WARNING: Sexual references.
Lot goes searching for more information and meets Tessa once more.
London – 1844
I pushed through the crowd of men going in and out of the brothel and dropped down into a chair opposite Gale at her card reading table. She tensed.
‘You been up to something, Gale?’ I asked.
She shuffled her tarot cards. ‘Hoping I never had to see you again.’
I touched my lips then pointed at the cards. ‘Didn’t they tell you?’
‘You shouldn’t mock the mystical arts, you may regret it,’ she said, laying out the cards.
Some people could tell the future, I doubted Gale was one. When I focused I could see the throb of life within her; the dim embers didn’t look like enough to cast with, but what did I know about magic? It felt like less and less every day.
‘I’m still looking for my nameless lady,’ I said.
She put down each card slowly. ‘People go missing every day, expecting me to remember specifics is ridiculous.’
I hated to admit she had a point. People were murdered, died, and went missing so often doors in the tenements were surplus to requirements.
I rested my elbows on the table, laced my fingers and rested my chin on them. ‘I think you know who she is.’
She put her fingers on the cards and pushed them together. ‘I think you’ve got a problematic suspicious streak.’
‘I can’t believe a prostitute can operate in this area and no-one there knows who she is. Not so much as a territory argument?’
‘Maybe she wasn’t a prostitute.’ Gale shuffled her cards. ‘Not every woman with the pox is.’ Her shuffling faltered then she carried on.
I’d never told Gale our mystery woman had syphilis and the tension in her shoulders suggested she was waiting for me to remember I hadn’t. She was going to obstruct me as much as she could, she always did, but I knew someone she would speak to. If I couldn’t find anyone more inclined to help first.
I got up.
‘Where are you going?’ she asked.
‘Visiting.’ I headed up the stairs.
A man came out of one of the doors on the upstairs landing and made to slap my arse as I passed.
I grabbed his wrist and looked him straight in the eye. ‘You couldn’t afford it.’
There were stifled chuckles from some of the men and women on the landing.
A young man leaning against a doorway a few feet away whistled low. ‘Wouldn’t mind getting you on your knees.’
I stuck a finger up at him and he snorted.
Slappy looked at Whistler and turned rage red then pulled his hand free and stamped off in a tantrum. Whistler didn’t try to grab me when I passed but I’d seen his expression enough times on other faces to know what lurked behind it.
Tessa was sitting by the fire in her room and smiled wearily at me. The sores on her face were less prominent and there was more colour in her cheeks than the last time I’d seen her. The room was sweet with cinnamon seeping from a fresh cake on a table by the window, it didn’t help to take the edge off the reek of sex that saturated the building.
‘Fruit cake?’ I asked, going over for a closer sniff. ‘Wealthy admirer?’
She sighed. ‘After you left last time I had the strangest craving for cinnamon. Gale brought it for me.’ She tipped her head back against the chair. ‘She is good to me.’ The last time I’d visited Gale had been trying to get more money out of me for Tessa’s upkeep, she must’ve suffered a bout of charitable feelings.
No doubt Tessa had noticed the scent of cinnamon magic trailing me; when I’d been rocking Edward the night before he’d said I smelled of ‘ninnamon’, and I’d noticed the scent on other supernaturals. ‘Proper flour and everything.’
‘How’d you know that?’ Tessa asked. ‘Kitchen maid skill?’
I shrugged. ‘You know me and acquiring skills.’
She chuckled. ‘Aye, you never forget. Two visits so close together, you must want something.’
I pulled up a chair. ‘People are lying to me. I don’t appreciate it.’
‘You’re a liar,’ she said.
I smiled. ‘I never tell a lie.’
‘That’s not the same as telling the truth.’
I considered her, she didn’t used to be so philosophical. ‘A young woman was murdered and people claim not to know her but someone must. If I don’t find out who it was there could be more.’
‘There’s always more,’ she said. ‘I don’t see how I can help, I’m stuck in this room all day.’
‘But people talk to you and you’re the only one likely to talk to me because you’re not afraid of Gale.’ I offered her one of the drawings Atticus had done of the woman.
‘The dying have nothing left to fear.’ She took the page from me and shook her head. ‘I don’t know her and I can’t think of any reason why anyone would murder her, beyond the obvious.’ The obvious being an angry punter.
Somehow I didn’t think our energy stealing murderer was an angry punter but it was an angle I hadn’t considered. Lady Arton had said the Widow Merryborn and her circle hopped beds like nobody’s business. Perhaps we’d been looking at it wrong and the murderer was someone inside the rich circle, not outside. The first murderer scene Josef and I had visited had been thick with hatred, love could turn to the deepest hate.
I wasn’t sure that made sense if our unidentified woman was the link to the murderer. I wasn’t sure I was a passable detective.
‘Deep thoughts,’ Tessa said and handed the page back to me.
‘The puzzle doesn’t fit together.’ I tucked the picture into my pocket.
‘Either you’re missing bits or you’re not as smart as you think.’ She pulled her shawl tighter around her shoulders. ‘Or both.’
I rubbed my face. ‘We have no idea what we’re doing. We’re blundering around the dark and can’t find the matches.’
She tilted her head towards the cake. ‘Shut up and eat some cake. I can at least watch someone enjoy it, no-one else will eat it now it’s been in here with me.’
‘Charming,’ I said. As far as I knew syphilis was passed by sex or blood and, as I was dead, I couldn’t be infected. I was more vexed by the idea of eating something sugary when I didn’t know where the sugar had come from. I didn’t want to eat slave produced sugar. I’d have to ask Father Brennan if the sin would be added to my tally if I was trying to be nice to a dying woman. It felt like it would.
I cut two chunks of cake with one of my knives and handed her a wedge without a plate. She laughed.
‘Who needs crockery?’ I sat back down and took a large bite out of my piece. ‘That’s good cake, they’re missing out.’
Tessa nibbled hers, I suspected she was worried about holding it down rather than trying to be ladylike. ‘Truce?’
I nodded. ‘Truce. As long as we stick to the present.’
She set her cake down on the little table by the fire. ‘I’m glad. I didn’t want to die with you angry at me.’
I plucked a piece of dried fruit escaping from my cake and popped it in my mouth. ‘I’m always angry.’
‘I should go.’ I made to get up.
‘Stay for a bit. Finish your cake.’ She smiled. ‘It’s too good to waste.’
I picked at the cake until she fell asleep then dropped it out the window and left. It didn’t make me feel less complicit.
Read more episodes of Nine Shillings or read Lot’s first adventure, Victorian Mistress, here.
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