In the meantime, here is a special sneak preview of the opening, still in the editing process.
Inspector Royston Jones straightened up from his examination of the mutilated body of the shop girl. The night patrol had found her in the narrow alley between the butcher’s shop and the chandler’s and had immediately sent for him despite the hour.
Parker, the constable who had led him to the scene, looked about nervously. “They say it’s the Ladykiller, come back.”
“Nonsense.” Royston kept his tone firm, matter-of-fact. “Blackpoole is dead. I saw the body myself.”
“They say he’s come back,” the constable whispered.
“He had his throat torn out by a werewolf. A man doesn’t come back from that.”
“They’re saying maybe Blackpoole wasn’t a man, sir.” Parker glanced over his shoulder as if expecting Blackpoole’s shade to creep up on him as he spoke. “They’re saying he was something else.”
Royston put a hand on the man’s shoulder. “You’re a good man, Parker, but you’ll never make inspector if you keep spouting superstitious nonsense like that. Truth is, people don’t want to think that one of their own, a human just like them, could be capable of such things. They especially don’t want to think that there could be more than one such human predator. It was one of the reasons Blackpoole was able to misdirect suspicion onto werewolves, despite the evidence.”
There was a distant sound of hooves on the cobblestones. Too light and quick to be the first of the morning delivery carts. It might be the last of the night’s theater-goers or gambling hell rakes heading home.
He nodded toward the dead girl. “She bled out, but not here. The cuts were clean, made with a sharp knife. Killer had some knowledge of anatomy, but the unevenness of some of the cuts show that the victim was alive through at least some of it.” His throat tightened on the last bit.
Pale beneath his high, rounded helmet, the constable looked ready to vomit then, but he had already emptied the entire contents of his stomach behind some empty crates at the back entrance to the chandler’s shop.
Parker was a solid man with a few years’ experience, but these killings would make anyone sick, and Parker had a wife at home and two little girls that would someday be young women out in the world. Royston, even with his longer service, held his composure only because he’d been working late at the Yard and missed his supper.
Think like the criminal, his mentor Jacob Godwin always told him. But who knew why this madman killed. Because it’s a day that ends in a ‘y’? The only one who could understand would be another madman. Should he apply to Bedlam for help?
“Just like the others,” Parker said unnecessarily.
Royston couldn’t fault his desire to break the eerie silence. The infamous London fog wrapped the night in a funeral shroud and dimmed the yellow haze of the gaslight street lamp in the adjoining a cobblestoned street. Anything could be hiding in the shadows.
His eyes were drawn back to the girl. Neat-trimmed clean nails, good skin. She had been pretty in life.
“May as well cover the poor thing,” Royston said. “We’re not going to get more from the body until the coroner has a look.”
And he wasn’t any closer to catching the killer than he had been after the first murder, or the third. Big Ben chimed five times. Soon his London would be up and about its business, watching over its shoulder for the monster that lurked somewhere in its midst.
By that afternoon, Royston had a name for the victim. Her flatmate had run up to the constable on their beat in tears. Kitty hadn’t come home that night, and it wasn’t like her, Kitty was such a good girl, and with these murders, well. . .
The constable had already heard of the latest victim found, and escorted the flatmate to the morgue, where, according to the attendant, she collapsed into a dead faint on seeing the victim’s face and had, upon being revived with smelling salts, provided a name. Kitty Harper, nineteen years old, come from her family’s failing farm to seek her fortune.
She’d had better luck than many such girls, having secured a respectable job at a dry-goods shop. Better luck, until her luck ran out.
Royston had tea brought into the interview room. Tea, a comforting ritual even when there was no comfort to be had. It gave the interview subject something to focus on when the words tumbling out of her mouth were too horrible to bear without distraction.
He gave her a moment to settle in and take his measure. Royston knew himself to be one of the Yard’s less impressive physical specimens. His hair was a nondescript mousy brownish-blonde and he was among the shortest men ever to be accepted onto the force. But in interviews his appearance worked in his favor, and he accented it with a deliberately mild manner that put witnesses and sometimes even suspects at ease, made them feel as though it were safe to speak freely.
The flatmate, pale blonde and blue-eyed had the sort of complexion that betrayed emotion in a range of color. At the moment her bloodless-white face carried blotches of pink high on her cheeks. The look of high fever, or great distress. Royston wanted to comfort her, to change the topic to a more agreeable one, to suggest she go home and rest and have a friend bring her tea in bed.
