Home > Stalking Jack the Ripper (Stalking Jack the Ripper #1)(17)

Stalking Jack the Ripper (Stalking Jack the Ripper #1)(17)
Author: Kerri Maniscalco

I wished to find one blasted clue that could point me in a fruitful direction. It’d be even better if murderers, psychopaths, and villains simply held a sign up for inquiring minds to spot easily. It bothered me such a savage could be walking amongst us.

Nathaniel waved a hand in front of my face. “Have you heard anything I’ve said?”

“Sorry?” I blinked as if emerging from a daydream—one that didn’t involve murders, and dying old men. My brother sighed again.

“I said Father fired him shortly after Mother’s…” Death was what he didn’t want to say. Neither one of us liked saying it out loud, the wounds still too raw to cope with, even after five years. I squeezed his hand, letting him know I understood.

“Anyway, he was dismissed abruptly. I never knew why,” Nathaniel said, shrugging. “You know how Father can be at times, though. Mr. Dunlop used to teach me chess when no one needed him.”

My brother smiled, the pleasant memory lighting his whole mood. “Truthfully, I’ve stayed in touch with him. He couldn’t continue as a coachman after being turned out by Father without a proper reference. I’ve met him a few times to play chess, wagering money and purposely losing, just to help him out some. His circumstances are sadly reduced, and I cannot help feeling responsible somehow. These days he works the deck on the Mary See.”

“Another life condemned to hard times, thanks to Lord Edmund Wadsworth and his own eccentricities,” I said. I wondered what the coachman could’ve possibly done to end up a lowly deckhand. His only crime was probably being too kind to my brother.

It seemed when Father dismissed servants, their lives were never the same in the very worst of ways. At least Alistair was still breathing. Miss Nichols would never inhale the unwholesome air of the Thames again.

Misinterpreting my silence, Nathaniel wrapped an arm around my shoulder, pulling me into a comforting embrace. “I’m sure he’s happy enough, little Sister. Some men live for the kind of freedom that comes with swabbing the decks of a great ship and hauling cargo chests. No responsibilities. No need to worry about teas and cigar rooms—white tie versus black tie and all that upper-class nonsense. The rush of wind through their hair.” He smiled wistfully. “It’s a noble life.”

“You speak as if you’d like to throw away your good name and swab the decks yourself.”

Nathaniel would make a terrible sailor, and we both knew it. He might entertain the notion of leaving behind the finer things in life for freedom, but he cherished his imported brandy and French wine too much. Giving all that up for cheap ale in dank public houses wouldn’t suit him in the slightest. I smiled just picturing him sliding up to a bar, ordering something as common as a pint, his hair in complete disarray.

Before he teased me back, our coachman approached, bending to whisper something in my brother’s ear. Nathaniel nodded, then stood, brushing down the front of his tailored suit. “Afraid we must end our lunch early. Word has come that Aunt Amelia and cousin Liza have arrived. I assume you’re in no hurry to get on with your ‘proper lady’ duties. Will you be all right if I leave you here to finish your luncheon?”

“I hardly need a babysitter,” I said. “But you’re right. I’d like a little time to enjoy my remaining freedom.”

I grinned, knowing full well that if Nathaniel had it his way, aside from my maid and the footman who were present, I’d have a bodyguard, governess, nurse, and any other attendant he could think of watching out for me.

“Go,” I said, shooing him away. He stood there tapping his sides, uncertain. “I’ll be fine. I’m going to enjoy the fresh air for a bit, then I’ll head home.” I crossed my heart. “I assure you I won’t be sitting down to tea with any brutal killers between now and supper. Stop looking so worried.”

A smile warred with a frown but eventually beat it out. His lips twitched. “Your assurances somehow leave me feeling anything but comforted.” He tipped his hat. “Until this evening. Oh,” he paused, eyeing my clothing. “Might want to change into something a bit more… suitable for Aunt Amelia’s tastes.”

I waved good-bye, uncrossing my fingers from behind my back once he’d disappeared from view. I’d most certainly head home and change out of my riding habit and into a new dress. That was, after I made a detour to the docks to speak with the mysterious Alistair Dunlop and sort out secrets he might be harboring on the Mary See.

“Honestly, I don’t know why you insisted on bringing that wretched beast with us,” I complained to Thomas as the leash nearly tripped me for the third time. “It’s hard enough maneuvering around in these cursed heels without the added obstacle of having my limbs tied together every five seconds by a nearsighted dog.”

