The story so far: Countess Vi and Tess have struck up a bond, with the Arendellian prime minister needing a local pair of eyes and ears and Tess needing a protector. Vi has identified three people that will prove crucial to her forcing the Ravager and Eviscerator into the light: David Fullerton, Britain’s Home Secretary, Boyle Skinner, editor of the London Age, and Dr. Seymour Lane, the Chief Surgeon. But even with these men, the forces behind the unnatural horrors wandering London and disappearing bodies of the well-to-do may well outpace the Countess…
The train that arrived at the station a few yards from Brookwood Cemetery looked like something from a feverish nightmare. Shrouded in shadow, it hissed and groaned, its carriages full of coffins that carried the rich and powerful to what was dubbed “the London Necropolis.” The undertaker, an imposing, pale man that towered over the graves he tended to, was waiting at the head of the train, staring up at its ominous, Cyclopean front. Like a great mechanical psychopomp, a messenger from another world to this one. He waited for several minutes, then began pacing back and forth, wondering what was taking so long. Then a young man of stepped out one of the carriage’s doors, his clothes grimy from hard work and exposure to unclean matter. “We’re in trouble!” he called, jumping down the steps and running to the undertaker, his eyes nervous. “There’s several bodies of lords, ladies, and other respectable names missing. At least four cadavers.”
“But this train has no stops,” said the undertaker incredulously. “No one could have gotten on this train unless they’d set out from Waterloo Station!” He looked around wildly, but it was futile; they were alone in this bleak midnight landscape, save the train tracks and the desolate graveyard some distance away. “Who’s missing?”
“I… don’t know,” sputtered the young train hand. “Everyone’s trying to locate the bodies, but they’re nowhere on any of the carriages. How the body snatcher made off with them is anyone’s guess!”
“This is ridiculous,” said the undertaker, grabbing the train hand by the wrist roughly. “You mean to tell me that someone got on this bloody train from the moment it set out, identified four or more bodies that they selected with intent and purpose – without anyone catching them – and then just, what? Jumped off? While dragging a pile of bodies behind him? An awful and stupid novel is what this sounds like – an idiotic and purposefully disgusting and lurid rumor spread by the gullible and the press.”
The train hand yanked his hand from the undertaker, rubbing his wrist and glaring up at the older man. “I don’t care about all that, sir. All I can see is that the Ravager has struck again! He might be wielding black magic, or he could be a ghost – how the hell am I supposed to know? The Ravager’s been doing this for over several months, and no one can stop him. No one knows when he’s on the train and when he flees. We’ve never even caught a glimpse of his form, let alone his face. The police don’t know what they’re looking for. It’s a bit too late to ask questions now.”
The undertaker swore. He hated to admit it, but the brat was right. So frequent had the occurrences been growing that the government had started simply suppressing the stolen bodies’ names from reaching newsmen – if the public didn’t know the Necropolis Rail had been robbed, then the bodies would be assumed to have simply made it to Brookwood and laid to rest.
He struck the side of the train with an angry gloved fist. When were the authorities going to get a grip on this disastrous and inauspicious time?
Vi and Tess were waiting in the lobby of Parliament – not the Great Assembly that Vi was used to back home, but the much more ostentatious British House of Commons – for two men to come to them. Tess had never set foot near Westminster, and she was looking around like a wide-eyed child. She was well-dressed like Vi, in a prim and proper, yet elegant and graceful frilled long dress. Vi wore deep blue, and Tess cerulean. “Try to look at home and not stare too much at the MPs passing us,” sniffed Vi, although she was secretly amused. “You’re with me, after all.”
“I’m sorry,” said Tess, her voice a whisper. “It’s just… so beautiful. So awe-inspiring.” She gave Vi’s arm a squeeze. “Will I be able to see more of these magnificent places if I stick with you?”
Vi’s red eyes gleamed. “You seem rather confident about a protracted future with me.”
“If I’m lucky,” replied Tess, laughing.
