Historical Mystery Excerpt: A Deadly Deception By Tessa Harris
In A Deadly Deception by Tessa Harris, the streets of Victorian London are clothed in shadows and secrets in a gripping new mystery featuring flower seller Constance Piper.
London, July 1889. Eight months have passed since the horrific murder of Mary Jane Kelly. The residents of Whitechapel have begun breathing easy again—daring to leave windows open and walk about at twilight. But when old Alice Mackenzie is found dead, throat slashed almost from ear to ear, the whispers begin once more: Jack the Ripper is back.
Constance Piper, a flower seller with a psychic gift, was a friend to both women. With the supernatural help of her late mentor, Miss Emily Tindall, and her more grounded ally, police detective Thaddeus Hawkins, she uncovers links between the murders and a Fenian gang. The Fenians, committed to violence to further their goal of an independent Ireland, are also implicated in a vicious attack in which the Countess of Kildane’s uncle was killed. Could the Whitechapel murders be a ruse to make the British police look helpless?
Soon, Constance is called upon for help. But there are spies everywhere in the city, and a bomb plot intended to incur devastating carnage. And as Constance is fast discovering, the greatest evil may not lurk in the grimy alleys of the East End, but in a conspiracy that runs from Whitechapel to the highest office in the land.
What follows is an excerpt from A Deadly Deception by Tessa Harris, provided to Mystery Tribune by Kensington Books.
London, Wednesday, July 17, 1889
It was the footsteps that woke me. From the cradle of my deep sleep, I supposed the noise to be rain splattering the window, ormaybe even a trotting horse. Opening my gritty eyes, I looked up at the square of light on our moldy ceiling and thought perhaps I’d dreamed the sound. But then I heard the cry—the cry that we all know round here too well. That’s when I knew it was real. “Murder! Murder!”
Scrambling out of bed, I rushed over to pull up the sash and there he was, in our street, a little nipper, shouting at the top of his voice. “Murder! Murder!” Cupping his hands round his mouth, he called out once and then he cried again. He hollered words that turned my blood even colder, and everyone else’s, too. “Jack’s back!” he bellowed, and a chill ran down my spine quicker than a rat along a drainpipe.
For a moment I was numb. I couldn’t believe it. Still can’t. Just as we were all feeling safe in our beds, just when we dared leave our windows ajar at night on account of the warmer weather, just when we could walk out at twilight again, we hear there’s been another killing. Of course, the cry made us all sit up and take notice. If Jack is back, none of us is safe.
Flo was quick off the mark. Pushing me out of the way, she shoved her head through the window.
“Where?” she yelled. “Where’s the murder?”
The lad turned and, still running backward, gulped and yelled up, “Castle Alley, by Goulston Street Wash’ouse.”
Ma shuffled in with her shawl drawn round her shoulders and a frown on her brow. “What’s amiss?” she wheezed, all blurry-eyed.
Flo and me swapped glances. We knew she wouldn’t take it well.
“There’s been another killing,” I said as soft as I could, but it still didn’t stop her from gasping for air, like a fish out of water.
I feared the shock would bring on another attack, and it did. I rushed over to her and sat her down beside me on the bed.
“I’ll go and see what’s what,” Flo told her, pulling on her skirt. She tried to act all cocky, as if she could make things right, but, of course, she couldn’t. We both knew that if Jack was back to work, then no amount of brave words would help soothe the terror that’d return. There’s been nothing since November; not since Mary Jane Kelly was found on the day of the Lord Mayor’s Parade. She was Jack’s fifth—or, some say, sixth victim.
After her, of course, came poor Rose Mylett. At first, we all thought she was one of his, too. With the help of my friend Acting Inspector Thaddeus Hawkins, I proved Rose’s murder weren’t Jack’s handiwork, after all. So that’s why, eight months on from the foulest murder of all, it’s come as the most terrible shock to everyone to think the fiend stalks among us again.
