Read an Excerpt
There was a noise outside the women's clinic in Coldbath Square.
Hester was on night duty. She turned from the stove as the street door opened, the wood still in her hand. Three women stood in the entrance, half supporting each other. Their cheap clothes were torn and splattered with blood, their faces streaked with it, skin yellow in the light from the gas lamp on the wall. One of them, her fair hair coming loose from an untidy knot, held her left hand as if she feared the wrist were broken.
The middle woman was taller, her dark hair loose, and she was gasping, finding it difficult to get her breath. There was blood on the torn front of her satin dress and smeared across her high cheekbones.
The third woman was older, well into her thirties, and there were bruises purpling on her arms, her neck, and her jaw.
"Hey, missus!" she said, urging the others inside, into the warmth of the long room with its scrubbed board floor and whitewashed walls. "Mrs. Monk, yer gotter give us an 'and again. Kitty 'ere's in a right mess. An' me, an' all. An' I think as Lizzie's broke 'er wrist."
Hester put down the wood and came forward, glancing only once behind her to make sure that Margaret was already getting hot water, cloths, bandages, and the herbs to steep, which would make cleaning the wounds easier and less painful. It was the purpose of this place to care for women of the streets who were injured or ill, but who could not pay a doctor and would be turned away from more respectable charities. It had been the idea of her friend
Callandra Daviot, and Callandra had provided the initial funds before events in her personal life had taken her out of London. It was through her also that Hester had met Margaret Ballinger, desperate to escape a respectable but uninteresting proposal of marriage. Her undertaking work like this had alarmed the gentleman in question so much he had at the last moment balked at making the offer, to
Margaret's relief and her mother's chagrin.
Now Hester guided the first woman to one of the chairs in the center of the floor beside the table. "Come in, Nell," she urged. "Sit down." She shook her head. "Did Willie beat you again? Surely you could find a better man?" She looked at the bruises on Nell's arms,
plainly made by a gripping hand.
"At my age?" Nell said bitterly, easing herself into the chair.
"C'mon, Mrs. Monk! Yer mean well, I daresay, but yer feet in't on the ground. Not unless yer offerin' that nice-lookin' ol' man o'
yours?" She leered ruefully. "Then I might take yer up one day. 'E's got an air about 'im as 'e could be summat real special. Kind o'
mean but fun, if yer know wot I'm sayin'?" She gave a guffaw of laughter which turned into a racking cough, and she bent double over her knees as the paroxysm shook her.
Without being asked, Margaret poured a little whiskey out of a bottle, replaced the cork, and added hot water from the kettle.
Wordlessly she held it until Nell had controlled herself sufficiently to take it, the tears still streaming down her face. She struggled for breath, sipped some of the whiskey, gagged, and then took a deeper gulp.
Hester turned to the woman called Kitty and found her staring with wide, horrified eyes, her body tense, muscles so tight her shoulders all but tore the thin fabric of her bodice.
"Mrs. Monk?" she whispered huskily. "Your husband . . ."
"He's not here," Hester assured her. "There's no one here who will hurt you. Where are you injured?"
Kitty did not reply. She was shuddering so violently her teeth chattered.
"Go on, yer silly cow!" Lizzie said impatiently. "She won't 'urt yer, an' she won't tell no one nuffin'. Nell's only goin' on 'cos she fancies 'er ol' man. Proper gent, 'e is. Smart as a whip. Dresses like the tailor owed 'im, not t'other way 'round." She nursed her broken wrist, wincing with pain. "Get on wiv it, then. You may 'ave got all night--I in't."
Kitty looked once at the iron beds, five along each side of the room, the stone sinks at the far end, and the buckets and ewers of water drawn from the well at the corner of the square. Then she faced Hester, making an intense effort to control herself.
"I got in a fight," she said quietly. "It's not that bad. I daresay I
was frightened as much as anything." Her voice was surprising: it was low and a trifle husky, and her diction was clear. At one time she must have had some education. It struck in Hester a note of pity so sharp that for a moment it was all she could think of. She tried not to let it show in her expression. The woman did not want the intrusion of pity. She would be only too aware of her own fall from grace without anyone else's notice of it.
