A Venomous Love

The Bloodstone Series Book 4

COMING EARLY 2020

London Detective Rudyard Bloodstone and his partner are investigating a series of robberies where the weapon used is a venomous snake. When one of the robberies turns into a murder, their investigation reveals it was actually a murder for hire crime. After the second attempt on the surviving victim’s life, Bloodstone turns to his brother, a recently discharged army officer, for help. They arrange a protection detail and traps are set for the suspect and the person who hired him.

Chapter 1 Preview

London, April 1890

“Hello, lovey.” Kip Idrizi set the burlap bag on the floor of his one-room flat. He passed a hand over the bottom of the room’s only window checking for a draught. He’d lined the sill where it met the frame with rolled socks to keep the cold out but it still seeped in through the ill-fitting glass.

“I do this for you. Our harsh winters are not what you are used to in your African homeland.” Satisfied the socks had stopped most of the draught he knelt near Delilah. “Did you miss me?” he asked, stroking back of her neck. “I know. I don’t like leaving you behind in this dreary room but I had to fetch your dinner.”

He rose and pulled a mackerel wrapped in paper from a small bag and a street vendor’s roasted potato from another bag. He wished he had a bit of extra butter for the potato. The smidge he had he needed for frying his fish.

“Some of the cafes cut tatys down the middle and fill them with cheese or even bacon. They give them a fancy name like jacket potatoes. They’re meals unto themselves. Not that you’d care for such fare.” He winked at Delilah who stared back at him with her lidless eyes.

“I get the message. Enough delay, time for your meal.” Kip lifted the wire mesh lid he kept on the aquarium. He opened the thrashing bag and dumped the rat into the tank.

The terrified rodent immediately ran to the corner where it trembled, its light grey nose wiggling rapidly recognizing danger. Slowly Delilah stirred from her straw bedding, rising up on her golden brown fore-body, tongue flicking out, tasting the air for prey. “A nice fat wharf rat for you today, the river is a never ending source.”

“When we’ve both finished eating, we’ll go a hunting for a toff with a fat wallet. Our rent is due. I think we should survey potential sources of income from the crowd at the museum. It’s not good to hunt too close to home,” he said and lowered the lid on the tank so the rat couldn’t escape.

***    

“I demand to see a detective. Immediately!”

Ruddy, and his partner, Archie, looked up from their paperwork toward the station lobby. The man making the demand wore a top hat and well-cut frock coat. Dennis Strong, the desk sergeant, came from behind the raised lobby desk to speak with the man. Their rapid exchange of words swiftly degenerated into a heated discussion. Vigorous gestures from the man’s free hand were accompanied by the usual narrowing eyes citizens employ to emphasize displeasure.

“That turned to shite fast,” Ruddy said.  

Top Hat, as Ruddy dubbed him, banged a shiny black cane on the floor several times, stressing his point. Each man leaned in as they made their points. Sergeant Strong held his ground. Broad-chested with thighs like ham legs and biceps like a normal man’s thighs, he had the civilian inching back.

“How long do you give before Strong snaps that cane in two?” Ruddy asked.

“Forgive the pun, but I’ve no idea what possesses people to give him stick. The man is solid as a pillar postbox.” Archie gave a small shake of his head.

A chubby-cheeked, thin-lipped woman in her forties swayed as she shifted her weight from one foot to the other and back. She had stood behind and to the side of Top Hat as he argued with Strong.

Ruddy read the sergeant’s lips as he told the man no. The woman stepped forward and started to speak when Top Hat grabbed her by the elbow and forced her behind him. She yanked her arm from his grasp and gave him a glacier melting glare.

Top Hat banged his cane, again. Whatever Sgt. Strong said, the woman’s brows shot up and her chest rose with a deep intake of breath. She closed her eyes for a long moment then opened them again. Top Hat either didn’t notice or chose to ignore her renewed glare.

“Any minute now the woman will intercede and Top Hat will stand down,” Ruddy said.

“What makes you think so?” Archie sat back and eyed her, looking unconvinced.

“She looks like one of those women with a permanent just sucked a lemon expression. It’s like she’s in a constant state of annoyance, I suspect with Top Hat.” Ruddy’s early ability to read people and acuity at measuring their nature had sharpened as a detective.

“Understandable.” Archie continued his scrutiny.

