Fiction Friday | 'Blood & Sugar' by Laura Shepherd-Robinson
June, 1781. An unidentified body hangs upon a hook at Deptford Dock – horribly tortured and branded with a slaver’s mark.
Some days later, Captain Harry Corsham – a war hero embarking upon a promising parliamentary career – is visited by the sister of an old friend. Her brother, passionate abolitionist Tad Archer, had been about to expose a secret that he believed could cause irreparable damage to the British slaving industry. He’d said people were trying to kill him, and now he is missing . . .
To discover what happened to Tad, Harry is forced to pick up the threads of his friend’s investigation, delving into the heart of the conspiracy Tad had unearthed. His investigation will threaten his political prospects, his family’s happiness, and force a reckoning with his past, risking the revelation of secrets that have the power to destroy him.
And that is only if he can survive the mortal dangers awaiting him in Deptford . . .
It was the size and shape of a man, and covered by a sheet. Tad’s size. Tad’s shape. Acid flooded my mouth. Peregrine Child was talking, but I barely heard him.
‘Our corpse here called himself Thomas Valentine, and this wasn’t the first time he’d stayed in town. We found him four days ago, down at the dock. I have been making inquiries with the London magistrates, trying to locate his kin. If Valentine was an assumed name, that would explain my lack of success.’
We were back in Deptford Broadway, in the apartment of a surgeon named James Brabazon, on the first floor of the town’s apothecary shop. The room was fitted out with shelves of glass bottles and jars, and wooden racks of saws, knives and scissors.
A dreadful smell hung in the air, not quite of putrefaction, but a powerful stench of overripe game that mingled with the surgeon’s cologne.
I noted all these facts peripherally, for I only had eyes for the thing upon the table.
‘As I said,’ Child went on, ‘the description fits, but maybe you’d prefer to send for someone else? A servant who knew him, perhaps? The body is not a wreath of roses.’
I raised my head. ‘And I am not a flower girl. Please proceed.’
Child gestured to Brabazon, who pulled aside the sheet. My world swam. I stood motionless, absorbing the shock. I had been expecting it, but still it hit me like a team of oxen. Tad’s fine-boned features were swollen, but still painfully recognizable.
My eyes travelled over the gaping chasm in his neck, the countless cuts and abrasions that covered his body. The injuries seemed unreal, like a painting of a tortured saint.
I stared at him dumbly, wanting to shake life back into his body. I wanted to drop to my knees and pray to a God I was no longer sure existed. My ears buzzed, as they sometimes did at times of stress, damaged by proximity to the artillery cannon at Bunker Hill.
‘It’s him,’ I heard myself say. ‘That’s Thaddeus Archer.’
Brabazon offered me a sympathetic smile. He had a gaunt, narrow face and wore his own dark brown hair long, tied back with a ribbon. His eyes were quite startling: one blue in colour, one brown. Each stared back at me, brimming with concern.
‘Had you known him long, Captain Corsham?’ he asked in a soft Scottish brogue.
‘For over ten years. We were up at Oxford together.’
The words came distantly and didn’t sound like my own.
‘He died when the throat was cut,’ Brabazon said. ‘At the end, at least, it was mercifully quick.’
‘Brabazon believes he died not long before we found him,’ Child said. ‘Sometime during the early hours of June eighteenth.’
‘The timing of rigor mortis suggests it.’ Brabazon peered at me. ‘Captain, would you like to sit down?’
In my worst imaginings last night, I had contemplated his death – but never this butchery, this savagery.
‘Dear God, but he was tortured.’ I stared at a grotesque mark upon his chest. The flesh had been burned and some sort of design seared into it: a crescent moon turned on its side, so that the horns pointed south, surmounted by a band with points, like a crown. ‘What devilry is that?’
‘Whoever killed him saw fit to brand him like a Negro,’ Brabazon said. ‘It is extraordinary. I’ve never seen anything like it.’
‘Turn him over,’ Child said.
I swallowed as I took in the raw mess of Tad’s back.
‘This was done with a whip,’ Brabazon said. ‘I’d guess fifty lashes. He was probably tied to a post for it. You can see the rope abrasions here – around his wrists and ankles.’
