Blood pooled under his chin, and an incisor scraped the hardscrabble earth as Jackson struggled to lift his head. Nothing doing, it was too heavy. He’d been beaten before, but never quite this thoroughly.
He made a valiant attempt to force the picture of what had happened from his mind and focus on what now, but the pain was a reoccurring loop that kept every blow fresh in his mind, with a beat akin to his blood pumping through his veins. His body curled in on itself, fearing the next wash of pain and continuing to flinch at beatings that had somehow, miraculously, stopped.
The gash on his forehead continued to bleed, as did the hole where one of his back teeth had been. He was literally drowning in blood. He imagined another coroner cutting him open and spilling out all of his already spilt blood. Cause of death: drowned in his own blood and spit. Ignominious.
On the first inhale, he felt himself simultaneously drowning and being lifted upwards. Blood poured out of his mouth, and he choked on it. He was rolled halfway over, and with his one good eye, he saw Drake. Over time, he’d come to find that the sight of Drake filled him with good humour or, alternately, relief. Gone were the days when the sight of Drake filled him with repulsion of a sort and fear and the need to needle the man until he cracked.
It was definitely relief he felt now.
“Jackson. Jackson!” Drake turned his head. “Reid! He’s alive.”
“Are you sure?” Reid’s concerned and furrowed face appeared over Drake’s shoulder. “Conscious?”
“Of course I’m conscious goddamn it,” Jackson tried to say, but the sound was garbled, and he choked again, coughing and spitting blood all over Drake’s lapels.
“Conscious, but not as a garrulous as usual,” Drake said. “Taken quite a beating, eh?”
“Fuck yes,” Jackson said between gulps of breath. “Big guy, really big.”
“Right, and you didn’t see his face, I warrant.” Reid’s face loomed closer. “Any chance of catching him now? Was he our man?”
How long had Jackson been lying there? He couldn’t quite recall. He was unfamiliar with these streets, them being decidedly more abysmal than the rest of Whitechapel, which might be saying a lot, or in fact very little depending on one’s tolerance for filth and depravity. He’d run into Reid and Drake as he was going in to the station, and the two were off after some suspected arsonist, so Jackson was inclined to follow. Once he had the measure of the witness’ description, he managed to slink into The Rosebud to make inquiries without being pegged as a copper. Except his inquiries weren’t exactly welcome and his line of questioning raised suspicion.
A tussle, a hasty retreat, a foot chase and a fight were what followed that kind of clumsiness.
Jackson spat out another gob of blood and phlegm. “I don’t know. I don’t know where I am, much less where’s he’s gone or what hole he disappeared down. Didn’t have a chance to ask him if he wanted to confess to any crimes.”
“Great.” Reid threw up his hands and stalked away.
“Oh and I’m fine, by the way,” Jackson said wryly. He tried to get up but Drake pushed him back.
Never one to make a fuss, preferring to stitch up others over himself, Jackson immediately recognized that he’d need those stitches, and they would have to be administered by another. It was the ultimate boot kick to his pride.
“Drake,” he said, but it was a moan. “Help me.”
“Lie back down,” Drake said, more urgently than was really necessary. “You’re losing blood, and we need to staunch this. Need to get you up and get you in a cart.” Drake whistled to some bobbies to give instructions, keeping a hard hand on Jackson’s sternum. It was almost relaxing, being held down like that, letting his clothes soak up the blood and mud, resting his head back in the road’s residue. He was floating on pain now, letting it carry him away into a near-blackness.
“Jackson!” Now Drake was yelling, and my God man, what was all the fuss? If Jackson could rest, just for just a minute. They were always at him for something.
Tell us where this dirt came from, Jackson. I have a corpse for you, Jackson. What is the time of death, Jackson? Jackson! Jackson!
“Time of death,” Jackson muttered. Drake was still making noise, and then the noise changed and became the sound of horses’ hooves. “Quit your braying, Drake,” Jackson said and laughed. It didn’t sound like laughter but like one long groan. He was lifted again and saw the lamp of a hansom glint out of the corner of his eye. Then more darkness.
Darkness was just fine by him.
