So I’ve been extraordinarily busy lately. My daughters had their gymnastics show last weekend, and my dance school had their performances this weekend. My father is in the hospital, so I’ve been back and forth visiting him, and there is the usual craziness of having three kids and finishing up this year of schoolwork and trying to sleep at some point in there, too.
And I also not only received an update on when my next novel will be released (August 25th! Pencil it in, people) but the long, agonizing march of pre-orders and marketing and interviews and reviews is about to begin.
This also means that I am free to post the first three chapters (yes, that’s right – CHAPTERS – not pages) of The Half Killed for you dear folks to peruse at your leisure. Because I’m good like that.
First, here’s the self-marketing bit.
Hey! My new novel, The Half Killed, is now available for pre-order on Amazon! Don’t know what it’s about? Here’s the back cover summary for you:
Dorothea Hawes has no wish to renew contact with what lies beyond the veil. After an attempt to take her own life, she has retired into seclusion, but as the wounds on her body heal, she is drawn back into a world she wants nothing more than to avoid.
She is sought out by Julian Chissick, a former man of God who wants her help in discovering who is behind the gruesome murder of a young woman. But the manner of death is all too familiar to Dorothea, and she begins to fear that something even more terrible is about to unleash itself on London.
And so Dorothea risks her life and her sanity in order to save people who are oblivious to the threat that hovers over them. It is a task that forces her into a confrontation with her own lurid past, and tests her ability to shape events frighteningly beyond her control.
Interesting? If you think it is, then take a gander at the first three chapters, and see if they tempt you. 🙂
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 no virulent illness could begin to imitate. It is this shade, this absence of colour 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 before I regain my balance. It is a small group of onlookers that has gathered around the scene since my arrival, 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, his pace quickening until the shout of a seller or the rumble of a passing dray erases the memory of the dead man from his mind.
I know 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 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’m a young woman, in modest dress, wandering the streets before the first rays of the sun have touched the dome of St. Paul’s. And most shocking 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 he had simply passed out, and at 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 slipping into the crowd and allowing their rapid pace to carry me back towards 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, syphoning 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 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 so 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 foetid 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 dirt 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, in their surreptitious movements I find another popular topic of London conversation, though this one is 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 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 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 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 I’m inside once more, the clamour of Chancery Lane blocked off as I make my best attempt at closing the door behind me.
My paper still pinched beneath my arm, 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 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 moments 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 feline fastidiousness.
“Good morning, Mrs. Selwyn,” I say, my voice 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 she glares at me, her wrinkled face sandwiched between layers of fabric, all of them so out of fashion 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 bannister.
“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, shift 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 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 along 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 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 to find himself sheltering under Mrs. Selwyn’s roof.
“Yes.” 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 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 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 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 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 upon the papered wall.
But instead of abusing my head, I 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 such a 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 rein 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 holding my hair in place follow suit. My clothing is done away with, blouse and skirt soon draped over the back of the chair, sharing their space with the braces 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 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 open my eyes, 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, 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 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 her knock had 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 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 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.
I pause for a moment, then blink as I realise those two words have been crossed out, with another, much plainer salutation written below.
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 a few minutes to dress and fix my hair, the last pin slipping into a hastily braided bun before I 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 I hear his purr in my ear as I duck my head and step out into the daylight.
The juice trickles over Marta’s plump fingers, settling beneath her fingernails as she tears off another strip of orange peel and quite unceremoniously tosses it over her shoulder.
“Are you sure you won’t have some?”
I glance at the mangled fruit in her hands, the section of orange, squashed from her ministrations, dripping from her fingertips. But even with the unnatural heat of the sun beating down on the back of my neck, I’m not tempted by this morsel of refreshment.
“Never mind,” she says, and pops the disassembled fruit into her mouth. A dribble of juice rolls down her chin, but it’s gone in a second, a quick flick of her tongue lapping it up. “Oh, it is a right steam bath today, isn’t it? Sure I can’t get you something to drink?”
“I assure you, I am fine.”
