Options are few for unmarried mothers in Victorian England. To avoid stigma, many find lodging with “baby farmers”—women who agree to care for the infant, or find an adoptive family, in exchange for a fee. Constance Piper, a London flower seller gifted with clairvoyance, has become aware of one such person, Mother Delaney, whose promises she suspects hide an infinitely darker truth.
Guided by the spirit of a deceased friend, Constance gathers evidence about what really goes on within Mother Delaney’s Poplar House. It’s not only innocent children who are at risk. A young prostitute’s body is found in mysterious circumstances. With the aid of Detective Constable Hawkins, newly promoted thanks to Constance’s help, she links the death to Mother Delaney’s vile trade. But the horror is edging closer to home, and even the hangman’s noose may not put this evil to rest . . .
“A nail-biting story full of suspense and mystery.”
About the Author
A graduate of Oxford University with a History degree, Tessa has also been a journalist and editor, contributing to many national publications such as The Times and The Telegraph. She has also acted as a literary publicist for several well-known authors. Readers can visit her website at www.tessaharrisauthor.com.
Read an Excerpt
London, Saturday, January 12, 1889
Two blasts. Two blasts from a copper's whistle is all it takes. I shudder to a halt, my breath burning my throat. Behind me is my ma's beau, Mr. Bartleby. I hear his heavy footsteps pull up sharp. I turn to see his anxious eyes clamped onto the back of my head; his mouth lost under the thatch of his big moustache. We both know what the whistles mean. They've found something. My stomach catapults up into my chest. Two more blasts cut through the fog like cheese wire, then it all kicks off. The air's filled with the shouts and sounds of men running: a dozen pairs of boots trampling over wet stones.
"Flo!" I call softly at first, then louder. "Flo!" Then again, until I'm screaming her name over the mayhem that's breaking out all around me. More whistle blasts. More footsteps. More shouts, too.
"Clarke's Yard!" I hear someone yell.
Clarke's Yard? I'm knocked off balance. Could she be there? She's not supposed to be there. Clarke's Yard is where they found poor Cath Mylett just before Christmas.
We're out of Whitechapel, in Poplar, up toward East India Docks, but this is still Jack's patch. There's some who think it was him who strangled poor Cath just a hundred yards up ahead. I'm not so sure. Knew her, we did. She was Flo's good friend and we was with her the night she was strangled. But what's Flo doing up here now?
Mr. B's caught up and we swap looks. Neither of us says a word before we both break out into a run. The high street looms through the patchy smog. Buildings are blurred and smudged, but we can see a couple of coppers making a dash. They're heading for the builder's yard. There's boarded up shops lining the road, but in between an ironmonger's and a tobacconist's I know there's a narrow alley that leads to workshops and stables at the back. Daytime it's safe — as safe as anywhere can be in this part of London. Come the night, it's a different story. It's where men pay to have their way. That's where they found poor Cath.
I'm hot and cold at the same time and my heart's barreling in my chest. The air's so thick with grit and grime, you could spread it on your bread. I throw a glance back at Mr. Bartleby as I run. He's no spring chicken and he's gulping down the dirty murk like it's going out of fashion.
"Over there!" I pant. I pause for a moment as, narrowing my eyes, I make out people pouring onto the street. The women stand on their doorsteps, arms round their little gals, while the men and boys rush over toward the yard, setting the dogs barking.
I start to drag myself as fast as I can toward the din and the gathering crowd. Mr. B's doubled over, his palms clamped on his thighs. I can't wait for him. My dread mounts and I start to pray.
"Please, no. Please let her be all right. Please, Miss Tindall," I mutter. She was my teacher. She won't let any harm come to Flo. If it's in her power to save her, I know she will. Jack shan't touch a hair on my big sister's head. Emily Tindall won't let him. I swear she won't let him.
I'm almost there, level with the lamppost that casts a grubby yellow glow on the opposite side of the street. I reach the edge of the crowd. The lads with the flaming torches who've come over with us from Whitechapel are already there.
