He hurried back up the ladder, falling on his knees at the top and gulping down the fresh air. His legs buckled at he tried to stand, and for a moment he was forced to hold on to someone’s arm. The man handed him the jug and he drank deep, swilling the ale around his mouth before spitting out the taste of the pit.
‘Bad,’ was the only thing the man said.
Rob didn’t reply. He didn’t own the words for what he’d seen. ‘Send someone for Mr Brogden, the coroner,’ he said, his voice little more than a hoarse croak. ‘I’ll bring some men to take the bodies out.’
He marched purposefully up Kirkgate, trying to clear the thoughts and images from his head. For all he knew there were more children down there, hidden by the darkness. He ran a hand through his hair, the stink of the dead clinging fast to his clothes.
The Constable remembered the face of every dead child he’d seen since he’d begun the job. They were impossible to forget, each one clear and sharp in his head. Many had gone from hunger, little more than ghosts even before their hearts gave up the battle to keep beating, some from accidents, crushed by carts or lost to the river. Precious few had been murdered, and he thanked Christ for that, at least.
Some of the workmen were sitting on the grass when he arrived, others stood in a small group. He nodded and asked, ‘Has the coroner arrived yet?’
‘Gone down there with a candle,’ one of the men answered.
When Brogden climbed back out there was dirt on his immaculate coat and he’d vomited on his shoes with their expensive silver buckles. He brought a flask from his waistcoat, fingers shaking so hard he could barely unscrew the top. He took a long drink and saw the Constable.
‘What’s down there?’ Nottingham asked.
The coroner shook his head, as if he couldn’t believe what he’d seen. He raised his eyes. ‘Three of them,’ he replied quietly. ‘Someone’s killed them. None of them look older than eight.’ Tears began to roll down his cheeks and he pawed at them angrily before walking away.
The Constable ran a hand across his mouth. His thoughts raced away from him. Three? It seemed impossible. Unless they did belong to the dead man, how could so many children vanish without anyone noticing? For the love of God, why would anyone want to murder them and leave them that way? He was still standing there thinking when Lister returned with four others, a ragtaggle group who looked more like beggars than Constable’s men.
‘You’ll have to be my eyes down there,’ he told Rob. ‘I can’t use a ladder. Not yet.’
‘I’ll tell you what I see, boss.’