with just EIGHT days left before CAPTURING THE DEVIL hits shelves, i’m sharing the first three chapters with you today! i absolutely adore the conclusion of this series and hope you fall equally in love with this final murder mystery. (please note: today also marks ONE week for you to fill out the pre-order forms to claim your prizes!)
Enjoy the trailer (with the sound on!) then read on below for the first look at CAPTURING THE DEVIL.
Death Comes Swiftly
West Washington Market
Meatpacking District, New York City
21 January 1889
A blast of frigid air greeted me as I unlatched the carriage door and stumbled onto the street, my attention stuck on the raised axe. Watery sunlight dribbled off its edge like fresh blood, tricking me into recalling recent events. Some might call them nightmares. A feeling akin to hunger awakened deep within, but I quickly swallowed it down.
“Miss Wadsworth?” The footman reached for my arm, his focus darting around the throng of dirt-speckled people elbowing their way down West Street. I blinked, nearly having forgotten where I was and who I was with. Almost three weeks in New York and it still didn’t seem real. The footman wet his cracked lips, his voice strained. “Your uncle requested you both be taken directly to the—”
“It will be our secret, Rhodes.”
Without offering another word, I gripped my cane and moved forward, staring into dull black eyes as the blade finally came down, severing the spinal cord at the neck with a wood-splintering thwack. The executioner—a sandy-haired man of around twenty years—worked the axe free and wiped its edge on the front of his bloodstained apron.
For a brief moment, with his shirtsleeves rolled back and sweat dotting his brow, he reminded me of Uncle Jonathan after he’d carved open a corpse. The man set his weapon aside and yanked the goat’s body backward, neatly separating the head from its shoulders.
I drew closer, curious that the animal’s head didn’t tumble off the butcher’s block as I’d imagined—it simply rolled to the side of the oversize board, gaze fixed permanently toward the winter sky. If I believed in an ever after, I might hope it was in a better place. One far from here.
My attention drifted to the goat’s carcass. It had been killed and skinned elsewhere, its exposed flesh a map of white and red, crisscrossing where fat and connective tissue met with tender meat. I fought the growing urge to quietly recite the names of each muscle and tendon.
I hadn’t inspected a cadaver in a month.
“How appetizing.” My cousin Liza finally caught up and looped her arm through mine, tugging me out of the way as a man tossed a stuffed burlap sack across the sidewalk to a younger apprentice. Now that I was paying closer attention, I noticed a fine layer of sawdust around the butcher’s feet. It was a good method to easily soak up blood for sweeping, one I was well acquainted with thanks to time spent in Uncle’s laboratory and at the forensic academy I’d briefly attended in Romania. Uncle wasn’t the only Wadsworth who enjoyed cutting open the dead.
The butcher stopped hacking the goat apart long enough to leer at us. He crassly slid his gaze over our bodies and offered a low, appreciative whistle. “I can snap corsets open faster than bones.” He held his knife up, his attention fixed on my chest. “Interested in a demonstration, fancy lady? Say the word and I’ll show you what else I can do to such a fine figure.”
Liza stiffened beside me. People often called women of supposedly questionable morals “fancy ladies.” If he thought I’d blush and run off, he was sorely mistaken.
“Unfortunately, sir, I find I’m not terribly impressed.” I casually slipped a scalpel from my wristlet clutch, enjoying the familiar feel of it. “You see, I also eviscerate bodies. But I don’t bother with animals. I butcher humans. Would you care for a demonstration?”
He must have seen something in my face that worried him. He stepped back, his calloused hands raised. “I don’t want no trouble, now. I was just havin’ some fun.”
“As was I.” I gave him a sweet smile that made him blanch as I turned the blade this way and that. “Shame you don’t feel like playing any longer. Though I’m not surprised. Men such as yourself boast in a grandiose fashion to make up for their…shortcomings.”
Liza’s jaw practically hit the ground as she angled us away. She sighed as our carriage finally rumbled off without us. “Explain to me, dearest cousin, why we left that warm, lavish hansom in favor of wandering through”—she motioned at the rows of butchers’ blocks with her parasol, each stall featuring different animal parts being wrapped in brown paper packages—“all this. The smell is positively horrendous. And the company is even more foul. Never, in all my life, have I been spoken to in such a wicked manner.”
I kept my skepticism on that latter point locked away. We’d spent more than a week aboard an ocean liner cavorting with a carnival known for debauchery. Being acquainted with the ringmaster for five minutes proved he was a devil of a young man. In more ways than one.
