap there!” He nodded to Mendick. “Come this way if you please.”
The cells smelled exactly the same as police cells did in London or Manchester and probably anywhere else in the world; the same mix of urine, sweat and human misery, and the inhabitants held the same expressions of fear, desperate defiance or hopeless, broken passivity. The last of the night’s drunks lay hollow-eyed and supine, waiting for their summons to the Police Court and the inevitable petty fine they could not afford. One man was singing, badly off-key.
“Stop that horrible noise!” The sergeant shouted. He swaggered to the end cell, swinging his keys as the sound of his boots echoed around the short corridor.
“This is your man, Mendick. Jeremy Thatcher. Swindler, coiner and thief.”
The cover of the peephole scraped slightly as Mendick opened it and peered into the cell then took a sheet of paper from his inside pocket and compared the description written on it with the man in front of him. He was looking for a man of small stature, shabbily dressed and with the marks of smallpox on his face.
“That’s my man,” he confirmed. Thatcher huddled on the plank bed, shackles around his ankles and his wrists clamped in handcuffs. One eye was badly bruised and his jaw was swollen. “You have him well secured.”
“He has to be,” the office sergeant said. “He’s tried to escape three times already. This is a devious and spunky man.” Mendick slid the peephole shut. “How did you apprehend him?”
“He tried to pass a false bank note in an Overgate pub,” the sergeant said. “Two of our constables had to rescue him when the locals found out.” He grinned, “It was probably the first time he was pleased to see a policeman in his life.”
“You did well, catching him,” Mendick gave grudging praise. “He’s been convicted of forgery and sentenced to 14 years transportation, but he escaped from the courthouse right after the trial.” He re-checked the cell. “I’ve been chasing him ever since, the length and breadth of the country.”
“Well, here he is.” The sergeant fitted the key into the lock and turned. Mendick pushed open the door.
Thatcher glanced up from the plank bed, met Mendick’s eye and looked away quickly. Mendick studied him, tapping his cane against his leg. “I hope you are fit to travel, Thatcher. You’re going on a long trip.”
Thatcher said nothing; the chains rattled as he shifted his feet.
Mendick rapped the chains with his cane. “Up you get.”
Thatcher lifted his manacled hands as if for help, but Mendick left him to it. He watched as Thatcher clattered from the bed and shuffled across the stone-flagged floor. The office Sergeant led the way upstairs, with Mendick making up the rear and the prisoner in between.
“You will have to sign him out,” the sergeant said.
“Of course.” As Mendick dipped the wooden pen in the inkwell, he was aware of the great front door opening. Two agitated men in civilian clothes stumbled in, but when they nodded to Constable Sturrock Mendick realised they must be off-duty police or Dundee criminal officers. Both men began to talk at once. Mendick ignored them and concentrated on the matter in hand. He wanted to complete his business as quickly as possible and get back home.
There were a number of forms to fill in and sign. Mendick wrote rapidly with the clumsy pen, dipping into the inkwell and blowing the words dry. He checked what he had written, lifted his copies of the release documents and put his hand on Thatcher’s shoulder. “Right, lad, you’re my prisoner now and it’s Van Diemen’s Land for you.”
Thatcher said nothing and kept his shoulders hunched as he shuffled towards the door. He looked up with his left eye partially closed, and spoke thickly through his damaged mouth.
“Can I have these slackened, please Mr Mendick?” He raised his arms high. They looked so thin Mendick wondered how he had the strength to bear the weight of the chains.
“No. Wait here and keep your mouth closed.” As Mendick nodded a farewell to the sergeant, two uniformed policemen crashed in, each holding a struggling man. One constable was hatless, the other bleeding from a cut lip while their prisoners were kicking furiously and shouting. A group of women crowded behind in a flurry of skirts and a volley of screeching abuse as they waved their hands aloft. A waft of stale whisky accompanied each word.
“You damned blackguard!” One woman pointed a furious finger at the hatless policeman, “You let my man go!”
