The judge sat high above the accused on a towering dais of polished mahogany. His front was guarded by the ornately carved royal coat of arms, an insistent reminder that his word was the Queen’s law.
If this ornamented threat was not enough, the plush red robes billowing around his body and powered wig on his head were a powerful symbol that, in this court at least, a man was judged by his betters.
Next to this mountain of imperial authority, be it in the lowly Southwark Crown Court which sat only a short distance from Whitechapel, the two accused men seemed as small as ants.
Constable Matthews did not feel much larger. A fifteen minute walk had brought him there, but he felt many miles away from the familiar stomping ground of his dockside beat.
And now the full weight of English Law, which stretched from London to Calcutta, Montreal to Sydney, was about to fall on his head and crush him beneath the judge’s black-polished heel.
“Constable, would you kindly tell me why these two men are standing before me? Why are they charged with the same crime but not as accessories? Why have you provided no evidence of their guilt?”
Matthews felt naked without his navy blue uniform and helmet. He wished he had not worn a simple grey suit, but he could not have known his actions would be called into question.
The prosecutor caught his desperate glance and shrugged his shoulders. That was how it was going to be, it seemed. Matthews would never have brought charges against the two men if the prosecutor had not been leaning on him.
“Smithly and Chandler are the most likely suspects in these murders, and-“
He broke off his explanation. Surely that reed-thin, wavering voice could not be his, Matthews thought. It was nothing like the proud constable’s bellow which usually echoed across the waterfront.
The judge’s paunchy hand crashed into the top of the dais in front of him, making Matthews jump. Both prisoners lowered their gaze.
“You make a mockery of this court, constable, and the Crown it represents. Are you seriously asking us to investigate this crime for you?”
He was interrupted by the sound of frantic steps rattling down the hallway outside. To Matthews’ relief, they drew ever closer, promising him salvation.
The courtroom doors flew open to reveal a red-faced constable’s clerk in a black shirt streaked with sweat. Like a vicious snake preparing to pounce, the judge rose to deliver a verbal assault against the intruder.
“Begging pardon, Your Honour. There’s been murder in Whitechapel, near the docks.” The clerk gasped.
Constable Matthews felt his vigor return. He would serve his penance with the judge later, now there was a killer to catch.
“Who was it, man?” He demanded. “Who was killed?”
“So many of them, sir. It’s a bloodbath, a massacre. A whole room of people near wiped out at the Black Flagon. Men hacked to ribbons, women with their throats cut, blood-”
The clerk doubled over and began to retch. At the far end of the courtroom, the judge’s dais seemed to shrink as he held a perfumed handkerchief over his mouth and nose. Smithly’s rat-like face was twitching. Many of his villainous friends frequented the Flagon, Matthews remembered. Even the philanderer and abuser, Chandler, had turned somewhat pale. Perhaps he had a favoured mistress or two there.
Either way, that was two suspects crossed off the list, and more bodies piling up with every passing day.
My historical novel Vikingr is available on Amazon Kindle.