Authors: Annelie Wendeberg
Tags: #london, #slums, #victorian, #poverty, #prostitution, #anna kronberg, #jack the ripper
The Lion’s Courtship
Copyright 2014 by Annelie Wendeberg
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This is a work of fiction. Several characters, places, and names in this book are real, but long gone and have been used mostly fictitiously. The rest are products of the author’s imagination. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the written remission of the copyright owner.
Cover: Copyright 2014 by Annelie Wendeberg. The knife is a courtesy of the Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images (hunting trousse, public domain).
The title page image is from
London City Suburbs as they are to-day.
Illustrated by W. Luker from original drawings. Author: Percy Hetherington Fitzgerald. Published by Leadenhall Press, London, 1893. Credit: British Library, London. This image is in the public domain.
The image of the slumbering lion is from
Travel and Adventure in South-East Africa
, by Selous, Frederick Courteney. Publisher: R. Ward & Co., London. Credit: British Library, London, 1893. This image is in the public domain.
The scene break image is from
Pacific Bank Handbook of California.
Credit: British Library, London, 1888. This image is in the public domain.
Other books by this author:
The Devil’s Grin
(Anna Kronberg Thriller #1)
(Anna Kronberg Thriller #2)
(Anna Kronberg Thriller #3)
(Illustrated Anna Kronberg Trilogy)
Find out more at:
The soul is always beautiful.
he thief’s fingers slip over his lockpicks. Blood congeals at once, warm mud on gritty cast iron. The alley is as dark as a dog’s innards, for gas has been short these weeks.
His fingertips probe the keyhole once more, then he chooses a lockpick of a different shape. He feels himself weaken by the moment. Knees now trembling, his tongue so parched that his throat doesn’t permit a swallow. Blood loss is buzzing in his ears and the makeshift bandage cuts into his thigh, but fails to staunch the flow.
His last hope is on the other side of this goddamned door.
He presses his brow against the cracked wood. A cuss rolls up his throat. He calms his trembling hands and lets his tools sink back into the lock. Two clicks. His heart leaps.
Her ears pick up a noise. Shock propels her out of bed before her legs are fully awake. Someone is climbing the stairs. Someone large; someone who doesn’t sound like the drunkard of a landlord. And yet — could it be an overdose of gin that makes his stomps so weak and unsteady?
She wraps a robe around her nightgown and snatches a knife from the kitchen, her knuckles rock-hard from the tightness of her grip. She lights a candle and — with her heart pounding against her ribs — she presses a bare heel up against the door. As though she could block an intruder.
A fist hits wood. Twice.
‘’Ave been shot,’ a stranger grunts.
She moves her foot a little and cracks the door open, peeking out with one eye. Dim light pours through the narrow gap. At first, her gaze falls on his chest where the head of a person her size would have been, then travels farther up. Fear creeps in with each additional inch. There is blood on his forehead and temples — streaks from wiping away sweat. A shock of orange hair, eyes pale blue, his face ashen.
For reassurance, she grabs her knife tighter and presses its handle against her spine. The blade is long enough to be driven through a grown man’s chest, into his heart and lungs. Even a man that massive.
‘Pal o’ mine told me yer a nurse.’ His voice is a harsh groan. He blinks and sways, about to fall through the door.
Reflex-like, she steps aside and admits him.
Heavy blood loss, shock
. Her mind repeats her diagnosis while calculating the risk of getting hurt tonight.
She points him to a chair, reconsiders, then pulls it up to him. The door frame creaks as he holds onto it. He topples into the room and sits down with a huff. She slips the knife through the belt of her robe, reminding herself to keep her front facing the man at all times.
Blood leaks onto the floorboards. His right boot left dark prints. Thick droplets trail from door to chair.
‘Lean back,’ she commands, reaching toward him. Shame wipes away his paleness when she helps him get his trousers off. She tugs at them, huffs and shouts, ‘Lift your hindquarters, man!’
and yanks them down. They get stuck on his heels. A final tug and the bloody things fly out of sight, together with his boots. Sharp scissors slice off the drenched leg of his drawers, the cold metal barely touching his skin. She fetches a tourniquet from her doctor’s bag and strangles his thigh.
His trembling is about to tip him off the chair.
‘Bloody Christ!’ he groans as she pours a burning liquid over the wound.
‘Clean shot,’ she notes. ‘Went straight through. Major blood vessels seem to be intact.’ The pair of long pliers she holds in her hand are chucked back into the bag. His panicked expression disappears with them.
She takes a roll of bandages and wraps them around his trembling thigh. ‘Can you stand up?’ she asks.
He makes a face like a puppy about to be drowned. His eyes begin to roll, lids flutter. His head tips, then his shoulders.
She slaps his cheek. Once, twice. The sharp pain pulls him upright. She tugs at his arm and barks an order he doesn’t seem to understand, but he regains his senses, enough to stand on one leg, yet not enough to prevent him from slumping on her shoulder. They toddle a few steps. Then her mattress hits him in the face.
‘Holy show!’ he mutters and shuts his eyes.
His face is caressed by a soft pillow. The thief inhales the scent of freshly laundered linen, his breath sighing through his nostrils. As he turns his head, his stubble scrapes along the cotton. A down pillow? He never...
His eyes snap open. A cockroach is perched on a chair in front of him. ‘And who are you?’ he spits.
‘Barry,’ the little dirt bag answers with a grin, showing his four missing front teeth. His hands and face are of a greyish-brown hue from underuse of soap and water. His attire is a mosaic of patches. Only the knife — with a blade the length of his shin — is an uncommon feature for a street urchin.
The thief blinks. His brain feels a little sluggish. When he moves his legs, a jab of pain reminds him of the previous night. A woman had plugged a gunshot wound close to his privates. He had almost puked on her floor. Or had he? A quick glance tells him the room is clean. Unusually clean. ‘Did you butcher the nurse with that thing?’ He gestures at the knife.
Barry rolls his eyes and squeaks, ‘She asked me to keep an eye on you.’
The boy is only six years old. At least that’s what he believes. He couldn’t tell what day or year it is, but he knows precisely that the thief could snap his neck without effort. To demonstrate the fearsomeness of his weapon and the fearlessness of himself, he taps the knife’s tip against his fingernails and extracts minuscule dirt sausages from underneath each one of them.