The first to arrive was a short gentleman with a protruding belly. He was well-dressed, his vermillion coat encasing a well-matched vest and white shirt, along with trousers and boots. “Countess Viola Mundilfari!” he called, lifting his hat and bowing, reaching for Vi’s hand and kissing her knuckles. He noticed Tess and gave another bow, also kissing her hand, which Tess wasn’t used to. “I’m glad I’m not late. I’m Boyle Skinner, editor of the London Age.”
“Mr. Skinner. You’re early, in fact,” said Vi. “The Home Secretary hasn’t come yet.”
“He’s probably held up. I came straight from the press gallery,” said the chubby, well-fed man. He had beads of sweat on his face despite the cold weather. “It’s an honor to finally meet my new, foreign employer in the flesh. I must admit, my reporters and copy boys were all rather relieved when we were told that our new proprietor had no intention of changing our newsroom, including its editorial head count.”
“If you swear to report to me always, providing me with all the information I need – and suppressing it from the public, should I wish it – then there’s no need for me to be your employer at all,” said Vi smoothly. “Promise me your loyalty, and the London Age is yours to edit as owner-publisher.”
“Your… Your Ladyship,” sputtered Skinner, and Tess looked shocked as well. “You shouldn’t joke around with people’s livelihoods. Wait, you’re not jesting? I get to own it? That’s too generous of you. Are you sure? We’ve barely spoken for a few seconds and you’re willing to give the entire paper to me?”
Vi shrugged. “I’ll sell it to you for two pounds. Nominal fee, so that it’s recorded as a sale.”
“You’re joking!” exclaimed Skinner, not daring to believe her.
“I’m deadly serious,” said Vi. “It wasn’t a big deal for me to buy this paper, and it isn’t a big deal for me to pass it to capable hands. I have my own paper, the Snow Herald, in Arendelle. But I ask you again. Will you spare no resources in helping me in my mission, no questions asked?”
“Yes, yes!” cried Skinner, nodding so vigorously that his chubby head looked about to fall off. “I’ll throw all the reporters I have at anything you need, my Lady! Anything!”
Tess stared at him, making a face. “What’s so special about this gentleman that you’d basically gift him your paper?” she asked, and Skinner blanched.
“An act of good faith,” replied Vi, “in return for services I need.”
She turned to Tess, gazing into her feline eyes. “I’ve chosen to solicit the journalism of the London Age for a very specific reason. Of all the newspapers in London, this one shuns the judgmental attitude of many other press barons towards the situation in Whitechapel. The slums are easy red meat for reporters and editors looking for sensationalism and to whip up judgment against vulnerable women. Like you.” She pointed at a still giddy Skinner. “He might not look it, but Mr. Skinner is one of the few men I respect, and I can count them on one finger. He’s been reporting on the trafficking of women and children in and out of the East End for years. He’s also lobbied your country’s parliament to raise the age of consent for girls from thirteen to sixteen.”
Skinner scratched his protruding stomach. “I’ve got to say that the Countess isn’t wrong. In fact, one time I went to Whitechapel, with the help of a Ma’am that fed me stories, and bought a girl. Lily was her name, and I did it show the government and my readers how easy it was to procure a child to be exploited. Not the smartest move, since the first thing the police thought was that I was out to do something terrible,” he laughed. “I was locked up for a whole month, and Lily was… well, I failed her. Looking back, it was a bit of a stunt that didn’t prove anything.”
“No, it didn’t,” rang out a haughty voice, and Vi, Tess, and Skinner turned to see a lanky, haughty-looking man striding towards them. He was dressed in the garb of a senior politician. “David Fullerton, Home Secretary and Conservative MP for North Somerset.”
Oh, you’re more than that, thought Vi to herself. You’re the running dog of Peony Sinclair herself. You owe your safe seat and plum privileges to her machinations, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she asked you to keep an eye on me and track my progress.
Nevertheless, you could be useful – you know many of the people whose bodies are disappearing on the Necropolis Rail and failing to be lowered into their final resting place in Brookwood Cemetery. Unless there’s some great twist to all this, you’re as invested as I am in hunting down the culprit.
