The Will of the Dead excerpt
From the testimony of Inspector Charles Bainbridge
I was dragged from my bed by a rap on the door at around six o’clock that morning. With a low groan, I pulled back the sheets and reached bleary-eyed for my dressing-gown. The house was icy cold, and I noticed with dismay that the sun had not yet begun to peek around the curtains.
Beside me, Isobel barely stirred. We’d been married for some months, and already she’d grown used to her lot in life: marriage to a policeman brought with it disturbances in the night, unsociable hours and frequent, unexpected absences.
I watched her for a moment, dreaming easily, her placid face upon the pillow. She wore the burden well. I felt a momentary pull of envy. Then the rap sounded again from the front door, more insistent this time, and I jammed my bare feet into my boots and bustled from the room, down the stairs and along the hallway in the gloaming, with only the ticking of the clock to accompany me.
With a sigh – for I anticipated the nature of the call – I slid free the bolts and pulled the door open. Cold, damp air swept in, and I stamped my feet to stave off the sudden chill.
True to my expectations, it was a uniformed man who awaited me, Constable Harris from the Yard. “Morning, sir,” he said, as bright as a button.
“You could at least do me the honour of appearing a little sheepish for having dragged me from my bed at so ungodly an hour,” I said, but not unkindly.
Harris grinned. “Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.” He cleared his throat. “The thing is, sir, there’s been an incident.”
“An incident?” I echoed.
“Yes, sir. Another of these ‘iron men’ robberies, over in Belgravia. A house belonging to a banker named Mr. Hillingsborough. All of his wife’s jewellery’s gone, just like before. You’re needed, sir.” Harris glanced at his boots as he spoke, as if he somehow expected them to help him state his case.
“Very well, Harris,” I said. “I must get over there straight away.”
“Yes, sir. I have a carriage waiting,” replied Harris, with a satisfied nod.
I adjusted the collar of my dressing-gown, wishing I were already dressed in my usual suit and coat. The cold was penetrating, chilling my bones. “Tell me, Harris,” I said. “Was anybody hurt?”
“Well, sir, I have it on good authority that Mr. Hillingsborough took it upon himself to attempt to defend his home from the attackers, and has a lump the size of a cricket ball on the back of his head for his trouble,” said Harris. He was a portly man, with bushy whiskers and red cheeks, and I knew him for his reliable cheerfulness, even in the face of such overwhelming horror as was faced almost daily by the men of the Yard. Yet now he looked serious, distracted, and I feared for what that might signify.
“But we’re not looking at a murder enquiry?” I asked, perhaps a little too hopefully.
“No, sir. Not that,” replied Harris. His smile returned, as if in understanding of my sudden relief. The so-called ‘iron men’ crimes had yet to escalate to anything more serious than robbery and assault. I hoped it would stay that way, but experience told me it was only a matter of time before their modus operandi changed. These ‘iron men’ – or whatever they were – would grow greedy, or else they would find themselves in the position of needing to cover their tracks. How they might respond to such eventualities remained to be seen.
Frustratingly, I had no idea what these things might be, where they had come from, or the nature of their ultimate aim. Someone had to be behind the business, pulling their strings – either literally or metaphorically – but I was damned if I’d been able to ascertain any clues as to who that might be.
I left Harris waiting in the lobby while I returned to the bedroom and dressed hurriedly in the dark; another skill swiftly perfected by a married policeman if he wished to maintain harmonious relations with his spouse.
We left a few minutes later in the police carriage, hurtling through the streets as the dawn slowly began to rise over London. By the time we reached Belgravia the city was cast in a weak half-light, and, as I clambered down from the carriage, I felt at last that I had started to regain my wits, and to cast off the last vestiges of sleep.
The house itself was just off Pimlico Road and was a suitably grand target for a robbery; three stories of exquisite town house in one of the most fashionable – and thus expensive – districts of London. It was well maintained, with tall sash windows and a white painted exterior, now dulled by the constant attentions of the weather. I could see a scattering of uniformed constables guarding the entrance, deep in conversation. I glanced over my shoulder to see Harris speaking with our driver. He rapped on the side of the cab with the palm of his hand, and the carriage clattered off down the street, the horses whinnying as the driver struck their flanks with his whip. His lantern, dangling on the end of a staff like a bowed fishing rod, bobbed wildly as they bounced off into the dull morning.
“Come along, Harris,” I said, impatiently, as I started toward the house. I could see that the curtains were still drawn in all the windows, but assumed the household had been fully roused by the night-time incursion. At first I thought the front door was hanging open, too, but then realised that the door itself no longer existed – or rather, the remains of it hung from the frame in splinters.
