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A Murder on the River Thames

"The river hides many mysteries"

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Author's Notes

"This is essentially a steampunk story. Here on StoriesSpace it will fit into the Speculative genre."

"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." Oscar Wilde, 1854-1900


"The Queen is Dead! Long Live the King!"

What more important change than the death of a sovereign. At least, for the nation. Perhaps not for individuals. The end of the Victorian Age. The beginning of the Edwardian period. Would this country continue to be successfully powerful, or would it pass into dust following past empires.

Early in the morning the Baroness Gullane took her constitutional along the River Thames. She was well dressed for the foggy winter day. Shiny black leather high heeled boots and a long billowy skirt flowed out from her bustier and over her bustle. As usual the blouse was delicate white silk, The bottom was a dark grey linen. A grey damask jacket covered her arms. A silver chain with a carved jade leaf hung from her ivory neck. The small bowler hat was cocked over an eye as ginger locks were scarely covered, ruffling out upon her regal shoulders. 

She heard the news shouted by newsboys. She had read the story earlier. Certainly a change that would resonate for some time.  

On this day in January of 1901 Elspeth gazed across the Thames at the Battersea Gasification Station. Even now it was working, competing against the Beckton Gasworks in the East End. One or her favorite cityscapes, lit up with lamplights and distilled coal gas the plant supplied itself and others in her adopted city. Beautiful this time of the morning as stream sweepers and sky sweepers were busily carrying out duties in assigned lanes of the river and the sky.

The one man vessels had all spread out earlier from the docks in the East End near the River Lea. The piers were needed for the streamers so the authorities ordained the skylers would refuel with needed hydrogen gas in stations nearby. The two fleets resided together at night when not busy in the water and air.

Each steam powered streamer filtered out pollutants from the water. The skylers were held aloft by hydrogen filled bladders and slowly moved with flaps powered along by strong legs, cleaning the air with screens for this purpose. With dozens of cleansers completing this daily task the Queen had been well pleased that her Cleanliness Decree of 1890 would most assuredly have pleasant results soon. But she had passed. Her son was the new King. Would he care as much as she for the health of the nation?

To her left, down the river and to the east, the lady noted the vision of a sunrise that would soon rest memorably in her mind, the vivid colours aided somewhat by the still begrimed atmosphere hovering over the industrial triumph of the British Empire. A lone jackdaw called out from the bare branches of a London plane tree in the lot across the roadway. Gulls circled above sending noisy welcome to the river's feast below.

Her ladyship contemplated the final change of importance in her own life. Recalling with contentment the decree of divorcement had come through. She had aptly proved he committed adultery. Also, necessary for a woman, she proved he had deserted her.

His adulterous acts were recorded with Kodak cameras hidden in his sleeping quarters. They illustrated him in rousing sessions of lusty play with cousins. That was adultery, not incest. After all, Charles Darwin had married his first cousin, Emma Wedgewood, of porcelain fame. No, it was not legally incest, which would have sufficed to obtain the divorce with the addition of the adultery. However, he did do Elspeth the favor of deserting her financially.

The Third Married Women's Property Act of 1893 allowed her to retain control of her own property after marrying. She kept herself with no help from her spouse for over five years, living and studying in Edinburgh for most of that period of time. Now a free woman at liberty to pursue her own wants and needs.

There was little traffic along Grosvenor Road as she strolled. Little noise to disturb her peace except for the 'woosh' of a vactrain with its human cargo being sucked through the pneumatic tube underground. Elspeth noticed something as she stood beside the river near the Grosvenor Vactrain Station.  

At the base of brick laid steps, there at the riverside, a group of men in burnished copper embellished blue uniforms and polished leather helmets were gathered. Seeming to attempt raising some sort of vehicle from the turgid waters. A floating streamer and its disconsolate operator drifted stoically beside it. 

Two people were dressed in mufti. A man with a long dark belted coat over striped trousers, A woman in a long somber skirt and a simple blouse with few ruffles to feminise it. They stood in their highly polished leather boots and their modest daily top hats. Presumably officials in charge.

