The Half Killed: An Excerpt

I’ve been working, and editing, and writing, and editing, and researching, and editing, pretty much non-stop lately. My next book, The Half Killed, is due out later this year. It takes place in the late nineteenth century, in London. A former spiritualist, Dorothea Hawes, is forced to contend with a series of murders – many of them connected to herself – and seek to find the culprit, who may or may not be of this world.

And so, I give you an excerpt – a rather lengthy one! – of the first chapter. Okay, pretty much the entire first chapter. Because I’m nice like that.

 

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The Half Killed

Chapter One

The body doesn’t move. I don’t expect it to, and yet I’m transfixed all the same. My eyes search the thick block of a neck for the slightest vibration that would indicate a flow of blood beneath the skin. The skin itself is enough to intrigue me, cast in a pallor that no virulent illness could begin to imitate. It is this shade, this absence of color that makes the deep bruises beneath the jaw stand out, curving in a mockery of the smile that still graces the frozen features of the dead man’s face.

A push from behind forces me to take a step forward, my heel slipping on the greasy cobbles. It is a small group of onlookers gathered around the scene, but no one lingers for more than a passing glance. The poor man has nothing to recommend him. See there? The scuffs on his boots? And look at the patches on his coat, the fabric worn so thin it could lead a double life as a strip of cheesecloth. And what about his face? Oh, it’s not a handsome one. A face that could earn naught but a mother’s love, as is often said. And so the pedestrian moves on, their pace quickening until the shout of a seller or the rumble of a passing dray erases the memory of the dead man from their mind.

I know that I shouldn’t stay very long myself. Another glance from the constable, and I wonder if I’ve already worn out my welcome. His uneasiness grows the longer I stand here, and when his partner finally joins him, there is a great deal of whispering, punctuated by more than a few looks in my direction.

Not only because I’m a woman, surely. But because I am a young woman, modestly dressed, wandering the streets before the first rays of the sun have touched the dome of St. Paul’s. And most shockingly of all, because the sight of a recently deceased man sprawled across the edge of the pavement does nothing to disturb my feminine sensibilities.

And why should it? There’s nothing particularly gruesome about the scene. No blood, no other visible marks or wounds apart from the row of dark bruises beneath the unshaven jaw. If the eyes weren’t open, gazing up at the channel of brightening sky, I could almost fool myself with the belief that he had simply passed out, that any moment, he’ll groan and grumble back to life, waving his hand to clear away the inebriated haze that settled on his mind some hours before dawn.

But he doesn’t move, and one of the constables takes the liberty of borrowing a tarpaulin from a local shopkeeper, the better to shield the inert form from view. Move along, my mind tells me. Nothing more to see. And though I’m tempted to argue, I put on my best show of moving on, of slipping into the crowd and allowing their rapid pace to carry me back toward home.

A simple left turn, the burgeoning river of pedestrians sweeping me along, and I couldn’t stop if my next breath depended on it. This early in the morning, and already the streets are swollen with people. And again I think of a river, ready to overflow its banks and spill into every crevice.

The coolness brings them out. This brief respite from the sun, before the light produces an unusual warmth that hovers over the city as thick as the brown fog that clings to the rooftops in winter. But it is summer now, and the stoves are cold, the hearths swept clean. Even the thought of a flame is enough to start a prickle of sweat behind the knees, and in the evening, after the lamp lighters have made their rounds, most people tend to skirt the dim circle of yellow light that illuminates the pavement. Light is heat, and heat is light, and both must be avoided at all costs.

It is one of the great topics of London conversation, the heat. In large block letters on the front of every paper – the ink so fresh it stains the skin – the headlines shout and complain, siphoning the thoughts direct from the minds of the general populace and printing them out in black and white for everyone to read. For a pence, I have my own copy, and I tuck it under my arm until I can settle down with a cup of something and read through it without fear of being trodden underfoot by the passing crowd.

But the papers are not the only messengers, come to remind us of our current troubles. There are the missionaries, wandering the streets in their dark woolens and caps, brandishing their Bibles as a killer would a sharpened knife. The heat is a punishment, they cry. A punishment for our wicked deeds. Because we turned from God’s path, and now He has sent hell onto the earth, and we will burn in our beds, every one of us, until we bow down our heads and beg for forgiveness.

