Meljean’s Note: This is a very short story that I wrote for a blog post at All Things Urban Fantasy during their Spooky Legends week. The challenge was to write about a famous urban legend in our characters’ voices, and my urban legend was The Hook.
This story features Detective Inspector Mina Wentworth and Constable Newberry from The Iron Duke.
An Iron Seas Urban Legend
A resounding snore from the driver’s side of the cart told Mina that Constable Newberry had fallen asleep for the third time since midnight. She couldn’t blame him. From the moment he’d collected Mina from her doorstep the previous morning, they’d barely had a moment to rest. A strangling in a Limehouse rookery had been followed by a stabbing at Temple Fair—and although thirty people had witnessed that murder, not a one had been willing to tell her who’d wielded the knife.
Not one while they’d been at the fair, that was. Five minutes after returning to police headquarters with the body, she’d received a message from the squealer Tommy Haymaker: if she met him on Anglesey Street beside the Somerset House stables at midnight, he’d tell her what he’d seen in exchange for a few pennies.
The time for that meeting had passed hours before. Tommy Haymaker hadn’t shown, Mina’s bottom had long gone numb on the cart’s bench seat, but she and Newberry wouldn’t be returning to their beds yet. A fog choked the streets, and even with the cart’s gas lanterns burning on full, she couldn’t see five feet through the thick yellow mist. Leaving now, they’d be as likely to drive into the Thames as arrive safely at their homes. So she’d let Newberry sleep.
He didn’t for long. After only ten minutes, the constable woke, rubbing his palms against his heavy side whiskers as if he could brush the exhaustion from his face. He glanced over at Mina, who watched him with raised brows. She wasn’t surprised by the sudden color in his cheeks—she’d quickly learned that her new assistant blushed easily. If he’d known that she’d heard his snores, he might have combusted on the spot.
Newberry cleared his throat. “I’ll keep watch now, sir, if you want to rest.”
“It’s hardly safe to let one’s guard down in this part of town, constable.”
“No, sir.” His blush deepened, but a stubborn sort of pride appeared in the set of his whiskered jaw. “But as I’m your guard, you wouldn’t be.”
“So you are.” A good man, her Newberry. Mina wouldn’t be able to sleep, though, not if the only position available to her was with her head hanging over the back of the bench and her throat exposed. She looked out into the fog. “But on this stretch of the Thames, it behooves us to have two sets of eyes. Did you hear of The Fisherman in Manhattan City, constable?”
Though Newberry had only recently arrived in London from the New World, some stories crossed oceans. This one obviously hadn’t, however. The constable shook his head.
“It was in all the newssheets here—a series of murders shortly after the revolution,” Mina said. “But the newssheets said it began while the Horde was still in power. They claimed that the murderer had once been a fisherman on the Thames— Have you seen one yet, Newberry?”
“A fisherman, sir?” Newberry’s forehead creased, as if trying to fathom why she’d ask such a question. “Plenty of them, out on the boats.”
Mina shook her head, lifting her hands and curving her fingers. “The Horde grafted on hooks and retractable chains, the better to haul up the catch. But this fisherman, they said his hook caught on one of the giant eels. It pulled him overboard and dragged him down, through all of the bodies down there in the muck.”
He frowned. “Bodies at the bottom, sir? The bodies in the river east of Manhattan City always floated after a day or two.”
Good. Even exhausted, her assistant had a fine head on his shoulders. “Not if they have a steel prosthetic weighing them down, constable.”
Newberry appeared doubtful, but nodded.
“And the fisherman…either the eel’s electric shock or the sight of those bodies broke something in his mind, and he went mad. Even the Horde’s nanoagents couldn’t control him—and so they locked him away studied him. The newssheets speculated that he escaped in the chaos of the revolution, and came back to the river.” Mina pointed ahead through the fog to where, on a clear night, they could have seen the joining of bridge and street. “Back to the Trahaearn Bridge.”
Of course, the bridge hadn’t been called that, then. But after the Iron Duke had blown up the Horde’s tower and sparked the revolution, they’d replaced the Horde governor’s name with his.
