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Extract - She Be Damned: An Eloise Chancey Novel by MJ Tjia

Coming soon, the second detective novel featuring this Victorian courtesan-turned-private-detective, who investigates crimes that the standard London police force find a little too...recherche. In anticipation of the publication of A Necessary Murder, please enjoy this extract from the first book, She Be Damned...

Sir Thomas clears his throat again. “Yes. Well, maybe the task we ask of you this time will not be so enjoyable, I’m afraid.” He glances at Mr Priestly, who nods him on. “As you know, we are investigating the deaths of several women in the Waterloo area.”

“How did they die?” I ask.

Sir Thomas waves his hand. He won’t go on. Mr Priestly stares hard at me for a few moments. “Sir Thomas assures me I can broach any subject with you, Mrs Chancey.”

“Of course,” I smile. He means because I’m a whore, of course, but I won’t let him think his sting has broken skin.

He turns and gazes out the window as he speaks. “It seems that each of these women – well, really, they were prostitutes – had terminated a pregnancy and died soon after from blood loss and infection.”

“Well, unfortunately that happens far too frequently.”

“That is so, but luckily the body of the last prostitute who died in this manner was taken to the hospital to be used as a specimen, and they found that...” He glances over at me, his  eyes appraising.

“What?” I ask.

“They found parts of her body missing.”

“What parts?”

“Her uterus was gone, but so were her other... feminine parts.”

Revulsion curls through my body and I feel the pulse of an old wound between my legs. I glance at Sir Thomas whose eyes fall away from mine.

“What makes you think her death is connected to the other deaths in Waterloo?”

“It was the fourth body they had received in this condition in the last seven weeks.”

“What? And was it not reported to the police?” My voice rises in disbelief.

Mr Priestly shrugs. “Well, they were only prostitutes, after all. At first the hospital staff thought they were the victims of amateur hysterectomies, but when they found that each of the women was also missing...”

“Missing...?” I shake my head a little, hoping I’m not about to hear what I think is coming, although a part of me, tucked away beneath the horror, wonders how he’ll describe it.

Mr Priestly straightens his collar. “Apparently all their sexual organs were missing. Inside and out. I am positive you know to what I am referring, Mrs Chancey.”

I can’t help but press my knees together. I nod. 

“Accordingly, it became apparent that there was a pattern to these deaths,” he continues. 

“And what do the police think now?”

“Obviously someone in the area is butchering these unfortunate women, whether accidentally or in spite is uncertain. However – and it’s not surprising – the police don’t want to waste too much time investigating the deaths of prostitutes when the rights of decent, law-abiding Londoners need to be protected.”

Indignation sharpens my thoughts, but I command my body to relax. After all, what else is to be expected? If I’m to mix in polite society I need to mimic their ways. I force a languid smile to my face, eyes narrowed, as I watch Mr Priestly. “So, what on earth do you want to look into these deaths for? If the police are not interested, why should we be?”

“A friend of mine heard of these cases and has become immensely interested. It is on behalf of my friend that I have engaged Sir Thomas’ services.”

“And why has your friend become so interested?”

Mr Priestly takes his time seating himself in an armchair, crossing one leg over the other. He scrutinises my face for a few moments before answering. “My friend has a special concern. It is for this reason we ask for your assistance.”

“What is this special concern?”

“My friend is a respectable gentleman, well known to his peers. A short time ago he found out that his daughter was in an unhappy condition. She is not married.” Mr Priestly pauses to let the awful truth of his statement sink in.

“Ah, I see. And what did he do?” I ask.

Mr Priestly frowns. “Naturally he disowned her. He allowed her to pack some of her belongings and had her taken to a convent near Shropshire.”

“Naturally,” I repeat, my voice dry.

“Yes, but she did not make it to Shropshire. She bribed the coachman to take her to a hotel in Charing Cross, and from there she has disappeared.”

“Do you know why she wanted to be left at that hotel?”

“Apparently her... the other party... was staying there. He is a Frenchman.” He nods, as if this fact alone throws light on the cause of her predicament.

“But nobody knows where she is now?”

Sir Thomas takes up the thread of the story. “At first Mr Priestly required my men to look into her activities at the hotel, but upon questioning Monsieur Baudin, we learnt she had left his care most swiftly.”

“I suppose he did not want her now she was in trouble?”

“Something like that, it would seem. Since then he seems to have flown the coop,” says Sir Thomas. “My detectives have since found out that the young lady took a cab to Waterloo where she spent a little over three weeks in a boarding house before moving into another well-known establishment nearby.”

“What establishment?”

Mr Priestly purses his lips for a moment. “A house of ill-repute, it would seem. She moved to an abode owned by one Madame Silvestre.”

“Ah yes, I’m aware of her services,” I reply, thinking of how it’s been many years since I have had the pleasure of the old cat’s acquaintance. “Do you need me to fetch her?”

“If only it were that easy. It seems she has since disappeared. Nobody knows where she has gone.”

The sudden realisation dawns on me. “Are you concerned that she too has been mutilated?”

“We are not sure what has become of her,” says Sir Thomas. “Madame Silvestre might just be hiding her, or maybe the young lady has moved on to another place.”

“Or maybe she is one of the butcher’s victims,” says Mr Priestly. He withdraws a card case from his pocket and carefully takes out a small photograph. He hands this to me.

