Lucy’s screeching was not helping the situation (nor was it preserving the atmosphere that a brothel parlour created), so Bella turned to her with a knitted brow.
“Go find a cock to plug your mouth with Lucy, I’ll see who I want to. I’d rather deal with Miss Susan than you.”
With that, Bella took Carmichael by the wrist and pulled him away, through a doorway covered only by a light curtain. They’d still be heard if someone came close enough to the doorway but it was more to hide the sight of him should the Madam come by.
“Lucy’s right. I’m not supposed to serve you. Not supposed to take any money off you, be it ten pound or a hundred. Not here in the brothel when I’m working. It’s a shame, maybe I couldn’t been the one booting you out roughly. I don’t rightly fancy taking your money on one of my nights off either. And if you think I or Lucy are in a rotten mood you’d best get out of here before Miss Susan spots you. What’re you doing here anyway? You barely wanted to look at me the morning after I last saw you and yet now you’re here waving more money at me wanting to go through the whole mess again? I don’t understand.”
The way she snapped so roughly at the older woman, that harsh profanity falling from her mouth like a block of ice, made a shiver roll down Carmichael’s spine and he couldn’t help but sneer at the older tart, then turned an unmistakable look of admiration onto Bella herself. It withered a bit when she began to chastise him for belittling her, but he was well aware he deserved it. That was what he had come here for, after all, wasn’t it? To take his medicine? To be punished.
And now here she was asking him why, and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t seem to put two clear thoughts together in his own head, much less form them into coherent sentences to be spoken aloud. All he knew was that he wanted her. He couldn’t stop thinking about her, and he wanted her, and John Carmichael was a man accustomed to getting what he wanted.
So instead of answering her in words, he simply bowed and roughly kissed her, grabbing her to him with both hands on her corseted waist.
Smith took Miss Clara onto his lap, checking her scalp for cuts and bleeding. The mass at the base of her skull was now the size of a small egg and far too hot for it to be any good. He pulled up her eyelid to try and get some reaction, some focus out of her eye.
When his Master came back closer, holding on the blanket to keep Miss Clara covered as Smith sat her up to check her back. She was still unconscious but her breathing seemed fine if a little slow. He moved the blanket just a bit, a large angry bruise already showing itself near her spine along with some small broken blood vessels.
“We’ll get ice to the mass on her head, but she should b…” Smith’s words were interrupted by Miss Clara being sick onto the floor of Master’s chambers. Smith looked up at his Master, he had never seen the man he respected so looking this worried before. “Sir, Miss Clara needs a doctor. The faster, the better.”
“Yes. Right. A doctor. A doctor, then.” John’s words coming fast and clipped; his heart was tripping along at the speed of light, it seemed; he gripped the side of the dresser as a wave of dizziness washed over him.
But that was horseshit. He pushed the thought away. She was not dying, couldn’t be dying. It had only been a rap to the head; she was stronger than that, too strong to let such a blow take her away from him, and their boys, and the life they’d only just started living together.
He looked at the knife buried in the intruder’s guts and wanted to stab him again. Slit his throat, cut off his testicles. More than anything he just wanted to stomp his face in with one of his boots until it burst like an overripe watermelon but there was no time for that. A doctor, Smith had said, and fast.
He stepped over the body, moving to the little parlour. Tully and Pretty Boy stood there, their faces white as ghosts as they took in his harried appearance, the haunted look in his eyes, and the blood smeared all over his chest.
“Call a carriage,” he demanded, but they stood stock still. He pounded a fist against the doorjamb. “Move it, the lot o’ ye! Fetch a bleedin’ carriage! Tell ‘em we need the hospital! GO!!” They both jolted into action at once, their footsteps thundering down the stairs and out the door into the road.
He turned back into the bedroom, first haphazardly throwing on a shirt, not even tucking it in or buttoning it all the way. Then he was going to the hook on the wall beside the commode and taking the robe Clara kept there, his fingers trembling as he handled the silk. He brought it to her, kneeling beside her and laying the blanket over the sick. Smith looked away as his Master dressed his Mistress in the thin robe, clumsily tying the sash and then lifting her in his arms. She was as light as parchment paper and twice as pale.
“Go ahead of me, lad,” John directed him, his tone softer than the one he had used with the others but still trembling on the edge of sanity. “Fetch her coat.” Smith obeyed, hurrying down the stairs, and John followed, carrying Clara as though she were a rag doll, taking the steps two at a time with his long, lanky legs. Smith brought the coat and wrapped it around Clara’s body, more like a blanket than anything else, and John carried her out to the carriage already waiting outside.
“Good lads,” he said to them as he went. “Good boys. Smith!” he shouted then, turning to look at the boy. “You’re in charge. If the police come, ye tell them where I’ve gone if ye must, but for the love o’ God, lad, don’t let them upstairs.”
Smith nodded firmly. As John climbed into the carriage, he felt a tug on his shirttails. Looking down, he saw Tully there, eyes wide and full of tears that leaked down his chubby cheeks.
“Please sir, may I go with you?”