I'm glad to see one of them is Gilbert Johns. It was him who cared for me when I fell into a faint in the street a few weeks back. A full head taller than most of them, he is, with forearms like Christmas hams.
"Gilbert! Gilbert!" I cry.
He whips round and latches onto my face. Plowing through the gathering crowd like a big shire horse, he edges toward me.
"Miss Constance." He's looming over me, and for a moment I feel safe, but then there's more shouting and we both see the coppers won't let no one into the yard. There's two of them at the mouth, barring the way.
"Keep back!" one of them cries. The other rozzer gets out his truncheon and starts waving it in the air, but it's too late. One of the Whitechapel lads — one with a torch — makes a break for it and bolts down the alley. The murmurings start to swell and the coppers can't hold their line. The crowd surges forward, funneling down the passage. Gilbert and me are among them. His arm's around me. Beside us, a little nipper takes a tumble, but no one stops to pick him up. We push on, like rats along a gutter, but a second later everyone's stopped in their tracks, not by the rozzers, but by the shout that bellows from one of the lads up ahead. It's a sound that makes all of us stand stock-still and catch our breaths; it's a sound that causes time to stop still and all around us fall away. It's the cry I'll never forget. It's the cry of "Murder! Murder!"
You may wish to look away. There is blood. Much blood. It is Florence's, but I am with her, watching over her. I was here to see the flares from the young man's torch illuminate the sodden earth and show a steady trickle of syrupy liquid. Blood-soaked stockings are visible where the muddy hem of her skirt has ridden up to her knees. She is slumped against a wall, her head lolled to one side, her legs splayed.
What most of the crowd who've clustered in the yard do not yet know, however, is that as well as a stricken young woman, a few yards away there also lies a brutally slain body. Jack is here, indeed, lurking in the shadows, waiting to pounce on his next helpless victim. This is, indeed, his domain. Five he's killed already. Five he's cut and gutted. That is why Constance is so desperate to find Florence before he does. But what she is yet to discover is that, this time, the murder victim is not a hapless prostitute, nor, thank God, is it her sister. It is a man. His body has been discovered not fifty paces from where Florence lies, in a blacksmith's forge. Yet despite his sex, there is a similarity in the manner of killing with the fiend's alleged female victims. Just like Mary Jane Kelly's, not two months before, his face has been mutilated beyond recognition.
More constables, never far away in these dark days when terror is stalking the streets, are speeding to the scene. When news of this killing seeps out into the gutter press, there will be another frenzy in the East End, in London, in England, in the world. More lurid headlines will be plastered across newspapers; more accusations of incompetence leveled at the Metropolitan Police and Scotland Yard, and Constance will have to suffer yet more pain and anxiety. For the moment, there is no way out of this quagmire. For the moment, everyone is sucked in. For tonight, you see, they will think the very worst. Tonight they will fear that Jack the Ripper has struck again.
Four weeks earlier, Wednesday, December 19, 1888
"Cheer up, my gal. 'Tis the season and all that!" Flo winks as she pats our friend Cath's arm, then slugs back her second large port and lemon of the night. Or is it her third? Either way, it's coming up to Christmas and my big sister's full of spirit, strong as well as festive, if you take my meaning. So, if a good-looker shows her a sprig of mistletoe, those lips of hers'll be on him like a limpet. 'Course we know it's all a show. She's just putting on a brave face, like the rest of us. It's six weeks now since Mary Kelly felt his knife, but we know he's still about.
"Deck them halls, that's what I say!" Flo slams down her empty glass and nudges me. "Whose round?"