Instead, he asked question after question about the dead girl, knowing all the while that the flatmate couldn’t speak her friend’s name without seeing her dead on the slab, couldn’t think of her without imagining what horrible wounds the coroner’s stark white sheet had hidden.
“It were him, weren’t it?” she asked. “The one the papers are calling Doctor Death?”'
Why did the papers have to sensationalize everything? This case was bad enough without screaming headlines and clever monikers.
“That is one avenue we’re exploring.”
She narrowed her eyes. To hell with proper form. He’d get nothing from her if she didn’t trust him, and she wouldn’t trust him if he remained all proper and procedural.
“Probably, yes,” He softened his tone, but nothing could soften the words.
She gave a choked cry, stifled it with the handkerchief he had loaned her. One thing to suspect, another to have one’s suspicions confirmed. He gave her a moment.
She continued in a high, tight voice. “What the papers said, about how those other girls died?”
“You don’t want to know about those things, Miss.” And, oh, God, he didn’t want to talk about them. Certainly not with someone who had known the victim in life.
She sobbed into the handkerchief. He waited out the storm. Crying women always made him feel helpless.
“Can you think of a reason someone might want to have hurt your friend?”
“Why? Papers say it’s random, say anyone could be next.”
“We haven’t found a connection yet. That doesn’t mean there isn’t one.” And if there isn’t one, finding the killer will be like finding a drunken sailor in Church on Sunday. “Besides, we have to rule out the possibility of someone using these killings as a cover.” When totally at a loss, the only thing to do was fall back on the standard questions. “We must be thorough. We owe that much to Miss Harper, don’t we?”
She nodded, and sipped at her tea, making a clear effort to compose herself. “There was no one. This may sound impossible, but I can’t think of a single person who disliked Kitty. She was the sweetest—“
He waited patiently for her to get herself back under control. “Was there any beau? A special young man she was walking out with?”
“No. She had her share of admirers, sir. ‘Course she did, pretty as she is. Was. She was friendly with all of them,”
No strong suspects, not even a weak one.
“Oh, not like that, sir,” she said, catching and misinterpreting his frown. “Just, she came from the country, see? Everyone was a friend to her, she hadn’t learned London ways. She was just. . .friendly. Never saw the bad in people.”
All the easier for a charming stranger to chat her up and lead her off. From the lowliest schoolyard bully to the worst of the men who killed for amusement or for the few coins in the victim’s purse, predators looked for weakness. Unfortunately, in the streets of London, being too kind, too friendly, too willing to help a stranger in need constituted weakness, especially for a vulnerable unmarried woman.
Royston drank his tea, bitter in his mouth despite milk and extra sugar, hoping it would somehow stave off the headache building near the front of his skull, the combined result of a lack of sleep and a lack of hope
“Kitty was the best friend I could ever hope for,” the girl said. “I just can’t believe something like this could happen. It’s just like with the Ladykiller, except the ‘wolf got him. Would figure that it’d be the rich girl he saved, that’s just how the world works, innit? Except I can’t figure why a werewolf would side with the hoity-toity, they’re kept even lower than us working folk.”
That was just one on the unsolved mysteries around that supposedly closed case. Royston was just glad it hadn’t been his case, though the Inspector in charge had brought him in to assist. Newly promoted and enthusiastic and had that really been just over a year ago?
“I’m so scared, Inspector. All us girls are so scared. Please catch him, sir. Please catch him before he gets another one of us.”
Royston saw her out with a solemn oath to do his very best to see justice done for Kitty Harper. That much he could swear to. He’d do his best, he’d been doing his best, but right now his best felt utterly inadequate.
Royston forced himself to choke down a cold sandwich at his desk before his next interview. The headache would only be worse if he didn’t eat. The food sat in a lump in his stomach as he left to interview Miss Harper’s employer.
The Commissioner and his daughter were coming into the Yard just as he was leaving. Adela Chatham was a vision indeed. An intricate twist held her hair under her peacock-plumed hat, but a few rich chestnut curls artfully escaped to frame the sweet oval of her face. The rich emerald of her dress complimented her coloring perfectly.