“Fire.” Reid paced back and forth in front of his board. “Not unusual for fire to wipe out an entire living space for dozens of people. But this time, we must approach it as murder. Twenty-one victims, each of their deaths the responsibility of one man’s ruthless action if our witness is steady. An easy murder to carry out, a difficult one to solve.”
“If Jackson hadn’t gone haring off on his own, we might be a step closer,” Drake said.
“He followed his gut,” Reid said, enunciating the word. “Nothing you nor I would have failed to do had we been in his position. Undoubtedly.”
Drake sighed. Yes, both he and Reid had been known to follow a lead to the exclusion of procedure and caution. Truth was, he was still angry with Jackson. Sighting his body in the alley in a pool of blood, he knew the worst had happened. He thought he was coming up on Jackson’s corpse, for chrissakes. He couldn’t forgive the man for giving him such a shock.
“Sergeant!” Reid snapped. “Am I boring you?”
“Not at all, Inspector. I’m allowed to ruminate on the case, ain’t I?”
“Yes. I’d like to hear your thoughts.” Reid lifted an eyebrow at him, adding a casual pressure to the demand. He tapped the board and turned to Drake.
“Whoever he is, didn’t dream there’d be any suspicion,” Drake said slowly. “Didn’t care about the number of deceased. A ruthless, arrogant bastard, for certain. Big man, if Jackson is correct, although we can’t count on that. Hired arsonist? Anti-Semite? Spurned lover?”
“Good, good. Yes. We would ordinarily have thought nothing of another fire in the East End, what with the way such edifices are constructed, the lack of attention to chimney flues, boilers, stoves and lamps. Someone also assumed these lives weren’t worth a farthing and their deaths would be overlooked.” Reid thumbed his lip and stared over Drake’s shoulder. It was a little unnerving, particularly when Drake was aware that fire was an enemy of Reid’s, and had left him scarred physically and mentally. It was also possible Reid wasn’t thinking of himself, hadn’t connected these deaths by fire to his own near-death escape.
Reid continued, “Nothing gained from the property acquisition, unless I am mistaken. Only the people inside were the probable causation to some sort of rage, revenge or desperation.”
“Someone wanted to off someone else, took everyone along with ‘em,” Drake said. “Provided our witness – the landlady – isn’t trying to put off blame. Maybe her negligence is the reason for the fire. Building codes not up to snuff.”
Drake was now fully able to work a case with Reid. Once upon a time he was merely the muscle and wasn’t called upon for any detective work, but now Reid enjoyed his company and his additional insights and took everything Drake said into consideration even if he rejected it in its turn. Reid was the first man to make Bennet Drake feel intelligent.
“If she did it herself,” Reid said, “Then entered the residence and was subsequently burned along with her tenants… no. I believe her. A man threw the lantern in. He ran through the shanties at the back, and they recognized him as one who frequents what passes for a whorehouse down by the docks. Jackson arrives, asking questions and is set upon, possibly by the man or his friends – or perhaps it was just his face or manner that angered them.”
Reid sighed. He paced and then he paced again. Streets away, Jackson lay in hospital, his wounds being stitched and his organs prodded. Internal bleeding could spirit his life away, Drake knew, and the look on Susan’s face was grave enough when she returned to them after the doctor’s explanations. Infection was another concern. Drake massaged his temples, feeling worry eat away at him, despite the fact that it was Jackson, a man he’d never cared much for.
“Since you seem to have no head for the work today, Drake, perhaps you’d be so kind as to go ahead and sequester two stools at the bar for our use.” He smiled.
Drake’s head snapped up, and he looked away guiltily. “Sorry, guv, I’m just a little out of sorts. That whorehouse will be on the lookout for our kind now. Jackson likely blundered in and got what was coming to him, so we’ll not get any information out of ‘em ‘til they’ve regrouped.”
“I’m frustrated as well,” Reid said. “I feel certain our man will return to his Rosebud, however if we are patient. But never mind, whisky will clear our heads. Tomorrow we go back to the landlady for a better witness statement. For now we need fortification for the long night ahead.” He grabbed his coat and swung it around his shoulders. Drake hoped his meaning was that of waiting for news on Jackson and not of another fruitless night combing the meaner streets for a sniff of whatever might lead them into the next blind alley.