When the constable ignored her, the woman swung her fist, sending him off balance, and pushed him in the chest. The policeman sprawled to the ground and his prisoner lunged for freedom, dived under the outstretched arm of the second constable and yanked open the door of the police office.
“Stop right there!” Mendick reached for the escaping prisoner but two of the women dived in his way, screaming language that would embarrass any hardened marine. He barged into them, lost his hat and momentarily wrestled with a woman whose arms were muscularly defined by long hours of mill labour. In that split-second Thatcher took his chance. He raised his arms to his mouth, pushed a sliver of metal through his teeth, opened the catch of his manacles and let them drop to the floor.
Mendick heard the clatter even through the drunken racket. He clamped the woman in a headlock just as Thatcher transferred the tiny picklock to his hand, bent down, opened the leg irons and pulled them apart.
“Hey you!” One of the worried-looking plain-clothed officers stepped forward, but Thatcher lifted the irons, swung them like a club and caught the man across the mouth. The officer yelled and covered his face as the second criminal officer grabbed at Thatcher’s arms. Thatcher ducked low and swung a second time so the heavy manacles caught him around the legs, wrapped around like a bolas and brought him to the ground in a tangle of limbs and chains.
“Enough of that!” Sturrock stepped clear of the desk and came to help, his ginger hair a beacon in the drab room.
“Don’t do it, Thatcher!” Mendick released the woman and jumped over the writhing body of the second Criminal Officer, but Thatcher had slipped through the crowd and dodged into the grumbling traffic of Bell Street. Mendick pushed back into the screaming mob obstructing the door of the Police Office and one filthy hand grabbed at the sleeve of his coat while another clutched his throat.
“You near broke my neck,” the muscular woman yelled. “Bluebottle bastard!”
Mendick raked his boot down her shin so she squealed and snatched back her hand, shook his sleeve free from the second woman and pushed clear, but two more women leaped at him. He thrust the tip of his cane into the throat of the closest and swung it against the hip of the next to send her yelping away. He looked up in time to see Thatcher disappearing down Constitution Brae, a street that sloped steeply towards the congestion of the town centre. Carts growled over the cobbles as their drivers ignored the drama. Mendick sprinted over the road, bounced off the back of a laden cart, dodged the clattering hooves of a cab-driver’s horse and ran around the corner.
“Thatcher! Don’t be a fool!”
He could see Thatcher running full pelt for the massed houses of central Dundee. Constitution Brae descended to Barrack Street, opposite which was the walled and gated cemetery of the Howff. Beyond Barrack Street began the heaped buildings, the intricate closes and the narrow wynds of the Overgate, in which any fugitive could vanish for hours or days before the police winkled him out. Mendick glanced right and left, hoping for a glimpse of the friendly blue of a police uniform, but saw only the slow trundle of traffic on the road and a group of masons working around spindly scaffolding. Thatcher was ahead, running as if the devil was at his heels rather than a single detective.
“Stop! Thief!” Mendick roared the old, familiar words, and saw the masons look around. One spotted the small figure of Thatcher, lifted one of the long wooden scaffolding poles and threw it into his path. Thatcher jumped and continued, but the pole bounced, its end rising just enough to clip his right ankle. He gave a shrill yell, hopped for three steps and continued, more slowly than before.
“Got you, my lad”, Mendick said, but Thatcher did not hesitate. He ran, limping, up to the outside boundary wall of the Howff graveyard, pulled himself onto the three foot high wall and vaulted the iron railings.
Mendick followed, balanced on top of the railings and watched as Thatcher jinked between the ranked gravestones. The rain was heavier than ever, and the oncoming dusk did not help his visibility, but he could see the lithe body when it emerged from the cover of the grey, lichen-smeared stones.
“Have you caught him yet, Sergeant?” Sturrock puffed up behind him, red-faced with his staff held firmly in his right hand.
“Not yet, Sturrock, but I know where he is. Tell me, how many entrances are there to this graveyard?”
“Four. Two on the northern wall and two on the western.” Sturrock came up with the information immediately. He peered between the railings. “I can’t see him.”