"Those are bad bruises on your neck." Hester looked at them more closely. It appeared as if someone had held her by the throat,
and there was a deep graze across the front of her breastbone, as though a hard fingernail had scored it deliberately. "Is that blood yours?" Hester asked, indicating the splatters across the front of
Kitty gave a shuddering sigh. "No. No! I . . . I reckon I caught his nose when I hit him back. It's not mine. I'll be all right. Nell's bleeding. You should see to that. And Lizzie broke her wrist, or somebody did." She spoke generously, but she was still shivering,
and Hester was certain she was far from well enough to leave. She would have liked to know what bruises were hidden under her clothes, or what beatings she had endured in the past, but she did not ask questions. It was one of the rules; they had all agreed that no one pressed for personal information or repeated what they overheard or deduced. The whole purpose of the house was simply to offer such medical help as lay within their skill, or that of
Mr. Lockhart, who called by every so often and could be reached easily enough in an emergency. He had failed his medical exams at the very end of his training through a weakness for drink rather than ignorance or inability. He was happy enough to help in return for company, a little kindness, and the feeling that he belonged somewhere.
He liked to talk, to share food he had been given rather than paid for, and when he was short of funds he slept on one of the beds.
Margaret offered Kitty a hot whiskey and water, and Hester turned to look at Nell's deep gash.
"That'll have to be stitched," she advised.
Nell winced. She had experienced Hester's needlework before.
"Otherwise it will take a long time to heal," Hester warned.
Nell pulled a face. "If yer stitchin's still like yer stitched me
'and, they'd throw yer out of a bleedin' sweatshop," she said good-humoredly.
"All it wants is buttons on it!" She drew in her breath between her teeth as Hester pulled the cloth away from the wound and it started to bleed again. "Jeez!" Nell said, her face white. "Be careful, can't yer? Yer got 'ands like a damn navvy!"
Hester was accustomed to the mild abuse and knew it was only
Nell's way of covering her fear and her pain. This was the fourth time she had been there in the month and a half since the house had been open.
"Yer'd think since yer'd looked arter soldiers in the Crimea wi'
Florence Nightingale an' all, yer'd be a bit gentler, wouldn't yer?"
Nell went on. "I bet yer snuffed as many o' our boys as the fightin'
ever did. 'Oo paid yer then? The Russkies?" She looked at the needle
Margaret had threaded with gut for Hester. Her face went gray and she swiveled her head to avoid seeing the point go through her flesh.
"Keep looking at the door," Hester advised. "I'll be as quick as I
"That supposed ter make me feel better?" Nell demanded. "Yer got that bleedin' fat leech comin' in 'ere again."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Jessop!" Nell said with stinging contempt as the street door closed again and a large, portly man in a frock coat and brocade waistcoat stood just inside, stamping his feet as if to force water off them, although in fact it was a perfectly dry night.
"Good evening, Mrs. Monk," he said unctuously. "Miss Ballinger."
His eyes flickered over the other three women, his lips slightly curled. He made no comment, but in his face was his superiority,
his comfortable amusement, the ripple of interest in them which he resented, and would have denied hotly. He looked Hester up and down. "You are a very inconvenient woman to find, ma'am.
I don't care for having to walk the streets at this time of night in order to meet with you. I can tell you that with total honesty."
Hester made a very careful stitch in Nell's arm. "I hope you tell me everything with total honesty, Mr. Jessop," she said coldly and without looking up at him.
Nell shifted slightly and sniggered, then turned it into a yell as she felt the thread of gut pulling through her flesh.
"For goodness sake be quiet, woman!" Jessop snapped, but his eyes followed the needle with fascination. "Be grateful that you are being assisted. It is more than most decent folk would do for you."
He forced his attention away. "Now, Mrs. Monk, I dislike having to discuss my affairs in front of these unfortunates, but I cannot wait around for you to have time to spare." He put his thumbs in the pockets of his red brocade waistcoat.
"As I am sure you are aware, it is quarter to one in the morning and I have a home to go to. We need to reconsider our arrangements."
He freed one hand and flicked it at the room in general.