Mina continued, “The newssheets claimed that the fisherman waited beneath the bridge, in the water, breathing through a pipe and eating any fish that swam his way. It wasn’t long before he emerged from the river, however, and in the year after I joined the force, we began finding corpses in this area, each of them gutted and filleted. Another inspector handled the case, but I examined a few of the bodies, and discovered that although some of the injuries had been delivered with a knife, the gut wounds suggested that the weapon was both curved and sharply pointed.”
Newberry grimaced slightly. He often tried to hide his distaste for the morbid exams that Mina performed during their investigations, but he must have been too tired to successfully conceal it.
Once, Mina would have been irritated by his response. Tonight, it only amused her. And she supposed that if the poor man had the bad luck to be stuck in a cart with her for several hours, he’d earned a grimace or two.
Especially as she planned to extract a blush or two in return. “As soon as the newssheets got hold of the weapon’s description, the speculation and rumors began—with those older stories about the fisherman at the forefront. But we weren’t certain it was a fisherman…not until he murdered George Ploughman. We had a witness, then: Jenny Blacksmith, who said that she and Ploughman were making time in the old stables, when those hooks came down from the rafters and caught Ploughman with his trousers around his ankles. Then the chains reeled him up, leaving her there with her skirts up.”
And there it was. In the lanterns’ dim glow, Newberry’s face had become red as a beet. Ah, New Worlders. Instead of being horrified by the details of a murder, he was mortified by the scandalous bits.
Afraid that she would burst into laughter if she opened her mouth too soon, Mina paused for a long moment, staring into the fog. A few shadows moved past the cart, dark shapes that quickly dissolved into nothing. Laborers at the start of their day—or just returning home. They wouldn’t have the luxury of waiting until the fog lifted and it was safe to go.
“After that, we searched every inch of this area for The Fisherman, with no inspector or constable allowed to be alone, even for a moment. And it was a night similar to this that Constable Swift and I were caught out in the fog…and we waited, just as we are now, with the canvas top up and the lanterns on high. Now and again we’d see someone through the mist. We’d hear a scratch against the side of the cart, followed by metal tapping against metal. I thought perhaps a ratcatcher had been drawn to the heat of the boiler, so I told the constable to step outside and have a look.”
Newberry leaned forward, peering through the front glass, his gaze searching through the fog. “And then what, sir?”
“And then I heard nothing. No scratching—and no Constable Swift. But I saw the drops, here.” Mina reached out, touching the windshield glass on Newberry’s side of the cart. “Blood. So I opened the door…and there was Swift, hanging over the canvas roof with two hooks buried in him—and then those chains pulled him up into the fog. We never found his body. And we never caught the Fisherman.”
Newberry touched the spot where the blood had fallen…then sat back and eyed her for a long second. “We haven’t worked together very long, sir, but I do know this: You wouldn’t have sent the constable out alone. And you’d still be searching for this fisherman, if there ever was one.”
She truly did like him. Just on principle, however, she raised her brows at his ‘if’—but the paling of Newberry’s face, his sudden reach for his weapon halted her response. She followed his alarmed gaze, saw the shadow coming closer … the shape of the hook.
Mina grabbed Newberry’s arm, caught him before he could shoot.
“Newberry, stop! That’s Tommy Haymaker. That’s our squealer!” When he looked at her in disbelief, she said, “He used to toss bales at the stables. By the starry skies, constable—in some parts of this town, you’ll find more hooks than hands!”
Newberry nodded, swallowing hard, and holstered his weapon. “I suppose, sir, that the real scary story is the Horde, and all that they did.”
A story? To him, perhaps, and to anyone who didn’t live it. But she wouldn’t argue that now.
“There are still monsters and murderers out there, constable. So let us go find out this one’s name.”
Mina opened her door, and looked back to see Newberry tip his hat back, checking the roof of the cart as if searching for hooks and chains.
He saw her looking—and blushed. “Just keeping my guard up, sir.”
She hadn’t expected anything less.