Home > Stalking Jack the Ripper (Stalking Jack the Ripper #1)(3)

Stalking Jack the Ripper (Stalking Jack the Ripper #1)(3)
Author: Kerri Maniscalco

“Wadsworth. My name is Audrey Rose Wadsworth.”

A flash of understanding crossed his face, his attention flicking to my uncle, who was still inciting a heated discussion. He held his hand out, and I reluctantly shook it, hoping my palms wouldn’t give away my nervousness.

Perhaps having a friend to talk over cases might be nice.

“I believe we met last night,” I ventured, feeling a bit bolder. Thomas’s brows knit together and my newfound confidence plummeted. “In my uncle’s laboratory?”

Darkness shifted over his features. “Apologies, but I haven’t a clue what you’re referring to. This is the first time we’ve spoken.”

“We didn’t exactly speak—”

“It’s nice to meet you, Wadsworth. I’m sure we’ll have much to discuss in the near future. Immensely near, actually, as I’m apprenticing this evening with your uncle. Perhaps you’ll allow me the pleasure of testing out a few of my theories?”

Another crimson wave washed over my cheeks. “Your theories on what, exactly?”

“Your scandalous choice to attend this class, of course.” He grinned. “It isn’t every day you meet such an odd girl.”

The friendly warmth I’d been feeling toward him froze over like a pond during a particularly frigid winter. Especially since he appeared completely unaware of how irritating he was, smiling to himself without a care in the universe. “I do love the satisfaction of solving a puzzle and proving myself right.”

Somehow I found the strength to bite my retort back and offered a tight smile in its place. Aunt Amelia would be proud her lessons on etiquette stuck with me. “I am very much looking forward to hearing your scintillating theory on my life choices, Mr.…?”

“Gentlemen!” Uncle barked. “If you please, I’d like each of you to write down your theories on Miss Mary Ann Nichols’s murder and bring them to class tomorrow.”

Thomas gave me one last devilish grin and turned back to his notes. As I closed my journal and gathered up my things, I couldn’t help thinking he might prove an equally vexing mystery to solve.

Illustration of heart and bladder from Thomas Graham’s notebook, c. 1834

THREE

TEA AND AUTOPSIES

WADSWORTH RESIDENCE,

BELGRAVE SQUARE

31 AUGUST 1888

“Where are you running off to at this hour?”

Father stood near the grandfather clock in the foyer—his tone striking the same nervous chord as the beastly antique—while he checked his pocket watch. Only a handful of years separated Uncle and Father, and up until recently they could have passed for twins. A muscle in his square jaw twitched. Worse questions were coming. The urge to flee back up the grand staircase was suddenly overwhelming.

“I-I promised Uncle Jonathan I’d join him for tea.” I watched him inhale a sharp breath and added quietly, “Turning down his invitation would’ve been rude.”

Before he offered any more thoughts on the matter, the parlor door swung open and my brother waltzed in like a beam of sunshine set against the backdrop of a gray day. Taking quick note of the situation, he pounced.

“I must say, everyone appears so downright cheerful this afternoon, it’s rather disturbing. Give me a proper scowl, good man. Ah—” he smiled at the glare Father leveled at him— “that’s the spirit! Excellent job, Father.”

“Nathaniel,” Father warned, his glassy focus darting between us. “This matter does not concern you.”

“Are we terrified to let the girl out of the protective bubble again? Heaven forbid she catch pox and perish. Oh, wait,” Nathaniel cocked his head. “That’s happened before, hasn’t it?” He dramatically grabbed my wrist, checking for a pulse, then staggered back. “By God, Father. She’s quite alive!”

Father’s pale hand shook, and he blotted at his brow with a handkerchief, which was never a promising sign. Nathaniel usually managed to diffuse Father’s anxiety with a well-placed quip. Today wasn’t one of those days. I couldn’t help noticing extra lines around Father’s mouth, dragging his lips into a near-permanent frown. If he’d only let some of his endless worry go, it would erase a decade from his once-handsome features. Strands of gray hair were also slipping in between his ashy-blond locks more and more lately.

“I was just telling Father I’m on my way to the carriage,” I said as pleasantly as I could manage, feigning ignorance of the volatile atmosphere. “I’m meeting Uncle Jonathan.”

Nathaniel clapped his gloved hands together, a sly smile spreading across his face. He couldn’t resist assisting me with my chosen medical studies. Mostly because my modern stance—on why girls were equally capable of having a profession or apprenticeship—offered endless amusement.