"This is not the best use of property, you know. I am doing you a considerable service in allowing you to rent these premises at such a low rate." He rocked very slightly back and forth on the balls of his feet. "As I say, we must reconsider our arrangement."
Hester held the needle motionless and looked at him. "No, Mr.
Jessop, we must keep precisely to our arrangement. It was made and witnessed by the lawyers. It stands."
"I have my reputation to consider," he went on, his eyes moving for a moment to each of the women, then back to Hester.
“A reputation for charity is good for anyone,” she returned, beginning very carefully to stitch again. This time Nell made no sound at all.
“Ah, but there’s charity . . . and charity.” Jessop pursed his lips and resumed the very slight rocking, his thumbs back in his waistcoat pockets. “There’s some as are more deserving than others, if you take my meaning?”
“I’m not concerned with deserving, Mr. Jessop,” she replied. “I’m concerned with needing. And that woman”–she indicated Lizzie–“has broken bones which have to be set. We cannot pay you any more, nor should we.” She tied the last stitch and looked up to meet his eyes. The thought passed through her mind that they resembled boiled sweets, to be specific, those usually known as humbugs. “A reputation for not keeping his word is bad for a man of business,” she added. “In fact, any man at all. And it is good, especially in an area like this, to be trusted.”
His face hardened until it was no longer even superficially benign. His lips were tight, his cheeks blotchy. “Are you threatening me, Mrs. Monk?” he said quietly. “That would be most unwise, I can assure you. You need friends, too.” He mimicked her tone. “Especially in an area like this.”
Before Hester could speak, Nell glared up at Jessop. “You watch yer lip, mister. You might knock around tarts like us.” She used the word viciously, as he might have said it. “But Mrs. Monk’s a lady, an’ wot’s more, ’er ’usband used ter be a rozzer, an’ now ’e does it private, like, fer anyone as wants it. But that don’t mean ’e in’t got friends in places wot counts.” Admiration gleamed in her eyes, and a harsh satisfaction. “An’ ’e’s as ’ard as they come w’en ’e needs ter be. If ’e took ter yer nasty, yer’d wish as yer’d never bin born! Ask some o’ yer thievin’ friends if they’d like ter cross William Monk. Garn, I dare yer! Wet yerself at the thought, yer would!”
The dull color washed up Jessop’s face, but he did not reply to her. He glared at Hester. “You wait till renewal time, Mrs. Monk! You’ll be looking for something else, and I’ll be warning other propertied men just what sort of a tenant you are. As to Mr. Monk . . .” He spat the words this time. “He can speak to all the police he likes! I’ve got friends, too, and not all of them are so nice!”
“Garn!” Nell said in mock amazement. “An’ ’ere was us thinkin’ as yer meant ’Er Majesty, an’ all!”
Jessop turned, and after giving Hester one more icy stare he opened the door and let the cold air in off the cobbled square, damp in the early-spring night. The dew was slick on the stones, shining under the gaslight twenty yards away, showing the corner of the end house–grimy, eaves dark and dripping, guttering crooked.
He left the door open behind him and walked smartly down Bath Street toward the Farringdon Road.
“Bastard!” Nell said in disgust, then looked down at her arm. “Yer improvin’,” she said grudgingly.
“Thank you,” Hester acknowledged with a smile.
Nell suddenly grinned back. “Yer all right, you are! If that fat sod gives yer any trouble, like, let us know. Willie might knock me around a bit, wot’s out o’ place, but ’e’d be good fer beatin’ that slimy pig, an’ all.”
“Thank you,” Hester said seriously. “I’ll keep it in mind. Would you like more tea?”
“Yeah! An’ a drop o’ life in it, too.” Nell held out the cup.
“Rather less life this time,” Hester directed as Margaret, hiding a smile, obeyed.
Hester moved her attention to Lizzie, who was looking increasingly anxious as her turn approached. Setting her broken bone was going to be very painful. Anesthetic had been available for more serious operations for several years. It made all sorts of deep incisions possible, such as those needed to remove stones from the bladder, or a diseased appendix. But for injuries like this, and for people unable or unwilling to go to a hospital, there was still no help but a stiff dose of alcohol and such herbs as dulled the awareness of pain.
