Home > Stalking Jack the Ripper (Stalking Jack the Ripper #1)(6)

Stalking Jack the Ripper (Stalking Jack the Ripper #1)(6)
Author: Kerri Maniscalco

I couldn’t help feeling as if I were Father’s useless, murdering daughter who looked too much like her mother—a constant reminder of all he’d lost. Of all I’d stolen away from him the night I took my first fever-free breath, and Mother took her last.

I was the reason for his growing madness, and I never let myself forget it. When I closed my eyes, I still saw the hospital staff in their long dresses and starched aprons. Their solemn faces turning away from my earsplitting screams as Mother’s chest stuttered and fell still forever. I banged on her sternum with both fists, my tears falling on her beautifully stitched dressing gown, but she didn’t stir again.

No twelve-year-old should watch her mother’s soul drift into the abyss. It was the first time I’d ever felt helpless. God had failed me. I’d prayed and prayed the way Mother always said I should, and for what? Death still claimed her in the end. It was then I knew I’d rely on something more tangible than holy spirits.

Science never abandoned me the way religion had that night.

Forsaking the Holy Father was considered a sin, and I did it repeatedly. Each time my blade met with flesh, I sinned more and welcomed it.

God no longer held dominion over my soul.

This evening my thoughts were treacherously loud and impossible to quiet down. I tossed back and forth in my thin nightdress, kicked my sheets off, and finally poured myself a glass of water from a pitcher on my bedside table. “Blast it all.”

Sleep wasn’t going to find me. That much I was certain of. My limbs itched with the need to get out and do something. Or perhaps I simply needed to escape from the confines of my room and all the woeful thoughts that came with the darkness.

Each day that passed was a failure to help Miss Nichols’s family find peace. I’d already failed her once; I wouldn’t fail again so miserably.

I clenched my fists. I could do the safe and reasonable thing, waiting in Uncle’s laboratory until another victim showed up. Or I could act now. Tonight. I could gather clues that might help, impressing both Thomas and Uncle in the process.

The more I thought on it, the surer I became of my decision. Mother used to say, “Roses have both petals and thorns, my dark flower. You needn’t believe something weak because it appears delicate. Show the world your bravery.”

Mother had had a weak heart and was kept from much physical activity as a child, but she’d found other ways to prove her strength. One needn’t be strong in only physical matters—a strong mind and will were fierce to behold as well.

“You’re right, Mother.” I paced along the deep gold Persian rug in my room, relishing the coldness of the hardwood when my soles found the edges of the carpet. Before I knew what I was doing, I found myself standing in front of my looking glass, dressed all in black. “It’s time for bravery.”

Pulling my dark hair into a simple braid and pinning it about my crown, I tucked a few wayward strands behind my ears. My dress was a simple design with long fitted sleeves, a small bustle, and light cotton fabric. I ran my hands down the front of it, enjoying the softness and fine craftsmanship of the garment.

I stared at the dark circles under my eyes that told of many sleepless nights. The paleness of my already sallow-looking skin was heavily contrasted by the black clothing, so I pinched my cheeks, giving them some much-needed color.

Mother never had to worry about doing such things. Her skin was a beautiful honey, showing off her ancestry from India, and mine was a cream-laden imitation of hers. I reminded myself I need not be fashionable; I was going for stealth. Though my aunt would be pleased I’d taken an interest in my appearance.

Unbidden, a wretched thought flashed through my mind. Thomas and Uncle were out the evening of the first murder… they were interested in studying the human body. And Thomas had flat-out lied about it. If I discovered them doing treacherous things, would they harm me? I laughed, covering my mouth to stifle the sound.

What a ridiculous notion.

My uncle was not capable of such acts. Thomas, however… I couldn’t say for sure, but refused to follow that trail of thought.

I imagined the murderer was a physician traveling abroad or someone who was working for a physician to locate organs for study. Or perhaps some wealthy man or woman was willing to pay dearly for a transplant of some sort.

Though, that science hadn’t been effective yet. No one had ever accomplished a successful organ transplant. Either way, I doubted highly that Leather Apron was hanging around, stalking women of the night. I’d be fine, cloaked under darkness.

Without allowing myself a moment’s hesitation, I swiftly sneaked down the stairs, crept into the drawing room, and latched myself in. Glancing about the empty room, I released a sigh. All was quiet. I tiptoed across the floor, then opened the window farthest from the door.

Placing both hands on the windowsill, I glanced over my shoulder, checking the lock once more. Father was sleeping, and he wasn’t quite mad enough to check on me during the night, but the thought of being caught had my heart running double its speed.