At the Old Bell they sat in their usual seats, the grubby lot that occupied them scattering like marbles. Drake never got tired of the respect he got as a bobby. When he got it. Most days, respecters of the law were few and far between.
They were three whiskys down when word came that Long Susan was outside. They hustled out and saw her wan smile.
“He lives,” Susan said. “To our great disappointment, he lives, and is as contrary as ever. Won’t stay in hospital so his rooms are being prepared. He wishes to get back to work as soon as possible.” Susan stared long and hard at Reid.
“We are most glad to hear he is well,” Reid said, stiffly. “The work will wait, but as you may know, it is important and Captain Jackson is crucial at this moment.”
“However,” Drake interrupts. “He should rest himself as we don’t want him doing himself further damage.”
“Oh, let him if he wishes,” Susan said. She disappeared into the crowd, her disapproval trailing after her.
“I think we might have a little more merriment before we attempt to scale the barricade at Tenter Street,” Reid said thoughtfully.
“Can’t argue with that,” Drake said, patting the lintel of the Old Bell fondly as he stepped back inside.
Jackson felt like one of the corpses he was so fond of cutting up when Reid and Drake arrived for a viewing. Susan let them in with a snarl.
“Darlin’, darlin’, it’s okay,” Jackson said, and she ignored him. A bit of sympathy wouldn’t go amiss, but that was like asking a stone teat to give milk.
Reid exchanged a few words with him, enough to determine that the name of the whorehouse where he’d received his beating was indeed The Rosebud, and that the man who beat him was “large, obviously, and had a beard.”
“Didn’t like me asking questions, seeing as how he fit the description. Don’t know if that meant he was the guilty party, but he definitely found reason somewhere in his sponge cake brain to beat me into silence."
This was information that Drake and Reid already knew. And Jackson was so ornery that Reid took his leave sooner than he might have otherwise.
The door closed behind Reid, but Drake lingered.
“It’d be better for all if you didn’t drop, you know,” Drake said, twisting his hat in his hands.
“Thanks for the surprising vote for the betterment of my health, Drake. One might be confused into thinking you cared.”
“It’s just that, Reid… sometimes he forgets the basics. Hard living here, ain’t getting any easier, we can’t risk losing one of us to careless violence. You need to rein yourself in, and Reid needs to cut you some slack.”
“Quite a poet,” Jackson snarled. He put his hand over his ribcage and moaned. “Jesus Christ, I swear if I ever see that man again I will cut him a new windpipe.”
“How would you know him if all you saw of him was his fists?” Drake asked, raising an eyebrow and one half of a smile.
“His stench and his hairy paws, that’s how.”
“Rose ain’t living here no more, no reason you should linger,” Jackson said pointedly.
“And I shan’t. Seeing as you’re fit to banter, we’ll be looking forward to your sharp tongue back in form and at the surgery tomorrow. Send for me if there’s anything Miss Susan fails to provide you.”
Drake left the room before Jackson could parse this unusual bit of camaraderie and friendship. Susan brought him his whisky and shortly there was no more rumination, only fitful sleep, pockmarked by dreams of an unusual nature in which he was trapped in a claustrophobic cabin on board a boat sailing for America.
“How is it possible to live in a world where this much suffering is a given?” Jackson asked the next day, looking into his dead room with dismay. Curled, blackened corpses lined it, a few stacked against the tiles.
“How?” Reid asked, shaking out his kerchief. “We hold life in our hands, we crush it in our fist, we mold and bend it to our will. In short, Captain, we rise above it.” He placed the kerchief over his nose and grimaced. The grimace did nothing to diminish the force of his statement.
“Meanwhile there’s blood and mud on my boots, my eye is swollen shut, and I might pass out from the pain,” Jackson said. “Don’t see me rising above that any time soon.”
“And yet you must. We need these bodies analysed and as quickly as possible. Any defining characteristics, bits of clothing, jewelry, whatever you can glean, will be of use to us.”