“I wanted to see the meatpacking district for myself,” I lied. “Perhaps it’ll give me an idea for the perfect main course. What do you think of roasted goat?”
“After witnessing its beheading or before?” she asked, looking like she was moments away from vomiting. “You do know that’s what cookbooks are for, correct? Inspiration without the labor. Or carnage. I swear you miss being surrounded by death.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Why would you even think such a thing?”
“Look around, Audrey Rose. Of all the neighborhoods in this city, this is the one you chose to stroll through.”
I tore my attention away from a plucked chicken that was seconds away from joining the dismembered goat, my expression reserved as I took in our surroundings. Blood steadily dripped down many of the wooden blocks lining the storefronts, splattering onto the ground.
Judging from the multihued stains, the streets weren’t washed even after a busy day of hacking animals apart. Veins of crimson and black wound through cracks in the cobblestones—tributaries of old death meeting the new. The scent of copper mixed with feces pricked my eyes and thrilled my heart.
This street was death made tangible, a murderer’s dream.
Liza sidestepped a bucket of frost-coated offal, her warm exhale mimicking steam rising off a boiling teakettle as it mingled with the cold air. I wasn’t sure if the amount of entrails or their near-frozen states offended her more. I wondered at the darkness swirling within me—the secret part that couldn’t muster up an ounce of disgust. Perhaps I needed to take up a new hobby.
I fear I was becoming addicted to blood.
“Honestly, let me hail another hansom. You shouldn’t be out in this weather anyway—you know what Uncle’s said about the cold. And look”—Liza nodded toward our feet—“our shoes are sopping up snow like bits of bread in soup. We’re going to catch our death out here.”
I didn’t glance down at my own feet. I hadn’t worn my favorite pretty shoes since the day I’d taken a knife in my leg. My current footwear was stiff, boring leather without a delicate heel. Liza was correct; icy dampness had found its way in through the seams, soaking my stockings and causing the near-constant dull ache in my bones to intensify.
“Stop! Thief!” A constable blew a whistle somewhere close by and several people broke off from the crowd, scattering like plague rats rushing down alleyways. Liza and I moved aside, lest we become the unwitting victims of fleeing pickpockets and petty thieves.
“A whole roasted pig will be more than enough food,” she added. “Stop worrying.”
“That’s precisely the issue.”
I pressed closer to the building as a young boy ran by, one hand on his newsboy cap, the other clutching what appeared to be a stolen pocket watch. A policeman followed, blowing his whistle and dodging through vendors.
“I can’t stop worrying. Thomas’s birthday is in two days,” I reminded her, as if I hadn’t already done so one hundred times over the last week. The constable’s whistle and shouts grew further away and our slow procession down butchers’ row resumed. “It’s my first dinner party and I want everything to be perfect.”
Mr. Thomas Cresswell—my insufferable yet most decidedly charming partner in crime solving—and I had danced around the subject of both courtship and marriage. I’d agreed to accept him, should he ask my father first, and hadn’t expected everything to unfold quite as quickly as it had. We’d known each other for just a few short months—five now—but it felt right.
Most young women of my station married at about twenty-one years, but my soul felt older, especially after the events on the RMS Etruria. With my approval, Thomas sent a letter to my father, requesting an audience to make his intentions clear. Now that my father, along with my aunt Amelia, was en route from London to New York, the time was fast approaching when we’d begin an official courtship followed by a betrothal.
Not long ago, I would have felt invisible bars closing in at the thought of joining myself to another; now I irrationally worried something might bar me from marrying Thomas. He’d almost been taken from me once, and I’d kill before I allowed that to happen again.
“Plus”—I pulled the letter from the premier chef of Paris from my purse and waved it playfully at Liza—“Monsieur Escoffier was quite specific about obtaining the best cut of meat. And Uncle isn’t the one who’ll deal with a stiff leg,” I added, leaning a bit more heavily on my cane. “Let me worry over that.”
Liza looked ready to argue but held a perfumed handkerchief to her nose instead, her gaze snagging on the mechanical canopy above us. A conveyor belt with hooks swept by, a constant loop of gears clicking and metal clinking, the noise adding to the clamor of the streets as butchers staked hocks of fresh meat to it. She watched the dismembered limbs jostle their way into the buildings where they’d undoubtedly be broken down further, seemingly lost in thought.
Likely she was searching for another reason I ought to stay inside and rest, but I’d done plenty of resting in the weeks we’d been in New York. I needn’t hear from others what I could and could no longer easily do. I was more than aware of that.