Another section of orange disappears, another chunk of peel thrown to the ground. All around us, the most stalwart of the city’s pedestrians brave the midday sun. Men in swallow-tail coats and collars that refuse to wilt. Mothers leading herds of smartly dressed children from one shop to another. Pigeons fluttering around gutters that contain only the most distinguished forms of refuse. Even Marta shines in this part of the city, her shrewd eyes inspecting every hansom that rumbles past us, as if another business opportunity might be hidden away inside the noble equipage.
And look at how my dear Marta is dressed! I’ve never seen her broad shoulders decorated with such finery. Bronze silk trimmed with velvet, over a blouse edged with lace. It’s a wonder she’s not succumbed to the heat, wearing so many layers, but there’s not a bead of perspiration on her upper lip that isn’t wiped away with an embroidered handkerchief before the light has a chance to reflect off the moisture’s surface.
“It’s a shame,” she says, once the fruit is demolished, a faint glistening at the corners of her mouth the only proof of its prior existence. “A real shame to see what’s become of you.”
She has seen me once in the last five weeks, and before that, it was a span of two years between meetings. I cannot but wonder which of my remembered selves she’s taken to using as a comparison.
“You’re wasting your youth, Thea, hiding away like you are.”
“Ah.” I look away from her in order to cover the subtle twitch at the corner of my mouth. “I wasn’t aware matters had gone so far.”
She pushes out her bottom lip and blows out a breath that bothers the dyed feathers poking out of her hat. “You’re doing it right now, you know. Trying not to be seen. It’s in the way you stand. I don’t remember you standing like that when you were a girl.” A dark look settles over her brow. “You need to go back to the stage, d’you hear?”
My fingers tangle together and break apart before she’s able to read something more into my brief hesitation. “No,” I say, at last. “I shouldn’t have ever been there in the first place.”
“Oh, really?” Her eyebrows, plucked into an unnaturally high arch, rise even further. “You were disposed enough towards it back then, or have I gotten it all mixed up in my head? Mind you, my memory isn’t as reliable as it used to be.”
Ah, the advantage of having someone like Marta among my acquaintance. I’m never without someone to remind me of my former mistakes.
“I was so young.” And I wince at this poor excuse, as if every sin can be readily forgiven so long as it was committed well before the last of a person’s molars have broken through. So I continue talking, offering up justifications that sound increasingly false to my ears. “It was different then. I thought it would help. I thought it would make me stronger. And it did, for a time.”
“And I’m sure the money didn’t hurt matters?”
A sigh escapes me, almost a scoff. She takes it as my reply.
“Two years you were in that bloody hospital,” she says, leaping from subject to subject with all the skill of a seasoned acrobat. “You’d think there’d be an improvement of sorts. But look at you! Like you’ve not slept or eaten proper since Michaelmas.”
There’s something in her expression now, a flash of maternal concern. And then a blink, a turn of her head, and there, it’s gone.
“How much money do you need?” Her voice is harsher now, a woman of business as her fingers delve into a discreet pocket between the voluminous folds of her skirt. I hear the clink of coins, and perhaps, if I turned my ear towards it, the rustle of a few bank-notes.
And now there is nothing left but for me to speak, and it’s amazing how quickly I revert to the gestures of my childhood, my head lowered, something like complaisance tinged with shame shaping the words that seem to have stranded themselves in the vicinity of my throat.
“One month’s rent, is all.” Out of the corner of my eye, the glint of a sovereign. “I’ll pay you back. You know I will.”
“What about food?” She presses the coin into my hand, follows it with another. “You don’t cook for yourself?” Her head shakes in answer to her own question. “You need to get a lining in your stomach before a good wind up and snatches you away.”
I’ve already stashed the coins out of sight before she passes a bank-note beneath my nose. Her grasp on the paper remains firm, and I make no move to possess it.
“In return,” she says. “A favour.”
My eyes follow the wrinkled note, until I feel like a cat stalking a frayed end of yarn. “I will do my best to oblige, Marta.”
“I’ve a girl, older than you, but just starting out. She’s taken to calling herself Lady Francesca. A load of tosh, really, but a few of my regulars have taken quite a liking to her.”
She blinks down at me, her breath held. Unfortunately, I’m in no mood to give her the easy reply she desires.
“It’s a wonder you can find enough customers in this day and age,” I say, and allow my attention to drift to a vague spot located on the other side of the street. “I hardly thought communications with the afterlife were considered to be quite the fashionable thing anymore.”