Yes, eight long months have passed since Jack last struck. Eight months in which the people of Whitechapel and beyond have tried to rebuild their lives. Yet, the brutal killings still cast their shadow. I well remember the morning they found the body of what everyone prayed would be the Ripper’s last victim: Mary Jane Kelly. In a squalid room in Miller’s Court, it was. I was there when the rent collector first put his eye to the broken pane, but couldn’t quite comprehend the scene at first.
He’d been banging on the flimsy door for the past few seconds, fearing it might splinter under his fist. He’d even called the tenant’s name. “Mary Kelly! Mary Jane!” He was used to her scams—the way she’d pretend she didn’t know what day of the month it was, or how she’d sometimes just flutter those long lashes of hers and beg a favor. Her wiles were enough to make a grown man weak at the knees.
Or how she’d call him “dear Tommy” in that sing-songy voice of hers, which reminded him of a skylark on a spring morning. But six weeks is a long time in any landlord’s book, and Mr. McCarthy wasn’t having any more of her shilly-shallying, so on this occasion Thomas Bowyer was under instructions to return with the rent, or not at all.
His knocking having met with silence, Bowyer went around the corner of the premises to where he knew the windowpane was broken. Carefully he reached through the jagged glass and drew back the curtain so that he could see inside. It was a sight that would come to haunt him for the rest of his days. He withdrew his hand so quickly from the broken pane that his skin was caught and torn by the glass as he staggered back. Yet, he did not make a sound, save for a violent retch in the gutter nearby.
Despite his dizziness and nausea, he managed to alert his boss to what he had just seen—to the two pieces of cut flesh on the table and to the blood on the floor and to the fact that the body of Mary Jane Kelly, the prettiest and sweetest of the street girls he knew, lay mutilated beyond all recognition.
That was last November. On the ninth day of the month, to be precise. Not that time means anything to me. It is but a ticking of a clock. I am no longer of this earth, you see. I am a
revenant. I died, or, more accurately, was murdered, because I tried to expose a secret society of powerful men that preyed on my young pupils. I was handed over to a cruel bully, who I now know went by the name of the Butcher, and paid the ultimate price for my discovery when he cracked my skull against a wall.
Despite his dizziness and nausea, he managed to alert his boss to what he had just seen—to the two pieces of cut flesh on the table and to the blood on the floor and to the fact that the body of Mary Jane Kelly…
Now, however, I have returned to right the wrongs committed against me and so many others who cannot defend themselves against the powers that control their lives.
London’s East End, where this shocking crime against Mary Jane Kelly was perpetrated, is where I usually roam. Unseen by nearly all, I am to be found underfoot in the cobbles of Whitechapel, on the panes of grimy glass, in the fabric of people’s clothes, on wood and on brick, even floating on the air you breathe.
There are traces of me all around—of what was, what is, and what will come—but only the chosen few can sense them. Constance Piper is one of them and I am able to live on through her.
This time the killing’s even closer to home, just a couple of streets away from us. The washhouse is where Ma, Flo, and me go for a bath now and again. ’Course we have to go second class: a cold bath and a towel for your penny. Someday I’ll treat myself to first class: that’s two towels and warm water. Someday.
“Let’s get the kettle on,” I say, guiding Ma downstairs. I sit her in our one good, horsehair armchair by the empty hearth just as Flo steps over the threshold to find out what’s what.
“I won’t be long,” she calls back to Ma, trying to reassure her; only, she’s wheezing that much, I’m not sure she’s heard.
So we sit and we wait.
Already there’s a dreadful brouhaha outside. People are coming round our way to get to Castle Alley. You wouldn’t ever catch me down that dingy rat hole. Never gets any sun, even when there’s some to be had. In shadow all day, it is.
It’s where some of the local costermongers park up their barrows for the night. You get all sorts coming and going and all manner of diseases lurking there, so they say. Some ragamuffins and unfortunates even kip down under the carts. If you can put up with the stink, I suppose it’s out of the rain. But I needs hold my breath just when I’m passing, the stench is that bad.