Cath and me stay quiet. She's no money, and me, I don't take drinks off strangers. We're in the George Tavern, on Commercial Road in Poplar, not far from the docks. The pub is full of sailors and dockers, and there's a lech in the corner who's barely taken his eyes off us girls. On his hand, he's got a big tattoo of a naked woman. From the look she gave him earlier, I think he might be one of Cath's regulars. He catches me eyeing his tattoo and suddenly his leathery lips part and he slides his tongue in between them. He rolls it up at the edges and thrusts it in and out of his mouth. I snatch away my gaze and hear him laugh out loud at my fluster.
It's coming up to ten o'clock and we ain't seen a friendly face all evening. It's not Flo's usual spit-and-sawdust, but she was stood up by her intended, Daniel Dawson. He's been called to work late at the Egyptian Hall, with it being the festive season and all that. I'm not sure I believe him. Slippery as an eel, Danny is. If I know his sort, he'll be out with a girl from the chorus. But Flo's managed to twist my arm as usual. She's acted all down in the dumps and persuaded me to come and see what her old pal Cath Mylett is up to.
Cath is what the French might call "petite." Round here, we'd say she was a sparrow. She's been working in Poplar this last month. A good few years older than Flo, she is, but they always seemed to have a laugh together. Even named her first daughter after her, she did, but all that was before he came a-calling earlier on this year. It's like there's this great shadow cast over London Town and its name is Jack the Ripper. Cath is a working girl, see. In Whitechapel, she's known as Drunken Lizzie Davis, on account of her being partial to a tipple, or Rose — that's her favorite, but here in Poplar, she's changed her working name again, for a fresh start. Fair Alice Downey, they call her. She reckoned she'd be out of Jack's patch if she went nearer the docks.
Flo thinks Cath's got a man round these parts, too, but he's married, so she sees him on the sly. But new man or no, she still has to earn her keep out on the streets.
"Like it over here then, do you?" I ask Cath. She's not one for the gab, not like our Flo, so I try and make small talk. She shrugs and turns to the direction of the lech.
"Whitechapel or Poplar, one man's prick is the same anywhere," she says in a loud voice, so as he can hear. She talks like she's got dirt in her mouth. "Leastways Jack's less like to get me 'ere," she adds.
There's an odd look in her eye, and when I shoot her a questioning glance, she bends low and points to the side of her boot. I catch sight of the wooden handle of a short knife. I've heard a lot of working women are arming themselves with hatpins and the like. And who can blame them? A girl's got to do all she can to protect herself these days. What's more, from the look on her face, I know she'd use it, too.
So we're sitting in the corner, minding our own business, when I see Cath tense. I follow her gaze and who should I see but Mick Donovan, Gilbert Johns's friend. He's the Paddy with the funny walk, who worked at Mrs. Hardiman's Cat Meat Shop. There's sprigs of sandy hair sprouting under his nose, but it'll take more than a 'tache to make a man of him. He's having a word with a bloke at the bar, but as soon as he sees us three gals, he's over in a flash.
"'Evening, ladies," says he, like we're the best of mates. But Cath is in no mood for boys like him, even if he could pay for his pleasure. She gives him the cold shoulder, so his roving eye soon settles on our Flo. Punching above his weight, if you ask me. Nonetheless, in two shakes of a lamb's tail, he's offering to buy her a drink.
"Had a win with a filly at Kempton, so I did," he tells us. He's a gambler, all right, but I've no interest in helping him spend his winnings in case he wants something in return, if you get my drift. Flo, on the other hand, never refuses a free bevy and accepts his offer.
While she's making chitchat with Mick, Cath and me are left to our own devices. Seems she's not up for a night on the tiles. She's edgy and upset about something and keeps looking over to the bloke at the bar, the one with his back to us. The drink's not working on her like it usually does. Her skin's all pale and papery and it's creased between her eyes by a ceaseless frown. This time last year, she lost a baby girl. Hazard of the job, you might say. Sometimes not all the douching in the world will stop one of those blighters hitting the mark, if you'll pardon my being so frank. But I know she loved this little one — Evie, she called her — just as much as she loved Florence, her first, the one she named after our Flo. But just like with Florence, she had to give her away. Somehow she managed to scrape together a fiver and put the poor mite up for adoption. The minder told her there was a good home for the little soul, but Cath was pining so much that the next day she decided she wanted her back. So she called in, only to find Evie had become an angel overnight. Whooping cough, they told her, even though she seemed healthy enough when she left her the day before. Buried, too, before Cath could say farewell.