And then there are the bodies, more of them now that summer has set in. They drop where they stand, mouths parched, eyes rolling back into their heads until their hearts cease to beat. The old and the young are the most susceptible. The heat whittles away at them, preying on their weaknesses until it finds nothing left with which to work, and swiftly moves on to the next life.

It’s as if the season gains strength from every soul it takes, every day warmer than the last. The fog of winter has turned into a fetid steam, blurring the horizon and changing it to a silvery haze, until it seems that the Thames itself will evaporate to nothing more than a ribbon of cracked earth and mud.

And what of the bodies that do not perish? The figures that clog the streets and alleyways at all hours of the night? It is in them, their surreptitious movements that I find another popular topic of London conversation, though this one spoken with many furtive glances thrown over shoulders, voices lowered to a pitch almost below breathing.

But even though I’m unable to hear their conversations, I sense their restlessness, their eagerness to leave all and be done with it. For it is an exodus they speak of, nothing so epic as the biblical tales drummed into their heads when they were children, but a slow, subtle movement out of the city. And how can I possibly blame them? With word coming back that the outer counties aren’t suffering under the same drought that punishes us, who wouldn’t be tempted to pack up their belongings and make a fresh start elsewhere? It is a question I’ve often taken to asking of myself. But I doubt that my answer would find a match with many of those around me.

The church bells call out the hour as I turn the knob on Number 121, the door letting out a half-hearted squeal of protest as I press my shoulder against it, careful not to disturb the knocker that glares down at me with its grime encrusted eyes. Indeed, the great slab of painted oak sticks inside the frame today, the wood so swollen and warped that it no longer closes properly. Today, a jolt from my elbow isn’t enough to break it free. A kick from the heel of my boot does the trick, and then I’m inside again, the clamor of Chancery Lane blocked off as I make my best attempt at closing the door behind me.

My paper still pinched against my side, I pull off my gloves and tuck them into the waistband of my skirt. It is now that I feel the difference between the heat of outdoors and within, as I fill my lungs with a season’s worth of stale air trapped in a windowless room, the walls – what little can be seen of them – displaying tapered streaks of smoke from the candles and oil lamps tucked into every available space.

And there they are now, the yellow-orange pinpoints of light flickering dully as I pass through the room, my shoes leaving faint tracks in the dust that coats the buckled floorboards. If there is a window here, it is well hidden. Enormous bookcases line every wall, flanked by sideboards and wardrobes that would be more suited to a castle on the moors, their cobwebbed cornices decorated with the vulgar countenances of demonic gargoyles. They would be enough to still the heart in ordinary light, but here, with only the paltry glow of a few candles to illuminate them, their bulging eyes and forked tongues carry the power to steal the breath of a healthy man.

The shadows fail to unnerve me, and after a few minutes, my eyes adjust to the dismal light. A longer look at the candles tells me they’ve been left to their own devices for some time. Great puddles of wax coat every available surface, trickling down the sides of crates and bureaus in greasy rivulets that dribble onto the floor, waiting to be hidden beneath another month’s dirt and grime, existing without fear of ever being prodded with a broom.

My hand finds the rail, the wood worn smooth by the passage of a hundred hands before mine. And that is when, in the far corner of the room, a bundle of rags shifts to reveal the threadbare upholstery of an armchair, and beneath that, a dusky grey cat that licks at a claw with a very feline fastidiousness.

“Good morning, Mrs. Selwyn,” I say, my voice nearly cracking from disuse.

The bundle rolls onto its side. A head appears above a flattened collar, lank grey curls peeking out from under a cap that defies the laws of physics in its perch on the side of the old woman’s head.

“You’re up early.” A sniff, and then she glares at me, her wrinkled face sandwiched between layers of fabric, all of them so out of fashion that her wardrobe has long passed into the realm of curiosities.

“I was just going up to my room,” I explain, while the fingernails of my right hand carve figures in the soft wood of the banister.