Thomas eyed the silver buttons lining the front of my black riding habit, coaxing a scowl from me. His look implied my choice of attire—including a pair of matching breeches—should make for an easier time walking about.

“I’d like to see you carry on with a corset digging its bones into your rib cage,” I said, returning the favor and eyeing his clothing. “And manage a skirt still covering most of your breeches and whipping around your thighs in this wind.”

“If you’d like to see me out of my breeches, simply ask, Wadsworth. I’m more than happy to accommodate you on that front.”

“Scoundrel.”

He’d supposedly been taking the lop-eared, brown-and-white mongrel for a walk around the lake when he happened upon my picnic—an excuse I’d found highly suspect. Especially when he’d happened to run into me while John, the footman, was repacking the hamper. Thomas had snatched a few pieces of braised pork for his canine companion to snack on. I sent the empty hamper home along with John and my maid, both of whom looked only too pleased to be escaping one of my schemes.

When I pointed out the unlikelihood of the coincidence, Thomas stated it was serendipity and to be thankful for his “gentlemanly company while parading around in front of pirates and ruffians.”

He should be thankful I didn’t accidentally stab him with my hat pin. Though I was secretly pleased he’d sought me out.

The cobbled street was wide yet awkward to navigate with so much commotion going on. Men hoisted chests off the side of large ships, the wooden boxes dangling precariously from ropes above their heads. Barrels of wine were rolled into warehouses, along with large metal bins of tobacco; women shouted out specials on what they were selling a few streets over—everything from baked goods to mending torn sails.

We crossed from one basin into another separating the next set of ships. Shop after shop was dedicated to maritime adventures, boasting in the windows golden compasses, sextants, chronometers, and all other ship-themed paraphernalia one could desire. I watched a custom house officer check cargo coming off the nearest vessel, the brass buttons on his jacket winking in the afternoon sun.

He smiled, tipping his cap as I neared, causing my cheeks to pink.

“Come now.” Thomas snorted. “He’s not nearly as handsome as I.”

“Thomas,” I hissed, jabbing him with my elbow. He feigned injury, but I could tell he was pleased my attention had been restored to him.

Stores gave way to shabby houses piled together like nesting rats. Refuse stunk up the gutters in this neighborhood, mixing with the scent of dead fish washing ashore. Thank goodness for the strong breeze coming in off the water, whipping my onyx locks and testing the fit of my velvet hat.

“Toby,” he said, responding to a question I didn’t ask, while observing the cacophony going on around us. “He’s more intelligent than half the police force at Scotland Yard, Wadsworth. You should be kissing the very ground I walk upon for bringing such a fine animal. Or perhaps you could just kiss my cheek. Give the officers and ruffians a bit of a thrill.”

Ignoring his attempt at improper flirting, I watched the dog waddle down the road and onto the dock, amazed it hadn’t walked itself right off the piers. It was the clumsiest animal I’d ever encountered. I much preferred cats and their insatiable curiosity. “Is Toby your family’s dog, then?”

Thomas counted off boats, reading names under his breath as we made our way down to the Mary See.

“I borrowed him.” He stopped in front of a new basin of ships, the forest of masts looming high above our heads, swaying and creaking with the rolling tide.

This section was noisier; I could hardly keep a thought in my head without it turning into some sailor’s boisterous tune. Nathaniel would be horrified if he knew I was hearing such vile language, making it all the more appealing, somehow.

Goats bleated and exotic birds cawed from the deck of one ship, encouraging me to crane my neck until I caught a glimpse of brightly colored macaw feathers flapping against a cage. On the very same boat, an enormous elephant trumpeted, stomping its feet as a slew of deckhands tried unloading it.

Names on the crates suggested they were part of the traveling circus arriving in town. Up until the last few weeks, I’d been looking forward to attending the event with my brother. The human curiosities attractions were world famous and boasted of several “must-see-to-believe” acts.

“I’ve heard rumors of a man who swallows fire,” I said to Thomas as we passed the ship. “And another who’s got four legs, if such things are to be believed.”

“You don’t say,” he said. “Personally, I’d rather stay in, reading.”

Queen Victoria was a great fan of the circus, and would make an appearance on opening night. Everyone who thought themselves important—and some who actually were—would be in attendance.

“Look,” I pointed to the ship we’d been seeking, “there it is. The Mary See.”

“Stay close, Wadsworth,” he said. “I don’t care for the look of these fellows.”

I peered up at Thomas, a subtle warmth spreading through my limbs. “Be careful, Mr. Cresswell. Someone might think you’re beginning to care for me.”

   
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