“Well, there’s the thing, you see? All these ones being taken in for fraud, self-proclaimed psychics, Spiritualists, and all of them being charged with an assortment of criminal activities, it lends a dangerous air to the proceedings. Makes the old biddies and the fine gentlemen feel as if they’re doing something they shouldn’t. And you know as well as I, there’s always a good living to be made in practices that make a person feel not more than a bit guilty after the fact.”
She puts on a charming smirk, a sign of our old Marta, come out to play.
“You know,” she says, gives my rib cage a nudge. “It would be a boon to her if you’d agree to attend one of her sittings.”
“No.” The word slips out, maybe too soon, as if I’d been waiting for the opportunity to use it.
“Not in a professional capacity, of course. I wouldn’t dream of asking you to do anything more than sit in the background and enjoy the show. But your presence might be the recommendation she’s been searching for.”
A shake of my head. “Lady Francesca, you said?” I mutter, with a fine show of disbelief. The answer is still no.
Her gaze darts up to the sky. “She chose the name. Thought it might give her something more of a distinction among her peers, as it were.”
“Makes her sound like a gipsy.”
“Yes, well.” Marta’s bosom puffs outward, her chin rising as if to accommodate this change in proportion. “She can be a bit too eager sometimes. Dramatically, I mean.”
I look up at her, and even now, after all the years gone by, I still feel small and timid in her presence. “But isn’t that what you wanted from me? A more visible eagerness for the task at hand?”
“True. But even when you were being, well, how you could get sometimes—Lord, you know you were never an easy one to work with, don’t you? But you had a quality none of these other girls are able to pick up on. You were…” Her painted mouth puckers as she searches for the missing word. “Genuine.”
“Well, thank you.”
“Now, that doesn’t mean you couldn’t have played to the audience a bit more…”
“Right. Of course.”
“It’s what they prefer now. People like to be dazzled, even if they know it’s all for show. You know, I’m even pushing Franny towards starting out with a few card tricks. Quite a talent for it, she has.”
The sun has reached its zenith now. The sheen of perspiration on the back of my neck begs to be wiped away, and on my upper lip, the salty moisture settles. Other pedestrians are seeking out the nearest shade, lingering indoors, clinging to the shadows cast by a building or even another person. But Marta strolls on, shoulders held erect as she nods in the direction of a red-faced gentleman who is too busy dabbing at his face with a handkerchief to return the salutation. And then she dives back into the conversation as if she’d never paused.
“But it’s all for fun now, isn’t it? Between you and me, our Lady Francesca couldn’t make contact with a spirit if it gave her a right kick up the arse. I mean, no one believes in it anymore. But these coddled ladies and gents, they still get a thrill out of it every now and again, no matter what these scientific minds are spouting off. It’s all entertainment in their eyes. The same as going out to the theatre, or whatever else it is that keeps them occupied these days.”
“Daft fools,” I mutter beneath my breath, though I’ve not yet decided to which group I’ve referred: the scientists, or the ones who abhor them.
“Now, see? That’s the discernment I’m talking about! No suffering of fools from you, which means with your reputation and all, the only thing wanted of you is to give Franny a bit of a nod—a blessing, as it were—and folks will be more inclined to look towards her with something like respect. It’s not as if I’m asking you to sign away your firstborn.”
“At least, not yet.”
“Oh, will you listen to this!” She cries out towards the heavens, to anyone who will listen, and a few people do turn their heads, but the attention is fleeting. “Smart words coming from you, but you’ve yet to understand something. It’s all ending. To most people, you’re nothing more than a curiosity, halfway to becoming a relic. Or even a criminal, when the mood suits.” She pauses, and I feel her eyes on me at this moment, boring into me with a strength I believe could burn through a wall if given the opportunity. She swallows, so loud I can hear it, and down her throat go whatever words, whatever questions she’s most desirous to ask me. “All I’m doing is offering you a bit of employment,” she says finally, her voice quiet. “From the few who are still willing to pay for it.”
If she expects this statement to trigger some sort of transformation in me, she’s mistaken. That is, of course, if she even takes the time to measure my reaction before plodding ahead.
