Excerpt: Nero's Fiddle

Excerpt: Nero's Fiddle

Book 3: Artifact Hunters

London, Tuesday 10th December, 1861

Snow lay thick on the ground, chestnuts roasted by the fire, and Inspector Hamish Fraser stared at the remains of one poor sod who would never drink his eggnog. Any unusual death in the London area required the presence of an Enforcer and Fraser long ago became accustomed to taking the Christmas shifts. He let other men have precious hours at home with their families as the holiday approached.

“Name?” he asked over his shoulder as his eyes scanned the scene, trying to discern natural from artificial in the death before him. Soot stained the ceiling, a near black patch hung over the bed and then radiated out in a star pattern to fade to a pale grey before it touched the walls. A grimy tide line encircled the patterned wallpaper as though thick, viscous smoke had filled the room to neck level before draining away into the winter night.

“Nigel Fenmore, aged seventy-two, lives alone,” Sergeant Connor read off the notebook dwarfed by his meaty hand. “Neighbour downstairs complained about the smell, popped her head through the door to check on the old fella and then she started screaming at the street boys.”

Fraser drew a careful breath into his lungs. Before entering the room they all smeared a menthol cream under their noses. The bedroom was permeated with a sharp, yet sweet aroma no one wanted to become overly familiar with―that of slow-roasted human flesh.

“Any family?” His gaze took in the mantel piece, bare except for a cleaned skull residing on one end. The cream bone now sported black spots and stains, empty eye sockets the only witness to events that unfolded in the room. The nightstand lacked any personal objects and held only a candle and a stack of books. On top sat an open medical text book, a pencil held in between the pages. Scratchings in the margins showed Nigel added his own commentary to the text of the book. A sole gas lamp hung against one wall and struggled to throw sufficient light.

Since the house was bereft of the new electric lights, the Enforcers brought in hand-held lanterns. The handles were cranked to generate a charge that lit the bulb. Several were dotted around the room and under different circumstances they would have been a pretty sight. The yellow light chased away the shadows hiding against the soot-ridden walls.

Connor’s notebook held his attention, so he didn’t have to look at anything else. Unstoppable in the heat of battle, he had no stomach for violent ends served up cold, or crispy like the current case. “No family. Apparently he dedicated himself to his job and never married. No by-blow children or distant relatives that the neighbours know about. They say he mainly kept to himself these days. Rheumatism kept him inside a lot, so they didn’t worry when they hadn’t seen him for a couple of days.”

The bedroom contained scant furniture; a double bed with a blackened steel frame stood opposite the door and dominated the small space, made even smaller by the Inspector and three Enforcers crammed inside. Next to the bed sat a foot; the flesh of the ankle was charred and an edge of white bone protruded from burned flesh. The more unnerving sight, the one making the room hum with adrenaline, was what their eyes couldn’t see.

The thing their brains shouted was absent.

The coverlet laid flat over the mattress, no lumps or bumps to show a body slumbered underneath.

Connor peered at the limb on the floor and used the tiny notebook as a shield in case the foot leapt at him. “Is that all?”

Fraser gestured to the other side of the bed. “There’s a hand on the other side, fallen to the floor. It is also charred through at the bone and detached from the body.”

“Not much to go on, then,” Connor said.

A barely suppressed snort came from one of the other Enforcers at the unintended pun.

Fraser heaved a sigh. He didn’t have it in him to reprimand the men; humour was their way of dealing with gruesome deaths and besides, Christmas was nearly upon them. He settled with glaring at the men in the dark blue uniforms. They presented an unusual sight in the bedroom, with black leather harnesses around their upper bodies and waists supporting a multitude of gadgets; from glow sticks and magnifying goggles to handcuffs and electric truncheons. The street pounders were used to chasing down criminals and using their size to pin targets to the cobbles. They were useless standing around impersonating occasional tables in a room with roasted body parts.

“Do you think someone cut him up and torched the body?” Connor asked. He shifted from foot to foot, but held his position at his inspector’s back.

Fraser shook his head. “The room is not burned, only singed with smoke damage. It takes quite a conflagration to cremate a body. And I am no expert, but the foot does not look severed. Nor does the head.”

“I’m trying not to look too closely at that,” the sergeant said, raising the notebook so it blotted out the object in question.

Fraser moved closer. The head rested on the pillow, eyes closed in slumber and a red and white striped nightcap with a decorative pompom slumped to one side. The horizontal white lines were now soiled and stained grey. The neck ended in charred flesh and protruding bone, like the foot and hand.

“Let’s fold back the bedding and confirm our suspicion. You two, move out of the way.” Fraser gestured for the other Enforcers to stand back, to give them a modicum more room for the grim task. The men edged closer to the walls, but held themselves away from the wallpaper coated in human soot.

Connor heaved a sigh and tucked his notebook into his tunic pocket. He stepped to the other side of the bed. Each man took hold of the top corner of the soiled quilt. Gaily coloured squares sewn together by hand were now soaked in the fumes, fats, and liquids that leaked from the body underneath. Connor stuck his pinkies out like he held a porcelain teacup but probably just didn’t want to touch the quilt.

“Ready?” Fraser asked, and with a nod they lifted the coverlet, peeled it down the mattress and then let it fall in folds over the end of the bed. With the cover disturbed, the sharp odour escaped and magnified, spiralling up to fill the room and cutting through the menthol cream adorning moustaches and upper lips.

Oaths filled the room, followed by the sound of gagging. One of the Enforcers rushed to the window and purged the contents of his stomach onto the skeletal roses below.

Underneath the bedding lay a mess of black ooze, ash, and tiny fragments in the rough outline of a body. Phantom limbs stretched to where the foot and hand once resided. A dark mark the only evidence of the neck that once supported the detached head.

