Even now a clammy hand trailed down his spine. Safer to keep his distance, to satisfy his dark urges with a whore. All he wanted from them was blood. From Esme… he wanted everything. And to take her like that would destroy their friendship.
“It’s just blood,” he said. “Don’t mean nothin’.”
“I saw you,” she said, the cleaver hovering in the air. “I know exactly what it was. Do you think I don’t know what happens between a blue blood and his thrall?”
That scored a blow. “Blade?” His voice roughened, though he knew he had no damned right to feel this way. Like he wanted to go after his master with a knife.
“Blade?” She laughed breathlessly, turning back to the board. “It wasn’t like that. Not between us. Of course I felt desire, but it wasn’t—it was just my body’s response to the chemical in his saliva. On some distant level I always knew that. And he never... never made demands.”
Rip frowned, his hand easing over her wrist from behind. Curling around her grip on the cleaver. “Who then? You been with someone else?” he asked gruffly.
“Stupid,” she whispered. “You are so stupid, Rip.”
His thumb stroked hers, slipping the cleaver from her grasp. “What’s this ‘Rip’ you keep callin’ me?” She’d never called him that. Not in years. A little edge of panic curled through him. “You always called me John.”
He liked the sound of his name on her lips. Too much so.
“So I did,” she said in a toneless little voice that made the panic surge.
He put the cleaver down, his hard body curled around hers with but an inch between them. So small in his arms… His gaze dropped to the curl that had come loose from her chignon and trailed against the smooth skin of her nape. Daring him to put his lips there. But why the hell would a woman as beautiful as she ever want his ugly hands on her? Rip steeled himself. “Esme, come now. We’re friends. You always could tell me everythin’.”
“I used to think the same.” Breaking free of his grip, she pushed past in a swirl of dark green skirts. “Before I realized you weren’t telling me everything.” As he reached for her, she pulled away, hands held out of his grasp. “I’ve got to get this soup on.”
Rip pressed a hand flat on the kitchen bench and stared at her. “Ain’t stoppin’ you. And what the ‘ell you talkin’ about? I don’t know what’s goin’ on. You keep talkin’ like this is over – like you ain’t wantin’ to be friends anymore.” He stepped toward her but she backed away, a wary look on her face. Rip held up his hands incredulously. “I ain’t goin’ to ‘urt you. You know that, aye?”
Wouldn’t be the first time a woman backed away, and it fucking hurt that she did. He’d never once lifted a hand, never once raised his voice… Growing up the way he did, out in the streets where he’d learned to be brutal, learned to use his size and speed to cultivate a reputation amongst the dangerous gangs… It had protected him of course, when his mother couldn’t. But it had also cost him.
Fear was just another weapon against the dark side of the ‘Chapel, but he hated the other flip of the coin. The isolation. The way women avoided him for fear of his reputation and children shied away from his great size. He’d survived what others wouldn’t have as a child, but he’d done it alone. Even here at the Warren he had friends, but no woman of his own. And he ached so much for it that he hurt.
“Of course I know that,” she said. The coldness had leeched out of her expression, just for a moment, and she actually stepped forward and gave his fingers a small squeeze before stepping back. “You would never hurt anyone smaller than you. You’re such a… gentle man. Even if others don’t see it.” Her shoulders slumped.
Rip let out the breath he’d been holding. He didn’t think he could handle it if she were afraid of him. “Then what the ‘ell is this? I never lied. I said months ago I were takin’ me blood cold and I were then. It’s only been lately… Just three times. Weren’t ever a lie, Esme. It just ain’t seemed right to discuss it with you.” Scrubbing a hand over the roughened stubble on his head, he looked at her, trying to force her to see the truth. “Not the sort of thing I’d talk about with a lady, you understand?”
The look on her face made hope die in his chest.
“Esme?” he took another step toward her.
“I can’t do this anymore,” she whispered. “I have waited and waited… I just thought you needed some time.”
“Can’t do what?” His eyes narrowed, focusing on the part of the conversation that made his blood run cold. If he could just understand what the hell was going on in her head.
She gave a breathless laugh. “Friends, Rip. Friends. It doesn’t matter. Forget I ever said anything.” Running a hand through her hair, she stared at the pot on the stove with a blank look on her face. “Soup. I need to get the soup on.”
He caught her arm as she hurried toward the stove and stared down at her. “Friends? You believe me? That I never meant to lie to you? You swear?”
Esme stared down at his hand. “I believe you.” She gave a little tug. “After all, what in Heaven’s name would you be trying to hide something from me for? It’s not as if I have any sort of hold over you.”
“True,” he said softly. Their eyes met and held, with Rip desperately searching for any sign that she might have felt otherwise. That she wanted him to have a hold over her. Anything that might have made him step forward and tilt her face up to his.
Esme’s dark lashes fluttered against her cheek and she glanced down, wiping her hands in her apron. “So that’s settled.” She cleared her throat. “I’ve got most of this done. I really don’t need any assistance.”
It felt far from settled to him, but he nodded slowly, letting out the breath he’d been holding. “As you wish.”
Later that night Rip started knocking on doors.
None of the neighbours had seen anything at Liza Kent’s and she hadn’t mentioned that she would be away to anyone. The corner she usually worked was cold and empty and Rip stared at it for a long time before returning to her apartment. Barely anybody would notice her disappearance and if they did they wouldn’t care. The corner would be claimed by someone else before too long and Liza Kent would vanish into the obscurity of just another Whitechapel disappearance.
