Home > Stalking Jack the Ripper (Stalking Jack the Ripper #1)(4)

Stalking Jack the Ripper (Stalking Jack the Ripper #1)(4)
Author: Kerri Maniscalco

Nathaniel chuckled at that. “Duly noted. Happy birthday, Audrey Rose. I do hope you have a wonderful time with whatever it is you’re up to. Be careful, though. You know Uncle can be a bit… mad.”

Twenty minutes later I was standing in the basement of Uncle’s laboratory, getting acclimated to the smell of someone else’s nightmare.

Dead flesh had a sickeningly sweet undertone that always took a bit of time getting used to. Fresh, unharmed bodies gave off a scent similar to a raw chicken. Bodies deceased for a few days were a bit harder to ignore, no matter how much experience one had with them.

Miss Nichols was murdered less than a day ago, but the strong dead rat scent confirmed her injuries were brutal. I said a silent prayer for her troubled soul and ravaged body before fully stepping into the room.

A gas ceiling lamp threw sinister shadows against the brocade wallpaper, while two familiar figures peered over a corpse laid out on the mortuary table. It didn’t take a genius to deduce the body belonged to our subject from class and the extra person in the room was my infuriating classmate.

I knew from experience not to interrupt Uncle while he was examining evidence and was especially grateful for that rule when he described the mutilated neck again—in even greater detail—for Thomas. There was something familiar about the woman and I couldn’t stop myself from imagining her life prior to ending up before us.

Perhaps there were people who loved her—a husband or children—and were mourning her loss this very moment, no longer caring that she’d fallen on hard times.

Death was not prejudiced by mortal things such as station or gender. It came for kings and queens and prostitutes alike, often leaving the living with regrets. What might we have done differently if we’d known the end was so near? I shut those thoughts off. I was wandering dangerously close to an emotional door I’d already locked.

Distraction was something I needed, and thankfully, this was the perfect place for that very thing. Mahogany shelves lined the walls around the room with hundreds of glass specimen jars. They’d been carefully catalogued and displayed in alphabetical order—a task I was given last autumn and had only recently finished.

Overall I’d counted nearly seven hundred different samples, a brilliant collection for a museum, let alone a single household.

I trailed a finger over the preserved body nearest me; the label written in my tiny cursive identified it as a cross section of a frog. The dulled ammonia scent of formalin permeated everything in the subterranean lair, even the sweetness of decay, but was strangely comforting nonetheless. I quietly picked up the liver I’d removed yesterday and added it to the shelves. It was my very first addition to them.

My attention snagged on what I assumed were Miss Nichols’s clothes. Bloodstains were hard to see on the dark material; however, given the nature of her attack, I knew they were there. Small, lace-up boots were covered in mud, smudging the table on which they rested. They were well-worn, telling of her poverty.

A chill—having nothing to do with the macabre scene unfolding across the room—crawled down my spine. Keeping the temperature quite low in this part of the house was essential, else the specimens rotted too fast.

The less constricting muslin dress I was wearing now offered little in the way of protection against the chilly air, but I preferred working in it over my finer corseted one, even as I rubbed the gooseflesh from my arms.

I scanned the wall opposite me containing medical journals and tools that, to an outside observer, might seem a bit frightening. The curved, scythe-like blade of the amputation knife, the bone saws, and the imposing glass and metal syringes wouldn’t be out of place in a gothic novel such as both Nathaniel’s and my childhood favorite: Frankenstein. They could easily be thought of as the devil’s design, if one was inclined to think such superstitious notions… like Father.

The room’s eerie silence was broken as Uncle called out basic facts such as height, gender, and hair and eye color while scouring the body for other traumas sustained during the murder. Facts I had already memorized from my journal entry.

I watched Thomas write notes onto a medical sheet with mechanical precision, his fingers more ink stained than they were in class. Note taking was generally my area of assistance during these procedures. I stood patiently, breathing in the chemical air and listening to the gentle sounds of flesh splaying, trying to ignore the sick churn of my gut. Settling my nerves always took several moments.

A few breaths later, Uncle noticed me standing in the corner and signaled for me to grab an apron and join them.

As I moved closer to the cadaver, it was as if a door had closed between my heart and head, sealing all emotions on the opposite side. Once I was standing over the body, I no longer saw the person she was in life. I only saw the shell left behind, and curiosity took hold in the worst of ways.