The short man lifted his smog gogs from his face noting her presence at the top of the stairs. He rubbed his neatly trimmed goatee and then spoke behind a gloved hand to his female compatriot. She removed her own goggles and began carefully ascending the damp, moss encrusted steps towards Elspeth.

The baroness pressed one button on her brass repeater timepiece pulled from the pocket of her frilly bustier. Tinkling chimes rang out as she read the time. Just turning 6:45 in the morning of her first day as a free and divorced lady. The young woman, with a shiny brass badge prominently displayed upon her bosom, approached and spoke.

"The inspector wants to know what you're doing at this time of the morning, hereabouts," she demanded, abruptly.

"You might ask the inspector if it is proper for one of his minions to speak so, without courtesy, to a lady in this day and age. Have the rules of etiquette changed with the death of our dear Queen?" She replaced her filigreed art nouveau watch to its pocket as she spoke.

The young woman seemed to understand rather quickly that she might have made an error. Her hand went to her head and touched her small chapeau above short brown curly locks. 

"Your pardon, ma'am. I'm Sergeant Schumacher. We've had a terrible work done here today. Would you tell me who you might be, with all due deference."

"It pleases me to give you that information. I'm rather proud of that information, my girl," and with that she proffered a card from her waistband.

The sergeant accepted and read to herself the following:

Elspeth Valmoral, Baroness Gullane 

BSC (Hons), MChem (Hons), LLB 

No. 12 Pimlico Road


"Septem contra Edinam." 

Rather befuddled, the sergeant spoke again, "Sorry, ma'am but what does it all mean?"

It means, sergeant, that I have a Bachelor's Degree in Science, with honours; a Master's Degree in Chemistry, with honours; and a Bachelor of Laws degree. The Latin means 'Seven against Edinburgh' and the inspector might know to what that refers. It would be worth the while of a pioneering woman to know the history of that motto. 

"Mayn't I just bring this to the Inspector? Thank you, ma'am." She did a small mixture of curtsy and bow, touched her feminised top hat, and turned about to return to the scene of the crime.

"Wait, sergeant. Tell me your inspector's name. He will soon have mine and I would most assuredly wish to have his, if I may."

"Inspector Lorcan Healy, ma'am. Sgt Daphne Schumacher, at your service." She eagerly moved to return to the ongoing investigation below.

"Apt name, Daphne," thought Elspeth. She watched the small nymph-like creature carefully glide down the steps. Smiling to herself she also wondered how fierce the short inspector might be.The lady began examining her surroundings more closely now with the knowledge that something rather dire had happened. She saw the mast-like rod protruding out of the waters below, quite near the shoreline. A Union Flag flopped damply from its pinnacle. Another pennant hung below but she could barely discern its colours. No matter. She recalled it well and the one recently beneath it was now absent.

In the murky waters she could barely make out the metallic object with wheels. Burly bobbies had raised it partially. Waters poured off what seemed to be a cushioned leather covered seat. The process of removing an inert, shapeless mass from the seat began. Gears and polished copper and brass were more easily seen with each passing second, as was the steam engine. A lifeless body, for such she saw it was, was laid upon the damp unforgiving stonework. 

Peering more intently she made out rather fresh black marks upon the granite setts of the roadway. The black streaks led from the left side of the roadway to the edge and then ended as if some object had been pushed over the low retaining wall beside the track. Her discerning eye recognised a substance, probably rubber, used in pneumatic tyres.

She knelt down, took out a folding Barlow knife from her shoulder bag, and took scrapings from each tyre track. Her specimen jars were labeled especially for this purpose. She had printed precisely with her gold and mahogany Faber-Castell fountain pen what each contained. They were safely in her leather shoulder bag.

The baroness had not overlooked the astonishing change she had just observed in the world of authority figures. "What is the world coming to," she thought gleefully, "when little women are becoming sergeants in the masculine field of policework." Then she pondered when and where she had last seen that steam powered wheeled vehicle she recognised in the Thames below.

She also recognised how coincidental it was being part of three such noteworthy changes in the world.


Elspeth returned to her flat and laboratory on Pimlico Road. As always, she gave her apprentices time to be busy about their duties when she entered. They were not lazy but lost track of time while playing or reading. She used the brass door knocker, in the shape of a naiad, to alert them to her presence.

