A little while ago, I won an award. I’m usually an “honorable mention” kind of person, so to actually win something felt a little bit unprecedented. But the wonderful people who frequent the r/fantasy subreddit had a vote and my story “All Ends” won for Best Short Fiction of 2019.
(Some notes: I tied with Alix E. Harrow, author of The Ten Thousand Doors of January.)
(The story can be found in the anthology Heroes Wanted, currently available for FREE on Amazon)
The award arrived yesterday. It is aptly named “The Stabby.” I am giddily proud of this little sticker.
In – minor – celebration of this event, I’m going to post “All Ends” in its entirety here (I mean, the anthology has nineteen different fantasy stories from authors like Michael Sullivan and Will Wight and Phil Tucker and K.S. Villoso and many more, so my suggestion would be to check that out) for those who just want a quick click and read.
So without further ado, here is… “All Ends.”
She is such a small thing. Small and delicate, made all of limbs and sharp angles yet to be grown into. Marit notices this first before anything; the slightness of her, how she seems to have shrunk with the absence of breath and life.
Pale hair, stiff and straight as straw scattered across the floor. Eyes closed, thank God. Lips gray and parted. Nostrils still flared with fright, or anger, as if she is ready to clamber up from her pose on the floor and admonish everyone around her for letting such a thing come to pass.
And there is her neck. Broken, Marit thinks. Decorated with livid bruises.
The dead don’t bruise.
The thought slips away as swiftly as it came. Marit brushes her hands across the front of her skirt – once, twice, three times – and steps forward.
“Fetch the police.”
The other girls stand around, still in their shifts and dressing gowns. Yesterday’s rouge and face paint is smeared across their cheeks, smudges of kohl deepening the shadows beneath their eyes. Mrs. Talbot has yet to be roused, so it is Marit’s voice that carries above the hum of restless worrying.
“The police!” She tugs at the sleeve of the girl closest to her, a more recent arrival to Mrs. Talbot’s establishment and the one who is the nearest to being properly dressed for the day. “Stop gaping like a trout and go!”
Now that she’s spoken the others begin to press in, but Marit shoos them away. “Someone wake Mr. Fanny. Clear him out of here before we’ve got everyone traipsing in and out of the house.” One of the kitchen maids glances around at the assembled company before peeling away from the group and rushing towards the back stairs. “The rest of you go to the dining room. There’ll be breakfast, for those of you who still want to eat it.”
They shuffle away, some of them twisting their heads around to look back, the strips of rags tied into their curls bobbing around their shoulders.
“Julia,” Marit calls, and one of the women pauses at the door leading out of the bedroom. “Will you wake her?”
Julia sets one hand on the side of the doorframe, her lacquered fingernails scraping at the soft, peeling paint. “I’d rather not.”
Marit stands beside the body. Her fingers twitch again and she looks towards the bed, wondering if she should take one of the sheets and use it to cover the girl.
Cora, she reminds herself. The girl’s name was Cora.
“She’ll need to know.” Marit hitches up the hem of her skirt and drops down onto her heels. Her hands hover over Cora’s own skirt, the bottom of it twisted around her thighs. There is blood there, she realizes. A streak of it on the pale fabric of Cora’s nightgown, marring it like a slash of rust. Her gaze flicks back up to the girl’s neck, her head tilted to the side at that unnatural angle. “There’ll be police here, and… oh, God.” She presses her hands against her knees. The heat is there, just under her skin. There would be police, and too many people coming in and out. Too many witnesses. Too many.
“I’ll go.” Marit stands up, groaning as she does, no matter that she is too young to feel such an ache in her joints so early in the morning. “Could you stay here? Make certain no one else comes in before the police arrive?”
Julia follows Marit out into the hall and takes up a post outside the door. Marit hears the strike of a match in her wake, smells the smoke of a cigarette before she even reaches the stairs. Up and up, then, past other rooms already filling with gossip, with the clatter of wardrobes and chamber pots and drinks the girls aren’t supposed to have with them. Past the door where Mr. Fanny stands, half-dressed, one strap of his braces dangling off his shoulder while he smooths his hand over a greasy tonsure of gray hair.
“Miss Marit,” he says with a nod as she passes. No matter that he has no shirt on beneath those falling braces, that his feet are bare and his boots are tucked beneath one arm. Or that the room he’s currently loitering outside of is next to Marit’s; that she heard too much of what he and one of Mrs. Talbot’s girls got up to last night.
Marit returns the nod and moves on without a word, towards the next set of stairs, narrower than all the others. These twist and tilt, dark but for the sparse light bleeding in from the floors above and below.
Mrs. Talbot has her room up in the attic, up and away from it all. She prefers the peace, she says. Prefers the cold, claiming the rest of the house stays too warm with so many bodies writhing around in it. Marit pauses outside her door, her left hand twisting in the fabric of her skirt before she knocks with her right.
There is no immediate answer. Of course there wouldn’t be. It is too early in the morning, daylight hardly cutting through the whorls of frost on the windows. The only reason the rest of the household is awake is because of one girl’s screams upon finding Marit bending over Cora’s crumpled body in the middle of her bedroom floor.
Another knock, this one hard enough to shake a bit of dust free from the walls. Marit presses her ear to the wood and counts to ten. When she hears nothing in response to her assault on the door, she grasps the knob and gives it a slow twist.
The room is swathed in shadows. Marit ducks her head as she steps through the low doorway, and her shoulders remain bowed even though the ceiling is still at least two inches above the top of her head. Drapes cover every window, heavy and red as dried blood. A lamp burns low on a table beside the bed, the oil at the bottom nearly all used up.
Her steps are muffled by the countless rugs on the floor, their edges overlapping, curled corners and knotted fringe threatening to catch her heels if she’s not careful where she sets her feet. The bed sits at the head of it all, a mound of pillows and thick blankets acting as the source of the river of fabric that flows out around the room.
She arrives at the side of the bed without having made a sound. In the center, propped up on several pillows, is a head of red hair, the rest of the face hidden beneath embroidered covers.
