In this series, we invite our Crime Cymru authors to showcase an excerpt from one of their books. This week, Sam Hurcom brings us a tense scene from the hugely atmospheric second novel in his Thomas Bexley gothic crime series.
Letters from the Dead is the second novel featuring Thomas Bexley, Special Investigator with the Metropolitan Police. Set in 1905, the novel is a gothic crime horror.
A year after the bizarre case of Betsan Tilny in Dinas Powys, Thomas learns that his former mentor and dear friend, Elijah Hawthorn, is suspected of carrying out a string of murders, under the guise of ‘the Wraith of London’. Thomas disobeys the orders of his superiors at Scotland Yard and goes in search of Hawthorn, who he fears is being framed for the killings. Haunted by gruesome visions of the dead, Thomas grapples with addiction, and his own sanity, as he tries to find cracks in the mounting evidence stacked against Hawthorn.
In this scene, Thomas is travelling on the overnight sleeper from London to Glasgow, intending to continue his journey to the tip of Aberdeenshire, and the last known location of Elijah Hawthorn. However, Thomas suspects that he is being followed by members of Scotland Yard’s CID…
I fought the urge to sleep, though the passing hours took a heavy toll on me. A drip of doubt had slowly burst a heavy dam of paranoia and my mind now raced with all such delusions of who the man in the dining car might be.
An inspector from the Yard perhaps, newly promoted into the CID, an unknown to me? Perhaps someone under the command of Flynn, working for another branch?
Sometime in the small hours of the morning, I realised I was holding my Enfield tight, pointing it at the cabin door. I had no recollection of taking it from my case. I set it down carefully on the bed, though left my fingers resting upon the handle. As the train clattered and swayed, my eyes grew ever heavier, and I drifted into a fitful sleep.
I was roused by voices outside my cabin. Two men, their words muffled by the train. I leapt from the bed and moved to the door, straining to listen. The first voice was gruff, abrupt, the second far softer. I was only able to make out the end of the conversation.
‘…I’ll keep you posted.’
Silence after that; I gathered the men had moved away from my door, and nervously I opened it. No one stood outside. I craned my neck into the corridor. To my right, the conductor of the train was moving up the carriage away from me. To my left, the man from the dining car was entering the cabin a few doors down. He didn’t notice me watching.
In my tired, inebriated state I was then certain he was police. His conversation with the conductor was surely about me – there were constables and officers already waiting at Glasgow, standing by to take me into custody. My leaving London was cause enough for my arrest; I’d disobeyed both Lavernock and the commissioner, as though I were trying to flee the city, as though I were trying to run from my crimes.
I had to get off the train, had to get away in the cover of darkness. When I peered between the cabin curtains, I realised to my horror the first light of dawn was breaking. I hurriedly opened my case, rummaged through clothes, thought of what I would need, what I would have to leave behind…
Some sense overcame me. I took a breath, thought for a moment about all I had seen, all I had heard. My leaving the train would be a foolish endeavour, making my situation far worse than better. I sat on the bed, tried to calm down, tried to think straight.
I found myself reading through Hawthorn’s letter. I still didn’t know what to believe, whether the man was sincere or truly mad. I was balanced on a precarious rope, one that was ready to snap at any moment. Whatever I chose to do could be my downfall. If I withheld the letter from the police, they could lose a lead on Hawthorn, the top Wraith suspect. If I handed the letter in, I could fuel a dangerous plot, and risk the life of a dear friend.
If I wanted to track Hawthorn down alone, to learn the truth first-hand, I realised I had to discover who the man from the dining car was. I had to know if I was being followed before I continued my journey north of Glasgow.
I moved from the bed and opened the door of the cabin, stepping back impulsively to take my gun. I had no intention of using it, none at all. But I felt better holding it.
Quietly, I crept along the carriage glancing each way as I went. When I came to the stranger’s cabin, I felt my face and lips begin to twitch and my neck and shoulders stiffen. My whole body grew tense, panicked at what I was about to do.
I knocked on the door twice before my nerves got the better of me. I heard a groan and mutter from the other side. A moment later, the door opened a crack; the train rocked heavily as it did, and I was knocked off balance, falling against the door and the bulk of a man who stood behind it.
I pushed hard against him, and he clattered roughly to the floor. I stepped into his cabin, the gun raised, and closed the door behind me.
The man yelped at the sight of the pistol. His brutish, ugly features softened as his face began to quiver. He raised his hands up to me.
‘Jesus. Take what you want!’
He spoke with a heavy Glaswegian accent, though his voice was gentle, ill-fitting to his broad stature and features. I frowned.
‘Speak plainly and this won’t be used. Did Henley send you? Are you following me by his order, Critcher’s even?’
The man shook his head. ‘I don’t know what you’re saying.’ He muttered for mercy.
‘I know why the Yard sent you. I have no part in any of Hawthorn’s misdeeds.’
The man wept, tears dripping onto his navy blue pyjamas. I looked about the small space, at a case in the corner, at a pair of shoes tucked neatly beneath the narrow bed. It shook my resolve, for all appeared so…normal. I loosened my grip on the gun and took a small step back towards the door. The fellow edged further away from me, clutching hold of the bed desperately.
He groaned, words that were barely audible. I ordered him to speak once more.
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. None of it.’ He was on his knees, his eyes clenched shut. ‘I’m a salesman. Just a salesman.’
‘A salesman?’ I exclaimed. ‘You were watching me in the dining car, you followed me onto the trai—’
‘I didn’t,’ he cried. ‘You were looking at me! You stared at me.’
He groped for his suitcase and began undoing the straps, even as I told him to stop. He threw open the case revealing an array of garments, with brochures tucked neatly in pockets.
‘We make clothes, specialise in gentlemen’s wear. I had a meeting with a department store owner in London. I swear it – I swear!’
I leant back against the door, as the man continued to grovel. I watched him for a moment, enraged by my own idiocy. I looked at the gun, reviled, and tucked it into the waist of my trousers. I squeezed tight the bridge of my nose, thinking what best to say. After a moment, I crouched down slowly, my hands held out.
‘There’s been a dreadful mistake.’
‘Don’t hurt me!’ He begged, a pitiful wreck.
I spoke as reassuringly as I could. ‘I’m police, Metropolitan Police.’ I paused. ‘We had a tip about an escaped prisoner, I thought you fit his description.’ The lie felt forced even as I said it.
The man seemed to calm a little. His bright red face creased as he looked at me quizzically.
‘An honest mistake. You have my sincerest apologies, sir.’ I stretched a hand out to him and helped him to his feet, though he still looked at me nervously.
‘I’m not in any trouble? You’re not going to hurt me?’
‘Not at all,’ I smiled. ‘Just a misunderstanding.’
He frowned. ‘Bu-but you said I was following yo—’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ I insisted, backing away from him. I needed to get out of his sight; no doubt he would raise the alarm, tell the conductor, or worse still the authorities in Glasgow. ‘Try…try to enjoy the rest of your journey.’
I mumbled more apologies as I hurried out the door and back to my cabin. I had no idea what time it was, or how long remained of the journey. I needed to get off the train, needed to get as far away from the poor fellow as I possibly could.
I cursed myself for my wariness, for my stupidity, for ever thinking that I had been followed. I barged into my room and locked the door shut behind me.
A voice yelped in surprise, and I in turn nearly screamed in terror.
A young woman was sitting on my bed; Hawthorn’s letter lay open beside her.
I was too stunned to even grab my gun.
‘Who-who the hell are you?’
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