Home > Capturing the Devil (Stalking Jack the Ripper #4)(4)

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

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 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.”

“How clever.”

“You do say you like a man with a rather large—”

“Stop.” I held my hand up. “I beg of you. My uncle is right there.”

“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.”

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