“Your campaign to highlight the scandal of working class women was better served with your articles and editorials supporting my government’s outlawing of trafficking. While crime is still rife in the slums, what’s being done is at least now considered criminal,” said Fullerton to Skinner. He turned to Vi and kissed her hand and shook hands with Skinner, but instantly turned his nose up at Tess. “This is one of those women,” he declared, as Tess stared down at the floor. “I can see it in her eyes and the way she stands.”
“Enough, Home Secretary,” said Vi, resisting the urge to strike him with the back of her hand. Interesting. She’d always been classist and snobbish, but ever since she began working with Anna, she’d become a lot less judgmental, and indeed, felt profoundly irritated by aristocratic proclivities that she’d once thought nothing of. “Shall we get down to business?”
“Yes. Let’s talk at my home,” said Fullerton, tapping his cane on the ground. “What we’re about to discuss should not be heard by others.”
The Home Secretary’s townhouse was in Hanover Square, which like Grosvenor Square was a prime choice of residence for senior politicians, the aristocracy, and diplomats. Away from the prying eyes of the public, Fullerton had allowed Vi to hold court at his home, to prepare for the grave task that Peony had assigned her: to identify and crush the two criminals – or dual identities – known as the East End Eviscerator and the Railway Ravager respectively.
“The common image of a chessboard is invoked when discussing strategy,” said Vi, taking a sip of tea as Fullerton sat down across from her and Tess, with Skinner looking outside the window. “But everyone has their own chessboard, and we’re as much each other’s pawns as we presume to control the board. Everyone has a part to play in my design – even as I know that I have a part to play in your designs.”
“What are you trying to say, countess of Arendelle?” asked Fullerton, keeping his eyes fixed on Vi’s beautiful face rather than her sultry, ravishingly beautiful form.
Vi held up three fingers, ignoring Tess’s admiring gaze. “My investigation has three premises. One: the fact that someone as high-born and well-resourced as me is even here – aside from the fact that your political patron, Peony, sent me – means that we’re not dealing with a common criminal. We can assume the Railway Ravager and the East End Eviscerator – or whoever might be controlling them – have plenty of resources and reliable information on their respective domains: the Necropolis Rail and the neighborhood of Whitechapel.
“Two: such a person can only get away with what he’s doing through influence in Parliament and the blackmailing or bribery of politicians. As I conduct my investigation on the ground, Mr. Skinner here is to throw the London Age’s weight behind a full-throated campaign to root out rich men that secretly traffic in and buy women in Whitechapel. We’re going to make Parliament itch until certain MPs open the wounds by their own volition.”
“Good timing, Countess,” said Fullerton admiringly. “As it happens, there is anti-trafficking legislation passing through the Commons – the Girls’ Dignity Act, urged on by many good Christian women and gentlemanly allies. Your recruitment of the London Age can’t be a coincidence.”
Vi nodded. “The East End Eviscerator will be the poster child of government neglect and apathy of Whitechapel’s suffering. You’ll publish little else for these next few weeks, Skinner.”
“Anything you wish, Countess!” said Skinner heartily, striking his left breast. “Most women of Whitechapel are passive victims of lustful males who are more powerful than they are. Even if many of the men hiring or buying fallen women are poor, they’re still the heads of their households or in possession of some money. That’s enough to put them in a much better position than the ladies of Whitechapel.”
“We’re not all helpless damsels,” interjected Tess, folding her arms. “We’re victims of circumstance, but even my friends and I make our own choices… within the limits imposed on us. Julie’s husband beat her until she bled, so she left home, but he’d kept her illiterate and uneducated, so she came to the Boudoir to earn her keep. And Florence – she’d love to find paid work in a more respectable profession, but she’ll never let her parents decide who she marries or pillows. And Milly and Christine both lost their babies early on, and no man will want you for a lifetime after that. A mistress on the side, maybe. But that’s not what we’re looking for, either. So we’ll make our own way, even if it’s not the way we first imagined for ourselves.”
“Of course, of course, and I intend to tell the stories of these women who’ve lost much, but continue to claw their way through life, no matter the challenge. Such virtue and hardiness!” conceded Skinner hastily, who looked somewhat besotted with Tess. Vi gazed at Tess, inwardly impressed. She’d researched the prostitution trade in the East End before sailing to England – there were hundreds of fallen women in Whitechapel, and they shared a rough lifestyle, alcoholism, and opium addiction. The heavy drinking, brutality, and violence of their daily lives was a frequent subject of gossip and tongue-clicking in more fortunate circles.