“Then leave me in peace and let me begin.”
Jackson’s head pounded, and his nostrils flared at the stench, something that usually never bothered him. The beating he had taken had reset his senses; his fingers were numb, his tongue was dry, his mouth full of ash. The men and women who had died in the fire were of all ages, young and old, and each one was a small tragedy frozen in time by fire. One very young child and one infant, thankfully no more, crossed his table. He wiped the sweat and tears from his eyes and drummed his prickling fingers on the porcelain sink, trying to restore feeling.
He worked hard and fast, knowing that at any moment Reid would step in, Drake at his heels, and demand knowledge. Just as he was ready to give up and attempt to exit the station by a back way, he peeled back a cotton blouse from a blackened chest and discovered a locket.
“There you are,” he said. “Tell me who you belonged to.” Carefully cleaning the piece, he determined it was in fact, made of gold and ornate. When he pried it open, he saw a lovely young woman on one side, a handsome soldier on the other. The corpse being a woman, it was fair to assume this was she.
“And there he is. Breaking down my door, looking for what only I can uncover. Brooking no obstacles and showing no patience…”
“Jackson!” Reid thundered. “Quit dribbling and give me what you’ve got.”
Drake appeared at the door. He looked tired and worn. At least more than the usual tired and worn. He raised his eyebrows at Jackson.
“Yes, I’ve got something. May be nothing. At any rate, a fair few living cheek by jowl in this rookery. Men out at work, most likely. A sweatshop of Jews in the back, cobbling. All those men seem accounted for and here in my dead room. The women need identifyin’ and I reckon the landlady can help us if she’s stopped screaming.
“She was burned badly, hence her screams,” Drake reminded him.
“I need information,” Reid said. “Anything that can lead us to the reason behind this madness.”
“This locket,” Jackson said, producing it for Reid’s inspection. “A man, a woman, a classic Romeo and Juliet tale. Nothing burns quite so hot and bright as the heart.”
“Ain’t that a pretty piece of prose,” Drake said.
“Well, you know I like a pretty piece,” Jackson rejoined. “What do you make of it, Inspector?”
Reid held the locket in his hand. “It’s unusual enough that we can ask around. Let’s get Best in on it as well. He can put an item in the paper. Good work, Jackson, keep going.”
“Yeah, yeah, I’ll just keep working until I drop, never mind me,” Jackson grumbled.
Reid raised his hand as if to clap Jackson on the shoulder but let it drop instead.
Drake let his fists fall, watching closely as the young, nearly feral youth curled into a ball. He stayed down, so Drake stepped back. Reid stepped forward.
“Young man, you will be prosecuted if you do not aid us in our search for the man we have described,” he said. They stood in the cellar of an abandoned factory near the scene of the fire, having dispatched the rest of the riff-raff with questions and punches as necessary. The oldest was also the toughest.
“Tol’ you,” the boy said, spitting just shy of Reid’s shoe. “I don’t speak to coppers. Don’t know who he is, could be anyone.”
“He could be. But he’s not. He was seen throwing a lantern into a window, causing a fire that killed twenty-one people. Multiple murder. I hope you are intelligent enough to understand what I’m getting at here.”
The boy uncurled just a bit and looked warily up at Reid. “Got hot soup in your jail? A roof over me head? An’ I could use a terrier crop and a tightening. That’s a damn sight better than I get talkin’ to you.”
“If you have information we can use, we will provide you with a week’s worth of meals and warm shelter. We will find you the possibility of work.” Reid’s lower lip trembled just slightly, only such that Drake might notice, and Drake immediately knew he thought of Emily.
“That’s right,” Drake said, seeing an opportunity to add to the message Reid was sending. “More’n fair, seeing as we could just put you behind bars and let those stronger than you take what little skillet you get.”
The boy’s face fell at the word. Flour and water had obviously not been on his list of desired meals. No doubt he’d spent time in the workhouse, and from the look of things, this abandoned cellar was an illegal squat for some two dozen boys who’d banded together to beg, barter and steal what little they could. Small bundles sat in the corners like hoarded gold. Drake was happy to disabuse him of the notion that jail was any better. He’d be at the mercy of much worse.
