Episode Twenty – ‘Corpses & Corporeality’, Part Five

     The location for the meeting of the resurrection men was a suitably grim-looking courtyard reached via a narrow alley near Pulteney Bridge. When we first arrived the place appeared empty but as my eyes adjusted to the gloom I could make out a few human-shaped shadows dotted around the edges, one of which eventually peeled itself away from the wall. Stepping forward to meet us was a broad-shouldered man of about thirty or so, dressed in dark corduroy trousers and a dark jacket with just a neckerchief to provide a rather incongruous splash of colour. His eyebrows, initially raised in greeting towards Sir Robert, soon furrowed into a deep frown once he caught sight of Michael, Emily and I trailing in his wake.

     “It’s alright Tom, no need for alarm,” Sir Robert breezily called out in an apparent effort to forestall the obvious complaint. “These people are here at my invitation.”

     The frown on Tom’s face only deepened further. “This t’aint no mother’s meeting,” he growled. “That note was meant for you and you alone.”

     “Come now Tom, there’s no need to take that attitude,” Sir Robert went on, though his breezy tone had already begun to falter a touch. “It’s just a few friends of mine, they mean you no harm.”

     Michael, Emily and I offered Tom a sequence of ingratiating smiles in an effort to confirm this last assertion. I realised now that we had been somewhat misled by Dr Worthing when he had ascribed leadership of the resurrection men to Sir Robert. Sir Robert himself may have done nothing to contradict the assumption and no doubt his contacts and resources proved highly useful but when it came down to business it was painfully apparent that it was Tom who was top dog.

     And Tom still appeared to be quite set against our presence, resolutely stating, “This is business, t’aint no place for outsiders.”

     Sir Robert now gave up all attempt at breezy superiority and resorted to downright pleading. “Now Tom, please don’t ask me to send them away,” he urged in a low voice. “I swear to you they will reveal nothing of our business dealings to anyone. They are merely concerned to find out what became of Captain Crowley.”

     Tom shifted his still scowling gaze over to Michael. “You family of the dead man?” he asked brusquely.

     “Not as such,” Michael was obliged to confess.

     “But we all knew him,” I added quickly. There was something in Tom’s manner that made me feel he might look more kindly on our presence here if we stressed a personal connection to the victim. “We’re very concerned to find out what might have happened to him.”

     Tom’s frown softened a fraction and he nodded sagely. “T’were not done well, what were done to the navy man, I’ll grant you that,” he remarked thoughtfully. “Me and the boys,” (here he nodded towards the shadows behind him) “we takes a pride in our work. In, out, no fuss, no bother. And no matter how late the hour, we always fills the grave in after. What folks don’t know, don’t need upset ‘em, see?”

     “Very thoughtful of you,” noted Michael.

     “But this business with the navy man, like I says, t’were not done well,” went on Tom, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “That’s partly the reason we’ve been so set on finding out who done it. Can’t have people like that going around giving the profession a bad name.”

     “Well, quite,” I murmured understandingly.

     “You said in your note that you had news of who the culprits might be,” said Sir Robert, seizing the opportunity to get down to business. “Have you discovered some clue?”

     “Clue be damned,” retorted Tom brusquely. “I got something more than a clue, I got a name.” He paused to give the requisite dramatic weight to his revelation. “John Turnbull, landlord of the Saracen’s Head, that’s what I got.”

     “He’s the man who took the Captain’s body?” said Sir Robert. “Are you sure?”

     “Sure as can be,” replied Tom confidently. “Sam here had it from Billy, who’s pot-boy at the Saracen’s Head, how he saw John Turnbull go out that morning with Peg-leg Ned and an hour later they comes back carting a mysterious heavy bundle betwixt ‘em. So I went and had a few words with Peg-leg and he ‘fessed up straight off. Told us how John Turnbull paid him two bob to help him lift the body right out the window of the lodgings where it were laid out.”

     “Gracious!” Sir Robert softly exclaimed. “What do you suppose this John Turnbull wanted the body for?”

     “Well now, that’s just what I means to ask him,” replied Tom. “And no matter how tough he wants to play it I means to have some answers out of him too.”