While it was true I wanted Thomas’s eighteenth birthday to be special, it wasn’t the whole truth behind my obsessing. Uncle hadn’t permitted me to leave my grandmother’s home much for fear of fracturing my leg further, and I was going mad with inactivity and boredom. Throwing Thomas a party was as much for me as it was for him.
Though I was grateful for my cousin—she and Thomas had taken turns entertaining me by reading my favorite books aloud and playing the piano. They had even put on a few plays, much to both my amusement and my dismay. While my cousin had the voice of a nightingale, Thomas’s singing was atrocious. A cat in heat held a note in a more pleasant manner than he did. At least it proved he wasn’t limitlessly skilled, which pleased me to no end. Without them or my novels, things would have been much worse. When I was adventuring between the pages of a book, I wasn’t sad over things I was missing outside.
“Your grandmother’s kitchen staff is capable of doing the shopping to Mr. Ritz’s instructions. Wasn’t he the person who recommended Mr. Escoffier? These are not the sort of scenes one should be subjected to prior to a dress fitting.” Liza nodded at the eyes being pried from the goat’s skull and set in a bowl, while its belly was sliced open to remove organ meat. “No matter how accustomed you may be to macabre things.”
“Death is a part of life. Case in point”—I jerked my chin toward the fresh meat—“without the death of that goat, we’d starve.”
Liza scrunched her nose. “Or we could all learn to simply eat plants from now on.”
“While that sounds valiant, the plants would still need to die for your survival.” I ignored the tweak of pain in my leg as a particularly icy blast of wind barreled over the Hudson River and slammed into us. The sky’s gray belly bulged with the promise of more snow. It seemed like it had been snowing for a month straight. I was loath to admit that Uncle was right: I’d suffer the consequences of today’s activities later this evening. “Anyway, my fitting is in twenty minutes, which gives us plenty of time to—”
A man in a dark brown cutaway coat and matching bowler hat jumped aside as a bucket of waste splashed onto the street from the tenement window above, narrowly escaping a most unpleasant bath. He crashed directly into me, knocking my cane to the ground along with what appeared to be a medical satchel filled with familiar tools. Forgetting about his bag, he held fast to my arm, preventing me from tumbling onto our items and potentially getting impaled on anything sharp.
While I steadied myself, I eyed a rather large bone saw peeking out from where it had come undone in his bag. There was also what appeared to be an architectural drawing. Perhaps he was a doctor building his own medical offices. After he made sure I wasn’t in danger of falling, he let me go and quickly snatched up his satchel, stuffing the medical tools back in and rolling the drawing back up.
“Apologies, miss! M-my name is Henry. I didn’t mean to— I really should learn to watch where I’m going. I’ve got my mind full of a million things today.”
“Yes. You should.” Liza swiped my cane from the ground and gave the man a scowl Aunt Amelia would be proud of. “If you’ll excuse us, we must be on our way.” The man turned his attention to my cousin and snapped his mouth shut, though I couldn’t be sure if that was due to her beauty or her temper. She openly scrutinized him while he seemed to collect his thoughts. “If you’ll pardon us, Mr. Henry,” she said, latching onto my arm once more and tossing her caramel-haired head back in a most haughty manner, “we’re late for a very important appointment.”
“I didn’t intend—”
Liza didn’t wait to hear about his intentions; she led us through the maze of butchers and vendors, her pale sage skirts and parasol in one hand, and me in the other. We were moving at a pace much too difficult for me to manage when I finally wriggled free of her grasp and steered her off West Street.
“What in the name of the queen was that about?” I asked, indicating the man we’d practically run from. “He didn’t intend to bump into me, you know. And I believe he was quite taken with you. If you weren’t so abysmally rude, we could’ve invited him to the party. Weren’t you saying just yesterday that you wished to find someone to flirt with?”
“Yes. I did.”
“And yet…he was polite, a bit clumsy, but harmless and seemed to have a sweet temperament. Not to mention, he wasn’t unpleasant to look at. Don’t you enjoy a man with dark features?”
Liza rolled her eyes. “Fine. If you must know. Henry is too close to Harry and I’m quite through with men whose names begin with the letter H for a while.”
“So is walking through a butchers’ alley in January in a pale dress, yet do you see me complaining, dear cousin?” I raised my brows. “Well, I can’t help it!” she cried. “You know how nervous I am to see Mother again, especially after I very briefly ran off and joined the carnival.”