John put a hand on the top of his head, smoothing down his hair. “Go on, then,” he said. “Hurry.”
He let the boy climb up into the carriage first, then followed, a bit awkwardly with Clara still in his arms. He settled her in his lap and tucked the coat more tightly around her, brushing hair that was slick with blood and sweat and vomit out of her face as the carriage hurried for the hospital at double-speed.
Pretty Boy, Smith and Tully were standing guard at the base of the stairs, making sure none of the boys tried to sneak upstairs. It had happened before that men had broken into the orphanage to try and sneak up on their Master and once, a boy had tried to play hero and rushed to Carmichael’s help only to be struck down like a dog in front of his brothers. After that, rules had been established.
There was a dull thud, the unmistakable sound of a body hitting the wooden floor and all eyes shot to the top of the stairs; panic and fear spattered across their features. They heard their Master shout and moments later, the ceiling shook and everything went silent.
Smith left the others boys to handle the others and ran down the hall to his room, gathering his medical kit. He hoped there would be little need for it and that their Master and Mistress weren’t hurt to badly by the mountain of a man that had barged into their chambers. Checking that he had everything he might need, he headed out of his room and back to the foyer. The boys moved aside, letting him pass and, after a deep breath, he made his way up the stairs.
The lad stood by the broken down door, knocking on its frame, before speaking, his voice higher and filled with worry. “Master? Miss Clara? Huh… We…” Smith paused and cleared his throat, his voice back to its usual calm and its normal octave. “The lads and I wanted to make sure you were both unhurt.”
John was quiet for a long moment, cradling Clara’s head against his chest, leaning down and pressing his brow to hers, his fingers feeling at the back of her head for blood. There was no wetness though, only a steadily rising, throbbing knot at the base of her skull.
But she was breathing. Alive. Out cold, but alive.
She was also naked, as was he. And blood soaked the floorboards; would likely drip down through the ceiling downstairs soon.
“Smith,” he called out, his voice weak and cracked. “Come to me. Only you, boy. Just you, you understand?”
He reached for a blanket from the bed; wrapped it loosely around Clara’s naked body. For himself, he didn’t bother just yet. Clothes were not his priority at the moment. He looked up at the young man entering the room, looking at the dead body on the floor.
“Don’t ye mind him,” John said. “He’s no concern to ye anymore, lad. We’ll take care of him later. But right now, ye take care of her.” Smith knelt down beside Clara, his knees dipping in the rapidly spreading pool of the dead man’s blood. John carefully transferred her head from his lap to Smith’s, then stood, going for his britches and trousers and stepping into them, fastening them as he spoke.
“He threw her,” he explained. “Knocked her head but good against the dresser. Her back as well. Will she be all right, lad? Does she need a hospital?”
Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds - Jack the Ripper.
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Clara grabbed onto her dress that she had left by the side of the bed the night before, clinging it to her chest. Her eyes were wide with panic, she knew her parents would want her or their money back but she never expected them to resort to such things. She tried to catch John’s eyes but the hulking man blocked her field of vision.
She thought for a second about the boys downstairs, hoping they were all right; hoping against hope that none of them would try to play hero. The man turned toward John again, stopping to stare at her and she groped around her dress and found what she was looking for. Adrenaline was coursing through her veins, blood so loud in her ears that she couldn’t hear anything else. She bounded forward knocking the man off balance and throwing at John the blade she kept hidden in her dresses since Hamish’s attempted attack.
The man tried to grab at her but couldn’t reached her as she held on to his neck for dear life. After a moment of struggle, he backed her into the dresser, knocking her off his back.
The blade skidded across the wooden floor, spinning as it went and finally finding a home, handle-first, in John’s waiting, opened palm. He snatched it off the floor and looked up in time to see the thug throw his wife into the heavy wooden dresser. Clara’s back and the base of her skull smacked against it and she collapsed in a heap on the floor.
With an angry shout, John launched himself up off the floor and at the big bear of a man. The sharp blade of the pocket knife found a home in his solar plexus and, eyes wild and teeth bared, John stabbed it in deeper… then twisted, and, in one quick downward motion, gutted him as completely as a fish.
Blood and innards spilled out; John pulled the knife away and watched the bear-like man fall backward, heavy as Goliath, making the whole room tremble. John’s hands were coated in red gloves. He wiped them on his bare chest, smearing blood everywhere, then turned and knelt beside Clara. Taking her limp body by the shoulders and carefully turning her over, brushing her curtains of dark hair out of her face so that he could see her.
“Clara?” he panted, his throat still raw from being choked. “Wake up, dear. Please wake up.”
Bella had been in her room, dressing for the evening. She was working tonight and wasn’t sure she even wanted to be. There were days when Bella felt her job a chore; an obligation. She didn’t enjoy these sort of nights and didn’t particularly want clients even if that was money she was losing. And yet at the same time Bella could feel her ego bruising as men chose other girls to go upstairs with. It made her feel unattractive.
