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Crime Fiction Historical Fiction

TW: murder, injury.


The coffee was going cold in his hands but the conversation around him was starting to warm. Mr Williams shook the wide, white, frill of his cuff as it escaped the edge of his black legal robes. He lifted a brown cup to his lips, drained the final, lukewarm dregs and looked up.


Mr George was pushing his way through the coffee house door, removing his hat to reveal his neatly tied-back hair. The bright yellow thread detail, contrasted against the dark green of his tail coat and caught the candle light. He must have left his robes and wig in the offices. The fashion for wearing professional clothes in public was waning but Mr Williams was more traditional and enjoyed being recognised. At least he had done until now.


‘Ah Mr George!’


‘Mr Williams!’ the other lawyer took a copy of The Spectator from the coffee shop counter on his way between the crowded tables.


Mr Williams stood, and pulled out a chair for his young colleague. Mr George sat down and swigged his coffee, too quickly. He placed his cup on the table and sucked cool air over his scalded tongue.


‘May I enquire after your family?’ asked Mr Williams.


‘All very well thank you, all very well. And how are your wife and children? What news of Ann’s engagement?’


‘They are well, very well. Young Ann still resists marriage in spite of three wealthy suitors. I may have to make a decision for her soon.’


The gentlemen soaked up the atmosphere. Men from every walk of life gathered to discuss the news of the day in the sober absence of ale. Chairs scraped on the wooden floor and candles glowed on the tabletops. Judges and carpenters, lamplighters and rat catchers came together to talk and share jest over coffee. The chatter was lively and punctuated by the aroma of their beverages.


Mr Williams and Mr George turned their heads to eavesdrop on the three men at the table behind them, who were discussing the latest murder.


A scruffy young chap with unkempt hair raised a copy of the Times to stare at the headline. 'Another one! A Mother Goose Murder! Last night it were.' Though he probably couldn't read it.


'Let me see that!' A bespectacled older gentleman with a grey, curled wig draped over his collar bones took the paper from the boy. He swept his eyes across the front page. 'Oh my goodness!' he crossed himself, 'They left a goose feather at the scene, as with the others. How awful. I wonder if they have found any connection yet, between the victims.'


Mr George's face reddened as he looked at Mr Williams. The older mans' shoulders lifted towards his ears as he tensed. The colour drained from his cheeks.


Mr Williams leaned across the table towards his companion and lowered his voice. ‘So, another one on Wednesday? What do the newspapers say? And what is this obsession with nursery rhymes?’


Mr George smoothed down his green vest and silk breeches. He lifted his copy of The Spectator as he cleared his throat. Keeping his voice steady and quiet, to avoid undue attention, he began to read.


‘Master Bill Marshal of Silverdale Road was found dead on Thursday morning by his housekeeper Mrs Bettis. An arrow firmly lodged in the man’s left eye socket was the sure cause of death. A handwritten note found at the scene carried the words of the nursery rhyme "Who killed Cock Robin?" A white goose feather was left on the body, further connecting this crime to the other recent murders in the city. The Bow Street Runners have been engaged for three weeks now, searching for information to reveal the identity of the Mother Goose Killer, who has so far claimed four lives. The only link between the victims seems to be that they were each acquitted of crimes in court in the last twelve months. No further clues have been uncovered as to the identity of the killer.’


‘Cock Robin!’ Mr Williams had a tear in his eye as he recited the first two verses. ‘Who killed Cock Robin? I, said the Sparrow, with my bow and arrow, I killed Cock Robin. Who saw him die? I, said the Fly, with my little teeny eye, I saw him die.’


The men looked at each other, eyes wide and mouths open. The chatter of voices around them faded to a background hum as they pondered the news.


‘Remind me of the order of the others,’ Mr George said after a few moments pause, ‘I never can remember those rhymes.’ He signalled to Mrs Smith to bring more coffee and put two pennies on the table. She poured two steaming cups of hot, brown liquid and shuffled her way between chattering customers to deliver the drinks and collect her payment.


‘The first was Mr Stretten, the baker of Kensington who was found with his severed head wrapped in pastry and cooking in his own oven!’ Mr Williams ran his finger across his neck and rolled his eyes back into his head. ‘The rhyme about four and twenty black birds baked in a pie was found written, in poor man's hand, on his linen tablecloth. In blood.’


Mr George winced and fiddled with his golden waistcoat buttons but gestured to his companion to continue.


‘The second was Mr Blithe, the rather portly gentleman found surrounded by broken eggs, his neck snapped, at the bottom of the city wall in Whitechapel.’ Mr Williams, still leaning in for privacy, lifted his fresh cup to his lips and let the steam fill his nose before he sipped. ‘The opening lines of Humpty Dumpty were scrawled on the stonework.’


‘I remember the third being especially grisly.’ Mr George frowned. ‘Poor child. The nine-year-old Stoker boy on Artillery Lane, strangled with black wool, and his eyes poked out. Baa Baa black sheep. I suppose the victim must have cried down the lane in his final moments.’


‘Yes, the scribbled rhyme was found, in full, hiding in his coat pocket.’