“Only four. Then it won’t be difficult for you to watch them while I flush out this thief. You stand up here and shout if you see Thatcher move, and catch him when I chase him out.”
“Yes, Sergeant, but I have to watch all four gates?” Sturrock sounded dismayed.
“Yes. Don’t concern yourself with anything else and don’t let him escape.” Mendick jumped down and strode in the direction he last saw Thatcher. He made no pretence at hiding, instead announcing his advance by striking each gravestone with his cane. “I can see you, Thatcher. If you give yourself up it will be easier for you.”
There was no reply except the hiss and patter of rain on the grass. Mendick strode on, following a gravel path and checking to left and right. At each step he expected to see Thatcher cowering behind a tombstone, but there was no sign of him. Just the ranked stones of the dead, one newly-made grave and one empty, waiting for its occupant.
“Sturrock!” Mendick turned and roared. “Have you seen him?”
“No, Sergeant.” Sturrock remained on top of the railings. Mendick swore and began to work his way back through the gravestones, again checking to left and right. He stopped at the newly-dug grave and pushed his cane into the turf; it sunk easily into the damp soil. The empty grave showed promise too; Mendick looked inside. Rain water dripped down the mud of the walls and onto the black canvas tarpaulin six feet down, forming a succession of small, shallow pools but with a distinctive dry bulge in the centre. Mendick glanced up, Sturrock remained exactly where he had left him, balancing on the rails with the rain bouncing from his tall hat and his arms folded across his chest.
“You keep watch, Sturrock!” Mendick shouted and, balancing one hand on the edge of the grave, he vaulted down and landed heavily atop the suspicious bulge.
“No!” The canvas bucked beneath him and Thatcher emerged. His hands scrabbled at the stiff canvas as he launched himself at the mud walls of the grave and scrambled up with hands and feet. Mendick waited until Thatcher had secured a handhold at the lip of the grave, then lifted his cane and landed a smart crack on each hand. Thatcher yelled and tumbled back down. He landed on his back and immediately jumped up, intent on escaping until Mendick pressed hard on his thin shoulders.
“Stay where you are,” Mendick said, “and bend over!” As Thatcher glowered at him, Mendick thrust him into a crouch and used him as a stepping stone to climb out of the grave.
“Sturrock!” Mendick shouted, “Come here with your shangies.” He pulled his watch from his waistcoat pocket and swore. “Damn you, Thatcher! We’ve missed our boat. Now I must stay an extra day in Dundee.”
Thatcher looked up, rainwater streaming from his face and his eyes bright and defeated. He said nothing.
The voice that sounded behind Mendick had the hard lilt of the Highlands. “You may be in Dundee a good deal longer than one day, Sergeant Mendick.”
Mendick turned around and faced the newcomer. Despite the rain he wore no coat above his close-fitting dark suit. His eyes were a cold blue above hectic red cheekbones.
“Indeed, sir?” Mendick kept a firm hold of Thatcher as he turned around. “I am afraid you are mistaken but thank you for your interest.” He touched a hand to where his hat should have been, frowned slightly as he remembered its absence and returned his hand to his side.
The man placed his forefinger on Mendick’s cane.
“That seems a handy tool, Sergeant, lead-tipped I would say?” He held Mendick’s eye for a long moment. “Aye, I thought as much. You might have need of that during your stay in Dundee.”
“I will be on the first steamer to London, sir, with my prisoner.” Mendick said.
“I see I have not explained myself, Sergeant Mendick.” The Highlander held Mendick’s gaze. “I am Donald Mackay, Superintendent of Dundee Police. Both my Criminal Officers were injured in that riot in the Police Office and I have a most unpleasant murder to solve, so I am keeping you here for the present. I have already prepared the paperwork for your Inspector Field. Now,” the blue eyes turned granite hard. “If you have finished playing in the mud, you may come with me and see if your Scotland Yard skills work in my town.”
Mendick said nothing as he felt the weight of childhood horrors crushing him once more. Dundee would not allow him to escape.