Coroner Sévère has it all: a beautiful young wife, money, influence…and secrets.
Not only is a disease slowly crippling him, but his wife, Olivia, is a former prostitute who once served the Chief Magistrate himself — a man with cruel appetites.
When Sévère and Olivia begin to investigate the heinous crimes of Chief Magistrate Frost, more than the Coroner’s career is at risk.
Sévère might just end up at the gallows.
Rose bunched up a handful of dirty-brown hair that she’d snipped off the neighbour dog’s wiggly backside. She added four matches she’d taken from Olivia’s room, and wrapped everything in a sheet of paper she’d found beneath Mr Sévère’s desk. She wasn’t supposed to enter his office. But then, she wasn’t supposed to do a lot of things she did.
As she worked, a warm evening breeze sneaked through the window and lifted wisps of her hair. The tip of her tongue poked out of her mouth, curling up, snakelike. She caught herself, tucked her tongue between her teeth to hold it still, and gazed out the window. Standing on tiptoe, she surveyed the courtyard.
Higgins was grooming the horses. The sun had slipped behind the houses.
Everything was in place.
She struck a match and put it to the crumpled paper, then held her breath and let the burning missile fly. She watched its trajectory, a grin dimpling her cheeks as it landed in the courtyard with a dramatic poof.
The chestnuts jumped.
‘One. Two… Three.’
‘Aaaaaalf!’ Higgins bellowed from below.
Alf being the kitchen boy. He sported two very large ears, of which the left was more lopsided than the right. This condition alone had earned him Rose’s distaste when first they’d met.
He would get those ears pulled in a moment. She hated Alf, he was… Well, silly, clumsy, and naive was how one could best describe him. He was two years her senior and a brat. The feeling of dislike was mutual.
Alf often took a beating for things he hadn’t done. What a dumb boy! No one suspected her, of course. Not ever. Girls don’t build stink bombs, they don’t climb out of the attic’s top window, and traipse about the roof. And a girl would never throw a dead cat down the chimney.
Rose loved being a girl.
She waved whiffs of the stink bomb’s aroma out the window, then shut it, and tiptoed down the dark stairwell to the third floor, to the second floor, and — after making sure the servants weren’t around — she slipped into Olivia’s room.
‘Where have you been?’ Olivia asked, squinting at Rose through the looking glass.
The girl grinned, her gaze traveling up and down Olivia’s form. ‘You look horrible!’
‘As I should.’
‘Are you catching thieves and murderers?’ Rose asked, eyebrows perching high on her brow.
Olivia patted her mutton chops, and spoke with a dark and dramatic voice, ‘That, my dear First Mate, is my destiny: to save mankind, to stop evil from spreading. Damn, this itches.’
Rose giggled, and Olivia shooed her away, ‘Off with you to the kitchen, landlubber! Cook hates it when you let your dinner go cold.’
A toothy grin, two fingers to her temple. ‘Aye, Captain!’ And Rose dashed from the room.
‘He’s not coming,’ Olivia whispered and looked up at Sévère, who said nothing in reply. ‘At least I know now what a rhinoceros is going through.’ She crossed her eyes toward the putty on her nose that was in the way wherever she looked. She decided on the spot to never mock anyone with old potatoes for noses. It was a miracle they could walk straight, considering their obstructed vision. Tentatively, she pressed her fingers to the fake enlargement, then yanked her hand away as the putty began to wobble.
Sévère threw an irritated glance at her, and hissed, ‘Stop it already! It’s coming off.’
She stuck out her tongue, then directed her attention toward the house across the street. Windows spilt murky light onto the pavement and a lone, stubborn whore.
‘I wonder why business is so slow to…to—’ Olivia held in the sneeze, else she might shoot her fake nose off her face. Perhaps even the prickly mutton chops. Damn that vile shoe polish she’d put on her eyebrows! And damn this entire investigation!
She curled her fists so as not to claw at her disguise and throw it into the nearby piss puddle. She coughed once, then said gruffly, ‘What do we do now?’
‘Patience,’ Sévère whispered, and leant against a lamp post, right hand in a trouser pocket, the left lightly tapping the knob of his cane against his hip.
Olivia’s gaze touched upon his face that was partially hidden by his cap, partially lit by the cigarette that smouldered at the corner of his moustached mouth.
She huffed. If investigating a crime meant to wait months for something — anything — to happen, hoping that it could be used in court, then she wasn’t made for this. She lacked Sévère’s calm patience, and doubted she’d ever attain it. She’d reached the point of “shoot first, ask later.”
‘This isn’t working,’ she grumbled softly, and then louder, ‘Well then, my dear chap,’ as she elbowed Sévère, and motioned toward a woman across the street. ‘Shall we be on our way, or are you still lusting after that foxy girl?’
