A Gentleman in the Dark

He stalked the streets of Whitechapel with intent to kill. The police never caught the man...but was it a man they were looking for? When Nell's sister is killed by the notorious Ripper, she discovers more than the police could hope to find.

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2. It ain't her

The girl brought a dirty hand underneath her nose as she sauntered through the market. Around her, the shouts of merchants and the smell of fruit and pies blended together into a vacuum. People shunted the small figure about; bashing into her with baskets and umbrellas. Each time she was nudged sideways, her eyes shot to the bully and her eyes narrowed. Unnerved, the offender would either mumble an apology or increase their walk.

Up ahead, a pie merchant was deep in conversation with a customer; a striped apron strained over a thick torso. As the day melted, he was trying to sell the last few prouducts at discount rates. Well, Nell would help him out.  She slowed down her walk, swishing her skirts in the way her sister did when she was approached by men. Her eyelids fluttered up and down but when an elderly lady shot her a worried look, she stopped.

She drew level with the pie stall and her thin arm shot out, seizing two of the steaming pastries. Then she was off, her booted feet pounding down on the cobbles.

“Oy!” a shout came from behind her.

 Nell shoved the man in front of her and dived through a tangle of gossiping women. Shadow flitted over her as she passed under the bridge. Her arms flailed as she titled sideways around the corner but she recovered her balance and sprinted down the alley. The final corner was turned and panting, the girl leant against the wall and slid down. Ma would kill her for muddying her newly pummelled dress, but what did she expect from a fourteen year old who didn’t care about school.

Closing her eyes, she bit into her prize. Warm buttery pastry crumbled into a million flakes in her mouth, and then the rich meat layered over it. The last time she had a meal like this was last week when she had pilched a loaf of bread from under the baker’s nose. She was meant to share with the family but Eddie and Dot didn’t deserve their sister’s efforts.

“Did ya ‘ear. ‘E struck ‘gain Millie.” Nell stopped chewing, the slop of her jaws drowning out the juicy details. She shrank back against the wall and monitored her breathing.

“Oh gawd, ‘o was it this time? Please Lor’, not one of the girls.”

There was a long pause and a choked breathe, like Nell’s mum sometimes did when she was about to cry.

“Lizzie, gawd rest ‘er.”

Nell’s mouth hung open, a lump of pie falling out with a faint splat. She raised a hand to her chest where she was sure her heart was about to burst free. Of course, Lizzies were everywhere around The Chapel but each time Nell heard the name, she automatically assumed it to be her eldest sister.

“They got the knives ou’ on ‘er. But ‘ere”, the voices dropped and Nell stopped breathing altogether, leaning sideways. “My ‘Ed says that the Bobbies aren’t telli’ us somethin’. It ain’t just the butchery that’s killing ‘em.”

Nell got up and shot homewards, not caring how much noise she made.

 

She burst into the front door of the slightly leaning building and ran to her mum. Mrs Bates was bent over the fire, mechanically stirring a pot that hissed and bubbled over a roaring fire. The stench of fish hung from the beams of the small room.

“Ma, ma, ‘as Lizzie come ‘ome yet?”

Her mum smiled wearily and raised a hand to ruffle the matted blonde head.

“You know Lizzie sometimes don’t come ‘ome for days, wot with the nature of her work.”

Nell scowled and tried to regulate her breathing and the pace of her heart. Her fingers twisted around each other and subconsciously, she started tearing at the dirty nails.     

 “Sit down and ‘ave your dinner ‘fore the rabble get ‘ere.”  A watery bowl of white with chunks floating around in it was shoved at the girl. Nell winched and recoiled from the acrid bombardment on her nose. “We don’t live in those fancy mansions. Eat, or you ‘aint eatin’ anythin.”

“Don’t want anythin’ Ma.” Thrusting the bowl back into her mother’s hands, the girl stormed past, pushing aside the curtain blocking the pile of stained mattresses. Glaring at her mother, she pulled the curtain across. She flopped down and shut her eyes.

 

Later, she was woken by a small body nestling in beside her, hot breath blowing onto her neck. Rolling her eyes, she shifted closer to the wall, hoping that Lizzie would walk in at any moment. Waiting proved too great a challenge and her eyes reeled in the darkness of sleep.

She woke up with a start, caught in the haze of sleep and the shock of reality. Stretching out her limbs, she felt the warm weight of a body on top of her. Carefully, she extricated herself from the tangle composed of her two younger siblings. A smell of sleep rose and she quickly left the small space.

As she crossed the room, she could hear her dad snoring. His snores were enough to keep the mice at bay. Sometimes she swore she could hear the beams ringing with resonance each time he breathed in whilst he slept.

Carefully, she lifted the latch on the door and stepped out into the nippy morning. The sun weakly washed the street, highlighting the peeling paint and chipped stones of the wall in front of her.

The main street was already alive with people. A small girl stood at the side of the road, looking thoroughly fed up as she clutched her box of wilting flowers. Black coaches rattled past, driving their owners to meetings, to work and for social visits. Shop keepers were hanging out signs and throwing back shutters.

“E’ strikes ‘gain! Murder in The Chapel. Read all abou’ it!” Nell dragged her eyes away from the scene before her and searched for the newspaper boy. She saw his cap and a flash of white, and dogdged acoss the road.

“Give me that,” she snatched the sheet from his hands and scanned the black shapes. “You read it,” she snapped, pointing at the heading. The boy took it gingerly.

“The Ripper Scare: Killer butchers again.”

Nell hadn’t realise her hands had been shaking until she took the paper back. A large picture took up most of the front page which she had been avoiding looking at. Now, she held it close to her face. Only a small mass of frizzy hair was available but she noticed something on the wrist of the outstretched hand. It was a thick cloth band, a bracelet Nell had given her sister just three days ago.

There was no doubt as to the whereabouts of her sister now…

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