At least half an hour goes by before Flo’s back. She takes off her shawl as she blusters through the front door. “It’s Bedlam out there,” she tells us, like she’s the one who’s having it hard.
“There’s crowds all round the mortuary, as well as where she was found.”
It’s been raining in the night and there’s mud on her boots. She’s all flushed as she sits down to ease them off. I’m watching her and I’m waiting for her to say something more. It’s like
she’s trying to think of how to get something off her chest. But she just gives me the eye and bites her lip.
“Oh, God!” I mutter, watching her stand up real slow, like she’s trying to put off what she knows she must do. “It’s someone we know, ain’t it?” I keep my voice low, but Ma, still in the chair, senses something’s amiss.
“Well, Flo?” she puffs.
Dread flies up like a black crow from somewhere deep inside me. My whole body tenses as I watch my big sister stand in front of Ma, take a deep breath, and say, “Word is it’s Alice Mackenzie.”
Florence is correct. Indeed, it is Alice Mackenzie who has been slain, and it was her imminent murder that brought me back to Whitechapel last night, shortly before the attack happened. Like all the other barbarous murders I have witnessed, I recall the event vividly.
It may be mid-July, but last night was unseasonably chilly.
Earlier in the evening, skies had threatened rain, and building up to midnight they began to deliver in heavy intermittent bursts. The potholes and muddy ruts quickly filled with rainwater. It was not a good night to be abroad and Police Constable Joseph Allen was not relishing pounding the beat. Such was the reputation of Castle Alley that, up until last month, there’d been extra police patrols in the area.
A filthy cut-through that harbored the twin evils of disease and vice, it is no place for God-fearing souls. The patrols had, however, been stood down, even though the police were still vigilant in the vicinity.
Shortly after the midnight bell sounded at St. Jude’s, during a dry spell, PC Allen decided to stop for a snack in an archway that leads off Whitechapel High Street. Standing under the glare of a lamppost, he took from under his rain cape a paper parcel containing a sausage roll.
As he munched away contentedly, he looked around him. He neither saw nor heard anything suspicious. Making light work of the pastry, he proceeded to walk on in the direction of Wentworth Street, passing the Three Crowns public house. The landlord, he noticed, was shutting up for the night. Shortly after, he met a fellow constable, PC Walter Andrews, heading toward Goulston Street. The two men exchanged greetings; then they proceeded to go their separate ways.
As he munched away contentedly, he looked around him. He neither saw nor heard anything suspicious.
Five minutes later, PC Andrews was plodding down Castle Alley when the beam from his bull lantern picked up the figure of a woman slumped on the footpath between two wagons.
At first, he thought she was just sleeping off the drink, like so many of her sort do. It was only when he raised his lamp that he could see her sightless eyes gazing back at him. Her throat was slit from ear to ear. But perhaps, most telling of all, her skirt had been pulled up to expose the lower half of her body. It was covered in blood.
Two blasts were sounded on his police whistle and within seconds more officers arrived at the scene. Yet, in their haste to give assistance, not one of them noticed what I saw quite clearly in the nearby darkness. As the constables stared wide-eyed at Whitechapel’s latest murder victim, my own gaze was firmly fixed on a shadowy figure creeping quietly away with all the stealth of a professional assassin.
About Author: Tessa Harris
Tessa Harris is the author of the acclaimed Dr. Thomas Silkstone Mysteries, including Secrets in the Stones and The Anatomist’s Apprentice, as well as other novels in the Constance Piper Mystery series, The Sixth Victim and The Angel Makers. A graduate of Oxford University with a history degree, Tessa has also been a journalist and editor, contributing to many national publications such as the Times and the Telegraph.
I’m glad that Ma is sitting when she hears the news; else I’m sure she’d have keeled over. Her lips fly apart in a gasp. She holds her hankie to her mouth and I see her horrified eyes fill
“Oh no! Oh no!” she blurts. I put an arm around her and feel a shudder building up in her chest, like an Underground train, until it breaks out into a full-blown sob.