Hester talked all the time, about anything and nothing–the weather, local peddlers and what they were selling–in order to distract Lizzie’s attention as much as possible. She worked quickly. She was accustomed to the terrible wounds of the battlefield, where there was no anesthetic and not always brandy, except to clean a blade. Speed was the only mercy available. This time there was no broken skin, nothing to see but the crooked angle and the pain in Lizzie’s face. Hester touched the wrist lightly, and heard the gasp, then the retching as the raw ends of bone grated. With one swift, decisive movement, she brought the ends together and held them while Margaret, gritting her teeth, bound the wrist as firmly as she could without stopping the blood to the hand.
Lizzie retched again. Hester handed her the whiskey and hot water, this time with an infusion of herbs added. It was bitter, but the alcohol and the heat would ease her, and in time the herbs would settle her stomach and give her a little sleep.
“Stay here tonight,” Hester said gently, standing up and putting her arm around Lizzie as she rose unsteadily to her feet. “We need to see that bandage stays all right. If your hand swells up a lot we’ll have to loosen it,” she added, slowly guiding her over to the closest bed while Margaret pulled back the covers for her.
Lizzie looked at Hester in horror, her face bloodless.
“The bone will be fine,” Hester assured her. “Just take care not to knock it.” As she spoke, she eased Lizzie onto the bed, bent and took her shoes off, then lifted her legs and feet up until she was lying back against the pillows. Margaret pulled the covers over her.
“Lie there for a bit,” Hester advised. “Then if you want to get into bed properly, I’ll come and give you a nightshirt.”
Lizzie nodded. “Thank you, miss,” she said with profound sincerity. She struggled for a moment to find words to add, and then merely smiled.
Hester went back to where Kitty was sitting, waiting patiently for her turn. She had an interesting face: strong features and a wide, passionate mouth, not pretty in the usual sense, but well proportioned. She had not been on the streets long enough for her skin to be marred, or sallow from poor food and too much alcohol. Hester wondered briefly what domestic tragedies had brought her there.
She looked at her injuries. They were mostly rapidly darkening bruises, as if she had been in a struggle with someone but it had not lasted long enough to do her the damage that Nell and Lizzie had suffered. The deep graze on her breastbone needed cleaning, but no stitches would help. It was not bleeding much, and a little ointment to aid healing would be sufficient. The bruises would hurt for some time to come, but arnica would ease that.
Margaret brought more hot water and clean cloths, and Hester began to work as gently as she could. Kitty barely winced when Hester touched the graze, cleaning away the blood, which was now dried, and exposing the raw, torn edges of the skin. As always, Hester did not ask how it happened. Pimps quite often disciplined their women if they thought they were not working hard enough, or were keeping back too big a part of their earnings. Vicious fights between one woman and another happened now and again, mostly over territory. It was best not to appear inquisitive, and anyway, the knowledge would be of no use to her. All the wounded were treated much the same, however their hurts were incurred.
When Hester had done all she could for Kitty, and given her a cup of strong, sweet tea laced with a very small drop of whiskey, Kitty thanked her and went back out into the night, pulling her shawl tighter around her. They saw her go across the square, head high, and disappear into the black shadow of the prison to the north.
“I dunno.” Nell shook her head. “She shouldn’t be out on the street. In’t fer ’er sort, poor bitch!”
There was nothing useful to say. A hundred different circumstances took women into prostitution, often only to supplement a too-meager income from something else. But it all stemmed from the eternal struggle for money.
Nell looked at her. “You keep a still tongue, don’t yer! Ta, missus. I’ll be seein’ yer again, I ’spec’.” She squinted a little at Hester, regarding her with wry kindness. “If I can ’elp yer sometime . . .” She left the sentence unfinished, shrugging very slightly. Nodding to Margaret, she went out as well, closing the door quietly behind her.
Hester caught Margaret’s eye and saw the flash of humor and pity in her expression. There was no need for words; they had already said all there was to say. They were there to heal, not to preach to women whose lives they only partially understood. At first Margaret had wanted to change things, to speak what she saw as truth, guided by her own beliefs. Gradually she had begun to realize how little she knew of her own hungers, except that to be tied in a convenient marriage where the emotion was no more than a mutual respect and courtesy would be a denial of everything inside her. It might seem comfortable to begin with, but as time passed and she stifled the dreams within her, she would come to feel her husband was her jailer, and then despise herself for her own dishonesty. The choice was hers; no one else was to blame.
