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It was still dark out, not yet dawn, and the flickering street lamps made little dint in the sodden November darkness. Acting Detective William Murdoch pulled his astrakhan hat tighter over his ears, thrust his bare hands deep into his pockets, and shoulders hunched against the cold driving rain, plodded up Ontario Street toward the police station. Pain from an infected tooth had sent him from his bed, and in an attempt to distract himself, he had dressed and set out for work well ahead of his duty time.
He turned onto Wilton just as a cab was going by and stepped back to avoid being splashed. The cabbie slowed his horse in case Murdoch was a potential fare, realised he wasn’t, and tipped his whip in acknowledgment as he passed by. He was wrapped in a voluminous black oiled slicker, the high collar masking his lower face and the hood pulled down so low over his forehead that only his eyes were visible. The horse had no such protection and its coat was dark from the rain. Like a lot of cab horses, the beast looked underfed, as if it had barely a trot left in it, but the driver snapped the reins and they heaved into a faster clip. Murdoch watched the rear lamp swaying, warm and bright in the gloom, until the carriage turned south on Parliament, leaving him alone on the dark street.
What if I am the last man on the earth? he thought. What if I’m really dead and in purgatory? Is this what it is? Physical pain and loneliness melding together until he couldn’t separate one from the other. Suddenly, somebody, probably a servant, lit a lamp in the upstairs room of one of the houses he was passing and the light winked out through a crack in the curtain. Murdoch was somewhat embarrassed at the relief he felt and he grinned at his own nonsense. He shook his head to clear out the morbid thoughts and was rewarded by a current of white-hot pain along his jaw, so severe he yelped. Trying to move cautiously to avoid aggravating matters, he continued on his way. He was heartily glad to reach the steps of the station. The outside lamp was burning and the windows were bright.
He pushed open the door, greeted by the familiar smell of woodstove, sawdust, and a lingering sourness from the old clothes and unwashed bodies of the local constituents. The fourth division served Toronto from the working-class streets of River and Sackville in the east, to the nobs who lived in grand houses on Jarvis and Church streets in the west. The east-siders were the ones whose backsides polished the wooden benches in the station hall.
The night-duty sergeant, Gardiner, was seated on a high stool behind the counter, entering his report in the register. He glanced up in surprise to see Murdoch.
“Gawdelpus, you’re the early bird.”
The detective grunted, not feeling up to a long-winded explanation. His tooth had started hurting about a week ago, but he’d managed to ignore it until yesterday, when the pain had worsened. His landlady, Mrs. Kitchen, sent him to bed with a brown paper and vinegar poultice to hold to his face and had padded his gum with some cotton wool soaked in carbolic. That had helped for a while, but at five o’clock he had been dragged to consciousness with the sensation that every nerve in his body had gathered at a point on his lower jaw and was pulsing there.
He took off his fur hat and shook the rain out of it.
“What’s up?” asked the sergeant.
Gardiner was regarding him curiously and Murdoch knew he must look like a pauper’s pal.
“Got a toothache,” he mumbled. He tried to talk without moving his mouth very much.
“Awful things them toothaches. Keep you up, don’t they?”
Murdoch blinked in agreement.
“Better get yourself into the dentist. There’s a fellow right at the corner. You could drop in on him.”
Murdoch grunted. Not if he could help it. George Crabtree had been forced to visit Dr. Brodie last year and, big and tough as a moose though he might be, the constable had almost fainted when he staggered out of the chair. His face was swollen for weeks.
“My landlady’s good,” said Murdoch. “Knows a lot . . . carbolic . . . ”
“Wondered what it was I could smell. Helped, did it?”
The sergeant sniffed. “Or is it fish? Did the cat bring something in?”
Murdoch shrugged. The smell was from his sealskin coat, which developed a distinctive odour when it was wet. He’d got it from an old lag a couple of years ago, in exchange for some tobacco, and he considered it a good bargain in spite of the pong.
He started to head for the sanctuary of his office, which was a tiny cubicle across from the cells.
“While you’re over there, put some more coal in, will you?” called out Gardiner.