“Keep watching her. She’s desperate to have a say in this kerfuffle. If she fixes on Top Hat harder, he’ll catch fire.”

The argument wore on and Top Hat loudly declared, “You are public servants. Your job is to protect the public, at which you’ve failed miserably as my wife and I were robbed. We were preyed upon by a thug, mere blocks from here—terrorized while you lot sit on your arses in this grubby station house.”

“We’re not here to take your abuse,” Strong countered.

“Are you listening to that dunderhead?” Archie asked.

“What a wanker.”

“Talking to you is useless,” Top Hat said and then spun and strode toward Archie and Ruddy. The woman trailed behind, her thin lips in a tight downward turn.  

Strong broke into a rarely seen sprint, cutting the man off. “Steady on. I’ll decide if you can speak to a detective.”

“It’s all right, Sergeant. We’ll meet with him,” Ruddy quickly told him before the situation escalated.

Ruddy stood and gestured to the empty chair at the side of his desk. “Would you care to have a seat?” he asked the woman.

“Thank you.” She adjusted her skirts and coat so she could sit comfortably.

Ruddy was taken by surprise for a split second by her accent. He wasn’t certain he heard her right.

“Uma, how could you? You’ve no idea what sort of filthy being sat in that chair before,” Top Hat snapped.

“For pity’s sake, there are layers of cloth between me and the chair. It’s not like I’m sitting on it in my bloomers.”

“Uma, language!”

Ruddy had heard right. Where she placed the emphasis on her words and the soft a’s of her accent took him back. It’d been many years since he’d heard anyone speak with it. “You’re a Boer?”

The woman nodded. “I am. My family has a farm outside Durban. Not many folks here recognize my accent. Were you in the war there?”

“Not the conflict between the Boers and England, I fought the Zulus.”

“They’re crafty and menacing, the Zulus. Over the years, my family has dealt with a few chieftains over land issues.”

“They gave us a tough time.” Memories of the intense battle at Rorke’s Drift sprung to life but quickly died. Horrid as it was, Ruddy had to give the devils their due. “They’re excellent warriors.” 

Archie had started to bring another chair over but set it down, hearing the man’s objection to sitting in a station chair. “I take it you prefer to stand?” he asked the man.

“Put it down next to my wife’s. I might as well sit.” He pulled a snowy white handkerchief from inside his coat pocket and wiped the seat off. Holding a corner with two fingers, he threw it in Ruddy’s trash can and sat.

Archie brought his chair around the other side of Ruddy’s desk so he also faced the couple.

Ruddy took out a notepad and an expensive Waterman fountain pen. He’d ordered three of the pens from the company in New York, and kept them in a locked drawer when he wasn’t at his desk. He trusted the men he worked with not to steal but he feared one would get borrowed and forgotten to be returned. 

“We heard you say you were robbed,” Ruddy said. “First we’ll need to know your names and address before we get into the details of the crime.”

“I’m Greville Warburton and this is my wife, Uma. We live at 79 Portman St., here in London.”

“Do you work, Mr. Warburton?”

“Unlike yourselves, I don’t laze about getting paid on the public dole. I’m an underwriter for merchant loans at Bank of England. Is that really necessary for you to know?”

Always more patient with annoying people, Archie answered before Ruddy. “Yes. If we get a lead we need to discuss with you or a subject in custody, we’d want to contact you right away. It might be while you’re at your place of business.”

The explanation was met with a grunt.

“Tell us what happened with as many of the details you can remember. They may have importance you aren’t aware of,” Ruddy told Warburton.

“Uma and I had just left the museum tea shop and thought we’d take the path through their gardens. We planned on finding a hansom on Tottenham Court Road.”

“What time was this?” Ruddy asked.

“Half-one.”

“Had you gone to the museum proper or just to the tea shop?” Archie asked.

“We went to the museum. Uma wanted to see the Parthenon Sculptures. My wife, like most women, has an overly romantic soul. She’s been reading Lord Byron and is captivated by her vision of Greece and his time there.

“That said, it’s beyond me why that should matter. You should be asking me what the hooligan looked like and go out there and find him. Do your jobs.”

From his first days on the police department, civilians telling Ruddy how to do his job never failed to get his back up. “What time do you start work?”

“Nine o’clock. What difference does that make? These questions are ridiculous.” Warburton banged his cane on the floor hard, once.