To help counter the negativity in her mood tonight, Bella was wearing one of her newest purchases - a new dress, custom made without any of her makeshift editing for once. It was a mix of white and purple; colours she was fond of but not often willing to pull off. But this dress design had caught her eye and the sale might as well have been made then and there. It was a small treat to herself; £10 of the money earned all those weeks ago had been sent to her mother and the rest remained in Bella’s modest savings account.
“Bella, look at the time. Get downstairs, we’ve men pouring in.” Miss Susan thrust her head into the room without warning, her face as stern and business-like as always.
“Won’t we lose half of them when they find out Rose isn’t with us any more?”
“Behave, and hurry up.” with that, the Madam was gone to stirr another girl from her daydreams to get to work. Bella fixed a few more pins into her hair and sprayed some perfume into the air in front of her, walking into the cloud to catch it on her skin, clothes and hair. She smoothed her skirts down, and closed the bedroom door behind her as she wandered down into the parlour. Barely halfway down the stairs, she could hear a voice louder than the rest. She could see a girl, Lucy, looming over a customer and giving him an earful. Not exactly the way to greet men into the building. The mention of police pricked her ears and she swept forward, gently taking the other woman by the arm.
“Do you want to clear the whole place out? Don’t go mentioning coppers, you’ll have every bloke here running!” Bella hissed, glancing over to the man that Lucy had been fighting with. Her heart sunk and Bella cocked her head. What was he even doing here? Was he trying to see the Madam again, or trying to hire a girl? Whatever the reason, there was no use in causing a fuss. Bella shooed Lucy away, telling her she’d deal with him, before turning to Carmichael (she could not bring herself to think of him as ‘John’ now).
With a straight (but not stern) face and crossed arms, Bella looked up at him and spoke as if she’d rehearsed the line hundreds of times. “I’m afraid you won’t be able to see Miss Susan tonight, she is as busy as ever. If you are in need of a girl, you should go and find a brothel in which you’d be more welcomed, sir.”
Carmichael looked up at her. She was lovely, in a brand new dress. The purple suited her; brought out her eyes and set off her hair. He rather fancied her in purple, but then, he suspected he rather fancied her in any colour at all — even if she would not meet his eyes just now, looking somewhere at his chin instead, or perhaps at the spade on his throat.
“I ain’t come for Susan Hart, lass,” he said, his voice soft; warm. He stood slowly from the chaise, setting his bowler on the side table and slipping his gloves in his jacket pocket. “And I ain’t come for any other girl, neither.”
He reached into the pocket of his waistcoat. “It saddens me to tell ye that I’ve not got forty pounds this time,” he said, taking out a couple of fivers and handing them to her. “But I’ve got ten here for ye, and I’ll not ask for the whole night. Only however long you’re willin’ to give.”
“Miss Susan said you can’t take him,” Lucy cawed at Bella from over her shoulder, still standing nearby. “She said none of us can take him. She said it ages ago, she said!”
It was weeks later when he went to Tenter Street to see her. He’d tried to put her out of his mind, the sweet young tart with the long ginger curls who had gotten him to show a side of himself that he had bared to no one in years. But as the days wore on, she seemed to plague his thoughts more and more, especially at night, after the fire was made. Once or twice he thought he saw her lingering in the doorway out of the corner of his eye, but of course it was just a shadow made by the firelight.
He had mistreated her, he knew that now. But he had been frightened. They had shared so much of each other in the night, and then in the morning she was only a whore again, and he, quite literally, was just her John. He had been embarrassed and confused; there were feelings inside of him for her that shouldn’t have been there, ones that could
never be fully realized. He had nothing to offer her to make her give up his life, and even if he did, what room was there in his world for a woman? She would only get in the way.
He did not like feeling these things. They made him uncomfortable. And so he had lashed out at her. And now, weeks later, he wondered if she would even be at Tenter Street when he arrived, or if some fancy gentleman with deep pockets had already stolen her away. He wondered if she would even see him, or if she would refuse. He believed Susan Hart would take great pleasure in denying him anything, no matter what trivial reason was behind it.
Still, he had to take the chance. He couldn’t stop thinking about her. She vexed his every waking moment.
Past the red door, there was a parlour. A very nice parlour with crisp wallpaper and velvet drapes and a piano and pretty women everywhere, all of them perfumed and clean and pink, all of them eager to please. He took a seat on a floral chaise and held his bowler hat in his hands, knees pressed together and back rigid. Looking nothing like his usual self; more like a man waiting to make confession to a priest at the chapel.
Finally, a woman approached him; tall and of underwhelming proportions, long black hair braided over one shoulder. “May I take ya upstairs, Sir?”
“No,” Carmichael gruffly replied, not mincing words. “I don’t want you.”
She stiffened, obviously taking offense. “Well then who do ya want?” she asked, her voice icy.
“Miss Culver,” he replied, taking off his leather gloves. “Fetch her for me, woman.”
The tart looked at his hands and sniffed. “Hang on a tic, you’re the one with all them tattoos. Miss Susan says we’re not to cater to the likes of you. Go on - get out before I call the coppers!”