“Good Lord,” I said, as I took in the extent of the damage. Harris came to stand beside me, also regarding the wreckage.
“It seems the iron men simply smashed their way into the property, sir,” said Patterson, one of the other young constables I recognised. “As brazen as you like. Just battered it until it shattered, and then forced their way inside.”
“That’s some show of strength,” said Harris, with a low whistle.
“They’re growing in confidence,” I muttered, concerned by where such boldness might lead. Perhaps they had already begun to escalate matters.
I stepped over the threshold, using the edge of my boot to push aside fragments of painted wood that still lay scattered upon the marble floor of the hallway. The door had once been a glossy, regal blue. There was barely any of it left intact.
The hall itself was narrow but grand, and seemed mostly in order; aside, that is, from a mahogany walking stick which lay on the floor, and a tall vase of dried flowers that had been overturned and shattered, the debris from which had been gathered into a neat pile but not yet cleared away. There was a faint tang of oil and steam in the air, such as one might encounter on a railway platform.
The butler, a pale looking fellow in his late fifties, dressed in an immaculate black suit, his balding pate gleaming in the lamplight, was standing at the bottom of the stairs. He looked up as I entered. “Inspector Charles Bainbridge,” I said, by way of introduction.
“Ah. Yes, sir. Peters, sir,” he replied in a dolorous voice that nevertheless quavered slightly as he spoke. Understandably, the man was still quite shaken from his ordeal, but he was doing his best to maintain a stoic facade. “Here to assist you in any way I can,” he finished.
“Thank you, Peters,” I said. “I may need to interview you, but first, I think, I should like to talk to the family. Would that be possible?”
“Yes, sir,” said Peters, enthusiastically. “They’re in the drawing room. Allow me to show you the way.” I nodded and waved for Harris – who had remained in the ruined doorway, talking in a low voice with his colleagues – to join me. We followed the butler along the side of the staircase and down a passageway that led to the drawing room. He knocked briskly on the door to announce our arrival. It seemed strangely formal given the circumstances, but I understood that this was how people coped in these most desperate of circumstances, taking comfort in the familiar. He held the door open for us to enter, and then retired, returning to his silent vigil in the hall.
In the drawing room, Mrs. Hillingsborough sat beside the fire on a chaise longue, her two young children – a boy and a girl, neither older than five or six – gathered around her. She looked up as we entered and offered me a weak smile. She was a pretty woman in her early thirties, with long blonde hair and striking blue eyes. Her husband, Mr. Hillingsborough, was at least ten years her senior, and stood beside the fireplace, his arm on the mantel. He was wearing an expression of deep concentration. I noticed his left hand kept returning unconsciously to what I assumed to be the tender spot on the back of his skull.
“Good morning Mr. Hillingsborough, Mrs. Hillingsborough. My name is Inspector Charles Bainbridge of Scotland Yard. I understand you’ve been the victims of a most unfortunate incident during the night,” I said, diplomatically.
Mrs. Hillingsborough issued a short, nervous laugh. “That seems quite an understatement, Inspector,” she said, “although I imagine you probably find yourself in these sorts of situations quite frequently.”
I smiled in acknowledgement, but decided to avoid being drawn into that particular conversation. “I wonder if I might speak with you regarding the events?”
‘Yes, of course,” said Mr. Hillingsborough, suddenly stirring into action. I was momentarily taken aback by his American accent. My untrained ear placed it as New York, but it might well have been from further afield. “Margaret, take the children to the nursery. I shall talk with the inspector.”“Very well,” she said, and her relief was palpable. “Come along, children.” She swept them up into her arms and hurried out of the room.
“Please, take a seat, gentlemen,” said Hillingsborough. “Although I hope you won’t mind if I stand. I’m still a little woozy from the blow I received to my head.”
“Not at all,” I replied, taking a seat in one of the most uncomfortable chairs I had ever had the displeasure to encounter. “But tell me – has anyone sent for a doctor? It would be an advisable precaution.”
“Yes, yes,” said Hillingsborough, with a dismissive wave of his hand. “I believe one is on the way.” He had begun pacing back and forth before the fire, his hands clasped behind his back. He looked tired and gaunt. “Now, what do you need to know?”
“As full an account of the events as you can give me, Mr. Hillingsborough,” I said, “including as many details as possible. As you may or may not be aware, this attack on your property represents the latest in a series of incidents involving these so-called ‘iron men’. So far, the perpetrators of these crimes have eluded us. I would be grateful for anything that might aid our investigation. Even the slightest detail might help to complete our understanding of these unusual villains.”
