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London’s West End, 1887
Detective Inspector Zeno Kennedy unbuttoned his collar and pulled out a shirttail. “What have you got for me?”
Scarlet, aka Kitty Matthews, reclined on the mattress and struck a seductive pose. Propped on her elbows, the girl lowered and raised sultry green eyes in a brazen inspection of his person. “You blokes from Scotland Yard are a handsome lot.”
She arched her back and thrust her breasts up and out at him. Quite a robust figure—ample bottom and curvy topside. Studying her, he decided she could not be more than seventeen or eighteen years of age. A shapely little thing with chestnut-colored hair, big green eyes, and a button nose. She could easily raise a man’s temperature.
Zeno did his best to ignore the girl’s bountiful charms as he took up a post at the end of the bed-frame. “Actually, I work for Special Irish Branch.” He leaned over the brass rail.
Scarlet gaped at a bit of exposed chest. “Blue eyes and dark hair—Black Irish, are you?”
Zeno hastily pulled his shirt closed and admonished himself to be patient with his newest recruit. “Special Irish Branch is a division of Scotland Yard aimed at investigating anarchists. Fenians mostly. We’re after the blokes who want Home Rule for the Irish at any price, by any means.”
Her eyes grew wide. “The dynamiters?”
A low groan and squeaking bedsprings drifted through the wall. Zeno raised an index finger to his lips and gave a nod to the adjoining room.
The budding beauty in front of him typified the adolescent female offerings of this pleasure house. Mrs. Jeffries’s, as it was referred to in hushed tones among gentlemen at their clubs, was a popular brothel marketing young women—very young. Some were girls who had not yet been spoiled, for a steeper price.
With venereal disease rampant, and the Contagious Diseases Act repealed, men of means found the idea of a virgin, even if less bawdy, certainly a healthier amusement. It seemed the baser instincts of gentlemen of privilege would continue to find ways to avoid the pox at any cost, both to their pockets and to the lives of the innocent juveniles conscripted for such harsh duty.
Scotland Yard’s Criminal Investigations Department of the Metropolitan Police had moved on some of the worst offenders, but there had been tremendous pressure from the top echelons to keep the safer brothels open. As for the use of young girls, Zeno’s position was well known. Turning a blind eye to their plight made them all dirty.
“You sent an urgent wire, Scarlet. Anything to report?”
“No, sir—I mean yes, sir.” She rolled her eyes. “Evening last, I was on my way home from the bedside of me sick mum. Just past the steam vent on Bixford, I see four gentlemen leave Mrs. Jeffries’s in search of their carriage, somewhere amongst the fancy rigs parked outside Drake’s.”
The girl referred to the gambling hell located close by. “Yes, I’m sure they were queued up around the block.” He tried a wry grin of encouragement. “Did you recognize anyone by name?“
“Not much to notice about them, except for Lord Delamere.”
“Delamere?” Zeno’s eyes narrowed. “Are you sure of this?”
She bobbed her head. “Hard to miss that handsome, cocksure puss. He’s not one of my regulars; he fancies Roxanne or Jemma.”
The elusive Lord Delamere had been a person of interest for some months now, along with his cadre of misfits—peers who styled themselves the Bloody Four. “Please continue, Scarlet.”
“Lord Delamere, he points to the next coach in line. ‘Where the bloody hell is our driver?’” A bit wild-eyed, she hesitated. “Next thing, he opens the carriage door and the nearby gas lamp lights up the inside—I swear, sir, I saw a pair of gents with their knickers down around their knees.”
Zeno needed confirmation. “Committing sodomy?”
She nodded. “One of Delamere’s boys raised a shout, ‘I say, what goes there?’ Then two of them reach inside and pull the buggers out, one after the other. Once they had them down in the street, they started kicking and pounding. Straight off, the younger molly wrenches away, pulls up his trousers and escapes down the lane.”
“No one ran after him?”
Scarlet shook her head. “Those blokes were too bladdered to give chase—turned back to their punches and kicks. Lord Delamere and another man stood near the coach door watching the tussle.”
Scarlet gulped. “His lordship leans in for a closer look. ‘Well, well, Albert. I wouldn’t have pegged you for a light-foot lad. Sorry about the thrashing.’
“The poor bashed-up gent, he spits blood and calls them a bunch of thickheaded cock-ups. Says they got the wrong coach, and now they’re all going to die for a mug’s game. Then he says, ‘I know every one of you by name. Rest assured, you’ll pay for this assault.’”
Scarlet chewed on her bottom lip. “Delamere’s puss turns right sneery. ‘I think not, Albert,’ he says, ‘’Tis you, my lord, who is going to pay for our silence.’”
Zeno clapped his mouth shut, just to make sure it wasn’t hanging open. “The younger man who got away. Did you get a look at him?”
“He knocked me onto my bum, sir.” She rubbed the back of her hip. “Close-cropped dark hair and light-colored eyes—ice blue they were. Handsome as the devil he was.”