She’d morphed from a kindly enough looking woman into another faceless corpse; I’d had plenty of experience with them this summer. Strips of cloth covered parts of her to keep her decent, though there wasn’t anything decent about her state.

Her skin was paler than the finest hand-painted pottery Mother had inherited from her grandmother in India, except along her jawline where dark bruising was evident. Hard living stole the softness I imagined she once had, and death was not gentle when it took her in its unforgiving embrace.

At least her eyes were closed. That was where the semi-peacefulness ended. According to Uncle she was missing five teeth, and her tongue had also sustained a laceration, indicating she was likely struck to either stun or knock her unconscious before the throat slitting. Those were the kinder injuries.

My gaze drifted to her lower abdomen, where a major injury was located on her left side. Uncle Jonathan hadn’t exaggerated in class; this cut was jagged and extremely deep. A few smaller slices ran along the right side of her torso but weren’t nearly as bad, from what I could tell.

I saw why Uncle thought someone who had use of both hands might be responsible. The bruising on her jaw indicated someone had grabbed her face with the left hand, and the incision on the left side of her body was most likely made by someone using the right. Unless there was more than one butcher on the loose…

I shook my head and focused on her upper body again. The knife wounds to her neck told of an attack bred by violence. They were surprisingly easy to look at in my new emotionally detached state, however, and I wondered briefly if Aunt Amelia would say that was another strike against my moral character.

“Girls should be concerned with lace, not moral disgrace,” she’d say.

I dreamed of a day when girls could wear lace and makeup—or no makeup at all and don burlap sacks if they desired—to their chosen profession without it being deemed inappropriate.

Uncle suddenly jumped back and sneezed. Thoughts of contracting airborne diseases crowded into my brain. I collected myself for a minute. Father’s fears would not become my own and hold me back from what needed to be done.

Uncle snapped his fingers, pointing to one of four surgical knives lying on a metal tray. I snatched it up and handed it to him, grabbing each used tool and setting it in an alcohol bath after he was through with it. When it came time for the organ removal, I had individual trays and specimen glass ready before Uncle asked for them.

I knew my job well.

He grunted his approval then weighed the kidneys one at a time.

“The left kidney is approximately one hundred and thirty-seven grams.” Thomas scratched the information down, quickly returning his focus to my uncle’s next words. He was silent while absorbed in his work, my presence like a piece of furniture, wholly unnoticed until needed. “The right is a bit on the small side, coming in around one hundred nineteen.”

Uncle removed a small piece of each organ, placing them on Petri dishes for further testing. This same routine went on for the heart, liver, intestines, and brain. My uncle’s clean white apron gradually became bloodier, but he methodically washed his hands after each dissection to avoid contaminating the evidence.

There was no proof such contaminations could occur, but Uncle had his own theories on the matter. “Conventional society be damned,” he’d bellow. “I know what I know.”

Not much separated him from a butcher in appearance. I supposed even deceased humans were nothing more than animals being flayed open in the name of science instead of nourishment.

Everything looked the same when you removed its top layers.

I nearly laughed out loud at my absurd thoughts. Twice a year Aunt Amelia and cousin Liza stayed with us. Part of their visit included socializing me with girls my age by hosting lavish tea parties. Aunt Amelia hoped I’d continue attending them on my own, but I’d put an end to that. The girls at tea didn’t understand my mind, which was precisely why I’d declined their invitations over the last several months. I hated the pity in their eyes and couldn’t imagine explaining my afternoons to them.

Some of them found it obscene to dip their butter knives into lemon curd. What horror they’d feel at seeing my scalpel disappearing into bloody tissue!

Something cool and wet seeped into the bottom of my shoes. I hadn’t noticed the pool of blood I’d been standing in. I quickly fetched a bag of sawdust and sprinkled it across the floor like a fine layer of tan-colored snow. I’d have to get rid of my slippers before I went home later, no need to frighten my newest lady’s maid any more than I normally did when I came home splattered in the day’s work.

Uncle snapped his fingers, returning me to the task at hand.

Once I’d disinfected the bone saw Uncle used to open the cranium and laid it back on the shelf, the autopsy was complete. Uncle Jonathan stitched the body together like a skilled tailor whose medium was flesh instead of fine fabric. I watched as the Y incision he’d made earlier turned from darkened crimson to black thread.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Thomas furiously sketching the body in its last state. His pencil slowing, then speeding across the paper. I grudgingly had to admit his drawing was really quite good. The details he captured would aid us with the investigation once the body was taken back to the morgue.

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