“No work for you today, Miss Hawes?” There is something in the way she draws out my name, adding syllables that spring into existence on the tip of her tongue. “Ah, to spend my days lolling about, all ease and comfort.”

I close my eyes, adjust the newspaper beneath my arm and imagine half the front page smeared across my sleeve. A slow intake of breath, and there is nothing else to be done before her prepared speech breaks the silence.

“D’ye know what work does for a person? Honest, steady em-ploy-ment? Keeps a head twisted on tight, is what. The order of the days, the weeks, years in and years out…”

Her voice suddenly falters. Blinking, she seems to have momentarily lost her thread. And then her eyes brighten as if lit by a spark, her tongue running over her ivory teeth as if to remind herself where she’d been keeping them. “You’ve lost track of the time,” she says. And when I make no immediate response, she sniffs again. “You owe me.”

I lower my chin an inch. And there I stand, a study in penitence.

“I am sorry, Mrs. Selwyn. I had meant to pay you, but…”

“The first day of the week. Every week,” she stresses, allowing her words to hang in the air for a moment before continuing. “I know you’ve not been here long, but I can’t be playing the Samaritan, filling up rooms with folks who won’t… who can’t…”

“You’ll have it tomorrow.”

She sniffs a third time, and runs the side of her hand across her flaking nostrils. The grey cat slinks out from under her chair, rubs against the edge of my skirts, and stalks off.

“You were up again last night. I heard you knocking about, letting out a wail like the devil hisself was after you.” She eyes me carefully. “But you wouldn’t know anything about that, like.”

I fiddle with the corner of my paper, already soft and wilting in the room’s oppressive warmth.

“I’ll just go up to my room now. Good day.”

“You’ll be frightening off all my regulars.”

An outright lie, that is. As if a few cries in the middle of the night would be enough to scare away the sort of individual who regularly finds himself sheltering under Mrs. Selwyn’s roof.

“Yes, I imagine…” I clear my throat. “It won’t happen again.” And there it is. Another lie to match her own, only this one carries me up the stairs, my elbows occasionally bumping against the slanted walls as I lose and regain my balance. Onto the landing and I’m already warm from this slight exertion, my shoulders rising as a trickle of sweat runs down my spine. My room is at the top of a second flight of stairs, at the end of a narrow, unlit hall. Around me, I hear the rest of the household waking to life, and downstairs, Mrs. Selwyn is no doubt preparing another speech for the next unlucky soul to stumble across her doorstep.

I’ve no doubt that Mrs. Selwyn considers me something of a witch, though her own inventive mind has probably exaggerated many of the details during the last five weeks I’ve lodged under her roof. By this time, I’ve become a regular messenger of Satan, dabbling in the black arts and scrawling pentagrams on her gritty floor. That she might say prayers for the condition and keeping of my soul, I can’t bring myself to believe. For Mrs. Selwyn is the type of woman who prefers her religion to be a vague and distant thing, the good Lord and his angels residing comfortably in the stories she read out of a primer six decades ago. In her mind, God and his host must dwell somewhere near the Queen, cordoned off and quite unreachable.

But contrary to Mrs. Selwyn’s belief, there are no allusions to the dark arts in my tiny room. A bed, a small chest that leads a double life as a wardrobe, a cracked washstand, and a chair that might have been salvaged from a particularly dreary attic. There are few amenities here. The chair stands beside the bed, acting as a small table beneath its burden of a cup of water and – what would astonish Mrs. Selwyn – a creased and dog-eared Bible.

The book was here before me, no doubt left behind by the room’s previous occupant, a young man who absconded in such a rush that he left two socks – mismatched – and a pair of braces slung over the back of the chair.

The man never returned for his belongings, and the socks are now relegated to the position of stopping up a mouse hole in the baseboard. But the mice-chewed tufts of wool can’t keep out the heat that insinuates itself into the room, finding no escape with the setting of the sun. The window, a small pane of bubbled glass that looks down on an alley without an escape, refuses to open no matter how much force I might use against it, and I spend too many evenings moistening the glass with my breath before I take to beating my head against the papered wall.