‘I wonder if she might like to see the both of us,’ he said casually, a dark glimmer in his eyes. He scanned the brothel’s windows once more, its entrance, the street. The redhead smiled at them and lifted her skirts to show her ankles.
Olivia whistled and set off across the street, ignoring Sévère’s muffled protest.
She stopped as a group of youngsters came running, and stepped aside to avoid collision. Without success.
A boy bumped into her, and his hands probed her trouser pockets as swift as fleas. She pulled up her knee but missed his testicles. Her right arm swung. Her fist made contact with his cheekbone.
A moment later, she was on the ground, stomped by a herd of furious young men.
‘Goddammit, Olivia! Would you please allow them to pick your pocket next time? There wasn’t much to steal anyway!’ Sévère’s finger brushed the tip of her bleeding nose, then plucked off the putty that hung from her nostrils. ‘This might hurt.’ He pulled at the left mutton chop.
‘Ouch,’ Olivia said.
‘One more.’ And off came the other mutton chop. He extracted a handkerchief from his pocket, and dabbed at her nose and the cut on her upper lip. He was worried about her right eye. It was swollen shut.
‘Can you move your jaw?’ he asked.
She tried to open her mouth, and winced.
‘What about your ribs? Might anything be broken?’
Olivia laughed. Or grunted. He wasn’t quite sure which.
Sévère stood. ‘Cabbie!’ he called to a nearby hansom. ‘To Sillwood Street!’
‘Let Johnston sleep. I’m all right,’ she spoke through clenched teeth.
‘I will not discuss this.’
‘I won’t, either!’
‘Excellent.’ He helped her up and into the waiting cab.
Once the horse had fallen into a fast trot, he said, ‘We need to revise our tactics. For three months we’ve been tailing this…subject.’ He was so furious at Olivia, he’d almost let slip the name of the man they were working so hard to apprehend. The cabbie might be able to hear their conversation over the rattling of wheels.
Sévère ground his teeth. ‘The handful of witnesses we have managed to talk to are unwilling to give statements. Honestly, considering their position and the position of the subject in question, I would be reluctant, too.’
From the corner of his vision, he saw her sitting up straighter.
‘Go on,’ she said, her voice dangerously soft.
‘What I mean to say is…’ He balled his hands to fists. ‘Tarnation! This is not what I envisioned to happen!’
‘If you give up now, I will do it alone.’ She sank against the backrest. ‘I don’t have to abide by rules set for men like you.’
‘Dammit, Olivia! Have you ever seen me give up? No. I said we have to revise our tactics. There’s nothing wrong with that. Ah, here we are.’
‘I don’t need a doctor. I’m all right, really, Sévère.’
He squeezed his eyes shut and exhaled. ‘Humour me. Just this once.’ As he tapped his cane to the hansom’s roof, he heard Olivia mutter something that sounded much like overbearing weasel brain.
A sleepy servant opened the door for them and beckoned them in. Sévère apologised profusely to her, and to Johnston who came descending the stairs in robe and tattered slippers
‘My goodness,’ Johnston muttered, eyeing Olivia. ‘What the deuce happened? Why are you in men’s clothing?’ And then to Sévère, ‘And when did you grow a moustache?’
‘We were tailing a suspect.’ Sévère ripped off his moustache and tucked it into his waistcoat pocket.
‘Oh, it’s fun,’ Olivia said, and flapped a dismissive hand at Johnston. He seemed not to hear her remark.
Johnston led them to the drawing room and held a candle to Olivia’s face. ‘My bag and the leeches.’ He snapped his fingers at the waiting servant, who rushed out of the room and returned a moment later with the requested items.
‘You may retire.’ Johnston waited until the servant had shut the door, then dropped his voice and said to Olivia, ‘How did you come about your injuries?’ He flicked a sideways glance at Sévère that wasn’t any too trusting.
‘You don’t believe…I would…’ Sévère stammered.
Ignoring Sévère, Johnston gazed gently but enquiringly at Olivia.
‘I had a disagreement with a band of pickpockets,’ she supplied, and shrugged.
Johnston nodded as though such occurrences weren’t unusual in the least, and beaten up wives of coroners paid him visits at least twice a week.
He rubbed the bridge of his nose, nodding once. ‘My apologies, Sévère. The husband is always the first suspect. To me, and to you.’ Johnston went to turn up the gas light at the wall, then lit an oil lamp and moved it closer to his patient.
Sévère mumbled agreement, and watched the surgeon run tender fingertips over Olivia’s face. When she flinched, Sévère grabbed her hand.
‘You can let go of me, Sévère. I won’t run away, I promise,’ she said.
He dropped her hand.
‘I feel no bones shifting, my dear,’ Johnston said softly. ‘But I would like to see the swelling around your eye lessen. Two leeches should do. It won’t hurt.’
Olivia smiled up at him. ‘Don’t worry. I’ve had worse.’