“I c’n get you some,” the boy mumbled.
“You can get us some?” Reid thundered. “What can you get us? How soon? We won’t take any falsehoods in exchange for our good food. If you know something, you’d best tell us. If you want to cooperate with us, we will strike the bargain now.”
Drake wanted to further encourage the boy, but since he’d just kicked the daylights out of him, he stood by, rubbing his sore fists. The kid was hard headed, lucky for him.
“What is your name?” Reid said.
“Calvin,” the boy replied. “I been o’er there, where the fire was. Wanted to see what was left, didn’t I? And there weren’t nothing. Not a thing worth picking clean, fire all burnt it. The ones there in the back says it musta been two. One inside spreadin’ oil. Whole thing went up in minutes, they says.”
“They? Who? The ones in the back? In the shanties?”
“Yep. My ma lives there, how’s I know.”
“Is she there still? Can she speak with us as well?”
“If’n I get food for me and her, ‘course!” The boy beamed, and Drake cringed. He wasn’t so much feral as he was starving. Drake knew how that could be. One would do anything for a bite of victuals, and to survive was to battle constantly. They – the police – were there threatening their shelter by coming into the grotty little cellar. Scattering them to the four winds and leaving behind what crumbs they’d managed to steal was more of a direct threat than fists ever could be.
“Come,” Reid said, like the pied piper. The boy followed meekly. Drake looked away and resisted the urge to speak.
There was no apologizing for his work; he did it well and it was necessary.
As expected, the boy couldn’t find his ma amid the piles of refuse that formed a rather intricate maze and a fair few hovels in which dark forms lay sleeping. “She musta got a thomas,” he said. His voice had gone dull, as if the promise of food wasn’t enough to curb the emptiness he felt at knowing what his mother was doing for the same.
He dropped wearily onto a pile of bricks and rubbed his eyes.
“Here you go,” Drake said, handing him his handkerchief. The boy took it without remark. Reid began inspecting the slums, studying the burnt building silently. He kicked a pile of shoe leather.
“Calvin,” Reid said, turning around. “Cobblers lived in this bottom dwelling, did they not?”
“Yessir. Jews, sir.”
Reid nodded. He had considered, Drake knew, the possibility of the fire as an anti-Semitic act, but there was as yet nothing to point in that direction.
“Landlady and her family there, in front. Three floors above, who lived where, can you show me, boy?”
“Yeah. Second floor, two sisters in the back, above the Jews. One of ‘em had children. Big family in the other room on the second floor. Poles, I think. Ten, come and go. Sick grandparents who’re always yelling for food. Top floor two hospital workers and an actor in one room.” He paused to think. Drake marveled at the boy. Might make a good copper one-day. “Dockworkers in the other,” he continued. “Don’t know how many. They was mean and nasty, no one liked them.”
“Anyone might want to follow through on that dislike and kill them?
“Christ, who knows?” the boy answered, a weary wisdom in his now upturned face. “Ever’one wants to kill ever’one. Would, too, if we could.”
“One last, “Reid said, walking closer to Calvin and cocking his head at the boy. "Where does your mother usually go when she’s… got a… client?”
“Why, The Rosebud of course,” The boy said, and his face warred between misplaced pride and sadness.
“Ready for a hot meal and a hot bath?” Reid asked. It was a rhetorical question. The boy was obviously starved and had begun to shiver in the low fog that descended on Whitechapel and settled in the shanty.
“Drake. Do you mind?” Reid asked. He was no longer a welcome face at Ms. Goren’s, especially now that Mrs. Reid was in residence. They always liked Drake’s friendly face, and he was keen to bring the boy to them. They welcomed him and the boy despite what looked to be a full house and many mouths to feed. They wished him well, and he told Calvin he’d send along his mum as soon as she was found. The boy nodded goodbye with a solemn respect that made Drake blush.
The landlady was laid up at a relative’s, who greeted them with the sour face of someone who has been put upon by a sick family member. Her doctor was also there, and Reid and Drake stayed back until he was finished attending his patient. The tiny room was filled to capacity with the bed, piles of linens, used and unused, the doctor’s bag and a tiny table with a tray on it.