     Some of the colour drained from Sir Robert’s face. “Is he likely to play it tough, do you think?” he asked with some trepidation.

     Tom shrugged. “Hard to say. But that’s what I’ve gathered the boys here for. If we go in mob-handed I’m sure we can handle anything John Turnbull has to offer.”

Sir Robert swallowed hard and said nothing so after a pause Tom went on. “And as you’re always saying how we oughtn’t to do anything without your say so I thought I’d better send word in case you fancied coming along.” The hint of a malicious smile hovered over Tom’s face. “So, can I count on you for the Saracen’s Head?”

     The very last of the colour in Sir Robert’s face now disappeared entirely and he was obliged to fiddle with the cuffs of his coat for a moment in order to compose himself. “Ah, yes, well I would very much like to do my bit, of course I would,” he was finally able to say, “but, the thing is, I was in the middle of a very important social engagement when I got your message.”

     “Oh, you was, was you?” Tom raised an eyebrow.

     Sir Robert hurried on. “Yes, I’m afraid so. And I fear that a prolonged absence on my part would be bound to attract attention. And we don’t want to attract undue attention, now do we? So, I really feel that on this occasion, with the deepest regret, I shall be obliged to sit this one out.”

     Tom took his time with his reply, letting Sir Robert dangle, sweating and anxious, for a moment first. “Fair enough,” he finally said. “I s’pose we’ll just have to manage without you.”

     “Can we come with you instead?” I asked. The picture Tom had so far painted of the Saracen’s Head was not entirely appealing but on the whole I fancied it offered better prospects of an entertaining evening than were to be had by returning to Mrs Grant’s drawing room.

     Tom regarded me with a doubtful look. “I dunno. The Saracen’s Head t’aint really no place for ladies.”

     My immediate instinct was to retort that it was a good job then that I weren’t no lady but I contented myself with saying instead, “I think it’ll be alright.”

     Tom cast his eyes over our respectable but eager little party a moment longer before giving in with a vaguely contemptuous shrug. “Fine, come if yer want,” he said. “But yer’ll have to look out for yerselves if things cut up rough.”

     So, while a relieved-looking Sir Robert turned left out of the alley to make a hasty return to Mrs Grant’s, Michael, Emily and I followed Tom’s gang to the right and over Pulteney Bridge. I was still concerned enough for Emily’s reputation to make one last attempt to persuade her to turn back but she was having none of it, insisting that there was plenty of time to investigate events at the Saracen’s Head and return to Mrs Grant’s drawing room before anyone would notice we were missing.

     The Saracen’s Head, when we reached it, turned out to be a low, soot-blackened building squatting in the shadow of St Michael’s church. It had a large bay window so grimy that nothing could be seen through it and a weather-beaten sign that had been painted by someone who had clearly never met a Saracen in their life and who had only the faintest idea of how a turban was supposed to be worn. Before we entered the pub Tom detailed one of his men to keep an eye out around the back and another to stand guard by the front door, leaving just two of the gang – a pair of silently hulking brothers named Sam and Harry – to accompany us inside.

     The narrow door opened onto a handful of steep steps which gave entering the building the feeling of passing down into some kind of subterranean underworld. The room beyond was long and low and so thick with smoke that it took my eyes a moment or two to adjust to the gloom. The low hum of conversation we had heard as we descended the steps ceased abruptly when we reached the bottom and several pairs of eyes gazed balefully at us through the murk.

     “Oh Lord,” murmured Emily, slipping a rather tremulous arm through mine. “What a fearful place!”

     “Just try not to spill anyone’s pint,” I whispered back.

     Tom, however, was utterly unperturbed by the atmosphere and, having gazed slowly around the room, he marched boldly up to an empty table in the centre where he made an elaborate play of pulling out stools for myself and Emily and ensuring the whole party was comfortably settled. Something about this show of bravado (or perhaps it was simply the menacing bulk of Sam and Harry) persuaded the other patrons to leave well alone and one by one the suspicious faces turned away and the murmur of conversation gradually resumed.

