Home > Stalking Jack the Ripper (Stalking Jack the Ripper #1)(15)

Stalking Jack the Ripper (Stalking Jack the Ripper #1)(15)
Author: Kerri Maniscalco

When my foot reached the top step, the woman called out in a mocking tone, “Nightmares will be your bedmates tonight. All the fancy sheets in the world won’t make a lick of difference. Don’t say I didn’t warn you, my lady.”

This time when I heard a crash of thunder, I shuddered.

Tubercular leprosy, c. 19th century

NINE

MESSAGE FROM THE GRAVE

THORNLEY RESIDENCE,

READING

11 SEPTEMBER 1888

Gauzy curtains—that had possibly been white once—billowed toward us as if they were two decaying arms desperately reaching for release.

If I were forced to stay in this tomblike room for long, I’m sure I’d become as desperate. Drops of rain splattered onto the sill, but I didn’t dare close the window.

A small wrought iron bed with a striped mattress displayed a skeletal body that barely looked alive. Poor Thornley had withered away to nothing more than graying skin pulled taut over fragile bones. Open sores on his torso and arms oozed a mixture of blood and pus reeking of fetid meat even from the doorway. It was hard to say for sure, but he looked to be suffering from a form of leprosy.

I covered my nose with the back of my hand, catching Thomas doing the same from the corner of my eye. The smell was overwhelming at best, and the sight before us was by far the worst thing I’d ever seen.

Which was saying a lot, as I’d witnessed the putrid insides of the departed on countless occasions during Uncle’s postmortems.

I closed my eyes, but the rotten image was burned onto the backs of my lids.

I would’ve thought him long deceased, but the slight rise and fall of his chest defied what my eyes told me to be true. If I were a superstitious person, I’d believe he was one of the undead haunting the English moors, searching for souls to steal.

Or possibly eat.

All my life I’d been interested in biological anomalies, like the Elephant Man, gigantism, conjoined twins, and ectrodactyly, but this seemed a cruel act of God.

The young woman was right. This was the place nightmares came to be inspired.

The curtains inhaled wet breaths, then slowly exhaled—their dampness sticking to the wood before rustling free with the next gust of storm-drenched wind.

I took a breath through my mouth. We needed to either run back downstairs—and preferably all the way to the train station while screaming bloody murder—or speak with the poor man immediately.

The former had my vote even if it meant running in the rain, in heeled boots and possibly breaking my neck, but the latter was inevitably what we were going to do.

Thomas nodded encouragement, then walked fully into the room, leaving me propped against the door frame with nothing but my wits supporting me. If he was capable of facing this, then so was I.

If only my body would catch up with my brain’s courage.

He pulled two chairs close to the bed—their limbs scraping in protest—before motioning for me to have a seat. My legs carried me across the room, seemingly of their own volition, spurring my heart into a steady gallop. I buried my hands in the folds of my skirts once I sat down. I didn’t want poor Thornley seeing how badly they were shaking; he was going through enough as it was.

A vicious cough raked his body, forcing veins on his neck to stand out like tree roots being yanked from the earth. I poured a glass of water from a pitcher next to the bed, carefully bringing it to his lips.

“Drink this, Mr. Thornley,” I said gently. “It’ll soothe your throat.”

The old man slowly sipped from the glass. Water sloshed all over his chin, and I dabbed it with a handkerchief to avoid giving him chills on top of his other ailments. When he’d had enough, his milky eyes turned to mine. I had no idea if he was blind, but smiled at him nonetheless. Recognition filtered into his features after a moment or two.

“Miss Wadsworth.” He coughed again, this time less violently than before. “You’re as lovely as your mother. She would’ve been pleased with how fine you turned out, Lord rest her soul.”

Even though I’d heard it all my life, it still brought the sting of tears to my eyes. Reaching out, I smoothed his thinning hair off his forehead, mindful of avoiding the open sores. I didn’t think he was contagious, but took no chances and kept my gloves on. He closed his eyes, his chest stilling.

At first I was terrified he’d crossed into the afterlife, then his eyes fluttered open. I exhaled. We needed answers straightaway. I hated myself for jumping right into things, but feared he’d quickly lose energy and be unable to speak much longer.

I said a silent prayer that my ticket home was still heading directly for London and not detouring into Hell.

Thomas watched the valet with complete detachment, ignoring everything else altogether. It chilled me, seeing how unaffected he was by our current situation; how capable he was of flicking his emotions off on command. No matter how useful it was, it was still unnatural and reminded me of how little I knew him beyond Uncle’s laboratory.