At the mention of the Moonlight Carnival we both grew quiet for a moment, silently recalling all the magic, mischief, and mayhem it had brought into our lives in just nine days aboard the RMS Etruria. In that respect, the carnival certainly lived up to its show-bill claim. Despite the trouble it caused, I’d forever remain grateful for Mephistopheles and the lesson he’d taught me, intentional or not. By the end of that cursed voyage, any doubts I’d had about marrying Thomas disappeared like a magician casting an elaborate illusion.
Certainty was empowering.
Liza wrapped her cloak about herself and inclined her head down the next street. “We ought to hurry over to Dogwood Lane Boutique,” she said. “Any dressmaker who studied under the House of Worth won’t appreciate it if she’s kept waiting. You don’t want her to take her annoyance out on your poor gown, do you?”
I craned my head around, hoping for another glimpse down the butchers’ alley, but we’d already left that blood-splattered street behind. I took a steady breath in and slowly exhaled. I wondered if boredom and Thomas’s party were truly the only reasons behind my fascination with one of the goriest districts in New York City. It had been almost a month since we’d worked on a murder case. Three blessed weeks without death and destruction and witnessing the worst the world had to offer.
Which ought to have been cause for celebration. Still, I worried over the strange sensation lingering in the pit of my stomach.
If I didn’t know any better, I’d think it felt like a twinge of disappointment.
Fit for a Princess
Dogwood Lane Boutique
Fashion District, New York City
21 January 1889
Liza took my cane and set it against the fleur-de-lis wallpaper of the dressmaker’s parlor, her eyes alight with a million romantic daydreams. I, on the other hand, imagined I looked half ready to faint. The smaller dressing lounge located off the main room was stiflingly warm. A large fire burned perilously close to racks of dresses made of chiffon, silk, and gauze. Though perhaps I was roasting because of the heavy layers of the extravagant gown I was trying on. It would be stunning for Thomas’s birthday, as long as I didn’t ruin it by sweating so much.
Bric-a-brac littered the marble mantel, inviting and homey, like much of the décor. A young woman brought in a piping-hot tea service and set it on an end table with scones, jam, and clotted cream. Two champagne flutes promptly joined the treats on a silver tray for us. Raspberries floated to the top, turning the beverage a delightful pink. I managed to shift most of my weight to my uninjured leg, though the effort was slightly exhausting as I focused on not wobbling.
“Stop fidgeting,” Liza ordered, slightly out of breath while she fluffed what layers she could on my dress. The gown was a beautiful blush color, the skirts a voluminous tulle with a beaded overlay that began from the bodice and cascaded to either side like a glittering waterfall made of crystal. Liza tugged the ribbons on my bodice a bit tighter, then covered them with the pink ruffle, which reminded me of the petals of a peony. “There. Now all you need are your gloves.”
She handed them over and I slowly tugged them up past my elbows. They were a cream so rich I wanted to dip a spoon in and taste them. I had my back to the giant looking glass and fought the urge to turn around and see the final result. As if plucking that very thought from my mind, Liza shook her head.
“Not yet. You need to put the shoes on first.” She hurried into the next room. “Mademoiselle Philippe? Are the slippers ready?”
“Oui, mademoiselle.”The dressmaker handed my cousin a pretty teal box with a satin bow, then rushed back out to the main room, ordering her employees to add more beads or tulle to other gowns.
“Here they are.” Liza approached me with a devilish grin. “Let me see your feet.”
“I’d rather not—”
I would have argued—my shoes of late had been more utilitarian and clunky than to my liking—but when Liza opened the lid and held up my new slippers, tears stung my eyes. If it were possible, the shoes were even more enchanting than the gown. They were flat silk shoes embroidered with roses and embellished with gemstones. A pale pink so exquisite I could hardly wait to wear them. When I touched them, I realized they weren’t silk—they were made of a buttery leather, so soft I could practically sleep on them. Liza helped steady me while I slipped them on, her own eyes misting as I wobbled and held tighter to her shoulder.
I couldn’t help but laugh. “Are you all right? I didn’t think the shoes were that awful.”
“You know that’s not…” Liza sniffled and swatted at my backside. “I’m just so happy to see you light up again. I know how much you missed wearing your favorite shoes.”
Hearing it spoken aloud, it seemed such a silly thing; to mourn the loss of frilly, insensible shoes. But I loved them and had taken for granted the choice to wear whatever I pleased. I lifted my skirts so I could admire my gleaming foot attire.
“You did a marvelous job designing them. I cannot think of one detail I’d change.”
“Actually”—Liza stood and dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief—“this was Thomas’s idea.”
I glanced up sharply. “Pardon?”