She had consented to walk out with him a time or two. Royston had dared to hope, but it had come to naught. He suspected that her father’s disapproval had something to do with that, but she was too well-bred to embarrass him by explaining the cause in detail. He supposed it had no future to begin with. Though the gentry would consider a police commissioner barely above a tradesman, the commissioner thought much more of himself, and Miss Chatham had been brought up as gently as any lady, untouched by the darker realities of her father’s world and as untouchable as an angel in a dream.
“Inspector Jones, how do you do?” The sincerity of her smiled warmed him through.
“Well, thank you. You are a vision as always, Miss Chatham.”
She blushed prettily. “And you are still the consummate gentleman.”
“Adela, could you wait for me just inside? There’s a lamb.” When she was out of earshot, the Commissioner turned to Jones. “A word, if you will, Jones.”
He had already started on his way. He stopped and turned, one step down from the Commissioner and feeling that much shorter for their relative positions.
“Any progress on these new killings?”
Royston looked down for a moment, then made himself meet his superior’s eyes. “No, sir, not yet. We have an identity for the girl found last night. Her flatmate wasn’t able to tell me anything of use. I’m on my way to talk to her employer.”
“Honestly, Jones, if I’d know from the outset how big this case was going to be, I’d have assigned it to somewhat more seasoned.”
He wouldn’t point out that of the more seasoned inspectors, two had retired, three had been fired for graft, and the remaining couldn’t come close to Royston’s success rate.
“I’m keeping you on the case because of your work in the Dalton case, and because Godwin seems to see something in you. This case could make your career, Jones. I’m giving you a chance to rise above your background. Not many men get that. It’ll be on my reputation as well as yours if you fail. Don’t let me down.”
He could not entertain the fear that Chatham’s low opinion of him was justified. He had proved himself time and time again. But this was his biggest case yet. What if he wasn’t equal to it? He sworn he’d prove himself to those who looked down on him as a governess’s bastard with a name his mother usurped from her betters. But what if his pride meant that a killer stayed free and more girls died?
This case could, as Chatham pointed out, make his career. But the girls were more important, the ones walking home from merciless jobs through lonely walkways, yes, even the ones working the streets because they had no choice. The women who, like his mother, had no one to care for them in a city that made it difficult and dangerous to be a woman alone and unprotected.
Royston walked a short distance, then caught the omnibus that would take him to the dry-goods shop where Kitty Harper used to work. The interior of the ‘bus buzzed with a half-dozen conversations, not all of them conducted in English. Most of the words he caught and understood (English, plus the French and Greek he’d learned from his mother) had something to do with the dead girl, the killer, the terror that ran through the streets of London and the ineffectiveness of the Yard. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat, glad that his rank freed him from the identifying uniform.
As the patient plodding horses wove their way between hackney cabs and delivery carts, stopping here and there to avoid pedestrians and bicycles and the occasional steam-driven horseless, he turned his mind to the dead girls.
He could see no obvious link between them. The first two had been prostitutes, which was probably why Royston had been put on the case instead of someone the Commissioner favored more. No one cared about a couple of dead whores. Good riddance, many would say.
As though prostitution weren’t the inevitable result of a society that declared a man should not marry until such time as he was financially settled and that ‘good’ women did not have sex outside of marriage. Combine that with natural urges and the pressure on boys to ‘become a man’, add in the extreme desperation of poverty, and he couldn’t imagine how anyone expected that there wouldn’t be prostitutes.
The only reason an investigation had been opened at all was the gruesome way the girls had died and the similarity to the Blackpoole case. The next girl had been a seamstress, though, and the one after that a washerwoman. Three of the four girls had been fairly new to London, and both of the prostitutes had been fairly new to the trade. No common acquaintances.
The omnibus jerked as the horses pulled to a sudden stop to avoid a flashy horseless carriage zipping through traffic in a particularly reckless manner. Bloody toffs thought they owned the road!
Although he had to admit, it had been a particularly fine-looking machine, all bright paint and polished chrome. He didn’t imagine he’d have a chance to ride in one of those in his lifetime.
The horses leaned into their traces once more, and the omnibus continued its slow progress.
One thing kept repeating in his mind, words repeating like a chant in time to the slow clop of the horse’s hooves against the paving. It’s just like with the Ladykiller, except the ‘wolf got him. . . I can’t figure why a werewolf would side with the hoity-toity. . . When something wouldn’t leave his mind, he’d learned to pay attention.