She made it, and stepped into the unknown, aware that she was closing doors she might later regret, and which after that could never be opened again. She did not often wonder what she had given away, but there had been long nights with few patients when she and Hester talked frankly, and even touched on the prices of different kinds of loneliness, those that were perceived by others and those that were masked in marriage and family. All choice was risk, but for Margaret, as for Hester, accommodation to half-truths was impossible.
“For his sake, I can’t do that!” Margaret had said with a self-conscious laugh. “Poor man deserves better than that. I’d despise myself for it, and him for letting me.” Then she had gone for a bucket and water to scrub the floor, as she did now, and together they cleared up and put away the unused bandages and ointments, then took turns in snatching a little sleep.
Two other women came in before morning. The first needed two stitches in her leg, which Hester did quickly and efficiently. The second was cold and angry and badly bruised. A mug of hot tea, again mildly laced with whiskey and a little tincture of arnica, and she felt ready to return to her room and face the coming day, probably most of it asleep.
Dawn came clear and quite mild, and by eight o’clock Hester was eating toast and drinking a cup of fresh tea when the street door opened and a constable was silhouetted against the sunlight. Without asking, he came in.
“Mrs. Monk?” His tone was heavy and a little sharp. The police hardly ever came to the house. They were not welcome, and had been told so in unmistakable terms. Largely they respected what was done there, and were happy enough, if they wished to speak to any of the women, to wait and do it in some other place. What could have brought him there this morning, and at eight o’clock?
Hester put down her mug and stood. “Yes?” She had seen him several times on the street. “What is it, Constable Hart?”
He closed the door behind him and took off his helmet. In the light his face looked tired, not merely from a sleepless night on duty, but from an indefinable weariness within. Something had bruised him, disturbed him.
“You ’ad any women in ’ere last night that were knocked about, cut mebbe, or beat bad?” he asked. He glanced at the teapot on the table, swallowed, and looked back at Hester.
“We do most nights,” she replied. “Stabs, broken bones, bruises, disease. In bad weather the women are sometimes just cold. You know that!”
He took a deep breath and sighed, pushing his hand through his receding hair. “Someone in a real fight, Mrs. Monk. I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t ’ave to. Jus’ tell me, eh?”
“Would you like a cup of tea?” She evaded the answer for a moment. “Or toast?”
He hesitated. His exhaustion was plain in his face. “Yeah . . . ta,” he accepted, sitting down opposite her.
Hester reached for the teapot and poured a second mug. “Toast?”
“Jam?” she offered.
His eyes went to the table. His face relaxed in a rueful smile. “You got black currant!” he noticed, his voice soft.
“You’d like some?” It was a rhetorical question. The answer was obvious. Margaret was still asleep, and making the toast would give Hester a little more time to think, so she was happy to do it.
She came back to the table with two slices, and buttered one for herself and one for him, then pushed the jam over to him. He took a liberal spoonful, put it on the toast and ate it with evident appreciation.
“You ’ad someone,” he said after several moments, looking at her almost with apology.
“I had three,” she replied. “At about a quarter to one, or about then. One later, three o’clock or so, and another an hour after that.”
“All in fights?”
“Looked like it. I didn’t ask. I never do. Why?”
Hester waited, watching him. There were hollows under his eyes as if he had lost too many nights’ sleep, and there was dust and what looked like blood on his sleeves. When she looked further, there was more on the legs of his trousers. His hand, holding the mug, was scratched, and one fingernail was torn. It should have been painful, but he seemed unaware of it. She was touched by both pity and a cold air of fear. “Why did you come?” she asked aloud.
He put down the mug. “There’s been a murder,” he replied. “In Abel Smith’s brothel over in Leather Lane.”
