Home > Stalking Jack the Ripper (Stalking Jack the Ripper #1)(12)

Stalking Jack the Ripper (Stalking Jack the Ripper #1)(12)
Author: Kerri Maniscalco

Perhaps I was too preoccupied with death. I sincerely doubted my cousin, Liza, would think of blood splatter. She’d probably bid an attendant to come and address the stain before it had time to set. Aunt Amelia had raised her well and was undoubtedly hoping I’d turn out the same with a little polishing.

Nathaniel took a long pull from his drink, then set it down gently. His fingers tapped a slow beat against the stem of the glass while he came up with another tactic to dissuade me from my studies. This deliberate show of parental guidance was growing tedious.

Like a white flag, I held my hand up and waved it, too tired to argue when he got this way. If keeping myself away from Uncle’s laboratory for a few days would appease my brother, then so be it. I didn’t need to conduct my research from there.

But he needn’t know that.

“You’re right, dear Brother. Some time away from all this unpleasantness is precisely what the doctor ordered.” I offered him my most sincere smile, pleased to see him slowly return it with one of his own. “I promise I shall have a snack before bed later.” I placed my napkin on the table and stood. “If you don’t mind, I think I’ll retire for a bit. I’m exhausted.”

Nathaniel rose and tipped his head forward. In his mind as long as I was eating and sleeping regularly, I was bound to feel right as the sunshine on a summer’s day. “I’m very pleased you’re listening to your big brother for once. A little time and distance from all the misery in the world will do you good, Audrey Rose.”

“I’m sure you’re right.” I gave him one more smile before leaving the room. The servants closed the wooden doors behind me, securing my brother and themselves on the other side. I took a few breaths, then glanced down the darkened hallway.

There was another reason for my early departure from dinner. Father kept records of all our servants, and I was hoping to discover something useful regarding Miss Mary Ann Nichols.

I crept toward Father’s study, carefully avoiding every spot in the floor that creaked. I didn’t want Nathaniel or any of the servants knowing about this. Pausing at the door, I stared at the ornate handle. Father would murder me should he ever find out I’d sneaked into his private workspace.

While it had never been expressly stated, it was a known fact Father’s rooms were all off-limits after Mother’s death. I was like an unwelcome shadow lurking around corners in my own home.

A clanking din rose from the back staircase, where most of the servants were below cleaning up from supper. Now was the ideal time to sneak into the study undetected. My palms itched with the need to turn the brass handle and slip inside, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

What if he could tell I’d been in there? I doubted he’d come up with anything elaborate, but perhaps he’d set some sort of trip wire up to sound an alarm…

I leaned against the wall, nearly giggling. How absurd! To think Father would do such a thing, especially when maids would be in and out cleaning. I was being a foolish child, terrified of unknown things hiding beneath the bed frame.

Taking a deep breath, I steadied my heart. I hadn’t realized how it had accelerated its beat in the last few moments. Surely if I could wander the streets at night while a murderer was on the prowl, I could sneak into my own father’s study while he was away.

Voices sounded from the kitchen, growing louder. They must be bringing up a decadent dessert course for Nathaniel. My pulse galloped through my veins.

It was now or never. As the voices came closer, I shot across the hall, turned the knob, and slipped inside, closing the door with a slight click that sounded much too like a bullet sliding into its chamber for my comfort.

I stood with my back pressed firmly against the wooden door while the sound of footsteps echoed, then disappeared down the corridor. For added measure, I turned the key, locking myself in and anyone else out. The room was exceptionally dark.

I blinked until I was acclimated to the blackness covering everything like spilled ink. Father had had the deep green drapery pulled shut, keeping both the cool September chill and evening light out.

The result was a room as welcoming as a crypt.

Even Uncle’s laboratory with its cadavers had more warmth between its walls. I rubbed the coldness from my arms while slowly making my way toward the fireplace, my silk skirts rustling treacherous whispers behind me.

The smell of sandalwood and cigars evoked the ghost of my father, and I couldn’t stop myself from continually checking over my shoulder to be certain he wasn’t standing behind me, waiting to pounce. I swear eyes watched me from the shadows.

A few tapers in hurricane lamps dripped waxy tears and a giant candelabra decorated the mantel next to a photograph of my mother. We had very few images of her, and each one was a treasure I held dear to my heart.