“So you don’t hold much hope of retrieving my wife’s stolen jewellery?” asked Hillingsborough, levelly.
I sighed, glancing at Harris, whose face gave little away. “I’ll be honest with you, Mr. Hillingsborough. I suspect it is unlikely. However, if we could get to the bottom of precisely who or what these ‘iron men’ are, then perhaps we’d have a hope.”“I understand,” said Hillingsborough. He continued to pace before the fire, stopping occasionally to warm his hands. “This country of yours is a cold one,” he said, feigning jollity.
“I’ll see to it that your door is secured within the hour, sir,” said Harris. Hillingsborough nodded gratefully.
“Very well then. I shall relate to you everything that I remember. The household was asleep. This was—” he glanced at his pocket watch “—two and a half hours ago.” I indicated at Harris, who took out his pocket notebook and began taking down the details.
“Everything in the house was silent, and I’d been asleep for some hours when I was startled by a loud banging from downstairs, as if someone was hammering urgently on the front door. Roused from sleep, I rose from my bed to investigate. I took up a lamp and fetched my dressing-gown.”
“Would it not be the role of your butler to answer such an early call?” I prompted.
“Typically, yes,” replied Hillingsborough, “but the insistence with which the caller was knocking suggested that there was an emergency of some kind. And so I hurried down the stairs, only to find Peters doing the same. I called out, ‘Yes, yes, we’re coming!’, but the thumping continued unabated. At first I thought they couldn’t have heard us calling to them, but then, to my horror, one of the door panels splintered.
“I bellowed for them to desist as Peters rushed to unlatch the bolt, just as a gauntleted fist burst through the door, flailing and grasping at the air.” Hillingsborough’s face had taken on a haunted expression. He was staring into the distance as he recited his tale. It was as if Harris and I were no longer there.
“I called again for them to stop, but it was clear by then that we were under attack. Furthermore, it soon became clear that there was more than one assailant. Our attackers had walked right up to the front door and were brazenly battering their way inside.”
“Peters and I fell back, aghast, as the door finally gave way beneath the force of the blows and we were afforded our first true glimpse of our attackers. They were metal men.” Hillingsborough paused here, running a hand over his face.
“Describe them for us,” I prompted, utterly engrossed in his tale.
“In every respect they seemed to jerkily mimic the form and movements of a real man: two legs, two arms, a head upon a set of square shoulders. Yet in the same breath, they were like something from a feverish dream. Their appearance was bulky and they appeared to be constructed from a series of interlocking iron plates. Two large exhaust pipes jutted from each of their backs, emitting constant gushes of white steam, which, I assumed, was the power source by which they were animated. Their faces were smooth metal plates with two menacing holes for eyes, and a thin slot for a mouth. What struck me most about them, however, were the glowing, crimson lights behind their eyes, and the impassive expressions upon their terrible, inhuman faces.” Hillingsborough shuddered as he recalled the details of his horrifying ordeal.
“There were three of them. They marched noisily into the hall, stinking of machine oil and steam. They showed no concern for subtlety, nor did they appear in any way to be mindful of being captured or deterred from their goal.
“As you might expect any man to do when presented with such interlopers in his own home, I took up what arms I could – a stout wooden cane from the stand at the foot of the stairs – and made ready to defend my property.
“The metal monsters marched forward, either ignorant of our presence, or simply unconcerned by it. I went at their leader, swinging the cane wide and striking him solidly across the chest, but it rebounded from the iron plating without so much as leaving a dent, and causing me to wince in pain as my wrists absorbed the shock of the blow. The iron man did not so much as turn to regard me as he battered me away with a swipe of his left hand, hitting me hard in the ribs and sending me sprawling across the floor. Peters rushed at once to my aid and helped me, breathless, to my feet, but by then I knew we were impotent. I possessed no weapons that could defend us against such armoured brutes.
“The trio of iron men appeared to know exactly what they were about. They took to the stairs, ascending towards the first floor with so regimented an approach that they might have been marching soldiers. I shouted for Margaret to take cover, and heard her footsteps at the top of the stairs, followed by a shriek as she saw what was happening. I called to her again and she rushed immediately to gather up the children, as Peters and I cautiously followed the iron men up the stairs, unsure what else we could do.”
Hillingsborough fixed me with a look of absolute sincerity. “I don’t mind telling you, Inspector, that I feared then for the lives of not only myself and Peters, but for those of my wife and children. How could even I – a prize boxer in my youth – take on three men of iron? They had the run of my home, free to do whatever they wished without fear of reprisal. I was absolutely powerless.