“Don’t know how I’ll do it,” the relative, named Eleanor, said. “Can’t feed my own, certainly can’t feed her, not to mention change the bandages. But London Hospital won’t keep her. They say too much risk of infection there. Like there’s none here!”
Drake nodded, trying to keep his eyes open. He was dead on his feet and the steamy, stifling heat of the room put a damper on his ability to think. Reid made “tsk-ing” noises while he waited, showing his impatience and his lack of interest in Eleanor’s complaints. Finally, the doctor swept out, barely nodding at them in his haste, and Drake and Reid were ushered in.
“Mrs Gentle, we wish to confirm your initial statement to us as we know you were in a great deal of pain and shock at the time.”
The woman nodded, shifting her arms under the weight of her bandages. She listened carefully to Reid’s repetition of her statements and nodded her head.
“Yes sir, that’s exactly what I saw,” she said. “But one thing missing.”
“What’s that?” Reid leaned forward intently.
“I knew ‘im,” she said. “I didn’t remember ‘im ‘til later, but I knew ‘im. He came calling on the young woman upstairs. She was the sister of the other one. The one who rented the room. She wasn’t supposed have another body in there, but she did, ‘course, like most, pack ‘em in, get a dozen in one room, what can I say? I have no way of makin’ ‘em live legal.”
“A beau, you say? Of one of the young women who lived there? What was her name?” Reid leaned in.
“Hannah Meriweather, and her sister who rented from me was Alice Lake. Did she live? I hope she did, she was a lovely one, always paid on time.”
“We don’t know. It’s been difficult to identify… “ Reid paused. “The bodies. Is there any information that would be useful?”
“Well, they had blond hair, the pair of ‘em. Alice had three children, and her man run off. The two oldest though, they work hard, and they bring in enough. Reckon they were at the factory, but their mum… and the little ‘un….”
“Any identifying birth marks or fractures?”
“None as I knew.”
“What else can you tell us about the man you saw?”
“He was tall. He had dark hair. He wasn’t a toff, but he’d dress up nice for ‘er. Had that oil in his hair…”
“Yeah, that’s the stuff. Bought a lot of things from the shop for her. Lotion, soap, stuff that smelled real nice. The children though, they took it and sold it, bartered it for food and clothes. Smart little ‘uns.”
“So Hannah didn’t care for her suitor?”
“Well, no. But she knew what that stuff was worth, didn’t she?”
“Did she encourage him?”
“She didn’t discourage. Treated him like a thomas, though he wasn’t allowed in, not in my house, no sir.”
“You sighted him then, outside your house, the night of the fire?”
“Yes, he’s the one, the one I saw peeking in at the jump, then he threw the lamp in. I was coming up the front, ran inside to put the fire out, but it was well out of hand.”
“Could someone have poured kerosene inside the house?” Reid’s eyes remained fixed on her.
“I suppose. No other explanation for it to burn so fast.” She looked away, and Drake caught it.
“Were you drunk at the time, Mrs. Gentle?” Drake’s question came fast, blew right by Reid’s polite approach, and surprised them all.
“Why no, I. Me? I don’t have a tipple or two, that is to say, I do… only one or two any given night. Like anyone.”
“If you had drink,” Reid said slowly, “I would like to hear of it, so we can understand the context of your statements. Could you have been mistaken? Did your lack of sobriety impede your own movements once inside the house? Why did you, in fact, go into a house that was clearly on fire?”
“It went up quick, I said! I run in, I get a blanket to put over the lantern, but it’s too late, it was already burnin’ ever’where, swear to all that’s holy.” Mrs. Gentle was getting agitated and her eyes were wide. “I called to my tenants. I called to them. I screamed…”
She was still sobbing when they took their leave, but they had yet one more clue to go on.
He hasn’t wanted to think on this case. He wanted to solve it and be done with it. The smell of fire. The heat of fire. The sheer terror you felt when the flames engulfed you. It made his scarred body itch and ache. He couldn't make it stop, no matter how much he knew it was psychological and not physical. He never closed his eyes in the last year or so without seeing bright orange behind them. The smell of smoke has never left his senses, not for one minute of one day. It’s always there, lingering in the back of his throat, bringing memory to the fore.