Sometimes Cath dosses in Spitalfields, sometimes in Poplar. If I was a betting person, I'd wager she's not got her doss money for tonight, neither. She'll need to work before she lays down her head. My eyes dart to the lech with the tattoo again. He'd have her in an alley as soon as look at her. The thought sickens me.
I turn back to Cath and see she's suddenly all teary again. She's watching a young mum feed her babe in the corner and it's like she's picked a scab. She dabs her eyes with a torn hankie. She's still raw and I clasp her hand tight. You see, I know the pain of loss, too. It's less than two months since I found out about Miss Tindall's cruel fate. She was my old Sunday school teacher. Only she'd become so much more than just that. Miss Emily Tindall was my friend, my mentor, no, my guardian angel. Murdered, she was, but no one can be brought to justice and my own wounds aren't even beginning to heal.
I gaze at Cath, mourning for her baby Evie. "The little mite's in a better place now," I say. I'm trying to reach out to her, but then I hate myself for sounding so glib and smug, like a parson. Do I mean what I say? Do I really believe that good people go to heaven when they die, or is it a lie made up to comfort those of us left behind? I'd like to think it's true, but I hold my tongue and watch Cath's face as the heartache screws it up like an old brown paper bag and her tears fall.
A moment or two passes before she lifts her face again and dabs her cheeks. "It's not right," she sobs.
Suddenly I'm not sure what she's on about. There's something more. "What's not right?" I ask.
"The babes, dying so young." Her face is all puffy and she begins to sob again. "So little and helpless."
In my mind's eye, I'm picturing sickly little infants, whimpering and moaning before giving up the ghost, but I'm not sure what it is she's seeing.
Her grief has suddenly turned to anger. There's something of a strange look on her face and her eyes grow wild, like she's fresh out of Bedlam. She stands up and steadies herself against the table. Wiping more tears away with her sleeve, she sniffs. "I best be off," she says. "I've got business to do." I picture her up against a wall, her skirts round her waist, and all so she can sleep in a bed tonight. She reaches for her bonnet and places it firmly on her head.
Flo's neck whips round. "You off then, Cath?" She's been looking for an excuse to escape Irish Mick, who's turning out to be even creepier than Danny, touching her at every turn.
"Yes," says Cath, leaving her bonnet ribbons to dangle under her chin. She pats the stiff, velvet collar round her neck to see it's done up against the cold.
"Business," I say.
Flo nods and pulls a face. "Got to earn your keep, I s'pose."
"Good-bye," I tell her, standing up to give her a hug, but she stiffens, like she doesn't want me to touch her, so I just say: "It'll be all right." She shoots me a peculiar look, like she's back in the madhouse, but she don't say nothing. "Take care," I call after her as she shuns a cluster of dockers by the bar and disappears into the night.
"What's got into her?" asks Flo. Mick's made his excuses and has gone. Turns out he's up here delivering geese and turkeys for Mr. Greenland. So now she's left with me, but her face is as flushed as a spit jack's. She's downed a few too many.
"She's still grieving," I say. Sometimes I wonder at my big sister's thoughtlessness. When she's had a glass or four, she spouts a lot of claptrap and no mistake.
"But it's Christmas!" she protests. "Christ-mas!" she shouts loudly, turning round and waving a hand in the air to all and sundry. It's the signal to leave, I think. A couple of sailors start to close in, and the lech with the tattoo perks up, but I manage to wheel Flo toward the door before any of them makes a move on her.
Excerpted from "The Angel Makers"
Copyright © 2018 Tessa Harris.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.