Home > Capturing the Devil (Stalking Jack the Ripper #4)(6)

Capturing the Devil (Stalking Jack the Ripper #4)(6)
Author: Kerri Maniscalco

I mulled over details of the Ripper case. Each murder scene had been burned into my memory—I didn’t have to dig too deeply to recall their facts. I doubted I’d ever forget those crimes. I stared down at this victim. The bruising on her neck was different. Instead of the Ripper’s long fingerprint blossoms of crushed flesh, this pattern was more akin to striations. I noticed a pair of torn stockings on the floor.

“This victim, given the marks on her neck, was likely strangled with her own stockings. The Ripper committed his crimes by use of his hands.” Uncle’s expression shifted once again to pride. His acknowledgment was welcome, yet felt a bit strange given the circumstances. I wasn’t sure I wanted my premier talent to be deciphering corpses, but there were worse titles to hold. “The knife”—I nodded toward it—“is also another difference. Jack the Ripper never left a weapon behind.”

“Excellent.” Uncle inhaled deeply. “What is a more obvious difference?”

Thomas pushed himself into a standing position and tucked his journal into an inner pocket on his jacket. “This victim is older than each of the Ripper victims by at least a decade.”

I stopped listening to Uncle and Thomas as they traded theories like weather statistics. A hint of a memory tried surfacing from the depths of my mind. It was hazy, however, similar to squinting at an object through thick fog. I could almost make out the shape of it…

“The unsolved murder from the Etruria,” I said as the memory finally broke free. “That crime was similar in nature to this one.”

In fact, if I recalled correctly, Thomas and I had worried we’d unleashed a Ripper-inspired murderer in America. The conversation between my uncle and Thomas halted immediately. Both men slowly blinked at the connection. For a few cursed moments, the only sound was our breath juxtaposed with the utter silence coming from the victim splayed out on the bed.

“What we need to do is get a look at the passenger log of the Etruria,” I continued when it became clear my uncle and Thomas were flummoxed by my deduction. “It might be the best way of hunting down this murderer.”

“Assuming the murderer used his actual name.” Thomas looked skeptical. “Proof is not required when booking passage across the sea.”

“You’re right. I doubt he used his true name,” I said, leaning on my cane. “But, at the very least, it could potentially give us an alias that might be his undoing.”

Uncle stared at the room and I wondered what he was actually seeing. After a minute he motioned toward the corpse. “Let’s finish with our inspection. I’ll ask Inspector Byrnes to send someone over and fetch any information they can get from the Etruria passenger manifest.”

With that settled, I faced the body and tried calming the excited thrum of my pulse. I licked my lips, hoping the hunger didn’t show in my face. It was hardly the time to appear flushed and bright-eyed. Though if Thomas could dance around earlier as if we’d been invited to a grand ball, then I ought to be forgiven for this transgression in decorum.

I felt the pressure of Thomas’s look almost as acutely as if he’d reached over and touched me. Uncle might be preoccupied, but Thomas never missed any shift in my mood.

I glanced at him, unashamed. His eyes were dark with worry. He had cause to be afraid; I hardly recognized myself. I shouldn’t delight in such violence, yet there was no denying how extraordinarily alive I felt while studying death.

Perhaps it was the devil in me, begging to be set free. Without further ado, I obliged.

FIVE

A HAUNTED PAST

AUDREY ROSE’S ROOMS

FIFTH AVENUE, NEW YORK CITY

21 JANUARY 1889

Before we left the hotel, Inspector Byrnes promised to call on us with more details of who the victim was, and without permission to perform or observe the postmortem, Thomas, Uncle, and I retired to our home to await the news. After supper, I excused myself to change and noticed an envelope postmarked from London waiting on my vanity.

Curious, I slit it open with a swift flick and read the neat, unfamiliar script.

Word has reached me about your upcoming nuptials. I am en route to New York and shall arrive in two weeks’ time. Do tell Thomas I wish to speak with him before the wedding ceremony.

It’s of the utmost importance. I have something he needs.

Odd. Neither Thomas nor I had spoken to anyone other than Liza and my father about our hope to marry. And my father certainly wouldn’t have told anyone we wished to be engaged without granting Thomas an audience with him first. There were certain customs that needed to be met in the correct sequence. Once my father agreed, Thomas would need to write to his family. Until all of the necessary paperwork had been drawn up, no one outside of our immediate families would be privy to an engagement. And yet… someone else knew it was possible. In fact, they seemed already convinced a wedding was in our near future.

Rubbish.