As if sensing my distress, Thomas drew out of his deductions long enough to meet my worried gaze and nod. It jolted me from my thoughts. I leaned closer to the bed, tying my nerves into knots.

“I know you’re unwell, Mr. Thornley, but I was hoping to ask you a bit about my father.” I took a deep breath. “I’d also like to know who Miss Emma Elizabeth Smith was.”

He stared, his eyes—and whatever memories played behind them—shuttering before me. His attention shifted to Thomas. “Are you betrothed to my dear girl?”

Thomas actually turned scarlet, his well-armored demeanor shaken. He stuttered through a response, looking in every direction but mine. “I, um, well—we’re—she’s…”

“Colleagues,” I supplied, unable to stop myself from enjoying how flustered he’d gotten. In spite of the purpose of our visit, and how odd his behavior could be, I was quite pleased something rattled him. All the more because it was over me. He rolled his eyes when I grinned at him. “We’re both apprenticing under Uncle, that is.”

Thornley closed his eyes, but not before I caught a flash of disapproval. Even straddling death’s doorway, he was appalled by my association with Uncle and his unholy research. Apparently the fact that I wasn’t spending more time securing a husband was another strike against me. I’d have felt shame if I hadn’t had a greater purpose for being here. Let people think what they like, I thought crossly, then immediately cringed.

The man was dying. I needn’t worry about his opinion or scorn him for it.

I sat straighter, my tone kind but strong. “I need you to tell me how Father knew Miss Emma Elizabeth Smith.”

My father’s former valet stared over my shoulder and through the window, the rain streaking down like tears. It was hard to tell if he was ignoring my inquiry or losing consciousness. I glanced at Thomas, whose torn expression mirrored my own. Pushing a dying man was a horrible thing to do, and if Thomas Cresswell was second-guessing our being here, then I’d really strayed from doing the proper thing.

Perhaps I was the deplorable creature society thought me to be. I could only imagine what Aunt Amelia would have to say or how many times she’d cross herself, telling me to pray for my sins. Religious fiend that she was.

Deciding I’d put him through enough, I stood.

“I must apologize, Mr. Thornley. I see I’ve upset you and that wasn’t my intention.” Releasing my skirts, I clasped his cold hands in mine. “You’ve been a great friend to our family. I cannot thank you enough for serving us all so well.”

“Might as well tell them, Grandfather.”

The young woman who’d answered the door now stood with her arms crossed at the foot of the bed, her voice gentler than I’d have thought possible.

“Clear your conscience before taking that last journey,” she said. “What harm can come of telling her what she wants to know?”

Now I saw the strong family resemblance. They both had the same thick brows that held two enchantingly large eyes, and perfectly high cheekbones. The red tint to her hair hinted at their Irish roots and the handful of freckles tossed across her nose made her more girlish than I’d originally thought.

Without the child marring her demeanor, I’d say she wasn’t much older than I was. Part of what she’d said replayed in my mind.

“Do you know anything about it?” I asked. She stared blankly, as if I’d spoken another language. “About why he’d need to clear his conscience?”

She shook her head, shifting her focus to her grandfather’s restless form. “He hasn’t said anything specific as such. Just frets about at night is all. Sometimes when he’s sleeping he’ll mumble a bit. I’ve never been able to make sense of it.”

Thornley scratched his arms so roughly I was afraid he’d tear himself open. That explained some of the sores—he was giving himself scabs, then picking them until they were infected. It wasn’t leprosy, then. It simply looked like it. I swallowed nausea down in one unpleasant gulp. His pain must be unimaginable.

Grabbing a tin of lotion from the bedside table, his granddaughter hurried to his side and lathered it on his arms. “His organs are shutting down, causing him to itch something terrible. Least that’s what the doctor said.” She applied another generous amount of the cream and he quieted down. “Lotion helps, but doesn’t last long. Try not scratching it so hard, Grandfather. You’re ripping your skin to shreds.”

Thomas shifted in his chair, the telltale sign he was growing antsy to share his opinion. I gave him a withering look that I hoped conveyed the amount of pain he’d be in should he act like his usual charming self around the Thornleys.

He ignored me and my glare.

“What I recall of my studies, it’s all part of the death process,” he said, ticking each symptom off on his fingers. “You stop eating, sleep more, breathing becomes labored. Then body itches begin, and—”

“That’s quite enough,” I interrupted, shooting Thornley and his granddaughter sympathetic looks. They knew the end was imminent. They needn’t hear explicit details of what came next.

   
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