Ruddy said in his flat matter-of-fact manner, “I was thinking Detective Holbrook and I can drop by tomorrow and tell you how to do your job.”

He wanted to provoke him. It worked.

In Ruddy’s peripheral vision, Archie shook his head. Next, Warburton would demand to speak to Ruddy’s boss. Superintendent Jameson would come out and placate the obnoxious buffoon and give Ruddy a dressing down later.  The satisfaction of peeving Warburton was worth the reprimand.

“Your surliness is out of order. I insist on speaking to your supervisor.” Warburton narrowed his eyes and locked on Ruddy with an expression the man must’ve thought was intimidating. At the same time, he sat straighter and stiffened his shoulders. Actions which failed to make him appear tough or stern.

Ruddy made certain Warburton saw his smirk. The man had responded as expected.

“I asked to speak with your supervisor.

“I’ll get him,” Archie said.

“Don’t make a scene, Greville. Let’s just tell them what happened and we’ll go,” his wife urged.

“I won’t tolerate being spoken to in that manner by a civil servant.”

Archie returned with their scowling boss who had a napkin tucked into his collar.

“This is Superintendent Jameson,” Archie told Warburton who stood as the two came over. “Superintendent, this is Greville Warburton, a robbery victim.

“What’s the trouble? I hadn’t a morsel for breakfast and finally had a bowl of oxtail soup brought to me. Now it’s growing cold,” Jameson said.

“Your detective,” Warburton gestured to Ruddy, “Is disrespectful and sarcastic. It’s intolerable.”

Jameson picked at a peppercorn stuck between his teeth with his fingernail. “Is that all?”

“I should think that sufficient for discipline,” Warburton said with a look of disgust that Jameson ignored. Jamming his finger in the air Warburton added. “And, I believe at the least I am owed an apology.”

“Did he insult your person?”

“Yes.”

“Really Greville, must you fabricate?” his wife said. “No, he did not, Superintendent.”

Warburton continued to wave his finger as he spoke. “He did threaten to come to my office and tell me how to do my job.”

Jameson got the peppercorn unstuck, examined the black kernel before flicking it away. “I wouldn’t take the threat to heart. Nor do I find it worthy of an apology, Mr. Warburton. In Detective Bloodstone’s defense he is very egalitarian in his sarcasm. He’s been impertinent with most of us at one time or another. You’re not special. I’ll have a word with him later—after I finish my soup while it’s still warm.” Jameson walked away toward his office before Warburton could respond.

Uma Warburton pulled on her husband’s coat sleeve. “Greville, sit down. Let’s get this report made.”

Unruffled by the complaint, Ruddy had kept his expression inscrutable during the exchange. The fact Jameson didn’t order him to apologize was no surprise. A stickler for treating victims with courtesy, unfounded complaints and lies didn’t set well with him. Warburton’s embellishment to Ruddy’s threat killed any possibility of an apology being ordered. 

“Beside the Elgin Marbles, what other exhibits did you stop to admire?” Ruddy asked her.

“Only the Oriental art. But like my husband, I’m curious why that’s important.”

“Along with the report, I’m going to sketch the suspect from your description.  Archie and I will show the staff the drawing. Maybe they can offer additional useful information.”

Mrs. Warburton nodded. “I see.”

“You said you walked through the museum gardens. Where did the suspect approach you and what did he say exactly?” Archie addressed his question to Mr. Warburton.

“We were past the fountain and nearing the edge of the gardens when the man stepped from behind a large oak, blocking our path. He wore a cape like the kind coachmen wear. He flung the cloth covering one arm back and coiled around his forearm was a snake.”

“A snake?” Both detectives repeated in unison.

“A snake,” Warburton confirmed.

“A snake…as a robbery weapon, huh. That’s a first for me,” Archie said, looking over at Ruddy.

“Same here.”

Freddie Coopersmith and his partner, Ben Hamblet, whose desks were close enough to overhear almost everything came over. “What’s this about a robbery by snake? Did we hear right?” Freddie asked.

“Yes,” Ruddy said.

Freddie gave Ruddy’s shoulder a shove. “Bloody hell, Bloodstone you do get the peculiar cases.”

“Leave off the commentary, Freddie.”

“Did the robber say anything to you at this point or threaten you with the snake?” Archie asked Mr. Warburton.