I studied the graceful curve of her lips, tilted into the sweetest smile. It was like peering into a looking glass showing me in the future; even our expressions were similar. A heart-shaped locket with tiny gears was clasped in her hands, and on her finger was the very ring I never took off. Tearing my gaze away, I returned to my purpose.

All I needed was to light one of the lamps so I could go through Father’s records; I hoped no one would notice the slight flicker coming from under the door.

As I picked up the base of the hurricane lamp, an object clanked to the floor. Every muscle in my body froze. I waited a few beats, certain I’d be discovered by someone—anyone—but the solemn sound of silence echoed back at me. Forcing myself into action, I lit the lamp. The hiss of the flame sparking to life had me holding my breath a second time; every little sound seemed like a cannon going off, announcing my whereabouts. Finally, I bent and retrieved a small brass key.

How odd.

Not wanting to waste precious moments figuring out what it opened, I quickly replaced the key and grabbed the lamp again.

I held the light up, my eyes trailing over every object in the room as if it were the first and last time I’d ever see them. I longed to catalog each piece within the shelves of my mind and visit them whenever I’d like.

A large portrait—presumably of one of our ancestors—was mounted on the wall between floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. His chest was puffed up with self-importance and his foot rested atop the carcass of an enormous bear he’d slain. Strange it hadn’t been there the last time I was here, though it had been quite a while.

“How charming,” I whispered to myself. An ocean of blood surrounded the furry corpse island he was standing upon. The artist captured a deranged essence in our ancestor’s eyes that chilled the very marrow in my bones.

I scanned the room again. Everything was dark: the wood, the rug, the large settee, a few spots of brocade wallpaper visible from behind artifacts collected over several lifetimes. Even the marble making up the fireplace was a deep green with darker veining. No wonder Father couldn’t move past his grief; darkness was his constant companion.

I walked over to his desk, a mammoth thing taking up most of the room, threatening me with its hulking form. I rolled my eyes. Leave it to me to give an ordinary desk that much of a villainous personality. Hulking form indeed.

Sitting in Father’s plush leather chair, I set the lamp down, taking great care not to disturb any of the papers scattered about. I couldn’t help noticing Father had made quite a few mechanical sketches. The detail he managed to capture using only charcoal and paper was astounding. I swear I almost heard the cranking of gears and smelled the oil greasing their parts.

There was beautiful destruction all across the page.

Flying ships with guns bolstered to their sides and other miniature wartime toys took up each inch of paper. Shame he stopped creating clockwork pieces; judging from the images I saw, he hadn’t lost his talent.

I stopped ruminating and slid open each drawer of the desk, searching with renewed purpose for files he kept on all our servants, both past and present. Even though our butler tended to the records, as was customary, Father was quite insistent he have his own. When I reached the bottom drawer, I discovered it was locked. I leaned closer. It looked as if Father had created the locking mechanism himself.

“Where would I hide something important?” I tapped my fingers on the arms of the chair. Then I remembered the key that had fallen from beneath the lamp. Running to the mantel, I obtained it, then quickly ran back to his desk.

Time was ticking away, and dessert was nearly over and servants would be busy in and out of the hall shortly.

It was a long shot the key would work, but I had to try.

I shifted the light closer. With shaking hands, I slowly pushed the key into place. I turned it to the left, certain it would have opened already if it were the correct one, when a small ‘click’ sounded and the drawer cracked open. Thank the heavens.

Opening the drawer fully, I ran my fingers over the tops of files, which were smashed together. There were so many I feared it’d take all evening to locate what I needed. I couldn’t even recall how many maids we’d gone through over the last five years. Luckily, Father organized this drawer better than the top of his desk.

Little name tags peeked out above the folders like islands breaking through an ocean of ink on paper. I thumbed through them once, then twice before finding Miss Mary Ann Nichols’s folder.

Checking over my shoulder to be sure the door was still locked, I pulled the file out and quickly read a lot of… nothing. There was only a ledger with her payments.

No background reference. No letter of recommendation.

Not a single glimpse into her life prior to working for us. I couldn’t believe Uncle had recognized her so easily. According to Father’s records, she’d been in our employ for only a fortnight. I slumped into the chair, shaking my head.

I removed a random file, drawing my brows together. This was for our cook, Martha, also our longest servant, as she didn’t interact with us often and Father loved her black pudding.

It contained a letter of reference from her previous employer, a letter from Scotland Yard stating she’d never been under investigation, her monthly wages, allowances, and board wages, and a photograph of her in her typical cook’s attire.

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