     Looking around, I saw a copper counter slung across a couple of barrels in one corner. Leaning behind it were a middle-aged couple who I presumed must be the landlord and lady of the establishment. They had clearly been taken somewhat aback by our unexpected appearance and were currently engaged in a prolonged debate conducted in low anxious tones as to how our arrival should be handled. The discussion finally ended with the female of the duo propelling her reluctant partner out from behind the bar with a firm shove in order to see what we might want.

     “Why, if it ain’t Tom Bailey, I do declare!” he called out with an air of rather forced jollity as he approached. “We don’t see you in here often Tom.”

     “It has been awhile John Turnbull, has it not?” replied Tom, deploying again that malicious smile which had proved so effective with Sir Robert.

     “Now what can I get for you and your party?” Turnbull asked, throwing a nervous glance around the table. The presence of Michael, Emily and I, looking rather incongruous in all our finery, seemed to disconcert him almost as much as that of Tom and his henchmen.

     “Well now, let me see,” Tom considered the question carefully. “Something special I should say. What have you got in the way of fine wines and fancy liqueurs?”

     “Well, I don’t rightly know…” murmured Turnbull, somewhat thrown by the question. It was not one that I imagine was often asked in the Saracen’s Head.

     “Actually, now I come to think on it let’s have us some brandy,” said Tom.

     “Brandy?” repeated Turnbull uncertainly.

     “That’s right, brandy. You do at least have a bottle or two of brandy in this place, don’t yer John Turnbull?”

     “Naturally, I…”

     “Well then, let’s have a bottle of yer finest brandy and six glasses. No, hang on. Make that seven glasses.” Tom beamed at the unfortunate landlord. “You’ll join us for a friendly drink, now won’t you?”

     “It’s very kind of you to offer Tom but I don’t know that I can,” replied Turnbull, throwing a helpless glance over in the direction of the copper counter. “I’m a bit busy, y’see…”

     “Sit down and have a drink when yer told,” Tom suddenly snapped.

     “Well, if you insist,” said Turnbull with a nervous smile. By the time he had returned to the copper counter his wife had already produced a dusty looking bottle of brandy and the requisite glasses. Turnbull took his time setting them out round the table and pouring a generous measure into each before reluctantly sitting himself down on the vacant stool which Sam and Harry had thoughtfully provided between them.

     “Here’s mud in yer eye,” Tom cheerfully remarked, taking a hefty swig. “So, how’s business John Turnbull?”

‘mud in yer eye’

     “Not bad, Tom, not bad. You know how it is.”

     “I’m not entirely sure that I do,” said Tom, “but I suspects that times is hard for the small businessman.”

     “Times is always hard for the small businessman,” Turnbull readily agreed.

     “Ah, I thought as much.” Tom nodded sagely. “I suspects that’s why you has felt the need to branch out into other enterprises of late,” he added, suddenly fixing Turnbull with a sharp glare.

     Turnbull visibly flinched under the gaze. “Other enterprises? I’m afraid I don’t quite catch your meaning there Tom.”

     “Well this business of the missing navy man,” said Tom. “There’s a little bird tells me that you have got yerself mixed up in that.”

     Turnbull swallowed hard. “Now wherever would you hear a thing like that?” he said, making a rather strangled attempt at a light laugh.

     “Never you mind where I heard it,” said Tom sharply. “Is it true?”

     “Of course it’s not true,” replied Turnbull, a little too quickly perhaps. “I mean, what would I want with a dead man?”

     Tom ignored the question. “Only these folks here,” – he gave a nod at Michael, Emily and I – “were good friends of the missing gent. They was very upset when he was took, just like that and they is quite naturally anxious to know what has become of him.” Tom lowered his tone and leaned forwards. “And I have vowed to do everything in my power to get them some answers.”

     “That’s very good of you Tom,” said Turnbull. His hand shook noticeably as he lifted his glass for a fortifying sip of brandy. “I only wish I could help, I really do.”

     “So you swear you haven’t got him?” Tom asked point blank.

     Turnbull swallowed again. “I swear.”

     Tom considered this response for a moment. “Then perhaps you won’t mind if my boys here has a quick look around just to be sure,” he finally said. He gave Sam and Harry a slight nod and the pair of them got to their feet, scraping their stools noisily back over the flagstones as they did so.

