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.’