Murdoch opened the stove door, picked up a pair of tongs, seized a large piece of coal and dropped it into the red maw. The action hurt.
There was a waft of chill air as the hall door opened and Ed Hales, the patrol sergeant, came in. He hung
“Perishing cold out there.”
“It’s nothing to what it will be,” said Gardiner. “Wait till we get winter.”
“You’re early this morning, Will.”
“He’s got toothache,” Gardiner answered for him. “Kept him up. He’s going to have to have it pulled.”
“Hey, I don’t know that yet,” protested Murdoch.
The sergeant grinned at him. “That kind of pain means abscess. If you don’t look after it you could be in bad trouble. Second cousin of the wife’s nearly died from an abscess. Poison got into her blood. She was bad for months after, still not right. It affected her mentally. She cries all the time.”
“Glad to know that, Gardiner. Lifted my spirits no end did that little tale.”
The duty sergeant shrugged, undaunted. “It’s the truth, I tell you.”
“How about I brew up a pot of tea, Will?” interjected Hales. “Cheer us both up. Come on.”
Murdoch was about to refuse but Hales, out of sight of the duty sergeant, nodded warningly. He had something to say.
“I wouldn’t mind a mug myself,” Gardiner called after them. “I’m parched.”
Murdoch followed Hales through to the small back room where the officers ate their meals. The morning shift hadn’t arrived yet and the fire was low in the grate, the room chilly.
“Why don’t I look after the pot and you see to the fire; you’re better at it than me,” he said.
“All right,” said Hales but he didn’t move. He pulled at the ends of his moustache. He was a tall man, ruddy-faced. He was invariably pleasant and even-tempered, qualities that made him popular in the station, but this morning he was visibly distressed.
“Need your ear a minute, Will . . . I didn’t want to say anything in front of Gardiner, he’s got a sniffer for trouble like a rat on offal but,” he hesitated, reluctant to admit the bad news, “fact is, young Wicken seems to have gone missing.”
“Well, he don’t seem to be on his beat.” He rubbed at his moustache. “I did my first check on him at twenty-five minutes past eight. All correct. Did the second at a quarter past ten like normal. Again all correct. But when I went to check in on him at a quarter past two, he was nowhere to be seen. Supposed to be up at River and Gerrard. I thought maybe he’d stepped into a laneway to have a piss, even though he shouldn’t, and I waited a bit. No sign of him. I walked back along Gerrard. Not a whisker. I put pebbles on the doorknobs. You know that little trick.”
Murdoch nodded. The constable on the beat was supposed to check the doors of the vacant houses to make sure they were secure, no vagrants camping out. The patrol sergeant sometimes tested the officers with a small stone or piece of dirt. If it was still there at the next round, heaven help the constable on duty.
“When he wasn’t at the four o’clock checkpoint, I walked his entire beat in reverse but he was nowhere to be seen. All of the pebbles were still there.”
Murdoch frowned. “That’s bloody strange. Is he playing up, d’you think? Hiding?”
The younger constables sometimes teased the good-natured patrol sergeant by hiding out until he went by, then innocently meeting him on the return route. It was childish but it relieved the boredom. Murdoch had done it himself when he was on the beat.
Hales shook his head. “He’s never done it before and it’s past a joke by now. If he isn’t here at changeover he could be put on a charge.”
“Ill then? Could he have been taken ill? Gone home?”
Even as he said it, Murdoch knew how unlikely that was. Wicken would have gone to the closest alarm box and telephoned in to headquarters.
“He looked healthy as a doctor when I saw him last. He wasn’t drunk neither.”
The two men looked at each other, mirroring each other’s uneasiness.
Murdoch reached for his hat. “I’ll go and have another gander. You’ve got your report to do.”
“Thanks, Will. If he is just acting batchy, I’ll overlook it as long as he’s back on the beat when the next shift comes in. But if he’s not there without a damn good reason, it’ll be dire.”
“Where should he be right now?”
“Coming down River Street from Gerrard. Maybe you could try going the reverse way.”
Murdoch stood up. “Save me some tea.”