     “Aw now, I don’t see how there’s any need…” Turnbull protested weakly. He glanced up first at the brothers, then gazed desperately around the room in search of some assistance. But the other customers of the inn had taken note of the brothers’ bulk and were all very sensibly studying the contents of their glasses.

     “We’ll try not to cause too much bother,” Tom went on, “but I’m afraid to say the boys can be a bit clumsy at times.” He gave another slight nod of his head, at which Harry casually picked up the stool on which he had been sitting and hurled it across the room. It splintered against the fireplace.

Oops-a-daisy!

Turnbull cringed. “Please Tom…”

     “Oh, for God’s sake John, just tell him!” This unexpected interjection came from behind the copper counter. Turnbull’s wife, clearly having seen enough, came out from behind the counter and approached our table.

     “Hush now Jenny, ain’t no cause for you to interfere.” Turnbull anxiously tried to wave her away.

     “If you won’t tell him, I will,” insisted Jenny firmly. “I’m not having this place smashed to pieces over some old dead man. I told you it was a bad business to get involved in.”

     “So you are involved?” Tom demanded sharply.

     “No, I told you,” said Turnbull. “Don’t listen to her, she don’t know what she’s talking of.”

     Tom sighed heavily. “So you thought you’d have yerself a piece of the resurrection business, did you?”

     “No, that ain’t it at all…” protested Turnbull.

     “Cos that trade is already spoken for in this town John Turnbull,” Tom continued. “You might say we represents the guild o’ that profession and we don’t like it when people tries to interfere in our business.”

     “I weren’t interfering in your business, I swears it Tom,” pleaded Turnbull. He glanced up at his wife, who was standing with arms crossed, glaring fiercely down upon him and sighed. “Listen, I admit it, I took the body of the naval man, but I swear I ain’t muscling in on your trade Tom.”

     Tom glared at him suspiciously. “Then why’d yer take him?” he asked.

     Turnbull hesitated.

     “Because somebody paid him to, why do you think?” Jenny Turnbull supplied. “Offer him a guinea and the silly beggar’ll do anything you ask of him.”

     Tom’s eyes narrowed further. “Who paid you?” he demanded to know.

     “John Crowley, the dead man’s son,” Turnbull admitted.

     “There you are,” said Jenny defiantly. “You can’t have no complaint against us now can you? After all, who ain’t got a right to a man’s dead body if it ain’t his own son.”

     Tom stared from one Turnbull to the other in confusion. “Let me get this straight. The navy man’s son paid you to steal his own father’s corpse?” he clarified. Turnbull nodded. “What did he want you to do with it?”

     “Nothing, I was just to look after it until young Mr Crowley got here from London to claim it,” replied Turnbull with a shrug.

     “Claim it for what?” asked Michael puzzled. “I thought the funeral arrangements had already been decided.”

     “I couldn’t rightly say,” said Turnbull with another shrug. “When there’s a guinea on the table I don’t ask questions.”

     “Do you mean to say that Captain Crowley is right here in your inn?” interjected Emily, glancing excitedly around as though she half expected to see him propped up at one of the tables.

     “Hereabouts,” said Turnbull, somewhat evasively.

     “Where exactly did you put that thing in the end?” Jenny asked her husband, pulling a face.

     “Oh, now don’t you start banging on again,” complained Turnbull.

     “Well, it gives me the creeps, having dead bodies lying about the place,” objected Jenny.

     “You never made no complaint when it was your mother we had lying out in the back parlour for days.”

     “That’s different, that’s family.”

     “Well, you needn’t fuss cos I made sure to keep him well out the way,” retorted Turnbull. “I mean, you haven’t been tripping over him anytime, have you?”

     “I suppose not,” conceded Jenny.

     This little domestic dispute seemingly settled, a thoughtful silence settled around the table. “I’m sorry but I still don’t get why Mr Crowley Jnr would need to pay anyone to store away his father’s corpse for him,” I finally said, voicing what I think was probably the question on most people’s minds.

     “If you really want to know then you’d better ask him yourself,” suggested Jenny. “And we’re expecting him to arrive in Bath on the evening mail coach so if you wait another twenty minutes or so you can do just that.”

To be continued…

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