“Alice?” Marit touches her on the shoulder, her fingers squeezing through the heavy layer of blankets. “Alice, wake up.”
The head lolls to one side and a hand appears, thin fingers scratching at the trail of dried saliva on her chin, one reddened knuckle rubbing at a freckled nose. Eyes open then, only to close again before a groan rumbles from beneath the blankets. “Where’s my coffee?”
Marit touches the woman’s shoulder again, her grip strong enough to drag her out of bed and onto the floor should she try it. “A girl is dead.”
The head stills. Alice shifts her weight onto one elbow, using her other hand to push the covers back as if they would threaten to strangle her. “No… what? What did you say?”
“I found Cora in her room this morning. She’s dead.”
Alice lets her head fall back onto one of the myriad cushions behind her, blinking rapidly at the ceiling while her throat convulses with several consecutive swallows. “Begin again.”
Marit takes a step back. Some of the girls below, she knew, would take advantage of such familiarity and settle themselves on the bed, or at least lounge into one of the nearby armchairs. But she remains straight and standing, her hands pressed flat against the front of her thighs, as if she could keep herself upright with the strength of her own arms.
“I was making my rounds this morning. Doors were still locked. Windows shut. Mr. Fanny was still in with Julia—”
Alice makes a sound at this, something quick and grating from the back of her throat.
“—and I arrived at Cora’s room. The door wasn’t closed properly. The doorknob sticks in the cold, but everyone knows how to work it properly.” She closes her mouth before she can babble further. A lick of her lips and she delves in again. “She was on the floor. Well, she’s still on the floor now, but… I think her neck is broken. There’s bruising, though. On her neck. It’s…” The scene is there, so clear in her mind. It will always be there, she fears. An indelible image seared into her memory.
The bed creaks as Alice sits up. The blankets pool around her waist like a night’s skin shed at the onset of day. Her hair, a shade of red unequal to anything found in nature, tumbles over her shoulders in tangled spirals. She looks younger now than she does in the evenings, tied into her crinolines, fake jewels glittering at her throat and ears. A smudge of powder still clings to the creases around her eyes, and she rubs at them with the heel of her hand.
“I expect this place will be crawling with peelers before long.” She looks up at Marit, narrow brows furrowed. “Did you send for them?”
“I did. Well, Maisy’s off to fetch them.”
“How soon do you believe they’ll arrive?”
Marit lifts one shoulder and lets it fall. “Depends on how important they deem us to be.”
“Not with any bloody measure of haste, then.” Alice pushes the covers away and swings her legs over the edge of the bed. The moment her feet touch the floor, she leans forward, her elbows on her knees, her head buried in her hands. “I cannot think about this. I cannot.” She twists her head around and peers through the gaps between her fingers. “Cora? Our Cora?”
A noise reaches them from downstairs, the slam of a door followed by the run of rapid footsteps on the stairs. Marit holds her breath until another door closes, and then silence. “I don’t remember her being with anyone last night.”
Alice shakes her head. “It was her night off. She was in her room, I thought.” She flicks her fingers through the air, lifting her head enough to stare across at an empty portion of the wall. “Alone. She should have been alone.”
“I need to return downstairs. I left Julia to guard Cora’s room, and the police—”
Alice looks up, letting her other hand fall from her forehead. “Do you wish to keep to my room while they’re here?”
“I am not afraid.” She searches her own words for the lie in them, but recoils before she can find it. “I found Cora. I’ll have to speak to them.”
“I don’t think it wise, Marit.” A blanket slides to the floor as Alice stands. She steps over it and places herself in front of Marit, her chin tilted upwards in order to look her direct in the face. “What if they should recognize you?”
Something almost like a laugh burbles in the back of her throat, despite the darkness of the situation. “You exaggerate my fame. I am an unknown creature. And those who do care to keep an eye on me… well, I doubt they want knowledge of my existence cast about town.”
“But if they find you—”
“They will not.” The words are spoken quickly enough to cut off all further argument. That is the intention, at least, though Alice shakes her head, plowing past Marit’s interruption.
“They found your mother. Didn’t even bless her with the fortune of making an example of her. Simply slit her throat and tossed her in the river, let her float away with London’s refuse.”
Marit looks away, at the floor, at the tips of her plain boots sticking out from beneath the hem of her skirt. As if she can better ignore Alice’s speech if she simply disregards her presence. “They will not,” she says again, a whisper sliding out as soft as a sigh.
The constables stand at the edges of the room, the body between them. They chat about their wives, about mothers-in-law, make a remark about needing new boots and who does the best job repairing a cracked sole. Everything really, but not a comment about the dead girl on the floor, the one now covered by a stained wool blanket.
Marit hovers in the corridor, expecting some sort of interrogation, to be noticed in any way. So far, they have only spoken to Alice and Bea, the kitchen maid, the latter to thank her for the tray of sandwiches brought into the room.
And so there they stand, munching on little triangles of bread and beef washed down with milky tea.
A prostitute, dead. No matter the marks on her throat, they seem in no hurry to catch a killer. Will they even check the locks on the doors and windows? Talk to the other girls in the house? Not at all. They took their look at her, at the house she lives in, and already they’ve dismissed it all. Another sandwich before they go, perhaps a flirt with Julia or one of the other girls, and that will be an end of it.
Marit turns and walks away. She does not know how long they will be there, poking around in the room, blithe and bored while they wait for someone to come and remove the body. The house is quiet, always quiet at this time of the day, most of the girls shut away in their rooms. Yet a tension lingers. No one is sleeping off the previous night’s work. There are whispers behind the doors, the scuttle of footsteps and the click of a latch before a face blinks out of sight.
But they will work again tonight. Cora’s room will be cleared out and aired. Evening will come and so will the customers. Life, for those who still lay claim to it, will continue.
In opposition to the strained activity of the rest of the house, the kitchen moves along greased cogs untouched by anything occurring on the floors above. Something steams from a large cast-iron pot, while the distinct aroma of chicken and leeks becomes more potent as Marit nears the oven.
