I’m going to be posting snippets from A Most Malicious Murder from now until release day, just to whet your appetite. This snippet is set a few hours after Eddy has discovered that not only did he drunkenly stumble into the wrong hotel room, but there’s a dead chambermaid on the floor. Enjoy!
“Could you inform me of your whereabouts the previous evening, Mr. Poe?” the watchman asked.
Eddy licked dry lips, trying to think. The discovery of the dead chambermaid would be forever branded on his brain; the gutted figure sprawled at his feet, the metallic odor of old blood heavy in the air, wine-flavored bile filling his mouth as he staggered back, fighting not to vomit it all over the corpse.
He forced himself to calm. “I was an invited guest at a lecture at Christ Church College, where I spoke about the state of American poetry. After which I was taken to a pub. I think it was called the Saddler’s Arms—”
“By—oh. A Mr. Tomlinson. He’s an employee of Ponsonby Publishing in London.” He watched while the constable jotted down the information. “While there, I’m afraid I may have, uh, overindulged myself, and Mr. Tomlinson helped me back to the Mitre. After that, I don’t remember anything until I was awoken by that poor woman’s scream this morning.”
Memories crowded into his head, making him cringe. The chambermaid’s expression of utter despair, eyes dull and milky. Reddish hair disarrayed from its neat bun, and bruises ringing her throat. He’d edged past the sticky red pool, not wanting to look any longer at her body and the destruction wreaked on her lower abdomen, which had been flayed open like an anatomical illustration.
But his gaze kept returning to the gory opening with sick fascination; the killer had left her skirt flipped up, as if to show off his butchering artistry.
And the glyphs carved into the freckled skin of her belly.
The image had seared itself into his memory. Gorge rising, he’d lunged for the door. It was the purest of luck that no one was in the hallway as he darted across to his own room, especially as it took precious minutes to fumble the key from his pocket and shove it home into the lock.
Once inside, he had sunk onto the bed, shaking like the proverbial leaf. No time at all seemed to pass before he’d heard the first shrill scream from across the hallway. Someone, another chambermaid by the sound of it, had discovered the grisly scene. He knew he should act the part of the innocent bystander; throw open the door, demand to know what was going on. But his body had rebelled, keeping him cowering on the bed until mid-morning.
It wasn’t until someone knocked at the door that he’d managed to force himself off of the bedclothes. The visitor was an Officer Collin of the Oxford City Watch, who explained that there had been an unfortunate occurrence in the hotel that morning and it was his task to investigate the death of one Jane Billings, chambermaid.
Collin was a tall, florid man with pale hair and hard eyes who reminded Eddy unpleasantly of his in-laws. “Hm,” the watchman now said, peering at a small notebook where he had been jotting down the story. “And you heard nothing, you say? No struggles, no shouts or screams before the one that woke you up?”
Eddy dredged up a sorrowful look. “As I’ve already explained to you, I’m afraid I was well in my cups by the time I returned to the hotel.” His imp’s reedy voice piped up, and before he could stop himself he added, “I suspect the girl could have been murdered in my very room, and I wouldn’t have noticed a thing.”
Collin frowned at that. “Odd that you should say that, Mister—” he studied his notebook again, “Poe. Your room is the closest to the room where the murder took place. It strikes me as rather strange that you didn’t hear a thing, even in spite of your, hem, condition.”
Shame caused his face to warm. “As I said before, I was not at my best last night,” he said defensively. “As a result, I heard nothing.”
Before Collin could continue his questioning, another knock sounded. Muttering an apology, Eddy went to the door and opened it.
A portly man in a plain but serviceable black suit and bowler hat stood in the hall. Belatedly, Eddy remembered Tomlinson pointing out the sartorial combination as the uniform of the university’s private police force, referred to as bulldogs.
“Mr. Poe, I believe?” the man said, tipping his hat politely. “My name is Constable Furnow. I’m with the Oxford University Police. May I come in?”
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