“Do you remember Lord Ryall? There he was, ready to toss money on you. Put you up in a nice house, give you all sorts of pretty things, but you weren’t having none of it.”
“If I remember correctly, Ryall’s inclinations tended more towards the physical than the spiritual.”
“Be that as it may,” she says, pronouncing each word as if it’s her first lesson in phonetics. “Chances like that aren’t flowing as free as they used to. And what with this blasted heat, and all these other buggers waving their Bibles about, the pace isn’t about to pick up anytime soon.”
It’s a struggle to match the length of my stride to her own, and as her temper increases, I’m left jogging two steps for every one of hers.
“But I’ve no worries about business picking up soon enough,” she crows, a discreet look in my direction. A flick of her hand, brushing a feather off her forehead, and she’s fully composed, the stream of pedestrians breaking around her as she halts in the middle of the pavement. “I’ve received more than a few inquiries about you, you know. People asking about your…” A small gesture, indicating my person from the waist upward. “Your gifts, and all. Now, not as many as I’d like, but after that business in Chelsea, well I’ll say I’ve heard a distinct rise in interest about you. Just the other day in fact, there was a young man, quite determined to secure your services.”
I can feel the frown on my face, pulling down the corners of my mouth until I think that left unchecked, the expression could drag me all the way down to the ground. “I am not going back,” I say, and watch my words strike against her intentions with all the firepower of flower petals. “I won’t return to the stage, and I won’t have you hawking me off like a shopkeeper’s wares.”
She shrugs at this, but there is a glint in her eye, a thrill now that she realises I’m still as easy to goad as I ever was.
“So, shall I look forward to your presence at Lady Franny’s next demonstration?”
A wonder, is our Marta Summerson. Never retiring a question until she’s gifted with the reply she desires.
“I am sorry, Marta.”
“Oh, I’m not asking you to put a single ounce of effort! Stand in the corner of the bloody room and glower at us, if that suits your fancy!” She wipes the back of her hand across her brow, the first display of irritation I’ve witnessed from her all afternoon. And now, I notice even her feathers have begun to lose some of their former buoyancy. “I won’t have it, you know. I’ll not leave you to waste away under old Selwyn’s roof.”
I blink rapidly, and the reaction is enough to award her this small triumph. For I know the lengths to which she’ll reach in order to achieve a desired object.
“You’ll do something to earn your keep,” she says, her voice lower, the powdered lines of her face several inches closer to mine. “Even if it means I’ve got to haul you out by your stockings.”
Such a rare occurrence, to hear her voice a threat, even one so mild as this. In the end, I’m forced to meet her halfway. I tell her, in words labouring under the strain of having been dragged out of me, that I will “think about it”. And there, as simple as that, she’s mollified. The eyes resume some of their previous sparkle, and the feathers—oh! The feathers!—begin to dance on an imaginary breeze.
“Very well,” she says, as if I’ve still managed to disappoint her. Yet the shine doesn’t depart from her gaze. And even more surprising, the folded bank-note finds its way into my hand, followed with the promise of two more once I’ve fulfilled my part of the agreement.
“I’ll make no promise to you, Marta. You know how much I despise a séance.”
But Marta will not allow her present happiness to be thwarted. “Oh, you’ll come round.” She beams, so brimming with confidence I’m almost inclined to believe her. “After all,” she adds, and her smile broadens while her eyes retreat behind crinkled lids. “You have your price, just the same as all the rest of us.”
Mrs. Selwyn knocks on my bedroom door, three sharp raps followed by a pause the length of a breath before my privacy is snatched away from me.
“There’s a man to see you, Miss Hawes.” Her thin voice never fails to create an image of her larynx pinched between finger and thumb as she fills out her consonants. “Is this going to become a regular occurrence? I’ll not have men running up and down these stairs all day and all night. Wear out all my carpets before the end of the year.”
She blinks, tilts her head to one side until I think her cap might finally succumb to the pull of gravity, but the shapeless lump of fabric clings fast to her greasy curls, and ultimately, my eyes are drawn downward to the scrawny grey feline arching its back against Mrs. Selwyn’s heels.