Like his mother had.
The body of Flash Jacky was exactly where they’d left it. Usually Blade had men who handled the clean up, but Rip was loathe to involve him. And if he were honest with himself, he needed this. Something to keep his mind off the constant gnaw of the hunger and Esme. Of the two, he knew which thought ached the most. Their argument this afternoon felt unfinished. As though there were something she wasn’t telling him.
Though finding out who made Liza vanish would probably be easier than deciphering what was going through Esme’s mind.
Bending low, Rip tugged aside the gaping slash in Flash Jacky’s shirt and examined the wound. Looked like a knife but then he were no expert on wounds. Only on dealing them.
Luckily he knew someone who was.
Pounding on the door to Doctor Creavey’s, he held his breath for the stink that was starting to creep through the blanket he’d wrapped around Flash Jacky. Heavy footsteps sounded on the other side of the door and then Creavey peered out at him through his half-moon spectacles, his gaze narrowing on the body Rip had thrown over his shoulder. His red-rimmed eyes were watery and his thin wiry hair stuck out in gray tufts. There was more of it in his mutton chops than on the top of his head.
“Two pounds,” Creavey snapped.
Rip simply stared at him.
Creavey cursed. “It’s after hours, Rip. Man’s got to make his living.”
“After ‘ours?” Rip asked, shouldering over the stoop. “Or were you and your lads just gettin’ set to ‘ead out.”
“What do you mean?”
“Wouldn’t do to ‘ave some of me boys come around diggin’,” Rip said deliberately, knowing full well what the disgraced doctor paid some of the local grave-robbers for. Creavey’s obsession with death was so far harmless; as long as it stayed that way Blade intended to leave him alone. He had his uses.
Creavey paled. “I suppose I can spare you a few minutes. Through here, if you will.”
The small set of rooms Creavey let were above a shop. They consisted of two separate rooms for his bedchambers and a small sitting room, connected to his surgery by a long, glass-roofed hallway that served as his laboratory. Chemical smells permeated the air. Rip took a sniff but it wasn’t quite the same scent as had been used at Liza Kent’s. That had seemed to burn in his nostrils and obliterate any chance of smelling anything else for hours – this was a combination that reminded him of the dizzying rush when they’d taken the mangled remains of his arm off after the accident and grafted the steel socket straight into his shoulder joint. Creavey’s rooms always made him feel uneasy, his head spinning. Best to get this over with quickly.
He strode through into the laboratory and dumped Flash Jacky on the long bench that lined the wall. Pots and burners slid out of the way of the body, a variety of metal implements scattered on every possible inch of bench. A dead rat was pinned to the timber, its intestines spread as if someone had been examining it in delicate curiosity. Rip’s lip curled. Bloody dead things. Place always gave him a shiver.
“Not there.” Creavey sighed in exasperation. “The surgery.”
With a grunt Rip hauled the body up and followed Creavey into the small room. Two sheets were draped over a pair of still forms on the steel examination tables. Creavey directed him toward the last table and then dragged his stained apron off its hook. It strained over his rounded belly.
Rip stared at one of the other bodies beneath the sheet, smelling the stale hint of graveside dirt and rot. “What ‘ave you got ‘ere?”
“Arsenic poisoning,” Creavey replied in a distracted voice. “A long, slow case of it, by the look of the white lines on his fingernails and his thinning hair. The wife, I suspect. Barely any mystery at all. So what have you bought me?” Creavey tugged a pair of goggles over his head.
“You tell me,” Rip replied, crossing his arms over his chest and leaning back against the doorjamb. The scent was different here, reminding him somewhat of what had been dropped at Liza Kent’s place. “What’s that smell?”
“Formaldehyde,” Creavey replied, gesturing toward the shelves and the glass jars with their gruesome displays.
“Many people get their ‘ands on it?”
“It’s not difficult to buy. Most doctors or surgeons will have it. Some chemists.”
Rip paced the far end of the room, tempted to scrub at the tiny erect hairs on his arm. An unnaturally pale hand hung out from under the far examination table, a puckered red line across the wrist. Not difficult to guess what the cause of death there was. Rip turned around, unnerved by how white the woman’s skin was. Drained by her own hand.
Hanging a lantern high against a mirrored backdrop that reflected the light down onto the body, Creavey cut the blanket off Flash Jacky and leaned closer. Dragging the amplifying goggles down over his eyes, he peered through them, using a pair of long metal forceps to tug the scraps of fabric out of the way. “Hmm.”
Creavey measured the length of the cut. “This was an upward slash,” he muttered. “Left handed, by the look of the angle.” Leaning closer, he hooked the tip of his forceps inside the ragged top edge of the wound and peered inside. “Jaysus.”
“What is it?” Rip asked, striding closer.
The good doctor had paled; whatever it was, it had to be dire. “I’m not sure yet… Here, hand me that scalpel.”
Rip paced the concrete floor near the drain as the doctor sliced Flash Jacky open from throat to pelvis to examine the internal damage. Using shears and a saw, Creavey snipped through the rib cage until Rip had to turn away and stare at the wall. He was no stranger to violence but this… this was somehow impersonal. Cold and calculating.
“Here,” Creavey called and pointed. “The weapon came up beneath the sternum – an upward thrust through there… But it also came out here. Like the blade was curved…”
Rip frowned. “A hook?”
“A razor-sharp hook,” Creavey said, stepping back and wiping the gore from his fingers. Some of the colour had drained from his florid face. “The type commonly used by fisherman, and also--”