“He said if you could no longer wear shoes with heels, there was no reason he couldn’t have some made that were equally beautiful. If not more so.” I stared, unblinking, like a fool. She grinned. “He designed them himself. He even had extra padding added to the soles to help soften any discomfort. He noticed you often wince when you first stand. These, while they’re gorgeous, also function in a way that might ease some of your pain.”
I blinked several times, finding myself unable to formulate any sort of decent response that didn’t include crying into my pretty new skirts. It might not appear to be of much consequence to anyone without an injury, but to me it meant the world.
“They’re highly impractical,” I said, looking down at them. “They’ll get dirty and ruined—”
“Ahh, about that.” Thomas emerged from around the corner with more boxes stacked in his arms. He paused long enough to run his gaze over me, his attention slow and meandering. Heat rose in my cheeks and I subtly patted the front of my bodice down, physically checking to see if wisps of smoke were coming from my person. He finally met my eyes and grinned in satisfaction. “I had a few extra pairs made.”
“O-oh…what a delightful surprise, Mr. Cresswell! However did you know we’d be here?”
At this, I rolled my eyes skyward. Liza was almost as abysmal at acting as Thomas was at singing. She kissed my cheeks and smiled warmly at Thomas. The two co-conspirators had planned this moment out. I could have hugged them both. “I’ll be back in a few minutes. I saw this darling little robe I need to inquire about.”
Thomas nodded as she moved past him and promptly started up a loud conversation with the dressmaker in the next room. “You look stunning, Audrey Rose. Here.” He set his armful of boxes down on the settee and then took my hand in his, guiding me around to peer into the looking glass. “You’re a vision. How do you feel?”
I didn’t wish to sound vain, but when I first saw myself standing there, dressed in a gown fit for a princess, with shoes designed by a handsome yet wickedly charming prince, I felt as if I’d stepped out of the pages of a fairy tale. It wasn’t the sort of story that placed me in the role of the helpless maiden, however. This tale was one of triumph and sacrifice. Of redemption and love.
“I didn’t know you were such a talented cobbler, Cresswell.”
He tucked a stray piece of hair behind my ear, expression thoughtful. “I find myself striving to learn new talents, especially when the result is you looking—”
“Radiant?” I guessed.
“I was going to suggest ‘like you wish to destroy my virtue at once,’ but I suppose yours isn’t a terrible deduction, either.”
Thomas pressed his lips to mine in a gesture that was meant to be sweet and chaste. I was almost certain he hadn’t intended for me to pull him near, deepening our kiss. And I sincerely doubted he’d planned on lifting me into his arms, skirts puffed around us, as he walked us over to the settee and maneuvered me onto his lap, careful to mind my leg. There was truth in his assessment after all.
I ran my fingers through his soft locks, allowing myself a few moments of unfettered bliss. Times like this, when I was curled into his arms, safely tucked away from murder and corpses, I found stillness and peace. Staring into my eyes as if I offered him the same respite, he brought his lips to mine again. Recalling where we were and the danger of having someone walk in and find us in such an indecent position, I slowly forced myself to sit back. I laid my head against his chest, enjoying the solid beat that matched my own.
“It’s your birthday and yet you’re the one surprising me with gifts. Somehow, I don’t think that’s how it’s supposed to work.”
“Oh? I thought the one with the birthday had the right to choose whatever he wanted. Maybe you’ll want to ravish me for being so irresistible.”
And humble. “Thank you for the shoes, Thomas.” I looked at the stack of boxes, teetering precariously close to the edge of the settee now. He caught my stare and nudged them back to safety. “All of them. It was very sweet. And highly unnecessary.”
“Your happiness is always necessary to me.” He tilted my chin up and kissed the tip of my nose. “We’ll find new ways of navigating the world together, Wadsworth. If you can no longer wear heels, we’ll design flats you adore. If you ever find those no longer work, I’ll have a wheeled chair made and bejeweled to your liking. Anything at all in the universe you need, we will make it so. And if you’d prefer to do it on your own, I will always step aside. And I promise to keep my opinion mostly to myself.”
He considered that. “Unless it’s vastly inappropriate. Then I’ll share it with gusto.”
My heart gave an involuntary flutter and I was sure if I didn’t keep making light of the situation, I’d tackle him to the ground immediately and never be asked back to this boutique again. “Eighteen.” I sighed dramatically. “You’re practically ancient. In fact”—I breathed him in, trying to hide my smile—“I believe I smell grave dirt on you. Terrible.”
“Wicked thing.” He nuzzled my neck, prompting gooseflesh to rise in the best of ways. “I’m actually here to invite you to the slums, per your uncle’s request.”
