Home > Stalking Jack the Ripper (Stalking Jack the Ripper #1)(16)

Stalking Jack the Ripper (Stalking Jack the Ripper #1)(16)
Author: Kerri Maniscalco

“I only thought to help,” he whispered. “Clearly, my services are unwelcome.” Thomas lifted a shoulder, then returned to quietly assessing the room.

We would need to work on his “helping” skills in the future. I turned back to my father’s valet. “Really, anything you can tell me about that time period would be immensely helpful. There’s no one else whom I can turn to for answers. Some recent… events have occurred and it’d ease my mind.”

Thornley’s eyes welled up. He motioned for his granddaughter to come closer. “Jane, my love. Would you mind getting us some tea?”

Jane narrowed her eyes. “Wouldn’t be trying to get rid of me now, would you? You haven’t asked for tea in days.” Her tone was more playful than accusatory, garnering a small smile from her grandfather. “Very well. I’ll go fetch some tea, then. Behave yourself until I get back. Mum will hang me if she thinks I’ve mistreated you.”

Once Jane was out of the room, Thornley took a few labored breaths, then looked at me, his focus clearer than it was a few seconds earlier.

“Miss Emma Elizabeth Smith was a dear friend of your mother’s, Miss Audrey Rose. You probably don’t recall her, though. Stopped coming around when you were still a little thing.” He coughed, but shook off my offer of more water. “She also knew your uncle and father. The four of them were thick as thieves in their younger years. In fact, your uncle was betrothed to her at one time.”

Confusion wrapped its fingers around my brain. The way Uncle’s notes were written made it seem as if he didn’t know the first thing about her. I’d never have guessed she was an acquaintance, let alone someone he’d been close to marrying. Thomas raised his brows; apparently that was something not even he saw coming.

I faced Thornley again. “Do you have any idea why Father would’ve kept track of her?”

Thunder crashed above us, booming a warning of its own. Thornley swallowed, his attention darting around the room as if he were afraid of something horrid reaching for him from beyond the grave. His chest swelled before he lost himself in another bout of coughing. If he kept this up, I was certain he’d lose the ability to communicate altogether.

His voice was like gravel crunching beneath horse hooves when he managed to speak again. “Your father’s a very powerful and wealthy man, Miss Audrey Rose. I don’t presume to know anything about his personal inquiries. I only know two things regarding Miss Smith. She was betrothed to your uncle, and—” His eyes grew so wide they were mostly white. Struggling to sit back in bed, he kicked and coughed himself into a frenzy.

Jumping up, Thomas tried holding the old man down to prevent him from injuring himself with his convulsions. Thornley shook his head violently, blood collecting at the corners of his mouth. “I… just… remembered. He knows! He knows the dark secrets hidden within the wall.”

“Who knows?” I begged, desperately trying to figure out if this was part of an elaborate delusion, or if his rant held any merit for our investigation. “What wall?”

Thornley closed his eyes, a guttural whine seeping out of his mouth. “He knows what happened! He was there that night!”

“It’s all right,” Thomas said, in a warm tone I’d never heard him use with anyone else before. “It’s all right, sir. Take a breath for me. That’s it. Good.” I watched as Thomas held the old man steady, his touch forceful yet gentle. “Better? Now try and tell us again. This time slower.”

“Yes, y-yes,” he wheezed, “can’t blame him, t-though.” Thornley gasped, struggling to get more words out while I rubbed his back, trying miserably to sooth him. “N-no, no. Can’t, c-can’t blame him,” he said, coughing again. “Not sure I’d be m-much better, given the c-circumstances.”

“Blame whom?” I asked, not knowing how to calm him down enough to gather coherent information. “Whom are you speaking of, Mr. Thornley? My father? Uncle Jonathan?”

He wheezed so hard his eyes rolled into the back of his head. I was terrified it was all over, that I’d just witnessed a man die, but he thrashed about, sitting up fully, grasping the sheets on either side of his emaciated body. “A-Alistair knows.”

I was more confused than ever. Alistair was a name I was unfamiliar with, and I wasn’t even sure Thornley knew what he was saying any longer. I gently patted his hand while Thomas looked on in horror. “Shhh. Shhh, now. It’s okay, Mr. Thornley. You’ve been immensely—”

“It’s… because… of that… cursed—”

A shudder went through his body so turbulently it was as if he’d been flying a metal kite during the lightning storm going on outside. He convulsed until a steady stream of blood trickled down the side of his mouth and escaped from his nostrils.

I jumped back, shouting for his granddaughter to come back and help us, but it was too late.