Warburton nodded. “He lifted his arm. When he did the snake raised part way, from his chest, if that’s what you call that portion of a snake’s body up. The thug moved the animal closer to my face and the thing began to waver side to side. The man said, ‘your money, old man.’” Warburton reached over and took his wife’s hand. “Then he held the snake in front of Uma’s face and said, “Your reticule.”

“Do you have any idea what kind of snake it was?” Ruddy asked. He’d inquire if the Regent’s Park Zoo had a missing snake of that kind. The robber may have stolen the animal.

Warburton got as far as, “I don’t—” when his wife interrupted him.

“It was a koperkapet.”

Ruddy expected a European species, not anything close to what she claimed. “A Cape Cobra? Are you sure?” He put his hand up for her to disregard the question. “Of course you are.”

“Absolutely,” she replied anyway. “We often found them in our barn.” She gave a small laugh and smiled at Ruddy. “My native language for the snake popped into my mind with your question. I haven’t heard the language spoken since coming to England. You knew the word. Did you learn Afrikaans during your time in Zululand?” 

“I learned a little from the Boer farmers we worked with on occasion.”

“Can we get back to the telling of the crime?” Warburton barked.

“Of course, continue,” Ruddy said.

“I guess we didn’t move fast enough for the devil because he then did something to irritate the snake so the animal hissed and fanned out its hood,” Warburton continued. “I can’t be certain but I think he stuck the snake with a hat pin.

“We gave him what he asked. He shoved Uma’s reticule into  the back of his trousers and my money into his trouser pocket. Then he pulled his cape closed, covering the arm with the snake and he ran off toward Southampton Row and out of sight.”

“How much money did you lose?” Archie asked as Ruddy jotted notes.

“Three pounds and also a gold money clip with a crescent moon surrounded by stars etched on it. Uma only had a few shillings in her reticule.”

Archie held his thumb and forefinger up approximately an inch apart. “The bar on the clip was straight and of common width, like this?”

“Yes.”

Archie dropped his hand and returned to taking notes. “Was he a white man?”

The Warburtons nodded.

“Did he have an accent? Could he have been Dutch or German? Based on his comfort with such a dangerous snake I wonder if he’s from the Natal or Cape Colony region,” Ruddy said.

Uma Warburton leaned in toward Ruddy. “You mean you want to know if he’s a Boer. You can just ask outright. I won’t be offended. The answer is no to all three.”

“His accent was English—east end, if I had to put a fine point on it,” Mr. Warburton said.

Archie folded his arms and stared at a spot over Warburton’s shoulder. Whenever something deeply baffled him, he stared off in the distance lost in his thoughts. “Where would an Englishman get such a snake, if not stolen from the zoo?”

The question wasn’t directed at any one but all six who heard shook their heads puzzling the same.

“It’s poisonous, I take it?” Ben Hamblet asked.

“Among the most venomous on the African continent.” Ruddy brought out his sketch pad and a soft leaded pencil. “Describe the robber for us.”

“He had brown hair and mutton chops that came up to form a mustache.” Warburton ran the back of his fingers along his jaw. “On the sides, where the chops covered his cheeks, the hair had flecks of grey. I couldn’t tell if the hair on his head did. He wore a flat cap like the newsboys wear. I didn’t see grey on what showed. He had brown eyes, a bulbous nose, and long face. That’s all I noticed.”

“How old would you say he was?” Ruddy shaded in the beard and mustache to indicate the dark with grey patches.

Warburton turned to his wife. “What do you think, Uma, forty or forty-five?”

“Yes.”

“Is there anything else you can add regarding his appearance?” Ruddy asked, still sketching.

Suddenly remembering, Mr. Warburton said, “Yes! He had old pockmarks on the skin by around his nose and on his forehead. It looked like his face had been ravaged by disease, perhaps smallpox.”

Ruddy added skin craters to along the upper cheeks. “Like this?” He turned the sketch for Mrs. Warburton to see.”

“Did either of your notice his clothing?” Archie asked as Ruddy filled in more of the suspect’s sketch.

“Yes,” Mrs. Warburton said. “He had black and brown tweed trousers that were too large as he was very thin. He wore a tattered leather belt and striped braces to keep them from falling. He also wore a green sweater that had holes by the left shoulder, which was the arm he had the snake wrapped around.”

“Anymore you can add?” Ruddy asked, looking up from his drawing.

Both Warburtons shook their head no.