“I’m sorry,” she said automatically. Whoever it was, such a thing was sad, the waste of two lives, a grief to even more. But murders were not unheard of in an area like this, or dozens of others in London much the same. Narrow alleys and squares lay a few yards behind teeming streets, but it was a different world of pawnbrokers, brothels, sweatshops, and crowded tenements smelling of middens and rotting timber. Prostitution was a dangerous occupation, primarily because of the risk of disease and, if you lived long enough, starvation when you became too old to practice–at thirty-five or forty.
“Why did you come here?” Hester asked. “Was somebody else attacked as well?”
He looked at her, his eyes narrow, his lips pulled tight. It was an expression of understanding and misery, not contempt. “Dead person wasn’t a woman,” he explained. “Wouldn’t expect you to be able to ’elp me if it was. Although sometimes they fight each other, but not to kill, far as I know. Never seen it, anyway.”
“A man?” She was surprised. “You think a pimp killed him? What happened? Someone drunk, do you suppose?”
He sipped his tea again, letting the hot liquid ease his throat. “Don’t know. Abel swears it in’t anything to do with ’is girls. . . .”
“Well, he would, wouldn’t he?” She dismissed the idea without even weighing it.
Hart would not let it go so quickly. “Thing is, Mrs. Monk, the dead man was a toff . . . I mean a real toff. You should ’ave seen ’is clothes. I know quality. An’ clean. ’Is ’ands were clean too, nails an’ all. An’ smooth.”
“Do you know who he was?”
He shook his head. “No. Someone pinched ’is money an’ calling cards, if ’e ’ad any. But someone’ll miss ’im. We’ll find out.”
“Even men like that have been known to use prostitutes,” she said reasonably.
“Yeh, but not Abel Smith’s sort,” he replied. “Not that that’s what matters,” he added quickly. “Thing is, a man like that gets murdered an’ we’ll be expected to get whoever did it in double quick time, an’ there’ll still be a lot o’ shouting an’ wailing to clean up the area, get rid o’ prostitution and make the streets safe for decent people, like.” He said this with in- effable contempt–not a sneer of the lips or raising of his voice, just a soft, immeasurable disgust.
“Presumably if he’d stayed at home with his wife, he’d still be alive,” Hester responded sourly. “But I can’t help you. Why do you think a woman was hurt and could know something about it? Or that she’d dare tell you if she did?”
“You thinking ’er pimp did it?” He raised his eyebrows.
“Aren’t you?” she countered. “Why would a woman kill him? And how? Was he stabbed? I don’t know any women who carry knives or who attack their clients. Fingernails or teeth are about the worst I’ve heard of.”
“ ’Eard of?” he questioned.
She smiled with a slight downward curl of her lips. “Men don’t come here.”
“Just women, eh?”
“For medical reasons,” she explained. “Anyway, if a man’s been bitten or scratched by a prostitute, what are we going to do for him?”
“Beyond have a good laugh–nothing,” he agreed. Then his expression became grave again. “But this man’s dead, Mrs. Monk, an’ from the look of the body, ’e got ’imself in a fight with a woman, an’ then somehow or other ’e came off worst. ’E’s got cuts an’ gashes in ’is back, an’ so many broken bones it’s hard to know where to begin.”
She was startled. She had imagined a fight between two men ending in tragedy, perhaps the larger or heavier one striking an unlucky blow, or possibly the smaller one resorting to a weapon, probably a knife.
“But you said he was robbed,” she pointed out, thinking now of an attack by several men. “Was he set on by a gang?”
“That don’t ’appen ’round these streets.” Hart dismissed it. “That’s what pimps are for. They make their money out of willing trade. It’s in their interest to keep the customers safe.”
“So why is this one dead?” she said quietly, beginning to understand now why Hart had come there. “Why would one of the women kill him? And how, if he was beaten the way you describe?”
Hart bit his lip. “Actually, more like ’e fell,” he answered.
“Fell?” She did not immediately understand.
“From an ’eight,” he explained. “Like down stairs, mebbe.”
Suddenly it was much clearer. If a man had been caught off balance, not expecting it, a woman could easily have pushed him.
“But what about the cuts and gashes you spoke of?” she asked. “You don’t get those falling down stairs.”