“They’re not sure,” insists Flo, trying to put on a brave face.
“Her old man and Betsy Ryder from the lodgings have still to see her.”
But the thought of her friend lying cold on a slab is enough to set Ma off. “Oh, Alice! Alice,” she wails until, a moment later, it strikes her. She darts up at Flo, a look of terror twisting her face. “Was it . . . ?”
It’s like she can’t bring herself to say his name. Flo doesn’t have to. I can tell by the fear on that pretty face of hers that it’s what we all dreaded as soon as we heard. Jack’s wielded his knife and left poor Alice bloody as a butcher’s shambles.
“I need to go!” coughs Ma, all of a sudden. She’s heaving herself up from her chair.
“Go where?” says I with a frown.
“I can tell them if it’s Alice or not.”
Flo’s scowling, too. “You want to go to the dead house?”
Ma looks put out and seems suddenly stronger, like she’s had a slug of hard liquor. “Well, I ain’t just going to stay here and twiddle my thumbs, and that’s a fact,” she counters, reaching for her bonnet.
We watch helplessly as she ties the ribbons under her chin.
“Well, are ya coming with me, or not?” she asks, stomping toward the door, huffing and puffing. She’s got the wind in her sails, and that’s for sure.
All three of us make our way through Fashion Street to Old Montague Street, where they’ve taken the body. The mortuary is where Polly Nichols and Annie Chapman have lain, too, but mortuary’s a grand name for a place that’s little more than a brick shed. I know some of the medical men have complained about having to do their business in there, so cramped and dirty and dark, is it.
In ten minutes we’ve reached the gates at Eagle Place. There are two or three coppers trying to keep order, but the crowd’s growing by the minute. There’s a lot of jostling and a fight
breaks out a few yards away from us. I spot a couple of the usual suspects from down our way: nosey Mrs. Puddiphatt and Widow Gipps. Keen as mustard they are, to find out who’s copped it this time. But there’s another familiar face that I’m happy to see. Gilbert Johns towers above most people. Flo sees him, too, and by jabbing both her fingers into each corner of her mouth, she whistles as loud as any docker can. It does the trick and Gilbert whips round. His face cracks into a grin when he clocks us and he plows toward us through the crowd.
“Can you get us to the front?” yells Flo above the din.
He bobs down and cups his ear as he looks to me for an explanation.
“Ma wants to know for sure if it’s her friend,” I tell him.
“I’ll do my best,” says he, straightening himself; then taking Ma by the hand, he shoves some blokes out of the road and leads her toward the gates.
“Clear the way. Coming through!” Gilbert booms in a voice deep as a mine shaft.
The crowd parts like the Red Sea for Moses, and me and Flo follow, marching straight to the mortuary gates. I don’t recognize the coppers on duty, but I tell Flo to keep her trap shut and leave the talking to me.
“Excuse me,” says I, all polite. “My mother thinks she may know the victim.” I cock my head toward the mortuary.
The older copper narrows his eyes. “Does she now?” says he, looking me up and down with a snarl on his lips. But before he can answer, a man wearing a stained apron appears from the shed. He’s young, with thick, dark hair that’s wavy as seaweed.
Leaning in toward the copper, he asks: “Any news on the inquest jury, yet, Officer?”
I feel Flo nudge me in the ribs. “He’s a looker,” I hear her whisper in my ear. “And a Yank by his voice, I’ll wager,” she adds. As if he can feel we’re giving him a good old butcher’s hook, I mean look, he turns and throws us a glance with a pair of brown eyes bright as garnets.
“Any time now,” replies the copper to the man in the apron.
Barely has the news been delivered, when I see the crowd part again and a man and a woman are coming through the press of people with two blues on either side. The bloke looks dazed; the woman seems scared and pale.
“Mind your backs. Mind your backs!” cry the coppers. The pair can’t be some of the jury—it’s only men allowed, see—but it suddenly dawns on me who they are.