Fire had flayed him alive.
They found Calvin’s mother at The Rosebud. She was underneath a man, naked but for a scrap of blouse. He turned away, and Drake stepped in to pull the man off and confirm that she was Calvin’s mum. Drake didn’t blush and was less than gentle in hauling her up off the sweat-soaked, smelly cot and ordering her to get dressed.
The man she’d been with struggled with his own clothing, and it was only this that allowed them to stop him before he descended the stairs and disappeared.
“You saw the man who started the fire on Smith Street, did you not?” Reid said. “Your son has said you have information that can be useful to us.”
“It’s ‘im there,” she said indifferently. “Ned ‘is name is.”
From what Reid had seen of their lovemaking it was obvious she would likely show no loyalty. He thought her brave instead. The man was, in fact, a large man. Drake stood at the door, and when the man raised his fists, Drake set in like a tiger.
Reid smashed him over the head with a bottle, and the woman grinned over his prone body.
A short time later Jackson’s head appeared in the doorway.
“Returning to the scene of the crime, eh?” Drake said. “Surprised they let you in without another beating.”
“Not now, Drake,” Jackson said. “I’ve been running some tests. Went back to the scene.” He took a deep breath. “Ruddy Harvester Oil.”
“What is that?” Reid asked. The man on the floor groaned.
“The L. D. Mix Oil and Naptha Company. They make oil for farm machinery in Cleveland, Ohio. Known for its lubricating quality. Won’t rust. The real stuff comes in stamped tins, but for some reason there were barrels of it on one of the higher floors, some in the cellar. That’s the cause of your fast-burning fire. Bits of the barrel ended up on the roofs all ‘round and buried underneath the rubble. Quite a conflagration.”
“Slow down, take a breath,” Reid said. “Cleveland, Ohio to Whitechapel. You have a theory?”
“A theory? I have to do all the work? A criminal undertaking, that’s my theory.”
“Dockworkers,” Drake said quickly. “Like the boy said. A bunch of nasty ones in the building. Stolen oil from ships, might be worth something to the factory owners wanting to grease their machines.”
“Our man Ned is coming around,” Reid said. Drake stepped in grabbed him by the collar. His trousers were still undone. “Tell us,” Reid continued, bending low to look into his face. He’d looked into many faces in Whitechapel in exactly this manner. It was the quickest way to determine guilt – judging by how hard they flinched. Ned did so at once.
“You are the one who threw the lantern into the house, burning all inside?” Reid demanded.
The man was stubborn. Drake had to deliver several blows to get him to acquiesce. Jackson was gleeful, and Reid put a hand on his shoulder and made him sit in a chair. Despite his injuries, he had worked nonstop, and the results made Reid swell with pride and accomplishment. His American, his was the best man on the job. He felt – he knew – they were making inroads into common detective work that could change things for years to come. If his future held nothing more than this, it might suffice.
“I threw in the lantern, so what,” Ned finally said through broken teeth. Modern police work still had need for the brutality of the past. Drake’s eyes were shining with the result. He could frighten any man, make any man do whatever was asked of him. Reid would have been afraid of Bennet Drake had he not been his partner.
“I didn’t kill nobody,” Ned said. “That harlot spurned me.”
“Hannah,” Reid said. “Sister of Alice Lake.”
“Yes. I was angry. I meant to scare her, that’s all. That’s all I did.”
“You killed twenty-one people.”
“No. Not me. I only threw in the lantern. Don’t know the rest.”
“I have a feeling you do, but you are too much of an idiot to leave town. Let’s go, get him to the station. Jackson, can you walk?”
Jackson rose, but stumbled over. The woman caught him. He grinned at her. “Hello darlin’.”
“Not now, Jackson,” Reid said.
Jackson could smell the sweat coming off Drake, and he knew he himself must smell like ash and burnt clothing, dried blood, maybe worse. He knocked back a shot of whisky and nodded to Reid, who in turn, nodded to the bartender to bring them more. Reid had been drinking more and more lately, and he could now easily keep up with Drake when they were doing “casework” in the bar.
