WARNING: Sexual references, bad language, and references so readers might find upsetting.
Lot’s search for the murderer takes her back to her roots.
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London – 1844
I got Atticus’ map out of my pocket and checked it. I didn’t need to, I could remember everything with perfect clarity including the map but I kept hoping it might change. I had two brothels left to visit and the one I was standing outside of was not a favourite. The Madam had spent many years saying ‘a pretty little piece’ like me could make a fortune selling her virginity on a regular basis. Ever since I became Bran’s mistress she gloated at every opportunity.
The alternative was to go home and discuss Josef’s proposition that we extend our two to a three. I hadn’t figured out how to broach the subject without Bran taking it as a sign of his own failure. His cracks had been carefully glued but they would never disappear, yet it seemed like an option that needed to be given proper consideration before someone got hurt.
I folded the map up and tucked it into my pocket. Brothel it was.
Long before my time it had been a grand place, now it was shadows. The brightness of the entrance hall that had faded unfashionable furnishings showed the years worn into the rugs and a grey dustiness ingrained into everything. Gale’s girls did anything for a price, but so did many others for a lower one. When the alternative was starvation or the workhouse, coin needed to be made somehow.
‘Tired of sucking a rich man’s cock?’ Gale asked, arranging her tarot cards on the little table in front of her. She couldn’t tell the time of day let alone the future but she could charge people for fake fortunes on top of what she made from the women who worked for her.
I sat down opposite her. ‘I could never get bored of his.’
‘That’s not what you were always telling me,’ she muttered. ‘Not that Aubrey would’ve allowed you to be sullied.’ She stared turning over the cards. ‘Poor Tessa suffered badly when you whored yourself. He was very angry.’
I took Atticus’ sketch of the young woman from my pocket and lay it on the table on top of her cards. ‘Know her?’
She moved it off the cards. ‘Not one of my girls.’
‘Not what I asked.’
‘What’s in it for me?’ she asked and finished turning over the cards.
‘I think you’re being paid enough to cover this,’ I said.
‘Sickness is expensive,’ she said.
‘So are funeral costs.’
She sniffed. ‘I’ll ask the girls.’ She played her fingers over the cards. ‘You’ll bring death and despair wherever you go.’
I rolled my eyes, there was a death card but I was dead. I picked one up. ‘This is the lovers.’ I prodded another with the card. ‘That’s justice. Read a bloody book.’ I flicked the card at her and it fluttered to the floor then I poked another one. ‘And that from a different deck.’
‘You think because you caught a rich man you’re better than us?’ she said. ‘A whore’s a whore whoever she opens her legs for.’
‘And you’re a poet.’
She picked up the rogue card and placed it carefully amongst the rest. ‘Will you be visiting?’
I looked up the stairs. If I didn’t visit Gale would have been sure to say I’d been to the brothel and rub in that I hadn’t. I wouldn’t feel guilty but I suspected it wasn’t right. ‘I have copies of that picture if you’re thinking of losing it.’
She gave me an affronted look, I had no doubt she’d been thinking about it.
I left her looking at the picture and went upstairs, trying to ignore the sex noises, talking, and banging furniture. Tessa was in the attic room tucked up in bed asleep, her face raw with pox marks, and her breaths rasping. I sat down in the chair beside the bed. Her nose was crooked. Aubrey had broken it, he couldn’t beat me but he could beat a woman with reddish hair I happened to know.
I hadn’t visited since I’d died which might make me a bad person, but being sick didn’t make Tessa a saint. By the time I died she was already on borrowed time and God would be calling it in any day. I’d made sure she wouldn’t end her days in the workhouse, my promise was fulfilled.
After a few minutes she opened her eyes. She frowned as if she didn’t recognise me then smiled from her burrow of blankets. ‘Little Lottie,’ she murmured. ‘Still pretty as a picture.’ She coughed.
‘Must be something in the blood,’ I said, not smiling.
‘Have you made your fortune so we can run away and live happily ever after?’
‘I shan’t be running away,’ I said.
She levered herself up to sit. ‘I don’t suppose a man like that would let you.’
‘Any man,’ she muttered. ‘Think they can have whatever they want and they’ll take it. They use you up and throw you aside.’
Mrs Stapleton had once told Bran the same thing about me.
‘You do bad things to bad people so they don’t do worse things to good people,’ she said as if she’d read my mind. ‘Always protecting everyone else and we never protected you.’
‘And how would you have done that?’ I asked.
‘I said I was sorry.’
‘And sorry makes everything alright.’ I wrinkled my nose.
‘I don’t deserve your forgiveness.’ She reached towards me, then remembered the pox and pulled her hand back. ‘What happened, Lottie? We used to be the best of friends.’
My logical mind said she’d had no more power than me. It had taken me a long time to admit to myself I hadn’t made a choice; choosing between a terrible option and a worse one wasn’t a choice. Whenever my logical mind uncovered this nugget my rage popped up to remind me she’d thought she had power over me.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘You were a scared girl, I should’ve protected you.’
‘But you didn’t,’ I said. ‘You did the opposite.’
‘You were safer with Aubrey,’ she said.
I got up. ‘Be sure to tell Saint Peter when you see him.’
‘I’m sorry, Lot.’ She grabbed my wrist, stared in horror then pulled her hand away. ‘Burn your clothes. Scrub yourself raw. Don’t catch it.’ She settled back with her hands over her face. ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry…’
‘If someone threw you to the wolves to save their arse would you forgive them?’
She stared at me. ‘It would be the good Catholic thing to do.’
‘I’m not a good Catholic.’ I slammed the door in my wake and went downstairs to find Gale back at her table. ‘Anything?’
She thrust the page at me. ‘No name, but some of the girls think they’ve seen her near Covent Garden.’
I took the picture and tucked it back into my pocket. She put out her hand.
I stared at it. ‘Tessa touched me.’
Gale whipped her hand away. ‘It’s God’s judgement on the wicked.’
I stepped close to her. ‘I remember everything you’ve done, including your business with Aubrey. There’ll come a day these women figure out how to manage without you.’ I leaned in so close she went rigid. ‘I’ll be waiting.’ I drew away.
She beat at her clothes as if she could knock the pox away, had it been a judgement on the wicked she’d have been six feet under long ago.
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