I crumpled the letter and fed it through the ornate grate covering the fireplace, watching as its edges shifted from black to orange before fully catching fire. I waited until it had disintegrated to ash before turning away. An uneasiness settled into my stomach, making itself quite cozy. There wasn’t anything menacing about the note, but the lack of signature was troubling.

If it were Thomas’s sister, Daciana, she would’ve surely signed her name, and the note would’ve been as warm and friendly as she was. I imagine she’d send a letter directly to her brother if she had a message specifically for him. It made no sense that she’d write to me instead, asking me to pass her wishes along. If not Daciana or her beloved Ileana, then who would ask to speak with Thomas before our wedding?

Part of me worried it was something devised by the impish ringmaster with whom I’d played a dangerous game of illusion. Would Mephistopheles have spies in New York? I inhaled deeply. There was no way the ringmaster would trouble himself with our lives anymore. He knew my heart belonged only to Thomas. He wasn’t that much of a devil.

A soft knock came at the door, dragging my mind away from its endless circling. My imagination often crafted elaborate tales. This was likely another one of them. “Come in.”

Liza waltzed in with a fragrant cup of tea, then stopped short, crinkling her nose as she waved her free hand about her face. “It smells like burnt parchment in here. You’re not setting our plays on fire, are you?”

I set my cane against the settee and plopped down. I traced the brocade pattern on my aquamarine skirts, hesitating. It all seemed so silly now. “I received a letter.”

Liza crossed the room and handed me the tea. “Yes, I imagine with a possible wedding coming up you’ll receive quite a few of those. Did you burn this particular letter?”

I nodded, taking a quick sip. There was an earthy yet spicy taste to it that wasn’t at all unpleasant. I managed to drink a bit more before answering. “I—It seems I’m the recipient of a possible veiled threat. Though the more I think on it, the more I may be overreacting. Perhaps I’m suffering from jitters before Father gives his blessing. That’s normal, isn’t it?”

At this confession, Liza’s eyes nearly popped from her head. She hurried over and—after setting my tea down—clutched my hands in hers, face alight with excitement. “A scandal! Intrigue! You do get to have all the fun. Do you believe it’s a scorned lover, seeking revenge?”

“What? Why would you believe that?” I stared into my cousin’s expectant face and finally relented. “Well, to be truthful, Mephistopheles did cross my mind. He enjoys meddling, but we were hardly lovers. And while I might have had a momentary lapse in judgment, there was never any true danger of me falling in love with him.”

Liza looked at me sadly. “Sweet cousin, I know you didn’t harbor feelings for Mephistopheles. I was actually talking about Thomas.”

I opened my mouth and shut it as I turned the notion over. “Thomas has not…” I shook my head. “He’s not courted anyone before.”

There was an uncomfortably long beat of silence that stretched between us.

Liza plucked at the frills of her skirts. “Are you certain? Has he actually said those words to you, or are you guessing?”

“I—” I went to argue, but—as was the case where matters of the heart were concerned—my cousin was blastedly correct once again. “I imagine he would’ve mentioned by now if he’d courted anyone in the past. He’s always been so serious about his work with Uncle.” Liza seemed ready to say something else but pressed her lips together instead. I sighed. “This is ridiculous. Thomas doesn’t have a former lover who’s seeking to ruin our wedding. Say that were even possible, how might she know of our betrothal plans?”

“Rumors. Gossip. You know there’s nothing quite as scandalous or delicious as a good romance. Especially since you and Thomas have become well-known in London. A butler or servant might’ve seen correspondence and started a chain of ill-kept secrets.”

“If we’d sent out invitations or even letters to our families, that might be.” I picked my tea up and let the fragrant steam soothe me. “Maybe it’s Jian or Houdini or someone else from the Moonlight Carnival who’s playing a rather cruel joke. I wouldn’t be surprised if they sent an anonymous letter to someone. You know their sense of humor is a bit warped.”

The more I rambled, the more unlikely my guesses became and the more uneasy I felt. My cousin’s expression hardly helped mend my worries. Liza plastered on a smile. “You’re probably right. I’m sure after ten days of annoying you, kissing you once for all of two seconds, then running off to the next city to find another conquest, the ringmaster has set spies on you and wishes to ruin your hypothetical wedding by sending notes to newspapers across the pond.”

Bloody hell. I regretted telling her about the unfortunate kiss. Thomas, however, took it all much better than I deserved. He only wished I’d kneed Mephistopheles in a sensitive body part for taking advantage of me.

   
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