Mr. Thornley was dead.

TEN

THE MARY SEE

THE SERPENTINE,

HYDE PARK

13 SEPTEMBER 1888

“Of course I recall an Alistair that Father knew. I can’t believe you don’t remember him,” Nathaniel said, looking to me for an explanation I wasn’t quite ready to offer. “Why the sudden curiosity?”

“No reason, really.” Avoiding his gaze, I watched a flock of geese fly over the glasslike surface of the lake toward the Royal Humane Society receiving house, their V formation as perfect as the crisp fall weather. They were undoubtedly on their way south, seeking a more moderate climate.

I longed to understand the innate mechanism warning them of the coming winter months. If only women roaming the cold streets of Whitechapel could sense the same danger and fly to safety.

I picked a few blades of yellowing grass, twirling them between my pointer finger and thumb. “Hard to believe in a few weeks winter will destroy the grass.”

Nathaniel looked exasperated. “Yes, well, until next spring when it stubbornly pushes its way out of its frozen grave, hope for life ever eternal.”

“If only there were a way to cure life’s most fatal disease,” I mumbled to myself.

“Which would be what, exactly?”

I glanced at my brother then looked away, shrugging. “Death.”

Then I could revive Thornley and ask him all the questions he’d left me with. I’d even have a mother if it were possible to bring the dead back like perennial plants.

Nathaniel’s eyes were fixed worriedly on mine. He probably thought Uncle’s eccentricities were poorly affecting me. “If you could, would you… attempt such a thing with science? Would death become a thing of the past, then?”

The boundaries of right and wrong were so less certain when a loved one was involved. Life would be unimaginably different with Mother still alive, yet would the creature ever come close to the real thing? I shuddered to think what could happen.

“No,” I said slowly. “I don’t suppose I would.”

A tiny songbird chirped from a branch stretching lazily above our heads. Tearing a piece of my honey biscuit, I tossed it over. Two larger birds swooped in, fighting for a nibble. Darwin’s survival of the fittest on full display until Nathaniel crumbled his entire biscuit up, throwing a hundred pieces over to the squabbling birds. Each of them with more food than they knew what to do with now.

“You’re hopeless.” I shook my head. He’d make for a horrible naturalist, constantly altering scientific data with his kindness. He brushed his gloved fingers off on a hand-stitched napkin, then sat back, watching as the little birds bobbed and plucked each morsel up, a satisfied smile plastered across his face.

I kept staring at the napkin. “I admit, I’m dreading the arrival of Aunt Amelia.”

Nathaniel followed my gaze and waved the napkin in the air. “It’ll be a grand time, I’m sure. Least she’ll be pleased with your embroidery. She needn’t know you practice on the dead.”

Aunt Amelia, aside from her daily lessons on tending a proper household and attracting a decent husband, had an inexplicable thing for stitching monograms in every bit of cloth she could find. I hadn’t a clue how I’d manage sewing a lot of useless napkins along with apprenticing for Uncle.

Between that and her constant religious outbursts, I was certain the next few weeks were going to be more tedious than I’d originally thought.

“Where was it you ran off to the other day?” Nathaniel asked, dragging my thoughts away from sewing and other roaring good times. He wasn’t about to let up his own inquest so easily. “Honestly, I don’t know why you don’t trust me. I’m quite offended, Sister.”

“Fine.” I sighed, knowing I’d have to reveal one secret in order to hang on to more important ones. “I sneaked into Father’s study the other night and came across Alistair’s name. That’s all. Really.”

Nathaniel frowned, pulling at his soft leather gloves but not taking them off. “What in the name of the queen were you doing in Father’s study? I can’t protect you from your own stupidity, Sister. There’s no medical cure for that as of yet, much to my dismay.”

I ignored his jab, plucking a grape from our picnic hamper, which Nathaniel had ordered from Fortnum & Mason. It was packed full of mouth-watering delicacies, from imported cheeses to hothouse fruit.

To appear less eager for information, I slowly pulled the cheese and bread from the cloth bundle and set the plate on the blanket in front of us. “He was a servant, then?”

“Alistair Dunlop was Father’s old carriage driver,” Nathaniel said. “Surely you remember him now? He was kind, but very eccentric.”

A crease formed between my brows. “Sounds vaguely familiar, but Father changes staff so often it’s hard to keep everyone straight.”

I spread brie and fig preserves across toast points and handed it to Nathaniel, before repeating the process for myself. Each time I was certain I’d resolved an important item to my satisfaction, it became clear it wasn’t as it seemed.

   
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