My brother’s love of arguing made him an excellent barrister-in-training, but his fickle attention would lead him elsewhere soon enough. His prior whims included a few months studying medicine, then art, then a horrendous effort with a violin—which went badly for all who had the misfortune of hearing him practice his scales.

Though, as heir to our family legacy, he needn’t learn a trade at all. It was merely something to pass idle hours and afternoons besides drinking with his pompous friends.

“Ah, that’s right. I recall Uncle saying something about tea earlier in the week. Unfortunately, I had to decline his invitation, what with my studies and all.” Adjusting his gloves and smoothing his suit, Nathaniel stepped back and grinned. “Your dress is exceptional for today’s weather and special occasion. Seventeen now, right? You’re stunning, birthday girl. Don’t you agree, Father?”

Father scrutinized my ensemble. He was probably searching for a lie to prevent me from traveling to Uncle’s home, but he wouldn’t find one. I’d already packed the carriage with a change of simpler clothing. If he couldn’t prove I was going to practice unholy acts upon the dead and risk infection, he couldn’t very well stop me.

For now, I was dressed in proper afternoon tea attire; my watered-silk gown was the same shade of eggshell as my silk slippers, and my corset was tight enough to remind me it was there with each painful breath I took.

I was suddenly grateful for the rose-colored gloves that buttoned up to my elbows; they were a fashionable way to hide how much my palms were sweating.

Father ran a hand over his tired face. “Since it’s your birthday you may go there for tea and come straight back. I do not want you going anywhere else. Nor do I want you engaged in any of that”—his hand fluttered about like an injured bird—“that activity your uncle is involved with. Understood?”

I nodded, relieved, but Father wasn’t through.

“Should anything happen to your sister,” he said, staring at my brother, “I will hold you responsible.”

Father held Nathaniel’s gaze for a moment longer, then stalked from the room, leaving us in the wake of his storm. I watched as his broad form disappeared down the hallway and until he slammed the door of his study shut with one backward swipe of his hand. I knew he’d light a cigar soon and lock himself away until morning, thoughts and memories of Mother plaguing him until he fell into a troubled sleep.

I turned my attention to Nathaniel as he pulled out his favorite silver comb and ran it through his hair. Not one golden strand could ever be out of place, else the universe might possibly explode. “A bit warm for leather gloves, don’t you think?”

Nathaniel shrugged. “I’m on my way out.”

As much as I wanted to speak with my brother, I had serious engagements that needed attending. Uncle was a creature of many habits, and tardiness wasn’t tolerated. No matter that it was my birthday.

Personally, I didn’t think the dead would mind waiting five minutes to be cut open and explored, but I didn’t dare say so out loud. I was there to learn, not ignite the demon sometimes lurking within him.

Last time I questioned this rule, Uncle had me sopping bloody sawdust up for a month. I wasn’t keen on receiving that punishment again; blood had crusted my nail beds and was terrible to clean away before supper. Thank goodness Aunt Amelia hadn’t been visiting, she would’ve fainted at the sight.

“Do you want to have lunch tomorrow?” I asked. “I can tell Martha to prepare something for us to bring to Hyde Park, if you’d like. We can even walk round the Serpentine.”

Nathaniel smiled a bit sadly. “Perhaps we can take a belated birthday stroll around the lake next week? I’d certainly like to know what you and Uncle Cadaver are up to in that house of horrors.” His eyes sparkled with a hint of trouble. “I worry about you seeing all that blood. Can’t be good for your fragile womanly temperament.”

“Oh? Where in a medical dictionary does it say a woman cannot handle such things? What is a man’s soul made of that a woman’s is not?” I teased. “I had no idea my innards were composed of cotton and kittens, while yours were filled with steel and steam-driven parts.”

His voice softened, getting to the heart of what was truly bothering him. “Father will go berserk if he discovers what you’re really doing. I fear his grasp on reality is most delicate these days. His delusions are becoming… worrisome.”

“How so?”

“I—I caught him sharpening knives and talking to himself the other morning when he thought everyone was still asleep.” He rubbed his temples, his smile fading. “Perhaps he thinks he can stab germs before they enter our home now.”

This was troubling news indeed. Last time Father got this way, he’d made me wear a facial mask each time I left the house to avoid breathing contagions. While I’d like to fancy myself above things such as vanity, I’d hated the stares I’d received when venturing out. Going through that again would be torturous.

I plastered on a big smile.

“You worry too much.” I kissed him on the cheek before heading for the door, my own tone lightening again. “If you’re not careful, you’ll end up losing all of your luxuriant hair.”

   
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