Johnston froze. ‘You’ve had worse? When was that?’
‘When I was a child. There was that boy in the neighbourhood…’
Johnston’s gaze was sharp, but Olivia’s expression was so innocent that one could not but believe her.
Sévère observed the interaction, and found himself quite surprised that his friend was fooled by his wife.
Johnston placed the leeches onto Olivia’s swollen eye, disinfected the cut on her upper lip, and then excused himself to find a cup of tea for her.
‘I know how we can apprehend him,’ Sévère said in a low voice.
He nodded. ‘We’ve been doing it all wrong. He’s always a step ahead of us, and we’ve allowed it. We’ve chased him. This time we’ll set a trap.’
Olivia’s healthy eye narrowed.
Sévère continued, ‘Unfortunately, for this to succeed, we have to enter into rather…shady areas of legality. We’ll need a young girl as bait.’
‘No! That we won’t do.’
‘Why ever not? Call a prostitute into the witness stand instead? The jury won’t believe a word she says. But a young girl that hasn’t been ruined…’ Slowly, he nodded. ‘Why didn’t I think of this earlier?’
‘If you do this, I will divorce you. What do you believe will happen to the girl after you and the court are through with her? Even if Frost never touches her, she’ll be ruined. Her name and her face will be public property. The girl who was almost raped. I have a better idea for you, Coroner.’
Sévère straightened his shoulders. Whenever his wife called him Coroner, he knew to prepare for battle.
‘Why not simply change your lovely legal system so that the voice of a woman is given as much credit as the voice of a man?’
‘That would be like trying to convince people God does not exist,’ Johnston’s voice sounded from the door. ‘You cannot fight belief with logic. And I can’t believe what I just heard. Should I apologise for overhearing your heated discussion on how to lure a young girl into prostitution?’
Groaning, Sévère rubbed his brow. Olivia touched his hand, and said, ‘Allow me.’
‘Dr Johnston,’ she began, and sat up straight. ‘We’ve been trying for months now to obtain evidence against…a man with considerable political power. We know he is paying seductresses to gain access to underage girls. And we know he has been doing this for years.’
Johnston sat down in a chair opposite Olivia. He completely ignored Sévère.
‘How do you know?’
‘I know because…’ She flicked her gaze to Sévère who shook his head minutely. ‘We just know. And we can’t tell you all the details. I hope you understand.’
‘No, I certainly do not understand. What I do understand is that an injured woman is my guest, and so far she’s been telling me only half-truths. Or half lies. I am not quite sure which. I do understand that her husband is the Coroner of Eastern Middlesex — a position of political power, although not considerable. And both have been arguing about forcing a young girl into prostitution.’
‘It’s not what you think—’
‘How, then, is it, Mrs Sévère? Your husband is about to lose my friendship, and I do wonder if I have enough evidence to report him to the authorities.’
‘Johnston, listen to me,’ Sévère interjected.
Johnston stuck his index finger in Sévère’s face. ‘I am not talking to you, lad. I am talking to the lady. So, Mrs Sévère, I’m listening.’
Olivia lifted a hand to rub her brow, but remembered the injury. She sucked in a breath, held Johnston’s gaze, and told him about her abduction at the age of nine, the various boarding houses and brothels she’d called home, that her marriage to Sévère was a mutual business agreement, and that her past was to be kept secret, so that she could work as his assistant without damaging his reputation.
Johnston stood, placed the saucer he was still holding onto a nearby table, and left the room without a word.
Sévère stared at Olivia, about to speak, when Johnston returned with three glasses and a bottle. He poured whiskey, and handed a glass to Olivia, and another to Sévère.
With a grunt, Johnston tipped his drink into his mouth. His Adam’s apple bounced, and he smacked his lips. ‘Well, then. May I assume your knowledge of Chief Magistrate’s illegal and, I must say, extraordinarily disgusting activities stems from personal experience?’
Olivia dipped her chin.
Johnston harrumphed, refilled his glass, and hurried the contents down his throat.
‘By the Queen’s mammary glands,’ he muttered. ‘A criminal Chief Magistrate… Ahem. I agree with your wife, Sévère. Do not use an innocent as bait. Do you have a trustworthy midwife at your disposal?’
Sévère shook his head no.
‘In that case, you will need a surgeon or physician whom you can trust. And I don’t mean to stitch up your wife every time she’s injured. Well…that, too. But what you need is a medical man who is discreet and ever at your disposal. One who is qualified to testify at court that a girl’s maidenhead is no longer intact, and that physical evidence clearly shows she’s been taken against her will.’
Sévère coughed. ‘Are you volunteering?’
‘Of course I am. Why else would I venture such a forthright speech?’
‘I think the swelling is going down,’ Olivia said. A fat leech let go of her brow and dropped to her lap with a soft plop.