She noted how intricately the heavy oak door was carved with creatures of myth frolicking across its surface. There was scurrying of feet as the young people scrambled into working mode. It made her smile. She rescued the two of them from the streets of London where they have been living as urchins for years.

They knew they were both just now achieving twenty years of age. Elspeth gave them a home short months ago when she moved to London.

Each was bright and biddable when properly instructed. They learned quickly. Their antics gave a great deal of pleasure. She paid them at least as much as they could earn as shop clerks. She knew she gave them an education that was enriching, both personally and monetarily.

She rescued them from Newgate Prison upon their release for minor infractions. In passing by Old Bailey in the City she was happy to remember what her MP told her. Newgate would be closed and razed within the year completing the drastic change in the lives of her students.

With money to spend as they pleased they often played with clothing, modeled for her pleasure and their own. Today Pan wore some wide suspenders decorated with wildly chaotic copper filigrees holding up grey linen trousers with silk stripes down the sides. His sleeveless work shirt was white ruffled satin. He sometimes wore a brace of polished brass pistols in buffed leather at his waist. A wasted effort to grow facial hair gave the women some degree of stifled laughter at times.

Similar in tone was Dora's brocade corset atop a pair of velveteen jodhpurs with a wide black leather belt. She might sport a burnished bronze pistolet. Both wore glossy casual boots, comfortable for work in the laboratory and flat. Each wore their hair in natural ringlets of blonde tresses. Quite nearly the same length, just off the shoulder. 

Elspeth was in the main room of the flat where her extensive library was maintained. Books and maps covered the walls. Heavily brocaded chairs and settees were there for their comfort. Just off this large room was the more important laboratory. It was a working chemical laboratory filled with hand blown glassware and testing supplies. Many metal tools were in their proper places for woodworking and metalworking as needed.

She broke her fast with a meal of tomatoes, a slice of streaky, and one poached egg prepared by Pan. The young ones had eaten earlier. It was time to test her samples and see what she could discover. It might confirm her idea of what occurred by the river during this past night. Within an hour she and her aides had made a discovery that might be of use. The specimens she tested were of two, and only two, types of rubber. Clearly they were both from pneumatic tyres. But of different chemical makeup. 

Not necessarily two vehicles. There were three tyres on the wheeled vehicle she had seen. One in the rear and two in front. Someone could have put tyres manufactured with three different chemical compositions on the contraption. Still suspicious. She suspected it indicated two kinds of conveyance had been present. Not just present but involved enough in some sort of struggle to leave remnants of that fight on the street's surface. If she could gain access to the wheels of the transport being pulled out she could be certain. As she pulled away from the lab table a rapping of the bronze door knocker was heard. Someone was at the entryway. Dora moved swiftly to answer the summons.


"Sgt Schumacher, do you not recognise this insignia?" Inspector Healy inquired, holding up the scrap of material taken from the three wheeled vehicle now at Scotland Yard.

"Ay, sir, it's that of the Royal Fusiliers, it is. My father served in that unit here in the City. Their officers have a club in the Westminster borough, near enough to where we found our evidence this morning. Never did know what that motto meant."

"Honi soit qui mal y pense," quoted the inspector, "which means something along the lines of 'may he be ashamed, or shamed, that thinks badly of it.' Many a group or person carries the same motto. But not that sigil. That's unique to the Fusiliers. Let us take a wee visit to that club you mentioned, sergeant."

They called up a steam powered Hansom taxicab and soon drew up in front of the club of the Retired Royal Fusiliers. The cab operator was told to wait upon their return.

After a short argument about the sergeant's right to be there, being a woman, the Inspector was ushered into the great room, leaving the rather irritated Sgt Schumacher in the main hallway suspiciously watching members enter and exit, or climb the stairs to upper floors.

Inspector Healy made his own examinations of the interior of the warm and comfortable main room with its heavy leather covered seating while waiting for several minutes. Couches and easy chairs were spread throughout the room with few occupants this time of day. Walls were covered with banners, weaponry, and paintings of famous battles.The Royal Fusiliers had been important participants. He noted in his mind the banners especially.

