Read The Lion's Courtship: An Anna Kronberg Mystery Online

Authors: Annelie Wendeberg

Tags: #london, #slums, #victorian, #poverty, #prostitution, #anna kronberg, #jack the ripper

The Lion's Courtship: An Anna Kronberg Mystery (2 page)

‘Why would she say that?’ the thief asks.

‘None of your business.’ The harsh dismissal sounds funny, coming from such a young throat.

The man pushes himself up and all blood drains from his face. Grunting, he makes it to the edge of the bed and plops both feet down on the floor.

Barry points his knife to the far side of the room. ‘She said you can go home if you make it all the way to your trousers without
fainting
.’ He speaks the last word as though he is a fine lady, or, at least, in an attempt to sound like one. Not that he ever saw a fine lady, or ever heard one speak, let alone has the ability to identify one should she cross his path, which — in itself — is quite impossible.

Squinting, the thief assesses the distance. His trousers are draped over a chair, the backrest peeks through the bullet hole. The blood is gone. She must have cleaned them last night. What an odd woman. His eyes search the floorboards again to make sure he had indeed not puked in this impeccable room. He can’t even find signs of his blood, let alone prints of his dirty boots.

He shrugs, pushes off the bed, and staggers forward. ‘Bloody Christ!’ he huffs and steadies himself on the wall. The room spins a little. He walks carefully, scraping one of his square palms along the cracking plaster.

At last he reaches the chair and can lower his buttocks. The wood gives a pitiful screech. With much effort, he inserts his throbbing leg into the trousers. The thick dressing hampers the progress. Sweat begins to itch on his forehead.

‘You look green,’ quips the boy.
 

The thief breathes heavily, buttons his fly, and stands up. ‘I will take that chair with me,’ he says.

Barry’s eyebrows go up, all the way until they are hiding underneath his cloth cap. He shakes his head and lifts the knife as a reminder.

‘I need it as a crutch. I’ll return it.’
 

The boy’s head is still wagging.

The man gets angry. His leg is aching badly and he isn’t sure how long he can remain upright.
 

The boy points with his knife.
Bloody Christ
, the thief thinks when he spots a makeshift crutch right next to the nurse’s bed. The usual variety of cuss words seems to fail him today. He touches his head to make sure he hasn’t been shot there, too.
 

Out on the street, the man’s stomach growls. He is so hungry, he could eat an entire cow, all with tail and horns and feet. A few pies will have to do, though. His tongue asks for a pint of ale, but his mind calculates the budget. Home-brewed tea it must be instead. That disastrous burglary last night has left him with nothing but a shilling, a hole in his thigh, and a rent needing to be paid.

Huffing, he leans against a wall when he remembers his lockpicks. They are still at the nurse’s place. Too exhausted to hunt for food, he pushes towards his quarters — a small room in a run-down house. Yet, not as decrepit as most of the neighbouring buildings.
 

The familiar creak of his door, the smell of cold tallow candle, his bed in the far corner — all irresistibly inviting to shed his tiredness with a good long sleep. But first, he needs to quench his thirst and, in three large gulps, he drains all the water left in the jug. With a slice of stale bread in his hand, he shuffles to his sleeping corner. The straw crackles as his healthy knee hits the mattress. He pulls in the injured leg, curls up, chews on the crust, and begins to snore not two minutes later.

A shot jerks him awake. Or was it a bang at the door? There, another one. ‘Who is it?’ he grumbles loud enough to be heard through the thin wood.
 

‘It is I,’ she answers.
 

He tries to recall her name. Had she not given it, last night? He struggles to get up, glad he’s still dressed, and hobbles to the door.

‘You forgot your lockpicks.’
 

Her short hair shocks him. Her black curls, tucked behind both ears, can barely hold on to that delicate ledge. Did he not look at her last night, or could he simply not remember?
 

Her chest is almost bosom-less. With her high cheekbones and her nose and eyebrows as sharp as a bird of prey’s, determination screams at him from every feature. He almost takes a step back.
She’s barely half your size, goddammit!
he scolds himself.

When she walks past him, his gaze follows her. Her shoulder blades move beneath the soft fabric of her dress and he thinks of folded wings too small for takeoff.

With his tools still in her hand, she points to his leg. ‘Surely Barry told you that I have to change the dressing once a day?’

Dumbstruck, he shakes his head. She slams her bag on his table and lifts an eyebrow.
 

Unspeaking, he shuts the door and walks to a chair. His leg is happy not to have to support his weight any longer.

‘Take your trousers off.’

He coughs. His cheeks blush orange, almost reaching the shade of his hair as he fumbles on the buttons and awkwardly follows her order.

‘You broke into my house,’ she says while unwrapping the bandages.
 

‘I’m Garret,’ he mumbles.
 

She pokes a finger into the reddened flesh around his gunshot wound. He suppresses a wince.

‘What the devil?’ he shouts as she bends down, her nose about to touch his thigh.

‘Smells clean. No infection. Good.’ She straightens up, smiles, and the thief is ready to pass out.
She just had her face in my crotch!
his mind screams.
Almost.
 

The woman takes a bottle and a kerchief from her bag, spreads brown liquid around the wound and gently dabs at it. Clear fluid seeps out the hole, mingling with the brown. The thief, now pale, tries hard to think of his grandmother; her last days, toothless, hairless, hallucinating, and pooping large round balls like a horse’s. It doesn’t help. He sees the woman’s gaze flicker to the conspicuous bulge in his one-legged drawers when she dresses his wound.