“Did he give his name?” I ask, and return this morning’s bit of sewing to my lap. Only the edge of a handkerchief today—my last handkerchief—a repair to a small tear before the whole thing unravels to a mass of tangled thread in my hands.
Her dusty eyebrows pinch together. If the man gave a name, the information has already dribbled out of her ear during the arduous trip up the stairs. Nothing less than the flash of a coin would be capable of retrieving it at this point.
“He…” And here, her eyes narrow, suspicion deepening the wrinkles in her brow. “He says he knows you.”
“Knows me?” I keep my breathing steady, even counting the seconds between one inhalation and the next.
“That’s what he said, Miss. But, no.” She catches herself, her gaze far away as she relives the conversation that must have transpired only moments before. “He said he knows of you.”
And with the simple addition of a preposition, I’m back to grasping for needle and thread, tilting my work towards the light that filters through the window, my nose held in the air as if I’ve a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles perched on top of it.
“Is it away with him then? Because I’ll be charging an extra shilling to your rent if you’re going to start with bringing in visitors.” The way she pronounces the last word, tainting it with enough revulsion to make me question the level of debate that even now must be underway inside her head. For which sort of immorality is worse in her estimation? Dabbling in the black arts, or welcoming gentlemen callers in the brash light of a Tuesday morning?
I glance up at her, but as my eyes leave my work, the needle pricks my skin, causing my next words to come out with more of an edge than I’d originally intended.
“No visitors, Mrs. Selwyn. From here on out, if someone calls for me, I would be much obliged if you could tell them I no longer reside here.”
She sniffs, one corner of her mouth curling upward with the movement. Quickly, she wipes her hand across her nose before drying her moistened fingers on the back of her skirt. “Oh, of course, Miss. How silly of me to think you’d wish to be bothered, sittin’ up here all day, every day.” Her head lowers deferentially. “I’ll be sending him on his way.” One side of her mouth still quirked, she turns and walks out of the room, shutting the door behind her.
I must admit, I feel ashamed for having spoken so sharply. And when I hear her renewed tread on the stairs less than a minute later, I’m already rehearsing the beginnings of an apology under my breath. Better not to forget I paid her only yesterday for two weeks’ rent, long overdue. And, what is even more important, that my tenure here depends entirely on keeping myself in her favour. However much of it there is to go around.
I look up, prepared for Mrs. Selwyn’s knock. One, two, three, raps in all before I call out to her, my voice carrying a heavy enough note of contrition to be heard through the door and into the hall.
“Yes, Mrs. Selwyn? Is there something else?”
The door opens again, and the old woman’s reedy voice pipes up from behind the great slab of warped wood.
“A Mister Chissick to see you,” she announces, her watery eyes practically glistening in triumph, her fingers still toying with the coin that must have purchased Mister Chissick’s passage to the upper storeys of the house.
And here I sit, not in any way prepared to welcome a visitor. Yesterday’s stockings still lie on the floor, curled and crinkled like two intertwined snake skins. The uneaten end of a pasty sits in the midst of a ring of crumbs, more sustenance for the next mouse daring enough to venture into the room.
And there are other things. More than enough to showcase my lamentable housekeeping skills. An unmade bed, a stack of newspapers about to topple over, a floor in dire need of sweeping. But there’s no time to put everything to rights, or to manage at least some semblance of tidiness, before there’s a blur of skirts and dust as Mrs. Selwyn disappears, the grey cat letting out a shriek of irritation as she nearly tramps on his tail in her haste to remove herself from my line of sight.
Mister Chissick, however, does not disappear. Very near to the door he remains, hat in hand. A hat with a short brim that appears to have borne the worrying of his fingers on more than one occasion. Perhaps a bowler, in one of its finer days. The absence of a covering on his head allows me to study the man’s features. Years of standing onstage, gazing out across a sea of darkened faces no doubt have trained me. Another blink, and I can even begin to count the individual lashes that frame his eyes.
He takes a single step forward and pauses. The light from the window crosses his face, setting fire to the tinge of red in his hair. A few strands cling to his forehead, darkened with sweat, and I’m reminded of the heat that adheres stubbornly to every corner of the room.