“That’s all we need for our report. We’ll let you know if we get a suspect in custody,” Archie told them and stood to escort them out.

Ruddy continued filling in the drawing, standing when Mrs. Warburton did. “Good day to you. As Detective Holbrook said, you’ll know when we make an arrest.”

After they left, Freddie Coopersmith and Ben Hamblet sat in the chairs the Warburtons vacated.

“That’s some bizarre crime on your hands. Where do you start with a snake case?” Freddie asked.

“We’ll check with the zoo to see if they currently have or ever have had a cape cobra. Or, if they know of anyone who trades in exotic animals. If the answers are no, then we’ll make the rounds of merchant ship companies, specifically those who have routes to Africa.”

“There’s probably a fair number that go all the way to the Cape of Good Hope. They’ve got to make regular trips to deliver supplies to our military deployed in the region,” Freddie said.

Archie returned, moved his chair back behind his desk and sat. “I caught the last bit. I also wondered if our robber didn’t live in one of our colonies there.”

“How bad is this snake?” Ben asked Ruddy.

“When we deployed there, our regiment was told as snakes go its venom was one of the most powerful in the continent. I saw several in my time,” Ruddy said.

“Do they hit you with fangs or are they the squeeze you kind?” Ben demonstrated the difference with fingers and fists.

Ruddy had a little chuckle at the intensity in Ben’s expression as he did his pantomime.

“I’d rather be fanged than squeezed,” Ben added and explained. “What if the squeezing doesn’t kill you, just disables you? You could wind up eaten alive.”

Ruddy jumped in before Freddie could offer his thoughts on death by snake, which he looked on the verge to do. “They strike with fangs. They’re also great tree climbers” He hated the way African snakes, not just cobras, would drop out of a branch. Sometimes they dropped to the ground and slithered away. Sometimes they hung there waiting for one of the men to come within range of their bite. The memory sent a shiver down Ruddy’s spine and brought a grimace to him both internally and externally.  “We occasionally came across them in the shallows of the Buffalo River too. They’d take to the water during the summer heat.”

“Strange that a suspect in his forties hasn’t done this before, I’d think we’d have heard if another similar happened,” Archie said, bringing the conversation back to the crime.

One way to find out if this was done elsewhere in the city was the way Ruddy disliked the most. “I agree. It’s too unusual to not make the broadsheets or papers. Horrible as the thought is, I think we need to talk to Marsden.”

“I know his office gets copies of all the daily and weekly papers throughout the city. If it got reported, he can tell us,” Archie said.

Everyone in the detective bureau knew how Ruddy despised the reporter. Everyone else also gave thanks that Ruddy and Archie had the man foisted on them by Jameson two years earlier. Rarely was the press a friend to law enforcement. Just the opposite. Jameson went on the theory that if they cultivated one popular reporter, the department could get their version of controversial issues out ahead of the negative press from other papers. Ruddy felt the theory dodgy at best. In fairness, he had to admit Geoff Marsden had been both a bane and at times a boon.

“The zoo first,” Ruddy said, putting on his overcoat.

He and Archie were in the lobby when Jameson called out. “Bloodstone, a word before you go anywhere.”

“Here it comes, the dressing down,” Ruddy mumbled to Archie who returned to the bureau with him.

Jameson didn’t bother to wave them into his office. He took a spot by Ruddy’s desk, eyeing the sketch. “Nice work.”

“Thank you.”

“You once told me as a young constable you thought traffic control the dregs of police work—a beastly boring assignment.”

Ruddy suspected where Jameson was headed and hoped he was only sabre rattling. “I did.”

“Word of warning, Bloodstone—stop annoying civilians. They’re fragile. I’m sure you’d hate working traffic control at Piccadilly on your Saturday off. Understood?”

“Understood, sir.”

“Now, go investigate.” Jameson waved them off in his superior way.

“That wasn’t too bad,” Archie whispered to Ruddy with a quick look over his shoulder to make certain Jameson was out of earshot. “I wonder what they put in his soup.”

“My money’s on laudanum.”

***

The tram stopped at the Regent’s Park Zoological Gardens. A path through the gardens led to the zoo’s entrance. Ruddy and Archie hopped off the tram and started down the path.

In the spring, summer and fall the gardens and park were two of the prettiest green spaces in the London. City gardeners tended to the flower beds and wide variety of trees year round. Even in winter, they kept careful watch on the plants susceptible to the cold.