She straightens up and smooths the front of her dress. Her jaws are working. With a voice as frigid as the sleet rapping against Garret’s window, she says, ‘If you don’t wash with soap every day, your wound will get infected and you’ll die. I cannot saw that leg off so close to the hip. Tomorrow, I’ll show you how to change bandages and disinfect the wound. Have a good day.’

The door slams shut.

Garret sits on his chair, trembling and unsure whether he can get his trousers back up without fainting.

The woman steps out of the doorway, wiping dark memories away, and shaking off her paleness. ‘Thank you for waiting, Barry,’ she says and pulls the shawl farther up her neck. The boy nods, gifts her a smile, says, ‘See ya, Anna,’ and then dashes off.
 

She hurries in the opposite direction, three blocks down a road, crowded by people, their refuse, and hotchpotch.
 

She stops at a corner, takes a good look around to make sure no one followed her, and then sneaks into an alley to disappear at the back door of the cobbler’s.

Burglary

T
he conifer pokes at Garret’s neck. He moves the twig aside and changes position, careful to remain invisible. The jemmy, the glass knife, a wood cutter, and a length of rope, all wrapped in strips of cloth, press against his stomach. His lockpicks were made by his own hands and this is where he keeps them while his gaze attaches to a villa thirty yards in front of him. One mightily splendid house if he’d compare it with the one he lives in. But he doesn’t. It would be a waste of time and energy. To him, this villa is not the home of someone. It’s a strongbox he will pry open and gut.

Despite the late hour, light seeps through a pair of windows; all others are black holes in the ivy-covered stone walls. The gate had been locked just before dinner and the main entrance a few minutes past eleven o’clock when the servants were about to retire. A well-kept household, it appears, with the staff having finished their chores before midnight.

The two lit windows, Garret learned on his first night under the tree, belong to the bedroom of the lady of the house. Her husband, people say, took a bullet in his hindquarters during the Crimean War. There it remained, a few years, until his body gave in to recurring infections. The lover his wife had taken might or might not have sped up the husband’s disintegration. But disintegrate he did and now rots six feet underground, mucky London soil covering his brow.

The considerably younger replacement visits daily, often arriving at supper time, to climb out of the bedroom window around three o’clock in the morning. This man is an entirely different kind of thief. One no accomplished cracksman like Garret wants to be compared with. That man had taken a mistress rich enough to pay for whatever he fancied until the end of her days. Every time Mr Lover smoothed his clothes — crumpled from his latest climbing adventure — he patted a bulge in his waistcoat pocket and strolled off with a satisfied grin.
 

Garret knows that whatever is hidden in the folds of finest wool and silk will be turned into money when the opportunity presents itself.

Stomach yowling and wound throbbing, he shifts his weight ever so gently. The church bell calls four in the morning and the widow’s lover still hasn’t exited the house. The bedroom is dimly lit, but no movements can be seen.
 

He toys with his thoughts and his lockpicks, turning them over, feeling them from one side, then the other. He could do it tomorrow. But his hunger and overdue rent urge him forward.
 

At least he can take a look. Go in through the front door and not through a cut-open window pane. If he leaves no traces and takes something inconspicuous — pieces of knick-knacks no one will miss but good enough to feed him for a few days — he can return and take the valuables later. His stomach gives yet another painful grumble and his brain agrees.

With surprising speed and silence, the large man makes his way towards the main entrance. A moment later, he disappears in the shadows of the oak door’s deep frame. His hand probes the lock, a sharp little hole with indentations and spikes. His fingertips caress it like a lover’s, trying to tickle secrets from its depths. And yes, it accommodates his need and tells him which of his tools might fit. He tips his chin in acknowledgement, then tries one lockpick, then another, until he’s rewarded with two soft clicks.
 

Gently, he pushes the door. It budges a fraction, then stops. He had expected the bolt. Garret chooses a slender metal sheet from his collection of tools and pushes it between the door and its frame. With dozens of small movements, he slides the bolt aside, then steps into the dark entrance hall and shuts the door behind him.

The silence from outside is replaced with muffled voices and dim light trickling down the stairwell. If not for the hunger, Garret would walk back out immediately.
 

No use in throwing a longing glance up the stairs. The jewellery will be in the lady’s bedroom, very close and yet unreachable now.
 

He creeps through the hall into the first room to the right, strikes a match, looks around, then retreats. The drawing room contains nothing of interest to him.
 

He takes a door to the left. Same procedure. Lighting of a match, taking in all details, and etching the important ones into his mind before the flame can scorch his fingers. Darkness falls.
 

The voices are now just above him, muttering. The male voice defiant, the female voice accusing. Garret moves swiftly. He knows the distance to the objects of his desire, having seen them for a moment in the small bubble of light.
 

He snatches two tiny statues. A letter opener and a crystal ashtray find a new home in his coat pockets, too, and he is ready to leave. Just then, he hears a cry of ‘No!’

Garret presses against the wall behind the brocade curtains. Hasty steps clatter down the stairs, then a second pair of feet follows. A female, ‘Oh, my love, don’t leave me!’ quivering with despair. Both come to a halt, then move to meet at the middle of the stairs. A sigh and then another, before they make their way back up. Just as the bed begins to creak, Garret leaves his hiding spot.

Other books

Stupid Fast by Herbach, Geoff
Playing with Fire by Michele Hauf
Ghosts of Rathburn Park by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
Your Face Tomorrow: Poison, Shadow, and Farewell by Javier Marías, Margaret Jull Costa
The Secret of Sentinel Rock by Judith Silverthorne
Hotel de Dream by Emma Tennant
One Week In December by Holly Chamberlin