“Eleanor Carter.”

The likeness is of a very fair, young woman. Her face is small and serious and the bodice of her gown is buttoned tightly to the base of her throat. “How old is she?” I ask.

“She is only seventeen. She is quite small and pretty – this photograph does not do her justice,” says Mr Priestly. “My friend is worried for her safety.”

“He might have thought of that before he threw her out onto the street,” I say, before I can help myself.

Mr Priestly’s brow lifts as he looks across at me coldly. “Although it is out of the question for her to return to her familial home, naturally my friend is troubled. He would like to see her ensconced safely at the nunnery.”

I glance from Sir Thomas to Mr Priestly. “You want me to find her?”

Sir Thomas sits back into the sofa and extends his legs out before himself. He studies his shoes as he says, “Well, as you now know, I have already had my detectives scouting for information on Miss Carter, but they have failed to find her.”

“And you think my womanly touch might avail?” I ask, amused.

Sir Thomas resettles himself again. “As simple questioning has not sufficed, we wondered if you could possibly discover Miss Carter’s movements with more covert methods.”

“Such as...?”

Mr Priestly makes an impatient motion with his hand. “You seemed interested in picking up the mantle of another character again, Mrs Chancey, and that is what we are asking of you. I believe it won’t be too much of a stretch for you, for we would like you to pose as a...” he glances at Sir Thomas, “a ‘gay girl’, I think they’re called.”

I stop breathing for a moment as annoyance flushes through my body. It’s true that I posed as a street prostitute for Sir Thomas, but that was just a lark, and it’s also true that in the dim past I’d worked in many places, both good and bad, but I choose not to think of that now. So, for this absolute pig of a man to refer to me as a mere gay girl makes me angry. I’m no longer a lowly grisette, willing to flatter or implore my way to a few more pennies or ribbons while I try to hide my desperation. I lift my chin. “You want me to pose as a prostitute?”

“Precisely.”

“At Madame Silvestre’s?”

“If they would have you, certainly,” says Mr Priestly, his voice even. “What better place for you to be situated in order to find out where Miss Carter is?”

I heave myself up from the sofa and stride to the bay window. My skirt bumps a side-table causing a figurine of a Chinese goddess to totter. Go back to work in a brothel, for the sake of a little detection? I’m not so sure.

Sir Thomas puts his hands out entreatingly. “Mrs Chancey, not only can you investigate the disappearance of Miss Carter, you can also look into the other deaths. You can try to find more information about the monster who is harming these women.”

“Who knows?” interrupts Mr Priestly. “You could even pretend to be pregnant and see where that takes you.”

“Be your bait, you mean?” I ask, my voice flippant.

“Whatever it takes, Mrs Chancey, whatever it takes.” Mr Priestly slips his fingers into his gloves. “You may put it about that Miss Carter is a young relative of your own, but in no way must her name be connected back to my friend. Sir Thomas will take care of the case from now on. I am sure you will be remunerated...” he glances around my sumptuous drawing room, “as grandly as possible.”

I turn from the window, the smile on my face fixed. “I don’t work for Sir Thomas for the money, Mr Priestly. I have my own independent means. I follow inquiries for Sir Thomas purely for the pleasure of it, and in this I would find no pleasure. I’m afraid I will need to decline your kind offer.”

He stops pulling on his remaining glove and eyes me for a few, long moments. “I must assure you that I do not request you to take this case – I insist you take this case.”

“Insist? You cannot make me take this case, Mr Priestly.”

“Mrs Chancey, I know the local magistrate, Sir Herbert Brimm. I know for a fact that he and others are interested in your mysterious activities in the Limehouse area. One word from me and you will be examined by the local police and the doctor in their employ.”

I can feel anger drain the colour from my cheeks and my fingers quiver with adrenalin. I’ve heard of this movement to examine prostitutes for contagious diseases. He would menace me with this detestable law that terrorises prostitutes and offends even righteous women? He would dare threaten me with a disgusting doctor probing my body for sickness?

“That will never eventuate, Mr Priestly. I know far more important and powerful people than you.”

“Ah, you must mean your protector,” replies Mr Priestly. “Tell me, how would he like an examination of your private life smeared in the newspapers for his wife and esteemed friends to see? Think of his poor children. Be sure, Mrs Chancey, the damage can be done before he is able to assist you.”

I grip my waist, my fingertips digging into the unyielding corset. My popularity with patrons is closely tied to my discretion. It has always been so. But in this trembling moment of rage I have nothing to lose. “Do it then, sir. Do your worst,” I say, struggling to keep my voice low.

Sir Thomas steps between us, his hands raised. “Please, Mr Priestly, there’s no need for these threats.” He turns to me. “Mrs Chancey, surely we can come to an agreement on how you can investigate this in a manner with which you are comfortable. We really do need your assistance.”

I look into Sir Thomas’ flushed, kind face and then shrug one shoulder. “Allow me to think it over. And if I do decide to proceed,” I glare at Mr Priestly, “I will only deal with Sir Thomas.”

“That suits me perfectly,” says Mr Priestly. He leaves the room without bidding farewell.

 

A Necessary Murder by MJ Tjia is published by Legend Press on the 2nd July 2018