The mustachioed club secretary entered, walked up to the inspector, and extended a hand. "What may we do for the local police, inspector?" He didn't smile.

"Quite simple, sir. Might you tell me if any of your members are in possession of private carriages of any type? There has been an incident. A special contraption, of a kind we've not seen, was involved."

The secretary seemed taken aback, but gathered his thoughts. "I cannot believe any member of ours would be involved in an incident. In any case, inspector, as far as I know several members have private vehicles of varied types."

He paused, then continued, "And, of course, Sir Needmore uses his wheeled chair. Rather small, but capable of traversing our streets under the power of a small steam engine. He has entry to the club using our special lift in the rear. He has not appeared today. He is not expected on a daily basis."

"And why would he be needing this contraption anyway?"

The secretary answered rather grumpily, "He lost the use of his legs at the Battle of Kandahar. Some are rather proud of Sir Needmore, inspector."

"His name would be Sir Chesley Needmore? Is that correct? Would his wheeled chair be having three wheels, then?"

"Yes, but if you knew this already why are you here, inspector?" he inquired abruptly.

"Quite simple, sir. We found his body in the Thames this morning. His identification card merely had his name and a motto. As if he expected any and all to recognise him. We did not. Now we know."

The secretary nodded and shook his head at the same time, a rather skillful trick. "How did the accident happen, inspector?"

"Under suspicious circumstances, sir. And I would be needing a list of all members who have their own carriages, of any kind, if you please. Send it by pence to Scotland Yard. You do have access to the Pneumatic Parcel Post, do you not? Most important  establishments do by now," the inspector noted.

"Yes, of course. Sir Needmore was rather a problem member, for some, but I'm certain he will be mourned. He was an officer in the Royal Fusiliers! The list will be penced within the hour, inspector." The secretary turned on his heel and strode away.

Inspector Healy walked out into the entry hall as Sgt Schumacher slipped out of an obscure doorway from under the stairwell. She smiled and nodded to him as they left the building. 

"We're off to pay a visit to the only person we might be calling a witness in this case, sergeant. Be quick about it."


"Ego Postulo Magis." The inspector was reading from a card he had pulled from his vest pocket. "I believe I know what this motto means, more or less, baroness. I should like to hear what you think."

"Yes, quite, inspector. It means, to be precise, I need more. Why would anyone want to proclaim their need in such a motto?"

"The gentleman in question is Sir Chesley Needmore. He attempted a bit of wordplay on his surname."

"Well," the lady said, "simply ask him for certainty." She smiled and poured out more Twinings tea for the inspector seated in her flat. The stalwart little sergeant was to the side, sipping tea and nibbling a biscuit.

"I think, madam, that you might be guessing this gentleman is the one we pulled from the Thames." He smiled back at her. "I would be wondering if you might be knowing the gentleman."

She laughed. "Please, do me the favor of calling me Elspeth, if I am given the honour of addressing you as Lorcan, inspector."

Both now chuckled as the sergeant looked back and forth, wondering what was happening. She took another bite and another sip of tea.

"Allow me to relate the little I know. I've seen a man moving about the streets here in the Pimlico District of the borough using a steam powered device that appeared to function as a chair of kinds. To get him from one place to another. I never observed him stopping. The apparatus was provided with three wheels and an engine to power it. You know this, Lorcan.

"Perhaps you do not know that he flew, from a simple mast above his seat, three pennants. On top was the Union Jack. Below it what appeared to be a military banner with an insignia and a rather commonplace motto. The bottom pennant displayed the words you quoted earlier."

"Exactly," stated the inspector, "and we have two of those banners. We lack the third. It was torn away since two brass grommets and scraps of material were left behind."

"Well, in addition to the motto there was also a green flower displayed..." and she paused, then continued, "perhaps a zinnia, or carnation. Even a mum. I was never sure. The only reference to a green flower that I'm aware of was the novel The Green Carnation.  Some say it concerned Oscar Wilde. That gentleman himself died this past November." She stood suddenly. "Yes, it was in November that I heard of Wilde's passing in Paris. I have just begun to observe the three banners on the wheeled chair in the past month or so. It has been out on the streets since I first arrived here some months ago. But the flying of the three just began very recently."