“Miss Hawes,” he says, such a strength of certainty in those two syllables, and I’m nearly convinced the two of us are old acquaintances, the use of my surname a mere formality to be done away with once the offer of a chair is made.
“Mister Chissick?” I try out the name for the first time, pushing it towards the tip of my tongue, my jaw jutting forward with the exaggerated pronouncement.
“That’s correct.” A movement of his arm, and I suspect he stopped himself from offering his right hand in greeting. He glances around the room. I’m seated in the only chair, but despite the lack of furnishings, all of my forgotten manners come flooding back.
“Will you sit down?”
A slight hesitation before he commandeers the portmanteau with no small amount of grace, easing himself down in an attempt to mesh his own form with the hard lines of the makeshift seat. His hands find a resting place on his knees, his fingers drumming upon the hat now perched on his thigh. He clears his throat, or begins to, before he gives up on the endeavour halfway through.
A noise such as this fills me with an expectancy of a greater speech to come. But instead, long, tapered fingers reach into a coat pocket in order to retrieve a wallet, only to remove a folded slip of paper, yellowed with age. He unfolds it with such care that I half expect this mysterious note to bear the answer to some ancient riddle. And then he reaches out to slip the paper between my own fingertips, the battered page leaving a light layer of powdery residue on my skin, the evidence of its slow decay.
Mister Chissick nods to the document. “This is you?”
Even after all these years, the act of seeing my name in print still produces a twinge of surprise, centering itself in my abdomen before it spreads upwards—upwards and outwards—freezing my rib cage in place so my next breath will take some effort. It’s a newspaper clipping I hold in my hands, the creases so worn that I wonder it didn’t fall to pieces during the course of its journey from his hand to mine. It’s impossible to locate any sign of a date, or even the identity of the paper in which this article must have appeared, but judging from the author’s flattering tone, it cannot be less than seven or eight years old.
But it’s the drawing at the top of the column that catches my eye, the black ink now faded to a dull grey. The young girl in the picture is so removed from my current self I’m ashamed to admit it takes a full minute to recognise my own portrait.
It’s not a bad likeness, all told. Much younger, of course. See the softness in the lines of my jaw, my cheekbones barely visible? The hair is the same though: still pale, still thin. And the sharp point of my chin, forcing my face into the top-heavy shape of an inverted teardrop. In a fleeting moment of vanity, I consider folding up the paper and keeping it for myself.
He reaches out for the fragile clipping, the sleeve of his coat climbing high on his wrist, revealing several inches of sun-deprived skin and light brown hair. With even more care than previously shown, he folds the paper in half, once more, and again. As it disappears into the recesses of his wallet, I can’t help but wonder for how long my illustrated face has slumbered there.
“I had the pleasure of witnessing one of your demonstrations,” he says, eyes down and fingers re-adjusting the folds of his coat. “Nine years ago.”
“As did many others, I am sure.” My gaze lingers round and about the area of his right breast pocket, but there’s no outward sign of the portrait that resides inside. No doubt I should consider myself fortunate if I ever see it again.
“The papers always wrote very warmly of your particular talents, Miss Hawes. Some even heralded you as one of the leaders of the Spiritualist rebirth.” His blue eyes widen slightly as he speaks, and when he leans forward the portmanteau creaks in sudden protest of his shift in weight.
And now, I find, a minute must pass before I’m able to locate my voice.
“Some papers did.” One corner of my mouth twitches upward. “But not many. I was never theatrical enough to satisfy the tastes of most critics. And besides all that, Spiritualism is dead, Mister Chissick. Our countrymen have firmly embraced this new era of reason and logic. My time has passed, or weren’t you aware?”
He says nothing to this. Only the same curious gaze that does little to lend my speech any strength.
“If that same paper were to write of me today, if they wouldn’t consider it an utter waste of ink, I’d be painted as one of the greatest charlatans to have ever set foot in London. And that drawing wouldn’t be half so flattering.”
A hint of a smile from him, and I gain confidence he’s listening. But whether or not he’s bothered to truly absorb a single word I’ve said is a feat yet to be seen.
“I am no longer the same girl you saw—nine years ago, was it? People are too worldly to be moved by a few amateur parlour tricks performed by a slip of a girl in a white shift and bare feet. Unfortunately, perhaps, I am what the public makes me, and they’ve moved on.”