No one could keep up with Jackson, and no one should. He was tired and in pain, and his face was so swollen he could almost see his own lips. The whisky took some of the edge off, but he wouldn't be able to walk back to Tenter Street without the aid of both Reid and Drake and that would make an interesting picture.
He looked out the window of the pub. The glass itself was grimy, coated with years of cigarette smoke, grease and grime. The morning light trickled through, making a valiant attempt to light the place. Dust motes drifted, and Jackson stretched his boot out to catch them. He didn’t feel altogether well, so he splashed more whisky into the hole where his back molar used to be and cursed blue when it stung. He closed his eyes and let his mind roam.
“One thing about America,” he said to no one in particular. “It was bright. You could see the sun, could feel it on your face. Even in a Chicago winter. When the fog cleared in San Fran. On a ship’s deck or on a Carolinian morn. I miss the sun.”
“We’re not keeping you here,” Drake said. Jackson opened his eyes. Reid lifted an eyebrow, because he was the one, after all, who had given him his Johns Hopkins-like dead room.
“Yeah, you are,” Jackson said. “I’m a kept man. Glued to you both and to this hellhole we call home. Our battlefield. I bled here.”
“You bled a lot, no doubt about it.” Drake was one cheeky bastard when it came to beatings Jackson had taken. “Took you for a corpse.”
“You keep on about how worried you were, Drake. Might almost think you’re a little soft on me.”
Drake rubbed his knuckles, raw and bleeding from the round-the-clock work he’d been asked to do. “That’s me,” he said. “Soft.”
Reid tapped his fingers on a stack of papers near his hands.
“Can’t it wait?” Jackson complained.
“These messages aren’t urgent, according to Atherton, but nonetheless must be read.” Reid perused them slowly, and Jackson and Drake continued to drink. Drake asked about the farming oil, and Jackson told him about how he worked his way west on various farms. His history couldn’t have been more different than Drake’s – they’d covered different areas of a globe so vast, it was hard to imagine they’d ended up here at all, purely by chance, fitting in with a man like Edmund Reid and his crusade in the streets of Whitechapel.
Reid finally looked up and sighed. “Calvin has run away from Miss Goren’s, having stolen a day’s worth of bread. Mrs Gentle, the landlady, passed away last night from a sudden infection of her wounds. Alice Lake’s husband appeared and has claimed the locket. He was a soldier, away for a time, not derelict in his familial duties. He mourned his wife, her sister and his children with such an outpouring of grief he had to be sedated. All of the children were, in fact, at home and now lay in our dead room, it appears.”
“So it’s just loss and rage and lust and greed and thieving and whoring,” Jackson said.
“A confluence of events and circumstances. Tragedies large and small.”
“I’ll find the boy, drag him back,” Drake said. His blue eyes were watery in the weak light and Jackson found him beautiful. He felt the same for Reid’s stern face, slumped shoulders and restless fingers, drumming on the notes he had just read.
“I long for the days of disorder,” Jackson said. “When I knew who I was, or I didn’t know, didn’t care. I was a mystery to myself I didn’t care to solve. Before Susan it was just life. It was brutish and nasty and short. Before you it was just a jumble. No plans. I was sunburnt. I burned bridges, I cut ties.”
He leaned in to Reid and to Drake. “Two bloody blue-eyed bobbies. That’s all you are.”
“But not all we’ll ever be,” Reid said. “I have grand plans. We, the three of us, have a future.”
“I don’t know,” Drake said. “I really don’t. If it’s more like this,” he waved at the notes, “I really don’t see what’s in it.”
“Still tethered to your past,” Jackson said. And he meant both of them for different reasons. Still, they all shared reasons. Reasons not to move forward too fast, reasons not to run from what they witnessed here.
Jackson leaned his face out of the weak sunlight and pressed on his stiches to make sure his guts weren’t falling out.
“Future may well be what it is. Right now, what I’m feeling is just nostalgia for the light.” He raised his glass.
It was the best way Jackson could explain what they meant to him.