She grabbed some writing paper from a table nearby. Dipping a pen into a brass gear casing that held some India ink she swiftly wrote out the motto and drew a flower beneath it. She handed it to the sergeant after blotting it to avoid smudging.

"I see," said Inspector Healy, glancing at the paper. "Wilde was the sodomite who was imprisoned in Reading Gaol. I knew he had been released from his sentence. Not that he had died." He became quietly contemplative, mulling over this information.

"Oh, before you go, perhaps you would like to have some forensic data I obtained, Lorcan." 

"What's this about forensic information? We've examined the body, all of its clothing, and the chair in question. What type of forensics are you in possession of, baroness?" The inspector's tone had quickly changed to one of authority.

"I'm not questioning your methods, inspector. However, I took some samples of what I believe to be remnants of tyres that had skidded upon the granite setts of the roadway, just above the place of death. Let me just relate to you the particulars."

Elspeth then told her guests of her results. Both listened closely. Finally the inspector asked if he could have a formal report from her ladyship along with the samples she had taken from the scene. He indicated that the forensic lab at Scotland Yard would be repeating her tests and getting scrapings from each tyre on the wheeled chair with the understanding that if they found a suspect vehicle it's pneumatic tyres would be tested as well. 

"I trust every effort is being made. I'll send along my report using the pence I have installed in my lab. It does serve a fine function for the transmission of small objects and documents about the city. I make myself free for your use in this endeavour. My best to you, sergeant." The lady rose now, smiling, indicating that the meeting had completed to her satisfaction. Pan and Dora appeared from the pantry.


Within a fortnight Inspector Healy received the report from Baroness Gullane. He perused the list of private vehicles sent from the secretary. He sorted out the case to this point.

"You saw that list of members' carriages from the club, sergeant?"

"All are conveyances using horses save those underlined, inspector. I saw that. We should eliminate all the wagons, carriages, and such using the horses. Our man would have used a steam powered vehicle.

"Our working theory is that a more powerful engine forcibly pushed the smaller into the Thames. To be honest that has been the theory since we determined that two vehicles had been at the scene after forensic testing. Thanks to the baroness, to be sure, sir.

"We know from further forensics on those three steam powered vehicles listed that just one is matching the samples taken by the baroness and our own lab men where the murder occurred. That single carriage had noticeable recent repairs of its exterior brass and copper fixtures. Matching damage was done to the wheeled chair. It's a murder, sir. I think we've agreed upon that right now."

"You made your point about her ladyship, sergeant," and he grinned ruefully. "One other thing we know. At least, I do. When we first visited the Retired Royal Fusiliers club I was lucky enough to see the exact banner that Sir Needmore had devised. I saw it just above the fireplace. It returned to my memory where I had seen it after staring at the lady's drawing right here on my desk for some days now. It had been stuck on the mantle as something of a battle token or remembrance."

"Would it be time to interrogate this gentleman, sir? Captain Gregory Hardbotham is the name, inspector. He knows we examined the vehicle. And a mighty hulking bit of engine work it was. You've seen that report."

"Sgt Schumacher, we are off. I've called for a steam Hansom and sent a message ahead to the club that the captain should await our appearance. We have more than enough evidence to count him as a person of significance to the case. His living quarters are in the club itself. Several members reside there."


Their Hansom pulled up to the club. The inspector and his sergeant exited it, telling the driver to await their return. He saluted and sat back to rest, just feeding a few bits of coal to keep his engine ready for use again soon.

The club's secretary met them in the main hallway. "If you are here to see Captain Hardbotham he is gone, inspector. He departed some minutes ago with a single valise in hand. His engine awaited at the curb for an hour."

"Blast, man! Did you not tell him I wished to speak to him on a matter of importance? Do you know where he is going? Which direction?" 

"I beg your pardon, sir. I've done my duty in this matter. His engine was pointing down the roadway towards the east." He turned abruptly on his heel in finality.

"We are off, sergeant. Get in the taxi. We'll follow the damned fellow. Head east, man," he commanded as the two jumped into the front seat. In the rear the driver was now frantically stoking his engine and getting the vehicle moving down the street.

