Home > Stalking Jack the Ripper (Stalking Jack the Ripper #1)(14)

Stalking Jack the Ripper (Stalking Jack the Ripper #1)(14)
Author: Kerri Maniscalco

“What in heaven’s name are you doing?” I whispered, glancing at the passengers around us, who were tossing dirty looks Thomas’s way. “Why can’t you act properly for an hour?”

He crossed then uncrossed his long legs, then did the same with his arms. I was starting to think he hadn’t heard me when he finally responded. “Are you going to enlighten me on where exactly we’re going? Or is the suspense part of the surprise?”

“Can you not deduce it, Cresswell?”

“I’m not a magician, Wadsworth,” he said. “I can deduce when facts are presented to me—not when they’re purposely obscured.”

I narrowed my eyes. Even though there were a thousand other things I should be concerned with, I couldn’t stop myself from asking. “Are you feeling ill?” His attention shifted to me before moving back to the window. “Do you suffer from claustrophobia, or agoraphobia?”

“I find the act of traveling very dull.” He sighed. “Another moment of the inane conversation of the people behind us or the blasted chugging of the engine, and I might lose my mind altogether.”

Thomas grew silent again, accentuating his point about the annoying conversation and overwhelming sound of the train.

“Perhaps this is our murderer’s motivation for killing,” he mumbled.

I laid my head against the seat and eavesdropped. According to society, this was precisely what young women were supposed to be concerned with. Shoes, silks, dinner parties, and who might be the handsomest duke or lord in the kingdom. How one might secure an invitation to an important ball or tea. Who was in the queen’s favor, who wasn’t. Who was old and smelly but worth marrying anyway.

My daily worries were so far removed, I feared I’d always be shunned amongst my peers. While I enjoyed finery, I tried imagining myself chattering on about a napkin design, but my thoughts kept turning to deceased bodies, and I laughed at my failure to even picture being a so-called normal young lady.

I was determined to be both pretty and fierce, as Mother had said I could be. Just because I was interested in a man’s job didn’t mean I had to give up being girly. Who defined those roles anyhow?

“Truly, Thomas,” I said, trying to contain a laugh. “People needn’t debate rhetoric in order to be interesting. Is there nothing you fancy outside of the laboratory?”

Thomas was unamused. “You aren’t exactly the queen of intellectually stimulating conversation this afternoon.”

“Feeling neglected, are you?”

“Perhaps I am.”

“We’re going to see my father’s former valet, you insufferable thing,” I said. “I’ve reason to believe he might have information regarding one of our victims. Satisfied?”

Thomas’s leg stopped bouncing and he swiveled to face me. I sincerely disliked when he studied me so openly, as if I were a complex mathematical equation he had to solve. He absentmindedly tapped his leg, leaving me to conclude his brain was working furiously.

The train whistle blew a steam-filled warning that Reading station was approaching at the same time a flourish of rain pelted our windows, as if on cue.

He smiled to himself. “Looks like this afternoon just became a bit more intriguing.”

Horse hooves clacked on the wet stones of Broad Street as our rented carriage moved up the hill to Aldous Thornley’s residence. My stomach flipped with each jolting sway, and I feared I’d lose my lunch on the rain-soaked cobblestones. I pulled the navy curtain back, focusing on our surroundings instead of my growing nausea.

The town was filled with people selling wares despite the unpleasant weather. Awnings covered vendors from the elements; I watched as a woman haggled with a man over a basket of seeds she was selling.

Thomas pointed to a large building on our right, purposely leaning over my shoulder, his breath tickling the high lace collar covering my neck. “Reading. Famous for its three B’s of business. Breweries, Bulbs, and Biscuits. That’s the Huntley and Palmers factory.”

“Their biscuits are my favorite for tea,” I said. Though I didn’t absorb much of what Thomas was saying regarding the history of their company. I twisted my hands until I popped a button off my gloves, then stopped.

If he noticed—which he most likely did—Thomas didn’t comment on my display of nervousness. I was grateful he didn’t ask me to explain anything further about our trip and even more grateful for his attempt to distract me by pointing out every factory we passed.

Another giant building puffed smoke into the rainy sky, like a man exhaling a cigar into the atmosphere.

This morning I’d been sure coming here was the best course of action; now, little buds of doubt were blossoming in my mind. Each drop of water hitting the top of our carriage echoed loudly in my ears, setting my nerves on edge.

“Maybe Miss Emma Elizabeth did work for my household prior to her fall into destitution,” I said. “Maybe that’s where her connection to my father ends.”