‘The city is no longer safe. The killer only cares about his rhymes, and his revenge. I’ve been wondering how he might catch you! Perhaps with the church bells? How does that one go?’ Mr George wrapped his fingers around his cup and supped his coffee.


Mr Williams rubbed his chin as he brought the words to mind. ‘Oranges and lemons, Say the bells of St. Clement's. You owe me five farthings, Say the bells of St. Martin's. When will you pay me? Say the bells at Old Bailey. When I grow rich, Say the bells at Shoreditch. When will that be? Say the bells of Stepney. I do not know, Says the great bell at Bow…’


‘Ah and then the final, damning verse; Here comes a candle to light you to bed, And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!' sang Mr George under his breath.


‘Chip chop chip chop the last man is dead!’ they whispered together.


‘I wonder, whatever will be next? The Hey Diddle Diddle murder? Perhaps the killer will fling a cow over the moon?’ Mr George laughed darkly. ‘Did you ever represent a milkmaid? I’ve heard it said the smallpox doesn’t get them.’


Mr Jenner at the next table looked up and caught Mr George's eye. 'Do milkmaids really not catch smallpox?'


'No Sir, apparently they do not,' replied Mr George before looking swiftly away to avoid further conversation.


Mr Williams nodded towards the door. Both men stood and took up their tri corn hats, bowing politely to Mr Jenner before they left the coffee shop. But he was deep in thought and did not return the pleasantry.


There was a hint of smoke in the twilight as they strolled over the cobbles on Fish Street Hill towards the bustle of London Bridge.


'I'm sorry to cut our outing short. I thought we should leave before we invited any questions.' Mr Williams shuddered. 'As you know, I'm becoming quite sure that I am the link between these murders.'


There was a gust of wind and the men pulled their coats around them.


‘London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down.’ Sang Mr Williams in a harrowing voice as they came in sight of the river. ‘Perhaps he’ll push us into the water, and we’ll drown!’


‘Oh a terrible fate! I cannot swim, and my coat would surely weigh me to the bottom.’ whispered Mr George.


Footsteps behind them hardly caught their attention until a beery breath was detected on the breeze. It was accompanied by a voice, soft at first, and then louder.


‘Ladybird, ladybird fly away 'ome, Yer 'ouse is on fire and yer children are gone, All except one, and 'er name is Ann, And she's 'id under the bakin' pan.’


The men stopped dead in the street. Mr George, his heart pounding, turned to face the singer. A tall, dirty man in shabby clothing with a goose feather in his breast pocket stopped several feet behind him. He stood under a street lamp and stared him in the eye. Mr Williams turned more slowly, reluctant to see who was there, but at the same time, curious.


'Mother Goose they call me! You know 'oo I am! That baker from Kensington killed my sister when she refused 'is courtship. It were clear what 'e did. Pushed 'er down the market steps when she took the geese fer sale.' He sniffed and wiped his nose on his ragged sleeve. 'Made me think o' that song, Goosey Goosey Gander - though that were a man 'oo died. But it's their feathers I'm leavin'. To remind you. Without you as 'is filthy lawyer 'e'd 'av 'anged! Hanged I tells ya!' The man pointed his finger at Mr Williams and scowled. 'All your guilty clients should 'ang! Every last stinkin' one.'


Mr George stared at the man and then at Mr Williams. Mr Williams' most recent victory had been the successful defence of his own son, Billy. Billy had been accused of stealing six pence and a clean fleece from a wool trader. They both knew he was guilty.


‘Williams, Williams, fly away 'ome, Yer 'ouse is on fire and yer children are gone, All except one, an' 'er name is Ann, And she's 'id under the bakin' pan.’

September 14, 2021 19:35

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23 comments

Keya Jadav
14:34 Sep 29, 2021

Truly Fantastic! Capable of winning every 'Sherlock Homes' fan, I bet. I loved your use of rhymes...quite unique, I have to say. The plot and the tension residing was beautifully built hooking up each eye. Superb Work Katharine!!

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16:05 Sep 29, 2021

Thank you for these kind words, I really appreciate it. I'm so glad you liked the story 🤠

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Ruth Porritt
06:23 Nov 29, 2021

Hello Katharine, I am so glad I found your work. This is another outstanding piece. You have a wonderful ear for dialogue, and I could picture exactly how each character sounded. I see no mistakes in this work. Do you have a writing blog? (I was working on one, but I am a full-time teacher and rarely have time to do stuff for the craft.) Anyway, have a great day, and catch you later, Ruth p.s. I will save the rest of your stories as treats for later.

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20:26 Nov 29, 2021

Hi Again Ruth, I'm glad you liked this story too! I do not have a blog, only what you find on Reedsy.

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Rachel Smith
12:23 Sep 25, 2021

Hi Katharine! I really enjoyed this! The rhymes were intriguing and cleverly done. The dialogue felt real and the worldbuilding was great, I got a good feel for the time period. No critique story wise. Just one grammar point I noticed a couple of times, though they were probably just typos... "falling down.’ Sang Mr... " should be "falling down," sang Mr... " " bottom.’ whispered Mr George." should be" bottom," whispered Mr George." Brilliant read!

