Capturing the Devil Page 1





21 JANUARY 1889

A blast of frigid air greeted me as I unlatched the carriage door and stumbled onto the street, my attention stuck on the raised axe. Watery sunlight dribbled off its edge like fresh blood, tricking me into recalling recent events. Some might call them nightmares. A feeling akin to hunger awakened deep within, but I quickly swallowed it down.

“Miss Wadsworth?” The footman reached for my arm, his focus darting around the throng of dirt-speckled people elbowing their way down West Street. I blinked, nearly having forgotten where I was and who I was with. Almost three weeks in New York and it still didn’t seem real. The footman wet his cracked lips, his voice strained. “Your uncle requested you both be taken directly to the—”

“It will be our secret, Rhodes.”

Without offering another word, I gripped my cane and moved forward, staring into dull black eyes as the blade finally came down, severing the spinal cord at the neck with a wood-splintering thwack. The executioner—a sandy-haired man of around twenty years—worked the axe free and wiped its edge on the front of his bloodstained apron.

For a brief moment, with his shirtsleeves rolled back and sweat dotting his brow, he reminded me of Uncle Jonathan after he’d carved open a corpse. The man set his weapon aside and yanked the goat’s body backward, neatly separating the head from its shoulders.

I drew closer, curious that the animal’s head didn’t tumble off the butcher’s block as I’d imagined—it simply rolled to the side of the oversize board, gaze fixed permanently toward the winter sky. If I believed in an ever after, I might hope it was in a better place. One far from here.

My attention drifted to the goat’s carcass. It had been killed and skinned elsewhere, its exposed flesh a map of white and red, crisscrossing where fat and connective tissue met with tender meat. I fought the growing urge to quietly recite the names of each muscle and tendon.

I hadn’t inspected a cadaver in a month.

“How appetizing.” My cousin Liza finally caught up and looped her arm through mine, tugging me out of the way as a man tossed a stuffed burlap sack across the sidewalk to a younger apprentice. Now that I was paying closer attention, I noticed a fine layer of sawdust around the butcher’s feet. It was a good method to easily soak up blood for sweeping, one I was well acquainted with thanks to time spent in Uncle’s laboratory and at the forensic academy I’d briefly attended in Romania. Uncle wasn’t the only Wadsworth who enjoyed cutting open the dead.

The butcher stopped hacking the goat apart long enough to leer at us. He crassly slid his gaze over our bodies and offered a low, appreciative whistle. “I can snap corsets open faster than bones.” He held his knife up, his attention fixed on my chest. “Interested in a demonstration, fancy lady? Say the word and I’ll show you what else I can do to such a fine figure.”

Liza stiffened beside me. People often called women of supposedly questionable morals “fancy ladies.” If he thought I’d blush and run off, he was sorely mistaken.

“Unfortunately, sir, I find I’m not terribly impressed.” I casually slipped a scalpel from my wristlet clutch, enjoying the familiar feel of it. “You see, I also eviscerate bodies. But I don’t bother with animals. I butcher humans. Would you care for a demonstration?”

He must have seen something in my face that worried him. He stepped back, his calloused hands raised. “I don’t want no trouble, now. I was just havin’ some fun.”

“As was I.” I gave him a sweet smile that made him blanch as I turned the blade this way and that. “Shame you don’t feel like playing any longer. Though I’m not surprised. Men such as yourself boast in a grandiose fashion to make up for their… shortcomings.”

Liza’s jaw practically hit the ground as she angled us away. She sighed as our carriage finally rumbled off without us. “Explain to me, dearest cousin, why we left that warm, lavish hansom in favor of wandering through”—she motioned at the rows of butchers’ blocks with her parasol, each stall featuring different animal parts being wrapped in brown paper packages—“all this. The smell is positively horrendous. And the company is even more foul. Never, in all my life, have I been spoken to in such a wicked manner.”

I kept my skepticism on that latter point locked away. We’d spent more than a week aboard an ocean liner cavorting with a carnival known for debauchery. Being acquainted with the ringmaster for five minutes proved he was a devil of a young man. In more ways than one.

“I wanted to see the meatpacking district for myself,” I lied. “Perhaps it’ll give me an idea for the perfect main course. What do you think of roasted goat?”

“After witnessing its beheading or before?” she asked, looking like she was moments away from vomiting. “You do know that’s what cookbooks are for, correct? Inspiration without the labor. Or carnage. I swear you miss being surrounded by death.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Why would you even think such a thing?”

“Look around, Audrey Rose. Of all the neighborhoods in this city, this is the one you chose to stroll through.”

I tore my attention away from a plucked chicken that was seconds away from joining the dismembered goat, my expression reserved as I took in our surroundings. Blood steadily dripped down many of the wooden blocks lining the storefronts, splattering onto the ground.

Judging from the multihued stains, the streets weren’t washed even after a busy day of hacking animals apart. Veins of crimson and black wound through cracks in the cobblestones—tributaries of old death meeting the new. The scent of copper mixed with feces pricked my eyes and thrilled my heart.

This street was death made tangible, a murderer’s dream.

Liza sidestepped a bucket of frost-coated offal, her warm exhale mimicking steam rising off a boiling teakettle as it mingled with the cold air. I wasn’t sure if the amount of entrails or their near-frozen states offended her more. I wondered at the darkness swirling within me—the secret part that couldn’t muster up an ounce of disgust. Perhaps I needed to take up a new hobby.

I feared I was becoming addicted to blood.

“Honestly, let me hail another hansom. You shouldn’t be out in this weather anyway—you know what Uncle’s said about the cold. And look”—Liza nodded toward our feet—“our shoes are sopping up snow like bits of bread in soup. We’re going to catch our death out here.”

I didn’t glance down at my own feet. I hadn’t worn my favorite pretty shoes since the day I’d taken a knife in my leg. My current footwear was stiff, boring leather without a delicate heel. Liza was correct; icy dampness had found its way in through the seams, soaking my stockings and causing the near-constant dull ache in my bones to intensify.

“Stop! Thief!” A constable blew a whistle somewhere close by and several people broke off from the crowd, scattering like plague rats rushing down alleyways. Liza and I moved aside, lest we become the unwitting victims of fleeing pickpockets and petty thieves.

“A whole roasted pig will be more than enough food,” she added. “Stop worrying.”

“That’s precisely the issue.”

I pressed closer to the building as a young boy ran by, one hand on his newsboy cap, the other clutching what appeared to be a stolen pocket watch. A policeman followed, blowing his whistle and dodging through vendors.

“I can’t stop worrying. Thomas’s birthday is in two days,” I reminded her, as if I hadn’t already done so one hundred times over the last week. The constable’s whistle and shouts grew further away and our slow procession down butchers’ row resumed. “It’s my first dinner party and I want everything to be perfect.”

Mr. Thomas Cresswell—my insufferable yet most decidedly charming partner in crime solving—and I had danced around the subject of both courtship and marriage. I’d agreed to accept him, should he ask my father first, and hadn’t expected everything to unfold quite as quickly as it had. We’d known each other for just a few short months—five now—but it felt right.

Most young women of my station married at about twenty-one years, but my soul felt older, especially after the events on the RMS Etruria. With my approval, Thomas sent a letter to my father, requesting an audience to make his intentions clear. Now that my father, along with my aunt Amelia, was en route from London to New York, the time was fast approaching when we’d begin an official courtship followed by a betrothal.

Not long ago, I would have felt invisible bars closing in at the thought of joining myself to another; now I irrationally worried something might bar me from marrying Thomas. He’d almost been taken from me once, and I’d kill before I allowed that to happen again.

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