“I’ve always thought Regent’s Park and the gardens prettier than Hyde Park,” Ruddy said as they walked past men removing burlap covers from bushes.

“Me too. I like to bring the family here in the summer. The girls like to picnic by the rose and peony beds. Meg’s favorites are the pink peonies,” Archie said.

At the zoo entrance they stopped to consult a map posted at the gates. It displayed all the exhibits and buildings, including the director’s office.

All the buildings they passed on the way housed the animals or were used for storage. The director’s building stood out with its elegant features. It was a common two-story brick structure but with tall Palladian tripartite windows framed with ornate wrought iron on each side of the door.

“Remarkable,” Ruddy said in appreciation of the detail in the design. Archie had already started to go inside. “Come back. You need to look at this wrought iron work.”

Archie joined and stared where Ruddy pointed. “What? It’s well done. But I don’t pay much attention to that sort of thing.”

“Really look,” he insisted, continuing to point. “Instead of the usual rosettes the man that did this carved animals into the corners. There’s a giraffe and an elephant. This is brilliant.”

“Mercy me, you’re right. I see the creatures now. Very nice, very original.”

Iron work was Ruddy’s hobby. His artist’s eye always went to other men’s pieces to see how they were fashioned. He turned away from the windows and they moved to the entrance. “That gives me an idea for my next project.”

“Are you doing something else for Mrs. Goodge?” Archie asked as they went inside the main hall.

“No. One of her friends, another landlady on the block admired the garden bench I made Goodge last year. She has asked me to do one for her,” Ruddy explained.

Stepping into the office they were immediately greeted by a man in his thirties with wire-frame glasses. Without the man identifying himself, Ruddy knew he was the secretary and not the director from his clothing. The man wore cuff protectors similar to those Ruddy and Archie used when handling dirty evidence but he also wore sleeve garters. His shirts were ready-made if he needed the garters to adjust the sleeve length. The mass produced shirts were cut with sleeves too long for the average man to accommodate a larger marketplace. Ruddy had his shirts tailored to fit.

“Can I help you? I’m Director Packwood’s secretary.” 

“I’m Detective Bloodstone and this is my partner, Detective Holbrook.” They showed their badges to the secretary and handed him their cards. “Is the Director in?” Ruddy asked.

“Yes, I’ll see if he’s available.”

Whitehall appointed zoo directors. That meant the man had political influence, which meant he was a man of means and dressed it.

While they waited, Ruddy took in the artwork in the room. One wall displayed a collection of pen and ink drawings, copies of Darwin’s animal illustrations from his Origin of the Species book. The opposite wall had watercolors of animals as zoo exhibits. He checked the artist’s signatures curious if the painter was well known. He wasn’t, not to Ruddy anyway.

The secretary returned and held the director’s door open. “Mr. Packwood will see you.”

When they entered, Ruddy’s eyes were momentarily drawn to a quartet of paintings on the wall. Done in oils and vibrant colors, they were a series of African animals in their natural habitat on the savannahs. He preferred the oils and these paintings settings.

Ruddy brought his attention back to the director.

The director stood and extended his hand. “Good day, gentlemen. I’m Charles Packwood.”

Ruddy shook hands. “Thank you for seeing us. I’m Detective Bloodstone. This is my partner, Detective Holbrook.”

The director sat down after shaking hands with Archie. A diminutive man, Packwood’s high-backed leather chair swallowed him in a way that dwarfed him even more. Grey-haired, he combed it to lay flat to his head with Macassar Oil, judging from the coconut and floral smell. His well-trimmed beard was much darker than his hair and had a slick sheen. Ruddy guessed he used the oil on it too. 

“Gentlemen, please, have a seat,” Packwood waved toward two chairs in front of his desk. “When my secretary said two detectives wanted to speak with me, my curiosity was immediately aroused. I couldn’t imagine what information I have that you’d want unless it is regarding one of our animals.”

Archie and Ruddy took a seat. “It is,” Archie told him.

“They’re cute, aren’t they, Detective Bloodstone?” Packwood asked with a head tilt toward the window behind him.

Ruddy gave him a guilty smile at being distracted and having been caught out. The large window looked out on the meerkat exhibit. Playful pups wrestled with each other under the watchful eyes of the adults. Meerkats were his favorite African animal. Whenever the company had camped near a colony and he was off duty, he’d take a canteen of water and spend time watching them. He had been careful to keep a safe distance so the designated babysitters protecting the pups didn’t become alarmed.