‘Show him the hands,’ Child said.
I’d already noticed them. How could I not? Each was grotesquely swollen, the knuckles puffed and purple. Some of the fingers stuck out at odd angles.
‘I fear a thumbscrew was used on him,’ Brabazon said.
‘A thumbscrew?’ I stared at him, appalled. ‘Where would a man obtain such a thing in this day and age?’
‘Oh, they are in regular use aboard the slaving ships. It’s not a pleasant aspect of the trade, I grant you, but sometimes their application proves necessary. If a cargo of Negroes are suspected of plotting a rebellion, for instance, the thumbscrew can force their plans out of them. I take a voyage as a slave ship surgeon every other year, and I have applied the device myself. Mr Archer’s injuries are entirely consistent.’
Dear God, these people. This town.
‘As I said, this wasn’t the first time that the man we knew as Valentine came to Deptford,’ Child said. ‘I had dealings with him myself. He’d been harassing one of the slave merchants here in the Broadway, and stirring things up with the local Negroes. I advised him to get out of town and not come back.’
He moved to stand over the corpse, pointing at Tad’s injuries as he spoke. ‘The whip. The brand. The thumbscrew. Slaving punishments. Your friend came here looking for trouble and he found it.’
Brabazon rolled Tad onto his back and stepped away. I knew this scene would be etched upon my memory forever.
‘Do you have the man who did this in custody?’
‘Not at present,’ Child said.
‘What are you doing to find him?’
‘What I usually do when I have a corpse and no witnesses. Issue a reward and see if anyone comes to claim it.’
‘In London many magistrates also investigate crimes.’
Child regarded me evenly. ‘This isn’t London.’
My gaze kept returning to the mark on Tad’s chest, imagining the smell as the hot iron burned his skin, his screams. ‘If the killer is familiar with slaving punishments, doesn’t it stand to reason that he is a slaving man?’
‘Doubtless he is, but half the men in town have worked the Guineamen at one time or another. That’s near three thousand suspects. I asked around the slaving taverns, but I didn’t find any answers. Nor did I expect to. Slaving men look after their own.’
‘What about the brand? The design is quite distinctive, wouldn’t you say?’
Brabazon had his back to us, tidying away some apparatus.
Now he turned. ‘Oh, there are countless old slave brands to be found around Deptford, sir. I wouldn’t set too much store by it.’
‘The way I see it,’ Child said, ‘your friend picked an argument over slavery with the wrong man. He was followed to some quiet place where the killer overpowered him. The villain had his sport –’ Child grasped his index finger and made a violent, wrenching motion – ‘and once he got bored, he cut Mr Archer’s throat.’
‘You cannot think he was tortured to death merely over a political disagreement?’
‘What else could it be?’
A curious stillness had descended over the room. Both men turned, waiting for my answer.
‘Mr Archer told his sister that people had been following him. He said that someone in Deptford had tried to kill him. Perhaps that’s why he used a false name – because he feared for his life?’
‘Did he say anything else about this person who tried to kill him?’
‘Only that his enemies were powerful. Slave merchants, I think. Archer was mixed up in some sort of scheme to bring an end to the African trade.’
It sounded so foolish, and yet I couldn’t escape the evidence of my eyes. Tad had said that people wanted him dead, and now he was.
Child raised his eyebrows. ‘End slavery, sir? How exactly did he propose to do that?’
I frowned, trying to remember what Amelia had told me. I needed to talk to her again. ‘He said he was coming here to collect something that his enemies would want.’
Again I sensed their interest.
‘What sort of something?’ Child said.
‘I don’t know.’
‘I found nothing out of the ordinary in his room at the Noah’s Ark.’
‘Where are his things? I’d like to examine them myself.’
Child hesitated. ‘They’re at the mayor’s house.’
‘Why would the mayor have them?’
‘A gentleman was murdered in his town. Mr Stokes takes an interest.’
‘Then I’ll need to see Mr Stokes.’
‘If you think it necessary. I don’t hold with conspiracies myself.’
- Extract provided by Pan Macmillan