A thrill twirled through my veins as I pushed off, dropping a few feet to the patch of grass set between stones. The few seconds of weightlessness made me feel as free as a bird soaring in the heavens.

I smiled as I wiped my soft leather gloves off and slunk into the shadows surrounding the building. Father would lock me in the old coal cellar if he knew I’d sneaked away so late, which made my night adventure all the more appealing.

Let him discover I was out at this indecent hour and was more than capable of taking care of myself. I welcomed the chance not only to ferret out helpful clues for our investigation but to prove Father’s fears irrational as well.

Even if there was potentially a madman on the loose.

My quest began losing its appeal the longer I slipped in and out of the dimness of London’s abandoned streets.

I couldn’t take the carriage without Father learning of my shameful activities, and trekking through the cobblestone streets for nearly an hour wasn’t as bold and daring as I’d imagined it to be. I was cold, and the streets stank of waste. Needles pricked between my shoulder blades. I had the horrible feeling I was being watched. I nearly fainted when a silly old cat ran into my path.

Down the block, I heard a commotion and slipped into the closest alleyway to avoid being seen. Voices carried over the rolling fog, adding a haunted feeling to the already eerie streets. I counted my breaths, waiting for the people to pass by, praying no one would slink into my hiding place. Wind tickled the back of my neck, raising gooseflesh. I didn’t like being trapped between buildings.

I hadn’t really thought of what I’d say should I encounter someone at this hour. All I’d been thinking was I’d spy on the pubs Miss Nichols had visited prior to her death, possibly learn some new fact or clue from the people deep in their drink, and outsmart Thomas Cresswell. Perhaps I should’ve prepared myself a bit more instead of being motivated by the desire to show off my own intelligence to such an obnoxious yet damnably brilliant boy.

I glanced up through the light fog at the cross street. Hanbury. How had I gotten this far over? I was nearly to the Princess Alice but had traveled a touch out of the way. The next few streets should take me to Wentworth and Commercial.

Without waiting for the drunken couple to pass, I willed myself to take on the stealth of an apparition, floating soundlessly down the alley and across the road. My feet took sturdy steps, though a feather could have knocked me over my heart was pounding so hard. Halfway through the alley, a pebble knocked out of place behind me. I whirled to see… nothing.

No scythe-wielding murderer or drunken bar patron. Only an empty black space between buildings. Must have been a rat crawling through rubbish.

I stood for a few more beats, waiting, my heart thrashing against my ribs like a fish taken from water. I feared a monster would be standing behind me, breathing its rotten breath down my neck should I turn around, so I closed my eyes. Somehow, everything seemed easier to manage when I couldn’t see. Though it was a foolish, foolish thing to do. Pretending a monster wasn’t there didn’t make it go away. It only made one vulnerable to its attack.

I listened hard. When no other sounds occurred, I moved swiftly away, tossing glances over my shoulder to be certain I was alone.

Once I saw the lively pub in front of me, I took a deep breath. I’d much rather take my chances with drunken ruffians than the shadows stalking the night. The brick building stood three stories tall and was prominently placed between two streets, giving it a triangular shape in the front.

Noise and the clinking clatter of plates and glasses filtered out through the front doors along with bawdy laughter and words no lady should hear. Sinking my teeth into my lower lip, I eyed some of the more surly patrons in view.

I rethought my earlier fear of shadows.

Some men were covered in soot, while others had blood splatter along the cuffs of their rolled sleeves. Butchers and factory workers. Their arms were corded with the look of hard labor, and their rough accents spoke of poverty. My fragile aristocratic bones stuck out even in my plainest dress. I cursed the bustle and finely stitched seams—apparent even in the dark—and contemplated turning back.

I refused to be defeated so easily by fear or a well-made garment.

Squaring my shoulders, I took one giant step toward the crowd before being dragged backward by an unseen force. I opened my mouth to scream, but was quickly silenced by a large hand covering the lower half of my face.

The grasp wasn’t hard, but I couldn’t gain enough leeway to bite down on my assailant. I kicked and jerked about to no avail. The only thing I managed to do was to wrap my blasted skirts about my legs, tumbling into my assailant, allowing him a bit more ease in his unholy mission. I was at the mercy of this invisible demon, powerless to break free of its supernatural grasp.

“Please. Don’t scream. You’ll ruin everything.” His voice was far too amused given the situation. At least he wasn’t an apparition, then. I wrestled with everything I had, twisting and knocking my head against his chest. If he wasn’t so tall, I might have connected with his head. “We’re going somewhere quiet. Then we can talk. All right?”

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