She’s yet to eat anything since the evening before. Past midday now and despite her lack of appetite, she grabs a bun leftover from yesterday’s dinner. Cook looks up from her sauce and twists her mouth in a way that is neither a smile nor a frown, yet manages to portray both.
“They still ‘ere?” She jerks her chin towards the ceiling. Her accent, a discordant amalgam of Parisian and Jermyn Street, floats upward along with the smell of the leeks. If she is a native of either locale, no one knows. The breadth of her shoulders and the frequency with which she yields a knife or a rolling pin works as well as a shield to dispel any questions regarding her background.
“I don’t know how much longer it will be.” Marit hooks her foot around the leg of a stool and pulls it towards her. With legs indecorously spread, her skirt forming a tent between her knees, she lowers herself onto the low seat and hunches over the bun. She does not think she should be so hungry. The image of Cora’s dead body, limbs contorted, neck broken, appears on the back of her eyelids every time she blinks. Yet she finishes the first bun, and before she can form the words to ask for another, Cook brings her the plate bearing the rest.
She has nearly demolished the last one when the door to the kitchen swings open and one of Alice’s younger girls, Deborah, steps in from outside. Her dark bonnet is dripping, the bow she’s attempted to tie neatly beneath her chin hanging limp. Dark hairs cling to the back of her neck, in that small strip of skin left bare above the edge of her shawl. Her gaze darts towards Marit and then away again.
“You wipe your boots!” Cook cries, brandishing a paring knife.
Deborah shuffles back to the rug set just inside the door and scrapes the mess from the soles of her shoes. Again, her eyes find Marit.
“Marit,” she mouths, lips shaping the name as if she’s studied years of elocution. And perhaps she has. The woman was a governess in a previous life, at least for several months before the master of the house took too many liberties and the mistress of the house saw Deborah run out of the village beneath a black veil of scandal.
Marit raises her eyebrows and stops chewing.
Deborah tilts her head back towards the door she just stepped through. A mingling of fear and condescension is carried in the set of her jaw, in the lines between her eyes.
The last bite of bun goes into Marit’s mouth. She unfolds herself from the stool, shakes out a few deep folds in her skirt and follows Deborah out of the kitchen, out into the small, abandoned garden behind the house.
Ice falls around them, striking the side of the building and bouncing off piles of broken bricks scattered about the square of mud and weeds. Deborah stands with her heels against the remains of a brick partition, the edge of an abandoned kitchen garden. Marit watches her, wishing she’d collected her own shawl and bonnet before stepping out into the cold and damp.
“Is there something—” Marit begins, but Deborah shakes her head. She peers up at the house, lifting her chin enough to see above the sodden brim of her bonnet.
“There was a man here.” She speaks quietly, distantly, as if the words find their way from the back of her throat without the additional amplification of her mouth. “Last night.”
Marit waits. There’s no reason to speak, no reason to point out the ubiquity of men coming in and out of the house at all hours. Deborah wants to talk to her. Deborah, who has never spared more than a few words in her direction before. Deborah, with the fear etching its lines at the corners of her lips.
“He was not a stranger. Cora knew him. But he never came to the house, not properly.”
Not properly. Marit puzzles over those two words until the meaning becomes clear: never as a customer. Never as a paying customer. She nods once, and Deborah continues.
“On her days off, she would meet with him. Some of the time, only just out here. But there were days she would leave, go with him… somewhere.” She ducks her chin against her chest, her bare hands clasped together in front of her abdomen, her fingers twisting and twisting as if she could strangle the very air between them. “Cora went with him last night. It was her day off. I believe she might have told Mrs. Talbot she was off to visit with her sister, but…”
Marit runs her hands down the front of her apron. “She didn’t. And Cora doesn’t have a sister.”
A shake of the head, that subtle agreement. “She was with him last night,” she repeats, as if it cannot be said enough. “I saw her leave. Alive, then.”
As opposed to when she returned, the ensuing silence seems to shout. Deborah wraps her arms around her chest, shrinking into herself as the breeze picks up and the sleet cuts diagonally through the air, reaching them beneath the eaves of the house.
“Did you see her again last night? Afterwards?”
Deborah works at the inside of her mouth, teeth biting at the flesh there until she winces and purses her lips. “He was in the house. Upstairs. I do not know how he… Perhaps Cora gave him a key. I don’t—” She swallows, then coughs, then covers her mouth with her hand, biting on the edge of a finger. “I watched him leave her room. I don’t… I pray he didn’t see me.”
“Deborah,” Marit says, then hesitates at the realization she has no memory of speaking the woman’s name aloud before. Until this moment, their interactions have rarely been of a direct nature. Deborah set herself apart from the others the moment she entered the house, behaving as if her time there were merely a punishment to be endured before she returned again to her previous status. And Marit simply took care not to become too close with anyone in her acquaintance. “Do you know who he is?”
Her gaze leaps to the house. As if the bricks themselves have ears with which to hear. “He was… He…”
“You should speak to the police,” Marit says, though she nearly shies from her own advice. “Tell them everything you remember. I can come with you, if you’re afraid.”
“No, no…” Deborah’s hands find the ends of her shawl and she pulls it tighter around her shoulders, a bit of nubby wool enough to protect her from anything that should assail her. “What if the man… what if he saw me? What if he remembers my face?”
There are tears, Marit thinks. Warm tears mingling with the streaks of melted sleet on Deborah’s cheeks.
“The police…” Marit suggests again, her voice losing conviction.
All evidence of the tears is wiped away with the fringed edge of her shawl. “He was a gentleman.”
The accent on the last word is what catches Marit’s attention. A gentleman. Her mind whirls with the knowledge. A gentleman, here, where such rare creatures fear to tread. But perhaps Cora knew him from another life. Perhaps…
“What else? What do you know?” Keep her tone gentle, that’s all she can think to do.
