Home > Stalking Jack the Ripper (Stalking Jack the Ripper #1)(8)

Stalking Jack the Ripper (Stalking Jack the Ripper #1)(8)
Author: Kerri Maniscalco

GHASTLY MURDER IN WHITECHAPEL

I read the headline aloud to my uncle while he paced in front of the specimen jars in his basement laboratory. The deep burgundy wallpaper was normally a warm backdrop against the frigid temperature and even colder bodies adorning the examination table most days.

Today, however, the red tones reminded me of spilled blood, and I’d had my fill of that substance lately. I rubbed my hands over the thin sleeves of my muslin day dress and scanned the article. There was no mention of the new body they’d found this morning; it was still detailing poor Miss Nichols’s death. The killer had taken mercy on her, compared to the nefarious acts he’d committed on victim number two.

I watched Uncle absently twist his mustache while doing his best to carve a path in the carpet. If he kept walking back and forth, I feared he’d wear through the wooden floorboards soon enough.

“Why position the body in such a manner?”

It was the same question he’d been asking himself since arriving from the latest murder over two hours ago. I had no theories to offer him. I was still trying to divorce myself from the abhorrent diagram he’d sketched on the chalkboard earlier.

My attention drifted to the disfigured image he’d created, drawn against my will like a magnet to the unimaginable gore.

I studied the words scrawled above the detailed drawing. Miss Annie Chapman, aged forty-seven. Approximately five feet tall. Blue eyes. Shoulder-length dark brown, wavy hair. An entire life distilled into five basic physical descriptions.

She’d been murdered on Hanbury Street. The very street I’d found myself on late last night. A chill worked its way deep into my bones, settling between my vertebrae like pigeons roosting on a clothesline.

Mere hours separated her untimely end and my dance with danger. Was it possible I’d been so close to the murderer? Nathaniel was right to be worried; I’d practically run into Leather Apron’s all-too-eager arms by sneaking around like a child during the witching hour.

Should anything happen to me, Father would lose what was left of his mind, locking himself away in that study until he finally died of a broken heart.

“What of tossing her intestines about her shoulder?” Uncle paused before the diagram, staring past it at a memory not captured on the board. “Was it a message for the inspectors, or the easiest way to get what organ he sought?”

“Perhaps,” I offered.

Uncle turned to me, astonished, as if he’d forgotten I was there. He shook his head. “Lord knows why I allow you to learn such unseemly things for a girl.”

On occasion, Uncle would mutter such annoyances. I’d learned to ignore them for the most part, knowing he’d forget his hesitations quickly enough. “Because you love me?”

Uncle sighed. “Yes. And a brain such as yours shouldn’t be wasted on frippery and gossip, I suppose.”

My focus found the drawing again. The woman who’d taken my measurements earlier resembled the deceased woman’s description nearly perfectly.

Keeping up the pretense of my whereabouts for Father, I’d stopped by the dressmaker’s shop on the way in, picking out rich fabrics and new styles to be sent to the house. I’d decided on a walking dress made of deep navy with gold and cream stripes.

The bustle was smaller than my others and the hefty material would be perfect for the cooler weather. My absolute favorite was a tea gown I’d chosen, to wear when receiving visitors. It was the color of spun sugar with tiny roses embroidered along its front. A soft pink robe completed the loose-fitting gown, cascading to the floor.

Honestly, I couldn’t wait for them to be ready. Just because I studied cadavers didn’t mean I couldn’t appreciate beautiful garments. My thoughts returned to the matter at hand. Had the seamstress not been reputably employed, she very well could have ended up on the streets and eventually in Uncle’s laboratory, too.

Another cold corpse to slice into.

I crossed the room to where a tiny table stood nestled in the corner; a maid had brought in a tray of tea and a platter of scones with raspberry jam. I poured myself a cup of Earl Grey, adding a sugar cube with ornate silver tongs—the very opulence juxtaposed to our new case was nauseating.

I prepared a second cup for Uncle, leaving the scones untouched. The sanguine color of the preserves was revolting—I feared I’d never be hungry again.

Uncle jerked himself out of his next reverie when I handed him the steaming cup. The sweet herbal scent mixed with bergamot transfixed his attention for a few precious beats before he continued mumbling and pacing.

“Where is that blasted boy?”

He checked the brass—anatomically correct—heart clock mounted on the wall, frustration knotting his brow. It was hard to tell if he was more annoyed by the timepiece itself, or by Mr. Thomas Cresswell.

The clock was a gift from my father, a long-ago kindness he’d shown Uncle upon completing his medical degree. Father used to craft toys and clocks before Mother died, another joy her death had stolen from him.