From where the omnibus let him off, it was only a half a block walk to the dry goods shop. Not the fanciest part of town, but definitely not the worst. There was a stationer’s, a dressmaker’s and a butcher with offerings that looked fresh and wholesome.
The merry jangle of the bell on the door of the dry-goods shop set Royston’s nerves on edge. The gray-haired woman behind the counter turned at the sound. He took in the pride of her manner and the quality of her dress, which, while though of plain gray linen, bore lace embellishments on the sleeves. Surely this must be Mrs. Tull, the proprietress.
Her eyes, red-rimmed from crying, softened the first impression given by the thin, downturned lips and the hard lines of her face. She had heard already what happened to Miss Harper, then. At least he did not have to break the news—by far one of the worst parts of his job.
“I’m sorry to disturb you, Ma’am. I’m Inspector Jones of Scotland Yard. Do you have a moment to answer a few questions about Kitty Harper?”
“Yes,” she said. “Yes, of course. “You’d best come through to the back. The bell will tell me if anyone comes in. I’m sorry, I’m short-handed today because—” a sob caught in her throat; she swallowed it with visible effort. “I’m short-handed,” she repeated in a firm, business-like tone.
“Of course,” Royston said softly. “I’m sorry.”
He followed her to the back room of the shop, dimly lit by a high window, crowded with a hugger-mugger of accounts books and receipts and an overflow of shop merchandise. A small stove huddled in one corner.
He pictured Miss Harper here, perhaps shuffling through things looking for a special order for a customer or having tea on a break, greeting a coworker with a sweet smile.
“I’ll put on a kettle for tea,” she said. “It won’t be but a minute.”
She bustled about, putting a kettle on the hob, getting the plain blue tea pot down from a high shelf in the cupboard, carefully measuring out the tea leaves from a canister with the focus and care of an alchemist working with precious metals or dangerous chemicals.
Royston made himself sit patiently through the ritual of tea-making. One thing about this part of his job—he’d never go thirsty. Refusing tea would have set the woman off her routine and only emphasize the fact that this wasn’t a social call. The closer she came to forgetting that he was a Detective Inspector and not a sympathetic neighbor, the more open she’d be.
The bell at the door rang. She jumped, nearly dropping the china cups and saucers.
“Oh, dear,” she said. “I’d best. . .”
She took a step toward the front of the shop, and then back, indecisive.
Royston smiled at her in reassurance. “It’s fine. You have a shop to run. I’ll take care of the tea, shall I?”
That only made her do the back-and-forth dance once more, with a quick glance to her china, as though uncertain whether a mere man could be trusted with so delicate a domestic operation. But at last the needs of commerce won out, and she excused herself, leaving him to watch the pot on the hob.
He listened to the sound and rhythm of the voices in the front of the shop, but couldn’t make out the words until Mrs. Tull’s voice raised in anger.
“Fine then! Your custom will be no great loss to me, I assure you, ma’am.”
The kettle whistled, and Royston jumped to pour it over the measured leaves in the pot, performing with the honor of all bachelors everywhere at stake. Thus distracted, he missed the customer’s reply, though he heard the bell ring angrily as the door jerked open hard and slam shut.
To his surprise, next came the sound of the lock on the door as it shot home, followed by the sound of windows being shuttered.
She stalked back to Royston, her face red, her hands on her hips. “Gossips! Nasty, filthy-minded gossips. Third one this morning. I’ve closed for the day. I can’t bear it, I tell you!”
Her face screwed up as though she didn’t know whether she wanted to sob, scream, or do violence.
“And you! I expect you’re here to try to dig up some sordid stories about poor Kitty, find some way that this was all her fault to excuse yourself and the rest of you Peelers for your inability to do your bloody jobs!”
Royston flinched. Her anger came out of fear and grief, not rationality, but that didn’t make it any easier to bear.
“Kitty was a good girl! She didn’t do one thing, one bloody thing to bring this on her,” Mrs. Tull sank into the nearest chair and buried her face in her hands, sobbing.
“I know,” Royston said. “I know. I talked to her flatmate earlier. And in my line of work, I’ve seen enough to know that horrible, horrible things sometimes happen to the best of people. The small-minded would prefer to blame the victim because it makes them feel safer, no matter how much it hurts those left behind.”