“He—” The other woman’s voice catches in her throat, as if she’ll choke on the words before she can speak them. “He was a tall man. Very tall. And a bit… frail with it. Older, I think. Though I cannot be sure. The dark, and—and the shadows…” Her eyes roll upwards, as if she’s searching the underside of her bonnet’s brim for what to say next. “I used to help her, you know. To slip out of the house without Mrs. Talbot discovering it. One of the nights, I walked with her out to the street, and there was a carriage waiting. He was there, and I heard someone speak to him – the driver, or the groom, I don’t recall, but… there was a name. Wood… Woodcraft. Woodcourt!” she finishes on a note of triumph, then shrivels down again, beneath her bonnet and the shawl, ducking her head as a fresh spill of rain drips from the edge of her hat.
“Wood—” Marit begins to say, but does not finish. She closes her mouth and looks around her, at the water splashing in pockmarks in the ground, at the rain and the ice slowly closing in until she thinks she will not see her hand in front of her face should she stay there any longer. “No.” She shakes her head, her gaze still fixed on nothing. “No police.” She blinks and searches for Deborah. Deborah, who is watching her, all tears cleared from her eyes.
“He was a gentleman,” she repeats.
Marit breathes, suddenly aware of the rapid beating of her own heart. “I don’t believe the police will be a great help in this matter. No, not if he turns out to be a man of some station.” She licks her lips, her mouth dry despite the surfeit of moisture all around her. “Better to leave it be, I think. At least for the moment. I should speak to Mrs. Talbot, let her determine what action we should take.”
At this, Deborah nods eagerly. “Of course, of course. She would know what to do. Would you like for me to—”
“No.” As quick and brutal as the slash of a knife. “No,” again, but calmer. “I’ll tell her what you said to me, if that is all right?” She waits for Deborah to nod once before pressing onward. “Now let’s go inside. I’ll have Cook fix something warm for you, keep the chill from taking hold.” She reaches out as if to place her hand on Deborah’s arm, but pulls back before she can make contact. “Inside, now,” she says instead, and nudges her towards the door. “Let’s be done with this.”
The door swings open silently, set into motion by the lightest push from Marit’s hand. Cora’s body is gone from the house, borne off along with the constables, out through the rear entrance, away from the company as it began to trickle in through the front door.
Because of course they cannot take an evening off. The men come, one at first, then in twos and threes, shown into the parlor where they endure a round of flirting and drinks before their girl of the evening leads them upstairs.
They are threaded through the house now. Marit hears them, some still downstairs, talking and laughing while Julia plays a light tune on the piano. Mrs. Talbot’s girls may sell their bodies to whoever has the most well-lined pockets, but they’re not slatterns walking the streets, offering a fuck to anyone who walks by.
She closes the door behind her and leans back against the wood. The room is dark. The windows are hidden behind thick curtains. And yet she feels exposed. It is an unwelcome feeling. This life has been carefully chosen, her camouflage. To reside in a house the majority of London’s population pretended not to see.
The floor creaks as she pushes out from the door and paces forward. Her gaze drifts down towards the floor, even though it is not the same floor as the one where she found Cora. The neck strangled, bruised, broken. Marit closes her eyes, squeezing them shut until fireworks burst behind her eyelids. Was she murdered here? Or was her body brought back into the house afterwards? Did her killer take the time to pose her, knowing that someone would stumble upon her?
No, no. Too many questions. She shakes them out of her head, crosses to her small wardrobe tucked into the corner and searches through it. A bag, some clothes, a few personal belongings. Money, pried out from behind a loose panel at the back. In the dark, she spreads things out on her bed, packing them in order of importance. She will tell Alice before she leaves. And then she changes her mind. Alice doesn’t need to know, doesn’t need to worry. Marit will take her things, she will leave, and she—
A twist of the doorknob, a scrape and a soft click as the door breaks free from the frame. She turns, expecting Alice, expecting one of the girls come to fetch her for something, but instead it is the silhouette of a man that fills the doorway, backlit by the warm gaslight illuminating the corridor behind him.
A knock, Marit thinks. There should have been a knock. There would have been if it had been anyone else. If only there had been a knock.
“Oh,” he says, the sound a deep rumble from his throat. A laugh, then, and she can hear his smile despite the fact she cannot make out his face in the gloom. “This must be the wrong room. I’m looking for…” He trails off on an expectant note, leaving her to finish for him as if she has any idea who he came upstairs to see.
“Perhaps you should return to the parlor,” Marit tells him. She does not mean to sound so curt, but her mind is somewhere else, off and away along with any manners she might have previously possessed.
“But…” He turns his head, glancing over his shoulder into the hall behind him. She sees his face in profile; a straight, sharp nose, a weak chin that disappears into the wilted collar of his shirt. “You’re here, aren’t you?”
A slow, measured breath drawn in through her nose. The harsh, carbolic aroma from when she scrubbed the floor three rooms away still lingers in the house. Leave, she thinks, though whether the order is for the man or for herself, she cannot decide. “I’m sorry.” She forces the words out from a tight throat, without a hint of apology in their syllables. “You need to leave. I don’t work here.”
She ducks her head. Appear meek. Disappear. Simply shrink away until he can no longer see you. “Excuse me.” A few quick steps and she will be past him. There’s enough alcohol on his breath that he should be easily distracted. Let him find one of the girls, let him sate his lust on one of them.
His hand locks around her upper arm before she can make it through the doorway. It is not a gentle touch, laced with persuasion. His fingers clamp onto her flesh, twisting until she feels the strain on the stitching in her sleeve. “I’ll make sure you’re paid for.”
Alcohol, and sweat. That is what she smells. And then his hand covers her mouth and he forces her back into the room while he deftly kicks the door shut behind him.
She’ll remember later what she should have done. Bite his hand. Bring up her knee and drive it as hard as she can between his legs. But in the moment, she can think of none of that. The panic already stirred to life by the sight of Cora’s body, by her conversation with Deborah, vibrates through her, a hum in her head as insistent as a freshly plucked bowstring.