“Lighter blue than mine?”
The girl wet her lips and flashed a sultry smile.
“Scarlet.” He lowered his chin and eyed her impatiently.
She rolled her eyes and sighed. “Different, very pale, almost like they were moonbeams.”
He placed an elbow on the brass rail and cupped his chin. “You are either in possession of an extraordinary memory or a wicked imagination.”
“You think I’d imagine such a tale? I’m telling you the God’s honest truth, sir.”
“Then might you provide a description of the men with Delamere? Take your time—the smallest detail would help.”
Her frown eased into a contemplative pout. “One of the young gents was light-haired, with a bit of a wave to it. Several locks fell down over his eyes. The other had dark chestnut hair. No beard or whiskers, like yourself. The third man was large, thick in the waist—ruddy cheeks on him. He stood beside the carriage door in a perspiration—”
Scarlet sat up straighter. “Lord Delamere eyed the nervous bloke. ‘Seen enough, James?’ Or he might have said—‘Seen too much, James?’ Plain enough words, but delivered in a harsh tone. More like …” Absently, the girl worked a bare foot up and down the bed sheet.
She drew her brows together. “Perhaps a jeer—or a warning.”
Zeno studied the young informant while he processed her story. “Good work, Scarlet.” The clever chit had even managed to dredge up another name, likely one of the Bloody Four. “I have a mind this small event you happened on will prove useful.” Even as Zeno praised the girl’s natural talents, his eyes betrayed him.
The coquette ran her finger along the edge of her camisole, across plump breasts, which revealed a hint of light, rose-colored flesh at their tips. “You want a sample, sir? All the others do.”
Caught in the act of ogling, he coughed. “Others?”
“Most inspectors want a taste. Everyone but you, Mr. Kennedy.”
Everyone? His stomach roiled a bit.
“Is there something wrong with me, something you don’t like?”
He tilted his head. “I think you are a very pretty girl.” Skirting the bed, he sat down and spoke softly. He used her real name. “Kitty, you are not contracted to perform favors for detectives unless it is a part of an authorized operation. If you are ever uncomfortable with these requests for your services, I want you to feel free to boot them out. Is that understood?”
She tried to blink back any show of emotion before throwing her arms around his neck. He managed a hug and a few pats on the back. These girls did not experience much fair play or kindness in their line of work.
“You’re a decent man, sir.” A thin smile crept across her face.
Not altogether pleased about being thought decent by such a fetching girl, he let go of her and stood. Prostitute or no, he would take no chances with her safety. This liaison must go off as authentic.
“All right then, let’s make this sound like we’re having a jolly good tumble, shall we?” Zeno gave the bed a hard push with his foot and went on to create a series of rhythmic thuds and thumps. The game little harlot added sighs and moans to the jiggle and squeak of the bedsprings. A final staccato of rapid knocks against the wall made it perfectly evident to all those in the house that hardworking Scarlet was on the job.
CASSANDRA ST. CLOUD hurried up the steps of New Hospital for Women. A tingle of anticipation rushed through her body. On the second floor she turned toward the offices of the Women’s Health Organization of Britain. A line of patients spilled out of the waiting room and snaked down the corridor. “Excuse me, ladies.” She wove a path between high-bustle skirts, and turned down a narrow passageway marked Deliveries.
Cassandra gave the brass doorknob a turn, and poked her head in the door. “Dr. Erskine …” Her voice queried in a singsong fashion. “Mother?”
No answer. Just some low, mewling whimpers and a gasp of suppressed laughter.
What was Mama Olivia up to? She ventured inside the office and slipped past a few crates of medical supplies. A gas lamp hissed quietly above a stack of crates marked London Rubber Company. Cassandra grinned. No doubt a box full of Earl of Condom rubber goods.
A turn of the corner revealed a sparse but meticulously scrubbed examination room. Her mother held a cupped ear to the adjoining office wall.
“Cassie.” Dr. Olivia had a look of devilry about her. “Come have a listen.” She waved her closer. “Come. Come.”
She pressed affectionately up against her mother and cocked her head. Soft whimpers escalated into the most lurid moans as the unseen woman behind the wall continued to gasp and groan. With a surge of shock, she recognized the euphoric sighs of sexual intercourse as they passed through the plaster wall between surgeries.
Cassie shot upright. “Stanley Hargety is having an affair?” She had met Dr. Hargety and his wife several times at her parents’ home. There were rumors the man’s medical practice failed to prosper, and now this turn of events. She tried to hold back an uncharitable grin. “He hardly seems the Lothario type.”
Her mother snorted. “Did you have a look at the queue of women in the corridor? What a reversal of fortune! My colleague’s services are now very much in demand.” The moans grew louder and more frequent.
Cassie muffled a burst of laughter.
Olivia held a finger to her lips. “The paroxysm cometh.”
And it came in a bursting shriek followed by a nearly inaudible sigh. “Well, at least the lady’s hysteria is assuaged, thanks to Dr. Swift.”
