The graveyard was dark. The only noise came from gas streetlights that growled on the other side of the fourteen-foot high cemetery wall. A freezing fog crawled its way over the cold sandstone tombstones like insidious, pale fingers, its hue turned an uncanny orange-grey by the diffused light from the street.
Constable Abraham Harpur blew on his gloved hands. His fingers were numb from the bitter cold. He curled his toes. They too were chilled to numbness and the sensation of moving them felt strange, like having someone else's feet inside his heavy boots. His ears and the point of his nose that poked out above his scarf were chilled to the point of pain. It was a bitterly cold December night, well past midnight, and not for the first time Harpur cursed Inspector Boyd for putting him on this assignment.
Boyd hated him. If there was any shit work to do it was assigned to Harpur. This was why that particular night Harpur was stuck on his own in the New Burying Ground Cemetery, on watch for the Resurrection Men while all his comrades were on more important work. Harpur grunted at the thought that the "New Burying Ground" was becoming a bit of a misnomer. It was now over forty years old. The great and the good of Belfast had been interred among the sandstone and granite headstones of the new cemetery since 1797, when Belfast’s rising merchant class made rich by the burgeoning textile industries had decided they no longer wished to be buried among the hoi-polloi.
Someone had been disturbing graves in the New Burying Ground. Relatives of the deceased had complained of earth being dug and claw-like marks in the ground. A few tombstones had been knocked over. Given the social standing of the deceased’s relatives, Boyd had reacted to their outrage by promising that the police would stand guard, despite the fact that there were more pressing issues to attend to.
Most suspected that body snatchers were at work. It was only a few years since the graveyard had required a permanent night watchman to deter pilfering of corpses but Harpur was sceptical. The ‘Resurrection Men’ (as grave robbers were known) had been put out of business by the Burke and Hare scandal and the subsequent Act of Parliament that permitted the bodies of unfortunates who died in the Poor House to be used for medical dissection. Overnight, the market for stolen corpses dried up and in the seven years that had passed since the passing of the Anatomy Act the Resurrection Men had moved on to other criminal business. Harpur suspected that some wild animal or stray dog, driven to starvation by the freezing weather, was responsible for the grave disturbances. He had expressed his opinion but naturally Boyd had dismissed it.
Every other able-bodied man on the Police Force was on the streets looking for the Belfast Butcher. The town was gripped by fear. Two nights previously the mangled corpse of one Stephen McQuillan had been found on High Street by a policemen on patrol. The terrible injuries on the body suggested the frenzied work of a madman. The population had been whipped to terrified frenzy by newspapers keen to sell editions. It was The Northern Whig (a damnable liberal rag in Harpur’s opinion) that had dubbed the killer ‘the Belfast Butcher’. All police leave had been cancelled until the murderer was apprehended. McQuillan had been a well-known ne’er-do-well of the town and Harpur believed his antics could have led him to get on the wrong side of several nasty characters of the criminal fraternity. However he would not get much chance to investigate his suspicions stuck in the New Burying Ground trying to catch body snatchers. If that was not bad enough he would be in for a real slagging from his colleagues in the barrack room about how they are out risking their necks chasing real villains while he was hunting a hungry, stray dog.
The policeman huddled deeper into his heavy tweed overcoat. He pulled his shako hat down further onto his head in a vain attempt to obtain every last paltry drop of protection he could get from the cold. He gave a little habitual cough as the cold air seared his lungs.
Longingly, he looked over at the cemetery gate lodge with its tantalising offer of comfort and shelter, but he knew that if he went inside there would be no way he could keep an eye on things in the graveyard. The only way to keep track of what was going on was to keep moving around the perimeter of the cemetery wall and watch out for intruders.
Movement caught his attention. He narrowed his eyes. To the right of the gate lodge, just above the top of the cemetery wall, it looked like a little train was puffing out smoke in bursts into the air.
Someone was climbing up the outside of the wall. Their heavy breathing was rising up in clouds through the freezing night air.
Carefully, Harpur eased his pistol out of the deep poacher's pocket of his overcoat and began moving swiftly but silently through the maze of gravestones towards the gate lodge.