Inspector Healy had a hunch the captain was heading for the docks in the East End. There were one man skylers there. Perfect for the gentleman to use in an escape through the skies. The police force had been asking the authorities for their own skyships for some time now. They had not yet been approved and put into action. They were a mere five miles from the piers where the Queen's own cleansing fleet was located.

The escaping steam engine soon appeared in the distance. They swiftly gained on it in the ensuing minutes. The docks along a branch of the River Lea came into view. The inspector called out for more speed.

They came within a few hundred yards of the captain's vehicle. There were several skylers anchored and floating with their hydrogen bladders full. They were pulled close to the ground so that operators could mount them easily when it was time to attend to duties in the sky lanes.

Captain Hardbotham sprang from his still moving escape vehicle. He pulled a pistol from his trousers belt and fired at the inspector and the sergeant. His bullet rang out as it hit a metallic surface, harming no one.

He used his weapon to force the few skyler operators there away from the floating vessels. He loosened a mooring hawser from its lanyard and jumped aboard as the skyler slowly began to rise away from his pursuers. He continued to fire his pistol, reloading at least once as he ascended.

"Damn the man! Sergeant, use your weapon. No one fires upon the Metropolitan Police without repercussions."

It took only one shot from Sgt Schumacher's brass handgun to complete the case, more or less. The hydrogen gas filled bladder of the escaping vessel exploded in flames and fell into the River Thames. They pulled the captain's body out later that afternoon when reinforcing bobbies were called in from Scotland Yard.


Elspeth received a letter from Inspector Healy the next day. it arrived via her personal pence. She smiled and congratulated herself on having the use of the Pneumatic Parcel Post.

She examined the contents as she enjoyed her afternoon tea. It was a note from the inspector as well as a copy of another letter presumably written by a Captain Gregory Hardbotham. She read the note as follows:

Your ladyship,

If I may, Elspeth,

This is to make known to you the resolution of 'our' murder case. You may read the murderer's letter. I relate the gist and thank you for your part in bringing the case to a fitting end.

Sir Chesley Needmore was, indeed, a libertine. He decided to flaunt his need for other men publicly following the death of one of his heroes, Oscar Wilde.

Needless to say, this did not go over well with his club and others who had served in the Royal Fusiliers. Captain Hardbotham decided to send a very real message to other 'catamites', as he called them, and murdered Sir Needmore using his steam powered vehicle to push the wheeled chair into the river. You see, 'shame' had been brought upon the unit. Then he displayed his contempt for his fellow officer by hanging Sir Needmore's motto above the mantel of the fireplace in their mutual club. Somewhat as a battle trophy, one might say. 

That much we had deduced, except for the captain's motive. Now it makes sense. But no man may decide the fate of another man without proper authority involved. The captain received his due when he died in flames yesterday. I'm sure you have read the accounts that appeared in the Times this morning.

Please know I send my most humble regards, Baroness Gullane. 

If we meet again, the pleasure will surely be all mine.


Inspector Lorcan Healy, Metropolitan Police Force

She sighed as she put the note down. Taking up the murderer's letter, she read it through, snorted in an unladylike manner, and sighed once more.

"Pan...Dora. Fresh tea, if you please. And some biscuits. More shortbreads, you lazy crew."

She was soon lost in a reverie about even deeper and more profoundly welcoming changes to come.


Some months later a solemn ceremony was performed at the Seven Sisters for Suffrage club in London. The club was established after the National Society for Women's Suffrage came into existence in 1867, and the UK Medical Act, allowing the licensure of women as physicians, was passed in 1876. The SSS club was a place for members of the feminine gender to gather with others who were working in the forefront of the Cause. Baroness Gullane was a member and she had put forward Sgt Schumacher for membership. She had felt it rather noteworthy that the sergeant was the first to achieve her rank in the history of the Metropolitan Police Force.

Upon completion of the induction Elspeth and Daphne spent some time conversing in the intimately small parlor just off the main room of the club. They talked of many things, especially their shared murder case, but often the lady seemed to turn the subject to news concerning Inspector Healy. The sergeant just smiled and enjoyed her moment. 


Written by Survivor
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