“John!” Ma calls, her voice cracking. John McCormack is
Alice’s other half. They’ve been living together as man and wife at Mr. Tenpenny’s lodging house for the last few months. With him must be Betsy Ryder, the landlady there. We all know the reason they’ve come, to identify the body. It makes it real again.
But neither of them can hear Ma’s plea over the din and she starts to weep once more as we watch the two of them go through the gates.
Barely has the news been delivered, when I see the crowd part again and a man and a woman are coming through the press of people with two blues on either side. The bloke looks dazed; the woman seems scared and pale.
The man in the bloody apron fixes them with a stare, nods solemnly, and then lets them pass before shutting the gates behind them. For a few minutes the crowd, while not silent, is quieter. We’re all waiting expectantly for news, but we’re respectful at the same time. Gilbert stays with us and for that we’re glad. He tells us what we already know—that the body was found in Castle Alley by a policeman in the early hours.
“You all right?” he asks me, all caring. He’s looking into my eyes like a lovesick puppy and then suddenly I feel his big hand press on my shoulder and give me a squeeze, but it don’t feel right to me and I shrug it off. Thankfully, we’re not kept long before John McCormack and Betsy Ryder are back out. She’s got an arm around him as he fights back the tears. It’s his Alice, all right, and the sight of his grief sets Ma off again, too.
Clay Pipe Alice, we called her. She was partial to her pipe. People said she was a surly old crone because she didn’t smile much. Once I even heard a bloke order her to perk up. “Put a roof tile on your boat race, love!” he’d called. But anyone who knew her would tell you it was because the ’baccy had left her with a head full of rotting teeth. The few pearlies she had were stained yellow. Hers wasn’t what you’d call a girly grin.
Ma met her when she was cleaning at St. Jude’s. That’s the church that me and Ma go to, just on Commercial Street. A few extra pennies never go amiss and Alice was always short for her doss. A while back, she took up with John. He worked for a Jewish tailor in Hanbury Street, but between them they still never seemed to have two brass farthings to rub together. Jack certainly wasn’t after her money, and that’s for sure.
Back home in White’s Row, I don’t bother putting on the kettle. I reach, instead, for the bottle in the brown paper bag on the top shelf in the kitchen. At times like these, tea’s not strong enough. It’s gin that consoles when the shock’s so great. So we sit there, in the front room, cradling our mugs of mother’s ruin, thinking on what’s happened. For the next few minutes we say very little, when suddenly there’s a knock at the door that makes us all jump out of our skins. Before I can scramble up to answer, there’s a face leering in at the window that damn near frightens the life out of me. Then I realize it’s Flo’s best pal, Sally Richardson.
Next thing we know, she’s sticking her head inside the door.
Flo rushes up to her. “’Bout Old Alice? Yes.”
“Opening the inquest this afternoon they are, at the Working Lad’s Institute on the High Street, if you’re up for it.”
There’s a grin on her face and a gleam in her eye, like she’s just told us Dan Leno’s going to be playing the Cambridge Music Hall. It’s entertainment to her, but not to me.
“I’m up for it.” Flo jumps in. She looks at me. “Con?”
“Yes,” I say, but it’s not for the fun of it that I’ll take my seat. I hold no truck with the appetite for ghoulish stories and bloody tidbits that are filling people’s bellies these days. I’ll not lick my lips when I read about women’s wombs being ripped out and their kidneys being eaten. The newspapers love Saucy Jack and they’re whipping up all of London into a frenzy of fear. They’ll be rubbing their hands in Fleet Street, hoping that this latest killing bears his usual trademarks. But there’s some of us who won’t be forced to bolt our doors and stay off the streets. There’s some of us who’ll fight tooth and nail to get to the bottom of this cesspit of evil.
I’m hoping I can count on Miss Tindall to stand by me, even though I’ve not seen nor felt her near me for a while. She was my best friend and my mentor. She showed me that there’s a way out of Whitechapel if you make up your mind to better yourself, learn your lessons, read lots of books, and talk proper.
A shining light, that’s what she was—and still is—to me. But to everyone else she is dead.