The sun is moving steadily across the room, and my feet begin to feel the warmth from the shaft of light pouring in through the window. A soft rustle of fabric, and I’ve shifted several inches closer to the edge of my chair, this new angle casting young Mister Chissick’s face in a warm-toned shadow.
Ah, I said “young”, didn’t I? And here’s where a touch of my old superiority shines through. Any gambling man with a spare shilling would bet that Mister Chissick is my elder by no less than ten years. But still, I prefer to fancy myself as the most mature person in the room, the one most experienced in the ways of the world. Give me that satisfaction, will you? As slight a one as it is.
“And what about the spirits, Miss Hawes?”
I’m flustered momentarily by the realisation that the conversation seems to have progressed without my knowledge. “I beg your pardon?”
“Have they moved on? The spirits?”
When I still hesitate, he leans back, or rather shifts into a more rigid position that vaguely mimics my own.
“Mister Chissick.” Strange how much I enjoy pronouncing his name, the feel of it on my tongue. “If you are even to trust in the existence of such phantoms, then yes, I believe they have moved on.”
For me, it is no difficult thing to lie, but this one tests my limits. For another minute, I ramble on, speaking absolute nonsense, one word falling over the next as quickly as they enter my head. My guest listens with all the attention of an eager pupil, struggling to become the favourite of his teacher. But something else passes over his eyes, a hardening of sorts, and the brightness he carried into the room with his entrance fades as fast as he can blink.
Two words are all he offers in the wake of my wandering speech. Without another sound, his hands return to his knees and he stands, the erstwhile bowler dangling from two crooked fingers as if he’s forgotten about its presence. No farewell from him, no apology for this hasty departure, and he walks towards the door, one arm already extended, his hand curving around the smudged doorknob. When he turns around, I feel the oxygen pull into my lungs, and my chin rises. I use the movement as a distraction, so he won’t notice the shudder that invades my chest under the weight of his gaze.
“Whatever you are, Miss Hawes,” and he pauses, eyes narrowing. “Whether it was simply a few well-executed tricks performed for the entertainment of a gullible audience, or something else entirely, you do have a talent, and I’m sure it’s one of which I’m in desperate need.”
A long span of silence follows. For all of my skill at seeing what others do not, I stare up at him, my mind caught in the laborious chore of deciphering basic English into something I can understand.
He moves away from the door, his hat tapping out an irregular rhythm on his thigh. “I’m sorry, I didn’t want to give you any cause for alarm.” He sighs, and his pause serves to alarm me more effectively than anything else he’s said until now. “I beg your pardon, but I was directed to a former associate of yours, and she informed me of your current whereabouts.”
I nod my head once. “Marta Summerson.”
“She said you wouldn’t mind—”
“She says a great many things, I assure you.”
He takes another step forward, the hat once more clenched between both hands, and the introductions have gone back to the beginning. “I feel a compulsion to be honest with you, Miss Hawes. I’m a man of God. Or it was once my intention, not so very long ago. I was to lead only a small congregation, but…” He spreads his hands, his arms, and I’m left to fill in the blank with whatever I can conjure.
“And you’re compelled to tell me this because…?”
“Well, I think it would do much towards building a measure of… well, something of a trust, or a confidence between us, don’t you agree?”
If I could make heads or tails of what he is trying to tell me, perhaps I could provide him with a more satisfactory reply. As it is, I can merely blink up at him for several seconds, while I wonder if his arrival here is nothing more than one of Marta’s less successful attempts at a joke.
“Mister Chissick, I am afraid I don’t quite understand your line of reasoning.”
He takes this as an invitation to continue, and begins to pace from one end of the room to the other, seemingly oblivious to the mess that surrounds him on all sides. The moment he speaks, however, the pacing stops and his probing gaze finds its way back to my face.
“It’s no secret how people of your sort are regarded by the church, Miss Hawes. Especially in these last months. But I assure you, I have never in my life shared the sentiments of those of my former acquaintance. It is one of the reasons why I was never given a congregation to lead, and also why I find myself standing here, asking for your help.”
“So, I take it you’ve not come here to save my soul?”