“What a way to go,” Connor muttered, holding a hand over his mouth and breathing through his fingers.

Fraser contemplated the pile of detritus; all that remained of a once vibrant human life. He had scraped something similar from his hearth before resetting the fire. The only remaining parts were those left uncovered by the blanket. It appeared as though the fire burned under the quilt and never escaped its confines. “Fetch Doc. If we attempt to move the mattress we will disturb what is left and I believe he will want to see this in situ. And grab the photographer too, so we can document the position of the remains.”

One of the Enforcers nodded and rushed for the door, glad of the excuse to escape the ghastly scene and the smell forcing its fingers down his throat.

“It’s not right,” Connor said under his breath, trying in vain to only breathe out and not in. As a tactic it didn’t work for him, and eventually his lungs forced him to draw several deep breaths to make up for the previous oxygen deficit.

“It is a highly unusual death.” Fraser’s attention remained on the deceased. The serene expression on the dead man’s face unnerved him most, as though he never felt his body melting to ash and fat under the blankets. He blew out a long sigh, his mind trying to make sense of the evidence and determine if this was a case of foul play, or perhaps the result of a stray spark from the unguarded fire or a cigarette.

His visual survey of the room failed to find any evidence that Mr Fenmore was a smoker, no pipes or tobacco sitting on a table or in a drawer. A richly enamelled guard depicting game birds encased the hearth and ensured the fire stayed contained. Although a candle sat by the bed, the item was new and the pale wick appeared to never have been lit.

No obvious means of accidental fire.

“We have encountered murderers who have attempted to destroy the evidence of their crimes in flames, but this is the first death I have seen in a bedchamber where nothing else appears damaged.” He removed his bowler hat and ran his fingers through his sandy curls. Christmas time and so many people died alone, many by their own hand. The influx of deaths kept the Enforcers busy. The men would rather spend time with their families, whereas Fraser’s Christmas would be celebrated by moments of stolen oblivion with a bottle and a bobtail.

“Our other cases were easier. Most people don’t stuff themselves in a drum, pour oil over their bodies and then toss in a match. But this?” Connor gestured around the room. “How did the body burn to nothing and not torch the entire building? And what’s with that horrid sludgy grim coating everything. I wouldn’t want to be the next tenant in these rooms; you can scrub the walls, but you’ll never get the stench out of the timber.”

A brief smile flickered over Fraser’s face. Only Connor would concentrate on the clean-up. He was a rarity among men; the large sergeant delighted in tidying his home and often relieved his wife of housekeeping duties. “Perhaps this death is natural in origin, and our services will not be required beyond today.”

The sergeant shot him a look and a shudder ran through his bulk. “There’s nothing natural about this.”

Fraser’s memory banks sparked and he recalled stories seen in medical and crime journals. “Have you heard of spontaneous human combustion?”

Connor frowned. “Nope.”

“I have read of such rare cases, but never seen one.” Over and over his mind traced the body outlined on the mattress. “Some would call it the fiery vengeance of God.”

The sergeant shifted on his feet, eager to leave the room, but forced to stay by Fraser’s presence. “Please tell me we don’t have to bring Him in for questioning?”

Fraser smiled. “No, apparently this is a natural phenomenon. We can only speculate, along with the neighbours, as to what sin this poor soul committed to warrant such a fate.”

Voices on the stairwell announced the arrival of the Enforcers’ doctor and the technician hauling his photographic equipment. Through the open doorway to the parlour, Fraser watched as Doc stomped his feet to shift lingering snow and shrugged off his heavy overcoat. He thrust the coat at the Enforcer loitering in the adjoining room. “Make yourself useful and hang on to that, lad.”

Pausing in the doorway, the physician rubbed his hands together with glee. His eyes widened on seeing the charred outline burned into the sodden mattress. He looked like a child with an early Christmas present and Fraser had removed the wrapping. “Oh I say, what have you got for me? Could it really be spontaneous human combustion?”

“Nigel Fenmore, neighbour found him this morning,” Fraser said.

Doc paused and frowned. “Fenmore?” His gaze roamed the room and took in the book on the bedside. “I had a tutor at medical school called Fenmore.” He shook his head and walked toward the bed and then stopped. He turned to Fraser. “Let’s get this done. Was he a drunkard?”

There was a common held belief that only drunkards suffered from spontaneous human combustion. Whereas the reality was drunkards were most likely to kill themselves by falling into the fireplace. In their stupor they would be unable to rise and so burn to death.

“Only drank in moderation,” Connor answered from the all-knowing notebook.

“Well, then, let us see. There hasn’t been a genuine case in England since the seventeenth century. The ones I’ve seen are all alcohol-ridden sots who fell asleep next to an open flame or dropped a cigarette onto their bedding.” Doc moved to the side of the bed and stared at the charred outline.

Fraser helped the technician set up the tripod and camera and they took a series of exposures from either side of the bed and one of the strange tide mark around the walls. Before long he gave Doc a wave to indicate he had finished and the doctor moved forward.

He dropped his metal case and pulled on the top two handles. A tray popped up. He picked up magnifying goggles and settled them on his head. He turned a lever on the side and various lenses rotated over his eyes before he determined the correct magnification. Then he selected a metal lunch box and a pair of tweezers.

“Hold this for me, Hamish.” He held out the open tin to Fraser.

The uniforms settled in for a long night as the doctor sifted through the sludge, lifted fragments with the delicate prongs, and placed them in the small box. He exclaimed over each bone fragment and gave his assessment of where in the body it originated. After two hours the Enforcers’ medic declared his search finished. He used a trowel to collect the remaining human sludge and deposited it in another box.

Fraser gave a sigh, his night not over yet. He would need to complete the paperwork to record the movement of the small tins to their new residence under the city. The morgue.