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19:02 Sep 25, 2021

Thank you for reading and for the comments. I'm not very good with punctuation in dialogue so thank you for pointing out the errors.

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Ananya Voss
21:30 Sep 20, 2021

Hi Katherine! Thank you for your kind comments on mine. Yes I think l slipped on that small detail re the vaccine. I did like yours. Good exchange between a lot of characters at the coffee house, & I like how you've captured the vibe and sense of the era. Great use of those old fashioned rhymes- they're the best. Sadly yes, many lawyers barely have ethics even now! I liked the energy & excitement in the story too.

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Bruce Friedman
20:15 Sep 19, 2021

Almost perfect in my eyes. Could this be a typo: tri corn hats

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20:26 Sep 19, 2021

Thank you Bruce, that's very kind. Yeah, tricorn is probably one word, but it's been approved so I cant edit it now. Thanks for picking it up though.

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Alex Sultan
18:34 Sep 16, 2021

I'm glad you wrote for this prompt - it really suits your style of writing, and I think you nailed the time period(Not that I know much of it, but it sounds like you did your research) This is what I have for suggestions: He placed his cup on the table and sucked cool air over his (painful) tongue. I'd consider using the word burnt/seared/scalded here. I feel like it'd flow a bit more naturally than 'painful'. ‘They are well, very well. Young Ann still resists marriage in spite of three wealthy suitors. I may have to make a decision for ...

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Alex Sultan
18:36 Sep 16, 2021

On a side note, I've posted my story for the week and I'd like to hear your feedback if you have the chance. I tried a new style of writing and I'm looking forward to seeing how it goes.

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19:30 Sep 16, 2021

I really like your stories, I'm going to pour myself a glass of wine and enjoy it - comments to follow :-)

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19:29 Sep 16, 2021

Thank you! I always smile when I spot your comments - even before I read them. This was really helpful - I've changed nearly all the bits you picked up on. No major changes, but if you fancy reading it over that would be cool. In response to some of your questions / comments: Yes - I did a lot of reading before I started writing. I actually thought this was going to be very difficult to write because of all the research, but once I sat down and got on with it it wasn't too bad. Lamplighters - London was one of the first cities to have ...

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Alex Sultan
19:34 Sep 17, 2021

I read over it again, and I like the changes you made. It reads smooth all the way through - I think this a story you should definitely be happy with, and should considering entering :)

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Jon Casper
22:25 Sep 14, 2021

(Disclaimer: I generally leave feedback only on the positive things I find in stories, but I get the impression you’re looking for a more balanced critique, and that’s new to me. So take this all with a grain of salt because honestly it was so good I had to search for things.) Overall — this is riveting! I don’t find the writing flat at all. I loved all the little glimpses into the period, baked right into the tale. — "The coffee was going cold in his hands but the conversation around him was starting to warm." Superb first line! — "...

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17:30 Sep 15, 2021

Thank you Jon! This is helpful. You are correct, I am looking for the negative along with the positive, it's really the only way to improve. I will take on board your comments about the two sections you raised as issues - I agree they are both in need of a polish. I've had an idea for how to expand it a little and plan to do an edit now. If you have time to look at it again when I'm done I would really appreciate it. Do let me know if you are submitting this week and I will happily look at your story too :-)

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Jon Casper
18:16 Sep 15, 2021

Hi. More than happy to read again. How will I know when it's ready? I think I'll put contact info in my bio since there is no direct messaging in Reedsy. My submission this week is the story you already commented on (Human Nature).

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19:39 Sep 15, 2021

Ah yes so I did. Thank you. I have just done an edit and expanded the story a little. I've taken your suggestions into account - thank you! I feel like it still needs more atmosphere so I'm going to go read up on 18th century London a bit more, but I think the storyline is all there now.

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Jon Casper
22:37 Sep 15, 2021

I love the changes! The interaction with Jenner is so benign you'd almost miss it, but that's what's so great about it. How it's seemingly inconsequential amidst the murder plot, but with the clear allusion to the spark that changed the world. Very nicely done. I like that we get to know a little more about the two gentlemen, and their friendship. I don't know if I missed it on my first read, but I like that the victims are all tied to Mr. Williams, and that is how he becomes a target himself. It helps explain their hasty departure. I thi...

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22:53 Sep 15, 2021

Thank you! All comments have been acted on, hopefully correct now. I like pickiness in a critique 🙂 You didn't miss it the first time round, I expanded the story a little in this draft to better tie the murders together and pull Mr Williams kicking and screaming into the thick of the plot. I think it's stronger than before. I'll probably keep tinkering with background details up to Friday night, but I think I'm happy with the storyline now. Thank you so much for rereading!

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20:01 Sep 14, 2021

Please do feed back. I like the idea of this but feel like the writing falls flat. Any suggestions gratefully received.

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Beth Jackson
07:00 Sep 22, 2021

I really enjoyed this story! I was totally hooked, right from the start. And your writing is so polished! Thank you for sharing! :-)

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