Victorian

The criminal disappeared after the inventor.  I watched him slip out the side door of the Black Swan pub into the Whitechapel night from across the taproom.

“’Nother?” the barmaid standing at my shoulder asked, lifting the cracked earthenware jug in her trembling hand and moving to pour.

I laid a palm across the top of my cup and shook my head.  “Not tonight, luv.”  I stood up and dropped a guinea on the table next to the pewter jack full of juniper, river-water, and lye that passed for gin at the Swan.  “But if I ever need to go blind from drink, I know where to find you.”

The barmaid’s sore-covered lip curled in a sneer of disdain, and her hand stooped on the coin like a starving raptor.  “Can’t make no change,” she said.

“Now there’s a surprise,” I replied as I hurried across the room, already moving in pursuit of my quarry.  I pushed through the same door LeGrande had used, letting the panel of scarred oak thump softly closed behind me, and I found myself in a short nameless alley just east of Mitre Square.  It was filthy—filled with garbage and night-soil from the Swan and all manner of unidentifiable offal from the tannery next door—and it smelled worse than a privy I’d once crawled down to escape the prison at Toulon.

I quickly snapped my head left and right, and I managed to catch a glimpse of LeGrande’s brown curls as they disappeared around the corner, which surprised me.  This was the perfect place for a villain like him to operate; shady, isolated, in a neighborhood known for violence, and smelly enough that no one would notice a rotting corpse anytime soon.  Either the Frenchman was slipping, or the inventor was proving craftier than he expected.  I started down the alley at a jog, my boots squishing through the refuse, and hoped for the former.

When I reached the alley’s mouth, I paused and poked my head around the front of the tannery.

The street was almost completely deserted.  The local doxies were too scared of the Ripper to venture out after dark without an escort, and their lack of availability drastically reduced the number of gentlemen willing to stagger out of a gin mill after midnight.  The absence of traffic proved to be a boon to me, however, because it made LeGrande impossible to miss.

He had the inventor on the run.

The bookish little Englishman was marching down the street, back straight, desperately trying to project a calm demeanor, but the near constant looks he threw over his shoulder at LeGrande betrayed his panic.  The Frenchman, for his part, stalked along with the assured, deliberate pace of a hunting lion.  It was only a matter of time before the inventor made a mistake, and LeGrande was content to wait for it to happen.

I absorbed all this in a glance, then affected a drunken shuffle and stumbled out into the street.  I watched to see if anyone noticed my appearance, but another rummy heading for home didn’t garner a second look from anyone.  I pasted a stupid smile on my face and began weaving along in LeGrande’s wake, careful to keep him in sight while maintaining a believable pace.

It was a tough act to pull off, but fortunately I didn’t have to keep it up for long.  The inventor’s panic got the best of him before he’d even gone two full blocks, and as he passed the entrace of Mitre Square, he bolted.

He couldn’t have picked a worse spot to make a run for it if he’d tried.  Mitre Square was a dead end.

I couldn’t see LeGrande’s face, but I swear I could hear him smile as he calmly followed the inventor down the lane into the Square.

The second the Frenchman stepped out of sight, I abandoned my drunken pretense and sprinted after him as quietly as I could.  It only took me a few seconds to catch up, but by the time I reached the Square the inventor was already backed up against a broken crate of tea.  He held a small bottle of viscous yellow liquid in one hand and waved it frantically at LeGrande.  He also happened to be standing less than twenty feet from where the Ripper butchered Catherine Eddowes.

I immediately twigged to LeGrande’s scheme.  He wasn’t just going to take the formula; he was going to make certain the recipe stayed a secret by gutting the inventor and pinning the kill on the Ripper.

It was a good plan.  Really good.

It might even have worked if I hadn’t slipped up behind LeGrande and slit his throat.

The inventor watched LeGrande’s smile disappeared behind a sticky red fountain, and the sight of it finally prompted him to open his mouth and scream for help, so I shoved LeGrande’s body forward and let the little Englishman inhale a lungful of blood instead.  He sputtered and choked, trying to figure out whether to finish screaming or vomit, but I stepped in and clamped a bloody hand across his face before he could make up his mind.

“Don’t,” I ordered.

He tried anyway, and I rewarded him with a sharp punch under the short ribs.  What little air remained in the inventor’s lungs exploded outward in a fine red mist, and he flopped back onto the crate of tea like a marionett with the strings cut.

“I warned you,” I said.

He tried to reply, but his mouth just flapped soundlessly.

I scooped up the bottle from where it had fallen beside the crate, leaned over the helpless inventor, and placed the edge of my knife against his throat.  “Is this the last of it?”

He still couldn’t talk, but he nodded vigorously.

“And the recipe?  Where is it?  Is it written down somewhere?”

The inventor shook his head.  “Acc…. accident,” he wheezed.  “Never… managed… to make… more.”

“Bollocks,” I said.

He shook his head again.  “S’true… that’s… last of it.”

I leaned in, close enough that our noses were nearly touching, and gave the poor sod my most menacing glare.  His eyes rolled in their sockets, and I could smell the piss staining his trousers.

He wasn’t lying.

“Good,” I said.

Then I shoved the point of my knife up beneath the inventor’s jaw and into his brain.  His body jerked once and he coughed up a small gobbet of blood.  I held my position, and when the light faded from his eyes and his body went limp, I pulled my knife free and wiped it on the sleeve of his coat.

I still held the bottle in my other hand, and I lifted it up before my eyes and gave it a small shake.  The fluid swirled around the inside and clung to the glass.

I pitched it over my shoulder with a shrug and let it shatter on the cobblestones.  “One less threat to the Empire,” I said.

Then I walked out of Mitre Square and vanished into the gaslit night.


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