“I apologize. I couldn’t help watching for a moment. They really are fun to watch.”

“No need to apologize. They are a crowd favorite and mine too. So gentlemen, how can I help?”

“We have an unusual robbery case where the suspect threatened the victims with a snake,” Ruddy explained. “We thought perhaps you’re missing one of the snakes from your reptile house, a cape cobra to be exact.”

His eyes widened. “A cape cobra, the African snake? You’re certain?”

“Yes. The female victim is a Boer from the Durban area and familiar with them,” Ruddy said.

Packwood reached for the pipe in the desk ashtray and lit it. The scent of cherry tobacco filled the air. Raising his hand to light the pipe revealed the letters C.D.P monogramed on his shirt cuff in pale blue. No garters or cuff protection needed.

After several puffs on his pipe, the director said, “We have a pair of alligators, several species of lizards, turtles but no snakes at the moment. We only ever had one, a king cobra. It came from a Maharajah as a gift for the Queen. A snake from the hot subcontinent, it died in that terribly cold winter we had two years ago. No surprise.”

“Do you know of anyone who traffics in selling exotic pets?” Archie asked.

“I can think of three in the city. I can’t speak for outside London. The most active trafficker is Duff Dunbar. Duff’s what he goes by but I don’t know his real Christian name. Then there’s Felix Lennon although I’ve never heard of him dealing with reptiles. He sells the big cats or their cubs for the gentry to show off on their country estates. Silly practice. The animals never live long. None of those people know how to take care of them. Sweet little cubs turn into four-hundred pound meat eaters.”

Both Archie and Ruddy took notes as Packwood took a few more puffs.

Packwood continued, “The third is a fellow I only know as Teddy, the badger man. I heard he got the name because he had a pet badger he took everywhere. Scuttlebutt from my keepers is he died.”

“Can you tell us anything else that might help us locate these men? Have you seen them and can by chance describe them?” Ruddy asked. If so, he’d get his sketch pad and come right back.

“Sorry, no. I’ve never met any of the traffickers personally.”

Ruddy wondered why Packwood never encountered a trafficker. The zoo seemed a natural client for them.

Archie beat him to the obvious questions. “Haven’t any of them tried to sell the zoo an animal?”

“No. It’s my policy to not deal with them and they know through word-of-mouth not to bother.”

“Why not? You have animals that die and need replaced, like the zebra last fall,” Archie asked, remembering the death had made the news.

“How the animal being offered was handled in transport is always suspect, which makes the beasts good health doubtful. Our acquisitions are made through reliable sources or from breeding pairs.”

“Or ones that come as gifts to the Queen,” Ruddy added.

“One does what one must for the monarchy,” Packwood said with a resigned shrug.

If Packwood got his information from worker scuttlebutt, Ruddy guessed some of them had contact with traffickers. “What about your staffers who tend to the animals? Might there be some who know or have seen a trafficker?”

“I don’t know. I’ll ask at shift change when the most men are available.

 “I’ve been told if you go to Petticoat Lane on Sundays and ask for Duff, many of the vendors know him. If you manage to find one trafficker, he’ll likely lead you to the others. I imagine these types all know each other.”

Petticoat Lane…it figures, Ruddy thought. The place was a hotbed of shady vendors selling stolen wares.

“Even if we don’t have luck locating this Duff, someone there knew probably knows one or both of the others,” Archie said.

“Anything in the world a person desires and is not available through regular means, can discover a man or woman with other means via Petticoat Lane.” Ruddy put away his notebook and stood. “You’ve been a great help, we appreciate it.”

Packwood and Archie rose too.

“I don’t know that my meager information is going to be all that much help to you, but I hope so,” Packwood said and shook hands with Ruddy and Archie.

“Whether we find a connection to the traders at Petticoat Lane or not, you eliminated the zoo as a source of the animal,” Ruddy assured the director. “And we have a start with the names of three possible suspects. It’s a good day for us, sir.”

Outside Ruddy and Archie put on their hats and gloves. The sun shone in a cloudless sky but the April air still held onto winter’s cold sting.

“I guess we go to Geoff Marsden’s office now,” Archie said flatly.

“Sadly, yes.”