Miss Emily Tindall was a teacher at the ragged school and St. Jude’s Sunday School. Dead she may be, but there’s no fancy way to dress up the fact that she was murdered—cut up by a brute and buried on the banks of the Thames. Her murderer’s still not been brought to justice and that’s why she’s chosen to speak through me.
I’m her spirit guide and she visits me in times of strife and turmoil. Through me she lives on; she guides me and helps me do the right thing from beyond the grave. She comes to me when life becomes a trial. But there’s someone else now, too. Someone I’ve come to know and trust. Someone who’s still flesh and blood. More important, he trusts and believes in me, too. I’m hoping he’ll be at the inquest, and I’m hoping he’ll call on my special gifts to help solve this latest ghastly murder.
The Working Lad’s Institute is so crowded I have to stand at the back. Our old friend Mr. Wynne Baxter, him that’s done Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, and the other inquests before, is in charge, so I know Alice will be in good hands. There’s some bigwigs come to watch on behalf of the Old Bill’s Criminal Investigation Department, too. Sounds grand, don’t it? Or doesn’t it, as Miss Tindall would have corrected me. Truth be told, I was half hoping Acting Inspector Hawkins would be here.
Last time I saw him, when we had tea together at Euston Station, he said I could call him Thaddeus and I said: “I’m Constance,” and he repeated it. The way he said my name, like he was sipping French wine, made me sound so special, like a real lady. But I can’t spot him here this evening.
We settle down and the jury’s sworn in. They’ve all seen the body. First up is John McCormack, Alice’s old man, and he’s asked all about her: where she lived, what she did the time before she was killed, all the usual. The coppers who were on the scene come after and then it’s the turn of Sarah Smith, who takes the money at the bathhouse.
Her bedroom backs onto the alley and she was awake and reading, the time they say Alice was attacked, but she didn’t hear nothing above her old man’s snoring. Nothing at all. Same ol’. Same ol’. It’s like the killer’s a ghost or a specter. He leaves nothing behind but death. Yes, it certainly seems that Jack’s back, all right.
At the end of the first session, I’m filing out of the hall with everyone else, when I suddenly see a familiar face, standing near the door.
Flo nudges me. “There’s that fancy detective of yours. You ain’t seen ’im in a while, have ya?”
I shift uncomfortably. It’s true. I haven’t seen Thaddeus for a few weeks, since April, in fact. Truth be told, I’m gutted he hasn’t been in touch again, but I know that now he’s taken charge of Commercial Street Police Station—even though it’s only for a short while until his boss returns—he’s got no time to be sociable with the likes of me. Even so, as soon as I set eyes on him, my heart gives a little leap. I don’t think he’s seen me, so I sidestep and hope I can wheedle my way into his view.
I pretend to be going about my business, closing in on him with every step I take, until we’re only a few feet apart. It’s then that I look up, all casual like, and it does the trick. His gaze latches onto mine and there’s a flicker of a smile. I smile back, but I just can’t help myself; mine’s more of a big, wide grin. I’m that happy to see him.
“Miss Piper.” He doffs his hat at me, passing his hand over his slicked-back hair. I understand he can’t call me Constance when he’s on duty. But the trace of the smile I detected before swiftly disappears. He looks worried, strained. Those bags are back under his lovely brown eyes. Nevertheless, he asks me how I fare and I tell him I’d be better if Jack hadn’t returned.
Instead of agreeing, he counters with a frown. “We should leave such matters to the coroner, Miss Piper,” says he, with a shake of his head. “The same man may not be responsible.”
I’m just about to quiz him, to see what reason he offers for saying such a thing, when a gent I recognize as Inspector Reid, from the Leman Street police headquarters, comes up behind me.
“Ah, there you are, Hawkins,” says he, and with that, Thaddeus gives an apologetic shrug and turns to follow his new master.
I watch him go, sensing that behind those hard-to-fathom eyes of his is a knowledge, something not known to the public.
It sets me thinking what manner of circumstances the police are keeping to themselves.
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