Our warm moment came to a sudden halt. I took in his serious expression and the scientific and cool persona that he often donned before we examined a corpse. For the first time I noticed his dark clothing, the black coat and matching leather gloves peeking out from his pocket—perfect for attending a murder scene. My treacherous heart picked up its speed once more.
“Has there been a murder?” A muscle in his jaw tightened as he nodded. “Have you already been to the scene?” I asked, wiping my own expression clean.
He watched me carefully before answering. “Yes. Your uncle called for me shortly after you and Liza went out this morning. I was already planning on surprising you here, but you’d just left and Liza asked that I give you both at least an hour. I decided to go to your uncle first.”
“Actually,” Thomas said, “I don’t think I’ve expressed myself clearly. Your uncle quite nearly bit my head off when he noticed I hadn’t brought you with me, and sent me out again straightaway.” He stood and held his hand out. “Shall we see about solving another gruesome murder, my love?”
I didn’t want to be so excited by those words, yet I couldn’t deny the subtle thrill running through me, as if tiny lines of electricity had replaced my veins. I craved solving another murder almost as much as I craved Thomas’s kisses. And I craved those frequently.
I took my cane from him and went to grab my cloak when Liza marched back into the room, a stern look upon her face.
“Oh, no. If you believe I’m allowing you to rush out that door in that dress to investigate some blood-soaked murder scene…”
She closed her eyes as if the very thought was too much to bear. My cousin turned on Thomas, pointing to the door, an army general addressing her unwieldy troops.
“She’ll meet you in five minutes in the main sitting room. Unless you’d prefer for her to show up at your party in old rags or her petticoats.” Thomas opened his mouth, likely to quip about my undergarments, then shut it at the warning look Liza flashed. “This is nonnegotiable. Now, go.”
East River Hotel
Lower East Side, New York City
21 January 1889
While Liza and I had taken shelter in the dressmaker’s shop, winter had decided to run amok in the streets. The skies, which had appeared pregnant with precipitation earlier, finally gave birth to a shrieking storm. Wet snowflakes plopped against the roof of our carriage, cocooning us in a layer of frigid cold. Wind howled as it rushed through the alleyways, forcing people to pull their collars up and run as quickly as they dared over ice-slicked streets.
Even though I’d purchased new stockings and was wearing one of the warmer pairs of shoes Thomas had had made for me, my teeth began to chatter. I clamped my jaws together, hoping to will the chills away through sheer stubbornness alone.
It was impossible. My teeth clacked in the most embarrassing way. Thomas eyed me from across the hansom, then checked the warming brick at my feet, face grim.
“It needs to be reheated over a fire,” he said, half unbuttoning his overcoat.
I watched as his own body trembled before I reached over and stilled his movements. “What happened to body heat being the most effective way of preventing frostbite? If you take that coat off, you’ll freeze before you can valiantly assist me.”
He glanced up, the seriousness leaving his features at once. I swore stars danced in his golden-brown eyes. “What did you think I was doing?”
“Removing your overcoat to place about my feet?”
He shook his head, his expression laced with mischief. “I was planning on stripping bare and having you do the same. That is the best way to share body heat. I paid the driver to go around the block a few times if necessary. Figured we might sneak back to your grandmother’s house instead of frolicking around another murder scene. Since she’s traveling and the house is empty, I imagine I could get you warm soon enough.”
He dragged his gaze over me in a way that felt more searing than a simple touch. His look promised what months of flirtations had hinted at. And there was little humor in how serious he was about pleasing me. Despite the plummeting temperature in our carriage, I felt the sudden need to fan myself. He pulled his attention back up to mine, lips quirked upward.
“Perhaps you’ll be the one getting me warm. I’m not opposed to either scenario, really. Ladies’ choice.”
My cheeks pinked. “Scoundrel.”
“I love when you whisper sweet nothings to me.” Thomas maneuvered himself across the carriage and sat beside me. He opened one side of his coat, then wrapped an arm about my shoulders, drawing me near. I noticed his attention had moved to the frost-coated window, all signs of flirtations melting faster than the snow outside would. Whatever he’d seen earlier had to have been gruesome for him to not elaborate on any details and to flirt so brashly. He was doing his best to keep me distracted, which was never a good sign for the victim. We rumbled past Catherine Slip and turned down Water Street. “It won’t be much longer now.”
I nestled into my collar, breathing in the warmth of my own body. The buildings had gone from gleaming, pale-colored limestone to brick covered in grit and all kinds of sludge. Cobblestone streets gave way to muddy ones, frozen in parts and treacherous-looking for more than one reason. I spied groups of children huddled together between buildings, their faces and limbs gaunt. It was a brutal morning to be outside.