Vi lowered her last finger and clenched her hand into a fist. “There’s one last person missing from my coordinated investigation, and that’s Dr. Seymour Lane. I’ll see him tomorrow, but let it be known among all of you that I need him as my coroner, my carcass detective.”
Skinner made a face and Fullerton’s lips thinned. “Dr. Lane, the chief surgeon of the Royal Academy of Physicians? Why?”
Vi smiled darkly. “I have a possible lead. Body parts stitched together and made to stalk the streets of Whitechapel in an apparent mockery of both the very poorest women as well as the influential and wealthy.”
“Absurd!” cried Fullerton. “What a twisted misuse of your imagination, Countess! And not very original, either – a novel of a body snatcher-scientist reanimating dead matter? That’s right out of that Frankenstein aberration, from a woman who should know better, Mary Shelley.”
“Tess can corroborate my encounter,” said Vi, turning to the younger woman beside her. “After all, it was this creature that threatened to kill her before I destroyed it.”
Tess nodded. “She’s telling the truth. I saw the cadaver from multiple corpses too. It’s… how we met.”
“Can I go to press on this, Countess?” asked Skinner, leaning forward eagerly.
“Wait, no!” cried Fullerton. “Even if I believed both of you – which I’m struggling to – how can you justify Skinner writing some report or editorial, based on the hearsay of a fallen woman and a foreigner – that’s the truth,” he insisted, ploughing past Tess and Vi’s glares, “and whip the public up into a frenzy that will only cause more trouble for my government – ”
“That’s the point,” said Vi, smirking. She crossed her slender, exposed legs contentedly, enjoying Fullerton’s discomfort. Tess watched her intently. “The real seat of power in any country is its parliament. I would know, my family manipulated my kingdom’s parliament for centuries. I intend to do the same here to yours, Mr. Fullerton,” she said, laughing hysterically within as Fullerton looked like he was going to explode. “But as I’m not a member of your parliament, I’ll have to work through your good self, and Mr. Skinner’s. We’re going to drag both the East End Eviscerator and the Railway Ravager into a storm of public fury. You’ll push through the Girls’ Dignity Act, with the support of Skinner’s journalists. You, Skinner, and Dr. Lane fight these criminals in the light of day, while I hunt them down in the shadow of night.”
There was an enraged silence as Fullerton processed Vi’s bold proposal. But before he could offer a counter-proposal that didn’t step on so many toes in the British establishment (after all, who knew just how well-connected the actual criminals were?), the meeting of four was interrupted by the housekeeper, who barged into the living room, waving a newspaper. Tess jumped, and the others looked back. “What’s going on?” demanded Fullerton.
“It’s the Necropolis Rail, sir,” said the housekeeper. “More bodies have been stolen.”
Fullerton’s already vexed face twisted further in rage. “The Ravager mocks the good men and women who have served this country. Whoever they are, they’ve desecrated yet more corpses for the last time.”
Skinner grimaced. “Every passing week brings more bad tidings.”
Tess spoke up. “If you don’t have a better plan, Home Secretary, surely Vi’s strategy at least seems to offer a way out.”
Fullerton looked at her like she was a different species, before nodding ever so imperceptibly. “Why Miss Sinclair chose you to rid us of these beasts of the Necropolis Rail and the East End, I’m still not sure,” he said rather unhelpfully. An angered Tess began arguing with Fullerton, but Vi didn’t respond. She had to admit, he had asked a valid question.
Why did Peony send her over here?
To cut her off from Anna? No, that couldn’t be right. If anything, Peony and her patron, Yixin, were the more sympathetic half of the Exalted, and Katina and Harrison didn’t seem to have anything to do with this.
Revenge for what could have been some years ago, when Peony and Vi danced underneath the German moonlight in Munich? No. Peony might have been bitter about their old fire, but she never let any emotions get in the way of her job.
Just what did the Exalted have to do with the criminals she was hunting down?