Fear and hate and anger. She does not know which one fuels it. But there are his hands on her body, ripping at the buttons at the front of her bodice, his hot, stupid mouth sliding up her neck, and then he is tripping backwards, chin tipped up as if he’s been struck in the face.
He hits the floor hard, landing on elbows and ass. She cannot make out his expression but she hears his cursing, loud enough to reverberate off the paneled walls. His heels scrape on the floor as he tries to stand up, but instead he falls back again, his head slamming onto the boards before he slides – dragging, grating – back and back until he is pushed up against the wall.
Marit’s hand twitches. A flick of one finger and his head hits the wall again, and again. Her lips draw into a tight line as she imagines that same hand on his throat, gripping tighter and tighter until… until…
A slap to the side of her face. Marit blinks and gasps for breath, her heart pounding and bile hovering in the back of her throat. She turns around and sees Alice beside her, the light from the hall cutting a diagonal shaft into the room. She wipes the back of her hand across her mouth and looks at the other side of the bedroom, where her attacker lies curled against the wall, his own hands at his throat while he sucks in great lungfuls of air like a man drowning.
“Marit, what did you do?”
But Alice doesn’t wait for a reply. She glides – in full evening dress, whalebone and crinoline and silk creating a barricade around her to rival a Roman wall – over to the man on the floor and manages to bend down enough to smack him across the head with the back of her hand.
“You’re not to bother the servants!” Another smack until he makes a feeble show at waving her away before he grabs onto the wall for support and drags himself up to a standing position. “Out with you, now!” Alice cries, chivvying him towards the door, her gown giving him no recourse but to be herded away from Marit. “Drinking all of my wine, pawing at my girls, and then making such a racket as to bring the neighbors down on my head! Out! I expect better than this from my customers!”
Alice disappears long enough to see the man driven downstairs and out of the house, all the way berating him for his drunkenness and boorish behavior. Marit hears the slam of the back door – no polite exit through the front entrance for him – and then Alice returns upstairs, the brush of her skirts along the corridor walls announcing her return better even than her footsteps.
“What happened?” She closes the door behind her, then holds up one hand, quieting Marit before she can even begin. “No. No, I know what happened.” She crosses the room in the dark until the edge of her skirts press against Marit’s own dress. “Speak,” she says, and waits.
Marit presses her hand to her chest. Her heart is still beating too fast, drumming against the inside of her ribs. She flexes her fingers, then slides them down the front of her skirt. “I’m sorry.” She closes her eyes. Her head will hurt in the morning. Already there is an ache in her bones, and she regrets how far she went with the man. Not because of the injury to him, but because of how exhausted it will leave her. “I said I would never do that again. I’m sorry, but I—” She shuts her mouth and grinds her teeth.
“He’ll not be back again,” Alice assures her. “And he won’t go around telling anyone what happened, either. He was drunk, bested by a woman in the dark in a whorehouse. He’ll take that to his grave.”
She walks over to the nightstand near Marit’s bed. The scrape of a match and a bead of light flares to life between her fingers. She lights the lamp there, adjusts the wick with the twist of a knob, and sets the glass chimney back into place. Able to see, Alice glances around the room, her gaze settling on the handful of items scattered across the bed.
“You’re planning something.”
Not a question. Alice must know by this point to not waste time with interrogations.
“I cannot leave things be.” Marit picks up her bag and fills it with the remainder of things still on the bed. “I need to go tonight. I shouldn’t have…” Her fingers slide over the handle of the knife. A flick of her thumb would see the blade opened. She shakes her head and drops it into the bottom of the bag. “I shouldn’t have let things linger, as they are.”
“Will you be coming back?”
Marit picks up the bag, testing its weight, then sets it down again. “I don’t believe I will, no.”
There is little space between them, but Alice closes up the rest of it, her skirt pushing out behind her as she moves near enough to put her hands on Marit’s cheeks. “I said I would protect you. I promised your mother. If there is anything you need…” The offer trails away when they begin to sound like something memorized by rote.
“We were blessed to have you,” Marit says, a small smile creasing her lips. “But I fear I’ve gone beyond your capabilities. You can’t protect me now. And I… I can do something. I can fix this.”
“You can bring Cora back?”
“No, of course not.” She picks up a shawl from the bed, wraps it around her shoulders, tying it behind her back so it forms knitted sleeves over her dress. “I know who killed Cora. I can stop him. And that should bring you some safety, at least. You can trust that he won’t return here.”
“This is insanity.” Alice grasps Marit’s wrists, pulling her towards her. “You don’t have to do this. The police—”
“Will do nothing. I will not put anyone else in this house in danger.” She sighs, resigned. “It has to be me.”
Onto the balls of her feet, Alice leans forward and kisses Marit’s forehead. “I loved your mother,” she whispers, her breath warm across Marit’s skin. “More than I believed was possible. And you…” She steps back, reaches up to push a strand of hair back from Marit’s cheek. “You are my daughter, no matter the differences between us.”
Marit takes Alice’s hand and presses a kiss to the back of it. “I will not return here,” she says, and releases her fingers from her grip.
From below them, from all around them, the sounds of the house in the evening rise and fall like a living, breathing thing. The window is behind her, and Marit turns to look towards it, no matter that the drapes are closed, only her imagination able to supply a picture of what it is like outside and under the sky.
“I have to go.” Away, away, she walks to the door, her chin down, watching her step as if she has never walked this floor before.
She stops, her hand on the doorknob, a sliver of light let in from the hall through the gap in the door.
“Let me know,” Alice begins, and breathes. “Let me know if you survive the night.”
“I will.” Marit nods, but she does not look back. “Goodbye, Alice.”
She closes the door behind her. Down the back stairs, away from the girls and their men and the heat and the laughing and the thumps and moans and cries that seep through the floorboards. An old bonnet hangs on a hook near the door, and she snatches it up, tying the strings into a knot beneath her chin as she steps out into the night, her breath blasting through the mist in a white cloud.