Whereas I shunned religion for its abandonment, Father shunned his brother and science for their failure to save Mother. When she died, Father claimed Uncle hadn’t tried hard enough.

Conversely, Uncle thought Father relied too heavily on a miracle he couldn’t offer and was a fool to blame him for Mother’s death. I couldn’t imagine ever hating my brother that much and pitied them both for their animosity.

I shifted my focus to the time. Thomas had left over an hour earlier, inquiring after the members of his vigilante group. Uncle hoped one of them might have seen something suspicious because they were posted—like boys playing medieval knights—throughout Whitechapel until four in the morning.

Personally, I wondered why Thomas wouldn’t already know if they’d come across something. That was the whole point of their little group.

When another half hour ticked by and Mr. Cresswell still hadn’t returned, Uncle was practically mad with unrest. It seemed even the corpses and dead things surrounding us held their collective breaths, not wanting to wake the sleeping darkness from within him. I loved and respected Uncle, but his passion often toed the line of madness when he was under pressure.

Ten minutes later the door creaked open, revealing Thomas’s tall, silhouetted form. Uncle practically vaulted across the laboratory, a rabid hunger for knowledge in his eyes. I swear if I had looked closely enough, I’d have seen white foam collecting at the corners of his mouth. When he got like this, it was easy to see why some people thought him odd, my brother included.

“Well, then? What news have you? Who knows what?”

A servant removed Thomas’s long overcoat and hat before disappearing up the narrow staircase. Those uninterested in forensic studies never liked lingering down here for long. Too many dark and hideous things lurked in glass jars and on stone slabs.

Thomas eyed the drawing on the board before answering, purposefully not looking in Uncle’s direction. “No one saw or heard a thing out of the ordinary, I’m afraid.”

I narrowed my eyes. Thomas didn’t sound very upset by this news.

“However,” he added, “I tagged along with the inspectors while they made some inquiries. Paltry as they might be. This one jester pelted me with questions regarding your work, but I didn’t offer much. Said he might call on you later this evening.” He shook his head. “Screws and gears were discarded near the body. And… a few witnesses have stepped forth.”

Uncle inhaled sharply. “And?”

“Unfortunately, the best description we received came from a woman who saw only a man from behind. She stated that the two of them were speaking, but she couldn’t make out more than the deceased agreeing to something. As she was a prostitute, I’m sure you can fill in the lurid details.”

“Thomas!” Uncle shot a glance in my direction; only then did my classmate acknowledge me standing in the room. “There’s a young lady present.”

I rolled my eyes. Leave it to Uncle Jonathan to worry about prostitution being too much for my feminine persuasion, yet think nothing of me seeing a body spliced open before I’d even had my luncheon.

“Sincere apologies, Miss Wadsworth. I hadn’t seen you there.” Thomas was nothing but a filthy liar. He cocked his head, a sly smile tugging at the corners of his lips as if he were privy to my thoughts. “I did not mean to offend you.”

“I am hardly offended, Mr. Cresswell.” I gave him a pointed look. “On the contrary, I am highly perturbed we’re even discussing such fatuous things when another woman has been slain so brutally.” I ticked off each injury on my fingers, accentuating my point. “Gutted with her innards tossed over a shoulder. Posed with her legs up, knees facing outward. Not to mention… her missing reproductive organs.”

“Yes,” Thomas agreed, nodding, “that was rather unpleasant, now that you mention it.”

“You speak as if you’ve witnessed it firsthand, Mr. Cresswell.”

“Perhaps I have.”

“Thomas, please,” Uncle scolded. “Do not goad her.”

I turned my annoyance on Uncle. “By all means, let’s continue wasting time speaking of my potential discomfort at her occasional profession. What is your issue with prostitutes anyhow? It’s not her fault society is so unjust to women.”

“I—” Uncle Jonathan stepped back, placing a palm to his forehead as if he might be able to rub my tirade out with a few soothing strokes. Thomas had the gall to wink at me over the cup of tea he’d poured himself.

“Very well.” He raised an exaggerated eyebrow at Uncle. “The young lady has made her case, Doctor. From this point forward I shall pretend she’s as capable as a man.”

I glared harder. “Pretend I am as capable as a man? Please, sir, do not value me so little!”

“Also,” he continued before I exploded, setting his teacup down on its matching blue and white Staffordshire saucer, “as we’re now treating each other like equals and peers, I insist on you calling me Thomas, or Cresswell. Silly formalities needn’t apply to equals such as we.” He grinned at me in a way that could be considered a flirtation.

   
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