More than curious, she followed her mother from the examination room to a small office in the rear of the suite. “Dr. Swift, you say? What happened to Dr. Hargety? And who is this Dr. Swift? Is the man properly licensed, Mother?”
Olivia tossed her a backward grin. “Dr. Swift is not a who, it’s a what, darling. A new electric vibration machine.”
Once inside the rumpled, comfortable office, her mother removed the kettle from a spirit-fuelled burner and filled the teapot. “Not long after I acquired this Bunsen burner, what did Stanley Hargety do? At great expense, he purchased himself a set of Leclanché cell batteries.”
Cassie clamped her lips together. She had read the scandalous advertisements in the back of women’s journals. An amused chortle rippled close to the surface. “Dear lord, he’s got himself a machine to relieve female hysteria.”
“The electric vibrator is also an effective treatment for arthritis, muscle spasms, and insomnia.” Olivia winked. “But a most profound cure for the over-excitable female. And what a boon to his practice. They’d come in twice a week if he could find the room to fit them in.”
“I take it not every lady is quite so expressive as this last patient?” She swept a few books off the corner of the desk so her mother could set down the tea tray.
“Lord no, although I have my theories.” Olivia shooed Baxter the cat off a well-worn wing chair. “Coincidental to his partnering with Dr. Swift, Stanley has suddenly shifted his practice to hospital half the week. I suspect an enthusiastic patient may have proved herself entirely too vocal for his posh Harley Street surgery.”
Cassie could not hold back the news a second longer. Her stomach fluttered with excitement. “I must tell you my solicitor wired wonderful news this morning. At my behest, a small but well-appointed town house edging on Belgravia has been let in my name.”
Olivia stopped short of biting into a lemon biscuit.
“Well, it’s about time, dear. No one will take greater pleasure than I to see you cast off those widow’s weeds and return to your painting. You have great talent. A gift from God—”
“Don’t squander it,” she recited along with her mother. “You’ll be pleased to know I have plans to show in London and Paris this year.” Cassie raised her chin. “I mean to concentrate on my art, and art alone.”
As shocking and cruel as her husband’s death had been, she had been given a reprieve of sorts, a chance to start life anew. “There will be no eager gentlemen callers complicating my ambitions this time.”
This time, she would remain steadfast to her aspirations. This time the thing she desired most in the world would be hers—to be worthy of the sobriquet “impressionist.” Mary Cassatt’s Child in a Straw Hat, Claude Monet’s Woman with a Parasol, Edgar Degas’s Dancers at the Bar. And Cassandra St. Cloud’s …? Lost in a world of brilliant color and swirling brushstrokes, she was barely aware of her mother’s ramblings.
“… and when word gets out the young widow has taken a residence of her own?”
“Yes. The presumption is I will take a lover.” Cassie shrugged. “Let them think what they wish.”
“Well.” Olivia grinned. “Libertas, Cassie! And when does this all take place?”
“I begin the move tomorrow. My dear companion, Aunt Esmie, leaves Rosslyn House for the countryside to care for an ailing sister.” Cassie set her cup down and beamed. “The timing is perfection itself, I shall make my escape from the in-laws.”
“After six months of marriage and two years of mourning, I would say so.” Mother’s eye roll was less than subtle, though her voice softened. “You have done your duty.”
A brief silence graced the room as the reality of Cassie’s break from her late husband’s family sank in. Sipping tea, Olivia gazed at her over a tipped cup. “I was pleased to know you recognized the sounds of sexual gratification, dear. I do hope that when Thom was alive he managed to show you some pleasure?”
She pressed her lips together. How Mother dearly loved to be shocking.
There really was only one way to answer one of Dr. Olivia Erskine’s social deportment salvos, as Father often referred to them. “Yes, Mama, he knew precisely the spot and what to do once he got there.” Not that the man had seen her in a state of bliss, much. Heat radiated from her throat to her cheeks but Cassie took a great deal of satisfaction in what appeared to be her mother’s generous approval.
Olivia smiled. “Ah, the magic power of a fine, gentle massage.”
Now and again, Cassie wondered what it might be like to have a retiring, reserved mother. She set down her cup. “I cannot think of another subject I would rather converse on, but I must be off to see Mr. Dowdeswell. I dropped off a folio of drawings last week, which he kindly offered to critique.”
“And how goes the gallery business? After that ridiculous show he gave Whistler.” Olivia clucked her tongue. “When I think of how bold your work is in comparison to that meek little portrait of his mother. I do hope Dowdeswell comes to his senses and offers you space.”
“All right, Mummy, shall we give him a go? Sit for me. Perhaps a reclining pose—Olivia in the Nude?”
Mother nearly choked on her biscuit. “I will say your father does admire my derriere.”
Cassie pulled on gloves. “Should you decide to retire from medicine, promise me you will never attempt artist representation. You’d make short work of the gallery owners on Bond Street.” She blew her mother a kiss as she left the room.
Copyright © 2012 by Jillian Stone