There it is. That elusive smile, tight-lipped, bringing out a fine web of lines from the corners of his eyes.
“Yes?” Still smiling, the poor man.
“What do you want?”
And now he is walking towards me, pushing his limp hair from his forehead as though to see me more clearly. He beats his hat against his leg, and I push down the urge to rescue it from his abusive possession before the wool is battered beyond repair.
“You will take no offense if I am blunt?”
“It is a… delicate matter.”
“I am afraid you’ll find most things are delicate matters, but still we survive.”
He clears his throat, nods twice, and returns to the portmanteau. For a moment, he sits forward, but this posture doesn’t suit him, so he slides back, shoulders falling slightly as a long breath slides out of his lungs.
“There is a body.” He hesitates there. But, no. It’s not a brief intermission between statements, but rather a full stop, and it becomes my responsibility to carry the thread along.
“I assume you mean the body of one who is recently deceased?”
Another sigh. “Yes.”
“That’s how it appears.”
“And you’re here to request my help.” Spoken without a hint of question in my voice.
An abrupt motion forward, and his elbows move to where the armrests would be, dipping a few inches when he realises none exist on this particular seat. “As much as you would be willing to give,” he says, hiding his awkward movement with a straightening of his shoulders. “And, of course, there would be some remuneration.”
Ah, so he has been speaking to Marta.
“Reverend.” I shut my eyes, biting my lip at my mistake. “Mister Chissick, I am sure you’re not unaware that our fair city has a veritable army of police at its service, detectives and whatnot, each and every one of them more than up to the task of pursuing the murder of yet another young woman. Mere sleight of hand is not enough to recommend me for this, or any task. I’ve no doubt a brief foray to Scotland Yard—”
My hand fidgets with the edge of my cuff, tugging it down until I’ve worked at least a thread or two free from the weave. “Yes, what?”
He looks at me. It’s a different expression on his face than before, and I sense he’s studying me, his body quite still, his gaze fixed on mine. Finally, after a minute, or two minutes, or one hundred minutes, he opens his mouth to speak.
“I never said the body in question belonged to a young woman.”
And this is when I’m undone. It was the ghost of a vision that leaked into my head while he spoke, the voices ringing to life and then dying as I pushed them out again. But because I was lax, because I failed to attend to all the details of our conversation, I lost track of which images were put into my head by his words, and which came of their own volition.
“I am… I am sorry.” The stammering unnerves me, but I press on regardless. “It’s this heat, I think. I can’t…” The wave of a hand. A fluttering of eyelids. Nothing else, but it’s enough to show that Mister Chissick is all concern.
“Shall I fetch you something? A glass of water, perhaps?”
“No, I am fine.”
“Fresh air, then? I could open the window for you.”
“Thank you, but, no.” I neglect to mention that the window is well sealed with countless layers of paint and grime, aside from the amount of moisture in the air that has swollen the wood and distorted its shape so it may never be moved from its sill. But no matter, really, since I’m certain that should I ask him to reverse the flow of the Thames for me, he would not rest before finding a way to achieve it.
A moment of silence follows, as I strive for some level of composure. I tell myself not to raise my gaze from the level of my lap, but it’s as if my sight has taken on a will of its own, and I’m soon studying the line of his jaw, the fine growth of stubble on his chin. “What you’re asking me to do, I am not sure… I’d rather not…” At the look on his face, I close my mouth, rearrange my thoughts. “I’ve spent most of my career on stage. I am a performer, an actress. And not a very skilled one, at that. I don’t think I am capable of providing you with the help you seek. In fact, I am quite certain I could not.”
He is leaning forward again, always forward, until I think he’ll abandon his seat entirely and drop to his knees in front of me.
“Please,” he says. The only thing he says.
My eyes drop to the unfinished sewing in my lap, the neat stitches I’d been taught to do so well.
“You can walk away at any time. I wouldn’t dream of forcing you into a situation that would cause you any sort of discomfort. But…” And now it’s his turn to stammer, to hesitate, to flounder in the open sea of awkward pauses. And when he regains his voice, the words are softened, the edges buffed smooth during the time it took for him to line them up on his tongue. “One look, Miss Hawes. That’s all I ask.”
One look, he says. As if he has any idea what I might see.