“The whole pot if you find him safe,” said Hales. “And you’d better take my lamp. But don’t let Gardiner see you if you can help it.”
Murdoch went back to the hall. He managed to whip the lantern off the hook while the duty sergeant was turned away, getting a file from the cabinet. However, Gardiner saw him at the door.
“Where’s my tea? What are you doing, growing it?”
“Hales’s doing it,” muttered Murdoch. “Got-tuh go.”
The sergeant called after him. “Have them all pulled out. You’ll be better off in the long run.”
Murdoch waved his hand.
Outside, dawn was coming in begrudgingly and the rain had slowed to a drizzle. He set off at as fast a pace as he could manage, heading east along Wilton to River Street. Even though moving quickly caused the pain to pulse through to his eye socket, he felt the need to hurry. He couldn’t imagine why the young constable wasn’t on his beat. No one with a brain in his head would take a joke this far and risk losing his job. That left the possibility that something had happened to him and that wasn’t good either.
River Street wasn’t as heavily populated as the other streets in the division and there were several vacant lots. They reminded him of missing teeth, a gap between molars. Quickly, he checked the doors of the houses that were boarded up. On each knob was balanced a small pebble. Wicken’s beat started at the corner of Parliament Street and Gerrard and would have taken him in an easterly direction toward River Street, where he turned south to Queen, back west, then north again up Parliament. During the long night, he walked this square many times, making sure all the God-fearing were safe in their beds. If he had the bad luck to miss any criminal occurrence, such as a break-in, he was held accountable. As far as the chief constable, Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Grasett, was concerned, a crime meant the constable on the beat was remiss in his duty and he was always reprimanded.
Murdoch turned left onto Gerrard and paused, looking down the deserted street. More lamps were showing in the houses now, welcome smudges of light. If the constable had run into any kind of trouble, it had been silent. No one had raised an alarm.
He continued to Parliament Street, past Toronto General and the Burnside lying-in hospital on the north side of Gerrard. Even as I’m going by, an infant might be squawling its first cry. His mind skittered away from the thought because that led straight to Liza, and what they had hoped for. Four children, Will, and then we’ll see. I’m not going to be one of those women whose job in life is to be a breeding mare. Murdoch sighed. Fat lot of good all that nattering did us. There won’t be any at all now. The memory of her sudden death from typhoid fever, two years ago, was still a cause for anguish.
He forced himself to focus on what he was doing. Across from the hospital grounds was the medical school. Quite a lot of lights burning there. It took him about fifteen minutes to reach Parliament Street but there was absolutely no sign of Wicken. He stopped for a moment until the throbbing in his jaw subsided. On the southeast corner there was another vacant house. It had once been quite grand, but now the windows were boarded up and the front fence was protecting only weeds, colourless and drooping. He squeezed by the stiff iron gate and walked down the path to the front door. Shrubs, heavy with raindrops, brushed against him as he went up a short flight of steps into a deeply recessed porch. Hales’s pebble was where he’d put it. Murdoch knocked it off, turned the doorknob and shoved. The door had lost much of its paint but was solid wood and it didn’t yield. He stepped back, fished out a box of matches from his pocket, and lit the dark lantern. The bull’s-eye beam was bright and strong and he directed it at the windows. They too looked intact, no sign of breakage.
There was a flagged path that branched off to the rear of the house and, pushing his way through the long grass that had overgrown it, Murdoch tramped around to a high gate that opened into a walled garden. This was neglected and overgrown, but like the house, suggested a former grandeur. To his right was a patio with a fancy design of yellow and red brick. He walked over to the back door. Around the lintel there was a climbing rosebush, two or three frostbitten buds still on their stems. An image of the church window, Christ’s blood on the thorns, jumped into his mind, taking him by surprise with its intensity.
He turned the handle and the door opened easily. He stepped inside.
The light shone on Wicken’s body.
He was lying on his left side, facing the door; his head was uncovered and surrounded by a halo of blood, which had soaked much of his blond hair. His legs were crossed at the ankles and between his thighs was wedged his revolver, barrel uppermost, stiff and protruding like a grotesque symbol of manhood.