It is cold, the brick path beneath her feet slick with ice. But warmth radiates out from her skin, and her hands… the skin on her palms burns, her fingers twitching restlessly despite the ache that lingers in her bones. Tonight, she thinks, it will find release. Tonight, she will go home.
The stink of horseshit and wet hay, even through the chill of the air. Marit sniffs and wipes the back of her hand across her nose, the cold and the damp having set her nostrils to leaking and her teeth aching in her head. Her sleeve brushes against the side of the building, and she pauses, her hand on the stones.
A light, from a window above her. A few seconds of illumination, and then it flickers out. Someone is already up, or still up. A stablehand, perhaps. Or one of the drivers, lighting a cigarette or a pipe in the middle of the night.
She breathes. The noises from the horses, the steady hum of the city rising all around her, the mist that hangs over everything… it should all be enough to insulate every sound she makes, and yet even the beating of her heart seems to cut through the air like a series of gunshots.
Now, she says to herself, her lips moving silently, only the vapor of her breath marking her words. You must do this now.
Across the cobbles, away from the horses and the solemn black carriages parked for the night. Towards the back door, the one she always knew the trick of. It is a solid slab of wood, thick and tall enough for Marit to believe in its existence before the rest of the house, leaving the building to simply construct itself around it.
She hides her bag behind a collection of refuse, a few old buckets and brooms and gardening tools left to molder against the wall. If she survives her time inside the house, she will retrieve the bag. And if she does not… well, its contents will no longer matter to her.
Her shoulder pressed to the door, she gives it a push as she opens it. A lift and a twist, and then… she is in.
Strange, she thinks, how a building can possess its own smell. It strikes her as strong as memory, the mingled aromas of lye and woodsmoke and something that has always reminded her of pine. She closes the door behind her and waits, allowing her eyes to adjust to the darkness. There is a dripping sound that reaches her, mingled with the ticking of a clock somewhere near. And that is all. With the door behind her, the rest of the city seems to have been shut out of existence.
Through the house, her steps guided by memory. The kitchen is there, the larder, the closet where the silver is kept, bearing its lock. Up the stairs, her fingers trailing over papered walls, beginning to peel at the seams. The rooms, the rooms… drawing room, study, but they are all dark, all empty.
The next set of stairs is ahead of her, their beginning marked by a rectangle of deeper shadow at the end of the corridor. It is her familiarity with it all, she thinks, that allows her to be caught. An arm snakes around her neck, while the side of a fist slams into her abdomen, pushing her breath out of her in a small, dull explosion.
She’s almost to her knees before she can react, before she can sort her thoughts and concentrate. The arm around her throat tightens for an instant, and then a crack breaks the low noise of their scuffling. She lands on the floor, her knees taking the brunt of the impact. The man behind her draws in a breath on a gasp, but before he can scream she searches for the bones of his own throat, so tender, so easy to break. A bit of pressure and his voice dies. A bit more, and she imagines the slight widening of his eyes before the neck breaks, before he drops where he stands, a crumpled mass with his broken wrist flung out towards nothing.
No, no. Not so far as that. She puts pressure on his throat, yes, but only enough to render him unconscious. Still, he falls hard, and she eyes the broken arm with some regret. On her knees beside him, she waits to hear another sound from further in the house, someone awoken by their altercation. Silence greets her, and her heart beats faster for it.
A sudden noise would comfort her. The slam of a door. A tread on the stairs. A scrape. A whisper. But there is nothing apart from the stuttered breathing of the man on the floor, the distant ticking of a clock that always seemed to be at least one room away.
Up again, her breath hissing between her teeth as she stands. Her legs wobble beneath her, and she crouches forward as she reaches for the edge of the man’s coat. A quick rifle through his pockets reveals nothing about his identity; just a few penciled notes, a handful of coins, and a revolver tucked away, loaded with only three bullets. She takes the revolver, marveling at its weight, at the warm solidity of it, before she removes the bullets and drops them into her own pocket. A harsh scraping sound then as she slides the gun across the floor, into the shadows and out of sight.
Her hand is wiping down the front of her skirt as she stands. More stairs, then. An unconscious man on the floor at her feet. She feels lightheaded and bends her knees slightly to steady herself, until the black fog recedes from her vision and she can move forward again.
A man, fully dressed and bearing a loaded revolver, waiting for her. But she cannot dwell on that. A coincidence, perhaps, that there was someone already here, ready to attack her. And not to shoot her. Her hand hovers over the stair rail, fingertips dancing over the varnished wood. His first act was not to press the barrel of the gun to her head. Only to stop her, not to harm her.
She is being generous, she thinks. Always one of her faults. The fear of it renews her energy, driving her up the stairs quickly, her light footfalls muffled by the thin runner of carpet on the steps.
Into another corridor, and here she stops. There is a window at the end of it, the faint glow from the city, from streetlights, from other windows bearing lights still burning limning the panes of glass. Three doors down, she knows. Past the room that had been hers, her mother’s, and the last door then, such an innocuous thing. Dull brown wood, dust clinging to its edges. A brass doorknob, warm to the touch, as if another hand had held it only moments before. It turns without a sound, and she opens the door an inch, holding her breath in anticipation of a creak or groan that fails to sound.
The bed catches her attention first. Dark wood, with tall, intricately carved posts at each corner. There had been a canopy when she was a child, but that is gone, and somehow the removal of that single piece of fabric makes the bed seem larger, able to spread its menace farther into the room.
He is there now, his head on the pillow, his body stretched out beneath the thick layers of blankets. She does not even have to walk towards him. Simply reach through his skin, through his bones, squeeze his heart until it bursts like an overripe peach. And all without her having to make another move.
Afraid to blink, her last inhalation held in her lungs, she wraps her hand around the doorknob until the metal grows hot beneath her touch, as malleable as clay. She lets go, fingers fluttering, flicking the heat and energy away. Not yet, not yet. The shape in the bed, that is what she must focus on. The dark head on the pillow, the hand just stretching out beyond the edge of the—
She closes her eyes, opens them again. The head, the shape… Something is wrong. She should leave, she should leave. Turn around, run away, find a place to hide, hide all over again.