Thomas, never missing a detail, held me tighter. “They’re mostly children from Italy. Either they’ve run from their families or have been turned out to earn money for them.”
A lump rose in my throat. “They’re so young. How on earth can they make a wage?”
Thomas grew very quiet. Too quiet for a young man who enjoyed sharing facts on every subject imaginable. I noticed his fingers weren’t tapping their usual incessant beat, either. I looked out the window again and suddenly knew what he couldn’t bring himself to say. Those boys—those children—would have no choice but to turn to a life riddled with crime. They’d fight, steal, or subject themselves to worse horrors in order to survive. And some would not.
It was a fate I could not imagine for my worst enemy, let alone a child. Even though Thomas had once mentioned the world was neither kind nor cruel, I couldn’t help but feel it was unjust to so many. I stared, unseeing, as we rode by, feeling helpless.
Neither of us spoke again until we reached our destination. As our carriage rumbled to a halt, chills erupted down my spine for an entirely new reason. If the meatpacking district had been a murderer’s dream, then this building was the seat of Satan’s kingdom. The exterior appeared rougher than the men and women slumped against it, and twice as mean. It was a far cry from the dressmaker’s shop, which was filled with lighthearted warmth and decadence.
Reporters in black overcoats circled in front of the door, reminding me of vultures hovering over their next meal. I shot a glance at Thomas, noting the same dark look in his eyes. It seemed murder was the newest form of entertainment. Jack the Ripper had awakened a need in spectators that was almost as frightening as the crimes we investigated.
“Welcome to the East River Hotel,” Thomas said quietly. “We’re heading to room 31.”
Inside, the hotel appeared uninhabitable to anything other than vermin. Even the roaches and mice would probably seek better-smelling accommodations soon. Anyone who charged one cent for room and board ought to be sent directly to the workhouse. Rats scuttled under the stairs and crawled into the walls, unhurried and undisturbed by our presence.
Droppings were scattered everywhere. I took a careful step into the entry, trying not to think of disease clinging to my hemline as my skirts swished over the muck. Father’s fears of contracting illnesses were a hard habit to break. It was dark enough that I was either blessed or unfortunate to not know the full extent of the squalor. The only light in the entryway was from shafts of wan sunlight creeping between slats of rotten wood in the upper level.
Bits of graying plaster on the walls either crumbled on their own or were the unfortunate victims of angry patrons. It was hard to tell if they’d punched the wall or if they’d been shoved into it. Perhaps both scenarios were true. Wallpaper lay half ripped from the hallway, and the rest was stubbornly hanging on. It was dark like the rest of the interior. As dark as the deeds that we were about to investigate.
I made the awful mistake of looking down again and spotted drops of dried blood. Unless the victim had been attacked here, our murderer must have exited this way. My stomach gave an involuntary flip. Perhaps I wasn’t as anxious to study another loss of life as I’d imagined earlier. Maybe nearly a month free from the worry of destruction wasn’t enough of a respite at all.
Thick layers of dust and cobwebs gathered in the corners, adding to the crawling sensation along my back. Buckets of refuse attracted flies and other vermin I didn’t wish to inspect too closely. It was a horrendous place to live and an even more abysmal place to die.
“Which direction?” I asked, half turning to my companion.
Thomas motioned toward the back end of the building, down a narrow corridor. There were more rooms off to each side than I’d have thought could fit on this floor. I raised my brows, surprised there was no desk clerk station in the main entry. Peculiar for a hotel.
As we moved forward a few steps, I also noted that the door numbers began at twenty and furrowed my brow. “Is this not the ground-floor entrance?”
“There’s a stairwell through that door that leads down to the first floor,” Thomas said. “The body is in the last room on the right. Watch your step.”
It was an odd configuration. One that lent itself nicely to hiding a murderer or aiding them with escaping detection from witnesses. Before I stepped into the corridor, I dared a glance up, noticing people staring down, their expressions as bleak as their surroundings.
A mother rocked a baby on her hip while several young boys and girls watched with empty stares. I’d wondered how many times they’d witnessed police coming into their borrowed home, removing another body like yesterday’s rubbish.
I recalled my earlier worry over Thomas’s birthday party and shame crept in. While I was fretting over dessert courses and French delicacies and mourning the loss of frilly shoes, people were struggling a few blocks away to simply survive. I swallowed my revulsion, thinking of the person who’d been slain here. The world needed to be better. And if it wasn’t possible for it to be better, we, its inhabitants, needed to do better.