“Perhaps,” Thomas said, studying me. “It’s best knowing for sure, though.”

I chewed my bottom lip, hating myself for worrying so much. Was I mostly worried about being wrong or being horrendously wrong in front of Thomas? The latter half of that question bothered me. Since when had his opinion of my intelligence become so important? I could barely stand him. What he thought of me should mean absolutely nothing.

But it did matter. More than I cared to admit.

Then there was the even darker question I didn’t want to acknowledge at all. What connected my father to these two murdered women? I couldn’t help fearing the odds were stacked against this being some bizarre coincidence. But how everything fit together remained a mystery.

“Well, if anyone in our household knows intimate details of my father’s life before Mother’s death, it’s Mr. Thornley,” I said.

He’d dressed my father for every occasion and knew when and where he was at all times. He probably knew my father as well as—if not better than—my mother had. If he hadn’t gotten too old to perform his duties, I’m sure he’d still be right by Father’s side.

“Everything will be fine, Wadsworth. We’ll either have answers or we won’t. But at least we’ve gone out and tried.”

A flash of lightning lit the dark sky, as if the Titans were clashing in the heavens. Thunder followed, reminding me of my parents. When I was younger and terrified of the storms that blew through London, I’d curl into Mother’s lap while Father told me thunder was the sound angels made when they played skittles. Mother’d call down to the cook, fetch us some curry and flatbread reminiscent of Grandmama’s homeland, then fill my head with stories of heroines from faraway places. From then on I almost enjoyed thunderstorms.

Soon the carriage ride was blessedly over. We huddled beneath an umbrella in the doorway of a small stone house sandwiched next to twenty other identical homes that looked like cowsheds. Thomas knocked, then stood back, allowing me to greet Father’s former servant first.

The door creaked open—its hinges in desperate need of a good oiling—and the unpleasant scent of boiled vegetables lazily wafted out. I expected to see familiar wrinkles around kind eyes and snow-white hair.

I did not expect a young woman with a child hoisted on her hip, looking less than pleased by the unannounced afternoon interruption. Her ginger hair was pulled into a braid coiling around the nape of her neck; her clothing was well worn, with patches on her elbows. Stray hairs fell around her face and she blew them back with little luck of keeping them out of her eyes.

Thomas quietly cleared his throat, spurring me to action.

“I… pardon me. I—I was looking for someone,” I stammered, glancing at the number twenty-three on the door. “It appears I’ve got the wrong address.” There was something intimidating about the way she was standing there staring, but we’d come all this way and I wasn’t about to let someone with a sour attitude get the better of me. Her gaze traveled slowly over Thomas. Twice.

She reminded me of someone who was being tempted by a succulent-looking steak, and I didn’t care for it one bit. I cleared my throat as another flash of lightning rushed across the sky. “You wouldn’t happen to know where I could find a Mr. Thornley, would you?”

The baby picked that moment to start wailing, and the young woman shot me a glare as if I’d spurred the devil out of him instead of the booming thunder. Cooing to the screeching demon on her hip, she patted its back gently. “He’s dead.”

Had Thomas not grabbed my arm to steady me I might have fallen backward. “He’s… but… when?”

“Well, he isn’t fully dead yet,” she admitted. “But he isn’t much longer for this world. If he makes it through the night it’ll be a miracle.” She shook her head. “Poor thing doesn’t hardly look himself anymore. Best you keep the memory of him untainted, else you’ll have nightmares for years to come.”

The warm sympathetic part of me wanted to say sweet words for our former servant’s imminent passing, but this was our only chance to gain insight about my father’s whereabouts during the murders and his potential connection to Miss Emma Elizabeth Smith.

I stood taller, imagining the veins flowing through my body were nothing more than steel wires, cold and unfeeling. Now was the time to find that scientific switch Thomas relied on. “I really must see him. It’s of the highest importance. You wouldn’t deny me saying good-bye to a dear friend—especially not one who’s in the throes of death, would you?”

The young woman stared open-mouthed before snapping her jaw shut. She bumped the door open with her unoccupied hip, gesturing us inside with an impatient wave of her hand. Pointing to a holder in the corner, she jerked her chin.

“Put your brolly there and suit yourself, then,” she said. “He’s upstairs, first door on the right.”

“Thank you.” I crossed the tiny foyer with Thomas on my heels, heading up the worn staircase as quickly as I could. The scent of boiled cabbage followed us as we ascended, adding to the ill feeling churning in my stomach.

   
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