Her breath hiccoughs in her throat. But Cora. The girl’s body stretched out on the floor, her neck bruised, broken, her lips cracked and gray. No matter where Marit runs to, he will always find her.
Marit closes the door behind her. The drapes are open, letting in the light from outside, that first pale glow of green and gray illuminating the horizon. She walks over to the bed, grabs the edge of the topmost cover and pulls. Pillows laid out in the shape of a man, a green nightcap set on the topmost one, a few tassels on the corner of another what she mistook for fingers.
The muscles in her back clench and release as she rolls her shoulders, as she twists the blanket in her hands. “Where are you?” she nearly asks to the chill silence, but bites it back before the words can form.
“Daughter,” a voice says.
She bites down on the flesh at the corner of her mouth, grinding hard until she tastes blood.
“I am sorry to trick you,” the voice continues. A man’s voice, rougher than she remembers. “But I could not trust you, my dear.”
The blanket falls from her hands, a stale aroma of mildew and dust floating upwards and away from it. The room is cold. But more than that, there is the smell of absence, of abandonment. Her gaze leaps towards the fireplace. Dark and cold and dead, no sign of half-burnt logs or even ashes in need of sweeping.
“You knew I would come here,” she says to him, though she will not look at him. She cannot bring herself to do it, not yet. The quiet of the house, the lack of servants, of life. “The man downstairs…” she begins.
“In my employ,” he finishes for her. “I thought there should be some difficulties for you.”
And then she looks at him. Seated in a chair between the window and the fireplace, the first light of dawn shining on his balding pate. Of course he is older than she remembers, his hair thinner, grayer, the deep lines that flank his mouth forming the edge of pouches that hang down as low as his jaw. Perhaps it is his position in the chair, but he seems diminished, almost shrunken. Or perhaps her memories of him have begun to take on an exaggerated sheen.
By now, her eyes have fully adjusted to the light. The room could be lit by a chandelier bearing one hundred candles, with full sun pouring through the windows while the glow of gaslight chases the shadows from the corners and she does not believe she could see better than she does now. There he sits in his chair, fully dressed in coat and waistcoat and trousers, even his shoes flaunting a shine of recent polishing.
He is waiting for her, like an audience anticipating the rise of the curtain. Only, she feels as if she’s the only performer who does not know her lines.
“Cora,” she says, forcing the word out between gritted teeth. “You killed her, did you not?”
He lifts his shoulders, turns up his palms. “I needed you to pay attention. It seemed the most likely way of achieving it.”
“You could have…” She stops herself. This is what he wants, to draw her out, to let her waste time on him, as if he is worthy of her attention. She claps her mouth shut and looks instead towards the windows, towards the city laid out before them.
“She reminded me of you, you know.”
She will not look. She will not give him such satisfaction.
“Not in character or talents, no. But something in her face, in the way she held herself. It was pleasant to pretend she was you, for a time.”
A sound of satisfaction escapes him, a slow smile made audible.
“You want something,” she says, the words slow and careful. If she squints, she can still make out the lights from various boats on the river, before the glow from the sky grows bright enough to wink them out of sight. “My mother is dead, though I’m sure you already know as much if you went to all the trouble of finding me. And your man downstairs, he could have killed me easily enough. You could have killed me, instead of Cora. But you wanted me here.” Her eyes dart from one corner of the room to another. Finally, her gaze settles on him. “Why?”
He stares at her for a moment, then looks down at his hands, now clasped in his lap. “I am dying.”
It is not at all what she expected him to say. She surveys him for the lie behind it, for some tell that would give his game away. But for all the dishonesty he ever exhibited to her, all the cruelty, for now she can only believe he is telling the truth.
“Am I to feel sorry for you?” She blinks madly, stunned by the anger rising inside her. “What do you want? My condolences? My… my sympathy?”
He licks his lips. He smiles, white teeth shining. “I wish to give you a gift.”
She says nothing to this. Let him talk. She will not be the one to pry the words out of him.
“Marit,” he says, shaping her name like a caress. “I am ill, or at least that is what the doctors say. Look at me.” He gestures towards himself, towards the clothes that overwhelm his slender frame. “I will be dead soon enough. But I don’t want to waste away, clinging to this world like some kind of husk. I want you to kill me.”
Her hand reaches out, nearly grasping the edge of the bed for support before she curls her fingers into her palm, the nails digging deep into her skin. It is a trick. It must be. She shakes her head, takes a step sideways, towards the door. “Go to hell,” she says, and turns to leave.
“But that is what I wish for you to do for me, Marit!” His voice, thick with a heavy wetness bubbling up from his lungs, strains to catch her before she can open the door. “Send me to hell, if you wish. I give you leave to destroy me.”
Her hand hovers above the doorknob.
“Because that is why you came here tonight, hmm? Poor young Cora, dead in her room. And who but you could avenge the whore’s death?”
She raises her chin while a dozen thoughts spin out of control inside her head. “You killed her so I would find you?” Her gaze searches him again, the frailness of his limbs, the slight wheeze to every breath that slides out of him. “Or had her killed?”
“Of course, the girl’s death would not have been enough to put my name in your head,” he continues as if she had not spoken at all. “Deborah helped with that. I didn’t wish for there to be any doubt, you know.”
Deborah… Deborah, who had never taken pains to speak to her in all the months they had lived beneath the same roof, who suddenly became the most open of companions when she was burdened with a name to deliver to Marit’s ears.
“You son of a—”
“Ah, none of that, please,” he interrupts, one hand held up like a shield. “What would your mother say, hmm? If she heard such coarse words tumble from your lips?”
“You do not speak of my mother.” She moves away from the door, halfway across the room, towards him, one finger pointing at him, brandished like a weapon.
“I fucked your mother.” Spoken in such calm tones. He leans back, clasps his hands across his chest, a pose of supreme relaxation. “She chose me to be her husband, to be your father.”