I gathered my resolve and moved slowly down the corridor, using my cane to test the creaking floorboards to ensure I wouldn’t fall through. A policeman stood outside the room and, much to my surprise, nodded as Thomas and I drew closer. There was no scorn or mockery in his gaze. He didn’t view me and my skirts as unwelcome, which bolstered my first impressions of the New York City Police Department. At least for the moment.
“The doctor’s been waitin’ for you both.” He pushed the door open and stepped back. “Careful, now. The room’s a wee bit crowded.”
“Thank you, sir.” I managed to step into the quarters, but there wasn’t much space to spare. Thomas moved behind me, and I paused long enough to run a cursory glance around the room. It was sparsely decorated—one bed, one nightstand, one tattered, blood-soaked quilt. In fact, as I edged farther inside, I saw the bedding wasn’t the only thing splattered in blood.
Uncle stood over the tiny bed frame, pointing to the victim. My pulse slowed. For the briefest moment, I felt as if I’d been transported back to the scene of Miss Mary Jane Kelly’s murder. It was the last Ripper crime and the most brutal. I didn’t have to move closer to see this woman had been practically eviscerated. She was unclothed from the neck down and had been stabbed repeatedly about her person.
I felt more than witnessed Thomas moving around behind me and shifted to glance at him. The rogue was almost dancing in place, his eyes alight in the most abhorrent manner.
“There is a body,” I whispered harshly. It was incredible that he could carry on as if it were a regular afternoon stroll by the river.
Thomas drew back, his hand clutching his chest. He looked from me to the body, his eyes going wide. “Is that what that is? Here I was convinced it was a Winter Ball. Shame I wore my best suit.”
“You do say you like a man with a rather large—”
“Stop.” I held my hand up. “I beg of you. My uncle is rightthere.”
“Brain.” He finished anyway, grinning at my reddening face. “You truly astound me with the direction your filthy mind travels in, Wadsworth. We’re at a crime scene; have a care.”
I gritted my teeth. “Why are you so flippant?”
“If you must know now, it’s—”
“There you two are.” Uncle had the look of a man on the verge of a rampage. I could never quite tell if death was a balm or an irritant to him. “Clear the room!” Policemen inside paused, staring at Uncle as if he’d possibly lost his good senses. He turned to a man in a suit and raised his brows. “Inspector Byrnes? I need a few moments alone with my apprentices to examine the scene. Please have your men wait in the hall. We’ve already had half of Manhattan trouncing through here. If anything else is disturbed, we won’t be of much use to you.”
The inspector looked up from the victim, taking in my uncle and then me and Thomas. If he, an American inspector, was annoyed that an Englishman was tossing him out of his own crime scene, it didn’t show. “All right, boys. Let’s give Dr. Wadsworth some time. Go ask the neighbors if they’ve seen or heard anything. The housekeeper said she saw a man—get me a description.” He glanced at my uncle. “How long’s she been here?”
Uncle twisted the ends of his mustache, his green eyes scanning the body in that clinical way he’d taught both me and Thomas. “No more than half a day. Maybe less.”
Inspector Byrnes nodded as if he’d suspected the same. “Witnesses say she rented a room between the hours of ten thirty and eleven last night.”
Uncle observed the victim again and seemed to stare through her into that calm place necessary to locate clues. People in London thought him heartless. They didn’t understand he needed to harden his heart in order to save them the pain of never knowing what happened to their loved ones.
“We’ll know more once we perform a postmortem,” he said, motioning for his medical satchel, “but an initial glance—based on the current state of rigor mortis—indicates she might’ve perished between the hours of five and six. Though that may well change once we’ve gathered more scientific fact.”
Inspector Byrnes paused in the doorway, his expression unreadable. “You inspected the Ripper murders.” It was a statement of fact, not a question. Uncle hesitated for only a moment before nodding. “If this is the work of that sick bastard…” The inspector shook his head. “We can’t let this news get out. I won’t have any panic or riots in this city. I said it before; I’ll say it again—this ain’t London. We’re not going to muck this up like Scotland Yard. We will have a suspect—or Jack the damn Ripper himself—in the jug in thirty-six hours or less. This is New York City. We don’t mess around with depraved killers here.”
“Of course, Inspector Byrnes.”
Uncle shifted his gaze to mine. He’d never asked me directly about the events of last November, but he knew as well as I did that Jack the Ripper could not be responsible for this murder. We were privy to something neither Inspector Byrnes nor anyone else knew.
Jack the Ripper, scourge of both London and the world, was dead.
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