“There was a lot o’ broken glass around,” he replied. “An’ blood–lots of it. Could ’ave smashed a glass, dropped it an’ then fallen on it, I suppose.” He looked miserable as he said it, almost as if it were a personal tragedy. He pushed his hand back through his hair again, a gesture of infinite weariness. “But Abel swears ’e was never at ’is place, an’ knowing the state of it, I believe ’im. But ’e went somewhere often enough.”
“Why would one of Abel Smith’s women kill him?” she asked, pouring more tea for both of them. “Could it have been an accident? Could he have tripped and fallen down the stairs?”
“ ’E wasn’t found at the bottom, an’ they deny it.” He shook his head and picked up his mug of fresh tea. “ ’E was on the floor in one o’ the back bedrooms.”
“Where was the broken glass?” she asked.
“On the floor in the passage an’ at the bottom o’ the stairs.”
“Maybe they moved him before they realized he was beyond help?” she suggested. “Then they denied it out of fear. Sometimes people tell the stupidest lies when they panic.”
He stared at the distance, the potbellied stove halfway along the wall, his eyes unseeing, his voice still too quiet to carry beyond the table where they sat. “ ’E’d been in a fight. Scratch marks on ’is face that never came from any fall. Look like a woman’s fingernails. An’ he were dead after ’e hit the ground, all them broken bones an’ a bash on the head. Wouldn’t ’ave moved after that. An’ there’s blood on ’is ’ands, but they wasn’t injured. It weren’t no accident, Mrs. Monk. At least not entirely.”
He sighed. “It’s going to cause a terrible row. The family’s going to raise ’ell! They’ll ’ave us all out patrolling the streets and ’arassing any women we see. They’re going to ’ate it . . . an’ then customers is going to ’ate it even more. An’ the pimps’ll ’ate it worst of all. Everybody’ll be in a filthy temper until we find whoever did it, an’ probably ’ang the poor little cow.” He was too wretched to be aware of having used a disparaging term in front of her, or to think of apologizing.
“I can’t help you,” Hester said softly, remembering the women who had come to the house the previous night, all of them injured more or less. “Five women came, but they all went again and I have no idea where to. I don’t ask.”
“Their names?” he said without expectation.
“I don’t ask that either, only something to call them by.”
“That’ll do, for a start.” He put down his mug and fished in his pocket for his notebook and pencil.
“A Nell, a Lizzie and a Kitty,” she answered. “Later a Mariah and a Gertie.”
He thought for a moment, then put the pencil away again.
“ ’Ardly worth it,” he said dismally. “Everybody’s a Mary, a Lizzie, or a Kate. God knows what they were christened–if they were, poor souls.”
She looked at him in the sharp morning light. There was a dark shadow of stubble on his cheeks and his eyes were pink-rimmed. He had far more pity for the women of the streets than he had for their clients. She thought he did not particularly want to catch whoever had pushed the man down the stairs. The murderer would no doubt be hanged for something which could have been at least in part an accident. The death may not have been intentional, but who would believe that when the woman in the dock was a prostitute and the dead man was rich and respected? What judge or juror could afford to accept that such a man could be at least in part responsible for his own death?
“I’m sorry,” she said again. “I can’t help.”
He sighed. “An’ you wouldn’t if you could . . . I know that.” He rose to his feet slowly, shifting his weight a little as if his boots pinched. “Just ’ad ter ask.”
It was nearly ten o’clock in the morning when the hansom pulled up at her house in Fitzroy Street.
Monk was sitting in the front room he used to receive those who came to seek his services as a private agent of enquiry. He had papers spread in front of him and was reading them.
She was surprised to see him and filled with a sudden upsurge of pleasure. She had known him for nearly seven years, but had been married to him for less than three, and the joy of it was still sharp. She found herself smiling for no other reason.
He put the papers aside and stood up, his face softening in response.
There was a question in his eyes. “You’re late,” he said, not in criticism but in sympathy. “Have you eaten anything?”
“Toast,” she replied with a little shrug. She was untidy and she knew she smelled of vinegar and carbolic, but she wanted him to kiss her anyway. She stood in front of him, hoping she was not obvious. She was sufficiently in love that it would have embarrassed her to be too easily read.
From the Hardcover edition.