“She chose you because she thought she had no choice,” Marit counters. “A woman with a child and no man to take care of her. She chose you out of desperation, nothing more.”
His mouth tightens, though whether or not her words hit their mark, she cannot be certain.
“I am tired of this,” she says, and presses her palms flat against her forehead. “I am tired of you. I am tired of being ruled by you, of looking round every corner to see if you’re there.”
“But I am here!” Again, the slow smile. The glint of teeth. A spark in his eyes, sunken as they are into his gaunt skull. “I am here, Marit. Use your gifts, the ones that make you hide like a child fearful of the dark. Do with me what you will.”
She walks forward. There could be a trick behind it all. He could pull out a revolver, a blade, call someone out from the shadows to put an end to her. But all of this elaborate display, only to have her throat cut by someone he could have hired to murder her on the street or in her bed?
She is close enough that she smells him. An odor emanates from him, sour and rotting, as if he has already begun to decay in the chair in which he sits. She believes what he says, that he is dying. And in his eyes, behind the spark, the false show of bravado meant to pique her fury, she sees his fear.
“You want me to kill you?” She allows it to be a question, although she already knows the answer. She holds onto the fear found in his eyes, draws it out, wraps it around herself like a beloved comforter.
“I’ve suffered enough.” He waves one hand, his skin as translucent as wet paper. “I wish to be done.”
For her mother, she thinks. For herself. For Cora, killed for no other reason than to be used as a lure. She could stop his heart, watch his body shudder into death. She could be free of him.
His gift to her, as he put it.
But, no. Not for her. It is all for him. To spare him further pain, the indignity of a lingering death, one that would see him further weakened. To him, this is an act of strength. To put a blade to his own wrists, to ingest poison… that would be an act of cowardice in his eyes. And again, she studies his eyes, the absolute terror lurking in the back of them. He fears death, nearly as much as he fears stumbling towards it, his life ending one piece at a time.
She stretches out her fingers, reaching towards him. Her hand wraps around his throat, gently… gently, her other hand braced on the side of the chair. “No,” she says, and tightens her grip.
His eyes widen, though his wispy brows furrow in confusion.
“You deserve all of the agony our Lord has prepared for you, in this world and the next. I’ve no desire to deprive you.”
One hand still around his throat, she picks up his left hand, holding his wrist between thumb and forefinger. She will not look away from him, will savor every facet of his expression.
His fingers curl backward, the skin across his palm stretched tight. A crack then, his thumb wrenched sideways and left to dangle useless from the rest of his hand.
He does not scream. She will wonder later if she wishes he had. What color his complexion possesses drains away, while a keening sound issues from the back of his throat, his lips pulled back from his teeth in a slight rictus.
She leans into him, near enough to catch the sharp odor of fresh piss. “What is it, Papa? What are you trying to say?”
A sob escapes him. There are tears as well, pooling above his lower eyelids, spilling down his cheeks when he finally dares to blink.
“P-Please,” he stutters out before his head droops, his shoulders sinking down and into himself.
“No.” She drops his mangled hand, steps back from the chair. “I will not bear your death on my conscience. I will not allow you to have such a hold over me.” Another step back. “I leave you responsible for running away from this life you so wish to escape. Or pay the man downstairs to put a bullet in your head. But I’ll have nothing more to do with you.”
“Marit,” he says, he breathes, and then “Marit!” the cry loud enough to shake the glass in the windows. But she does not look back. She walks at first, her eyes blinking at the darkness of the corridors, the gloom threatening to creep in at the edges of her vision until she’s rendered fully blind. But she breaks into a run at the top of the stairs, her skirt hiked up to her knees as she leaps down the last few stairs, past the inert form of the man still laid out on the floor. Down again and through the back door, where the light and the chill of the air strike her with all the force of a physical blow.
Her bag where she left it, she snatches it up and breaks into a fast trot until she reaches the end of the street, and then the next. She runs until she is out of breath, until her lungs burn and her legs shake even when she slows.
There is traffic now, the steady trickle of carts and cabs and pedestrians flowing along the pavement. Dark coats and dark hats and the regular puffs of white breath so that Marit thinks she could mistake it for a locomotive propelling its way towards St. James’ Square. She slips into the flow, ducking her own head beneath her bonnet, allowing herself to become only another hat, another figure beneath layers of dark clothing.
Guilt rises within her, but she pushes it away. That she did not kill Cora’s murderer, that she will always wonder if he will find her again. “I’m sorry, Mama.” The whisper slides out as her own tears threaten to fall.
She cannot go back to Alice. She cannot go back only to hide away again, to duck her head and pray the world will always pass her by. She stretches out her fingers, her skin warm and tingling despite her lack of gloves. She has nothing. If there is family, her mother never told Marit of their existence. The clothes on her back, the contents of her bag, that is all she possesses in the world.
Onward, onward, until hunger begins to gnaw its way through her exhaustion. She stops where a woman is selling food, her brazier sending up whorls of steam, the coals beneath it glowing as she shifts them around with a small poker.
She licks her lips. The food smells good. She stands with her coins and waits for her turn. When she steps up, a coal falls out from beneath the brazier, skittering and steaming across the wet pavement. Marit watches it as it sizzles and turns black as it cools, before it is kicked a few inches away by the boot of a passing pedestrian.
“And for you?” the woman asks as Marit steps up.
The question strikes her. For her? To hide again? To allow London to cloak her as it always did, as her mother wished it to?
“No,” Marit says under her breath. Her gaze flits back to the fallen coal, as innocuous as a pebble on the ground. She stretches out her fingers, still trembling from the effort exerted this morning. A twitch, and then a spark, and the coal flares into flame again, steaming and smoking amid the slush on the cobbles. “No more hiding,” she says to herself.
“What was that, dearie?” The lady stands behind her brazier, impatience raising her voice.
Marit smiles. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she says, while the coal sizzles out again behind her. “Two potatoes, please.”
“Will that be everything?”
“For now.” Marit holds out the coins in exchange for the food. “It will do well enough for now.”