But instead of abusing my head, I instead channel my energy into my fingers, and my right hand slides down the length of my left arm with a movement that has become almost instinctive. My fingers push at the cuff of my blouse until they’ve wrapped around the narrow span of my wrist, the pad of my thumb gliding over the fleshy welts of repaired skin that will forever prevent me from displaying my forearms in public. With that vain thought still tickling my conscious, I drag the paper out from under my arm and toss it onto the end of the bed, accompanied by the gloves I pull from my waistband.

Outside my window, several feet below, the morning traffic has already begun to subside. The threat of the sun’s warmth pushes people indoors, and they shuffle into the dark like tribes of Bedouin retreating beneath the protection of their tents, the blistering heat of the sun given free reign over the city for the next few hours. I adjust my hat, finally pulling out the pin and tossing the sad accessory onto the bed along with its companions.

Without ceremony, all the other pins that hold my hair in place quickly follow suit. My clothing is easily done away with, blouse and skirt soon draped over the back of the chair, sharing their space with the braces that I’ve yet to part with. I lie on the bed, on top of the blankets that have served no other purpose except to add a much needed layer of padding to a mattress that sags beneath even my slight weight, and then I close my eyes, count the fluttered beatings of my heart as my breathing begins to slow. I try not to move, even though the sweat builds on my bare skin, and my ears and nose are worried by a large fly.

At some point, I must have drifted off, because when I finally open my eyes again, the light has changed directions, and the shadows cut across the floor at shallower angles. I pull my legs back, tucking them beneath me as I struggle to sit up. The heat has made my head thick, and my throat is sore.

Pushing damp strands of hair off my face, I reach out for the Bible that sits on the chair beside me. A nub of pencil is tucked between some of King David’s Psalms, the closest thing to a bookmark at hand, and I flip through the pages for some minutes, absorbing nothing, but only feeling the weight of the paper, as thin as tissue, between my fingers.

So turgid are my thoughts at this moment, that it takes some minutes for the knock at the door to rouse me. Not until the knock has taken on enough force to shake the dust out of the wall do I call out for a brief respite from the noise while I struggle to find the correct end of my skirt.

“A note for you,” Mrs. Selwyn grumbles when I finally greet her at the door. My blouse still sticks to my skin as my fingers commence a short battle with the buttons. “Just delivered. I ought to charge you, you know, demand some sort of pecuniary reimbursement for all the trouble of trudging up here to bring this to you.”

But she knows she’ll receive no extra payment from me, so the wrinkled and folded slip of paper is thrust into my hand with a narrowed glance, as if her watery eyes will be able to see through me and into the room behind, on the lookout for some unholy ceremony only lately interrupted. And all the while, her feline companion tangles with her ankles, his tail alone throwing a tuft of hair into the atmosphere with every pass. He protests once as Mrs. Selwyn backs away, her steps purposefully loud, an affectation meant to display all the energy she’ll use simply to return downstairs and back into the depths of her chair. I’ve already closed the door on her before she’s cleared the landing, and I glance quickly at the note, reluctant to open it now that I’ve had an opportunity to read the poorly written direction.

One last minute of debate, and I tear at the shoddy seal, unfold the note and grimace at the still damp ink that transfers itself onto my fingers.

Dear Dorothea,

I pause for a moment, then blink as I realize those two words have been hastily crossed out, with another, much plainer salutation written below.

Dorothea,

The rest of the note barely suffices as a complete sentence. My eyes skim to the end of it, until they’ve fastened on the flowery signature that tells me more than the dozen other words managed to convey.

It takes only a few minutes to dress and fix my hair, the last pin slipping into a hastily braided bun before I again set my hat to my head, giving it a last futile nudge to keep it in place. Drawing in one more breath of stale air, I walk out of the room and down the stairs as fast as I can without alerting Mrs. Selwyn to my departure. But I feel her eyes on me as I walk toward the door, or rather, the eyes of her watchman, the grey cat, poised on a dusty shelf, so close to the exit that I hear his purr in my ear as I duck my head and step out into the daylight.

 

 

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