The following excerpt from A Knife in the Fog by Bradley Harper has been reprinted below with permission of the author.
A KNIFE IN THE FOG
Chapter Three: POCKETS
Sunday, September 23, cont.
had no firm idea what kind of woman would willingly choose to live amid such squalor, but I envisioned a stern-faced spinster with thick pince-nez glasses; I was skeptical a lady of letters could be of any use to me in this environment. The best I could hope for was a detailed map and some history of the events surrounding the murders; I had no intention of burdening myself with the responsibility for her safety while traveling through the darkened alleyways and courtyards of Whitechapel.
There were no postal boxes or names in the entryway, so I trudged up the dark and slippery stairs to the third floor and knocked on an unassuming door that corresponded with the address 3A.
“One moment,” said a muted voice on the other side. I heard the rattle of a bolt, and an eye peered through the slit allowed by a heavy chain. “Who is it?” asked the same voice, now clearer.
“Doctor Doyle,” I replied.
The door closed, the chain rattled, and the door reopened. The back of a slender figure proceeded ahead of me into the soft light and, without pausing, instructed me to secure the portal behind me.
I fastened the door nervously, unsure of my reception or of who was receiving me, and entered a small and dimly lit sitting room. On the far side, if a room so small can have a “far” side, a woman sat quietly. She could have been anywhere from thirty to sixty-five, the marks upon her face revealing a life of hardship. She held a yellowish, stained rag over her mouth and a partially knitted sock and her needles in her lap. Beside her stood a slender young man of average height, dressed in working man’s clothing, and wearing a battered bowler hat. The woman looked at me with mild interest, but the young man’s piercing gaze apparently found the stout gentleman before him rather amusing, while I perceived him to be quite rude.
“Pardon my interruption,” I said, doing my best to appear calm, “but I understand a young woman named Margaret Harkness lives here. She was expecting me.”
“Quite so,” replied the young man. “I am she.”
My reaction must have been what she was expecting, given the smirk on her face. Nowadays a woman dressed as a man would cause others to stare, but at the time it was scandalous.
“Forgive my bit of fun, Doctor Doyle,” she began, “but my work often requires me to travel these streets at night and alone. I have found that dressed as a man, I can move about unnoticed, thus more safely. Do not be embarrassed by your reaction. I am quite accustomed to it when men first meet me ‘undressed,’ by which I mean not traditionally attired.”
My face must have been quite scarlet by this time, yet she was not the least bothered by my embarrassment. To move our conversation forward and not linger on my discomfort, I turned to the woman beside her.
“And you, madam, you h-have the advantage of me,” I managed to stammer. The woman nodded slowly, lowered the rag from her face, and grimaced a smile, revealing a festering wound on her right jaw.
“Molly,” she replied slowly, taking care to articulate each syllable.
“Miss Jones is my lodger, my touchstone, and friend,” replied Miss Harkness. “She listens to my writing and tells me if it rings true. I in turn grant her a safe place to sleep and a fair share of my meager meals. She worked in the match factories until she developed phossy jaw. We met during the Matchgirls’ Strike in July of this year.”
Miss Harkness and her lodger exchanged glances before continuing. “I cannot afford the surgery required to excise the rotting bone within her jaw, but I can give her shelter and friendship. This is the world you have entered, Doctor Doyle, and I am to be your guide within it.”
She smiled at me, and I wondered if she was having similar thoughts toward me such as I had when I imagined her as a middle-aged spinster in need of my constant protection.
“I am a writer, sir, as I understand you are,” Miss Harkness continued. Perhaps you have heard of my most recent novel, Out of Work, or my work published last year, A City Girl?”
I shook my head, still astounded to find myself casually conversing with a woman attired as a man, as though it were in no way out of the ordinary.
“You are in the majority,” she shrugged. “To expand my circle of readers, I have published my last two works under the nom de plume John Law. It seems most men feel either threatened, contemptuous, or both when confronted by a capable woman with strong opinions. For the most part, I make my living as a journalist, paid piecemeal by various newspapers for reporting on happenings here in the East End, as no ‘respectable’ journalist dares come here. Indeed, there are some streets within Whitechapel even police officers fear to tread if less than four in number, while I, in my poor attire, pass ghostlike among them.
“Be assured Doctor, despite my current attire I have no desire to be a man; the only thing I envy the male gender is the abundance of pockets your fashion allows.” She jutted her chin out as though daring me to criticize her “undress,” but I held my tongue and she continued.
“My experiences here are being stored away for future use in works of a hopefully more enduring nature. Currently I am researching the Salvation Army in preparation for my next novel.” Then she locked eyes with me and challenged me, “And what of you, sir? Are there any of your writings I may have read?”
Her impudent tone soured our initial encounter, I’m afraid. I replied that I had written a crime story, which had led to my being asked to look into the Leather Apron murders. I was unaccustomed to being so roughly cross-examined by a woman, and I felt she was taking undue liberties with a gentleman she had just met. I began to question Mr. Wilkins’s wisdom in choosing her as my navigator, but I resolved to keep the tone civil.
“Leather Apron, eh? That explains it. Mr. Wilkins said only that a gentleman, a writer from outside London, would be working a few weeks in the East End, and that he would pay me two pounds to show you around and introduce you to some of the tarts. I have become acquainted with several streetwalkers while researching my Salvation Army story, and as two pounds is nearly a fortnight’s income for me, I asked no more questions. A lady, or ladies,” she swept her arm to include Molly, “have to eat.”
I started when she mentioned Wilkins’s requirement that I meet with a streetwalker. “What purpose would that serve? I can’t imagine what we’d have to talk about.”
Miss Harkness smiled at my obvious discomfort. “I can’t answer for the man, but you’d be surprised what you’d learn of life in the East End if you listened.”
She adjusted her sleeves. “Well, shall we take a stroll?”
“Now ?” I replied. “It will be getting dark soon, and I would not place you at risk unnecessarily.”
She laughed. “You, dear sir, shall be much more at risk than me. Your accent, comfortable waistline, and well-tended clothes all declare you an outsider. It is rather common for our benevolent neighbors in the West End to visit us for the pleasures of the flesh. Few prosperous gentlemen are willing to explain to their wives how they came to be robbed within our alleys, so they often refuse to report a theft.
“I shall serve as your guide and interpreter, so let me do the talking unless I prompt you. Come!” She beckoned, as though we were about to go to the theater. “The East End at night is the world you must enter if you are to understand the lair of this monster.”
I agreed with reluctance. While not wanting to place a lady into such a dangerous environment, I had to admit she most likely had the right of it as to which of us was in greater peril. Still, while serving as a young ship’s surgeon on the SS Hope during an arctic whale-and seal-hunting expedition, I had earned the respect of seasoned sailors by my ability to blacken their eyes in sparring matches. As I was still not quite thirty years old, I had confidence I could give a good accounting of myself should it become necessary. I was determined not to show any reluctance in the presence of this rather rude woman, and so would follow where she led, if only to show my nerve was equal to hers.
I soon learned what a high standard I was setting for myself.
Bradley Harper is a retired US Army Colonel and pathologist with a great deal of experience in autopsies and forensic investigation. A lifelong fan of Sherlock Holmes, he did intensive research for this debut novel, including a trip to London’s East End with noted Jack the Ripper historian Richard Jones. A Knife in the Fog is his first novel.