It had been that way when his mother was killed.
He pulled out a fresh handkerchief and offered it to her. Tools of the trade. He’d never yet had to fire a gun in the line of duty, but he’d employed a handkerchief more times than he could count.
A gentleman always carries a clean handkerchief, his mother told him, time and time again. Little did she know how handy that would be in his chosen field.
She dried her eyes and looked up at him. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m sorry, it’s just. . .” She took a deep, shuddering breath.
“It’s all right. Take a moment.”
He poured tea for both of them while he waited for her to collect herself.
“Kitty was such a sweet girl,” the woman said after a calming sip of tea. “Good worker. Honest as the day is long. Always had me send part of her pay back to her widowed mother in Derbyshire. What kind of man could do this?”
“That’s just what I’m trying to find out, ma’am.”
The shopkeeper, though more than willing, had nothing of substance to offer. Kitty was a friendly girl, so sweet and so pretty, a favorite of all the customers, but no, there was no one she could recall who paid her any special attention, or who hung about often enough to make anyone uncomfortable, mostly it was women who did the shopping, don’t you know? No, there had been no gentlemen meeting her at the door to walk her home.
Essentially the same story as the flatmate had given. He thanked her for her time, and extracted her promise to contact him should she think of anything else.
She walked him to the door. “Thank you. Thank you for listening.” She tucked a packet of biscuits into his pocket before he could protest. “To strengthen you on your way. Catch this monster for us, Inspector.”
He wished he could promise that he would. Instead, he said the only thing he could. “I’ll do my best.
On the walk to catch the omnibus, he passed a beggar in ragged, ill-fitting clothes. The man looked familiar, and he scoured his memory. Not one of his sources. Someone he’d arrested at some point? Maybe—no. Clean the man up, take ten years off him. . .
“Smythe, is that you?”
The man looked up sharply, startled to be recognized.
At least that explained why an apparently able-bodied man was begging in the streets mid-day when there might be work to be had on the docks. In the wealthy, idleness was considered a virtue; in the poor a sin. A smart beggar would have to either appear to be seeking work, or show an obvious reason why he could not work. It seemed Smythe was still too honest to pretend blindness or other malady.
Smythe was smart, and good at maths, and everyone at school agreed that he was destined for something better than the factory work that was slowly breaking his parents’ health. A clerk, for sure, maybe even a bookkeeper, it could happen.
But that was before he was bitten.
“I had heard. . .” Royston trailed off awkwardly.
It wasn’t something you talked about, was it?
Smythe gave a weary shrug of one shoulder, as though two would be too much effort. “These things happen.”
Royston glanced away and tried to think of something to say. He dealt with terrible, terrible things every day in his line of work, but it was different with someone he knew.
Smythe had been robust in their school days, muscled from helping his uncle load delivery carts in the dark morning hours before the start of school. Now he looked like a scarecrow. Probably lived off of soup kitchens and scraps. No one would hire a werewolf, and few who knew what he was would spare a ha’penny to one begging in the streets.
Royston put a hand in his pocket.
Smythe shook his head and backed away. “No. You don’t have to.”
Bad enough to be begging in the streets. Royston imagined it would be far worse to accept a hand-out from someone one knew.
He managed a smile. “Not charity. Just think of it as me buying an old friend a drink.”
A small difference, especially as he offered enough silver to buy a couple of meals as well.
“You’re a good man, Royston,” Smythe said. “Always have been.”
Smythe glanced around furtively before accepting the money. Looking for other ‘wolves. Werewolves, being excluded from normal society, had one of their own. If it was largely criminal, well, what other options had they? No ‘wolf who valued his skin would be seen by others taking money from a police inspector. Whether Smythe was part of the criminal subclass or just afraid of them, Royston didn’t want to know. He wished the man well and hurried to catch the omnibus.
It had been too long a day on too little sleep, and he contemplated a quick stop at his favorite fish-n-chips cart and an early night, but when he stopped at the Yard to file his notes there was a dinner invitation awaiting him from Jacob Godwin.
Godwin always showed an almost psychic sense for when Royston needed to talk, but with last night’s dead girl all over the papers and the headlines screaming of the Yard’s lack of progress, it wouldn’t take a master detective such as Godwin had been to know Royston’s state of mind.
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