“Thankfully,” he went on, “it transpired that these metal monsters did not have murder in mind. Assuming, that is, they even have minds of their own. One thing is certain: they appeared to know the exact layout of my home. They marched directly to my wife’s dressing room, where one of them began scooping up handfuls of her jewellery, throwing open drawers and tipping out their contents on the floor. I watched as he crushed a walnut box in his fist, before finding nothing of use to him inside and tossing the fragments away without a second thought.
“The remaining two iron men stationed themselves outside the door to the dressing room, keeping Peters and I at bay as their leader went about his business inside. I watched all of this unfold, unable to do anything to prevent it, frustrated and angry.
“Within minutes it had quit the room, my wife’s jewellery clasped in both fists. I decided to make one last attempt to stop it, irrespective of the consequences. By this point I was so enraged by the sheer gall of these man-machines that I could see nothing but the red haze of anger before my eyes. I rushed forward and threw myself upon him, scrabbling for a ruby necklace that dangled from his metal fingers. But again the iron man simply battered me aside, bashing me hard across the back of my head and rendering me immediately unconscious.
“When I came round they had gone, and Peters had sent for the police. Margaret and one of the maids had fetched cold flannels, and the swelling on the back of my head was the size of an egg. The jewellery, or at least the valuable stuff, had all gone.” Hillingsborough rubbed his bruised skull unconsciously again as he talked. He had visibly slumped as he’d recited his tale, as if the weight of his failure to defend his home was visibly bearing down upon his shoulders. Clearly it pained him greatly that he’d been unable to protect his family from this dreadful invasion.
“You did everything you could, Mr. Hillingsborough,” I said, in an effort to reassure him. “You were the victim of a most terrible intrusion, and I have made it my business to get to the bottom of the matter. Tell me, did you have a sense that these iron men were being controlled in some way from afar? A remote operator?”
Hillingsborough shook his head. “I…” he faltered, and sighed. “I simply don’t know, Inspector. They were so inhuman, and yet mimicked in almost every way the actions of an intelligent man. The strength of them, though, to be able to brush me aside so easily – they were far more than men.”
“Quite so, sir,” I agreed. In truth, Hillingsborough’s tale was already familiar to me from at least three other similar incidents, where exactly the same pattern had been observed. A trio of iron men would smash their way into a home, always with apparent foreknowledge of where to find the most valuable belongings. They would take them and disappear, leaving a swathe of destruction in their wake. They had not yet, however, inflicted any serious harm on any of the inhabitants, and when they had raised their hands in violence, it had only been in response to the machines themselves coming under attack. I wasn’t yet sure if this was indicative of an attitude, or simply a degree of pragmatism on the part of whoever was controlling them.
“Thank you for you most lucid account, Mr. Hillingsborough,” I said. “May I take a few moments to examine the scene of the robbery?”
“Of course, Inspector,” replied Hillingsborough. “Peters will show you to my wife’s dressing room. I fear it is still in some disarray. Her private belongings have been exposed for all to see.”
“Fear not, Mr. Hillingsborough. You and your wife can both count on my discretion,” I said.
Hillingsborough inclined his head, and Harris and I both stood and left the room. Peters was waiting for us outside. He showed us upstairs, to a landing with a series of doors on either side, flanked by large potted plants, and decorated by innumerable paintings of English landscapes.
There was no sign of the struggle on the landing, but the dressing room was immediately apparent. The door was hanging off the hinges, and there was evidence of the disturbance within. I crossed the landing, stepped over the threshold and stood for a moment amongst the chaos, taking it all in. Drawers had been pulled from the chest and overturned on the floor, their contents spilled haphazardly across the carpet; brightly coloured fabrics, animal furs, scarves and underwear had been cast aside as the iron man searched for the jewellery.
“This place is a damned mess,” I muttered, beneath my breath. “Harris?”
“Make sure you get a list of what’s missing. As comprehensive as possible.”
“Mrs. Hillingsborough will be best placed to assist you in that regard, sir,” said Peters, who was lingering behind Harris, clearly anxious to help in any way he could. “Allow me to take you to her now.” He gestured across the landing to one of the other rooms.
I turned and nodded in agreement to Harris, and with an almost imperceptible sigh, he left with Peters.
I stood in silence amidst the ruins of the woman’s private dressing chamber. I had no leads. No motive. No means of even beginning to understand who might be behind this plague of robberies and the dreadful metal monsters. Yet there and then, despite everything else, despite the numerous other matters vying for my attention, I resolved to bring an end to this reign of terror. I would find a way to stop these iron men before anyone else got hurt.